Find a Seam, Plant an Interview with Harold Jaffe, Slip Away
Harold Jaffe interviewed by Eckhard Gerdes
Gerdes: In the early 15th century, Nicholas de Cusa wrote that the innerworld and outerworld meet at a place in infinity. Throughout much of the radical writing of the 1960s and 1970s, when the innovative writers of today were cutting their teeth on new fiction, many writers seemed primarily to be turning their writing on themselves in order to make sense of the world around them. Now, 30-some years later, you, however, seem to be moving in quite the opposite direction, looking outside yourself at the external world in order to perhaps discover what it is that motivates, disturbs, and changes you. Do you feel that such a radical paradigm shift in attention is somehow emblematic of a greater shift in the human condition, or is this something that has resulted from the peculiarities of your own situation?
Jaffe: Your reference to the "radical writings of the 1960s and '70s" actually refers to a somewhat restricted milieu at a certain limited juncture. The African American avant-garde at that same period was precisely activist even as it paid close attention to formal concerns: Ellison, Baldwin, Baraka, John A. Williams, Claude Brown, the various prison writings of Cleaver, George Jackson and others. The mostly NY-based Jewish writers: Bellow, Malamud, Phillip Roth, Henry Roth, Mailer, and the Partisan Review group were in some instances at least considered "radical," and their preoccupations were always in fair part social, if not activist.
If you consider visual art of the same period, there are numerous examples that synthesize inner and outer, subject and texture. Conceptual Art; the politically engaged art of Leon Golub, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Lucy Lippard; the Performance Art of the Living Theatre, the Guerrilla Girls; the ecological minded, activist art of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and others.
Looking outside the US at the same period, there are the writings of Central and South America, sometimes—-imprecisely—-referred to as Magical Realism; and the writings or Eastern Europe, where the impetus was precisely to combine subject and texture.
Though I'm American, I'm a first generation American; both of my parents were born in Europe. While I admire much of what they've done, my primary identifications are not with Barth and Gass and Coover and Barthelme as much as with some of the people I mentioned and others like Clarice Lispector, Georges Bataille, B. Traven.
As I see it, there is a perennial tradition, in American and elsewhere, that combines the mind and social considerations. In the US, the tradition begins with the Amerindians, and among Caucasians, with the Quakers soon after the colonization of the "New World," continuing into the 19th century with the transcendentalists, and with romanticized writers like Melville and Whitman.
To what extent there has been a recent "shift" in artistic preoccupations is an open question. Indisputably we're on the cusp of, and about to be immersed in, a technologically governed universe. How this is addressed, and from what vantage, are yet to be decided.
Gerdes: However, there does seem to have been a shift from a dominant art whose concerns were primarily psychological and formal to one whose concerns are now primarily pluralistic and overtly political. The politicization and social activization (or repoliticization) of contemporary art certainly seems different in effect if not in spirit from what we now think of as late modernist/early postmodernist fictions. You said elsewhere that you thought that what Gass, for example, may not have realized is that to construct an art that is divorced from politics is, in essence, to be "complicitous with the dominant culture." We can perhaps most clearly see this at the end of "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," when the alienated protagonist, having been transformed by the kiss of the flies, finds himself now comfortable with and reassured by the high school gymnasium/white Christmas dominant culture. If, however, politically and socially activist art becomes, as it seems perhaps to be becoming, more mainstreamed, more commodified (Bellow, after all, when he was given the Nobel Prize, became a great literary commodity), how can those artists who stood in opposition to the dominant culture and now find themselves embraced by it differentiate themselves from it? Or, to posit the converse of Hassan i Sabah's famous quote, "If everything is permissable, then is nothing true?" Is an act of literary terrorism, such as when you say, "find a seam, plant a mine, slip away," the only act left open to a writer who does not want to be complicitous with the dominant culture?
Jaffe: If by "dominant" art you refer to the various dominating avant-gardes, I wouldn't necessarily call their productions psychological and formal. The Nouveau Roman, as, say, exemplified by Robbe-Grillet, deliberately concerned itself with surfaces and textures in denial of any generative inwardness; that couldn't be classified as psychological. On the other hand, Surrealism was less concerned with questions of form than with a content that was derived from Freud and was in that sense psychological. And what can one call Bataille, Genet, Beckett and the other notable embracers of the dialectical No?
I cited elsewhere the Nicaraguan writer Clarible Alegria, who insisted that contemporary Nicaraguan writers writing during the late Seventies and Eighties must address the Sandinista-Contra crisis of that period. When she was asked, "What if a writer chose not to address that socio-political crisis?" Her response was: "I would refuse to shake his hand."
In relatively peaceful times, conscionable artists obviously have more leverage. In a virulent time like now in the US, ethical terrorism of one sort or another is, arguably, the ideal response. How flexible the category of "ethical terrorism" is; whether, for example, it might include extreme denials which are not dialectical, is an open question.
Gerdes: Granted that Robbe-Grillet claimed to be trying to create a writing that eschewed any psychological symbolism and attended instead to surfaces, couldn't it also be said that Jealousy, in particular, seemed instead to actually be exactly concerned with the psychological manifestations of the titular emotion. The famous squashing of the centipede scene (the "murder") during the unseen narrator's heightened jealousy, for example, certainly seems a manifestation of his psychological state. To some extent, one would have to say that what Robbe-Grillet said and did are two separate issues. To what extent do you think such a division between theoretical underpinning and actual artistic execution do you think your work itself might be commenting on? It seems to me that, although much of your work, particularly the more recent work, is a critique and exposing of the dominant culture's willingness to accept the notion of the marginalized artist (the one who, as you say, pirouettes and pees in the corner), yet that critique is itself compelling and interesting reading. Aren't the very notions of compulsion and interest themselves a part of the dominant culture's view of what literature should do? How can we as writers justify this dichotomy, or should we just congratulate ourselves, as Fitzgerald suggests, that we are smart enough to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously? How do you justify this in your own writing, or do you feel you even need to?
Jaffe: I'd suggest that the squashing of the centipede and its significances are intended as a kind of anti-psychology, resistant to any psychoanalytical unraveling.
Capitalist culture will of course co-opt and incorporate most (though not all) defiant gestures. And though Knopf might choose to publish a defiant novel, its validation will almost always be based on self-serving criteria. What I'm saying is that it is certainly possible for a defiant work of art to generate a kindred feeling even within the trappings of Knopf. Even as a defiant visual work may continue to generate defiance within the trappings of an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art sponsored by Mobil Oil. But the trappings clot the bleeding and make it much harder to feel the generative passions. Picasso's Guernica is one of the most famous examples. Goya's anti-war paintings are another.
To shun Knopf and publish independently creates other problems, of course: distribution, reviews, in a word: representation. If the defiant work is not available for viewing or reading then it in effect ceases to exist.
A dilemma, and a familiar one. The defiant artist with guerrilla inclinations simply must do the best he can given his or her inclinations and resources.
Gerdes: I understand what you are saying. I remember seeing Golub's work in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and that beautiful setting seemed to undermine the disturbing nature of the art--as if the disturbance somehow seemed hygienic and emasculated in that context, even though his is obviously a virile art. Of course, by even using a term such as "virile," am I not suggesting his art is something defiant of the dominant culture? I suppose the interface zones here, as in everything, are become hazier and hazier. You suggest that we are on the cusp of a technologically governed universe. What is wrong with that, and if it is wrong, what are these interface zones all about? Are they indeed breaking down, or are we merely being hoodwinked into thinking they are?
Jaffe: Re technology, my best response is to point you to my "Contesting the Zeitgeist" text in the current ABR and also on my website [www.jaffeantijaffe.com]: "Five-Point Restraints: Art-Making in the Technosphere." This text actually functions as a continuation of my "Guerrilla Writing," which was published in ABR and elsewhere about ten years ago.
Since our interview is moving in several overlapping directions, which is as it should be, let me try to crystalize the issue: If one agrees that culture as constituted is insupportable, what are our options? The primary options are, one, to dissent but within the context of the so-called democratic process, and indeed to have some faith in the so-called democratic process (Chomsky). A second option is to revolt or insurrect, on the premise that the democratic process is a sham and only a major-scale cleansing can possibly ameliorate the situation (the Unambomber). A third option, is to create or compose a life (Sade) or images and language which don't aspire to correct or amend or even to disrupt, but instead exist as unassimilable counters to the degraded culture. Bataille calls this kind of imagining "sovereign." In his essay on Van Gogh's severing of his ear, his reading is not that the severing represents a raw Christianity or fundamental Buddhism but rather that it is a mutilation that disrupts the body for no other reason than that life as constituted is indefensible.
My own view wavers between the Unabomber's and Bataille's reading of Van Gogh's mutilation.
Gerdes: Do you think Bataille's reading of Van Gogh reads as a logical extension of Artaud's view of Van Gogh as "The Man Suicided by Society"? What Artaud seems to suggest is that society systematically not only marginalizes the artist into the corner, but has selected for the artist that corner where all the other so-called ills are also placed. Hence the clichéd "tortured artist effect," by which starving-artist garret-dwelling squalor is deemed "noble," and an artist like Melville can expect to watch his children starve to death, as 1970s rock stars could expect to die overdosing on heroin, even though, ironically, the CIA was bringing it in from Asia at Nixon's behest for the very purpose of silencing domestic artists and pacifying political objectors.
Jaffe: Yes, Artaud and Bataille are close on several crucial scores.
Gerdes: This seems to be what you are addressing to some extent in "Five-Point Restraints." Are the artists who are turning themselves into cyborgs doing, as you say, "a public service," or is it, despite their intentions, a form of servitude to technoculture? If, as you say, alienation is no longer possible, then the artist who imagines himself or herself "outside of society," as Patti Smith sings in "Rock N Roll Nigger," is doing a Stepin Fetchit act. As Theodore Kaczynski's own example underscores, the hard part may not be the finding the seam or the planting the mine. It's the slipping away. Where is "away"?
Jaffe: Though the situation on its face is grim for serious artists, situations have a way of changing rapidly and dramatically. 9/11 was a good example. Bush's head-in-the-sand zealousness, if he follows through with the two theaters of war idea (Afghanistan and Iraq), would have to mean reinstating the draft. And that would be a sure-fire way of alienating middle class mothers whose sons are endangered of being killed or poisoned. With that alienation, anger and cynicism will accelerate and we'll have a resurgence of the anti-war movement.
There are other possibilities that might suddenly generate openings: for example, another particularly deadly virus unleashed by the razing of the rainforests. Official media will lie about it and sell it for consumption, but hype or no, the fact of the virus could be overriding such that it will alter people's consciousnesses in a hurry.
Smaller changes can also rapidly alter the network and allow for radical interventions, such as what happened with ACT-UP and their lightning theaters of protest.
So my first suggestion to the activist-minded artist is to continue to create pointedly and with courage, keeping in mind Benjamin's dictum that "the decisive blows are always struck left-handed." Left = sinister = equals the reprobate artist.
My second suggestion is in a sense the most basic: the best an artist can do is create according to his or her lights. As in the Bhagavad Gita, the priest worships and prays, the warrior fights, even if it turns out to be his relatives that he must fight. And the artist imagines and creates disinterestedly (not uninterestedly) because that is what he or she must do, without regard to commensurate response or reward.
Gerdes: Your new book, False Positive, which works so wonderfully aggressively in the interface zone between political, social, and literary concerns, draws heavily from newspaper accounts, subverting them into new juxtapositions with fictionalized accounts of the same events, and through several other treatments. It is perhaps the most aggressive use of appropriated source material I have seen since Burroughs and Acker, both of whom seem sympatico with many of your concerns. How do you see your work as similar or dissimilar to theirs, and what prompted the aggressive appropriations for these treatments in False Positive? Did the impulse to work these pieces precede the notion for this book, or did the book call for these pieces? I ask that because there is a strong sense of unity thematically, even though the style of treatment varies from piece to piece. Thematic unity seems like more of a literary concern, but it seems to be there, right alongside the socio-political issues.
Jaffe: Burroughs is the godfather of innovative writers with violent imaginations, but False Positive was conceived primarily though my reading of poststructuralist critical theory. We see demonstrated there pointedly what was earlier suggested in the Frankfurt School and the Situationists, that history is routinely falsified (fictionalized), and that mainstream media "report" what they're instructed to report. This is of course a factor of the extreme concentration of power: the same conglomerates that payroll big publishing houses and endow elite universities (and their publishing entities) own or strictly influence mainstream media and its flow of so-called information. It's a grimly familiar story.
Overworked, intimidated consumers are rarely in position to sort out fact from factoid, "truth" from ideology. So I undertook in a small way to try to right the balance. I chose mostly popular, even lurid articles because potential readers would be more apt to stay with them than if I were addressing international missile protocols. Using various stratagems I've isolated and "defamiliarized" the lies or half-truths that mask as truths. What many consumers can't readily spot when reading the paper or surfing for news on the Net, I've tried to help them to see. The next step is for them to think a little about what they've seen.
Gerdes: Much has been made of the prescience you seem to have had when you wrote "Zealous Hysterectomies," one of my personal favorites in the book. Historically, of course, it is obvious that art has taken us places long before history and science has (e.g., Kepler and De Bergerac took us to the moon long before NASA). What is the disconnect that prohibits the astute who've seen a warning such as yours from taking the next step and acting on it? Obviously if enough people had read your story, especially the political elite, who seem strangely disconnected from art, the events of September 11 might have turned out differently. No?
Jaffe: Thanks for the kind word about "Zealous Hysterectomies." It is not so much that art, in Auden's words, "makes nothing happen," as that art is prevented from making anything happen because of its extreme marginalization.
There is the notable exception of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which at the turn of the 20th century exposed the horrific violations of the Chicago meat slaughtering industry. But Sinclair's book was muckraking journalism somewhat fictionalized rather than art as such. Moreover, Sinclair himself was very famous, and that period relied on the written word above any other medium of communication.
It is sometimes said (though never by industrialists or policy makers) that certain artists are "prophetic," but that is primarily a trope rather than a mode to take seriously. After the fact a work like 1984 or Brave New World or The Wasteland or B Traven's Jungle novels will occasionally be cited by one of the few remaining literate policy makers to validate a cultural mishap; but nobody is prepared to say: "Best not to invade Afghanistan until we read and discuss this short story."
Engaged art can matter in other ways to certain people, though as I said, rarely to the empire builders. Nonetheless, for a portion of a citizenry to be moved and impressed by a particular art such that it would affect their feelings and attitudes is no small thing.
More than other nationalities, the French have a kind of faith in their artistic lions, and Le Monde or even Le Figaro will print the words of Sartre, deBeauvoir, Camus, Duras, Debord, and pay some attention to them. And like a Shakespearean fool, a given French artist may even have some small influence on a literate ruler like Mitterand.
For art to "matter" in more immediate ways, we need to look at the activist "performances" of ACT Up and Gran Fury, the Guerrilla Girls, Abbie Hoffman burning dollar bills in the Stock Market, and some other examples. For their art to affect the body politic, the artists need to lower themselves into the very groin of policy, whether it's St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Stock Market, or the Pentagon, and in those alien contexts take the considerable risk of displaying their art.
Gerdes: At issue in False Positive is not just the type of news we are subjected to and the underlying causes of the events that are portrayed, but in a McLuhanist sort of way, at perhaps even greater issue are the ways we are subjected to these news stories. The mode of transmission is examined and turned over, and you seem to delight in finding underneath this rock we call the "fifth estate" all sorts of slimy, crawly things. I'm referring not just to "Slurry," but "Dr. Death" and especially "Carthage, Miss." really underscore this. "Dr. Death" portrays Kevorkian as a media doll taking his show on TV next to Charo. That is very funny, but also frighteningly believable. What really got my attention about "Carthage, Miss.," which is a twisted modern version of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," though this time it's a boy who keeps his mom's corpse at home, is that the original text and the italicized treatment are actually so very close. You really seem to be going at the original's use of subjective terminology. Every time the original reveals some bias in the reporter's point of view, you take that bias and exaggerate it to its logical extension. That is terrific. To what extent do you think your target is the news itself and not the subject matter of the news, or can we ever really distinguish the subject matter from the mode of its transmission?
Jaffe: Traditionally, a journalistic datum is supposed to come right at you in the first paragraph: who, when what, where. No longer. Now we're subjected to what purports to be drama, narrative, suspense, and always with a grabby caption featuring a bad pun. (The dumb-pun caption is now virtually everywhere in the US and UK, even in smart or progressive newspapers. It's the TV remote-control syndrome: suck the surfer into your vortex any way you can.)
So, yes, my assault is several-fold: on the "news" that's deemed fit to report; on the ideology (propaganda) that's either foregrounded or embedded in the report; and on the report's so-to-speak composition: where it's placed, how it's laid out, how it's captioned.
Gerdes: Which of the stories in False Positive is your own favorite, and why?
Jaffe: I don't usually have favorite stories; more often it's favorite lines or phrases or stratagems. In False Positive I'm generally pleased with the menacing place names I invented in the central Asia of "Zealous Hysterectomies." I like the exchange in "Dr. Death" where Kevorkian, mocking the host's fear of death, says: "How excruciating can nothingness be." I like the smuggling of the anthrax attack into the frame of "Slurry."
Gerdes: Mona Van Duyn has a famous poem, "Causes," which she begins with a news item about a mother who has beaten her spastic child to death and explains to the police she did so because he kept falling off his crutches. There is an absurdity to this explanation that overwhelms the horror of the event, and we as readers find ourselves laughing at this news item. Van Duyn then goes on to question why we are not surprised at ourselves that we are amused rather than shocked by this. Many of the fictions in False Positive seem to work in a similar way. You present truly horrific situations and events throughout the book, yet frequently they cause amusement and even laughter in us. "Severed Hand," for example, describes "a man who cut off his left hand because he thought it was possessed by the devil [who] is suing a doctor and a hospital for $7.5 million for following his instructions not to reattach it" (False Positive 23). That situation is so bizarre and absurd that it's funny. Do you look for these sorts of situations that delight with this sort of macabre humor? What do you make out of this sort of reaction to the news? Are we so desensitized that even horror can't touch us anymore? Are we too overwhelmed to take any more horror? Or is there, as Van Duyn suggests, a "killer in the self" that genuinely delights in the horror?
Jaffe: Complexly interesting question, this. Ours is an Attention-Deficit-Disorder-inflicted culture, so there's little point in writing a high-minded essay about the inequities of the prison system. Instead I fashion a narrative with comical elements ("Bodybag"), so that the reader is somewhat relaxed. Not entirely relaxed because the comedy is on the weird side, unpredictable. My notion is to have the reader in as receptive condition as I can muster--then zap him/her with a phrase or sentence or exchange which ideally cuts through the culturally-imposed resistance. The back and forth about the condemned black man with "3 strikes, 12 death sentences, 9 life imprisonments, plus 322 years," which I think works here, would not make much of an impact with most readers in an exposition-like context.
So too, another rehash of suicide bombing, drought in sub-Saharan Africa, or a sixty-fifth child kidnapping in Southern California, will at this point in our "information"-subsumed culture evoke yawns. Instead, I fashion an exotic seeming fantasy about fanaticism in Central Asia, in the process lasering in a critical comment here and there about capitalist hypocrisy.
To some fair extent, then, I torque my narrative to address a particular given. At the same time, I try to keep myself interested and do some of the things I can do best, like dialogue, or a certain kind of comedy.
Gerdes: One thing that really works wonderfully to humorous effect in "Bodybag" is the dialogue between the two narrative voices (there is also a third narrative voice that adds the pauses). You also have two narrative voices in "Carthage, Miss." and in "Glendale & Palmdale," in which one portrays the female as the killer, the other portrays the male as such. In that particular story, it is interesting that we can't tell which the "treated" version is and which the "news account." It is perhaps only our hasty generalizations and stereotyping that makes us think that probably the male is the true killer, but the evidence for that is intuitive and extra-textual. You use multiple narrators in many of these stories. This is of course a real strength when you read your work live because you employ other readers as the other voices. On the page, do you find yourself sometimes intentionally making of one of these narrators the "preferred" voice? Or do you think it is more likely a part of the reading process to glom onto one voice over another? That's the Structuralist argument, isn't it? That it is human nature to find a preferred term in every pair of terms. Does that still hold, do you think, even in this age of multiplicity?
Jaffe: Most readers naturally prefer some kind of anchoring, even if it's illusory. I prefer to deny them that security. Hence, though an individual narrative voice might seem to represent some degree of normalcy, I'll always subvert it at one or more junctures.
As in the prototypical media-reported "news," contradictions are everywhere, only we're not supposed to notice them. In my narrative versions, I want the reader to notice the contradictions and become a bit uneasy about them. In my unsituated dialogues, then, the voices will tend to morph into each other, so that the virtuous-seeming questioner can become the serial killer, or perhaps worse than the serial killer. The idea, as I've said elsewhere, is that I prefer to leave my reader pent rather than purged. I'd like the reader to have the conflicting characterizations moil about in her chest, so that one way or another she is compelled to address them on her own time.
Gerdes: Something else that is very interesting in your work is that, although on the surface it seems desensitized to issues that are very sensitive to many others: gender, nationality, and economic disparity issues, when you write about race issues, particularly about African-American issues, the tone of your writing takes on some sort of reverence that is missing elsewhere. Why do you think that might be the case?
Jaffe: Yes, I've always had special feelings about racial inequities, and not exclusively African American. Note "Slurry" and "Salaam," for example.
Moreover, class and economic disparities function throughout the volume: "Carthage," "Slurry," "Zealous Hysterectomies," "Karla Faye," "Pizza Parlor."
I'm not certain what you mean by "nationality." There are no paeans to Old Glory, that's true.
Regarding gender, I've dealt with it in several books, going back to Eros Anti-Eros (1990), my tack generally being to infect it with comedy. I think that certain sectors of identity politics have suffered from their incapacity to laugh at their excesses.
Gerdes: What I meant was that, though you do obviously address issues in which the systematically oppressed, in any form, are held up for examination against the systems that oppress them, the writings about racial inequity seem to come from the perspective of an insider. That is intriguing. I have seen, for example, you refer to the writings of Chester Himes as being very influential to you. I also found in Himes a fascinating voice, quite distinct from the Wright/Ellison dichotomy that seems so often forced on us (though, ultimately, aren't all such false dichotomies forced? Here I also side with the post-structuralists). Himes dealt with race issues very poignantly, but also with quite a bit of comedy (as in If He Hollers Let Him Go). I can see the connection, that sort of lineage carried on in your work, in "Bodybag" and "Severed Hand," for example. But we see evidence of this as far back in your work as your first published novel, Mole's Pity (which, by the way, I proudly bought my copy of as a first edition back in 1979 when it was issued), in which you refer to "the sign of the heart between the eyes: the black American's Africa." I have two questions in response. Why does it seem that, while Euro-American culture has gone through dramatic changes since 1979, Afro-American culture in many ways has remained the same? Is this another lie that perhaps has been foisted on us by a Euro-American-controlled media only too happy to congratulate itself on its own ingenuity? Secondly, how do you see your attack as having changed since Mole's Pity?
Jaffe: In quantifiable terms the condition of the African-American has changed in the last generation: higher median income, larger numbers of college graduates, more people in the so-called professions... But clearly, African Americans haven't made the rapid ascension that, say, Korean Americans or even Vietnamese Americans have made. Why? A combination of their enslaved and genocided history and perhaps something also about the collectivity of most African cultures, a collectivity fundamentally at odds with the ruthless capitalism that holds sway. African Americans perhaps resemble American Indians more than any other segment of American culture. And among American Indians the climb up the capitalistic ladder has been even more protracted.
How do my intentions compare now with 1979 in Mole's Pity? Technically, I have a good deal more range and dexterity than I had then. Though as a writer, I can when I want exercise restraint and pick my spots, probably I'm no less angry than I was then. There's a proud genealogy of angry older artists: Blake, Beckett, Hardy, Twain, Sade, Bataille. I count myself among that number.
I've sometimes thought that, like Saul-become-Paul, I'd have some illumination that would reverse the angry energy upward in the tradition of benign Buddhism. Hasn't happened. But there's another aspect of Mahayana Buddhism, mostly Tibetan, which honors a Promethean anger as being righteous, and sometimes even includes a kind of raucous comedy. I guess that comes closest to representing my platonic version of myself.
Gerdes: False Positive in many ways is a perfect postmodern blend of fiction and nonfiction, and so much postmodern work loves these interzone areas. But now that we have reblended poetry and fiction, fiction and fact, fiction and drama, fiction and visual art, and pried fiction's sole dominance off of the novel and short story forms once again, so much so that these distinctions are practically useless, where do you think there is left for fiction, the short story, and the novel to go? Is there still room to move, or have we reached some sort of critical juncture, the roads from which lead only to other artforms entirely? Where do you yourself envision your work as going next and then beyond?
Jaffe: In visual art, for example, there have been many movements which have seemingly stretched the traditional fabric beyond reclamation. Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Pop, Conceptual Art, and now computer-generated art. In every instance, art has managed to reclaim its middle ground of figurative or mildly abstract art. That's because the consumer culture lags way behind and still wants art to be pretty in traditional ways.
In music, consider the various significant reworkings of traditional melody and harmony which began with the Impressionists and became crystallized with Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and the dissonant twelve-tone school in the early part of the 20th century. These advances have influenced many serious musicians, to be sure, but, again, the middle ground of Mozart, Brahms, Dvorac, Tschaikowski, etc., still holds sway in the general culture, insofar as the general culture listens to classical music at all.
In writing, as you know well, Laurence Sterne began to stretch the fictional fabric in the eighteenth century, and despite the later influences of Melville, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Lautreamont, Genet, the Nouveau Roman, through Barth, Gass, Barthelme, and beyond them into postmodernism--despite these crucial interventions, virtually every MFA fiction program in the US continues to emphasize traditional narrative structures and subjects.
Except, then, for the digital intervention, which, for reasons not having to do with art, has been sanctioned by official culture, narrative published in the US will continue pretty much in the conservative don't-rock-the-boat ways. France will of course deviate as it sees fit, because deviation, as a category, has long been sanctioned by France's official culture. But France will be the exception.
This is a long-winded way of responding to your question, namely that most young writers will continue to write in the mostly uninteresting traditional modes, almost as if the various interventions beginning with Sterne never occurred. A small minority, meanwhile, will continue to stretch the fabric of fiction, most usually in the direction of interfacing with the newest technologies. The traditional writers will, needless to say, get published with the commercial houses at a much greater rate than the innovators.
Regarding my own fiction, I'm working on a novel based on the Manson "family." Which is to say, that, employing innovative structures, I will continue to explore the areas of transgression, abjection and art brut, each of which I tend to read dialectically. That is, in an insupportable, depersonalized culture, such as ours, it is only the most extreme deviations which in their distinct ways, and at considerable emotional expense, dare to say "yes" to individuality, volition and even compassion.
Gerdes: You just touched on something else I'd been wanting to ask you about. Much of your fiction is obviously very deeply concerned with American issues. And you seem so affected by the experience of being an artist in this anti-intellectual country we live in. However, you, like Federman and some of the other great writers living and working here, are still prophets without the honor that is really due you. But your work is extremely successful and revered elsewhere in the world. What is it, do you think, in your situation and in general, that causes America to be the last country in the world to revere her own artists? Why must we always wait for other countries to show us the value of ourselves? And what is it, do you think, even in work that is concretely American, that connects so much more deeply with people living in other cultures when we ourselves are often too daft to recognize its brilliance?
Jaffe: The individual American taxpayer contributes about 65 cents a year to support the arts, which is fifty times lower than that of major industrial nations such as Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Japan, and the UK. Berlin itself spends more on federal aid to art annually than does the entire US. And yet the under-funded National Endowment for the Arts has been under constant assault by American politicians and moralists and has finally been eviscerated.
Why is the US so much more uptight about serious art than any other so-called First-World country? The answer has to do, I believe, with the US's virulent combination of puritanism, sanctimony and omnivorous capitalism. Any art that seems to challenge America's pieties is going to have a very hard go of it. This applies especially to "high" art, which, for official culture, contains the additional demerit of being sometimes difficult to understand.
If the art in question is popular, it can more readily be commodified, even if it contains some intractable elements, such as "obscenity." There have been popular artists who have had to go elsewhere to become accepted. Jimi Hendrix comes to mind. After not being able to make it in the US he became famous in England before returning to America. But Hendrix's music, while popular, tended toward the dissonant and atonal; it seemed almost a kind of amalgam of rock and jazz. And Hendrix, part African American and part American Indian, had a funky kind of look that hadn't yet been appropriated in America.
As a serious, "challenging" American writer, I am constrained to publish with alternative presses and relinquish the notion of respectful mainstream coverage. At the same time, I note how Central and South American "Magical Realism" is applauded, and how Central and Eastern European fiction is officially validated. The governing notion here is that those two literatures can be marketed as exotic, and that they contain nothing or very little that blasphemes the US.
It is true that certain blaspheming American writers have achieved a degree of mainstream recognition, Kathy Acker, for example. But it was less Acker's ongoing critique of mainstream values than the titillating fact that a woman writer was writing graphically of sado-masochistic sex that attracted official culture with its penchant for appropriation.
I can't help comparing how my own fiction is reviewed in the US with how it's reviewed in Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, or the Netherlands. In this country, I am called a "guerrilla writer," because it's a flashy logo. In fact, I am thought of primarily as a virtuosic stylist. In Japan, on the other hand, where several of my books have been translated, the passion and affect in my writings are recognized, respected, precisely addressed and not separated from stylistic considerations.