To begin, I shall address a suspicion. There’s no personal beef between the Literature section and me. While our current journey may seem dismissive of the previous two articles well-argued about ‘Instagram Poetry’, I want only to suggest a humble, important, alternative, and more careful reading of the ‘popular poetry’ phenomenon. Which phenomenon – according to the explosive response from IGNITE readers – truly angers, disturbs, or baffles a large number of staunch literature enthusiasts. The sentiment is genuine, understandable, and justifiable.
The ‘Instagram Poetry’ phenomenon, as I like to call it, isn’t out of nowhere and random. It didn’t suddenly and successfully happen because Rupi Kaur or Lang Leav emerged in the cyber space. Many of us have written online poems for quite some time too, but we didn’t subsequently become published poets. After I followed Rupi Kaur on Instagram, another artist Lucy Ambroziak requested to follow me as to get my reciprocal following. (She failed to.) She does what Rupi does, but she has about six hundred followers, not one million. Hence, the Instagram user doesn’t become a worldwide figure just by producing, designing, and writing.
The receiving audience plays a decoding role too. Often, in a simultaneous manner, the literary producer and consumer interact to generate a cultural scene. We can’t overlook this vital interplay. Indeed, my friends Sam and Shamra rightfully stress that “humans today have attention spans shorter than a goldfish”: “Short, simplistic phrases” – if they ever were – can attract so much attention, because modern consumers and consumption have become used to digital, visual, auditory, convenient, though not always with less critical thinking and moral value, platforms.
We’ve so far seen that technology and materiality are at least not innocent – and perhaps guilty. But we must also keep in mind that powerful humans control technology: The question is, who are these humans? ‘Instagram poetry’ is more than a literary issue. To accurately dissect the phenomenon, to accurately capture the ultimate manipulative culprit, we must break further through a thin, surface layer of protecting the literary establishment.
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There is plenty of intellectual content, but do we really have time for everything? Work starts at 9 next morning and we’re currently stuck in a traffic jam or police roadblock.
“For the intellectuals of the New Left,” concludes Camilla Nelson, the literary text has always been “a potent source of social-cultural arguments.” Literature had always been tremendous throughout previous human centuries. It spoke for the Western ‘masses’: it engaged with their suffering, it emancipated unconscious thought, it reified collective desire and anger. Within these pre-industrial ages, studying the ‘correct’ literature had also been a symbol of respect and culture, of civilisation and morality, of power and knowledge, of social class and elegance.
However, due to the advent and expansion of digital cultural expression, from the West to the world, “literature gave way to film, television, music, and subsequently, the rise of the Internet, as central repositories of cultural meaning,” reports Nelson further.
During the rapid development of societies since the nineteen seventies, the labour force had grown exponentially and their daily workload sharply intensified. The myth of eight-hour sleep, eight-hour work, eight-hour leisure turned into a ‘fact’ – until today. (Women, whom patriarchal society expects to fulfil childcare labour and house chores even until today, worked and work massively more than men.) To justify and ‘repay’ their labour in daytime, workers needed nightly, ‘relaxing’, ‘stress relieving’ entertainment.
Even in Malaysia, the New Economic Policy, concentration of media ownership, and the rise of the monetised Internet and social media suppressed much motivation and enthusiasm for ‘authentic’ Literature.
What is more, ‘Malaysian literature’ is young, finding a collective identity, because Malaysians are too. Much Malayan literature was for Pan-Islamic, nationalist, and anti-colonial purposes. English was rare in this land until British imperialism. The cultural outcome of Manglish and Malaysian English led to increasing Malaysian literature in English: as compared to Western English literature, ours is however relatively new. Only in 2000 had Literature appeared in the English Language Teaching (ELT) syllabus of Malaysia. Today, how many institutions in Malaysia offer pure literary studies as a Bachelor’s Degree; how many Malaysian students really enjoy literary studies in primary and secondary schools; more essentially, how many Malaysian parents really allow their children to study ‘things that can’t bring you big money’? Malaysian students who love or have loved Literature couldn’t find much opportunity before ‘our’ literature became globally recognised.
As time for leisure had grown limited, it naturally became more precious too. To ever enjoy entertainment products, the working class gradually relied on visual and auditory items, because these could conserve time and mental energy: “too many books, too little time” rose to a slogan status. The cinema, TV, soap operas, video, music, advertising, and the Internet, as a consequence, had become the ever growing site of interaction, consumption, profit maximisation, and exploitation.
If ‘real’ literature – the ‘real’ novel, the ‘real’ poem, the ‘real’ play, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, Woolf, Hemingway – can’t anymore profit as much as the film and the music, the Culture Industry won’t commercialise it and won’t prioritise it and won’t sustain it in the consumption realm. Possibly closing down in recent time is our very Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), due to a lack of financial and emotional support; as Khoo from Cilisos writes:
On average, tickets for some of the shows in KLPac are about RM35-50, which is probably a lot more than what an average person would want to dole out for entertainment, what with movie tickets being about RM10-25 for a standard ticket. So from the get go itself, theatre isn’t quite high on the list when people decide where they want to go on Friday nights… This is probably something you already know judging from how much you care about theatre, but did you know that people who genuinely love theatre are sometimes also put off from theatre? Fa Abdul, a writer and director, told us that although some people might not hate theatre, but they just don’t get it… The gomen hasn’t been the most supportive of the arts scene. When Budget 2018 was tabled close to a month ago, Ian told us that RM20 million was channeled to the Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana) only, and KLPac has had to write in to ask for funds.
Devoid of attention, promotion, and continuous maintenance from the richest and reproductive segment of any society, Capitalists killed ‘traditional’ literature, Capitalists killed ‘critical thinking’ in ‘text’, Capitalists killed ‘meaningful’ work from our creative faculty, Capitalists killed intellectual enquiry. (That is, Rupi Kaur did not.)
Therefore, beyond scapegoating and denouncing the Instagram poet or the Instagram poetry consumer, beyond our hunger, nostalgia, and love for the most ‘authentic’ form of artistic appreciation, we must acknowledge the inner working of intellectual birth and survival. We must ask and answer these questions of power, culture, material development, and dialectical history. We must then also challenge the ultimate, the most silent yet powerful, the most condemnable, oppressive, violent, and devilish élites driving modern society into self-destruction since the Industrial Revolution: Capitalists.
Long, tedious labour in daytime; Quick, comforting leisure at night?
Power is silent. It’s never our friend. Of course it doesn’t completely control cultural and creative works. There’s surely flexible space for opposing speech, critical writing, alternative thought, and unprecedented possibilities. Yet, power doesn’t only manifest itself by total physical control, but in the quiet yet endless sustenance of our everyday practices. As Michel Foucault reminds us,
What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.
We follow what we believe as a universal truth, not actually because it’s really a universal, natural truth. Somebody, in some way, from some time to another, has been repeating something to us. You, the reader, for example, you were born a baby, not a woman or man: who told you to behave like one? Similarly, there’s no natural element from the earth core that defines what literature or poetry really is. There was no natural power that pressured the unstoppable shift of global culture, from the word and book, to the image and film. Capitalist élites did these.
Then we have the ‘canon’. The ‘canon’ – of course, rather important to know – is the literature ‘royalty’; the ‘usual’ selection of texts; the literary pieces chosen for ‘university studies’; the ‘published’ and widely consumed works; the artefacts of world ‘renowned’ writers; the dominant artistic formation that presents a patterned array of structural ‘poetic features’: the line, stanza, length, sound, arrangement, and vocabulary.
Anything that doesn’t follow the structural rule instantly becomes (labelled as) either a ‘post-modern’ masterpiece or deviant hogwash. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy the ‘correct’ literature instantly goes into the uneducated, crude, worthless, working class. Literature and social class are therefore interactive. In fact, searching with ‘#Instapoetry’ on Instagram can bring up to more than one million posts: are these simply, really, with ‘no actual literary merit’?
Essentially, then, who decides the canon, or when a poem is ‘meaningless’? More precisely, who decides who decides the canon, or when a poem is ‘meaningless’? Isn’t any piece of work that fulfils the dogmatic function of expression – to affect, narrate, relate, represent, and identify our everyday messed-up life, romantic, familial, political, or otherwise – simply and definitively, literature? If ‘simplistic craft’ without ‘critical thinking’ can ‘amass’ a larger audience today than what the array of ‘painstaking’ works can, what does the overall picture imply about our power-driven and constantly morphing culture?
Foucault sensed power. Source: angelmatos.net
The issue is far more complex than we’ve initially imagined. Lest this mysterious force ever devours us, we should be even more cautious and stubborn in our political task of critique and rejection, decision and conclusion, and more importantly, action and activism. Nelson adds that “of course the canon should be taught”; “The question is not whether or not it should be taught, but how.”
Indeed, alternative to bashing ‘popular literature’, we could perhaps be more inclusive. “Against the view that mass circulation is a process of aesthetic degeneration, defenders of the popular conceptualise the embedding of artistic elements in everyday life – the mass circulation of Art itself – as a process of ‘democratisation’. The consumer is in turn reconceptualised as active participants in the creation of social and cultural meanings,” said Chua Beng Huat.
Unless the widely debunked thesis of biological necessity can with qualitative evidence defines ‘real’ literature, we have to conclude: There’s something (or someone) culturally more powerful than any Literature professor, who selects the texts for literary studies. Be the energy behind the bloody curtain angelic or evil. We need to constantly and rebelliously retrieve questions that pry open a deeper enquiry into a silent, greedy, and idolised body, who has always affected, if not controlled and manipulated, our shared history and everyday life.
Until here we’ve briefly arrived at two points. First, we should blame those with power and wealth for the downfall of intellectual work, not Instagram poetry. Second, much of what we take for granted must be subject to vigorous doubt anew: No meaning is ever ‘natural’. Meaning should be democratic.
For some time we’ve allowed Capitalism to bully us; we allowed it. Since then, it has grown into a superpower – and a super-devil. Even if we wake up today, it’s gonna stay for a while, because it has become ‘ordinary’: “this is how the world works,” some would say. Capitalism is exploitative; it sustains inequality; it does and validates very bad activities of the ruling class. Or as Foucault described:
Truth is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements. Truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.
Written by Teoh Sing Fei
Featured image of Stuart Hall from the New Yorker
Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of IGNITE.