We all know that a corporation’s Twitter account is managed by a social-media worker (despite Denny’s claims on Twitter to be an “egg” rather than a social-media guru). Social media managers for corporate brands tend to be young people steeped in digital culture, who may be junior in status but are tasked with building a newly “hip” brand essence for the social media reading public. So does the frisson of reading these weird corporate tweets happen because we are rating the social-media manager’s performance on Twitter, like an Olympic judge holding up a score at the end of each tweet (and supplying important metrics to the brand at the same time)? Or does the Denny’s brand’s mewling Twitter intimacy make us feel paternal, bound to support and foster our corporate brand children as they speak to us through the web, learning our native medium?
That explanation doesn’t seem complete to me, though. I also feel a sinister intimation of power in these new corporate social-media voices. Denny’s the corporation has transformed itself through its tone into a hip, ageless kid basking in the approval of its many followers. And this may be the creepy core what makes me uncomfortable in the Denny’s voice: When brands speak anonymously and yet so intimately through the voices of unnamed social-media managers, we like them more than we can like any individual tweeter. On social media, the cute-voiced corporation is cuter than any person.
For us, there is a sociopathic freedom in knowing there is no individual behind the Twitter account. The corporation will not reach out for support in hard times the way an individual person on Twitter may. Laughing with it doesn’t trigger an existential fear that we might be relied on for support, sending vibes or crowdfunds during @dennysdiner’s darkest emotional hour.
But while our own motivations for liking corporate brands more than individual people on Twitter may signal a certain desire to shirk responsibility, the exploitative relation goes both ways. The corporation, while needing nothing emotional from us, still wants something: our attention, our loyalty, our love for its #brand, which it can by definition never return, either for us individually or for us as a class of persons. Corporations are not persons; they live above persons, with rights and profits superseding us. The most we can get from the brand is the minor personal branding thrill of retweeting a corporation’s particularly well-mixed on-meme tweet to show that we “get”both the meme and the corporation’s remix of it.
Is the sinisterness of the Denny’s Twitter presence, then, that even as we are laughing at a restaurant chain tweeting at us like a coy, meme-hashing kid, we are also aware that we are being manipulated by the witty teen’s fundamental opposite? That no individual person could garner the laughs, followers, and, most important, shareholder value for being coolly funny that a corporation can? Because regular users can amass faves and followers, but not typically the shareholder value in their personal brand that a corporation can.
That is, in speaking to us like an equal, Denny’s shows us how we can never be equals with a corporate brand, on Twitter as in life. In fact, just as corporations have become “persons” in law, they have also become “persons” on social media, bearing all the fruits of personhood while retaining all the massive advantages of being an entity that defies individual personhood. At the end of the day, @Dennysdiner is just a legal structuring entity housed somewhere in Delaware, formed to serve mediocre diner food in cities across America. And yet in spite of — or maybe even because of — this uncanny act of assuming personhood, we like it. Corporations can’t be lonely, but with their newfound “cute” voices they are becoming more popular than people.
To become popular and “cool,” brands have had to learn the very techniques we learned as resistant teens to deal with power: our sarcastic humor and our endlessly remixable memes. Corporate #weirdtwitter redeploys the memes we once used to signal our resistant identities to one other to make themselves seem like our sassy peers. In other words, Denny’s the corporation wants a seat at the table at the Denny’s where we used to go to meet and commune with other teens in all our midnight, underground, post-all-ages-show angst.
In steps Jennifer Egan. A little more than one year Patchett’s
senior, Egan is, at the time of this writing, the last winner of the
Pulitzer in fiction. The final two chapters of her prize-winning story
cycle, A Visit From the Goon Squad,
leave little doubt that Egan shares an end-times view of the fate of
literature. But instead of shouting from the sidelines, Egan allows
herself to challenge these concerns in her work.
Indeed, earlier this year in the New Yorker’s
science-fiction issue, Egan published “Black Box,” a story written in
sentences of 140 characters or less. Then, over the course of nearly a
week, @NYerFiction proceeded to tweet that story, a dystopic
second-person thriller about an android spy posing as a call girl. In
turning toward science-fiction and sci-fi forms, Egan is exploring new
possibilities for literature in an age when technology and new media are
competing for the book-reader’s attention. But even more, Egan’s recent
sci-fi excursions expose her not as a writer resigned to the waning
importance of literature, but as a literary “luddite” willing to take
things to the next level, to begin a sabotage.
* * * *
In terms of plot, “Black Box” is a relatively
traditional sci-fi story of human individuality in revolt against a
mechanized society. Egan stated in the New Yorker podcast that the unnamed protagonist is in fact Lulu from the outlandish last chapter of Goon Squad,
“Pure Language,” and that the events here take place ten years after
the end of the novel, in the 2030s. In “Pure Language,” Lulu is the
poster-girl of an imagined new generation, a whiz with technology and
marketing, steeped in the lingo, and yet with an almost 1950s naïveté:
she has no tattoos, she doesn’t use drugs, she doesn’t swear, and her
only passion is money (uncommon traits for somebody working for a punk
But in “Black Box,” Lulu is radically transformed. We find her
working for the government, on the biggest (and only) mission of her
life, posing as a call girl so that she can infiltrate an inner-circle
of foreign enemies of states. Her wholesomeness has become devout
patriotism, and her body has been consumed by the technologies she once
mastered: the state has placed cameras behind her eyes, a discreet
microphone in her ear, and a record of field instructions in a microchip
beneath her hairline. Presumably, the latter is the origin of the
tweet-like dispatches that make up the story.
It’s true that writers less-decorated than Egan have been
experimenting with Twitter lit since the site launched a few years back,
but in “Black Box,” Egan uses the limited and piecemeal nature of the
Tweet not just as constraints, but as tonal guidelines for the narrative
voice. Whether the dispatches are from Lulu in the field back to
headquarters or vice versa remains delightfully unclear. Moreover the
second-person imperative tone of the story lends each sentence an
aphoristic quality, such that they might be read not as dispatches at
all, but as an internalized set of rules about how to be a spy, a woman,
and a patriot.
Indeed, a complicated system of authority emerges over the course of
“Black Box” as we learn the full extent of Lulu’s devotion to her
mission. Just as her body is grafted with machines of espionage, it also
becomes a place for grafting gendered expectations: she must wear gold
heels, must have tanned feet, must be innocuous, must register as
“young,” and must wear a sundress “widely viewed as attractive.” Later,
while her “Designated Mate” violates her, Lulu must practice a
dissociation technique so as not to appear uncomfortable and break the
illusion of being a prostitute. At inopportune times, Lulu’s mind turns
to her husband back home, and she must remind herself that he is a
fierce patriot and proud of her for undertaking this work.
It is not widely known that Tarkovsky, whose films often seem to be composed as a montage of still photos, in a period effectively took photos with a Polaroid camera. These photos, taken at home and in Italy, in spite of all their technical imperfections bear witness to the same way of seeing and visual world as the great films.
A selection from these photos was first published in Italy in 2006, and recently a Russian photo blog digitized all the pictures.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis—better known simply as Machado—lived during a peculiar time of the Brazilian empire. Led by Pedro II, imperial Brazil promised its citizens prosperity but gave only poverty; Pedro praised Europe’s culture and its democracy, yet he carried out an oppressive authoritarian rule at home. These wide gaps between rhetoric and policy were not lost on Machado. As both a writer and a citizen Machado was in an unusual position from which to evaluate his country—a descendant of freed slaves (the peculiar institution remained active in Brazil until 1888, when Machado was forty-nine), he accomplished the rare feat of improving his social standing. Through self-education Machado managed to escape poverty and become a civil servant for the Ministry of Agriculture, and this straddling of two worlds—the destitution of his upbringing and the alleged national revival enjoyed only by those at the top—would define much of Machado’s writing life.
Like Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, Brazil experienced a cultural Europeanization that masqueraded Europe more than it mirrored it. Though the Empire’s democracy was modeled after Britain’s Parliament, its balance of power, which teetered overwhelmingly away from the people and towards Pedro II, was more of an autocracy than a participatory form of government. And while Brazil imported the clothing, architecture, and arts that were common in Europe, the Empire still left much to be remedied; after all, Brazil was still plagued with both overwhelming poverty and slavery, not to mention that the legal voting population was an insignificant fraction of the whole (and on top of that, Pedro II always reserved the right to call for new elections when he saw fit). With its ostentatiously hollow mimicking of London and Paris, Brazil added up to a fictionalized reality—one that Machado’s writing pierced right through.
While satirizing the gap between propaganda and fact is hardly uncommon, Machado’s treatment of it was. With great wit, intelligence, and a penchant for adopting the forms of other writers, Machado took on these conflicts as they challenged people’s lives both personally and nationally. On every page, Machado’s writing is soaked with the marks of a satirical genius comparable to Swift and Sterne. Gleefully utilizing literary devices that were well ahead of his time, Machado’s novels, especially his 1881 masterpiece The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (recently re-released as Epitaph of a Small Winner), are testaments to the resistance of a forced reality. They carry within them both the exhilaration of countering fantasy with fantasy as well as a depiction of the capacity for personal destruction when everything around you is a lie.
Bras Cubas, which is narrated by the titular character from beyond the grave, spans the whole of the narrator’s life, from death back to adolescence, to love, adultery, and, finally, his bitterly humorous explanation as to why he came out of life marginally ahead. At 200 brief pages, Bras Cubas is a stark contrast to the Romantic impulses of Machado’s contemporaries. Yet somehow, there’s fullness in his prose. Cynthia Ozick, in her introduction to Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, marveled at the self-sustained bountifulness of Bellow’s prose, “as if every source and resource of procreation were already contained in it.” Like Bellow, Machado had the ability to cover an incredible amount of ground in a single page, a sentence, even a phrase. And also like Bellow, with skillful precision Machado unravels ideas, philosophies, and the humanity of his character’s souls in a way that’s succinct yet fully realized.
Cubas is a man who doesn’t believe life is about accomplishing anything; he doesn’t believe people can sum up their lives by keeping a ledger of victories and losses. He pursues love, but never fruitfully; he attempts a crackpot treatise to cure melancholy, but never finishes. What his life amounts to is the quixotic journey of a man without a quest. Still, Cubas utilizes every ordinary episode of his life for maximum effect; he’s witty, charismatic, and strangely philosophical. At its core, the book is Machado’s testament to the examined life, and all the wonder of simply being alive, yet in its construction, in its aesthetic and contextualization in history, Bras Cubas achieves much more than that.
Epitaph of a Small Winner is also (and perhaps better) known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which is a literal translation of the Portuguese title. This title is perhaps mainly of topical interest on a day when all eyes are on a very big winner, and the epitaph of his rival. In fact, the book inside feels brand new too. On reading it, I had to keep looking under the covers for ruptures in the space-time continuum, so hard was it to believe it was published in 1881. Its modernity, however, is only extraordinary in the context of famous English literature of the time – go a little further back, and the inspiration is clear. Braz Cubas is a Brazilian Tristram Shandy, digressing and fooling and getting all reflexive on the reader in the most entertaining way. He struggles to find a comparison when describing something, and so:
Let the reader make whatever analogy pleases him most, let him make it and be content; there is no need for him to curl his lip at me merely because we have not yet come to the narrative part of these memoirs. We shall get to it. The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. So we shall get to it.
Before that, we must be informed of Cubas’s present position. “I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing.” The freewheeling style and content has something in common not just with Sterne (there are chapters with all dialogue replaced by asterisks), but also Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, with comic-eccentric ideas like finding a coin in the street and sending it to the police for it to be returned to its rightful owner. There is an emotional centre to the book amid this clowning, however.
I pressed my silent grief to my breast and experienced a curious feeling, something that might be called the voluptuousness of misery. Voluptuousness of misery. Memorize that phrase, reader; store it away, take it out and study it from time to time and, if you do not succeed in understanding it, you may conclude that you have missed one of the most subtle emotions of which man is capable.
Cubas’s misery is all-consuming. He is set up with unwanted lovers, while pining for his great love Marcella. He has a vision where his death seems imminent and he is about to be taken up (or down) by a spirit called Pandora. He pleads for a few more years.
“A few more years would seem like a minute!” she exclaimed. “Why do you want to live longer? To continue to devour and be devoured? Are you not sated with the show and the struggle? You have experienced again and again the least vile and the least painful of my gifts: the brightness of morning, the gentle melancholy of dusk, the quietness of night, the face of the earth, and, last of all, sleep, my greatest gift to man. Poor idiot, what more do you want?”
This pessimism runs through the book, as Cubas sees “ambition, hunger, vanity, melancholy, affluence, love … all of them shaking man like a baby’s rattle until they transformed him into something not unlike an old rag.” The small win of the title, too, comes from the gloriously Larkinesque conclusion that by not handing on misery by having kids himself, Cubas has come out of life just about on top.
America likes to think of itself as a land of opportunity, and others view it in much the same light. But, while we can all think of examples of Americans who rose to the top on their own, what really matters are the statistics: to what extent do an individual’s life chances depend on the income and education of his or her parents?
Nowadays, these numbers show that the American dream is a myth. There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe – or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data.
This is one of the reasons that America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries – and its gap with the rest has been widening. In the “recovery” of 2009-2010, the top 1% of US income earners captured 93% of the income growth. Other inequality indicators – like wealth, health, and life expectancy – are as bad or even worse. The clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.
It would be one thing if the high incomes of those at the top were the result of greater contributions to society, but the Great Recession showed otherwise: even bankers who had led the global economy, as well as their own firms, to the brink of ruin, received outsize bonuses.
A closer look at those at the top reveals a disproportionate role for rent-seeking: some have obtained their wealth by exercising monopoly power; others are CEOs who have taken advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to extract for themselves an excessive share of corporate earnings; and still others have used political connections to benefit from government munificence – either excessively high prices for what the government buys (drugs), or excessively low prices for what the government sells (mineral rights).
LD: Your identity/brand is split between multiple internet presences. There is definite cohesion between the works on your artist website and your Tumblr, but your illustrations seem severed and separate. Google image searching you, your comics and illustrations actually appear more frequently than your other work. In Auditions you briefly meditate on identity association and representation on the internet and I’m curious as to how you intentionally shape this identity. How do you approach self-design?
JP: The way I think is fairly contradictory so it makes sense that the works would emerge that way as well. I question how satisfying maintaining a strict, programmed artistic identity would be in the long run. Making art is for me very much a form of learning. I will gladly sacrifice cohesion if it means that I can explore larger fields of knowledge.
I’ve been uploading works to various internet contexts since I was 16 and can accept that I cannot control their circulation. I do contemplate the way I represent / have represented myself online but I can’t completely dictate my “brand” anymore. I appreciate artists who are able to maintain a cohesive image, but I don’t think I could be / would want to be one.
LD: A lot of your image work utilizes 80′s and 90’s aesthetic and culture as a jumping off point. From the midi backing tracks heard in your How To video series, to the gradients, colors and photoshop brushwork found on www.dawsonscreek.info, where do you place nostalgia, irony and sincerity throughout these works? Where do these begin and end for you?
JP: Irony and nostalgia are difficult terms. I think of irony as snarky non-commitment and nostalgia as uncritical sentimentality. It feels unsafe to connect them to my own work. I have an interest in the recent past and have made attempts towards charting what I assume are generational experiences. I am genuinely fascinated by Tumblr culture, Dawson’s Creek as well; choosing the URL was not merely an ironic gesture to me. It’s easy to understand how people would perceive my work that way (as ironic), but my approach is quite serious and sombre. I guess it adds to the confusion that I do want to investigate nostalgia, irony and sincerity as themes. It’s a fine line between making works about irony and making works that are ironic. I’m treading that line.
LD: Previously, we’ve spoken about the influence of cinema in many of your video works. Your interest in a type of ‘cinema of the internet’ or the idea that many of your works are informed by cinema while also attempting to address their circulation as documentation on the internet, while becoming documentation in and of themselves. Could you talk more about this?
JP: I appreciate how sites like Youtube assign the same context to all video material. There’s something cruel and reductive about it, but it also makes obscure things accessible. I feel like the divide between short-form cinema and video art is often artificial and maybe the internet can help erase that divide. I have an ongoing interest in the idea of ethnographic/anthropological cinema and the methods of essay film. I have made videos that explore those interests. There is a fair amount of meta-commentary going on, the videos discussing their own failures. It’s the curse of self-awareness. I don’t really see my work as documentary, although I do understand how that connection could be made. The videos definitely have to do with awkwardly imposing dramatic structures onto reality, the relative impossibility of that.
It’s a tired observation that the Internet diffuses the divide between high and low culture, but I feel like I have to point that out because it’s central to my interest in the medium. I’ve recently been enjoying this SinäTuubaPaska (the Finnish equivalent of Youtube Poop) channel more than most institutionally verified art. The videos are edited in such a brilliant, hypnotic, varied way, it reminds me of Jazz. I also like how the Finnish dubbing of mainly American source material localizes and complicates the videos, how it ties them to 90′s childhoods. The videos deal with the unreliability of videos (I was trying to write “the unreliability of memory” before I got distracted).
I also like when this is reversed, an artwork that transcends art and becomes a meme. I think the best thing about the How To videos was how much attention especially the Internet Art related episode got from sort of random sources. I enjoyed reading the comments on Knowyourmeme.com (pro tip: don’t bother making a video if you’re gonna post a half-assed slideshow made in windows movie maker). It was reassuring to understand that I am somehow able to imitate the mechanics of meme content, and fun to receive feedback on the video as both art and content nugget, even if the feedback was mostly negative and related to the failure of the videos to be any of the things they alluded to being (art, critique or lulz).
LD: Low Epic and Screen Test discursively reflect on the social and cultural placement of the self within a networked age. These videos become personal and highly self-conscious yet you never really reveal yourself. There is always someone else narrating, posing for the camera, etc. Why choose to use an alternate identity?
JP: It’s about obscuring and obstructing, about freeing myself from the constraints of gender and national identity and about variation.