Instagram Poetry as an Untouched Equilibrium: The Issue of Representation

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On: September 26, 2020
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Since popular writer Rupi Kaur’s rise to prominence in 2015, the concept of ‘Instagram poetry’ has been undeniably omnipresent in the world of digital art (Kovalik and Curwood 2019). Yet, as inherently new as the name concretely mentioning the novel social media platform known as Instagram implies the art form to be, the basis of combining (short) poems with visual aspects (see image 1) has been around for far longer on platforms such as Tumblr and DeviantArt, in place of the aspect of this newly established platform. This multimodal approach has seen a recent expanding of coverage in popular media, and, more importantly, an uprise in academic articles analysing the practice, with some hailing it as an innovation of writing within ever-evolving technologies (Kovalik and Curwood 2019), and others deeming it as ‘appropriation of self-help culture’ (Pâquet 2019). What these two examples display, however, is the emergent nature of the phenomenon and, subsequently, that in its recent coverage judgments are often made. These judgments tend to rely on certain, concrete examples; primarily the likes of Kaur and similarly well-known Instagram poets (Winters 2018; Yuan 2018). Thus, I argue for the necessity of such assessments to not solely rest on such figures, by means of demonstrating the issue of the overflow of information with Instagram poetry’s speed of production and subsequent issues of representation. 

Image 1: An Instagram poem

Instagram poetry as big data

Firstly, the true volume of Instagram poetry, as a perceived community and its collective output, must be understood. The hashtag ‘instapoetry’ alone comprises over four million posts (see image 2), with adjacent hashtags such as ‘instapoet’, ‘instapoem’, ‘instagrampoetry’, and many more gathering another tens of millions of posts combined. This merely gives a rough indication of the rather large size of the collective output, seeing as the utilisation of such hashtags are not a guarantee or a given to accompany each poem on the platform. Not exclusively due to the large size of the available content, and thus, data, the Instagram poetry output as an object of study can be likened to the concept of ‘big data’. Most importantly, however, is the idea as presented by Boyd and Crawford that the concept is rather about the capacity to define and aggregate such data, and potential issues to be found there (2012, 663).

Image 2: #instapoetry

As noted, these issues of navigating the information available can be identified when looking at how presently available papers have dealt with the emerging nature of Instagram poetry. Besides this, scanning the more popular publications such as Mashable’s assessment of the concept (Byager 2018) displays the consistent utilising of well-known figures in the community as a lens in order to study the entirety of Instagram poetry. Focusing on the likes of Kaur, R.M. Drake and other similarly popular artists, these examples appear to come with a built-in assumption that they are representative of the whole of the practice (Kovalik and Curwood 2019); including, for example, individuals who merely do it for fun as opposed to making a living off of it. Seeing as there is a clear disconnect between these examples; well-known and not well-known being the primary one, other differences can arise and be identified, further disconnecting the two. As such, it can be said that a majority of this overflow of Instagram poetry content, or rather, data and information, exists in an empty space.

The untouched equilibrium

This empty space, an untouched equilibrium of sorts, can be distinguished when focusing on the speed of creation and means of representation. The relationship between the two is an interconnected one, seeing as, firstly, the representation discussed previously can be seen as excluding a large part of less well-known pieces of content and creators, both a result of and potentially accelerating the high speed at which it is being produced; the overwhelming nature of this ‘big data’ and its complexity of navigating it. Baudrillard, in his 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation, embodies this notion of an overflow of information as leading to a loss of meaning (56), through its overwhelming nature and subsequent so-called ‘nebulous state’. This state can be seen as the effect of the untouched equilibrium of potentially untouched content, as this very untouched nature could lead to an eventual, subsequent state of untouchableness, without a means of navigation.

Acknowledging limitations

Similarly, seemingly building on this notion of Baudrillard’s nebulous state, where an overwhelming amount of information leads to an inability to comprehend and subsequent loss of meaning of content, Ramsay analyses such an overflow with the need of a ‘path’ to follow (2010, 6). Yet, the chosen path of many pieces of research of almost solely focusing on famous creators can lead to the aforementioned issues of representation. Moreover, the content existing in the equilibrium must be assessed; the “implosion of meaning” (Baudrillard 1981, 58) could potentially be countered by paralleling the speed of creation of Instagram poetry with the speed of critique, or rather, critical acknowledgment. Perhaps the core of the issue can be addressed through this very word; acknowledgment. Acknowledging the potential loss of meaning and nebulous state due to the overwhelming amount of content could erase its potential (negative) effects on research; as well as awareness of the fact that there is no clear ‘path’ as presented by any authoritative figure, rather, as Ramsay puts it, one is merely screwing around, to potentially great success (2010, 5).

In conclusion, similarly to Ramsay’s findings, there is nothing inherently wrong with screwing around. When approaching Instagram poetry, however, it is important to be aware of the different issues one faces due to the nature of the concept. Its overwhelming speed of production and subsequent amount of output must be acknowledged, in order to become aware of and possibly counter the unproductive results of Baudrillard’s nebulous state. Thus, rather than providing a clear path, the path is a rather abstract one of acknowledging potential issues and not solely, somewhat blindly relying on fame to provide one with accurate representations; rather, its limitations have the ability to prove fruitful to research. Questions with regards to the ‘why’ behind the big data-esque nature of Instagram poetry, as well as its resulting untouched equilibrium of content can be derived from this. As such, it shows that limitations do not have to be an issue, as long as a consistent awareness is present.

References

Byager, Laura. 2018. ‘Roll Your Eyes All You like, but Instagram Poets Are Redefining the Genre for Millennials’. Mashable. 19 October 2018. https://mashable.com/article/instagram-poetry-democratise-genre/.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. https://www.e-reading-lib.com/bookreader.php/144970/jean-baudrillard-simulacra-and-simulation.pdf

Kovalik, Kate, and Jen Scott Curwood. 2019. ‘#poetryisnotdead: Understanding Instagram Poetry within a Transliteracies Framework’. Literacy 53 (4): 185–95. https://doi.org/10.1111/lit.12186.

Pâquet, Lili. 2019. ‘Selfie-Help: The Multimodal Appeal of Instagram Poetry’. The Journal of Popular Culture 52 (2): 296–314. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpcu.12780.

Winters, Emma. 2018. ‘Instagram Poets Make Me Ask: What Is Good Poetry?’ America Magazine. 27 November 2018. https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/11/27/instagram-poets-make-me-ask-what-good-poetry.

Yuan, Faith Hill, Karen. 2018. ‘How Instagram Saved Poetry’. The Atlantic. 15 October 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/10/rupi-kaur-instagram-poet-entrepreneur/572746/.

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