Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”

Disruption and Performance: The John Vanderslice Oregon Living Room Shows, June 2013

August 7, 2013

I don’t pretend to be a person who knows a lot about performance theory; I certainly don’t play one on the Internet. In fact, I know almost nothing about the field besides the few articles I taught, and poorly, in my prior incarnation as an instructor of interpersonal communication. However, I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend not one or two or even three, but FOUR glorious nights of living room concert shows given by the singular John Vanderslice, and I found myself thinking more and more about Goffman’s concepts of front-stage and backstage behavior, as well as about notions of public and private space. 

What constitutes a performance? What is a performance space? How is the distinction between performer and audience built up, maintained, destroyed? What are the benefits to these binary distinctions? How can the artificial or organic distinctions between performer and audience best be disrupted? What are the outcomes of doing so? What does it mean for a private individual to open up his or her home, salon-style, to strangers from the Internet? 

First, before I devolve into any longer digressions than those for which I’m already well known around here, let me explain that John Vanderslice has long been among my favorite musicians, ever since I went to a show at which he was opening for the Mountain Goats in 2004 (and, see here how I revert to the rhetoric of establishing what, for lack of a better term, can be referred to as “cred” – another performance?). Cellar Door had a lot of songs that seemed loosely based on films, and as someone who would shortly ruin her life with the pursuit of graduate degrees in film studies, I really liked the songs; moreover, he was an effusive, friendly human being, and everyone’s into that, except sociopaths. I was so impressed that I ultimately wrote him in for vice-president (of the United States of America) when I voted later that fall (I voted for John Darnielle for president). Un/fortunately, we get the democracy we deserve (Don’t worry. It was a Diebold machine and I lived in Florida, so my vote probably did not count anyway).*


Here is the first of several exhortations I shall make for you to check out his music, because I have great taste in media. Anyway, I’ve gone to many, many shows over the years, though due to circumstances in my life I hadn’t seen him play since about 2009. Thus, when I drove down to Salem for the first show, I was very excited. This proved to be a good strategy.


In addition to not being a scholar of performance theory, I’m also not a music writer – indeed, despite once having had a music-related book shortlisted for publication and ostensibly working on lyrics rights to move it forward with another publisher, I actually loathe most music writing. So I’m not going to try to engage in Music Writing Itself here. However, I will say that just like all of Vanderslice’s albums, 2013’s Dagger Beach really resonated with me in terms of not only its content, but in terms of its production, as it was self-released and funded through Kickstarter. I was proud to be a supporter – even if the record had sucked, which it emphatically did the opposite of, I was really excited to be part of something that subverted tradition, because that’s just what I’m all about.


Here, instead, are my impressions of each show and some thoughts about what the practice of living room shows, especially with this specific performer, do to disrupt people’s assumptions about performance. Here are also my thoughts about damn near whatever else pops into my head. Again, keep in mind I think some of the ideas I’m raising are probably pretty basic to those better-versed in performance theory, and quite possibly rather pretentious to those who are not.

SALEM, JUNE 13th, 2013: I had never been to a living room show before and didn’t really know what to expect, other than sheer awesomeness. Luckily, my expectations were exceeded most excellently. For one thing, the extremely gracious hosts had nearly unlimited cookies. For another, there were only about 20 people, and the “intimate” setting really set the tone for how subversive I think this whole living room show is.


I should mention here that as I was trying to convince a friend to go to these shows with me, I described my interest in Live Music Events™ as rooted in narrative. I always found something beautiful in the fact that a room full of hundreds, if not thousands or even tens of thousands, of strangers would unite for one prescribed event and then disperse. They would always share that short chapter in their lives. This is probably best exemplified by the afterlife of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.


The atmosphere was really more of a salon, as in the 18th century thing (Note: I have never, personally, been party to nor attended an 18th century salon; I’m still working on my time machine). Vanderslice offered not only a lot of great stories and “behind-the-music” type things,  While at a lot of the “club” shows I’ve gone to, performers have occasionally responded to catcalls from the audience, this seemed to be a fluid conversation. Rather than a hybrid dualism created by the heteroglossic audience acting as a mob calling out to the performer, on a physical pedestal of the stage (Something Vanderslice actually mentioned), here everyone seemed to be an individual.

At one point, Vanderslice received backup vocals from the adorable child of the hosts. She was pretty good. The entire evening was warm and beautiful; I personally hope that if there is an afterlife that is not a punishment, it is approximately or exactly like that. I could have stayed forever, but that would have been creepy.


PORTLAND THE FIRST (June 13th, 2013): The next day, I went to a house in Portland, where a much larger crowd attended (of almost 50! It was starting to feel like I was in college again and a “huge lecture class” was like, 25 people). Again, the show was distinctive for how fluid it felt, just like hanging out in, well, someone’s living room, instead of being a Live Music Event with discrete boundaries and definitions. (Here I must add that when I got there, it was like entering the world’s happiest AA meeting [and only AA meeting at which people were drinking beer, probably] because Vanderslice announced to the room, “Hey everybody. This is Miranda and she’s awesome” and everybody was like, “hiiii!”). Although the post-show dance party to synth music never really got started, it was a similarly inclusive and wonderful event.

PORTLAND THE SECOND (June 14th, 2013): This was the first show that I didn’t go to alone. This in and of itself was wildly exciting and rare to me. Here, the audience-performer dichotomy was disrupted by the singing along, the interactions between performer and audience (at one point, Vanderslice stopped and asked my friend what kind of camera he had) and the overall feeling of subversion. We learned of the extremely hilarious true story behind “Convict Lake,” a story improved even more by the fact that I was sitting behind another adorable child, who did not completely understand the narrative, particularly the parts about dropping acid.


MEDFORD (June 18th, 2013): When I told people I was going to Medford for a concert in a stranger’s living room, they acted as though I was maybe selling a kidney to a stranger or something. Granted, I am still new enough to Oregon and still bad enough at general planning to not have realized that Medford was actually further than Seattle would have been, but who cares? I was able to talk one of my best friends into going with me, so I went down to Eugene in the afternoon and she and I drove down to Medford that evening. Everyone in Portland described Medford in a way that I had begun to expect something like this, but let me put it on record again to say that Oregon is so unbelievably beautiful it’s sort of unfair to all those other states. 

 Anyway, this was the smallest of the four shows. It was also the only one in which the audience’s direct participation was invoked for an extra-performative event, specifically, the murder of Mike L. from the Guitar Center commercials, who reportedly lives an empty, vapid life defined by high-interest consumer debt, musical dilettantism, and the total absence of any meaningful personal relationships, other than superficial interactions with the underpaid retail workers whose lives he makes more miserable on a daily basis.

The incitement to Mike L’s murder, to which the audience was extremely receptive, will probably go down as one of the most important events at one of the most memorable John Vanderslice shows, as the audience rose up from their seats chanting “Kill! Kill!” Ruthlessly, Vanderslice exhorted the audience to go forth from Medford, drive to Los Angeles, and destroy Mike L., preferably “with fire.” The long-term consequences of this incitement remain to be seen, but it was observed any violence would clearly constitute euthanasia, as Mike L.’s life appears so empty and meaningless. Despite the fact that as recently as the week before, Vanderslice had said good things about Guitar Center, as they had sold him a cheap capo and some picks, it was clear by Medford that he was out for blood. Regardless, the show still managed to be warm, welcoming, and inclusive. 


I later heard from an informant that the same thing happened at one of the Seattle shows.

I am not sure exactly how to end this; I’m always terrible at ending conversations or monologues. I don’t know what the major take-away here is, I don’t know if this is really a good fit for this blog, and I’ve actually been writing this for more than 6 weeks now. So I guess I’ll just end it with:

I highly recommend this context for shows for the above reasons, and of course I recommend Vanderslice’s music. I think living room shows are about more than the commodification of experience, but instead represent a meaningful and important instance of opposition to the hegemony in an age in which media is increasingly fraught, contested, and corporate. By occurring in spaces that are by definition private, yet by welcoming everyone, and by blurring the rigid boundary between performance and “real life,” whatever that is, living room shows of this nature are a phenomenon in today’s modern music scene.

Stay transgressive, loyal readers!**             

  *In an extremely absurd turn of events, in January 2008, my face was briefly shown on The Daily Show as I explained this to John Oliver. Really.

**Fun fact: transgressive is not actually in the MS Word dictionary. TALK ABOUT PERFORMATIVITY GUYS


Man of Steel: A Thoughtful Film that Gets Superman Right

June 14, 2013

I have attempted to avoid spoilers in this review, but different people have different spoiler thresholds. Caveat emptor.

We all bring baggage of some kind into the art we experience, even if it’s not liking art or never having seen Mad Men because you’re lame. Sometimes it’s an intense identification with a character who’s celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday this year. But maybe you’re in the “don’t like ‘splosions” crowd or the “NO CHANGES!” confederacy or you really just like Batman uber alles. I get that. I’ve been some of those people.

I love Superman. As a kid, I wore Superman pajamas until they didn’t fit anymore, and continued for a while even after my feet burst

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve as Superman

through the soles of the stocking part. I watched Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie as often as I could, and Terence Stamp was my idea of self-important rebel leaders before I knew what that really meant. I watched whatever the hell Superman III and IV were supposed to be, and they kind of freaked me out (III came out when I was 2, so I probably saw it for the first time when I was 4 or 5. At least one scene in that movie is *intense*). I watched Supergirl, and a not so successful Superboy TV show, and Lois & Clark, a dull show with some inspired performances.

My main takeaway from what I saw in Superman in films and television and a very few comics read in the supermarket while Mom was grocery shopping, is that if we have the chance, we should help people. Even when the bad guy is the one who needs help. Maybe, if you’re the only one who can help but that help may kill you, you still help. Even if it seems impossible, you still try, no matter the odds. Superman does everything, and anything, he can, to help people who need his help.

Superman made sense to me. He has amazing gifts, but he doesn’t use them for frivolity like financial gain or athletics. He uses his powers to make a decent living for himself as a normal guy, and to help other people who wouldn’t be helped if he weren’t there. To make a difference.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve established a more complex view of how Superman’s powers work and should be used, and as I’ve been reading up on the modern era of Superman comics these last few months, I’m glad to see that comic book writers think with greater complexity on these issues, too. Superman is still a good man, who uses his powers to help people, and sometimes entire civilizations. I’m on board with that. But he is also a man: he makes mistakes, and he lives in a world where sometimes, the morally correct choice isn’t between the good and the bad, it’s between the bad and the awful, or the bad and the vaguely worse. He can’t always solve problems by being faster, stronger, or smarter than the bad guys. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Like the real world. I’m happy with this version of Superman: I like the big blue Scout, but a man of his stature surely encounters issues more complex than whether to save a kitten from a tree.

As I entered Man of Steel, I was a man who wears the shield of El as a ring on his finger every day, with the experience of reading thousands of comic books and dozens of graphic novels and a few scholarly essays on the subject of my favorite hero. Can Man of Steel live up to the Superman I believe in, a man who saves the world by helping people, by using his abilities in a good cause, by fighting when there is no fight left in him, while still acknowledging that even the powers of a god can’t solve every problem in a clean, positive way?

Happily, it managed to meet and exceed those wishes, and I am very happy for its success. It is complex, has substantial arcs for each of its three leads (who I take to be Clark, Lois, and Zod), and gets Superman right: he’s a great man. Flawed, but still great. [Warning: there may be spoilers beyond this point. I tried to avoid them, but there are some plot details you might not want to know]

Read the rest of this entry »

The Anti-Immersive Experience: WarioWare Smooth Moves (2007)

June 4, 2013

After co-editing the book Immersive Gameplay, it seems only appropriate that I kvetch a little about the word “immersion.” I’m not the first one to do so. Gamers often see it as their holy grail, just as “entertainment” was seen by earlier media consumers as some sort of objective. The functionality of the term is obvious: people want to distinguish the experience of being “immersed/entertained” within a given media environment versus the monotony of everyday life, with all its setbacks and drudgery.

Yeah, I get it. The “immersion” is that thing you’re paying money for, right? Never mind Jesper Juul’s recent essay The Art of Failure, which depicts just how much we rely on failing and negative emotion to engage us with media such as video games in the first place. Never mind how games consistently play with the boundaries between meta-level and narrative thinking. Consumers fervently believe that game designers are creating responsible playgrounds in which they can lose themselves. Said consumers often don’t realize they’re in the hands of perverse madmen and madwomen, who are incentivizing strange behavior… such as sitting in front of a screen for nine hours on a nice day. Let’s face it: we gamers are usually the subs in a dom/sub relationship, and our presumed “immersion” in a game usually relies on how good that sub position feels. Oh. Yes.

But there’s one game in particular that makes our gamer subbiness self-evident, that offers a Brechtian moment of truly alienating game activity, that maintains consciousness of gaming’s postmodern and metacognitive impulses.

Of course, I’m talking about WarioWare Smooth Moves (2007) for the Nintendo Wii.


Perhaps the total antithesis to a game like Journey (2012), WarioWare Smooth Moves is an anti-immersive experience of the first order. The game consists of over 200 mini-games, each of which require the player to hold the WiiMote in a different, silly fashion. As the player marches through the levels, the tempo of the music and gameplay increases until the player is forced to drop out. This level-based acceleration might be no different from any old coin-op arcade game set-up, but each mini-game is so radically different on an aesthetic level that half the gameplay involves the mere successful assimilation of each new game environment and its surreal contents.

Take a look:

The game has been pitched in many circles as a “crazy party game” or “wack Japanese game,”  but I think it’s more than that. In highlighting the general ADD quality of the videogame environment, its materiality (through the game’s continuous citation of previous Nintendo products and characters), and its almost pointless interaction cues, it is impossible to play WarioWare Smooth Moves without also remaining acutely aware of the fact that this Wii machine in front of you is demanding that you do things. The music is annoying, and nevertheless the player finds oneself dancing to it. The WiiMote moves are deliberately silly and presented ironically, and yet the player must perform them on cue and in under 5 seconds. The visuals make absolutely no sense – even to the Japanese – and yet their druggy surrealism forms a core component of our interaction with the game (similar to the analog game Dixit). As Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) deconstructs the melodrama by way of demonstrating its excesses, so too does WarioWare Smooth Moves offer a mini-game experience so thoroughly excessive as to render the term “game” meaningless. Instead, the player is reacting to a series of disconnected stimuli in an empirical hell only Ernst Mach could have conceived (or WarioWare Smooth Moves creator Goro Abe, for that matter). Abe permits the player to stare into the architecture of game incentives by way of a pointillist archive of mini-games with their own ludic flavors. Each mini-game issues its own command: “Drink!” “Rotate!” “Defend!” “Sort!” But only when the player pauses to observe what bizarre situation the game has presented can he/she coherently carry out this “verb” with the WiiMote.

Our goals as game players and designers should reach beyond “immersion” to that cognitive space beyond the placation of our senses. The new cyber-modernity demands its own forms of alienation, and new cult classics such as WarioWare Smooth Moves have stepped up to the plate. No longer dismissing such programs as “crazy” and “Japanese,” the discerning gamer can now see how the game itself thinks. There, one finds not immersion, but truly new and unusual territory to explore.

You Need to Read My Struggle: Volume 1 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

June 3, 2013

Book recommendation: My Struggle, Book One

Continuing with my intermittent attempts to blog about the best books I read this year, today I am recommending the first volume of the English-language edition of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s colossal work My Struggle. Yeah, you read that correctly. My struggle. It sounds worse in Norwegian: Min kamp.

Ouch. No, I assure you, the title is not what you’re thinking. 

What is there for me to write, though, other than “go read it?” I feel it might be somewhat within the spirit of the novel to torture you with a hundreds-or-thousands-words-long blog post first. Briefly, the book is the first of a six-volume series concerning Knausgaard’s first forty-odd years of life; the first volume, called A Death in the Family concerns both Knausgaard’s youth and the later death of his father.

But bear with me. Even as the popular media seems to regard with suspicion the institution of books that are difficult and devoid of sparkly vampire romance, I, at least, still strongly believe in the value of those nearly-intractable books that one must work at in order to understand.

And that’s why I think you should read My Struggle. The one-sentence summary, which is by necessity vapid, would describe this work as a six-volume attempt to describe, in almost excruciating detail, his own struggle: with his consciousness, mostly, though also with his family, self, society, etc. There is also an implicit struggle, that of the reader with the text and him or herself, which I’ll discuss later. 

The six-volume series, of which volume two came out in English in early May, has been compared to both Proust and Hitler, which is actually really impressive if you think about it. However, the similarities are obviously superficial. First, the title is, obviously, deliberately provocative and has otherwise nothing in common with Hitler’s prison memoir.  Second, while Proust’s and Knausgaard’s projects are about the – forgive me – struggle to depict the vagaries of consciousness, Knausgaard has little in common with Proust other than the fact that both are European writers whom very few would categorize as minimalists.  

Much has been made in the media of the “Faustian bargain” Knausgaard allegedly struck by depicting in unsparing detail his family. Reviewers, I have noticed, seem obsessed with either pigeonholing the book into the category of overly long, abstruse European books (and this is the only gee-shucks-it’s-long comment I’ll make: it is awfully hard to pigeonhole a 3500-page work into anything) or into the category of autobiography. I feel this reductive assessment does the book something of a disservice. Instead, I’ll do it a disservice all my own!

One of the strengths of Knausgaard’s writing, I believe, lies not on its sheer breadth or depth, but in how by amassing detail on this scale, Knausgaard seems to make his episodic narrative seem effortless. Superficially, it may seem as though the book is an overstuffed exercise in shameful excess, yet considering the authorial choices Knausgaard made regarding what to include – a cat stretching, his own extremely detailed tossing and turning – the book begins to feel almost cinematic. That is, not in the way so much recent fiction has  – by this I mean fiction evoking the cinema, if not cynically with a book deal in mind in terms of pacing, character descriptions, etc., but a fiction that takes its storytelling conventions from cinema more than from the tradition of the written word. But with Knausgaard, that which would otherwise seem a haphazard jungle of detail becomes part of an elegant and strategically-planned opus.

 Instead, My Struggle seems to evoke a dreamy aesthetic evocative of Rohmer or Fassbinder in its lingering, unforgiving gaze, an aesthetic with an inverted time-content curve. The book is far more Jeanne Dielman* than Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I enjoyed so much of My Struggle, but when I started thinking of it as a cinematic book in the style of “European” cinema, I felt something click. So much of the pleasure of the novel resides in being inside someone’s deeply uncomfortable mind and in looking until it becomes uncomfortable. This framework made me feel like I “got” what it was Knausgaard was trying to do.

Much has been made of the affinities the book shares with our culture of oversharing and reality television. We accept now with relatively little fuss the exhaustive celebrity pabulum that passes for news in this culture, and with only the slightest bit of derision do we welcome new trends in social networking and surveillance. Much of asserting one’s identity within a certain socio-cultural class these days seems to revolve around emphasizing one’s non-participation in these phenomena. One could then make an argument about taste politics here: what makes My Struggle interesting is its engagement – as a piece of “high-brow” literature – with the dynamic that functions as an engine of “low-brow” culture (i.e., reality television). In that sense, the title could refer to the struggle felt by the typical overeducated, socially conscious, insufferably liberal reader (i.e., myself). Here one could return to the NYTimes piece linked earlier, of which I’m not a fan (although that is a shambolic rant for another day). How can a reasonably aware, socially and politically conscious, pseudo-intellectual reader struggle with reconciling the basest human tendencies of voyeurism in an oversaturated media culture and attempting to – in a bowdlerization of this very blog’s tagline – nourish one’s mind with challenging literature?

Obviously, my solution to this struggle was to write a less elegantly-planned-but-similarly-overlong blog post. 

I think it could then be said that My Struggle transcends these taste cultures (which themselves might be cultures of social class) in a very subtly confrontational way, and for that reason, I consider it essential reading. But don’t take my words for it. 

Have you read My Struggle (Vol. 1)? If so, what did you think?

(For a full list of everything I’ve read this year, and to be social networking friends, see Goodreads).

* “Plot keywords: meat loaf.” I LOL-IRL’ed

Almodóvar’s Kika (1993) – Postmodern Comedy at its Best

February 13, 2013

The last couple of months have been quite stressful. Strangely enough, I have found the ultimate relief in early Almodóvar films.

Almodovar on the set of Kika

“Almodóvar?” you ask. “Isn’t that the director who makes those flamboyant, disturbing Spanish movies with Antonio Banderas or Penelope Cruz? How can those be stress relief?”

I respond to your rhetorical question with another one posed by A.O. Scott:

“Can there be such a thing as exuberant melancholy?”

No, seriously – Tony’s question is a valid one with regard to Almodóvar’s films. How can he make movies that breathe so well – that can be funny, disturbing and tragic all at the same time without resorting to recognizable clichés? Whether or not one buys into the auteur theory, Almodóvar has an unmistakable directorial signature that nevertheless produces a very different film every time. To quote Tony again, “[his] plots thicken and explode according to their own peculiar logic.” (Which is why I’m s0 excited about I’m So Excited.)


Kika is an uneven, postmodern, self-conscious mess with spectacular pacing and characterization. The film is about an upbeat protagonist in a vicious, cruel society full of the depraved and the depressed, much like in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008). It has all the trappings of a dark comedy, but Almodóvar (as with many of his early comedies) reaches for the bottom of the abyss.


The titular protagonist is a make-up artist who gets involved in affairs with a voyeuristic photographer and his writer/serial killer father Nicholas. The apex of the film occurs when the voyeur son Ramón films from a distant apartment as Kika is raped three times by a randy prison escapee, all whilst Ramón’s father murders a woman in the bedroom upstairs. While any other film would frame this moment in the most misogynistic terms imaginable – emphasizing the voyeuristic affinities between the spectator and the three male perpetrators – Almodóvar manages to play the scene for laughs (i.e., the rapist convict lasts for a ridiculously long time), and our sympathies never stray from Kika and her companions.

And so I got to thinking about HBO comedies and all this long-form television that people so hungrily consume these days… and how all of it could be so much darker and sympathetic toward women, if only Almodóvar were at the helm. Discussions of Bertolt Brecht recall how good the director was at drawing connections between material conditions and the agency of those characters who must endure them. Almodóvar outclasses Brecht by finding endless labyrinths of desire within both the society and characters who maneuver within it, such that we are constantly transitioning between ironic and melodramatic registers in a fashion pleasurable to the astute viewer.

I don’t think it’s on Netflix (OK, it’s on Hulu Plus.) But it’s a gem worth seeking for its total reconfiguration of genre, expectation, and gendered expectations of narrative. An invasive-but-friendly brain massage.

In an age that continuously exalts novelty, I’m suddenly excited to re-watch all the titles from the 1980s and 90s that I seem to have curiously missed.

Recently Read: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

January 16, 2013

Girlchild, by the improbably-named Tupelo Hassman, is in spite of itself fast becoming my favorite recent novel. I know, how very middlebrow of me. Actually, the technical title is Girlchild: A Novel, but one of the few things I hate more than genocide is when a book feels the need to condescendingly point out that it’s A Novel, as opposed to garden hose or a life insurance policy or a cabbage or something, so I will just ignore that. Today, I will explicate three reasons you should read this book (or four, if “Miranda really liked it” counts as a reason). As a brief summary, Girlchild is the story not only of Rory Hendrix, who grows up in a trailer park community in Reno, Nevada in the 1970s and 1980s, but of the women in her family. It is fundamentally a character study.

1) Girlchild doesn’t shy away from class issues. In America, in literature, we seem to only acknowledge poverty if it’s within the context of someone’s ascent out of it, and yeah, I’m sure there are exceptions that commenters can helpfully list, but Girlchild depicts the underclass in a sensitive, nuanced way that resists simplification or fetishization. A significant part of the novel shows Rory’s early awareness of the divide between her neighborhood and the rest of the world. The life depicted in the Calle (the trailer park where Rory and her mother live) is the reality for the majority of Americans, and this voice is needed in a society that is irrevocably divided between the tiny group of haves and the masses of have-nots. While this depiction is imperfect, delivered as it is through a medium of privilege and made possible by more privilege, I think it’s the kind of story we need more of in order to work for a more empathetic society. Oh, sorry, my Marxist is showing. tl;dr! Let’s go on to –

2) Girlchild utilizes pastiche in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen so far, and this makes for one of the most memorable narrative voices I’ve encountered in recent fiction. One major trope in the novel is Rory’s desire to be a Girl Scout, and this is used to emphasize the tasks and trials she undergoes (as well as to highlight the absurdity of the traditional Girl Scouting program in the face of poverty and semi-neglect). Girlchild incorporates a rich variety of voices and texts, yet the story is Rory’s own, and everything is filtered through her perspective. Too often, pastiche tropes just work like collages or overstuffed casseroles, throwing in a bit of everything until it’s nothing, but Girlchild manages to incorporate a wide variety of styles while still integrating them into one coherent and cohesive voice.

3) Girlchild resists easy answers and simple narratives. I know, what a cop-out, right? That’s the ultimate easy answer in a book review. but hear me out. In some heteroglossic move, Girlchild isn’t just Rory’s story, nor even that of her mother and grandmother. The book has been criticized for a slow-moving plot, when I don’t think that’s as important as the development of the voice and the depiction of a place and time. It isn’t just about Rory’s in/ability to get out of the Calle and follow what the audience would have her do (college! scholarships! rewarding career!). It isn’t just a coming-of-age story. Like other works I greatly admire that incorporate other narratives and voices into a deeper whole, Girlchild is actually the story of many different people, which sets the title at odds with its content. Many of the more critical reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem to come from those who expected an easy, “Oprah-style” narrative of someone overcoming their past. Instead, Girlchild is terribly human – not novelistic – and while some may hate it for that, I respect it even more. That being said, the book is not without flaws. For example, early in the book, I think that Hassman resorted to what I could cynically call a cliche in coming-of-age / adolescent novels, but what I respect is  that the book is not about discovering that this event occurred and rendering justice (cf. the far-overrated Perks of Being a Wallflower) but instead, its repercussions and incorporation into the larger context of a life.

It’s hard to find any actual information about Hassman, other than the fact that she lives in Oakland, CA (a fact that the Amazon biography mentions no fewer than three times) and has an MFA from Columbia (mentioned twice in the aforementioned Amazon blurb). While the “MFA-ification” of American fiction has been criticized, and rightfully so, I am excited to see what Hassman writes next. In the meantime, I command you to read this book.

(For a full list of everything I read this year or at least until I forget to update, this is my Goodreads 2013 challenge.)

Revitalizing Geek Buffet

January 5, 2013


It’s 2013! The first year without repeated digits since 1987.

Does this mean that Geek Buffet will come out of its torpor and once again conquer the Internet, as it once believed it might have done?

Could be.
In any case, it does mean a return to semi-regular blogging by *coughs* those of us finally done with our dissertations and now busy with tackling the problems of life and mildly relevant research topics.

The screenshot from Realmz fits the theme here: a game programmed 20 years ago which produced a gut-wrenching groan noise when you resurrected a character.

Feel free to emit said groan whenever you’re ready.

Time for our unlife to begin.

A Crisis of Face

September 10, 2012

Prologue, Errata, Apology

I have been trying to write this essay for over a year now, which is completely and utterly ridiculous (to give you some idea, the file name I’m working from right now is “laser eyes crisis of face redux part eleventy the return of the revenge electric boogaloo.docx”).

It’s way too embarrassingly personal for this blog (so I thought; it probably still is), but it is also too pedantic and research-y for my personal blog. Here is where I default to my crappy academic first-paragraph structure in which I namedrop Montaigne, don’t end clauses with prepositions, and remind you of the etymological origin of the word “essay.” It means to TRY. You TRY to read it, I’ll TRY to write something that makes sense: it’s totally a social contract. Take your expectations and lower them to the floor. Done? Good.

Once upon a time, this was going to be the story of how two days after my 28th birthday, I took a bunch of Valium and let this guy I had never even met before shoot lasers into my eyes and now everything is clear, yay rainbow puppies unicorns ironically-chosen pop songs about rain and clarity!

The thing is – the things are – as follows:

1) The lasers shot into my eyes are really only the start of the story;

2) there’s no point in writing that particular narrative, as others have before and with prettier charts and graphs;

3) It wasn’t really what I wanted to write.

But before I begin, let me answer the questions you really want to know about my eye surgery, the ones I always get asked: nah, just a little bit of Vicodin; yes, I was awake; they gave me a bunch of Valium first, which was probably the most expensive Valium I’ll ever buy, and it didn’t relax me, just made me even less filtered than usual, (ask me sometime how I corrected the surgeon’s grammar); it was about 4 months before I had 20/20 vision all the time; I paid for it with crowdfunding, working an extra job, and a 0% loan because all I really have going for me is my awesome credit score; yeah, probably; no, I couldn’t smell my eyeballs burning and late at night thinking about this, I try to tell myself that the soldering smell was the chemicals evaporating from the laser and I need to believe that, also, why are you asking me about the smell of my burning eyeballs? …Freak.

Then there’s the rambling pre-emptive apology: Why did I do this? How could I, when after a lifetime of derision, suddenly it’s like totally hot to be a girl with extremely thick glasses?

As a feminist and a socialist, I feel that it seems very bourgeois and vain to have corrective surgery or any kind of elective procedure. So why did I do it? When I tell people that by late 2010, without my glasses, I was close to being legally blind in my left eye (yet the state of New Jersey kept giving me a driver’s license), it always turns into some dick-measuring contest where people whip out glasses and contact lens prescriptions. Damn, people are so competitive.

This is what you need to know about my specific choice to do the procedure, and these are my disclosures: by late 2010, I hadn’t gotten a new pair of glasses in more than 2 years; my vision correction was about a -8 in each eye; I also had myopic astigmatism (I forget the exact degree, and it wasn’t as serious as the regular myopia, but it was fairly significant); I couldn’t see well enough to put contacts in; I was getting daily headaches from eye fatigue because my lenses were scratched up so badly.

There were numerous things I simply refused to do, or did not do, or told myself I could not do because the prospect of not being able to see or of potentially damaging my glasses was too terrifying; this included swimming and most other active activities.

By late 2010, these avoidances had become restrictive enough that they came to include leaving the house at night, even to walk around in my dark, blurry, sidewalk-less neighborhood. If the cats knocked my glasses off the nightstand, I was completely helpless. I was in an awkward donut hole of ability: I was not blind enough to fluently navigate sightlessly, but so impaired without corrective lenses that my quality of life was impacted.

I needed new glasses, but the cost would have been close to $1,000 for new lenses and frames, which was frustrating, especially when compounded by my living on a grad student salary ($13k a year!) and the fact that they needed to be replaced every other year or so.  Based on this, I concluded it would be an investment if I pursued laser surgery as it cost approximately the same as 3 pairs of glasses, and the expenditure would pay for itself in about 5 years when I factored in the increasing cost of glasses. Since corrective surgery can’t prevent presbyopia, even if I made it to 40 without needing glasses again, I’d save money (and who’s to say I’d make it to 40, full stop? Quetzalcoatl is coming back this year, right?).

Also, at the end of 2010, some terrible things completely shattered my personal life. Details are unimportant here, but some wonderful people reached out to me and asked what they could do to help. I already said this above, but gifts from good friends both online and off made the financial aspect of the surgery possible, and I emphasize that only because I really cannot ever thank them enough. Anyway, I was able to afford it due to a small discount through my grad student elective coverage, these gifts, some savings I had from launching my business, and a loan from CareCredit, which I repaid in 6 months without paying any interest.

I was, unsurprisingly, not a candidate for LASIK because my eyes were too bad, but I was cleared for photorefractive keratectomy (PRK), which is an older, more intense procedure with a much longer recovery time. That’s what I chose, and that’s what I did, and it’s worked out phenomenally well.

But that’s, frustratingly, STILL not the point. You can look up all kinds of PRK recovery diaries (I found this one very helpful) if you are curious as to how it works in terms of the recovery.

It’s also vital that I emphasize that despite what I am going to write about here, I am and remain extremely happy with the surgery and I have fewer than 0 complaints about the surgeon, the eye doctor, or anyone else at the center, all of whom were just wonderful to me. There is not one single thing I wish they would have done differently and the only clear regret I have is not having found a way to do it earlier.

It’s the unintended outcomes of the surgery and what it did to me mentally that I want to write about. I don’t know how many patients there are like me, who had had very strong prescriptions for most of their lives, and hence had no real idea what their own adult faces looked like.  I don’t know how many people suffered an almost shattering sense of disequilibrium in their self-concept, but that definitely happened to me.

After the prescriptions were done and I no longer needed the assistive features on my computer to read me through my day, I had no idea who was looking back at me in the mirror (and after the surgery, I realized I only had one tiny mirror in my house). Something was missing, but things were also better. I wasn’t who I had been or who I had understood myself to be. I didn’t know who this person was, but I seemed to be stuck with her. After a lifetime of dismissing Looks (“I can barely see; why bother? I hate superficiality! I won’t even buy a mirror SO THERE, system! Fuck makeup damn the man!”), I became acutely aware of every negative feature that anyone could possibly see in me, as well as plenty they probably couldn’t.

I was a conventionally unattractive and overeducated woman living in middle America and teaching 18-22 year old pre-business students, who frequently used teaching evaluations as opportunities to address perceived deficits in my physical appearance. Therefore, I probably had numerous self-image issues anyway, but not having my glasses was strange and redefining, so much more than I had anticipated or imagined. I had thought, prior to the procedure, that in absent moments I might try to push my glasses up on my face and I would wonder what was missing (happens all the time, even now, especially when tired). I had assumed there would be some moments of mild terror, but the amplitude of how terrifying it was to not know who was looking back at me in the mirror was at times indescribable. The cinematic metaphor to which I returned over and over was Eyes Without a Face. This is really embarrassing to admit here, even swaddled in my thick walls of protective text, but I started to really believe  / feel like I was incredibly hideous, almost monstrous. It was like being a teenager again, except it sucked more, because it’s annihilatingly embarrassing to admit I felt like that when I was approaching 30. I began to feel like my glasses had been a mask or protector, and now I was facing the world, alone, and without the barrier the glasses created.

Worst of all was when people implied that I had somehow betrayed an important identity claim or let down some marginalized group: “Oh,” a creepy guy I met via an even creepier online dating site told me, “You didn’t say you got rid of your glasses. That’s a real shame because women with glasses are soooo sexayyyy.” I wanted to punch him in the face (for a lot of reasons, actually), but I started thinking about embodiment when he said that (which I will discuss below). The smaller, less direct comments from other people stung more: “What’s wrong with glasses?” “You just don’t like people thinking you’re a geek?”

Methodological statement: Because I have a stunning deficit in my mind where most other people have common sense, I finally started Researching this just a little while ago. Specifically, I was looking for what other people have said about self-concept and PRK. I limited my search to PRK specifically because this procedure has a more involved and much longer recovery timeline than LASIK and because it tends to be used with people who have a stronger degree of correction than LASIK patients.

I wanted to find out if I was just a uniquely unconfident snowflake, or if there was a larger trend in post-PRK patients experiencing significant and significantly negative ways in the ways they saw themselves. I’m well aware of the fact that I am not personally a sample, that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and there were significant variables in my own life that probably contributed to or exacerbated my own negative feelings. But I can’t be the only one. Right? … don’t answer that.

But I was curious, and I just moved across the country and am kind of  bored, lonely and under-employed right now (hi! hire me! I do a lot of things!), so I conducted a very preliminary literature review to see what has been said about self-concept and PRK. For the patient readers, I will discuss what I found (don’t worry, it’s only a few things), then talk about embodiment a little as if I know what I’m talking about, then I will put in a gratuitous cat picture. Why else do we have eyes and an Internet, right?


I found relatively few high-quality articles on this topic. Most people seem to agree that PRK and other corrective surgeries enhance self-image. Googling “self-esteem PRK procedure” yields 715,000 results, most of which I consider biased because they come from vision center ads.

I think for most people, these procedures DO enhance self-esteem, but overall, there is a lack of robust literature assessing outcomes in self-concept for patients who had a) worn glasses for most of their lives and b) had a very high degree of correction. The studies I found have small sample sizes and problematic / non-descriptive means of assessing self-image.

For example, in a 2001 study in the Journal of Refractive Surgery, most patients were actually found to have a higher self-image after a PRK procedure (see: Jerzy Toczolowski, Piotr Oles and Zbigniew Zagórski). However, the sample size of this study (alliteration! Awesome!) is very small, only 25, and it was conducted in Poland; my impression and hypothesis is that in late-capitalist, voracious, image-obsessed America, findings might be significantly different. So all this really tells me is that if I take 25 people in Poland and the adjectives they would use to describe themselves as the norm, I’m not normal (also, if I had to pick any adjectives to describe myself, not a one of them would be in Polish).

Lest you think I’m actually just severely dissonant in my perception of self, a 1995 article in the same journal – which used a larger sample – found that “The psychological findings suggest that PRK patients cannot be considered more distressed or anxious than other myopic individuals” (Erickson, Ryan and Aquavella). Of course, that study uses Myers-Briggs, of which I’m suspicious (do I talk to people at parties? It depends on the party). All this really tells me is that the sample they chose indicates there is not a greater than average degree of anxiety or distress among the group of people who are candidates for and then elect to have PRK.

This is not directly related, but for the past year I have also held Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex in high regard. While I am not a sociologist, I wonder if there is an aspect of role exit at work here. In the past year, I also left a role in my own life (career / career student / mediocre academic). I understand Ebaugh as saying that the process of announcing the role exit reduces cognitive dissonance, and repetition and easing into another role reduces this dissonance. I wonder if the visibility and then the invisibility created this cognitive dissonance for me. I had a role, which was embedded in my face, of a bookish / geeky / nerdy female, and as long as I had that item on my face, the cultural construct in which I lived seemed slightly forgiving or understanding, as I was immediately and visually ascribed as belonging to a certain group. I wore glasses for about 20 years and I had had poor eyesight for years before I got them. There was very little of my pre-procedure life that I remember clearly (again, with the seeing-words) that didn’t involve corrective lenses. But then one day they were gone. There are many moments of bifurcation in one’s life, I think, but this one was certainly the most cinematic in mine. I walked into a room a person with very limited vision (simple past, completed action) and walked out to begin the process of recovering at 20/20. The division is so absolute and crazy. Usually borders bleed into each other, but this is an absolute division.

Leaving grad school was a process, unlike the surgery. People were generally extremely positive about the surgery, and generally very sympathetic about the situations that led me to choose to leave grad school. The difference is that of verb tense, of the simple past vs. the past progressive. I did, I was doing; I became, I was becoming. I was becoming an ex-(Failed!) grad student; day by day I was less and less what I had been and more and more whatever I am now (and it’s way better). But one day I was a person with glasses. I had a procedure and then I wasn’t. I underwent a process letting go of one role; the other happened suddenly. How to reconcile that? It is only now when I understand these two fundamental changes side by side that I think I can understand why it was so shattering and that the real recovery, the mental recovery, went on for so long. I have not had time to look it up, but the rhetoric used to refer to sight, and the English verb tenses used – in all their wonderful specificity – are something somebody (else) should really look into.

I don’t know if everyone who wears glasses had similar experiences to me. As an ex-grad student, I feel compelled to mention the Cyborg Manifesto. I was a cyborg; I went through every waking second of every day with a device that allowed me to see, a device on my body and in some sense part of my body. My physical engagement with the world depended to a great degree on the correct functioning of this device. “From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point” (Carraway). I no longer know on which side of the dichotomy I fall. All I can read in this quote, now, is the imaginary emphasis on the word “see.”

This change in my embodiment and interacting with the world was not as profound as the ones others undergo. I know that. But this experience really has given me a great deal of interest in embodiment, though I know virtually nothing of the theory surrounding it (recommendations?). Of all the changes in identity claims one has in a lifetime, it is virtually certain that at one point one will change how they physically interact with the world. Yet we seldom talk about it. Why?

SO WHAT? As I said before, every single thing about the staff and surgeons was wonderful. But it might be good if the corrective eye surgery field provided some psychological preparation for the profound change in self-concept that is likely to occur. Maybe we should stop fetishizing sexy glasses or understanding them as an intertwined aspect of a subcultural identity. Maybe we should normalize physical difference. Maybe we should just fund preventive measures to address the pandemic of eye issues (did you know almost 80% of urban Chinese children are myopic? [link is in Chinese, sorry]). I don’t really know what any of this does. I don’t even know if anyone is going to read all of this (if it took me a year to write it, I estimate people will read to the end by about 2015 or so). I’m sure my conclusions and interpretations are invalid and intellectually feeble, poorly informed by a useful framework. I live in the real world now, so I can’t do the usual grad-school cop-out and say “there’s just something there, you know?” More research is needed.

What do you think? Have you had corrective surgery? If so, how did you reconcile your former self with the present one? What issues did you encounter during that process? How can we understand embodiment in a world where physical difference can be erased and experiences normalized?


Every time I went for a post-op appointment, I walked by the Lion’s Club donation bin for glasses, which was helpfully situated by the front door of the clinic (great marketing move, there).

And just so you know – every single time, I told myself I was going to do it. I reached in and I opened my bag and touched my glasses and I suddenly could not fucking make my hand put them in the box. I just froze and pretended to be looking for my keys, and walked out the door, still getting fingerprints all over the lenses. I did this four consecutive times. But I still have them. Sometimes I look through them to try and see things the way I used to; I can’t now. It’s all a confusing blur, almost like a metaphor or something.

I just can’t let go, not of that, not of what I was.

I still can’t.

PS: I promised a cat picture:


Works Cited

Carraway, Donna. “Cyborg Manifesto, Part I.” 1985. Donna Carraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. September 2012 <;.

Ebaugh, Helen Rose Fuchs. Becoming An Ex: The Process of Role Exit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Erickson, D.B., R.A. Ryan and J.V. Aquavella. “Cognitive styles and personality characteristics strongly influence the decision to have photorefractive keratectomy.” Journal of Refractive Surgery 11.4 (1995): 267-74.

Jerzy Toczolowski, MD, et al. “The Sense of Self-concept Change in Patients After Radial Keratotomy .” Journal of Refractive Surgery 17 (2001): 134-137.


A Requiem for Livejournal

March 15, 2011

Ad perniciem solet agi sinceritas – Phaedrus

In which rows of asterisks function as transitions:

I suppose it’s come to a point now where I really have to admit it to myself and make it real by writing it (“Write it!”): It is gone now, or at least, no longer alive. The online community where I felt the most comfortable of any space on earth, digital or analog, is now relegated to artifact and memory. The space in which I met the most meaningful people of my life, the safe place where I could really be myself since high school – is gone and never, ever coming back. The space where I spent my youth – even if this space is reducible to mere 1’s and 0’s – is an ex-thing. It was not even afforded the dignity of total destruction, but rather, it petered out into insignificance.

Oh, sure, the site is still up, the servers humming somewhere. It’s all the rage in Russia, apparently, but the US-based Livejournal is dead and gone, a digital post-nuclear holocaust inhabited only by a few unkempt survivors who are suspicious of outsiders. I know. I am one of them.

For years, as Facebook has gotten creepier, I’ve urged people to repatriate to Eljay, but it never happens. I hit reload on my empty friends list; I look at the IP hits on my journal; I think of the dozens of people who have left the site, drifted away, one by one. I look at the empty landscape and wonder, how did we get here?


Once upon a time, I was 17 years old and my friend Andrew Like-Slettuce kept urging me to join this blogging site. I already felt pretty cool because I had been on Blogger, but one day to humor him I opened the URL and saw what he’d been talking about. I saw the user profiles listing interests and was charmed. I saw the field for “current music” and was utterly enthralled. Surely, what was missing from my life was a way to blog that let me broadcast to the world my interest in Werner Herzog and apocalypses. I needed to tell the world what I was listening to while writing about New Jersey diners, verbs, and dollar stores. I missed achieving “early adopter” status by mere weeks, but I was hooked within minutes.

Before social networking was all the rage, Livejournal connected users in a meaningful way. With a few clicks, I could add new friends to my journal who shared my interests in “seedy diners” and “old classroom films.” Before all the hand-wringing about internet presence and privacy, Livejournal offered “granular” security – a feature Facebook will never have and that Twitter can’t seem to implement. Before all the inane memes and surveys hit Facebook, we on Livejournal answered them, and more cleverly. I knew what serial killer I’d be and what disease I was no later than 2003. Before blogs had effectively coalesced into a sphere, Livejournal brought people together, and used language to do it on one site.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I loved coming home after spending time with friends and reading a different account of everything that had happened; it was Rashomon before I ever lived in a place where I could have seen the movie Rashomon. Livejournal illuminated for me the infinite possibilities of experience, writing, and perspective. Livejournal let me keep in touch with friends from each of my left-behind lives, as I embarked on a relatively transient adult life (New Jersey, Florida, Germany, New York, back to New Jersey, now the Midwest, hopefully somewhere else soon). Livejournal created a nexus of meaningful communication among all the people who meant a lot to me in each place. Livejournal archived all my writing, throughout each chapter of my life. Livejournal helped me learn about new books, places, and lives. Most of my exes are or were on Livejournal. Heck, I even got one of my cats because of a Livejournal post (he has a Twitter now).

In its heyday, almost everyone I knew – everyone who mattered, anyway! – was on Livejournal. At one point around 2005, I had met most of the people on my friends list not only because I tend to get evangelical about things I think are cool, and thus got people to sign up (remember those invite tokens?), but because I felt a certain intimacy with the people on there, enough so that I made a point of meeting up with Livejournalers.

The deep emotional intimacy – that’s  something I really miss and will continue to miss about Livejournal. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer describes how we never or rarely think about the intimacy of dead animal flesh in our mouths. I immediately thought of Livejournal: I thought of the intimacy I felt with the people who knew me only from the inside of my mind, and how inadequate other human relationships sometimes felt in comparison. Livejournal felt authentic, it felt important. Food is in your mouth, but the friends who read my writing – and, more importantly, the people whose writing I read – were in my head. I could keep an online presence but lock my entries so only friends could read them. I could keep some things public. It was freaking awesome.
Through Livejournal, the quotidian could be transformed into a document, a collaborative experience to which many people responded. While I too was occasionally guilty of living life so as to generate Livejournal posts, I never saw it as solely about me. My life as documented was only meaningful due to the participation of others. My Life, The 17 to 28 Years, was made by Livejournal. For me, Livejournal was made by the comments of others.


In 2009, I wrote a paper for a grad seminar about the LJ Community EFW, in which I argued that this community was an instance of performance of early adopter status. Now I would revise that argument slightly to note that these days, merely being on Livejournal is an inconsequential act of resistance. What are you doing there? Is that site even still around? That’s so 2003. Everyone’s on Facebook now. I like reading your stuff, but Livejournal is too annoying.

At least in the USA, the site owners have managed to fail spectacularly at adapting the site in a meaningful way to the changes in the Internet. At the same time, they have also managed to alienate a large portion of the strong community that made Livejournal what it was. The site has changed hands numerous times in the past few years: Six Apart, SUP, and Livejournal, Inc have all owned it, insofar as anyone can really own a site powered by user-created content (a topic for another blog post, but the answer is probably: total ownership, you’re just a content farmer for a corporation). Nobody has ever leveraged the user base for anything meaningful, and the site seems to operate on a delayed-reaction strategy.  Only a few weeks ago, they implemented a pathetic attempt to add social gaming / data mining (and, that’s like, so 2009, right?). It was late in the game before they established Facebook / Twitter implementation, which as usual was implemented in a way that managed to alienate, confuse, and upset a significant portion of the user base, who were sure this meant non-consensual exporting of data elsewhere on the web.

I’m not sure how things are on the Russian-language version of the site, but the English-language site has become a tacky ghost town. If I am accidentally logged out, the sheer annoyingness of how the ad-plastered site is presented to “free” users makes me kind of dizzy. My paid account is expiring in a few months, and for the first time since 2001, I think I will let it lapse.

Many of those who remain on the site are blasé about it, even condescending towards my nostalgia. Of course all things end, of course all sites and all forms of beauty must fade and die. Of course everyone in my age cohort (except me, I guess) has moved on to Careers and Families and Home Ownership and Children and God, Everyone Just Grows Up, Get Over It! But that doesn’t make it any less painful – not after a decade of it being a big part of your life. Any space of one’s youth, even if it’s virtual, inspires pain and melancholy when it goes to seed.


One of the things I found most moving about the movie Up was the function of the space of the home itself, and how it performed a resistance to change by retaining its charming mid-century aesthetic, even in the midst of hideous corporatization. The interior of the house indexes a lifetime of stories, hopes, and dreams, some achieved, some not. In the scenes that show the house, the most vibrant colors in the palette are in the balloons that buoy the house over the anonymous gray urban corporate-scape. One could over-read this as a metaphor for the hive mind – that the remaining indexes of the past are buoyed, perhaps, by the buoyant nature of collectivity. Maybe.

the house from up leaving the 21st century city

To me, Livejournal has become like that house (which, I suppose, means that I have become cantankerous Ed Asner). As the web has gone  multimedia, Livejournal remains totally rooted in the textual origins of the Internet itself. As the Wild West of the 90s Internet has consolidated into a few corporate-owned cookie-cutter type chains, Livejournal remains a “humble and solid” index of what the web used to be.

Those of us left, perhaps, assert our early adopter status by continuing to use an online social network / platform that is rooted in the textual Internet. On one level, using the textual in this way reflects an identity claim as a literate citizen: after all, using the Internet once required significantly more intellectual, economic or educational privilege than it does today (and of course, privilege is still needed to access it).

Building worlds and communities through words alone is a more difficult and powerful goal than doing it with bells, whistles, and cat pictures. On one level, participating in a relatively old-school site like Livejournal in the current Internet environment is a statement of “I was there way back when. I was there before you.” Or, “We were there before those other people.” These are statements about which I feel ambivalent. At its core, could my nostalgia merely be no more than an index of my discomfort with the web being accessible to more than an elitist few?

Of course, this too leads to interesting questions. Where does a space exist, particularly if it is digital? What is a space and where is a public?  If an easily-accessible archive remains of a time that is gone and nobody has died, is anything really lost? Can it ever be reconstituted? What is the Live in Livejournal? If the site simply shifts and grows in one country and dies in another, is the space really gone? What, if anything, will replace it?

Of course I can look back over the 10 years of my writing, but the thing that made Livejournal alive is no longer there. Of course most of those people are still alive, but the online diaspora has scattered everyone to the digital winds.

Of course, maybe there’s a future, a new place to write and meet new people. At least, I need to hope so. But Livejournal, I miss you- and I’m using Livejournal as a synecdoche for those of my friends who drifted away from the site and thus from me. Keep in touch.

–Miranda / audesapere

Current mood: Nostalgic

Current Music: “Come Dancing” by the Kinks