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1 essay
by Sara Selevitch

Sara Selevitch is a writer and waitress living in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in Longreads, Leste, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tele- Art Mag, and Eater. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts.

Better Angles

I’m not sure where I was going. Maybe back to my apartment after work one evening during college, maybe I was going home to visit my parents, it could have been winter or summer. I lay on a bench in North Station waiting for a train to somewhere, gazing up at the ceiling, profoundly tired. It was tall and unfinished, all exposed pipe and concrete. “I wonder if I’ll remember this moment,” I thought to myself in the way I thought things like that to myself when profoundly tired waiting for a train at some point in college.

 

And of course I remember, that’s just how it works.

* * *

Bernadette Mayer wanted to write everything. Her writing dealt in dailyness—“Everything work,” as her friend Clark Coolidge called it. And not just her own, but Everyone’s Everything. “I’d like computers to be able to record everything you think and see,” Mayer said in a 1997 interview. “To be like the brain, and to write that out… somebody said to me, ‘who would read it?’ But I’m thinking that I would love to read it. Like if you had all these documents of everybody’s experience. It would be amazing.”

 

Her work contends with both the impossibility of keeping a totalizing record and the complications of sharing it. In doing so, she attempted to, as Maggie Nelson put it, “[transcribe] the minutiae of liminal consciousness” and its excesses. Her time-based experimental project, Midwinter Day, is an epic poem detailing every moment of a single day. A later work, Studying Hunger, which tracks her shifting states of consciousness over a month-long period, clocks in at about 500 pages of single-spaced text. Mayer admitted later: “I knew this was not a publishable work.”

 

I too love minutiae. I love noticing. When you hear music playing and can’t tell if it just started, or if it’s been on this whole time and it’s you who just tuned in. Driving through Los Angeles picking up on the language of the city. Reading signs and noticing the bizarre phrasings and fonts. Overhearing people at the coffee shop, interacting with customers at my job. Sometimes it’s dizzying. I know I can’t capture everything, that I should let it go, wash over me.

 

Lauren Berlant wrote that if we could pay attention to everything, there would be no comedy. Like Mayer, though, I can’t help but try.

* * *

Sammy, Evan, and I talk about memory around the fire after everyone else has gone home. How, as kids, we thought we could remember being born. (And maybe we could!) Evan told his mom once that he remembered when the brick path was laid in their front yard, an event that took place while she was pregnant with him. He said he could see it through her stomach. His mother laughed, and now Sammy and I do too. The conversation is getting fun, and we start packing up to head inside and continue, when we’re interrupted by Evan’s neighbor. He is young and drunk, feeling sick. He cries, and Evan holds his head.

 

I’m just visiting. This seems to me like A Significant Moment, but Sammy says it happens all the time. We all go inside. Sammy and I put on music, and she teaches me a little dance. Evan looks over some paperwork at the kitchen table and claps when our performance is over. I feel held by the warm light of the kitchen. Outside is pitch dark.

 

In the morning I wake to Sammy and Evan laughing over a Youtube video playing on the computer. A man is screaming as he lies shirtless on a small beach. He’s taken a strain of psychedelics called bufo. We eat eggs with salsa, then later Ethiopian food from the farmer’s market, pumpkin pie that a friend brought over. Sammy takes me on a walk to an old Shaker schoolhouse. (Do these details hold meaning? Can Everything mean Something or even Anything?) I wonder how everyone spends their days here in this place in the woods.

 

Sammy says the next time I visit I should meet one of her neighbors, a famous poet, but she can’t remember her name. Later in our conversation I tell Sammy that I’ve been thinking about memory, that I want to write about Bernadette Mayer.


“Wait,” she says. “That’s my neighbor!”

* * *

In the short theoretical text Psychopolitics, Byunh-Chul Han writes of the process of remembering, that transference from the inside out, when memory becomes information. He posits that forgetting is an important part of memory, creating the opportunity for re-collection. The act of memory being re-called is significant, a doing over.

 

I dream that I am interviewing Byunh-Chul Han for my college radio station. We are sitting around a conference room table, but no one likes the questions I’d prepared. As I am asking them, I know I’ve made a terrible mistake.

 

Much of Midwinter Day is a transcription of dreams. I once told Emily that I hate listening to people describe their dreams. It’s a trait of mine she always brings up. (I’ve tried to take it back, but if I’m being honest, it’s true.)

 

Han describes “the total memory of the digital.” He explains: “A complete picture of our lives exists on the internet. Our digital habitus provides an extremely precise likeness of our persons—of our very souls. Perhaps it is even fuller and more accurate than the images we otherwise make of ourselves.”

 

So Mayer’s dream has somewhat been realized, on horribly different terms than her vision. In contrast to Big Brother, Big Data does in fact know what the inmates of the panopticon think and desire.

 

Big Data never forgets.

 

(Does god?)

 

When I used to say my prayers as a child, I’d list everyone’s full names, so that god would know who I meant.

* * *

_____

 

makes me think of makes me think of makes me think of makes me think of

 

_____

 

(what falls into the gap, what is lost, for now, this time. I’ll remember later, it will become something else.)

* * *

Han writes: “Digital surveillance proves so efficient because it is aperspectival. It does not suffer from the perspectival limitations characterizing analogue optical systems… It eliminates all blind spots.”

 

Sammy forwards me an email she recently sent to another friend. It’s early pandemic, and everyone is freaked. She is thinking about eyeballs.

 

“Everything I know is known through angles, and necessarily so,” she writes, flipping Han’s dismissive assertion.

 

“Is there an ultimate angle? A god’s-eye view? Omniscience is an incoherent concept: to have full information is to be isomorphic with everything and know nothing,” she continues. “To see is to see difference, to exclude information. That is, a god’s-eye view is senseless because god wouldn’t have eyes nor any other variety of difference-makers.”

 

In her view, then, we have one up on god.

* * *

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I went on a date with someone who worked at One Wilshire, where all of the city’s internet hums. He worked overnight, watching wires sleep. I couldn’t picture the room, but I imagined how it smelled—copper and burn, bursts of warm air. That night we watched an episode of The Sopranos on his laptop. The red hair dye I’d used the day before left a stain on his pillow. He said he didn’t mind. I didn’t think of him again for years, until I received a notification on my phone last summer—“Chris (Tinder) has signed up for Signal.”

* * *

Ali Smith wrote that in hell there is no mystery because in mystery there is always hope. Is there mystery in Everything? Mayer’s work is intent on filling in the spaces between. I wonder if that leaves space for god.

 

I’m sitting with my back to the ocean because of the wind, even though I came here to see it. The waves are mostly flat today. I chose this beach at random; it just seemed like a good place to stop. Los Angeles, too. I think of motion and stillness, wanting one and getting the other.

 

Looking back through a notebook from early quarantine, there are things I don’t remember. A description of an earthquake I’d forgotten about. The trembling dresser.

 

Years ago when I worked at a glass museum in Seattle, guests would often ask what would happen in a big earthquake. I’d shrug. “Everything would probably break.”

 

I read an article about how our memories have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Days run together. The repetition of stories helps us to consolidate our memories of what’s happened. There’s less opportunity to talk with others, and we also have fewer stories to share. We’ve been forced, then, to redefine what is noteworthy.

 

The article notes that “finding our way back home has always been important to our survival. As soon as we leave home, we start paying attention.”

 

I left my phone in a bar bathroom two nights ago. Today I drove to the beach without it, detached and alert.

* * *

TOUCH LOG

 

___’s arm with my lips

Cheek against the pillow

The coffee machine handle

A rag as I wipe down the counter

Car keys

Car door

Laptop key strokes

Credit card

* * *

I used to think that sharing memories was inherently powerful. My mother always insisted that some things should be private. I wonder how that squares with the Catholic imperative of confession. My mother has always hoped I’d find god. I’ve never been comforted by the idea of heaven.

 

Now transparency is demanded of us, from each other (in the name of “open communication” / “accountability”) and from above (increased dependence on social media, the neoliberal promise of representation as a path to liberation). Our performed vulnerability is consumed by Big Data and marketed back to us, our sharing profitable and depleting. Han categorizes the participation in digital life, from tweeting mundanity to counting our steps, as self-quantifying behavior—voluntary forms of self-exploitation and self-surveillance. I’m reminded of a line (which I read via tweet) from Ayesha Siddiqi: “visibility is not power in a surveillance state.”

 

So then: is there a place to turn beyond god’s gaze? A deluge of voice memos to a friend after a dramatic night out, a childhood story whispered to a lover in a dark room under covers, scribbling incoherence into a notebook by the ocean. Mayer wants everythingness, but in a manner personal and interior, wet and warm. I want that, too.

 

To turn away from god is a sin, but perhaps now that relationship is inverted. Our willfulness to be seen by data is grotesque; salvation waits outside the omnigaze.

 

A group of friends on the patio at Stories are talking about their phones. They say it doesn’t make sense to be haunted by shoe ads when they just bought shoes. They should be shown socks. Relief in small victory.

* * *

I revisit my favorite Bernadette Mayer poem on the steps of the Silver Lake library across the street from my work.


I Am Proactive Ephemeral Epiphytic Residue

 

“I don’t mean to get all / Parallel universey on you / But I am at once the spider / The spider web, and / Me observing them”

 

Bernadette is sick, and I’m worried I won’t get to meet her, won’t be able to tell her the weird coincidence of our connection. (Though what would it change for either of us if I did?) I’m worried (but certain) that most of my desires and impulses are driven by ego.

 

There are times when I want god close. To be a medium to god, channeling the world.

 

I keep typing angels when I mean to say angles. (Or is it the opposite?)

 

I keep forgetting what my point is. (Although is that the benefit of including Everything?)

 

I return again to annihilation, my desire for it. The idea of devotion, a giving-over. The pleasure in that. Mayer described Studying Hunger as “almost masochistic.”

 

Can one subsume the Self to Everything—or is Everything unavoidably a reflection of or interpretation of the Self? Annihilation won’t arrive at the hands of art or language, I think, only through the body. If I close my eyes I can recall the taste of stale eucharist, melting on my tongue.

 

I’m tired. I want to give myself over to god or a lover who could hurt me. Hands around my throat in a good way, we are fucking but not fucking. Unobstructed eye contact and the anticipation of release, flat on my back looking up, he says “don’t look away” and I don’t. Nor do the angels, their terrible bodies covered in eyes watching from above and behind, chanting “holy, holy, holy” rapturous and jealous, awash in sin or something like it, god puts his fingers in my mouth and tells me to bite down hard.