The Poetic Imperative in the Age of Surveillance
In returning to writing from curating, I find the absence of a unified theory of poetry distracting, especially in these dark times. I have “Architecture & Now” (my poem with Maurice Shapero’s architectural drawings) coming out shortly and my hybrid-poetry collection “Dyer & Mahfouz” is rapidly taking shape, but a theoretical framework is missing. Thus, I am preparing just that: “Poetry as Thoughtcrime”. This aims to examine the huge existential problem facing contemporary writing and includes my manifesto for what to do about it. The analysis flows from the curatorial practice developed in the Text Festivals from 2005 to 2014. After that, I was creatively focused on the projects in China, which took my attention away from theoretical and practical next steps that should follow from the Text. In retrospect, this post-Text hiatus gave me a parallax view and distance from which my vision for the future could mature.
The full analysis will be available soon as a publication, but with the request from Synapse for an extract, and the near apocalyptic turn of world events in 2020, it feels imperative to offer some form of the new thinking. The starting point for any analysis of future direction has to acknowledge the backdrop of the crises of Late Capitalism, Brexit, Trump, and of course the big one, climate catastrophe; in this truncated disaster timescape, the hope that the post-virus world will be a brighter future already looks delusional; indeed, though I have referenced capitalism as the evil, there are credible arguments that it has already been replaced by an economic system that is even worse .When Mark Fisher bleakly observed “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” you sort of optimistically imagine that he meant capitalism being ended with something better. Anyway, increasingly the massive crisis of the pandemic and capitalism’s responsibility and response continues to fit my initial analysis of the dangers we face as humans, and specifically, the challenge for writers isn’t materially changed.
My analysis does have an implicit fatalism – the longer version of this essay investigates the implication of writing in the countdown to extinction.
My project then will be as follows: as with all manifestos, the opening essay (a taster for which this is) is an analysis for the scale of the dangers we face – ‘Poetry as Thoughtcrime’. This is followed by a Manifesto, which posits an imperative direction for writing, and, more specifically, a unified theory for poetry in this age of multiple global crisis. In support of this statement and proposal, there are a series of related essays examining the implications for literary production which include a new vision for internationalism, a recognition of the inadequacy of Conceptual Poetry to meet the challenges, the poetic space within Post-Truth and the distractions/implications of dominant tropes in popular culture.
There are two ‘problems’ writers no longer have. From Albert Camus “A writer writes to a great extent to be read (as for those who say they don’t, let us admire them but not believe them).” And from Derek Beaulieu - “Don’t protect your artwork. Give it away. Trust your audience. Be your own pirate.” We have entered the age when everything is read and you don’t have to give your artwork away, because it is taken at the moment of conception. In fact, more than that, writing will soon be heteronomically manipulated in advance of its creation. In this regard, as the conceptualist writers argue, writers will not be the special category which they have claimed for themselves, as we progress into the end of Personhood.
In the full essay, I expand on the threats to Personhood (“You”) through three dynamic appropriations: commodification of consciousness, addictive attention sequestration and behaviour manipulation. For the sake of brevity here, I will just touch on some of the main sources of analysis. Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ articulates the final stage of capitalism where humans themselves are the commodity, humans are ‘farmed’:“Surveillance capitalism migrated to Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon – and became the default option in most of the tech sector. It now advances across the economy from insurance, to retail, finance, health, education and more, including every “smart” product and “personalised” service.” … “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data … fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later”. So “Computer-based personality judgements are more accurate than those made by humans” - Facebook knows you better than members of your own family do. “The team found that their software was able to predict a study participant’s personality more accurately than a work colleague by analysing just 10 ‘likes’’; and “Belgian police now say that the Facebook is using ‘likes’ as a way of collecting information about people and deciding how best to advertise to them. As such, it has warned people that they should avoid using the buttons if they want to preserve their privacy” (Andrew Griffin, the Independent). With personal data becoming the world’s most valuable commodity, the best analogy I’ve seen comes from Digital Ethicist Tristan Harris where he likens the digital model of you to a voodoo doll. Every action you take, real or digital, updates a more perfect copy of you which can then be used to predict what you will think, do or consume next, but more than that it can be tested, digital ‘pins’ can be poked into it to see how the real you will react to stimulus, and building on that, can be used to alter you. Algorithms are developing in ways that allow companies to profit from our past, present, and future behaviour – or what Shoshana Zuboff
The world has become more digital in response to the Covid19 lockdowns, so the dynamics of control and subsummation are magnified. You may think that this is over-egging the threat of Surveillance and even that this is a First World anxiety, but the combination of corporate capitalism, rapidly expanding dictatorships and controlling propensity of neoliberal-fascist government, there are numerous examples of not only the dangerous direction of travel but significant inhuman initiatives. Orwell’s prediction - “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull” will be surpassed very soon when that few centimetres has gone too.
we can only live in now, the 21st Century.