This morning I am thinking about the internet expression, “all the feels,” which many in my circles have come to roundly reject as a shallow cheapening of emotion. I thought I agreed with them, but maybe I don’t.
In the past several years, though much of what I write is still prose, I have found myself turning my back on “fiction,” allowing myself to be sucked into the glorious vortex of poetry, or identification as a poet. In large part, this has come from my rejection of the stifling regime of “character” that governs literary fiction, at least in its most “respectable” corners and corridors. Fiction writers are expected to write “character-driven” stories, wherein character is defined through one very narrow construct of subjective depth, the liberal humanist or Aristotelian subject who possesses complex interiority, motivations and counter-motivations, etc., often expressed through vivid description of the clouds or a perusal of family photographs or some other such shit I could give two shits about.
Both literary culture and our dominant culture reject expressions of feeling by subjects (characters) who we consider immature: feelings considered one-dimensional, overwhelming, shallow, feelings that are excessively externalized, or worn on the skin, the feelings of children and youth, or the other “others” oppression has constructed as somehow more “child-like”—queers, people with disabilities, the colonized, people of color. Or the feelings expressed through camp (an aesthetic of the marginalized), through theatrical subjects who embrace artifice, what Sontag described as a person being “one very intense thing.”
Maybe “all the feels” represents gut-level feeling, affect, i.e. the threatening feelings of the marginalized before they are packaged into the more intellectualized, manageable feelings of “emotions,” the kind of emotions that can be more clearly and “maturely” articulated to psychotherapists using the language derived from those posters that hung on the wall of my middle school social worker’s office: cartoon faces annotated by words like “happy,” “angry,” “depressed,” etc. Back then, what I really wanted was to overturn the social worker’s desk, to see him crushed, slumped on the floor, and then to run screaming and howling through my school’s hallways, throwing books and chairs and other hard-edged, heavy objects at the boys who called me faggot and pinned “kick me” signs on my back, the ones who, along with my homeroom teacher, had earlier held me down while I kicked and flailed and shrieked, which was what got me sent to the social worker in the first place.
I just finished reading Jennifer (“JT”) Tamayo’s amazing poetry collection YOU DA ONE, a text described within its own pages as “a book on my father and the internet,” composed following JT’s first visit to her native Colombia, and encounter with her father, in 25 years. Were it a traditional literary fiction text, JT would probably be expected to render father and daughter as “complex, three-dimensional characters,” and provide a narrative of “self-discovery” through reconnection with family and roots.
Instead, the father remains an absence, a void, and reconnection/relationship an impossibility: “there’s no WE here, there’s barely an I,” JT repeats, over and over. The father is absence, and yet his body is omnipresent, the daughter obsessing over “the penis that made me.” The daughter’s subjectivity is unstable, dispersed, yet so too is her embodiment foregrounded, through anxiety over weight, illness, childbirth, etc., and intertwined with the body of the text, a poem that is “bloody mixed with suds and spit and come.”
YOU DA ONE seems well aware of the narratives of homecoming and catharsis against which it’s situated: in place of the “expected” moment of climactic father-daughter bonding comes an interaction between the speaker/daughter and a male stranger at a diner counter, one who calls her honey and may in fact be father, or at least known to her, after all, yet cannot be father because he has never had wife nor kids. The interaction is laced with threat and creepiness and paternalism (“I can feel the blade in his pants”), yet with the promise of a calm of sorts that accompanies the forfeiture of agency and control (“I consider the blade. I consider staying all day”).
On the internet, “all the feels” is usually a response within fandoms to overwhelming moments in pop cultural artifacts. I got “all the feels” watching this week’s episode of the CW’s ARROW, which depicted the long-awaited consummation of the relationship between vigilante/superhero Oliver Queen and tech guru Felicity Smoak. The image of Felicity’s hands on Oliver’s back—which is decorated by tattoos and hard-earned scars—communicated something that an explication of “backstory” or “character motivations” never could, no matter how “well-written.”
The feelings JT’s YOU DA ONE text evokes are visceral: As she says in an email published within the body of the text, this is “not metaphoric, it’s a cutting.” Despite some of the book’s blurbs, in which well-known poets describe its evocations of the internet and pop culture in the distancing language of intellectual critique (e.g., when Maggie Nelson, on the back cover, references “distracting, capitalist garbage”), digital and mass culture in fact function as feeling; when JT includes the unaltered lyrics of Rihanna, Whitney Houston, and Britney Spears, they gut the reader (or at least gutted me, as reader), rendering loneliness and alienation and “otherness” with extreme intensity.
Could “all the feels” actually function as a threat aesthetic, the feelings of marginalized bodies that cannot be controlled and managed through the poetic regime of refined metaphor, or the fiction regime of “complex, three-dimensional” characterization? This morning, “all the feels” is feeling a bit less squicky, and a bit more apt as a way of giving language to my gutted state after finishing JT’s book—a state of feeling that is unrefined, yet overwhelmed by the “shimmerwound” of art.