Punk Ethos & the Blog: An Interview with A D Jameson, pt. 1

I first read A.D. Jameson’s criticism on litblogs like HTMLGiant and Big Other, where he wrote about the New Sincerity, Russian formalism, and cinema. I was interested back then in irony and sincerity, especially because I was in an environment where a lot of people I knew were doing molly on weekends, were peripheral to a hippie rave subculture that was heart-on-its-sleeve.

On Easter Sunday, in true HTMLGiant fashion, we got to revisit some of these topics over GChat, touching on the blog’s potential as a format, the exhaustion of the avant-garde, and the performative aspect inherent to sincerity. The latter half of our conversation, which focused on film and fandom, will be published in a separate post.

In addition to his blogging, Jameson is the author of Cinemaps (with artist Andrew DeGraff), out via Quirk Books, and I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture, forthcoming May 8th from FSG. He’s currently a PhD graduand in the Program for Writers at UIC.

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Hey, thanks again for doing this. Are you chatting from Chicago?

Sure thing. And I am in Chicago, yes.

I’m trying to get some facts straight first. You were writing for Big Other and then, circa 2011, got pulled into HTMLGiant by Gene [Morgan] and Blake Butler? Were they aware of you through Big Other?

I met John Madera at the &Now conference in 2009, and started writing for Big Other after that. And I already knew Blake… He published one of my pieces in Lamination Colony.

At HTMLGiant, you became a bit of a resident authority on New Sincerity (N.S.), and helped describe what was going on in indie lit at the time. Were you friends with Tao Lin? I saw he sent galleys for Taipei.

More an associate than a friend. I think I first read his work around 2007, and found it pretty interesting, along with other New Sincerist stuff.

I started my PhD in 2011, right when I started writing for HTMLGiant. And in Spring 2012, I took a contemporary poetry seminar with Jennifer Ashton, and she was researching the New Sincerity. Originally I was going to write my research paper with Prof. Ashton, about the New Sincerity and related issues, but then I changed course, and moved over to the work I’m doing now. When I did that, I kind of had to leave the New Sincerity stuff to the side, though I’m still interested in it. That would have been around 2013 or so—around when HTMLGiant went on hiatus.

I found the New Sincerity interesting for two reasons. One, I recognized an affinity with my own writing. Two, I’ve long been interested in things like twee and indie pop, and I was trying to figure out how NS related to those earlier movements.

Have you read any of Sianne Ngai’s work on the “cute” as affect? It seems adjacent to, e.g., Wes Anderson, Regina Spektor, the lowercase poetry of N.S. and Tumblr. She talks a bit about helplessness and the precariousness or vulnerability of the cute. Also the femininity, which is part of what makes New Sincerity feel like such a break from the late 20th century literary scene, Brett Easton Ellis. I suppose hardness, at least as performative affect, is antithetical to sincerity.

Yeah, [I read Ngai] a little bit, back when I was doing that work. Along those lines, I’m interested in affect and sincerity as a kind of performance.

Have you read Nitsuh Abebe’s essay “Twee as Fuck”? He argues that twee and indie pop were a companion movement to punk, but whereas punk appealed to people who wanted to sneer at the world, indie pop appealed more to shyer kids who were also outsiders, but who wanted to rebel in a softer way.

So punk and a lot of rock says, “I’m cool and I don’t care what you think,” but twee and indie pop and the N.S. adopt things like childishness and naiveté in order to pretend the outside world doesn’t exist. 

David Wallace obviously gets pulled into the picture a lot, but it’s hard from the outside, looking in, to tell whether this is an ex post facto connection or whether he was actually a guiding influence for people in the scene.

I think I’m coming at it from a slightly different direction than DFW, in that I think he really cared about whether the work was authentically sincere or not. Whereas I’m not interested in authenticity. I think of it more like acting. An actor doesn’t need to be sad to play sad. And a poet doesn’t need to be childlike and sincere in order to write something New Sincerist. So I think of it more as an aesthetic strategy, which leads me to wonder what is the value of that strategy.

Of course I’m sure that a lot of people involved in N.S. really did think of it as a kind of genuineness, but I was looking at it more as a kind of mimesis. I think people get too bogged down in thinking about whether it’s “really” sincere or not.

I was listening to your Drive commentary and it struck me that the way you talk about the performance of actorly naturalness is similar to how you discuss sincerity-as-affect at HTML. As if your cinema background helped you pick out this “playing it real” aspect of N.S. that many of Tao Lin’s reviewers miss (describing it as “artless,” as “merely documenting real life verbatim”). Joshua Cohen falls into this trap at Bookforum. 

With movies, a tremendous amount of work goes into making things look natural and unaffected. But they’re fake through and through. So I’m interested in thinking of art as artifice, and as craft, and not as true expressions of the soul.

In Tao Lin’s case, I know a lot of people thought he was just transcribing things and documenting things, but that wasn’t at all the case. When you sit down and read the work, you see his concerns are always formal. Josh [Cohen] is a really smart guy, but the fact that he missed it shows you how good Tao Lin is at his craft.

Do you know Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood”? That essay is a big influence on me.

I’m familiar with the title but haven’t read it.

Fried published it in Artforum fifty years ago, and it’s an important essay in the art world that I think should be read more in English departments, because it helps a lot with things like the New Sincerity and conceptual writing.

(Can you give me one minute? I have to let someone in to the building—sorry!)

No worries, I have to take a kettle off the stove myself.

Okay, so to get back to Fried quickly: he argued that art was splitting into two types or categories. The first was art, which was still trying to solve formal problems. But the second was objecthood, which grew out of minimalism, and was abandoning its interest in formal problems. Those artists wanted to make art that didn’t have internal formal arrangements, but were instead just objects, things in and of themselves. And they then wanted to stage encounters between those objects and the audience. Put another way, they shifted from an interest in the internal arrangement of the artwork’s parts, to an interest in the relationship between the art object and the spectator.

And things like performance art and installations and environments grew out of that—trying to stage encounters that were concerned with the audience’s subjective experiences.

I wanted to talk about this more at HTMLGiant, because I thought a major tension there was between people who were pro-art, and people who were pro-objecthood. But I don’t think I ever did a good job articulating any of that there!

That’s a good carving.

Fried’s work is extremely useful.

To bring that back to the New Sincerity, I do think some people are interested in it as a pure expression of sincerity. In that they think artifice is the enemy of art, and that the artist has to dispense with all the fakeness and contrivance, and somehow bring the artwork and the audience into direct contact with reality itself. And some people at HTMLGiant were maybe coming at things like the N.S. and art from that direction. That struck me as Chris Higgs’s project, for instance.

I could be wrong, but I think a lot of people all over the place—and not just at sites like HTMLGiant—are enamored with the idea of an artwork that’s somehow more sincere or more authentic or more genuine. They want something real, and not fake. And that’s because I think most people like art because they like the effects that art has on them. And they want some kind of transcendental experience.

I wrote something recently about how I think A Nightmare on Elm Street influenced Twin Peaks. And I wasn’t surprised when some people were offended, because I know a lot of Lynch fans who don’t want to think of him as an artist who’s making works of artifice that draw influences from previous artworks.

Instead, they want to think of Lynch as a kind of shaman who’s receiving transmissions from another dimension, and making artworks that are like sacraments. They want to have their minds blown by these crazy, insane, bizarre artworks. And feel as if they’re in touch with some divine presence.

I actually want to talk about your and Chris [Higg]’s semi-rivalry over the years, but to stay on HTMLGiant a minute longer: What did it look like when HTMLGiant fell apart in the wake of the allegations against Lin and others? How connected were those events (the allegations and HTML shuttering) in your mind?

I was never privy to any background conversations about the site. I was basically sitting in Chicago, writing my posts in between my classes, pretty removed from the actual lit scenes. But I have to guess that the site’s hiatus was a direct consequence of those allegations, and other incidents.

I discovered your writing through your initial posts on the New Sincerity. I learned a lot from those posts, and they really did seem to crystallize a specific moment in the literary world, but I want to approach them with skepticism now…

Craig Owens, the late 20th century theater and art critic, has an interesting quote about his time at October, Rosalind Krauss’s art magazine: 

We were concerned with identifying the next chapter of this universal art history so we were involved in arguing for supporting a certain kind of work that would establish our own places in history… What can I say… it was incredibly stupid and blind and shortsighted.

What are the dangers of this?

[The quote] seems to me [to be] about artists wanting to be part of the next big thing, as in a movement or a scene? If so, there does seem to be a lot of that in the arts. I felt that way myself, when I was younger. People want to be part of things.

Yeah, I think that’s it. And the way that thinking so much about the “next” moment in a history can close you off to other kinds of art or writing that don’t fit the trajectory.

I think people get into the arts for all kinds of reasons. Maybe they’re looking for a scene, or for an experience. Or they want to be hip or famous. That was all true for me, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of it. At the same time, though, I also don’t think that any of that stuff necessarily has anything to do with art, if you know what I mean.

I think this point ties in well with your discourse with Chris Higgs, and your post at HTMLGiant about “good faith criticism,” which you define as being upfront about holding certain critical preferences and frameworks. In your case that framework was formalismWas having a community at HTML and Big Other, of not just supporters but also antagonistic thinkers like Chris, productive for your thinking?

Oh, absolutely! Chris’s writing was very helpful to me, and I’m really grateful for it. 

It’s really hard to articulate positions and work through problems. Chris and I were both getting our PhDs at the time, and I imagine he was trying to work out his commitments and arguments. I know I was. Looking back at that now, I just wish I’d done a better job stating and defending my arguments. I could do a better job now.

At the same time, though, I sometimes wonder how much people reading HTMLGiant at the time cared about our debates. I think a lot of people read the site because they wanted to get hyped up over some indie lit release. I was using the site to work through issues in my research, which was perhaps somewhat selfish of me!

I enjoy that mix in the site, reading back posthumously. Substantial theory and crit happens alongside extended in-jokes, event announcements, shitposting.

It was very useful for me, so I hope others found it useful, too. In my case, it led directly to things like CinemapsThose essays are all about 1000 words long, and I thought of them as being akin to blogposts.

What’s more, because posts often consist of writers working through ideas in small increments, you see behind the scenes. It’s very different than just reading the polished dissertation.

I do miss blogging. Do people still do it? I get the impression it’s been replaced by podcasts. But in any case, I found it incredibly useful to write regularly, knowing others would read it, and really forcing myself to write something that would make sense and hopefully be useful. I’d like to get back into it now, but keep getting distracted by other things.

We interacted for the first time because I wrote a short essay about the avant-garde, the way it gets incorporated into pop. I referenced your piece on experimental fiction at Big Other. You talk about how a lot of film that tries to be experimental is actually just following conventions of experimental works from decades prior. There’s nothing experimental about it.

It’s interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about the exhausted possibility of the avant-garde and of the punk scene as we know them. So many of the radical experimental outlets have become institutionalized templates, e.g. the “zine.” Haley Thurston at The Sublemon is a good reference. And I wonder if blogs still hold some power as a non-institutional, legitimately punk format.

I think a lot of avant-garde folk become convinced that experimental works have to look a certain way, or not be certain ways. For example, narrative is often considered very non-avant-garde, and is therefore taboo in avant-garde circles. I’ve seen this in film crowds, poetry crowds, fiction crowds.

So often you have people zeroing in on a certain look or sound or technique as “experimental,” then trying to replicate it. E.g., “the cut-up technique is an experimental technique.” Or, “experimental films should look like Stan Brakhage’s films.”

Or, “my work has to look punk, or like a zine, in order to be outside the mainstream, and be underground or experimental.”

Part 2 of this interview discusses film and fandom.