Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Blogs, Blogging and History

I have been following a lively debate about the pros and cons of academic blogging being conducted by a number of military historians, two of whom, coincidently, I know,Ester MacCallum-Smith and Gary Smailes.

Gary writes about ‘[t] he democratising effect of the web,’ in the sense, as I interpret it, that the web breaks down the historical, hierarchical academic structure; with the result that this will release ‘a hoard of amateur historians.’ He goes on to argue ‘that control will be brought about through the development of networks and communities, with university lecturers forming an integral controlling factor. They will act as a ‘listening post’ and a ‘voice of reason’ in the fragmented network of research groups.’ In other words, a sort of Blog Open University of History.

I am no historian, military or otherwise, nor am I an academic though, having completed an MA in Modern French Thought, I would classify myself as a textual interrogator, not strictly a Derridean deconstructionist but inevitably persuaded by his thought. That said, the current discussion has prompted me to ponder on the question of what is history and what it is to blog.

History must always be contemporary; its function, determination and application is governed by the underlying assumptions and values – cultural, political, religious and social – of the era in which it is discussed. The web, of course, influences all these factors. (In fact, one can argue, it is helping to polarise and entrench opinion within certain of them, e.g. religion and politics.) But is it a determining cause or a contributing factor?

It is a fact that just as it is impossible to see the ground directly beneath one’s feet so it is to see the presuppositions that one stands on in life, which is precisely why we need historians and philosophers to look back and analyse the ground we have covered in the hope that we will better understand the point to which we have arrived as well as provide answers as to where we might be going. (Down the pan if I continue this metaphor much longer.)

If I take Gary’s ‘democratising effect’ as the assertion by the individual to claim back what he regards as rightfully his, and combine that with the rise of blogging and online networks then I believe you can identify a drastic shift of the individual’s sense of identity, not in the sense of who he is but what he is, his Being. (And forgive me for using the male gender but it is a tradition in philosophical thought, a description that inflates the value of this text to the point of pretentiousness.) Though this modification has not necessarily been wrought by the web, the latter has for sure aided and abetted it.

It is the manifestation of identity through a form of symbiotic relativism. It is not, in Ester’s words, so much ‘[w]e think therefore we are, therefore we blog’, but we blog so that we are because we are linked. My Being is confirmed by my connections. (Be honest, how often have you Googled yourself?) It may be regarded as the polar opposite of Sartre’s thought where the Other was always hostile and thus ‘the essence of relations between consciousnesses… is conflict’? (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 2001, p. 429.) Now the essence of relations between consciousnesses is confirmation, albeit remotely, of mutual self. In fact, the remoteness of the relationship is not an unfortunate happenstance but essential. Again we have swung 180 degrees, this time from the Socratic belief that the written word is to be distrusted, as it is open to interpretation without immediate riposte, to the idea that the written word, however slippery, has some form of immortality attached to it unlike the spoken word or, indeed, ourselves. Our blog is now our soul.

This is a long way from the original debate, but that is blogging for you.


Stuart and Gabrielle said...

History has mostly been written by the victorious and History has surely been awaiting the time when the little people, the individual, the vanquished, those in hiding, under fire, in opposition or on the run, get to tell it. The blog fits the bill perfectly and has the potential to reach large audiences and be powerful and influential; we've had some really good recent examples from such places as Iraq, for example. Worryingly, the Chinese government are finding ways of placing electronic barriers between their bloggers and blog readers and the rest of the world. Blog while you can!

Gary Smailes said...

My argument is that the blog has freed the 'normal' preson to offer a valid voice to any historical debate. Though the idea that blogging fulfills a basic human instinct is certainly true.