Read the introduction by guest editors Shara Lessley and Bruce Snider.
The Cloud, The Desktop, and the Poetics of No-Place
“There is no weather / On the Internet.”
-Ariana Reines, Coeur de lion
I was ten the year we got the Internet. I stood there terrified as the modem buzzed and snarled, its beeps and clicking and static sounding, I imagined, like some kind of demented animal was trapped inside it. On screen, my very first homepage shimmered to life, its tiny Netscape logo—an “N” with one foot perched intrepidly beyond the horizon—resolving pixel-by-pixel into focus. Because I knew only a single website those first months, that horizon was a close one, my browsing confined to the few links I could access from categories like “School Bell” and “Science & Nature” on Yahooligans. This, I understood, was the Internet—some facts about butterflies, a clickable barnyard. I sensed, though, like learning some strange new language, that somewhere, just beyond my ability to imagine it, the real excitement of the Internet lay hidden, that if only I stumbled onto the right combination of words and dots and slashes I might uncover at last that secret civilization behind the screen—chat rooms and search engines, something called “instant messaging” I’d been hearing about at school.
For a segment of the so-called Millennial generation born, as I was, in the middle of the 1980s, the arrival of the Internet serves as a kind of Genesis myth with which to fashion into collective form our widely disparate comings of age. Though online media venues like Buzzfeed and Gizmodo often curate nostalgic, ten-signs-you’re-a-Millennial inventories of our shared childhood—Fresh Prince memes, pogs, Tamagotchis—perhaps our most important claim to collective identity is that ours is the last generation to remember a time before the Internet, a time, I mean, before those cultures of constant interconnectedness and of distraction that are, for us, indistinguishable from adulthood. For myself—as, I think, for others of my generation—the arrival of the Internet was simultaneous with the irruption into our lives of those great forces of history—of politics and sex and economics and technology—from which our homes, those first firewalls, had once protected us.
The Internet, when it came, was Bosnia and Desert Storm, Monica Lewinsky and Nancy Kerrigan. It was O. J. It was OKC. It was the World Trade Center erupting for the very first time into a cloud of smoke and dust. Like Milton’s first humans, our generation stood shelterless and alone at the edge of the future, the cherubims’ flaming swords wheeling overhead, that vast, magnificent garden receding behind. They looked back, Milton says, and beheld Paradise, “so late their happy seat”:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
I’ve always been surprised by what seems to me the irrepressible joy of this passage, the last in Paradise Lost. Here, that greatest tragedy to befall the human species is merely the beginning of another more important story, the story of what came after. The arrival of the Internet—for myself, for my generation, for our species—was a setting forth, I think, from what Gaston Bachelard has called “the consolations of the cave,” a taking of our way, with wandering steps and slow, through an unknown, threatening, yet potentially liberating, possibly revolutionary global village. We had swapped the shelter of our homes for the information superhighway, and where that highway might take us—to our neighbors’ living rooms via AIM, to Dubai’s palm-shaped islands on Google Earth—we had, and still have, no way of knowing. The world, as Milton says, was all before us.
It’s this version of the myth, at least, that we love to perpetuate. That we have, in a kind of Promethean triumph over the old gods, transcended space for cyberspace. That we exist, now, not in a single place—some garden somewhere, some home—but in a placelessness that is every place, a web whose near-infinite interconnectedness streamlines the exchange of ideas and cultures across previously insurmountable barriers. “Electric circuitry,” Marshall McLuhan tells us, “has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space,’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men.” Our old social and geographical formations, McLuhan says, are no longer viable in the new age of global data flows. “Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ You can’t go home again.”
Decades before it became standard Internet jargon, McLuhan lays out here, in 1967, the logic of what we would come to call the cloud, that every- and no-place in the ether from which we pull down, often with just a click, our photos and poems and mp3’s. That cottony memory palace. That place where the angels lived. Whizzing and darting in the air around us, or enveloping us, perhaps, in its downy light, the cloud is the Internet as it would like to be, a bright, amniotic mist in which we’re suspended together with our media, floating along, all of us, above the old, hard-wired world.
Popularized over the last decade by the tech companies behind Web 2.0, the cloud is the quintessential northern California dream-image, part new-age theology and part the kind of feel-good Silicon Valley marketing we’ve seen, perhaps most memorably, in the series of tear-jerker commercials produced by Google’s in-house marketing team, commercials in which, for example, a father creates a baby scrapbook by Gmailing his newborn daughter, or in which we follow, in searches, a couple’s relationship from “how to impress a French girl” to “how to assemble a crib.” Like the cloud they depict in action, these commercials portray our interaction across hard drives and Wi-Fi networks as the most meaningful, indeed the most human, of relationships. Here, the alienating and distancing effects of technology—the Skype lag, the tinny sound of our loved ones in the iPhone’s speaker—are re-characterized, via something like poetry I want to propose, into unparalleled forms of closeness and communion, into “personal” computing.
For the cloud, of course, is among other things an incredibly successful metaphor. Not quite, or not only, some rarefied distillation enveloping users in its buoyant embrace, “the cloud,” at its most literal, is mile after mile of servers housed in the chilled, earthquake-resistant basements of Silicon Valley tech firms. Its placelessness—that everywhere and nowhere quality we demand from our media these days—is an epiphenomenal effect of its very rootedness in place, an effect, moreover, whose purpose is in part to mask the decidedly less feel-good hegemony of corporations like Google, each day exerting greater and more alarming control over an ostensibly liberated cyberspace.
Google, to be sure, is hardly first in making metaphor from clouds, historically, perhaps, our most “poetic” of images. Homer called Zeus the “cloud-gatherer.” Shelley, just two years before his death, speaks as one who “wield[s] the flail of the lashing hail, / And whiten[s] the green plains under.” Wordsworth too, most famously, “wandered lonely as a cloud,” though less remarked upon is how that title image, “float[ing] on high o’er vales and hills,” disappears entirely after the second line of the poem, replaced instead by the “host of golden daffodils […] fluttering and dancing in the breeze” that is the poem’s true subject. “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought,” Wordsworth writes at the poem’s conclusion, “what wealth the show to me had brought”:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
While the cloud, as we know it today, is inherently social, that ether through which we share nearly every aspect of our lives—even our newborns, pasted across the Internet within minutes of their birth—for Wordsworth, to be cloud-like is to be alone, to experience one’s media—daffodils “tossing their heads in sprightly dance”—in the blissful solitude of one’s own thoughts. Remember those thoughts? It’s no wonder, I think, the poem seems so maudlin to us now; its paean to the bliss of contemplative reflection is rooted in a conception of loneliness—or of aloneness—very different than we’re used to. Here, rather, in the cloud to which we’ve fallen, we no longer measure “wealth” as the poem does, are no longer capable, perhaps, of the pleasure it speaks of.
Our own cloud, I’ve been suggesting, seems instead part of broader effort by technology companies to paper over—and just think of these companies’ obsessions with wallpaper—their more unappetizing corporate policies with positive associations cultivated through the skillful deployment of rhetoric. Despite, for example, Comcast’s desperate rebranding of itself as something called “Xfinity,” the company remains part of a fearsome oligopoly dedicated, among other worrying priorities, to eradicating net neutrality as we know it. Likewise, that myth, as powerful as Genesis, that the Internet is a kind of utopian “no-place” transcending national boundaries is belied by no less immediate a scandal than the 2014 PRISM affair, in which Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo admitted to providing proprietary user information to the United States government. And that government, of course, is at this very moment operating a massive data center in the Utah desert, caching phone calls and text messages, Gchats and Facebook posts by the billions to servers deep beneath the wind-carved rock and sand. Far from erasing place, the Internet and the cyber-technologies behind it perhaps more clearly delineate, then, those boundaries that continue to structure our stubbornly “placed”—national, but also gendered, and raced, and classed—forms of experience.
When users of the Microsoft-sponsored video game series Call of Duty—and sometimes, shamefully, I am one of them—log into their Xbox Live accounts, they’re shown a Mercator projection of the globe with phosphorescent green pulses glowing and fading wherever users are most active. The eastern United States, in my experience, is typically the most brightly lit, followed, in turn, by the western U.S., Europe, and Japan, any Internet-connected citizen of which can play online in formats like “Team Deathmatch” and “Capture the Flag.” In what I have always thought of as a damning exposé of tech’s feel-good, ostensibly “new economy,” Africa, long the so-called Dark Continent, shows not a single green pulse, its vast darkness a reminder, at the dead center of the map, that for all its claims to democracy, the Internet remains a mode of experience—of history and economics, of place and the people who live in those places—more repeating than rejecting those forms of western imperialism from which it rose. “There is no document of civilization,” Benjamin says of these old imperialisms, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” There is no cloud, we might say now, that is not a storm.
I knew it was time to get out of the Bay. Like so many cash-strapped artists—and, more troublingly, like thousands of Asian and Latino residents who’d lived there for decades—I’d been priced out of San Francisco by the arrival of what everyone, including The New Yorker, was suddenly calling the “creative class,” young, six-figured coders and programmers eager to surround themselves with the cultural cachet of neighborhoods like Haight-Ashbury, North Beach, and the Mission. Wherever they went, roving indiscriminately across the city’s once diverse enclaves, the rents rose. Family-owned storefronts were replaced by sleek, industrial-looking bars. Michelin-starred restaurants popped up overnight. I’d managed, after weeks of searching, to find a comparatively cheap apartment in the Temescal area of Oakland, a dingy one-bedroom above an Ethiopian restaurant and something that billed itself as a “pagan metaphysical bookstore” called Ancient Ways. I was paying more than I’d hoped, $1100 a month for an apartment whose windows didn’t close, but by scrimping on dinners out and drawing down an already meager savings account I was able to swing it.
Then the buses came. Long controversial in the Bay Area, the private, WiFi-equipped buses operated by Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies whisk employees out of the city each day to their sprawling, carefully manicured campuses down the Peninsula. There’s a direct correlation between these bus routes and a neighborhood’s rents, and as first Google then Yahoo extended their coverage across the Bay Bridge into Oakland—and since they’d made my street their main thoroughfare through the west side—my own rent was slated to go up nearly 50% when my lease expired, an increase which, reduced as I’d been to a steady diet of Totino’s pizza rolls, I was in no position to afford.
A throwback to the days of Roman senators lifted above the masses on cushioned divans, the buses have contributed not only to insupportable rents in San Francisco and Oakland but to the creation of a two-tiered transportation system throughout the Bay Area. Utilizing public bus stops and choking already crowded public byways, the buses visibly mark the distinction between northern California’s “new” and “old” economies, between the haves and an unfortunate caste of have-nots relegated to increasingly under-funded public transportation. The buses are, I think, a local manifestation of tech’s wider relationship to place. For tech’s myth of placelessness, undergirded by blithe metaphors like the cloud and the global village, conceals often deleterious real-world effects on places as far flung as Hayes Valley and Shenzhen, China, where iPhones, designed, as we well know, “by Apple in California,” are assembled at factories whose workers earn less than $2.50 an hour.
When the buses, like Yeats’ rough beast, moved their slow thighs toward Oakland, long the site of a vibrant counterculture of artists and activists, I began to look for a way out, not necessarily, I should admit, for ethical, anti-gentrification reasons—I’d prefer to live in Temescal and Crown Heights and Royal Oak as much as the next person—but because enduring conversations about bandwidth capacity and the scalability of front-end HTML at the local coffeeshop seemed no longer justifiable at $1600 a month. Even, that is, with what seemed to me a ridiculously plush fellowship to write poems, I was easily priced out by an arriviste class of “creatives” trafficking in its own, far more lucrative, brand of metaphor. As our carpool of poets drove down the Peninsula every Wednesday for workshop, we passed, on the outskirts of Menlo Park, Facebook’s palatial, Mediterranean Revival-style headquarters, a cheery, tree-lined campus resembling one of those outdoor shopping malls with names like Jefferson Pointe and Apple Glen. Somewhere inside, a team of engineers and public relations experts were debating, I imagined, the ethics of adding a “Dislike” button, or the metaphor of the news “feed,” even while we, around our own workshop table, argued about Tony Hoagland and whether anthropomorphism was appropriative. There didn’t, there in our northern California cloud, seem room for the both of us.
But tech’s use of metaphor, despite my description of it as a recent phenomena, has always, even before the rise of the Internet, been its preferred modus operandi; what we overlook, in other words, acculturated as we are to utilitarian approaches to computing, is how our relationships with our machines are almost entirely structured by metaphor. As Alan Liu has argued, the concept of dragging “folders” across “windows” into a “Recycle Bin” with a “mouse” is simply the aestheticizing, in visual form, of that abstract flurry of code whirring behind our screens. “We see a graphically bitmapped main ‘window,’” Liu writes, “whose menu bars and office-themed visual icons (file folders, trash cans, calendars, phones) construct a metaphorical ‘desktop,’ the great landscape of the cubicle.” The function of such a desktop, according to Liu, “is to coordinate (and also subordinate) operations and modes,” those habits of being that structure our relationship with computers and, increasingly, with each other.
As tech’s wholesale uprooting of longtime minority residents in the Bay Area makes clear, these processes of subordination are sometimes all too literal in a real world which, made over in the image of cyber-technology, more and more resembles a kind of vast, manipulable desktop. We might note however—and with, perhaps, some discomfort—how tech’s deft and thoroughgoing use of metaphor changes, or at least complicates, the way we conceive of the Internet and those who control it. At Stanford University, located in the heart of Silicon Valley and alma mater to some of its most important personalities, the most popular 100-level class is Introduction to Programming, with over a thousand students enrolled each quarter. At the University of Chicago, studying Python, Java, or C++ counts toward the foreign language requirement of Ph.D. students in the humanities. If our experiences of cyber-technology, indeed if our very desktops, are subtended by carefully structured, syntactically complicated code languages, languages whose purpose is not only to communicate but to elicit emotion, then perhaps the so-called creative class—despite its six-figure salaries—is more creative, more aesthetically invested than we, or I anyway, would care to admit. Perhaps there’s something elegant, artistic even, in a well-designed app. Perhaps Facebook is the new Pollack.
Perhaps tech, in other words, is poetry.
If cyber-technology seems—with its use of metaphor and code, but also in the way it demands from us diverse forms of attention across the variously textured “languages” of cyberspace—to have incorporated poetic technique, poetry has itself absorbed in turn what we might think of as the Internet’s fugitive, postmodern sensibility. Poetry in our new millennium, we know, has jettisoned the now antiquated narrative mode that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, moving instead toward more “associative” representation of what Mark Doty has characterized as “temperament / subjectivity / thinking / in the moment.” Tracking consciousness as it moves discontinuously across the surfaces of experience, associative poetry is, at least in part, an aesthetic response to the frenetic phenomenology of the information age, to forms of experience in which the human psyche, assaulted by cable news and News Feeds, Twitter and text messages, suffers from a kind of perpetual attention-deficit disorder, leaping about, as these poems do, from one perception to the next.
Yet while cyber-technology has profoundly affected the form of contemporary poetry, far less frequently does the Internet actually appear as a subject fit to be writing about, as content. In a cursory survey of an anthology of “American Poets of the New Century,” I found, in over 400 pages and 80 poets, barely a single reference to a computer, and this despite an overriding tendency, as in Juliana Spahr’s excellent “December 1, 2002”—the nearest this anthology comes to direct treatment of cyber-technologies—toward what we might think of as a formal mimesis of contemporary browsing practices. “I speak of the forty-seven dead in Caracas,” Spahr writes:And I speak of the four dead in Palestine.
And of the three dead in Israel.
I speak of those dead in other parts of the world that go unreported.
I speak of boundaries and connections, locals and globals, butterfly wings and hurricanes.
Spahr’s work, both in its associative leaping and its elision of the technology that makes such balletics possible, is representative, I think, of our contemporary moment writ large. If my own poetic practice is typical, poets today are not only culling more and more information from the Internet but spending more time online even while writing. And while some poetry—Alex Dimitrov’s Grindr poems, Gregory Shirl’s The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail—does make mention of this, far more contemporary poetry simply ignores it. In eliding, however, those experiences and those machines that quite literally structure its relation to the world, contemporary poetry seems anachronistically wedded to a romantic notion of unmediated “poetic” reality, as if exposing the ugly, unpoetic technology that underwrites our associative flights of fancy would ruin the effect.
In Greek tragedy, an invisible machine—either a crane, known as a mechane, or a trapdoor—would bring actors playing gods to the stage in seemingly miraculous fashion. Likewise, Romantic poetry depended for its effect on the concealing of those material circumstances of composition that might detract from the sublimity such poetry sought to cultivate in its readers; Wordsworth wrote his most famous poem not, as his title claims, a few miles above Tintern Abbey, but in a smoky room some twenty miles south in Bristol. Like these predecessors, contemporary poetry, with a few exceptions, prefers its deus without the machina, miming the forms of cyber-technology yet eschewing more substantive engagement with the social and political machinery that facilitates its theatrics.
Indeed, it’s somewhat striking that the most important innovations of our lifetime should so dramatically resist poetic representation. While I’m interested more in diagnosing then critiquing this phenomenon, might it not, perhaps, be an abdication of responsibility that we so distort the nature of contemporary reality in the name of art? Where are the iPhones? Where’s pornography and its influence on how we consider gender? Where, most recently, are the poems about how our experiences of race are often mediated by cyber-technologies in complex and sometimes contradictory ways? While much good, for example, has certainly come from hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, might the technologies that facilitate this kind of consciousness-raising—and which typically charge for higher levels of visibility or “promotion”—also forestall more immediate action, venting political energy and bolstering the illusion that “sharing” our opinions via massive, multinational tech corporations constitutes a viable politics? “Liking,” perhaps, is not enough. How, I hope my flurry of scare-quotes suggests, can poets be expected to understand—much less critique, or redeem, or beautify—contemporary forms of experience without accurately and honestly engaging with them and with the language in which they’re structured? Poets, rather, seem to be practicing a kind of sympathetic magic with respect to the Internet and cyber-technology, behaving like prehistoric hunter-gatherers who, awed by a power they can’t quite fathom, attempt to harness its magic simply by imitating it.
In the absence of widespread mainstream engagement with twenty-first century technologies, it has fallen to the avant garde to explore the relationship between these technologies and human subjectivity, first in Flarf and hypertext-based poetries and lately in what Kenneth Goldsmith has called in The New Yorker “post-Internet” poetry, poetry, that is, which takes for granted—rather than foregrounding the strangeness of or formally emulating—the influence of cyber-technologies on our lives. Though Goldsmith doesn’t mention her, Ariana Reines is one of the most exciting poets writing in this mode. Her collection Coeur de lion, self-published in 2007 and re-published in 2011 by FENCE, is an e-pistolary work organized around the speaker’s re-reading of e-mails sent to and received from a lover whose Gmail she’s hacked. The collection is thus, on one level, an account of that uncanny phenomenon with which we’re all too familiar, namely the encountering of e-mails from what seems like another lifetime, a life which, however removed we feel from it, remains archived—and will remain so long after our deaths—in pristine condition on Google’s underground servers. Coeur de lion is also, in places, a document of the writer’s process, revealing in its citation of websites like Wikipedia—and something called themiddleages.net (!)—the invisible online labor subtending poetic production, labor often occluded in contemporary poetry’s effort toward romanticized, unmediated experience. Though the collection sometimes borders on sentimentality, Reines refuses, unlike Alt Lit for example, to ironize the relationships she depicts, exploring instead how cyber-technologies interface with human bodies, particularly sexed and sexual bodies, in a heady amalgam of YouTube, weed, de Manian deconstruction, sex, jealousy, American Apparel banner ads, famine in Africa, and ecological crisis. “I am trying to decide,” Reines writes, “If the things humans emit / Between themselves / Have any reason.”
Like Reines’ treading of the confluence between human transmissions and emissions, Ander Monson similarly engages the often invisible machinery that structures those flows of data, language, image, and sound passing between us each day. Monson’s 2010 collection, The Available World, uses the Internet as an extended metaphor for something like the Romantic sublime; behind our screens, that is, an entire, instantaneously available cosmos lies waiting, a cosmos in the face of which we are, as Kant suggested, simultaneously insignificant and—because we can fathom that cosmos, indeed because we built it—reaffirmed in the power of our humanity. Here’s part of the poem “Loss”:Let me say this now: it's impossible not to
& hemmorhage muchness
& the vast space of America & American
conceptions of outer space as seen in 3 dimensions
on your growing screen of choice
your choice of screens, your preferred streakers, tweakers,
hackers, phone phreakers,
David Bakers and those wronged by David Bakers [...]
As I think this passage demonstrates, Monson’s work is a playful, powerful meditation on how cyber-technologies intersect—sometimes profoundly, sometimes in the most banal of ways—with our day-to-day experiences, with theology and geography, phone phreaking and poetry. If the latter’s traditional purpose, as W. S. Di Piero puts it, is to quarrel with orders both human and divine, Monson, like Reines, shows how our own generation might honestly take up that quarrel now, in the globalized “no-place” that is not quite the utopia we were promised, how, in other words, we might revere, but also wrestle with and rebel against, these strange new gods.
Because it’s not, after all, some desolate wasteland toward which Milton’s first couple wanders off. I am writing this in the Plein Air Café on the campus of the University of Chicago, a cozy, Bauhaus-inspired little place whose name, “plein air,” refers to the Impressionist habit of painting outdoors, where one could, as Monet did with his haystacks, reproduce actual conditions of light and of weather rather than painting toward the pre-determined look of the studio. This afternoon, thick beams of light are falling through the café’s windows. It’s summer. Vampire Weekend is playing. All around me students are typing away on their laptops, e-mails and essays, poems and stories flitting off through the ether. We stare transfixed into our screens, our headphones pumping their own tinny music, our computers purring. We’re oblivious to each other. Only—as Forster put it—connected.
Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the Levis Prize in Poetry from Four Way Books and is forthcoming in March 2017. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry from Stanford University, his work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, and The New Republic, among other places. He lives in Chicago, where he is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Chicago. Born in Ohio, he has lived on both coasts, traveled twice across the country in a 20-foot Penske truck, and not once left the United States. He will always call it 'pop'.