First Thought Best Thought

Simon Reynolds has informally celebrated his eighteenth blog birthday with a reflective post on what it means to blog and for so long. He’s posted a little something here (which includes a nice hyperlinked shout-out to Xenogothic, along with a few other bloggers in the current blogosphere). It also signals a sad end though, as Simon points out that Bruce Sterling’s blog at Wired is shutting this month.

Sterling’s blog has been an interesting vector for weirder goings-on in cyberspace and, in his farewell post, he talks about how that was always his intention. (We were chuffed back in 2018 when Bruce posted about Vast Abrupt, for instance.) Bruce writes:

When I first started the “Beyond the Beyond” blog, I was a monthly WIRED columnist and a contributing editor. Wired magazine wanted to explore the newfangled medium of weblogs, and asked me to give that a try. I was doing plenty of Internet research to support my monthly Wired column, so I was nothing loath. I figured I would simply stick my research notes online. How hard could that be?

That wouldn’t cost me much more effort than the duty of writing my column — or so I imagined. Maybe readers would derive some benefit from seeing some odd, tangential stuff that couldn’t fit within a magazine’s paper limits. The stuff that was — you know — less mainstream acceptable, more sci-fi-ish, more far-out and beyond-ish — more Sterlingian.

Simon writes that a lot of Sterling’s reflections on the use of blogging chime with his own feelings: “the value of unpaid labour: writing as freeform fun, as mental calisthenics, as intellectual hygiene… the blog as public notepad, a testing space or site for the construction of thought-probes.” (It makes blogging feel like a natural outlet for Robin’s brand of pop philosophy discussed a few weeks back — but then, of course it does.)

But blogging is also very messy, of course. There are plenty of weeks where I feel like I’m just posting inconsistent shite. It can be a challenge, sometimes, to accept those weeks as being just as much a part of the process, as the good stuff, the “popular” stuff — the swings from consistency and inconsistency, half-thoughts and full thoughts — and so it is great to see others, who have blogged for so long and published so much that I admire, relating to their blogs in much the way. As Simon writes:

One of the problems with having a blog (or blogs multiple) is that you start thinking bloggy  — everything becomes potential “material”, something that could be turned into a riff with only a smidgeon of effort, given the lax standards of the format and the tolerance of the readership.  The incontinence you see (not here these days, but still on the other blogs) is a fraction of the stuff that I have in bulging folders of scrawled notes… and there is more that never even reached paper at all. 

(Perhaps this level of mind-churn was always going on — and getting emitted in letters and later in emails — both of which tend to go copious — or in conversations in pubs and elsewhere. I don’t know. But there’s something about the itch caused by having a blog outlet that is generative, for good and for bad).

This is similarly echoed by Bruce over at Wired, who embraces the public notebook approach, even when it is at its most casual and self-serving, affirming that it really is a useful exercise, despite the occasionally sloppy optics:

The blog never trolled for any viral hits, or tried to please any patrons. Also, I never got paid anything for my blogging, which was probably the key to the blog’s longevity. This blog persisted with such ease, because there was so much that I didn’t have to do.

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

It’s a genuine relief to read both of these reflections, particularly right now.

For what it’s worth, my current feeling — particularly as I try and tentatively turn a few bits of recent book-writing into blog-writing, and worry about potentially undermining some distant final product in the process — is that the blog is nonetheless still an essential tool. Without it, as I’ve found in recent weeks, the whole project quickly gets constipated and backed up in places. Not throwing down some stray thought, in the very moment I have it — articulating something no matter how brief and broken off from a wider context — often means it falls out of my head. Collecting things in some Word document somewhere just doesn’t do the trick. It’s becomes part of some piecemeal swamp. Making something at least bloggable, even if it means taking ten minutes to polish a thought rather than just scribbling it off hand and immediately filing it away, makes the thought stick better. As overused as the analogy is, every blogpost is a seed planted. To write it down is to stick it in the ground and see if it sprouts anything later. As Bruce puts it so perfect, and as Simon quotes for his post’s title: you tighten it and brighten it.

This is why blogging is so important for me personally. It is an opportunity to capture a first thought, no matter how fleeting and under-developed. In my experience, over the last three years that I’ve been word-blogging — as opposed to the ten years before that I spent strictly photo-blogging — this is always worth it in the long run. It was worth it with photography too. It helped to hone an eye and a taste for form that felt like my own. But with photography, there felt like there was little room for development beyond that. The gulf between blog and book felt so big. With writing, after about a year or so at least, that doesn’t feel like the case.

I think this is because blog posts of all kinds end up capturing some kernel of something, and taking the time to formulate it in some form, because of the blog’s public nature, often proves very fruitful later. So, in the spirit of Simon’s nod to Ivor Cutler — “I believe in blogs” — I ended up putting on that Ginsberg-inspired Arhtur Russell record: First Thought, Best Thought.

Beyond this, Bruce’s final post is really worth reading in full. I’m quite fascinated by this strange, perhaps counterintuitive picture he paints of himself as a kind of Batman-blogger:

My blog often had the sensibility of some midnight rookie patrolman with a flashlight, poking a night-stick into trash-heaps, watching rats and raccoons scatter. Cops know where the trouble is; they have to stay with the trouble; it’s their duty.

My blog was often darkly suspicious in tone, and keen to look for undersides and downsides. In retrospect, I can see that my blog promoted the blogger’s personal anxieties. Often, he wasn’t “informing the readers” so much as chasing half-seen wolves from his own doorstep. This wary, edgy view of life got a little monotonous sometimes, in the way that endless suspicion commonly does.

In public, cops are full of stoic dignity. But I’m not a cop, for I’ve never been a servant of the public peace and safety. My gift from the police was a lasting, burdensome awareness of dark motives, vulnerabilities and attack surfaces. That’s wisdom, but it costs an eye to get it.

[…]

This magpie ragpicking that I did within this blog, it was never scholarship; it wouldn’t make the readers morally better people; it was sometimes funny, but often just arcane, an autodidactic effort by some eccentric guy teaching himself things probably better not known by anyone. So I wouldn’t call the blog a “success,” yet it was still a success. As the late Mark E Smith used so say, back in the heyday of punk, “you don’t have to be weird to be weird; you don’t have to be strange to be strange.” That’s good advice; if you want to become original, you should keep an eye out for whatever you don’t-have-to.

There’s also some interesting advice for the present cyberspelunker, and a nice farewell as he enters blog — if not internet — retirement:

If I was a young person, and starting over today, I would not experiment with a weblog supported by a West Coast US technology magazine. Instead, I would try something more youthful in spirit, less conventional, more beyond-the-beyond. This blog was an experiment when I started it, but in modern conditions, it’s technically archaic; I’ve got a blog here that’s old enough to vote.

So I might well have gone on blogging here indefinitely, through dint of mature habit, but I can recognize that fate has handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card. The post-Internet may even be a different Monopoly board-game. So I will accept the situation graciously, and with a sense of contentment.

With all that, wonderfully said: ‘bye “Beyond the Beyond”. Thanks for the posts.

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