If the linked pieces that comprise “The Intellectual Situation” are polemical, they are generally justified in being so. And what better object for skepticism than the transformation of consciousness and culture we are undergoing as citizens of the Age of Infotainment? Even the stern shade of Adorno would approve of “Whatever Minutes,” which observes that silence, that hard-won legacy of literate civilization, has begun to disappear. (No doubt some enterprising corporation will soon be marketing “silence spas”—selling back to us what we once had for free.)
But n+1’s theoretical commitments lead it astray when it turns its gaze to the weblog. “The Blog Reflex” suggests that reflexive antagonism and an imperative for speed have ruined, for good and all, the much-hyped democratic potential of the blog:
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. . . . But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. . . . 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 satifsfaction—“The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!”—or displeasure —“I shit on Dante!” So man hands on information to man.
Not least among my disappointments with this premature obituary is that it is, in many small ways, accurate. Anyone looking for an Ebert-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Dante will be sure to find one on the internet. Google will even tell you how long the search took.
And yet, depending on one’s degree of fatalism about world history, the medium may not doom the message. Your essayist’s rhetorical excesses proceed from stovepiped intelligence. He or she assumes that “I shit on Dante” is the alpha and omega of lit-blog discourse. But just as the lazy researcher can Google up coprophiliac reductions of il divino poeta, he can also easily find the sorts of long essays n+1 values. Indeed, online response to “The Blog Reflex,” ranging from highbrow to low-blow, has demonstrated both the best and worst tendencies of the medium.
Many of us engaged in online literary discussion feel that the institutions that might have done this work in the past have sold out (the book club), refined themselves into impotence (the salon), or abdicated their critical instincts in favor of precisely the kind of PR-flacksmanship n+1 lays at the feet of the lit-blog. Serious literary bloggers see themselves precisely as an antidote to a vertically integrated media sector and a closed-circuit publishing industry.
Indeed, I seem to hear the call-note of territorialism beneath n+1’s write-off of the lit-blog. What you call the “aura of indie cred” paired with recognition “from the big houses” is an intersection that might once upon a time have been the exclusive province of the little magazine. But the best literary blogs, free from the economic vicissitudes of the print journal, have begun to encroach. Given that many of the lit-blogs least vulnerable to charges of thoughtlessness link to one another, and given their relative popularity, it is surprising that n+1 didn’t manage to stumble across them in its internet divagations. What can editors who have “only their precarious self-respect” do but fire a warning shot? “So much typing, so little communication . . .” In this summary dismissal, I learn more about n+1’s own anxieties than I do about the potential of the blog as a medium for “the free activity of the mind.”
Communication requires both speakers and listeners, and by making common cause with like-minded bloggers, n+1 might swell the ranks of the enlightened, rather than going the genteel way of the salon. To that end, “The Intellectual Situation” would do well in the future to forgo simplistic binary code—Literary Blogs: Hot or Not?—in favor of actual thinking.
—Garth Risk Hallberg