To stain the blank page: on blogging and the ship’s log, through the figure of the binnacle.

What is it to start resume blogging now, in the spring of 2023? (Other than it no longer being 1998, that is.) It seems uncertainty is the order of the day. Some speak of a “polycrisis”, while bracing for further ruptures amid mounting turbulence. The digital leviathans founder, the public sphere takes damage, giving way to a froth of invite-only backchannels and social dark pools. Early ripples, perhaps, of epistemic breakdown; a peeling-apart of our criteria for appraising truth amid information overload, new synthetic media, and a multiply-breached social contract.

Today, the web is no longer new media, but the backdrop, staging, and atmospherics of lives lived online. Blog is a clipping of a kenning, hinging the network and the archive. And if the novelty of the web is fast-fading, then we should be places more stress on the log half of that hinge.

Compass in binnacle, George Stebbing, 1819

As a format and genre, the weblog is haunted by the ship’s log. Initially, this was a record of readings from the chip log; a piece of wood on a length of rope, used to calculate a ship’s speed. And both of these logs frequently found their way into the binnacle.

Originally a kind of open cupboard, the binnacle usually had separate compartments for compass, lamp, and hourglass — a composite interface of handheld tools, permitting the seafarer to orient themselves (and their vessel) in space and time.

Beyond its actual use, the binnacle was a convenient container for ship documents and equipment of all kinds:

‘Captain Cook kept the keys of the leg-irons in the binnacle, while Captain Bligh thought his a suitable stowage for a pair of pistols.’ (May, 1954: 28)

The ship’s log existed alongside navigation devices, and ‘within the drifts of other documents on board a typical ship’ (Schotte, 2013: 284). More prominent than other written media, it was neither outlier nor exception — only important inasmuch as it enabled (successful) navigation. Initially intended for personal use during voyages, 16th- and 17th-century log-keepers sought flexibility and simplicity, from a ‘methodical, concise, and adaptable document, validated by daily use’ (ibid: 292).

These navigator-practitioners adopted the ship’s log to cope with ‘increasing quantities of information … in an age when the scale of their oceanic crossings required them to coordinate ever more information’ (Schotte, 2013: 290). But as anthropologist Nick Seaver notes, stories about information overload are as much about shifts in the ‘scalar relationship between archives and individuals’ as any shared, objective reality:

Overload requires more than an overwhelming amount of stuff; it requires someone to feel overwhelmed (Seaver, 2023: 36-37).

In a context of information overload, thinking with the binnacle shows how the blog, like the ship’s log, is an epistemic genre; a class or category of texts linked (in their authors’ eyes, at least) to the dance of knowledge-making. (see Pomata, 2014) For me, the motivation is less about ‘working with the garage door open’ than logging an itinerary — discerning and recording information, as a personal navigation aid; and for the benefit of those traversing the same (or similarly) turbulent waters.


Readings

Ganz, J. (2023, February 10). Have you heard about “the polycrisis,” yet? Unpopular Front.

May, W. E. (1954). The binnacle. The Mariner’s Mirror 40 (1): 21–32. 🔒https://doi.org/10.1080/00253359.1954.10658189

Pomata, G. (2014). The medical case narrative: Distant reading of an epistemic genre. Literature and Medicine 32 (1): 1–23. 🔒https://doi.org/10.1353/lm.2014.0010

Schotte, M. (2013). Expert records: Nautical logbooks from Columbus to Cook. Information & Culture 48 (3): 281–322. 🔒https://doi.org/10.7560/IC48301

Seaver, N. (2023). Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Sloan, R. (2022, December). A year of new avenues. Lab Newsletter.