Saturday, October 11, 2014

Talking with the Internet about Poetry

I am a keen user of social media, which is probably tantamount to saying that I am a keen time-waster. That said, as I have gradually started publishing poetry and meeting other poets, social media has provided me with a network of contacts which, I imagine, would have taken years to build without the internet. I rarely turn up to a poetry event and find I 'know' nobody else attending (in the sense of having encountered them on-line at least).
And yet, in recent weeks, I have become increasingly concerned with the quality of the debate around poetry and poets in social media, especially on Facebook. Perhaps, though, this isn't a concern specific to discussion of poetry on the internet, more a reflection of a wider culture which has emerged in the digitial age. What bothers me, now I think more carefully about it, is that poets unthinkingly mimic that culture. That isn't to say that I think they are likely to be better, more astute people than the general populace; just that I feel I belong, however tenuously, to this group, and so their actions matter more to me.
So, what is this general culture? The political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has described it as 'antagonistic', that is to say that the public debates which take place within that culture are highly polarised. Each side assumes that the other can only be viscous and dangerously foolish, their world-view an abomination which must be rejected totally, not listened to. There can be no compromise with those whose arguments have no validity, and who are themselves essentially malign. The 'Tea Party' in the US has been one of the most prominent examples of this kind of thinking, with its aggressive demonization of whose whose view of the good society differs from its own. We could speculate, as Richard Sennett has for example, that the rise of this culture is linked in some way to an ideology of neo-liberalism which promotes an atomistic, mobile and ruthlessly competition-oriented view of society, in which individuals no longer learn the skills of 'everyday diplomacy', as Sennett calls them; skills which would help them deal with conflicts of values in a 'cool' fashion, not by heated confrontation. For Sennett, such a world increasingly promotes the culture of 'screw you!' - you are either for me or against me, an ally or an enemy. Neither Mouffe nor Sennett are arguing for the abandonment of world-views in favour of vague compromise, it should be noted. Rather, they suggest that we need to return to a world in which the civil competition of world-views would be possible, in which we could respectfully differ.
Clearly, the internet does not help. Theorists of the bourgeois public sphere, chief among them Jürgen Habermas, have argued that our current democracy grew out of the creation of a public sphere in which ideas could be made the subject of public debate without becoming cause for destructive conflict. Because that debate took place in the slower paper media of the letter, the newspaper, the pamphlet and the book, it allowed for a certain detachment. Certainly, the people who proposed ideas and arguments often felt passionately about them, and were also open to personal attack and satire. Nevertheless, the relative slowness of the media arguably created a detachment between person and argument. Even the (possibly idealised) London coffee house of the 18th century, where anyone could turn up and take part in debate face-to-face for the price of a drink, was a space where ideas could be tested against each other, questioned and defended, in a notably under-heated atmosphere when compared with the current level of debate on the internet.
Social media discussions combine the apparent detachment of the old print public sphere with the immediacy of the coffee house debate, yet the combination is far from productive. Taking place in the context of our generally antagonistic, 'screw you!' culture, the speed of communication on social media makes arguments less emotionally detached, while the relative anonymity of the keyboard and screen embolden individuals to behave in ways which would not be seen as appropriate if they were looking each other in the eyeball. What we end up with instead is an impulse not only to denigrate others' ideas, for which no validity whatsoever can be admitted, and to denigrate the people who hold those ideas. Discussions quickly descend into name-calling, and those who feel under attack resort to undermining their opponents by questioning the (implicitly evil) motives for their arguments, rather than engaging with the arguments themselves.
Why does this matter? Firstly, in terms of the poetry 'community' I see engaging in debate on Facebook in particular, I find very often that its attitude closes off the very possibility of anyone learning anything from the discussion. If I encounter ideas which challenge my own view, I have two options: I can either go away and explore those ideas for myself and reconsider (but not necessarily abandon) my own position, or I can just assume that the person expressing those ideas is somehow despicable and can't have anything interesting to say. Sadly, I see more of the latter than the former in these discussions. This is highly unproductive, not least for those aggressively proposing arguments, whose desire seems to be less  to persuade others and more to reassure themselves that they are right and everyone else is just an idiot. Such discussion might just as well not have taken place, since all it has produced is animosity and the terrible thrill of self-belief on all sides. Secondly, especially in the competition of differing aesthetic positions in poetry, there is something to be gained by borrowing from or simply reacting against different approaches and philosophies. Let's face it, such borrowings and reactions are what the history of poetry is. If we continue to foster a culture of aggressive non-communication on-line, then the danger of a(n even more) sclerotic poetry culture may be the ultimate outcome. After all, how can you respond to anything productively if you have decided that it must be worthless?
I am far from being able to offer solutions to any of this, and I may well be wrong in certain (if not many) aspects of my analysis. However, I hope I have gone some way at least to stating the problem.


  1. Thanks David, for identifying and articulating this phenomena so eloquently. I've watched several 'conversations' unfold and felt alternately amused and horrified by the rapid descents into name calling and unpleasantness, and would very much like to see more considered discussions taking place. I fear, however, that social media is not suited to rational debate. It seems inevitable within any group of people there will be those who will express their less than pleasant ideals in the same way that, more seriously and sadly, an expression of disgust at the bombing of Gaza can attract accusations of anti-Semitism.

  2. When conversations are both remote and anonymous the social norms of not causing offence or a scene no longer apply. We're off the leash. Some people revel in it. Interesting perspective you have given.

    Anyhoo, I have just published a book of poetry called Feckquinox. It is available to DL from Amazon for £0 until Thursday the 16th of Oct 2014. I hope you get a chance to read it, and if you do I hope you get something from it.

  3. Hi David,

    I agree the performative nature of online communications tends towards entrenched opinions and polarised arguments, however I was recently discussing with someone the idea that, within print media, there aren't very many good poetry rammies - hatchet jobs and the like. Perhaps the heated discussions on social media are (in the case of poetry) a reaction to the fact that poetry criticism in print tends to range all way from damning with faint praise to praising with faint condemnation. Measured responses are fine, but perhaps we could measure them out with something larger than coffee spoons.

    Incidentally, talking of the 18th Century, I can't help but think of Samuel Johnson's 'Macpherson stick', which he took to carrying with him in case the author of the Ossian poems ever decided to make good on his threats of physical violence towards him.