Friday, August 06, 2010

What’s Up with Silliman? The Mystery Builds

Kent Johnson, self-admittedly “like a dog with a bone” regarding the loss and damage to the scholarly community—poesía norteamericana, “post-avant” branch in particular—resulting out of the so-call’d “default” sinking of innumerable publicly-made-in-good-faith comments in the comment boxes of Ron Silliman’s eponymous blog, ask’d me to post the following. One is somewhat shock’d by the tepidity of response to what amounts to a smithereen’d archive, particularly amongst younger scholars. One admits, even, to finding the whole scan­dale de Sil­li­man “com­pletely pointless” (meaning, I assume, “inconsequential”? “of no present or future scholarly import”? I beg to differ.) I sincerely thank Johnson for the rabid (and absolutely necessary) concern. JL

What’s Up with Silliman? The Mystery Builds

Allow me to begin, for sake of context, with a comment I sent to John Gallaher, some days back, under a post by him on the much-discussed decision by Ron Silliman to close comments at his blog:
From what I understand, it’s possible to disable the comment function at a blog without erasing *all prior comments* from public view. Isn’t this so? I think your post misses something important about what Silliman seems (in absence of clarification to the contrary) to have decided—something potentially much more significant, from an ethical point of view, than his perfectly legitimate choice to stop allowing comments from this time forward. It’s perplexing to me that no one else seems to have raised a question about the apparent vamooshing of a whole archive (one from which a number of critical books and essays of past few years have already cited material, for example). Here is what I sent to Jessica Smith’s blog yesterday on the matter:
Michael Robbins, a prolific and often insightful contributor to many comment boxes, makes a sweeping, dismissive remark above about the comments archive at Silliman’s blog. He’s correct, of course, that a lot of fluff and drivel was to be found there, among the many thousands of contributions. But it’s also the case that a good many thoughtful, good-faith comments and exchanges (some of them quite rich and lengthy) had appeared under numerous of the posts—often with participation of serious poets and critics and often in eloquent challenge to Silliman’s own partisan readings and critical assumptions.
I put the above in past tense because it would *appear* that Silliman has not only decided to deactivate the comments function of his blog (something he clearly has a right to do), but also to conceal from view every single one of the thousands of comments appearing there over the past eight years (a different matter altogether). And *if* a massive textual disappearance of this kind is his intent, I wonder how people here would regard such a move, in context of this post by Jessica about writers being “silenced.”

Hopefully, the cancellation of the record there is only a temporary glitch and that archive will shortly be restored to direct access, now and for possible future readers who may wish to consider it, for whatever reasons they may. One wants to believe (I wrote Silliman to ask him about it, though without reply) that it *is* only a temporary erasure: because it seems inconceivable that someone would void, at a stroke, a secondary but voluminous archive that is very much a part of the life of recent American poetry—even if that archive is, legally, at his disposal.

We’ll see what happens. As a friend wrote to me this morning, the deletion of that public record, with all its good and bad both, would be nothing short of—from an ethical and literary standpoint—a stunning instance of malfeasance.
Some people took issue with the term “malfeasance,” including Silliman himself, who wrote to assure me that the sudden disappearance of all past comments was simply a result of Blogger’s “default setting,” implying that there was nothing he could have done otherwise in the blocking of future comments. In fact, in a post yesterday, he repeats the claim, in a note beneath one of my back-channels to him, which he posts, within a sort of general mailbag, without attribution.

But Silliman’s pleas of innocence now look to be quite misleading. And from them, one can only conclude—if the information that follows is correct—that he is either 1) ignorant of the technical features Blogger makes available (something that would be quite remarkable, given that he has had a long career both in the blogging avocation and in the computer-industry profession), or 2) that he is being slyly disingenuous, wishing readers to assume that a global setting for deleting the comments function—one that indeed would hide the archive of comments by default—was the only choice available to him. (And many of his readers do seem to have accepted that “explanation.”)

Was it his only choice? As best I can determine, it decidedly was not.

In the past few days, I have heard from four people who use Blogger, and each has told me it is perfectly possible—and quite simple—to deactivate the commenting function forward from a particular date while still keeping the total record of past discussion intact and in normal view. John Gallaher, in fact, has written me with the following snippet taken directly from instructions provided by Blogger to its users:
“Note: Selecting ‘Hide’ does not delete existing comments. You can show them at any time by re-selecting ‘Show.’”
In addition, another blogger I heard from, Dale Smith, whose URL ends in “” just like Silliman’s, responded within ten minutes with quite clear evidence of such: After receiving my email of query, he’d gone into his new blog, The Urge, to tinker with the clearly marked settings and voilà: You can see it here: The comment function for current and future posts is voided and past comments are still present. According to Smith, “On the ‘Comments Settings’ page the first thing it asks is whether you want to ‘show’ or ‘hide’ comments. This does not delete previous comments. It just hides them. Scrolling further down there is a way to set up the blog so that all past comments can be seen but future ones are hidden.”

The question I’ve posed then about the ethics of Silliman’s erasure of a massive amount of text by others remains open—assuming, again, his action is not the blameless result of a computer industry expert and long-time blogger not yet having a handle on the machinery: Why, without a word of regret, would he take out, in one hit, a huge record and resource—in many instances containing material of potential value to future readers—from unmediated critical access and use? As I said in a prior remark on all this, that collection of commentary is a big beast, full of all kinds of things: from lots of garbage, to insightful analysis, to furtive bibliographic data, to revealing polemic, to surprising anecdote, to humorous (or not) performance, to widely engaged debate. It’s a messy lot, and some might, from close distance, dismiss it for that. But the fact is that sometimes rich, valuable stuff can come out of archives that have been lowly regarded, even long forgotten. Indeed, it’s precisely through encounter with lowly regarded repositories that unsuspected, valuable things often emerge.

Still, one might fairly ask: Is it really all gone? Even if disappeared at the blog, couldn’t the archive still be found, integrally preserved somewhere on the web?

Silliman, to be sure, in the post of yesterday that I reference above, ends by noting, with quote from the owner of Pathologos blog the following:

NB: The following note from Jessica Smith’s
comment stream would seem to answer questions
about the preservation of comments
for those who imagine them to have been
“a major poetry archive”.

The Way Back Machine can be used to recover old states of many webpages. you can also use google’s cache function … . just search for the url you need on google, and click “cache” under the desired result. for the most part, nothing on the internet every really disappears, even if the content publisher deletes it (which is probably just as scary to some people as the idea that some content can be lost forever).

on the other hand, Silliman has no responsibility to archive comments on his own blog. it’s a little hard for me to see why anyone would assume that someone else has the obligation to archive something you want to keep. you would archive a letter that you sent to someone. you would never send the original (and only) copies of your poems to a publisher under the assumption that they’d keep track of it for you. anyone who wants conversations that happen on the internet to be saved needs to be archiving for themselves, and then backing them all up somewhere else.

really, we should be writing to blogger (the blogging service Silliman uses) asking them to introduce a function where individual users can archive their own comments. many sites offer this function,
blogger does not.

Let me highlight two important things here.

First of all, and most immediately, we are urged to believe by the quote (and Silliman’s obvious endorsement of it) that the Silliman comment archives are safe and sound, a few clicks away, in “Cached” form: Six of one or half a dozen of the other, so to speak.

And yet, if one checks the comments sections at both the Pathologos and Jessica Smith blogs, it becomes clear that the person making the claim quickly goes into retreat: The “Way Back Machine,” it would seem, is markedly incomplete and unreliable as an archiving instrument, and the Google “Cache” pages, to which Silliman seems to want to consign the storing of the thousands of comments sent his way, have a very limited shelf life. Indeed, the owner of the Pathologos blog, to whom Silliman gives last word, reiterated his somewhat embarrassed qualifications a couple days ago, when I pressed him on the matter at Jessica Smith’s blog.

It could be I’m still missing something, and I’d welcome anyone who is more technically knowledgeable than I to step in and confirm that “Cached” records on the web are as long-lived and complete as the auto-records of blogs proper, preserved as they are for the course of the virtual lives of their platforms. But from what I can gather, that seems not to be the case. If it’s not the case, one again must be surprised that a web-savvy figure like Silliman would be in the dark about it.

The second thing to highlight in regards Silliman’s endorsement of the Pathologos comment involves something a good deal more startling and disturbing. For the suggestion is made there that Silliman really has no responsibility to preserve the materials offered by others to his blog—that, instead, all those comments should have been industriously copied and saved in personal files by each of the people making them. Then, one supposes, we would happily have a decade’s worth of thousands of disarticulated comments sent to Silliman’s blog floating safely out there in personal files! Such a suggestion—apparently seriously proffered—is so dumb and completely oblivious to the nature and meaning of an unfolding, collective, and organically interrelated document of exchange that one hardly knows what to say. And that Silliman himself would hold up such a clueless, irrelevant remark in positive light, as some kind of “answer” to the concerns that have been expressed, is truly astounding.

After all the brouhaha over whether Silliman should ban further commenting at his blog (a secondary, somewhat uninteresting issue—and the supposed trigger for it, that poets’ “feelings” have been “hurt” by sharp criticism is somewhat humorous, in light of the tonnage of needling, sometimes vicious, aggression Silliman has parceled out on numerous writers over the past eight years, directly in his comments or indirectly via his prolific links) the real matter remains: What about the extant, vast record of conversation, debate, and anecdotal and bibliographic information those archives provide? What of that? Not just the potential interest of its discrete parts, but the part the broader sweep of that record might play (however modest the promise we might currently presume it to hold) in helping to illuminate this moment in American poetry’s “post-avant” history? Supposedly, the “post-avant” is an important thing for Ron Silliman. Is it for him, really, to nonchalantly decide, as the case begins to seem, that this collectively developed material is so unworthy and disposable? Because a minute portion of its contents are annoying to him? Even if he “owns” those contributions others have, in the overwhelming main, sincerely made?¹

Apparently so . . . For in another back-channel e-mail to me the other day, he blithely responded to my concern about the safekeeping of the record in question with the following remark:

“I haven’t thought about saving it.”

As my title says, the mystery builds.

—Kent Johnson

¹ I suppose Silliman might say he had to delete all record of comments so that “Comment Field Bullies,” or CFB’s, as the acronym du jour goes, wouldn’t raid his past comment boxes with objectionable remarks. But really, how many numbskulls would take the effort to do that in now antique, dormant threads? And if a few did, it would certainly not take much to delete the occasional one. Furthermore, as Nicholas Liu points out, himself a past user of Blogger, it is a simple maneuver to close any old thread without hiding existing comments.

The Chairmen