Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley. “A Defence of Poetry” (512).
I love electronic literature because I hate computers.
I know it sounds crazy, because everyone who knows me surely must think that I love my computer. I’ve been active in online publishing for about 10 years. I served as a tech editor for the journal Rhizomes, a founding editor of Reconstruction (which was initially described as an “online cultural studies community”), and recently responded to Jason Nelson’s call to launch Netpoetic. So confessing my irrational hatred for a thing that I rely upon everyday must come as a surprise to many of you who are reading this.
And to be fair, there is more to my antipathy than meets the eye. I don’t really hate particular computerized gadgets, rather, I hate the love of the thing. Underneath what you see is a tangle of circuits, twitching with energy that is slowly burning our world to a crisp, soldered together by some poor underpaid person in a sweatshop, and running on highly technical (and often hidden) languages. For all this human sacrifice, a computer is still just a machine. It just crunches numbers and does what it’s told. Yet, we are often told things like “Social networking will bring the end of capitalism!” or “Kids are more information savvy than any generation in human history!” If technocapitalism is a religion, the computer is its word made flesh, here to free us from our sins and lead us into utopia.
And so, when I approach the altar of the god-machine, whether it be in my office or in my home, rather than pray, I am seized by the spirit of revolt. Sometimes I want to pull its plug. Sometimes I want to pretend it is not there. Som
etimes I want to break it, slam its head in a door, toss it down a flight of stairs, and kick it out a window.
But how better to break the computer than to subvert its purpose, to make it the vessel of the human?
Now, I am not talking about using the computer as a tool. I am not talking about using a computer to facilitate activities like communication or relaxation, sexuality or scholarship. Facilitation is the virtue that leads to efficiency and interdependence. I am not talking about smoothing over the bumps of daily life or salving the embittered psyche. I am talking about using the computer itself to transmit truths which are contrary to its own nature—I am talking about the ultimate and original hack—I am talking about poetry.
In order to better understand this, we need to first understand the origins of our crisis. To get beyond the various hymns that we mistake for blasphemies (The death of God, the end of history, the death of the author, and the death of the human), we must first revisit the problem. While many revel in the various clichéd perversions that can be found with equal ease at the shopping mall, on TV, or in your inbox, we have to accept that a revolutionary gesture is only revolutionary if it revolts against something. The only kings that can be overthrown are those which are enthroned. And the only revolutions worth having are those which have the potential to fail.
To do this, I am going to look back to the past, towards the origins of technocapitalism (Which, in its own way, is transgressive). Second, I will advance a definition of poetry (Another sin). Third, I am going to do this by way of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” (Which, as sad as it is to say, is yet another violation of the order of things). The method we will use will be the opposite of “common sense,” which some will regard as “nonsense,” but which I hope might be “uncommon sense.”
To be continued in a couple days…
References: Part 1
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: The Modern Library, 1951. 494-522.
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