Like some latter day Prufrock, I have measured out my life in Dylan tunes. Fifty years of one more cup of coffee. That’s a lot of coffee. That’s a lot of stirring. It started out with the folkies jumping on the bandwagon of his early ballads of change — lots of wind blowing, lots of hard rain — until Pete Seeger jumped him at the ‘65 Newport festival, reportedly taking an axe to his amp; Dylan was off the wagon. Fuck the bourgeois folkies, I went with Napoleon in rags, AKA Alias. I stirred through it all and dropped another cube.
Then I went electric with Dylan for forty years, moving down an endless highway, endless tour of coffee shops, stirring people everywhere, and every place he went with his retinue of wise fools and besotted sages, becoming the circus that was in town, wafting the whiff of chaos we desired like some pheromone that made you feel politically pretty for at least the length of a song. Starting out like Abbie Hoffman’s revolutionary-for-the-hell-of-it, bringing theatre to the crowded fire of the times, and ending up, some say, like the Wall Street brokers Hoffman once rained dollar bills down on, snorkeling for dollars in the stock yard.
Fifty years later, old age hitting me, like a freight train, gone the idealism that we all thought underwrote and justified the “benign” excesses of American democracy, I struggle with the relevancy of all things Dylan. I struggle with post-modernity and the relevance of relevance, the is of is-ness. Like Prufrock, I have arrived at that place again, where time is an ocean that ends at the shore, and have seen it for what it is for the first time — like some truculent escaped runaway through time, caught in a Truffault tracking shot lasting decades and ending with me facing the camera, fin de siecle stamped to my face like Jimmy Cagney’s twisted grapefruit in Public Enemy. What can Dylan do when you’re fresh out of mermaids and you’re going down in the flood of all that consciousness?
I pondered, sitting down with one last cup of coffee, as settled in, with my son, to Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, newly released on Netflix. I remember the tour well. In Boston, a portion of the tour was broadcast live from Texas and I videotaped the concert with my Sony Portapak, commercials and all, and later had it illicitly transferred to cassette tape by two sound engineers at the University of Massachusetts, who groused the whole time about Dylan’s relevance and corruption (but made sure that they got their copy of the concert), and found, as I made the rounds, that nobody gave a squat about the tape, most of my friends and acquaintances having settled into Bob Marley’s more “global” appeal and less taken with the Dylan “mystique.” Political extraversion, bodies in motion, was winning the day over moody introversion, which seemed irrelevant to a world on the brink of nuclear war.
I mostly enjoyed watching much of Scorses’s film. It was especially gratifying to nostalgitate with Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg, the latter’s opening lines of Howl sprinkled throughout the film like a grave motif, “I saw the best minds of my generation / destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro / streets at dawn looking for an angry / fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the / ancient heavenly connection to the / starry dynamo in the machinery of / the night.” Fuckin’ ay.
But I didn’t find any real relevance to the film. It was good to see Dylan re-animated by the ‘70s. His interview seemed as inchoate as ever, your desire for him to be profound, trumping common sense and the bald fact that he was blurting old fart cliches (but then, much of the attraction of his whole schtick over the years has largely been his phrasing of cliches and truisms, which I don’t hold against him, given its Nobel quality performance value). I kept waiting for relevancy to kick in, and sorely missed the exclusion of songs in the doco, such as I had recorded earlier with my Portapak — the ever-relevant cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” for instance, would have reminded viewers how long the southern border “crisis” has been with us. I stopped watching the doco about 80 percent of the way through, when my son excused himself to go off to a more relevant party and I sat stewing in ennui.
In his Netflix interview, at one point Dylan laments how we, the people, no longer remember the lines from great poets any more — he cites Ginsberg, Whitman and Frost — but settle for lyrical snatches from popular songs. I find this true and untrue. I get asked at times over the years what my favorite Dylan tunes is — an impossible-to-answer request; no true Dylan aficionado should have to answer — and, always, I find myself saying, “Love Minus Zero.” I don’t really know why. It just seems a perfect and beautiful tune, and no rhymes.
Otherwise, it’s true, it’s no longer Dylan albums that reach out to me any more, but the lyrics that stand the test of time: “It’s easy to see without looking to far that not much is really sacred.” Have we as a species, seemingly at the height of our consciousness, ever been more profane? “The angels play on their horns all day / the whole earth in progression seems to pass by / but does anyone hear the music they play? / Does anyone even try?” No emojis for that emotion. And later, in “Trying to Get to Heaven” from Time Out of Mind, “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / if everything is as hollow as it seems.” Stuff you don’t even want to think about, if you’re Prufrock measuring out another coffee spoon. And, from the same song, the ever-profound observation, for which no comment is required or adequate: “When you think you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more.”
Heady stuff. But then you weigh it up, as I recently did, with the crass jingle-ism that you would think Dylan doesn’t need any more — the beer commercials during Super Bowl 2019, the one an “arty” Budweiser ad that features “Blowing in the Wind,” and the other featuring Jeff Bridges’ Dude making a cameo appearance to pitch “change is good” by way of switching to Stella Artois, “The Man in Me,” cooing in the background. If you’re not careful, you could almost think you’re seeing double. So, I dunno, which beer should I drink? I close my eyes and I wonder. Does Dylan need such bier hall push to stay relevant at this stage?
More bizarre is the whole silly saga of his new whiskey brand, Heaven’s Door. First is the question whether Dylan “stole” the name from an already-existing whiskey company, as they claim. That laughed aside, the most likely reason why Dylan decided to splash out, post-Nobel, on a whiskey factory is because his namesake, Dylan Thomas, has been exploited by a UK whiskey company, the mofos actually using the most famous line from his villanelle — “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Was Heaven’s Door, arch Dylan’s answer to such a molestation? A kind of inside joke? Can a whiskey company really sell a 10 year-old whiskey when it’s only been open six months. Again, I close my eyes and I wonder. Musing aside, the $50 100 proof double-barrel whiskey itself is pretty good, smooth, lyrical, honey to the tongue, or as the Heaven’s Door site says: “The richness of the vanillin and lipids imparted by the barrel are obvious and welcome, in that, the buttery texture underlines the gustatory power.” Jokerman at work? WTFK.
Similar wry devilry seems to have been at work with his selection as the Nobel laureate for literature in 2016. Not only was he coy about accepting the award in the first place, acting like the folkies were trying to kidnap him and force him to give a “spokesman for a generation” speech, he waited until the very last moment, when losing the ka-ching was on the line, before he accepted. (Did he finance Heaven’s Door with the Nobel money?) Great controversy ensued. His friend Ginsberg’s pushy nomination aside, just about everyone knows that Dylan should have received a Nobel prize for Performance, not Literature. You’d like to think that Nobels are awarded not just for lifetime achievement, but also for relevancy.
Holding a Dylan CD cover now feels like Hamlet must have felt, graveside, holding up the skull, exclaiming, “Alas, poor Yorick,” followed by the fond remembrance of things past, how Dylan helped inspire through my early years. Now, there’s serious shit ahead, and the end feels nigh; Dylan’s not so relevant. Dylan himself seems to know this at times. He says that when he wrote the song “Titanic,” off his album Tempest (released on 9/11), he was literally watching the James Cameron film. A chance to put the upstairs/downstairs of American culture in perspective at a time of 1percent / 99 percent and he chose to do session work with the band. No reference to climate change and the growing lack of icebergs. Or maybe “Titanic” was a winky nod to lefty conspiracy-theorists re: 9/11. Fans will, as always, fill in the gaps of any real concern on his part.
One of Dylan’s great lyrics haunts me ever in these days of constant and growing surveillance, both inside the mind (Facebook, Google, and Amazon algorithms) and outside the mind (NSA, the slow strangulation of freedom of speech and thought Snowden and Assange have warned us about), is from “It’s Alright, Ma” off his Bringing It All Back Home album. “If my thought-dreams could be seen / they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Words were never more prophetic. It’s just that, as the world breaks bad, seemingly under the stress of democracy’s end and the imminent Singularity threatening humanity’s demise, I’d like a response more akin to Heisenberg in the face of the powers that be than what Dylan seems to raise a glass to. “Life is about creating yourself,” he says in the Scorsese film. As the locusts arrived. It kinda give me a chill
Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York
OR Books (2014)
Available in paperback and as an e-book
When I was driving with my family back to England from a day trip to Dunkirk Beach, a French border guard in Calais told us at the Chunnel entry that America was under attack (did I detect a smile?). Later, back in Surrey, we watched the Sky news broadcast of the Twin Towers collapse, as neighbors in our cul-de-sac partied, fireworks and all (were they immune to the situation’s gravity?). Already a longtime ex-pat by then, the distance in time and space led me to respond not with the ululations for vengeance heard across the US mediascape that day but with an echo of my young daughter’s query –“Why?”
As circumstance would have it, almost two years later I visited a friend in lower Manhattan. The reek of horror smoke was still in the air. I wanted to visit Ground Zero, but my friend talked me out of it; maybe, being a psychotherapist, she was sensitive to overexposure to the still-suppurating trauma. In a deft segue of optimism, she said that while not much good had come out of the attack, one silver lining was the kindness New Yorkers were now showing each other, the deference to a shared fragility – the Big Apple, of all locales, had become what G. H. W. Bush had once called for: ‘a kinder, gentler place’.
But no human good seems to last forever, or else it’s always there but gets transformed, perverted, and tremendous amounts of focused will need to be applied to recover it for redemption. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, not even love. Yet dark energy pervades all, and it didn’t take long for the ageless pathological sharks and charlatans to see a way to make a buck off unspeakable grief and spiritual violation. The financial meltdown of 2008, a crisis which forced Obama’s hand even before he had been inaugurated, was the result of machinations years in the making, the other side of the now-counterfeit coin of contemporary capitalism – no one was there to punch the New Gordon Gekko in the mouth, and what the Triffids did to the towers and symbols That Day, Wall Street snorkel porkers in the treasure trough did to the economy: Make it scream, they cried, and it did.
The divide between the haves and have-nots has grown exponentially since, with New York a focal point because it remains the crucible of a corrupt capitalism and the main barometer of zeitgeist pressure systems exploding the world. The corrosion has been well-documented in such films as Park Avenue.
Is it any wonder that most Americans don’t seem to care if the torture works or not? They just need to hear a scapegoat scream. Turns out Americans live in Guantanamo cells of debt service, credit defaults, slaves to desires stoked by deus in machina algorithms. That’s you on that stool with a hood and a neck noose in the dark. Spend, purge, make room for ever more, barks the dog-god at your feet, Bulimius. And even ‘freedom’ leaves nowhere to go, because no one wants an Equifax credit ratings flunky in their midst, any more than they want terrorists. Kick the stool out: Clint Eastwood’s sniper ain’t coming to save you this time. Punk.
I was thinking of all this, and more, as I waded my way through Tales of Two Cities, a marvelous collection of some 30 narratives about contemporary life in New York City, edited by John Freeman, a former editor of the literary magazine Granta. For today, New York is largely back to being the cold, divided, rude split city it never really stopped being, even in its collective grief a decade ago. Back then, in those early healing days, it was perhaps unimaginable that cops would be shot to death in “revenge” for political events — lockdowns, repressions, all police state stuff– so newly appreciative were people for the perceived sacrifices of those who put their lives on the lines to serve and protect, who put out blazes, and who had suffered so much loss on 9/11. Economic erosion, class divides, rampant homelessness, feudal wages, deregulated rents, grim future tidings – these are the leit motifs of Tales.
The collection is packed with slice of life tales as varied as NYC pizza pies – with all the toppings: enormous energy, sage street wit, winsome wisdom, and the grit of Truth. And, I reckon, it would be worth the purchase for Zadie Smith’s edgy comical corset saga alone. But it’s a volume chock full of surprises: There’s Lawrence Joseph’s dazzling lyrical poem; bolshy transgenders; a Czech car mechanic (or is he Serbian?); a widowed former Red Cross chaplain turned bar tender dealing with power games of the entitled; gentrifying landlords driving out tenants by neglecting to heat their flats in mid-winter; Junot Diaz’ tale of reciprocal burglary; Bill Cheng’s memoir of being stuck in a hidden, forgotten cubicle writing copy that celebrates rags to riches go-getters; and so on.
We learn from Valeria Luiselli that “the area now occupied by Columbia University’s Morningside campus was the lunatic asylum until the late 1800s,” and, she adds devilishly, “The city must have been full of them—colonial lunatics, maddened by their own expansionist ambitions, souls sickened by solitude and nostalgia, minds turned against themselves for having seen too much—for having undone so many.” We learn that “the top fifth of the population here earns more than thirty times that of the lowest fifth.” And then Teju Cole treats the reader with samplings of fait divers (small fates), a French form of condensed journalism that attempts to capture the 5Ws in a sentence or two. For instance, this gem of the form: “Lorenzo Corello and Annie Pollilcolski, in Jersey City: love was his question, no her answer, a razor his riposte, critical her condition.”
Tales of Two Cities has been likened as a kind of postmodern update of Jacob Riis’ classic How the Other Half Lives, but that comparison, while valuable in a way, does not deliver full justice to either Riis’ work or to Tales. Riis’ 125 year old narrative is as confronting a black and white study in sociological depravity as any student of popular history is ever likely to read. It should be mandatory reading in high school, along with Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the US, which it likely inspired.
Riis describes and catalogues the rise of the tenement system in an overcrowded turn-of-the-century New York, which is what ‘the other half’ refers to (although, as Riis points out, by the time of publication upwards of three-quarters of the population of NYC lived in tenements). He describes a ramshackle crazy quilt of unsafe structures reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, where a typical apartment consisted of “one room 12 x 19 with five families living in it, comprising twenty persons of both sexes and all ages, with only two beds, without partition, screen, chair, or table.”
And deeper within these structures were “cave dwellers” composted by the dozens in single rooms without light or ventilation. Who lived in these miserable, cholera-permeated hovels? European immigrants flooding in for ‘a better life’ than what they left behind in London, Paris and Old Praha: Irish, Italians, Germans, Serbs, French, Spanish, Russians, Chinese. “Give me your unwashed huddled masses,” says the sign over Ellis Island, which could have been written by a slumlord, who might have added, “We know just where to crush their spirits and rob them blind.”
Unlike Tales, there is no kinetic energy in Riis’ narrative: pestled people survive mortars of greed and rapacity in miracles of resilience that almost defy human understanding. Such tenements are gone today, although rising rents, relentless un- or under-employment, and the tyranny of debt are forcing sharing situations unseen since at least the Reagan era. But Tales does share with the Riis study a series of snapshots of immigrant life in New York, for almost all the Tales are from the point of view of ‘foreigners’ or ‘hicks’ come to the Promised Land for a better life, just as they did more than 100 years ago.
However, instead of being herded and crushed into matchbook firetraps, some landlords not averse to setting their own tenement towers on fire for insurance, the human loss not factored into the profit, today’s immigrants largely live on the edge of physical survival and often close to falling into the abyss of despair. Today New Yorkers are composted in digital databases, and breathe in the dark, fetid air of compartmentalized debt they cannot escape. Call it: A Tenemental Journey.
Of course, Tales does contain grim reminders of the Riis “cave dwellers”, but this time in the form of the huddled masses who live like Morlocks beneath Manhattan’s surface, the tunnel dwellers, or ‘Mole People’ as the dailies call them. In “Near the Edge of Darkness,” Colum McCann went on an investigative journey of this underbelly and relates his experience thusly,
“The idea of living underground, in the dark, feeds the most febrile part of our beings. The tunnels operate as the subconscious minds of our city: all that is dark and all that is feared, pulsing along in the arteries beneath us. There are seven hundred miles of tunnels in the city. The capacity for shadowplay is infinite. There are hundreds of nooks and crannies, escape hatches, ladders, electrical rails, control rooms, cubbyholes. An overwhelming sense of darkness, made darker still by mall pinpoints of light from the grates of topside. And then there are the rats, in singles, pairs, dozens, sometimes hundreds at your feet. If anything can happen, the worst probably will.” Here is a milieu of madness, of the unconscious turned physical, the Minotaur’s labyrinth come alive.
McCann continues his Cabeza de Vaca-like adventure into the unknown interior of America’s greatest city and discovers it gets darker still: “A consequence of darkness is mystery. The farther underground I went, the more mysterious the people became. A pair of runaways. A Vietnam vet. A man rumored to have once worked for CBS. A former University of Alabama football player who now looked at his life through the telescope of a rack pipe. Bernard Isaacs, a man with long dreadlocks who called himself Lord of the Tunnel. Another man, Marco, a flute player, who lived in a cubbyhole in the rafters and wanted to be known as Glaucon. And Tony, a pedophile who pushed his shopping cart full of tiny teddy bears along the edge of the tracks.”
These are misfits, down-and-outers too far gone even for Tom Waits to rescue in song; a Lonely Hearts Club Band, maybe even too damaged to raise a glass in Charles Bukowski’s Barfly orbit. This is a Night Gallery that stirs and shakes the soul. If you were looking for T.S. Eliot’s “madman shaking a dead geranium,” you’d find him here, now, in the present, giving the lie to the notion of progress in the great tarantella dance of dialectical materialism.
There are other compelling visions and voices worth singling out as well. There’s the almost-archetypal Indian cabbie with a postgraduate knowledge of some obscure facet of myth, cultural anthropology or the like. Taiye Selasi describes one such cabbie as he hauls a rich Russian émigré uptown, his heart broken by his daughter’s American drive for independence: “The Indian man finds this lovely. He is not a cabbie, but the ferryman Charon. One who delivers. Attends to transitions. Bears witness, gives refuge with sound, scent, and story to travelers trapped between points A and B.” Tales is full of such myth-living in-the-making.
Indeed, Tales of Two Cities is all about myths, delusions, and debunked dreams – American, foreigner, human – and you don’t know whether the accompanying riff should be a Mile Davis blues, or Shostakovich cello chiller, or a ragged busker on a kazoo, but whatever it is it can have no lyrics, for there are no words beyond these words that leave one speechless with dismay. As Bill Cheng writes, “They tell you, ‘You are where you deserve to be.’ But I know the way bad luck can build into streaks—a day, a week, a month, a year—all the avenues you thought were open shutting off one by one until all of a sudden you’re drunk and shaking and can’t see or hear for all your howling.” Here’s something they don’t talk about when the Buddhist Geeks talk the Singularity talk.
In his introduction to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, Jose Barchilon paints a provocative, under-explored pre-asylum life — how Renaisance Europe dealt with the mad by placing them aboard narrenschiffen (ships of fools) and sailing them from port to port, where they’d alight for a few hours or days before returning on the ship and their onward journey into further unknown interiors. Foucault suggests a level of interactivity with and acceptance by the various townspeoples of the strange cargo. It was not so much a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ as it was a tacit acknowledgement of the thin red line that separates madness and civilization.
The Mole People of New York may be fractured and ‘bent out of shape by society’s pliers’, as the Dylan tune goes, but even stripped down in the dark they maintain the dignity of matter and possess the integrity of atomic indestructability. Whereas everyone on the surface carries on as if they truly were the King of Prussia. And mightn’t a Fool just crack a smile, stepping off his ship in New York Harbor, and reading the lead piece in The Fait Divers Daily: “Swimming in the East River, Whitestone found a message in a bottle from the State Hospital on Ward’s Island. It read: ‘Some of us are sane’”?
Tales of Two Cities is, then, not merely about New York, per se, or about modern cities in decline, but more about the expanding cracks and fissures of civilization, the widening chasm between haves and have-nots that betokens, this time, an end to progressivism, to the notion that we’re all in this together, and a cruel, triumphant return to the feudal and industrial, as if Scrooge listened to other ghosts that fateful night and the next day informed Bob Cratchitt he’d have to reduce his hours to avoid Obamacare costs, leaving Tiny Tim without a leg to stand on. And all you could hear was the centrifugal force of a howling wind, and the lone cry for dignity.
As I read Marion May Campbell’s new book, Poetic Revolutionaries: Intertextuality and Subversion, I was reminded of the still seemingly sacred notion of a democratic historical progress. This notion celebrates cultural alterity (and all that that implies), and makes an urgent appeal to textual revolution as a means to political resistance. Campbell’s work is rooted in the relativist revolution – the book is part of publisher Rodopi’s Postmodern Series – and her intense, erudite study addresses a state of disunion that has loosely bound the dwindling body of progressives ever since.
Campbell, a lecturer in literary studies and writing at Deakin University in Melbourne, opens her study by posing a seemingly innocuous, academic question: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ Despite this broad gambit, Campbell considerably narrows her focus to an analysis of just seven writers: Jean Genet, Monique Wittig, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Kathleen Mary Fallon, Kim Scott and Brian Castro. Campbell explains that she has chosen these authors for their ‘generic range (theatre, prose poetry, fable, novel), but more so by the fact all of these writers are informed by the French tradition of a revolutionary poetics.’ Generic range aside, one may observe that only Fallon, Scott and Castro are still alive, and that all of them are Australian. This is not arbitrary, but rather, at the heart of Campbell’s answer to the question she poses. While she presents some stellar examples of transgression at work in her own contemporary culture, the critical mass for broader socio-political change proves elusive. That tipping point should result from such heterodoxic practice, but Campbell’s study suggests that the mainstream has learned to co-opt and accommodate not difference, per se, but the comfort of academe. Worse, this presents an intellectual hegemony that may have learned to plagiarise the ideological dynamism of deconstructive practice to suit its own practice of destructive cons.
What is meant by ‘revolutionary poetics’? Firstly, Campbell acknowledges that it includes the material of verse producers such as Isidor Ducasse, Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. In a second phase, Campbell identifies the events of Paris, May 1968 (or thereabouts), with all its teeming intellectual energy working against the grand narratives of the day, as well as against the hegemonic collaboration of the French government with the American hunger machine – then at work feeding on France’s colonial leftovers in Vietnam. In this Paris, Campbell locates the radical post-structuralist review, Tel Quel, with its ‘cream of left-wing Parisian intellectuals’, as the place where the most culturally disruptive textual practice was in production. In short, it was an interrogation of what constitutes the self, through analysis, and how that self intersects (or intertexts) with the social realm to create a ‘better’ world, with more ‘equitable’ distribution of power. Thirdly, and crucial to Campbell’s thesis, is the work of Julia Kristeva, who incorporated key aspects of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, among others, to develop her doctoral thesis, Revolution in Poetic Language.1
Remaining mindful of Kristeva’s thesis – with Campbell’s stage directions – proves to be a formidable task for the reader; one that certainly requires boning up on postmodern terminology and jargon. Suddenly, one is confronted with terms like bricolage, carni-valesque, jouissance, scenographic, abjection, parody, mise en abyme, palimpsest, tessellations, and so on. At times, this is like being led through a Barthian fun-house by Edith Piaf channelling Susan Sontag while strung out on Janis Joplin’s smack; a funhouse whose mirrored panes belong to the theorists in an endless feedback loop of heteroglossic différance. Nevertheless, Campbell’s production is rich and compelling, and deeply intelligent. Ultimately, its rhythms and precision present a kind of musical clarity. She moves from the openness of Paris 1968 to the austerity of Melbourne 2013, using these postmodern leitmotifs and intratextual threads.
Arguably, the key finding of Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language is that subjectivity is not a static condition, and that we are each a sujet en procés (subject-in-process); caught up in an unavoidable dynamic discourse between the freewheeling, pre-lingual semiotic and the linguistic ordering and control that defines the symbolic. In order for the Bob Dylan meme – he not busy being born is busy dying – to be true, the self must constantly be in a state of becoming or revolution. But how to get there?
Campbell points out that the liberating function of the poetic – whether in the textual products of theatre, prose poetry, fable, or novel – is its call to action, to free thinking, difference and alterity. Consequently, as a preliminary answer to Campbell’s opening question, one can say with some confidence that the potential for textual practice to disrupt and subvert the grand narratives of the prevailing socio-political culture is (or, has been, up until now) profound. And, indeed, as she argues the point, ‘Kristeva sees the text’s availability to radicalism and polyphony as orchestrated by the reader’ (Campbell’s emphasis). Thus, theory is not a system but a tool, a kind of browser add-on to the world wide web of subjects in process.
Campbell takes this Kristevan dynamic and applies it across genres. In Genet’s work she shows the sujet en procés by means of abjection, parody, inversion. Campbell further elaborates on this point as it relates to Genet’s last play, The Screens, which:
reignites the sense of terror behind the theatre and all representation, which stems from the interrelatedness of life and death, of spectator and spectacle, of stage and off-stage. All these tensions are actively played out, subjected to constant mutual embedding, imbrication and inversion.
The sujet en procés is not something the textual practitioner enacts alone, but through its (somewhat) unpredictable staging in the reader’s mind. Campbell highlights it in ‘the poetics of the lesbian bodies-in-becoming that is celebrated’ in Monique Wittig’s work. In Angela Carter, one finds ‘The negation of the Erl-King will confirm for the newly liberated subject her parenthood of herself.’ According to Campbell, Kathleen Mary Fallon finds it in a kind of ‘polyphonous’ self-mockery that serves to abject herself from mate-ly communitarianism wherein lurk ‘the most violent aspects of Australian materialism, sexism, homophobia and racism,’ in an act of shedding-as-becoming. Kim Scott finds it in the ‘arsehole’ of his en-whitenment; and Brian Castro, exploring othered-culturalism in Australia, performs the subject-as-process as multiple, asymmetrical selves. Campbell suggests that the one exception to this lot seems to be Kathy Acker, who sees a corruption so devastating that all that’s left for the subject-as-process is circus, carnival, and the dirge of parody.
If the sujet en procés is the overriding theme of Campbell’s Poetic Revolutionaries, then her book argues how the techniques, methods and practices of the semiotic are the clues out of the subjective labyrinth. Campbell demonstrates how mise en abymeappears and operates in, say, Carter’s rehabbed Bluebeard fable, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, when the virginal newlywed espies her husband gazing at her with an expression of pure carnal appetency in one of the castle’s many ‘guilded mirrors’. Then, in turning away, the virgin sees herself as he sees her and understands about herself for the first time ‘a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.’ One sees here the contradictions between desire and death – Liebestod – come together in Carter’s textual victim. As Campbell further elaborates, ‘the story disturbs foremost with its emphasis on the awakening in the young bride of a desire for her own crushing annihilation.’ Similarly, in Kim Scott’s novel of miscegenation and ‘enwhitenment’, Benang, Campbell has us pause before a mirror with the novel’s subject-in-process, Harley. There, we note that the one remaining feature of his Aboriginality is his ‘arsehole.’ Campbell incisively notes:
The mirror functions like hegemony, interpellating the Indigenous subject within the dominant racist discourse. To ‘black eye’ this mirror is to resist its call to abjection and subjugation, to treat it with the contempt it deserves.
It should be noted, however, that not all critics of the postmodern find such analytically constructed moments of mise en abyme entirely convincing. Ron Moshe, for instance, details nine problems he has with the definition and function of the figure, and is persuasively unconvinced that such mirror scenes are emblematic of anything special.2 Nevertheless, Campbell’s observation is an interesting way of performing Scott’s text.
Just as Kristeva’s subject-in-process suggests an individuation that is never static, heteroglossia proffers forth a multiplicity of subjects-in-process, tentatively congealed in a kind of cultural individuation. As Mikhail Bakhtin posits:
Our ideological development is just such an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values. The semantic structure of an internally persuasive discourse is not finite, it is open; in each of the new contexts that dialogize it, this discourse is able to reveal ever newer ways to mean … (Bakhtin’s emphasis)3
Campbell demonstrates how heteroglossia is embedded in our thinking to begin with: that often we are not as ‘original’ in our ideological thinking as we like to believe we are; that our thinking in the realm of the symbolic is mediated and dialectical. This is bad news and good news: bad, because the implication is that we are largely products of conditioning, our thoughts and beliefs being part of a cultural co-dependency; good, because a secondary implication is that we can awaken from such conditioning and free our thinking. This is the work of postmodernism (just as it was the work of Socrates a couple of cosmic moments ago). All of the works under Campbell’s scrutiny – no matter the genre – shake, rattle and roll complacency and the conditioned expectation.
Perhaps Campbell’s best discussion of the power and necessity of unfettered heteroglossia comes in her discussion of Kathleen Mary Fallon’s Working Hot, where, citing feminist theoretician Donna Haraway, Campbell draws a distinction between the personal politics of heteroglossic resistance (and the need to carve out one’s own space, as it were) and that of social politics: ‘Complexity, heterogeneity, specific positioning, and power-charged difference are not the same thing as liberal pluralism.’ With its multiplicity of voices, rupturing of genre discourse and assorted registers, Fallon’s Working Hot is, Campbell suggests, a work of what Haraway calls ‘powerful infidel heteroglossia’ and, consequently, a prime example of how textual practice can work to shake up socio-political culture.
Related to this, is Campbell’s marvellous explication of how Kim Scott’s Benangexplores the way language works as a material body, that is, ‘writing as a technology of terror perpetrated upon indigenous Australia.’ Indeed, what is terra nullius if not a ‘failure’ to produce a body of persuasion, a habeas corpus in the form of a sheet of paper called a land deed? What more compelling example of the dangers of controlled, commoditised, and reified language by its ‘possessors’, than the paper lingo of colonialism? In Benang, Campbell shows, miscegenation itself becomes a papering-over of an ancient oral tradition, deeply rooted in kinship, local cadences and rhythms, by the material enslavement to paper. Harley’s body, his ‘enwhitenment’, is the message of radical miscegenation; its own silent, wordless text, a tabula rasa tragedy. And yet, as Campbell amplifies, Scott has managed to ironically, ‘masterfully’ craft a largely parodic subversion of this reality – hoiking the colonials back into their own spittoon.
In the works Campbell examines and enacts, the principal method of textual subversion is by means of staging the carnivalesque. Loosely speaking, and as the term suggests, the carnivalesque involves the staging of a second, parallel reality that is parodic, autonomous and subversive of the hegemonic. The term is derived from a nearly forgotten but then much-practiced medieval folk tradition that Bakhtin describes in ‘Carnival Ambivalence’:
Because of their obvious sensuous character and their strong element of play, carnival images closely resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval spectacles often tended toward carnival folk cultures, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play. (my emphasis)4
Of course, harkening back to Kristeva, one might also say that carnival takes place in the borderline between the semiotic and the symbolic; it is the meaning of language and simultaneously its ‘infidel’. Campbell amply demonstrates how this carnival atmosphere prevails in each of the primary and/or secondary works of the authors under consideration. It can take the form of scenographic carnival, as with Genet, or in graphological fulfilment, as with Acker, or in atavistic guises, such as with Harley in Benang, where his body itself becomes a carnival of abjection. The carnivalesque serves to undermine any notions of a stable, authoritative reality; there is no text, per se, but only the hypotheses of power, the centripetal and centrifugal pulling and held together in the atomic proximity of being. Campbell reiterates throughout her analysis that the textual practices of such postmodern works serve to liberate, and in doing so hold out the inexhaustible blessing/curse of socio-political change. In short, intertextuality and subversion are a means to getting at the poetic revolution within; becoming is the revolution.
It is not only Campbell’s analysis that is trenchant and compelling. In many places she employs some exquisite turns of expression that light up the page. She uses the term rubato at one stage to describe the technique of Brian Castro at play, but it could just as easily describe her own approach: keeping her subject of scrutiny in structural suspense with her lefty handwork, while laying down some righteous, handsome melodies with the other. For example, in describing the polybiographical nuances of Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, she writes:
Here, reclaiming cultural and ethnic multiplicity means navigating a universe of stories. The tessellation of genres, modes, and registers proposes inheritance as a relay of linguistic performances in the face of severance and exile. It suggests—through the gaps and abysses of its writing, through its phantasmagoria, its memories and its amnesia, its excesses, the compensatory tempo rubato or the stolen time of its music—that such might be the ‘grounding’, of ‘identity’, whose quest is as monstrous as it is vertiginous.
In this style, through more than mere analysis, Campbell bolsters the sublime which imbues her politics of the poetic.
But in the end one wonders if Campbell has sufficiently answered the simple, straight forward query with which she begins her analytical quest: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ As stated earlier, the contemporary socio-political culture she has in mind is clearly that of Australia. The three living textual practitioners she reviews – Fallon, Scott, and Castro – certainly have put forth transgressive works confronting issues that continue to pile up bad karma in the Australian socio-political culture: gender/sexual identity, the continued marginalisation of Aboriginality, and other-cultural accommodation. Campbell, while holding out a certain degree of optimism and continuing to keep faith with the alchemical processes of the semiotic, nevertheless provides a scathing rebuke to Castro’s reception among mainstream critics, adding what can only be seen as a massive slap-down of Australian mainstream culture:
Such is the myth of Australian egalitarianism that any difficult or ‘complex’ cultural text, whatever form it takes, is condemned by the mainstream critical apparatus as being wilfully abstruse and elitist … it is tempting to see it at once as symptomatic of the continuing mainstream distrust of intellectuals and of any who fail to embrace the feel-good myths of down-to-earth Aussie ‘belonging’, and especially those who celebrate a multiplicity of inheritance, rather than sentimentalised Anglo-Celt assimilationist mediocrity.
This is one of the few places in her work where Campbell sheds her analytical ‘diamonds and furs’, as she so brilliantly puts it in her latest novel, konkretion.1 In fact, Campbell’s konkretion is the rubato and carnival that accompanies her highly structured, academic thesis. The novel features an aging lecturer who complains about the same indifference afforded to postmodern literary experimentation and who seems imprisoned by her nostalgitations on the glory days of ‘revolution in the air’. At one point, the narrative voice of konkretion notes: ‘For some of Monique’s colleagues, poetry, and while we’re at it all of so-called literary fiction, is a right wing plot, effete, aristocratic nostalgia, a stepping out in diamonds and furs.’ This highlights one of the paradoxes of postmodernism: it liberates thought, but, at the same time, like Socrates, it is functionally anti-democratic and sceptical of popular culture, and many critics would like to see it go the way of Socrates (some argue that it already has).2
Poetic Revolutionaries would make for an intoxicating postgraduate survey course in postmodernism, tracing as it does a lineage and continuity of vital processes still at work, although significantly co-opted by rebounding structuralists who want to write a neo-liberal end to history. But postmodernism hasn’t gained the purchase on culture that Campbell wants, although it continues to be a necessary and effective tool, even if not a discernible movement. It is just such a course that is unlikely to ever see the light of day at any contemporary university in Australia, as recent academic labour tensions, followed in recent weeks by substantial budget cuts in education by the Abbott regime, make all too clear.
In the end, one wonders if the seemingly inexhaustible passion of desire expressed in language can any longer be transformative. Living in a world at war with an abstract noun (terror), under surveillance, and with democracy going the way of South Pole ice caps, people of a certain age (of which I’m one) can’t help but moon nostalgically and wonder if a 1968 is possible again – whether raining money down on Wall Street brokers, levitating the Pentagon, or sliding flower stems down gun barrels. The spring and summer of 1968 saw students, artists and intellectuals around the world begin a full-throated resistance to the doings of the Man – a resistance that grew in all the years leading up to the Nixon resignation in 1973, before being subdued again. Or is that all illusory? As Terry Eagleton prefers to remember it:
Imagine, finally, the most bizarre possibility of all. I have spoken of symptoms of political defeat; but what if this defeat never really happened in the first place? What if it were less a matter of the left rising up and being forced back, than of a steady disintegration, a gradual failure of nerve, a creeping paralysis? What if the confrontation never quite took place, but people behaved as though it did? As though someone were to display all the symptoms of rabies, but had never been within biting distance of a mad dog.3
If postmodernism still had its potency one might expect to see Genet’s The Screensbeing performed in one of the Aboriginal graveyards on Rottnest Island, with Pommies and Miners (the neo-Diggers) on stilts, and swimming there being part of the price of admission and submersion. But we hesitate like Hamlets, all ‘to be or not to be’, pondering Polonius-like memes such as, ‘Neither a Subject nor an Object be.’ Can the textual productions of the likes of Fallon, Scott and Castro find that critical purchase and subversive impact on contemporary socio-political Australian culture, as Campbell hopes?
- Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984 ↩
- Ron Moshe, ‘The Restricted Abyss: Nine Problems in the Theory of Mise en Abyss’, Poetics Today, Volume 8, Number 2 (1987), pp417-438 ↩
- Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Dialogic Discourse’, The Bakhtin Reader, ed. Pam Morris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p86 ↩
- Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Carnival Ambivalence’, The Bakhtin Reader, pp197-8 ↩
While all kinds of pieces about the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and its aftermath have been written over the years (including interviews with privileged Chinese dissidents lucky enough to make it out of China alive and into teaching posts at prestigious American universities) little – if any – follow-up has ever been done on the two most important figures in that famous image of a man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square. That dissident was staring down another human being at the controls of that tank: the tank had no ‘free will’; it did not make the decision to stop instead of crushing the man with the satchel; a person inside the tank said, ‘No,’ and that should not be forgotten, because it was as heroic a decision on his/her part as the decision made by the dissident.
So who are these Little Big People? We don’t know who the tank driver was. But, at the time of the massacre, media were naming the dissident as Wang Weilin. As I wrote in a piece at the time, ‘Our China Syndrome,’ no one knows what became of this iconic hero, with his suitcase full of – what? Hope? Sadly, he’s gone while the symbolism remains, as if the Moment were textual, academic, a mere sub-dialogue in the master/slave dialectic. We do know that Wang Weilin never made it to the West, and we know that none of those shiny happy intellectuals who escaped was the Tank Man.
As I’ve suggested in the past, you don’t need cynicism to understand that there is a very good chance that the dissident and the tank driver ended up in the same prison factory together, one passing on piece work to the other in quiet solidarity. Tiananmen was never so much a ‘pro-democracy’ struggle, as it was an anti-casino capitalism plea. Everyone knows now that democracy without a Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law is a vacuous, empty soup can; a colourful vessel without substance or sustenance.
What happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 can be linked back to the collapse of the Berlin Wall earlier that same year. For 25 years, the wall had been a symbol of the face-off between capitalist-driven democracy and socialist-driven totalitarianism, and its demise signaled the end of the Cold War. It ushered in a European rejuvenation that saw free spirits come out of hibernation – and, in Vaclav Havel’s case, out of jail – to challenge the world to take the next step forward toward a ‘global civilisation’ of tolerant co-existence.
But in America, though there was some sense of relief, the public response to the wall’s fall was rather restrained. I was living in Boston at the time and can remember most vividly that, within two weeks, the upscale Filene’s department store was selling chunks of the wall as key chains, in a kind of predator’s victory lap. Coming out of an era of industrial mergers, union-bashing, high unemployment and recession, most Americans did not see the relevance of the wall’s fall to their own lives.
Thus, in 1991, when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the former US ambassador to the UN, opened a speech on the Cold War’s demise with, ‘We won!’, Americans accepted her words at face value, but there were no parades down Main Street, USA. For most, capitalism during the Cold War era, had not made America ‘a kinder, gentler’ place. They did not hear her simple exclamation for what it was – the starting pistol at a gold rush for industrialists, who saw the wall’s fall as a symbol of capitalism’s moral rectitude and a mandate for gleeful expansion. Fast forward, and in just a few short years, Havel’s ‘global civilisation’ has been foreshortened for commercial purposes to ‘globalisation’.
So the events in China have to be seen in the light of the global changes taking place at the time, and which continue to hurtle toward an unknown but clearly catastrophic future. Looking back on the events in Tiananmen and thereafter, escaped Chinese dissident Rowena He recently wrote in the Guardian,
China lost a golden opportunity for the Communist party to reform itself and start looking to Taiwan’s example: Let people have free speech and press and release political prisoners and in this way civil society will be able to develop.
Yes, but last I heard, the US, the world’s most exceptional democracy, refuses to even diplomatically recognise Taiwan or promote its virtues, fearing a face-off with mainland China – although American corporations sure do make a nice buck there, while the US government sees Taiwan as a key strategic military asset in ‘the Asian pivot’ underway. No doubt, the US will not stop until the Great Wall has become keychained.
The capitalist ‘reforms’ to a communism with deep ties to Confucianism was bound to lead to chaos and confusion on policy levels, with age-old traditions facing with contemporary relativism and nihilism. As He points out,
Over the years the policy has led to higher average living standards, a booming economy, and a more predominant place for China in the world – but has also engendered enormous inequality, massive corruption, growing environmental problems and profound popular cynicism, massive expenditure on stability maintenance and now a sense of belligerence on the international stage.
But this is not just a China problem anymore. It’s the new global standard among an ever-growing proportion of the global population.
In the end, whatever adrenalin rush was meant to pump up shoppers globally after the fall of the wall has long ago reached its peak and we are on the stimulus-exhaustion side of the Skinner track now. What fellow former dissident Wang Chaohua says is likely to China soon will probably be a mirror of what will happen to the world. She writes:
China will have some really crushing moment in the next five or 10 years. I don’t think the party can reform itself. It has become such an entangled web of interests; you can’t get it working no matter how great a leader is parachuted in at the top. So it would be more likely that a sudden incident or economic crisis would cause a catastrophic moment. The outcome of that is very difficult to predict.[my emphasis]
So true. But while we wait for some comet-ary to write the end to human history the way it was done for dinosaurs, allow me to raise a glass of tears to Wang Weilin and the courageous tank driver, who together demonstrated that humanity is more than the trumped up fanfare of images and symbols and that history comes down to one human just not wanting to hurt another human when given the choice.
Drink up. Last call. The lights are growing dim.