600 Years Of Defiant Pose
By Richard Marshall.
Kathy Acker has a character say in Empire of the Senseless:
Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalises and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning. But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalisaing institutions … Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes.
This was at the fag-end of the 1980’s and her sensational writing’s anti-authorial, anti-purist, anti-linear, anti-referential and deeply linguistic character was something in the air then. It was an update of Joyce’s ‘polyglottal’ ‘Wake’ project, a sexier, more chic version that works with and through language, a clash of two codes, textual and bibliographic, but with a further density to the polysemy and plurivocity added, that of a fragmented elucidation. Acker and others – Bill Burroughs was another clear example – were writing monsters of subversion where theme, narrative, character and plot were their targets. Words were no longer subject to the equation that they meant just one thing, or even one cluster of things. Meaning was now just an effect of language not of anything lying within or behind it. Authorial intention and determination was eroded and instead labyrinths of possibility and acrostic sampling were being produced in a kind of hip, punk slippage to indeterminancy. The improvisory, intermedial experience of reading became a biological-emotional state of hyper-real decision making and play.
So this was in the air and all around at the end of the eighties when Home wrote ‘Defiant Pose‘, if you wanted to find it. If it was true that the novel was still a subject for polite conversation, as Philippe Sollers wrote in 1983 , it was equally the case that there was a lot happening that wasn’t subject to polite conversation, not least Sollers’s work. But with Burroughs and Acker you got a whole set of taboos being written in not just in the form and structure but in the subject matter too – child prostitution, intergenerational sex, interracial sex, brother sister incest, homosexuality, rape, murder, revolution, criminality as nation building and nation building as criminality, anti-imperialism, torture, S & M, terrorism, drugs and other defences against ‘institutionalised meaning’, as Acker puts it in ‘Empire‘. And with ‘I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac‘, “Florida‘, ‘Kathy Goes to Haiti‘ and ‘The Adult Life Of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec‘ you get in your face passages like this to outrage and scandalise the polite:
I absolutely love to fuck. These longings, unexplainable longings deep within me, drive me wild, and i have no way of relieving them… These I call them nymphomaniac times have nothing to do with (are not caused by) physical pleasure, for my cunt could be sore, I could be sick, and yet I’d feel the same way. I’ll tease you till you don’t know what you’re doing, honey, and grab; and then I’ll do anything for you.
These hilarious ‘porny’ shockers were imagined as part of an imagined opposition to a global capitalism, and to a sense of Islam as a valid possible alternative: ‘I thought for Westerners today, for us, the other is now Muslim. In my book, when the Algerians take over Paris, I have a society not defined by the Oedipal taboo.’ What Acker et al proposed was a nihilistic anarchism, a revolutionary pirate ethos where: ‘Sailors leave anarchy in their drunken wakes’.
And then Home comes along. Stewart Home’s Defiant Pose points back to the normalizing institutions in the art world. Rather than deconstructing or intervening Home attacks the codes themselves by using language that is forbidden and threading a narrative around the codes he’s out to torment. He does exactly what Acker says anyone should do to break the codes: he speaks ‘… precisely that which the codes forbid.’
The shock is that the very codes that Acker and Burroughs use are the ones he targets. Using very precisely what the codes forbid he rewrites them in order to target the anarchy and nihilism that inhabit them. Why? Because no less than the polite novelists Sollers condemns, Home sees the radical anarchist and nihilist codes as no better, no more liberating and anti-authoritarian, than the non-arty, non-radical codes against which they position themselves. In fact he goes further than that and calls out nihilism and anarchism as adjuncts to a nasty right wing politics. Home calls out the radical politics of the nihilist anarchists as toxic fascism, and does so using the very techniques their art writing proponents use, turning them against themselves to devastating effect. So ‘Defiant Pose‘ is a slick subversive operation against a prevailing subversion, unmasking a poseur fascism lurking within the meanings of avant-garde writing.
Of course, Acker was always going to be a target once, despite all her efforts, she became so easily definable and identifiable personae. As the ever-insightful David Vichnar puts it: ‘This, perhaps, is the ultimate terrorist (i.e. aggressively disruptive of the status quo) act of Acker’s work – neither its adumbration of ‘the anarchic dictate of the individual heart’, but its foregrounding of the processes whereby it will be re-appropriated by the contexts, relations and institutions it seeks to oppose.’ And Vichnar quotes from Empire just to show how Acker was wise to this:
Any revolution, right-wing, left-wing nihilist, it doesn’t mater a damn, is good for business. Because the success of every business depends on the creation of new markets.”
He drummed his left finger into the table.”Do you know what human death means? It means disruption.”
drum. Drum. “Disruption is good, necessary for business. Especially comic books.
Anyhow, one thing that Home writes to expose is rad chic politics and its tendency towards vanguard politics and art. He sees vanguardism as just the way authoritarian-minded groups take power in the name of some higher or deeper insight than the rest. By claiming access to deep knowledge and praxis they inhabit a metaphysics that holds that actuality lies behind what is seen on the surface, beyond anything empirical science could possibly know. They are metaphysical Realists. This is an old tradition in philosophy and was what the Enlightenment attacked and the Church defended. So in Home’s work there’s a big picture needed. What follows is just a thin slice of that picture, one that points to certain elements and which, inevitably, ignores others. I guess it seeks to expose some of Home’s more oblique peripheries.
Thus, 25 years since its explosive entry into the underground scene Stewart Home’s detonating ‘Defiant Pose’ can be seen for what it is, a hardcore version of the great debate about Universals that rocked the 14th century and brought about the great revolutionary paradigm shift from agrarian to industrial society. You don’t need me to go through the hilarious sex and violence detourne of Richard Allen tropes that are familiars to most of us by now. But the 14th stuff may need a some additional guidance. Home’s book takes issue with the metaphysical Realists. He’s on the side of the Nominalists. So it’s an avant-pulp novel about the conflict between 13th and 14th century Realists vs Nominalists transposed into the London of a quarter of a century ago, a conflict that was actually a shadowing of the great changes that were redefining Europe from the fourteenth century onwards and helped bring about modernity. If you glance at Home’s oeuvre it’s obvious that this is one of the most sophisticated, stylish and impressively intellectual writers out there, never endingly interrogating the foundations of the way we are now, and pointing to escape routes. If sometimes the critics get him absolutely inside out and upside down then that’s no fault of Home. He’s of the mind to see the last banker strangled by the entrails of the last policeman and the establishment of a Black Atlantic love island somewhere near Doncaster. It’s a heady brew.
Nihilists and anarchists are his metaphysical Realists. They are opposed by the Nominalists. Let’s see what this is. When Jerome of Prague was up for heresy in 1410 one of his former students claimed that; ‘We heard him say in a sermon that there is a universal ass.’ Asserting the actuality of a universal was the Realist position: denial was the Nominalist. Jerome of Prague was a Realist about universals. Hus, Stanislav, Zojmo, Wycliff, Anselm, Augustine and Plato were with him on this. They went around looking at all the individual asses they could find and agreed that they all partook of the one Universal Ass. On the other side were the Nominalists who denied that: only individual asses were actual. Individual asses shared nothing except a general word, ‘ass’ that was just a technical convenience that didn’t correspond to anything beyond each actual individual.
For the Realists universals are actual substances independent of any human perception. They are timeless, changeless and not susceptible to mensuration, manipulation or experiment. Individuals are just their accidental features, merely temporary and transient manifestations of a supersensual, unchanging metaphysical reality. Given that truth was unchanging and independent of human thought universals were the proper domain of the seeker after truth. And a scepticism about actuality followed from this: any ass that didn’t have the Real Ass as its essence wasn’t a real ass after all. What we see as an individual ass are just accidental features, the perceived qualities of the One True Ass. For this reason Realists distrusted outward appearances because there may well be things that appear to be asses but aren’t. Realists could be extremely dubious about outward appearances because of this, and gave them a good reason to discount evidence when it was convenient to do so. It was a perfect metaphysics for corrupt power. No reasoning based on empirical evidence could ever deliver knowledge of actuality. Holy Empires were based on this. Anti-empiricism is what Acker recommends in the quote cited at the start of this article. What Home points out is that anti-empiricism is a key element to absolute authoritarian rule.
The Nominalists had a different take on asses. Duns Scotus in Paris was the starting point. He made a distinction between the knowledge and action of mankind based on the inscrutable will of God, on the one hand, and the knowledge and action of humankind based on human reason alone, on the other. William of Occam, Marcilius of Inghen, Buridan (the guy famous for his famous Ass puzzle) and John Maulfeld took this to show that there were two kinds of cognition: revelation and rationisation based on sense-perception. And two kinds of truth: truths of faith and truths of reason. For these guys they might agree that the ass was true in faith but false in reason and so on. The Nominalists, following from Occam, were able to focus on the perceptible: they were more interested in finding out about the individual asses rather than worrying about the asses’ essence. Mysteries and theologies were put to one side. ‘I love that ass and I’m not going to even ask if it’s real’ they’d say, scoffing at guys like Bradwardine who wouldn’t go near an ass unless he’d worked out whether it was real or not. They left Bradwardine, Luther, Calvin, Wycliff et al to work on the theological mysteries, to say what freewill, predestination, transubstansitution were, because they thought all of those things were beyond reason and could only be understood through faith. Which meant they would keep their hands and eyes on individual asses, asking only about what could be discovered by human reason and perception alone. Not that this left them as cold, inhuman calculus machines. Because the theological depths, the essence of all asses and the like, were unfathomable mysteries beyond the calculation and rational understanding of any human, some Nominalists were mystical. For example Gerson was both a Nominalist and one of the big-hitting mystics of the fifteenth century. This, by the way, helps explain why Home is both a caustic Nominalist, cutting away any superstition in generalities and universals that allow policemen to deny that films showing them beating up protesters are actually what they seem to be, whilst also writing about mystical and alchemical love to assert hope despite the evils of suffering.
Nominalists weren’t interested in the invisible essences. So they were able to call out all the in-your-face wrongs, wrongs that were right there in front of your eyes. The Pope’s Church machine was their focus. Nominalists attacked its obvious, perceived corruption. They focused on rites, ceremonies, vestments, sacraments, canon law, jurisdiction , its disciplinary and financial machinery and they demanded reform, judging men and institutions by what they appeared to be rather than trying to work out the workings of their inner souls. They reckoned that if it walks, talks, quacks like an ass then it’s an ass. Sod it if it says that deep down it’s a Bishop.
So when Wycliff came along and said that dominion is based on Grace the Nominalist masters of Prague resisted this: it was nonsense because prelates and magistrates exercised dominion irrespective of their state of Grace. If it was possible to be true even though it was blatantly obvious that individuals exercised dominion without showing any evidence of Grace then this was an anarchical doctrine. With this doctrine, black can be white, good bad and so on. Anarchists get to go beyond what their senses tell them. Nominalists saw this as a way of twisting the truth and a charter for corruption. So they thought Hus was right to condemn John XXIII for murder, adultery, simony, corruption, heresy because these were verified by rationalised empirical evidence or testimony based on such. But they thought it was wrong for Milic to call Charles IV the Antichrist because how could anyone know that?
Nevertheless, Nominalists were moralists, ready to profess obedience to the Church. Matthew of Cracow attacked the Papal Court as clearly as Wycliff and more rudely than Hus but like Occamists and Scotists he didn’t question faith. Why not? Because human reason was no weapon against faith. They didn’t get burnt at the stake but their reforms were much much less significant than those achieved by Hus, who did. Matthew of Cracow was actually a bit of a scum bag. He took a fat bishopric at Worms and become a bishopric of the first order, a hypocrite attacking those moralizing Nominalists he had formerly applauded. But just because there were bad egg Nominalists doesn’t mean the approach was in principle corrupt or corrupting.
On the other side the Anarchist Realists believed that human rationality could track the universal reality. This implies a faith in the rationality of the universe. Their reforms went further than the Nominalist reforms: they were out to reform what underlies phenomena. They were going to the deep essences of things, the fundamentals. In 1412 Hus developed this revolutionary Realist thinking, seeing the corruption of morals identified by the Nominalists in the late 1300’s as merely manifestations of a deeper malaise, an error going to first principles. Wycliff, Hus and Jerome went behind the adinvenciones hominum addressed by the Nominalists and put out the secret corruptions of motive and character that lay behind them. This is the basis for all vanguardist, Idealist dictatorship. If the fact that it looks, sounds, quacks etc isn’t enough but requires invisible reality specialists then obvious corruptions can be ignored. Nominalist Peter d’Ailly said to Realist Hus: ‘We cannot judge in accordance with your conscience, but only in accordance with what has been proved and deduced against you and what you have confessed.’ There could not have been a Reformation if just Nominalists had prevailed, but Nominalism is what paved the way for science, evidence based trials and so forth, the formal basic constituents of our modern world, by clearing away the doctrine of underlying, hidden, imperceptible depths that legitimized claims to absolute epistemic Authority. Nominalists Duns Scotus and Occam were the starting points of this. Realists Anselm, Augustine and Aquinas offered cognition not mensuration, metaphysics not physics, eternity not appearances, souls not bodies, ideas not things, species and genera not individuals. The Oxford Franciscans led this anti-Aquinas movement towards rational skepticism and empiricism. The development of Maths in Oxford was crucial, and the experiments of Roger Bacon. Duns Scotus was an Oxford Franciscan. He thought God was super-rational so believed the sensible world susceptible to rational exposition and comprehension. He shifted away from the deductive logic of Plato and Aistotle and claimed only syllogistic logic applied to the perceptual world.
Duns Scotus thought people had freewill and Nominalists followed his teachings in Oxford, Paris and Cologne. Durand of St-Porcain and Pierre Auriol restated the Nominalist position that there were only individuals: making the point again that universals were at best just useful fictions. William of Occam in Oxford, Paris and Germany agreed. Faith was beyond rationalization. Any theological claim was just a matter of faith. Adam Woodham and Robert Holkot were Oxford Nominalist mystics whose mysticism was founded on this sharp distinction. At Prague University German, Silesian and Polish masters worked out religious practices based on this. In Paris Nicholas d’Autrecourt denied the existence of universals and explored atomism and causation. Buridan concluded that all ethics must be relative, went anti-Aristotelian to explore motion, mass, density and argued that the universe is a vast machine governed by mechanical laws. Aquinas’s system of intelligenciae motrices was doomed. Albert of Helmstedt the Saxon used skeptical empiricism to work in physiograpy. Nicholas of Oresme went down the road towards Copernicus, Galileo and Newton and saw mass as being the determining factor in any astronomical system. Outside of Paris, Buridan set up the University of Vienna. Albert of Saxony was its first rector and Bishop of Halberstadt from 1366 to 1370. Marsilius of Inghem went to Heidelberg in 1384. Nominalism was on the move.
Interestingly, Prague University was a Realist stronghold as all this happened. A narrow Czech nationalism gripped it. Indeed, as universities became increasingly nationalistic during the fifteenth century, Nominalism was cramped and slowed down. Occamists became bewitched by syllogistic problems of their verbal logic, alchemy got in the way of physical speculation and astrology messed with astronomy. The belief in the universal ass therefore was one of the things that slowed down the eventual triumphs of both the Reformation and the Renascence. My point here is this: there is an interesting conflation of the realist position and Nationalism that again surfaces in Homes’ defiant prose. The chief targets of his book are Anarchism/Nihilism and toxic nationalism/fascism. This explains why this battle between Realists and Nominalists cuts across what might have been thought a more obvious link with Home where the reforming Hus and Wycliffe, or the even more revolutionary Cathars, might have been thought to have been more to his taste. But Home’s iconoclasm doesn’t track a conventional left trajectory.
Homes’ book gives us the down and dirty low down on the later day Realists as they assert their anarchistic beliefs as a toxic brand of vanguardist politics. As Home says: ‘What I was doing in Defiant Pose – and my subsequent two novels Red London and Blow Job – was using fiction to explore the relationship between anarchism and fascism…. I deployed the “avant-Garde” cum “post-modern” techniques of bricolage, collage and montage, to create the text of Defiant Pose. .. I am interested in exploring exactly what forms of false consciousness draw Terry Blake towards his nihilistic world view or “Weltanschauung”.’ This is a novel of ideas, a book that thinks, and it’s focus is on themes that continue to be urgent.
Home’s take on nihilism/anarchism is clear: ‘ … one of the most obvious flaws of nihilism is that in general it pretends to be critical of everything without ever questioning itself.’ And the link between nihilism/anarchism to the Realists I’ve described above is straightforward in this: ‘ Since nihilism’s adherents tend to wrongly imagine themselves to be operating at an omnipotent remove from the world, and fail to comprehend that ‘extremism’ is relational and not rational, their “opposition” to the “mainstream” liberal bourgeois order often results in them becoming embroiled in reactionary political and cultural beliefs and activities. Obviously real opposition to this world entails going beyond the false oppositions of nihilism.’ Nihilists can ignore empirical evidence because what they are addressing are the inherent invisible essences of the situation. Unlike their opponents who know only the individual ass, they know the Real Ass. In this way they are in touch with the very essence of the asinine.
The fascist element in all this is fascinating and as violent nationalists are getting their ‘Sturm und Drang’ on once more the malformation and externalisation of the fascist ego parodied by Home in his novel twenty-five years ago is a hot topic once more. Far-Right Ideologies, both secular and non-secular, are no longer underground. Half-baked Nazi aesthetic provocations are everywhere. And it’s interesting that Realist resistance was floated on the back of nationalist feelings way back in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. You see it when Prague University moved to weaken the influence of Bavarians, Saxons and Poles and increase that of the Bohemians.
A speech by Realist Jerome of Prague during his trial at Constance in 1416 catches the crazies:
‘I am condemned by none but my fellow Bohemians, the German Bohemians; the reason for their hatred is this: the Czechs are descended from the Greeks, and as there was hatred between the Greeks and the Teutons, so it continued until the kingdom came into the hands of the emporer Charles IV…. The lord Charles, wishing to endow the Kingdom of Bohemia and the city of Prague, founded and built a university there…The Germans were in complete control of the University of Prague and all of its benefices; they held the seal of the foundation and all the insignia. Also they had three votes in the university, namely the Bavarian and the Saxon and more than half the Polish vote for the Silesians, who were reckoned among the Polish nation, were all Germans, so that the true Poles were only a minority therein. Whatever the Germans wanted in the university was as good as done. The Bohemians could do nothing.’
So nationalism became a reason why a Realist metaphysics predominated in Prague University back then. The ugly battle between Czech and German was a factor behind the Czech’s supporting Matthew of Knin, accused of the Realist Wyclffite heresy in 1409. Stewart Home had his finger on the pulse in this drama twenty five years ago and so was going further than a lot of writers even back then. McKenzie Wark has written an intro to the new edition that makes all this a bit plausible, first picking up the anti-Idealist, anti-Hegelianism of Home’s attitude to writing itself. ‘The Marxist sense of the literary, of what the work of writing is, needs to be put, not so much on its feet, as on its feat. Writing needs to be understood as labour, work, effort, a thing that bodies do – and nothing else.’ And here’s the Nominalist clincher: ‘ Airy ideas of inspiration need finally to be expunged from it.’ The Nominalist cuts down to size those who claim that an artist is a special kind of person, someone partaking in the realst substance of the Real Artist. Likewise he gives it rough to the Hegelians like Zizek who claim to be working out the invisible Real History behind history.
(As an aside, it has recently become trendy to be Hegelian and Zizek is the parade case for this. Hegel’s central claim was a Realist metaphysical one. You can’t examine the particulars of the world except as emanations from the Geist. The structure of things is to be deduced from the Concepts. Asses in the world can’t exist on their own because they are self contradictory. They can only be understood as part of a greater or deeper reality of assness on which they lean or of which they are aspects or parts. Philosopher Charles Taylor puts it like this: ‘ The dialectic goes through several stages as we climb successively beyond the unsatisfactory notions of what this self-subsistent or absolute reality could be ; until we come to the only satisfactory conception of it as Geist, a spiritual reality which perpetually posits a world as its necessary embodiment, and perpetually negates it as well in order to return to itself.’ For Hegel, our asses are just modes of the Absolute Ass. Zizek’s brand of nihilist Hegelianism is Realism’s new chic home and no one should be surprised by Zizek’s admiration for Stalinist Absolutist politics, carefully constructed with hedges of dialectical camouflage to hide behind whenever anyone calls him out on this. It’s interesting that Badiou has similar camouflage in place when he’s called out on his Maoism. No wonder Stewart Home calls Zizek ‘a twit’.)
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 27th, 2016.