Follow Harriet on Twitter
Of poetry and privilege
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?