Digital Project

The New Disappointment

Triple Canopy deputy editor Lucy Ives's essay "The New Disappointment" appears in the Winter 2013–14 issue of the literary journal Fence. The essay, reproduced here in full, makes a case for what's at stake in contemporary publishing and literature (hint: it's not just about the luxury condominiums).

I became interested in disappointment as a leading affective register of the moment at the end of this past summer, when I read a tetchy note by a someone named Kevin Cassem, “Canopies in the Air: Triple Canopy Dreams of ‘Slowing Down,’” at the online poetry review The Claudius App. The piece affected me as much for its meandering dissatisfaction and indistinct Marxian rumblings as its eccentric purchase on facts about the subject of its critique; but let me not get ahead of myself! “Canopies in the Air” described the recent activities of the online magazine Triple Canopy, a magazine with which I have some acquaintance, having been one of its editors for the past two and a half years. In a nutshell, the piece said that we were assholes.

The fundamental misunderstanding—by which, to be clear, I mean error—driving this bizarre takedown seemed to be, as hard as this is to believe, an assumption that Triple Canopy would somehow use funds ($100,000) raised during a recent capital campaign to purchase real estate in New York City. It was this belief, or fear, that seems to have motivated the author to reprimand the magazine for a kind of generic trespass: “Physical space—long prized by the art world and its associated institutions—should perhaps not be a primary concern for an online magazine.” Thank you for the note.

Screenshot of the only property valued at <$100,000 advertised for sale on New York City's Craigslist on the night of November 3, 2013.

Your note is particularly well taken as we have no plans to use this capital to buy brick, mortar, or white cube (on which more in a moment)—or even to become a household name, in the case you only meant the part about physical space in a figurative way and were in fact delicately warning us about amassing too much “power,” as I think is more likely. An initial suggestion I might make (perhaps to the editors of The Claudius App themselves, who presumably read this writing at some point before its publication), is that this imaginative speculation regarding Triple Canopy’s nefarious future should have appeared in the very first lines of Cassem’s exposé, as other significant notions follow from it: i.e., that this alleged hoarding maneuver bodes the transformation of Triple Canopy into a “value aggregator” with sinister metaphorical ties to “the clusters of glass towers in Williamsburg” as well as something called a “hegemonic capital Lethe,” which the magazine’s craven staff has now apparently claimed, or is about to claim, as its private swimming hole.

I am also compelled to respond to the author’s professed disappointment that reading Triple Canopy will not allow him to quit his day job. In fact, I cannot guarantee that reading Triple Canopy will not allow you to quit your day job, though, realistically probably it will not—since if you do quit your day job, other factors will likely be involved. However, I am genuinely sorry that you believe that “it would take nothing less than a revolution” for you to be justly compensated for your work as a writer and reader. I mean this quite sincerely (and will address the matter of compensation in a moment). Lastly—and please bear with me as I enter into the doldrums of admin here—I need to explain that 60% of Triple Canopy’s summer 2013 talks at PS1 took place at 2 p.m. on weekdays because these were the hours available. PS1, as you know, is open on certain weekdays until 6 p.m. The weekday talks we scheduled here lasted from 2 p.m. until roughly 5 or 5:30 p.m. We were not trying to make it impossible for anyone who is working on weekdays to attend 60% of our talks, but rather trying to fit everyone we wanted to hear speak in, to the best of our abilities, given the limitations of space and time. We were in fact ourselves working 100% of this time, on both weekdays and weekends, since it is work to coordinate and moderate such talks—and were unable, as it so happens, during this time, to ourselves attend talks held elsewhere in the city. We, as well as those who came to speak, were compensated for this work by the museum. We worked at the museum (viewing this as a “job”) and took the money we were paid for this work and used it to pay our rent and bills, purchase food and alcohol, pay for healthcare, buy books, buy clothing, buy I have no idea what else, probably drugs and vibrators. I hope we did the right thing here. Will you please write back and let me know if this was OK? In return I promise, in my uncompensated spare time, to make a detailed audit of your employer and will let you know if I find your (troublesome, as you maintain) day job to be acceptable or not.

Kidding and frustration aside, there are a few somewhat serious points to be made in light of this treatise, since even if I have to accept the fact that any man who wants to can call me a lazy, power-mad elitist online, I can’t accept that my motivations for working how and where I do be understood in this light. I’ll of course have to risk that the reader view me as undertaking this explanation purely for my own monetary gain.

One can maintain a website for $5 USD per month. For even less money, one can have a Tumblr or Vine, post to one’s Google+ or Facebook account, tweet, or comment on The question is, since everything online can ostensibly be put there for little or no cost, when compared to the expense of printed materials, why should we pay anything for any of it? There are a few different ways to come at this question, but I’ll just say what is numbingly obvious: as has been true since the invention of moveable type, since the invention of the stylus, of syllabaries and alphabets, etc., etc., the creation of text, from both a material and semiotic point of view, has been a matter of work. It takes time and effort to write and read, to build a site. If these things are to be done well, it also takes skill and practice, possibly an education; possibly rather long periods of time (years) lead up to anyone doing anything. Not all of what we view on the Web, to engage in only the grossest of understatements, has this considered quality, but of course more of it could. Does this matter?

Roughly 75% of the money raised during the course of Triple Canopy’s capital campaign has paid for hours of labor undertaken by the five designers and developers on staff who have created a new site for the magazine. This campaign, I should note, was also an attempt to share with readers a larger idea about how things might be (i.e., daily life, the arts). Triple Canopy argued the evident, that we’re all under pressure to work too much and to pay too much attention to smartphones and browsers. We feel distracted; we’re unable to receive compensation for the kinds of work we really care about; different areas of the arts are too cordoned off from one another. We presented these problems and asked for money to build a website that would, on the one hand, bring together disparate artistic and critical practices in a discursive space in which new connections can be formed, and on the other, address the fact that writing and other kinds of creative labor are undervalued and undercompensated today. Yes, this would be a website, but we’d also be doing this IRL, continuing to hold related discussions, publishing books.

To give some explanation of why it costs much more than $60 to, in a year, first conceptualize, then design, then build, then maintain a site like Triple Canopy 3.0, is pretty much to explain why it costs more than $5 a month, or $60 a year, for the staff of Triple Canopy to subsist. Now here is why I think we—as a larger editorial body that includes not just Web designers and developers but writers, editors, and artists—should be permitted to subsist on more than $5 a month: What we are doing is an attempt to hold onto knowledge garnered over 150 years of print-magazine culture; to extend logics of innovative print design, of experimental writing, of the visual arts into the digital realm. Perhaps this sounds utopian, but from another angle maybe it’s simply a necessary endeavor. Someone has to make this happen, especially since readers of the aforementioned Claudius App article might have noticed that that article’s text was formatted as a .png image file, such that none of the language contained in it was searchable or copyable as text. Like the article’s content, its digital form was essentially inattentive. I commend you, The Claudius App, on another $5 well spent.

In distinction, Triple Canopy 3.0’s decadent, elitist, and wasteful utopia of Web design focuses on the minutia of typography and image treatments; on a plurality of searchable text formats and a variety of means of discovering and organizing metadata associated with present and past content of the magazine; on the intelligent interrelation of video, audio, image, and text.

Many of us live, for better or worse, immersed in screen culture, and screens have a visual language. Shouldn’t this language be as nuanced and particular as possible? Shouldn’t this language be capable of expressing what we (at least think) we really mean, of proposing nimble syntaxes of verse and photograph as well as .gif and .mp3? The kind of site that Triple Canopy wants has a sense of history built in; it seeks to bring together the unprecedented archival capacity of the Internet, its ability to store and organize information, with narrative forms—with the many kinds of figuration, gesture, expression, and display that we associate with a longer history of literature and art.

Thus this redesign is not merely a matter of lapsing dreamily into futurology or of cashing wantonly in, but rather of determining and, more importantly, working for what we want.

Anyway, it’s easy to be disappointed. Maybe easier than anything else.

I was thinking about the word, disappointment; a literal definition, drawn from etymology, suggests a remove from a fixed spot, from a certain sharpness, definition, distinction, or determination. Disappointment is sorrow at the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes—but perhaps it is also a state in which one cannot seize upon that which is the case, since, for whatever reason, it is too painful to do so. (One source for the English point is fourth-century Latin’s puncta, a “wound made by stabbing.”) Perhaps when I am disappointed, I turn away from the world and the (stab-effecting) items in it. At my desk, I construct alternatives. I consider what might have been the case.

As I was saying, it is easy to be disappointed. I’m not perfect, and personally succumb to disappointment’s spell with some frequency. In the introduction to an issue of Triple Canopy I edited together with Sam Frank and Dan Visel, Counterfactuals, published over the course of several weeks in fall 2011, Frank, Visel, and I write about literature as a practice and set of protocols for the creation of alternatives to reality, which alternatives yet possess a reality of a kind. We describe how literature takes what originally has no being, what is not even not the case, and makes it into something that is “not not not the case,” in other words, something that was “not not written.” We maintain:

The promise of fact evaporates in the weird light of the subjunctive. The focus is on events transpiring on the page, on “events” “transpiring” “on” “the page.” The -actual of our counterfactual is often only handwriting; a typo, a footnote, a facsimile; caps lock, scare quote, underscore. It is mere text, a line, or minor grammar; a mere sentence, mere diction, mere style, what substance.

We blithely characterize our mood throughout the process of editing this issue of the magazine (a four-month and admittedly hectic affair) as “a relaxed decadence and a simple devotion to artifice.” We profess, somewhat abstractly, to “a sensibility both within and without form, genre, medium.” I only mention this because in the intervening years it has become clear to me that, though unknowingly, the three of us were actually formulating a slightly more serious manifesto regarding the way in which literary style might be thought about in the digital present. We were thinking of a kind of writing that is at once avowedly determined by its material format and, at the same time, effects a transfiguration of that format. We viewed this paradoxical dynamic as a kind of aesthetic resource, a quality that it was pretty good for texts to have. The pieces we published in this issue of the magazine, an issue we considered paradoxically both literary and not literary, were all edited with an eye to how they would eventually be designed (rendered in HTML, images and other media files interspersed) for the site. We imagined these pieces not as mere screen-based surface, but rather as strategies for the structuring of text, as acts. And, in imagining these pieces as strategies for the portrayal of text, we were also required to imagine the ways in which they might be read, both semantically and spatially on the screen. It was during the course of attempting to lay out what we came to call the “crazy breaks” of Ish Klein’s stanzas in her long poem, “Like on the Subject of the Icebreak,” that it became clear to us that our current system for flowing text was not equal to the challenge of a Kleinian stanza. And while we were excited that we had managed to “hack” our own system in order to get Klein’s stanzas set, it also occurred to us that in the future we might need to spend less than twenty hours on the design of a single piece. There were other contingencies: the on-screen legibility of the besotted all caps of James McCourt’s canticle in praise of a deceased teen footballer; the tendency of Tan Lin’s memoir and timeline, as if enacting the actual pace of human mental recall, not to load for a good fifteen minutes.

These are problems that print does not have. I don’t mean to say that there are no problems to be solved when it comes to print publication, but that the problems are different and this is part of what makes Triple Canopy interesting to me, alongside the possibility of discussing these impasses with others, particularly since my “unique” skill set does not include much coding or facility with media other than text. Such discussions are, to bring things full circle, the place from which our decision to create a new version of Triple Canopy, Triple Canopy 3.0, emerged. We wanted a site that would allow us far greater fluency and facility with the materials at hand.

I keep saying that I think it’s easy to be disappointed. What I mean to say is let’s be disappointed together, maybe just for a little while, if we can stand it. I don’t mean, come over to my Williamsburg condo. I don’t even mean join my art club if you’re pretty enough, fuck everyone else. I still don’t want to have to pay $50k to get a poetry MFA, and I still don’t want to work someplace where anyone is paying that kind of tuition. I mean, there’s a lot to be disappointed in, like almost every university and bank in this country and the federal government and whoever it was decided to publish David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Consider me disappointed. Things are not as I’d hoped they’d be.

Now that we’re gnawing away at the same rotting carrot, you and I, let’s consider again the status of something that earlier on I was calling literature. At its best perhaps we can say of it that it is not characterized by the fact that in one instance there is someone speaking and in another no one speaking, or that language itself is speaking, or that anyone is speaking at all, but rather by its emphasis on gesture—over and beyond weaker ideas of personhood and identity. Anyway, I’m ready to move on from debates about materialism versus psychology and poets threatening to “print out the Internet,” to debates about materialism plus psychology and the abyss that is writing about writing in the context of contemporary technology. I’ll probably also shortly be priced out of New York City, which will itself serve as an interesting object lesson in ways to think about the location of writing, so we should probably get started soon.