Monday, March 24, 2003

Geoff Nunberg, a Stanford linguist (also of the NY Times and NPR), gave a talk recently and made an offhand comment about blogging, which he said he'd always thought of not as "public" but as "in public"--as in "taking off your clothes in public." At first this seemed right to me: a blog is not the "public" of the "public sphere," which assumes a shared reference point and a common culture, the way, say, the Times styles itself the "paper of record" and promises "all the news that's fit to print." If you publish something in the daily paper, you expect everyone to read it; if you write something in your blog, you know there's a decent chance that no one will read it. You can strip on the street corner, but that's no guarantee that anyone will stop to look.

But then I thought about the blogs I read--mostly those of people I know or at least have met--and realized that "in public" wasn't quite right.either. Think about it this way: who are you talking to when you blog? Not to some vast anonymous public; more likely to a fairly limited and, at first, well-defined community, as when you used a travel blog to tell your friends and family where you are. Or maybe even to yourself. And yet at the same time you know that there's some chance that anyone in the world could be reading it, maybe millions of potential readers out there, and you can hardly plausibly pretend that it's just you talking to yourself. It's a community that's (potentially) infinitely expansible.

It's fitting, too, that so many poets are blogging these days. John Stuart Mill called poetry something that is not heard, but overheard, and that's not a bad characterization of blogging either. I think this is why Ron Silliman's blog has gotten so much attention; it is aggressively public and authoritative, meant to be heard, posted regularly once per day, more like a set of book reviews or a newspaper column than a journal--and this has seemed to some like a travesty of the blog, which is perhaps meant to be more personal, more provisional, less sure of itself. As Stephanie put it a while back, for all we know Silliman could have written all of these essays in 1987 and just be publishing them day by day. It sounds like that sometimes. But at the same time it's given the poetry blog-sphere a center, a point of reference to react against.

Finally, I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm feeling compelled to start one of these things at the very moment that the U.S. has engaged in a mad war on Iraq. The blogger, the poet, and the dissenting citizen seem to have a lot in common these days: they're all trying to make themselves heard in a culture that seems intent on not listening.

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