It’s not that I’m biased… or, rather, my biases pull me in two directions. On one hand, I greatly admire the new journal n+1 – its moral seriousness, its elegant writing, its stewardship of the Frankfurt School legacy. On the other hand, I regularly contribute reviews to the blog on which this post is appearing. And so, while part of me wants to sneer along with n+1‘s backhanded compliment to literary bloggers – that they represent “the avant-garde of 21st Century publicity” – another, better informed part of me rebels. The current issue of n+1 raises many legitimate questions about the transformation of consciousness and culture we are (proximally and for the most part unreflectively) undergoing. I am myself suspicious of the Infotainment Revolution, and it seems peevish to dismiss an entire critique in order to defend a scrap of turf. But when n+1 stoops to the kinds of gross generalizations and straw-man-thrashing we are accustomed to seeing on the covers of the newsweeklies, it threatens to undermine its own mission. A little background…
The Winter 2007 issue of n+1 – “The Decivilizing Process” – concerns itself with technology and the culture industry, and if its unsigned, front-of-the-book essays are polemical, they are generally justified in being so. The spirits of Marshall McLuhan and Theodor Adorno hover in the background like a beyond-the-grave odd couple, the former insisting that media are only as good or bad as the uses to which people put them, the latter asserting that those uses are likely to reinforce the worst tendencies of the capitalist world-order that birthed them. Thus one writer points out that silence, a hard-won legacy of literate civilization, has, in the age of “Whenever Minutes” begun to disappear. (No doubt some enterprising corporation will soon be marketing “silence spas” or “silence earmuffs” – selling back to us what we once had for free.)
In a short piece called “The Blog Reflex,” n+1 extends its critique to the blogosphere, suggesting that reflexive antagonism and an imperative for speed have undercut the much-hyped democratic potential of the blog:
Yet criticism as an art didn’t survive. People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. [...] The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction – “The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!” – or displeasure – “I shit on Dante!” So man hands on information to man.
Not least among the problems with this premature obituary for the blog is that it is, in many small ways, accurate. Anyone looking for an Ebert-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Dante will no doubt find one on the internet. Google will even tell you how long the search took. Blogs both reiterate and catalyze the coarsening of the culture… the dumbing-down, the, uh…whatever. (Tocqueville knew that democracy tends to aim toward a B-minus.) And for reasons too complex to go into here (I’m intentionally trying to illustrate one of n+1’s points) the blog as an instrument of kulturkritik may be as compromised as those other artifacts of industrial capitalism – film, the photograph, the short story, jazz, rock n’ roll… even (gasp!) the magazine.
Yet, depending on one’s degree of fatalism about world history, the medium may not doom the message. Some of us on the American left believe that Jean-Luc Godard, Walker Evans, Donald Barthelme, Archie Shepp, and The Clash managed to transcend the limitations of their respective media, to push some kind of shake-up in the system, to preserve a space for free movement in an increasingly die-cut, cast-iron (or, later, iPod-sleek, powered-by-Intel) landscape. If n+1 took Adorno’s suspicions about mass culture more seriously, why would its editors seek to penetrate the citadels of Random House and Doubleday? Why would they run ads for HarperCollins? Why would they continue to publish? (Why would they demand 5,000 word critiques of favorite records? (Why, in Adorno’s case, did bourgeois high-culture continue to matter?)) Obviously, some accommodation with the system has been reached, and more power to n+1 for continuing to fight the good fight. But to call out others for their own accommodations is to devolve to the level of intellectual pissing match. Or maybe King of the Hill is more apposite.
Lit-bloggers “represent a perfection of the outsourcing ethos of contemporary capitalism,” we are told.
Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits – by their clicks you shall know them – and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses – fillips of contempt, wet kisses – aren’t criticism.
Just for clarification, dear reader: this isn’t a fillip of contempt. It’s a fusillade. (Flame on!)
Here we must grapple with the anonymous writer’s rhetoric: call it the Argument contra Fortiori. He or she proceeds from the premise that “I shit on Dante” is the alpha and omega of lit-blog discourse. But just as the lazy researcher can Google up coprophiliac reductions of il divino poeta, he can also easily find the sorts of long essays n+1 values – the kinds of essays (not incidentally) at which n+1 excels. For example, Scott Esposito’s Quarterly Conversation, an extension of his excellent blog, recently ran the most considered critique I’ve yet read of William H. Gass’ The Tunnel… and I’ve read many of them. The Lit-Blog Co-op, mixing old-fashioned boosterism with serious discussion, helps to bring overlooked novels, many of them progressive and anti-capitalist, to the public’s attention. The LBC does it not for the publishers, little enterprises like Minneapolis’ Coffee House Press, but for the authors, and for the readers. Ed Champion’s recent round-table on Against the Day, meanwhile, offered readers much-needed context for that profoundly leftist novel.
Many of us engaged in this work feel that the institutions that might have done it in the past have vanished or sold out (the book club), refined themselves into impotence (the salon), or abdicated their critical instincts in favor of precisely the kind of PR-flackmanship n+1 lays at the feet of the literary blog. I won’t make the case that my own writings for The Millions are anything other than superior versions of newspaper-supplement reviews, but I do know that serious literary bloggers see themselves as an antidote to a vertically integrated media sector and a closed-circuit publishing industry.
There is merit in n+1‘s attack on the hyperlink ethos of the blogs. In lieu of critical writing, a list of links can easily decay into an endorsement of an industry’s buzz about itself. Does tracking down links count as journalism? An interesting question. But, given that many of the lit-blogs least vulnerable to charges of thoughtlessness link to one another, and given that these blogs are quite popular, it seems to me startling that n+1 didn’t manage to stumble across them in its internet divagations.
Indeed, I seem to hear the call-note of territorialism sounded beneath n+1‘s write-off of the literary blog. (Note the way “their clicks” shades into “your posts.”) The “aura of indie cred” paired with recognition “from the big houses”… once upon a time this intersection might have been the exclusive province of literary journals. But the best literary blogs, free from the economic vicissitudes of the print journal, have begun to encroach. What can editors who have “only their precarious self-respect” do but fire a warning shot? “So much typing, so little communication…” In this summary dismissal, I learn more about n+1‘s own anxieties than I do about the potential of the blog as a medium for “the free activity of the mind.”
But perhaps I’m inferring too much. In any case, n+1 has little to worry about. Its editors are prodigiously gifted, respected, drowning in “indie cred,” and despite (or because of) such stimulating missteps as “The Blog Reflex,” the journal provides a much-needed antidote to the inanities of consumer culture. The biggest danger would be for n+1 to fall through the trap-door of elitism, around which Adorno himself danced. Communication requires both speakers and listeners, and by making common cause with like-minded bloggers, n+1 might swell the ranks of the enlightened, rather than going the genteel way of the salon. To that end, its introductory essaylets would do well in the future to forgo simplistic binary code – Literary Blogs: Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down? – in favor of sustained, thoughtful analysis.
See more about n+1‘s “The Decivilizing Process” here. “The Blog Reflex” is, unsurprisingly, not currently available online.
Update: If you’re not tired of this yet, see the follow-up post: Love: A Burning Thing.