Institutional Identity. The Case of Jeroen Mettes’s Dutch Poetry Weblog (2005-2006)

by: Jeroen Dera

 

One of the central questions in the field of media studies concerns the relationships between different types of media. In what way do the so-called ‘new’ media affect the task, nature and function of their predecessors? Especially in contemporary culture, in which the ever-growing impact of digitization is a characteristic feature, such questions are increasingly relevant, with several cultural pessimists proclaiming the eventual replacement of the book by its digital alternatives. As Lisa Gitelman has pointed out, even prominent thinkers like Friedrich Kittler have contributed to this “overdetermined sense of reaching the end of media history” (3), in which “a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium” (Kittler 2).

Although the three major media revolutions of the twentieth century (the emergence of radio, television and the Internet) have had a demonstrable impact on the book market and people’s reading habits, print is still considered a viable factor in the media ecosystem. Nico Carpentier and Benjamin De Cleen even argue that “the cultural importance of the old media is underestimated tremendously”, adding: “These old media still play an important role in the everyday lives of many people. Blinded by the futurist megalomania, and by the hope for a better future, the presence of the old media is often taken for granted” (7). Such a vision implies that we should not overemphasize the threats of displacement that new communication technologies pose to residual media. As Asa Briggs and Peter Burke have asserted, it is better to view the media as “a system in perpetual change, including technological change, in which different elements play greater or smaller roles” (5).

In literary reviewing, the co-existence of different types of media has lead to an expansion of criticism in non-print media, with book programs on national radio as early examples and reviewing practices on Facebook as a current alternative for publishing in print media. In this contribution, I aim to show that such forms of literary reviewing are (still) perceived as less authoritative than reviews published in print. My case study is the Dutch weblog Poëzienotities [Notes on poetry], which was written by the literary critic and poet Jeroen Mettes (1978-2006) between July 29, 2005 and September 21, 2006, the day of his suicide. By applying the concept of ‘institutional identity’ to both the contents and reception of this weblog, which has a cult status in the Dutch poetry scene, I will argue that the relatively low symbolic capital of online reviewing practices is strongly connected to a derogatory discursive construction of digital criticism.

The construction of institutional identity in Mettes

In her study Media at War: Radio’s Challenge to the Newspapers, 1924-1939, Gwenyth L. Jackaway states: “At the time of the introduction of a new communication technology, established media may be called upon to assess what they are, what they do, and what makes their work unique in the field of communications” (4-5). Such an (explicit or implicit) manifestation of a medium’s nature, aim(s) and function(s) can be referred to as “institutional identity”, a discursive construction of the characteristics of an institution (in this case a medium), which is produced by the subjects who write about it. It is important to stress that this identity is not only constructed by subjects who are affiliated to the institution in question (i.e. program makers in the case of television), but also by (relative) outsiders (i.e. journalists or scholars in the television example). Thus, an institutional identity is necessarily a complex blend of representations: those of the subjects involved with the institution, and those of the commentators on the sideline.

Before having a closer look at the construction of institutional identity in Mettes, it is useful to outline the results of earlier research on Dutch digital criticism. The most up to date contribution on this subject was published by Jos Joosten, who draws an important conclusion with regard to the print media’s attitude towards online critics: “At best, online criticism is considered complimentary to the (own) literary(-critical) field, but it is certainly not seen as a potential part of it” (72). [1] Joosten illustrates his argument with three observations: Dutch literary websites do not have more readers than literary supplements of national newspapers (76); digital critics are not well known with educated readers (80) and digital platforms for literary reviewing are seldom linked to literary institutions with symbolic capital (84-85). Consequently, in order to have a chance of influencing the literary status quo, Joosten argues, online criticism needs to establish a connection with the traditional media.

In light of this conclusion, the case of Jeroen Mettes’s poetry weblog is highly interesting, since the text of Poëzienotities (133 posts) was integrally included in his posthumously published collected works (2011). In this respect, Mettes was a pioneer: he can be considered the first Dutch blogger who successfully made the transition from the digital circuit to print-based media. As mentioned earlier, Poëzienotities aired on July 29, 2005. At its core were critical evaluations of recent poetry publications, which were mainly organized by an alphabetical principle of selection: Mettes bought collections of poems in Verwijs, a book store in The Hague, starting with the letter A and working his way up through each letter. Apart from these contributions to his ‘Dichtersalfabet’ [Alphabet of Poets], Mettes used his weblog to reflect on the state of affairs in the Dutch poetry scene, to comment on political issues or to elaborate the ideas he developed as a PhD-student in literary studies at Leiden University. Due to this combination of activities, Poëzienotities had a double function: on the one hand, Mettes had an unlimited space to sharpen his personal ideas about literature; on the other hand, his texts were strongly polemical, for they rejected common practices in contemporary poetry (criticism).

During the period in which Mettes maintained his weblog, he seems to have had only a small group of active followers. Unfortunately, there are no statistics available that help us gain insight into the website’s traffic, but the number of commentators indicates that Poëzienotities served a niche audience. In fourteen months, 46 unique visitors replied to one or more of Mettes’s posts, with only six visitors commenting more than ten times: Samuel Vriezen (comments on 47 posts), Martin van Kralingen (41), Ruben van Gogh (28), Herlinda Vekemans (13), Frans-Willem Korsten (12) and Rutger H. Cornets de Groot (10). With the exception of Korsten, one of Mettes’s doctoral advisors at Leiden University, all these frequent commentators maintained a poetry weblog of their own, which suggests that Poëzienotities functioned mainly in an online community of non- and semi-professional poetry critics. Nevertheless, Mettes’s talent was soon recognized by important figures in the Dutch literary field: impressed by the quality of the critical texts on his weblog, several literary magazines asked Mettes to join their editorial board, which resulted in his editorship of the Flemish experimental journal yang in December 2005. He also started to publish both poems and essays in such literary magazines, thus bridging the gap between his weblog and more traditional ways of publishing.

Despite these activities in print-based media, Mettes was a convinced critic of traditional literary criticism, in the sense of day-to-day reviewing of literary works in newspapers and weekly magazines. Referring to the work of Paul de Man, Mettes unmasks this practice as “naïve criticism”: “the way the press has been reading and evaluating literature in the last couple of tiring centuries” (19). As a literary blogger, Mettes distances himself explicitly from this tradition: “Of course, I detest literary journalism in every meaning of the word” (ibid). In this sense, the case of Mettes echoes Florian Hartling’s qualification of the weblog genre as an “alternative Journalismusform” (219): the blogosphere seeks to correct a common function of journalism, here to be specified as the critical evaluation of (recently published) poems.

Focusing on the construction of institutional identity, Mettes’s disqualification of contemporary literary criticism (which, following Bourdieu, can be considered a classic form of position taking) is interesting, for his critique is interwoven with a negative representation of the institution of newspapers. In his weblog discourse, Mettes constructs an antinomy between day-to-day reviewing and (the possibilities of) online criticism, which is established in three binary oppositions. The first is paternalism versus participation, with the problem of authority at its core. In August 2005, Mettes reacted to ‘Adieu avant-garde! Naar een onbevangen poëziekritiek’ [Adieu Avant-garde! Towards unprejudiced Poetry Criticism], a controversial essay by Hagar Peeters, in which she argues that poetesses, performance poets and expressive poets are not taken seriously by poetry critics, whose ideas about literature are based on an elitist, masculine and avant-garde ideology. Mettes exposes Peeters as a “literary entertainer”, but en passant he also decries the nature of newspaper criticism. Ironically asserting that popularizing poetry could ultimately lead to the installation of the Dutch pop singers Acda and De Munnik as poetry critics in the leading newspapers de Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad, Mettes argues: “This scenario would not be a nightmare, for it would definitely demolish the paternalistic role of the newspaper critic, which seems to me only a matter of time, and we would benefit from it: what are the odds, reader, of NRC Handelsblad having a better taste than you? ” (57).

This particular question concerning the power of judgment lies at the heart of numerous debates on the authority of criticism (McDonald 7). According to Mettes, the newspaper critic acts like a paterfamilias whose taste serves as an instruction booklet for his familia (his readers), but this is an outdated principle in an era that enables the public to exploit its own taste through participatory media channels, such as the weblog Poëzienotities. Nevertheless, even Mettes must admit that critics can gain prestige (and hence authority) by operating in prestigious media. With regard to NRC Handelsblad critic Arie van den Berg, for instance, Mettes contends: “Who cares about him? His only authority is derived from his employer” (86).

The second binary opposition that Mettes creates in order to distinguish his digital criticism from newspaper criticism, is shallowness versus thoroughness. A key concept in Mettes’s critique of day-to-day reviewing is ‘tolerance of beauty’: in his view, newspaper critics are among the naïve enemies of art who evaluate poetry by examining whether a poem touches them, hence defining poetry as an “article of consumption” that is meant to be beautiful (59). Such a neo-liberalist vision on literature necessarily leads to the relegation of literary criticism in the realm of the superficial, which is, according to Mettes, a problem that is closely connected to the institutional identity of print-based media. These are, after all, exposed to a policy aimed at consumption and democratization, in which there is no space for the type of criticism that Mettes propagates: a thoroughly grounded evaluation of poetry, derived from an idea of literature “which the critic (consciously or unconsciously) believes to be universally valid” (60).

The final binary opposition, extensiveness versus limitation, is another antonymic pair related to this issue of space. Arguing that newspapers are driven by a capitalist logic, Mettes states: “Poetry criticism in newspapers has some status. Meanwhile, even in the most literature-friendly newspaper, poetry has quite a marginal status’ (168). Hence, the weblog can serve as an alternative arena: ‘It is the ideal medium for poetry and poetry criticism, for it offers unlimited space for an activity which is essentially negligible: reading poetry and writing about it” (ibid).

Institutional identity in the reception of Mettes

By constructing the oppositions I have worked out above, Poëzienotities contrasts the institutional identity of newspaper criticism with that of the weblog as an alternative space. Given my interest in the power relations between different types of media, it is important to investigate whether Mettes’s claims have resonated in the field of Dutch poetry criticism: in order for niche media to act as a successful control mechanism on the mass media, mass media must respond to their criticism (De Waal 24).

As mentioned earlier, the last post in Mettes’s weblog was published on September 21, 2006. It was entirely empty, which soon turned out to be a symbol of the suicide of its author. His followers were shocked: due to the anonymity of the medium, they did not know that Mettes suffered from serious depression. The days after his desperate deed, tens of condolences appeared in response to the empty post, with many reputable poets and critics expressing their dismay. These appalled reactions imply that Mettes had to some extent established a position in the Dutch poetry scene, but one should not overemphasize his reputation outside the blogosphere. In the print-based media, only three obituaries were published: one by Mettes’s fellow editors in yang, one in Mare, the magazine of Leiden University, and one in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen.

This relatively insignificant reception of Mettes’s suicide was compensated for in the summer of 2011, with Piet Joostens, Frans-Willem Korsten and Daniël Rovers publishing his collected works. This time, the daily and weekly press of both the Netherlands and Flanders did respond to the name of Jeroen Mettes: overall, his Nagelaten werk [Posthumous writings] was discussed in more than ten newspapers and opinion magazines, which is a high average in the Dutch linguistic area. Thus, the publication in print of Mettes’s collected texts seems to have been a necessary step in the process of his reputation formation, assuming that this process (still) takes place in print-based media.

Concerning the construction of institutional identity, the reception of Mettes’s writings shows a remarkable framing of the nature of online poetry criticism. For instance, the critic Gaston Franssen wrote in the literary magazine Parmentier: “Regarding poetry criticism, the internet has become strongly pillarized: the existing websites are dominated by relatively closed circuits, consisting of a handful of loyal discussants. Jeroen Mettes was, retrospectively, an exception to this rule” (112). Considering the small amount of frequent commentators on Mettes’s posts, Franssen’s claim needs to be modified, but his assertion is definitely interesting from the viewpoint of institutional identity: by framing Poëzienotities as an exception to the rule, Franssen distinguishes Mettes’s critical practice from common digital poetry criticism, which, in his view, is lacking bandwidth. Similarly, the newspaper critic Victor Schiferli isolates Mettes from the ad hominem culture he noticed on the internet:

Who ever thought of poets as peaceful people – maybe a bit unworldly, but full of good intentions – should have a look at literary blogs. I presume that in former times, before the invention of the internet, these people only muttered angrily to themselves. Nowadays, poets and their related souls tumble over each other and in doing so, they often use personal attacks. They are people who jeer at each other, safely hidden in the trench in front of their computer. (het Parool)

According to Schiferli, this did not adhere to Jeroen Mettes: “He never used personal attacks: his reactions were always substantial and often also funny and sharp” (ibid).

By discursively marking Mettes’s unique position in the field of digital (poetry) criticism, print-based critics contribute to the negative institutional identity of the internet as a medium for writing about literature. Besides, they do not reflect on their own position, despite Mettes accusing them of shallow paternalism. In this respect, the print-based media seem to ignore Mettes’s plea for the weblog as an alternative space for practicing criticism: they posthumously neutralize him as an exception to the general rule that online poetry criticism is the digital equivalent of the literary neighbors’ quarrel, hence inverting the binary oppositions shallowness versus thoroughness and extensiveness versus limitation for their own advantage.

Concluding remarks

The story of Jeroen Mettes’s reception shows the indispensability of print-based media in the symbolic production of literature. Quantitatively, the consecration of Poëzienotities largely depended on the publication in print of his collected works, which generated authoritative reviews in newspaper criticism. Discursively, these reviews construct an institutional identity of online criticism with ‘pillarization’ and ‘ad hominem’ as keywords, hence treating Mettes as an antitypical representative of literary blogging. Consequently, the remarkable publication of Poëzienotities seems not to have positively influenced the general image of digital (poetry) criticism. In conclusion, if the traditional media can maintain their symbolic hegemony within the field of Dutch literary criticism, the alternative space of online criticism seems to need more critics working in Mettes’s tradition and, more importantly, must hope for reputable publicists who help it construct a more positive institutional identity.

This text is part of the proceedings of the IRUN-CUP Graduate Students’ Conference, ed. K. Földváry, Piliscsaba: Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary, 2013.

 

Works cited

Briggs, A. & Burke, P. A Social History of the Media. From Gutenberg to the Internet. Third edition. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Carpentier, N. & De Cleen, B. (eds.). Participation and Media Production. Critical Reflections on Content Creation. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

De Waal, M. ‘From Media Landscape to Media Ecology. The Cultural Implications of Web 2.0’. Open (2007), 13, 20-33.

Franssen, G. ‘De mogelijkheid van iets anders: over de productieve haat van Jeroen Mettes’. Parmentier 20 (2011), 4, 112-119.

Gitelman, L. Always already new. Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.

Hartling, F. Der digitale Autor: Autorschaft im Zeitalter des Internets. Bielefeld: transcript, 2009.

Jackaway, G. Media at War: Radio’s Challenge to the Newspapers. Westport: Praeger, 1995.

Joosten, J. Staande receptie. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2012.

Kittler, F. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999 [1983].

McDonald, R. The Death of the Critic. London/New York: Continuum, 2006.

Mettes, J. Weerstandsbeleid. Nieuwe kritiek. Amsterdam: De Wereldbibliotheek, 2011.

Schiferli, V. ‘Geestig en scherp




[1] The author is responsible for the translations of the Dutch quotes.

 

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