Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Ephemeral Post: Posterity or Posthistory?

What will historians, literary critics, sociologists, etc. interested in the early 21st century read 200 years from now? Will they be reading blogs? Will they be able to read blogs? Are blogs too ephemeral to provide a lasting cultural record?

I’m sure there are some obsessed bloggers printing out every post, and some more tech-savvy ones backing up their blogs on CD. But what are Blogspot, Typepad, or other blog hosting services doing with all of that data? Are they backing it up for posterity sake? Will some intrepid 23rd-century historian stumble upon a cache of old servers in a warehouse and discover a trove of writing not read since it briefly flashed on a few monitors at the dawn of a new century?

At least with books, newspapers, diaries and letters a few survive for years, sometimes centuries, despite the fragile nature of the medium. There is at least something physical to hand down from one generation to next or to be stored in an attic or on a library shelf until someone discovers it.

Hopefully an astute editor is planning on publishing The Best American Blog Posts 2006 (something in vein of The Best American Essays 2004, of course, the sex blogs have beat everyone to the punch; why is that when it comes to the net, sex always seems to be leading the way?) This way there will be printed backup for the electronic backup.

Of course the value of blogs really isn’t the future, but what they provide now—a forum for debate, for discussing ideas, expressing opinions, etc. Did Orwell write because he thought all of his essays would be collected in one massive volume? Did Jefferson and Adams correspond so we could read their letters today? Though I’m sure visions of literary immortality lurk in the recesses of every writers’ mind (they are an underlying theme of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.”), blogs, like most writing, is about the present. Jefferson and Adams were exchanging personal information and hammering out political differences as they related to the young republic, not writing for historians. That’s what blogs are doing—though it will be shame if all of this writing is lost to the future.

Pepys Revenge: The Blog Strikes Back

The discussion over at AmbivaBlog on the literary forebears of blogging, the Blogfathers, got me thinking that despite the apparent revolutionary nature of blogging, it is in many ways old fashioned, even reactionary. The medium may be new, but the means are not.

In this era of visual images, moving pictures, and declining readership, blogs are reviving the old traditions of the written word—traditions represented by letter writing, pamphlets, broadsides, diaries, and journals.

But blogging also taps into another old tradition: the tradition of the engaged reader; the reader, like Coleridge, jotting marginalia beside important passages or copying passages and commenting on them in a journal. Something I’ve been doing since college.

In a recent Slate article (hat tip: the always astute AmbivaBlog) Josh Levin lashes out at bloggers by comparing them to rappers (for a good laugh, read the whole piece). He says, “Essentially, blogging is sampling plus a new riff. Political bloggers take a story in the news, rip out a few chunks, and type out a few comments.” This is supposed to be derogatory, but I am thinking, great. This means people are engaged readers. Why as Pattercio (hat tip: Iconic Midwest) points out is the MSM so quick to bash the very people that are taking the time to read them and are engaged enough to comment. The MSM should be happy such folks exist. (Or do they prefer us just to be docile and hand over our hard-earned cash for their product?)

This leads to another old tradition. Blogging, and political blogging in particular, is also an extension of the letter-to-the-editor and the op-ed page. But now more voices can be heard and the writer has more opportunity/space to express his or her ideas and opinions.

None of this is meant to suggest that blogging is only a reaction to the MSM. The best blogs offer original and thoughtful commentary on a variety of subjects—commentary that is often much better than anything found in the MSM.

One thing that makes blogging different from all of these traditions are links. The fact that one blog leads to another and another then to an article and so on is great—creating a web of ideas, a collective consciousness that can be tapped into at a moments notice. Books and articles can provide this as well, but not with a simple click of the mouse.

From Orwell to Althouse, from Paine to Sullivan, from the Frankfurt School to Old Town Review Chronicles, from Coleridge to Josh Corey, from Burke to the Captain’s Quarters, blogs are reviving the old traditions of the written word, the engaged reader, and informed debate. Viva las blogs!

Update: For anyone interested, some hardy soul is publishing every daily entry from Pepys diary as a daily blog post.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Blog-o-matic Blogging

As anyone who has stopped by in the last couple of months has noticed, I haven’t been blogging much. I have been traveling lots for work, which means when I am home I’m playing catch up – all of which limits my blogging time. Not to mention it was keeping me up late at night, not always the healthiest of options. Though I have always thought sleep was over rated and somewhat a waste of time. If the body and mind didn’t require it, I’m not sure I would sleep; though it is nice waking up refreshed, the cares of the previous day washed away.

Despite the lull in writing that old idea-machine the mind has still been active. I’ve tried to keep up with a few favorite blogs, read books and the news, and listen to jazz – all of which require comment, of course. However, all my commenting has been taking place in the shower or on long work-related drives through Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. So what I need is some sort of blog-o-matic device that publishes my thought-posts directly to my blog. Or at the very least a device that would covert speech to digital text…or I could just try podcasting. Now that’s a scary thought, podcasting from the shower. However, podcasting while driving around the south sounds intriguing. One problem, I don’t like the sound of my own voice. That why I love the written word.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Travel Notes: More on New York & New Orleans, plus Austin & Amarillo

Traveling for work has once again kept me from doing much blogging. January is particularly busy for me, I have been on the road at least a part of every week since the beginning of the year, and have a two or three more weeks of heavy traveling ahead of me. I’m not complaining, I enjoy the traveling, except it keeps me away from my wife, dog, and two cats.

In a comment to my last Travel Notes post my fellow ex-Missourian over at Iconic Midwest responded to my comments on New York and New Orleans being the quintessential American cities:

This is both right and wrong. New York & New Orleans reach unique heights that makes them truly great world cities. But that is also their problem as well. They offer an experience you could only get in America, but not a uniquely American experience. For any foreign visitor who really wants to know something about America they are much better off getting to know places like Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Memphis, Austin, etc. It is in these places that you can see the diffusion of the great urban experiences of New York and New Orleans to urban America more generally speaking.

I would agree that a foreign traveller would get a more complete understanding of America by visiting cities like St. Louis, Ceveland or Memphis (I’ll come to Austin later.) But I think it is native-born Americans who can learn the most about America from New Orleans and New York. I don’t think it is an accident that such iconic American writers as Tennesse Williams, William Faulkner, or Walt Whitman all spent a portion of their formative years in New Orleans (and Whitman, of course, spent much time in New York), or that so many writers have spent time in NYC. This is not to say that these cities are better, and this has nothing to do with the overused red state/blue state dicotohmy. But it does mean that we can learn a lot about the US from these two cities. They represent some of the essences of America in their most concentrated form.

For me one of the main charateristics of America is its unique blend of cultures and religions. No other country has been influenced by and assimilated more cultures to create a unique cultural blend than America. Interestingly in today’s New York Times Book Review Noah Feldman comments in a review essay on recent books on Islam and Terrorism:

Our constitutional combination of freedom to practice one's religion, coupled with the strong separation of church and state, has worked far better in accommodating religious diversity than anything Europe has yet dreamed up.

This diversity of both religions and cultures is best displayed in New York. And this is as the Iconic Midwestern points out then diffused through out the rest of the country: St. Louis has its Italian neighborhood, the Hill; Houston, has Tex-Mex, a China Town that should really be a Little Hanoi, because of the large Vietnamese-American population, and the intersection of Harwin and Hillcroft, where a Columbian empanada place is neighbor to a Halal Chinese Restaurant, and a Pak-Indian grocery store. But in these cities and others it seems you have to try a little harder to uncover this uniqueness, in New York it is right there on almost every street, and in New Orleans you find highlighted the pre-Ellis Island, pre-20th century version of this in the French and African influences of that city. It is by visiting these cities that one can really experience this, especially if you, like me, grew up in a small, rural Midwestern town, which, by the way, only this year got a national fast-food chain, a Subway.

If foreign travelers wanted to experience the “American-ness,” for lack of a better term, of the US, they should visit Amarillo, TX. Anchoring the Texas panhandle and the High Plains that consist of North East New Mexico, the Okalahoma panhandle, South East Colorado, and much of Kansas, Amarillo is flat, cattle and farm country. Home of the National Quarter Horse Museum, the Big Texan Restaurant, one of those places that if you eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour you get it free, and not far from the beautiful Palo Duro Canyon State Park, this is real cowboy country. The Amarillo Airport has the only security check point I’ve been through that provides boot jacks for removing cowboy boots. Amarillo was also a stop on Route 66 and is home of that all-American art installation, Cadillac Ranch. Amarillo has the only cable I’ve seen (and mind you I haven’t seen them all) that has five Christian stations. I’ve even heard some of the alt-looking kids working at Starbucks talking about seeing a Christian rock group. Yes, I did say Starbucks. Amarillo has that, two in fact, plus many other chain restaurants and stores. With its mix of cowboys, Christianity, conservative politics, corporate retail outlets, car culture, and unique Texas independence (reflected in Cadillac Ranch and the fact that this area is home of the original Alt-Country group the Flatlanders, which launched the careers of Texas/Austin musicians Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock), Amarillo in many ways reflects what many foreigners might consider American.

Music is a nice segue to Austin, where I was last week, and which is a mix of Haight-Asbury hippiness, Nashville, Dallas and well, Amarillo. But it my opinion it is much better than all four—the best damn city in Texas. Home of the University of Texas and the Texas State capitol, it has had, for years, a vibrant music scene. Austin is the only city I know that has its won music video station, Austin Music Network, and its own national music show, Austin City Limits. It prides itself on maintaining unique and independent businesses and culture(s)—characterized by their Keep Austin Weird campaign and such great businesses as Book People, one of the premier independent booksellers in the US, and Waterloo Records, one of the premier independent music retailers. Austin is the home of its very own singular phenomenon, I’ll call it the red neck hippie—just think of Willie Nelson, but I think an even better example would be the men’s room in Austin’s Continental Club. The great honk-tonker Dale Watson, who turned down corporate Nashville to stick to his Hank Williams Sr./Merle Haggard roots, is on stage playing his boot-stompin’ trucker song, Truckstop in La Grange, when I notice scrawled in black above the urinal, “Who Would Jesus Torture.” The intrepid foreign traveler who plans on visiting Austin should pack their Doc Martins, Birkenstocks, and their cowboy boots.

This week I’m off to Blytheville, AR, Oxford, MS, and Jacksonville, MS. Three more towns that will probably prove, as do Austin, Amarillo, New Orleans, and New York, that despite justified fears of US homogenization, unique cultures still thrive and survive in the US of A.