Each Venture Is A New Beginning

Peli Grietzer’s Amerikkkkka is the kind of text that punches preternaturally out of its weight class, manages miracles. It back-charts five years of intellectual growth, cultural mappings, one-off gags and twelve-page academic endeavors that together begin to depict a certain type of lifeworld.

I had the chance to gChat with Peli for a few hours as he rode the train from Brussels to Berlin.

Basic bio points, correct me/elaborate freely: Amerikkkkka—originally published Amerikkkka—was written over five years between 2009 and 2014, just after you’d moved from Israel to the United States and coinciding with the start of your comparative lit program at Harvard.

‘Written’ is a funny term here. It’s made of the 2009-2014 stretch of my blog, which I started around 2006. I always had some intention that my blog cohere, in retrospect, as some kind of textual Gesamtkunstwer, and one sort of distressed week in 2014 when I was feeling at the end of my rope as a subject I decided it was time to novel-ize the blog, delete the source material, and see what it—what I—amounted to. I decided to start with the first post I wrote after moving to the U.S., to give it a kind of comically world-historical-memoir flavor. Like, ‘witness the workings of America upon the psyche of this bright-eyed youth from the provinces.’

My understanding is that the current edition, the one I have, is the fourth. What differs between editions, other than the ‘k’-count in the title?

The extra ‘k’ came in because everyone kept misreading it as Amerikkka, which… I put the book together right before the American far-right resurgence that brought the term back into wide circulation, so I actually hadn’t encountered it at the time. The title was supposed to be like Kafka’s Amerika but the ‘k’ on your keyboard or your throat got stuck for a moment.

The other big change is that there’s a strikethrough line over a few dozen pages that I don’t like, or rather that I don’t think reward attentive reading, don’t work as a ‘fake novel.’ These pages are from a stretch of time when I was learning how to do ’00s ‘Internet voice’—sort of the neotenic-but-with-a-handsome-vocabulary-and-lot-of-cursing voice we now associate with sort of, Neil Gaiman fans ‘buckle up fuckers we’re going to talk about history’ Twitter, but it really was a kind of hipster voice eight years ago. I think this voice… didn’t age so good.

Right—my hard copy has a strikethrough from p.25-39, digital p.31-52. You talk in the book itself about Tumblr-style casual crit: «So Tumblr-culture uses “and” and “!” a lot. OK. The later Henry James used many, many commas. Joyce was into swearing and alliterations. Buffy-speak is big on verbing and on pronouns. Rappers use internal rhyming to mark virtuosity! Art-punk bands use shrill sounds to sound artsy. In Tumblr-culture we use “!” and breathless “and” to get a tone of sprightly intimacy going. It’s fine.’» Do you know any more about where that style comes from? Is it separate from the Gaiman-y voice you’re describing or part of the same? Have you seen it influence writing outside of Tumblr?

Yeah I think that’s the style! My feelings about this style may have… taken a negative turn over the years. It might be that I feel like it’s an awkward middle point between the sort of—to steal a phrase from Tobi Haslett—willed gracelessness of good punk writing and the neotenic grace of someone like Molly Young. It’s a synthesis of preciousness and punk energy that doesn’t really hold together for me these days. I think Marxist-Leninist trans femme ‘weird Twitter’ has the good version of this synthesis, stylistically. Don’t know why or how, but they do.

There’s a line about midway through the book, “Keep it pretentious, keep it funny, keep it rigorous, keep it confusing. This is dating advice and writing advice!” Do you stand by it? Your writing seems to have gone in a different direction, and I’m curious if you think this can be traced to Harvard and the avant-garde’s influence on your sensibilities. I’m thinking of the section on ‘boarding the mothership,’ and the resultant transformation of taste.

I think I stand by this for how you should do things in your 20s, and possibly stand by this for how you should do things if—for you—personhood tends to the condition of a sandbox rather than to the condition of an ocean. One thing you can probably see with Amerikkkkka is that by the beginning (which is chronologically the end, since it’s in blog-order where the latest chronologically comes earliest page-wise) I’m sort of irreversibly wrecked by the psychic backlash from the conclusion of  an at-least-subjectively-abusive romantic relationship and can’t go on being a person in the same way anymore. The way of being that is predicated on a sandbox-y relation to personhood becomes foreclosed by the beginning of it, and reading through the text backward in time is sort of opening up to a past when it wasn’t.

The comp lit program at Harvard wasn’t an influence on me in any meaningful way. It’s a very hands-off department, for good and for ill.  I think what changed is that I lost my taste for things that aren’t more or less explicitly reflections on their own stakes—things that rely on the self-evident flow of life to charge them with stakes—when I became too mentally ill for life to flow with a force of its own. What I mean is, at some point I went into a phase—an ongoing one—where I can only relate to art and philosophy that carries its own ground with it, that doesn’t rely on the implicit ground of the richness of life to give it force, because the richness of life isn’t there for me as a background condition. I can summon it through art and philosophy, but it’s not just *there* for art and philosophy to play off of.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m ‘survival-’ or ‘healing-’ or whatever-oriented now. It’s more, like, you’re on a barge at sea and you’re building a tower of Babel from driftwood coming your way. You just, like… can’t fuck around, at risk to both your project and your life.

I think Amerikkkkka is also really fundamentally tied to a time when, personhood-wise, the future feels much larger than the past.

There’s the connection with content and form, the reverse chronology of the book is grounded in your section on Faust. You talk about the Aristotelian necessity of tragedy in contrast with homiletic literature, where “the impact of a human action is merely quantitative: every action [registering] as a positive mark or a negative mark on man’s record of sins and goods deeds, and only [influencing] future events by virtue of its incremental impact on this record.”

Right, so in the Faust paper I talk about how a Christian understanding of biographical causation, where everything that happens just additively increases or decreases your salvation points, is incompatible with tragedy, where changing even one event in a chain would change everything.

Here’s something I want to say, maybe directly related and maybe not: I feel like I didn’t amount to anything as a subject—the different strands of being playing against one another in Amerikkkkka never came together, it’s the same mess and it got exhausting—but everything did come together beyond my wildest dreams as a…. well… theory. I thought I was becoming a person, or that there’s such thing as becoming a person, but instead everything that was there evolved in my theory work, the mathematical-literary Theory of Vibe opus.  So my relationship to Amerikkkkka is maybe colored by my sense that Amerikkkkka is a book of personhood, and personhood didn’t work out for me.

The whole idea of Amerikkkkka was that there’s this implicit living logic, the logic of a life-force, of a person, making all these utterances more than what they are in isolation and even more than what they are as an intellectual corpus. That’s why it’s a ‘novel.’ That’s the whole tradition of the novel, which Amerikkkkka superimposes on what’s’ 97% ‘impersonal’ philosophical and literary and cultural anecdotes and tricks and questions and theses. And I think that week in 2014, when the idea of meaning I sought to bring into my accumulated life-materials intersected with the form of the bourgeois novel, was a sort of solar-eclipse-like event. Though maybe I was already blogging in the shadow of the tradition of the novel when I was blogging. It’s hard at this point to think about the stance or approach to life/the world that the blog embodied before it was transliterated into a ‘novel.’

Do you think Amerikkkkka fails in conveying a logic of a life-force? Or is it more that the logic which it purports to convey is, behind the scenes, missing, or a sham, or a failed premise, or a pilot that never got picked up? (This is also what works about Amerikkkkka: It shows the frame’s power of projection, alluded to in the novel itself: «A randomly generated text is interesting in as much as the pattern-spotting and analogy-spotting behaviours that 3000 years of literature imprinted us with are interesting.»)

‘A pilot that never got picked up’ is PERFECT. I mean, I really really like Amerikkkkka, I just don’t know how to be the kind of person who can relate to it on some basis of personal continuity anymore. I think only the feeling that the future is practically infinite made this way of being work for me. Maybe another way of saying this is that when you are in your 20s, there’s this merciful indeterminacy between dynamism as a narrative drive and dynamism as an epistemic drive, and Amerikkkkka depends on this indeterminacy.

How old are you now?

Thirty-two. The novel is such a biological genre. At least the, eh, ‘bourgeois novel,’ which is the genre that Amerikkkkka is working in.

Why does Cecilia Corrigan’s ghost haunt Amerikkkkka?

One part of it is that she’s an extraordinarily—extraordinarily!—gifted writer whose work still informs my transcendental constitution. Another part of it is private and contentious.

Was Kant’s 3rd Critique the origin of your interest in/thinking on vibe? There’s this persistent idea throughout Amerikkkkka that people’s aesthetic tastes meaningfully reflect deeper cognitive architectures & styles. There’s the interest in compression, Schmidhuber-style.

Yeah, absolutely! I took this Kant-focused phil. of aesthetics class together with my brilliant philosopher of math friend Sharon Berry, and we messed around together thinking through the idea that a work of art is an object which is ‘massively suggestive,’ and we got in this insane fight when I said it can’t just be massively suggestive the way smoking weed is, there has to be some kind of mnemonic-like enfolding of the things that unfold from the massive suggestiveness back into the object. Sharon was like ‘eh, nice work if you can get it, but this sounds extremely woo’ and I was like ‘I’m going to devote the next eight years of my life to winning this argument.’

Not really, but when I came home I told my roommate Owain Evans, who is a cogsci, phil., and AI guy with an interest in art, about the fight and he was like ‘there’s actually some stuff about aesthetics and compression’ and introduced me to the Schmidhuber stuff, and we started working on ideas in the neighborhood.

Now, wait. I know there was a brief period you were connected to the LessWrong community, and that there’s a shared interest there (at least among the tiny subset of LW types interested in aesthetics) in Schmidhuber. Did you introduce his frame? Did you discover LessWrong through him?

Owain Evans has deep community ties there, so either they know the Schmidhuber stuff through him or vice versa, I guess.

These days you seem skeptical of the LessWrong project. Was there a time their epistemic and community norms had more to offer you, or were more novel? How’d your relationship with that way of thinking and existing change?

I think I’m actually fairly LW positive — it’s SSC that I don’t like. I think LW invented or popularized beautiful cutting-edge ideas in decision theory, and also helped propagate the language of algorithmic information theory, which I of course love.

When it comes to the ‘way of thinking and existing’ stuff, I think there’s still a place in my heart for the sort of hyper-foundationalist Paul Christiano type of reasoning and discourse. What I dislike is the SSC thing of, take some anecdotal evidence for y, now construct a grand unifying theory of the social world based on y. I get enough of this shit being continental social theory adjacent! And the good continentals are much better at it! Ribbonfarm is pretty cool, but, I swear, most Ribbonfarm posts I’ve read would in fact be way better if they drew on existing continental social theory vocabulary and reference points. I think really the rise-to-visibility of hardcore techie nerds with hardcore continental background, like Lucca Fraser and Dominic Fox, made a lot of the nerds-rebuilding-a-continental-social-theory-analog stuff I associated with the ‘post-rationalist’ scene feel very rudimentary.

I supposed really the biggest change I’ve undergone since writing Amerikkkkka, intellectually, is coming to the opinion that there’s a lot to work with in continental philosophy and even ‘Theory.’ That starting from scratch in those areas is madness.

«Kill me now: the reason the humanities are so bad  is it’s so hard to find out who’s genuinely good at the humanities that only people who are genuinely good at the humanities can do that.» Who’ve you found?

As far as, eh, CS/math-pilled continentals, Peter Wolfendale, Reza Negarestani, Lucca Fraser, the Laboria Cuboniks group, Anna Longo, Anil Bawa-Cavia, and Dominic Fox are all amazing.

It seems like, at least between ’09-14, you lived in some interstices.

That was always the goal, for sure. Sellarsian reconciliation!

Javier Cumpa: «The Sellarsian task of ontology is to reconcile two seemingly divergent images of ordinary objects such as persons, tomatoes and tables, namely, the manifest image of common sense and the scientific image provided by fundamental physics.»

Ray Davis: How’d you encounter him, what does he mean to you, and why’s he so good?

I know Ray from emailing him once I got obsessed with his blog. I think the fundamental thing Ray taught me, other than (passively) teaching me to inject essayistic texts with extremely dense intertextual networks—indeed, to build vibe-making constellations—through carefully curated blink-and-you-missed-it puns, is that formally and aesthetically and even affectively radical art or poetry or what have you doesn’t *have* to be, about, like sex and death and love and pain and what have you. It’s a ‘lesson’ that’s strongly associated with the WCW/Zukofsky tradition in avant-garde American poetry, but Ray is the only one that made me believe it, see its worth.

(How’re we doing on time/energy? Going strong here but checking in.)

I’ve got time until my train arrives at station [in Berlin] in like an hour.

«And I said, I said, ‘people who “outgrow” T.S. Eliot are the fucking worst’.» Have you outgrown Eliot yet?

Over my dead body. Eliot’s poetry feel like having an octopus tentacle caress the inside of your brain. It’s what I imagine buying illegal neural stim software for your language center in a cyberpunk world feels like.

What do you think of the new Vampire Weekend effort? Does it cast  doubt on how self-aware the band was back in ’09? Should we have foreseen that Koenig’s infatuation with “being in the middle” at all times would lead him to this place of aesthetic blandness?

I haven’t listened to it yet! I’m both scared I’ll hate it and scared it’ll resonate with me and give me life-emotions of some kind I’m not prepared for. But Koenig always loved Billy Joel and the Beatles and things like that. I’m just hoping the lyrics are good, I always related to him mostly as a writer. Loved his TV show though, thought it was brilliant.

Music culture has poptimism, trashy television is the common parlance of the highbrow why haven’t books had their poptimism moment?

Well, there’s a weird thing where—for reasons I can’t even begin to imagine—lowbrow popular books are sometimes kind of worthwhile substance-wise but are an absolute technical mess. So I think the kind of joy at craft and polish and mechanical perfection that powered poptimism—which really was a kind of Futurist (as in Italian) machine-worship thing now that I think about it, where the machine is, like, some kind of Landian capitalism-is-the-machine—that thing can’t really work with books. Maybe there’s something specific to language where the takes-low-compute-to-process is somewhat incompatible with the ‘compact’ in the sense that strikes us as elegant. Like, Dragonlance or Harry Potter are technically good writing in the sense that it’s writing that’s very easy to read for a long time without getting tired, and it conveys the necessary content, but it’s also sort of blatantly technically bad writing in the sense that it’s…. maybe highly redundant is the relevant notion, or maybe some more sophisticated concept. But, like, mass-market-optimal written language just doesn’t feel ‘clean’ or ‘tight’ or ‘perfected’ in the way that mass-market-optimal visuals or sounds do.

Amerikkkkka lays out the terms of conflict between art-rock/avant kids on one hand and PoMo/prog-rock types on the other. Which tribe are you in?

Extremely art-rock/avant. Like, I believe people that Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis are great writers but… no, please give me Kathy Acker and Robbe-Grillet. I think it’s, like, I don’t really like things that are more rich than they are deep. Someone like Joshua Cohen is writing incredibly rich novels, but do they actually interface with any cognitive or aesthetic nerve center outside of themselves that hasn’t been interfaced with before? Nah. Trisha Low, on the other hand, is someone who makes work with relatively modest internal structural complexity but that really lodges itself in critical, unfamiliar cognitive-aesthetic-affective nerve centers and works them.

I wanted to ask about Trisha Low, I have Compleat Purge at my bedside now. I tried hard with Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. I struggle with visual description and building/keeping images in my head,  so I drew out pages of diagrams to stay oriented, filled a quarter of a notebook, it always felt like doing math problems.

Jealousy is haaaard. Repetition is the one that’s also a spy-thriller and is crazy awesome.

Trisha’s a very old not-close-but-warm friend, and her work as long as I’ve known her socially was always not my thing at all, and when Purge came out I was like, “oh heh I guess I’m now a legit fan of this old friend of mine, cool.”

Now, Trisha’s on Gauss [PDF], Buffy Cain’s on Gauss, Corrigan’s on Gauss. You must’ve known the press well while writing. How’d Amerikkkkka end up on it? In that way at least, the book feels like a document of a community, a shared e-poetics discourse at a certain moment.

I knew [J.] Gordon [Faylor] in NY—we didn’t get along great back then, actually—but somehow I emailed him about something after he moved to the Bay Area and it sort of became clear we both regretted not getting along great back then, so we became email friends. When I ‘wrote’ Amerikkkkka I emailed it to him and was actually totally shocked that he wanted to publish it on Gauss as an actual book. He was always one of my absolute favorite writers. I always say he’s the Ingmar Bergman of gibberish.

If you had to situate Amerikkkkka in a lineage, how would you situate it? Who were you reading at the time? Were there works that helped you understand it structurally?

I think what I say in the intro is exactly right: the influences were Trisha’s Purge, Schlegel on ‘romantic poetry’ (really what we’d call modernism), and Elif Batuman’s scholarly and essayistic work on the theory of the novel. Oh and for the blog itself the biggest influence was always Shklovsky’s The Zoo, which is maybe the great masterpiece of saying things that are rigorous and true in a way that make them also cast beautiful shadows on the wall. Which now that I think of it is what Kant says poetry is—‘offering, from among the boundless multiplicity of possible forms accordant with a given concept, to whose bounds it is restricted, that one which couples with the presentation of the concept a wealth of thought to which no verbal expression is completely adequate, and by thus rising aesthetically to ideas.’ Ok gotta go! This was hella fun!