The self-emancipation of our time is an emancipation from the material bases of inverted truth. This ‘historic mission of establishing truth in the world’ can be carried out neither by the isolated individual nor by atomized and manipulated masses… (Guy Debord)
Early in the summer of 1991, I was 10 years old, living in Hammond, Indiana. The staff of Thomas Alva Edison Elementary gathered all of us to reveal a time capsule from its construction in 1938, full of trinkets, toy cars and childhood letters to a future student body. I wondered if anyone who wrote those letters was still around. I never investigated further and there isn’t an NPR story where I could track them down, trying to solve some incredible mystery. It was a box of commodities and memories, some stuff.
As I go through that quote by Debord, I recognize it’s a smearing. A close-up shot of a submarine filling with water, a solo hand scratching against the glass of a blast door. It’s lapsed hope, circa 1967. It’s not that I’m nostalgic for it. I wasn’t even alive. It would take another 14 yrs for me to hatch. Another 20 to get up to speed, another 10 for what? What did I do with my youth? Is it still happening, is it static? As animals, it’s shelf-life. As cosmic voyagers, a drop of blood in the void. I have tried to live mine, still trying. The first entry in this series was acerbic, as though it had pooled inside me all these years. Passing a kidney stone, throwing up after a good party.
It felt like hot grease in my stomach. After John Kerry lost the 2004 election, I said that things wouldn’t change in this country until everything got really bad. I’m not entirely sure if things are really bad or better? How do you qualify that now? I don’t want to look for it or past it. Just going to cool down a bit, get the story from the wire.
[The Spectacle can be defeated] …only and always by the class that is able to dissolve all classes by reducing all power to the de-alienating form of realized democracy — to councils in which practical theory verifies itself and surveys its own actions. Only there are individuals ‘directly linked to world history’ — there where dialogue has armed itself to impose its own conditions.
I enter my bedroom, turn on the desktop computer, look through video files and select. Noise fills the room. On my notebook computer, I scroll through this page. My smartphone a few feet away, pushing notifications from the outside world. Three simulations, little maker machines. These devices are always on. I watch hours of footage, creating catalogs of film shots in my head. It’s research, habit, obsession. I like to walk through the steps of a musician’s discography. I’ll research the periods of output, collect the albums, annotate the vinyl sides. Then I’ll research the singles, outtakes, relevant live tracks from the era, always trying to capture the loose ends. Cavernous time.
There was a gnawing headache at the base of my head when I composed the first entry in this series. It seemed perfect, a kind of ongoing sickness, the overflow of lava into the concrete structures of my life. Think of the science fiction film that ends with post-apocalyptic survivors restarting the oral tradition through cinema stories. That’s the Spectacle. Storytelling from the imagination of film stills and shots, and each shot is at once a connection and a disconnection in the mind. Humans, we talk. We talk a lot and we retell those shots, already today, until our brains are full of names, dates, feelings that we never possessed in our real life.
Beyond industrial production, we produce things that shape, interpret, alter and appropriate reality. Reality, as I define it, is human experience collectively communicated. These things we produce are made in such great numbers that they appear as a reflective view of society, or as Debord puts it, “an immense accumulation of spectacles.”
Every day I wake up. What is it I’ve been fighting for all these years? What is the Spectacle? My adherence to Debord has produced a reflexive depression. Negative patterns, emotional waves that give way to a lot of wasted hope and imaginative power. I’ve crumbled under the weight of this ideology, falling apart and trying to push it out of my mind. I’ve wondered if I’m strong enough to drive away from the wreckage. I can’t say that the Spectacle isn’t here, it permeates the landscape, nuclear fallout. The Day After, produced for television in 1983 tells the tale of a full-scale nuclear attack on the world. It’s still the most-watched television broadcast, at just a little over 100 million viewers.
The things the spectacle presents as eternal are based on change, and must change as their foundations change. The spectacle is totally dogmatic, yet it is incapable of arriving at any really solid dogma. Nothing stands still for it. This instability is the spectacle’s natural condition, but it is completely contrary to its natural inclination.
The Spectacle is separation perfected. The shots/images, devoid of context, collect into our social relationships. Our discourse becomes deceived, the inverse of direct experience replicates as a pseudo-direct experience. We become stuck in between worlds, like a virus, life and non-life. Capitalistic societies no longer produce alienation, because alienation has become the root of society. The Spectacle ends up being an affirmation of the choices made by the ghosts, specters of previous generations, old manifestations of reality.
Since the first time I read about it, I’ve always seen the Spectacle as a smooth micro-layer of perfectly invisible skin. It drapes itself over objects, Spinoza’s god. Macabre fiber optic cables running from land mine to land mine. Right there, I recognize part of the error in thinking this way. It’s the same rationale that makes people crazy.
In December 1979, Peter Sellers released his penultimate film, Being There. Sellers plays Chance, a gardener, who has been living in the house of “the old man” since he was a child, never leaving, only caring for the garden, obsessed with television. We never learn of the circumstances that brought him here. When the old man dies, he is ejected into the streets of Washington DC. After being hit by the car of an elderly mogul, Chance’s 1920s etiquette and wealthy looking clothes bring him into the bourgeois circle of the day. With a mentality of a 10-year-old child, a kind of half-wit, his total lack of insight is seen as insight. Chance is a variation of the Spectacle acknowledging the Spectacle.
Asked if he’d like to write a book, Chance responds, “I can’t write.” The reaction is perfect, “Of course not, who can nowadays? Listen, I have trouble writing a postcard to my children. Look, we can give you a six-figure advance. I’ll provide you with the best ghostwriter, proofreaders…” Chance responds, “I can’t read.” “Of course you can’t! No one has the time! We, we glance at things, we watch television.” “I like to watch TV,” Chance says.
It ushers in the ’80s, the blank approach, the last shards of life-lived disappearing in the cloud of time. The gleaming rabid fangs of the Reagan administration just inches away from civilization, that rust of life always in contemplation. Debord calls the Spectacle, “a negation that has taken a visible form.” The monotony of day-to-day existence, the deep throes of depression, and how incredibly inconsequential life feels, that loop. Existence isn’t an easy place to be. Most of the time, I’m not entirely sure how close we are to crazy. I’d imagine we aren’t that far off.
Nostalgia stems from this very posit. There is a place that was once magical to us, a place sound and calm, always in the past, always slipping away in our minds. It’s hard. You get so far into an idea, an idea like this, and you can’t pull away from it. I’m starved to find someway out and I’m not sure if I can. The terrain crumbles and you start over. I can. We can. Years ago, when I was first stepping into this arena, I thought I had found the secret teachings in Ezra Pound’s Cantos.
Critical theory must communicate itself in its own language — the language of contradiction, which must be dialectical in both form and content. It must be an all-inclusive critique and it must be grounded in history. It is not a ‘zero degree of writing,’ but its reversal. It is not a negation of style, but the style of negation.
As a kid my parents had a water-bed. At night, I would sneak into it, moving into the corner, sleeping below the mass of water, pressing against the wood. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” My grandmother sang this a lot. I like to think that I was protected from the Spectacle. It wasn’t even a world for me yet. As a kid, there is a lack of definition in the mind. You can go for long stretches of the day uninhabited by anything more than your imagination. I’m in bed, all the lights are off, the room is fully dark and in that darkness you can create shapes, ideas, monsters, madness, a new world. It wasn’t until I was 5 or 6 that I started watching television all the time. You work so hard for sensory experiences and then the heaviness of media claims you.
It’s got all that flexible meaning, the total theory of modern society. It’s got the bullet that splintered through Guy Debord’s heart on 30 November, 1994. The raw, ferocious disgust that I wrote through in the first of this series rips away at me still. It fills me with dread and anger until it fragments over the guardrail. I want a different life. I want the Post-Spectacular World. I want something that exists and cannot exist. I want the long-con. I know, the Spectacle is all-persuasive, holding onto everything and everyone. It’s totally real. It’s also just a shape in the dark. There must be some way to have a world that isn’t just the apocalypse; a long line of traps set and triggered automatically, living in this delete.
- NICHOLAS DEBOER
Nicholas DeBoer is a poet, collagist, activist, and chaos magician living in NYC. He is the author of many chapbooks and broadsides, as well as a co-editor for Elderly with Jamie Townsend and Cheer + Hope Press with Geoffrey Olsen. He also is a member of the Potlatch Discordian Network, a magickal organization operating out of Ridgely, MD. Currently he is prepping “The Singes”, the first in his epic arc “The Slip”, for publication. He is also also most certainly alive.
This week, just take a second to glimpse the enchanting photography of Caroline Moore. Quirky, whimsical, and a little strange, these photos that appeared in DB 9, Winter 2007-2008, definitely deserve some more attention.
Caroline Moore lives in Maine with her family. She runs both a shop for conceptual art photography prints, Sixhours Photography, and Calobee Doodles, children’s illustrations. In addition she works as a Theme Wrangler for WordPress theme development, and sometimes indulges in writing X-Files fanfiction. For more about Moore, visit http://carolinemoore.net/
I have brought up Rebecca Wolff’s editor’s note from the Winter 2013-2014 issue of Fence with a few different people I see in New York, hoping to talk about it. Each time, the person has not read it. They ask me what it’s about. I say it’s about the fact that she is rich, but I fail to mention that it’s also about mothering, editing, publishing, and beginning again and again. I wish I’d found someone to talk about it with at length so I could reconsider my gut reaction in the privacy of a conversation. Instead, I am here with you. Okay.
I confess my initial response was: wow, no one should ever donate another dime to Fence. It’s a real asshole opinion to have, though. I shared it with an internet friend who adores Wolff’s work. Because he is, like me, from the Midwest and not rich, I thought he’d be likely to see my point. Today I wonder, how dare I find the publishing project unworthy of backing because it is not sufficiently precarious? It’s an opinion that reeks of my past as an angry teenage girl, stultified by growing up in a suburban town, too broke to go to shows, into bands ‘before they sold out’, turning the stereo up and listening to 30-second songs, born too late to be part of anything cool. That adolescent wannabe punk is who read Wolff’s note and said: whoa, sellout.
In the note, which is titled “Publishing is Personal,” the syllogism emerges thus: the personal is political; publishing is personal; therefore, publishing is political. I was fascinated as I read what Wolff was willing to share about her personal financial background and class status; I was grateful to learn about what few people are willing to admit—that is, the details of how someone I consider a successful literary figure got to be that way. When I was a student in an MFA program, I used to ask the visiting writers what they did between my age and theirs—how did you get from here to there. And rare was the honest answer. Most often, the response they offered was TIME. OH, you are so young, they would say. Just Wait. But in this note that both annoyed (as stories of privileges I don’t have always do, because I am at heart a jealous punk teenager who just wants to shoplift at the mall) and pleased me, here was a real answer. Wolff had really cheap rent for a lot of years. OH, ok, I thought. That’ll do it!
At the beginning of the essay, Wolff says, “Lately money is all anyone talks about.” People are talking, but in my view most everyone acknowledges money and then quickly bobs and weaves to exit the conversation. The subject of money makes me sputter with self-doubt. Perhaps my observations are simply proof that, as Wolff writes, “Money likes money, but money only likes money that knows how money lives, what it eats and what it drinks and how it talks and walks.” By this stroke, it would be impossible for me to know what conversations she refers to; they are spoken in a language I don’t recognize. I observe, ‘We didn’t get in this to make money!’ shout the poets on Facebook. ‘No one here thinks poetry will make us rich!’ snap the bloggers, the commenters. It’s a dodge. There is another conversation going on beneath the surface.
Here I paused in writing this, unsure that I had enough left to say about money to finish a blog post. Then I called my mechanic to check on my car, whose repair turned out to be more expensive than estimated ($350 due), and I received an email from my employer warning me that 2 of my 4 classes for the fall are in danger of being canceled due to low enrollment. BOOM money is an issue again—it can happen that fast.
I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” which is an utterly unsurprising experience. In the past year or two, men have explained to me that my job is easy because it is not manual labor; that my job is cushy because, at one of the schools where I teach, I have small class sizes and am paid for some prep time. These men have been well aware that I am adjunct faculty and there is no shortage of information online, in both academic and mainstream forums, on why adjunct labor conditions are deplorable. (For a recent great example, see Rachel Riederer’s article “The Teaching Class” at Guernica. Among much else, it taught me to look for Groupon deals for dental cleanings!) If I worked in the service industry, my employment would only be this tenuous if the restaurant or bar were constantly in danger of going out of business or if I were terrible at my job. Why then would some men tell me my work life is easy?
In her editor’s note, Wolff rather humbly acknowledges what a privilege it is to publish others. She goes on to say, “It so happens that jobs and money and security and leverage and influence and primacy come to those who publish, the more they publish, or are published.” The angry poets of the internet claim that wealth would be a foolish reason to enter poetry (sub)culture. Wolff describes cultural currencies as well as less abstract rewards as part of the package Fence offers its contributors and authors. She defines her role at the helm of Fence as bestowing power to other writers. I recognize and admire the significant quantity of generosity in this labor while I am also moved to envy the evident stability Fence has due to Wolff’s good fortune. And so the naysayers of social media who claim to eschew riches, maybe they are speaking a language I don’t know, but I suspect they are simply lying. I think all poets want the security Wolff describes and security is a kind of wealth.
Last semester, I taught too many classes. I was not a fun person to know for those four months, nor again for most of this afternoon while I was scared about money. I would like to be fun to know. For Fall 2014, I’d planned to teach less, write more, focus on promoting Belladonna* and our forthcoming books. But if half my income is indeed unconfirmed, I cannot afford (financially or psychologically) to follow through with that plan.
Talking about the terms of my employment has not specifically been forbidden me, but Riederer’s article gives me cause for anxiety. What does it mean for an activity to be political? If publishing is actually capable of spreading wealth and power, as Wolff claims, then supporting Fence might be just as good an idea as supporting any of the many small presses run solely by volunteers with day jobs. We need people with money to stay busy publishing and promoting poetry, too.
- KRYSTAL LANGUELL
Krystal Languell was born in South Bend, Indiana. Two chapbooks and a full-length collection of poetry are forthcoming: LAST SONG (dancing girl press, 2014), BE A DEAD GIRL (Argos Books, 2014) and GRAY MARKET (Coconut, 2015). FASHION BLAST QUARTER was published as a poetry pamphlet by Flying Object in 2014. A core member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, she also edits the journal Bone Bouquet.
 Yeah, I live in Brooklyn and I own a car that I’ve been driving since 2006. It’s a feminist issue for me.
 Which is not to say I solved the problem this afternoon, just that I calmed down.
Now lucky number 13 in the Vintage DB series, Vijay Seshadri’s “Aphasia” was originally published in his book of poetry, The Long Meadow, and was then reprinted in DB 7, Spring 2005. Today’s post is special not only because it is a beautiful poem, but also because it is a reminder of issue seven’s Aphasia and the Arts feature, which offers intriguing and emotional works dealing with the devastating medical condition that causes a literal “loss for words.”
“…his beautiful words—
eleemosynary, fir, cinerarium, reckless—
skip like pearls from a snapped necklace
scattering over linoleum.”
Poet, essayist, and critic Vijay Seshadri has published three books of poetry as well as had his work printed in many literary magazines and journals. Most recently he won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry, 3 Sections. He currently works at Sarah Lawrence College, where he currently directs the graduate non-fiction writing program.
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter (available for preorder): You’ll want to get your hands all over this as soon as possible. Ugliness can only exist in the shadow of beauty, and this novel is a gut-slingshot of the rawest, finest sort of beautiful available. I remember learning about extremophiles in science, these organisms and bacteria that manage to thrive in severe conditions that would kill most living things. Now imagine that beauty is a bacteria, and think of how beautiful the most extremophile beauty that lives on the underside of ugliness would have to be. That’s like this book. Its characters relentlessly charmed me, just as much with their meanest faults and flaws as with their kind vulnerabilities. It’s nothing short of an instant classic. There’s a pain here for everyone, of the sweetest sort—in these close-third perspectives, you’ll find understanding and self-recognition in places you wouldn’t want to admit, and will feel good to know that your defects aren’t so rare. It will be a relief. It will be one of the thousands of reasons you’ll love this novel.
Flings by Justin Taylor (available for preorder): Taylor is one of my favorite contemporary storytellers—on the page I think I fear him as much as I revere him. I show up to read a story, all giggly-party-girl-with-a-six-pack-of-beer-like, playing my stereo too loud, and Taylor slaps me upside the head and says I have a lot to learn about life. Shit gets deep, fast, before you have time to prepare or cringe. Imagine being a kid and suddenly having to spend a weekend at your survivalist uncle’s house while your parents jet off to a B&B. It’s 4:30 in the morning; you’re warm in bed & fast asleep. Suddenly he’s waking you up, pulling you out into the cold. You’re trudging through snow and you can’t see a thing. Suddenly he tells you to stop everything—stop walking, stop breathing, stay completely fucking still. You feel like you’re going to freeze to death. You retreat so deep into your head that you hardly hear the gunshot. Next thing you know, he’s slitting a deer carcass with a knife and pushing your hands inside the warm blood; your hands are covered in blood and you’re kneeling in the snow and you aren’t even fully awake. This is Flings.
The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (available, paperback pre-order available for August 12th release): Arguably, everything in this book is realism, but as an enormous disciple of fabulist fiction, I can’t help but read it that way—the lush imagery in this novel magically disguises and obscures the everyday, and soon all of life begins to look unfamiliar in a way that allows the very existence of these characters to appear as ridiculous, thrilling, and painful as it arguably should: the rug is lifted, everything that gets swept beneath notice in the day to day becomes exposed. Weaving between three generations, the present action of the book takes place in the wonderfully spooky context of the death of a mortician, and magically, synergistically, birds seem and yet do not seem to be involved. I return to this book all the time because I love its alchemy of making narratives that you expect to be straightforward into something else entirely that resists and complicates all your assumptions. I think about those incredible sidewalk chalk drawings that appear to be actual tunnels in the sidewalk. It’s like those, except you’d be able to enter the tunnel when you looked at the chalk lines really really closely, and once you were in the tunnel you’d realize that everything you thought was solid is actually an illusion and vice-versa and you’d get that dropping-elevator feeling in your stomach times a million.
Three Hundred Million: A Novel by Blake Butler (pre-order available): Nothing makes me know I love a book more than a physical response, and whenever I see this book mentioned anywhere (and you’ll be seeing it everywhere, soon) I feel planted, literally locked to the ground remembering the hold it had on me from the first pages until I finished. It’s a viral text on so many levels—the way it makes you feel, the velocity of its suspense, the intense intimacy with the complex and frightening characters, the vertigo-inducing way the narrative shows that arguably clear categories like “good” and “bad” can become unsustainable once a certain proximity is reached. As a true-crime junky, any novel involving a psychopath and the detective hunting him is an immediate must-read for me, and to get this tale in the hands of a writer whose genius, future-forward gift for innovation in style and form is like having a million dollars delivered to you in a car that is literally made out of stacks of money that would also add up to one million dollars.
Going Anywhere by David Armstrong (pre-order available): This debut collection is a line-up of hits, strong and transportative and original. Every situation Armstrong takes you to is completely engrossing; the premise alone of any one of these stories would be enough to base a feature-length movie on. Even the narrative connections within the stories link the highly unusual at the hip: a camel defecating in the woods finds an affinity with a government worker opening a manila folder; a tuba finds its way to a shooting lesson and a father coming out to his son. I think one of the best compliments writers can give about a book is to say that reading it made them want to go write, and this really did—in the same way that luminol makes hidden bloodsplatter visible to the naked eye, after reading these stories I was able to see so many unnecessary limitations I’ve always placed upon my own work but hadn’t been able to recognize until now.