At his blog, Brian Droitcour has an excellent essay looking at two different approaches to demystifying the idea of creativity in poetry. The first of these he associates with Kenneth Goldsmith’s mechanical approaches to appropriation, as outlined in Uncreative Writing. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Goldsmith draws on Marjorie Perloff’s notion of “unoriginal genius” to define uncreative writing as the act of “literally moving language from one place to another, proclaiming that context is the new content.” This approach depends on the Internet for much of its source material, for the digitization of text that makes copying and pasting practical, and for the vast decontextualization that a giant, indiscriminate network enables.
Goldsmith argues that appropriationists are
language hoarders; their projects are epic, mirroring the gargantuan scale of textuality on the Internet. While the works often take an electronic form, paper versions circulate in journals and zines, purchased by libraries, and received by, written about, and studied by readers of literature. While this new writing has an electronic gleam in its eye, its results are distinctly analog, taking inspiration from radical modernist ideas and juicing them with 21st-century technology.
In general Goldsmith posits the uncreative poet as a kind of cool hunter who sees value in textual chunks that are taken for granted in their native space. The appropriators add value to these chunks mainly by having access to the art and poetry circles that can recontextualize them. Their success as uncreative writers hinges on how much pickup they can get for their appropriations from knowing audiences. If their thefts are ignored, the uncreative writing doesn’t occur.
Uncreative writing in Goldsmith’s vein replaces creativity with exclusivity, leaving aesthetic authority in the unchallengeable hands of those who can impart “genuine” artistic context to any content whatever. If you are an “original” as opposed to “unoriginal” genius, any threat to the established elites that you might represent is thereby neutralized. If you are making any sort of art without the imprimatur of recognized art elites with the right pedigree and network base, it can be safely ignored, because those elites are no longer under any pressure to justify their authority (or its contextualizing power) by actually discovering talented artists. They just need to choose among people they like (amenable acolytes) who are playing their game of mechanical appropriation. Their authority is conserved in a tautological game of acknowledging the conceptual artists who are already predicating their work on the elites’ ability to call it art.
Droitcour sees Goldsmith as being too mechanistic in his view of language as “material.” For Goldsmith, Droitcour argues, “Language is concrete—an unnatural mongrel of rocks and clays, a favored foundation of junkspace.” Whereas, Droticour notes, “there is another way of looking at it: Language is material because people are material. Our bodies touch, eat, digest, and excrete the world around us. Language is part of how we participate in the metabolism of the world.” Language, he insists, is more akin to organic excrement than industrial waste. With that in mind he contrasts Goldsmith’-style unreadable telephone-book-size appropriations of internet content with another internet-reliant form, “alt lit,” which he describes as “issuing from the body like abject emissions.” Droitcour claims that alt-lit practitioners, rather than emulate machines as Goldsmith endorses, remind one another about the messiness of human being that persists despite literal constant contact with machines, even after machines come to structure a large proportion of human interaction: “The constant proximity of machines reminds us that we’re not machines—that we’re weird and hungry and messy and queer and lonely and gross in ways that they (the machines) can’t be.”
Alt lit trades in the generation of “feels,” which Rachel Monroe describes in this essay about Tumblr affectivity as an interntet-native form of emotionality, “distinct from pre-internet emotions in that they are more like feelings for feelings’ sake … an internet crush is the feels personified. You can’t do anything about the feels except feel them, then maybe go look at some more pictures online. They are an appetite that does not expect to be sated, an intensity without any perceivable end.” Feels are the attempt to convey emotional intensity without physical presence; that methods that have been developed so far to accomplish this mainly revolve around confrontational vulnerability. This aura of risk, combined with the immediate accessibility of the author within the network where the content appears, allows readers to read intimacy out of the work and assimilate it to the infrastructure of an ad hoc community of intensity-seekers.
So alt lit’s formal qualities generally serve the purpose of facilitating this kind of networked intimacy, eschewing the remote refinement of modernist poetics. As Droitcour notes, “Alt lit’s social priorities exceed, or are equal to, its aesthetic priorities.” The social priorities are served by appearing to communicate in some excessive way — posting too much, sharing too much, excising ambiguity (though this often creates a deadpan quality that it is virtually indistinguishable from irony). Sometimes this is dubbed the “new sincerity,” as this essay about Internet poetry by Sofia Leiby details. She cites a curator who
sets up a dichotomy between “feeling”/ “poetry” and the “information age”, roughly equating poetry to ‘feeling”, assumingly positing it on the opposing end of the “information age.” He argues that poetry might create a “balance” in the coldness of our technology-driven times. As a result, “poetry” is assumed to possess feeling or intuitive qualities. He seems to suggest that poetry is the way to fight slick, ironic artistic tendencies.
Hence the connection between alt lit and authenticity, and its subterranean connection to “hipsterism,” which generally lurks wherever authenticity is mobilized for promotional purposes.
Leiby cites the work of Jared Boger as an example. His work, she argues
seems to be about feeling emotionally connected to technology, but deferring, alienating ourselves from our feelings, like how it feels to look through your Facebook to see if friends left you messages. Under a poetic form, this profanely banal experience becomes extremely emotionally fraught. Boger favors straightforward syntax, and this makes his poems a little embarrassing, and they feel sincere. It’s so sincere that it’s almost ‘cute’, in its middle class-ness, its Beach House and Love of Everything references. It holds nothing back.
Alt lit is premised on finding new formal means for simulating authenticity, or sincerity, or vulnerability, or feels. These formal means have less to do with language then with the affordances of networks and new media, and machines that in Droitcour’s words “generates a visceral flow of language in and out of them all the time.” The technology becomes instrumental in generating the “nothing held back” atmosphere, the language crafted foremost to not inhibit that sense of outpouring. Extrapolating from what Leiby writes above, the most authentic gesture in the social media era is the plea for attention, and a literature made entirely of such pleas will register as the most authentic form.
Droitcour links the excess of alt lit to simulated presence, to the valorization of existing in the flow
Alt lit only matters if you’re online and reading it as it happens—just like the way that conversational speech only matters if you’re physically present when it’s spoken. Alt lit thrives in social media, and it invigorates social media by amplifying the feeling of presence and participation in it. It’s the poetry of bodies engaged in technologically mediated social being. Living in and against the networks that support it, the creativity of alt lit appears as an everyday bodily function…
In alt lit, the act of making yourself available to others is inherently creative. Creativity is dissolved by generalizing it to comprise virtually any performative act; compared to Goldsmith’s vision, this seems like a democratization of the poetic impulse at the expense of craft, a rejection of poetry’s aesthetic sorting function in favor of facilitating a different, theoretically inclusive sort of belonging. We can all just excrete creativity by virtue of being human and wanting to connect, wanting to have our affectivity acknowledged in an online social space that always threatens us with total dematerialization. Droitcour claims ” alt lit recasts creativity as a primal urge to make something beautiful, not just for the sake of making it but for the enjoyment of it in the context of social being, for the sake of feeling alive.”
I am convinced by this argument on a theoretical level, but the alt lit circles on Tumblr nonetheless seem like contextualizing cliques that are no different structurally than the cliques that could authenticate Goldsmith’s uncreative writing. They are merely a competing circle of authenticators with a somewhat different affect they are championing: not the “radicalness” of appropriation and ironic juxtaposition so much as the “radicalness” of emotional confrontation, of embarrassment as a tonic of authenticity, of the mystery of apparent transparency. Alt lit promises the solace of the communal as its poetic substance, but it threatens to shake out into a lower-stakes simulacrum of traditional star systems, with a hierarchy of celebrity practitioners and participatory fans who help build the celebrities’ notoriety. These elites will be assimilated into the traditional art/literature world at some point, after the sorting has crystallized.
To protect itself from such a process, alt lit circles would need to be both transparent (to maintain the intensity of their feels) and invisible (to protect them from the hierarchization and instrumentalization of network building). This seems like an inherently unstable proposition.