February 24th, 2004

The Politics of Blogging

My parents left this evening. They had a really mellow day at home, while Kim worked and Skylar was at pre-school. I periodically stopped in to see what they were watching on television -- notably Judging Amy on TNT and All My Children, where Erika Kane still rules the roost -- and talked with them when they were in the kitchen, in between doing loads of laundry, attending to other household chores, and doing work for school.

I think it may have been their best visit, from my perspective, because I was here for more of it than usual and there was little of the family stress than surfaced in previous visits. My mother seems back to her normal self after abandoning her hormone replacement therapy, which seemed to have made her much more spacy and forgetful than usual, to the point where my sister and, partially through her influence, my father were worried. You never know precisely about these things, but it felt right this time.

Of course, the visit was more laid-back this time because both she and my father had more rest, so that could also have been a factor in her spaciness last time.

As I write this entry, I'm in a different sort of self-reflexive space than usual, because I'm anticipating that Bad Subjects will "go live" with links to my blog, Kim's, and Steven's in a few days, perhaps with two other Production Team members joining the fray as well.

I'm perfectly comfortable operating in the confessional mode in a public setting -- I do it in my teaching on a regular basis -- but still feel the imminent pressure to justify the personal dimension to my blog in political terms.

What political good could derive from reading about my parents' recent visit, or seeing pictures of my daughter?

What political good could come from my painful efforts to use theory to resolve a pattern of conflict with my partner?

What political good could emerge if I started writing openly about sex?

The answer, obviously, depends on how broadly the word "political" is defined.

In my scholarly writing, I've devoted considerable time recently to the problem of terminological diffusion. If everything might be construed as "political," does the word still have any utility?

Am I backing myself into a rhetorical corner?

I suppose the only way that I can effectively make a case for reading personal blogs like mine would be to start articulating the benefit I derive from reading the personal blogs of other people.

And that making-of-a-case would link up in productive ways with the case someone might make for reality television, even though I've watched a grand total of one hour of reality television in my life -- unless you count cooking or home improvement shows or, I suppose, Cribs -- and have no intention of remedying my neglect in the future.

One thing I need to account for, certainly, is the narcissistic dimension to blogging. Most people read blogs because they write blogs and intuit that reciprocity is a requirement for winning an audience. It really struck me that when Laura stopped blogging, she also seemed to stop reading our blogs, even though she had been doing so very actively for months. I had the feeling that I had exited her universe and that she had exited mine.

Could the redemptive aspect of blogging inhere in the pressure to maintain a community of fellow bloggers?

I'm drifting back in the direction of my idea for a piece called "The Resistance to Blogging."

Why does it bother me so much that I have readers who disapprove of what I do here, yet continue reading? Why does it bother me every bit as much to have had a reader who seemed to approve of what I do here, but stopped reading the minute that she no longer had the means to reply?

Narcissism is surely part of it. But my narcissism is imbricated with a desire for a community in which the distinction between reader and writer dissolves into a circuit of exchange in which power and authority are fluid and ever shifting.

I want approval, surely, but I want everyone else in my circuits of exchange to have it too.

I'd better revisit the Charles Taylor essay on the politics of recognition soon.

Auf Wiedersehen

The other day at the Desert Museum, my mother asked me whether I wanted a photo printer for my birthday. Leaving aside the fact that we are already so literally and figuratively indebted to them that I would be reluctant to accept a gift of that magnitude, the question reminded me of our trip to Maryland last December.

Describing the experience of spending considerable time in my parents' house for the first time in years, I focused on our collective fixation on pictures:
Nights were spent sitting at the dining room table talking, inevitably, about the past, examining my father's collection of photos and documents from his family, and looking at slides. I don't think my parents had brought the projector out in years, so the slide-viewing was particularly restorative. We looked at slides from my year in Europe and the family trip to England and Belgium at its conclusion that had never been projected or, in some cases, even looked at. The evening we were out for dinner with my sister Miriam, my parents looked at their own slides in our absence. And one night my father showed us some of his father's still-beautiful Kodachrome slides from the World War II years.

To take a quick look at 14012 Manchester Road, you'd be hard pressed to imagine someone less interested in "image" than my parents.

But we're actually an image-obsessed household.

From this perspective, it's probably not an accident that my parents seemed particularly comfortable and happy on a trip prefaced by our sending them a CD full of photos and punctuated by each night's downloading from the digital camera. We express the way we feel about each other by expressing our feelings about pictures.

The highlight of their visit was Sunday evening, when Skylar decided that she would make a book with pictures of bugs and persuaded both of my parents to help her. She made a beautiful dragonfly herself, than helpfully gave it to my parents to trace, lest they complain that they weren't up to the task.

Skylar, Grandma, and Opa Coloring

Skylar Coloring

Grandma Coloring

I wasn't surprised to see my mother comply. But to see my father dutifully tracing his dragonfly, then coloring it in -- orange, naturally, being a Syracuse alumnus -- was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Opa Coloring

You see, my father has always said, "I got a 20 in Art," whenever the topic of drawing or painting comes up. It's true. He showed us his junior-high report card with the grade listed, so low it's hard to fathom. That fact always made me very sad. The idea that one teacher could permanently destroy the desire to make art is terrifying to someone who was a teacher long before he acquired the necessary credentials.

The story of grandparents is, of course, the way in which they forsake their parental selves in favor of more indulgent, flexible authority figures. I suppose that explains why my father suddenly relented on Sunday.

When I think of all the art Skylar has already made in her life, the boxes of pictures we've collected for posterity, the singularity of my father's creation blows me away. The dragonfly he drew is literally the only piece of visual or decorative art that I've ever seen him do.

I keep looking through Skylar's book to see it again and again.

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I’m waiting in line for a reading. The hall is pretty brightly lit with natural light, its sheen coming off that grayish rock that was used as flooring in the 50s and 60s. I’ve entered the scene in media res, so it’s not immediately clear what reading I’m waiting for.

At some point I see Eric. He is standing with some of his undergraduates. I contemplate joining him, but then see someone coming through the door from the outside. I stand off to the side and, when that new person walks past me -- it’s very crowded, so he can’t see me well -- I burst forward and lock him in an aggressively friendly bear hug, like the sort you see fraternity brothers giving each other.

This new person is Greg, wearing a bright red chamois shirt and blue jeans. “Hey, buddy,” he’s says, a litttle surprised by the force of my greeting. I give him a hard time about not calling me. He makes the usual excuses.

When I get to the place where they are taking tickets, I see a sign that says “Donations Welcome” and magnanimously declare, “Give me five back” as I hand over a ten-dollar bill. The two men taking tickets just stand there. I figure I must have misread something and pull out a twenty, embarrassed, and then add a one for good measure so that my request for a five back might make sense.

As I walk into the room, the natural light is even stronger than before. The room has high ceilings. I vaguely intuit a stage at one end. There are big, vertical windows. It seems like a high school auditorium.

Over at the opposite end of the room, against the wall, stand the person who will be reading and the usual crowd of five or six individuals who inevitably circulate around that person.

It’s Michael Bérubé.

I contemplate going over to say hello to him now, but conclude that the timing is wrong. Instead, I scan the room for a possible seat. The people in the room are spread out over the chairs. I can sit anywhere I want, more or less. I decide to sit next to Greg, who is sitting by himself in the middle of a row.

We exchange a few words. He makes a reference to something to do with my home life that he could only know by reading my blog.

After depositing something on the seat to his left, I exit the room to use the facilities. There are two restrooms opposite the entrance. I jog over to the one more directly across and leap up in the air as if I’m doing the high jump the old-fashioned way, like you see in film from the 1930s.

Apparently, the inset restroom alcove is raised above the level of the hall by a considerable amount and I am pleased to land cleanly. When I look around, though, I see that the tile outside the restroom door is pink and worry that I’ve picked the wrong restroom.

I step down and walk over to the adjoining restroom to see if the tile is a different color. It isn’t. And neither alcove has a sign indicating the gender for which it’s intended.

I conclude that my first choice was correct and make another run up towards it from the hall, worried that my leap will end in a fall. I make it onto the ledge again, but land less cleanly.