Someone recently encouraged me to write more, because words arent lifeblood. Words are cheap. Words are certainly held cheap, and the blogosphere has drastically lowered the going rate.
This is a development entirely in conformity with the spirit of the age, which, as Wendell Berry observed, does not ask a man what he can do well but what he can do fast and cheap. Berry and I are not alone in thinking that this is a bad state of affairs. Its no small problem that our society is trying to do very important business with increasingly debased currency. Which brings to mind Neil Postman.
Next year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Postmans seminal Amusing Ourselves to Death . This crotchety but funny and incisive little book diagnosed American political discourse as frivolous two decades before George Weigel, writing in First Things pages, condemned vacuous narrative-driven politics .
But while Weigel blamed postmodern relativism, Postman argued that the cultural dominance of television, a medium designed to entertain and basically incapable of anything else, necessarily turned everything, including elections, into a form of entertainment.
Television presents the world as an easily comprehended spectacle marked by novelty and variety. If it is used to transmit serious ideas it will, at best, seriously distort them to make them more entertaining. The medium, he said, riffing on Marshall McLuhan is the metaphor. The ruling metaphor of a society determines how the world is chiefly understood and discussed.
Reading Postman for the first time last month gave me clearer language to explain my rage against the rise of blogging. For what he says about media can be said about literary forms”they are biased toward certain kinds of content. The blogpost is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness. It thus hands the public square over to bullies, sophists, and clowns.
Some of my very astute pro-blog friends have argued that, whatever their drawbacks, blogs create a democratic public space whose occupants are minimally beholden to state and corporate interests. For the discerning reader, entering the blogosphere is just like listening in on a fascinating conversation among free, brilliant interlocutors. The incompleteness, electicism, and so on are characteristic of good conversation.
There is of course some truth in that. There are proportionately few but absolutely many good blogs, and theres nothing wrong with reading them. For all my young fogeyism I make a point of reading them myself.
But few of the good blogs my friends or I read are popular, and they are all constantly pushed towards superficiality by the ruling imperative of generating traffic.
Furthermore, even good blogging threatens to worsen our already bad relation with the written word. Several excellent bloggers have told me that they find it much harder than they once did either to follow sustained written arguments (especially when not tricked out with flashy rhetoric) or to make such arguments themselves; they have grown impatient with writing that does not meet bloggy criteria.
This is a disturbing development. As Postman argued, the written word remains the best tool of serious public discussion, whether political, religious, philosophical, or scholarly. The written word freezes thought, making it the ideal medium for precise, complete, carefully ordered, rational arguments, which may then be inspected and discussed at length.
Writers who expect sustained public inspection tend to think long and hard before publishing. Readers who assume writers have thought long and hard tend to read with intense attention. This leads, in general, to good writing, good reading, and good thinking. Such an environment is a precondition for vigilant citizenship and a civil society vibrant with critical intelligence. What is more, this environment disciplines speedy, prolific, lively writers, ultimately to their own advantage.
Of course I have no idea what policies, programs, or movements could plausibly revive what Postman calls the Typographic Mind. The only solution I know is a slow, personal one: It is the painful discipline of changing my own detestable habits of inattention, sloppiness, and waggish opportunism in daily conversation, whether written or oral, and of writing with the assumption that my reader’s attention is generous and his time valuable.
But most of all I try to limit my time among the tireless chatterers of the blogosphere. This alone can preserve some sense of the reverence for words I would like to retain, however much and however fast I write.
Certainly, indolence, cowardice, or vanity can hide behind pretended reverence for words, but irreverence seems quite obviously the more pressing danger. A little care and humility is in order, for words are the main vehicle of culture and science, and the vital medium of a free republic. They bind the living and the dead, God and man into a communion of love and knowledge. Words are not lifeblood, except in the sense that they are.
Stefan McDaniel writes from New York.
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