Montaigne as a Model for Blogging

There exists a pop-belief that the practice of blogging is a mediocre successor to the practice of journalism. Both groups are thought to be hacks; it’s just that the members of one group are likelier to have relevant degrees. If the blog is supposed to be more compromised, it may have something to do with its freedom and propensity to both bastardize and misappropriate everything from the Almighty Academic style, to the shrilly exclaimed headlines of event-minded news articles, to 5-step, 10-methods and how-to plans often seeded and watered in the soil of first-world, upper-middle class anxiety. If journalists are seen as shameless distorters of information for the sake of a sale, bloggers are seen as shameless self-promoters for the sake of traffic (which ultimately comes down to sales).

It is taken for granted that not everyone is selling information. While this doesn’t necessarily ennoble the information, it is, at least, a reminder that some information is purchased at a price that doesn’t fit neatly into a political package. Wherever the lines between these political narratives become blurred, one then has to take a step back and wonder if the assumptions peddled by the popular sources of media are not a bit overdetermined.

Distrust of the media is no new fad, just as it is no new fad that every generation since universities existed have produced artists who committed the blasphemy of questioning a degree or certificate’s magical mark on one’s creative talent. Nevertheless, the Almighty Academy will continue to be paid for pieces of paper that tell people they are qualified to run the world, speak and live comfortably outside of the statistically worst societal conditions.

But when people with these pieces of paper find themselves either unable to get a job that will allow their voice to be heard, or when they find that someone without the said piece of paper has beat them to the dialectical punch, the qualification that all of society rested on suddenly becomes arbitrary. Let’s not focus on the sorrow of the wasted time of the poor individual who only wanted to speak to the masses and realized, far too late, that he could do so without spending thousands of dollars worth of his parents money or taking out loans, and let us focus, instead, on those who shrugged and moved on to the internet.

The blog is nothing new. Underground and independent journals of all stripes have existed for as long as journals have existed. Wherever there have been people who were willing to lay down their own expenses and resources so that their voices might be heard by a few (and possibly the masses), there have been blogs. It all stems from the same tradition.

The mechanisms of the communication style often compromise the message. But what about those who don’t necessarily have a message? Those with an analytical eye and those who simply like to riff or shout into the universe about the things they find most interesting need an outlet too. For such an inclination, Montaigne may be a good model.

Far from academic (by modern standards) or conventional (by academic stanards), his collected essays—Essais—comprise the book of his life and his life as a book. In such a busy world as ours, how much a writer might envy Montaigne’s opportunity to retire to a life of slow reflection. He wrote about the writings of others and drew conclusions by mixing materials. His subjective freedom, considered cumbersome in his day, mirrors the manner in which more autobiographical blogging is done now. Though he may have popularized the essay style, the popularized essay style was quickly hardened into a rigidly structured appeal that, when approached and read by later free spirits, was subverted all the same and delivered once again to a plain of subjectivity and looseness of structure mirroring Montaigne’s writings all over again.

Just as Montaigne allowed himself to speak for stretches on Seneca and Plutarch, so bloggers now have Schopenhauer and Steve Jobs at their disposal. Buddha and Bin Ladin. Bush and Napoleon. Obama and Isis. The world has accumulated quite a bit of material on which it can ruminate.

We now have psychological writings at our disposal, which people today tend to read unskeptically as though they were biological truths. We take for granted that the spirit of psychology was birthed in the skepticism that surrounded the kind of behavioral observations to which Montaigne was so drawn. If La Rouchefoucault, that other proto-psychologist—in his concomitant Renaissancian ruminations—came to the conclusion that even the most magnanimous mores and gestures of his fellow men were simply veiled workings of self-interest, Montaigne wished to pull the veiled truths of his culture’s social contracts to the surface in order to give them a renewed level of dignity. While it would be good enough for a writer of aphorisms to simply be witty, or to merely arrive at a half truth or truth and a half (Karl Kraus’s formula), Montaigne wasn’t satisfied with a subject until he could think all the way around and through the other side of it until he understood how better to live.

He exalts a certain level of intense friendship as the summit of love, while marriage is humbled as a home in which passion has no place but children do. It would seem that such sober conclusions take as much time to cultivate as the deleterious effects of a more sybaritic way of life. If one wishes to be drunk on wine and whisky, one must spend some time drinking it. If one wants to be drunk on his own mind, one must spend some time thinking with great clarity.

If the blog has already been around for a very long time in some form or another, and if it’s not going away any time soon, it seems that the best thing for bloggers to then do is look upon their subjects with an unflinching level of honesty. Interest in the subject will then take care of itself. For everyone else, to be paid to write about interesting things may be preferable, at which point one should join a traditional journal or newspaper. But one should consider it suspect when one is being paid to make a subject interesting.