Technologies of Seeing

Lenses for Writing

As Pica from Feathers of Hope reminds us, writing is not just a way to represent what we see: rather, it is itself a way of seeing:

By writing I learned to think about place, which in turn made me SEE it. And the cycle continues... looking makes me listen, makes me alive to the infinite transformations around me that make a place THIS place.

"Water and Old Stones" (June 15, 2003)

Numenius from Feathers of Hope reflects on ways other technologies can shape the experience of place, particularly the division between the “modern spatial technologies” he often works with as a geographer and the “almost mystical striving for awareness of a particular locality” that motivates his use of a simpler technology—writing:

The danger in our modern world of geodatabases, remote sensing technologies, and GPS mapping tools with sub-meter accuracies, is that what cannot be conveniently georeferenced and placed in computer maps gets forgotten about. These spatial tools are eminently technologies for the managerial mindset, designed to support the archetypal 'decision-maker'. Lost here is any notion of place as narrative, or place as history.

I was always one for a saunter anyway. As John Stilgoe puts it, cycling along at 11 miles an hour is an ideal way to explore the landscape (at such a speed one can gaze straight through picket fences), and wandering on bicycle or foot is deep in my bones. If every place has tales, trying to write them down is a worthy way to bring them to light.

"Of Space and Place" (June 15, 2003)

For Numenius, two technologies, biking and writing, are particularly well suited for the exploration of place. As Mitchell Thomashow has pointed out, it’s difficult for us to develop a deep sense of place when we don’t modulate the pace of our perception, if we only experience places at the pace of a car or an airplane and not at the pace of walking or biking (156). The Internet also seems to be part of the problem: As the “information superhighway,” it tends to provides us with vast amounts of information in a very short time. However, Numenius expresses some hope that we are not “very far off from having narrative-rich geographies emerge from the grassroots side of the Web,” suggesting the future collaboration between weblogs and other locative media.

Chris from Bowen Island Journal makes explicit the role blogging about place has played in increasing his awareness of where he is:

As I have been writing about my life here, I am increasingly conscious of how blogging has brought a sharper awareness and attention to my life here. For me, blogging place is drawing attention to links in the elements that make up the landscape. As this blog has evolved, I have become acutely aware of the landscape that is forming in my mind and heart of who I am and what Bowen Island is as a place and what relationship exists between us.

The careful, direct observation of landscapes and ecosystems has long been a core value for the practice of nature writing, a practice which tends to object to the intrusion of any forms of mediation, whether technological or ideological. Beth from The Cassandra Pages, however, suggests that blogging as both a technology and a genre facilitates rather than obstructs her engagement with the natural world:

Nature has always been a big subject in my writing, and one thing I've been grateful for is that blogging about nature and my surroundings has made me get out more and turn on that mental recorder - that's very welcome, from the perspective of this chair and desk, especially after the longest and most inhospitable winter I can remember. In my poetry and essays, nature is often a metaphor and a vehicle for me to talk about something else, and it's helpful to get back into a more constantly observant frame of mind.

The rhetorical and physical rhythm between place and the web is evident here, suggesting that Beth takes advantage of certain affordances of blogging in such a way that "being digital" does not preclude "going natural."

For some place bloggers, Beth's metaphor of "turning on that mental recorder" becomes somewhat more literal as they turn on other recording devices such as digital cameras, as in Fred's description from Fragments from Floyd:

In my life, the real lenses of the camera (and the microscope, during my biologist life) have made me more acutely aware of the beauty and form of 'ordinary' things, given me a different appreciation of things than I might have had without looking closely and with interest and awe through these wonderful devices that focus the mind on detail. Photography is an important part of my exploration of place, and in some ways, the images that I share from time to time are as important as the words, bringing my place immediately into yours, bridging both distance and the otherness that separates strangers. Through my lens, you can see through my eyes, share my sight, insight, and vision.

Lenses are real, and they are metaphors for anything that lets us or makes us see the world differently. Each of us has a 'philosophical lens' that molds our thinking and our writing. It clarifies, magnifies, distorts, and colors our perceptions and understanding of the reality around us. When I write about my particular place here on Goose Creek, I portray it through a refracting lens that bends and molds my view of life in a way that is unique, even from my neighbor's. Yours lens, too, is as distinct as your thumbprint, and when focused on that ground under your feet, your words about what you see, and your pictures offer us worlds about you in your place we would never have known.

"Writing About Place" (June 2003)

There are no claims to objectivity here since perception of place is necessarily mediated, either in material forms—something as simple and literal as my eyeglasses —or the ideological and cultural lenses that refract our perceptions of the world in less concrete forms.

Indeed, digital photography becomes an extension of place blogging practice, extending the composition process out into physical places and connecting it to the writing process that takes place later in front of a computer. For Lorianne from Hoarded Ordinaries, photography provides a heuristic for seeing that can foster a Zen-like attentiveness to ordinary places:

I'm always surprised when people compliment me on the photos I post on my blog, for these are snapshots of the most ordinary kind. Walking around Keene with a leash in one hand and a digicam in the other, I simply record what I see: there is very little "art" or intention behind it. And yet, this kind of simple seeing is indeed the very heart of meditation practice: without judgment or preconception, what is it that falls before your eyes at any given moment? Without judgment or preconception, can you love that sight as if it were your very last? If you knew that tomorrow your mother or lover or brother would die--if you knew that tomorrow you yourself would die--what parts of their face or person would you notice or cherish? If today were your last day on earth, what sights would you re-visit and remember; what details would you etch in memory as a shield against mortality?

"Getting (re)acquainted" (Nov. 17, 2004)

The place bloggers, then, are exploring the affordances of both the blog and other technologies to figure out in what ways these technologies can act as heuristics for paying attention. While digital photography is perhaps the most common way to incorporate visual media, Pica and Numenius from Feathers of Hope also include sketches with their posts, a practice that has carried over from keeping a place-based log book. In the near future, place blogging will increasingly include dynamic mapping and forms of "geoannotation" that connect geographic coordinates with to blog posts, technologies that allow the relationships between posts to be organized in space (on maps) as well is time (in reverse chronological order). The emerging field of "locative media" explores the use of new media technologies--networked, portable, location-aware devices--to connect information and people with places in spatial as well as chronological ways (Hemment). Drawing on this wide range of technologies, blogging about place has the potential to be a deeply multimodal form of composition, reflecting both the radical changes taking place in communication technologies and the complex and diverse ways we come to develop our connections to place.

Heuristics for Awareness

Place blogging, then, is a mediating form that acts as a lens for paying attention to the world, a lens whose affordances encourage users to look through it frequently. The reverse chronological order and expectation of frequent updates invites dailyness by encouraging bloggers to notice the everyday changes in the world around them and record their observations in a timely way.

While place-oriented blogging provides this regular impetus to examine one’s sense of place in writing, the Ecotone Bi-Weekly Topics (See sidebar right) build this into the culture of the online community of writers. Every two weeks, Ecotone bloggers write about a common topic in their blogs and link to these posts from the Ecotone site. During the first year and half between June 15, 2003 and November 15, 2004, the Ecotone site offered 34 bi-weekly topics. During this time, 55 different bloggers contributed just over 300 posts with an average of 9 posts for each topic. About 20 regulars contributed three quarters of the posts, and the 8 most frequent contributors were responsible for adding half of the total posts (See Appendix). Offering this heuristic for writing at regular intervals serves to reinforce the impulse toward timeliness and frequency inherent in the structure of individual blogging practices.

These interactions create an online neighborhood writing group: the Ecotone wiki actively works to construct a rhetorical place where writers can bring offer works-in-progress to a like-minded group of writers who will offer feedback and dialogue. In contrast to neighborhood writing group situated in a particular place—such as the writers groups published in Chicago's Journal of Ordinary Thought—this online rhetorical neighborhood supports the work of geographically dispersed writers in their ongoing efforts to understand their actual neighborhoods.

In this online community of interest, bloggers do not read in order to learn about their places directly from other blogs; rather, what writers gain is the inspiration derived from good writing and insight into how others construct their sense of place. In a sense, then, the bi-weekly topics provide heuristics that not only help writers generate blog entries, but also foster the conditions for further invention, as place bloggers learn from each other about how to engage more deeply with their own particular places.

In the context of a place-based writing course that incorporates blogging, the Ecotone site suggests ways course websites could function as a community-building portals and sources of writing prompts to encourage individual blogging practices, offering ways to encourage both independent writing about place and shared discussions of place-related topics as a class. Students could be required to blog regularly about places that matter to them, whether the neighborhoods they commute from, the university environs where they study, or other local places they have chosen to engage with regularly. To complement this more individual blogging practice, semi-regular writing prompts posted on the course website could foster discussion around shared topics, and the course website could serve as a meeting place that connects classmates to each others blogs (perhaps using RSS syndication and wiki-like collaboration tools).

© Copyright Tim Lindgren