Saturday, August 26, 2017

What is Blogging?

The first chapter of Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero asks the simple question "What is Writing?" The answer is anything but simple, but let's say he tells us that writing is not merely literacy, not just a written form of language. Writing, properly speaking, is a free engagement with what Robert Graves called "the huge impossibility of language."

Actually, Barthes put it somewhat differently. "Writing," he said, "is essentially the morality of form, the area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language." The language, he says, marks "the limit of the possible", while "style is a necessity which binds the writer's humour to his form of expression." Not quite the "huge impossibility of language", let's say, but perhaps the deep contingency of history. Writing is the freedom to engage with the forces of history, their weight, according to one's "nature", in one's own manner, according to one's own style.

On this view, I want to argue, blogging is not a form of writing. It is not merely writing in another medium or even writing for another purpose. We might say that just as writing is not merely literacy, blogging is not merely literature. Blogging is an activity that is so distinct from the experience of writing that it should be called something else altogether. One does not write a blog post except in the sense that one "writes" a shopping list or a business plan. It isn't what Barthes was talking about.

Some bloggers, of course, don't know this. They try to blog by writing. They are perfectly competent writers and produce perfectly capable prose. But it is just not blogging. It remains writing. They are kidding themselves to think they have produced a blog post. They have written an essay and posted it to their blog. Others are, in fact, natural bloggers but kid themselves that their blogging makes them writers. Why should it matter whether you are submitting something to a publisher or magazine? Why does posting something directly to the internet undermine its status as "writing"?

Over the next few posts, that's the question I want to address. The short answer is that blogging is a social activity, while writing is, properly speaking, a use of one's solitude. There is nothing solitary about blogging. Composing a blog post is not experienced as Woolf's "loneliness that is the truth of things". On the contrary, blogging is an engagement with social media. It's actually not the Internet that is important here. It's the blogging "platform", which robs a text of its immediacy by means, precisely, of its instantaneity. To put it simply, the platform so completely carries the weight of History that the blogger has no leverage on it, thus, none of the freedom that Barthes finds essential to writing.

I will try to make all this clearer as I go forward. I want to stress, however, that there is no implicit value judgment here, nor any announcement of an epochal shift. I'm not declaring "the end of writing" and the "dawn of blogging". I'm neither celebrating nor lamenting the developments I'm going to think out loud about. I'm trying to say that blogging has emerged as something new, something that is sometimes mistaken for writing, and something that writing sometimes mistakes itself for. I'm just trying to understand what it is. What I have been doing all these years.

Instead of writing.


Jonathan said...

This seems odd to me on many levels. For one thing, I think your blog posts are less bloggy than many other bloggers. You are an essayist who happens to use the blog form, in my view. (Your other blog was more bloggy than RAASL, I think: shorter entries, less belabored and more spontaneous.) I was reading Laura Riding's essay on letters, and she tries to make a case for letters as a different sort of writing than literary writing, because of that social aspect.

Many forms of written communication have their quirks: letters, emails, texts, blog posts, face book entries, tweets, etc... Their particular ways of engaging with the interlocutor and the way in which responses can come. They are all written communications, though, and thus writing.

I also view the blog as somewhat old-fashioned now. I've been doing it since 2002!

Thomas said...

I want to make the case that when we draw the speech/writing distinction "structurally" (and not "literally", i.e., in terms of making sounds or making marks) then blogging looks much more like speaking than writing. I've been busy with a few other things these past couple of days, but I hope to have the next installment up soon. It should make things clearer.

But I should say that my argument might also be applied to correspondence: a letter is a form of writing; but email is often a kind of speech. A great deal of confusion has resulted from not observing the difference.