Sunday, March 24th, 2013
Google as a tool for the making of art has had a separate life from Google as a prosthesis for navigating the world and its culture, the way the pencil has had separate lives in the studio and at the office. Taking up the disinterested Kantian aesthetics of the language poets, Flarf and Conceptualists have made a point of providing results for useless searches—unless you have a rabbit with mange, “rogaine bunny” is not something you’d look up to plan a course of action. Diana Hamilton’s first book, Okay, Okay (available both for purchase in hard-copy and for free as a pdf from Truck Books), however, asks a serious and painful question: “how to stop crying at work.” This search leads often to the kinds of message board and self-help material that Flarf has been criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) for appropriating condescendingly. It also leads to Human Resources best practices documents and scholarly work on emotion from before the dawn of Freudian psychology—the kinds of material Conceptualist works present as self-evidently interesting, without engaging the arguments or observations.
How to stop crying at work. It feels heartless to go on with the review without reflecting on the question, not to rehearse one’s own mediocre pro-tips on the subject (breathe, take a walk, change departments or careers, confront the bully, reorganize society) but to try to hear the questions the question hides: what is this agreement we’ve all made to work these jobs, how did we arrive at consensus about how things get done, why does this hurt so much so often, is it just me.
The range of subjects of Hamilton’s rewritten search results suggests it is not just us: crying at work, crying at school, how to hide that you’ve been crying, crying in science, crying in the car, crying outside, crying in the kitchen, crying in the airport, crying in the shower, Craigslist missed connections in which “you were crying” appears, crying yourself to sleep, crying on the train, crying during sex, crying in the movies, practicing replying calmly. I don’t pretend to know whether catharsis has all the health benefits the ancient Greeks claimed for it, but I do know it’s possible to read Okay, Okay a dozen times and feel more each time.
What was Flarf.
I caught up with Drew Gardner, the inventor of Flarf, over wine at Sweet Revenge on Carmine.
“Drew, what was Flarf?”
“Well old bean, if you really don’t remember, Flarf was a bunch of us fucking around with google on the man’s dime.”
“Right, sure: bored-at-work google sculpting.”
“Don’t ever use that phrase with me again!”
“Drew, I’m sorry. Let’s try again: how did you invent Flarf?”
He looked sideways at me. “Gary [Sullivan] had written ‘Huppa Chimp Party’ which was a series of deliberately awful remarks and nonsense phrases thrown together to see if the Poetry.com scam would offer to sell him a $75 book with that poem in 7 pt type in it, and you had written that buff-colored poem [‘On an 89 Ford Taurus Taillight’] to see if a list-poem could be made out of the blandest material on earth, and I got the idea to combine those two approaches and do a deliberately weird cute google search and make a poem out of the results. I couldn’t just use the results straight, though.”
“God no! ‘Communism bad, plagiarism good!’ Because the results aren’t a poem. Found material isn’t a poem. You have to revise it.” I thought for a second I might ask him about his revision of Wallace Stevens: “Money is a kind of lettucey Stegner fellow,” but decided against it.
Hamilton’s book carries on the work of the Flarf and Conceptual poets, but the Conceptual poets don’t work, they write time and action plans, and if Flarf involves work it’s analogous to the combining and rewriting that goes on during dreaming. Here’s page 12 of OKOK:
You find yourself having a natural physiological response to feelings that derive from events. Many women cry easily and unexpectedly, especially around that time. Our socialization includes greater latitude than boys to express emotions through crying. In some ways, this freedom serves us well as grown women, especially since September. There is substantial research on “emotional intelligence” saying this ability makes us better, more effective leaders. We are also better friends, family members, and co-workers. You are not alone, in other words, tears make us look bad.
And here’s the source text, “There Is No Crying In Business” by Linda M. Poverny and Susan Piscascia:
Have you ever found yourself crying in your boss’s office when you’re attempting to problem-solve, asking for a raise, negotiating workload, or accepting a compliment? You are not alone. Crying is a natural physiological response to feelings that derive from events in our lives. Many women cry easily and unexpectedly. Our socialization includes greater latitude than boys to express emotions through crying. In some ways, this freedom serves us well as grown women. Crying can provide a built-in emotional release valve—a catharsis. Having access to our feelings can allow us to have empathy and understanding when needed, which makes us better friends, family members and co-workers. There is substantial research on “emotional intelligence” saying this ability also makes us better, more effective leaders.
However, the workplace is one of those environments where most tears are viewed as inappropriate and can have negative or detrimental effects on performance reviews, promotions, and executive presence. In other words, tears make us look bad and lead to a personal undermining of our sense of competence and confidence. As Lois Frankel notes in her book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, most women know they shouldn’t cry at work, but there are times when you can’t help it.
Here’s Hamilton again, with her interpolations on the source text in bold and reordered text in brackets:
You find yourself having a natural physiological response to feelings that derive from events. Many women cry easily and unexpectedly, especially around that time. Our socialization includes greater latitude than boys to express emotions through crying. In some ways, this freedom serves us well as grown women, especially since September. There is substantial research on “emotional intelligence” saying this ability makes us [better, more effective leaders.] We are also [better friends, family members, and co- workers.] [You are not alone], [in other words, tears make us look bad.]
Hamilton cuts straight to the double-bind of Poverny and Piscascia’s thesis: empathy, the ability that is supposed to give women an advantage in competition for leadership, can’t be given its due in the work environment (horrible phrases!). There is the general perception, verified or no, that a criterion for advancing in the ranks of any organization is the ability to handle potentially emotional situations without acting against the organization’s interests—without appearing weak or getting the worse part of a compromise.
Notice that Hamilton doesn’t question the main premise, that women are more empathic than men. Probably doesn’t have to.
The myth of the world resting on a turtle, who rests on another turtle, and so on. There is the text, and there is the story about the text, and the mystique of the individual author, the won-lost record of the author’s team over time, and some would say, at the bottom of the stack of turtles, authorship itself. Some would say that, but they are a) wrong and b) boring. Even worse are the people who say that underneath authorship itself is the deep structure of language. Worst of all are people who believe that it isn’t just turtles all the way down, but that the last turtle rests invisibly on top of the first turtle, the text in front of us. But enough about me.
The book doesn’t start out with tears in its eyes, but begins with a condensed version of “Quiz: Is the Design of Your Office Space Making You Happy,” by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I found it by googling a phrase from the page (“there’s no blank wall within 8 feet”). Until I did so, I thought what I was reading was a recent college graduate coming to terms with inhumane work conditions, and not a best-selling author modeling a cheerfully unassuming approach to finding personal satisfaction:
There’s a wall behind you, yes, there’s a wall to one side, yes, there’s no blank wall within 8 feet in front of you, no, I sit right in front of a wall, you work in at least 60 square feet, no, your workspace is 50-75% enclosed by walls or windows, not exactly sure what this one means, you have a view to the outside, yes–no nice view, but I can see outside, you are aware of at least 2 other people, but not more than 8 people, around you, no, I’m all alone, you can’t hear workplace noises that are very different from the kinds of noises you make at work, no, I can hear other kinds of workplace noises, no one is sitting directly opposite you and facing you, no, you can face in different directions at different times, yes, you can see at least 2 other people, but not more than 4, no, you have at least one co-working within talking distance, no.
The next page is an office space layout diagram (three more appear on pages 16, 47 and 62 of Okay, Okay), underscoring the pathos of not having a 60 square foot workspace. Having subtly established that maximizing the workers in an office creates an emotional pressure cooker, Hamilton slowly builds up the tension in the following pages, piling up social and antisocial behaviors in disorientingly linked clauses and sentences:
There’s one girl at my office who is just like you: she says exactly what’s on her mind (today she wore a sleeveless mini dress in a gold color with gold gladiator sandals), so when she hurt her back recently I drew up some flowers and sent them to her via email (the dress code only allows suits or dresses). In response, she started always licking her food before she ate it, she flirted heavily with the dude who waters our plants, she chose a different grocery store, she grabbed my pen and walked away with it, she booked the flight, she snapped and punched me, and only after she got pregnant did I all of the sudden find her irresistible.
The text shifts easily from one-source pages like the Rubin questionnaire to these collaged composites, building force like a narrative and voice like a monologue, though there is no narrative and no unitary speaker. It works just the way the avant-garde said it would—and so seldom does—because it is focused completely, in every clause, on strong feelings and how they are both felt and avoided. I thought at times of Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale, another excellent work that uses collaged internet search results to get to the heart of things, and of Kevin Davies’s “Lateral Argument,” which remains the high score on the post-Language poetry video game.
I thought more of symphonic music than of other books of poems, though, and my expectation for modulation, for a crescendo, was not disappointed. About three-quarters of the way through, the first person shifts to a clinical voice, a questionnaire without responses:
Describe a cry with utter abandon. Describe as full as you can how it grew. Describe such a fit of crying, composite photograph. If so, describe a typical case. Describe each symptom of a “good cry” in order. Describe lump in the throat and its repression. Describe vocalization of the cry in old and young, individual cases. Describe its frequency and culmination. Describe stages cry fetiches, i.e. special acts, describe crying as a source of pleasure in power to control others, describe effects of the tears of parents, describe angry. Describe the child spoiled, best described as a state of helplessness. Can you describe cases of crying in persons usually self controlled when the final break down comes as a cumulative effect? Does such crying tend to become hysterical? Is it followed by physical prostration? Is it a cause or an effect of physical weakness? Describe as a persistent symptom a condition that appears temporarily in the preliminary stages of the cry, and more or less throughout its course, namely, a helpless state or feeling of incapacity
These are some of the 200 questions Clark University graduate student Alvin Borgquist used for a study published in 1906, three years before Freud delivered his five lectures there. It would not be entirely just to Borgquist to call these questions superficial; he appears to have been the first to attempt a universal study of the physiology of sadness, and if he was unconcerned with identifying and remedying root causes, he wasn’t the first or the last graduate student to understand the value of a limited scope. The value of his work for Hamilton is to give the reader, who by this point may have sleeves damp from empathetic tears, to step back and consider crying qua crying. Hamilton collages Borgquist for four pages, then segues to “In Women’s Tears, a Chemical,” a January 6, 2011 piece in the New York Times, the science of which may be better, but which feels eerily reminiscent of Borgquist’s examination a century earlier:
When we cry, we do more than express emotion.
We ask men to sniff drops of our emotional tears.
They become less sexually aroused.
We ask them to sniff a neutral saline solution, recently dribbled down our cheeks.
They remain sexually aroused.
Chemical signaling is a form of language.
We’ve found the chemo-signaling for ‘no’—or at least ‘not now.’
We believe that one day men’s tears will also transmit chemical signals.
To reduce aggression in other men.
We could not find men who are good criers, readily able to fill collection vials.
Fortunately, we have a male crier now.
But sleuthing out the sources is as easy as figuring out which phrases Hamilton left alone, and guessing at what searches led her to each page’s subset of the whole is less satisfying than considering the book as a whole. From the apology for feeling in the Radioheadesque title to the ungoogleable narrative that closes the book, Okay, Okay is resolutely not an invitation to share an inside joke or an appeal to intellectual vanity. The feelings may be borrowed, quoted, distorted and inverted; they may take time to come into focus; nevertheless, they are real and strange and there every time the book falls open. Readers who have written off Flarf as either an “oh that” or an “I don’t get it” experience will ignore this new mutation at their cost.
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