Sunday, August 11, 2019

On online reading

More and more, these days, I dislike what I read online.

Probably like a lot of you who have found your way to these words, my online reading is mostly about the state of the world and efforts to change it, broadly understood. The form, politics, and tone vary a great deal – staid journalism to overblown punditry, careful theorizing to back-of-the-envelope strategizing, pop cultural dissection to personal-political confession, and more besides. A lot of it is quite useful in terms of acquiring facts and ideas, learning about the world and other people and struggles. But very little of it satisfies me as writing.

Already, you can probably guess one powerful reason why negative affect might cloud around my online reading like stinging insects or a bad smell – the world's state is awful and it's getting worse. Of course it is unsatisfying, or worse, to read about it.

And I certainly feel that. But it isn't really what I mean here. Our climate-grieving fash-heavy Trumpapalooza will hurt to live through until we're through it, one way or the other, but I might find reading about it more bearable (and maybe even more useful) if the writing was different.

So it may not have any meaning beyond my individual experience but, nonetheless, there are three things, that I would like to see in more of what I read: decent politics, a thoughtful approach, and obvious care for the craft of writing.

It's a sadly rare combination.

Now, you might think that I am just being too politically picky – some excessively narrow definition of acceptability must be what's holding me back. That isn't the case, however. By "decent," I don't mean "identical to mine," I don't mean "pure," I don't mean "sign me up for that!" Rather, I just mean something that feels worth engaging with and listening to for a little while. Which for me is a pretty broad range, including I'm sure some that you would roll your eyes at. Of my three criteria, I think "decent politics" is actually met the most easily and the most often. Despite my complaint about writing, there are lots of people out there producing lots of politically useful work, and I'm thankful for that.

The barriers to the other two – to thoughtful writing and to attention to craft – are considerably higher, and I think overlap quite a bit. Before I explore these barriers, I again want to be clear that this is not about me having definitions of thoughtfulness or craft that are impossibly narrow. At least, I don't think so. Writing that attends to craft can be in all sorts of different forms, tones, and approaches, not just the conventionally revered snobby end of the spectrum. And thoughtfulness, to me, is not about ten-dollar words, citing particular people, or any other exclusionary marker of "smart," but about a certain openness and curiosity.


To an extent, the barriers to thoughtfulness and craft-consciousness are sometimes related to form. Journalistic forms, for instance, can only in limited circumstances allow a thoughtful approach and attention to craft beyond the spare, efficient, and rule-bound communication of basic reporting – just in features and other longform pieces, and not always there. That's not a knock against journalists, that's just the rules they work under.

The situation for scholarly forms is similar but more complicated. Like journalists, scholars are socialized into norms related to appropriate writing in their field, but my non-scholar's take is that they have considerably more freedom than journalists. Many would disagree, but I think the inherently greater complexity of what they are producing means there is more wiggle room for scholars than for journalists to meet disciplinary norms while still writing creatively and compellingly. But even in the humanities, these days, the academy is not organized to incentivize attention to writing craft. If an individual scholar also wants to develop their skills and become a great writer, well, fine, they can go ahead and do that. But most are so overwhelmed jumping through the mandatory hoops of the neoliberal academy, including lots of other kinds of demands re. amount and kind of writing, that many don't have much energy left over for questions of craft that go beyond that.

Which I think ties into the question of why I don't get what I want from the single largest pool of online writing about the state of the world and struggles to change it – the many flavours and kinds of free-form analysis, opinion, punditry, and comment. And that is, I think, that the overwhelming emphasis in that context is on content that is produced quickly and can be consumed quickly, while thoughtfulness and craft take time.

This emphasis is certainly connected to the medium – the cycle in which knowledge and comment are produced is becoming ever more frenetic thanks to 24/7 connectivity and the dynamics of social media. However, I would also argue that, as in the university case, it is tied to broader features of neoliberal capitalist culture and social relations as well. It is facilitated by the technology but cannot be reduced to it. If you want your work to thrive amidst the ever-rising flood of online content, the conventional wisdom is that you get it out there quick when there is some hot new thing, and that you produce a lot of content, all the time. And even if you are not yourself committed to diving head first into making a living as a 'content creator', with all of the attendant neoliberal pressures around shaping and branding not just your work but your self, you still exist in that world.

Of course, there is stuff out there, often in the most unexpected of places, that has decent (or decent-enough) politics, a thoughtful approach, and attention to craft. It's rare and hard to find, but it exists. I just get tired of reading so much, including by lots of people I respect and constantly learn from, that has political value and useful info or insight, but that embodies a cleverness that is not within what I mean by 'thoughtful' and is not particularly concerned with craft.

So, maybe it does all boil down to snobbery or to petty self-interest on my part. What matters is that the world is burning, not whether one mildly peculiar introverted white dude likes how people write about the burning and about efforts to put it out.

But I wonder.

I wonder if maybe there is at least some minimal something in this preference on my part that is an expression, however partial and garbled, of resistance starting from where we are. Maybe there is some value, just a little, to prioritizing not just explicit content that pushes against the trashfireyness of the world – and again, that content is useful and important, regardless of whether it looks like what I'm talking about here. Maybe there is also value in creating, to the extent that we can, such that how we labour and the internal character – not just the content, but the forms, the tones, the shapes – of what we produce also push back against the dominant logics that organize our lives.

I mean, obviously, that is a highly limited thing to do. Online content exists and circulates as it does for lots of material reasons, the surface of which I have only scratched above, and it takes collective action rather than individual changes in practices to make a dent in something like that.

Nonetheless, part of building movements – definitely a much smaller part than actual organizing, but a part – is building cultures and norms and expectations for things to work other than they currently do. And maybe one small part of that can be shifts in how we make and consume media, in what we expect and demand, that allow more room for the slow, the thoughtful, the carefully crafted. After all, is that not part of what we want for our lives – that we have space to be thoughtful, to make what we make and live how we live in nourishing, deliberate, joyful ways?

Or perhaps this is just me trying to put clever-sounding political paint on a broader dissatisfaction that I'm filtering through my own tastes in reading and writing. Either way, I'll be here, doing my bit to contribute to making our awful world better, and keeping my eyes peeled for writing that is politically decent, thoughtful, and well-crafted.

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