March 5, 2013

When potential literature is best left potential: the case of the offensive t-shirt


“Oh, no, we don’t check to see which verb is inside. I’m sure it’s fine.”

This past weekend brought us a small and strange controversy that, strangely, may speak to the continuing validity of OuLiPo and potential literature generally.

In the way of all internet uproar, the initial voice is difficult to trace in the subsequent Spector-level wall of noise, but at some point somebody browsing Amazon found for sale a t-shirt printed in large proud letters with the slogan “KEEP CALM AND RAPE ON.” Accompanying extremely classy variations from the same vendor included “KEEP CALM AND HIT HER.” But also, strangely, the same vendor on Amazon offered shirts that were difficult to parse even by the febrile standards of the rape-celebration-shirt-crowd, slogans like “KEEP CALM AND WIPE ON.” Granted, with these standards there was every possibility that “wipe on” was just a slogan reminding its wearer of appropriate sanitary measures, but in this case it was a clue. BoingBoing pointed us to Pete Ashton, who had the answer: “The t-shirts are created by an algorithm.

That’s right. As Ashton surmised, and as was later confirmed in a sincere apology from the company creating the shirts, Solid Gold Bomb, the shirts do not actually exist, per se. They are the result of a procedural script intended to cash in on (though Solid Gold Bomb says they’re a mockery of) the terrible omnipresent slogan “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” that’s been on every third item of merch this decade. To this end, a code was written that takes the infinitive of short (less than six letters) present tense English verbs and follows it with one of a handful of words, including “on”, “him” and “her.” It then, more or less automatically, lays that out in the familiar format, slaps that image onto the image of a t-shirt, and then batch uploads those to the Amazon marketplace. These shirts do not, in any real form, exist. Their image exists. Their listing exists. But because we have cheap, easy print on demand capability for tshirts, it’s entirely likely that none of the shirts themselves have ever existed. Perhaps not every step of the process was automated, but there is a very real chance that no human ever saw these deeply offensive iterations of what they imagined to be a foolproof example of Neo-Fordian streamlining.

It is not that there is no blame to be cast here. Certainly Solid Gold Bomb should be held responsible for even the possibility that they might print these. Amazon should be held responsible for what it sells. But in a case like this, it becomes an error of neglect rather than one of intent.

And that, strangely, is troubling in its own right. At the time these not-shirts came to light, Solid Gold Bomb had over 700 iterations of their “KEEP ON” design listed on Amazon. (They have since, thankfully, taken them down there and on their own site.) The company had well over 500,000 items listed on Amazon. This is not the realm of the real we are dealing with anymore, but the realm of the iterative, enemy of the potential.

As Ashton writes;

It costs nothing to create the design, nothing to submit it to Amazon and nothing for Amazon to host the product. If no-one buys it then the total cost of the experiment is effectively zero. But if the algorithm stumbles upon something special, something that is both unique and funny and actually sells, then everyone makes money.

The work of the OuLiPo is about creating avenues for literature, with a few illustrative examples. It is about play. It is about stretching the boundaries of language and potential. For all of the movement’s fascination with mathematics and computation, it is, as with all literature, about the unfinished problem rather than solution. Automated processes like those on display with this company—three thousand different town names emblazoned over an anchor, or a baseball bat, the ink distressed looking to soothe our panicked consumptive nostalgia—are the bane of potential literature, of leaving something unsaid. They work to exhaust possibility. They grind through the language like so much chuck, and so what if offal and hooves and a lethal prion or two make it into the mix. It costs them nothing.

One BoingBoing commenter compared it, aptly, to those print on demand book companies whose products are simply automated scrapes of wikipedia pages or public domain databases, printed only if they are ordered by some poor victim, but whose endless automated listings problematize searches for actual quality books.

It is a strange leap, I know, to move from a shameful tshirt slogan to a French literary circle to a cri-de-coeur against this, our age of iteration. But if we can’t blame a person for a t-shirt celebrating rape then it becomes a more troubling problem than if we could.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.