Alt Lit: The Revolution Will Be Tumblred

by memeiotics

"love poem," by Steve Roggenbuck of LiveMyLief.com

“love poem,” by Steve Roggenbuck of LiveMyLief.com

Anyone who thinks the Internet has killed poetry doesn’t spend enough time on the Internet. Literary types have been arguing for years that poetry died with the last of the Beats or maybe sometime in the ’90s and for some reason Lauren Wilcox can still get published in The Washington Post insisting that “the kids” need to be inspired to turn away from their screens for a moment to write some poetry (with the help of the right after school program and some electrifying teachers, of course). Why does Wilcox—as do many others like her—assume that poetry must be separate from the web? Is Internet thought the “wrong” kind of thought? Is it impossible to meditate at a keyboard? (EDIT: The day after I posted this, yet another Washington Post reporter suggested that poetry is dead.)

“The kids” are writing poetry, and they don’t need to be cajoled into it. “The kids” have started an online poetic movement, complete with publishing presses (e.g. Muumuu HouseSorry House, Plain Wrap Press) and end-of-the-year awards. It’s a multimedia Twitter and Tumblr artists’ collective, constantly playing with new poetic forms: Flarf poetry3wordgunghopoetryflow. They call it “alt lit.” Much of it is, like the rest of the Internet, a cacophonous, haphazard sludge of Instagrammed photos of cell phone screens and quasi-intellectual random-for-the-sake-of-being-random goofiness. That’s maybe exactly the kind of poetry you’d expect from The Millennial Generation, which has grown up in a world that will give them attention and applause for quite literally posting photos of their own fecal matter (you are warned: that link is exactly what it sounds like).

Vice columnist Josh Baines declared this week that alt lit is “the worst thing to happen to literature” and “for boring, infantile narcissists.” On one level, I agree—most stuff labeled alt lit I don’t “get,” and I don’t think it’s because I’m just not deep enough. But you can’t judge any art movement by its worst artists. And at its best, alt lit is a drug- and coffee-fueled, sexually frank, self-conscious form, an occasionally profound emulsion of Bukowski and Twitter and dada and rap.

Even Baines admits that alt lit founder Tao Lin, at least, is an interesting writer. For a sense of just what is alternative about alt lit, check out Lin’s recent poem, “I Livetweeted Getting Robbed & Watching The Hobbit Alone At 9:45PM In Manhattan On Christmas Eve.” He plays with hypermedia in a way I’ve never seen before: he meditates on life and money in a half-dozen modes. The livetweeting gives it immediacy, the blurry photo through his 3D glasses gives it authenticity, and much of his movie commentary suggests that he can’t keep Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter straight. During the mugging, one guy asks him for his phone “convictionlessly,” and Lin says, “I gave you my money”—the muggers accept that answer and walk away, as if aware that taking his phone would be a much more personal and life-disrupting insult than taking his money. Five minutes later, Lin posts a picture from inside the theater. Then he says, “I could’ve livetweeted my own stabbing and death.” (As an aside, I do find myself wondering just how conscious Lin is of the class issues here: he’s got his MacBook, his phone, his drugs, and the capital to pay for a movie ticket even after getting mugged.)

Like any pomo/metatextual art form worth its salt, alt lit often gestures at the theoretical. Patchy-mustached, twenty-something alt lit icon Steve Roggenbuck described his theory of literature in a mid-2011 freeform YouTube rant:

Everything is literature. If I’m Tweeting, it’s literature, you know? And if you don’t like that, just go take a bath, you know? You can wake up in 15 years and you won’t know what the goddang f happened, you know? If you don’t like my image macros, then go take a bath in the shower. Talking to your friend is literature. You know why? Because literature is memeplex to me. Art is the making of belief systems. Belief systems. Memeplex. Brands. Discourse. Culture. How can you have a belief system if all you have is 80-page black-on-white, twelve-point font, serifs, God help me. Maybe I’ll write a book that’s 400 pages. You know? Maybe I’ll write a book that is 1000 pages long, you know? But when it comes down to it, you know, pages, you know, book, you know. What is this, what am I, you know? Who the f am I? You know? What is this, fucking 2007? What is this, fucking 1991? What is this, fucking 1855? You know? Leaves of f-ing Grass? Gonna self-publish this f-ing print book? Gonna put my f-ing pdf online of my book? What is this, fucking October 2010? Do you think that I read pdfs all day? No, I read blogs.

Memeplex—that is, the idea that there are groups of cultural memes, “evolving” in a social sense from other groups of thought in the past—seems like a particularly apt way to describe the relationship between traditional print literature and alt lit. Roggenbuck references Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. He doesn’t live in a separate world from them. Literature has changed, but it’s still literature.

He thus echoes Paul Prior, who argues that online multimodal hypermedia is not an entirely new semiotic animal, suddenly concerned with images, where before text was pure and unadorned. The history of multimodality is not, Prior says, “a one-way sequence of unique semiotic objects,” first print, then web, each enabling a completely different kind of meaning-making (26). “I know of no evidence,” he explains, “that those who work with images rather than words find the media and tools they work with so pliant, that they never need struggle with the recalcitrance of materials to their representational intents and desires” (28). That’s part of what’s fun about alt lit, the way recalcitrant materials are combined to bolster each other’s weak points: a message like Lin’s “I Livetweeted…” can be communicated in a blog post copy of a Twitter feed, with timestamps and embedded photos. Roggenbuck can make a video that’s equal parts image macros and vlog confessional and music and quotes from John Cage. It is what Prior terms “the delicate ordering of text, talk, gesture, and image in situated practice” (28).

Roggenbuck says, “Why is it bad that more people consider what they’re doing poetry?”

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