Though Percy Bysshe Shelley is hardly the first to complain about the relentless progress of capitalism, and though his language is occasionally loathsome to contemporary critics, myself included, who prefer the proprietary language which has been invented in the last decade or so, it is hard not to see the relentless process of taking the sweetness of art and transforming it through market devices. Anticipating McKenzie Wark’s discussion of the Hacker class and the Vectoralist class by nearly 200 years (and Marx by a couple decades), Shelley writes:
Undoubtedly the promoters of utility, in this limited sense, have their appointed office in society. They follow the footsteps of poets, and copy the sketches of their creations into the book of common life. They make space, and give time. Their exertions are of the highest value so long as they confine their administration of the concerns of the inferior powers of our nature within the limits due to the superior ones. But whilst the sceptic destroys gross superstitions, let him spare to deface, as some of the French writers have defaced, the eternal truths charactered upon the imaginations of men. Whilst the mechanist abridges, and the political economist combines labour, let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want. They have exemplified the saying, “To him that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away.” The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. Such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty. (514-15).
To be fair, Wark’s Hacker Manifesto is quite self-consciously positioned within the history of this debate, and his renewed focus on capitalism is utterly necessary in that it poses the same questions to the so-called new economy. Where Shelley is useful, here, is not in his critique of capitalism, rather his text is a thread which connects the poet of the 19th Century to the poet of the 21st Century vis-à-vis a developing capitalism.
If we look at the development of capitalism, we can leap off of Hayles and ask the question: If posthumanism is a product of the capitalism of the postwar period, might we trace its origins back further through the history of capitalism? It is doubtful that the critics of capitalism were inspired simply by an academic desire to calculate the values for things by different formula. It is logical to believe, and Shelley affirms this, that critics were concerned with what capitalism was doing to people. If relationships can be said to be “personal,” capitalism introduces an “impersonal” technique. If the good things in human life are art, love, and friendship, capitalism is an empirically codified system of alternate priorities. It isn’t necessarily fashionable to do so, but I am inclined to argue that posthumanism did not begin with those disenchanted by Modernism, it began with the ritualized disenchantenment of industrial capitalism. It can be tracked to the moment when human agency was displaced in favor of a philosophy of order which led from the industrial revolution towards globalization, corporate personhood, and the triumph of technocentric culture.
If we see this, then Shelley’s critique has much to offer contemporary critics seeking to understand electronic literature.
According to Deleuze and Guattari, the utopian possibility is embodied in the posthuman potential of the “Body without Organs”:
You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. People ask, So what is this BwO?—But you’re already on it, scurrying like a vermin, groping like a blind person, or running like a lunatic; desert traveler and nomad of the steppes. On it we sleep, live our waking lives, fight—fight and are fought—seek our place, experience untold happiness and fabulous defeats; on it we penetrate and are penetrated; on it we love…The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them. (150)
Sloughing off the coherence of the bounded consciousness of the Enlightenment subject, the Body without Organs is nomadic subjectivity, radically open to the meanderings of our awareness. Current custom would suggest that we situate this sentiment within the “posthuman,” yet the differences between Shelley’s “humanist” intent and Deleuze and Guattari’s alleged “posthumanism” might not be so far apart.
Poetry, as Shelley defines it, is not simply a particular form of literary writing, rather poetry exists in all of those writings which seek to elevate human virtue, the chief of which is “Love: or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own” (502). But before we reject such talk as outdated nonsense, we would do well to reflect upon this passage in light of recent criticism, which makes an uncannily similar point. According to Alain Badiou, love (which he distinguishes from simple desire or submission) is the process through which “the Two” experience “disjunction” in its very “unicity” (48). In other words, Badiou’s love is the union between two people by which their difference is experienced as a truth. Reflecting back on Shelley, poetry is a chief means by which readers can encounter this process love, that is an interpersonal unity experienced precisely through the knowledge of that which exists outside of the self. It disrupts the narcissistic tendency of the Self, validates the subject position of the Other, and establishes between the two a relationship which is marked by the truth of this event.
Taking another note from Deleuze and Guattari, poetry seeks to do more than simply to improve moral relations between the individual and society. The poem provides a deeper experience of potentiality. Shelley explains, “All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially” (513). It is also indeterminate in character: “Veil after veil may be undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed” (513). It is radical: “Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it” (505). If we guard ourselves against the simplistic equation of love with desire, holding Deluze and Guattari’s excessive description of subjectivity to Badiou’s rigorous definition of love, Shelley’s humane mission is shockingly relevant in today’s critical milieu.
The key difference is that Shelley seems to understand one thing that many contemporary theorists seem reluctant to admit: Poetry exists to preserve what is human. Not as an appeal to tradition, but as a commitment to love.
So serious is this crisis, that Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” if it is read at all, does not need to be preceded, as it was in its day, in order to be grasped. Shelley’s “Defence,” initially appeared as a rejoinder to Thomas Love Peacock’s satirical essay “The Four Ages of Poetry,” which, to paraphrase, suggested that since there were already a bunch of good poems, poets should spend their time in useful service to capitalism. And, given the strange nature of the information economy, service to capitalism can be conceived in the broadest of terms.
So “corrupt” have our “manners” become, so threatened are “the energies which sustain the soul of social life” (Shelley 506), that we really need poetry wherever we can find it. So dire is our situation, that many critics and poets alike, have internalized the spirit of capitalism and embraced “posthumanism,” not as a sad consequence of capitalism, but as an ideology to be embraced, that the arts have surely suffered. As with “postfeminist,” “postracial,” and “post-marxist” ideologies, which have declared gender, race, and social class prematurely passé, posthumanism has attempted to subject humanism to the same fate. I cannot help but imagine that our literature and art have suffered as a consequence of this new ethos.
My purpose is not to quibble over semantics. If one prefers one term over another, it is of little consequence. The key, however, is to view poetry through its proper framework. This proper framework need not be conceived of in essential or absolute terms, for what I am after is not something that can be empirically known, after all. Rather, I have benefited in my reading of electronic literature by looking back to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” not as some academic exercise, but because poetry needs to be defended, and too few are willing to issue such a defense today. If more people thought of poetry in these terms, perhaps we would make better art (or maybe we would make art better). Maybe poets would be better poets, or maybe readers would be better readers. In the face of improved efficiency, it is nice to look forward to, as much as a post-historical person can be reasonably expected to look forward to anything, the possibility that an excess of communication, an experience of authentic humanity, might shatter the utility of the interface and leave me looking into the soul of another person.
Even if none of these things are true, I need to believe, as I sit in front of my computer, that poetry in any form is a sword of lighting, which consumes whatever tries to contain it.
References: Part 3
Badiou, Alain. “What is Love?” Trans. Justin Clemens. Umbr(a) 1 (1996): 37-53.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Masumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
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.
Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto.