Clickbait Thanatos

On the poetics of post-privacy

What surveils us says it knows us better than we know ourselves. And what everyone knows surveillance knows about us is that we don’t look very interesting. If there were some sort of totality leak, and all of humanity were presented in the form of data before us, it would be a laundry list of sad punctuated by accidental nefariousness.

Tech-gaze delimits our species as fragile at best, brute at worst, and venal at the most predictable. A news feed, having noticed an interest in cats, selects headlines about tortured kittens.

Human wickedness makes for narrative interest, but it doesn’t prove definitive. Negged into compliance, living lives of live-tweeted resignation, feeling horrible about the alien arrangement of information as structures of attractively horrible feels. Nothing is ours, not even us; of what was once considered “us,” not much remains. Fed a pabulum of the very bad and told it is the only food, it is no wonder so many people fearfully covet the apocalypse, agreeing with each other that the end will come, or is practically here. Climate science, or electoral disaster, doesn’t promise the end; it points toward an end, but we elect for the definitive article in hope we can escape the world that’s been made for us in such a way that we mistake it for ourselves.

If there were some sort of totality leak it would be a laundry list of sad punctuated by accidental nefariousness

Roombas, twitter-bots, self-driving cars: automated ideations of everyone else’s extinction. As techno-capitalists imagine the end of our labor, they imagine the end of their need for us, and in that we can imagine the end of ourselves. A child’s toy drone aloft is a floating micro-wish, that most of us need not exist at all, at least not as “us,” that what we really should be is a winged eyeball of empire.

One version of human extinction: bots infinitely RT each other; another, that the credit card companies would compound interest into infinity while robocalls forever announced grand-prize luxury vacations. The animatronic band at Chuck-E-Cheese’s would sing a dirge for every human mother. Fitbits quantify the metabolism of every decaying corpse. Our species would evaporate along with posterity, all of us gone, leaving behind this virally tragic world, the one in which we watched ourselves so closely that we came to the conclusion there was nothing left to see.

As much as capitalism’s humans seem to generally suspect we should or will die off and take the world with us, many of us also want to live, at least in a manner.

We spend our days searching the engines that search us back. We look for instructions, click-baited by fear and trembling, propelled by whatever force allows the ruins of rust-belt factories to be taken over by vetch, the landfills to be filled with rats and sparrows.

Poetry, which was once itself a searching engine, exists in abundance in the age of Trump, as searchable and as immaterial as any other information. As it always has, poetry experiments in fashionable confusions, excels in the popular substitutive fantasies of its time, mistakes self-expression for sovereignty. But in making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition.

In making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition

Verse poetry once served a social function as memory structure and didactic aid. Its songishness was useful to memory, and memory was necessary to a kind of cultured thought. This memory-use began to fall away with the printing press, then crumbled underfoot with screens. Changes in memory and the human relation to it under industrialization corresponded to changes in poetic form, which underwent multiple rearrangements in the 20th century as social cognition was also rearranged. Our minds were exteriorized to the paperwork, then indentured to Silicon Valley’s safety-blue empire. As thinking fled mnemonics, so did poetry, and the new poetry of fracture, parataxis, and ragged complexity, if it had anything to do with memory, seemed to always be saying one thing about it: “Don’t remember me.”

The poetry we ended up with was not so much a memorial structure as an amnesiac one. By the 2000s, poetry began to look like a building to permit forgetting, irregular and immemorial. The storehouse of memory closed. Its account books became lookbooks. The desire to self-cancel, de-fame, and auto-eradicate was written in the unweightedness of any line, mingling of high and low, pathos and bathos, TMI and OMG — just like anyone’s Facebook feed.

It isn’t just the change in memory that changed poetry: Posterity faded too. Poets were once willing to suffer through the interesting social humiliations of being a poet at least in part because someone, as Sappho promised, would remember them. Time anointed the estrangement of poets with the possibility of enduring time, and that some poets did endure time anointed our species with a temporally innovative set of possibilities.

Without the filter of posterity, a poet of post-privacy looks just as forgettable as everyone else. If poetry is revenge porn against the self by the self, so is, now, every other form of contemporary self-expression: videos, tattoos, TFWs. Deprived of posterity, poetry softly imitates the information that always is claiming to be us. Then information, like to like, devours it.

The mess abides, only now with brighter lighting

On the first day of 2011, I typed a Google document and then ignored it for years. It began with the phrase “post-privacy poetics” and contained nothing but its ending: “new forms, entirely lonely.” I was thinking about post-privacy then because in 2010, Wikileaks had begun its experiment with the limits of critique, and many still believed in the logic of exposure. With the lights on, went the thinking, humanity would no longer abide the mess. But the mess abides, only now with brighter lighting.

Information is a deceptively partial illumination. It’s a light often worse than darkness, like fluorescent tubes that keep plants growing but are nothing like the sun and also give us migraines. Inside the mess of the world as it is, we are bathed in what claims to be the light of knowledge but is only the unflattering fluorescence of data.

It reminds me of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, an atomic epic written in first century Rome. After about 7,000 hexameter lines of poetry predicting science, the work ends in a waste-smeared spectacle of mass death via plague. Dying humans are last seen fighting other dying humans for ready-made pyres on which to torch their dead.

I think this says a lot about human fondness for received structures. We will fight each other to the death even if it’s over what is good for nothing but the dead to lie dead upon.

A plague ended De Rerum Natura, but it didn’t end Lucretius. Lucretius ended, as we all will, but his end did not end the life of his poem. Rome fell, but it wasn’t the fall of the world, not even close to it, and all the drones could fall out of the sky today, or gather in it until they occluded the sun itself, and that wouldn’t mean time or the universe had left. The delimitation of our world into information may, momentarily, persist, like a funeral pyre over which the dying fight — it may even form our auto-forgotten songs — but what is also in the work of Lucretius is that everything, and nothing, lasts forever.

Lucretius appeared to abruptly give up on his poem without attempts at the platitudinous. But I am me because my little keywords know me: tagged, geo-located, epigrammatic, identified.

The algorithms that supersize our fear and rage will quiet, and a new noise will take their place. Even the end of the world will end. The angel of history might be a drone that vapes, sky-writing WE BUY GOLD in tear-flavored mist against the horizon, but probably not.

Anne Boyer is a poet and essayist. Her most recent book is Garments Against Women. She lives in Kansas City.