The Gain is Gloss: Thanks to FPR and Its Readers

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

cunninghamDevon, PA.  Much like Jeremy Beer, I have found that FPR has led me to look at ‘Blogs almost for the first time in my life.  I have run across much of interest there, especially to the extent that some attentive writer in journalism (I’m thinking of Rod Dreher and his “Crunchy Con” specifically) calls attention to items I might otherwise have missed.  And yet, I have noticed the strangeness of the continuous linking, which gives the extended web of the “blogosphere” the appearance of an endlessly extending commentary on an original text that has been obscured.  To the uncertain foundations of fact, it adds endless “opinion,” which tends to make fact crumble and often leads to a kind of unworldly cynicism; we resent the overwhelming ubiquity of opinion, and yet we come to associate being “informed” with knowing the latest such “takes” on the lastest, usually misapprehended, phenomena.  J.V. Cunningham’s short poem, “To the Reader” is apropos here:

Time will assuage.
Time’s verses bury
Margin and page
In commentary,

For gloss demands
A gloss annexed
Till busy hands
Blot out the text.

And all’s coherent.
Search in this gloss
No text inherent:
The text was loss.

The gain is gloss.

Cunningham here refers to academic research and exegesis, and its applicability to blogs may be worth considering.  There is a certain way in which the secondary nature of blogging, which endlessly dilates upon some primary source — a news event soon occluded and lost amid the commentary — mimics in a lay environment the practices of modern, overly specialized scholarship.  A narrowing of subject matter to that from which controversy can most rampantly spring, a sense that one’s “two cents” is the latest trumping and extension of an ongoing argument, and a further sense that if one stands outside this link-extended argument, one cannot comprehend it save with extensive labor; these are all the attributes of academic discourse writ popular and wide.

The average person well understands how isolated and isolating, how hermetic and “ivory tower,” such exercises are for academics.  Most academics feel the same way themselves, and would feel even more so if they knew just how few persons actually read the journal article on which they worked so hard and which may well have helped get them their first tenure-track job.  Beer’s essay may help the typical blogger or lay reader to see that this constricted, professionalized, and often self-referential habit is no less present in the new placeless context of the internet.  One might, of course, expect as much given the internet’s intended development as primarily an academic resource, but my point is to highlight that many of these practices are unfortunate in both the academic and lay context.  Far from “democratizing” information so that persons can be better educated for citizenship, it may be that ‘blogging has mutated the old practice of reading a newspaper or magazine into a labor-intensive, super-refined specialization in itself.  The fellow with coffee cup at his computer may find himself an uncredentialled specialist in September 11th conspiracy theories, just as a Literature Ph.D. at Duke may become a credentialled and gainfully employed specialist on the same subject matter (inevitably, leading to a monograph with a circulation of 300, entitled, 9/11, Spectacle, and the Body . . . for the record, I once heard a lecture called “The Irish-American Body after 9/11,” and it was not pretty).  Neither of these alternatives is attractive, neither is truly conducive to the elevation of our public intellectual life, even though both of them could be so nourishing, elevating, and fruitful if modulated differently.

I would argue that FPR is a sign of contradiction to all this — and perhaps that is one reason why we have such a small audience!  Most of our posts aspire to the condition of the proper essay.  Perhaps because several of us are academics, we appreciate the opportunity to present a substantive argument without having to couch it in the kind of argument-extending language that normally justifies peer-reviewed journal essays, and with some hope that a well-wrought, free-standing essay might appeal to the still-existent educated and thoughtful lay reader that many of us would love to encounter among our colleagues and students but so seldom do.  Indeed, on this point, I would say that the comments on FPR (in part, of course, because of its restricted audience up til now) often provide the kind of engagement and debate that rarely occurs in the formalized and dessicated halls of academic conferences.  Because so few persons in academe view their presence there as the quest for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — and because academe can survive and flourish only if it is these things after which students and professors alike set out in search — a web-magazine like FPR may offer something free-of-charge that is nonetheless most precious and rare indeed.

I will not go on, since all this could sound a bit like tooting-one’s-own-horn, and so will conclude with the proposition that FPR has already helped define by example (not, of course, without many impressive precedents like Slate, Contemporary Poetry Review, Catholic Culture, First Principles, and other such outlets) the salient characteristics of an internet magazine as opposed to a ‘Blog.  To name some of them, in brief: a) a choosing of essay subjects not delimited by the present-moment newscycle, though not oblivious to that cycle either; b) more thorough treatment of its subject that a few short paragraphs and a linked quotation could afford; c) an attention to the stylistic standards of the casual essay and the sustained academic argument alike, which may reap the benefits of the academic article without becoming encumbered by the concommitant weaknesses; and d) comment threads that make possible substantive interrogation in which the author of the essay generally feels obliged to engage.  I hope, again, that we may characterize ourselves as something other than and generally superior to a “blog.”  At the very least, our mission seems distinct from that of even very helpful and interesting blogs; if some of them are deemed “better” than FPR, I think they must also be judged part of a different genre, a different sort of publication.

I’ve been most pleased to participate in this venture, and I hope it will flourish without losing the attributes just described.  Let me thank those readers who have contributed engaging and intelligent comments, as well.  I suspect everyone who returns to FPR does so because this kind of engagement has been so exceptional and sophisticated.

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