Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Some Thoughts on Online Discourse

Please note: I have revised this post to remove all personal references, and I have also deleted all comments associated with those references, so as to better focus on my actual topic, which is not any particular individual. (Let me emphasize that this removal implies nothing about the comments themselves.) I should have realized that such individual mentions would detour the conversation.

This may not be a novel observation, but during my relatively brief sojourn in the online poetry world, I have been surprised and often dismayed by the level and type of discourse found there. I don’t refer to the fact that most blogs consist of their authors' ramblings about every passing notion or personal event, no matter how banal or trivial. It’s to be taken for granted that, in print and online as well as in life, people talk much more frequently than they have anything to say.

I recently read a rather contentious article in the Los Angeles Times by critic Richard Schickel in which blogging was described as a form of speech rather than a form of writing. Though this was meant as a disparagement, many who engage in blogging seem to subscribe to the same viewpoint. Some bloggers believe that revision, even for the sake of correcting factual errors, violates the informal spirit of blogging.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that is very far from my approach. I carefully compose even my briefest posts, and I frequently revise them after posting, in response either to my own second thoughts or to reader comments (or just for the sake of stylistic polish). I was a well established writer for many years before starting a blog (indeed, I only started it by accident). I consider my blog to be another mode of publication, not different in kind from any other, though it has the advantage of receiving much more timely and frequent feedback and response. While I have no desire to read other people’s journals, online or otherwise, such exercises in personal display do the world no harm. Since they’re online, they’re not even killing trees.

I am referring more specifically to the level of vitriol, bile, and petty viciousness I find so often online, in which discussion is regularly reduced to ad hominem attacks, often among strangers. I have read people more or less threaten one another physical harm. I have read people attacking other people they knew nothing about as corrupt and dishonest merely because of the schools their targets attended. I read have individuals’ mental health questioned because they expressed a different viewpoint from that of the person attacking them. I have read individuals admit that they have taken pleasure in attacking others online. It surprises me that so many blog owners permit or even seem to encourage such online brawling, as if they were trying to draw a larger audience with the expectation of fistfights and car crashes.

I do not tolerate that kind of personal attack on my blog, nor do I devote the kind of space in any of my writings, online or in print, to attacking and/or dismissing other writers that some others do. Some people believe that such activities are a normal part of poetic ambition, that impugning and denigrating others is just a way to stake out one’s turf and make a name for oneself. They think that everyone engages in such activities as a matter of course. I don’t subscribe to such a cynical viewpoint.

The lack of reasoned and rational discourse and the prevalence of ad hominem attacks are not the only problems in the discourse of the online poetry world. There is also the problem of intellectual irresponsibility, even among the most prominent bloggers. For example, I have read bloggers critique works they clearly and sometimes admittedly have not actually read. Both problems seem to stem from a refusal to think through and be held to account for what one writes online.

This negligence about what one writes often extends even to a disregard for correct grammar or spelling. There is rarely much apparent awareness that one is contributing to a public forum. People often take blog comments in particular as the occasion to ramble on about their personal obsessions or just whatever happens to be on their minds at the moment, whatever its relevance to the topic at hand. I have read someone write that he feels no need to take responsibility for his comments, to think them through or consider them at all, because writing blog comments is just a form of “slurping and spilling” online.

Obviously, this phenomenon is at least partially elicited by the relative safety and anonymity of online communication. People feel free to say and do things they would never do in real life, where there are actual consequences to one’s actions. They see the online world as a place to vent. However, in my experience, this relative safety can also be the means to a greater degree of trust and communication than many people allow themselves in their daily lives. They feel more free to open up to one another, to let themselves be vulnerable in ways that would be too dangerous in real life. Too often, though, the freedom the online environment provides is only the freedom to bully without the possibility of effective retaliation. And many people put their names to their diatribes, attacks, and fulminations, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to the fact that the things they say may come back to haunt them in both predictable and unexpected ways.

I would like to make clear that I don’t think that everyone needs to agree with or approve of everyone else. I certainly don’t do so. But there is nothing wrong with civility, and everything right with it. The possibility of social life depends upon it, in fact. Civility does not exclude principled disagreement or even heated argument; indeed, civil society is premised on the possibility of such discussion and debate. But some people involved in the online poetry world believe that personal attack (usually on people they don’t know) is an effective or legitimate mode of argument. They seem incapable of holding a position without attacking the persons (as distinct from the ideas) of those with different positions. Conversely, some people (often the same people) take reasoned disagreement as a form of personal attack, and respond accordingly.

Ironically, in my experience of the online poetry world it is those who consider themselves to be avant-garde who are most likely to engage in this form of attack. For adherents of a standpoint that valorizes transgression, subversion, and opposition, many of those who call themselves avant-garde are remarkably intolerant of any dissent, disagreement, or simple non-conformity with their party line. The insistence on dismissing everyone not in the club with the pejorative epithet “School of Quietude” (a phrase I have never encountered in print) is the most egregious symptom of this.

The situation I discuss is but a minor and marginal example of the general degradation of discourse in contemporary American culture (what Al Gore calls the assault on reason), a process seemingly designed to disengage people from sociality. In this case, however, I would like to point out that the enemy, if an enemy is required (as it seems to be), is not other poets, however different their aesthetic dispositions, but a culture and an economy of scarcity—of money, of resources, of attention, of recognition professional and personal—that pits people in the society as a whole and in any given social subset against one another in a zero-sum competition for crumbs of a shrinking economic and social pie precisely in order to prevent them from cooperating in changing the reward/withhold/punish system some profit from, some rail against (some of these are actually suffering and some just don’t want to admit that they’re profiting too), and most are actively harmed by. Those engaged in the constant turf wars with which the online poetry world in particular is rife might do well to recognize that their mock battles in tempestuous teapots are the direct result, indeed can accurately be described as symptoms of, this economy of scarcity. The energy expended in these toy gladiator contests might be put to more productive uses.

21 comments:

Jonathan David Jackson said...

Your reasoning is calmly, clearly, fairly and generously argued. Your post may sting but few can say that you have been unfair. I also admire your final point: that pettiness, falsity, imprecision, incivility, and cliquishness obscure larger social problems. Well done.

Ian Keenan said...

Who’s responsible for the difficulty of getting a teaching job btw? How many baby boom avant-garde poets actually have tenure, and do they put any drag on the economics of college? Tuition is not affordable because of all the baby boomer profs who conformed to the academic establishment and got a generous salary/pension deal, and so the students who pay tuition and the new professors who want their own security have to work around that.

This is a question as I’ve never applied for a teaching job, and I do think you’re probably a very good teacher and wish you the best of luck finding what you want.

Seth Abramson said...

Reginald,

I think you've actually been generous here. Much of what goes on online would not be out of place at a correctional facility for juveniles. As someone who's spilled his portion of bile--but who also, recently, was confronted with the terrifying anonymity of the internet, in discovering that years of writing had provided only a false window into his character (through which all sorts of cretins crawled, surmising, as you suggest invariably happens, that they knew anything about anything)--I think the use of personal blogs as a form of personal therapy is the root of the phenomena you've observed. Blogs, despite being rationally (and in actual fact) categorized as public events, I think often in the minds of their authors are actually public/private hybrids. There is no reason to have a blog, logic dictates, except to fill some private need, in one's life, which having a blog fills (I include, in this categorization, the need for exposure of one's personal gifts before a grateful public; that, too, is, in inappropriate or excessive measure, the sort of thing which could land one on a doctor's couch. I say this as one who has long struggled with if and how and whether and when [and why] to self-publicize). It's not like television; the effort necessary to the upkeep of a blog makes it a self-selecting phenomena: you don't do it unless, on some level, it's necessary to your continued enjoyment of life, or emotional stability, or __________, or what have you. Perhaps it straddles the line between active/passive in the same way it is both public (metaphysically) and "private" (emotionally and otherwise).

Also, some (though admittedly not much) of what you see online is, perhaps, what I might call necessary color, as the sorts of conversations one has in person are often, necessarily, more limited (and limiting) than the free-ranging, highly-charged discourses which can be had online. For instance, when I wrote what I thought was a searing and not particularly temperate indictment of the criminal justice system in one of my first posts back in 2005, I soon heard from a local judge, one of some reupte, who said he agreed with almost everything I had to say. I know that police officers, many of them political conservatives, read my blog and find my undaunted liberalism (and resultant liberal angst) entertaining as opposed to galling, probably because they know--in their hearts--that they have strong, perhaps intemperate opinions that they don't feel entitled or privileged or able to relocate into the public sphere. Even in your post, above, there is a "freeing" of the tongue which I believe is (as I said above) necessary to the development of an emotional if not pragmatic idea: after all, could one comfortably tell, say, __________ (name your favorite avant garde pundit), to his/her face, that you believe his/her aesthetic compatriots are more prone to act like children, or spiteful harpies, online? I think, coming from one's own true mouth, in a pub or classroom or public park, those words might sound a little dramatic or overreaching; here, they can be (properly) taken as a thematic stand-in for what may or may not be an actual belief you hold: that is, the notion that progressivism in art doesn't necessarily indicate tolerance among its practitioners, either in art or in society. Or perhaps you mean to indicate (as might also be true) that liberalism runs afoul of elitism as often as its opposite (a claim reified in one of the most troubling books I've ever read, In Defense of Elitism [by William A. Henry, an avowed Democrat]). But of course, face-to-face we wouldn't see the need to hash out such broad concepts: face-to-face, we deal only (and rightly so) with the face before us. Unfortunately, with the internet there is never a living face before us.

The good news, I think, is this, even if it is only a Pyrrhic victory: net behavior is blissfully unlikely to spill over into "real life," as the bile of the internet is--and yes, this makes moral (I don't mean physical) cowards of many of us--often unreplicable in real-world situations. I've been treated worse online than I've ever been treated in person (with one or two exceptions), and I've said things online with a less persuasive and more virulently argumentative tack than I have ever used (with one or two exceptions) offline, at least with relative strangers.

This is intended in the friendliest way possible: What I'd caution you about, Reginald, is thinking that treating your blog as a public space commensurate with and inextricable to your present public self will in any way amend the fundamental and presently-immutable realities of the medium; I think you've done an excellent job of moderating the "message" into a palatable and (as you rightly say) reasoned approach, I only wonder whether you have done, or can do, anything to avoid the pitfalls of your medium. If and when the time comes, any person in this online "community" would devour you (in online discourse I mean) like a jackal, whether your spell-checking is (and I think mine has almost always been) impeccable or otherwise. For the internet's seen not just as a license to eliminate our most hampering inhibitions, it is also seen as a license to make the sorts of aggressive and outrageous personal presumptions about others which would, if we made them daily and in polite society, land us, necessarily, in a penal colony (or some other sociopolitical/metainstitutional straitjacket).

I do enjoy your blog, and hope that in time my own will better chart these troubled waters, both as to the message (a concern you've ably addressed) and as to medium--a Herculean task mankind may not entirely realize until the technology exists to see the eyes of the person you're viciously slandering. In my experience, if you effectively and creatively humanize a man you make him, by virtue of that and that fact alone, someone you'd willingly die to protect.

I've been blogging for years and I only know four, maybe five bloggers. The rest are just names, handles, and IP addresses to me. And that's a god-awful tragedy--but one I no longer, after much fighting (and emotional in-fighting), intend to do anything whatsoever to allay. I write just for me, now, and I think that's really the only way to safely blog, unless and until the technology changes and makes the internet a humanely communicative medium, like (to an extent, but still highly imperfectly) the telephone.

S.

Seth Abramson said...

"a local judge, one of some reupte" [sic]

...thereby proving at least one of your points(!) Albeit primary posts feature a spell-check component, whereas comment fields do not.

:-)

S.

P.S. I do think blogging is a form of writing, not speech, and that the real problem is that, like journal-writing, and unlike good poetry, blogging is a private form of prose dragged inappropriately into the public sphere. I'd warrant that if you opened up most folks' private handwritten journals, you'd see vitriol and bathos in the same proportion as you see on the blogs. Perhaps it's a cultural issue? We simply haven't figured out what to do--conceptually--with the notion of "blogging," and so we fit it into a rubric we're comfortable with (cf. journal-writing) but in which it manifestly cannot and should not (being public) belong.

Steve Fellner said...

Hi,

Reginald, as you know I'm an avid reader of your blog, so I must tell you the the truth: I was really disappointed with this post. For the first time, you come across across as curmudgeonly. Not something I'd expect from you.

Loosen up a bit. Personally, I don't see much difference betweent he conversations that occurr between poetry bloggers and the conversations that occurr at say AWP much different. There's a few people who want to engage on an intellectual level and the rest that are understandbaly (and justifably) concerned with the agressive banality of their own lives. What's the big deal?

There's a lot of inaccuracies on the web, but there is in print as well. A lot of print critics don't read an entire book of poetrt and neither do bloggers. One of the wonderful things about the web is that completley unimportant people/poets (like myself) have the chance to engage with poets who are important. Yes: there's cligues, but that's life. As a gay man who's never been invited to join a clique (and I shouldn't be: I'm not cute enough), I say: let there be even more cliques for me to be excluded from! It makes me feel like I'm missing out on something, and that sort of self-debasement keeps life feeling worthwile: it fills me with hope and anxiety.

And personally: I like the petty viciousness that some people exhibit. There's so much middle-class I don't want to rock the boat attitude at these conferences, job hirings, departmental meetings that I find it liberating to see people be genuinely petty. As long as people sign their name to what they say (as I always do).

I only have one interesting idea worth sharing ona biannual basis, or else I would keep my own blog. And personally, I'm jealous of people who are fueled with such self-importance and lack of self-consciousness to ashare the most mundane thoughts of their existence. I love people with such unfailing self-importance. I visit their blogs as regularly as I do people who have more substantial things to say.

Print reviews are always so boring, brief usually, and always full of rote, useless praise. I like the online community for showing the seams in that middle-class Nothing is at stake except my desire to create Art with a capital A.

And insignificant poets who have insignificant books might get a little of attention (as I hope) even though they may not be serving (as I am not deserving) of a little love, or something that can be mistaken as such.

With much affection and respect,
Steve Fellner

Jonathan David Jackson said...

Regarding Steve’s comment:

(1) As a working class born and raised person I believe in being just as civil and responsible with my expressions and actions as anyone else. There is a bigoted myth that the working classes are coarser, meaner, nastier, unchecked, or irresponsible and you give into this myth with your claims. To suggest that anything below middle class is akin to petty viciousness is deeply problematic.

Likewise, I am surprised that you would seem to endorse acrimonious departmental college relations. Often, departmental politics are so hurtful and counter-productive that conciliation and negotiation (what you call "middle-class I don't want to rock the boat attitude") are professional standards. You have yourself complained about bad and mean professional relations online. Now you seem to endorse them. I was saddened that you made these claims as a professor who teaches in this field. We need more, not less, responsible, fair, and generous behavior amongst us.

(2) Books, newspapers, and magazines are in fact far more edited, spell-checked, sourced, and researched than blog entries. To claim differently is to radically misstate the character of these domains. Mistakes do indeed happen but to say that books, for example, are equally as unedited as many blogs is patently false. Again, I find it baffling that someone in the writing business could make this categorical misrepresentation of the field, even though mistakes always happen.

When I published reviews of books and performances it was expected that I read the entire manuscript and see the entire show.

Opining about a work before doing this is not just irresponsible; it is fundamentally uncritical because it means that you have not engaging the medium honorably (and, more importantly, professionally) before making positive or negative claims.

I am surprised too that a teacher would claim otherwise. Would we be okay if a student only read the first page of an article or a book that we assigned before writing a paper on it? Do you see how deeply problematic on a basic level of humane engagement this view that it is okay to only witness a part of an art work or not to witness it at all before opining about it is?

Likewise, when I turned in retrospective reviews of an artist's work, it was assumed that I had seen a great deal of the artist's work from beginning to end and that I was therefore qualified to at least begin to shape ideas about the retrospective.

The word is disservice—we do a tremendous disservice to our own art forms when we tolerate anything less than such full engagement.

(3) Would not we want others to read are work fully and write responsibly about our work?

That, above all, is the measuring line.

When we detect others writing, labeling, and behaving in ways towards others that we would never wish to be done to ourselves, then we know how problematic the behavior is.

Víctor Azuaje said...

I translated the section about revision to Spanish and posted it on my blog.

Your thoughts are the best I read about online discourse from a literary point of view.

Steve Fellner said...

Hi,

Thank you for your passionate reply. This is exactly what I love about blogging even though I feel you misrepresented my argument, but of course this is one of those moments that I think we can both learn from. I also like that you should such support for Reginald Shepherd; I like when alliances are formed, even if I'm not apart of them, just as I mentioned with the idea of cliques.

I hope (but maybe that's due to my own inadequacies as a writer) there was a tongue-in-cheek tone to my post, even if a serious message.

1.) To respond to your class issue, of course, working class people can be as mean aand as vicious as middle-class people. No argument there. I was talking about a middle-class CULTURE. Take literary magazines, esp. the popular reputable ones, look who's being publushed: what degrees they have, what awards they got, etc. And look at the content, what people are writing about, etc. It's always so safe, a lot is left out, a lot of nice poems: to narrow it, look at what most gay male poets are writing about still, even in 2007: safe, monogamous reltionship or pretty poems about desire or predicxable elegies that get label that horrible word "courageous.".

2.) Sure, print magazines are more spellchecked. Won't argue there. But I read a lot of half-hearted reviews, or reviews that perfunctorily praise books of poetry in dull, brief ways. And I don't see them veryoten being more comprehensive or more thoughtful. A few mags have good reviews that actually criticize: The HArvard Review published poetry reviews that take swipes at establed poets, and Poetry, but not too many more. And in print and on line, critics fail the texts their critiquing by not asking themselves what the writer is attempting to do and how well or not they succeed there rather than stacking the cards against them byu judging them against a pre-established criterion.

3.) I never advocated writing unethical reviews. I've written and published a recent essay in Western Humanities Review about the importance of the ethics of reviewing. i mention that not to name drop (like anyone cares about anyone as insignificant and mediocre as me), but just to emphasize that I would never say anything as crazy as write meaningless, uncomprehensive review. I've also taken rishks inreview writing. I wrote an ambivalent, extended review a few years ago about Thom Gunn's work and published it (I feel his work is mired by sexphobia and disrespect for the dead at points), and paid a serious price. Not to toot my own horn, but while I may be many things (unattractive, signifcant, weak writer), I am ethical.

But again most importantly, thank you for the comprehensive, thoughtful reply. It feels good to be read.

That's all I ever want, as weak as that may make me.

Steve Fellner

Reginald Shepherd said...

I'm very appreciative of the response that this post has gotten, and wish to add a few of my own comments.

Dear Seth,

I was pleased to see your long and thoughtful reply. I am traveling right now and can't respond as fully as I probably should. I will just say now that I am aware of the pervasiveness of the problems I describe, of some of their sources, and of the fact that the problem is not limited to online discourse, though the relative anonymity and safety of the Internet allows people to engage in behaviors they would never dare or get away with in face-to-face interactions. I don't expect that this post, or this blog, will change the world, even the online poetry world.

But I speak out, because that is what I do. Words are what I have to work with, and I try to use them as well and as wisely as I can. Those who may get riled up were undoubtedly riled up long before I came along.

I am also well acquainted with the brutality of the world at large and with the petty and often pathetic versions of that brutality in the online poetry world and, from reading other things, the online world in general. I have been attacked and accused of all sorts of infamies by people who would not know me if they passed me on the street, in ways that could often be considered libelous if they were to appear in print.

As a black gay man raised in poverty (not to label myself, but these are some of the shaping facts of my existence), and as someone who as an individual has never really fit into whatever social context I was expected or even hoped to belong to, I am quite used to the enormous disparity between my own self-conceptions and the fixed images that others have of me. Though it never ceases to upset and often anger me, it doesn't surprise me. I have done what I can do, which is to present myself in my person and in my writing with as much integrity and honesty as I can. I think that you have done that as well. Those who wish to misunderstand will do so whatever I do.

Once again, I appreciate your well considered comments.

Dear Steve,

As always, I appreciate your reading and engaging with this blog. In this case, I disagree with almost everything you say. Jonathan David Jackson has eloquently addressed most of the things that I wanted to say.

First, I would emphasize my surprise at the classism of your assumption that civility is somehow "middle-class." I have met many middle-class people who, though obsessed with propriety, have been incapable of the most basic human civility. And to assume that lower or working class people are by definition less civil is just insulting.

I do see a difference between casual conversation and writing, and as I said in this post, I see my blog as a form of writing. I enjoy chatting as much as the next person, and probably more than some: I like to talk. But I'm not any more interested in reading the passing chatter of strangers than I'm interested in hearing them yelling into their cell phones in a restaurant while I'm trying to eat dinner.

Blogs are not private diaries, because they're not private. To post something online is to make a claim on public space, to make a claim that one is writing something one wants other people to read, and to make a claim that it's worth reading by others. If not, one simply would keep those writings in a private diary.

As for petty viciousness, I hate it, having been its target all too often in my life. For that matter, when I was young, I was much more pugnacious and much more interested in sparring with people. Now I just don't have the energy; it's draining and depressing.

And I'd like to emphasize that one unequivocally good thing I find about the Internet is the opportunity that you point out for lesser-known poets and writers to publicize their work and present it in a public venue. Indeed, one of the reasons I do this blog is to publicize my work and give it a greater presence, at which task it seems to have been fairly successful. Most of what is on the Internet is utter garbage, as is most of what is published. But the opportunity the Internet provides for poets published by small presses who will never be carried by Borders or reviewed in The New York Times to reach an audience is invaluable.

And I am in complete agreement with you that to be actually read and responded to in a serious and considered way is one of the most marvelous things in the world: it is, indeed, akin to being loved.

Dear Jonathan David,

As I wrote above, your comments are eloquent and thoughtful, and I much appreciate them.

Dear Victor,

Thanks so much for translating part of this piece, and for your kind words about it.

And thanks all for reading and commenting.

all best,

Reginald

forkingspoon said...

Your blog is great though I doubt the existence of an "online poetry world." Most poets who publish blogs are rarely found in print--they just use their blogs to try to establish a name. Also, many so-called "school of quietude" poets are truly avant garde.

Brian said...

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Brian Salchert

JforJames said...

As manager of the NewPoetry List
I've seen my share of bad-manners in discourse. My experience has been that it's a matter of only a handful of disgruntled people, spoiling for fight and having no notion of what civil discussion is all about.

Without some policing of bad behavior the list would have gone up in flames and lost its subscribers long ago.

I'm not concerned about bad spelling and such. It's actually a part of the medium that appeals to me...being less rigid, more freewheeling. I'm just not willing
to take the time to proofread or spellcheck in this e-phemeral online medium.

Reginald Shepherd said...

I appreciate the reminder that most participants in online discussion are in fact civil and reasonable. Certainly most of the people who have responded to this blog have been. Unfortunately, it doesn't take many determined troublemakers to create a very unpleasant environment for all except those spoiling for a fight and those who take pleasure in attack for its own sake. I think that many people have been driven away from participation in online discussion by those few who know only how to lash out.

I do think that there is an online poetry world. Many participants seem to know one another at least virtually, and they refer to one another's blogs to the extent that one wonders whether they read anything else. They definitely think of themselves as a community, for some reason often as an embattled community.

I agree that there is a strong division between the online poetry world and the print poetry world or worlds. Both are insular in their own ways, but the online poetry world seems particularly involuted and self-involved, rarely acknowledging any larger literary realm. It also seems to allow for a much narrower range of aesthetic and ideological approaches (actual poetry rarely enters into the discussions) than exists in the print poetry world or worlds, where I don't see the same kind of battle lines being constantly drawn.

Thanks to all for reading and commenting.

Ian Keenan said...

I agree wholeheartedly that a lot of online poetry discourse is self-referential and myopic and often pressures ‘poets’ to fixate on their little worlds rather than the whole art and its traditions. You should be more clear with your terms (a small point) because of the many kinds of content online including most of the history of literature, magazines, EPC, etc.

What I see as another inconsistency though is how the use of phrases like ‘School of Quietude’ could be seen as the ‘degradation’ of discourse when your list of nine books that helped shape your thinking about poetry includes The New Sentence, Content’s Dream, and ABC of Reading. Did you skip over the similar passages therein, or do you really believe that what you complain about is such a departure from what you consider exemplary printed criticism?

Reginald Shepherd said...

If I did not respect Ron Silliman's previous critical work, I would not be so dismayed by the disparity between that work and the approach he too often takes on his blog. (My focus was clearly on blogs in particular.)

The New Sentence is not dedicated to attacks on other writers. It focuses on the poetry and ideas that Silliman cares about, which is always the most useful and productive approach. The critiques in the book are turned to a positive end.

Similarly, in Content's Dream, Charles Bernstein primarily argues for that which matters to him in poetry, art, and theory.

Pound's ABC of Reading is far from uncritical, but most of it is devoted to what one should read and how one should read--carefully, accurately, and with attention to the actual qualities of the text itself.

I don't always agree with any of these books (as I made clear in my initial list), but I found them useful spurs to thought. Nor am I opposed to critique or even the occasional polemic (though polemics get wearying rather quickly), so long as it is fair, accurate, and well argued.

I disapprove of the degradation of discourse wherever it appears, in print, online, or in the broadcast media. I made clear that what I find in too much online discourse is only a particular example of a larger tendency in our culture as a whole, one which I think is damaging to the functioning of democracy and the existence of civil society as a space of engagement, debate, and reasoned even if sometimes heated argument.

It cannot be emphasized enough that one can learn from and enjoy writings with which one is not in total agreement, or even with which one totally disagrees. This is a point which seems to escape some people.

Again, debate, disagreement, and argument are not the same as personal attack.

As Pound wrote, what one lovest well remains. (I am traveling and don't have my books with me, so this may not be an exact quote.) The rest is dross. Anger, hatred, bitterness, and resentment do nothing of any good to anyone.

Curtis Faville said...

Mr. Shepherd: I do not know either your work, or you.

As you know I comment frequently on Silliman's blog. In addition, I am a long-time associate of Ron's, dating back to our days in Berkeley in the late 1960's and early 1970's.

I think the internet has facilitated the spread of personal/public journalizing and diarizing to an extraordinary degree. Is this a bad thing per se? Has it contributed to a dumbing down of discourse, or a degradation of the standards of debate about worthy topics?

Well, I think it certainly has facilitated a lot of dull, solipisistic patter, which probably we would never have been aware of, or been likely to have seen otherwise.

There are many different kinds of blogs on the internet--they cover the full spectrum. I have read blogs that detail the daily quotidium of people's dull lives--as if that were of any value or interest to others--while on the other hand I have read serious, probing, and impressive posts by brilliant critics and amateur philosophers and political theorists.

Silliman's blog I find occasionally uneven. It is often composed, I assume, in haste. Blogs that purport to be "daily" run the same risk that other continuous media do. That is, they have trouble filling up air time. Ron's habit of posting links or pictures or announcements I see as filling up space. They may have a purpose, but they essentially perform the function that a paid commercial program does on television. How much can one person effectively express every day about contemporary poetry? No one could read that fast, or form intelligent opinions, quickly enough, to post 365 good blogs in a year.

Is Silliman too contentious? Does he too easily paint opponents with too broad a brush. I would agree that he does so. He does so deliberately, as I perceive it, in reaction to the deliberate resistance of the official poetry culture to new ideas, new formalities and the free discussion of alternative points of view.

The picture Ron paints of official verse culture looks all too familiar to me. That he should take an iconoclastic attitude towards it is no surprise, given the degree of resistance he encountered, and the frustration this has caused over the years.

Modernism was thoroughly repudiated in the American academy for decades, and continues to be resisted today for altogether different reasons than it originally was. Post-Modernism is resisted in much the same way today.

Ron regards history as an arena of intellectual conflict. The arts are one forum of this conflict. I tend to disagree with this view of history, since I don't see it as a single time line, but to be composed of multiple time lines which progress at differents rates, some of which are not even "chronological" in the commonly held view of temporality. In the service of his causes, Ron will frequently take a more rigid and uncompromising stance, as a public demonstration, than he would be likely to on an interpersonal basis. We're all familiar with the contentious nature of true debate, in which opposing sides engage in all kinds of tricks and assaults and "unfair" arguments in order to win. Anyone knows that the academy, the publishing industry, the prize and grant systems--are all subject to partisanship and special pleading and croneyism.

It is as if you believed that all literary discourse could be de-natured and homogenized by clarity and politeness and civility. But you know this isn't true, or possible. Issues that matter have always resulted in conflict. For many writers and critics, literary form and content matters hugely. Harold Bloom will insult, and be insulted. Ron Silliman will insult others, and be insulted in turn.

The arguments may turn nasty, as they often do. I accept this a part of the process. Is it irresponsible to demonize and "pour out vitriol" as you complain? Well, yes. But this is to be expected. I have often suggested to Ron that the polarization he often characterized is exaggerated, but I would in no wise recommend to him that he abandon his causes. I believe these debates to be crucial in the process of literary valuation/evaluation.

If you think Heni Cole is a better writer than Graham Foust, you should make your agruments. Encourage Ron to make his. In the meantime, no one can police the internet, vanquishing scofflaws and wisecrackers.

You'd do better to present your arguments, and not worry about the degradation of discourse.

Ian Keenan said...

I agree with most of Curtis’ comments. It’s not an accurate statement that Silliman’s blog is not focused on poetry and ideas. If it comments on the ‘SoQ’ more frequently than The New Sentence there are a number of reasons for that, most notably the total amount and daily appearance of content, which is one of the most appealing aspects of the blog and one that contributes significantly to its popularity. Also, his links tend to be reacting to other stimuli and that often involves a statement of resistence to the self-promotion of a poet that he believes is unhelpful.

A lot of personal diary blogs are very interesting and conducive to community, though I was making the point (hastily and sloppily) that some seem to write about poetry as it relates to their world of art politics and develop quite an awareness of this, one that ends up hurting them as a poet and lowering their horizons.

Since you are in transit I will cite some excerpts from the works in question:

‘In the minds of many undergraduates, the “Establishment” in poetry, which surrounded writers like Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur, was one of the same establishment which was attempting to prosecute an imperialistic war in Indochina. Robert McNamara even sat on the board of the foundation which published the magazine Poetry.’
-Silliman, The New Sentence, 132

‘The complete dispicability of official philosophic thought, and, if the reader will really think carefully of what I am trying to tell him, the most stinging insult and at the same time convincing proof of the generally nullity and incompetence of organized intellectual life in America, England, their universities in general, and their learned publications at large, could be indicated by a narrative of the difficulties I encountered in getting Fenollosa’s essay printed at all.’
-Pound, ABC of Reading, 18

Can’t locate Content’s Dream at the moment, but it is where many first encountered the phrase ‘official verse culture.’

Fabian Stolk said...

Dear Reginald, every now and then I read your blog. I like it. And I think you're, once again, right in this one about Online Discourse. But reading 'The situation I discuss is but a minor and marginal example of the general degradation of discourse in contemporary American culture' I thought: why so many major and central words about a minor and marginal subject? You'd better write about poetry. On the other hand, it isn't just about American culture; down here in Holland, Europe, things are no better.

Reginald Shepherd said...

I will repeat myself once more and be done with this. As I wrote earlier, those who are determined to misunderstand not only will but do insist on doing so.

I do not disapprove of argument or disagreement. I think that they can and should be done in a reasoned, thought-through manner that does not resort to invective or personal attack. This is not a complicated point, but some find it hard to grasp.

I have emphasized on several occasions that one need not agree with everything in a work to find it interesting and useful. The quoted passages of The New Sentence are to my mind among the less useful and interesting parts of the book.

Anyone who has read this blog is well aware that the vast majority of it is devoted to talking about the poets and the poetics that I care about. If you are not familiar with my work, either in this blog or in print, don't presume to comment on it. Certainly don't accuse me of not making the arguments you have never bothered to read.

Once again, that kind of seemingly deliberate irresponsibility is one of the things I was writing against in this post.

I have the right to worry about the degradation of discourse as much as I wish to, especially when it impinges on me. Condescension from presumptuous strangers is never appreciated by anyone.

I have no wish to police the Internet, and obviously have no power to do so even if I wanted to. But why do so many people seem actively opposed to civility and reason? Is it a good thing to be vicious and unprincipled? Is it a good thing to make assertions about someone based on an admitted lack of any knowledge of the person, his work, or his poetic or critical practice?

I don't write about things I know nothing about. If you have not read either my print work, poetic or critical, or this blog, don't presume to know what I like or dislike, or to have anything at all to say about me or my work.

I like the work of both Graham Foust and Henri Cole, and there is nothing I have written which would give anyone cause to think otherwise, except on the grounds of baseless assumptions. My point remains that if one wants to write about anyone's work, whether one "likes" it or not, write about the work itself.

This conversation would be more productive if some commenters would actually read what I have written before responding. I will no longer engage with those who insist on replying without doing so.

Mark Granier said...

For what it's worth:

Some people like to bitch and backstab, to trade choice morsels of sub-litty gossip about writers whose success they envy (or whom they may begrudge for any number of reasons), to name-drop as if their lives depended on it, to invent deliciously quaint, patronising labels (SoQ) in a pathetic attempt to pigeon-hole such writers and put them in their place.

And some people, such as Reginald, prefer reasoned, civil discourse.

The latter's arguments seem more reasonable to me. In fact, they seem altogether in a different class, a different genus.

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