Wednesday Investigation 11: Other people's newsletters, or: communist desire in the age of COVID-19

The term "blogosphere" was coined in 1999 by internet gadabout Brad Graham. At the time that Brad offered this term up to the world, his tongue firmly in his cheek, the number of blogs were still in the double digits--six years later, though, there would be 50 million blogs, and there were somewhere around 150 million by 2010.

I was an instant fan of the form, and in the spring of 2000 I started a group blog with my friends Jonathan Leistiko and Sharon Cichelli, just a few short months after the launch of Blogger (and a few years before Blogger would be acquired by Google). But even the most ardent supporters of blogging must admit, by now, that the blogosphere as we knew it is a thing of the past. If you were tracking how blogs lost their cultural supremacy you could point to the rise of other forms of social media: Facebook opened to the public in 2006, joined soon after by "microblogging" platforms like Twitter (also 2006) and Tumblr (2007). For me, the "end of blogging" is marked by a pair of grim milestones: Blogger's decision to withdraw FTP support on May 1, 2010--so you could no longer host a Blogger-powered blog at your own domain--followed by Google's decision to discontinue Google Reader on July 1, 2013, a disaster for those of us who liked tracking blog updates using the RSS web syndication protocol.

RSS, FYI, was championed and partially developed by Dave Winer, who was also an advocate of blogging, and whose website Scripting News, launched in 1997, is sometimes described as a "protoblog." It's still going strong, amazingly! And before Scripting News, there was DaveNet, Winer's email newsletter. Scripting News, not entirely incidentally, also exists in a newsletter form. I note this as a reminder that electronic newsletters existed before blogs, and it seems that they continue to enjoy some level of cachet even as blogs decline. (They may be the "vinyl LP" of the electronic communication landscape, a format that continues to skirt obsolescence even as newer formats rise and fall.)

Is it time, then, to argue for the existence of a "newsletter-o-sphere?" The word is even more cumbersome than "blogosphere," and I feel honestly fortunate that I haven't (yet) encountered the term in my travels, although I have seen people make use of the marginally more elegant coinage "the internet of newsletters." The idea that newsletters form a network that could be treated as a singular media ecosystem is… interesting. I have my doubts that newsletters are interconnected as blogs once were (most blogs in the "first wave" featured a "linkroll" that you could use to find other blogs), but maybe there is a point in every newsletter's life where they turn to the work of recommending other newsletters? Just last week, at the invitation of my colleague Sebastian Stockman, I wrote something about this newsletter for the newsletter of the Northeastern English Department (they're doing an ongoing column about projects that people are working on during the time they've been stuck at home).

At the risk of falling further down this somewhat “meta” rabbit hole—newsletters about newsletters about newsletters—I did elect, this week, to review notes in my index that directed me to investigate other people’s newsletters. One such note dates back to 2018, when poet Anne Boyer floated the idea, on Twitter, of starting a newsletter about "truth vs. cleverness, ideas vs. opinions, the flowers in my garden/ love/ communist desire & perfume, imagination survival poetry & things we don't know yet but want."

Boyer is no longer on Twitter, it appears, but the newsletter, Mirabilary, carries on, now with a slightly refined purview: it is now "[a] notebook, probably, or a to-do list,” still about perfume and flowers and communist desire but now also “about love and also ideas about the shape of ideas,” as well as what it means “to be tethered to the world in the no-future future we wake up to everyday.”

Boyer is a poet, but she released a remarkable prose nonfiction book last year, The Undying, on the topic of her experience with cancer.

This book is interested in more than just cancer, as you can see from the sidebar of topics scrolling down the left-hand side of the cover. That’s a long subtitle, but it is possible to distill Boyer’s concerns, I think. I tried, anyway: when I read her extraordinary poetry collection Garments Against Women, in 2016, I summarized it as being about “embodied beings in the grip of abstract, tyrannical systems.” The Undying is similar, except the “embodied beings” are specifically “cancer patients,” and the tyrannical system is explicitly the “capitalist medical universe,” in which “all bodies must orbit around profit at all times.”

The book is less a memoir of surviving cancer, then, and more a critique of capitalism, which Boyer describes as “the heaviest system of the arrangement of the world as it is.” Here’s Boyer writing on how capitalism exhausts us:

“The exhausted are exhausted because they sell the hours of their lives to survive their lives, then they use the hours they haven't sold to get their lives ready for selling, and the hours after that to do the same for the other lives they love.”

This has only gained relevance here in the plague year of 2020, in which we all feel exhausted, and in which many of us are involved in an extraordinary struggle of attempting to balance the process of getting our own “lives ready” while also helping others. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Boyer, writing at Mirabilary, has been a clarion voice on the topic of COVID-19:

The way social distancing works requires faith: we must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don't do is also brilliant and full of love. We face such a strange task, here, to come together in spirit and keep a distance in body at the same time. We can do it. I am writing this because I want the good in us to break through the layers of hateful nonsense we've been drowning in. I think we can be good, but we also must prepare for an amplification of evil’s evil. The time when the invisible becomes visible is at hand.

Boyer’s cadence in her newsletter resembles, at times, the voice of a prophetess, a comparison she herself seems to invite when she writes on the “disreputable and supernatural sense of certainty” that the pandemic forced upon her, including premonitory dreams:

In January I began to have lurid dreams about what was to come, gathered mask making supplies: fabric, elastic, and filter material. Whoever I told back in January doubted and sometimes teased me well into February, some into March, but the dreams of a pandemic came with dreams of a leaky ceiling in my house, which ultimately also came true, and every prediction I wrote down in my journals seemed to be coming true, too.

Boyer puts these premonitions in the context of her reading of Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, noting that Defoe’s text records an “inexplicable rise in astrology and fortune telling in the year before the plague,” an “outbreak of prayer and piety.” These behaviors may read as paranoia or some other form of hypertrophied belief—Boyer remarks that as the pandemic came into focus, she “also began to believe in God”—but in a challenging year, perhaps it is critical to rely on our disreputable forms of faith. Not a blind faith that some god or leader will sweep in to save us from disaster, but rather a prophetess’ faith in our ability to adequately perceive the precarity of our situation, joined with an activist’s faith that we still retain a meaningful capacity to act.

I had tried to gently prepare my students, too, and had them think in advance about ways they could help others if things got bad, knowing that a reliable way to cope with disaster is to find a way to be helpful and good. It is only in that morbid state of doing nothing, helping no one or not believing we can, that we are ruined. Early in the semester I had said to them: “Please be prepared that despite everything seeming like it will go on the same way forever, anything that happened to any human being at any point in history could also happen to you.”

While we’re on the topic of newsletters, I’d like to note that I am experimenting, this week, with changing the platform that I use to publish these investigations. I’ve noticed that the images in this newsletter sometimes resize poorly, especially on my phone, and the text sometimes reformats unpredictably. Fault may arguably be laid at the door of MailChimp, which purchased TinyLetter nearly a decade ago. MailChimp has been a somewhat negligent corporate parent: they seem increasingly disinterested in keeping the tool up to date, and have stated their intention to (one day?) wind down the service. So I’ve moved to Substack, at least for this week, with a “let’s see how it goes” attitude. I was able to import the TinyLetter mailing list and the letter archive, and if you’re reading this, it means that the transition worked smoothly, at least for you. Glad to have you still with me.

-JPB, writing from Turners Falls, MA, Tuesday, July 6 (revised Wednesday, July 7)

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