A Decennial Appreciation & Celebratory Analysis
Jarett Kobek interviewed by Richard Marshall.
3:AM: Let’s begin at the beginning – how old are you and where are you from? What’s in your background that strikes you as important to your writing?
Jarett Kobek: I’m in my early 30s and originally from the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, though I haven’t lived there in ten years. I attended New York University, living in New York City on and off for half my life. Four years ago, I did the only sensible thing and moved to California, whither I wither in the sunbaked hell of Los Angeles.
As to the latter question: even five years ago, I couldn’t have said what was and wasn’t meaningful, but time and circumstance have conspired to give me a pat, market tested answer. Right now, what has been of paramount importance to my writing is the weird combination of my origins, both geographic and ancestral.
My dad’s a Muslim and an immigrant. My mom was from a family of Irish-Americans. I was raised Roman Catholic in Rhode Island, a place with its own insular peculiarities and an extreme elastic definition of Whiteness. (See figure: DJ Pauly D.) On top of that, my natural skin color is pretty pale, so I lack the immediate phenotypical markers conflated with Otherness. I have spent my entire life enjoying the privilege and benefits of a male from middle class white America.
But getting into this post-9/11 era where the two things no one can shut up about are Muslims and immigrants, at one point I really had this moment of realization, like, “Holy shit, Fox News is talking about me!” About half the people I talk with on a daily basis are Muslims and/or immigrants. I’ve dated Muslim women. When you start hearing idiotic statements filter through various media, it’s just like, who the hell are these people talking about? This surely has nothing to do with my family or my friends.
I always assumed that through natural drift I’d end up part of the big bozo contingent of Leftist artists—another Bambi in headlights explaining that Art is different from Skill and why the government should fund mandatory education programs. Or maybe someone who did a controversial portrait of a revered Christian figure with food and bodily excreta. I never thought it’d be down to an actual vested interest.
The whole dialogue is moronic. As unpleasant as one finds, say, The 700 Club, I don’t think American Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent do themselves any favors with invocations towards peace and tolerance and explanations about the heteropraxy of Islam; these are the kinds of platitudes and cries for mercy that one blurts out right before being shot in the face.
3:AM: What were the books, films, art, tv, music et cetera that influenced you in the past?
JK: Around the age of 14, I got into science fiction and weird tales. Ted Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Connie Willis, William Hope Hodgson, Robert E. Howard, Arthur Machen, Tolkein. Alfred Bester‘s The Stars My Destination. The two biggest influences from this group were Philip K. Dick and Lovecraft. As the line between SF New Wave writers and mainstream experimentalists is pretty thin, it wasn’t a far jump to people like J.G. Ballard and Burroughs. And from there it’s all downhill.
At the same time, I was attending an alternative education high school firmly ensconced in Clinton-era nostalgia for the radical ’60s. We were probably the only school in America where Soul on Ice was required reading. There was this whole alternative canon — W.E.B. DuBois, Olaudah Equiano, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Frantz Farnon, Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, Zora Neale Hurston. The book I remember making the biggest impression is The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, which along with Ballard’s work, is sort of the template for everything I’ve ever written. No one else would see this, but it’s true.
Lovecraft is the only Rhode Island writer of lasting note and this made being in Providence a fascinating experience — you could read ‘The Shunned House’, skip class, walk for ten minutes and then be looking at the shunned house. My school was built on the grounds of Lovecraft’s own Slater Avenue grammar school. You start getting an idea that maybe the world of letters has a more physical reality than you’ve previously understood.
But Lovecraft is tricky, because while his writing — particularly the letters — is awesome and undeniable, its bedrock is xenophobia. I find it hard to stomach the Internet’s multidecade Lovecraft vogue. Cthulhu for president, Cthulhu t-shirts, Yoth-Sothoth dildos, Cthulhu plushies. But go to the stories and what’s the basis for representation of Cthulhu on earth? “Savages” and “darkies” in undulating masses, writhing about, exhibiting bestial urges, summoning up Dark Gods about whose very nature they are ignorant until an academic discerns the partial truth through Anglo ratiocination. The Necronomicon is like a pre-cognitive glimpse of early 21st century Orientalism, or at least Orientalist perceptions of Sayyid Qutb‘s Milestones: it’s written by a mad Arab, engenders cult like conditions and causes mass chaos via religious fanaticism. I love Lovecraft more than almost any other writer, but infantilizing his work does everyone a disservice.
Anyway, two years later, I was living in New York and all about the Surrealists and their antecedents—Baudelaire, Verlaine, Huysmans, Lautréamont, Dada, the Futurists, Alfred Jarry. Breton’s boys, especially Duchamp, Artaud and Don Luis Buñuel. And Rimbaud. Especially, especially, especially Rimbaud. I also had a huge interest in post-War Japanese writing. Yukio Mishima‘s Confessions of A Mask, Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe, Osamu Dazai and Kenzaburo Oe.
But the work that had the longest and greatest influence is the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Stumbling across that thing was like a religious experience codifying itself backwards through time into my ancestors’ primal DNA. Regardless of what Whitman became — and the Good Grey Bard compiling his bloated deathbed edition in Camden is an awful fate for the guy who once ran naked and wild through the woods like a horny bear — there’s nothing better than that original edition. Really, none of us should ever write again. We should copy out Whitman and be judged on calligraphy.
3:AM: You were obviously part of the blogging zine culture. Could you say how that all got started for you, what and who were influential to you then and what do you feel about it now?
JK: Without getting into minute details — a lot of which I no longer remember — zines, both paper and electronic, were simply what was done. In terms of the computer underground, other states had scenes where people traded pirated software. We traded text. There was also a huge anarcho-punk community in Providence in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Much of this centered around Lovecraft’s East Side, so you had a neighborhood of decaying Colonial and Victorian houses packed with freaks and weirdoes of every shape and size, a lot of whom cranked out a freakish subliterature. The paper stuff was everywhere.
What do I think of things now? Well, I’m increasingly weary with the Internet. I know, I know — we live in the future and that’s awesome and direct access destroys cultural hegemonies that previously inhibited full expression and it’s all a mashup culture now and the taste makers have lost their death grip and isn’t that incredible? But I’m starting to wonder if these ideas aren’t just overlapping marketing and branding strategies that we’ve been forced to internalize.
There are — absolutely — a lot of remarkable, new opportunities. But the Internet feels more and more like an exercise in shopping with a social networking overlay. To a certain extent, this was inevitable, given demographic shifts and the move towards smartphones. But by now everyone must be exhausted with status updates and tweets about what the person they made out with in 2006 is cooking for dinner. And that’s a minor annoyance compared with the reality that the platforms of expression are solidifying around a handful of companies that are accountable, apparently, to no one. “Don’t Be Evil” ain’t “Blut und Boden,” but it’s getting there.
Every once in a while something like WikiLeaks erupts, a fascinating phenomenon for reasons that everyone except Bruce Sterling missed, and a chorus of voices rises up again with the Five Major Platitudes of This, Our Internet Life. One of the things that makes WikiLeaks interesting is that unlike most of these eruptions, which almost always take place on platforms provided by American corporations, it’s perhaps the first retro site — an independent operation straight out of the mid-1990s, even down to Assange being a former #hack denizen.
3:AM: How aware were you of the original Semina stuff when you began working on your own project?
JK: Very. My answer here is going to be slightly namedroppy and for that I apologise. But the pre-hippie Los Angeles demimonde is a special interest stemming in no small part from my friendship with Kenneth Anger. With Dennis Hopper having just died, Anger is the last man standing. His Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is a who’s who of LA’s mid-’50s mutants. You’ve got Samson DeBrier, Curtis Harrington. And Marjorie Cameron, whose drawings were responsible for [Wallace] Berman‘s arrest and subsequent exodus from Los Angeles.
Like everything else from the 20th century, the history of Los Angeles culture has fallen prey to the self-aggrandizing of Baby Boomers. We hear an enormous amount about LA in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but other than a few remarkable bands — Love, Captain Beefheart, the Mothers of Invention, maybe the instrumentation of The Doors — the only things hippie Los Angeles gave the world were the Tate-LaBianca slayings and Joan Didion‘s nervous breakdown.
The period right before — starting with the end of WWII and going though about ’63 — produced a significant chunk of the wider culture. James Dean, who in death became a self-replicating sigil of American dominance, used to hang out at Samson DeBrier’s house on Barton Ave. So did Jack Nicholson, Hopper, Brando, Steve McQueen. Everybody who was anybody. Scientology has some of its origins in Hubbard living with Cameron’s husband Jack Parsons, the Thelemite who blew himself up in a Pasadena garage. It goes on and on. Berman was right at the center. He was one of the main nerves.
3:AM: How difficult was it to get everything together for the Semina work? Can you take us through the process, especially how the relationship with the editors worked out for you? How much collaboration was there and how tricky was it to work with the essay famers? Clearly, the existence of these things tells us something about current political and cultural configurations. Exploitation of poor workforces – including the massive increase in slavery and porn/crime/cartels and exports of war is something modern economics and global politics cannot ignore. What’s your take on this?
JK: Something is rotten at the heart of modern society, and it is the continuing extreme disparity of wealth not only between individuals but also between nations. I hang out in San Francisco a lot — my girlfriend lives there — and the most visceral and galling image of SF life is self-styled activists, or perhaps simply Leftists, lining up at the Apple store for the first day release of new iPhones and iPads.
If Woodie Guthrie‘s guitar used to kill fascists, then what does your iPad do? “This machine stripmines the Congo and drives underfed Chinese workers to suicide!” I am sure there’s an innate pleasure in blowing $500 on a device that allows you to check Facebook seventeen times a day as opposed to eleven, but the only reason this device costs $500 instead of $1000 or $1500 is that the people who assembled it were not paid properly for their labors. Apple is 20th Century culture transformed for a society increasingly skeptical of the car but still enraptured with blind consumption. “Have you seen the 2011 model?”
I don’t care that some of us are rich and some of us are poor. This is the way of the world. But I do believe that the interface of Western consumerist and business needs has caused unnecessary and mostly unexamined suffering in service to a pleasure class whose voracious appetite is without limit. One of the things I tried highlighting with the book is the idea that outsourcing is another manifestation of America’s one-size fits all approach. Our lives are filled with crap. Everything is cheap, plastic and ugly. The days of craft burned out with the WPA.
On the other hand, there’s a very revolutionary, non-Marxist aspect to mass production. Warhol was brilliant on this. If everything is mass produced, then different social ranks share the same qualitative goods. Taking the long view of history, there’s something genuinely radical in this. An iPod is an iPod is an iPod. Some might have greater storage capacity, but their core functionality is identical, producing a uniformity of qualitative goods across the social spectrum of those that have the resources or the wit to achieve entry. Yours is the same as 50 Cent’s — although my hope is that 50 Cent’s iPod is decorated with a diamond studded portrait of 50 Cent, all the better for regarding himself whilst he listens to his own music.
The relatively recent development of KPO outsourcing has spread into the social realm, where it functions counter to the Warholian idea. It’s only the people in the middle and on the bottom who get terrible service. Does anyone think that Rupert Murdoch, or even Rupert Murdoch’s assistants’ assistants, call the same numbers for customer service as we do?
3:AM: Can you say whether the project ended up being as you expected it to be and how much, if anything, altered as you progressed?
JK: I dreamt the book in a fit of pique. The previous year, I’d submitted to Semina and been on the short list. It finally came down to my project or someone else’s. Book Works went with the other proposal, which unfortunately never materialized. Everything was fine until I encountered One Break, A Thousand Blows!, the excellent book by Maxi Kim at the MOCA Grand’s bookstore in LA. When I saw the uniqueness of the series, I sketched out a new proposal in about 45 seconds of pure irritation and rage. A month or two later, I wrote everything down and sent it off.
Here’s as good a place as any to say what the hell the book actually is: it’s a decennial appreciation and celebratory analysis of a long form stream of consciousness prose-poem that I wrote back in 1999. My idea for the book was, hey, let’s hire Subcontinental outsourcing firms to write an analysis of the text, done in my autobiographical voice. Then we’ll print some of the original text and include all the correspondence surrounding the creation of the book.
If you do your math, that’s 1/3rd of the text coming from 1999, 1/3rd of the text coming from outsourcing and the final third being correspondence centered around the second third. In theory, an absurd book that writes itself, further stripping away any idea of authorial authenticity. I could be monstrously lazy! All I need do was slap my name on the cover.
Once Book Works said yes, I realized the open nature of that final 3rd gave me a kind of carte blanche. This was the only time in my life as a writer where I’d be able to get away with as much as I could, so I threw in everything, including material I hadn’t even considered when I wrote my proposal — like bowdlerized entries from my girlfriend’s journal and my hetero life partner’s distressing college era poem, ‘Auto-Eroticism in the English Department.’
Dealing with outsourcing firms ended up being a much bigger problem than I had expected — and I don’t want to give away spoilers — but by the time the reader finishes the book, they discover the text’s narrative is its own construction. Much of that is the pain of trying to pay people to write your book for you. There’s a lot of process that can’t be found anywhere else. Beginning with my original proposal and ending with editorial communiqués between Stewart Home, Gavin Everall and myself, the reader goes on a shamanic journey through the lightning paced, ultra-sexy world of small press experimental publishing.
This all reminds me: in addition to his life as a bon vivant and man about town, Stewart is a brilliant writer and this makes him, almost de facto, a brilliant editor — he sniffed out my cheap tricks and kicked them to the curb. Gavin was responsible for the biggest editorial mandate from above, the removal of the footnotes. I’ve still got about seven or eight, but the original draft had about 80, and in the end, it turned out that Gavin was absolutely right.
The other big change that Gavin and Stewart suggested was splitting the book into three chapters — the manuscript originally read as an uninterrupted block of text. I agreed and chopped the book up like Godard, mathematically. I found the exact point where the word count was at 1/3 and then 2/3rds. Then I put a chapter page at the front and at these two points, and gave each a section of text that, when read together, is a whole statement.
My inspiration was Horace McCoy‘s killer Depression era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? where random pages appear in a different typeface and read together as a judge pronouncing sentence. In my case, I used something Axl Rose said at the start of concerts: “You wanted the best / Well, the best couldn’t fucking make it / so here’s what you get.” Then he’d go on to say, “Live from Hollywood / it’s Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses!” but Gavin and Stewart only asked for three chapters so I didn’t use the second part. Which, thinking about it now, is for the best.
The one point of sustained contention was the book’s dustjacket. I’m very happy with the current cover, but it was difficult getting there, and a lot of that difficulty came from my end. Book Works and Gavin in particular showed a lot of patience.
3:AM: Are you pleased with the book? What’s the reception been and have you been pleased with what people have made of the work?
JK: I’m very pleased with the book. My favorite response thus far has been an insipid review in Time Out London. The title of Stewart’s book was misspelled, I was likened to Bret Easton Ellis (without the arch campness or the jokes) and Katrina Palmer was dismissed after the reviewer more or less admitted that he hadn’t read her work.
As the entire history of experimental literature is about getting stupid reviews in between rounds of laughter with your clique of haughty, good-for-nothing friends, this seemed just about right. (And, anyway, how insulting is it to be likened to the author of Rules of Attraction and American Psycho?)
3:AM: The publishing blurb makes it clear that this is in some sense a text that intends to be confrontational. How would you want readers to understand what it is you’re doing with the book?
JK: Does the book read confrontational? I really don’t know. The older material is confrontational in the way that only an overly bright but fundamentally immature twenty year old can be. I thought I was Kathy Acker! (Surprise, I wasn’t.) What softens that stuff is the perspective — someone ten years older looking back and wondering what the hell was going on.
I’d love for everyone to get the gist but, honestly, several people have told me they found it difficult. Reconsidering it, I wish that I’d included a reader’s manual. I think it’s the annotated edition of The Atrocity Exhibition where Ballard says, more or less, just pick a page and read a paragraph and move up or down. Something like that. “Open at random, read it, laugh it up, love, hate, whatever. Try and not worry so much.” On the other hand, some people have been able to blast right through. So who knows?
3:AM: Are there things that you would have liked to have included in the text that for various reasons didn’t make it?
JK: Everything that I wanted ended up in the book, other than the footnotes and a few pages in Bengali edited down for length. I had some images that I included but didn’t make the book— a cheque that I wrote and a PayPal receipt. Also this:
And, for the hell of it, here’s a cake that my friend’s mom baked in celebration of the book’s release:
I might be wrong, but I suspect that Europe doesn’t have quite the storied tradition of grotesque, pictorial sweets as these here United States. I took a real pleasure in talking at length about this cake with Gavin and Jane at Book Works; it seemed like the height of Americanism to meet your UK publishers and blather on about crude, representational pastries.
3:AM: At the Semina reading you didn’t read from this text but from another project. Can you say something about this and how it links with both the Semina text and your overall outlook? Have you other new work on the way?
JK: That reading was disastrous. I had conceived of an elaborate A/V performance. The audio was SID music from the Commodore 64 version of Tetris, a long piece composed by a guy named Wally Beben. The video was randomized live chat sessions projected behind me on a 12 foot screen and under the control of my girlfriend. Through a mysterious technical difficulty, the music cut out after 30 seconds. I had timed the reading with the music, which left me scrambling to find my own beat. I think I recovered by the end, but by then I’d been struggling before a fairly sizeable audience while standing beside uncontrollable projected video of random people.
And, as you mention, the piece wasn’t even from the book. You can imagine the confusion: a strange text, missing audio, my own distress and the intermittently appalling imagery. Not my finest hour. The audience was very nice in their eventual applause.
The text that I read was part of the next project. Happily I can report that it’s being published by Semiotext(e) as part of their Intervention Series. Which is thrilling. The new book’s called ATTA. It’s the final word on the aughties, terrorism, imperialistic war and the Bush years. My long goodbye to the decade of Hell and a jettisoning of my personal memories of being on Manhattan for 9/11. A new kind of horror through revisionist psychedelic biography and an exploration of our century of fear.
3:AM: There’s an urgency about your work that suggests a sense that something has to be changed? When you look at the present scene – not just the cultural but also the state of politics – where do you think we are?
JK: From an American perspective, the last two years have disturbed me in a way that never happened in Dick Cheney’s America. Obama’s victory was tinged with the dark undercurrent of California’s Prop 8. People stripped of their right to marry, tens of thousand of couples left in legal limbo. An idiotic, embarrassing development.
Two years later and Prop 8 feels like dress-rehearsal for the resurgence of Know Nothing demagoguery. I spent all of last August and September hearing about a Ground Zero Mosque that’s not actually a mosque and not really at ground zero. My greatest fear is that America’s future will be identical to its past — that 50 years from now, when death steals in, the news will be about yet another relatively defenseless group successfully bullied by a vocal minority wrapped in the flag. That there’ll be another five decades of small wars and armed conflicts across the globe. That we’ll still be the America of Terry Jones, possibly the most disgusting and atavistic person in contemporary life. That New Journalism will make as much sense in 2070 as it does in 2011, 40 years after its major works were written and 20 years after Richard Nixon died.
One place of potential optimism, paradoxically, is that California came very close to legalizing marijuana via the same mechanism that it outlawed gay marriage. My hope is that this represents movement towards the eventual collapse of drug prohibition. There is no spectacle more haunting than the on-going institutional racism masquerading as the War on Drugs.
We only get the politicians we deserve, but even so it’s incredibly hard to stomach Obama on this issue. When you’ve openly admitted your own drug use, when your own success puts truth to the lies and yet you preside over a country that disproportionately and overwhelmingly incarcerates African-Americans for the exact same shit that you did, then this is the working definition of hypocrisy. African-Americans are something like 0.6% of the world’s population and 8% of its prison population. This is the height of injustice and a waste of law enforcement resources. No one person can wave a magic wand and immediately deconstruct enormous self-sustaining systemic mechanisms, but it’d be nice to see the President, who self-consciously campaigned on the strength of his Blackness, man up and say something. At least admit the ambiguity.
Our foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, is a disaster. Like most Americans, I was of the opinion, at the time, that the war in Afghanistan was in some ways just. What I should have done is read Flashman and re-read the Oresteia.
Instead, like (hopefully) a plurality of Americans, I learned the hard way that there are no wars of liberation, that it’s all fantasy constructed from delusion and ignorance. No one likes human rights abuses, no one wants a world where the Taliban are free to wreak havoc on the blank canvas of human bodies, but there’s only so much that can be imposed from without, particularly when done in an ad hoc fashion on a predetermined time frame. And frankly, despite the presence of Bin Laden in Afghanistan, 9/11 was a German issue. Without Germany, without al-Quds, without the Hamburg collective, there would have been no 9/11. A law enforcement issue that exploded into war through the heat of vengeance. Nine years later and we’re negotiating with the Taliban — or trying to, anyway.
Despite this kvetching, I got a real Jonathan Richman state of mind. I love America, I love the modern world, I love Route 128 at midnight, I think there need to be more parties in the U.S.A. I’ve totally walked through the Fenway to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I didn’t exactly like Ian McEwan‘s Saturday, but I admired his willingness to say what almost no one else will: comparatively speaking, we live in a Golden Age. Baptized in blood, the 20th Century ushered in an asynchronous paradise for a surprisingly wide range of society.
This is no way ameliorates the suffering of those on the outside, but the fact that our broken societies expect inalienable rights for all people is in itself a profound achievement. The messy part is figuring out how to extend them to as many individuals as possible with as little damage. There’ll be an unspeakable amount of misery before it happens, but I really believe that at some point human life without dignity will be the exception rather than the rule. But please, rest assured, this will be no utopia: I’m sure what people do with their lives will remain very dispiriting.
3:AM: Who would you cite as influential and important now?
JK: Probably the guys running Fortune 500 companies and huge meganationals. The dudes on Wall Street. Business people, the money men. They’re the fiddlers to whose tune we all dance. And if the universe is just, then the Laded Vavniks really do exist.
There’s a poetess in San Francisco named Daphne Gottlieb who released an anthology called Fucking Daphne. It’s a series of stories and accounts of people fucking Daphne Gottlieb. This is awesome. And I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention my very favorite working artist, Diana Joy. She is amazing and brilliant and awesome in a way that no one is anymore. I still want to know what happened in the vision quest cabin.
Iain Sinclair is a phenomenon and my favorite living writer. We should put that man in chains and stare like socialites before King Kong.
And like everyone else in the last ten years, I’ve started thinking a lot about comics and have been reading everything that I can. No one has impressed me as much as Eddie Campbell. His work is generally perfect. Another Scotsman that I’m fascinated by is Grant Morrison. His output starting around New X-Men has been great — there’s something brilliant about a tripped out freak shoehorning himself into the confines and editorial mandates of ultra banal superheroics. Also there’s a really fascinating web comic that I’ve been reading for I guess about three years now: Simply Sarah, a quiet tale of young English women in love. Also also: everyone should buy everything by Taiyo Matsumoto.
3:AM: Finally, when asked, other Semina writers have said coffee, wine, whiskey and hot sake is what they drink to chill. So what’s your poison?
JK: Mineral water. Litres and litres and litres of mineral water. Also a weakness for fruity teas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 6th, 2011.