What does it mean for a medium to be dead? I mean really dead, totally stopped in place with nowhere to go, no way forward?
What does it mean to have nothing new to explore technically?
I think about this quite a bit, actually, because of my weird background with media. Although new media is very important to me, my training comes from art history and lit crit, so I'm what you would call a child of the Old School. And one of the things I've noticed is that all sorts of media have died off over the years, just sort of spun their wheels and finally stopped.
And it's not necessarily big things. Like, there's no Death of Music (despite what both Don McLean and Devin Townsend say), and I doubt there will be in my lifetime. There's just too much territory to explore. But you can kill off a single instrument. When was the last time you heard a crumhorn, for example? It's a medium of expression just as surely as the paintbrush is, but it's fallen by the wayside. And there's other little odd things that live in the space between media and genres, things like...
Well, how about Radio Dramas?
When was the last time you heard a radio drama?
I can remember the last time I heard one. It was sometime back in, oh, 1997 maybe, somewhere around there. It was a radio dramatization of Star Wars: A New Hope. And that broadcast captivated me, it went far beyond the movie ever could, for it became my personal Star Wars, the Star Wars that played out visually inside my own head.
But you don't hear too many radio dramas these days, do you? It's another dead medium. It reached the end of what it could do, new things drew the attention of the masses, and people moved on, leaving a media ghost town.
Oh, and then, of course, there's poetry.
Poetry is dead.
But wait, let me back up a bit and explain just what I mean by a medium having nothing new to explore technically. This isn't a new concept for me, actually. It's something I call the Medium Singularity. I've already talked about it in relationship to painting, but let us roll through the main points again.
A Medium Singularity is the point where we expand a medium as far as it can go, where we reach the end, essentially, of Progress. It signifies the point where our ability to predict future possibilities goes completely out the window, where there's no technique that hasn't been taken to its furthest possible point. It borrows the concept from Transhumanism, actually--the Singularity signifies the moment of push, the great thrust beyond the limits of the merely human, where all bets are off and something totally new emerges.
Another possible term for it is Art At The End Of History. What does that mean exactly? Well, I think this quote just about sums it up:
"We're the generation of 'they have already done that. They have already been there."
Youch. Heavy stuff there. That's a quote from a Belgian paper, actually, translated by a friend of mine. (He couldn't locate the original source, unfortunately--another interesting example of information lost within an information flood.) The statement encapsulates, for me, the sensation of being post-historical. It's the sensation of realizing that Progress, at least in little corner of the artistic world, is over. Our happy story of a history that moves ever forward hits a wall and we're left stranded, with all the achievements of the masters of the past gathered up behind us.
And that can be insanely frustrating for artists! I don't deny that it can be the hardest part of playing in these fields today. Hell, it's a cornerstone of modernist philosophy, where instead of making new material you just endlessly disembowel the great works of the past in search of some elusive meaning among the cast out guts of consonants and vowels. From J Alfred Prufrock all the way down to Howl, there's dross left for us after the last masters plucked out their gold, and standing on the shoulders of giants, as the song goes, leaves us cold.
Poetry is the latest victim of the End of History. Think about it, when's the last time you bought a book of poetry? When's the last time you saw someone stand and recite aloud, or heard the sound on the radio?
And you know, people have been releasing new poetry. But they're the vinyl freaks of the lit world, the people who still buy their albums pressed onto those big beautiful discs, the dying crowd with their dying tech, playing out their songs till their needle jumps and another one bites the dust.
Poetry killed itself, hung itself in the attic on a tetragrammaton string that read PoMo. Some of its acolytes killed it with sound, broke it to pure noise like speaking in tongues, like gifts from the mad god of the 20th Century. Some made it a grocery list, gathered their affairs in order like Pink arranging guitar splinters in a hotel room, then passed away into the West taking the magic of the Elves with them. And some, knowing the time was at hand, hearing the tune of the jazz band, took their books and ran, their pages fanned out in a flickering street lamp in the wasteland.
Poetry hit a wall. It beat up language for its lunch money, and the funny thing was, when it was through it found nothing more to do with the change it had effected. The beat was rejected: each meter was reduced to a kind of tired pattern of use, and the modernists refused its tired truths.
And what could they do? All the clear visions of the Chinese masters were used up faster than you could conceive, they had received all the alliterating letters from the Nordic breed, and the call and answer patterns from across the Mediterranean Sea. Even long and short vowel beats, those pounding feet, had been retreaded from the Greeks by Edgar Allen Poe.
So where was there to go
But let's rein it in, I'm losing breath.
It came to the point that every technique you can imagine was played out, and, like the modernist painters, the modernist poets pushed every possibility as far as they could: repetition, the abandonment of meter and rhyme, the collapse of grammar and punctuation, the abandonment of meaning in favor of pure sound... every way you could mutilate a poem, the modernists did it. Sometimes their work was staggeringly beautiful. Sometimes it was dead. But I think that explosion of panicked experimentation can be seen as the death throes--it was the final moments of poetry's life, the rush claim the last innovatable territory.
But if you've been paying attention, you know that death isn't the end.
It's just the beginning stage of the metamorphosis.
See, just because you can't do something new technically with a medium doesn't mean you're out of things to say with that medium. In fact, I would argue that it becomes far easier to say what you want after a medium is dead, because you've got all of the tools imaginable, and you can pick and choose the tool for the message you want to convey. You're cut free from the stupid demand of the critics to be avant-garde--which isn't to say the avant-garde is bad, but the constant push in the art world for the next shock is absolutely a hard limitation that you don't have when your medium is dead. How on earth can you respond to a demand for the fury of artistic progress with anything but laughter when your medium's already been buried?
And after that laughter you can really get them worried, 'cause once the tools are all laid out before you, all the ones that are played out can start to be questioned. And this may cause some tension, but I just have to wonder:
Is poetry dead, or has it found a way to live under a new name? A name that to old poets is profane, but that has gushing through its veins the methods of Homer and the rushing presentation of a great Orator's proclamations? I speak of "SLAM," a poetry that positions its hand upon the shoulder of the oral tradition, that is bolder than the gentle bleating lamb beats that the ivory tower demands.
Tell me, when is the last time you heard a man raise a crowd's voice and hands with rhymed out lines out of his very soul? When a whole gathering of people stood at attention to hear their lives and feelings captured in a poem's mention?
But don't listen to all my nonsense, listen to Saul present this:
You can see how I might get irate when I hear someone pontificate about the youth today and how they don't appreciate art. Let me do my part as a lit crit theorist and say the nearest I've ever come to Dead Poet Society is when I'm listening to a playlist of hip hop. Hear this! The Modernists let the beat drop! And this genre caught the ball and slammed it, sample loops and all, through the hoop.
You could call it a SLAM dunk.
And you don't have to punk out
your lines, or rap to these jams,
This just shows with no doubt
that poetry died and came back
like Adonis. And I'll be honest,
I can't tell you what all this means
because once you've crossed the singularity
you're in the land of the Absolutely Free--no limits.
So give it a shot, don't let poetry
rot in a grave of its own making.
Because we're making art
at the end of history.
And poetry's only as dead
As we let it be.
Give my regards to Brooklyn.
This article really took on a life of its own--I wasn't going to write it this way, but the rhymes just started coming, and the rest, as it were, is history. No idea if it actually worked or not. You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.