Monday, October 13, 2008

INteresting quote

Brian, I don’t care for irony in fiction, and so much popular alternative writing is loaded with irony. It’s all about safety and taking the position of being superior to your subject matter. Lots of experimental writing is linked to intellectualism, which can be very alienating, very anti-body and anti-emotion. It seems to me this is the defining difference between straight experimental fiction and queer experimental fiction. The queers who do weird stuff with words very much engage the body and emotion, and they like to push their material into places that don’t feel safe. For my writing to work, I need to go into areas where I don’t feel safe. I always start with what I want to say and then try to figure out a form that can get at it, rather than begin with form.

As far as people in general’s fear of experimental writing, beyond an obvious concern that it’s going to be boring, I think it’s a fear of chaos. We use words to organize the world, and the world is a very scary place. I think people are afraid that if they enter into a space where words don’t behave themselves, that they’ll be plunged into chaos. And in a sense, they’re right. I’m all for mucking up cultural categories and pulling the ground out from under the reader.

(Dodie Bellamy interviewed here.)


Blogger Max said...

As always, I dislike the reactionary rhetoric behind these types of ideological orientations. I think that, to some extent, it is useful to perform opposite the status quo, but after a while, this becomes a "safe" position in itself. I don't understand what makes the opposite of the status quo an inherently valuable position, why un-safety is somehow qualitatively superior to safety. I think perhaps this has something to do with a "genius" mentality, that if you make the "safe" move you may sell a lot of books and become a multimillionaire, but nobody will ever call you a genius, or really develop respect for what you do.

The post-irony debate seems stale to me, because it ignores the more interesting question, which is, why do we always go to the poles where emotion and the body are concerned? Why is it always an either/or between intense emotion and complete emotional erasure? What an extremely limiting scenario.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


A couple of points.

1. This statement is not mindlessly for "alternative" or whatever. It actually opposes a problem she sees in a lot of alternative writing. The problem with the knee-jerk avant-gardism is that it doesn't explore in the reason for opposition, which this obviously does, invoking the body and chaos.

2. I tend to disagree with most of the talk about post-irony etc, mainly because that "irony" usually means something more like slipperines of language, not-obivious-ness. That's clearly not what Bellamy means here.

3. I hate safe writing. Not because it sells but because precisely because it seems to deny what Dodie calls "chaos." Thus my interest in the grotesque and the historical avant-garde.

4. It may have something about romanticism about it - throwing yourself on the thorns of life etc - but I'm not opposed to that. I love Shelley.

5. Though all of this misses what I actually thought was the most interesting point - the connection with queer writing; queerness generally tending to be associated with performativity and drag etc.

6. Autobiography: I think many of my own interests in writing - the body, the grotesque, violence, performativity, disability etc - does have something to do with queerity. Until just a couple of years ago (incidentally when I got married) I was always getting attacked by homophobes, all across smalltown America and even in Queens, who read my foreigness as gayness. Similarly my friends have always taken a strange interest in my body and my accent. This experience of the connection between the body and the foreign language - the minor language and the weird body, the deviant sexuality - have always been very strong to me.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Max said...

1. But why do we always invoke chaos in response to "safe" writing? Why always a polar extreme? That's what I'm asking.

2. I'm not exactly sure what kind of "irony" she's talking about. The only clue she gives us is that it is a distancing effect, one in which the author takes a position of superiority vis a vis the material. Certainly this distancing effect is (potentially) annoying, in its many creative incarnations, but I'm not certain why hugging one's own material closely and creating an intimate connection with emotion and the body is an inherently valuable retort.

3. I hate "safe" writing, too. What does that have to do with anything? Why should I care if somebody wants to write a book that appears to "deny chaos"? Does this mean I should embrace chaos full-on in repsonse? I'm just not seeing why this particular response is reasonable or inherently valuable. That's the problem I have: I meet lots of writers who take these purely oppositional stances, imagining that they need to be "as far from the ideology of bad writing" as possible, but I don't even think that embracing "chaos" puts you any farther from "safe" writing than maybe half-embracing "chaos" would.

4. I think there definitely is a romantic flair to the argument, but it's also an intensely conservative argument. "Let's ditch this newfangled detached irony and get back to the good ol' days when people wrote about emotion and the body and all that good stuff."

5. I wish she had given some examples of queer writing that exemplifies her argument. I have like 20-30 Samuel Delaney books that I won at the BWR auction a couple years ago, and I think perhaps some of those would fit her definition, at least from what I've read about Delaney's work.

6. I can totally see that, though I would say that the Swedish accent probably skews especially "gay" with the average American, so it's probably not just the foreignness itself that has this effect. Erase the accent, and you're just like the many U.S. citizens who dress/look a bit different or (gasp!) ride bicycles, and therefore deserve to be called "faggot" by rednecks sitting on their porches. This happened to at least 5 different people I knew in Alabama. And they didn't even have accents.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I don't think #4 is a fair assessment of what she says. Part of the problem is of course that it was an interview so she's not really writing an essay. But I definitively know what she's talking about here.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

All I'm saying is that I think there's something conservative and "safe" about the argument that the reactionary or oppositional stance is always of value. I thought the only potentially interesting thing about that quote was the queer element. Everything else sounded like the same tired old arguments you hear about why experimental writing is so much more dangerous and provocative than "safe" writing. I didn't see anything new there. "Safe writers fear chaos" has been around for ages. When are we going to question the framework that supports this concept? Does creativity really run on a spectrum from "safety" to "chaos"? I'm not so sure it does. I think one can find safety in the status quo, just as one can find safety in whatever is chaotic. Because in order to perform a creative act, you don't actually have to embrace anything. You can make it sound like you're embracing a hell of a lot without actually doing so.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


While it is true that one doesn't have to embrace what one claims to embrace and while it's true that terms like "safe" and "chaotic" are very general, I totally disagree with you.

1. The homosexual part is not some minor side-comment. I think this is key as to why this is an interesting statement. While conventional writing tends to go to the body as a site of naturalness, the introduction of the queer body suggests a turn to the body as a denaturalizing strategy. This is very important.

2. This is of course also what Joyelle and I did in our "disabled text" manifesto. It's important to note that Bellamy's critique is not of mainstream writing, but of supposedly alternative writing.

3. If you're going to claim that the "safe" or "able" or "complete" or "natural" (of "fluent"when it comes to language) is preferable, you have your work cut out for you, because this has been a pervading ideology since industrialization, a method of standardizing bodies, languages and subjectivities, a way of creating normal and abnormal, us and them etc. Warhol might be an interesting place to start such a critique. Or Henry Parland.

4. It's possible that terms like "safe" have gotten stale, but that doesn't mean they are not important.

5. It's interesting that you say that without my accent I would be just another writer guy who gets called a "faggot" around town. Somehow the accent incites physical violence. This is exactly what interests me.

6. But also how my friends and lovers have always been preoccupied with fantasies of how my foreigness is supposedly embodied (in my smell, physical makeup, sexual deviances, diseases/health).

9:00 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Actually the place might be to those vogue dancers in the movie "Paris is Burning." How they imitate various conventional figures (the businessman etc), until it finally comes to a black teenager doing a drag version of a black teenager. Or something like that.

9:34 AM  
Blogger NPI said...

Max is right, that the idea of embracing chaos as a response to pervasive ideas of safety has been around for awhile-- at least since industrialization. The Romantics took up one side and then the other (or rather W.W. and Coleridge did).
They were dealing with industrialization, the avant-gardes were dealing with the barbarism of WWI and the effects of colonialism.
Now these approaches and ideologies are a fundamental part of Western discourse. All of my students believe in the romantic subject. Dada is everywhere. The world, the Western world in particular, is already chaotic. Textual and visual information comes at speeds and volumes we're not equipped to handle. Humans are going to organize this information into categories. If 'experimental' writing can't or doesn't want to participate in the formation of new , more egalitarian categories, then perhaps we should be afraid of it. Projects like flarf, or other forms of writing that try to represent the experience of information overload are redundant ad infinitum.

Writing that attempts to undermine all stable subjectivities just isn't useful or desirable. I agree with Max--it's reactionary. And it's boring. That said, I don't know whether Bellamy's work does this or not. There's certainly a difference between writing against heteronormativity and embracing 'chaos' or trying to create an experience of extra-linguistic sublimity. To most readers the latter is just going to look like word salad. And if that's the case, no matter how matter one wants to 'queer the discourse', such writing won't be an effective political intervention, it'll just be an exercise in self-aggrandizement.

One more point--historically there's a pretty significant correlation between 'unsafe' writers and 'unsafe' lives. Writers participating in the U.S. university patronage system really don't have any business complaining to anyone about the lack of safety in anything.

12:09 PM  
Blogger NPI said...

I should restate my last comment-- writers in the US university patronage system are generally living pretty safe lives. Of course women, LGBTQ folks and people of color are still subject to plenty of unsafe situations no matter where they are.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

1. Point taken. But I still don't see why this is valuable. You say that "this is important," but I'm not really sure why it's more important than anything else, or why it represents a particularly high quality retort to "safe" writing.

2. I cover "alternative" writing in my response as well. Yes, irony can be boring, played out, done to death. It can be a "safe" position. But I don't see what makes the reactionary, oppositional stance any less "safe," since people have been taking reactionary, oppositional stances since, like, forever. Irony itself is a reactionary, oppositional stance. People expect a backlash. If one is going to change direction, there's no "safer" move than the 180.

3. I'm not claiming that "safe" texts are preferable. Where did I do that? What I'm doing is arguing that the terms "safe" and "unsafe" are probably either completely useless or that, at the very least, they are attached improperly to texts. It seems like the person who calls texts "safe" or "unsafe" is like the fratboy sitting on his porch, who either yells "faggot!" or "Roll Tide!" at passersby, depending on how they dress and carry themselves.

4. I think it's pretty clear that the terms "safe" and "unsafe" are stale, and that they are no longer meaningful.

5. Not at all. A couple of the people I know who got the "faggot" treatment in Alabama were also visited with certain levels of physical assault. You think that "strange looking" Americans aren't getting attacked all day long? Get real. Just because a few people heard your accent and thought you were gay, or that you had diseases, or weird body issues, doesn't mean that natural born citizens aren't visited with the same, and probably worse, abuses day in and day out. You've lived here since you were 12 or 13 or something. I think it's time to give up the ghost on this whole I'm-singled-out-because-I-have-an-accent schtick. Lots of people are singled out for lots of reasons. Real homosexuals get killed for being who they are. Get beaten half to death or killed for having a Swedish accent and maybe you'll have an argument.


I'm not arguing that writing which "undermines all stable subjectivities" is bad. That's not my point at all. My point is that perhaps the 180 isn't always the best change of direction, and that actually, if you apply the same safe/unsafe standard to the reactionary stance, it falls pretty well into the "safe" category. There is always room for a backlash, and there is always an audience for it. There isn't always going to be a built-in audience, however, for something that goes off at a slant, or which doesn't base its existence on direct reaction or opposition at all. Because you have to create a fresh argument for that direction. You can't just invert the logic and turn tail.

5:15 PM  
Blogger NPI said...

I stand corrected. And I think we might be using 'reactionary' in different senses.

Are you saying that 'the 180' toward a writing that embraces 'chaos' is unsatisfactory because it addresses a very limited audience? Or because it needlessly appropriates modes from the 'historical avant-gardes'?

If one is trying to formulate an ethics of writing, as Bellamy's comment verges on doing, making those ethics intelligible to those who need to hear it (i.e. not just academic poets who are already opposed to heterosexism, at least in the abstract) would seem to be paramount. Perhaps I'm attacking a straw man here, but plenty of contemporary poetry that embraces 'chaos' just ends up circulating among academics who like to fetishize madness while on the tenure track or some other lucrative pedagogical circuit. Although it's unfashionable to say so, deliberately unsafe lives usually lead to unsafe writing. And plenty of unsafe lives are aimless and desperate.

As for Johannes's unfortunate experiences, I don't think we should denigrate these just because they're common. I think it's rather courageous of him (you) to discuss them in a public space like this. These are things feminist/queer/atypically masculine men should talk about more often, and not only through verse.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Groan. I disagree with a lot of your assertions and name-callings, but frankly I don't feel like engaging with your comment. This is in no small part because you're not really engaging with my views, preferring to fit me into a strawman-mold that you know how to respond to (haven't you posted the exact same thing before?). In particular I find it absolutely irritating that you would dismiss Bellamy's work in this way without having read a word of it.

Also: The world was already Dada during Dadaism (get it?).

And you don't get to decide who is safe and who is not.


I must have misunderstood your statement about people being called faggots in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't contradict my point. I think it's interesting how all these deviances become "homosexuality" in our culture - language, clothes etc. That's the catch-all.

As for this: "You've lived here since you were 12 or 13 or something. I think it's time to give up the ghost on this whole I'm-singled-out-because-I-have-an-accent schtick."

People get singled out for many reasons, I happen to get singled out for having an accent. Some people get singled out for having a strange haircut. I get singled out for my accent.

I think what seems to irritate you (as it does in all of our translation conversations) is that I insist on my foreigness. And the reason that insisting on one's foreigness (or ethnicity or whatever) is so irritating to people is in fact probably a large reason I even have an accent (or so a psycholinguist in Tuscaloosa told me).


7:30 PM  
Blogger Max said...


I think that the reactionary, oppositional perspective is limited, because it seems always to be kind of a default move. Instead of questioning this mindset, which we should definitely be doing, we just kind of assume that the opposite of the "safe" (or the "bad" or whatever else) is the "unsafe" (or the "good" or whatever else). Obviously, this oppositional perspective can create works of interest. Any perspective can create works of interest. But I'm hesitant to buy into the notion that somehow doing a 180, or subverting, opposing, or otherwise constantly reacting to the "safe" is an inherently "unsafe" position to take. I would argue that this is actually a very "safe" perspective, because backlash is alway supported, to some extent or another, within creative communities. What isn't so well supported, usually, is a perspective that takes you off at a slant, that doesn't directly oppose but rather changes the subject entirely.

I think that writers should perhaps change the subject a little more often.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Oh, whoa. That's Jim.

How's it going, Jim?

7:33 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Yes, you get picked on for your accent, just like others get picked on for other things. But what you seemed to be arguing initially is that you get treated worse than natural born citizens because of it. That somehow your foreignness alone puts you one rung lower than the lowest-of-the-low in America. That's all I'm responding to.

I've met a few really bitter people here in Korea, who attribute any socio-cultural malady that becomes them to their foreignness. They act as though they have it far worse than everybody else, and that their status as foreigner is not one that anybody from within the culture can understand. But, to me, it seems far more isolating and damaging to the psyche that a natural born citizen would be treated as though he/she were a foreigner. I mean, if you're from another country, then you're from another country. If things get bad, you have citizenship somewhere else. But what of people who get treated like foreigners in their own countries, and have no other citizenship to claim? Johannes. You are white. You are Northern European. Yes, you have an accent. That accent sometimes makes people treat you differently. I wouldn't have you do anything other than insist on your foreignness. But at the same time, insisting on one's own foreignness is one thing; constantly acting as though it is impossible for you to ever fit in is completely another.

I think this is yet another example of the double standard that exists for Americans and non-Americans. It's okay for non-Americans to be insular, to "insist on their foreigness." But Americans living overseas are provincial and anti-cosmopolitan if they do this.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I have never said that I'm worse off than every other person. That interpretation is strange to me.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Sure, but you constantly claim foreignness as this special case, as though being attacked verbally/physically for your clothes, or a lisp, or how you look, or how you carry yourself were any different. I think that, in the same way that many feel that issues of the body are present in an accent or a literal foreignness, issues of the body may also be seen as present in these other factors. Literal and figurative foreignness are not substantively different from one another.

9:17 PM  
Blogger NPI said...

Hey Max, what's up?

"I would argue that this is actually a very "safe" perspective, because backlash is always supported, to some extent or another, within creative communities."

It seems that your criteria for 'unsafe' is literature that is unsupported by anyone at the time of its composition, or completely alienates its potential audience, but is influential later on? Like Lautreamont?

I don't think 'unsafe' poetry can exist in the U.S. given the lack of cultural traction *any* poetry has. There's nothing worthwhile to react against in the first place. Maybe someone like Peter Sotos is 'unsafe', but I don't think he writes poetry (god, i hope not) and certainly shouldn't be read by anyone.

Most poets in the U.S. should give up, or move elsewhere. The U.S. is a terrible place to be a poet.


I was only responding to a small fraction of Bellamy's 'work,' that which you posted on your blog.

As for your manifesto, well, I'll hold back on the name-calling. You're conflating a process with prosthesis, which is a pretty large, and willfully irresponsible, category mistake. If we apply the analogy in reverse, aren't you suggesting that those with disabilities should embrace and advertise the events that caused them to be disabled?

10:17 PM  
Blogger Max said...


I think what I'm proposing is that "safe" and "unsafe" are not very useful because they don't describe their targets very well. Much of what is considered "unsafe" is actually very "safe." What use are the terms if there is this kind of slip and slide to them?

10:31 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Not that I necessarily have a problem with terms slipping and sliding. But my problem is that this safe/unsafe dichotomy seems to go completely unquestioned. If one thing is safe, then it's opposite is assumed to be unsafe, and I just don't think that's the case. There is a certain safety to adhering to either pole of an oppositional ideological debate.

I guess my question would be: why don't more people, when they encounter something that doesn't mesh with their taste, just turn left and change the subject? Why does it always seem to be a case of opposing that which we don't like? And I think the answer is because it's an easy, automatic response. The parking space you want at Olive Garden is taken, but the one behind you is available if you put the car in reverse. But why not just say "fuck that" and go somewhere else? I think oftentimes, people are doing this back and forth over content that just isn't interesting. Why doesn't anybody ever stop to ask themselves why they decided to eat at Olive Garden, of all places? Why not go somewhere else?

11:40 PM  
Blogger K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Johannes, I confess that I haven't read all 20 comments in the comment stream, so this is a response to your post only. I'm not sure if you are drawing a connection between irony in mainstream contemporary fiction and intellectualism in experimental writing--irony as alienating? I'm wondering which writers/novels/stories/books/poems would illustrate this connection I think you're suggesting. Or even if you're not suggesting a connection, what kinds of writing would be the counter example to, say, Dodie Bellamy's work? As always, thanks for your thought provoking posts.

8:35 PM  
Blogger K. Lorraine Graham said...

Oh, good lord, this post was a _quote_ from the interview. That gives me a context I understand, at least. I suppose my question still stands--I'm curious about your opinion relative to Dodie Bellamy's.

2:27 PM  

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