Saturday, August 04, 2007

What matters for Sven, the anti-miscellaneous man

I'm talking about print reviewing here. For as exciting as the blogosphere is as a supplement, as a place of provocation and response, it is too fluid in its nature ever to focus our widely diverging cultural energies. A hopscotch through the referential enormity of argument and opinion cannot settle the ground under our feet. To have a sense of where we stand, and to hold not just a number of ideas in common, but also some shared way of presenting those ideas, we continue to need, among many others, The New York Times, the Globe, the Tribune, the LA Times, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. -- Sven Birkerts via wood s lot

Birkerts' four-panel dis-ease with blogs (zero links, two vaguely noodled examples) culminates in a call for a return to print, to the stable, the vertical, the non-miscellaneous: to corporate media-controlled newspapers. Blogs are too snaky, too id-dy, too ephemeral. His is a passion for the solid, for some sturdy, super-egoey bit of ground to stand on. He freely grants that the Arnoldian ideal was a chimaera, except possibly "in Ivy enclaves and a few nodal centers in post-war New York," but dismisses the possibility that conversations happening now transglobally among literate folks can produce value.

The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.
Here's what's odd: The for-want-of-a-better-word seeming confusion of "mattering" with the materiality of the medium. What matters for Sven is not the words, but the matter of them. If the cultural conversation is not in print (ideally in newsprint in a major USian city), it is immediately suspect. At no point does Sven take up any conversation, any discourse, any attempt to produce meaning on a blog. Yet he appears comfortable dismissing the entire phenomenon with a suspiciously self-deprecating wag of his graying locks:
Experiencing this, I become the gradually graying reviewer again. I can't help it. I am in every way a man of print, shaped by its biases and hierarchies, tinged by its not-so-buried elitist premises. My impulse is to argue that if the Web at large is the old Freudian "polymorphous perverse," that libidinally undifferentiated miasma of yearnings and gratifications, unbounded and free, then culture itself -- what we have been calling "culture" at least since the Enlightenment -- is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.
Here Birkerts joins that other master anti-miscelleneator, Andrew Keen, in calling for the de-emergence of voices that happen not to consist of the right stuff. (Calling it "print" is somewhat misleading, since blogs are mostly written, therefore at least emulate print.) Keen, who poses quite self-consciously in his blog as the anti-matter of David Weinberger:
Could Weinberger exist without me? Could I exist with him? Is this a publisher's plot or just the public effluence of a bad marriage?
Effluence smeffluence. Messers Keen and Birkerts, Arnoldian upholders of each other, ought to know that if they wish to distinguish what is the matter, and they discover that it is, in fact, the matter, then deviations from the material rules cannot be tolerated. Mr. Keen, who says "I'm currently reading everything about authority that I can get my hands on" ought to know that after the joys of dead trees and ink, nothing is more basic to the shared way of presenting...ideas in print than the ordering principles of grammar. Behold, then his handling of the apostrophe, and weep:

O tempura, o boar's head. The Apostrophe Protection Society has been advised.

See also this on one of the two blogs Sven noodles.
Update: Clay Shirky takes issue with Sven almost as an aside to a commentary on Nick Carr's criticism of Everything is Miscellaneous:
Birkerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.”

This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production.

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