34. Let them choke on it

There have been grim indications these last weeks about the breadth and opacity of the U.S. Government’s ability and willingness to track phone conversations, read e-mails, and generally listen in to regular American life: as a person with a non-zero amount of (emotional/psychological rather than legal/punishable, I swear) secrets, I tend to empathize more quickly with the listen-ees than the listen-ers. At the same time, though, as a reader of poetry I’m always hoping to be the kind of person who reads uncompromisingly: I want to dig out the strange and taut relationship between mother and son in Jay Hopler’s poems (This kind of creepiness shows up over and over in his book Green Squall.), for example, and one of my favorite poems will always be William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe” (“WCW hosted at the Poetry Foundation.”), for its music, of course, but also because I get to picture the poet flopping around nude in front of a mirror. Lots of poets want people to feel like I do when I read: why aren’t there more readers? And why aren’t they more resolute voyeurs?

I’d never really put these two experiences together, though, until I read “File Zero” 《0档案》 by Yu Jian 于坚. “File Zero” is a 1992 poem that runs about ten pages in the original Chinese — its form is a fancifully elaborate, bureaucratic-style record of an individual’s birth, upbringing, education and adulthood. Here (“From the translation of Maghiel Van Crevel in RenditionsMagazine.”) is a bit from subsection five (“Thought Report”) of Chapter Four (“Daily Life”):

            he wants to yell reactionary slogans          he wants to break the law and violate discipline          he wants to go into a frenzy          he wants to degenerate

he wants to rape          he wants to go naked          he wants to kill a bunch of people          he wants to rob banks….

he wants to capitulate          he wants to be a traitor          he wants to surrender to the enemy          he wants to recant          he wants to turn against his own side

The poem is far more wide-ranging than this — it covers, as well, the physical location of the file and its use, and does some truly convincing ventriloquizing of government annotations on the contents of the file — but the center of the experience I’m interested in today is this mixture between embarrassing secrets (“he wants to go naked”) that don’t really help or harm anyone in the telling, self-serving secrets (“he wants to kill a bunch of people”) that would cause trouble for the teller if shared, and tactical secrets (“he wants to surrender to the enemy”), the telling of which might well prevent you from doing something you want to do. These different types of drama subside, over the course of the poem, into an atomized, workaday list of things that are in the subject’s apartment: leather shoes, a 1.80 meter-long couch, a copy of the Teach-Yourself Handbook of Chinese.

One effect of reading this poem is a discovery of the arbitrariness of what we withhold: it is as if the surveilling agent wields a powerful telescope. As he zooms in, a picture of interest, to the authorities, at least, comes into focus. As he zooms further, that picture is lost, and the subject’s body fills the frame, then their shoulder, then the pores of the skin. There is a magnification beyond which stories as we know them cease, and what is under inspection is something human, something incontrovertible and, because it is so similar to the shoulder or the couch (“I estimate my couch is 1.6 meters or less. Kind of a love seat.”) of the rest of us, ultimately unpunishable. What’s better, now we have the power to share and keep this data in a file of our own, to make the information we want accessible in the way we want it — I’m reminded of the way in which the last breakfast (“Fried dough mixed with something people have trouble identifying, maybe melons. We’ll never know.”) of the Boston Marathon victim Lü Lingzi represented her on the internet in China.

So I propose a moratorium on the word “oversharing,” not because excessive communication doesn’t exist, but because the term as it’s used today insinuates that there is a type of self-expression that is apolitical, and it reserves the communication of detail for people who aren’t thinking through what they say or do. I propose that we make intentional, intellectual, and consensual operations on the scope of the information that we make public, and that we act with Yu Jian-style boldness and intentionality in producing our own files. (This would take place concurrently, of course, with the struggle to enforce clear, protective boundaries beyond which governments and business interests cannot go.) If we treat being 3D on the internet (“A Usenet post I wrote when I was 17 giving bad advice about Magic: The Gathering”) as if it were an embarrassment, we risk missing what can be accomplished by the dirtily close-up (“Suren Manvelyan’s photographs of the human eye.”). When the time for action comes, or when one needs to get away with something — and we all do — then we will keep it like a secret. As for the rest? Let them choke on it. Let them recognize it.

Nick Admussen, Boston Review

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