Emoji summary: 🕳🕳🕳
I’ve started re-watching Community, bc it’s on Netflix and I want background noise rn. It’s either that or lo-fi ~vibey spotify playlists, and the latter is starting to grate on me. There’s one episode I half-watched recently, where Abed takes a class about Nicholas Cage: Good or Bad? And, though he’s warned to not go too deep, he watches a marathon of Cage films and loses himself in trying to decipher some kind of sense from his ~ouevre~. It peaks when Abed stumbles into the classroom looking dazed and disheveled and has a comic-breakdown, breaking into Cage-isms and writhing on a desk. As the credits ran, I texted Gab n said ‘writing about Caroline Calloway will break me like Nicholas Cage breaks Abed’.
This week, I want to review Caroline Calloway’s essay series: <I am Caroline Calloway>, but it’s a tangled mess. How do I do that without referencing Natalie Beach’s article in The Cut that the essay is responding to? How do I untangle those essays from Calloway’s ig persona, twitter persona, the series of delicious scandals involving mason jars and cooked salad, bodged rip-offs of matisse ~dreamer bbs~ that she used to sell ¿via her own ig DMs?, the book deal and advance for the novella she never (‘yet’) wrote, her Self as a real person that is quite openly and vulnerably able to announce that she has Problems away from this internet persona she has carefully crafted? And how do I untangle all of that from the way <we> write on TWP, sprawling out over the internet, chaotic and messily implicated in this wild wild west? How do I even fucking explain who Caroline Calloway is, when the unexplainability of her as an online phenomenon has become a meme of its own? Here is where I’m putting my foot down. I won’t be explaining who she is; at this point, you either know or you don’t. I won’t be explaining the back story; I will go mad if I try. I will be trying to review just her essay series, but I am happy if I fail to present it in neat containment; because these things all leak into each other by her own careful/accidental design. I am going to write and hope for the best, a la CC.
Last summer The White Pube got cancelled 3 times: once for the text about white girl art, twice when we visited the goldsmiths MA degree show, thrice I have forgotten why bc summer was a blur and it clearly wasn’t that big or important if it was overshadowed by the other 2. I remember that Autumn; we were hungover from the blur of this summer of chaos, wondering how and why the internet was now a hostile place for us, if it would ever go back or if we’d crossed the threshold and had to have ig comments turned off forever for the sake of our own sanity. I started therapy in October, and in my first session I cried while trying to explain it all. Natalie Beach’s article in the Cut came out a month before, in September, and though Gab and I didn’t discuss it specifically, we had spoken about Caroline’s instagram and public unravelling as parallel to our own slow-burn of unfolding chaos. Gab couldn’t see the likeness, but I was convinced. Caroline seems to just tip out everything that happens to her, all the shit, just processes things through immediate and continual publishing, and moves on n back all at once. It’s a rapid and thoughtless kind of movement on purpose; Caroline’s lack of remembrance felt like a similar flavour to the loose and fast way we wrote and moved online. She writes with a carelessness for form, words stumble out of her in a rush of feeling; she doesn’t have to announce that the intuited and the subjective corporeal are important components to the logic of her writing - it is clear to see, present and at the surface.
But it was a grotesque identification that I felt the most; I couldn’t tell if it was projected or if I was seeing a clear warning, a real proximity of what twp could be if there weren’t 2 of us. I remember sending Gab the link to Natalie’s article and saying, ‘I’m scared we’re the art world’s Caroline Calloway lmao’. I was insecure about our image as these pretenders with all the potential, all the chaos, and none of the juice, just longing for someone to take us seriously. Gab immediately replied, ‘we aren’t ever her, we’ve got each other’. Caroline was without a ghostwriter/collaborator, without a best friend, posting endless reams of images from the archive, scrambling to respond to Natalie’s article in a way that made coherent sense, to absolve herself - for her audience and I think for her own self. I had both a collaborator and a best friend; when Gab and I felt attacked we drew together and closed in, took shifts, handled each others panics when it got too much. When it was over, we spoke to each other about the fallout and feeling, helped and affirmed each other and assured each other that of course we were not personally implicated in other people’s disgust at the visible edge of our fleeting thoughts. I had never felt so grateful for a complete friendship in collaboration.
That external gaze can be difficult to handle, but it’s still trite to say that doing everything like this on The Internet makes you hyper-visible and obscures any nuance contained by your Self at the same time. I have personally and professionally hated it in a variety of ways. We started TWP with full-candour, a spectrum of openness about our lives and feelings; and now I am careful about what I reveal, how I share and what I share because the implications of an audience slip past your control as it grows. It’s fucked that a fairly significant part of having your work taken seriously as a Maker involves you allowing or resisting a portion of your audience viewing you as a kind of celebrity. Me being completely open with no consideration only feeds a dark parasocial relationship; constructs a persona and a public, neither of which are particularly real. When I shatter my end of the image, audiences take offence that I’m nothing like what they assumed of my construction // but it cuts the other way too: if you put everything out there and people still call you a scammer and an intellectual charlatan, it can feel real and true, because your actual Self can get entangled in that constructed persona. I think that’s definitely happened to Caroline Calloway. She’s constructed a persona and a public, entangled her Real Life Living Self up in it. Her essay series is set to try and save the image of both, but it’s beyond PR stunt. I think she writes in a way that tells of a need to reconstruct her own image of herself as much as her audience’s.
Gab does not like Caroline Calloway. After reading part 1&2 of her essay, tbqhwu neither did I. White women fail upwards, and her career to date seems to be proof of her conforming to that aphorism. Caroline is privileged in ways I find astounding, and that are boring to point out; and still what I find quite incredible is the way she navigates that. She never quite addresses her immense privilege, only ever alluding to the fact of her identity, as if attempts at self-awareness are enough to constitute dismantling or introspection. Either that or she uses it as a primer, something to acknowledge before immediately refuting with something you get the feeling she wants to say outright, but can’t without sounding conceited or naive. In this, I think maybe the claims that she’s a genius could be on to something - she willingly or maybe accidentally makes visible an architecture that’s otherwise either shrouded or unsuccessful. She makes her identity (and Natalie’s) small and laughable by describing this saga as ‘the sapphic plight of two white girls you’ll never meet’; she says bizarre things like ‘people can be born into material wealth, but emotional poverty’ that make structural inequality and the way oppression is co-constructed by other deeper factors look like cosmic bingo; she romanticises private boarding schools, Oxbridge & the Ivy League and simultaneously makes her Yale box the uncool butt of the joke; casts herself as the underdog and outsider against the stark backdrop of richer, more beautiful friends who have entitlement and a sense of belonging that she claims she doesn’t. This all functions beyond characteristic millennial irony and becomes something that effectively evades critique. By mentioning but never addressing her privilege by name, beyond the cursory glance of comedy, she makes it trite to point out that her privilege affords her whimsy, sympathy and forgiveness without consequence or total reprisal - it’s part of the schtick. In part 2, she exposes part of it as a conscious strategy; ‘on the Internet, privileged aesthetics rack in the likes. I will never forget what Natalie told me about the importance of appearing more relatable (poorer) in memoir: people hate the rich in long-form prose’. She anchors it outside of herself as advice she was given by a wiser and cannier friend, but the affect still hits. The mechanisms are visible in a way that makes even this critique of her relationship with class politics feel dull and ineffectual in a way. It’s all a literary device, it is all too slippery to pin down long enough to get a proper look at.
This slipperiness feels insidious particularly when at one point in the essay she briefly does attempt introspection of her class positionality; ‘real ingenues are either born fluent in extreme wealth or arrived at such a fluency from abject poverty by means that were unplanned. Like marrying rich by accident…. Or being model-scouted at your local mall. Middle-class and upper-middle class girls like myself were supposed to be grateful we didn’t have it harder.’ She paints the bourgeoisie as unfortunate underdogs, the true victims in the American class system and crafting the terms of our sympathy. She attempts to undermine or soften this as a firmly didactic statement almost immediately after, with more sincerity than irony, but with the admission of ‘a lot of internalised shame around the fact that I was a well-off woman, but I wanted to be part of the one-percent.’ But it trails off into the emotional implications of the shame, rather than into the implications of the shame in relation to those desires, the desire’s relationship with wealth and its aesthetics. Maybe slippery literary devices alone can never really give you resolution or depth, only the facade of nuance. Someone tell Olivia Laing too bc I read Crudo, and it suffers the same damage.
Part of me wants to believe that Caroline is a genius, because wouldn’t that be wonderful? For a woman who’s young and flippant and messy and chaotic to be a literary genius that isn’t taken seriously by the world around her by way of the complacency she willingly plays into - ugh how romantic! It’s a seductive, powerful mythology that I want to lean into so badly. But I think there is something in the power of that mythology & lore, in the construction of image & public, in the way she evades immutability and constructs her identity as politically malleable within her long-form writing. There is something very American, coastal elite with a ~liberal arts education~ about the heady sticky way that both Caroline and Natalie write. They hold this intoxicating power of transformation, able to take the most banal sentiments and sentences n make them feel revelatory or revolutionary. I only know this is a trope because of Netflix and Twitter; I cannot bear to even listen to American accents on podcasts, so I can’t claim any grand authority or deep incisive knowledge when I say this. Natalie does it incredibly well in the way she consistently is able to emotionally articulate the experience of what essentially boils down to a standard media trope of <rich girl & weird friend>. Beside the strange handling of her identity, Caroline does this too throughout part 1&2 with the repeated interludes of a meta ~writer writing about the way they’re writing, in specific detail that describes the architecture of the writerly devices they are using, could potentially be using, or that others use~, and it visibly unfolds against the narrative as flex and chronic backdrop. Basically, I think Americans are quite good at using big complicated words to say relatively understandable things, creating a complex mythology of intellectualism and novelty. I don’t mean this in a snide way, I don’t want to make it about stereotypes, I only mean it in the sense that all Aquariuses are just kinda ~like that~. Maybe it’s cultural, something about the SATs or the aggressive late stage capitalism and deeply entrenched founding mythology of individualism - idk. But even if it’s not a wider national phenomenon, between Natalie and Caroline, it feels like a lingering style.
This fabrication of novelty is important when pasted back against the backdrop of a parasocial constructed public. She overshares; her writing is herself, her Self is literally inextricably tied to her work and output. By then using this transformative power to create the image of novelty, Caroline’s constructed public either believes in her as a genius, or opposes that. It’s a polarising move, I think that’s why there are only 3 types of people in this world: people who love Caroline, people who hate her, and people that have no idea what’s going on or why she’s trending. If you don’t buy into the hype of her genius and novelty, then you hate her because this is a paradigm that doesn’t leave space for middle-ground; in this way her mythology and lore functions almost identically to subculture and will probably follow the same trajectory. [Read the essay <Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution> for more]
Caroline Calloway has somehow ended up with her literal self as the site of all these collisions, a messy tangled web of mythology in which she is author and subject. As artistic output, it is not critically or artistically novel: Amalia Ulman made instagram the site of serious culture in 2014, better and more coherently. Through Part 1& 2 of her essay series, that is all I could think about: the crushing banality of it, and the futility of committing. We are all always online, we are all perpetually visible, the backdrop of our work. The power Caroline Calloway has rests in her ability to articulate desire and longing into a coherent shape that can be consumed; though sometimes she is unable to describe the entirety of that shape. Sometimes I feel like even in her failures to articulate that desire, the glimpses can be enough to make the jump. I don’t know what I thought writing this would achieve. I can’t decide if I like her or not, I can’t decide if I think her writing is any good or not (at the moment I’m landing on not), I can’t decide if I ~care~ enough to figure out the answer to those 2 questions before this review ends. I used to be able to experience art, assimilate that experience into the rest of my life, and produce a coherent response from my body that articulated the feeling of that experience and the way it rubbed against the rest of my life. I am literally unable to settle on a whole or complete attempt at that. I don’t think that means her work is ~complex~ or unknowable, avant-garde and grasping at the outer limits of contemporary practice. I think that means she represents Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack; sucking in light as it hits her, sucking in attempts to categorise and define her. Her best friend and long-time collaborator wrote an exposé about her that went viral and with this essay series she’s literally out here hustling to elbow the scales so she’s back in control of defining her own image. And there’s nothing particularly interesting to me about a white woman grappling with the idea of her own agency.
PS: An end note, that i wasn't quite sure how to work into the actual main body of text, but Caroline is friends with the girls from Red Scare, a podcast that's pretty fucking fashy, she's appeared in an episode, and posted them on nights out together on instagram. I'm not going to link to it, bc fash, obvs, but that's something to note when discussing her political affect. All well n good getting hard 4 bernie but like, jezus come on, have some fucking political literacy outside of electoral politics.