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.

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?