Newfound Footage from Stephen Elliott’s Shining Postscript and the Politics of Reading “Adrien Brody”

“It never ceases to startle me that a brilliant thinker can be such a bad writer. It challenges some of my preconceptions about language and thought.”—Rob Horning, “Exhaustion of generic raw material”

Frank Hinton would be the first to tell you that I adore Steve Roggenbuck. Not only did his star rise as fast as Tao Lin’s—he emerged on the online alt-lit scene like an explosion—and his universe is still expanding. The only two writers of whom I can think that have matched his output are Roxane Gay and Blake Butler, (I see xTx everywhere, too). Not that it’s a race or anything, or that we should feel the compunction of competition. We’re in this together more than we know—hence the hostilities whenever someone emerges and receives a little bit of exposure. Still, to think that Roggenbuck has done it—and continues to do it—without recourse or dependency on any of the online lit scene’s publishing machinations is astounding. While poetry editor last fall at Eleven Eleven: A Journal of Literature & Art (edited by Hugh Behm-Steinberg, whose poem in decomP you should read here), I solicited Roggenbuck. He was positively thrilled, expressed how he always wanted to be in the journal, but quickly became, almost innocently, concerned about which poems he should send me.

It never happened, of course. I was exhausted writing a novella, finishing graduate school, and trying to start a career—as a teacher no less. And I let things slip. Neither of us got back to each other and by the time the term was over, I could care less. But this is the other thing I like about Steve Roggenbuck: his politics. To be honest, I don’t know what Roggenbuck means when he calls himself post-corporate, but I like it. He seems to live up to it, too—all his work is free and available on his website, and a few other places—and that’s not because it’s not wanted. It’s because Roggenbuck has decided it’s better that way, that there is value in refusing the online alt-lit’s universal twitch toward corporatization. Besides, I like Steve Roggenbuck because watching him at the Alt-Lit Gossip Awards was better than watching cable. Satanic cats, fuck yeah. At a time when certain writers still hold fast to the misunderstood Warholian I-want-to-be-a-corporation mentality, Roggenbuck represents the resistance. You should read his poetry.

Stephen Elliott‘s fiction has not always been, for me, the brightest sun in the galaxy. Although there are moments when it does shine—I almost always seem to know what’s going to happen next. And that’s okay. Predictability provides a certain kind of comfort. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t want to bask in the glow of Elliott’s inconsistent wattage or lurk around in his writing’s shadows—which, I wish there were more of.

I do.

Stephen Elliott’s writing—for better and worse—has informed my writing. I mean, Stephen Elliott has basically made a career out of writing about sex, drugs, murder—in broad daylight. He’s like the straight guy’s Dennis Cooper. Which is one of the reasons I read him, even though I’m gay. In fact, I have read almost everything he’s ever written. But let me be clear: writing sex, drugs, and murder, journalistically—the way Stephen Elliott writes it—straight-forward, tight, masculine, slightly twisted, bright (like Stephen Elliott, himself) is a major, minor accomplishment. And that’s okay. For the relatively heterosexual people living in the Bay Area thirsting for relatively straight literary porn (and for submissive men specifically), he’s pretty much all we got (and let me be clear: I’m not submissive, but there are moments when it’s nice to dream). Besides, his male characters give a whole new meaning to the term submission policy. (I promise at least one porn link every essay.)

On top of that, I look forward to watching Cherry, the film he will be directing.

Like I said before, it is nice to receive attention. Even when that attention is tacit. Even when it’s negative. Even when that attention is brought to my attention by somebody I wish I knew better. As you may know, my name is not big-time. I have not generated a sex scandal or written about all the girls I’ve sodomized (coming soon) or how I never—and I mean never—use condoms. Or that I may be the only person on the planet who can claim to have had sex with Kathy Acker and Peter Sotos—not at the same time, unfortunately. (That’s right, I’m name-dropping.) But, when I do decide to write about it, I will expect Farrar, Straus & Giroux to come knocking at my door with a book deal. The formula is simple: describe act objectively, respond to act honestly, generate scandal, repeat. If I learned anything from the most current streak of literary minimalists, it is that.

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What Were You Doing in 1979? (part 1)

Paul Simon was making One Trick Pony.

Art Garfunkel was starring in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.

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Vagina Rebel (small) contest

Vagina Rebel

Sometimes a vagina can be more than a vagina. Sometimes it can be freedom.

The ever-vigilant Nick Mamatas shared the URL for this new book on Facebook. Yes, it’s Vagina Rebel, by Adam Ash, whose other 2011 work is a poetry book called Suck My Poem. These both appear to be self-published affairs.

The tag line on the cover of Vagina Rebel: “In a future America ruled by the religious right, one woman fights for sexual freedom.”

I wonder if this will be more like Kathy Acker in Empire of the Senseless or more like Henry Miller’s version of what a vagina rebel might do? Um, wait–I think I know.

In any event, I almost wish this were an unreal book–a notation on Amazon for a book that will never exist and never be published. A conceptual advertisement, if you will.  Ok, that’s been done, sort of, a zillion times.

How about this instead? A small contest.

Write the possible opening lines for Vagina Rebel in the comments below, and I’ll send a literary surprise to the best, which may in fact end up being the worst.

Style as Imitation

Leonardo #1, page 17 (1987) (detail; First Publishing reprint). Art by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.

1.

My father, who once trained as a baker, taught me when I was a kid how to bake an apple pie. I don’t know where he got the original recipe from; I highly doubt that he invented it. Certainly he didn’t invent the idea of baking pies. And he didn’t invent the idea of baking an apple pie.

He was very clear about certain instructions:

  • always use Granny Smith apples;
  • always use ice-cold water;
  • touch the dough as little as possible.

Since then, I’ve baked several apple pies, and over time I’ve modified the recipe slightly, but it’s essentially the same (and I never violate his prime instructions).

When I make a new apple pie, I’m not doing anything new.

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The Post-Post-Modern Things: Björk, Kathy Acker, and the Astral-Disappearing Act (23-53/53)

Here’s the rest of the essay….was coming in smaller bits, but now an explosion.

(1-2/53)

(3-6/53)

(7-10/53)

(11-17/53)

(18-22/53)

23.    Despite any recourse to the nuanced heteroglossia of an Acker novel (available even to the casual, and perhaps dismissive, reader), part of the contrapuntal allure of her texts remains the difficulty in deciphering the “voice” of Acker-the-author that lies behind her plagiarisms.  This obstacle is mixed with a deliberate unwillingness on the reader’s part to assume that the disembodied voice, or voices, of her texts are subsumed behind a character (or, as we will see later, a “construct”) that can be unified by careful reading.  Yet for Hume, Acker’s “voice” is paradoxically accessible, and remains the defining characteristic of her prose.  Hume identifies Acker’s “core” voice with its “key note of protest,”[1] and argues that this voice becomes “centered” precisely in the apparently de-centered style of her fragmentation; she offers that Acker is unable to articulate even tentative solutions for her characters’ problems because her “intellectual” strategies of escape—appropriations and navigations that chart “lines of flight” from the logocentric realm of the “father”—will always clash with the emotional “desire” of her characters to escape such limiting systems on terms that protect the “core” identity: “Centripetally, (her personae) pull every experience in and recompose it in the idiom of the narrative voice.  That voice projects itself through lyric lamentation, cries, the vocabularies of sex, pain, and oppression.  Its values are traditional and humanist, and include . . . the inner self’s authenticity, and its right not to conform to social norms.”[2] The typical postmodernist argument about Acker’s fractured identity is not invalidated by Hume’s identification of the “core” voice, because it is impossible, given Acker’s work and its time, to perceive anything other than the illusion of a “core.” In this way, Acker’s countercultural stance (bound up, as we will see, with the marketing world) provides her texts only with a sort of pseudo-core, to re-arrange Blaise Pascal’s famous dictum—whose circumference is everywhere and center is nowhere.  In its nothingness, the center “voice” that is a “non-voice” (or a “media-voice” of sorts), exists all the more readily as a space for meaning to project itself onto the void of the fragmented rim, inside which it does not exist, to accrete like antimatter, with ghostlike flourishes, in the secret codes of the text.

24. Significant Incident # 1 morphing Nordic Elf into World-Historical Bear:

In late September 1996, an overeager tele-journalist in Bangkok greets Björk’s refusal to do an impromptu live interview by shoving a microphone in the face of her 10-year-old son, Sidri.  As anyone within the numbing proximity of tabloid media during that time knows, Björk attacks the reporter and smashes her head against the ground.  Another reporter notes later on: “you beat the shit out of her.”[3]

25.  One postmodern critique of the subject hypothesizes that it easier to cast off the idea of a unified self if that “self” has been crystallized by the pressures of traditional history, and that the Eurocentric stain of the postmodern is still, a product, even in rebellion, of that same totalizing culture.  It is this contradiction that perhaps enables Hume to read in Acker a deep-structure “voice.”  Hume counters with the obvious claim that the subjectivity of the critic might influence her reading, but we must ask, regardless, if all (or even a minority) of readers will perceive the essential Acker “voice” a la Hume that surfaces, perhaps, as the sum product of the resulting vacuums.  This question is less about the subjectivity of the reader than about the distance between any “core” literary persona and the carefully constructed “media” persona that acts as the gatekeeper for identity.  Joe Moran, in his book Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America, cites Acker’s friend and lover, Charles Shaar Murray: “The tattoos, piercings, muscles and motorcycles were simply private pursuits and public window-dressing.  They were not what (Acker) was ‘about’, either as an artist or as a human being.”[4] Before her death in 1997, Acker made similar claims about her literary construction, and we offer that such a tension between “image” and “reality” mirrors the struggle between commodification and authenticity that Lake Forest College undergraduate Kirsten Jorgenson notes in Acker’s fiction.  Writing about the possibility of an amorous exchange, Jorgenson notes that “When (Janey) dies, . . . she dies as a commodity, as something to be paid off for her services.”[5]

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The Post-Post-Modern Things: Björk, Kathy Acker, and the Astral-Disappearing Act (11-17/53)

Earlier:

(1-2/53)

(3-6/53)

(7-11/53)

11. From Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978): “The plants in her room cast strange, beautiful shadows over the other shadows.  It was a clean, dreamlike room.  He fucked her in her asshole cause the infection made her cunt hurt too much to fuck there, though she didn’t tell him it hurt badly there, too, cause she wanted to fuck love more than she felt pain.”[1] Raped by her father (like so many of Acker’s heroines), Janey, the 10-year old protagonist of the novel, burdened with a nasty case of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, enters into attempted dialogue with this hyper-sexualized, phallocentric world that abuses her through discursive appropriations that collocate the defining absences of her world into a mélange of ventriloquist quasi-prose—poems in Persian, a book report on The Scarlet Letter, an encounter with French writer Jean Genet, dream maps and picture books, the Chase Manhattan Bank of North America, Erica Jong—all made to speak through the voice of the disassociated woman-child Janey.

12. We read the faces that grace Björk’s album covers as similar to (Gottfried) Helnwein faces—pictures that often look nothing “like” the subject:  From the bejeweled innocence of Debut (1993) to the dim swan-of-the-evening star signs of the Vespertine cover (and beyond), where our heroine reclines over a backdrop of smooth stones jammed into a gravelly plane—her left arms sleek like liquid caught occupying a temporary mold, bent at a right angle to shade her stardust eyes.  She wears her infamous swan dress as an animal “familiar” spirit might have cuddled its astral body against the flesh of a human host.  The overcome-movie-star pose suggests that Björk prepares herself to be ravaged against the backdrop of an illuminated beach in one of those “untitled” Cindy Sherman stills.  Emerging from the feathers of her dress like a spectre body, this “true” soul of the artist, a ghost swan (a drawing superimposed on the photograph) adorns itself in ferns, dribbling the word “Vespertine” from its mouth.  The clash of the two images, the picture of Björk in swan dress—perhaps dead, sleeping, in any case lush, but immobile—and the ghostly apparition of the animated afterlife swan—create a picture space set slash and burn somewhere between its two dominant frames.  The world of the cartoon, of drawing, of deliberate artifice becomes opposed or perhaps reconciled with the world of the photograph, the “reality”—in this case staged with the same urge to denature.  For this fifth album after Debut, Björk has died somewhere among the acknowledged artificiality of her image; she no longer looks directly at the viewer.  As early as the fragmented, quasi-cubist cover of Selmasongs (2000) her body has become an amalgamation of its previous versions, a ghost in the machine “becoming animal,” sharing the same breath as the computer-imaging equipment.  It is in this context that the syntheses of Björk’s popular image serves as just another meta-album cover for her legions of fans.

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The Post-Post-Modern Things: Björk, Kathy Acker, and the Astral-Disappearing Act (7-11/53)

Earlier:

The Post-Post-Modern Things: Björk, Kathy Acker, and the Astral-Disappearing Act (1-2/53)

The Post-Post-Modern Things: Björk, Kathy Acker, and the Astral-Disappearing Act (3-6/53)

7. And so become blinded by the arrival of Kathy Acker, deceased “punk” novelist whose three decades of work “puts in its place a universe of shameless, playful freakery,”[1] a writer who matches “guts with theory, anger, and compassion.”[2] Her major works include Blood and Guts in High School (1978), Great Expectations (1982), Don Quixote (1986), Empire of the Senseless (1988), and Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996), all of which use anti-authoritarian narrative tactics to decompress the motorcrash of contemporary aesthetics.  Acker has been labeled an outlaw, freak, fraud, and thief; she has been both condemned and lauded for the graphic sexuality and violence of her novels, the extreme dislocation of traditional emotion from language as a way of assaulting the ersatz “rationality” of the multinational capital machine.

8. And journalists shall know Björk through the cogs of this machine.  Evelyn McDonnell’s biopic, Army of She: Icelandic, Iconoclastic, Irrepressible Björk—for instance—discusses the author’s conversion from Björk skeptic to adoring fan as a spider might suffer the little insects to come unto her.  The “original” iteration of her complete text, for which McDonnell freely admits she collected no new information or interviews, is “a new hyped new media new technology with a cute marketing name that makes e-fficient, e-conomic use of that ubiquitous electronic-age, neologism-friendly, monosyllabic prefix—ladies and gentleman, an e-book.”[3] Before going on to detail her Björkian encounters, McDonnell positions her homage in e-book form as both “retro” and “techno,” or, as she makes clear, the e-book is a product to be viewed through the same collapsed lenses through which she views her subject.  This “defining” characteristic of Björk in Army of She, coupled with the production of the e-book and McDonnell’s analysis of Björk’s music—all push toward that delicious synthesis of seemingly incompatible elements that cause many critics to bite into Björk’s “hybridity” as a mechanism to transcend the sour, internal contradictions of pre-sorted musical categories.  Thus, Björk’s Homogenic, in the hands of the press, becomes noted as an amalgamation of what McDonell calls “three networks (strings, voice, and beats)” that are merged to create, “organic, living wholes.”[4] As a cultural product, the “syntheses” offered by Björk’s music (within this dialectical context), speak to Walter Benjamin’s famous distinction between the “attitude” of a text as opposed to its “position” within its contemporaneous relations of production.[5] If Björk’s work distinguishes itself by combinations that scuttle the expectations of the mainstream press, if “the esoteric combinations of instruments, from a dulcimer to a black box to an entire string orchestra”[6] offer “alternatives” to the predictable regularity of much popular music, then the implications (of Björk’s press coverage) offer that her music, much like Benjamin’s sense of the “position” of a work within the system of production, 1) changes the “functional connection” between listener and artist, 2) proves that “hybridity” and “innovation” are the keys to making music that “matters,” and 3) shows that wild and innocent Björk, existing simultaneously at both center and margin, throws a technological spanner in the machine works of the electronic age.  With such a paint-by-numbers postmodern program uploaded by the self-fulfilling deities of cultural studies, dare we even ask if the press has pushed the wrong buttons on their easy-to-use, digitized personal assistants?

9. In some ways, both Björk and “radical” “experimental” writer Kathy Acker are cut from this same poststructuralist polymer fabrication.  Björk and her crew of producers and re-mixers “sample.”  Acker “plagiarizes.”  Both work with the “raw” materials of culture distorted to points beyond their original articulation.  In each case, juxtapositions of unlikely materials serve as the harbinger of the production philosophy.  Critics often tackle Acker as the “tattooed feminist punk linguist who writes possibly the most subversive novels in contemporary American fiction,”[7] the post-William Burroughs warrior woman slicing patriarchy to the bone with razor thrusts of her double-edged sexual perversions and cogent but “fucked-up” worldview.

10.Despite any recourse to ideas of Hegelian synthesis offered by the popular image of Björk and/or her own statements sampled in support of such strange mergers, the notion of a unified and intrinsic “self” located in the soul of each artist becomes suspect by virtue of her production.  Note the erotic copulation of robotic Björks in the “All is Full of Love” video (Homogenic); the Betty Boop-like swagger of the cartoon Björk in the “I miss you” video (Post), the “accurate copy/a blueprint/of the pleasure in me” from “Pagan Poetry,” the urge to “explode this body/off me” in the lyric to “Pluto,” the polar bear “disease” shaken off her bald head in the “Hunter” video, ad infinitum, once again….

11. From Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978): “The plants in her room cast strange, beautiful shadows over the other shadows.  It was a clean, dreamlike room.  He fucked her in her asshole cause the infection made her cunt hurt too much to fuck there, though she didn’t tell him it hurt badly there, too, cause she wanted to fuck love more than she felt pain.”[8] Raped by her father (like so many of Acker’s heroines), Janey, the 10-year old protagonist of the novel, burdened with a nasty case of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, enters into attempted dialogue with this hyper-sexualized, phallocentric world that abuses her through discursive appropriations that collocate the defining absences of her world into a mélange of ventriloquist quasi-prose—poems in Persian, a book report on The Scarlet Letter, an encounter with French writer Jean Genet, dream maps and picture books, the Chase Manhattan Bank of North America, Erica Jong—all made to speak through the voice of the disassociated woman-child Janey.


[1] Back Cover Blurb, Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, eds. Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper (New York: Grove Press, 2002).

[2] Back Cover Blurb, Bodies of Work: Essays (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997).

[3] Evelyn McDonnell, Army of She: Icelandic, Iconoclastic, Irrepressible Björk (New York: Atrandom.com, 2001), 4.

[4] McDonnell, 64.

[5] See Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken,  1978), 220-238.

[6] Bunbury.

[7] Greg Lewis Peters, “Dominance and Subversion: The Horizontal Sublime and Erotic Empowerment in the Works of Kathy Acker,” in State of the Fantastic: Studies in American Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Nicholas Ruddick (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992), 149.

[8] Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1989), 21.