Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operates, is a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged.

OK, I appropriated that wording from Robert Darnton's recent essay, "Google & the Future of Books." There's been some discussion here on Harriet about a-holes on the Internet and in print in which Reb Livingston makes the point that you can find 'em anywhere, and that there were no good old days. It's hard to disagree with that! There was once, however, the dream of a "Republic of Letters." Darton describes it this way:
"The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won. The word also spread by written letters, for the eighteenth century was a great era of epistolary exchange. Read through the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson—each filling about fifty volumes—and you can watch the Republic of Letters in operation. All four writers debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network."
Sounds kinda like an ur-Internet. But unsurprisingly, this was no utopia. As Darnton continues:
"Far from functioning like an egalitarian agora, the Republic of Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies in the eighteenth century: privilege. Privileges were not limited to aristocrats. In France, they applied to everything in the world of letters, including printing and the book trade, which were dominated by exclusive guilds, and the books themselves, which could not appear legally without a royal privilege and a censor's approbation, printed in full in their text. One way to understand this system is to draw on the sociology of knowledge, notably Pierre Bourdieu's notion of literature as a power field composed of contending positions within the rules of a game that itself is subordinate to the dominating forces of society at large. But one needn't subscribe to Bourdieu's school of sociology in order to acknowledge the connections between literature and power. Seen from the perspective of the players, the realities of literary life contradicted the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment. Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operated, was a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged."
Clearly things haven't improved much since the gilded days of literary guilds. However... as Poetry Foundation web guru Michael Marcinkowski pointed out in a discussion we were having about this, we may be seeing a shifting definition of privilege. Let me juxtapose Darnton's remarks with these by Kevin Kelly, in his essay, "Better Than Owning" -
"Ownership is not as important as it once was. I use roads that I don't own. I have immediate access to 99% of the roads and highways of the world (with a few exceptions) because they are a public commons. We are all granted this street access via our payment of local taxes. For almost any purpose I can think of, the roads of the world serve me as if I owned them. Even better than if I owned them since I am not in charge of maintaining them. The bulk of public infrastructure offers the same "better than owning" benefits. The web is also a social common good. The web is not the same as public roads, which are "owned" by the public, but in terms of public access and use, the web is a type of community good. The good of the web serves me as if I owned it. I can summon it in full, anytime, with the snap of a finger. Libraries share some of these qualities. The content of the books are not public domain, but their displays (the books) grant public access to their knowledge and information, which is in some ways better than owning them."
Kelly says that in the future we're unlikely to "own" any music, or books, or movies, though we'll have great access to them. And -
"Access is so superior to ownership, or possession, that it will drive the emerging intangible economy. The chief holdup to full-scale conversion from ownership to omni-access is the issue of modification and control. In traditional property regimes only owners have the right to modify or control the use of the property. The right of modification is not transferred in rental, leasing, or licensing agreements. But they are transferred in open source content and tools, which is part of their great attraction in this new realm. The ability and right to improve, personalize, or appropriate what is shared will be a key ingredient in the advance of omni-access. But as the ability to modify is squeezed from classic ownership models (think of those silly shrink-wrap warranties), ownership is degraded. The trend is clear: access trumps possession. Access is better than ownership."
For his part, Darnton says he's leaning toward "jeremianic- utopian reflections." Though the Republic of Letters was a fantasy and it would be "naive to identify the Internet with the Enlightenment," Darnton says that the Internet
"has the potential to diffuse knowledge beyond anything imagined by Jefferson; but while it was being constructed, link by hyperlink, commercial interests did not sit idly on the sidelines. They want to control the game, to take it over, to own it. They compete among themselves, of course, but so ferociously that they kill each other off. Their struggle for survival is leading toward an oligopoly; and whoever may win, the victory could mean a defeat for the public good. Don't get me wrong. I know that businesses must be responsible to shareholders. I believe that authors are entitled to payment for their creative labor and that publishers deserve to make money from the value they add to the texts supplied by authors. I admire the wizardry of hardware, software, search engines, digitization, and algorithmic relevance ranking. I acknowledge the importance of copyright, although I think that Congress got it better in 1790 than in 1998. But we, too, cannot sit on the sidelines, as if the market forces can be trusted to operate for the public good. We need to get engaged, to mix it up, and to win back the public's rightful domain. When I say "we," I mean we the people, we who created the Constitution and who should make the Enlightenment principles behind it inform the everyday realities of the information society. Yes, we must digitize. But more important, we must democratize. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning."
Yep - it's what Joshua Clover would call a lovely bit of bourgeois humanism. But maybe an enlightened one at that. As Charles Bernstein says, "POETRY WANTS TO BE FREE. (Or, if not, available for long-term loan.)" So will poets be sitting on the sidelines? What constitutes the "public good," if there is any, for poets and poetry?

Originally Published: January 23rd, 2009

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. January 25, 2009
     martin Earl

    First of all, thanks for pointing to the two essays that you did. Let me take you up on three points. 1: the question of privilege; 2: the potential analogy between the 18th century Republic of Letters and the contemporary Internet, which Darnton concludes is a false analogy and 3: Kelly’s notion of ownership.
    I’ll be brief, because I’d really like to just pull things, for myself at least, into focus and draw in other comments. Your first sentence speaks, I am assuming, of our Republic of Letters, a blend of traditional and electronic formats, outlets, discussions, etc. I wonder if “underprivileged” (traditionally a socio-economic description of a certain class of people, in the United States, principally) is still a valid category when it comes to discussion of access in the literary world. Strangely enough, this term is not as widely used in Europe, which must have to do with the relation that mainstream European society has with it’s minority communities – more structurally segregated than they are in the United States. It is my experience, however, that the so-called privileged can also be excluded and for reasons that have nothing to do with literary worth. This is because access to publication no longer seems to depend, necessarily, upon where individual authors come from. More than an economic paradigm, these days it seems a question of how taste is adjudicated and what kind of ideology (and the artistic styles that emanate from ideology) are current among those that adjudicate: editors, publishers and the like. It’s not that I think this is necessarily a bad thing; it’s just that I think the economically laden term “underprivileged” might (though it once did) no longer be at play when it comes to the contemporary Republic of Letters.
    Clearly, and this is what Darnton seems to be indicating, the Internet has a potential to be closer to the true principles of the Enlightenment than was the 18th century Republic of Letters, but is falling seriously short of those principles. But Darnton’s emphasis in the passages you quote seems to be more concerned with the way that an oligopoly of commercial interests is commandeering a medium that was conceived in the spirit of unfettered egalitarianism. But how many internets are there? Does the literary internet fall into this trap or not?
    Kelly’s take on things seems more idealistic. Indeed his analysis is an extension of Henry David Thoreau’s notions of property and ownership, especially as they unfold in the 10th chapter of Walden, “Baker Farm”, where we are advised to “Enjoy the land, but own it not.” Kelly’s statement, “The good of the web serves me as if I owned it” is, indeed, very Thoreauvian. For our purposes he might as well be pointing to the fact that the internet breaks down the older approaches to publishing and puts the means of production, as it were, in the hands of the authors, since one of the salient features of the internet is that nearly anyone can “own” the production of their own words through their sites, blogs and zines. Likewise, they are able to draw in fellow owner/collaborators, all of whom might have been previously excluded from publication.
    And yet democratization of literary production implies a loosening, or an all out eradication, of the criteria used to evaluate literary worth. Can “Literarture”, with a capital L, survive in an environment that is hostile to critical winnowing and the plebiscites of taste? Do we want it to survive in this way?
    Again, thanks for leading us to those essays, and for your own thoughts.

  2. January 29, 2009
     david- baptiste chirot

    I think that the electronic commons and “Free exchange and Circulation of Ideas” which turns out al the same to be “elitist”–is a situation that has not changed so much at all as is claimed; al one need do is take a look around one, read or watch on line the news, and listen to the silence of the NEW WALLS--the virtual Walls, which keep out billions of persons who are denied access due to some of the following: The examples of Rwanda and Gaza, not too distant in a way from that of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, as well as bearing a relation to that of Burma, a country whose secret police and security forces are Israeli trained and funded
    In these examples, the cut off of access to electricity, to outside media coverage, formed the basis for mass genocides, ethnic cleanings, imprisonments and tortures, all of it occurring precisely because of the denial of access to electricity, to cables and overheard wires.
    In Milwaukee, where I live, it was learned last winter that one third of all school children came to school without having any breakfasts, not because of lack of time or food, but because there families had had to choose between no gas for heat or no electricity for light and al the other "connections" electricity makes possible. Many families had neither one. At the same time, many schools closing down meant a loss of computers with web access to large areas of the city, and cuts have meant that the access to computers in public libraries has become evermore curtailed in terms of time per person using the machines and their links.
    There is also the ever exponentially increasing problem of deliberate disinformation on the web, not just from Merry Pranksters, Hackers and the like, but from large and heavily funded organizations supplying a huge chunk of the "news" in the USA--MEMRI, and more recently the more open CAMERA, a right wing heavily funded pro-Israel group which has been altering maps and articles, Wikipedia entries, anything on line that in any way refers to Israel. Often one will find that in going to a link for a video re say Gaza, it has been removed and replaced with a pro-Zionist or pro-Israeli State message.
    One of the sinister aspects of this remapping on the ground via cut off of electricity and attrition of computers available, is that on the web, CAMERA and others have in turn been changing maps so that where there had been --and still is, on the ground--a Palestinian village, there is "now" an Israeli one, with the names changed and no indication that this map is one of "planned changes that will come to pass" instead of "the situation as it is now." In other words, the web becomes the site for making the future into a present which is not (yet--) known in actuality but is planned to be soon enough--hence a new method of colonization "avant la Lettre."
    The belief that the web tells the truth is very widespread, and so person do not bother to check carefully the sources of their information. A single bit of misinformation may travel the globe within an hour and be read and taken as truth by tens of millions. Repeated over and over, it rapidly becomes "truth,' so that decisions and opinions and itineraries, investments are made based on untruths, fictions, and the disinformations of the virtual begin to devour the fabric of actuality.
    One of the great delusions of writers like Mr. Kelly is that no one owns these “commons”–who ever owns and controls and has to be paid for the electricity, whoever is cutting your electric off, or bombing into oblivion you infrastructures, or deliberately cutting them off so that one is imprisoned in a black hole zone, that is, invisible to the viewer on the web–
    Whoever owns and controls these situations is obviously not doing so with the idea of a commons in mind–
    One of the great problems that are faced to day is that language has become increasingly separated from actuality, so that words mean whatever the most powerful say that they do mean. This is the doctrine of Bush and now of Obama: reality doesn’t bother us–because, in Karl Rove’s words–“We CREATE reality.”
    The President says there will be “transparency,” which simply means that anew form of obviousness will be used to conceal the obvious: the president delivers a wonderfully high sounding paean to the morality and care with which his administration will be making sure to keep lobbyists out of the decision making of the new regime.
    One can practically count the beats before there will be within 24 hours the first person to be presented who doesn’t measure up the president’s standards and who is given a waiver. Thesis followed by the confirming as Secretary of treasury a person who is a tax cheat and one of the Wall Street engineers of the immense rip off the taxpayers are now supposed to be taking on the burden of paying back–under the supervision of one the architects of the deregulations which brought everything to the current state of disaster.
    This fellow should never have been nominated in the first place, nor confirmed, but the very next day after he is indeed the now Secretary he chooses as his assistant big time lobbyist who is the antithesis of everything the President has promised.
    All these things take place perfectly “transparently” and perfectly transparently everything promised is undone a few moments afterwards.
    What then does the word transparency mean–if anything anymore?
    It simple means that there’s now such a confidence that the powers that be simply have to SAY things and they’re true, despite every evidence to the contrary.
    In other words, facts, actualities no longer count at al in comparison to those fictions which one is not only asked to willingly suspend al disbelief in order to swear are true.
    The President said the other night in his first interview, with an Arab Network–that while he is extend respect to the Greater Muslim world, he has no respect for people who kill civilians
    Just that day the Americans had killed 16 civilians by bombings inside an” ally,” Pakistan. As Commander in Chief and a hard-line advocate during the election campaign of the buildup of a new and “Right War” in Afghanistan and a definite beginning of bombings inside Pakistan, President Obama is one of those whom he say he will not respect–a daily killer of civilians.
    And daily he supports and supplies the weapons and cash for it, the slaughter of Palestinian civilians.
    What then is the meaning of civilian other than it is a person when on one side of the wall is a civilian and when other is not, but is instead an “enemy entity, enemy combatant.”
    This same problem of language is found in the advocates of the Freedom of Poetry and of the Web. Free for who–for what?–
    Professor Bernstein’s web access is from a State University and his own works have been funded by institutions public and private, as well as by moneys from ultra-rich patrons. Is his poetry fee? No–it is always made within the constraints of the institutions and social groupings which he is dependent on for work and publication–which means that he will not rock the boat nor do anything to step out of line I anyway as far as the rules are concerned–but create instead “radical, transgressive” poems on the page, moving syntax and punctuation about, like the Marinetti critiqued by a Russian Marxist critic during the Italian Futurist’s tour of Russia in 1913–who may do al sorts of acrobatics on the page but not a single one of them will affect in anyway property relations let along his career and advancements and funding.
    Has one noted indeed MORE freedom since the web has become daily part of life for those who can afford it or have access to it via their professions or social standings--??
    No-there is instead LESS freedom of expression in the USA than there has been since the McCarthy era. (The French newspaper Le Monde did series pieces a few years ago ion the "new McCarthyism" in the USA.)Jewish Voice for Peace’s Muzzle Watch newsletter, for example documents the increasing pressures piton evermore books, authors, professors, distributors of presses, presses and publishers, gallery owners, stagers of concerts, by various lobbies and organizations interested in preventing free speech, free artistic expressions, in anyway critical of the State of Israel and also of various aspect of American political and economic interest.
    Again in order for one to believe that it is wonderful for a Back American President to wholeheartedly endorse and proclaim his instant and eternal defense of the Apartheid and Walls and imprisonments in the Occupied Territories, there must be n immense gulf created not only between words and things, but between those people defined as citizens on one side of the Wall and those who are not on the other, and as well those who are on line and those who are not–a fate which can be arranged for large masses of persons simply by cutting off or bombing their electric grid works.
    Or–simply a big storm coming along and knocking out the electricity for large swatches of this nation itself–
    In writing of President Obama I do not mean him any disrespect; I simply cite him as an example because as the most discussed and listened to person on the planet at the moment, his words are heard every day around the world by those who have the means to listen in to them. When the president lays so many eggs in the space of just a few days–and these are among a whole much greater series of appointments which present al manner of problems which are being denied outright even though if one wants to, one may find them–when the President does this “transparently,” right in front of every0one, then is he not confidently and correcting on the whole assuming that people no longer are able to see the huge gaps between his words and his actions?
    For what they believe in are words, and not actions, facts at all, but words and the attitudes and responses they elicit in the listener.
    It is this unquestioning belief which leads to the assumptions that the web is a commons and that one is freely riding along on al these “free’ info highways and beautiful spaces on line and off–
    Because, for those on one side of the Wall, al these things are taken for granted, while on the other side one sees that of course they are not “free” at all, but things controlled, withheld, charged exorbitant prices for, by those in one side of the Wall–the poverty line–the struggling line–the bombed out line–the cut off line–
    And so these things become in their way yet another manifestation of that form of “democracy” which the animals I Orwell’s ANIMAL Farm discover themselves to be living under, one in which–
    “All Animals Are Equal, but Some are more Equal than Others.”
    Basically to live-in the society that the US is at present, is to be able to uses words which mean their exact opposites at the same time as they mean themselves–words like those of Orwell’s “Newspeak” in his novel 1984, a language in which “War=Peace,” “Freedom =Slavery,” and “Love=Hate.”
    On the one hand Americans celebrate their great advancement in terms of diversity with the recent election and inauguration–and on the other they loudly support Israel, a State which practices everything the US purports to be against–with the massive arming and support of the US.
    If one celebrates on the one hand a new president and on the other he and the populace stand firmly on the side of Apartheid–
    Then it becomes al the more easy to convince person that the web is a “free commons” and that in turn their carefully monitored and controlled poetry is “free.”
    In short, the more the word FREEDOM is pronounced the more it also means SLAVERY.
    The more loudly one trumpets PEACE the more one is supporting a policy of never ending War–
    In order to accept and live in the reality of daily life in the USA, one is forced to deny it–
    And instead live in an enforced dream world created by the Authorities’ simply saying magic words–
    In order to believe in this Virtuality which is created by Power-and is supplied by electric power–
    One must deny what it is one sees and hears al around one–
    And so the elevation of the concept of the “commons” of the web and emails–
    Because in these one is “Free”–
    Free that is to say from confronting the reality all around one, and Free to not have to make the effort to think ,to critique, to question, to act
    This is why poetry of the language and post language etc varieties are so perfectly suited to the institutions of Power–
    Because they offer no direct resistance whatsoever other than what they claim to be doing on the page–
    And that is a wonderful place to be isn’t it –“safe and sound from all alarm”--
    Having separated the “material word” from reference and al sorts of other evils including “grammar” which is completely falsely asserted to be constructed by Capitalism–having done al this poetry has created a smooth Deleuzian Plateau on which Power, the State and Institutional apparati can travel without obstructions–without anything indeed to indicate anything other than
    Home on the Range
    Where the deer and the antelope play
    And where seldom is heard
    A discouraging word
    And the skies are not cloudy all day--