It Starts with the Loss of a Semicolon

Sat Dec 10, 2005

The most famous paragraph in “bad writing discussions”:

Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period, a sentence containing several balanced clauses, any more. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace–by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation, like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision. Language and subject matter cannot be kept separate in this process. The sacrifice of the period leaves the idea short of breath. Prose is reduced to the “protocol sentence,” the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts, and when syntax and punctuation relinquish the right to articulate and shape the facts, to critique them, language is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time. It starts with the loss of a semicolon; it ends with the ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures. (Adorno, “Punctuation Marks.” Notes on Literature. Vol. 2. [Columbia UP, 1991], 95.)

Since you are probably too familiar with the debate this paragraph recalls, I’ll instead consider what aspects of Adorno’s argument might be relevant to academic blogging. People don’t like to read long things on-line. (Sorry, John). I’ve heard many claim that five-hundred words is about their limit for reading blog posts. Comments on posts don’t work very well as a means of fostering careful discussion. Most blogging software, including this site’s, simply publishes a flat list of comments in chronological order. Even the well-known sites that use comment-threading technologies dating from the Holocene have their own problems to contend with, which generally are related to the quantity of their commenters. The various moderation schemes which rely on community involvement rather than the diligent attention of a small number of people are unsuccessful.

Is the link, then, a loss or addition? Is the link a punctuation mark? (Trackbacks too, trackbacks are dead.) How about if links didn’t always go to the same location but either a) went to the original intended location, b) went to a random location, or c) asked the follower to provide a new location? Would this continue to ratify imbecility? Should the posts themselves be reader-editable? The Wiki-ization of blogs, using the technology to filter levels of sediment, commentary, or disputation is one potential solution. But having the content of each post be dynamically changed with each read is better. The much-lamented used, or claimed to use, as I remember, an automated link-generator. The intent of this was to poke gentle fun at the superfluous linking cultures of Slashdot and Kuro5hin, I think, but it has considerable potential. The author of the posts flags several phrases that would then be searched in a variety of databases using the Google and Amazon APIs, scholarly indexes, del.ic.ious, etc. The blogging software would randomly generate links from one of the sources and, using cookies, regenerate them from deeper tiers within the search results for each revisit. If I flagged the phrase “evolutionary theism,” for example, the first visitor might see this article about Frank Norris’s The Octopus the first time and this piece concerning the “dialectical affinities between East and West” the next [Both JSTOR links]. Another user would go find this book about Alfred Russel Wallace on the first visit.

Part of the articulation and shape of the blog is determined by its format. Bradley Dilger has some thoughts on the ubiquity of the grid in web design, and a palimpsest or overlay on a grid is still a grid.