How John Heartfield invented the web; or, the MySpace reading guide to The Waste Land

The usual  problem with Eliot’s “Waste Land” for most readers (and most teachers) can be summed up in one word: difficulty.  The poem resists just about every way that English majors have been taught to subdue poetry: it lacks conventional qualities of forminess (rhyme, meter, stanzas, a unitary “speaker,” etc.); beyond the title, the poem denies the safety of any overarching conceit; its fragmentary, contradictory elements defy easy recuperation by allegory; its obscure literary and cultural references seem to promise victory by synecdoche but threaten death-by-cultural-quicksand.

Confronted by the poem’s difficulty, students often resort to two last ditch interpretive efforts: from beneath the shifting, colliding surfaces of the poem, we can excavate the tale of the “Fisher King”! or, the chaos of the poem reflects the chaos and despair of World War I – – mud, influence, typhus, barbed wire, and blood replaced by a dizzying flood of words, allusions, and voices.

Of course, both solutions are really just ways of neutralizing and evading the poem’s difficulty.  Ultimately, neither solution – – usually supplied by a previous teacher’s difficulty with difficulty – – seems adequate to the experience of the poem.  And so, students typically end up managing the difficulties posed by the “Waste Land”  by either rejecting the poem (“Another piece of art-for-art’s-sake modernist nonsense.  Can we go back to Frost?  Please!”) or by rejecting themselves (“This poem is too hard for me.  I’ll leave it to the really smart students and the professor.”).

Confronted by this difficulty, I can only respond: Thank god for MySpace! Or, actually, thank god that John Heartfield invented the web!

“The Waste Land” seems to short-circuit students’ ways of reading primarily because of its collage aesthetic, the way its “heap of broken images” challenges expectations about how poetry should work.  So, I told myself as I recently prepared to teach “The Waste Land” yet again, perhaps a more helpful way of inducting students into the poem might be to first introduce them to the medium of collage.  I turned to John Heartfield, one of Cubism’s most powerful and interesting collagists.  Maybe a close reading of  Heartfield’s “Die Rationalisierung marschiert!” [“Rationalization is on the March!”] would give students some tools to start engaging with, rather than defusing, the difficult textuality of “The Waste Land.”

Yet, as I thought about this strategy, it seemed that beginning with Heartfield only displaced the problem: I could see myself still having to instruct students in the principles and techniques of collage.  Wasn’t there a way for students to discover the pleasures, purposes, and principles of collage aesthetics  on their own?  A way they could connect their own experience to Heartfield and then, through the “6-4-3 double play” of pedagogy, to Eliot?   Thinking about the dynamics of “remediation” at the heart of collage aesthetics – – the ways collage appropriates and re-purposes visual materials from other sources – – pointed me, thanks to Bolter and Grusin, to the remediations that greet us every time we open up a web browser.  Maybe collage wasn’t such an alien form.

And so, at the beginning of our class dedicated to Eliot, I asked my students to think back to the heyday of MySpace (which meant for most of them back to their days as middle-schoolers).  With one student as volunteer-artist, the class began to reproduce the MySpace profile page on our whiteboard [see below] – – adding in  boxes for the profile photo, “Top 8” friends, favorite songs, navigation bar, updates, comments, blurbs, etc.


Comparing the MySpace representation of “You” (the user)  to more traditional representations of “You” – – like a photo or snapshot – –  helped to make visible some of the particular assumptions and practices  that guide the social web’s “collage aesthetic.” [see below] (Interestingly, my mention of Pinterest as another collage platform sparked a lively debate about the gendering of the web – – Pinterest as a “female” app.)

The students pointed out some important differences between the photo and the MySpace versions of “You”: static (photo) vs. dynamic (MySpace); object (of the camera) vs. subject (as MySpace creator); singular (photo) vs. multiple (MySpace “boxes”); private or personal (photo) vs. social or public (MySpace).  I underscored several really fundamental differences that emerged in our discussion of the two media: first, the MySpace “you” was “glued” together out of fragments and pieces; second, the MySpace “you” was explicitly assembled or constructed, i.e. MySpace users “authored” their self-representations more like curators or editors; and, the MySpace “you” was literally more spatial, i.e. understanding the identity of the user depended not on a linear narrative but on grasping elements organized within the space of the web “page.”

As we turned to Heartfield’s collage, I asked the students: do you see any similar practices at work in “Die Rationalisierung marschiert!”?  And, indeed, they quickly began to identify the similarities between Cubist collage and MySpace page – – Heartfield’s use of fragments, the role of the artist as curator, the logic of spatial (versus temporal) organization, etc.  The students also however pointed to a new connection between Heartfield and MySpace – – the question of originality.  Heartfield’s collage foregrounds the cultural “composting” central to collage, the ways in which collage self-consciously recycles existing cultural materials.  This mashup aesthetic – – so fundamental to the web – – both denigrates originality (“The only materials we have to create with are already created!”) and exalts creativity (“Look what I’ve managed to do with what you already thought you knew!”).  Reading MySpace through this dialectic, inspired by Heartfield’s collage, started a lively discussion about the meaning and status of creativity in today’s remix culture.

And, how did all of this work help students to manage the difficulty of Eliot’s poem?  Most importantly, perhaps, our investigation of the collage aesthetic changed the way we discussed the poem.  Rather than worrying about what “The Waste Land” means, we were able to focus on how “The Waste Land” works.  For instance, rather than thinking about the poem deductively – – everything in the poem must be related to some big idea, theme, symbol, etc.,  we could adopt a more inductive approach.  I.e. how does the poem assemble and disassemble clusters of motifs and images in fluid networks of meaning, much like the way MySpace constructs a picture of “you” through connecting (and disconnecting) pieces and fragments?  Once we had broken through the problem of verisimilitude – – the poem must be a true likeness of something, we could begin to work with and through the poem as a signifying or discursive practice, less concerned about the whole than about the ways in which interruptions and conjunctions encouraged fractal patterns of meaning.

For me, the class’s work with MySpace, Heartfield, and Eliot also raised several other broader issues:

First, students already know how to read Eliot.  That is, most of our students already live and communicate in the “MySpace” world of representation – – where, on an everyday basis and thanks to the social web, communicating occurs through assemblage, mashup, remix, and collage.  The problem for teachers of “The Waste Land” (and other literary texts) is that – – despite the similarities between MySpace and Heartfield and Eliot – – we too rarely connect this new vernacular literacy to canonical culture.  In fact, teachers most often see  “MySpace” literacy as an obstacle or opponent to the kinds of critical reading and writing we promote.  Instead, we need to leverage our students’ vernacular literacies to renovate and remake their engagement with canonical culture.

Second, after an initial wave of “hypermedia” criticism by literary critics like George Landow, Richard Lanham, Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, and others (much of it published before the rise of the social web), literary and cultural studies largely lost interest in the poetics, rhetorics and aesthetics of the web.  How to “read” the web has now largely been consigned to the realm of media literacy.  Meanwhile, digital textuality has become, via the web, ebooks, smartphones, etc., an increasingly dominant mode of writing and reading in the 21st century.   Folks who read and write about artists like Eliot (or Heartfield) have a lot to teach us about the experience of making meaning within these new semiotic environments.  Conversely,  the readers and writers formed within these new semiotic environments have a lot to teach us about artists like Eliot (and Heartfield).

Finally, it’s time to put culture back into digital humanities.  Kenneth Burke once famously defined literature as “equipment for living.”  Lately within digital humanities, the emphasis has been on humanists making digital “equipment.”  But, this has short-shifted “living” – – the ways in which humans use digital “equipment” to represent, make sense of, respond to, enjoy, manage and resist the world in which they live.   (Heartfield made this use explicit in the 1930s when he aimed his collages at the rising fascist threat.)  How do the digital practices and textualities of MySpace and its many ilk reflect, nurture, and revise our contemporary ways of life (and struggle)?  Digital humanities needs to make room for these kinds of questions.

[Thanks to Amylia and Anthony for the whiteboard photos!]



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