The flatness of Mira Gonzalez’s poetry.
Having feelings is hard. Feelings make us vulnerable to pain, to shame, and to unwanted interpretation and legibility. Feelings can also open us up to the world; they give us a surface through we can relate to others, but also through which we can be wounded. We want to have feelings because being vulnerable allows us to be close to other people, but yet we know that if we get too close, our feelings can be hurt. In the face of this vulnerability we might try, at some moments, to not have a feeling at all, or at least to push emotion to the margins of our experience. We may find, however, that not having a feeling may be just as difficult as having one.
I see this ambivalent wrangling in and out of feeling in the flat tone of many contemporary writers working between Tumblr, Twitter, and printed books, writers whose work is often collectively referred to as alt lit. Pioneered by Tao Lin and his Muumuu House cohort, these writers chart Gmail exchanges, heartbreak, taking Ambien and Adderall, sex, and the Whole Foods salad bar all in a consistent, moderately depressed voice. But there’s more going on in this work than garden-variety mid-20s urban disaffection. This tone and relationship to feeling, which I’m calling “flatness,” is characterized by nonexpressive emotion and seems to aspire toward emotional neutrality, toward an impossible balance between the vulnerability of emotion and the anesthesia of affectlessness.
But why flatness? And why now? How does a kind of writing that seems so distinctly unemotional, or that seems to deliberately to avoid the risks of powerful feeling, end up generating such intense empathy and affective resonance?
The poetry of Mira Gonzalez, a 22-year-old writer living in Los Angeles, is a paragon of flat writing and ambivalence toward emotion. The poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together (sorry house, 2013) often read like a series of tweets – staccato, constrained, and brazenly aware of a broad, anonymous audience who might respond instantly with either empathy or criticism. Defying the old adage of “show, don’t tell,” Gonzalez often describes her feelings (and her feelings about feelings) – the emotionality of the poems skims across their surfaces and refuses a model of emotion in which feelings express something buried or unconscious.
Her poetry conjures an affectively messy universe. Over the course of her slim collection, she has a tremendous range of feelings, which she taxonomizes in detail. She feels: “depressed,” “disinterested in dying right now,” “slightly anxious about nothing in particular,” “tiny and calm,” and “alienated by people who express concern about me without defining their concern,” among many other things.
But despite this seemingly rich and detailed field of affective experience, Gonzalez still finds her feelings wanting. “We are craving a certain unachievable density in emotions,” she writes in “heartbroken people with extreme personality flaws.” At certain moments, she wants more, she wants a relationship to feeling that will bring her closer to someone. And at other moments, she wants to have a feeling just to feel something, even if it is painful. She writes: “I want to have an emotion that feels like being slowly punched in the/ face for 3 years.” In these moments, the right kind of feeling is out of her reach, but it may be unclear why that kind of feeling is desirable at all. Her flat tone captures this discrepancy between what she is feeling, what she says she is feeling, and what she wants to feel (or not feel).
Gonzalez’s flatness masks but does not eradicate emotion. The tone parallels her attempts to avoid the vulnerability, pain, and shame of having a feeling by trying to “feel neutral,” or at least to make her feelings unrecognizable. It is an ultimately futile attempt to contain and tame the messiness of feeling. She writes: “it seems unfair that I only get to feel a finite amount of things in my life…I feel like 400 dead jellyfish in the middle of a freeway.” Would it be better to feel nothing than to feel as awkward, as cumbersome and dead as those jellyfish?
I’m interested in the vexed experience of wanting an anesthesia that hurts – of desiring unfeeling instead of too much feeling, but knowing that feeling nothing at all is impossible. Flatness is a tonal and affective concession to this troubled ambivalence. In the face the impossibility of total non-feeling, it charts an aspiration toward feeling neutral.
Flatness is disjunctive; it may describe attachments without performing them, or perform an affect and then shift quickly to a different one. Not quite a feeling, but also not quite not a feeling, it is slippery and unpredictable. By describing a feeling but not quite mapping onto or representing it, flat writing can resist what affect theorist Lauren Berlant calls the culture of “true feeling”: the insidious suggestion that “what we feel” corresponds directly to the “truth of ourselves.” Flatness allows for gaps between what we feel, what we think we feel, and what we say we feel. It also lets the distinctions among those categories blur.
For Berlant, belief in emotional incoherence is a locus for political and queer optimism. In a 2008 interview with Cabinet, she says:
Emotion doesn’t produce clarity but destabilizes you, messes you up, and makes you epistemologically incoherent…the pressure on emotion to reveal truth produces all sorts of misrecognition of what one’s own motives are, and the world’s…It’s part of my queer optimism to say that people are affectively and emotionally incoherent. This suggests that we can produce new ways of imagining what it means to be attached and to build lives and worlds from what there already is…
Flat writing is both affectively incoherent and afraid of the kind of dissolution that that incoherence inspires. This incoherence makes it impossible to read emotion as expressing the “truth” of the writer.
Perhaps because of this slipperiness, flatness works well to describe powerful emotions. Somehow a tone that reads as a lack of emotion can actually be the grounds for emotional connection and empathy. Psychologist Silvan Tomkins, who was largely unknown when writing in the 1950s but was popularized among queer and affect theorists by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the late 90s, wrote his theory of affects in a flat tone of his own. Here is a characteristic passage:
If you like to be looked at and I like to look at you, we may achieve an enjoyable interpersonal relationship. If you like to talk and I like to listen to you talk, this can be mutually rewarding. I you like to feel enclosed within a claustrum and I like to put my arms around you, we can both enjoy a particular kind of embrace. If you like to be supported and I like to hold you in my arms, we can enjoy such an embrace. If you like to be kissed and I like to kiss you, we may enjoy each other. If you like to be sucked or bitten and I like to suck or bite you, we may enjoy each other…
The passage’s clinical and unemotional tone is dissonant with the tenderness of interactions it describes, yet for a clinical psychological text it is oddly intimate and specific. The repetitive, listing style reads like an instruction manual for feeling or an assembling of affects from their component parts, as if Tomkins could use the right combination of feeling-data to teach an automaton how to feel. Tomkins’ language, like Gonzalez’s, is strikingly neutral.
Like an atom full of unstable electrons, vibrating at the threshold of the next energetic level, Gonzalez’s neutrality is volatile. I quote the poem “symbolic interactionism” here in full because it is characteristic of Gonzalez’s flatness and her movement between feeling, unfeeling, and neutrality:
people walk from one destination to another
with looks of determination on their faces they stare at me
and they say ‘where the fuck are you going’
I say ‘I am going to a place’
they say ‘fuck you’
and I have an intense feeling of being a
and that feeling manifests itself in the form of
I begin to realize that my face will never be
inside of your face
and that we can silently communicate using a
series of microscopic gestures
and we will understand that the phrase ‘alone
together’ is not an
and I will resolve to never be happy enough to
and I promise that from now on I will only
have emotions that can be perceived as neutral
I wonder how it is possible that there are
billions of people in the world
yet I am the only person on the planet
The first six lines of this poem are vague and apathetic, but it quickly becomes clear that the apathy and indiscriminateness are a performance, an attempt to cover “an intense feeling of being a pathetic asshole.” The poem shifts from the “too cool” toughness of her “fuck you” to total vulnerability and desire for intimacy: “I begin to realize that my face will never be inside of your face.” There’s an impassable obstacle in the kind of being together that Gonzalez wants. The layers of impassivity peel back to reveal her recognition of the inevitable failure of total connection, a recognition of vulnerability that scares her. Having any kind of feeling can make one feel alone.
The line “and I promise that from now on I will only have emotions that can be perceived as neutral” is Gonzalez’s effort to write her way into the unfeeling she wants but finds herself unable to have. “Having emotions that can be perceived as neutral” is a way to be open to someone but still not get hurt. It’s not that the emotions she has are neutral – we see that she actually experiences a broad spectrum of powerful emotions (even within a single poem), but if those emotions are perceived as neutral then perhaps Gonzalez can enjoy the benefits of having a feeling without the risk of its failure.
A neutral feeling is an affective utopia, a kind of dissimulation where what a feeling “looks like” may not be what that feeling “actually is.” But neutral feeling can be hard to sustain. Gonzalez only achieves it at one other moment in the collection:
I wrote a novel about you and saved it to my
the effect of certain drugs
is to make you feel crippled in bed at five in
a nondescript emotion
this is how I feel on Saturday
The drafts folder is a holding pattern. The feeling is out there, but it’s concealed, waiting. The draft and the nondescript emotion are both emotional safe spaces. Just as a draft can only be read by the one who wrote it, a neutral affect can only be recognized by the one who feels it.
Similarly to “symbolic interactionism,” the poem eventually moves out of neutral affect, but maintains a flat tone:
I used to be this person three hours ago
I am the absence of something sentient
telling people I prefer to be alone
which is true sometimes
I am trying to parallel park my car
I am trying to make you love me
It only takes three hours for the nondescript emotion to fade into a claim to emotional independence, which is then denied. The final two lines are almost embarrassing, but read in the context of all of the poem’s previous withholdings, it’s impossible to take their earnestness as absolute emotional truth. They’re the kind of lines best kept in a drafts folder, waiting, unsent. Some of the uncertainty about whether or not to feel something may be wrapped up in shame.
For Silvan Tomkins, both having and not having affect can cause shame. Tomkins uses an anecdote to explain what he calls the “affect-shame bind.” He presents a scenario of a child eating dinner with his parents. The child is disgusted by the fruit cup he is meant to eat, and performs his nausea with highly visible facial expressions. His parents chastise him for this performance, and the child lowers his head in shame. But it is not only the child’s disgust that leads to his shame. When the child responds eagerly to the roast beef second course, his parents chastise him for what they consider over-enthusiasm, and he again adopts an ashamed posture. Finally, the “vignette draws to a close with shame turned against shame.” The child now exhibits total shame with his head lowered and posture limp, and his parents chastise him once more for his silence and inattention. Tomkins concludes: “So is our hero taught that affect per se is shameful, that shame itself is caught up in the same taboo, and that even affectlessnes may be shameful.” Neither having a feeling nor not having one is safe. If both feeling and not feeling can be shameful, how can we have a non-ashamed relation to feeling?
Gonzalez’s desire to not have a feeling is leaky and uncontained. She attempts to write about the leakiness in an affectless way, trying to use tone and form of the poem to contain the shame of having a feeling. But the poem is itself a leaky vessel, inadequate to the containment or flattening of those messy feelings. Protection and resistance are not in endurance but rather in the momentary gesture, in the hint at the neutral, and in the suggestion of a way of feeling alongside despair that does not entirely capitulate to it. Feeling flat, or neutral, is an attempt to have it both ways: to have emotion, but to be safe from its potential harm. It’s a way of feeling something without letting it wear you out.