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What is the format? – Knowing the limits & keeping one’s bearings

Malevich - Black Square and Red Square (1915)

This is written from the position of devil’s advocate. I’m writing it because I think that what this blog is trying to do is important and necessary.

I read the blog today in its entirety and I see that it is already drifting from one topic to another without any structure. The danger is that it will soon become unmanageable, or simply off-putting to a reader. Consequently I would argue that there must be some structure imposed (tabs at the top etc.) so that people who visit the blog can manoeuvre easily. If the contributors can agree on what the blog is for and at whom it’s aimed, that should give guidance to the format that the blog should take.

The danger is that rather than offering something to non-contributors, the blog will simply become a forum for the contributors, discussing issues of interest to them which are inevitably going to be quite disparate.

While the traditional blog format works for posting interesting quotes, or linking to that suicide note for example, it is not conducive to what seems to be the aim of the contributors. That aim appears to be for something much greater in size and more far-reaching. The question then arises of whether the blog format is even the right one. Will its form simply constrain the efforts of the contributors?

A less important issue is definitions. Admittedly this skirts close to what is arguably the realm of pedantic academia (this is a danger that Joe and Terry are very alert too), but terms (e.g. socialist, workers, capitalism, etc.) are appearing in people’s contributions and I wonder whether there needs to be a reference for readers. This may be too much, I admit, however if the endeavour of the project is to be a (political/social) resource for others, then at least the issue of definitions should be considered.

Joe’s concern over too much theory and analysis is an important one (vital, as he points out, if one is serious about undertaking actions that make a better world), but the danger is that we assume that everyone is as critically aware (I can’t think of a less pompous term) of the pitfalls of modern living as are the contributors. If the blog is meant to educate/inform, then analysis and theory are vital. As Terry mentioned: there is a need to mediate contemporary society.

Finally, with the issue of editing, I would argue for a strict, if not downright bastardly, approach to entries. Clarity, focus and relevance should be always present. Again, to go back to the first issue raised, the stated aims and goals of the blog should determine the format. If socialism or an alternative to capitalism is to be discussed, then the entries must be excellent; the reality is that the world is so markedly stacked against those arguing for alternatives that the tools that are offered to would-be adherents must be impossibly sharp.

At which point I will take issue with the entries entitled Mask and Marx’s beard. The latter offers little or nothing to the reader. However if it would be combined with the quote attested to Marx, I would have less to take issue with. Mask however raises much more pressing concerns. I would argue that the entry does not seem to argue anything, existing only as an attempt to draw more people to the website. The only text that seems to accompany the images are copyright symbols that assert that all rights are reserved to the artist.

The issue of private property is an important one to discuss, but I assume that this is not what this entry is trying to do. It may well be the failing of the format of the blog to not offer these entries a proper place, but as it stands, they do not attempt to contribute as the other entries do. If contributors are serious about the aim of this blog then such an entry needs to be taken down, or added to. It cannot be the aim of entries to this blog to advertise a contributor’s other websites (this is provisioned for by the blogroll widget). If such lax entries are allowed, then I would argue that there is a danger that this project will lose steam in a month or so.

All the points raised here stem from the simple question of what is this blog for? And who is it for? In the initial contributions, these questions were addressed, but those opinions should now lead to a formulation of structure and form for what could be an excellent resource for people. Julia’s entry offered the best example so far of the perfect marriage of theory and the praxis of everyday life, underlining why this project is so important and so vitally needed.

Some Suggestions:

  • Use tabs at the top more to allow new readers to navigate the site easily, finding that initial something of interest to them, that may hopefully lead to them checking more things.
    • About Tab: Could contain the motivations of the contributors, essays (what is the form to be used?) on what the project is about, on the format of the blog, etc.
    • Theory Tab a.k.a. Dan’s Tab: should be the sole realm of theory for theory’s sake. There is a place and time for everything, Dan’s esoteric rants are for here!
    • Analysis Tab: Analysis of events, postings of interest, etc.
      • Breaking down into Politics, Society, Economy, Culture, etc. – Sociological images is a good example of a blog format analysis
    • Taking Action Tab: Taking up Joe’s point again, there needs to be a strong emphasis on offering practical undertakings to people. This this section could include links to other sites, opinions or reports on participating in certain activities, analysis of such things, etc.
  • There needs to be a strong editorial line on what is put on the blog. Each entry has to be able to argue its relevance. Also a word limit could be considered – preventing such excesses that this entry is guilty of, but more, forcing the contributor to clarify and focus their entries.
  • The form of entries should be somewhat standardised (e.g An intro image, and then text). Also what type of language to be used, not being esoteric, but neither writing informally. The issue of a style for the entries is to prevent the blog becoming disjointed and off-putting.
  • Perhaps topics could be proposed bi-weekly and contributors could each decide to take the issue up in their own way, and then a discussion could flow from each person’s research, opinions etc.

In conclusion: this project has incredible potential for all those involved, but it will sink or swim solely on how committed the contributors are when they sit down to read, write, re-write, re-write again, curse and publish.

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24 responses »

  1. This is a really, really useful contribution! Best practical one so far!

    I’ll try and discuss your points one at a time, because they all deserve consideration, not least since their import for the future of The Night Shift is so great.

    Some structure must be imposed – I agree, though not necessarily immediately. For now I might suggest an interim period of categorising all posts and then having a list of categories in the sidebar. Then at a later date move to pagination. We’ll see….

    It becoming a forum for contributors – absolutely. We tried something like this once before and that’s what happened. Hence why we’re really trying to push this down as many different angles as it’ll go to bring people in who aren’t us.

    Whether blog format is even the right one – you’ve precipitated my next blog, which was to be on the limitations of the blog form.

    Definitions – we need them for guidance, but we should make it clear that they are only for guidance. Define something badly and you end up with bad ideas and bad practice – trapped in your own essentialisations. Beauty of what marx did was precisely not to define but to attempt to adequate thought processes to the material process of capital.

    Theory as vital – couldn’t agree more (contra Chomsky, I might add)

    ‘a strict, if not downright bastardly approach to entries. Clarity, focus and relevance should always be present.’ – here’s where we begin to part ways. There is a catch-22 at work here: clarity, focus and relevance are all conceptions very much at home in a bourgeois capitalistic climate. They’re actually deeply ideological categories which can limit one’s thought from the word go. Telling it how it is, telling it straight – these ideas are anti-theoretical and anti-philosophical (except that secretly they’re not – they contain a whole implicit philosophy of immediacy and non-mediated access to sensible truths – something which Hegel overthrows in roughly the first 10 pages of the Phenomenology of Spirit). AND YET…I agree that we need razor-sharp conceptual tools to cut through the intense density of what we face. (Though I must indulge that little voice in my head that says ‘in what sense can a concept be “sharp”?’) How to invoke a logic capable of overthrowing a regime which doesn’t imitate the limits of that regime’s logic?

    Mask and Marx – here I disagree. What began as an argument for clarity has transformed into a puritan asceticism. Fair call on the copyright, but she’s a budding photographer and I’d feel the same if it were my poetry or songs or whatever – though we all understand your point, and I’m sure Cara does too. Your desire that everything we include be of utmost utility is far too similar to a factory logic for my liking. A laugh and a joke, an excessive photo – these are not only breaths of fresh air; they’re a middle finger at the number-crunching tyrants.

    On tabulation – agree and disagree. I agree we need to do something to improve the structure and manoeuverability of the site. But part of the impetus of this project is to question inherited structures of thought. Simply to divide everything into economics, culture, politics, etc. is to reproduce non-neutral stratifications of thought: these divisions arose for strict historical reasons (‘culture’, for example, did not exist in this sense prior to the industrial revolution – and for good reason). The categories should ideally project themselves out of the raw material with which they deal. That’s a gamble – maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t.
    (As for me being theory buff – you wanna read the things on here by men far greater than I!)

    strong editorial line – debatable. Word limit – possible

    form of entries standardised and type of language used a.k.a. style – I accept no limits on style. It’s up to the individual writers themselves if they wish to impose strictures on themselves and their writing. As an editor or administrator, I won’t do that – despite being fully aware of all the dangers involved in that position. There are already numerous examples on this site of theoretical and philosophical jargon which non-specialists would not understand. Something must be done about that, but from the impetus of each individual. To impose a style is implicitly to impose a form of thought and whole hidden philosophy – precisely what this site is not about. We need all the views and styles we can get – all the possible enlightening refractions of the status quo.

    Bi-weekly – this and the few last comments sound more appropriate for a journal or periodical. Again, matter of form.

    All in all, a crucial contribution to the site and one I’m taking very seriously.

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  2. I’ve got to agree that this project hangs in the balance based on how committed we are to it and I think the biggest danger is the whole thing drying up as people lose interest and we fail to get other contributors fully involved.

    I’m not sure about categorising the site into theoretical and practical areas, as I think this goes against the idea of trying to merge the two together to produce a way forwards.

    I think the word limit might be a good idea, as last time we tried this it seemed everyone got fed up of having to spend 4 or 5 hours researching and writing an article that was so long that nobody could be bothered to read it.

    As for structure… I agree that we need one, but I’m also wary of implementing something that might exclude certain ideas by not providing somewhere for them to be presented. I was thinking that in the medium term we could move older articles to other (broad) sections based on the subject. That way new articles would all be posted to the same place which would make it simple for people and ensure that everyone had a look at new stuff rather than ignoring sections that they think wouldn’t interest them.

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  3. Yeah, thanks for this contribution. I second Dan’s hesitations on certain subjects, noting that perhaps it makes sense that if a blogger is to use a certain, niche term then it should probably be expanded upon – given somewhat of a more concrete realisation. This serves the dual purpose of aiding the reader and aiding the blogger (forcing them to understand EXACTLY what they mean).

    “The categories should ideally project themselves out of the raw material with which they deal.” This pretty much hits it on the head for me.

    Reduction of style/length etc ignores the crucial relationship between form/content (or whether we should even use this dualism/dialectic). The blog has to have the potential to move in many directions – even if it means that failure is a distinct possibility.

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  4. I think ‘staringatfaraz’ has provided an excellent contribution and many readers will take a lot from it, especially if the reader then has something in mind to write.

    However, I think it is very important to stress a few points that Daniel made with regard to the ‘necessity to edit lax contributions.’ Of course, not only is the problem who carries out the editorial, but the problem of an editorial will explicitly go against the primary principle of something like ‘The Night Shift’ which rests on the ground of the invitation.

    The photographs presented have of course no use value insofar as they are works of art; to approach them from a utilitarian or pedagogic perspective would be to not do justice to the work. If one common complicity between those who read and contribute is the necessity to think the relation between theory and praxis, then surely it is a work of art that has a great potential to articulate this very relationship (‘staringatfaraz’ seems quite aware of this considering his use of the Malevich painting, which however, I am not sure how successful it works as a kind of ‘aesthetic representation’ of the content of the contribution, but I don’t think this was the contributors intention).

    Now, if the grounding principle of the website for the moment works on the basis of open invitation, then the reader or the contributor also has the opportunity to invite. That is, why as a reader or viewer do I not simply invite the author of the works or the contributions to say something about the work/contribution (instead of compartmentalizing sections so people have a space to have ‘esoteric rants’ which often leads to the neutralization of the voice, force or spirit of the text; I must also say here that referring to Daniel’s contributions as ‘esoteric rants’ is a vulgar reduction of what have thus far have been informed, meaningful, well-balanced and more admirably, indefatigable comments and suggestions)? The potentiality of an invitation is of course the possibility of sharing. This applies also of course to the inclusion of unfamiliar names or concepts. A contribution is not a complete whole in itself; it is at the very heart merely a piece or a part of something that is in the process of realization. To place boundaries or limits on something that has as of yet no fixed identity seems not only detrimental to the spirit of potentiality of ‘The Night Shift’ but more difficult, it seems logically impossible as limitations operate only on the presupposition of a fixed purpose an/or aim which require a standpoint external to the collective project (even a devil’s advocate could not have such a vantage point).

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  5. Let me add also, after reading some other comments: the fact is that if things are to happen and things are to change, one should be bothered to read and to re-read if necessary (which makes style such a crucial category now – make things exciting!). This has to be addressed, of course, at some point.

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  6. RE: the discussion about introducing tabs, other features etc..

    To get the most out of wordpress you need a working knowledge of HTML, CSS and PHP. If you have ideas that you want to implement but aren’t sure how, then let me know and I’ll try and help.

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  7. Thanks John, that really helps because I haven’t a bloody clue!

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  8. Actually, yeah, how do I integrate HTML to make the page have a translate facility?

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  9. On a separate note I’d like to express my personal concerns about the content. I can’t help feeling that already alot of the time the blog is basically a who-knows-the-longest-words competition. Ideally people should be as clear as possible, and be focused on simplifying the discussion, not complicating it. Otherwise you end up with really tedious debates that are basically about semantics.

    I don’t know about alot of the literary references that people are alluding to, and thats largely because my degree didn’t involve reading lots of highbrow books and writing lots of highbrow essays. I did lots and lots of calculus. But I think this blog should be inviting to everyone, and posts shouldn’t involve one-upmanship by implicitly assuming that the reader has read all the works that the author has cited and that if they haven’t they don’t deserve to be contributing to the blog.

    Writing really pretentiously is lots of fun but very unhelpful.

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  10. @Hermann – which translate facility do you want to use? Does wordpress have a plugin one? If someone could change my status from author to whichever one gives me access to the theme files then I can see the code and be a bit more helpful.

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  11. John, I can see that your taking a tack against the ‘high-brow’, and would argue that both my comment and Dan’s do something to argue FOR theory.

    That said, I would hope that we could explain theory in a way that is accessible to anyone who is open to learning something new.

    I need to restrain myself a little bit here, because what you’re basically saying is that we’re being too theoretical and need to do more. Ok, here is a do: read some more stuff, learn some more stuff. I’m learning calculus as it happens and just because I don’t get it at first doesn’t mean it’s pretentious nonsense (what political implications does calculus have on first viewing? Except that a lot of theorists think about calculus and set theory in ways that have implications for the way in which society is run).

    Yeah, don’t buy crap (read my blog on ‘consumables’ for this), but think about it too.

    how did I do there?

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  12. I don’t think it does have a widget for it…

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  13. John, look more closely and you’ll see regular attempts (at least on my part) to provide references to introductions to theorists’ work and brief bios of people whose names I mention.

    We’re attempting to welcome a wide variety of people here (including – horror of horrors – humanities grad students), and whilst I keep stressing to people to make their writing as accommodating as possible, I don’t think we should impose any stylistic strictures (for the reasons I gave above).

    There’s a difference between ‘pretentiousness’ and dealing with very complex ideas. Unsurprisingly, rethinking what counts as political action and what a new Left might be like requires a range of styles and thoughts that exceed habitual comfort zones. Now, if those ideas can be explained in a more understandable manner (i.e. if the writing is obscure), then I’m all for it. But if the difficulty is due to the idea being expressed, then the writing isn’t obscure (obfuscatory to comprehension) it’s just difficult. Effort will be required from the reader.

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  14. I’m not against the ‘high-brow’ per say, but just when its unnecessary. I believe in elegance. I believe that if there’s a complicated way of saying something and a simple way of saying something then you should always go for the latter.

    I’m quite willing to read more stuff and learn more stuff ( and I do ). But those of you with humanities degrees also have to accept that you have a headstart on those of us who haven’t done degrees that require us to read texts related to social and political theory.

    Calculus can never be considered pretentious because the purpose of its creation is to express what it describes in the simplest possible terms. That can’t be said of alot of academia.

    Besides the problem in some of the posts is not so much that I don’t understand them, its that I tire of reading the same point made about 6 times in different flowery ways.

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  15. Dan, I appreciate that you can’t be draconian and tell people how to write. I’m just trying to provide a voice for the kind of people that will probably be put off by this blog.

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  16. That’s fair enough.

    Though I must just point out one small thing: the term ‘flowery’ is a problematic one. The catch with these issues of ‘semantics’ is that semantics are also political and ideological. In this case, what are the associations of ‘flowery’? Firstly, nature. Fine – our writing is somehow ‘natural’. But that doesn’t seem to fit the way you’re using it. Secondly, flowers are something we associate with women. This seems to fit: you’re accusing our styles of being womanly. As a feminist, I have no problem with writing like a woman, but already the fact that you’re using it in a derogatory manner suggests that you would prefer writing that was patriarchal, masculine, stout. Which means that your emancipatory politics is still laced with a status quo which represses half of the world’s human beings. I.e. is not that emancipatory.

    Thirdly, by referring to our writing as flowery, you implicitly – whether consciously or not (‘instinctively’ as you might say) – refer to our writing as being gay. Again, I have no problem with having gay writing, but it doesn’t bode too well for a progressive political outlook.

    I say these things not to be a pompous twat, but to demonstrate how our off-the-cuff comments – if not subjected to a sufficiently critical analysis – have a tendency to get away from us.

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  17. So if I said “its that I tire of reading the same point made about 6 times in different overly-ornate ways.” would that make me less of a sexist homophobe?

    Seriously though, by all means pick apart off-the-cuff comments if (big if) it is actually pertinent to the subject of the thread. But if you do what you just did above (but without trying to prove a point) then I will probably give up trying to write anything.

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  18. But this is precisely where we disagree: for you language and ways of saying things aren’t political. For me they are.

    My intention wasn’t to pick apart what you said or to piss you off; it was to try and show how certain things aren’t as simple or as neutral as you were making out. I would hate it if because of what I wrote you no longer contributed to the site. So I’m genuinely sorry if that’s how you feel about it.

    I really do value your contributions – with all your People and Planet experience (amongst other things), you’re exactly the type of person we need. You have more experience of political campaigning of various forms than most people (including me), so we need your input. But at the same time you, too, need to be open to new ways of thinking about things.

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  19. I do understand what you’re saying about politics and language, after all politics is pretty much all about communication. And its true that I have to be big enough to accept that I certainly need to learn how to think about things in new ways – I’m very keen to do that.

    I don’t know. This site’s in its infancy and perhaps its best if I just give it a bit of time and see what happens. I think loads of analysis that doesn’t lead to anything practical is basically the kind of thing that has been putting me off recently. But I have to trust that you guys have the same goal in mind, and see what happens.

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  20. John, I think this is the key, and at the moment we’re all engaging (as a starting point) with things on a level that we know, which is in large theoretical. I’m massively interested in ‘consumables’ so intend to comment and post on this side of things, on the practical living day-to-day and I spend a lot of my time cooking so that I can eat in and invite people round rather than go out…so, that is something.

    if you’re a p&p person, then I’m sure you’ll have lots to add on this front, so stick with us…

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  21. Well, well, well… a few comments made here over the last 24 hours…

    John, what I really want to ask, is would you be able to write an article on programming? I’ve only ever done a very small amount, but it’s something I’d really like to pick up – thing is I have no idea where to start on teaching myself.

    Also – All hail Calculus! Good to see some people bigging up my favourite area of mathematics! Makes me want to write an article on it now…

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  22. One last point: John, if you feel like things are going in a direction you’re not entirely comfortable with, then write your own article that touches on the issues you want to discuss (even better get involved with my brilliant article on electricity supply – the night shift’s best kept secret at the moment).

    It’s as much yours to shape the form and content as it is anyone else’s.

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  23. Hey Joe (apologies Jimi H), if you want to get into programming I heartily recommend Python. Partly because its open source and there is loads of online support for it, but largely because it is a really beautiful language. http://docs.python.org/tutorial/ is a good place to start. If you want to learn about web programming then the tutorials at http://www.w3schools.com are excellent. The HTML, CSS and PHP tutorials are the ones you’ll find the most useful (do them in that order).

    I’m reluctant to write an article on programming because its a vast area – but if you want me to discuss something in particular then i’d be happy to give it a go.

    On your last point: Yep I’ll try to do that.

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  24. I’ll try to keep this short because I’m late in responding, and the blog has moved on.

    To the issue of “clarity, focus and relevance” – I submit to Dan’s point that they can be constraining. But what I meant to draw attention to was that with re-reading and re-writing, ideas can become clearer, perhaps less verbose, and may also be able to be expressed in a more accessible way. Esoteric terms, which without considering the struggle someone who isn’t aware of them would have, leaves the entry being less ‘beneficial’ in my opinion. But I concede there is a danger of reductionism, which again reverts us back to leaving it to the authors to decide how best to express their ideas.

    Dan’s second point regarding categories and tabulation is also taken. There is a danger that traditional structures of thought and categorisation could hamper discussion. The concern I’d have is that if the form deviates greatly from the norm (regarding layout of blogs), it may put off visitors who could gain from reading some of the ideas expressed. But I readily admit that I’m too cautious here.

    On re-reading my argument for editing, I can see that I stated it in an over-zealous way. I wasn’t imagining an editorial board (which is next to impossible because of the medium), but rather that contributors be firm with themselves.

    On Dan’s stating of my comments on Mask as promoting ‘Puritan asceticism’ and advocating ‘utmost utility’ of each entry is over-stating my criticisms to absolutes. I wholly submit to Hammam’s point of the potential of art to offer a unique way to engage with the concerns of the blog. But I still cannot see that this was the intention behind the entry of Mask. However Hammam was right that this medium allows a reader to ask a question of the contributor, something that I could have done in this case.

    (And for the name ‘staringatfaraz’ I was in a bind for a login and my neighbour’s dog faraz was chasing his tail and growling at anyone attempting to intervene. I’ll try to change to my name in profile when I post this to avoid future grammatical flies.)

    Reply

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