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Thumb

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Thumb

*With apologies to J. Mascis

I was thinking about the Tom Robbins bit I used in class yesterday. I was thinking about Aristotle’s definition of definition.

For Aristotle, a definition was a proposition where the subject and predicate were completely interchangeable. Otherwise, the predicate is merely a property. Given Protagoras’ sophistic point of view, or the supposedly new postmodern one— definition is impossible. Examined under the light of speech-act theory, definition is similarly impossible. The act of speaking or writing is used to create an action— or at the very least, an effect. If an utterance isn’t novel— different in some degree from the state which proceeds it— there really isn’t a point to saying anything at all.

From the sophistic point of view humans are forever changing. Hence, an utterance that may be linguistically identical to another is perceived by a subject always becoming different hearing it the second time. We always become older, more experienced and bring a different context to bear upon extracting meaning. A rhetorical approach to definition is not to propose that an utterance is identical to another— but to control context as much as possible. Such control, from the postmodern point of view, is impossible— because repetition itself changes meaning.

While it may sound like I have my thumb up my ass here, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Tom Robbins shifts the definition of “thumb” by the definitions he offers of other body parts which the thumb is not. It is not a brain— the fragile center of thought. It is not a navel— the scarred center of being. It is an organ of mobility, of movement.

I was thinking about blogs. I was thinking about the frequency with which many early bloggers screamed “I am not my blog.” I was thinking about how so many people would like to define blogging as a popularity contest, or a public rather than private thing— a blog is not a navel. I was thinking how people would like to define the blogosphere as a platform for ethical development, of intelligent discourse and thought— but alas, I cannot think of blogs as brains either. Too many of them are absent of the criteria of deep reflection connected with that mass of goo.

I begin to think that the blog is a thumb. An appendage, stuck out with the hopes of getting a ride. Sometimes, you stand on the corner navel-gazing. Sometimes you reflect on something you’re thinking about. But a blog is neither a navel nor a brain. A blog is a thumb.

But of course, any definition such as this is impossible, because definition itself is impossible. A writer is left with only endless predicates of properties, spinning toward definitions that they hope will be accepted without too much thought on the subject.

** Blame Stavros for my hitchhiking on this particular bit.

Does linking mean?

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Does linking mean?

Eons ago in my previous blog I was racking my head over link blogs. I came to the conclusion that under certain circumstances linking had implications in the construction of meaning— so, Jonathon, I am not nearly as averse to the idea of link blogs as a medium of self-expression as I once was. I really meant to expand that post further to embrace the “writerly types” out there— because displaying your creative talents through writing is also, as Jonathon observed, a form of show-and-tell. However, I find both of these approaches less revealing than what might be called expressivist “creative non-fiction”— manifest in blogs of personal exploration which do not rely too deeply on constructed personae. I think it was Golub who argued that link-blogging is a process of persona-construction. I disagreed at first, but I’ve since seen the light. I don’t begrudge anyone who decides they want to share something— in fact, I rather like it.

But does linking mean? I came to the conclusion that if it does, it does so only subtly. That’s why I refuse to submit to delinking. The assumption involved is that link-aggregators like blogdex are “popularity indexes”— that is a really twisted rhetorical perspective. What these devices do is highlight the subtle nature of community on the Internet. They establish the shifting context of the discourse, spread among thousands of sites— a phenomenon well worth studying, in my estimation. However, because I link to something does not mean that I like it, dislike it, or am just amused by it— to accentuate only the postive, affirming side of linking is to deny its complexity. Link networks are only “popularity” indexes in terms of affirming interest. I wondered about linking to the racial-hate material in my previous post. But I figured that what mattered most was the content of the post, not any electronic aggregation of the context. Aggregation is imprecise, inaccurate, and devoid of content.

For me at least, a blogroll has absolutely nothing to do with popularity and everything to do with context, and one of my favorite things as a lazy person— convenience. These are the sites I regularly visit. I have my history set to purge each three days, so the links to blogs change so that I know if I’ve been neglecting to read my usual ones. I really don’t think very many people use it at all, except me, to keep track of my own little “neighborhood.” I believe that linking to posts within a blog rather than on the sidebar may have a strong impact (depending on the popularity of the blog) on traffic. However, the primarily static sidebar links only show a bit of my context within the complex blog discourse community. It’s a subtle thing. When I’ve been reading a blog for long enough to be attached to its writer, I like to explore their links to find out more about what they like to read. I find it nice, convenient, and often enlightening.

Blogrolls can help you find people you’d like to read, that is, if you like the person whose blog you find them on. There are no guarantees. They subtly aid the process of developing communities without overt rhetorical posturing— which a roll of “my favorite posts” would surely involve. I often find blogs I really like by looking at my referrer logs to see who has linked me. I don’t always link back though, because my sidebar is monstrous and there are only so many hours in the day to read blogs. Being placed on my sidebar is not a vote of affirmation, only a vote of interest. To read my blogroll, or anyone’s for that matter, as a popularity contest displays a lack of subtlety— interest and affirmation are not synonymous.

We?

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The Royal We

I always get nervous when a mythic “we” enters into things. Reacting in part to Alex Golub’s latest screed on blogging, Steve Himmer asks:

What are we writing, and how are we writing it? What constitutes good writing on the web, and is it determined by the same criteria that determine good writing elsewhere?

The easiest answer is the Tonto trope: “Whatcha mean we, Kemosabe?” What I find fascinating about blogging is the unmediated environment. I think that most people find that difficult to cope with and force their own mediatory constructs on the process. It represents a double metonymy of sorts— we internalize our own concept of “good writing” based on the criteria we are most comfortable with as we percieve it in others— a necessary illusion, because without mediation there is no standard. The impact of education cuts deeply. Alex’s anti-academic claim for blog valuation takes its core values from academic writing.

Worlds Apart is an insightful empirical comparison between the nature of academic and workplace writing. The primary difference noted by the authors is that school writing practices are “dominated by the epistemic motive and the need to rank” (224). Texts are created primarily for the purpose of short-term evaluation and ranking within a specified time frame. Ultimately, though the perception of audience is shifted in Alex’s model, the goal remains the same. It’s academic. Sort of like speaking up in class with just the right comment at the right time, rather than providing a complex dissertation on a topic.

Sometimes I think that the discourse of blogs doesn’t really reach that high. It’s more like show-and-tell— like kindergarten. See the nice link I found? Admit it, show and tell is fun and most outgoing adults still enjoy it. Some blogs stake out that territory and stay there— it’s comfortable and non-threatening. To an extent, it’s academic too. Say hello to the class and show them something so they will like you. Link heavy blogs create persona through a process of selection, of valuation. It’s interesting that this is perhaps the longest surviving mode of blogging, which does not show much sign of fading— I remember when I started that this seemed mostly bush-league. It takes guts to put yourself out on the commons without any trinkets to sell.

Workplace writing on the other hand is focused on record-keeping and task oriented activity— it is seldom ranked. There is a pressure to conserve space, to provide strictly useful information. I find this commonplace with the growth of professionally oriented link logs targeted at subject specific areas. Valuation is strictly based on ease of access, conciseness, and many of the attributes that Alex suggests— but the insistence of valuation is the worst sort of academic hangover. It goes to the construction of a necessary evil— an author to provide the agency. I think the correct question to ask is not what but why. As there are as many answers to why as there are writers on the web, the question of valuation becomes pointless here. It can only be understood within genres of writing. I remain unconvinced that because we use the same tools, we’re all building the same house. Most of us learned our tools in school, and the repercussions of that continue to be felt.

The question of reading behavior that Steve moves toward is also addressed in Worlds Apart— it’s a foundation of their perception of difference. In school, we read to evaluate. At work, we read for necessary information to get the job done. On the web, these models collide playfully with a need for entertainment, which is another complex matter to consider. Some people prefer short poems. Some people prefer long ones.

Blogging Politics

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Blogging Politics

I’ve been avoiding writing on some loaded issues. Steve Himmer has been stirring the pot. But as the issues converge, I suppose I have to say something. First, on the issue of teachers who blog— I’ve thought about that a lot.

I decided early on not to advertise my blog to my students, but not for the usual reasons. One thing that many people in my program stress, which I agree with totally, is that part of a writing teacher’s job is to instill more complex notions of responsibility to an audience. This is immediately short-circuited in a normal classroom environment— the teacher sits at the top of the food chain, and ultimately is the sole audience for writing created in the classroom. This results in myopic, stereotypical student essays. I believe that writing at the university level should instead prepare students for real-world writing environments with shifting standards and diffuse audiences. The first step is to dethrone the idea that writing is constructed to satisfy the teacher alone, which has been drilled into their skulls since the moment they enter the system.

I don’t promote my blog as an example, primarily because I don’t want them to think that I expect them to write like I do. That would be disastrous on so many levels that I needn’t really enumerate them. However, it is inevitable that industrious students can and do locate my blog. I write in a public environment by choice.

Exordium

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Exordium

Grading a big stack of essays today, I was struck by the same recurrent pattern I noticed last semester. Why do people have such a huge problem with the concept of writing an introduction? Of course, introductions are the most difficult part of an essay to write, largely because they are best composed last. I had hoped by starting with a cover letter (which is in essence, a long introduction) as the first assignment I might be able to spend less time on introduction strategies in the middle of the semester. I was wrong. While it works well for getting across the idea that thinking rhetorically means addressing the needs of your audience, it didn’t do squat to improve the second assignment, a bibliographic essay. The introduction to an essay of this type is simply “what I surveyed is this . . .” and still people failed to include any clue of what they were really on about until halfway through the essay.

It occurs to me that we live in an increasingly introduction free world. Everything is already in progress. We watch TV shows from the middle without blinking an eye, we follow political controversies without any pressing desire to know the historical background of the conflict, and we casually surf into the middle of sites on the net due to queries which effectively bypass any sort of front-matter, or declaration of what the site is all about. Is the introduction an endangered species? In a macro sense, perhaps yes, but on the micro level, certainly not.

Introductions become more a matter of visual style, rather than verbal survey. I know I’m reading a blog due to certain visual cues. I know I’m reading a news or commercial site due to the constant assertion of branding on every page. I know I’m reading an old, first generation site due to the garish backgrounds, embedded sound files, or crazy typography. Because in “real life” we immediately assign certain expectations based on these cues, it seems natural that a writer need not spell out his inclinations— “You know what it’s about, you assigned it!” We are so used to the application of context to introduce meaning in our day-to-day interactions that we think very little about being more “reader friendly.” This is libratory in a certain sense— free from constantly reintroducing our ideas, we can cut to the chase quickly.

The danger of this, is of course misunderstanding. Context is subtle and easily misread. This provides a skew to everything we read, a muddle of associations that may or may not be accurate. This can be an advantage, when it comes to something like a blog. I think most people want to project their experience on what they read, and the nebulous nature of ethos in the electronic world makes things seem far more connected than they really are. It’s a comfortable little lie, a bit of self-imposed universalizing that makes the society seem downright friendly.

A proper introduction takes time. The periodic nature of blogging makes repeat visits for fresh cues rewarding. We fall in and out of love with the people we meet as we are more properly introduced. Perhaps skipping the introduction isn’t so bad in the blogging world, because it spreads out the process of getting to know people over a longer time-scale. The casual visitor never really understands much about the person they are reading. They move on, untroubled by the pains of dissolving an illusory friendship to a person they were never really introduced to. Commercial sites rise or fall dependent on a concept of ethos built across multiple visits; personal sites, well, it’s a much more zipless flirtation most of the time, rather than a long-lasting friendship.

Blogrolls are an interesting twist on the problem. Mine has been fairly stable for a long while now, and I get the illusion that I know some of these people quite well. I like the feeling. I like anticipating what I might find on their sites next. I like getting to know people. Due to the intense nature of my place in life right now, I don’t say thank-you often enough to those people that I read every day. Though we haven’t been properly introduced, I’ve been following the stories long enough to feel like I know what’s going on. I count on all these people to take me outside myself, in these times that I must focus on my own personal projects.

Life goes Bi

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Life goes bi

For centuries, spoken words were unidirectional, evaporating into space. Ritual pursued preservation, and writing technology was formed to capture stories and manage lists. Recorded sound changed communication as profoundly as writing, but in subtle ways. Words and music of people long dead can haunt us. Is it an illusion of bidirectionality? We hear them, but they can’t hear us. The Recording Angel by Evan Eisenberg deals with sound in a unique way:

But if a record is a time capsule and a phonograph is a time machine, they are so in an unaccustomed sense. A record is a sculpted block of time, repeatable at an owner’s whim. The block may have been carved from another time and place (though only live recordings are carved in one piece) and may be a document or record of its quarry. But a record of music does not record historical time. It records musical time which, though it exists in historical time, is not of it. A violoncello is already a time machine, taking its listener to a place outside time. The phonograph is a time machine of this sort, but with the difference that the listener operates it himself and can take a spin as often as he pleases.

Records, I said, shattered the public architecture of time. The have replaced it with a kind of modular interior design. The individual supplies himself with sculpted blocks of time and proceeds to pave his day with them. Each block is infinitely repeatable. Each is different from, but formally interchangeable with each other.

One of the major problems in semantics is determining the effective limit of a meaning unit. The meaning of words is shaped by their context, and not contained in the words themselves. We can isolate them by function, subject, verb, preposition, etc., but we cannot safely say that a word means anything outside of context. Perhaps words are also like paving stones. How many of them does it take to form a road? Is it a one way trip?

I think writing a blog is different than conventional writing not only because it’s electrified and public, but because of the shape of the path. Software offers the option to display entries in conventional chronological order, but no one I read uses that. Why? Because it would be redundant and confusing to surf in to the beginning of a story each day, scrolling down to where you left off. It’s best to start in the now. Because it’s recorded, it’s always possible to go back to the beginning if a writer interests you. Our experience of a blog can be bidirectional. This makes me ponder its presence in historical time, but more than that, it makes me wonder at the problematic nature of conventional writing methods in this context. With every additional entry, the context subtly shifts, as entries disappear into the archives.

With every use, our words grow deeper in meaning built on associations established before. Random access dilutes carefully crafted meanings built using linear approaches to writing. Blog writing is different because though the window into it is always random, a reader can stroll back down the path and see how the stones are placed; we can trace the sculpted blocks of discourse back deep into the quarry and get a greater sense of the person behind the words. Blog entries are also like modular decorating blocks, interchangeable with any other. Without the conceit that an audience has followed the story, each day I reinvent the wheel driven to make each block self-contained. I’m not sure it’s better than a linear approach or more flexible, but it’s certainly more coherent than a random one.

Most readers don't prowl the archives of a blog, but the possibility always exists.

Fishing

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stylish, eh? An ad from the Little Rock Free Press

Connectivity has its price

Whistling past the graveyard, it’s hard not to notice all the tombstones. Sometimes great ideas die fast. Other times, questionable ideas linger for everyone to see. When I surf, I always end up finding all sorts of web pages and journals that sit there like dilapidated shacks, with broken links and forgotten promises.

Though it seems reductive to say that weblogs are “timestamps, permalinks, and comments”— it is precisely this quality that allows you to tell at a glance that a site is alive, rather than dead. XML feeds and updating make it easier to find the living, in the vast fields of the dead. Without these, the desire to sustain a relatively static page or archive wanes quickly. There are lots of abandoned dwellings on the web. It takes a hook-up of some sort, to separate the peppercorns from the dung-heap.

I find it amazing how many online magazines I find from 1999-2001 that remain static and unchanged. Issues #1-3 are available, but as the owners get distracted or shift focus, the wonderful ideas lay fallow.

Most theoretical articles on web writing in the graveyard are dated 1995-98, before the flock to journal sites. The Compleat Webster's is a good one, filled with broken links and 17th century fishing metaphors. Just being “connected” to the web isn't enough to sustain an idea, however good. It takes an audience, however small, to make working on a site worthwhile. And it takes some color and style— a hook to keep it going.

Improvements in indexing have made old link collections bob to the surface. Like a wall of stuffed trophies, they are completely useless. Sites that frequently update, catching links and letting them pass away are now more standard. I think perhaps we’ve entered an era of “catch and release.” Lots of small fish out there, who flash on the hook and then disappear quickly as they lose interest. The real reward is catching those that have stuck around long enough to grow. Still, perhaps it’s best to just admire them for a moment, and then let them go. The more fish there are in the pond, the easier it is to catch a few.