Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Products of "Howl", The Fans of Facebook

I've discovered that the two top movies on my viewing docket, The Social Network and Howl, have a lot in common: they both involve creative geniuses often misunderstood (or, some might argue, perfectly understood and "found out") by their collaborators and creative peers. Both involve massive legal action taken over questions that remain enormously important in today's society: creative license, right to free speech, the definition of obscenity, and intellectual property. And the central creations in both these films--Facebook, and the 1955 poem "Howl"--have been designated cultural identifiers for generations of young people. Is it possible that our generation, the twenty-somethings, owes the ascent of Facebook to our parents' generation paying witness to the birth of "Howl"?

When "Howl" first emerged, it was in a form as viral as a Tweet: written in a coffee shop in Berkeley, California, Allen Ginsburg first began the poem after his psychiatrist told him to quit his day-job and dedicate himself to poetry full-time. (The contemporary publishing climate, meanwhile, is discouraging this kind of decision.) The poem came together haphazardly, its style a jumbling of thoughts and ideas emerging almost stream-of-consciousness. Ginsburg called the poem, "a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths," and his poem meanders like a lost lamb, bleating out frustration and confusion, flashing with perceptiveness and social critique. He said, "Ideally each line of 'Howl' is a single breath unit. My breath is long--that's the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath." And the poem's reception was breathless, rapturous praise, and while charges of obscenity over the poem's references to sex and drugs caused it to be brought to court, it was undeniable that what Ginsburg had written was of "redeeming social importance".

Reading it in a contemporary context, there is little that separates the subject matter of Ginsburg's rhapsody in generational angst from that of a standard blog post or Twitter feed. Of course, the difference is in the execution, and any online writer worth their salt should be able to show you the difference between good web writing and just writing on the web. But more than ever before, fledgling writers and poets are emboldened to try to put their thoughts into written form. The accessibility of Facebook, the status update, the carefully crafted profile, has replaced the poetry club and coffeehouse performance of the 1950s. Much of the hype surrounding The Social Network is its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a socially inept genius whose rise to fame and power came at the expense of everyone around him--a classic tragic hero story, to be sure. But the central concept of Facebook, and the driving motivation behind David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's take on Zuckerberg, is that this is a guy who wants to be anything but an asshole; who wants to be social, and doesn't know how to get there. As noted by Mark Harris in the movie's New York profile, "Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is a young man pounding on the door, driven by his desire to get in—inside the Harvard final clubs that represent power and acceptance (something Zuckerberg has denied ever wanting), inside the social and dating dynamics that seem easy for his classmates and unreachable for him . . . ." What's so unusual about Zuckerberg's invention is that, while it became his ticket to acceptance, fame, and fortune, it became a forum for millions of people across the world to redefine themselves and speak their minds. Zuckerberg went from awkward nerd to Internet tycoon, on the backs of our generation's enthusiastic signing up for reinvention and self-expression.

The thoughts behind crafting an "Interests" list, "liking" a post, choosing a picture, are as deliberate as that of the best memoirists. The beginning of the trailer for The Social Network is like a music video for "Howl": set to the tune of Radiohead's "Creep" (sung by an all-girls choir), images stream of the lives people have constructed in this online world. As people type in hellos, "poke" each other, and log on, we get a composite picture of what this program means to them: a platform, a soapbox, an open mic night. Would we ever know the value of this ability without Allen Ginsberg as its predecessor?

Zuckerberg once said of his creation, "I’m trying to make the world a more open place." Ginsberg said, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . . angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night." In the machinery of night, in the absence of stages and book deals and ready listeners, we boot up, log on, and "stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head."

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