It can be easy to miss the ways in which art might falsify the world.
Even some of the most down-to-earth, relatable TV shows are set in London or New York, and feature precarious or barely-employed characters living in huge, plush flats in the centre of town. Friends was notorious for this even in the mid-90s, its cast of twentysomething dossers, only one of whom, at the start of the series, had a steady professional job, somehow managing to subsist in a bubble of endless neurotic idleness in the middle of Manhattan – in many ways, Friends remains the benchmark for narrative art which detaches its characters from what ought, by rights, to be the most basic concession to realism: a sense of how they might function economically.
Friends was a fantasy, but this tendency has seeped through television in some perhaps unexpected ways. To cite a much more recent example, the hit BBC drama Bodyguard – which, though narratively ludicrous, could quite rightly be described as 'gritty' – featured a working-class couple, separated with a child, living in London in two separate addresses – one of which was a nicely done-up Victorian terrace, the other a slick new-build flat. This was apparently something these two people could afford on their salaries as a nurse and a police detective respectively. They were not experiencing any obvious financial difficulties.
Thus every character on television must be placed under the same suspicion that every 'freelance' writer or artist you know living in London is: that behind them lurks the invisible hand of rich parents, an invisible safety net bankrolling their every profligate move. Where you feel the pinching dread of moving steadily into your overdraft, blitzing through your savings, they are kept numb by kindness from the possibility of destitution. Adorno thought that the truth of solidarity today lay in the sharing of our sufferings – but if these people can't feel the pain, how can we others relate to them, either collectively or as individuals?
1. Some considerations from the canon
Part of the reason why art is able to falsify the world – or, perhaps better: part of the reason why we are able to miss the ways in which it can falsify the world, is that art also helps shape, construct, our experience. In continental aesthetics, there is often thought to be a strong link between art and truth. “Great artworks,” Adorno tells us in his densely, riddlingly unfinished Aesthetic Theory, “are unable to lie.” Art, according to Adorno, is “a thing that negates the world of things,” conspicuous by its uselessness. Art might be 'beautiful' or 'fun', but it doesn't have to be – it might be edifying and therapeutic, but equally it can be disturbing, destructive. Art is thus necessarily unable to “legitimate itself” before a social order which demands that everything serve a useful purpose; every bit as conspicuous an extravagance as an unproductive employee.
But then, precisely because it stands (necessarily) in tension with the social order from which it has emerged, art is in a position to 'redeem', in some small way, the sufferings inherent to our social world. “Art holds true to the shudder” which one feels in relation to the horror that, Adorno believed, unavoidably characterised our social world, 'the world after Auschwitz' – the world in which he had been forced to flee from his home, seen his whole life torn up, his friends killed along with six million other blankly processed human lives – “radiant,” as the opening lines of Dialectic of Enlightenment have it, “with triumphant calamity.”
By expressing the world's sufferings, art gives us a sort of ir- or pre-rational, 'non-discursive' knowledge of our social and historical situation. “The truth content of artworks is the objective solution of the enigma posed by each and every one.” “In artworks, objectivity and truth are inseparable.” “Society inheres in the truth content.” This understanding, which can only be fully obtained in “philosophical reflection,” can itself be liberating, conjuring the utopia of real freedom. “Art desires what has not yet been, though everything that art is has already been... Art is the ever broken promise of happiness.”
Among Adorno's most notorious pronouncements on art is his assertion, first made in his essay 'Cultural Criticism and Society', that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” By this, Adorno is often thought to have meant that in a world after the Holocaust has taken place, one should no longer write poems. But this is not at all what he intended. Rather, the 'barbarism' in the line is supposed to contrast with the established 'culture' of the world in which the death camps were possible. 'Real' poetry, Adorno is suggesting, would be the attempt to trash this culture, consign it to the rubbish bin of history where, properly speaking, it ought to be thrown.1 For Adorno, the most important poet of the post-Auschwitz world was Samuel Beckett, whose absurd, avant-crude muck jolts us into blistering awareness of the profound cruelty and indignity of our situation; the cruelty and indignity that we within that situation are capable of perpetuating on others.
Famously, Adorno and Heidegger did not see eye-to-eye on many things. Fittingly, Heidegger's aesthetics presents almost the exact opposite understanding of the relationship between art and truth to Adorno's. For Heidegger, art discloses truth, yes – but the truth it discloses is precisely that of the world as it presently exists. Art does not denounce – in Heideggerrian parlance, it unconceals. Thus to cite one of his examples from his essay 'The Origin of the Work of Art', Van Gogh's painting of some peasant shoes makes manifest the poor, rural world in which the shoes figure as equipment, “pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.” In doing this, the painting “lets us know what shoes are in truth.”
“Art then,” Heidegger states, “is a becoming and happening of truth.” For this reason, he claims, “all art... is... in essence, poetry” – art has its origins in the Greek 'poesis', 'making'. “Projective saying is poetry,” Heidegger claims before continuing, in typically Heideggerian style, “the saying of world and earth, the saying of the arena of their strife and thus of the place of all nearness and remoteness of the gods. Poetry is the saying of the unconcealment of beings.”
Or, to put this point another way: art, as poetry, creates the conditions in which our world can become manifest to us. It 'sets up a world'. Heidegger's clearest example of this is an Ancient Greek temple: in standing where it does, it “portrays nothing.” And yet, insofar as the building “encloses the figure of the god,” it makes the god present, and so too “gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being.” The life-world of the Ancient Greeks is made manifest in the temple. “Projective saying is saying which, in preparing the sayable, simultaneously brings the unsayable as such into a world. In such a saying, the concepts of a historical people's essence, i.e. of its belonging to world history, are preformed for that people.”
Are there any true poets active today, in either Adorno or Heidegger's sense? Is there anyone whose work, whose writings express the truth of our world – make manifest our sufferings, speak our essence as a people? Anyone who spends enough time online will know the answer to this question already. There is a poet active today – and his name is dril.
2. Who is dril?
It might seem pointless to describe who 'dril' is. Dril is an icon of twitter to the point where, if you are Online at all, you will already know immediately who he is; you will know immediately what his posts are like, you will be able to quote at least ten of them by heart. But dril remains somewhat nebulous, hard to define.
On a certain level: dril is a comic character, that somebody posts as. This character is: a very terrible American man of a specific, 'Extremely Online' type. Someone once said to me that whereas Alan Partridge represents “everything wrong with English masculinity,” dril represents everything wrong with its American equivalent. Dril is a pathetic schlub with an implausibly high opinion of himself, 'winning' every argument with ridiculous boasts and bad-faith dismissals, constantly railing against 'the trolls' and even his own followers (naturally, he has been compared to Donald Trump).
Just as sure as he was an egg account with 6 followers, dril loves to interact with brands, evangelising for Dairy Queen or advising McDonalds to scrap its slogan, “I'm Lovin' It” in favour of the infinitely more striking “Here comes the McShitter.”
Physically, dril is grotesque: his tweets often reference his toilet habits, and the disgusting state of his dick and ass. He is frequently diapered.
Overall, dril's personal habits are bizarre in the extreme: he likes to kiss french-kiss ferrets (and gets angry when he's not allowed to), spends implausibly large amounts of money on candles, and wants to fuck the American flag. Dril is oblivious to the possibility that there might be something wrong with any of this.
Obviously, dril is an enthusiastic gamer. He loves and respects 'the boys', but he has a strange, morbid relationship with 'girls'.
And yet the boundaries of the 'dril' character are somewhat hazy, blurred and distorted like that instantly recognisable Jack Nicholson avatar. In a way, dril exists in something like a coherent comic universe, a world populated by characters with names like as 'DigimonOtis' (dril's rival), Garth_Turds and EpicWayne. But hardly any of the facts about dril's life are consistent. Sometimes he is divorced; at other times he talks about having a wife. His family consists of any number of 'large' (and usually 'adult') sons. Sometimes dril claims to be 14 years old, sometimes he is the father of a 78 year-old son.
Dril's dick and ass rarely remain the same size: sometimes his ass is “tiny and malnourished”, at others it is big enough to be struck and destroyed by a meteor without, apparently, taking dril himself along with it. Sometimes his dick looks like a “crumpled up napkin,” at other times it is described as “rotten and barbed”; in one tweet, dril claims it has turned into a “beak.”
But dril is not just a character. 'Dril' is also in a very real way the name of the writer behind this character. Technically, yes: the writer of 'dril' is a real person who is not identical to his character, existing in the 'real' world under a different name and in (one assumes) a quite different way. In November 2017, the name of this person was discovered and publicly revealed: a quick Google search will still let anyone who wants to, know what it is. But it was telling, I think, that the dril dox was met by an almost forceful lack of interest: articles reporting the news often seemed to want to deliberately suppress this information. The implication was I think that knowing dril's 'real' name might somehow destroy the character, break the spell; in truth, the fact that the dril writer's 'real' name matters so little strikes me as proof that dril exists beyond traditional literary norms of authenticity. 'Dril' as a writer is analogous to Homer: at once author and myth.
Perhaps the deepest insight into the psychology of the dril writer can be found in a statement he provided for a 2013 Buzzfeed article about 'weird twitter', the once-prominent tendency that (along with the SomethingAwful boards, which the dril writer used to post on under the name 'gigantic drill'), he is often thought to have emerged from.
OK, I was considering sending a response "in character", but I thought that this would probably be a good opportunity to let people know who I am and what exactly I'm trying to do. People seem to have the idea that I'm this really "wacky" guy who behaves rather similarly to his offbeat twitter persona in real life, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Please allow me to dispel some of the myths out there and let people know what I'm all about.
Twitter, as I understand it, is a sort of "Hell" that I was banished to upon death in my previous life. In this abstract realm, the only thing I am certain of is that my cries are awarded "Favs" or "RTs" when they are particularly miserable or profane. These ethereal merits do nothing to ease my suffering, but I have deliriously convinced myself that gathering enough of them will impress my unseen superiors and grant me a promotion to a higher plane of existence. This is my sole motivation.
Dril has been described by the poet Patricia Lockwood as “the anonymous psycho of the comments box. He has been banned from every forum. He is all-present, and nothing-knowing.” Former Gawker editor Max Read has called him “a psychic Markov chain whose input is the American internet.”
These quotes, I think, get almost the heart of what dril is: dril is not in any traditional sense a single character, a single writer. Dril is a multiplicity, a Bakhtinian carnivalesque figure like Rabelais's Pantagruel – dril is the internet, the whole internet satirically inverted to reveal it just as it really is: the internet as it eats, shits, jerks off to porn on its phone, gets into fights, posts a link to its soundcloud under viral tweets. Dril breaks down barriers between users and their personal brands, holding up a mirror to our true nature in all its angry, gaming, brand-loving, diaper-wearing corporeality. The imagery of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque is always dualistic and ambivalent: wisdom becomes stupidity, age becomes youth, gender norms are inverted and eroded. Hence, dril:
3. Why is dril a poet?
Whatever else dril is, it should be obvious by now that he is an important literary figure. The way in which dril is an important literary figure – that is, that he is an important literary figure as a result of his output on twitter – can make acknowledging that dril is an important literary figure seem either silly, or somehow affected (“ohhhh, you think this twitter guy is an important literary figure? How daring and edgy of you!”). But he is an important literary figure.
In an era in which most 'actual' literature remains distant, academic, largely unread outside of a small circle of enthusiasts, dril has changed the way we think about the world, changed the way we think about and use language. His syntax (“buddy, they won't even let me...”) has seeped into our own. Words and phrases inspired by dril – 'corncobbed', 'large adult sons' – are now firmly established as part of our lexicon. When an article appeared on Grazia about a woman who earns £40k a year, still lives with her parents, but somehow still manages to leak so much money that she 'needs her parents to bail her out every month', our inner voices could only think: spend less on candles.
This point has become still more obvious with the publication of dril's recent book, Dril Official 'Mr. Ten Years' Anniversary Collection. Self-published and apparently (from the evidence of my copy, anyway) printed on-demand by amazon, the dril book is a brilliantly ugly, cheap-looking thing, essentially consisting of endless, thematically-sorted screengrabs of dril's old tweets, interspersed with some original artwork by dril himself.
Importantly, the dril book preserves the form of his tweets while detaching them from their original context on twitter, placing them in something much more recognisable as a 'literary' medium while also preserving them beyond the website (given twitter's pretty limited search functionality, the book helps make the tweets included in the book a lot more easily locatable). Moreover, the book presents dril's output in a highly concentrated way: reading it through can be a very intense experience, not just because dril is so funny but also because his writing is so evocative. Something like the tweet below could easily have been spread out over 20 minutes of a sitcom.
But what makes dril a poet? Dril is a poet in Heidegger's sense because what he does sets out and makes manifest a world – the world, in short, of Online. Heidegger's examples tend towards the majestically noble (Ancient Greek temples) and the humbly persistent (peasant's shoes). But that's because Heidegger was – let's face it – a fucking fascist, and he liked to see the world as essentially defined by harmony, unity, and hierarchy. I think he found such examples comforting: he could draw upon them without having to either examine or downplay his anti-Semitic views, the logic of which makes itself known throughout Heidegger's thought, running the whole way down it like the name of a town in a stick of rock. Not all worlds are harmonious unities – and the one we exist in today certainly isn't.
Our world today is characterised by multiple, multifarious, overlapping crises, each more interminable – and, seemingly, more intractable – than the last. The 2007-08 financial crisis inaugurated the era of austerity politics, the point of which has been to preserve the institutions of neoliberal capitalism by managing a general decline in living standards. Every risk the people with money and power might once conceivably have assumed for themselves has been deferred to individuals, the younger and poorer of whom have been left precarious husks, wringing out whatever pleasure and survival from existence that they still can through a haze of pseudo-hedonic anomie. The loss of the future has helped lead to the resurgence of the far-right, who have mostly been allowed to flourish by a mainstream conservative politics which now demands tighter borders as it seeks to drive the human species still faster onwards towards entropic malaise. Both seem to be doing completely the opposite from what might mitigate the effects of climate change, the looming spectre of which threatens to drive us all from everything we've ever known and loved, possibly to boil us alive in our skins.
Dril, in all his grotesque awfulness, helps us understand how we are placed within this situation – he sets out and makes manifest a world of startling stupidity and incoherence. Dril is every terrible opinion you have ever read on social media; he is every cringing climbdown, every fuming 'you're the one who is, in fact, mad' double-down. Dril is every news article about some idiot going to hospital or getting themselves killed doing something insanely stupid for likes; he is every teenage instagrammer trying to wring free stuff out of brands. Dril is an outraged suburban dad with 14 followers railing at the social media account for a chain restaurant because something went wrong with his fries; he is a libertarian teenager wearing a diaper in public to 'own the libs'. Dril is the perfect and complete distillation of every reason why the human species is doomed.
Thus dril also, in Adornian style, articulates the world's sufferings. The present global crisis – and the nature of our predicament, ensconced in it – is the truth-content of dril's work. Here the carnival nature of the dril character becomes especially important: we see the world reflected in dril. On a certain level, perhaps, we are all dril: self-absorbed to the point of pathology, consumed by petty arguments about things like 'is wario a libertarian?'. As the world burns, all we can do is stare at our own genitals, fixated on our own excrement – the human species as viral video of a monkey pissing into its own mouth. Almost prophetically, dril's first tweet – the simple 'no' that can now be seen pinned to the top of his profile, was posted on the 15th of September 2008 – the day that Lehmann Brothers collapsed.
Dril is not, of course, a realist – any more than the writers of Friends were. But he falsifies nothing about our world. His brilliant and important achievement is to show the world to us, exactly as it is. Make no mistake about it: if there are still literature courses in the decades and centuries to come, then dril will be taught on them. I'm tempted to put real money on him one day winning the Nobel Prize.
4. Dril as meme
This literary appraisal of dril should not, however, downplay the essentially Online nature of his work. Dril's poetry is one built on, inspired by, disseminated through memes. Almost every day on twitter, I see someone screengrabbing a stupid opinion someone has expressed, and posting it next to a dril quote. Through this metacommunication device, idiots of every stripe are exposed as just another iteration of dril, retracting his recent comments on ISIS (you do not, under any circumstances, 'gotta hand it to em'), turning up the racism dial, insisting he will never log off.
Meanwhile, there are countless dril 'parody accounts' which play with and re-purpose his work in all sorts of ways. Some of these accounts, such as the now defunct @critical_dril simply play with dril's style, adapting the character to – in this case – fit the opinions and interests of someone who's really into theory (sample tweet: “hello 911 police? ? yeah the official pf changs account just unfollowed me. please put this message in the Panopticon. thank u officer.”). I remember there used to be a 'Yorkshire dril' account as well.
Other accounts take a different approach. The brilliant @parliawint posts the text of dril articles as if they were subtitles over screengrabs from footage of parliamentary debates, as well as interviews with politicians on the news. Thus we get Theresa May complaining that she spent ages at college getting her torturing degree, but now people are saying torture's wrong; or Iain Duncan Smith cheering that politics is back baby, it's good again! (Awoouu wolf Howl). These images function just as any dril juxtaposition does – they reveal something significant about the person depicted, about the real logic and motivations behind their politics. As political satire, they are far more effective than any zinger they've cracked on Have I Got News For You recently, or Private Eye cartoons.
The @drilmagic account employs a similar strategy, but using Magic: The Gathering cards. Dril tweets are superimposed on the cards as if they were the card's attributes – although in this case there isn't really any satirical intent, they just create a humorous description of the creature or activity depicted, a sort of Extremely Online exquisite corpse. The @drilosophers account, meanwhile, takes dril tweets and labels them with the names of philosophers whose work they (often weirdly accurately) resemble.
Dril tweets are also a popular candidate for 'TweetMashUp' images, generated using the website tweetmashup.com. Through the page, dril's words can be fed into another – to create a new, drilly hybrid. Often these mash-ups are just silly and funny, nothing more: who wouldn't want to see what it looked like if their own tweets looked more like dril's. But the results can also be revealing. The less a dril mash-up can be distinguished from an actual dril tweet, the more clownish and ridiculous the other poster must seem.
All these varieties of dril meme have cemented dril's language as part of the fabric of the internet. Like Shakespeare or The Simpsons – although perhaps in an even more profound way – it is becoming impossible to read dril without also simultaneously becoming aware of the ways in which his words have resonated beyond the instance of their first posting, beyond the ways in which they will continue to be taken up and changed and shared and poured-over and laughed-over in the future.
Dril is, therefore, an entirely new sort of poet. He frames and transforms our situation – just as traditional poetry does – but he also communicates our situation, helps us talk about and reflect upon our situation, memetically: in ways we can take control of for ourselves.
And it is here, perhaps, that the saving power of dril's art lies.