Friday, April 8, 2011

The Meaning of Silliman's Links

Ron Silliman does not, as far as I know, play golf, or follow the professional circuit. In fact, I never was aware that he had any kind of physical recreation. Ron was always the avid reader, and watcher, and thinker about culture--the whole range of it, from the meanest manifestation, to the most exalted example.

Since Ron began his blog way back in the early oughts, one of his favorite, regular installments has been the "link list" of other internet sites, featuring stories, newsbreaks, videos, essays, commentary and the like. For those of us who maintain our own blog sites, a "link" mention on Silliman's Blog is worth at least three dozen hits, almost as if you'd been mentioned on an evening news segment. Having been the beneficiary of a number of these free adverts, I'm grateful to have been included in his eclectic panoply of worthy honorable mentions over the years [I started my own blog, The Compass Rose, in January 2009].

But this essay isn't a celebration of Silliman's Blog. It's an analysis of the meaning of Silliman's links, how they relate to, and express, are indeed a crucial component of his poetics.

The links function of blogs is a feature seemingly created for Silliman's mind. As I've said before, the chief aspect, the common thread which runs throughout Silliman's work from his beginnings as the Author of short, snappy lyric fragments [Crow, New York: Ithaca House, 1971], is his non-stop notational instinct to observe, absorb, record, and deconstruct "everything that's happening" at the moment or in his consciousness. The "stream of consciousness" form, which was developed mostly by prose writers during the Modernist Era (Joyce, Dos Passos, Faulkner) was designed to mimic the passage of mental data flowing through an individual conscious persona. In fiction, this may take the form of an interior monologue in which language is the medium, in which experience (and thought) are transported along a stream of words. Twisting and altering syntax and sense might be employed to reflect the passage of an individual persona, and the development of the inner life as it passed through the matter of experience. What Silliman discovered was that you could use this same technique to record "reality"--the very events and observations and feelings that one might experience in a given sequence (space) of time, say, during a bus ride or an afternoon spent sitting in the kitchen. Barrett Watten, I believe, had used this metaphor to describe Ron's poem Tjanting: "This poem is as good as a bus ride." But if this were only what he had been doing, it would only have constituted a kind of verité documentary. What Silliman recognized was that at any given moment, any mind is conducting itself on multiple levels (call them contexts), simultaneously. Any writer's approach to form is a mediation between how one may see the world, and how that particular consciousness may express that unique vision. Nearly all of his work, since he abandoned "poetry" in favor of his long prose constructions, has consisted of long sequences of prose meditation, which are also kinds of journeys through mental space/time. We ordinarily think of the duration of a poem as consisting of the time of its reading. A lyric or narrative poem consists of the time of its reading, which has a beginning, middle and end. But this duration in traditional poetry refers only to the occasion of its consummation--the time of its being used-up as nothing more than its use as a literary experience. What Silliman saw was that a literary work might include multiple segments of time--filled with relevant/irrelevant data and interior conscious/unconscious phenomena--and occasion, whose intervals would be syntax itself--language performing autonomous functions, and placed in a certain order to achieve a total effect more nearly like the way his mind worked, than as an external formal artifact to which his habitual way of seeing and thinking about the world would have to be adapted.

As a thinker about culture, Ron's nervous, eclectic, voraciously curious mentality was expressed in his percolating conversation, as a wide range of interests--a catholicity of inquiry which has always seemed to me the main thrust of his aesthetic. This attempt to witness, and to account for, to incorporate, process, organize, and in some way justify, the whole sweep and variety of "what's happening" within the compass of a particular consciousness parallels the technique of his writing. As a computer industry contractor, Silliman was intimately involved in the development and progress of software applications, the birth and flowering of the internet--in the ways in which that technology could be applied in the marketplace, and as a medium of/for the dissemination of information and cultural exchange. As the World Wide Web unfolded and expanded, it was almost as if it had been designed to accommodate the kind of aesthetic of consciousness which had been at the heart of Silliman's approach to form from the earliest part of his career. Marshaling vast banks of reference, spinning the slide carousel of contexts with increasing rapidity, were the ideal applications for a mind with such a preoccupation.

Now, with the further refinements and sophistication (portability) of phones, various hand-held devices and so forth--allowing people to be constantly "in touch" anywhere in the actual and virtual environments--we're becoming consumers and participants in a continuous flow of information, exchange and recordation which seems the ultimate realization of the "Silliman" consciousness. Re-reading Ketjak [1978] recently, I was struck by the multiple implications it had for the computer revolution, the portable autonomous consciousness of the cell phone era.

Silliman's early poems--Ketjak, Tjanting, and eventually The Alphabet--are all quintessential computer age poems. If I didn't know otherwise, and was coming upon these works today without any knowledge about the date or occasion of their composition, I might suppose that they had been written in the present century. When Silliman began his blog, the reach of his mind, across the whole panorama of media and cultural exchange, suddenly was subsumed into the tapestry of the new age of information. Silliman's blog itself, of course, became another forum in the proliferating platforms of opinion and information. The links function, in which separate sites may be joined in a vast network of interconnectivity, became another expression of Silliman's mining of source, entertainment and significance. Each link thus gathered and presented, together, became like a kind of daily edition of one man's world view (consciousness). Using the web as a platform, Silliman utilized his blog site in much the same way that he wrote and organized bodies of data in his poems, choosing and discriminating information and presenting it in linear form, as a series of links to widely separated contexts and sources. To be "included" as a link in Silliman's blog was like being mentioned (as I was, at least once) in one of Ron's meta-epic extended prose poems. Of course, the ephemerality and fragility of the blog-verse meant/means that, without a saving of some kind, all this blog content will eventually either be erased or transmuted into some newer "database" or media system. The internet, in this respect, has clearly mimicked the restless throw-away quality of our product/artifact driven capitalist economy, as a highway of information whose immediate value and use seem commodity-driven, but whose underlying implications are potentially much greater, not just for art, but for the society at large.

Silliman's links, then, may be seen as another example of his aesthetic of a constant, ineluctable procession--the "caravan of fellaheen" "migrating to the right" towards overwhelming mountains of data. Though no one mind may be capable of consuming it all, or with "keeping up" with it, sampling this data with intelligence and shrewd selectivity, might be one way to interpret what it all means. I often feel, reading Silliman's poetry, as if I were on a fast motorcycle, speeding through cities, the countryside, or perhaps through some virtual parallel universe of structure, event, and display, with the wind blowing by, my mind unable to take it all in, in some kind of high state of propulsive consciousness. Silliman seems to be saying "don't worry about trying to make sense of all of it, just stay tuned, be alert, and think clearly about what you're actually seeing, so you don't misinterpret or exaggerate or distort the reality." And the second implication, at least for me, would be an injunction not to resist the flow, but at least to some degree, "to go with it," to go with the flow, embrace its richness and variety and potential for growth.

Will Ron now graduate to the next platform of interconnectivity? Will the new phone-verse which is just now overtaking us, be the platform of a new poetry aesthetic? Will poets of the future create multiple "Ketjaks"--travelogues of millions of autonomous journeys along the super-virtual highways of Tomorrowland? I always think of Coolidge's work as the culmination of the advances and discoveries of science and psychology, of cybernetics and physics and cognitive research, in the 20th Century. But Silliman's works--Ketjak and Tjanting and The Alphabet--are the first important literary works of the Computer Age. Ironically, Silliman himself couldn't have known it at the time--because it hadn't happened yet. His thinking process, and the writings he did, beginning in the 1970's, anticipated our present technological environment in the Age of Information.

Go figure.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I almost bought the Silliman as computer visionary idea except that he's killed the comments stream. Remember? All links lead only to Ron Silliman in an unabashed attempt to keep his LangPo brand advertised everywhere. No room for the competition there.

I'll even go so far as to make a case a case for Silliman as the new 'culture capitalist' working his expertise in software marketing to his own advantage. How often does he write in his own weblog anymore? It's really a clearing house for poetry merchandise with the Silliman seal of approval.To suggest Silliman is the quintessential Internet poet is ridiculous.

Curtis, read Geert Lovink's "Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture", and I think you'll see Silliman as the post-avant turned media guru he really is. It's something I'm seeing in Canada among the so-called "Tish" radicals: funny how these guys have recently gone to digital advertising.

Autre temps, autre moeurs!

Curtis Faville said...


I think if you look back on the literary artifacts of the last 35 years, you probably won't find works which "anticipate" in quite the way Ron's longer "poems" do the specific character of our time.

I'm less interested in the technical-political effect his blog sets up, than I am in how it is, in effect, another expression of his particular mental predisposition. Can you think of anyone else whose work and blogging seem so united and synergistic? He's clearly a pioneer in this respect, too.

This is not simply a compliment, but an analytical take on the possible meaning of his work as a whole. As you should note, I'm by no means a singular supporter of his work (particularly The Alphabet--which I find monotonous and far too formally uniform).

Curtis Faville said...

I think that blogging, as a phenomenon, may be passing its initial excitement phase, into a mature phase, in which people look less and less to it for complex, developed ideas, and more as they do with television, as bland entertainment, and "headlines".

I think the computer age is contributing to a general dumbing down of the broad populace. While superficially it may seem to bring people together, it actually at the same time separates them. And rather than expanding their sense of the complexity of issues, it may reduce their awareness. Or perhaps it's doing both things at the same time. That's paradoxical.

As people become more "sophisticated"* they become dumber. As people become more jaded, they lose curiosity. If everything is available, it's overwhelming.


*Sophistication can have really negative connotations.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

"I think if you look back on the literary artifacts of the last 35 years, you probably won't find works which "anticipate" in quite the way Ron's longer "poems" do the specific character of our time."


Not 35 years but if you go back probably 80 or 90 you certainly will find the earliest critiques of technology & art, such as in The Frankfurt School, & Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (just for starters), Russian & Italian Futurism, Dada, Surrealism,Burroughs etc etc. Compared to this rich avant-garde tradition Silliman's just a passing phase.

I certainly did applaud Silliman for his blogging advocacy til, of course, the whole comments stream thing, after which I haven't been able to see the guy in quite the same way anymore. Or, more truthfully, I wasn't as prepared to apply to him a growing view among some critics of Internet production (particularly blogging) as another type of exploitive 'global capitalism'.

Ed Baker said...

not only 'that' but there are damned few people around who now know how to fix a toilet .... and,
pretty soon they won't even know how to flush one when it s full of sh't !

just had myself a facebook ... 'thing' ... got up to 235 "friends" ...most I've never heard of..

I lasted about two weeks first I defriended 108 "friends" people I've NEVER heard from in the last 55 years then I dropped the whole thing...

I'm with you on the "dumbing-down observation" and, even, looking at who is now running our country.. would say that we've digressed even beyond that

J said...

S-mans' blog does, or uh did provide some useful information but others--like Don Barthelme, for one-- did the fragmented-techno whatever jazz far more effectively IMHE. Try reading some of S-man's longer pieces-- headache or nausea soon follows.

Then some of us consider PoetryCo 90% bogus anyway, at least after the WC Williams Hallmark and Beatniks-at-Atascadero people took over.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

"Then some of us consider PoetryCo 90% bogus anyway, at least after the WC Williams Hallmark and Beatniks-at-Atascadero people took over."

Well said, J!

In a documentary on the life of Burroughs entitled "William Burroughs: A Man Within" poet Genesis p-Orridge says: "People who are prepared to risk sacrificing their freedom and their physical safety because of an idea are always dangerous to a society."

One of the best definitions of the avant-garde I've seen yet. Sort of makes the present LangPo crowd look rather silly & tame, doesn't it?

J said...

That's not exactly what I had in mind, though agree with yr opposition to the LangPo school-- they don't really understand what poetry izz. S-man's a programmer for one. His "writing" seems like bad code, like spam from those odd random-generator apps. Did they ever read say...Rilke...or even Shelley/Coleridge...EA Poe... F scott fitzgerald? It's like they assume ... machines have taken over or something.

Im not a big fan of the Burroughs school either though heard the old lizard speak once and it was sort of entertaining. For the supposed dark, nihilistic tripmeister, Burroughs was sort of tame. Celine (not to say...De Sade) quite outscore Burroughs on the Nihilometer, IMHE. Kerouac always impressed mo' than the other beat kitties.

Anonymous said...

funny you shld mention De Sade

just now reading Shattuck's FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE

do 'check out' & into the chapter
The Devine Marquis

this ca1780 writer is one of our 20 th century plinths


just ask Bert Camus or Gide or any one of those we now call DADA-ists or Avant Gardes

& don't just react to the name (De Sade)

keep mind open
mouth shut
& do some reading