The Latest Word by Curtis White 2012-04-14

Can a corporate-dominated Web become an environment conducive to literary activity?

  • White doubts whether literature can distinguish itself in the noisy new media ecology, which he likens to a high-tech prison house.

  • In October of 2011, [he] posted an essay titled “The Late Word” concerning the devolution of literary publishing.The argument of that essay can be simplified in the following few points:

  1. Literature has always been about the struggle for the institutional authority to say what would count as literature

  • What is taking literature’s place appears to be the Great Library of Amazon, a super-sized Babel made all of “content units”

  • There were many comments on his essay, most of them dismissive or hostile. One of the things that has been most discouraging in recent years is the tendency among some readers to substitute familiar ideas for the unfamiliar ideas that he is actually trying to develop.

  • In the present case, most of the comments seemed to reflect the idea that he was just another mourner for the passing of book publishing and something called literature. The following complaints were made:

-He was wrong to worry that literature would die with the end of book publishing;
Literature will thrive just as it always has because readers find books they like and tell their friends about them (that’s what Twitter is for!);

-There is no need to worry about Amazon; it’s simply the new vehicle for literature just as the printed word was once a new vehicle that replaced scribes and declamatory; He's so last century.

  • His basic argument is: let it go. It’s always been compromised. The institutions of literature have always worked against the life of the work of art as much as they have worked for it.

  • Historically, literary institutions have done two things well. First, they have managed the unruliness of language by creating canons of the major, the minor, and the non-canonical, aka the irrelevant.

  • In other words, in literary canons the work of art becomes part of an ideological apparatus, whether religious, aristocratic, capitalist, socialist, or even ballyhooed multicultural.

  • We, as readers and writers, need to remember: Beethoven refused every authorized role he was offered. He was rumpled, rude, and misanthropic. He dedicated a work to the French Revolution in spite of the fact that he lived on the patronage of the Austrian nobility, and in spite of the fact that in 1802 Napoleon was preparing for war with Austria. Anyone else would have been hanged for sedition. He didn’t bite the hand that fed him; he ate it.

2. The second thing that canons do well: they celebrate their victims. True, most artists do yearn for the sort of enduring fame that canonization claims to offer (deluded though that fame is), but the power of their work, when it is authentic, is always in its indifference to what the critics and canonizers think.

  • As for the promise of digital culture and our Amazonian future, is it possible to have there a literature that works through the spirit of change, of estrangement, of refusal, and the Keatsian sense of Beauty. This is the idea of "true familiarity"; his poems break the crust of habitual expectation and stereotype by abandoning the self’s ordinary perspective in an act of sympathy for the existential integrity of others.

  • Is it possible to do your business through Amazon and be outside of it? You won’t easily find the particularity of Keats’s sparrow there or Williams’ red wheelbarrow. Instead, we more often get fan-fiction, such as the Fifty Shades of Grey books and others. Yes, Fifty Shades started out as fanfic for the Twilight series. tBut many writers and poets seem all-too-willing to play the game, creating fan pages and websites for their own brand. The writing community, such as it is, seems almost sick with desire for this ephemeral grace. Every genius and every deluded poseur proudly displays her own granular meme, blogging, posting, or selling a book for $.99 on Kindle.

  • For us, now, it seems to me, the only future being fought over is either technical or economic: in what form will the arts survive in ever-shifting markets? But all questions of virtue will be handled by technicians and economists.

  • Inseparable from this social damage is a very personal damage. The Web is the largest, most sophisticated diversion machine in human history. (Marxist). As entertainments always have, the Web diverts us from thinking about how empty we are. If we can’t text, and tweet, and email, we discover ourselves to be ontologically empty, just as we’ve always been. And so, in a panic, back to that cold digital embrace we return.

  • We are creatures of lack, manqué, as Sartre put it grimly. The Web reassures us about the hole at the center of us by providing its endless chatter. The leveling effect of Amazon makes even the best intended artist or thinker a mere “content provider” for that hole whether she likes it or not. Even this essay succumbs to that implacable dynamic.

  • From [his] point of view, addressing that problem begins with an honest evaluation of what these mechanisms are, who we are, and what it is that we want.

  • How happy we are when we post something and twenty-five people press a button claiming to “like” it. For my original essay at Lapham’s, it has 527 “likes,” and a bonus 206 tweets. (Isn’t that awesome?) It’s enough to make you want to do it again! And we do! But in the end all we hear is the reassuring sound of our own voice.

  • Literature on the Web comes managed from its beginning. And this for a simple reason: it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the vast reaches of mere content. And [he] has no idea what to do about it.

Synopsis: In short, the constant chatter of the web seduces us into living an unexamined life by filling necessary stillness and silence with activity and hyper-stimulation. The web as a market (Amazon) reduces artists and writers to slaves of the current medium of the time if they wish to have their work experienced by the multitude. For the scope of audience, we trade the identity of the author and authorial intent. In the "servomechanism, ...artists...are dissolved, digested, and totalized" (White).

Discussion Questions:

1. Is self-publication "literature" and should it be done? (Example: via Amazon for $.99/piece)

2. Are we filling our void with "idle chatter" of the web without self-introspection?

3. Do we have an impact on the advance of technology and this phenomena? Should we just "let it go"?