Harold Jaffe interviewed by Joe Haske
To be published in Rampike, September 2013
Joe Haske: You refer to the texts in Revolutionary Brain as "essays and quasi-essays." I've read some of these texts previously in various journals where you have referred to them as "docufiction." Could you describe your take on genre distinctions? Why do you classify these texts as "essays and quasi-essays," as opposed to fiction? How does genre and the mixing of genre inform the structure and style of the texts in this "essay" collection?
Harold Jaffe: Official culture is seemingly comprised of multiple discourses: news, sports talk, tech talk, political rhetoric, prayer breakfast talk, health talk, art talk, etc. In fact these are all blandishments, versions of entertainment for profit, intended to further insulate Americans from what remains of problematic real time.
Mimesis does not strictly mean photographing the time and place you inhabit. Nonetheless, we're all fastened to our dying culture, and some of us at least feel compelled to inscribe it. In Revolutionary Brain I am aping official culture to plunder it. Hence, I interface ostensible genres, so that there is no hard and fast distinction between prose, verse, fiction, non-fiction, theory, everyday bullshitting; and I am montaging these seemingly different genres to tease out their ideological subtexts.
By montage I mean that I pile sometimes incongruous seeming images and tropes one upon the other as, say, Eisenstein does in Battleship Potemkin, or October, to mimic the hugger-mugger information overload in the culture; but like Eisenstein, my intention is dialectical, namely to dramatize the cultural transformation of so-called information and manifold discourse into entertainment for profit.
Readers and reviewers have asked questions about the lengthy porn site list which I title "Revolution Post-Mill." With the triumph of technology, lists (or catalogs) are among our principal discourses. To verify, just scan any MSN site. The most obscure data are now recoverable, and with all of that condensed "information" the appearance is of substantiality. Of course it is just another version of entertainment-consumerism. You will observe a list on ESPN, such as how many Dominican baseball infielders younger than 26 eat a carne burrito between the seventh inning stretch and the top of the ninth. The list, appearing more than it is, takes 90 seconds, then comes a seven minute commercial break.
Revolutionary Brain is filled with lists and partial lists and catalogs. Note Animals, Weep, Iso, Crisis Art.
But the porn site list, much of which I "treat", works especially in contrast to the opening "list" of humans on death row in Texas permitted 3 minutes to recite their last words then be executed. Each of these lists is officially prohibited, except that the porn list is prohibited deliberately to be trespassed. With young people sexing (then "sexting") they are in effect insulated from doing much else, which is what official culture wants, even as it condemns the enormous multi-billion dollar pornography industry.
JH: You begin Revolutionary Brain with one of those lists, "Death in Texas" and conclude with the other, the pornography list, "Revolution Post Mill." You have frequently explored the concept of eros/thanatos or thanatos/eros in your work, so one might infer that something similar is at play with the placement of these two texts in Revolutionary Brain. By ending with "Revolutionary Post Mill," an eros of sorts, are you conveying ironic optimism? A sincere optimism? Is our society/culture worth salvaging? What is the revolution you propose through the juxtaposition of the various types of discourse you assemble in Revolutionary Brain?
HJ: The literal ending of the volume is not "Revolution Post-Mill" but the third brief "Things to Do," this one featuring Joseph Roth's enunciation "The world worth living in is doomed. The world that will follow deserves no decent inhabitants."
The contrast between "Death in Texas" and "Revolution Post-Mill" is meant to exemplify the degradation of ethical dissent. Online pornography, like sex-selling commercials, is alleged to be taboo, but is actually there for our delectation. As I write above: With young people having bionic sex they are in effect insulated from doing much else; this is what official culture wants, even as it nominally condemns pornography, which is sponsored in good part by the corporate sector. Like Nazis, sharks, crocodiles, and serial killers, online porn sites are condemned even as they are consumed.
On the other hand, the dissent of the poor is nipped at the bud, with the three minutes the Mexican-American and African-American inmates are given to utter their last words on death row in Texas. What the inmates end up saying is anything but trivial, but naturally they will be unheard. I've given them the right to become visible and speak.
The culture-consumption porn sites also function as another venue to smuggle racism and sexism into the public forum, disguised as erotic ecstasies. I've "treated" the porn site listings so that they are manically rhythmic, exhibiting a kind of lurid elegance.
I am attempting to represent revolution's public misrepresentations. With the world perishing from global warming a new and improved institutional ruthlessness has been loosed. We see it in the genocidal wars, one after another, and in the "extraordinary rendition" (torture) camps spread throughout the globe. We see it in the unapologetic avarice and cruelty of "public servants." We see it in the scapegoating of Muslims. We see it in the militarization of urban space, so that peaceful protesters are pushed far away from their righteous target, then ignored or lied about in the corporate media.
It could be that a somewhat different approach to ethical dissent and revolution are necessary. What the lineaments of this response will be is not yet clear; though the online interventions by Anonymous and other dissident groups that employ advanced technology have made some impact. Anonymous has devised an up-to-the-nanosecond tactic to expropriate the expropriators, but one imagines that most of the Anonymous infidels are young, even very young, so it is difficult to predict its outcome.
JH: Given the historically significant role of literature in prompting social change, do you believe that contemporary literature will ultimately yield progress in a "culture of ten-year-olds," as one voice refers to our society in your text, "Animals?" What is the potential of literature for inciting revolution in a time when the masses are primarily influenced by visual effect and digital media? Is art itself in crisis, in danger of extinction, when official culture is trending toward the "practical" in mainstream culture and in our educational system?
HJ: The distinction between serious and frivolous art has been eroded. Read aloud a passage from Yeats then a passage from some contemporary versifier and many Americans will prefer the versifier. A similar erosion has taken place in visual art, music, and film. Art, where it is considered at all, is defined otherwise than it was. "Intellectual" to many people signifies adroitness in technology, with little or nothing to do with art, philosophy, history, language, etc.
Serious art, which has always existed at the margins of American culture, has lost its charge. Disheartening but inevitable given the devolution we are living through. I prefer to think of art-making in the Buddhist sense of "right occupation." If you are an artist, you create. What happens to your art is almost entirely out of your hands. Social activist art wants at the very least to bear witness. Like secreting a poetic message into a bottle during a tsunami on a used-up planet.
JH: In your essay, "Crisis Art," someone remarks that "crisis art has an energy and focus which more than compensate for its relative lack of refinement." Do you agree with this sentiment? Does activism always trump esthetics? If so, to what extent? Your work is certainly layered: philosophically complex, linguistically nuanced and ripe with figurative possibilities, despite the relative accessibility of its diction. The texts in this collection go beyond a mere journalistic approach to your activism, wouldn't you say?
HJ: In "Crisis Art" I was anticipating the usual interrogation of socially activist art, namely that it is dependent on a proximate cause, without which it will cease to vibrate. My response is that the vibration may continue even as the proximate cause fades because of the urgency, passion and in certain instances collective energy of the art in question. Think of Act Up's response to the AIDS crisis in which institutional culture was cruelly and ignorantly demonizing all homosexual men in the mid 80s and early 90s. Act Up and its artistic wing, Gran Fury, fought back with posters, flyers, installations, physical interventions, and art folios such as the remarkable Quilt Project. Fifty years after, this is art-making that will be looked at differently but will still retain its charge to a considerable degree. The same applies to other socially active responses, such as the posters (affiches) created by French students during May' 68. I have a collection of them which I occasionally display to friends. They were created mostly by youthful amateurs, but the collective urgency and empowered esthetics remain alive and vibrant.
JH: One aspect of your work that proves consistently impressive is your transition between texts. How does one subject lead to another in this book? And can you tell us more about the volume design of Revolutionary Brain and explain the thought process behind the book's general organization?
HJ: As I mention, I mean to ape culture's hugger-mugger info excess designed to insulate humans from bleak real time while reducing virtually every datum to yet another profit-particle of the entertainment industry. The texts in Revolutionary Brain are fluid and here and there repetitive so that the reader isn't always quite sure what s/he is reading or why, except that it is part of the volume.
The six very brief texts I set between the 13 primary texts are sometimes only obliquely related so that the interested reader is compelled to stretch. The epigraph to the volume from Julia Kristeva is "as abject-so the sacred," and through one stratagem or another I attempt to give voice to the objectified, the vilified, the made-invisible, both in the primary and brief texts. That is, my montages (as I call them) ape culture's manic blandishments-for-profit but turn it on its head. I write above that my intention is dialectical, namely to dramatize the cultural transformation of endless "information" and reputedly serious discourse into entertainment-consumerism. Elsewhere I've written that I swallow the poison to expel it as interrogation, interrogative art.
As I mention re my pornographic "discourse," there is always in Revolutionary Brain an esthetic component which attempts to structure the chaos, even if the esthetic is deliberately manic or dissonant or, what I like to think of (after GM Hopkins) as a kind of sprung rhythm.
My single-sentence paragraphs work similarly. Sometimes they read like prose narrative, other times like interrogation, still other times like a species of verse or drama or cultural theory. The single sentences give me the leverage to veer widely and zap the reader with a counter-official culture discourse. The ideal of course is to shock the reader into recognition, or, if not that, just to shock. Anything to get past the sheepish numbness that characterizes our "global village" at this watershed in planet earth's history.
And when the indentured creature finally emits its baaa, I want it to be loud and listened to, even heard.