Okay, I'm doing it.
I promised myself that I wouldn't. But here we are.
I promised myself I wouldn't write anything about Tao Lin or Muumuu House. And yet here I am doing it.
I wasn't going to, because everything obvious has been said by his detractors, of which it seems there are a certain number (like anyone with an Internet presence). And second, what good would it do, really? There are plenty of shitty artists, artists I don't agree with, artists that fall short of their pretensions, and everyone in between. I try to only call out the people who really make me angry, or of whom I think I can make a good example for a particular point, mostly unrelated to the actual person. Attacking someone personally rarely has a positive effect outside of the rhetorical.
But as I said, here I am, and here we are.
I think the fact that he keeps being interviewed is what has brought us here today. Not who he is being interviewed by--some blogs, maybe written up by Nylon or TimeOut. (I would like to see a hipster Left Behind in which every person, place, or thing written up in Nylon, Paper, and TimeOut NY are suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, and those of us left behind actually go out on Friday night and have a pretty good time.) It is all about what he says in his interviews, which really gets me.
But it isn't a "grind my gears" sort of get. It's hard to explain--and this is why we are here.
I read his blogposts to Muumuu House, and his interviews because it is inspiring to me as a writer. We have some commonalities. We both write, and we both aspire to publish ourselves and others whom we admire or appreciate. But he does it in the absolute, complete opposite way I would ever want to. I read his Internet presence because everytime I do, I feel better about my own work and more determined to continue.
I don't mean that I think his work is shit, or even that I don't like it. I think it is absolutely wrong.
This is the opposite of what they teach you to say in liberal arts general-absorbtion-nontheoretical-aesthetics, otherwise known as "upper-middle class culture". They teach you to say, "it's writing, sure, but I don't think it's very good; I just don't happen to like it." Contrary to this, I would say this is the wrong way to write. I believe it fails.
I'm not attacking his format, either. I am all about blogs, Twitter, Gchat, or whatever else. You want to generate writing in new ways, go right ahead.
Tao Lin writes in what he refers to as the style of "Kmart Realism". If you have never had the experience, there are some pertinent examples on the Muumuu House site. I haven't seen him actually describe his own writing in these terms, (which is important, and I'll get to it in a minute) but he writes an essay on Kmart Realism here, a genre in which he groups Ann Beattie, and then in this interview he claims to mimic her work, so I suppose that is a fair, round-about Internet presence self-indentification if ever there was one.
I myself am not to certain what Kmart Realism refers to, or its context, other than feeling as if I generally get the joke but don't specifically enjoy it. For your own reference, I suggest you check out the work on Muumuu House, because I don't know anything about the other writers he references, and don't really care in relation to this.
Call it what you will, it is what it is. It is short-worded, choppy sentences, presented actively, with no metaphor, few adjectives that aren't treated as states, ("I felt weird.") loose descriptions if any, an overall first person tone, a psychological poise (lots of talk about how narrator "feels"), an auspicious ironic tone, and a certain misplacement of ideas that passes for humor.
It is, regardless of what a high school English teacher might think, literature. I can accept that. I, for one, seriously admire an adherance to a form. Most writing these days is so overarchingly auto-narrativistic without realizing it, it makes me want to burn things. I appreciate an approach which makes this tendency the rule, by making it obvious and part of the style. I also can appreciate the terse, shortness for what it is (as long as it lasts, which thankfully isn't long). Additionally, for a time I myself thought of swearing off metaphors, until I decided to embrace them completely. Despite my own writing's difference from these points, I can appreciate someone who sets out some rules, and keeps them as part of their art.
Here, in the same interview as previously linked, Tao Lin gets about as close to describing his prose as he ever does:
He does this sort of thing well, and he and his associates write pieces that still can be read, despite slashing long-proven elements of the English language out of their tool box. For this they should (probably) be congratulated.
TL: The next two books are really detached. It has no adjective. They’re just told as simply as possible.
EN: Do you feel personally detached…?
TL: No, the prose style is detached. There’s no judgment or rhetoric at all. It will just say if it’s a house, it’s a house. It’s also lacking em dashes, semi-colons, similes and metaphors.
But, I still don't buy it. It's still wrong. Not because they are revolting some sense of English-language hegemony deep within my phallus, but because I don't believe they are rejecting anything. Why throw out semi-colons? Why em dashes? Why not en dashes? Why not exclamation points? There aren't many of these in their work either. What is the argument for any of this? What is the rationale?
But, as I imagine the argument, it's not really about a logical argument for these tactics; it's about a feeling.
Oh wait, I didn't imagine that at all. He said it, in the interview. Numerous times. Let's count all the times he talks about how he feels.
"I feel like I’m reading stuff like I’m reading fiction. If it’s amusing I’ll feel excited, even if it’s talking shit about me."
"If I’m writing something that feels like a gimmick, I try to avoid that. I don’t think the term gimmick… I don’t know."
"Well, on my blog, it’s really how I am. I feel like that’s what I’m thinking, just not what I’m saying."
"I don’t feel like I put personal stuff on my blog. If I do, it’s just a lie. Because I treat it as a work of—not fiction—but a work of art. I delete anything I feel uninterested in. I go back and edit. I want someone who goes to it read the entire thing and feel like they’ve read a novel or something, instead of someone just talking without editing."
"I feel like some people will edit everything they do. Some people will just not really edit."
"Without the internet, I feel that I would have a job right now…"
"I feel like probably people wouldn’t want my life because I don’t have any money. With writing, I’m surviving in the way anyone could survive. This is just what I chose to do. I’m not really like living off of writing. I’m not willing to get a real job. Most people in my position would feel a lot of pressure to get a job but I just… don’t like jobs."
"No. I think most people probably have higher expectations that me. Especially NYU students. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like I’m living the dream."
"I don’t think I think in terms of humor for my books. I don’t feel like I’m approaching it in that way. So it must be different."
"If I wrote all my other books right now they would be different. But I just feel like that’s a natural change. I feel like I’m always gonna keep changing. Not for the better or the worse. So I wouldn’t change it."
Okay--there are a lot more, but I'm tired of hitting Ctrl+C.
Clearly Tao is writing from his "feel", or maybe it's just one of those verbal ticks we all have.
Or is there a difference? Doesn't it seem as if the construction, 'I feel ____' is the foot of his sort of writing? Isn't the writing sort of an ongoing answer to the Twitter perennial, "What are you doing now?" which the introverted, melancholics of the world read as "What are you feeling now?"
Here's a piece from Muumuu House's website, "SELECTIONS FROM CHRIS KILLEN'S TWITTER ACCOUNT BY CHRIS KILLEN, EDITED BY TAO LIN". Reprinted here, absolutely without permission.
2:39 PM Mar 14th
lay in bed for a long time, 'twittering' in my head. tried to remember what i had 'twittered' last night. got up. put on dressing gown. etc.
2:50 AM Mar 14th
listened to man on radio in taxi with 'strong opinion'. panicked mildly that i would never have a 'strong opinion' about anything.
10:53 AM Mar 16th
possibly going to eat a banana in a moment.
11:00 AM Mar 16th
still haven't eaten the banana. what am i doing?
11:01 AM Mar 16th
i feel like i have 'twittered' myself into eating the banana.
1:41 PM Mar 16th
i feel like i am 'twittering the mother-fucking shit out of everything' today. i feel like i am in a fast, open-top sports car.
2:22 AM Mar 16th
my penis feels like a day old glass of water, with bubbles and a bit of tobacco in it.
2:22 AM Mar 16th
my penis feels like a CD i never listen to anymore.
2:23 AM Mar 16th
my penis feels like a curious old gentleman climbing a flight of stairs and then stopping halfway up to have a stroke.
1:47 PM Mar 17th
i am eating a blueberry muffin.
11:57 AM Mar 18th
it is 'blueberry muffin time' again.
4:13 PM Mar 18th
my leg feels strange.
4:15 PM Mar 18th
@jennashworth hi, babes.
2:19 PM Mar 20th
just watched a video on the internet explaining how to fold a t-shirt.
2:22 PM Mar 20th
just tried to look at the alley at the back of my parent's house in kenilworth on google street view. wasn't there.
Now, here's another piece from the site, "Relationship Poem" (OH GOD THE TITLE IT BURNS ME) by Brandon Scott Gorrell:
on the couch i kept asking what was wrong
you said that nothing was wrong
then you said it had nothing to do with me
then we turned on american idol
and only talked about american idol
later we went to bed
and gmail chatted the next day
using 'ok' and 'i don't know' at a frequency that seemed higher than usual
i was on the 5th floor of the downtown public library
sitting next to an obese teenager
who was listening to death metal on her ipod
i minimized our gmail chat and looked at the escalators
mentally projecting myself minimizing our gmail chat and looking at the escalators
then the music on the obese teenager's ipod switched to r&b
it was interesting
Pretty similar, huh? Interesting, indeed!
The good part, which is sort of bizarre, is that despite this petty stamping of the "I feel ___" phrase, whether literal or metaphoric--(you see, the thing about metaphors is you can't just write about something like a blueberry muffin and have it not be symbolic!) it is not writing that I definitely don't want to read. I like it a hell of a lot better that talking animals and teenage vampires/witches. But what are we reading?
We are reading, short prose, with little form except for what it avoids. We see:
-No long, complicated words (adjectives or otherwise)
-no metaphor or simile
-Little or no punctuation
-state description only
-very passive tense
-Nothing serious or attempting to be profound
-Only the first-person narrative
-An ironic self-reference to its own terseness by a grappling with larger, not exactly metaphorical, yet symbolic subject matter of the distinctly personally-narrative, i.e. (I feel "___", quotation marks included)
Is it all ironic? Is Tao Lin's interview style a continuation of his writing style? Is this terse-first-person meant to be involved deeply with what it "feels" in order to be more of a terse, first-person? Are the quotation marks, as the only form of often-used punctuation, meant to be a ironic use-mention form of the author's self-reflective but sparse use of words? Is every word, put in "quotation marks" or not, really a substitute for "I feel"? Is "feeling" the only real verb here? Are we meant to be looking inward, only to find there is nothing there?
wait a minute.... this all seems oddly familiar....
ON THE HIPSTER QUESTION
Is that what this is? Hipster writing? Short, un-artistic, form-as-gimmick, I-drink-beer-like-I-feel, living-in-williamsburg-is-so-damn-hard, Hipster bullshit? Has my attention been drawn, against my will, to the literature equivalent of an ass in skinny jeans?
Let's ask Tao about it:
EN: I read somewhere that you say you write for depressed hipsters. Why do you want to appeal to the hipster crowd?
TL: I try to think of a hipster I can’t think of a specific person. When I think of hipsters in general, they are just people who care about what’s happening now. What they look like… and also… most of that is so they can find more friends. I like all those things. I also feel like they’re like the only people who read books a lot, except for people trying to be writers.
EN: So do you have that audience in mind when you’re writing?
TL: Not when I’m writing… but… yeah, when I’m writing. Cause those are like… either those people or people who are interested in those people … those are the people I’m interested in, in terms of like, talking to and being friends with. In that sense, I target them. In the way I talk about it in interviews and stuff, I’m half joking … those are people who I think read books are, so I’m gonna target them.
Firstly, he "can't think of who that might be". Sure, I believe you live in Brooklyn and can't think of any hipster in particular. Even ride the L? Ever go to a bar? Ever go to NYU?
But then he figures out that would be a hard one to get around. Yes, it is the audience he has in mind when he is writing. He admits it.
However--I don't believe Tao Lin is a hipster himself. But what he says, for a "feeling" about who his hipster audience may be, is pretty apt: they are simply people in whom he is interested. People who read books, who might read his books, and who he would know on that basis. A bit scattered in terms of phrasing (edit much, "Bomblog"...?) but pretty honest.
There are many reasons to dislike hipsters. They gentrified your hood, they bought all the good records, they wear shitty clothes, they don't know how to make a good espresso, etc. This all falls under the general, catch-all hipster problem--they are a bunch of clowns who somehow are found everywhere you want to be. It's as if the Insane Clown Posse fan base stopped hanging out behind the drug store, and are now drinking in your bar, going to your favorite DJ night, and generally convinced half the nation's youth to do the same thing.
But this problem, which we are on to here, is separate from the unfortunate fact of hipster fashion. Tao Lin is not interested in hipsters because of the way they dress, but because of the way he feels. What is this link? What is causing his writing to take this dry, ironic, self-referential tone, without riding an 80s skateboard or buying all the good drugs? It is a gene carried by many hipsters, no doubt, but I believe we are looking at a totally different cultural chromosome's allele.
Let's give it a name: Emotional Singularism. That's a bit dry, so for the practitioners of this condition, we will give a nickname: Feelies.
In Emotional Singularism, we are re-visiting Cartesian dynamics, in a most-time appropriate way. In this era of graphs, datapoints, curves-as-linguistic-and-political-architecture, plotted points or the continuation of such points have a currency all their own. You want to be relevant? Show us a graph. You want to hold weight? Plot us a curve to stand your narrative upon. Run it through the points of You, Me, Iraq, Global Warming, George Bush, and make sure its all within the same plane of general consumer-liberalism. There, now you have momentum. It takes three points to plot a distinct curve, and if you read any persuasive essay, you will note at least three points, fixed in a cultural plane, with a nice, sloping approach drawn through the three of them.
But what is really important is the vantage point--the crossing of the axes. From this point, we measure everything. For Decartes it was the abstraction of the verb, "I think"; thinking denoted being. This is a cold, rationalist, metaphysics. It was the axiom of the geometry, and as easily forgettable.
These days, we don't care about the axioms. We just want to see the pretty curves. So we've withdrawn back into the crossing of the axes, without Kant's interest in the suppositions of the axioms, and the necessary philosophical internalization of the geometry of metaphysics into the unconscious (time, space, what is that like?). Rather than analyze the significance of the word, "I", for its own pre-conditions and metaphysical systems, Emotional Singularists are happy to take that singularity as fact. After all, they feel it. And there, they have found their new conscious substance for the pursuit of truth. Hence, their own personal emotions are the singular point on which they base and measure their world.
These days, it's enough to feel. You can debate metaphysics, or get lost along its lines of logic, but with feeling, you can never go wrong. Truth itself is called into question, but we have not yet called feeling into question. Instead, feeling is growing like a vectored weed, directing behavior, politics, economics, and even, so it seems, literature.
You know who these feelies are. We called them Emo for awhile, when boys holding acoustic guitars somehow picked up on a bizarre congruency with the feelings of a great number of record buying teenage girls. But the Feelies are still out there. They are the hipsters feeling self-conscious because they don't know if their fashion and friends are enough. They are the man/woman crying and yelling at a man/woman because s/he gets confused by his/her sexuality's mixed messages. They are the people who don't really know about politics, but have still decided they really don't like politics. They are the people who do one thing, but wish something else. They are the people who just don't feel comfortable with any number of things, and therefore try to avoid those things. They are the people who do not speak, but instead go home and cry.
Emotions are our friends, but they are not replacements for thoughts and words. It works like this, I believe, in actuality: there is some crazy business going on in our unconscious, which we never really understand. This craziness manifests itself in feelings, projected upward from that dark, unphysical undercurrent. These feelings then must be wrangled, absorbed, translated, and mechanized with words. Only in words do we have the ability to deal with the undercurrent of emotions. They don't always work, and if they don't, we throw out the words and start again.
Somewhere along the way, it got uncool to think too much. Maybe between the viscerality of the 60s and 70s, leading into the unholy terrors of thoughts flowing through the 80s and 90s, we felt we would simply be better off not knowing. Or maybe to be hip in knowing just got too difficult, so the eggheads like Foucault and Derrida could worry about that, but the common man was just going to do a bunch of coke and start talking about the fire in his loins at the speed of light. This substitute for actual thought, this rambling realist (or alternatively, speciously new age) hype-speak took the place of the actual definitions of words, the difficult terms of metaphysics, and the technique of linguistic construction. Feelings, those ever-flowing semi-conscious perception, could be packaged and sold as language without a second thought. Ever see one of those adbuster-esque packages, proudly titled, "plastic junk!" a little gag gift plastic nugget-thing wrapped in plastic? The joke is, people actually buy those; a gag in which the gag is that there is no gag. People actually like repetitive, sacarine emo music. They even go to see it played live, just like it is on their CD at home.
Feelings are not words in themselves. It is not enough to say, "I feel weird; I feel nauseous." Because you have a feeling you are not fully able to describe, it is not enough to simply call it "weird", and then describe the discomfort you have with your inability to vocalize it as nausea. Sure, I believe your stomach hurts. But who give a shit? If you drink enough, or do enough chaw, your stomach will also hurt. If you lick the pavement for long enough, you will get nauseous. If you are simply nauseous, I couldn't give a fuck, because you might as well be a fish floating upside down. Oh, something went wrong, and the fish is dead. Was it poisoned? Overfed? Underfed? Drowned from not enough oxygen? There is no way to tell, so I throw it in the toilet and go get another one. I probably even give it the same name.
Hipsters are just as infected by the Feelies as everyone else, but not because they wear clown shoes. It's something to do with our times--a certain wrinkle of modernism that's only metaphysical advance over the past fifty years was to start thinking there was no need to pay attention to the subtle vicissitudes of language anymore. A current in our culture that decided to outsource deep-thinking to the philosophers and focus on stomachs. A specific element of our society that believes it can learn more about themselves from daytime TV chock full of commercials specifically manipulating their emotions than by actually conversing with any person. Watch the commercials playing during an episode of Doctor Phil or Opraha. What is the show? What is the commercial? Which is manipulating your feelings? Which is telling you real information?
So, yeah, you go online. Somebody listens to music. Your girlfriend probably hates you. Man, that's some weird shit. How interesting. How about maybe you stop feeling, just for one second. Instead, why don't you try and write an original thought? Just one. To see if you still can.
Here is a new poem, written by you. In one line, you describe exactly what it is that you did that caused the last fight with your significant other. If you actually do it, trust me, it will be beautiful. (Write it in the comments or email it, and I'll post it.)
Well, Tao Lin--your work with Muumuu House is interesting stuff, I'll give you that. But I wonder if it is interesting because of the reasons you thought it was. Or did you and your writers even bother to stop and think about that?