The prevalent view of the internet as a manifestation of a postmodern world is not often questioned. But could new global media be an extension of the earlier modernist project?
Kenneth Goldsmith, MoMA poet laureate and UbuWeb founder, is also known for his wild conceptual art project, Printing Out the Internet. In May 2013, the artist placed an open call for “printouts of the Internet”, requiring the participants to print out screen captures of the web on A5 paper, and mail them to his address through the post. In total, the poet received ‘ten tons of paper’. The heaps of documents and information were exhibited at the Labor Art Gallery in Mexico City, and then of course recycled. The project drew criticism from environmentalists.
The show was meant to be “a poetical and pataphysical tribute to Aaron Schwartz”, an internet activist who was prosecuted for illegally downloading articles from JSTOR. Instrumental in the campaign against the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’, Schwartz worked towards achieving a freer, more collaborative web, where data and information could be shared by, and made available to, everyone.
“Information. Lots of it. And free to all”. The poster tag line for the exhibition is quite revealing and self-explanatory. With his project, Goldsmith very much gestures towards the creation and value of an ultra representative and democratic art. Effectively born out of crowdsourcing, Printing Out the Internet is inclusive and features an hyper-multiplicity of voices. The printouts are presented as heaps of paper. The information is not organised in any specific or particularly intentional way. There is no ordering or hierarchy in the work.
Goldsmith’s exhibition essentially illustrates the connections between democracy, information, and trash. It also zeros in on the poetry, presenting the internet as a kind of lyrical, metaphysical, unifying, all-encompassing cosmic order. The cement that binds cities together, the net patches over the fragmented experience that is modern urban life.
Indeed, Printing Out the Internet presents what is arguably a quintessentially modernist impulse. Goldsmith’s poetic-political exhibition is not Beckettian, or postmodern, because it is allows too much room for possibility. It is too hopeful an endeavour. It implies that there is something redemptive about new media technology and what it has to offer to society and individuals.
Whilst postmodernism seeks to bring out the artificiality of art, modernism stages it as the redeeming saviour of all unhappy, broken anxious individuals. In other words, Samuel Beckett said “NO”, and James Joyce, “YES YES YES.” Joyce’s definitive modernist text, Ulysses, is extremely fragmented. There are hundreds of different characters, as well many different voices being reported. In addition, there are quite a few literary styles and epochs pastiched – from romantic fiction to journalism. In short, Joyce is interested in capturing Dublin in its totality in his prose.
In the ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode of the novel, Joyce depicts a city scene during a specific time of the day: 3pm. The narration jumps from one mind to the next; and, with no omniscient narrator to compete with, the Dubliners Joyce represents are all empowered. The prose is freed and randomised. It favours all voices equally.
The world the novel constructs is not nearly as chaotic as it first seems. The Homeric parallel with The Odyssey works throughout Ulysses. Each chapter corresponds to an Homeric episode. On top of that, Joyce also does quite a bit of work on representing the body through its various stages, i.e. characters are often shown eating, urinating, excreting, masturbating, et cetera. Moreover, each section of Ulysses is associated with a particular organ. In fact, there are various tables and schemas, including one constructed by Joyce himself, designed to delineate the patterns and recurring motifs of the novel. Certain idiomatic expressions and unusual words frequently reappear, such as “snot green”, “tower”, “yellowlemon”, “keys”, “cuckoo”, or “matutinal cloud”.
In ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’, TS Eliot outlines the “mythic method” of Joyce’s work, observing in Ulysses “an organic unity”. Hyper-textuality is also in fact a central component of Eliot’s very own long poem, The Waste Land. Part of the modernist venture – if there is such a thing— is to highlight the “variousness” of modern city life, whilst finding some sort of artistic and metaphysical cohesion, an aesthetic whole, which would enclose all fragments and units.
The idea is that to live in a city can be a very alienating experience – or at least, so it has been since the early twenties. Since the Nietzschian-prophesized death of God and WWI (and WWII), there is not much to cling on to for personal meaning. Literary theorists call this feeling “anomie”, i.e. the lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group. This is why many of us tend to look for patterns and the sublime in our everyday lives. We draw connections between the various conversations we’ve occasioned to have during the course of a few days: “Oh, I had the very same conversation on sheep fetishes the other day.”
Similarly, the internet is a vast, chaotic jumble of articles, pictures, memes, and tweets. Meant to be a democratic space, or at least so it used to be before during the age of P2P technology, users are all able to create content themselves. When Goldsmith is exhibiting a pile of printouts from the web, he is essentially tapping into, and echoing, Marshall McLuhan’s very modernist aphorism, “The medium is the message.” In Understanding Media, McLuhan argues that the shape and form of the different media outlets – television, print, the radio, etc. – should be the greater focus of media studies. The configuration of the various mediums of communication, McLuhan argues, is infinitely more significant and deterministic than content.
The internet is, therefore, a cold medium. It requires and relies on a great deal of user participation. With an implosion in homemade YouTube videos, Tumblr, podcasts, Tweets, Facebook posts, such social media encourage users to contribute and write their own web. With the commercialisation of the internet and web browsers, companies and start ups have realised it is more profitable for them to encourage user participation. YouTube, for instance, is worth 1.65 billion dollars; and that is mostly thanks to its users.
The internet is the new modernist hypertext. It features the same fragmentation and heterogeneity as the cannons of high modernism. Removed, separate users from all over the world can engage in dialogue and self-expression. Point of view is very much a part of the internet. Yet, there is also a sense of cohesion, an all-inclusive harmony.
With Twitter, for instance, we observe a great deal of “tribalism” taking place, especially through the use of hash tags, which help create order, coherence, and cohesion within the billions of separate individual tweets.
Removed Twitter users can connect with, and engage in, dialogue with other users, based on the particular twitter tags and expressions they choose to hash tag. The function of hash tags is very similar that all the “cuckoos” and “snot greens”, the patterns and recurring words, of Ulysses.
Though references and allusions have always been a part of literature, modernist took this a step further with intertextuality. Allusions and quotations from other works are often in modernism indistinguishable from the text itself, forming a new hybrid text. Similarly, Twitter users can re-tweet each other in the same way Joyce “re-tweeted” Hamlet or Eliot, Dante and Baudelaire.
Internet memes, and their use on social media websites, are equally as fascinating. The hyper-referencing as well as the self-referencing, characteristic of social media and the internet in general, certainly echoes some of the modernist techniques.
“Forever Alone”, “Me Gusta”, “I see what you did there”, the “Y U NO” guy, et cetera… Memes help forge a new media language, which constantly expands and gains in complexity, as new words, new TV tropes, new references keep on getting added on. New layers of meaning are constantly created.
The internet is the one of the most democratic mediums of communication. It has for purpose to facilitate the exchange of ideas, as well as networks, and the sharing of information. The net celebrates point-of-view, multiplicity of voice, fuelling on subjectivity and controversy, as modernism very much does. The internet is a mosaic of perspectives. Users are separate entities, communicating from removed locations. Understanding the internet, and its social consequences, is a very good way into modernism.