As the Guinness Book of Records long ago taught me, the world’s shortest poem is Aram Saroyan’s ‘Blod’. A child when I read this entry, so no scholar yet of minimalist or concrete poetry, I found it by far the most mysteriously compelling superlative in the book. Was the word Welsh, I wondered. Today it strikes me as very Twitter: a contentious definition given a valueless ranking. Anyway I cherished it, and remembered it.
On 3 January 2019, @maplecocaine wrote: ‘Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it’. Elon Musk has been the main character for weeks not days, and it’s not going well. The microblogging birdsite’s fall – or vibeshift or whatever it is – has churned up schadenfreude as well as honest regretful commentary: ‘Good riddance toxic hellsite!’ on one side, a nod on the other to its genuine usefulness for journalists and all the friend-making it’s enabled. But the ‘Blod’ story is a reminder that the friend-making turned on a further quality, which Max Read mesmerisingly calls its ‘deranged but shockingly culturally productive culture’.
In Revolution in the Head, his otherwise loving guide to the music of The Beatles and the potential of pop as respectable art, the late Ian MacDonald was troubled by what he saw as John and Yoko’s irresponsibility in adopting the techniques and ethos of John Cage: all that randomness, all that self-conscious unmooring from meaning. How, MacDonald grumbled, could bad things not be unleashed, when listeners could supply (at unprecedented scale) their own reading?
Plug the masses into the raw avant-garde and out slouches Charles Manson – or else @dril (1.7 million followers), that comedy performance at once prescient and archetypal. Point-missing and mispunctuating, forever under attack from his imagined haters, @dril is all our foes when the heat is on – and also all of us, gamely bellowing, wounded and belligerent. The spirit of the platform: Twitter as Goblins’R’Us. (Though Yoko is here too, with 4.5 million followers, and seems content, mild and neighbourly, herself but also unremarkable. The site has a Fluxus vibe, and she fits right in.)
Like MacDonald, the easily panicked will recoil at the notion of a mass-participation avant-garde,a scruffy elect cultivating the annoying, the peculiar, the perverse and the cursed. But this all arrives stuck together: bots posting nothing but half-known fine art or quotations from e.e. cummings or sublime pages of musical notation sit beside accounts that post phone-captured pratfalls or animals being arseholes or the barbaric yawp of TikTok crazies. And this is Twitter’s default social real: a relentless unfiltered collective collage, rich in wild layers of subconscious self-reference and confusion, gift-economy curation and the bizarrest acting out. Even the 280-character limit can be hand-waved as somehow Oulipian; a constraint that generates better invention.
Still, if it’s true that Alfred Jarry’s Père Ubu is @dril’s precursor, it isn’t necessarily helpful. The established avant-garde arrives today wrapped in the cling-film of our educated appreciation, as a blue verification tick converting something you don’t quickly get into something worth your time, if only the right people declare it to have value. Much better to see it as turtles all the way down: Dada was also pretty much just shared fun at the normies missing all its jokes.
Any revolutionary breakthrough curdles with this idea of the ‘right people’ – first of all, those springing up to interpret and police the breakthrough. But as dankly cryptic as Twitter often is, it has never really needed interpretation – it’s where you were discovering all your new pals as they stepped out of the cackling mob. As you found one another, the self-serious gatekeepers and envy-wrecked rich kids – including Musk – were doing the same, unstoppering their inner musing and joining in. And often instantly telling on themselves, and being clattered for it byliteral nobodies who abjure capital letters and are funnier, quicker writers and name-choosers. Most of the worry at internet anonymity – and too much of the chatter about toxicity – comes down to this: the wrong people being free to mock the Important People … as the endless finger-wagging meltdown demonstrates.
There are people working to build a better society, many of them perhaps nice, offline, unpoisoned normie types. Should they too now be paying mind to spot-polls redefining poetry or clarifying whether human ejaculate is a sandwich or a soup? Even if the site survives, it seems unkind to demand this. Our system of coping will only distract and distress them. Nevertheless, better grammar isn’t a sign of better thinking: as Adorno long ago argued, only a broken work can truly reflect our broken world. And perhaps Twitter also taught us not to trust the weird v. normie distinction. The revolution is when we all know we’re all goblins some of the time.