“No discernible emotion and no discernible lack of emotion”: On Tao Lin
The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
i have moved beyond meaninglessness, far beyond meaninglessness
to something positive, life-affirming, and potentially best-selling
-Tao Lin, “today is tuesday; email me on saturday”
So what is it about Lin’s writing that provokes such extreme praise and vitriol? The feature that seems to draw attention in reviews is the tone expressed in the work. One reader claims that “Lin favors flat and accurate articulation of feeling over language play” which gives the poems “a tone of totalitarian sincerity” (Young, “you are a little bit” paras. 4, 7). This style, called by some “The New Childishness,”v has garnered attention for being at the forefront of a manner of writing that valorizes innocence or naiveté. Elisa Gabbert, for example, identifies this mode as “a ‘cultivated artful artlessness’ in tone employed by artists like Tao Lin, Joanna Newsom and Dorothea Lasky…this childish tone can be employed to great dramatic effect—creating ‘insta-intensity’…[and] tends to inspire love-it-or-hate-it reactions in people” (“If you don’t secure…” para.1). Gabbert argues that this mode might actually be a means of defending oneself against critique: “I’ve sung the praises of Lin and Lasky here before…[but] there’s something preemptively defensive about this Innocent mode—as though by announcing upfront one’s vulnerability, one could become invulnerable. As in, Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid” (para. 2). This characterization seems to recall DeDeo’s complaint about Lin’s allegedly “masculine, fuck you, attitude” as well. What this ends up looking like (although the above statements are all clearly responses to the work rather than examples of it) is an aesthetics of posture and stylization rather than authentic emotional expression; indeed, the antithesis of sincerity.
If the responses to Lin’s work are, more often than not, responses to a certain tone, it is important to understand what sort of tone this is, why it is being mobilized, and to what end. In a 2007 blog posting, Conn O’Brien describes a type of writing that corresponds closely to what seems to be happening in Lin’s poetry:
[T]here are two main styles in which a person can write—one is overtly emotional, while the other is neutral (or “dead-pan”). Here is the difference between the two styles: if an emotional writer wants to write about a sunset, they will say something like, “Conn’s face was bathed in the deep, dynamically-shifting fiery glow of the life-giving, untouchable solar body, as, all the while, the northern wind caressed his skin.” [B]ut a neutral writer would say something more like, “the earth rotated so that the sun was no longer visible to Conn.” The difference is that the emotional writer continuously makes moral and qualitative judgments about what they are describing, whereas the neutral writer only expresses what actually happens, without including their own judgments. (“Emotional Lit vs. Neutral Lit” paras. 1-3)
According to O’Brien, neutral literature or “dead-pan” writing is committed to representing the objective actuality of event rather than the subjective interpretation of that event. The essential difference between the two for O’Brien is a difference of value judgments: the neutral writer refrains from imposing his or her interpretation of value on the object or event that is being expressed, which in itself could be considered an act of assigning value to one’s own practice.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy defines itself by adopting what appears to be this neutral tone. However, Lin tests the limits of this method by deploying it to describe what could only be construed as emotional events, as in “eleven page poem, page one”:
i looked away from the computer with a slight feeling
of out-of-control anger; i saw you wearing a coffee-colored star-suit
there was a barely perceptible feeling on my face
that i was being crushed by the shit of the world
then i saw beyond the window to the tree, the house, and the street
the house and the street made mysterious binary noises
that negatively affected the tree’s immense happiness
i observed this neutrally, without falling out of my chair (17)
Rather than sketching a situation in which a speaker feels “out-of-control anger” and then responds to this anger aesthetically (i.e., writing it out), Lin chooses to sever the connection between the emotion and the supposed response to that emotion: the speaker considers his anger, wears the feeling externally (on his face), and though he views his surroundings as taking part in a larger scheme of oppositional forces (“binary noises,” happiness, anger), he observes—rather than reacts to—these events “neutrally,” without allowing them to affect either his demeanor or his account of them. This neutral tone is similarly employed in “fourteen of twenty-four”:
‘i don’t know anything’ is an irrational
and melodramatic pattern of thought
most emotional and behavioral responses are learned
while answering emails, according to empirical science
that was the day my philosophy
created between us ‘an enormous distance’
which i think we both knew was uncrossable
but looking at it was therapeutic
so i put quotation marks around it
in our time of suffering my poetry will remain calm
and indifferent—something to look forward to (91)
The speaker in both of these poems acknowledges his emotions (“out-of-control anger,” “suffering”) but chooses not to express them. Rather, he expresses the event of not responding to them, of choosing neutrality through, for example, direct observation of oneself (“without falling out of my chair”) or by deliberately calling attention to language usage (“i put quotation marks around it”). Moreover, the “voice” is flattened out in both of these instances, in part as a result of avoiding punctuation. Rather than helping the reader interpret “intention” or mood by offering linguistic signposts—exclamation points, question marks, periods to indicate syntax breaks—Lin chooses to leave off these directives.
This technique of omission is one of the ways in which Lin repeatedly presents us with overtly emotional scenes but refuses to present us with his feelings about these emotions; it is a paradoxical formulation of extreme emotional states expressed neutrally. His project seems to be to reveal himself to the reader, to show the reader the materials that make up his world and the thoughts that create that world, but to do so in such a way as to fail to dictate how the reader should feel about or respond to that world. His aesthetic question is how to render emotional extremes with the least possible amount of emotion.vi
In an interview with 3 A.M. Magazine, Lin discusses this technique. He chooses, even here, to distance himself from his own claims: “The tone I currently am writing in…is ‘neutral’ I think. I am writing it like a journalism thing maybe…‘severely detached’” (para. 21). And in the notes to you are a little bit happier than i am he writes:
you are a little bit happier than i am is I think a non-fiction poetry book. The narrator is myself, “Tao Lin.” I wrote most of the book to console myself against unrequited feelings, loneliness, meaninglessness, death, limited-time, and the arbitrary nature of existence, maybe. (“Book Notes” para. 3)
There are two separate techniques being used here to, on the one hand, distance Lin from himself as the agent of actions and feelings depicted in the poem, and on the other, maintain a neutral tone in their depiction. The first technique involves the overt use of scare quotes, which calls attention to words and phrases as linguistic units or ideas rather than as given facts (“The tone I currently am writing in is ‘neutral’; ‘severely detached’”). He does this with his own name (“Tao Lin”), as if he is refusing to own the poem or commit himself absolutely to the role of author. By creating aesthetic distance of this kind, Lin avoids having to fully bind himself to any claim he might make in his poetry. These gestures are ultimately protective in nature, and recall Elisa Gabbert’s notion of “The New Childishness” as a way of defending oneself against critique (“Don’t hurt me, I’m just a kid”). This resistance of one’s own authority reveals a strong ambivalence toward the idea of asserting any kind of absolute power over creative work in the face of what’s perceived as diminishing aesthetic resources.
The second technique involves the constant qualification of statements. He tends to make assertions (“I wrote most of the book to console myself against unrequited feelings”), then undercut them by qualifying their accuracy (“maybe”), thereby destabilizing his own authority. This is evident in “that night with the green sky”:
it was snowing and you were kind of beautiful
we were in the city and every time i looked up
someone was leaning out a window, staring at me
i could tell you liked me a lot or maybe even loved me
but you kept walking at this strange speed
you kept going in angles and it confused me
and that hurts
why did you want me gone?
i don’t know
some things can’t be explained, i guess
the sky, for example, was green that night (you are a little bit 9)
This poem refuses to commit absolutely to any particular claim. The speaker thinks the auditor is “kind of” beautiful, thinks “maybe” that she loves him or that “maybe” she was trying to ditch him, then moves into a set of repetitive questions (“why?”), and ends inconclusively, almost helplessly (“some things can’t be explained, i guess”). This qualifying diction is characteristic of the book as a whole, and as these vague phrases accumulate, we begin to form an idea about what sort of a project this is: Lin oscillates between assertions of truth and undercutting or negating those truths. Ultimately, this avoids absolute identification with any statement and widens the gap between the speaking subject and his material.
The oscillation between making and dissolving propositions, as well as the use of authorial diminishment as an aesthetic technique, ultimately reveals a defensive stance toward literary authority in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge. However, Lin pushes this skepticism to its limits by rejecting his own power through particularly deflating linguistic choices. His commitment to both flat neutrality and emotional expression causes a rupture in the text, and the strain between the detached and the expressive is a defining feature of his work. When Lin’s content—failure of communication, of relationships, of social and commercial recognition—is coupled with his clashing techniques, the result is a body of poems that refuse to perform “successfully.” They intentionally resist notions of what counts as “serious” writing,vii asking us to consider what the official criterion of success is, or should be.
Lin’s work is also stripped of formal self-consciousness. Many poems leave in traces of the revision process, which turns the poems, in some cases, into the unselfconscious divulgence of the labor of poetry. In “my brother is vacationing on a mountain with his girlfriend and i found out from my dad,” Lin’s revision process is visible:
i am really happy and this is the truth
do you believe me
you don’t believe me
but i am
it is 1:10 a.m. and i am alone in my brother’s studio apartment and i just grinned
(it is 2:24 a.m. inside of this parenthetical and i am doing revisions on this poem and i am not that happy anymore but thirsty; but not thirsty enough to go and drink something) (you are a little bit 85)
The act of reading this poem seems almost voyeuristic. We are made privy to the parts of writing and revision that typically occur outside of the space of the “finished product”; but rather than erasing the evidence of process, Lin has chosen to incorporate it within the product, which gives this poem a temporal aspect beyond merely the act of reading. It is difficult to tell, though, whether or not this can be considered an act of choosing what to include or simply an act of avoiding having to make a choice.
While one could think about the above practice as essentially authentic, in that it reveals a commitment to exposing the messiness of craft, some elements of Lin’s aesthetic produce critiques focused on his poems’ lack of authenticity. In a scathing review of the poem “i’m tired,”viii Simon DeDeo claims that by using simple syntactical constructions and childlike diction, Lin is refusing to “directly confront the self: the articulate self” (“Tao Lin…”). But rather than imagining that the employment of such techniques produces a poetry of greater authenticity through embracing a regressive or childlike tone, DeDeo thinks it produces a poetry that’s ultimately insincere:
Tao’s verbal device—apart from the occasional apostrophe to the Pulitzer Prize or a snippet of telegraph-speak—is to ventriloquise the spoiled child, cursing and wailing alternately. It’s a ridiculous performance…there is nothing here but raw, embarrassing id—and, again, the ego looking down at it. And, again, the ego taking sideways glances at itself looking down. (para. 11)
Where some readers see Lin’s unselfconscious divulgences of interiority as signposts for an actual speaker, DeDeo sees the regression into childlike language as ultimately disingenuous.
In Christian Bök’s “Writing and Failure,” we can see this sort of rejection as an instance of what the essay forecasts:
Critics…cannot often tell the difference between the incompetence of an old poetics and the virtuosities of a new poetics. Since the avant-garde relies upon subversive strategies of asyntactic, if not asemantic, expression, such writing often seems to resemble the nonsense produced by either the unskilled or the illiterate, camouflaging itself in the lousy style of the ingénue in order to showcase the creative potential of a technique that less liberal critics might otherwise dismiss as a fatal error…Even though such critics refuse to see the merits of, what must appear to be, a completely capricious act of wilfull [sic] failure, the avant-garde nevertheless insists that, by abusing the most fashionable instruments of great style, the poet can in turn highlight a new set of virtuosities that have, so far, gone unconsidered, if not unappreciated…What constitutes the precondition for failure in one style now becomes the prerequisite for success in another style. What we define as a mistake to be avoided is almost always the foresworn direction for some other more revolutionary investigation. (Part 3, para. 2)
What is at stake here is a longstanding question—how we can determine whether something is art or not—and more specifically, whether “bad” techniques can serve to revitalize stagnant art. These are questions that have been asked at least since the twentieth century was confronted with Dada and surrealism and later, conceptual art.ix The idea that the avant-garde is responsible for pushing the limits of what can be considered art comes with a risk, when the question of definition—what makes something art?—seems necessary to ask of those art objects that clearly do not seem to be performing in the ways we think they should perform. What I think is notable about this particular situation involving Lin and others is both its mode (childish discourse, sentimentality) and its motive or object of resistance (Language poetry and its second-generation adherents, the “post-avant”x ). But the desire to create art that deliberately fails by certain standards means that it intends to succeed by others. Lin describes you are a little bit happier than i am by saying:
If my book’s creation was explained as a theme park’s creation I would be building it and then I would build it wrong but the roller coaster materials would already be ordered and then it would have to be built or delayed 3-5 years and I would feel a lot of despair most of the time. When it was finished I would just want to sell the theme park to someone else, but I would think about one part of the theme park a lot, like the fish pond, and feel okay. It was really “a terrible process of despair” or something not unlike being in a relationship and like fighting a lot at night and “needing resolution” before going to sleep. I’m not really sure if this is all true. (Butler, “Tao Lin in Interview” para. 13)xi
What we feel here is a sense of exhaustion, not just with the postmodern or aesthetic possibility, but with the writing process itself, and once again, Lin deliberately weakens his claims by deflating them (“I’m not really sure if this is all true”). What has been expressed and described is immediately dissolved by its own qualification, and as a result, the art that Lin has been in the process of constructing is simultaneously obliterated as well.
Near the end of his essay on the “Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland poses a hypothesis concerning why younger post-avant poets seem to be drawn to a “skittery” mode that resists narrative coherence. The language Hoagland uses echoes the way Elisa Gabbert details the phenomenon of “The New Childishness,” whereby the poet assumes the stance of a child and gains power through a kind of naïve rebellion against a vague power, and Hoagland attempts to explain why this style is particularly prominent now:
We have yielded so much authority to so many agencies, in so many directions, that we are nauseous…We allow “experts” and “leaders” to make decisions for us because we already possess more data than we can manage…Forced by circumstances into this yielding of control, we are deeply anxious about our ignorance and vulnerability. It is no wonder that we have a passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself. In this light, the refusal to cooperate with conventions of sense-making seems like—and is—an authentic act of political, even metaphysical protest; the refusal to conform to a grammar of experience which is being debased by all-powerful public systems. This refusal was, we recall, one of the original premises of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. (“Fear of Narrative” 186)
The techniques of “failure” that Lin and others employ seem to reveal this “passive-aggressive… relation to meaning itself” in their simultaneous refutation of and attraction to authority and knowledge. Hoagland’s characterization is striking in its acknowledgment of the Language poets as the original rebels-without-a-cause: and indeed, the acts of resistance that Language poets chose to perform mirror somewhat the acts of defiance we are seeing in this newly “sincere” aesthetic. However, the ways in which Lin and others go about undermining “meaning” or conforming to “a grammar of experience” include the deliberate appropriation of sentimental gestures and, in some cases, indirect rejection of post-avant techniques. Lin’s poetry moves against this contemporary thrust by risking explicit self-expression and forms of knowledge through privileging modes of discourse that are essentially sentimental at their core. When these techniques are coupled with a “failed” content, Lin refuses the possibilities of the “successful” poem and instead embraces a poetics defined by its own failure.
In a dialogue with Georges Duthuit, Samuel Beckett claims that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail”; that “all that is required…is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation, and of the act which, unable to act, obliged to act, he makes, an expressive act, even if only of itself, of its impossibility, of its obligation” (125). By Beckett’s standard, what is required of an artist is that he make aesthetic failure productive of more than itself, to make “a new occasion” as a result of aesthetic obligation. The artist, both unable to make art and obliged to do so, perpetually exists in a sphere of impotentiality; but rather than shutting down the possibilities for art, a “new term of relation” is necessary. That new term seems to be emerging in the work of these writers.
i Burt, Stephen. “Sestina!, or, The Fate of the Idea of Form.” Modern Philology 105.1 (2007): 218-41. Here Burt notes a “miniboom” of poets writing sestinas, and claims they are drawn to the strict form as a way “to lament their diminished or foreclosed hopes for their art” (220). This form in particular is attractive, Burt writes, because its repetitive structure enables descriptions of “sorts of futility,” “the uselessness of verbal craft” or “art’s failure to find further use” (223-226). See also Christopher Nealon, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism” (American Literature, 2004), in which he argues that “post-Language” poets are faced with the unique difficulty of writing “from within the presumption of totality” (599). This work “recognizes that even its awareness of the obsolescence of its materials, as a literary strategy, is obsolete” (597). See also Christian Bök’s “Writing and Failure” (Poetry Foundation blog, 2007) in which he discusses the “doomed labour” of poetry (Part 1, para. 1).
ii Bök, “Writing and Failure” (ibid).
iii Beckett, Samuel. “Bram van Velde.” Proust and Three Dialogues. London: John Calder, 1965. 125.
iv I want to clarify how I will be using the terms “failure” and “success.” There are various ways one can talk about failure and its relationship to poetry: we can talk about 1) poems that fail (always a value judgment according to variable criteria); 2) poems about failure as such; or 3) poems about their own specific failures. It is these last two options which I consider most fruitful and which I will be discussing here. Like failure, “success” is usually a function of personal or public taste and tends to be determined by criteria dependent upon a work’s historical situation. In this context, I’m interested in success in terms of the choices these authors make to write a “successful” poem according to their own aesthetic interests, as well in as how these choices relate to broader criteria for success.
v I’m primarily referencing some discussions that took place on the Ploughshares blog in 2008 between Elisa Gabbert, Ana Bozicevic and others.
vi A similar aesthetic practice that involves neutral tone and paradoxical emotionality is evident in some of the work of Fernando Pessoa. About Pessoa Lin writes “I like The Book of Disquiet…I like his tone, I think it is ‘emo’ and sarcastic and ultimately playful, like I feel like he enjoys making jokes about how sad and bored he feels because he ‘likes’ his sadness and boredom to some extent, or at least thinks it is funny. Yes, I like Fernando Pessoa. He is probably the earliest writer who had that tone I just talked about that I have read” (“Not bored, neutral” para. 19).
vii Lin addresses this in an interview with 3 A.M.: “I really feel alienated from ‘serious literature’ or something…I think I don’t want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing” (para. 6). It seems here that “serious literature” or canonical writing is being characterized as inaccessible, and that Lin, though clearly assuming an unselfconscious stance toward his writing, is consciously trying not to alienate potential readers.
viii DeDeo could not have picked an easier target. This is really a bad poem: “i’m tired/ i’m going to eat a lettuce/ it’s stupid to make sense/ i don’t want to make sense anymore/ just let me type something and let it be good/ i’m tired/ i’m stupid/ i don’t care” etc. (Juked 2 Mar 2006).
ix I’m thinking here, too, of the more recent avant-garde movements such as Flarf and the related “Mainstream Poetry” (Michael Magee); the practices of direct transcription (see Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day), and more recent collections of collaborative poetry (Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney, Phil Jenks and Simone Muench).
x “Post-avant” has been a term in circulation since at least 1992 when Ron Silliman used it on his blog. Since then it has gained usage mostly in online venues and roundtable discussions (see Joan Houlihan’s debate on the avant-garde with Oren Izenberg, Stephen Burt, Kent Johnson, H.L. Hix, Joe Amato, Alan Golding, and Norman Finkelstein). Recently Reginald Shepherd has offered this definition: “[post-avant] are writers who…have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need…to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity…or a particular mode of proceeding artistically” (“Who You Callin’ ‘Post-Avant’?” blog posting, Poetry Foundation. 6 Feb 2008). There are a good deal of other defining characteristics which I won’t elaborate on here, but examples Shepherd offers of “established” poets in this vein are Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, and Cole Swensen; “emerging” writers include the likes of Laynie Browne, Noah Eli Gordon, and Matthea Harvey.
xi Lin’s comments on his novel are similar: “I feel free to write whatever I want to read and even to ‘ruin’ my books like I did with Eeeee Eee Eeee by adding animals to it. It feels exciting to me to ‘ruin’ a book in that way. I feel like it would be exciting to write a linear, realistic novel that has not been ‘ruined’ in any way, which is what I want my next novel to be like I think. I also ‘ruined’ Eeeee Eee Eeee by giving it certain things like cancer and terrorism (I think) and death to make it more ‘important’” (Rourke, “Not bored” para. 15).
Beckett, Samuel, and Georges Duthuit. “Bram van Velde.” Proust and Three Dialogues. London: John Calder, 1965. 119-126.
Bök, Christian. “Writing and Failure.” Blog posting. The Poetry Foundation. 12 Sep 2007 through 28 Sep 2007. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.
Butler, Blake. “Tao Lin in Interview.” Interview with Tao Lin. Keyhole Magazine. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.
DeDeo, Simon. “Tao Lin and Gabriel Gudding (joint review).” Blog posting. Rhubarb is Susan. 4 Mar 2006. Retrieved 24 Oct 2008.
Gabbert, Elisa. “If you don’t secure your own mask first, you’ll just sit there stroking the child’s hair.” Blog posting. Ploughshares. 11 Feb 2008. Retrieved 21 Mar 2008.
Gallaher, John. “Tao Lin: you are a little bit happier than i am.” Blog posting. Nothing to Say & Saying It. 24 Jan 2008. Retrieved 14 Jan 2009.
Hoagland, Tony. “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006. 173-187.
Lin, Tao. “Book Notes- Tao Lin (you are a little bit happier than i am).” Blog posting. Largehearted Boy. 19 Dec 2006. Retrieved 24 Oct 2008.
—. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2008.
—. you are a little bit happier than i am. Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2006.
Mohammed, K. Silem. “Tao Lin, you are a little bit happier than i am.” Blog posting. Lime Tree. 21 Feb 2007. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.
O’Brien, Conn. “Emotional Lit vs. Neutral Lit.” Blog posting. Rhombus Trapezoid Disaster blog. 17 November 2007. Retrieved 15 Oct 2008.
Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. Trans. Richard Zenith. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Rourke, Lee. “Not bored, neutral: An interview with Tao Lin.” 3 A.M. Magazine. 2 Sep 2008. Retrieved 24 Oct 2008.
Young, Mike. “you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin.” Blog posting. Cut Bank Review. 29 May 2007. Retrieved 11 Dec 2008.