“The hypertrophy of information leads to the atrophy of form” – Kenneth Burke
In 1927, over 80 years before Zadie Smith warned us of the vapid communications, and the break down of the private self in her well written and lengthy essay on both the movie “The Social Network” and the book “You Are Not A Gatchet” by Jaron Lanier, the philosopher, literary critic Kenneth Burke summed up the distinction between form and information succinctly: information, in and of itself, is inert, non-dramatic, non-relational has none of the glamour of gradual unfolding, or revealing and concealing (intimacy), and its hypertrophy tends to distort people’s ability to create and apprehend form which Burke defined as “the building up and fulfillment of a desire on the part of a reader (auditor, audience, beloved---take your pick).
Whether we are talking of set forms (sonnet) or form as a drama, a narrative, a ceremony, a relationship, form unfolds. It creates anticipation, temporarily thwarts or delays fulfillment, leads to a climax, and then to a slow tapering off in the afterglow of the fulfillment. Form is all about desire and fulfillment (or thwarting). The creator of face book claims he wants to eliminate desire (Hello Lacan), and, to follow what Smith writes, he is well on his way to doing it. Information without form is more or less phatic (a word meaning communication not intended to be profound, but to convey a sort of quick and easy fellow feeling). Information that revels in being phatic (the visual information of an Andy Warhol, the verbal information of a strict Dadaist poem) is part and parcel with certain aspects of post-modernism.
Yet, if this is so, face book might represent a new sort of consciousness. We must be careful of getting cranky about new forms of consciousness. Zadie Smith likes using 1.0 and 2.0 people. She also likes using the word nerd (everything she says to create her sense of nerd consciousness is also one of the traits of high functioning Asbergers, though she never uses this word. At the danger of using an illness as metaphor, nerd consciousness might be rendered as Asberger’s consciousness—a hyper literalism, a tendency towards obsessive preoccupations, and an inability to catch other people’s emotional cues). People with Asbergers must intuit the emotions of others by rote, by training. They do not “get” fellow feelings. They have feelings, but most of them are closer to the basic emotions of fear, engagement, and seeking. They are sincere, and single minded to the point of seeming ironic. They are not ironic. The most valuable insight in Smith’s review of the movie is how the film maker has mistranslated nerd consciousness into the old plot of a man corrupted by power, status, and success. This is the old trope of the nerd who just wants to get girls. Smith does a good job of showing how this is not the case. What Smith does not point out is that removed from face book and its own scary lack of depth, our culture has been rewarding lack of emotional depth coupled with technical expertise for over a century. It is nothing new. Her essay is just a contemporary wrinkle on a very old bed sheet: human loss of true intimacy, depth, and privacy, and the hypertrophy of information over form is something philosophers and poets were complaining about in the 19th century: the world is too much with us late and soon/getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
The word phatic is wonderful and underused. Its most common definition is the sort of chit chat one engages in not so much to say something important, as to give a shallow sense of “fellow feeling.” It’s the talk show peck on the cheek, the “oh Wendy, you look so thin” remark, the Christmas letter some people write to say how great their family has been doing this year. It is the endless “share” session of human vapidity in which nothing is ever truly shared except the obligatory nod to false intimacy. All face book can truly be accused of is giving this phatic realm a definite scene in which to act across continents and time zones. The vast majority of human beings go through life happily never saying a single thing of consequence. This is nothing new. Face book did not create shallowness, or lack of intimacy. It is true that scenes often call forth their corresponding and appropriate acts, but I think we must be careful of believing the medium is the message. The medium greatly influences the message, but I have found face book, overall, to be far superior in terms of the communication than the usual diner party chat, or chance meeting in the grocery store. I have been involved in extensive threads with poets, scientists, and philosophers that would not otherwise have transpired. Face book did not create false intimacy, and by making it all-pervasive, false intimacy might return us to the sense of formal satisfaction we lost during the industrial era of facts, stats, and utilitarian “relevance.” As much as we might deplore face book’s lack of true or significant communication, perhaps it has done us a favor by formalizing our shallowness, much as the daily televising of the Vietnam War did us a favor by ridding us of any pretense to the war making true sense. Whole Communications between “best friends” can be phatic. Ideas can be phatic. Received ideas, in the sense of Flaubert’s definition, are utterly phatic. They lack true form. They are passively received. I tell my students to drop the name Mathew Zapruder or Alex Lemon at a faculty party, and everyone will assume they are up to snuff on contemporary poetry. How many conversations go deeper than that? The case against certain forms of vulgarity is the mistaking received ideas for profound insight (think Tom Buchannan’s simplistic take on race in The Great Gatsby). The idea that face book has destroyed the private, and has led to vapid and shallow relationships is just not true. Most people (in the ee cummings sense) seek little else. This is a received idea. A person can voice it, say they got off face book, show their “purity” by their disdain, and look like Tolstoy at the dinner party, but I might venture that such easy disdain for face book is every bit as vapid as face book. People will read Zadie Smith, nod their heads in righteous agreement (equivalent to a thumbs up) and pronounce face book to be dangerous loss of the private self. If it is “dangerous” in the true sense, then it must have some force to it beyond the phatic. It must have achieved a formal power by way of becoming a mode of ontology—of being. If we get rid of face book, or move beyond it, we will still, for all intents and purposes, spend the rest of our lives saying nothing in very pleasant or unpleasant ways.
I lived the vast majority of my life before face book, and I cannot remember more than ten conversations which were any deeper than the usual face book exchanges. The poem, the novel, the play, the film can deepen the meaning of our lives, or it can heighten the vapidity and hold the mirror to our shallowness. Plays, novels, poems, works of art can also shape the vapid and the shallow into something beautiful and strange, such as when Robert Herrick writes:
“Feign would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg
Which is as white and hairless as an egg.”
Seen in the context of face book status headers, this poem would not be out of the ordinary (except for some of the old fashioned language). Herrick perfectly renders the “status” of his lust for the smooth and white limbed Julia. It might lead to a whole thread by some of his disgusted and politically correct friends taking him to task for objectifying a woman’s body. This might lead to angry exchanges on the pros and cons of erotic poems that focus on body parts. Someone might get indignant, and try to answer the poem with a couplet in which he speaks of his Harriet’s good heart:
“Feign would I know my Harriet’s heart
Which is a whole, and not a part.”
Some wise guy might write in: “hey buddy for your information, hearts are parts.” This patter, this phatic chit chat, in the hands of a master comic, might shows us the “human condition” (that horrible received idea that there is a single condition we call human) in all its rough and tumble and phatic glory. Is that so bad?
I think the primary value of Smith’s essay is calling attention to equally vehement and disparate tropes: Hollywood must frame the nerd as the guy who gets the girl through the accidental fruits of his ability to enter the geek construct of the computer age. Getting the hot girl must be shown, by the rules of this trope, as being a journey towards corruption and emptiness. The trope is still desire, and as Smith points out, the “real” Mark Zuperferberg is all for “eliminating” desire. The real Mark Zupferberg has had the same girlfriend since 2003—before he was worth a billion. He writes on his own face book page that he wishes to eliminate desire. This would not be out of keeping with a certain famous Asberger’s scientist, also the subject of a Hollywood treatment, who claims she finds movies about human relationships dull and boring. This would not be out of keeping with certain language poets who also find poems about emotions and human relationships to be boring. Again, face book might just be the most successful “scene” in which the act of making desire virtual is played out for the mass culture. It could be a form of post-modernist trope on absolute emotional phatic intimacy brought into normative high relief by face book headers announcing: “Mother died today… have you ever noticed how terrible re-heated pasta really is?” Most emotions are feigned or suffer the folly of being surrounded by the vapid doings of the race. As such their exact value lies in them being “virtual.” This might not be a very pleasant thought, but it may be true. It may also save form from dissolving under the hypertrophy of information. Even our pettiness seeks form. The elimination of desire is a desire.
I think the issue here is that face book threatens the gatekeepers of “significant” discourse, those who prove their words are “important” or “profound” or “worthy” by being published in reputable magazines that have the power of prestige. I know wonderful, well published poets who have misused face book in the best sense. For two years I have been running a Joe Weil morning Face book show. All I need is the video capability, and the will to post poems by Rilke, Neruda, Lucille Clifton as well as talented students. I have interviewed Jan Beatty on my show. There are over 400 members, including writers such as Peter Markus, Dorianne Laux, Patricia Smith, and, perhaps, the greatest “misuser” of face book I know, the poet, Sean Thomas Dougherty. Through face book, I have kept up with former students who are doing significant and quality work. If I had waited for the “gate keepers” to say I was significant enough to have a show, I’d probably still be waiting. Face book has allowed me to circumvent the often corrupt and whimsical system of grants, credentials, and upholders of “literary value.” Some of the best poems I’ve read have been posted first on face book. It does not have to be vapid, and it does not have to wait on the gods of taste to validate it. Face book is a free for all. One can be phatic and announce the new toy for the dog, or one can also read the greatest poems of the ages, have long philosophical threads, post Beethoven’s final string quartets, introduce students to figures in the arts to whom they might not otherwise be exposed. Face book may be turning us into false selves, but it has also given the self the power to bypass the gatekeepers, to create poems that may be read by hundreds without having to wait six months to see if the poem has passed a gauntlet of grad students running the literary journal, and will appear in the next issue of the magazine that, for whatever reason, “validates” your right to be called a poet.
Zadie Smith takes a cheap swipe at the end of her essay by saying we are trapped in the “careless” thoughts of a sophomore at Harvard. Well, the thoughts of an expelled student at Oxford (Shelley), a drop out at Columbia (Kerouac), a failed student at Princeton (F Scott Fitzgerald), and another drop out at Columbia (Kenneth Burke) have had an impact. Must we believe significance only comes from the gatekeepers in power, and through the accepted “standards” of quality? While I deplore some of the text message and face book jargon, English is a language that grows through sins against what is deemed correct and intelligent usage. All languages are a lively history of misuse, but the medium need not be the message I have included a poem by the poet Emily Vogel, first posted on face book and then soundly and duly praised by Franz Wright as well as Sean Thomas Dougherty. Vogel’s poem, had it been published in a leading journal, may have been filed away for future bragging rights on a curriculum vitae, but not read again. The immediacy of response from other good poets aids and abets a young writer . Literary magazines do not include such interaction. They have their own great value, but face book, myspace, and the like must be seen for their potential: to return creative acts to the tribal moment of call and response, acts that can circumvent as well as augment the power system—even when, like the vast majority of human exchanges, little more is said than “my dog has a new squeak toy!”
Algebra, when it Snowed
By Emily Vogel
Because women live in immanance,
they go someplace else when the snow falls.
They rejoice, because the world is one gigantic pharmacy,
and the pharmacy is quiet and beautiful.
This morning, after I drove my husband to the University,\
I cancelled my existential literature class
and ran through the snow like an idiot
and threw myself into the river.
I knew that I had died, because all the shoppers
in the grocery store walked right through me
and I couldn’t feel my internal organs.
The world is very understanding.
It allows you to have mental breakdowns
without disturbing you, stealing your wallet,
or insulting your family.
I walk the length of the grocery aisles,
thinking egg, breadcrumbs, 4=2x,
my lipstick is the pocket of the coat
that I chose not to wear today.
I buy an eggplant, fetus-shaped,
purple as a day old bruise.
The cashier is way too nice to me;
she addresses me as ma’am
and I wonder if she’s been watching
the late night television shows about homicide,
and if she thinks that this is a source of entertainment
like most of America.
I want to know if she is hungry, and thinking 4=2x.
I want to know if she has ornaments for the Christmas tree
that are generations old.
I want to know why my husband
left the ice cream in the refrigerator
instead of the freezer last night
and who had the audacity to let this happen.
But then I think, I love him, and put the ice cream away
so what difference does 4=2x really make.