[Semiotext(e); 2023]

One of the great preoccupations of our digital age is proximity management. The dream of hyper-connectivity, as realized by the internet, has, for many, curdled into a potent sense of claustrophobia—of being too close to the opinions, desires, and anxieties of others and too close to those of their own. It turns out, mediated connection threatens those other tightly held dreams: autonomy and authenticity. So people impose “boundaries.” They set limits on their screen time and decline to answer emails past work hours. They deliberate whether to block, soft-block, or mute exes and irksome acquaintances. They periodically set their social media accounts to private, or delete them altogether, re-emerging with a new profile weeks, months later. Others embrace the digisphere’s porousness, mining it for opportunity, connections, and intrigue. Some even delight in its theatrical properties, finding artistic merit in self-performance. The majority vacillates between these orientations, regarding life online with considerable ambivalence.​​ The bottom line, though, is indisputable: The internet has fundamentally altered people’s mode of relating, and its fault lines are felt across culture.

Natasha Stagg writes about this vortex of claustrophobia and porousness from its epicenter—not Silicon Valley, which assumes a lofty removal from culture, but New York City, its historical progenitor. In the press, she is positioned as “part observer, part participant.” Indeed, her writing is derived directly from her professional and social experiences (which, she would be the first to tell you, frequently overlap). Born in Tuscon, Arizona, Stagg completed an MFA in Creative Writing before moving to New York. She soon secured an editorial position at fashion glossy V and steadily moved up the ranks. In 2016, Stagg transitioned to brand consulting, and began penning press releases and ad copy for fashion, art, and design entities. Parallel to these more lucrative ventures, she has contributed criticism and essays to outlets such as Gagosian Quarterly, n+1, and Spike Art. Exposure has yielded financial gain, and vice versa. Along the way: a breathless stream of parties, celebrity encounters, and brushes with extreme wealth. Also: precarity and disillusionment.

Aptly, then, the three books Stagg has published with Semiotext(e) can be understood as a trilogy exploring the psychic implications of personal branding under late capitalism. Her first novel Surveys (2016) is a coming-of-age story about a mall worker who becomes internet famous. Stagg’s next book, an essay collection called Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019, is a meditation on the decade’s introduction of sophisticated (read: insidious) consumer marketing strategies and their diffusion into social mores and aesthetics. Artless: Stories 2019–2023 picks up where Sleeveless left off, pushing the series forward, right to the edge of the void.

Aside from being a clever rejoinder to its antecedent, the title “Artless” is reflective of a culture at an impasse. The veil between art and PR is ever thinner; capital is flowing in peculiar, maddening directions. Within metropolitan hubs, “selling out” is increasingly regarded as inevitable, even aspirational, for those who possess artistic ambitions. There are a number of sympathetic reasons for this shift in attitude, big socio-economic reasons that loom and grip. Still, few would argue that the current cultural landscape is conducive to daring artistic production. As Stagg puts it in the book’s foreword, ours is “a time when carelessness seems increasingly inexcusable.” Her interest in artlessness, then, is primarily framed as a response to the contemporary imperative to voice the “correct” opinion, to take a stance on any and every matter that captures the public’s roving attention. She preemptively disavows her insider authority, suggesting that the reader take her thoughts with a sizable grain of salt: “Note bene: It doesn’t matter what I think. Mostly, I think that I know nothing, and anyway, I will change my mind.” Semiotext(e)’s press release reiterates this disclaimer, provocatively summarizing the book as “a document of New York from an author too close to the story to be a trustworthy eyewitness.”

Stagg extends this spirit of carelessness to the book’s structure, loosely joining disparate topics and forms. In a characteristically meandering chapter titled “The Wheel,” Stagg begins a discussion of the never-realized Staten Island Ferris wheel, switches into a linguistic analysis of new(ish) terms for gender experience, and wraps up by pondering “appropriation culture.” Throughout, she seldom veers from first-person narration, flitting from straightforward fiction to autofiction infused with criticism to essays peppered with personal anecdotes. She recalls encounters with celebrities—such as Vincent Gallo and Sarah Jessica Parker—and reports on cultural topics—such as the death of subcultures, pandemic lockdowns, and Gen Z’s declining interest in sex. She writes personal essays about tech neck and conspiracy theories and realist fiction charged with low-level dread. While Sleeveless blurred genres, Artless pushes obfuscation a step further. These “stories,” as Stagg simply calls them, are grouped not by theme, as before, but by the nondescript markers, “Part I, II, and III.” (It took me until Part II to realize that the divisions indicate pre-, during, and post-pandemic years.) These ambiguous formal approaches jostle, but Stagg’s prose, consistent in tone and style, attenuates their force.

Relegating her own voice to the periphery throughout, Stagg foregrounds other, louder ones. Her aloof eye is suited to this mode of reportage, and she tends to allow people to hang themselves by their own words. She introduces Roth, founder of Roth Architecture—the firm behind the climate-conscious luxury resort in Tulum, Azulik—as a “self-described visionary.” Artless’s droll opening chapter is titled after a former boss’ pitiable bid for power: “‘I love it,’ said our boss. ‘Is anyone listening to me? I love it.’” Simmering at the level of deadpan asides, her snark is delivered through scraps of dialogue and staccato sentences.

Still, Stagg is the main character in these stories, spending ample time interrogating her own relationship to work, art, celebrity, sex, and persona. While she reveals plenty of intimate information, her style could hardly be described as confessional. It is thoroughly scrubbed of emotional content. Take an early chapter, “The Dollhouse,” a response of sorts to #MeToo. Stagg portrays an atmosphere glutted with apprehension, as people around her grapple with the limitations and excesses of “cancel culture.” Amid snippets of conversations with and about canceled men, she recalls a painful relationship of her own, in which a man cheated on her with multiple younger women. In the fallout, she warded off her indignation with the reminder that she once had an affair with an older married man herself. Back then, she was intoxicated by her own youth and the desire it elicited from well-connected, worldly men (Stagg knows well that fantasy-enactments often take two—that every pleasure has its price). Proverbially shrugging her shoulders, she remarks, “A power imbalance is one of the most commonplace aphrodisiacs. Far be it from me to deprive anyone of a little fun, even at the expense of others, even at the expense of me.”

Take responsibility for your desires. This is the post–#MeToo call, voiced with increasing volume from savvy women eager to disassociate themselves from female victimhood. I live in New York; I work and socialize and read these women; I am one myself. More generally, I’m around people who are tired of liberal piousness, of its deleterious effects on art and culture. In other words, Stagg’s commitment to moral ambivalence is representative of a vocal subset of the city’s population. Her blasé, quasi-provocative tone is par for the course. Counter to Semiotext(e)’s claim, then, she is a “trustworthy eyewitness” of this cultural moment, for a particular demographic. Artless succeeds as an artifact, as an incisive encapsulation of a contemporary attitude. But is that all? Perhaps I myself am too close to the story to find this a satisfactory end.

Just like moral righteousness, moral ambivalence can become a crutch, cutting short a line of inquiry with a listless wave of the hand. In “The Dollhouse” and elsewhere, her investigations amount to that slanted form of acceptance, resignation. During the Black Lives Matter protests of Summer 2020, she aided brands in recalibrating their images. Stagg admits, “Branding doesn’t protect you if what you need protection from is the brands.” Still, she lacks faith in proposed alternatives, firmly lodging herself in what her therapist terms “a moral grey area”:

My job is to make things seem different than what they are. And I want to do my job, because I’m good at it, and I want the money. I love brands like I love people. They did start out as people, you know. Brands protect me when they pay me. I also want to do good, but I am skeptical of most do-gooder agendas. I want to sound like I care, but I don’t want to sound like I think I’m not complicit.

“Why, I ask, should I have the answers?” I don’t believe Stagg should have the answers to society’s ills, and I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to be paid, but I do wonder at her consistent reticence to take a solid stance, intellectually or affectively. Nobody wants to be duped, least of all cool denizens of downtown New York. But, as Stagg knows well, self-conscious attempts at image-management (“I want to sound”) foreclose flights of passion and risk—those vehicles for great art and thinking.

In “Social Suicide,” Stagg discusses her decision to delete her social media accounts. She didn’t have a particular rationale other than a “temptation to jump,” citing a recent longing for “circumstances that gave me the option to flee into the relative unknown, abandoning a set of routines and expectations for something less predictable.” A glimmer of hope—another way of being emerges into view. Just as quickly, Stagg retreats: “I cannot escape; I know this. Attention-incentivized creativity is a presence in the atmosphere, never to be combed out. Like microplastics sloughing off the cheap fabrics we wear, it is around us, in us, on us, and being advertised to us, forever.”

Stagg is a gifted writer, and Artless contains a handful of restrained yet deeply affecting stories. (I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that these stories—which center on a former cult member in Arizona, an adolescent in love with her best friend, and a stilted holiday dinner—occur largely outside of the hyper-brand-conscious New York.) On the whole, though, I found myself wishing she cared a bit more—not about morality, per se, but her ideas, which often struck me as underdeveloped. I get it; the book is intentionally “artless.” After completing the book, however, I was left unsure how Stagg understands artlessness and its stakes. It seems that Artless endeavors to avoid stakes altogether—which is, ironically, a rather careful approach. Anyways, it’s hard to take responsibility for your desires when your desires are blunted, obscured, or disavowed.

Caroline Reagan reads and writes in New York City.

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