(ESSAY) Who Still Dreams of Buffering? Dan Power's Glitch Parapraxis
In this meandering essay, Maria Sledmere explores two recent publications by Dan Power: Selected Dreams (Steel Incisors, 2021) and Late Morning (Legitimate Snack, 2022). Attending to the love poems and dawn songs of Power’s poetics, from Meme Man to the latent content of buffering, we enter the planar realm of pixels, parapraxis and glitches…
Like a small child lapping at the gap between the Lacanian Imaginary and Symbolic, the speaker in Dan Power’s poems makes language fresh and new again. This speaker talks to animals with soft encouragement, rhymes with gentle pleasure, slips between visual encounters, opens doors and revels in the disintegration of words. Sometimes I’m writing a poem and rhyme does something funny to meaning: worm becomes harm, sea becomes me, dream becomes meme. I wonder if rhyme itself is memetic sampling, remixed endlessly in the beats and line breaks of expression. Then I think: can colours rhyme? Is rhyme about contrast or complement? When you wear yellow and I wear blue, is that rhyme? Sometimes rhyme clangs but then so does colour. Yellow and blue. Yolk and sky. My eyes smart at the complement. Some residue of the dream alive in the day like Oh no, did that really happen? Is it from memory? It’s a good thing dreams can be ‘selected’, because otherwise the endlessness is scary. Picking red berries from among green leaves, dreams from sleep need eating. Maria, what do you mean? I’m talking here about two books which lap in each other the morning of the online poem in permacrisis. These are Selected Dreams (Steel Incisors, 2021) and Late Morning (Legitimate Snack, 2022).
Selected Dreams is self-described as a ‘surreal post-internet adventure, told in a visual poem / meme / graphic novel style’, and one of the first titles from Steel Incisors, a publisher run by James Knight, which offers ‘visual poetry with teeth’ (a dream image in itself, and I’m up for being chewed and swallowed). Power is no stranger to the visual, as founding editor of Trickhouse Press: a publisher with many playful books up its sleeve — from Laura Tansley’s post-it book Notes to Self, to SJ Fowler’s Sticker Poems. He’s explored the corpus of the book that wants to flutter away into micro-forms, transmute a marginal language of notes and reminders. Selected Dreams is a condensed epic gleaned from the royalty-free commons of Dreamstime and repackaged as weird and alluring visual poetry. It ventures through an object-oriented universe of desktop wallpapers, loading screens, magician’s hats, low-res doors, galactical stock backgrounds and anthropomorphic streetlamps. Each image takes up a full page, and we experience the action ‘face on’ as a frame; rather than from a subjective perspective, the viewpoint is a screen transplanted to the page. Collaged and layered images create a flat aesthetic capable of strange juxtapositions (a volcano next to a prairie, overlaid with the ‘dreamstime’ branding and a spiralling wreath of golden door handles you’d die to press down on). Our hero in this tale, Meme Man, is plucked straight from the internet’s Surreal Memes multiverse.
Is he everyman, just some guy, or an uncanny mannequin of the human as constructed by the machines of late capitalism? The smooth, androgynous surface of Meme Man’s avatar resists the categorisation of personhood thrust upon us through targeted ads and algorithmic governmentality (what would you try to sell Meme Man – scalp oil and eye drops?!). As a ‘Man’, Meme Man cannily reproduces the universalised, lofty human subject of the white male and turns it into the soft grey, androgynous matter of generalised avatar, fixed in static expression (withholding and ambiguous as the Mona Lisa smile), infinitely reproducible. Who the fuck is Meme Man is the wrong question. They are lost in their own duplication; they speak in dispersals of large white type; their speech is not obviously theirs as such. You’ll find them on Minecraft, dead meme pages and the multiplying Wikiholes of tomorrow. We are entering into a matrix (hence the grid lines overlaid across many of the book’s action scenes) of desire, rather than a linear quest for identity. Maybe the real questions are Is this book object- or process-oriented, Harmanesque or Deleuzian? Psychoanalytic or Satiric? Selected Dreams digests and metabolises the memetic content of these binaries through staged encounters with pleasure, perception, traversal and relation. Meme Man slips effortlessly between realms.
Power’s book emerges from over a decade of surrealist experimentation on the internet. Whether you want to pitch the start of that history with the first meme (late nineties?) or Chuck Person’s instant vaporwave classic, Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010), the point is, Selected Dreams is the printed matter of internet ectoplasm, expressed through Power’s knack for quirky humour, curiosity and lyric charm. Meme Man’s piercing blue eyes seem colour-picked from the planet Neptune, or the sweet azure of the Windows palm tree wallpaper. They are looking, glazed, at something a little bit obscure to us. Meme Man embodies a form of depersonalisation the internet lures us towards but won’t take us to the lake. We’re cry-laughing and thirsty from all the cry-laughing, lol.
Power wrote a three-part essay series for SPAM Plaza back in 2019, ‘Glitching the Collective Mind’, which delves into the weird realms of millennial humour, memes, information overload and the abundance of post-internet art which tries to process it. Selected Dreams is the practice as research of Power as infinity surrealist, investigating the existential aporia of post-internet existence. The frames of the book resemble screenshots taken from the real-time dreams of the child of an AI singularity. Inquisitive, clumsy, glitching. Who’s taking the screenshots? The author is a curator-prophet, ‘surveying’ the ‘even realms that are yet to come’, in the words of our rhizome boys, Deleuze and Guattari. These realms are ‘colonised’, according to James Knight in the book’s afterword, by consumerism and ‘standardised, monetised […] measures’ (not to mention the surveillance implied by CCTV camera clip art placed in some of the images). But they are also laced with wonder and error: the glitchy excess that saves us.
What’s the glitch? In the iconic Glitch Studies Manifesto (2009/10), Rosa Menkman argues that
the spectator is forced to acknowledge that the use of the computer is based on a genealogy of conventions, while in reality the computer is a machine that can be bend [sic] or used in many different ways. With the creation of breaks within politics and social and economic conventions, the audience may become aware of the preprogrammed patterns.
In other words, glitches are the errors that remind us of how the interfaces of social and object relation are organised for us by systems of capital, Big Tech, patriarchy and so on. What’s exciting is art’s potential to remind us that such interfaces — given their computational platforms — are interactive and potentially resistive. The optimism inherent to this hacker mindset might seem a far cry from the ideological triumph of Silicon Valley’s Big Tech megabros or the melancholy, dissociative Instagram scroller who submits their attention and pleasure receptors to the whims and stimulus of the almighty Algorithm. Power’s book isn’t making big claims for the glitch in the way that others have (see Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020)), but rather incorporating a kind of glitch parapraxis into the (un)waking life of cyberspace — a realm so anachronistic it’s come around full hauntology in the recent iconography of the metaverse.
Parapraxis, huh? Freud pops up in Knight’s afterword to Selected Dreams: ‘[i]n the waste land between rented commercial spaces you might find a GIF of Sigmund Freud glitching into that cat playing the piano’. You might find familiar a particular gif or meme, but you won’t remember it exactly. ‘Memory isn’t a thing now’, Knight offers. What do we have instead? We have ‘the happy coma of a black screen’, where we dwell in suspension, ‘waiting for likes’ (Knight). What glitches this darkness? Freud describes parapraxis as those moments of ‘slip’ (glitch is from the German glitschen (to slip), via the Yiddish glitshen, meaning to slide or skid) where we accidentally reveal something of our unconscious wishes or beliefs. Examples of parapraxis include a slip of the tongue, a mistyping, mishearing, misreading, misplacing of objects. Like dreams, they offer glimpses of what’s going on beneath the surface. If dreams are like Wow!, parapraxes are like Oops! projected from some deep, interior space (the boundless hard-drive of the heart). Selected Dreams is written in what we’ve come to know as a familiar, satirical misspelling characteristic of memes. Extra letters (‘it cann’t be’) and sensational misspellings (‘REALISZE’) create a rasping, stammering and error-filled colloquialism that glimpses the cyber Real of a scrambled, distributed intellect. I’m thinking the traumatic MISSINGNO of Meme Man grammatology. There’s astonishment, inquisitiveness, displacement, confusion:
One of my favourite images in the book comes after a lightbulb moment which sees Meme Man confronting mini–Meme Men, Hamlet and Yorick’s skull style, asking ‘whom are you?’ This malapropism takes the objective form of identity, further depersonalising or objectifying the plural ‘you’ which blink back neutrally from inside the plug socket. As David Lynch (another name mentioned in the book’s afterword) often uses electricity as a motif to signify the hidden alien forces within everyday life (see Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)), here the banal object of the plug socket takes on uncanny subjecthood. Meme Man as a ‘plug-in’ identity we can recalibrate around the book. I would like to see an interactive, 3D environment version of this text which allows you to reposition objects and add your own text, to ‘play’ (as) the objects, Everything style. Of course, the on-switched Meme Men might be a cheeky nod at the author’s surname. How does poetry glitch our everyday language systems? Power teases us to think about whether an intentional use of language constitutes a slip within these systems, by overloading the circuits with slippage and error. Just as edges of objects retain their aliased edges, phrases and expressions are jagged, slightly ‘wrong’. Meaning can’t easily be smoothed over.
Selected Dreams is a book of the internet’s ‘phantasmal embodiment’ (Knight), where hamburgers and CD-ROM clip art have replaced Jungian archetypes as the primal symbols of a collective unconscious. That embodiment exposes the internet as infrastructure through glitch. Lauren Berlant describes the glitch as ‘the revelation of an infrastructural failure’. As a digital infrastructure, what does the internet promise? Unlimited freedom, communication, adventure? A giant goldfish floating in a crystalline mall the size of the universe, fractally repeating? Selected Dreams focuses on infrastructures of energy and transfer. Food, electricity, storage/memory and weather are key motifs across Meme Man’s adventure. Harsh, sideways rain forms a lurid pixelmist; a badly edited moon waxes across a bright blue sky (the scene is apparently a golf course in autumn). Meme Man enters a server room and we see the notification message ‘Your battery is fully charged’ (it is a great and pleasurable frustration that I can’t literally click ‘okay’ to clear it). Returning to the image above, if I turned the plug sockets off, would the faces disappear like ghosts in sunlight? If you take a fish out of water, what happens? What if I took a photoshop lasso to the edge of those faces, that fruit, and snared the lines, pasted the shape elsewhere? Everything in Selected Dreams is replicable, impossible and weird in the dark ecological sense of humming in the object pull of more-than-human entities. If Salvador Dali pioneered the paranoic-critical method of placing juxtaposed objects together to generate new meaning, Power’s work shows how the internet is doing that all the time through myriad algorithmic surprises, where seemingly unconnected objects, ads and articles rub up against each other. To ask ‘who’se dream is this?’ is also to ask to whom does the dream belong, or, better — to what does the dream belong?
A dream, as much as we can catch it, is only ever a selection. Telling the dream relays a supplement of the Real thing. It’s lossy compressed, like a jpeg. Selected Dreams is the curated matter of ellipsis: that wild, weird zone of the supplement and its ‘UNKNOWN_ERROR’. Where the frame is skewed. Where time itself is ‘DISCONNECTED’ in the run-on code of daily life. The internet of my childhood was characterised by delay and suspension, countless error messages, broken code, crashing. Every time the wifi went down, I would impersonate my dad and message the guy who ran the village broadband with impetuous complaint. In those moments of frustration, perhaps my mind made space for something. I’d doodle on mouse mats, desks and the back of my hand. I’d set something up for download and stream, go for a walk and come back to see it all nicely buffered and loaded. I’d cultivate a life around that boredom, annoy people IRL. In the 24-hour media cultures of the current era, says Tom McCarthy, ‘Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything’. The churning chiasmus of this phrase imitates the endless refresh of the infrastructure itself, running on perilously generative time — ‘the cycle begins again’, as Power puts it in another work, ‘dry cycle’, where the speaker is hypothetically stuck inside ‘this washing machine’ of the poem. Infrastructures, as ‘physical forms […] comprise the architecture for circulation […] the undergirding of modern societies’, and in tandem ‘they generate the ambient environment of everyday life’ (Brian Larkin).
The internet as infrastructure is always already rapidly changing, and with it the interfacing cultures of the web are in flux. Highspeed broadband is still a postcode lottery for many people, but for those with access to it, is buffering even a thing anymore? Perhaps the conspiratorial abjection surrounding the rollout of 5G networks is partly a psychoanalytic shock of the loss of buffering, the loss of a materialised anticipation before the instant of access. Data transfer, streaming and web navigation happen in a seamless simultaneity, too fast even for our excitable rat brains to process. Against the real-time of the instant, Power’s Situationist parapraxis is disruptive, restoring us to the portals of the old web, materialised anachronistically as doors in the oikos of memetic unconscious. That this internet occurs in a book, in the serial form of adventure, inherently slows things down. I take great pleasure in turning the page like I’m going through a door. It gives me the illusion of agency I don’t get from watching things flicker and change before my eyes onscreen. I have to work for it. The elliptical dialogue doesn’t offer the gratifying instant of the meme (you get the joke or you don’t) but a temporality of understanding premised on both accretion and erasure. You turn the page, you open a door. Meme Man is looking back at you, Meme Man is in profile, Meme Man’s head is exploding into the bitmap rendition of a cell of coronavirus. Meme Man is a viral ghost inside language itself: that glitch between subject and object we call a pronoun in poetry, or an avatar online. It’s too much.
Grafton Tanner (2016) describes vapourwave’s embracing of electronic ghosts, and here Power evokes charged zones of psychic residue with a joyous surrealism. As screenshots, stock art and collage draw attention to the internet’s materiality on the page (the weight of data measured in pixels), we also witness a concern with edges: poor aliasing and blurry frames are the physical static of the image’s journey from one medium to another. Things are never quite fully what they seem; there’s this trace of what they’ve been through. I like to think of them as ghost traces; the aura of their reproduction fuzzy as our dream recollection. Which brings us to Late Morning, recently released by Broken Sleep’s Legitimate Snack imprint. Legitimate Snacks are known for their sweet-hitting slices of good poesie, and Power packs a punch in this one. Populated by animals, mythical beings and technology (pigeons, dragonflies, dragons, koalas, penguins, rats and angels, pylons and wifi — to name a few), Late Morning has a fable-like atmosphere, attuned to both the quotidian and the soupy time///////timelessness of dreams.
In the opening poem, ‘beach chicken’, the titular subject is a ‘chicken on the beach’ and not in a coop. What is a ~beach online but this blissed out, ersatz backdrop of freedom, sun-drenched and filtered Clarendon or Powerade blue, begging for caption? A beach ‘is where the land comes / to disappear’: an ecotone where species meet, a place smoothed over rhythmically by the tide and eventually swallowed by global warming. Virtual realms promise infinitude but are also structured around limits. There are certain places in the real world that become like this. The five-mile radius permitted for human roaming during early lockdown: what barbed imaginary did we conjure to stop movement beyond this? Often I am tired, I feel like motorways snake through the city as a great basilisk nest of traffic so I can’t pass through, can’t get around, afraid of some harsh devouring. You get to the end of a long street and the beyond of it starts to blur; you are an avatar turning back. You feel a force like gravity stopping your progress. Power’s voice in ‘beach chicken’ adopts the soothing, instructive tones of a guided meditation app: the apostrophised chicken is also ourselves, encouraged to ‘peck like the waves / be jagged as the sky’. To peck is to reach for a snack, a titbit. You can do it. These waves are kind of easy and hungry, coming up at the edge of the poem. I’m always talking about waves when I want to talk about pain, something coming and going inexorably. But ‘jagged’ is sharp and jarring. You can’t just smooth it over. The sky is unfinished or broken but the stanzas are refined like four haiku, gentle stones polished by tidal vom.
Where does the dream end and the world begin; where does the meme begin and where does it die? When does the more-than-human become a ‘view’ and when does an observation become fact? These are works concerned with perception, with the philosophical contours of empirical knowledge. The speaker revels in the pure materiality of saying words only to feel swoony at their tangibility. This is to say, acknowledging the world’s ‘facts’ is a bit like learning the meaning of birth and death, summer and winter, night and day, all at the same time:
the sky reflects the sea reflects the sky – there are no horizons oh winter berry spring onion summer rain i need to lie down to turn my back on the world and fall into the sky it might be enough to know we’ve done enough to know there’s no more we can do (‘mountains between clouds’)
In the great tradition of the aubade or dawn song, Late Morning is a sleepy and delayed intervention, waking not to revelation but to the fuzzy and overlapping states of anxiety and beauty in a world of extinction. As in Selected Dreams, the poems create portals where we might ‘fall into the sky’ — Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History in goblin mode ascendance. A ‘spring onion / summer rain’ kind of fresh sensation at the other side is humble, everyday, hardly utopian. Such sensory conjuring is itself exhausting, enjambed dramatically so the speaker ‘need[s] to lie down’. But I can smell the spring onion and summer rain, even with my real olfactory capacities obliterated by Covid. I have this medial sense. What is this surfeit of ‘enough’ that the speaker is grappling with? By the end of the poem, you hardly remember. Maybe that’s mindfulness in the time of crisis. I’m a bit too weary myself to critique it.
Freud identified slips of memory as parapraxis. In Power’s collection, stark, archetypal images replace each other almost interchangeably; such is the speaker’s distracted attention. The addressee, ‘you’, is ‘blank as a canvas’. A ‘cd’ could easily be ‘a galaxy’ in the brain-foggy poem ‘can you tell i’m tired?’, where rhyme and half-rhyme make slippery and satisfying connections between things, half-remembered. ‘i remember stroking a cd’ evokes a modern-day Krapp caressing his memory spools in the Samuel Beckett play Krapp’s Last Tape — even the CD feels auratic, outdated. I remember beginning a poem once, ‘My self a disk I can’t compact’, wanting to get at the idea of something huge and corrupted, rewritten if lucky. I never learned whether people hung old CDs from trees to attract or scare away birds, or just make rainbows. I loved it; the effect of the glimmering discs incongruous against greenery. So fucking weird. It’s clear Power’s poem is aroused also by the ‘whirring’ of the CD era and its evocation of ‘swelling static breathing’, the presence of something human and near as Nature. In the haziness of late morning, ‘i am always tired’ but this takes place ‘in a dream’. The futility of determining conscious from unconscious, authenticity from performance, is dramatised constantly in the slippery, effusive and playful manner of Power’s speaker. The best thing to do is take a sip from their quotidian charm, ‘brain fizzing like a fanta’ — the zing of spring on sertraline, or genuine dreamy sugar.
‘I dream of you, to wake’ wrote Christina Rosetti in a sonnet, dreaming to want always to be with a love. She concludes:
If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake, To die were surely sweeter than to live, Though there be nothing new beneath the sun.
Equating the desire for endless dream as a preference for death is itself ‘nothing new’ — it’s the stuff of timeless love poetry. But the ‘nothing new’ is also a figure for the daily itself. Think about Beckett’s opening line from Murphy (1938): ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new’. Rosetti yields the dream as this generative, if bittersweet, restoration of love’s daily turn, even if it is to love to death. In Late Morning, the new day is both familiar and strange, tacitly filtered through the internet’s striated space, its replaceability of content. In the present-tense of this laconic lyric, ‘every day feels like déjà vu / for the first time’, as Power puts it in the titular, concluding poem — the one that self-erases in snowstorms, ‘kissing the blizzard’, the one that hums and replenishes. Love poems to remember / Love poems to forget.
You could just sidestep the bland, expensive metaverse and fall for these affordable pamphlets from Dan Power, a poet mainlined into the post-internet ether with an effervescent taste for strangeness. When I read lines like ‘sad as a police horse / with its tongue frozen to a 5G mast’, I think ineluctable; like in very plain terms these poetic adventures are speaking to nothing less than the traumas of online lives, pandemic realism, infrastructural and institutional forces, species extinction. I want to go out and suck into my lungs a low-definition form of rain, unfiltered; I want to buffer my days in twilight apparel and not have the new day load so hard; I want to bite into the planet, ‘another planet’ that the speaker of ‘beach chicken’ finds inside layers of this one. It’s not that I believe this other planet is real the way Musk believes in Mars; it’s just I’m ‘curious’ to taste the world the poem holds, right there in its mouth, and describe it whole.
At the end of March 2020, as much of the world began entering Covid-lockdowns, Dan put together a zine called Get Well Soon. It’s like writing cards to the world over and over like the phone just ringing in the softcore belly of the earth, I’m sorry I’m sorry I miss you sorry sorry I can’t believe it. That ‘gentle’ ‘chicken on the beach’, appearing as though on a glitched-up nature documentary, seems so alarmingly peaceful in its place of imminent erosion. We’re all a little beach chicken, displaced but sweet in these poems, laying foil wrappings of mini Lindt earths. ‘These are surreal and spooky times, and communication is more vital than ever’ (Power, March 2020). It still is. Hi. You’ll let it wash over you. There’s that feather.
Berlant, Lauren, 2016. ‘The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 393-419.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, 2005. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Larkin, Brian, 2013. ‘The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 42, pp. 327-343.
Tanner, Grafton, 2016. Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (Winchester: Zero Books).
Text: Maria Sledmere
Image: Maria Sledmere