The news about Russians exploiting Facebook to influence the America’s 2016 election keeps getting worse, making a recent CNBC column about the social media giant appear particularly hollow. I mention Matt Rossoff’s defense of Facebook since someone has quoted Wallace Stevens’s poem The Blue Guitar in refutation. It’s not every day that the difficult modernist poet makes it into the public eye.
First, here’s the relevant passage from Matt Rossoff’s Oct. 15 defense:
Facebook was built to make the spread of ideas as frictionless as possible. If those ideas are angry, polarizing, ill-informed, ignorant (call them whatever you want) it reflects the people who are spreading them, not the platform on which they’re spread.
In other words, social media is holding a mirror up to ourselves, and we don’t like what we see.
A forum that exposes users to 3000 ads from Russian troll farms, however, is not an accurate mirror. Facebook now estimates that 150 million people saw these ads in the course of the 2016 election. This led Joe Weisenthal, co-Host of What’d You Miss, to quote Stevens’s poem after first responding to Rosoff,
I don’t think social media is just a mirror of society. Observing and sharing can change the underlying things.
The blue guitarist in Stevens’s poem is the artist, “a shearsman [tailor] of sorts,” who changes “things as they are.” Stevens said that he didn’t have Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” particularly in mind when he wrote the poem, but he was a fan of modernist painting so it works. Are you can substitute Paul Cezanne or Paul Klée, Stevens’s two favorite painters, if you prefer:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman [tailor] of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And upon social media as well, as we have learned to our sorrow.
To be sure, that we can be manipulated by electronic advertising dates back at least to Vance Packard’s bestselling The Hidden Persuaders (1957). The Russians, headed by a former KGB officer, just did it on an unprecedented scale and with spectacular results.
Since Wallace Stevens has entered the conversation, today’s post explores his ideas to figure out whether actual art—not Facebook—offers any possible solutions to our quagmire where truth itself seems up for grabs. If Donald Trump can fabricate any reality he wants while undermining institutions responsible for determining truth (the press, universities, science, the courts, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Labor Statistics, various governmental agencies), can we turn to art for assistance?
Rossoff’s use of a mirror analogy in his Facebook defense traces back to Shakespeare. To capture the truth of a character, Hamlet tells the players, an actor must “hold a mirror up to nature”:
[L]et your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure
Samuel Johnson, in his “Preface to Shakespeare,” wrote that the Bard followed his own advice:
Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.
The relationship of art to reality obsessed Stevens, with Blue Guitar being an extensive meditation on the subject. While sometimes glorying in art’s ability to create its own reality, Stevens also worries about that power. After all, are there any checks and what happens to objective truth? Given what happened with Facebook, this is not an academic question.
As a modernist writing at a time (1937) when people were losing faith in institutions like religion and the government, Stevens wondered whether beauty could be the ultimate arbiter. In “A High Toned Old Christian Woman,” after playfully and provocatively arguing that poetry and religion are equally fictitious, he asks why not make poetry our religion?
Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
In the end, however, Stevens concluded that poetry can’t be utterly fanciful. If it is not grounded in truth and reality, it will lose its vitality:
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.
In short, even when the blue guitar changes things as they are, it must do so in the service of what is real. Great literature speaks what is true and thus can help us fight against unscrupulous leaders who attempt to bend us to their fabricated reality.
Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum says that great literature turns us into better voters. Given social media’s growing ability to disseminate fog, we need the blue guitar now more than ever.