Harold Jaffe: Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories
Interviewed by Gary Lain
(For Straylight and Paradoxa)
Guy Debord, in his 1956 essay “A User’s Guide to Détournement” writes, “anything can be used,” and “the only historically justified tactic is extremist innovation.” Do you see your formal innovation of the docufiction in relationship to Debord’s “déraillements,” as part of a shared lineage of radical innovation?
Debord is a crucial figure for me. In his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1988, he claimed that alienation was no longer possible, that the “spectacle” had metastasized such that wilderness both outside and within consciousness was fatally encroached. Then he shot himself in the heart.
I am still alive and trucking, not so much to herald change, though that would be welcomed, as to bear witness.
How does your use of found texts in Anti-Twitter, such as online news bites, for example, relate to a more general, post-structural movement towards literary plundering and re-appropriation?
The connection to post-structuralism is of course there, but my deeper inclinations are with the more decisively political Lettrists and Situationists.
Ten years into the millennium not only is Debord’s wilderness effaced (except for the pleasure of the mega-rich), fundament of any kind has become papered over with what is called information, but which obviously is disinformation, distraction, ideology. That is our debased milieu, we are compelled to inhabit it, and so it is, of necessity, my subject.
Why is the actual text that I find not art but my “found” text is art? Because I propose that it be so.
There is the sense that the official culture now posits a depoliticized or strictly cultural avant-garde. This is felt especially in the “life-style” industry, but also finds currency in certain degraded put profitable domains of the popular and even the visual arts. But can radical innovation function purely in the register of style? Isn’t some form of cultural or social critique implicit in the development of radical new forms; can’t they indicate some sense of social progress?
The avant-garde historically has been more often allied with anti-democracy, even with monarchism, than with social progress in any form. In other instances the avant-garde has denounced all forms of social relations in deference to art qua art. Looked at closely these denunciations might be viewed as complicity with the existing order.
The difference now, as I see it, is the degradation of the professed avant-garde; that is, its undisguised lack
of historical awareness and cultural engagement. That the ubiquitous designation “lifestyle,” coined in the 1970s, now routinely replaces “life” whether the subject is humans, whales, or translations of Breton, tells the tale.
Except for the most insistent champions of virtuality, such as Stelarc, life is organic; style is inorganic. But in our culture the difference is almost entirely effaced. Several Super Bowls ago Janet Jackson’s halftime show featured a “wardrobe malfunction” in which one of her implanted breasts was revealed. The resultant scandal never once distinguished between the inorganic implant and the invisible organic residue of Jackson’s actual middle-aged breast.
Regarding your use of space graphically in Anti-Twitter, one always sees Tweets reproduced as they are distributed–dense, character limited units of text most often barren of any real content.
Your own déraillements function on multiple registers, which we’ll discuss later, but you’ve chosen to employ space for your Anti-Twitter entries interestingly. Of course, a few innovative fiction writers have manipulated space graphically to their own prerogatives. But in this case one thinks of that great theoretician of speed, Paul Virilio. Virilio argues that under the new dispensation of the global information superhighways, “having attained this absolute speed, we face the prospect in the twenty-first century of the invention of a perspective based on real time, replacing the spatial perspective, the perspective based on real space.” This new perspective, “confronts us with a new phenomenon: disorientation. A fundamental disorientation which completes and perfects the social and financial deregulation whose baleful consequences we already know…Perceived reality is being split into the real and the virtual…cyberspace and instantaneous, globalized information are throwing all into total confusion. What is now underway is a disturbance of the perception of the real: a trauma.”
So that Twitter, for example, as the latest tech infesting the information age, is symptomatic of this schism in the organization of cultural space, which you are interrogating by remapping these tweets across the page graphically, seemingly to re-inscribe their form as well as their content.
Virilio has agonized about the virtual collapse of real space—with good reason. That collapse is obviously reinforced by the ever-abbreviated virtual discourse which is instantaneous and inscribed in a viral, ever-renewing shorthand. The virtual discourse confounds, disorients and, yes, traumatizes the “real.”
Not surprisingly, the virtual (viral) discourse, like real-time condos, is jerrybuilt; beneath the cluttered disorientation of text-messaging, of “tweeting,” one tends to find, recursive-ness, tautology, banality. One of my stratagems, as you indicate, is to “remap” the cultural space so that the form-content is re-seen, laid bare.
Except for a small number of literary instances—early Burroughs, for example, Donald Barthelme, Nabokov in Pale Fire, Michel Butor—fiction writers haven’t done enough with space and line breaks, ceding those stylistics to poets. I’ve never acknowledged a fundamental distinction between fiction writers and poets, so I use whatever formal stratagems seem pertinent.
Now with instantaneously metastasized technology on every side, the innovative artist’s employment of space must always be vis-à-vis the electronic “reality.” (This applies to “wired” cultures; it is easy to forget that more than half of the globe is unwired; of course it is the half of the globe which is considered negligible).
Suicide—noble suicide—is a compelling motif in Anti-Twitter, developing the theme of individual resistance to the dominant culture. Envisioned here are the deaths by suicide of Van Gogh, Freud, Benjamin, the young army corporal of “Empathy”, the Army recruit who in Iraq “saw things that will mess me up for life.” Suicide is, especially in the US, officially considered moral cowardice, yet decades ago Camus reframed the question as, “Why not suicide?” (Of course that was in France).
In the US the extension of life is routinely allied to medical technology: keeping the patient technically alive even though he or she may be incapacitated beyond repair; which amounts to a pharisaic version of life. Imprisoning Dr. Kevorkian for assisting patients with terminal conditions represents the US’s response to those who contest the official pietism.
The embedded attitude toward death in the US is egomaniacal. We are to hang onto youth at all costs, even if it is faux-youth, enhanced by cosmetic surgery and medical technology. When a middle-class or “better” person dies in the US, his or her entire world dies, except for the scarcely compensatory continuation of family.
In other cultures, including those considered primitive, the prevailing idea is to think collectively rather than egoistically. So long as our people and the world we inhabit continue, we are sustained, dead or alive.
The fact that nature in the US and increasingly elsewhere has been paved, jack-hammered, real-estated, so that there is virtually no wilderness, nor even continuous stretches of natural land—that short-sighted, toxic intervention makes it all the harder to envision our lives collectively.
Backing up to France: Roman Catholic though most French are, the suicide rate among artists and intellectuals is comparatively high, and the general attitude toward those suicides is accepting.
During your recent presentation to the Google Authors Series, you made a humorous reference to Buddhist “charged space,” occupying the pauses between texts during your reading. But it is an interesting metaphor I’d like to pursue further.
Language can, in certain rarified situations, indicate a sort of conceptual “sacred” space—dream, escape, wilderness, or in your words, “the irrational.” But given the flattening effects of the info-culture, discourse manifesting charged space becomes more elusive, more difficult to manifest. This may well be another yet symptom of the colonization of consciousness by late capitalism–the occlusion of these experiential opportunities by the saturating effects of the global “conversation.”
For those charged spaces to vibrate, or even to exist, they must be uncolonized, and that takes us back to Debord’s contention in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle that alienation was no longer possible; there was no longer an “outside” the spectacle.
For those of us in “wired” environments the buzz never ceases. Does it cease in dream? Conceivably, though more and more rarely. Sleep disorder is a frequent malady now because wakeful stresses and anxieties, like the jingle of cellphones, have no boundary. People sleep fretfully, or they ingest a sleep medication, which enforces an artificial sleep with emotional repercussions, often including suicidal ideation.
Children who are introverted and dreamy are in the US considered asocial, even autistic, and their dreaminess is addressed like a disease.
Certainly, Anti-Twitter catalogs the predations and degradations of 21st culture: the American obsession with violence; the brutal exploitation of animals; the forced insertion of technology into every aspect of experience, no matter how intimate. Yet the text moves laterally, interrogating the culture in arresting and intriguing ways. One finds a Trickster figure stalking cyberspace, stealing identities and impersonating cancer victims. There is also the manifestation of the ineffable: the dream space generated by the cluster of texts concerning death by falling, by the image of Satchmo’s weed-inflected grin…it seems that charged space is, at the margins, still tenable.
The margins, like wilderness, are being eroded rapidly; but, yes, like the coyote in certain American Indian legends, the trickster in Anti-Twitter picks his spots, which are deliberately unpredictable, to spring, smoke weed, assert his dream.
Throughout this collection your favorable citings of dream and wilderness suggests in effect that language, together with a kind of dialectical Blakeian energy, can still generate a species of imaginative autonomy. And as Delmore Schwartz observed, “in dreams begin responsibilities.” Certainly, imaginative agency requires that we take stock of our core beliefs. But at this historical juncture, how might these beliefs resist the ideological imperatives of the dominant culture, which are totalizing? Can art and literature still provide the sort of refuge in which these dreams might suggest, perhaps to young people, another way?
As mentioned, in “developed” nations the spectacle’s buzz is ceaseless, sleep and dream have been largely colonized, flattened, made to resemble wakeful life, even as an international airport in South Africa resembles an international airport in Houston.
But I’m older; I straddle several generations; I’ve lived and studied in “primitive” countries like India, Nepal, Guatemala, Ecuador, Jamaica. I’ve cultivated dream; hence, for me dreamspace is alive, throbbing, unaccountable: humans exchanging gender, transforming into animal. My dreams are often nightmares—or what people might call nightmares. But for me they relate to my nagual or what Lorca calls “duende,” a spirit-energy that I can’t control but which I trust implicitly. Without it I would not be able to write.
If my writings are read sympathetically, I like to believe that the non-dreaming reader might contract some of the duende spirit.
Until the age of six, children dream primarily of animals. In Anti-Twitter, animals occupy a contested space. They are brutalized, harvested for food, tortured by the medical and military industries, othered. Yet they are also invested with agency in strange and marvelous ways. We find the mouse who eludes his torturer to burn down his house; the baboons who expropriate World Cup flags from cars in a U.K. nature park; the macaques teaching their young to floss with human hair…
The innocence that Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge champion dies a premature death in contemporary culture, and perhaps especially in the US. Children are jerked much too soon out of their sacred space, containing as it does aspects of prebirth and afterbirth, into the “world.”
Animals, even when domesticized, caged, or abused, as poultry and cattle are, retain aspects of their wildness (which in children can be called innocence). When I see the eyes of a homeless dog or a panther in a zoo (I no longer go to zoos), or my own adopted cat, or a horned beast on the Animal Channel, something of my heart goes out to them.
I feel similarly when I see a tree such as the ailanthus persisting to grow in a polluted urban street. I remember looking closely at the intricate bud of a pignut hickory tree with the embryonic leaves so cunningly enfolded and feeling at the same time gifted and disturbed at how man and his institutions have set about murdering the natural world.
My deep affection and respect for B. Traven has to do with his being a revolutionary who did not subject animals to the triage system, which states that My business is oppressed people; I have no time to consider oppressed anything else.
I remember that scene in Traven’s The Cotton Pickers where the protagonist is working as a cattle drover. Time is of the essence, but when a cow unexpectedly delivers, the drovers are told to wait, and when the calf is born the protagonist gathers it up, enfolds it tenderly in his blanket and transports the newborn on his horse. Only then do they continue the cattle drive.
I felt precisely the opposite about Ingmar Bergman when in an interview in the late Sixties, he was asked about Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966, in which a donkey, symbolically enacting the role of Jesus vilified, is the film’s protagonist.
Bergman is smoothly contemptuous. “Animals!” he scoffs, “my interest is in humans.” Or presumably in artificial animals as in his celebrated production of The Magic Flute. Bergman, who himself grew up among animals, in Uppsala, Sweden, later became a supporter of Hitler.
Which is not to claim that fascists can’t like animals. Consider the Fuhrer’s well-documented affection for small dogs.
Several of the texts here address the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly the effects of PTSDs on returning veterans. These distant wars without end, highly mediated by the interests that perpetuate them, still affect us even as the details of the barbarities inflicted in the name of our “way of life” are repressed. These unseen wars are part of the psychological landscape of our time, a dim, chronic awareness of violence and suffering. You’ve argued, in Beyond the Techno-Cave and elsewhere, that writers and artists, to the extent that they can, might consider the broader social and political contexts in which their work functions. Giving voice to the dispossessed is one way in which fiction writers operate within a lineage of historical agency: one also thinks of Vasily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, a novel of extraordinary scope which, while documenting the atrocities of the siege of Stalingrad, privileges acts of simple compassion as the fundamental human transaction.
For various reasons US writers have been reluctant to “engage” in broader issues, in what might be called crisis writing. Unlike countries such as France, Germany, Ireland, Eastern Europe, much of Central and South America, we have no ongoing tradition of engaged writing in the US.
There have been historical “moments”–the Quakers, the Abolitionists, the Thirties Marxists, the Sixties counter-culture, Act-Up in the late Eighties and early Nineties—but overall American writers have been contemptuous of socially-activist writing. It doesn’t sell, there is little immediate gratification, it is not sufficiently “esthetic,” and so on. Those are thin arguments. Crisis writing, though written rapidly, has about it an energy and focus which more than compensate for its relative lack of refinement.
When one looks historically at the writing and visual art that have made the most impact, crisis artists like Goya, the Mexican Muralists, the Picasso of Guernica, Daumier, Dix, Grosz and Heartfield, Beuys, Ben Shawn, Jack Levine, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Krzysztof Wodiscko, are notable. In writing, the broad range includes Milton (“Areopagitica”), Swift, Blake, Rousseau, Whitman, Thoreau, Sean O’Casey, Neruda, Vallejo, Aimee Cesaire, Cardenal, Roque Dalton, Ignazio Silone, Elsa Morante, Dreiser, Traven, Dennis Brutus, Bessie Head, Leopold Senghor, Chinua Achebe, Guy Debord and the Situationists, John Berger, Vasily Grossman, Primo Levi, Richard Wright . . . an impressive list.
Why should artists be in a special position to address political crises? They cultivate consciousness, contem- plation, and in many instances learning. They view through a broader lens. If they have a reputation as writers they can make themselves heard and express their opinions precisely.
There will always be an incommensurateness between the imaginative efforts and the result, but the principal idea is to bear witness.
Towards the end of the collection you bear witness to the last words two death row inmates, one tender, one defiant. The effect here is one of close identification.
My identification is with the incarcerated, the marginalized. And that isn’t an attitude I’ve cultivated; I’ve always felt that way. Are there personal, psychological factors in that identification? Doubtless. But that does not diminish the social necessity. Luther (according to Erik Erikson) was emotionally disposed to confront Roman Catholicism; nonetheless, Luther’s Protestantism had its own raison d’etre. Wilhelm Reich experienced early traumas which influenced his writings on the orgasm, but those writings have proved valuable in the broadest sense. Personal trauma and subsequent art-making or theorizing are compatible.
In your final text, “Death” you cite Rilke and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We in the West are not acculturated to die decently, but still you encourage us to, “shield a human…shield an animal.”
In a debased, medical technology-obsessed culture, dying decently is rarely an option, except for suicide, which in the US is officially condemned. Would I “martyr” myself on behalf of an endangered human or animal? I like to think that I would.