Sunday 16 June 2002
Changing of the guards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.
Bob Dylan, Changing of the Guards
“How tedious is this?” asks Stavros about Meg Hourihan’s What We’re Doing When We Blog. “How perfunctory and lacking of any sense of the mad, wild spirit of creativity that is tearing through the souls of (fill in the names or pseudonyms of your favorite bloggers here)?”
Meg Hourihan’s explanation of blogging left me, as it did Stavros, aghast. And sent me back to the years when I was a photographer, showing my work in galleries and museums. Although (or perhaps because) I was a first-rate technician, technique was of little interest. I was primarily concerned with:
- Forging an intimate emotional connection with the subjects and objects that formed the nominal content of each picture.
- Transforming chaotic three-dimensional space into a coherent (though ambiguous) flat pictorial space.
- Creating a beautiful image that also questioned conventional notions of beauty.
- Inserting coded references to the work of photographers I admired.
- Packing the image with sufficient energy to attract and hold a viewer’s attention.
And at openings, workshops, forums, interviews, the same questions always cropped up:
- What camera did you use?
- What lens did you use?
- What film did you use?
- What developer did you use?
- What shutter speed did you use?
- What aperture did you use?
- What paper did you use?
- What toner did you use?
Photography—perhaps more than other form of creative expression—attracts enthusiasts who fixate on the mechanical aspects of the medium. Some grow out of it and turn their attention to more sophisticated problems. Others don’t and happily continue to make technical flawless pictures devoid of any energy, ambiguity, or emotion.
Just like those photo-technicians, Meg Hourihan defines blogging in terms of the format: reverse-chronological and time-stamped. In this sterile depiction, the key elements of a blogging post are the links, the time-stamp, and the permalink.
God give me strength. I could describe a Walker Evans photograph by saying that it was taken with a Zeiss Protar lens on a tripod-mounted 8 x 10 Deardorff view camera, at f/45 to maximize the depth of field and with a G filter to emphasize the clouds. All of which is true but, frankly, who gives a shit? Such a description refuses to acknowledge that Evans’ image of a highway corner in Reedsville, West Virginia in 1936 is not just visually complex and gorgeous to look at. Evans’ radical approach to picture-making subverted many of his contemporaries’ most deeply ingrained beliefs about pictorial beauty and the purpose of documentary photography.
Which is not to say there’s no place for an explanation of the mechanics of weblogging: tools, posts, links, time-stamps, permalinks… But wouldn’t it be better to leave those prosaic details for later? And to start by mapping out an imaginative vision of the medium’s potential?
To focus attention on the magic and mystery of blogging. To acknowledge (paraphrasing Burningbird) that the key to weblogging is people, not a format. To admit that—five years on—we’re only just starting to realize what might be possible. To stress the communal nature of the activity. To celebrate the amplification of meaning that occurs when smart, creative people collaborate. To invite newcomers to join a grand adventure, a networked version of Hesse’s Journey to the East.
Instead we are offered a constrained model that, by focusing on the inessentials, drains weblogging of its poetry and promise. It’s dispiriting that one of blogging’s leading lights should have such an arid view of its future. Ultimately that doesn’t matter: we’re building our own ethereal cathedral and filling it with passionate voices. Stavros should have the last word. I can’t say it any better than this:
If you people, you A-listers, you pioneers (and I bow in respect to the Old Blog Guard, but some just don’t seem to get the New, in much the same way, ironically enough, that Old Media don’t seem to get La Kottke or whatever archetypical high-traffic blogger that they happen to pick out of their very small grab-bag when a url is necessary for street-cred in their latest in-depth analysis), if you can’t muster the juice to sing a soul-stirring song about this beautiful web of voices we’re collectively weaving, then I suggest you step the hell back, and point your fingers to those of us who can summon the muse and weave the hymns that will bind the New Tribes together.
"Instead we are offered a constrained model that, by focusing on the inessentials, drains weblogging of its poetry and promise. It's dispiriting that one of blogging's leading lights should have such an arid view of its future."
I think you're getting carried away here -- there's nothing constrained in the model I discussed and I hardly agree that posts and links are the "inessentials" of weblogging. They're just part of it, obviously without writers they'd be nothing.
To use your photography metaphor, how would you feel, as a photographer, if people wrote, "photography is taking pictures of scenic landscapes in Yosemite" because they viewed Ansel Adam's photographs? I don't think you'd agree with that definition of photography. You'd probably say, "actually, photography involves using a camera, which has a lense through which light passes, exposing an image on film, etc." What makes photography inspiring and brilliant is the way people use their cameras -- what they chose to photography, the moments they capture, the compositions they create.
Blogs are incredible for the same reasons, but what I was trying to do in my article was simply point out that we can't define this thing based on the content we're outputting, just like you can't define photography based on the photos of one brilliant photographer. I tried to look beneath the content to the tools and format that enable us to make connections. I wasn't saying that's all there is to blogging, I was just saying that's one piece of it. Obviously without people, the community, and the creative output, blogging would be a lot less interesting, but that's a whole 'nother article to write.
Meg, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post.
You are absolutely correct to say that "What makes photography inspiring and brilliant is the way people use their cameras -- what they choose to photograph, the moments they capture, the compositions they create." One could write a similar sentence about "what makes blogging brilliant" and, in that sentence too, "people" would take precedence over "blogging tools and formats" just as they do over "cameras."
I didn't suggest that we could "define this thing based on the content we're outputting," nor did I attempt to "define photography based on the photos of one brilliant photographer." The Walker Evans example argues that talking about wonderful photographs merely in terms of formats and specifications trivializes the aesthetic and communicative intent and result.
Nor did I suggest that there's no place for a discussion of "the tools and format that enable us to make connections." Rather I argued that the technical details are secondary to a discussion that focuses on "the people, the community, and the creative output."
As you admit, "that's a whole 'nother article to write." I'm saying that's the article that should have been written first.
"I didn't suggest that we could..."
No, and I wasn't saying you did. I was referring to my article, in which I was reacting to the score of recent articles that attempt to define blogging by its content, for example Catherine Seipp's piece, which I quoted. I understand your Walker Evans example, I was using your metaphor to futher explain the point I was making in my article.
"I'm saying that's the article that should have been written first."
By all means then, go ahead and write it. I look forward to reading it.
"If you can't muster the juice to sing a soul-stirring song about this beautiful web of voices we're collectively weaving, then I suggest you step the hell back, and point your fingers to those of us who can summon the muse and weave the hymns that will bind the New Tribes together."
The arrogance and hyperbole astounds me. The weblogging "community" would do well to learn some humility as they go forward into this bright Utopian future he describes.
Scott, your comment helped me clarify the issue that lies at the bottom of this discussion. I see now that Stavros is suggesting an alternative blogging paradigm: blogging as art, rather than blogging as reportage. And, like it or not, humility is a quality that is rarely useful to artists.
Fuck humility, let's dance!
There is a lyric in an old Talking Heads song called "Mind."
"I need something to change your mind"
Blogging is indeed, changing minds. The inventions beyond glass-plates changed photography too. It took 30 or 40 years for the technology to change the minds of photographers, and create the climate that could produce a Walker Evans. Meg's article is about the strange weather created by the tools; how would yet another ethnography of blogging explain why this is happening? Minds are being changed by the invention of new tools. Doesn't anyone wonder why? I suspect, as Meg does, that the tools have as much to do with it as the geniuses that use them.
Blogging is changing minds, not just creating geniuses.
Can't we talk about the weather?
If Meg's article had actually been "about the strange weather created by the tools" and not just about tools and formats, I have little doubt I'd have been enthusiastic too.
Considering how many blogs are devoted to the use of blog tools, or feature entries on these techniques, I was a little surprised at the reaction to Meg's article.
It seems to me it's actually a good point to begin the discussion of whether bloggers should aspire to be Journalists.
I, like Jonathonk, think the medium is better suited to other aims, but there' s very little discussion of the real strengths, and weaknesses, of the blogging "medium" and how to take advantage of them.
I'm here for the Journey to the East.
Sheila, you've come to the right place. Although the final itinerary hasn't yet been decided, our intrepid band has taken a quick detour to Japan and South Korea (so I guess you could say that we arrived before we started out). Check back frequently -- and make sure you've brushed up on your grammar.
Well, Jonathan, my old college roommate lives in Kathmandu -- interested in a free crib there?
Jorn Barger blogged this Kesey quote last week ... "The answer is never the answer. Whatís really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, youíll always be seeking. Iíve never seen anybody really find the answer ó they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek the mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer."
I don't think he had an itinerary.
p.s. I blog with Dreamweaver, copying and pasting each item into a permalink page. I'm not proud of it, but it does keep me out of the blogtool debates.
This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.
© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour