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.

16 February, 2002

( 12:25 PM )
Hey, Si blogged from Sri Lanka! Messages will be short, in deference to access problems, but it’s great to see that he remembered that his mom and dad will be peering through their electronic porthole to see how he’s doing on the opposite side of the globe.


( 12:25 PM )
Today’s to-blog list: Steve Himmer’s scintillating expansion of the literary-style and politics thread, and Rob Tow’s (by way of Brenda Laurel, by way of Dave Rogers, by way of DW) claim that “narratives are the constitutions of new worlds,” in a perpetuation of what Mike Golby eloquently called “the dull-as-ditchwater magnum opus that dissects the notion of voice and identity and authenticity and felicity and every other kind of crack-brained, in-the-world attribute we drag behind us like a bag of bones and bring to this space of infinite freedom.”


Steve Himmer takes up the lovely example of Jacques Lacan‘s notoriously, deliberately opaque prose, and wonders whether the impenetrability (“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!“) reflects Lacan’s “authentic” voice of inexhaustible complexity, or whether the same feature marks Lacan’s voice as “deliberately inauthentic.” Lacan isn’t the only difficult writer one could name; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has gotten some hostile press for her prose, and Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha have recently taken slings and arrows for their writing. Let me say this about that.
(1) You can write badly from anywhere on the political spectrum.
(2) Difficult writing is usually worse than clear writing, but not necessarily.
(3) Sometimes difficult writing reflects the genuine torsion that accompanies unfamiliar theories’ transition into discourse.
(4) Jargon — one of the oft-cited vices of difficult prose — may represent a local dialect of like-minded thinkers who find communication easier when they allude to shared notions rather than spelling them out every time.
Thus, when someone gets her or his knickers in a twist about Homi Bhabha’s confusing or “meaningless” sentences, our complainer may have a plausible critique or may just be out of this particular loop. I don’t understand 80% of what Unix geeks say even when they’re ordering pizza, but that doesn’t make their speech “meaningless.” I don’t understand a lot of what U.S. elected officials say, even in populist plain speech, because they’re using familiar words to disguise the actual import of what they’re saying. I don’t understand what some of my students write, because they use imprecisely words that don’t mean what they think they mean.
Someone like Lacan constructs frustrating periods exactly because he’s trying to put listeners and readers through a process of association, identification, confusion, interpretation, giving up, and understanding, and not-understanding, and changing one’s way of thinking. Shall we call such a style “bad” or “unfair” or “illegitimate”? Why bother invoking a standard of goodness, decency, or legitimacy in order to decry bad style when one can lend focus to the matter by saying, “If there is anything to what he writes, I do not have the time to go through the process of understanding it” or “The only people I know who commend this work are faddish, self-important provocateurs who annoy me in every other way, so I’m not going to bother even giving it a chance”? (By the way, I’m only a lite reader of Lacan, not by any means a disciple, but a respectful observer.)
But Steve isn’t just asking whether Lacan’s voice is authentic (in the way these terms have developed in our blogtied convesation, and I continue to use the term “authentic” only under protest); he wonders about the politics and ethics of writing that way at all. (I, in turn, wonder about the ethics of writing a blog filled with scripts that shoot the page up to the top on innocent mouseovers–I’m getting dizzy. Solution? Read the page in source code. Update: Steve graciously edited his page’s javascripts, so that they no longer play havoc with mouseovers under Mac MSIE 5–on behalf of others so equipped, thank you Steve.) Steve quotes Andrew Ross, who said

that the world is too interconnected today to allow people to create these arcane knowledge objects that must be rationalised and interpreted by an elite few thinkers, only to eventually trickle their influence out over the larger populace. That seems counterproductive to a fault. These days, building an academic reputation on smoke, mirrors, and pulling levers behind a curtain is much easier to see as what it really is–making a vocation out of crafting confusion. It might have been an adaptive trait at some point, but no longer. Too many people can and do pay attention. Too many people can spot a charlatan for a charlatan, and especially now, we can see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes because there are JPEGs of him all over the Internet.


Well, yes and no. If I’m right about point 3 above, then Andrew’s ethical imperative risks deamnding that no new idea be represented in the world until it’s consumable by–whom?”a larger populace”? As I repetitively demand, who determines when an idea is digestible enough to be allowed? Populist rhetoric about “building an academic reputation on smoke, mirrors, and pulling levers behind a curtain” has often served as a ploy for anti-intellectuals to stave off intellectual interrogation of politics that can’t withstand exposure to the light. Granted that Andrew would not enlist in such a cause, how are we readers to distinguish his impassioned plea for literary transparency from a manipulative demand that no one think harder than me (‘cos I might feel less intelligent than someone else, and everyone knows that can’t be the case)?
Having said all that, I confess once again to an intensity of feeling about clear, precise writing that probably indicates some childhood trauma (and I was indeed brought up by a father who’s an English Lit and Composition professor and a mother who, among other vocations, taught high school English). In the ideological battle over prose style between Orwell and Adorno, I sympathize with both parties, but try to write more like Orwell. Few writers have attained a control over their writing that will allow them thoughtfully to choose to compose dense, challenging sentences over against lucid, simple prose. Most students resist refining their compositional style with an energy they ordinarily reserve for more intensely pleasurable pursuits. They have, after all, been composing oral prose successfully all their lives, and see no urgency to breaking out of long-established habits. And my students have the misfortune of attending a seminary where their professor of New Testament and Early Church History harbors a restless yearning for students to extend their understanding of how composition works (and doesn’t work), how readers and listeners perceive (and misperceive) prose, and what we all can do to compose more carefully (myself included, front of the line).


Now, as to narrative.
I am a vigorous advocate of thinking more richly in narrative categories. My grad schools were both associated with “narrative theology”; I practice a mode of biblical interpretation heavily influenced by my family background in critical study of the English novel. The sort of postmodern critical thinking and practice that I encourage draws some of its inspiration from what Jean-François Lyotard called “narrative knowledge.” My copious work of literary composition derives such vigor as it attains by way of attention to narrative as one model for sustaining a reader’s interest and sympathy. I sleep in pj’s with a big “N” on them. “Go, narrative, go!”
Rob Tow’s pithy formula entices my assent, and (even more) DW’s aphorism that “We are writing ourselves into existence on the Web. Together.” (you may just have rendered yourself immortal with those words, David–seems like everyone’s quoting them) delights me. Still, my interest in the difference of broadband hypermedia communications obliges me to apply the brakes gently when I approach encomia of narrative that appeal tremendously to my literary instincts. As I insisted a while ago, one of the giddying precipices that we’re approaching involves not just the capacity for ordinary metics to “publish” their literary compositions for a mass audience — we the people are already streaming our favorite recordings over the Web, are exposing our appearances to the Web, and may soon be streaming video of our choosing, for free, in a very different media world. Some of that stuff will narrate–but a lot won’t, and you-all who are speaking so eloquently and convincingly in praise of narrative today ought not limit your imaginations to the medium of words or the mode of narrative. It’s going to get exciting around here, and I’m hoping you can help me anticipate some of that excitement.
Onto my to-blog list for the future: “content,” and refining some of what we’ve been talking about regarding voice and authenticity on a summary page.

15 February, 2002

( 1:32 PM )
Dodged a bullet today; when I visited onepotmeal this afternoon I read of Steve Himmer’s disappointment when people get his name wrong. Realizing that I had referred to him a day or two ago, I paged back to my reference and saw, aaaah, that I had spelt it “Himmer” and not any of the less-satisfactory variations on the theme. Even I wouldn’t have thought ot call him Jamie Pickwick.
On my street, growing up, most of the kids were from Eastern European Jewish or Roman Catholic families, or from Italian Roman Catholic families. The other kids didn’t know what to make of a Scots-English casual Anglican — so they decided I must be an otherwise unknown species of Italian, and named me “Angelo,” and my street nickname was “Anj.”


Jacob Shwirtz (spelled his name right, too — I’m on a roll) introduces “trust” into the discussion, and over at JOHO, David Weinberger entertains suggestions from Bill Seitz, Andrew Ross, Jonathan Peterson, and Jason Thompson. Look, it’s a big back yard, and the more of us playing there the better, but it gets hard to keep track of all the fun.
So by way of overview of the excitement: there seems to be something about history, the ways we represent ourselves, the things we actually say and do, and the settings in which we said, did, say, do, and represented and represent them, that a number of us want to highlight and applaud. The aggregate wisdom of our correspondents suggests that this quality involves a sort of congruence among the various elements, such that authentic identity reflects a discernable continuity of the [identity]’s history with its aspirations and self-representation, expressed across a variety of contexts in ways that complement one another and the historic self-presentation of the [identity].
Okay, but most of what that spotlights might more specifically be characterized in other, more precise ways. “I don’t like David Weinberger’s site; it conceals his unabashed hucksterism for his corporate fat-cat clients” tells me a lot more than “David Weinberger’s site seems inauthentic.” Are we not devoting vast amounts of intellectual energy (on your parts at least) to bolstering up a vague concept with rigor and nuance, when it might actually be more useful in its very vagueness, as an invitation or prelude to a different, more specific diagnosis?
All of you sound pretty authentic to me, by the way. But in different ways.
It’s been a long week. I have to go grade some Greek exams. Let me know if you decide something.
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I told Mark Juchter I would blog that he, the Blood Man extraordinaire, once again escorted me, the Big Chicken, to Evanston-Northwestern Hospital to give blood. In a major breakthrough in donor-coddling technique, this makes the fourth time in a row I’ve given blood without fainting. Mark and the devoted blood siphoners at ENH smile bemusedly as I sweat, prattle, blanch, breathe deeply, look away from anything even vaguely associated with blood, and stagger away from the donor chair. They must really be desperate for blood if they put up with me, and I appreciate their willingness to endure my histrionics just to get my recycled body fluids. Mark’s the real deal when it comes to giving blood; I think he’s donated several tragic accidents’ worth all by himself, and he conjures the rest of us into giving blood too, so if you need surgery in the upper midwest, you may well have Mark to thank for your transfusion.
Go, and do likewise. (Give blood, I mean, not “need major surgery.”)

14 February, 2002

( 11:44 AM )
Josiah changed planes successfully in Frankfurt (at about 6 in the morning CST) and Dubai (a little after noon CST), and is now in the air to Colombo–unless he got so severely lost that he hasn’t dared call us. Due to land in Colombo at 6:10 CST.


Just when I thought that David W., the Skip on the authenticity interblog curling team, had brought our bloggery to a graceful close after an exhilarating, memorable quartet (quintet, sextet, as various voices, authentic or in-, joined the chorus), all good things came not to an end, but to a new beginning. Well, one good thing, anyway. And maybe it came to two new beginnings.
What it is: Tom “Vice Skip” Matrullo rekindles the embers with tinder concerning the matters of continuity, memory and forgetting, and accountability. Nothing for it but to stir the blaze back to full flame, I suppose.
Oy, Tom! Memory, continuity, congruence, context: Another dimension of all this, towards which I didn’t want to push while we were still blogging through discussions of “authenticity,” is the basis for distinguishing a “self” from an “other.” Consumer Service Warning: I am not saying that there is no such thing as “identity” or a “self” as distinct from anyone else, that we all are one big blob of consciousness or whatever (though I remember a particular afternoon on the Maine coastline, lying on my back, when it all seemed so clear to me…). Nonetheless, our “selves” do shade off and merge into others, into our context, into shared identities, so that if we attempt to construct an absolute borderline–this side “Me,” that side “You”–we’re guaranteed to impoverish and deceive ourselves. So Tom, if I understand him aright, locates “authenticity” not simply in a relation between facade and interior, or in a relations among an indefinite number of manifestations of a persona, but also in the relation of persona and context. Right indeed, and all the more challeninging to any who would venture to determine whether this or that persona, voice, website, whatever , is “authentic.”
On the other hand, Tom points us back to parrhesia in the context of accountability (and accountancy). Perhaps one way in which this very powerful point applies to our friend Dave “First Sweeper” Rogers’s concerns might lie in the extent to which a web persona (whether personal or corporate) bespeaks a willingness to be held accountable for what it displays, says, offers. This sounds very Cluetrainical, and I expect you-all said it somewhere in there, implicitly if not explicitly (in the “inner” Cluetrain if not the “outer” Cluetrain). At least, in #22 on “straight talk” you might have said parrhesia if you had anticipated this discussion, and in #27, “By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay,” you state the contrapositive. Candor (my preferred translation for parrhesia in most contexts) and accountability aren’ t readily discernible from one’s first glance at a Web page–but their opposites , dissimulation and evasiveness, are prominent enough and common enough that cautious visitors can often spot them at first glance.
And candor and evasiveness figure also in David W.’s blog today. Phil Cubeta dresses David down for observing the ways language “cracks” under cultural stress, but doing so in the literary style of

the Country Houses of Ben Jonson, or the coffee house of Dryden, or the drawing rooms of Edith Wharton, or the pages of the New Yorker, when E.B. White was a star contributor.

(Sidenote to Phil Cubeta: don’t forget to afflict me with a bodyslam like that. “Oooh, compare me to Jonson again! Harder!”) David responds first, that his point wasn’t that the language or the style was cracking, but that specific words were. (Side note to David: I liked the amplification of these cracks in JOHO The Zine; I almost missed them, since I’ve been reading along in the blog, but I want to get back to those amplifications sometime. Not now.)
Then David, sounding a little ruffled, suggests that one can respond to stupidity and folly without necessarily starting (or escalating) a flame war. Some folks relish savage speech; David prefers to work with the materials at hand to build a productive staging area for mutual learning (if possible) and instruction.
My chief dissent from David’s position arises from the hint of defensiveness and regret that tinges his response, and if I were a different writer, I’d lambast Phil Cubeta from here to — well, in cyberspace I guess there isn’t a handy “to” to lambast him to, but I would if there were. But there isn’t and I’m not. David speaks the candid truth when he says that style and poltiics can be related, but that they don’t stand in a simple one-to-one relation. The point David cites is convincing (“You’ll find plenty of plain-spoken fascists, and there are Rush Limbaughs on the left as well as the right”), and Phil himself slips when he enlists Martin “I Dare You to Read This Prose” Heidegger as an exemplar of the kind of limpid lucidity with which he finds fault. What about George Orwell, patron of a prose all the more harrowing for its clarity? Presumably he, too, falls under Phil’s scourge. And while Foucault was not an Orwell, a Jonson, or Dryden, yet his prose and speech (in works like Discipline and Punish, in his copious interviews, and awkwardly enough, in his defense of parrhesia) line up closer to David W.’s readable periods than Yippie free-speech yowls. (By the way, did Phil mistransliterate the Greek word, or is he exemplifying subversive discourse by creating the illusion of mistransliteration?) And Peter Sloterdijk, sponsor of modern neo-cynicism (and allegedly a crypto-fascist, in one of those instances where you end up at one extreme by pushing far enough in the opposite direction), wrote an academic defense of the fart as social critique.
(I find myself in the odd position today of defending David against the charge of speaking too gently when a few days ago I was chiding him for speaking too snarkily.)
So I second David. The (literary) style does not determine the politics, nor does the end determine the (literary) means. If one has to apply crass measures, it would be tough for a leader to benefit more lives more dramatically than did Mohandas Gandhi–but he used the literary style that Phil decries against the forces that oppressed India. And in-your-face prose sells everything from reactionary politics to sneakers to syrup-flavored fizzy water.
So there–nyaah, nyahh, nyahh.


Si’s plane landed in Colombo, presumably with him aboard. Still waiting for a phone call to say he cleared customs, has his health and suitcase, and rendez-vous-ed with his godfather Jon.
( 7:55 PM )
Si arrived, groggy and thunderstruck by the beauty of Sri Lanka and exhausted and thrilled to be with his godfather Jon. We can sleep tonight.


Margaret’s Valentine to me today:

One need not blush or excuse oneself for being tender: it is an honor for which one must be proud, it is a grace that one must spread, for where there is no tenderness, neither is there joy given nor joy received. I know of course that one can misuse one’s heart, one can wither one’s body and soul in debilitating and sterile tenderness. It is the path that is opened wide to those entering into life. . .

It is the same with human tenderness as with all beautiful things: it must gain mastery over itself and free itself from its masks, just like the morning sun, leaving the mists of dawn. . . .
But one would be wrong to laugh at this word and this thing called affection. Do you think that the hearts of the great apostles did not overflow with this tenderness? Look again at the epistles of Saint Paul or at that wonderful passage from Acts that recounts the farewell of the saint to his faithful at Ephesus: tears stream on all sides from these eyes that will never see each other again here below. Meditate especially on the profound tones, the ardent rhythm of Paul, writing to his faithful, whom he has engendered in Christ and who are his children. . . .
Affection has its dangers, but the way to guard against them is not to hound it: one must educate it. Rather than destroy the sympathies, one must strive to universalize them. . .
If there is no love without tenderness, there is no tenderness without strength and purity. Wine that is watered down loses its quality, its vigor and its aroma, but wine that is cloudy is not longer wine. Water is better.
—-Henri de Lubac


Hot’n’heavy theological mash notes…. Me? I was going to send her an iCard, but the site was swamped today so I didn’t get around to it.

13 February, 2002

( 10:23 PM )
Drive-by blog tonight, just to explain that “random thoughts” began to sound very unoriginal and uninteresting as soon as I typed it into Blogger. So I switched the title to something more specifically congruent to me, a Greek teacher, theologian, web big-mouth, and second broom on the JOHO curling team. “Doxa” would be either “opinion,” “received opinion,” so that “para doxa” would mean “contrary to received opinion” (hence “paradox”); the preposition “peri” can mean “around” (as in “periscope,” for looking around) or “concerning.” “Peri doxas” then might be “concerning received opinion” or “concerning glory,” depending on what I’m talking about.


Our son Josiah is on his way to Sri Lanka–we won’t have a report from him till about twenty hours from now. He promised to blog as often as he could. Is this the twenty-first century or what?

12 February, 2002

( 3:33 PM )
Lest anyone doubt that one of the dimensions of my identity, one of the circles in my Venn diagram (I owe that metaphor to an essay Margaret Adam wrote, due recognition here offered), includes the work of a parish priest, another blogger caught me in the act. Jim McGee, of Christ Church Winnetka and of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, has now heard me pontificate both in person, on the gospel, and in virtuum, on stuff related to truth, identity, and corporate website design.
His comment on my sermon — “Good stuff” — may seem concise to the point of dismissiveness, but if you knew Jim McGee as well as I do (that is, I received his email and glanced at his website) you’d be able to tell at a glance that that’s just his way of saying, “Savonarola, move over! That sermon was spectacular!”
Anyway, I’m going to be looking out for him two weeks from now, when I go back to Winnetka.


I want to repeat what I blogged yesterday in my almost-asleep haze, drawing the nearly-exhausted thread on identity to what is probably the “Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead” Phase of the conversation. I don’t care; I liked it, and I want to bring it around again.

This is me. This is what I’m like when you can’t see my face, or hear my voice, but can make out the words I’m scrawling on your computer screen and can tell from the color scheme and logo* that I teach at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.

Whether I seem authentic or not, whether you want to buy anything I might sell you or not, when you look at me through this address, this is who I am. Kinda pale, with black spots, and a purple tattoo. Hmmm.


* In an earlier version, this blog had a purple-and-white theme, with the emblem of the former Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.

11 February, 2002

( 8:59 AM )
Before I generate any official, this-is-today’s-blog blog, it occurred to me during the afternoon Hymn Festival yesterday that the problem with “authenticity” may lie in part with how we’re trying to get at it, rather than with the concept itself. That is, “inauthenticity” tends toward homogeneity and imitation; the kind of “authenticity” for which people generally aim, derives from (a) not worrying about whether one is sounding authentic and (b) not trying to sound like something else, whether an ideal of one’s own or a model provided by someone else.
So while “authenticity” may be necessarily elusive as a positive quality, “inauthenticity” may be easier to get hold of. Or as Tolstoy might have said if he had been a Web visionary, “All inauthentic web voices are alike, but an authentic web voice is authentic after its own fashion.”


Hasty reader that I am, I missed David Weinberger’s “If your outer self doesn’t pretend to represent your inner self, you’re now in a politics of theatre or authorship, not one of personal identity” until Tom Matrullo (weblogs.comlink lost) pointed it out. But this is just the kind of distinction I’m wondering if we might want to question; after all, isn’t “the politics of theatre or authorship” a constituent of “the politics of personal identity”? It might not make sense to ask if RageBoy is “authentic” (and here I’m presupposing, contra my intuition, that it’s worth deploying that concept), but since Chris Locke has made his sharing RageBoy’s voice a transparent gesture, it seems to make sense to ask whether Locke/RageBoy’s voice is authentic.
Moreover, don’t we expect theatrical or literary characters to have distinctive, convincing, expressive voices? One of Gosford Park‘s strengths lies in the richness of the characters; they strike us as authentic characters. So I’d hesitate before I affirmed David’s proposal from yesterday.


Well, in response to David and Tom and Steve Himmer (link lost) and Dave R., I will push us another step beyond. The various contributions from these wise gentlefolk have tended to operate within the set of assumptions that treats our Web personae as somehow extrinsic to the real “us” (observations on corporate websites anon); but what if our Web personae are, quite simply, yet another part of us?
I am a different guy at home with my family from when I’m teaching, and different yet again when I’m leading worship or preaching, and different again when I’m discussing my fantasy baseball league team, and so on. (How different are these personae? That’s part of the meta-question.) Culture has variously urged us to be natural & strip off our masks; or to keep our affections in the closet; or to compartmentalize; or a thousand other bits of identity-shaping instruction. Perhaps it’s a mistake to parse this advice as involving different “inner” and “outer” selves (as one might say, “my ‘inner’ self is a gay Mets fan, whereas my ‘outer’ self is a straight Red Sox fan”). Perhaps the question ought not concern “inner” and “outer,” but ought to involve the extent to which our ways in the world are coherent with one another, the extent to which they complement one another in constituting an engaging whole.
Now, that’s of little immediate help in evaluating Web personae; I know none of my present interlocutors as anything other than a stream of electrons (though sometimes I hear David Weinberger’s stream of electrons on NPR). But that doesn’t mean that my acquaintance with them is less real; it simply means that I know less of them. I know relatively little of the Academic Affairs Assistant at my office apart from her work on campus; I know more of the administrator of the Seabury Instute, because she worships in my parish; I know even more of the professor of Church History, because she and I belong to the same parish and we work side-by-side; I know yet more of the professor of Systematic Theology, because we became close friends way back in graduate school (walking around following Aristotle).
The issue at hand in both Web personae and workplace/family/gang/etc. personae isn’t reducible to “inner” and “outer.” There are whole vast Venn diagrams of persona whose complexities it would take a lifetime to map. Here Steve Himmer’s blog seems quite to the point, and I’d quote him except I can’t copy-and-paste from his page. Any one of the facets of our identity may represent an unexpected, radically incongruous aspect of the whole, or it may draw on a broader pool of characteristics that our various personae share.
The matter of a corporate persona gets complicated in large part because we construe a site as a single voice (unless different voices re marked out for us), yet that single voice has been proiduced by a committee, or “to suit a committee,” or “so as not to offend a number of people important to the well-being of this institution.” This usually doesn’t yield a convincingly human-sounding voice–the overlap among the various constituent personae get awfully thin, and some of the personae who might contribute to making the web voice get flattened out or ignored.
This is me. This is what I’m like when you can’t see my face, or hear my voice, but can make out the words I’m scrawling on your computer screen and can tell from the color scheme and logo that I teach at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.
At this point, I’m going to sleep. I’ll blog more tomorrow. By the way, David W., Margaret loved the curling metaphor; she said, “Oh, AKMA, you finally made a team!” I want to know when I get my uniform.

10 February, 2002

( 2:06 PM )
Well, Tom Matrullo ( link lost) has advanced the conversation about voice, etc., with a generous examination of the touchstone concepts “voice,” “presence,” and “authenticity.” My first response involves pushing a little bit on a point he makes toward the end of his post:

Not to get too Zenny about it, but the bit of us that comes in after something has struck a portion of the receiving public as authentic – the part that attempts to parse, seize, analyze, appreciate and “understand” the felicitous authenticity of this or that piece of expression, (for there is a link, I think, between what we like to call authentic and felicity) – is itself inauthentic. The very gesture betrays our wish to possess that which can be replicated, re-produced, by technique. Desire for the authentic, for replication – regardless of why one wishes the happy outcome of reproduction – has the misfortune of always being fresh out of luck.

Here my postmodern union card obliges me to wonder whether even Tom’s specification of the “inauthentic” arrives on the scene belatedly. That is, once it occurs to a public to perceive something, as “authentic,” they/we’ve already produced the effect of an inauthenticity even without someone rushing to capture that-which-made-it-authentic. The category itself is the problem; one can’t have authentic without inauthentic, and even the “authentic” itself hs a hard time staying “authentic” once it has “authenticity” to live up to; it becomes a parody of itself (perhaps a case in point might be “Saturday Night Live”).

Likewise in the next paragraph,

That which attempts to possess, copy, multiply, limn or mime it is stillborn. The authentic arrives unbidden, without fair warning, unconceived. Once it is in the world, the world might bestow an abundance of attention, or none. But does it have an interest in what the world says?


There’s the rub! Once “authenticity” becomes a positive characterization toward which one might aspire, it perpetually recedes from the grasp of the seeker-after-authenticity. One can’t attain authenticity by trying to get there. Indeed, the desire may itself be the insuperable obstacle. (Not just Zen, but many ways touch on this; I think I remember being impressed with Gurdjieff’s insistence on this point.)
Perhaps corporate clients’ desire to cultivate an “authentic” web voice constitutes an element in the problem they’re trying to correct (working out the problem outside themselves, on the web site, as surrogate for their impoverished selves). Or maybe not.
Remember Louis Armstrong’s correct analysis of this phenomenon, when he was asked to define jazz: “if you’ve got to ask, you’re never going to know.” But he might alternatively simply have raised cornet to lips and played the “St. Louis Blues.”
Now, David W. directs our attention a different direction, complicating life by pointing out the problem of assuming a bifurcated anthropology of “inner” and “outer” selves. Such an assumption dominates colloquial talk and thought about people, but as he points out, it’s got to be more complicated than that. What if, instead of letting our idioms about “inner” and “outer” dictate what we think about people, we trained ourselves to talk about “obvious” and “obscure,” or “manifest” and latent” characteristics of a person? Would that make a difference, or would the powerful custom of assuming a binary personality of outer and inner personae simply adopt new terminology to suit long-established habits?
Then David also connects this with “why I’m so interested in the ways in which our Web selves are literary.” Now, when David talks that way, or when he says

Even the immediate conversations – chat, IM – occur through keyboards, allowing us to compose ourselves as we compose our words.
We are writing ourselves into existence on the Web. Together.


I get all weak-kneed and ardently enthusiastic, ’cause I’m a literary guy. (I’m going to use David’s point here the next time I cajole a bunch of students into writing more carefully; if “we’re writing ourselves into existence,” who wants to have a sloppy existence just ’cause you can’t be bothered to write carefully?)
But doesn’t our self-composition include visual presentation elements such as page design (and video and eventually perhaps auditory elements)? Isn’t Jenny Whoever “composing” herself into existence with her webcam, too? I don’t want to knock words or literariness–if they turn out to be the keys to the future, I’m better off than if I’m relying on looks. But I don’t want us to lock on to literary composition to the exclusion of the various other ways we consitute our prosthetic Web selves.

That’s enough, now.


Has anyone else thought it very odd that with all the perturbation about the “Today’s New International Version” (with more precise treatment of gender issues, as brought to my attention by Telford Work and the NY Times), that I haven;t seen any mention of the New Revised Standard Version, which came out more than ten years ago and did a more far-reaching job of tackling translation and gender. Now, it may be that the TNIV translators did a better job, and it may be that part of the fuss about the TNIV arises because the NIV has been the standard translation for English-speaking conservatives who wanted a contemporary translation from reliable manuscripts, but without the perceived leftward tilt of the RSV and NRSV. Still, if the press coverage concerns gender-sensitive translations, you might think that someone would at least allude to an existing exemplar that has become part of daily (or just weekly) life for hundred of thousands of US Christians.

9 February, 2002

( 4:23 PM )
Okay, Tom Matrullo ( link lost) and David Weinberger (here and here) and Dave Rogers (here and here and here) have been worrying the topic of voice and the web, and friendship and the web, and preaching and marketing, and they have me thinking about all of the above and authenticity and presence.
So here are some more undercooked thoughts about these Really Big Topics. First, about voice and authenticity (and when I talk about “authenticity” here, I’m using the colloquial-usage word, not the technical term Eigentlichkeit from Heideggerian philosophy, about which I have related, but more nuanced, doubts): I fear that language of “voice” and “authenticity” risks making available a rhetoric of criticism that sounds grand, but covers up the lack of a rich reasoning about what would count as “authenticity” in an inherently phantasmic medium. I know offhand what it means to say that one’s favorite mountain-bike retailer has a website that sounds authentic and human, but the website itself is a peculiar sort of representation about which to claim “authenticity.” Do we mean that the site tells us what we want to know, incorporates idiosyncratic sidebar information (a surplus of information that reminds of the ways that we know more than we need to about particular human beings), that does not address us as idiots or suckers? Is it more “authentic” to make a website like that than a website that says, in effect, “Buy our junk for high prices on our terms, you desperate schnook”? “Authentic relative to what? “Humanity”?
This is where I get edgy, because the language of “authenticity” seems to depend for its applicability on a notion of what it means to be human–but many who adopt that language choose it without having thought through what about “humanity” they deem the “authentic” part.
Can you fake “authenticity”? What if (for instance) Ben and Jerry weren’t sweetly philanthropic idealists, but cut-throat entrepreneurs who realized that they could make big bucks by pretending to be quirky, northeastern post-flower children? Would their business and commercial facade have been less “authentic,” or they simply more clever? It’s sort of a Turing test for “authenticity,” except that if you can outsmart the distinction by faking “authenticity,” I have the lingering feeling that the value of the term may have dwindled.
Then also, some of the value of “authenticity” language derives from “presence,” from the sense that an “authentic” voice conveys what it would be like for the site visitor to encounter the person behind the site. I can appreciate the personae that Dave R’s and David W’s and Tom’s sites, and I wish I knew the people who stand behind these projections. But yet, at a certain point we are our masks, we are our represesentations–so just how important is it for me to know “Tom Matrullo” after I’ve gotten to know well the author of the “Commonplaces” weblog?
Ah, but you can’t clink beer mugs (or wine glasses, or soda bottles) over the net; you can’t hug; you can’t observe that endearing little thing I do with my left eyebrow. But over the web, you can go back and reread the quite-clever thing David wrote the other day (over and over) and you can follow up the hyperlinks he constructed between his remarks and what someone else said.
Is “physical presence” better than “web presence”? It would seem that it all depends. Some people, I feel confident, I would much prefer to encounter only via the Web (and vice versa, of course). Other people engender in me such a kind of affection that I keenly miss their physical presence, even when (or especially when) I see something they’ve just written, or hear their voice on the phone line.
I’ll keep thinking about this, though.


Is it “blogmail” if you mention someone else’s blog in yours, so as to oblige them to pay attention to you?

Or is blogmail the thing you send someone to let them know you mentioned them? (I suppose it works both ways simultaneously.)

8 February, 2002

( 6:48 AM )
Woke up this morning with a clear thought relative to my feelings as my unusually-late tenure review approaches (Tuesday, at 9 AM; I meet with my external reviewer this morning). I’m not “nervous” in the “Golly, what will those people decide?” way; I know the committee, and they’ll decide what they’ll decide, and that’s not a concern for me.
I do feel a sense of the gravity of the moment, though. I know a lot of folks for whom these days were fraught either with anxiety in anticipation, or with recrimination and pain in retrospect. This is a process by which plenty of people have been broken and, without disregard for their gifts and attainments, the justice of those tenure decisions is beside the point; the point is that a process designed for one end (ensuring that able scholars be freed from the threat of capricious retribution for unwelcome research and unpopular conclusions, to oversimplify) often enough produces an entirely different effect: steamrollering people.
So I do feel the momentousness of what’s happening these days, not out of a particular dread of the outcome in my own case (though only an arrant fool casually assumes a positive tenure recommendation), but out of respect for people whose lives have been wounded by ugly, or unfair, or biased, or vindictive, or just plain short-sighted tenure reviews.


Blogging, phase one:writing as though no one would ever read what you put there. (I certainly never figured David Weinberger would read the squib I wrote down the first time I opened a Blogger window).

Blogging, phase two: writing as though only the people whom you know might possibly read your blog will in fact do so.
Blogging, phase three: Become conscious of phases one and two, and realizing that someone else has surely already thought about this before.
Blogging, phase four: Beginning to grasp the fact that your words are out there, that anyone could read them, including that idiot you lambasted after he snubbed you in the planning meeting, or that exquisitely intelligent and beautiful woman about whom you’ve been blathering, day after day, like a hormone-soaked teenager.
Blogging, phase five: writing as though no one would ever read what you put there, or maybe would, but that’s not why you’re writing what you write. You’re just blogging.
(Consumer health advisory: This developmental scheme does not necessarily apply to anyone else in the world. My experience is not the measure of all things, and especially not of your experience.) (Leopold, this means you, not that you’ll ever read it.)
[Retrospective addition: ‘The Five Phases of Blogging’ actually got a little web traction when I first posted it, in olden days when there were many fewer things to find interesting on any given day on the web. Those were simpler times.]

7 February, 2002

( 1:12 PM )
I’ve spent most of the morning setting up and stage-dressing a shared blog for some friends to talk about theological topics at the Theoblogy Seminar (dead link, alas). Steve Webb is outta control, racking up the postings at the moment, but I’m hoping other folks will join in.
Dave and David, here’s one difference between “preaching” (and here I’m referring to preaching in the best, truest sense, however rarely that may be exemplified) and “marketing”: preaching should be an intrinsically non-profit, disinterested enterprise, whereas marketing, as best I understand it, is intrinsically “interested,” and has a lot at stake in “profit.” Now, a gold-star, beneficent, Love Is the Killer App marketer may order his energies to the end that “everybody profits”–but I still sense a difference. Preaching should be like the anti-Enron: no effective auditing of income and outflow, not because someone wants to pull something over on others, but because the well-being of others is the absolute, only, ultimate and exclusive telos of the practice. If marketing succeeds at helping others profit, but at the cost of its own bankruptcy, then something’s wrong with the equation–isn’t it? Saints and martyrs are positive exemplars in preaching; calamitous bankruptcies are not positive exemplars in marketing.
I must admit, though, that every time I try to articulate that difference, I can hear a marketer saying, “That’s just like me,” and I suppose that someone will tell me that bankruptcies are good marketing, too. But I’ll wait to be persuaded of that.
( 10:22 PM )
I’m thinking about persons, identity, presence, voice, and corporations. Fair warning — blog ahead.