Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Endings



Like a book, suddenly unwritten. There are blogs that cease to exist just like that, that disappear without so much as a whimper, or that linger but in mutilated form, their archives hacked into digital pieces. I’m fascinated by these endings, whether hesitant and stuttering or lucidly planned and executed. And I want to put forward two ideas: firstly, that to the extent that they even exist in time, blogs have no duration. Secondly, that a blog doesn’t become a text until somebody puts an end to it.

The talk of an end of blogging started years ago, but has become rather more intense of late. There may be some objective truth to it (at least in term of a general decline of the phenomenon from its peak), although it seems to me that the data used to back the proposition – in report such as this one – is a little contradictory. At any rate, I’m not very interested in whether or not blogging is in fact on the wane. It is quite possible, as a number of people have pointed out, that other forms of social networking such as Facebook and Twitter, or that adorable hybrid, Tumblr, are competing for some of the medium’s original functions, namely the sharing of links and photographs and the posting of quick entries, autobiographical or otherwise. Really, though, who cares? Except insofar a relative decline in the popularity and degree of saturation reached by blogging may motivate us to better interrogate the form.

Scott Hamilton attempted to do just that last week, arguing that blogs currently stand to the other social networks (which he labels ‘inferior innovations’) as the medium for thoughtful and critically engaged writing, and that blogging ‘may become an act of resistance against the dumbing down of culture and political discourse in the twenty-first century’. There is possibly not a single sentence of that post that I agree with, and I would be quite happy if we made 2012 the year when we stop quoting Nicholas Carr except to disparage his vapid arguments, but it is intriguing that blogging has gone in the space of a few years from being charged with dumbing down traditional journalism and commentary to being hailed as the saviour of the same. Intriguing, and at the same time unsurprising: there is a circularity to these media arguments that has become very familiar, even comforting.

But back to those endings, of which there seemed to be a lot in 2011. Nina Power retired the enormously influential and much cherished Infinite Thought, deleting all the entries previous to last summer’s riots. The Deterritorial Support Group abandoned Wordpress, liquidating blogging as a stale medium suited mostly to ‘link-baiting dross or dull, rote journalism’. Evan Calder Williams put an end to the Socialism and/or Barbarism (on which more below), Alan Jacobs to Text Patterns. There were some false endings, too: merc briefly closed down Love Is a Symbol, and by the time he reopened it the artworks that accompanied the old entries no longer appeared (people familiar with merc’s work and the intimate and painful history that it communicates will realise the extent of this loss, however partial); Marian Evans declared the end of the research project at Wellywood Woman, but continued posting; Francesca came close a couple of times to letting go of Buchi nella Sabbia – the blog that makes me wish more of you could speak Italian – but relented. And then, as always, there is the unnerving business of the indefinite hiatus. Memory, Amnesia and Politics hasn’t been updated since last April; k-punk since July. Owen Hatherley posted very little (although he trawled), Jolisa Gracewood only three times, and Douglas Murphy, who kept at it, was not alone in commenting on the effort blogging takes, suggesting that the hill is getting steeper.

One of the peculiar things about blogs is that they are rarely conceived of as finite writing projects from the beginning, yet they mostly end at some point, and not just because the author has become permanently incapacitated (in fact the facility of scheduled posting allows for the intriguing possibility of regular posthumous writing, if one were that way inclined). Oftentimes what causes a successful blogger to stop updating her blog is that she is getting paid to write the same stuff elsewhere, but even when this is not the case – and one can hardly be blamed – there is the issue of the effort, the work of blogging, whose returns and usefulness, of whichever nature they might be, are liable to diminish for a variety of reasons. There is an economy to this ostensibly free exchange of immaterial labour, if only because the time occupied by blogging could be spent doing something else.

Many of these issues were grappled with by Evan Calder Williams in the sensational final post of Socialism and/or Barbarism, a blog that I reviewed last year along with one of the two books that it spawned. I won’t comment much on the post, which speaks very eloquently for itself – all 4,000 words of it – except to say that it makes very interesting reading against Scott Hamilton’s polemic, particularly in terms of its evaluation of what is politically and creatively useful, as well as its sacrosanct defence of ephemerality (‘perhaps what was, and perhaps continues to be, the most important aspect of the form of online writing’) and of the need to cultivate a degree of discomfort with the form.

Socialism and/or Barbarism is (was) a blog concerned primarily with genre and form, typifying what Jody Dean calls in her book on Blog Theory ‘reflexivity, all the way down’, including at times misgivings about its own rhetorical strategies – which spilled out and culminated in the disorienting critique mounted alongside China Miéville of Evan’s own book on the occasion of its launch. What made the book available to this critique was precisely its coming into being in that printed form, an event which is by definition untimely – hence the image of the birthgrave, of the beginning that is also an end, and viceversa (in which moment, as I have argued, the text demands not to be evaluated but re-evaluated, recovered, as something that is already obsolete).

Which leads me to the business of blogs having no duration. Whilst it is not factually incorrect to say things like ‘I’ve been blogging for three years’ (so long as it happens to be the case), a blog only exists in the moment when it is called up – and effectively ‘created’ – on a computer screen. Before and after that moment, it’s just a scrambled string of numbers. Let’s say that on a certain day you printed a page of a blog, or the whole thing: even if we stipulated that the text thus produced were a good enough representation of the original, this doesn’t fix the blog in time, it merely creates a time-stamped copy of it. There could be no guarantee that the electronic version wouldn’t undergo modifications after that moment, thus falsifying the printed copy. In this respect, like every other electronic text, a blog – lacking a material context – is a virtual construct with no time dimension; alive, while it flickers on your screen at the requisite Hertz frequency, yet not quite fully in existence.

If you think that this is a sophism, or just plain silly, I invite you to consider how easy it proved to be for Nina Power to disappear a blog that had had, and continued to have, many thousands of readers, and contrast this with how hard it is to withdraw a book from circulation once it is out there, and for reasons that aren’t merely contractual.

However what makes a book a text, just as much as its material instantiation, is the fact that it ends – as indeed it must, in order to become an object at all. And so too blogs with an explicit ending, however provisional, become quite different things, and have their meaning restructured by the authorial act of saying enough of this. Just as they lose the fundamental quality that makes a blog what it is, namely, the expectation of future updates, it becomes possible to evaluate them in a different way, to treat them as proper objects of critique, for they have exhausted, or claim to have exhausted, the drive to mean more.

At this moment, perhaps, in order to be true to itself, a blog should be deleted, and cease to exist altogether, but that would imply a belief that its meanings could only be correctly interpreted in the continual present of their ongoing production, and not salvaged, recovered at a later stage, in circumstances and for purposes that may be vastly different from the original ones. In spite of their uncertain temporality, these relics also constitute a fragile archive of the early age of the internet, a document of our first collective attempts to establish a set of native forms. In this they might well prove more useful in death than in life.

All that said, and in the full knowledge that when the time comes I very much doubt that I could bring myself to do it, I have just as much admiration for the blogger who chooses to press ‘delete’, an act of non-compliance second only to not writing in the first place. The texts that cease to be there, too, are an integral part of this thing we call internet.

So here’s to the doubters, and to those who found better things to do, and to bold endings.