Friday 3 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!


Fat said...

It is so tempting to say "I hear what you are saying Ben"

Matheson said...

Great stuff, Ben! You've almost tempted me to start a blog (second attempt), not so much as an end in itself but as the means to a particular form of community.

tw said...

but you are alone, in front of your computer.

Daniel Hartley said...

I agree with tw - blogging is only 'virtual' community, not 'actual' community. In fact, what better way for a ruling elite to exacerbate current levels of social atomisation than to feed people this anaemic supplement for genuine fellowship?

Ian Packer said...

This is worth exploring more, Ben... and particularly with the critical comments made in mind.

Some other differences...
The very casual and spontaneous nature of the writing that does not necessarily carry the weight or craftsmanship of earlier writers who imagined their text read by a community to whom they were more tangibly responsible.

And also: the leaping to speak in response so quickly by the commenting 'community' before that particular 'blogging moment' passes.

There is something about wisdom that involves time for both writer and readers/hearers; not that there is no wisdom accesssible in blogs; I just doubt it's formed much there...

Ted Michael Morgan said...

I do not yet know how this technology is changing how we read. I like it that you reflect and speculate on this matter.

Matt Cullen-Meyer said...

I believe the condition of blogging is similar to how a university classroom work. A form of "reading together" if you will. Albeit blogging is a lot cheaper

Stephen Chatelier said...

In response to Ian's comment: to me, the idea that wisdom hasn't had time to form properly in the blogging world, seems initially to be true. However, I would have thought that the thesis of 'blogging as a reading-together' allows for the idea that wisdom may well develop, over time, through conversations. If one wants EACH comment to be wise, then I am sure this is too much to ask. But is this not also the case in face-to-face conversation?

Perhaps silence and solitude are necessary to the development of wisdom, but I would argue that so is conversation and, moreover, that this conversation need not ALWAYS be well-considered, but can be 'reactionary'.

So rather than be terribly concerned by the "wisdom" of each individual comment, I like to look over the conversation of a blog as a whole. I think, in doing this, wisdom is to be often found.

Lastly, the issue reminds me of the earlier "hymn" vs "chorus" posts by Stackhouse and then here by Ben. Just as it is easy for us to generalise about the "goodness" or quality of hymns and the opposite of contemporary songs, I think it is common for people to generalise that, for example, books are "good" and well-researched and blogs are "bad" and spontaneous. Surely, though, there are rubbish books and wonderful blogs?!

Ian Packer said...

Hi Stephen

I wouldn't much disagree with what you've said, as it's not so much that I'd imagine that each comment should or could be wise. Neither would I imagine that spontaneity is 'a bad thing' or that it's impossible for flashes of insight that may indeed come in an aha moment. I think what I was driving at was that the nature of the technology and the sheer volume of blogs referring backward and forward to each other and the felt 'need' to respond to whatever is going on 'right now' should give one pause to imagine we have some kind of revolution of either knowledge or wisdom happening here with blogs.

Actually, I think Ben's blog is fairly unique in that it has managed to bring together a fairly consistent community of people who are capable of a good conversation (and I agree that wisdom is found in conversation). Hence, yes, I reckon if you looked at, say, Ben's blog, you would find quite some wisdom there.

What is the reading-together community in any given blog? Is it a relatively consistent community? Or is it primarily a fleeting collection of tourists from google searches swinging by to have their say?

I like what Ben is saying, but I reckon my questions are fair ones in any given instance.

Unknown said...

I had never thought about blogging as 'reading together', but it makes a lot of sense. I quite like the idea of it as a communal activity, rather than a solitary one. Although, I've just come from a blogging community where it feels less like reading together, and more like reading to a group of people who are ready to throw rotten tomatoes at you if you say anything they don't like.

I've left there in order to set up a blog on Blogger. Although I won't have nearly as many readers, I'm actually looking forward to blogging being more of a solitary activity for the moment.


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