Thursday, December 5, 2013

Fuck Positivity

I've been following Steve Roggenbuck for something like three or four years now, apparently; it's been maybe five or six since I decided that I had zero patience for post-irony "movements" like the New Sincerity, and I've been pretty openly hostile to pretty much anything that defines itself in terms of positivity for about as long as I can remember. I've written before about how I think of the other artist I follow who promotes unrelenting positivity, in the form of #based, is situated within the material discourse of the genre. Given that I've recently been engaged, in regards to Roggenbuck, by some folks who I felt unable to provide an adequate answer to, and have been reading critiques of him that seem wretched on their face, I figure right in the middle of my huge daily blogpost marathon would be a good time to write this out longform.

This article (or "interview," I suppose) is what's mostly kicked it off, and I certainly consider it in the running for Worst Thing I've Read All Year. From its invocation of the internet literature predecessors of alt lit (a list of names of folks who are constantly referenced by alt lit folks) to its reactionary moralism ("get a job," "if he really wanted to help he'd be out doing Good Works," "PERSONAL BRAND PERSONAL BRAND PERSONAL BRAND") to its botching of even nearly useful points (his qualms with Roggenbuck's self-identifying as straight edge, illustrated by the deeply, deeply fucked up actions that being straight edge lends itself to) by failure to generalize them in a useful way and instead relying on repeating shibboleths ("PERSONAL BRAND"), the whole thing is just a sad mess. Even more so in that there are a lot of things to critique about Roggenbuck, and this article ("interview") occasionally strays very close to them.

Take, say, the criticism of Boost House. Instead of, let's just say, for instance, off the top of my head, pointing out that Roggenbuck intends to develop an all-white (as far as I can tell at least) intentional community whose activist tentpoles are ethical consumerism and individualism - I assume I don't need to explain any further why that's problematic, because jesus fucking christ - he accuses it of seeming cultish, corporatist, and ineffectual. Also: Nazis (jk). I can't even imagine what vapid political analysis those claims build from. It's especially bizarre given that the moralizing references to personal brands, the critique of corporatism, and the sarcastic reference to exploitation all seem to suggest that this is intended to be a critique of Roggenbuck from the left. Fucking embarrassing.

Here's an uncomfortable sentence to write: Gawker's "On Smarm" post from today is a pretty good example of what a critique of Roggenbuck that wasn't a dull, self-aggrandizing piece of shit might look like. "On Smarm" overreaches like all fuck, and occasionally is just straightforwardly bad analysis. It goes into useless digressions, overindulges in the author's whims to the detriment of its points, and, ultimately, identifies something that might be a useful analytic but doesn't nearly live up to its early promise. That might look like a laundry list of problems, but its also a condemnation of the HTMLGiant piece, which doesn't even bother to reach, or present analysis, or have any promise or point to digress from. And on top of that, it clearly applies to Roggenbuck (and "alt lit" as a whole, I imagine, though fuck if I know anything about 90% of that) directly. And sure, they're framed differently, the HTMLGiant article ("interview") as a personal airing of grievances, the Gawker post as an identification and definition of a broad cultural trend. I suppose that the defence that the article ("interview") isn't really supposed to be anything more than a fluff piece for some dude on some terrible corner of the internet sits well enough with me.

It's maybe just my own particularly analysis, but Dean's line about how "alt lit is to writing like a cafeteria is to school education" gets at the heart of the whole thing. I don't suspect that he has the same critique of reproductive labor that I do, and much less that he identifies the educational apparatus as one of the main sites of struggle within that form of labor. But even without those theoretical underpinnings, what kind of bullshit technocratic definition do you have to have of "education" to claim that the cafeteria in a school isn't, if not integral, at least a very important aspect? And then to make that dull, misguided claim in service of the point that "[a]lt lit has nothing to do with online writing" is just so fucking weak I can't even.

I suspect that my continued enjoyment of Roggenbuck's work stems from a few things, which include a general detachment from the scene as a whole and a lack of critical pieces on the scene which amount to much more than moralizing bullshit. I still anxiously await any convincing argument regarding anything to do with the idea of "personal branding," that isn't just a moralist shibboleth or a joke. I won't hold my breath for a piece that productively engages with Roggenbuck's art (however defined) that leaves room for interpretation rather than just sweeping claims about movements as though anyone gives a shit, but you never know.

The real way that "On Smarm" functions as a better version of the awful HTMLGiant article ("interview") is its attention to context, even where it misidentifies or over- and under -states its claims. This hyperpositivity shit comes from somewhere, and with Roggenbuck that somewhere is pretty fucking transparent. For all the avowed influence of Lil B, Roggenbuck's positivity developed with his art. It's not some Platonic ideal that precedes him, but a consequence of the community with which he has been relentlessly interacting for years. It's a response -- and not inherently a good one. That Roggenbuck has continued to develop that aspect of his work through questionable sources seems, to me, maybe the most interesting aspect of his project currently. I don't like it, per se; I think motivational speaking is a crock of shit, &c &c. And I think there are serious flaws in how Roggenbuck justifies this, as in this comment, as I flatly don't see how he has accounted for or created the sort of structural conditions that would allow his salvaging of these folks to be successfully divorced of their ideological positions. I also tend to think that, possibly explicitly because of that, his work is worth following, for myself at least.

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