Sunday, March 29, 2009

Crank, not Snark

Today, I found myself kicking the can around a bit at Harriet (bonus points if you’re of my generation or older and have any idea what the former metaphor means), and stopped by Don Share’s discussion of Robert Darnton's recent essay, Google & the Future of Books (and some other related discussion, and ancillary tech, both large and small):

In considering the democratization of literary matters, both Darnton and Share jump off at the idea of the Republic of Letters, the consensual hallucination that emanates from the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson:

"The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won."

Of course, theory and praxis diverge:

"Far from functioning like an egalitarian agora, the Republic of Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies in the eighteenth century: privilege. Privileges were not limited to aristocrats. In France, they applied to everything in the world of letters, including printing and the book trade, which were dominated by exclusive guilds, and the books themselves, which could not appear legally without a royal privilege and a censor's approbation, printed in full in their text.... Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operates, is a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged."

Share goes on to question notions of ownership and access, but what kept me thinking was something, er, less lofty: performativity. Maybe this is only a function of how poetry is mirrored in popular culture, but it seems to me that some eddies of poetic presence in the blogosphere suffer from a kind of mnemonic hang-over, which is bound up in notions of class.

I think there’s often some kind of essential confusion when it comes to poetic identity (as it is commonly bandied about) between privilege and membership. Yes, the "membership" of publication and bookdom is somewhat exclusive, but the distinction between publication in the top tier magazines (however you want to define those) and the vast profusion of other magazines, both print and online, seems to be a distinction that only matters to the practitioners of the subculture. If I tell a non-poetry person that I got published in Grand Street (R.I.P.) as opposed to, I don’t know, McNaughton Mountain Review, they seem equally underwhelmed. Saying that the former can (sigh... could) be found in a Borders produces a slightly slower blink of indifference.

Members of a subculture have endless fine distinctions about the "true" members of a subculture, rather than the "fake" members of a subculture (or, in this case, the "important" as opposed to the "minor" ones), but these distinctions are finer than a gnat’s eyelash to the outsider, especially when poetry is often viewed as a hobby to the rest of the culture at large, and therefore possessing almost no barriers to membership.

Regardless, I am amused at the evocation of the Victorian literary sphere. Reading Montaigne or Barthes or even Michel Houellebecq (I’m thinking of his brilliant Lovecraft book here, not the tenor of his other products, which I remain ignorant of) is to enter psychically into the cognitive atmosphere of the den, the smoking jacket, the brandy snifter, the dark wood paneling and so forth. There’s a sort of inherent feeling of solitude and refinement, a sort of above-it-all-ness, and the faint aftertaste of literary activity being its own reward. Regardless of any actual product, one has these delightful trappings, whether they are tangible or intangible.

The reason for this feeling of enclave is of course because wealth was usually directly tied to the necessary literacy and leisure required to spend all this time, fronting, as the kids say (or used to say). Now, with the internet, the necessary leisure and space required to pontificate or noodle about in an ostensibly literary way is available. In fact, it’s sandwiched in between factoid ranches, stand-up routines and throw-away lines masquerading as ad-hoc journalism, and all manner of fortified compounds where goods and services may be purchased, or talked about in such as away as to resemble an actual lifestyle. That’s it: the internet makes talking into a lifestyle. It used to be that you had to go to some kind of retreat, consciously display some kind of apparel or equipment, or in fact have certain characteristics in order to belong to a lifestyle, as it were ("I am my lifestyle, and my lifestyle is mine!"), but now everything is communal. Your quip, your predilection for Orson Scott Card novels, the holographic detritus of your trip to Niagara Falls (does anyone ever go to Niagara Falls anymore?) is a small cataract of a vast extroversion that pours invisibly into the computer screen and splits prismatically and instantaneously into thousands of virtual spaces, mirrored and Xeroxed and refracted endlessly through search engines, aggregators, blogs, hyperlinks, etc.

And it doesn’t feel to me like poetry is very different in this respect, than, say, knitting. Partly because it is impossible to place a wall around it in the way one did in the old days, when you had Gentlemen’s Clubs, or country estates, or Masonic Lodges. Generally (although this is less and less the case), the only thing sequestered about poets is their words, which exist in a printed space that ranges from obscure to almost totally occluded and invisible to the naked American eye. Perversely, this seems to me to render literary performativity even more of a thing apart from the work itself, though it may be that this is no more true than it was 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years ago. The only difference is now that we have the virtual equivalent of a shopping mall, instead of the frangible Rosetta Stone of a newspaper or lecture hall.

This is not to say that I think the profusion of data and made things on the internet is toxic for society or our own dear little subculture, nor that the staggering array of small and micro-presses that have multiplied are in any way diluting poetry. I think both aspects of how the literary world has enlarged in the past ten years offer powerful opportunities. But they do make some convenient distinctions decidedly past-tense, and make the borders of the subculture more permeable. And while giving rise to sometimes uncomfortable feelings, more consumers of the written word and more, well, written words is always a good thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've spent many pleasant hours playing kick the can. How did I not know about your blog?