I Want To Listen: An Interview with JD Scott on “Validator”

 

Chris Prioleau [CP]: For starters where did the language of “Validator” come from? It’s obviously a kind of gumbo of phrases and viewpoints heard online, but while some of them seem just taken from the climate we breathe in (Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve) others seem to be written as direct quotes. Do you think of this poem partially as a found poem? How did you go about finding these quotes and selecting/curating them? How did you select these ingredients? When you were putting this together was there anything that you left out, any threads that you dropped, or did you try and find room for everything?

JD Scott [JS]: “Validator” was formed as a collage—and yes, definitely it’s part found poem—one I’ve interwoven with my own exhausting rattle. Perhaps what I was aiming for was to inhabit some kenophobic, post-Flarfist space—a Hieronymus Bosch painting filled with spam. Although I wasn’t particularly looking at one piece of new media when creating the poem, one component is a brain dump of phrases and imagery I have seen over and over and over again online. One of the points of “Validator” is to put the meme-ification of internet speech into another context. Although I would not necessarily say that moving memes into a more literary space means they are being viewed through a lens of condemnation.

One popular meme that started on 4chan and then was immediately beaten to death on Reddit is “OP is a Faggot.” It’s generally used (at least on Reddit) in the context of OP, or Original Poster, doing something duplicitous, like, for example, posting a photo of a cake and claiming that they baked it, when in fact it’s actually a stock photo—and then such fraudulence needs to be punished by anonymous commenters. There’s literally hundreds of image macros and GIFs out there trying to find a clever way to call OP a faggot. Some of them are very adorable and likeable, which recalls Ngai’s “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” for me: “It is clear, then, that in addition to its capacity to convert a subject’s veiled or latent aggression towards a vulnerable object into explicit aggression that seems to be directed toward the subject, cuteness names an aesthetic encounter with an exaggerated difference in power that does something to ordinary or communicative speech….” Perhaps by cute-ifying a slur like “faggot,” someone who doesn’t inherently feel othered by the word is given an allowance to use it without experiencing guilt—or furthermore, it allows them to have the power to redefine it as they see fit.

Something I’ve witnessed too is the defense of this pejorative—anyone can use “faggot” because Louis CK or South Park did a bit on the word—and now it has nothing to do with sexual identity. Or, you know, Chris Rock’s infamous (and recanted) bit that made some white folk feel like they had access to use the N word. How does that argument differ on a forum versus what happens in “face time”? I’m definitely, you know, going on a tangent here, but I’m interested in this weird cross section between pop culture, comedy, internet memes, accountability, the when and wheres of ‘language policing’, and how all these things become queered in digital spaces. I’m going on about a single meme that only appears once in the long poem—but that was the process of this poem. How a magnifying glass can be held up to many small pieces and zoomed in. “Validator” is what I feel standing in the middle of the constant deathly hum of the internet.

CP: Yes. Yes. Don’t worry about the tangent, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cross-section between pop culture and accountability recently as well. I keep thinking about that old “but South Park (or whomever) is offensive to everyone equally so you shouldn’t be upset.” A POV which fails to take into account that South Park (once again, for example) is a show run by two rich straight white guys, so it’s still reinforcing a rich straight white POV no matter who they’re calling out.

JS: There is certainly part of me that wants to rage and say, “How dare you feel entitled to this word that doesn’t even begin to tarnish your core!” but at the same time, maybe that feels a little extra to me. Maybe what I mean is that I am tired of raging in the present at unmalleable strangers when I could be looking towards a futurity with my peers. I want creative visions and poetic multi-verses that look towards a future before I want to have another conversation about Tyler Clementi.

This is not to say that someone shouldn’t be out there saying, “Umm, Daniel Handler just made a fucking watermelon joke at Jacqueline Woodson as she accepted an award.” Accountability is real. At the same time…I am bored with “calling people out.” I have nothing to say to someone who watched a piece of satire and found it gave them allowance to use a slur carte-blanche. Someone else may use their time to leave a very angry internet comment in response, but I can’t. Everything is more complicated and deeper than what we give allowances for. Raging is often dubiously self-exalting and contributes to a culture of shame I’m not sure I’m interested in participating in anymore. Because I fuck up a lot as a feminist, and I push boundaries. Careless thoughts exit my mouth (often when I know better!), which is maybe why I am down to fuck with uncomfortable conversations. And… you know, I understand being othered and exhausted by all the micro, trifling things people say to you day in and day out and how at some point you are like—look, educate yourself—this is not my job. “Validator” is some manifestation of that exhaustion.

kisekae0-1-1

At the same time I also don’t necessarily think an anonymous poster expressing “faggot” in an internet comment is the same as someone following you as you walk home from work saying “hey faggot” over and over again when the reality of physical violence is near. Something is also more complicated when someone like Azealia Banks, whose first single “212” has a refrain about eating cunt, goes on Twitter and calls Perez Hilton a “messy faggot.” We could say, “Well, she identifies as a woman so she can’t say that word!” but I don’t know, isn’t that a little basic? Is her queerness so separate from his? What happens when the slang of New York nightlife gets made into a pop song—some of the most HAM people from nightlife are in Hercules & Love Affair’s recent “No Offense”—some of them cis men—defining and musing over and be empowered by “cunt.” And then we go some place even queerer and talk about how people react to such figuresbeing pulled from the smoke and mirrors of a warehouse rave and into the digital box of YouTube commentary. Someone else can police these folks’ language. I want to listen to the reverb.

CP: More on the poem, how would you characterize the voice of Validator? Who does it speak for? What are its values?

JS: The voice of “Validator” is the millionvoice. It is the anonymous murmur of voices that one has to wade through every time they log online, go to public communities, dig into the comments. “Value” to me, is a tricky word when it comes to poetry. It reminds me of that old platitude that asks, “What’s at stake in this poem?” I’m not sure poems need to have something at stake, or hold something of value inside of them. But what I want to play with in “Validator” is how does certain modes of speech change when it inserted in a different environment. Saying something polarizing anonymously on the internet is a much different context than, say, having that same comment attributed to you and mailed to your parents and your boss. I don’t exactly know that a poem is too far off from an anonymous internet comment, but maybe it doesn’t have to be—something feels rhizomatic and cyborgian about both of them, to me.

Scroll to the bottom of a news article on a complex, sensitive issue like the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and you’ll see comments saying the Jewish Illuminati were behind 9/11 and Jerry Seinfeld was in on the conspiracy. Go to an article about President Obama buying holiday gifts at his local indie book store and you’ll get everything from comments calling him a communist to those saying he’s a Muslim born in Lebanon and how he secretly came to the US by a submarine that dropped him off in Hawaii. There is a sort of chaotic, paranoid, frantic energy to the Western internet and part of my experiment was to capture that language here in this voice of multitudes: pharmaceutical spam emails, violent news clippings, emoji kissograms, pornographic cam streams, fear of surveillance—all talking at the same time.

CP: Very true. This is also something we’ve been living and communicating with and within for nearly a generation now. Lately I’ve been thinking about the way that internet language is beginning to shape public and political discourse. The comment section logic behind Gamergate is an example, the way the SONY hack saga moved from reaction to reaction as if the whole thing was playing out among online avatars (and it was). We’re spending more and more time operating inside of the logic of internet language. Do you feel this happening as well?

JS: You know, the internet is aging in “dog years,” and it’s exciting and fascinating and terrifying and overwhelming. I remember 10 years ago going on sites like Something Awful, and there were these proto-memes like, “There’s no girls on the internet!” which is more nefarious under the surface, right? The infuriating implication that anyone who announced themselves as a woman in these spaces where geeks gathered was denied or attacked because… why? The internet was a boy’s club? Woman couldn’t possibly use technology and discover these forums in public spaces (often conflated with illusions of exclusivity and privacy). If video games are to be considered Art then they must be subjected to criticism and theory just like… the rest of all the humanities. I’d argue that more than “IRL” the internet allows us to queer our cachet—someone may have more of a voice in a digital space than they are allowed elsewhere. Perhaps this has attributed to the tipping point: the internet culture that allows for immediate thinkpieces and op-eds and global debates. We’ve also experienced waves of caustic internet activity (trolling, doxxing, DoSing, other ‘hacking’) that allows us to push back. I think there are those from this previous era I’ve mentioned who want to believe there’s no women on the internet and that women can’t genuinely enjoy video games (the “fake gamer girl” trope) and we are in a climate where that shit cannot be tolerated anymore. There are always going to be those who can distort the narrative (“This isn’t about sexism, it’s about the integrity of online journalism!”) or try to silence others through denying them their multiplicity (I’ve noticed the latest incarnation of the ‘straw feminist’ trope is being called a ‘Social Justice Warrior’/’SJW’—a term as nebulous and meaningless as ‘hipster’). But yes, our language is changing all the time via the internet, social media, apps… and as a result it’s changing the way we communicate with eachother in these spaces.

CP: Speaking of the way we use language, in ‘Validator’ I sensed the terms validator and validation are being used in several ways: much of the poem has to do with validation in terms of one’s own ego and one’s self worth, the language of message boards and chatrooms speaks to this, but you’re also speaking about validation in a more political sense: populations needing validation because no one will hear or acknowledge them. In your mind what’s the connection or common thread between these two definitions?

JS: For awhile I was toying around with a project called Validator, separate from this poem. One implicit inquiry of the project is what it means for a poet to make art in a space where you’re vying for publications, readings, awards, book deals, contests, residencies—the list continues ad nauseam. I’ve diverged from that a little, but it’s still a topic of interest to me: the meta. Which is the internet, right? There’s something characteristically self-referential about online activity. A lot of this is based on perspective too. One reader is not supposed to ‘get’ every reference in “Validator”— that’s part of the noise. You mentioned the whole “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” chant before—but such a phrase represents different things depending on whether you’re a conservative zealot cheering this phrase on or a non-religious criticizer of this stance. And you’re absolutely right—there’s this multiplicity to these statements, a cry for a validation of one’s existence. I used to work in ebooks and part of the repetitious part of ebook-building is having an app that ‘validates’ your code over and over again. The ebook is imperfect and trash until it’s validated and moves into error-free territory. Validation also speaks to a culture of self-esteem. It deals with wrongness, and to be validated is to be affirmed, made right. There is a cheekiness to all of this, but also a direness. Who becomes certified in online spaces? How are the voices of those who have been othered different in a digital space—how are they different in an anonymous digital space? Can the ancestral transcend the marginal in a space that often forgets or denies history?

CP: This poem, there’s an impersonalness to it that stems from its use of casual internet language. It’s also very sexual, very id. It’s fascinated with innards, graphic sexual language. Some of the parts that are most interesting to me are when you use that graphic, id-like, roaming eye to look at political issues usually spoken about somberly. The line that keeps grabbing me is “Embalm another Black minor”, the phrasing of that, which is so casual and graphic and cheeky and yet so sad and arresting. Can you talk to me about how that phrase came about? What does it speak to a lot of the other images you’re dealing with: interconnectivity, sex and technology. Is there an overlap there that you think speaks to a lot of what’s going on today with the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests?

JS: I’ve been very fascinated with persona poems lately, or rather, trying to further the distance between myself “the writer” and the pieces I create. I’ve been inside my poems for a very long time, and I’m trying to do something a little more cyborgian—to remove aspects of myself. Why must poets always be punished by the conflation of “the narrator” being the same as “the writer”. Is it because the voice becomes the visual? Was Sasha Fierce just Beyonce with smoky eye makeup and a fingerless glove? The Thin White Duke just Bowie cosplaying as cabaret? Can we transcend our own experiences and become something else entirely? If I’m creating a futurist mythos, is it forever connected to JD’s bodily experience?

“Embalm another Black minor” is both an expression of outrage and hope for justice and a sigh of exhaustion. I actually wrote the first incarnation of this poem in July 2013, the week of Zimmerman’s (and also Travyon’s) verdict. “Validator” came from endlessly refreshing news articles in a space of devastation. It has since come to encapsulate other voices and devastations in digital spaces. But I don’t want this to ever come off as hopeless—it’s the reverberation of the internet saying, “Don’t forget Trayvon Martin, don’t forget Aiyana Jones, don’t forget Tamir Rice,” that builds unity and creates a louder call for justice. I can only imagine, as a white poet, my own fatigue at the loss of lives is a grain of sand in the desert that people of color have to face every day. You know, when I speak, like this phrase in this poem, or in my poem about whiteness and shoplifting in the midst of #StandWithFerguson that Apogee also gave space to—it hopefully comes from a moment after quietude, listening to the writers of color in my life, and contemplating from a mind-set of empathy. I never want my ruminating silence to be mistaken for complacency to white supremacist systems of power, and I never want my attempts to vocally connect and support and show solidarity to be misconstrued as bloviating—being one of those self-aggrandizing winkwinknudgenudgeLookAtHowNotRacistIAm white writers. To be a feminist, for me, is to be inherently implicated in the experiences of those who are othered around me, even I cannot ever bodily experience those transgressions. Perhaps it’s assumed I’m being utopian if I believe that if we speak up for each other through our own implications we’ll make progress—but I’d rather choose hope over despair. There is a quote attributed to Lilla Watson that has been shared quite a lot and often has hit back with cynicism, but I love it, it works for me: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

CP: Very very well said. In a political sense, how do you contextualize the form of this poem?

JS: Is the form political? Hmm… I wanted the textuality to be that of a spam email or an internet rant—a big block of exhausting, visually-heavy text. A lot of the poems I’m working on now… I don’t necessarily want them to be defined by the margins of a Microsoft Word document, or interrupted by the page breaks of where a 8 1/2 x 11″ piece of paper cuts off. I’m not there yet, but I want to do something that says more to the digital sprawl of the online environment. I’m teasing a future, because I’m not quite sure what that future looks like yet. But it’s better than the present. We’re all publishing on and running these poetry entities, so we should be pushing ourselves to go beyond Issuu.com cutesy fake book spreads, right? So perhaps the politic is to challenge how text appears in digital spaces?

CP: More of a minor question, but where do you go online? What communities speak to you? What communities do you have a more antagonistic relationship with?

JS: In some ways I experienced my own adolescence coming up through an entirely different internet. My youth was spent on Sailor Moon shrines on free website hosts like Geocities and Angelfire, and diving deep into chat channels like AOL Instant Messenger. I spent my teen years in the early 00s on places like Livejournal and more contentious sites like 4chan. I actually deleted my Tumblr recently because I’m trying to resist the urge to deadhead—it’s so easy to fall in a black hole of pastel photos and eat lotuses of factoids and just suck the hours out of your day. I still check social media frequently, but I’m also no stranger to waking up one morning and deleting all of my tweets. Which is a weird act, right, trying to control this uncontrollable public space?

I actually find 4chan (with the caveat that each of its image boards has different micro-
communities) a lot more creative and interesting than its/its users’ reputation as the Internet Hate Machine. I’ve been poking around it recently for probably the first time in ~8 years in search of inspiration—maybe as I try to contemplate my own politics and beliefs in a rules-free pornographic, violent, pejorative-filled den. 4chan actually made me wonder if can do anything else with “Validator” recently—something maximalist that gives the poem a different experience. I ended up making a video piece where this “Anonymous” figure is scrolling through 4chan’s image boards, simultaneous the images themselves being overlaid with a reflection of the figure browsing. A robotic voice reads the poem as the images go through cartoon porn, guns, swastikas, strange and violent imagery. To my surprise the auto-generated voice read the “/”s in my poem as “slash”, so there’s suddenly this new violent staccato of “slash, slash, slash” between all the phrases. I showed this to a group, and their feedback was they sort of flew in and out of desensitization. Which maybe goes back to what you were saying that one phrase can be both sad and graphic and arresting and cheeky. We fade in and out of the despair and hope and complete desensitization to the news headlines and multiple experiences of the internet.

You know, I have an antagonistic relationship with pretty much any community that I named above (haha), but I think I’m at least trying to be somewhat magnanimous and almost a little anthropological when poking around communities for ideas. After all, if some straight dude thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to call everyone on the internet a “faggot” because he saw another straight guy’s comedy routine that said all slurs can now magically be used carte blanche without repercussion—there’s no way my anonymous comment is going to change his mind, as I mentioned earlier.

CP: Anthropological approach, I dig that. Has that approach come from time spent doing online “language policing” as you put it earlier? Do you view online communities, people, or discussions where people’s viewpoints fall closer to yours with the same anthropological eye?

JS: I can be a bit of a devil’s advocate at time, so I’d like to think that I’m scrutinizing those whose beliefs are most similar to mine equally with those who are far from mine. I do believe there can be a bit of a feminist ‘hivemind’ on the internet at times and that dissent can be just as wonderful and necessary as solidarity. I don’t do ‘Oppression Olympics’. I find it incredibly shitty to alienate someone based on X or Y or Z when there could be an entire invisible alphabet under the surface. That’s fine if you want to rank issues of race or gender or sexuality, but let’s talk about the stigma of mental illness, let’s talk about the homeless, let’s talk about those who are infected. I think we’re past that point of self-aggrandizing, shaming statements like, “Check your privilege!” That is so basic. Privilege is good to have. Can’t we all agree on this and move on? We should reminding people who have access to certain spaces to share with those who do not have access. Small presses, reading series, lit mags, contests, etc. all need to be asking themselves what privileges they have and how they can work harder to extend their resources and spaces. I guess some people are out there naming names and more power to them—if people aren’t doing good enough work I’d rather just say #BYEFELICIA and move towards those who are. Instead of wasting our time yelling about a 60-year-old magazine still publishing white supremacist Tony Hoagland poems—maybe we should stop giving such institutions our coin and join forces to create new, better work. I’m going on so many tangents so me finish some thoughts about anthropology/being a pain-in-the-butt feminist/where my gaze falls…

“Language policing” interests me in a space of poetics because I see it as something that connects to semiotics in a way. I understand “queerness” more as ideality than identity, which I know a lot of feminists whose viewpoints are closer to mine often cannot embrace—the conceptual over the tangible declaration of “I am.” I have recently been reading a lot of Muñoz lately and this quote from the intro of Cruising Utopia seems to reverberate loudly with ideas of a future I’d like to imagine: “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds….”

CP: In your email to me you said that a lot of your work deals with “internet communities, public/private spaces, masculinities—often in a mythic setting” do you see the internet as a mythic setting?

JS: You know, I’ve made some references to both Donna Haraway and Adam and Eve, so I think this quote from the Cyborg Manifesto fits the digital mythic future I’ve been peeping in my third eye: “The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” I see the internet as a setting of “personal mythology” where we can all transform and become something different than our bodies. Maybe poetry can join our cyborg selves there. But when I speak of the personal… even on the most basic level it’s fascinating that someone who is five years younger than me had Facebook and YouTube and MySpace (and how outdated that sounds now!) as a teenager and came up through an entirely different idea of how the internet can be used based on their own digital adolescence versus mine. This may seem basic, but it’s important to my understanding of how quickly the internet as this loose conceptual entity ages and changes.

The other poem, “Kisekae”, you guys published, came [in an oblique way] from a Windows 95 program of the same name. In the late 90s, when I was a pre-teen/early teen I used to clandestinely play this Japanese paper doll dress-up “game” called Kisakae/KiSS. That’s a little bit where my mindset is coming from when thinking about the private, concepts of masculinities, the mythic. What does it mean to be a boy who never was allowed dolls their entire life, and suddenly found a digital program that gives total freedom? New media for me, is not the static or the answer—it’s the matchbook-powder-keg doll and 4eva-humming kōan of a horror vacui generation.

 

JD SCOTT is a poet living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His publications include Night Errands (YellowJacket Press, 2012) andFUNERALS & THRONES (Birds of Lace, 2013).

Illustration by Marina Micheva, “Kisekae.”

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