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Blogosphere: The New Political Arena Paperback – Sep 22 2006
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In Blogosphere, Michael Keren examines nine blogs posted by individuals from exceedingly different backgrounds, and draws some provocative conclusions about the emerging nature of virtual public space-a place where emancipation meets melancholy. Do political bloggers actually participate in politics? How are individual voices and online communities faring at a time of the increasing corporate commodification of cyberspace? And how do geographic region and personal circumstance affect the potential impact of blogs on offline lives? Keren poses and explores these and other questions in this timely, intelligent, and engaging contribution to political science, lifewriting theory, and cultural studies. (Craig Howes, Director, Center for Biographical Research)
In this fascinating book, Keren illuminates a new online dimension of civil society. But, unexpectedly, life here is not a collection of vibrant, active citizens, pursuing their individual interests and acting cooperatively. Instead, Keren finds a politics of melancholy on the Internet, which demonstrates 'a fetishism of ideas rather than a presentation of interests, solipsistic discourse rather than an orderly exchange, and a lack of clear frameworks of social obligation and political responsibility.' Portraying a colorful variety of bloggers, Keren brilliantly dissects the emerging political life of the twenty-first century. (Joel S. Migdal, University of Washington)
About the Author
Michael Keren holds a Canada Research Chair in Communication, Culture and Civil Society at the University of Calgary and is visiting professor at Haifa University. He is the author of many books, including Zichroni v. State of Israel (Lexington Books, 2002).
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Unfortunately, the introduction makes it clear that Keren looks at blogs through a very limited perspective. He argues that blogs are melancholic, in the sense of the narrator of Dostojevski's Notes from Underground - this man lives in a mouse hole and feels fundamentally outside, excluded from society - and in Freud's sense:
In "Mourning and Melancholia", Sigmund Freud defined the distinguishing features of melancholy as profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of self-regarding feelings "to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. (12)
Well, that sounds just like blogs, don't you think! Keren further notes that melancholics need to talk about their melancholy all the time. But they don't do anything about it - they're fundamentally passive (p 13). So the idea of the melancholic blogger fits nicely with the image of bloggers as bizarre exhibitionists. Keren quotes Freud:
It must strike us that after all the melancholiac's behaviour is not in every way the same as that of one whoe is normally devoured by remorse and self-reproach. Shame before others, which would characterise this condition above everything, is lacking in him, or at least there is little sign of it. One could almost say that the opposite trait of insistent talking about himself and pleasure in the consequent exposure of himself predominates in the melancholiac. (Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia", p 157, qtd by Keran, p 12)
Interestingly enough, Keren (who doesn't blog himself) notes on page 14 that when he attended conference panels on blogging, he was "probably the only melancholic in the room". No wonder his glasses are rose-coloured, sorry, melancholy-coloured. Keren saves his argument from this apparent paradox by claiming that he's not labelling individual bloggers as melancholics, he's talking about the blogosphere (or "blogosphere" without a "the" as he insists on calling it) as a whole. The point is the "norms apparent in [the blogosphere's] thought and action, and those emerging in blogosphere are often norms of withdrawal, not of enlightenment" (14). On the next page he's even clearer: "The withdrawal and rejection identified wtih melancholy, I would like to argue, is not a personal quality of bloggers but a systemic attribute of blogosphere."
In his analyses, however, Keren does not maintain this separation of the general politics of the blogosphere and the individual disposition and life of bloggers. Actually, in the paragraph right before that last quote, he already confuses the two: "Millions of individuals write their lives while giving up on living them" (14). And although he argues that he's only analysing the "characters (whether fictional or real) that emerge from these diaries" (11), in his analyses there is little awareness of this - or at least, any such awareness is not expressed explicitly.
So Jason Kottke, for instance, is for Keren a melancholic who is characterised by "political withdrawal" (30) who lives "on the edge of urban life" (31) based on the lack of discussion of political issues on kottke.org (which is after all a blog about design and technology) and on a couple of posts where Kottke describes feeling out of place among all the designer-clothed people on 5th avenue and another where he describes rules for ignoring each other on the NYC subway - hardly unusual New York experiences. Keren's interpretation is broad and absolute, though: "The perception of life on the edge makes political activity seem futile - something others are engaged in" (31). Kottke.org, for Keren, is the center of an internet "cult", where readers respond only to issues that deal with cyberspace and "virtual reality" (26). In summary, Keren finds Kottke.org is characterised by "withdrawal into virtual reality, cult-like relations forming in blogosphere, and an overall political passivity" (35). "The cult seems generally disinterested in anything happening in the world unless it is related to the cyber-world" (30) - yes of course! It's a blog about technology and design!
There are some reasons to read the book. I enjoyed Kottke's analysis of Lt Smash's site, where he doesn't go on about melancholy but instead sees a transition in this soldier's writing from everyday descriptions of a civilian thrust into the army to a way of presenting the war that is far closer to shiny media portrayals in movies and presidential addresses. This is an interesting argument.
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