A Tendency Away from Certitude: Our Blogosphere Needs the Essay

It had seemed to me that, in the ideal, the chief distinguishing characteristic of the blog format, as opposed to, say, formal print newspaper and magazine article, was that it represented a piece of a larger conversation. Not in the strict sense of point-counterpoint, you-go-I-go, but in the sense of being an individual's considered musing upon a given topic that contributes to the overall swirl of thought and content going on all around. That's certainly the picture painted by someone like Andrew Sullivan, who for me is kind of the Foundational Blogger for all intents and purposes.

But I can't say that this is what I see today in the blogosphere, or the sectors into which I delve on a regular basis. I can speak best, of course, to my perceptions of the skepto-atheist blogosphere and the wider genre of political blogging. In those areas, I see very little of what could pass as conversation. Recently, I'm realizing how much I wish this were not so.

What I see in blogs today (and let's keep it to the skepto-atheosphere for now) is more or less a competition of zingers, gotchas, and positions asserted as though self-evident, done via polemic, snark, indignant rhetoric, and quote-mining. I see not a conversation, but lines and lines of entrenched infantry, all working to win their war by scoring the most points.

I'm over-generalizing, I realize. Particularly due to my job, I am exposed to a very specific tributary of the vast rivers of online prose that empty into even wider digital oceans. But I am hoping to follow a thread of thought to something.

Sullivan sees the blog as an evolution -- or perhaps modern manifestation of -- the essay, and draws the greatest influence from Montaigne (as I do now, thanks in large part to Sullivan), the Ur-blogger.

Christy Wampole has written a beautiful piece about what the essay form can offer modern discourse; where we are missing out on its benefits, and abusing it when utilized. She presents her thesis as thus:

I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment “the essayification of everything.”
The "x-ification" of anything as a panacea is a gimmick I often bristle at, but Wampole is on to something here. For clarity, she writes:

When I say “essay,” I mean short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude. Much of the writing encountered today that is labeled as “essay” or “essay-like” is anything but. These texts include the kind of writing expected on the SAT, in seminar papers, dissertations, professional criticism or other scholarly writing; politically engaged texts or other forms of peremptory writing that insist upon their theses and leave no room for uncertainty; or other short prose forms in which the author’s subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised. What these texts often have in common is, first, their self-conscious hiding of the “I” under a shroud of objectivity. One has to pretend that one’s opinions or findings have emanated from some office of higher truth where rigor and science are the managers on duty.
The shroud of objectivity, an office of higher truth...could there be any better description for the tone of so much of the skepto-atheosphere's bloggery? She goes on:

Second, these texts are untentative: they know what they want to argue before they begin, stealthily making their case, anticipating any objections, aiming for air-tightness. These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone.

Case-making, anticipating objections, etc. In other words, winning on points. One part that many of my fellow bloggers might object to is her assertion that the non-essay "leav[es] the reader uninvited," as most of the blogosphere is open to comments and reaction, but in my experience comments sections and other blog-based responses are usually more of a piece with the original posting. They are still fortresses, just perhaps smaller ones, or constructed on a different front.

There is, of course, a need for plain-speaking. There is a time and place for laying down lines of demarcation, of, yes, building a fortress, because that fortress may be defending something that is genuinely worthy. I would not feel such common case with "New Atheism" and its (to some) stark and uncompromising positions if I did not think that humanity faced moral and existential threats from religion, faith, and dogma.

But I also want the conversation. Rather than dueling blog posts about, say, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and their attitudes toward Muslims (one set of posts says they're totally on-point for such-and-such reasons, and another set of posts declaring them unforgivable racists for such-and-such reasons), I'd prefer a slower contemplation -- I'm talking primarily about text, but also audio, video, or what have you -- that tackled the topic from all angles, and allowed space to look inward and question one's own suppositions and conclusions. Certainly, the quality of the writing could improve if nothing else.

Blogs, from my vantage point, are not doing this. They are not essays. Are essays anywhere to be found? I have one idea. An essay, as suggested by Wampole, is informed by "possibilitarianism," by

contingency and trying things out digressively, following this or that forking path, feeling around life without a specific ambition: not for discovery’s sake, not for conquest’s sake, not for proof’s sake, but simply for the sake of trying.

To me, this sounds a lot like Tumblr. Tumblogs are often, rather unintentionally I'd guess, explorations of experience, a gathering of encounters, predilections, and bursts of raw expression that might just be in line with what a Wampolian essay is supposed to be. They may or may not be as polished, and obviously they are not always (or often) text-based. But perhaps there's something here.

But wait! Wampole says:

I would argue that the weakest component in today’s nontextual essayism is its meditative deficiency. Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned.

Ah yes. And loop Facebook and Pinterest and their ilk into this as well. A running log of oh-well-that-happened. Maybe. What, then? Wampole, one more time:

Today’s essayistic tendency — a series of often superficial attempts relatively devoid of thought — doesn’t live up to this potential in its current iteration, but a more meditative and measured version à la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right.

Good, then. Let us demand more of our own essays, be they in the form of blogs or social network posts, podcast episodes or YouTube monologues. Let us begin each piece with so much confidence in our own intellect and capacity for understanding, that we allow that we may be wrong. We allow that we may have our own blinding biases and obstructive obstinacies. And we say so, and we explore that fact as deeply as anything else.