Friday, April 10, 2009

Net Consciousness

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.

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