The Project of a Nation

One of the best works of political philosophy I’ve read in the last few years is Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Rorty’s politics were very much not my own; he was as hard left as they came, though just as adamantly anti-communist. The book came out in 1998 and served as something of a survey of the 20th century left, its accomplishments, its pitfalls, and what we might call its fall into decadence. At 67 years old, Rorty had seen much of this himself, and been born into a politically active family from the start. He had a uniquely rich perspective on the subject, in short.

Rorty was a pragmatist; he cared little for doctrinal disputes or purity and more for results. And so while today we might find it surprising that so committed a leftist was a staunch defender of nationalism, his reasons had nothing to do with blood ties or cultural essentialism or anything smelling even vaguely of metaphysics, as nationalism tends to.

The book opens as follows:

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.

And like that we’re off to the races. Further down he adds:

Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past—episodes and figures to which the country should remain true.

Rorty emphasized this need for national pride and inspiring national stories because he believed that we had veered too much towards national shame. Or perhaps that the two tasks, of reminding the country “what it can take pride in” and “what it should be ashamed of” had polarized in an unhealthy way. On one side we are told story after story that is meant to make us feel the shame of past and present sins, on the other we are given inspirational stories that have been bled of their human complexity, bleached out to be made into acceptable children’s fables and little more. On this latter score, Rorty cites, with approval, James Baldwin’s description of the:

collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.

Taking Whitman and Dewey as his guiding stars, Rorty offers:

The sort of pride Whitman and Dewey urge Americans to feel is compatible with remembering that we expanded our boundaries by massacring the tribes which blocked our way, that we broke the word we had pledged at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.

But, one might protest, is there nothing incompatible with American national pride? I think the Dewey-Whitman answer is that there are many things that should chasten and temper such pride, but that nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect. To say that certain acts do make this impossible is to abandon the secular, antiauthoritarian vocabulary of shared social hope in favor of the vocabulary which Whitman and Dewey abhorred: a vocabulary built around the notion of sin.

Here I must part ways with Rorty slightly and admit that I’m quite fine with a vocabulary of sin, but not one that requires abandoning anti-authoritarian shared social hope.

So much for Rorty. I recommend the book very highly; I have thought of it often lately. Though told from the perspective of an old American leftist, I think it provides a clear formulation of the positive path out of the discourse of negation that my dad has spoken about at some length, in his book and many other places. In one interview, he specifically pointed to the difference between how Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed in The Social Network compared to how Edison was portrayed in the 1940 Young Tom Edison. Rorty emphasizes the need to remind a country “what we ought to be ashamed of” far more than my dad would, but their positive discursive vision is almost identical: we need to revive, support, and sustain a healthy national pride.

It is from this perspective that, as an American, I felt jealous as I read Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial India After Ghandi. The subtitle of the book is The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, and this framing is already surprising, though very obviously true. India is the largest democracy in the world and therefore in history. Guha from the beginning emphasizes that, recent economic growth aside (which, shortly after finishing the book, I sadly learned has been less than originally thought), India pulled off a political accomplishment that is nothing short of astonishing. As the second largest country in the world, and by far the most diverse ethnically, religiously, culturally, linguistically, you name it—almost everyone among right-thinking observers assumed the whole project would blow up. And yet here they are, still a united, secular democracy, some 72 years later.

I did not read the book to learn how amazing India was. In truth, I read it because I am abhorrently ignorant about the largest democracy in the world. But as Guha described monumental accomplishments such as the integration of the independent principalities and the rolling out of the infrastructure to allow a universal suffrage election so soon after independence—I thought to myself, boy, how I’d love to read someone with Guha’s careful hand writing about the postwar period of American history, to the present. Guha wrote a book for India that fit the exact specifications of what Rorty wanted for Americans: he did not shrink from India’s internal strife, its mistakes, its abuses, but I find it hard to believe any Indian could read the book and not walk away with their national pride tremendously—and deservedly!—augmented.

My goal this year was to read more books on countries like India that I know far too little about. And I still hope to do so. But the approach Guha took makes me want to read more American history. The section on the first Indian elections in particular makes me want to get to Pauline Maier’s Ratification, which I have heard is phenomenal. I’m slowly working through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers before doing so, for context.

Context is important. But so is hope. And so is pride.

Rhetoric, History, and Totalizing Abstractions

As has become my habit here, this post is not going to form a whole that is entirely cohesive. I have some thoughts to work through and it may be a bit rough going.

I take rhetoric very seriously, and so when a communications theorist I follow promoted Make America Meme Again as a work by two of the top scholars in the field, I thought this was a chance to put my money where my mouth was and really engage with contemporary rhetorical analysis.

What a vast wasteland that field is, if this work is indeed representative. An enormous amount of space is dedicated to theory review, from Deleuze and Guattari to Guy Debord. Meanwhile, the source material receives far less attention. A single alt right meme will be used as an example for a lengthy discussion of détournement, when the concept of ironic detachment is perfectly serviceable though less academically sexy.

Had I written the book, I would have filled most of the pages with source material, and included an extremely long online appendix for further reference. After describing a basic concept or model, such as the use of ironic detachment to create a veil of plausible deniability, I would go over dozens of specific examples of how it played out. The authors of the book did not convince me that they had done much beyond reading some articles about their subject matter, as well as consulting sources like KnowYourMeme.com.

More valuable but in a way more frustrating is Jeffrey Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke. It is more valuable because Stewart really has done the work of going through Locke’s archives, all relevant paintings and novels and poetry, and even works of philosophy. He covers segments of societies and places that I knew next to nothing about, and thanks to that I was able to learn a great deal. But he has that terrible habit of biographers of going too far beyond his material—in his case, positively leaping. It’s not even necessary; Locke’s relationship with his mom is weird enough on its own and his homosexuality difficult enough for the time period to provide a great deal to unpack. But rather than unpacking, Stewart inevitably overextends himself, going on for pages of analysis when a few suggestive examples would do the trick. Without such heavy-handed forays into abstraction, the book may have had some hopes of being merely 500, rather than 900 pages long.

The next three books I read came as a welcome relief after all that. Nation of Rebels by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter is in many ways the perfect antidote to the kind of overwraught left-theory of the books mentioned above. I’ve meant to read it for years after reading an essay covering the basic argument. In essence, the theory behind the counterculture movement ends up feeding into consumer culture; “counterculture” becomes a source of differentiation and status games expressed primarily through what you buy.

One part on homogenization that stuck out to me:

As we have seen, the tendency toward homogenization (…) is the product of a very complex set of forces. Some of it is a reflection of consumer preference, some of it is due to economies of scale, some of it is caused by distortions in the market and some of it is caused by timeless, universal human tendencies. In many cases, it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious we should do anything about it. The most important point, however, is that there is no single “system” at work producing this effect. There is simply a bundle of different, sometimes contradictory forces.

This hooks up nicely with an argument I made about the use of “capitalism” and “imperialism” in left thought. I can sum up the argument as follows:

  • “Capitalism” as a theoretical system is devised to operate a specific way according to logical necessity, and applied to a diverse set of specific institutional environments.
  • The actual form of commerce is logically contingent on the institutional, technological, cultural, and even individual specifics of time and place.
  • We are better off using a plurality of less ambitious models to make sense of concrete phenomena, than a single totalizing abstraction that subsumes all particulars.

Even since writing that post almost exactly a year ago, I’ve been exposed to enough additional left theory to say that this is a general problem. The way that terms like “neoliberalism”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “patriarchy”, and “white supremacy” get used are similarly totalizing and overwrought. From the perspective of the hermeneutic circle, we could say that these theorists, like the authors of the first two books mentioned above, spend far too much time attempting to project the whole without allowing sufficient feedback from the concrete parts we have access to.

The other two book, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age and Civilization were genuine pleasures to read, and quite consistent with my goal of sticking closely to history this year. One of my biggest goals is to elucidate an understanding of liberalism that puts the relationship between commerce and art front and center. Tyler Cowen’s two books on this subject, along with Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues, and the aforementioned Nation of Rebels, are all excellent material for that. But Holland in the Dutch Golden Age is of particular interest to me, because they really embodied it. Renaissance Florence did too, of course, but the Dutch had an urban middle class of historically unusual proportion who provided a base of art purchasers that was also unusual in how broad it was. I cannot read enough about this period right now and was delighted to get to the section of Civilization which discussed it.

Michael North, the author of Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, gets into the real nitty gritty details. This is helpful for moving beyond generalizations about markets and art at any time or place. In the case of Holland, the shift in demand towards older works had the consequence of reducing the demand for contemporary art, causing a contraction in the number of painters who could make a living. Big talk about how markets are good for art is not helpful; supporting contemporary artists who you believe are doing good work, and urging others to do so, is an important part of enabling a vibrant creative culture. This is basically what Alain Locke did himself, in fact, with the Harlem Renaissance.

This is a similar level of detail that Cowen gives you in In Praise of Commercial Culture in discussing, for example, how the market for sheet music influenced the kinds of compositions that were created in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the level of detail that is actually meaningful, and which I have waited far too long to seriously invest in my knowledge of.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Until the next thought-dump.

Rhetoric, Relevance, Writer’s Block

I’m very proud of the piece I wrote about my dad’s book, but it was very, very hard to write. Not because of some emotional block but because my instinct was to sit down and write a dry analytical piece, and my dear friend and editor Jason Briggeman was not about to allow that. It had to be something enjoyable to read, something that played up a son’s relationship to his father as a source of entertainment as well as insight. I wrote several drafts that played this angle but offered little insight, and several dry analytical drafts, and putting the two together was not easy and did not come quickly.

I am now embarking on a similar project, perhaps even more challenging. I had hoped to make some progress on it this weekend, but I did not. So here I am again, to talk about some things I have read, among other things. I’m hoping this will grease the wheel a bit, and ideally help me think through the very things I’m attempting to write about.

Rhetoric

I recently finished reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric (specifically, George Kennedy’s translation, which calls it On Rhetoric). This was done for the project I am working on. Until now, I have read a great deal about this work but not actually read it; most people’s relationships to most classics, though we pretentious types don’t like to admit it. I’m actually prepared to defend the practice: what is valuable is familiarity with the subject matter, and the value of specific texts is what they have to offer on that score. Authoritative texts are useful as reference points for a discursive community, but precisely because they are authoritative you can get a pretty good idea of what they’re all about just by engaging with the community.

Of course, you wouldn’t call yourself an expert on the Rhetoric without reading it (never mind reading it in the original Greek). Tom Palmer said that one should not read Aristotle’s Politics to learn what Aristotle thought, but instead to learn about politics. He was summarizing Gadamer on the importance of attending to the subject matter, but Gadamer was also a strong advocate of attending to the text. Especially if you are going to be offering an interpretation of it!

And that is precisely what I am going to be doing as part of this project of mine. One aspect of this project could be summarized with the elevator pitch “What Aristotle can teach you about new media PR”. Really it’s just an excuse to tell a business audience to ditch the very idea of new media PR and instead embrace the principles of classical rhetoric applied to a contemporary context.

The book in its details is what you can expect from any book on rhetoric, really; a lot of very specific analysis of what works in given cases. What the modern reader really needs is something more like Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoricwhich draws on an enormous corpus of examples to demonstrate the techniques; many more than Aristotle does. What’s needed, however, is a book that draws on contemporary examples and also discusses some of the rhetorical tricks that are particular to the media of our day. While I hesitate to say that we have new techniques above and beyond the classical tradition, it’s not as though the old Greek or English teachers could anticipate the particular rhetorical context of the quote-tweet.

But that is not what I intend to write. My particular interest in Aristotle’s Rhetoric can be summed up in one (Greek) word: ethos. This is the character of the speaker as perceived as a result of his speech. This latter part was news to me: Kennedy, whose translation is, as I understand it, the current academic standard, explains:

Unlike Isocrates (Antidosis 278), Aristotle does not include in rhetorical ethos the authority that the speaker may possess due to position in government or society, previous actions, reputation, or anything except what is actually said in the speech.

Rather than idealistically assuming away the influence of the speaker’s position in society, however, Aristotle appears to be making a technical distinction (though not explicitly; Kennedy may be reading it into the text). For Aristotle the art of rhetoric involves those elements of persuasion the speaker can influence. External factors outside the influence of the speech are not part of the art. So it’s not that one’s position in society has no influence on the persuasiveness of your speech; it’s just that that forms part of the situation the speech takes place within. It is outside the art, which, in the case of ethos, involves a portrayal of your character that elicits sympathy and trust.

This distinction is illustrated in an early passage that stood out to me:

That rhetoric, therefore, does not belong to a single defined genus of subject but is like dialectic and that it is useful is clear—and that its function [ergon] is not to persuade but to see the available means of persuasion in each case, as is true also in all the other arts; for neither is it the function of medicine to create health but to promote this as much as possible; for it is nevertheless possible to treat well those who cannot recover health.

A doctor by definition cannot cure a disease which, with current medicine, is incurable. But she may be able to treat it for any number of reasons; to extend the patient’s lifespan, for example, or moderate their symptoms. Similarly, a poor, illiterate person cannot change their circumstances at the time of their speech, but they can make the most of them. Finding the available means of persuasion for a particular situation is what Aristotle considered the art of rhetoric.

These distinctions are all well and good, but to be honest my main interest in ethos was far more minimal than this. Really, the idea that who you are in a speech situation is at least as important as the merit of your argument (logos), or even the emotional resonance of your choice of words (pathos) was what I was after. People tend to have a pretty bleached view of what discussion means. In the limit you get deliberative democracy types seeking the ideal conditions for a pure exchange of logos, or cynics who see all pathos as simple manipulation.

Something that basically all sides of the 20th century debates in philosophy agreed on is that knowledge is a product of social relations, not of an individual knower acting alone. Emphasizing ethos, to me, means having a basic awareness of where you stand in that web of relations, and what effect you can anticipate your actions having as a result. The CEO of a publicly traded company should not shoot from the hip in her public statements; it could do a fortune’s worth of harm to shareholders and employees. The particulars of the speech situation carry the day of course; that same CEO is usually safe shooting from the hip in what she says in the privacy of her own home with a close friend.

I used to think public shaming on social media was this dangerous new trend. I still think it largely sucks, but:

  1. It impacts a small number of people and is about as far from the most pressing matter as I can imagine, and
  2. A lot of it comes down to people treating public social media spaces like Twitter as if they were intimate settings.

2 is of more interest to me. Sensitivity to what speech situation you are in and who you are in it is vital. Pinker-style Team Enlightenment thinking tends to pit this sort of sensitivity against a bleached logos-only or logos and pathos at most worldview.

Relevance

I wasn’t much a fan of Birdman, which struck me as one big Hollywood and theater industry circle-jerk, but I did like this particular bit:

Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.

“There’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day.” I’ve always followed a strategy of trying not to fight too hard or care too much. On the whole I’ve stuck with writing about what I enjoy writing about, connecting with small numbers of people who enjoy reading and writing and discussing the same things, and it has given me many good friends and even more fun conversations over the years.

What makes pieces like the one I wrote on my dad’s book, or the one I’m working on now, different, is that I am actually trying to be relevant. It is very hard. It is a struggle. But, contrary to the cynicism of the Birdman quote—I think it is also healthy, or at least it can be (as Aristotle would say, in his ethics rather than rhetoric: if done the right way in the right amount for the right situation and so on). Being relevant is really just about being interesting and enjoyable for other people; it requires you to get out of your own head and think about someone else.

I can write a pretty long piece on hermeneutics or rhetoric or virtue ethics in under an hour, no problem. Back in the Sweet Talk days, I did that multiple times a week for months at a time. I am very lucky that those pieces were interesting to anyone at all. And in as much as they were part of conversations I was having with a small group of people, I was lucky to live in a world where technology enabled me to drill really deep into subject matter like this with people who know more about it than I do and enjoy it just as much.

But appealing to a wider audience requires much more work and discipline. And frankly, a lot more help from other people—Jason most of all! That process helps me to grow, and not only as a writer.

So alongside my advocacy of the art of rhetoric I will also offer a defense of fighting to be relevant. As Teddy Roosevelt put it:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

But to TR I would reply: the critic is in the arena, too! Criticism is a deed that is done, where errors can be made!

Nevertheless, I like the spirit of what he says.

That’s all I’ve got. See you the next time I’ve finished a book I can’t get out of my head, or am struggling with what I actually want to be writing.

There’s No Shortcut to Wisdom

I’ve read quite a lot of philosophy over the past five years.

One small problem: philosophy doesn’t give you much, on its own.

The thinkers that have staked out the largest territory in my mind are people like Hans-Georg Gadamer or Charles Taylor who, while having sophisticated systems of thought, are ultimately quite deflationary about the power of philosophical reflection on its own.

Philosophy of law is no shortcut to understanding law. Hermeneutics is no shortcut to understanding literature. Moral philosophy is no shortcut to understanding right and wrong. Political philosophy is no shortcut to understanding either politics or political institutions as they exist and function in life. Epistemology and philosophy of science are no shortcut for becoming a competent scholar or scientist. Metaphysics is no shortcut for understanding reality.

So Truth and Method or “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man” gave me some strong opinions about social science, but then I found I had very few concrete, specific observations to make on the matter. I was stuck at a very broad, abstract level, the very thing such texts are meant to dissuade from engaging in.

Then I began to read Nancy Rosenblum’s work, and it all clicked.

The first book of hers I read was her most recent, Good Neighbors. In analyzing the experience, the norms, and the mythology of neighborliness in America, Rosenblum read philosophy (and in fact cites the Taylor paper on the sciences of man mentioned above), social psychology, and history, but also memoirs, testimonials, and even novels and poetry. The trick is, she read an enormous amount. There are eight years between the publication of her previous book and Good Neighbors, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it took her seven of those eight to navigate the absolutely gigantic corpus of works she not only cites, but draws from and synthesizes masterfully.

For Rosenblum, there was no shortcut for gaining an understanding of the neighbor experience in America. She had to draw not only on a plurality of types of sources, but an enormous quantity of each type, and to patiently wrestle with them all to draw out a coherent whole. Her other works run along the same lines; Membership and Morals in particular draws heavily on case law among other sources. Reading Rosenblum, you get an appreciation for the rich texture of the subject matter she wrestles with.

But you benefit from her expertise; you do not gain it. Reading Rosenblum is not a shortcut for gaining her understanding of the subject matter she discusses. I’m afraid it takes the same level of work she put into it in order to do that.

The number of newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and other documents that a Gordon Wood or a Joanne Freeman must read in order to produce their works on the founding and early republic boggle my mind. The amount of case law a practicing trial lawyer must know – and often learn under difficult time constraints – is astonishing. The quickest way to make a fool of yourself is to issue pronouncements on criminal justice reform to a public defender, on the basis of a few popular nonfiction books you have read.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that I have known for a while that it is high time for me to dial back philosophy – however much I love it – and invest more of my time in history, law, political science, and other works focused on concrete particulars.

There is a line from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, one of my favorite books that I read in 2018, that has stuck with me:

The difference between this residual Left and the academic Left is the difference between the people who read books like Thomas Geoghegan’s Which Side Are You On?—a brilliant explanation of how unions get busted—and people who read Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The latter is an equally brilliant book, but it operates on a level of abstraction too high to encourage any particular political initiative. After reading Geoghegan, you have views on some of the things which need to be done. After reading Jameson, you have views on practically everything except what needs to be done.

I do not share Rorty’s politics, but I’ve set myself up to argue with the Jamesons rather than the Geoghegans (assuming I would disagree with the latter, which I do not know for a fact as I have not read him)! What is the point of disagreeing with cultural philosophers who will inspire no practical action in anyone? If we’re to move beyond a culture of negation, we need to aim to participate in communities of conversation where the push and pull is over what to do, not what position to occupy in abstraction.

So I need to read more Geoghegans and fewer Jamesons. But, taking Gadamer and Taylor (and Rosenblum and McCloskey and many others) seriously, as I do, I also need to be reading more prose fiction and more poetry. This may sound like a contradiction – poetry in particular is reputed to be as far from concrete living as you can get, beyond metaphysics perhaps. But both disclose aspects of the human experience, as it is and as it can be, that other sources do not. And I have read more philosophy alone—never mind nonfiction in general—than either fiction or poetry, 10 to 1 at least, these last five years.

I’m not putting down what I have achieved so far. Five years ago I decided there was no shortcut to understanding philosophy, and began to do the hard work, still deeply incomplete, of filling that understanding out. But I’m not a philosopher, and I have interests that extend beyond its boundaries. Even a well fleshed out philosophy cannot be a shortcut to addressing those interests. It’s time to branch out.

Fragile Publics

In cultural historian Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, she draws on a massive corpus of texts in order to flesh out the formal features of the information environment of political actors in the early republic. Of central interest to me is what she termed “the paper war”, but word-of-mouth gossip was a crucial component as well. The temptation to draw parallels to today is very strong, but I keep going back and forth on how persuaded I am by that exercise.

Let’s go through it nevertheless. The paper war had four chief tools: the letter, the pamphlet, the broadside, and the newspaper. In theory, these are ranked from the most private and therefore the medium with the most freedom to speak one’s mind (the letter) to the most public and therefore the medium that must be hedged for a broader audience (the newspaper). In practice, letters were far more public in nature than a modern reader is likely to realize, and often intentionally so. Letters often contained specific instructions to circulate them among an intimate circle of friends. Instructions aside, once sent, letters could end up in the hands of a postmaster loyal to the enemy party, or the receiver could use the letter to advance their own interests rather than the sender’s. But more on this aspect in a moment.

Pamphlets were often lengthy defenses of one’s character full of “documentation” (notes about specific events that had occurred usually, but possibly also signed statements from people willing to lend their credibility to it) intended to be circulated among a larger group than a letter but still among insiders, so to speak. This is the one that often gets paralleled to the modern blog, due to its middle point between the one-to-one and one-to-many positions on the private communication – broadcast spectrum.

Broadsides were posted in public places and so had broader reach in whatever locality they were put up in. Definitely a one-to-many model, very frequently anonymous and full of spitfire rhetoric one wouldn’t use in polite company.

Newspapers were the most public medium of all of course, with the potential to reach some of the widest audiences available at the time. One had to be very careful with ones words indeed, if one did not want to end up being challenged to a duel by whoever’s name was impugned. These could be anonymously written too, of course, but the strongest impact came from people willing to put their name to it (though of course this also required drawing back their rhetoric since it put them in the crosshairs).

Freeman says of newspapers:

Most wide-reaching of all was the newspaper. Printed in a single newspaper, an essay or news item easily migrated into others, forming a national bridge of communication beyond any one man’s control. By linking regions together with bonds of political consciousness, interconnected partisan newspapers were a nationalizing influence, a literal arm of government connecting the extended republic through chains of information.

As Adam Rust, who recommended this book to me, put it: perhaps the overtly partisan tone of today’s mainstream press (and the overall information sphere) is more of a return to type than a sign of cultural decline. So that is another parallel: the partisan press of the past and the partisan press of the present.

Now. Returning to the issue of letters whose lives were no more under the control of the sender once sent than an essay in a newspaper would have been. These days it is a commonplace that your emails may be leaked. But before that became a regular public phenomena, it was still trivially easy to forward an email to someone else – or to a mass list of people. Or to download it, or copy and paste the text. Once you’ve sent a message to someone, it’s in their hands, and they have all of the tools of the information sphere at their disposal to spread it (should they desire to).

We see this with the pamphlet/blog parallel as well. Pamphlets were meant to stay within the confines of a particular insider clique, but could be posted against the wishes of the author. Any of the hands that touched them could post them more widely, and like the modern blog they could go viral. Now, many blogs aspire to such an outcome – but many are quite comfortable writing for their little niche communities, their tiny online republics of equals. Even those who think they desire fame may not realize the price they – and their little community – might be forced to pay in loss of intimacy and candor that accompanies the arrival of large audiences.

The more I have thought about it, the more I think this is the connecting thread: the position of any of these tools (only “weapons” if one is fighting some war) is created by a combination of convention (that is, agreement) and circumstances (for example, the obscurity that is the default position of any one person or blog or social media account in the vast attention economy of the modern information sphere). More to the point, these positions are never assured in any one instance, precisely because people can buck convention and circumstances can change.

This does not make exercises like Freeman’s less worthwhile, and of course she’s careful to lay out exactly how conventions were bucked and circumstances did change. And even now, even as we have analyzed new media to death, I think a real Freeman-scale project to flesh out the various positions has not really been done (though my dad of course did a pretty bang up job with pieces of the information sphere in his book).

My point isn’t to criticize Freeman, whose book is a masterpiece and whose recent one I intend to read at some point. I’m just trying to scratch the itch I’ve had since reading it.

Writing this post has helped my crystallize what the practical insight is: when trying to understand dynamics in the information sphere, try to identify the current conventions (and the predictable ways they are violated) and the salient circumstances (and the various ways they can change). Even in the seeming flux of constant technological change, one can get the knack of it more or less, especially if you focus on relatively short timeframes.