Toward the New Degenerate Narrative

A literary manifesto
by Bruce Benderson

What are the compromises of the written word? This was the question I asked myself as I sat down at my desk at Holt, Rinehart & Winston Publishers in 1979 and began editing the "evolution disclaimer." The disclaimer would appear in every sixth grade science book adopted by the state of Texas. It was just a sentence or two. It said that although the textbook did discuss Darwin's theories of evolution, it was by no means an annulment of Adam and Eve.

As a marketing tool, this disclaimer was Midas's touch. Texas was one of the largest states that adopted the same textbook for every school in its system. Winning its approval meant seven-figure profits. But what made my enterprise even more bizarre was the actual text inside the book that would be stamped with the disclaimer. For over four months I'd carefully combed through it, obeying a specially prepared list of nonracist, nonsexist language that made some passages read like a software-run translation from the Martian. In fact, three entire units used only plural nouns because the nonsexist appositive "he or she" would lengthen sentences and drive up the "reading level."

How had these two absurd agendas from the Right and from the Left -- one blurring claims about human prehistory from apes and the other softening descriptive language about living humans -- come together? Years later I would cease to wonder. My absurd textbook, which also had a chapter on the reproductive system, but no "he's" or "she's," was the precursor of a new conspiracy between two former enemies. Each had its grievances against the other, yet each agreed about the need to promote certain community standards.

Today we live the full flowering of that centrist paradise. Though nobody admits it, it is the utopic dream of a very specific class. That class sees the family as the basic linchpin of the social order, which is why the Left sees no irony in gay lib tee-shirts reading, "Hate Is Not a Family Value." There is now little psychoanalytic or social dissection of this unspoken coalition. Few admit how hate and resentment keep the family's incestuous urges tensely leashed. Few point out the many instances in which the goals of family and community are set against other members of society.

The people of the Left have budged during one generation. They have turned a nationwide movement for equal rights that made great strides in the sixties into a covert class agenda. Today their discussions are likely to employ the nuclear-family rhetoric of this class. Their politics have been loaded with the psychic markers of a certain life style: polite euphemisms, nostalgia for rural space, emphasis on Victorian ideas of child protection, reliance on grievance committees and other forms of surveillance, and an unacknowledged squeamishness about the Other.

The movement for equal rights that erupted in the sixties permeated the ghetto as well as the world of the middle class. Although it addressed problems of race, gender, sex, and economics, it was also a promise to disaffected youth. It was a naive assault on everything that had been taken for granted: the monogamous sexual couple, family dynamics, and the working world. This revolt was the great hope of every suburban youth who deplored his upbringing.

What began as straightforward cultural activism in the sixties had become the new historico-political criticism by the seventies. By the eighties, it wasn't any kind of activism at all. It was theoretically entrenched in the Ivy League universities, whose deconstructionist specialists took apart politically offensive canonical texts and left the pieces scattered. The devaluation of some of the more sensual, deranged, and aesthetic texts we have began with the aim of liberation from imposed norms and ended up trapped in dusty anglo-saxon exigencies. French criticism in America has become something typically American that leaves the French shrugging in perplexity and clucking with irony. Only outsider academics like Camille Paglia ever dared to point out what was happening. As she kept hollering, the id was being boiler-plated and the superego strengthened. Premeditated restraint in language when dealing with the Other had a WASPish tea-party demeanor.

The middle classes of the Left and the Right have conspired to strangle libido, aestheticism, and lower class expression. Because political correctness neglects the embarrassing subject of class, it has been able to become the voice of one ruling class -- the homogenized suburban bourgeoisie.

Lack of class consciousness is now America's glaring, unspoken sin. There has been no voice to discuss class since the thirties, when the working class was at stake and before America became a service economy. Whether a particular voice of today's "multiculturism" has a black face, a woman's face, a gay face, or a working class background is now besides the point. All speak the language of the well-fed.

Today, for the first time in a long time in this country, the literary discourse of the Outsider has been diluted and deformed. In place of true Outsider narratives or manifestoes like Djuna Barne's Nightwood, Ellison's The Invisible Man, Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side, or Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn are sentimental researches into mythicized ethnic histories. Obscure facts about lost African civilizations or neglected female artists are supposed to fill the enormous gap left by deconstructing the canon. In humanities departments, women and ethnic minorities are taught to see their present existence as a socially mediated hallucination. Everything they experience has been reduced to being a symptom of their oppression.

This is depressing in lieu of the fact that America produced some of the world's most powerful voices of alienation: the postwar Beats. In the late 1950s, when the Beats burst onto the American scene, audiences and writers were less ghettoized. The fact that Hubert Selby, Jr., a straight man, was able to create a powerful portrait of a drag queen in Last Exit to Brooklyn brought him accolades instead of censure. The fact that macho, white Jack Gelber could portray black or gay junkies in his minimalist play The Connection was not looked on with suspicion. Nowadays conferences on gay, feminist, Chicano, or Black literature demand that the voices for these groups come from within. No one is allowed to write about Chicana lesbian experience except a Chicana lesbian.

In lieu of these hypocrisies, what is there to write about in America today? Who will there be to write It? It is my extreme and perverse point of view that the stranded world of the underclass is America's last fresh "material." This comes from the simple fact of its total deprivation. The underclass has had to create itself from the leftover fragments of American culture. It has very little ethnic history in its memory. It had to build the rituals of super-gangs, the rhythms of rap, and the cartoon legends of fundamentalist religions mostly from its own imagination. Underclass self-written "history" is a pastiche of made-up "facts," historical snippets, and quotes from the Bible and the Koran. It is the Black Israelites or the religion that was forged in prison called the Five-Percenters. Because underclass culture is hermetic, it is in some ways intensely original. Yet in today's politically correct atmosphere it is considered racist or judgmental to assert that poverty could even have a culture.

These are the ironies of the New Puritanism: about those we liberals have been taught not to speak ill of -- the poor -- there is now no language to speak about at all. Giving voice to the reality of poverty in all its lustiness, energy, and degradation has become taboo. It is actually considered a slight to a poor person's integrity.

For those who know how to write but are trapped in this prison of middle class constraints, what is there to do? In the face of a voiceless, unacknowledged underclass and a strangulated middle class I see two possible directions. Neither are forward-looking, and thus neither could be termed an avant-garde in the old Modernist sense of the word. One direction goes backward and is reactionary. The second direction is lateral.

The backward direction for literature returns to the true narrative of the Outsider -- the world of niggers, fags, and junkies. Black writing achieved its most cutting insights when it spit out the hellish truths of its debased social realities. Manchild in a Promised Land by Claude Brown and The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison were stories of degradation and rage, rather than saccharine legends of exemplary courage and forward-striving struggles. Consequently, they are still more powerful reading than the already passe Roots or The Color Purple, which easily adapted into a sentimental TV miniseries and a Spielberg movie. Perhaps even more radical are the degenerate exploitation novels of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, often written in prison and making no excuses for the life of the pimp or the junkie-- written both as entertainment and as the voice of defiance. These writers sought their own rehabilitation in writing, rather than accepting it from the prison systems and social agencies to which they were relegated. In a return to such uncompromising visions I see a chance for a true American voice.

The same goes for gay writing. No sensitive coming-out story, no tragic tale of AIDS has yet equaled the power of the picaresque tales of John Rechy's hustlers and queens in the saga City of Night or his compulsive sex maniac's repetitive story in Numbers. No one has shown the relationships between chemical chains, sexual obsessions, and word associations as well as William Burroughs's Times Square junkies. By becoming reactionary -- and by that I mean in returning to these visions -- writing would be moving backward to a full emotive consciousness of oppression.

The other possible direction for American literature today is the lateral one -- a shift into the groundless, treacherous terrain of today's underclass. I am suggesting almost a suicidal sacrifice of consciousness to these realities. Perverse as it may seem, the voices of HIV- positive inmates of prison infirmaries, heroin-high hustlers of Times Square, and the violence-addicted dealers of Los Angeles are possible literary antidotes to the yuppie feminist whiners, sentimental slavery reconstructionists, anti-porn activists, gay assimilationists, and child-abuse mythologists of today. The strategies, secret codes, impossible ambitions, and loosed ids of the ghetto are the culture of the new urban hunters and gatherers -- those who have little connection to the surveilled corporate and suburban citadels of the new intellectualism.

Street people speak of appetites and aggressions, rather than of identity. In light of this, consider the absurdity of the entire American liberal literary discourse being about identity -- about "finding oneself." In underclass life, sexual identity and ethnic identity cannot be conveniently sifted out and defined. Hunger, homelessness, or drug addiction always take precedence. On the street, everybody is a "nigger." There is a certain depth of need or disorganization at which a person will stick it in anybody or let anyone at all stick it in.

Who could write the new writing in America? Middle class Americans born after World War II will probably do a lot of it, for many are the Americans who had the comfort, security, and leisure to learn to write. They grew up in protected suburbs and were nurtured on fast food and television. They are used to instant gratification and they have not had the chance to take many chances. This repressed, disaffected, overprotected class in America is yearning for the extremes of experience and for knowledge. They are suicidally restless. They must be the new sacrificial lambs. They are blocked with pent-up rage at their parents and a vague disenfranchised feeling. They are out of touch with the reality of the lives of other classes but they envy their dynamism and vitality. They fear the violence of the inner city but they imitate its surface by growing goatees, dressing in backwards baseball caps, and listening to rap music.

Wannabe homeboys and homegirls rebel! It's time to sacrifice yourselves to the dangers of the new degenerate narrative!

Bruce Benderson is the author of two books of fiction about Times Square street hustlers, User (Dutton, 1994) and Pretending to Say No (Plume, 1990). He is co-writer of the feature film My Father Is Coming. An essay in Camille Paglia's new collection, Vamps and Tramps, discusses Benderson and his work.

[copyright 1994 Bruce Benderson, all rights reserved]

[The author is the sole owner of this copyright and holds no on-line service responsible for infringements thereof.]

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