Tag Archives: surveillance

Alt Lit’s Limp Dicks

 

{NOTE: This post is distilled from notes for a lecture I gave at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, NY, in June 2013, for an event series organized by David Wightman. I prepared this version for Next Time, a publication edited by David Geer and Isaac Pool,  and I’m giving a related presentation at the Next Time Symposium, organized by Colin Self, taking place Nov. 14-17 at Envoy Enterprises in New York.}

 

“i told you… i wanna get my dick stuck in a whisk,” the poet Steve Roggenbuck says in one of his videos. “i don’t know how its gonna happen but i know that’s what i want.” And, elsewhere, he writes: “i hope a bird peck’s my dick.”

“i could smash this computer with my dick,” writes Spencer Madsen in a poem posted to his Tumblr, but equivocates: “i could smash my dick with this computer”

Jordan Castro starts his poem “weak” by describing his failure to suck his own dick and ends with these lines:

i have tried giving a piece of my penis to everyone,

so as not to be discriminatory or

hierarchical or

something 

but my penis was not strong enough.

‘is my penis inadequate’

‘who will nurture an inadequate penis like mine’

 

All of these guys are affiliated with alt lit. Alt lit means different things to different people. Last time I checked the Wikipedia definition highlighted the following features, all of which seem pretty uncontroversial:

“social media-based creative community”

“sharing of Gmail chat logs, memes, macros, screenshots, and computer generated art are also popular”

“the harnessing of the possibilities offered by internet for the creation and publication of literature, and by extension, the associated surrounding community and standard culture”

 

I would define somewhat more specifically, as a kind of writing that affirms an embodied presence in social media. It’s a kind of writing that understands language as a fundamental material aspect of how humans live in the world—a sensibility that connects it to other, older kinds of writing concerned with language’s materiality. But alt lit not only collapses distinctions between language and bodily functions—it also projects said collapse into the telecom technologies used to convey words across great distances at high speeds. Alt lit inscribes bodies into social media.

Alt lit tends to look unpolished, which produces a double impression of language’s physical immediacy and the immediacy of how social media spreads it. Alt lit can be silly, stupid sounding, flatly phrased, or just plain bad. Roggenbuck’s signature move is intentionally misspelling a lot of words, as if they’re just pouring out as fast as he can clumsily move his fingers on the keyboard—as if he doesn’t have the time or the need to use spellcheck. When he’s talking in his videos he blurts crazed phrases like the ones I quoted above—as if they spurt from his mouth like so much spittle. Words are abject emissions from the body—like drool, shit, or sweat—and social media is where words leave visible traces—like those fluids do on bodies or clothes.

Why do Roggenbuck & co. talk about their poor dicks so much? To me, it conjures the specter of the “crisis of masculinity”(AKA the “end of men”) that we keep hearing about. I think the sense of crisis stems from the bourgeois white guy’s loss of his status as political subject par excellence. Not because women, blacks, queers and the rest have gained visibility—but because the ideal political subject now is not a human at all. It’s a corporation. (An aside: The shift to corporate power has made visibility available to non-white-male persons on the condition that they make themselves available as consumer demographics.)

Of course white guys still occupy most of the positions of power reserved for humans because corporate power is an apotheosis of characteristics that bourgeois society long ago linked to whiteness and maleness—things like reason, calculating intelligence, emotionless “objectivity,” competitive strength, and so on. By embodying these characteristics, anyone can align themselves with corporate power. Though straight white men seem to do it most effortlessly. Technology is rationality. Rationality is a phallus.

Look at the NSA—using the technological apparatus developed by America’s corporate subjects to penetrate the private life of the multitude. Any threat to the authority of this dick reads as terrorism. (Roggenbuck: “my cock keeps growing and the government is not happy about it.”) Last summer, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, I saw a tweet about some pro-government article titled “Why Leaks Hurt”—the tweeter joked that it could have come from a urology journal. Leakage is a compromised dick—the cheesy, burning discharge of the NSA leak externalizes the corruption within the body of the state.

Leaking is a gonorrheal model of political resistance. Those of us without security clearances can’t be bugs in the body of the state, like Snowden or Chelsea Manning, but we can be bugs on and around the body of the state. There’s gonorrheal resistance and there’s the pubic lice resistance. Look at Occupy—power was effectively frightened by a parasitic relationship that made privately-owned public space (the site of collusion of corporate and state power) into a host to be infested.

Isn’t that something like what happens when people fill the bright fields of social media with the sad details of their slob lives?

(Crispin Best: “she said i kissed like i’d never kissed anyone”)

Eileen Myles wrote a critique of conceptual poetry in the May 2013 issue of the online poetry journal Volta, which included the line: “Poetry’s where men get to feel like women always feel.” Feeling like a woman means feeling the vulnerability of being alive. (Andrea Dworkin: “The stigma, finally, is in that alone: the old-time weakness of the flesh; needing and wanting alive like exposed nerve endings, desire being coldly demanding, not sloppy and sentimental.”)

The perfect Facebook user isn’t fleshy. He becomes exchangeable, bodiless, a source of data and little else, without the friction or resistance produced by bodies—just a linear timeline of events like jobs and easily described relationships (the progression of the drop-down menu from “single,” “in a relationship,” “engaged,” “married,” preferably without dabbling in the messy options below them, i.e. “It’s complicated”).

A disavowal of this apparatus is a disavowal the hardon—an abnegation of dick. So it’s no coincidence that alt lit—a kind of writing that reminds us that utterances issue from the body like abject emissions, a reminder of the sensitivity of words and flesh—is full of tormented dicks, tiny dicks, limp dicks.