Suspended Hell

All social media both feeds and feeds on narcissism, but Twitter’s capacity to mirror the world and its users’ neuroses in discrete verbal and visual units, at least in certain corners of the site, elevates self-regard to a formal principle. We compulsively iterate ourselves as memes, set pieces, and DIY allegorical photos, as if hoping we’ll eventually perfect the reflection.

It is other people

William Blake, Satan, Sin, Death (illustration of Paradise Lost).

When Lil Nas X’s music video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” hit Twitter, the self-professed nerds I follow there proclaimed it “Miltonic.” More than Miltonic, even: less panic, more Satanic. This sentiment was adapted into familiar Twitter formulas. “Lil Nas X could have written Paradise Lost but John Milton couldn’t have performed Montero.” “RIP john milton, you would have loved montero.” Lil Nas X’s Hell, after all, is hot in more ways than one. In the video, the rapper descends into Hell via stripper pole, gives Satan a lap dance, caresses and then breaks Satan’s neck, and, finally, coronates himself with Satan’s crown of horns: the apparent apotheosis of Milton’s ambivalent identification with his revolutionary antihero in Paradise Lost. Lil Nas X takes Milton’s sympathy for the devil one step further; he’s clearly of the devil’s party, and the party has started.

Miltonists, whose relevance has long been eclipsed by Shakespeareans, seemed to be having a moment on social media. One Twitter-famous scholar, reportedly unjustly exiled from the garden of tweeting on account of “heterophobia,” was reached via text. Was “Montero” Miltonic? “So Miltonic,” was the screenshotted, tweeted reply.

I don’t find anything particularly Miltonic about Lil Nas X’s Hell. Though Milton’s angels, even fallen ones, are famously genderfluid, pansexual, and theoretically capable of enjoying pleasures beyond the human imagination, the Hell of Paradise Lost is strikingly sexless—if you exclude Satan’s confrontation there with his daughter, Sin, whom he raped and impregnated after she emerged fully formed from his head and who, once relocated to Hell, gave birth to Death, who raped her in turn, leading her to give birth to eternally barking literal hellhounds, who, ever since, have been climbing back into her womb, feeding on her bowels, and bursting out again, again and again.

Milton’s allegorical Sin-and-Death set piece is heavily laden with meaning. Too heavily, critics have complained. Samuel Johnson allowed that “to invest abstract ideas with form” is a poet’s prerogative, but Milton overdid it—to allegorize like Milton is “to shock the mind by ascribing effects to non-entity,” like labelling figures in a photo with aggressively absurd abstract nouns and posting it on Twitter. This subjection of sex to allegory, horrifically violent content begotten by a violently constrictive form, is one reason why Milton’s Hell is less like the liberatory queer space offered by “Montero” and more like our own hell, by which I mean “the hellsite,” by which I mean Twitter. Or rather, “this hellsite,” because when people are saying that Twitter is a hellsite, it is likely that they are doing so on Twitter, where everything, and especially Hell, can be made into a blunt allegory for Twitter.

What makes Twitter so axiomatically hellish? It’s a place where even the most well-intentioned attempts at intellectually honest conversation inevitably devolve into misunderstanding and mutual contempt, like the fruit that crumbles into ash in the devils’ mouths in book 10 of Paradise Lost. It amplifies our simultaneous interdependency and alienation, the overtaking of meaningful political life by the triviality of the social. It is other people. But mostly Twitter is Hell because we—a “we” that, in Twitter’s universalizing idiom, outstretches optimistically or threateningly as if to envelop even those blessed souls who have never once logged on—make it so. It’s our own personal Hell, algorithmically articulated and given back to us, customized enough that I can complain to another very online friend about something that’s “all over Twitter” and he can reply, in confusion, “hmm, not my Twitter,” but shared enough that another friend can affirm, “on my Twitter too.” Pathetic fallacy subtends the most viral memes, either on the individual level (“it me”) or from the perspective of the willed collective of Twitter itself. Twitter fashions itself as a metaphor for everything in our lives, and everything is a metaphor for Twitter, the machine that turns everything into discourse and where discourse tends to turn in on itself. The ocean is on fire? Looks like Twitter. Climate change? A giant dumpster fire in Earth’s mentions. Golfers going on with their game, seemingly oblivious to the raging wildfire in the background? Ha, that’s just like us on Twitter.

All social media both feeds and feeds on narcissism, but Twitter’s capacity to mirror the world and its users’ neuroses in discrete verbal and visual units, at least in certain corners of the site, elevates self-regard to a formal principle. We compulsively iterate ourselves as memes, set pieces, and DIY allegorical photos, as if hoping we’ll eventually perfect the reflection. Twitter, we continually remind ourselves, “is not real life,” but it’s also, according to a common quote-tweet formula, “too real.” When we say we “feel seen,” we mean we finally (and repeatedly) see ourselves. The hell of capitalism and climate catastrophe leaves us at the mercy of forces outside our control, but we can choose to live in a hell of our own making for a few minutes or hours a day or week. We keep it hovering in the background, refreshing and repopulating our feed, between emails, between meetings, between Pomodoro sessions. We tell each other, on Twitter, that we need to get off Twitter.

My Twitter is mostly a literary subset of academic Twitter, where dunks on Richard Dawkins and jokes like “the movie CARS is autofiction” mingle with apocalyptic observations on the academic labor crisis and expressions of hope about the salvific potential of solidarity and collective organizing. Both these modes of discourse, different as they are, are about the same thing: suspension. Literary puns suspend the serious concerns of real life. For those under conditions of precarious employment, a temporary or permanent state of suspension—of next year’s contract, of future stability—is real life. In Christine Smallwood’s academic novel The Life of the Mind, the protagonist, a recent PhD now working as a contingent faculty member, rejects the notion that she’s living in “adjunct hell.” Still hopeful that she may one day land a tenure-track job if only she can finish her book manuscript, Dorothy prefers the somewhat redundant “limbo of contingency”; she dislikes “adjunct hell” because it “at once overstated and understated (by glossing over) her position.” It might also be because “adjunct hell” was coined by a pretentious, now tenure-track ex-boyfriend, and “limbo of contingency” is Dorothy’s own invention.

Smallwood’s novel offers a critique of the idea that academia, adjunctified to the point that many of its workers have little time to contemplate anything other than how to pay rent, can offer a “life of the mind.” What Dorothy is living—enduring the messy, protracted repercussions of a miscarriage, carefully timing her trips to the bathroom to avoid running into students, falling asleep in her contact lenses—is a life of the body, with all its indignities and abjection. But Dorothy never gets outside of her head. (She has two therapists, the second one exclusively to talk about the first.) Like a Twitter user who sees an image on Twitter of the Gulf of Mexico on fire and immediately thinks of Twitter, she sees everything, especially but not only her aborted pregnancy, as a metaphor for her aborted career. Recalling a special issue of a journal she wasn’t invited to contribute to, on Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, Dorothy makes the inevitable, thudding connection:

“Cruel optimism” was Berlant’s way of theorizing why and how people remained attached to fantasies and aspirations of “the good life,” how those aspirations injured them, and the resulting affect—something she called “stuckness.” “Cruel optimism” was Dorothy’s entire life.

“This is me,” as we say on Twitter, about depressed Ben Affleck, about an anthropomorphically grumpy cat, about darkly comical headlines for bad news. “This is me in a Zoom meeting,” we tweet, attaching a picture of Narcissus entranced by his reflection, unaware, unlike us, that this is me. “I’m in this photo and I don’t like it,” academics tweet alongside photos of passages from The Life of the Mind that mock academic research as self-indulgent. “This is me reading my own tweets,” I was tempted to tweet while writing this, along with a screenshot of the lines from Paradise Lost about Sin suffering the unceasing howls and visceral violence of the dogs she birthed. The mind is its own place, and can make a Hell of Hell.

In book 2 of Paradise Lost, after the newly fallen rebel angels regain consciousness, get their bearings, and realize they’re living in Hell (“me logging on to Twitter,” I caption this passage in my head), Satan calls a meeting. A parliament assembles to decide their best course of action. Should they try their luck with a second round of open rebellion? Or should they seek revenge by more covert means? Arguments are made. Each devil gets his due. God will get bored of punishing us eventually, one of Satan’s lieutenants offers; these flames can’t last forever, at least not at this intensity, and anyway, we’ll adapt. “This horror will grow mild, this darkness light.” We can get used to anything, another agrees. “Our torments also may in length of time / Become our elements, these piercing fires / As soft as now severe, our temper changed / Into their temper.” Hell might become us nicely.

Finally, Satan proposes his famous plan and gets ready for his expedition to Eden. The assembly dissolves, and suddenly the devils find themselves with a bit of free time. Some get rowdy playing sports. Others, meanwhile, engage in the life of the mind. Those with a penchant for self-promotion break out their harps and “sing . . . their own heroic deeds and hapless fall.” Milton can’t condone their song (it’s “partial,” biased), but he also can’t help but point out its virtuosity. Their “harmony”—in a suspended sentence, with a parenthetical and an enjambment starkly separating subject from verb—“suspended hell.” Less musically inclined devils do some philosophy, discussing the ideas most important to Milton and to his poem: “providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate, / Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute.” Like Milton’s syntax, the devils’ conversation goes in circles: they “found no end, in wand’ring mazes lost.”

Wandering, suspension, open-endedness: such errancy from linear progression isn’t necessarily error. In Milton’s Paradise, wandering is innocent. A lazy river winds its way through Eden; Eve’s hair curls in recursive, pointless tendrils. When Adam and Eve get a special visit from the angel Raphael and Adam pumps him for information about the cosmos, he eventually realizes that his curiosity will never be satisfied. Raphael is an endless feed of fresh content, and Adam never wants to stop scrolling. At one point, so charmed by angelic speech, so entranced by the idea that discourse is continuously being produced for him to consume, Adam doesn’t even realize Raphael has stopped talking.

Discourse is hell; but discourse is also what suspends hell. When a container ship blocked the Suez Canal for days, Twitter, like global commerce, was brought to a standstill, clogged with memes. The “stuckness” of the Ever Given symbolized that of our writing projects, our quarantines, our careers, our attachments to aspirations that injure us. “Evergreen tweet,” we said of the vessel, pictured with the chartering company name EVERGREEN conveniently emblazoned on its side, containing so many permanent truths of our condition. But the memes also pointed toward something else: the capacity of stuckness to disrupt the usual flows of capital or discourse and to create, instead, new wandering mazes of collective linguistic pleasure. Hell is what you do when you’re waiting for something to happen. “This website is free,” goes a popular quote-tweet caption of the purest, most perfectly deranged discourse on offer, even though everyone knows the price we pay with our data, our attention, and our time. For many of us, for those of us who find the “us” of Twitter a meaningful if partial collective identity, Twitter is what we’ve done while waiting for whatever this is—the academic jobs crisis, Covid, capitalism, the world—to end, even if there’s no end to be found.

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