Robots on an Escalator

I bought poet Elisa Gabbert’s most recent book The Self Unstable because I like her Twitter feed. I mention this not because I want to espouse the efficiency of social media as marketing, but because Twitter is one of the primary forces making my experience of the self, at least, unstable. It also shaped the way I read the book at first, as a series of Tweets only incidentally composed into half-page paragraphs. These lines are like tweets I would like to favorite: “If you find anything other than food or sex interesting, it’s signaling.” “To have enemies is a coming of age.” “Regret is a kind of certainty.” “In the moment, we value stability, but we prefer our painful memories.” “Schadenfreude complicates utilitarianism.”

I am conditioned by Twitter to read this book in what is certainly the wrong way, assuming the I is the same in all the pieces, despite the title’s warning, and eschewing the contemplation of enjambment to see juxtaposition as an arbitrary contingency and not an artful orchestration. Twitter makes me think everything can be an aphorism that can travel without contextual baggage. But the leaps between the sentences are where most of The Self Unstable is. I had to read it again to think about how the sentences worked off of one another, how the paragraphs grouped together gestured toward a whole, and what I wanted to connect everything.

The book seems preoccupied with this, among other questions: Does self-consciousness establish or unmake the self? Is such reflexivity always reducible to regret? “Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking.” I think about this a lot in terms of social media, which demand reflexivity and invite a serial self-consciousness as a form of escapism, which guide me back to myself in ways I’m not expecting and which make me feel like a novelty to myself. “Where are the clouds of the mind?” I think they are governing the emotional climate of social media.

What constitutes the self — interactions with other people — also make it unstable, inscrutable, contingent, subject to disappearance at the first signs of abandonment. My self doesn’t belong to me in the sense that I have total autonomy over it, like a piece of Lockean property. It’s more a space I am sometimes lucky enough to visit and feel like I own it. But sometimes I don’t recognize it, and all the landmarks are missing. It becomes derelict.

I want to invoke an arbitrary contingency of my own at this point, and introduce into this essay what I have been listening to all day, Black Sabbath’s 1975 album Technical Ecstasy. Maybe it is not entirely arbitrary. The covers are sort of similar.

Black-Sabbath-Technical-Ecstasy

All right, not really. According to Wikipedia, Ozzy Osbourne described this cover as “two robots screwing on an escalator.”  Something about that description reminds me of Twitter timelines scrolling. I wish I knew how to program Twitter bots; it would make me think differently about making things happen with language. The Boston Globe recently profiled Darius Kazemi, who makes bots that produce poetry.

“Technical ecstasy” is a pretty good approximation of what poetry sometimes aims for. It also describes the mediated pleasures of social-media selfhood. If social media use can be considered as a way of getting rid of the self, expunging the burden of consistency that once came with having a public identity, then technical ecstasy is when the self dissolves in a flood of posts and updates and tweets. Maintaining an integrity that integrates one’s behavior over time becomes irrelevant; you can query the archive and let an algorithm provide an distilled, essential version of the self.

The Globe article offers this interpretation of Kazemi’s work: “By imitating humans in ways both poignant and disorienting, Kazemi’s bots focus our attention on the power and the limits of automated technology, as well as reminding us of our own tendency to speak and act in ways that are essentially robotic.” Robots represent an endpoint on a spectrum of social interaction, but it’s not clear whether it’s the top or bottom end. “In Sleep Is Death, one player controls the world the other player experiences,” Gabbert writes in a piece called “First Person Shooter: Games & Leisure.” “In classic gaming, you begin to suspect the machine is human. Here you suspect your friend is a machine.”

Maintaining a consistent self was formerly a politeness that taught others how to approach you. Interaction could be a bit mechanical, if one’s manners were stiff. Conversation could be too predictable if confined by etiquette. Now we are coming to rely on devices to mediate social encounters and protect us from one another’s unpredictability and boundarylessness face to face. Often we know what they are up to without asking. “It’s okay to confess,” Gabbert writes, “if you embed it in an incoherent system; make them think you are unreliable.”

The best song on Technical Ecstasy is also the least characteristic one that Black Sabbath ever recorded, a piano-driven ballad called “It’s Alright,” written and sung by drummer Bill Ward. The opening lyric is “I told you once about your friends and neighbors / They were always seeking but they’ll never find it / It’s alright.” I have listened to this song dozens of times, and I still have no ideas about what the friends and neighbors are looking for.

Rather than rely directly on friends and neighbors to present coherent versions of themselves — rather than count on their considerate attention in the moment — we rely on their social media streams and the filters we can apply to it, to calculate what they are looking for. We give permission to one another to treat each other like robots. We can learn to program them.

In the last section of The Self Unstable, called “Enjoyment of Adversity: Love & Sex,” comes this warning: “Be careful what you do ‘with abandonment.’ ” I misread this the first time as “with ‘abandonment’ ” — don’t use abandonment as a tool, don’t store it up to embroider apologies and excuse microaggressions. The second time through I noticed that with was inside the quotation marks as well. Never mind others’ abandoning you; don’t abandon yourself.

I tried to delete my Twitter feed recently, but soon discovered it requires offering a third party access to your account to run their scripts. I was afraid this would give them permission to copy my archive before making it disappear, and I would live on in their servers, feedstock for some future bot that would simulate an ability to worry about itself.