Notes on Books and Ebooks

{NOTE: On May 30, 2013, I participated in a panel discussion at Eyebeam on books and ebooks, titled “Maker and Destroyer of Books.” This is a revised version of the notes I prepared for the discussion.}

The written word was invented as a way of communicating with people who aren’t in earshot—such as god(s).

That means that books are substitute people.

Just like people, books have ways of persuading you that they’re worth spending time with, worth listening to, worth talking to. They have ways of establishing their authority and trustworthiness. Their methods aren’t as organic or spontaneous as those of real people, because they’re objects—but they’re social objects, rooted in relations and personalities.

My sense of how books work as social objects comes from my experience of editorial work—from working on making books and thinking about them in comparison to the newspaper and the magazine that I’d worked on. In the mid-2000s I was living and working in Moscow, mainly as a translator, but I also had a part-time job as a copy editor at a newspaper. After that I started doing freelance copy-editing work at a magazine and then for a book publisher. Newspapers and books have different rhythms—the paper is made for tomorrow, the book is made for a longer future—and this difference is established in ways more subtle than their obvious difference as objects—the flimsy disposability of the newspaper vs. the weighty solidity of the hardcover book. It’s expressed in little things; the Associated Press Stylebook, which we used at the newspaper, tells you to write numbers as numerals, whereas the Chicago Manual of Style, which I referred to when editing books, tells you to write them out as words. It’s a minor difference but I remember first learning about it and feeling a sense of the gravity of books. Then there’s the way that different kinds of printed matter refer to things outside themselves. The newspaper gives quotes and names sources within the story, and relies on the reader’s trust in the standards of journalism and the reputation of the newspaper to assert their veracity. The book has footnotes. The books has a bibliography. It uses references to establish its place within in a network of other books—it doesn’t just make a record of the day (so members of a society know what’s happening in it without personal contact), it lodges an assertion of truth in the firmament of culture (so people can know about it without living in the same time).

The publisher of the book is responsible for asserting the book’s authority—it places the front matter and end matter there to give a sense of the work of many people that went into the production of the book; it distributes the book and places it in the network of readers. Ebooks are distinct from books in that the manufacturer of the device (the e-reader: the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad) assumes many of the functions of the publisher, as well as the functions of the bookseller, and even the functions of the public sphere. Apple is notorious for its strict control over what can and can’t be sold in the iTunes store; Amazon wants every reader to rate every book, to participate in its work of promoting the book and asserting its value. These processes and procedures make the social objecthood of the book visible even as the physical objecthood of it diminishes, eclipsed by the e-reader. Books are substitute people, but the e-reader also becomes a substitute person: it’s a reader like me. It has a way of processing the text—reading it—so that I can read it and process it, too. Identification with the book gives way to identification with the device. (I like my Kindle Fire HD; I spend a lot of time with it. In the daytime I hold it on the subway and read Russian novels, and at night I curl up in bed with it and watch TV shows.)

This year I started on working on a series of artists’ ebooks (called Klaus_eBooks, because the publisher is Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery) and all of these thoughts about the book and the ebook went into my decisions regarding what kinds of ebooks I wanted to include in the series.

First, I should say a few things about the artist’s book. It’s not like other books. The artist abdicates claims to authority that the non-fiction hardcover (or even the novel) needs in its social life. The artist’s book abandons authority but keeps authorship; the reader (the viewer) is invited to see how the artist arranges images and text within the form of the book. The artist’s book is about the physical properties of the book—the pages, the covers, the way they organize information—in the way that a painting is about surface and pigment, or poetry is about sound and meaning.

An artist’s ebook, then, would have to address how the ebook organizes information and how that relates to the device. When the e-reader processes text it changes its size and shape, for readability; the book loses its hermetic solidity, its integrity as an object—and it loses authority, too, as authority gets leeched by the device’s maker.

I’m interested in artists’ ebooks that are less about the properties of the book or the device than about the properties of digital media. The identification with digits (rather than with a device, as in my experience with my Kindle) suggests an understanding of bodies and people not as integral wholes but as fluid, shifting, flexible entities.

What does it mean for digits to be substitute people? What would that say about people?

Instagram Problems

Whenever you read an article about Instagram you encounter the same set of clichés. I think they are propagated by people who don’t use Instagram, or barely use it—people who don’t really like or understand social media in general.

I’ll list the clichés. You’ll recognize them:

Instagram is nostalgic. Instagram is a wistful and futile resuscitation of photographic tools from the past. It’s retro. Instagram is banal—it’s just people taking pictures of the same things again and again: food, pets, vacation spots, etc. Instagram is fake.

These clichés are fully displayed in a couple of articles that the New Inquiry has published over the last year: Teju Cole’s “Dappled Things” and Matt Pearce’s “Shoot Hip or Die.”

Let’s start with Cole. He’s writing about Gueorgui Pinkhassov, a Russian photographer who lives in France and has an Instagram account. Cole likes Pinkhassov’s Instagram because it’s a rare account that meets his criteria for art.

Comparing the pictures distributed on a social network to art photography is like comparing everyday speech to novels. Not all pictures are paintings and not all sentences are poems. They may be nicely made nonetheless, but that’s for the pleasure of friends, not for posterity.

Cole says that Instagram is full of “pets, pretty girlfriends, sunsets, lunch.” This is a standard complaint but I have a hard time relating to it. I don’t see any of that stuff on Instagram, or if I do then it’s in small doses. Cole seems to suggest that it’s Instagram’s fault that he sees boring pictures there. I think it’s his own fault, for having boring friends.

Cole’s misguided prioritization of the medium over the social relations that it exists to support permeates his critique of Instagram. He wants to condemn it as bad photography. But Instagram isn’t photography. It’s a social media platform. He’s looking for art where he should be looking for good company.

Cole wants images with staying power. But social media isn’t an archive. I think of Instagram images as phatic images, taking a term from linguistics and anthropology. “Can you hear me?” affirms that the channel of communication is open; this is the example that linguist Roman Jakobson gives of the phatic. Bronislaw Malinowski had introduced it earlier, in his anthropological studies of small talk. Jakobson and Malinowski discussed two aspects of the same purpose—confirming contact—though Jakobson was more concerned with speech establishing the physical possibility of communication (again, “Can you hear me?”), while Malinowski was interested in the social possibility (“How are you?”, “Nice weather we’re having,” etc.).

“Hello?” confirms a working connection at the beginning of conversation over the telephone. The internet started out in phone lines and expanded their potential as vehicles for communication, effectively spawning millions of ways to say “Hello?”—from “A/S/L” in AOL chat rooms to tweets recording the current contents of the tweet’s head, a joke or a musing or whatever. The latter barely count as vehicles of information; mostly, they are there to remind the tweeter’s network of his existence, reaffirming the connection among them. Instagram images are phatic images because they aren’t made to last. They’re made to reaffirm the user’s presence in a network. The phatic image doesn’t need to be archived, unless an archivist determines that there’s a need to do so (even if that archivist is a person making a backup of his Instagram account), in the same way that not everyone’s collection of letters needs to be published as a book. (Snapchat is an ephemeral social media network that epitomizes the logic of phatic images… but I’m talking about Instagram.)

The phatic impermanence of Instagram means it makes little sense to speak of Instagram as “nostalgic.” Cole hates the “fake emotion, unearned nostalgia” of Instagram. But for most people who use Instagram the nostalgia isn’t there.

But while the icon for the app looks like a little square Polaroid camera and some of the filters are named for effects associated with obsolete cameras, most people who actually use Instagram aren’t trying to make new pictures look like old ones, and they don’t care if they accidentally do.

There are always people who do exactly what brand managers want them to do. But they are a minority—a minority overrepresented by people who write about the brands. You don’t have to be an artist or otherwise visually savvy to use Instagram in an off-brand way. Go hashtag surfing and look at all the people who repost “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “bro do you even lift” memes—they’re just using Instagram as they would use any other image-sharing network. And adding filters.

Polaroid only stopped printing film a few years ago. There were people in the 1970s using Polaroids and that wasn’t nostalgic. They just liked the way it looked. People want images that look interesting—better than life—and that usually means an image enriched by noise specific to the means of its production. For the digital photos taken with an iPhone this means the addition of a digital filter, like the ones in Photoshop; and while these are developed in reference to the noise of the Polaroid images those references don’t matter to most users.

Today the Polaroid-inspired filters are largely used not to simulate old instant photos but to compensate for the flaws in the iPhone’s image-making function, for the watery thinness of the pictures it produces. Filters add intensity, contrast, depth, and color. And the ease of this—or rather, the awareness of the potential for manipulation—speaks to a pervasive sophistication about the nature of the digital image. It is fluid, changeable, viewable from a vast variety of perspectives—like people and like words. The awareness of this is very contemporary. There is nothing nostalgic about it.

Like Teju Cole, Matt Pearce is interested in real photography, and this interest is an obstacle to understanding Instagram for what it really is. Pearce and Cole both exalt photography. They love cameras and film and the beautiful, slender objects you can make with them. They are way more nostalgic than anyone who unthinkingly drops a 1977 filter on an iPhone pic.

Given Pearce’s love of photography, it’s strange that he’s so bothered by “fakery.” After all, how can any image be “real”—other than in its reality as an image?

I’m always alarmed when I come across the conceit that a photographic image can show the world as it really looks. Take a look at the world, Matt Pearce! The world doesn’t have four corners. The world isn’t flat. The world has peripheral vision. Its depth is not an optical illusion.

Pearce says he grew up around photography. It was the profession of his dad. It makes sense that he’s nostalgic for it. But it’s strange that he’s oblivious to fakery when he grew up with the lights and backdrops and poses—all the trappings that have always been used to rescue photography from reality. (Cole wrote his piece after Pearce’s, and to his credit, he mentions Pearce and gently criticizes his fetish for veracity: “The filters that Hipstamatic and Instagram provide,” he writes, “are simply modern day alternatives to the dodging and burning that have always been integral to making photographs.”)

Who wants anything to be real? Humans live for fakery. Humans are unlike the other creatures of this world because of language, which makes it possible to represent what is not in the world, and build communities and societies around these representations.

Is it any wonder that a social media application can become successful by producing phatic images that are ostentatiously unreal?

This is an app where pictures are always attached to words. Instead of a darkroom, they pass through the stage where captions and hashtags are added. This is an app where showing things that aren’t in the world becomes a visual equivalent to the phatic utterance. And that’s why people like it.

Expiration Place

This was a while ago (2009 or 2010?) but Aleksandra Domanovic bought herself an international sampler of domain names: aleksandradomanovic.sk, aleksandradomanovic.rs, aleksandradomanovic.si, aleksandradomanovic.eu.

Buying a domain name with your given name in it is virtually a requirement for an artist or anyone else with aspirations to public significance, whose work may be searched for by curious (and potentially important) strangers. Public figures and would-be public figures need to stake a claim to their location on the web, and that means turning one’s name into a domain. Aleksandra Domanovic (henceforth AD) already had aleksandradomanovic.com but she was claiming more; she was locating herself in the top-level domains governed by Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the European Union. This was superfluous—anyone who needs to find her can find her in .com—but it connected self-representation to political representation, web sites to geographic ones. .sk and .si are Slovakia and Serbia, little slivers of countries that splintered off from bigger, ethnically composite ones amid the fall of socialist governments in Eastern European and the accompanying upswing of nationalist feeling. .sk and .si are short for recent iterations of the modern nation-state—the assertion of a linguist and ethnic community under a parliamentary government that guarantees the representation of its individual citizens. .eu is the EU, the push in the opposite direction, the development of an extra-national governing body that protects the rights of nations and states as well as those of individual citizens and unites them all in currency and commerce. Then there’s .com, the “unmarked” URL. It seems like a default but when lined up with .sk, .si, .rs and .eu it reveals itself as one choice of many, and like them this choice is associated with a particular geography. The forms of representation connected to .com have little or nothing to do with law, rights, nationhood, or nationality; it’s still unclear what rights there are in .com, the domain of globalized networked commerce, and what governments are supposed to do with this domain when it enters their borders via underground and underwater cables.

Unless you’re in China trying to use Facebook, or in Germany trying to watch YouTube videos that GEMA has blocked because of musical content, or in some other similar situation the web presents itself as borderless, “World Wide,” offering up any site that users can imagine with the help of a search engine. .com is comparable to the art world, another globalized network where national origin can be elided even though it’s part of a complex and opaque system of control and representation. In a way AD’s collection of domain names might be seen as an inversion/update of a work by Mladen Stilinovic, who made a banner with the inscription: “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.” An artist has to have a web site and it has to be a .com, or she’s no artist.

Stilinovic is a Croat, born in Serbia when it was part of Yugoslavia. AD was also born in Serbia, a few decades after Stilinovic was but still in Yugoslavia, and she grew up in Slovenia. Borders, their liquidity and permeability, the consequences of their disappearance, the role that the World Wide Web plays in ignoring or enforcing them—all these things matter to Domanovic. Her other projects address the same issues, in ways that are more tangible or visible than the purchase of a collection of domains. Turbo Sculpture, a video about monuments built in the former Yugoslavia to honor Rocky Balboa, Bruce Lee, Tupac Shakur and other icons of pop masculinity. Globalized culture is a ubiquitous nebula that congeals in local contexts with strange effects. Turbo Sculpture identifies the results of culture freed from the boundaries of the nation-state but bound again to the global market, and then manifested in ways that are remain particular to the cultural habits of the nation-state. Global heroes Tupac and Rocky—whose real monuments are media artifacts or memes—are recognized with monumental sculpture.

19:30 is an earlier project by AD. It involved asking DJs to make remixes of theme songs from various television news programs in the former Yugoslavia and organizing dance parties that incorporated the remixes. 19:30 also addresses forms of public space that circumvent the limits of nations and laws and the cultural forms attached to them, though its tone had an almost utopian optimism in contrast to the grim humor of Turbo Sculpture.

Here is part of a short text I wrote about 19:30 (the whole thing can be found at nineteenthirty.net):

“”By a coincidence of history, widespread internet use came on the heels of socialism‘s collapse in Eastern Europe. Routes of global commerce multiplied in parallel with the speed of information. From today’s standpoint, a world where capitalism and socialism coexisted is associated with rhythms of life defined by slower forms of media. Aleksandra Domanovic considers this condition through her own experience and the history of her native Yugoslavia in 19:30 (2010). The title comes from the time slot of the Yugoslav nightly news, when the whole country would take time to view the broadcast. Watching the news became even more important to the daily routine as ethnic tensions mounted in the late 1980s, but that routine, like many other unifying social norms, dissolved along with Yugoslavia itself amid open conflict. Around 1995, electronic dance music became popular in the former Yugoslavia (a bit later than it did in the rest of the world, due in part to the international isolation of the warring republics) and young people crossed the new borders to attend parties and dance to wordless, repetitive techno—a musical genre free of national associations. When information can be accessed at any time, the nightly news loses the power to create a simultaneous, shared experience for a multitude of people. But a live event like a rave, Domanovic points out, still holds that power.”

To rephrase: The World Wide Web arrived at the time of fragmenting social order, the disintegration of a socialist state and the promises and guaranteed to its people. The rave is a public space, too: it has promises of its own, which include a kind of collectivity and brotherhood, but (unlike the nation-state, or the socialist republic) it is temporary, mobile, anonymous. A consideration of the rave can prompt an imagining of what kind of public space the internet is: how people come together, what borders have to do with it, what identity has to do with it, how long does it last, why do people go there.

Yugoslavia was dissolved in 1992. Its top-level domain, .yu, was registered in 1989, and it outlived the country it represented by seventeen years. ICANN let the Serbian administrators of .rs manage.yu until the domain was abolished in 2009. (Meanwhile, .su—the top-level domain for the Soviet Union, which was registered 1990, fourteen months before the Soviet Union collapsed—continues to exist, as domain-holders lobby ICANN to keep it alive.) Perhaps the news of the expiration of .yu prompted AD to buy up her name in .rs, .si, etc. Now she’s let this international collection of domains expire. Maybe the cost was too much? But the purchase of the domains can easily survive as a story like the one I’m telling: all you have to do is list the URLs—aleksandradomanovic.sk, aleksandradomanovic.rs, aleksandradomanovic.si, aleksandradomanovic.eu—and they mean something. When I go there I get a DNS error. So will .yu

The Poet’s Materials

{NOTE: Other versions of this text were submitted to Anna Lundh as an essay for her book Visions of the Now, to Angelo Plessas as a contribution to the Eternal Internet Brotherhood, and to Prof. Jacques Lezra as part of a paper for his seminar on Lyric & Abjection. In spite of all that it is still very much a work in progress and in flux.}

What happens to poetry when it meets the internet?

It seems to become fascinated with the materiality of language.

Kenneth Goldsmith offers an explanation for this in Uncreative Writing, with a genealogy that connects the work of conceptual poets (including himself) to the typesetting experiments of Mallarme and Apollinaire, and the later experiments of concrete poets. Language’s materiality was the object of modernist experimentation a hundred years ago but, as Goldsmith says, it is more apparent than ever in these times, thanks to word processors and other agents of language’s digitization. Everyday speech is bound to screens and devices. The accumulation of it generates the construction and expansion of server farms, where deposits of language build up like geological sediment.

In uncreative writing, authorship is the embodiment of copy-and-paste software functions. The selection of material for appropriation is the primary task of the writer. “The context becomes the content,” as Goldsmith’s slogan goes. Language is material and in operating with it the poet becomes a machine. What results from the poet-automaton’s work is a stack of pages. His labor of aggregation replicates in miniature the physical accumulation of information in libraries and server farms. His books mimic the monumental architecture built to house data. And his readers browse the text as if they were wandering through the stacks of a library, or surfing Wikipedia—skimming rather than reading. Goldsmith is to poetry what Rem Koolhaas is to architecture. He litters the landscape with linguistic junkspace and theorizes the autonomy of the body and mind from it. Everything he makes is a surface and he invites his readers to skim over its endless continuity.

This is all very interesting but it entails a limited understanding of what material is. Goldsmith’s metaphors cast language as inorganic and mechanical. Language is concrete—an unnatural mongrel of rocks and clays, a favored foundation of junkspace. But there is another way of looking at it: Language is material because people are material. Our bodies touch, eat, digest, and excrete the world around us. Language is part of how we participate in the metabolism of the world. New habits like checking Twitter while taking a dump (and tweeting about pooping) or vacuuming crumbs from a laptop’s keyboard reflect the incorporation of telecom into the body’s day-to-day cycles. They remind us that utterances issue from the body like abject emissions. They remind us that language is a basic material aspect of our being in the world.

There’s another kind of internet-oriented poetry that implicitly takes this understanding of language and the body as its foundation, and it is known as alt lit. Here’s a poem by Crispin Best as an example:

<begin poem>

*that noise from the start of ‘circle of life’*

hello, assholes

so i am having my first snowball fight of the year

and holy shit it is awesome

tonight i want to tell you that the moon is my favourite kind of indirect light

but instead i’m 5 years old throwing snowballs like i’m 5 years old today

my internal monologue says “nothing rhymes with orange”

and i’m like “wow dumbass no it doesn’t”

i throw a tiny snowball and you catch it in your mouth thirty feet away

so yes i am the spooky janitor character in the direct-to-video movie of your life

and no-one has leaned over and kissed me for a long time

with your gloves on your ears now you are the world’s rarest moose

but i throw a snowball directly up and close my eyes

please god jesus let it land on my head

it doesn’t and you walk over laughing and i feel sad

you take the snowball out of my hood and smash it into my face

snow is cold as shit when you’re 5 and i love it

the last time someone kissed me i could feel their mouth smiling

and i don’t know if that is good

but ok i am a power station in your goddamn countryside tonight

and on a scale of alive we are alive

<end poem>

Hello, assholes! Best starts by turning the body upside down. Greetings come from the mouth and are addressed to other faces but Best redirects it to the ass, to the site of material egress from the body. Of course, “asshole” is an ordinary insult that performs this inversion all the time. But it’s a funny way to start a poem! Seeing that at the top of many lines of text, addressed to everyone who comes across it and yet no one in particular, makes me think of the greeting “Hello world!” that was found at the top of old web sites or HTML documents. It’s like Best is saying that the world of the web is a world of asses. Networks and bodies are equal as ways of connecting to the word. The blog that the poem is on plumps like a booty.

“hello assholes” is a nice prelude to the lumpy fluidity of time and space in the poem that follows. Best is a little boy and at the same time he’s a little man. He’s remembering something and he’s alive in the memory (“i am the spooky janitor in the direct-to-video movie of your life”). The “tonight” of his present merges with his childhood in the telling, which is delivered in a tone that is both naively child-like and youthfully insecure, a tone that easily accommodates both the description of the snow on his face, “cold as shit,” and the account of a recent instance when he was kissed and felt a worrisome smile on the woman’s mouth. The sensations of the distant snowball fight are so crisp that he feels them as viscerally in the “now” of the poem as he did in his childhood. Affect hugs physical feeling so hard that the shapes of them blend and become indistinct from each other; the coldness of the snowballs coincided with his earliest feelings of attraction to a girl, and that is what brings the coldness to the skin as he writes a love poem now. Sensation, memory, and poetry fuse in a single experience, an experience permeated with the feeling of being doubly alive.

*pause*

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith talks about a question he found in a popular magazine: Who could be the Andy Warhol of poetry? He promptly dismisses it. Warhol was unique, and he belonged to a specific historical moment. And yet Goldsmith follows this dismissal with an in-depth discussion of Warhol as a genius of unoriginality, a guru of appropriation that conceptual poets should emulate today. The implicit argument is that uncreative writing is literature’s Pop art, and Goldsmith is its Warhol. I wish he had stuck with his original dismissal! The conditions of culture have changed too much for Warhols to be of much importance now. In the sixties it was exciting for people to become machines, to coolly reproduce images and affects, to artfully mold their self-presentation. “I want to be a machine,” Warhol famously said, and he did this by making his body artificial (wigged, made-up) and untouchable, rarely eating or expressing emotion in public. He conceived of ways for people to consume brands and to be consumed by brands through the production of personal branding. His ideas captured the popular imagination and saturated it. Now Warholian self-design has become part of everyday life. Cool people want to have personal brands. LinkedIn members perform a zombified corporate version of the same act.

Why is it interesting for artists and poets to mechanically operate words and signs in a time when we carry computers in our pockets to do this for us? What’s more interesting is how that constant proximity to machines generates a visceral flow of language in and out of them all the time. Our material engagement with the world and with other people is mediated by networked computers, and yet it’s not fully determined by them. Our modes of engagement aren’t exactly equal to the computer’s. The constant proximity of machines reminds us that we’re not machines—that we’re weird and hungry and messy and queer and lonely and gross in ways that they (the machines) can’t be.

This is why self-design is less interesting than the selfie. Self-design makes a big, legible version of the self, while the selfie is its diminutive. It is the abject residue of personhood’s digital molting, images shed in square, flat flakes like bits of a snake’s skin. With the selfie, social media sites facilitate a naked openness of the self as it changes and grows. The personal brand flounders and drowns in the swampy reality of personhood. The poetry of Steve Roggenbuck is the literary voice of selfie. If there is a Warhol of poetry today then it’s Steve, who invigorates literature by being Warhol’s opposite.

Roggenbuck’s early poems—such as his online chapbook i am like october when i am dead—mix utterance, physical sensation, and affective impulse in their representation of the urgency and truth of feeling, as in Best’s poem above. But what really boosted Roggenbuck to prominence was not so much the poems themselves as his social media presence, amplified by the videos he put on his YouTube account. The first videos were documents of him reading his own poetry to the camera with some background music. Later ones had a life of their own as short films. this is how we live in this world (NICE.. THIS VIDOE IMPROVED MY WORLD OUTLOOK) shows Roggenbuck in the bedroom of a suburban home, like so many teen vloggers who make themselves the object of their webcams in their search for an audience. But he distinguishes himself from the masses of YouTube confessionalists with his rapid editing and his weird, weirdly self-abasing invective. YouTube makes him an object and he eagerly makes himself abject. “whip me with a shop dick,” he shouts, whatever that means. “bleach my cock pubes white. […] i want lightning to come down and strike my dick.”

There are cuts from the house to the Target—from the standard, angular white walls of suburban domesticity to the organized aisles of big-box commerce. Through editing the two spaces blend together. It’s all junkspace. But unlike the uncreative writer, who skims over the surface of junkspace on a cloud of conceptual wit, the alt lit poet writhes and jerks around in it, confronting the differences between junkspace and the body. (In the last third of “this is how we live in this world,” Roggenbuck falls silent, and he joins a couple of friends as they run through a meadow near a lake and the wind tousles their hair—bodies playing in nature and feeling it on themselves.) Roggenbuck edits a lot, and he’s clearly aware of the complex relationships between the rhythms produced by the editing software and the rhythms of his audience’s bodies, between the lens of his camera and his audience’s eyes. But he’s not trying to make the machine functions blend seamlessly with the actions of the body, like Goldsmith does when he makes conceptual poems. Roggenbuck is pushing them apart, so you’re not looking at the effects of the machine. You’re left looking at life.

Mira Gonzalez, another alt lit poet, tweeted: “i want to pee on a lot of things, which would be problematic if i was a dog bc dogs pee on things for ownership & i don’t like owning things”. I actually don’t think this would be problematic. Dogs aren’t capitalists. Dogs don’t think of owning things like we do. Maybe for dogs, peeing is like tweeting. It marks an affinity to the peed-on object (the words) but what matters more to the dog is that the affinity is public and known to other dogs (it’s online). Gonzalez (or Roggenbuck, or Crispin Best) doesn’t want to own her tweets—she wants to emit them in public space of Twitter. Alt lit poets are like dogs who shit and piss in a public park.

Alt lit is caca poopoo. Seriously—a lot of it is really bad. But so what? Roggenbuck wrote in a manifesto: “what we are doing is bigger than and aside from abstract ideas of literary merit. we are making each others lives better.” Alt lit’s social priorities (which exceed, or are equal to, its aesthetic priorities) are articulated in Roggenbuck’s ideas about “boosting”: The purpose of making art is to incite other people to make art. Poetry only matters insofar as it impels others to join a community of poets. The notion of “creativity” has been appropriated wholesale by the industries of advertising and marketing to designate the rearrangement and repetition of formulas for selling products and services (and I think the corporatization of creativity is partly responsible for Goldsmith’s revulsion toward the concept). But alt lit recasts creativity as a primal urge to make something beautiful, not just for the sake of making it but for the enjoyment of it in the context of social being, for the sake of feeling alive. When Roggenbuck tweeted “I LOV TO APRECIATE THE ANIMALASPECT’S OF LIEF SUCH AS SEX, POOP, AND EAT” he wasn’t just making the abject reality of his body (of life) an aesthetic object, worthy of loving appreciation; he was making writing a reality of his abject body.

Uncreative writing—in the monumentality and deliberate boringness of the texts it produces—is always referring obliquely to the unreadability of the internet. The bigness of the appropriated text in the work of an uncreative writer discourages readers from actually reading the work, just as the internet is too big to ever be read in full, and we have to filter through it with algorithms and hierarchies and other conceptual apparatuses of organization. Language is a material detritus to be “shovelled, reshaped, hoarded, molded… discarded,” as Goldsmith writes. The concept is what’s left.

Alt lit has its own kind of unreadability. The output of it is massive, and most of it is lost in the vast and unwieldy non-archive of social media—all those status updates, tweets, and Tumblr posts occupying bytes in some remote server. Alt lit only matters if you’re online and reading it as it happens—just like the way that conversational speech only matters if you’re physically present when it’s spoken. Alt lit thrives in social media, and it invigorates social media by amplifying the feeling of presence and participation in it. It’s the poetry of bodies engaged in technologically mediated social being. Living in and against the networks that support it, the creativity of alt lit appears as an everyday bodily function, as regular and as vital as sex, poop, and eat.

“I Don’t Always Like Being in My Videos”

“Ben Coonley,” I said, “when did you start filming yourself?”

“It started in the home,” Ben said. “When I was ten my family got a VHS camcorder and my friends and I would act in each others’ videos. We made little narratives (endless ketchup-soaked parodies/sequels to Psycho) but most of the time we would just goof around in the basement and show off for/to the camera. This continued through high school, when my friends and I had a cable access show which looked kind of like Global Groove crossed with a bad imitation of The Kids in the Hall.’”

“Why did you continue to point the camera at yourself when you grew up?” I asked.

“It would be nice to say it has something to do with theoretical interests in the video medium and unraveling its narcissistic inscription of subjects,” Ben said. “But the real reasons are probably a combination of poor organization (which makes it difficult for me to set up shoots with other people), a lack of confidence in my ability to direct others… and maybe some residual exhibitionist thrill carried over from pre-adolescence that’s been reinforced by years of pointing the camera at myself. I’m not always in my videos, you know… I don’t always like being in my videos.”

“Yeah it can be weird,” I said. “You’ve incorporated some of the videos you made in your childhood in your exhibitions and screenings. Is there any difference recording yourself as a child and as an adult? Or to put it another way, do you ever feel like there’s something infantilizing about performing for the camera?”

“I’ve only shown excerpts from childhood videos in exhibitions and screenings a few times, and it’s always been for a specific event where I think I’m going to know a lot of the people there,” Ben said. “But to answer your question, I don’t think it has to be infantilizing. For me, I guess I do trace the exhibitionist thrill of performing for the camera back to adolescent experiences. So… yes.”

It was time for me to shift the conversation a bit, to get to the point. “One of the things that interests me about your work is that video performance is something of a female-coded medium,” I said. “Or at least, video performance and photographic self-portraiture have been dominated by women. And I think this is partly because the video camera came into use in a period when women were (are) the default object of the camera.”

“Hmm,” Ben said. “Are you building toward a thesis about how male performance videos are trading in some sort of sexist assumptions about what it means to be put in front of a camera? I kind of want to hear more about your theory before I inadvertently support or undermine it.”

“Well it’s something I’m still working out but I think it’s less of a ‘trade in sexist assumptions’ than an abnegation of some of the privileges of masculinity,” I said.

“I think it’s a theory you should pursue,” Ben said.

“Ok thanks,” I said, and went on: “It’s like ceding a measure of authority or subjectivity to the camera—which is something that women are expected to do to a greater extent than men. And since ‘straight white male’ is basically the default identity of the artist there’s something weird about that identity being thematized or foregrounded. It seems to me that since Vito Acconci male artists have turned the camera on themselves as a gesture of self-abasement or self-deprecation… It’s a kind of loser aesthetics.”

“Acconci’s complicated though, no?” Ben replied. “You think he’s the origin of this tradition? Acconci’s videos oscillate between self-abasement and self-aggrandizement. It’s hard for me to think of him as interested in ‘loser aesthetics.’ I think self-abasement and self-deprecation are different things. And plenty of female artists performing for the camera trade in some kind of self-deprecation and self-abasement. But I can go along with the idea that there’s a strand of self-deprecating male performance on video, especially with artists interested in comedy. A lot of losers. There’s William Wegman, Mike Smith, Joe Gibbons, Jeremy Bailey…”

“Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Ronnie Bass…” I interrupt. “As you say, a lot of the artists who do this are interested in comedy. But the results aren’t just funny haha. They’re funny strange. Matthew Barney is arguably the most macho of video performance artists—but even when he gets in front of the camera he puts stuff up his butt and dresses like a monster.”

“Are they (or we) a phenomenon though?” Ben asks.

“Maybe you are a phenomenon,” I said. “Or maybe I’m just trying to make you one. Haha. I wanted to talk about your Valentine for Perfect Strangers, which was about putting yourself—and I mean “yourself” in the generalizing second person, not necessarily you, Ben Coonley—online, about the risks and rewards of objectifying yourself in an image. Can you tell me about why you made it?”

“In late 2005, I was asked by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter to make an e-card about love for a Valentine’s Day show they were promoting,” Ben said.  “The video was originally going to be a Flash-animated e-card. But in the process of researching how to distribute an e-card, I came across YouTube, which still felt new and exciting in 2005. Aside from its scale and global reach, one of the novel things about exhibiting on YouTube—as opposed to showing work in theaters or cable access TV or whatever—was that all these amateurs were directly addressing an audience comprised of individual users sitting in close proximity to the screen. So it was a very intimate one-way form of exhibitionism with a slim-but-tantalizing chance of reciprocity in the form a video responses from a viewer. (At that point YouTube was encouraging ‘video responses’ from viewers.) So I wanted the video to be about this new exhibition arrangement and the psychology of putting yourself on camera on YouTube.

“When I started to make the e-card/video, I had just moved to a very small apartment with my cat, Otto, who was a feral rescue. Otto wasn’t taking the move very well. He’d do laps around the apartment all night long, running right on top of me while I lay in bed, knocking over the TV, clawing up the doorframes, tearing up papers, etc. He was a shitty roommate, the Balki to my Larry.  I concluded that the only way we could continue to live together would be if I made him feel “safe and loved.” So I was trying very hard to empathize with him. And part of that process was to make him the ‘author’ of this video. Personifying Otto actually worked really well! We got along much better after Valentine for Perfect Strangers.

“And as for Perfect Strangers, that was a show about this physically comedic binary, which I saw as a parallel to me and Otto, or like the first-person creator of a YouTube video and its viewer. I also have some sentimental attachments to that show. My childhood friends and I had made a parody of it in which both Balki and Larry get stabbed to death. So using the theme song and clips from the show in the valentine was also about imbuing general feeling of nostalgia…and yearning, searching for completeness across a distance.”

Thanks Ben ❤

In Search Of

{NOTE: This was the introduction to an essay I wrote for “Free,” an exhibition at the New Museum that opened in October 2010. It was published on the show’s online catalog, which the museum has since deleted}

In 2009, Microsoft launched an ad campaign to promote its search engine, Bing. One commercial starts with a blonde complaining about her meal at a sidewalk cafe: “We really need to find a new place for breakfast.” “The Breakfast Club,” her redheaded companion shoots back, “a 1985 cult classic starring members of the Brat Pack.” “What?” Cut to an electronics store. “So do we want an LCD or plasma?” a shopper wonders. His son pipes up: “Plasma is an ionized gas.” Cut to a line at an airport check-in counter. A traveler says to his friend: “Next time we gotta find cheaper tickets.” Glassy-eyed, the friend recites: “Cheap skate. Cheap thrills.” Each vignette resumes. Back at the cafe, the blonde insists: “Seriously, we need a new place to eat.” “Eat lead, eat my dust,” the redhead hisses. She pounds the table and shouts: “Man-eating shark!” A passer-by hailing a taxi chimes in: “Wolf spiders eat their young.” “Plasma cutter,” the electronics-store salesman says. “Tetro plasma,” replies the customer’s son. “Blood plasma,” adds a bystander. At the airport, the wide-eyed tourist says “theater tickets,” another man in line says “raffle tickets,” and over the airport’s PA system a check-in agent intones: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise, won’t you pack your bags and leave tonight.” Cuts quicken, and in each location more strangers extend the chains of association. Discrete vignettes dissolve in a shuffle of shots as absurd conversations become indistinct chatter. Silence. “What has search overload done to us?” Microsoft asks against a black screen. Bing, we’re told, is “not just a search engine, it’s the first-ever decision engine.”

The unnamed culprit is Google. Its search engine, to be fair, is not so bad. But as the most commonly used, it is also most commonly associated with the pitfalls of applying Boolean search to a database as irregular as the World Wide Web. Before last year, Google allocated nearly nothing to advertising, because of its founders’ twin faiths in free-market meritocracy and the internet’s viral gravity. But in 2009, Google purchased airtime during the Superbowl for a commercial called “Parisian Love.” The ad tells a sugary boy-meets-girl story entirely in Google searches. The invisible hero enters “study abroad paris” and selects a program from the results. Google corrects the spelling of his query “cafes near the louve” and returns a map. Amid cafe noises, we hear a Frenchwoman say: “tu es tres mignon.” Google translates: “you are very cute.” With the help of searches, the hero of “Parisian Love” finds things to talk about with his new girlfriend, a job in Paris to be near her, a church to marry her in, and instructions on assembling a crib for their child.

Was “Parisian Love” conceived as a riposte to Microsoft’s “Search Overload”? I don’t know, but the polarity of the two is so extreme, it’s funny. The Bing commercial dramatizes web search as an attempt at straightforward communication thwarted by non-sequitur interjections. It smartly exploits popular discomfort with search engines’ departure from natural language—the way Boolean search excises articles and syntax from queries to leave a jumble of decontextualized nouns, vulnerable to multiple interpretations. To great effect, the ad links the fragility of isolated words to the porous social boundaries of the internet. The strangers butting in with useless nonsense are farcical distortions of fears that a foray online might put you in touch with a MySpace predator or a Cragislist killer. The Google commercial romanticizes randomness. For all the quiet reminders of the search engine’s precision—corrections of misspelled phrases (even foreign ones), the return of a flight’s arrival time to a query giving the flight number alone—it is a tale of serendipity and spontaneity. In the Microsoft ad, language is a source of frustration. Ambiguities and proliferous associations harass the speakers. But for Google’s hero, language is the medium by which he contacts his spirit guide. He enters “churches in paris,” then picks Paroisse Saint Leon for his wedding; the telescoping movement from general to particular is like a dream come true.

Bing promises access to goods and services, Google—to life and love. Different as the two ads are, both map desires and anxieties onto language as it is used in a software application. Their success speaks to the search engine’s position in the public imagination: Can you imagine an equally affecting ad for PowerPoint? Neither commercial attempts to explain how the collective experience of the search engine affects individual ones, how the companies collect queries and clicks and use them to plan improvements. Instead, they make you wonder: Can my needs be conveyed in a handful of nouns? Am I feeling lucky?

Selfies and Selfiehood

I love the word “selfie”!

People used to call pictures of themselves GPOY—Gratuitous Pictures Of Yourself. But that tag has disappeared from the vernacular, displaced by selfie. Maybe it was because people realized that these pictures weren’t gratuitous—they were important for sustaining contact with the people in their social environments. Or maybe they intuitively realized how hard it was to take a picture of your self—gratuitous or otherwise—because the self isn’t really there.

Lots of people still want to imagine that the self is there. A product of Victorian romanticism and Freudian psychologizing, the self-important phantom self requires consistency and autonomy, limits and boundaries. For a long time that self has set the parameters of the modern worldview.

“Selfie” is a diminutive of “self.” Diminished, debased, made cute, it leaves room to acknowledge the flux of personhood, the reality of a living body that renews all of its cells every seven years, of a living mind that revises its ideas at least as often.

(People who cling to liberal subjecthood are terrified by the bodily and mental potentials for change, the inconsistency of personhood. They want to keep it all inside in the boundaries… that’s what “conservative” is.)

The selfie is abject, the residue of personhood’s digital and physical molting—images shed in square, flat flakes like bits of a snake’s skin, recording a body’s change.

(This fall dozens of people told me they didn’t recognize me because I’d grown my hair long, and I wanted to tell them: Pay more attention to my selfies.)

Is the selfie a signifier of narcissism?

No—narcissism is a pathological obsession with the self that inhibits the recognition of others. The figure of narcissism is the body before its reflection, unable to look away. Social media is a house of mirrors built around transmissions. Producing a reflection of your image in Instagram always involves an awareness of the presence of others, the knowledge that your selfie is flaking and refracting in their phones. Labeling this reflection #selfie tacitly recognizes the horizontal proliferation of reflections, the dissolution of personhood in the network. The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies. They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.

A Series of Tubers

What’s the difference between a potato and a rhizome? When Mike Francis started putting his animations on a site called Spudoogle I wanted to figure this out. Here is the answer I came up with after reading some definitions on online reference sources:

Spudoogle is a compound. It comes from “spud” and “Google.” “Spud” appeared in the sixteenth century, when Europeans started cultivating the potatoes that they’d found in the New World. The word migrated from the act of digging a hole in the ground to plant the potato—“spud” is related to “spade”—to the potato itself, from the little shovel to the tuber. Rhizomes are underground plants that send out roots from their nodes and grow in a horizontal network. Tubers are thickened rhizomes that store nutrients as starchy growths. Potatoes are tubers—stem tubers, to be precise. They are the swollen tips of a rhizome. Shoots develop from the buds, or eyes, of the potato. The eyes are its nodes and they look in the direction of potential spuds. As with a rhizome you can cut the tuber into pieces and each piece will develop into a mature plant so long as the cut piece has at least one eye.

Potatoes are parts of rhizomes that are thick and starchy.

Deleuze and Guattari did not say that decentralized hierarchies are shaped like potato farms. That would not have been sexy. They called them rhizomatic—much cooler. But the decentralized networks we live with now are like potato farms. Social networks with lazy fat folks sitting on their nodes, the starchy swollen chunks of Facebook pages covered with eyes, looking.

Mike Francis makes strange short animated loops, usually human or animal characters making awkward gestures again and again, as if he’s playing with the presets of Maya or whatever 3D animation software he uses and just lets the software do its thing rather than bother to force it to model motion as we know it in the world. These things he draws dig holes in the digital fabric and loll about in them endlessly. They have at least one eye but they aren’t developing in any direction.

Spudoogle is a black page with an image of a couple dozen freshly harvested potatoes set in the middle. The darkness of #000000 is a synthetic double of the real dirt in the photo; the cartoons mimic the swollen starchy shapes of the spuds. The post line up in the blog’s vertical like the potatoes laid in their rows. Spudoogle is a weird word and when you google it as a keyword it yields only one relevant result. It’s a spud at the dead end of a google—a spudoogle.

What Is Art 1

What is art?

Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist, said art is “a social technique for the conveyance of emotion.” That sounds good to me. Vygotsky was thinking, among other things, of the Greek drama, when the polis came together at the theater and shared cathartic emotional reactions, and in doing so strengthened relations within the community.

I agree with Vygotsky that art is a social technique but I think that there is more to it than affect. I would add that art conveys the richness of the possibilities of meaning. To Vygotsky I would add Jakobson’s theory of the poetic function of language, which describes the way that language draws attention to the sonic shape of itself, to how its sounds, to how that sound makes meaning, to how it relates to other sounds with different meanings. This attention always yields a recognition of multiplicity and variation of meaning, its asymmetry with its bodily, vocal means of conveyance.

Art that is rich in ambiguity, contrast, and complexity lasts longer than the simple stuff, because people keep finding fresh meanings in it, they keep finding new reasons to establish relations around it. If something superficially resembles art—it has the physical shape often occupied by works of art, it can’t be easily recognized as work or play—but lacks multi-faceted meanings then it is something else (usually design, propaganda, advertising, or entertainment).

My understanding of art is primarily anthropological: Humans are social animals and groups of them thrive by sharing signs; the more they thrive the more signs they make, and the more complex these signs get.

Why does political art usually suck?

Politics is another kind of social technique. But it is not like art. It manages relations instead of allowing them to proliferate. It establishes meanings of social actions, and relations among them. It sets limits—whereas art is about exceeding limits. Most political art sucks because it points to where the limits lie, or establishes the boundaries of behavior in the community of its audience.

Politics is bigger than individuals but art is bigger than politics. Politics cannot contain art. When it tries to it produces propaganda. It uses meaningful signs to manage relations; in so doing it puts limits on their signification. Art can contain politics. Art is often useful to historians as a document of society and politics because it envelops the political values of the context in which it is made. It can have other audiences because it exceeds the function of the document by opening affective and meaningful social relations around itself.

I put a “1” at the end of the title of the post because there will probably be a “What Is Art 2,” a “What Is Art 3” and so on. I will probably revisit and revise these definitions. I will probably blog about why games are not art.

Themes Like a Weird Place

“I like listening to classical music because it’s so relaxing,” is something I hated to hear in high school when all I listened to was classical music but I hated the term “classical” because it, I knew, referred to the rigorously harmonious work of Mozart and Haydn and their peers whereas the compositions for orchestra and chamber ensembles that I preferred were written in the last fifty or a hundred years and they were rough, dissonant, and nasty. This music—and really, any classical music—was not supposed to be relaxing at all if you listened to it properly. It was supposed to be rigorous, moving, engaging.

Piano and Violin Variations sounds like the title of a piece of twentieth-century music, a product of high modernism, when composers gave their works blunt titles that excluded suggestions of extramusical content, downplayed the complexity of the music they named, and—most importantly—used the same terminology found in titles of the past but mixed it up, just as the composers used traditional instruments but extracted new rhythms and harmonies from them. Instead of “Variations on a Theme of Haydn for Violin and Piano”—“Piano and Violin Variations.” But the Piano and Violin Variations I’m talking about isn’t a piece of music. It is a web site made by Michael Bell-Smith (henceforth MBS). It is a collection of photographs of rooms in various Marriott Residence Inns that are decorated with stock photographs of a piano and a violin, licensed from Getty Images. The photos of the rooms have been gathered from the sites of the Marriott Hotels and reviews of them on TripAdvisor.

“Variations,” we know, is shorthand for “Theme and Variations.” MBS dropped “theme.” What is a theme? In music it is a sequence of notes that can be recognized by the intervals between them and the rhythm in which they succeed each other. Online there are themes for the Gmail inbox (backgrounds and color schemes) and themes for WordPress (appearance and organization of text elements). Theme in music is about time. Theme in design is about space. Piano and Violin Variations suggests a musical theme but the theme that gets varied in it is a spatial one: a design template produced by some mid-level brand manager at Marriott’s corporate headquarters, and realized with slight differences in each of the many Residence Inns. There is a dramatic dash of red—a red pleather divan with a back that slopes like a grand piano’s soundboard. The rest looks boring—the beige curtains, the beige-brown grid of the carpet, the pale wood of the end tables. The piano and the violin are photographed at jaunty angles. But the instruments are at rest. No one is playing them.

One reason why people think classical music is relaxing is because it is impersonal. Especially in its recorded form it erases human presence. Of course there are operas, cantatas, lieder, and so on, but the kind of classical music that gets on the radio stations and upscale Muzak compilations that are listened to by people who listen to classical music to relax—this is instrumental only. Hands move over violins and pianos busily but so skillfully that they are inaudible. Hands merge with the instruments and vanish in them. Classical music is so unlike pop or rock, where crooners emote at you, trying to elicit feeling. Voiceless classical music simulates solitude… aaah!

Muzak organizes space by creating an innocuous, unobtrusive sonic environment. The photographs of the piano and the violin—without a pianist or a violinist—fragment and crystallize the idea of relaxing to music. And why does classical music relax people, why does it soothe them? Even in its rigor it has a sameness—the predictability of the tonic’s quest to the dominant, followed by its triumphant homecoming; the thumping satisfaction of the dominant seventh’s resolution; the deceptive cadence that you know is coming but gives you goosebumps each time anyway. These are the things that let Schenker say that every piece of classical music can be reduced to three notes! And now guests at the Marriott Residence Inn get it in two pictures.

Junkspace is what happens when the kind of patterns that are found in cultural forms fill the world. Rooms at the Marriott Residence Inn are as standardized as the sonata form, but instead of elegance and tradition their sameness speaks to the boredom of business travel, the frequent flying, the shuttling from the dry halls of the airport to the marginally cozy sterility of the hotel. It is movement stripped of life. So it is with the theme of the Residence Inn rooms. Only the red pleather sofa, with its sexily arched back, screams: “Someone designed this interior! And made an unusual choice…” That person’s choice sticks out like the wrong note of an inexpert player who makes the same mistake again and again.

We see it in MBS’s collection of all the variations. They sit in a grid, like the one on the beige-brown carpet. The Tumblr theme homogenizes visual space like Marriott’s theme homogenizes people’s travel experience. In the ungraceful junkspace of the business-class hotel chain, space functions like information, space sounds like Muzak. Its sameness is meant to soothe like classical music radio does with the impersonal voices of pianos and violins. The photos collected by MBS were taken to function indexically, to show what the Marriott Residence Inn’s rooms look like. In that sense they are unlike Getty’s stock photos of the piano and violin, which are meant to evoke a mood vague enough to be open to use a variety of environments, like a Muzak CD. But when MBS brings all the photos of the room together, their indexical function recedes and the shape of the space in them comes forward. Its contours describe how space melts into stock space, how junkspace functions as an image.