Vox: Emmett Stinson

Posted on September 23, 2011 by in Verity La Forum


From the outset, I need to note a significant qualm with the phrasing of this question: the blog, whatever it is, is not an artefact, but a discursive space. I’ll return to this point in a moment, but I would first like to address a related issue, which confuses most cultural commentators who write on the convergence of print media with digital technology.

Digital technology is not replacing print, but, rather, is displacing it. Following the premises of canonical media theory, new forms of media don’t simply replace older forms of media because each form of media has its own symbolic logic, which is intimately connected to the form of media itself (or, to quote Marshall McLuhan’s infamous phrase, “the medium is the message”). So there are at least two issues, here, the first of which is the degree to which new forms of media will make print or bookish culture irrelevant, and the second of which entails the form/content of new media.

The first issue is already settled. Books are no longer central to discourse in the Anglophone world, and have not been for some time. The book industry is still a significant and—if considered over the whole of the last decade—generally successful economic enterprise, but it focuses on selling a variety of kinds of texts into a wide array of niches—all of which is to say that best-selling books in Australia are things like the Twilight series or the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, not books about politics and philosophy, or works of literature. What this means is that important political and cultural discourses now play out in images and audio on television or the internet, not in print (I am speaking in general terms here). In the rare occasions where a book does become “big,” it then graduates to the afterlife of movie or television adaptation; The Slap is only the most recent example of this. But this situation is at least half a century old, so mourning the demise of the book as the locus of important cultural discourse is a very belated grief, indeed, and the wake we are currently holding is for a corpse already in the late stages of putrefaction.

Ebooks (as opposed to books-as-software in the form of apps, which I won’t have space to consider) do replicate the artefact of the book; they are digital artefacts, but, as a medium, they also mark the shift of the book’s cultural significance from being a central discourse to a fragmented and specialized series of niche discourse that are only significant when taken in aggregate. This fact is replicated in the business models of digital asset distributors (i.e. Google, Amazon, Kobo, etc.), who rely on the long-tail theory wherein a large of number of small transactions for a diverse array of products (i.e. books) are aggregated through a network (and, indeed, an entire ‘ecosystem’ of networked services, to use the fashionable term) to produce a profit (for those interested, I’ve written on this in the current issue of Overland).

The blog, as a form, however is a distinct phenomenon from both print and ebook forms, although its trajectory is shaped by the same cultural logic and economic factors. As I noted, the blog is not an artefact, but a discursive space, wherein opinions are advanced, and conversations then often occur within its margins (i.e. in the comments section). Often these discussions are then folded back into the content of the blog itself in the form of future posts—so the content of a blog is inseparable from its form, which is itself that of a dialogue (of sorts) unfolding over time.

At level of typology, however, it is worth noting two further categories amongst blogs, the first of which applies to entities such as Verity La. From my perspective, Verity La is not really a blog qua blog, in that is primarily a communal space that contains bookish discourse, which is quite distinct from the traditional blog produced by an individual. It’s worth noting, though, that fiction tends not to function as well in these spaces as essays or “posts” because fiction is traditionally a form that doesn’t invite direct response—and in this sense is antithetical to the very form of the blog as medium. Following this, I would also suggest that if blogs have displaced an area of print, it would be the critical apparatus of the literary journal—a transformation that has already happened in music, wherein sites like Pitchfork have basically surpassed the old stalwart publications like Rolling Stone (and Pitchfork has also proven that the print mags hadn’t even come close to approaching the limits of the pretentious, self-indulgent and empty-headed prose to which music criticism, from Lester Bangs onwards, has always aspired). A site like HTML Giant is already doing this for the literary more or less, albeit with an MFA-program, hipster-twee aesthetic that ranges from being annoying to being very annoying.

On the other hand, we then have personal blogs, like my own (now largely necrotic) blog Known Unknowns. While these sorts of blogs do engage in communal discourse up to a point, their primary purpose—whatever their creators may believe—is to serve as an advertising or promotional tool for their authors (and often also to serve as an extension of or reflection upon one or more institutions and organisations associated with the author). I do not mean that bloggers are all rapacious entrepreneurs in their intent (this certainly wasn’t mine), but ultimately I think blogging, however well-intentioned, is a form of immaterial labour, which is to say a willing self-exploitation undertaken in the hopes of long-term, if indirect, economic benefit.

Literary and bookish blogs have been both prominent and successful, I think, because activity in these areas is almost wholly comprised of immaterial labour for the simple reason that there is no money in literature (at all), and comparatively little money in bookselling and production, even in its populist manifestations. Indeed, the general insularity and cliquishness of literary culture in Australia and elsewhere stems from the fact that it is an economy based almost entirely on what Peter Sloterdijk would term thymotics (or pride), which is to say that literary economies are based on reputation and symbolic capital (as well as rage and revenge!), rather than hard economics—although this is rarely admitted openly.

Short of a wide-scale social and political revolution (which appears unlikely), it is difficult to see how these conditions will change significantly, but, in my opinion, both writers and readers need to be aware of modern systems of book distribution and to question their validity (as we already do for other industries, such as the music industry and the meat industry, to consider only two that have come under public scrutiny in the last decade). The important questions for lovers of books relate not simply to forms—print, ebook, app, whatever—but rather about how we, as a culture decide what to value and how individuals are then compensated for their labour. Books are ultimately the products of human beings and cannot be abstracted from the larger processes of culture and capital.

I suspect many readers of Verity La, like me, feel that on both fronts, our current situation is woefully inadequate, and, in this sense, I welcome change—even if such change is precarious—because at least it holds the possibility of a better future, however unlikely.