“After all: the ‘I’ is not to be expelled, but submitted to sacrifice.”
—Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism
In the current saturation of social media in which our daily confessions constitute only the generic projection of a self, The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) may mark the death of reading, not through offering something else in its place (the de facto mode of understanding contemporary poetry), but through the triumph of genre as an accumulation of dead language.
From the outset, I want to distinguish between illegibility and unreadability. Arguing that The Compleat Purge is unreadable is not to argue that it can’t be read. To prove it, I’ll give what I assume would be a good and faithful reading of the book.
1. Purging content
The Compleat Purge is Trisha Low’s first book, published in October of last year by Patrick Durgin’s Kenning Editions. Along with an opening disclaimer and concluding essay, “4 Real,” the main text of Low’s book is divided into three sections: suicide notes arranged as legal documents, a LiveJournal comment stream that enacts a cybersex fantasy between two rock stars, and an eighteenth century Romance novel.
First, there are the suicide notes written to family members, lovers and friends in the opening section. Chronologically arranged, the letters begin when Low was six years old and living in Singapore. As can be expected, Low’s relationships are mediated at this age through cheap plastic toys: “Caroline can also have my books and my Minnie Mouse night-light because she’s scared of the dark and still drinks milk out of a baby bottle” (15). Over the course of this section, as Low gets older and moves from Singapore to London and, finally, to the US, the possessions she gives away on the event of her death change and accumulate, but never grow in significance. For example, from a letter dated 2005: “I’ve enclosed a bunch of other letters that I’d like you to give out to friends I love, and certain items that I’d like them to have. But let Marsha have what she wants first because I love her most” (55). Even when these objects lose their distinctness in the later letters, they never cease to structure this intimately social world.
The second section of The Compleat Purge focuses on a single on-running comment stream, distilling this tension between intimacy and anonymity. Channeling teenaged desire through the fantasy cybersex play of two rock star avatars, Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes and Anthony Rossomando of The Dirty Pretty Things, Low’s book concentrates the scattered disaffection and sexual trauma of the letters in the first section: “[[the roofie thing-I mean, I don’t think what happened to me is anywhere near as bad as some of the stories on here but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, right?]]” (151). While the first section operates through an elision of details only possible in intimate relationships, this quasi-anonymous cybersex works precisely on account of its specificity.
Cut across a romance novel and an antiquated book of spells to seduce the beloved, the final section of The Compleat Purge enacts the death of fantasy. If the second section functions as a way of bringing into focus the realization that trauma is communicated by way of popular culture and that experiences that structure our emotional lives are readily available to all, then the third section acts as an escape from this banal terror to the fantasy world of literature. In its stilted and flowery language, however, this final section fails to provide escape, ending with the extinction of the beloved and the lover: “These spells for True Love, handed down from generation to generation were compiled to work insatiably, allowing your objects of affection to desire your body so desperately that they drive themselves, with sure eventuality, to extinction” (222).
As I’ve already stated, Low’s seemingly confessional text is shot through with pop culture detritus. Throughout The Compleat Purge, “Trisha Low” is structured as a distributed identity, recognizable as much through the lists of products and famous personae, both real and fictional, as through the book’s recurring addressees. As Blake Butler notes in his interview with Low for Vice, the material that The Compleat Purge works through is simultaneously anonymous and intimate.
This narrative trajectory may lead one to argue that while The Compleat Purge cannot be confused with the real Trisha Low, the book does offer an authentic and contemporary portrayal of the teenage girl, fashioning her ala Tiqqun on the verge of becoming a grotesquely revolutionary figure. Blake Butler:
The lists of DVDs and albums the author wants to be given away after her suicide at age 17 somehow bleed against the Tumblr-like self-reportage as she attempts to clear her mind a final time. And that mind clearing, in turn, melds into endless sadistic contortions of ongoing internet sex and confession, continually shifting wishes for life to be altered at one’s will. (np)
Low’s book negates any alternative interpretation. However, I would argue that what distinguishes The Compleat Purge from its conceptual predecessors is precisely the self-awareness of its critical reception, which, in overdetermining it, eliminates our ability to read the book. Effectively, we get what we came for.
2. No more reading
Now that that’s done, let’s get back to how The Compleat Purge enacts the death of reading.As a supplement to the main text, Low provides an explanatory disclaimer. I would argue that The Compleat Purge provides its own reading without the need of a reader’s intervention. In pausing before the book begins, Low locates its content as “documents of emotional excess [that] have been squashed into the more legible and somewhat restrictive form of a ‘conceptual project'” (np). On the one hand, with its paratextual material, Low’s book mimics the layout of earlier and, by now, canonical conceptual projects.On the other hand, in claiming the mantle of conceptualism, Low’s text recognizes the latter as a legible literary genre. Rather than asserting the radicalness of its techniques, The Compleat Purge removes conceptualism’s novelty, acknowledging it as one form among many in the world of critical and academic discourse. In this way, Low’s book employs literary genre as little more than an empty bookshelf, a mode of organizing information without any regard to the nature of its data.
The Compleat Purge, in its posturing as a confessional and conceptual project, treats its subject as a site, i.e. text, in and of herself. After laying out and flattening The Compleat Purge’s formal co-ordinates, Low quotes Anna Watkins Fisher’s theory of the parasite, in order to argue that the multiple iterations of ‘Trisha Low’ dispersed throughout the book function as a “self-on-self drag,” in which “identity politics becomes redundant:” “[P]arasitism, taken as a model of perverse appropriation that seeks to undermine the very thing that it depends upon in order to do so” (np).
Contra Watkins Fisher, The Compleat Purge seems to imagine textual identity as essentially non-revolutionary. Rather, “Trisha Low” is a fiction that functions as a parasite on specifically this kind of faux radical discourse that seeks to normalize and consume whatever its critical lens encounters. It is within this fatalistic frame, then, that Low’s work approaches a nihilism rooted in a continuous cycle of parasite and host arbitrarily switching places. What’s more, in over-determining the textual field, this entire drama occurs without the reader and before The Compleat Purge has a chance to begin.
Ultimately, The Compleat Purge is not so much unreadable, but is proof that perhaps what we imagine as reading does not exist. It is not that it died, for that would be to assert that reading was born or at one time came into being. Let’s just say that what we call reading already happened without us and we are forced to mimic the empty gestures of an actual reader we will never get to meet. Suffice to say, without literary theory—no matter how attenuated—and its feedback loop of pre-determined reception, contemporary poetry would have absolutely no audience at all—a symptom of its total alienation from any relevancy to popular culture.
Joey Yearous-Algozin is the author of The Lazarus Project (2011-13) and Holly Melgard’s Friends and Family (2014). With Holly Melgard and Chris Sylvester, he edits TROLL THREAD. He lives in Buffalo, NY.