Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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April 07, 2008
why must we repeat ourselves?

Sarah Boxer's nicely done and semi-much discussed "meta" [sic][blech] essay/review about, among other things, das blogische style of writing, seems to contend that bloggers' attitudes towards their readers primarily resembles that of Milton Babbit toward his listeners: "Who cares if you read?"

As Boxer puts it:
Bloggers assume that if you're reading them, you're one of their friends, or at least in on the gossip, the joke, or the names they drop.

They often begin their posts mid-thought or mid-rant -- in medias craze.

They don't care if they leave you in the dust. They're not responsible for your education. . . .

They figure that even if they don't provide you with links you can get all the background you need by Googling unfamiliar terms, clicking through Wikipedia (the collaborative on-line encyclopedia) or searching their blog's archives.

How accurate is the above?

To what extent does a new reader's arrival at a page at an unfamiliar blog resemble the experience of walking into a room full of family members or friends and a conversation/debate/fistfight already in progress? How many visitors visit the archives or Wikipedia, as Boxer assumes, to orient themselves? By contrast, who and how many simply jump to conclusions about what they think is going on and being said and meant? Do "bloggers" really not care about the ignorance, confusion or perspectives of anyone outside of a small circle of friends and regular readers? If they do care, how can the ignorance be reduced? How much of the ignorance can never be reduced, because it is inescapable, given the nature of on-line literacy, language and communication tools?

Boxer did not directly address how, as a general narrative approach (e.g., in theater, films, short stories, etc.), an in medias res introduction tends to make audience members anxious -- or, as it's put here, serves "to heighten dramatic tension or to create a sense of mystery." And the reaction of some audience members to tension, mystery and anxiety can be misunderstanding if not downright hostility.

Blog writers seem to face a vexing challenge in their audience's profound anonymity, distributedness and jumpy informational pathways. (How more so or differently than in other or previous artistic or communications media or literary forms? That is a fascinating question). Transmitters of messages via blog often seem anxious to reduce the ignorance that is their own, and to crave an ever more satisfying amount of data on who is reading them, why or for what they are reading, or how they found the site (via blogroll? thread of discussion by strangers? via wacky search terms?).

Because blog statements are tossed out into a medium well structured for them to be chopped up, decontextualized, cut-&-pasted, forwarded, half heard, semi-comprehended, truncated from prelude and epilogue with logical connectors excised, the writer may have more occasion to ask: Who am I offending, insulting or hurting by accident? How is my tone coming across? How are my jokes being misunderstood? Who, if anyone, do I perhaps intend to hurt or wound, without realizing it? How is what I think horribly offensive or hurtful to someone, somewhere, in ways that I never before had the opportunity to notice? Blah blah blah, yes, we know you know all this, whomever you are reading this.

So to return to Boxer's review, her focus is more on what blog writing is (it is "id writing," to her) not why it is, or how it became, that way. Her review might lead one to believe that blog writers choose to start every statement in the middle as a matter of deliberate choice, as Horace apparently recommended to narrators of epics (l. 148), rather than having that expositional method imposed upon them by the technology. Though she recognizes that the internet is structured such that readers will tend to surf into an on-line conversation already in progress.

One of the features of Boxer's outlook that makes her review entertaining is the suggestion that writers of blogs are reckelessly indifferent to their readers' uncertainty and anxiety -- or enjoy stoking these. She places little emphasis on how and whether writers may be anxious about and dislike the message confusion that might result from a medium in which many lines of argument are encountered in the middle, by strangers.

Contrast the more careful and arguably more compassionate narrative approach of TV soap operas, much analyzed hither and yon, for dealing with the arrival of the newbie.

For example, Sandy Carmago here calls the in medias res world of daytime soaps one of "eternal middles" in which the "tensions of the present moment are really all that matter." However, soaps writers seem to take pains to reduce the anxiety or disorientation of the newly arrived audience member, though an almost incantational, overlapping, fugal repetition of backstory and exposition.

Media prof Jeremy G. Butler expands on this, in his comments about TV soap opera writing:

So how do serials cope with viewers who have missed episodes or are new to the program?

The answer is that serials, particularly the long-running soap operas, contain a large quotient of redundant narrative information.

Character A has coffee with character B and they discuss how C has fathered a child with D. This narrative fact is now established. But in a later scene (the next day, perhaps) we will see character B at the nurses' station discussing the situation with two more characters.

The information is redundant to the regular viewer, but serves as exposition for the viewer that has missed the previous scene. Through this redundancy the soap opera constantly re-restablishes its characters and their situations.

Consider the similar spirit of the fascinating "Tips for Radio Communication," addressed to callers to talk radio programs, findable here in Appendix J:
Remember that listeners to talk shows may "tune in" in the middle or near the end of a program. Therefore, always answer each question completely, as if there has been no reference to an issue previously (even if there has been).

Moral: As always, there are three R's.

The anxious and neurotic blog writer (as opposed to the snarkier ones that Boxer engagingly discusses) will look for ways to make the same key points, to return to and restate the same fundamental premises, again and again, like an obsession, lest some new arrival misinterpret where they are -- or are not -- coming from.