During the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th, a disparate group of intellectuals in Europe and the United States engaged in a long-distance discourse that became know as the Republic of Letters, or Respublica Literaria. It was one of the first transnational movements, and scholars have endlessly debated its relevance and influence upon the dramatically proclaimed Age of Enlightenment it heralded. Personally, I feel no need to explain this in terms of cause and effect – the Republic of Letters was simply the written discourse of a movement that was changing the way people thought about their relationship with the world.
It is a seldom noticed fact that while anyone who can read and write could write a letter, very few actually do – and fewer still in our current era, what it is tempting to call the Age of Distraction. Letters, rather than say postcards and other friendly waves expressed in writing, involve a kind of engagement that has become rather rare these days. A letter invites a response, asks us to think about something, requests insight from another perspective... Letters are conversations at a slow enough pace to allow the correspondents to think a out what they are saying. I would like to suggest that it takes a particular kind of introvert to engage in letter writing in this sense – a quiet soul not content to bury themselves in just their solitary activities, but willing and able to reach out in words to another, similar person. I love a good conversation in a pub or bar, or at a conference, or even on a long journey, but as enjoyable as these forms of discourse may be for me they cannot adequately substitute for the pleasure of the letter.
Up until 2000, I wrote letters extensively – to old school and university friends, to my lover (now my wife), to family... After this, I began to fall out of the habit for various reasons – partly reflective of a change in my circumstances (to that of both husband and company-owner), but also mirroring the gradual replacement of pen-and-paper with email and text messages, the demise of the post office as the bastion of communication in the wake of the digital connectivity of homes.
Yet in 2005, that all changed. A friend of mine from my time in London insisted I should try blogging. He could not give me any well-defined reasons for my doing so, it was more an intuition. In July, I took the plunge and began writing a blog most mornings, more or less stream-of-consciousness. But in no time at all, I was engaging with other bloggers – discussing shared interests, exchanging ideas, and (perhaps most surprisingly) arguing productively – something UseNet forums had not managed to deliver. When you trap a bunch of geeks inside a virtual room, sparks soon begin to fly, and before you know it it’s bedlam. But the blog was a more personal format – it clearly belonged to one voice while being open to everyone. While vicious arguments did occasionally break out, the blog owner could draw these away with new posts, and disgruntled visitors did not have the equal territorial claim of a forum and thus eventually fell silent.
I had joined the Republic of Bloggers, but it was already there when I arrived, and I cannot even take credit for the name, since one of my regulars here at Only a Game explicitly drew my attention to the connectivity between blogs and the Republic of Letters. A scattering of intellectuals across the globe, engaged in discourse on almost every conceivable topic, listening to and speaking their minds. It was an incredible, heady experience, one that I still treasure.
However, over the years I began to move away from discourse and into monologue. The blog became a place to draft material that would end up in books and papers, and the sense of an exchange of letters fell away. This was doubly unfortunate for me, since at this point I had also ceased to write letters, except to my favourite aunt, who sadly passed away recently. Although I recently blamed the decline of the blog clusters upon the rise of more immediate (and shallower) forms of communication such as Facebook and Twitter, there was another factor I had not considered: we just stopped talking too each other. We were seduced by the simple validation that the social networks gave us, we began scoring shares and retweets instead of communicating for the sake of the discourse itself.
But my sense of things suggests that the Republic of Bloggers is still out there – we just stopped participating in it. Partly this will be because we got older, had more responsibilities and less time. It is unthinkable that I could spend two hours each morning blogging like I used to, for instance! But also, we were seduced by the virtual water cooler conversations of Twitter and its ilk, the MUD chat room elevated to a global scale. We stopped caring about the discourse for its own sake and slipped into more comfortable distractions instead.
Yet for those of us who write and think in a certain way, there can be nothing more satisfying than the letter – no matter what form it is rendered – and Google+ and the like cannot offer this, even though they can be used to signpost to it. My realisation late last year was that to get back what I was missing meant more than lamenting that the social networks were better at maintaining (shallow) engagement than the blog clusters – it meant getting back to what blogging had really meant to me, beneath the vanity of being the locus of attention for a while. It meant getting back to writing letters, even if those letters were to be posted to a blog and ‘delivered’ by tweet or email. And fundamental to a letter is that it is addressed to someone.
This year, I have vouched to return to the Republic of Bloggers by writing letters to the other blogs in my own peculiar cluster. I shall endeavour to do so every month if I can. It is a small thing, but it is of great importance to me, and worth the effort it entails. The Republic of Bloggers is here for anyone to join, but it is not for anyone – it is for the letter writers, those who live in their writing as much or more than they live in their immediate worlds. You know if this is you. And if it is, you owe it to yourself to write letters, write letters to and for people, write more than just the engaging articles that people read, but write to discuss what cannot be fulfilled by thought alone. This is the Republic of Bloggers. I hope you will join me there.