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Meanland: Barbarism, politics and the poet-blogger

Walter Benjamin

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.

screenshot of al-Mallohi’s poetry blogThe 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’.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Ali Alizadeh’s latest book, Transactions, has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. His previous books have been shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award and NSW Premier’s Literary Award. He lectures at Monash University.

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  1. I’ll agree with what the wonderful Paul Squires had to say (it will be one year tomorrow since his death and he is sorely missed by bloggers all over the world as can be seen here http://gingatao.com/2010/07/16/gene-kelly-tattoo/). Just because poetry is on a blog, doesn’t mean it ends its life there – I’ve had numerous poems published both on my blog and in journals and books (the better journals aren’t bothered by this and allow both). One of the reasons the general public get pissed off with poetry is precisely because poets take themselves too seriously. One of the good things about blogging is that non-poets read our poetry (most of my readers aren’t poets but visual artists, story writers and the general public).

    • My experience is similar to Gabrielle’s – many poems first aired on my blog have gone on to find a home in print journals. I think as with any writing for an audience, refraining from Sat night PUI (posting under the influence) is essential if you wish to preserve credibility. So is clearly differentiating drafts from finals.( using e.g. tags or categories), if indeed you ever post drafts at all. I only ever posted finals until recently, and only began posting drafts because it is the modus operandi of a project I’ve been funded for. Gabrielle’s point about audience is well made too: online is where the real readers are. Only poets buy poetry journals, and the circulation figures for other reputable print outlets like Overland are ..(sorry ) woeful. I see the poet’s job as singing the songs of the tribe. Using a combination of my blog , FB and twitter I can find them, and they me, in large numbers and all over the world. Cutting out the middlemen like this also makes particular sense in the case of poetry: none of us makes any money from it as the publishing industry stands. Luckily we poets are mostly after readers, not cash, so why don’t we use the internet to find one and forget the other ??

      • I agree that a poem published on a blog is as legitimate a cultural product as one published in an edited journal, but is it necessary to then go on to say, as Melina has, that “online is where the real readers are”? I’m not sure. I’ve personally had as strong a response to work published in print media as I’ve had to work published online. Print journals may have fewer readers than anything online, but that does not make the readers of the former any less ‘real’. (Unless by ‘real’ Melinda is referring to the Lacanian Real, in which case, yes, definitely; thanks to online anonymity and secrecy, online readers can indeed be quite frightening things …)

  2. i enjoyed this essay. i know it’s not really all about paul squires, but: i found him a problematic figure. blogging allows us to break down some of the hierarchies but it also can allow some to create unproductive friction. paul once wrote of me ‘he doesn’t like me, & i don’t like him…’ & this was before i really had any opinion of him. i felt neutral. perhaps if we’d ever met i could have formed a more definite opinion. i won’t search out the emails, but he did also propose at one point that we appear on a festival panel together, in order to publicly fight about poetry. i often got the feeling someone was trying to pick a fight with me without having any real reason…

    angela meyer has talked a bit about the creation of a blogging ‘persona’ before. perhaps some elements of barbarism apply to this aspect of online writing too? i do quite like disagreement & debate about actual issues. it is important that arguments are openly had when there are clear points of contest. it’s why i enjoy reading some of the differing perspectives over at the ‘so long bulletin’.

    i guess this leads on to the blog battle. it wasn’t really real. everyone knows that. nobody read my comment about another poet lighting a cigar with a pre-polymer $50 note & took the thing seriously. well, maybe some did… so what could possibly be achieved? we had people talking about our poetry blogging. & i didn’t get any sense of being thought of as computer-savvy narcissists because of the venture. we shared some of our readers. one of my ulterior motives was that perhaps some of my outside-poetry-circles friends who were drawn to the blog might stay on as readers (although i don’t think this happened much at all). & as i think many people realised, it was all in good humour, & nathan curnow wasn’t that serious about his blogging to begin with. (& i must say here it was initially all nathan curnow’s idea. he is, will always will be, the poet who would probably write in a bio ‘there is nothing he won’t do for publicity!’)

    • Thanks for this, Derek.

      I did feel a bit priggish to pick on the obviously good humoured ‘blog battle'; nevertheless, I think in blogger-poetry – as with any other kind of poetry/writing/art – less emphasis on a poet’s personality/sociality is generally a good idea.

      And the topic of antagonism among poet-bloggers is quite interesting. Do people express their hostility much more easily online? And how do we evaluate this ease? I’m all for serious critical debates and discussions, but i tend to agree with you that there’s something barbaric about personal attacks.

  3. Pingback: The Blog Battle II « typingspace

  4. Great post! I started my poetry blog because Derek Motion told me to. I would never have thought of it otherwise.

    I’ve been guilty of posting one or two late night drunken ramblings which weren’t actually poetry (in my opinion) and promptly pulled them down within a few hours. It’s a bit like constipated Twittering, and best avoided to be sure.

    Some things I struggle with include never quite knowing how long to leave archived posts up, whether or not it’s ok to post parts of a whole (like chapters of my verse novels), whether to pull down posts once they’ve been published somewhere, etc. Because I do work on every poem tirelessly even after I post it on my blog, I feel like there’s never a good time to publish a post.

    I do like that I get readers on my blog who would never have access to it anywhere else because they’re outside of Australia. That’s a nice thing. I also like that I can not post anything for a couple of months if I don’t want to and I don’t lose readers. And that my poetry students can read my work without me using any of it in class.

    It’s interesting that anyone can come across my blog, and not necessarily have any idea that I’ve studied poetry for 10 years, that I teach the reading and writing of it, etc. It removes context in a way that makes the poetry stand alone, with no implications of what kind of journal it’s published in, which competition it won, where it sits in a bookshop, what the poet looks like or sounds like…

    • Great points, Tara. I particularly like the removal of context. I wonder if Ern Malley would’ve tried blogging his (their, actually) poems if he/they lived today (although the purpose of the hoax was always to discredit a print journal.)Anyhow, you reckon there could be a PhD project in studying blogger-poetry?

      • I’m considering proposing a postdoc project on the topic, actually. It’s like all discussions on digital media – it’s so suddenly huge that nobody quite knows the full potential of it, nor its implications for language, education, nor how to deal with some of the inevitably troubling consequences of it. If research funding fails to support the better understanding of any new medium, that medium will fail to meet its potential, I think.

  5. nice one again, ali. :-) here’s the benjamin quote in a little more context (and with mild self-promotion):

    \Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures […] They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents of those who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.\
    ~ Walter Benjamin, \Theses on the Philosophy of History\. In Arendt, Hannah (ed.), Illuminations (trans. Harry Zohn). London: Fontana, 1992, p. 248.

    [taken from and old piece of mine, \Notes on Barbarianism\]
    http://www.innersense.com.au/salonim/projects/2003/matt.html

    i have to admit, also, to a strange inability to read many blogs successively, or to read too many posts successively. i like blogs but can only take them in smallish doses — kinda wonder do others feel the same? and would adorno also say that to write blogs after auschwitz is also barbaric?

    • Thanks, Matt.

      I too sometimes find reading blogs – or any online texts – successively quite difficult (physically and mentally) as there’s always so much to read and there’s only so many poems/pieces I can handle reading in one sitting. And then there’s the danger of a blog disappearing (for technical among other reasons) if one doesn’t read a post then and there. So i can see what you mean.

      • To you both, it is possibly, or not, the format that leaves one over-stretched reading blog poetry. Do you consider how many poems you can consume in one sitting of print?

  6. My blog has gone through 3 incarnations (at last count). I have built it, read it, love it, re-read it, hated it, killed it. It has threatened to consume me whole and with extreme prejudice. I have cursed it openly ( http://web.overland.org.au/2010/09/the-perils-of-blogging/ ) and used it as a shelter against the vitriolic downpour of “tasteless editors” (I joke Jeff.)

    This current, third incarnation is used for a variety of reasons. The only poems that appear have either been accepted by a third party so as to thwart the vanity aspect of self publishing, or are themed around a message I want to put out – such as a series I’m writing based on the photography of my late brother.

    The blog can serve as a portal (or database) directing interested readers to your works online, I maintain a link filled ‘CV’ page.

    Interestingly I find the most popular poems, according to my site stats, are ones that I’ve tagged with ‘family’ and ‘love’ – not the sort of thing I usually write and very rarely submit.

    All said, my blog (the beast that it can be), and its ‘followers’, have sustained me through periods where I might have thrown in the poetic towel.

    • Thanks, Mark.

      I was going to mention your blog in the piece but decided against it as yours is not primarily a poetry-blog. Very interesting to hear about its 3 incarnations, though, and about your decision about which poem to include.

  7. Thanks for great responses.

    I’ll reply to some individually, but also wanted to say/repeat that in my opinion blogger-poetry is an important phenomenon, and, as the comments clearly indicate, deserves to be taken seriously.

  8. Pingback: Geek in Residence » Communique from Australian Poetry—Month One

  9. An interesting, erudite and emperor’s new clothes to the best of degrees, in that alizdeh puts forward, “we could use this for this.” And, “this could be a terrible mistake,” as espoused by Adrono. Every space we get to write on is a privilege chosen; publish, self blog, stealth graffiti, toilet door.
    I love alizadeh’s quotations and scholarly attitude. Thank you for bringing such to my attention.
    write on

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