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June 14th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

23 brief replies to Blake Butler & Elisa Gabbert & Johannes Göransson & Chris Higgs re: (dear god, what else?) the fucking New Fucking Sincerity

ToBS R∞: Arguing in blog posts and on Facebook about aesthetics vs. Going out for a pleasant dinner together, then taking a nice walk at sunset in a park

I’ve decided that, from now on, all I’m going to write about at this goddamned site is this goddamned thing.

… No, seriously, I’m delighted that so many have chimed in. Thanks to everyone! I thought one massive reply would be easiest. If you read this whole thing, may your god shower blessings upon you. And if I missed any pertinent responses, kindly direct me to them in the comments. (I was traveling last weekend, and as such had trouble keeping up with all the discussion.)

1.

I’ve claimed (here, here, here) that one thing at stake in the New Sincerity is the discovery of what maneuvers currently count as “feeling sincere.” That such maneuvers exist I consider more an observation than a topic for debate. E.g., Blake, in his recent post about Marie Calloway’s Google doc pieces, wrote that Calloway’s recent work:

Seems significantly more “sincere” in an actually vibrant way than a lot of the other things people have been pointing at as “sincere” lately. Not that I think sincerity is important, but I’m confused as to how people can point to repurposed internet-speak tumblr-timez poise as not of an extremely orchestrated intent. It’s not very interesting to watch the same buttons being pressed over and over. I like mutation. I wish there was less obvious fear.

Blake’s demonstrating my point exactly (thank you, Blake). He’s essentially claiming that “repurposed internet-speak tumblr-timez poise” (a particular style) no longer feels or seems all that “sincere” to him—he can see it as a poise, as affectation. He can’t help but see the artifice behind it. (All writing is artifice; the question is whether there exists at any given moment some way or ways of writing that allow audiences to forget or not see the artifice.) Note also how Blake identifies said style’s loss of effect as being its overuse. This is pure familiarization, as Viktor Shklovsky described (via Tolstoy). And when he calls for mutation, for risk, for lack of fear, he is calling for defamiliarization.

2.

These two questions interest me:

  1. What styles currently generate the “sincere” effect? &
  2. Why are those styles currently so valued? What does making an artwork that “feels sincere” get you?

3.

I’ve seen many confuse the real life author’s “actual sincerity” with the artificial effects of sincerity. I have no interest in the former and every interest in the world in the latter.

To whit:

  1. When an author sits down to write, they may be very sincere about many things. For instance, they may sincerely want to make $1,000,000. This I don’t care about.
  2. There exist, in writing, at any given time and place, certain formal devices that feel “more sincere” (more directly communicative / more transparent / more genuine) than others. This is what interests me.

4.

Here’s a demonstration of claim #2 above. Consider the following two poems:

my dog died last night
i took off work today
i called in sick but i’m not sick
perhaps i’m sick with grief, for boss?
my dog’s name was boss he was boss
he had a funny limp & a bad smell
i’m not sick with grief
i haven’t cried at all
maybe i’ll start crying later
maybe i’ll never cry for boss
even though i miss him
& i just thought that maybe someday i’ll no longer miss him
now i’m crying

I can write this despite the fact that my dog hasn’t died—because I have never owned one. What’s more, when my dog died, I could have instead written the following:

“For Boss”

If I had known that on that day our time was near the end
I would have done things differently, my forever best friend.
I would have stayed right next to you deep into the night
but I thought I’d see you in the early morning light.

And so I said “Good night” to you as I walked in through the door
never thinking of the time when I’d see you no more.
But if I had known that on that day our time was at the end
I would have done things so differently, my forever best friend.

I plagiarized that poem (retitling it), and for all I know its author was genuinely sick with genuine grief over Boss’s passing. But the poem is so trite that it does not communicate that grief. Rather, it “feels” hackneyed. (If, the next time I’m invited to read at P. Fanatics, I read that poem, even if I do so with a very sincere expression, the audience will laugh.)

The invention of the New Sincerity is the invention of a way of writing that will not, for at least a while, feel hackneyed or trite. It will create the illusion of transparency, of direct communication, of the lack of artifice. It does this precisely by means of artifice.

5.

Elisa Gabbert has claimed that Tao Lin’s you are a little bit happier than i am (2006) is “utterly dripping with irony.” It’s a little hard to know how to reply to such a general claim, and I look forward to Elisa developing this argument further in her customarily elegant and insightful manner. [Note: Elisa has done so, here. I'd finished this post before I read it, so this isn't a full response, although I think I'm addressing some of her points. Overall, I think Elisa and I are mostly on the same page, but using terms somewhat differently, and emphasizing different effects.]

I want to note that even an ironic usage of “the NS aesthetic” does not preclude Lin from being New Sincerist. Again, the question is whether there exists a recognizable style or body of styles that people regard as “feeling” sincere, and that they want to call “New Sincerist.” If such styles exist, then artists can use them for whatever purposes they wish.

Elisa demonstrates this herself when she alludes to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Swift’s essay is ultimately ironic (he meant the opposite of what he literally wrote). But his satire depended on its appearing sincere as long as possible—in delaying the reader’s realization that the essay is satirical. This is why satires always risk being mistaken for saying the opposite of what their authors intend.

Once there exists a style or set of styles that “feel sincere,” artists may do what they wish with them, including use them ironically. If Tao Lin is able to do that, then might that not help demonstrate that “sincere” devices exist?

6.

It’s not hard to make a mundane stylistic device feel weird:

Good 2 c u last night :)

:) Good :) 2 :) c :) u :) last :) night :)

7.

Even if Elisa considers Lin an avatar of irony, it’s easy to demonstrate that others disagree. Recall Josh Cohen’s review of Richard Yates in Bookforum. Selected quotes:

Fiction writer Tao Lin projects his life as a series of boredom-filled blog posts.

[...] he’s cannier than I’d thought.

his style [...] directly [...] regular language

[...] this sentence that doesn’t have any commas and is all just information might be a typical sentence from [Richard Yates]

Lin’s plot, in other words, is life’s.

What’s uncomfortable about the book is the notion that all of this actually happened, that this book seems to be pure transcription: not only of events but also, appreciably, of e-mails and g-chat sessions. The situations fairly sweat verisimilitude, being as mundane and relentlessly torpid as the afternoon I’ve spent writing this review [...]

One wonders not whether the real Fanning or Osment should retain counsel and sue Lin and his publisher but whether the unfortunate girl on whom Fanning is based will. It should be said that documentary fiction has been written before [...]

To Lin’s generation, which is to say to mine as well, transparency is the new sincerity; many of our peers maintain that it’s psychologically healthy, and artistic, to expose oneself entirely online. Anonymity was so 1990s—the Age of Fake Screen Names. Today, only utter exposure can set one free, while the only thing proscribed is regret.

Total transparency [...]

If Lin retains this transparency there will literally be no other way he can write [...]

Kiddies, forgive the majuscules and punctuation, but Lin’s honesty deserves them [...]

Josh Cohen’s a smart guy and a good writer. But am I wrong in thinking that he has been deceived by Lin into thinking that Richard Yates

  1. is transcription;
  2. is honest and sincere and transparent;
  3. is artless (i.e., free of artifice)?

It certainly looks that way to me! (It should go without saying that I most strenuously disagree with Josh. But I am interested as to what it is about Lin’s writing that has caused Josh’s conclusions.)

Furthermore, here are some of the comments people have made on Josh’s review:

I ordered Shoplifting at American Apparel for my library and it was horrible, completely artless and without any soul whatsoever.

It’s about time someone called out Tao Lin, and not just hate on but intelligently destroy. I have been waiting to read something like this for a long time. I am now going to go out and buy a copy of “Witz” as soon as possible to thank you. I hope to meet you someday so you can sign it and then we can talk about how bad Tao Lin is. Also thank you for calling out fishman’s blog and the legion of hipster kids who want to be Tao Lin because they also lead boring lives and are dumb. Thanks again.

Any critic who thinks Tao can write disrespects the critical aesthetic.

Me, I see style all over Lin’s work. Maybe you do, too. But there are unquestionably many others who feel otherwise—and who are happy to profess that on the internet.

8.

Elisa has mentioned the New Childishness, a formulation she attributes to Ana Bozicevic. I don’t doubt that such a thing exists; nor do I doubt that many of the authors called New Sincere can also be called New Childish. Indeed, there seem to me many affinities and points of intersection here. However, I don’t think the two are synonymous.

For instance, Michael Kelly’s (brilliant) 2008 novel Ulrich Haarbürste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm is extremely childish. It is also arguably Twee and precious. But it is not New Sincerist. Michael is really not engaging with the aesthetic strategies or devices we might identify with the NS, and the whole thing is very obviously a put on, calculated to achieve ironic effects:

Now here is a cliffhanger to kill for! What can happen now? Will I be forced to wrap Jim Morrison in cling-film or will something occur to forestall this foolish and hideous travesty? Do not expect mercy from this quarter for I am resolved not to tell you until the next chapter. I confess the power has gone to my head and I am tempted to forbid you to read it for two weeks at least. But I will not do so.

Chapter 14

I resume without ado as it would be the rankest impoliteness to tarry with preamble after such a shocking cliffhanger.

‘Do not be so foolish,’ Yul Brynner snaps at Jim Morrison. ‘You are like the emulous dog in the fine old Dusseldorf fable who wished to be an octopus and was covered in humiliation. One clingfilm wrapping is more than enough for any party.’ Here I disagree with Yul but as he is the host it would be impolite to say so.

(For more on Michael’s wonderful book, see here, here, and here.)

9.

Johannes Göransson penned a response (at Montevidayo) to my post “I am drinking gin & wrote about 18 long titles i randomly chose using wikipedia.” I read it right away and it seemed to me that Johannes wasn’t really replying to my post, as he initially claimed, but rather responding to it, using the occasion to offer various thoughts on sincerity and art. And Johannes’s writing is always interesting, but I fail to see how his thoughts engage my actual claims and assumptions. For one thing, he spends a large part of the post talking about things he likes and dislikes. So I’m now better equipped to buy Johannes a birthday present, but the substance of my argument has gone unaddressed.

Johannes also seems concerned with whether an author “really is” sincere or not:

I’ve always felt very sincere about my approach to poetry [...]

I’ve written a book [that] was very sincere and autobiographical [...]

But the noiseiness is not opposed to sincerity! I’m perfectly sincere when I write in my fake English!

I’ve stated numerous times that I am not at all interested in whether the author is being “genuinely sincere”; regardless, here it is again:

  1. I am concerned with a particular aesthetic—with artifice. (All writing is artifice.)
  2. Some people regard that artifice’s devices and styles as “feeling more sincere” (more transparent, more genuine) than other artifices.
  3. Why is that?

10.

Johannes also states a general dislike of how certain kinds of writing come across as insincere:

Another thing I don’t like about sincerity discussions is that they often lead to disparagements of the art-ness of art – the pageantry, the metaphors, the spectacular effects, the excess, the deadly glamour become signs of insincerity. This leads to boring poetry that feels very restrained to me; poetry that seems involved in a humanist idea of interiority.

It’s hard to know what he means here, without specific examples. But, again, this isn’t my current concern, and I hardly think I’m “disparaging the art-ness of art.” (This is a fine example of how I don’t see Johannes’s response as directly engaging what I’ve written.)

11.

The discussion of the New Sincerity is not a discussion of affect, but effect. Consider the movie Cabin in the Woods. I was fortunate enough to see it in the company of a charming young woman, who spent large parts of the film covering her eyes (as well as laughing). She wasn’t alone in doing this.

But what if she hadn’t? What if no one had? Even if no one thought Cabin scary, or grimly funny, it wouldn’t “not be” a horror film—it just wouldn’t be a good one. But we’d still identify it with a particular genre, due to its style and the conventions it engages.

12.

Johannes is mistaken when he writes that “One of Jameson’s examples is Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.”” In all of my posts, I’ve mentioned that album entirely once, and not as an example of the New Sincerity. Instead I wrote:

This title [of Sasha Fletcher's 2010 novel When All Our Days Are Numbered Marching Bands Will Fill the Streets & We Will Not Hear Them Because We Will Be Upstairs in the Clouds] also reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, certainly a nakedly emotional / sincere-sounding album.

Nonetheless, Johannes wrote:

Here we have a record that – as far as I remember it, it’s been years since I listened to it – is loaded with occult symbolism, baroque lyrics, pataphysics and a central story about ouiji-boarding Anne Frank back in the songs. In that way, the occult seems to be almost a parody of sincerity: to actually have a dead girls talk through one’s own microphone [...]

I don’t fully understand Johannes’s point here; can’t ghosts speak as sincerely as the living? (Does the late King Hamlet tell the truth?) But what’s odder is how Johannes now appears to be arguing against himself. Elsewhere, you’ll recall, he wrote:

Another thing I don’t like about sincerity discussions is that they often lead to disparagements of the art-ness of art.

Now, though, he seems to be claiming that the album’s occult elements somehow parody sincerity? The logic here is that one can’t be sincere about certain content? Or that certain styles or forms can’t be read as sincere? Again, it’s hard to follow Johannes’s logic here, but it seems to me he’s constructing some kind of either/or argument that butts heads with his previous statement.

13.

Since we’re talking now about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, let’s keep talking about. (I love the album.) I will maintain that it sounds “sincere” and “nakedly emotional” to my ears. I don’t suspect that Jeff Mangum is putting me on, or trying to be ironic. When he strains his voice and fails to hit notes, I take that as a sign of his earnestness—similar to Richard Beck’s observations about Win Butler and Arcade Fire:

But if the instrumentation and stage costumes suggested a Victorian, semi-handmade aesthetic, the music itself embraced unembarrassed emotionalism. Lead singer Win Butler yelled his lyrics as often as he sang them—these were often laments for a damaged childhood—and he relished the moments when his voice would crack from the strain. [...] Expressiveness and sentimentality are what [Pitchfork reviewer David] Moore liked best about Arcade Fire.

Many of Mangum’s lyrics, too, like the ones to “Holland, 1945,” seem “earnest,” too:

And here’s where your mother sleeps
And here is the room where your brothers were born
Indentions in the sheets
Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore
And it’s so sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies
All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes

I don’t think I’m alone. In his 2005 Pitchfork review, Mark Richardson wrote:

Shortly after the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Puncture magazine had a cover story on Neutral Milk Hotel. In it Mangum told of the influence on the record of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. He explained that shortly after releasing On Avery Island he read the book for the first time, and found himself completely overwhelmed with sadness and grief. Back in 1998 this admission made my jaw drop. What the hell? A guy in a rock band saying he was emotionally devastated by a book everyone else in America read for a middle-school assignment? I felt embarrassed for him at first, but then, the more I thought about it and the more I heard the record, I was awed. Mangum’s honesty on this point, translated directly to his music, turned out to be a source of great power.

The “occult symbolism, baroque lyrics, pataphysics,” and presence of “Anna’s ghost all around” don’t obstruct that. They are instead a part and parcel of that “honesty [...] translated directly to his music.” (That’s not at all the way I’d put it, but.) Indeed, Richardson addresses many of Johannes’s points:

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a personal album but not in the way you expect. It’s not biography. It’s a record of images, associations, and threads; no single word describes it so well as the beautiful and overused “kaleidoscope.” It has the cracked logic of a dream, beginning with “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1″. The easiest song on the record to like on first listen, it quietly introduces the listener to the to the album’s world, Mangum singing in a muted voice closer to where he left off with the more restrained On Avery Island (through most of Aeroplane he sounds like he’s running out of time and struggling to get everything said). The first four words are so important: “When you were young…” Like every perceptive artist trafficking in memory, Mangum knows dark surrealism to be the language of childhood. At a certain age the leap from kitchen utensils jammed into dad’s shoulder to feet encircled by holy rattlesnakes is nothing. A cock of the head; a squint, maybe.

14.

Here’s some formal analysis, which is what I really prefer doing to making grand arguments about artistic movements (although, alas, I do my fair share of the latter). Mangum regularly uses elaborate and intricate imagery in his lyrics:

Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving
And pluck all your silly strings and bend all your notes for me
Soft silly music is meaningful magical
The movements were beautiful all in your ovaries
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines
Smelling of semen all under the garden was all you were needing
When you still believed in me
Say what you want to say and hang for your hollow ways
Moving your mouth to pull out all your miracle for me

But notice how he immediately follows that verse with this much sparser one:

I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and 500 families
And will she remember me 50 years later
I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine
Know all your enemies
We know who our enemies are
Know all your enemies
We know who our enemies are

I wouldn’t call either verse “more sincere” than the other. But I would say that she second one is designed to appear more straightforward. This is a calculated aesthetic effect. Mangum is juxtaposing two styles, lyrically, creating the sense that the second verse is getting “stripped down” (he’s setting aside the surrealist imagery). Meanwhile, the accompanying music also strips down, growing slower and quieter and thinner. (Listen from 4:30 onward, although the effect progresses throughout the entire song.) The two maneuvers compliment and reinforce one another, creating the impression that Mangum is taking a moment to speak “more directly.” Again, this is entirely an aesthetic effect—a rather successful one!

(Although to reiterate, I am not calling the album New Sincerist!)

15.

Again, my focus in all of these posts is fixated on a very particular aesthetic, and why people have attributed it certain effects, and why those effects may currently be desirable. I am pursuing this because I’m an artist and I want to know how to create specific effects in my own work. I also just plain enjoy analyzing artworks and better learning how their artists have designed them. This is, to me, a very sensual practice.

16.

Allow me to speculate a little (and this is not analysis.) I know that I’ve been hearing for a long time now that language is always about itself, locked in an endless chain of self-signification; that personal expression is impossible (critics can deconstruct anything anyone says); that the author is dead and cannot determine the meaning of what he or she writes; and that the meaning of texts should be open to the reader’s interpretation. I will, if I may, offer my good pal Chris Higgs as an example of someone who embraces all of these claims.

These claims are debatable; they’re not gospel, and not eternal truths. And just as reason and formal analysis have their limits, so too does Theory. Deconstruction, taken to its limit, might convince a person that meaning is entirely determined by the reader, and that the intentions of authors and artists are irrelevant. Me, I think that would be a foolish conclusion to reach, but I hear a select few have gotten there.

17.

Chris can certainly claim that an author’s intention doesn’t matter, and that interpretation’s unimportant—but it’s hard to fully embrace the consequences of those claims.

A thought experiment. Chris assigns his students Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. One of those students objects to Chris making them read a work of Holocaust denial. The student is so incensed that she goes to the department head, complaining about how Chris is promoting genocide against the Jews and should be dismissed from the school. She has even retained legal counsel.

At what point does Chris argue that the student has (laughably but tragically) misinterpreted the Sontag? Or does he say, “Your reading is as good as any other! Bravura performance! A+!”

18.

Chris Higgs is so fucking dumb that when his professors asked him why he couldn’t read, he said it was because he was “illegitimate.” Which he is—I screw his mother every second Tuesday.

19.

Chris’s claims are admittedly fun to think about for a while, but they disregard much of what I find beautiful and powerful about art. Once the artist is no longer capable of producing intended artistic effects, art becomes a lot less interesting: since any response is valid, why pick any particular artwork to respond to? If you say it’s because you admire the salient qualities of this one, then you’re starting to let intention back in—because who’s to say those effects aren’t accidental? And once you’re there, why do you need art to produce accidental effects? Just go look at a drainpipe or a tree or whatever it is in the world you want to look at. Now we no longer need art programs or museums or galleries or funding for the arts; neoliberal capitalism loves this line of thinking, because it removes precisely what distinguishes art from any other market commodity. Art becomes something worth preserving only if someone can make money off it.

Chris’s claims also severely reduce art criticism, because any reading, any response, becomes just as good as any other:

Go ahead, wreck your life;
that might be good.
Who can say what’s wrong or right?
Nobody can.

Me, I don’t want to live in a world like that. That spiraling shape will make you go insane.

20.

Steve Roggenbuck recently claimed this about his own work:

i’d hope that my writing and videos are emotionally powerful for people, and they seem to be, but usually what im trying to convey is a kind of profound moment of sadness that seems like, “ultimately beatiful,” not a stagnant ongoing depression [...]

also in my personal life i’ve found that the only way i wil actual achieve what i want is by sincerly believing that i can, and putting in the work every day. idk its cheesy but i truely believe it. most people give up before they even try at something. if youre going to do something awesome it probably won’t be easy, u have to be willing to work hard for a long time. will smith (hehe) has said you shouldnt have a back-up plan because it distracts from the main plan. u see? i truely believe this stuf. i will never stop. i will build something gigantic while tons of people sit around thinking it is not possible. 666

Again, it’s easy to demonstrate that there are artists out there currently concerned with sincerity, and what counts as such.

21.

A key part of Steve achieving that effect—of his aesthetic—is his use of misspelling. The persistent typos signal that the work has been written quickly, spontaneously, and is therefore less revised” and “more earnest.”

His professors at Columbia College discouraged this device; they favored refinement/revision. Steve correctly realized that doing that would mean sacrificing a desired aesthetic effect—an effect that’s currently possible because there exists a “proper” or “normative” way of writing it can be perceived against. (He doesn’t want to “save it for his blog,” as his teacher advised, because it wouldn’t be perceptible there. Rather, Steve’s goal is to import that device or maneuver into his poetry, where it produces an effect.)

22.

Watch out, Steve! Your misspelling strategy won’t work forever. Like any other artistic device, it will gradually grow familiar, necessitating some other approach that “makes the stone feel stoney.”

23.

oK next mondsy, rigfhtb back to Shlkolovsky!!!!11!

(See? It’s hard to convey “sincerity” without just copying something already done. If you’re looking for a homework assignment, try finding a new way to do it!)

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