Can The Critical Study Of Poetry Tell Us Anything About Social Media?


Tuesday, 8.05pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Modernus, based on the word modo, for “now,” first came into use in the sixth century A.D., and it is worth remembering that “Modernism” always means “For Now.” – Harold Bloom

My social media feed is brimming with at the moment with posts about how companies are stepping up to decarbonise their operations.

This is a good thing, right?

But, I’m not sure if what I’m seeing is really what’s happening.

Is it really the case that organisations have finally seen the light – that we have reached a tipping point and now everything is going to be better.

Or is it just that the clever social media algorithms that impersonally monitor my every move on the Internet are putting stuff in front of me that is like stuff I have looked at before.

Is the world really changing, or is it what I see that has changed?

I could spend more time on social media trying to find out but I don’t want to.

Instead, I do what I often do when I’m not sure what to do – spin the wheel and go somewhere that looks different but interesting.

That aimless journey today took me to Harold Bloom’s book A map of misreading, that tells you how to critically read a poem.

But first, Bloom talks about his theory of poetry which he says others will argue about but that might still be useful.

I’ll be straight with you – the language is tough going and I was tempted to give up quickly – it will take hard thought to decode such a text.

But, there are little gems that kept me going, so here are a few of them.

We might have an image of a poet as a solitary creature, that crafts things of wonder in quiet solitude, but Bloom argues first that poets write in response to other poets.

A poet is not the only pinpoint of light in an empty universe – there are other stars and they reflect each other’s light.

Think of how you act in a social situation – do you act in splendid isolation or are you influenced by how others act – and is it not the same on social media?

A second point is what we accept as tradition – what we see as normal right now.

For example, a decade or so ago most people would have ignored social media as a plaything for college kids – but now it is increasingly seen as a potential tool for business.

We are all students, learning what should be done from those who come before us – a tradition of studentship that goes back thousands of years.

A teacher must first be a student and a writer first a reader – and they must go around changing from one to the other as long as they want to be useful.

It’s when you stop that you start to ossify, to fossilise, to get old and irrelevant.

It is dangerous to think that we can ignore what has gone before.

Bloom gives the example of those people who rebel against everything their parents are – learning nothing from them – and finding to their dismay that later they turn into their parents.

If you would avoid being who your parents are then how can you do it if you don’t know anything about them?

People who start from scratch rarely do anything – they may reinvent something that has been done better before – and what use is that?

But it would be a mistake too to think that what is there now is all there is – that tradition is more important than anything else.

As Bloom says in the quote that starts this post, everything you see as modern is only there “for now.”

So, the letter and the fax have been displaced by email and the status update.

So far, we have been given two options to engage with the world.

The first is that of the early adopter – the one who got blogs and social media and content early – and are now firmly sat as experts, traditionalists in the field.

Then there are others who turn their backs in disgust, either too old to play or feel that they are too late and so why bother anyway, how can they possible compete?

Which is where Bloom draws on Romanticism, the way of thinking of the last two hundred or so years, which makes a point of being late to the party – of being consciously late.

It’s the approach that comes along and takes a good, long, hard look at what is there now and reinterprets it, revises it, questions it.

And that means that it’s okay to come along to this big Internet, social thing late in the game – just don’t play it the same way everyone else does but find a way to look at it again and make a new way that works for you.

Although Bloom cautions that you can get so caught up in Romantic revisionism that revising for the sake of revising become a new norm.

The media we have now is a technological implementation of an ancient intellectual battle.

On one side is the camp of those that believe that the spoken word is key.

One other side are those that believe that the written word is supreme.

Those who see ideas as things to be discussed, interpreted, argued and settled through “contemporary authority” see the world in one way.

Those who believe that the written word is primal see things differently – they see thought captured in the words and divorced from the personality of the speaker – perhaps allowing for more independent and objective examination. They see how meaning lives past the meaning maker.

But now we see something different.

We see social media being used to discuss and argue ideas in a court made of the public – and in some cases this creates great change – maybe good change.

Like the change that seems to be happening as organisations wake up to just how much people want them to decarbonise and make sure there is still a planet for future generations.

But then you also have the polarisation of debate, the echo chambers and the election of politicians who appeal to people on the basis of their opposition to other people.

There are a lot of stars in the sky, after all.

And so perhaps the most important quote is the one Bloom takes from a book titled Beyond the pleasure principle.

Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli.

In other words, sometimes you just have to turn the damn devices off.


Karthik Suresh

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