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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Intellect and the Internet

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.
— Emerson, "The American Scholar"


an FB comment


I have been the last couple of days pondering a passing comment on an FB post:

"The best hope for poetry may be the Internet, which can bring scattered people together from the far corners and create semi-coherent groups."

Once, the essentially optimistic part of my being would have agreed with the possibilities in the idea. However, I have in the last years come around to wholly disagree with the sentiment. For I remember a couple of decades back when the internet was still young being able to find discourse on literature that was intelligent both in the level of discourse and in the approach to the discourse itself. But over the years those sources of discourse have become harder and harder to find, primarily because of that fundamental nature of the internet: openness; the willingness to have and permission for everyone to participate. Indeed, the death of many of those sites and sources were caused by just that very openness. Over the years, it is not the above, wished for potential of the internet that has been observed. Rather, what has been demonstrated – and if we are honest with ourselves we should also say what should have been expected – is that the fundamental energies of the internet is toward the quashing of intellectual possibility by the overwhelming voices of populist participation.

Which is also to say: by anti-intellectual participation.

Even when it doesn't look anti-intellectual. Consider this wonderful, moment, here fictionalized, but frequently seen in one form or another within Facebook discussions and blog responses (irrespective of subject, but here to the theme):

"Theory only ever gets in the way of poetry. I think poetry is . . . ."

Except: once you begin the thought "I think poetry is" you have entered into theory. You cannot have a definition of poetry without a theory of poetry. As Denis Donoghue quipped in "The Use and Abuse of Theory": "Not to have a theory is to have someone else's." So if a theory is had nonetheless, what then is the point of the opening half of such statements as I offer above? The rejection not of theory but of intellectuality in general: the effort, the study, the thought, the contemplation and debate of the subject at hand. It is not the rejection of theory; it is the rejection of the effort and intellectual attitudes necessary to be conversant in theory. Once you begin looking at responses in open forums supposedly dedicated to an "intellectual" pursuit of whatever topic, you will find the vast majority of responses fall within a rather simple framework: that of "I can't be bothered actually making the effort to learn the theory and principles of the subject at hand, but that does not mean I won't throw my opinions out there and demand them to be respected to the same degree as those thought out comments by people who actually know in depth the subject at hand."

How often have I seen people dismiss Marxist criticism – or Marx's ideas in general – without having ever read a word on Marxist criticism or by Marx himself? Even more commonly seen is the knee-jerk dismissal of the ideas of post-structuralism, which are so often dismissed – even within so-called "academic" settings – simply because the dismissing person read someone else's dismissal of the ideas, and that dismissal is good enough for them: mostly because it means that they do not have to do the work of understanding that which they are dismissing. And as regards the possibility that that first dismissal itself has no true grounding? That's not as important as having read something that affirms whatever statement the subsequent dismisser most wants to make. But, then, in truth, how can one defend one's political poetry in the face of centuries of literary theory and criticism that speaks to the failings of any such poetry, except to broadly dismiss the whole of "theory"? Luckily, there are plenty of people out there who will jump on board.

In its most basic, there cannot be intellectualism in any forum unless a very basic concept is recognized within the participants in that forum: If you have not read enough in an area to be conversant in that area, shut up.

And when I am saying "read enough" I really mean read enough theory and/or criticism. Contrary to popular opinion, having read a lot of books of poetry does not make you conversant in poetry as an academic subject. (Having written a lot of poetry even less as much.) Having read a lot of political blog posts on feminism does not make you conversant in the social or literary theory of feminism. In fact, it doesn't even make you conversant in feminism. All it makes you is someone with a pocket full of opinions.

Again: Until you have read and thought enough to know what you are talking about: shut up.

Hyperbole, yes. But necessary hyperbole. Intellectual endeavor is not democratic. Yes, the table of intellectual discourse should – and indeed must – always be open to anyone who would like to participate, whatever their level of sophistication. But sitting down at that table requires a certain attitude toward the subject: in short, one based on theory and principle. Leave your opinions at the door, they have no place at the table.

Why? Because opinions are only ever assertion of a fact in the face of and rejection of the perceived assertion of contrary fact. They can only ever be "I am right; you are wrong." (Or, on the flip side: "You are right because I am right; and, you are saying the same thing as me.") To truly enter the discourse on a subject requires moving from the mere assertion of concepts to the active exploration of ideas. Which takes effort. Which takes effort before the fact. Which takes the willingness, on seeing someone else's presentation, to go, "I don't know enough about that subject to enter the discussion at this time; as such, I will not comment now, but read up on the subject so as to become conversant." And that is a rarity indeed on the internet.[FN]

[FN] It is worth noting how this also describes intellectual elitism and why elitism is not discourse, and why academic discourse is not elitism. Even though at one point an elitist's thoughts may have been grounded in theory and criticism, elitism itself is defined by those thoughts no longer being ideas and having become again concepts, the mere stating and affirming of opinions, the assertion of concepts which can only ever be accepted or rejected. And we all know the result of rejecting an elitist's opinions.

Intellectual discourse requires the climbing of a learning curve. If you are not willing to enter that learning curve, you are not participating in intellectual discourse. In turn, the lower you are on that curve, the less you should speak and the more you should listen. To offer the philosophical twist to the thought: "Listen until there is no more need to speak. Speak only when there is no more need to listen."

This is why the internet – in the general conception – works in opposition to intellectual discourse, not in advance of it. And why, over the years, I have watched the forums for intellectual discourse slowly disappear, or become harder and harder to find, which may amount to the same thing. The exceeding – and increasing – majority of the people on the internet have no desire to do the work necessary to become honestly – and that is perhaps the best adjective, there: honestly; another, genuinely – conversant on a subject. I have found that even among the people in internet forums who are willing to read more critical works only infrequently have they equal willingness to critically think about those works. It is amazing but not at all amazing how so very often those works are read solely for the purpose of reaffirming opinion, not to the end of opening discourse: which explains why how rarely they read works of contrary thought. But that is the nature of mass thought: the masses do not want to engage, they want to assert; which is why fascism always and only takes hold through appeals to the masses.

So, in the face of mass anti-intellectualism, can the internet yet create intellectual forums? Perhaps, though they would be very difficult to establish. I do not know of a single such venue presently. Though, it must be said, I have mostly given up on seeking them out, and only occasionally now foray into the great ocean in search of those tiny, greatly distant, specks of land. My last I followed (and occasionally participated in) a decade ago: a wonderful page dedicated to social and literary theory, but I lost the link – and the name – in a hard drive crash, and have not found the page again. Perhaps it too is now defunct. It was an open forum, yes; but it was a forum that overtly established its nature. People generally did not post into the conversation unless they were posting small essays. (So, obviously, these were slow moving conversations: something else mass thought cannot tolerate.) As well, comments were moderated: so only comments that progressed the discussion were let in (though, I was never not rejected, even when I had only questions; so it was not restrictively moderated). I have a couple of times had the fortune of entering or beginning an intelligent conversation in the responses to some post in some forum, but that is by far the exception to the rule. Blogs and anything of that nature – particularly as regards the comments flow, which is where discourse would occur – will always be forums for the assertion of opinions. You cannot expect true discourse there; and, personally, the odds are far, far too small to make such effort worth the while.

So, can the internet create intellectual forums? Yes. Of course it can. Though, it seems quite evident that it is a grossly inefficient means to that end. And those forums, when they are created, will usually not be advertised.

Finally, to return wholly to that passing comment: Is the Internet – in any form – the best hope for poetry? for literature? Not so long as people think that writing a piece of verse makes them conversant on the subject of verse. Not so long as people refuse to make the distinction between poetry and poetastery. Not so long as people are unwilling to permit any thought that might cast dispersions on their own work or their own likes or their own opinions. Not so long as people are unwilling to bear that very undemocratic and unpopular (pun intended) truth: "Until you know what you are talking about, shut up and listen."

1 comment:

  1. Responding to your initial quote, why should poetry’s “best hope” lie in “semi-coherent groups?” The “semi-coherent” doesn’t bother me so much as the insistence on the presence of a group. The transmission of poetry — except in some cases of public verse — is a solitary experience on both ends: little more than one reader and one writer is necessary — and reverie, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson.

    In the poetry “community” much ado has been made out of Whitman’s requirement that “there must be great audiences” but this — even if not discounted as a bit of advertising flattery (“poems for the intelligent citizen” might have been his blurb) — feels as misguided as the perpetual lamentations we see published regarding “the state of poetry” today. It doesn’t matter.

    Reading your piece, it occurs to me that you might well write a book called _What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry_. In online discussions we tend to lack awareness of what we mean by what we say. Arriving at — and squabbling over — a universally acceptable definition of “poetry” (which is how these discussions often devolve or degenerate) is irrelevant and impossible. But I find my own use of the term fluid. One time it can mean, “language that is in meter (good or bad),” another time (a la Cunningham) “what we commonly refer to when we say ‘poetry’” and still yet another, in the phrase of Hopkins, “poetry proper, the language of inspiration” (which excludes what he called “Parnassian” not to mention a lot of what Wordsworth wrote besides).

    Perfect consistency cannot be expected in discourse; but more awareness of how imprecise our spouted opinions may be should only help raise the critical level. But again, even with criticism, I’m not sure why our hopes for improvement should be centered in groups. Edmund Wilson stands out _from_ the critics of his time more than he is part-and-parcel _of_ them.