Monthly Archives: February 2002

28 February 2002

Is brevity the soul of blogging?

David Weinberger (whoops, I mean, “David Weinberger, that cretin”) said in three words what I was trying to say in three thousand: “flames anodize cliques.” Yup. Of course, over at Wealth Bondage, we may observe how a slow, steady heat can sometimes melt away folly, and likewise how rapid immersion in boiling invective can occasionally purge ideological opacity.

Which brings me to another point (when will he stop?): some of the criticism in the aftermath of l’affaire Dvorak fingered Rageboy for his floridly profane instructions to JD. Both RB and My Happy Tutor draw from a semantic domain that those of us in the theology biz typically avoid (in public), for a variety of reasons. But even one so cautious of speech as I realizes that there’s a difference between RageBoy deliberately advising Mr. Dvorak to put tab A into slot B (not his words) and (let us take for example) Jody Slufnak saying to a high-school classmate, “Exhale heartily in my direction, practitioner of intergenerational incest!” (once again, not in quite those terms). There are flying mallets and flying mallets, and some are subtle, and others are just, well, flying mallets. May we feel free to criticize RB’s tactics and diction without implying that he and my hypothetical Jody operate at the same pitch of sophistication?

Help me with this ( 8:00 AM )

Cinnamon’s correspondence with Dave Rogers perpetuates the ideologeme that won’t go away — that somehow it’s wrong for people to talk with, write with, hang out with people with whom they like to spend time. She deploys the hot-word clique and worries that non-bloggers might become “quickly disenchanted by the other offerings targeted to the ‘in-crowd.’ ”

Somewhere someone got the odd idea that it’s wrong for people with similar interests to hang out together — “Oooh, it’s a clique.” This, from the same culture that has made Seinfeld and Friends two of the longest-running, highest-rated sitcoms in TV history.

I mean no offense to Cinnamon, with whom I have no complaint. But I’ve been on the outside of almost anything that could be counted as a clique all my life, except perhaps for a circle of intensely brilliant theologian friends, among whom I’m certifiably (as the Apostle said) the least of many brethren. So I understand the feeling of being left out. But, what else should be the case? If the Baltimore Orioles never included me on their roster to play second base, do I have a grievance? If no pick-up band ever recruited my thundering baritone and my fumbling bass guitar, should they have been obligated to, lest I call them a clique? If I have to listen to everyone who makes any claim on my notice, all that’ll happen is that I’ll retire from the unbounded domain of mandatory attention (hence, boredom leavened with occasional interest), to someplace I may listen to and talk with those whose discourse pleases and edifies me. If that’s a small group of people, I can live with that.

27 February 2002

Turn and face the strange changes….

Don’t want to be a richer man
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time….
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it

Dotting “i”s….

Okay, the smarter-than-me gang have thrown some exquisitely heavy-duty ideas out, and now I’ll play kickball with them for a few minutes. I’m speaking here of Mike, Tom, Steve, new-to-me acquaintance Jonathan Delacour (here and here) and probably several other people whom I’ll hyperidentify en route. I should appreciatively acknowledge that some of the energy behind this engine of inquiry and exposition derives from the kindness of John Dvorak, intellectual hero of all who know anything about PCs, blogging, critical thought, making oatmeal, rhetoric, brain surgery, and how to alleviate third world debt. John gently instigated a renewed round of metablogging, from which he stands to learn nothing, but which demonstrates his generosity to us who are less universally insightful, who will enjoy ourselves romping in the fields his vast mind has opened up for us. (My thanks to the Happy Tutor for reminding me of how very much we should be thankful to John.)

But back to the subject. The “i”s I want to dot (digression: has anyone figured out a good solution for punctuating the possessives of letters-used-as-letters? I’d look it up, but I’m already one digression away from my main theme and I can’t risk a double digression, lest I never finish this blog and get back to work) involve online personae, communities, why one blogs, and whether one ought to be critical of other bloggers.

First, we should enter the discussion with some sensitivity to the problem of criticism in the contemporary culture that many of us inhabit. “Criticism” as a phenomenon is not widely practiced, only slightly more widely understood, appreciated slightly more than that, and attempted less often than one would think. Instead of criticism, which requires some sort of analysis, engagement, evaluation, humility, and intellectual energy, we more typically encounter feel-good mutual support (on one hand) or flame wars (on the other). Both of these are vastly easier than the more demanding practice of criticism, so everyone can play. Both of these express regular human impulses (sticking up for one’s friends, or kicking one’s adversaries, about which I know since I’ve impulsively engaged in it recently). Neither of these advances anyone’s understanding of anything–they just reinforce boundaries and gratify impulses that may derive some of their irresistible power from hormonal secretions.

So if “criticism” in general is unusual in our real-world and hyperlinked lives, we ought not to expect it magically to grow up abundantly at any specific juncture of personae, especially not as profoundly underdetermined a juncture as, for instance, blogging.

We likewise ought not be surprised if people can’t recognize criticism if they see it. For someone who inhabits a world driven by the evil twin impulses of sycophancy and capricious misanthropy, any praise or blame will necessarily fall into the categories of servility or the automatic gainsaying of of any statement the other person makes. If I compliment Marek, it can only be because I am a bootlicker; if I call something David Weinberger says into question, it can only be because I (like all other Cluetrain skeptics) am a right guy and DW is an ass.

Now the matter of how to conduct criticism, especially deprecatory criticism, is not my strong suit. I know someone who will happily teach you.

I do care, though, about reasoning with regard to how communities communicate, how they write one another into existence, and what kind of community grows from what kinds of mutual production of selves. Here Mike Sanders’ use of the “neighborhood” metaphor, resonant with not only geographical but also ethical overtones, works particularly well. I don’t care to be part of a war on Dvorak. John irritated me when I first read the column, but reflection on just what he wrote helped relax me into a soberer frame of mind. I am very interested, however, in reflecting on the ways that we, projecting and composing our own identities while we shape, deflect, attract, fine-tune our friends and neighbors’ identities, form non-exclusive constellations of sympathies and interests. And here, by “non-exclusive,” we should observe that the constellations aren’t exclusive of new participants (practically every day I read at least one new blog, and practically every day one of the blogs I read daily cites a new acquaintance) and that they aren’t mutually exclusive (if I hang around with the ImPRoPritieS gang, that doesn’t prevent me from spending time at Tom Tomorrow’s place, or at Sacra Doctrina. And if blogrolls tend to overlap and reinforce one another, they also diverge markedly, giving us the opportunity to meet others whose interests strongly overlap with ours (I’m going to go meet Shelley Powers this afternoon, on the strength of Mike Sanders’ introduction), or diverge markedly (by picking an interesting-looking name out of a blogroll of unfamiliar sites at a blog one doesn’t usually frequent). Permalink -Main Page-
( 10:33 AM )

. . . and Connecting the Dots

Which leads me to a connection that Tom Matrullo may have made explicit somewhere, but which lurks in the interstices of a whole buncha stuff he and Dave Rogers have been posting lately. It occurs to me that there’s a connection between the once-upon-a time when we used to stand around the piano and sing (in four-part harmony) for ourselves, and the copyright blogthread, and the “why we blog” topos which I had hitherto successfully side-stepped, and the Dvorak brouhaha.

Bear with me on this: think of the transition from singing along with friends and relations, to the time when we think, “Why should I listen to myself sing? Why not just put Workers’ Playtime on and listen to Billy Bragg?” We gave up on the uneven pleasure of our own voices in favor of the predictable excellence (and otherwise) of recorded musicians. Likewise we have tended to write less and less, less and less well, in favor of letting the really good writers, the published writers, occupy center stage. (But recall the deeply moving letters sent home from past wars; how many comparable letters have been sent from Iraq and Afghanistan?) With blogging, we are learning to reclaim our own voices in a public arena; our PowerBooks are our instruments, and we’re sitting around some virtual parlor learning to make harmony (our drown one another out).

And this is profoundly unsettling to those who benefit from restricting public performance of writing (or singing) to the few authorized voices that Someone Else has decided to anoint as the Voices Who Count. If, for instance, we had no prior notion of selling recorded performances (as the principal means by which musicians earned their livings), we would see in a split second that by making recordings freely available on the Web, musicians could meet their audience and popularize the appearances for which they could ask to be paid. (See what John Perry Barlow observes about the Dead, viral marketing, and making money.) That would, of course, eliminate a lot of high-paying jobs in the music industry (although what the RIAA types don’t see is that it would create a whole new cadre of jobs in different sectors; capitalism is that labile).

Now, apply this line of thinking to print media. If one can read more interesting, more sophisticated, friendlier and more respectful prose for free around the virtual coffee table at David Weinberger’s, or Mike Golby’s, or Jeneane Sessum’s place, why would you shell out whatever it is these days ($6 or so?) to read an Authorize Voice pontificate?

So it’s understandable that shrill voices might be heard when some people, perhaps associated with the Cluetrain Manifesto, question the necessity of the sorts of interaction that put bread on the table for the intellectual rustbelt. And with Shelley and Tom and Dave and all, the rest of us can keeping writing one another into copyright-free harmony, and we can criticize one another, and encourage one another, and printa donna journalists can find criticism and encouragement at the level of insight that’s comfortable for them.

26 February 2002

Who would have thought?

I have to admit that this weekend is my worst fears come back to haunt me. After recently escaping the nightmarish toils of academic debt myself, I now have to begin filling out my son’s Financial Aid Forms. The whole experience tends to jaundice my view of the U.S. commitment to higher education; can you think of a much more effective disincentive to college and graduate degrees than, “You will be in debt for the rest of your natural life…”?


Now we see both where John Dvorak draws his base of support and what’s irksome about the Cluetrain conspiracy.

25 February 2002

Psychic Blog

Okay, so here’s the answer to Mike Golby’s puzzlement (1, 2) over what I was on about last week (1, 2, 3), when I was wondering whether “community” and “friendship” and blogging don’t run afoul of problems relative to ingrown, exclusive self-congratulation club: I could tell that someone was about to launch a loud public outcry over whether blogs amount to little more than online mutual-appreciation societies. The author writes, “In fact the brown-nosing that goes on between bloggers singing each others’ praises makes the worst office kiss-ups look tame by comparison”; he intimates that (as I suggested in referring to Wallace Stegner) that we only like those who like us, we cozy up to people who flatter us.

I’ve already reflected more than enough about this, but I’ll add a flat-out contradiction to the author’s flaming rhetoric. In the neighborhoods I frequent, bloggers are constantly criticizing each other and arguing with one another. Unfortunately, they do so politely and appreciatively — perhaps to please the dubious wider public we ought to insult one another, offer superficial and uncharitable readings of others’ blogs, and try to gin up publicity for ourselves by casually attacking our interlocutors on inarticulate grounds. If we were all more like that, then perhaps John Dvorak would like blogging.

24 February 2002

The Return of Authenticity

You thought the blogthread was dead, but when you went to the basement alone and opened that cobwebby closet door — egad! it lives!

Friday, the Rev. Lane Hensley (a Seabury alumnus who survived at least one class with me) leaned over to me at chapel and whispered, “I’ve been reading your blog, and I can explain what people mean by ‘authenticity.’ ” Lane points out that people typically apply “authentic” to a particular experience to indicate its visceral impact, its vividness; subsequently they use the term to mean, “something that revives memories of what that prior experience was like,” even though the context of the experience, perhaps even the character of the experience itself, is quite different.

I’m not quite convinced by this, but it catalyzed a different explanation in my speculative imagination. Perhaps the problem derives from an ellipsis, by which people mean to say something like “her voice is authentically human” or “his website reflects his authentic personality” — then gradually the specific referent of “authenticity” drops out and leaves only “authentic” behind.

I’d probably have forgotten to blog Lane and just left the topic behind, but Tom Shugart poked the blogthread’s carcase and it twitched convulsively. (Yes, Tom, we do need a new word.) I like Tom’s treatment of self in its temporal extension; that’s something the rest of us hadn’t brought out well enough. The suggestion that the “true self, in my view, is created as a conscious act of existential will,” sounds a lot less convincing. My true self includes a mountain of stuff that I didn’t choose, and some of what I did choose (much of it in the 70s — say no more) I would like to think doesn’t express the truest dimensions of my self. Not to say that I repudiate those choices, but to say that the truth about myself emerges from the complex interplay of conscious will and unconscious impulse and unchosen circumstance, all of them. Tom’s version begins to sound a little Promethean, a little Ayn-Rand-ish, a little of the dangerous part of Heideggerian (what Adorno scathed him for in The Jargon of Authenticity). Some of what is truest about us is more or less bred in the bone, and some of who we are depends on the material conditions under which we live. However much we may wish that we were altogether our own creation, a big, powerful, inexorable world of contingencies exerts its claims on us every time.

One thing that makes the Web so interesting is the extent to which the hyperlinked world operates with different environmental conditions than the material world. It’s as though gravity no longer held us to the earth, and we could fly from place to place without benefit of United Airlines, we could change our appearance at will, we could appear and disappear on a whim (or ISP failure). When the conditions that make “authenticity” possible themselves change, then everything else changes willy-nilly, authenticity included (if one must say “authenticity”).

Si’s Birthday

Son Josiah turned 15 today, but by the time we had breathing space to notice it his day was over. Since he’s precisely 12 hours opposite us in Sri Lanka, his version of his birthday arrived yesterday at noon (midnight Sri Lanka); the overlap of his day with ours expired at noon today. And we were busy all morning, and he’s in the mountains reminiscing about indoor plumbing–about any kind of plumbing–and avoiding elephants. Happy birthday, Si! UPDATE: an hour or so after I typed those words, Si made it to a hotel in Anuradhapura and arranged 90 seconds of telephone time to assure us that he was having a great time.

Duke 97, St. John’s 55

Glad Doc got to see a good one.

23 February 2002

Mike Golby cites Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” in a bloggaddendum to his response to my response to his response to my musings on blogging and ethics. And the cool thing is that he doesn’t mention my favorite line from the story, one that has been a guiding principle for my writing and preaching ever since I read it:

In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?

But the whole Borges corpus teaches so much, so deeply, about worlds, writing, belief, knowledge, and how seriously to take it all that I can’t applaud loudly enough for Mike’s bringing him explicitly into the conversation. Thank you, friend!

Mike Sanders submits 8 numbered points on “blogrolling theory and practice.” (The eighth provoked me to lengthy deliberation, being such an intolerably serious person myself.) At the end of the day, I suppose that eight points really aren’t adequate to inform the nuanced judgments one must develop in reaching so weighty a policy decision. I suggest that Mike go back and develop four or five subpoints for each of his points, ideally with several case studies to serve as examples.
I have not developed a policy. I couldn’t begin to imagine anyone who would care if I did.

More on Copyright

The anti-copyright readers don’t need more convincing, and the copyright advocates may not accept our arguments, but there may be some fence-sitters to whom Dan Kohn’s series of articles from TidBits would help clarify what’s up.
Perhaps it’ll help if some of the postcopyright promoters emphasize up front that they’re copyright holders themselves. I’ll still sell my books to anyone who wants one; they’re handy, attractively packaged, and bursting with good ideas about biblical interpretation — but I’m ready to step forward and say that I’m more interested in modulating into the postcopyright era than in extracting the last few cents of royalties out of consumers who might prefer to have online access to stuff I write.

Of course, this is the general direction toward which Lawrence Lessig is trying to point us all, though I’m probably more anarchistic than he.

Voice and Authority

I want to blog about voice and authority, but since David Weinberger just talked to Jakob Nielsen about it, I’m going to wait to hear more about what they said before I open my yap.

22 February 2002

I Second the Motion

Tom, Helen Razer, and Dave (1, 2, 3) have recently directed our attention to deep problems in the imagination and exercise of copyright. Count me in, emphatically. The notion of copyright that we’re laboring under derives its cogency from entirely different circumstances, and has been warped to serve the interests of industrialist more than the authors, writers, performers, et al. in whose behalf the industries piously protest.

Artists, musicians, writers and others deserve recompense for their efforts, probably more than they get under the current mechanism for assessing and distributing rewards. But a dysfunctional and obsolescent model won’t be the means by which they get their deserts.

Tear it down. Clear the ground. Let’s start something new.

Writing For Whom?

Mike Golby mulls over my ruminations on blogs and audiences, my metablog on for whom we write, for whom we should be writing, and why. He runs a nice inversion on what I was thinking — where I was thinking, “Anyone who wants to read this stuff may, and anyone who thinks it’s self-indulgent or ingratiating doesn’t have to read it” — thus regarding the Web as perfectly inclusive, since the choice to read or not is free, and the company of “people who read AKMA’s blog” is entirely open. Mike runs it the opposite way, though — my expression of my interests and commitments make the blog less open, in that as they take patterned shape, they form and select their audience.

I have to think through Mike’s version of the idea; mine involved an imagined conversation with someone who felt that blogging functioned by active exclusion, by keeping some visitors at bay and by trying to glue others to one’s own blog, a sort of glory-by-proximity (“Oh wow, Chris Pirillo mentioned me! Maybe he’ll blogroll me!”). I’m still chewing on that notion; certainly anyone in my vocation gets acquainted with people’s lack of connection to their own motives, and with the unnervingly base impulses that many apparently-well-socialized people sometimes reveal. So it could be that blogging amounts to little more than a mutual admiration society for weak egos.

I should add, though, that I haven’t discerned that in other folks whose blogs I’ve read. What I’ve observed looks much more like a bunch of friends having a great, loosely-joined time weaving in and out of one another’s conversations. Sometimes people you like are talking about a topic that excites you; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes one of them drags you into the conversation and offers you a drink; other times no one notices you if you don’t call attention to yourself. Is it their obligation to notice you and fawn over you if they’re deeply engaged with some other fascinating topic? Is blogging “exclusive” in that sense? I’m inclined to doubt it, because (as I said earlier) the big, loosely-organized party is so vastly expansive (yet so intensely, accessibly intimate) that anyone has access to jillions of other conversations any time.

Mike says

Somewhere in this idea lies my answer to AKMA’s further question. “I’ve wondered why we oughtn’t like people who like us; is there some hidden transgression in mutual respect and affection?” I fear and eschew “oughts” and “shoulds”. They muddy any issue. The word “transgression” also frightens me because it introduces a host of unknowns demanding definition.
Before I try to answer the question, I’d first ask AKMA whether or not this might be a better way of phrasing it: “In what way do we not like people who like us. What is it that sets us apart as soon as we start coming together?”

Well, that’s not where I’d have gone. First, “oughts” and “shoulds” generally play a powerful role in any interaction, so I like keeping ’em out in the open, where I can see ’em. Second, and I wrote this badly (curses!), my point was, “Is there anything wrong with liking people who like you, and not worrying about people who don’t?”

Here’s an example (I’ll get personal). Mike and a lot of other cool people of whom I’m fond (in a hyperlinked way) think an awful lot of Marek. So I’ve gone over to his site and read, and I’ve thought, “Sure, okay,” but without quite the ardor that other visitors seem to have felt. And for all I know, Marek has come over here and asked himself, “Why’s Golby cross-blogging with this mongrel dog who teaches? Give us a break, you pedantic geezer.” And that’s fine. (Really it is. You can’t hurt me. I wasn’t just waiting around for Marek’s approval. I have things to do. Who cares what he thinks anyway?) Marek hasn’t expired, pushing the “reload” button on his browser every five minutes to see whether I posted something complimentary about him, and I’m not all broke up that he hasn’t erupted with fascinated anthusiasm about me. We do different things, that some of the same people like. He’s not excluding me, and I’m not excluding him, even though the personae we’re composing online (and I’m still dubious about the online world/real world distinction relative to personae) may be so constituted that neither of us feels a particular attraction to the other. He’s got more important things to do than exclude me, and excluding him would be inhospitable of me.

And if one of us ever does feel like coming over, or going over, for a visit, I suppose that’ll be fine too.

Is that clearer, Mike?

21 February 2002


The irritation that some express relative to blogging-about-blogging strikes me as utterly flummoxing. This is the Web; if you don’t want to read a blog about blogging, go to another site.

Yes, in the online world the gravitational attraction to suddenly-hot topics (Googlewhack, Blogger’s Manifesto, and so on) engenders intense attention to matters that many people will find dull. But in a hyperlinked world, one or two clicks can get you to discussions of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or differing ways of formatting multi-column web pages, or the US government’s staggeringly misguided foreign policy, to comics or sports or film or dancing hamsters. Don’t kvetch; blog something more interesting, or go to another interesting site.

I suppose it’s flattering, in an odd way, that anyone would care what a blogger writes about. It seems to imply, “Your readers care so desperately about what you say that we decline to go elsewhere; but we don’t like this topic, so write about what we want to hear about.” We can show evidence that a large number of bloggers want to write and read about blogging. Probably even more don’t want to.

“This Web is big enough fer both of us, podner.”

20 February 2002

Communication, Exclusivity, Blogs, and Ethics

What then shall we say about blogging and cross-blogging, about encouraging others and criticizing others? Bearing in mind my vow of aphorism, perhaps a couple of things.
I’m not aware that anyone has stopped talking with or socializing with RW friends because they blog. Something different is happening here.

The difference involves the extent to which a blogger speaks to anyone who wants to listen, supporter or detractor, cordial or hostile. If one blogs primarily to communicate with sympathetic souls, one does so in the full awareness that irritated, bored, or otherwise ill-disposed readers are welcome, too. No way to exclude anyone (except by typing in a different language, I guess, or password-protecting the blog, which might not be blogging in the fullest sense, not that it matters much).

People will justifiably tend to read blogs that invoke shared interests, or cite topics they finds interesting, and they may well decide to offer encouragement to the bloggers they appreciate. By the same token, bloggers may hope to catch the attention of interested and appreciative readers.

Is there something wrong with that? Perhaps, if the desire for appreciation or encouragement, or the desire to cultivate an online relationship, induces someone to flatter, toady, curry favor. Sometimes, however, we are delighted to find someone who enjoys talking about subjects that please us, too.

“Exclusivity” is the last of my worries when writing for the Web; indeed, I am much more fastidious about the things I don’t say, so as not to trouble a reader who may stumble on my blog and think to discover her- or himself in these entries. Blogs are antithetical to exclusivity, except in the sense that there are so many people around with whom one might have invigorating conversations, there’s little motivation to devote much time to people who feel vexed that one hasn’t touched on their favorite topic, or who wish they were part of the colloquy.

Sometimes ideas seem much more commendable when one doesn’t examine possible alternatives. Should we avoid talking with people we like, to demonstrate our even-handed respect for people we find tiresome and disagreeable? Should we not express appreciation for others’ writing, in order not to fall prey to the possible trap of ingratiating ourselves with them? Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety offers an extended meditation on the question of whether we like others simply because they like us, because there’s something in it for us. I’ve wondered why we oughtn’t like people who like us; is there some hidden transgression in mutual respect and affection? (I say all this despite a recurrent pattern of numbering among my good friends some people whom others, for good reason, regard as quite disagreeable.)

I take up ideas that offer a provocative angle on topics that interest me. Sometimes those ideas provoke me to argue; sometimes those ideas provoke me to applaud and say, “What’s more….”

Voice, Presence and Friendship

Margaret points out that sometimes online correspondence gives us the opportunity to get well enough acquainted with someone to realize that they just aren’t as intriguing as we might have guessed from limited time spent together in the carnal world.
These observations fall short of aphorism, but they don’t ramble quite as much as previous entries.

19 February 2002

How do you prepare a sermon, Prof. Adam?

Well, first I have to blog. And to do a really good blog, I have to visit all my friends’ blogs. The blogs I can find are all very interesting, but not everyone has blogged yet today. I’ll have to come back later.

After I blog, I have to find out what the readings are: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-30 and John 4:31-38. The Numbers lesson is the story of Eldad and Medad who prophesied without a license; the gospel lesson narrates the disciples’ return to Jesus after his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, in which passage the disciples, as usual, come off seeming persistently dense.

Well, having found out what the lessons are, it’s time to go back and check on the late bloggers. David Weinberger must have slept late today. Dave Rogers is in LA and evidently isn’t as assiduous as Doc Searls; he always blogs late. Then I check a few blogs I’ve never seen before, because blogging is an adventure, and it’s important to broaden one’s horizons. This will all, I am sure, contribute significantly to any eventual sermon.

Now, before I begin really writing a sermon, I need to know what the hook will be. Just as when one writes a song, when writing a sermon one wants something in a sermon that’ll stick in the imagination, something that’ll get caught in there and bring the premise of the sermon back into people’s minds at intervals. So I have to figure out what the hook is for this sermon.

Dave Rogers still hasn’t posted, by the way, so I’ll think about my writing/voice/authenticity blog. I’ll post a headline for it, then get back to the sermon.

I’m thinking that the hook might involve the improbable names of the prophets in the Numbers lessons: Eldad and Medad. If I hit those names just right, then the point of the homily will come back to people when they hear those names. On the other hand, how often do you hear the names Eldad and Medad? Better blog some more and come up with a better hook.

One way to get a good hook is just by listening to good music. “Good music,” for homiletical purposes, generally falls into two categories: artfully written (say, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Michelle Shocked, XTC, for starters) or profoundly heartfelt (vast proportions of gospel music, especially older and more obscure, as the Rev. I. B. Ware singing “Better Stop Drinkin’ Shine”) or both (older Springsteen). Let the music teach me how to work a simple premise for a few minutes, bringing in a twist, an incongruity, reinforcing the premise, bringing the refrain back at the right time. Now I’m ready to get back to the sermon — after I blog a little.

The “Dad brothers” hook is beginning to sound better as it gets later tonight. The alternative would be a sermon on the clueless disciples, whose denseness serves different literary functions in each of the gospels (in Mark, they’re just flops; in Matthew, they’re tragically uncomprehending; in Luke their flaws make them utterly human; in John, people misunderstand Jesus grotesquely in order to set up Jesus’ teaching). (That’s an oversimplification of my quick take on this theme — don’t hold me to it.) I think we go with the Dad brothers, though, as an instance of the Spirit acting apart from the institutional constraints of the ways God’s people organize themselves.

But before I flesh that out into a sermon, why isn’t Blogger publishing?

Voice and Presence

So Margaret says, “JOHO knows Daddy.” And Pippa says, “Does he really know Daddy? Or does he just know him on the Web?” Still got some work to do on the home front.

Monday 18 February


Andy Chen took the “Five Phases of Blogging” conceit that I threw out last week and applied and extended it to “Six Phases of a Blogging Community.” From the looks of the most advanced phases, I’m happy to be stuck back at phase two….

More numbered thoughts

I owe Steve and Andrew’s side of the “clarity” argument more sympathetic attention, so:
5. Many who can’t write clearly, also can’t tell the difference between “writing clearly” and “dumbing down.”

6. Many who expound complex ideas in intelligible prose have indeed dumbed down the ideas they’re expounding.

7. People who can expound complex ideas in clear prose are liable to get flak from every side: too clear to be profound, to complex to be popular.

8. Nonetheless, those are the writer/composers whose gifts are rarest and most valuable.

(Now compiled with my first four proposals regarding writing, politics, and eventually back to “voice” and “authenticity” on this page.

17 February 2002

Good to see that Doc Searls is a Duke fan. He’s right; this good solid thumping should be the kind of lesson Coach K builds from, and heaven knows Maryland is a tough well-put-together team.

( 7:29 PM )
Steve Himmer reveals the ‘authentic’ him, and thus obliges me to confess that I don’t really disagree with him, I just envy him ’cos he lives in the Greater Boston area, and I live in the midwest. Sigh — the real me, born in Boston, living in exile.

( 7:53 AM )
I’d like to acknowledge Steve Himmer‘s excellent and insightful response on difficult prose and politics, and to wrench the topic back to a topic closer to what a number of us had been discussing for a while (“voice” and”authenticity,” though I do it today without using the latter word). (By the way, that’s snappy stamp art, Steve. I used to work with a mail artist, Larry Rippel, a photographer in Pittsburgh. I know it’s different, but you made me think of him.)

First degree of response: Difficult prose doesn’t mean bad or wrong ideas. Steve makes the fair point that some people may dress up folly in obscure prose in order to seem smarter than they are. Last night I emailed Andrew Ross, who makes a similar point, that I don’t know anyone like that; this morning I must more carefully say that I don’t know many people like that (don’t care to), but that the pool of shared evaluation in the communities I inhabit tends to devalue empty flash. But, my apologies to Andrew, I agree that they are there.

Does that make the sphere of difficult academic prose different from other worlds? Not so far as I can tell. Bluster, posturing, empty claims, reside in the populist media of talk radio and news columnists, in the domain of politics, sports, fashion (okay, I’m faking on that one, I don’t know from fashion, but it sure seems that way), and — herewith I cue the return of the opening theme — marketing. Difficult academic prose seems to generate a different tenor of response, though.

Here I will risk offending, and please count this as an advance apology, by pushing a point that looks painfully pertinent. There may be circumstances in which accusations that someone’s prose is artificially or irresponsibly difficult may just mean the accuser doesn’t understand well enough. Since I sometimes make the charge that texts are too badly written, my suggestion here may fairly be laid at my own doorstep, and I acknowledge that it may apply to me. Permit me some follow-up observations, though. A moderate number (at least) of people who adopt the posture of debunking “those atrocious theoreticians” just flat-out don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. (I’m not alluding to either Steven or Andrew, here or anywhere else in this theme.) It’s a cheap-shot way of ingratiating oneself with a readership who themselves don’t understand and who would prefer to think that the whole enterprise is a fraud. Some who wish they understood theory better are unwilling to put in the patient, laborious thinking that would help them understand. And some put in that hard work, get a pretty good handle on the theory involved, and dispute either the validity of the theory or the necessity of writing it out so obscurely, or both. Let’s not confuse the unwilling with the workers.

Second stage of response: What of Steve’s quite-to-the-point question, “How, then, can we begin to tell the difference; how we can tell if we as readers are out of the loop, or if the writer is hauling the burden of a bag of bones for no reason?” And my hard response is, what makes us think we ought to be able to know in every case? Again, quickly, I add that I don’t always know on first (second, third, fourth) reading whether this or that theorist is getting at something significant; sometimes it turns out they are, sometimes not, sometimes I just can’t tell. Is that a theorist’s fault, or a limitation of my understanding? If we want to know whether Antoinette Theoretician is onto something complicated-and-right-on or just yanking our chains, I can’t see that it’s her responsibility to work it out for us in limpid prose, but rather our responsibility to bite the rhetorical bullet and figure out her stuff for ourselves (and Steve’s narrative of his encounters with, resistance to, assimilation of some of, and frustrations with complicated theories shows this sort of process in action). It’s our responsibility if, of course, we care that much. If we don’t care, it shouldn’t be her fault; presumably she doesn’t want to talk to us anyway. If we do care, then it’s up to us to stretch our imaginations or just give it up.

I cheer for Mike Golby’s generous praise to all the various idea-jammers who have contributed riffs to “this mad trip to the farthest reaches of our anally retentive imaginations.” He understands more than he says, but he makes room for the possibility that he might not understand everything, and that’s part of the celebration.

(By the way, I didn’t think Delaney quite as marginal as all that, especially in the field of queer theory, where his identity and vocation make him a particularly compelling participant in academic discussion. And his exquisite prose shows that one can indeed think complicated thoughts and write clearly about it–but that’s not everyone’s gift, or more of us would be exciting novelists and essayists. Thanks for reminding me about him; he’s fun to read and think along with. And thanks for pointing me toward the Emily Martin essay, too. Is there a bigger legal thrill than snapping synapses with intoxicating thinks like theirs?)

Third stage of response: Clear prose is more to be desired than obscure prose. Nothing I say above or below should justify passing off imprecise, ambiguous, turgid, baffling, vacuous prose as the old standard of wisdom. Indeed, we should prize all the more our scholar-theoretician-teachers who can say what they want in sweet, lucid, invigorating essays. Once again, though, a plausible preference for clarity doesn’t imply that unclarity equals humbug, or that everything written unclearly might, with just a little more effort, without loss of resonance or nuance, have been written clearly.

Here at Seabury where I teach, “it’s more complicated than that” is something of a local meme, a catchphrase that both teases me (because I say it so often in their first-term Early Church History class) and that productively points away from the temptation to reduce complex phenomena to handy slogans or binary alternatives or necessary conclusions. “It’s more complicated than that” also indexes the extent to which any characterization of an intensely intricate world risks falsifying even as it clarifies. (I’d say that it necessarily falsifies even as it clarifies, but I don’t feel like getting into that argument now.)

Fourth stage of response: In a world of hyperlinked thinking, as in the model of journalism that Doc Searls et al. have been sketching, the hypermedia world opens up for critical readers the opportunity to connect (Dave Rogers leaps in to say, “and Empower!”) and encourage one another. Once you have a circle of people who take each other more or less seriously, when one of them dismisses Judith Butler with a snarky aside, another may speak up to defend her. If Steven and Andrew think that Homi Bhabha is a big old fake, and if I think he’s pretty smart, we can talk through the various reasons for these positions with respect and genuine interest in one another. If Steven and Andrew decide that I’m just a poseur, they might then just stop reading the blog; but they notice that Mike Golby and David Weinberger are still in there with me, and they so esteem them that they grudgingly follow the Bhabha discussion a little longer. Maybe they change their minds, or maybe they change my mind, or maybe no one changes her or his mind, but everyone’s better acquainted with why we disagree, and maybe we all emerge from the cumulative process a little more hesitant casually to dismiss an interlocutor whom some of our friends might appreciate.

And as the community of publishers comes to approximate more closely the number of writers, there will be a greater opportunity for good writing to show up bad writing for what it is. If all Antoinette Theoretician has going for her is arcane prose, we can expect that a good, deep, articulate circle of bloggers will give cogent reason to discount her position; and if some in our circle have substantive reasons to attend to her, we benefit from their advice. Here (and I promised myself to say something more directly on this topic) Jacob Shwirtz rightly reminds us that in our discusions of authenticity, voice, blah, blah, blah, we need to take account of trust as well.

Fifth stage of response: At the same time that our hyperlinked coffeehouse conversations grow headier and more serious and effectual, the opportunities for online demagoguery increase spectacularly. Whereas there was only one Rush Limbaugh, there can be thousands of mini-Rushes. Any anti-intellectual appeal to “what everybody knows” or “what anyone can understand,” any critique of “four-eyed academics in ivory towers” or “self-contradictory postmodern theoreticians,” that doesn’t take into account the discomfiting complexities that characterize more and more of our social interactions, generates poison fruit of willful unknowing. Even if someone is right that Antoinette Theoretician doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say, if they make their claim in dismissive, superficial throw-away rebuttals, they engender the dangerous sense that anything one doesn’t already understand isn’t worth stretching to consider. That’s eerily ideological thinking, and I want to part of it.

I don’t take Steven and Andrew to be making that kind of claim. I do fret that some readers might elide the distinction between the way they (on one hand) make their warranted plea for compositional and theoretical clarity and (on the other hand) other, less responsible demands.

Final (for today) stage of response: Voice, trust, and community will be what keep us smart. In other words, the complex personae that we write into being will have characteristic patterns of reasoning and expressing themselves that ring true (or false) to readers. The Cluetrain Four are high on our reading lists partly because they pointed out the importance of voice in hypermedia communication, and because they exemplify that importance in attractive ways. In short, (Jacob), we come to trust them, not with the unidirectional way some of us used to trust Chet Huntley or Walter Cronkite; we can give them a hard time when we think they need it in a way we couldn’t reach Chet or Walter. But that’s part of the trust — their responsiveness to their readers commends them to us as thinkers who stand accountable for what they say in public.

Readers who notice one another hanging out at the same blogs and sites and perhaps sometimes even in the same geographic locations, will develop the shared sense that we make up part of a sympathetic (but not uncritical) conversation with a passel of other online personae. That shared sense extends to the rest of us strands of the web that connects us to David, Rick, Doc, and Christopher, but all the more importantly to one another. We can keep each other honest if we show each other forbearance, if we challenge one another to think as carefully as we can about important matters, if we decline to snipe or backbite when we can more productively. . . oh, might as well snipe and backbite sometimes anyway. No sense in taking all the fun out of it.

But whether we’re concerned about marketing or social work or journalism or writing-as-a-vocation or preaching or whatever, I can’t escape the conviction that we do best when we’re bouncing ideas off one another, challenging one another, encouraging one another, helping one another see possibilities that we hadn’t cottoned to before, writing one another into existence, protecting one another from unforeseen follies. Which, to me, sounds a lot like friendship, albeit in a different mode from Friendship Classic. It’s precious nonetheless; thank you all, very much.

Didn’t talk about “content.” Will someday. Jon (Si’s godfather) emails from Sri Lanka: they’re having a great time, Si’s learning Sinhalese, everyone is getting along very well.