Reviewed by Zachary Kaplan
Jarett Kobek has a certain knack for the just-past, that lurid unexpurgated recent history that will be mopped up when it comes time for nostalgia. The cultural-critic-cum-fictionist’s 2011 novel, ATTA, took a first-person perspective on the 9/11 hijacker. Embattled on policies for domestic recovery and revolted by the leadership’s persistence in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was the last topic a broad swath of the U.S. left wanted to discuss.
Kobek’s Mohammed Atta was an anti-Semitic Holden Caulfield decrying jahili phonies (women, Walt Disney, etc.). He was likeable! And through Atta’s eyes, Kobek knit into a damning portrait of the contemporary ‘West’, the ‘American Dream’ (which before reading I thought was a dead horse well-beaten), 80s kids television (almost presaging the impulse to Buzzfeed Rewind), the 00s apolitical fetishizing of Modernist aesthetics, and the ‘clash of cultures’ as rendered across the political spectrum. Compared to ATTA, his slight new book If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write is all restraint and repellent. As the title hints, Kobek more-or-less forgoes writing entirely, substituting affect for his words.
Vince Neil: I don’t wear underwear and I don’t like—
Brandy Ledford: Yew hew ho ho ho hooo
Vince Neil: Hi, I’m from…. Anyone seen any girls around here?
Brandy Ledford [laughing]: Oh god, what a moron.
Vince Neil: Where’s the quarters for the bed? I wanna vibrate it!
Literally, the book is constituted of transcriptions of celebrity sex tapes. In particular, he records these video’s most deadening moments: the interstitial scenes between sex acts, in Jacuzzis and at LAX, about vibrating beds and hot bodies, interspersed with bigoted slurs and idiotic laughs. (1)
He also includes recent explicit media traded as if they were celebrity sex tapes (on forums, p2p networks, YouTube, etc.) like the hanging death of Saddam Hussein and the shooting death of Muammar Gaddafi and Miley Cyrus smoking Salvia. In infographic and insert form, Kobek supplements the inane language with the criminal records of the various performers. Frequently, these are disturbingly criminal: not only in the case of Gaddafi and Hussein, but Vince Neil and Rebecca Gayheart (vehicular manslaughter), Tom Sizemore (battery, multiple times), and so on.
When a few weeks back Gawker published a post entitled “Shiri Appleby Has Least Celebrated Nude Photo Leak in Internet History” it seemed to crystallize the public end of an epoch I’ve long thought over. What began in 1997 with the ‘theft’ of a videotape of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson’s escapades in a car and on a boat and peaked with the corporate releases of DVDs of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian has now seemed to dissolve with the smart-phone-enabled deluge of ‘hacked’ photos. Sure, some ‘leaks’ will cause a stir, but not like they used to. The reason? I’m amenable to the one prophesied by Gary Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story; the form loses juice as everyone’s photos go wide, leaving completely exhausted a PR strategy only once pseudo-successful. Nonetheless, the celebrity sex tape in culture—as it was on KaZaA, The Howard Stern Show, the lips of teens on school buses—is now dead. (It has been replaced, seemingly, by the ‘creepshot’ substituting for the aura of celebrity, the ‘availability’ of any woman on the street via a covert camera-phone shot.)
Tom Sizemore: Like I know Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He didn’t write the Constitution, that was a whole bunch of guys. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin. A whole bunch of cats, they were called the Founding Fathers. How about that? And they wrote it by where? What city? Philadelphia. See, good for me. Know what I paid attention to in school? Whose tits were getting bigger.
So, then, what was the celebrity sex tape? Of course, as Kobek makes plain, since you won’t read, he won’t tell. Rather, the answer he offers is rendered in anti-text composed of language so debased that it doesn’t even allow you to read, per se. It’s material that one can only hate-read; defined by Urban Dictionary as visiting a website, Twitter feed, or Facebook page for the express purpose of ridiculing—or indulging one’s disdain for—the author and/or the content. As with all of his work though, Kobek’s hate-read is politicized, not typical blog-roll scorn. His format, in fact, invokes an influential type of politicized hate-read pioneered on the United States Republican right. The so-called Media Research Center is its most prominent purveyor, a 501(c)(3) whose listicle or pseudo-scientific reports documenting ‘media bias’—essentially, hate-reads comprised of out-of-context quotes from mainstream TV and film—have since the late-1980s generated both an entrenched and aggrieved mass-public thoroughly convinced and readily mobilized, and a broader editorial position that drives the Fox News Channel and its ilk.
IYWRTWSIW presupposes, perhaps cynically, that this contempt-driven consumption has prevailed, and as such follows an MRC-like format, deploying its sneer and attempting to match its perfected provoked hate-read. Under Kobek’s auspices, the celebrity sex tape, like ATTA before it, becomes more than evidence for a morality play, but a legitimate cipher capable of revealing much about our current social and political conditions. There is the mutation of justice under the boot of moneyed celebrity—Gayheart killed a 9-year-old in a hit-and-run and only served probation—and the fact that across this entirely hetero-normative genre, power is to be (or derived from being) exercised on a woman’s body. Kobek’s Tommy Lee rambling about a ‘Breakfuck Slamwich” and the incoherently-tripping Miley stand in for the promises of revolutions long since yoked and disfigured by crass consciousness industry. The author’s narcissistic Jason Shaw and preening Jenna Lewis become the icons of the virtual brand-self, prostituting for partial attention. And rebel yells at a squirming Saddam and bleeding-out Muammar literalize an omnipresent digital gaze making visible more and more what was once private (communal, libidinal), the technique par excellence of total war in the emergent drone age.
In the end, If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write in its elegant simplicity is a primer of sorts, establishing a base-line for Kobek’s rapidly expanding body of work. It holds the hate-read as an essential practice for processing an Internet-era when bile once hidden is now proudly (and mandatorily) distributed. It’s a hard materialist logic elaborating on the critic Walter Benjamin’s dictum: not only is there no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism, but there is no document of barbarism, which is not at the same time a document of civilization.
(1) However, re-watching this material, the sex is never that interesting either. It’s all about presence, which most of these celebrities no longer have, if they ever did. Honestly, the most thrilling moment was when One Night in Paris opened with a stars-and-stripes placard reading: ‘In Memory of 9/11…We will never forget.’
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By Jarett Kobek (designed by Jiminie Ha), If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? (Penny-Ante Editions, 2012)
Images: Cover and interior images from If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?