November 28, 2019

Recently cut passage from the work-in-progress Dry Your Tears To Perfect Your Aim


He started with my very first book. He said he admired the youthful energy, the punk spirit, how I saw literature as a war and my book was like a one-man army fighting off all contenders. I certainly wasn’t fond of the military metaphor but it was clear this wasn’t a discussion, rather it was a critical monologue on his part and my job was to sit there, cowering in fear, and simply listen. About my second book, he spoke about how encouraging it was to watch me, step by careful step, marching toward something that resembled a more conventional novel. I realized he was telling me all this to get inside my head, or to show that he was already inside my head, that he already understood me. I tried to remember what it was actually like for me to write my second book, thinking that if I could reground my thoughts back toward my own lived experience it would help me resist his misguided analysis of my work. Did it feel like marching toward a more conventional novel. For a moment, under the potential threat of further pain, I thought that maybe it did, but he was already onto my third book, which he said was like a concise summation of the history of leftist defeatism. This was a topic that clearly interested him a great deal. He carefully explained to me how the root of winning any battle was believing in the strong possibility you might win. Of course this principle could be taken too far: as had frequently been proven, over-confidence could also easily lead to defeat. But he would always prefer over-confidence to under-confidence, for the simple reason that winning a battle required a certain effortless arrogance, or at least that was how it had always seemed to him. It was starting to amaze me just how much he loved to talk, loved the sound of his own voice, felt emboldened by the sight of me strapped to this chair, an absolutely captive and terrorized audience. About my fourth book, which he also seemed to know was by far my most successful, he said that it was fascinating the degree to which my take, my approach, to the topics of sex and violence were so completely opposite from his own. He wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that for him sex and violence were for all intents and purposes one and the same, but his thinking was clearly more along those lines. What is the libido without the urge to dominate, what is desire if not the thrill of the chase. Fucking might also be love but, then again, love might also be terror. By this point I was no longer quite following him, losing interest, all my concentration spent in an effort to stay awake, in the fear that if I fell asleep I would be awakened by a jolt of pure pain. I couldn’t even begin to understand what he thought my take on sex and violence was. I think maybe he just assumed they were two things I was afraid of, which in retrospect might not be so far from the truth. About my sixth book he felt he had to admit that he didn’t understand why so many people wasted so much energy criticizing capitalism. Capitalism was just another part of life, no better or worse than anything else. Why so much obsession with the evils of capitalism? He was sure he would never completely understand it. What would our world look like if you took away all the products and comforts created by capitalism? He was sure no one knew, and if no one knew why even bother thinking about it. He told me that I must agree with him so I agreed with him. I barely had the energy to hold my head up. At that moment the evils of capitalism did not seem like such a pressing matter. He then admitted he hadn’t actually read all my books because he hadn’t read my most recent outing, book number six, yet. He had ordered it but for some reason it hadn’t arrived with the others. So he would have to get back to me on that one. And we could stop there for today. I was really glad I hadn’t written any more books. He did not comment on my seventh book for the simple reason that I had not yet written it. My seventh book is the book you’re currently holding in your hands.


November 21, 2019

My First Reaction Was To Cringe


[This text was originally published in the publication Post-Punk Art Now.]

In her book Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., Viv Albertine – guitarist for seminal female punk group The Slits – tells the story of a young pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious, accused of throwing a beer glass at The Damned during a show. The glass shattered against a pillar, sending shards into the face of the lead singer’s girlfriend, who incurred severe eye injuries. Sid went to jail but continued to maintain his innocence. He didn’t do it. It was only much later, after he was released, that he admitted it was actually him. That was punk, spitting rebellion into the face of the world but cowardly if there were real life consequences.

This is Simon Reynolds, writing in the liner notes of the Young Marble Giants Colossal Youth re-issue:
Postpunk and “perfection” rarely went together. This was an era of experimental over-reach, of bands catalyzed by the punk do-it-yourself principle attempting to expand the music by embracing genres (funk, reggae, jazz) that in their original context relied on virtuosity and slickness. Artistic ambition and anyone-can-do-it amateurism make for uneasy bedfellows, and many of the key groups of the period made records that were closer to sketches towards an ideal of a new music than the fully-realised deal. Even some of the accredited classics that defined the era […] have the odd moment or several that are substandard, botched, or simply misconceived. And really, that’s okay, because perfection wasn’t the point of postpunk. What was? Throwing out ideas, setting challenges for band and audience alike, keeping the collective conversation moving.
Punk opened the door and postpunk walked through it. A rebellion against society transformed into a rebellion within music. It resembles a lesson in emancipatory politics. The vanguard, despite its limitations, pries open certain realities previously assumed closed, and then the next wave makes considerably more use of the freedoms that have now been created. If they can do all that, perhaps we can do even more. Only eventual entropy can stop us. Or maybe this is too simple. The energy of music, and the flash-forward social scenes that surround it, often make me feel a sense of political potential that may or may not actually exist.

There is a story about The Ramones I often think about. The first time they toured the U.S. there were no bands to open for them. But the second time suddenly there were. During that first tour, in every city they played, some kids saw them and decided to form a band, a new band that would then end up opening for The Ramones the very next time they came through town. For me, this is almost all that art actually is. Something contagious. You see it and think: I want to do that too. But not only that. You also want to take it further, test the limits, see how much more it will stretch, how far you can go.

My fantasy is that this is all emancipatory politics might actually be as well. You think: the world doesn’t have to be like this. There must be another way. Some activists try to open up a little bit of space, it works for awhile, and you start to wonder how much further it could go, what strategies might take us there, how you might play a role. The difference is the repression and co-option you will be subject to are on a vastly larger scale. The more you succeed the more they kill you.

When David Clersen invited me to write for this publication, he quoted back to me something I had previously written about kindness and taking care of each other:
Here we are in a territory of fragile humanism, about as far away from the ‘no future’ punk rock nihilism that was one of my personal entry points into art and creativity. If I can get past my anxiety that all punks become boring hippies in the end, I can see that conceptual strategies that allow for more generous social relations, to put it rather bluntly, often feel good when you take part in them.
When I read his email, and re-read my earlier words, my first reaction was to cringe. Over the past few years I have written more about the fact that privileging kindness can be radical, that our ability to take care of each other might be the most political thing we can do, that dog-eat-dog Darwinism must be replaced with new visions that pay careful attention to the symbiotic interdependence of all living things. But punk and postpunk still have my heart. In some sense, all my ideas about art and politics still have to do with wanting to rip things up. Which makes me think of the very first line of Sigurd Hoel’s 1927 novel Sinners in the Summertime: “You are a self-deceiver and as such belong to the last generation.”


November 18, 2019

Fifteen quotations on fame


Down in Atlantis the curator showed me around the space, gesturing to invisible artworks that will soon be expensively shipped from far away to fill the room. I am the least famous and the least rich and the least well paid artist; I am paid partly in the fame of other artists. I am paid pyrrhically in the currency of my desire to be seen on my terms. My desire has almost as many social claims and credit operations on it as a straight man’s sexuality; both are supposed to justify the movements of capital that provide the basic infrastructure of contemporary art. Overdetermined, my art-making suffers the fate of all socially appointed agents of desire; it becomes intermittently impotent, and terrorized by the threat of its own softness.
- Hannah Black, Dark Pool Party

By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, with all these puzzles, rebuses, and arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortunes, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated. But when I am alone with myself I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya were great painters; I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere.
- Picasso, Libro Vero, 1952

I used to dismiss so many artists who wanted fame – but then the ones who want fame are the ones who are remembered, more often than not. Like Robert Mapplethorpe, who played the game, unlike Peter Hujar, who did not. I wonder sometimes about my identification with writers and artists who were failures. Anna wrote back that yes, in a person’s lifetime, the successful ones are the ones who want to be, who are in the right place in the right time with the right look and the right agent and the right personality, but after we’re all dead, she thought, it’s anyone’s game who’s remembered. Which of course is how she would think about it, as a competition, still, ever after death.
- Kate Zambreno, Drifts

I think it’s more obvious when the fame stops and the person cannot continue putting out and putting out and putting out – and so the public or the press stop being flattering, and then it’s very painful. People can spend a year being famous, the talk of the town, and then, gradually, there is a kind of lessening of it until in the end there is none of it. It can destroy people. Almost like someone they adored died, or something inside them died. I saw that happen with a couple of people who were friends of mine. And I thought, I certainly would not ever wish not to be famous but if I ever am famous I promise myself to be very, very, careful.
- Maria Irene Fornes

In a 1954 letter to Reina Reyes, his fourth wife, Felisberto Hernández outlined a story he had just “discovered”: Someone has had the idea of changing the Nobel Prize so as to give the writer who wins it “a more authentic happiness,” and prevent the fame and money currently attendant upon it from disrupting his life and work. The new idea consists of not revealing the identity of the winner even to the winner himself, but using the prize money to assemble a group of people – psychologists for the most part – who instead would secretly study and promote the writer and his work for the duration of his life. The conferral of the prize would be publicly announced only after the winner’s death.
- from the Prologue to Lands of Memory by Felisberto Hernandez

It’s very difficult to not get crushed by too much popularity. You want to please people and meet their expectations, and expectations are just the worst thing. They’re the worst poison. They should be absolutely prohibited and fought against, actively. I sense that also: that people when they meet me have expectations. They have a whole story in their mind and then when they meet me and I’m just me it’s somehow ah, I’m not what you expected me to be. But that’s a trap, the expectation, and I try to avoid it. I try to not have expectations, because most of the time you’re going to be disappointed. So why live a life of disappointment, when you can live a life of joy?
- Laetitia Sadier

Success is the ethical quagmire par excellence of commodity culture because it jeopardizes our relation to dissent, to resistance, to saying no, as fame is precisely about what one is willing to do, how far one is willing to go, and how much (low in the form of high. Going low in order to get high) one is willing to say yes to. The road to fame is made up of assent. This is what gets you to the literal and figurative top. And this is why fame is almost always a parable about losing (not finding one’s way). About being led astray. “Making it” is not the struggle to become, as it’s always been said, but the willingness to be made.
- Masha Tupitsyn

I understood, but could not forgive, the temptations of celebrity hunger. I had my own “fifteen minutes of fame” in 1968-70 in the women’s liberation movement. Such attention can replace a fragile sense of self, so that only more attention can fill the void that remains, and more attention is never enough.
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War

Celebrity is a malady. It is not attached to talent or quality. It is a grasping, a fawning after something individuals feel they themselves lack, so celebrity is really about loss and emptiness.
- Penny Arcade

Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.
- Rainer Maria Rilke

Work your ass off to change the language & dont ever get famous.
- Bernadette Mayer, Experiments

If you really want to know something about solitude, become famous.
– James Baldwin

Celebrity is merely a different form of loneliness.
– Henry Miller

Success is the other face of persecution.
– Pier Paolo Pasolini

I don’t need no fame
- Robert Forster, No Fame