I've been writing significantly less in this space recently, and feeling no small amount of remorse about that. The reason is simple: I have undertaken to write some mid-length pieces (on gay marriage, eating disorders in the middle ages, animal rights, and debt) that will appear, with some delay, in various print media.
This is a strange process. I write; I send what I've written by e-mail (there is a convention at present --how long will it last?-- of signifying the importance of a written text sent electronically by rendering it as a Word or pdf attachment, when in fact it would be far simpler to send it in the body of the e-mail: except that then it would look like, well, an e-mail); I wait again; I get suggestions for revision; I oblige in some cases, hold out in some others; I send it back; and I wait. I wait and wait. By the time I see it on the smelly fresh paper, I have forgotten that I should ever have wanted to say such a thing.
Why do I bother? I confess the temptation is always very great to simply post what I've written here and be done with it. In the past I've even found myself happy to have a piece rejected from a print venue: this permitted me to do what I had wanted to do in the first place, again, to simply post and be done with it. But the most recent month that I spent in New York convinced me that print is not as dead as I have been declaring it to be for the past few years. It looked dead from here, from Quebec, because the titles that matter are generally not available, or not easily or affordably available, in print form, so one ends up extracting what one can from their online presence, and in time comes to take that presence for the real thing, rather than a representation of it. But print is not dead, even if its social role has been greatly transformed. It is no longer for the dissemination of information; there are more effective means of doing that. Its function is rather that of filtering and conferral of legitimacy.
Yet it is only a contingent institutional fact that print is still involved in this legitimation process: it need not be, and probably will not be in the near future. The fact that it is at present surely has something to do with the wealth and clout that became concentrated in the hands of select publishers over a vastly greater span of time than the Internet has been around (let alone the blog).
I suspect that in the history of technology there are a number of parallel examples of a device gradually moving from a strictly functional to a more ceremonial use, without in the process declining in importance. On the contrary, we may suppose that, for example, coats-of-arms increased in importance when, after the Crusades, they evolved from signs telling you which knight was behind which suit of armor into the emblems of family lineages. Today, one must ceremonially have one's name in print in order to be an author, even if one may post as much as one likes online in order to be simply read.
But still, the séjour in New York did not change everything, and the question lingers: what, in this particular historical moment, ought one to be doing? Should one continue to seek access to the waning clout of the Gutenberg era's last generation of rulers? Or should one deny any need of their imprimatur, and instead just keep writing in this strange, new, un-Gutenbergian way, in the hope and faith that history will vindicate this turn?
The problem with this latter approach is that, as yet, there is little sign that people are coming around to thinking of the blog as a legitimate medium for the expression of important ideas, or for the beautiful expression of ideas important or un-. No one, or almost no one, is expecting the blog to evolve and flourish in the way that the printed book had clearly begun to do by the beginning of the 16th century. No one, or almost no one, seriously expects an Erasmus of the bloggers to emerge (though significantly it was a grey eminence of the 20th-century New York magazine world who put this question into my head a few days ago). As far as new writing is concerned (the digitization of old writing is another matter), the Internet is still seen as best suited for ephemera: for the repulsive daily news cycle, and for even more repulsive celebrity gossip.
Yet there are clear respects in which the evolution of the Internet is already in fact echoing that of printing in the Renaissance: as someone pointed out (I think it was Peter Burke), circa 1440, at the earliest appearance of the press in Europe, it certainly appeared as though this innovation would consolidate the total dominance of Latin. As it turned out, however, within some decades the real effect of the press would in fact be to facilitate the spread of 'vulgar' learning in Italian, French, German, etc. Similarly, in 1997 (the first time I saw an html-designed webpage), it certainly seemed as though this technology was going to secure the continued hegemony of English in the world: our own era's Latin. Now the Internet seems rather to be facilitating the rise of a new variety of polyglotism (I myself now often read news articles in languages I've never, strictly speaking, studied), where English by no means enjoys exclusive favor. If the linguistic blossoming of the Internet is already echoing that of the printing press in the 16th century, perhaps this is some sign of the possibility of a similar flourishing of genres, including the still-seemingly contradictory belle-lettristic blog.
Not to sound overly McLuhanian (he never impressed me all that much), but while the medium might not be the message itself, at present the medium certainly has the surprising power to deflate whatever is said through it. It is impossible to say anything timeless or canonizable in blog form, but it remains to be seen whether this is an inherent feature of the medium, or only a stage of its youth. And again, it remains for the producer of words to decide whether he prefers to attach himself to a moribund yet august tradition of the past, or fling himself into the tradition-less technology of an uncertain future.