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.