Monday, October 15, 2007

"The State of the Blog" as narrated by...

In consideration of the blogging format's validity as criticism, many have said that the "immediacy" of blogging is probably its greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength. Those who defend blogs, myself included, may tend to use the word, "immediacy" when describing the virtues of web writing and posting. It sounds nice, yes, but it is a painfully vague term. What does it mean that blogging is immediate? That it's "in the now"? That it's all-inclusive? Along with "interactional", "immediacy" has become a cliche in web discourse and in discourse about web discourse. It's one of those words that we so readily throw around without really knowing what it means.

There are a number of terms and familiar writing conventions like this in all critical arenas, from 500-word Weekend Section reviews full of your standard superlatives and remarks on "hapless" or "fluid" direction, to 3,000-word articles in Film Quarterly, which can be so "complex" (another vague word) that they serve to confuse the reader (and writer) into thinking that an all-over-the-place criticism is actually deeply intelligent. That's not to say that all scholarly writing is nothing more than semantics and pontification, or that all journalistic criticism is predictable. Nevertheless, each pocket of film writing culture has its own pool of terms and larger stylistic conventions from which critics draw upon to structure their articles, even their interpretations of a film. Obviously, the goals of journalistic criticism and academic criticism are quite different. Where journalistic criticism serves as something of a quick-hit consumer guide, scholarly writing attempts to probe the thematic depths of narrative and visual tropes in relation to theoretical frameworks. No matter the style or occupational field, each critic has a certain knowledge of that mode of criticism and therefore attempts to engage readers with these acknowledged terms and conventions that have informed reactions, responses, and interpretations of movies. As the now-absent Andy Horbal once observed, criticism is in many ways much like the crafting of the art form itself. After all, what is art without an adequate discourse about it that may inform not only critics but various viewers/consumers of that art?

Where does that leave blogging, or more appropriately, blogging as criticism? We hear arguments from journalistic and scholarly writers as to the validity of the blogging format, with words like freedom, interaction, and immediacy being employed at a high frequency in service of what eventually becomes a "pro" or "con" opinion about whether blogging should be considered a "real" form of criticism. The rhetorical devices used to shape this debate are particularly intriguing. First: it's ironic that the only acknowledged discourse regarding blogging comes from camps whose own views and writing styles have been shaped by the norms of their respective modes of criticism. When Peter Bart or Richard Schickel observe that "busy bloggers" have no sense of film history or that bloggers are more interested in the number of visits at their sites, they do so from rather privelaged positions in journalistic criticism from which they thrive on the acknowledged conventions and their lofty positions of power in that medium. Both of them have disparaged blogging and bloggers, and yet they have offered no insights into the state of criticism. Since they feel threated by the increasing buzz concerning blogging as criticism, which, if either of them took the time to actually research, is a growing presence in film criticism, they instead choose to follow their journalistic impulses and make uninformed claims about blogging from their respective perches in the publishing world.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the published critical spectrum, a number of media scholars are particularly critical of bloggers and fan cultures. Although they are more interested in the level of communicative tendencies and modes of interaction than they are in critical validity, the issue of digital democracy is quite a trendy one. The notion of freedom has always been debated in various academic disciplines, and if the increasing importance of 20th century thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze is any indication, the freedom debate will continue as increased mediation in an age of mechanical and now digital reproduction constitute our presence, individually and collectively. That debate has been taken on by media scholars, and while I think it important to continue wrestling with these issues, I cannot help but feel that we are running in circles in some ways. Instead, I wonder about the implications of considering communicative behaviors and technologies in the 21st century in light of theoretical frameworks that have been long used and developed over hundreds of years.

Radical change may therefore not be possible, since we will forever remain entrenched in and guided by the level of discourse that preceded and informed current discourse and communication. But nor should it be aspired to. Real change occurs when the various elements that constitute a given discourse are forced into juxtaposition and incongruous relationships, thus yielding new perpectives. Sometimes, the norms of a given "section" of a culture --in this case film writing culture-- function so strongly that they actually discourage the exploration of potentially new frontiers. Critics of all kinds are often mirror images of the homogenized styles of Hollywood storytelling that they so often criticize. These accepted norms are exercised to such an extent that they are rarely questioned and they are shallowly understood and used to instead put forth a "yes or no" opinion about a film, a filmmaker, or a movement in cinema. So the end result is a spectrum of sectioned off critics, scholars, and writers, all subscribing to different norms and practices within that larger spectrum, engaged in masturbatory dialogue wherein those who subscribe to the same theories, views, and opinions love the sound of their own voice, and those who disagree simply do not associate. And never once is the makeup of that larger spectrum that keeps them so divided ever challenged.

These pockets of film writing culture rarely breach other, but they have nearly unanimously made certain to frame the debate over web discourse and critical validity as if it must "earn" some respect via the same means that enables published writers to lay come claim to validity or qualitification. The blogging debate is continually engaged on the level of asking the question as to digital democracy, which is indicative of publishing trends that too many writers and readers have bought into. Proponents of digital media and blogging are forced to enter the dialogue by defending this supposed wasteland that is the internet. In doing so, they are immediately handicapping themselves to the dominant underlying assumptions as set forth by published writing. The only way of seemingly entering this dialogue is to accept the pre-established position of skepticism regarding digital media and web interaction.

That's not to say that blogging is a "whole new realm", since this too is a rhetorical device emerging as the fierce alternative to the "internet is inherently bad" mindset that permeates the debate. Those who blindly sing the praises of the internet, hailing it as a bold new medium of communication, are essentially playing right into a dominant deology to which they are positioning themselves in direct contrast, thus sustaining a binary level of discourse that is required to preserve that ideology.

How, then, can one responsibly enter the dialogue about web discourse, let alone become a responsible participant in it? A good starting point, in this blogger's opinion, is to employ the strengths of other writing media while exploiting their weaknesses. So established are the conventions under which journalistic and scholarly writers operate that their arsenal of endless conventions and vague terms have provided cover to a great deal of their advocates to function on auto-pilot, where they sit unengaged to films or film criticism. Bloggers, however, come from all backgrounds, both professionally and cinematically. Those who have helped to build this format into the undeniable growing presence that it is are using their knowledge and background in various traditions of writing, criticism, and cinephilia to enter in a "new" form of dialogue, one that actively acknowledges its influences and history but remains open to allowing these established norms to violently crash together in various ways. It's extremely difficult to embrace new frameworks when so many of our views and theories have lead us to approach cinema and criticism in a very specific way. But I will retain hope that it is possible to grow criticism as cinema itself grows.

The meaningful debates concerning web discourse and critical relevance is happening on the blogging front itself. Where one year ago (before I was blogging myself), I would think this trend to be an exercise in isolation and irrelevance, at least in terms of the accepted norms of published writing, I have learned that the outlook for blogging as criticism is actually quite bright. I say this because I have seen a rise in bloggers who are not merely interested in posting quick-witted thoughts or images (which can be useful, however), or embodying fandom. Perhaps I am biased, naive, and overly hopeful, but blogging may be slowly realizing its own potential through the work of writers coming from various sections of film writing culture who meld various writing styles, in so doing offering unique critical perspectives of the film about which they write. Embracing the new doesn't necessarily mean that established norms and traditions should be completely upheaved. But we must press for new understanding of those very conventions and tradiitions. With any luck, If blogging continues to grow, it may influence other writing media to re-evaluate their dominant practices, while at the same time shaping the image of all critics as being informed by these practices, but fresh to the cinematic experience at the same time.

As filmmakers continually test their capacities for working within this narratological audiovisual medium, so too must the artists who incite dialogue and discourse about the medium. Here on film blogging circuit, critics of all professional backgrounds (or lack there of) challenge cinema and criticism; stretching it, progressing it, and evolving it. The most significant contributors to this movement are not walled off or restricted by our own rhetorical devices and occupational language, but, in their exposure to a variety of styles and perspectives, are confounding those critical norms. Not deconstructing them. Constructing them.

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