September 19, 2004
As soon as I'm on top of things

I've been thinking about why I don't write and post here more often. I think it's because I see the format of the weblog as being about responding to something immediately present, and I'm constrained by that. I suppose I've been overcome with the (fairly realistic) feeling that my adding my two cents on any particular issue isn't going to make any discernible difference... in anything.

Political weblogging is driven by a consistant level of self-importance, as if one's contribution to the debate is somehow essential. I may have once felt that way, but these days it's the opposite: every time I think to write a letter or a weblog entry, I just feel that it's hopeless. I'll spend three hours researching a few points, and learn about a situation, write and rewrite about it, only to do nothing with the results. Preemptively deflated.

It isn't that there isn't an audience; I'm sure plenty of people would read it, for whatever reason. But something takes away my motivation, often before I even get started.

All of this is a negative way of saying that I'm trying to rethink how I use this space. The few folks who come back and check now and then have noticed that this hasn't amounted to much, as of late.

To paraphrase Donald Knuth: weblogs are great for staying on top of things, and though my work requires a fair bit of this, I'm personally more and more interested in getting to the bottom of things, as it were.

Staying on top of things can be, and perhaps inherently is, a mildly violent act. It involves the articulation and constant rearticulation of an approach, a set of concerns, or a philosophy, as applied to a daily example. It is the expression of a pre-established invulnerable position from which understanding has already happened before the facts arrive.

One does not often speak of attempting to get on top of things; one stays there.

The constant assertion of understanding can make it difficult to see anything unique, singular, or new in the things one is 'on top of'. One risks the opposite of what C. Wright Mills advocated when he wrote:

The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things. Fresh perception now involves the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications swamp us.

In 'getting to the bottom of things', by contrast, one implicitly concedes that arrival is imminent, but not present. [I just realized that Knuth says "be at the bottom of things, but it still seems awkward to me.] It's interesting that while I might say "I need to get to the bottom of this", I can't imagine saying "I finally got to the bottom of it". Instead, the metaphors immediately switch from arrival to possession: "I've got it!" "I finally wrapped my head around it." Or at least the transition is quick, as in: "I've hit pay dirt!"

The transition to finding a way to shift my mindset (and the perceived constraints and expectations that are wrapped up with any medium) from responding to statements, reports, and facts to reflectively attempting to understand them.

In particular, I'm interested in understanding how a world of infinite facts is subordinated to the activity of watching the news, reading a paper, or perusing web sites. To put it in the already-tiresome terms, I want to get to the bottom of how we stay on top of things.

To this end, I've been compiling notes for the past six months on objectivity and journalistic practices. If I keep them in sunlight and water them regularly, I hope they will eventually turn into a book. I've begun writing for the media analysis section of the Dominion, so that, as Stan Goff put it, my abstractions touch the ground. Evan's recent posts have also inspired me to dig up some old threads in my thinking and begin watering the other book that's lurking in some recurring themes about the politics of communication technology.

Like jogging every day, writing and thinking in an externally tangible way is something that I, full of optimism, regularly re-commit myself to. Though the commitment sometimes rings hollow in hindsight, I see no alternative to continuing to do so. This post, and the writing that will follow, are as much for me as they are for anyone who might still be listening... as it should be.

(Here's the second half of Mills' paragraph:

These worlds of mass-art and mass-thought are inceasingly geared to the demands of politics. That is why it is in politics that intellectual solidarity and effort must be centred. If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political stuggle, he [sic] cannot responsibly cope with the whole of lived experience.

posted by dru in article