Life on the Horizontal (Monday)

The new Commentary includes Terry Teachout’s “Culture in the Age of Blogging” (June, pp. 39-48). (Commentary now only links to its May issue). Teachout’s audience is not regular blog readers: he defines blogging and its genres, gives a short history and cites examples. His style, in blog fashion, is more personal as are his examples. He describes About Last Night and other culture blogs, including a Chicagoboyz favorite, Two Blowhards . The essay notes various URLs, rare in print.

Teachout discusses the paradox of blogging – community lost & gained. In typical Commentary/New Criterion style, he laments the loss of a “common culture.” He observes that

The simplest description of this change is also the starkest one: the common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped to unite Americans of all creeds, colors, and classes no longer exists. In its place, we now have a “balkanized” group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways. (40)

Early in the eighties “the problem was initially framed not as a Kulturkampf, a “war” on the common American culture, but a mere failure of public school teaching.” (41) Instead, of course, it become an all-out war, exemplified by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his prime, leading the Stanford protests with: “hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.”

But of course those lost communities are not just in schools; the MSM increasingly ghettoized (and reduced) cultural coverage. Nor are we bound together by the breakfast table newspaper or watching the 6:00 news. “Goodby, Common Culture”, however, is followed by “The Culture Archipelago”. His final paragraph is hopeful:

I still feel the need for a common space in which Americans can come together to talk about the things that matter to us all. And so my hope is that the blogosphere, for all its fissiparous tendencies, will evolve over time into just such a space. No doubt there will always be shouting in the blogosphere, but it need not all be past each other. When the history of blogging is written a half-century from now, its chroniclers may yet record that the highest achievement of the internet, a seemingly impersonal piece of post-modern technology, turned out to be its unprecedented ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together.(48)

His “Goodby Common Culture” and hello to “The Cultural Archipelago” juxtaposes two ways of looking at loss and gain. The blogs do not (and I can’t imagine ever will) unite us as we were in the forties and fifties. But they can cut across populations, helping us rest momentarily in various communities. They can emphasize the horizontal nature of American culture; it has always been far more various than vertical. Perhaps because I grew up with the flat great broad plains circling my sedes (as Thoreau would put it), society always seemed horizontal. I’m as snobby as the next person and can pass lofty judgement on others. But, you know, I’m not that dumb. And, in the end, when I’m really thinking American, I’m not thinking vertical.

Each of us has various allegiances, passions, values. I grew up with a strong sense of place. “It’s tribal,” I joke, but the truth is a student who is from Nebraska gains a soft spot in my heart from the beginning and when I sent an e-mail to Bob Kerrey (wondering how someone I respected so much could be for Kerry), he responded over night with two pages of a well-written and emotional response, finishing it off on the way to hearings. If he runs for anything again, it won’t be in Texas. He wasn’t writing to get my vote – it was a tribal thing. But even I would not say Nebraska is better than, say, Texas. It is merely what pulls my strings (and probably his). I understand other places pull other people’s strings. Those strings don’t work, though, on one of my husband’s friends, whose father was in SAC & whose family moved at least once a year.

You can drive through Red America and you can see people that aren’t making as much money as you think they should want. You can hang around NASCAR races and find yourself superior. You can talk to intellectuals from ivory towers and think they just don’t have any common sense. You can note that millionaires are unhappy people, unable to keep a marriage going or a kid away from drugs. But pretty soon, you realize you’re walking through other people’s worlds. In them, some things count. And others don’t.

One of my typists was undergoing a personal trauma, so as I talked to her, my husband entertained hers. He heard at length of the group of men who went after fish with bows and arrows. This was certainly a sub-group I didn’t know existed until that night. And then there is the rodeoing group. They are tough – taking broken bones in stride and only stopped (and then not always for long) with a punctured lung. My daughters have each had their own little worlds. The first entered the obsessive discipline of ballet. submitting herself for a few years to a grueling regimen (a place where the strength of your arches and toes were remarkably important). For the middle one, the high school orchestra was important; watching them relax at their banquet & dance it was easy to see where they lived on the horizontal. Other banquests & dances were important to the cheerleaders and jocks, but that night was their night. My husband used to do open mike night a lot – those guys would sit around and drink their beers and cheer each other up. “That’s a good one,” they’d say. Or “Let’s hear the accordion one again.” When one died, they took up a collection. But he also lives in a world where your worth is measured by the articles you publish and a book out of print a year later, bought mainly by libraries and a rare specialist, can, with good reviews, make a promotion. One of the guys whose children and wife are active in my youngest daughter’s swim club is a nuclear physicist but the fact that he won his age group at nationals gives him far more clout with the swimmers and the coaches.

On the vertical, we categorize. We all like, value, estimate other’s worth in part by money. And education plays a role in most people’s gauges, too. Good looks, sporting ability – for some families those trump all. But that is shorn away by the net. Our voices come out in words. I’ve always been a sucker for a good sense of humor and turn of phrase; that can cover many flaws. Not surprisingly, that is part of the internet node where ideas, hobbies, passions live in words that build communities. (And I do realize I’ve been suckered into some pretty lousy relationships by a clever turn of phrase – I’m not putting this on any vertical scale of value. It just pleases me, entertains me.)

The internet helps us move on the horizontal; we aren’t stuck in our own space. And I’m beginning to think the health of a person’s spirit and even of a society may be related to our ability to test many perspectives and find the ones that best explain our experience. Blogs cut across categories: age, sex, race, income, place, ethnicity, religion, profession, education. Observations that varied experience validates are likely to tell us more about the human condition, about human nature. The posters and regular commentators are, I suspect, quite different in terms of these categories. (Not that I know – I don’t have the foggiest idea of who is out there. I have been known to even get such a basic as sex wrong.) What we do have in common is what links our archipelago. In some ways, I suspect we are on a quest to define exactly what makes that link, what is true of all of us.

This set of islands is important to us; it helps us define our perspectives, refine our ideas. We take flack and rethink our positions. Sometimes we take flack and argue back. Maybe, today, it didn’t work for someone else. But, I said it and I feel better. So it’s solipsisism (or onanism), but sometimes we need that, too–we need to know what isn’t true. We may be blogging alone, but it isn’t like bowling alone. It is building a community, joining a club, enrolling in a party. Of course, we may also be fickle. We haven’t sworn any oaths, signed any mortgages. In six months we (or our readers) may be different. But, in this space and at this time, we are a community. If it were our only community, sure, that would be pretty pathetic. But without it our lives would be smaller, narrower, and poorer.

6 thoughts on “Life on the Horizontal (Monday)”

  1. I’ve always thought one of the neatest aspects of the web was community building–albeit small tribes if you will. Whether it’s a medieval religion listserv or a cleveland browns site for me, or a tolkien elvish blog for my wife, the web has allowed us to enter conversations with people who share our interests. One of the values of the blogging community is that it potentially raises some of our focus onto larger community questions that might escape our notice while we’re otherwise focused on football and elvish.

  2. It’s probably true that society was more “unified” in the 1940s and 1950s, but…there were huge differences by race, religion, and geography. The islands were already there: it’s just that you inherited your island rather than choosing it.

    I also think the common argument that the blogosphere consists of like-thinking people talking to one another is somewhat overdrawn. There are many dimensions of opinion, and the “opinion space” is huge. People may agree on, say, the war on terror and disagree on economic policy.

  3. IMO the journalistic lament for “lost community” is the usual and not very subtle call for increased collectivism. It Takes a Village. Crap.
    As far as a community goes, beginning in ’97 a bunch of us from the Usenet group have been getting together to go riding off-road.
    It’s a sport that demands activity as much or more than just talk. A bunch of guys, including one from Europe, just came back from riding down in Moab. The guys and gals are not simply voices in the electronic-ether any more.
    There is also a strong political response to the trash, lies, and negativity that the Ecoweenies and Sierra KKKlubbers have been spreading about off-road use and the Roadless issue.
    Also for the past few years the RMD community has gotten together and raised money in order to get a deserving-but-poor rider to a “Spodefest” – a not-organized, loose affiliation of chance meeting(s), at a maybe location, around a certain time, sorta – where off-roader’s camp-and-ride. Last year we got-up enough money to get a guy from Brazil to come up and go dirtbike riding in Idaho, the year before it was a guy from Connecticut. And there’s more out there, a splinter/parallell group of web-based (as opposed to Usenet) riders formed, and they even went and copyrighted the term Spodefest!

  4. I’ve met probably 200 people from one of the online communities I frequent:, devoted to a video game series that’s about 10 years old. People get together every so often just to play various versions of the game with each other, renting out some space at a hotel or conference center (or just somebody’s basement or garage) and inviting anyone from online who can make it to that location.

    I’ve been to these gatherings in my original hometown of Denver (several times) and several other cities in Colorado (Durango, Colorado Springs, etc.), Chicago (summer of ’99 we met in a monestary, and summer ’04 at a hotel), Kansas City, Provo UT, my new hometown of Seattle (several times), Victoria BC (Canadia), Portland OR, and one gathering near Grant’s Pass OR (on a hog farm!)

    I haven’t just met these people — I’ve become friends with several of them through discussions online and in person, and I even married one of them :) The internet is a powerful tool for getting to know people, and for keeping track of old friends. And it really does make it clear how “horizontal” society is — I’m working on my PhD, and I freely associate with everybody from hog farmers to middle-school kids to professors to successful entrepreneurs. Nobody in that group cares that others have more or less money than them, or more or less education, or more or less success. All we care is that they’re enjoyable to talk to, and enjoyable to play the game with.

  5. Good Essay, Ginny.

    The nostalgia for a common culture is a nostalgia for a world that never really existed. What did exist was a triuphant class who had won the New Deal and WWII. They were able to dominate a monopolized media from the mid fourties through the mid 60s, and creat an appearance of uniformity. Their hour soon passed and it will never re-occur.

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