The virtues of irrelevance
I do appreciate Trotter's kind words, but I'm not entirely sure I agree with the context in which they were delivered. Trotter had been talking about the way that some of the best sites in the blogosphere are undeservedly unpopular. 'Clearly very few people visit some of them', he said, 'if comments are anything to go by'. When it comes to culture, I'm no sort of populist - I'll always prefer The Clean to Crowded House, and TS Eliot to AE Housman - and I'd certainly agree with Chris that the numbers of visitors and comments a blog attracts are not an indicator of that site's value. I'm not comfortable, though, with the dichotomy Trotter's comments seem to set up between trashy but popular blogs and worthy but largely unread 'highbrow' blogs.
Reading the Maps has enjoyed a reasonable readership for years, and was placed at number twenty-three in a recent national blogging 'chart', ahead of many sites that dwell on topics rather less esoteric than the obscure parts of New Zealand history, the avant-garde edge of Kiwi literature, the dilemmas of Marxist theory, and the problems of land reform in the Third World. Some of the comments threads on this blog have very long tails that continue to twitch and thrash long after the blog post which prompted them have been consigned to the archive section of the site.
Some of the most energetic left-wing blogs in New Zealand - The Standard and No Right Turn are two good examples - seem determined to be relentlessly 'relevant' and 'accessible'. Often, the posts on these blogs read like articles from the mainstream media cut, pasted, and adorned with a few querulous pieces of marginalia. In certain parts of the world, blogs like No Right Turn might be a necessary, even vital part of the arsenal of the left. In countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nepal - countries where struggle between classes is intense and the most simple political questions turn into questions about how society should be structured and run - reading the daily paper must be a very exciting experience.
Twenty-first century New Zealand, though, is a remarkably stable place where few differences exist between the major politically parties, and where large questions about the organisation of society are almost never raised in mainstream political discourse. The sound and fury which is generated around 'burning' (non-)issues only serves to disguise the lack of substantial political discussion. The pointless and pointlessly nasty 'debate' about 'smacking' is a perfect example of this phenomenon: while Kiwis argue over whether or not they should be allowed to spank their kids on the bottom, New Zealand troops are helping to enforce the law in Bamiyan, a province of Afghanistan where husbands are now allowed to rape and starve their wives, and where a man who rapes a woman is able to 'atone' for his sins by marrying the victim. The legislation which brings sharia law into effect in Bamiyan was recently passed by the Karzai government, which both John Key and Phil Goff see as a bastion of democracy worthy of Western support. If we were a country with a politically engaged populace, Bamiyan would dominate the front pages of our papers.
In a becalmed society like twenty-first century New Zealand, the relentless pursuit of relevance can lead to relentless triviality. How many of the posts on a blog like No Right Turn will be worth reading in a week's time, let alone ten years' time? Will the smacking 'debate' or the food labelling 'debate' be remembered in the way that we remember the arguments over sporting contact with apartheid, or the ideological clashes that were the backdrop to the lockout of '51?
I doubt whether the modest popularity of Reading the Maps reflects the popularity of my own rather eccentric views on politics, history, and aesthetics. Even some of my best friends shake their head at my opinions. If sites like Reading the Maps attract surprising numbers of visitors, it is because they talk about subjects which don't fit neatly into the soundbites and headlines of the mainstream media. Subjects like the Land Wars of the nineteenth century or EP Thompson's studies of class struggle in industrialising societies might seem obscure, but they can sometimes help us to discover perspectives broader than the ones we find in the paper or on the telly.
It's notable that the most popular left-wing blog in Britain, Lenin's Tomb, is run by an unashamedly intellectual supporter of a small, rather 'irrelevant' far left group, and combines acidic commentaries on Western foreign policy - commentaries which refuse to make themselves 'relevant' by suggesting ways to 'reform' institutions like the UN and NATO - with discussions of such esoteric subjects as the place of dialectics in Marx's thought, the meaning of Italian Futurism, and the film criticism of Slavoj Zizek. Perhaps the runaway success of the colourful, intellectually adventurous Lenin's Tomb holds a lesson for some of the dull, determinedly relevant denizens of the left wing of New Zealand's blogopshere.