Marker

Positions of Cute in Post-Internet Poetry’*

 Lucy Burns
 & Charles Whalley





          
What do the Angry Birds want? Since December 2009, the series of apps have been installed more than 3 billion times. Across its endless variants – including a TV series and an animated film – the franchise is familiar for the great violence its curiously featureless birds wreak upon their enemies, hurled against precarious architecture to crush sickly green pigs, an antagonist inspired by the swine flu pandemic. Without wings or legs, the birds are as helpless as they are angry; it behoves the player to launch them at the pigs, to bring about their self-obliteration. These inert blobs with beaks wait for us to realise their violent potential. We delight, at first, at this power, as we joyfully smash the birds into the pigs. But the imperative implicit in the birds’ helplessness, our compulsion to act upon them again and again, slowly raises our suspicion that it is we who are under control, that we are enjoying our own manipulation. We smash and smash and smash. Rovio Entertainment, creator of the game, announced a revenue of $350 million last year.

Angry Birds’ aesthetic, all bright and rounded and flashing with rewards, is familiar across the smartphone environment. Waze, the popular driving navigation app acquired by Google in 2013, allows users to gain points by reporting traffic accidents as two little cartoon cars bumping. Tinder, when gamifying and structuring emotional exposure, covers the process with soft round buttons and an impersonal, friendly voice that cajoles us into saying ‘hello’. The internet doesn’t so much make our lives safer as make them cuter. Beyond being the dominant, infantilising design aesthetic – the preferred tone with which the network addresses us – cuteness is imposed on our relationships and interactions with each other. The most downloaded apps mediate and enable communication: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Snapchat. These apps superimpose cuteness over social interactions not just through their emojis and cartoonish filters, but in their generation of intimacy: our connected phones nestle closer to us as they provoke the sensation of other people always on the other side of the screen. When you can not only read someone’s messages but see if they’ve read yours, the glow of gratification these apps offer is the seeming warmth of another, touching us with impossible closeness. Pressing and stroking our screens, illuminated by their light, we are exposed and tender, powerful in our reach yet helpless of any response. Much attention has been given to how this ubiquitous connectedness is disturbing, how it opens whole new areas of our identities to commodification, how it blurs work, play and care, how it makes us vulnerable when we thought we were safe, which is all true. But besides this, the internet is also pretty cute.

Sianne Ngai’s theorisation of the ‘minor,’ equivocal aesthetic of the cute in Our Aesthetic Categories follows on her previous work in Ugly Feelings, which examined the ‘politically ambiguous work’ of ‘negative emotions,’ such as envy, paranoia and anxiety.In Our Aesthetic Categories, Ngai provides an insightful framework for considering how contemporary art can engage with affect, intimacy, consumption and care through screens, devices and networks. Ngai identifies three aesthetics ‘best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism:’ the zany, the interesting, and the cute.2


The aesthetic categories in this study [...] refer to basic human and social competencies increasingly encroached on by late capitalism over the past half century: affect and emotion, in the case of zaniness; language and communication, in the case of the interesting; intimacy and care, in the case of the cute.3



The maniacal persistence and productivity of Caroline (Beth Behrs) and Max (Kat Dennings) in the recently cancelled 2 Broke Girls is a useful example of what Ngai designates as zaniness, describing the process by which the performative, affective labour demanded by a post-industrial economy is transformed into ‘a spectacle for our entertainment.’The ‘zany’ worker is able to ‘to take on virtually any job at any moment, in an incessant flow or stream of activity,’ continually shifting between work and play. The six seasons follow the women’s attempts to save the $250,000 they need to start a cupcake business, as they hopelessly move from one insecure, low-waged job to the next.5 Though they mostly take on that most archetypal of zany roles – the diner waitress – the women also rent out their apartment on Airbnb, get jobs as office temps, make cupcake t-shirts, and so on. Combined with the canned laughter and the clumsy slapstick (usually involving Caroline throwing herself down some stairs or getting trapped beneath something heavy), Caroline’s persistent, grating cheeriness in the face of poverty and eviction exemplifies the zany character’s need ‘to labor excessively hard to produce our laughter, straining themselves to the point of endangering not just themselves but also those around them.’6 The work is hard, poorly paid, with no minimum wage, hours, or benefits – but at least the girls are having fun while they’re doing it!

This labour expands into all domains, including the emotional, with such intensity that it is ultimately felt as disquiet. Max’s long distance relationship with Randy (Ed Quinn) via FaceTime seems only to exacerbate her hammy, relentlessly sexual performance, as if she has to work even harder to communicate through the screen. Randy’s disembodied head is propped up on an iPad in a restaurant so he can join Max on a double date: ‘We’re holding hands!’ Max shouts, fondling the screen at the same time as Randy. Elsewhere Max acknowledges that this digital intimacy is insufficient, confessing to Caroline that she is ‘kind of sick of licking my iPad,’ adding with a wink, ‘– know what I mean.’ 




 Max and Randy, And the About FaceTime’ (2016)



Max and Caroline’s endless variations on work, with their savings rising and falling arbitrarily and their dreams endlessly deferred, reflects not only the precarity of our casualised economy, which requires us to continually re-sell ourselves, but also the viewing of on-demand TV: the 2 Broke Girls need to labour ever harder for our attention amongst a surfeit of choice. 

Whereas for the zany worker ‘ironic detachment is not an option,’ the aesthetic category of the interesting resides in just that.In Ngai’s account, the interesting represents ‘a tension between the unknown and the already known,’ and can be seen to suggest a twenty-first-century ‘routinization of novelty’ and an attention to the difference between the individual and the norm.8 As displayed in the realist novel and conceptual art, the interesting provides a ‘cool’ aesthetic of information and surprise, always undercut with the possibility of failing and being boring instead. Citing Susan Sontag, Ngai also notes the association between the interesting and photography; Sontag argues that the artform is ‘identified with the idea that everything in the world could be made interesting’ by photographing it.9
 When Ngai describes the ‘experience of the interesting’ as being of the ‘essentially anticipatory’ experience of the ‘open-ended series,’ it is tempting to see an example in Instagram. As we scroll through our feeds, these ‘pellets of information,’ in Sontag’s phrase, appear in a continual, serial evolution of the platform’s idioms and tropes, cataloguing meals, holidays, sunsets and pets, whilst evoking ‘the tension between the interesting and the generic.’10 Each Instagram photo sits in series amongst others from the same user or with the same hashtag, in a series growing by millions of photos each day. Each photo seeks the platform context within which it may be interesting. In ‘Melancholy Objects,’ Sontag also writes that photographs, by ‘antiquing reality’ (like Instagram filters), ‘turn the past into an object of tender regard,’ suggesting the third of Ngai’s contemporary aesthetics: cuteness.11

Where zaniness is a performative category and the interesting discursive, cuteness is an aesthetic built on our relationships with commodities and the feelings we harbour for them in late capitalism.The prototypically cute object is small, soft, compact, simple, pliant, and ‘formally non-complex.’12 Ngai reminds us that the cute object is always one that can be squeezed and fondled – and it crucially encourages and appeals to us, as its guardian, to touch and manipulate it, to cuddle and squeeze.



Cuteness solicits a regard of the commodity as an anthropomorphic being less powerful than the aesthetic subject, appealing specifically to us for protection and care. [...] Cuteness might be regarded as an intensification of the commodity fetishisms kitschy phantasmatic logic but also as a way of revising it by adding yet another layer of fantasy.13




The transformation of Ty Beanie Babies, a line of stuffed animal toys from the 1990s, provides a useful example of the prototypical cute object and this extra layer of fantasy, or what Ngai calls ‘a kind of consumer fetishism redoubled.’14 Where there was an attempt at realism in the Beanie Babies and Beanie Buddies animals in the late 1990s, with their flappy arms and small faces, the Beanie Boo line, launched in 2009, reduced the toys to a squeezable, handheld size with enlarged, exaggerated eyes and diminished limbs.




Beanie Buddies Seal (2001); Beanie Boos Seal (2012)



The exaggerated features of the Beanie Boo seal, with its enlarged, oversized head and conical body renders the seal a formless blob, like an Angry Bird, an object to be held onto and squashed. The eyes have gained a blue iris and are creepily large, seeming to look back at us from any angle. It’s a Beanie Baby through a Snapchat filter. Its cute distortions ‘speak to a desire to recover what Marx calls the “coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects” that becomes immediately extinguished in exchange.’15 Unlike the Beanie Buddies line, Beanie Boos were given names (‘Iceberg’ the seal) and came with a short poem inside their heart-shaped label, a kind of first words to its new guardian: ‘I like to eat my favourite dish/ A snow cone and a couple of fish!’ Iceberg’s poem serves as both a cute anthropomorphisation (what’s your favourite dish?) and a demand for us to feed and look after it. In the progression from Baby to Boo, even the name is made simpler, rounder, and more cute.

In what is now a somewhat implausible and dimly remembered historical footnote, the first Beanie Babies – with their ubiquitous and sometimes assiduously protected tags, obstructive to actual play but so necessary for resale – provoked a bubble that ran in weird parallel to the dotcom boom of the late 90s. Their reclusive creator, Ty Warner, ‘retired’ and altered lines of the toys at whim, causing a scarcity that provoked a manic faith in their rising exchange value; at one point, 10% of all eBay sales were of Beanie Babies, at an average of six times their retail price.16 As an aesthetic of the commodity, Ngai argues that cuteness is an attempt to ‘recover’ the qualitative experience of use, that, just as Iceberg’s eyes appear to call out to us to rescue it from the shop, so cuteness represents the fantasy of being able to rescue a commodity from exchange.17 She writes that a cute object’s attraction is a product of ‘a sentimental desire for a simpler and more sensuous, more concrete relation to commodities.’18 It’s appropriate then that the post-crash Beanie Babies, the Beanie Boo, should exaggerate their cuteness. To overcome the blame and revulsion felt towards commodities whose bubble has burst, Ty Inc. instead invokes their use value, their apparent need for protection and care rather than resale, with a ferocity intended to eclipse any awareness or memory of exchange. How could you blame this little thing for the stupid money that was lost?

The Beanie Baby’s conflict between affection for its cute use and the revulsion towards its failed exchange reflects a contradiction Ngai identifies within the aesthetic of cuteness more broadly; she writes that ‘cuteness activates both our empathy and our aversion.’19 As a response to apparent ‘physical diminutiveness and vulnerability,’ cuteness seems to be a result of a power imbalance between the powerful subject and the weak object.20 However, Ngai notes how cuteness is ‘frequently overpowered by a second feeling – a sense of manipulation or exploitation – that immediately checks or challenges the first.’21 The cute object, in its demand for care, exerts power over us, we who should be in control, a power that we submit to readily. As Ngai notes, the experience of cuteness is matched by the immediate suspicion that ‘we judge things cute all too easily;’ it is a trick to undercut our judgement with such an easy emotional response, or so it can feel.22 Further, as the cute object in its bloblike pliancy incites us to squeeze and press it, so it, with its strange power, can cause us to fear its capacity for revenge. Like the Krusty Doll in Treehouse of Horror III, that, after becoming Homer’s slave, should surely turn its own switch back from ‘GOOD’ to ‘EVIL’, we fear that we may not keep getting away with mistreating this thing that has such power over us.




Treehouse of Horror III,’ The Simpsons (1992)



It is the very aestheticization of powerlessness in the experience of the cute that seems to give rise to a fantasy about the cute object’s power, one epitomized by the boomeranging of the aggressive affect projected onto the object outward and towards the subject. All these cute leitmotifs – they are not exactly conceptsunderscore the aesthetics defining dialectic of power and powerlessness.23




The ambivalence or reversibility of the power dynamic in cuteness, as explored here, means that any consequences of such projection are unpredictable at best. Cuteness is less power being imposed, and more a place where power becomes confused. It is an uncanny encounter with violence somehow unhinged.

The strongest display of this reversible power dynamic is in speech. The cute thing lisps (think Daffy Duck), stammers (Porky Pig), or is entirely mute (Hello Kitty); the cuter it gets, the less likely it is to say anything at all.This affected, simplified speech contributes to the sense that the cute object is in need of our protection and care, that we must speak to or for it. But, crucially, when we express the cuteness before us, we almost unconsciously adapt our speech. Like the cute object, our words become simpler, softer, less complex. The moment when we think we’re in control, stroking the teeny weeny cutie doggo, is the moment that you’ve lost it. Ngai observes how an encounter with cuteness turns the speech of the ‘judging subject’ into ‘murmurs and coos,’ as we empathise with the cute object by affecting to speak like it, to make our speech somehow cute.24 We may ‘talk down’ to the cute object, but it is our speech that is changed. She argues:



Cuteness is thus the name of an encounter with difference a perceived difference in the power of the subject and object, in particular that does something to everyday communicative speech: weakening or even dissolving syntax and reducing lexicon to onomatopoeia. More specifically, it names an encounter with difference that alters the speech of the subject attempting to manage that difference by imposing cuteness on the object.25




This is a crucial start to Ngai’s argument on cuteness’ relationship to poetry, as it relates how the aesthetic is expressed verbally, how it appears in address. Language – specifically, altered language – is a place where the power of the cute object manifests itself formally.

The intimacy and intensity of the lyric address in modern poetry (e.g. Iceberg’s heart-shaped appeal to be fed) suggests a unique relationship between poetry and the aesthetic of cuteness. As ‘the literary genre most associated with intimate address (lyric), with unusually small, lapidary, object-like texts (imagism/objectivism), and unusually “tender” speech,’ Ngai argues that poetry has a history of responding to (and even mobilising) the aesthetic of cuteness.26 This association of poetry with intimate, tender speech is particularly pervasive; in The Angry Birds Movie, the birds are encouraged in their anger management class to read out poems they’ve written. But beyond self-expression, these dynamics of cuteness in poetry are specifically related to the dynamics of commodities and ownership. Ngai cites, for instance, Stein’s Tender Buttons as a collection of poems exploring cute domestic commodities, displaying, in its broken-down speech patterns, a semblance of what cuteness does to speech, and what it might mean to speak for an object. Quoting an illustrative prosopeia used by Marx to explain commodity fetishism in Capital, Ngai points out that ‘cuteness revolves around the fantasy of a commodity addressing its “guardian” in the one-on-one, intimate manner associated with lyric poetry.’27 Iceberg’s heart-shaped address to its new guardian foregrounds the complex relationship between cute object and subject, curiously announcing its subjectivity through its own consumptive preferences; that it should do so through a couplet in iambic tetrameter seems somehow appropriate. We don’t have to work too hard to imagine the logic of the TY marketing department: ‘Hey, poems are pretty cute!’

In Our Aesthetic Categories, Ngai provides the foundation to our reading of a kind of poetry we designate as ‘post-internet’: poetry which arises out of the conditions and uses of the internet in the 2010s. Poetry on the internet typically relates itself to our digital communicative practices – emails, IMs, status updates, etc – through which we console, flirt, abuse, jest, bond. An entire social life through these predominantly text-based media, with all its paradoxical intimacy and immediacy, requires a sophisticated proficiency in the expression available; these techniques for expression are already somewhat literary, and invested in the power or powerlessness of being a subject within platforms. And just as Ngai’s writing explores minor, unedifying affects and aesthetics, post-internet poetry utilises responses and emotions generally outside those in established literature: boredom, bad jokes, unexpected sincerity. It is cute, as illustrated in Our Aesthetic Categories, in that it reflects our relationships to power and commodification, when the internet intercedes through all our lives. Post-internet poetry is a cute artform within a cute network.



*    *    *


The art critic Gene McHugh refers to the distinction within post-internet’s prefix as:

           

What we mean when we sayInternetbecame not a thing in the world to escape into, but rather the world one sought escape fromsigh28



In other words, as a term it identifies the movement of the internet from ‘there’ to ‘here’, on how it has become less a specialised ‘other’ place and more the medium of everyday life. Although more commonly used for visual art, post-internet as a designation for poetry offers insight into some strands of contemporary poetry by bringing to the surface its relationship to the internet, a relationship whereby digital technology is mundane, uninteresting, and yet felt throughout. The typical definition of lyric poetry as overheard speech, ‘unconscious of a listener’ (in JS Mill’s description), arises from the process of writing: on paper the poet can redraft or alter, but they cannot be interrupted.29 There is no one else there. The process is inherently private, and composition and publication remain separate. In this way, lyric subjectivity is shaped by the technologies that enable it: ink, typewriter ribbon, word processor.  And so, what happens when the technology through which we express ourselves changes? As Charles has written elsewhere, fundamentally, post-internet poetry is that which has been produced by the conditions of the 2010s. Specifically, the prevalence of smartphones, web 2.0 technologies and high speed ubiquitous internet access have provoked a ‘flattening of the distance between consumption and production, between composition and publication, forming a closed loop with the potential for almost immediate feedback.’30 Under these conditions, the post-internet lyric poem is not an utterance overheard but one that incorporates a (self-)consciousness of its medium and its reception.

A straightforward example of a poetic response to these conditions is John Rogers’ ‘I have literally just walked in the door,’ published in The Yolo Pages (2014), an anthology of internet-based poetry. The speaker begins with setting a scene – that they have ‘literally just walked in the door,’ that it is ‘literally autumn,’ that they are ‘literally drinking a can of Sprite’ – before turning their attention to the reader: ‘I’ve literally no way of knowing how it feels to be you.’31 The repetition of ‘literally’ appears, first of all, to be simply for conversational emphasis. However, as the poem narrows into a rumination on the relationship between reader and speaker, it hints at the word’s literal etymological root in words and literature:


           

We are in a state of literal intimacy right now
You are literally reading my thoughts 32




Besides its interest in address and intimacy, the poem is acutely self-conscious. Just prior to the summarising lines above, the speaker confesses:


         

I have literally got the hots for you

what do you mean what are the hots
I have literally just written the first eleven lines of this poem 33

[11]


As well as reflecting back on itself, foregrounding the speaker’s voice as being attached to the time of its composition as well as the time of its reception, the poem here also incorporates or imagines a response to its declaration of ‘the hots,’ framing another voice within the poem. Together, these create the sense of the poem built as individual lines, as if in a chat room or WhatsApp conversation, each conscious of their (and others’) ability to respond before the poem is complete. As is typical of post-internet poetry, there isn’t the sense of the poem as overheard speech, but rather as a space for framing and reframing itself, for its reception to be repeatedly anticipated anew.

The ‘literal intimacy’ proposed in Rogers’ poem suggests one effect of this lyric space: that it invokes a sense of impossible closeness. The speaker’s deliberate evocation of present-ness – they have ‘just walked in;’ it is autumn ‘now;’ they have ‘just written’ [my emphases] – then draws in the addressee further through a conceit of a dialogue: the fiction is that not only is the speaker speaking ‘now,’ but ‘you’ are present too. It seems both inevitable and creepy that the tenor of this intimacy is the hots. Considering that five of the ‘first eleven lines of this poem’ are about the speaker’s hots for ‘you,’ the speaker’s assertion that their intimacy is ‘beautiful’ may perhaps not be met gladly, especially as the intimacy increasingly feels imposed. The speaker grandly announces the ‘state of literal intimacy’ right after they have perhaps deterred the addressee from wanting it. It feels less like a statement on the magic of voice within language and more on its power relations. By emphasising the intimacy in its flattening of production and consumption, post-internet poetry increasingly raises questions about power, domination and silence. It approaches already the troubled dynamics seen in Ngai’s description of the cute.



*    *    *


Rogers’ poem appears in The Yolo Pages alongside screenshots of tweets and Facebook posts, image macros, illustrations, and prose poems. ‘The poetry in this book is visual, contemporary, and aggressively engaging,’ the editors warn us, ‘bred to catch attention in a noisy online environment.’34 Other than a few notable misfits, such as flarf veterans Sharon Mesmer and K. Silem Mohammad, the 52 contributors are predominantly young writers in a loose ‘alt lit’ grouping which now, only a few years since the book’s publication, appears increasingly outdated. The Yolo Pages anthology features an ambitious introduction from the editors, in which they describe the book as ‘a poetry anthology – yet it contains more tweets than it does conventional-looking poems. We’ve included visual poems in styles reminiscent of lol cats, photos of handwriting, poster designs and snapchats.’35 It gives a history and defence of ‘alt lit’ writers, which it defines inclusively: ‘the main shared value is just an embrace of the internet as a tool for making and distributing literature.’36 It notes that most of the contributors have not known a world without the internet. Each day, this fact becomes less remarkable. Although something of a curio already, the book remains the most coherent and consistent expression of a post-internet aesthetic that has since begun to dissolve back into more established venues.37

As well as having an awareness of the situation, boundaries and possibilities of the literature they would like to champion, the editors are also intensely focused on the politics of their poetry. Arguing for the potential for poetry to serve as a complement to ‘more direct calls for action,’38
 it presents the project of the book in terms of the impact the dissemination of poetry through social media has had for spreading political messages:



[We] wanted to present a disproportionate amount of socially-, politically-, and spiritually-minded poets. we wanted to focus the most on poets who are hungry to change the world to criticize oppressive systems, and use their art and the connective power of social media to make things better in some way at the very least, to spread warmth and kindness through these platforms.39

17]


In ‘spreading warmth and kindness through social media,’ the poems in The Yolo Pages are explicitly presented as being in the business of affects not all that far from cuteness. Like the women in 2 Broke Girls, whose dream of owning a cupcake shop is seen as the end to their troubles, the editors of The Yolo Pages encourage us to see the radical potential in baking and distributing vegan cupcakes: ‘no one is immediately shutting down a slaughterhouse by baking them,’ they write, ‘and yet, we’ve known people who only went vegan upon realizing the wealth of baked goods available.’40 There is a kind of logic here: the recent increase in veganism is largely due to the wider availability and choice of vegan products. However, by situating its politics around its cutest denominator, it’s left at a point where it presupposes almost no political agency at all. As a symbol of childish indulgence, the cupcake, according to Tom Whyman, expresses social control, order, and infantilisation, through the assertion of nostalgic, middle class values. Whyman writes that:



These products, which treat their audience as children, and more specifically the children of the middle classessucceed as expressions of a desire on behalf of consumers to always and forever be children, by telling consumers not only that this is OK, but that it is, to a real degree, possible.41




The editors’ rally cry for us to bake vegan cupcakes doesn’t just cutify its readership, but it conveys a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness: that we (the readers and the editors) are so powerless against global capitalism that our best option is to bake cakes and distribute them among friends. This politics of cuteness, in its aestheticised powerlessness, seems appropriate considering the anthology’s intense interest in the power (or lack thereof) of poetry. Ngai writes that ‘poetic explorations of cuteness’ in modernist or avant-garde poetry ‘can be read as a way of grappling with oft-made observations about the literary avant-garde’s social powerlessness,’ and that cuteness is ‘mobilized by the poetic avant-garde as a mediation of its own restricted agency.’42 This ‘restricted agency’ could perhaps be seen more broadly as that of social activists on the left (for causes such as anti-capitalism or veganism), or in general for the post-internet generation represented within The Yolo Pages

As arguably the most influential of its three editors, many will see The Yolo Pages as an expression of (or sympathetic curation towards) Steve Roggenbuck’s poetics and politics, and so his contributions are worth examining in detail. His section in the anthology is largely devoted to screenshots of his tweets, which range from comments about the ethics of veganism, the use of standardised spelling and grammar on the internet, to long-running in jokes about Vin Diesel. ‘wHAT A DAY !!!!!! wHAT A AMAZING DAY TO BE HUMAN oH MY GOD !!!!!’ exclaims Roggenbuck, frequently overwhelmed by both the ‘positivity’ of ‘the.beauiful world’ and the precariousness of its resources and inhabitants.43



The Yolo Pages, p. 195



Roggenbuck’s appeals for us to ‘stay hopeful and energized in the struggle for a better world’ enacts, in its cute speech (note the misspelling of ‘suffering’) a cutifying of the reader. The (a)cuteness of Roggenbuck’s mode – his soft, malleable language and misspellings – is, following Ngai, in supposition of a cute object; i.e. it is as if Roggenbuck is addressing a cute reader, as if his speech is altered in the presence of a diminutive addressee. It is ‘an affective response to an imbalance of power between [the subject] and the object.’44

The power dynamic inherent to such cute speech risks being counter-productive to the political causes it is used to promote. Social media provides an uncomfortably intimate platform for men like Martin Bell (@postcrunk) to remind us that ‘the only reason you were made to think there is something wrong with the way you look is so people could sell you things,’ and Joseph (“Based”) Kendrick to grandstand about body positivity (‘PLEASE DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHAT YOURS LOOKS LIKE,’ he assures us) and ‘slut shaming’ (‘such taboo in society about sex stuff still, I think’).45



HEY EVERYONE! WE ARE ALL CONTROLLING THESE FUNKY VESSELS CALLEDBODIES.’ ITS SO WEIRD AND FAB. [...] ITS SILLY TO BE PUTTING EACH OTHER DOWN ABOUT THEM WHEN WE DONT HAVE MUCH CHOICE OR ABILITY TO CHANGE.46




Much of this material reads like a step in the expanding brain meme, or like the all too familiar performances of male wokeness popular on twitter, but there’s also something troubling about the exaggeration or simplification of these issues, as if it’s as simple for a man to tell a woman not to worry what she looks like. ‘Cuteness is not just an aestheticization,’ Ngai writes, ‘but an eroticization of powerlessness, evoking tenderness or “small things” but also, sometimes, a desire to belittle or diminish them further.’47 Kendrick signs off a Facebook post with ‘i hope you have a reallly great day,’ with all the pointed ambivalence of a tired waitress.

And though Roggenbuck’s selection in the anthology is far more knowing and funny than others operating in a similar mode, his only poem in the anthology (from his book IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASSHOLE: POEMS AND SELFIES, published in 2013) falls into a similar earnestness, without the same irony his writing displays elsewhere.



everybody i see hurting and i don’t want them to hrurt
i want you to be ok
i dont know how to
stop you from
hurting but i will try to
do it
48




As elsewhere in his writing, the poem features missing apostrophes and typos, affecting a directness of transmission to match its earnest tone: it implies the poem has been typed without an editor, that it is less an artwork in language and more a communication in text. But unlike elsewhere in his writing, presented without context in an anthology the poem has its earnest address without the usual ironic wackiness to counterbalance it. (Roggenbuck’s later collection, Calculating How Big Of A Tip To Give Is The Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out To My Family & Friends, toys with violent oscillations in tone across the whole book, ending its jokes about dead clowns and the Fast and Furious series in the last ‘short story’ with ‘anyway im sorry, i am sad,’ before discussing harmful masculine ideologies and the difficulty of identifying or escaping their limits within oneself.) This wide-eyed, apparently guileless (and affectedly artless) tone is very familiar across the anthology; for example, Beach Sloth’s ‘Hey You,’ Catalina Gallagher’s ‘U Are Like An Oat To Me I Love U,’ Ashley Opheim’s ‘Love Like Wifi’ or Russ Woods’ ‘I Want To Jump From Space With You Sponsored By Red Bull.’ Even a survey of ‘you’s in poem titles would be sufficient, and suggests the distinguishing feature of these poems: that they are all structured around address. The puzzle in poems such as this is: how are we meant to feel? In Roggenbuck’s poem, the speaker flips suddenly to the second person pronoun: ‘i want you to be ok.’ Where does the reader situate themself? To whom is the poem speaking, when it says:

           

i want to be hugging you

            i wish that i could take care

            of you some

            how49




The speaker’s display of earnest (and sometimes humourless) tenderness and care is an overtly directed one; it is inseparable from its object, even as it recognises in the ‘some/how’ that it’s an object beyond reach. But, as in Rogers’ poem discussed above, ‘everybody i see hurting…’ seems to overwhelm its addressee, in a succession of statements with no response. The poem increasingly emphasises the blank, inscrutable space of the addressed, unreachable object, which the speaker designates or interpellates as ‘cute.’ The poem becomes a projection of cuteness around a focal point, rather than a recognition of the quality in a person or thing, and, in doing so, emphasises both the speaker’s power and its limits. Ngai writes:



Our experience of the cute involves an intimate address that often fails to establish the other as truly other, as if due to the excessive pressure of the subject’s desire for intimacy or due to the force of the aesthetic’s mimetic compulsion.50




In other words, in its urgency for an ‘intimate address,’ the speaker overwhelms and over-situates the object it portrays as powerless to such an extent that it paradoxically fails to fully recognise or realise its object within the poem. Roggenbuck’s poem is, in some way, confronted with its inability to engage or communicate, such that, in Ngai’s word, it expresses ‘both mastery and surrender.’51 It makes for a strange poem, in that, amongst its increasingly contorted line-breaks, its purpose feels unsettled and unresolved. It expresses cuteness as less of a performance of care and more of an aesthetic of failure.



*    *    *


For Ngai, contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s cartoon creation Mr DOB is an example of the essential ambivalence of cuteness, illustrated by the cute object’s capacity to harm and be harmed. Created in the early 1990s, Mr DOB, initially a cute cartoon mouse character reminiscent of Mickey Mouse, has been increasingly subject to deformations and distortions, as Murakami tests Mr DOB’s ‘survivability.’52 Murakami’s stylistic mutilation of DOB calls attention to the violence always implicit in our relation to the cute object while simultaneously making it more menacing to the observer. The more DOB appears to be the object or victim of aggression, the more he appears to be an agent of aggression.53 In ‘Guru Guru’ (1998) Murakami transforms Mr. DOB into a giant, spherical helium balloon, three metres across, stretching what was Mr DOB’s smile into a menacing grimace, as if in pain. In this rendering, Mr. DOB becomes ‘all eyes, teeth, and blisters,’ now missing a leg and having an oversized, deformed arm. In 2010 Murakami was invited, somewhat unexpectedly, to produce a new helium balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, thanks to an initiative called Blue Sky Gallery, which transformed works of contemporary art into parade balloons.

The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade sees hundreds of thousands of people line the streets of New York to watch a series of balloons, floats, and marching bands navigate around Central Park in Manhattan. The enormous helium balloons are the highlight of the parade, depicting characters from cartoons and children’s movies (in 2015 the parade introduced an Angry Birds balloon), with the biggest balloons requiring teams of around ninety people to keep them from floating off and injuring spectators.54
 When Murakami agreed to create balloons of his ‘cute but fearsome’ characters, Kaikai and Kiki, executive producer Robin Hall described his concerns about their fit in the children’s parade: ‘There are details about them that, I think in isolation, as they’re described, sound kind of bad, [...] the final thing is not so bad.’55



Kaikai and Kiki (2010)



Kaikai is gummy and toothless, revealing an unsettling red smile; Kiki has two large fangs, her mouth open like Mr DOB’s, and a third eye. Kaikai’s eyes appear completely red with a black pupil. With extra ears and onesies, they appear, unsettlingly, like children in animal costumes. Their inclusion in the parade seems inexplicable, as a grotesque parody of the heavily commercialised children’s characters who make up the rest of the procession. But their troubling monstrousness, being both cute and terrifying, expresses something fundamental to cuteness; this ambivalence is always inscribed in the cute image.

Besides the strange renderings of likeness in some of the older balloons, the effect of the upscaling, from TV screen or lunch box to six stories high and thirty feet wide, is overwhelming, almost frightening. Not only are these looming, monstrous balloons literally capable of injuring and killing people if they collapse, but their grotesque size illustrates an essential dimension of the cute object, inscribed in the violence of its production as commodity: its capacity for aggression and retaliation. Ngai notes ‘the unusual readiness with which cute reverses into its opposite,’ suddenly seeming capable of inflicting harm onto its guardian in retaliation for the violence that rendered it into the small, helpless, silent object in the first place.56 ‘Given the powerful affective demands that the cute object makes on us,’ Ngai speculates, ‘one could argue that this paradoxical doubleness is embedded in the concept of the cute from the start, as even commercial generators of cuteness [...] seem to realize.’57

All this is lost on the 2009 network parade commentators, who in a spectacular moment of deverbalisation following the first sighting of the Hello Kitty balloon at the Macy’s parade, ask their forty-million-strong broadcast audience to say a “humongous helium hello” to the balloon, adding that it is ‘impossible to resist her cuteness.’



Say hello to super cute Hello Kitty who is gliding about the treetops in the big apple. [...] What began in Japan as a little logo on a coin purse ballooned into a global Hello Kitty phenomenon. [...] Hello Kitty, represented by San Rio, makes us smile as she floats through the air.58




The parade commentary not only highlights the massive, dramatic upscaling at work in the balloons, but the reference to Hello Kitty’s humble, diminutive origins (a ‘little logo on a coin purse’) foregrounds the entanglement of the aesthetic with the demands of commodity capitalism.



‘Hello Kitty’ Balloon (2009) by Charles Sykes (AP)



Cassandra Gillig’s poem ‘bitch im the central park hello kitty’ in The Yolo Pages seems to ventriloquize the Hello Kitty Macy’s day parade balloon, floating over Central Park and addressing the crowds assembled below with a voice appropriate to the balloon’s absurd and potentially threatening size. ‘fuck you you lazy policemen get a job already’ she shouts, directing a demand to conform at the usual enforcer of this conformity.59 Gillig’s Hello Kitty is not the prototypically cute (and mute) San Rio version we’re familiar with, but a foul-mouthed and embittered Hello Kitty, finally given the ability to talk after all this time.



shut your oblique ass mouth im using this bagel bite as a telephone dont tell me about the fucking weekend im already there
john candy burned down my barrel house
i was making that barrel house a home goddamnit60




If Hello Kitty had a mouth, why wouldn’t she talk like this? This statement of introduction, ‘bitch im the central park hello kitty’ is repeated throughout the poem, as if the balloon is slowly moving through the parade, becoming increasingly exasperated and erratic in her attempts to express the power now gained through her enormous size. In this new dynamic we, the spectator/reader, are looked down on and told to shut our ‘oblique’ (or acute) mouth by a character that supposedly doesn’t have one. There is an essential doubleness to the Hello Kitty balloon’s utterances: ‘dont touch my fucking sanddollars,’ she tells us, with sanddollars here referring to ‘sea cookies’ (flattened sea urchins) or, Urban Dictionary tells us, ‘a cat’s asshole.’ Often this cuteness is a kind of enticement: where in one line the balloon describes how she was ‘raised in a moon bounce’ (a bouncy castle), the next line transforms the cute Hello Kitty visage into something medicinal, surgical and scary: ‘my white gloves are fear.’ The speaker, like a monstrous balloon, is uncontrollable, each line lurching violently from the last, each image either doubled or absurd.

Towards the end of the poem the sassy, pointed doubleness of the Hello Kitty balloon is amplified into an excessive parody of masculine sexual power or bravado:



while you weren’t looking i sprayed axe body spray on your car keys
pleasure is a town & i am taking U there61




Like yelling at a cop, spraying one stupid symbol of masculine power with an even stupider one is to challenge something at its own game, and so expose its ludicrousness. But, as in any irony (or any cuteness), there is an ambivalence: the forcefulness of these lines is as easily menacing as it is entertaining, depending on how we assess the threat. This is the only capitalised pronoun in the poem, and it seems to be the point at which Hello Kitty’s focus turns from addressing the parade goers and policemen, to addressing the reader. And the moment of this I-you address is when we see an amplification in the sexual undertones. Hello Kitty is ‘taking us to pleasure town’ whether or not we want too. At this point, it’s clearest that the formal simplicity which, elsewhere in the anthology, signifies an encounter with cuteness, here demonstrates the cute object’s revenge.62 Compared to, say, ‘i want to be hugging you,’ taking ‘U’ to pleasure town exaggerates the forced intimacy that online communication provokes, to the extent that it becomes menacing and absurd. It is at this point that this doubleness of the cute object is really in play. Before a final ‘bitch im the central park hello kitty,’ the poem ends with:



theodor adorno can suck my dick
im great w the kids63




The first line reads like an interruption to an overheard conversation about Adorno, a rejection of the famously dour theorist with a brute assertion of masculinity. Ngai’s discussion of Adorno and muteness provides a further frame here: Adorno ‘captures in the image of muteness [...] both the autonomy of art and its disfigurement under the conditions of capitalism.’64 For Adorno, muteness or speechlessness is not only characteristic of ‘damaged life,’ but it is also ‘the true language of art,’ and it may be to this aestheticisation of muteness that Gillig’s Hello Kitty – who is finally, after all these years, able to speak – objects.65 It’s perhaps too neat to read so much into this reference, except that the range of the speaker’s rejection seems limitless. But what of the relationship, then, between the line and the one following, and the strangeness of a children’s character, after this foul-mouthed rant, having to claim that they’re good with children? It’s as if the violence comes full circle, and that the poem claims all of its profanity and monstrousness is consistent with being cute. And before we’ve had time to really think about the discomfort of the proximity of these two lines, the poem ends with a reassertion of her status, size (and distinction from the cute San Rio Hello Kitty), as if it’s an explanation of all that preceded: ‘bitch im the central park Hello Kitty.’66



*    *    *



If our experience of the cute is problematised by the ambivalence and violence that Ngai describes, what does it mean for the intimacy of online communication, or the lyric space that that communication has suggested? What does it mean when internet platforms talk down to us, when it is ultimately our powerlessness that is being aestheticised? And what opportunities for refusal or resistance does this open? As Gillig’s poem suggests, by occupying the position of the cute object, the poem can speak less of a failure to connect, and more of a reversal of power. Rather than simply articulating the dynamic of intimate online communication through poems that are non-complex in form and aim, post-internet poetry has the opportunity to exploit the ambivalence of cuteness. If a poem itself is tender and cute, an intimate expression of commodified subjectivity, an inadequate vehicle for politics in a marginal artform, perhaps it should also be monstrous and dangerous, looming over the streets and straining at its tethers.Within digital platforms, we are typically situated as both consumers and producers, in control and yet completely powerless: for Facebook, its users provide content for each other, whilst having their attention sold to advertisers; for Uber, its ‘partner drivers’ are able to ‘make money on [their] terms,’ whilst being managed, controlled and potentially ‘deactivated’ via the app.67 Our position is always cute; perhaps this way we retain the capacity for revenge.





Lucy Burns is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, researching Charles Olson and Black Mountain College. Her reviews and essays have appeared in PN Review and The Manchester Review.

Charles Whalley is a poetry critic whose writing is published in Poetry ReviewReview 31, The Quietus, and Sabotage. His pamphlet, RETURNS, was published by If A Leaf Falls Press in 2016.




* Addendum

Since the publication of this essay we have been made aware of accounts of Steve Roggenbuck engaging in abusive and manipulative behaviour, which we take extremely seriously. It was not our intention to remind the community of a person whose contributions to it might, in retrospect, be best forgotten. We would like to extend our support and solidarity to the women who have spoken out against him.




Footnotes


1.         Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 1.
2.        
Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1.
3.         Ibid., 13.
4.         Ibid., 9.
5.         Ibid., 9.
6.         Ibid., 10.
For a compilation of Caroline’s zaniest moments, see:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KAgHJ1i3d4
7.        Ngai, 12
8.        Ibid., 5, 38.
9.        Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001), 111, quoted in Ngai, 5.
10.      Sontag, 69; Ngai, 6.
11.      Sontag, 80, 71.
12.      Ngai, 59.
13.      Ibid., 61-2.
14.      Ibid., 63.
15.      Ibid., 63.
16.      Zac Bissonette, The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute (London: Penguin, 2015), 2.
17.      Ngai, 63.
18.      Ibid., 64.
19.      Ibid., 66.
20.      Ibid., 18.
21.      Ibid., 24.
22.      Ibid., 24.
23.      Ibid., 98.
24.      Ibid., 8.
25.      Ibid., 87-8.
26.      Ibid., 97.
27.      Ibid., 64.
28.      Gene McHugh, Post Internet
http://web.archive.org/web/20131210202034/http://122909a.com/
29.      John Stuart Mill, ‘What Is Poetry?’
See http://www.laits.utexas.edu/farrell/documents/Mill_What%20Is%20Poetry.pdf
30.      Charles Whalley, ‘THIS HAS BEEN A BLUE/GREEN MESSAGE EXITING THE SOCIAL WORLD,’ The Poetry Review (Summer, 2015), 56.
31.      Steve Roggenbuck, E.E. Scott, Rachel Younghans, eds., The Yolo Pages (US: boosthouse, 2014), 151.
32.      The Yolo Pages, 151.
33.      Ibid., 151.
34.      Ibid., 5.
35.      Ibid., 5.
36.      Ibid., 7.
37. Patricia Lockwood’s second collection was published by Penguin in 2014; Melissa Broder’s first novel was published by Penguin Random House this year; Crispin Best’s pamphlet, which closely resembles those in the anthology, was published by Faber in 2016.
38.      The Yolo Pages, 9.
39.      Ibid., 7.
40.      Ibid., 8.
41.      Tom Whyman, “Beware of cupcake fascism,”
The Guardian, 8 April 2014:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/08/beware-of-cupcake-fascism.
42.      Ngai, 97.
43.      The Yolo Pages, 194-5.
44.      Ngai, 54.
45.      The Yolo Pages, 147, 191.
46.      Ibid., 191.
47.      Ngai, 3.
48.      The Yolo Pages, 196.
49.      Ibid.
50.      Ngai, 99.
51.      Ibid.
52.      Ibid., 82.
53.      Ibid., 83-5.
54. See... 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macy%27s_Thanksgiving_Day_Parade#Injuries.
55.      Dave Itzoff, ‘Art Inflation: Macys Murakami,’
The New York Times, 24 November 2010:
https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/25/arts/design/25murakami.html.
56.      Ngai, 85.
57.      Ibid., 85.
58.      Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 2009:
https://youtu.be/E4WTQbouR9A?t=1h52m38s.
59.      The Yolo Pages, 70.
60.       Ibid.
61.       Ibid.
62.      See ‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’ (2004): h
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QH7hj1nauTc.
63.       The Yolo Pages, 70.
64.       Ngai, 99.
65.       Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 79, cited in Ngai, 99.
66.       The Yolo Pages, 70.
67.       https://www.uber.com/en-GB/drive






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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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