I want to tell you about my favourite music video of all time.
A woman is having an orgasm, or a seizure, on the back of a tan centaur. Another woman, and admittedly, it is hard to tell because she is made of a series of flat planes that are too few in number to truly sell a particular gender, is lying on the floor, quivering with excitement as a metallic bear falls towards her and then through her and the floor below. A man, made up of a few more surfaces so it’s easier to tell, and also he is naked, violently escapes a large orb like the last son of Krypton. On their own, these images are nothing—flotsam bobbing along the soup of the Internet. Together they’re slightly better, flotsam plus. But then you notice the chevron quietly explaining each act—CENTAUR STYLE, DESCENDING BEAR, EMERGING FROM SPHERE—the watermark holding court over the proceedings, FETISCHPRO, suggesting that what has just happened is still happening, isn’t a fevered Internet hemorrhaging content but something darker and more familiar. A product demo.
What I’ve described is “Bumble,” a largely forgotten track by Philly producer Rx. Its video was directed by the nebulous Bad American, an outfit or person or two people in a very long trench coat long since abandoned, I can only assume, since my emails have gone unanswered. “Bumble” is a loping bassy number, the kind that grew like weeds in the early Tens. It’s also old, not only in the way its lack of HD betrays its age, but how that omission suggests a distance from the current moment of such a degree that its provenance feels mythic, if not impossible. “It doesn’t do widescreen,” you remind your friends. “No, no—crappy is the look its going for.”
I can go weeks without thinking about “Bumble,” and mostly did, up until a few days ago when I interviewed the poet and novelist Ben Lerner for The Arcade, Hazlitt’s weekly podcast. (Have you subscribed to our podcast? You should.)
In his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner gave birth to a protagonist who admired poetry, but loathed the poem. He explained this tension in an interview with The Believer, citing the idea of the “virtual poem” from the late poet Allen Grossman:
According to Grossman, poetry issues from the desire to get beyond the human, the finite, the historical, and to reach the transcendent or divine. But as soon as the poet moves from the poetic impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms.
What Lerner’s character laments is the way the glimmer of possibility that serves as the fuse for art is abandoned, betrayed really, the moment it’s made actual. “The poem,” he concludes, “is a record of failure.”
Which brings us back to “Bumble.”
What I love about this video, and why I remind my colleagues at Hazlitt that it is a thing that exists, is how deftly it captures the outdated and altogether poisonous notion of the Internet as a kind of utopia, and the harm it does when that utopia attempts to cater to human arousal. “Let the machine live your fantasy,” a title card reads, but the fantasy is ugly, palsied, a stock 3d world of stock 3D models.
Our desires, fleshy and infinite and malleable as they are, are grounded by crude, all-too material limits. These limits can take the form of geography; if you’re trapped in a small town, your chances of exploring a non-normative identity in public, while alive, plummets. There are limits imposed by the body, when one’s sense of self collides against an assigned identity. Then there are the limits of the screen itself, and our objects of arousal existing only on slips of glass. (Then again.)
Generally speaking, the Internet has historically courted the desires that, if left unattended due to very real obstacles—the preservation of life—can grind a person down to a fine powder, atomic like a Seurat and forever dispersed. But the lies of “Bumble”’s particular fiction—every fantasy yours!—are the lies of the web past and present. The virtual world of Second Life was a ghost town before it became a punch line; the gated communities of DeviantArt and FurAffinity seem to make BuzzFeed almost hourly; Snapchat lied to young women; and if you’re a trans* person or a woman of colour, the Internet is an outright threat. That is to say, once a space is carved out, it is, in Lerner’s parlance, “foredoomed,” cut at the knees by its ethics, execution, or the threat that execution will be compromised by some combination of coding error, human error, troll error.
(A friend who works in a conservative office admitted to living in terror of being outed as a) gay and b) a furry, if only because he couldn’t risk losing his source of income to the only lifeline to his queerness. You could take an ice cream scoop to his veins whenever the Internet was brought up, which was always.)
Given one of the original promises of the web as a safe space to explore the breadth of one’s sexuality, luminous and transcendental and open to all, would it be a stretch to call these spaces and their downward arcs a betrayal of the original impulse? Is the Internet as we know it a vast record of failures, Lerner’s concern writ large?
I’m not sure if failure is the word. The aesthetics of “Bumble” and Second Life share aspects of the comical, but how they’ve been used and modified, as a kind of grammar for interrogating ideas, sexual or otherwise, reveals a cleverness that surpasses their primitive geometry. An explicit fascination with the visceral qualities of networked assets. Two years ago, future Hazlitt contributor Kyle Chayka compared Wendy Vanity’s explicit 3D animations to the work of Henry Darger. LaTurbo Avendon is the very public avatar for a mysterious artist comfortable with practicing from a distance equal parts Pixar and pastel goth. What would happen to Arca’s signature music videos were it not for longtime collaborator Jesse Kanda, whom he met on DeviantArt?
And then there’s Tumblr, which structurally, if not aesthetically, was the site of a Cambrian explosion of experimental erotics and new ways to fund that work. (You should read Thickness btw.)
What I’m trying to say is, a record of failure is rarely an admission of the same. In its missteps, art, poetry, even a network of sweating data centres can afford a glimpse of what’s to come—Lerner himself admits the longevity of the poetic form is due, in some measure, to its elusiveness. A record of close enough, then? I mean, when the impulse is to create something as vast and divine as a truly inclusive commons, close enough, however flawed, is a start. And once you get past that, the flaws themselves start to get compelling. They become their own totems, their own tools of inquiry—maybe their own forms of arousal. At least for those of us squinting at the boundless promise of the web of the year 20XX from the turret of ’92, a promise you could almost make out, if only through the aperture of a screen—a bear descending to rapturous arms.