-Reviewed by Charles Whalley–
“I’m a poet and I feel that the internet — comprised completely of text-based alphanumeric language — is the greatest poem ever written” – Kenneth Goldsmith
“Who do you think is offering something new to poetry at the moment?
Internet.” – Sam Riviere
Hi Guys! Keryn and I went swimming!
The deepest indoor swimming pool in the world.
The portal is located in Brussels, Belgium.
Its maximum depth is 34.5 metres.
I tried to bring you guys in the pool with us,
but it was too dark to see or steal her tiara.
I will confirm this tomorrow!
– ‘thirty-three pool’, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage
Sam Riviere’s Kim Kardashian’s Marriage was a password-protected blog of 72 poems in 8 sections, labelled by Riviere as “a sequel to 81 Austerities”; 81 Austerities was Riviere’s previous web-based poetry project that became his debut collection published by Faber in 2012 and which won the 2012 Forward Prize for Best First Collection (and was “hyperbolised almost out of existence by the casual blandishments of the bourgeois literati”, if you’d prefer). Kim Kardashian’s Marriage was available online for 72 days, representing the length of time that Kim Kardashian was married
to Kris Humphries before filing for divorce on 31st October 2011. Seen in this way, 72 poems suddenly seem like too few.
With titles that sequentially transform the section headings in 81 Austerities, using them as keywords, KKM is a sequel in that it orbits much of the same imagery and themes from a distance but with greater fixity and obsessiveness, like a spy satellite. As each of the 8 sections returns to the same keywords in different configurations, the sequence develops its own symbols; the recurrent images lead the reader to search for meaning sideways, to try to connect the poems to each other before anything else.
Described by Riviere as“post-flarf”, the poems in KKM are apparent collages of text taken and adapted from the internet: it is possible in places, if you’re so inclined, to find the sources of his material, or the places where he has altered material for the purposes of sound and rhythm. Although formally this isn’t greatly different from the collages of postmodernists such as John Ashbery, or even modernists such as Marianne Moore, Pound, or Eliot, KKM self-consciously utilitises its bricolage in a time when the internet has prompted a branch of poetics to eschew the complex of imitation versus originality, the complex against which C20th collage poetry achieved its effects. These poems, within the movement of post-internet art, instead follow its implications into the contemporary experience of the internet, of language, and of identity.
“Post-Internet is defined as a result of the contemporary moment: inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.”
All day I have been watching women
crush ripe tomatoes in their cleavage
whatever you can think of
someone’s already done it
– from ‘POV’, 81 Austerities
However much it distances itself from money, poetry, at any time, is inextricably linked to the economic and technological structures of publishing and reception. If we are to believe Harold Bloom, the tussle between imitation and originality is the central creative process in Western poetics, the Freudian agon through which a writer achieves individuality. And even if we aren’t entirely convinced, it is still clear that this tussle drives innovation and renewal and is interdependent with our conception of authorship. What’s more, we can trace the to-and-fro of these ideas within the economic history of literature, if only in broad strokes.
Until the Industrial Revolution, the complex leant heavily towards imitation, the route by which an author achieved originality; imitatio was the central practice of rhetorical education. It took technological innovation to alter originality from imitation’s end into its enemy. The concept of originality as we recognise it today is strongly related, first of all, to the movement from oral and manuscript culture to printed works, and the corresponding rise of the figure of the author as creator. Further, the commodification of printed literature by means of copyright law and the professionalization of authorship (i.e., with the end of patronage) presupposes an identifiable creator, and is dependent on a text’s dissimilarity from other works, its identical reproduction, and its fixity once reproduced. In this context “make it new” is not so much an artistic precept as a legal requirement.
The Romantic idea of originality was presented as a reaction to the mass production of literature; in Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), one of the earliest statements of the Romantic figure of author as creator, Young writes:
An Original may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously, from the vital root of genius; it grows, it is not made: Imitations are often a sort of manufacture wrought up by those mechanics, art, and labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own.
By its vocabulary of ‘natural’ originality versus ‘mechanical’ imitation, Young, and the Romantic poetics that came in his wake, negotiates with technology for the territory of authorship, as, with the mass production of literature, artists’ relation to their literary past, in reception and practice, was entirely interrupted by technology and the economic structures it engenders. In the Critique of Judgement, Kant goes so far as to exclude imitation entirely from his definition of genius, as the Romantic ideal of author as creator. However, despite Young’s insistence on originality as the opposite of mechanical imitation, to the processes of industrial mass production, the beatification of originality, and the great critical discourse behind it, was required to confer value upon mass produced works, as an intrinsic part of its functioning through copyright.
The Romantic elevation of originality heralded the trend described by M.H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp from mimesis and towards ‘expression’. Necessarily, this concept of authorship implies certain aesthetic priorities, thus we have the post-romantic lyric which foregrounds personal feeling, unique perspective and insight, and the speaker. This has, in many respects, persisted to this day, maintained by the publishing industry and bolstered by the recent growth in creative writing courses, as the idea of originality is embedded, reproduced, and self-validated in our conception of literature. In this situation, text – such as a poem – is the commodity to be protected (cf. Christian Ward) and ‘voice’ or ‘individuality’ are the virtues to be praised (especially in the aforementioned creative writing courses).
The single most significant economic and technological change in relation to the production and reception of literature since the printing press is the internet. Specifically, the technological developments of the internet since the millennium, loosely known as ‘web 2.0’, have seen the movement towards the democratisation of authorship, with websites such as Wikipedia (launched 2001), Facebook (2004), and Youtube (2005). In many ways, social media are the epitome of web 2.0, with Facebook now the world’s most visited website after Google and social media now more popular than pornography. By estimate, in 2013 there are maybe three times more internet users than there were alive at the time of Wordsworth’s death. (We remember, of course, that internet access is not ubiquitous even in the west; post-internet poetry is certainly a poetics of affluence.) The internet presents a superabundance of text of mostly unknown authorship, viewed with the tools for its appropriation and given away to compete for the newly scarce commodity of your attention. By this I mean that we can freely access more information than anyone has ever read or could ever read, using devices that can reproduce, repurpose, and repackage information more quickly, easily, or accurately than has ever been possible. With textual saturation, the canon against which the debate on imitation and originality understood itself, or even the idea of originality, begin to feel like illusory products of scarcity.
In ‘Unlike: Forms of Refusal in Poetry on the Internet’, his only critical writing published online, Sam Riviere describes this context of saturation via Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game¸ set in “a future in which art, music and literature as we understand them have ceased: culture is regarded as somehow ‘complete’, and the creation of new art is effectively forbidden”:
Instead, the players of the titular game draw on the vast repository of shared culture to construct a kind of meta discourse, answering each other’s ‘moves’ with referential improvisations. So a quote from Aristotle, for example, might be continued in a piece of mediaeval music in which some formal or thematic similarity is recognised. Hesse’s vision seems both charmingly antiquated, as it is not really interested in how technology would come to function as the storeroom of culture, but also prescient in its awareness that this horizon of unoriginality has come to be an anxiety and fixation for many twenty-first century writers and artists, a starting point for their own self-aware works of resistance and influence.
To elude the anxiety of influence, to shake off some of the crisis of originality that this C21st situation engenders, one defensive strategy is to renounce originality completely, or, as Marjorie Perloff puts it:
The poet’s role has become, in the literal sense, that of a word processor, finding how best to absorb, recharge, and redistribute the language that is already there.
Kenneth Goldsmith, one of the more prominent figures in the conceptual writing that Perloff recommends, takes up a similar attitude to originality, in his espoused “uncreative writing”.
Whilst it suits this branch of poetics, as it does with any, to misrepresent the past to define itself, to portray what came before as monolithic (as, for instance, Craig Dworkin does in his introduction to the Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing), its novelty and relevance comes from its reference to the C21st experience of the internet, sublimating the literal technical practices of reading and writing, of retweeting and reblogging, into metaphors for the artistic process. The same technical practices of producing and reproducing text that this new conceptualist poetry explicitly builds into its theory and practice underpin the economic structure, and so theoretical movements towards unoriginality correspond to the concerns of their environment. In contrast to the model of print publishing, whose co-existence alongside the internet is the cause of much of the theoretical conflict around Goldsmith et al, Web 2.0 is funded on economic structures of ‘free’ – free use of methods to produce and publish, free access to others’ work – as their business is advertising. Accordingly, post-internet poetry’s devaluation of originality mirrors that of the economic structure through which it is disseminated.
The locus of the changed aesthetic priorities of post-internet poetry is the speaker; the victim is the stable voice, the source of revelatory truth and insight. The mode is of constant irony, without an opposing pole of sincerity; it is detached irony, like the pastiche in the movement from parody to pastiche as described by Frederic Jameson as representative of postmodern literature. This sort of depthless, blank irony is experienced as playful unease, as a sort of nervous laughter. Further, post-internet poetry exhibits a lack of almost any rhetorical devices, similarly lacking a fixed stable point from which to control them. And in losing the stable speaker, we also lose stable voices. The collage-work of Modernists relied on at least recognisable ‘sources’ of their fragments, the trace of a context, for their work of canon-building or canon-adjustment (such as Pound attempted in the Cantos). With post-internet poetry, imitation has become as redundant as originality, and so the voices blur, making it impossible to see the joins. The reader is left floating; without a single stable author voice, the meaning of poems becomes fragmentary and connotative. Sequences or poems such as Steve Roggenbuck’s i am like october when i am dead or Crispin Best’s A Child Climbs Out the Top of My Skull or Diane Marie’s on the efficacy of [early] transformational-generative grammar theory[/ies] for determining “style” do most of their work instead in the mythic, trading flatness for connotative meanings, not so much utilising rhetorical devices from a stable first-person speaker as being entirely adrift inside them. The meaning in this aesthetic mode, like the meaning in advertising (to which I return below), is depthless, incoherent, impulsive.
“On some general level, the rise of social networking and the professionalization of web design reduced the technical nature of network computing, shifting the Internet from a specialized world for nerds and the technologically-minded, to a mainstream world for nerds, the technologically-minded and grandmas and sports fans and business people and painters and everyone else. Here comes everybody.
Furthermore, any hope for the Internet to make things easier, to reduce the anxiety of my existence, was simply over—it failed—and it was just another thing to deal with. What we mean when we say “Internet” became not a thing in the world to escape into, but rather the world one sought escape from…sigh…It became the place where business was conducted, and bills were paid. It became the place where people tracked you down.”
The Digital Revolution
Oh my goodness gracious,
What you can buy off the Internet
In terms of overhead photography!
A trained ape can know an awful lot
Of what is going on in this world,
Just by punching on his mouse
For a relatively modest cost!
The possibilities for expression in moving away from author as creator have changed. Kenneth Goldsmith describes this new role of the author as curator as follows:
If it’s a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into a Microsoft Word document, then what becomes important is what you—the author—decide to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and—more important—what to leave out.
This model takes the creative process as choices and combinations from a pre-existing selection of objects. To quote from Riviere’s ‘Dream Poem’ (from 81 Austerities):
I was dressed up as a witch doctor
and used this stick of judgement
taking back the names of creatures
restoring them to myth […]
after I’d taken back everything
I kept hold of my stick using it
to designate the categories that really matter
while adding bones and wings to my hat
sitting up here out of danger
I hate this / I like that
At the moment in his dream when the speaker enacts choice with “this stick of judgement”, he elaborates his identity: he adds “bones and wings to [his] hat”. The speaker is acting like Goldsmith’s conceptual poet, using his choice of “what to include […] and what to leave out” to express himself. Furthermore, his performed identity – he is “dressed up” – is inseparable from his faculty of choice, as the “categories that really matter” are the categories which relate everything back to himself. The expressive behaviour of the witch doctor in Riviere’s poem mimics the process of the conceptual artist and the work of social media. This expressive curatorship is compelling as it is the expressive behaviour of consumerism. As Baudrillard argues in his early writings (The System of Objects and The Consumer Society), consumption is a form of communication, a “systematic manipulation of signs”. As advertising has become ironic and self-aware, as late capitalism has incorporated its own critique, our social identity is heavily invested in our navigation of a pre-existing system of commodities; in our purchase decisions, in expressing our cultural affinities, we are playing the Glass Bead Game, in the exercise of something like Bourdieu’s “taste”. (The ‘hipster’ – a pose frequently ascribed to Riviere’s speakers in reviews of 81 Austerities, or indeed to most of alt lit poets – is best understood by this model: a young person who, since barred from economic capital, vies for cultural capital through complex performances of consumption, using irony both as a way of aestheticising everything, validating the appropriation of objects from their context, and as a defensive strategy to deflect anxiety or criticism over their complicity in consumption and their affluence.)
This form of curatorial expression, as described by Goldsmith, is only extrinsically personal: any intrinsic personality is merely incidental to language directed towards other means, in unreadable texts as a statement about the internet’s unreadability. But considering ‘unoriginality’s broad resonance with C21st writers, Goldsmith’s conceptualist practice (such as in Traffic) is a remarkably narrow enactment of its implications, as, whilst it sees expression in curatorship, it separates text from identity by making language itself secondary. KKM, on the other hand, doesn’t observe a distinction between text and identity, implicating identity in ‘unoriginality’. In seeing individuals in the C21st primarily as consumers, KKM puts curatorial choices, either in products and images or in the language used to describe them, at the heart of identity, as it brings unoriginality back inside something resembling the post-romantic lyric (formally and tonally, if nothing else).
“Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”
Fun photo of Sam and Sonia
ravishing raspberries on a recent trip
well into the winter.
Pink to red-purple with a drugstore splurge,
they are available all year around.
So pretty. Perfect for a party!
But the imagery is important this morning.
– ‘beautiful berries’, KKM
Branding is the project to make identical mass-produced commodities more human, to add a social dimension to our relationship with objects and to create the meaning that we consume, validate, incorporate within our identities, and reproduce in our exercise of taste. As described by Naomi Klein in No Logo, the 1980s saw an acceleration of this project, as the economic crisis at the start of the decade saw major corporations reduce production costs by moving manufacturing overseas, and instead move their efforts into how these cheaply produced goods were branded, conferring value onto products by the label rather than the quality of the product itself.
Social media (as an extension of web 2.0) continues this project, as it brings us closer to brands by encouraging us to become one ourselves. When the internet was still known as ‘cyberspace’, a new, thrilling, distinct universe, one of its promises was of the liberation from our real identities; in the C21st, its ubiquity and banality has robbed us of our critical distance, as we become invested in its structures. It is not so much a process of interpellation as a complete capture of our identities. Social media incentivises a greater degree of online performance of our identities, as this behaviour produces the content on which these websites run, and, crucially, identifies (and thereby shapes) our ‘likes’ so that we may be better placed into a marketer’s demographic. Social media blurs the distinction between consumption and production, between our social identities and their online performances, between earnest self-expression and blank irony; in expressing ourselves in social media, investing ourselves in the inherently ironic space of the internet, we become conceptual artists, but further, we become our own advertisements– advertising doesn’t have an author – as we are implicated in the landscape of consumerism.
in your luxury woollen garment you are an advertisement
for luxury woollen garments
– from ‘My Face Saw Her Magazine’, 81 Austerities
Individuals become like brands, just as, in their grand endeavour to restore the “aura” lost through mass production, brands have become more like individuals, and everything trends towards advertising, the “greatest art form of the 20th century” (as Marshall McLuhan proclaimed). This gives us the aesthetic shape of the poems of KKM: they are expressive and meaningful in that they participate in and reproduce consumerism’s collective, mythic landscape. This is the main aesthetic mode of most post-internet poetry, the ideogrammic method of advertising (or, as Riviere has it in ‘Year of the Rabbit’ from 81 Austerities: “there is no purer form of advertising/than writing a poem”). It is the type of meaning emphasised by curatorial authorship. The meaning in this aesthetic mode, like the meaning in advertising, is apparently libidinous and extremely paratactic, like the subliminal billboard in J.G. Ballard’s short story The Subliminal Man which when malfunctioning is revealed to read only:
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW NEW CAR NOW
NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
YES YES YES
Unsurprisingly, then, we have KKM’s (and post-internet poetry’s) fascination with products:
In the movie The American
(the 2010 film ‘The American’,
which sees George Clooney
as Jack an assassin and gunsmith)
George Clooney (looking effortlessly cool
in the Persol 3009) wears a pair
of havana colored Persol 2883 sunglasses.
The poem affects artlessness but is strangely awry, as if composed by or for priorities other than the expected (as, with the internet, we can have text written by machines for machines).With the redundantly repeated names and Russian doll parentheses, it is, at one point, as if George Clooney is wearing sunglasses over his sunglasses (just as George Clooney plays ‘George Clooney’ playing ‘Jack’). And all these digressive parentheses only lead us to the statement that George Clooney wears sunglasses in “the movie”, just as he wears sunglasses at other times (and looks “effortlessly cool” doing so), varying only the model number. ‘american sunglasses’ is, in one sense, a poem only because it is packaged as such, resistant in that it refuses to satisfy our reading expectations, entangling us before presenting us reverently with…a pair of sunglasses. In an interview Riviere mentions the humour of the “crushing refusal of meaningfulness”, of “setting something up that should be profound but then isn’t”, and acknowledges that some find this “bleak”. The poems in KKM, which are often amusing, continually subvert our expectation for some sort of post-romantic lyric’s profound revelation of truth, turning our conventional method of reading against itself to cause a deflation of significance that is ambivalently funny and tragic. This in itself is meaningful and affective, as it causes the reader to source this unease in their own interpretative methods, to accept responsibility for the ambivalence.
‘american sincerity’, from KKM, begins:
Let us draw near to Russia.
Let us go right into the presence of film criticism.
Let us celebrate music since 2002.
Let us give out pies and eat corn dogs.
The form borrows its shape from one of the popular and immediately accessible forms of internet poetry, ‘Google Poetics’.The form is attractive for its rhetorical force as anaphora. The form recurs in post-internet poetry, such as in this poem by Crispin Best, especially with poets who incline towards performance (and indeed works very well in performance) such as in this poem by Shaun Gannon or in ‘I’M SO JACKED’ by Sian Rathore (which includes the lines: “I’m so jacked I haven’t even written this poem yet/I’m so jacked that I just wrote every single poem ever/I’m so jacked that I read THE WHOLE OF THE INTERNET/And when I did I was like “Whatever, this is dumb””). The form marks the influence of the Beats on post-internet poetry, most notably Howl. The form is compelling, in the context of Google Poetics, because it presents an experience universal to internet users and which anyone can replicate.
This feature, which Google calls Google Instant, creates a feedback loop between reading and writing, interrupting the writing process with suggested potential reading outcomes. It dramatises the incremental parsing of the mental process of reading, the point when the mind weighs all possible grammatical outcomes of the second half of a syntactic unit that are implied by the first. It is an ambivalent experience, as the playfulness and boundless freedom of the practically infinite possibilities of a phrase is weighed against the implication of disownership of expression, as we feel our thoughts being interrupted (and therefore formed) by a “linguistic prosthesis”. The most compelling of the Google Poetics poems are those that appear so excruciatingly personal and private, such as “i see no god up here/i see no ships/i see no changes/i see no point in living”. As self-expression enters an open market with all other cultural detritus, as statements of personal desires and fears come alongside song lyrics, ‘unoriginality’ seems more than a challenge to self-expression in poetry as to all self-expression, as a challenge to the fundamental authenticity of the self. This is a place where we feel the inherent irony of language most acutely, as the experience of text on the internet emphasises how truthfulness is impossible to determine, how words resist single meanings, how reading is always a process of using something (such as the Author, whom Barthes tried to kill) to reduce possibilities.
One reaction to this challenge to the authenticity of the self is the trend towards poetry that is acutely sexual, visceral, and/or confessional, as artists attempt the impossible task of injecting personality back into language. From this, a significant response to the rise of social media and the economic depreciation of the author – perhaps a more central response in the more internet-based (and more prominent) branches of post-internet poetry – is a resurgence of a new author figure, as the author-as-creator-figure merges into the social media-performed identity. In this mode, poetry becomes only one aspect of the author’s performance, as the poetry itself, and all other forms of expression, elaborate into longer series of shorter units, with aesthetic athletics as the response to the internet’s attention economy. However, to stress the (new) sincerity of post-internet poetry is to reduce its ambiguity and misrepresent its effects. The other side of the inherent irony of language, foregrounded by the internet, is its uncanniness. Language contains the trace of a voice; it bears a “spooky” (one of KKM’s keywords) otherness, implying a speaker whilst simultaneously covering an absence. All written language allows one to speak from beyond the grave; the internet, with its spam emails and chatbots, suggests that an author is not just dead but indeterminable, and that, without an author, nothing can be unironic. And so another of post-internet poetry’s main aesthetic modes, found in KKM, is the ambivalently confessional, performing language’s uncanniness at a greater volume. Language, processed through the internet, will make a poem about the intimacies of private bodily functions just as ironic and insincere as a poem about birds at sunset, although in the former case the uncanniness is necessarily harder to ignore.
Post-internet poetry is fraught with desire, just like advertising. Advertising continually presents a receding horizon of hyperreal perfection; like the internet, it is driven by unfulfilled promise:
From childhood, we seem to nurture pictures
so much better that isn’t even fair to compare.
Advertising doesn’t adapt to pre-existing, natural needs; it impresses in us the same desires it can’t fulfil. The perfection of the ‘infinity heaven’, the promise that is “always beautiful”(‘the new sunsets’) and always impossible to achieve, leads the individual within consumerism to locate the deficiency back within the self. It is the feeling of desire and deficiency that haunts much post-internet poetry, the cognitive dissonance of uncanny closeness with insurmountable distance, an all-pervasive ambivalence. This is the constant and final emotional tone of KKM, which ends with ‘infinity sunsets’:
You have stalked this blog,
you must really like me.
Message me anytime
even if it’s just to talk.
I blog about whatever I want.
Startling in its directness, it presents a voice, like all the voices in the sequence, which is posturing and wry. The connection between the reader and the speaker – the implicit voice within language – is portrayed as being so close as to be intrusive or creepy; the reader, addressed directly and repeatedly as “you”, is accused of an excessive interest in the speaker, in the “blog”, in the 72 poems we’ve just finished. This is immediately followed by something like desperate loneliness, as if “you must really like me” is in fact meant in glee rather than the disgust implied by the first line. The ambiguity here is the ambivalence of desire, desire with which we are troubled but which we fear if we abandoned we’d have nothing to say.