“Imagine the writer as a meme machine, writing works with the intention for them to ripple rapidly across networks only to evaporate just as quickly as they appeared. Imagine a poetry that is vast, instantaneous, horizontal, globally distributed, paper thin, and, ultimately, disposable.”
In ‘Transportation /t/’, the speaker describes learning to drive as part of learning to enter the social system of adulthood:
Mother says ‘Why ask and re-ask questions!’ but I’m so
often unsure of the question asked especially when it’s the
model of cars and you must understand I had lessons for a
very long time and I still don’t know the difference between
one shift and another. Before traffic lights and crowd
control people used to march grinning right in front of the
bonnet — straight into traffic! Like how I once saw so many
translucent frogs being swept downstream glassy-eyed and
knowing towards the open gritted mouth of a drain, their
eyes were so resigned that I even gave some a little push the
driving instructor gave me similar looks of resignation
lorries never seem to big in stasis what was the question?
The speaker is helplessly unable to differentiate between one car or another or one gear change or another, just as early pedestrians are so haplessly unaware of the danger a car represents as to “march grinning[…]straight into traffic!” Allen’s missing punctuation, which elsewhere slows reading down, here accelerates the poem into a breathless panic. There is none of the post-romantic lyric’s epiphany, no insight neatly captured by a speaker unperturbed; the speaker has been unable to move beyond her experience, to order it into her past so as to have the perspective to learn from it. She is caught in its constant presentness.
The poem is dominated by the central image, troubled by the intrusion of the speaker nudging the frogs onwards, like a playwright walking on stage. The simile can’t be interpreted or paraphrased into a single statement, but instead only a multiple partial comparisons. It overfills any of the containers used to interpret it, as the speaker’s helplessness in the driving lesson matches her helplessness in controlling her fictions. Instead, the excess of the brief episode of the frogs sits between all possible readings, suggesting the atmosphere of the whole poem rather than elaborating one of its elements, functioning in the dominant aesthetic mode of post-internet poetry like a nightmare or an advert for a sad product.
“Nostalgia is the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition”
—Susan Stewart, On Longing
The 4chan Poems see the adoption of adult social roles as a form of loss, as the movement towards the “mouth of a drain”, towards the “encroaching ledge” of adult lives in “suburbs where the pink dusk settles like a trapping net”(‘Cute/Male /cm/’). To fashion an adult identity through expressive consumer choices, is also to consent to the system in which that choice is possible: any colour you like as long as you’re buying a car. Consent to a totalising expressive system, one of adult social relations and their attendant drudgeries, leaves a lingering awareness not only of what has been excluded by this choice but of the consequent inability to articulate it. The 4chan Poems’ morbid fascination with “girls who killed other girls in childhood”(‘Random /b/’), with the documentaries about “murderers in general” watched by the speaker’s mother in ‘Social /soc/’, reflects the lingering presence of the other side of this choice, the potential for violence in children who do not successfully adopt adult roles. And this inexpressible, excessive term doesn’t stay in the past, but its resurrection by nostalgia, by looking back to the time before its loss, causes it to recirculate through cultural objects. It hides behind every “squirting tease party Erica.”
“The Internet, of course, was not over. That’s wasn’t the point. Rather, let’s say this: what we mean when we say “Internet” changed and “post Internet” served as shorthand for this change.[…]
On some general level, the rise of social networking and the professionalization of web design reduced the technical nature of network computing, shifting the Internet from a specialized world for nerds and the technologically-minded, to a mainstream world for nerds, the technologically-minded and grandmas and sports fans and business people and painters and everyone else. Here comes everybody.
Furthermore, any hope for the Internet to make things easier, to reduce the anxiety of my existence, was simply over—it failed—and it was just another thing to deal with. What we mean when we say “Internet” became not a thing in the world to escape into, but rather the world one sought escape from…sigh…It became the place where business was conducted, and bills were paid. It became the place where people tracked you down.”
—Gene McHugh, Post Internet
As the corporate interests of the internet attempt to remove its trace, to expand its markets seamlessly within our real world relationships, any experience of the internet’s strangeness is increasingly nostalgic. The promise of the internet in the 90s and early 00s, of cyberspace, the final frontier, has been subsumed by the future of the 2010s, where the internet flattens into reality, into the device in our pockets, into our council tax payments and plans for meeting our friends. Post-internet is the awareness of the closed internet/real life binary, and of the return of the ‘internet’ through nostalgia. And nostalgia for the internet, for its lost opportunity of escape, is also longing for the futures that never arrived.
Charles Whalley read English at Trinity College, Oxford, and was published in The Mays. He currently works in academic publishing near Oxford and lives in Reading.
More articles and essays on post-internet poetry can be found at this link.