Net Death and the loss of Page Style: Working “Off the Page”?

Shortcuts (as per Robert Altman?) are no way of making life less complex. If in the glimpse destiny can be observed and ascertained, then the time between such cuts is inconclusive. In reality, we are given nothing, just incidents and their implications. The prologues are suggested, traced, and incremented. Poetry works in the same way. The threads that fill the space-limitations of the electronic “page”, the message quota, and archival space, are shortcuts. They slice into each other, run for a while, morph into another argument. They are quick and fragile. When asked, back in the early days of the “British-poets” list, whether or not archives should be preserved, I said absolutely not. My reaction is probably archived somewhere. I’ll find it. The writing will break here:


Now, this is a healthy move. De-archival! Electro-dissolution. Yes!Best,

Alison Croggon felt the same way, most did not. Here’s the list manager’s eventual conclusion:


By popular demand, Mailbase have agreed to maintain the Britpo Archives indefinitely. Nothing will be deleted. So every halfbaked thought, every correction, every second thought, every badtempered riposte which seems so witty at the time, is there, in its linear glory, for future phds to pore over…RC


When I started poetryetc, on the listbot list server, I maintained the archives, keeping them open to the public to create dialogues external to the list, then closing them to non-members because of spammers taking information, and then finally altogether because of agendas of sabotage on the part of undeclared list members. Proof of identity, closing down and restarting – the variations multiplied. Those early archives from poetryetc1 and poetryetc2 still exist. Sitting there, unused on listbot. At times I have had plans to salvage them, but just don’t go through with it. For the reasons mentioned in my message to Britpo? Or out of a strange respect for “literature”. I wouldn’t destroy a notebook of someone’s poems found in an attic. But these archives are in limbo, and the dialogues they contain, having moved on, are in limbo. They have suffered what we might call a netdeath. Interestingly, if you search for “netdeath” on the web you’ll most often come up with the Hunter S. Thompson fan page and the Net Death Hoax – the rumour of Thompson’s premature demise. In the realm of Gonzo, this seems as fitting as anything else.

“Netdeath” is not in any direct way derived from the language of Erich Fromm, but it might seem convenient to create links to an analysis of the mechanisms for escape from freedom that Fromm isolates: authoritarianism, destructiveness, and automaton conformity. [Fromm, Escape from Freedom, New York, chapter V]. In each of these categories, comparative models with regard to net usage might be established. Fromm writes in his introduction, “Although this book is a diagnosis rather than a prognosis – an analysis rather than a solution – its results have a bearing on our course of action. For, the understanding of the reasons for the totalitarian flight from freedom is a premise for any action which aims at the victory over the totalitarian forces.” [ibid, viii] The net, under its guise of capitalist individualism, is as much a “category” of totalitarian escape from freedom as any of the categories Fromm named. Netdeath is a stasis that is an escape, of sorts. It’s only partial escape, and exists between escape and freedom. It is a gesture; it is notional. Almost a paradox. A symptomatic response to oppression dressing itself up as freedom. We must be wary: apparent freedoms often turn out to be different versions of control and subjection. Poetry can be a freedom rather than an escape, but the environment in which it operates might push it one way or another. Private or public escapism…

Poetryetc moved from listbot to mailbase, and then moved with other mailbase lists to jismail when mailbase closed. The list is thoroughly archived now. The archives are open – many people follow discussions without becoming members, or join when a thread appeals to them, often leaving when the thread is “finished”. So archives as participation. Those who have been with the list from its inception know that there’s a core of dialogue/s out there that work as pre-text to present discussions. The dynamic might change again – the present archives being electronically dissolved… What are the implications of such an act? A freedom to be unconstrained by records, proof? Such an act would be met with strong opposition. A desire for restraint, for precedent. For confirmation?

It is assumed that because one engages with the net that one admires “technology”, or rather, “the technology”. Not always the case. I do not admire the web. I do respect community, and subversions of centralisation through fragmentation and dissemination. I believe “information” should be available. But the web is as much about the page as the book is – it has just changed the perimeters, the spatiality. The nodal points have increased in number, the possibility for variations on a theme are broader. Genre barriers are easier to cross. From a creative and even political/cultural/social/point of view, these are all positive qualities, but as Cheryl Buckley, in her essay “Made in Patriarchy” notes:


Using Adrienne Rich’s term “the politics of location” to theorize the specificity of female subjectivities, Rosi Braidotti argues: “The politics of location means the thinking, the theoretical process, is not abstract, universalized, objective, and detached, but rather it is situated in the contingency of one’s experience, and as such it is situated in the contingency of one’s experience, and as such it is a necessarily partial exercise. In other words, one’s intellectual vision is not disembodied mental activity; rather, it is closely connected to one’s place of enunciation, that is, where one is actually speaking from.” ” [in Rothschild, ed. Design and Feminism: Re-visioning Spaces, Places, and Everyday Things, New Brunswick, 115]

The hyperspatial nature of the linking of quotes and texts says more about the way language is used within its own terms than it does about its medium of presentation. The page should be treated with suspicion – its iconic solidity questioned. The text as written feigning authority. The net presents the same problems. As advertising and commercialism consumed it, the irony – of the scroll, of the link, of the coding that hides the true marks of the text as it is really (the symbols that encase, say, a poem, that in reality make it a different poem, or an alternative poem) – has been lost. Questions of authority and – given the ease of circulation – of dissemination, authenticity. Politically, as an anarchist, this might seem enticing. But it’s not if people accept it as a truth, if they refuse the irony. That’s choice? Or is it?

This from Derrida:


There is, as everyone knows, a poetics, a tradition and a genre, a thematics of smoking. One day there appeared a sort of journal, Poésie 1, that presented itself as an instrument in the fight to defend poetry. Its first issue proposed an anthology of poetries of tobacco. It bore the subtitle “Poets and Tobacco” and contained some sixty classical and modern texts; but its principle title marked in an ingenuous way the extent to which the poetics of tobacco does not expend itself at pure loss and above all does not let itself be disseminated in smoke. This title was: “La Poésie ne part pas en fumée (Poetry does not go up in smoke)”. Indeed, in this case it goes up so little in smoke, it keeps itself and keeps itself so well from going up in smoke that on the back cover there is an ad for Gitanes Internationales and, on the title page, the editors thank Seita (the French national tobacco company) for its support: “We thank the Seita, whose help, whose dynamism, and whose wealth of archival documentation allowed us to produce this special issue of Poésie 1.” [Derrida, Given Time:1. Counterfeit Money, Chicago, trans. Kamuf, 113]

The rest of the above paragraph is a treasure, but I’ll leave you to track it down in the bookshop, or if you’re lucky, the original or some translation of varying quality on the net. The relationship between poetry and smoking is similar to poetry’s relationship to the net. And both cause death. By lung cancer, throat cancer, mouth cancer, heart disease… or by netdeath. The poem on the screen becomes text. Which is not necessarily undesirable; in fact it is desired by many. Imagined audiences are created, and the poem, regardless of intent, becomes its own signified. There is a new thematics of poetry. What has not changed is the page. The net doesn’t take poetry off the page, just increases the debt, ironic or otherwise, to Gitanes and their brothers. I don’t say sisters, because like the tobacco company and the book, it is made in patriarchy (a problematic word in its potential erasure of difference in women’s experiences). Safe spaces for women there might tenuously be, but the need for those in the first place says it all. The net is gendered, and no matter how many more women than men might use it, it comes out of a discourse that at its base is oppressive. The poem on the page is not the liberator it might be. The screen is a finite space, as is the paper page. These are the limitations we must avoid if poetry is to break male dominance. The scroll is only an illusion of change.

In an email exchange with the artist Ruark Lewis, he noted that he’d prefer me to be working across the landscape, instead of the vertical. This makes sense to me. It means spreading across pages, across pages on the screen – lateral rather than vertical scrolling. Fold out books? Screens next to screens? Of course, it means more than this. Poetry should be taken off the page literally, it should become (or be becoming) part of the “environments” it works through. Through the streets, floating in the pool, spread out in the sand. Moving away from the literal, there’s a conceptual space worth recognising here. It has nothing to do with “technologies”. The moment a medium becomes prescriptive, the moment it becomes a repository for achievement and replication, it loses integrity. This doesn’t mean the poets/writers/artists/conversationalists etc have lost integrity, but the space is compromised. That’s what social interaction is, a process of compromise and adjustment.

Poetryetc has been through many phases – at present it has a four-person editorial team, apart from myself. We collaborate on ideas to “stimulate” discussion, to make it more than a conversation, or space for simultaneous alternative conversations whose crossovers create “cyberspatial” text, hybrids that might or might not prove fertile. The deterministic language here IS ironic. The list, in reality, is linear, and no matter how many forms of indexing or multi-directional movement are created in the process of archiving, it remains linear. The language itself might reject linearity, but the package is linear. Technology strives to overcome this linearity – virtual, three-dimensional, depth of field – but it is still confined to the sensory limitations of human perception. But poetry never was – it’s always been about containing and breaking out of these confinements. It is a paradoxical use of language that has never been confined to the page, and nor will it be to the screen.

The page is decoration rather than a field, the screen is style. These definitions are reversible. Plenty of other catchwords work as well. And maybe style and decoration are “necessary”. But confinement is death, and the page wizard is solid, even with glitches, and the computer virus is solid, and the flawed software is solid as well as the patch that repairs it. The nicotine patch, the pseudo solid, the placebo field. Netdeath is the rejection by text of the materialism that makes it. The archives hang there, mimicking stasis. As vulnerable as the book is to fire. Lost in the attic, it burns undiscovered, but there.

Thinking landscape rather than portrait here… of ash and flow. Let’s undo it all: linguistic disobedience.