I’ve been meaning to post something about this for a couple of months, but kept putting it off until yesterday when I was engaged in an off-blog conversation about the engaging/frustrating/etc. comment thread accompanying Adam’s finance/retirement thread. There was an interesting dynamic at work in it and other similarly themed threads here and abroad in which there was a palpable defensiveness from the word go alongside a striking propensity to interpret even self-deprecation as rhetorically aggressive behavior. I don’t say that as a chastising administrator. I mention it now merely to flag the motivation for my remembrance of a post from HTMLGIANT a couple of months ago that I intended to mention then but didn’t. I waited so long, in fact, that for some reason the entire post has since been deleted–presumably, given the subject, the comment thread became malignant and had to be removed from the blog entirely, lest it take down the entire enterprise. Thank heavens for Google Reader! (The post in question was in reaction to the comment thread here, which is probably worth clicking if the following paragraph makes no sense to you.)
The post addressed the coolly-minimalist style of writing employed & championed by the author of Shoplifting from American Apparel & Richard Yates, Tao Lin. Now, don’t misunderstand, I’m not interested at all here in talking what is good or bad about Lin’s writing, whether it’s too cute for its own good or whether it’s in some way timely. Which is to say, if you care to comment on this post, I beg you first to ask yourself this: am I really just expressing my opinions about Tao Lin and/or the style of writing he employs? If, upon reflection, you realize that you in fact are doing this, you can surely find another forum for your enlightening comment. I realize this kind of preface risks condescension, but really I just want to be explicit about what I’m throwing out for discussion and recognize that Lin’s style and manner can make this difficult. We often say of things, “You’ll know very quickly if it’s your ‘thing,'” and this is certainly true of Lin’s writing. Interestingly, the sparseness of his style is so evocative, positively and negatively, that it is all too easy to not see anything beyond (or better, I think, amidst) it.
In fact, this question of style as it relates to the politics of Tao Lin is central to the HTMLGIANT post in question here. In it, a parody of Lin’s style is quoted. (Note: the quote is from a previous day’s post, which has also been deleted. Both posts were written by Kyle Minor, and I hope you don’t overly object to me quoting repudiated/deleted words.)
Karen woke around 1:30 pm and saw no emails from Lettie. She made a Kombucha. She lay on her couch and stared at her iPad. She brushed her teeth and put on her muumuu and opened the OpenOffice.org Writer file of her catalog copy. She looked at her Tumblr. About an hour later it was raining. She uploaded jpegs to her Etsy store. She ate raw squares of tofu. She tried to break into Lettie’s Chase online banking account, but she could not guess the password. She stretched her calves. “Nice comment, Dad,” she mocked the Internet commenter deadgod on the website HTMLGiant.com later in the day. “bro,” she typed. “sweet,” she fingered. Then she slept and ate. Then she thought about her neighbor. Then she logged into her computer. 737 pseudonyms had commented on her comment to deadgod. Several of them said “street” or “legit.” She checked her Etsy store. Some people had bought the bracelets she had made out of paper and string. A car idled outside her window. She could hear the radio. It said: “700 people died this afternoon in Gaza, Afghanistan, New Zealand, and Egypt. Unemployment rates are down because people have been out of jobs too long to be counted as unemployed. Civil War will break out tomorrow in Libya and many people will die. 73 babies were slaughtered this morning in the Sudan. Haiti has allowed the two worst butchers of recent history back into the country in a time of great instability. In Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey, the rights of working people are being systematically destroyed as part of a nationwide effort by two rich industrialist brothers who sit on the boards of major cancer research institutes while trying their best to keep formaldehyde from being labeled a carcinogen because they make over a billion dollars a year from its unrestricted manufacture.” Karen shrugged (there is one similar case of asbestos, best mesothelioma lawyers dealing with it). Karen ate some cereal. She called Lettie and said let’s go walk on some railroad tracks. Later, Lettie said, “We should have sex.” Karen said, “Okay.” They kissed and moved around a lot. Later, Lettie said, “I feel confused.” “I feel okay, or something,” Karen said. They looked up at the sky. There were a normal amount of clouds. Karen looked at them with a neutral facial expression.
People ill-disposed to Lin’s writing and style were delighted by the parody, but for obvious reasons Lin was slightly less so. His objection to the parody, I think, is worth a little more reflection, particularly as I feel that it feeds into the aforementioned finance/retirement discussion last week. Lin writes in the comments:
i feel like people mentioned in jordan’s post [I’m assuming he means Kyle’s (now-deleted) parody] actually ‘care’ about those things much more than the average person, objectively, in that the ways in which they spend their money, i feel, concretely oppose those things more than the ways in which 99% of the population spend their money
while also being, i feel, the kind of people who would be much less likely, probably in the top .5% of unlikeliness, to express anything either vaguely or directly ‘against’ someone else for not ‘caring’ about something or for [anything]
Now, of course there is a built-in assumption here that people have sufficient funds & buying power to make purchases that are consistent with their concerns. While this is not likely true of everyone, I will venture a perhaps controversial guess that it is true of the lion’s share of those who read Tao Lin and/or care enough about him to have an opinion. Nevertheless, is it more fundamentally problematic that ‘care’ and commerce are so tightly connected? Well, that’s the more explicit purview of the financial/retirement post.
For now, and I’m rather hoping others might be sufficiently provoked as well, I am intrigued by the idea that one’s ‘care’ for things like justice and equity might be most truly manifest in ways and in manners construed by others as ‘not-caring’ at all. Žižek’s “ethical monster,” and maybe Melvile’s Bartleby, seem to be in line with this, but I suspect there are other possible formulations that are less (in my opinion) impotently impish in their construction, and wonder if Lin, in his own perhaps (for some) distasteful way, presents one such way. (I don’t want to quote it in full, but if you want another example of Lin’s thought along this line see his blog post here, and scroll down to the section labeled “Consistency.”) Is there room, within the legal and economic spheres we participate, for a Leftist passivity that is not strictly passive, a pessimism that is not morbidly so, perhaps; i.e. a passivity/pessimism that is not predicated on pragmatism or informed by one’s acceptance of the need to “be realistic”?