Tuesday, April 14, 2009

An allegory for Bloggers: Madeline's Room

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.

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