Blogging and dementia: Why this blog? Why any blog?

Like a lot of academics, I have found it difficult to stay focused on my research and writing following the publication of my first book. In part this reflects the usual challenge university faculty have in balancing teaching and administrative obligations, and taking quite seriously the quaint notion of “having a life” outside of work. In my case, it also reflects some ambivalence about my work that I think comes from the peculiar emotional demands of this topic – ambivalence that I may explore on this blog soon. In any case, I intend to use this blog as a way to get and keep my head back in the game. It will be a space for thinking out loud, forging some new connections and staking out some commitments in public as I begin work on a new book.

So this blog will serve as a kind of open notebook to explore issues related to my ongoing work on the history of Alzheimer’s disease and aging in the modern world, which I described in some detail in the “about this blog” and “about me” pages. In the remainder of this post, I want to talk about the questionable enterprise of blogging itself and how it might relate to dementia.

My friend and colleague in the history of the neurosciences Stephen Casper has written a very nice post on his blog that lays out all the good reasons an academic might have for blogging. Still, the sheer absurdity of this enterprise ought to be acknowledged up front.

When I write for any public, regardless of whether the medium is a book for an academic press, an article for a general audience publication, or a facebook status update, I write out of a stubborn commitment to the idea that my life can and should have meaning, and that writing for others can be a means of solidifying that meaning, of somehow making a difference in the world.

But there are at least two problems with publication that have developed over the past few decades that threaten to overwhelm the modern ideal of writing as an act of meaning. The first is the crisis of the overproduction of information that threatens to overwhelm the ability of any individual to know what is important. In the academic world, lip service to interdisciplinarity aside, the accelerating production of new scholarship in every field has made increasingly quaint the notion that, as university faculty, we should be sufficiently aware of major developments across the university to be able to engage meaningfully with any and all of the important ideas of the day. Even in a very narrowly defined subfield, scholars struggle to keep up with the proliferation of new research.

In the blogosphere,where the flow of information is not controlled by peer review and the costs of production are nil, things have quickly become truly absurd. The best current estimate suggests that there are now more than 172 million blogs out there, with about 75,000 new blogs created and more than a million blogposts published each day. The old saw that a roomful of chimpanzees randomly typing for long enough will reproduce a literary masterpiece seems now extended toward its logical conclusion: an infinitely expanding number of monkeys typing will eventually produce everything that it is theoretically possible to say.

In any case, there certainly aren’t enough monkeys in the world to read all that is earnestly being written. Given such daunting numbers, how can choking the virtual world with one more blog possibly be an act of communicative meaning?

A second problem concerns the creation and maintenance of self-identity in a hyper-mediated world. Since the early 1980s, social critics have argued that post-World War II mass-consumer society has presented acute challenges to the creation and maintenance of selfhood. For my purposes here, the most cogent of these critics is psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who argued in The Saturated Self  (1991) that technology wildly proliferate human relationships to the point of “social saturation,” with the result that “the very concept of personal essences is thrown into doubt. Selves as possessors of real and identifiable characteristics – such as rationality, emotion, inspiration, and will – are dismantled.” As suggested by the artwork (shamelessly stolen below) illustrating Teddy Wayne’s brilliant send-up in last month’s New Yorker of the cultural practices of “reposting,” the emergence of blogging and other social media since then would seem only to have exacerbated this problem, as the opportunities to communicate about oneself and what we think is important through new forms of media to an expanding circle of “friends” or “contacts” are coming to seem more like obligations and burdens than opportunities.

And here is where blogging connects to dementia. As I argued in my book, it is no accident that these sorts of social critiques became commonplace at roughly the same historical moment that Alzheimer’s disease was emerging as a major public issue. A disease whose most prominent feature is the destruction of memory, and most dreaded moment is when victims no longer recognize friends and family members they have known for a lifetime, seems to perfectly embody these concern about the erosion of self. Alzheimer’s disease, it seems, is one of the emblematic disorders of a post-modern culture. And conversely, blogging and social media seemsto embody the fragility and fragmentation of postmodern selfhood that has come to make Alzheimer’s so frightening.

Having said all that, I immediately feel the need to issue caveats (which is perhaps symptomatic of the very problems I am describing.) Though the overproduction of information certainly undermines the ideal of writing to create meaning, it does not make meaning impossible. Moreover, though I think the connection I point to between the symptoms of dementia and the way that hyper-mediation of the social world challenges our ideas of selfhood is real and significant, to assert that they are the same would be absurd and dismissive of the real challenges faced by people with dementia. I make a distinction between the dementia produced by the hypocognitive situation of the person with Alzheimer’s, and the confusion produced by a hypercognitive society. Both are profoundly, perhaps at times even equally, disorienting and disruptive of a coherent sense of self. But there is a difference between having one’s cognitive abilities impaired to the degree that one cannot successfully perform expected social roles, and experiencing confusion – even extreme confusion – because social roles that one successfully performs are contradictory and incoherent.

I do not know the answers to these problems, but I do think we do well and grow by acknowledging and learning to live with them. So however absurd it may be in the crowded, narcissistic echochamber of the new media world of discourse, this blog will be a means for me engage in the ritual speech act of talking about some things that I think are important, of taking stands in the world in the hope of connecting to some larger human purpose.

Of course, I do recognize that I may be deceiving myself, that this enterprise may be part of some larger process, some larger, grander scheme beyond my ken. Perhaps I am merely being recruited into that vast and growing army of monkeys typing endlessly toward the information apocalypse that will be brought about when every conceivable idea has been expressed. And on that day the unfolding universe of words and its illusive promise of meaning will finally be brought to its fulfillment. The vast human stream of words will expand to become everything and nothing at all.

Whatever the true purpose of my efforts, I will humbly endeavor play my part…