Chris Campanioni was born in Manhattan in 1985. He is the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland and the author of seven books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James’s The American and Gertrude Stein’s “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work has appeared in Ambit, Nat. Brut, Poetry International, RHINO Poetry, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and DIAGRAM, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He teaches at Pace University and Baruch College, and edits PANK, At Large Magazine, and Tupelo Quarterly. His selected poetry was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was named Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece “This body’s long (& I’m still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. In 2019, he was awarded a CHCI-Mellon Global Humanities Institute fellowship to join the Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention.
Daniya Baiguzhayeva: Firstly, Chris, thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me about your latest book. How did the Internet is for real precipitate? What was the process of writing it like?
Chris Campanioni: I like that you use the word precipitate here because I think a common marker readers have used to think about the book is by considering its excess. For sure, the writing process felt to me less like writing and more like a series of manoeuvres that involved arranging and montage and collage, and a whole lot of transcription because a great amount of my writing process involves copying out earlier versions pulled from my notes. I feel like The Florida Review taught me something about the book when Jonathan Marcantoni described the Internet is for real as a playlist or film rather than a text-based object. In general, I tend to think of my role as a writer as functioning like a DJ—an attempt to attain high points but also cultivate (or revel in) the moments of absurd boredom—the drones and droning torpor/anxiety that characterize our rituals today.
The book is also very indebted to the many different seminar discussions I facilitated as an instructor at Baruch College, where I’ve taught a class on “Identity, Image, and Intimacy in Post Internet Culture” since 2014. I wanted to kind of track these divergent and intermingling streams of consciousness from one generation to the next and it was my hope that a book like the Internet is for real could serve as a sort of ledger in which a broader culture (i.e. non-academic, non-institutional) could also begin to consider how our current social norms and social media could be re-evaluated to better serve our under-represented communities outside the classroom, along with new approaches to instruction, research, and of course what we consider as “poetry” and more generally, the “literary” and also, “creative writing.”
DB: The first thing that really resonated when reading the book was this notion of constant self-surveillance. The compulsive externalisation of one’s gaze—this desire to watch oneself as others do—inf(l)ects one’s behaviour and thought processes, so that what arises is a sense of performance in one’s own life that never really ends. Where do you think this reflex for self-surveillance comes from? Has this desire/compulsion to watch oneself and be watched in turn influenced the writing of the book in any interesting ways, and vice versa?
CC: I love that you call it a reflex, because I do think the ubiquity of self-surveillance today has turned it into something that is perhaps also an unconscious, automatic directive. But it’s also entirely reflexive, in the sense that it is produced in return to others and the various ways we are each subjects and objects for one another.
Michael Fried, in his 1968 essay, “Art and Objecthood,” argues that art ends where theatricality begins, since theatricality infers the implication of another participant—a viewer, a reader, someone who’s in on the mediation while at the same time observing it. By contrast, we can understand that art in fact begins at, or rather begins in, this moment of transitional affect, the perception of staging at present, which includes our own. Our own presence, our own staging. I feel like every time I thumb through this massive text I alight upon a line that teaches me something about what it is I’m still trying to discover. And now it’s: To inhabit the interior of a put-on. To place myself in the question of others. What else is there in life but knowing one’s own relation to a role (“Halt & Catch Fire”).
I wonder if our desire/compulsion to simultaneously watch ourselves and be watched comes from the (utopic?) desire, for a third gaze: to see ourselves as others see us—which is also an impossibility. There’s an ethical-erotic charge to this play of seeing/showing/seen, which at the very least could possibly turn scopic pleasure into empathic concern and feeling.
DB: We are living in, as you say, “a culture that has systematically abolished privacy.” There’s a recurring desire in the book to, if not break out of a kind of cage, then certainly to move beyond established borders, to exist outside of the frame. This raises the question of how much agency we really have in a culture in which, as someone on Twitter pointed out, “No” has become replaced with “Learn more.” What implications does this lack of privacy have for writers and the practice of writing moving forward?
CC: I think writers have—for far longer than the Internet’s lifespan—used constraints, especially spatial constraints, as an impetus to produce—not necessarily out of aesthetic pleasure, or intellectual curiosity, or creative joy, but survival. I do think the reality of our total lack of privacy has affected how readers come to the genre of memoir or the mode of autobiography, to say nothing of the writers of these same works. Perhaps what I mean to say is that in an age of total exposure and unparalleled access to persons near and far, my metric for producing a “successful” autobiography is that by the time readers turn the book’s final page, they’ve yet to learn anything about its author.
DB: One thing that especially interested me was the recursions throughout the book to the zoo. The animals there are caged and surveilled too. It’s a place in which natural conditions are simulated artificially and pleasure is “institutionalized.” In some ways it seems that the zoo serves as a parallel for our online existence, and especially for the artificial paradisal landscapes of VR. How did the idea of the zoo and the references to pets and animals influence your thinking about the Internet? Does the development of the Internet and the VR landscapes open up some interesting questions re: climate change and solastalgia, at a time when natural landscapes seem to be similarly disappearing from daily life?
CC: Yeah, you are spot-on. I mean we are living through the systematic abolishment of privacy, sure, but we are also living through the ongoing special project for, as I put it, “the systematic extermination of the real.” And I don’t just mean the digitalization of all things surface—including our self-contained conceptions of mobility and our locations within a Geo-tagged, racialized, gender-specific mapping interface—but also the perilous state of our ecosystem. Within this literal vanishing point buoyed by images and the technologies that make them possible I want to keep thinking about what happens when we rely, depend upon, or otherwise desire the virtual gesture. Do these online opportunities, as a form of augmentation and convenience, really just replace real pleasure? Or do they in fact erase it? In general, I’m interested in what leaks out from our virtual encounters and interactions, or how those obviate the possibilities for engagement in real life.
DB: I’m tempted to draw a parallel between the “rise of the pixelated forest” in your discussions of virtual reality, our movement as a species towards cyborgism (people as “bank[s] of data”; people as cameras), and the industrialisation of human relationships into products that can be manufactured and bought (chatbots, Invisible Girlfriend apps). It seems, more and more, that we are heading towards a kind of technological overhaul of what was once natural. How do we resist this dematerialization and its damaging effects on already invisible communities, like the people mining the coltan that our machines consist of?
CC: Honestly, it’s about demanding more accountability from the companies whose products we use, including the Apple MacBook Pro I’m using as I type this response. It involves acknowledging our own complicity and our own subject-position within this vicious, relentless system of capitalism and the exploitation of bodies who, as Judith Butler once said, are ungrievable. Did you know that Apple’s AirPods, which last about 18 months, are entirely non-recyclable? Also non-repairable—like most Apple products—making them probably the most unsafe consumer good on the market today or, like, in the history of consumerism, but in actuality, they are just the harbinger of an increasingly common trend, in which the trade-off for convenience and pleasure and efficiency is not costing the present (time, money, one’s ability to be alone with one’s self) so much as the future.
DB: The book embeds itself within, rewrites, and converses with a whole web of cultural artifacts, including Godard’s films, Twin Peaks, and Henry James’s novels. It seems to me that this heightened referentiality is one indicator of a new kind of Post-Internet poetics in which our ideas, more than ever, resist singularity and confinement, are constantly seeking to propagate outwards in associative chains or networks. What function does this kind of intertextuality serve for you as a writer? Does it feel to you symptomatic of a broader shift in terms of how we think about and relate to media in the Internet age?
CC: What a great question! I like thinking about these authorial resignifications of earlier, seminal works as totally associative and a bid for proximity, which is to say to position myself in these lineages, which has the effect, of course, of altering their trajectories. What I mean is that these manoeuvres have the potential to also radically re-construct (or at least re-evaluate the canon), while also constituting a departure from modernism (“the alienated individual”) and toward a refracted and aggregated identity, mimicking the distribution of media by network technologies. The points of constellation you outline in your question became a sort of testing ground in this book to address these issues of canon and hierarchy, especially the genealogy of the avant-garde, which is still, today, considered through a monochromatic, mainly Western lens. My forthcoming book, A and B and Also Nothing, which Otis Books is publishing this May, is literally a re-writing of American identity through a rough “translation” of Henry James’s The American and Gertrude Stein’s “Americans.” I wanted to see what would happen if I insinuated myself in these texts, with particular attention to the experience of migration, exile, and first-generation cultural dislocation, things which are of course absent in both of the source materials. In general, I think there’s real value—real discovery—in holding together dreams, fantasies, citation, annotation, and the observations of one’s waking life.
DB: Following on from that, how would you conceptualise (or, begin to conceptualise) a Post-Internet poetics? Why ‘Post’ and not just ‘Internet’?
CC: I like Post-Internet, because it attends to the implications for the future, and also the mode of self-publication. The post that comes before and comes after, etymologically behind but also toward, to, near, late, close by, but also away from—which is to say both, or all—post: a particular useful prefix when thinking about the multiple singularities of correspondence—I am writing to you—the addressee and the event of address, and when I write to you I keep you close at hand, a coinciding of proximity and distance which is how we experience the everyday, whether or not we are ever in fact talking with anyone besides ourselves (our phones). Post-Internet emphasizes this presentation but also, and I think your question earlier really suggests this, it calls attention to art’s presence, and this is specifically a presence that is simultaneous and heterospatial—the work’s ability or invitation to be in several places at once, which is to say, to be in view of several different audiences and cultures. For me, this has always signalled activity and participation and collaboration…an awareness and celebration of ensemble.
DB: In “Time Passes Piles Up Presses In & Flattens,” you compare the Internet to a TV that’s always on. In modernity, everything is simultaneously ephemeral and eternal. Temporal progression collapses, tenses blur. You write about how our data traces remain online long after we die; even before that, we have to encounter all of our past selves in the form of Facebook statuses, tweets, old emails. What are the implications, do you think, of this accelerated time and increased “haunting” for how we read and write?
CC: Yeah, I like what you imply here, that we are today both ghosts and haunted, perhaps haunted by our own self-as-ghost (literally our own data doubles). I had mentioned in an earlier discussion, with Tom Kozlowski at The Brooklyn Review, that one effect, at least in terms of how I read, is to constantly consider just how already-out-of-date everything I write is by the time it is made available to the public. That doesn’t make it worse; I think it makes it better—to get out of this recycled idea of the timeless as sacrosanct.
DB: The Internet has also led to the distortion and contraction of space, collapsing boundaries so that the world is the closest it’s ever been. You write about your sense of liminality as the child of immigrants, both in terms of identity and geographical heritage, and quote Glissant’s notion that “the emigrant is…forced into impossible attempts to reconcile his former and his present belonging.” What results is a “contrapuntal” awareness, simultaneous, plural. There’s a parallel in the book between the borderlessness of the Internet and the borderless existence of refugees and immigrants. In what ways can the Internet be a constructive tool for thinking about immigration, nation-states, and borders?
CC: Oh, I think—and this is not a notion that is at all new—the migrant is of course the most “modern,” the most advanced, the vanguard of the world’s people today, as in the past. And that such encounters of drift and absence among diasporic communities can tell us more about the cultural norms from which the vast swath of citizen-subjects operate within Post-Internet culture. You point out the experience of simultaneity, plurality, a contrapuntal awareness…all of these moments—unresolvable and in productive tension—which are seemingly “new” or even innovative for users are elsewhere everyday realities. So yes—similar to the guest that liberates the host in a Derridean framework, we can say that it’s not so much that the Internet can be a constructive tool for thinking about immigration, nation-states, and borders—although this is certainly evident—but that, on the contrary, migrants and diasporic communities are constructive and dynamic agents for thinking about the Internet.
DB: Writing about (writing about) your father’s dreams of Cuba, you consider the “gaps and slips” in the dreams’ descriptions as they are converted from your father’s dreaming in Spanish to your writing in English. This disjunct is more than just a question of translational logistics, but one offshoot of the process of remembering and verbalising after exile and generational trauma. You write about the “self-silencing so common to the immigrant experience” and the ways in which one can begin to respond to that. Several of the theories you reference attempt to reconfigure the vacancy left by traumatic repression or forgetfulness into a space for construction, creation, and reinvention. Ananya Jahanara Kabir’s concept of relocating the discursive structure of trauma theory “towards non-narrative, lyrical, often fragmentary meditations and works that are at times pedagogic and performative, emulative and immersive” was particularly pertinent. Your response to it has been a desire to be both “storyteller and stagehand; lyrical and expository, theoretical and autobiographical.” How does your idea of “excess” as a literary and revolutionary practice fit into this? How can immigration trouble and reinvent genres such as autobiography?
CC: These are such useful and important questions, Daniya. I feel like excess can be so, so useful, and not just as a writerly practice that lets one revel in the haphazard accidents of relinquishing all self-control. But abundance is also a sort of response to the Valium of post-revolutionary stagnancy, which is how we might broadly characterize the history of Latin America to date, the time without time that is a cycle of colonization and revolutionary gestures. Is this why my work on and in “excess” can be thought of as a common subversive method for Latin American writers? I’m not sure but I do think this desire—to want to be both “storyteller and stagehand” as you quote here—is utopic, a hunger for form and a form of hunger that I think I might have inherited or at least been raised on as the son of two persons in exile. All genres—whether “autobiography” or anything else—are today becoming more and more liquid. I’m interested in how this manipulation of or disappearing of genre is perhaps also a response to a networked identity that is more about (mutable) presentation and less about (fixed) content…and what I mean is that genre as a marker is more and more irrelevant today, at least outside of the generic publishing industry, whereas formats—filetypes, mediums—for instance, provide an opportunity for seeing how a single text can be presented, re-packaged, and disseminated in several different ways, so many of which alter the “outcome”—which is to say, the reading experience. Immigration, which is inherently an experience of translation, and also a story of departures—of several departures, perhaps, without any prerequisite of arrival—troubles autobiography or at least autobiographical markers of fidelity and chronology and origin. Things don’t happen in any lucid fashion when discontinuous passage is a part of everyday life—memories get commingled with fantasies and the stories we tell ourselves about our past gets mistaken for the real. What’s “real”—but isn’t this true for everyone?—is always called into question, and that questioning—instead of any attempt at an “answer”—becomes the text. The autobiography then is just a novel that’s playing by different rules, or rather, playing without rules and expectations of narrative staging, plot, etc. And I think because of this emphasis on presentation, perhaps it’s not just autobiography that immigration calls into question, but the system of genre as a normalizing logic for the literary-art structure and its community.
DB: the Internet is for real is split into two main sections, “(birth)” and “(control).” The former is paginated forward, the latter counts backward. I read that these were initially two separate books that your publisher suggested you combine as one. How do you think the change from two books to one affect the final text? What drew you to this mirror-like structure, and how does it extend and manifest your ideas about the Internet?
CC: Yeah, I mean it was a happy accident that my publishers, Andrew and John at C&R. were like, “No, no, no, this needs to be one big book.” And maybe that was driven by sales—it’s probably hard enough to sell people on a book like this, let alone try to get them to buy it twice—but either way, I’m very thankful for the direction because I really can’t understand this text unless I think about it as mirrored and mirroring, and what’s more—although I otherwise move away from the idea of a “definitive version”—the reading experience proposed by the flip book hardcover, which counts down from negative 292 to zero from (control)’s front cover—the “first” page as a subway advertisement for a psychic consultant; “Reunites the separated”—seems to me to be the closest vision I have of this book, or what I wish this book aspires to allow: which is to say a book with many exits. No arrivals, only options for detouring, in a somewhat infinite choreography, since, as in the case of the hardcover edition, the book never really ends; it only asks reader’s to “flip the book over & start again from the beginning.” Honestly, because this reversible/limitless hardcover limited edition captures the mirror structure you described, while pushing it further, I hope that C&R considers printing a paperback version in the years to come so that more readers have access to moving through the text in this way. For a book that is already non-linear and self-reflexive and formally piecemeal it seems like a good move. But what do I know about selling books? Really, I know nothing.
DB: Your prose style in this book struck me as constellatory in its aggregation of different ideas around a kind of “nucleus” thought. In your poems, it seemed to me that the line breaks were particularly conducive to the idea of disconnect, disaffectedness, and eternity (things always being “on”). How has your style come about and what has it been influenced by?
CC: You are such an attentive, perceptive reader. I think enjambment for me has always presented the opportunity to produce tension but also slippages of meaning, wordplay, double entendre, or otherwise displace the meaning of the line that came before and the one that will follow. I tell my students that a good line break signals at least three moments: this, not this; this or this; or this and also this—so that an aesthetics of association, proximity, comparison, and multiplicity all fold into the scene of language. Coincidentally, when I think about who or what has influenced my writing style the most I think more about the language of the cinema and certain directors which, I think, make these enjambments and tensions a literal focal point of their work. Michelangelo Antonioni, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Julien Schnabel, Luis Buñuel, Stanley Kubrick, Gaspar Noé, too many more to name… But also, a lot of what I learned to do with language came from a deep love for the work of prose writers like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, William S. Burroughs, José Lezama Lima, Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, almost all of them Latin American. There’s a level of excess, an excessive joy that is brought out in the prose of these writers, an attention to the staging of the artifice and to the deployment of productive digressions/disruptions, many of which begin to take over the text proper, as is the case for Puig’s chapter-length footnotes, for instance. So yeah, certainly film as a medium that allows for instant recognition/instant forgetting, and a lot of work, looking back at this immediate list, that falls in the category of Boom Latinoamericano or a United States counterculture. I promise, I read so many excellent contemporary authors, but when I think about my style, about what influenced my attention to rhythm and to its discontinuous movements, I keep coming back to these works, like Tres Tristes Tigres, for instance, or Wild Boys. And I realize that when we try to answer that question—your question—maybe it’s more about who you were at a certain point in time when you read the thing in question than the thing in question, and maybe that’s even the most crucial thing of all, because reading—just like writing—is just an occasion. And part of what we encounter here, there, is the past versions of our selves, along with the people we were close to as we read these lines.
DB: One of the most concerning consequences of the Internet’s development is our desensitisation to real violence. I’m thinking here of your lines: “now the news / Philando Castile’s murder / right beside eleven REALLY important / hot dog styles in nyc / we are bred for this kind / of attendant urgency / sometimes you can’t / turn it off or turn / your face & every other / moment my inbox delivers me / another ad or notice.” How do we combat this numbing? Two things that struck me here were the ending of your poem “donald trump shakes,” which I read as a kind of ethical proposition against disbelief, and your argument for disturbance as a necessary mode of resistance in “#IWokeUpLikeThis or: The Latest in Space-Age #PostInternet Pajamas.” These two practices—[resisting dis]belief and disturbance—strike me as important foundations re: activism, not least because they privilege sincerity and emotional transparency.
CC: Yes and yes. It seems to me so utterly important that we remain critical and vulnerable open to others and accountable, more than anything, for others and to ourselves. Any possible politics requires a collective but also a collective representation—the fraught instance of speaking for and speaking about—that I think most art counters or dodges by being for itself, at least as a practice. So art does its work, not by representing as such but by calling into question the terms of such representation. I think this is one of the reasons why art can very often lead to activism and organization and political provocation, whereas politics so often diminishes into adspeak and empty promises. Politics by its nature is a culture of consensus, whereas the role of art—like the role of any organized resistance—relies on generating a space—literally the text—where conflict and tension happens. It’s in this tension—the disturbance you point out—where we can foster alternative presents, and that plurality is important.
I feel like I still get asked to clarify a position about the relationship between art and politics because back when I was named as editor of PANK in 2015, I wrote that “I believe in art that renounces politics in favor of provocation…I believe in art that is not Left or Right but forward.” And what I meant to convey is exactly this; that art, rather than dictating its politics or by overtly aligning itself with a broken party system or gnarled ideology or self-perpetuating doctrine, has to evoke or propose the possibilities of such a politics on the level of language, on the level of form; any progress literature can make for public policy and discourse, for a life outside the often exclusionary world of letters, depends upon it moving beyond the didactic, and toward the realm of true visibility, which very often means, as you say here, emotional transparency. If poets are to do the work that politicians can’t, I think we need to play by different rules—mainly because our current politics has proven itself to be both grossly inadequate in addressing basic human needs, and, as we know too well, deeply problematic, deeply complicit in exporting the inequality and dehumanization that it oversees domestically. And so much of the possibilities for this kind of art-as-activism, art-as-public-humanities relies on our ability to distinguish politics from the political, because they are two very different things.
DB: I suppose sincerity is significant when we talk about the Internet and Post-Internet poetics because in a lot of ways meme culture and Internet linguistics have largely relied on irony as a tonal foundation. In ‘”Art is for Necrophiliacs (If that’s how you spend),” you identify that “The most common phrase used by people in my generation to describe a laugh-out-loud experience is, ‘I’m dying.’” This kind of hyperbolic absurdism and disregard/desire for death seems to have become the norm for how the Internet generation communicates any affective deviation from baseline. Much of the discourse around this development has pointed to the idea that the world, for us as young individuals, is increasingly not making any sense. The future for the most part seems bleak, what with climate change, late capitalism, unprecedented information overload, surveillance culture. Neo-dadaist humour is one result. One alternative or form of resistance against this pervasive ironizing is the “New Sincerity” movement. Is that enough to combat this trend, or can the Internet lead us to other alternatives?
CC: I’m so ignorant of this “New Sincerity” movement!—a quick search pulled up a screencap of Mr. Rogers, right next to a portrait of David Foster Wallace—but also: I’d be wary of any movement that self-identifies as “sincere.” But you know, isn’t everything cyclical in this sense? The failure of Postmodernism is in this sense the failure of a Modernism and its injunction to “make everything new.” Recently I was watching a video interview as part of the “Portable Landscapes: Memories and Imaginaries of Refugee Modernism” and the speaker, a Polish artist who was working in Pop Art at the same time as Warhol, was talking about how artists produce things without being aware of the movements in which they are participating. One example would be “Conceptual art.” In Poland, especially during the Cold War—there wasn’t a word, there wasn’t a term to articulate the language of conceptual art that nevertheless artists were committing themselves to. Conceptual art came from people’s desires to be rational, to argue something, to have something to point to (i.e. the concept). Conceptual art came about, at least in the Eastern Bloc, because it became apparent that nothing in the world made sense, nothing at that historical moment and in that geopolitical climate added up. If today’s “answer” is not the New Sincerity Movement, maybe it can be found, on the contrary, in an intensification of performance in all mediums of art, and this self-conscious staging of the real, to better get closer to it but also to understand its manufacture at some critical distance.
DB: What are you working on at the moment? What are you thankful for?
CC: Well, the semester is in full swing at the moment so I’m thankful for my students, for their energy, their curiosity, their critical perspectives, their vulnerability, and their engagement, all of which continues to teach me. I am also thankful to the team at Otis Books, who have been hard at work transforming what was originally a constellation of notes theorizing the hybrid text and its intersections with “American” identity, migration, translation, and the avant-garde, into my next book. Elsewhere—always elsewhere—I’ve been compiling what’s become a truly international notebooks project, loosely titled “ms dos” and it’s literally kept me company as I’ve travelled to Marseilles, Catania, Puglia, Rome, Copenhagen, and Berlin over the last three years to conduct fieldwork and engage in conversations with refugees and asylum applicants and shelter directors at alternative refugee integration centers. All of this has contributed to my recent selection to the Consortium for the Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention, an initiative headed by the Global Humanities Institute in conjunction with the Mellon Foundation. I’m super grateful for this honor and this opportunity to collaborate with so many diverse scholars, thinkers, artists, and NGO activists in one setting, which will take place this June in Taiwan.
And finally—I’m thankful for these questions, and your sensitivity to language and form, and all the time you’ve spent with this book! This conversation has deepened my awareness of the text and also the work we are both engaged with, over there, on the outside, and it’s been both a joy and a privilege to hold and share this space with you.