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Blog as Narrative Archive

The lecture that I’m set to give tomorrow, which I’m doing some heavy-duty work on this morning, is part of a series of lectures, classes, and screenings collectively titled “The New Documentary Impulse.” Much of this series, as you might expect, has to do with recent work in politically focused documentary film and video, but there are a number of lectures exploring other manifestations of the documentary impulse as well.

As you might guess, I’m focusing on the blog, and particularly the ways that the blog — particularly, though not exclusively, the personal blog — contructs a diachronic narrative archive of the self, a sort of first-person database documentary, in which the “character” of the self is constructed gradually, over time.

This talk is aimed at a pretty generalist, non-blogging audience, and so might not be terrifically revolutionary in its materials or its implications, but there are a couple of claims that I’m making that I think are worth pondering at greater length, in a deeper fashion. I’m not going to attempt to expand on that treatment much right now, but I do want at least to rehearse the claims here before unloading them in the lecture.

The first is about the misguided notion, put forward in no small part by the bloggers themselves, but exacerbated by the treatment they’ve gotten in the mainstream media, that “serious” blogs become documentary by virtue of their focus on archiving the materials of the public sphere. This phenomenon has of course been most pronounced with regard to the so-called “political” bloggers, the obvious importance of whose subject over the last few years and the symbiotic nature of whose relationship with the news media has resulted in a kind of visibility that has defined, for the mainstream audience, what blogging might be. But many other sorts of blogs reach for this same kind of public documentary presence without necessarily focusing on the political realm; in this category I might include any number of the more research- or debate-focused academic blogs (such as Crooked Timber or The Valve, to name only two particularly visible examples) or the scads of technical blogs in the software community. These are the blogs that are frequently pointed to as evidence of what “good” blogs can be, and do.

And I don’t intend here to argue with the “goodness” of those blogs. What I want to do, however, is take a closer look at what gets left out of such assessments, and why. Blogs that focus on the private sphere are much too often dismissed as being the work of teenage girls and other hysterics. Witness, for instance, the rash of dismissive articles some time back (frankly, I don’t want to go hunt them down) on the “mommy bloggers”; witness, too, the characterization of such a private-sphere blog by the infamous Ivan Tribble, who suggested that the author of one such blog might be well advised to seek counseling. And witness the overwhelming condescension with which “serious” bloggers greet the entire phenomenon of LiveJournal.

There is of course a relationship to be posited between the dismissal of such private-sphere blogs and the historical dismissal of feminine modes of writing; such personal bloggers are certainly not exclusively female, but they bear much in common with the “damn’d mob of scribbling women” lamented by Hawthorne. By dismissing private-sphere blogs as no more than online diaries or domestic ranting, we are effectively casting aside untheorized an entire mode of blogging that has, I believe, significant literary potential.

That’s claim number one. Claim number two has to do with how we understand blogs in relationship to the literary, and what kinds of theories are useful in exploring them. Traditional hypertextual theory (and I have to admit that there’s something somewhat amusing to me in referring to any mode of theory about something as clearly incunabular as hypertext as “traditional”) has focused in on the lexeme and the rhizome as figures for the construction of the networked literary text, which becomes a system of nodes and pathways that the reader can explore at something like “will.” And clearly these figures are in some sense operational in the blog; each entry links both to other entries in the same blog, entries in other blogs, and the vast store of other resources on the internet, creating a rhizomatically distributed mode of meaning production.

But what I want to suggest is that this is utterly insufficient to understanding the ways that narrative is constructed in a blog, because it fails to contend with the ways that the blog both is and is not a time-based medium. Notions of the rhizomatic are useful for thinking about the nonlinear aspects of the blog, but they can’t contend with the diachronic, the steady release of new text, new pathways, new information over time, and the ways that the serial aspect of blog reading results in an ongoing sense of the development of character and even of plot.

I’m arguing, then, that the blog might require some interweaving of theories of hypertext and theories of time-based media, such as film, in order to be fully explored as a narrative form. And in thinking through the private sphere blog in particular, the ways in which it constructs the self both as an ongoing narrative and as a historical archive, demands a hybrid mode of reading that brings together the literary, the cinematic, and the digital. In imagining such a mode of reading, we might look at the debate of sorts between Lev Manovich and Marsha Kinder, each of whom are fundamentally interested in the relationship between narrative and the database in the future of cinema.

Manovich, in both The Language of New Media and Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database, argues that the relationship between narrative and database is one of conflict, and that new media “favors” the database over the narrative as a privileged mode of meaning-making. This bears much in common with the rhizomatic argument of much hypertextual theory, that meaning is created in the accretion of materials and of links amongst them.

Marsha Kinder, by contrast, has argued that the future of digital cinema is developing precisely in the nexus of narrative and database. Her writing has for some time now revolved around the ways that the work of certain filmmakers, such as Bu?±uel, has been database driven avant la lettre, and how their examples might translate into interactive environments. The series of database narratives that she has built with the Labyrinth Project put such ideas into play, creating a new mode of storytelling with the database at its disposal. And it’s particularly pertinent to point out that Labyrinth’s projects have taken two primary forms — the “digital city symphony,” which explores public spaces both through the archives and through the recollections of those who cross through those spaces, and the “database memoir,” which explores private spaces through the same structures.

In allowing us to think both rhizomatically and diachronically, and in encouraging access to and exploration of the archives of both the public and the private sphere, Kinder’s model seems to provide a needed complexity for our encounter with the blog as a narrative form.

More pondering of these claims will no doubt follow, as I keep working on this project. Of course, any of you who actually show up at the talk tomorrow will now find parts of it pretty familiar. But any comments, corrections, complaints, or complications that you might want to lodge before I have to go deliver this in person would be appreciated. The beauty of the both time-based and nonlinear nature of the blog is that it allows for development, revision, change; the linearity of the lecture, coupled with its facade of synchronicity, presents an obstacle to such rethinking, trapping ideas under glass and concretizing them at a moment when they most need fluidity in order to develop.


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