by Brian on April 17, 2004

As if there’s any other kind.

There’s been a ton of blog commentary on this piece by Camille Paglia, which seems somewhat overrated to me, for much the reasons Mark Liberman gives. But, as Nicole Wyatt notes, it raises an interesting question about what we’re doing when we’re blogging.

Many more such questions are raised by Geoff Nunberg’s nice FreshAir piece on Blogging – The Global Lunchroom. Geoff notes how cliquey the language bloggers use can be.

The high, formal style of the newspaper op-ed page may be nobody’s native language, but at least it’s a neutral voice that doesn’t privilege the speech of any particular group or class. Whereas blogspeak is basically an adaptation of the table talk of the urban middle class—it isn’t a language that everybody in the cafeteria is equally adept at speaking.

Now Geoff’s piece isn’t perfect. I’d think any list of “A-list bloggers” that includes Matthew Yglesias should include us, or at least some lefty academic like Brad DeLong. (Only kidding Matt :)) And Wonkette is hardly the definition of anonymity. But I think his main threads are right.

Geoff worries that his style is more appropriate for op-eds or public radio pieces than for blogging, which requires a more informal style. But I’m not sure how much informality a blogpost needs, or even wants. If you just chat for any length of time, it can be rather hard to make sustained arguments, or even keep making sense. The problem, for those of us whose blogposts occasionally ramble on a bit, is that there’s no such thing as colloquial monologue style. If the archtype bloggers sound more informal, that’s probably because they are just throwing around links with a paragraph or two of commentary.

(By the way, I don’t think being digressive is necessarily key to this kind of blog writing. My blogposts are as digressive as a drunken storyteller, especially when there’s a Sox game about to start that I can implausibly segue into, but I don’t think it helps at all look like the style Geoff is looking for.)

But I think his point about bloggers’ language, and how cliquey it is, seems right. We often get complaints at CT about how inaccessible some of the stuff we write here is. (OK, that I write.) But it’s easy to forget how much everyone’s use of language is formed by their group, and not easy to read outside it. For that matter, it’s easy to forget how quickly blog hierachies formed, and how stable they’ve been over the (admittedly short) history of blogs. (On this, see Matthew Yglesias and Angry Bear.) Geoff’s analogy to the lunchtime chatter in a high-school cafeteria seems basically right. (Or at least I think it’s right – but we didn’t have lunchtables at school since lunchtime is meant to be spent outside so I’m going on TV stereotypes about what school lunchrooms are like.)

As I said, Paglia raises one interesting question about blogs.

The computer, with its multiplying forums for spontaneous free expression from e-mail to listservs and blogs, has increased facility and fluency of language but degraded sensitivity to the individual word and reduced respect for organized argument, the process of deductive reasoning.

Is this really correct? Given the inaccuracies elsewhere in Paglia’s piece, the inductive evidence is not stunning. Here’s Nicole Wyatt’s answer.

It strikes me that blogging about philosophy can be a technological variation of some old standbys in philosophy—sitting around the [department/bar/pool hall/colleague’s house] trying out positions and arguments, and getting drunk at conferences and trying to explain your [book/latest paper/PhD thesis] to an equally drunk colleague. That is, its a few steps before circulation of manuscripts and discussion in formal reading groups on the generation process. Of course, philosophy blogs may well be other things as well—social commentary, personal indulgencies (like this one), or a forum for real work more like manuscript circulation.

These points all sound correct. Blogs can be anything at all. One of my blogs just is forum for manuscript circulation. My personal blog is more like the barroom conversation. At CT I try and keep the quality up to at least the conversation in departmental lounge standard. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily higher quality than the barroom conversation – in fact the average quality is about the same – but the variance is pretty dramatically reduced.

But in none of these forums is respect for deductive argument reduced. The lower the standard of the discourse, the more likely I am to start pointing out things like conclusions not following strictly from premises. That’s just because in real life conclusions almost never follow strictly from premises. Real discourse is shot through with inductive and/or enthymemetic arguments. It’s basically impolite, not to mention counterproductive, to always be pointing these out. Which is why it’s the kind of thing I do when the conversational standards start to sag. (There’s an exception in cases where the hidden premises are probably false, then it’s not necessarily rude to point out the flaw, though of course the pointing out may be rude.)

If anything, blogs increase the respect for imagination and new ideas. If we (meaning in this case people with my interests and language) all share a departmental lounge, or barroom, then new ideas can be put into the public space so much more quickly now than they could before. You don’t need to a lit survey, for instance, before saying something to the public. That doesn’t indicate a disrespect for deduction, but it does increase the role for imagination and spontaneity at the cost, I guess, of some role for scholarship.



Ghost of a flea 04.17.04 at 6:48 pm

“The high, formal style of the newspaper op-ed page may be nobody’s native language, but at least it’s a neutral voice that doesn’t privilege the speech of any particular group or class.”

Excuse me, but the first part of that sentence is rather in disagreement with the second part. “High” and “formal” language is explicitly the privilege of elite groups. Raymond Williams on culture industries anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (Thought I should throw an urban middle class in-joke there.)


Ikram 04.17.04 at 7:29 pm

Persianblogger Doostart wrote a paper on this same topic, entitled “The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging”
On language, culture, and power in Persian Weblogestan
. It is an especially interesting debate in the Persian context, which I think has a better defined high-culture than English does.

Here is an excerpt from the paper

“the controversy surrounded both the need to observe standard orthography and grammar, and the choice of writing in formal or colloquial Persian (see Appendix A for some differences between the formal and informal modes of the language). Some, including Shokrollahi, maintained that orthographic standards must be observed even when writing in a “broken” (shekasteh) conversational style, while others countered that it was completely logical for one to write in exactly the same way one thought, even if that meant disregarding the standards.”


Keith 04.17.04 at 7:59 pm

My blogposts tend to be informal in tone but then, so does my writing in general. I’m trying to break into the fiction publishing world, so my tone is generally anecdotal (as all the best fiction is). From time to time, I post a slightly more formal essay, but rarely do I indulge in the rhetorical feats of punditry and academic twaddle that I could. And I think that this more anecdotal form of narrative structure is what makes blogs so accessible: because they are easy to read. No one wants to bash their brain out, trying to puzzle over rhetorical gymnastics. If Joyce were alive today, I doubt he’d be a blogger (though it’d be amusing to read if he were). That blogs undermine the dry formalism of the op-ed page is a matter that concerns only the editors of said pages. I say, let them eat anecdotes.


msg 04.17.04 at 8:09 pm

As far as “the respect for imagination and new ideas” there’s the funnies/Arts&Living sections.
Trivialized just like they are in the real world of print journalism. Necessary to sell papers, when everybody knows the most important stuff’s on the op-ed and front pages.
But boing-boing is advancing the interface, gadget and memewise, and if your response is that that’s tangential mostly, I’d point out that blogs are a meme resting on a gadget.
Something that is solidly present in every essay I’ve read on all this is the neglect of the visual blogs.
plep, and conscientious, gmtplus9 and vigna-maru, and a cast of dozens more, all with a primary focus on the aesthetic side of life. The imagination. Where new ideas first appear. Later to be commented on in rational text.

Which affords me a segue into a growing conviction, that what we’ve been trained to think of as “entertainment” is in fact something that is a vital and absolutely necessary part of human social living.
Music is not some take-it-or-leave-it commodity. That’s an illusion. It’s essential. We need it, and suffer without it.
And especially when it comes to stories and children – it’s not about entertainment.
Children need stories, for lots of reasons; stories are as necessary to their development as exercise and rest.
It’s telling that the sources for popular children’s stories are in the hands of corporate media entirely.

My brief point would be, journalists rank blogs by journalists’ standards, and there’s such a profusion of them to be ranked that that’s about as far as it goes.
There are art blogs.
Imagination and new ideas enter the collective mind through art.


Joerg 04.17.04 at 11:34 pm

What strikes me in these debates is how most people who write about blogs in newspapers and/or magazines acknowledge that blogs are somehow important and then, they come up with all kinds of reasons why blogs are not real journalism. It’s like people sitting in some club debating why some other people can’t be in that club. Thing is most bloggers don’t even want to belong to that club.

And that statement about op-eds is simply too absurd to comment on it. To claim that pieces by William Safire, David Brooks, or Paul Krugman aren’t written for and by a very specific class is really just very absurd.


Ophelia Benson 04.18.04 at 1:29 am

“Geoff worries that his style is more appropriate for op-eds or public radio pieces than for blogging, which requires a more informal style. But I’m not sure how much informality a blogpost needs, or even wants.”


I had my mouth open (figuratively speaking) all set to say ‘Nonsense! (in my usual tentative way), blogs don’t require a more informal style.’ But then I realized that I do in fact write in a more informal style on B&W’s semi-blog thing than I do anywhere else – and I closed my mouth again, feeling foolish.

Just for one thing, I use the first person singular pronoun there and I never do anywhere else. And just for another thing I will occasionally mention some bit of personal gossip or anecdotage, which I also never do anywhere else.

So – um – do I have a point? No, I guess not.


Erik 04.18.04 at 2:51 am

If Joyce were alive today, I doubt he’d be a blogger (though it’d be amusing to read if he were).

I’m not sure. I think Joyce would have been fascinated by the form, finding hyperlinks for every word he typed, or even recruiting a like-minded techie to develop some sort of menu-driven multi-hyperlinking. He might have given it a go.

At the very least he would have adored Belle de Jour, but who doesn’t?


bob mcmanus 04.18.04 at 3:24 am


Hypermedia Joyce Studies


Brian Weatherson 04.18.04 at 5:01 am

If Joyce were alive today, I doubt he’d be a blogger (though it’d be amusing to read if he were).

I thought the Works in Progress that turned into Finnegans Wake weren’t a million miles from what you can do with a blog. Joyce might not have wanted to put them on a public blog, but I think he did at least actively distribute them amongst his friends, so maybe there’s a parallel there.

Of course no one but me seems to think it’s OK to cut-and-paste blog entries together and call the result a serious piece of writing. But I don’t think many of Joyce’s friends were thrilled at the various Work in Progress snippets he sent them being made into a book either. (This is not to as much as hint in a whisper that my output is within a dozen orders of magnitude of Joyce’s in quality, just an observation about process.)


msg 04.18.04 at 7:10 am

If Joyce were alive today he probably wouldn’t be your* idea of a blogger.
Joyce would have had a presence, I think, if he wasn’t a starving author before the web unfolded.
Because the people who are trying to market their words in a print modality can’t seem to find too many avenues here. As a springboard maybe. But it’s hobby time for most.

There’s a solidity to the artifacts books are, that makes them more serious than the same words delivered in pixels, at least to someone like me whose life has had mostly books in it.
The trouble with that kind of generalization is the kids coming up – to whom the digital page is probably seeming more alive than the printed is – because that’s not all that’s shaping them.
Their attention spans are being calibrated and catered to by mechanics whose own attention spans were shaped by the rapidity of information exposition in the commercial messages injected into the 4 or 5 program breaks of half-hour TV shows. Or the condensed and compressed information in magazine ads. Or the radio DJ’s with the speed slider up three ticks to compress a 75 second spot down to inside a minute.
So it won’t be digital books in exchange for print.
It’ll be all that in exchange for all this.
A group mind with an exponentially faster synaptic response time, and that much more to worry about as well.
Depending on the suppositional Joyce’s birth year, his participation in what this is would be anything from minimal to central.
Just like the rest of us.

*Or mine either if I had one.


bob mcmanus 04.18.04 at 7:15 am

I am reminded of the knock on the door, Joyce saying “Come in”, and telling Beckett, who inadvertently transcribed it, to keep it in. I would like to see more real time blogging.
Prof Weatherson cut-and-paste technique of course reminds me of later Burroughs.
If there is much experimental or adventurous blogging going on out there, I wish someone would direct me to it.


Simon Kinahan 04.18.04 at 12:19 pm

Anyone who thinks the language of the newspaper op-ed page is “a language that everybody in the cafeteria is equally adept at speaking” does not spend very much time with people who are not members of the urban middle class. Blogs have developed their own cliquey language, but mainly for things that did not exist before the techology made them possible (eg. the verb “to fisk”). In the main content, they only too similar to newspaper editorials.

Also, there are a great many styles of spoken informal monologue, from the after-dinner speech to the knowledgeable individual holding forth over lunch.


msg 04.18.04 at 9:09 pm

Simon K.-
Thanks for clarifying something for me. It’s that “fisking” thing.
There’s a stratum of the blog parfait in which that term has currency, and to a lot of people who write and read them, those blogs make up what blogs are. Atrios being one of the stars of that realm.
But there’s tons of people out there doing things, writing and posting things, that have never heard it.
Few people have the time to just randomly search through the web’s billions of pages. Most begin with a specific goal and encounter linked sites along the way, affinity and proximity causing the linkage.
There are lots of people in Brazil blogging in Portugese.
Danish. Italian. And Japan whew.
I’m stressing this because it took me awhile to get hold of it myself – it’s too big to talk about. What this is. Accurately anyway.
It’s planetary. The control freaks among us seek desperately for something to hinge their generalizations on, so they can make signifying statements and appear to dig, but they can’t do it with any validity.
Remember way back last year when the idea of dissing information because it was found on the net sort of faded away?
The room is in the elephant.

Bob McManus- I’m not a consultant, but if you narrow your categories a little maybe I can point you toward something or other…


bob mcmanus 04.18.04 at 10:01 pm

Actually scares me, msg. It is a huge blog world out there, and I assume a lot of strange dog just came in licked my hand left stuff is going on Harper is wrong about Maverick defense out there.
….example included
Blogs written in iambic pentameter; in three simultaneous languages; baseball gossip in nothing but haiku; blogs consisting of sentences constructed entirely of hyperlinks;unreadable, exasperating,incomprehensible,challenging,excitinguse of language
Blogs seem to be limited to the essay, the catalogue,journalistic/academic styles
Re:reincarnated bloggers. Gracian and Nietzsche would be great bloggers. Would love to see a blog dedicated to epigrammatic posts.

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