The Intellectual Situation
The Blog Reflex
Paul Virilio once proposed an intriguingly reductive account of world history. Progress was merely the history of speed: in warfare, infantry gave way to chariots, then horses, then tanks, and finally air power (used, er, to bomb infantry). He also coined the phrase “endo-colonization” to describe the accelerating attempts of states and corporations to exploit, as thoroughly as they have the earth, the last available frontier, our minds.
Shoot-outs, flame wars, the gold rush, and the transcontinental railroad all meet in the so-called blogosphere, as the various news corporations, frightened by the flight of readers and consequent loss of ad revenue, aim to recapture the great prize of our attention. But why are we so eager to bless their pages with our hits? The fast-moving history of technology here meets—as truck meets armadillo on the highway—the slow-moving history of thought. Kierkegaard wrote, “Our present age is one of advertising and publicity.” That was in 1846! The perfect subject of this new epoch in world history was the newspaper reader, paralyzed by endless information. Sustained passion gave way to momentary enthusiasms. Kierkegaard had a homey analogy for what it was like to live in this state of constant mental stimulation: Imagine a grandfather clock that strikes at random intervals. You can’t tell time by it and yet you begin to live in constant anticipation of the next random chime. In this way, Kierkegaard’s present age (still ours) ironically fulfilled the messianic promise that “time shall be no more.”
A more recent fantasy of revolution was that, hooked up to newswires, all this information at our fingertips, we’d get mad as hell and not take it any more. Instead, people took up blogging. Information would be linked, not to the body politic, but to—links! And more links! Links links links! Readers could now be writers; but was this all that was meant by seizing the means of production? “Citizen journalists” could monitor the professionals from the margins. This, at least, was one much-lauded aspect of blogging, and it was somewhat real (except that the best early news blogs were mostly written by professionals challenging other professionals). Then, of course, like all technological developments, blogs fell prey to existing market forces and inequalities of means, especially time and money. Capital beat out the citizenry. The same reactionary lunatics who dominated talk radio entered the blogosphere. Entrepreneurs like Nick Denton seized the chance to become the Murdochs of the new medium. Advertisers started prospecting in their wake, and the fragile human mind caved in.
A corollary to Virilio’s theory of history was that each new stage in technology gave rise to new accidents. To understand the technology, you also needed to anticipate the accidents. When writing first developed, ancient philosophers feared it would destroy human memory; to write anything down was to put yourself in the position of that guy in the movie Memento. And this wasn’t totally wrong. Also, letters: they had a funny way of getting lost or opened by the wrong people. The first accident in writing came about when a king was instructed to “kill the bearer of this letter.” Fortunately, the intended bearer could read, too, and sent someone else in his place.
The accident waiting to happen to bloggers was most visible when they turned their attention to literature and ideas. The hope had been to democratize the intellectual sphere. Freedom of the press is for those who own one. But now all you needed was a laptop and some time on your hands. The idea was especially attractive in light of the consolidation of media holdings and the destruction of intellectual life in the ’80s and ’90s, when people began to work longer and harder for less, available public spaces and quiet cafés dried up, and argument in the academies gave way to “respect.”
The blogs salved this ennui and created nourishing microcommunities. Yet criticism as an art didn’t survive. People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000-word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blogs reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested. (Not for nothing is the word blog evocative of vomit.) “So hot right now,” the bloggers say. Or: “Jumped the shark.” The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satisfaction—“The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!”—or displeasure—“I shit on Dante!” So man hands on information to man.
One thing cannot be denied: Lit-bloggers are the avant-garde of 21st-century publicity. They represent a perfection of the outsourcing ethos of contemporary capitalism. The savvy readers of our age are already suspicious of advertising from above, from the cartel of publishers, weekly book reviews, and entertainment-industry executives. So why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits—by their clicks you shall know them—and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses—fillips of contempt, wet kisses—aren’t criticism. They can only reinforce, they can never change another person’s point of view. So much typing, so little communication . . . It’s incredible. A bottomless labor market exists in which the free activity of the mind gets bartered away for something even less nourishing than a bowl of porridge. And you can’t dine off your inflated self-respect and popularity—not unless you get enough hits to sell advertising.
The revolutionary has left behind a pamphlet. Opening up the cheaply inked pages, blackening our fingers, we figure it will contain the usual articles on Chiapas and a “police riot” in Detroit. Instead, it’s one lingerie-clad model after another, plus hung studs in banana hammocks, in advertisements absent a single phone number or in-call/out-call promise—but all with web addresses. So this is how our modern Bakunin hopes to speed the poison along. We’re not sure it’s going to work.