Saturday, April 11, 2009
On the possibility of Net Theory
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...