Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Aesthetics

Notes on being a Digital Stranger

Sometimes I feel like an outsider in the digital world. For example, I rarely take selfies. One of the reasons is that when I reach to take a photo, my phone battery usually dies. This happened just this morning. I thought it would be interesting to take a selfie of me just out of the shower, because my hair was starting to form the spiral curls that make it distinct. I wanted to capture this magical moment on camera. Just as I turned on my phone camera and saw my own wet hair and blotchy face through the lens, the screen went blank. I sincerely doubt that any profound or even mundane significance was lost with this missed opportunity.

I’m lazy about charging my phone and since its an Iphone 4 the pictures turn out grainy. I also think that all of my photos need to be photoshopped, but they never turn out right. My pale skin makes the contrast function turn me into a ghost and my pink undertones makes any other function turn me into a devil. This is compounded by the fact that my pale blue eyes turn into red lasers if the flash setting is on. My idea of the selfie is that it should capture a certain attitude. I feel silly capturing a mood featuring myself on camera. My mood is often a mystery to me, so the photos turn out similarly indecisive. This ambiguity doesn’t translate well in a world ruled by marketing tactics of users instant identification with a style, concept, brand, etc. I cannot really be marketed except as a ‘nobody.’ As a nobody, I feel very comfortable; you could say “content” even. The best way to capture this mood is by not taking selfies. I don’t deny the fact that I enjoy looking at other people’s photos, but mostly as an outsider. I think: how interestingly unfamiliar.

There is a word for people like me in Turkish. It is “yabancı” pronounced “yah-bahn-juh” (more or less) and it is applied to any foreigner who comes to Turkey, marked by their different looks and their inability to speak Turkish. When the Turks say this word, it also gives you a sense that you are not just innocently “outside” of their world, but criminally so. You feel like an intruder, especially in this current era power-shifts. This is also how I feel in the digital age. I intrude on the social media and blogosphere worlds as an inept and external interloper. The feeling is heightened now that I am living in Istanbul.

One of the most scenic cities of the world, Istanbul is boldly photogenic. It remains so, in spite of efforts by developers to eradicate all plant-life and areas designated as “green” spaces. The contemporary preference is for stone and concrete, which still hasn’t dismantled the charm of the many street cats that lace every ancient architectural wonder. Or the vibrant colors of hanging laundry with the backdrop of the Bosphorus. Or faded the sunset skyline of the Golden Horn with its striking silhouettes of minarets and domes that outline each mosque. I love the look and the feel of the city both surrounding me and with its contours under my feet. However, I have no means of expressing my delight on camera, since first of all, I feel burdened by the extra luggage of a photo-taking device. It is not its weight or size, which is minimal, but the interruption each photo makes and the alternate perspective it demands of my consciousness. I not only have to be ready to take a photo at any moment, but I also have to look for things that I should photograph. Otherwise, I come up blank.

My Instagram ineptitude is a result of coming up blank. I have an account, but as I mentioned I don’t have a good phone camera. What exacerbates this problem more is my apathy towards buying a new phone. This is a result of my resistance to the constant flood of new models marketed to consumers. The rate of change is faster than my ability to digest the possibilities that each new model presents. I am not a digital warrior, but a digital meddler, as I said. Furthermore, my camera broke. It was kind of an accident, because the final blow was when I accidentally dropped it out of my pocket, but it also kind of wasn’t. I had gone for months with the device being tossed around in my purse, bombarded by books, keys, and other conflicting gadgetry. After being tousled, poked and prodded, it was gradually losing its luster. Its lens was scratched because the lens cover stopped closing all of the way. When I dropped it, it felt like shooting a wounded horse. Somethings are beyond repair.

This decadent feeling is how I would describe my attitude towards photo-taking in social media. I occasionally breathe the fresh air of inspiration and take a sudden outburst of photos and then post them online, but I usually regret it later. The inner critic sets in and the photos start to give me proof of my insignificance in the scheme of things. Then I realize that this feeling of being “nobody” actually is better represented by a lack of photos, rather than a sudden outburst of them. Along with Melville’s esteemed anti-hero, Bartleby, I concur: “I would prefer not to.”

Anecdote: Hypotheses on literary aesthetics, “America,” and Susan Howe

Susan Howe, author of “Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history”

I’m cautious towards making a statement about aesthetics of American literature because I find this particular national construct menacingly impossible to comment on.  One qualification is that by the end of this post, I will have mentioned a rather limited set of authors, all in orbit of the work of Susan Howe.  Unfortunately, her influences are white-washed, and for me, weak in that sense.  Another qualification is that hopefully, I won’t descend to the cliché of capitalistic spectacle as a compelling concept for American aesthetics.  For me, the term spectacle is not important for what I want to say.

Aside from those comments, I’m intrigued by the creative interpretations of the poet Susan Howe, whose work expresses the need to gain a sense of belonging within a national literature as multivalent and diverse as that of the United States.  In some poets’ work, the desire to commemorate becomes quite intimate and fueled by longing due to a lack of collective identity.  For those who are exiled from within, batted around the workplace and the suburbs of the U.S. like a pinball, who find no collectivity anywhere but in the relationship of an author gazing on the lines of another author, commemoration forms a private, but nevertheless political act of friendship and alliance.  The legibility of two-ness transcends that sour American individualism that merely services an invisible machine.  When no longer reflecting a past homeland after immigration, authors have sought to establish identity based on the familiarity of textual belonging and curatorial quests for predecessors or some kind of artificial ancestry.  Commemorations such as Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book establish unpredicted alliances that cross boundaries of time and gender.  Individuals thus re-knit their work into the fold of other singular works in a way that sparks with potential.

Similarly, these two commemorations reflect a defensive mechanism put forth by poets against the critical or academic rendering of American culture. Their intimate etching of influence marks the resistance to theorists whose diagnosis collects upon their fore-runners like dust. Similarly, commemorations express resistance to the capitalistic shellac of advertising and Hollywood that is defined and exported as American-ness by media corporations in the form of mass-produced cultural objects. Instead, poets stake claims to a hidden path of culture developed through a close, slow, drawn out intimacy that capitalism will never know.

My interest in American literature is the in part due to the slow-birth of textual alliances such as these two works that oppose results-based or conceptual works.  While identity politics increasingly sub-divides groups according to traits with labels that sometimes form such splintered patterns that they merely invite the advance of newly emerged crevices to shatter identity anew. Sometimes identity services a form of further stolen flexibility from within the bounds of ‘human.’ The increasing specificity of categorized personhood is a symptom of the neo-liberal agenda of individualism.  American authors set themselves apart from one another through ever-smaller categorizations, and they have perfected the art of identifiable personhood by epitomizing individuation. Our canonical figures are each distributed as iconoclasts of some sort, symbolized for their distinguishable traits or habits. However, in works of commemoration, we see a gesture that slightly evades such individualism.

In works of commemoration, the smallest form of collectivity that one could possibly invoke—a pact between one living author and one dead—comes to life in full spectral resilience.  Each poet who commemorates digs up a grave and invites the corpse into an intimate consummate exchange.  What necrophilia! And yet, it gives us hope to see some sort of combined effort that is glorified as such.  Whatever its feeble form may suggest, it is still a form of that ever-persecuted elephant in the room of American politics, the collective. This poetic weed is bound to rise, in spite of the fact that the U.S. government all but disallows its own unity as a collective body for the sake of the neo-liberal agenda.  In my opinion, writer’s commemorations form a hidden, American, guerrilla formation of solidarity against the shadow looming overhead.

Furthermore, Susan Howe’s “path-finding” metaphor found in one of her most thought provoking texts, “Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness of American poetics,” expresses the simultaneous condition of loss and being lost that seems to mark a wide range of American experimental texts.  It is important to note that the underpinnings of this condition apply to the sense of separation that occurs for all moving persons, normally due to political unrest. This movement produces confusion not only about space, but also about purpose when the past and future no longer make ‘sense.’ The unsettling global movements of such an assemblage of people that the United States represents, and the proliferation of abandonment, exile, and unrest that fuels each movement, finds a less bleak, but no less troubling expression in the manic desire to succeed expressed by the catch phrase “American Dream.”

Howe revels in this confusion, and she claims its identity as feminine.  She traces this theme back in time to one of the documents of English textual history in the United States, in the Antinomian Controversy, when Anne Hutchinson’s over-pious “enthusiasm” for radical faith-based Puritanism threatened the church leaders’ sanctioned authority, and she was therefore punished by banishment into wilderness: the convenient wall-less prison devised by the courts of early American settlers. Nature, God, or natives would thereby do the work of punishment that each sentence of exile implied, in the minds of the persecutors. We should never forget how American settlement was in part spawned by a chain reaction of westward moving religious exiles. The puritans were purged from England to Boston, and they continued only to purge their own dissidents further west.

Howe writes about Hutchinson and her counter-tradition ghost that haunts other texts with regards to textual marginalization caused by editorial practices.  The shaping of her words for the historical record by the earliest ministerial/rhetorical think-tank censors in the U.S., provides a basis for what would eventually follow.  Howe notes that this clamping-down of culture simultaneously parallels the proliferation of another more manic and enthusiastic form of textual marginalia production, as well.  The pressure of censorship spawned the babbling noise of highly indeterminate excitement, perhaps just a form of textual anxiety, but nevertheless a trace of something, exemplified by Emily Dickinson’s trunk of slant-rhyme fascicles and other texts that Howe cites.

The simultaneity of schism and non-obedient enthusiasm marks the unevenness of American culture and its textual production.  Reflecting on American history of textual practice, as well as politics, Howe is able to assert that forms such as schism, gap, fragment and absence create a compelling theme in some American texts.  For me, these unexplained absences reflect the non-binding agreements waged by false colonial peace treaties with natives in the past, but also the contemporary manipulation of media and information control sponsored by the C.I.A.  The distinction between what is said and unsaid in the United States has always been a consciously perceived, yet indefinable threat.  The uncertainty towards a kind of magnitude of loss that simultaneously pairs with an uncertainty towards the magnitude of space, possibility, and freedom.  This dual uncertainty is reflected in the absences of experimental texts, including Howe’s emphasis on spaces of the page, H.D.’s use of palimpsest, T. S. Eliot’s use of the fragment, and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  Going back further, we find absences in the form of Emily Dickinson’s dash and Melville’s Bartleby and his precarious absence of desire to perform human subjectivity.

One of the most powerful effects of these absences is their assertion of literary non-rational production that opposes the necessary completions and well-defined presences of logical discourse and identity.  Refusal towards logic itself, through the imposition of absence, forms a possible underlying critique of how America’s science fetishism is unique for it’s disconnection from the humanities.  Poetry expresses the exile of humanities from its Frankenstein offspring: modern science.  Perhaps deep down, in the poetics of this country assert some kind of reactionary re-rejection back towards science.  The anti-rationalist gesture of missing syntactical components is for me an embittered response towards the schism that our academic institutions interjected between the humanities and the sciences along with a simultaneous and by no means contingent militarization of U.S. society. Science, in this strange schism, seeks to purge humanity from the authority of ‘nature’ with no new nature to colonize.  Thus, we have rockets futilely launching outward to space, mounting forms of toxic waste, and unprecedented extinctions.

While this is a rather general impression of a very complicated set of aesthetic hypotheses, American culture in some ways appears as a repository of strange experiments that look incongruous in relation to the mass-produced commercial culture that reaches for a total form of cultural manipulation.  I think they are expressions the failure and insignificance of this control.  I must state (again) that I have mentioned a rather limited set of authors, all in orbit of the work of Susan Howe.  I hope to qualify this set of impressions by suggesting that this is only one lonely corner of American-ness in an endless field of interpretation.