THIS IS ALT LIT: ANOMIE IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL NETWORKS
Mira Gonzalez i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together (Sorry House, 2013)
Steve Roggenbuck IF YOU DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASSHOLE (free .pdf, 2013)
Internet Poetry, Tumblr blog, internetpoetry.tumblr.com, 2011-present
by Calum Rodger
Since a body of rules is the specific form which is assumed by spontaneously established relations between social functions in the course of time, we can say, a priori, that the state of anomie is impossible wherever interdependent organs are sufficiently in contact and sufficiently extensive. If they are close to each other, they are readily aware, in every situation, of the need which they have of one-another, and consequently they have an active and permanent feeling of mutual dependence. […] But if, on the other hand, they are not clearly visible to each other, then only stimuli of a certain intensity can be communicated from one organ to another. The relationships being infrequent, they are not repeated often enough to become fixed; they must be established anew each time.
– Émile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, 1893 (translated by Anthony Giddens)
Anomie describes the condition that arises from the misalignment of moral, cultural and interpersonal norms between different social groups. The term was popularised by Émile Durkheim in the late 19th century, and becomes manifest, as he notes above, whenever our “feeling of mutual dependence” is placed in jeopardy. The accelerating pace of technological and political change over the last 100-odd years suggests that anomie has been the default state of much of our culture for as long as we care to remember (which, by the way, is not very long). Once upon a time we’d have called this the counter-culture: a product of generational misalignment between establishment and anti-establishment that’s anomic by definition. But those heady days are behind us. Counter-culture’s once absolutist anti-fashions are now the very stuff that fashions are made of. Where beatniks, yippies and punks once stood, hipsters slouch. Hipsterism is what happens to anomie once the generational misalignment becomes – paradoxically – so ingrained that even the kids can see that its oppositional truths aren’t self-evident. But this knowledge doesn’t make anomie go away. The hipster still needs connection, still hankers after that “certain intensity […] communicated from one organ to another.” If anything, the task is even harder without the failsafe channel of naiveté. For this reason the “alternative” remains a vital source of cultural energy. In poetry, one of its wellsprings over the last few years has been a scene called alt lit.
According to Wikipedia (why not?) alt lit (alternative literature) describes “a particular literature community which publishes and/or draws its motifs from the internet [and] internet culture.” Its natural habitats are the Twitter feed, Tumblr blog and homemade pdf, though it interloped into the mainstream literary consciousness last year with the publication of Taipei by Tao Lin (who The Guardian described as alt lit’s “poster boy”). A novel about hipsters written by a hipster, Taipei is about as easy to hate as hipsters, which is very easy indeed. Lydia Kiesling does a fine hatchet job in The Millions, ultimately asserting that she is “aesthetically and philosophically opposed to it.” Fair enough, and her diagnosis is accurate: Lin’s “affectless” prose is borne of protagonist Paul’s “business, not of something so studied as introspection, but of prolonged self-gazing from an external vantage,” itself a result – if an aesthetically and philosophically unjustifiable one – of the frequent drug use in the novel, “a Problem” which Kiesling could, at least, “recognise.” She grudgingly accepts that the novel achieves its goal; her problem is with the goal itself. But then by her own admission she is a “codger” and, well, haters gonna hate.
But what is its goal? One commenter to Kiesling’s piece suggests that “Tao is attempting to expose […] Internet-reliant culture and nihilism.” Maybe so, but “expose” suggests an enlightenment, a philosopher-adventurer breaking the chains that bind us (and that us only applies if you identify as a doped-up internet-obsessed millennial hipster, which by the way I do) to our digital and chemical mania. Lin likes the chains; he aesthetically and philosophically embraces them. Kiesling complains that Lin doesn’t pathologise his protagonist’s drug use; she fails to realise that this drug use is not for pathologising. It’s an aesthetic – drugs and internet FTW. It takes another “codger,” Stan Persky in the Los Angeles Review of Books, to hit the suitably affectless nail on the head: “Lin’s book is your standard once-a-generation report on youth anomie.” Persky may prefer the “previous report” – Douglas Coupland’s Generation X – because “the content of the anomie [is] more interesting,” but I want to know about the content of our anomie. Here, Lin’s crossover-hit reportage will only get us so far; we had better go underground to the scene he helped create, wilfully chaining ourselves before the shadows that flicker in the cave called alt lit. To this end I’ll be investigating the anomic content of three products of the alt lit “community,” each more “alt” than the last (in form at least): Mira Gonzalez’s poetry book i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, Steve Roggenbuck’s free pdf IF YOU DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASSHOLE, and the open-submissions Tumblr blog Internet Poetry, edited by Michael Hessel-Mial.
Anomie is the default mode of existence in Gonzalez’s collection, the title alone of which suggests a formula for “mutual dependence” broken beyond repair. The poet has a flair for titles, with another giving a succinct diagnosis of the problem: “I feel more lonely when I am with people than I do when I am alone looking at the internet.” She is most visible when, as Durkheim puts it, “not clearly visible.” As Gonzalez elsewhere recognises, this constitutes a “semi-humorous paradox” (another great title) to which one can only respond with “stimuli of a certain intensity”:
would you put some coffee ground on your tongue
and then put your tongue in my hand
in my dream I watched you masturbate
while floating 5 inches above you
I was invisible until I kissed your mouth
will you let me do that tomorrow afternoon
I will text you
It is only within a frame of fetishistic desire and unconscious, voyeuristic fantasy that the speaker is able to assume sufficient definition to push for communication “from one organ to another.” Gonzalez’s book is all about this push. Though its successes may be tentative and its failures frequent, it’s the go pill that saves her work from solipsism. Anomie is not ennui: it doesn’t draw back from intersubjective connection, but recognises that one must fight harder – and more originally – to find it (even if, as in all things, it is only to fail better). Hence the resolution of the seventh line: “I will text you.”
In 1959 Frank O’Hara was writing a poem to his lover when he suddenly realised that instead of writing a poem he could pick up the telephone and give his lover a call. Et voilà! Personism was born: a new type of poem “between two persons instead of two pages.” These persons’ proximity is such that the addressee can hear the addresser speak, or even drink Coke with him, as in one of O’Hara’s most famous poems. Even as Gonzalez’s poem recognises it could send a text, however, it affords no such casual intimacy, and so heads straight for the caffeinated jugular of a mimed fantasia. Its push for organic connection is kept squarely in the future tense. “semi-humorous paradox” continues:
when I sneeze multiple times in quick succession
it feels like a tiny orgasm in my face
today I am going to fill my bathtub with milk
and if my nose starts bleeding
the milk will turn pink
then maybe you could lick my face
and tell me that my blood tastes like pennies
why do we both know what pennies taste like
The solipsistic pleasure of the “tiny orgasm” opens out into a chromatic Bataillean fantasy leading to the connection of the final line: a shared reference point, more psychological than cultural – a half-forgotten sensation of childhood – given intimate resonance. “The relationships being infrequent, they are not repeated often enough to become fixed” says Durkheim. Nevertheless, “we both know what pennies taste like.” Perhaps connection is possible after all; perhaps even, as the naive astonishment of the “why” attests, this intensity might trigger what O’Hara described to his Coke-sharing lover as “some marvellous experience,” whereby the marvel of a moment is redoubled by the marvel of a moment shared.
Why do I bring up O’Hara? Because while O’Hara’s telephone has a voice – a presence – the instant message, from which Gonzalez takes her cues, is always already a trace, archived in the past tense from its moment of reception: dislocated, disembodied. Her free verse lines – light on enjambement, heavy on anaphora – enhance this effect, often suggestive of a late night Twitter spiel or chat window soliloquy, as in “untitled 5”:
I am looking at people who are dancing and touching each other
I am drinking vodka with ice and feeling incredibly fucked
I wonder if anyone feels more lonely now than they felt an hour ago
when they were alone in their rooms looking at things on the internet
“looking at things on the internet” brings more comfort and security than “looking at people who are dancing and touching each other.” In each case there is a distance – the speaker is only “looking” – but the trace, after all, is worth more than the presence. This brings us to the content of our anomie. In Gchat and other messaging services, the only unequivocal guarantee that there’s someone on the other end is in the moment before the message is sent, in that little grey text that reads “Typing…”. Presence exists only in potential, and so our “certain intensity” comes not from the saying (the dancers, in any case, are mute) but the going-to-be-already-said. In other words, we can always tell the dancer from the dance, and it’s this disjunction – between dumb stimuli and prospective meaning, manifest in the contrast between bald observation/assertion and more-or-less idle speculation/reflection – that makes Gonzalez’s poetry so thrilling. Hers is a disembodied personism – a poem “between two persons” whose most meaningful connections are forged in the past or future tense.
The primacy of this anomic connection is asserted in the very act of mediation and creation: the poem itself. O’Hara must have believed this too, or he would have stopped writing poems as soon as he picked up the telephone. In other words, all personism – all poetry –is disembodied, and Gonzalez is to be commended for refusing to labour under any illusions. In contrast with the intensely localised “you” of O’Hara’s work, Gonzalez’s collection is characterised by personal pronouns that shift between – though rarely within – poems. Unlike the self-reflexive language-games of much contemporary poetry, however, we’re always left with the feeling that there’s a person on the other end, with a consistency to the lyric voice throughout that’s difficult not to identify with Gonzalez herself. Perhaps this reading is naive, and certainly runs counter to everything they teach you at poetry school (poet ≠ speaker, I tell my students), but it’s characteristic of alt lit’s distinctive anomie – and Gonzalez’s work in particular – to attempt to close this distance in an anti-ironic gesture of meaning it.
This distance can only be closed, however, if it is first recognised, and this usually depends on the second type of trace found in the poem – the type that courses about your bloodstream long after the event of consumption and leaves you “feeling incredibly fucked”. There are a lot of drugs in Gonzalez’s poetry, both on and between the lines (“I drank a bottle of wine and swallowed ambien” begins one poem, as should most Friday nights), but their use isn’t pathological, it’s aesthetic. “you take drugs because they make you feel different” one poem explains, and it’s this disjunction between reality and “different,” “fucked” reality that allows Gonzalez to explore the disjunction between potential presence and trace so effectively. A couple of lines in “today my alarm went off at 12:30pm” say it all: “I asked a person on the internet if I should take drugs / I took drugs before the person had time to respond.” As Tom Wolfe records in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters used acid to dramatise the fact that our brains take a thirtieth of a second to process what we’re seeing. So too does the speaker of “untitled 5” get drunk to actualise the reality that we’re only ever “looking at” our own lives. That’s our anomie: we all live in that thirtieth of a second now, stretched out in space and time via touchscreens and wifi connections. Gonzalez’s poetry explores and inhabits this space where presence is only ever in potential. She chemically and poetically nourishes that liminal moment when the box reads “Typing…” in anticipation of the “tiny orgasm” when “we both know what pennies taste like”.
Unlike Gonzalez, Steve Roggenbuck is not much troubled by the tension in the “Typing…” box. He isn’t “looking at the internet”; he is the internet. “AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST! ”his blurb proclaims, and early on in his most recent pdf release, IF YOU DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASSHOLE, he explains what that means:
i have over 500 contacts in my phone
most of them are internet people i never met
i have 99 notifications evrytime i log into facebok.
the average person doesn’t even know
that facebook notification’s stop at 99,
well when you reach 99
it starts pushing out the older notifications
so you only see the most recent 99.
i know that because im the best poet to live
since the 1800s
While Gonzalez drives towards communication “from one organ to another,” Roggenbuck prefers a carpet bombing technique. In this respect he’s closer to the chaos of a YouTube comments board, captured in collagistic juxtapositions delivered at breakneck speed. His poetry – presented in justified prose or free verse with lots of deliberate spelling mistakes and interspersed with selfies of the “BARD” himself – oscillates rapidly between cloying positivity (“CARPE DIME is a latin phrase that means HASHTAG YOLO”), a kind of symbolist homeopathy (“<3 EXTREMELY BIG AND LOW GIBBOUS MOON”), anal-fixated narcissism (“all i do is poop and cry: poop, cry, repeat.”) and kawaii cockiness which barely belies its nauseating neediness (see block quote above). It’s an imaginary blender with a real frog in it, with the frog as Whitman and the blender as Flarf. To borrow the words of Kiesling, “I am aesthetically and philosophically opposed to it.”
Flarf was a technique and aesthetic developed in the early 21st century which used Google search results to create playful – and often wilfully awful – collage poems that ironically relished the cutesy badness of the internet. Roggenbuck adopts the Flarf aesthetic wholesale, but in tune with the anomic drive to establish relationships “of a certain intensity” he switches off the irony and, like Gonzalez, starts meaning it. While Flarf redeemed its badness by losing the speaker – the lyric “I” – to the babble of unrefined online discourse, Roggenbuck would rather be the “I” that channels all that babble, and then some. As such, his poetic napalm noises its way past any possibility of meaningful connection in favour of an ego-serving faux-camaraderie. “i keep thinkig of how cool my friends are !!” he exclaims, but perhaps he should borrow another social network’s idiom and call them followers, with all its autocratic connotations, as he elsewhere threatens that “if u dont like the design of my blog i will cut you completley out of my life.”
As Whitman is to the egalitarian dream of the new American republic (“I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”) so Roggenbuck is to social media: “This generation needed a hero, and here i am. fuck the dalai lama for not following anyone back.” How times change. Several have argued that Roggenbuck exemplifies a new type of artist whose cultivation of an online presence is as much a part of their art as the product. Maybe so, but where does that leave the poetry? Moreover, where does it leave the anomie? Whitman redeemed his poetic megalomania by singing himself into the collective body electric. Roggenbuck clamours for a similar redemption by exhorting that we “boost” towards a kind of lowest-common-denominator pop-spirituality, concerned mainly with veganism and “yoloing.” As such, there’s no anomie in his work at all. He’s so content in his position as “INTERNET BARD” and so convinced by the transformative potential of social media that the disjunction between potential presence and trace, explored so beautifully in Gonzalez’s disembodied articulations, doesn’t even figure on his radar. For Roggenbuck presence is online presence, which in this context means “reach” or “clout” rather than the “mutual dependence” that true anomie, despite itself, still strives for. When Roggenbuck writes “my goal is to rebrand spirituality as alt,” I want to be sick. As if it were that easy! If it were, we wouldn’t be anomic in the first place.
Unlike Lin and Gonzalez, drugs don’t play a role in Roggenbuck’s work. He doesn’t need them; the struggle with anomie that characterises those writers’ work is anathema to his hubris. The great irony, of course, is that even in sounding his straight-edge yawp over the broadband cables of the world, Roggenbuck proves that he’s at least as much of a junkie as the rest of us. We all know that dopamine rush we get when someone retweets, favourites or “likes” our posts; most of us probably crave it, or we wouldn’t post so much, and so often. But as Roggenbuck’s obsession with Facebook notifications testifies, this guy is hooked. Kiesling’s criticism of Lin would be better directed at Roggenbuck, because his is a chemical kick that might actually be worth pathologising, if only to bring its anomic undercurrent to the surface and so give the work some nuance. In the meantime, when he states that “maybe its good for us spiritualy to deal with social media constant notifications,” I’m deeply suspicious of his motives. I don’t think Roggenbuck is interested in enlightenment, much less that “certain intensity” that would connect “from one organ to another.” I think he’s mainly interested in Steve Roggenbuck. He’s the poetic equivalent of those guys who grow a moustache every November on the pretence that they’re trying to cure cancer, when all they really want is an excuse to talk about their face. It’s a pity, because as the numerous selfies in the book and its occasional flashes of lyricism demonstrate, Roggenbuck’s is not an unpretty face. He just needs to kick the habit, but when you’ve built your whole aesthetic on it, that’s going to be a pretty hard habit to kick.
Despite his glaring chemical imbalance, I kind of like Roggenbuck. As with that other incendiary coxcomb of 21st century poetry Kenneth Goldsmith (most famous for crowdsourcing a project to print out the entire internet and for publishing a whole edition of the New York Times verbatim as an 840-page book called Day), I’m often in aesthetic and philosophical opposition to him, but I enjoy being so, and I’m glad that he exists. It’s all fun and games after all, and a larger part of me than I’d like to admit admires his dogged commitment to the most recent manifestation of what William Burroughs called “the algebra of need”. Moreover, I commend him for giving his work away for free (read the pdf) and, again like Goldsmith, the value of his contributions to poetry and literature online are beyond question. Not least of these contributions is Internet Poetry, a Tumblr blog Roggenbuck started in 2011 which is currently edited by Michael Hessel-Mial.
Along with similar blogs Pop Serial, Alt Lit Gossip and I Am Alt Lit, Internet Poetry is the source of the most vital energies in the alt lit scene. To my mind it’s the best place for your alt lit fix, not least for its open submissions policy and formal radicalism (the tagline says it publishes “poetry as screenshots, image macros, and other internet based forms”). In a recent piece for Hix Eros I wrote that the work on this blog “sit[s] in a procrastinatory sweet spot between memes and poems – between the instantaneity of the former and the subjectivity of the latter, an open-order meme that asks less ‘do you get it?’ than ‘what do you get?’ and ‘do you feel it too?’” At its best it’s like bathing in an anomic bubble-bath, each soap sud bursting on our organs with a “certain intensity” before being “established anew each time.” Take one of the most virally successful (is this to say canonical?) poems from regular contributor and alt lit scenester meta knight (brought to my attention via a recent interview with Hessel-Mial):
Internet Poetry does publish more text-centric work, though often screengrabbed rather than formatted as text, but the meme-style image macro is the form of choice. It’s a common trope to take a stock or found image and combine it with text – often a tweet or search term, though here it’s the refrain to a novelty 1990s pop song – in order to create new and unexpected resonances, deploying the juxtapositional method that’s been the staple of modernist poetic practice for over 100 years in a format native not to the book but to the blog. This poem has been liked or reblogged almost 50,000 times since it was posted in May last year, enough for it to get picked up by FailBlog. They captioned it “This Presentation Style Doesn’t Make Lyrics More Meaningful”, but I disagree. It helps that the lyrics were all but meaningless in the first instance, because it’s only by finding them lost in the woods like this that they come to mean at all. It’s a generation-specific meaning, dependent not only on recognising the reference but on the reference having been inoculated into the reader’s consciousness at just the right moment of childhood/adolescence when the warm glow of nostalgia is at its most palpable. It grows from the slow realisation that these questions were never asked of “Cotton Eye Joe” (whoever the hell he was) but us and, moreover, that we’d only ever learn this in retrospect, once we knew for sure that the answers would always elude us. Lacking the answers to these questions is anomie, and while our apprehension of this fact may not result in anything as solid as self-knowledge, it at least gives us a tenuous link to a shared cultural fabric and the reservoir of feeling that rests below the surface. But it’s not just that. This is Dante in his dark wood, Frost’s road not taken, Heidegger’s wood-paths. The “certain intensity” of anomic communication is poetry’s too. It has always been thus, ever since Homeric epics kept, as Durkheim puts it, “interdependent organs […] sufficiently in contact.” That’s why this activity is valuable, and is also why, despite – or perhaps because of – its memetic idiom, it is absolutely right that it be called poetry.
As Roggenbuck inadvertently proves, our anomie can’t be outsourced to any one saviour with a pseudo-democratic vista on our networked environs. It is better articulated by the disembodied – but nevertheless personal – intensity of Gonzalez, interfacing between potential presence and trace. But perhaps its truest expression comes in the form of meme-poems such as meta knight’s, an instagrammatic poetics of the “not clearly visible” that recognises its fate is to “not become fixed”. Nevertheless, it resolves to establish itself “anew each time” with ever greater intensity, striving for that connection “between one organ another”. In the last analysis, this generation’s anomie may be different in content but is barely different in kind from any generation since Durkheim. Sixty years ago Ginsberg celebrated “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Perhaps that “heavenly connection” is Durkheim’s “certain intensity” at its zenith; if so, anomie is not to be construed as a negative force, but is rather the key to experience something both of and greater than ourselves. Though the machinery has changed since Ginsberg’s time, these poets prove that there’s a great deal more in that connection worth burning for.