Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Tuesday, October 28, 2003
The Cyberpamphlet

I've finally started reading Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Near the beginning he quotes George Orwell on the characteristics of pamphlets, which is the form of publishing through which the ideology of the American revolution was primarily developed:
The pamphlet is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and "high-brow" than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since the pamphlet is always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public. Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of "reportage." All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.

(Bailyn, p.2.) What leaped out at me immediately, of course, is how absolutely perfectly this description applies to blog posts. And then in a footnote, Bailyn further notes that Orwell's enthusiasm for pamphlets was
sparked by his belief that in twentieth-century society the press does not adequately represent all shades of opinion. "At any given moment there is a sort of all-prevailing orthodoxy, a general tacit agreement not to discuss some large and uncomfortable fact." He looked back to the days of vigorous, highly individualistic pamphleteering with nostalgia, and hoped that people "would once again become aware of the possibilities of the pamphlet as a method of influencing opinion, and as a literary form.

If only Orwell had lived to see the advent of the blog.

This parallel (which I'm sure I'm not the first to note) gave immediate rise to two thoughts. First, those who sniff that journalism and political editorializing ought to take place only under the auspices of established organizations with editors are either ignorant of American history or hostile to the most fundamental tradition underlying American independence. The second is that I am worried for the historians of the future. While the internet makes it possible to write a pamphlet that can be read instantly across the world, it does nothing to ensure (or even render likely) that the contents of that pamphlet will still be around in legible form in 200 years for some future Professor Bailyn to read in seeking to understand how this historical period was understood by those who lived and shaped it. Scripta just don't manent the way they used to. And given the centrality of linking to blog posts, you can't even really save this medium by printing out and archiving. Each post is the beginning of a potentially limitless chain of cross reference. Not that all blog posts are intrinsically worth saving for posterity, mind you. Not by a long shot. But to whatever extent we think it desirable to preserve the mind of this age for perusal by the future, the impermanence of the medium should concern us. What's needed is a sort of permanent Google cache. Is anyone out there keeping one?

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