Cultural pessimism and pragmatic optimism

I’m sorry for the long-windedness, but what follows is an incredibly long post which I’ve been sort of writing by accumulation, a line here, a paragraph there, since at least February. Now it’s just been sitting on my hard drive for three weeks and Baudrillard shuffled off this unreal mortal coil and Lovink just got quoted about his view of blogs in Morgenbladet, so it has some topical urgency, so I might as well just post it. But it is a bit of a patchwork creature.

Ok, so let’s talk a bit about cultural pessimism. As I mentioned in a previous post, the thing I found most useless about the thinking of Jean Baudrillard was his constant pessimism. Surely, one would think, the first task of any branch of theory or philosophy is to create working conditions and conceptual frameworks for praxis. If a theory doesn’t help you live your life in some way, or doesn’t lead on into something which is helpful to you in some way, then it is by definition not worth spending time on. (Though it might be interesting pursuing it, if one thinks it might eventually lead to something useful, or even if one thinks it’s merely interesting, one should pursue it. Often, something which one thought was unimportant or mostly irrelevant turns out to be important and practically useful 80 years down the line, like for instance matrix mathematics. This is the short version of the defence of basic research in the natural sciences, without which we wouldn’t have the theory of relativity or the atomic bomb.) Obviously, there should be as wide a range of possible values of “helpful” or “your life”, but in the end, if a philosophical system makes you want to lie down and die, or sit in your office and smoke cigarillos all day, while writing incomprehensible essays on how things used to be so much realer, then that would seem to me to be the definition of bad theory.

I always wonder, with people who claim in their writings that everything is useless, that nothing can be done, etc.: why do they write at all? More to the point: why do they publish? If everything is useless, why spread the word? Isn’t that spreading of the word actually an act of violence and malice? Wouldn’t the thing to do be to shut up about it? Keep people in a state of ignorant pseudo-bliss? No, if you publish philosophy, theory or whatever at all, there must be a rhetorical imperative. What are you trying to do to the reader? What political action are you trying to provoke? What change in mindset?

So I consider the imperatives of theory and philosophy are to find private methods of dealing with the existential situation that comes after the death of God and the birth of modernity and finding public political strategies for creating new and better (“better”) ethical regimes in that situation. Also, if they can help us have a little fun along the way, that would be great.


Which is just a preamble for talking about this article: “Blogging, the nihilist impulse” by Geert Lovink. Ever since Audun L mailed me the link, I’ve wanted to respond to this take on blogging. Lovink is following in the footsteps of Baudrillard not least by exhibiting a strange pessimism of new media, and manufacturing negative attributes in them. The article has a view of blogs which I can't identify with, but seems to me to be an excellent example of cultural pessimism in action.

“It is of strategic importance to develop critical categories of a theory of blogging that takes the specific mixture of technology, interface design, software architecture, and social networking into account”, Lovink begins, and I wholeheartedly agree (although I’m not entirely sure what "critical categories of a theory of blogging" really means), until I read the follow-up:

Instead of merely looking into the emancipatory potential of blogs, or emphasizing their counter-cultural folklore, I see blogs as part of an unfolding process of "massification" of this still new medium. What the Internet lost after 2000 was the "illusion of change". This void made way for large-scale, interlinked conversations through freely available automated software.

You're just skipping along through the paragraph and... wait, what? The illusion of change? As if to say that now, of course, we are no longer blinded by this illusion. The internet has not changed our lives. All that change was just an illusion. Of course the sudden proximity of all text, the ability to sift through vast seas of information in seconds, the ability to textually communicate meaningfully over vast distances in seconds, all this is just an illusion of change, not actual change. Our cultures are exactly the same. When actual change comes along, I presume, we’ll really feel it. But, then, actual change won’t come, because here comes Baudrillard to harsh our mellow:

blogs were the actual catalysts that realized worldwide democratization of the Net. As much as "democratization" means "engaged citizens", it also implies normalization (as in setting of norms) and banalization. We can't separate these elements and only enjoy the interesting bits. According to Jean Baudrillard, we're living in the "Universe of Integral Reality". "If there was in the past an upward transcendence, there is today a downward one. This is, in a sense, the second Fall of Man Heidegger speaks of: the fall into banality, but this time without any possible redemption." If you can't cope with high degrees of irrelevance, blogs won't be your cup of tea.

Here, I think, we see the beginnings of a nihilist anti-democratic school of thought which I think is the last stop of the Baudrillard train. There is a claim of celebrating a difference and subjectivity now lost, but at the same time there is an attack on the material conditions necessary to allow real difference to be actualised and flourish, coupled with what amounts to an attack on actual difference in the world today, because it is not “real”, not “genuine” enough. Down this road lies an aristocratic, and possibly even protofascist way of thinking, where somebody gets to decide real modes of living vs. unreal.

But here the contradictions begin. Further down, Lovink laments that “a dominant culture, such as the Californian techno-hippies, failed to emerge and if it exists, it is tricky to label” and that “Blogging comes close to what Adilkno once described as "vague media". The lack of direction is not a failure but the core asset.” So what exactly is it: does one want normalization or a non-vague media? Fact is that people are vague, when taken all together. Individually, they are engines of difference, producing the plurality of cultures. Any media which is democratic is also vague, when seen as a totality. When seen individually, in its production, however, it is something else entirely. The acknowledgement that all value shades into vagueness when a large enough sample is taken is lacking here. (This part-whole dialectic, btw, is something which runs through the entire study of blogging, in my experience.)

So there is a bait-and-switch here: on the one hand Lovink is saying that blogging means irrelevance, banality and the eradication of difference, on the other hand, he himself overlooks and smoothes over the difference which is actually found in blogs by using these massive generalisations which pervade the article (claiming that there is a cynicism folded into the media, for instance, or statements on the general form of blogs are this, blogs are that which he sprinkles liberally throughout). He does not allow blogs to enact the difference he claims that they eradicate, because he describes in homogenic terms a heterogeneous phenomenon.

Furthermore, the claim of banality and nihilism is more of a problem than the phenomenon itself. Blogs are a media, not a genre (as Lovink acknowledges, but fails to incorporate into her argument). When they are used properly, they are tools that help you generate meaning. Used properly, they can be the opposite of banality: the establishing of meaning and relevance in everyday life, in one’s textual universe, one’s experiences, etc. So when Lovink says that a high degree of irrelevance is the scourge of blogging, what I see is the ugly head of instrumental reason rearing itself. It demands the question: irrelevant in relation to what? To what end? We’re all doomed to banality anyway, right? No: life is irrelevant. Books are full of the irrelevant. Art is completely irrelevant. Desiring relevance and meaning in everything is precisely the force which renders life in modernity meaningless and instrumentalised. To paraphrase Tom Stoppard, if things being rational were a criterion for their being allowed to exist, the whole world would be a soy-bean field. This is the very force which one should be opposing, and which blogs can be a weapon against when used right.

What I think the real problem here is, is that Lovink simply hasn’t read enough blogs. His sample size seems too small, when I think of the enormous difference of blogs I have come across in the course of writing my thesis. I think he has read a couple of “representative” ones, and called it a day, ignoring the wild proliferation of modes of blogging which exist in the shade of the A-list bloggers. When he talks about the “almost self-evident equation between blogs and the news industry”, I think to myself: this person has never read any of the blogs I read regularly. Or this little chestnut: “To "blog" a news report doesn't mean that the blogger sits down and thoroughly analyzes the discourse and circumstances, let alone checks the facts on the ground. To blog merely means to quickly point to news fact through a link and a few sentences that explain why the blogger found this or that factoid interesting or remarkable, or is disagrees with it.” This is nonsense, and all the best bloggers know it (even most of the bad ones know it, they just lack the ability to do it). While some bloggers are into the link + commentary school (Jason Kottke is one of the most interesting ones), good blogging is pretty much the same as good analysis, good content. Further down, Lovink says “Bloggers rarely add new facts to a news story. They find bugs in products and news reports but rarely "unmask" spin, let alone come up with well-researched reports.” And if this has not been proven thoroughly wrong by the political history of blogging, already (I think it has), surely it will be.
The London Times noted that Houellebecq "writes from inside alienation. His bruised male heroes, neglected by their parents, cope by depriving themselves of loving interactions; they project their coldness and loneliness on to the world." Blogs are perfect projection fields for such an undertaking.
Yes, but the point is that it’s perfect for almost any communicative action that happens over a certain amount of time. It’s perfect medium for creating loving, meaningful, collective interactions as well.
So far it has not proven useful to interpret blogs as a new form of literary criticism. Such an undertaking is bound to fail. The "crisis of criticism" has been announced time and again and blog culture has simply ignored this dead-end street.
Actually, I disagree extensively in my MA thesis, for certain values of literary criticism, anyway.

Criticism has become a conservative and affirmative activity, in which the critic alternates between losses of value while celebrating the spectacle of the marketplace. It would be interesting to investigate why criticism has not become popular, and aligned itself with such new-media practices as blogging, as cultural studies popularized everything except theory. Let's not blame the Blogging Other for the moral bankruptcy of the postmodern critic.
Yes. Criticism celebrates the marketplace. I can hear them shouting now. “All hail the marketplace!” Judith Butler sings, with Hardt and Negri on backing vocals. “Glory to the almighty dollar”, Jacques Derrida calls out from beyond the grave, in his silver-lined coffin. But beyond this incredibly weird statement, the empirical problem returns once again, because criticism has aligned itself with blogging. Extensively, actually, all across the world. For one example, one could point to the cluster of popular blogs around the Valve, containing people like Michael Bérubé, Scott Eric Kaufman, Bitch Ph.D, etc. and so on and so forth (there are hundreds of them, thousands).

“One thing is sure: blogs do not shut down thought.” Well, thank the Free Market Forces! But what is thought, to cultural pessimism? There is a sense here, I think, in which thought can be had in a vacuum. Lovink concludes her article: “Isn't the document that stands out the one that is not embedded in existing contexts? Doesn't the truthness lie in the unlinkable?” And I wonder to myself how we would find a document that was not embedded in existing contexts. How we would read it. The answer is that we can’t. All rhetoric, all language, depends on having a set of contexts, which are known, and a set of unknown or new elements, either in the combination of old elements or the adding of new ones. The truthiness, or whatever he calls it, lies in communities, in contexts and settings which relate frames of meaning that we can work from. But Lovink is arguing precisely that bloggers have lost faith in their communities’ transcendental meaning. Truth is not to be found, and that's the point. Especially not in places where it can't be found. Text is culture talking to itself. And the truthiness is just not to be found:

A cynic, so Sloterdijk says, is someone who is part of an institution or group whose existence and values he himself can no longer see as absolute, necessary, and unconditional, and who is miserable due to this enlightenment, because he or she sticks to principles he or she does not believe in.
But this is precisely where my brand of postmodernism parts way with Baudrillard and Lovink (and is why, I suspect, that Baudrillard is the opposite of a postmodern thinker. Is in fact a conservative pre-modernist trapped in a postmodern time). I think that the act of blogging could be or is a confirmation of community. Or rather that it is an action which is partially constitutive of a community. By throwing communication out there, with trust, one creates conversations which do not orientate, as Michael Bérubé has argued in his book Rhetorical Occasions, towards consensus, but which create meaning and political will.

No, I’m more in the camp of the pragmatists on this one. The philosopher Richard Rorty calls such a person as the one Sloterdijk describes above an ironist, not a cynic, and constructs a positive position out of the ironist self-description. He shows, in my opinion quite well, how the act of constructive redescription is the generating force in postmodern, “nihilist” society (Simon Critchley has described Rorty as a “passive”, accepting nihilist, but I think on the contrary that Rorty has demonstrated precisely an active will towards the pragmatic, political constructivism which I hold to be a goal of philosophy, and hold his project, on a whole, to be a constructive, political one).

In conclusion, though, I see this article as a very precise statement of the principles of cultural pessimism. Lovink writes,
What's declining is the Belief in the Message. That is the nihilist moment, and blogs facilitate this culture as no platform has ever done before. Sold by the positivists as citizen media commentary, blogs assist users in their crossing from Truth to Nothingness.
Cultural pessimism’s mode of operation is to attack tools of great possibility on a weak basis. The focus is on the destruction of tools, rather than inventing positive ways of using them to create meaningful cultural constructs. Why doesn’t Geert Lovink just get a blog and try to change the subject instead of spouting negative commentary from the sidelines? It doesn’t make sense. Instead, this brand of pessimism undermines a nuanced, rigorous critique of media (or, I suspect, whatever it happens to be attacking: globalisation, humanism, etc.), by eliminating all positive positions from which a new vision of its object of attack can be created. Instead of constructive, pragmatic redescription of faulty or flawed concepts, we get pessimist destruction of options. It simply does no one any good. If the blogosphere has problems (and it does, it's a product of a flawed culture), then the critique needs to be more rigorously constructive than Lovink.

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Blogger Mikkel said...

I completely agree, but you need to go outside now.

June 08, 2007 5:23 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Actually, I've been outside all day and only wrote about three sentences of this today. It's been written over a three month period.

June 08, 2007 11:33 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

It took you three months to write this?! Now I'm not impressed anymore. In fact I completely disagree. Cultural pessimism is justified and productive.

June 09, 2007 12:55 pm  
Blogger Geert said...

hi, as an activist i really do not get your obsession with 'cultural pessimism'. to me it just shows that you are unfamiliar with my work and position and confuse ruthless (self) analysis with some projected melancholic mood. to me blogs are first and foremost software, or to be more precise, a specific software culture that needs to be compared with email, usenet, web forums and so on. we activists and artists and other irregulars are not married to one specific format or platform. the other idea is, of course, that blogging emerges from a certain tendency in society, it is NOT a non-historical tool that is out there, somewhere
and that can be used for optimistic or pessimistic causes.

Best, Geert

PS. if you would have used a search engine you would have found that I do indeed have a blog, was involved an early collaborative blogging and webforum experiment called Discordia and that I more than once called myself a radical pragmatist.

June 25, 2007 1:05 pm  

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