Foxed by the blog

Foxed by the blog

Martin is on holiday, so he has kindly asked me to write for his blog. An honour, no doubt and one I’m happy to oblige. But it’s also a duty for which I cannot help feeling ambivalent. Why? Because I feel an enormous weight on my shoulders: I had better write something good. And I’d better write it now – it’s late and dark; and beside the words you read now, the screen is emphatically empty.

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:*
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

In his email, Martin told me I could write about ‘anything’. Despite its deceptively curt appearance, in ‘anything’ there are a lot of ‘things’. I know – I’ll do what all personal bloggers do when they first write a blog post: I’ll write about blogging.

Perhaps I could do something clever, some self-referential Calvino-esque trickery where I break through the fourth wall and ask: are you, dear reader, sitting comfortably before you embark upon reading this blog post? Is the television off; the children in bed; the doors fastened securely? Are you ensconced in your favourite chair, a glass of something on the table beside you, the black night kept at bay behind the window?

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

After all, some personal blogs (as opposed to commercial ones, say, written by teams like Engadget) seem to unashamedly emphasise their candour and seek to address the reader directly on level terms. Perhaps it’s to do with its origins: the blog (as you know) was often a kind of diary in an early incarnation, written with a suitably confessional, intimate tone. Writers used the first person perspective ‘I’ and reflected upon the more or less banal, confessional, sublime or profound, as they do now. As the function and purpose of blogs expanded, the perspective didn’t. Bloggers still used ‘I’ and often retained an element of self-awareness and introspection, even if they tackled current affairs, technology, environmental issues – or educational technology. Their thought process and reflection was and is an integral part of the blog. Blogging is to the Pompidou Centre what (some) literary fiction is to the Louvre: blogging puts all its workings, scribbles, thoughts and creativity on the outside for all to see, while fiction hides it under a huge and often impressive facade. No wonder writing about writing, setting out one’s blogging stall as it were, is often the first post a blogger writes. It sets the terms in which the blog should be read. But hold on. There’s a problem. I’ve stopped dead in my tracks.

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

The problem is, I’ve been incomplete. The meaning and effect of a blog is not just a product of the article, but also a product of the readers’ comments that accompany it. When we think of the blog like this, we find it’s a kind of concrete realisation of what literary theorist Roland Barthes’ would call a ‘writerly’ text. By this he meant that the text allows for the reader to participate in the creation of meaning by providing an opportunity for the reader to get involved with making meaning. Readers do this by actively engaging with the writing, getting under its skin, providing answers to the many questions these kinds of text raise (this is opposed to ‘readerly’ texts in which the reader occupies a more passive position). An often-used example is where books end with a cliffhanger that offers no solution: the reader must ‘write’ their own ending. For Barthes, that opportunity came about in complex texts that do not tell you everything. For blogging it comes about from the opportunity to re-write the post’s meaning or import in the comments. When we write comments on blogs we literally contributing to its meanings (some would say this discussion is the most important part of the blog). Blogs (and other collaborative documents, like wikis) are, in this sense, fundamentally writerly texts. I can sense something outside – what is it?

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

My mind is racing, thinking about writing and then writing what I’m thinking. What I mean is – when readers add comments, the notion of a fixed identity of the blog author is complicated, undermined even. The author stops being the sole provider of both the content (the blog post) and the terms in which it is read (that bit bloggers write to explain why they’re blogging). In other words, the blogger is no longer the only source of meaning in a blog.

Like the notion of a writerly text before it, this represents a concrete (albeit transformed) example of a theory made by Barthes. In this case, famously called the death of the author (oldish now, but still worth reading) the reader derives meaning from a variety of sources, of which the intention of the author is only one. Rather, we bring such things as our worldly experience, knowledge of how texts work, our education, our beliefs, and so when making sense of a text. When we invent meaning for ourselves the author can no longer tell us what the text means: once published, it is out there for all to interpret (in our case, what we know as the ‘blogosphere’) and no longer owned by the author (the latter idea a neat reflection of the current debate on copyright; but that’s another story). Barthes expressed the dissipation of the author of sole arbiter of meaning in the memorable image that the author has died. Similarly, the author of the blog post ‘dies’ when readers re-negotiate, re-interpret and literally re-write the meanings and values of the blog post in their comments. The blogger dies twice. Hold on – something is stirring…

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about it’s own business

So – reflecting, creating; writing; thinking about writing; thinking as we’re writing – these are all being changed by blogging. Some day soon, theorists of interpretation will need to expand their horizons to include an analysis on how the meanings of texts, now including blogs and other collaborative documents, are created.

But until then – I’m spent. I have no idea what I’m going to write for this guestblog. No – this whole business is proving too difficult. I’m going to tell Martin I can’t do it. That is, unless…

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

*'The Thought Fox' by Ted Hughes. From New Selected Poems.


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