What we talk about when we talk about the New Sincerity, part 1

Posted by @ 8:01 am on June 4th, 2012

Miranda July; Steve Roggenbuck (photo dates unknown)

I wasn’t surprised that my Monday post, which was ultimately about reading & applying some ideas from Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, mostly generated conversation about Tao Lin and the New Sincerity. I knew that would happen even as I wrote it. So I thought I should take a post to clarify my thoughts on “the whole NS thing.” What follows will be a mix of fact and personal reflection.

As everyone knows, the original New Sincerity (in poetry) was a “movement” started by Joseph Massey and Anthony Robinson and Andrew Mister c. 2005. I put “movement” in quotes because although they wrote numerous manifestos and argued a lot with others about sincerity and what, in fact, they were doing, even they will insist that the NS was not a coherent thing. I get that; viewed now, their proposals seem at least half tongue-in-cheek (leading to endless debates about whether they were being ironic or sincere—debates that, while heartfelt, I think really missed the point). A lot this writing no longer exists online—that’s the Internet for you—although if you google around you can still find remnants of the discussion.

What happened next, though, matters more for our current purposes. People started pointing to other poets—Dorothea Lasky, Nate Pritts, Matt Hart, Tao Lin, others—who appeared to be working with similar motivations, exploring similar styles and devices. It’s easy to see why this was so, leaving aside the fact that every writer is of course a special and unique snowflake. Recall also that in 2005—7 things looked different than they do today (e.g., Tao Lin was not “Tao Lin”).

When did I first hear the term? 2007? 2008? I know I first ran into Lin on 21 July 2007, when I read “The Existentially Fucked Megamouth Shark” in the now defunct Mississippi Review Online. I forwarded the link to some friends (it’s my email account that remembers the date) and started reading Lin’s blog. My pal Justin bought Bed and Eeee Eee Eeeee and lent them to me, and he and I saw that Lin belonged to / had attracted something of a scene. And I thought it plausible that there was some kind of loose-knit shared sensibility linking, say, you are maybe a little bit happier than i am (2006) with stuff like Jillian Clark’s if i am in a room full of people i am not having any fun (2008) (which Lin blogged about). I took notice partly because I was interested in the “return to long titles” trend, which seemed but one part of a resurgence of interest in preciousness, sentiment, & twee in both cinema and indie rock—Wes Anderson, Sufjan Stevens, the Danielson Famile, the Decemberists, the Arcade Fire, Joanna Newsom. (This is when I began collecting instances of “school play” music videos and commercials.)

Miranda July blurbed Lin’s writing and I thought, sure, she’s part of this burgeoning “movement,” too. I first saw her work in the late 1990s in NYC, and in those performances, as well as on her Kill Rock Star CDs and in her her videos, she was definitely playing with things like the fear that comes with being a kid and being unable to distinguish irony from sincerity, the result being that every experience registers as the biggest most spectacular thing in the world:

And, yeah, long titles. (Actually, my first exposure to that trend came in 2003, when my pal Astria Suparak, a friend of July’s, made a program entitled “Looking Is Better than Feeling You” for Ladyfest. I hosted one stop on the subsequent tour, at Illinois State.)

So I saw stuff that, if not the Massey/Robinson/Mister NS Proper, looked related. Obviously, something was happening.

Others observed this, too. Elisa Gabbert at the Ploughshares blog proposed on 9 March 2008 a connection between the New Sincerity and “the New Childishness,” which was her and Ana Bozicevic-Bowling’s term for folks like Lin/Lasky/Joanna Newsom (Newsom again!):

I’m interested in Seth Abramson’s take on an essay in the recent issue of Jacket — “The Time Between Time: Messianism & the Promise of a ‘New Sincerity’” by Jason Morris — partly because Morris attempts to describe a group of artists that has some overlap with those Ana and I brazenly lumped into the “New Childishness” “school” (Joanna Newsom and Tao Lin), and partly because, as it does Seth, the essay strikes me as wrong.

Gabbert made the New Childishness / New Sincerity connection, I’d argue, because it made sense to—there were salient points of contact. (Perhaps Elisa will chime in? I  hope so.) Others since have done similarly; see Jennifer Moore’s recent critical writings, for one thing. And others have pointed out that this all is but one part of the “death of irony” conversation that US culture has been spinning its wheels in ever since 1 September 2001, if not earlier. (Possibly I remember folks talking about that in the 1990s? One hears less about it now; perhaps it lost momentum after 9/11/11?)

(Actually, I have something like a hypothesis about “what’s happened” to irony, and “postmodernism,” something I’ll write down another time. But here’s a teaser: Generation Y started turning 21 in 2002, since which time they’ve been supplanting Gen X as 20-somethings, and now 30-somethings. And mainstream culture is shifting to reflect their tastes, which are, I’d propose, “less ironic.”)

But back to the NS and it’s spread. These broadening circles of association and implication made perfect sense post-2005. Because Massey’s manifestos—whether he meant them sincerely, or whether he now no longer espouses them (again, they’re offline)—did announce a movement. And one thing that movements do is move.

Meanwhile, mind you, I had and still have no idea which writers or artists in question knew one another or liked one another or kissed one another or even agreed with one another on shared aesthetic principles. I also don’t know who borrowed from whom, or ripped off whom, or inspired whom. Nor do I think it really matters.

I can instead say this. Living in Chicago at that time, I didn’t know anyone else who was interested in this stuff; I was hanging out in the city’s “experimental poetry” crowd, which convened in series like Discrete, Myopic, Danny’s, and Red Rover, maintained by folks like Kerri Sonnenberg, Jesse Seldess, Mark Tardi, Larry Sawyer, Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, Joel Craig, Greg Purcell, Jen Karmin, Amina Cain, Laura Goldstein, Ray Bianchi, and others. Their work was (very broadly speaking) dense and abstract and overtly theory-derived—what I think is fair to call “post-Languagey.” Here’s a poem by Mark Tardi:

series 2

instead of entrance
Goodbye means Avoir

Sved’s dream said from nowhere

of aliquant angles

some spindle of the sun

empirically facted
deafening skin

open and afterwards

a cough is a couch
idled into

without rain
an island

easily a third worse

Indigo with a flame-red tongue

And here’s one by Kerri Sonnenberg:


all sleep would let me tell
is that kind of wish to please the cold
where before every sleep might carry
us together rounding off
what light would leave open
our better hold on photography

but an oscillating reference, the light
stops halfway toward the viewer
or description like a thunderstorm over
the desert, one can see it end
to end distantly contained

And here’s Jennifer Karmin, reading from her multi-voice long poem aaaaaaaaaaalice:

I like this poetry fine (I like everything fine), and I like all these poets, support their work. (Obv; I’m providing Jen with a “poet’s assist” in that video.) But work like theirs—with the exception of Amina’s—has never been what really moves me. Instead, I spent those years in discussion with my then-girlfriend Michelle Tupko and our then-roommate Jeremy M. Davies about how abstraction and theory and postmodernist allusion—and, yes, irony—had run their course. They appeared exhausted, to put it in John Barth’s terms. Or excessively familiar, to put it in Shklovsky’s. I know now that others felt so, too. Conceptual Writing, and a general return to constraints, was one response. The New Sincerity was another.

I hate to discuss my own fiction here, but permit me to do so for exactly three paragraphs, because it will make for a useful example. I wrote Amazing Adult Fantasy in 2005–6 and although I didn’t know about the New Sincerity yet, one of my main concerns was “to eliminate all irony” from my writing. Miranda July was a palpable influence, for sure. And just like her, I wanted to revisit childhood interests, through prose that registered as naively “demented”—as though I were speaking like a child, unable to edit or censor myself.

Later (c. 2008) I encountered Nate Pritts, and of course I observed that both he and I had written collections named after Spider-Man comics. (His—a marvelous book—is entitled Sensational Spectacular; my own, AAF, comes from here.) This was entirely accidental. Justin (my pal) suggested my title many years earlier, for one of my many zines. And Nate’s book came out in 2007.

BUT. Nate and I were (we had to be) both drawing on similar experiences and desires. We’re about the same age, and as such grew up in the 1980s reading comics. And we were, I’d imagine, responding to “larger cultural forces” (“the limits of irony,” etc.) c. the same time. And were both looking (I think?) for some way to recreate the sincere excitement and passion we felt as children reading comics (re-viewed, now, through our new adult perspectives). Or something like that? So of course different writers can write similar-but-different things without talking to one another, or imitating one another, or hanging out in the same scene/movement. As Steve Katz so memorably put it (re: his own generation’s turn toward postmodernism):

All of us found ourselves at the same stoplights in different cities at the same time. When the lights changed, we all crossed the streets.

The older I get, the more I see that we invent far less than we think. But it matters less whether someone’s doing something “new.” The more pertinent question is: What are they doing with what they do in the here and now? (I.e., stress the “make” and not the “new” in “make it new.”)

(I swear, somewhere out there, somebody thinks that he or she just invented metatextuality.)

Next Monday, I’ll put up Part 2, addressing what I think has happened since 2008. Until then, I’ll be curious to read what you all think.

Though consider—

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