Slash and Burn:
A Narrative Model For the Millennium
this essay will appear in print in a special number of Paradoxa devoted to the future of narrative
A Dutch "art anarchist" who slashed a Barnett Newman canvas on exhibit in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, furiously protested his arrest. His assertion was that his slashed deconstruction of Newman's painting was no less a specimen of "fine" art than the unslashed original and must be considered as such.
One of the characteristics of this delirious age of information is the parallel (but unequal) narratives that encompass us. The dominant narrative is of course well-known. It's the narrative that fashioned the phrases "Illegal alien," and "third world," and "information superhighway," and "contract with America," and "Super Bowl," and "dot com." It's the narrative that piously leaps to the rescue of the slashed-exhibited-in-the-famous-museum painting, which, when it hung unslashed and unbought in the artist's studio, was outlandish and incomprehensible.
We know that official culture employs its media, both print and electronic, to subsume us with its version of its own narrative.
Other versions - counter-narratives - are either not represented, marginalized, or deliberately misrepresented.
immoral subversion of the existing order
Guy Debord came to feel that official spectacle had spread not only through the body politic but through the body, mind, and nerve endings. Hence artistic distance and alienation were no longer possible.
But isn't art, contaminated as it is by spectacle, still pulsing? And mustn't art, more than ever, be, in Bataille's formulation, the "immoral subversion of the existing order"? Immoral because "morality" is the property of the existing order.
ivy league fecal fetish underwritten by a grant from...
How can art (narrative) subvert the existing order in eerie, giddy, hyperreal 1998? How can the artist "create unacceptable images" when the New York Review of Books advertises "sado-masochistic fetish sessions explored by Ivy League educated Goddess" in their personals; when graphic mutilation, large-scale disaster, and genocide are common TV fare sponsored by Disney, Nike, and Miller Lite; when Phillip Morris and Mobil underwrite museum exhibitions directed at disenfranchising Phillp Morris and Mobil?
bulldoze by omission
It's been ten years since I sketched out some ideas in an essay called "Guerrilla Writing." Among other things, I compared the former Soviet Union's and the US's responses to dissenting art practices. The Soviet Union, which officially proscribed impious art, strongarmed dissenting artists, and on at least one instance bulldozed (literally) an alternative art exhibition. The US pro-scribes impious art, in effect, and it bulldozes by omission. The dissenting American artist is unpublished (or published with small, poorly distributed presses) and virtually unrepresented in the corporatized media. Hence s/he is in effect unseen and unfelt: bulldozed.
find a seam, plant a mine, slip away
If the dissenting American artist wants something of her work to be felt, she must educate herself about contemporary culture, technology, ideology, and media (all of which are largely synonymous). Then, in the spirit of a guerrilla, find a seam, plant a mine, slip away. These seams are the rents, or fault lines, in the web of interlocking ideology which prevents us from being ourselves.
The mines, which issue from the artist's fundamentally revolutionary imagination, can include countering repression and the displacement of desire; countering the official validation of technology and its system of experts; countering the systematic unmooring of verbal signifiers; countering genital-based gender distinctions; the list goes on.
How does the guerrilla artist lay these counter-ideological mines? S/he looks for a juncture or seam that is relatively unguarded, or less rigorously policed, s/he plants the mine and scuttles away.
Are there fewer seams in the technoculture network than previously? Yes.
But mining an individual seam can have much wider reverberations.
parallel subjugated narratives
The new world order is so encompassed with complex-seeming technology, soundbites, and "expert" opinions, that anxious, info-inundated, overworked Americans have almost no leverage to sort out what's happening to them, let alone act on it.
There isn't, then, a contemporary audience for revolutionary art as such. This doesn't preclude more limited art-acts of, as it were, beneficent terrorism, which have the potential to spread like bush fires, but at the very least will have some small usefulness in defamiliarizing official ideology. I'm referring to narratives which are parallel to the dominant narrative, but largely invisible, marginal, subjugated, like graffiti; piercing, tattooing, and inscribing the body; displaying your spleen on your t-shirt or bumper sticker; publishing in the smaller zines (the larger ones having been mostly co-opted).
One of the most provocative, current parallel counter-narratives attempts to expropriate the expropriator by employing electronic media against itself. These are our computer hackers, phone freaks, and electronic saboteurs of various inclinations. Mostly young, they are conveniently represented as anarchist delinquents.
Even as I stroke my mouse, corporate headhunters are loitering in men's rooms and in late-night cerebral beer halls, eager to perform cooptation on vigorous young hackers: offering them six figure salaries to become "vulnerability analysts," to protect corporate systems from hacker attacks. One twenty-year-old soon-to-be-ex-phreak with a twelve-inch mohawk, explains it this way: "I can either hack a system or sit there and work for a company to help their system. Same deal, except one is legal and pays me big $$ and the other ain't and don't."
But not every hacker is subject to the sticky, prehensile corporate tongue. "Mudge," now engrossed in studying wireless communications, does it for the same reason as when he started penetrating "Windows NT" six years ago, namely to comprehend the deepest workings of technology. Mudge compares himself to the Sixties radical Abbie Hoffman: "For every Abbie Hoffman, there's a bunch of Jerry Rubins [sellouts], but you only need that one Abbie Hoffman. Otherwise the world would be a futile place."
lethal injection for the terrorist tagger
A common off-line species of counter-narrative is graffiti. All those coded inscriptions on traffic signs, freeway overpasses, billboards, busses, walls, windows. Cadres of kids, taggers, with their spray cans and magic markers inscribing their guerrilla narratives in the hours before dawn. Not only inscribing but contesting each other in code, even as, collectively, they contest the official, dominant narrative.
A current California version of graffiti consists of kids dropping vari-colored paint on the freeways, encouraging the wheels of vehicles to distribute the paint in haphazard patterns and fashion "action paintings."
This kind of subjugated, chance, or guerrilla art stands in opposition to the traditional notion of calculation, finish, and refinement.
inscribing the body
The recent, extraordinary abundance of tattooing and body alteration constitutes one of the more evocative subjugated narratives, and it has a number of determinants, perhaps including what Georges Bataille calls "alterity," a willed deviation which violently liberates a radical heterogeneity, thus separating the altered human from the cyborgian mass.
Bataille uses the example of Van Gogh severing his own ear to impress a "subaltern" woman. The severing is not in the institutionalized spirit of sacrifice to deity, but to impose a delirium which makes tangible the participant's separation from the neutralized mass. The customary, sanctioned delirium, generated by Starbuck's coffee or prescription painkillers or "liberal" artists' responses to official culture, is, Bataille suggests, of a quite different order.
One crucial determinant of body mutilation is the widescale sexual repression of our era, which has dammed the customary body outlets. We have a generation of young people who have lived their entire post-pubescent lives in the wake of AIDS.
Not the disease so much as the official ideology which represents, which mediates, the disease.
Though body mutilation in a so-called first-world Judaic-Christian culture is fundamentally subversive, it has largely been co-opted by the dominant culture, and deftly transformed into yet another media spectacle.
15 minutes for the indeterminate gendered amputee
Along with tattooing and body mutilation has been the recent emergence of previously marginalized, even outcast, minorities like cross-dressers, transsexuals, and other indeterminate gendered people, inscribing or otherwise enacting their ongoing subjugated narratives.
Many of these narratives were initially found in specialist zines, but in the continuing hoopla over identity politics and the culture wars, certain outcast minorities have also been granted their fifteen minutes in the glaring light of spectacle.
strike and spit and refuse to shop
What about bumper stickers? Yet another parallel narrative. Though it is often anti-authoritarian in tone, the bumper-sticker narrative, like the t-shirt slogan narrative, is encouraged by official culture, which produces and profits from it. Obviously bumper-sticker and t-shirt narratives are easily monitored outlets for the otherwise silenced working class.
Without bumper stickers, fast food, Super Bowls, televangelism, and the lottery, the working class might just recognize its chronically oppressed condition and strike and spit and refuse to shop.
As bumper stickers and t-shirts are promoted for the under classes, the "information superhighway" with its websites, bulletin boards, chat groups, and online monickers, is obsessively promoted for the middle class.
Minute by minute, the official online narrative, called virtual, is encroaching on real time.
In that previously-suspended, increasingly hyperreal space, the airport terminal, for example, the traveler now watches the TV monitors, or posts an e-mail from his laptop, or talks on his cell phone while browsing (surfing) through the boutiques.
(Meanwhile the airport recording repeats infinitely the danger of leaving our bags unattended, lest some intense-eyed, swarthy slip a plastique into our shaving kit.)
The traveler awaits the arrival of his aircraft, which will transfer him from one airport / consumer mall to another, where he will reclaim his air-conditioned car, settle into the cockpit, and negotiate the freeway while talking on his cell phone or listening to a CD. At last he will arrive at his environmentally-controlled condo, where he will check his phone and e-mail messages then sit in front of his computer-fax-modem.
Q: If we are increasingly being sucked into virtual time, who's minding the store?
A: Microsoft, Exxon, and the man on the phone in the Oval Office. He is smoking a Cuban cigar and his fly is open. He motions to the intern in her blue Gap dress to enter and get on her knees while he orders the Joint Chiefs to bomb Sudan and Afghanistan.
As for us? We displace our rage and passions onto the net, so that we won't be inclined to actualize them in what's left of real time, in a context that might conceivably effect change. Should we encounter a crisis, we turn away from it to the monitor that mediates it for us, dispossessing us of sight.
Hold the phone. Official culture is currently broadcasting the message that real-time humans are still part of the online equation; as in the so-called LAN (local area network) parties, where computers and young folks interface in a species of millennial rave. Without MDMA! So it's good for us too.
Four or five years from now the portable computer will be cyborg'd into the participant's flesh and blood body.
Every transaction we make online is of course subject to official scrutiny, and in the process these communications make big money for computer, software, and online corporations as well as profiting paid subscribers to the net.
I won't vouch for the freshness of Baudrillard's linen
Another parallel, occasionally intersecting, but always subjugated narrative is "dream." Dream's subjugation is of course longstanding, but has varied in degree. In our current degraded period, dream has become utterly de-privileged.
We wake up after seven or eight hours of sleep punctuated by graphic, concentrated, timeless passion and perception, and we are encouraged to repress all of it. And proceed with our stressful, programmed, mostly passionless wake-a-day lives as if the dream-narrative never existed.
Dreams are "timeless" because dreamtime narrative is mostly vertical, a-chronological, as opposed to the manipulated, horizontal, time-induced stresses of our wake-a-day.
Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and even the usually reticent Thomas Pynchon have wondered recently whether dream was perhaps our last frontier, a mode infiltrated by official culture but still maintaining a degree of autonomy which could be channeled into dissident, conceivably even revolutionary, agency via art.
It is disputable whether dream is uncontaminated, but let's assume that it mostly is. At some juncture, then, art, or dream-as-art, might re-seize its dissident potential, as happened with Surrealism and Dada. But that juncture is not now, despite the new age advocacy of "lucid dreaming." Americans will have to live and breathe the new world order for some time longer before they come to realize (if they ever do) that they're being strangled rather than succored.
Closely related to dream and yet more subjugated is so-called mental illness. Thirty years ago, existential psychoanalysts, as they were called, attempted to work and interract with mentally distressed people in humanist terms. To encourage these people to release their particular narratives of the world, which when written, drawn, painted, or sculpted, were called Art Brut or Outsider Art and were in many instances published and exhibited.
In our current repressive period, all mental aberrations are conveniently labeled biological and treated with chemicals, electroshock, psychosurgery.
The prospect that the mentally distressed person might be mounting a deep, even life-consuming protest against an ever-more barbarous, pious, profit-driven culture is dismissed out-of-hand.
Hundreds of anti-depressants and related drugs are being consumed. They are designed by the largest pharmaceutical companies, with the consultation of large advertising firms, regarding the naming, promoting and marketing of the particular drug.
HMOs fund the ever-increasing prescription of these drugs. And their reasoning is profit-centered and flawless. They would naturally prefer to underwrite a patient's ingestion of a Serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which they estimate at about 1300 dollars a year, to psychotherapy without drugs, which they estimate at about 3000 dollars a year.
Meanwhile, depressed people are treated for their symptoms, while the root causes - financial inequities, depersonalization, lack of leisure, puritanism, industrial illnesses, and so on - are scornfully ignored.
The monopolistic pharmaceutical companies share the mega-profits with the HMOs.
prozac sí, ecstasy no
Consider the distinction between Prozac and MDMA, ecstasy.
Prozac is legitimated because it is produced by Ely Lilly and especially because it transforms us into neutralized (neutered) team players. Ecstasy is delegitimated because it is not produced by a large pharmaceutical company, and especially because it transforms us into infinite lovers.
Pleasure as terror
But what about Viagra, the wildly popular drug marketed by Pfizer? Isn't Viagra designed for sexual pleasure? Only by default. Viagra is primarily designed to increase functional sexuality for men who would otherwise be severely limited by erectile dysfunction.
Pfizer and mainstream psychopharmacologists insist that Viagra is not an aphrodisiac and should not be consumed as such. Viagra is classified as a phosphodiesterase 5 (PDE5) inhibitor. By inhibiting the PDE5 enzyme, found mainly in the penis, Viagra allows the chemical produced during sexual stimulation, cyclic GMP, to persist. The longer cyclic GMP persists, the better chance for increased blood flow and thereby an erection.
The difference between Viagra and an admitted aphrodisiac like Yohimbine is that Yohimbine encourages blood into the penis irrespective of stimulation. But if the previously dysfunctional male on Viagra feels suddenly secure and confident he will naturally respond more fully to stimuli, and will even cultivate stimuli which were formerly off-limits.
The point is that Viagra can reasonably be classified as an aphrodisiac despite the knee-jerk, puritanized advisories to the contrary. Unfortunately it is very expensive and not currently available through HMOs.
Nonetheless, it is, despite institutionalized medicine's best effort at manufacturing consent, an example of using technology to eroticize technology.
A species of inside-out terrorism.
signature sounds of our period
Other parallel, subjugated, misrepresented, or invisible narratives in our midst include the homeless, the aged, and the vast, ever-increasing prison population, with its disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos.
A recent study contends that about 13.5 million Americans have been homeless for at least a few days sometime during their lives. "An additional 12.5 million have stayed off the street only by moving in with friends or family at some point, for periods of from a few days to a year." These numbers are a far cry from the officially acknowledged homeless in this country, which are usually cited as around a million.
The homeless have their own radically marginalized narrative. You see traces of it in local printouts and desktop newspapers which some homeless coalitions publish. You hear it when in the dawn hours you're awakened by the rickety scratching sound of a shopping cart being rolled across the pavement in front of your house or condo.
Along with the car alarm being tripped, the homeless person's shopping cart in the dawn hours has to be one of the signature (offline) sounds of our period.
As writers we recognize that we are committed to two quite different, and we like to think, unequal responsibilities: imagining and marketing. It used to be that we paid almost exclusive attention to the cultivation and refinement of the imagination, and left it to literary agents and other left brains to get our work out there.
That has changed in the last twenty years, especially in the last decade or so. The marketing has encroached on the imagining. Marketing has metastasized into the lifeblood and dreamspace of our imaginings. The hard fact is that if we want to get our work published it is largely up to us to do it. This means educating ourselves about who is out there, which managers make the final decisions, and how to smuggle our writing into journals and publishing houses.
Among the advantages of having to do it ourselves is doing it largely the way we see fit. For me that includes privileging the counter, abject, revolting, subjugated narrative.
Slash and burn.
Yet another macabre turn in the case of JonBenet Ramsey.
The six-year-old beauty queen found brutally murdered in the basement of her Boulder Tudor-style mansion on the day after Xmas, 1996.
Calling it "art," a Denver-area drifter admitted Wednesday to stealing the morgue log that contained graphic information on JonBenet Ramsey's death.
The drifter, M. Richard Speck (aka Randy Spears), 33, told the Denver Post that he stole the two pages from the Boulder Community Hospital morgue on the morning of April 20.
Which, as he pointed out, was Adolph Hitler's birthday.
Self-styled artist Speck gained access to the morgue by working off and on for a Denver company that contracts with morticians to transport corpses from one venue to another.
Wayne Williams of W&W Transport in Denver acknowledged that Speck did indeed transport a corpse from Boulder for the company that morning.
"Yeah, he was up there.
"He phoned and said he would be delayed because he had to wait for a man from the kidney bank," Williams said.
While the kidney bank employee, a balding, red-haired man with bifocals, named Arthur Chronic, went about his business, Speck said he stole the pages.
"I was shuffling through stuff, hanging around, waiting.
"I'd been there [the morgue] before and I'd seen it [the log entry on JonBenet].
"Maybe I shouldn't have snatched it.
"But it seemed too much like art for me not to snatch it."
Later that same day, Speck was dismissed by W&W Transport and arrested on suspicion of abuse of a corpse.
Speck had allegedly photographed corpses with signs near, or even on, the bodies that read:
Getting Fired Ain't the End of the World
Kevorkian for Surgeon General
He also took photos of a corpse garlanded with party favors.
The photos were artworks, he insisted.
He was, he said, in the process of devising a corpse scenario which would make use of the JonBenet morgue log.
He didn't say what it was.
Speck has a homemade tattoo on his left knuckles: S-l-a-s-h and a homemade on his right knuckles: B-u-r-n.
He is accused of taking the grisly corpse photos in mortuaries in the south metro area.
Littleton and Englewood authorities have filed charges against him.
He faces a June 18 date in Arapahoe County.
He said he made copies of the Ramsey autopsy page, then "treated" the copies to make them works of art.
Which he then mailed to fashionable galleries in New York and San Francisco.
The JonBenet murder case is entering its seventeenth month with no end in sight.
The Ramseys profess to have grown weary of the Boulder investigation which still has not come up with any suspects besides them.
They have composed their own investigative team headed by an ex-CIA station chief in Teheran, who has developed a "profile" of the killer.
"He [the killer] was familiar with the Ramsey house, may have had a conflict with a female, and could have recently become very religious.
"He also could have had employment, marital, or legal problems at the time of the murder.
"And he could be suffering from depression or insomnia."
The profile was published in the Boulder Open Camera and printed on flyers which were distributed in "certain Boulder neighborhoods."
Police have been combing through the files of registered sex offenders nationwide.
Drifter-artist Speck appears to conform to the profile but reportedly has an air-tight alibi. The Boulder police refused to divulge what Speck's alibi was.
Meanwhile, the Arapahoe County sheriff's office contacted a New York Soho art expert who was asked whether Richard Speck's photos of corpses and JonBenet's morgue log qualified as art. The art expert coughed twice then said:
"Official Culture is encouraged to
"But art must always adhere to the dictates of Official Culture.
"Those are the rules."