Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fantastical Respite From the Unexamined Life

The current media equation seeks to dramatize and sensationalize the news. Many reporters quote policy makers, bolstering their reputations by reporting the official lines of the day as truths, only to subvert these professional figures with scandalous narratives when the publication next goes to press. Reporters are taught to keep their opinions far away from their words, assuming that it is possible to remain objective in situations where fellow human beings are involved. However, they are also expected to practice common sense in terms of what to report and with whom to speak. Again, under the assumption that this, by no means, involves a subjective move.

W. Lance Bennett, in his book News: The Politics of Illusion, names this public information cycle the “authority-disorder bias.” Narratives in the news are constructed of “generic plot elements,” or “versatile and tireless themes that can be combined endlessly within personalized, dramatized, and fragmented news episodes” writes Bennett. The news seeks to restore order, he argues, yet where the political landscape was once successfully “normalized,” now “the news increasingly finds ways to challenge the pronouncements of officials and the presumption of order in society.” 

As entertainment and information companies begin to drop away one by one, as these industries continue their pursuit of a golden system to garner the highest ratings, and as the noise generated by an ever-growing number of media outlets, fueled by bright technology and attractive people, reaches a crescendo, a quieter and less aggressive presence asserts itself behind the expensive cameras, thick makeup and years of journalistic experience, seasoned in the field and the newsroom. They are the personal blogs.

An editor at the now defunct Seattle PI recently told me of the unique opportunity the Internet begets for the literary-minded journalist. “Forget the inverted pyramid,” he said with defiance. Instead, the story should flow like a proper narrative. To draw the reader in and establish a personal connection is necessary for building an Internet readership. To create the seamless flow of ideas like the literary page turner may seem surprising coming from the mouth of a news editor at a major newspaper, but the plummeting popularity of hard-news style newspapers demands a change. In trying to move a daily print operation to an online only business, these ideas are at the front of this journalist’s mind.

Where has the personal relevance gone? Where has the background information necessary to truly understanding a local, national or international event or phenomenon been hiding? To what has citizens’ sense of accountability and consciousness been directed? Focused so intently on the highs and lows of human life, the bulk of a person’s daily thoughts, actions and interactions are all but overlooked, swept under the table and thus forgotten.

It is time to shift our definitions of entertainment—as well as the self-definition and world understanding found therein—away from fragmented, climactic moments and toward a less elitist aggregation of collective understanding. In short, we must find the commonplaces upon which seemingly disparate communities may connect.

Dwelling places—as blogs are—have the capacity to evoke what fragmented reality-based experiences can’t establish on their own. These worldviews [or dwelling places] are occupied and shared everyday with those at work and at home and at the store. Blogs have the ability to create these dwelling places in a less ephemeral manner, as symbols and as commonplaces upon which people in varied geographic locations, occupations and ages may converse.  The dwelling places hold patterns of behavior where people are able to negotiate their own identities. To do this they build expectations for how certain qualities should look, thus constructing a framework for how the qualities appear in the day to day.

To look at the qualities that create places—an expert or competent voice, the rhetor’s goodwill toward the audience and liability in terms of character—founds this idea of blogs as dwelling places. The subject of a blog, then, can be anything from the mundane to the outlandish. Rituals themselves, in fact, can function as dwelling places. Oftentimes, the ritual aspect of the day-to-day becomes the sole narrative of personal blogs. The blog format itself begets extreme personalization. Most authors use the first person to address their audience, speaking with them as if across the kitchen table or in step arm in arm down city streets.

All writers, public personas and, for that matter, people in general must establish their ethos when stepping before an audience. This other could be as informal as a new friend or co-worker, or as official as a professor in front of her students, a journalist, or world leader. Part of one’s ethos indeed lies in the situation where confronting the other—setting, time of day, other people. Though much of the trust sought by the rhetor must be invented, created by the speaker herself in moments conducive to audience reception.

Using the first person holds a greater chance of establishing deep connections with the audience, as opposed to second and third which are more informal and barred, less personal.

Molly Wizenberg, one blogger who employs the first person in her writing, is the voice and life behind the experiences, tastes and photographs presented on her popular blog Orangette. Since her beginnings as a food blogger in July of 2004, Wizenberg’s mini-essays have steadily grown in readership as demonstrated by the increase in the number of comments her words provoke. Some posts have, of course, drawn more than others, some seem to have marked turning points in the number of vocal readers. The highest number of comments rally around stories marking personal milestones in Wizenberg’s life: her marriage and subsequent dinner and honeymoon, announcing the publication of her first book and revealing she and her husband’s soon to be restaurant, Delancy. Her readers are thus stirred by the concrete events that make a life; they are fortified by the day-to-day musings, wit, personal memories and, of course, tastes making up the body of her blog.

Wizenberg’s words resonate with her readers on a very personal level. Whether she and her readers share tastes, experiences or geographic proximity, comments take the form of congratulations, laudatory remarks on writing style or simple agreement in a specific love for, say, lobster and San Francisco. Wizenberg is, at the most fundamental level, telling a story. But the difference between her blog and other personal narrative blogs is that she offers people the chance to physically and emotionally take part in her experience. She leaves them with something tangible and lasting, something that will come to fruition hours, days or months later when the craving for a certain butterscotch cookie or céléri rémoulade surfaces. And it’s not just the craving but the possibility of entering such a warm and inviting world that inspires the act of memory, in turn assuring Wizenberg her audience will come by next Monday when she again offers a chair to her table.

Wizenberg’s subject, food, is memorable and sensual and oftentimes seductive. She elaborates on a taste by surrounding it with an inviting experience—often droll and sentimental with just enough irony to keep it respectable.

“If you’ve been reading for a while, you may remember that I have a thing for celery root. It’s sort of the Philip Seymour Hoffman of vegetables: pale and a little scruffy, not exactly handsome by common definitions, but rippling, rippling, with integrity and talent. Vegetables can have integrity, right? And talent? I hope so, or else I’m going to have to find a new analogy, and that could take a while.”  

It is important, however, not to become so immersed in a certain placated comfort, finding meaning all too easily without pushing oneself away from the accustomed daily rituals. David Foster Wallace put it quite extremely when he said, “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive.” Yet, an ongoing critical examination and understanding of the ritualistic activities necessary for physical and psychic relief, in turn creating room for personal development, would not allow a sinking into blind, privileged comfort.

Wallace also noted that true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” He was speaking here about boredom, which some would argue is found in the daily rituals that make up the bulk of our life. “Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment,” says D. T. Max in The New Yorker when interpreting Long Thing, Wallace’s third and unpublished book.” It is not by mere chance that critiques of fictional narratives are applied so easily when discussing the very real presence of personal blogs, of elevating the personal ritual to a place of significance.

Ella Ophir, in her essay Modernist Fiction and “the accumulation of unrecorded life”, suggests, through critic Erich Auerbach’s reading of Virginia Woolf’s work, that the personal narrative performs a service of human fellowship. “It is precisely the random moment,” he concludes, “which is comparatively independent of the controversial and unstable orders over which men fight and despair; it passes unaffected by them, as daily life. The more it is exploited, the more the elementary things which our lives have in common come to light.”

Blogs blatantly demonstrate foundational, defining elements of human behavior. They reinforce clichés by way of their very intent: it’s not the destination toward which the blogger steps post by post, but the whole long, chronologically listed journey that counts. They function the way any newspaper or special interest magazine would, providing a temporary fantasy world in which to escape for a momentary lapse in reality-based spatial orientation. Indeed, the images transport the viewer to a place of beauty, of chicness, of shine and silent charisma, or to a world of high drama, international intrigue, war and other larger-than-personal-life narratives.

Blogs documenting individuals’ personal style deliberately create a certain persona in the online space, mostly through photographs and with varying levels of commentary. These scrapbooks of self-expression either document the author’s own wardrobe choices or the choices of others encountered in daily life. Regardless of the body upon which the coveted style is draped, a certain aspiration is molded and modified with each new post. One of the more successful blogs of this nature, “The Sartorialist,” is the creation of Scott Schuman who’s aim was to photograph “people on the street” so as to give inspiration to other designers. “Rarely do [designers] look at the whole outfit as a yes or no but they try and look for the abstract concepts of color, proportion, pattern mixing or mixed genre,” explains Schuman on his blog.  He strives—and successfully accomplishes as evidenced by the media attention and his large, dedicated fan base—for the same qualities in his photos. His subjects range from the overtly stylish—models and magazine and artworld individuals all—to the quirky and oddly original. Though, Schuman is successful because of his eye’s discerning consistency when it comes to sartorial presence. He isn’t just shooting the outfit; he captures the subject’s character through their dress, grooming and stance.

Like a camera projects film onto a blank canvas, blogs are a public screen onto which people’s fantasies shine. They out the mind’s inside with pages and pages of fairytale, of desire, of fulfillment. Pages and pages offering a moment’s respite from a stilled dullness, perhaps from sitting inside before a computer screen or from a windowless room, perhaps from some other lonely isolation. In this way, fantasy functions rhetorically—people are always looking for ways to cope. Ironically, that which most would wish to escape from—some daily banality inducing boredom—might just become the fantastical respite from the unexamined life.

As readership of newspapers and print magazines shifts increasingly to web-based outlets, where a wealth of alluring diversions opens wide before the mediating reader, will the staid voice of the objective journalist follow suit? When writing for the web, if indeed print media does become extinct, will the same standards hold up before a young, media-savvy and independently minded audience? When the younger generation raised on blogs and self-selected news bites steers public discourse, will the focus be more introverted and relational, based upon finding those commonplaces so necessary for connecting with an audience on a personal level? Or will the isolated fragmentation of mass media override the opportunity to build community by means of increased communication in blog form?

At the end of the day, we are the meaning-makers, it is us who choose to believe any particular thing, us who consent to the flow or make a rapturous move against some mass or minute current. All of this, then, done in a process of finding our voice or trying to maintain some sort of continuance of this voice if ever thought to be found, perhaps modifying our voice to be in harmony or in opposition to the voices all around. By many methods, so we do this multi vaulted dance of tone and intent; in few moments do we realize a full shift in the Self, defined as that elusive “defining” moment, that marked revolving of time and space in one’s own direction that makes up so much of exalted thought and creative production and other such final unveilings. The million other thoughts and actions and observations are the true definers of character, the filling in of notes between crescendos, so important, foundational and necessary in their own right—essential to attaining some height of meaning, perhaps meaning for-themselves, in their own right, as is

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