Smooth Operator

In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. I’ve transformed from a writer into an information manager, adept at the skills of replicating, organizing, mirroring, archiving, hoarding, storing, reprinting, bootlegging, plundering, and transferring. (Kenneth Goldsmith; quoted in Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, 2012, p. 166; emphasis added)

Goldsmith is on to something here. He’s the author of The Weather, Sports, and Traffic, a trilogy that as Nealon (p. 165) explains, “consists of straight transcriptions of eleven o’clock news weather reports (a year), a baseball game (every word of a single Yankee game radio broadcast), and traffic reports (a full day of traffic reports, ‘on the 1s’).”

Is this the future of writing? What happens when poetry turns into data manipulation—search engines determining word choice, spreadsheets functioning as figures of speech—the artist transformed into a smooth operator stripped of Goldsmith’s ironic detachment?

People wonder if computers will eventually think like humans. I foresee a world in which humans think like computers. The end of Art signaling the end of Man. Life as intelligence gathering. Love as business transaction. What’s your number? exchanged for What do the numbers say?

Did You Find Everything OK?

A man wants everything but has only wishes that never come true—that can’t come true—because Satisfaction is insatiable. He is never happy with himself. At his peak he yearns to extend the climb. Climax portends disappointment.

The Super Bowl MVP celebrating his victory declares he’ll return next year for another title. On the surface it appears he wants to improve, to secure fulfillment, to activate hidden potential. But this is a humanist viewpoint in need of a consumerist perspective.

Mankind has advanced to the point where artificial needs are introduced to us, enlarged to show texture. Manufactured desires, fabricated passions: with many of our basic needs met, we’re left with suggested servings and product reviews. Energies spent, our solution is to Spend.

There’s no transcending the marketplace. It’s no longer a matter of Good versus Evil, but excellent versus poor credit. Besides, Utopia would get boring quickly. There would be no drama, no free shipping, no need to clip Groupons.

Consumer-man is a fretting optimist. He has faith in a culture that assumes he’s never good enough. Discontent is built into the system. There’s a market for every deficiency and each cure restores his health in time for the nausea to settle in again.

The purchase fails to soothe me. At the point of sale I look to exchange my choice, guilty for the price I’ve paid. But I’ve misplaced my receipt. Out of line, back in line. Every day a step closer to checkout.

It’s Only Rock And Roll

Usually, in advertising, the music industry, and television, people search for “the latest thing.” One of most powerful forces in American advertising today, however, originated in the 1960s and 70s: classic rock. In chapter three of Post-Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2012), professor Jeffery T. Nealon tackles the persistence of classic rock in today’s marketplace.

Nealon cites baby boomers, who operate today on both the production and consumption sides of advertising, as the main reason we hear the music of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath (to name a few) in car commercials. As Nealon, on page 55, puts it:

Classic rock’s ubiquity is a sign of white suburban baby boomers stubbornly hanging on to the authenticity of their youth, in a series of spaces—the home-repair store, the orthodontist’s office, Cleveland’s classic rock station—that could hardly get any less authentic.

Rock music has long maintained an ethos of rebellion, of not following the crowd, of being yourself. What’s changed in the last twenty years is that companies now market their products to us in a buy-our-crap-not-theirs-and-be-yourself manner. Capitalism now has a use for the rebellion championed by classic rock over forty years ago. Today being yourself means buying Apple products, Coca-Cola drinks, Ford trucks, and Panasonic TVs. Spending equals rebelling and spending is the best way to define your authenticity.

But in keeping classic rock alive, baby boomers, according to Nealon, have had help from another generation: millennials.

Kids today devour music in a Top-40 fashion. Classic rock is just another genre among pop, electronica, and hip-hop. As with most music, though, today’s youth simply consume classic rock without considering its content. The race, class, and gender issues frequently invoked in the songs of the 60s and 70s elude the average middle-school student today. Anything with a good beat flies, and iPods hold thousands of songs, all of which may be played randomly, outside the context of the original albums to which they belong.

Together, the boomers and millennials have kept a seemingly ancient era of music vibrant, even while styles both older and newer than classic rock fell out of favor years ago. Nealon’s analysis finds changes in capitalism as the driving force at work here. As long as we can’t get no satisfaction, capitalism will continue urging us to try—and buy, buy, buy.

Falling For A High-Wire Act

There’s not much room for poetry in the world today. Most of the texts produced now are text messages, not works of art. As someone who calls himself a poet, I’ve been wondering lately what this means for the future of poetry.

First, some history.

When we look to the literary period that began in the late nineteenth century and ended in the mid twentieth, the time known as modernism, we see the importance of voice in poetry. Modernist poets focused on developing their own unique style, their voice, as a vehicle for conveying their message. There was a sense that the poet could change society through art, even while the effects of modernity were sweeping across the globe, bringing about two world wars and mass anxiety.

Then came the 1960s, when culture blew itself up. Enter postmodernism and the assault on identity. Some theorists went so far as to announce “the death of the subject”; others insisted that the concept of an individual subject standing before objects-in-the-world was a fantasy in the first place, an illusion man held onto in the face of ever-changing realities (forget Reality) over which he had no control. Postmodernist poets found themselves imitating older styles, assuming distant voices as a means of mocking them and highlighting their insistence that there were no new voices to create.

Fast-forward to today. Culture in the early twenty-first century has eluded labeling. For our purposes, let’s give contemporary life the cumbersome title of post-postmodernism.

The internet has changed reality in ways we’ve yet to comprehend, and post-postmodernist poetry is still finding its way in a cultural landscape where Facebook and Twitter take up huge chunks of our day. Poetry’s not dead but at times appears to be on life support. We haven’t lost our desire for creativity—we just don’t rely as much on traditional activities (see Reading and Writing) for quenching our creative thirst. There’s a void in poetry today, a sense that it’s a matter of poets talking only to poets, that the common man has been excluded.

Last week Nik Wallenda wrote the masses a new, refreshing poem.

Wallenda is the daredevil who walked 1,800 feet across Niagara Falls on a two-inch wire on, what else, live TV. The self-proclaimed “King of the Wire” drew 13.1 million viewers on June 15, and many folks are still talking and tweeting and blogging about his feat.

Utilizing heroic action and the threat of disaster, Wallenda’s poem reminded us how much we’ve lost while trying to conquer Nature through technology. He recaptured the narrative of our conquest before we lost sense of it, many of us today blind to “the world-out-there” as we scroll through our majestic iPad screens to comment on the latest piano-playing cat clip on YouTube.

For a moment, Wallenda brought us out of our collective trance. We all became daredevils, anxious to hear the showman confess how much he had prayed for this to happen, how he had asked God for the strength to accomplish his goal of inspiring the world.

“Live your dreams,” he declared in full-blown superficiality.

In a country where most of us don’t get to live our dreams, where the promise of success to everyone who “tries” has been seen for the ruse it truly is, we needed this new poetry, this real-life illusion of renewed control.

Wallenda stayed upright the whole way, penning his epic poem. And we gladly fell for his act.