Poor is the substance, alas! and yet I’ve read all the books(1) was Stephane Mallarme’s introduction to “Brise Marine” a cryptic yet exalted poem in which the author was venting his Baudelairian ‘spleen’ (i.e. in its archaic sense something like the modern ‘blues’ or existential malaise – Merriam & Websters meaning 3), and the urge to flee towards new horizons as if a refreshing breeze from the sea (hence the title) was enticing him to leave his home, everything mundane and above all his new-born child who kept him awake at night and prevented him from creating. Such was the thought that came to my mind when I came across Michael Kinsley’s article in Time magazine entitled ‘too much information’.
Some of Kinsley’s comments were laying the stress on a real issue which we have all – more or less – felt and witnessed. At a recent seminar I was facilitating at Insead on the subject of Marketing in the digital age, and in which I was advocating the use of Corporate blogging, one of the members of the Executive mba made that comment that there was already too much stuff out there, and that the collaborative web was responsible for “letting stupid people write about anything”. Kinsley’s approach is on that same wave-length: “the opportunity for us all to express an opinion is wonderful, having to read them all isn’t”.
I have indeed thought a lot about that and it is true that freedom of expression is a licence for idiots to express themselves. And god knows there are many. Yet, this is also the very definition of freedom, i.e. the feeling of being “free of restraints” (American Heritage – meaning 1) but also the “exemption from the arbitrary exercise of authority” (ibid – meaning 2), be it that of a famous journalist. Freedom! Sweet freedom! Freedom to write what is right and be praised, but also freedom to write what’s false and be publically contradicted.
“how many blogs does the world need” Kinsley adds at the end of his inflamed essay on page 56 of the celebrated American weekly (of which I am admittedly a long-term subscriber). That very sentence is resonating very badly I should say. How many people does the world need? How many graduates do we need beyond this or that school? how many countries do we need beyond the G8 members?
Countless blogs, I would respond. Countless countries, people, colours of skin, languages and ideas etc. Let them flourish. Let them flourish Mr Kinsley, for goodness sake, and if any and even many of them aren’t to your or anyone else’s liking, let the plain truth be told: it doesn’t matter as long as these ideas have been expressed freely in whatever language has been made accessible. Should there be a sense of urgency, then let’s gather as many Internet voices as we can to comment, and contradict these bloggers and prove them wrong. Should even 90% of that content be considered as drivel, I still don’t believe that you can find at least one page worth reading. And even that one page is worth fighting for.
I agree with Michael Kinsley though, when he criticises “aggregation”, which “has become the hall of mirrors”. But there are a lot of clever people out there too. Just because 99% of TV programmes is made of junk, doesn’t mean you should miss the 1% that is going to make you smarter. That rule also applies to the blogosphere.
Michael Kinsley, like Mallarmé is hitting the wrong nail. There isn’t a surfeit of Internet junk out there, there is a lot of material in which wheat has to be separated from the chaff. And this is not different from the rest of cultural sources.
But no worries, time (no pun intended), and history will sort this out for us, just as it wiped out most of the books that Mallarmé had read at the end of the 19th century and which he deemed so bad in the introduction of his poem.
Even though I agree with many if not all of Michael Kinsley’s points, one must resist that temptation to define what is right and wrong, even before one has debated the issue, for fear of making sweeping statements and missing a few gems. Freedom of expression can produce interesting results too, although there is no sure bet. At the end of the day, chance plays a major part in creation. That freedom which we have been granted, courtesy of Mr Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf and friends, is so sweet that it shouldn’t be looked at as pearls being cast before swine (2).
Ironically enough, Kinsley’s article is posted online at and a digg link has been inserted (the article does not look that popular by the way) , therefore contributing to yet more Internet chaos. Maybe that suffices to prove my point.
(1) several translations of Mallarmé’s Sea Breeze (1865) are kindly made available at http://www.alsopreview.com/columns/foley/jfwilbur.htm but as Jack Foley points out, none of the translations – and even possibly his own – are satisfactory. I tried my luck with a less literal choice. If a clear example of how beneficial the web can be as to giving free rein to cultural debates and creation, Foley’s columns can certainly be bookmarked. Hats off to the poet!
(2) “give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” – KJV, Matthew 7:6. Which also reminds me of the subtitle of God Bless You Mr Rosewater by my favourite author, the late and much regretted Kurt Vonnegut.