Frenzy of Judyism May Augur the Dawn Of New Neural Age

Out of the delirium of Judiana (Gawker’s coinage), a paradigm shift? Out of the welter and whirlwind of exegesis of intelligence leaks comes … redesigned intelligence? An epistemological extreme makeover? We’re way beyond meta now when we talk about the media. We’re beyond self-examination (Rather); self-congratulation (Deep Throat); beyond heroes (Murrow) and villains (Capote virtually accuses Capote of negligent homicide). We’re beyond meta-parody (Stephen ­Colbert). We’ve moved from self-examination to, well (figuratively), self-colonoscopy. We’re into double-secret- meta-meta territory. And I’d argue that it’s begun to affect our brains. But in a good way.

I think the recent total frenzy of Judiana—the Talmudic, blogospheric analysis of the entire spectrum of speculation, rumor, conjecture in the Plame case and its Judy Miller subplot that has consumed so many of us—may mark the moment when the way we process information has changed in some deeper fundamental way that transcends this particular media colonoscopy, transcends media consciousness and suggests some deep internal realignment of the prefrontal lobes.

What I mean is that whatever the Plame special prosecutor decides—and I write before any indictments have been filed—I believe the escalating online delirium of Judiana and Plame blame-game analysis will be remembered as the moment when more than the media changed. The very nature of literacy, perhaps even the shape and texture of consciousness changed, the way Virginia Woolf declared human character changed in 1910. All that transformative stuff McLuhan predicted might actually come true, although not in a way he had foreseen. It’s no longer about how the Web is changing us, although the Web is a factor. It’s not merely about cyber-connectivity. It’s about internal neural connections and configurations; it’s really about the way the brain may be changing. The way the blogosphere has become a new hemisphere of the brain. Now there’s right brain, left brain and blog brain.

It’s not just me thinking this, although you don’t have to take it on faith (I have a witness) that I had been thinking it even before I read the remarkable conclusion to a recent Nora Ephron report for The Huffington Post on some blog conference. But she deserves credit for getting it online before me.

At the end of a characteristically witty and sardonic essay, Ms. Ephron (an occasional colleague) suddenly blossomed into a visionary coda about the Web: “Way more than television, it’s changing the culture, it’s changing the way people think, it’s changing the way their brains work.” (My italics.)

I agree! I was wrong back in 1999, when I wrote a three-part Slate “Dispatch” (“The Last Luddite Gets Wired”) and snarked that “neo-Nazi pinheads … along with child pornographers and Bill Gates, seem to me to be the only unequivocal beneficiaries of wired culture.” (I think this attitude may have shaped the “Observer reporter” character in Ms. Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, with his Luddite typewriter obsession). Although it’s still true about those three—the neo-Nazis, etc.—I now realize the entire wired population (especially the media subdomain) is experiencing some kind of neural reshaping. I think there is even a biological basis for believing this.

The glial cells. You know the ones that, in effect, hyperlink neural connections in the brain. I can’t remember where I read this (it wasn’t Weekly World News), but as I recall, some recent study had revealed that information overload of certain sorts can trigger the growth of new glial cells. New neural connectivity.

When I spoke about this with a woman of my acquaintance, she said she felt her Webification was “growing new creases” in her brain. That’s one way of putting it. I mean, don’t you feel that in the past five years or so, your mode of thinking has been Webified in subtle ways, even when you’re not on the Web? I know I spend too much time in a blog fog, but, in general, I think this is a good thing.

Because it’s not just the way we think, Ms. Ephron argues; it’s about the way we look at and look for truth. Which is, you know, theoretically, where the media and its blogospheric penumbra come in. “Truth is a very limited, overrated concept, and nowhere is this more clear than on the Internet,” she writes.

By this, I don’t think she means to imply there is no such thing as truth, or that truth is “relative,” but that it’s more often elusive, hazy, a shape in the fog of possibilities that may not be glimpsed except through examining facts, theories, rumors and conjectures from (at least) 360 degrees of perspective and investigation. In other words, we might have something to learn about truth’s complexity from the blogosphere.

The haze of possibilities, like the fog of war, is often the product not of different realities but of different perspectives, and the fog of blog in some ways is a more truthful approximation of the hazy shimmer of reality than assertions about the elusive, often unavailable absolute in itself.

It may be there (the absolute truth), but sometimes we can’t say exactly where. Just as in some variations of the still-viable Copenhagen model of subatomic structure, the position of a particle is only a probability that it will be somewhere within a haze of possible positions on a limited number of orbital paths. Obscured in the fog of quarks. Or, if you want to reach for another metaphor, try the Talmudic analogy: It’s all about the haze of marginalia, the exegesis and commentary and exegesis of the commentary and commentary on the exegesis, and the truth is to be found in the fog of illuminations. (My friend Jonathan Rosen was prophetic when he published—four years ago—his speculations on The Talmud and the Internet.)

Lost in Firedoglake

I think my own moment of recognition of the brain-altering role of the Web came when I found myself drowning in Firedoglake. Firedoglake (at is a blog for hardcore Judyists. Firedoglake is the Talmud of Judiana. Others have done great work on the subject, including the reporters for this paper’s Web site. Tom Maguire’s, Arianna H. and Murray Waas, among others, break stories, and Kausfiles always offers entertaining contrarian meta speculations.

But Firedoglake has basically one subject and one only, and it’s completely addictive in its 24/7 exegetical attentiveness and obsessiveness. Part of its addictiveness is its embrace of the utter complexity of the machinations and negotiations and speculative ratiocinations. Part of it is what you might call the catholicity of its Judiana: The linkage to other obsessives—even those like Tom Maguire, who doesn’t share Firedoglake’s generally lefty politics, but who has earned a reputation from smarter bloggers of all persuasions for the precision and astuteness of his analysis.

What you get a feel for on Firedoglake is that it’s a holograph of the way the entire blogosphere is engaged in a vast, collective, simultaneous multi-cortex consideration of the mysteries at the heart of the matter. The way the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I can almost pinpoint it, the moment I was hooked on Firedoglake for good: the Aspern Papers—I mean the “aspen papers”—moment. Not the letter itself (Libby to Judy rhapsodizing, perhaps a little too cunningly for his own good, about the way “the aspens … turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.” It’s really the defining, iconic phrase of Judiana—“the aspens turn”—the way “smoking gun” or “Deep Throat” were for Watergate.

Others focused on the potential of Libby’s “testimony coaching” in the aspen metaphor, and Firedoglake was on that like white on rice, sure; but when Jane Hamsher, the chief proprietor of the blog, took up the subject, she focused microscopically on the leak of the aspen papers to the Times.

Like cui bono, dude? Not an obvious question, who leaked and why. Check out the Oct. 18 post sometime: It’s a brilliant mixture of supposition and forensic conjecture about the vectors of power, self-interest, loyalty and betrayal involved in the leak. She persuades you that it was a key to just about everything going on at that moment, when big decisions were being made in the tense battle of wills playing itself out in the lawyers’ conversations with prosecutors. It’s this novelistic perspective that’s the added value of Firedoglake. And has anyone pointed out the similarities in the “aspen papers” affair to Henry James’ famous novella, The Aspern Papers? More importantly, Firedoglake gets the Jamesian complexity, the novelistic nexus of character and politics involved.

The blog is co-written with two others, including someone who files under the name “ReddHedd” (always a plus for me), a former prosecutor who brings a sharp-eyed perspective to the insider tactics; check out her Tim Russert analysis on Oct. 20.

But I was especially surprised and impressed by Ms. Hamsher’s blog voice, I guess you’d call it. Her blog persona. A combination of hardboiled Raymond Chandleresque lingo, Eric Ambleresque ear for intrigue and a bit of Tarantino imaginative obscenity.

The latter may not be an accident. I referenced her book Killer Instinct in something I wrote about the contrasting aesthetics of violence in the films of Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino nearly a decade ago. (You can read my analysis of her analysis in my book The Secret Parts of Fortune.) Ms. Hamsher told the tangled story of the two tough guys’ feud over Natural Born Killers (which Ms. Hamsher co-produced) quite well, and has subsequently continued her movie-producing career (Apt Pupil, Permanent Midnight, etc.).

But suddenly she’s writing these insanely complex, destabilizingly complicated Judyist posts. She’s the high priestess of Judiana. A blog star, or “blogebrity” (as the Blogebrity blog has it).

In any case, it was in the midst of following the balletic leaps of logic in one of her posts that I realized it was taking my brain to a new place.

I don’t always agree with the perspective of Firedoglake. I believe prospective Firedoglake addicts ought to consider the perspective of Jack Shafer and Jacob Weisberg (in Slate) about how the press and blogosphere, crazed by Judiana, are likely—if they get the indictments they’re so eager for—to criminalize investigative reporting à la the British Official Secrets Act. Nonetheless, I think it’s always good for people in any White House to fear the specter of a special prosecutor.

I think if you haven’t read the 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the dubious aspects of Joseph Wilson’s original Times Op-Ed, the origin of it all, you’ve neglected what should be a required text of Judiana. You’re missing a dimension of irony and absurdity to the whole affair.

Still, there’s nothing more satisfying, in a mind-altering way, than trying to figure out what the hell is going on, not to mention what the hell actually went on. The lure of Judiana is seductive in its Kinbotean complexity.

In any case, now we have to face the problem that it’s going to end soon. It may have ended by the time you read this, in terms of the indictments, but that only begins a new phase. There will still be more mysteries to plumb. Hey, how about a special prosecutor to investigate what certainly seem like leaks from the special prosecutor’s supposedly secret grand jury?

In any case, I know I will remember Judiana as the phenomenon, the moment when the truth became a fog of blog. In a good way.

Frenzy of Judyism May Augur the Dawn Of New Neural Age