Saturday, 4 July 2009

One more excerpt: blogging as a reading-together

Here’s one more brief excerpt from my paper on blogging – this is from a section entitled “Blogging as a Technology of the Self.”

Blogging is not only a new technology of writing; it’s also a new way of reading. In Christian antiquity, reading was a social activity, not a wholly private one. The earliest recorded incident of silent reading is found in Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine relates with astonishment Ambrose’s habit of reading in silence, a practice he had never seen before: “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”


Centuries later, reading as an oral and auditory social practice still remained the norm. Medieval writers “assumed that their readers would hear rather than simply see the text,” and their texts “repeatedly call upon the audience to ‘lend ears’ to a tale.” Only in the tenth century did reading practices start to become typically silent and solitary; by the modern period, the internalised nature of reading has become entirely self-evident. So that a literary critic like Harold Bloom can now simply define reading as the love of solitude; while George Steiner can argue that the busy sociality of modern life is destroying authentic reading, since “serious reading excludes even one’s intimates.”

In the world of Web 2.0, the ideal of the solitary reader is waning fast. Blogging is a kind of reading-together. It is the formation of a new kind of community of reading. No longer is reading an activity reserved for the private study, that carefully crafted space where thought is cultivated under conditions of silence, leisure, economic privilege. To read a blog is to participate in a collective reading process: on any given day, we all read the same post, the same thread of comments and responses. Such reading is far removed from solitude: the reading is understood primarily as a stimulus to conversation, criticism, discussion. Here, reading is not so much an end in itself as the means to a particular form of community. The very act of reading thus becomes a collective project.

Although I don’t share George Steiner’s cultural pessimism or his investment in the Victorian ideal of leisurely private reading, I think he showed remarkable insight when, as early as 1972, he noted the decline of solitary reading. Young people today, he observed, “read against a musical background or in company. Almost instinctively, they resent the solipsism … implicit in the classic act of reading. They wish to shut no one out from the empathic tide of their consciousness.” All this in 1972: one almost feels as though he was prophesying the existence of blogs!

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