Friday, February 05, 2010

Blogging Dialectics

(Sorry for the awkward subject line -- I wanted to use "ecosystem," but after Outrageous Fortune, that word is a little threadbare...)

So RVC Bard posts, Thomas Garvey responds, J Holtham posts an angry denunciation of Thomas Garvey, and Guy Yedwab responds, then Isaac scolds Guy for talking to Garvey, and Guy explains what he was trying to do. There may be pieces of this conversation I am missing; if so I apologize. I'd like to look at the process of dialogue itself for just a second.

Guy writes:

But suppose a troll lands a bomb at you and you decide to argue back -- after all, you can simply ignore them -- what is the point in arguing? What was the point of that furious post?

1. You want to convince Garvey to change his mind
2. You want to convince your blog-roll readers that Garvey is wrong
3. You want to have some sort of public catharsis by screaming at a wall

Isaac things I'm advocating option number one, but I'm not. I agree that it's pointless. But if your goal is number 2, I think you're much better served by a sharply written post that focuses the anger into tearing your opponent's argument apart, rather than just spewing anger. The spewing anger route might get an "amen" from your own choir, but like it or not there are going to be people on the fence who'll miss what you have to say because they're put off by the anger.

If you're going for option 3, then I probably have already spent too much time talking about the post and I'm tired.

This isn't just about 99 Seats. This is about how we debate major issues in this country. [ital mine]
Like my blogging friend Guy, I think debate has become too rancorous, too bi-partisan, too simplistic, too high volume. Like him, that is why I appreciate No-Drama-Obama. But at the same time, in this case and others like it, I think the overall blogging system worked. Here's why.

At the center of this debate is J-99 Holtham's angry drubbing of Garvey, a rant of admirable intensity and Mametian vocabulary. Does this rant further the discussion of race in any way? Wouldn't we be better off trying to have a calm, rational discussion? If 99, RVC Bard and Garvey were the only ones talking, then I'd say there wasn't much point. But what makes the blogsphere a powerful instrument for social change is the wisdom of crowds.

What 99's explosion said to me, more than anything, was: "Ouch! I'm bleeding over here, and the pain is really, really bad. Did you know that, all you blog readers?" The other thing it said was: "You crossed a boundary, and I need to bare my teeth and let you know you can't get away with it." Those are really good messages. The first reminds us that we are talking about really deep, painful issues, not just intellectual concepts, and that there are human lives involved. The second reminds us that we can't expect the people who are in pain to just grin and bear it while we, who haven't experienced what they have, tromp all over their broken limbs-- sometimes, they will bite back.

But what happens next is what works in the blogosphere: the major players stake out their position in dramatic ways, perhaps even extreme ways, and then others come in and sort things out. They clean up the blood, examine the records, and try to understand what caused all the violence and bloodshed. Without the extreme expressions, there is no reason to do the work of moderation. It is a process, one that relies on everyone to participate and do their part. I don't happen to think that marginalizing Thomas Garvey is a particularly good idea, but I also don't happen to think that politeness is always a virtue. We in the theatrosphere have a tendency to lapse into a politeness sometimes that belies the severity of the situations we are discussing. I'm not encouraging gang warfare, what I am encouraging is the dialectic process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. We can't just jump to synthesis and skip the clash that makes it viable.


macrogers said...

I'm struggling with this, Scott, because I want to come back to blogging, but am really turned off by some of the behavior in the theatrosphere. I do see what you're saying here - that there are certain important things we would never talk about at all if repressed emotions didn't boil over - and I know there's a long, hallowed tradition of aggressive debate in this country. (Would I have lectured Mencken on civility? Should Twain have been classier when trashing James Fenimore Cooper?)

Here's my thing: a lot of times I believe what's happening is imbued with a strong element of dishonesty. You, Scott, have many times called for people to just deal with the content of what other people are writing, and not try to impute hidden motivations. But that's my problem. I see the world in motivations. When I look around, listen, watch, and read, underlying motivation (or perhaps my unreliable conjecture of it, but I don't think I'm always wrong) is what leaps out at me. And I think may flame wars on blogs involve one or more parties utilizing a subject - no matter how important - as the conduit through which they pour darkness and aggression and personal enmity that they were already looking for a way to express. And the importance of the subject serves as cover for the underlying exhilaration at expressing viciousness.

This is why people who, in a contentious blog moment, take a deep breath, swallow their immediate response, and come back with something thoughtful and at a lower volume win my admiration. Those people at those moments are choosing to make the content of the disagreement the priority, and not whatever personal baggage or interpersonal conflict they're bringing to the table. (These people, I'm aware, are never me.)

Anyway, it's this feeling I have, that I obviously can't in any way prove with evidence, that makes the blogging world feel like a landmine to me.

(I'm sorry, can I just say, the Blogger word verification on this post is "punchall"? Absolutely splendid.)

macrogers said...

I want to pop back and say that I don't mean the thesis above to be my take on yesterday's theatrosphere conflict. I don't actually *have* a take on it yet; it only just happened. (And, gutlessly, I will not supply any examples of conflicts to which I do think it applies.) It's more that your post brought up some thoughts I've had about flame wars for a long time.

99 said...

Scott (and Mac)- Thanks for this. Seriously. This piece is really thoughtful and sums up the situation quite nicely. And it gibes with my feelings very well. There is a time for thoughtful reflection and there's a time for flamethrowing and the key is knowing which is which. Yesterday was one time, today is another. And I do think it has kicked off some actual discussion among people who are willing to actually engage.

Mac, I do hope you come back to the blogosphere, if for no other reason than to wag your finger at those of us who pop off. Checks and balances are all good.

Ian Thal said...

I appreciate the fact that you used the metaphor of "eco-system" in your first paragraph, because one observation I have made is that some of the people who have the biggest bones to pick with Garvey don't seem to grasp that he's a critic and that his function in the ecology of the theatrical blogosphere is radically different from that of Holtham/99seats (playwright), Butler (director), or Yedwab (director/theorist), or myself (performer/playwright.)

You see, I understand the ecological niche that Garvey fills, and that's why I don't have a problem with the fact that he's going to look at things from a different perspective.

A critic's function is to advocate for the art that he or she admires and advocate against that which he or she considers to be, well, crappy. This means that Garvey is going to be naturally at odds with some of us at times.

It's not like he needs anyone to defend him, but I think it's illustrative of how certain cliques operate in the blogosphere.

lucia said...

As an observer/lurker, I very much agree with Scott - let the emerging functions of the theatrosphere evolve in plain sight whenever possible.

Scott Walters said...

I understand entirely, Mac, and sympathize. My experience has been that when I'VE ranted, the psychoanalysis that has followed has usually been wrong and self-serving, on the level of "you want to promote rural theatre because you can't make it in the Big Leagues." But yes, sometimes the subject at hand is an excuse for bashing. Garvey, for instance, loves to get up Isaac's nose. And one has to remember his belief that the theatrosphere needs to be more confrontational.

But sometimes people need to vent. And like any friend who is suddenly out of control, they need friends to help them calm down and support them. And I think that's what often happens.

Tony Adams said...

Ian, I talk to a lot of critcs. A lot who are better critics than Garvey, and some who are worse at criticism. I don't know one that would agree with you in this context, not one.

Saying he's a critic and has a different perspective does not excuse that.

Ian Thal said...

Keep in mind that I get along just fine and dandy with most of the named parties.

That said, I think critics should be confrontational-- it's part of their mission-- and to be quite blunt, on some of the biggest theatre related controversies in the last few years, Garvey has produced some of the better analyses I've read and that means he's said a number of things people needed to hear but did not want to hear.

This isn't to say I always agree with him, but he's certainly one of the most stimulating writers on my local scene.

RVCBard said...


You're not getting it.

How's that for confrontational?

Ian Thal said...


I missed the exchange between you and Garvey to which you and others are referring-- and thus, I have no comment one way or another.

What I have been referring to when I speak of the general antipathy between Butler and Holtham/99seats on one side and Garvey on the other, has more to do with the sort of friction that occurs between a directors and playwrights on one hand, and critics on the other. Especially on certain issues where their perspectives are either experiential or anecdotal on one hand, or statistical on the other.

I also happen to think that these disagreements are sometimes willful-- but that's another story.

Nonetheless, this dynamic exists whether I get it or not.

99 said...

Ian, it would be best if you read this disagreement and saw the nature of it.

The friction between critic and artist is one thing. When a critic makes his criticism about the artist, rather than the work, that's another matter. And when a critic lets his personal prejudices take the foreground over the actual work, we're in a very dangerous place.

I know that some folks, like Scott, feel that TG is dealing in good faith, I do not.

Scott Walters said...

Whoa, 99, I didn't say that. What is said was that he serves a function.

Ian Thal said...

Right, but I'm talking about a pattern I've been watching over a period of 4-5 months as opposed to a particular recent disagreement that people have been discussing in only the vaguest terms, which makes it hard for me to take a look and even see what people are talking about.

99 said...

Okay, Scott, didn't mean to misrepresent that. My bad.

Ian, I understand that you find this kind of discourse distasteful, but if you're not going to take a look, how do you know what it is actually about?

As for my general issue with Thomas, I don't see it as general friction between artist and critic. From what I've read, his criticism is generally more about him, his personal prejudices, and rarely about the actual work. When he talks about the issues facing theatre, he does it even more. That's the actual source of the issue, straight from the horse's mouth.

Ian Thal said...

if you're not going to take a look, how do you know what it is actually about?

It's not that I'm not looking, it's just that everyone is talking about it in such vague, generalized terms that I don't know where to look. (The links I have followed thus far are just as vague as this one.)

Maybe if I follow every single link, I might stumble upon it, but the bottom line is that no one is being helpful.

RVCBard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RVCBard said...


99, Tony, Isaac, and Guy have already linked to it. Then after you read that, go back here and see what's so depressingly predictable about how Garvey's actions have been talked about.

I suggest being near a trash bin, toilet, or something when you read Garvey's diatribe because you may need to vomit.

Thomas Garvey said...

Don't worry about my being marginalized, Scott. If anything, judging from the analytics, I'm more popular than ever. And Ian, thanks for your support - what happened was that I said RVCBard and 99 were engaging in neurotic behaviors around race (even though of course racism still exists) and they responded by, well, acting extremely neurotically even by their own standards. But I don't mind all the ridiculous insults and viciousness; it's actually nice to be vindicated so quickly. Usually it takes longer.

Ian Thal said...

As I just said over on parabasis (since my name was cited in the comments section):

It's just that I spent a couple of days away from reading my usual blogs to deal with real life issues of having a day job, working at being an artist, and tending to my terminally ill cat, that I had to follow a chain of links to various posts that were talking about "what Thomas said" without giving me an inkling about "what Thomas said" and quite bluntly it's taking me far too much back and forth to actually find out what the hell anyone was talking about.

This of course gets back to my point last week about the fad of "RTWT" because it has apparently already fallen out of fashion to clearly label and link to the article under disputation. This week the fad is to link to articles that link to articles that talk about the offending article without actually linking to it (or even posting a representative excerpt.) So at this point, I've sort of lost my patience with this whole dispute, in part because none of the participants seem to take it seriously enough to state their case.

99 said...

I'm sorry to hear about your cat.