What Would Twitter Do?

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In the final installment of What Would Twitter Do?—where I talk to some of my favorite people on Twitter about their tweeting philosophies and practices—I interview Kenneth Goldsmith. Kenny is the creator of the avant-garde encyclopaedic archive project, UbuWeb. He is also the author of a book of essays called Uncreative Writing and many experimental books, including one in which he transcribed every word he said in an entire week, Soliloquy, and another in which he wrote out an entire day’s New York Times. He also created the project  Printing Out the Internet for which he invited people around the world to help him do just that; he collected over 10 tonnes of paper from 20,000 contributors. He is the editor of a collection of interviews with Andy Warhol, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and is the first poet laureate at MoMA. We spoke this morning over gchat.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: You said that if any artist could make a work of art as great as Twitter… Well, not exactly that, but can you tell me if you think of Twitter as art?

KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Twitter is not art. But it inspires me in the way that art used to inspire me. Art used to make me see the world differently, think about things in a new way—it rarely does that for me anymore, but technology does that for me on a daily basis. Rather like the feeling when I first saw a Dan Flavin fluorescent tube. It made me rethink the entire world. It’s Twitter’s combination of simplicity and complexity that is astonishing in the same way that minimalist sculpture was inspiring and enlightening.

SH: How do you think of your own work differently since being inspired by Twitter?

KG: I’ve begun writing more compactly. I now favor the slogan and eschew the paragraph. I’ve traced this change during the ten years that I’ve been working on my rewriting of Benjamin’s “Arcades Project.” When I first began, I was doing a Benjamin-like grabbing of long paragraphs—pages and pages of passages. Now, after five years on Twitter, I’m taking snippets, headlines, slogans, and almost never paragraphs. It’s had a tremendous impact on my writing in general.

SH: Is it because you actually enjoy reading more aphoristic-like things now, or because it feels more current?

KG: Short attention span is the new avant-garde. Everyone complains that we can no longer intake huge chunks of text. I find that a reason to celebrate. It’s something that has deep roots in modernism, stretching from the Futurists’ use of typography to Pound’s use of ideograms to concrete poetry. David Markson feels particularly relevant now. Twitter is the revenge of modernism.

SH: But that makes me think that some artists will soon start writing impossibly long and unfragmented things, because Twitter is a corporate place, and the slogan is a very corporate technique.

KG: Back in the 80s, artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer taught us that the corporate slogan was, by simply moving it from one context to another, ripe for détournement and could easily be used against itself. Twitter lends itself to this sort of misuse. But to answer your question about the return to longer forms, I wonder if Knausgaard would’ve written the same books today had been using Twitter. It wasn’t around when he was writing those books. Those books were written during the age of the blog, with its big verbiage. The landscape has completely changed today.

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Episode 26: You’re the Man

Neko Case, whose musical career spans over two decades, brings the listener on a journey of the music that has shaped her, from the time she was a child listening to “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman Turner Overdrive until now, listening to “People Have the Power” by Patti Smith. Over the years she’s listened to 80s hardcore, country, gospel, and punk, all of which have contributed to her unique sound. CONTAINS ADULT LANGUAGE.

Listen here.

See more about The Believer’s (weekly!) podcast, The Organist.

Winter Sleep of Emotions

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Kaya Genç on Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

It is not so difficult for me to shrink the list of this year’s best films so far to two works: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, and Richard Ayoade’s The Double, and between them to ask—somewhat George Steineresqually—“Chekhov or Dostoyevsky?” The former film, Winter’s Sleep was adapted from Chekhov’s short stories “Excellent People” and “The Wife”, and The Double is based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story of the same title. Two intense films about intense men, and it isn’t easy to choose between the two.

Of course, Steiner’s original question features Tolstoy instead of Chekhov, but somehow it seems that Tolstoy’s books tend not to work in the world of cinema where adaptations of Russian novelists are easily found but are not always satisfactory. Who was not disillusioned by Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, when it was released in 2012? I yawned throughout the film, despite the newness of Tom Stoppard’s script, the dazzling cinematography, and the facial expression of Keira Knightley which I often find gripping. The film, and its actors, were too perfect, too glorious, too spectacular. I like my film mildly modest, strongly personal and definitely idiosyncratic. Anna Karenina was none of those.

Last month, after seeing Winter Sleep (which, by the way, is this year’s Palme d’Or winner) and The Double (a favorite among most of my nerd friends not least because its leading actor has an uncanny resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg) the same day in a Istanbul cinema, I got more than I asked for: two modest, strongly personal and idiosyncratic films with no ambitions to become mainstream and an inclination to eccentricity. Who cares for the benevolent, non-personal, all-seeing eye of Tolstoy (and of Hollywood, for that matter) when you have writers and filmmakers who can adjust their POVs to such eccentric characters as the wealthy, retired Turkish theatre actor Aydın who wastes away his life typing condescending newspaper columns into his MacBook Pro at his family villa in Cappadocia? And The Double's Simon, although not the subject of this essay, is so powerful in his insignificance and his ressentiment against others, that I can't help but feel glad about Ayoade's choice to approach him subjectively through Simon's own consciousness rather than that of a detached, and sagely, observer. 

The hero of Winter Sleep, Aydın (“enlightened intellectual” in Turkish, and the name of a city in Turkey’s Aegean Region) is a composite of two Chekhov characters. He is more largely based, I think, on Pavel Andreitch, the protagonist of “The Wife”, the story in which Andreitch’s efforts at writing a “History of Railways” is disrupted when he receives an anonymous letter asking for financial help for peasants in a nearby village. In Ceylan’s film, Aydın, the retired actor, runs a playfully named Hotel Othello and seems to do nothing beside write columns for a local newspaper and plan a work on the “History of Turkish Theatre”.

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What Would Twitter Do?

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Welcome to What Would Twitter Do? the ninth and three-quarter edition with Roxane Gay! Next week will be Week 10, the final interview. In this series, I talk to some of my favourite people on Twitter about their Twitter philosophies and practices. Roxane Gay, in addition to being a brilliant fiction writer, blogger and essayist (this season she published her collection Bad Feminist to huge acclaim), is a seasoned and constant Twitter user. It’s possible that it was her, more than anyone else I follow, who made me begin to wonder: What is Twitter? She used the medium in the way other people did—posting links, declaring things—but in another way, too: as a constant running monologue, a real stream of consciousness, a literary Modernist on Twitter. There isn’t a sense of hierarchy among her now 80,000+ tweets. It almost seems part of her living—in the way that you wouldn’t say this breath is particularly important, while those twenty other breaths I took are less important. One begets the next. She was also maybe the first “Twitter celebrity” to me, in that I knew her “Twitter work” before I had read any of her other writing. She seems to be one those people always in centre of the swirl of the debate—especially around feminist issues—while also managing to stand cooly outside it.

Sheila Heti

SHEILA HETI: I remember when I first started following you, I couldn’t believe how often you tweeted. It’s not like you’d save up and tweet special thoughts. It was more like a constant stream for your life.

ROXANE GAY: Living in a rural town really compelled me to start tweeting so much. Mostly, my Twitter usage is fueled by loneliness. I can go days without talking to another human being unless it’s my mother, especially when I’m not teaching or on break. 

SH: Many of your thoughts must now just appear as tweets. Is that so? Is there a portion of your brain that is always tuned to tweeting?

RG: Hmm. There’s certainly a portion of my brain that is always tuned to making wry observations about the world, but that portion of my brain was alive and well before Twitter. 

SH: Do you always tweet on your phone or from the website, too? 

RG: I tweet from my phone, the Twitter app on my computers, and once in a while, the website. 

SH: Do you care whether an individual tweet be “good,” or is more the overall approach that you think about?

RG: I don’t care. Twitter is my happy place. I am not there to overthink 140 characters. 

SH: What has tweeting done for you on a professional level? 

RG: Tweeting has definitely expanded the reach of my work.

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