Peripathetic by Cher Tan review – essays on punk, work and the internet are incredibly good fun

There is a furious, frenetic energy to writing in Peripathetic, Cher Tan’s debut collection of essays. In part this is stylistic – Tan’s writing is fast-paced, peppered with acerbic one-liners that she deploys to devastating effect and layered with details, often understated and left to resonate with what surrounds them. But this energy is also borne along the vast range of the ideas and thinkers Tan engages with across these essays – cultural, queer and economic theorists, artists and writers of many different kinds – which she draws together in unusual and often invigorating combinations.

Peripathetic is interested in work and capitalism and the ways these complicate and impinge upon the selves we are able to make within and around such a totalising system. There are essays on social media and the self as a commodity, on “shit jobs” and their conditions of labour, on the hope and promise of the early internet, and on punk and the impossibility of counter-culture within a system that seeks to co-opt or commercialise difference. All of these are united by an interest in outsiderness and precarity – what it means to exist on the periphery, and what might be possible from this position.

Tan’s essays are as personal as they are political, but what’s fascinating – as well as refreshing – about the personal material that she deploys in Peripathetic is how it is almost always a secondary concern; it is the ideas that guide these essays. The details from Tan’s own life – her introduction to the punk scene as an adolescent in Singapore; her work in an early internet cafe and the online communities it allowed her to participate in; her early, precarious years in Australia as a new migrant – filter through in snippets and build in the background. What we are given is a narrative of the ideas that have shaped Tan as a person, non-linear and achronological – with events and experiences serving as their context and colour.

Some of the most interesting essays in the collection are those that examine the early days of the internet, and the ideals of collaboration and democratisation that it seemed to inspire and enable. One essay, written with anarchic joy and a cheeky sense of humour, discusses the founding and eventual prosecution of filesharing platform The Pirate Bay. It allowed people like Tan to access films and music officially prohibited within their countries; in Tan, it also fostered “trilingualism” in Singlish, Australian English, and internet slang. Tan is interested in examining what that iteration of the internet offered, especially in terms of sharing and producing, before that promise was disappointed by big media and big tech – and before its tools were turned, by social media, to sharing and producing a commodified self.

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Many of Tan’s essays are episodic, even fragmentary, and this contributes to the collection’s zippy pace. But it’s also a fitting form for her assemblage of ideas, and there is a logic that builds in the accumulation of incidents and details that speak together to something bigger: those invisible, powerful forces that shape a person. This is most evident in the essays that deal with Tan’s working life – as a writer, and in the number of positions she has taken in order to survive – and the commingled anger and joy that she has found there.

Peripathetic is a fascinating collection, always animated by Tan’s distinctive, acidic voice and rambunctious aesthetic. The essays are bold and always manage to be intellectually engaging and incredibly good fun. They are essays of resistance as well as of despair, questioning the ways in which we find a sense of community and belonging – however partial – when all the odds are stacked against this.

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