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Avant-Garde Technophilia

By Reginald Shepherd

Once more illness has kept me away from the blog for a while, this time due to surgery to kill the tumors on my liver. The surgery was successful, or so I’m told, but I ended up in the hospital for several days due to complications.
It recently occurred to me (I’m not sure why it took so long) that there’s a decidedly disproportionate representation of the self-proclaimed avant-garde in the online poetry world. Bloggers in particular are much more likely to be what poet Ron Slate calls avant-gardeners than to be more “mainstream”? poets. (When I first started my own blog a little over a year ago, someone wrote to say that she had been waiting for “a mainstream Ron Silliman”? as a counter-balance, an indication of his iconic status in the online poetry world.) There seems to be a high degree of technophilia among “post-avant”? bloggers. This is in part due to the fact that most of them are relatively young white men, who tend to be aficionados of all things computer-related: blogging, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, which I confess to being too old to know much about and too stodgy to care, computer and video games, text messaging, iPods and iPhones and Blackberries and Bluetooths, etc.


On a more intellectual level, this may also be due to the historical and metaphorical association of the sense of technological progress and the sense of aesthetic progress (just as there has been an association, wholly inaccurate, between being aesthetically “progressive” and being politically progressive). Perhaps because of the prestige of science and technology in the modern world, those who see themselves as artistically progressive have often conceived of their project in technological or at least technical terms. Christian Bök’s recent proclamation on this blog of “the manifold, literary advances since the time of Johnson and Coleridge” is a good example of such conceptualization and valorization of technical progress in the arts.
There is a long history of such technophilia in the artistic avant-garde, most notably in the the Italian Futurist and the Russian Constructivist cult of the machine. It’s interesting that such impulses were strongest in two of the more technologically backward countries in Europe, and specifically two countries undergoing rapid but highly uneven development, disappointing the hopes of both idealists and militarists. In such circumstances, dreaming of the gleaming future, the romance of the machine would hold great appeal: I think of Ivan Leonidov, El Lissitzy, and Vladimir Tatlin’s impossible monuments to the Russian Revolution.
While many American poets tend to appeal to notions of the natural, the authentic, and/or the sincere, American poets who see themselves as avant-garde tend to appeal to notions of progress (including social progress) and technical advance or innovation. This technological conception of artistic progress has persisted in American poetry (it doesn’t seem to apply to contemporary British or, from what I can tell, French poetry) long after it has been abandoned in music and the visual arts. Perhaps this is because of the inherent (due to the nature, or non-nature, of language as a medium) conservatism of literature in comparison with the other arts.
There’s an important distinction to be made between artistic “progress,” presumably toward some goal (which the very phrase “avant-garde,” with its military associations, conveys), and innovation or experimentation, which is a matter of exploring, exploiting, and expanding the possibilities of the medium. In the history of visual art there have been some developments that could be considered progress, such as the development of oil paints or the invention of single-point perspective, but I’m not sure one could even say that about literature. Certainly there’s no technique in use today that wasn’t being used one hundred years ago; many “advanced” literary techniques can be found in Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The agedness of the avant-garde has often been commented on: the new ways of thinking are all rather old by now.
New works, new techniques, or new modes of art (unlike new scientific paradigms) don’t render previous works, techniques, and modes obsolete, though they can change the way we look at them. As T.S. Eliot writes, “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, 38). For that matter, it’s important to remember that even in science, Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics haven’t rendered Euclidean geometry or Newtonian physics obsolete or irrelevant: they still apply in normal areas of life and experience, though our perspective on them is different. All the art that’s ever been made, although it was produced sequentially, exists in a space of simultaneity, what T.S. Eliot called “an ideal order…which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) among them” (ibid.)

Comments (11)

  • On April 1, 2008 at 11:29 am Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Reginald, I’m sorry to hear about your illness, but glad to see you’re back in the blogging saddle.
    Your observations here are interesting, although I wonder if you really meant to say “there’s no technique in use today that wasn’t being used one hundred years ago” and then cite books published 250 and 385+ years ago. (After all, Pound published A Lume Spento in 1908.) In any case, I like your argument that artistic progress is akin to scientific progress, but I do think new science often does render older science obsolete (hello, Copernicus, adios Ptolemy) and that similar processes operate in the arts—not so much at the level of discrete techniques, but at the level of paradigm. One way we define a “period” in a culture’s development is by shifts in the dominant artistic paradigms, yes? I wonder if the shift from a word culture to one of bits and bytes has already occurred, in which case the incoherence we see, especially in literature, may be an inevitable disintegration. Maybe the future does belong to Christian Bök! In which case we can look forward to graduate programs devoted to the study of computer-generated texts and the software designers—i.e., poets and novelists—who make them possible.
    A grim prospect, I have to admit….

  • On April 1, 2008 at 11:54 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    A great post, Reginald.
    Your comment on younger poet-bloggers as predominantly techie white males is interesting. And your speculation that most of these techie white guys are associated with the “post-avant” because there is, precisely, some kind of epistemic–even perhaps biologic?–predisposition among them to the titillations of the “techne” (the “post-avant blogger” tending toward a kind of gendered, genetic type!) is quite exciting. (And though it might sound impolite, it would explain why there is a certain recognizable hipster “look” about so many younger white-male post-avant poets [I somewhat had it myself, before I got old and grossly overweight], no less than there is a kind of “look” shared by so many fashion models, for example, or Republicans, or surfers, etc.)
    Too many inverted commas above, but I wonder if there might be another, link– like your proposed connection a largely unspoken one, running parallel to it, albeit of more sociological nature. That is, it’s very interesting that this explosion of personal poetry blogs among the so-called advanced young-white-male poetic kind runs perfectly parallel to the explosive opening of the academy over the past decade to post-avant modes of poetry. Something which involves, of course, the academy’s opening to post-avant poetry Professors… And the opening of major awards and contests to post-avant poems… And the opening by all manner (new and old) of book publishers to post-avant poetry… And the opening of just about every important poetry magazine in the country to post-avant poets… And an opening of Summer Poetry Schools to post-avant Guest Poets…
    One could go on. My point is that what we have seen, though I know it sounds a bit old- fashioned these days to say so, is a total, swooning embrace of the Author Function amongst the post-avant–older and younger generation alike–and not just in ritualistic deed, but in critical “policy,” too: witness Ron Silliman’s enthused advocacy on his blog for the Author’s Name as Brand, or Charles Bernstein’s appeals for authorial “context” as guarantor of “poetic justice” and the “artwork’s life” in a recent rant against “anonymous” poetry…
    It could hardly be otherwise, really. For what is a career in the poetry business for an Avant-Garde poet whose poems and essays critique the “I” and the “Self,” if the poet doesn’t have an ID tag around the neck at the AWP and MLA? In other words, the explosion of blogs is a function partly explained, I think it’s clear, by this larger, developing (and willing) institutional absorption of the avant-garde. Blogs promote, after all, of their very identity, the function that keeps the “Institution Art” running in orderly fashion.
    On the other issue you raise, of the avant-garde as insistently future-gazing: This is importantly true, of course, but here it’s necessary to take account, too, of certain (and key) avant expressions that “look back” as much, or more, than forward. It’s another topic, but in post-war U.S. poetry one has examples like Olson, Spicer, Duncan, Niedecker, the whole ethnopoetics phenomenon, much more (much of earlier modernism, actually), which complicate any simple correlation of teleological animus with experimental vision.
    Another thought-provoking post, though. And good luck with what you are undergoing.
    Kent

  • On April 1, 2008 at 12:40 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    To my mention of Silliman and Bernstein’s poignant advocacy of Official Verse Culture practices of authorial attribution and identity, I should have added the hilariously ironic self-mythologizing-in-process of Language Authors in The Grand Piano project.
    Kent

  • On April 1, 2008 at 1:35 pm Don Share wrote:

    Michael Golston’s Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science is a fascinating case study of what happens when technophilia infiltrates prosody and ideology in poetry… Some of the science, in hindsight, turns out to be awful, which is one of the inherent dangers, because it is not quite free of ideology, itself.

  • On April 1, 2008 at 2:01 pm john wrote:

    Reginald,
    First, best wishes with your health. Keep on rockin’.
    Second, thanks for the stimulating post. I would like to complicate one notion you propose, citing Eliot, that, “All the art that’s ever been made, although it was produced sequentially, exists in a space of simultaneity.” I would say that that is true to an extent, but only to an extent.
    To the extent that the works of Sappho that were successfully suppressed by the Christian empire far outweighs the works of Sappho that survived the censorship, we need to acknowledge that vast realms of art no longer exist at all. 100% of the visual art before 40,000 BCE has disappeared. None of the poetry before ca. 3000 BCE has survived. None of the music. Humans have been around for a couple hundred thousand years, and I believe — as a matter of faith & intuition — that our ancestors were making art for millennia before 40,000 BCE.
    More recently, performance practices of various arts have altered to such an extent that we no longer know what the originals were in their details. Bach’s ornamentation practices had been forgotten by the time of the Bach Revival early in the 19th century, some mere decades after his death.
    From another angle, the disrupting of artworks from their contexts by curatorial practices has likewise altered art-experiences to a degree that the original artists would have been hard-pressed to imagine. From sacred Catholic icons being stolen from Italian churches to decorate Chicago museums, to a considerably more sordid history and practice of stealing icons from 3rd World cultures for museum display, we aesthetes can enjoy the productions of people whose ideas about their own work we know little or nothing of.
    All that said, I agree with your basic point, as congruous with Pound’s shrewd (and ironically psychoanalytical, given that Pound loathed Freud) insight that All Ages Are Contemporaneous In the Mind. All ages, that is, that the mind happens to know.
    Thanks again, and here’s a wish for your improving health.

  • On April 1, 2008 at 2:41 pm Brent Cunningham wrote:

    You’re a born provocateur, Reginald. Which I do appreciate.
    It *might* be that there’s disproportionate representation of self-proclaimed avant-gardists online. Or we could flip that impression around and opine that there has been, historically, a disproportionate representation of a certain kind of safe mainstream poet winning prizes, serving on the academy, being hired into prestigious teaching programs, and being published by prestigious university presses comfortable losing money trying to market poetry books. Maybe it’s only through that lens that this explosion of avant garde bloggists seem disproportial to you?
    Of course we’re deeply in the realm of subjective statistics here. How do we measure the initial portion these bloggers are disproportial to? Disproportial to the total number of poets out there? Does anybody have those figures? Disproportional to poetry’s actual readership? But what constitutes readership? Even if we go strictly by sales figures, we can’t currently measure the difference between students forced to buy a book by a teacher for a class, a book bought as a gift, a book that sits 10 years on a bookstore shelf until it is finally discounted to $1, and books that are bought by interested readers & thus likely to be actually opened and read. Add to that the problem of distribution: if a book isn’t easily available, who knows if there is perhaps a readership out there, potentially far larger, proportionally, than even Mary Oliver’s seemingly massive audience. This isn’t really knowable stuff.
    Naturally, this all must also presume we’ve figured out some measure for who gets to count as avant garde or post avant garde, who as mainstream, and whether those are the only two categories. Complicated!
    Yrs,
    Brent Cunningham

  • On April 1, 2008 at 5:00 pm Iain wrote:

    Maybe I’m just taking it wrong, but “technophilia” seems to be too strong a word to describe something that is hardly an odd phenomenon. One would be hard pressed to find a single historical example of a technological innovation (in any field) that wasn’t disproportionately gravitated to by the younger, less established over the older mainstream. I have often wanted to use the word “technophobia” to describe certain attitudes, such as J.G. Ballard’s assertion that “I don’t think a great book has yet been written on computer”, However, that too, would be too strong a word. In fact, it would be strange if a large number of “mainstream” writers embraced the Internet. What reason would they have? The Internet is a whole other game. I’d expect mainstream writers to flock to the Internet about as fast as established basketball players flock to skateboarding. The Internet is going to be embraced far more by those who are not used being heard (or at least those that feel that way).
    While I’m not going to argue that there is some absolute connection between technological, aesthetic, and political progress, there are valuable observations to be made on the presented politics of print publishing vs. Internet publishing. Sure, they cover vastly different territory, but I think there is value in noticing that print publishing offers an established oligarchy, whereas the Internet offers an almost wholly (provided you are privileged enough to have access to an Internet connection) anarchic system. While this obviously hasn’t caused an easily observable political polarity between the two systems, it easy to see why more radical ideas that are unable to find voice in an established system might gravitate to the Internet.
    All that said, I don’t think that the majority of poetry on the Internet is either “mainstream” or “post-avant”. A google search for “poetry” finds more results for poetry from high school students, or wholly outsider amateur poets than for anything else.

  • On April 1, 2008 at 5:51 pm Angela G. wrote:

    Reginald,
    First of all, I sincerely hope you make progress toward better health each day.
    Now for my comments on this post:
    There probably is a visible preponderance of white male poets in the blogosphere, just like there is in any given arena. But “techie” depends on your definition of “techie.” We’re talking about blogging here. Blogging requires little technical skill. Neither do computer and video games, text messaging, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, Bluetooth, etc. How can MySpace have 8-9 million members if it’s difficult to use? Most poets who use the these technologies are not writing scripts in Perl or running MySQL databases (although a few might be). “Real techies” — people who know HTML, JavaScript, PHP, Perl, Flash, etc. — view poetry blogs as lower lifeforms. For example, see this article by Lewis LaCook: http://tinyurl.com/3ydztv
    One of the most innovative practitioners of new media poetics happens to be is female. mez (Mary Anne Breeze), invented mezangelle, a poetic-artistic language that she developed in the 1990s, which incorporates computer code and informal speech, and is made up of hybrid words like those used in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Lewis Carroll’s.
    Yes, the technological shift *has* already taken place. It’s just happened while no one else was looking and some people are just now noticing. Poets have been using the Internet since the 1990s to write poetry and collaborate, through email, newsgroups and list-servs; it’s only been in the last decade that blogging has become so popular among poets — and mostly because it’s a cheap way to self-promote. I don’t think poets are adapting to new technologies because they’re trying to be “avant garde” or because “titillating techno” appeals to their notions of “progress;” they’re simply adapting tools that are available, easy to use and learn — and useful for self-promotion.
    Poet-bloggers aren’t necessarily “technophiliacs” — it all depends on what you grew up with, what technologies you adapted as they came along, and what you’re comfortable with using. By their very nature, new technologies do lend themselves to innovation and experimentation, because any use of them *is* at first innovative and experimental. That eventually does lead to artistic “progress,” by those who “explore, exploit, and expand the possibilities of the medium.”
    To Joseph — Why is the current shift from “a word culture to one of bits and bytes” so horrible and seemingly worse than the shift from the ancient spoken word culture to the word culture of the printing press with its printed pages and letters? I don’t find it grim; I find it exciting.
    Back to Reginald’s post: If you want to pick on the bumper crop of poetry blogs today, how about singling out the mind-numbing *lack* of innovation, lack of experimentation, lack of pushing new media for what it could be used for. I find most of the poetry-blogosphere to be full of endless repetitive self-promotional notices of poetry readings; publishing credits; books/journals for sale; cliquish blogrolls, posts and comments; dull personal “who cares” diary-like entries and photos, etc.
    What if the poetry-blogosphere looked more like a huge creative laboratory or experimental playground, as do some of the Italian blogs that Linh Dinh discussed in this post on the International Exchange for Poetic Invention?: http://tinyurl.com/38u83b
    The possibilities are exciting.
    Angela

  • On April 1, 2008 at 10:18 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I like to repeat that poetry is avant-garde because (unlike everything else) it doesn’t change much.
    Walt Whitman’s gnomic-ecstatic wisdom-speech is not very different from that of Heraclitus or the Sermon on the Mount or Proverbs. These are rather old utterances.
    Ezra Pound liked to emphasize Whitman’s innovative (proto-Modernist) iconoclasm (“it was you who broke the new wood”, etc.). But it was more like he lit up the old logos again.

  • On April 2, 2008 at 1:07 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Thanks to all for reading and commenting, and thanks also for your good wishes regarding my health.
    I’d like to make it clear that I don’t think that the high proportion of those who would identify themselves as avant-garde or “post-avant” online is a bad thing; I was making an observation, not offering a criticism. I think that disproportionate representation stems from exactly the situation that Brent Cunningham describes, which has led many of those who don’t identify with or feel themselves excluded from the poetic “mainstream” (whatever that might be at the moment) to seize on an alternative mode of disseminating and discussing their work. Very few established poets from any camp maintain web logs. Blogland is largely the domain or “emerging” and “outsider” poets. It is also, from what I can tell, largely the domain of male poets, in sharp contrast to the print poetry world, mainstream or avant-garde, in which women poets have taken a very prominent place, and overwhelmingly white (in sharp contrast to nothing except poverty and prison, alas—oh, and professional sports).
    The Internet has been a great boon to those who feel themselves not part of or shut out of the print poetry world. It’s also been a boon to people living in places where they have little or no access to a literary world of any kind. I take myself as a case in point. Pensacola, where I’ve lived for almost seven years, is hardly literate, let alone literary. Yet thanks to the Internet, to venues like the Harriet blog and my own blog, I am able to stay connected not just to a local poetry scene—there is none here—but a national and even an international poetry world.
    But I also find it interesting, and a little disturbing, that there’s so little overlap between the print poetry world and the online poetry world. There is a definite insularity to the online poetry world, with many bloggers just reading and talking to each other in an endless self-referential loop, and not nearly enough reference to things outside that world, like books.
    With regard to some of the other comments, though I have used computers for the past twenty years, I am writing from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up with these technologies, so I probably do find them more novel and even mysterious than they are, certainly more so than they would seem to someone who did grow up with them. I am also understating my own comfort and familiarity with computers. I have installed and replaced modems and CPUs, reformatted hard drives, and installed and replaced operating systems more times than I can remember: relatively speaking, I am quite computer-literate and even proficient. (In part this is because in the late Eighties, when I first started using computers, they were not nearly so user-friendly as they are now: one had to know much more about them than one needs to know now in order to work on them at all.)

  • On April 3, 2008 at 4:31 pm Jilly wrote:

    I’m an info technology professional & I don’t think poetry blogs are lower lifeforms. That’s a mighty wide swath of generalization, there. :)
    There are some hardore techie poetry bloggers out there. Just from the top of my head:
    Robert Peake
    http://www.robertpeake.com/
    Jefferey Bahr
    http://www.whimsyspeaks.com/
    Jilly (MSIS and MFA hahaha)


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, April 1st, 2008 by Reginald Shepherd.