2022 Slug

2022 has started sluggishly. After a Bank Holiday weekend spent out on the moors, I started to feel pretty rotten as the return to work was imminent. A week later, I’m only just recovering and emerging from my sick bed. I thought it was a nasty cold, which I was struggling to fight off on account of it being my first cold since late 2019… Now I’m not sure if it was the Omicron variant of coronavirus or not… I tested myself repeatedly and each test was negative, but I’ve since discovered all my symptoms were basically the same as Omicron, which does not present the same way as the initial coronavirus and its first few variants did. I’m inclined to trust the tests, and it was on the basis of these tests that my partner hasn’t self-isolated with me. But I’m nonetheless left with a deep dread and uncertainty that I’m not sure I’ve felt since this crisis first started.

So that’s how my 2022 is going so far. It has been dreadful — quite literally. Now I’m back to work, after a delayed start, and I’m already feeling exhausted by it. That seems to be the case for a lot of people. Christmas should have been a nice break, a pause, but now everyone I know feels ready for another one, as so many people spent most of the holidays being sick. But 2021 to-do lists have returned with the expectation we’re all well rested, and it does not feel good. One result of this, for the blog at least, is that it has led to a crisis of direction, and I’m thinking I might let the blog continue to slow down for the time being until I figure out what this space is for.

I say this every six months or so, of course, and acknowledging it publicly is often all it takes to shake off the cobwebs, but it feels more interesting to acknowledge right now, if only because a lot of people are talking about the direction of blogging in general.

I wrote something about all this in November, at least in light of some unfair appraisals of the old blogosphere. But the more pressing question is: how does blogging sit in relation to all else that is going on online, with the rise of newsletters and event-blogs and web3? Jay sent me a few links earlier this week on this, featuring a few other people’s 2021 roundups, and it seems there’s a lot of self-reflection in the air.

Venkatesh Rao had a lot of interesting things to say about web3 in his end of year round-up, for instance. I remember feeling quite excited about that last year, if only because the dream of being able to afford to blog full-time never quite goes away. It’s never about the money, but a lack of money nonetheless affects the amount of time I have to spend on this space. In fact, I’d wager a general time-poverty has led to a more fragmentary social media landscape and blogosphere. (Forget Johann Hari’s latest screed on our dwindling attention spans; a lot of us are just overworked and underpaid.) Rao writes on this increasingly fragmentary future:

We are in a liminal passage with blogging, where the medium has no message.

[…] It feels like the entire blogosphere (what’s left of it) took the year off to figure out a new identity — if one is even possible — in a world overrun by email newsletters, Twitter threads, weird notebook-gardens on static sites or public notebook apps, and the latest challenger: NFT-fied essays.

All those new media seem to have clear ideas of what they are, or what they want to be when they grow up. But this aging medium doesn’t. And while I have a presence in all those younger media, they don’t yet feel substantial enough to serve as main acts, the way blogging has for so long.

Perhaps there is no main-act medium in the future. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a glorious new polycentric media landscape, where the blogosphere will be eaten not by any one successor, but by a collection of media within which blogs will merely be a sort of First Uncle to the rest. The medium through which you say embarrassing things at Thanksgiving, with all the other media cringing. Maybe, just as every unix shell command turned into a unicorn tech company, every kind of once-blog-like content will now be its own medium. Listicles became Twitter, photoblogs became Instagram, and so on.

The entire blogosphere is going through perhaps its most significant existential crisis since the invention of blogging 22 years ago. […] Ironically, every couple of years through that period, there has been a round of discussion on “the death of blogging,” but now that it seems to be actually happening, there isn’t an active conversation around it.

If this is the end, it’s a whimper rather than a bang.

I’m not sure it is the end. Blogs still serve a function that these other mediums do not, at least when used as intended. Matt Web is a little more clear cut in his thoughts on this, echoing Rao but with less uncertainty in his tone. He writes:

I recommend blogging whenever I talk to people with interesting ideas, which is frequently. Start by writing down what you know, I say, in public. Writing things down (a) gives you stepping stones for thought so you can move past your ideas and reach for bigger ones; and (b) fizzes out brand new ideas because the shearing between a thought in your head and your thought in words makes a kind of generative static electricity.

That is something I couldn’t agree with more. Not every blogpost on xenogothic is a hit with mY aUdIeNcE, explicitly worth your time, pushing tHe DiScOuRse dramatically forwards. But every post indicates the movement of some sort of thought for me personally. It clears space for other things or rejuvenates some line of inquiry. That’s why Rao’s observation that blogging has often been preoccupied with its own demise isn’t that surprising. Every time this death is openly acknowledged, blogging acquires a new lease of life. That’s what happens on an individual level, if you ever take the time to paradoxically narrate your own writer’s block (it helps!), and collectively, as a whole community wonders aloud about its own direction.

Are other mediums as capable of doing that? Or resuscitating themselves? Probably, but the very function of blogging makes it easier. As Webb continues:

With email newsletters you can get obsessed with “audience” and making each edition “worth” hitting your readers’ inboxes… but with blogging you can let the idea lead. There’s just enough open air to keep you honest. Only do write regularly, otherwise each post becomes an event.

Rao comments on this as well, expanding a little more on the NFT-fied essay. In principle, it sounds like an interesting development towards sustainability. But the problem is that blogs, if we recognise them as often gargantuan archives of free information, ideas and discussion, don’t really lend themselves to the one-off essay every few months. Increasingly, of course, people do use blogs that way, but I agree with Rao, below, in that this way of working is fundamentally “unbloggy”. He writes:

Web3 does have its own native long form already — the NFTified essay, with mirror.xyz as the main current locus of action. The NFTfied essay is a natural outgrowth of a certain kind of laboriously wrought (in some cases overwrought) and produced (often overproduced) essay that became popular in the last few years.

These tend to “drop” like music singles by major artists. Publication as a notable micro-media event rather than routinely scheduled media flow. Very unbloggy.

I’ve been uncomfortable with this mode of essaying since I first spotted it. Most of my writing is improvised in a single session the day it is published, and it is barely wrought or produced at all. Much of it is also too lightweight to “drop” at all in Earth’s media gravity field. At best it can sort of float down like a feather.

I couldn’t relate to that more.

So, not exactly likely to turn into a native medium for me. I don’t think I can ever produce such a high-stakes essay.

But that said, it’s early days yet. There is a lot of richness to Web3 technology, and it’s going to support more than one mode of publishing.

In that spirit, what’s next for 2022? How to start the year off with a bang? Maybe it’s not worth trying yet. It seems best to watch closely and see how things develop. I have no qualms with migrating this whole archive to a new place, if it makes sense for me and the whole blogging ideal. But I also feel like I have a few very unbloggy years ahead.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to get out of this year, both online and out of life more generally. I’m anticipating, even hoping, things will be quieter around here. I think 2022 is going to be an important transition year, as I enter my 30s and effectively restart my life a bit, and as blogging takes a moment to continue thinking about its own raison d’être. I think that’s true of me as well. Without going into the details too much, the end of last year and the start of this one have been quite painful. Everything that has been stable for the last decade is about to change. Admittedly this amounts to, like, one central relationship and its surrounding entanglements, which do matter to me a great deal, all coming to an amicable, even exciting, but ultimately terrifying end. The prospect of new adventures is on the horizon, but it means saying goodbye to a lot of what I’ve known for the last ten years. This is a hard thing to acknowledge. It has meant the end of 2021 has been defined by a strange grief, as if knowing a present way of life is terminal and doesn’t have long left in it. Processing this ahead of time, rather than adapting by necessity in the moment, has led to a strange kind of mental distancing taking place, even though nothing has yet changed. But it’s about to…

Right now, there are a few more pressing matters. I still have my next book to finish, and whilst I thought I’d be able to have a first draft done by the end of last year — always with the wishful thinking; remember when I announced Egress was done 18 months before it finally hit the shelves? — it is going to take me a couple more months yet. This has less to do with the amount of work that still needs to be done on it, and more to do with the time I have available to spend on it… I took a week off work back in November to break its back, and am confident the first half is now complete. The second half could do with another week in the mind-oven, however… But I’m not sure I have the time to take another week off to finish it until at least the spring… I also have two commissions on the go right now — one short, the other long — and I desperately need to spend some time on those when I’m not doing my proofreading / copyediting day job. The longer commission is really cool, actually. It has a March deadline and I’ve already got the main scaffolding in place in my excitement over Christmas. But I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, so watch this space for more on that.

There’s also a lot of other life stuff going on. Another deadline on the horizon is for PhD funding applications. The various projects I’ve stuck pins in over the last year or two are all pretty major and require the sort of dedication and research time I just don’t have access to anymore, as financial pressures have accumulated over the last four years I’ve been running this blog, mostly whilst working freelance or part-time.

Though I’ve resisted it for a long time, a return to academia now feels like the only avenue left available if I really want a few more years trying out the writing life. To that end, I’m hoping to turn one of my various shelved book projects into a research project — the long-term going being to jump through its various hoops and then hopefully transform whatever I produce into something more readable for a general audience a few years down the line.

But I have mixed feelings about that process. Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard to get away from a lot of my more academic tendencies, picked up as a postgraduate five years ago. I think I’ve been quite successful. Narcissus in Bloom is relatively free of citations, for instance, in a way that Egress was not. In fact, the whole attraction of working on that book in particular, at the expense of the few others I have percolating on my desktop, is that it is building on ideas I’ve held onto and developed since I was an undergraduate, if not before. (One chapter pulls together a bunch of my art-historical interests — and even a few actual notes — going back to my school days in around 2008, which is quite weird, now that I think about it…) So this next book has written itself without too much further reading being necessary. That is not the case for anything else I’d like to work on, however, even with the blog functioning as a place to store and put out fleeting snippets of research and stray thoughts.

But the thought of going back into academia for a stint, in order to facilitate this, nonetheless makes me nervous. I have spent a lot of time learning more about the English language and its rules recently, for instance, having transformed myself into a grammar nerd over the last 18 months, in part as I decided to retrain as a proofreader at the start of the pandemic so I could work remotely. (Ten years experience as an arts administrator working front of house in art galleries made for a bleak CV when all those places shutdown for a year…) This has helped immensely with crafting a more formal writerly voice that differs from my blog tone but is still (if not even more) readable and non-academic, and I hope a PhD doesn’t undo that. Nevertheless, it feels like the only way available right now to properly start something new, to reclaim the time to read and digest and write properly, without going full grift and erecting paywalls and going back to the full-time freelance life.

It is also for all of these reasons that I am wondering about the purpose of this space going forwards. I’m also very aware that, at the moment, I’ve been posting a lot of photography and writing a lot about online drama. The latter is not really what I want this space to be used for, although it has long had a place and sometimes needs must. But using the blog as a space to respond rather than generate ideas has become increasingly normal these past six months, simply because I have so much less time and energy than when I first started this blog and my main writing project hasn’t needed workshopping.

So there’s lots to think about and consider and work on as the year progresses, and I’m not sure if any of this is really appropriate to discuss on this public platform going forwards. I’ll have to figure that out. Every time I say this, of course, it flicks a switch and beckons a new period of productivity, because blogs are nothing if not cunning receptacles for writerly detritus, alleviating writer’s block as soon as you moan about it, but the problem is that I really do need to channel that energy elsewhere if I’m to stay afloat this year.

At the very least, I’d like to increase the amount of photo posts I do here. At the end of last year, I was worried about my photos smothering my writing, but that led to a hefty 2021 backlog, and in hindsight, I wish I’d just embraced the smothering. Going forwards, I think I will. I’m still yet to write about the time spent in the Roussillon in September last year, when I spent a lot of time thinking about images and writing and the work of Claude Simon, so hopefully I’ll have that out in a few weeks or months. I’d like to explore how the photos I take can become their own writing prompts. As Matt Webb rightly said, it’s best to let the ideas lead the way. No use being precious about where those ideas come from or what form they take.

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