Poetry in the Age of Digital Reproduction

There is a definite connection between art and material base, between art and the totality of the relations of production. With the change in production relations, art itself is transformed as art of the superstructure, although, like other ideologies, it can lag behind or anticipate social change.
–Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension

Too much of what I read online centers on how digital media is killing print, how no one reads anymore, and how with the demise of institutions subsidizing “real” journalism and “real” literature civilization as we know it drifts farther and farther from its enlightenment ideals of an informed and cultured public.

Lies, slander, etc., of course; publishers and journalists fret about these things because their livelihoods depend on them, but the livelihoods of artists and writers hardly depend more significantly on print publications and market demand than they ever did. Art (of the sort people worry about preserving, anyway) remains the pursuit of leisured classes, and the fundamental crisis of Marxism, The means of production are the means of oppression, holds. While the publishing hegemony, which has not been responsible for supporting writers in the United States for some time, falters, the artists and critics wresting control merely perpetuate its mechanisms, with all the exclusionary shibboleths, litmus tests, and institutional hangups.

But the aesthetic field at the core of this supposed crisis has yet to be fully explored, especially in terms of art rendered as text. And this interests me far more than any economic concerns. The digital media supposedly undermining the foundation on which fiction and poetry depend offers, as any medium will, a plethora of opportunities that neither party seems to have taken any care to explore seriously, and any such exploration must begin with the likewise tractless terrain of how audiences experience digital media.

Steve Tomasula’s recent work, Toc, offered a theory of how one might approach a work designed for a digital medium, but unlike Vas it never usefully incorporates the elements with which it works towards a unified aesthetic end, in part because it fails to anticipate the ways in which we use, and the ways in which one experiences the media in which he presents it. While one can forgive its glitches, the navigation seems like a chore and the world never achieves the immersivenesseveryone seems to promise from digital media. Most egregiously, I consistently felt like I was trying to read, watch, and listen to a work of fiction rather than experiencing these diverse elements of a work.

[Films] are so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts.
–Horkheimer/Adorno The Culture Industry as Mass Deception

Sustained thought, in fact, is also almost completed precluded by our relationship with digital text.  Yet, this has less to do with the nature of digital text than the primary way in which we use digital text (namely, as a mechanism to deliver a relentless rush of facts). Facebook, RSS, Twitter feeds, etc. defined our relationship to digital text while publishers where trying to figure out how quash the chimera of pirated media while still capitalizing on e-readers.


Devices such as the Amazon Kindle and (perhaps to a lesser extent) the Apple Ipad might help reestablish our relationship to digital text (or at least non-print-media text) as something resembling a book. However, in addition to being naive, it will be a missed opportunity if we wait for them to teach audiences to approach digital text as print, esp. to do so out of a misguided deference to the sanctity of the word… “Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration” (Walter Benjamin The Work Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

Further as, “one of the foremost demands of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later” (Ibid.).

Or, alternatively:

“A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” (The Picture of Dorian Gray).

But texts in short forms have proven no more well-suited to digital media than any other, and (though perhaps this is exclusively my failing, but I doubt it) I peruse digital poetry and fiction with the same casual indifference with which I peruse digital news.

Perhaps poetry should not change to accommodate my relationship with digital text, but it should at least take this into account as a possible relationship to digital art, as digital media, text or not, have already been defined in a way that print never quite did as visual media, and at the very least it should not be ignorant of this when determining its presentation.


A work should first be readable, then profitable, if even that. It seems as though the problem of distribution has distracted from the means of presentation, but neither should the means of presentation distract from the text itself, which, I presume, still has the supreme position if one were to devise a hierarchy. Not that anyone has figured out how this lofty ambition will work.

Literary magazines publishing digitally, poetry and prose, have opted, in general for an inconspicuous back end that mimics those adopted by news magazines and blogs, erroneously supposing that the less they interfere with the text the more readily the reader will approach it as such (text qua text). [And TrainBust is to some extent as guilty of this as anyone else.]  They neglect that presenting it in such a medium is no more innocuous than were I to publish my next book of poems in the medium of tabloid, and while they rightly suppose it grants them the same authority [sense of authority] as the media they mimic. what authority is that, and what, exactly, is it good for?

Caetera Desunt