Saturday, June 28, 2008


At tea on Friday (the Folger heartily endorses everyone in the Library to stop for 3:00 tea--a great practice that is fruitful in ways beyond caffeine intake) with a couple of friends, I was struck by some of the oddities of blogging. Marshall Grossman was talking about the blog he writes for the Huffington Post, and about how bits of his blog crop up all over the blogosphere. Blogs are tremendously self-replicating that way: lots of them consist primarily of quotes from and links to other blogs.

Marshall was talking about how disconcerting it is to see his name and his words show up marshalled to the service of someone else's agenda. That, of course, is true for print essays as well--we all take other scholars' insights and use them to help shape our own. But what struck me is how much easier that it with blogs. You just cut-and-paste and there it is! Right now, I'm working in "compose" mode in Blogger, and there's a button with a double-quotation mark on it that will automatically format what I select into a block quotation. It's like they knew people were doing it all the time!

What this conversation made me realize was how much today's blogging is like early modern commonplacing. You copy down pithy sayings, observations, facts, and whatever else strikes you and collect them into your notebook. In the early modern period, copying them down was often only the first step; after that you would transfer them into another book, this time organized under subject headings. Hamlet does it:
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain,
My tables! Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile and smile and be a villain
The tables Hamlet refers to are a writing tablet in which he literally notes this commonplace. Commonplacing is a Renaissance practice and habit of thought that you can find in traces throughout the period's writings.

It turns out that my recognition of a link between blogging and commonplacing is, well, a commonplace. It's even in Wikipedia's entry on commonplacing. How banal is that? Less banal is this tumblelog, Commonplacing, which uses short quotes and a layout of boxes juxtaposing quotations.**

But while the recognition of all this ease of assembling quotes into a blog or a commonplace book might have been noticed, less commented on is my second observation: The ease with which the technology of cutting-and-pasting and of pre-formatted WSIWYG editing choices enable bloggers to take other people's words and incorporate them into their own blog, and in so doing, to essentially assume ownership of those words.

And this is what strikes me as the real connection between blogging and commonplacing. One of the disconcerting things, to a modern student, in looking at many early modern commonplace books, is that they do not tend to record the names of sources. A writer will commonplace a sonnet, but not the name of the poet. Put into a personal commonplace book, that poem becomes part of the property and identity of the transcriber, not the author. It's a very different conception of ownership of text: today, that would be plagiarism, would it not? Haven't politicians seen their candidacies fail for such things?

What I am describing is not plagiarism, but a different conception of the relationship between writer and written, one that is looser, one in which the written words do not stay firmly tied to one writer. For bloggers, the very medium in which we write encourages this perambulation and the technology that we use to shape our message builds into itself this commonplacing of ideas.

*I am quoting from the edition of Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor for the Arden Shakespeare (2006). There's much more to be said about this edition and about how editions matter when we're talking about Shakespeare, and especially about Hamlet.

**What's a tumblelog? Here's Wikipedia: "A tumblelog (also known as a tlog or tumblog) is a variation of a blog that favors short-form, mixed-media posts over the longer editorial posts frequently associated with blogging. Common post formats found on tumblelogs include links, photos, quotes, dialogues, and video. Unlike blogs, tumblelogs are frequently used to share the author's creations, discoveries, or experiences while providing little or no commentary." (You can tell I'm old-school because I give you the definition instead of just linking to it.)

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