1. Write for skimmers
2. Write for peckers
3. Filter, impose, trespass
4. Include a link to the Code
5. Think hyper
6. Think branding
7. Think icon
8. Tell your visitor where to go
"How to Write for the Internet"
in Human Resources
by Rachel Zolf
Coach House Books, 2007

Human Resources is the third book of poetry by Rachel Zolf, a writer who capitalizes upon her experience as a part-time employee, composing copytexts for a corporate clientele. Influenced by the ideas of George Bataille (who discusses a "general economy" of exchange based, not upon recouped scarcity, but upon wasteful excesses), Zolf provides a political critique of quotidian language under capitalism. She showcases the power of poetry to offer us more radical options for expression.
Zolf recombines readymade fragments of bizspeak from her job, using both online devices and search engines in order to augment mechanically the outcome of these permuations: "given enough input elements, a writing machine can spew about anything: private jets, exquisite gardens, offshore-banking havens…." Out of language pilfered from the boardroom, the author generates nonsensical statements about random, poetic topics, all intersecting at the crossroads of money, waste, and labor.
Zolf notes that "Orwell says[,] freedom and democracy bloom from plain speech," but she tests the limit of this adage by suggesting that the asemic excess of poetry might complicate such a political principle. In her epigraph, she quotes an editorial from the Harvard Business Review, which avers that, "[b]ecause literature concerns itself with the ambiguities of the human condition, it stands as a threat to the vitality of the business executive"—who must be plainspoken in order to be successful.
Zolf, however, uses these threatening "ambiguities" in order to demonstrate that the argot of such plainspoken capitalists has reduced the "human resources" of identity to nothing more than values upon a spreadsheet. Zolf illustrates her metaphor, for example, by using a gematric calculus in order to correlate words of "equal value"; moreover, she often replaces words in a poem with a number that corresponds to their ranked usages in English (so that, for example, the word "the" might appear as the number "1," because the word "the" is, of course, the most commonly uttered word in the language).
Zolf peppers her text with these cryptograms based upon "word-rank" (so that the line—1 403 9 4 930 6 '2421 510'—translates ironically into the following proposition: "the job is to write in plain language"). Such cryptic numbers call to mind index values or stock prices—or perhaps (because of the Hebraic mystique of gematria), the penal codes at Auschwitz; however, Zolf also suggests that, perhaps, poetry might constitute a kind of encryption that renders us "illegible" to such capitalist mechanisms….

Originally Published: February 26th, 2008

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. February 26, 2008
     Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

    Quite a short critique. What about theory on the net?

  2. February 27, 2008
     Christian Bök

    Just following rules 1 to 8, Troy….

  3. February 27, 2008

    I recognize that bashing capitalism is something of a sacred sport in these parts, and far be it from me to interfere, but it seems only just to note a few things about that Harvard Business Review editorial that Christian quotes Zolf quoting. (A Google-cached version is here.) To wit:
    1/ The editorial introduces an interview with Harold Bloom, who, as the editors note, is hardly normal HBR fare. It won't surprise anyone here to learn that Bloom recommends Shakespeare to "busy executives." And apropos of other discussions here on Harriet, Bloom also writes:

    I'm not a businessperson, but I do believe that the humanities–if properly taught–could offer a great deal to businesspeople. By reading, people can become more aware and acquire a broader range of sensibility. But I disagree that the study of literature will make businesspeople more moral. I've been intimately acquainted with poets and novelists and literary critics all my life–people who have had the subtlest and most comprehensive consciousness–and they are some of the greatest scoundrels I have ever met. Moreover, I am very unhappy with any attempt to put the humanities, and literature in particular, in the service of social change.

    2/ The editorial quotes several HBR staff for their literature recommendations, which include William Blake, Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, and Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." I'm not sure what this does to the idea that businesspeople "must be plainspoken in order to be successful," but it certainly wouldn't seem to endorse it.
    3/ I think there's a fair case to be made that the author of the shocking statement Christian quotes ("Because literature concerns itself with the ambiguities of the human condition, it stands as a threat to the vitality of the business executive, who must at all times maintain a bias toward action"), which comes from the mouth of Nick Carr, was uttered with a healthy dose of sarcasm directed at those who would seek "a bias toward action." This is a man who is, after all, a writer. Moreover, he's a writer who has an M.A. in Literature from Harvard, who knows enough about poetry to say, "I didn't think it was possible to write a great poem about rock n roll, but Paul Muldoon proves me wrong with Sillyhow Stride, his elegy for Warren Zevon," and who can say, without irony:
    Just as things that should be short shouldn't be made long, things that should be long shouldn't be made short. Many of man's greatest works demand and deserve extended, steady attention. They can't be boiled down. They can't be snippetized, widgetized, or otherwise turned into bite-sized morsels. You can't compress culture into a Zip file.

    And finally, he's a person who could answer the question, "Is the internet good for writers?" by saying,
    It seems to turn on how you view writing. If you see it as a utilitarian information-delivery vehicle, then the net's boffo. If you see it as a craft that's as much an end as a means, then the net's a curse.

    Granted that none of these are dispositive, it still seems to me likely that Carr was having a little fun at the expense of the people he spends most of his days writing about.
    Am I the only one who fears that the price of all this lofty anti-capitalist dudgeon will be our god-given irony? I still think the best satire on capitalism ever produced is William Gaddis's novel J R, but I am chastened to recall that Gaddis was a true believer in at least the possibilities of capitalism.

  4. February 27, 2008
     Don Share

    About god-given irony... former Partisan Review reader and bard Donald Fagen observed (see Donald Fagen's New Sincerity) that "As soon as David Letterman hit the airwaves, it was really all over for irony."