Sartre Resartus

Sartre Resartus

I’ve wanted to say something about the latest round of metablogging that spread so dynamically while I was in the midst of other projects. Steve Himmer’s compression/collation of the truth and lies subtopic intersects with one of my projects in a nice way though, and I wanted to offer some thoughts. There are at least two sides to the problem. The most recent post zeroes in on ways of reading, though he began with ways of writing.

Leaving aside a topic that I have written extensively about— what makes blogging different from writing in any other form—I wanted to note some things about motives. The Happy Tutor rightly points out that the question of truth or lies isn’t simple. We weasel our way around it by summoning motive to justify our bending of the truth. Often these motives are rhetorical and transparent—but just as often these motives are opaque, hidden, personal, and not apparent even to ourselves. We construct our image of self by creating consistent fictions. There are seldom easy points of reference to measure truth, especially regarding our selves.

The easiest dodge of them all is to call what we write literature. To place writing in this category is to avoid the use-value, in a market economic sense, and gain a license to exploit a special kind of truth. At least, that was Sartre’s argument in his chapter “Why Write?” from the 1947 book What is Literature?

Sartre generates nausea for me. Perhaps its the old girlfriend that thought he was a god, or perhaps it’s his way of making huge conceptual leaps with no rational ledge to stand on (a quality he shares with Kenneth Burke), but I don’t like him. All the same, I’ve been re-reading “Why Write” the last few days. Now I can see Sartre as a pompous Teufelsdröckh, spouting his philosophy of clothes (all black). Roland Barthes neatly retailors Sartre in Writing Degree Zero.

It is easy to argue that blogging represents a form of writing which confers on it a certain value. It is also easy to argue that the blogging form is contingent on its unmediated nature, and that its value is assigned democratically in the most open sense of that word. It operates outside the typical concepts of marketing and success, because reaching a desired audience seldom means racking up six-digit circulation figures, or even four-digit circulations for that matter. Weinberger’s assertion about being famous to fifteen people comes to mind. Sartre’s definition of the values conferred by literary writing seem to apply to blogs as well—his contention is that literature is extremely concrete and particular, and that it produces what he terms aesthetic joy:

Aesthetic joy proceeds to this level of the consciousness which I take of recovering and internalizing that which is non-ego par excellence, since I transform the given into an imperative and the fact into a value. The world is my task, that is the essential and freely accepted function of my freedom is to make that unique and absolute object which is the universe come into being in an unconditioned movement.

For Sartre, literature only becomes literature in the eye of the reader. We create a world, freely, which we have taken to be our obligation to the task of reading. In the same way, when you read a blog you freely infer a world which exists in the mind of the person who composed it. Does it have an obligation to truth? Not really. However, before we enter into the contract with it we test it against our own expectations, and only continue to read when those expectations are piqued or tantalized. As any mid-level writer realizes, it is difficult to maintain a consistent fiction.

Sartre’s point, ultimately, is that literature must be in service to freedom—but it is a freedom based in surrender. A writer surrenders what they write to open interpretation. A reader surrenders their disbelief to accept the task of symbolic reconstruction provided by the writer. Sartre makes a huge, and in my opinion, bone-headed Burkean leap into conjecturing then that all writing is about freedom. Implicit to this then, is the obligation not to write rhetorically to persuade anyone, or to move them unduly. We must write only to recreate the open atmosphere of freedom upon which such writing depends.

This, to my mind, echoes the demands that blogging be social. That it isn’t blogging unless it is link-heavy and timely. Thankfully, Roland Barthes sticks huge pins in Sartre, while maintaining a level of agreement with some of his basic premises. Rather than taking refuge in the eternal present championed by Sartre, Barthes points at the role of history in freedom, and the temporality of what we call literature:

The choice of, and afterwards the responsibility for, a mode of writing point to the presence of Freedom, but this Freedom has not the same limits at different moments of History. It is not granted to the writer to choose his mode of writing from a kind of non-temporal store of literary forms. It is under the pressure of History and Tradition that the possible modes of writing for a given writer are established; there is a History of Writing. But this History is dual: at the very moment when general history proposes—or imposes—new problematics of the literary language, writing remains full of recollection of previous usage, for language is never innocent: words have a second-order memory which mysteriously persists in the midst of new meanings.

Writing is precisely this compromise between freedom and remembrance, it is this freedom which remembers and is free only in a gesture of choice, but is no longer so within duration. True, I can today select such and such mode of writing, and in so doing assert my freedom, aspire to freshness and novelty or to a tradition; but it is impossible to develop within duration without gradually becoming a prisoner of someone else’s words or even of my own.

Consequently, it is very hard for me to get really excited about blogging as the “libratory” form it is often heralded to be. It is impossible for me to think of it as a “literary” form either, because I myself seriously question if such a standard exists in the first place. However, it is easy for me to wonder, like Steve, if there is a way to nail down just what mode of writing blogging really is. It is indeed a “new problematic” and as such deserves a lot of scrutiny.

As for the question of truth, well, that is another post entirely. The major point I wished to add to the discussion is that blogging, as writing, carries with it the afterimage of all the forms of writing that came before, superimposed over it, and coloring just what this mode is. It is not so new as many believe. The interesting thing to me is that most emergent definitions of the blogging mode, like definitions of literature, intentionally evade and castigate the rhetorical nature of the very language they use. Perhaps it is easier to speak of blogging in terms of reading practices rather than writing practices—this again, evades the problematic nature of rhetoric.

4 thoughts on “Sartre Resartus”

  1. “There are seldom easy points of reference to measure truth, especially regarding our selves.”
    In my experience, there IS a VERY easy point of reference, which is One’s interactions, and the feedback One gets, with One’s environment.. especially the people which One relates to.
    As objectively as possible, given that the feedback is not always correct either. (Dunno that much about Sartre, but “the old girlfriend that thought he was a god” would be SO *easy* for someOne to buy into.. and positively detrimental to do so…!!)
    It’s not my observation that blogging “operates outside the typical concepts of marketing and success, because reaching a desired audience” is still the goal.
    Heard many SAY they aren’t concerned with having a lot of readers but their posts, for the vast majority and with great consistency, show otherWise. Yes, blogs are targeted at micro-markets, but the marketing is still present.
    As far as relative (as opposed to a non-existing absolute) truth: “A reader surrenders their disbelief to accept the task of symbolic reconstruction provided by the writer.” And this happens to the DEGREE that the reader trusts the author, both consciously and sub-consciously.
    In fact, many readers automatically assume the OPPOSITE stance, based on the author’s prior writings. Almost invariably… Rather than take each post on it’s own merit.
    Seen this ALL too often, both ways. Over-accepting and under-critical.. both cases being what “friends” do for each other. (Personally, I consider a True friend to be one that offers balanced criticism, in a gentle way, m’self.)
    Thx fer another good-un, Jeff…!

  2. Exploring downtown Tokyo

    Loren Webster, Jeff Ward, and the Dynamic Driveler (amongst others) have made fresh contributions to the truth in blogging debate; Liz Lawley pointed to a post by Jill Walker that offers me the perfect opening for a series of posts about the Japanese &…

  3. You are such a complete idiot. I think I am now dumber for reading this tripe. “If you oppose something, you ensure its existence.” If you don’t like it, why write about it?

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