Harold Jaffe interviewed by Larry McCaffery
From Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors
Larry McCaffery: This would seem to be a good time for radically innovative writers like you, Mark Leyner and Kathy Acker--"good" in the sense that you're able to get your books published and attract reasonably wide audiences. But isn't there a flip side to this--a weakening of the ability of even truly radical, revolutionary art to affect anything simply because it can be appropriated and commodified so easily? We saw this, for example, with punk . . .
Harold Jaffe: Commodification is probably the most intractable problem facing resistant or oppositional art today. Can you rupture something with which you are, willy-nilly, in complicity? Can you destabilize institutions like Random House and its parent corporation if in fact you are published by Random House?
LM: And that dilemma is further complicated when Random House is only an extension of Standard Oil. What you really want to destabilize isn't so much Random House but the entire web of corporate patronage and what sustains that.
HJ: A number of artists, particularly visual artists, have theorized about this question of complicity. Many of them are unhappy about it, but others have accepted that this is simply the way it is. The patronage of the wealthy in the arts has long been accepted; well, now it is corporate patronage. This is a particular problem if you see yourself as an oppositional artist. Can you both be sucked up into the vortex, and yet retain some autonomy and disruptive charge in what you write? And even assuming that you can retain some disruptive charge, what about your readers? Can your readers react in any meaningful way to oppositional notions if they recognize that the frame around you is Random House and the conglomerate that frames Random House? It's like seeing Hans Haacke in a museum, or like seeing Duchamp. When you see the Paris urinal in the fancy museum, you are obviously not reacting in the same way as you would seeing the urinal on the Left Bank. Can you, then, make a deal with "The Man" and still retain some semblance of integrity? One would think: no, but it might be too early to tell. It could be that if there is enough oppositional art being created, and it is being bought up because it is there, because it somehow reflects the Zeitgeist, then willy-nilly it is going to have some influence.
LM: What got you started with the pieces collected in Eros Anti-Eros?
HJ: Because my disposition is subversive, and because physical love has been re-stigmatized now in this time of Helms, I felt moved to recuperate desire, to reinsert polymorphous pleasure into the commodified nest of leisure. That was the original impulse, then one thing led to another.
LM: I know that your original title was Eros in the Time of AIDS. Are you suggesting that the AIDS hysteria is one of the specific sources of this devaluation of bodily love?
HJ: Yes. The AIDS rhetoric fell right in line with the governing Zeitgeist of the Reagan years, and with the convenient capitalist puritanism we see today. The AIDS propaganda not only further marginalized any kind of physical love thought of as deviant between men, but at the same time it's been used to marginalize even heterosexual love which appears to be even in the smallest way "deviant," which is to say, not entirely monosexual, missionary, segregated from desire. Even thinking sensually has been made suspect. One of the typically opportunistic capitalizations we see these days is sexual counseling. A few years ago sex therapists were encouraging people to go for it, fuck, suck and muck all night long. Now, sex therapists and other self-styled "counselors" are treating these same zesty lovers as "sex addicts." Because that's the direction the Zeitgeist is blowing.
AIDS is the largest "objective" phenomenon to have played into that. I use quotes because it is very difficult to understand what AIDS is, particularly its etiology, and the facts of its transmission, which have been deliberately obscured by the Dominant Culture.
LM: You had previously used AIDS as one of the key tropes in your title piece from Madonna--as yet another media-production that has managed to infiltrate even the deepest parts of our imaginations and desires.
HJ: Yes. It was one example of something I wanted to present in various ways throughout the Madonna texts: namely, the Dominant Culture getting between people and their most intimate desires.In "Madonna," the fiction, I metaphorized this infiltration as the torturer's electric wires that are attached to our genitals. I continued working with this general idea throughout Eros. When you asked about what got me started with the Eros Anti-Eros texts, I should have added that part of what was involved has to do with my own situation of being indisputably middle-aged and yet feeling probably more sensual than I've ever felt. My psycho-physiological reading underscored my ideological reading.
LM: There is an interesting way in which all your work can be interpreted (at least in one reading) as being a kind of displaced, on-going autobiography. Do you yourself consider your work to be autobiographical?
HJ: Only in part. And not deliberately so. For example, when I wrote Dos Indios I thought that my perspective was largely objective, that I was writing about people who were as far away from me as any people could be. Even in that case, I guess you might say that my year in India and my close reading of Buddhism and anthropology and comparative religion had moved me in a direction where I was susceptible to the kinds of ideas in that book. But still I felt that what I was presenting there had almost nothing to do with me personally. It was only after I wrote it that I recognized a number of aspects of myself in both characters, particularly the legless character, Manco. Specifically, Manco's grievous wound corresponded to an emotional isolation I've always felt. His overwhelming compassion and bitter anger toward those responsible for unjust suffering; his stubborn persistence in his art. These corresponded in important ways to my own circumstances, though I hadn't consciously intended it to be that way.
LM: In various ways your fiction has always not only deal with sexuality but with the ways we talk and write about sexuality. This would always seem to be a challenge for any artist--finding a means to express this very deep, mysterious experience of sexuality. I wonder though, if foregrounding technique might not seem somehow to interfere with this expression.
HJ: Well, there are different ways of foregrounding, or seeming to foreground, technique. In visual artists like the Constructivist El Lissitsky, or Picasso of the Guernica period, or even Mondrian; or in music Scriabin, Messiaen, or, say, Tom Waits, the formal aspects weave in and out of the sensuous content, shaping it, charging it. It is in fact the energy and technical adornments in combination which equal passion.
Regarding writing, one of the points is that there are certain things which, at this historical juncture, can't be spoken about plainly. Madonna was very much about that. In "Boy George," for example, virtually no thought is complete without two or three intervening kinds of thoughts or tropes. I think you see these same kinds of confusions and difficulties being suggested in Eros. I don't know how clear it was in "Eros/Calvin Klein" that the two people were actually changing into each other's underwear while this scene was going on. But there too, even though it's sensuality that the male character is principally interested in, his mind didn't let him stay there entirely. Part of what I'm driving at with different verbal interventions is that people are in good part prohibited from realizing their sensuality, or even their sensual fantasies, in an unadulterated or uncontaminated way. And these Dominant-Culture-generated contaminations are obviously more obtrusive now than ever before.
LM: Throughout Eros you see to be suggesting that as contemporary life tends to diminish eros more and more, we also find ourselves elevating thanatos, so that the tenuous balance between the two is thrown out of whack.
HJ: What we're witnessing is the death of real desire. In its place we're given this simulacrum of desire--which is really a form of pseudo- or formatted desire. In the United States before AIDS, the formatted desire had to do with outsize genitals, sexual avidity and heroic bodies. Marcuse would have called this repressive desublimation. That is, on the one hand we have something (frank sexuality) that pretends to desublimate, to rupture, sexual repression. But when you look at this "frank" sexuality carefully, you see that it is just another form of repression and consumerism because its version of sexuality is mediated by class and heroic fantasies which are contingent on abundant dollars and ample leisure.
This "repressive desublimatation" is not happening so much with AIDS. It needn't be, since AIDS is made to order. And so it has been harnessed by institutionalized rightists and opportunists.
LM: The way that AIDS has played into the hands of these people seemed almost--in the mode of Susan Sontag's Illness As Metaphor--too pat. The symbol is so right for the rhetorical purposes the Right wants to use it for.
HJ: It's uncanny. Predictably, this institutionalized disinformation is not condemned in straight circles that we like to think are at least to the slightest degree analytical. The New York Times, for example, when it reprinted several pages of Meese's pornography commission report. An extraordinary document, even by today's debased standards. Barely literate, full of the kinds of remedial writing problems that you would find in a bad freshman English paper. And egregiously illogical, skewed in the direction of the repressive ideology. The testimony the commission admitted was based on a small, pre-selected sampling. The few witnesses who tried to demur were hectored and bullied by their interrogators. And yet there was no critical analysis of the commission by our so-called objective news media. It was accepted somehow as a valid document.
LM: To what extent do you think there is an actual relationship between these right-wing, repressive racial and political attitudes and the interests of consumer capitalism? For example, is it in the interest of consumer capitalism to normalize and regularize everything so that they can sell things?
HJ: In good part this relationship has to do with the leveling, or flattening tendency, which renders citizens much less susceptible to "deviancy" in their actions. Deviancy in action presupposes a kind of deviancy in thinking, which is counter to consumer capitalism. On the face of it one would think that if sexuality were being devalued consumer capitalism would be gravely wounded. But what consumer capitalism has done very rapidly is erect a kind of Xeroxed sensuality which can be replicated, packaged and sold more readily.
LM: This "Xerox sensuality," sounds like another one of those simulations Baudrillard is talking about.
HJ: Right. A simulacrum of sensuality which privileges the representations of sexuality. Mini-skirts have come back, there is an extraordinary amount of flirtation, super-sexy dancing on MTV and elsewhere is enormously popular, and so on. All these reductions work somewhat the way Busby Berkeley musicals operated in the Depression. They have nothing to do with what ordinary people can realize; they are given to people (sold to them, really) as a kind of long-term investment, a fantasy. Obviously, when people are flattened and undeviant, they are more susceptible to buying into these marketable fantasies than if they were doing their own thing, spending long, languid hours making love, acting autonomously. Hence, leisure-sex is sold even as pleasure-sex is forbidden.
LM: One of the things your work and that of people like the cyberpunks implies is that there is an important difference between the '30's Busby Berkeley presentations and what we see today--namely, the media industry today is able to inundate us with these kinds of definitions and meanings and images much more effectively than it could back in the l930s, when it was just coming into existence. Obviously, peoples' lives have always been mediated, but we've witnessed an exponential leap in technologies' ability to intervene in our lives.
HJ: Yes, information capital, meaning that the blandishments and manipulations happen much more rapidly and insistently. The dominant ideology is, as James Scully puts it, transparent. At the same time, there's also a real sense in which this system and its values are more susceptible to subversion by the same media proliferation. One crucial problem is that the subversion itself can be consumed, and thus marginalized--it winds up being sucked up and spit out and forgotten about because it's just another product.
One sees this provocatively in terms of sexual deviation. There's a strong current of mostly young, marginalized people who have lived their entire sexual lives under the AIDS ideology umbrella. Well, they are fed up with the lies and disinformation, with having the federal government's rubber-gloved fist stuck up their ass or womb. And these proud, young deviants have broken out in fundamental ways: by defying gender roles (cross-dressing, validating transsexualism); by piercing and tattooing their bodies (that is, employing their bodies as canvasses or laboratories, against the Judaic-Christian dictum of the despised, submissive flesh); by validating sado-masochism (which among other things mocks the organized, institutionalized mayhem under the veneer of Capitalism); by publishing violently dissenting fanzines.
Pretty funky stuff, right? Interestingly, many of these subversive-intended impulses have already been mediated and consumed. Postmodern capitalism moves with blitzkrieg speed. Cross dressing, androgyny and transsexualism have made the talk programs and the tabloid columns. Sado-masochism has found its way into TV and couture, where you can buy rubber items, velcro leg restraints, "fetishwear." Tattooing and body-piercing are consumer happenings. Death Herself (I want to be politically correct here) is in the process of being packaged, sold and eaten by our white nuclear American family.
LM: One of the aspects we see in your work and that of nearly all the other major postmodern writers is the tendency to incorporate elements of popular culture into the textures of your fiction. Obviously in your case this tendency has in part to do with what Coover says in his "Dedication" to Pricksongs--the need to confront myth on its own ground. And clearly the myths governing peoples' lives today are derived from pop culture.
HJ: True. Those distinctions (so crucial to modernism) have virtually disappeared, at least in so-called First World countries. It's astonishing how rapidly this has taken place. Almost every American artist I can think of--writers, musicians, or visual artists--is as involved with popular culture as s/he is with high culture. Usually more so. Pop culture is the paradigm, the vortex. We're in it.
LM: Is this a loss of seriousness, an indication of decline the way that a number of people have suggested? Or is it simply that contemporary artists have a different relationship to our myths and our information?
HJ: It's a complicated issue. It has to do with the flattening of consciousness that Jameson cites. This flattening, the inevitability of it, is inextricably tied to the various social paradigms. For example, the computer, which has replaced Henry Adams' industrial dynamo, is a paradigm without profile and thus subject to any number of imposed profiles. Unlike the dynamo or any of those other modernist paradigms, the computer's gears and levers are now invisible, replaced by integrated circuitry. In accord with the dominant image of the computer and related storing and replicating devices such as the copier and fax machine, the whole notion of originality has been modified in ways that are perhaps irreparable. With originality flattened, with density suddenly made hollow, it is very difficult to think of yourself, as artist, as having a particular kind of calling, as having a particular kind of knowledge, of having the kind of aura that has, since the Enlightenment, been associated with high thinking kinds of art. For better or worse, these movements are inevitable, they have already taken place, they're part of the way advanced technology infects its users, and also of the way in which consumer capital processes images and representations in order to flatten and commodify. So I don't think we have any choice but to acknowledge and valorize popular culture. But we should also interrogate it, examine the way it operates, not merely blindly embrace it.
LM: One of the results of this is that writers may have to take into account the fact that their readers are going to have different cultural touchstones, frames of reference and artistic allusion.
HJ: The frames of reference have changed radically. For one thing, younger people, even the brightest younger people, aren't in a position where they can read that much, for lots of reasons. This isn't necessarily a fall from seriousness, or even an indication that young people aren't educated. People don't read today because information is conveyed in other ways, much more shorthand ways. And there is a different valuation put on time. You generally don't have the kind of space and silence people need for contemplative reading, the way we and other people of our generation did. So important-seeming literary references are often closed off to writers.
One aspect of the separation from literacy is particularly troubling. It has to do with young people not reading history, instead learning their history from sound bites and infected movies or docudramas. Now, for example, is a period which, as I see it, resembles Weimar Berlin between the First and Second World Wars. Transgression, delirium, abject poverty, death lurking in the form of brutal violence, or, today, AIDS. One important difference between now and Berlin in the twenties is that people had a better sense then of historical fascism than they do now, when young people are segregated from their history, which Capital has transformed into consumer ambiance and "lifestyle."
LM: Regarding literacy and so-called high culture, it is clear that the range of reference in your recent works seems to have changed since Mourning Crazy Horse to reflect this proliferation of pop culture--this filling up of all intellectual and literal space with pop cultural commodities. Previously most of your references were to high culture . . .
HJ: My interests are wide, I'd say, and I have always been interested in pop culture. But it's true that the referentiality in Mourning Crazy Horse was more "modernist" in its use of high culture (although the techniques I used there weren't exclusively modernist) than it has been since. The changes I've made in this regard haven't come about because I necessarily embrace pop culture now more than before but because there's been a paradigm shift that makes the earlier approach anachronistic, and hence less useful.
LM: Has the experience of living here in California the past decade had any specific effect on your writing?
HJ: Yes. It's the fast track leading to . . . Well, it doesn't much matter where it leads to, right? I'm currently writing out of California. At the same time, I am conscious of what it means to be an innovative writer. Historically, when you think of innovative or cutting-edge kinds of art, many have been pro-fascist, or at least in complicity with a repressive ruling system. Italian Futurism was obviously pro-fascist in the main; one thinks of Royalist Eliot and the more complexly fascist Pound's free verse response to the traditional Georgians; there were the Imagists, who were, in a sense, apolitical, verging on anti-democratic. On the other hand, there were the German Expressionists, the Surrealists, the Existential writers in the Sartre group, the Situationists--all of these artists determinedly anti-fascist.
What I'm relating to is the intersecting traditions of home-grown subversives, like John Brown, Nat Turner, the American Indian Movement, the early Quakers and Antinomians. I've done this mostly intuitively by combining my interests in subversive, dissenting movements with various current realities, including my living on the fast track in California. I am swallowing and processing very rapidly, and that rapidity, or charge, is in my recent writing.
LM: Rapidity, charge. That brings us to your very current interest in what you call "crisis writing."
HJ: Yes. I've always been interested in crisis visuals, such as the affiches that were posted during the May '68 period in France, or the revolutionary posters in Nicaragua during the Sandinista insurgency. More recently, Queer Nation and Gran Fury have executed crisis art on behalf of Act Up. And for the last several years the Canadian Krzysztof Wodiczko has been projecting his counter-institutional sound bites on public buildings.
During the Persian Gulf War, I decided to put together a volume of texts generated by the war. Crisis texts, executed quickly, without fuss. Well, the war, like all things postmodern, ended rapidly, and was even more rapidly packaged and consumed. So I decided to expand my conception to war between races, between classes, between genders. The result is my volume called Broken Glass, which contains a number of crisis texts, based on the representations of the Persian Gulf War, on the beating of Rodney King, on the representations of the Jeffrey Dahmer killings, on the uprising (I refuse to call it "riot") in L.A., on the so-called war on drugs, on the female serial killers in Florida, on the reinforced repression of sensuality, and so on. Most of these texts are minimalists: unsituated dialogues or monologues.
Among other things, I want these rapid crisis texts to stand in opposition to the perfectionist workshopping mentality pervading creative writing programs and the AWP, which naively suggests that serious writing can still exist outside the loop of infectious politics.
LM: A few moments ago when you said you were writing about pop culture but not trying to write pop culture, you raised an important point about the role of the "avant garde" in creating works that don't simply incorporate the reigning paradigms but which question them, subvert them, confront them on their own grounds.
HJ: Right. I think of my work as a kind of resistance, or oppositional writing. I like to get inside the culture's systems and metaphors and discourses so I can oppose them--but from the inside out. The point is that all the different elements of power that comprise our culture appear to be seamless; you know, this web of interfacing ideology which keeps us from being ourselves, which gets between us and our most intimate desires. But it is not really seamless, it can be ruptured in various ways. Computer hackers are doing it in terms of technology. It is done by various kinds of terrorism, though not by institutional terrorism, which is transparent and enlisted to protect the dominant ideological web. My contention is that this sort of terrorist, guerrilla response can be employed in writing, but there are lots of things to keep in mind. For example, if you telegraph your dissent too obviously, you are not going to get the work published; or if it is published, it is going to be marginalized in particular ways. The notion, as I put it in my essay "Guerrilla Writing," is to find a seam, plant a mine, slip away. To disrupt along the fault lines of a system. Guerrilla art mimics institutionalized discourse and commodity art in order to turn it, defamiliarize it, thereby revealing its ideology in order to destabilize it. Destabilization in this sense means empowering readers/viewers/listeners to see through the dominant culture's blandishments and mediations.
LM: It seems to me that a lot of your works have narrators who display language and erudition with a kind of bravura and exuberance; but I sense something else going on inside them, something fearful, a sense that they are using their verbal displays and erudition as a shield between themselves and the world that is out there, that is threatening.
HJ: I've thought about this, tangentially, and after the fact. Part of that division you cite has to do with the various divided impulses I feel when I am writing. There is nearly always a sense of rage inside me when I write, but connected with the rage is a sense of disgust, which tends to move me in a different direction. The rage moves me to confront while the disgust moves me away. Disgust brings with it this deep, negative feeling that there's no sense in confronting anything, it's useless, so you might as well trope it, play with it, laugh raucously, become delirious, dance naked on the abyss. Those impulses--anger/delirious disgust--often seem to overlap when I'm working, and to some extent they are in conflict.
But it is important to say that my negativity means to be dialectical, my No! in thunder (to quote Melville) is a no which posits a yes. It is a no to institutional denial, and so implies a yes to eros and fundamental life.
LM: For all the rage and disgust that are present in your creative process, there is also often a peculiar distancing in your work, a lack of obvious affect in the surface textures.
HJ: On the one hand that neutral tone is meant to simulate the kind of numbness that Jameson and others attribute to the postmodern condition. So the lack of affect you find in a text like "Max Headroom" mimics the way the culture operates to seduce us into feeling, but then curtailing the feeling, positing desire, but preventing us from consummating the desire--particularly not letting us consummate it in ways that are independent of institutionalized notions of desire. Consuming the desire without consummating it.
This cooler, harder tone is in contrast to the way I was working in Mourning Crazy Horse, which I wrote in virtual isolation in Sag Harbor ten or twelve years ago. My connection in Mourning Crazy Horse with the people that I thought of (and still think of) as oppressed was almost dangerously close.
LM: How do you mean "dangerously close"?
HJ: My imaginative involvement with these people became emotionally or mentally dangerous. When you stretch your mentality like I was doing, it becomes like the situation in the Chekhov story I refer to somewhere in Mourning Crazy Horse ("Ward Six") about the physician who becomes so taken with a schizophrenic--in love, in a sense, with him, a kind of Christ-like love--that he is finally sucked into the vortex, and then loses everything. The point is that you have to maintain, finally, a certain emotional distance, while at the same time merging, or suggesting merge. I'm talking about a felt distance; Hindus call it disinterest. Well, as I cultivated that disinterest, I started decorating it, as one decorates the figure of Shiva the Destroyer, in the temple, playing with it, making music with it.
LM: I'd also say the tone of your recent work is a bit lighter, funnier--the "laid back" influence of California, no doubt.
HJ: I don't know about the "laid back" part, but, yes, the fictions in Mourning Crazy Horse are probably fiercer than my work today. There's considerable anger and rage in Madonna and Eros as well, but it is somewhat modulated. There are several reasons for this, I believe. I don't think you can keep discharging as much energy as I was in my earlier work without some sort of return, or emotional recompense. Otherwise those emotions begin to circle around and come back at you--no sense of purge. Imagine Beckett writing that prose without publishing it. You get the sense of all that energetic despair falling into a vacuum. Even if the response is not commensurate with what you've done or not really on target, the response helps. So I guess you could say that I turned away from that fierceness partially in self defense.
LM: Has there been a conscious shift in your writing (or yourself)--along the lines of these emotional "energy-saving devices"?
HJ: It's not possible to bleed constantly as a writer without eventually bleeding yourself dry. Moreover, bleeding art is not effective oppositional art at our postmodern juncture. My writing combines calculation and intuition now, whereas earlier it was fundamentally intuitive. In respect to combining calculation and intuition, I follow the examples of Brecht and Blake, B. Traven and others.
LM: Do you consider yourself a Marxist?
HJ: My impulses are closer to anarchism.
LM: Do you see anarchism as a possible pragmatic political solution?
HJ: In the long term, no. Something more organized and collective would seem to be necessary. I was very moved recently when I saw a documentary film about Neruda, which dealt with his commitment to communism. Here was one of the most singular poets in this century, going to communist functions, deliberately subsuming his individuality to the larger cause. A heroic commitment; I admire it, but I don't think I could do it.
LM: Why not? Are you suspicious of having to see yourself primarily in a relationship to a collective "other," rather than as an individual? Or are you suspicious of any collective organism?
HJ: My platonic version of myself would be prepared to subsume its creative impulses to some principled collective response. But another aspect of myself is skeptical that any collective response can--after the first thrust--resist mediation or commodification. In this respect I identify with some of the Frankfurt school, Adorno, say, whose persistent denial of constructive long-term change, was, as I see it, a principled "no" to blandishments and shallow idealism. Still another aspect of myself is a kind of closet Buddhist who believes that stripped-down humankind is not un-benign.
LM: Fredric Jameson has recently been arguing that both modernism and postmodernism should be seen mostly as ideological and aesthetic expressions of different stages of capitalist development. Do you agree with this argument?
HJ: As you and I both know, this is a complicated question. The theorization of postmodernism is still largely in its infancy (though it's proliferating hourly) and so there's a kind of myopia and megalomania about it. As with psychoanalysis in its early period, adherents take postmodernism very seriously and see it as a unique juncture in our epoch. But basically, yes, I agree with much of what Jameson has been saying about p.m.--the notion that capitalism has now entered a post-corporate, or late-corporate stage that produces a different kind of alienation than the l9th century industrial or monopoly capitalism. Technology, the way information operates, the "music" of billions of bits of information interfacing with each other, the particular mechanics of the electronicized universe that we occupy--all this forces us to hear differently, see differently, forces us obviously to feel differently. We can't really think safely at all, in linear terms. We can't easily posit any kind of inwardness which isn't corruptible, which isn't infected by some aspect of the dominant culture. In other words, we can't assume there is any kind of personal inwardness which is unmediated by cultural production. This means that the idea of fantasy, so dear to modernism--the idea of the unique, secret inner--has to a large degree been problematized. We have been compelled by the transparent, intrusive, dominant culture into a kind of collective commodification of the unconscious.
LM: And hence the common notion about postmodern art's emphasis on surfaces--the emphasis on the interaction of surfaces, the irrelevance of depth.
HJ: Yes, though there are different methods of interfacing surfaces. The method employed by the language poets is to "make strange" or defamiliarize infected language so that we can see it freshly. This is important, but, in my view, only a first step, at least in terms of real opposition. Destabilization is the crucial, though obviously difficult, second step. I think of postmodern visual artists like Wodiczko (the Canadian projectionist I mentioned earlier), and Hans Haake, and Jenny Holzer. It's somewhat easier for a visual artist to defamilarize in order to destabilize because the impulse to infiltrate the macro-culture is functional to their intention, which is often public, as Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists' art was public. When Wodiczko projects subversive messages onto public buildings, he compromises them, forces people to see the ideological subtexts of public buildings. His art is "postmodern" because it emphasizes that these images are just images. There is nothing permanent about them, they are copies. Nothing remains after the guerrilla projections. If somebody photographs them, they leave a trace, or afterimage. But they have no aura.
LM: How do you reconcile being a "difficult, avant-garde writer" with the desire to have some real effect on peoples' political awareness?
HJ: On the one hand you want to be exploring new grounds, or combinations, in new ways, yet you want to affect people who generally aren't in a position to read difficult kinds of literature. In my opinion, writers like Gass did not, early on, think about the full implications of mediation, about apparently apolitical stances being a species of political stance. In other words, they didn't recognize that by virtue of stepping back and saying, "What I am doing is purely aesthetic, divorced from politics," they were making a gesture that was, in effect, complicitous with the dominant culture. No language is innocent. And deliberately disengaging your constructed language from the areas where language can operate usefully is not an apolitical act. Doing this also reinforces the longstanding institutionalization of the avant-garde, in which the dominant culture permits, actually encourages, legislated bad boys and girls to pee and pirouette in the corner.
In fact, it's easier to posit non-elitist innovative writing than it is to realize it. How can one affect ordinary people's consciousnesses while at the same time making use of the extraordinary linguistic structures with which Gass was involved? Brecht addresses this question. He said it is easy to undervalue what ordinary people can relate to. Ordinary people, apparently, related to Potemkin. Ordinary people have related to abstruse passages in the Bible. Ordinary people relate to the Koran. Ordinary people can relate to any number of things they feel address them and their needs.
Part of the reason ordinary people don't relate to seemingly difficult art is that the dominant ideology forces certain kinds of dietary restrictions on ordinary people. People don't have refined palates because they are constrained to eat fast foods, because those are the only kind of foods that are around them, and because they work hard and don't have much time to prepare nutritious foods. Similarly, they are separated from the kinds of non-figurative, "difficult" art which might matter to them if only they were permitted to access this art. Whitman was addressing this early on, but even with Whitman one might reasonably ask: how many ordinary people have actually read Leaves of Grass? An important part of our obligation, then, is to get our art to people whom it might impact.
LM: Were there writers in, say, the mid-'70s who had some influence on you? I'm wondering in particular about writers who might have posited the need for fiction that suggests the glut and overdetermination and bombardment--and the need to reconstitute this. Burroughs would seem to be a central figure here.
HJ: Burroughs is central to this whole project of deconstruction and reconstitution. The early Burroughs especially, with the cut-ups and so on, was an important figure for me. It's hard to know about this question of influences. A lot of the people I liked (and like) aren't people who write like me, but people with whom I share certain inclinations, or whose consciousnesses interest me. Alberto Moravia, for example. I like him because of the precision and courage of his sensuality. I like Max Frisch, particularly late Frisch after the modernist period, because of his particular blend of rage and melancholy, a certain emotional recklessness that I identify with. I like the desperate self-consciousness of the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector. I admire the courage and dark grace of Primo Levi. Among North American writers, I got lots of technical ideas from Barthelme, Barth and Coover, and from several of the writers associated with the Fiction Collective.
LM: How would you characterize the differences between your recent books--say, Madonna, Eros Anti-Eros and Broken Glass--and your earlier works?
HJ: My later books are more "elastic" than my earlier ones in certain ways. Some of this has to do with being in the world--living out here in California--rather than living in the country or abroad. Much of the elasticity has to do with the nature of the postmodern condition, which I am compelled to mimic and reconstitute. I'm not sure how the critical theory I've been reading might have affected my writing. I read theory because I'm interested in aesthetics and because I want to make as clear sense as I can out of the way the world is functioning now.
LM: Let's talk about the postmodern aesthetics of "engaged" art. Most of your work can be seen as politically engaged, as ideological in nature, even self-consciously so. And you seem to be sympathetic to the postmodernist notion that artists should be creating genuinely create open-ended forms that don't manipulate audiences towards specific conclusions. Is that a contradiction? Can you create ideological art with a viewpoint that is not didactic?
HJ: Some cunning person said recently that the meaning of art in the future will be outside the art--it will have to do with who bought it, where it is situated, which corporation is displaying it, rather than with any intrinsic quality in the art. The point is that there is no longer any way to separate art from any number of elements contaminating it from the outside. The head of the NEA said recently that artistic excellence, far from being an intrinsic category, cannot be separated from the views of Congress and the American tax payers. She speaks the gospel. In short, I don't think we can separate didacticism from an art that, no matter its intentions, is already pocked with ideology.
LM: Your collections of fiction are more unified in various ways than most collections--so much so that books like Mourning Crazy Horse and Beasts and Madonna can almost be viewed as innovative novels. Did these books evolve with specific unifying tropes in mind?
HJ: I wasn't looking for any specific point of departure when I began them, although when I hit on something like the bestiary in Beasts there was an immediate structure built into it from the outset, which made it more accessible to being viewed as a collective text. With Madonna I wasn't particularly looking for a unifying principle. The fact is that when I'm in the middle of something and thinking about what I am doing, I feel that almost everything I pick up relates to what I'm doing and can be incorporated in it. And if you are describing as wide an arc as I do, you have a lot of margin for these sorts of incorporations.
LM: How did things come together for you in the case of Madonna?
HJ: One thing followed another. I knew from the outset that I wanted to deal with spectacle, and how spectacle has been made "real," whereas real experience has been spectacle-ized. I started writing this in '85, around the time that plane was hijacked by the Sunni Muslims, who were on TV every evening playing up to the media. The whole event was transformed into a sitcom spectacle. This was also the time of Rambo and all the rock festivals for peace. On the one hand, you had these purely media spectacles being made into something which appeared real; on the other hand, there were real events, like the skyjacking, which were framed and fictionalized. And the way they were exchanged--so that you couldn't tell one from the other--obviously had to do with forcing particular kinds of thinking patterns on people.
In terms of the specific pop cultural figures I wound up being drawn to, what interested me about these figures (although I didn't analyze it initially) was the complex resonances they had, although it's hard to put into words what drew me to this figure rather than another one. In the case of Madonna, it wasn't only Madonna, the woman who was really Louise Ciccone, I wanted to deal with. It was how she was imagined, how she was imaged, how we were obliged to consume her--a forced consumption I related to torture (that is, to the way the Dominant Culture formats Madonna, compelling us to access the simulacrum when what our bodies and psyches need is the real). Hence the image of the electrified wires on our genitals: the Dominant Culture getting between us and out most intimate desires. I wove a medusa's head of signifiers about Madonna, from the obvious Marilyn Monroe to adolescent girls in Edinburgh to the doubloon in Moby Dick to Sikh exiles in London. Here I was mimicking, confiscating, appropriating the way the Dominant Culture floods us with signifiers while denying us any purchase.
LM: It's the appropriateness of having Ronald Reagan interacting with Michael Jackson: pure simulacra masquerading as real.
HJ: We're seeing those sorts of interfaces now more than ever before, really, because of how "copy" operates today. Five or ten years ago when people would talk about "polishing their image" there would be some sense that this was a concession--they were polishing their image to convey an appealing kind of image, which implied a recognition that underneath the image was a fundamental reality. But now this distinction between image and essence has largely disappeared. When people talk about image, that's the reality they're referring to, it's all that matters.
LM: One of the things that is very striking about your work is your affinity with the dispossessed, the marginalized people. Was your Jewish background growing up one of the sources of this?
HJ: My being Jewish is a very aggrieved aspect of my self, especially now with a militant Israel violently repressing Palestinians. I never felt on easy terms with being Jewish, even from a very early age. My real affinities always seemed to be with Black people. One of the reasons I relate to working-class Black people more easily is because of their marginalization. They are obviously less mediated by property and by the other concerns that middle-class white people would have. They seem in a sense exiled, the way I've always felt myself to be. I respect their long suffering and I admire their grace. Again, I'm referring to the vast underclass and not to the very small percentage of middle-class Blacks. When I hear some chords in Lightnin' Hopkins or Robert Johnson or Nina Simone or Gil Scott Herron, I feel a closeness to them that I've never been able to feel with Jewish writers. There are of course Jewish cultural figures I've identified with: Walter Benjamin, Primo Levi, Heinrich Heine, Lenny Bruce . . .
LM: You didn't feel that sense of intimacy with the New York Jewish writers who were so prominent in the '50s--Bellow and Mailer and Malamud and Roth and so on?
HJ: I admired some of the writing, but I never identified with it. When I'd read Malamud or Bellow or Philip Roth, the occasional shock of recognition was never like what I experienced reading Richard Wright or Ellison or Chester Himes or some of LeRoi Jones or listening to Lightnin' Hopkins and Lester Young. I did like Edward Lewis Wallant and Nathaniel West and Wallace Markfield's To An Early Grave, the quirkier, less institutionalized-seeming writing.
LM: There's a striking number of very radical postmodern Jewish writers--people like you, Kathy Acker, Steve Katz, Ray Federman, Ron Sukenick, and so on. I'm wondering if this radicalness might be a reaction to the confining about the whole notion of "The Jewish writer."
HJ: There are several aspects of the basic paradigm about Jewish writers that I fought against, although it is difficult to escape them. I suspect that all the people you've mentioned have fought against this paradigm. For example, the notion of the male Jewish writer as being feminized, of not being a mensch. Philip Roth, especially in his earlier work, contested this stereotype, and I've always fought against that in my mind. Other coded rules of behavior read: You are first- or second-generation Jewish, there are certain things you can do, and other things you can't. My responses to these inhibitions were subversive; that is, I've acted out a great deal in my life. I've done and imagined things that other people wouldn't allow themselves to do.
Harry Crews once said something that I understood immediately. He was talking about Charles Whitman climbing the tower and shooting the people in Texas about twenty-five years ago. He said that other people wouldn't allow themselves to imagine what it would feel like to be Whitman, to actually climb that tower and get up there and start firing. Well, all my life I've been moved to feel what the alleged criminal feels. That time between the person shooting somebody and then being actually incarcerated or executed is a period that seems very vital, very charged to me. And it is not just the esthetic state that compels me, it is marked by empathy for the marked killer, Cain.
That is one of the reasons I think of my imagination as being naturally violent. And when I first recognized this, I tried to cultivate it and get as much imaginative charge as I could. I can recognize this same sort of violent, compelled imagination in other writers--Dostoyevsky as opposed to Turgenev, say, or Emily Dickinson as opposed to James. Among contemporary writers, Clarice Lispector, Pierre Guyotat, Baraka, John Edgar Wideman, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ishmael Reed, Kathy Acker, Gayl Jones, Monique Wittig. I'm not saying that I like all of these writers equally, I'm just commenting on an important aspect of their imaginations.
LM: So you feel that the charge of this violent, empathetic response can be transferred into a narrative somehow?
HJ: Yes. And this, so to speak, narrative empathy allows me an imaginative entryway into another realm, so that I get away from myself, while still being in myself. A lot of my work has to do with various voices emerging, colliding. Some people might feel this process is dangerous psychologically in the sense that it could get menacingly out of control. But I'm never really worried about control; in fact the more dangerously out of control, while being in control you are, the more tensile and interesting the art is liable to be. Like Van Gogh, Little Richard, the Sex Pistols, Robert Johnson, or NWA.
LM: Did living in India and your long interest in Buddhism affect on your work?
HJ: Yes. When I imagined the narrative in Dos Indios, for example, there was a way in which I was thinking of India, even though I was writing about Peru, because obviously there are a lot of connections there. It took me a long time to get that book published, but I wrote it rapidly, in July and August 1975. In India I'd studied yoga and breathing techniques with a teacher, and I did some serious reflection. Buddhism I've read seriously for a long time. But you won't find Buddhism--if you think of Buddhism as implying a kind of peaceableness or surcease from pain and angst--that much in my work except in Dos Indios.
LM: At first glance, it's hard to reconcile the kind of inner peace and serenity you find in Dos Indios with the anger and rage (and bitterly black humor) in your other books.
HJ: It's not as contradictory as it seems. Buddhism has also to do with principled action. And there is, dialectically joined to the peaceful Buddha, the wrathful Buddha, a trope perhaps inherited from Hinduism and Shiva the Destroyer. Think of the monks who immolated themselves in Vietnam. And the crucial (to Buddhism) idea of the Bodhisattva (which is something I refer to in several places, starting with Mole's Pity) refers to an enlightened being who has vowed to undergo human suffering until humans themselves can exit and emerge into a kind of nirvana. The motto of the Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva is "the void and compassion." Well, compassion, in the nineties, implies being in the world. And the void, obviously, suggests being beyond the world. But Buddhism stresses the importance of both, an integration of the two. I don't claim to be so highly evolved that I've arrived at that integration, but the sense of Buddhism in my work has to do with an active compassion and an angry, relentless analysis. It doesn't make me feel at peace, but when I sit down to write, I often feel that everything that is disorganized around me immediately unfolds itself in configurations that have a natural harmony about them in one way or another, even in collision. It's rare that I sit down and I don't have that sense that this is a natural place for me. It's almost like sitting down for zazen meditation.
LM: You wrote you Ph.D. thesis on Whitman. What drew you to him?
HJ: Whitman interested me in many ways. He was a consummate trickster; among other things, he was responsible for generating his own reputation. He did what had to be done to get his stuff out there and noticed. He routinely wrote his own reviews, and he rewrote several of the biographies written about him during his lifetime. In other words, he did some very creative lying. I identify with that trickster, confidence-man quality, which existed alongside his sense of vision. In the early poems this vision was expressed in the most vigorous, quirky yet demotically articulated kind of language imaginable. In the first edition of "Song of Myself," in 1855, the language, the rhythms, the precise and intimate closeness to an extraordinarily variegated life, the recuperation of "deviant" sensuality--all that was very impressive. During the Civil War he became a "wound dresser," tending to the wounded soldiers, loving them. Whitman was a great motherly man, as someone once called him, and I admire that unabashed tenderness in him.
LM: The whole area of "influences" seems especially complex in your case because you seem to have been influenced as much by things outside fiction or poetry--painters, musicians, and literary theorists--as by literature.
HJ: True. For example, right now I don't read fiction as much as other things. I read art history, natural history, anthropology, critical theory. I read genre fiction like detective stuff, science fiction, things like that. Some poetry. Particularly recently, my work has been affected by aspects of visual art. The postmodernist work being done by people we mentioned before--Jenny Holzer, to some extent Christo, but less him because he defamiliarizes without destabilizing. Artists like Haacke, Wodiczko, Robert Gober, who in his installations recuperates desire in subtle, insidious ways. Leon Golub, who deals with terrorism and fascism, but in a kind of faceless commodified way, so that his figures are all merely signifiers in a sense. Among older artists, I've been affected by a wide range of people, including Man Ray, Duchamp, Giacometti, Artaud's drawings, Magritte, the photomontagist John Heartfield, some of the German Expressionists, The Situationists, Beuys and the Fluxus group.
LM: One of the established cliches that has emerged regarding the "postmodernist" writers is that many of them were beginning writing during the '60s, when the whole counterculture thing was emerging. Did you share any of that sense of being in an era when conventions were opening up?
HJ: I felt very much at home then. But for the most part I don't think that era was a critically astute time. It's true things were going on in France and elsewhere with Structuralism and Semiotics, but, critically speaking, it was a myopic time. Leslie Fiedler, for example, who always tried to be a step ahead, wrote what he hoped would be a seminal essay in Playboy, arguing that criticism should involve interpretation from the inside out, rather than analysis from the outside in--that is, getting into a work and imagining it in the way the writer wanted to write it. A kind of applied Buddhism in a sense. A generous impulse, and compatible with the generous culture, the "surplus consciousness," as Jameson put it. But as critical analysis, it was a little bit easy. Overall, I don't think of the 60's as a notable time in literature, in part because it lacked tension, was too easy a gig for the middle class. Nonetheless, I felt wonderfully at home in the overall ethos. Most of the impulses--at least before they were co-opted and commodified in the ways we're familiar with--were generous and suited my inclinations: the anarchism, the gender interface, polymorphous sexuality, visionary inwardness.
LM: Do you think of yourself as having a natural "voice" that you bring to your fiction--a voice you could identify as "you"?
HJ: I feel it's better not to have a specific voice now. It's more appropriate to be protean. To keep one step ahead of the Mind-Police.
LM: Does it bother you that your own voice (whatever that would be) doesn't have a chance to express itself in your fiction?
HJ: If you had asked me the question eight or ten years ago, I might have responded differently. But right now writing in my own voice doesn't seem crucial. In any case, voice is, arguably, a modernist category that has only limited usefulness for oppositional writing in the nineties.
LM: You have written about very extreme forms of behavior: serial killers, people really on the outs. Earlier you mentioned the peculiar "charge" or energy involved with them, but I wondered if these people also didn't represent a kind of commentary on normalcy?
HJ: They do, yes. Indirectly the criminal or outcast figure interrogates institutionalized normalcy. Freud argued that sublimation is necessary in order to erect civilized societies. Wilhelm Reich and a few others disputed this. And in the last thirty years or so, thinkers have pointed to the erected societies and yet all the "surplus repression," which obviously has to do with the dominant ideology rather than with sacrifice and sublimation for the sake of the polity. So my interrogation of the criminal and the criminal state of mind is a commentary. I can't say that I condone violent, anti-social violence, but I feel closer to the serial killer than I do to the authorities who capture him. That paradox testifies to how estranged I feel from "normal" conventions.
LM: One of the disturbing features you hear being ascribed to postmodernism has to do with this emphasis on "pluralism"--and the resulting implication that all systems and meanings are equally valuable (because there is no fixed "meanings" or hierarchies of values).
HJ: Pluralism is an interesting and potentially liberating concept, but it can be interpreted variously, plurally. As you say, some of it can be seen as a reflection of many different kinds of possibilities of truth existing. But other aspects of it have been interpreted as a failure of nerve--the idea that in the seeming absence of objectivity and even infrastructures, we are compelled to accept that "this is what it is" and go with it. I resist the idea of simply allowing these things to pull us and take us for a ride. It is a nice ride for the solvent middle-class--this dizzying media-infected roller coaster--but it can and should be interrogated. As with other seminal, apocalyptic-seeming changes--the movement to industrialism, the inception of psychoanalysis, the Russian revolution--we are sort of awe-struck by the postmodern landscape, but after the initial future shock, the contours become clearer, it becomes accessible to analysis.
LM: One of the keys to being able to have your work really operate oppositionally would seem to be the willingness to really be on the edge, but to have an integrity about that desire to relentlessly interrogate things, consequences be damned. I associate this with writers like Burroughs and Acker, or musicians like the Dead Kennedys and Eugene Chadbourne.
HJ: Those are all good examples, although with some of the punk people, like the Survival Research Labs, you also have a sense of martyrdom. There is a strong martyrdom impulse in the punk movement because of the great discharge of rage along with the realization that unchanneled, uncollective rage is finally impotent. In any case, martyrdom is an easy impulse to appropriate. It is in fact the most familiar association we have with the high modernist version of the tragic artist. Keats, Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Artaud, Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Sid and Nancy. You're right: this extremity of feeling and willingness to sacrifice everything is an interesting impulse. But it's potentially useful only when it's combined with keen-witted analysis. Really, the Dominant Culture can process any number of martyred artists, but they have much more difficulty with passionate, living artists who contest and create and spit and think.
LM: Rimbaud would seem to fit in here (certainly he was one of punk's main avatars) because he embodies a kind of calculated, irrational, suicidal response (hence the connection to Punk and people like Kathy Acker) to the imposition of rationality and control that he could see very clearly, even 100 years ago.
HJ: The systematic derangement of the senses. Willful delirium. Very attractive. And when I turn on MTV or listen to some of the articulate young people, I hear them talking in Rimbaud-like terms. I don't know to what extent they've thought it out, but they're saying, "Yeah, negativity is bad, but what if it is done deliberately to confront something which appears to be a greater negativity?"
LM: Among some of the punk people, like Patti Smith and Jello Biafra (and this is true of the cyberpunks a decade later) there was some genuine critical intelligence there about what they were doing. Even somebody as manipulative as Malcolm McLaren, who managed the Sex Pistols, who was well-versed in dadaism and was consciously incorporating the gestures of the anti-art aesthetic, which becomes a commentary about conventions and so forth. Now whether Sid Vicious was aware of any of this--I doubt it. A lot of those artists were just drunk.
HJ: Another question is how far intuition can carry you. In relation to Rimbaud, when I talk with younger writers, I tell them that I know a lot of you think of yourselves as being intuitive writers, as I do myself. But now more than anytime in our lifetime, you have to train yourself to develop a critical intelligence. There is so much information/disinformation out there which has to be sorted out. And just as importantly, that information is potentially art. It can be appropriated in many ways even as much of it was based on appropriation in the first place. Lyotard said that in the near future knowledge will be entirely instrumental and will be contained in data banks. The system or entity that has the instrumental knowledge--the knowledge that can be cashed into money and power--will be the system that has access to the databanks. If Rimbaud is the kind of romantic emblem of modernist intuition, an appropriate emblem for our time is the computer hacker. Somebody who learns the system in order to subvert it.