Tag Archives: selfie

A Selfie Is Not a Portrait

Selfies may be taken promiscuously and gratuitously but that doesn’t mean that the word “selfie” should be too. A selfie is not any picture of yourself but a picture of you that you’ve taken yourself, with your phone, or maybe looking into your computer’s webcam—the picture is taken with a device that is capable of distributing it on a network almost immediately, and the picture shows the same device (if it’s a phone pointed at a mirror) or at least reveals the body’s relationship to the device through a certain shape of posture: the face tilted toward the laptop’s surface, an arm outstretched as it holds the phone at a distance, or a bent shoulder if the phone is held more closely. This is how the selfie inscribes a body into a network—this is how it asserts a body’s connection to others through a network via their respective devices. “Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.” Jenna Wortham wrote in “My Selfie, Myself,” a recent feature in the New York Times. The selfie is phatic: it’s an image that establishes immediate contact, by introducing gesture and mimicry—both components of face-to-face interactions—to telecommunications.

A selfie is not a portrait. A portrait is a flat monument. Like a bust or a full-body statue, a portrait (whether painted on canvas or shot by a photographer) partially extracts the sitter from her life. Portraiture asserts the sitter’s significance—it says she deserves to be inscribed in history. A great portrait, whether painted or photographed, conveys its maker’s awareness of his task and the contradictions inherent in it this task: the promise and the impossibility of immortality. A great portrait reveals the ripeness and vulnerability of the sitter’s body, both in the way it depicts his flesh and in the inclusion of a memento mori, wilting flowers, or some fruit about to rot. Time will kill him. His image will outlive him. The same is true for the self-portrait: the artist has to find a distance from herself, to step outside her body in order to think about its mortality.

A selfie is not monumental. It doesn’t inscribe its maker in history; it inscribes him in a networked present. Can a selfie be art? I think so, but it would entail discarding the conventions of subjecthood of the public sphere both for artists and for art—the artist as a singular figure creating singular works of art—and instead thinking of art as an everyday activity. Even as an everyday activity, though, art would still have to retain a certain complexity and openness of relations—the qualities that allow an image to outlive the body in it, integrated in life. I think Jessica Ciocci’s selfies on Instagram are art. Her face and body acquire grimaces, poses, wigs and outfits in in her selfies, and she posts five or six or a dozen of them consecutively; the angles are weird, mirrors and frames cut her off. Charlie Chaplin made his movements stiff and distinct, to mimic the way film breaks reality into many still images and then reconstitutes them as motion—but Jessica Ciocci’s selfies do the opposite, revealing a fluidity of the body against the cut squares of Instagram and in doing so she situates social media in the movement of ordinary, everyday life. Jesse Darling’s selfies are art, too. She tends to take them in airports or airplanes or gallery bathrooms or chain coffeehouses—a liquid embodied presence in the junkspace of the global city, a grim expression and a gaze directed at the phone (not the receiver of the image) speaking to an anxiety about the affective labor demanded of her and her resigned acquiescence.

Jesse Darling was one of the artists included in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery,” a project organized by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina for the Moving Image Art Fair in London. I like the coinage “selfie portrait.” It sounds to me like a suggestion of an image that draws its characteristics from both the selfie and the portrait, but isn’t quite either one, or maybe it’s a new kind of portrait, where the conventional signifiers of fleshly vulnerability and fleeting life are replaced by references to the ephemeral, phatic time of social media. And maybe that’s what was happening in the works featured in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery.” But that’s not how Chayka presented it in his statements about the project. “The concept of the selfie is as old as art history—selfies are simply self-portraits, the same as works created by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Masaccio and others,” he told the British newspaper Metro. “The original selfies were painted or drawn self-portraits. Albrecht Durer created his own as early as the 15th century. From there, selfies evolved with the different media used to make art.” Chayka’s equation of selfie with self-portrait is as stupid as Blake Gopnik’s identification of Picasso’s Cubism with an Instagram filter, on the basis that both change the way one sees an image, which naturalizes the conventions, respectively, of realist painting and cell-phone photography—but I digress. Chayka’s erasure of distinctions among mediums makes does a disservice to the artists he’s showing—he fails to identify what makes their work special. It’s also a disservice to himself as a curator—why is he showing these works? In Chayka’s explanations, the selfie becomes meaningless beyond its instrumentalization as an engine of attention, a buzzword that draws coverage. Something similar is happening in art magazines, as they use the selfie to leech some of the excitement of social media, and delay their own deterioration as organs of mass media. Art in America recently asked me to submit a selfie for a “mass portrait” of the art world (I refused, rather obnoxiously, because the request didn’t recognize me as a maker or theorist of selfies, they just wanted me to be one face among many), and I heard that Art Review’s upcoming “Power 100” issue will feature pictures of the members of its list with “staged selfies.” Spontaneity is discarded, and what’s left? A plea for attention. Most of the time when you read about selfies in the mass media you learn that every selfie is narcissistic, that every selfie says “look at me.” But that’s just what happens to the selfie when it’s taken out of context.

“i jus like the posi vibes and happy look”

I wanted to talk to Michael Manning about selfies so I email him. “Do you remember your first selfie?” I ask.

“Not really,” he says. He sends me a picture of himself in a room where the light seeps in through the Venetian blinds on the windows behind him. He’s sitting at a computer and holding his iPhone up to the screen—and seen through the phone’s screen the light is liquid and saturates his own image. His face is neutral and obscured by shadows and pixels. Horizontal lines cut it as light and screen striate each other. “That’s the first webcam I ever posted on dump.fm which is probably close to my first selfie,” he says. “I might have posted selfies on my twitter before that, when I first started taking selfies it was mostly for my outfits, cuz i really like clothes, and i mostly jus twitpic’d em cuz i dont think instagram existed yet lol.”

“When we were at the Microsoft Store at Columbus Circle I noticed you going to dump.fm and posting a selfie,” I say. “And since then when I look at people’s dump posts (I don’t usually go into the live chat myself) I notice lots of webcam pics. Is this a way of logging in? or why do people do it?”

“Definitely,” he says, “usually the first thing i do when i want to make people aware that i have logged onto dump is take a webcam, especially a gross one where im like licking a tub of hummus lol.”

A lot of the time in his selfies Michael sticks his tongue out or flashes the peace sign so I asked him why he does that. “for the good vibes,” he replied. “selfies were a big thing for me on dump, but we didnt call them selfies they were jus cams, and i was a pretty big camboy. i learned really early (like after i posted my second or third cam) that people on dump were going to totally do whatever the fuck they wanted with ur cam pix i.e. overlay a flapping cock on them, make ur head explode, have r.kelly piss on you, whatevz. so cuz of that i basically decided i was going to take the grossest and silliest webcams so it’d be like fun for people to use them for those things, and to also basically jus give up ANY possibility of controlling my personal image, cuz you jus can’t it’s jus not possible. below r some links of good examples of what i mean :))) so like sticking my tongue out was kind of something that developed there out of wanting to jus be silly, and i jus give the peace sign a lot so idk about that lol, now that i realized i do it so much ive kind of turned it into my thing, but ya i also jus like the posi vibes and happy look :)”

He sends me some more images. The first one is dark. His neck is bent back and his eyes are rolled up in his head, his mouth open in an expression of pain or indignation. I wonder if it’s really him taking the photo because his arms seem to be down but I guess his arms are long enough that he could be holding the right one out to hold the phone. In the second image he’s leaning against a cushion on a tiled wall, and I suppose there’s a pool or a hot tub nearby because his face is shiny with water or sweat and he’s not wearing a shirt. He’s visible from the shoulders up, eyes closed, tongue lolling out of his mouth—as if he’s overwhelmed by the heat. In the next one he’s inside, shelves of books and a flat-screen TV on adjacent walls. He’s seated at his computer (which I’m guessing is a desktop), leaning toward the webcam, eyes crossed, tongue out, fingers raised in a peace sign. His hair is mussed and spiky. In the last one he’s back in the tiled room, seated against the blue cushion and holding a laptop. This time he’s using his peace-sign fingers to pull his left eye open, yanking the lids in opposite directions and wrecking the symmetry of his crossed eyes.

“i wonder if these funny faces and gestures are ways to keep it “masc” and make it seem like you don’t care about being sexy or w/e,” I say.

“I guess it depends on how you define ‘masc’ like when i think of ‘masc’ i think of like bros in their tiny bathrooms taking pix with an old nokia phone in the mirror of themselves with their shirt off in basketball shorts and they have the most ridiculous pecs and abs u have ever seen,” he says. “I mean i think it’s pretty obvi in most of selfies that i am trying to look cute, and i do care, but idk i cared a lot less on dump, i guess a lot more cute girls follow me on twitter and insta, so im more inclined to be like ‘yo girl’ whereas dump is mostly like weird dudes and a few cool girls mixed in (not that thats bad i luv dump and my dump frans).”

“When you say ‘cam boy’ what do you mean by that?” I ask. “Is a cam boy any different from a cam girl, besides sex?”

“I don’t think I ever really associated cam girls with sex, aside from things like pay cam girls, which is actually an arena where I think a lot of dudes are present just as much now,” he says. “I mean there are implications of sex and like half of molly sodas selfie gifs are her making a sexy pouty face or lifting up her shirt (on the flipside she posts a lot of great selfies of her being jus gross), but i think girls like that are really more the exception than the rule and most of the sexualization of cam girls has more to do with guys being like ‘damn that girl fine i’d hit it’ than the girl being overtly sexually or flirtatious in her pictures. The majority of cam girls I’ve come across (and this applies to girls who frequently post selfies on insta too) are just posting kind of mundane photos of themselves where they happen to look cute. Whether or not they are trying to feed off, or solicit that male recognition I think is a case by case thing and is diff for every girl.

“I think there’s not really much of a difference between camboys and camgirls except perhaps that camgirls are greeted with more overwhelmingly interested male population of viewers whereas female viewers on the whole don’t really give many fucks about cute boy pics (ann hirsch does tho which is cool js). I think camboys and camgirls like to see themselves, I think there is something more interesting about the process of documenting yourself and posting it than whether or not anyone actually sees it or likes it or favs it. It’s like a self affirming ritual or something, not that getting favs doesnt stroke ur ego a bit :)”

“But don’t you think girls do like boy selfies, they just don’t fav or comment so much because they don’t want to seem thirsty?”

“i think that could be a big possibility,” he says. “it’s funny because i dont really understand why a girl would be afraid to admit she likes how a guy looks for fear of being slutty but would then like post a slutty pic of herself trying to get favs from guys u know?

“also i think lately more girls have been like open (if you calling faving cute selfies open) about it, i’ve jus noticed a lot more girls faving my selfies and like some of them are flirt favs and some are like a group of girls ive always been friends with that like selfies like jnet ALWAYS favs my selfies hahaha”

He pauses for a second, then continues. “another thing is that i don’t necessarily think about selfies or cam girls as a sex related thing because most of the pics i end up being into are really more about the attitude of the girl taking them than like her looking really hot in the photo, the fav definitely still comes attraction but its a little bit diff than jus like ‘oh damn she sooooo hot’. Best examples of this are definitely jesse darling and al bedell, they both post a lot of selfies that really don’t hinge on them looking really hot (not that they arent hot, they def are), and in some of them they look down right haggard but like jesse’s attitude is always really strong, almost as if she has jus finished kicking the shit out of someone lol, which is hot to me, and usually Al’s have this insane tinge of black humor that is just fucking amazing and unparalleled.”

“what’s the best selfie you ever took?” I ask.

He sends me an Instagram of him looking into his iPhone and taking a photo in a mirrored Ellsworth Kelly piece, a round thing with a narrow curve at the center, like a palette. Tom Moody is standing beside him, his hands on his hips as if he’s impatient, his body bisected by the indentation of the work. Michael says: “im really proud of this selfie because its def the only selfie in existence that features tom moody.”

To end, I ask: “how does your social media presence (your selfies) relate to your art? if you can think of a simple way to put it, or just some general thoughts.”

“i don’t want to be taken too seriously,” he says. “i mean i like art right, and its cool but people take it way too fucking seriously and i think my overall brand is very lighthearted and kind of jus like ‘fuck it man, lets chill and goto the beach bro’ and i think both my art and selfies reflect that”

“i really value the personal context around art provided by social media”

A Q&A with Steve Roggenbuck about selfies in anticipation of his forthcoming book, if u dont love the moon your an ass hole: poems and selfies:

Q: I don’t know if you think about things a lot when you tweet them but I’m wondering if you could look at these tweets of yours again and say a few words about why they feel true/right to you:

A: these twets are funny to me because most ppl would say that selfies are nottt providing value that makes the world a better place and are nottt the point of life. i do feel that my selfies are providing value, but its still not nearly the “main point” of lief to me, and not the main way i see myself making the world a beter place. so there mainly to be funny, which is, a form of value that makes the world a better place !!

Q: Your new book is subtitled “poems and selfies.” What do you think putting these two things (categories, genres, whatever) next to each other says about your poems? alternative question, what does it say about your selfies?

A: i really value the personal context provided around someone’s conventional Art (in this case poems) by social media. when u encounter my work online, you dont just get poems, you get my personal updates and images of me, you get my web design and all. it contextualizes the poems and enriches the whole experience, you get my whole personality or at least what i want you to perceive as my personality. you get a more holistic message about the kind of person i am, and if u are influenced by me, you get many more ideas of ways u can be like me. many of my poetry friends and followers have considered veganism more seriously because im vegan and i occasionaly post about it. so the selfies are one tool among many in the ‘personal brand’ toolbox, they help convey my style, my overall ~vibes and personality.. and as a part of that whole, they are very valuable

Q: Isn’t writing in first person basically like taking selfies? or, what can a selfie do that a poem can’t?

A: they are similar yes. selfies are a faster way to convince someone that u are cute

Q: Do you miss MySpace. Did you puts lots of selfies on your MySpace profile? were you taking selfies before you started making videos?

A: yes i miss myspace and i had selfies on myspace. i think we r blessed today with many platforms that are helpin to fill the gap tho, tumblr twitter and instagram most of all. these platforms are providing free and accessible spaces for the youth to express themselve’s holisticly as a personal brand. i think its very fun and awesome that ppl get to express themself in such rich ways.. for example a Tumblr blog, can include original content in so many formats and curated content by others in so many formats, both updated ANYTIME u want, and a visual design, an “about” page, an “ask”/message feature where people can ask u questions and u respond. such a rich space to develop a sense of who u are, what youre about, etc… and the tumblr dashboard, the content feed, is just like, kids are checkin this thing for hours every day, its like the new TV, but its not created or controlled by ad executives, its created by OTHer kids with tumblrs.. with social media we are collectively creating what our culture is… we are living in a very beautiful era in these ways

Q: I just watched your lecture on Boosting Theory & Praxis, and unless I missed it you didn’t mention selfies in it. Do selfies boost and if so, how?

A: one of the most guaranteed ways to boost someone else is to like/fave all their selfies. thats the most direct connection i can think of right now. also like i said about personal brand adding context to art works in general, a selfie could add a context needed for a different post to have more significance /boost to u maybe

Q: here’s a philosophical question for you to ponder: do you take selfies because you’re hot or are you hot because you take selfies?

A: i wish it was entirely the second, but i think both, and i think maybe, you take selfies because you perceive yourself to be hot. ppl are more prone to take selfies when they feel they look good. “o my hair looks good today,” boom, selfie. we are all actively creating these representations of who we are. it’s always been that way, with clothes choices and how u decorate your home, etc.. but this is on another level. i think mostly it’s positive, i think we have an ideal vision of ourselves, and we try to align reality with that vision. i think that is very powerful. this is a lot of the true power of stuff like what im doing, in my opinion.. if i can get a couple hundred/thousand more people to feel like its cool to be spiritual, like its cool to be excited about life, and i start to affect their ideal vision of who they are, then its gonna start to change who they really are. and thats gona effect positive change in the world

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.

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.