On Literature

    From Alt Lit to SEO-Literature?
    The Literary Work of Art in the Age of Digital Monopolies

    The Internet has the potential to radically change our understanding of literature. Previously unimaginable forms of publication and writing have been developed – not for the sake of literature alone, but also because authors can no longer exist without taking the requirements of the Internet into consideration. The Internet theoretician Johannes Thumfart discusses the possible extent of these changes, and how dangerous, in some respects, they are.

    Back in 2006 the Internet theoretician Kevin Kelly was already prophesying the transformation of literature under conditions of digital reproducibility. In the future, Kelly said, it would no longer be enough for an author to present their work, mumble their way through readings, and elegantly evade questions put to them in sporadic interviews. The writer of the future would be above all a performer, permanently promoting himself and his work on social networks. As the Internet, unlike television, is text-based, every blog post, every commentary, every e-mail, every tweet, every status update and even every line of code could become literature. This would give rise to a new form of total, real-time digital literature: the borders between different genres, spheres of life, and identities would become blurred.

    Kelly’s 2006 vision is now daily reality. As with the other arts, digitisation and the Internet have changed literature irrevocably. Literary figures no longer create self-contained works; to borrow an image from the Internet artist Brad Troemel, they are ‘aesthletes’, constantly performing in an incessant artistic competition before what is essentially, given its condition of possibility, a global audience. For literature nowadays, its presence in social media is usually about being quantified in a similar way to the rest of the world: through hits, likes, shares and comments.

    YouTube is full of videos of writers reading, vying for attention. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution for 2015 was initiating the traditional book club format on his social network. There are similar groups on thousands of online forums, especially among crime and fantasy enthusiasts, but in Zuckerberg’s Facebook group even established authors come along and answer questions. The American star author Bret Easton Ellis is even more progressive. In recent years he has been more preoccupied with entertaining his more than 500,000 Twitter followers with short-format texts than he has with writing his next novel.

    Contemporary U.S.-American underground writers like Marie Calloway and Tao Lin, labelled ‘alt lit’ (short for ‘alternative literature’), are among the most radical in driving the digital literary revolution in terms of content. These writers are pushing the boundaries in the transference of aspects of private life to digital literature. By contrast, the digital avant-gardist Kenneth Goldsmith makes the algorithms themselves produce literature, which he cheekily calls ‘uncreative writing’. At an even greater remove from the traditional literary discourse, but more economically significant by virtue of their sheer quantity, authors who have been rejected by the classic publishing houses, or who are not interested in them, are self-publishing on Amazon. More than 30% of all book sales on this quasi-monopolist are now self-published titles – and the numbers are rising.

    Faustian pact

    Some of them, like the Internet pioneer Kevin Kelly mentioned above, take a one-sided view, describing what digitisation will do to literature as democratisation. In fact, however, the embracing of the Internet by literature is a Faustian pact. As the Internet theoretician Jodi Dean wrote in a landmark essay in 2003, the Internet is to a great extent not a public sphere but a shopping mall where the house rules of digital monopolies hold sway. Futurist visions such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta like to romanticise literature as the last bastion of the human in a technocratic and dystopian world. By joining up with the digital monopolists – Amazon, Google and Facebook – literature too is becoming part of a standardised global system, and with every click the alternatives diminish.

    As is also happening in other fields, the people the worldwide web is consigning to poverty are predominantly those who offer their services and wares online. Global reach means global competition, which in turn drives prices down – witness the ruination of the taxi and hotel industries by Uber and Airbnb in their race to undercut prices, which was furiously opposed in Germany and the United States. Similarly, the average annual income of a professional author – in Britain, at least, where such statistics exist – has dropped 30% since 2005, to the equivalent of just under 15,000 euros before tax. The assumption is that there is a causal connection with tougher competition as a result of digitisation, with digital piracy, and with the increased number of books being published. For a long time now it has no longer been a rarity in Germany for even established authors to be unable to live from their work.

    The quasi-monopolist Amazon is making publishers fear for their survival as well, by demanding high discounts on purchase prices. With a market share of around 65%, the sales giant is in a situation that allows it to impose its own pricing on its suppliers.

    Just as in the field of journalism or in the music industry years ago, the digitisation of literature will affect the literary middle class and its infrastructure, which, comparatively speaking, is far more economically fragile. It will increasingly become the rule that very small authors, some of them amateurish, will present themselves directly to a global public via the digital monopolists, without going through publishers, critics and high-street retailers first.

    And its not only economic problems that result from the confrontation and collaboration of the over- with the underground. The Web has a habit of changing from a niche medium to a mass medium from one moment to the next, at the speed of light. Just as the famous beat of a butterfly’s wing can stir up a hurricane, every naïve faux pas can suddenly stir up a shitstorm of global proportions. Abrupt shifts of range and speed are the rule in the digital world of ones and zeroes, of all or nothing: it only knows extremes, and is less and less influenced by the slow-grinding but carefully-considered mills of the pre-digital bourgeoisie.

    Brooklyn’s search-engine literature

    The shitstorm is the exception, though; being ignored is the rule. The more content there is, the more urgent the question becomes of how it is possible to generate interest in literature at all if the old gatekeepers, the publishers, critics and bookshops, who would also make an initial selection and generate customer loyalty, are increasingly becoming obsolete. If all literature now competes on the same playing fields of Google, Amazon and Facebook and the competition is getting more and more fierce, we seem to be heading towards an SEO literature (SEO = search engine optimisation): a literature optimised for search engines, which increasingly selects its subject matter and concepts according to what will be successful on search engines, i.e. according to criteria that have long applied to texts written by advertisers, trolls and journalists alike.

    The best example of a contemporary SEO literature is undoubtedly the Brooklyn alt-lit scene, where accusations of sexual abuse are currently following hard on each other’s heels in the form of short stories published on the Internet. This is simply a countermovement to the practice, widespread in the scene, of describing sex with very young women in painstaking detail in texts that are usually published online. This kind of exhibitionism was the basis for alt lit’s popularity – a digital pop literature on Adderall in which ever-younger authors exploited their own private lives, and those of others, in an increasingly apathetic manner.

    In particular, the work of the author Tao Lin, now thirty-two years old, has been translated into several languages and is seen as defining the style of the movement. As early as 2008 he would use the Net to find interns, stage their humiliation on social media, and turn this into his literary work. Apart from novels, the proceeds of which he sold before he had even written them, like shares in Internet start-ups, his work also includes performances, like a wholly unromantic fast-track wedding in Las Vegas, recorded on an iSight camera and published on Vimeo. He also coined the scene’s dissaffected, so-called ‘Asperger’s’ style, named for the mild autism syndrome: it is characterised by unprecedented indifference towards others, encountered primarily in social networks and turned into literature.

    Two of the sexual abuse allegations, made within the scene in the form of digitally-published short stories, created such an uproar on the Internet that they made it as far as the New York Times. These were the accusation of Stephen Tully Dierks, until then a complete unknown, by the until then equally unknown Sophia Katz; and the accusation of Rob Horning, until then almost equally unknown, by Marie Calloway, until then a complete unknown. Published as a short story on Lin’s website, Calloway’s merciless dissection of her nights with the much older Horning, editor of a marginal Brooklyn webzine, was an immediate literary sensation; it appeared in print, and has since been translated into German.

    Accusations have also been made against Tao Lin himself that give a profound insight into the circumstances in which alt lit is produced. His former girlfriend, Ellen Kennedy, who was only sixteen at the time of their relationship, claimed on Twitter that Lin had systematically abused her over a lengthy period. She said, for example, that he had forced her to write regular reports on how she had failed in their relationship, and had reproduced these reports without her permission, along with e-mails she had written to him, in his novel Richard Yates. The novel was published in 2010, and its success enabled him to switch to Random House. Lin replied with a long Facebook commentary. He admitted the psychological abuse and offered her the royalties from the book, but explained that the sex had taken place in Kennedy’s parents’ house in the state of Pennsylvania, where sixteen is the legal age of consent.

    Whereas in Tao Lin’s case these sorts of accusations at most had the effect of lending even greater credibility to his literary brand as the bad boy of alt lit, in other cases they were more effective, and did actually result in rape accusations that will be findable on Google for all time. This is the equivalent of a lifelong sentence, especially in the case of otherwise unknown authors, making both jobseeking and building a relationship equally impossible.

    Never before has underground literature that has not even been published had this kind of power. Women in the literary scene now have a suitable means for preventing abuse. However, it has also opened up a Pandora’s box of real-time digital reality TV, where not only is there greater incentive than ever before to produce exhibitionist literature, it also becomes a weapon to destroy people’s livelihoods. Furthermore, the price for virality is that it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which, in the algorithmic business logic of the digital monopoly, is king. The cases mentioned above, for example, were never discussed in a nuanced way, but in the form of hashtags. #rapist. #sexualpredator. Opinions are formed at the speed of light, in the staccato of algorithms and the fervour of the mob.

    This dumbing-down has far-reaching consequences, and what is all the more disturbing is that the Brooklyn alt-lit model is also setting the trend for cases in which, from a moral point of view, there is nothing to expose. Take, for example, the Kindle e-book The Secret Lodge, self-published on Amazon in early 2015. In just seventy pages of (not even proof-read) broken English, Elda Oreto, a Neapolitan who used to run a gallery in Berlin, takes revenge on artists from the Internet art scene whom she used to represent by exposing their secret weaknesses and having her female protagonist murder them all one after the other.

    The depicted artists, all of whom are very active on social networks, initiated a discussion that made it onto ArtNet and Monopol, two of the most important German art websites. Although none of the people described is famous in the pre-digital sense, the affair has the interactive entertainment value of one of the great romans à clef, and that leads to hits – meaning that ultimately all those involved, including the defamed artists, actively contributed to unleashing the shitstorm in this micro-milieu, because it was in their own best interest.

    The deliberate initiation of just such intra-milieu scandals that pander to the vanity of the people described is the most significant element to date of search-engine optimised (SEO) literature, which values the quantitative over the qualitative to such a degree that it makes trashy novels look like high culture.

    It’s possible that, in the near future, even greater numbers of Kindle and blog writers may decide to make use of provocative terms like ‘sex secrets’, ‘Nazi’, ‘terrorist’ etc. in their literature, with the aim of getting as many hits as possible and thereby coming out on top in search engine results. No one nowadays can afford to dispense with such purely quantitative strategies, especially when publishers, bookshop owners and critics are becoming less and less important as mediators of quality. It is, after all, the only language the digital monopolies understand: they may be the mass media of today, but they rely almost exclusively on algorithms to function as their editorial staff.

    Manhattan’s uncreative writing

    I meet Kenneth Goldsmith – perhaps the most established of all the digital literary figures – for an interview in Manhattan to discuss these most recent developments. The Net pioneer is around fifty years old and has a full-time professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he gives seminars with titles like ‘Wasting Time on the Internet’.

    Unsurprisingly, he says he is well acquainted with the texts of the alt-lit scene over in Brooklyn, on the other side of the East River. Tao Lin’s in particular he regards as ‘THE most interesting work right now’. ‘He’s writing about what it feels like to be twenty-five right now, and he’s doing that better than anything else,’ says Goldsmith: a comment that also conceals a polite distance between himself and Tao Lin, who is now in his thirties.

    This distance is not surprising, given their very different approaches. The authors of the alt-lit scene write almost exclusively autobiographically, despite or because of its roots in the newest digital technologies, whereas Goldsmith’s work is second to none in its personal reticence.

    He practises the ‘uncreative writing’ he himself invented, i.e. simply the manual copying and the digital copying and pasting of texts. One of his best-known works, The Day, simply reproduces the New York Times of September 11, 2001 word for word, thereby demonstrating that supposedly objective texts can also be subliminally enriched with uncanny emotions of anticipation. No. 111 2.7.93–10.20.96 functions in a similar way: over 606 pages, Goldsmith collates extracts from e-mails, news articles and reviews he has read. These are organised into chapters by increasing numbers of syllables, and each chapter is ordered alphabetically. In his hunting and gathering of texts, Goldsmith doesn’t stop at those not intended for human readers, such as source codes. He is also known as the organiser of UbuWeb, a website that primarily publishes material by the twentieth-century avant-garde, deliberately breaching all copyrights in so doing.

    In the punk-dominated New York of the early Nineties he had already started copying texts from the Gopher scene – a forerunner of the Internet – that described sex, drugs and music with unprecedented directness. ‘My sort of “aha moment” in front of the Internet was like: everything on the screen, all that language, could be selected and copied and brought into my Microsoft Word document. I thought: Wow that is the moment. Wow, I don’t have to write ever again. All I have to do is select things and move them into my document, and that is the new way of writing. That was never possible before.’

    Although Goldsmith lays absolutely no claim to exclusivity for himself and his method, he sees himself as part of a linear modern tradition. For him, the digital age brought ‘this feeling of possibility. The same feeling that Modernism had – a Modernism of course being the reaction to recording and photographing technology. I feel we’re in a similar situation as in classical Modernism, when art had to react to the camera and to the Edison. Now it’s time for some new forms reacting to that technology.’

    For Goldsmith, the extremely subjective work of the alt-lit scene – which also works with the Internet and, in part, the re-utilisation of pieces of digital text, such as private e-mails – and his own, completely de-subjectified writing are two sides of the same neo-modernist coin. ‘My work is very hard modernist. My work is Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, and their work is Beckett – a modernism that has been worked and subjectivised.’

    Asked whether what is happening in Brooklyn right now is as trivial as reality TV, Goldsmith answers, grinning broadly, ‘It’s more trivial than reality TV! That’s what makes it interesting. It makes reality TV seem positively scripted and narrative. In this work there’s no narrative. There is a statis, a static quality that is very much like the hum of the digital age, where people aren’t paying attention to each other, they’re paying attention to their phones.’

    However, Goldsmith himself is at a considerable remove from the increasingly tough competition in digital literature and its resulting trivialisation. The man who started out as a web anarchist is now sustained by his professorship at the University of Pennsylvania – an irony of which, he says, he is well aware. ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution’ was the title of a lecture he gave on the occasion of receiving a prize for his poetry.

    But how are things looking for the Internet, this much bigger institution that forms the basis of Goldsmith’s work? What does a literary Internet pioneer like him think about the increasingly apparent division of the Net into the prospering field of the digital monopolies, and that of their suppliers, the innumerable marginal and increasingly impoverished zones of the Web to which the various literary scenes also belong?

    ‘For the avant-garde, the Internet has been a godsend,’ says Goldsmith. ‘Anybody who published avant-garde literature always went broke. And they still publish it, and they still go broke. The Internet has helped a lot. It’s been a great thing for writers. It’s given writers a way to work out in public, with the absence of gatekeepers. It’s also helped that stuff to become much more popular. UbuWeb is a really popular resource now. Suddenly people are talking about old Modernists which they haven’t been talking about for years.’

    It’s not a problem, he says, that quasi-non-monetary avant-garde zones exist alongside giants like Amazon and Facebook. ‘In the Web there are different economies. There are for-free economies and highly monetarised economies. It’s like the world itself. It’s not just one way or another. And that’s a good thing. When these guys are busy monetising stuff, they sort of leave us alone – here, in our world. The world of Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift goes on over there. And we can go on over here. It sort of coexists in a nice way.’

    However, in future he would like not just to be left alone but actively to intensify this splendid isolation. He wants to get his website UbuWeb erased from Google search results. The idea is that this should in part bring about a return to the pure word-of-mouth popularity of the early underground movements.

    ‘Again, everyone wants to rush toward the centre. They even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher,’ Goldsmith says. ‘We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.’ He has also now banned his students from gleaning ‘uncreative writing’ from Google search results, which has become almost a cliché of this form of literature.

    Although, as Goldsmith himself admits, his recent rejection of Google sounds Luddite, the avant-garde poet has absolutely no fear of the dynamics of the Internet. Just a short time ago he called on his thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends to steal his identity and post things in his name. Unlike with the alt-lit protagonists in Brooklyn, with Goldsmith even daring experiments like this are unlikely to end in disaster. Because although Goldsmith is an omnipresent figure in the digital literary discourse, he offers such a slim personal surface for attack that he has nothing to fear on social networks. Despite all the controlled warmth expressed by his good manners, Goldsmith never strays into the realm of the personal; basically, he only says that everything has already been said and that what matters now is to steal as imaginatively as possible.

    Goldsmith brought poetry and the Web together when this encounter was still a blank page. He never had to construct himself as an individual brand in the digital literary discourse of today, which, especially if you don’t have the backing of a publishing house, can only be done by creating shitstorms and gossip. In his aggressively-paraded neutrality and impersonality he himself resembles the digital monopolists. He is probably the model of an author who through his impenetrable neutrality and receptivity – by consciously imitating a machine, in other words – has found the only viable strategy to counter the dangers of today’s Internet. Instead of creating SEO literature that feeds the machine with hystericised human authenticity – i.e. the thing that, in principle, it most craves – he has himself adopted the stoical meticulousness of algorithms.

    The squirrel dying in front of your house

    Centre-less network, patchwork of minorities, temporary autonomous zones, hierarchy-free discourse, rhizome, digital frontier. As with every new technology, utopian ideas flourished in the early years of the Internet. Among the most popular was the hope of a new period of industrial expansion that, away from the sluggishness of the pre-digital market monopolies, would allow thousands of highly profitable start-ups to shoot up out of the ground. Politically, people were counting on Net-driven, direct, ‘liquid’ democracy that would sweep away the dusty representational model of Western democracies.

    Creative artists also became active on the Internet at an early stage, with the models net.art and hyperlink literature. The Internet provided citizens of the former Eastern Bloc, such as Net art pioneer Alexei Shulgin, with the opportunity to finally catch up with the West, to finally play on the same playing field – all well away from the control of cultural institutions. Shulgin’s 1999 publication Introduction to net.art reveals just how profoundly people hoped Net anarchy would help them achieve cultural autonomy.

    One of the first works of Net art, Douglas Davis’ 1994 piece ‘The World’s First Collaborative Sentence’, also conceptualised the vision of a hierarchy-free, collective literature in a sentence written jointly by the users of a website. No full stop, no end was envisaged. ‘Only God might take so final a step,’ said Davis, in his 1995 essay on the work of art in the age of digital reproduction (pace Walter Benjamin) – which at the time was an expression of a new, radically open media-technical environment.

    Back then, twenty years ago, no one would have believed that the centre-less utopia of the Internet would one day boast the kind of market concentration most familiar from the age of the Rockefellers and Carnegies. Except in China, Google’s share of the search engine market is around 90%. Amazon has a similar monopoly, with around 65% of all online book sales. In the social network sector, Facebook has around 70%. As these players probably now have a critical advantage, both financial and technical, the digital landscape can hardly be expected to change again as much as it could still have done a few years ago – in the same way as Daimler is unlikely to disappear.

    Just as the infrastructural centrelessness of the Internet of the 1990s affected the culture that was produced and disseminated on it at that time, the monopolised Internet is producing a corresponding culture. A weird mixture is brewing: in BuzzFeed listicles, in newspaper articles intended as comment and provocation, in eccentric memes like Katy Perry’s dancers in shark costumes, or the endlessly complex philosophical musings currently being expounded over the blue/black or white/gold dress. It combines the culture of the lowest common denominator, familiar to us from classical mass media, with the affirmation of purely niche interests that is customary in the digital world.

    This exact mixture is well-known in the field of online marketing. It’s the SEO formula – search engine optimisation. Unlike the popularisation strategies of the mass media age, this marketing doesn’t go for the overall lowest common denominator, targeting a public it thinks of as coherent and unified. Rather, its primary aim is to occupy niches exclusively and to create niches by occupying them. In short, it’s no longer about celebrities, sex and violence; the main thing is to find out what’s most interesting to people in a specific micro-milieu. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once summarised this by saying, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ His global digital monopoly lives from the algorithmic production of this kind of niche lowest common denominator.

    Today we are facing the rise of SEO literature, which also represents a parting of the ways. What we perceive today as global digital reality TV appears all too human, insofar as its very hysteria constitutes a reaction to the functionality of algorithms, which infinitely reinforces such trends. Human authenticity in particular, the ‘squirrel dying in front of your house’, is like honey to bees here, as the digital monopolies are fundamentally orientated towards the recording and exploitation of the private sphere. The more intimacy is sacrificed to online popularity, the more alarming this becomes. It would seem that, here, the only way of salvaging one’s humanity is to renounce it.

    On the other hand, the total literarisation of life is not just a nightmare scenario – it’s also an opportunity. It enables a whole new kind of literary representation in which the e-book no longer has anything whatsoever to do with that august, isolated, bourgeois institution, ‘The Book’. Instead, it acquires the status of a celebration or an event, which for those invested in it can become more important – more auratic, Douglas Davis would say – than the forms of representation which until now have been accorded global significance, while at the same time developing that fascinatingly accessible, sublimely superficial dynamic that was previously reserved for mass media.
    Johannes Thumfart currently teaches Theory of Art at the University of Cincinnati. He previously worked as a philosopher at the Humboldt University and at the Freie Universität in Berlin, as well as at the Universidad Iberoamericana and the Centro de Cultura Digital in Mexico City. He is the author of Der Katechon, a series available only in e-book form, which combines various exciting themes such as Russian policy in Eastern Europe, Mexican drug wars and looted Nazi art in a hair-raising conspiracy thriller.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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