The essay is an old, sometimes misunderstood, literary form. Here’s a response to Christy Wampole’s “The Essayification of Everything.”
Recently, I read Christy Wampole’s excellent New York Times article “The Essayification of Everything.” Wampole’s argument is that “the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America.” Wampole also says that “essayism” (her term) “accommodates our insecurities, our self-absorption, our simple pleasures, our unnerving questions and the need to compare and share our experiences with other humans.”
The article articulates a concept I have tried to describe about the blog: that the blog post does what the essay does in its best moments: it connects our daily thoughts or “ephemera” with the big issues or questions of the day. Wampole points out Theodor Adorno’s definition of the “essay’s groping intention,” or as she interprets it, “drawing analogies between the particular and the universal.”
Unfortunately, the essay, as defined today, isn’t what it was in the 17th or 18th century. In fact, Walpole points out that “essay” comes from Montaigne’s definition of his writing in 1580, which was “Essais,” or “Attempts.” It’s our 20th and 21st century definitions that try to make the essay something it is not: a school exercise, an assertion of “truth” or “fact,” a collection of overly-confident platitudes on how to live.
Like the essay, the blog has had a tumultuous upbringing. Go back to 2000 and read some blog posts from that time. For the most part, blog posts were rambling monstrosities: subjective diversions from the day to day. They mixed political and social commentary with the concerns and anxieties of bloggers, average people making sense of life in the 21st century.
While many blog posts still keep this open-ended form, over the last 13 years the blog post took on some formal characteristics as it fell into the hands of marketers, SEO experts, and journalists. Today, the formal characteristics of a blog post work counter-intuitively to the spirit of blogging.
Some formal elements are fine, but I wonder if we need to maintain the range and broad scope of blogging as a way of keeping the spirit of the essay intact. The goal, then, is to make sense of the tidy and simplistic ways of seeing the world in the 21st century. It should be a place where, rhetorically, we begin to break down the categorizations of modern life.
Walpole terms this concept “essayism.” I suppose as an academic, and a writer in the New York Times, she needs to categorize the uncategorizable. I get that. But I wonder, too, if the term “blogism,” or something similar to it, would have a similar effect. Now that we see the essay as the thing you write in school — a formal writing process — the blog opens up the possibilities of a new essayism.
Ultimately, the “essayification of everything” means throwing out old constraints. As Wampole puts it, it is “an invitation to maintain the elasticity of mind and to get comfortable with the world’s inherent ambivalence.”