'An endless, polyglot failure party'

A review of Robert Fitterman's 'Now We Are Friends'

Now We Are Friends

Now We Are Friends

by Robert Fitterman

Truck Books 2011, 126 pages, $15.00 ISBN 978-0984885701

Founded in 2009, Truck Books is “a small press specializing in contemporary experimental writing in the avant-garde tradition” which focuses on “works that focus on a variety of objects from vernacular languages to social and information systems, production systems and capital flows.” They have published five books to date (four of which are listed on their ordering page), each of which is available as a free pdf or as a printed edition sold on a sliding scale.

Their editorial mandate focusing on “social and information systems” belies their dedication to conceptual writing siphoned from the gushing falls of the internet into seven-by-seven-inch square-bound editions of bottled information.

Robert Fitterman’s latest volume, Now We Are Friends, builds upon his previous volumes in the Metropolis series, most particularly his Sprawl: Metropolis 30a (Make Now Press, 2010). In each volume, Fitterman has placed increasing distance between his work and the traditionally poetic in favor of the language of malls, consumer sites, discussion groups, Facebook, and blogs as he mines “our” “daily” “language.”

Fitterman’s oeuvre has been dedicated to defining the new poetic pastoral as the suburban mall (and, in later volumes, the Internet). For, as Sidney exclaimed,

Does not the pleasantness of [the Internet] carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling?

With Now We Are Friends Fitterman has turned to populating that new Arcadia with his own brand of lazing shepherd constructed from the same corporate language he used to sculpt the shepherds’ fields.

In October 1969 Vito Acconci performed “Following Piece,” in which he chose a series of strangers, followed them through their daily activities, and transcribed their movements. With Now We Are Friends Fitterman “follows” a single random person across the digital fields of the Internet, allowing the personal flotsam of a single person’s life to accumulate into a rhizomatic biography.

Fitterman chose, at random, the euphonious name “Ben Kessler” as the basis for his poetic exploration of online identity and tracks him through his Twitter feed, his “my 10 favorite iPhone Apps of 2008” post, his Tweetdeck reviews, and any other online flotsam of Kessler’s public Internet profile. As Fitterman continues to mine into Kessler’s public Internet appearances, the manuscript begins to envelop “other” Ben Kesslers. When egosurfing — Googling your own name — or responding to Google Alerts — how many of us have had the uncanny moment of reading an entry about another internet denizen with the same name as ours? Just as our individuality has become performed through online testimonies, archives photographs, and abandoned dating site profiles, so has Ben Kessler become intriguing only as one of a platoon of identically named laptop-wielding Internet-addicted individuals who feel their skills are best used commenting on which fictional character from a video game or comic book they would most like to eat a sandwich with.

Ben Kessler’s identity begins to blur when this flotilla of Kesslers interrupts the narrative by discussing “keeping Faith in times of transition,” the pratfalls of being a “freelance permaculture teacher,” and warning that

designers who strive for success should prepare themselves for the challenges of doing creative work in the middle of an endless, polyglot failure party. (52)

That “endless, polyglot failure party” (which ominously describes many of the literary salons and poetic endeavors happening today) becomes weirdly overpopulated with the further introduction of a choir of “Ben’s friends” and “Ben’s friend’s friends,” each of them listing their favorite films, their online biographies, their “five things other should know about [them].”

As a coda to the text, Steve Zultanski has “followed” Robert Fitterman through information provided by Fitterman’s own family. Listed are his favorite colognes, his ex-girlfriends, information on his parents and brother, dedications and inscriptions Fitterman wrote in books given as gifts, his pet’s veterinarian report, and mundane notes left to his wife, poet Kim Rosenfield. Zultanski also interviews Fitterman’s daughter Coco (who provides a screenshot of Fitterman’s computer desktop).

What dates Acconci’s “Following Piece” as a cultural antique is its dependence on physical space (as we have online profiles we have long since abandoned and “friends” we’ve never interacted with) and on the transcription of a single follower (as Facebook has made us each the cult leader of our own band of followers — “friends” who follow our movements and respond to every flickering change in our “relationship status”) in a single social space. With Now We Are Friends, Fitterman gathers the diverse portraits of a single digital everyman, Ben Kessler, and presents to us a portrait of our new digital Willy Loman.

Now We Are Friends Ben Kesslers us all. Fitterman exposes the digital flatness of the language of our friendships, our relationships, our jobs and hobbies, our passions and interests. The details of our lives, as mundane as they may be, are not only constantly observed, they are constantly recorded — we are constantly on display, hoping we’ll hear that now we are friends.

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