Friday, 13 January 2012

Neutral Facial Expression: Internets & Refusal, contra Riviere

Q: So how much of an inspiration has the internet and the digital world been on FSV?

JF: The Internet is dispatching everything in our globalised mega-city. People are essentially wearing the Internet, eating it, hearing it, talking about it all the time, because everything is like a symptom of an Internet driven society. It's really obvious, though it's not the main attraction in FSV's story. FSV is a still life. Everybody's music sounds like the Internet right now, from Top 40 to underground. Fashion looks like the Internet. It's this weird impressionism that everything embodies. I think there will be more and more artwork resembling this. Digital clarity has given us another perspective on humanism.

Q: Do you think it's possible to avoid making art that doesn't reflect the intenseness of the internet's involvement in modern society?

JF: If by chance somebody does achieve this they are truly avant garde.

-- Extract from Quietus interview with James Ferraro, December 2011.

On the first page of my print-out of The Faber New Poet Sam Riviere’s recent article on Internet Poetry, midway between the title of the essay and the formless hyperlinks rendered in underlined bold type sitting top-left, there is a small, generic, embedded advert for the “skills-based social directory” website Featuring the wide-eyed, expectant visage of a woman’s face holding an expression of some benevolent but incredulous admonition, the innocuous .jpeg claims, in tones so glaringly bludgeoned into content-savvy submission that it makes Jobseeker’s Allowance jargon sound like your own mother crooning you to sleep on a balmy summer evening, “Poets wanted in the UK. Join SkillPages Now. 100% Free.” The fact that this ad is equidistant from Riviere’s first example of what his essay celebrates and promotes as a form of “refusal” and “resistance” in online literature, between them sandwiching the title of the essay itself, makes for a strange, beguiling and disturbing juxtaposition. The ostensible levels of time, skill and energy that go into making such extraordinary claims upon our online attention contribute, of course, to much wider developments in digital marketing techniques designed to reflect the mutable desires of the target audience demographic of any such encounter, determined not just by immediate web-content but increasingly by any individual browser’s cache of search terms used to locate content of any sort in the first place. “Poet?” the .jpeg innocently chimes as I click on the essay about Poetry on the Internet; “Lawyer?” it would presumably chirrup, if I happened to be browsing articles on Tort Law; “Social Historian?” if my subject was the suspension of Habeas Corpus after the French Revolution; “Despot?” it might potentially trill if I was trying to find information on where to purchase the arms and manpower to crush a small, but embarrassing, uprising - all innocently couched in the projected emotional blackmail of the rent-a-visage mock indignation of the face staring back at me, a face whose look of cheerful stupefaction would not change no matter what the interrogative utterance input by the parameters determining its pixelated vision of contempt for human expression; a face that looks, superficially, like a person’s face.

Riviere writes at length about Internet Poetry [or alt. lit.] having “proved itself to be highly adaptable to an online environment,” and describes how it “harnesses poetry’s own unpopularity against it[self]” in the form of “Tactics from branding and advertising [...] deployed to promote poetry zines and events.” He further asserts that “these strategies of appropriation and internalisation of commercial culture orientate the poems both as antagonists of the dominant tradition (in poetry), and as self-aware artistic ‘brands’ within culture more generally, able to appeal to an online readership directly rather than just via a poetry audience and their disillusionment.” There is a lot I find useless, unnecessary, offensive and ugly about this argument, but I want in this post to pick up on just a few of the points raised in the article, points that for the most part are primarily guilty of lauding a new, fashionable and for the most part utterly vacuous collection of writing by appealing to the most formally equivalent aspects of its style and production at the expense of any scrutiny whatsoever of its actual content. Internet Poetry, whatever that defines in toto, is in the first and final analysis, supposed to be a form of “refusal” and “resistance” not just to established forms of cultural dissemination (because the Internet is, as bad contemporary artists keep reminding us, the space in which we will find our happiness, one and all) but also to History and Materialism in general, at the same time as providing, by “avoiding compliance with what we expect from poems,” a formula for the complete re-definition of poetry as we (don’t yet) know it. These grandiose claims are supported by tautologous and self-serving arguments that do little to deepen our understanding of virtuality and digital poetics, that in fact might further mystify that understanding, and prove furthermore that what Riviere thinks “we expect from poems” is a straw man designed purely to be refuted in the most generic of terms whilst smuggling in forms of abstract equivalence and “interchangeability” disguised as a potential solution to the badly proposed problem.

Contra Riviere’s (for the most part) uncritical enthusiasm for this work, but not his admirable effort to conceptually organize its determining principles, I dispute entirely the notion of “refusal” in the very ease of its attribution, not as applied to readings of individual poems (which are not present, close or otherwise, in the essay), but to the style of Internet Poetry per se (to which it is attached without reservation, and in general). The attribution stems, early on in the essay, from the wider, more universalist claim, that “we realise instinctively it [poetry] is by its nature a subversive practice, connected with a kind of ideal spirit of honest perception, resistance and dissent.” This assertion is a bad place to begin. It assumes, for example, a lot more than it asserts. Might not “our awareness” of what “we realise” as un-examined social formulae provide the conceptual ground of bourgeois-liberal-mainstream self-identity that is itself responsible for the formulation of the “ideal spirit” of an artform “we” recognize as being implicitly “our” own, and likewise the ground of “our” own form of adequately rebellious “dissent” from whatever happen to be the prevailing, non-subversive practices themselves? Riviere’s next sentence confirms this closed-circuit of hermeneutic back-slapping: “Probably this is partly why the people who are drawn to poetry are drawn to it in the first place”. The honest perception of the poet satiates the attraction to honest perception of the honest reader of poetry, who knows innately, probably from being taught in school that poetry is all about honest perception, that this is where they will find the gem of dissent in the otherwise mendacious “liberal establishment” comprised (ironically gosh) of rapacious publishers and bad capitalism. Granted, Riviere’s description of the elitist realms of publication and Arts Council funded bodies is intended to be a wake-up call to the fact that “aspiring poets not only learn to write in accordance with a broadly accepted style, but also share broadly accepted aims, in order to increase their chances of publication” and that such practices are “a very effective way of strangling an art form”; but his answer to this strangulation, in the process of which he does not acknowledge the formal circuitry of his assumptions about the social make-up of the “we” that realise things about “our” art, is simply to state that “The possibilities for reversing this situation afforded by the Internet are obvious and probably do not need re-stating.” On the contrary, I think they do need re-stating, and with greater clarity of exposition than they have yet received. But it also needs pointing out that the assumption of the figure of the poet who aspires to imitate a certain style in order to get published is a curiously market-driven speculative personality in itself. No doubt these kinds of poets really do exist, and of course they are useless; but in that case I fail to see how the “the Internet” is going to “reverse” anything - it seems far more likely to exacerbate the problem.

“If we can say that in poetry the genuine tradition is anti-tradition, and that continual overthrowing of entrenched styles is desirable, then it is worth looking at exactly what form of interruption this new strand of poetry proliferating on the internet takes, and how valid it is in it positing itself as alternative writing.” Nothing in this sentence strikes me as absurd; far from it, it strikes me as a necessary and useful line of enquiry. But the parameters of its potential discovery seem already set in motion by what has come before: publishing “gatekeepers” create the normative poetry reader by their control of the means of production, but on the Internet poetry can thrive because these fetters are thrown off in the freedom and multiplicity the net provides. There’s an error of analysis here that needs correcting: Internet Poetry, as Riviere conceives it, does, I believe, emphatically not need to “adapt to an online environment” because it was born there and could not exist without it, and being “used to the idea of making their work available for nothing” is not necessarily a determining feature of writers who publish all their poems on blogs or in the form of gmail chat conversations, because the cultural capital of becoming a successful Internet Poet is absolutely bound up in getting a chapbook out of the effort at the end of the day – the reciprocal teleology of creativity and commoditisation remains absolutely the same. The conformity of the poetry of writers who aspire stylistically to tickle the fancies of editors from the TLS to the CLR in order to get published is not going to change drastically once those writers begin to want to appeal to the editors of Hipster Runoff or Jacket. The appeal to “aspiring poets” of this ilk, which makes an implicit claim to represent the totality of “unpublished” writers in the UK (by which Riviere means unpublished by a mainstream press), is from the start predicated upon a section of the mainstream “positing itself as alternative writing” by eschewing its former hack opportunism in favour of a new-found model of self-perpetuation and self-promotion: the fact that Riviere thinks that “the Internet” can “reverse” the situation he describes is completely down to the paucity of his description of the situation itself, and the corresponding weakness of the solution he provides for it. In the former, no distinction is drawn between the mainstream big presses and the no less crucial histories of work (small-press, avant-garde, experimental) that has consistently repudiated the idea that poetry exists, as Riviere maintains “it” has become used to doing, as “a somehow economically untainted art form”; the latter continues in a vein that, to my mind, deliberately valorises Internet Poetry as the natural successor to the natural status of dissent and refusal that poetry has seemingly always autonomously embodied, because “The opportunity for creating and nourishing an audience for new poetry like this has never existed before,” regardless of what that new poetry says, or does, or contains.

I said above that what Riviere thinks “we expect from poems” is a straw man designed purely to be refuted, and I need now to qualify that statement. What I mean is that Riviere’s entire argument rests on a fairly conservative understanding of what the average reader of mainstream poetry expects when they read a poem in a book published by a real live publisher with Arts Council funding. The refutation of that experience, the refusal of its structural norms, is what Internet Poetry is supposed to provide (regardless of what else might rock that fragile little boat, including the entire history of twentieth-century modernist inheritance, hated and ignored by everyone from Larkin to Armitage), not least because it is predicated upon the sort of historical movement that Riviere identifies at the start of his essay as the condition for “any significant shift in poetry [: the] “shift ‘down’ – to the demotic, the current vernacular as experienced by readers.”

But being on the internet does nothing to make poetry more accessible.

Elucidation of the content of the type of poetry under discussion in the essay is informative and well-reasoned, but it is not a form of elucidation that allows for a scrutiny of the content of individual poems so much as a series of things these types of poems do that are supposedly pregnant with refutation or refusal. A few choice samples follow, which I will address one by one:

1. “Tactics from branding and advertising are deployed to promote poetry zines and events, and inform the language and construction of the poem themselves. I would argue that these strategies of appropriation and internalisation of commercial culture orientate the poems both as antagonists of the dominant tradition (in poetry), and as self-aware artistic ‘brands’ within culture more generally.”

2. “Although these texts obsessively take note of the various signs, brand names and many other instances of commodified language that prompt us to incorporate their meanings into our lives (and contribute to theirs), we are confronted in these reductions with what is the least materialistic writing possible.”

3. “...the type of interruption that Internet poetry practice makes in its larger tradition [...involves the] deliberate turning away from history and memory, the territories that literature normally wishes to claim, [and] ensure it freedom from any obligation to that narrative; it owes nothing to that set of priorities. It insists instead on the authority of the personal, the immediate, intensely subjective experiences that are shared by millions.”

Firstly, such “appropriation” of advertising techniques (whatever this might be; it is left undefined in the essay), the very semblance between the advert and its literary double, is set up antagonistically against the entire “dominant tradition” of poetic practice and its contemporary inheritance. This seems fairly far-fetched. It is certainly not original; it is the praxis of détournement drained of its last radical breath, even as an elite cabal of contemporary semioticians recruits that same praxis into its latest assault on the social sensorium. Promotion of a poetry magazine or a poetry reading does not need to borrow the tactics of advertising, because it already is advertising, nor does being “self-aware” make any difference to this practice – it is the social structure of the promulgation of an object or event to its potential audience, and it might be important here to distinguish between advertising in the form of sending out an e-mail or text to a selective ListServe or Twitter community from advertising in the form of online banner ads for In order to make sense of this argument I take Riviere to be suggesting the latter rather than the former, the locus of the meme as viral product placement for the emotional exegesis of Steve Roggenbuck, to take a concrete example. But then, where does this get us? How can a “self-aware artistic ‘brand,’” framed in the deferrable matrix of the scare-quote, be anything other than the brand “artistic” vying for the same attention of the finite poetry market as its languishing, long-lost print-Other? It cannot – the distinction breaks down – and we are left with a situation in which the appeal to “advertising” does nothing other than provide a finer, more discrete and therefore saleable branding of the material at hand. Nothing is refused. A bigger nothing than ever before is refused, because an everything the size of the infinite pathos of Capitalism versus Children is the chronic excess which “freedom of obligation to [any] narrative” [see “Thirdly”] rapaciously devours. But perhaps more to the point, “Using tactics” is not something that one can read in a poem; it is not a critical category; it is in fact a little brand name all of its own.

Secondly, the logic of “the least materialistic writing possible” comprises, if I understand it correctly, the paucity of “emotionally directive” sentiment that would tip the reader outside the ambit of an infinitely potential “ambivalence” couched in a literally reductive form that promotes tiny sound-byte-style utterances ostensibly named “poem”, but which do not necessarily resemble one. I confess to some confusion here: surely the adoption of advertising tactics named (or rather, invoked) above as a primary characteristic of the work’s operative momentum would obviate any possibility of the poetry being anti-materialistic? “The intercepted commands from advertising and other media are the most significant intrusions into our experience of narrative, directing the paths we take through our cities and online” rings true enough, but does it not then follow that the writing would inevitably have to be materialistic in order to negotiate this labyrinth? The uncertainty here is not really conceptual, it is linguistic, because the statement is not so much a characteristic of the content of the poem by Linh Dinh quoted above it, but a category error that cannot adhere to or describe poetry or a poem in anything but the most airy of critical designations. Linh Dinh’s poem may announce, portray or ventriloquise an anti-materialist stance (incidentally, I don’t think the poem quoted has anything to do with materialism, or being materialistic, at all), but this is different to saying that it is some of the “least materialistic writing” around, which seemingly designates some meta-linguistic intentionality of a texte rather than a literal feature of a poem or some poetry.

We come, Thirdly, to the beating heart of Sam Riviere’s essay. This does not really attempt to posit itself as a formulation or understanding of the content of some poetry as have the previous two examples, but it does signify perhaps the most important element of the entire piece. “The deliberate turning away from history and memory” is the radical break with tradition and the individual talent that allows Internet Poetry to exist in the perfect equilibrium of ambivalence and disdain for emotional “manipulation,” a state of affairs also celebrated as a form of uncertainty that allows the work to be “both extremely personal and totally universal” (ever the mantra of a stuck dialectic), rejecting out of hand “any type of speech that rings false through its very assertiveness.” Refutation now embarks on the task of eliminating the social and replacing it with “the immediate subjective experiences that are shared by millions,” which is nothing less than the very form of ersatz equivalence the internet is so effortlessly capable of re-producing, and whose logic is the very logic of the endlessly mutable marketing strategies of which the advert I described above is so emblematic. Riviere’s move is to make the structure of personhood embodied in Internet Poetry completely isomorphic with this spectre of the [virtual] self-identical, ensuring it only the “freedom from any obligation” to itself or anyone else, owing nothing to History or Materialism because utterly unable to encounter them, sequestered and isolated by a “deliberate turning away from memory” that forfeits any capability to refuse or resist any aspect of the world because systematically removed from its social constitution. By these lights, the internet = the self on the internet = the internet, a dead-end incapable of comprehending “the territories that literature normally wishes to claim,” let alone resist them, and is furthermore likely to be the advance-guard for a colonization of the territories it claims to reject. The call to destroy history can never be revolutionary. Poetry that refuses the world can only ever ignore it.

The language of resistance and refusal is hereby adopted to demonstrate some ultra-generalised ethical/political Standpunkt at the expense of any rigorous working-out of what exactly the poems are meant to be refusing; or else the assessment of such refusal does not amount to much more than the evacuation of everything except the individual Internet Poem, not one of which is closely read. This is the sum total of Riviere’s conception of, and arguments for, Internet Poetry: by dint of the solicitation of its social-structural existence, net poetry becomes resistance and refusal because it is Internet Poetry. The move is a purely formal one on the most abstract of levels, based on an assumption that the means of dissemination naturally entail the characteristic “resistance,” which itself rests on the work as a whole being essentially ahistorical and “immediate.” This is not convincing. Or rather, it convinces me that Riviere has tapped into a peculiar vein of valorisation of internet culture, that of the tautologous celebration of the existence of art on the internet that is somehow magically capable of producing forms of social critique, in this case “refusal,” simply by, in the final assessment, being on the internet in the first place. But this cannot be true, because the latest Carol Ann Duffy abomination on the Guardian’s splash page cannot, by the same dint of the structural designations that nominate what is called Internet Poetry, apply for membership of that standpoint.

I don’t really blame Riviere’s analysis for missing out on the real content of the examples dotted about his essay, because for the most part there isn’t any. The gap is the whole. What I mean is that any serious consideration of what is called Internet Poetry must seriously consider its typically fatuous content-less alienation as its primary modus operandi, not as fodder for dismissal by being on the internet in the first place, but as ground for a critique of the symptomatic relations between this work and the conditions of its virtual promiscuity. It is not only over the top to claim for this poetry the benefits of resistance and refutation as Riviere does, it is actually completely useless and beside the point, because conferring upon it a kind of sardonic Futurist agenda, to regard it as emancipatory, as embodying forms of refusal or resistance to mainstream publishing practices, to see in it the unalloyed freedom of the individual subject filling the gap left by his over-active male laser-gaze, is not only gross and undesirable, it is so far beyond the factual and conceptual concerns of the work that it provides only an enormous interpretative parasol shielding it from practical criticism. A reading of the work that chose to concern itself with the beleaguered desperation of lyric individualism tracing its own death-throes through the narcissistic promulgation of ultra-ironised white male teenage angst might provide a more positive forum for illumination. But that will have to wait.

One massively good thing on the internet has recently come to an end, but thankfully remains stuck to the lining of the contra-sphere like the best gob of virtual love-juice ever spat into the system, and that is, of course, Chris Goode's blog. Chris's blog has consistently provided some of the most passionate and believably truthful soliloquies, mix-tapes and pornography ever channeled through Blogger's succulent tubes, and the last post is a heady triumph; the "best of" may yet appear in non-virtual form, but whatever happens this is a loss to theatre, performance, improv, poetry and Muppets criticism everywhere.

Finally, Luke Roberts has a new collection of poems in the world. It is a book, and you should buy it.


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