Anguish beyond whirrs


“exactly, machines correct at this point”

Written in response to an essay on the New Sincerity, this offhand comment on poetry blog htmlgiant seems to express a fundamental anxiety around what we consider to be authentic, sincere and true in a world where automated programmes are increasingly responsible for both writing and distributing text. This tweet captures a similar sentiment, one that resonates across online space:

sext me badly

that mistakes are more human, less bot and conversely, that well-written, grammatically correct statements are more contrived and mediated, because they point to the intrusion of automated technology.

Auto cucumber


Cock and jizz from auto cucumber

Put another way- only a human decides to leave something uncorrected. Word helpfully underlines your mistakes, Skype makes its own adjustments as you type and the iPhone’s hilariously potty-mouthed corrections are regularly shared on Damn You Auto Correct (presumably it picks up words like fuckweasel, butthole and jizz off its owners?)

Keeping the mistakes becomes, therefore, a gesture of asserting human agency, making visible an active choice on the part of a human author in defiance of the ‘correct’ version a bot is programmed to deliver. Or, in its imperfection a ‘badly spelled sext’ (or other message) conveys an urgency, immediacy and therefore sincerity; scribbled in a hurry and sent off before second thoughts/ regret sets in, it becomes a display of vulnerability, fallibility and ultimately humanity.

Intentional image slip

Tao Lin: Google search style poetry

Tao Lin: Google search style poetry

Badly spelt and punctuated writing also quietly rebels against the slick, well-considered and crafted copy employed by corporate entities, in their slogans, email bulletins and adverts. It communicates a willingness to relinquish image-management and show your ‘real’ self, letting your image slip in a way that no brand would- unless of course it was calculated to come across as more ‘authentic’ (coming to a billboard near you, Coke/ Nike/ Converse ads with crap spelling…just you wait).
What it amounts to is a suspicion that if it’s well written, some non-human agent was involved, which points to the either corporate or technological mediation.

Sincerity effects

As an artistic strategy, keeping the mistakes in has a similar ‘sincerity effect’, suggesting an intimacy and vulnerability that Tracey Emin and to a lesser, funnier extent Laure Provost and doubtless many others have (intentionally or not) made use of. AD Jameson argues (again on htmlgiant) that in Steve Roggenbuck’s work, “persistent typos signal that the work has been written quickly, spontaneously, and is therefore less revised” and “more earnest.” He shows how contemporary poets- many, like Steve Roeggenbuck and Tao Lin, associated with the New Sincerity- are experimenting with ways of writing that can “create the illusion of transparency, of direct communication”, pointing out the irony that they use devices, or methods- which are a kind of artifice- in order to seemingly go beyond artifice and set up a ‘direct’, unmediated connection between poet and reader.

Christ… I can’t spell (by Tracey Emin)

Devices include emulating the meandering flow of a G-chat through broken, stilted  conversation, time elisions and slack, no-caps grammar; or channeling the ‘20 open tabs’ mentality of online drift by absent-mindedly switching between ‘deep’ shit (life/ death/ whatever) and inconsequential observations about the colour of the sky:

That night with the green sky (excerpt)
by Tao Lin

Why did you want me gone?
That hurts
I don’t know
Some things can’t be explained, I guess
The sky, for example, was green that night

Another tactic is oscillating between different levels of intimacy, which reflects the juggling of simultaneous conversations with mothers, employers and lovers all on the same device; as Senthorun Raj points out in an piece about Grindr, users must calibrate their tone depending on whether they’re texting Mr Right or Mr Right Now, which requires demanding emotional labour.

(I think I was attempting to channel some of these ideas into You Could’ve Said )
Less bot, more sincere

Despite the notion that less bot equals more sincere, these literary and poetic devices nevertheless reflect a lifetime of communicating through interfaces, and an intimate, honest connection with the technology we live with; after all, it ‘knows’ better than anyone what you look up late at night, who you Facebook stalk and what unsent messages you’ve drafted (not to mention the ones you unwisely did send when drunk). And it never judges you for it.

is it normal

Is it normal? Am I normal?

The logic of immediacy

So by channeling the instantaneous and fragmented style of online communication, these poets paradoxically create writing that seems less mediated and more sincere than if it was impeccably crafted. This is not to say it’s not a considered technique; I’m sure it is. It’s interesting though how this intersects with what Bolter and Grussin call the logic of immediacy, aka the desire to erase the medium and come into ‘direct’ contact with the contents- of mind, or of the image. They argue that this quest, manifested in realism and illusionism especially, has characterized Western art at least since perspectival painting and still shapes our GUIs, as well as, I’d add, our interaction with social media sites which are designed to keep us absorbed and blissfully unaware of our containment in a medium (the network).

Technology is touch

I’m reminded of those ads where people dive into and become one with an interface, or, working the other way, the screen contents spill out into physical space, portraying the dissolution of self into medium as a major selling point.

They’re real you know

Narrative gloop

Meanwhile, the soporific effects of media absorption- and its political implications- have been rallied against since at least Brecht, for whom alienation effects in theatre prevented the audience from identifying with the characters (and thus getting ‘lost’ in the play, the representation). Structural filmmakers active in the 70s, notably Peter Gidal, similarly blasted ‘illusionistic’ (read Hollywood) cinema’s dependence on narrative, seen as a kind of miasma that glommed the audience into their seats, sweetening the hegemonic poison and stupefying them into an apolitical suspension of disbelief.

No narrative here- Peter Gidal’s Clouds

Drawing the viewers’ attention to mediation- essentially saying, look, this is not real life, this is a representation– aimed to shake them out of their absorption, and in the case of film, shatter the illusion of direct presence it conjures up. Tactics employed by conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith- like plagiarizing whole bodies of text with seemingly no expression or authorial agency- could similarly be seen to point to language as a medium: look, this is writing, this is language!

In contrast, the New Sincerity poets, a little younger, seem to be aiming for the illusion of direct presence and immediacy while asserting human agency through the rejection of the ‘good writing’ software would produce. They ask how to seem unmediated in a fully mediated world: by simultaneously rejecting automated grammar fascism and embracing the language of instantaneous, immediate connectivity and communication that networked technology makes possible.


know the feeling

How all this intersects with spambots, and the crazy, beautiful lines some of them come out with- as well as Hito Steyerl’s ideas on the ‘degraded, affective language’ of romance scams, is a whole other topic, TBC.


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