Of a Certain Blockheadedness

Jerome Weeks and I have been having a competition over the past year to see who can blog less. It was pretty close there for a while, but at this point I have to throw in the towel.

Our blogs are both listed on the Arts Journal homepage under the heading of "publishing," which I have found slightly depressing to consider because there is really no way that Quick Study can be considered as "covering" that topic -- or anything in particular, really. This is just a scrapbook of some kind. Or conversely, part of the Internet's gigantic plot to get me to write for free.

Of course, we're both products of a tradition, if not a vocation, in which writing for free is regarded as proof of being a blockhead. The shifts in the economics and topography of the media landscape over the past decade have changed a lot of things. But not that, I suspect.

The idea that new media has somehow abolished the old hierarchical structuring of the field (making everything level and equal and rhizomatic and whatnot) is only half right, at best. The hierarchies aren't as well-marked as they used to be but they aren't gone. Talk of an "army of amateurs" is at this point persuasive only to people who enlist without paying any attention to the fine print.

Jerome is in charge of Art and Seek, the local cultural-news site for the public broadcasting station in Dallas. I'm coming up on five years of doing a weekly column for an online publication that is growing even faster than its print-based competitor is losing subscribers. I'm pretty sure the reason he is winning this contest is that he is just too busy even to remember that he has a blog.

Which is creditable. It is easy not to be a blockhead when you are being diligent. For my part, however, I must admit that over the past two years I have spent an altogether ridiculous amount of time thinking about blogging and not-blogging, about writing in general and not writing certain things in particular, etc.

Of course having regular deadlines puts a limit on just how much rapture-of-the-deep stuff you can indulge in. Nor has this musing been totally fruitless. Some of it ended up as part of my talk at the University of Iowa this fall. For the most part, though, I've just piled up notes on the situation from time to time, then turned to whatever work was at hand.

But given that my day job involves writing whatever I want -- about whatever I want, pretty much, which is nice work if you can get it -- the tendency to wonder about these things is always there. The problem is inscribed within my circumstances. As is the survivor guilt, which is another story.

The ability to shift among different registers (formal, informal, journalistic, essayistic, cross-referential, fragmentary, serial, etc.) is part of doing a column. It is also part of blogging. Still, writing a column and writing a blog post are very different things -- and not just because one of them pays the bills (that, too).

Caleb Crain's book is proof that the gap can be narrowed. But my experience of the past two years has been exactly the opposite -- that ever more space has opened up between blogging and "real writing," so that I've seldom even bothered to use Quick Study to point its four readers to my new work as it appears. This isn't a matter of diffidence. It's a matter of going, "Eh. maybe later" and then usually finding that there is something more urgent to do.

But beyond that level -- the strictly subjective part -- there has been the continuing problem of not knowing how to think about the changing configuration of writer and audience that makes up the different dimensions of public space.

I used to think I had some kind of feel for this, or at least that it was possible to do so. That is no longer the case. In fact it hasn't been for a while -- five or six years, at least. It raises all kinds of problems that aren't, strictly speaking, mine. I've read Lippmann and Dewey and Habermas and it's just not that useful anymore. (Nor is Goffman when you get right down to it.) And I'm sure as hell not coming up with anything on my own.

Now, arguably, none of this would be a problem for someone who had no experience of the "old regime" -- someone who took the pace and the texture of online communication, not as a supplement to writing, but as its always-given precondition.

Short of some kind of brain surgery I don't really have that option. At the same time, nostalgia isn't appealing. Nor is survivalist retreat, "going off the grid."

I just wish the grid were not so damned non-Euclidean, if that's how to put it -- one new coordinate system after another, each one with some new axiom that warps the rest.

My gut sense is that things have actually stabilized somewhat. It might be possible to start thinking more strategically about how to work amidst the existing structures, such as they are.

That may be cusp-of-the-decade optimism and nothing more. We'll see. It may even be that there are advantages to working within a medium without being quite "of" it. How many times have I vowed to stop writing with a pen? Well, forget it. You use the tools you need to use, to make whatever sense of the world you have to make.
December 30, 2009 10:39 AM | | Comments (1)

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This post reminded me of a line by Kenneth Rexroth, in an introduction to a collection of his essays, that "poets are ill advised to write prose for anything but money" making exceptions only for "anger and logrolling for one's friends."

And I'm thankful that there were magazines to pay Rexroth -- or Wilson and Kazin -- because there are few things I enjoy more than an opinionated 3- or 4-page essay from such writers. And as Rexroth points out, such articles would never have been written in the first place with "being assigned in advance, written to a requested wordage and for an agreed fee."

But I like the "blockheads" too, like Karl Marx who did a great deal of writing for no money (often hoodwinking Fred into taking care of the paid work, when he wasn't begging him for 5-pound notes). Or blockheads like Thomas Paine who wrote for "The Cause" and never quite cashed in on his bestselling works.

Of course, this comment doesn't really have much to do with blogging -- and may only reveal that I too am a (part-time) blockhead.

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This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on December 30, 2009 10:39 AM.

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