Monday, May 16, 2016

A check-up, a physical, a state of the union

Nobody reads this blog. I write this blog for myself and have always done so for myself. I started blogging because I enjoyed reading other people's blogs and thought I could have fun. I'm a relatively solitary person (reading, watching, consuming) so the azygous nature of my reader, interchangeable with whoever has stumbled across this wasteland of awkward phrasing and intellectual posturing, bothers me not even slightly. Sometimes I ask my partner to read my posts because it's something I feel they might find interesting or applicable to their cultural consumption patterns or their philosophical pursuits; regrettably, my partner is a busy person and my musings into the deep dark, in terms of content comparable with the abyss that I look into, go unread. Oh well.

I find myself reading more of my earlier posts, either with my usual constant cringe as I encounter sentences with the fluidity and wit of a styrofoam cup or discovering a phrase or moment that I find half way intelligent. I keep the blog's archives as a way to keep track of the changes in my mercurial interests and my general intellectual development. What fascinated me then perhaps does not pique me now. Concurrently, the ideological maxims I subscribe to have developed or have been overturned through education and self-reflection. Over the past year, I've written mostly negative reviews of movies and books (I haven't thought about comics in a critical fashion in a long time) and I'm not sure if I want to continue doing so.

I'm writing these musings, these unfocused ramblings, as a way of assembling my ambiguous feelings about this blog. Frankly, I'm shouting into the vacuum of space, and nobody is around to hear it. Even the shape of the Internet has vastly changed since I stumbled across the notion of blogging as a pastime. No longer do RSS feeds or blogrolls occupy reading space; magazine style blogs such as or The Atlantic or Gawker have triumphed over the blog. Even the model of blogging has shifted from brief thoughts, a log, into long carefully constructed essays (such as the ones I've been doing more and more). Two of my biggest more recent pieces haven't even been published on my blog (I opted for because I'm in love with the design, UI, and UX). Blogging is a different world than when I started and my feelings about the blog are completely different.

I no longer consider the blog a viable mode of communication. An example, then: I used to upload my school essays onto the blog, but I found the traffic for these posts to be abnormally high. Since I was writing about books conventionally utilized in post-secondary classes, I deduced that lazier students were Googling the text, stumbling across my blog, and ripping ideas from me. A lot of those posts have been reverted to "draft" status so that they are no longer public (though, an Internet savvy person could probably find an archived version somewhere). All this to say that I think the blog has always been shouting into the void, but the void has increased in size immeasurably. My voice, already pitched at a whisper, has become subvocal. The blog has become entirely for me. Consider that my "Reads" every month simply catalogue the books and my impressions, without really diving into them. I use the blog as an alternative to Goodreads (which I've gone on record excoriating).

What then is the use of the blog and why do I persist in continuing? Why even write this post? I'll answer the latter and then move on the former. This post is my state of the union, if you will, an announcement of my strategy for the continued utility of the blog. Imagine this post to be an academic paper that begins with theoretical throat-clearing, clarifying the methodology and pointing out inspirations and precedents. Thus, for my purposes, this post aggregates some methodological and philosophical ideas that have been rattling about in my head.

Firstly, I continue the blog because I need to write. I read other people's prose or thinking and I feel a holistic sense of impairment, as if I could never reach the same heights. So, stubbornly, I keep writing, in the hopes that I'll improve. I'm not one for discipline; I've given up on almost every hobby I've ever had. The only practice that I have ever kept is the act of writing. I wrote fiction for years before realizing that I'm never going to be the storyteller I hope to be, and thus, I turned to nonfiction. I write essays, I write blurbs, I write reviews. Not everything I write embarrasses me, which I suppose is a victory in of itself.

I started thinking about this piece a few months ago when I stumbled across an academic's personal blog, in which he railed at "futurists" for distracting a downtrodden populace with the false promise of a technological utopia that will never come about. I found his prose stunning in its obscurity and abstruseness. Of course, his PhD supervisor was Judith Butler, another academic well known for her impenetrable prose. Reading Carrico's blog made me feel, at first, inadequate and completely disposable. Yet, the more I read of his rantings (while beautifully argued), the more I realized that he and I were incompatible in terms of prose. His blog reads almost a parody of postmodern bloviating with its esoteric jargon and purposefully labyrinthine sentences. It's obscurantism at its finest.

Rosi Braidotti, in one of her books (The Posthuman, I believe) argues that clarity is actually a tool exercised by those in power to keep people in their intellectual class. If ideas are clear and easily apprehended, then there is little impetus in striving for better, she argues. In this case, Carrico and Braidotti and Butler's prose are ideological tools, aiming for an epistemological unshackling of minds. Which, by all means, is a valuable and important project. There is a certain jouissance in finally apprehending some complex idea shrouded in even more complex prose. I distinctly remember connecting the breadcrumbs laid by a professor on the subject of Ulysses' Scylla and Charybdis section (ghosts and fathers and writing). However, this is not my style. I tend towards sentences that aren't particularly long and my language isn't entirely obfuscating, though I confess to enjoying the odd abstruse word.

Methodologically speaking, I'm having a deep crisis currently. In January, I read Linda Nagata's The Bohr Maker and I started assembling some material to write something scholarly and critical. I began with surveying all that has already been written on in academic journals and anthologies. I found, unfortunately, only two essays: one, in a peer-reviewed journal; the other, a chapter in an anthology. Both were not particularly impressive either in terms of prose or in critical perceptiveness. Each author followed the same blueprint for academic analysis that has been paradigmatic for decades.

I can't help observe that the production of literary analysis in academia has been marred by the same stagnant miasma that grips the production of culture: we, as a society, really struggle to imagine alternative and novel approaches. In other words, the semantic fields that pervade literary theory (eg. structuralism, New Historicism) are all old hat at this point. Any new critical apparatus is merely an adjunct of a previously established field. Concomitantly, the academic endeavour of peer-reviewed scholarship is functionally stagnant; the writer introduces their specific semantic field (eg. Marxism), describes the relevant specifics, introduces their specific text (eg. Jonathan Franzen's Purity), and then mechanically demonstrates with citations where the text espouses or reflects the semantic field. It's all very boring at this point. We need either a new semantic field, one not dependent on the long chain of history, or a new methodology.

In 2015, I wrote an essay on Jeanne Dielman and Deleuze, starting with some methodological throat-clearing citing David Bordwell and Seymour Chatman. Bordwell complains often about the hegemony of interpretative schools, explanatory frameworks that purport to be definitive explications of the nature of reality itself, using cultural objects as their "evidence." I disagreed with Bordwell's sentiments as I've found these semantic fields to be useful in articulating politics, social relations, or aesthetics. However, I wrote that essay in November, and here I am, in March (as of writing this sentence; I've been writing this piece for months), mostly agreeing with Bordwell—not his bitterness regarding evidentiary processes, but his exhaustion with the dominant mode of academic investigatory discourse. 

My irritation is legion in its sources. Firstly, the ivory tower of academia is often myopic and isolated from the on-the-streets labour and activism, despite having many professors with feet in different zones of thought. More personally, my frustration with these semantic fields comes not only from their ubiquity, but from my constant awareness that I am not perceptive or intelligent enough to design my own. I am not Barthes; I am not Jameson; I am not Butler; and I never will be any of these thinkers. I merely scuttle and scurry in their shadow. 

I'm begging the question of why bother continuing writing, of course, but I search within (an ongoing process) but I divine no answer yet. Am I doomed to a life of intellectual mediocrity, a life of above-average, but certainly nothing remarkable or revelatory? A more cynical thinker, probably a Baby Boomer, would cackle with glee, believing my crises vis-a-vis my intelligence to be the logical endpoint of a pedagogical system that promises every child is special, a classic case of an entitled Millennial getting their comeuppance for their hubris. Instead, I hope to see my struggle with my intelligence as a sign my ongoing process of maturity and the slow accumulation of wisdom. Perhaps my self-reflection processes are a sign of a different intelligence that I'm quietly cultivating, one more emotionally healthy than philosophically imaginative. 

After all, criticism, I believe, is about excavating the secret weapon smuggled by all art: empathy. Criticism has a multitude of functions/effects. Firstly, working out on paper (or blog) how I feel about a work of art helps me understand the work of art. Working out why I felt a certain way teaches me more about myself, allows self-reflection and thus praxis. Thirdly, reading criticism aids in understanding how others felt about a work of art, potentially putting that cultural object into a new light. And of course, finally and most importantly, attempting to understand why other thinkers had their specific affective reactions cultivates empathy. This blog then has become an organic machine with the purpose of understanding, empathizing. I consume cultural objects; I cogitate on them; I read other people's thoughts; I endeavour to unpack my own feelings about an object. Sometimes this means taking up a critical lens, a semantic field, and other times, I reflect and contextualize my own experience with regards to the cultural object. Despite my frustration with the rigid paradigm of academia, I can't completely disregard the usefulness of these explanatory frameworks. 

So thus, my state of the union: I will labour at my prose, at my thinking, at praxis. I will labour at cultural objects because they give me pleasure, because thinking and writing give me pleasure. It seems a funny thing to write almost 2,000 words that amount to "I like watching movies," but I thought it necessary to clear my throat and remind myself why I continue bleating on about art. It's probably fallacious to conclude that art without an audience isn't art or a dialogue with only one interlocutor is not dialogue. Instead, it's the realm of the mind, labouring diligently. At least, that's what I'm going for. I can't say without a doubt the critic's voice that I hope to one day possess. My strategies will take me where they will, or perhaps, the reverse in that where I go might dictate the necessary strategies. I at least now I will keep plugging away. 


Marc said...

Ebert was a personal hero of mine, and I will always treasure having had the chance to meet him in his final years. Having recently started his blog, he had just posted about whether he should continue. He wasn't sure what impact, if any, the blog was having and whether people cared to read his thoughts outside of movie reviews. Shaking his hand, I assured him that many of us loved his blog and that I hoped he would continue. His eyes lit up and, having recently lost the ability to speak (this was his first book signing since having throat surgery), he gave the table an enthusiastic thump.

I sometimes wonder what form Ebert's blogging might have taken had he lived past 2013. The world of blogging has changed so much since then, and even more so since people like you and me (and Ebert) started. (My current blog, which I started in 2010, was hardly my first.) Like you've said, gone are the RSS feeds and blogrolls; people read longer (and/or more intellectually driven) articles when they appear on glossy mainstream websites, and for everything else they prefer YouTube.

In 2017, as your post attests, this can make maintaining a personal blog something of a soul-wrenching endeavor. My blogging is driven first and foremost, like yours, by the impulse to think, to analyze, to intellectualize. I've blogged more sparsely over the last few years than I did previously, in part because I believed I could exorcise my thoughts about art through discussion with others and, sometimes, through the very act of thinking alone. But I've come to recognize the act of writing as both more illuminating and self-fulfilling than I'd previously thought. I love writing, and I take great pride in stumbling across older pieces and, as you put it, "discovering a phrase or moment that I find half way intelligent."

But I also desire, as Ebert evinced in his self-questioning blog post (and in his personal reaction to my comment), social and intellectual engagement -- because almost as much as I enjoy digging to the core of my own thoughts about art, I enjoy discussing art with others who are just as intellectually motivated. I'll confess that I'm not sure I've ever fully gotten that from blogging, or from anything outside of deep conversations with close friends. But I think in blogging I've always been driven by the utopian impulse that, by putting my thoughts into the world, I might stimulate others' thoughts and grow from theirs as well -- or, failing that, that I might at least leave behind a corpus of writing that could one day be accessed to similar effect.

It's sometimes hard to believe in those possibilities with numbers like these, though. There was a time when my blog posts generated a couple hundred views within minutes of being posted; now I'm lucky to to get numbers half that size within a month. The real question, I suppose, is whether my utopian ideal for blogging is simply outdated and in need of adjustment in these changing times -- or was it always a pipe dream? Do I keep plugging away at my blog, hoping that my attempts at driving traffic via images, SEO, and good writing will someday pay off? Or do I attempt to innovate some new way of reaching audiences (perhaps collaboratively, with others) -- and how? Innovating new intellectual frameworks, like you say, is hard. (And as someone who works in peer-reviewed academic publishing, I agree with your thoughts on the stagnation of that field for more reasons than I could reasonably put to page here.)

Anyway, I very much appreciated this post and regret not having seen it much sooner. Have your thoughts on these issues changed at all in the year since it was written? Looking at a few of your more recent posts, it seems like you still grapple with at least some of them. I'm still somewhat in the woods here, and would welcome your thoughts.

matthew. said...

Wow Marc, thanks so much for your wonderful comment! Ebert was also a hero for me and I'm quite jealous you had the opportunity to affect him so positively! There's little I can add to your comment, but to say thank you for the thoughtfulness.