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The Internet Aesthetic and On-Line Publications of Poetry

Johannes Goransson 

The Internet Aesthetic and On-Line Publications of Poetry 

Department of English, University of Minnesota 
English 3960, Junior-Senior Seminar: Electronic Text 
Spring 1996

COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY has become a major force in the late capitalist culture of the 1990s. No longer limited to its old role as a large calculator, the computer is now essential to many people's lives, for communication, news, and, most importantly, for business. The latest, the most talked-about and culturally, perhaps, the most significant of computer technologies is the Internet, a system of communication that is changing not only the actual medium through which we communicate but also how we view acts of communication. As is symptomatic of postmodern culture, the Internet has developed an antimodernist aesthetic. Unlike the Modernist aesthetic, which critiqued capitalist culture and resisted the commodification of art, this Internet aesthetic encourages technophilia as a means of selling a product, services or just the page itself, while showing no trace of political self-consciousness. While the Modernists tried to escape commodification by creating a difficult art, the Internet artists use technological tricks to create sites that are easy to watch and visually entertaining. Despite the fact that the Internet aesthetic is geared towards selling products or services, it is not limited to the commercial pages, as it also exerts a considerable degree of influences on most noncommercial sites, such as the on-line poetry journals. The rhetorical devices that were developed for purely commercial purposes have become conventions for sites on the Internet, followed even by sites that do not have commercial purposes. On the Internet, commodification has reached new heights as even art that is not for sale imitates commodities.

The Internet aesthetic completely reverses the Modernist aesthetic of art as a critique of capitalist culture. Most Modernist art critiques what the Modernists perceived as the total lack of meaning and value of modern bourgeois culture. This art reflects a self-consciousness of living in a "modern" or new world, which is divorced from the religious and philosophical traditions of the past, and where social, political and technological changes have resulted in a commodification of everything in life. The Modernists protested against the way capitalism had turned everything, including poetry, into a commodity to be exchanged for money. Feeling that this economic system degraded art, the Modernists resisted commodification by creating "difficult" art that was far from "consumer friendly" and resisted the expectations of the bourgeois culture. The inherent futility and contradiction of this problematization of the role of the artist was that, as Terry Eagleton notes, "if it avoids the humiliation of becoming an abstract, serialized, instantly exchangeable thing, it does so only by virtue of reproducing that other side of commodity which is fetishism" (392). From this point of view, Modernism can be seen as a failed attempt to change the foundations of modern industrial society.

The aesthetic of the Internet is completely opposite to the aesthetic of Modernism, as it is founded largely on the postmodern principle that there is nothing "real" to try to change about society. Everything is seen as, what Baudrillard calls, "simulacra." (It is not coincidental that Baudrillard is one of the most popular subjects on the Internet: numerous sites and home pages are dedicated to his ideas; for example, Project Baudrillard and CTheory.) Lacking the Modernist belief in a real that can be improved, the postmodern response to the Modernist conflict of fetishism and commodity is to "collapse that conflict on one side, becoming aesthetically what it is economically . . . the commodity as a mechanically reproducible exchange ousts the commodity as mechanical aura" (Eagleton 393). The most extreme example of this is Hollywood film studios that produce and reproduce stories with the most commercial or popular appeal. This same populism can be seen in the 'high arts' as well, for example in Andy Warhol's soup cans. Although Frederic Jameson may be correct in arguing that postmodern art is not self-consciously ironic, it does, "in its dissolution of art into prevailing forms of commodity production," parody Modernism and "the revolutionary art of the twentieth century avant-garde" (Eagleton 386). Postmodern artists nihilistically empty their art of political content or awareness and accept the role of art as commodity.

This commodification of art is even more prevalent in the culture of the Internet, where the aesthetic principles that most effectively sell a product, a service or just the site are privileged. The goal in creating a site is to make it easy to experience or understand in order to increase its appeal to a wide audience as possible. The viewer should be able to understand what the purpose of the site is and how to move through it, ideally without having to read any text and without having to think. Consequently, the most privileged aesthetic principle on the Internet has become technological flashiness. Sites on the Internet strive towards being "cutting-edge," flaunting "technostunts" in order to be visually entertaining, canonized as a "Top 5%" by Point.com or other Internet judges of coolness, and therefore, ultimately, reliable to sell quality/cool products and to be. In a column in Mac User, Bob Schaffel and Chuck Weger define a "good" web sites as those that "inform and entertain without being noisy" (March 1996, 111). This makes sense for all of the commercial sites, whose purpose is not art. But for the all of the artistic sites, including many on-line poetry journals that follow this aesthetic, the result is less appropriate; it is in fact the complete opposite of the Modernist ideal of "difficult," political art. Neither difficulty nor politics sell on the Internet, flash and technological savvy does.

On the Internet, meaningfully signifying text is undesirable in itself because it is more difficult to read a text than it is to passively look at something (including text that functions as a visual design). Text demands that the readers are literate, that they make a certain effort of reading, and that they have time to reflect on the meaning to a variable degree. Text demands a degree of self-consciousness that looking at flashes of technology does not. The columnists at Mac User advise Web beginners to "learn to think of incorporating design elements that are neither text nor graphics but are instead Web-enabled objects (Quicktime, Quickdraw 3D scenes, sounds and the like). This is where the web really starts to outdo print" (March 1996: 111). We may ask: "outdo print" at what? These technological gadgets certainly make sites more flashy and easier to understand, and thus capable of selling a product to a wider audience. However, these gadgets can clearly not create the kind of experience that literature produces. Can you imagine Eliot's The Waste Land in Quicktime? Or for that matter Tennyson's In Memoriam A. H. H. in 3D? These gadgets "outdo" print precisely by not being print. They outdo print by providing an easier and more immediately entertaining surface than the signifier-signified foundation of print. The columnists compare apples and oranges. However, such comparisons are common in Internet discourse. Readers of Internet journals, in print as well as on-line, are repeatedly told why this new technology is better than print without being asked to consider the aesthetic according to which such a judgment is made.

In the Internet aesthetic, technology has become the essential aesthetic element. As new technology in entertainment, such as computer-generated movies, allows for a more technological view of the future, computer technology comes to monopolize our concept of a future that is already here. Computer technology has become inherently "cutting edge." (In the literary community, people wonder not what can be done with styles of writing, but what can be done with technologies such as hypertext.) Thus when the writers of the magazine The Net present the "10 best loved avant-garde sites" of the web, they do not present the ten sites that best expose the flaws of capitalism or the Internet, as was the case with the original avant-garde, but rather the ten sites that makes the most flashy use of the technology of the Internet. They commend the site Deep Forest for being "entertaining and enthralling"; razorfish because "their technostunts are at the top of the list"; they especially like Tripod for being "interactive. informative. Entertaining. Cool. Tripod is alluring eye candy with a knock-out bang." Many of the sites are also the "top ten eye candy sites." Thus the meaning of the term "avant-garde" has completely changed. Instead of denoting difficulty and opposition, as it did in the heyday of Modernism, it now means easily pleasing. Instead of opposition to commodification, it means celebration of capitalism. It is most important to be easily accessible, to be "candy." Most probably without being aware of it, the writers of The Net parodies the politically committed aesthetic of the early twentieth century by using the lingo while being resolutely apolitical in their glorification of technology and its potential for selling commodities.

IN THE TITLE of this paper I promise to discuss the effect of the Internet and its aesthetic on the on-line publications of poetry. Yet I have talked only about this aesthetic, mainly as it applies to the design of commercial sites, and how it mocks the Modernist aesthetic. None of my examples from the Internet so far deals specifically with poetry. And indeed, why should not a commercial site try to sell their products or services? However, the apolitical glorification of technology does exert a profound influence on the poetry published on the Internet and on the way this poetry is presented in different on-line journals. It is not limited to commercial sites.

The same principles of technophilia that commercial sites use to sell selling commodities or services are predominant also in the poetry sites. (One site, Hugo Boss Poetry Slam, actually uses poetry to sell cologne.) The obvious paradox here is that while the corporate sites have something to sell, no poetry sites have anything to sell, other than, figuratively speaking, their content, because the journal is already available to the reader via the Web (although it is possible that in the future poetry magazines will charge the reader per visit). However, the aesthetics developed for selling on the commercial sites have defined what sites on the Internet should be like, thus influencing noncommercial sites. While the Modernists were frustrated by the inherent commodification of their art, these web poets try to sell their work and cannot. They, unlike the Modernists, are able to publish their work without the commodifying monetary exchange. Yet, most of these poetry sites feel obliged to follow the sales-oriented aesthetics of the Internet.

The on-line poetry journal The Open Scroll is a good example of this phenomenon. It has been declared a "top 5%" by Point.com, and has thus achieved some degree of canonization. This canonization is itself a sign of the aesthetics of the Internet. While the poems on this site are mediocre at best and often ridiculous (I will return to this in a moment), the design, though not conventionally beautiful, shows a large degree of technological wizardry. Presumably, Point.com. declared them a "top 5%" site not because of the actual content, the poetry, but because of the technological presentation of the poems. For Point.com, as for the general Internet culture, the technologicality of presentation of the content has become the primary content, while the content has become just another effect of the design. The background to the home page of The Open Scroll is patterned with a psychedelic, rosy hued design. The title is printed on the graphic of a half-opened, medieval scroll. Just below the title, there is a little yellow flag with the word "New" printed on it that undulates (as movement of the graphics is the ultimate sign of the technological wizardry of the programmers). The words "literature" and "issue number six" are shown as elaborate logos. For the special feature "Poetry Exchange," an "interactive poetry forum," the programmers treat us to a nifty purple-hued photograph of someone who looks like the famous and recently deceased Jerry Garcia. His image functions much like the image of celebrities in ads--to sell the product. The makers are trying to sell their page by offering flashy technological designs, as well as poetry (though I cannot help but to feel that the poetry is secondary, just a feature of the design). It is interesting to what extent an on-line journal which neither can nor indeed want to sell anything is influenced by the aesthetic principles of the commercial Internet.

The Open Scroll can claim to be a hip site because of its technological display of colors, images and interactiveness. Yet, like almost every single one of the large number of poetry journals on-line that claim to be "cutting-edge," it is reactionary and anything but "avant-garde" when it comes to the actual writings. For example, Rosa Clement's poem "Wanderers", in form as well as in content, seems to hark back to the genteel, escapist and apolitical poetry written before modernism. Formally, the poem is a failed Shakespearean sonnet. It consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, divided into three quatrains of abab rhyme scheme and a final rhyming couplet. But there is no conflict to be resolved in the final couplet, and the content does not really follow the demands of the sonnet form. Further, the meter is much too regular. Even the genteel poetry of the late nineteenth century had the sense to vary the rhythms with spondees, pyrrics and trochees. Figuratively, the poem is overtechnologized. It longs nostalgically for an idyllic time period before Modernism and the onset of free verse.

The poem is, like genteel poetry, dramatically escapist and apolitical. It tells the story of "two wanderers," "a perfect pair," who wander through a landscape at night, their way lit by a "gypsy moon." Not only does the poem describe an escape to nature, but an escape to a nature that is highly artificial and benevolent. There are as few wild tigers or even owls as there are angry mobs of proletarians (that is, there are none). The only animal present is the "nightingale," the ultimate symbol of genteel escapism. (In many ways, the poem seems to be a bad imitation of Keats.) Clement commodifies nature, describing it as a nonthreatening and beautiful "shrine" which seems decorated with "stars." Nature is like a treasure that can be owned. Nowhere in the poem does Clement display any awareness of being published on the Internet or, for that matter, of knowing anything about the political or social condition of the world. She presents an escape from the self-awareness and political reality that Modernism brought to poetry; an escape that seems perfect for an audience who only want to "surf the net" of flashy gimmickry.

Politics are not only absent from the poems of this site, they are declared separate from the very idea of poetry through the design of the page, which divides "literature" and "politics" into two separate sections marked by a line. The dividing line symbolically displays the way the Internet aesthetic relegates politics and political awareness to a marginal position. It is of course interesting that a web site should include politics at all. However, the view of politics presented by The Open Scroll is amazingly nonpolitical. The political section of the site does not consist of information about injustices or any self-conscious remarks about the politics of the Internet. Rather it gives us a chance to e-mail Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh. In so doing, it communicates an idealized view of the Internet and American politics. It communicates the idea that the Internet is a tool of great political consequence. One can e-mail political figure and get one's "voice heard." Even if somebody e-mailed the president it would not mean that this person's opinion would be even heard by the president, much less effect American politics. Further, the figures are referred to jokingly and by first names. For example, Gingrich is called "Newt the court-jester." This gives the whole "politics" section a humorous impression, as if politics is not a serious aspect of life, but merely a silly subject matter for providing an interactive technostunt.

The famous literary site Alternative-X claims to be political and pronounces postmodernism dead, yet seem to fit perfectly Eagleton's description of postmodernism as the acceptance of the inherent commodification of art. In the many manifestoes and editorial pieces on this site (they outnumber by far the actual literary writings), the different members of Alternative-X espouse the values of what they call "Avant-Pop." In his "Avant-Pop Manifesto" Mark Amerika, the leader of the group, announces that "Avant-Pop" is a "new phenomenon" that reflects the cynicism of "the Children of Mass Media," the major principle of which is to "radically alter the Pop Culture's focus by channeling a more popularized kind of dark, sexy, surreal and subtly ironic gesturing" that, in his opinion characterizes a number of his favorite artists, such as William Gibson and Frank Zappa. He believes that the movement "has the power to break the economic future of decrepit capitalism" through the "struggle to rapidly transform our sick, commodity-infested workaday culture into a more sensual, trippy, exotic and networked Avant-Pop experience." This glorification of the popular can be seen in the design of the home page, with its black background and its fuzzy "X" that evokes rock music logos, and its constant reminders that the big influences are mostly rock groups like the Sex Pistols and Jane's Addiction. The subject matter of the writing tends to vacillate between science fiction and pornography, and continually uses slogan-like phrases such as "sexual blood" and "dirty desires."

This political struggle of the site has in fact little to do with serious political issues. Amerika's "struggle" is not a class struggle but the struggle to allow bored young men and women to have more fun. As such, the "struggle" is limited to middle-class youth, and seems to be the quintessential manifestation of the Internet aesthetic. Amerika's whole rhetoric is based on the postmodern idea that there is nothing real. Happily dancing in the simulacra of American culture, he cannot imagine a change as anything more than the exchange of one set of commodities for another set of commodities. He believes the current norms for entertainment in the U.S.A. is too puritan, too "workaday" and not "trippy" or "erotic" enough, so he wants to change the way Americans approach life. However, he is utterly content in his postmodern dream world, where he can float around in "the exquisite realms of spacy sex." He boasts that the Avant-Pop "don't give a shit about your phony social reality," ignoring any socio-economic problems inherent in the Internet and in the commodification of art.

In his prose poem "The Future," published on Alternative-X, Matthew Stadler both glorifies the technological utopia Amerika envisions and critiques it. On one hand, the "future" he presents is comfortable, erotic and immediately gratifying, like Amerika's visions of pop. "There will be no money," as the decrepit late capitalism will have been overthrown by popular culture. Similarly, there will be no proletariat, since "there will be soft industry," a comfortable alternative to today's factories. The "joystick will be replaced by a soft, breast-like bubble of foam," to make navigating around in the cyber world of spacy sex more comfortable and trippy. In this future, "poetry need not be a distraction" as "satellite feeds will help parents sleep through disasters." All problems will be taken care of, allowing a kind artificial order and ease similar to the world Aldous Huxley envisioned in Brave New World.

At the same time as this world seems very comfortable and utopian, there is, as in Huxley's book, something severely uncomfortable about it. Some of us may want poetry that distracts us, brings up issues and ideas. Most parents would probably not want to sleep through a disaster such as their child choking. Stadler describes a future where there is nothing authentic. Everything will be trippy, a comfortable illusion. Even physical sensations are made virtual and unreal. What happens to the emotions of love when sexual gratification occurs through a joystick made of foam and shaped like a breast? At times it may be nice that "the taste in you mouth will be gone," but often it is important to taste with your mouth. It is the purpose of that organ. Stadler describes a simulacra where even the authenticity of the body and its organs is lost. Ultimately it is clear that the distraction of poetry has no place in this world. He reflects this fear in the form of his poem, which consists of a number of basic sentences that seem to belong in a commercial for the future, rather than in a poem. Thus it seems, the poem points out flaws in the in the illusion of the Amerikan utopia of "spacy sex" and cyberspace, while positing the Modernist idea that there is a real that should be changed beneath he comfortable life of middle-class existence.

This is one of the few works of literature on-line that deals with the problems of the Internet and the computer cult, and it is probably the best original poem I have yet seen on the Internet. Most poems and poetry sites enjoys an existence similar to the one Stadler critiques, participating in the escapist utopia of flashy instant gratification. The literary journals that exist on-line are, however, not representative of the establishment of contemporary American poetry. Most writings from the two sites I have here dealt with would never be published in a print journal. With the invention of the Internet, all the Mark Amerikas of the world can publish their writings without having to learn the monolithic style of the MFA-establishment. Indeed, Amerikas prose is juvenile to the point of embarrassment. It is not strange that this establishment of contemporary American poetry has developed a strong distaste for the Internet. There are few on-line journals that represent the establishment of poetry on the Internet. However, this situation is starting to change as its members of are beginning to realize the decentering effects of the Internet on their hegemony. Their influence is starting to wane.

Earlier this year, the MFA program in University of Washington began publishing its own on-line poetry journal, called Switched-on Gutenberg. Perhaps frightened by the proliferation of Amerikas on-line, this journal tries to create the impression that the literary scene in cyber space is no different from the literary scene in print. This attitude is displayed in the title; the journal is just like print only "switched-on" or electronic. The journal tries to promote this impression in a number of other ways. The text of the poem appear on a plain background, rather than on a pattern (the norm among sites on the Internet), as if it were actually paper. The front page of the journal displays the volume and number of the current issue, something that is infrequently noted in cyber space (on-line journals seldom have issues, only "what's new" links). In her "Editor's Notes" (a convention of print) the professor who edits the journal states that the journal "imitates like-minded printed journals." Further, the editors invited a number of established writers such as Alicia Ostraker and Joyce Carol Oates to submit poems, and thereby not only give their on-line journal a sense of respectability among the print crowd, but also pulling the poetry establishment with them into cyber space, in an attempt to extend the reign of print to the Internet.

Since the Internet has upset the hegemony of the literary scene, it is perhaps not strange that these writers by no means show any joy in being on-line. They treat this publication, as the editor makes clear in her introduction, like a printed journal. If any feeling shows towards cyber space, it is resentment. In her poem "The Convening of Gardeners" Kathy Banas displays the fact that she has studied at an MFA program by being utterly conventional and predictable. She nostalgically describes a romantic moment of a personal intimacy in a serious tone without a metrical rhythm.

However, Banas is not unaware of the medium in which she publishes her poem. The poem is inscribed with a strong animosity towards the Internet and the electronic text. The nostalgic moment of love that is recollected in the poem is described as being very real and authentic because the two lovers learn "each other's lives" from reading poems and journals to each other. Banas defines the poems and the journals as authentic experiences by using tactile gardening verbs to denote reading. They "weed each other's poems" as if the poems were as physical as a lawn or a flower-bed. In the context of the poem being published on-line, it can be read as not so much as nostalgia for the lover, but for the kind of authenticity that life had before cyberspace, and the kind of authenticity poetry had before it was put on the net for everybody to see and read (in that order). (As Walter Benjamin notes in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," "the situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated . . . . In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus--namely its authenticity--is interfered with" [221].)

Although this poem can be viewed as a critique of the Internet and thus satisfies my own longing for the Modernist aesthetic, it is really little more than escapism. It shows a discomfort with the reproduction of art, but does not explore this notion. Banas merely retreats into her nostalgia for a kind of Eden of true relationships and honest art. Unlike Stadler in his poem "The Future," Banas does not question why or how this authenticity is lost. Nor does she even describe the loss of authenticity. She merely offers us a nostalgic longing for a past, and that is hardly thought-provocative. Like the journal she is published in, she tries to repress the new technology, rather than confront it.

THE INTERNET is a fact. It will have a revolutionary effect on publishing and on the way we conceptualize the world. No amount of repressing will make it go away. However, it is necessary to confront such issues as the evolving Internet aesthetic of technophilia. It is essential for poets, artists and critics to expose and confront this new medium and its political implications. Even though the aesthetic of the Internet demands surface thrills, it is important that artists ask what is being communicated, and what questions are not asked. this is no time to retreat into Banas' lost idyll of authenticity. With the Internet, poets have the chance to be more successful in addressing issues of political and social importance while avoiding the fetishism of Modernism. The punishment for not doing so is Stadler's view of "The Future," Mark Amerika's nauseating and "trippy" world of "spacy sex" and the hypercommodification of life.

Printed works cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." 1936. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, 1968.

Eagleton, Terry. "Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism." Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988.

Schaffel, Bob, and Chuck Weger. "Web? What Web?" Mac User. April 1996: 111-12.

"Ten Best Loved Avant-Garde Sites on the Internet." The Net April 1996: 44.

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: http://umn.edu/home/mh/goransso.html

Web page created 2 July 1996 (from author's electronic file, 2 June 1996)

Last revised 28 June 1997