written for AGGRESSION conference, Small Press Traffic, 5/31
[for a recent example of the liberalizing ideology in action, see Kenneth Goldsmith's summary of Marjorie Perloff's talk here]
It is spring 2007. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis, perhaps as many as a million, have died in the
Johannes Göransson asks me to write something for his magazine Action, Yes. At first, I think to write something about poetry in public space and my researches into the theory and practice of the Situationist International, but I’m feeling the hate, I’m liking the hate, I have all of this aggression that’s bottlenecked because it’s supposed to fit through these tiny pixel-sized perforations, and increasingly, what I find impossible to stomach is this idea that the internet is a democratic space, that the technology is democratizing, anti-hierarchical, equalizing, when it seems clear to me that alongside the surge of troops into Iraq, also under the pretenses of democracy, there is a surge of voltages into the space of the internet, and that, instead of one surge stopping the other surge, they are mutually enabling surges, they are pals, these surges, and contrary to predictions about new media enabling new forms of resistance, the internet has, mostly, become, like, a giant deterrence machine, virtualizing and disembodying resistance, it is something like the Free Speech zones set up at protests and on campuses, a merely formal space of freedom surrounded by massive unfreedom, and because I read a good number of books about capitalism, this seems like an old story, this one about freedom and unfreedom, and I want to tell it.
I begin to think about the internet and what it does and what it’s for and I have, at the end of the day, two or maybe three main arguments about it. They are not very original, these arguments, and anybody who reads the same books about capitalism, particularly the ones written by Karl Marx, who was a pretty sharp guy, could probably come up with the same arguments.
I. Information Wants to Be Free
The internet is a screen, a series of screens. It’s true: everyone can have their own blog, can publish their poems online so that the whole world can not read them, can peruse and produce the contents of the internet freely (in all senses of this word). But below this level of freedom, this level of leveling and equalization, the old exclusions and inequalities still obtain—differences in literacy and knowledge, differences in access to free time, differences in positionality with regard to social networks and cultural capital. This is a public that requires, paradoxically, an immobilizing and privatizing of individuated bodies: in rooms, in front of screens. And it is offered, I think, as compensation for the destruction of our cities, the privatization of social entitlement programs, the decay of our schools, infrastructure, etc. The freedom of the internet is, in this sense, the freedom of the marketplace. Its democracy the democracy of, well, the
In his notebooks from the 1850s, referred to as the Grundrisse, Marx, who encountered similarly vexing arguments about the democracy of the marketplace, decided that the best way to deal with such claims would be to create a mock-up of the market, of the “simple sphere of circulation,” taking at face value the claim that all participants were equals in order to demonstrate the contradictions and impossibilities of such a stance, and therefore force us to plunge into the noisy and highly unequal sphere of production—where capital and labor meet as antagonists—upon which the market rests. I find his analogy for this type of “equality” cheering. For the bourgeois economists, he says, it is “as if it were asserted that there is no difference, to say nothing of antithesis and contradiction, between natural bodies, because all of them, when looked at from e.g. the point of view of their weight, have weight, and are therefore equal; or are equal because all of them occupy three dimensions. . .” And he goes on: “In present bourgeois society as a whole this positing of prices and their circulation etc. appears as the surface process, beneath which, however, in the depths, entirely different processes go on, in which the apparent individual equality and liberty disappear” (Grundrisse, 247). Replace prices with information and you get the picture.
If you believe, then, that the equality and democracy of the internet floats in an emulsion of unfree and unequal social relations—let’s call it the difference between those who do and those do not own the means of production (whether knowledge, hardware, software, or data)—then the supposed freedom of the users resembles, in my view, two types of political subject. First, the nineteenth-century liberal subject endowed gradually with rights (able to vote, to own things, to appeal to the courts) and, secondly, the free and rightless proletarians of the transition to capitalism. This is by no means to suggest that the majority of the people who use the internet today are as brutalized as the lower classes during the transition to capitalism or during the nineteenth century, but merely that, and I owe this insight in part to Standard Schaefer, a similar dialectic is operating, that we should consider the spaces of the internet as ones of enfranchisement and access which sit next to, and cause/are caused by, some of the most extreme disenfranchisement, dispossession, atrocity and destruction in recent memory. That is, we should think of this in terms of Marx’s account of “so-called primitive accumulation,” the process whereby the European peasantry was dispossessed of the access to commonly-held land in order that they were forced to rely on the sale of their labor-power. The argument here, and the actual history, is rather complex, but you get the picture.
It is with some impatience, then, that I encounter positions like that of Kenneth Goldsmith who, for all his salutary antihumanism, must surely be accounted one of the internet’s liberalizing ideologues. In a post on the Poetry Foundation’s
“Harriet” blog, he writes: “Now is the time of possibility we can be everyone and no one at all. With digital fragmentation any notions of authenticity and coherence have long been wiped. When we're everywhere and nowhere at once—pulling RSS feeds from one server, server-side includes from another, downloading distributed byte-size torrents from hundreds of other shifting identities—such naïve sentiments are even further from what it means to be a contemporary writer. Identity politics no longer have to do with the definition of a coherent self, rather it [sic] has to do with the reconstructed, distributed, fragmented, multiple and often anonymous selves that we are today. We're infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute. Shouldn't our notions of art expand once again to include these as well?” I think Marx already dealt with this quite well, don’t you? What Goldsmith can’t countenance is the thought that whether you get an identity of an infinitely malleable sort or a regulation issue identity has to do with, basically, class, race, gender. Indeed, despite his protestations, this is quintessential identity politics—it’s whitey’s identity politics.
Lest I seem like I don’t get the joke, I should say, at this point, that I’m not immune to Goldsmith’s charms. He has cool hats, and I find his works fascinating and even, if only for short periods of time, pleasurable. I admire his intelligence, however perverse it is, and I realize that he positions himself rather self-consciously as a gadfly. But irony is a great way to disavow things you actually believe. The value of Goldsmith, no doubt, is that he has a sense of humor and under no conditions, blessedly, does he claim that his version of conceptual poetry is in the slightest politically radical, or in the least threatening to the functioning of the political status quo. On the contrary, his is “a pro-consumer poetry,” and as we’ll see in the next section of my talk, his virtue is that he reminds poets how little the experiments of today are a threat to capitalism and imperialism—indeed, in his version, conceptual poetry, as we’ll see, works as advertising, product design, and job training for office managers.
Things are a bit trickier when claims are made for the liberalizing ideology of the internet being politically progressive. Stan Apps and Matthew Timmons, for instance, in their stimulating Editor’s Statement for Fold Magazine, have the virtue of being so clear about their own intentions, and often so accurate in their analysis but so disastrously wrong in the conclusions they draw from this analysis, that they make critique all the easier. I don’t even need Marx. One of their claims is that the new aesthetics of information enabled by the internet are anti-capitalist. “Capitalism,” they write, “has no understanding of what to do in a %100 saturated marketplace in which no significant profit is possible.” The poetries of cut-and-paste are virtuous because the “the romantic paradigm of replication remains gloriously immune to the marketplace—which is to say, these forms of self-expression are produced for selfless reasons.” But this demonstrates a particularly weak grasp of the nature of capitalism—assembly-line work, for instance, depends upon replication and automation. While they themselves note that “distribution is the new production,” this apparently does not lead them to conclude that distribution—the production of new information through consumption of that information—is capitalist. They write: “The primacy of distribution is the greatest lesson of capitalism; ultimately it will be understood that capitalism has nothing to do with money or profit at all: capitalism is simply the recognition that the connections between people are more important than the information or objects they exchange.” By now, such ideas should sound familiar. Ditto the response.
II. The Internet as Work
In what ways is the distribution of information on the internet capitalist? For me, answering this question involves demonstrating that the internet is, largely, work—unpaid work and unpaid job training, and that, similarly, in Goldsmith and in the Apps-Timmons tendency’s accounting, the work of art has become the art of work. I can’t cover much of this argument here, but I’ll do what I can.
The work of the internet is the dialectic counterpart to the primitive accumulation discussed above. Essentially, with the internet, capitalism gifts the masses with a false commons where people can work, off the clock, creating information and relationships that the ruling class can enclose, appropriate, commodify, and sell back to us at a later date. It’s a way of letting the process of primitive accumulation work as a perpetual, and because of the stagnation of the economies in the advanced capitalist countries, vital, supplement to the mechanism of exploitation, and one that should be seen alongside the other forms of primitive accumulation that are occurring right now and are, for sure, much more important: the direct seizure of Iraqi resources, the copyrighting and commodifying of the material of our bodies, and most obviously, the accumulation by dispossession that is occurring in Africa, in China, in Latin America, as capitalism pushes to its limits and attempts to expunge from the earth any trace of commonly-held land.
Thus, back to Kenneth Goldsmith, who writes: “How I navigate—rather than how I create—is what distinguishes me from another writer. I am an intelligent agent carving a unique path through this thicket of language; what distinguishes my practice from yours is the particular swath I carve.” The conceptual-processual poem that he champions, then, is a series of transportable techniques for the management of flows of information; it is a kind of aestheticized Google, one that promises the information consumer an endlessly protean and fungible identity. Despite his somewhat Kantian claim that his writing is purposeless, its consonance with information-management products does not escape me. It is poetry not only for information consumers but for the administrators and managers who work in the distribution of information. Tools for managing and mastering flow of data are also, in this sense, tools for managing and mastering populations—or, what’s better, as with viral marketing, letting populations manage and master themselves. It is a technocrat’s art. The nice thing, though, about Goldsmith’s attempt to aestheticize current working conditions is that he refuses to sex it up, to make it interesting. The mind-numbing boredom of the office job, of phonebank work, data entry, and proofreading, comes through crystal clear. You’ll never clock out, again. Goldsmith’s poetics of boredom is the revenge of work in postmodernity. If, as Adorno and Horkheimer claim, “Amusement under late capitalism is the extension of work,” in his poems the profound alienation of work can longer be covered over, eroticized, or made interesting. We’re dying of boredom and we know it. In this sense, given that the dominance of financialization over the last thirty years has been all about making distribution (of capital, of information) profitable, it seems, in response to Apps and Timmon’s remarks, that capital does, in fact, know what to do. Indeed, Apps, Timmons, Goldsmith and the ideas they present are what capital does—creating and prohibiting the conditions and types of access to information that will allow for the profitability that they claim, somewhat exaggeratedly, is lost by the free exchange of information. It’s true that, as they say, capitalism is all about the relations between people, that its fundamental truth is what Marx calls the relations of production, that political relations are, in a sense, capital’s ontology. But what Apps and Timmons don’t see is that the poetics of distribution is a way of altering, managing and directing those relations.
This is not a blanket critique of all processual writing—some flarf, for instance, does not seem to partake of this technocratic rationality and, instead, by a process akin to what Benjamin calls “profane illumination,” manages to manifest those material conditions and inequalities which subtend the supposedly symmetrical plane of the internet.
I’d like to see more writing like this, obviously, and I’d like to understand more about the effects that internet life does and does not have on the lives we live offscreen. Because you are all smart people, I’m sure you’ve noticed a contradiction in my account. On the one hand, I’m saying that the internet has no effects except indirectly: it’s a smokescreen. On the other hand, I’m saying it’s a tool for mastering and dominating people, for generating saleable information, for directly producing social relations. I think both of these things are true. Sometimes it’s a screen, and sometimes it’s domination, and these two effects are mutually enabling. I do think that there’s an uncanny timing to the arrival of the internet as a full-on social force directly after 9/11. In my view, in the last decade, people were essentially given this domain for experiment with alternate forms of communication and confederation and, in ways that served the interests of the ruling-class, an ideology developed which encouraged people to conflate manipulation of political symbols with the manipulation of political bodies. It’s an old ideology but it has come in handy over the last decade.
Sometimes symbolic freedom is just that, symbolic, and sometimes it’s something more. Symbols can be powerful, and the manipulation of them can have real effects that need not be technocratic and dominating. My piece in Action, Yes, finished with a call for a translation of poetic strategies into strategies for activism in the world at large. I still think that’s what’s needed. And I still think the question for us is how connections between symbols and bodies, languages and bodies can be consciously and effectively put in the service of, for lack of a less ambiguous term, equality.