Kaitlin Phillips as PopLit

It was spring, around 11am and cold; we had teas with condensed milk in a small Malaysian place in the Lower East Side and I held up an AbEx painter book that was on sale and you made a joke about the page layout. 

For about a week the prior May I’d wondered whether or why there hadn’t been a poptimist moment in literature, whether that was even a coherent concept. I’d been convinced by a friend the main reason was popular literature was missing the impassioned obsession with craft and technical production, the “Futurist (as in Italian) machine-worship thing.”

But now I was wondering, somewhere between Ludlow and Allen Street, whether this might be an entirely separate question from whether there was admirable or highbrow pop literature. George Melly who raises the topic of pop literature in the 1970 Revolt Into Style thinks the answer to this second question is also no: 

The written word, at any rate ‘between hard covers,’ represents a permanence of a sort. Thought is trapped there… There is a further objection: to write and to read are solitary activities. Pop is communal, tribal, a shared experience. 

None of these convinced you when I read them out loud, which made me finally sure they didn’t convince me either. Records are as physical as books, you said; the digital has untethered writing from any distinctive permanence or aura thereof; pop experiences can clearly be solo and yet also somehow communal (think the opening scenes of Almost Famous, the discovery of his older sister’s record collection, its portal into another world). 

With the Sticky Fingers cover in my eyes I told you “I have this weird suspicion that writers like Kaitlin Phillips might be innovators of pop literature. All the traits are there (for a masculinized version, think rock’n’roll). An emphasis on style over content, the way and electricity with which you deliver a line, the cult of personality and aspirational quality of fandom, the quasi-total package of high-status youth, the conversion of private life into public life, image and glamour.” Sure, there had been folks like Kerouac, Burroughs, Hemingway—lifestyle reporters for the young—but their relationship to pop-lit is is a bit like a rockist production’s to pop music. Sure, it’s technically a subgenre in form, but the surface content is staunchly opposed to the showy personality-glitz of pure pop; it plays the game while disavowing the game, performs an authentic self. It’s pop in denial, pop stuck in the closet.

Anyway, for another axis of comparison, reading Maggie Nelson what always struck me was her honesty, her willingness to bear the grotesque or shameful without immediately trying to spin it into a strength or identity fetish—without the savvy branding or the sleight of hand that turns flaw into costly signal, or weakness into an display of competitive femininity. 

By the time you checked email over kabocha squash & sake I was mostly talking to myself: “The vision’s always felt to me like, ‘let’s replace a history of brutal economic hierarchies with a future of brutal social hierarchies,’ which, middle school sucked for a lot of people and might be worse than capitalism but, your mileage may vary.” Maybe I don’t see a serious problem in reveling in bad ideology, maybe the style makes up for it. Maybe it’s the sometimes Janus face of some of these scenes which grates, one face making, with moral indignity, a claim towards the radically anti-hierarchical, while the other indulges gleefully the pleasures of life at the top.

ii.

Of pop music Alva Noë writes, “the artist is not a vehicle for music; instead music is a vehicle for the artist.” Pop music is the “art of pure personal style,” a manipulation of cultural codes to enthrall and to convert. What propaganda is to art, advertisement is to pop, a hypnosis, an attempt at psychic implantation.

The music, or here, the writing, is a conjuring act of personality, an apparition summoned by the right triangulation of tone, the attitude, and taste (these all being orientations towards, the how instead of what— in a word, style). The material world is transformed into iconography: objects are used by people, therefore status is transferred through association. “We can all agree that bath salts are passé,” Phillips opens a college essay of hers, “Eastern Promises,” written for the Spectator. Five years later, her Bookforum review of a Rhonda Lieberman tribute begins in explosive baroque prose: 

Not just because I—Barnard shiksa from the boonies—was conditioned to envy my more socially savvy Jewish American counterparts for their sunglasses (from Selima), their scarves (not Hermès, actually) knotted the way their mothers taught them, and other birthright privileges awarded young ladies of a certain socioeconomic-religious-cultural demographic, who I imagine learned about Freud from their fathers (this is just a fantasy!), am I fascinated by Rhonda Lieberman.

These links between people and objects, and their history, constitute a cultural graph on which the pop work has been positioned. The objects gets separated out like God on the first day, splitting darkness from light: in or out, low or high, melted into sacred vs profane. In a poptimist or “post-critical” era, this is one of the few discourses which revels Roxy-like in aristocratic sentiment. Often, relatedly, there is in pop a a deep interest in fame and inner circles, celebrity and its half-sibling fashion— see Warhol, Bowie, Gaga. 

From early in Phillips’s writing career, agile code-switching is a cornerstone of the performance. “You might shvitz—uh, sweat—with Dad at a Mikvah” she writes aside references to W.H. Auden, Mick Jagger, and Benjamin Britten in “Eastern Promises.” The article, which sells the virtues of bathhouses to her college classmates, includes as primary selling points the potential for brush-ups with celebrity, the history of Someones who have been sighted through the steam. (Another article from that time is a sprawling amateur-journo investigation of St. A’s, the hyper-elite Columbia fraternity which sports a private chef.) Like a young Joan Didion, there’s a self-deprecation in her writing that can only be read as irony in-context: “I came up from [the pool] shrieking… I report only that I made no friends.”

Another piece from 2013, a longform on Tao Lin, was linked to by the LARB, Ron Silliman’s blog, and some alt literature sites. She wrote about Lin’s demonstrated savvy at building an online following, speculated on the mechanics at play: “Many critics, and fellow bloggers, ask ‘why?,’ but perhaps the more pertinent line of inquiry is ‘how?’” She had started a Twitter account at n+1, @nplusoneinterns, that took as its shtick the pretense of being a group account. Tao Lin himself ended up asking her to make a similar account for him; she gave out the password to classmates to post whatever they wanted. She wasn’t alone in fielding this kind of request; there was a small army of Lin fans that he led and encouraged in growing his reputation through stickering public spaces and making fan blogs.[1]

Phillips’s iconographic matriarch is always Rhonda Lieberman. “She embodies the particular kind of East Coast sophistication I ideated and craved, a wry dinner-party companion known for asides about her complicated relationships with intellectuals.” In Lieberman’s writing, the academic-intellectual is turned into a life texture: “1) daily horoscopes and tarot readings; 2) Friedrich Nietzsche; 3) listening to [others on] Prozac.” Like Lieberman, Phillips smashes the high and the low side-by-side (more code-switching, the cultural-linguistic equivalent of turning on a dime): “Derrida is the Madonna of thought. He’s antiphallogocentric and a total diva.” Or, “Thorstein Veblen’s pecuniary emulation, i.e., the Jewish American Princess who buys a Coach purse at twelve only to learn about Prada a year later.” Abstract –> concrete via the i.e.. Lieberman herself is proto-pop, a total mother. “Reviewing a book by Lieberman weirdly feels like reviewing her,” Phillips confesses.

iii.

The flags are at half mast in Union Square: I’m watching you watch a squirrel, seriously fat, scaling Lincoln’s brass left leg. The trees are black-denuded still, it’s too early in the year. Post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and Derrida: the dollar used bookstands are stacked with them, some kind of sign. The end of an era or an era’s perpetuation? The last clearings or signs of health? Internal readings (formalist, structuralist, New Critical) vs. external readings (Marxist, biographical, sociological, Bourdieuian). The visiting European intellectuals who come lecture, give panel talks, do their continent disservice so routinely out of touch, or banal, or sentimental in that way middle-aged liberals get.

You had recently started switching from kairos, event-time, to chronos, sequential-numeric. Off of summer’s “after the party,” or “when we wake up,” and onto the worldtime of 9:00 a.m. It was making me grumpy, a feeling counteracted only by the way the teenagers next to us were talking: “perf,” “def,” “I’m totally jeal.”

“If making a personality is not different from making a book…,” Robert Glück wonders in his essay on the New Narrative.

In the early essays of Phillips we can witness the beginning of a project. In “All-American Bloggers” she writes about Marie Calloway, Karley Sciortino, and Cat Marnell, lady-bloggers and “literary seductresses” whose work is a “deft mix of sex, drugs, photos, dialogue, and name-dropping.” This was still two years before Laura Bennett’s infamous “Thinkpiece Industrial Complex” essay at Slate. Early on, Phillips recognizes that the “shock value” of reckless behavior and irreverence toward moral taboos is “best retained when it is delivered by a woman, especially one who is young and beautiful, in the public eye, and unwilling to divorce her persona from what could be construed as questionable social choices.” What set Phillips apart, prevented her from falling into the abyss that Bennett describes, is precisely her interest in surface, and the way her work more constitutes performance than confession. 

She sees herself in Marie Calloway, a fellow Midwesterner, describing a “photo of her smoking in Midtown, wearing mismatched black and carrying a Coach purse”—a look ”charmingly suggestive of a Midwestern[er] having just arrived in her city, working out an affect.” Soft power, recognized and beginning to be honed. Those who understand the fashion landscape, the field of associations and character proxies it carries, gain power over it. “A long pleated skirt can take on a dry workwear edge, perhaps it’s their connotation with librarians or archeologists. Women with master’s degrees who climb ladders,” Phillips wrote recently in SSENSE. Or“I’ve read that Miuccia Prada likes the swish that long pleated skirts make, which helps to explain why designers often pair this swish with a stomp, the girlish connotations of pleats undercut by a bondage boot.” Specificity is a fetish of this kind of writing, where small distinctions matter in part because the knowledge necessary to parse and rank such distinctions is impossible to fake and difficult to learn. “I have scrawled at the top of my bathroom mirror in YSL Rouge Volupte lipstick, #17, a bright coral” she quotes one blogger; the tone and rhythm would go on to define her style. The game is part Bourdieuean distinction for the wealthy, part an artform with its unformalizable intricacies of taste.

Chloë Sevigny, fashion icon and it-girl born in Springfield, stands as another mother, and Phillips writes an essay in undergrad on the actress-model which leans into her celebrity and her impossible, irreplicable cool allure. Personality as art forger, the discovery and modeling of a unique and generative style. Warhol is also in play, another small-towner from the Midwest who comes out to the big city, builds a community with his art, builds art from his community. Many of the pop greats, from all media forms, seem to come from small towns, something about the advantage of recognizing the game by not having been born into it.  

Now though I’m wondering. There are traces in Phillips’ writing that evoke Sun Also Rises (alongside the likes of Kraus and Lieberman): “A few weeks ago I flew to Paris to visit old friends—a rather treacly errand of the heart that posed low-level sartorial decisions; I had several dinners with my past. For cocktails and sardines with my two ex-best-friends, in town for fashion week, I wore a cropped shearling jacket in candy apple red and my Prada shoes with black drugstore tights. I guiltily spent my daylight hours in bed, hungover, writing in ripped Vetements Jeans and a Lucien sweatshirt. For my final night—the pièce de résistance—I curated a boozy men-only affair with an anorexic Hegelian (a formative crush), a military historian from California (with an affected continental accent), an elegantly mannered French art dealer (divorced, collects rare arrowheads), and a conceptual artist I had met the night before at Café de Flore (I had liked a video he made a few years before, of a woman wandering in a technological wasteland).” 


[1] Is it only fair I trace her provenance this way? From her essay on Lin, “His decision to be a writer seems to have cemented during his senior year, in 2004, when Lin went into self-imposed isolation. He left the dorms and moved to New Jersey.” Later: “His first three years out of college are marked by their tenacious, discursive productivity. In fact, from his output during this period, it is hard to tell he lost hope at all.”