Jason Schneiderman
Nothingism: A Poetry Manifesto

         Writing seems to be approaching the condition of speech, and perhaps it’s merely nostalgia for print culture, but it feels nefarious to me. If Marshall McLuhan was right, and the “medium is the message,” then the speed with which online communication seems to be circulating outrage and jealousy (with an intensity that is hardly unprecedented) will only increase, and the intensity of fury one had hoped would pass as the medium “matured,” whatever that means, will not pass. (Clearly digital or “post-print” culture is not terribly mature, and this lack of maturity seems to rub off onto those who engage it.) Even though the internet came to us through the military and the academy, it has kept the values of speed and immediacy, without the accompanying values of those institutions: hierarchy, decorum, rigor, apprenticeship, analysis, evidence, respect. We have allowed a century of regulation to collapse as we welcome “disruption”; we have devalued expertise in favor of crowdsourcing; we have devalued the physical in favor of screens; we have devalued revision and precision in favor of immediate response. Headlines are not the stuff of morning and evening, but are now round-the-clock intrusions. Any opening of the tiny computer we still call a “phone” brings an us-versus-them array of crises and disasters (real, dire, misleading, fake, and manufactured). Unsuccessfully, I keep trying to turn these “updates” off.

            Reflection is not action. I trust reflection, and I do not trust action. As a child, my father would often tell me a military saying that escapes me now, but the essence was that often, an answer is needed before you have time to formulate one. So of course, I became a poet, the sort of person who can delay answering a question for as long as needed. Sometimes the delay is only as long as a sonnet. Sometimes the delay is long as a career. Sometimes the answer is never produced, and why should it be? Aren’t some questions worth pondering for a lifetime, in the euphoric manner of Socrates, rather than hammered to the wall in the plodding manner of Aristotle? I have little patience for fake questions, the kitsch of overcoming, sentimental celebrations of human triumph, chipper self-determination in the guise of nature worship, or cheap faith. Any true faith is agonizing, beset by doubt, guilt, and fear. Any true faith brings only slivers of comfort, small slices of peace before the pain demands contemplation yet again. What was that again about afflicting the comfortable? Action cannot be avoided. One publishes a book, eats a meal, takes a job, attends a meeting, lifts some weights, takes a shower. One wakes up to change the baby’s diaper or to soothe a pensive lover. But still, action is valorized beyond its due. A friend of mine introduced to me the phrase, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” She is a very good friend.

            Life, in the age of digital communication, has come to feel unrehearsed to me. Or to be more precise: life has come to feel like a play that is under-rehearsed. In the days when I wanted to be an actor, because I wanted more than anything to escape the confines of my life, I was in plays in which no one knew their lines. I was once in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that went so wrong, none of us were ever quite sure when it was over. The scenes bled into each other, and we were cast in ways that seem almost comically cruel. The one actor required to sing a few lines of a song was tone deaf in a way that made even a few bars of “By the light of the Silvery Moon” unrecognizable. You could tell he was trying to sing, and yet what happened on stage was not something anyone could call singing. If anyone paused too long, the actress playing Big Momma would just scream “Nobody’s gonna give big Daddy morphine” and we’d proceed from there, sometimes multiple times in a single performance. The extended dialogue of Act II, almost entirely unknown to the two performers, once went on so long that the rest of us just walked in and began performing Act III. This is what “citizen journalism” feels like to me. This is what politics on twitter feel like to me. This is what poetry on Facebook feels like to me. It’s not that you can’t see what it’s supposed to be; it’s that your time is being wasted, but you’re stuck sitting through it out of some loyalty to the incompetents stumbling about on stage, bad accents and all. Every time someone calls a literary editor a “gatekeeper” rather than a “curator,” a little part of me dies. Yes, why bother going to Guggenheim or the MoMA? There are sidewalks and card tables with artists setting up their art. Do people really only want sidewalks and card tables? Do they think that curators never visit sidewalks and card tables?

            Poetry, more than any other medium (even, I think, playwriting), aspires to the sounds and rhythms of speech. Or poetry aspires to what speech could be. In the ur-art that existed before genre division, we speculate that speech and music and dance were all heightened and stylized together in ways that were not separate from worship. I have no nostalgia for this ur-art. I’m glad to have my poems set to music, but I don’t want any nonsense about how Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen (or Sting) lyrics are poems, when they are clearly incomplete without melody. I care about the way that paper and ink have offered a process of composition that begins in gestation, proceeds through drafts, and ends in publication, composed for the spoken voice to be read in silence or out loud. On screens, drafts have no reality. On screens, as in speech, what is gone has disappeared. Everything pixel-based is infinitely revisable, but also infinitely presentable—presuming you managed to screen shot it before it disappears. In print culture, there were often many versions, but each had a paper reality, and it was in tension with speech. Now my students see no difference between turning in a paper and linking me to a Google Doc. Now my students are silent at the start of class, talking not to each other, but texting people they already know. There is no need to learn new ways of speaking as they disappear deeper into the silence of the screens that anticipate their words and type for them so that they barely even have to move their fingers.

            I’ve noticed that my positive feelings are in direct proportion to the length of my reading material. After a book, I feel surprisingly good—thoroughly engaged and well informed. Long form journalism and articles give me a similar sense of well being, or at least of a thorough understanding. However, on the days when I read just headlines, I feel dizzy and furious. Sometimes I glimpse a push notification of a headline that links to an article I cannot open, and I devolve into panic trying to find the substance behind the willfully misleading provocation. And yet I read fewer books and more headlines—which is like saying I eat more potato chips than baked potatoes—or I eat more M&Ms than bars of chocolate—how could I not? I spend less time in contemplation and more time chasing items off of my ever expanding to-do list, while being driven to distraction by clickbait headlines. But here is the rub. I continue to click in anger, so disgusted by the article’s very existence that I feel compelled to see it for myself. Somewhere, my desire for evidence was turned against me.

            In response, I have decided to invent a new movement: Nothingism. If you feel overwhelmed, emotionally and physically, you may too be a budding Nothingist. Nothingists indulge their nostalgia for print culture, and Nothingists value print as a lasting object. Nothingism celebrates the isolation of reading, and turns off its wi-fi, and leaves its phone at home. Nothingism insists on a divide between print and speech that is blurred and mutual, but also real and powerful. Although I am the first Nothingist to go by the name of Nothingism, I may be a bad Nothingist. I present Nothingism as an ideal, and like so many before me, I fear that I am unable to live up to the ideals I espouse precisely because I am espousing them. After all, who bothers to espouse ideals they don’t need to be reminded to live up to?

            I have always wanted an audience—but I have also wanted the audience to be at the same remove from me as I am from the writers I love. I never expected to be retweeted by Kafka or to have Gwendolyn Brooks respond to my e-mail so that I could impress my high school teacher by including an amusing anecdote about what happened on the night she finished “We real cool.” In reading, I feel an intense intimacy with the author, but I never mistake that intimacy for friendship or acquaintance. When I gave readings for my first book, people would often ask my if my husband was all right, and my first reaction was to panic and say, “What happened?” Nothing had happened. They were reacting to my book about his illness. They felt close to me, but it was unidirectional. I felt like my book had succeeded, but that I had failed. I have considered going the full Elena Ferrante, who may be the most commited Nothingist of all time. But it’s too late for me to be truly disappear into my work, to slide off of all media, save the printed pages I savor. And I like giving readings and going to readings—to hear the poems out loud is a pleasure I would never want to surrender, and a Nothingist refuses to surrender a pleasure.

            I have always wanted less of the world, or rather, for there to be less. Elizabeth Bishop, with her nearly perfect lifetime output collected into a slender volume, seemed so much preferable to those massive doorstops that are most celebrated poets’ final repository of poems. Has anyone ever truly loved one of those doorstops, so massive that your legs would lose circulation just from resting it in your lap? Of course this preference for less is an indefensible position. If I find James Merrill’s work prior to Sandover a bit too calculated, or if I find late Ted Hughes a bit ponderous, so what? No one is holding a gun to my head; I don’t have to read anything I don’t want to. And yet. To keep up. To be current. To have a historical perspective. To be an expert. To wittily comment on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram in that knowing way that wafts a lifetime of erudtion and microblogging acumen. Isn’t that how one gets a book contract these days? Is there another way to find readers?

            And what of productivity? We are so addicted to work, to output, to improvement. How did “revolutionary” stop describing the effort to overthrow an existing government for a differently envisioned government, and start describing what we want from our next iPhone, or our next gadget. Even Foucault brags about his work ethic, while bemoaning the internal demands to be a good bourgeois subject. What part of our lizard brain demands cheap energy, expensive clothing, and box stores in which we can buy enough detergent to last six months in a single oversized bottle? Am I the only one driven to exhaustion by the push push push of productivity? Why did I not obey Grace Paley’s commandment to keep a low overhead? Why is college celebrated as an opportunity to increase one’s earning power, rather than an opportunity for reflection and the slowness of problem solving? Hooray, we’ve made so many cars, our planet is headed toward being uninhabitable! Hooray, I worked a twelve-hour day so I can sleep in expensive sheets on an expensive bed! Isn’t productivity part of what is killing us? Would cheaper sheets be so bad?

            Is it so wrong to want poetry to be counterproductive? To quite literally—to quote Auden—to make nothing happen? I’ve scoffed at those who see poetry as somehow revolutionary in the Marxist sense, at those who see poetry as a way out of capitalism or class or privilege or entitlement (there is not a way out of these things, only a reckoning with them). I see the academy as the greatest patron that poetry has ever had, and yet it requires me to teach an awful lot of composition classes. How did my love of poetry lead me to spending my days telling students about topic sentences and the differences between citation styles? Today we are told over and over that all poetry is political. But these voices don’t mean the word “political” the way that Nothingism does. Before the popularized slogan was “The personal is political,” the second wave feminist slogan was iterated as “The political is personal.” This tiny distinction is everything to a Nothingist. Funding for health care, voting rights, gun control, rent control, free college tuition—these are all political concerns that are immensely personal—how could they not be? But this is not the same as saying that everything is political. Isn’t the point of free tuition that everyone can make a personal choice as to whether or not college is right for them?  Isn’t the point of fighting for reproductive rights that you can make personal choices without juridical intrusion? Is not the search for an ideal politics, a search for the politics that would free us to enjoy the personal? For the Nothingist, politics must have an outside in order for there to be such a thing as politics—the Nothingist says that if everything is politics, then nothing is politics. When I read, my body is expending the energy I generated by eating a meal; that does not make reading a form of eating. Nothingism votes, but a vote is not a poem. Nothingism demands that we be a part-time everything.

            What Nothingism bemoans, of late—what I am bemoaning—is the end of reflection. The end of a process that culminates in a final product. Nothingism resists the endless “here’s where I am now” that properly belongs to intimate spaces, rather than public ones. Nothingism insists on intimacy as the opposite of “public”. When we complain of the constant campaign in our politics, wishing for a government that would govern with the best interest of all its citizens at heart, we are wishing for reflection. When we bemoan the endless hunger for non-fiction that seems to crowd out fiction, we are wishing for imagination. When we bemoan the “poetry” that has been prefixed with “insta,” we are bemoaning instancy itself—the brief snippets of language, offering repetitive iterations of shallow self-adoration that begin with the premise of radically empowered independence that in turn lead to a ferocious rejection of the painful realities of interdependence. We must retreat and return, but the retreat must be to a productive space. “Scrolling” has become a metaphor for how we read online, the “page” endlessly opening up onto the “bottomless trough”—but what of the forgotten scrolls, the rolled-up papyrii in Alexandria?  The language of writing is endlessly re-purposed for the medium that devalues it, the value desperate not for articles or poems or interviews, but “content.” Contemplation is a name I offer for poetry. Privacy is a name I offer for poetry. Nothingism is a name I offer for poetry.

           When commercial photography was nascent, Kodak invented “the Kodak moment” to teach consumers how to need a camera in order to remember their own lives—lives which had been remembered without the help of photography for centuries. Then, for almost one hundred years, people took photographs, without knowing what they would look like when developed, looked at them later, and saved them in books to review nostalgically. Now with another commercial shift, we take photos for immediate distribution to tell everyone else what we are doing, and then never look at them again. Nothingism fears that poems are being spun off into disposability on a parallel track to photography. Nothingism prefers to remember the event without the intrusion. Nothingism is angry about the hours wasted in the wasteland of images offered up on social media, and prefers to read a book, and meet a friend in person, ideally to discuss poems that were read in journals. Nothingism is not surprised at how often the most popular poems on the internet are plagiarized.

            I offer Nothingism in the spirit that O’Hara offered Personism. As he said, when you are being chased, you run, rather than explaining your athletic credentials to your pursuer. But what good are the erotics of Personism in a world where being Lucky Pierre is not the serendipitous result of an unlikely sets of encounters following an evening of movie going, but an explicitly requested act on Grindr, fulfilled within an hour or two, as people respond, “I am only looking for muscle twinks within a fifty-foot radius of my favorite coffee shop because I can’t be inconvenienced by surprise, chance, or unexpected possibility.” Indeed, the chance offered by O’Hara’s city has been reduced to an endless menu of predictable pleasures: People who ordered this book on Amazon also ordered these books. People who liked this film on Netflix also liked these films. Facebook offers you hundreds of people to endorse your bad behavior and reassure you that it wasn’t bad behavior at all.  But if I want to hear Cyndi Lauper performing “When You Were Mine” I have to get out my old CD because that song (and that song only) has been scrubbed from the Spotify version of She’s So Unusual[1].  Nothingism, like Frankie, says relax. Nothingism says keep what you love nearby. Nothingism says welcome chance. Nothingism says we need a new erotics of patience, a new erotics of inaction. Nothingism says stay in and read tonight. Maybe I’ll come over later and we can cuddle on the couch. Nothingism says wait long enough and you’ll be dead. Nothingism says, with Whitman, if you’re reading this, then I’m here with you now, and can’t that be enough for both of us? For now, I mean. Just until the end of this sentence.

 

[1] This is no longer true. Following Prince’s death, his entire catalog showed up on Spotify, including Lauper’s cover of “When You Were Mine” (oddly, Lauper’s cover writes out the word “you” in the title, foregoing Prince’s usual use of “U.”) However, the point remains—perhaps best illustrated by the disappearance of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm  from all Kindles in 2009. The digital universe makes it appear that everything is available, and the absences are nefariously hidden. 

 

 

Found In Volume 48, No. 02
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Jason Schneiderman
About the Author

Jason Schneiderman is the author of three collections of poetry and the editor of one anthology. His next book of poems, Hold Me Tight, will be out from Red Hen Press in 2020. He is an Associate Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York.