A critical encounter with one of alt-lit (alternative literature) movement’s most renowned contributors, whose moment (like many in this scene) has passed. Citing Christian Howard, Leah Henrickson advances the argument that “[w]e’re at a turning point in literary studies, and we need to confront how the changes in mode are affecting – and are affected by – the alternative networks of circulation within these digital spaces.”
Content advisory: This paper refers to instances of and responses to grooming and sexual violence.
“In a strict sense, I don't believe there's any definition of poetry that applies to all poets. Different poets have different goals. Different poets have different things in their hearts that they’re trying to express in different ways that they want to express them. Are my videos where I'm running around in the woods talking about YOLO and dogs and dads – are these really poetry? Why call them poetry?” (Roggenbuck, “AN INTERNET BARD”)
These are the words of Steve Roggenbuck, a 20-something self-proclaimed video artist and poet who released YouTube videos from 2010 to 2017 (https://www.youtube.com/user/steveroggenbuck). Roggenbuck’s video poems comprise clips of his stream of consciousness, often filmed while he rolls in the grass or runs through natural scenes, screaming. Amongst random – and, frankly, weird – remarks, Roggenbuck also offers words of motivation, urging viewers to appreciate nature and follow their dreams. Many videos have been edited to include musical accompaniment, green screen-facilitated backgrounds, and/or additional graphics. A Steve Roggenbuck video is a frantic ride on a roller coaster of calculated insanity and inspiration.
Over seven years, Roggenbuck’s fanbase grew larger and more devoted, with Roggenbuck being established as one of the alt-lit (alternative literature) movement’s most renowned contributors. In October 2018, though, Roggenbuck’s fans turned their backs to him as he confirmed allegations of sexual misconduct – allegations that followed numerous others made against various alt-lit contributors. Since these allegations, Roggenbuck has virtually disappeared from the Web. His moment of stardom has passed, yet ashes of his digital existence remain as a largely unchanging corpus of work. This paper questions the value of such work once its creator has been subject to societal scorn. It does so through consideration of Roggenbuck’s digital lifecycle in particular, drawing attention to the viral and quantifiable potentials of the Web while simultaneously recognizing the constant traversal between virtual and nonvirtual environments that contributed to Roggenbuck’s popularity. As Christian Howard rightly argues in an article about authorship and audience in digital contexts, “[w]e’re at a turning point in literary studies, and we need to confront how the changes in mode are affecting – and are affected by – the alternative networks of circulation within these digital spaces.” In other words, we need to consider how digital media are creating new communicational circumstances that may change conventional understandings of authorship and reception.
Roggenbuck makes for an interesting subject of study because he embodies various facets of digital culture: visual and aural disjointedness, conscious contempt for grammatical correctness (poetic license, so to speak), premeditated performance of personality, and – as he has confirmed – sexual deviance brought to light in the #MeToo moment. This paper also centers on Roggenbuck because focus on a single individual allows for deeper understanding of the particular qualities of alt-lit – and third generation e-literature (henceforth, 3G e-lit) broadly – that facilitate such behavior. While nearly all alt-lit practitioners have had some kind of Web presence, and most of these practitioners have made some comment on digital cultures (see, for example, the work of Joshua Jennifer Espinoza and Mira Gonzalez), Roggenbuck is unique in that the vast majority of his work is both born digital and intended for digital consumption. Whether or not one agrees with Roggenbuck’s self-declared title of ‘poet’, his embracing this title encourages critical evaluation of what does and does not constitute poetry in 3G e-lit. More generally, there are remarkably few published academic articles that provide individualized accounts of 3G e-lit practice; however, an individual example allows us to concretize otherwise abstract arguments. Indeed, the Roggenbuck saga has a relatively clear beginning, corpulent middle, and conclusive end. It also exemplifies the complexities of Internet culture: primarily those of performativity, publicity, and power. Yet Roggenbuck’s work has gone largely overlooked by the electronic literature community, perhaps given its apparent lack of literary merit, its implied middle finger to scholarly excess, despite Roggenbuck himself explicitly and frequently engaging in critical self-reflection about his place within or outside of literary communities. There have likewise been few scholarly considerations of how interpretive practices of electronic literature may – and arguably should – change when an author’s unethical behavior is exposed. I believe that Roggenbuck’s work is worth preserving, though: for its cultural and literary merit as early 3G e-lit, but more importantly as a body of work that represents the concurrently wonderful and troublesome opportunities afforded by amateur creators on social media. After all, “[l]iterary works produced by the amateur writing community […] will be lost if scholars of contemporary literature don’t value them. And as scholars working with electronic literature and digital humanities issues more broadly have long pointed out, ignoring this literature is a dereliction of duty” (Howard). As I myself was a fan of Roggenbuck prior to his admission of misconduct, this paper also represents a self-perceived duty to adjust Roggenbuck’s status as a literary and celebrity figure. I argue here that his work and personal brand take on a new kind of value post-admission: as a clear example of the performative personality that drives much of digital engagement, including the production and dissemination of 3G e-lit.
This paper first introduces readers to Roggenbuck’s work, observing how his poetry fits within the category of 3G e-lit. It reflects upon how Roggenbuck’s video poetry represents a kind of electronic literature that both perpetuates and parodies meme culture to appeal to young adult viewers in particular. The discussion then considers Roggenbuck’s self-admission of misconduct. I argue that Roggenbuck’s digital persona embodies the ‘personal’ aesthetic of 3G e-lit: when we watch his videos, we may not just be welcoming Roggenbuck into our minds, but quite literally into our homes or other personal spaces. This consideration aims to prompt a conversation about negotiating cultural value and taboo authorial behavior with new expectations and potential issues for 3G e-lit. To use Roggenbuck’s own words (Roggenbuck,
AN INTERNET BARD): “I am the bard. I am the poet. And to be a poet while the Internet exists. Man, we got an opportunity.” The ‘opportunity’ offered by the Internet allowed Roggenbuck to rise to fame. It was also his demise.
Throughout this paper, I aim not so much to assess the literary merit of Roggenbuck’s work (although I hold that it does have literary merit), but to propose an additional layer of consideration for analyses for 3G e-lit that problematizes the performativity of this genre, which contributes to the genre’s production, dissemination, and survival.
While Roggenbuck has engaged with other media forms, including print and podcasting, his YouTube videos are the primary focus of this paper.
Roggenbuck’s Videos as Third-Generation E-Lit and Self-Declared Poetry
Steve Roggenbuck was born in Michigan in 1987. He earned a degree in Creative Writing from Central Michigan University, and began an MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, but did not complete his studies (Davidson). “I recently decided to drop out of my school because it had no purpose for me,” Roggenbuck explains in one of his videos from 2011 (“Nobody Can Stop You”). “I was just doing it. People will do things that they don’t need to do. They don’t need to spend time on it, but they just do it because that’s what everybody does.” But Roggenbuck did not seem to need an MFA to succeed online. Alongside his poetry YouTube channel – featuring 167 videos from 2010 to 2017, which at the time of writing collectively have nearly two million views – Roggenbuck also uploaded videos to another channel that features vlogs, information about his vegan lifestyle, and his Plant Liker podcast, which ran in 2016 (“plant liker Channel”). Another podcast hosted by Roggenbuck called Read Poetry and Eventually Die ran from 2014 to 2015 (“Read Poetry”). Roggenbuck also cofounded Boost House, a poetry publisher and vegan co-op house funded by more than $17,000 USD of Kickstarter donations raised in 14 days at the end of 2013 (“Boost House”; Boost House). Between 2010 and 2015, he released six books of poetry, most of which are still available as free e-books. In addition, Roggenbuck toured across the USA, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia, selling t-shirts adorned with snippets of his poetry along the way.
Roggenbuck is often classified as a catalyst for alt-lit: a literary movement broadly characterized by online self-publication, social media usage, and conscious self-reference to Internet culture. Renowned alt-lit authors include Elizabeth Ellen, Sheila Heti, and Tao Lin, among others. In 2013, a Gawker article called Roggenbuck the “antidote” to the claim that “the internet sucks” (Chen). In a 2014 article for The New Yorker, Kenneth Goldsmith heralded Roggenbuck as “one of the bright stars of Alt Lit.” A year later, Fan Wu (66) described Roggenbuck as a “heavy-hitter” (and, at the same time, an “Internet maniac”). A 2016 review (Holloway) speculates that “[w]hen Alt Lit’s wiki has been finally whittled away, his [Roggenbuck’s] will be the one name left.” This same review observes that “Roggenbuck embodies, in a way virtually no other Alt Lit wordsmith does, the new sincerity,” and ends by stating that “Kate [now Kae] Tempest made me want to be a better poet. Steve Roggenbuck made me want to be a better human being.” While enthusiasm for alt-lit has largely waned, the genre is perpetuated in various corners of the Web. It is also implicitly manifest in meme culture, notably the subset of the ‘image macro’: when humorous text, usually in a white blocky typeface, is placed atop a related – or perhaps purposely unrelated – image.
Roggenbuck’s body of work, and much of alt-lit more generally, sits comfortably in the category of 3G e-lit. As Leonardo Flores explains, 3G e-lit, “starting from around 2005 to the present, uses established platforms with massive user bases, such as social media networks, apps, mobile and touchscreen devices, and Web API services. This third generation […] accounts for a massive scale of born digital work produced by and for contemporary audiences for whom digital media has become naturalized.” 3G e-lit meets digitally aware audiences where they are through references to popular culture, remixes of extant content, and occasional calls to interactive engagement, however contrived. At the same time, Alex Saum-Pascual suggests critique over continuity, noting that 3G e-lit “maintains a hyperawareness of the capitalist commodification and datafication of human experience on the Web, but relates to it in a sort of ironic, shoulder-shrug-meh, as it oscillates between defiance and conformism.” Other scholars have similarly argued for a critical political economy of ‘amateur’ digital artifacts like video poetry posted to popular platforms (Iribarren). Saum-Pascual observes that “purposeful amateurism is read as a critique of those other polished techno-imperialist aesthetics that make software invisible […] or that make even hardware invisible[. …] Poor remixes, glitchy programs, patchy sites, all serve as a reaction to the cleanliness, lightness and invisible pervasiveness of the Web in our lived experience.” The purposes of purposeful amateurism are diverse, but all are approached through subversion of seamlessness that draws attention to the media of exchange.
Roggenbuck himself alludes to ‘purposeful amateurism’ in an interview during which he describes the process of building his fanbase by replying to comments, starting online conversations, and interacting with other netizens in ways that portray him as fun and personable (Louisiana Channel). The approach Roggenbuck describes in this interview exemplifies what Matthew Kirschenbaum has outlined as that of the ‘@uthor’. Kirschenbaum argues that the modern social media landscape permits new forms of authorial self-promotion that fundamentally change how authors acquire and maintain cultural capital. In his words, “[t]he mere profusion of images of the celebrity author visually cohabitating the same embodied space as us, the abundance of first-person audio/visual documentation, [and] the pressure on authors to self-mediate and self-promote their work through their individual online identities […] have all changed the nature of authorial presence.” Roggenbuck is acutely aware of this changed nature, noting that “thanks to blogging, I was able to know that there are people out there who read my poems and specifically appreciate the misspellings. […] The reason most poetry is boring is because poets are afraid to distinguish themselves” (“BE YOURSLEF”). Both through glitchy video remixes of his own and others’ content and through “10 notifications from me ‘cause I went on your page and liked everything” (Louisiana Channel), Roggenbuck demonstrates the “ironic, shoulder-shrug-meh” that Saum-Pascual observes in her discussion of 3G e-lit. Conforming to the constraints of digital media while simultaneously defying what Saum-Pascual deems the “lightness and invisible pervasiveness of the Web”, Roggenbuck capitalizes on the potentialities of networked platforms. His sustained interactivity with his audience offers another dimension to his brand. His poetry is not that of the canon that he suggests is highfalutin and inaccessible; instead, his poetry is that of the everyday, of the mundane, of the quick clicks, of the ‘meh’.
Teachers and researchers have observed how digital affordances are changing forms and perceptions of poetry in ways that correspond with Roggenbuck’s views (Padgett and Curwood; Stuart). Moreover, many continue to question the Internet’s effects on national literatures and literary cultures (de Haas; Inwood; Murray; Tsaaior). Despite inconsistent conclusions, it is clear that digital technologies are altering what it means to be a poet, and what it means to read or – as per Roggenbuck’s evocation of poetry’s oral tradition – hear, and even see, a poem. Roggenbuck’s work directly responds to these changes through explicit observation of the contemporary literary landscape, as well as deliberate experimentation with literary forms and video editing software. Roggenbuck uses existing online platforms like YouTube to go to where his audiences already are, attracting and monetizing large viewer numbers through these platforms’ ease of access, encouragement of content sharing, and general embeddedness in today’s cultural milieu (Flores).
At the same time, Roggenbuck situates his own work within that of the historical poetic canon. Contemplating why he identifies as a poet, Roggenbuck (“AN INTERNET BARD”) addresses his camera directly, gesturing excitedly to emphasize his points:
I want to be a poet because of the whole romantic tradition that it invokes. I want to be in the same category as John Keats. I want to be in the same category as Walt Whitman. Because these are people who in their human life said “I am alive. What does it mean? What am I doing here? What can I do about it?” These are people who felt so much, and wanted to communicate it, and needed to communicate it to people. And the way that they communicated it was in books because that's how people communicated what was in their heart in the 1800s. We don’t just have the opportunity to produce books for people now. We have the opportunity to be in people’s lives every day.
Elsewhere, Roggenbuck likens his work to concrete poetry, slam poetry, visual poetry, and one-word/letter poetry. So, he (“Steve Roggenbuck at IRL Club”) says, “when people tell me that tweets aren't poetry, or that my vlog isn't literature, I'm like, ‘sit down and read a fucking history book.’” Roggenbuck is especially fond of Walt Whitman: in some videos, he quotes Whitman (“expose yourself”); other videos comprise nothing but recitations of Whitman’s poetry (“i love you”); one video features Roggenbuck reading his own edited collection of Whitman’s poetry for over an hour (“1 hour and 15 minutes”). For Roggenbuck, poetry is not words on a page, but the evocation of feelings that promote the interconnectedness of human experience – Whitman himself expresses a similar belief throughout his poetic corpus. Roggenbuck’s work is rooted in the banality of the everyday, encouraging viewers to consider both the beauty and the suffering of their own lives. Simultaneously, his work embraces the strangeness of mental processes, incoherent thoughts so often pushed aside in favor of rationality. Roggenbuck is, in these ways, a prime example of a 3G e-lit poet: a mass of diverse cultural influence, packaged in a performance that is both bewildering and beautiful. To adapt Kathi Inman Berens’ argument for Instagram poetry as e-literature, Roggenbuck embodies the “performative materiality of social media platforms” to both draw upon and reconceptualize a textual genre that is often characterized as highbrow. By merging the poetic canon with popular culture through remix, reinterpretation, and republication, Roggenbuck helps bring the concept of poetry into the mainstream, even if only to prompt mainstream consideration of what ‘poetry’ actually means.
Interpreting Authorship Post-Taboo
“Hi everybody. Today some really disgusting things have been publicly exposed about past actions of mine. You can search ‘Steve Roggenbuck’ on Twitter to find the posts that I am aware of at this time,” Roggenbuck wrote in a Twitter post in October 2018 (“I’m sorry”), with significantly fewer misspellings than his other content:
I do not deny or defend what I did. I do not think it was okay the way I talked to a 16-year-old when I was in my 20s, and I have been ashamed about this for years.
I did not have a habit of talking to 16-year-olds this way, but I have been confronted by romantic/sexual partners of mine about other gross and shitty things I have done, too – ways that I made people feel uncomfortable or obligated sexually. In response to learning about these things, I have made efforts to change my behavior, apologize to people, and use my platform to talk about related issues. Many people will now look back on my ‘feminism’ as if it has been a stunt or a front, meant to decieve [sic] people. It was not a stunt. It has been a sincere effort made by a flawed person.
I respect anyone’s decision to cut ties with me. My intentions or my apologies cannot change the amount of harm done, and ultimately I think it’s right that I be exposed for it. Again, I’m so sorry.
The tweets to which Roggenbuck refers included screenshotted messages from 2011, directed to the then-16-year-old Ashley Olson. The content of these messages will not be reviewed here. A feature in The Daily Beast published shortly after the release of these messages detailed other similar accusations against Roggenbuck, indicating repeated abuse of his celebrity status to exploit other vulnerable persons (Zimmerman).
Olson reviewed her choice to publicly share her experience in an article for Jacobite published a year after exposing Roggenbuck (Olson). In this article, Olson acknowledges her motivations for attempting to ‘cancel’ Roggenbuck as not entirely driven by the quest for justice in the midst of the #MeToo moment, at the same time coming to terms with self-proclaimed feelings of re-traumatization sparked by rereading Roggenbuck’s messages to her. Olson reflects upon the convolution of #MeToo as it pertains to her own situation:
I do not discount the possibility that #MeToo, and the people associated with it, have helped abuse victims. There may be instances in which it enabled justice to be served, or, at least, offered some private catharsis to a victim for whom the confession of trauma to an accepting public was, itself, healing. But it has undeniably contributed to an economy in which subjective experiences of the very worst kind are flattened, curated into marketable commodities, and leveraged for usually meager gain, a process which obstructs the therapeutic processing of trauma in all of its complexity.
That this occurs under the aegis of feminism belies its true destructiveness. In a way, I do not understand why the rhetoric of restorative justice must be invoked at all, as it barely masks the fact that the media has created an industry of trauma because it generates traffic and revenue. The power structure of the narrative as well as the corporate nature of the digital age still denies victims true catharsis — they are either relegated to comfortable roles of victimhood, where their abuse, in a way, becomes their entire identity — or are completely forgotten about, devoured by the news cycle.
Through Olson’s reflection we are brought to questions of publicity, popularity, and power. As Olson notes, publicity may grant victims a sense of acceptance and authority over their stories. Otherwise, though, publicity may contribute to the creation of an aggressive trauma narrative: one that is solidified when considered alongside claims of sexual misconduct made against other alt-lit contributors. These claims and the alleged perpetrators will not be reviewed here. Yet Roggenbuck took to his Tumblr blog to respond to the claims against his peers, commending victims for sharing their stories, as well as writing extensively about sexual consent. The final item on his list of consent tips is “BE AWARE OF POWER IMBALANCES” (“content warning”). Roggenbuck’s blog post about consent succeeded numerous others exploring gendered lives and issues related to feminist theory and practice (for example, “[untitled post]”). We can now see that, despite his public promotion of consent, Roggenbuck himself appeared to struggle with the concept. Of course, Roggenbuck may have now had time to reflect upon his past behaviors, and may have worked towards making more mindful decisions going forwards. What matters for this discussion of 3G e-lit, though, is that Roggenbuck’s publicly-available works were produced in a context tainted by this behavior, however unintentional or unrecognized it may have been. Even if he has made efforts to change his ways, as per his own admission, the durability and virality of digital documentation – Roggenbuck’s artistic work, but also the screenshots of his incriminating messages – makes it so that an analysis of Roggenbuck’s work is incomplete without recognition of his being a ‘flawed person’. Roggenbuck is not bound to the reported instances, but his poems’ contexts of creation matter because they inform our judgements of their beauty and our understandings of Roggenbuck’s authorial intentionality. In 3G e-lit, we are more aware than ever of creators’ public personae, as well as these creators’ relationships with other individuals and issues, through networked platforms and an increasing shift towards the @uthorial approach (Kirschenbaum, discussed above).
I once valued Steve Roggenbuck’s poetry for its content, for its exemplification of a new generation of e-literature. Now, I believe that Roggenbuck’s poetry is also important for another reason. It is important because it serves as a starting point for a discussion about issues related to the development, dissemination, and consumption of digital artifacts: issues like accessibility, shareability, and public performance, which inform the production and reception of 3G e-lit. It exemplifies the potential darkness of digital connectivity, and of the use of the Web to establish new forms of interpersonal power imbalances. Alt-lit, as a digital-born literary form, was – and perhaps still is – a particularly well-paved path to such imbalance. As Ashley Olson observed in an interview about how alt-lit may serve as a tool for underage grooming (Iskander, Olson, and Karsavin):
Alt Lit grooms because it is something on a surface level that youth could relate to, media that appears at first glance to be tailored for them. Alt Lit mimics a teenaged affect, establishes a more infantile or youthful voice to use as a vehicle for sometimes very violent or disturbing ideas, and presents these ideas alongside ones that are relatable to adolescents with total indifference.
The voice of Alt Lit is also established through its technical convention. As in the case with Roggenbuck and others, there are abundant grammatical errors, “creative misspellings,” emojis, webspeak, text that is literally copied and pasted from social media, in the attempt to convey familiarity and intimacy through a relatable, confessional mode. Readers can mistake the lack of structure and unrelenting oversharing in Alt Lit for vulnerability, authenticity, familiarity, and sincerity. This voice was integral to the public persona as well; when I was minor whom Steve solicited for sex, he never dropped the childish affect – it was utilized to mask or soften the violence of his behavior.
Flores’ formative article about 3G e-lit repeatedly stresses the accessibility of this new category. “If you count image macro memes as a kind of electronic literature, as I do, then the numbers of works produced and circulated are in the millions,” Flores writes. “The number of practitioners is equally enormous, numbering in the thousands, millions if you count image macro meme makers.” But Flores’ article does not recognize the social inequalities already rampant online. Certainly, 3G e-lit has the potential to engage a more wide-ranging and diverse audience than its categorical predecessors, connecting audience members to creators with whom they feel they can relate. However, we cannot ignore the fact that certain voices are amplified online, while others are marginalized (Robinson et al.). We also cannot ignore the significance of familiarity established through remixing and popular culture references in 3G e-lit that appears in our personalized newsfeeds. We literally welcome 3G e-lit practitioners into our homes when we consume their content in domestic spaces. We embrace their vulnerability and authenticity – whether consciously or unconsciously constructed – by integrating them into familiar spaces wherein we ourselves may feel most vulnerable and authentic. These practitioners exploit the sense of closeness that comes with familiar language and personalized consumption experiences, via media forms that have become so pervasive as to be rendered invisible, for affective impact. Although such closeness may encourage positive interpersonal understanding and empathy, it may also very well be harmful, as was so in Roggenbuck’s case. Indeed, the naturalization of pervasive digital media in everyday experience – a core feature of 3G e-lit – may result in one’s overlooking such potential for harm. After all, we consume constant streams of born digital content through social media networks, apps, mobile and touchscreen devices, and Web API services. To critically evaluate every drop in any of these streams would cause one to drown in a sea of content; it is more practical and enjoyable to simply float.
For this paper, I have applied a ‘critical reading’ approach to Roggenbuck’s work. I have watched every one of Roggenbuck’s videos, and have read most of his published works, for a deep understanding of his literary style and cultural contributions. Yet other scholars have taken ‘critical not-reading’ approaches to problematic authors. In her explanation for “Not Reading DFW [David Foster Wallace]” in light of Wallace’s blatant misogyny in both his published works and personal life, Amy Hungerford (163) writes that “[i]n placing my reasons, and the evidence on which I base them, on the table, in suggesting the kinds of reasons it might be legitimate to consider as we make our best guesses about how to parcel out our reading hours, I hope to draw attention to the fact that refusal can be an intentional and transparent part of professional life for the scholar.” Hungerford’s choice to not read Wallace is rooted in a decision to dismiss valorization of misogynistic views perpetuated by his work and discussions about it. As Hungerford asks (155-156):
What do people want novels to do for them? What kinds of thought and meaning do literary works make available? What stories matter to a given culture at a given moment in history and what do they tell us about that culture? Wallace’s works surely suggest some answers to these sorts of questions.
But with a contemporary work, a work that is still in the process of being integrated into the culture, the scholar finds herself in a different position. What if we just stop talking about such a work before it matters that much to the culture at large? Stop reading it, stop teaching it, stop studying it? What if we start suggesting something else to read instead?
Instead of giving culturally problematic works and authors attention, Hungerford adopts an approach that emphasizes alternative literary options. There is, after all, so much to read, and so little time. Why focus on that which was produced by the unsavory?
Hungerford’s argument is well-articulated and convincing, and provides a basis for future justifications of readerly refusal. My opposing approach, though, is driven by an answer to Hungerford’s question about “[w]hat stories matter to a given culture at a given moment in history.” In this paper, I am not so interested in the quality of Roggenbuck’s work so much as I am interested in what Roggenbuck represents in a time of transition towards an upsurge of digitally-produced literature and Web-induced connectivity. Hungerford’s argument stresses the potential for choice, but our capacities for choice on existing online platforms may be tethered by algorithmic recommendations and the digital company we keep (Cheney Lippold). Indeed, Roggenbuck’s public activity reflects many stories that matter in our culture, right now: stories about human-computer collaboration for artistic output, means of interpersonal communication, the multiplicity of identity, societal perceptions of consent, the implications of content accessibility and shareability, and power dynamics in both digital and embodied spaces. In short, Roggenbuck may show up in our ‘recommended’ lists whether we want him to or not; even if we do not click on a video we may still ‘read’ that video’s thumbnail, title, and context. Engaging with the corpus of Roggenbuck’s work directly, though, permits more nuanced comprehension of how such cultural stories may influence or be influenced by this work. Not talking about such stories, or deflecting discussions with recommendations for alternatives, does not make them go away. The path towards change is paved with painful and awkward cobblestones that we must traverse to reach a more equitable destination. This is a destination that 3G e-lit practitioners and scholars must strive towards reaching, whichever road is taken.
Whether one chooses to critically read or critically not-read works by problematic 3G e-lit practitioners (whatever critical reading and critical not-reading might mean in digital contexts), and whether we choose to allow perpetrators of violence to tell their own stories (an issue deliberated upon by Yuri Yim in response to a docu-series about Ted Bundy), meaningful conversations about these works and authors can occur. To be sure, these conversations are happening, but there is still substantial room for further interdisciplinary consideration that draws from both academia and popular culture. Our increasingly digital world, defined by connectivity, is changing our relationships with authors. It is time for us to re-evaluate our roles and responsibilities as readers in light of these socio-technological developments, and more specifically in light of the ongoing emergence of 3G e-lit works – especially those that foreground personal and personable identity.
Roggenbuck’s aesthetic – including the misspellings in his video titles, videos, and YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr comments and posts – distinguished him not just on the social media platforms he was using, but also within the more traditional poetic tradition that he wanted to be part of. In one of the few scholarly reviews of Roggenbuck’s work, Prathna Lor (154) argues that:
Roggenbuck advocates for the reconceptualization of textual production through social media as poetic production, and he attempts to infuse poetry into every aspect of digital production as a democratizing force. Paradoxically, such attempts nonetheless perpetuate a logic of exceptionalism and the cult of celebrity. Roggenbuck’s work thus provides an example of digital realism in which social media is used to produce a low poetics that is sincere and lifelike and yet ultimately fictive.
Roggenbuck establishes a powerful persona of relatability through what George Cox has called a multimodal and platformatized participatory poetics in his own analysis of another YouTube-based poet. However, as Lor acknowledges, this is indeed a persona, a consciously-crafted character. In their article about Roggenbuck, Lor identifies a fundamental issue with the tendency towards digital realism: namely, that it is commonly straight, white, and male. In Lor’s words (159), “digital realism mobilizes social media poetics as a force of democracy, but it also frequently rests on exclusionary logics of white male heterosexism. […] The digital realism of Roggenbuck — and of alt-lit more broadly — celebrates expressions of banality, boredom, and absurdity by privileged subject positions.” In Literature in the Digital Age, Adam Hammond similarly notes the complexity of the celebrity enjoyed by alt-lit writers, writing that “[i]f their literary productions are deliberately lazy, flat, and boring, their strategies of self-promotion are tireless and ingenious” (144). This calculated use of popular social media “[makes] the social dimensions of poetry visible to twenty-first century readers” (McGrath 142). Such use responds to the emergence of a new kind of predominately digital audience, which expects access not just to an author’s works, but also to glimpses of that author’s personal life and mind.
And glimpses into Roggenbuck’s mind we get, however dark. Undoubtedly representing efforts to be deliberately shocking, many of Roggenbuck’s videos make reference to the illuminati, Satanism, murder, or dead children. Many also include more sexualized clips wherein Roggenbuck mentions kissing, sex, penises (his own, or those of others), or some combination thereof. “I will literally kiss this cake into your mouth,” he declares in one video (“me and you”). “You fucking dumbass. I got my dick length notarized,” he shouts in another (“THE LOST TAPES”). As time progresses, though, Roggenbuck more overtly incorporates issues of social justice, including feminism, into his videos. In a video from 2014 (“BE YOURSLEF, PART 3”), he recommends bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. In another from the same year (Violent J in Roggenbuck, “USE INTERLIBRARY LOAN”), he includes a clip of Violent J from musical duo Insane Clown Posse commenting on fellow musician Chris Brown: “Fuck Chris Brown. Every time they spin his shit, they’re not spinning somebody else’s shit, who didn’t beat up a woman.” These examples illustrate the manifestation of our modern zeitgeist of advocacy, the oscillation between defiance and conformism observed by Alex Saum-Pascual, in works of 3G e-lit. They also illustrate the protean nature of the human mind. Roggenbuck is consistently inconsistent in a way that affirms his personal depth to his audience. Just as Roggenbuck’s self-declaration as a poet is questionable, the ‘feminist’ label he adopts is in stark contrast to the actions constituting the misconduct to which he later admits.
The multiplicity of Roggenbuck’s digital identity exemplifies the performative potentials of the Web. We only see what Roggenbuck gives us: comment-induced social media notifications; immature jokes about dead children; recommendations for feminist literature. His aesthetic merges with expectations of meme culture, YouTube video production, and social media behavior, allowing his personal brand to become so visible that Roggenbuck as creator is eclipsed. His performed personability ultimately leads him towards popularity that, in direct contrast to the views expressed that we can only assume are actually his own, Roggenbuck chose to abuse. The “lightness and invisible pervasiveness of the Web” (Saum-Pascual) is significantly weighted when we consider the Web’s key role in increasing and sustaining Roggenbuck’s popularity. Likewise, the ‘lightness’ – the ‘meh’ – of Roggenbuck’s work was manifest in such a way that appealed to younger audience members like Olson. To draw again from Olson’s own reflection: “when I was minor whom Steve solicited for sex, he never dropped the childish affect – it was utilized to mask or soften the violence of his behavior.” The figurative shoulder shrug that defines much of 3G e-lit is worthy of consideration not only for its sociopolitical value, but also for ethical implications. 3G e-lit is platformed, performative, and personal; it is quite literally consumed through screens in the palms of our hands. Greater attention is needed to delineate and mitigate the potential risks of these qualities.
This paper represents my own efforts to determine the cultural value of alt-lit poet Steve Roggenbuck’s work following verified accusations of problematic behavior made against him. It also serves as an appeal for further conversations about hermeneutic processes associated with 3G e-lit in particular: works appearing on widely-accessible platforms, often responding to contentious contemporary issues. While works of 3G e-lit may have extraordinary positive effective and affective impact, scholars must be attuned to the potentially negative social consequences of 3G e-lit practice. Whose voices are heard? Whose are not? How and why? What power imbalances might 3G e-lit perpetuate or create?
Although Roggenbuck was by no means the only person forwarding the alt-lit movement in its prime, he was one of the most renowned, establishing a widespread and dedicated fanbase by personally responding to fans’ comments in an eccentric and endearing way. The character he cultivated, to cite Prathna Lor (154), provided “an example of digital realism in which social media is used to produce a low poetics that is sincere and lifelike and yet ultimately fictive.” While Roggenbuck’s online character was promoting inclusive and feminist practices of consent, though, Roggenbuck himself seemingly struggled to do the same.
Roggenbuck was, to use his own words, an Internet bard, seizing digital opportunities for poetry production and dissemination. “And to be a poet while the Internet exists,” he contemplates (Roggenbuck, “AN INTERNET BARD”). “Man, we got an opportunity.” Unfortunately, Roggenbuck also seized inappropriate opportunities arising from his Internet celebrity. His choice to exercise his power in this way concluded his saga of Internet fame. This saga serves as a stark reminder of our responsibility as 3G e-lit scholars and practitioners to remain diligent in maintaining inclusive and safe literary communities for all.
The author would like to extend special thanks to Chloe Milligan and Justin Tonra for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this essay.
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