Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Possum and the docuverse

Earlier this week, Jill Walker stated, adapting T.S. Eliot, "Blogging is breathing." That seems like excuse enough for bringing up one of my favorite bits of Eliot criticism. From the same essay ("Tradition and the Individual Talent"), his discussion of the relationship between old and new is particularly relevant in the networked age:

what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is the conformity between the old and the new.
( Eliot, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,' Rpt. in The Sacred Wood (1920). )
Eliot gets a hard time (some of it deserved) for his apparent stodginess. This essay, in particular, draws fire from fashionable critical camps for its positing of an single, canonical Tradition and its insistence on the "impersonality" of poetic art (which many seem to feel is a smokescreen Eliot put up to discourage critics from delving too deeply into the personal ramifications of his poetry), and I'll grant there are parts of this essay that bother me, too. But really, what Eliot is proposing above is something fairly radical: that "tradition" is at once perfectly whole and complete in itself, but also always in flux, constantly being deformed and reordered by the appearance of new works.

Such an understanding of "tradition" is very much in line with postmodern conceptions of the instability and indeterminacy of language. It is also perfectly congruent with the foundations of hypertext theory. From Eliot's image of literary "monuments" shuffling themselves about to accommodate the new to Ted Nelson's "docuverse" where "everything is intertwingled" to the modern web and blogosphere are just a few short hops (if that much). There is still much scholarly work to be done, I think, in elucidating the intellectual foundations of of hypertext: not just the usual litany of proto-hypertextual literary experiments, but the evolution of attitudes toward texts themselves so that they could be conceived of as being situated within webs of relationships rather than as autonomous artifacts.