U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A (Non-USIH) Intellectual Historian On The History Of Blogging

In a NYR Blog piece titled “Blogging, Now and Then” and posted today, Robert Darnton explores precedents for the means and content of knowledge passed along in non-standard forms. Here are a few salient passages (bolds mine):

Blogging brings out the hit-and-run element in communication. Bloggers tend to be punchy. They often hit below the belt; and when they land a blow, they dash off to another target. Pow! The idea is to provoke, to score points, to vent opinions, and frequently to gossip.
The most gossipy blogs take aim at public figures, combining two basic ingredients, scurrility and celebrity, and they deal in short jabs, usually nothing longer than a paragraph. They often appeal to particular constituencies such as Hollywood buffs (Perez Hilton), political junkies (Wonkette), college kids (Ivy Gate), and lawyers (Underneath Their Robes). Politically they may lean to the right (Michelle Malkin) or to the left (Daily Kos). But all of them conform to a formula derived from old-fashioned tabloid journalism: names make news.
This subject deserves more study, because for all of their explosiveness, the blog-like elements in earlier eras of communication tend to be ignored by sociologists, political scientists, and historians who concentrate on full-scale texts and formal discourse.
– [Look at a] newspaper from eighteenth-century London. It will have no headlines, no bylines, no clear distinction between news and ads, and no spatial articulation in the dense columns of type, aside from one crucial ingredient: the paragraph. Paragraphs were self-sufficient units of news. They had no connection with one another, because writers and readers had no concept of a news “story” as a narrative that would run for more than a few dozen words. News came in bite-sized bits…
Two to three hundred years ago, the term anecdote meant nearly the opposite of what it means today. Instead of representing a trivial incident or unreliable hearsay, as in the expression “anecdotal evidence,” it conveyed the notion of “secret history”—episodes concerning the private lives of important personages that had actually taken place but could not be published openly. According to contemporary dictionaries and Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the concept derived from Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the sixth century B.C.E.
Whether exchanged orally in a café, scribbled on a scrap of paper, or combined as paragraphs in a newssheet, anecdotes operated as the primary unit in a system of communication. Many of them found their way into print. They were picked up by famous writers like Voltaire, but more often they appeared in anonymous tracts known as “libelles.”
The anecdotes constituted the early-modern equivalent of a blogosphere, one laced with explosives; for on the eve of the Revolution, French readers were consuming as much smut about the private lives of the great as they were reading treatises about the abuse of power. In fact, the anecdotes and the political discourse reinforced each other.

So, is Darnton right in that “names make news” in the blog world? Or is that simply a reflection of the fact that we seek specificity and do not prefer philosophical musing via blogs?

Does Darnton have a real sense of the breadth of knowledge conveyed by blogs today? I mean, there seems to be a lot of narrative in blogs. And many, like USIH, are not based on conveying secret knowledge but rather looking at knowledge from other directions. Blogs “today” seem more about diversity and perspective than any ancient definitions of anecdote or the inability, or lack of desire, to read narrative.

Finally, what of Darnton’s ominous warning? Are today’s libelles pushing political systems to the brink of revolution? If so, I would offer that USIH is not a part of that movement. I would say that we are trying rather to reform knowledge than revolutionize academia. And the diversity of the blogosphere today, apart from USIH, would seem to make historical comparisons to pre-Revolutionary France tentative at best. – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. This is a very interesting post. In one of my graduate courses for this evening we read Robert Darnton’s text, “The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.” I thought that the text was an extremely interesting read, especially as I am writing a paper on Marie Antoinette for that class and have been using the libelles published about her as a source for the paper. I agree with Tim Lacy that to compare an intellectual history blog to pre-Revolutionary France libelles is difficult stretch, however, I do believe that there is something to be said about the atmosphere of blogging. I was recently discussing with my husband some of the issues he has on his site where he is one of several directors who moderates the conversations. This is a fan based site and perhaps the atmosphere of those sites is different from the blogging sites. We were discussing the fact that some fans will come by and post a quip or two, trying to hit below the belt. Then there are the fans who contribute to the discussion without feeling the need to get a sucker punch in. I have been reading the posts and comments on this site and thus far, I am not seeing any quips or comments that were unacceptable or hurtful. I think that Tim Lacy is correct when he states that this blog is more about “reforming knowledge” rather than inspiring a revolution in academia. The posts on this blog are very informative and encourage the reader to seek out new sources to research and learn from. I think that this is what should be important in a blog, not the names of a celebrity or the gossip about a famous person. An intellectual history blog should seek to encourage new ways of viewing an event or person in history as Tim Lacy stated. Thank you for a very interesting post.
    –Sarah J.

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