The Spectacle of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould: Part I

Warning: Literary scene-cum-blogosphere-cum-Marxist theory navel-gazing ahead. Most people will not give a shit about the following post — perhaps even less than they care about poetry! Fortunately for me, I do what I want, and Sarah wants to read this post, so that’s something. I’m pretty sure Dave doesn’t. Maybe by writing about it I can draw myself in closer to this spectacle?

There’s this Gawker post about the relationship between n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen and ex-Gawker contributor Emily Gould. It’s an interesting occasion to think about writers, celebrity, and Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle. Plenty more after the jump.

If you never really read Guy Debord’s work, but like to throw his exegesis of the spectacle around in casual conversation, you really should check out this, this, and this, which contain photos with accompanying Debord aphorisms. It would be great for you to work into your conversations at the next n+1 party.

Let’s get something out of the way: I’m a fan of n+1 and Gawker. I’ve turned friends and professors on to the journal, and I’ve even had a submission ignored by n+1; that’s how much I like it. And I enjoy Gawker like I enjoy Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And how can you not like Cinnamon Toast Crunch? (Maybe Gawker is more like a delightful sharp-witted bowl of jagged metal Krusty-O’s. Mmmm, Krusty-O’s.)

So the summary of the Gawker article goes something like this. Emily Gould was seeing another Gawker blogger, Josh Stein. Gould blogged about Stein and their relationship. Stein found out about it and read the blog, which served as a back channel for the couple’s problems. After things went sour, Stein wrote a Page Six Magazine story about Gould and the relationship. Gould then was seeing Leon Neyfakh of the Observer, a former n+1 intern. Then she moved on to Gessen recently. Supposedly Neyfakh is working on a piece about Gessen’s upcoming book, which according to Gawker is “a black comedy centering around the romantic and literary ambitions of three young writers.” From what I can gather, everyone is commissioned to write about everyone else. This is the way the world works, I’m told.

It’s clear that Gawker is about celebrity, about putting a snarky sharp edge to cut deserving-or-not celebrities down to size. See the recent attention given to Tom Cruise by Gawker and the NYT. Gawker bloggers have become a sort of anti-hero anti-celebrity. They become famous for their critiques of celebrity — something that only a small coterie appointed by the media used to be capable of. But what separates Joan Rivers from Gawker is that no one was ever under the impression that Joan Rivers was somehow separate from the red carpet fanfare; we always knew she was as much a part of that scene as anyone else. Gawker, on the other hand, claims a status removed from the spectacle: “Hey, I’m just a blogger with a computer, same as you.” Which was how Gawker started out, until there were write-ups in the Times, Page Six, etc. Gawker eventually created its own news instead of commenting on the news received. Gawker’s writers are aware of this, of course.

Gessen’s n+1, however, claims to play by different rules. If Gawker is the anti-hero anti-celebrity, well then n+1 is the anti-anti-hero, the anti-anti-celebrity. This (and actually being good writers) just gets them right back to where they wanted to be in the first place: celebrity, widely read object. If I had a student of Machiavelli, the first thing I’d tell him is to say he’s not a student of Machiavelli. There’s nothing wrong in any of this, of course. Gessen, Kunkel, et al. didn’t set out to create a terrific and fresh journal that no one would read. And I’m certainly not claiming that Gessen is interested in Gould (or vice versa) for career purposes — that’s up to them and Gawker. As you can probably tell, this blog is not in the business of getting page views (see how this works? fun!). But it is curious to see how the different motivations and ethoi led Gessen and Gould to the same awkward pedestal, together.

The spectacle, Debord tells us, “is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” This poses a challenge to modern art broadly, as n+1 minds have written about extensively, especially in their pamphlet “A Practical Avant Garde”. The pamphlet, for example, includes Dushko Petrovich’s attack on “careerism.” Essential to careerism is the need “to be written about, bought, or at least widely discussed.” And many works of modern art do not even exist in the usual sense of the word; they only exist through representations of the event or time-lapsed object: news articles, photos, memory itself. That is to say, something becomes art when it is discussed: a spectacle. (Although I see the point in the rejoinder that the performative aspect of the work is the art itself, I don’t necessarily buy it; the ability of the performance to become object, subject to criticism, seems to be an essential part of art, and it is contiguously present with the performative aspect of the work.)

Art and fame are perhaps more closely linked than previously. The editors of n+1 are slowly being drawn into the spectacle, where they are no longer part of the (somewhat) nameless Greek chorus commentator class; they are the object of discourse themselves. What’s interesting about this latest form of the spectacle is that the distance between commentator and art is itself diminishing. As blogs continue to flourish, literature and art are becoming inseparable from the millions of voices chattering about it — so much so that it is difficult to separate the art from the perception of the art generated by the spectacle — much like the impossibility of seeing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with fresh eyes. (Shameless plug: this is part of the raison d’etre of No Record Press’s The Red Anthology of Hitherto Unknown Writers.)

I don’t know anything about Gessen’s upcoming novel that couldn’t be learned from the Gawker or Amazon websites, but it appears we are full into the age of the meta-spectacle. The space claimed by Gessen for his private life is being chewed up by the hungry spectacle that we all demand. Gould, for her part, is better than most of us at pushing private lives into the public. For it is something we of this generation willingly do to ourselves. Gessen’s new book has a character named Keith. Do our lives enter into art the more we become public? As n+1‘s editors point out in “Issue Six: Mainstream,” hype transforms use value into exchange value, thereby equating fame with the good even in aesthetics. It seems clear that the editors think this is a bad thing. I’m willing to wager Gessen would prefer we talk about his book, not his unprivate life (even with all this cool theory thrown in). Yet Gould the spectacle demands that art be not separate from the artist.

What’s worse is this is only part one of two; the next installment includes thoughts on the disappearance of private life, the spectacle, and it’s political philosophy analogue, using some feminist theory and Vaclav Havel (I think Gessen is into Havel, read that somewhere). I’ll examine whether whole art/artist collapse through chattering can be useful, or if it’s as bad as n+1 thinks it is.

Update: Part II is here.


8 responses to “The Spectacle of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould: Part I

  1. This is a very articulate, thoughtful unpacking of the tangled web of the art-artist divide (or lack thereof). I’m looking forward to part 2. One thing I wonder: was n+1 ever, in practice, any more subversive/counter-culture/under-the-radar than Gawker? The content of the journal definitely suggests that they sought to position themselves that way; if Gawker was slinging arrows from the sidelines, n+1 was proclaiming new commandments from an intellectual mountaintop. But the sophisticated thinkers behind n+1 seem to me to be just as ambitious, just as eager to make themselves known not just for their work, but for their personalities and for the movement they represent. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; as you point out, journals are meant to be read, and furthermore, I also enjoy n+1 and think that writers who want to be read are pretty much required to seek out publicity. But I’m curious as to how the publications Gessen and Gould write/wrote for, and their respective reputations (n+1 = high, Gawker = low), have impacted the way each were hit by Gawker’s self-described “grenade.” I haven’t seen much criticism of Gessen (although Gawker implies, probably inaccurately, that he was motivated by careerism, which you do a great job of relating to the spectacle above). Gould, on the other hand, is getting attacked on all sides–by misogynists, the type of “feminists” who believe that there’s only one type of feminism (theirs), Gawker-haters who resent Gould’s tenure and accuse her of malicious gossip, and also, lots of crazies.

    While it’s true that Gould’s tendency to over-share is, in part, responsible for her current status as a public figure, I don’t think that that denies her a right to privacy or to being truthfully represented. Furthermore, Nick Denton’s decision to go after a former employee is an ugly move. (And the post is far more viciously personal toward Gould than Gessen; a choice quote from an anonymous source reads, “Emily wants everyone—or at least a small sliver of New York’s male media world—to think she’s smart. And they want to fuck her. Both sides, thus far and pretty much, have gotten what they want.” ) Also, Gould really didn’t do anything wrong, or even anything interesting. She dated one guy, then she dated another. Yet there’s clearly a lot of interest in finding out how the shrapnel from this grenade will finally fall. I’m interested, too. My bet, and hope, is that Gould–a talented young writer with a unique, reflective voice–makes it through safely.

  2. Pingback: The Spectacle of Keith Gessen and Emily Gould: Part II « No Record Press

  3. God –I’m loving this!

  4. If you’re not a fucking genius, you’re MY fucking genius. Now we need R.V.’s Revolution of Everyday Life and a thorough analysis of the nascent development of the mobile-web and we’re set! 😉 Mad props.

  5. Rebecca Traister, over at Salon, has an interesting take on the reactions to Gould’s article in the Times Sunday Magazine:

    “We have to remember: There is nothing wrong with women writing about themselves, their youth, their indiscretions, their habits and values and personal development. Men have been writing about this stuff for thousands of years; they call it the canon.

    And like their male contemporaries, a lot of this writing disappoints. When it does, there is nothing wrong with criticizing it. The thing that is wrong — really wrong — is when we forget that these kinds of stories are not the only ones that women have to tell.”

    more here:

  6. Pingback: From Word To Word » Blog Archive » No Record Press on Spectacle

  7. Pingback: Spend Your Twenties in New York « No Record Press: The Blog

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