A Bluffer’s Guide to My MA Thesis

In honour of my poor friends in Bergen who are handing in their MA theses tomorrow (and therefore probably sitting up tonight either writing the last 8 to 12 pages or deleting the last 20 to 30 unnecessary pages, if I know them right), have handed in their theses (you guys rock!), I’m going to start writing that series of posts I’ve been promising forever. It’s going to be a sort of summary of the main arguments in my thesis and probably also a record of what I would have done differently today.

The title of my thesis can be translated as

Text, Thought, Time: The Weblog As Essayistic Process.


Anyway – I’ll break it down by chapter, meaning that the series will be in 6 parts. Expect some serious delays between parts.

Chapter 1 – Introduction


My thesis originated in a strange experience I had of not being able to adequately describe certain texts. For someone like me, whose education consists mainly in developing a vocabulary to discuss what texts are, what they do and how they do it, these kinds of experiences are interesting, and should always be noticed and investigated.

The texts, obviously, were my daily dose of weblogs. Since around 99-00 I had been reading a greater and greater variety of blogs online (only some of which are in my sidebar now), and they had become an essential part of my daily reading, somewhere between the papers and the novels and the theory, I followed a small truckload of blogs through my feedreader. Not being able to describe this big a chunk of my reading seemed like an inadequate state of affairs for a comp.lit. major. Why was my morning paper easier to analyse than, say, the Daily Kos.

The blogs, at their best, seemed to be rich and complex literary texts, but still managed to evade my theoretical apparatus. On the one hand, I could easily, with a bit of work look at the individual post and use my vocabulary to describe that post. I could describe the literary techniques and tropes it used, discuss the thoughts it expressed or criticise the language with which it did these things. On the other hand, there was a huge gap between these descriptions and the full effect of the text. A lot of what these texts did and how they did it remained elusive.

At first, I thought this was a medial problem. I could describe the text, but not the mediation of it. If I adequately described the new media, I figured, things would work out just fine and dandy. But since content and media are not separate entities, this is obviously not the case. I needed to look at the way in which the media and the text affected each other. Eventually I decided that the medial structures were provoking or encouraging a new and blog-specific mode of writing which could be analysed effectively with a combination of media analysis and literary theory. So I still wanted to keep my perspective rooted in literary theory. I had a hunch – soon to be confirmed - that there was something there that blog studies seemed to be ignoring or underplaying.

So my project, as I outlined it in this first chapter, was to attempt to create a conceptual vocabulary for describing the weblog as a literary form. (Aside: I use “form” here instead of “genre” or “media” for reasons which I will get into in excruciating detail in chapter 2).

The fulcrum I found that enabled me to shift these bits of vocabulary around was essay theory. One night, having browsed an online collection of Montaigne’s Essais and a selection of blogs, it dawned on me that these texts actually had a lot in common: the focus on process; the intellectual restlessness; the love of quotation, of other texts, of the randomness of things read coming together and the verbal and intellectual playfulness - these were all superficial qualities shared by blogs and the essay. I found that these superficial qualities actually signalled a deeper relationship of methodology, composition and structure which I wanted to explore and use to develop a theoretical vocabulary to describe blogs as literary entities and then use in practice to analyse and criticise some blogs.

1.2. Definition

What follows is an attempt to define blogs. I’ll just skip lightly over this part, because you, the reader, already knows what a blog is. You read blogs, and blogs, being such a diverse and heterogenous phenomenon, are more easily described by reading lots of blogs. They are a set of practices and codes which mutate constantly and therefore are hard - indeed, impossible - to pin down. Just think of how much YouTube or Flickr, for instance, have changed what blogs are and what they do.

Anyway, I run roughshod across some medial definitions – the topology of front page, archives, permalinks, datemarkings, reverse chronological presentation, etc. etc. and I introduce a lot of vocabulary that you already probably know, in case the reader didn't.

These are the bare bones of formal, medial conventions necessary for something to be described as a blog (I strip the definition down as far as I can). They remain inadequate to describe what blogs do. As Steven Himmer says in his article “The Labyrinth Unbound: Weblogs as Literature”, btw the only article I have found which specifically engages weblogs as literary texts (and an interesting one), this technical definition of blogs is inadequate:

(...) [T]he structural and technical definitions many in the weblogging community focus on fall equally short of describing what is a complex, earnest, and distinct literary form. In other words, it is insufficient to explore the weblog exclusively at the level of content, and equally insufficient to focus wholly on the technical delivery of that content. Accounting for the diversity of weblogs and webloggers—yet still maintaining some larger sense of what they have in common—requires instead a careful look both at what weblogs do, and how they do it for both writers and readers.
Instead, an adequate definition of the blog will explore both form and content and the interplay between the technical possibilities inherent in the form, as well as the limitations, and how this contributes to the possibility for a wide variety of literary modes. In the by now fairly canonic (ask Google) definition of 'weblog', Jill Walker uses both technical and generic traits of the form:

Typically, weblogs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal. Weblogs first appeared in the mid-1990s, becoming popular as simple and free publishing tools became available towards the turn of the century. Since anybody with a net connection can publish their own weblog, there is great variety in the quality, content, and ambition of weblogs, and a weblog may have anywhere from a handful to tens of thousands of daily readers. Examples of the *genre exist on a continuum from *confessional, online *diaries to logs tracking specific topics or activities through links and commentary. (...)

Most weblogs use links generously, allowing readers to follow conversations between weblogs by following links between entries on related topics. Readers may start at any point of a weblog, seeing the most recent entry first, or arriving at an older post via a search engine or a link from another site, often another weblog. Once at a weblog, readers can read on in various orders: chronologically, thematically, by following links between entries or by searching for keywords. Weblogs also generally include a blogroll, which is a list of links to other weblogs the author recommends. Many weblogs allow readers to enter their own comments to individual posts.

Weblogs are serial and cumulative, and readers tend to read small amounts at a time, returning hours, days, or weeks later to read entries written since their last visit. This serial or episodic structure is similar to that found in *epistolary novels or *diaries, but unlike these a weblog is open-ended, finishing only when the writer tires of writing (...).

I don’t think that thinking of blogs as a genre is a good idea (and neither does Jill, despite some statements in this definition), but in order to say anything interesting about blogs, we need to descend from undifferentiated formal descriptions into qualitiative subsets of the great quantitative mass (unlike certain people I could think of). Btw, see also this discussion of the blog as medium, genre or format in which Alvaro Ramirez argues that blogging is not a medium but a format. I’m still not entirely sure whether I agree with him or not, but it’s an interesting argument.

So while I have to admit I sort of detest the very concept of genre, if you tie me to a chair and beat me I might eventually start talking about the class of blogs I discuss in the thesis as a sort of genre. More on this, as I say, in chapter 2.

1.2. The weblog as literature.

(yes - i have two sections numbered 1.2. in my thesis - what of it?)

In this section, I defend the fact that I consider the blog to be an emergent trait of contemporary literature. Are blogs literature? Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, duh.

Ok, ok. First, there’s the argument from media: all media that can convey text can be literary (if you expand your definitions of “text” and “literary” sufficiently here, you can swallow the world – your sense data as text, your interpretation of the world as narrative, for instance). So the blog can be literary, because it can publish literary text. For instance, there are blogs dedicated to publishing epistolary novels in the novel’s real-time. Dracula is a good example. If you publish literature in a blog it’s still literature. That’s the duh part. Especially since there is now a sort-of-consensus that all language is literary (see e.g. Triztan Todorov’s genre theory).

Steven Himmer wants to go further than this, and argues that blogs are specifically literary because of their formal traits:

Calling a weblog “literary” does not require content that is about literature or even content that aims to be literature. It is not an attempt at categorizing one weblog and its author as more worthwhile in a canonical sense than any other. To the contrary, I propose that every weblog can be considered literary in the sense that it calls attention not only to what we read, but also to the unique way we read it. The weblog is (to paraphrase Colin MacCabe) the performed result of a code of particular techniques (...). The weblog collapses many of the common assumptions made about texts, as it complicates the distinction between author and audience through the multivocality of both direct commenting, and the reader’s ability to reorder the narrative in myriad ways. Owing to its ongoing creation over an undefined period of time, the weblog becomes a text that constantly expands through the input of both readers and writers. This absence of a discrete, “completed” product makes the weblog as a form resistant to the commoditization either of itself, or of any one particular interpretation.
While I find this to be an interesting argument and almost agree with it (I do agree with many of Himmer's other points here, and will return to them in chapter 2), some days I think it’s a bit of a watering-down of the concept of literature. While it can easily be argued that the formal characteristics of blogs are aesthetic or literary presentation techniques/tropes, which is Himmer’s central point, I would also like to describe the generic traits of certain kinds of blogging in terms of literature in something of the traditional sense of literature. (By traditional, I mean from the 20th century.) So instead, I think of blogs as media that encourage certain types of context simply because they are well-suited to presenting certain forms of text and not others. For instance, the link + commentary genre which blogging started out as: blogging is probably the best possible medium for conveying that sort of text. But that’s an easy example. Just wait until chapter 3, where I get all renaissance humanist on you.

And needless to say, I would strenuously argue that these kinds of writing I am talking about here are within the boundaries of literature by all modern standards, though sometimes it moves into the no-man’s land between literature, experience and science, or into something more like free conceptual play, like the humanist essay. But that's the style these days and if all the cool kids are doing it, why shouldn't the blog be allowed to do it, and why shouldn't we be allowed to talk about it?

1.3. Convergence

Between the rather tacky So 90's! covers of Hypertext 2.0., George Landow has an argument which I like. He argues for what he calls a convergence between theory and practice occurring between newer theoretical discourses – deconstruction, post-structuralism, Deleuzianism, neo-pragmatism, etc. on the one hand and hypertext and what we would now call the internet on the other. In short, the global hypertext is starting to do in very specific, practical ways what theorists have been arguing that all text is doing conceptually or linguistically. This leads to a situation in which one has to abandon “conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy and linearity, and replace them with ones of multi-linearity, nodes, links and networks.” (p. 2) Mmm. Post-structuralicious!

My method takes this convergence as a model. I use hypertext theory in order to understand how the internet and the blogging format/media/whatever interplay in the production of meaning, and I take some established literary theory – particularly essay theory and certain post-structuralist ideas about text and notions of the public sphere lifted from Habermas – in studying the literary techniques deployed in blogging. I will then try to study or create a convergence between these two conceptual apparati. (Is that the word? Apparati? Apparatuses?)

1.4 & 1.5.: meaninglessly formal drivel

In these two sections I first explain why I chose the blogs I did (short answer: I liked them and they complement each other in many interesting ways) and outline the contents of the following six chapters, which I am not going to do here.

1.6. (Full disclosure)

The chapter ends with a little aside which doesn’t really enter into the rest of the argument, but which should be noted for formal reasons. It’s an interesting methodological conundrum: I am a co-author of both the texts I am going to be analysing, since I comment a bit in both blogs. Not a lot, but I am there. I participated in creating the work. In at least one central exchange of comments, which I analyse, in one of the works, I am an active participant. So does that stop my impartiality?

Well, I would say first that impartiality is boring and that I am no more or less impartial than I would be had I not participated in the writing of the work. Some people would say yes, I suppose, but they are probably crabby old men who couldn’t make a hyperlink if their life depended on it. My argument is as follows:

There might be those who think that it is not unproblematic from an ethic of academic perspective to analyse a work that one is the co-author of, however peripherally. I am not among them, but even if I was, I believe that my voice gets lost in the din of the massive, distributed authorial function that is at work in weblogs. I am closer to the situation of the political scientist analysing structures in his own society than some board of directors handing out contracts to each other. And one must not forget that every reading makes the reader a co-author of the text. There are, indeed, many good arguments to be made that this MA thesis is a stronger intervention in the text than my presence in it as a commentator is.

That's it for now! Stay tuned for Chapter 2, in which I outline the decentralised concept of “work” at work in the blog, the blog’s role in the public sphere, its relationship to canon. Thrill! As I analyse the blog aesthetic and touch on heart-throbbing philological issues! I’m sure I’ll have it posted before the end of the Bush jr. presidency at least.

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Blogger Mikkel said...

Riveting stuff! But why not simply translate and edit the whole thing? I know a guy who translates and edits complx txts 4 food.

November 25, 2007 6:02 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

I'm not being paid to say this.

November 25, 2007 6:03 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Nor am I being paid to say this, unfortunately. That's why I don't really have the time to get into translating the whole thing now. Writing condensed versions are easier (and more fun!). But I might do it at some point, though. I'd certainly like to. That was actually my intention at first.

November 25, 2007 9:19 pm  
Blogger suttonhoo said...

hey baby: it’s your thesis, you can have as many 1.2s as you wanna.

re “Well, I would say first that impartiality is boring” -- hear, hear!

and an aside: heard a rep from the NY Times speak at a recent Forrester event on social networking (need to check my notes for her name -- she headed up the recent NYT redesign, an important component of which is the permalinked architecture and the greater proliferation of subdomain blogs) and she said something that really caught my attention -- that the blog format had become extraordinarily popular among NY Times reporters -- so much so that “everybody wants one”.

I didn’t get my question in during the regular q&a so I approached her afterwards for more info -- she said the reporters blog *after* they’ve filed their regular inches. her read was that they’re making time for it because of the immediacy and connection that it gives them with their readership. I don’t disagree, but I suspect there’s even more going on.

I thought that was huge: that individuals whose voices are broadcast, if not daily then regularly, in one of the world’s most influential publications -- were lining up to get themselves a blog. *In addition to* their regular responsibilities.

I think there’s something inherently remarkable about the medium of the blog that will be deeply felt over time.

I can tell I’m gonna love this series -- looking forward to the next few chapters. bring it on!

p.s. speaking of Forrester -- spoke with one of their analysts recently who was doing some research on the topic of customer reviews as a social networking device, and the conversation veered to the architecture of weblogs. she told me about a piece she wrote advocating for fixed architecture to aid navigation through blogs -- as a supplementary system to the chronological navigation that’s inherent to the blog IA -- and she said the backlash from the blogging community was HUGE. the general implication was that because she was advocating a fixed -- probably topical -- system that she *didn’t get* blogging. this too I thought was interesting -- as if the IA defined the thing itself. this was prior to Blogger’s introduction of tags -- I think many blogs are using tags now to create exactly the kind of topical navigation system that she advocated (I know I do).

November 26, 2007 12:39 am  
Blogger Susanne said...

I had two really heartbreaking moments while reading this post: When reading "At first, I thought this was a medial problem" I thought it said "medical problem" and was (I must admit) hugely dissapointed when discovering my error. Also, I thought Himmer was called Himmler and was (I must admit) hugely dissapointed when discovering my error.

November 27, 2007 10:52 am  
Blogger Jill said...

Gimme more!

November 28, 2007 6:09 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Jill: Coming up! I hope to have part 2 up over the weekend sometime, unless real life gets in the way. Thanks for the link!

Susanne: Sorry, I'm in the best of health. Though now that you mention it, I have been getting this weird rash between my - well, never mind. Anyway: you can look forward to chapter 5, which is all about the Goebbel's Hypertext theorem. Shh - don't mention the war!

Suttonhoo: Probably the thing I like most about blogs is that it gives people the opportunity to publish text that is not economically feasible: texts that will only be read by a few people, but will matter to those few. The journalists were probably saying the things they couldn't get payed to say, or filling out the gaps between what they got paid to say and what they wanted to say.

And the direct connection with readership is priceless, I think. After publishing the MA thesis, you know it's going to be read by maybe 10 people if you're lucky. In the condensed version here on the blog, it finds a wider readership, some of whom - gasp - aren't even in academia, and the readership responds immediately, and suddenly you're having a conversation. I think that that's a wonderful thing to have.

November 29, 2007 12:04 am  
Blogger mrtn said...

Oh, and re: the Forrester person, I think the thing that the bloggers were responding to was probably the sense of restriction that a topical system gives (you are writing about this set of topics, not anything else). The solution, obviously, is to make more tags, more topics.

But still, though I like tags (a lot! both for what they do and just because I love writing in those sorts of paratextual half-text spaces) I sympathise with the backlash in a weird way. There is something to be said for text that goes the places it needs to go, and doesn't concern itself with categories. It's sort of the deconstruction-hippie's dream of categorical freedom, even though that's an impossibility, because in some sense, you need these fixed points in the linguistic or topical firmament in order to navigate. The bloggers were probably reacting to the feeling of a restriction being placed on precisely that freedom from the economically-feasible restriction I mentioned earlier. They felt that the structure was trying to pre-organise, rather than post-organise their stuff. I suppose you can work around these things by putting the tags on afterwards, if you want. But anyway, what's so wrong with a blog that stays on topic? Lots of the best ones are single-topic blogs. If you keep writing long enough about any topic, you eventually find the rest of the world in there. Right now, for instance, I'm reading a *very* thorough bread-baking primer. The author writes about bread as metaphor for life, and about chemistry and travel and baker zen etc. But hey, speaking of staying on topic. How about ending this paragraph?

And more importantly, Dayna, what kind of freaky job do you have that you have an abbreviation on hand for that most ubiquitous of phrases, "information architecture"? I had to go see Wikipedia

November 29, 2007 12:18 am  
Anonymous thesis proposal said...

I visit this blog so many time,and every time i get some new tips and ideas from your blog, great work.

March 15, 2011 11:29 am  
Anonymous Sarah Wood said...

Good read, Martin! This part of your thesis is amazing! I bet the whole thesis is worth reading. Well, thesis writing can really be tedious but if you put all your effort, time, and knowledge, it can just be a piece of cake. Anyway, I wish you can share the whole thesis for us to read it more.

June 13, 2013 9:16 am  

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