Stephanie Young

I’m writing this in the attempt to hurl myself somewhere beyond the participatory difficulties I experienced at the conference on Saturday. Which were basically the difficulties of navigating dual roles in the assembled group: co-organizer, facilitator, moderator, participant. The net result, in this body’s case, was a lot of internal anxiety, an inability to think, speechlessness (in a public or group context) and recourse to certain social (and domestically inflected) work. Thus it felt manageable, during the lunch break, to reorganize the tables and chairs of our meeting room with Jen Hofer, Cynthia Sailers and Suzanne Stein, in an attempt to fit more seats and bodies into the area where panelists were speaking, while still maintaining the presence of a table around which we could gather and face one another. About this action, I could think. And even converse with Jen, Cynthia and Suzanne about various formats the room might take and what impact these spatial shifts might have on conversation and participation. I tend to minimize and de-value this and other kinds of work (clean-up, negotiating a scheduling mix-up with the CCA tech, basically tending to and managing the physical/org space in which we’d convened) which was, for the duration of last Saturday at least, the extent of what I could offer. Lots of folks who do and have done work facilitating group conversation in various formats have echoed back these difficulties from the vantage point of their experience. The analogy most offered is that of hosting a party and being unable to be very present/engaged, or ‘have a good time’. One must flit, finally, one must check in with lots of people.

In the week following the conference I’ve wondered about various experiences others might have had. As always, who felt able to participate in group conversation, and how? Who has the confidence and sense of power to participate? Is confidence and power what’s required? How does silence function as participation? What value may there be in silence? How are individual silences felt and responded at the level of the group?

I’d like to discuss some questions and response more specifically located around the panel I moderated on The Internet. The monolithic quality of that category, The Internet, is no less problematic than the monolithic category/frames employed for the other two panels, which I’ll admit we—Chris, Cynthia and I—found amusing in an ironic but hopefully not too cynical way, as we attempted to create spaces which could engage the complexities of these hopelessly vast and interconnected areas. And I should say that all kinds of shorthand and code are contained in that monolithic category. The Internet, yes, but also more specifically poets/poetry and blogs, poets/poetry and social networking, poets/poetry and online discourse, poets/poetry and political action, poets/poetry and virtual utopias: questions around community.

I stayed up last night reading print-outs of the conversation surrounding Jasper Bernes’s posting of his talk here, follow-up conversation here, and then at Stan Apps’ blog, here. Also Barbara Jane Reyes’ response to the internet panel here and Oscar Bermeo’s, here.

And so I observe my own inability to remain grounded in responding to the events of last Saturday, where we met together to listen and speak, bodies in a room. Instead I feel great internal pressure to keep up with the conversation as it moves past that room and unfolds online. There’s something to be said here, repeating what many have already said in various ways, about the internet’s impact on time. Cynthia quoted from Fritz Lang’s film Fury in her talk on Friday night: “A mob doesn’t think. It doesn’t have time to” and I’ve been wondering how this condition, the mob mentality, may be a foundational moment from which internet discourse begins. (begins where? when?) My thinking on this is now happily and further complicated by the collision of psychoanalysis (around what might be considered the hysterical group), and economic analysis, the unpaid labor of the internet but also the destructively capitalist functionality of the internet which Jasper points towards: “Sometimes it’s a screen, and sometimes it’s domination, and these two effects are mutually enabling.”

That there has been no cross conversation or overlapping comment box participants at Barbara Jane’s, Oscar’s and Jasper’s blog feels problematic or indicative of some larger problems; what do we miss by the channeling of conversations into already established networks? I should say that I’m coming at this conversation today with a lot of questions about the political potential and communicative possibilities of our poetry communities both on and offline. And where the lines do and don’t intersect. And so I am radically confused.

I wonder about Barbara Jane’s critique of Erika’s project: “She framed this whole presentation as a bifurcated “Race and Gender” discussion, in which women of color get to fall into the cracks or not exist,” which raises important questions about how that bifurcation was operative inside the two conversations Erika archived, as those conversations were happening (and Barbara Jane was someone who addressed exactly this problem, which she points to in her post, and as you can read in the ‘gender’ PDF that Erika created.) What is the role of the archivist? To what extent might Erika be presenting an archive which seeks to perform a critique/analysis via making material visible in a different format, or by drawing attention to problematic terms of debate? How is irony at work, or not, in that project title: “Race and Gender”? Is something beyond irony called for? What’s the role of a hybrid editor/archivist? Is this a new role? This seems related, or to criss-cross, with Craig’s use of irony and quotation in his paper on Mike Magee’s poem, and the confusion and debate surrounding the sincerity (or stability) of a critique which utilizes irony and quotation.

Barbara Jane also questions Erika’s position on the conversations she archived in part because Erika doesn’t write a blog. And I think there were, in the room on Saturday, many spoken and unspoken questions about position and participation. I wonder about the particularity of reading as participation across the field of the internet. There’s something about how Erika read and ingested the materials she archived (a reading experience she likened to Tristram Shandy), materials I've heard more than one person describe as unreadable or worthless. Cynthia talked on Friday about the group’s desire to evacuate or quickly digest and expel certain kinds of information—is there a way we would prefer not to labor over this material, the disappearing traces of a shameful or distasteful discourse? What role has Erika performed for the group, by digesting this material through her own reading, cutting and pasting body? Is Erika’s distancing herself from those materials (it was “like reading Tristram Shandy”) a defense against her own act of digestion?

The online extensions of conversation around Jasper, Craig and Erika’s presentations might return us in some form to the first question Joshua Clover posed as we moved from presentations to group conversation last Saturday morning. Jasper and Craig were asked to speak to a basic conflict Joshua saw between the closing points of their talks: Jasper’s with a call for embodied strategies of resistance and activism in the service of equality, implicitly requiring a move away from the internet, or at least away from idealisms surrounding virtual forms and technologies, and Craig’s (which I don’t have in front of me but will hopefully post soon, I hope I am getting this right) discussing blogs written by Barbara Jane Reyes, Javier Huerta, Francisco Aragón, Linh Dinh, Lee Herrick and Oscar Bermeo, and the positive role of blogs in helping to build or strengthen/connect communities of writers previously excluded from a racist and sexist U.S. literary history/contemporary moment, with its false constructs of centrality and marginality, which the blog may help to disrupt and re-frame through new social and aesthetic formations.

In this conflict, Erika’s project, and Erika herself, was cast as mediator—Cynthia, Suzanne and I discussed this over lunch and Cynthia addressed it vocally, to the group, when we gathered for the next panel, this placing of Erika in “the lady role”. At first, I wondered if this framing of Jasper and Craig in conflict, with Erika as mediator, might be a splitting of theory from practice: Jasper and Craig asked to address the limits, potential, and relations of the internet, with Erika and her project, an archive of the ‘actual’ (or two versions of the ‘actual’), sitting between these theoretical positions. (I still wonder what further study of that archive might reveal, as a location for thinking about some of the ways in which overlapping communities are moving inside these deeply material networks, and how we are failing, and where there might be some way to move inside these forms as a way of bringing about social and political change—if social and political change is an individual or group goal.)

But then I thought my idea was wrong, because in many ways Jasper’s and Craig’s talks are also very much about practice, not only theory. And when Barbara Jane discusses her disconnection from Jasper’s critique as having nothing to do with the vital relationship in her communities between the internet and what Jasper might call ‘land-based’ activism, she is very much addressing practice, not theory. As were other voices in the room last Saturday, who began to complicate the questions: Scott Inguito discussing distance learning’s relationship to class and educational access, and Oscar Bermeo reminding us that these questions about The Internet are some of the same questions so often asked of Poetry’s limits and possibility in the world.

So I return to questions of gender and race, active frames in the comment boxes on Jasper’s blog this week, where the discussion of his talk, specifically its critique of Stan Apps and Matt Timmons’ editorial statement, rages on. (Actually, it seems to have raged itself out now that I’m finally posting these notes.) Those comment boxes are currently occupied entirely by white men (so far as I can tell; there are some participants commenting ‘anonymously’) Which is not to say that many participants there are unmindful about how they occupy conversational space or that the conversation is not useful. I’d agree with Joshua Clover when he says “Lastly, since this debate (sweaty trolls aside) seems to me to be exactly about what political goals might be, about possibility and necessity, and about strategy…that looking for points of strategic alliance in a complex landscape (rather than reducing the discussion down a progressives/radicals distinction, or a we’d-all-like-change indistinction) is very much to be desired.” But again, and especially if this is a broader conversation about political possibility, it’s distressing how certain modes of participation are replicated. It’s easy (and feels somewhat shameful) to point again towards a space in which only white men are participating. But gender and race aren’t the only frame—all kinds of conditions effect who has read their Zizek and Marx in full, including class, access to/location of one’s education and I suppose the belief that one must have read Zizek and Marx in full in order to have anything useful to say about large scale resistance. Here I could quote someone else in the same comment box who points out that there is no such thing as equal access; you can see I’m stuck on a hook, the hook of finding much to value, and learn from, in this comment box, and much to feel hopeless about. When Mark Wallace steps in to say “…resistance and especially large scale resistance seldom operates on a singular theory about what it's up to, and by no means requires being right in any pure sense, in which case there may be room for all you guys on the boat” I am exceedingly grateful, but also think about how the guys in this case are literally guys, the Marxist guys he’s mediating between. While there is a need to debate the finer points of strategic alliances, if you are interested in large-scale forms of collective resistance, at some point the conversation needs to become wider, which probably means addressing questions around discourse as something beyond style. (And I appreciate that Jasper thought about some of these questions as he re-worked and re-presented ideas from his Action, Yes paper at the conference.)

In one of his comments, Stan Apps posits as natural this idea that the internet provokes ‘gladiatorial behavior’ which was a question I was hoping we might take up more in our conversation last Saturday—is it the technology producing this behavior, or does the technology endlessly replicate social relations which precede the internet? If my question sounds rhetorical, it’s not—like the mutually enabling charges Jasper describes, there’s something cooperative between the technology, its impact on users’ time (the mob mentality; the group which doesn’t have time to think because it has no time) and the problem of historic social relations. The two are holding hands. And discourse problems are often endlessly ‘about’ both of these things.

This is where a closer analysis or reading of Erika’s project might have some things to say about the slick and sticky mating surface between technology and the social (what time of day are the majority of comments made, the timing of the two conversations in relation to the academic calendar, etc.) I’m also curious about something Erika brought up—that fewer total participants were engaged in the conversation around Mike Magee’s reading/poem. I wonder how many of those participants had previously existing relationships in less virtual contexts? What sort of local might this smaller group constitute?

I find myself where I began, with questions I failed to vocalize in the room, wondering about the internet’s relation to locality. A forum like Lucipo (a listserv which grew out of a poetry festival in Carrboro, North Carolina) may serve as a useful object lesson in the ways that virtual encounters or locations might act as an extension of embodied conversations in local communities; a location for the group to continue to talk with itself, as it organizes, fights, plans, strategizes—whether about aesthetics, road trips or revolutionary change. What happens when the discourse opens up to those who are not entangled in the lived, embodied relations of a community is pretty well documented. Things can fall apart quickly.

Of course I’m writing this on and for the internet, both for and to local communities and for and to those who do not live in the bay area, and yet part of what felt most useful, and simultaneously problematic about the conference last weekend was its insistence on (and the economic reality of being able to invite) primarily local participants. That the two out of town participants were both on the panel addressing an ethnic avant-garde is a problem I want to acknowledge but can’t begin to unpack here.

I guess if we are thinking about the internet as a tool I come back to this question about the possibilities of a local internet. That which has potential to connect the local to itself, which might render visible, if only for a second, the unseen connections in front of our eyes, previously invisible or dismissed points of intersection between local communities. How we define the local opens up another series of difficult questions I don’t have any answers for.

1 comment:

superbunker said...

For what it's worth, the discussion of Jasper's unique interpretation didn't rage itself out. Jasper stopped accepting comments on his blog. He did kill the conversation there, but on "The Internets" dead conversations become compost...