“When I think about the internet (which is impossible),” Natasha Stagg writes, “I feel similar to when I have a crush. I feel crushed.” The line comes from an essay, first published in her 2019 collection Sleeveless, titled “To Be Fucked,” and here in miniature are the thematic and stylistic signatures of Stagg’s writing. The title suggests at once a discourse on sex and an anatomy of despair, a punk aggression and a passive subject. If the internet is impossible to think about, what are we doing when we write and read about it—and on it? You try to think but are left with only a feeling: a mixture of desire and hopelessness, a sense of excitement and power that is also an emptiness and inertia. Something you thought that you were doing, that was under your control (your crush, your browsing) becomes something that is being done to you (you’re crushed). Everything is at once manifest and obscure, right there on the surface for the world to see and somehow enigmatic, unresolved and unresolvable: a link, only, to something else. This internet affect is, despite its novelty, now probably as universal a feeling as that of romantic desire, but like the latter, it is also private and hard to pin down. To catch this mood one can’t try too hard.
Stagg writes in the tradition of the New Journalism: a mix of first-person reportage, essay and fiction that often tracks a specific event, scene or movement but whose true object is something more abstract and zeitgeisty. She has been compared to Eve Babitz, a recently rediscovered chronicler of postwar hip Los Angeles, but Cookie Mueller—sharper, more skeptical—is a better analogy. Mueller was a participant-observer of the downtown New York scene of the 1980s, and her writing was the first entry in the publisher Semiotext(e)’s influential Native Agents series, which popularized avant-garde “autofictional” writers like Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus (the series’s editor) and Eileen Myles, and which now publishes Stagg.
Stagg has titled her new collection Artless, a word that, as she writes in her preface, is “often used to describe prose, as in ungainly, naïve, imprecise.” She says she aspires to be “uncareful,” though whether in life or in writing she doesn’t specify. As is appropriate when dealing with the internet or a crush, Stagg’s writing has a cultivated nonchalance; above all, one has to play it cool. But there is more to this than style, or rather, style is not here superficial, mere window dressing for some content that can be considered separately from its form. Since 2016, Stagg has worked in fashion, consulting and writing copy for brands whose images are so carefully cultivated that she is not allowed to disclose who they are. In the world of fashion, style becomes a despotism: personality is ironed out, a blank slate onto which the image is projected. This is a world where appearance goes all the way down. Stagg’s writing is shaped by her work in fashion while also commenting on it—a kind of internal critique of the image-world in which, increasingly, we all live. Artless, like her previous collection, mixes art writing, autobiography, celebrity profiles, film reviews, party reports, short stories, reportage and cultural theory (and, this time, pandemic diary). Fashion is only occasionally the topic, but it works as a symbol for a type of experience that is her writing’s true subject.
In the foreword to Artless, she recounts being driven to a fashion shoot in Paris where she is supposed to be interviewing a model for an advertisement. Set down among the technicians and handlers, the catering and the cameras, Stagg realizes that her “presence was unnecessary, confusing even.” All they needed was for the model to say certain phrases about the product they were selling. Stagg stands by while the model repeats the lines, “first in a sultry voice, and then a serious voice, then an excited voice, then a bored voice, then in a babyish whisper.” Stagg had been flown over from New York especially for this interview; they could have just emailed her questions and put them on the teleprompter. Stagg goes outside to wait for the driver to pick her up.
The drive back to my hotel was long and relaxing. I thought about how maybe nothing was salvageable from this session. Likely, in fact, my entire trip had been ineffective. That we had failed to produce any bonus content and wasted so much time was terrifying, and so it was also exhilarating. We’d inadvertently proved some other point, perhaps.
Or, even better, we hadn’t proved anything and the time that it took to achieve nothing had cost a relative fortune. I’m thinking about this scenario now because it was so padded with potentiality, so exemplary of a particular feeling the boundaries of which I’m trying to establish; capital is flowing in all directions, changing shape and shaping us, like a more physical kind of weather.
Here again is that “particular feeling.” In a black car gliding through the night streets of the city, falling forever through the windows of our devices, we surf the outer edge of capital’s deep oceanic currents, inertial and cozy, immobile and “padded with potentiality.” The world is literally at your fingertips, but you can’t touch it. Anything is possible, and nothing happens. It’s like having a crush on the whole world.
“The more we assign meaning to symbols,” Stagg writes in another essay, “the more we desire the symbols themselves.” In a world increasingly composed of text and images, symbols come to seem less conduits to something else than the final objects of our desire. Media, mediation: this is what we want. This thought is commonly invoked to explain the social anomie of the current generation of hyper-online young people—sending kissy emojis alone in their rooms instead of making out at a party, chasing likes rather than drinking beers. But here it folds back on the question of literary genre and style, of writing itself. Stagg poses with insistent clarity a troubling question, one that has haunted art since modernism but that the internet has made unavoidable. Art used to be a refuge from reality—a place to reimagine, rework or simply retire. What claim can literature make on the world when its own techniques have become incorporated into the fabric of reality itself—when the virtual, the imaginative has become the province no longer of art but of everyday economics, surrounding us, in Stagg’s strange but arresting phrase, like “a more physical kind of weather”?
“In the hustle economy, everyone becomes their own product,” she writes in a 2021 essay, a diaristic, post-pandemic, upstate-summer reflection on the state of the culture industry titled “Subculture.” “Once we all stepped into the pinball game of the social network … selling out became an obsolete concept.” Notice the word choice here: even the fantasy of an outside is infected by the inside. Even the thought of “selling out” is “obsolete”—no longer sellable, like last year’s iPhone. Are these words in the voice of the writer—is it Stagg who thinks selling out is obsolete, or is she, like the model at the Paris photoshoot, simply repeating a line? The point is that we can’t say: what has gone missing is precisely any distance between subculture and marketplace, or artist and worker. This is the state of things to which Stagg’s “uncareful” style quite carefully testifies. When everything is media, art can no longer mediate: and this is simultaneously an artistic problem and a broader, social and political one.
As she writes in Sleeveless: “Have we any need for fiction now, when nothing can be proven to be nonfiction?”
Before her two recent essay collections, Stagg wrote a novel: Surveys, published in 2016. It starts out as a story of millennial, recessional malaise: our narrator, Colleen, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, is back in her hometown of Tucson working at a storefront in a mall, hawking market research surveys. She is defined primarily by her self-consciousness: an anxious sense of precarity, a feeling that she is more special than those around her—is destined, somehow, for something else—combined with the awareness that, objectively, she is not:
When teenagers walked by and scoffed, looking like mermaids on ships, encrusted with rhinestone barnacles, their neon accented phones and crap from Claire’s, their banded braces and their piercings, they looked out of reach, even though I was only a couple years older. They belonged to the mall world, and I belonged downtown—where they would be the ones who looked out of touch. But I was in the mall, in my cage, and their decorations all came from the kiosks and stores here, and suddenly I wanted something sparkling pressed onto my body, at least a manicure.
We can recognize in this tone echoes of the first-person narrators of the early-2010s novels by writers like Tao Lin, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti: a mix of status anxiety, self-deprecation and bad-faith moralism—an elitism that has lost the language to justify itself and thus must dissolve into an acid bath of irony. But unlike most of the decade’s autofictional antiheroes, this one doesn’t seem to want to be an artist. Although the narrator of Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, a poet wasting time on a fellowship in Spain, can’t bear to mention his “work” without putting quotation marks around it, it is clear that some conception of art, however much trouble he has believing in it, is what orients his life. The plot is his struggle to own it. In Surveys, by contrast, the narrator’s sense of superiority, the energy thrown off by her self-consciousness, has no clear destination; the novel’s first third has more in common with a Gen X slacker tale than the covert kunstlerromans of millennial autofiction. Colleen’s initial aimlessness is authentic, not a pose: and what happens to get the plot going is not that she discovers or acknowledges her true aim, hidden or ignored, but rather that a purpose suddenly appears for her, as if out of the blue. It’s 2011, and the purpose appears on the internet, where she meets a guy named Jim.
I met him online, it doesn’t matter how, and we began to merge our following. Describing it would be pointless, and anyway, you can look it up. It was interaction, and people love to see that.
Jim is famous online, and two pages later, Colleen has become famous too. “Our fame was, if there is such a fame, pure…we decorated the whole Internet with our fondness for each other.” Three pages later, she has moved to LA. She becomes what we would now call an influencer, and the rest of the narrative charts her torrid affair with Jim, its real-life intensity inseparable from its performative online dynamics. They DJ clubs, promote events, do drugs, tear up hotel rooms, cheat and get back together, break up again. Through it all they are posting online.
A completely different narrative seems to have interrupted the previous one. In brief, she falls in love with the internet. How did it happen? “You can look it up,” as the narrator says. The problem of the millennial artist—which is an allegory for the problem of millennial politics, of how and what to commit to—is solved not by the artist figuring out how to create art but by the artist getting sucked into the virtual world. With marriage or bildung plots, the object may be vague, but you can always imagine it: the other or the self, as it is or as it might become, and narrative is the name for the attempt to achieve this desire. But what would it mean to want the internet—how would you seek it, and how would you know when you had it? It is a kind of reverse Pygmalion narrative: the artist absorbed into the sort of world that she would otherwise aspire to create. The mechanics of desire run backwards; the object conquers the subject. Social media is an ur-form that liquidates everything—including, most prominently, the artist herself—into a content that becomes indistinguishable from style. Colleen and Jim drift along the surface, like characters in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, except here the empty bubble of the young and the rich has blown up to the size of the world, encompassing everyone.
Toward the end of the novel, things have gone south: the narrator’s relationship with Jim is over, her social media career is imploding over an online fight with his new girlfriend, and she winds up in the hospital after being hit by a bike. But she realizes that she can’t start over, can’t head off in a new direction. There is no new plot for her, because the world into which she has fallen operates according to a different logic:
At the end of some great movies, someone flies off, and you know they will never see each other again. That can’t happen with Jim and I. It can’t happen with anyone and I. When I stepped out of the hospital, I looked at my phone again. I put it back in my pocket. The sky looked like nothing, because that’s what it is. It’s not even a color. I looked back down at my phone, and pulled up searches and feeds, hit refresh. I can cut off anyone on these lists, simple, but they’ll always be there, sending out energy that I’ll always in some way be receiving. I may as well know exactly what it is.
In retrospect, Surveys was the first influencer novel. Stagg began writing it in 2010, before Instagram, and reading it one has the sense that social media “happened” to the writer in the same way that it does to the narrator. In both its form and its content, the novel testifies to the shock of social media in the mid-2010s, a moment when our collective capacity for narrative—the capacity to tell a story about ourselves, and about what’s going on in the world—seems to have splintered as well. Millennial autofiction is still being published: Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, Sally Rooney and Ben Lerner have all moved their kunstlerroman narratives into the age of social media. But something has happened to the tone of these books, and thus to the narrators: still self-conscious, the writing has lost its ironic edge and acquired the bland, studious distance of celebrity endorsements and propaganda. This is, above all, the writing of someone who is being watched: someone who knows exactly what they are sending out, and who is receiving it. The fantasy of artistic autonomy is no longer even conceivable to these narrators—has become “obsolete.” And without it, the drama of the autofictional voice, its tension between irony and complicity, loses narrative purchase. In a world already saturated with text, a world in which language’s illusive power seems to function all by itself, the artist-narrator becomes, simply, a conduit of the discourse.
Stagg has taken a different tack. The question that she asks in Sleeveless—“who needs fiction when nothing can be proven to be nonfiction?”—is not merely a rhetorical one. It points to the need for new strategies to preserve and renew the critical, imaginative distance that art, in order to matter, must create. Artless is not exactly nonfiction—some of the pieces read as short stories—but it mostly forgoes the narrative techniques of literary fiction, presenting itself instead as a set of documents, a journalistic collage. The overall effect, mediated by Stagg’s “uncareful” style, is to carefully direct the reader’s attention toward the world that she describes: this is really happening. Against the self-reflexive lyricism of much contemporary literature, Stagg’s writing restores a concrete realism. She is documenting a world in which style has become substance, and in order to gain distance from it, she stages an authorial persona that is neither independent of her subject nor identical with it—one that instead observes, simply and dispassionately, what happens to her.
One of the best pieces in Artless is a reported essay about the reopening of the Chelsea Hotel. A landmark Queen Anne building that was among the tallest in Manhattan when it opened in 1884, the Chelsea played host for a hundred years to successive waves of literary and artistic bohemia, from O. Henry to Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, the Chelsea Girls, Patti Smith, Madonna and Basquiat, Willem Dafoe and Ethan Hawke. For decades manager Stanley Bard presided over what had become a shabby-chic boardinghouse, letting in artists that he liked, taking paintings in lieu of rent, and balancing the starving and strung-out bohemians with the well-heeled tourists who wanted to soak up their glamour. As Stagg writes, “people say the reason it was so great and weird was because of Stanley’s fascination with the lives of artists and rich dilettantes alike, and his willful ignorance of the more destructive habits of each.”
The Chelsea evokes a certain type of artistic and cultural glamour that was born in postwar New York. Its seduction is that of the past. This was the room where Sid stabbed Nancy; this is the one that Edie Sedgwick lit on fire; here Dylan Thomas drank eighteen whiskies and collapsed dead; here Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch, here Dylan wrote “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” here Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, fell in love. This attraction to the ghostly is a characteristic of New York cool as a postwar style: it is the afterimage that we crave.
Stagg is staying at the Chelsea in June of 2022, on assignment for a fashion magazine; they’re doing a shoot “in the eighth-floor two-bedroom suite where Madonna shot her book Sex, or at least we’re pretty sure that’s where we are, since the Hotel Chelsea’s renovated rooms are now marked with letters instead of numerals.” The scaffolding is just coming down; after being sold and resold to developers, after lengthy court fights with the holdouts still on rent control, the renovations had taken eleven years and run into the hundreds of millions. Now, suites start at seven hundred dollars a night, and if you come to visit, before you reach the meticulously restored lobby with its marble fireplace and wrought-iron staircase, before the mirrored bar with its 22-dollar cocktails named after Edie Sedgwick and William Burroughs, you can stop in at Chelsea Guitars, a run-down 1980s storefront still preserved in the hotel building where the owner will regale you with stories about Jeff Buckley, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Nirvana.
The Chelsea’s reopening coincides with the recently inaugurated NFT Week. Stagg goes to art shows and afterparties, where the worlds of capital and art—never strangers—have found, via the internet, a new and rather unseemly intimacy. At a party in a midtown billionaire pencil tower, crypto bros try to get selfies with art-cred podcasters, whose virality they hope will boost their tokens. At a party in SoHo where sushi chefs make handrolls in the middle of a dance floor, they hand out ginger shots and CBD chocolate. “I recognize no one and can’t understand what’s being celebrated, exactly. When I leave, there’s still an anxious crowd waiting to get in.” Back at the Chelsea, they’re doing a photoshoot in the hotel’s old canteen, now a gourmet restaurant:
A doorman mentions the energy: Can you feel it? I can feel a respect for the conventions of the unconventional. The sense of humor needed to serve drinks to a bar of European sightseers, old New Yorkers, punk transplants, high rollers, historians, and us.
Stagg is not a doomer. She does feel the energy, and seeks it out; some of her friends are still making art in New York, and taking risks to do so. This energy may have gone virtual, ghostly, but people hang around because it’s in the air, and they’re waiting for it to materialize again. But one needs to learn how, and when, to walk away; only with distance do things take on their true shapes. As she leaves the hotel, she feels “a burden of memoir lifting,” recalling a quote from filmmaker and Warhol associate Gerard Malanga: “I have no sentimental attachment, none whatsoever to the Chelsea. I think the best thing that can be done with it … is that some hotelier take it over and transform it into the luxury hotel it’s begging to be.”
Image credit: Thomas Hawk (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)