The crowd is our domain

In her article ‘Driven to distraction’ (Overland 199), Cate Kennedy critiques contemporary internet culture from the perspective of the creative writer. While not opposed to the internet as such, Kennedy seeks to demonstrate that Web 2.0 technologies and the activities they facilitate (such as social networking, blogging and video-sharing) are rendering us permanently impatient, disinhibited yet isolated and unable to concentrate. Kennedy finds these effects, which centre on the pursuit of immediacy at the cost of profundity, and the conquest of time and space at the expense of substance, to be the inverse of the disposition required for creative activity.

I want to generalise the discussion because I take Kennedy to be (explicitly or not) following the form of a broader argument about the individual’s interactions with her environment, and also because she makes general comments about the function of the writer. ‘The pattern of the thing precedes the thing,’ Kennedy quotes; I want to illuminate the pattern behind her argument, then criticise it, before suggesting how we might begin from different presuppositions that nevertheless remain true to the subversive essence of the creative act that Kennedy and I both hold dear.

The pedigree of the argument is important because it predates the specific technologies and their affects that Kennedy discusses. Its basic, abstract structure is this:

There are many things;

of which I am only one, with limited energies and capacities to attend to the others.

They press upon me and threaten my unity; they want to make me like them, that is, scattered and formless.

Thus I shall do well to seek distance and shelter from them, and I will uphold whatever extends, and oppose whatever reduces, that distance and shelter.

In Kennedy’s case, the ‘things’ are the utterances of private individuals published via Web 2.0 technologies. The unity they threaten is primarily mental; the distance and shelter she seeks are equally mental; and the techniques she wants to employ include physically isolating the space of creativity from the space of internet browsing, as well as refusing the peer pressure that imposes an obligation to open up to the many.

In the past the ‘things’ have been the utterances of individuals published in books, journals, magazines and pamphlets, whose volume and superficiality the writer bemoans. Nietzsche viciously regretted the invention of the printing press, Swift lamented the decline of the English tongue, and Robert Burton called his time a ‘scribbling age’. Juvenal, in his first satire (first century AD), justifies his scrivening by claiming that if he doesn’t use the paper one of the other innumerable poets will waste it anyway.

But the ‘things’ may equally be taken as the bodies of people themselves, amassed in rapidly developing urban settlements, threatening the mental stability of the ideologist, bureaucrat or social critic (who, like Poe, Engels and many others besides, both marvels at and cowers before their agglomeration) just as they threatened the political stability of the head of state, who sought both a built distance and a cultural one.

The agora has always occasioned vertigo because it is impervious to individual will. It is wholly collective, and its dizzying chaos can be mitigated only through the administration of an official counterpart, such as a court or parliament, or a literary community, to which access is strictly controlled. The official sphere justifies its own exclusivity by its distinguishing feature: (a certain type of) order. But this sphere has never in history represented the unofficial one adequately, has never made good its claim to universal expression and thus full legitimacy such that the site of discursive chaos could be totally replaced by the site of discursive order. And technological development has always threatened exclusivity. Its creations, even if designed to control the barriers, have always equally provided a potential means of storming or dissolving them.

The argumentative approach I am characterising has also found expression at the level of metaphysical discourse. There the ‘things’ are simply inveterate natural objects, impervious to the will of the subject. A poetic example is Pascal’s essay ‘The disproportion of man’; a more abstract one is found in Freud’s second topos in The Ego and the Id. Other speculative thinkers have proposed that the experience of multifarious nature and the horror it occasioned lay at the heart of humanity’s initial attempts to form social bodies and languages. In this case, the reflecting mind strives to fend off natural objects by analysing and ordering them under concepts, and ultimately by forming a single closed system, to become at once safely sheltered from nature and its self-consciousness.

I don’t presume that Kennedy is ignorant of this argumentative form, so ancient and widespread, but she makes no attempt to direct her readers’ attention to it.

We might characterise the current situation thus: firstly, what was once limited by nature, say, by the distance over which a voice might carry, and the period of time over which words would endure in the minds of listeners, has now been both set free and preserved by technology. Any internet user is in hearing range of any other; artificial limits replace natural ones. Utterances that once existed only subjectively – that is, privately and fleetingly – now exist objectively and publicly.

Secondly, where power once aspired to a monopoly on cultural production and distribution, deciding who had the right to speak, today the labour of both content generation and filtering is increasingly outsourced to consumers themselves. It is another instance of capital saving on labour expenses by exploiting technological substitutes, once again tapping the apparently infinitely exploitable resources of the domestic sphere. Unlike the traditional newspaper model, where advertising space is created alongside information produced by professional intellectual labour, now advertisements can be appended to what would have once been merely private communication.

In responding to these conditions, Kennedy deploys an argumentative model that derives from an experience of insecurity, a need to respond urgently to a threat represented not by other subjects, but by a mass that the threatened one refuses to dignify by differentiating, and whose every utterance is deemed at the outset to be unthinking.

This type of response operates wholly within a paradigm of scarcity. That there are natural limits to existence (including in our current context the human capacity for concentration) is categorical. Social limits, however, have always been established to maintain a monopoly on legitimate knowledge and meaning, and critique has rightly revealed that such limits are arbitrary and imposed. Scarcity is the first principle of the market, and while it is current practice to export the model of artificial scarcity to all other spheres of human activity, the expression and social exchange of thoughts should not necessarily accept such a yoke. Thought, unlike money, is not debased by an increase in its abundance.

I am not arguing that, against Kennedy, all utterances are in fact valuable, but rather that their value stands in no necessary relation to their quantity, that in no way can we presume that overstepping social limits (on, say, how many people are entitled to speak and be heard, or how many hours of video footage ought to be uploaded onto YouTube each minute) necessarily runs the same risks as overstepping natural ones.

The form of argument issues from melancholic reaction: the individual is, according to his own analysis, the only one who sees through the chaotic storm of illusion, gossip and living bodies, the only one keeping a glow of truth alive. But because he can only achieve that glow by isolating himself, he mistakes his isolation for truth. He seeks seclusion to protect the truth that seclusion and the distinction it offers have become. Lost in this empty tautology, he names and judges the brute others who form the mass, as well as the din of their idiotic chatter. The mass is flat and teeming; the individual profound and calm.

Obviously this attitude is morally dubious; it is, moreover, simply erroneous: it projects a subjective experience upon reality, as though that experience were an objective structure to be found there, rather than an individual expression of a society which is still, alas, Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes: the ‘war of all against all’.

When Kennedy’s rhetoric becomes scornful, when she, a careful user of language, employs phrases like ‘clamouring, 24/7 caffeinated babble-fest’, ‘bombarded by jarring, continuous overstimulus’, ‘tide of never-ending, self-replicating slush’ and ‘the great cacophony of online chatter’, the reader is left with little assurance that her approach avoids the pitfalls I have enumerated, even if she refrains from saying, with Giordano Bruno, ‘I loathe the vulgar herd … It is Unity that doth enchant me.’

If, however, we begin with different presuppositions about our relation to our discursive environment, we can illuminate different ways of conceiving the substance and significance of literary creativity.

If, at the moment of response to the threat discussed above, I stop and question rather than seeking shelter, among the questions I might ask myself are: is this supposed torrent of stimulus really threatening? Am I not rather free in relation to it? It petitions me for attention, to be sure, but isn’t it harmless, isn’t my sovereign capacity to judge what I would like to attend and not attend to already safely established? Doesn’t the volume of cultural expression have no direct bearing on whether or not my subjectivity is intact?

Once assured of myself, I can go back and open up to the multiplicity of my environment and respond to it with sympathy and curiosity, no longer needing to devote a significant fraction of my limited attention to my subjective security system. Casting off my fear and scorn, I can hurl myself into the manifold, without having decided in advance what I will discover there (perhaps scatophilia, perhaps lyric genius), nor what my experience will be. I can bare my nerves to the unknown, and delight in the unpredictable ways in which they are stimulated, in the ways in which the objects of my environment impress upon and mark me.

If I ‘pay attention to the junk’, I will not be observing and judging from without, but only ever from within it (which explains why my responses will only ever add to it). So I must confess, along with Burton, that ‘I am one of the number’. I cannot presume that I am inherently different from the anonymous poster of an infantile YouTube video or blog post. Not only does this admission eliminate the risk of falling into melancholic reaction, it also enables me to intimately experience that which I want to articulate in writing.

We must expose, not quarantine, ourselves. Only then will we be capable of inspired expression. If, as Kennedy hopes, we are to recuperate our subjective depth, we will do so only by accumulating experiences of the endlessly varied artefacts that surround us, be they the grotesque satire of a site like Encyclopædia Dramatica, the often explicit detritus of www.4chan.org, the poetry published on Cordite, or the novels of Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. For our inner depth is nothing but the distillation of the various sensations such objects offer.

If I cultivate a sympathetic relation to the human beings behind those artefacts, I accept their subjectivity, their need to unfold and develop like me. I defend their right to a fair hearing against the phoney legitimation machine that decides a priori who is to be silent and who loquacious. My motto becomes not ‘the others are all breathing my air’ but ‘let everyone have enough air to breathe’. Accordingly, I would gladly reappropriate and decontexualise a phrase of Hobbes (whose concern for order far outweighed any desire for abundance), forcing upon it an alternative significance: jus esse omnibus in omnia! (‘All have a right to all things!’) In the sphere of language, whose objects are not natural and thus not empirically limited, the imperative is all the more justified.

When I write, I do not generate ex nihilo the words I employ and their signification. Rather, I select from an infinite set of possible words and constructions that have always been loaded with numerous and often conflicting shades of meaning, all of which jostle in my text. I do not have the authority to definitively pin down a word to a single one of its various meanings, for the word is not my property. I am only ever within language, trudging through its vast swamp, seeking patterns, selecting and developing form, beholding its inexhaustible beauties while trying to avoid drowning. But when I reflect, I understand that this swamp is only the product of beings just like me, who themselves struggled in exactly the same way, and are equally deserving of my respect.

As a writer, not only do I want to find form, but, as I want to say the truth of what is, I also seek to somehow communicate the fact that language itself (as much as nature) exceeds all finally determining form. Language is the thing that both precedes and exceeds all forming, and of which therefore we cannot properly say that it is a thing. I cannot fully possess it like a thing: I can only possess some of it and remain conscious that there is more beyond me. Yet it is into this which I want to throw myself, this whose rumbling cacophony I want to channel. I do not want to extract myself from the din in order to speak my voice; I rather want all voices to speak through me. I mean that quite literally, though it be impossible, for it is also what we do only implicitly whenever we employ language. In the absence of a liberation which would enable poetry to be written by everyone (as Lautréamont and others have insisted it must be), I content myself with permitting others to pass through my faculties. I don’t want merely to report their speech, as broadly realist novelists have tended to do (though even the best among them have reported voices from all social classes and dialects). In that case my relation to others would still remain external, even as they passed through me and out of my pen. I do not want to catalogue them, for then I would still fail to communicate that aspect impervious to classification. I cannot literally speak that part of language which is beyond me, but I can strive to transmit an awareness of its presence.

These aspirations – total, infinite, and doomed to fail – are why writing is the nerve-wracking, invigorating and radical activity which Kennedy rightly takes it to be.

What does that mean in the case of the internet? I impose no ascetic program upon myself, even as I fall prey some of the troubling thought-habits that Kennedy enumerates. I check my email too often, of course, even as I write this essay, and I spend a few seconds feeling guilty for it. But I won’t respond by regulating my exposure to the words and voices. I want to rummage through what is published online to obtain an intimate sense of how language generally is shifting and morphing through its use and abuse. This no doubt involves attending to some things and ignoring others, as does all attention, but I avoid systematic and a priori dismissal, and seek out detritus just as much as genius.

Insofar as a fraction of the information accumulated and stored on the internet is nefarious, that is due as much to its homogeneity as to its heterogeneity. The institutionalisation of this heteronomy in the work process – where unity of output (in terms of quantity, if not of quality) is key – is the elephant in the room that Kennedy’s analysis ignores. When individuals are strictly trained to match ever-higher targets upon which their livelihoods depend (whether the number of garments knitted or home loans sold), it is little wonder they seek distractions, or that their expressions tend towards the superficial. It’s not Google but want and work that are – as ever – making us stupid.

But that’s another discussion.

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

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Marty Hiatt is a Melbourne poet currently based in Berlin.

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