29 May 2009

How far does it go back in here?

Tim Abrahams has had plenty of responses already, at Sit Down Man and Infinite Thought for example. My take is this: Abrahams is simply lost in space; it's online agoraphobia. He's suffering from the strange formless depth of the internet. That is, as a discursive space, the internet is not only vastly too large to ever fully absorb, it lacks the familiar topology of the bookshop or library. He has no compass of preconceptions, no tangible printed certainty. In WHSmiths you walk in, you see a discrete, delimited collection of magazines or periodicals. You make your choice, you buy it and leave, confident in what you have bought based on your past experience. He's like a man in one of those restaurants where people eat in the dark, stumbling around worried about knocking into people he might not like, and even if he likes their conversation, how does he know he'd like them in real life, and how can he even tell whether he *does* like them, without all those reliable reassuring things like logos, back issues, names and reputations (it must be good it's in the fucking New Yorker). Whereas online, until you've swallowed this anxiety down and actually plunged in to read in quantity, you have to exercise your own judgement (I don't know if it's good... if it's good why isn't it in The New Yorker?)

Perhaps I'm being unfair – Abrahams drops hints that he reads a lot of blogs. But when he talks vaguely of how blogging's link-structure creates a "search for consensus" and "a general atmosphere of nostalgia" you wonder exactly how many he's checked out. Consensus? If the defacialization of the internet has unleashed only two things, they are 1) a colossal appetite for pornography, and 2) an even greater enthusiasm for ignoring the decorous rules of Enlightenment debate in the form of the flame and the troll.

He also makes a glaring category error. "The internet isn’t the real world." I suppose not, in empirical terms, it's "virtual". But he's not comparing online criticism to the real world, he's meant to be comparing it to print criticism. So, how is the discourse of print journalism any more "in the real world"? It isn't. It takes place in print, in small-run journals, magazines, academic departments – exactly the kind of places that middlebrows like to castigate for not being part of "the real world." Online criticism is no less "real" intellectually for being dematerialized.

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