Some Reflections on the Medium

I know that it has only been a few weeks since I began writing this thing that bears some resemblance to a blog, but the experience has been so singular for me that already I feel the need to reflect on what I have been learning. It is not so much that I have been surprised in my expectations, but that I had no real expectations to surprise and have found that perhaps I should have expected more.

As I have already indicated in a previous post on Writing for the Web, I have found the most difficult aspect of writing for the internet to be the demand for speed and brevity, and I have been experiencing this pressure as an intensification of the anxiety that I described in On What I do not Write, the anxiety that what I write will be inadequate because of insufficient introduction, contextualization, and rigour. I always feel that I am doing an injustice to the authors and texts and ideas that I am discussing, because I do not give them the time and the space that I feel them to deserve.

In my recent post on Ivan Illich, for example, I would have liked to give whole pages to the life that he chose to live, on the death that he chose to die, on each of the books that he wrote, on the places he worked, on the people he influenced, and these pages would have been what were proper to him. He required volumes to do him justice, where I could give him only paragraphs, or only sentences, or nothing at all. Even more troubling is the way that the demand for brevity forced me to be entirely reductive in my explanation of his ideas and their influence on me. What I found myself able to write was not even a just summary, not even a just recapitulation. This is the position in which this medium seems always to place on me, the effect that it seems always to have on me.

I do not have a solution for this position and this effect. Even my current length and style stretch the conventions for the medium of the blog. Anything longer or more rigorous would quickly become entirely unwieldy. It might be possible to push conventions even further with the sort of serial writing that I have been attempting through the posts on Other Things, but it would not be nearly sufficient to do justice to many of the subjects I would like to discuss. To some degree at least, I must be content with this inadequacy, even as I feel that I must continually draw attention to it.

I am finding, however, that what writing for the web offers me in return is not just the openness to response and to sharing that Dave Humphrey and Chris Land have noted, but a mode of publication that accommodates the rhythm of a lived life. It would not be possible for me to write in the sustained ways that the traditional publishing industry requires, even in the unlikely event that it would publish the sorts of things that I would write, because writing, for me, takes place in the cracks and the crevices of other things. I write words between marking papers and feeding bottles to babies, sentences between stirring pots on the stove and digging stumps in the yard, paragraphs between reading stories to children and conversing with visitors. The web allows me to write even despite the fact that I do not have, and do not want, the space to be a writer in the traditional sense.

This is not to say that I do not value the media through which writers have traditionally published themselves. My appreciation for the book in my hand and the pages on my fingers approaches the quality of a fetish. Even so, I recognize the fact that many people, even some who might have useful things to say and useful ways to say them, may find the traditional press unsuited to the ways that they want or need or are forced to write. My duties as a father, and a husband, and a friend, and a teacher, and a student, and a cook, and a gardener, and a reader, all make the avenue of the publishing industry an absurdity for me, and I am unwilling to sacrifice any of these things to any degree whatsoever in order to make that avenue less absurd. The rhythm of my life and of my writing are not compatible with the traditional press.

The internet, however, accommodates not only my rhythm, but many rhythms. Though its natural movement is celerity and brevity, it can be made to open itself to other ways of writing than that of the expert and the professional. It allows me to be a writer who takes the practice of writing seriously without needing this practice to be a profession or even a professionalism. It allows me to write as an amateur, not in the sense that I take writing and thinking lightly, but in the sense that I do not make these things my profession or depend upon them for my livelihood. It allows me the freedom to write in ways that would otherwise not be available to me.

It seems to me, then, that the task laid for the writer of the web, or at least for this writer of the web, is to find ways to both resist and welcome the web. The task is to reject the impulse to write hastily and thoughtlessly for the sake of being current, but yet to embrace the impulse to write according to a personal and idiosyncratic pace. It is to write with a rigour and a slowness and a lengthiness that challenges the web’s demand for currency, and yet to write with a singularity, an intimacy, and a personality that is made possible by the openness of the web to the amateur and the nonprofessional. It is this balance that I am trying to find.

  1. I think that something interesting is happening here: you’re trading depth of post for frequency of post. Look at how many words you’ve written/published in the the past month with this blog; I’d bet it’s more than you wrote last month, perhaps more than double.

    Also, I wonder if the web forces on you a promiscuous approach to writing, just as it does with reading. I wonder if it also elevates the amateur, who writes paragraphs instead of volumes about Illich, and seeks to create more of them.


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