- Uncategorized

Why I Dig Dennis Cooper

..Hello all! I am excited to participate in the conversation here at Big Other. Thanks to John Madera & crew for inviting me. ~tim

Recently, I wrote a tiny reflection for my local activist rag AREA Chicago on the work of Dennis Cooper and (what I believe to be) its relevance for social justice activists. Because this article was directed toward an audience of folks involved in social justice movements, I addressed more collective ramifications of Dennis’s writing. Now I would like to talk more about my personal connection w/ Dennis’s work, why I find it so compelling.

The simplest way of saying this is: I am very afraid of sex.

What am I afraid of?

If somebody disturbed by the graphic violence in Dennis’s fiction asks me what I see in him, my safest response is to say, “I identify with his ‘passive’ (I mean passive re: their role in sexual encounters, not re: narrative arc. Even re: sex, ‘passive’ is not quite accurate, but I am using it for want of a more nuanced term) characters. I can absolutely imagine placing myself, like Ziggy, the protag of Try, in harm’s way in order to be the focus of others’ intense emotions – “A huge part of… sexual, abuse, at least for him, is how he loves being a target for such intense feelings, especially from someone who knows him, and isn’t just stupidly thinking he’s cute or whatever” (185).

…But Dennis’s work isn’t safe. He asks us to identify not only w/ his “victims” (again, using this word for want of something more nuanced, as I think his work evades such reductive labels), but also with his lucid, hyper-rational “predators,” who tirelessly dissect their own desires to perpetrate violence. The most frequently-cited example of this is from Frisk – the reader is understood as implicated in the text’s violence via whatever vicarious pleasure they take from reading about said violence’s execution. But I think a more interesting and less discussed example can be found in Guide. Guide’s narrator identifies himself as a writer named Dennis. As the novel begins, he announces his intention, through the text he is writing, the text we are reading, to protect a character named Luke, no matter the cost. We breathe a sigh of relief. After the carnage of Closer, Frisk and Try, we can rest easy knowing Luke will be okay. Luke is a sweetheart. Luke fancies himself a mystic. Luke likes dance music. Isn’t that adorable? Never mind that Luke’s salvation requires others’ sacrifice… like an unfortunate fellow named Chris. Chris has it coming. Chris is a heroin addict. Chris fantasizes about death. So long, Chris.

…Wait… what? Who decided Chris’s life was less valuable than Luke’s? And moreover, what system of logic determined Luke’s survival necessitates Chris’s murder? On this point, we realize, we have accepted our narrator’s authority. Through Dennis the narrator, Dennis the writer has constructed a structure akin to Hollywood thrillers, in which the good guy’s triumph is ensured by the deaths of numerous and often morally “suspect” peripherals. As readers, drawing comfort from a promised outcome, we are made culpable.

Chris’s demise is a great example of something else Dennis does well – trouble our notions of “consent.” Chris wants to die, fantasizes about death, has a death fetish. So he finds somebody to do the deed. On the surface, his murder appears to be a consensual encounter. Yet something feels deeply, deeply fucked. Where do we locate that “something”?

Of his “predator” characters, Dennis has said (in a 2001 interview w/ 3:AM Magazine):

“The problem is, they’re not really interested in the individual boys. They’re only interested in the power that a particular brand of cute boy has over them, so the boys themselves are just specimens and examples.”

Dennis’s fiction challenges me to consider, if a violation has indeed occurred, that the violation is located not in the actual scene of a sexual encounter, but much earlier, during the first moment when the violator saw the violated not as an individual, but rather as an aesthetic abstraction. Do our seeing the objects of our desire as “types,” as narrated by whatever script our fantasies have written for them, create the conditions that allow violence to occur? …but… isn’t this what we do every time we fantasize? And aren’t the bulk of our desires formed by the fantasies we project onto others’ bodies? I cannot say whether it is Dennis’s intent I ask these questions, but they are indicative of the type of ethical quandary his work pushes me to confront.

When I was in high school, my mother expressed to me her belief that any time we look at a picture of somebody while masturbating, we have transformed that person into an object, have in some way violated their humanity. I remain haunted by this conversation…  Because while I as a Queer activist I support acceptance of diverse fetishes, open/accessible/public discussion of taboo topics, the destabilization of any and all notions of “normal” sexuality and families (and concurrent shame-based hierarchies), the abolition of laws that criminalize victimless sex acts (ie sex in public, or in certain cases, consensual sex with adolescents), I have never been able to completely dismiss her argument.

This is why I’m terrified of sex: I’m terrified I will fail to *see* another person as themselves, and in so doing, will perpetrate violence or otherwise harm them. I am terrified somebody will fail to *see* me, and I will feel violated or traumatized. Yet this very same loss of control is what appeals to me. …Not knowing how others will see me, what desires they will enact upon my body, what new possibilities this will awaken, how I will feel transformed by the encounter… this is what thrills me about sex. What to do?

Dennis has said that as an anarchist, he does not taken any moral directives for granted, but instead seeks to work out for himself, often through his writing, the ramifications of his desires and actions. For me, this makes him an admirable ethicist. Would that all of us were more willing to face frightening shit so unflinchingly – I believe this world would be more livable. That he does so through language and narrative (for me, being myself someone who writes) makes him all the more valuable. His sentences are taut and unforgettable. His voice engages, whether he is writing as an outsider youth or a creepy aesthete. His formal innovations create structures that implicate readers in his narratives in unexpected ways. I like his writing quite a lot.

11 thoughts on “Why I Dig Dennis Cooper

    1. Period is great. It is haunting. It is fascinating because in one way, it feels wrecked and wasted, yet it is tighter and more structurally complex than any of the others. Very interesting tension. I think it is Blake Butler’s favorite.

  1. Thank YOU Tim. I enjoyed this post very much.

    Some questions:

    In your AREA Chicago piece, after discussing some of the problematics some may find in Dennis Cooper’s fiction, the dilemmas it may or may not raise in his readers, you write: “Desire is sometimes scary, and does not always correspond neatly to the rhetoric of social justice activists. How, as persons who support social justice, should we react to our desires (or the desires of others in our communities) to annihilate or be annihilated?”

    How would you differentiate the erotics of desire versus the politics of desire, and/or tease apart their inextricability? How do you position desire against possession, commerce, and violence? What about desire and the ecology of the body especially in regards to violence, invasion, and pollution?

    What does the desire to annihilate and or to be annihilated look like outside of theory? And how can this be played out and supported in a progressive-minded community?

    I’m also interested to hear how the various ways people navigate the peripheries of what is consensual, especially in regards to social hierarchies.

    What is the rhetoric of social justice activists that do not neatly correspond to the “scary” aspects of desire? Would you go more into defining the trajectories of these aspects?

    In regards to this post here, you write about how “the reader is understood as implicated in the text’s violence via whatever vicarious pleasure they take from reading about said violence’s execution.” How would you define “implicated” here? From the context, it sounds less like “to affect intimately” and more like “to connect in an incriminating way.” If this is true, how so? How does vicarious pleasure (and what does this mean anyway?) implicate a reader? You also write later about “culpability.” I don’t think you mean guilt with all of it’s baggage of religious shame here. Are there positive, progressive forms of implication and culpability?

    Also, I’d love to see an in-depth analysis of one of Dennis Cooper’s stories from you. Or maybe Samuel Delany’s Hogg and The Mad Man, particularly examining their graphic descriptions of child molestation, coprophilia, incest, mysophilia, necrophilia, rape, and urophilia, and its concomitant value as literature. I know, I’m asking for a book!

    There’s a lot more in this post I’d like to pick your brain about, but I’ll leave it with that.

    Thanks again Tim for such a brave and provocative post!

    1. Hey John,

      I do not think I can answer all your questions because I have too many of my own.

      But your questions did remind me of some perspectives and thoughts I have abt sexual violence that I did not share here, maybe because they are less directly related to Dennis’s work or to my experience of Dennis’s work.

      I think maybe there might be something slightly ironic abt me trying to use Dennis’s work, like I did in the AREA Chicago piece, to initiate collective conversations abt violence, because as an anarchist, Dennis says he rejects collective truth. …But at the same time, I do not want to assume that because he rejects collective truth he rejects collective values or open-ended, community-based processes to negotiate values collectively… I am not well-read on anarchy, but I know there is something called anarchic collectivism. Certainly Dennis does not seem to advocate hyper-individualism or isolationism, as he seems very community-oriented in his blog and elsewhere… I wish I understood anarchy better and have been meaning to sometime ask him more about all this, or at least ask him for a good reading list of anarchist thinkers.

      Anyway, that was sort-of a tangent….

      I think one of the bits of unspoken subtext in these two pieces is my ongoing effort to reconcile, within myself, feminist antiviolence perspectives and so-called sex-positive or sex radical feminist and Queer activism — the two “sides” in the so-called “feminist sex wars” of the 1980’s — because I find much I admire about both, and often feel very torn. One of my mentors as an undergrad (I was a Women’s and Gender Studies major at DePaul University) was a woman who has been a really dedicated antiviolence activist for many years… her work is really influenced by her own experience as a survivor and by folks like Andrea Dworkin and although she has some perspectives that I cannot get fully on board with (ie she is relatively anti-porn), she was nonetheless a big influence on my thinking… two of the things I retain from reading her book and taking her classes continue to challenge me: 1.) some of the “sex positive” stuff that purports to deconstruct sexual taboos, ie much porn — actually exploits them… she argues that taboo creates silence instead of dialogue and silence creates the isolated spaces w/ unequal power dynamics that allow violence to occur (related to this post, this has been very challenging for me, because most of what ignites my desire does so BECAUSE it is taboo, in some way teases) 2.) …this part probably relates to your question abt ‘commerce’… Pornography is an industry, and as such, profits from what it represents… and because of this, we should hold it to the same standards of accountability we hold any other industry in terms of what forms of exploitation or what problematic representations is it reinforcing? For instance, through its images, does pornography profit from sexualized racism?

      At the same time, I was also greatly influenced by a lot of folks who work to shift the emphasis from violence to desire and the social management of desire… how certain desires are shamed or attached to marginalized identities, how social hierarchies are structured around ideas of “normal” and “abnormal” sexualities and desire. I studied in Amsterdam with Carol Vance, who wrote one of the seminal “pro-sex”-ish articles during the 80’s trying to shift the conversation from violence to desire and its management/oppression. And in my own life experiences, I’ve seen how shame and stigma related to fetishes or to things like promiscuity and.or anonynmous or public sex have really fucked with people’s lives. …And I think one of the problems with, for instance, the antiporn perspective is it reinforces shame-based hierarchies, reinforces stigma against folks whose sexuality or desires already make them marginal, and maybe relies on an idealized notion of sex rooted in perfectly equal power dynamics that really isn’t hot for anyone.

      There is also this way the antiporn perspective perpetuates this notion that sex is this sort-of “special” domain of human experience, that is especially contentious, makes us especially vulnerable, and so it should be especially regulated and controlled and protected or something… and I think this last part, protectionist attitudes, sometimes does damage to people and prevents them be able to make autonomous sexual decisions. This is complex, I think, because there is some truth to the fact that for many of us, sex makes us feel especially vulnerable, feels like “special” domain of our experience (I think this is where some of this stuff connects back to my post abt my own fears of sex). But what we tend to do I think is take our feelings of shame and vulnerability and project them onto the bodies of others whose sex is deemed more compromising or shameful in some way, and in the name of “protecting” them, oppression and regulate them. For instance, where sex work is concerned, I think the “specialness” of sex makes it harder to address the exploitation and violence that does often occur in the sex trade, because instead of focusing on the workplace conditions that are exploitative or dangerous — say violence at the hands of johns, pimps or the police, or for some street prostitutes, lack of housing or other aspects of poverty that make them more vulnerable, we are focused on how shameful it must be for women to have sex for money, how it must pollute or degrade them or something.

      There are folks who will say that our desires are beyond our control so should be completely free from circumspection… I don’t know that I agree with this. Our desires are in part shaped by the society, culture, etc we are situated in, which is shaped by systemic oppression related to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc, so how as social justice-seeking people can we not be critical of the ways our desires seem to implicate us in those systems — (for instance, something like racial fetish, or a fetish for disabled people, can be pretty fucked up), but I think we need to make spaces in which our desires can be free from circumspection and enjoyed, w/ appropriate controls put in place to prevent harm being inflicted, for example the way folks in BDSM communities have “safe words.”

      Within the context of actual “on-the-ground” social movements, I think what I tend to advocate most is just open-ended conversation w/o judgment or blame or shaming… while I don’t think our desires free from critical assessment, it seems more productive to me to begin from a place of radical acceptance And while I think it an be good to remain critical of exploitative aspects of the sex industry, I think I’m generally very opposed to movements seeking to abolish pornography, prostitution, etc.

      …I don’t know if this has anything to do w/ anything you asked, I sort of “went off.” I also don’t have time to check for grammar, syntax and clarity. But hopefully some others will find this conversation and jump in, because there are all sorts of experiences around these issues I cannot adequately speak to because I have not lived them.

      1. Okay, now I’m going to try to go back and look more deliberately at your individual questions:

        Q- How would you differentiate the erotics of desire versus the politics of desire, and/or tease apart their inextricability? How do you position desire against possession, commerce, and violence?

        A- …I think these are some of the issues my first response was attempting to address.

        Q- What about desire and the ecology of the body especially in regards to violence, invasion, and pollution?

        A- I am far less sure about this one – “ecology of the body” is new terminology for me, but it seems to point toward some notion of “healthy” vs “unhealthy” bodies, which for me brings up a whole different set of tensions, conflicts, images, ideas abt how those terms are defined and affect the lives of Queer people, people with disabilities HIV+ people, poor people, people of color, women, folks in the sex trade, fat people, all sorts of folks whose bodies have been marked and regulated and “othered”… I don’t know that I can take all that on… one notion that might be interesting in light if this post, though, comes from a group I’m somewhat affiliated with here in Chicago of young women affected by the sex trade and other street economies. They conducted their own study of ways young women practice resilience, and one of the things they considered resilience was things like cutting and self-inflicted harm, because young women were cutting to gain control and relieve tension… so one of the things this organization does is teach their constituents how to minimize the harm of cutting, stitch themselves up. I think that kind of thing shifts how we understand the body in terms of things like violence and invasion.

        Q- What does the desire to annihilate and or to be annihilated look like outside of theory? And how can this be played out and supported in a progressive-minded community?

        A- …I think I maybe started to touch on this in my other reply, but I think this is where it would be helpful to have folks who are actually part of more kink and fetish-oriented communities participate in the conversation… I think my suggestions are more abstract.

        Q – I’m also interested to hear how the various ways people navigate the peripheries of what is consensual, especially in regards to social hierarchies.

        A – Ummm… me too? I think the way the dialogue is usually framed at present makes it very difficult to hear or see them. But I think there are a lot of people who have written about these peripheries a lot more accurately and experienced them with a lot more intricacy than me.

        Q – What is the rhetoric of social justice activists that do not neatly correspond to the “scary” aspects of desire? Would you go more into defining the trajectories of these aspects?

        A – I think when I said, “rhetoric of social justice activists,” I think I just meant the notion that situations are easily clarified as either unjust/violent or… not. And there’s a lot of muddier terrain that I think is hard to acknowledge when you are trying to craft and articulate a simple, coherent, accessible message about social change that isn’t necessarily popular in the dominant culture. As someone who works with and supports activist groups, I sympathize w/ that dilemma.

        Q – In regards to this post here, you write about how “the reader is understood as implicated in the text’s violence via whatever vicarious pleasure they take from reading about said violence’s execution.” How would you define “implicated” here? From the context, it sounds less like “to affect intimately” and more like “to connect in an incriminating way.” If this is true, how so? How does vicarious pleasure (and what does this mean anyway?) implicate a reader? You also write later about “culpability.” I don’t think you mean guilt with all of it’s baggage of religious shame here. Are there positive, progressive forms of implication and culpability?

        A – If there are positive and progressive forms of implication and culpability, they are maybe the mandate to be in solidarity with anyone who is systematically marginalized and to support their struggles for social change …I think where sexual violence is concerned, this might be about the “bystander effect,” the way those who watch, know what is about to happen and do nothing (which is basically what the Dennis character does re: Chris in Guide) are understood to be complicit… or also there is the idea that violence is reinforced by the community, that the community creates the conditions of isolation, marginalization, inequality, etc. that make folks more vulnerable to violence, and so to truly end violence we must work toward social justice, the dismantling of these systems of oppression. This is where I imagine I probably differ from Dennis’s anarchism b/c of my commitment to something called “collective liberation” (admittedly, an abstract).

        1. Thanks Tim.

          One more thing: You say that Cooper “has said that as an anarchist, he does not taken any moral directives for granted, but instead seeks to work out for himself, often through his writing, the ramifications of his desires and actions,” and that “as an anarchist, [Cooper] says he rejects collective truth.” Where can I find him talking about anarchy?

          You also mention asking him “for a good reading list of anarchist thinkers.” I’d like to see his list too. If you haven’t read it already, I’d start with Daniel Guérin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice. Besides being a political theorist, Guérin was one of the 20th century’s first gay activists.

          1. I think he talks abt anarchism a little bit in the 3:AM article linked above… and one other, more recent one in 3:AM. The more recent one comes up when you google him and 3:AM. The other times he’s mentioned anarchism to me were in blog comments (I don’t know if I could find them) and in person, and when he mentioned it in person he was pretty explicit abt it being an anti-capitalist position. Thank you for the Guerin recommendation, I will seek it out. …I’ve been meaning to read Emma Goldman for a long time as well.

      2. “This is where I imagine I probably differ from Dennis’s anarchism b/c of my commitment to something called ‘collective liberation'”

        I don’t think that Dennis’s very personalized form of anarchism precludes “collective liberation” per se. He’s interested in social movements and has even expressed sympathy with the Russian revolution, whatever that means to him. At other times he’s said things like everyone is too corrupted by current-day society for things to ever radically change.

        But, yeah, where I, as a communist, part ways with him politically is precisely on the question of how to build a world that’s organized in accordance with the radical vision of human freedom I find in his work. I think he’s not willing to violate his ideals to the extent that will be necessary in order to realize them on a universal scale, the way a pacifist refuses to take up arms to overthrow the system that generates war.

        So I look elsewhere for a program to put the ideals I feel I share with Dennis into practice. But I do feel he’ll be on the right side of the barricades when it comes to that.

  2. I was immediately attracted to the beauty of DC’s narrative voices and structures, and only gradually got clued in to the unique ethical/political perspective they’re grounded in. It’s a radical vision that goes back to Sade and to my thinking transcends that source. By its nature it’s incredibly difficult to formulate, and I’m still working it out for myself every time I engage with his work.

    This piece has been a great help, and I think you’re absolutely on the right track here. The recognition of the violence of thinking of people in terms of generalities is central, I think. But, as you go on to point out, DC never simply rejects that violence (or any form of violence) in a moralistic way, since moral absolutes are themselves the biggest/most insidiously violent generalities about human beings out there. That’s not a comfortable thing to say, though. It’s a fucking scary thing to realize.

    Anyway, just wanted to say I thought this was up there with the best thinking on this subject that I’ve seen, and as I continue to try to make sense of it for my own sake I will be sure to refer back to this piece.

    1. This part strikes me as “worked out” really well:

      “The recognition of the violence of thinking of people in terms of generalities is central, I think. But, as you go on to point out, DC never simply rejects that violence (or any form of violence) in a moralistic way, since moral absolutes are themselves the biggest/most insidiously violent generalities about human beings out there.”

      Very simple and clarifying and challenging and helpful statement for me, thanks.

Leave a Reply to Christopher Higgs Cancel reply