Some Thoughts About Tim Horvath’s Understories

ImageA couple of weeks ago, Susannah Elisabeth Pabot asked me to introduce Tim Horvath before he read at Brown University’s Literary Arts Department’s Demitasse on March 21, 2012. Here, with some modifications, is what I’d said about Tim and his work:

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In Which I Apologize for Having to Talk about the Nazis

When I did an image-search for “sublime,” literally all I got for 16 pages were promo pics of the band Sublime, and this plate of enchiladas:

Anyhow.

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Sorry guys: I don’t think we can talk about Longinus without talking about fascism. Which is to say, I don’t think we can talk about the sublime without talking about the dangers of the sublime. Continue reading

Introduction/Aesthetics

Hi, Big Other. I’m new here, at least as a contributor.

My name is James Tadd Adcox. I’m kind of an aesthetics geek. I’m planning, over the next several weeks, to present a series of posts on aesthetic theory, tracing a certain line of aesthetic thought from classical philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Longinus) through the British Empiricists and German Idealists and on through till today, more or less. Along the way, there will be occasional detours for thinkers who seem important for this line of thought, even if they are not themselves primarily or even especially interested in aesthetics—particularly Martin Buber and Walter Benjamin.

While most of what I’m talking about is what you’d call theory, my interest here is ultimately practical. What are we doing as writers, as artists? Are we just prettifying political arguments and pop psychology? Is there something worthwhile that art and literature do that, say, a good argument or case study doesn’t? Continue reading

Paul Scheerbart’s Perpetual Motion Machine: Some Thoughts on Literature & Energy

Two texts are now sitting on my desk.  They are still and inert — like rectangular paperweights.  I would like to activate them, to mingle their pages.  I would like to set them, if only momentarily, into motion.

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The first text in front of me is a little gem of a book: Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press, 2011), translated by experimental poet Andrew Joron.  In late 1907, Scheerbart — a visionary German author and artist who wrote, among other things, poetry, essays, theater pieces, and a prodigious amount of fantastic fiction (he called them “astral novels”) — set out to devise, in his laundry room, a perpetual motion machine.  Das Perpetuum mobile, which was originally published in 1910 along with 26 charming diagrams, is a roller-coaster account of Scheerbart’s failed but energetically inspired attempt to set such a machine into motion; it is a fascinating record, as Joron puts it, “of a two-and-a-half-year-long tantrum of the imagination.” Continue reading

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.