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Gilbert Adair & Stephen Mooney in Conversation

- April 18th 2009, following Adair's reading at Birkbeck College


Stephen Mooney: So, jizz rim … yes [laughs] … you’re not actually suggesting that you didn’t put the two terms, the two sexual terms ‘jizz’ and ‘rim,’ together … em, or you had no kinda concept that they would be interpreted in that way, no?

Gilbert Adair: The rim was sexual, I mean in my mind, but also the Pacific Rim …

SM: Right, yeah.

GA: … because I was going to Singapore, and the ring of fire, and all that sort of stuff. The jizz, no!

SM: Really?! [laughs]

GA: No … no. I knew jissom from Burroughs. Jizz, Clive Fencott had told me, was a birdwatchers’ term, and what it meant was you’re out looking at birds and there’s this flutter of movement, and the thing maybe appears and disappears almost immediately into leaves or something, and you know what it was, but you don’t know how you know. So that seemed to be a fascinating idea, that you’d picked up something, a streak of colour, shape, um, something that you couldn’t verbalise but you still knew the identity, and were you right? You’ll never know, because it’s disappeared now. So that seemed to be a lovely idea. Em, and then later, [laughs] I discovered the other meaning of jizz, and … yeah, I hadn’t put that together.

SM: Right, ok [laughs]—fair enough, but yeah, it’s—

GA: It’s so embarrassing, but …

SM: I don’t think so, but … you know the interview that William [Rowe] did with you in PORES, ‘Resonances More than Memory’, I mean, that’s a very good interview I think [click here to view this interview] ...

GA: I give the definition there. But it’s interesting that you can use words, or use terms, and there are things there you hadn’t realised. Don [Jordan, my cousin] was picking up references in the reading this evening that I hadn’t known were there to, em … one or two Grateful Dead references, one or two others, and Ivan Massow … was there a controversy about how to pronounce that? Don seemed to think I’d taken a side in a controversy. Which I hadn’t. I was just amazed at the eloquence of his dismissal of conceptual art as pretentious twat.

SM: Yes, and this is the head of the ICA, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

GA: Yes, if you have problems this serious with contemporary art, shouldn’t you be somewhere else in the first place?

SM: Exactly. Yeah, I do remember a junior minister in the UK government talking about … what did he call it? … ‘conceptual bullshit’ or something like that?

GA: ‘Cold mechanical conceptual bullshit.’

SM: Yeah, I remember that—I remember, em … did he resign? I can’t remember.

GA: Kim Howells.

SM: Certainly should have resigned, anyway. I don’t think he … I think he was reshuffled at some point.

GA: Well, for paucity of vocabulary, the notion that you say ‘shit’ or whatever, then you’re real—that’s it—and then nobody has to think of what you’ve said, you just have to say, ‘Oh, he’s real.’

There’s a thing in Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. He’s a black science-fiction writer. Dhalgren is a post-catastrophe story, and this character wanders into a devastated city that’s, em … something’s happened to it, but nobody quite knows what … the streets are shifting, the space is shifting, he’s losing chunks of time, and so on and so forth, but at one point he, his girlfriend Lanya, and their, em, boyfriend, it’s a kind of trio—they’re, oh, late twenties I suppose, and the kid who’s with them, Denny, is about 15 or 16, and they see someone who’s walking along with his hands on the shoulders of the person in front of him … and the person behind is obviously being guided. The person in front has got a stick, and is tapping away. And the protagonist turns to Lanya and says, ‘My God, there it is’—

SM: It’s the blind leading the blind.

GA: —in concrete terms, and the kid Denny says, ‘What are you trying to say?’ He says ‘But it’s …’ and he just says it and it means nothing to Denny. If you don’t know an expression that relates directly to what you’re seeing. And he really doesn’t. So, yes, so just this thinking of gaps in knowledge, being inside a kind of area where you cannot see other meanings, but are wielding language anyway, I think it’s fascinating. I was at social security once, and there was some, something that wasn’t clear so the fellow said, ‘I’m going to interrogate the computer.’ And I said, ‘You’re gonna shine lights in its face? Take, maybe, a hose to it?’

SM: Deprive it of sleep. [laughs]

GA: [laughs] Stress positions. And he got really upset …

SM: Really?

GA: … and said, ‘No, that is what you do. You interrogate a computer.’

SM: No you don’t. [laughs] That’s nonsense.

GA: [laughs] That’s nonsense but that was em, the confines within which the brain operates. I worked once with a woman and we did freelance typing. And one of the clients was a beer salesman, and he gave us a report to type up about a conference and they were discussing the difference between lager and bitter in terms of who drank it and how many drank each one. And he was talking about ‘lager drinkers’ and ‘bitter drinkers.’

SM: Bitter drinkers, okay, yeah …

GA: So Clare, the partner that typed this up, saw what you’ve straight away seen. These … these … sort of—

SM: —twisted people, yeah … Resentful.

GA: Scowling, morose in the corner and shovelling down the pints, and so she changed that to ‘drinkers of bitter.’ So there were ‘lager drinkers’ and ‘drinkers of bitter.’

SM: Okay … yes, that’s interesting …

GA: And he came in and saw the report and he fell about laughing … because it never occurred to him. Because ‘bitter drinker,’ he knew what it meant and it could not mean anything else. And there was nothing particularly sinister about it. He knew the context and that was the context. And no other context could make it in there. It’s explanatory also. If the context is sufficient then why look outside? But it’s also to do with training, so it goes with a whole mindset that’s a result of training to be in a certain area or certain field. So it’s socially explanatory. A friend at Singapore who taught film and taught animation, he got a Mickey Mouse telephone … that was a ring dial. So about 1997 or ’98, a student comes dashing into his office and says, ‘Can I use your phone? I’ve really got to make an urgent phone call.’ So he said, ‘Sure.’ And she stood in front of this thing, with her finger poised above this ring dial wondering what you did with it. And she didn’t know. So it’s a mix of that, that training that channels the interpretative range plus just not knowing, and anywhere you go you can meet tons of people who would have very familiar references that you would not know at all.

SM: Which is what you’re talking about, your relation to the Grateful Dead [in the sable smoke reading] …

GA: Yeah, and the ‘jizz rim’ of course …

SM: … your references—that doesn’t make them any less referential I suppose, does it?

GA: Well, then you get into things that, em … that Eric [Mottram] was very much … Well, the thing about, Is there across the board an unconscious knowledge? And I assume there isn’t and Delany was insisting that there’s not. You really just didn’t know.

SM: Yeah, well I suppose it’s the Tarzan of the Jungle thing, isn’t it. That ah, you take somebody out of a social environment, well, I suppose it’s the Nazi programme as well isn’t it, involved with removing kids from their parents.

GA: Oh, ‘give me a child at five’; it’s in Gulliver’s Travels as a target of satire. I think Dziga Vertov was into it. The man with the movie camera? He was going to raise a child in a very programmed way.

SM: Tell me about sable smoke, ’cause it’s been twenty years, or is it nearly twenty years?

GA: Well, no, ah, I mean three years or something … from …

SM: Well, what about the previous versions … do they not count?

GA: Yeah, they sure count. But it hasn’t been twenty years continuous. Say about ’88 to ’91 and at the end of that, I thought I’d got it, it was about 10 poems, and I published 3 or 4 of them here and there. But I just love the phrase, em, one of Byron’s many terms for death … and I think I kind of thought, given my general frame of mind, given what was going on, in Thatcherite Britain and so on and so forth, and Reagan in the background, that whatever I write is going to somehow have a bearing on death. And I don’t know why I never tried to get the whole thing published, ’cause I could have. I don’t think it was a particular dissatisfaction with it, just every day and then I got into the jizz rims. So the sable smoke hung around and then a couple of years ago, Tim Peterson, a very active poet—he does an online journal eoagh, e-o-a-g-h, which nobody knows how to pronounce—that’s his pride and joy, that nobody can pronounce it definitively. And he wanted something and I sent him the first two sables. And the second one I thought, ‘This is sloppy. I really don’t like this.’ But maybe as a trial run I sent it to him and he took the first one, and didn’t take the second one. So I certainly didn’t blame him for that. But as a result of that I started to tinker. And then I thought, ‘Well, let’s look at this.’ I mean … death—okay, there’s an aesthetic to it, through kitsch, you know?—‘sable smoke.’

SM: It does have a certain sound to it, doesn’t it?

GA: It’s a nice sound to it, but the whole phrase is, ‘Death, the sable smoke where vanishes the flame.’ Jesus! it’s embarrassing. But that idea of kitsch struck me as an interesting way to approach death. And then I read Blanchot, in connection with Orpheus and his essay on Orpheus and the gaze of Orpheus. He’s asking, ‘Why does Orpheus look back? Why does Orpheus go there in the first place?’ And most of the versions of it—I mean, Rilke’s got a wonderful one. Rilke’s got a terrific, terrific one that Blanchot must have read, ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes,’ in which Eurydice doesn’t even know what’s happening ’cause she’s too busy being dead. And he brings in Hermes, who’s not in any of the other myths or versions, because he needs someone to lead Eurydice up out of the underground because otherwise she’s not going to go. And finally you get to where Hermes says, ‘sorrowfully, “He has turned around,”’ and Eurydice says, ‘“Who?”’ She just doesn’t know, I mean, and then they go back. So the thing that Rilke gets there is that it makes a difference being dead, and Ovid doesn’t have that. As far as I remember, Virgil doesn’t have that. With them, you know, she’s crossed over this boundary, if you brought her back, nothing would change. So Blanchot’s thing, in The Gaze of Orpheus, is why does he look back? Which is the great, great question and why he, em … It’s interesting that Orpheus has been so fascinating to aesthetically radical artists in the twentieth century: Spicer, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Delany.

SM: Cocteau …

GA: And Cocteau. Yes, of course. All of those are gay. Great heterosexual love story that Ovid makes homosexual after the loss of Eurydice. But it’s … if you take it that Spicer, Williams, and Cocteau were homosexual, and that Delany is gay, if gay is a social thing … and Delany’s Orpheus, in The Einstein Intersection, probably doesn’t look back. So, so that’s intriguing. And Don’t Look Back was the title of an early documentary on Bob Dylan, an implicit instruction: Bring in the new. So Blanchot asks, ‘Why does he look back?’ And his answer is because he wants to see death in motion, because he knows that coming to recover Eurydice living was just the excuse to see Eurydice as the walking dead.

SM: Right.

GA: And that’s what he wants to see: Death itself in motion. And he can’t: ‘death’ has no identity. And what he gets out of that, out of that failure to see the unseeable, is the work, the work of mourning that so fascinates Rilke as the very origin of poetry. And it is as if it was all planned, but you can’t plan that. You can’t say ‘I will pretend to want her back alive and then I will get a wonderful work.’ You can’t do that. You have to really want to see her dead and then not be able to and then, then make the work. So Blanchot’s thing is that death must appear in the work but it must also not appear. That was what interested me about Bill [Griffiths’] ‘The Lion Man’ … that it’s all about this persona who can’t bear the thought of ‘the box,’ the coffin, and Bill turns it into a critique of consumerism, ‘the box’ of TV or the box of toys, as the man’s refuge. It’s ruthless, that poem, or it’s rigorous. It’s rigorous in terms of ‘these are the conditions,’ but it’s not without sympathy. It’s not without, you know, fellow feeling. You can’t look death in the face. It can’t be done. Only the dead have faces, for a while ... until they start to, you know, decompose. So then … so then the notion of ‘sable smoke’ also became interesting as that which mists the vision. But you know, you have to be seriously trying to see …

SM: So what’s the relationship, then, with the first lot of sable smokes, those three years you’re talking about, and the redone versions that you’re doing now? How do they connect to each other? Or do they connect to each other? I mean, they are obviously rewritings but rewritings in what way? What is it that you focused on in rewriting them? Obviously what you’ve just said, em, this sort of misting of the vision and the seeing the unseeable, but they are quite different looking, looking at the texts that I’ve seen, the earlier versions that Adrian [Clarke] has given me. Although some of it survives but it strikes me as being quite different.

GA: I think it’s different in the way that before I was thinking of it mainly in political terms. Now I’m trying to get at it in terms of, ahm, just mortality which is a very personal feeling, without, you know, erasing the political. That’s difficult. Because that is so apt to veer into the impersonal. Everyone’s born, most people eat, most fuck, everyone dies. Those are the common things. What makes the difference is the culture, the politics. The aesthetics. The medicine, the science, all those things that make it different. But there is … there are the questions that everybody has to face but once you universalise that you’re into religion in a kind of aggressive way, an attempt to seize other people’s beliefs.

SM: It strikes me that religion and politics in some ways tick the same social boxes, don’t they? How do you stop that connection between the personal and the political operating in the same way that religion operates that connection?

GA: I think the most dramatic connection in terms of personal death and politics and religion, is that religion offers a compensation for personal death. But then, so does politics: ‘Don’t mourn, organise.’ Both of those are fundamentally narrative methods projecting some form of life after death. It’s hard to see any alternative to that, and uncertain you should want to. Even an atheist like Bruce Andrews is working to make sure what he calls ‘the work’ survives. But religion also becomes a compensation for the failure of politics. But then, so is art. But at that point you’d have to say that neither is solely compensation, but positives in their own right.

SM: Which is where we are with politics really, isn’t it? Politics is failing left, right and centre. Where the kind of social consensus seems to be both under threat and trying to reinforce itself despite its own collapse in a way. Where then is sable smoke going, I suppose in terms of the project? You’re saying Part I is nearly finished. How many parts are you thinking of?

GA: I think two. One absolute chance thing that came into it … a big thing in America now among poets who you’d be interested in, and new poets would be interested in perhaps, is this thing of conceptual poetry, which Kenneth Goldsmith has been a great theoretician of. And he constantly quotes Gysin that writing lags fifty years behind painting.

SM: Right. Yes, Brian Gysin.

GA: One thing that Don said this evening that I thought was very interesting, and he quotes Paul Muldoon, is that people are much more sophisticated in terms of what they can handle in painting than what they can handle with writing. That most people haven’t been trained, they haven’t been educated in how to deal with poetry. Or how to set aside certain demands usually made on language to allow poetry to do its thing. Whereas painting’s much easier because it can more easily be sequestered. You can say ‘That is modern art.’ Well, that is what modern art does and all you have to know is that you can either enjoy it or not.

SM: Right, ‘conceptual bullshit’—what was it?

GA: Oh, that’s the Howells. But as easily, people can enjoy it. Yeah, it depends on what audience … those people [Howells and Massow] are obviously playing to an audience.

SM: So, what’s the connection of sable smoke to conceptual poetry, or to conceptualization, whatever way you want to phrase it?

GA: Yeah, this was sort of travelling somewhere else, because I hadn’t quite put together that weird symmetry, that … in aesthetic terms, painting, you might argue, is fifty years ahead of writing, but also the audience is that much ahead. And the audience of writing can’t even read the writing that’s been done fifty years ago. Because writing’s much more intimate and can’t be so easily sequestered, and if you mess around with language people get upset quicker than if you mess around with …

SM: I suppose.

GA: I think so … and are very likely to want to talk about it and argue about whether it should be or should not be. Whereas with painting you can say. ‘Well, I don’t like that but, you know, I don’t see why it should not be for the painter to do.’ No, the language is something much more threatening for everyone. Talking to Don, the thing that came up was from Brecht’s Life of Galileo, where he’s got the telescope and he’s saying to the representatives of the Church, ‘You got this telescope, you see how it works. You’ve seen … we look out over cliffs, we see nothing. You look through the telescope at the same stretch of water, you see ships. Isn’t this wonderful? It shows things that you can’t see. You still can’t see death of course. But take a look through this at the moon and you will see that the moon’s not perfectly circular, and you’ll see that there are rough patches on the moon. There it is. Take a look.’ And they say ‘Ah, well we’ve got to check with Aristotle.’ And Galileo’s just … thrown. ‘Why?’ They say, ‘Your telescope may show things about the moon that are impossible. If so, your telescope is at fault. And we will not subject ourselves to the lure and seduction of your telescope until we get our footing. Can this be or can this not be?’ When I was pushing this kind of poetry in Singapore, people were quite happy to talk about it and in those terms, precisely those terms, should this be or should this not be? But they weren’t prepared to say what is there. So, so, that’s an interesting thing that’s come up from just talk around this evening. What is this, this intimacy of language? How to deal with that? I mean obviously Burroughs talks about language as touching the nervous system, and that it has to be addressed as such. But how to do that?

SM: Ginsberg has a very interesting perspective from the interview in Paris Review, where he’s talking about the last part of Howl and Cezanne’s method, where he says, ‘The interesting thing would be to know if certain combinations, words and rhythms actually had an electrochemical reaction on the body which could catalyse specific states of consciousness. I think that’s what probably happened to me with Blake …’ That there is a hypnotic rhythm there which when you introduce it into your nervous system causes all sorts of electronic changes, permanently alters it. That seems a somewhat similar idea, I suppose, with what you’re saying with Burroughs, no?

GA: Well, it was Burroughs’ idea. I mean in the sense that that was how Burroughs articulated it. That you don’t go after … well, well, obviously you go after these phrases that he picks up on … and then tries to throw into some short-circuiting situations. But words as they affect the nervous system can’t be just the concept, just the idea, which is what Ginsberg also says and any poet says.

SM: You were talking earlier about politics and the relationship to the personal. How does this kind of external politics relate to the politics you are interested in? Or maybe external politics is the wrong phrase. The kind of big impersonal politics that seeks to transcend the personal. How does that relate to what you are writing about either in sable smoke or in other stuff that you are writing?

GA: Ahm, I think that it encourages you to be as rigorous as possible.

SM: Like Barry McSweeney, in terms of Thatcherism or things like that, you mean? Or Bill Griffiths, as you said?

GA: Yeah, I think that’s a marvellous book, The Lion Man. Well, I mean specifically, rigorous in terms of stopping the … um, just the idealism.

SM: Idealism as something that transcends the personal? Or sublimates the personal or does something to it?

GA: Well, take war. I remember reading Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick. She was saying wasn’t it wonderful, in the 80s, when we came to the notion that so many things were only cultural—as if because if it was culture, you could point to a cultural reason for a certain kind of behaviour, then you could change that behaviour by changing the culture. And that led to all sorts of craziness in the 90s, I think. All sorts of notions that things were subversive because they were going against what was taken to be consensual wisdom, and there was this straw man of … ‘This is what people believe and if we debunk it, satirize it, whatever, then, in some way, things change.’

SM: It will cease to be.

GA: It will cease to be. Change the language and reality changes. And it doesn’t. And then you get, well, yes it does, it does, of course it does.

SM: But as you said a couple of days ago, ‘Just because you don’t call it rain, doesn’t mean you don’t get wet.’

GA: Doesn’t mean you don’t get wet. I remember, I think both Keston Sutherland and Sean Bonney came up with versions of … If it’s not producing some kind of ideal version of socialism, I’m not interested. Therefore, I’ve got carte blanche to do whatever I want while I’m waiting for the revolution. And that doesn’t seem to be a very useful thing. I mean it’s not honest and it’s not rigorous. I very much liked Keston’s ‘vague’ poems, I haven’t kept up since, and I love Sean’s Baudelaire in English, so the ideas may be the condition for the poetry, fair enough. But the revolution in that sense is not going to come, it just isn’t. And if you take something like war, I can remember eagerly analysing different wars and finding, you know, economic reasons and somehow that was better than any other reality for war. If you point to economics then you can tie it back into Marxism … and then you’ve got a route through to the millennium, which is a Judeo-Christian scenario as far as I can see. Isn’t it? But war is overdetermined. It keeps on popping up everywhere. If it’s not one reason it’s another. So that’s what you’ve got to take on. The politics of it is taking that on without going into some kind of relish, you know, something like a lot of people do say: If you can’t eradicate it then it must be necessary, and if it’s necessary it must be good.

SM: So you’re saying endemic in some ways.

GA: Yeah. So it’s the politics of that. What do you do with that? And where does the poetry come in? And where does death come in?

The way the conceptual thing came in then, was I went to see a performance that Kenny Goldsmith did a couple of months ago, and he had done Day, which was a transcription of the entire New York Times for the 1st September 2000, and he’d been saying that was wonderful because it was tremendously boring, and in some way he was doing the Cage thing of if it goes on long enough it gets interesting. But then he was interested in doing the same thing, taking the New York Times for September 11th, 2001. And he found so many cancellations being announced in the paper, and he thought that might be kind of an interesting slant … that people were so focused on what happened, that the underside of that, what didn’t happen, what was prevented from happening, doesn’t reach consciousness. The performance I saw him do, didn’t take the New York Times. It took TV, perhaps, I wasn’t sure if it was TV or radio. But it was people getting into all this bizarre argument about who had done this, and you got a right-wing commentator laying it down to Osama bin Laden. You got a liberal commentator, as you don’t get left-wing commentators on mainstream media in the USA, saying, ‘Well, what about Timothy McVeigh and the whole Oklahoma thing, might it be part of that?’ And they just get into this argument. And then I was talking to James Sherry about did he find it interesting. He said he found the attitudes interesting and I didn’t find the attitudes interesting. But then we got broken up, or the next reading came on or something. Then later I was saying to him that I think the interesting thing is when you’re presented with attitudes that are boring but surprising in the context … you know, this death and destruction and towers collapsing and shit, and people are just pushing their own political line … so, dreary attitudes but you realise again the circularity that though this thing is going on all around you, what you need and welcome and spring at is a contrary view of the world to your own, and so you get that conflictual thing. Oh god, I’m getting just terminally cynical here. Most of it is … American TV, American news is not news, it’s … it’s staged conflict between ideological opposites, who are chosen to be ideological opposites and you can just tick off what they’re going to do.

SM: Everything’s all right with the world then in that sense.

GA: Yeah, they get tremendously excited and tremendously upset, but they’re excited in familiar ways, and they’re upset in comfortable ways … and that’s something that’s interesting for the whole sable smoke project: what about death and disaster as comforting? Because it reassures you that you are right in your view of the world.

SM: Yeah, I suppose with postmodernism, and the collapse of all the big pictures, what is there left, I suppose, to be right about? In that sense, is this one of the responses to that?

GA: Yes, I think so. In the absence of those big things, you seek out the conflicts that will make you feel alive and will energise you. And they get tremendously passionate.

SM: Yeah, I’ve been talking to Nuri Gene Coz about the sadomasochism bit that I was putting in at the end of the DCLP and I was trying to get my head around what psychologists, how they look at sadomasochism and the desire for pain. And one of the points that she brought up, that she had come across professionally, was that with a lot of people who got some sort of an emotional thrill or whatever it is from pain, or from abuse in that sense, this thrill is got to do with their own sense of ‘not feeling’ or not being able to feel, and that this pain, this ache, this physical sensation allowed them access to a certain type of experience, which they had a lot of difficulty incorporating into their humanity or their sense of their humanity. So, is that a similar idea I suppose? That it’s a way of being alive in that sense, no? It’s an oversimplification obviously—I’m not saying that due to our disconnection from politics, from whatever it is, from whatever big picture, we’ve all become masochists in that sense, in order to experience our lives … but perhaps somewhere in the same area.

GA: It’s bound to be … the sexual thing, because it’s a fantasy thing, if you look … I mean, if I think back on ways I’ve seen of writers trying to conceive of sadomasochistic practice, then … there may be a straight/gay divide there among male writers. Because with Pynchon or Mailer, or Bruce or Godard, it’s a fairly straight translation: whatever’s going on in your political life you translate into your sexual fantasy life. Or if you’ve got political power but are secretly gnawed away at by feeling of personal inadequacy, then you’ll want to be stomped by very sharp stilettos.

SM: There’s a certain logic that would make sense there.

GA: Yes yes, a certain logic that would make sense. Delany, who I think is a major, major writer—wonderful—has challenged that very seriously because he’s saying people who have sadomasochistic fantasies, have got um … it’s not innocent, but whose sexual fantasies are? What is going to turn you on? What fetish are you going to find that is not politically charged? I get turned on by Asian women, East Asian women. The political relations between Britain and China were ghastly.

SM: Appalling, yeah. So automatically there’s a politics built into that.

GA: Yes. There’s a politics built into it. So politics moves directly into sexual fantasy and fetish. What do you do with that? Either you think, ‘I’m a dreadfully culpable human being and damned’—I mean, it’s a version of damnation and here’s religion: ‘I’m damned, I cannot tolerate this in myself.’ Or you say to yourself, ‘Okay, I like that, I like seeing Asian women in seductive poses.’ But that doesn’t mean that the next Asian woman that I see, I’m going to try to tear her clothes off, or even want to … so the difference between fantasy and reality and that the fantasist by and large knows it, but especially in terms of sadomasochism, the larger society seems not to. It seems to be not fantasy but secret truth. A privileged secret truth that can move directly forward. Very frightening.

SM: Hmm, and I think it’s interesting that … how many new things are there, really? It tends to be the same things cropping up over and over again in different people. Okay, admittedly there are only so many things perhaps that can turn people on but it’s remarkable how familiar they are when you’re looking at groups of people.

GA: Yeah, I think, ah, Delany is probably right. Fetishes begin in childhood. They’re intimate and they’re forbidden. Any fetish I have, is not private. It’s socially informed. The sadomasochistic thing, it’s highly structured, I mean, within the actual playing out of the fantasy. Is it compensation for lacking something? Yes, of course. What fantasy isn’t? What fetish isn’t? But that thing of damnation that hovers around anything that can be described as unnatural sexual orientation, and that’s much more various than gay/straight. Much more.

So, Kenny’s 9/11 materials and not being able to resist getting into the familiar clash of heads, and is that similar to playing out the fantasy? Yes. Yes. Except, it’s done in public and people are encouraged to think there is something wider going on, there’s some wider differentiality going on than two people getting their rocks off in a private fantasy scenario. And it’s not a private fantasy scenario, again, because there’s an audience, because it’s staged. How seriously do people take it? Enough people take it seriously enough to write impassioned emails to the programs. One of the really interesting things that conceptual poets in America are taking up, well, I’m thinking of Rob Fitterman, is people’s responses on consumer report sites. The way he does that is awfully funny. The danger of it is that you retreat into some kind of self-congratulatory thing of this person got really blown away by the decor of some restaurant or … thought the, you know, the garlic mussels were just the best ever … what an idiot, the sincerity, the self-importance in presenting it to whoever turns to the website … whatever, whatever, it’s in danger of holding up the people as creatures to be spectated. Where he’s at his best he’s not doing that because he knows where his audience live and he gets that too. So in Metropolis 30, which is the third volume of his ongoing Metropolis epic and it’s the first one where he really goes into the politics of total internet quotation. There’s one where he’s got four consumer reports of cinemas, of movie theaters, talking about the kinds of movies they show, how comfortable the seats are, how easy it is to get … you know, what kind of snacks and drinks and so on they have on offer. Does it look nice to be in. Does it smell nice. Does it feel nice. Nothing about the films. But there’s one that many of his readers, such as me, would really much prefer to the other three because it’s kind of, you know, off the wall, a bit shambling … so, that way he catches you. Now what’s he going to do with that? I don’t know. I don’t think he knows. I think he’s trying to find out.

The larger question is to do with why so many people feel a compulsion to put themselves out there in such detail electronically. Articles in the New York Times, for instance, attract considered and detailed replies, time-consuming replies. Is this different from publishing a book after much labour and sending it out into the ether? I think so because every one of these emails is a mini-conversation, one-sided. With oneself, perhaps, to confirm the cogency of one’s voice. This has to do with death because the notion of an individual life as sacred has got a complicated history, I suspect—I mean that’s what Agamben is into, and so on—but when you’re dealing with a population of umpteen billion, then what’s the answer to Mao Zedong saying, ‘What’s a million Chinese more or less?’ And that’s fascinating and that in some way corresponds to this mass insistence of people on having their say, which will be very short and brief but will be as telling and as intelligent and as characteristic or whatever—as vituperative, as sticking it to the unseen enemy character type, as they can make it. Addressing shitheads, and so on. Like every fantasy it’s cellular, at once social and not. Or at once social and only mini-social. The American conceptual writing seems to me poised between cynicism and a kind of inventive despair, both of them straddled by masochism, because it’s taking on, and knows it’s failing to take on, insists it’s gloriously failing to take on, this circularity of information deluge that’s going forward in time but not advancing experience—within which we die, but minimally noticed for the most part—that’s the burden of Ashbery’s Orpheus poem, “Syringa.”

If life doesn’t matter, then where does death come in? And how do you make life matter if you’re not going to use some fatuous notion that every life is sacred, except this group and this group and this group—

SM: Right, yeah …

GA: You cannot have a total equalisation. You cannot. That’s one of the big conundrums. So those first sable smokes hopefully will produce in the second part corresponding moments that will take up and poem for poem replay some formal aspect or thematic aspect with some kind of disequilibrating shift … ‘life’ and ‘death’ are a very odd pairing.



With thanks to Jennifer Fraser for her work in transcribing this interview.


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