Are the conditions for writing blogs adequate also for writing aphorisms – that is, for writing laconic philosophical statements or pithy wisecracks that make a relevant point?
To answer this question, we need to have a sound grasp both of what a blog is and of the general history of aphoristic practice. While there are many varieties – journalistic, reflective, catalogical, humoristic – a blog is basically a finite repository of written or verbal enunciations that are cast out into an expanding web-space. The expanding web-space demands that individual blogposts be brief and, if not succinct, at least very short, so that a reader will not be overwhelmed with content. As a result, stylized blogs have proven themselves to be prone to soundbytes and snark, presumably because this is what makes them compelling to the general reader.
Without a doubt, the classical practice of aphoristic writing holds the potential for blog writing within it. Hippocrates, generally considered the original aphorist, wrote aphorisms chocked with wisdom about day-to-day medical problems – ‘Diseases about the kidneys and bladder are cured with difficulty in old men…’; ‘Hemorrhoids appearing in melancholic and nephritic affections are favorable…’ (1); and so on. Offhand, we can all probably think of a blog with alternative medical advice, dietary planning strategies, or a related daily living theme. Since Hippocrates, however, the writing of aphorisms has expanded to include ‘high’ Western philosophy – an unofficial but more or less continuous tradition that began with long-ago folks like Erasmus and La Rouchefoucauld, and continued with moderns such as Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, et al. Even Karl Marx, in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ dabbled with aphoristic writing.
But not all aphorisms are of the high philosophical tradition. In fact, most Americans with a high school education are likely to be aware of the humoristic application of aphorisms – the wisecracks and wisdoms of Mark Twain, for example, which tend to have a snappy political bent. According to the standard definition, the effectuality of a funny aphorism derives chiefly from its ‘pithy’ delivery. Pithiness has a twofold effect of being rhetorically expressive and of intensifying the significance of what has been said so that it appears to make a shrewd critical point. Many popular political blogs today try to extend this tradition, commenting on legal and political affairs with a Twainian snark that, while perhaps less effective than in Twain’s day, nevertheless attempts to achieve that kind of effect. The snarky blogosphere scoffs at the pretentiousness and pseudo-wisdom of the high philosophical aphorism, containing a wit, as one New Yorker contributor recently put it, that ‘saves the aphorist from self-importance’ (2).
It is not difficult to see the connections between aphorisms and blogs, nor the ways in which aphoristic thinking has shaped how ‘thoughtful’ bloggers produce intellectual content. Nevertheless, there are formal features particular to a blog that would deter it from achieving the same ends as the philosophical or pithy aphorism. Here are a few that I feel comfortable conjecturing:
- Blogs that purport to produce ‘intellectual’ content tend to do so in a brief though not necessarily succinct manner. Tumblr and other platforms tend to encourage amalgamated, copy-and-paste enunciations via the various sharing functions. Thus, the outcome of thoughtful blogging in the majority of cases is not a cannily delivered, aphorism-like enunciation but rather a mish-mash of lofty quotes and book-clippings.
- Since becoming ubiquitous over the last decade, so-called thoughtful blogs have tended en masse toward seeking private self-reflection or individual subjective truths. This fact does not necessarily sever their relation from aphoristic writing, which can also be a mode of subjective truth-seeking, but it does, in a fashion, suggest that bloggers prefer to access objectivity through their digitally individuated subjectivity and not through the practice of writing ‘objective’ statements that contact a socialized truth.
- Blog language, like many other digital modes of communication, has a Newspeak quality to it. Aphorisms also suffer this problem as participants in their determined form, but it is usually because they are attempting to access an objective truth/truism and must use the codified language of ‘thought’ to access it. The intense codification of language and the inflation of certain key-words is inevitable even in so-called wizened discourses.
- Inter-media tweeting and sharing on blogs gives them a journalistic pulse that aphorisms do not have. The quote-impulse of blogs makes them great for cataloging but not always for original thinking.
- Personal blogs affirm without question the meaningful individuation of the author. In turn, blogging becomes a hobby, something I as an individual like to do and take a special interest in, without always being reflected upon as a practice corresponding with digital-age socialization.
Those are just some conjectures. However, if thoughtful blogs have become popular repositories for truism-like aphorisms, it is in large part due to their ability to inflate the signifying effects of soundbytes and memorable quote-clippings. The arrangement of personal blogs around aestheticized quote-clips proves, on the one hand, that there is still a ubiquitous interest in cataloging wisdom, and yet, on the other hand, that catalog-blogging does not always produce reflexive thinking about its own practice, since its very ubiquity as a practice has already de-sensitized us to the purported wisdom of its content. (That’s why when you read an unapologetically pretentious blog post you go… ‘Ugh!’)
A great example of unreflective cataloging would be blogs that are literally dedicated to cataloging aphorisms (these are surprisingly numerous – try a Google search). While aphorism-blogs may produce something of archival interest, in form they crystallize the truth-seeking character of aphorisms and stunt their potential to develop in accordance with digital trends. Quotes on blogs, however pithy, cease to move us once they become too numerous or kitschy. Our situation in the blogosphere is therefore this: that thoughtful bloggers en masse are articulating truths that are so subjectively mediated that their only objective element is the truth of bloggers’ hyper-mediatized thinking space. The aphorism, in turn, is affected by this objective situation, in that the truth-content it carries is no longer as valid as it once was in previous moments of aphoristic writing when the content of the phrase was less mediated by digital materials.
The takeaway is that aphorisms, if they are still valuable, have to change their style. They can’t just be snippets or witty wisecracks anymore without running the risk of complete neutralizing their truth-content. Feel-good wisdom, positivistic assertions, and even great quotes have lost their luster during the profligate growth of the blogosphere. So where does that leave bloggers who want to produce ‘thoughtful’ or ‘intellectual’ content of social and political relevance? It leaves them, perhaps, with a mandate for a new approach. To make meaningful statements about the world, digital thinkers need to focus more deliberately on critical activity and less on wisdom-accumulation.
- Aphorisms, by Hippocrates. Sourced from The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu//Hippocrates/aphorisms.html
- ‘Yes, I wrote a book of aphorisms,’ by James Guida. Sourced from The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/12/writing-aphorisms.html