I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements. . . . When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. — Henry David Thoreau (227)
What purchase might there be for loosening the grip of capitalism as an oppressive instance? . . . One critical orientation, which is seemingly paradoxical given that mobility and liberation have hitherto been closely associated, is to be sought in challenging mobility as a prerequisite and incontestable value. Is the project of liberation still compatible with an unlimited extension of the exigency of mobility, contact and connection which . . . can be a source of new forms of exploitation and new existential tensions? — Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (468)
1. Mobility for Thoreau offers respite from a capitalist economy that exploits workers. For Boltanski and Chiapello, however, it represents capitalism's latest and most advanced form of oppression. In the new spirit of capitalism, mobility is key to a knowledge economy that idealizes workers who are flexible, creative, and reprogrammable—workers who, following William Wordsworth, wander as clouds through the Cloud. As Boltanski and Chiapello explore, mobility and flexibility today are sources for new social anxieties. What once offered respite from capitalism for Thoreau is now a source of anxiety for workers capable of imagining a near future when they may no longer be mobile or flexible enough to compete for jobs that provide adequate material resources. In an economy that values mobility and flexibility, one is expendable when others are more mobile and flexible—code in the new knowledge economy for a purely formal process of substitution or interchangeability. This essay begins with two questions: how does the general mobility and flexibility of late capitalism, increased—if not inaugurated—by cloud computing, leave material traces? And (risking seeming a bit simple minded), given Romantic poetry's preoccupation with clouds, how does Romantic poetry—specifically the poetry of William Wordsworth—help us to think the material traces of cloud computing and the knowledge economy differently?
Romanticism and Materialism
2. To think about Romanticism—and in particular Romantic poetry—and materialism today may still strike some as quite odd. Aren't poets the least materialist of writers and Romantic poets the least materialist of the poets? This at least is how Jerome McGann characterized Romantic poetry so powerfully in Romantic Ideology, where he argued that Romantic poetry "is everywhere marked by extreme forms of displacement and poetic conceptualization whereby the actual human issues with which the poetry is concerned are resituated in a variety of idealized localities" (1). What distinguishes Romantic poetry is the recurring displacement of material life.
3. Many readers of Romantic poetry have worked against McGann's accusation for years, but recent publications by contemporary poets and specialists in contemporary poetry and poetics continue to align Romanticism with idealism, showing that the dominant narrative exerts great power. Marjorie Perloff's Uncreative Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, Kevin Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, and Craig Dworkin and Kevin Goldsmith's Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing show how contemporary writing has distanced itself from the tropes that preoccupied—or have been understood to preoccupy—Romantic poets: genius, imagination, individuality, creativity, emotion, and so on. Dreams of originality strongly associated with Romantic discourse have themselves been transformed by technologies that enable new writing practices. As Goldsmith writes: "writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word programming, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name but a few" (2). Summarizing Perloff, he explains: "because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius—a romantic isolated figure—is outdated" (1).
4. Technological change in recent years is largely responsible for an increase in non-expressive, conceptual, and material poetics: a poetry, following Charles Olson, that aims to get "rid of [the] lyrical interference of the individual as ego" so strongly associated with Romanticism and embrace self-consciously "unoriginal" practices common in the digital age (qtd. in Dworkin, "Against Expression" xliii). In "The Fate of Echo," Dworkin's introduction to Against Expression, he describes the original online collection from which Against Expression emerged, which
5. Few readers would confuse Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" with Graham's "Schema," yet I wonder if Romanticism need so forcefully be aligned with the immateriality of "narcissistic confession," and so defined as complicit with and not critical of the social, economic, and political status quo. I wonder, to put this differently, how easy it is to gain access to "materiality." Unlike an expressive poetry structured by figure (and the various forms of substitution figurative language foregrounds in a poem like "I wandered lonely as a cloud" ), a non-expressive poetry would "replace" metaphor with what Dworkin describes as the "direct presentation of language itself." The readily apparent difficulty of such a presentation arises from the fact that the effort to "replace" "the substitution at the heart of metaphor" already depends on the logic of substitution—or replacement—that defines metaphor. To supplant "spontaneous overflow" with the direct presentation of language itself is already to participate in the logic of substitution that defines figurative or expressive poetry.  The poet's effort to substitute for metaphor the direct presentation of language depends upon metaphor.
6. An assertion that Romanticism is outdated may reproduce certain "Romantic" structures and preoccupations. What distinguishes Romantic poems may be their attempts to move away from Romanticism. Goldsmith, for example, begins Uncreative Writing with something of a Wordsworthian problem: "faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists" (1). Goldsmith develops "uncreative" writing practices to manage, parse, and organize "this thicket of information," just as Wordsworth offers Lyrical Ballads to "manage" the rapid communication of intelligence (Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads 294). Famously, Wordsworth laments the craving for extraordinary incidents produced in the minds of readers by the proliferation of information (newspapers, for instance) and argues for poetry to play a role in offsetting the blunting of the mind that results from this craving. In some significant ways, Goldsmith and Wordsworth respond to the same problem. Similarly, Dworkin characterizes the shift from expressive to non-expressive poetry and poetics using familiar Romantic tropes: contemporary non-expressive poets choose Echo over Romanticism's—perhaps specifically Wordsworth's—Narcissus, language over ego, materiality over ideal-ity. Such an opposition is complicated, though, by the very poetry under discussion. The opposition Dworkin sets up between Echo and Narcissus maps too easily onto the opposition John Keats, for instance, sets up between William Shakespeare and John Milton. Shakespeare was always already something of a re-mixer and a model of sorts for Keats, i.e. Romanticism, too. Like the poets Dworkin celebrates, Keats distinguishes the poetical character from Wordsworth's "egotistical sublime." "A poet," writes Keats in a letter to Richard Woodhouse from October of 1818, "is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity" (Keats 195). Dan Graham's "Schema," like Keats's poet, is similarly empty of content of its own. Perhaps 2011 was a very romantic year for contemporary poetics.
7. I started by suggesting that poets are the least material of writers, and Romantic poets the least material of poets. This is true, of course, only if one defines Romanticism in the terms employed by those who collapse Romanticism and idealism, a drifting into mind of language merely as a vehicle to explore the self. But what if the Romantic poet's turn inward is not a turn away from materiality, but a turn toward the question: where is the material? When? Where or when is the encounter with what cannot be known or understood about language, and how does this encounter, this event, offer some form of registering materiality—however defined, however removed from consciousness, for example? The rejection of Romanticism common in contemporary poetics—a rejection that aligns Romanticism with idealism and contemporary poetry with materialism—always risks transforming materialism into an ideal idealism, as the auto-referentiality of text becomes indistinguishable from Wordsworth's ego-ideal.  When one thinks one has at last the material referent, one discovers it instead dispersed, a cloud; when one thinks one has finally rid oneself of the material referent, one discovers it instead a stone.
8. Recent advances in technology are helping us not only develop new writing practices, but also rethink what we mean by matter, material, materiality, and so call for what Diane Coole and Samantha Frost term "new materialisms." The more we come to understand about atoms—but also genes, networks, etc.—the less comfortably solid material becomes, for, as Coole and Frost write, "the microscopic atom consists of a positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloudlike, three-dimensional wave of spinning electrons" (11). They continue:
9. Bruno Latour begins Pandora's Hope with a question from a colleague that takes him by surprise. It's a question that seems to follow from many of the social, cultural, and scientific discussions that have become more and more common in the 20thand 21st centuries: "'I have a question for you,' he said, taking out of his pocket a crumpled piece of paper on which he had scribbled a few key words. He took a breath: 'Do you believe in reality?'" (1). In other words, the question from Latour's colleague is—given the various concerns over reality as socially constructed, as virtual—is it still possible to "believe" in reality? The colleague is here the young Wordsworth and Latour simply the closest wall or tree. What happened to the material world? In "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern," Latour expresses quite powerfully his worry that "a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path" (231). He draws a parallel between PhD programs "still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth" and extremists who "are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence" (227). What is the difference, he concludes, "between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique?" (228). Latour's colleague in Pandora's Hope is forced to ask his question in part because forms of social critique have successfully questioned the very idea of matters of fact. The fact that the so-called linguistic or cultural turn has made it possible to ask such a question is precisely what Coole and Frost identify as a reason for the necessity of new materialisms: "the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society, particularly in light of some of its most urgent challenges regarding environmental, demographic, geopolitical, and economic change" (3). Textual approaches have left us with nothing but the immaterial. Like Latour's colleague, we reach for something else, something more, something more material—or at least we should be reaching. But the act itself repeats Wordsworth's question. If Romanticism is nothing other than an effort away from Romanticism, is idealism nothing other than the effort out of idealism? If the effort out of Romanticism merely puts us back in Romanticism, does the effort out of idealism merely put us back in idealism?
10. Latour, however, foregrounds a form of material textuality in his opening anecdote, as his colleague takes from his pocket a scrap of paper upon which he has written a few key words. Given the scene, the colleague's question appears possible at all only because of and through his encounter with writing, and so Latour's opening foregrounds technologies of inscription even as the colleague's question seems to lament a linguistic turn that embraces theories of textuality that threaten—or are perceived to threaten—reality. In his posthumously published book Aesthetic Ideology, Paul de Man argues that the encounter with something one might call matter or materiality occurs not when textual approaches are eschewed, but only "by way of an epistemological critique of tropes" (132). What Coole and Frost refer to as "textual approaches"are deemed inadequate in New Materialismsbecause language does not offer access to materiality; as if the world, reality, materiality (as Latour's colleague worries) is destroyed as soon as we represent it with or through signs. At moments like this, however, it can appear that a purely formal, fully tropological model for language is the legacy of post-structuralism, deconstruction, and the linguist and cultural turns; as if this model were not always part of what Paul de Man calls aesthetic ideology and something the epistemological critique of tropes is meant to oppose.  For de Man, literary attention to signs, words, tropes, does not result in a rejection of materiality; it offers an attempt to encounter, in whatever minimal way possible, materiality. Materiality is not opposed to writing, even if it is "opposed to some extent to the notion of cognition" (Aesthetic Ideology 132). But this does not negate Latour's larger point, that certain extremists today are perfectly willing to use the very constructivist arguments utilized by the left for decades to make revisionist historical and counter-factual claims. The question is how—when—does the language of trope become something else; when does formalism become formalization, a dislocation from within—however brief—of what de Man calls aesthetic ideology? If critique for Latour has run out of steam, this may be because critical reading is not attending enough today to its own tropes, even a trope like steam so familiar—if in slightly revised form—to Romantic poets.
The aesthetic . . . is not a separate category but a principle of articulation between various known faculties, activities, and modes of cognition — Paul de Man, Rhetoric (264-265)
"A kind of university—only nobody goes to it. There aren't any buildings, isn't any faculty. Everybody's in it and nobody's in it. It's like a cloud that everybody has given a little puff of mist to, and then the cloud does all the heavy thinking for everybody. I don't mean there's really a cloud. I just mean it's something like that. . . . All I can say is, there aren't any meetings" — Kurt Vonnegut (274)
11. The aesthetic for de Man is a principle of articulation, and yet in the contemporary university Vonnegut imagines, there no longer are any meetings, by which I think he means to lampoon the great number of meetings scheduled in universities in which very little gets done. But just as there are no meetings, there is no articulation. Here, the principle of articulation is the absence of articulation, which can seem a form of resistance to aesthetics, but is just as likely the advanced form aesthetics has adopted in late capitalism. Vonnegut lampoons the university that has become a fully closed system in which the aberrantly referential effects of language are foreclosed from the start by the very absence of articulation. He somewhat playfully—if also accidentally—anticipates Bill Reading's argument in The University in Ruins, where Readings famously argues that the corporate bureaucratization of the University leads to an emerging purely formal discourse of excellence empty of content: "the contemporary University of Excellence should now be understood as a bureaucratic system whose internal regulation is entirely self-interested" (40). "What gets taught or researched matters less than the fact that it be excellently taught or researched" (13). In the contemporary University, as in late capitalism, content concerns are eclipsed as purely formal structures of substitution and exchange become the only defining content. Without certain attempts at articulation between form and content conditioned by the aesthetic, there is no chance for the occurrence of materiality, which de Man defines as the passage from one conception of language to another, from a language of trope to a language of performance. The absence of articulation and something like absolute connectivity, a purely formal system, are indistinguishable. "Everybody's in it and nobody's in it."
12. Descriptions of Apple's new iCloud come quite close to Vonnegut's imagined university, drawing together late capitalism and certain formal, content-less theories of language: "iCloud is so much more than a hard drive in the sky. It makes it quick and effortless to access just about everything on the devices you use every day . . . No syncing required. No management required. In fact, no anything required. iCloud does it all for you."  All one need do is download iCloud and the cloud will do the rest for you: "the cloud does all the heavy thinking for everybody." The university imagined in The Sirens of Titan and the language from Apple come close to the purely formal language imagined by Latour in "Has Critique run out of Steam" and embraced at moments by contemporary poets, who develop and celebrate a fully auto-referential poetics that draws attention to the materiality of language itself. Though, as Goldsmith makes clear in Uncreative Writing, there may be no way to remove expression fully, as the choices made by poets more interested in uncreative than creative writing mark a poetic subject even as he or she disappears; in other words, a materialist poetics cannot rid itself of idealism, and an idealist poetics that aspires to wander as a cloud (Wordsworth) may not be able to rid itself of materialism.
13. When Coole and Frost write that "the microscopic atom consists of a positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloudlike, three-dimensional wave of spinning electrons," they mean, of course, that to be a good materialist today one need take an interest in clouds. If this is true, then there may be no more materialist a poet than Wordsworth, famous for beginning both of his long epic poems with clouds and subjecting himself to ridicule for "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Cloud computing makes possible new forms of mobility embraced and supported by late capitalism. But even Wordsworth, however great his ego-ideal, never went quite so far as Apple. "I wandered lonely as a cloud" is still a far cry from "iCloud," as the simile in Wordsworth's poem makes conspicuous the figurative potential of language. There is a meeting, a chance occurrence—perhaps we might call it an event—here as Wordsworth's preoccupation with clouds, once perhaps read as a sign of Wordsworth's idealism—his collapsing of subject and object, his embrace of the immaterial self as it disperses, colonizing a world by making it lighter—gives way to parataxis: not "I . . . as a cloud" but "iCloud."
14. Wordsworth's "I Wandered lonely as a cloud" —"wandered" and "lonely," in addition to "as," being key terms Apple eliminates in its rewriting of the line—is still frequently lampooned precisely for its seeming embrace of its own idealist position—as Wordsworth frees the poetic ego burdened on the couch to dance: "my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils."  David Simpson notes in Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern, following de Man's readings of Friedrich Schiller and Heinrich von Kleist in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, that dance is a common figure within aesthetic ideology for a social and political model in which all works in harmony, but a harmony designed to conceal the violence that makes it possible. While Wordsworth's poem is often read "as a standard expression of Romantic pantheism" (168), Simpson argues that Wordsworth's dancing daffodils anticipate Karl Marx's dancing table, Marx's figure for the commodity in Capital. In becoming a commodity, the table "changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness while remaining sensible."  The table-as-commodity becomes ghostly, a "sensible-supersensible" thing (Simpson 156). In the poem Wordsworth gives himself vaporous form, but in giving himself vaporous form he both transcends the material world and stages the becoming-commodity of ghostly things, even the becoming-commodity of ghostly things like poets and poems.
15. Capitalism and commodity form are built on the same power of exchange and so structured by the figurative potential of language even as this structure is disguised. Similarly, a post-industrial knowledge economy is built on a worker's ability to "wander" "lonely" even as the very chance for wandering is foreclosed, as the cloud follows one wherever one goes. The somewhat accidental articulation of Wordsworth's poem and Apple's iCloud helps make visible the degree to which late capitalism disguises its own figurative structure even as it becomes ubiquitous. As all things become increasingly "exchangeable," the system becomes more purely formal; the apparent absence of figurative language (iCloud as compared to "as a Cloud") becomes an ideal as the rhetorical structures disappear from view. One can think about this structure in slightly different terms: iCloud (and cloud computing more generally) makes possible absolute connectivity, mobility, and flexibility while disguising the basic material structures that make connection, mobility, and flexibility possible. In a recent report written by Gary Cook and Jodie Van Horn and published by Greenpeace on the energy use of data centers in the United States and their carbon footprint, the "cloud" is described as IT's biggest innovation and disruption in recent years. The authors explain: "Cloud computing is converting our work, finances, health and relationships into invisible data, centralized in out-of-the-way storage facilities or data centers. . . . In the US, which hosts approximately 40% of the world's data center servers, it is estimated that server farms consume close to 3% of the national power supply" (4). "Apple's new $1bn US dollar 'iData Center' in North Carolina, necessary for iCloud, is estimated to require as much as 100MW of power, equivalent to about 80,000 US homes or 250,000 EU homes" (12). Making data invisible, in other words, requires a lot of energy, made visible by the increased consumption of coal and nuclear energy and the material effects of such consumption. While Apple has plans to build a solar farm near their iData Center, the energy required to run server banks is increasing in the United States by 12% a year.
16. Echoing Boltanski and Chiapello, Alan Liu in The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information explores the subtly destructive effects of a late capitalism that privileges a worker's ability to wander with the help of a cloud that promotes new forms of creative knowledge work. Mobility and flexibility are now a source, suggests Liu, for new anxieties as "global competition legitimates restructuring, downsizing, outsourcing, and the replacement of career workers with permatemps—the social law of a new nomadism" (292). In a postindustrial sociality, "'lifelong learning' demands perpetual reeducation at 'Internet speed,' but bodily, family, community, ethnic, gender, and other duties of everyday life pose an incalculably great counter-demand that makes it almost impossible, for instance, to study at night" (293-294). One must remain always mobile, flexible, and connected else one will lose touch with the "cool" and find oneself replaced, exchanged. Absolute mobility, which is pitched as freedom to roam or surf, increases insecurity and insecurity is the oldest way to keep one from thinking or criticizing. The cloud does all the thinking for everybody.
17. "I wandered lonely as a cloud" is perhaps a poem about removing oneself from the discomfort of the material world through the power of imagination: "For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They [the daffodils] flash upon that inward eye" (ll. 19-21). The couch is now such a powerful figure for emotional disquiet on the one hand and general apathy on the other. Instead of getting off the couch, one might argue, Wordsworth finds a way to live there happily. If so, then Wordsworth's poem and the idealist position it advances can easily be read as contributing to a work ethic that cloud computing fully realizes. One no longer needs to leave the couch to work all of the time. And for this reason, contemporary poetry's distrust of the lyric ego, legible through its turn toward the materiality of the letter, offers some resistance to an aesthetic ideology that displaces material life.
18. But what Wordsworth's presumed idealism—his collapsing of subject and object—cannot have controlled is itself newly legible with the insistent presence of "as," the conspicuous use of figure now removed from Apple's rewriting of the poem's first line: "iCloud / That floats on high o'er hills and vales." The process of articulation that names aesthetics has become the absence of articulation as Wordsworth's conspicuous use of figure disappears. In this way late capitalism sells us back Wordsworth's dream as the imagined disarticulation of Wordsworth's dream. Whichever way one chooses, one cannot miss one's way. If the aesthetics of late capitalism now includes the elimination of figure (figured here by iCloud as compared to "I . . . as a cloud"), an elimination of figure because there is nothing but figure—all parts are interchangeable—then paradoxically, it is now Wordsworth's simile that stubbornly remains immobile. Perhaps there's a chance for materialism even if it is indistinguishable from idealism. Wordsworth, of course, never leaves the couch—at least not within the world the lyric imagines—but what the insistence of "as" makes legible—and this might be the simplest if also the most pun-ny way to put it by way of conclusion—Wordsworth is unwilling to work his "as" off. What we have not yet come to terms with are the ways that the absolutely formal system of late capitalism—one that advances absolute mobility and interchangeability—needs, somewhat paradoxically, to eliminate the very figurative potential of language it seems structured by.
Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2005. Print.
Cook, Gary, and Jodie Van Horn. "How Dirty is Your Data? A Look at the Energy Choices that Power Cloud Computing." Greenpeace Reports. Amsterdam: Greenpeace International, 2011. Print.
Coole, Diane and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010. Print.
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---. "Why Has Critique run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern" Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-248. Print.
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 See Eric Lindstrom, who offers an interesting contrast with Dworkin's use of "supplanted" in his description of how the spontaneous overflow of emotion is supplanted by meticulous procedure in non-expressive poetry and poetics. BACK
 Contemporary poet Christian Bök provocatively suggests that in the future poetry will be written by machines for other machines to read (Goldsmith, 11). BACK
 Since the initial launch of iCloud, Apple has revised the language used to describe it. The language quoted above was retrieved December 15th, 2011. For the current language, see the iCloud website. For the original language, now see this site. BACK