Mark Dery on Thu, 6 Jan 2005 06:43:28 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Tissue Culture, Dental Horror, Maxillofacial Whatever: It's all good...

In the best tradition of shameless self-promotion and burnishing Brand
Me to a dull luster, a brief note to Nettimers to announce the launching
of my blog of cultural criticism and personal essays, "The Gilded Hack,"

Here's the inaugural post. It's a smug, interminably windy,
self-important rumination on blogging. Naturally. 

The Being John Malkovich Effect 
Media Burn | Published on December 21, 2004 

Why blog? First problem: the word, second only to org in its mortifying
dorkiness. (Speaking of which, isn?t an ?org? one of those seafaring
enclaves formerly headed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who
hightailed it to the high seas ?to continue his research into the upper
levels of spiritual awareness and ability,? far from the distracting
attentions of the IRS?) ?Blog? sounds like a portmanteau for some clammy
new fetish, best left undescribed?an unhappy hybrid of blob and flog.
Yeah, I know it?s short for ?weblog,? but who calls journals ?logs,?
anyway, except the glassy-eyed minions in sea orgs or people who begin
their diary entries with stardates? 

Second, there?s the gnawing fear that anyone who blogs is fated to
become one of those tub-thumping Alpha Wonks who?ve given the medium a
bad name?you know, those self-declared Masters of Their Own Domain whose
poured-concrete prose, cosmic sense of self-importance, and weird
refusal to use contractions makes them sound like the genetically
engineered offspring of Roger Rosenblatt and Galactus (?My journey is
ended! This planet shall sustain me until it has been drained of all
elemental life! So speaks Galactus!?) So what if Instapundit gets more
hits than God? Would you want to be trapped in steerage, on Jet Blue,
next to one of these self-styled Masters of the Universe with an Opinion
About Everything? 

Worse yet, you might wake up to find yourself blogging about...blogging!
Going to Bloggercon (a name whose similarity to ?Starcon? is way too
close for comfort) and listening to other blogwonks maunder on about
wuffie-hoarding and social networking and then..blogging about it! Live!
>From the convention floor! 

Look, I know I?m not fit to polish Clay Shirky?s power laws, nor to
touch the hem of Siva Vaidhyanathan?s garment. I abject myself before
the terrible grandeur of Josh Marshall, Jason Kottke, Wonkette, and
Bruce Sterling(on his good days). And yeah, yeah, blogging is our Last,
Best Hope for citizen journalism, Seizing the Mode of Production and
Speaking Truth to Power without changing our underwear for days at a
span. But sweet Jesus, why do most of the revolution?s standard bearers
have to be so skin-crawlingly geeky? Why do most of the Power Bloviators
who?ve become the angry white poster boys for blogging look as if, just
a few short years ago, they were off to Klingon Language Camp with a
song in their hearts? (Is it mere coincidence that one of the seminal
screeds on blogging is John Hiler?s ?Borg Journalism: We are the Blogs.
Journalism will be Assimilated??) 

So why blog? Certainly not because blogging is fated to swallow
journalism whole and burp up A.M. Rosenthal?s bowtie. The best thing
about blogging is that it?s not journalism. Or, if it is, it?s a viral
strain of journalism, cultured in the agar of the Net, that resembles no
journalism we know. Sure, blogging can serve as a corrective to the
ideological blind spots and commercial orientation of the corporate
media monopoly, Fact Checking Their Asses and Working the Ref and
restoring some semblance of balance in the absence of the Fairness

But bloggers who want to remedy what ails the corporate McMedia monopoly
should grab a clue from Chris Allbritton and haul their larval,
jack-studded flesh up out of their Matrix-like pods and do some goddamn
reporting instead of just getting all meta about Instapundit?s post
about The Daily Kos?s post about Little Green Footballs?s post about the
vast left-wing media conspiracy?s latest act of high treason. It?s the
Yertle the Turtle syndrome: Pundits stacked on top of pundits on top of
pundits, all the way down, and, at the very bottom of the heap, the
lowly hack who kicked off the whole frenzy of intertextuality: the
reporter who dared venture out of the media airlock to collect some
samples of Actual, Reported Fact.

Who can argue with Dan Gillmor?s call for a grassroots journalism, a
peer-to-peer alternative to the radically deregulated, massively
consolidated Murdochian horror that currently passes for the newsmedia?
But it sure as hell isn?t going to come from political-pundit and
media-wonk bloggers, who with some notable exceptions represent More of
The Same: the same gel-headed, glittery eyed weasels who make a career
out of torching straw men on Scarborough Country and Sean Hannity; the
same attacking heads who reduce each other to chum in what passes for
debate on Firing Line; the same corporate flacks, thinktank drones, and
bowtie-and-braces neocons who represent the full spectrum of political
opinion (from zero-forehead centrism to the far, frothing right) on the
PBS Newshour; and worst of all, the same Barcalounger-bound Masters of
the Universe who feel well qualified to hold forth on any subject, no
matter how arcane. Too much blogging?at least, the blogwonkery embraced
by the mainstream media?looks too much like the jowly, sclerotic old
white guys in tortoiseshell glasses or the lunging, in-your-face young
white guys who already rule the mediaverse. Is this the bottom-up,
many-to-many revolution we were promised? Another dictatorship of the
commentariat? Another grotesque hypertrophy of the chattering class?
None for me, thanks. You can stack your Instapundits like cordword and
they still won?t have the empirical authority or moral gravitas, not to
mention the hard-swinging old-school literary chops, of one blogger
reporter like Chris Allbritton. (Okay, he?s white and he?s a guy, but at
least he?s a young white guy, and he?s risking his life to bring back
some truth about our imperial adventure in Iraq. Besides, he?s got one
of those cool neo-beat Van Dyke things.) 

The best blogging, then, isn?t yet another hairy-eyed jeremiad from some
Angry White Guy or another somber thumbsucker about the Deeper Meaning
of Whatever. Hungry for more hallelujah choruses to the obvious,
delivered with all the oracular solemnity of Charlton Heston reading the
Ten Commandments? Tune in NPR, where ?news analysts? like Daniel Shore
and Cokie Roberts can heard, handing out received truths as if they were
pearls of great price.

By my lights, the best blogging offers a Bizarro World alternative to
the mainstream media. Their content isn?t determined by agenda-setters
and opinion leaders who tell you what you need to know?then tell it to
you again, every hour, on the hour, all day long, like CNN. They aren?t
run by editors who want to sell your attention to advertisers who want a
piece of your niche demographic. Example: civil libertarian and Net
activist John Perry Barlow?s harrowing account of his brush with rough
justice in the new, Ashcroft-ian America. (Barlow was stripped,
cavity-searched, and held incommunicado for the high crime of flying
with ?misdemeanor possession of controlled substances that had allegedly
been discovered during a search of my checked baggage.?) Another
example: the NBC cameraman Kevin Sites?s riveting, straight-from-the-gut
letter to the marine battalion with whom he was (is?) an embedded
freelancer, one of whose soldiers he captured on video, executing a
severely wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi with a shot to the head. 

Not that blogging has to bring back horror stories from battlezones or
breaking news from the culture wars. Some of my favorite blogs reclaim
the radical promise inherent in the notion of an online journal, letting
casual passersby eavesdrop on a stranger?s innermost thoughts, see the
world through another mind?s eye. Call it the Being John Malkovich
effect. The cultural critic Julian Dibbell had it just about right when
he theorized the weblog as postmodern wunderkammer?an idiosyncratic
jumble of found objects (in this case, ideas and images, facts and
fictions scavenged from the global mediastream) that ?reflects our own
attempts to assimilate the glut of immaterial data loosed upon us by the
?discovery? of the networked world.? Some of the most consistently
enlightening and entertaining blogs are the inscrutable products of
borderline obsessive-compulsives. Like the baroque ?wonder closets?
invoked by Dibbell, blogs such as bOING bOING, The Obscure Store,, and Die, Puny Humans are omnium gatherums, overstuffed with
anything that catches the fancy of their eccentric curators. Wish you
lived in a world where Entertainment Tonight peeled away the vacuform
latex face of mainstream celebrity to bare the scabrous, Hollywood
Bablyon reality beneath? Wish no more: got the dirt, in a
story no obsequious, tukus-licking mainstream outlet would dare run:
Seife. Wonder what the morning headlines would be like if Groucho Marx
were alive and well and living and partnered up with Charles Fort in a
joint media venture? Wonder no longer: bOING bOING offers a
brain-shriveling compendium of weird science items, Barnumesque
stretchers, and stranger-than-fiction news stories, delivered in the
inimitable bOING bOING deadpan.

Reading blogs like these is like subscribing to someone?s stream of
consciousness; it?s the closest thing we have to telepathy. What do a
pair of mathematicians using 25,511 crochet stitches to represent the
Lorenz manifold; a list of ?words that aren?t in the dictionary but
should be? (Example: ?Sarchasm (n): The gulf between the author of
sarcastic wit and the person who doesn?t get it)?; a step-by-step
Taiwanese tutorial on how to make incredibly realistic ?teeny tiny?
oranges out of clay; photos of ?Chinese salad architecture?; and the
discovery of Homo floresiensis have to do with each other? Nothing,
other than the fact that they caught the attention of Jason Kottke,
however briefly. 

Do the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, the barometric fluctuations of the
Dow-Jones, and the Caligulan grotesqueries of the Bush administration
still matter? No question. That?s why God created The New York Times,
The Nation, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. But I want to live in a
world where the broadcast media that struggle for mass appeal are
counterweighted by microchannels whose programming reflects one mind?s
caprices, the tastes and interests of a single intelligence that cares
not a whit for market share or popular acclaim (or critical applause,
for that matter). 

After all, isn?t that what an online diary should be?an internal
monologue that the rest of the world can listen in on; a Cornell box of
fleeting impressions and true confessions assembled by an obsessive
collector of images and ideas? At worst, such blogs can be like KLAS-TV,
the Las Vegas TV station that Howard Hughes bought in the late ?60s so
he could alter the late-night movie schedule at whim, TV Guide listings
be damned. This is the downside of one-to-many personalized media: An
insomniac billionaire wearing Kleenex boxes for bedroom slippers,
inflicting his monomaniacal fascination with Ice Station Zebra on
disgruntled viewers for the trillionth time. The upside is a blog like
Kottke?s, which might feature a single daily post. Or 10. Or none. It
can be about anything. Or the proverbial, Seinfeld-ian nothing. People
read it not because they?re interested in the subjects Kottke covers,
but because they want a front-row seat to the movies projected on the
inside of his head. Reading blogs like his is the intellectual
equivalent of Beaumont?s experiments in gastric physiology, observing
digestion through a hole in the stomach of a wounded soldier. 

It?s a beautiful thing. 

- Mark Dery

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