Tuesday, April 28, 2009
If it can be argued that YouTube, through creating post-modern consciousness in vast numbers of people (beyond artists and the culturally inclined), is performing a service (of improvement and cultivation) to society, the matter and manner of "post-modern virtue" needs to be looked into. That is, it cannot be taken for granted that post-modern consciousness is necessarily a good thing; if it is a good thing, the reasons for this must be enumerated. This is a particularly useful exercise because YouTube is not the only Web program that is instilling post-modern consciousness; Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and even Google are all having roughly the same effect. One argument that can be posited is that post-modernizing consciousness has (ideally) the effect of reducing class boundaries, through making different forms of information widely available. It used to be that if you wanted to pick up information about something abstruse or arcane, you had to wait for an opportune time to make a jaunt to the local library. The amount of information that people could absorb was limited by how much leisure time they had. This is especially true of people who do work that does not involve much cognition, people in what have come to be known as "subaltern" positions. Now, the Net has made many poems, parts of novels, song lyrics, and other texts readily available for free. Post-Modernism has more connection to 18th century "Enlightenment" ideologies than people realize; the ideal is of a populace, armed with knowledge. Class leveling, of course, can take more than one form: people who in earlier days would not have thought to write have become active text creators on the Net. The stale elitism that would proclaim the hegemony of print texts is not merely declasse but moribund; speech-as-text is already widely used and recognized. The problem is that it is not widely used and recognized by "professionals," those with a vested interest in creating the kind of durable texts that have a shot of developing and maintaining continuing life. This project is specifically designed to clear a path for others who do not write ephemerally to adopt speech-as-text as a new mode of communication, in a manner of supplementing print and enacting a spirit and ethos of egalitarian expansion. So, the tendency to efface class is one post-modern virtue.
Another is the creation of a new kind of Individualism. As things were before, artists, writers, and others were pretty much confined to their geographical locations. If you lived in, say, Cleveland, you interacted with others of your particular ilk in Cleveland. If, for some reason, you did not feel comfortable in the milieu that you found yourself in, you just had to bite the bullet and patiently wait for things to change. With the Net, this problem has been greatly reduced. The irony is that this is particularly true for those who happen to be supplementing print text with speech-as-text. Just communicating over the Net is one thing; but when this leads to exchange of books, and this exchange is fruitful, there is very little not being fulfilled that is fulfilled when geography is not an issue. Digital consciousness and print consciousness can stimulate and fulfill each other; no conflict between forms is necessary. In fact, successful textual relationships that run on both cylinders can be (are, I have found) more fulfilling than relationships that either run on one or the other cylinder. So, the point is that post-modern consciousness, rather than posing a direct threat to tradition, can actually enrich textual traditions of reception, consumption, and general exchange. Given a choice between an inchoate reading public and a Net audience, a Net audience would seem to be preferable, because it "talks back" (even when the talk happens to be dissonant) and because Reception (defined as textual work dissemination among a small coterie audience) and Consumption (defined as textual work consumption by a mass, unknown, faceless audience) can happen simultaneously. The Internet itself, like IT, is all about levels: how many are operative at any given time, both as regards individual subjects and as regards different forms of mass consciousness. I am of the opinion that the many-leveled, many-tiered nature of digital consciousness is a virtue, often specifically because, contrary to popular belief, it reinforces traditions rather than effacing them.
Ultimately, the most salient virtue of post-modern consciousness is that, if it does not engender addictive behaviors (which, admittedly, it sometimes does), it is a stimulant to participatory behaviors. The more destructive and/or insidious forms of culture all involve manners and forms of passivity: watching a TV set (which is not colloquially known as a "boob Tube" for nothing), going to the movies, listening to music. You can watch a good movie and witness incidents of heteroglossia; can watch, say, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy having a heteroglot encounter; if you a perceptive viewer, you can internalize this incident and interpret it in your own way; but it does not engage you directly. Post-modern virtue manifests as a subject who actively seeks out heteroglot encounters; who creates speech-as-text as a mode of engaging the Other; and who also knows that this engagement happens across lines of class, race, and gender. This is why I feel that YouTube serves a positive purpose other than just as a place to watch cool old videos (though it is good for that too); YouTube says in bright neon letters, You can engage the world; it grants a fundamental sense of agency that is lacking in other arenas. That YouTube has not been picked up as a means of engagement by more professional level writers is disappointing, but it will change. Few know that print itself was once considered subaltern; courtesans and court poets for decades preferred to write things out and distribute them in manuscript. Print was crude, vulgar, and took on the negative attributes of the commodity. Now, after centuries of hegemony, print has its first serious rival. As happened with print, Net publishing is (in some circles) considered vulgar and the realm of the subaltern; but if enough serious writers pick up on its possibilities (and I am confident that they will), there is nothing outside the text may become there is nothing outside the Net. Post-modern has the virtue of bringing us forwards, rather than backwards; of engaging more Others, and less our own coteries; and of creating the heteroglot encounters that these engagements inevitably engender.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Post-modernity has taken its place as one dominant mode of aesthetic expression in the arts. It is, in fact, pretty hoary, having been put in place some time in the "Swinging Sixties" by everyone from visual artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to fiction writers like Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino to poets like Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. However, there is a wide gulf (in America and elsewhere) between dominant modes of aesthetic expression and the standard phenomenological status of individual subjects in the populace. This is true for the simple reason that the arts tend to be marginalized as a force, and the frantic creation and interpretation of signs and significations that dominates the mass media does not often include what artists would call authentically cultural. The idea of "authentic culture" is contentious, and in fact the ethos and praxis of post-modernity chafes against its overdetermined confines. The conflation of "high" and "low" forms in post-modern art has created a scenario in which it is difficult to tell what is "authentic" (or simply "art") and what is not. There are means of leveling which bring the presence of this gulf home; say the name "Roy Lichtenstein" to an average man on the street and see what he says. Nevertheless, forms have developed on the Net that have made post-modern consciousness available to subjects for whom "Culture," as we know it, might be unknown or even anathematized. One particularly relevant form of this phenomenon is YouTube, which is capable of creating not only a kind of post-modern awareness, but a kind of post-modern subject, who feels and enacts a kind of personal agency in the realm of the "fast, fluid, and without boundaries."
Post-modern art, like Modernist art, often features standard formal elements presented in fractured ways. Continuity is often not a big priority, and narrative cohesion is not privileged above parataxis and other "broken" means of presentation and representation. Ashbery's poems, especially, evince this quality. Or Bruce Nauman's early video works, that go out of their way to skirt the edges of narrativity and present fragments of an elusive whole. The connection to earlier Mods like Joyce and Eliot is too explicit to require enumeration. YouTube allows subjects, also, to play the role of master in a self-created, fragmented narrative framework. There are very few "wholes" on YouTube to begin with; it is composed of many disparate pieces, presented, importantly, as pieces, not as wholes. Reception Velocity is a factor; you can be in the middle of one "piece," get bored and choose another. This is important, in the differentiation of YouTube from post-modern movies like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Subjects who go to a movie theater or rent a movie usually feel compelled to sit through the whole thing. There is an element that is volitional; you can walk out, or stop the movie; but, especially in a capitalist milieu, the tendency is to "get what you pay for," whether you like it or not. As a subject does this, they are immersed in totalized narrative and "wholeness," even if the narrative happens to be jagged or fractured. YouTube, in the spirit of the Net (and IT) engenders no such responsibility. Few go to YouTube to find "wholes" (though short wholes like music videos might constitute an exception), most go to glimpse pieces and fragments of things. This navigating between pieces is precisely the sort of terrain that post-modern artists have been investigating for forty-odd years. Now, it has become part of the collective subjectivity of America and elsewhere.
YouTube, of course, goes beyond these confines, because it is available for participation from individual subjects. The heteroglossia of this site can be taken personally; subjects are encouraged to contribute their own work, specifically meant to generate heteroglot encounters. Warhol imagined that TV was the epitome of post-modern cosnsciousness; the rapid-fire signs, the sense of a "hot medium," the breezy and endless imparting of all kinds and fashions of information. YouTube, and other Net programs, instead one-up television, because they function as television you can be on. In the post-modern realm of the Net, it isn't that everyone is famous for 15 minutes; it's that everyone's a little bit famous. One of the quagmires that people, unfortunately, fall into, on YouTube and elsewhere, is a kind of ersatz capitalism about their "famed" work on the Net. Ersatz capitalism pays tribute to bourgeois narrowness by imitating its ethos, while eliding its substance. This manifests as people who are obsessed with Net quantification, which is the absolute enemy of Internet Theory and everything I am developing here. People who count hits as a measure of potency (on YouTube, or MySpace, or blogs), neglecting that the lack of material reimbursement makes this kind of measuring as ersatz as an eleven dollar bill. I have posited that the Net has the potentiality to be truly democratic (the America around "America"), but if it turns into another realm of competitive ideology (with nothing to justify this but pure ego), the democratic aspect is lost.
Human nature is human nature; the Net is only as democratic as the subjects who populate it. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to elevate the level of discourse on the Net (in my own modest way), away from competitiveness and towards a "World Citizen" egalitarianism, away from ersatz capitalism (which lamely imitates an already corrupt ethos) and towards a realm of democratic heterglot encounter. YouTube is a useful metaphor for the way digital realities are altering mass consciousness, "digitalizing" it, which in this case offers a turn towards post-modern modes of experiencing and participating in the world. I am saying that the manner in which YouTube effects subjects has the potential to be a positive thing. "Cultivation" is even more hoary than "post-modern"; it began with Sameul Taylor Coleridge, moved through Carlyle and Arnold in the 19th century, but it is still relevant. Arnold saw Culture saving society and preventing Anarchy; "cultivated" people would never riot. I do not think that either the Net itself or this discourse can save society (or even individual subjects) from Anarchy; however, it may give the pass-word for a new kind of intellectual freedom, a new mode of intellectual consciousness.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
The Red metaphysic hinges on a privileged Other (Jesus) transcending the Body. The Blue metaphysic hinges on a Body already disembodied. Blue physicality is mediated; the Self is already doubled by disembodied voices. The Blue relationship to Jesus is one partly based on commensurability— the Otherness of Jesus is a half-Otherness. Jesus is situated within a realm of workable discourse; his is a privileged, disembodied voice among other privileged voices. His bifurcation (body/discourse) becomes a token of commensurability rather than a manifestation of difference. What exalts Jesus in the Blue metaphysic is a perceived (and readily perceptible) singularity; a sense of resolved binaries manifested in effective (and affective) discourses. Jesus, as was recorded, masterfully orchestrated his own speech acts; engendered to be transcribed into print, then recuperated as more speech acts. This circle of speech acts around textuality gives Jesus discursive speed and fluidity in the Blue metaphysic. In the Blue, Jesus is within; in the Red, Jesus is above. Jesus is appropriated, in the manner of a commodity; yet his appropriation does not let him remain Other, as in the Red metaphysic. Red defends Jesus (who remains Other); Blue appropriates him (but locates him as within possessive circles.) Between defense and appropriation are shared characteristics— subjects compete for degrees of potency of defense or extent of possession-via-appropriation. Competitive ideologies immediately arise in the realm of interpretation (the realm in which defense and appropriation most readily manifest.) Pursuant to this, of course, Jesus is defended and appropriated for “America.” Jesus, more than a shibboleth, becomes “Jesus,” a linguistic sign for a sense of interiority that is bifurcated between Red and Blue. “Jesus” and “America” are, in fact, commensurate linguistic signs; both connect the personal (privatized in Bodies) and the transcendental (disembodied.) Yet “America” enjoys privileges that “Jesus” does not; the offering up of Bodies for instrumental use. In an important sense, “America” has greater currency than “Jesus”— that is why I have saved its discursive treatment until the end of this particular chapter.
“America,” as a signifier, is embodied by the Red and used by the Blue. What is personal for the Red is instrumental for the Blue— though it is a substantial irony that more instrumental use is made of Red Bodies than Blue. Where “America” and Otherness is concerned, Redness locates Otherness first in the entire non-American world; Blueness locates Otherness first in each other (Blueness engendering far greater diversity and thus more competition possibilities), then in Redness. The Red totalizes “America”; its material and economic status (though obviously faltering) is the way things should be (overdetermined, for the Red, by a preponderance of solid Bodies); the Blue is often profoundly indifferent to “America,” except in its value as a rhetorical weapon, as specific discursive circumstances necessitate. “America” is a linguistic sign-as-center; words around it, “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” sit in uneasy relation both to Red insistence and Blue indifference. Subtle discourses do not suit the aims of either the Red or the Blue— they point ineluctably to the hollowness of both Bodies and commodities. What is important is that America, as it is already lived around “America,” forces no pertinent engagements with its own bifurcated ethos and praxis. Engagements, if they occur, are kept on their sides, within their circles— the Other is often a distant-at-best reality. I am speaking of high discursive levels— the levels of discourse around political campaigns and within the purview of the mainstream media do not count here. Why should it? Extreme discursive crudity is equally Blue and Red— it is done often for profit, centered on Bodies, and thrives on an ethos of direct, destructive competitiveness on all levels. That is why an America around “America” needs a new context that the Internet (and IT) can provide. It is not entirely commodified (yet), it is disembodied, and it does not necessitate the employment of an ideology of competition. It is an unavoidable fact that Blue and Red ideologies share more in common than many suppose, under the aegis of humanity and the human— competition engenders an intense fear of Otherness, which is personalized, politicized, and totalized. This is visible at both personal and institutional levels— it is an agent of erosion.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
If we do not privilege the gaze of the Red, what is the purpose of talking to them? Yet, if they constitute half of “America,” even a deconstruction of America (with an eye to finding a livable space around it) must include (if the heteroglossia of digital text is to be enacted or, ironically, embodied) Red voices. This is one essential contradiction of the new praxis I am attempting to forge from, and with, I.T. A closer look at “The Red,” which privileges neither the gaze of the Blue nor the Red (voiced, as it is, from generalized perceptions), will be relevant as a base of shared consciousness. I have noted an American ideology of competition. It has also been pointed out that, where Red America (made metaphysical) is concerned, this ideology is displaced from commodities onto bodies. Bodies become signifiers-in-themselves; the grossly physical is privileged as a primary mode of status, power, and the effacement of Otherness. However, ideological displacement of commodities onto Bodies does not end with individual bodies; there is a ripple effect, of which a privileged Body is the first circle. Three other essential ripples issue from this initial one: beyond a privileged Body, there exists the Body of the Family, the Body of Jesus, and the Body of America. All these things are embodied and perpetuated in the singular Body; all are felt as a physical presence and a physical impulse. This impulse manifests the American competitive ideology as a physical emanation: “my Body stands for myself, my family, Jesus, and America.” There are variations within this ideological framework; but general types, flawed as they are, suit the purposes of this discourse better. “America,” as it stands, is a generalized linguistic sign; the America around “America” will also deal largely in generalities, for better or for worse. Dealing in broad strokes, for a directly politicized discourse, is, to an extent, unavoidable; primary facts of consciousness (phenomenologies) are elided, in the hopes of the appearance of a utilitarian use value, which evinces characteristics of both Democratic and Communist ideology. Communism will not be anathematized (or embarced) in this discourse.
What is the relationship of Body to Family? Family units, in and of themselves, issue from Bodies. Bodies need protection and maintenance; Red praxis ordains that a patriarch oversees this. This process is manifest physically, rather than verbally; the Body-as-signifier acts as a human shield to any commensurate (thus threatening) Other. Yet a competition ideology made physical offers no defense against speech acts, speech-as-text, and print. Bodies can only refer back to themselves (if they are mute); disembodied voices cannot be silenced. What defends Bodies-as-Families is a complicit compact to elide any disembodied voices that chafe against the confines of Bodies. Bodies, beyond being protected and protective, are fetishized. This happens in the enactment of a double function— Bodies protect and give pleasure, are agents of force and feeling. In the context of Family, Bodies are a locus of pride, stability, and continuation of implicitly affirmed praxis. The Bodies of mothers, particularly, are fetishized by both sons and fathers as an embodiment of the precious and the sacred. Maternal ideologies manifest in the maintenance of a well-fed, “armed” (potent) male Body, developed to the most perfect (which equals heroic, armed for victory) extent possible. Here, competition ideology is directed towards a meticulous and unsparing keeping of the Other out. Only gazes within the charmed circle of the Family are privileged— though this family can extend outwardly to include friends, religious figures (preachers, Jesus), and, in the abstract, “America.”
“America,” as such, cannot be made concrete if this brand of ideology is to be maintained; Others beyond the merely commensurate are too frightening to be acknowledged and, if they are acknowledged, are anathematized. Physical proximity, for the Red family, is commensurate with successful maintenance; ideological proximity is, as has been stated, implicit. Commodities exist to furnish Bodies; yet nothing is made to endanger the authority of the Body as an entity-in-itself. It is only the perceived (deemed to be perceptible) Body of Christ that is privileged above the Body of the patriarch— Jesus’s Body is the only Body that, in its embodiment (or its disembodiment, in the manifestation of Jesus’s assumed words) is not a direct threat. Yet Jesus is dangerous in his capacity for effective thought and judgment— his Body is situated in an abstract realm of “Above,” where Bodies must be left behind. Knowledge of the Body’s obsolescence is stored within the Body, where it prompts the Body to follow the dictates of a disembodied voice, which enacts its own embodiment in individual subjects. Jesus alone is allowed to be both embodied and disembodied. Why is this? Why is Jesus allowed to “double” while individuals must remain bound to their own physicality? In the answer to this question may exist the secret, ineluctable difference between Red and Blue metaphysics.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
A speech-as-text that specifically addresses “America” as a linguistic sign must be determined by a rubric that is at least somewhat specific. Otherwise it might degenerate into cacophony. In fact, I.T. must establish that speech-as-text, in its very intermediacy, has an almost unlimited potentiality for what might be called “cacophonous textuality.” This is heteroglossia gone crazy; a mesh of so many voices pursuing so many divergent discourses that what is manifest is a kind of “speed metal.” Whether or not this is a negative thing, is to be determined by individual sensibilities, in atomized relationships to it. Nevertheless, this is immaterial to my current discourse. The first determinative exercise that must be pursued, in finding the America around “America,” is a more stringent definition of a characterization I have somewhat heedlessly (though in the spirit of digital consciousness) employed: “The Red and the Blue.” We know the commonsensical usage of this term, as it breaks down along American Party Political lines. However, I would like to posit that “The Red and the Blue” touches a realm of both ethos and praxis that runs deeper than Political Party lines would suggest. The formulation is, admittedly, limited by its generality (that, unfortunately, borders perilously close to presumptuousness) and its obviously partisan nature. But how can it be shown that it is merely partisan? Who can say that the “redness” or “blueness” of a particular discourse or discursive context is merely political, in the strict sense of the word?
It is my contention, specifically to be revealed in digital text, that this formulation, “The Red and the Blue,” in fact characterizes a gulf that may be impassable. It is not only political, but covers every level of praxis, and, where praxis is concerned, little is held in common by the two sides. Where the Red and the Blue coalesce is here: in a specifically American ideology of competition. This ideology formulates the Other (in this case every commensurate Other) as a direct threat. Both The Red and the Blue place this ideology in the realm of commodities: I have this, the Other has that. Perceived ownership of commodities and the privileged, envious gaze of commensurate Others confers status. There is, however, a fundamental difference; where The Red is concerned, competitive ideologies are often transcribed directly onto bodies. The body, in its materiality, becomes a signifier, and a substitute for commodities. Redness has, in fact, pre-Marxist materialism as a distinguishing characteristic. By pre-Marxist, I mean hinging on an emanated physicality as more status-pertinent than production or appropriation of commodities. To reduce this to praxis (for both sides): what if I were to wander each morning into a truck-stop in Oklahoma, wearing a yarmulke?
I have never pursued this mode of action but, as a member of the Blue intelligentsia, I assume, through many years of observation (which may be personal or media-based), that, as a mode of action, this would be somewhat akin to putting out a cigarette on my neck. My cultural capital would be effaced by my status as a vulnerable body. An Oklahoma trucker would not have this problem in Times Square. These formulations are reductive to the point of absurdity; so why are we compelled to engage in them so often? Are they based in truth or paranoia? The geographical sprawl of America determines that any praxis of attempting to answer these questions with authority is doomed: unless, of course, the dilemma could be brought online. This could be one of the great projects of I.T.: to determine whether The Red and the Blue is a lingering myth or a tenacious reality. All outward indicators point, in fact, to a tenacious reality: but pointing at something does not equal legitimating it. Why shouldn’t the heteroglossia of digital consciousness include Red voices? Through a sort of negative affirmation, can they show us the America around “America”? How this is to be done is a mystery. In a culture where the grossly physical is privileged, disembodied voices, especially disembodied theoretical voices, may not have much clout. I could see things turning cacophonous rather quickly: but is cacophonous textuality not a more honest rendering of “America” than anything else?
Saturday, April 18, 2009
What would the idealized speech-as-text I have posited look like? It would be foolish to privilege a certain kind (or manner) of digital text stylistically or formally; the development of individual (and individualized) discursive styles seems inevitable. I would, however, opine that circumstances necessitate a certain thematic angle for digital text; if we want to establish, from the outset, the socio-political viability of digital text as a manifestation of digital consciousness. What needs enumerating is what lessons (if any) we have learned from the debacles of our era. It may be naively optimistic to posit this moment as the possible inauguration of a new intellectual era (as manifested in a new textual praxis); but that we would all actively desire the inauguration of a new era (of any kind) is (I would hope) past questioning. What have the past ten years taught us about America? Parenthetically, I will continue to use the first person plural, in the hopes that what I say is already both widely thought and widely felt. If it is not, the onus of responsibility for a misled or misleading discourse falls on me. I believe that we have all probed the signifier “America” and seen something new. What we have seen amounts to this: there is, as in the nineteenth century, a Civil War taking place in America, and its manifestation is dead bodies— but not ours. To unpack this thoroughly would take volumes (digital and print); in the interests of compression, it may be efficacious to state the absolute and irrevocable incommensurability of “The Red and the Blue.” Very few who read this will not consider themselves “resolutely Blue”; those who espouse the ideologies of the Red are (largely) anathematized as (subaltern) Others. Yet “America” means them and us; it is as if Israel and Palestine were nominally (and thus ineluctably) co-joined. So if we say “America,” and call ourselves “Americans,” what do we mean?
Let us examine “America” as a textual sign (whether it be manifested in the context of speech acts, print or digital text.) Because it co-joins The Red and the Blue, the iterated “America” forces us to acknowledge (and manifest in the acknowledgement) the Other that we (rightly, I believe, pun intended) anathematize. If we affix it as a designation to ourselves, in a manner of self-fashioning, we also connect ourselves, inescapably, to the Other that we anathematize. If “America” thus stands as a doubly bifurcated linguistic sign (first in its status as a representation, secondly in representing as entity constituted by two incommensurate parts) then, insofar as representations are capable of precision, its utility as a precise signifier is nil. To call something (a subject, or an object of thought) “American” is thus roughly equivalent to dubbing something “European”; it tells us something, but not much. A newly constituted “America” would take for granted the double bifurcation that now inheres in “America” as a textual sign. No sign is entirely solid, but some signs are more solid than others. “America,” as it exists today (and has for the last forty years) is as fluid and “between” as speech-as-text. A middle “America,” as representative of a state or mode of consciousness, needs not only to be re-constituted, it needs to be created (almost) ex nihilo. Fluidity is a compensatory quality of extremity and precariousness; what is the step beyond double-bifurcation? What is the America around “America”? I hesitate to privilege the Internet as the obligatory locale of the creation of a new “America,” because it needn’t be. But, without privileging this discourse unduly, I will say that new contexts often necessitate new significations. The Internet is not the only place, but it is as good a place as any. Digital consciousness, in its velocity and fluidity, mirrors qualities of what has been essentialized as “American”; this is what America has been in its youth. Age and wisdom, born of strife, can make it less a fetish and more a vehicle.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Digital language exists in an intermediate space; it is situated somewhere between speech acts, as they have come to be known, and print texts. Digital language is, in essence, an intermediate language. Until it becomes normative, a term will be useful to distinguish it from speech acts, on the one side, and print text on the other. The intermediate quality of digital text can be distinguished in calling it “speech-as-text.” Like speech acts, digital text partakes (potentially) of spontaneity, affectivity, reactivity, and the previously posited “velocity”; conversely, like print text, digital text can demonstrate the virtues of craft, rhetorical calculation, discursive subtlety, and semantic nuance. As an intermediate language, speech-as-text is, in its manifestation, already heteroglot; because people speak differently than they write (though this differential varies greatly from person to person.) Bakhtin’s formulations can be embodied by, or within, individuals. Speech-as-text resolves self-bifurcation, even as it creates a new textual self. The “between” quality of speech-as-text will no longer be apparent once it establishes itself and becomes normative (to what degree it may become as normative as print text is up for debate); speech acts, digital and print texts will be an established triad. What is important is that the widespread establishment of a new form of both self-consciousness and self-representation has implications that are simultaneously political, aesthetic, intellectual, and subversive. I want to focus on the political and subversive aspects to speech-as-text, for one simple, salient reason: discourses that are both genuinely subversive and genuinely political in the United States (and in other places) in 2009 are rare indeed. How did it get this way? In the answer, we may feel urgency in the pursuit of digital consciousness as a possible bridge to a new era.
A brief look at the era we live in now will first be necessary. When we look back at the Aughts in America, I believe a central contradiction will be apparent. This is, in many ways, an era of extremes. Mainstream media outlets are dominated by personalities to whom it is impossible (for thinking people) to be charitable. These personalities are, almost without exception, imbeciles. They have created a social environment that goes beyond the “Disney Land” paradigm posited by Baudrillard; it is more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in which acts of terrible violence are committed (though these are displaced into verbiosity), and all to comic effect a few notches beneath burlesque. This is extreme; the obvious incompetence of the Bush regime has been equally extreme. Yet, what has my generation’s response been? What have young intellectuals accomplished in America? Have we sought to balance these negative extremities with “positive extremities” of our own (effective thought translated into effective action)? Culturally, the answer is manifestly yes, from Philadelphia on out; politically, much less so.
The consequence of our lack of action has been a sense of socio-political stagnation. If our passivity is in any way defensible, it is because “outlets,” in the traditional sense, have been unavailable. Organizations have not been established, organic political institutions (in the sense of “grass roots” rather than strictly “natural”) have not developed, few marches have been organized, few demonstrations staged. What has been accomplished has been ignored, more or less, by mainstream media outlets. Now, I am attempting to legitimize a new outlet for the creation of discourse. The Internet has already been used, freely and even-handedly, as an economic mode of production (I am thinking of the Obama campaign.) As a tool for the dissemination of high-level discourse, that would be capable of creating a new, revitalized sense of socio-political engagement among artists and intellectuals, we have not, to my knowledge, seen easy and swift vertical progress. Easy, swift, and vertical are all characteristics of digital consciousness— but until its terms are named, to the satisfaction of those for whom terms are a sine qua non, it will not be privileged as a unique medium in which new cognitive forays can be initiated.
Speech-as-text, as I have defined it, is capable of moving minds into new spaces. When intellectual purviews are expanded, we may see a renascence in America (and other places) to a realm in which societal and institutional structures do not appear as reified as they do now. Any new self that is fashioned holds the possibility of reaching the Other in ways that could not perforce be imagined. A state of being “between” at least moves the mind out of the slough of an overdetermined, vastly configured milieu. “Between” is active; it is dynamic rather than static or essential. In short, it offers advantages. I am hoping that those who want to see things start to progress again can honor the conceptual ground I am staking. The formal parameters of the Net, its heteroglossia and potentiality for the development of new literary forms (like blogs) make it one of the few things remaining in American society that can legitimately be called democratic. In a time of stagnation that, beyond the socio-political level, is marked by economic strife, any outlet that can still be called democratic must be clung to like a life-raft. An argument can be made that speech-as-text, falling in between speech and print text, winds up falling beneath them (falling short, in a bifurcation, of two “wholenesses.”) I respectfully disagree. An intensification of two time-worn linguistic forms, shot through with the urgency of crisis and criticism: this is how I would describe the (admittedly idealized) speech-as-text I have in mind.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Digital text is the first convincing alternative to print text that has appeared for two hundred years. There are many compelling reasons to initiate a formal, theoretical investigation of digital text and digital consciousness. The first, crucial reason is this— fluency in digital text will be (may already be) necessary for our survival as thinkers and writers. We (most of us) were not weaned on digital text; the thinkers and writers of the future are, however, being weaned on digital text as we speak. It would be presumptuous to expect that all of our work will be carried into the future; but, to the extent that we allow ourselves to hope that some of our work will be, a cultivation of digital consciousness is as legitimate a means to this end as any. If anything stands in our way, it is the ideologies (conscious or unconscious) which have riveted us to print as the primary, sole mode of text dissemination. Print has been granted ultimate value, specifically for lack of a viable alternative; new values will be needed to replace an old paradigm, the work of centuries. The best way to be rid of obsolescent ideologies is to do the work of explicitly defining them. Once they are defined, they may be transcended. How would we define ideologies that give ultimate value to print as text-carrier? A simplified summation would say that this ideology fetishizes books as discrete commodities; privileges a limited level of availability; affirms an economy of linguistic exchanges in which immediate, direct response (transference of cultural capital) is not possible; and enacts an atomization of the author as a remote, possibly Romantic Other.
I would like to avoid an implicit glamorization of the Net by pointing out that print does offer considerable advantages: extreme portability, “presence,” or even, for first editions, “aura”; privacy, rather then the “two-way mirror” structure of blogs; and with that, the space to make “private traces,” leave private notes in margins. It is important for me to state explicitly that I am not presenting digital text as a new paradigm to efface an old one; rather, I am predicting the historical emergence of a viable, oft-used companion and alternative to what has become standard. Authors that have cultivated “digital fluency” have an advantage that “print-sticklers” do not; to choose degrees of opacity and transparency, as textual circumstances dictate; to remain atomized or to engage in an interactive heteroglot encounter; to construct a textual self that is, in and of itself, more heteroglot than it ever could have been before. Between increased textual options and the likelihood of future prevalence (if not predominance) of digital text, it remains unclear why a working author would choose not to engage the world digitally, other than through force of habit. Failure is to form habits, Walter Pater said; why did he say it? Because he was living in a (largely) mechanized society, in which receptivity to new aesthetic forms was not habitual. “Digital” is not like “mechanical”; it does not induce stupor, but greater awareness of the new, the present (“the presence of the present”). So— what else needs to be overcome? What if resistance is at the institutional, rather than the individual level?
Institutional resistance to digital consciousness is hardly a surprise. The Academy is conservative, in both the positive and the pejorative sense of the word: positive, in that the Academy seeks to conserve the most pertinent texts and forms of discourse, in hopes of maintaining a tradition to which new things accrue at (often) a glacial pace; negative, in the sense that suspicion of all manifestations of newness is never far from the surface, both in classrooms and at the administrative level. Yet digital consciousness has infiltrated the campuses of most major universities in America, in the form of computer labs, “Blackboard” sites for student/teacher interactions, and even digitalized pay-stubs for faculty members. There seems to be a major discrepancy here: if campuses have largely “gone digital,” why should it be that writers who “go digital” are marginalized, in favor of their print counterparts? Mostly, it seems to be a matter of time. “Digital” as such didn’t even exist until fifteen years ago; blogs have only become popular in the last five years. How many books less than fifteen years old have been added extensively to syllabuses in America? Very few. How many less than five years old? I am guessing, none. As blog discourses evolve, it will be interesting to see where the first moves are made to appropriate them. Reception Velocity means that students can express themselves not only in classroom-based speech acts, but in directly personal (perhaps confrontational) textual acts as well, and on a digital stage. “Fast, fluid, and without boundaries,” when put into competent hands, could create a new level and dimension of pedagogy.
If Internet Theory is to be developed, it may be profitable to establish and define some terms that will act as semantic nodes for the theory. I have discussed "velocity," as it applies to the Net and to digital consciousness. More specifically, Reception Velocity is a concept that adds gravitas to a theory that would particularize and attempt a critique of Net discourse. Reception Velocity is what distinguishes blog discourse from print discourse. It is in some ways, a kind of return to “court culture,” in which poems, plays, and other texts rapidly circulated among small, contained groups of people. The primary difference is in geographic comprehensiveness: a blog is not contained by place. It travels instantaneously over an enormous landscape, and is comparatively boundless. Reception, thus, has an arbitrary element to it that is hard to avoid. Many blogs are “stumbled onto,” which radically destabilizes a “court” comparison. Reception thus has at least two levels: a conventional level, in which a coterie audience ingest an expected, and (we hope) welcomed digital text (which may or may not, in and of itself, manifest digital consciousness, in all its “unrehearsed” presence), and an unconventional level, in which non-coterie members happen upon the post through Google, a mailing list, a link, or word of mouth. There are intermediate levels. An established blog will generally have a somewhat “layered” audience: those who come every day, those good for once a week, those on special occasions, etc. What this creates is a digitalized version of Bakhtin’s “carnival,” where formality and spontaneity interweave to create a matrix of interrelationships.
This holds true for bloggers, as well as for audiences. Sitemeter insures a perpetual state of intrigue and uncertainty: by letting bloggers know where (geographically) their hits are coming from, Sitemeter gives blogging the quality of a rich, particularized guessing game. So “Reception Velocity” has a dual meaning: it applies both to pieces of digital text being posted, and to bloggers receiving hits from a wide range of locales (which are tracked by Sitemeter and other such programs.) This means that blogging engenders a special kind of reciprocity. It allows immediate contact with a wide audience in a manner that print texts cannot. Velocity of contact can be either intimately satisfying or disorienting, as when an unknown person decides to leave a nasty comment. Yet negativity on blogs gives digital discourse a pungency that it would not otherwise have. It only becomes a pure negative in instances of “blog stalking” (and I have, indeed, been blog stalked), where negative comments are consistent and abusive. I am guessing that commodification of the Net will (if it happens) iron out these irregularities. Yet if it is true that, as Blake says, the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius, the current, “crooked” Net is preferable to a sanitized version of same.
Literary parataxis is often distinguished by heterogeneous parts, not narratively linked, forming a whole. This tends to be how it appears in poetry. In ordinary grammar, it can simply mean a lack of conjunctions. Parataxis is relevant to blogs because there are no "conjunctions" as such between posts. This means that, as in poetry, parataxis is a formal property of blogs. However, this is somewhat misleading. Parataxis-as-form is completely volitional. It is the choice of the blogger. There is no reason why blog posts, like circumscribed speech acts (lectures, poetry readings, classes) cannot be connected and extended over days, weeks, months, or even years. Parataxis-as-form allows for unusual discursive fluidity: post titles can create subtle variations, and thus new rubrics for discourses that progress at a tangent to earlier ones. It is, again, in the hands of the blogger to what level of formal rigor a given blog aspires to. There is nothing preventing a poet, novelist, or theorist from effectively composing a book online; posts can be rehearsed, revised, reworked, and perfected, just as parts of a book can. The tendency now, of course, is towards impulsivity and spontaneity. However, if blogs begin to be taken more seriously by a wide, discerning public, posting will cease to be a casual act and start to become an act with consequences. On the other hand, parataxis can breathe new life into old literary tropes and create a sense of excitement. It is a bit like playing "bumper cars" at an amusement park. Ideally, a serious blogger is capable of using parataxis both ways: to move discourses in unusual directions, and to create a sense of the unexpected, of possible frisson. Institutionalization of the Net, I am guessing, would do away with the bumper cars. Digital consciousness would be forced into print parameters.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Jeffrey Side yesterday posted to the Buffalo Poetics List a sobering reminder of how prone progress is to the forces of commodification. Apparently, forces have been set in motion whose goal it is to turn the Internet into another bourgeois institution. It must first be said that a valid argument can be made that the Internet is already a bourgeois institution, for the simple reason that computers are a bourgeois commodity to begin with. Nevertheless, through public libraries, school labs, and other outlets, there is an egalitarian aspect to the Internet beyond its formal parameters. Almost anyone who wants to get online can. Side's post hinged on large corporations wanting to wrest control of the Net from the people and charge fees for usage. This has serious implications for the Internet Theory (I.T.) I have been trying to develop. Firstly, I have claimed that the Internet, as it exists now, displaces the Marxist paradigm. The base of many exchanges on the Net is social, rather than material; the goal of the Net is free dissemination of information, rather than commodified information as a means of economic production. Corporate meddling will forge a Net that is as reified as a bourgeois institution as the Academy, or as the entertainment industry. This would be disappointing, to say the least, though the seeds of this take-over are (according to Side) still germinating. Nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed. I think it will be profitable, in building up structures of possible Internet Theory, to assume the worst and investigate what a Corporate Net would look like, how it would function, and what its reception among the populace (of America, Europe, and the rest of the world) would be. Would it become a free-floating Academy? Would the excitement of digital consciousness still translate? Would the allegory of Madeline's room still be applicable, if a leveling of class and privilege did not?
Let us situate ourselves in a new reality: corporations have taken over and effectively commodified the Net. Those with the funds to appease the corporations have unlimited Net access; those without sufficient capital have less access, perhaps little to no access. Side's post did not go into specifics, so I cannot hope to translate this into definite dollars and cents figures. Let's say the Net has reified into a privileged resource. I can see two things happening. First, among the bourgeoisie, the weight and the importance of the Internet will increase. This may seem, on first glance, counterintuitive, but it is simple psychology: people, especially the bourgeoisie, tend to value more what they pay for. Commodification creates mystique and fetishization; a commodified Net would have more lure to the bourgeois mind then it does now. An extension of this would be an increased presence of the Academy on the Net. The Academy is not any less prone to commodity fetishism then the rest of the bourgeoisie; dissertations would be disseminated online, professors might be obliged to have web-sites, blogs (the substantial ones, at least) would earn the respect they deserve. In other words, a commodified Internet would be legitimized in many eyes. People value print more now because (generally) they pay for it; the non-commodity status of the Net now makes it somewhat distasteful to the bourgeois mind. This is the first thing, and it would be naive to posit that all these adjustments in perception would be negative. The kind of discourse I am generating right here would benefit greatly; the benefits of commodification are often equivocal, but they are real.
That's the good news. The bad news is that commodification of the Net would reinforce class structures and hierarchies that it had been demolishing. Digital consciousness, if limited to the upper strata of society, would become a divisive phenomenon, rather than an inclusive one. The fast fluidity I see in the Net, and manifested in those who populate it, would (or could) degenerate into a flippant arrogance, another way of enacting Bourdieu's demarcative imperative: we, the privileged, have a velocity to our consciousness that those beneath us do not; we have access to another world that they do not; our ascendency above them will abide, and this is the natural order of things. Heteroglossia will diminish significantly; chances of shock and novelty (the conditions for orgasm in Freud's terms) will be reduced; recognitions of Otherness will be based more on an assumed sameness (you have money and so do I) than on any leveled playing field. Institutionalization will become wide-spread; things will harden and become standardized; the bizarre incongruities now visible will diminish; we will be left with a play-ground on which not everyone can play. Corporations will compete in offering the best "Web-deals"; money for books will become money for the Net; advertisements will inundate us and attempt to sell us digital consciousness. In short, the merchants will take over and the fun, free-wheeling spirit of the Net, the kind of digital picar-esque narratives we see now, will be a thing of the past. Internet Theory will instantly become academic, and will be the province of academicians. The Net will become American, in the pejorative sense of the term. As a realm of profit, it will cease, to a greater or lesser extent, to be a realm of spirit. This is the binary I see opening up with a commodified Net.
You could say that the Net just provides new forms for old discourses, and probably not be lying. I am not using a new form of English, and creating a palimpsest over another mode of discourse. Yet the fact that this discourse will reach many of you the day that it is written; that you have the immediate option of contributing to the discourse if you wish; that, crucially, the discourse takes place in written language rather than speech acts; creates a scenario that is truly novel. At precisely this moment, the merchants have not completely moved in. Nor do I think the merchants have the power to efface this discourse. Side prompted us to contact our local politicians and nudge them to prevent a corporate Net take-over. This is by no means a bad idea. It depends how much we, as a community of writers, value the egalitarian nature of the Net as it subsists now. I do not want this to degenerate into a manifesto, but I will simply say that it will be better for all of us if we can prevent commodification of this Net, our Net. The values of a commodified Net exist only as more privilege for the already privileged. While I do, realistically, recognize myself as one of the privileged, a concern for the rights of the Other is not far from my mind. Does this mean that I enjoy the Net only because I can pretend not to be privileged? I hope not. In any case, privileged or not, this is something worth fighting for. In a progressive world, digital consciousness should be for everyone.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
One of the advantages of dealing with New Historical texts is that they can open a kind of mental flood-gate to new modes of thought. Specifically, once the essential New Historical angle of approach has been internalized, it becomes a kind of cognitive light-switch that is difficult to turn off. Nothing, no text, remains safe from the socio-historical nexus that created it; a resolutely extrinsic approach puts any particular text in dialogue with voices (political, social, and aesthetic) that it had to compete with. To some extent, it makes me think of Schopenhauer, who promoted the pessimistic ideology that all things exist at the expense of other things. Then again, Darwin more or less doubled the idea, while also affirming what Schopenhauer did not: the grace and beauty of all manifestations of creation, which demonstrate preternatural creative intelligence. The two thinkers agreed that Nature is a war; one also chose to see beauty in it. Regardless, New Historicism centralizes the process by which artists are created as much as they create. I bring this up for two reasons: I have developed my own interpretation of a famous poem by John Keats, and I believe that this poem (qua my interpretation) can stand as an allegory for those of us engaged in the very new-fangled and not very theorized activity called blogging. It seeks to answer a question that must be a question for those of us that take blogging seriously: what are we doing? What social realm do we inhabit? What textual realm? What distinguishes digital text from other kinds of text? What position are we in? What role are we playing? I am not ambitious enough to think that one blog post can answer all of these questions (and it would be foolhardy to try.) But I would nonetheless like to make a start at it, using Keats to create a heteroglot encounter for those interested. This is the beginning of Net Theory; I hope that others will eventually chime in with their own discursive excursions.
The poem I want to use is The Eve of St. Agnes. For those not familiar with the poem, it is a variation of the Romeo and Juliet scenario: Prorphyro plays Romeo, Madeline plays Juliet. On the Eve of St. Agnes, Porphyro sneaks into Madeline's mansion, hides in her bedroom, seduces her, and in the end they elope. Madeline's family, of course, loathe Porphyro for his lineage; he must hide himself carefully to avoid detection in making his way to Madeline's room. Porphyro is aided by an aged spinster named Angela, the only character sympathetic to Porphyro in the poem besides Madeline. There is also a Beadsman, an old monk who shows up at the beginning and end of the poem; but he does not interact with the three main characters. What's important in my interpretation of the poem is that Porphyro, who is loathed for his lineage, represents a new kind of man. Keats, himself, attempted (with limited success, though his dying at twenty-five makes it perhaps unfair to judge) to rise from the lower-middle-class to the "middle-middle class"; Porphyro represents this quest, this attempt. He flouts rules of lineage and the preponderance of "blood" to stake his claim on the woman he loves. Likewise, by the early nineteenth century the preponderance of "blood" and "lineage" was starting to fade; many more middle-class industrialists were "sneaking in the back door" of wealth and prosperity. Keats also represents a radical secularization of consciousness, in his inimitable Pagan style: Madeline's maiden eyes are "divine," Porphyro is impassioned "beyond a mortal man." That Porphyro and Madeline wind up having sex on a religious holiday completes the impression that Keats is painting for us a complete, miniaturized social revolution. Of course, the nineteenth century was by no means secular; but the interests of rising middle-class were, and Christianity was another mode of production: the production of virtue. What's important for my purposes here is that Porphyro flouts custom, sneaks in the back door, and makes off with the "angel in the house." He does not seek to directly efface social custom; he simply enacts its destruction. This is what I see good bloggers doing.
We are, all of us who blog seriously, giving propriety a swift kick in the ass. We are, willy-nilly, enacting the destruction of an old form of consciousness: print hegemony. Trying to directly efface print custom would be railing against it; certainly a waste of time and energy. By creating networks of people who "tune in" to listen to whatever discourse we happen to be developing, we are creating the digital consciousness that I have begun to enumerate. Who is Madeline, our fair maiden that we are ravishing? It is the Ideal Reader (and we all have a few), the reader who is open to the experience of digital consciousness, who is ripe for textual seduction in a new mode and a new fashion of discourse. Dialogism has reached a new height with blogs; between links, "hot links," free quotations of poems, comment streams, and blog-rolls, heteroglossia is not merely a feature of blogs but a dominant characteristic. Bakhtin's notion of "carnival" is relevant, as well; good blogs have an air of the celebratory, the pleasurable. There are many for whom print culture is a religion (we might call them "Beadsmen," after Keats's monk), but this century will (I predict) hasten an end, not to print, but to print hegemony. Will blogs remain a secular realm? Not necessarily. Bloggers like Todd Swift and JEJacobson have already created syntheses of aesthetic and religious interests, to striking effect.
What is important to the Keats allegory is that, like his Porphyro, we must bear the slings and arrows of marginality for a while. Just as Angela hides Porphyro in a little room, "pale, lattic'd, chill, and silent as a tomb," our light will remain (initially) hidden from the big-wigs and hierarchies of literary culture. Yet why is marginalization necessarily a bad thing? Just ask William Blake: marginalization is freedom. Those who think that marginalization means "minor" status should remember (if status is a concern) Deleuze and Guatarri, for whom major and minor are conflated and equivalent. The blogger must fall back on his or her own legitimacy, rather than letting a publisher (or an institution) authorize creation. This takes all the guts of Porphyro, sneaking into the "mansion foul". It is not for the faint of heart, or those suceptible to the lure of praise and officially sanctioned legitimacy. Remember: Porphyro gets the girl, just like the middle-class righteously toppled the aristocracy in nineteenth century England. Keats never lived to make the leap into middle-class prosperity; many of us have already lived to begin the development of a new form of consciousness. As Gertrude Stein noted, rebels often wind up (rather abruptly) becoming classics; what is marginal now may not remain so. The truth is that marginality is as good a strategy as any. The door to the mansion is open; it's all about finding Madeline's room with guile and stealth. Once we get there, she may be ours for the taking. As in all healthy textual relationships, we either create the pleasure necessary for seduction or we flounder. Digital consciousness doesn't create new texts; what it does is to create potential velocity for those who can use it properly. We can get right to Madeline's room instantaneously; just as Porphyro, we can wake her from dreams and fulfill her fantasies. The "hot-blooded" lords who might get in our way cannot get a word in edgewise.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Facebook has rapidly become an institution on the Net. It has dethroned MySpace as the premier site for representations of self-hood and the creation of social exchanges. What actually happens on Facebook? You can, of course, use it just like another e-mail account. That is a feature that joins Facebook with many other Internet programs, and substantiates it as useful. There is a utilitarian aspect to it, that gives it a base in what can be called social modes of production. That is, people use it to generate interest in themselves, not as commodities but as personalities. I am intrigued by the phenomenon of "status updates," and the performative aspect of their manifestation. For those who aren't on Facebook, once you have an account, you have the option of "updating your status" by giving a brief precis of whatever you happen to be doing at the moment. Your status update immediately appears on the front Facebook page of all of your friends. Thus, let's say you have 300 friends. That means that by updating your status, you have an instant audience of 300 people. Of course, not all of them are going to be on Facebook at any given moment, but the remarkable nature of the scenario stands. This is the kind of interchange that typifies digital consciousness: fast, fluid, without boundaries. Everything becomes performance; everyone is onstage all the time. Every status update takes on the quality of a gambit, an attempt to gain a social edge, lure people in. It is a one-way exchange: you give your audience something, in the hopes that they will give something back. In Barthesian terms, you can weave your own mythology, fashion yourself as a human signifier. Your success depends on how compelling others perceive your performance to be.
Others can comment on your status updates. Often, a miniaturized dialogue is created, that can occupy a number of different levels (both semantically and substantively.) Status updates range from the quotidian (X is washing her clothes) to the culturally informed (Y thinks that Joyce should've stopped at page 476) to the banal (Z is sleepy) to the risque (Q's got that lovin' feeling) and roundabout to the strictly self-promotional (R wants everyone to check out his new blog-post.) Risque status updates stand the best chance of getting commented upon, and comments can range from the dramatic (Ooh la la!) to the sarcastic (Yeah, that's great, Q), and all points in between. What's most striking about this kind of social intercourse is that language has never traveled this rapidly before. Appearances that used to be limited to the telephone (usually in the context of talking to one person at a time) and television (which is not an interactive or personalized medium) have now become available as tools for self-fashioning. Exchanges of language on Facebook are stripped of any function but to create mythologies; the bland appurtenances of our daily lives can become energized and glamorized by an encounter with a wide, geographically scattered audience, who are themselves performers on the same stage. The economy of linguistic exchanges on Facebook is very equal; rather than a privileged writer stooping to address a naive reader, or to reach across a gulf of complex intentionality, audience and performer are conflated on Facebook to the extent that, in the space of a minute, you can actively perform both roles. The donning and doffing of masks is compulsive and rather heady; signifiers are often felt rather than understood. Facebook is like a board game whose goal is to connect human dots; you have to pay attention to do well, and to learn how to use your intuition to read signs whose goal is the generation of more signs. Promiscuity of signification is rampant, and orgasmic.
There is, indeed, a sexiness to Facebook. Sexual intercourse, like digital consciousness, can be fast, fluid, and without boundaries. The twist in the tale is that love affairs are enacted on Facebook every day without ever being physically consummated. Why? Because you may fall in love with a friend across an ocean, or on another side of the country, or any place that is inaccessible. Promiscuity of signification does not necessarily lead to physical promiscuity. Many of these love affairs take on the quality of the kind that Andy Warhol envisioned: idealized, image-based, evanescent, Platonic. Yet they carry a frisson that is difficult to find anywhere else. It is a mixture of the foot-lights of the stage and a dimly lit bedroom. If it happens on Facebook, everyone can see it, and the latent exhibitionism which is a peculiar characteristic of Americans is very much in evidence. If a love affair is all language, does this make it a Deconstructionists nightmare? Signification as a substitute for physical caresses is the name of the game on Facebook. If the physical is elided, bodies become boundaries. It is worth noting that digital consciousness manifests as a sedentary physicality. It is created, nurtured and sustained by staying in one place, not demonstrating any forms of physical agility, all consciousness brought to bear on signification, social exchange, and self-fashioning. The mechanical consciousness of nineteenth century England had much to do with athletic vigor, the discipline of male bodies; digital consciousness is dreamier, has more to do with vigor as manifestated in agile signification. Digital consciousness creates a primacy of language. It seems more worthy not merely to do, not merely to say, but to do and then say in a performative utterance designed for a wide audience. Doing leads to saying, rather than vice versa. Primacy of language may mark the end of physical imperatives. Not that we will all stop making love because of Facebook, but that new forms and manners of sexual intercourse are being developed and demonstrated every day. Foucault said that discourse is power; on Facebook, discourse is sex.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
At this stage in its development, the Internet has reached a certain saturation level, as pertaining to its importance, in our lives. Many of us spend huge chunks of time online, and it can be difficult to remember a time when certain behavioral patterns were not dictated by something called the Internet. If, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message, then this medium needs to be looked into with a certain amount of theoretical awareness. Piggy-backing on my last post, I would like to suggest that the time is ripe for the develop of a comprehensive Net Theory, or a set of Net theories, that will account for the social, cultural, and literary significance of the Internet. I am sure that others have called for roughly the same thing, but I have not heard any poets looking into it. Net theory will allow us to determine now, at the beginning of a century that may be dominated by digital technology (and the consciousness it engenders), what are the theoretical parameters that can navigate a digital world. There are choices and distinctions that need to be made that, in the context of a single blog post, I can only begin to guess at. Most pertinent is what lens we want to affix to our eyes as we direct our gaze to the Net-as-entity. Working our way from the present backwards, we could start with a New Historical account of the Net, which would be hard-going, considering that New Historicism requires a backwards gaze and the development of perspective. Deconstructionism could certainly be useful: the Net, like most other realms, is configured and determined by language. Net Theory would have to account for the kinds of discourses that are unique to the Net (and there are a lot of them.) New Criticism is obviously a blind alley, but Marxism is also potentially fruitful: Internet practices decenter the base/superstructure construct that forms the backbone of Marxist theory. Though some make money on the Net, many others do not. It is not, strictly, a realm of economic production, or, if it is, there is an ambivalence about the manifestation of mercenary aims on the Net. So the two discourses that could move Net Theory into being would be a Deconstructionist discourse and a Marxist discourse.
These two impulses meet in thinkers like Benjamin and Althusser, of course. Benjamin's notion of aura and the "auratic" in art have some relevance when applied to the Net. Though original art-objects are not readily available on the Net, what individuals do on the Net (more often than not) is create an aura, a mystique around themselves. The untouchable becomes the physical body that is elided from Web reality. Through photos, poems, prose, and other manifestations of self-fashioning, individuals make themselves as glamorous as possible, create illusions of availability, make themselves endlessly reproducible. So both sides of Benjamin's famous formulation are satisfied; an aura is created that can be reproduced ad nauseum. Aura, in Benjamin, comes from "authenticity"; the pictures of themselves that people put on the Net have a veneer of authenticity, evidence of a body made aesthetic by itself. People on the Net literally become art, become the agents of their own objectification. This is especially true on Facebook, where you can't see someone's pictures unless you are "friends" with them. An exchange is enacted: if someone accepts your friendship, they get an added human/social "possession," infinitely reproducible, and you get access to their embodied, aestheticized self-representations. What is unique about this exchange is that it in no way involves a cash nexus. It is self-contained within a social realm, that borders on the aesthetic without touching the economic. That's why the Net is a spiritual medium, and may provide the Zeitgeist of this century with its most potent talisman. Think of other mediums: television, movies, cell-phones, music. While Internet is not always free, exchanges on the Net (unlike seeing a movie, buying an album or a television, or making a long-distance phone call) displace the Marxist paradigm. As such, they have the capacity to enact a leveling of class and privilege, in which class boundaries are effaced. Boundary effacement I have touched on before, but it must be at the heart of any comprehensive Net theory. And it is (mostly) a good thing.
Literature has a special place in this scenario. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that poetry has a special place. The length of novels would (I would think) preclude them from an active engagement with Net-space. Or, that could take thirty or forty years to develop. For now, the comparative brevity and compact quality of poems make them ideal for Net distribution and consumption. "Consumption" is a key word here. Theorists have pointed out that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a demarcation was put in place (in literary terms) between "consumption" and "reception." Reception referred to dissemination of literature in small, tightly interwoven groups; this is the realm of what had been "court literature" and patronage. Here, poets knew who they were writing for and tailored their creations accordingly. As the nineteenth century began, literature gradually took on the qualities of a commodity, and poets no longer knew exactly who they were writing for. Though the Internet generally moves us in the direction of de-commodification, the same thing is happening now, in a more extreme fashion. Anyone who has sitemeter on their blog knows that hits come from all over the world, and, usually, it is impossible to determine who one's readers are. How do you write for an inchoate mass of people? This was the question for Wordsworth and Coleridge, and it is no less a question for us now, albeit taken to a new level of extremity. This combination of de-commodification and an insanely wide public audience is very novel. Poets have never dealt with anything like it before. Wordsworth's inchoate public could at least be traced to England; many of us receive hits from places like India, Pakistan, and Yemen. What are the implications? It will take years, and many Net Theorists, to work them out. But work them out they (and we) must, because it may be the key to whatever durability and permanence we hope to have. Oh, the irony...
Friday, April 10, 2009
One of the advantages of looking at a period of literary history "in depth" is that it becomes easier to look at contemporary concerns in perspective. I say this because it turns out that studying nineteenth century England has given me more insight into 2009 America than I've ever had before. Here's the "thesis" of the parallel I'd like to draw (it's a little convoluted, but bear with me): much of the action that dominated nineteenth century England involved the industrialization of society. Machines started doing the work that men had done, and the lower classes were often forced to work in factories. Factories were generally run by bourgeois white men, looking to turn a major profit. The rise of the middle class in England was facilitated by industrialization. The unfairness of this scenario was what led to thinkers like Marx and Engels who imagined an empowered proletariat rising up against the bourgeoisie. However, this strain of thinking is not relevant to my argument. What is relevant is that as machines took over material production, British society itself became, in many ways, machine-like. It became an imperative for the bourgeoisie to maintain a rigid veneer of propriety, and conformity was more than just welcomed, but required. The public sphere was for men, the private sphere was for women; men were to take care of politics, women were to be domestic angels. Victorian ideology espoused efficiency through social, political, and sexual standardization; the more machine-like discipline could be manifested in society, the better chances were of creating capital and successful modes of production. Industry was internalized, and spiritualized.
Our age of digital consciousness is, I would argue, moving us in a parallel direction. The way life works on the Internet is the way our consciousness is starting to work. If we pick up an Althusserian discourse, and look into the ideological components that dictate Net behavior (sans the Althusserian opinion that ideology is necessarily negative), what do we find? What is Net ideology, if it exists at all? I am of the opinion that the Net is creating a new type of person: fast, disparate, seemingly without boundaries. Net programs like Facebook create a mobile self, a self that goes out into a world of limitless possibility and endless representational reproduction. If you have a profile on Facebook, any "friend" can obtain your essential info at any time. Some, including myself, have whole books, sometimes multiple books on the Net, and books that can be purchased on the Net. A Net Self knows no limitations, and exists in a realm only partly physical, mostly spiritual. This goes for cell-phones and Blackberries too; unlike ten or twenty years ago, now anyone can (and will) reach us at any time. We can be interrupted in the middle of anything; we can be anywhere talking to anyone; we are faster and more fluid than we've ever been. The digitalization of consciousness will eventually effect changes no less drastic than the industrialization of consciousness did in Romantic and Victorian England.
What are the repercussions for us, as poets? It's difficult to say. Artists, from Blake straight through to Wilde rebelled against industry. It is difficult to say whether or not artists in this century will rebel against the digitalization of consciousness. To me, it seems like something that might be embraced. What's wrong with being fast, fluid, and without boundaries? It could be argued that we might lose some kind of earthy gravitas. Nevertheless, I think that it is too early in the century to prognosticate. I will say this: the spectacular success of poetry on the Net leads me to believe that those of us who have something invested in Net poetry may be rewarded. I think the Net will become increasingly important to all of us, both as a means of dissemination and as a locus of activity, discussion, debate, and innovation. It needs to be iterated that the Net has been appropriated by the middle-class; it is egalitarian only for people who can afford computers. The vast majority of people in the world do not have access to the Internet. Yet the Net encourages individuality, rather than conformity; innovation, rather than sameness; public and private realms converging, rather than being sundered; and the leveling of culture via engagements with a wide, geographically scattered public. In short, I think that we are in for a better time of it than the Victorians were. Digitalization of consciousness, in its manner of effacing boundaries, brings us closer to whatever organic unity is subsistent among us as "enjoying and suffering beings." It is a realm in which "real language" is not only possible but probable.
Monday, April 06, 2009
The poems I am currently writing are attempts at voicing Otherness. There is no "I" in these poems and, despite inevitable mediation, I am attempting to let the Other speak without restraint, with force and simplicity, and in the course of miniaturized linear narratives. The question of colonization follows hard on the heels of questions of authenticity: do I colonize the Other by forcing him or her speak? If it is a colonization, is it a benign colonization? Ultimately, I would like to hope that it is. What is the alternative for a creative artist? It would be a repressive, post-Victorian stasis in which certain things (and certain voices) must not be spoken, where worlds are not free to collide and intermix, where heteroglossia is discouraged and an artist must remain atomized by his or her particular circumstances. It would seem, quite simply, to be colonize or ossify. Yet the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Stylistics are a factor, representative tactics are a factor, poetic tone and/or prosody is certainly a factor, and especially the degree to which the poet can, to use an American colloquialism, get out of the way. Those who maintain a veneer of fastidious political correctness will quite obviously (and perhaps bitterly) oppose others with a more liberal bent. Appropriation of the Other's voice puts the poet on shaky ground, but shaky ground is where changes happen and new perspectives come to light. So let me cut out the guff and just present the poem. It is taken from my Last Drop series, and its called Sisters:
Oh, she was really cute,
but she just doesn’t get
it. I mean, she has these
perfect little blue eyes,
and our feet were almost
touching, but she kept
talking about other girls.
It didn’t help that I had
to hear her whole stupid
life story about growing
up in fucking Reading.
Now she wants to open
up a shop with sex toys
and a café. I mean, that’s
fine, but it was all about
her, I couldn’t get a word
in edgewise, and now I
can’t go into the bar where
she works because I sort
of don’t want to see her.
But I’m still attracted to
her too. I swear to God,
all these fucking hick girls
come to the city and they
can’t handle it. I wanted
to tell her, listen, sister,
don’t mess around with
a girl that’s been around.
You’re cute but I could
fuck you over if I wanted
to. I’ve got skills that you
don’t. What’s the point?
She’ll learn soon enough.
I do not pretend to know if this can be called a "queer" poem or not. It is not authentic, in the sense that I am not gay and I am speaking not as "I", but in the voice of a gay woman. If there is something authentic in the poem, it is (I hope) the speaker's humanity. "Humanity", of course, as something generalized and universalized, is also problematic, but under the Deconstructive lens, everything, all forms of representation, are problematic. What we are meant to see in this person is our own vulnerability, our own wounded pride, our own sense of desire, the vagaries of desire, and the injustice and arbitrary quality of people's behavior. That the speaker happens to be a lesbian may or may not be incidental. I am voicing the Other because I am, in a certain sense, writing from life, from incidents and situations I have observed at the Last Drop. The biographical details of a person called Adam Fieled would have little relevance, if this text is just a text. So I am going to go out on a limb and say that the evidence weighs against reading this poem as a colonization, and that voicing the Other does not have to be a manifestation of transgressive arrogance.