01 December 2005

What's in a blog?

What is a blog? People often ask me this question. Today I was wondering - do I write in my blog or on it? Funny kind of question you might think, and you'd be right. I'm interested in how we/I use language, and what the way we use language tells us about how we think. For instance we write on paper, which seems obvious since paper is an archetypal surface. But when we collect a few sheets of paper together then we start to talk about them as a container. So the writing is on the wall, but I write in my diary; information is in an encyclopedia; and a manual contains instructions.

In English paper is a surface and books are containers. We also consider language to be a container, I'm writing in English. However in Sweden they speak på svenska: on Swedish. In Swedish language is a surface. This seems pretty weird to an English speaker, which is partly why it’s difficult to learn another language. It's not a matter of a one to one relationship between our words and theirs. Sometimes, most often even, the concepts in different languages donit quite match. They overlap, but not exactly. Writing is also a container, because we put things into writing.

TV and radio are not containers. Programs are on the radio; we ask "what's on?" TV; news is in a newspaper, but on the TV. So radio and TV are surfaces. This seems odd because up until very recently TV and radio has come in a box. I think in the case of TV that we relate primarily to the screen and it has become a metonym for the whole contraption. The screen being two-dimensional is a surface. With radio a similar thing may have happened with the tuning dial which was a lot more prominent in the olden days.

Now a blog is written and we write on a surface; but it's also a collection of writing so by analogy it should function as a container and things should be written in it. But we read a blog on a computer screen, which is basically just a TV, so it's on the screen. Note also that stuff is considered to be on the web, not in it. Webs and Nets are two-dimensional so despite the multidimensionality of the Web we have ended up adopting the terminology of a surface. Again Neo was trapped in the matrix, not on it, even though the whole thing was a computer simulation, and things are stored on a computer.

So do I write in or on my blog?

When I was at library school a book called Neuromancer by William Gibson was in the reading list (or is that on the list?). Gibson coined the term "cyberspace" and Neuromancer has some vivid imagery for how we might perceive a three dimensional information space. In the book one enters cyberspace via a virtual reality interface that connects directly to your brain – the result is total immersion in the virtual reality of cyberspace. Ironically Gibson is a complete Luddite and wrote the book an its two sequels on a manual typewriter!

As a Buddhist I am interested in how I/we represent reality. Everything I know about the world is mediated by my senses and interpreted by my brain. No matter that the lens of my eye creates an inverted image on my retina, I am quite able to see and to manoeuvre through my environment. I take in sense data, process it, respond emotionally to it, and evaluate it rationally according to established categories. Then I either act on it or not. This modern sounding interpretation of cognition is pretty much how the Buddha described the process 2500 years ago.

The assessment of information uses, as I said, a number of pre-existing categories. These categories are so fundamental to our thinking that we seldom notice that we are using them. It's not until we start to analyse language that we start to notice that we consider TV to be a surface rather than a container. This seemingly trivial example stands for the sort of thing that we do all the time with all information. You can read more about this in Metaphors We Live by by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. One of the most fundamental categories is a duality between subject and object: between "in here" and "out there".

Now way back near the beginning of the 20th century Emile Durkheim was pondering similar issues, and in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, concluded that the categories that we think in are not individual else every time we tried to communicate we'd have to define all the words we used. No, the categories are a property of a society, not an individual. So I can choose to say in my blog if I want, but if I say in the radio then people will look at me strange. The plus side of society is that it gives us safety, security and the leisure to think about stuff like metaphors. On the minus side it will feel, quite unconsciously, that anyone that says "in the radio" is a danger to society and will have to be dealt with. In the West we tend to go for punishment or killing as a solution to idiosyncrasy, especially when it comes to religion. The Indians by contrast tend to try to assimilate. But these are the two basic reactions of society to heterodoxy – eliminate or assimilate.

Buddhists have always been aware of these kinds of issues. Early on the Buddha made it clear that his teachings were no to be chanted in the manner of the sacred Vedic mantras, nor sung in the style of popular songs of the day. He insisted that everyone should learn the Dharma in their own language. He also attempted to change the way certain words were defined. He, for instance, suggested that a Brahmin could not be born, but could only result from wholehearted spiritual practice. In this case he failed, and a Brahmin to this day is born, not made. In the case of the word Dharma he scored a partial success in that Buddhists and Hindus use the word in quite different ways.

As "going for refuge" is the fundamental Buddhist act, uniting all Buddhists everywhere, so awareness is the basis of Buddhist practice. All practices have at their core the object of making us more aware of our mind, what it contains, and what we do with it. This awareness initially gives us more choice about the way we respond to the world, but ultimately it transforms the categories that we use to think. Awareness eventually reveals that the categories of subject and object are only provisional and not ultimate.

Given that the categories we use are most clearly revealed in the language that we use, then perhaps this question of mine is not so trivial after all?

This essay written to the strains of Frank Zappa's Apostrophe!
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