WRECK PARK

WISE MATERIALITY AND POETIC RETICENCE IN THE POC
MAINSTREAM: JENNIFER NELSON INTERVIEWS TUNG-HUI HU

The interview starts in the middle of a drink Hui-Hui and I were sharing, when I realized our conversation was
maybe getting interesting. Hui-Hui spent time working as a network engineer a while ago, and I was praising
the way his latest book, an academic monograph on A Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT, hardcover 2015; cloth
September 2016), invoked that experience.

JENNIFER NELSON

I wanted to start by praising the first two chapters of your most recent book [A Prehistory of the Cloud, MIT Press, 2015]. The first two chapters I really liked because materialism in art history is like. . . . It’s this fetishization of sourcing, like: “where is this table from?” I mean, I get impatient about materialism—or, materiality. I shouldn’t say “materialism,” because that’s actually an interesting Marxist thing. I mean, studying materiality. . . . It’s often actually displaced and transfigured connoisseurship. So, for me, your first few chapters instead do materiality in a theoretical way that’s robust. It’s not just about, “Well, I know my stuff because I spent my time looking at fiber optic cables.” You mobilize specialist knowledge in a very different way.

TUNG-HUI HU

It’s really unfortunate. So many recent books on digital media base their authority on the fact that their author has actually touched the fiber optic cable or looked at the code, rather than on well-built arguments.

NELSON

That happens all of the time in art history! This professor at [prestigious name] University took their grad students to a field in the Netherlands, where they could feel the soil that, like, Van Eyck knew. [Incorrectly:] Van Eyck doesn’t even paint soil.

You avoid that, I feel.

HU

Shannon Mattern has described this phenomenon as “infrastructural tourism,” and sometimes tourism is a literal label: you can pay $2500 plus airfare to join a tour that will show you where lithium is mined for computer batteries. Yet this tourism often distracts us from talking about the bigger political stakes of that infrastructure. At some point, it doesn’t really matter where one small piece of the Internet is; it’s too large to see its totality.

Also, to rely solely on my experiences as a network engineer would miss the fact that much of my so-called expertise is out of date. For example, I remember vividly, viscerally, how cold it was working in the middle of the night. We used anti-static foam insulation that came in the boxes that computers are shipped in as a little pad, so that the floor wouldn’t be so cold. I spoke to a friend, a data center engineer, ten years later. He responded: “Oh yeah—those freezing temperatures were completely unnecessary. Servers can go up to 80 degrees easily.”

NELSON

That’s interesting, because that’s a point in the book where you actually provide visual documentation. There’s the photographs that you’ve taken of these data centers. There is this impulse at this moment to bolster this visual memory with indexical evidence in the form of these photographs.

HU

Indexical, but also banal. The evidence doesn’t point to anything. Data centers have become a generic feature of the landscape, as Bernd and Hilla Becher found with their water towers.

Now data centers are just forms of commercial real estate; digital realty trusts own forty or fifty of these buildings at a time. You ask the agent: “How much is it per square foot; how much power do I get?” The utter banality of it is why I only wanted to take pictures of the outside rather than the inside; it’s because there’s no mystical secret that you can find by getting access to these buildings. You’re not going to read some code in the blinking lights that will somehow undermine algorithmic control.

NELSON

Here again this is where I think it’s very fun for me as an art historian because I think that’s what the belief in material of all these studies is [based on]. As though to undo art’s beholdenness to capital, we could just get back to labor and physical stuff. I mean, your book does engage with labor, not in a superficial way. Yet you don’t have this pretense of undoing the wrongs by getting down to the physical in some pure sense.

HU

One reason tracing the chain of consumption is so popular is partly because scholars like the gadgets—the batteries, plastic surfaces, and so on—that they play with. What often gets lost are the people not only behind the scenes but also not even considered legitimately part of the scene.

The most recent thing I’ve written, a thing I just finished earlier today, is about understanding so-called pirates, spammers, or people who write fraudulent messages as an integral part of the cloud’s system of work. They aren’t far off from content moderators or microlaborers who are treated as disposable, as essentially human spam. Companies conflate the workers with their product, and so their managers just hit the block button, or the spam button, or the bad work button, and it blocks these workers from employment. They just say to themselves, “Oh, I thought it was trash work.”

NELSON

I haven’t actually read Finn [Brunton]’s book [Spam, MIT, 2013] all the way through, but does your new project respond to his work on spam, or is it going in a different direction?

HU

One of the points he makes is that Nigerian fraudsters don’t even have access to the internet most of the time. They’re working out of these cafes; they don’t have credit cards. They’re basically—as I describe it in this article—customer service agents for Western fantasies of getting a bigger dick, getting Russian brides, or whatever people want—free stuff.

He was telling me about some of those Nollywood music videos that glorify spam kings. But it’s a hierarchy like anything else. The people who are doing the writing are totally at the bottom. They make shit, and then their bosses have their credit cards, and then they have other bosses.

NELSON

Content producers are always treated like crap! Solidarity?

HU

Yes, absolutely. Though I have a story about that.

One of the poets I went to grad school with had a work-study job to supervise a team of Filipino workers. The team went through images of scanned eighteenth-century books word by word, and typed in the English word. Her job was to hit the Reject button if the sample was bad enough. There’s a grotesque way in which this poet, by virtue of being a poet and therefore knowledgeable about English, was then put in charge of this other form of writing. Poets manage—

NELSON

Oh, so the hierarchy of writing?

HU

Yeah, and because this language work is being done in English, it totally retraces the patterns of colonialism of the US or England. All the workers on these platforms are from the Philippines, or Bangladesh, or Kenya.

BREAK

NELSON

In this book, Greenhouses, Lighthouses [Copper Canyon, 2013]—please don’t be too mad if I’m totally off—I felt like one of the themes, both in individual poems of course, but also in those poetic bookend essays/reportages, is that there’s this unpredictable complex mesh of consciousness that influences the interpretation of data or facts.

There’s the book of memory poem; there’s that moment where it’s kind of a love poem but you reflect the Nuremberg Chronicle, and there’s a certain amount of space that’s left open [like blank pages at the end of the Chronicle]. Is this book modeling the interpretation of a possible future? I wondered if you wanted to speak on that, or if I’m missing the point? My question is about interpretation, and your book’s meditating on a very directed or flawed or biased interpretation. . . ?

HU

Flawed is the right word. If I had to explain the book’s conceit, it might be to offer a sense of moving backward to try to reconstruct—to document, if you will—events that are falsified in the act of documenting them. Euripides’s Helen posits the idea that Helen didn’t actually go to Troy, but simply stayed at home the whole time. If you take Euripides’s line on that, there’s this other version of her made out of clouds—a phantom version of her that looks just like her—that caused the Trojan War. It’s a way of doubling and therefore falsifying the original story.

My thought was that by overloading what is factual, this could in some ways be a way of coping. To see whether or not we could double history by adding interpretive gaps. By telling the story of 9/11 again, which has been told over and over, but in a deliberately fantastic way. In an earlier book of poems—

NELSON

Which one, Mine [Ausable, 2007]?

HU

Yeah. There’s a footnote and it just says, “This is a lie.” You’re right to pick up on these intentional lacunae. Even in the essay [in Greenhouses, Lighthouses] I had a page of references that my publisher reminded me to leave out because technically this is classified as poetry. But in fact the more references and facts I’ve gathered about the lighthouse that is the essay’s subject, the more suspect the story should become.

NELSON

It’s like greenhouses are these situations that concentrate and store light in a way and things grow up out of them. Then lighthouses are the things that direct the light. I actually was like, “I don’t think this is intended necessarily, but I think it’s a kind of incidentally beautiful idea about imperfect transmissions.” That comes in and out throughout the book.

HU

Yes, photography is a perfect example of an imperfect transmission. It’s not just realistic, or illuminatory. There’s this eeriness, even creepiness, to the fact that a photograph is a storehouse of old light.

I remember seeing family photographs found after Katrina, where faces were partially washed out. It was one of the spookiest things I’ve ever seen. They’re still looking back at you but they’re sort of eroded, decaying. I think it not only stands in for wider political failings, but also for the way that by taking something out of its case and examining it we’re already exposing it to some sort of damage.

NELSON

I want to talk more about politics here. I find A Prehistory of the Cloud a very wisely political book. It has a strong relationship to history. That’s really well-considered, you have a meta position on historicity and history that comes through in the book without being annoying, and that impels the political interventions. I feel like the political interventions aren’t just reactive. It’s not like, you stimulate the aplysia, the neural circuit works, and suddenly some shit goes down.

On the other hand, Greenhouses, Lighthouses has fewer overtly political moments. I’m not saying it’s not powerful in political terms; it’s just not as obvious.

In general I was wondering: what’s your relationship to poetry that’s more overtly related to politics? Political poetry, protest poetry, stuff that’s mainly doing the thing that your scholarship is doing a little more overtly, that your poetry is maybe more subterraneanly doing?

HU

Having crossed paths with the tradition of protest poetry at Berkeley, the truth is, I’m jealous. I wish I had the ability to say things that directly.

I remember doing this poetry slam where I was the token book poet, and everybody else was there raging on the stage. I actually felt ... I had the reaction of wanting to be the audience. But I’ve come to embrace my own reticence, the fact that I’ll never be the one with the loudest voice.

I’m interested in reticence as not just an affect but also, to get back to your question about politics, as a possibly political move. There are potentials that circulate within a piece but that don’t have to be explicitly voiced. We’re both academics: you’re surely familiar with that kind of vocabulary, especially in artspeak, contemporary artspeak, to challenge, or subvert, or undermine, or deploy—

NELSON

Intervene, say, militaristically.

HU

Yes. And I was talking to a colleague who asked, “What happened to pacifism?” What happen to non-action as a kind of strategic model?

NELSON

I think it’s going to come back, but maybe we shouldn’t hold our breaths, either.

HU

One kind of implicit, rather than explicit, politics lies in historiography. For instance, Kaja Silverman finds this politics in Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, where Richter places a photograph of his daughter next to the Baader-Meinhof gang, drawing an implicit link between the two.

There’s something really interesting about these non-linear kinds of relationships. That’s why, in A Prehistory of the Cloud, I wanted to find these unusual threads that were contiguous, next to each other, and happening on the same highway in the San Francisco Bay area, or happening in the same random stretch of desert outside of Wendover, Utah.

NELSON

Metonymy rather than metaphor?

HU

Absolutely, yeah. I just tried to write some poems last month with only metonyms. It’s hard, it’s really hard.

NELSON

I do think there are a lot of moments in Greenhouses, Lighthouses where you do a radical imagism that succeeds in avoiding metaphor.

HU

I’m really happy to hear that because that was a deliberate move. I mean, the worst kind of documentary is the voice-over that says, “And this empty chair symbolizes her death.”

NELSON

It’s all captioned. Fortunately, you’re a little more free than the modernists. You say things like “sky sky leaf”; they would never allow themselves that kind of a bravery of language. What I mean is that it avoids the rhetoric of purity. “Oh, you shouldn’t need any captions. The juxtaposition should say it all.” That’s not you. You’re not a purist.

BREAK

NELSON

Now we’re just talking about the temporality of when books come out and the duration and intensity of one’s interests. I’m kind of assuming that when you were doing Greenhouses, Lighthouses you were already doing the cloud project—? What’s the mutual effect [of these projects on each other]? I know there are literal appearances of clouds in your poetry book, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Like [the poem] “Today Everything Is Connected.” I mean it’s like you make this love poem really actually tender and intimate whereas A Prehistory of the Cloud is actually like, “oh, the paranoiac fantasy of network” or whatever—?

HU

It’s a lot of work to avoid the trap of paranoid history. A Prehistory of the Cloud is a sort of anti-paranoid book; it starts with the paranoid belief that the internet was invented to defend against nuclear strikes, and [then] tries to unravel that mythology. Yet at the same time the kind of connection that I’m thinking about in Greenhouses, Lighthouses—there’s a tenderness there.

For example, love, or grief, is a kind of paranoia which makes you gather everything about a certain person, as almost a shrine. When you’re falling in love or mourning someone, everything is seen through that light and that prism; everything is colored by the thought of a person who has touched this thing. All these states are heightened ways of seeing the world.

I actually don’t remember the poem that well, though. Is it a love poem?

NELSON

Yeah it is. Let me try and find it now. It’s really good. Oh, I love that poem. Goddamnit, where’s the stupid poem

“Today everything is connected / By a single principle: guilt by association. / For this reason, when it is revealed / That we sometimes have trouble distinguishing / Between the noise and the shape of things, / The hand from the fist, the gestures of love / From the gestures of waiting, it means that / Anyone maybe be accused at any time.”

HU

[laughs] I love that you thought that was a love poem. I mean, it kind of is.

NELSON

Oh come on: “Simply raise your index finger and point / Across the room and someone will come over // To take your. . . .” It ends with “My love, you are here”: just to justify my claim!

HU

[That’s a great claim. I like it. I was thinking about a line from Godard’s Passion, which says that the gestures of love are indistinguishable from the gestures of working in a factory. Of course I wanted to add the gesture of waiting as well.

NELSON

But so you weren’t actually working on the cloud book?

HU

[That poem was written right before I started working on the cloud book. But I was writing about photographs of clouds at the time: toxic clouds from environmental disasters and mushroom clouds from atom bombs. And they led me to this Borges quote from Funes el memorioso—“He knew the shapes in the southern clouds at the dawn on April 30, 1882.” There’s something so quixotic about writing a book about clouds, or a cloud that changes in shape and form every crazy way.

To me, there’s something poetic about that: of a cloud that is never possible to capture, the subject that is always changing. That’s the idea I was playing with in Greenhouses, Lighthouses. It’s the way that the lighthouse indexes a historical moment where the vastness—the expanse, the uncharitable—becomes captured and literally taxed.

There’s a guy, Stephen Connor, who has written a cultural history of the air. He traces the idea that the atmosphere is an infinite expanse. Roughly around the nineteenth century, people realized, “Oops, [the atmosphere] has a history: it’s not just a timeless thing we can keep dumping waste into.”

NELSON

In a way the very nuanced materialization you do with The Prehistory of the Cloud is a sort of analog to that idea of wrestling finitude out of an unconditional infinite, or a culturally expected infinite.

My last question/ambush relates to something that we talked about during the year. How does it make you feel to know that the context for this interview was that an editor asked me as a person of color to do an interview with a person that [also] wasn’t white? [N.b. The editor in fact only stated a preference that my interviewee not be another straight white male.]

HU

I hadn’t realized that actually. That’s really.... [Sighs.]

I genuinely believe that the mainstream of poetry is in writers of color. Someone was just telling me that the only book of poetry sold in an airport was Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. That’s both a little odd but also a little wonderful at the same time.

It’s a little painful to watch the publishing world catch up to the mainstream. I feel like . . . what’s that phrase from Zora Neale Hurston? “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” One of the reasons why I feel comfortable talking to you is that I’m not constantly thrown back against that background and asked to perform my race. It was one of the really powerful things about—, and I want to give some airtime to communities like—Kundiman.

Before their retreat, I thought to myself, “Oh no, I’m going to be in a room with all Asian American writers.” Yet it actually took this burden away. I just felt that burden reappear a few seconds ago when you told me that we’re doing the Writer of Color interview. It’s a complicated feeling, because it’s also a role that I’m also used to switching into, so it’s not an unknown one to me.

NELSON

I think the person that asked me had really great intentions. It didn’t feel careerist or at all disgusting, unlike other situations I’ve been in.

HU

I appreciate that. I think it’s important to . . . be aware of the material conditions of why an interview happens. There’s a kind of honesty to that that I appreciate. We were talking about how to put together reading lists and the way that it’s usually—

NELSON

I[Rhetorically] Why is that the labor of a colored person to do? Why are we both having to do this?

HU

The way the Norton Anthology teaches us to do things is to pick and choose from a list of writers of color, and slot them in. I remember clearly the Li Young Lee poem “Persimmons” tacked onto the end of my college Norton. That kind of approach seems antiquated to me.

The category of not-white is just an odd category, because when I’m writing a poem, not-white isn’t a meaningful lens for me. My colleague Tarfia Faizullah was talking about writing race recently. She said, “When I sit down at the breakfast table and I’m having cereal [with partner Jamaal May], I’m not going, ‘Wow, what an interracial breakfast we’re having right now.’”

Similarly, when I’m thinking about race I’m thinking about race both in personal and embodied terms, and as a systemic problem. I feel like the problem with going, “Oh, find a writer of color,” is that it misses the system in which race and color work.

NELSON

[Fist bumps Hu.]