Monday, August 16, 2010

Silliman's Comment Monster [Part III]



Part of the measure of the success of any media, is how much active reader or audience response it can generate. Newspapers routinely feel vindicated in their hunt for audience share if the stories and events they report stimulate a reaction--any kind of reaction. It's almost always better to be controversial, than correct, because in the end, without readers (and clients, or customers) any business, especially a media business, isn't going to survive. And survival is what business is about. The internet is a business--make no mistake about that--though it may not appear superficially always to be about product and delivery.    
 
The internet is a new universe of communication, but it's quickly being structured as a competition for attention. The big question is: How can it be organized in such a way that it can be exploited. Advertisers have so far been frustrated in their attempts to figure out ways to draw people's attention, to force them to pay attention. Users surfing the web don't even need a clicker to change channels, or mute the commercials. The nervously shifting screen windows of the internet browsers seem much too protean to be easily controlled. 
 
There have been a number of proposals to "regulate" the internet through controlled access schemes, and the government would like to figure out how to levy taxes on all kinds of online activity. So far, this hasn't happened, though these struggles continue. People have been predicting big changes. It seems likely that the hands-off policy won't last forever. Eventually, the freedom we've all enjoyed on the internet is going to be curtailed, in the interests of capital. 
 



Privately maintained blog account sites like those functioning inside Google are free. But it seems likely that eventually, some kind of access fee is going to be charged for the privilege of broadcasting content online. When that occurs, there's going to be a big shakedown, eliminating the majority of participants in the blogosphere (and its followers). The vast majority of participants in the online game has been composed of youth; the demographic has been weighted towards kids. Going forward, that's likely to change. Even sooner than that, it seems likely that the new hand-held, telephonic technological devices will obsolete "classic" blogging and surfing activity. Eventually, there will probably be several platforms all operating simultaneously, each flavor designed to fill the needs of specific users and audiences. The "old" internet system now in place, will probably be regarded as stodgy and "slow"--still stuck in the print media groove. Increasing "efficiency" will probably push extended (dense) content aside for the blips and snips of short-hand messaging, and people will stop carrying screens around like the umbrellas and satchels of yesteryear. 
 
In the meantime, blogging is still with us, but undergoing transformations. The notion of posting something that other people might want to read, and talk about, is one aspect of the first wave of internet usage. Bloggers like Ron Silliman saw an immediate opportunity to reach a huge new audience, one weighted towards youth; like any smart entrepreneur, he reasoned that the internet could be an effective way to steer and influence public opinion about literature, specifically poetry. By associating himself with a fresh, new medium, one comprised mostly of younger users (readers), he could manipulate opinion. He could compete openly with the "official centers" of literary power--the publishing, editorial and academic spheres of control--which used to guide and direct literary taste and reward. Being controversial had a strategic value in promoting readership--he could generate publicity and interest and discussion about literary issues he wanted to affect. 
 
The School of Quietude theory (or argument) was a clever device, intended to provoke the centers of literary power. Silliman knew that his side of this debate would not be joined by anyone gullible enough to be drawn into open combat. And anyone naive enough to do that, would be easy prey in debate. What Silliman wanted was attention, and the School of Quietude campaign accomplished that handily. Those who already agreed that post-Modern writing was better, wouldn't need convincing--they'd visit because they just liked hearing confirmation. Those who disagreed would just be incensed and frustrated, that someone like Silliman could inspire so much of the literary public's attention towards issues they considered peripheral or damaging to their vision/version of literature. Silliman thought the time had come to change people's minds, and he and his cohorts in the Language School stood to benefit from a favorable view of his version of the descent of taste over the last half century of writing and critical summation. Internet blogging would be a powerful tool in re-writing the literary history of the last 50 years, perhaps more powerful than all the traditional literary-critical text produced during that time frame. 
 
Initially, the Comment Stream (box) was one device to measure the kind and amount of response blogs were generating. But it soon became apparent that raw comment comprised only a tiny percentage of the total number of invisible "visitors" (or readers) of any given site; and it was also apparent that the demographic (profile) that group of interactive participants couldn't be used to interpolate the character of the audience as a whole. Basically, Silliman would never have needed--or would have had much use for--an interactive audience to further his agenda. Recognized writers and critics didn't usually make public statements, and the establishment figures mostly belonged to the old system of taste and power, anyway, and they were either not hip to the internet sphere, or they disdained it as a trivial expression of the new media revolution. Either way, the kinds of people posting responses to blog content didn't represent an identifiable audience that mattered. Smart readers figured that out immediately, and kept silent. 
 
I began commenting on Silliman's blog-site half a decade ago, and I did so because I was interested in the issues he was discussing, and thought I could provide a slightly different point of view about areas of interest. Taking at random a sample of how this began, check out Silliman's Blog as cached here:
 
http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:g9ZIScXDfzQJ:ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2005/07/somebody-awhile-back-suggested-that.html+curtis+faville+silliman's+blog&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us        
 
On this date, following a presentation Ron posted regarding the editing of anthologies, there occurred a useful discussion involving about a dozen commentators, addressing issues evolving from, or related to, Ron's initial history and opinion. This healthy give-and-take among interested parties resulted in a fine-tuning and augmentation of the assumptions and facts Ron initially presented; the commentary actually served a useful purpose as a kind of round-table in which participants could enter freely and interact, contribute, and disagree. 
 
In due course, I could see that there were a number of areas of disagreement between Ron's version of literary history (especially over the last 50 years or so), and my own. As a cardinal rule, I've always believed that a healthy disagreement is more vital and ethically pure, than a comfortable consensus. When people agree about something too much, they become too much alike, and have nothing useful to discuss. Difference creates friction, and the sparks that fly off the glancing swords are more interesting than mere diplomatic encounters. 
 
There were also instances over that period during which people almost literally fought with each other inside comment boxes. I'll plead guilty to having been a willing participant in some of these fights, but it was usually when someone else had aimed a flame-thrower in my direction, inciting my ire and indignant retort. Many of these attacks originated from "anonymous" identities. (Parenthetically, I've never been able to understand the kind of pleasure or delight some people seem to derive from anonymous attacks; not knowing who your opponent-aggressor is, makes reasoning with such ghosts very difficult.) 
 
But as I noted above, Silliman's purpose in his blog campaign was not to mount just another literary discussion chat-site, but to present a coherent, partisan position, a platform from which to attack attitudes and presumptions he thought deserved to be challenged. I frequently agreed with Silliman's attacks, but there were times when I disagreed. I never felt the least reluctance to say exactly what was on my mind. If I thought Ron was wrong, I said so. If I thought he had gone overboard to praise third-rate work, I said so. If he chose to promote the work of someone for purely political reasons, I called him on that, arguing, in effect, that liking bad work for the right reason, was worse than acknowledging good work for the wrong reasons. In Ron's case, the "wrong reasons" would include giving aid and comfort to the enemy, even if the enemy was a very talented (and innocently non-partisan) writer. 
 
Did I--and other commentators--post too much in Silliman's Comment Stream? Did we overstay our welcome? There's no doubt that we did. But in my case, it was primarily because I misunderstood the essential nature not only of the blogging phenomenon, but of Silliman's real purpose in conducting it. I've always been a "letters-to-the-editor" kind of guy. My heroes as a teenager were Mencken, Dwight Macdonald, and Charles McCabe. The rough-and-tumble, occasionally rude, frequently hard-boiled, approach to editorializing had always appealed to me, and blogging seemed the perfect opportunity to practice it. You can get into a good deal of trouble in life by speaking your mind, especially if you tend to be unconventional in your beliefs and opinions. I've always believed that speaking my mind is an exercise of my democratic rights and freedoms, even when doing so may be potentially damaging to my reputation. Now, in my early sixties, I don't imagine there's much harm in anyone knowing what I actually think about things. The worst they can do is disagree. 
 
Silliman closed down his Comment Box because its usefulness--its value to his agenda--had outlived itself. Anyone who was going to comment openly there about his School of Quietude (and related bullets) had by now done so. And the blogosphere may have morphed into irrelevance. As a form of propaganda, blogging had a certain life expectancy. But it's dying. Certainly comment boxes are getting old. Maybe it's like the big box video stores--Netflix is busily putting them out of business. But right behind Netflix is the downloadable software business.
 
Back in the early years of the 20th Century, Ezra would put on his "poet's outfit" complete with big broad-brimmed hat, and walk about London, visiting literary big-wigs and potential patrons, advocating the cause of New Art. He must have been a picturesque figure, and people probably thought of him as a nut, though a well-informed one. What will they say about Silliman, a hundred years from now? 
 
End of Part III          

15 comments:

J said...

What would Mencken say? Or Pound?

Pound might have played the part--from what I read he was a bit of a thespian (as many poets have been), not to say wit, ala Benedict in Much Ado--but he also knew romantic languages up and down (and others) played a mean game of chess, even dabbled as a composer (and economics and amateur scientist of a sort).

Those people around S-man's circle aren't wits, or witty scribes, shall we say, CF (and by wit, that doesn't necessarily mean a Wilde sort of maricone, or Kelsey Grammerish hack)--tho Pound probably eschewed that. The beats and kounterculture killed wit sometime in 50s, probably per orders from some marxist or another (then, most of those people aren't really marxists either--).

Belle-lettres was always a scam....

Conrad DiDiodato said...

"Privately maintained blog account sites like those functioning inside Google are free. But it seems likely that eventually, some kind of access fee is going to be charged for the privilege of broadcasting content online. When that occurs, there's going to be a big shakedown, eliminating the majority of participants in the blogosphere (and its followers)."

I fear the same thing. Nowhere is this specter of online regulation more evident than in the recent attempts by Google to create a "tiered Internet", in cooperation with telecom and broadband companies like Verizon, and government, by which (and it's this I think you mean, Curtis) the Internet will be open to typical competition and profit structures of big business. And this starting from Google, a company that grew out of the unregulated 90s Internet environment . Perhaps the end of net neutrality as we see it. Who knows?

The blog is an insular community of radical free speech: it's become almost a democratic institution (in my view),a sacred space for debate and cultural exchange; and it's perhaps this association with the integrity of language & thought that might prevent corporate takeovers from happening. Otherwise we just might see a type of d├ęclassement of knowledge-workers & writers, who are going to be unfairly disenfranchised & displaced in a regulated Web 2.0 world. It's ironic that Google, an enterprise whose free unbridled use of search engine 'algorithms' is probably the single biggest contributor to the radical democratization of information, is closing ranks with big business and government.

Again, I wonder if the paradox of Silliman's closing the comment stream can be resolvable only through analysis of this imminent phenomenon of capitalist assimilation of cultural capital. Kirby's credited Silliman with killing poetry, and in the name of a Leftist literary agenda that's attempted to rewrite Language itself.He may be right.

Kirby Olson said...

Curtis, did anyone in the Language School ever write a great poem?

I never saw one.

I saw competent political filler, but never anything that I could show a friend, and say, you gotta read this.

I liked Ron's Chinese Notebook. It was a clever satire of Wittgenstein. But it wasn't on its own anything. It depended on another text.

Did anybody in LANGUAGE ever write a 15-line or less poem that anyone would consider a great poem, in the way that pretty nearly everyone who reads Corso's poem Marriage agrees that it is an important poem?

I never saw anything but drivel with an edge.

They chased out fairly good poets. Tom Clark stopped going to readings because he knew he was a target from the Language people.

They tried to drive out everyone of talent, and nearly succeeded.

They got Dorn down and nearly killed his reputation. They got him for racism charges because he had the nerve to publish Clark against Trungpa.

It was like how the French Tel Quel group attacked anyone who wasn't a Maoist on charges of racism.

All the orientalism of the 60s got a pass as multiculturalism.

Ginsberg turned to Trungpa (who was a blithering idiot), and Tel quel turned to Mao (who was a psychotic mass killer), and no one in the arts could say anything for fear of being called racist.

This is why I kept calling for a return to aesthetics, and a return to law, and to the ten commandments, as sound critical principles that would allow for a real community to emerge.

The comments box at Silliman's slowly declined in quality, as it also declined in quantity (in 2005, there were nearly always at least fifty comments per post, by this year, there were more like 10, and because of the slow and untrustworthy way in which he monitored it, it was no longer possible to have a continuous conversation).

The blog post you found with its conversational aspect was far better than anything that appeared in the last year or so.

I do think you are on to something with your notion that the blogmeister must WANT to have a real conversation, and that Ron never wanted that. He wanted his hit count high, but the quality of the conversation was not his concern. He never had much interest in the commenting, and considered it to be something odd that he hadn't counted on.

Kirby Olson said...

Cont.

It is what I had hoped for at my blog, but it has morphed several times, and since I had to put the filter on to keep out J, it has slowed down, and been much less compelling for participants.

The only other "participant" I've had to keep out is Meg, who also caused a crisis when she first appeared at Ron's blog because of her tendency to use terror, and to call down the wrath of Allah on people with whom she merely disagreed, or had trumped her in some sense.

People, as you say, may move on to other media, or go back to print vehicles (I still prefer books and printed journals), but the problem of how to connect people and pose a community still remains.

I have a few new friends from my blog. Brett, Stu, you, Ed, John Hanson, Wendy, Helen, and many others (including Ron) have given me a network of information and friendship I wouldn't have otherwise had. My one tiny chapbook from Persistencia Press came via Ron's blog (the editor Phil Primeau noticed a comment I had made there).

As for Ron becoming a neo-conservative: that's not what I meant. But he does have an appreciation for, and an ability to work with neo-conservatives. He can put up with us, and he realizes that we make up 50% or more of the American demographic. The folks at Fox News are basically just decent Christians trying to make decent Christian thought available in an America Gone Wild.

Not everybody wants to make all the noise and fury that the Beats made. A quieter life leaves room for deeper slower more thoughtful things.

Maybe you don't have all the orgasms with strangers, but you do have things like watching pumpkins grow in the garden with your children.

The Beats sacrificed all of that for drug addiction, weird sex, and noisy lives that didn't offer any real internal value.

Even a relatively quiet Beat offspring like Brautigan lived a hopeless life, and when he finally shot himself he admitted the uselessness of his life.

And yet, many who have given up their families, and don't even love their own parents think they can find a community online or in the pages of a book, or that someone will care about you in a hundred years because of something shocking that you wrote.

I'm all for quieter values. Swimming in a no-name lake in a no-name county in a no-name place, with children who aren't famous, and talking with friends about nothing much, sure beats the highlife.

I like the quietness of a poetry journal like Poetry East.

The Revolution of a poet like Pound, with his squirrelly economic notions, and his lopsided appreciation of Mussolini, and his lack of care for his own immediate family, strikes me as nothing I would want to admire.

Poets should go back to their neighborhoods, their families, and their churches, and find something of value there, too, in addition to trying to find kindred spirits online, but real communities in which you know first and last names, and get to know the whole extended family clan of your friends, is more important than getting your name into some register of the avant-garde.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

"Privately maintained blog account sites like those functioning inside Google are free. But it seems likely that eventually, some kind of access fee is going to be charged for the privilege of broadcasting content online. When that occurs, there's going to be a big shakedown, eliminating the majority of participants in the blogosphere (and its followers)."

I fear the same thing. Nowhere is this specter of online regulation more evident than in the recent attempts by Google to create a "tiered Internet", in cooperation with telecom and broadband companies like Verizon, and government, by which (and it's this I think you mean, Curtis) the Internet will be open to typical competition and profit structures of big business. And this starting from Google, a company that grew out of the unregulated 90s Internet environment . Perhaps the end of net neutrality as we see it. Who knows?

The blog is an insular community of radical free speech: it's become almost a democratic institution (in my view),a sacred space for debate and cultural exchange; and it's perhaps this association with the integrity of language & thought that might prevent corporate takeovers from happening. Otherwise we just might see a type of d├ęclassement of knowledge-workers & writers, who are going to be unfairly disenfranchised & displaced in a regulated Web 2.0 world. It's ironic that Google, an enterprise whose free unbridled use of search engine 'algorithms' is probably the single biggest contritubor to the radical democratization of information, is closing ranks with big business and government.

Again, I wonder if the paradox of Silliman's closing the comment stream can be resolvable only through analysis of this imminent phenomenon of capitalist assimilation of cultural capital. Kirby's credited Silliman with killing poetry, and in the name of a Leftist literary agenda that's attempted to rewrite Language itself.He may be right.

J said...

The folks at Fox News are basically just decent Christians trying to make decent Christian thought available in an America Gone Wild

Yes, let's remind the Kirby fans out in Consumerland that he censors anyone who dares to criticize great literary figures such as Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, or Aynnie Rand (you think I jest, peruse his site). And why, any malcontent who would attack the good xtian flagwavers (pro-war from day one) and mormons at Fox...has joined the maoist-muslim Enemy, aka LAMANITES!. (...really Sir Faville how can you take this little payaso seriously).

It's unlikely that even Dorn, however un-PC, would have approved of Kirby O's jingoistic rants--especially on some weekend bender, with bourbon when ... Air Peru was in town.

Anonymous said...

for a while i was convinced that "kirby olson" was a creation of kent johnson's....but ultimately i realized that olson was too tedious, too one-dimensional for this to be possible.

David Grove said...

I don't think it's necessary to be First-Amendmenty about everything. Sometimes a dash of unenlightened despotism is called for. You need both scissor blades to cut the paper. If a regular visitor to my blogs were repeatedly uncivil, I wouldn't scruple to try to prevent him from returning.

You can also simply ignore an unwelcome commenter. My guess is that these Ohio highway snipers of the blogosphere have proliferated because they garner more attention than those who leave polite and helpful comments. If they're ignored, they might go away. If a comment I've left at a blog has apparently been ignored, I usually don't return.

Curtis Faville said...

David:

Thanks for the comment.

I was basically trying to rule out all the senses in which a criteria for moderating comments might be measured. As I say, freedom of speech doesn't explicitly apply with comment boxes, but, as I tried to argue, the principles of publication in a free society do carry certain unwritten (and perhaps unenforceable) responsibilities. When you present as partisan and argumentative an agenda as Silliman, there is I think an implied responsibility to provide for an airing of differences of response. Blogging without comment seems kind of inert to me. I find visiting Ron's site now much less stimulating than when it was peppered with buckshot. I do actually believe you can change people's minds with a few carefully aimed exceptions.

I try never to block anyone's comment, no matter how irrelevant, or rude, it may seem. I try to imagine what I might feel, if someone blocked a comment of mine, for reasons that I might consider unjustified. Censorship is very dangerous--the consequences much worse, by far, than any hurt feelings.

J said...

When someone like Kirby O endlessly parrots populist-hick talking points ala Limbaugh (and says nothing, but just chants pep rally speech), they have probably met the criteria of ...blockedness, and they might be banned. I would do so on my site (and actually blocked a few of Kirby's Limbaugh-ish belches a few months back)

I find it amusing, however, that neither Silliman or Sir Faville has a problem with Kirby O's ugly, jingoistic Foxnews-ish rhetoric. In fact, he quotes the likes of Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and no one in the little cute poesy scene raises their voice (a few did...that is until S-man shut down comments)--but someone dares to diss the neo-cons, or the likes of DiDi Feinstein (pro-war, and pro-AIPAC, and a multi millionaire like her man Blum), and he's...anti-semitic. Hah.

Perhaps you're a Foxnews fan as well, CF?

Curtis Faville said...

I only watch Fox News to find out what the other side is thinking.

It's healthy not to spend too much time congratulating yourself on your keen insight, without listening to what your opponents are thinking.

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" --sayeth the Mafia.

Kirby Olson said...

For the record, I've never commented at J's site.

Curtis Faville said...

I might, if I knew what it was....

J said...

Well, Olson's comments did not appear, since we have a "no jingoist/no Limbaughs" policy in effect at Contingencies. That's not the same as no conservatives. Were some bright young WF Buckley wannabe--or Nietzsche Jr--to post something, I would allow it. But that's not Kirby O.

You click on the big "J", CF. And whoop, there you izz.

steven said...

they'll say he was a pompous ass who flung around reverse sexism and racism(white male this, anglo male that)