Sloth Brings Its Own Rewards

My thanks to each of my six readers, those gluttons for Punishment who nominated this blog for the Irish Blog Awards: in the categories of Best News/Current Affairs Blog, Best Political Blog, Best Personal Blog, Best Humour Blog, and for two posts in Best Blog Post. You guys are nuts, but nice nuts. If last year I had zero chance of winning an award, this year my chances have been multiplied by six.

On blogs, and writing on the internet in general, and the intertwining of the personal and the political, I was thinking the other day about the man who crashed his plane into the IRS building in Texas last week. He referred to his ‘manifesto‘ as a ‘rant’. His writing was then characterised by news media as a rambling screed. It’s certainly unlikely to appear in an Anthology of Great Political Writing edited by someone like Andrew Marr, but it did have a certain cogency and force to it, more than a John Waters opinion piece at least, even if he was a crazy (and murderous) fool for getting on that plane.

I’m pointing this out as a way of highlighting the fact that there are dominant standards applied to (non-fiction) prose, especially prose that relates to politics, which elevate certain forms and styles of writing above others. 

At the top, according to these standards, you might have ‘analysis’ and ‘articles’, further down you might have ‘polemic’, and toward the bottom you have ‘rants’, ‘screeds’, ‘ramblings’, ‘jeremiads’ and so on. Hovering between ‘analysis’ and ‘polemic’ is ‘essay’. This rough structure reflects how power is concentrated: people who have access to institutional power and have been conditioned to produce writing for an institution will produce analysis and essays, established radicals will write polemics, and people with no such access or conditioning will resort to ‘rants’ on the internet.

None of which is to say that analysis and essays should be ignored, all institutions should be razed to the ground and we should all be taking the man writing about the Bilderberg lizard shadow government more seriously than we have been doing hitherto; rather, I am claiming that what gets written, and how it gets written, and how we read it, is largely a matter of power.

Much of what appears as eminently reasonable in books, journals and newspapers may be nothing of the sort, but we acquire a habit of lending it a weight of authority a priori simply because it comes out of an established source, and this shapes our responses to it, even when we try to write in opposition to it.

So let’s say you’ve spent a long time learning to read and write in a certain way: if you ever realise that you have learned it that way not because you wanted to but because that was simply the way you had to do it, a lot of your responses, if you try writing about it, will imitate the style and the attitudes you have learned, even when you’re trying to put yourself at a distance from it. One way would be that you write as if you’re writing a newspaper article or a college essay, but more commonly, as is the case with many blogs, you adopt a sort of self-conscious distancing from conventionally valued forms of writing, openly referring to your ‘rants’ and ‘ramblings’ and so on and so forth, as though you don’t really have anything of interest to say in the shadow of such august opinion.

If I can use an example that doesn’t have much to do with writing per se: consider the story of child abuse in the Catholic Church and what the bishops are doing or not doing. It seems to me that much of the concern for apologies, the resignation of bishops, what the Pope might put in his pastoral letter and so on is about retrieving the image of the ‘good’ Catholic Church from the ‘bad’ one that emerged in recent years. Consider this piece by propagandist Terry Prone about how the images of the bishops kissing the Pope’s ring was bad public relations strategy. Or this Irish Times article about how the event was a textbook study of how not to manage news.

In both cases you can see a clear concern with rehabilitating the ‘good’ Church, even as it continues to do and say outrageous and disgusting things. It is hard to imagine someone writing a piece talking about how the media appearances of one paedophile in particular was a textbook study of how not to manage news, but for an institution in which child abuse is endemic (not forgetting its appalling, neanderthal treatment of women), there are still lots of people concerned with its welfare even as they affect a neutral, objective standpoint. I doubt that this is purely a media phenomenon: I suggest that it is the way in which many people up and down the country see it, through force of habit, even if the media serves to reinforce it.

There’s no quick antidote to these habits, and people who write blogs have them as much as anyone else. I’m thinking here for instance about a concern with rehabilitating the ‘good’ media, a lost golden age in which newspapers and TV news programmes seemed to speak to people’s real interests, as opposed to the wall-to-wall rubbish and propaganda to the fore these days. Out of this comes the idea that existing media institutions can be suitably reformed, with a mogul given the chop here and a headline change there, and that this is more interesting than alternative news media models that serve and address the interests of the people who own and run them, e.g. local communities.

A lot of the time when I write, about media or politics, I find myself taking on the standpoint of the established authority before I set about developing a response. And what comes out in the end is often a sort of deformed tribute, in style and content, to the very thing I’m writing to oppose. Bloggers who write especially about politics tend to do so in their spare time, and are often subject to all manner of practical burdens and constraints that prevents them from developing their responses as resoundingly as they might like. But on top of that you have the force of habit to overcome.

I doubt these habits, which I would describe in general as the veneration of illegitimate authority, are to be overcome by personal will-power of individual bloggers, but by a more collaborative, dialogical writing culture in which people learn from the example of others trying out different things and writing in diverse ways. A writing activity not concerned with developing your own rhetorical righteousness or expert prowess, or with self-conscious ‘rants’ that exalt individual (un)importance, but with inviting and leaving the path open for others to take part in a collective effort, whether by writing things themselves (good) or going out and doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do (much better, especially if the culture frowns upon crashing planes into buildings).


4 Responses to “Sloth Brings Its Own Rewards”

  1. 1 Longman Oz February 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Where’s that popculture nomination that I put in for you? You’d stroll home with it!

  2. 2 Hugh Green February 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    This is one of these Fr. Dick Byrne moments right? I say ‘Do you really think so?’ and you go ‘NO!’

    I’m onto you.

    As it happens I think you’re in with a shout for Best Arts and Culture Blog…

  3. 3 Longman Oz February 22, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Was recently accused of “onanisitic blather” by some playwright whose work I was only fair to middling about. In fairness to him, I think that he definitely had my number down pat!

    However, you are right about the other thing. Popculture was far too high-minded a category for this site. I stuck you in with the belly-draggers and cloven-hooves in the Politics category instead! Hopefully the judges will now agree with my impeccable good taste and shrewd judgment!

    Air kisses all round!

    • 4 Hugh Green February 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm

      Hate that, when you write something about someone and it turns out they happen to be real and can write back and stuff. Some people have no sense of fair play. And on top of that they get into a onanistic lather on account of your onanistic blather.

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