My entry for the Meanland blogger competition began with a reference to the work of the Marxist thinker Walter Benjamin and his mostly enthusiastic view of the impact of modern technology on artistic production. I’d like to begin this blog with a quote from Minima Moralia, the wonderfully complex and magnificently complicated book by Benjamin’s friend and fellow German Marxist, Theodor Adorno, who most definitely did not view technological advancement as a positive condition for artistic production.
In this passage, written in the late 1940s, Adorno equates technological progress with destructive, rapacious barbarism, and advocates an equally ‘barbaric asceticism’ as the only means for defying the savagery of unbridled technological expansion:
Progress and barbarism are today so matted together in mass culture that only barbaric asceticism towards the latter, and towards progress in technical means, could restore an unbarbaric condition. […] The older media, not designed for mass-production, take on a new timeliness: that of exemption and of improvisation. They alone could outflank the united front of trusts and technology.
For Adrono, the printing press – which ‘inaugurated the bourgeois era’ – is a technological invention that has brutalised ‘the real book’ (by which he most likely means a handwritten copy) by turning the work of literary art into a mass-produced exchange/fetish commodity. If so, one obvious way of restoring the realness of text would be through primitive, ‘barbaric asceticism’ of, for example, spoken word and oral storytelling. As such, and considering the similarities between digital media and oral forms (as briefly proposed in my essay), could it be said that online writing provides the writer with the space for ‘exemption and improvisation’, with the means for ‘outflanking the united front’ of the publishing industry and stifling financial and ideological interests?
My response to a similar question apropos of the ebook has been rather negative; but ebooks are not the only form of digital publishing, and in some contexts they are far behind other modes of electronic text presentation. In terms of poetry, for example, e-publishing has lagged far behind poetry-blogging, a phenomenon which deserves a great deal more attention and scrutiny than it has received. I wonder to what extent, if any, the poet-blogger, by refusing to have her work published in the conventional poetic media such as literary journals and newspapers is, in Adorno’s sense, ‘outflanking’ stolid and oppressive platforms, and by so doing opposing the ‘barbarism’ of conventional publishing.
The late Australian poet-blogger Paul Squires – who was, in the words of his unnamed interviewer on Overland, ‘everywhere online that there is poetry’ – preferred publishing poems on his personal blog to sending them to print journals since, among other things, he saw himself as resisting the publishing powers that be. In his 2009 Overland interview, Squires cited among his reasons for being a poet-blogger:
the fact that the capitalist, colonialist, militarist scum have control over both the education system and the media. They’ll never get control over the internet and it is the most subversive, democratising tool since the printing press. Information is power, people talking to each other is power.
The subversive power of poetry-blogging has been most recently demonstrated – albeit negatively – in the case of the teenage Syrian poet-blogger Tal al-Mallohi who was, according to Al Jazeera, sentenced to five years in prison for espionage on 15 February of this year. The charges most probably relate to her politically sensitive writings such as poems seemingly bemoaning the Syrian government’s apparent capitulation to Israel, as can be seen with the last poem published on her blog prior to her arrest in 2009, ‘Al-Quds, Sayyida al-Mada’en’ (‘Jerusalem, the Lady of Cities’). Whether her publishing poems like this in a print medium would have resulted in her arrest is a moot point, yet it is obvious that the availability of work such as hers to a global readership via the internet was a factor in her perceived threat and therefore the harsh – indeed, as some may argue, barbaric – punishment meted out to her. As also mentioned by Al Jazeera, al-Mallohi was initially charged by the Syrian courts for ‘revealing information that should remain hushed to a foreign country’.
It is quite unlikely that any Australian poet-blogger would be imprisoned for expressing contentious political views in poems published on her weblog, but the practice is not devoid of critics in Australia. One obvious criticism levelled at poet-bloggers here stems from the timeless quality vs quantity argument; it has been said that by saturating the cyberspace with literally inestimable amounts of unedited, unrefined poems – mostly in draft form – the poet-bloggers are contributing to the decline of quality, readability and therefore readership of contemporary poetry. As observed by one of Australia’s key poets and poetry critics Chris Wallace-Crabbe – and quoted in Jaya Savige’s article in The Australian – among the perceived reasons for the current lack of mainstream cultural interest in poetry has been ‘the lethal mix of vanity publishing, the uncritical gushing of blogger poets and narcissism’.
This view has been countered, with varying degrees of success, by quite a number of proud poet-bloggers – such as Maxine Beneba Clarke – but I for one am wary of uncritically embracing poetry-blogging. What, for example, could possibly be achieved by two very talented young Australian poets having a (no doubt very jocular and friendly, and hopefully mock) ‘poetry blogging battle to the death’ by seeing which poet receives the most reader comments? Wouldn’t gestures like this confirm poet-bloggers as indeed computer-savvy narcissists? And is there really no difference between a poem that has been carefully, at times painstakingly, constructed, edited and subjected to degrees of self-criticism by its author over a period of time – during perhaps numerous rejections by print journals and/or professionally edited e-journals – and a poem that has been posted on its author’s blog immediately after being spouted for the sake of generating online comments?
Barbarism is, to be sure, a relative concept. And as Benjamin famously said, every document of civilisation is, in the end, also a document of barbarity. I suspect that if Adorno was writing today, he would view poetry-blogging with a great deal of suspicion, as yet another example of technology further entrenching us in the wasteland of artificiality and reification. I personally believe there is some truly wonderful poetry to be found on blogs (see, for example, Jill Jones’s Ruby Street, Derek Motion Typingspace, Tara Mokhtari’s poetry blog, and Joel Scott’s hedging your bets) but I also look forward to more poet-bloggers taking Clarke’s advice – i.e. to desist from ‘post[ing] unedited drunk ramblings on Saturday nights’.