The selfie as poetics
Looking back on the issues I hoped to develop in this commentary, I am primed for a conclusion (yet do not wish to conclude). The paradox of living in the historical present, during the coldest winter in 100 years, has devolved at a slightly later moment. It is still the present, the dwarf magnolia has had its three-day bloom, several storms have come and gone, the grass is dotted with dandelions, which will not survive the next mowing cycle. This is an allegory for poetics at present—such tempestuous storms! so many dandelions! such blades to mow us down! Two issues now beg for comment before my thread is entombed in the digital archive of contemporary poetics. One is the persistent presentism that afflicts our present time; and the second is the consistent projection of that presentism onto the history that preceded it. The concept of period style is the designated blade runner for this task, reducing the history of difference and antagonism for a diminished textuality, materiality, indexicality. At bottom of an imperative to categorize and deny, delimit and flatten is the return of a spectre the turn to language could not put to rest: the self. Or rather, the self in its millennial form, the selfie, the period style of millennials.
We need to come to some kind of understanding about this—you would not want me to end in any other way! Generation has become a microniche, a composite of playlists and chatlines that reduces the periodicity of social reproduction to something like three years. Little more than three years, for this generation, is what counts as generation, simply because the images, sounds, networks one enters into can only maintain their coherence for about that amount of time before subtly shifting to the next cycle. This periodicity of information culture now defines what counts as the present—complicated, of course, by the vicissitudes of different strata of memory within indexical limits. As Roman Jakobson described the superimposition of multiple rhythmic frequencies in the poetic text—the linguistic rhythm of a natural language; the verse conventions of a national literature; and the defamiliarizing style of an individual poet—so might temporality be similarly seen as layered. The daily flux of decisions and forgettings, with barely an opening for protension or retention; an expanding and contracting three-week period of longer rhythms of consciousness and experience where we think we know what we are doing and need to get done; and finally the exterior content of news and information cycles that map our position in historical time: this is the presentism of current microgenerations. Poetics, for better or worse, affords us parallel registers of this layered temporality: the moment of the individual poem; the event of the public reading; and the tidal shifts of names, tastes, and portentous issues that address a larger intellectual or cultural history, sort of. The periodizing claims of the present move from subjective micronarratives as an ironic index; through the social confirmation of their collective reception, without particular need for dialogue, criticism, or response; to archival categories that group discrepant results into distinguishable categories.
There is much that is fascinating in this situation, seen from an anthropological perspective. In this sense, poetics has developed not community in any politically significant sense, but a microculture within a culture—and this is important. In this microculture of participant-observers, everyone is their own anthropologist and tribal member, in the same instant reflecting on larger structures as reproducing them in practice. The ritual of the public confirmation (the reading) of the private reflection that constituties this structure (the poem) becomes a seamless feedback loop of poetics as selfie that is simply waiting for assembling into larger documentary forms—such may be the work of present sites like Jacket2, PennSound, Eclipse, or UbuWeb. Here, poetics is not simply entombed, it is made available for the next cycle of reproduction. Access is everything: without the larger horizon of the information cycle, here mimicking those social forms we have little access to and which direct us to catastrophic ends not of our choosing, there would be no moment of private reflection (the poem), no performance of group recognition (the reading). And this feedback loop as mode of production might be a good thing, at the very least as a register of our present historical condition. It may be that the work of poetics continues precisely in this form, to its best effect—at least, an emergence in the history of recognition, if not Archimedian leverage point that would tilt the earth back from its eccentric orbit, after the industrialization of China (which poetry has not found means to affect) and construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Yet something is missing from the seamlessness, the residual utopianism, the holism of this scheme, as witness the critical downside to the scenario constructed here: endless reproduction of the indexical same, performed to guarantee reception, and bundled in archives to be reproduced in the next cycle. While this structure may be an object of useful reflection and knowledge—how profound a mirror of the world we are confined within!—it begs the specific content that gives its historical contributions anything other than indexical meaning. As a way of knowing, poetics devolves into structural parallels that merely reproduce the larger form of late capitalist reproduction they are caught within and can criticize only by reflecting. Hence the failure of the turn to political economy as an unmediated politics, without considering the historicity of production and reception that produced its mirrorlike illusion.
Looking back on the issues I hoped to develop for this commentary, I would like to provoke. This is not a great literary period—but a capacious literary holding pattern. There is much that needs to be more substantially integrated and comprehended about what poetics has become now and what it can mean in more than literary senses. And there is far too much divergence between theory and practice, both overdeveloped in their own terms, with scarcely identified points of contact. A hypertheoriticism that reduces individual practice to a blip in the nanotrading cycle versus an unreflective reproduction of cultural blueprints that merely qualify one for admission into the microculture of poetics—these now go hand in hand. What results is a baseline mode of literariness as minimal spectatorship, in which community is defined by the continual reproduction of self-identity through its privileged objects, collective performances, and barely comprehended narratives. We need larger frameworks for poetics, not reducible to leveling narratives or periodizing projections, that produce, rather than merely reproduce, the knowledge, practices, affects, and objects that in their new combinations will indelibly mark our time.
Photo credit: Julia Fiedorczuk