Adult Punk is one of my favorite Indie/Zine publishers in Denver. Often confusing the line between “zine” and art object, their work is a celebration of paper textures, binding techniques, typefaces, and ink. Content may occasionally seem to take a back seat to the sheer pleasure of holding a perfectly bound object in one’s hands. However at the last Zine Fest, I found myself picking up one beautifully rendered specimen—and reading it.
If you are unable to help just say so, is a recent (2017) work from Oakland-based writer Jennifer Williams. Within the pages, the language of technology—and frustration with technology—invades an “inner monologue, wrought with anxious attachment.” (back cover)
Williams manages to perfectly capture the helplessness of technology we don’t completely understand, and the endless quest to find a human on the other side of the screen, only to be lead down a labyrinth of auto-responses.
“The questions and my answers don’t match,
yet I am who I say I am.
They always keep me informed
if something doesn’t look right.” (45)
In Williams’ language, individual traits and identity are called to question in the face of an automated bureaucracy. What if I don’t know my mother’s maiden name? What if I was once sure of my favorite pet as a child, but I’m now doubtful as to whether Bobbie was simply my earliest pet, and that really I liked Gabby better? What if I’d rather never think about my first job ever again?
I am reminded of the discussion forwarded by The New Polis concerning Gilles Deleuze’s notion that “individuals have become ‘dividuals,’ and masses, samples, data, markets, ‘banks.’” (Deleuze 5) Williams, it seems, has expressed the poetic reality of such a life, where identity becomes fragmented across web accounts. A forgotten password is an identity crisis, and it is easier than ever (or so we think) to DELETE ACCOUNT and break off a piece of our former lives:
“We have moved to Oregon.
Please change my screen name to:
Williams conveys the distortion of human language across our new modes of communication. The ALL CAPS rhetoric of the grandparent who never learned the grammar of the web. Throughout her writing we feel the presence of something absurd, something ridiculous lurking just beneath, and in sudden moments she rips the veil away and reveals the pixels that make up the letters.
“You sent me a colon with closed parenthesis.” (34)
Throughout the text is that constant plea for help, for assistance. Williams is caught in an eternal phone menu, a struggle that, in tone and language, could as easily be for help putting together a vacuum cleaner, or, as the text suggests, dealing with a parent’s alcoholism. It is this tension that fills the text, a language fragmented by the electronic voice’s question, “are you satisfied with our services?,” and the desperate human cry of “no, you didn’t help me at all.”
“Customer service” is a concept unique to Capitalism. It is the idea that, by making a person feel special and cared for, they will spend more money with a business. But we’re all in on the secret, after all. When we are asked “if there’s anything more that can be done for us,” the question rings hollow. But maybe, a small part of us is unable to resist being comforted by the electronic postures of care. At least this person/thing wants to help me. But we can’t escape the reality that customer service is a business tactic, and we can’t really be helped, not the way we need. If only they would just say so.