an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘blogging

on blogging: a personal view

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I have a feeling – I haven’t researched this – that the heyday of blogging is over. Even I rarely read blogs these days, and I’m a committed blogger, and have been since the mid 2000s. I tend to read books and science magazines, and some online news sites, and I listen to podcasts and watch videos – news, historical, academic, etc. 

should read more blogs. Shoulda-coulda-woulda. Even out of self-interest – reading and commenting on other blogs will drive traffic to my own, as all the advisers say. Perhaps one of the problems is that there aren’t too many blogs like mine – they tend to be personal interest or lifestyle blogs, at least going by those bloggers who ‘like’ my blog, which which gives me the distinct impression that those ‘likers’ are just trying to drive traffic to their blogs, as advised. But the thing is, I like to think of myself as a real writer, whatever that is. Or a public intellectual, ditto. 

However, I’ve never been published in a real newspaper, apart from one article 25 years ago in the Adelaide Review (the only article I’ve ever submitted to a newspaper), which led to my only published novel, In Elizabeth. But I’ve never really seen myself as a fiction writer. I’m essentially a diarist turned blogger – and that transition from diary writing to blogging was transformational, because with blogging I was able to imagine that I had a readership. It’s a kind of private fantasy of being a public intellectual.

I’ve always been inspired by my reading, thinking ‘I could do that”. Two very different writers, among many others, inspired me to keep a diary from the early 1980s, to reflect on my own experiences and the world I found myself in: Franz Kafka and Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s influence, I think, has been more lasting, not in terms of what he actually wrote, but his focus on the wider world, though it was Kafka that was the most immediate influence back in those youthful days, when I was still a little more self-obsessed. 

Interestingly, though, writing about the world is a self-interested project in many ways. It’s less painful, and less dangerous. I once read that the philosopher and essayist Bertrand Russell, who had attempted suicide a couple of times in his twenties, was asked about those days and how he survived them. ‘I stopped thinking about myself and thought about the world’, he responded.

I seem to recall that Montaigne wrote something like ‘I write not to find out what I think about a topic, but to create that thinking.’ I strongly identify with that sentiment. It really describes my life’s work, such as it is. Considering that, from all outside perspectives, I’m deemed a failure, with a patchy work record, a life mostly spent below the poverty line and virtually no readership as a writer, I’m objective enough and well-read enough to realise that my writing stands up pretty well against those who make a living from their works. Maybe that’s what prevents me from ever feeling suicidal.  

Writing about the world is intrinsically rewarding because it’s a lifelong learning project. Uninformed opinions are of little value, so I’ve been able to take advantage of the internet – which is surely the greatest development in the dissemination of human knowledge since the invention of writing – to embark on this lifelong learning at very little cost. I left school quite young, with no qualifications to speak of, and spent the next few years – actually decades – in and out of dead-end jobs while being both attracted and repelled by the idea of further academic study. At first I imagined myself as a legend in my lunch-time – the smartest person I knew without academic qualifications of any kind. And of course I could cite my journals as proof. These were the pre-internet days of course, so the only feedback I got was from the odd friend to whom I read or showed some piece of interest. My greatest failing, as a person rather than a writer, is my introversion. I’m perhaps too self-reliant, too unwilling or unable to join communities. The presence of others rather overwhelms me. I recall reading, in a Saul Bellow novel, of the Yiddish term trepverter – meaning the responses to conversations you only think of after the moment has passed. For me, this trepverter experience takes up much of my time, because the responses are lengthy, even never-ending. It’s a common thing, of course, Chekhov claimed that the best conversations we have are with ourselves, and Adam Smith used to haunt the Edinburgh streets in his day, arguing with himself on points of economics and probably much more trivial matters. How many people I’ve seen drifting along kerbsides, shouting and gesticulating at some invisible, tormenting adversary.

Anyway, blogging remains my destiny. I tried my hand at podcasting, even vodcasting, but I feel I’m not the most spontaneous thinker, and my voice catches in my throat due to my bronchiectasis – another reason for avoiding others. Yet I love the company of others, in an abstract sort of way. Or perhaps I should say, I like others, more than I like company – though I have had great experience in company with others. But mostly I feel constrained in company, which makes me dislike my public self. That’s why I like reading – it puts me in an idealised company with the writer. I must admit though, that after my novel was published, and also as a member of the local humanist society, I gave a few public talks or lectures, which I enjoyed immensely – I relish nothing more than being the centre of attention. So it’s an odd combo of shyness and self-confidence that often leaves me scratching my own head. 

This also makes my message an odd one. I’m an advocate of community, and the example of community-orientated bonobos, who’s also something of a loner, awkward with small-talk, wanting to meet people, afraid of being overwhelmed by them. Or of being disappointed.

Here’s an example. Back in the eighties, I read a book called Melanie. It was a collection of diary writings of a young girl who committed suicide, at age 18 as I remember. It was full of light and dark thoughts about family, friends, school and so forth. She came across as witty, perceptive, mostly a ‘normal’ teenager, but with this dark side that seemed incomprehensible to herself. Needless to say, it was an intimate, emotional and impactful reading experience. I later showed the book to a housemate, a student of literature, and his response shocked me. He dismissed it out of hand, as essentially childish, and was particularly annoyed that the girl should have a readership simply because she had suicided. He also protested, rather too much, I felt, about suicide itself, which I found revealing. He found such acts to be both cowardly and selfish. 

I didn’t argue with him, though there was no doubt a lot of trepverter going on in my head afterwards. For the record, I find suicides can’t be easily generalised, motives are multifactorial, and our control over our own actions are often more questionable than they seem. In any case human sympathy should be in abundant supply, especially for the young. 

So sometimes it feels safer to confide in an abstract readership, even a non-existent one. I’ll blog on, one post after another. 

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2021 at 3:40 pm

first hours in Europe

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First cafe latte in Europe: Hilton hotel, Budapest

First cafe latte in Europe: Hilton hotel, Budapest

We had to line up to get our passports checked, walking through a pointless zigzag of blue cordons and then we had to wait to be called by one of 3 or 4 inspectors. They all seemed admirably forensic in their analysis, which meant the queue moved very slowly, giving me ample time to scrutinise their scrutiny. I’m sure my limited knowlege of Hungary as a struggling ex-communist nation was infecting my impressions. In the eighties I had a near-fetish for so-called eastern bloc literature; Konwicki, Brandys, Kundera, Skvorecky, Havel, mostly Czech and Polish writers mapping the fortunes of non-conformity under ultra-conformist regimes. But that was 30 years back in my eternal-present existence. I was finally called to a checking station by a hunched, pinched elderly woman, about whom it was easy to imagine all sorts of inhumanity, either suffered or perpetrated. She looked as if she really hated me – or her job, or foreigners, or her country, or herself. In any case she didn’t spend much time on my fresh, near-virginal passport, and handed it back with a look of profound contempt. Or maybe it was just a 50-year rictus.

So with dampened spirits we were released into a small sign-holding crowd; our assignment was to seek out the ‘Travel Marvel’ sign. Over time I discovered that the ‘travel’ tag was part of an attempt by our hosting company – half-hearted at best (which was a good thing) – to convince us that we were travellers in the tradition of Marco Polo (the notorious 13th century tourist) rather than mere tourists.

Our man with the sign was a tall balding young Hungarian who shepherded four of us into a waiting kombi van while extolling half-heartedly (or again, so it seemed) the virtues of his city. Our two fellow-travellers were also Australian, leading me to at least two discomforting prophecies; all the cruisers would be coming on two by two, and they’d all be Australian. And also, they’d all be kipping the night at our Budapest hotel. Only the third turned out a failure.

It was a longish ride into town. The back seats had no seat belts, presumably not de rigueur in Hungary. We passed through a large resi-area, its colourful houses looking decidedly run-down, their steep-sloped roofs dark with what I assumed was mould. And lots of abandoned factories, railyards and carparks jungled with vegetation. It was all very green. Closer to the centre, the buildings got more solid and Euro-impressive, an architectural style I’ve hit upon, which is basically defined as ‘not much in existence in Oz’, yet still they looked a bit neglected. I had an odd sense of the guilts about my thoughts, that I was judging the place way too harshly. The cold drizzly weather was surely affecting my judgment. There’s getting to be a real accumulation of solid evidence that such externalities as temperature affect mood and hence judgment far more than we’d like to admit.

There was nothing too dilapidated about the Mercure-Korona though. We were greeted by a charming Hungarian (presumably) damosel and taken to our ‘privileged’ bedroom suite. I don’t know why we were treated as Privileged Guests at the hotel – my TC tried to explain but I didn’t get it – but it meant not only a room with the Biggest Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (didn’t take a pic as I’d not yet switched to the camera-clicking mode which is the sine qua non of the tourist), but elite breakfast in the elite dining room, set in a sort of glass bridge overlooking a mall. Budapest was looking up.

Written by stewart henderson

May 6, 2016 at 5:32 pm

blogging, truth and getting back to the fountain

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Hello, let me take this opportunity to remind people, or to educate people who seem to have little knowledge of these things, about what a blog actually is, and what it can be.

Clearly a blog such as this one reflects the personal views of its author. There are thousands of such blogs of course, of very varying standards, and written for very varying purposes. My own blog has its own variety of purposes, including self-education, the promotion of particular values such as skepticism and critical thinking, and, in an elaborate way, the pleasures of self-development and worldly exploration, a la Montaigne,  ‘inventor’ of the essay, who once claimed that he wrote not to discover his thoughts but to invent them – or some such thing.

Sometimes in this blog I may focus on others – their views, their activities or whatever. Those others may not like what I write about them, but that of course would not give them the right to shut me down, any more than, say, a politician would have the right to shut down a blogger who violently disagrees with her policies. Of course, if the politician feels that the blogger has ‘overstepped the mark’, and feels personally abused or offended by the blogger’s remarks, there are various options open to her.

She could, for example, take advantage of the interactive nature of blogging, and leave a critical comment on the blog, thus possibly initiating a conversation with the blogger or, in more popular blogs than mine, with the blogger’s other readers and commentators. This is often a very fruitful exercise, as it helps to clarify opposing positions and to deepen and enrich the debate.

However the politician may feel it beneath her to dignify the blogger with a response – this is often the case with public figures. Of course it may be that the blogger’s writings are so malicious as to be unworthy of attention. Such writings are often self-defeating, and the mainstream blogosphere deals with them by ignoring them, thus relegating them to their own little busy corner of looniness.

However, let’s imagine that the blogger in my example is articulate and knowledgeable, and presents cogent arguments, or tells a plausible story. This, of course, presents a danger to the politician. She can’t easily take legal action against the blogger, even though he is accusing her of corruption, say. In US law, malicious intent would also have to be proven, and it’s likely much the same in Australia. Of course the law, as it relates to blogs and online content generally, is varied, weak and behind-hand throughout the western world. In such a situation the blogger is more protected than otherwise. Virtually any case brought against a blogger would be precedent-setting, and courts tend to be very conservative about that sort of thing. As it happens, the blogosphere is also a pretty powerful force for preserving its own interests and freedoms, and there is currently a website, the electronic frontier foundation, dedicated to developing legal protection for bloggers and online users, and advocating for them. This includes important successes in having bloggers treated as journalists, with all the rights and protections that accrue.

Even if the politician or public figure were to take legal action, the blogger – the actual writer of the offending article(s) – could be the only target of that action. Imagine the case that the blogger is a member of an organisation which he is defending on his blog against forces – individual or organisational – that he believes are maligning or damaging it. Clearly his views are his own, and he’s not representing the organisation in any official capacity (imagine he makes a clear and unequivocal statement about this on his blog). He has taken upon himself sole responsibility for his writings, and any consequences that might derive from them.

Of course, with blogs there are confidentiality and security issues, and this is a messy area, but certainly not an impossible one to negotiate. Some have suggested, for example, that it might be wrong to place on your blog a photo of a public figure you wish to criticise or draw attention to. From a legal perspective, this is untrue. Data-sharing of this kind occurs a million times a day on blogs, web-sites, online news sites and so forth. Occasionally the photo might be under copywrite, in which case you will need to get permission, but otherwise it’s pretty well open slather, especially if the photos are already out in the public sphere. Of course, if you use the photo to vilify someone, or if you distort the image in a malicious way, that may be another matter, but of course this also occurs on a regular basis and the law is generally powerless to do much about it, except perhaps in extreme cases.

It’s a similar situation with the actual naming of a person on a blog. Of course this happens all the time, but people may have legitimate reasons for not wishing to be named. However, unless the person is the subject of in-train legal investigation, with court suppression orders out against his or her name, this is not a legal matter, and the naming of people will be up to the discretion of the blogger. For example, the named person may approach the blogger, perhaps via blog comment or email, and ask for his or her name to be removed, presumably providing reasons for the blogger’s consideration (remember, we’re imagining here a ‘good’ blogger, who is motivated by truth-telling as he sees it, not by malice or spite). The blogger will then have to weigh the ethics of naming v suppression in this case.

It’s inevitable that, if the blogger is telling a story about the organisation he’s defending, and about the characters in that organisation, those characters will be recognised by some readers – even if their names are suppressed – due to their role within the organisation, their activities, their history and so forth. Again this isn’t a legal issue, except in exceptional circumstances. The best way forward here would again be negotiation. Imagine a character in the organisation doesn’t want her or his activities to be written about, not because of having something to hide, but because she or he doesn’t believe the blogger  will present a sufficiently accurate or nuanced picture. The blogger may choose to go on in spite of protestations, while welcoming any corrections, by way of comment, to the portrait he offers, either by the person portrayed, or by third parties. Or the blogger may choose to omit all references to the person and his or her activities, thereby presenting only a partial or distorted version of the organisation, the degree of distortion depending on the centrality or otherwise of the omitted person’s role in the organisation.

I’ve focused here on some of the difficulties and the possible negotiations involved when an individual writes about an organisation which many individuals feel an allegiance to or part-ownership of, but there is a much more positive side to this, which is inherent in the interactive nature of the blog – or its potentially interactive nature.

We find this interactivity operating at a high level on the best of blogs. A blogger might, for example, post something on the latest research in integrated information theory [the most prevalent theory of consciousness]. This might attract an opponent of the theory, who leaves a comment on some supposedly dubious aspects of the research. Then one of the people actually involved in the research leaps into the fray, defending it and adding valuable detail. Along comes a veteran of thirty years’ experience in consciousness research, making informed comments to put the research into a broader perspective. And so on and so forth – with along the way commentators sniping about the failings of materialism and the hubris of science, all helping to give a complex account of expert and lay opinion on the subject.

But to return to our imagined, impugned organisation. A blog, properly handled, could be just about the best way to get its story, its honest story, out to the broader public. New media is becoming more powerful as a way of shedding full light on a situation or organisation precisely because of its multi-facetedness and interactivity. The old media usually has its one fixed perspective, and its one basic story to tell, with a beginning middle and end – maybe with a follow-up six months later, if it’s worth the candle. The new media can tell an open-ended, multifarious story, with nuance upon nuance, making it far less cut and dried and far more human. It can also provide a more coherent truth, vouched for many times over, by different tellers with their different angles, yet all converging to create something real, not perfect but human, and thoroughly authentic.

To me, there’s nothing worse, when you’re defending your organisation, than going in the opposite direction and presenting it with a mind-numbing gloss that’s as relevant to the reality as a sales brochure. It will convince nobody, and it insults the intelligence of the reader, who above all, is looking for a measure of truth. Sure, by admitting no errors or imperfections you’ll deny your enemies the chance to attack you further, but you’ll also remove from your potential friends and allies the motivation to support and defend you as real, believable people, doing their level best against a series of bizarre situations and a small set of impossible people, and a system that seems stacked against them.

I’ve written elsewhere against adversarial systems. I prefer co-operation to combativeness. I don’t want to win, I want to arrive at the truth – which in my view is a slippery, changeable thing, but always worth chasing – and to encourage others to arrive at it too, and to value it and respect it. That’s why I write, and why I read and watch and listen.

Having said all that, I feel a bit tired of people and their squabbles right now. My current mood chimes with that of Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and Roman Emperor, when he wrote this – and forgive me for being prétentieux:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one thing alone: the love of knowledge.

So, it’s back to fountains of good stuff!


Written by stewart henderson

December 24, 2012 at 9:05 pm