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Jia Tolentino Has Been Burnt Out on the Internet Since 2014

The New Yorker writer talks about her book, Trick Mirror, internet hangovers, and stoner thoughts.

12.9.2019

'I’ve been burnt out from the internet since 2014.' jiatolentino discusses her new book, what motivates her to work, and more:

The New Yorker writer talks about her book, Trick Mirror, internet hangovers, and stoner thoughts.

first-person essay about growing up Christian in Houston and eventually replacing Jesus with MDMA; lean, the recreational name for codeine cough syrup; and the Houston-bred musical style chopped and screwed. Another piece tackles the economy of marriage and its intrinsic relationship with capitalism and male power, while the opening essay “The I in the Internet,” explores the predawn of the World Wide Web. Tolentino examines all of these different moments in life and in culture, asking questions she doesn’t necessarily plan on answering; Trick Mirror is built on exploring dark alleyways of the zeitgeist and avoids coming to easy conclusions. Tolentino talked to Vogue about memes, why knowledge can seem useless at the current boiling point of the internet, finding joy by shoveling yourself out of the shit, and more. Your book made it onto the New York Times best seller list. How do you feel about that? Mostly I feel like I truly can’t believe it. I feel really grateful and gratified on this really deep level. The book is pretty dense, and demands a lot of the reader. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t have an obvious point or obvious takeaway. It doesn’t seem like a book like that would sell. It feels like something seeping into my consciousness that I haven’t fully processed yet, that people are down to read this shit. The whole book is a project of what kind of clarity can be established in the midst of being so full of dread, so it’s wild that people are down for it. What freaks you out the least about the internet? I’ve always found it very moving, interesting, and endlessly fascinating to watch myself try to preserve some humanity from systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and the internet, but disincentivize them, you know? I always talk about the YouTube comments section as still very pure, and as a place where the humanity jumps out. I think that’s why I write so much about memes; they are an escape valve. If I’m trying to get towards an understanding of the self as diminished, and something that can be sort of stupid and inconsistent and silly, then the self is a thing that exists so we can interact with one another. I think that memes are the framework on the internet that most supports that model of selfhood. They don’t magnify the self—they put the self in proportion as the stupid thing that it is. I think memes are little flares of people wanting to speak on a different register, wanting to not connect on the monetized channel of approval and disapproval that the internet rides on. I love reading what you write about memes because it’s funny, but also because I think you use them to process larger ideas about your own life. What kinds of memes are you thinking about these days? I like to write about things that are difficult to write about for whatever reason. I think that is one of the reasons why I write about sexual assault, and why I write about the internet. It’s one of these things that require a lot of precision and tonal awareness to write about well, and I think memes are one of them, because as soon as you write about something that is funny on the internet, you kill it. I think that it is really hard to write about something and not kill it. And it’s possible that I have—you know, taking the energy out of something like Shen Yun. People stopped making Shen Yun jokes after I wrote that piece. I’m aware that it’s super lame to be doing this, so I try to only do it when I actually do think that the meme is indicative of something genuinely interesting, like there is something behind it. I don’t have a thing right now. I also think that we are in a meme decline, a meme recession, you know what I mean? There hasn’t been anything that has made me cry-laugh in the middle of the day. I’m wondering if I’m just getting old, or if meme production is just down for Q3. I think there is a real id underneath the meme ecosystem and the things we find funny right now as a collective. That’s what I look for—when there’s just a sense of this zeitgeist-y id that’s coming out through the dumbest shit ever. Photo: Courtesy of Jia Tolentino / Random House Pinterest Do you identify with the idea of an internet hangover? You talk about this a bit in the book. I’ve been burnt out from the internet since 2014. I don’t know—how do you feel? I feel like I spend all day looking at my computer and that my eyes are burning out of my skull. Yeah, it’s a nightmare. But don’t we feel burnt out by all of the systems that we’re trapped in? That’s kind of why I’m so surprised by people reading this book, because the book is about this feeling, and I think that’s a hard feeling. I am amazed that people are ready to be pummeled by all of this at once, when we already are pummeled by [this feeling] all the time in life. Maybe there was a point in trying to see how to look at the world this way because it seems to be bearable for a lot of people, which is unbelievable to me when I’m just trying to make it bearable for myself. So the answer is yes, absolutely. My job at The New Yorker helps in that I don’t necessarily have to be paying attention to the news. I can shut Twitter off, and I don’t have to be in the office. I can have a lot of freedom about where my attention can go. But sometimes I’m really awful about making new stuff. Right now I’m pretty awful at it because I’m so on my computer; I’m so strapped to the internet since the book came out. I do feel incredibly burnt out, but I also think this whole “We’re all burnt out by everything” is the hurdle we have to jump, in writing and being alive. We’ve got to clear this bar. I don’t necessarily think we need to take a break. I don’t like that model—I mean, I do on a day-by-day basis—but as a holistic thing, if the solution is to withdraw and regain our strength so we can function better within them. It’s the whole model of wellness and optimization. Like the idea of being in Silicon Valley and going on a phone-free weekend so you can crush it the next week at work. I’m really wary of that. I don’t know how healthy this is: My reaction to being burnt out is like, We gotta go straight through it. We can’t live like this; we simply cannot. I think that’s part of why I’ve been trying to write straight into the shit. How do you motivate yourself to ask a million questions when you constantly feel kind of doomed? I was talking to some of my Peace Corps friends last night about this because we spent so much time in Peace Corps talking about systems, attractability, and ourselves. We also talked about how we were ever going to make the world better and if we could, if it was possible, and if it was hubristic to imagine it. These are people whom I spent so much time in 2010 talking to about this idea of existential futility. The fact that everything is possibly useless is very galvanizing. I’ve manipulated my brain to think that this is actually really freeing. I went on a hiking trip to Utah with one of my friends, and we were really deep in the middle of nowhere. You know, we were going eight hours without seeing a car. We were there in this landscape that was prehistoric; you could see millions of years of coloration in these rocks and canyons. I worry about this with climate change. I spend so much time thinking about what the fuck the next hundred years will look like in terms of the food system and, like, the power grid, and then certain things remind me that this is one way in which current events sort of accelerate this sense of futility. I was looking at these canyons and was like, “I am not even going to be on Earth the time it takes for that rock to change color. I’m not even here for a speck of it.” And that to me says we’re barely here. Our lifetimes are our entire universe, but it’s fucking nothing. This is probably such a stoner, acid-trip thing to say, characteristically, but I’ve found that to be the thing that makes me want to work. It’s like, you might as well; it doesn’t matter, so you might as well. If there is almost no chance of anything meaning anything—beyond interpersonally, like, I do think what we do for each other matters a lot—but in terms of your work and understanding of these systems, for me, the sense that we’re barely here is the basis of my impetus to do as much as I can. So what kinds of things are actively giving you joy right now? The leftward swing of the Democratic party is giving me a lot of joy. Elizabeth Warren ’s slow rise in the polls. I think the prospect of Gen Z shifting the conversation about climate change and gun control, swinging towards the big solutions that are necessary for us to survive is exciting. I hope that the fact that this generation has grown up openly in danger will change something as soon as they start to vote, and that gives me joy and hope. What gives me joy, though, and you can probably feel this in the book, is that my brain is always panicking, but my body is always trying to find joy. As an animal creature, I find a lot of joy in a lot of shit: like people’s dogs and people’s babies, and the fact that I got to hang out with my friends all of last night and the fact that it’s still summer for a second, and that Prince is on Spotify. Basic sensory joy is always extremely easy for me to access, despite the other half of my brain that’s like constantly freaking out. Read more: Vogue Magazine

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