Sunday, 25 November 2012

"Let Me Explain Myself": Text, Modernism and Concept in Literature

I have just self-published three ebooks of which I am very proud through my new imprint 79 rat press (details and free downloads at the end of this post). These books have caused me no end of problem with one of the thorniest issues in modern art, that has begun to blur over into literature – the question of the text. Interestingly, the problems I've had placing this article elsewhere further highlight the issue.

At the height of Conceptual Art, the accompanying text (as distinct from the often gnomic but frequently none the less blunt title) often provided more substance than the concept-provoking “art” itself. Writing the books All of These Taxonomies are Political, Download Steve Roggenbuck for Free, and The Impossibility of Poetry in a Universe Geared for Entropy I felt every one of the pressures that were brought to bear on conceptual artists and one or two from the literary world.

All of These Taxonomies are Political originally had a one page foreword that amounted to a “text”, a hermeneutic key for unlocking what was happening in the following pages – “what’s this? 91 pages and the only words are cock and cunt? I’m stuck, oh, thank goodness you lovely author, you’ve given me a key.” You can see at least one problem when it’s put like that. It’s rude, and it’s patronising. It says “dear reader, you are too stupid to see that there might actually be a reason for this and far far too clueless to begin to wonder what it might be.”

But there’s a possibly bigger problem related to the question of the death of the author, and the possibility of starting to “explain” what a book “means” or is even “trying to do.” I don’t believe for one minute in the death of the author. I’ve found every explanation I’ve heard something close to hogwash, but it’s still there. The elephant in the room. “You’re playing with the connections between rhythm and mood, form and content, geographic position and hierarchy, gender and body, sex and identity are you? That’s nice, and I should care why?” Now, personally I find that as patronising to the author as the first comment was to the reader. And perhaps I should tackle the subject head on by reinserting the text as my way of saying “well this author isn’t dead.” I have decided not to. I have even removed from one version the injunction that the limericks should be read aloud (and even the fact that they are limericks), and this has caused massive anxiety –of teh “what if that means *no one* gets it?” kind, but I’ve decided to ride with the anxiety. Not because I want to sidestep the question, but because I want to let the text stand and see what additional concepts it throws up by not chaperoning the reader. And for the altogether more borrowed-from-YBA rationale of “why do in a text what you could do in a series of media interviews?”

With Download Steve Roggenbuck for Free the problem was further complicated by the referentialism. Steve Roggenbuck’s Download Helvetica for Free is one of the iconic moments of the alt lit movement. If people don’t know that will they know where to start? And unless I tell them, will they notice that in the 150+ pages I have written Steve’s name in every Microsft Word font except for Helvetica? If I even start talking about it, am I in danger of making the whole book seem nothing more than a one line joke? IS the whole book nothing more than a one line joke? 

Interestingly, I haven't felt this problem with The Impossibility of Poetry... That in itself bothers me. Is it too simple? It is certainly accessible. The title is an obvious flipping on its head of the optimism of Damien Hirst's The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living. And the book itself overtly references Magritte's Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe (though I am not so much talking about simulacrums as the specificity and isolation of every perception). Does that make it less serious? Or more so? I don't honestly know.

Now of course every author has these internal dialogues – will people *get* it, will they see what I’m doing, will they spot the references to deleted scenes from my favourite John Cusack movies? In my experience, in self-published the anxiety is magnified tenfold, because of our natural insecurity that our work will not be give the attention, scrutiny or intellectual credit that a regularly published author is. On the other hand we hear critics telling us to put the book out into the world and shut up about it. As though once we have published it, everyone is part of the debate except us. For those of us for whom writing is a political endeavour that seems very strange. I don’t write to throw detritus into the discursive soup and let it breed whatever cultures it may. With these books in particular and my next, All the Errors that Remain Are the Author’s Own (a book using only one word, “copy” but using all the punctuation and formatting from Helene Hegemann’s cult novel Axolotl Roadkill), I want to contribute to loosening the bonds of our linguistic assumptions to the extent for creating what Luce Irigaray would call the creation of a new language, a language where words are what she would call “angels”, shuttling endlessly and unconnectedly between subjects, emptied of all content but that which each subject seeks to impart to other subjects. They are part of a Poetics of Hope, and the attainment of that Hope means far more to me than the books I have chosen as tools to lever it into place and the concept of “the death of the author” feels like another piece of false-consciousness-inculcation designed not as part of the critical discourse but as part of the structure of a discourse designed to quell hope. But of course those who would have me acknowledge that whilst I may not have fallen over yet I am, indeed, dead have the perfect riposte – that it’s not my place to say that. And so we carry on circling around each other and the only thing we have in common is the text.

And perhaps it is for that reason, that it is the umbilicus linking us all, that I have let the text go out untexted, not to cede ground, but to offer it, in the hope it might be accepted as a Trojan Horse.

I hope you will download, and enjoy (if that is the right word) the books.
all of these taxonomies are political
download the pdf for free by clicking the image above. all other ebook formats are downloadable for free by clcikling this sentence.
An experimental modernist collection of 512 limericks.

This book is an examination of the depth to which the associations we make are hard-wired into us, and the lengths to which we are pushed if we want to free ourselves of these associations.

It puts the question whether we can tunnel so deep inside the constructs that constitute our world, surround ourselves and familiarise ourselves with them so much that they become first banal, then meaningless, then empty, and finally receptacles for our own making of the world anew.

That is to say, it puts the question of the possibility of hope.

I have chosen the limerick format because to many early twenty first century readers in the Anglophone world it is both the most familiar form and that whose association, of jaunty rhythm and glib content, is the one we recognise the most easily. It is, therefore, our perfect Virgil to lead us through the Underworld of ever deepening assumptions of necessary connection that are increasingly hidden from us, where our consciousness of their necessity is increasingly fixed and increasingly false. 

download steve roggenbuck for free
 click on the image above or on this sentence to download the free pdf
"steve roggenbuck" printed in every font on my computer's version of Microsoft Word (except for Helvetica [except on the cover])

the impossibility of poetry in a universe geared to entropy

With a gentle nod to both Damien Hirst and Magritte, this examination of the nature and possibility of repetition asks whether any two experiences can ever be the same, and what that means for the impossibility of communication or escaping from the prison of our own perception. And asks whether maybe that prison is actually what sets us free, and offers a flashlight of hope pointing the way ahead to the possibility of a poetics of hope. Click the image above or anywhere on this sentence to download the pdf for free.


  1. Oh, very interesting. VERY INTERESTING. So many points to think and talk about. Right here, right now I just want to say that 'this author isn't dead' is both a great title and a great rationale for any kind of explanation about what you're trying to do (though obviously not ALL of what you're trying to do) Also I think that no one ever 'gets' it (sometimes) and sometimes some people might get it and that it's what we define 'getting it' to be that can be important in the communicative interaction. Finally - for now since I think it important to stick to a magic triad of thoughts - I DO think it is a GREAT idea to WRITE ABOUT the works that you've written. Maybe not explicating the text in the text itself BUT certainly SOMEWHERE so that more folks DO have a chance of getting it. Or getting something.
    But I'm with you buddy. Today I'm thinking that either no one LIKES my writing or no one GETS my writing but I'm afraid I shall resist turning that into my writing isn't worth doing OR the author should f**k off and do something else with her life. The key key key is to communicate. Somehow. Somewhere. With someone. It IS possible. Sometimes.
    Keep up the great work Dan. You rock! And I say that even if I don't 'get it' because I get something and I think maybe there are many its to get!

  2. "This Author Isn't Dead" would be a fabulous title for an event, yes! Wonderful idea!

    And yes, I think you're right - writing an explanation of the text but not in the text is the way to do it - which fits with my continued disgruntlement that as self-published authors we seem to be afforded fewer forums to talk about our actual writing - I can't imagine Will Gompertz or Melvyn Bragg sitting across from me in a chair saying "so, Dan, tell me to what extent you took your cue from Derrida when you decided to write 512 limericks entirely from the words cock and cunt"!
    Yes, keep going, keep communicating, keep putting out there work that is worthwhile and keep - and I'm ever the Pollyanna - hoping!

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