The Latest Word

The Latest Word

Curtis White

Can a corporate-dominated Web become an environment conducive to literary activity? The novelist, essayist, and cultural critic Curtis White is skeptical. Responding to criticisms of his account of the devolution of literary publishing and reflecting on the prevalence of market-driven values in online exchanges, White doubts whether literature can distinguish itself in the noisy new media ecology, which he likens to a high-tech prison house.

Ryan Brooks:

For an essay that situates Curtis White's The Middle Mind in the context of recent debates about the role of difficulty in aesthetics, see Rone Shavers' "The End of Agapē: On Debates around Gaddis" in Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System. (Ed. Joseph Tabbi and Rone Shavers.)


 In October of 2011, I posted an essay titled “The Late Word” concerning the devolution of literary publishing on the Lapham’s Quarterly website.

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;
  2. With the slow death of bookstores and the publishing industry, literature seems to be disappearing for lack of interest; publishers aren’t interested, and agents, critics, the reading public, and even the postmodern professoriate (with its enduring fascination with popular culture, and its bad faith “celebration” of multiculturalism) are now so indifferent that the very concept of literature is on the verge of extinction;
  3. What is taking literature’s place appears to be the Great Library of Amazon, a super-sized Babel made all of “content units”;
  4. This is not necessarily cause for grief because it was never literature that we cared most about (“it is damned from one end to the other”); what we have cared about is literature’s socio-spiritual capacity for destabilizing the familiar and revealing the Real, especially that Real in which change is real (Williams again: “it’ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is upon it”) (Korea in Hell 16)

There were many comments on my essay left at Lapham’s, most of them dismissive or hostile. One of the things that has been most discouraging to me in recent years is the tendency among some of my readers to substitute familiar ideas for the unfamiliar ideas that I’m actually trying to develop. So, with The Middle Mind, Dwight McDonald’s “middle brow” was pasted over my idea-that the products of mass culture are successfully “passing” for art-just as if a poster for the circus - coming soon! - were pasted over a denunciation of clowns and tiny dogs.

In the present case, most of the comments seemed to reflect the idea that I was just another mourner for the passing of book publishing and something called literature. The following complaints were made (I’ve tried to list them in some sort of logical order):

  1. I was wrong to worry that literature would die with the end of book publishing;
  2. 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!);
  3. 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 declamators;
  4. I’m so last century.

Given how far modern literary publishing has come from its origins with publisher/bookstores like Murray’s in London during the rise of English Romanticism (see original essay), and how concentrated it is now in a high-tech corporate monopoly, it’s a little late to get weepy over its demise. My 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. If the large part of the work of the poem/novel is to “enstrange” the world as we know it and open it up to the possibility of alternate arrangements, any canon can only serve the opposite purpose: to stabilize. 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.

Herbert Marcuse puts it this way in One Dimensional Man:

What they [the Romantics] recall and preserve in memory pertains to the future: images of a gratification that would dissolve the society which suppresses it. The great surrealist art and literature of the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties has still recaptured them in their subversive and liberating function … Some of these [surrealist] images pertain to contemporary literature and survive in its most advanced creations. What has been invalidated is their subversive force, their destructive content - their truth … The absorbent power of society depletes the artistic dimension by assimilating its antagonistic contents. (63-64)

Thus is literature damned.

This should not be understood as a renunciation of the works in themselves. Taken on their own terms, almost all of the individual works within the established art canons - whether literature, music, or painting - were, in their time, “subversive,” to use Marcuse’s word, in one way or another, and beautifully so. Unhappily, it is never the subversive Beethoven or Wagner that is presented in symphony halls. No one introduces Das Rheingold by describing how Wagner paid for hand grenades in the Dresden uprising of 1849, or that his depiction of the alienated labor of the Niebelungen was very likely derived (through his friendship with Bakunin) from Marx. It is only the mystified aura of their canonical “greatness” that is displayed. (And yet within this mystified aura you can still feel the artist, like the beat of an animal heart, slowly approaching through fog.)

Let us 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. Just as importantly, he refused the formal orthodoxy of classicism. In the fourth movement of his Second Symphony, his last work in something like the classical idiom, he actually farts on classicism. After that, the “new path” of the Eroica. Beethoven’s music is a refusal of all reigning ideologies and orthodoxies that would not see its equal - as social revolt - until Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

This brings me to 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. Of the Romantics, Keats was the most keenly aware of this difficulty. In his letters he wrote, “There is no greater Sin after the seven deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet” (261). And, “with a great poet [sic!] the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration” (277). And yet, scrupulous though he was, Keats took consolation in predicting that after his death he would be acknowledged as one of the “English poets.” In short, he felt that there was a place in the canon - right next to Spenser, down a few seats from Shakespeare - waiting for him.

The ossification of reputations in Great Traditions is like the summer powwow to which white people flock in their minivans in order to don war bonnets, paint their faces, and celebrate their genocidal “heritage.”

Ah! Beethoven! Ah! Jimi! Just more dead injuns.

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 enstrangement, of refusal, and in which the sense of Beauty (whatever Keats meant by that vexed word) overcomes every other consideration?

I suppose. But it’s helpful to remember just what a rich and difficult thing Keatsian beauty is. In a sense, it enstranges by re-collecting an object’s original intimacy. It’s as if Keat’s is recalling the thing’s true familiarity. The poem breaks 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, even if only for Keats’s famous sparrow. This is negative capability.

Can this deference to the dignity of being happen in the context of a Web dominated by corporations whose job is basically to create rigid market identities so it can better sell them? Is it possible to do your business through Amazon and be alienated, which is to say outside of it? (“Oh, my Amazon sales number broke into the hundreds! My editor will be thrilled!”) You won’t easily find the particularity of Keats’s sparrow there, or Marianne Moore’s toads, or Williams’ wheelbarrow, or Pound’s station in the metro. Worse yet, from what I can see, 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. In the World According to Amazon the point is that it is not possible to be alienated because there is nothing outside of it! The Web is, in the worst possible sense, the night in which all cows are black.

And yet, it is because of this outside that aesthetic controversies in the arts, since the romantic era and until very recently, have been so fierce. For example, in French painting around 1800 the rivalries between neo-classicists (school of David), archaists (Ingres), and romantic colorists (Delacroix) were vicious not because of a desire for official recognition (they all hated the Salon) but because they all desired to define the dominant tendency of the moment which in turn would determine the world of the future, on the outside. Ingres’s advocacy of the line and clear drafting was aesthetic, of course, but it was always an ethical and social aesthetics. The artist’s job was to describe virtue for his audience. Ingres’s paintings tried to say, “This is the most desirable world of the future.” On the other hand, Delacroix’s Rubensesque orgies of color smelled of “brimstone.” All of this took place in the communal context of the artist’s atelier, his studio, where students and advocates gathered to view new work, produce their own, and talk.

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.

As Andrei Codrescu wrote in his prescient book The Disappearance of the Outside:

The notion of community has been stripped of its direction. No longer does community - any community - stand outside the State, in direct challenge to it. All communities have been reoriented through a neat trick of generalization to become the State, an electronic Superstate that is a combination of traditional nationalism and electronic globalism. When community was a means of resistance, it was constituted to point from the inside out: it proceeded from a center of internal concerns to make progressively wider contacts with the outside world. The community redesigned by the State points inward: it is a producer of silence. (sic, 197)

In the era of the Web, we might now add, yes, but it is a voluble silence.

Inseparable from this social damage is a very personal damage. The Web is the largest, most sophisticated diversion machine in human history. As entertainments always have, the Web diverts us from thinking about how empty we are. As Pascal wrote, “The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries” (6). We fill ourselves with the Web’s chatter and the Web’s busyness, but when our laptops and smart phones are taken from us we are thrown immediately back into our ancient human anxiety about being nothing. 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.

William Carlos Williams, just one more time: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” (emphasis added, “Asphodel” 161-162).

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, God help me.

And yet, I think the situation is more or less as Marshall McLuhan saw it in the ’60s. On the one hand, as he acknowledged in his famous Playboy interview:

As a man molded within the literate Western tradition, I do not personally cheer the dissolution of that tradition through the electric involvement of all the senses: I don’t enjoy the destruction of neighborhoods by high-rises or revel in the pain of identity quest. No one could be less enthusiastic about these radical changes than myself. (267)

But, against his own nature, he was forced to acknowledge:

Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn’t stop them, so why waste my time lamenting? As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, ‘I accept the Universe’: ‘She’d better.’ I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress … No civilian can escape this environmental blitzkrieg, for there is, quite literally, no place to hide. (264-65)

McLuhan’s challenge is to discover how to relate to these technologies without being mere unconscious “servomechanisms,” as he called those who mindlessly embrace inhumanly powerful gadgets. From my 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. What art wants, as Marcuse articulated it a half century ago, is “images of a gratification that would dissolve the society which suppresses it” (63). Unfortunately, in the world of the happy servomechanism it is we, artists included, who are dissolved, digested, and totalized.

Wallace Stevens once wrote that poetry was a “destructive force,” and that it can “kill a man.” On the heels of all the great art-isms of the modernist period, whether surrealist, imagist, or fascist, this was a plausible claim. In the present, however, all such pronouncements are risible because they are spoken into a high-tech echo chamber. 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.

The enormous fact to be overcome is this: our rulers need spend very little time worrying about what artists are up to. They don’t need strategies for managing their disruptions (like the massive commercial co-opting of the counterculture in the ’60s, back when poetry was still a destructive force, and when poets [Ed Sanders, Robert Lowell] and a novelist [Norman Mailer] could levitate the Pentagon). 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 I have no idea what to do about it except to continue doing what I do and making occasional little roaring noises from the tenebrous depth of my Central Illinois gulag.

One does not need to be a Luddite to say such things. It’s not as if I don’t email, don’t Facebook, don’t Google for quick information (like above when I couldn’t remember if the toad in the garden was in Moore or in Roethke), don’t blog, and have never had a fan site (I was hoodwinked by a wicked publicist!). But I am plenty Nietzschean enough not to want to be human, all too human, and give aid and comfort to my jailer by saying that a prison house is a pleasure dome.


Works Cited

Codrescu, Andrei. The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape. St. Paul: Ruminator Books, 2001. Print.

Keats, John. The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats. Ed. Horace Elisha Scudder. Boston, 1899. eBook. The Cambridge Poets.

Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print. Routledge Classics.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Playboy Interview: ‘Marshall McLuhan - A Candid Conversation with the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media.”The Essential McLuhan. Ed. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. New York: Basic Books, 1995. 233-269. Print.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trans. Roger Ariew. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing, 2005. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage 1990.

White, Curtis. “The Late Word.” Lapham’s Quarterly: Roundtable. Oct. 2011. Web. January 24, 2012.

Williams, William Carlos. “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. 5th ed. New York: New Directions, 1967. Print.

—. Kora in Hell: Improvisations. 1920. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2009.