|Kardashians in a row|
The development of the internet accelerated certain established tendencies and habits of mind. The art of letter writing, of writing in long hand, of amassing archives that were purely on paper all diminished without quite vanishing. The opening of newspaper columns to commenters anonymised behind pseudonyms and avatars released some from the constraints of epistolary manners and, owing to the immediacy of communication, often ended in the visual equivalent of shouting and face pulling. Just as being behind the wheel of a car, surrounded by a metal shell, encourages people to behave in ways they might not person-to-person so the hard metallic armour of the pseudonym enabled some to indulge in new forms of behaviour.
Once social media became available more new forms of behaviour became possible. Let’s take two extremes. On the one hand appliances like Facebook extended the possibility of confessional behaviour and confessional writing already explored in what is called ‘reality’ television where people are deliberately exposed in the midst of crises of one sort or another and encouraged to bellow and scream at each other. Their personal sphere becomes the public sphere. Their persons become their personae: the self as perceived and exposed. So on Facebook we hear of break-ups, illnesses, doubts, triumphs and cries of friendship that may begin as contact between personae on a virtual level but can extend to physical contact of both welcome and unwelcome kinds.
At the other extreme the anonymising of the individual figure could lead less to an exposure of what we might assume to be a real kind, more to the wholesale invention of an entirely new figure that was mostly persona, mostly fiction, mostly a mode of discourse. The perfectly normal human habit of adopting slightly different voices and identities for different social situations - one speaks one way to a child, to one’s partner, to the policeman, to the stranger at the door - is extended by the offer of the possibility of none or any of these, These avatars were already available in theatre, in role games, and in the world of the Sim. The idea of seeking semi-mythological roles in terms of fulfilment (as described by Barthes in his ‘Mythologies’) was already present in the world of advertising, but the new virtual stage enabled a far wider range of roles.
There is a now a generation - that of my students and my children, who have grown up with the internet, and can move about it like human ghosts within a familiar and amenable machine. The poet Sam Riviere’s PhD thesis turned out to be his first Faber collection, 81 Austerities. Riviere’s first degree was in Cultural Studies and he had a sophisticated theoretical intelligence that adapted readily to the sensibility - or one of the sensibilities - available on the net. His central interest, as evidenced by the book, was the nature of anonymity or mask, a sort of emptying out whereby the vacuous or mischievous discourses of politics, commerce and self might constitute a new sincerity by reassimilation. The poems in 81 Austerities are mostly in voices other than ‘his‘, that is to say of Riviere as a figure the reader might identify with the voices in the poems. Instead of a personal voice Riviere offered the products of an excellent identifiable ear: a phonic unity. The new book (which I have yet to read) titled Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (also Faber) promises a journey from a different angle. The construction of Riviere’s poems takes place in a space haunted by hollow voices who form a permanent company that has to be negotiated. They are not Dylan Thomas’s lovers, not Li Po’s drunken companions, not even Jean Valentine’s other solitary selves. They are figments and fragments, a virtual company of presences stripped down to personae.