Notes on the Atrocities
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Tuesday, May 27, 2003  

The Prose of Blogs – Examples

The Ur-blog
Atrios’ blog Eschaton is what you might call the ur-blog style, the most stripped-down, bare-bones style. One imagines he’s exasperated at the obviousness of news and its implications. For him, it’s enough to compose a single declarative sentence, using the highlighted link as both barb and target. (I expect that for half the people it’s enough to just read the sentence--going to the linked article is redundant.) It’s effective because Atrios posts regularly, reliably, and comprehensibly. According to his site, he gets 20,000 readers a day, and I bet like me, they go to Eschaton first, to see what’s happening.

Here’s an example from today’s posts.

Michael Getler Discovers Anonymous Sourcing

He's shocked to discover the Post's own standards for sourcing aren't being followed.

Maybe someone should send him a copy of Marvin Kalb's One Scandalous Story.

Atrios is to blogging what haiku is to poetry--economy and efficiency. In this example he uses the title to communicate information, then builds upon it with the first sentence, then builds upon that with the second. And so, in 32 words, he’s covered a fairly substantial subject.

The style accentuates immediacy. There’s an immediacy in the regularity with which Atrios posts, and this is reflected in his prose. It’s quick and pithy. The speed of news and communication is palpable on Eschaton, and he treats his readers with a prose style that underscores this ethos.

After the ur-blog/news-digest model of Eschaton, the essayist form is the most common (not, of course, that there are hard barriers). Among the more famous practitioners are Jeanne D’Arc (Body and Soul) and the Daily Howler. I’m going to highlight One Man’s Opinion, a blog deserving more attention.

One Man (or Dustin, as he signs himself in his comments) writes essays ranging in length from a couple hundred words to a recent treatise on the Matrix that ran 1,500 (it will come as no surprise that he’s a grad student). Let’s have a look at one paragraph from his Matrix essay:

If Zion is simply matrix writ in cruder code, then there truly is no escape from the matrix. Or at least that's what the disappointed commentors seem most worried about. Two interlocked dicta of Foucault's thought address the issue of resistance. The first is that power is not only destructive--the power of the sentinels, of the Agents, of society as a whole to grind down, wear out, and ultimately destroy non-compliance--but is also constructive--the power to build coalitions, to create, to imagine and to reimagine. This is the One's power, to reach into the code of the world and to rewrite its rules. The second, trickier dictum is that even the subversive can be subverted. This is the principle of the matrix--that the subversive elements can be isolated and contained in the subverts paradise, Zion--but it is also the principle of Morpheus--to challenge, even to destroy, the nascent hierarchies of Zion if doing so can produce the conditions for real freedom. (And suddenly it dawns on me: Foucault defined "power"--mysteriously, mystically--as "polymorphous perversity"; I just defined it as poly-Morpheus subversity...)

This is, admittedly, one of the more dense passages I might have selected. But despite that, there’s a playfulness that characterizes it. Dustin takes what he’s saying seriously, but not too seriously. The blog gives one the opportunity to say what he wishes to say, but to hold it lightly--as if to emphasize the human behind the thesis. In fact, the blogosphere provides a safe haven where one can actually make a very serious argument, but make it in a way that abandons the neutrality of commercial speech. We read this dense paragraph and don’t perceive an arrogance because, after all, it’s just One Man’s Opinion. It’s offered purely for consideration. The style of this prose is academic, but it’s not pedantic. It’s complex, but it’s not obtuse.

Another practitioner of the essay is Big Air Fred, whose Rantavation site is also under-appreciated. Coincidentally, he’s posted a treatise today that shows the relevance of blogs.

Currently we are in a serious crisis of our leadership. We have a democracy that continues to bypass its constituency, the people, for the corporations and special-interest groups that shoulder the enormous costs of elections. The need for election funding reform is pressing, as is Instant Run-off Voting and any other number of changes to the system. The efforts to correct all of these problems at one time are overwhelming, but carving out a chunk at a time is within our grasp. In this outline, I try to respond to the feeling of "unattachment" between the constituency and their representatives.

"Anyone" can get in contact with their elected officials and let those officials know how they feel about the issues "near and dear" to them. Certain "anyones" just get much quicker and more responsive contact than others do. Most "anyones" just don't have the time in the day, or the money in the budget, to contact their officials via fax, phone, US Postal Service or most privileged at all, in person. It's not necessarily that any real physical barriers exist, but many non-physical ones--money, time, knowledge, social barriers, do. What happens, then, is that the dialog between the representatives of the demos (the voting public) and the demos itself gets monopolized by those that have the easiest path to access. Those "dialog monopolizers" include, but are not limited to, lobbyists and current/potential big campaign contributors. Hardly the stuff of democracy.

The language here is in the rare third-person, out of which Fred rarely slips. But despite that, it seems like personal communication. There’s nothing neutral about it. It feels like a rough draft (rare is the blog subjected to an even informal editor), more like the transcription of a speech than a polished piece of prose. (If he ran it through another edit, Fred my choose to use some different words, craft more clearly declarative sentences, and switch to the more orthodox “dialogue.”) If Fred submitted this to a magazine, the editor would want to make some changes. (I’m incredibly sloppy myself. If someone wishes to subject this essay to a rigorous analysis, I’ll hide my head in shame.)

But in terms of clarity and effect, there’s something about the style that communicates passion and authenticity. We get the point. We also feel the import and urgency of his words. It’s a very effect passage.

If the ur-blog promotes awareness, and the essayist promotes understanding, then there is a third kind of blogger who wishes to promote action. Or at least to suggest it. Take for example, a section from This Modern World:

Through its GOP Team Leader site, the Republican Party officially encourages people to cut-and-paste Republican talking points, sign their own names, and email them to news media as letters to the editor purportedly written by average, concerned citizens. There's a word for this. Actually there are several: deception, fraud, deceit, sham, hoax--take your choice. And it gets better: for partaking in this act of officially-sanctioned deception, GOP Team Leaders are awarded points which can be redeemed for swag such as tote bags and caps and so on. . . .

And in their May 26 issue, Time magazine fell for it. I noted it here, suggested you (politely, always politely) write them and let them know they'd been, well, snookered, and over 180 of you did, at last count. . . .

So I want to keep the pressure on. Politely. This site gets an average of about 15,000 unique visitors a day, which means there are some 14,820 of you who will read this today, give or take, who haven't sent a note to Time yet. So let's get on that. I want to turn over the rock and expose the deceptive practices of the GOP Team Leader site to the light of day. (To avoid the inevitable cheap editorializing on Time's part, let's make sure we're not fighting astroturf with astroturf. Write them in your own words, explaining the situation and why it concerns you. Don't just cut-and-paste my entries.)

This is a rare exhortation. Generally, author Tom Tomorrow merely nudges you through your own outrage to the point of action. Jeralyn Merritt of TalkLeft (I’ll admit I’m annoyed that this isn’t two words, but that’s hardly an issue of prose) gives us an example of this method:

The Washington Post reports that Bush judicial nominee Charles Pickering was so upset that he had to sentence a convicted cross-burner to 7 years that he tried to get the Justice Department to intervene. Reportedly, he threatened to overturn the jury's verdict even though he agreed it was legal. He demanded Janet Reno personally review the case. Of the cross-burner, he said, ""They're wanting seven years for a young man that got drunk."

Sure, we are glad the Judge opposes mandatory minimum sentences. But given his overall record, that's a drop in the bucket and hardly enough. This is a lifetime position we are talking about--a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals which includes the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Like Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, Charles Pickering has no place on the federal appeals court bench.

Here again, Tom and Jeralyn might make some changes if their blogs were going into the New Yorker. But that’s not really the point. Their directness and candor speak volumes. The posts are more like personal emails mailed out to friends than official publications. We understand that it’s more important for the posts to get posted than it is for them to be posted error-free.

And speaking of getting things posted . . .

posted by Jeff | 3:12 PM |
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