Paying attention as an art form

In thinking about the ways that value is created (including literary value, or imaginary ideas like money) I arrived at some thoughts about the ways people pay attention to each other on the Internet. If you want to pay attention to someone on the Internet, thanks to social software and blogging and rss and things like Twitter and wikis, there’s a lot of ways to do that, to navigate attention & identity individually and collectively, and to let that be seen in varying degrees. In fact, paying attention to people with people can be done with amazing artistry and skill.

People need complex systems so that they can pay attention to each other indirectly and obliquely through all being attentive to something else they have in common. That thing has to be complicated enough to be worth attention. It might be social justice or the good life or gossip or religion or who is the most popular celebrity and why or who wins the Superbowl and how; or seduction or courtly etiquette or art criticism. Functionally and socially those things are all equivalent. Paying attention is better, the better the quality of the synthesis achieved. Software making is heady as any collective endeavor is because it’s about people paying enough attention to the same thing to make the thing happen and a creation of any sort is a logical synthesis of ideas & their practice (it is maybe a result of synthesis on one level but on another it is the synthesis.)

I come to this idea also as I think about how much I want to teach my college composition students about the pleasures of thought that arrives at synthesis. I’ve also gotten here because my partner just laughed at me and shook his head with disgust when I squeaked “Oooo, I’ve just reached twitterlibrium!”

Also because it’s late at night, I had an overstimulating and hyperproductive day, and can’t stop thinking to the point where I fool myself into thinking I’m Barthes or something and can write things like “Praxis is synthesis! Art is the collective attention stream!” and feel profound… without any acid.

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Gender and genre in blogs

In her paper on Gender and genre variation in weblogs Susan Herring and her team hypothesized differences between male- and female-authored blogs. I haven’t read the paper closely enough to get the detail, but the gist of it is they expected women to say “I” more and refer to women more, and men to write more impersonally and refer to “he” and “you”. Instead they found that personal blogs, male or female, show the characteristics that had been predicted for women’s writing, according to, I think, other studies and sources like the Gender Genie, based on grammatical analysis by Argomon & Koppel. (I have to say, when I messed with the Gender Genie I thought it was just annoying…) While filter blogs, meant to give information on a topic, have the characteristics associated by the Gender Genie with men — whether they are written by men or women. Herring et al.’s findings contradict Argomon & Koppel. She suggests that genre itself is gendered.

I agree with this, which matches what I found in reading women’s poetry from 100 years ago and in reading the criticism about that poetry. The gendering of genre appears to me to happen over time as a way of valuing or devaluing the quality of the writing. Entire genres would become (simultaneously) “feminized” in order to devalue them, or as they became devalued they were described as feminine, or as women succeeded in the genre, it was considered less important.

Many factors contribute to this and one of them is that women at times do the less important things or write in the less important genres because there is less backlash for doing so. And when they do enter the male-dominated genres where power is considered to be located then there is a strong backlash and the entire genre is at risk of being devalued.

When women in the 19th century succeeded at Romanticist poetry, for example, they were hailed as being unusual exceptions, virile, oddly masculine, at the same time perhaps kind of slutty or of questionable and abnormal sexuality. And when women began to dominate the genre to the extent that they could not be ignored and tokenized, then the entire genre was disempowered over a period of years – it became girly, uncool, dumb, awkward, not cutting edge, old-fashioned. When it was clear that women had mastered it, it didn’t matter anymore.

In short, there is a pattern of the “pink collar ghetto” in literary genres as in other professions. (I just looked online for something to link to, to explain pink collar ghetto and did not find an adequate explanation. Yes, it refers to jobs with a high concentration of women. But it further refers to a process: as women enter a high status profession, the pay for that job goes down, and there is a tipping point where the profession itself becomes devalued because women have entered it and succeeded. I remember going in around 1991 as a fledgling tech writer to a meeting of the Society for Technical Communication, and hearing a lot of incredibly depressing but realistic talk about the pink collar ghettoization of tech writing.

Anyway, back to literary genres; the same pattern becomes clear as I do further feminist research; If you have read much Dale Spender as well as Joanna Russ then you can see a lot of good evidence.

I point to this as something that bloggers should be aware of & consider.

(I am using the word “genre” here but may be talking about some more vague category, literary movements or styles or subgenres, like “Romanticist Poetry” or “Western novels” or “science fiction” for example. )

In fact – a short digression – consider science fiction and how as women write in the genre, there is a scramble to define the part of the genre that only men do, or mostly only men do, or only men do well. Why is it so important to prove that, for example, “hard sf” or “cyberpunk” is so masculine? (Of course in the face of any evidence to the contrary.) Hmmm! Could it be a backlash to preserve the perceived literary value of a formerly male-dominated genre?

Back to Herring. From about page 15 onwards Herring & co get into the nitty gritty of some excellent questions:

Diary writing has traditionally been associated with females, and politics and external events, the mainstays of filter blogs, have traditionally been masculine topics. Furthermore, previous research shows that females write more diary blogs, and males write a disproportionate number of filter blogs (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004; Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005). But what is the direction of causality, and where does gendered language fit in?

In conclusion Herring points out that the gender differences are in which genre a male or female author writes in, much more than any essential difference in grammar or writing style, and that:

Social and political consequences also follow from this
distribution: Men’s blogs are more likely to appear on ‘A-lists’ of most popular weblogs (Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005), and to be reported in the mainstream media, in part because filters are considered more informative and newsworthy than personal journals (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004). This recalls the traditional stigma associated with ‘gossip’ and women’s writing (Spender 1989), and reminds us that genres are socially constructed, in part through association with the gender of their producers.

Oh look, she just referenced Spender. Right on… No wonder I like this paper.

Anyway it’s a good paper – go read it. I’ll read Herring’s other papers and I look forward to printing it out and giving it an hour or two of more close and serious reading and note-taking & reaction. Oh – and in good blogging and gossiping tradition I should mention that I came across this paper after reading Managing ‘Trolling’ in an Online Forum, which is amazing and excellent; I got to that from Wikichix, which I found because I was bitching about the lack of good feminist content on Wikipedia and a few weeks ago, some dude commented and told me to check out their talk page on Systemic Gender Bias. Since I am involved with some feminist wikis and ticked off whenever I try to engage with Wikipedia, Wikichix sounded great. If you are a wiki editing woman or would like to be, then sign up with Wikichix and add to the discussions there. There’s a mailing list and an irc channel as well as the wiki pages. & on alternet recently there was a brief article that talks about the Wikichix, Wikipedia vs. Women? with an interesting comments thread.

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Trivium, twittering, gregarious behavior


twittering
Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

Some rambling thoughts on twitteration, or twitteritude:

Twitter is fun. It’s a microblogging site; your entries are strictly limited to just a couple of lines of text. You can friend people and get their twitters on a web page, on IM, or on your cell phone. Sign up, watch the public stream go by, friend people who strike you as interesting.

Now you have 10 imaginary friends, tamagotchi who need feeding, your loneliness is assuaged, and you feel important and hip and cool as you’re standing in line or sitting in a boring meeting and you get texted on your cell. Shallow me! And shallow you if you like it. You must not be very important. You must not be busy enough. Listen to the mean ol’ grinches who love to hate Twitter! Broadcasting the trivium of your day! It’s almost like social conversation, gossip, small talk. It’s almost like the glue that holds relationships and people together. It’s not important enough to blog. It asserts the importants of daily life. It forces the compression of your own evaluation of your life into two lines a day. Are you twittering too much, to people who already have too much of an information feed, and they’ll drop you?

The more in-the-corners and unimportant you are, the more fun and important a twitter or a myspace becomes.

Maybe it isn’t a productivity tool. Or, with more focus, with groups and channels, it could be made into one. Why slam it for being what it is? Why not take the idea and run with it, tinker with it?

I had a strange moment at Writers With Drinks, when I was introduced to a guy named Yoz and realized 10 minutes later why his name sounded familiar, the sort of thing that used to happen from orkut or friendster, a familiar moment to anyone on a social network. It was because he’s the last person on the friends-badge list of a bunch of people I “know” on Twitter.

I appreciate social media’s enabling of fun webstalking, of course.

But that’s not even the interesting part.

It’s the potential for literary forms to evolve with technology. I see particular people who have immense Twitter charisma, who are more interesting in that venue than they are on their blogs or in conversation. Shouldn’t that be okay? If we are abandoning objective standards for quality, then it’s good to look at what’s good in all media. It is pointless to bemoan the fact that people like to do stupid things. Instead, look at the mass of stupid things and pick out the best of, according to the standards of that community and not just according to the standards of dominant culture or dominant literary forms. It is possible that the great internettian novel is being written right now on Twitter, or will be written next year.

Or we’ll get a bunch of poets on there and do renga. No, wait, I forgot, that might interrupt my productivity! Chatting, fun, and art: bad for productivity… of course…

It isn’t useful for some people, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something interesting going on under their radar.

If everyone in a nursing home right now had phones with Twitter, or something twitter-like and the knowhow to use it, think how cool that would be. Loneliness is not to be sneered at. I bet we all know several lonely people who would like some imaginary tamagotchi twitter-friends. Surely, soon, we will have better two-way social networking appliances than phones, laptops, or crackberries, easier to use, easier to type on, marketed towards the senior niche. And then the great internettian novel will be written by a 95 year old former kindergarten art teacher in Modesto.

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Women of the Left Bank

I’m still thinking about Paris Was a Woman and at the moment am listening to Ed Sanders reading “Hail to the Rebel Cafe”. I know a lot of Latin American women were in Paris or visited in the teens and 1920s, and I’ll look through my notes to figure out who. All my biographical information on these writers is going into a wiki, which for now is private while I set up the structure and the skeleton, but will soon be public and editable by anyone.

I need to get a copy of Women of the Left Bank and add them too.

Here’s some of the people I can list as literary women in Paris from the documentary: Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Beach, Janet Flanner, Alice B. Toklas, Colette, Janet Flanner, painter Marie Laurencin Berenice Abbott, Gisele Freund, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, Gertrude Stein, Ada “Bricktop ” Smith , Josephine Baker, Renee Vivian, Romaine Brooks, Marie Bonaparte, Elizabeth Bowen, Victoria Ocampo, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, Bryher.

We could also add:

* Gabriela Mistral
* Emilia Bernal
* Léonie Julieta Fournier (Nirene Jofre Oliú.)
* Comtesse de Noilles – Anna de Noailles

Of course, what about now? Where are we? Are we documenting this? I’d like to expand my women poets/writers wiki to right this minute and my own hometown. Why not document the moment and ourselves? Think of the riot grrl history that is already lost or slipping away. Let it be recorded on heaven’s unchangeable heart or at least the internets, failing heaven.

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A few feminist seeds scattered to the wind and you

The documentary Paris Was a Woman, about just a few of the women in Paris in the early 1900s and especially the 20s; writers, painters, poets. I especially liked the interviews with photographer Gisele Freund. The tension between Stein and Beach as Beach suddenly turned to throw her weight of attention, of critical attention and great-man-making, behind Joyce and people like Hemingway who she decided was a big fat genius before he had written a single stitch.

Rant mode…

Consider the poisonous sexism of Joyce and how the poison is worse when it is in an elaborate feast. Think for a minute about how good Ulysses is, and it’s damn good, and then about how he produced it while knowing SO many genius interesting articulate politically and artistically aware women and what women characters does he write? Not any who have a thought in their head – a dumb teenager who confusedly tolerates a masturbating creep on the beach and an illiterate slut taking a shit. I could slap him. (And also could slap every person who’s ever pointed out Molly Bloom to me as an example of a female character I could love in great literature. (and no I said no I won’t No) I can love the book and admire the talent but hate the dreadful vindictive poison — as well as the thing in Joyce and so many other writers of dicklit that makes them gather masses of mediocre sycophants to make themselves look better – unable to tolerate other actual geniuses. It is just that sort of person who is consecrated later in history as a “great” writer, unfortunately – something to keep in mind as a sour-grapes comfort as the most of us head straight to being Minor Poets. Think how irritated I am as I continue to digest Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and the magma builds up in my fevered thoughts. Oh! The more beautiful and excellent the art, the worse the poison is and the madder as hell I get.

It was funny to be watching this movie with my partner who didn’t really know any of the writers or painters even the most famous ones. Joyce and Stein, their names, but not their work at all and he had never heard of Sylvia Beach. That puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it? I plotzed when he said “H.D.??? Who?”

To get the taste of all that out of your brain try downloading some of this:

Free mp3s of Adrienne Rich reading from Diving into the Wreck and other works – from the Pennsound archives. On the very long file, the 38 minute one, it sounded a little like Di Prima introducing her but then I decided it wasn’t and the accent was just a bit similar. It’s nice to have the huge file of the entire reading in my iTunes. I love hearing her inter-poem comments, nerdy little snippets about greek drama and patriarchy.

Oh, and if anyone happens to have some recordings of Di Prima’s early readings I’d love to have more of them. I have her doing a few of the Revolutionary Letters; they’re so flamingly fiercely beautiful!

Elisa speaking up about biological determinism. Very lovely!

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Spoken word memoir

Just said this on mailing list but I want to stick it here too so I can remember it and think about it some more. In the context of people saying their students write this kind of thing that is more “performance art” than poetry. What I’m looking at is that this form is a new form – or genre – that we have a hard time judging properly – and there is a knee jerk reaction against it, but that’s because we’re seeing its manifestations popping up all over and not (as we will 30 years from now) its “best” or most characteristic examples. (And mediocre or dull formal poetry is certainly as bad as mediocre spoken word memoir.)

So this is a bit out of context but, anyway, here.

*******

I tend to feel that there’s a trend of memoir-style spoken word
performance that isn’t what I think of as poetry. It’s a form that’s not as dense and declamatory even as long poems; it’s more like the pace of a section of a novel. I think of them as vignettes or as their own form whose conventions I’m only starting to understand. As poetry, I don’t always like them. But as whatever they are, they’re their own thing.

There is something about the “coming out story” to them; again, they follow a convention of memoir, but of a sort of monologue sharing-aloud memoir. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? I could try to find examples online.

As far as content, the spoken-word memoir seems to extend and turn what I think of as a convention of the generation before me – the Boomer confessional, in which a shade of emotional subtlety is revealed – what is secret is revealed – the “private” of the nuclear family is violated in speaking the unspeakable – then, a moment of aesthetic awareness. For the younger spoken-word memoir poets there is a firmer security in speaking that kind of thing. It comes out, but it isn’t all. I think the point is more that it’s a conscious establishing of political identity, a playing
with identity and story.

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