Finding freedom in humiliation
For some millennials, there's a new way to live life. It involves putting on display sordid or pathetic aspects of one's life with a kind of abashed defiance, to pre-empt feelings of embarrassment or the possibility of scorn. Eric Andrew-Gee, who calls it "competitive abjection,"explores the nascent cultural phenomenon.
She is reading Derrida in a Tim Hortons, wearing sweatpants and drinking tea for a cold. This is her life now.
He is having a quesadilla, a couple of samosas, and a handful of vitamins for dinner. Or: the epitome of being single.
She has eaten bacon and chocolate, preparing to fall asleep before the sun sets. Happy Fourth of July! Anyone between the ages of 22 and 32 who uses social media, reads modern first-person fiction, or watches certain autobiographical television shows will recognize the content and tone of these miniature pseudo-confessions, taken from Twitter and Instagram. They are typical of a style I've come to think of as "competitive abjection."
A capsule definition would go something like this: putting on display sordid or pathetic aspects of one's life with a kind of abashed defiance, to pre-empt feelings of embarrassment or the possibility of scorn.
If this sounds hyper-specific, it's because the attitude being expressed is the product of this particular moment, and its particular place at the intersection of Internet culture, feminist discourse, and what commonly gets called late capitalism.
It's also because the people who most often express the attitude are upper-middle-class twentysomethings with university degrees in the humanities. Despite that, the style is elastic enough to show up in all kinds of cultural fields, and to be deployed by a wide demographic range. Lena Dunham does it, but so does Louis C.K., when he talks about scarfing down stale Cinnabons in the airport and guzzling the seminal syrup that comes with them. It goes all the way up the cultural chain and all along the spectrum of light and dark: from the founder of the Stay Home Club, a "lifestyle brand" devoted to asociability, tweeting that her baby farted on a slice a pizza; to the novelist Sheila Heti writing about accidentally flashing a child on the instructions of her sexually dominant boyfriend in Toronto.
Have you ever had a baby fart directly onto your slice of pizza? I have.— Stay Home Club (@stayhomeclub) December 27, 2016
This style of self-expression, imploring the world to look while the hand dives into the bag of Doritos, or worse, offers a window into how the most characteristic artists of this generation see the problems of being alive, and the solutions they envision. Confronted with all-seeing social media, the empty promise of have-it-all feminism and the shallow yuppie dream, they pursue escape through an emancipatory humiliation. If that seems like a mad or self-defeating answer, well, consider the question: How to be intelligent, sensitive, and sane in the year 2017?
The obvious way to dismiss the new abjectifiers is to say they are merely a mirror image of the sort of people who upload gym selfies and night-out glamour shots, or cap Instagram posts with the hashtag #blessed. This kind of straightforward vanity is still common enough, and ridiculous enough, to invite wholesale rejection by anyone with a sense of irony. But why the rejection should entail a kind of parroting, in which people too savvy to boast online humiliate themselves instead, isn't obvious. Self-flagellation is not, after all, so different from patting yourself on the back.
To this, a vast tradition of autobiography and autofiction answers: because the self is an irresistible subject. Artists have always put themselves on display, including their ugliness and shame. Think of Henry Miller, Jean Genet, or the George Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London. At a glance, competitive abjection falls neatly into that line of compulsively confessional writers who take perverse pleasure in serving up what is most grotesque or offensive in themselves for inspection.
But something has changed in the way writers wallow. Compare Henry Miller, whose debauched rambles through 1930s Paris are chronicled in Tropic of Cancer, to his ersatz successor, Ben Lerner. Both are American novelists who have written about bumming around a European city and coping with the strange animal that is the body.
But apart from that cursory description, Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner's first novel, has little in common with Miller's Tropic books. For one, significant thing, Lerner has more money. Miller's life in those books is properly bohemian, complete with lice and cold and venereal disease. In Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner is spending a year in Madrid on a cushy fellowship modelled on the Fulbright, and only vaguely anxious about making ends meet. His abjection comes not from living rough but from overindulging in incongruous forms of pleasure, like when he eats white asparagus from the jar, masturbates, and then reads Spanish poetry on the roof of his apartment.
In this sequence, there is a quality typical of the competitive abjection practised by writers of his generation: a sheen of class privilege. Most of today's abjectifiers are comfortably upper middle class, their failures and weakness undergirded by a deep confidence that things will turn out all right. That is not to say they have no grounds for complaint. First world problems are still experienced as problems. But it doesn't allow for an easy diagnosis of the pervasive malaise that Lerner's generation seems to give off, either.
The most attractive explanation is that their attitude amounts to a rebellion against what the English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer called the "ethical duty to enjoy oneself." If that peppy American ethos was widespread enough for Gorer to notice in 1965, it has only become more so. Facebook has made sure of that. And, in the meantime, the duty to be happy feels like it has been debased, such that the most current vision of the good life – compulsive exercise, foodieism, the curating of a living space that looks like a Wes Anderson set; all shared incessantly online – has become so expensive, so onerous, and yet so shallow that the very idea of self-cultivation can seem repellent.
The essayist Mark Greif addresses that problem in his recent collection, Against Everything. The book's best pieces are self-help manuals for people who deplore the self-help culture: jeremiads against working out, foodieism, and makeover shows (the world of "life maintenance," he calls it) that double as blueprints for how to live alternatively. By reaching back to Wilde, William James, and Epicurus, he offers a hope "that our destiny could be something other than grooming."
The abjectifiers join Greif in rejecting the impossible and brain-dead way of life set forth by the sort of people forever listening to life-hacking podcasts on their way to the gym. But they aren't able to join him in seeing past an idea of the self that dwells on petty success or, in their case, petty failure. Hippies found the mainstream shallow, so went out and founded free-love colonies in Vermont and California. Punks had their squats and heroin addictions. Discontented Gen-Xers slacked off. Today, épater la bourgeoisie entails a regimen of self-cultivation and self-display almost as rigorous as the bourgeois's own.
Again, Greif has a suggestion for what might have changed. In a 2005 essay on the music of Radiohead, he posits a "glass house" of constant inspection erected around us by a world of broadcast images (and reflected in the paranoia of Thom Yorke's music). Uncannily, Greif was writing at a time before the smartphone: of course, our glass houses have only grown harder and clearer since then. Not incidentally, a sense of surveillance emerges often in the new literature of abjection. In an exchange on "the tyranny of a life well lived," in Maisonneuve magazine, the writer Naomi Skwarna allows that "the good life for me sometimes seems like being free of that need to be seen in the best light."
Little wonder, given its relation to shame and performance and the body, that women should so predominate in using competitive abjection as a style. A crop of first-person TV comedies about women in their 20s and 30s have taken the style to a wider audience than anything else. They have used Sex and the City as a template, then stripped away its illusions to give a picture of life as an ostensibly liberated modern woman that consists largely of sexual awkwardness, practical incompetence, social anxiety, and binge eating.
You'll notice it in Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, Lena Dunham's Girls, or Broad City, by the comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Picture Dunham's Hannah Horvath character feeding herself pad Thai out of the fridge, or half-heartedly playing a juvenile drug addict while her boyfriend masturbates over her body. Or the Abbi character in Broad City nervously hiding weed in her vagina to avoid detection by police on the subway. These moments, replicated a dozen times over with slight variations in each show, seem to revel in the depredations they depict. The cumulative effect is a kind of giddy lowering of standards.
Something like this seems to be what Sheila Heti has in mind at a crucial point in How Should A Person Be?, her celebrated autobiographical novel of 2010. About two-thirds of the way through her ethical quest, Heti decides that she has set her sights unrealistically high – or at least toward the pinnacle of the wrong mountain. "I don't need to be great like the leader of the Christian people," she writes. "I can be a bumbling, murderous coward like the King of the Jews." The line crystallizes a running subtext in the book, which says in effect, if the game can only be won by using alien rules, and is rigged anyway, perhaps better not to play – and better still to send up its objectives by performing them in mocking pastiche.
It's in this spirit that so many young writers today posit the solution to social anxiety not in solitude but in humiliation. In Out of Sheer Rage, his pseudo-memoir about trying and failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence – a pioneering text in this new canon – Geoff Dyer dilates on the advantages of appearing ridiculous: "Only those with dignity can ever lose it." It's along this axis of reasoning that so many of Dyer's successors have built a connection between humiliation and liberation, often in virtually those exact words. "Embarrassment is liberating, if you press into it," wrote Alexandra Molotkow, in a Globe and Mail essay on Kate Bush and her dance-like-no-one's-watching performance style. In Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner calls his ritual ingestion of anti-anxiety medication "a little humiliating, a little liberating."
A capsule definition would go something like this: putting on display sordid or pathetic aspects of one’s life with a kind of abashed defiance, to pre-empt feelings of embarrassment or the possibility of scorn.
If freedom and humiliation seem oddly matched here, it's worth considering what these people are trying to avoid being ashamed about. The list runs to mental illness, a preference for one's own company, eating unhealthy food, not feeling attractive – a litany of failures to be smoothly bourgeois, or deftly feminine, or some combination of the two. It's not hard to imagine that embracing a humiliation so narrowly and badly defined might seem attractive, not to say liberating.
No one has pursued this logical thread further or more daringly than Chris Kraus. Her first novel, I Love Dick, was published in 1997 but has recently been championed by a younger generation of prominent female artists like Dunham and Heti. It's an account of erotic obsession recorded in a series of letters written by Kraus's character to the titular Dick, an English cultural theorist living near Los Angeles. The book is so much denser and more sophisticated than the quotidian tweet bemoaning the takeout-and-sweatpants routine that it almost seems an insult to compare the two. But merely on the level of attitude, there is a comparison to be made. Performative abjection abounds: Kraus tells us about defecating in the yard and brewing coffee out of boiled snow when the pipes freeze, and urinating in a Styrofoam cup on the way to a date.
What many feminist critics have found redeeming in these scenes is that Kraus's abjection is inflicted not so much by a man, as by the idea of man – she falls in love with Dick after just one meeting and thereafter invents a kind of persona for him that sustains her obsession. In a foreword to I Love Dick, the poet Eileen Myles praises Kraus for "marching boldly into self-abasement and self-advertisement, not being uncannily drawn there, sighing or kicking and screaming." This bit of jiu-jitsu suggests a bleak possibility: that female abjection is inevitable, and that the only question is who's going to cause it, the woman herself or the patriarchal world at large.
It's hard to decide whether it would be more disturbing if Myles was right, or if a cohort of young women who don't really face her dilemma accepted its logic and pressed themselves into an abasement that need not be theirs. A few of those who imitate Kraus in blasé Instagram posts about the dismalness of a third straight night ordering from UberEATS and watching The Bachelor suggest the second scenario may be truer, and that performing abjection has become something closer to a cool-kid reflex than a feminist survival tactic at this point.
And yet (here, Kraus's voice seems to interject), isn't it just as likely that the ubiquity of this new mode of expression, especially as it emanates from a generation of young women, has something to teach us? Grating as it can be, doesn't it almost by definition reflect something important about the experience of being alive and sensitive in a world of constant digital disclosure and inspection? And anyway, isn't one of Kraus's great revealed truths the low-level psychic violence inflicted on women when their stories are ignored or deemed trivial? Isn't that what gives I Love Dick its power, and its wide appeal? If answering yes to these questions has produced a generation of women who publicize the banal debasements of everyday life, isn't the source of that impulse worth taking seriously?
Chris Kraus replies, near the end of I Love Dick, with an exhortation of almost martial intensity: "If wisdom's silence, it's time to play the fool."