Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: July 2005

Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Practice

Some responses to the earlier entries brought up the issue that many blogs (and indeed mine) utilize a very essayistic format, and so the contrast I set up between autonomous work and the stream of blogging isn’t so black and white. I partly agree with this, but I want to keep the focus on the blog qua blog; locating a blog entry as an essay via Google does not in any way distinguish a web site as a blog. What defines the blog is its day-by-day composition, and the effects that this composition has on the work produced.

This emphasis–on new material rather than revision of old, on small incremental pieces rather than self-contained monsters–affects how bloggers tend to write. Blog entries are by nature quickly written, quickly published, quickly forgotten. They are not posted in a “final” state, in that finality implies that it be remembered for posterity. Given the short horizon of the content, any revision after the initial posting will only be noticed by a fraction of the blog’s readers. When blogging, the question of “Is this exactly how I want it?” is less important than in writing a book; if it’s not, you can always try again after the entry has receded into the distance.

Revision makes itself known through future entries. This leads to the content redundancy that I mentioned earlier, where bloggers tend to overpost rather than underpost, but it allows for more dynamic restatements than if the original content were fixed in view.

Blog entries, then, never reach a final state. This is most likely what drives some bloggers to complain that blogging is a waste of their time: the lack of clear finished product. But ultimately it potentially provides virtue as well. In the absence of the finished product, in the absence of a primary authorial personality, there remains two things: one, the ever-becoming practice of writing, and second, the continuity of the practice.

As the entries blend together in a stream, what becomes visible is an unfinished, open stream of information. No matter how open-ended a book might be, how many questions it raises, at the end of the day you still close the book and archive it in your mind. Not so with a blog, which, as long as you keep reading it, will maintain its continuity of topic until those abstractions settle in your mind and are brought up again when you next read it. The gestalt is never fully formed, always open to revision. And unless bloggers have an endless stream of new ideas, they need to engage in revision of their own previous thought to keep posting.

A few authors have adopted the open-ended revision model in the past. Wittgenstein in his late work is an exploding polyphony of fallible interrogators and tentative responses. Stephen Dixon’s fiction examines a certain strain of modern American life from conflicting, mutating vantage points. Kim Deitch has built towering edifices out of small pieces of trash culture, and continues a career-long pullback that continually redesigns the architecture of all his previous work. [These are only the three that first spring to mind; there are surely great examples that I’m overlooking.] Even in these cases, the chunking of their work into discrete books and/or collections is initially deceptive, implying a closure that is not actually present. Blogging declares the closure to be void.

It does so by requiring frequent work. In the absence of continuous practice, blogs do die, and collapse into low-pagerank white dwarfs of content only to be found via lucky web searchers. It requires the author’s constant effort (and the readers’ responses) to remain viable. To declare a blog finished is to declare it dead. It is the open-ended form that defines blogging.

Now a personal word from me: I said that the blog medium wasn’t particularly germane to what I wrote, since I figured I’d write the same sort of thing regardless of the format. I was wrong. It was the unfinished-ness of the blog that allowed me to write in this way in the first place, and it has been quite productive. Egos fly around blog genres, as they do in any other publishing venture, but I find them easier to deal with. People aren’t resting on their laurels after having a finished piece published in magazine X or Y. Instead, the question we ask each other is this: are you blogging? Are you continuing towards the unreachable end point of your work, and keeping your work alive?

Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Improvisation

I find myself somewhat mysteriously coming back to the thought of free improvisation in music, and guitarist Derek Bailey’s thoughts on idiom and listening (some sound samples of him are available; I recommend the solo pieces for the best context). Now, what Bailey does certainly has its own idiom, despite his protestings, but there is something in the resolute present-ness of his playing, his focus on the immediate moment and seeming lack of any planned musical superstructure, no matter how provisional, that seems to relate to the medium of blogs. In some of his more in-depth explanations, he describes the ability of improvised music to collaborate without coalescing. And collaboration is key:

I like playing any way, but compared to playing with people, I think playing solo is a second rate activity, really. For me, playing is about playing with other people. In the absence of that, I am happy to play solo, but I don’t think there is any comparison. Even if it is difficult playing with other people – sometimes it’s great, sometimes it isn’t, but that is kind of the point of it. It loses its point playing solo. Then it isn’t pointless, but it becomes a different thing. It is very difficult if you are doing it regularly, which at one point I did. It becomes very difficult not to build up a sort of repertoire, which is anathema to the music, in my view. You can develop a solo performance, and then you finish up with a solo performance; you might as well be playing Bach.

Bailey, AllAboutJazz interview

I.e., it is the collaborative aspect that introduces freshness and variation into a series of performances done within roughly the same parameters:

I don’t claim that, because most music is improvised, it is the same as freely improvised music. Freely improvised music is different to musics that include improvisation. When I put the book ‘Improvisation’ together, I found it useful to consider these things in terms developed in the study of language. And the main difference I think between freely improvised music and the musics you quoted is, that they are idiomatic and freely improvised music isn’t. They are formed by an idiom, they are not formed by improvisation. They are formed the same way that speech vernacular, a verbal accent, is formed. They are the product of a locality and society, by characteristics shared by that society. Improvisation exists in their music in order to serve this central identity, reflecting a particular region and people. And improvisation is a tool – it might be the main tool in the music, but it is a tool.

In freely improvised music, its roots are in occasion rather than place. Maybe improvisation takes the place of the idiom. But it doesn’t have the grounding, the roots if you like, of those other musics. Its strengths lie elsewhere. There are plenty of styles – group styles and individual styles – found in free playing but they don’t coalesce into an idiom. They just don’t have that kind of social or regional purchase or allegiance. They are idiosyncratic. In fact you can see freely improvised music as being made up of an apparently endless variety of idiosyncratic players and groups. So many in fact, that its simpler to think of the whole thing as non-idiomatic.

Bailey, Jean Martin interview

Not that this is an analogy for blogging, but note the distinction he makes: an individual’s style is homogenous, even repetitive; whereas aggregations of these homogeneous entities lead to a heterogeneous variety of evanescent (occasion-based) performances. This is an extreme view, more an ideal than a reality, but as an ideal it is drastically different from notions of autonomous, single authorship within a genre/idiom. And this is reflected in his views on recordings as well. He doesn’t “get” listening to records:

Do they just sit there for 74 minutes…just sit and look at something or close their eyes? So you don’t have to give it your complete, full, unadulterated attention? That’s one of the things that’s wrong. If you could only play a record once, imagine the intensity you’d have to bring to the listening! In the same way that if I play something, I can only play it once…If you could only listen to it once, don’t you think it might concentrate the eardrums?

Bailey, Invisible Jukebox

“Intensity” is not quite the word I would for how people read blogs. But there is something that it shares with free improvisation in the increasingly ephemeral nature of its content, as well as its collaborative aspects. I think that these shared aspects are best summed up by a word Bailey uses to describe participation in improvisation: practice.

To be continued…

Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Genre

In the relatively short time that blogging has existed as a medium, lots of niche genres have sprung up within it: litblogs, political blogs, PR blogs, livejournals (I think they qualify as a genre unto themselves), techblogs, print media blogs, etc. The purpose of this highly speculative exercise is to see how the parameters of the blogging medium influence work within these genres.

First, some clarification. I’m interested in blogs that chiefly offer original content. There are many “aggregator” blogs out there that serve mostly as collecting grounds for links and original content, and many of them are far more popular than comparable blogs with original content, serving as they do as gatekeepers. But that is a different subject. I’m focusing on blogs that offer more text than links.

Second, some parameters of the medium. These are rough observations that appear to hold true for the vast majority of blogs. They’re debatable, and are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. To the extent that a blog is something better-defined than a bunch of text on a page that gets updated fairly regularly, these are the constraints that most seem to operate under.

  1. The Short Horizon: Tristan Louis speculates that what makes big blogs popular are lots of short entries. Well, this blog doesn’t provide any evidence to the contrary. But it underscores a major aspect of blogs, which is the brutally short horizon for content. Between RSS aggregators and how rarely people go through archives of blogs, a given entry has prominent existence for a week at most, and far less on many blogs. Consequently, most readers will only read each entry of a blog they’re following once, and may often miss entries.
  2. Quantity: Following from the short horizon, bloggers do best when they post early and post often, and most of them follow this model. There is little harm from overposting; the worst that will happen is that people skip an entry. There is great harm from underposting: people will forget about you. Having taken some sabbaticals myself from Waggish, I’ve seen the downside to leaving your blog in a static state for too long. Yet the emphasis on quantity leads inevitably to more redundancy and less originality in content, on average.
  3. The Gestalt: There is much less of a focus on discrete work in blogs than there is in most other media. Individual posts may be called out for brief (or occasionally permanent) fame, but in the stream of work being published by an individual, quickly fading into the horizon, blogs are identified by gestalt characteristics rather than by discrete posts. To draw the literary analogy, bloggers are much more Balzac than Joyce.
  4. Specialization: How many blogs do you know that wander all over the place, topic-wise? (Answer: “My friends’.”) Someone like languagehat establishes themselves and attracts interest by focusing resolutely and consistently on a core set of topics. Again, with the lack of attention on discrete entries, blogs do best when they have a definable gestalt. (This applies to aggregators as well–the best ones stick to their areas of interest.)
  5. Instant Feedback: What with the short horizon, most responses to a blog entry are received within hours or days. Not only does this provide a huge amount of feedback to authors before they distance themselves from the work, but it encourages collaboration and argument, as well as nudging authors to work with their audience’s reactions in mind and address them. (Okay, this one is pretty obvious/unarguable, though someone should write a more thorough piece on the difference between political single-voice vs. community blogs. Freepers scare me; it would be interesting!)
  6. Need for Triage: Between the short horizon and the sheer quantity of blogs and content out there, a role for aggregators/gatekeepers to point people to selected pieces of content was inevitable. Whether MeFi, BoingBoing, or Things, many of these are more popular than most blogs consisting of original content.

Enough of the painfully obvious and/or ridiculously reductive. The first conclusion to draw is that blogging remains a lot more like journalism than it does any other format. Journalism shares with blogs the first two constraints mentioned above. Individual pieces of work are deprioritized (I can never remember what a given person ever won the Pulitzer for), and articles vanish into the past day by day.

When you apply the exceptional/exemplary categories that I mentioned earlier (exceptional describing genres where the best work departs from the norm; exemplary describing those where the best work embodies the norm), it’s difficult to see how they fit into genres within the blog world. If most entries are not seen as discrete (and I can’t think of any blog entries offhand that jump out as so much better than anything else the author, or other authors in the same blog genre, wrote), but as part of a continuum, what does that say for what kind of work can emerge?

The aspects of instant feedback and increased collaboration also dilute the notion of authorship. People aren’t paying attention to indivdual works, and many blogs have multiple authors. The ability to distinguish an exceptional work does not exist. In the 30s, romantic comedies, as Ray suggested, struggled to embody a certain type of movie people wanted, thus their homogeneity. What happens, then, if there is not the discrete product of “a movie” and instead just streams of collaborative information?

But, you say, the authors of these blogs are distinct and discrete. Even ignoring the collaborative aspect of blogs, I don’t think this quite holds true. Blogs are not content-focused, in that the content rolls by too quickly to be lasting. (Yes, they provide content, but when it’s so subject to being missed or disorganized, the structural integrity of the content is not the focus.) But nor are they personality-focused. If Josh Marshall started writing exclusively about Andrei Tarkovsky tomorrow, he would lose much of his audience, who would nonetheless stick with Kevin Drum. Not to say that they’re the same, but they are not unique in the way that novelists are. They can be replaced.

Blogs, then, are topic-focused. (And by topic I effectively mean the definable gestalt of the blog.) Individual content matters less in a blog than sticking to a consistent topic over time. And this is where the analogy to 30s romantic comedy seems apropos; these movies too stuck to a remarkably consistent topic, and the individual variations were practically indistinct. To put it another way, it was up to the individual to distinguish what variations they preferred, because the level of homogeneity was so high. And so it is with any given blog, or even with a blog genre. The difference is that the medium makes it that much more difficult to ever separate out individual works for praise, and so the gestalt is left to stand on its own. In the 30s, people could see one movie and remember it well, whether it was good or bad. In the medium of blogs, that’s not really possible; you absorb an entire gestalt as you consume them.

This produces two diverging effects: either people get lost in the mass of repetitive, homogenous content and process what they happen to run into, or they abstract quite heavily to synthesize large amounts of data into a graspable gestalt. Sort of like reading Balzac.

To be continued…

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s–first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear. (65)

It seems like a throwaway line, but later–much later–it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void…You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.

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