In 2011, I heard Billy Collins read a poem about the word like, it was called “What She Said”. This, at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ, was after I had heard Michael Cirelli, a Rhode Island native, read “Dead Ass” about discovering new slag. The contrast between the tones—superior and celebratory, respectively—couldn’t have been more different.
Lately, I’ve wondered about the phrase I can’t even. Which is more appropriate? Mockery or consideration?
It is fair to criticize its abrupt construction, which robs it of both specificity and substance, means that it functions through familiarity; its meaning is contextually and idiosyncratically imparted.
Having emerged from the unreliable and overwhelmingly multifaceted depths of the internet, it is met with distrust by grammarians and the other vanguards of the English language. Whatever inherent meaning might have existed within the aborted structure was further eroded by use in the regressively repetitive reblog threads on tumblr.
But we live in a world dominated by the absurd.
In the country boasting the strongest economy and largest military force on the planet, a reality TV star is running for president against a former Secretary of State and First Lady, after after the two of them beat out an avowed Democratic Socialist, and a man so fundamentally lacking in charisma that a large swath of the public is willing to believe his is the Zodiac Killer, regardless of temporal impossibility. Meanwhile, policemen with military grade equipment shoot unarmed citizens in the streets. While children and families go hungry, Congress shuts down the government out of spite, and the people drown in debt after bailing out bankers facing no new regulation despite nearly creating a financial apocalypse.
Meanwhile, globally, the field is dominated by radicalism, terror, slowing economic growth, and environmental disaster. In a new era of demagoguery, the death of nuance seems both inevitable and potentially absolute. Our political discourse is reduced to emotion rooted in personal truths and we have accepted the dissolution of a collectively structured reality. With the banishment of facts, concensus reality is abolished and events already past can be re-imagined out of existence (Vladimir Putin will not invade Crimea).
A system without rationality can hardly be called a system. It becomes difficult to rely on language, which is a system, composed of atomized concepts and consistent rules, as a means of expression. We resort to other means. Our subjectivity—the production of the self—is given over to the front-facing camera. We situate ourselves within the social, physical, and political world through selfies taken on vacations, with friends, at rallies, and in the presence of our heroes and idols. The camera lens and the portable screen eloquently communicate where we stand on issues, with which candidates, in which cities, and in front of which works of art.
Yet we cannot avoid words: you open the newspaper, or a browser window, or an app and read that the government is refusing to do their constitutionally mandated job, and that, furthermore this comes as no surprise, and that a nation produced a vote which not even the politicians who lobbied for it can support, and that we cannot get the data to know how many people are killed each year by cops, or how many firearms are sold in the country, or how much money is secreted away in off-shore accounts. The words are concrete and undeniable (except by the newly greased escape hatch out of concensus reality) and finding a word to respond, one that encapsulates the emotional state developed under long term absurdity, can feel impossible.
Perhaps one exists within those linguistic traditions which survived the Soviet empire. But even there concensus reality existed, two of them, in parallel. The reality of the state and the reality of the people, spoken and whispered. English—the language of empire, of capitalism, of finance—lacks the appropriate philosophical and linguistic tools.
Beyond its near impossibility, it feels like defeat to attempt to express the entire cycle of horror-distress-incomprehention-frustration-disappointment-anger—and ultimately—complete lack of surprise, never mind cobbling together a framework of rationalized acceptance.
Instead, I reach for the only tool developed to express the whole of our collective emotional disorder: I can’t even.