Archive for the ‘On Blogging’ Category

On Blogging:4 of 4

June 4, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (1)




For me the most direct aspect of the blog’s appeal is its hospitality to visual imagery. I am an inveterate snapshot-taker and have accumulated a large trove of pictures over the years. By no stretch would I call myself a ‘photographer’


China Hill Camp, Thai-Burma border




– my pictures are at best competent and usually a good deal less than that.










But often, when taking pictures,


China Hill Camp, January 1996











I also make notes. On their own, neither have any particular value, but joined together they reinforce each other.


[China Hill Camp: The camp is on the site of an old KMT  camp (from the ’70s). Thus the name…]











The conjunction of word and image represents a way of apprehending the world – a way that comes naturally to me. Apart from the blog there exists no other medium in which their publication would be feasible. To print them together would be prohibitively expensive.

Besides, the experience of turning a page and scrolling down a screen are not the same: the attribute that establishes the blog as a form unto itself is precisely its resistance to print. The print version of this article, for example, will have considerably less content than the post that will appear on my website. This is because the printed version will not contain any images. Does that mean that the meaning of the two versions will differ? The answer is yes, at least in the sense that the force of the argument will not be the same in both. Only a fanatical logocentrist could argue otherwise.

The free-standing blog differs also from Facebook, MySpace and other hosted pages. Those pages function within formats provided by corporations; the functions of commercial and social utility sit heavily upon them. The blog is to a much greater degree shaped by the tastes of its maker. With the pressures of the Here-and-Now removed, it is also one of the few virtual forms that is no longer primarily utilitarian.




Wintry Trees, Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) British Museum

If the blog, as a form, has any true predecessor it is the painted scroll. Not only does the eye follow the ‘content’ in a similar fashion, but scrolls also served as records, narratives, anouncements and so on. Painted scrolls even had the equivalent of a ‘comments’ feature, with interpolations and seal-marks being added  over the centuries.









But most of all, scrolls represent what may well be the most supremely beautiful pairings of text and image that have ever been created. They have set the standard to which blogs must aspire.



Nymph of the Luo River, Gu Kaizhi (344-406), Liaoning Museum copy


Nothing that I have said in these posts is intended to deny or diminish the strengths of the print media. The process of publishing in print consists of a collaboration between authors and a great number of others: editors, agents, book-designers, jacket-artists, proof-correctors and so on. Every one of these people puts something into the process and the finished works are, without a doubt, vastly the better for it. This process adds enormously to the quality, value and significance of books. That is why the institutions of print will not disappear: they are irreplaceable.

Nor are books the only beneficiaries of the publication process: authors too gain a great deal from it. In dealing with editors, translators, agents, fact-checkers, proof-correctors and so on, I have had the benefit of a continuing education that has lasted for decades. My blog would not be possible without this education.

But all this being said, I must admit that one of the most exhilarating aspects of blogging is that it does not require any intermediaries. It is a form of expression that needs neither reason nor reward, neither audience nor cause – and as such it is about as pure and as pleasureable as any that can be imagined.

Having tasted this freedom I find that it has become much harder to write for newspapers and magazines. To deal with even the nicest and most accommodating editor is awkward in comparison to dealing with oneself. The time lag between writing and publication, even if it is just a matter of a day or two, seems very long in comparison to the pleasure of posting a piece within minutes of writing and editing it.

But that’s just it: nothing about blogging is as surprising as the sheer pleasure of it.




On Blogging: Part 3 of 4

June 1, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (3)




The triumph of logocentricism was absolute but short-lived. The Internet has dealt a mortal blow to the fundamentalism of the Word. Today not even the most fanatically iconoclastic puritan can hope to purge his surroundings of images and iconography in the way that his forbears could. In effect, a logocentric era has been superseded by a pictographic age: the new ecology of expression will clearly favor those who are comfortable not just with words, but also with images and sound.

But this is not to imply that this new environment is hostile to words. On the contrary it is, if anything, too hospitable, for it has overtaken print in much the same way that print superseded hand-copying – by making texts more accessible. Moreover, by giving a new impetus to literacy this new ecology has ensured an exponential growth in the potential readership of books.

The conflict then, is not with texts but rather with the technology of print and, most directly, with the industry that was built upon it: publishing.

For the last few centuries the publishing industry has been the principal custodian of texts. It became so by marginalizing other methods of transmitting texts – rote learning, recitation, hand-copying, engraving etc. But today the text has once again been prized apart from the ink-and-paper book: it now propagates itself through a wide variety of new devices and has no reason to fear the future. The real question is: what lies ahead for printed books?

Before the age of print, books were produced not for mass circulation but as rare and highly valued objects. Today’s print industry has long exerted itself to move in the opposite direction – to make texts cheap and easily accessible. But the digital age has turned this into a race for diminishing returns. Is it now possible that the publishing industry will do an about-face and resort to some of the practices of the era that preceded print?

To do so would mean pursuing two conflicting aims – of simultaneously creating abundance and scarcity. The ‘traditional’ branches of the publishing business would continue to print large numbers of inexpensive books, to keep pace with electronic texts. But at the same time, their new branches would produce limited numbers of highly priced items intended for a restricted circulation. In other words publishers would have to re-invent themselves to become part factory and part art gallery.

If this comes about (and to some degree it already has) then ‘publication day’ for a writer may mean the simultaneous release of three or more forms of the text: along with a cheap paperback and a digital version (of about the same price) there would also be an expensively produced  ‘exclusive edition’, possibly with numbered copies (as is the case with artists’ prints).

Actually this would be not so much a departure as an elaboration of the current practice in which many books are first released as relatively expensive hardbacks.

Already there are signs that bookselling practices will continue to move in the direction of producing ‘personalized’ or distinctive copies. The growth of ‘first edition clubs’ (a quick Google search produced 28 million results) is one such. Individual book collectors have created another method of distributing personalized copies: at book signings it is not unusual to see people lining up with ten or twenty copies, to be sold later on the Net.

It has also become increasingly common for writers to be asked, when signing a book, to inscribe not just a name but also a sentence or a passage. This is intended to further distinguish that copy from others. It is easy to see the directions this could take: in time specially personalized copies might include, for example, a few pages of the writers’ drafts. Or they could even include ‘illuminations’ created by the writer, or by an artist. Writers will then once again perform some of the functions of scribes.

This in turn will mean that conceptions of value in relation to a book will also come to resemble pre-print notions. During the age of print the publishing world modeled its practices on other industries: it made money in much the same way as, say, makers  of soap – by charging a fixed price for a commodity. Inscriptions, signatures, expositions, readings, appearances etc. were not seen as sources of value, or revenue.  This too will almost certainly change for these ‘add-ons’ are already creating revenue – only not for publishers.  

If this process gets under way it will have far-reaching consequences:  there would be nothing for example, to prevent writers from creating unique versions of their books for special patrons – by including say, an extra chapter or character, or by changing a name or a setting (it is of course, a common practice for painters, sculptors, photographers and architects to tailor their work to the needs of specific patrons). This would transport us not only to the age of the illuminated book, but also to the age of the ‘recension’, when the meaning of a book had to be deduced by comparing variant versions of the text.

Before print, texts changed constantly, in transmission from mouth to mouth and quill to quill. This ended in the age of print which made a shibboleth of the notion of the fixed and final text. But this too was an artifact of the Gutenbergian era: the digital age is taking us back to a time where there was no inherent fixity to texts. On the Net texts mutate all the time.

Decades ago, when I took my first job at a newspaper, the pages for the morning edition had to be set, in a fixed and final form, by 1 a.m.. To ‘break’ the setting was hugely expensive – it was done only for late-breaking stories of extreme importance. Today, the websites of major newspapers are revised hourly.

One of the most interesting aspects of the blog post, as a form, is that it does not demand a final draft. It can be revised and re-edited at will.  

In many ways the new ecology of expression is but an expanded and accelerated version of the environment of an earlier age.








On Blogging: 2 of 4

May 30, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (2)




When we think of the technology of movable-type print it is always in a spirit of gratitude, which is only as it should be. Yet, for all its blessings, print was also responsible for deepening the divide between words and images.

Before the invention of print words and images had usually been closely joined,

Late 18th century Arabic manuscript, Beinecke Library, Yale

no matter whether in paper or papyrus, parchment or bark. Illuminated manuscripts joined letters and images so that each added to the other.










Such was the effectiveness of this that even after the invention of print, great efforts were made to recreate the look of earlier forms of the book. Not only did typefaces mimic calligraphy,



Costanzo Felici, History of the Catilinarian Conspiracy, early 16th century


but many books continued to be illuminated by hand.
















But hand-painted books were hugely expensive: ‘plates’ quickly became the printed book’s principal means of reproducing images. But the possibilities of the plate were also governed by considerations of cost, and this meant that one of the most vital characteristics of the image – colour – was quickly leached out of it.


Printing came of age in a Europe that was convulsed by puritanical fervour and iconoclastic zealotry:


Iconoclastic riot in Holland, engraving by Franz Hogenberg, 1588; Yale Divinity Digital Image and Text Library



a strain of hostility towards images was perhaps a part of its genetic make-up.









The Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s,




was ornamented with richly coloured floral imagery;








but a century later, the Geneva Bible – ‘the Bible of the Puritans and Pilgrims‘ and Shakespeare –



featured neither colour nor imagery of any kind.





But despite that, for several centuries the image continued to command a place of respect in print. Even until the early 20th century the inclusion of plates was considered to be a virtue in a book. It was the mass-produced book that upended the criteria by which books had hitherto been judged. Affordability became the new index of a book’s appeal: everything that added to production costs came to be regarded as extravagant and unnecessary, even frivolous. This confirmed the prejudices of textual puritans who had long looked askance upon the admixture of images and text. By the mid-twentieth century the triumph of the text was complete.


For Dickens,

‘The Little Old Lady’, from the 1853 edition of Bleak House; the edition contains 38 plates




it was normal for pictures to be included in a novel; for Joyce or Hemingway this would have been inconceivable.











‘Art’ and ‘Literature’ went their separate ways and all traffic between the two came to be seen as damaging. This relationship is perfectly summed up by the print media’s preferred word for images: illustration.


How very different are the connotations of the words


The still-undeciphered Voynich Manuscript, Beinecke Library, Yale




‘illuminate’ and ‘illumination’!











It is sobering to reflect on how these prejudices came to be absorbed by cultures around the world, and how powerfully they influenced ideas of knowledge and education. When I was a boy comic books were regarded as an indulgence that prevented the mind from developing fully. You could be punished for reading them. The thinking was that a mind that became accustomed to the figurative would be less able to cope with difficult or abstract ideas.


But why should this be the case?


from Galileo’s notebooks


Don’t mathematicians rely on symbols and figures?









Don’t the pictures of Caravaggio, or the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat,




have to be ‘read’ in ways that require a great deal of thought?








When we look at these pages










from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks it becomes evident






that for him text and imagery formed a single mode of thought.













On Blogging: Part 1 of 4

May 28, 2012 in On Blogging | Comments (4)





[My posts having occasioned some intest in the Italian press (see ‘Tristful Post Makes News in Trieste’, March 23), I was asked to write something on blogging to coincide with the paperback publication of the Italian edition of River of Smoke. The piece – I will not call it an ‘article’ because I thought of it as a ‘post’ – was published in La Repubblica on May 13. The posts will appear here as a four-part series. This is part 1 of 4.] 




began to interest me only after it had ceased to be the hottest new thing. Until then its possibilities were obscured by the urgency that was demanded of it. Blogs were all about the Here-and-Now; they were expected to provide the equivalent of live news feeds and reality TV. Posts were streams of abbreviated words; punctuation was often ignored and the typeface was usually an unappealing sans-serif. The form seemed to be striving to mimic a conception of the ‘real world’ in which events and passions rush past the spectator like the jumbled debris of a river in flood. It might even be said that an unfinished appearance was to the blog what scansion is to certain kinds of verse: a condition of the form itself.  Its ‘look’ provided graphic proof of urgency and authenticity. Posts were often intended to be read as testimony, or acts of witnessing, and their words had to look as though they were being blurted out, under the pressure of time, or extreme emotion, or of some irresistible external stimulus.

But those days are long past. Today the functions of bearing witness and providing live news feeds have been taken over by the social media and texting. The blog post after all, no matter how urgently composed, does require an extended use of language and some formatting. Tweets and texts are another matter altogether; the blog cannot hope to compete with them in speed or urgency. Nor can blogs compete with Facebook and Twitter as forums for public discussion. Internet trolling is well on its way to rendering the ‘Comments’ feature a luxury that only well-funded websites can afford.

St. Luke’s Secrets, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge




These changes have had a winnowing effect on the blogosphere. Some very well-known sites have shut down. One such is Sepia Mutiny (, a hugely popular, South Asia oriented site. Earlier this year, the site shocked its followers with this announcement: ‘After much deliberation we are going to send Sepia Mutiny on to retirement and cease all new posts after April 1st, 2012, almost 8 years since we first started (August of 2004)…. Although we all still love our work on SM, the blogosphere has evolved quite a bit since we first started … Most of the conversation that once took place daily on blogs now takes place on your Facebook and Twitter accounts.  To try and fight that trend is a losing proposition.’






But there were other aspects to this trend. Couldn’t it be said, for example, that the pressures of urgency had stunted the blog in some ways?



For it was only after that pressure was removed that bloggers began to pay more attention to the things that make the blog a specific kind of artefact, an object that is shaped and crafted before being put on display. And this is exactly what is most exciting about the blog: not its immediacy but the fact that it offers the possibility of a return to an older form of representation, one which permits a seamless union of words and pictures, images and text.


Kalpasutra, Sanskrit Ms Project, MS Add. 1765, Cambridge



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