Monday, November 13, 2006

Romancing the Blog

I know that our next exercise for Blogging class was to reflect upon our relationship to information--I'll get to that, I swear, 'cause God knows I love to navel-gaze and I'm very, very excited to address this--but leaving class tonight, Spazeboy's comment about changing his blog's icon to Fabio made me vastly concerned that people had misunderstood my parallel of the blog phenomenon with Romanticism and Sentimentalism. Here: let's set the record straight by acknowledging that a) I was making reference to the Romantic literary movement, not waxing nostalgic about candelight dinners, men with rippling pecs and long hair, and lacy underthings; b)I rather deplore Romanticism and the tendency of its canonical writers to heedlessly careen into self-righteous emotional hedonism; c) I'm a huge proponent of precisely the kind of detached, critically processed and reflective Enlightenment thought Sara was saying she turned to BBC news to obtain. With that said...

What I was trying to articulate in class is that the Blogging movement seems to be doing for communication, writing, and perhaps eventually the literature of our generation something similar to what the European Romantic movement did in the middle of the 18th century. Emphasis that had been traditionally placed upon Englightenment processes (such processes being the value for carefully vetted ideas constructed with a keen eye toward objectivity, attention to societal expectations and norms, and the practice of approaching all literary production, acts of authorship and thought with a critical lens) is now being shifted to the highlight the individual's unique perception, feelings, and experience.

In the Eighteenth century, critical essayists like Johnson, Addison, and Dryden championed a disinterested, detached, intensely objective and philosophical approach toward cultural productions with emphasis upon presenting only the general--the "just representations of general human nature" (see Samuel Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare for more on this). However, with the influence of the French Revolution and the general populace growing weary of this dry, removed manner of experiencing the world, first Sentimentalism, then Romanticism came to the forefront as alternatives to (even replacements for) Enlightenment thought. The traditionally venerated emphasis upon the general and the respect for the critical lens was placed instead upon individual experience and peculiarities of each human man and his feeling. This shift in attitude is evinced even in literary subject--novels like Fielding's Tom Jones and Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling along with myriad sentimental poems swirled around the particular experiences and good feelings of the common man.

Sentimentalism (a predecessor of Romanticism) has its roots in an aspect of Lockean philosophy that maintains a belief in the "natural sociability of humankind and the importance of impulsive, spontaneous sensibility."* This meant that these new literary trends placed all of their trust in the basic goodness and innate desire to do right, be right, and act in a righteous and socially sensitive manner possessed by every individual.

So what does this have to do with blogging?

Well, with the quickly ascending visibility of and import placed upon blogs, a shift in the ways in which we expect our information to come to us is occurring. The authority to be an information sorter is being removed from the hands of the bureaucratic "many" that may find, revise, editorially review and decide upon what is shareable and what is not, and placed instead into the grubby, work-worn paws of the common man. This means that the value placed upon the detached and far-seeing critical lens that we've long hoped and expected our mainstream media would utilize is perhaps in the very early stages of being replaced by trust in the instincts of the individual to differentiate between what information is right, what is good, what is acceptable and worthy of dissemination. With blogs having such a low entry barrier and being so personal in nature, oftentimes without any sort of higher authority or censorship, the individual blogger is given Most Supreme Executive Power.

That the ways in which we vet and present our information may be changing in this manner is at once elating and, quite frankly, terrifying--maybe even dangerous. With so much trust in the basic goodness--even the basic intellect--of the common man, we have to wonder: is the common man basically good and is each man intellectually and morally capable of distinguishing "good" from "bad" information? This brings us to a basic Lockean and Hobbesian debate--is man basically good, or basically bad? Can we trust individual bloggers' ethics without a system of governance that will sound their moral core and decide for us whether or not they've got moral fiber of teflon or of cheese cloth?

Ultimately, it becomes a question of whether, (should this trend develop and manifest itself in the same ways Sentimentalism and Romanticism did--and I know that's a reach, and maybe I'm totally off my rocker--fine), we as untrained individuals really have a grasp of how to read with a critical lens and how to write with a nod toward social responsibility. The prescription for behavior that Locke intended with the above statement attributed to partially birthing the Sentimental movement presumed that individuals, though acting upon their own naturally good feelings and urges, naturally possess a critical enough eye to make choices that are sound for society as well as for themselves. In the case of bloggers, this would mean each blogger maintaining an internal code of ethics that force him to ask before posting something inflammatory or polemical whether the information he is about to share is something he's propagating in good faith with clean motives and whether it might serve society in some manner, or if it is in fact something he may be presenting out of carelessness or self-interest. I'm not sure that we're ready to self govern this way, but I'm excited to see if we can try.

(This quasi-philosophical rant brought to you by Caitlin's thesis).

*Quote taken directly from page 1 of the book Framing Feeling by the brilliant Trinity professor, Barbara Benedict (who is also my idol).


s p a z e b o y said...


I didn't misunderstand you, I just went for a cheap laugh--but I'm fascinated by what you've written here.

slothsinabox said...

Haha. Okay, Spazeboy. :) I suppose I took that too seriously. It was funny--just I was worried that some members of the class perceived me to be making references to Harlequin romance novels and Danielle Steele bodice-rippers (grin).

By the by--I'm still not certain about the etiquette of comment conversations, so I'm posting this to both my blog and yours.

Anyhow, thanks for reading! Thanks for being fascinated! I love when my status as an esoteric and cripplingly analytical English Lit major is well received.

Stay gangsta. ;)

turfgrrl said...

Despite Spazeboy's joke, I think most of us got what you were saying, although it would be post modernist to think of Fabio contemplating his navel alone in a cabin at Walden pond. What is cool about blogs, and by extension the Internet is that people are reading and writing and communicating, and questioning which reminds me of the Voltaire, Rousseau, and Paine, at the exclusion of so many more. But its Paine that I at least see as in part of the blog movement. Pamphlets and Blogs have much in similarity when you take the technology out of the distribution.

Aldon Hynes said...

I would encourage you to check out my long blog post on this at Greater Democracy

slothsinabox said...

turfgrrl---GREAT analogy! You're in so many way so very RIGHT about the likenesses between pamphleteering and blogging. Perhaps, then, the "Neo-romantic" (thanks Aldon) movement I've been espousing is really a hybrid species?

I would say, however, that an important distinction is this:

Often, thinkers such as you've cited had person-to-person contact with one another (I think), and discussed their theories face to face in the very early stages of their philosophizing. In doing so, in thoroughly chewing on issues and ideas BEFORE they were published, other parties might weigh in and temper personal theories.

Blogging is a little more immediate. Now, this isn't to say that bloggers don't talk to other smart people before they write, but I think you'll find that they're more likely to shoot off-the-cuff ideas into space than any 18th (or 17th) century thinker would've been. Thanks to blogs we can publish our instantenous thoughts instantaneously, without vetting, without discussion--so that INITIAL discussion--that pre-writing exercise--in which the likes of Rousseau and his contemporaries might have engaged, is saved indelibly (though perhaps packed into the annals of the cyberworld) whether or not it's biased, racist, incriminating or plain dumb. I'm sure discussions the Thinkers had behind closed doors were incendiary and controversial--the difference was they were (partially) undocumentable occurrences. That initial discussion phase existing being extant in print because of blogs changes all that.

So I guess what I'm saying is that, ultimately, I think your point is fantastic, but I still hold that blogging bears more similarities to a Romantic exercise as it puts trust in the hands of the individual and his good thought even before an initial vetting conversation of intellectual equals is begun.

Oh man. I think I just talked myself in a circle. I need to think about this a little more--another post to come when I'm not working on my thesis!

Also--thanks for your links and the shout, Aldon. You've got some really valuable stuff to say, too, to which I'd like to respond ASAP.

spazeboy said...

I must be brief, but I'd argue that the comparison to pamphleteers is apt. Due to their being little or no barrier for publishing in the digital age, I'd say that the "pre-publication" discussions amongst pamphleteers now takes place online.

If what I write is good, my fellow "pamphleteers" will swipe it, link to it, and/or otherwise promote it. If it isn't, my ideas die a lonely death in cyberspace. This presumes that I've established myself with other bloggers (which I have) in order for them to know I'm part of the discussion.

Though I'm not paid to think, I am eternally grateful to you for starting this discussion.

Back to cheap laughs for me. :)

brenda said...

So, if I understand you right, blogs are thoughts not weighed down by the formal process of thinking.. Just kidding, excellent analogy.

turfgrrl said...

Blogging may seem more extemporaneous than it actually is. Let's take our romantic/existentialist/enlightenment/great awakening types and send them off with a blog and we'd get roughly what we have now; forests of blogs with no discernable hierarchical organization. They talked to each other perhaps because talk was cheap, quill to parchment was not. The stuff we read from the past is the "best-of" series. We don't know about the "rest of" what was written because time helped bury the half thought out writings.

In looking at modern times, the Internet, or rather computers, save everything and make the distribution of thoughts and ideas economical. So on the surface, since there is no cost, there is no natural self selection of the “final” thought. But over time, even looking back as short as 20 years ago, all those words are being vetted. What was written on line, in BBS and forums and Usenet groups, while still stored somewhere, has begun to be weeded, the best gets linked to and mirrored and essentially redistributed. In 100 or so years, will we have a classification, “the bloggists”? I don’t know. But sometimes the not so best gets wide distribution too, a look at will remind you that Congress has been shutting down Sesame Street for decades now.

As I was thinking about the Romanticists, it occurred to me that one thing that has struck me about blogging has been the cult of the individual over the cult of the idea. It seems, and this is purely anecdotal on my part, that the recent surge in political blogging has been this good v. evil, personality coverage. The Romanticists, yes, empowered the individual, but it was the idea that was their currency. At least this is my half formulated thought on that.