Let’s take a look at Prasanth. He’s a man in India who reviews consumer goods and more on YouTube. He places the item in front of a white posterboard display so that it seems to appear on a cloud, or in some void outside the spacetime continuum. Then he speaks off-camera into a close microphone with a touch of echo in the background, like what we imagine the voice of God sounding like.
Prasanth has a voice like feathers strumming muted guitar strings. His plosive P’s and B’s are wet enough to tingle my scalp without being spitty, and his vowels are carried by this low husky rasping that for me seems requisite (hail Bob Ross, ASMR King). But the real magic of his voice is the thrumming of his half-trilled R’s. It feels exactly like having your hair stroked gently, or your back scratched. I could listen to him for hours.
ASMR is as subjective as comedy, and so I don’t expect you to find Prasanth soothing. But I do expect you to find him interesting. Here is a list of some of the nearly 3000 things Prasanth has reviewed:
Every video is the same. The thing to be reviewed materialized on the already vacant white space. “Let’s take a look at this NAME OF OBJECT,” Prasanth says. Usually when it’s a food item, he’ll show you all the sides of the box, point out its country of origin, list many if not all of the ingredients. He’ll tell you how much he paid for the item in rupees, and then say, “or uh … X dollars or so,” for us Americans. He likes to read aloud some of the package copy, or in the case of his review of the Mag Magazine Board Game, he’ll read a number of the playing cards inside.
He is vocal about his disappointments. The one video I have saved, and the first I discovered, is his compilation of stationery sets. The first one contains a pad of paper that looks like a USD 100 bill, but when he unwraps the thing he sees that only the cover is the 100, the rest of the papers are blank white. Later, a pen that has a plastic flipping hourglass at the top has only enough sand to count about 3 seconds. “That’s a little disappointing,” he says, and points out it would be great if it were more like a minute,
Still he gives it 5 hearts at the end, and he says what he always says: “Quite nice. Check it out.”
Then he reviews a plastic Disney’s Frozen slingshot with a pencil sharpener inside.
Prasanth never uses the term ASMR in his videos, though his bio page admits that his videos are a good cure for insomnia. While there are now links to purchase the items reviewed (there didn’t use to be), the point of the videos seems less a public service and more a kind of David Byrnean art project. Prasanth seems not to have found a consumer good he didn’t find Quite Nice, and as somebody with anxieties about rampant consumerism there’s almost an exposure therapy effect of these videos: I’m made to accept, and in short time to wonder, about all the pointless crap the world creates.
Plus, Prasanth’s enthusiasm for the world’s goods comes with a voice and tone that sounds flatly dead in the YouTubiverse of young pretty folks being all up in the camera and Just So Excited To Show You This Thing Today Guys! He never exhorts. He doesn’t ask us for anything, but only to Check It Out.
A followup post to the one the other day on Imposter Syndrome. Posing and pretending got me thinking about acting, and how I’m bad at acting, and how I’m afraid of it. If you ever want to get me the worst gag gift, sign me up for an improv class and make me enroll.
What’s scary about acting is being wrong or not being believed. It’s attempting the proper accent and sounding instead like I’ve got marbles in my mouth, or saying sad words in so wooden a way the audience laughs. Adorable. Oh, look! He’s trying to be somebody else but he’s really only always himself.
In other words, the scary thing about acting is other people dismissing my hubris or delusion. That too-big-for-his-britches quality. Which brings to mind the closet. In truth, I acted like a straight man for more than half my life, and the latent feeling I had during that performance was always: Am I doing this right? What if they find out?
Every time I got called a faggot, there was a critic panning my performance.
II. Lately, I’ve been thinking about acting not as a thing certain handsome people do on stage, but as a thing we all do when we leave the house. I act the part of a writer most mornings, and then I act the part of an MFA program director (me! they actually gave this job to me!) and then I act the part of a teacher, and then I go home and act the part of a loving partner. We all have roles to play, with different scripts and settings and sometimes even costumes.
But further, I’ve been thinking about acting in opposition to passing, given “active”‘s opposition to “passive”—in voice, in sex, in everywhere.
You can pass as anything. Most people’s experiences with passing is when somebody comes up to you at a store and asks you where the restrooms are, or the kosher salt. “Uh, I don’t work here,” you go. Passing involves appearing to be somebody else when you’re not even trying, when you’re just being yourself. Passing creates an audience outside of any performance.
I love passing. I have thought so much about strategic passing I even wrote about it in an essay for The Normal School (on, tellingly, impersonations). I love passing because I love boundaries and borders. Anytime a line in the sand gets drawn I want to stand right on it. I want to be the one person who gets to cross, because taking sides means giving something up. Some freedom maybe.
Passing, though, is passive. It lies low, on the DL, while other people make assumptions and suppositions. And in queer communities (urban ones, mostly) it’s Not Cool. Passing as straight, or cisgendered, implies that you’re trying to pass, because you’re ashamed of being queer.
I think about my friend Clutch, who once told me about the street harassment they get as a trans person. “It’s always guys,” they said, “and they always think I’m trying to pass, and like, doing a bad job.” Clutch embraces their trans identity. They only date trans people, etc. So it’s shitty, the experience, but also confusing—like somebody coming up to you at a store and criticizing what they think is your work uniform.
III. Another dichotomy at work here: expressing vs. impressing. When people exhort you to express yourself, there’s always this feeling of authenticity and truth. You do you, gurl. Or people who insist they write to “express themselves.” Expressing is active, and acting is expressing, even if what’s expressed is a pose, a lie.
Impressing is passive, in that I can’t act to impress you. You are the audience, the arbiter, of whether to be impressed by me. And when I look at these I see how much I love being impressed by people. When I meet new people, all I want to do is ask them dozens of questions. I like to follow a conversation, at a distance, more than I like to play my part in it.
Where am I going with all this? I’ve got some developing ideas that posing and artifice is, paradoxically, the way toward an authentic life. In three more weeks I’ll begin a 1-year break from having to perform two key roles in my life: program director and professor. I feel I’ve done a poor job keeping up the roles of writer and partner (and friend, and brother, and son) lately. Those guys need more plotlines, more time in front of the camera.
The first thing I wrote for myself, not for class, that wasn’t a diary entry, was a poem I composed using my mother’s typewriter at the age of 11:
In my world everyone is a friend. The most happiest times never end.
I’ll lie there at the break of dawn Watching the fun of a little fawn.
Take me to the world of dreams, Away from all the fights, Away from all the screams.
The second thing I wrote for myself, not for class, was a poem I typed on a computer my dad got us when I was 12 or 13. I don’t recall the linebreaks, so here it is, to the best of my memory, in prose:
Being an adolescent is not as easy as you think. You don’t understand what I’m going through, ’cause all you do is drink. The pain, the problems, the pressure. It’s too much for me to bear. The confusion and the choices. It’s like you just don’t care. It pisses me off the way you think adolescence is such a blast. You just don’t understand it all, so kiss my little ass.
That first poem was written out of wish fulfillment: I wanted the other kids to be nicer to me and for my life to go more easily. The second poem was written differently. One day in my English class, I saw on the wall a poem by Bryan Billington, a boy in the grade above mine who was once on my basketball team and who my sister had a crush on. Bryan Billington’s poem was so mad at a father who was so terrible. I was shocked that people our age could say such things on paper, and by the end of the poem I felt something of the catharsis the speaker went through. I was so impressed by it, and I wanted to make such a poem, too, in the hopes that I might impress somebody, so I imagined what it must be like to grow up, as I did not, with an alcoholic, abusive father, and I tried my best to write what Bryan Billington had already written.
II. The semester just ended a couple weeks ago. In my workshop, I tried to talk about risk and vulnerability in nonfiction, and a number of my students talked openly about Imposter Syndrome: they feel often like they’re posing or pretending as writers. My response was, unhelpfully, Join the club.
I’ve spent 15 years now pretending to be a writer, posing as one, the way I started writing back when I was 13. I’ve worked hard to read very closely what other successful, published writers are doing, what they are making that’s getting attention, and trying to replicate that in something I’ve made in the hopes that I might get similar attention.
Attention is the heart of it. When you’re the youngest kid in a family, attention is gold. You spend hours each day digging around for it, sniffing out where you might find even just a pebble-sized speck of it. And when you do find it, you raise it up in the air and kick your heels together in delight.
In college, I had friends who wrote, who were officially in Creative Writing Classes, and who got to give readings at coffee shops in town. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’d grown up somehow to believe I was special, different, probably better than most kids, and that I deserved a life befitting such a special person. But I couldn’t act. And I couldn’t sing well. Writing seemed my only shot at escaping the fate of never being noticed.
So: I’ve been an imposter for 15 years, working on books and publishing a couple of them, getting up most mornings to write more of a draft, or revise another one—yet what else does a writer do? What else makes a Real Writer than getting up and writing most days? What I was tacitly packing into my “Join the club” response was this feeling: All this time I’ve been doing the work of writing, of being a writer, and at every moment I’ve been waiting for a student, or a critic, or a peer to call me out on it. You’re only pretending to be one of us. You don’t actually have any talent, drive, or vision.
Imposter Syndrome. It was their word for it.
III. Imposter Syndrome is a trap the mind makes. That trap is the basis for David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon”, which remains my favorite of his stories, because nobody else has done as good a job rendering the contours of this experience. One way out of the trap is learning that no one—foremost none of those imaginary people waiting to call me out on being a fraud—can pin down with any certainty what authenticity entails.
In other words: We all fake it until we make it.
But here, remembering my earliest writing, I’ve found another way out of the trap. I’ve always thought that I began posing as a writer since the first thing I ever wrote, but that’s not true. It’s only the first thing I ever wrote on a computer. The real first poem, the one I wrote on Mom’s typewriter, came from somewhere different than the big lie about my dad.
“In My World” was unoriginal doggerel that nevertheless put forward a vision I had of making the world a better place. It came out of what I felt, and what I wanted. And now, every time I stand in front of a classroom, and I pull out of my ass something to say that I hope sounds smart enough to ward off the pending mutiny I’m always afraid is afoot, and every time I delete a sentence I’ve written because I imagine some future reader calling me out for ripping off Wallace, or Unferth, or Nelson, or Koestenbaum, I think back of the first time I tried to make a piece of writing, and I remember that if I’m posing, all I’m trying to pose as is that kid, wanting the world to be better and more beautiful.
This bit from Jon Baskin’s NYRB review of Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk left me looking hard at myself and recognizing finally, in words, something I’d felt creeping up on me but not feeling able to name (emphasis mine):
That the final articles in Souls, as well as some Yang has written for the liberal-centrist Tablet since the book went to press, criticize aspects of these [i.e. neo-socialist, post-Bernie] movements—a development that has disappointed some of his former admirers—may be seen as indicating an underlying consistency: where before he had resisted, from the perspective of the “singular” individual, the flattening out of social life into a series of market-based transactions, today Yang opposes the “politiciz[ation] of everyday life” on similar grounds. But it also suggests a characteristic dilemma for those who came of age when authenticity was experienced predominantly as a personal, rather than a political, possibility. To learn to measure all against the barometer of the “hard and unyielding” self is to come to distrust the demands of unified groups and movements, no matter how well meaning. For every “movement” revolves around a set of orthodoxies that will be unacceptable to one habituated to defiance.
It me, as the kids online say. Being true to thine own self feels less like a virtue in these times of oppression.
Came across this one, from one of Kafka’s letters, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.
I love how this starts out as contentious and misanthropic and then swerves to end on something akin to salvation and hope.
I’ve got more to say on Sade’s book, but for a future post. For now this quote’s going on the wall of my office.
I’m reading these days about the history of opera, specifically the fall of the castrati and rise of the soprano, and thus the aria, and I remembered this, which I wrote in 1994:
That’s a scan from our high school’s literary magazine. I’m proud of this thing, and I like—playing it for the first time in 25 years via musical typing on Garageband—that I chose C minor, of all keys. I also find it very funny. The dynamics!
Title is probably an homage to Camper Van Beethoven’s “Ambiguity Song”. Anyway, this is what a high school junior does when he’s afraid of drugs and sex.
I’ve been watching a lot of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee these days, and one thing Jerry Seinfeld likes to ask his male guests is what kind of underwear they wear. Many of them say briefs, and Jerry always goes, “Briefs?!” with that incredulous tone we all know him for.
Then he takes a moment to teach his guest about boxer briefs, and how they are superior, and more adult.
His guests never tell him how he’s wrong.
They always just laugh and aw-shucks themselves onward in the conversation. The reason for this might be that they haven’t formulated the argument. Most briefs wearers might only know briefs. They began in them and then continued. But I began in briefs, got shamed into boxers in gym class locker rooms, discovered boxer briefs while working at Old Navy, and ultimately went back to briefs after coming out.
Because briefs are sexy.
Two things that are true about briefs:
The pouch of briefs wraps fully around the scrotum, which prevents it from sticking damply to the thigh, and so you never have to do that extra wide step thing you see boxer-briefers do to unstick the scrotum from the thigh.
Most men look better in boxer briefs than they do in briefs. But still not great. Most of us aren’t underwear models. But any man who looks good in boxer briefs looks better in briefs.
I thought to title this “The Feelings Factory”, but social media isn’t a feelings factory, exactly, in that feelings are manufactured in our minds and bodies. Social media is more a place you go to get something you don’t have or can’t make right now. A Feelings Cafeteria? Let’s go with The Feelings Cafeteria.
Here’s where this post is coming from:
The characteristic that best describes the difference between people at various points on the scale[*] is the degree to which they are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process. Associated with the capacity to distinguish between feelings and thoughts is the ability to choose between having one’s functioning guided by feelings or by thoughts. The more entangled and intense the emotional atmosphere a person grows up in, the more their life becomes governed by their own and other people’s feeling responses.
It’s from a book on family psychology (Kerr & Bowen’s Family Evaluation) I’ve been reading for research, and the moment I came across it I could only think of Twitter—replacing, that is, one’s family of origin with one’s online “fam”.
The science of it may be wrong and off, in that one is not raised at formative stages over years by one’s Twitter fam, but the comparison feels apt to me. I would call social media an intense emotional atmosphere engineered to get one entangled. And opening Twitter while bored or between life events, I’ve very quickly felt that my life had become governed by other people’s feeling responses.
I’ve felt that people online are usually feeling and not thinking. I didn’t judge them for it. (Or I tried not to but I’m coming off a couple decades where judging others has been the only thing that makes me feel secure.) I saw that one of the gifts of social media, besides its manufacturing the feeling of social connections, is how amid the dull periods of one’s life it can provide some emotional simulation.
That emotion is usually rage or disgust, but it’s still a stimulation.
Like with certain books or activist language, I felt it wasn’t the right place for me to engage in the world—politically or otherwise—because I’m feeling dozens of things about the world already, and I’d like to think through some stuff to help. And while posts might link to places where thinking is happening, wading through the mess of social media to find those links is like looking for a sunny spot to read and heading to a protest rally.
Twitter is a place where I can’t think—where I think thinking is discouraged. I’ve felt this for months, and so what a discovery in my reading yesterday to see some psychology about why this is so.
Is one reason why more and more I can’t be there.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
i.e., the “scale of differentiation”, which is Bowen’s admittedly arbitrary way to measure the degree to which someone has emotionally separated from their family of origin (and therefore become a more distinct self).↵
My first intro to this band, on a mixtape a friend made for me 22 years ago. Jesus. It’s 4 chords, plus a lot of E-Maj scale-based noodling I haven’t tabbed out yet. Lyrics are copied from online; I’ve left Calvin’s out for clarity.
E G# C#m A (x3)
You would never
Do me in and act like
C#m A E G#
Like you're doing me a favor
C#m A E
But could it be in all the papers
G# C#m A
That you leave in places
E G# C#m A
Worse than floors of gerbil cages
To be on
On a tip
That you call in to be on
E G# C#m A
BRIDGE (4 bars):
E G# C#m A
Your bad toast is almost home
E G# C#m A
Your bad clothes, or so you boast
E G# C#m A
That's not to say that you don't have
E G# C#m A
Time to do your time everyday
To be on
On a tip
C#m A E G# C#m A
That you call in to be on
There’s a 16-bar breakdown at the end, where Doug squeals on some barre chords. I imagine it’s a lot of G#. It might be the same E-G#-C#m-A pattern, just whammied and distorted. But you get the general idea.
Some months back I read this bit in a New Yorker profile of Wolfgang Tillmans:
Tillmans seeks out the experience of displacement. In 1990, he enrolled at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design, on the southern coast of England. He described the pedagogic style there as “psychoanalytic.” His tutor Tony Maestri was less interested in looking at the students’ work than in forcing them to ask themselves why they wanted to take pictures. “To express myself” was not an acceptable answer.
Maestri “was really asking, Why on earth do you think the world needs more pictures?,” Tillmans said. “Don’t say, ‘What is successful and I want to be like that,’ because it’s very unlikely that you can get to that point from behind. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is not there? How do I not feel represented in what is being exhibited?’ ”
I wanted to get my students to ask themselves a similar question, or I think more specifically I wanted to get them believing in the truth of that answer. How do I not feel represented in what is being written? Had I been encouraged to ask myself that question in grad school, rather than taking published books as models of not just how to write but what to write about, I’d’ve maybe saved some time.
As a teacher, I’ve learned not to ask students a question I already have the answer to. Which in my lead-up to the class where we’d have this discussion I saw myself preparing to do. Why do you want to write? NO. WRONG. IT’S TO TELL THE STORIES ONLY YOU CAN TELL. NEXT! Instead, I asked students to think about how they’d finish the following sentences:
I want to write a book that _____
I don’t want to write a book that _____
The idea was to think about their future books as art objects, or maybe as chemical reactions on the brains of their readers. I wasn’t looking for the content of these books (I want to write a book that tells the story of etc.) but rather the image they had for their books. Or, contrariwise, an image or form of a book they were working against.
It was a new exercise. I put them in the vulnerable position of sitting in chairs in an oval, like in an AA meeting, rather than having tables like forts to sit behind. I imagined they’d ask me to answer, and so I prepared answers.
I want to write a book that is serious about sex without being humorless or taking itself too seriously.
I don’t want to write a book that tells to others a story I’ve been telling myself.
This last was news to me when I came up with it. I hadn’t had that thought before, but it rang like an alarm. Or maybe the bell on a church. A clarity of purpose. Why I’d dismissed memoir—at least as a form I could write in—for so long was that I saw it as this: retelling a story from one’s past. This despite all I’d been teaching about memoir’s purpose.
My workshop syllabus this term as two epigraphs:
We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. That do not spare you the trouble of knowing what made you, and what into.
The exercise of writing is a lesson in the art of thinking against the grain of inheritance and illusion … in letting the language of alterity unsettle the sententiousness of the sovereignty of selfhood and nationhood.
Homi K. Babha
Both these writers are talking about how much of the art of writing is found in the transformation—of the subject, the material, the self—that occurs during the process of writing and revising. Every book that comes out exactly the way it seemed going into writing it is a failed book, evidence of a process deflated, like a souffle that never rises.
Vivian Gornick talks about this as testimony. If you simply tell everyone what happened to you, that’s testimony. Memoir asks for a certain ongoing analysis, or rethinking about what happened. Thinking “against the grain of inheritance and illusion,” as Babha says, until you find the new language you need.
Continuing to mull over my “I don’t want to write a book that” sentence, I’ve come up with a new, or at least newly worded, idea of the work I’m trying to do these days. I don’t want to write, “This happened,” but rather, “That this happened tells me something the writing of this book is meant to simultaneously discover and disclose.”
There’s nothing wrong with testimony. If your story has never been heard before, or is apt to be disbelieved, testimony is powerful. It’s news. But these days I’m not writing the news. It’s like a recent joke I tweeted about wanting to petition AWP to change the name of our genre to nonjournalism. But that’s a post for a different time.