Michael Keren: bloggers are melancholic, politically passive and can’t connect with society
I’m reading Michael Keren’s book Blogosphere: The New Political Arena, and I’m finding it very annoying. (I suppose the cover should have warned me, eh?) At first I thought the title must be wrong: I thought it would be about political blogging. But the introduction says that the book looks at blogs from the perspective of life-writing and autobiography. The bulk of the book is in the middle nine chapters, where each is a close reading of a single blog: kottke.org, megnut.com and Lt. Smash are the ones I’m familiar with, but the selection is lovely and broad, including blogs from India, Africa, Iran, Israel and Canada in addition to the US, and the gender balance is good too. None of these blogs is particularly political, and the chapters I’ve read so far do not seem to deal with politics, other than the complaints that the sites aren’t political enough, which makes the title misleading. However, the author is a political scientist – so perhaps he sees politics more broadly than I had imagined?
Unfortunately, the introduction makes it clear that Keren looks at blogs through a very limited perspective. He argues that blogs are melancholic, in the sense of the narrator of Dostojevski’s Notes from Underground – this man lives in a mouse hole and feels fundamentally outside, excluded from society – and in Freud’s sense:
In “Mourning and Melancholia”, Sigmund Freud defined the distinguishing features of melancholy as profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of self-regarding feelings “to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. (12)
Well, that sounds just like blogs, don’t you think! Keren further notes that melancholics need to talk about their melancholy all the time. But they don’t do anything about it – they’re fundamentally passive (p 13). So the idea of the melancholic blogger fits nicely with the image of bloggers as bizarre exhibitionists. Keren quotes Freud:
It must strike us that after all the melancholiac’s behaviour is not in every way the same as that of one whoe is normally devoured by remorse and self-reproach. Shame before others, which would characterise this condition above everything, is lacking in him, or at least there is little sign of it. One could almost say that the opposite trait of insistent talking about himself and pleasure in the consequent exposure of himself predominates in the melancholiac. (Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, p 157, qtd by Keran, p 12)
Interestingly enough, Keren (who doesn’t blog himself) notes on page 14 that when he attended conference panels on blogging, he was “probably the only melancholic in the room”. No wonder his glasses are rose-coloured, sorry, melancholy-coloured. Keren saves his argument from this apparent paradox by claiming that he’s not labelling individual bloggers as melancholics, he’s talking about the blogosphere (or “blogosphere” without a “the” as he insists on calling it) as a whole. The point is the “norms apparent in [the blogosphere’s] thought and action, and those emerging in blogosphere are often norms of withdrawal, not of enlightenment” (14). On the next page he’s even clearer: “The withdrawal and rejection identified wtih melancholy, I would like to argue, is not a personal quality of bloggers but a systemic attribute of blogosphere.”
In his analyses, however, Keren does not maintain this separation of the general politics of the blogosphere and the individual disposition and life of bloggers. Actually, in the paragraph right before that last quote, he already confuses the two: “Millions of individuals write their lives while giving up on living them” (14). And although he argues that he’s only analysing the “characters (whether fictional or real) that emerge from these diaries” (11), in his analyses there is little awareness of this – or at least, any such awareness is not expressed explicitly.
So Jason Kottke, for instance, is for Keren a melancholic who is characterised by “political withdrawal” (30) who lives “on the edge of urban life” (31) based on the lack of discussion of political issues on kottke.org (which is after all a blog about design and technology) and on a couple of posts where Kottke describes feeling out of place among all the designer-clothed people on 5th avenue and another where he describes rules for ignoring each other on the NYC subway – hardly unusual New York experiences. Keren’s interpretation is broad and absolute, though: “The perception of life on the edge makes political activity seem futile – something others are engaged in” (31). Kottke.org, for Keren, is the center of an internet “cult”, where readers respond only to issues that deal with cyberspace and “virtual reality” (26). In summary, Keren finds Kottke.org is characterised by “withdrawal into virtual reality, cult-like relations forming in blogosphere, and an overall political passivity” (35). “The cult seems generally disinterested in anything happening in the world unless it is related to the cyber-world” (30) – yes of course! It’s a blog about technology and design!
A major fallacy in Keren’s interpretations of “blogosphere” in general and of these blogs in particular is his assumption that a blog represents the blogger’s life – that bloggers actually blog everything, or even that what they blog is intended to portray a “whole” picture of their lives. If I were to write an autobiography, I would certainly leave a lot out, but I would attempt to create a narrative of my life that seemed balanced and that included all aspects of my life that were important to me. When I blog, I leave out 99% of my life. I don’t blog about hanging out with my friends, or about family get-togethers or gardening or my emotional concerns. I rarely blog about what I vote in elections or which political meetings I attend or whether I’m active in organisations that have nothing to do with the topic of this blog. I blog very, very little about my daughter or my husband. This blog is about my research and to some extent, about teaching and about what it’s like working as an academic.
I don’t think this is because I’m an academic writing about research. Fashion bloggers blog about fashion, not about the latest gadget or about politics or about parties they’ve been to (unless they dressed well for them). Knitting bloggers blog about their knitting projects. Gadget bloggers about gadgets. Diarists blog about their daily lives. None of these are going to portray all aspects of a blogger’s life – or even all aspects of a blogger’s online activities.
Based on Keren’s reading of Kottke.org and the other blogs he discusses, my blog – and thus I – would be “melancholic” and “withdrawn from society” and “in a cult where everything is about cyberspace” and “politically disinterested”. Which is, to my mind, entirely beside the point.
There are some reasons to read the book. I enjoyed Kottke’s analysis of Lt Smash’s site, where he doesn’t go on about melancholy but instead sees a transition in this soldier’s writing from everyday descriptions of a civilian thrust into the army to a way of presenting the war that is far closer to shiny media portrayals in movies and presidential addresses. This is an interesting argument.
There are also discussions of a number of blogs that I’m not familiar with – and while I haven’t read these yet, I certainly intend to. That is, if I can get past the antagonistic comments Keren made about bloggers in this interview with the Globe and Mail.
Until then, I’ll just continue to be annoyed at the portrayal of bloggers as melancholic – or nihilistic. I suspect it’s largely the authors of these portrayals that are melancholic and nihilistic, rather than the bloggers.