ESSAYS Mousse 72
by Travis Jeppesen
Charles Lacey, Group of 7 Thoughtographs, or Psychic Photographs, 1894-1898. Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons User: Pharos / CC0
One morning, Rob Baerenwiese awoke to discover he was no longer among the living. It was a strange sensation, to say the least. In a physical, tingly, sensate sense, he was still very much alive. At least he felt himself to be. But those feelings, in certain circumstances, don’t amount to much in the grand accounting.
Yes, it is true that his head felt a little bit swollen from last night’s indulgence fest. But the amount of alcohol consumed could hardly be characterized as lethal. Or even excessive—for Baerenwiese, at least. It was about the same, more or less, that his brain sponged up every Sunday night—and typically only Sundays. Not the most optimal of the seven to go boozing it up, but the one night his old roommate from grad school tended bar at the joint just around the corner from Baerenwiese’s apartment. Marcus always gave him a discount on drinks, usually half off. Occasionally he’d slip him a freebie with a slight nod and a wink. Sundays were the one night Baerenwiese forced himself away from the comfort of his glowing screens at home to engage in some IRL sociality. Well, his bigger and medium-size screens. He was never really offline, of course. His phone could be trusted to keep all his feeds refreshed, his followers updated with continual notifications of his increasing state of intoxication as well as overheard quips at the bar with the appropriate corresponding emoji, IMs immediately answered, Tweets and other assorted electronic animal sounds dispatched… All these textual minutiae were supplemented with the socially requisite quantity of selfies and duo shots whenever Marcus chanced to make his way over and assume a flattering and/or amusing and/or comment-worthy pose. Actually, Baerenwiese spent more or less all his time at the bar on his phone. Still, he was by no means what you’d call an influencer. Although he felt he was getting there. The more followers he amassed, the more he could feel himself grow, expand. One post at a time had become his mantra.
His head ached, and of course there was no regret. Why would there be. There are times, Baerenwiese felt, when, in the absence of any higher power, one must simply rely on the strengths of one of the lower powers. And when those lower powers arrive in glass bottles, then so be it. Sure, of course it isn’t good for you. Very many things in this world aren’t. But, neglecting the things that alcohol did to your body for a moment, it had other benefits. Alcohol—and occasionally weed—provided a reprieve for the anxiety he felt more or less all the time, but in particular those moments when he wasn’t able to connect. When he had to walk somewhere—take the subway, for example. Down in those deep tunnels, you could never get a good connection. A connection, okay. But never a strong, life-sustaining connection. Eyeing the people around him, Baerenwiese sometimes wondered how they all managed. Eventually he learned to avoid the subway and take the bus whenever possible. That way, he could feel himself connected the entire way. The getting-there was slower, but it felt a lot better. Like booze, it lubricated the journey. Sometimes you have to stab yourself in the eye in order to see.
Space = anxiety, Baerenwiese had come to conclude. He was glad, upon further reflection, to have been born in an era in which technology and commerce had come to collaborate in engineering increasingly ingenious ways to collapse all that space. Bringing everyone closer together without even having to touch.
And then there was that other dimension. Never before had it been more necessary to dwell in the present. Maybe it sounds like a piece of bad ad copy—but sometimes bad ad copy is a higher truth compressed. Thankfully, Baerenwiese had always felt himself to be decidedly of his time. Never any anxiety in the department of clock-tickery. Though there were occasions, it must be admitted, when it could be a bit of a struggle to keep up with the accelerated pace at which everything moved. This is why Baerenwiese could not yet claim to be an influencer, a person of any real virtual significance. But he knew better than to dwell on it for too long. Best to keep moving. Linger too long, you risk getting left behind for good. At least that’s the way one was meant to feel. And Baerenwiese often did.
There was, of course, this troublesome gap between the kind of person Baerenwiese thought he was and the person he actually was—in other words, the person he was online and the person he was IRL. This gap had a worrisome way of revealing itself and, in terms of hard metadata, had a detrimental effect on his overall social ranking, making it difficult to scale. Given his precarious entrance into the world that placed him, date-wise, on the cusp between Gen-X and Millennial, his postings and updates were a mishmash of two sensibilities that were occasionally, increasingly, at odds. For he equally—confusingly—embraced both the callous, antiauthoritarian irony of the earlier generation and the overly sensitive sincerity of the latter. He’d make snide remarks about “selling out” while at the same time working tirelessly, effortlessly, at his own self-branding. He’d criticize “political correctness” one post, then in the next take down some celebrity’s transphobic faux pas gone viral. Many people noticed this disequilibrium, followers and friends alike. But, the collective attention span being what it was, such gaffes were usually remarked upon out of range, in private chats, then immediately deleted from cloud memory storage. Truth be told, there was probably some residue left over the years, some stain of pollution in the clouds. He had likely lost a few followers. This simply wasn’t an era that held much appreciation for nuance and ambiguity. But since Baerenwiese himself was oblivious to this train of awkward, though not universally unfriendly, emojis that trailed him like a bit of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of the shoe, there was little he could do to adjust the situation.
Self-awareness: Isn’t it a bit overrated anyway? How self-aware are any of us, really? Even for those with the best content, the very best content feeds, life tends to be defined more by private nightmares and their ultimate inescapability. In less advanced times, people would merely—what? Go outside. Take a walk. Or something? Look at the trees. How boring! Or, provoking yet further anxiety: call someone. Without that person even being able to know in advance who was calling! How did one then decide whether to pick up the phone or let it ring? You’d simply have to pick it up and take your chances, Baerenwiese supposed. Even worse: the prospect of visiting a friend without having the means to first alert them and secure advance permission to enter into their physical space. How were people able to function under such circumstances? Baerenwiese wondered. The world was ghastly back then, and Baerenwiese was glad he hadn’t been alive to remember very many of those days.
There was something to be said for starting the day with Facebook rather than Twitter. In part, it was rooted in nostalgia—for he had been on Facebook much longer than he had been on Twitter. Then Snapchat had come about and upturned his entire universe, suddenly endowing him with a whole other level of engagement. Of course, there was also Tinder, which he checked from time to time, but perhaps less often than the other three. Then there was Cinder, then Finder, then Binder. Of course there were also Meeter, Greeter, Tweeter, Teeter, and Deleeter. Dozens of apps needed to be powered up each morning, but Baerenwiese had grown so adept at the task that he could scroll through and update, with likes and dings and posts and snarks, each one within a matter of minutes.
Firing up Facebook on his iPad this late morning, he had no reason to expect more than the standard barrage of visual banalities and textual platitudes and news fake and real with which to inculcate himself into the numbness of the day. Maybe something to give him an endorphin kick for a second or three, something for him to instantly Like or else post a flippant comment upon, thereby extinguishing it from his brain. But just as his index finger was brushing the icon, he was distracted by his phone, which erupted into mad vibrations. Like it was possessed by a demon—a demon with delirium tremens. He nearly mistook it for a call—but no, it couldn’t be. No one actually called these days. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had had the misfortune to receive one of those. Certainly never in this befuddled Monday-morning state.
Wait, it was his Twitter feed! WTF? What had he missed in the past, what, seven hours? Had the Russians finally invaded? Had the president finally resigned? Had the North Koreans finally dropped the bomb? Had someone leaked his dick pics?
Baerenwiese grabbed his iPhone off the nightstand, swung his feet around to the side of his bed, frantically scrolled through a pattern of RIPs. So that’s it. Somebody kicked. But he was distracted from slowing down to read in detail, since his notification alarm kept tingling. Expert that he was at ignoring all those alarm bells, he swung his feet back into bed and returned to Facebook.
Startled, he was, to find a record fifty-three notifications. Had something he posted in his drunken state gone viral, catapulting him overnight into Influencer status? No, no, no, such occurrences are the stuff of fiction, Hollywood movies, Netflix series. Only one way to find out. He clicked the icon. Weird. They were all messages posted to his wall. WTF? Some of them apparently from Friends he barely knew or else hadn’t seen or spoken to or chatted with or re-Tweeted or Liked or commented on or waved at or snapped at—whose profiles he hadn’t even clicked on—in months.
He clicked on his profile wall, slowly scrolled through the posts. “Say what?!” His shriek reverberated throughout the apartment. Someone had played a wicked-ass prank on him.
RIP Robbie… I’ll never 4get ur sweet face and r beautiful time 2gether. There was Baerenwiese and his ex-girlfriend in Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods. His Best Selfie Ever.
Baerenwiese, the Baerenmeister… For so long I lived vicariously through ur posts, ur wicked sense of irony bro. It’s been real. See you on the other side. #never4get, #BaerenwieseRIP, #Baerenbro
He could feel the acid in his stomach rise.
Baerenbro! Baer-meister! Master of disaster! What’ll we do without your Sunday night shenanigans? This sucks big time! #BaerenwieseRIP, #Baerenwieseforever, #RobBaerenwieseRIP
Just heard the news, can’t bleive… AM crying as I wrte this, pls fotgive any typos…
The Baerenbro took irony to a new level—not just blabbing it with his clever and witty remarks—he actually lived it. RIP, #Baermeister #Baerenbro
Why Robbie Why?!?!?! #Baermeister, #BaerenwieseRIP, #gonebutnot4gotten
Wait—was he dead?! He looked down at his hand on the wireless mouse. Brought it before his face, wiggled his fingers in front of him. Scrunched them up. It was the same hand, same fingers as always. He got up, went into the bathroom. That was his face in the mirror. All good. Just to make sure, he raised his phone, took a selfie. There he was upon the screen. Emailed it from his personal account to his work account, just to confirm. Okay. Back to Facebook, where he typed an LOL, guyz into the Create Post box, selecting a red-hot background, then clicked Share. Nothing happened. The post just disappeared. He typed LOL once again into the box, this time omitting the fancy background, Share again. And nothing. He refreshed his feed. More RIP notices came pouring forward. Maybe it posted on his own wall but wasn’t showing up in the feed? He clicked over to his wall—nothing.
He opened up his email server. In his personal email, just a bunch of junk—notifications from various apps, a renewal notice for his website, an update on his frequent flyer mileage, his latest credit rating—all from yesterday, actually. Nothing today. On his work email, nothing. Conspicuously absent was the selfie he had sent himself not even five minutes ago. He opened up his phone, checked the sent email folder: nothing.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
He tried messaging his contacts on every platform, every app. He tried Twitter. He tried Feeder. He opened Blender and Fender, then Finder and Binder. No matter what he opened and tried to use, it was the same on all of them. He could access all these platforms, but he could no longer interact. He’d scroll down and down and down the endless feeds, but his Likes weren’t liking, his pokes weren’t poking, his clicks weren’t clicking, his posts weren’t posting.
He decided to Google himself. If he was actually dead, he at least had a right to know how it happened. Another possibility: someone with the same name had died. Though what are the chances of that? He had Googled himself a number of times over the years. There were no other Rob Baerenwieses out there in the world—at least none that the internet could find.
He couldn’t find anything. There was no obituary, nothing, anywhere. Not that he had ever been a known quantity on the World Wide Web; he was more a social media guy. In the search results, all he could find were remnants of an outdated version of himself: his old MySpace profile that he’d forgotten even existed. He clicked on to this teenage version of himself, blanched, then immediately closed it, went back to the search results. He narrowed the results down to the last twenty-four hours. Not a single thing.
So it had to be a prank, a social media gag. But who would do such a thing? How did they do it? Why would they do it? Naturally, Baerenwiese was tech-savvy enough to know about hackers, people who made a living committing acts of identity theft. Such crimes, he knew, could cost the victim hundreds or even thousands of dollars. He signed in to his bank account. Everything in order there. But when he tried to execute a transfer, nothing. Same thing at PayPal. He could access. But he couldn’t act.
He had to stop this. In order to, he would have to enter the dreaded zone of IRL. First, he would have to get dressed. Next, he would have to go to the coffee shop downstairs. The coffee shop he worked from several times a week. Baerenwiese had no office to report to. Or, rather, his office was virtual. A fancy way of saying he was part of the masses who now worked from home. When that became too monotonous, he’d go downstairs to the coffee place. Between the hours of 10 and 2, it was rarely crowded. There, he could operate the majority of his duties as Hashtag Copy Editor for InstaCram, the social media PR firm. In addition to checking to make sure the spelling and grammar of all hashtags deployed in their campaigns were correct, Baerenwiese was responsible for occasionally altering the hashtags in order to ensure ultimate marketability. Not only did he have the luxury of working from home for a decent salary, whenever one of the hashtags he’d worked on went viral, he received a bonus.
A slight chance that there was something seriously awry with his Wi-Fi connection. Maybe that’s what was preventing him from posting, responding. But he knew, at the same time, that this explanation was inherently absurd. He could try the same operations using the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi. But the real reason he felt he had to go to the coffee shop is that he would be recognized. It was the closest place IRL where he was known. Not that any of the baristas knew him well—he doubted even one of them followed him or even knew his Twitter handle. But they at least knew his face and name. He had to give them the latter to write on his coffee cup the first couple of times he went in. After some days, the girl behind the counter no longer had to ask, she simply wrote “ROB” in big blobby letters across the rim of the cup.
But standing before her now, he registered not a glimmer of recognition on her face.
“It’ll be the usual,” he tried.
The girl stared back at him probingly, as though trying to solve an illegible CAPTCHA. “I’m sorry. I, uh… Do you maybe order with one of my coworkers usually?” She looked around, hopeful that one of her colleagues would come to the rescue. But nobody said anything.
“Uh, no. I always order from you.”
“Oh…” Her eyes widened as she processed this information. How to make this situation less awkward. The customer is always right… but what about those times when he is clearly wrong?
“Just get me a tall Americano, a dash of almond milk. Thanks.”
Baerenwiese gave her a penetrating glare. She returned it, now annoyed by this guy’s strange antics, and emboldened by that annoyance.
“R-O-B” she wrote on the cup in the same upper-case bubble blocks as always.
Baerenwiese quickly paid and walked to the other end of the bar, where the barista busied herself completing his order. She looked up at him out of the corner of her vision from time to time. He again tried to register some glint of recognition, but there was none. If anything, more a cagey analysis, as though she was trying to determine whether this stranger was in full control of his faculties.
He looked down at his phone. He tried opening up Seeder. He went to the profile of his friend Susan, planted three seeds in her garden. Clicked Plant. Nothing; his seeds simply disappeared.
The barista set the steaming cup on the table in front of him. “You wanted this to go, right?”
“Right,” he said. He tossed it in the trash can on his way out.
He rang the buzzer outside her building.
“Hello?” came her voice through the intercom.
“Susan, it’s me,” said Baerenwiese.
“Rob. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
“Rob? Sorry, no, I don’t.”
“Look, I don’t know who the fuck you are, but that’s a sick joke. Goodbye.”
“Susan!” He pushed the buzzer once more. Pushed it frantically, three, four, five times.
“What is it?”
“Susan, let me in.”
“I have no idea who you are. And I don’t wanna know.”
“I told you. It’s me. It’s Rob. Please. This whole thing has been a huge mistake. Just let me in. I need you. To help me figure out what the fuck is happening.”
“Rob is dead, okay? You sound nothing like him. And I can see you, you know? There’s a security camera in front of the building, asshole. You look nothing like Rob.”
“What the fuck, Susan? I am Rob. We went to college together. We both lived in Q dorm the first two years, then you moved off campus and I went abroad to London to study for a semester, and when I came back we had a huge fight and didn’t talk until graduation, then we finally made up and haven’t had a fight like that ever since. Your Skype handle is SkuzQueen708. Your Instagram profile is…”
“You’re a sick fuck!” He could hear Susan crying now through the intercom. “Get away from my building now! If you ring this bell one more time, then you’ll have to explain yourself to the police.”
Baerenwiese walked toward home. He took out his phone, looked at the selfie he took this morning. Took another one. It was all him. His appearance certainly hadn’t changed. But nobody, not even Susan, recognized him.
He thought back to another time he had died. There was this night in college when he went out clubbing with Susan.
They had met in a Deconstructing Digital Dynamics seminar, bonding over their shared love of classic films like The Matrix Reloaded. Soon they were texting almost every day when they weren’t in class—and texting each other when they were in class, of course. Baerenwiese had at one point entertained the probability that their friendship would evolve into something more intimate, but it never did. Susan was always somewhat distanced, and Baerenwiese was too. Perhaps that’s why they understood each other so well.
One of Susan’s friends was Tina Turnoff, this popular drag queen on campus who worked the door at Voidzone, the coolest club in their college town. Tina always let Susan skip the line and gave her drink tickets. She asked Baerenwiese whether he wanted to come along on this particular Saturday night. Once they got in, the drag queen led them into the backstage area, proceeding to cut some white powder lines out on a small mirror across the table with a PayPal MasterCard, chatting away with Susan all the while. When they handed Baerenwiese the straw, he just automatically assumed it was coke and didn’t think to ask. But the burning sensation in his nostrils told him it wasn’t the soft powdery nose candy he had chanced to insufflate at dormitory parties from time to time. A burn so intense it made his eyes water. “OMG. WTF is that?” he asked Susan. The drag queen LOL’d like it was the most hysterical thing he had ever heard, then his face became a wink emoji. “It’s horse tranquilizer, darling. Katie’s Secret! Do I need to spell it for you, sweetheart? It’s ketamine!”
At first it was fine. Then, as Baerenwiese wiggled back and forth to the pulsation of the electronic bass drum, a warp in his perception began to take over. He turned to Susan. “Why did they turn the music down?” he found himself asking.
The next thing he knew, the room around him was melting. At the same time, the experience was distinctly perceptual. He knew it was the drug, he knew it couldn’t be happening IRL. Still, it was happening. While his surroundings were blurred, the human beings around him, all of them, came into sharp focus. A focus so sharp that they, too, in a way, were distorted.
Baerenwiese’s motor functions began to fail. He was trying to keep up with the music, but he realized he was all out of rhythm—his feet couldn’t lift in time. As though the concrete floor they were dancing on was filled with ankle-deep mud. How come no one else seemed to notice? Weren’t they all as fucked up as he was? And if they weren’t, then how come none of them seemed to be paying any attention to his disturbed attempts at dancing? Everyone was oblivious. Realizing this made him feel safe, since large crowds weren’t his thing.
Baerenwiese slowed to a standstill and began to rock back and forth. Then he tried to whisper something into Susan’s ear. But couldn’t make the sludge coming out of his mouth coalesce into recognizable words. Finally, he grabbed her hand and led her off the dance floor.
It was when they found a place to sit, in the chill-out area on the club’s back terrace, that the scary sensation of dying kicked in.
Baerenwiese turned to Susan, and said—or thought, for he could never remember after whether he was able to make himself understood in this new language—“This is it. I can’t go back now. I’m in the place where Brian is. I’m dead.”
And it was frightening. The most frightening thing he had ever felt or experienced before. Gone and never coming back. He distinctly remembered feeling himself becoming one with all the inanimate substances that surrounded him—the dirt, the foliage on the ground, the rocks surrounding the canal. He was part of the earth now. He had lost his body, his agency, his mind, his consciousness—not lost it, exactly, but it had been transformed, separated out from the unifying factor that had once been Baerenwiese. Now he was part of the grand ether, the primordial sludge of nature’s abstract design. This, Baerenwiese suddenly understood, is what it’s like to be buried, to melt your entire being into all this stuff, to feel yourself becoming particles—particles that no longer coalesce into the human being you once were. All memories, relations to the human sphere, were about to be left behind, and for good. And it scared him. And he was sad about it, sad to have to be going out this way. What had that drag queen given him that had murdered him so? But no—it wasn’t Tina’s fault. He had, after all, taken it willingly—he had murdered himself—and that was it. That was the fact and this was the sphere of inexistence he now found himself in. The odd thing is that he felt he would continue perceiving, but in this terrible altered state, perceiving the world but in nonhuman format, his vision and other sensual capacities comprised of pixels and blips of sound and then occasional evocations of hyper-clarity. Goodbye, world I have once known. I am never coming back again, and yet here I will remain, a Baerenwiese you are unable to see; I will still be here, forever perceiving your ineffectualities…
That was the summer his best friend died. They had never actually met—Brian lived on the other side of the country—but they had been communicating on social media since high school, and he felt closer to Brian than anyone else IRL. They had so much in common, they were nearly identical: they Liked the same things, they LOL’d at the same jokes, they re-Tweeted all the same news stories, they even found out they had the same ads on their Instagram feeds. Losing him was more than just losing a friend. It was like part of himself—the better part—had perished and could never be recovered.
Brian had had this amazing YouTube channel that was all just him: Brian chatting, talking about his life, telling jokes, interspersed with the subtlest mention of new products he was using that of course everyone would immediately click on and buy, making him one of the internet’s most valuable—and valued—commodities. Posts of remembrance were still flooding Brian’s Facebook wall the night that Baerenwiese accepted Susan’s invitation to go out—somewhat pointless, Baerenwiese felt, since Brian would never be able to read them. But Brian was a major influencer, so his loss was felt by many.
An odd thought had occurred to Baerenwiese that very night before he and Susan went out as he was scrolling through the posts of remembrance on Brian’s wall: What if Brian were still able to read all these messages from his place in the beyond? What if the dead were somehow able to communicate with the living through social media?
These are the sorts of questions one only asks in the early stages of grief, and so Baerenwiese in retrospect probably shouldn’t have been out partying that night, and certainly not ingesting any psychotropic or dissociative substances. It had, after all, been less than a month since Brian had passed. The wound was too fresh. But disassociate is exactly what Baerenwiese wanted to do, and now more than ever. He craved release. It was all too much, too unfair, being just a college kid and having to deal with this weightiest of issues. Normal people don’t think about death until they are forced to. It’s not a topic most are eager to dwell on. Certainly Baerenwiese had never been afflicted with a morbid sensibility. But then neither had Brian—or so he thought. Then he went and threw himself in front of a train. As though to prove to Baerenwiese—not just Baerenwiese, but his entire extended family, and all his friends and followers—just how wrong, how unthinking, he had been in all those years of friendship and following.
Then again, maybe Brian hadn’t given it all that much thought. According to the police report that someone later posted online, Brian’s death had all the signs of a spontaneous act. No note left behind, all his feeds left running on his various screens, the apartment a mess, the cat unfed. Like he had just popped out to run a quick errand and was on his way back home when he got detoured by this random decision to end it all.
He still hadn’t solved the mystery, in his mind, behind Brian’s decision to leave him here all alone. And as the world around him dissolved in the spiral of the K-hole, he thought to himself, I am going to the place where Brian is. That is what it is, this death—becoming one with the elements that surround you, all the swirling particles and atoms—a return to Nature with a capital N.
Susan stayed with him the entire time. She knew something was wrong. The K hadn’t affected her in quite the same way, but she had herself endured the dreaded K-hole once before. She sat there holding his hand, but knew there was little she could say or do. You just had to wait it out. It normally lasted only a few minutes, though to the person going through it, it feels like hours. Once he felt straight enough to walk again, she took him home. He lay on the couch in her arms and cried until morning, as she stared at the glowing screen on her phone.
He tried, in the days that followed, to present himself physically to more of those like Susan whom he had been close to IRL, but nobody recognized him. They’d see some sort of human form cloaked before them, and yet his appearance had become that of a stranger, his identity lost in a humanish formlessness no longer deserving the honor of a name. Like he had never existed to begin with—though his likeness was immortalized on every feed. What they saw on their screens and what they saw when he stood before them were two completely different personages. Only Baerenwiese could see that they were the same. But he couldn’t persuade anyone of this obvious truth.
He recalled reading in grad school about the Sasha—an ontological state between the living and the dead that exists in certain Central and East African cultures. They are the dead who are still remembered by the living, and so not exactly dead and not still alive, but a third, hovering category. Had Baerenwiese himself joined the Sasha, or something like it, without knowing, without realizing it? Is this what death is? Would he gradually fade from view as those who could still remember him gradually died off or forgot about him, stopped posting their remembrances on social media?
But if he had died, then why couldn’t he remember the moment of his own death? Unless he had died in his sleep… But that didn’t make sense, because when he woke up and logged in, his death was presented to him as an already accomplished fact. And he could still walk around—eat, sleep, defecate. Feel pain. He bled when he cut himself, cleaned the wound so it wouldn’t get infected, walked around with a Band-Aid wrapped around his finger.
Is it possible, he considered, that in the aftermath of one’s death, one’s conscious mind somehow lives on, but is unable to recall the exact moment of death? That his body could continue functioning, operating like normal, only no longer recognized by those he once knew? Somewhat desperately, he began to consider that this might make some sort of logical sense. You slowly come to realize that death has taken place, that you are no longer among the living. You can witness everyone’s activity, but cannot interact. And IRL, the only ones who can see you for who you are, are strangers—but they do not know you, and aren’t particularly interested in you. And the ones who once knew you now see you as a stranger. You might as well be invisible.
After a day of these IRL misadventures, a day also spent trying and failing to open new accounts online—he tried Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of them, and none would allow him to sign up with a new identity—he gave up on trying to correct it. It was pointless to try anyway. He fell back into a state of exhaustion. He withdrew. His withdrawal was shaped like a sort of spiral—a K-hole without ketamine. He lost track of the days he spent scrolling, reading the posts of others. Reading through their memorializations of his great life, naturally. Though he never could find out how he died. There were hints, in some of the language, at suicide. Could this be what happened in actuality to Brian? Was he really still out there as well, maybe withdrawn inside his apartment like Baerenwiese, scrolling away? He saw the photos posted of his funeral. People standing over the grave in the cemetery, closed casket, everyone staring at the screens on their phones, taking photos and selfies. He had read the announcement, considered going to the funeral himself, but then figured why bother—no one there would recognize him anyway. Pretty soon, the memorializations ceased. People stopped posting on Baerenwiese’s walls, stopped Tweeting his RIP hashtags. Yet he couldn’t stop scrolling, reading every feed. He read everything, but at the same time, he was no longer processing it, no longer retaining any information. A useless consumer, he was experiencing the medium, the technology that had shaped nearly his entire life, from the outside, unable to contribute, only able to absorb—and was zombified by it. Gone was the illusion of forward movement, of momentum. What it was, really, was a living death.
And yet he was still here. And so what, exactly, had he become? (And why are all sorts of becomings so painful?) Maybe, it occurred to him one morning, as he sat on the floor of his kitchen sucking down the last dregs of grape juice from the carton, he had never been human to begin with. Maybe he himself had been an algorithm, a mathematical cog in the machinery to control not just attention, but all of human perception. As crazy as the idea may sound, it made a lot of sense from this new vantage point.
From this new vantage point, he thought back on his life, what it had been. What he had been. The highlights, the low points. But mostly, banal things: the fabric of the day to day. A life spent churning out content. The phone always in his hands, he’d film and photograph things without even really knowing what it was he was filming, then upload this material immediately, lest he spend an entire minute contemplating it in utter solitude. He’d clicked on links that had turned out to be ads, ads that had turned out to be content, eventually unable to distinguish between ads and content, and oblivious, entranced with the process of being persuaded. All the loopholes and wormholes he’d been sucked into. How one of the reasons why he had so few friends IRL is that they could no longer communicate with each other effectively. As one of the many examples of communication’s optimization leading to communication failure, there was the phenomenon of the delayed response, where he’d read an email on his phone, then respond to it hours later at home on his laptop without first rereading it. Basing his response on the faded and distorted memory of the original message, his brain had done its meanwhile thing of zeroing in on the points of the email that were maybe of prime importance to Baerenwiese, but of secondary or tertiary or even nonimportance to the email’s original sender. In receiving this skewed response, the sender would be presented with an entire arsenal with which to assassinate his character. How many relationships had faltered or come to an end because of little mishaps like these? Mishaps that the great Communication Age had supposedly done away with?
Was there any chance of holding on to some fragment of what he’d once had IRL? Of re-becoming alive?
He was never going to get past himself, it seemed. It was not a question of correcting the situation, of rising to challenge the conclusion that had been reached by some unknown persons—or, more likely, artificial intelligences well beyond his access. That world he had once been a part of was now beyond his reach. Now he understood what it meant, fundamentally, to be outside: apart from everything. And to view the world from this state, which could not really be deemed a heightened state. More like a distanced awareness that was simultaneously very much internal. Oh, useless it is, trying to avoid the contradictions, trying to put them into words. The more he tried to fathom it out, the more of a mess he made of things. Hence, his paralysis. His body attached to the couch. Staring at the white ceiling above in a perpetual daze. In and out of consciousness, though it didn’t really matter whether he was awake or not.
Travis Jeppesen is the author of See You Again in Pyongyang, The Suiciders, Victims, Wolf at the Door, and All Fall, among other books. In addition to his fiction and art criticism, he is known as the creator of object-oriented writing, a metaphysical form of writing as embodiment that attempts to channel the inner lives of objects. His first major object-oriented writing project, 16 Sculptures (Publication Studio, 2014), was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial as an audio installation and was the subject of a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery, London. His new book of essays is Bad Writing (Sternberg, 2019). Jeppesen is based in Shanghai, where he teaches at the Institute for Cultural and Creative Industry at Shanghai Jiaotong University.
Originally published in Mousse 72