The view walking away from 4Cs1

I’ve long been resistant to profound declarations about ceasing/rededicating blogging activities. I’ve tended to just let this thing go in fits and jerks. It just doesn’t make much sense to me to talk about issues like “sustainability” anymore. I foolishly tried to raise that issue at the 4Cs conference in 2004 in the “blogging” special interest group, and no one really seemed to care.

It seemed to me then that the “models” for academic blogging available circa 2004 didn’t have much of a chance of continuing. By that, I mean that it seemed unlikely that institutions would embrace casual blog writing as evidence of scholarly worth (the dream at the time). It also seemed to me that the usage of blogs as “social capital” or networking tools was doomed because who really wants to read a stream of constant advertisement and self-promotion? What I didn’t anticipate was the sponsorship of linking/blogging/networking activities by clearly commercial concerns (social media, publishers and journals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education). No matter. It seems that when you try to define social phenomena they are already “over.” It happened with blogging, and then podcasting, and soon it will probably happen with twittering as well. Most of the people I talked to in 2004 were already beginning to think along those lines, scanning the horizon for the next new thing.

The real take away for me in retrospect is that searching for “what’s new” is the cornerstone of unsustainable activity. Someone in the profession remarked that people in rhet/comp discuss the same “problems” for decades of conferences. Seems to me that we’ve been doing that for more than a hundred years, actually. Such pursuits are deliciously sustainable. Does that mean that such problems are unsolvable? I think it’s more likely that they are insoluble— they just don’t ever dissolve and go away. That’s why they are of recurrent interest as pressure points. Jumping tracks back to the problems of blogging, it seems to me that the long tradition of carefully reasoned blogging “sign-offs” is more interesting as a symptom of the difficulties of sustaining writing rather than evidence of the impoverishment of blogging as a social activity. Sustain neither desires nor requires novelty. But the question remains: why have so many of my electronic friends signed off?

Talking to one of the blogging “pioneers” at Cs (who wasn’t among the group from 2004 previously mentioned) he supposed that the main reason why he blogged less that he was investing most of his energy in other writing projects. That makes sense; most of my blogging friends are, after all, writers— and no writer wants to write in the same form forever. There are more productive ways to spend words than scribbling moderate-length missives. Most of the really active bloggers have rechanneled their electronic writing energy into short-form tweeting or facebooking. Most still blog, just not as much. It takes a lot of energy to write fiction or scholarship, and any longer form ideas are better worked out there. But in my case, I think it’s something more fundamental.

I started reading Pierre Assoluline’s introduction to his biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson today (picked up from the wonderful show of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta) and he talks about the problem of disclosure. Describing his first interview with HCB, Assouline says:

At the moment of our parting I was moved by something difficult to describe; I felt frustrated by his reticence when it came to discussing the war. At the risk of offending his modesty, I questioned him again about his years of captivity in Germany, the overcrowded conditions, the failed escapes. He seemed lost in thought for a while, his gaze focused somewhere distant, and then began to talk again. The further he went on the more convinced I became that intimate confidences are most easily addressed to complete strangers. He himself told me that one day in a Parisian taxi he had unveiled to the driver secrets that he had never confided in anyone before, so certain that he would never see this man again

When he recalled the names of the comrades who had been denounced, tortured and shot, his voice choked. And when he murmured their first names, he turned his head away unable to keep back the tears.

I suspect that what has passed in this type of writing is an age of innocence where you never felt the suspicion that you would meet those voices in the dark. After around a decade of doing it now, I have met more than a few of those voices. It becomes much harder to search deeper for those passionate things that once came so easy. And it was those things, revealed perhaps purely because of naivete, that made blogging (as a form of writing) most interesting. It’s hard to continue to write, and even harder to reveal secrets, when you have a clearer conception of just who is reading you.

Perhaps that’s the reason for the goodbye notes that shut the door on so many blogging friends: when you’ve been caught in an embarrassment, or a truth, one feels the need to apologize before walking away.

1 I did not attend the 4Cs conference this year, though I was there in Atlanta when it was going on. I have stepped outside the profession to catch my breath.