by Justin Clemens

One of the most peculiar consequences of the digital revolution is the consistent inability of poets to come to terms with it. Of all the many types of "symbolic operators" that informational globalization incessantly throws up, poets seem to be dealing worst with this radically new New Deal. Indeed, poets don't seem to have changed any of their practices or ideas about poetry as a result of the new centrality of virtual media: one can cruise interminably through the innumerable so-called "poetry journals" on the web without ever encountering anything that wouldn't look or read just as badly on a sheet of A4. As for the sickly quasi-theological categories with which so many continue to justify their work ("the quest for presence," "magic," "sacred speech," etc.), these are only rivalled by their pretentious drivellings about the subjective pseudo-intensity of verse ("fluid and urgent imagery," "luxurious rhymes"). Worse still, perhaps: when a poet does seem to have taken a genuinely multimedia approach (lights, colour, sound, movement, etc.), their work would not only embarrass anyone who has even the most glancing acquaintance with principles of good design, but it would seem bizarre to assign it the name of "poetry."

What makes the contemporary situation all the more dissatisfactory is that poets have traditionally been sharper, faster and more inventive than anybody in their dealings with social torsions and transformations, thresholds and transitions. This is why the lags amongst contemporary poets need to submit themselves to one and only one injunction. . .re-read Mallarmé!

For whatever else the great Stéphane Mallarmé accomplished outside of the well-determined and explicit declarations of influence or affiliation has evidently been what I will call "the globalization of his im-personality." In other words, today you don't need to know anything about Mallarmé, not even his name, in order to be profoundly influenced by him. For I think that it is undeniably true that the consequences of the strange non-event designated by that im-proper name, Mallarmé, are everywhere. If Mallarmé did not exist, it would now be necessary to invent him. Or, more precisely, although Mallarmé probably never really existed at all, it is impossible not to act as if had. Hopefully, what I mean by this will soon become somewhat clearer but what I want to emphasize is that there are many possible forms of influence, and that it is not always the evident, explicit, or expressed forms that evince the most genuine or profound relationships. Which is also to say that the writers most affected by the Mallarméan intervention perhaps haven't been writers at all.

Influence, influenza, influ-aster: an astral disease. This fanciful etymology is all the more appropriate given Mallarmé's own fondness for celestial meta-phorics: "snowing white bouquets of perfumed stars" (Apparition), "the ideal duty we are given by the gardens of this star" (Toast funebre), and, perhaps the most famous of all, "a constellation, icy with forgetting and desuetude" - an image, by the way, which thereby places writing almost beyond good and evil, renders its accomplishment close to nugatory, and influence im-possible. As Jacques Derrida puts it, in Mallarmé's work "a text is made to do without references; either to the thing itself. . .or to the author who consigns to it nothing except its disappearance. This disappearance is actively inscribed, it is not an accident of the text, it is rather its nature; it marks the signature of an unceasing omission." The author must suffer a subtraction or abstraction if they are to continue writing at all; he or she becomes, in Alain Badiou's words, "a null mediator." This nullity, although "fallen from an obscure disaster" (that star again!) is not the index of an irremediable obliteration. On the contrary, Mallarmé doesn't think of his im-personality as altogether entailing the destruction of literature; it, rather, frees writing from many of the "impure" elements in which it had hitherto been enmired.

First and foremost, however, it unleashes writing from the bonds of communication. The event that founds this recognition of Mallarmé's is evidently historically linked to the rise and expansion of new media technologies toward the end of the C19 such as the gramaphone, photography and film, which contest writing's preeminence as the medium best able to record, store, and disseminate the real. As Friedrich Kittler puts it, "When typing, filming, and taking photographs become three equal options. . .writing loses those aspects of a surrogate sensuality. Around 1880 poetry becomes literature. It is no longer the red blood of a Keller or the inner forms of a Hoffmann that have to be transmitted by standardized letters; it is a new and beautiful tautology of technicians. According to Mallarmé's instant insight, literature does not mean anything but that it consists of twenty-six letters."

Mallarmé was, in other words, perfectly placed to register the violent consequences of these new technologies of reproduction. Moreover, this very contestation opens up the most literal, material aspects of writing to infinite experimentation, an experimentation that is fundamentally that of a media war and in which every medium becomes the hostile para-site of every other. Because, as Marshall McLuhan says, the content of one medium is always another medium, at the moment that media unveil themselves as forms, content becomes simply a form of a form of a form: a smoke, a wraith, an apparition, a shipwreck. So this "containing" of which McLuhan speaks is not only an index of violent struggle for media do struggle with one another but an impossible one, a literally infinite struggle. Like Mallarmé’s "vesperal dreams burnt by the Phoenix," media cannot simply be contained by the "cinerary amphorae" that they try to be for one another. It is no accident, then, that so much of Mallarmé's verse, prose poems, letters, and critical writings explicitly return, on the one hand, to the relation that writing bears to other forms of media (theatre, newspapers, fairgrounds, and other forms of spectacle), and on the other, to the relation that, writing alone and solitary, bears to itself. Vanishing or fantasmatic images, mutilated wings, obscurities, foam without issue, melancholy, anguish, death: these are not simply the symptoms or sublimations of any subjective trauma on Mallarmé’s part, but the auto-registration of writing's historial agonies in the face of the new media.

To cite McLuhan once more: "The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses." Mallarmé, poised in the midst of a media blitzkrieg, creates new forms by way of a thoroughgoing literalisation of literature a material practice of writing and by emphasizing subtractions, vanishings, abolitions of all kinds. Indeed, the authorial im-personality which Mallarmé so insists upon is geared to nothing other than the materiality of writing itself: black marks on white paper. Writing in its attempt to prevent itself from being simply one medium among others, another form of forms is thereby, in its isolated auto-relation, reduced to making itself nothing but a matter of matter. However, as Mallarmé also shows, such matter is itself in-consistent, the unheard-of-echo-of-a-anexistent-narcissus.

But this situation also regulates other ruses of Mallarmé's poetics. To shift momentarily to the present, we can make this especially clear by invoking the suspicious ontological status of information stored, transmitted, and formed by the electronic mass-media. Such information cannot be easily reconciled with traditional opinions regarding the essential differences, say, between speech and writing, orality and literacy, aspiration and inscription. If, as the Latin proverb has it "verba volant, scripta manent" [words fly away, writing remains], no matter what the data is that comes to be re-presented on a myriad computer screens is rendered at once peculiarly immutable and evanescent, as well irremediably veridically suspect in such a representation. So-called "virtual reality" challenges, in other words, the very grounds for making any sustainable distinction between the really real and the really imaginary. As do the angels, it occupies the no-man's land between God and the world itself. Moreover, the very word "angel" originally meant "messenger" in Greek, and, given that such creatures invariably served as the indispensable intermediaries between otherwise incommunicable regions of being, their role so the argument often goes is strictly analogous to the role played by modern media themselves. Hence the recurrent predilection of specific media to image their relations to other, competing media in precisely these terms: for example, as David Odell once pointed out to me, Hollywood cinema has consistently represented home video taping as a literally demonic and ghastly process. Furthermore, at the very moment that a technology is invented, it is immediately felt to provide the royal road to the hereafter-beyond, and mobilised as such by those trying to get in touch with spirits from the Other World. When, of course, it is not deliberately calculated to simulate the appearance of such spirits in this World, in the name of pedagogical-commerce. So often considered supplements for physiological deficiency, media also offer impossible passages to an unverifiable and de-sacralised beyond (a la automatic writing): they are thus literally angels, but now of an abolished divinity. Which is why, I would maintain, such images proliferate throughout Mallarmé’s work (and throughout that of Rilke, Stevens, Walter Benjamin, etc.), the very traditional figure of the angel thus undergoing an often overlooked rupture at this historical moment.

In other words, the supposed "hermetic aspect" of Mallarmé's work's difficulty, obscurity, elusiveness, and so on devolves from the fact that it does nothing but constantly re-turn to the uncircumventable exigencies of writing itself: syntax, typography, literal repetitions for example, the letters or. In this re-turn of writing onto itself, not only are such exigencies consistently "thematized" (if the word is still viable in this context) but, in and through this thematization, unhinge the very mechanisms that once provided the illusion of sense and spirit. Communication qua transmission of information which once seemed to require words for its most elevated expressions is stripped of the mask of language which concealed its truth, and un-veiled as an essentially non-linguistic, purely economic phenomenon. In Mallarmé's famous phrase, newsprint (for instance) may as well be nothing more than "a coin passed silently from hand to hand." Reportage, anecdotage, verbiage. As Kittler remarks of Mallarmé's consistent condemnation of this hyper-transmissibility of the new media, "a separation exists between an image-less cult of the printed word, i.e., e[lite]-literature, on one side, and purely technical media that, like the train or film, mechanize images, on the other. Literature no longer even attempts to compete with the miracles of the entertainment industry. It hands its enchanted mirror over to machines."

The C19 proliferation of communicative technologies thereby frees literature to become a purified writing, purified, that is, of its mimetic, ritual, pedagogical, aesthetic functions. Which is why, as Alain Badiou puts it, "The poe[try] of Mallarmé is...neither elegiac, nor hymnal, nor lyric." Literature at least that which attempts to retain its sovereignty over the capitalized 'L' is henceforth condemned, through its very purification, to a comparatively tiny audience of enthusiasts. But the supposed consequences of this situation at least as they tend to be elaborated by theorists of the media and popular culture would be repudiated by Mallarmé himself. For Mallarmé, the supposed magic of newspapers and cinema is nothing of the kind: its apparent populism or mass appeal is simply the monotonous vulgarity of quotidian reportage. Against this derisory, delusory centrality of the new popular media, poetry can continue to dream of the im-possibility of uttering Truth itself: as Mallarmé puts it, what the popular media "fail to spread is the priceless mist that floats about the secret abyss of every human thought." This "priceless mist" is inexpressible and unaccountable, yet absolutely inexpungible: it is more truly universal than the arbitrary and ubiquitous chatterings of the media broadcasts which constantly betray it.

As Octavio Paz writes, "Being a public [artist] is not the same as being popular." Paz's distinction also reactivates others, relevant in this context. For example, McLuhan's re-marking of the often confused difference between the “mass media” and the “popular media”: whereas popularity involves simply a totalling up of consumers, the crucial aspect of mass media is that they involve everyone, even if not everyone watches them. Or, as Mallarmé demonstrates, poetry still involves everyone, even if no one reads it. The challenge facing contemporary poets today is to accomplish the same (not the identical) in this, the era of virtual information.

JUSTIN CLEMENS lives in Australia. His work is currently in Cordite.