Sunday, August 30, 2009

The virtues of irrelevance

I've been meaning to thank Chris Trotter for a review he gave this blog on National Radio. Speaking on Jim Mora's programme The Panel on Friday the 20th of August, Trotter described Reading the Maps as 'erudite, entertaining, and beautifully written' and called it one of the 'rare gems' that compensate for the 'gross egotism' and 'appalling abuse' which are found in many parts of the blogosphere.

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.


Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Not sure that I agree that the repeal of s59 was irrelevant, in a country with a record of violence on children as shameful as ours. Nor do I agree with your characterisation of No Right Turn, whose approach can hardly be said to be as crudely partisan as The Standard's or Kiwiblog's, nor as narrow and parochial as that of our newspapers. I think it's a very useful aggregator of news on the left end of the spectrum and regularly focuses on issues like our involvement in Afghanistan, whose absence from the national conversation you rightly lament.

In fact, as I see No Right Turn as being quite close to Lenin's Tomb (albeit politically more moderate) in its choice of topics and frequency of posting. If one had to look for comparisons, I think your work is closer to that of an Owen Hatherley, and it's successful because it's highly personal, brilliantly written and damn interesting. Contrary to popular belief, the Web tends to reward writing of this kind, at the same time as it allows hacks like Farrar to thrive. I see no inherent contradiction in that, it's a pretty versatile medium.

4:43 pm  
Blogger Keir Leslie said...

No Right Turn isn't more moderate than Lenin's Tomb; it is less ideological and very under-theorised. And it is much, much more partisan in one important sense than either Kiwiblog or the Standard: I/S would appear unable to understand why other people think the way they do when they disagree with him --- he's always arguing with caricatures and one dimensional villains, whereas at least Kiwiblog and the Standard don't automatically assume that anyone who disagrees with them is a sinner.

I also very much doubt that Lenin's Tomb is the most popular left blog in Britain --- aside from cheats like Charles Stross --- I'm sure there's godawful New Labour blogs that fill in that role.

(Zizek and Marinetti aren't exactly obscure, are they? They appeal to the educated middle and upper classes, ie. the kind of people who read left political blogs. In particular, they appeal to the kind of person who cares about the SWP.)

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?

Two events over the past 5 years vs two events over the past 50 years, and it turns out that the larger sample includes more outliers? um...

5:56 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

No Right Turn isn't more moderate than Lenin's Tomb; it is less ideological and very under-theorised.

Less ideological and very under-theorised is as good a definition of liberal as I've heard. Seymour on the other hand is a revolutionary socialist so I'm going to stick with "No Right Turn is more moderate than Lenin' Tomb".

6:15 pm  
Blogger Keir Leslie said...

But you would agree that Seymour isn't as harsh (?) as I/S? There's a rigidity and narrow mindedness to I/S that seems different to Seymour. I/S is certainly very rhetorically immoderate in a way that Seymour rarely is.

I also don't think Hatherley's a very interesting example of blogging; he's basically a lefty arts critic of the type we've had since forever. Blogging, for me, is interesting because of people like A White Bear and Daniel Davies and Yggles and so-on (and here), people who use the medium to do stuff that isn't done elsewhere. (Adjust the above for well indoctrinated modernist Greenbergian formalist beliefs in media.)

6:48 pm  
Blogger Keir Leslie said...

(Which very much isn't to say that Hatherley isn't interesting, but rather that he's interesting in a way he could have been 20 or 30 years ago, and appealing to very much the same groups of people in very much the same ways.)

7:00 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I agree that Owen and Maps would have been successful writers thirty years ago, but I'd question that they'd appeal to the same people in much the same ways. Blogging is a much freer platform, and it can make one's writing connect and be disseminated in manners that are quite unlike those of the traditional publications of the Left and academic or quasi-academic weeklies.

We're going to have to agree to disagree on the I/S vs. Seymour thing, I find the latter quite trenchant (rightly so), the former if anything not trenchant enough for my particular liking. C'est la taste.

7:23 pm  
Blogger Keir Leslie said...

We're going to have to agree to disagree on the I/S vs. Seymour thing, I find the latter quite trenchant (rightly so), the former if anything not trenchant enough for my particular liking.

I shouldn't say it is trenchancy that's at stake; rather, don't you always feel rather harangued by I/S? I suppose I should say that I think NRT is rather crude, and rather narrow, and rather parochial, just in a rather different way from the newspapers.

In terms of the audience for Hatherley et al, well, look at the comments sections*. Very much the left intelligentsia.

*shut up shut up shut up I know it is horrible horrible analysis.

[Mind you, last time I ventured an opinion on the quality of blogging, I said Klein was better that Yglesias, and less likely to become a centrist nonsense, which currently looks like a complete mistake, (though I remain hopefully long term) so...]

8:30 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

The trouble with most leftish blogs in New Zealand is that they are about politics and nothing else; left-wing bloggers often write as if politics were everything and as if it were confined to a narrow range of obvious activities. Yours, Maps, is one of the few which have a cultural breadth.

As for Owen Hatherley, I am sure he is not just a lefty arts critic; he brings a whole bunch of political and cultural ideas to the matter of Modern architecture, which demonstrate that it is much more than an aesthetic issue.

That said, I shall now leave Gianni and Keir to their argument, being, myself, too under-theorised to particiapate.

1:01 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:55 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

The trouble with most leftish blogs in New Zealand is that they are about politics and nothing else; left-wing bloggers often write as if politics were everything and as if it were confined to a narrow range of obvious activities. Yours, Maps, is one of the few which have a cultural breadth.

By the same token, if Idiot/Savant feels comfortable with covering politics and less inclined to regale us with his opinion on, say, the dolce stil novo, that's okay by me.

3:56 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

Agreed. I read I/S every day, for news and liberal opinion. I would not want that blog to be anything other than what it is, a political commentary.

4:08 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

I agree absolutely that when it comes to the NZ blogosphere all too often quality is sacrificed for vast quantities of fairly mindless 2nd-hand reportage and personal vitriol.

Especially in the case of the political bloggers, there seems to me to be a real inability to grasp the fact that the arguments over which they expend so much time and emotional energy are totally devoid of any lasting historical significance.

I take Keir's point about the dangers of using only a limited timespan such as 2009 as a basis of comparison with entire historical epochs, but I think even if you look back over the last *20* years of NZ political history you will struggle to find any moment at which it could be said that the stakes were truly decisive from the standpoint of the struggle for human liberation.

The reality as Maps says is that NZ in the 21st century is a remarkably stable capitalist society with a working class that is more or less entirely atomised and quiescent.

Reading Theodor Adorno for the first time recently I've been struck by the fact that as far back as the 1960s some radical left theoreticians had already realised that the game was effectively up as far as the possibility of genuine political *praxis* in the advanced capitalist countries of the West was concerned.

In our own day, Adorno's pessimism about the possibility of realising a collective subject capable of changing history seems even more apt!

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that bloggers and leftist commentators should therefore avoid commenting on issues in wider society or restrict themselves only to the esoteric and the abstract, but only that they should maintain a healthy sense of perspective and avoid getting caught up in the trap of believing themselves to be actors in some high-stakes political drama when (sadly) they are nothing of the sort.

4:33 pm  
Blogger GZ said...

I think you underestimate the way in which NoRightTurn does discuss at least a few wider issues. The nature of human rights in New Zealand frequently underpins his posts. By the same token, however, he can't expand these without losing the bite size nature that characterises his posts and makes it so useful.

But yes, a dearth of conversation in New Zealand about anything but what the newspapers print. You usually have to go outside the "political" blogs to find that in any measure.

6:46 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This certainly an interesting and informative and unusual Blog - challenging - sometimes wrong ! But certainly interesting and I will continue to post my invalid irrelevancies with incorrigible insistence of some insidious intent as if I ever knew what I was talking about.

"Streets that lead like a tedious argument of insidious intent to lead you toward an overwhelming question..."

I think sites such as this provide a service of lonely abandoned old codgers like myself muttering and wheezing to the furniture or the local goat in lonely tenements where we squat and peeve and cough - or even watch "Geriatric1927" on YouTube (nice old Flog by the way) - but with Blogs like this one sometimes even feels there could even be hope (!!!) - but of course - that is a ridiculous notion!!

6:34 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Somebody should probably point out, while we're at it, that Trotter's blog was awful, and had all the shortcomings that are being attributed here to I/S with none of the merits. The "look at me" beginnings, when he compared the media treatment of Peters to an act of gang rape, were especially egregious. Good on him for recognising the qualities of others, though.

9:00 pm  
Blogger Keir Leslie said...

trotter pisses me off no end; he seems to be stuck in the '70s, and not in a good way either.

i wouldn't want to be taken as saying that NRT is anything but useful; it's just that i sometimes wish I/S would calm down a bit more about his politics. It is possible to say what one believes in, as opposed to always shouting. And NRT is really good on facts, which is never something to be sneezed at.

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