Many subtle channels

A woodblock print showing a slender wasp crawling up a vertical trellis post. In the center, there's a beautiful morning glory with two fluted flowers that fade from pink at the base to blue at their flaring edges. The back­ground is blank, making it look like the wasp and flower alike are almost floating in abstract space.

Morning Glories and Wasp on Trellis, Tsuchiya Rakuzan, 20th century

What would it mean to “vendor” culture?

A word on my mood as I sit down to write this:

It is not the impulsive rush of tweet composition. Instead, it’s a feeling I remember from long ago: The Blogging Stance. You encounter an idea that sets off a fizzing reaction in your mind; you decide you will describe that reaction somehow; you’ll do so over the course of not a few hundred char­ac­ters but a few hundred words.

You’ll write a draft, move a few things around, consider the post as a whole at least once. Though operating as a node in a network, you are still fully within writing’s domain, rather than the hybrid oral kingdom of social media.

Because you have blogged before, you have a sense of your timeline: some posts are the work of ten minutes, others an hour. (Very few fall outside that range.) This one I’ve just started feels like it will be closer to an hour. It’s Saturday morning, and I have an espresso. What could be better?

In this twilight age, having tumbled far from the High Blogging Era of the mid-2000s, I use a simple, opin­ion­ated piece of software called Fraidycat to track about thirty RSS feeds. Even within this small set, I have favorites; among them are the blogs of Tom MacWright and Alan Jacobs—Alan in partic­ular being one of the three or four people I would follow on the internet if I could only follow three or four people on the internet.

What fun, then, to see the beams cross. Alan’s latest post begins with a link to Tom MacWright; he takes an idea of Tom’s, from programming, and applies it to culture. Fun, and a bit spooky: as if one feed had looked across my RSS dashboard and spotted the other.

Then, midway through, spookier still: Alan links to a post of mine! Now it’s the RSS dashboard looking back at me. “Oh yes … I see you there.”

That latter link was not a complete surprise, because I am impli­cated in this post’s creation. I’d been following Alan’s recent writing on “invitation and repair” with interest and I wondered if a post I’d written several years ago might be useful to him, not only (but, okay, mostly) because it leaned hard on the word “repair.” So, I emailed a link to Alan, who replied saying he remem­bered reading it, but/and appre­ci­ated seeing it again, with this new context loaded into his brain. And then he followed up, about a day later, with a link to the post above — the one I had just seen in Fraidycat.

There’s a bit of a chain reaction here, with one blog post (this one) asking you to read THREE others, and of course that’s not required, though I do recommend it: a chance to see a handful of intel­lec­tual Lego bricks first on their own, then snapped together into a new construc­tion.

In the fashion of the comic book crossover event that requires the publisher to explain very clearly the order in which you’re supposed to read the issues, it goes like this:

  1. Sloan, Reckoning with Detective Comics

  2. MacWright, Vendor by default

  3. Jacobs, Vendoring culture

And of course I should say there’s at least one other partic­i­pant here, Gene Luen Yang, whose work I discuss in that initial post.

There are a few things I want to do here beyond simply point you to this crossover event.

One is that I want to say again: the High Blogging Era might be behind us, but there is still blogging to be done, and it is so easy and so rewarding to dip a toe, start to follow a few of these feeds, and expe­ri­ence a different kind of network.

Fraidycat is a remark­able piece of software; made by, I believe, just one person, it allows you to follow not only formal RSS feeds but Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, Twitch streamers, a whole host of other things; there is a sense that you can just throw anything in and it will probably work.

And Fraidycat doesn’t arrange those anythings into a timeline, that scourge of the modern internet: instead, every feed holds its seat, asserts its existence, regard­less of whether it has anything “new” to show you. The chatty feeds can’t drown out the quiet ones. If you are subscribed to this website’s feed, and I publish something new: you will surely see it.

It is, honestly, a huge relief.

(I should say that Fraidycat will sometimes wipe your RSS subscrip­tions clean; rather than classify this as a crippling bug, I take it as a helpful reminder to frequently export backups.)

Another thing I want to do is point out the multiple modes of commu­ni­ca­tion involved in the Lego construc­tion above. A few days ago, I sent Alan an email with a link to another post of mine prompted by one of his; I used the subject line “manual trackback,” a reference to the old protocol by which blog posts could “tell each other” about such cross-links. The protocol was ulti­mately a failure, overcome by spam, and it occurs to me … maybe that partic­ular kind of mech­a­niza­tion was, and is, a mistake. Why not switch to other channels when appropriate? Why not augment publishing with conversation — braid them together?

There’s a kind of person — well-intentioned; an inter­esting kind of mind — who wants to lay this activity of “thinking together” across a lattice of code, make it legible, explorable, calculable; for that person, such mech­a­niza­tion conjures the spirit of a trellised vine, maybe an espaliered apple tree. For me, it sounds like a spatch­cocked chicken. The thing is dead.

The final thing I want to do is celebrate the spirit Alan brought to this whole thread.

This post’s title comes from Daniel Levin Becker’s terrific book of the same name, a chronicle of the European exper­i­mental poetry group known as the Oulipo, almost too cool to be real. Daniel writes:

The twin modes of discovery and invention continue to go hand in hand in the oulipian laboratory, even if one hogs the spotlight and the other dotes eagerly behind the scenes. There isn’t a single member of the group who wouldn’t insist, rightly, that one branch cannot exist func­tion­ally without the other. But an essential point about the Oulipo is that anoulipo and synthoulipo come from the same place, emanate from the same kind of consciousness. “From the one to the other,” Le Lionnais wrote, “there exist many subtle channels.”

Discovery and invention! I have a sense that too many writers, espe­cially writers online, have forgotten that these activ­i­ties are available to them.

I don’t want to be too over-the-top about it — I’m way past my second espresso now — but I think Alan has, in recom­bining some really very far-flung ideas from Tom and me and Gene, not to mention his own archive, provided us with a genuinely new tool. I think his “vendoring culture” is a metaphor that can do real work, both in the analysis of existing culture and the produc­tion of new things.

This post took me a little more than an hour to write, turns out. Now I’m going to hunt around for a piece of public domain art to put at the top.

This never stopped being the best way to write, and think, together.

March 2021, Oakland