Interview with Larry McCaffery
by Alexander Laurence
with Jill St. Jacques
Venice, CA -- August 1994
(c) 1994 Alexander Laurence
- Alexander Laurence:
- What is your definition of Avant-Pop?
- Larry McCaffery:
- The first time I saw the word "Avant-Pop" was
in Tower Records, when I saw a record by Lester Bowie and
The Chicago Art Ensemble called "Avant-Pop." I
liked Bowie and incidentally the loudest concert I ever
heard was a Lester Bowie concert. So I picked up the
album and the first song was "Blueberry Hill"
by Fats Domino, and Bowie did a weird twisted version of
it. I realized that he was playing with this popular
tune, improvising and opening it up to what was already
there but just needed to be let out. I thought it was
similar to what Kathy Acker was doing by re-writing Great
Expectations and stuff. That was in 1987. When I came
back from China, after I'd been gone and totally cut off
for a year, Mark Leyner was a kind of pop star. I talked
to Ron Sukenick about this and Ron said, "what Mark
is doing is something I'd call 'avant-pop'." So the
word registered again. The first time I wrote about this
was for a Japanese magazine. They asked me to write about
the post-Pynchon post-modern American fiction. I wrote in
one section about the Avant-Pop phenomenon, which was
about the increasing popularity of genuinely radical
stuff like Mark Leyner, who became a sort of college cult
hero. Burroughs was viewed as a kind of rock star (he's
even doing Nike ads now). I wrote about how it came to be
that these radical materials were becoming mainstream.
MTV is radical, from a purely formal standpoint--even the
worst MTV videos are using stylistic devices that in the
'60's would've been considered avant-garde. Now
radicalism has become a kind of cliché. In the '80's the
logic of hyperconsumption (which requires new things,
constant turnover) began to dominate, and a lot of
radical stuff was produced and then sold to mainstream
audiences. You see it on TV. Music's the best example.
Nirvana I think is pretty radical, yet Nevermind entered
the charts at #1.
In Japan I met a lot of young
writers and musicians who struggle with the same problem
American avant-garde artists face, and that is, how do
you compete with a media that is instantly able to
appropriate radical aspects of your work and put it into
a Nike ad? If you consider yourself a radical, dangerous,
subversive artist, how do you do that in an age in which
radicalism itself is so easily appropriated and recycled
as "alternative"? Right now we have so-called
"alternative radio" which we all know is just a
label, a marketing gimmick--it's not alternative at all.
The Japanese artist I met decided to enter into media
materials and transform it, fuck around with it, like
Lester Bowie did with "Blueberry Hill". So
rather than ignore mass culture and make it the enemy,
you use it for your own purposes. It's the cyberpunk idea
of using the technology against the guys who created it.
Also, the Japanese, like the Americans, realize that
popular culture is now the main source of people's myths,
notions of identity and narrative archetypes. Pop
material plays the same role that the Bible used to play
for people--it's the main referent for ordinary people.
To ignore or deny that and do your own high-modernist
serious work by definition makes it almost impossible to
reach people. If you do that, you're not dealing with the
central myths of our age. All this leads up to the book
I'm doing with Viking. In the introduction, I talk about
how Avant-Pop is a new kind of organism that has arisen
since post-modernism arose in the '50's. Post-modernism
arose concurrently with Pop Art, which essentially
signalled the death of the avant-garde. Ron Sukenick
agrees with me here, that the avant-garde died in the
'60's because conditions were no longer conducive to what
it was doing.
- In literature, the people you mentioned like Mark Leyner
and Kathy Acker are considered post-modern, and they come
out of a tradition that included Borges, Beckett,
Sukenick... How would you define Avant-Pop as being
different from post-modernism?
- Post-modernism as a label doesn't really mean anything.
Most of the supposed post-modernists are actually
modernists--like Robert Coover. We have to define what we
mean by "post-modernism".
- Modernism took place in the early 20th century, artistic
and literary movements, and Beckett and Borges,
post-modernists, were an extension of that. Then there
was another group of people in the 60s, also post-modern,
possibly anti-modernist, who were more interested in
speed culture and pop culture. But there are still
writers who are embracing slower modes of thought, who
seemed to be a continuation of Modernism.
- Most of the things we're saying about post-modernism are
already present in Modernism--like Futurism, for example.
One of the differences between the '50's and '60's
modernisms is that writers were starting to deal with the
media. Coover, Barthelme and Burroughs all recognized the
significance of the rise of the media, and that didn't
happen until after WWII. After the war is when consumer
and media culture took off. Pop Art was the first
movement to recognize this and represent it in a neutral,
realistic way. Avant-Pop isn't interested in representing
pop culture in a neutral way as Warhol or Lichtenstein
did. Avant-Pop wants to work in a more flexible,
collaborative way. Rather than showing a Campbell's soup
can in a banal, almost celebratory way, the Avant-Pop
artist might recontextualize it and turn it into a
condom, or something. One of the differences with today's
writers like Leyner and Acker is that they grew up in pop
culture. They're part of a new species, a vivisystem
analogous to what Kevin Kelly talks about in his great
new book Out of Control. Bruce Sterling sent me this book
and told me to drop whatever I was doing and read it.
avant-garde saw its relationship to pop culture as
oppositional. They were going to lead the way--it was a
movement with leaders and orders. Avant-Pop isn't really
like that. Its relationship to media culture is one of
symbiosis or co-evolution. An example from Out of
Control: there's a plant which has developed all these
defenses against bugs. But somehow, one kind of ant is
allowed to overrun this system. These two antagonists
co-evolve, so that eventually the ant requires the plant
and vice-versa. If one died, the other would perish.
That's what's happening with Avant-Pop and pop culture,
which are now existing in a feedback loop. They feed off
of and influence each other.
- Some writers today seem to fit your definition of
Avant-Pop artists: David Foster Wallace, Lance Olsen,
Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Joyce. But others, like
William T. Vollmann and Eurudice, seem to be doing
something else. Vollmann writes these heavily researched,
massive, historical novels, and Eurudice is dealing with
classicism and myth.
- Well, Vollmann in You Bright and Risen Angels is
Avant-Pop in that he deals with technology; but you're
right, he's generally not so interested in popular
culture. He's doing his own thing. Where Vollmann is
similar is in the sense of collaboration -- a lot of his
historical books are often based on earlier texts that he
opens up and crawls inside the spaces that are left
within the original narrative. His first couple of
novels, including Rainbow Stories, deal with media,
technology, and computers. Eurudice is more interested in
classical, biblical and Greek myths. What's pop about her
stuff is the freedom and playfulness of her imagination.
She's very influenced by post-structuralist theory and
also the idea of not having to "fix" the text,
the final text. It's always open ended and there are
other variations. But neither of these writers focus
exclusively on pop images.
- I thought that Vollmann's big influence early on was more
Lautréamont's Maldoror than the pop stuff. What do you
think of Lautréamont's influence in general?
- Well, Lautréamont's influence created almost a straight
line to Dada, Surrealism, Burroughs, punk, and Kathy
Acker. It's interesting how many of these Avant-Pop
writers have backgrounds as artists and painters:
Vollmann, Steve Katz... Going back further, Coover
started out as a painter. He studied at the Chicago Art
Institute. Steve Katz was very involved with the New York
art scene, he lived with Philip Glass for a while, and he
was involved with happenings. Susan Daitch started out as
a painter. Her book, The Colorist, is about a woman who
colors in the frames of cartoons for a living. I do
consider her Avant-Pop, though her first novel isn't like
that. One of the themes for these writers is the way that
texts of all sorts, including images, are circulated; and
the saturation point we've reached: the effect that has
on people, what do we do, we're almost drowning in the
sea of images and narratives. The Avant-Pop spirit is
that "more is better." Rather than decrying the
mass media, you say "This is great!" The more
stuff there is out there, the more weird combinations
you're going to get. There's more material for a writer.
The bad thing is that people just take this as it is. The
media isn't the enemy. It's doing great things for
artists, providing new things to fuck around with and
recombine and collaborate with. The bad thing is that
media, especially TV, encourages people to passively
receive it. Avant-Pop is about taking that material and
playing with it, making it your own. In my introduction
to this book I say: "Bad news, yes, the apocalypse
is here, it should be arriving on schedule at about the
year 2000. The good news is that the bad news isn't bad
news!" The changes that are taking place now, which
are apocalyptic, are not necessarily bad. A single page
of Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenteroloist is just chock
full of hundreds of little simulogical fragments drawn
from the media. The effect isn't surreal so much as
realistic; it's the way people receive information
today--it's constantly coming at you and creating weird
juxtapositions. You can see it right here on this
boardwalk. There's a Japanese tourist wearing a NY
Yankees hat, a William Burroughs T-shirt, drinking a
Heineken beer and eating sushi.
- This sounds like a modern day Babel. Unless this stuff is
given artistic shape, it's just a barrage of images and
things. For me pop culture is synonymous with consumer
culture, and if that's so, don't you have an obligation
to subvert or oppose that somehow?
- Yeah, you're right. Subversion in the connection to
Avant-Pop. The goal is to liberate people, and the way
it's done is through extreme formal methods of
experimentation. You want to create exemplary acts of the
imagination to show people that they don't have to sit
there and passively receive this stuff. Avant-Pop is not
just a celebration of pop culture. Most of these writers
are people like me, who are deeply ambivalent about it.
But Elvis Presley definitely saved my life! No kidding. I
also think Bruce Springsteen is Avant-Pop--his album The
Wild, The Innocent and the East Street Shuffle used rock
music to deconstruct rock music. But without shaping it,
this stuff is deadening. When Vollmann talks about TV as
being horrible, we know what he means. It's a
brain-drain. But we're about to enter an age of
interactive television. You'll be able to re-colorize it,
provide a different soundtrack, or enter into it
yourself. As Counting Crows say, "When I look in the
television/I want to see me". So there's definitely
still an avant-garde aspect operating here. But one
reason the avant-garde died is that it kept following a
single program of experimentation: "the new".
You had to demolish tradition. The problem was, a lot of
the traditions were quickly exhausted in 30 or 40 years,
and then you'd done everything there was to do.
- Like iambic pentameter.
- Yeah, and traditional poetry and all its methods.
Eventually, all this began to undermine the two most
important aspects of Western art: the idea of artistic
originality, and representation itself.
- Can you talk about the introduction of Avant-Pop: Fiction
for a Daydream Nation? I know you've discussed it before,
but I found your explanation more confusing than the
- The introduction was a kind of detective story. I wanted
it to not only be about Avant-Pop, but to be Avant-Pop
itself. The detective novel mode is great because of its
sexist implications, which I subverted. The usual story
involves a powerful, knowledgeable man who has a
powerless sexy woman come to his office to help find the
answer to her problem. I amused myself with the irony of
putting Kathy Acker in the role of the weak submissive
woman. I already knew that the roles would reverse in a
key scene. I would be a detective but also a literary
editor, and there'd be a clash of discourses going on in
the piece. So I asked Kathy if I could use her image in
the piece, and she said, "sure". I wrote the
first half of it and sent it to her, right at the part
where she arrives on her motorcycle with her tattoos and
black leather. There's a moment wear she slips the
handcuffs on me, and I asked her to write a speech to
Mac, the detective, and sort of read him a (riot act?)
about what a sexist pig he's been. She wrote a surreal
speech that was perfect, where she says, "Give it
up, Mac. There are no rules but the rules of the body.
Everything else is death and chaos. All there is is
missing evidence, missing people." She introduced
some bizarre sexual stuff, too. At the end, I decided
we'll have this wild orgy which will be a metaphor for
freedom and for getting out of these stupid roles. The
detective, Mac (who's not really me, of course, nor is
Kathy's character Kathy) gets to break out of this
confining, two-dimensional role. At the end, Kathy takes
off her motorcycle boots and puts on sneakers.
wanted to undermine readers' expectations about what an
introduction should be. But now I'm out of that mode and
more into the symbiotic, feedback loop idea--coevolution.
I want to strongly recommend Out of Control by Kevin
Kelly. It's a study of the evolution of consciousness in
life and how small but closely linked simple materials
interact together to create levels of complexity that the
individuals are not aware of. Examples are an ant hill, a
beehive or a flock of birds. What's producing that
movement, that the individuals aren't aware of? You can
compare this to economic or artistic systems, as well.
Avant-Pop isn't a "movement", there's no
center, it's not a top/bottom organization. You have
individual artists who work together, like ants--who
collectively produce a pattern I call Avant-Pop. The
avant-garde was parasitic to mainstream culture. But now,
it's a two-way street. And now that the radical has
become something to sell, it's harder to make the
distinction between radical and mainstream art.
- Don't you think that embracing the speed culture produces
a sort of dizzyness?
- I want to emphasize an important distinction: Avant-Pop
art and Avant-Pop culture are two different things.
Avant-Pop culture is the world we live in today, which we
moved into about ten years ago. It's the point where
everything became even bigger and more saturated. It's a
world of absolute superficiality, a mind-numbing,
confusing prison. The role of the Avant-Pop artist is to
do something with this material that will a) help make
sense of it in some ways, and b) act as a model for
creative thought. This flood of images numbs people and
takes away any sense of sincerity. It's cynical
manipulation. The Avant-Pop people are all serious
writers--they're not like MTV.
- Are Avant-Pop artists concerned with reaching the masses
in a way that a more elitist artistic group wouldn't be?
- Well, that's a problem. I'd say, without exception, that
all writers want to reach a mainstream audience. They
want to be read by as many people as possible. Look at
Mark Leyner--in 1983 he was able to publish his book with
Fiction Collective, but no literary magazine would
publish him; his stuff was seen as too weird. We
published about half of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist
in Fiction International, because nobody would touch it.
And Mark always thought his work had mainstream appeal.
But it never happened, not so much because of the work
but because it wasn't marketed...
- And it was a little ahead of its time. Sometimes people
have to catch up--this stuff takes awhile to leak in.
That's what happened with Burroughs--people had to catch
up a little before they could even begin to hear that
discourse. Mark Leyner is pretty complex, he's operating
with a system of floating signifiers, and he leaps from
base to base alternating these signifiers.
- Both of those writers are good examples. Burroughs wasn't
understood, much less imitated, for two generations. But
as to the question about mainstream acceptance...first of
all, Avant-Pop doesn't refer to poopularity. Some people
in the Avant-Pop anthology will never be popular.
- I thought the idea was to take pop culture and transform
it into a fictional web-work. The pop culture element,
the what, isn't as important as the how and the doing
something else with it, altering it.
- So there's no social agenda?
- There is a social agenda.
- There's a social agenda in the larger sense. The goal of
the avant-garde was to free people's minds. Avant-Pop
culture is a power structure that dominates people, and
this art is an attack on that sort of mind-control. I
think it can reach a mainstream audience. The way has
been prepared by punk and by writers like Leyner and
Acker. The problem is the publishing industry.
- But then it's dead. Reaching the mainstream is the worst
thing. As soon as something gets accepted by pop culture,
that means it's fitting into some hegemony of "p.c.
chic". The problem Avant-Pop will face is dealing
with elements of p.c. chic found even in avant-garde
- This is getting into tricky areas. We're asking, if
something becomes popular, then by definition does that
mean it has no power to change people? I don't believe
- No, it's just been co-opted at that point. It might still
have power, just not the same power.
- What do you mean by "co-opted"? JSJ. Absorbed
by a network of p.c. chic that isn't trying to reject the
"foreign virus" Burroughs was talking about in
his Linguistics, Language and Virus. Avant-Pop writers
are looking for their own viral mechanisms to subvert and
fuck up the system. But as soon as they're absorbed by
the system, it's time for a new way. It's time to break
the fucking p.c. codes that dominate society and continue
a form of repressive taboo.
- There's a sort of neutralization, where radical aspect of
writing or art becomes a dusty old museum piece...
- One of the good things about capitalism is that it's
blind to what it sells. It's willing to sell anything,
even that which is damaging to it--bombs, guns, whatever
you need. I'll go back to Elvis Presley, who had the
biggest single influence on American culture of anybody,
period. It was a profound, disruptive, dangerous change.
When Elvis came out in the '50's and became huge, it
opened up a new world for people, and it wasn't something
the system wanted. They hated Elvis--he was white trash,
and what he represented was sex and freedom.
- He was a sort of half-breed...there are boundaries of
race that people are beginning to transgress. Howard
Stern, for example, who I don't necessarily endorse...
- I do...
- Well, I do sometimes--it depends on whose backyard he's
pissing in. But he's part of breaking those p.c. codes.
- I don't agree with the basic premise that the mainstream
system takes you in, markets you, and then you've sold
out, you've been co-opted. It's that either/or thinking
again. The system isn't really the enemy. It's blind, all
it wants is to replicate and do more things. So you have
Elvis, who became very popular and got marketed, but he
stands for everything the system doesn't want.
- The writer Takayuki Tatsumi said in the recent American
Book Review: "Writing has to reclaim its important
sadistic role." What do you think he meant by this?
- I think he means making it painful to read! But what's
painful for one generation of writers is less so later
on. It's not a matter of being absorbed by the system,
it's that once the system "gets you," it tends
to reproduce you until you get watered down. So after
Elvis, you get Pat Boone. That happens all the time. You
have the originals: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry
and Little Richard and then in two years you get Bobby
Valens, Frankie Avalon and Pat Boone, who are copies for
mass consumption. This happened with tattoos and S/M. The
key here is recognizing that pop culture's not the enemy.
Pop culture is now the dream imagery writers use, it's a
landscape they can tap into and fuck around with. It's
the same idea the Surrealists had, and it's a huge area
that so-called serious writers ignore. Coover and
Sukenick were doing this early on--Coover's book The
Universal Baseball Association was totally ignored
because it was about baseball. And Don DeLillo, who I
think is our greatest living writer, was doing that from
the beginning with his books about Kennedy and rock and
roll. This is part of the mythology now. To ignore that
is to ignore what's going on in the real world.