the Internet is for real
By Chris Campanioni
C&R Press, 2019.
In a time of deepfakes and alternative facts, we often ask ourselves what is real anymore, how can we trust our own eyes? Chris Campanioni chimes in on our collective existential crisis with his latest book of hybrid works, the Internet is for real in which he proposes, as the title indicates, perhaps the most sure thing in our world is that which is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. As if cutting and pasting a Pinterest of poetry, memoir, and essays, Campanioni invites us to join him through a pastiche of pop, pulp, and philosophy as he analyzes the internet and its impact on intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, as well as identity within individual and cultural contexts. The Internet is for real resonates as a perfect time capsule for future generations scratching their heads at America and the world in the initial years of the new millennium.
In the Internet is for real, Campanioni presents the internet as a wonderland rich with visual stimuli that people can use to forge and fulfill dreams of and for themselves to sometimes detrimental extremes. When Campanioni says “So long as others can watch, I’ll endure anything,” he alludes to our new culture of Tide Pod and cinnamon challenges and accidental deaths involving selfies in precarious places, a culture in which we love “watching and being watched.” Campanioni traces this obsession for a like to a dissatisfaction with the current and actual self, which in turn causes us to harness the web to fabricate a new identity we think we can be proud of, performing stunts and “Being for others / What we could never be / With ourselves.” When stating such positions Campanioni often uses both the singular and plural first person. In doing so, he is not accusatory or moralistic but instead includes himself in this phenomenon as both observer and participant, especially when he reveals deeply personal experiences and insecurities.
While exploring how individuals create their own identity on the web, Campanioni also finds opportunity to discuss the performative demands on first-generation Americans imposed, inadvertently, by immigrant parents and, more pointedly, by the scrutiny of American culture. Campanioni shares his experience as a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Cuba and Poland to shed light on this topic. He writes, “To be Cuban–and by extension, to be American–is to be inherently a synthesis…” Something that is not entirely any one thing but rather a conglomerate, a blend, a hybrid. By doing so, Campanioni provides voice for those in the United States who wish to convey what it is like to be born of and yet not belong completely to different ethnic groups and nationalities, those who live with an ever-elusive sense of home and belonging. As a first-generation American of Mexican and Ukrainian descent, I felt a personal connection to these moments in the book and in particular with the following passage:
First-generation citizens can only imagine a place of origin we’ve never been to. And so I am used to imagining; I’ve been practicing my whole life. My own dreams as a displaced child of two immigrants from different countries involve no kites but a feeling of urgency and desperation and unyielding curiosity that has followed me everywhere I’ve been to, everywhere I move and the places I’ve called home.
As the population of the United States is projected to be a collection of minorities by 2050, Campanioni also tackles the nationalistic discourse in the media of recent years that asserts a more singular narrative of American identity. He reminds us that,
… to be American, too, has its basis in an imagined reality, more product than person, more concept than custom. The American Dream. “You can’t become English, French, German; you are…” wrote Susan Sontag in her notebook. “But you become an American. An invented, not a natural country.”
Campanioni thus develops an argument for empathy in answer to the mythos of the sensationalized other, ultimately asking, “Is the experience of the exile not the experience of being human?”
When Campanioni poses similar questions throughout the text, he breaks the fourth wall and holds the reader’s attention in a world of digital distractions. We realize he’s talking to, with, and about us. So we have no excuse but to confront what we observe and perhaps reflect on our own role within a larger context of the spectacle. In this way, reading the Internet is for real feels similar to reading Julio Cortazar’s “Continuidad de Los Parques” in which the reader acts as both witness and accomplice of the unfolding drama.
As the title insists on something virtual being real, the Internet is for real is full of ironies. It is particularly ironic that a book that revels so much in the digital and all its implications takes a concrete and analog form. While a new hardcover edition that can be read in both directions is an innovative choice, could the Internet is for real, as an exemplar of hybrid literature, achieve its genre-bending mission all the more so in a format that goes beyond even an eBook? Imagine the text interspersed in a platform of hyperlinks, videos, and audio. Perhaps herein lies an opportunity for the Internet is for real version 2.0? The possibilities, I’m sure, are as exponential as the cost for such a project. Besides the budgetary constraints of an alternative, the traditional hard copy ironically forces readers to disconnect and focus on what Campanioni has to say.
With time for self-reflection constantly stifled by notification pings, Chris Campanioni offers us refreshing respite and food for thought in the Internet is for real. By deconstructing what has become commonplace in society and culture, Campanioni helps us see a lot of what we take for granted is social construct and everything and everyone is in constant flux, for better or worse. “Defamiliarize the familiar,” Campanioni writes, “and all of us eventually realize we are strangers, to each other and ourselves.” And yet, ironically, we find kinship in that sense of displacement and realize, as we analyze our own identities and roles, we are all, ultimately, newcomers to and non-natives of this digitized, virtual world searching for a niche, for a new redemptive self.
- A Review of Chris Campanioni’s The Internet is for real - January 24, 2020