The Read-Write Web: Notes on a Blog Politics of Form

Donna Wentworth
Copyfight: the politics of IP

January 13, 2003

Long before I read Larry Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace [ ], I was thinking about the politics of architecture. Not technical architecture, however--literary architecture. The year was 1994, the place was Georgetown University [ ], the professor was Michael Ragussis [ ] and the occasion for thinking was The Politics of Literary Form [ ]--a course exploring the political function/meaning of formal elements in what we were encouraged to call "the text."

Yeah, yeah, I know--"politics of form" sounds like the sort of academic jargon designed to obfuscate meaning; the kind that a scholar generates as a sort of moat for intellectual rivals to wade through, and thereby defends his or her coveted spot in academe. In fact, the course was aimed at exposing that type of strategy within various literary works. We were to scour these works, identify the array of formal elements composing their structures, and ask ourselves what political message/function the elements might serve.

So what did this mean, exactly? Rather than focus only on meaning or only on form, we looked at the interplay of meaning and form. The kinds of questions we tackled: What impact does the order of the arguments in Plato's Symposium have on the reader's judgment about which of them is correct? What functional purpose do the aphorisms that head each chapter of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe serve? (Yes, it's the whole "the medium is the message" thing--but surprisingly enough, we read no Marshall McLuhan [ ].)

At any rate, it is with this framework in mind that I have lately been thinking about blogs--and not coincidentally, ever more so after the arrival last week of Dave Winer to the Berkman Center [ ]. My question: If every form has a politics, what politics does the blog form have? What types of behavior does the blog "architecture" encourage--or discourage--among its participants? What are its unwritten rules? And what effect are these rules having on Net culture as a whole?

The core goal for Dave's fellowship, as I understand it, is for Dave to apply his special knowledge of the unique--and arguably, democratizing--effect of blogging software to Berkman [ ] endeavors for which it could be of particular benefit.

Among the questions we aim to road-test: Can we make blogs more accessible to students [ ] and others here who want to build community and related Good Things [ ]? Could students use it as a way to keep a course [ ] journal? Could we eventually make blogs accessible for our projects focused on the developing world [ ]? Can we connect various groups and people at Harvard [ ] by getting them blogging together?

Okay. It's Monday morning, this is dense and a bit scattered, and I haven't even yet referenced Dan Gillmor's bit RE the read-write Web [ ], which I had meant to feature front and center. But with hints here [ ] and there [ ] of interesting minds engaged in these issues, I felt I had to post this right away. And, as well, to ask you to share your thoughts about it [ ].

You know--like I was following some kind of unwritten rule, or something.

Copyright 2003