The Death of Revelation

Blake and the web

Reading this post about the future of publishing, I found a number of interesting, depressing or exciting perceptions flying around like sparks from the clash between it and my current reading of Peter Ackroyd’s excellent Blake biography.

Seizing the means

Of course, the exciting part of it is the web’s promise to cut out the middle men: large publishers and distributors. The author of the post, Aaron Wall, a search engine optimization expert, calls for artists to become publishers (and for publishers to become artists). I’m way ahead of him on that one, editing and publishing my own stuff since before the web. Granted, it’s never been a commercial proposition, but the principle holds: optimism for the future has to include artists and writers seizing the means of production, and technology facilitating their expressions rather than commerce hampering them.

A printing press from 1811

William Blake was way ahead, too, printing (with his tireless wife Catherine) many of his creations, famously pioneering a new print process known as relief etching. He used this technique to print his “illuminated books”, words and images combined on one metal plate.

Blake’s control over the technical means of his creativity was more than just a convenience. He understood the spiritual roots of McLuhan’s “medium is the message” centuries before media studies.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

Here, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he rallies the process of relief etching, where acids burn away unprotected parts of the copper printing plate, to stand as a metaphor for the lifting of the veils from our degraded sensual perceptions. But this is almost beyond the realm of metaphor, as his means of conveying his idea is itself symbolic of the idea.

What kind of world does our new media—untouchable, frictionless, both pervasive and ephemeral, empowering and bewildering—convey? Do we want to live there?

Information snacks

The post embeds a brief interview with Cory Doctorow on how to blog effectively, and his advice boils down to: write like a wire service writer. Write like your audience could put your words down after a few seconds, because they probably will. At least, the people that “count” will:

Most people with significant social and/or economic influence have (an equivalent of) attention deficit disorder, caused by an interruption-driven life cluttered with too much content and too little time. People may want to consume relevant bits […] Little chunks of information that change how we perceive the world around us.

I’m more interested than most in nurturing our besieged attention spans; part of my reason for reviving my relationship with print publishing is to encourage more breaks with the flooding rush of information flow, more oxbow lakes of reflective reading, or at least some meanders.

But wasn’t Blake one of the masters of “little chunks of information that change how we perceive the world around us”? So much so that I’ve no need to throw any at you—most people reading this will have at least a few almost clichéd pithy quotes from his poetry and writing to hand. Scanning a compilation of Blake quotes, it’s astonishing how many they are, how brief they are, and how potent their kick of perceptual reconfiguring is.

Many great thinkers are (or can be) aphoristic thinkers: Nietzsche, Einstein, Lao Tsu, Voltaire, Wittgenstein… Need one mention Jesus? Or Woody Allen?

The closely sustained argument of Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death left him in a place where the revelatory infernal corrosives started breaking his language down into exaggerated, non-linear aphorisms, a kind of erudite prose poetry. He quotes McLuhan quoting Francis Bacon:

Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at farthest.

Brown goes on to proclaim:

Systematic form attempts to evade the necessity of death in the life of the mind as of the body; it has immortal longings in it, and so it remains dead. […] The rigor is rigor mortis; systems are wooden crosses, Procrustean beds on which the living mind is pinned. Aphorism is the form of death and resurrection: “the form of eternity”.

All of which is a far cry from the kind of disposable blandness that usually results from “best practices” in blog writing! Still, might Blake have found some affinity with the web, with its eagerness for snappy one-liners and aptitude for textual and visual combinations?

What’s missing here is, firstly, the state of the reader, and secondly, the value of thorough reading, even (or especially) of aphoristic writers. Aphorisms, as a kind of pocket poetry of ideas, can compact very sophisticated insights into tiny seeds of expression. For that insight to properly unfold, however, the ground must be receptive—as Jesus taught in his Parable of the Sower. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:8) Which of us, hurried into a permanently anxious low-level emergency state, frazzled with caffeine, eager to click the next link or check our inboxes, has ears to hear much at all?

It’s true that the greatness of someone like Nietzsche is that he wasn’t a system-builder. And yet, there are subtly (or not-so-subtly) dangerous misinterpretations lying in wait to prey on anyone who hasn’t surveyed the full scope of his thought. James Hillman’s work is similar. There are core ideas and tendencies, but the experimental nature of this thought leaves an particular arc that unfolds through his career. Apprehending it all doesn’t leave you with a totalized “system”, but it naturally creates a much fuller understanding of his work. My good friend Jim assures me that Gregory Bateson’s eclectic oeuvre is similarly rewarded by a comprehensive reading. Connections between apparently disparate ideas reveal themselves; and one starts seeing that the connections are the point of his worldview.

But who has the time to read all of Nietzsche, Hillman or Bateson? The dark Satanic offices demand their vast share of your life, and our hyperconnected society lets their demands press ever harder.

Art, commerce, democracy

Ackroyd, early on in Blake, contrasts the London prophet with the Romantic poets he’s normally loosely lumped with. He makes much of the fact that, despite “the dark Satanic mills”, Blake didn’t share the Romantics’ aversion to commerce, making his way (just) throughout his life as an engraver.

It’s true that Blake’s life as an artisan, a tradesman, coloured him in ways that differentiate him from, say, Wordsworth and Coleridge. But what colour?

When he returned to London in 1804, after three generally unsuccessful years near the Sussex coast, Blake “was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters.” (Quoted in Ackroyd, p. 271) Ackroyd comments:

He is very specific about the period of darkness he has had to undergo, with a duration of twenty years up to this year of 1804. 1784 was the year in which his father died and in which he set up the print-selling business with James Parker in Broad Street. It was the beginning, then, of his life as a tradesman, conducted perhaps in emulation of his dead father.

He saw these two decades, wherein his youthful creativity was constantly restricted by commercial concerns, as time spent “as a slave bound in a mill among beasts and devils”.

In the interview with Aaron Wall where I found his post on publishing, Wall is asked what he thinks the net will look like 100 or 200 years from now.

I think the distinction between the web and the real world will be hard to draw, or perhaps non-existent. Communication technologies will keep evolving and information will available readily in whatever format you like, but with well blended ads. It will become nearly impossible to see the difference between ads and content.

This tendency towards intensifying the blend between commerce and art, advertising and communication, is it creating a hybrid culture that transcends both, some utopian marriage? Or is it the bars of the Black Iron Prison becoming invisible, seamless?

Wall states the obvious dynamic of commercial survival:

If I target an idea to a market and people tell me it is garbage then so much for that idea. If early feedback looks promising then it is time to dig deeper, do more research, read more, and write more. Invest where your interests align with the interest of others.

The web promises a broad democratization of the supply-demand axis in publishing. But—oodles of pointless and shit websites notwithstanding—I thought the point of cutting out the middlemen was to enable more diversity?* Of course Wall’s goal is to help people be more commercially successful, so I can’t criticize his good advice. It’s just indicative of the growing control that “the consumer” has over their media world. And while I generally champion this control, I can’t help but see its shadow: the death of revelation.

Audiences can’t be ignored. But they should never be obeyed (just as publishers or artists should never be obeyed by their audiences). The artist’s responsibility (which, as Wall noted, is destined to overlap with that of the publisher) is to a certain extent, as David Cronenberg noted, to be irresponsible. Not wilfully or gratuitously; but to challenge, to provoke, to proffer unpalatable truths. To surprise, to lift the veils. If everyone gets exactly what they want, much of value to life will remain unseen, held at bay.

The web may yet be a tool of conviviality, a means to negotiate between the oppressions of both fascism and democracy. Things don’t look too promising. But I am—I hope—still open to surprises and revelations.

I’ll just end by noting one of the final questions in the interview with Aaron Wall:

How much offline reading do you do?

Much less than I would like…

* I realize that for the most part, the move from top-down to bottom-up dictation of media content is a move towards more diversity. I don’t oppose this. The “diversity” I’m talking about (as becomes clear) is diversions from what people immediately want, in a surface, ego, “gimme this” kind of way.