Against Literature as System: D. Harlan Wilson’s Splatterschticks
By David Vichnar.
“Literature against the system”—where what’s meant by “system” are the sociopolitical circumstances of any writer’s or work’s historical moment—is a rich if also problematic binary: it conjures up a plethora of individual examples, bespeaks an entire strain of the historical avant-garde worldview, and in fact points toward a whole tradition within modern & modernist art, what Harold Rosenberg famously termed “the tradition of the new.” It is problematic since “literature”—in itself more of an evaluative rather than merely descriptive term—is always already, however oppositional or anti-, part of “the system,” always already constitutes a system.
1. The field is indeed broad: from the historical avant-garde and Jarry’s pataphysical spit in the eye of science, Marinetti’s urban planning project of “demolishing museums and libraries”, Kafka’s rage against the bureaucratic machine of his day and age, the “dada world war without end” of Ball’s first pacifist manifesto, Pound’s “news that stays news” even for the Mussolinis of this world, Breton and Soupault’s “psychic automatism” vs. Joyce’s de-automatised if still machinic “revolution of the word”, and onwards to the sundry avant-garde “ghosts” of e.g. Letterist concretism, situationist détournement, the “open-field” poetics of projective verse, the Oulipian “rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape,” and the wannabe “post-referentiality” of language poetry.
In short, throughout the 20th century, literary works, figures, movements, poetics programmes defined by their against-ness (political just as aesthetical) were legion – with nothing more stable than the will to change, and nothing less novel than making it new. And it was, paradoxically or not, precisely the avant-garde imperative of constant renewal and of oppositionality, that rendered it readily appropriable by the postwar literary market of neoliberal capitalism.
The story is well-known and needs only broad outlines here: together with the postwar rise of culture industry and the many cogs (commercial publishing houses, the movie industry, the record industry, and the electronic media) in its mass-culture machine, literature—however avant-garde or anti-system—has been co-opted by the global capitalist market, neoliberal economies, and by what Debord called the society of the spectacle. Karl and Groucho Marx T-shirts, Disney productions of Stravinsky, Duchamp fountain pens: from the mid-1970s onwards, the debates surrounding the status of “literature against the system”—Bürger, Jameson, Habermas—tend to be more invested in arguing why “the avant-garde” is no longer viable under global-capitalist conditions than in imagining what new forms it may take under said conditions, let alone how it can be brought to bear upon them.
Rather than spending the rest of this essay within purely definitional terms, wondering what “literature” against what “system” and the particular historical whens and whys, I’d like to update and alter the terms of discussion and focus on contemporary literature as system. It’s all fine and well for literature to pit itself against the world’s many political/social/economic systems, but what about literature as a system? Especially in the late-capitalist Western world where so much of what passes for “literature” is an institutionally approved & commercially successful model of public taste preserving the status quo? And especially in the wake of the digital revolution—the web and the social media—within whose celebrity culture fiction becomes increasingly normalised into a commodity system? What about literary experimentalism whose radicalism is deep-frozen, packaged and to be consumed after mild reheating?
2. There are two common if not entirely convincing copouts here: the one is to point out that there’s nothing really new under the sun here, since nothing’s older than the concept of today’s celebrity; the other is to argue that the processes by which this normalization comes about, by which the cultural field celebrifies (if not exactly cerebrifies) itself, are themselves far from uniform or normalized. So, here’s Roland Barthes writing in Mythologies (his classic demystification of the cultural artifacts of 1950s France) of how writers are discussed in mainstream culture—the magazine or newspaper profile—to highlight a common feature of these profiles, which is the attempt to show the author in prosaic circumstances, ostensibly foregrounding their “ordinariness.” According to this convention, the writer is endowed with
‘A miraculous, eternal substance, which condescends to take a social form so that its prestigious difference is better grasped [… a practice which] prepares one for the idea of the writer as superman, as a kind of intrinsically different being which society puts in the window so as to use to the best advantage the artificial singularity which it has granted him.’
In one sense, as Joe Moran’s study of Star Authors in culture round 2000 shows, this representation of authors is still “a typical example of the way in which stars in general are presented in contemporary culture,” their ubiquity creating the tension between hierarchy and equality, celebrating stars as simultaneously extraordinary and familiar. This paradox shows that the exchange value of literary celebrities presents a repository for multiple contradictory meanings, most prominently, as Moran argues, “the nostalgia for some kind of transcendent, anti-economic, creative element in a secular, debased, commercialised culture.” The whole logic of literary celebrity, as Barthes shows here, is based around mystifying and concealing it, by celebrating the author as an individual of superior talent or even genius, free of external determination.
In this sense the figure of the literary celebrity conforms to Marx’s definition of the fetishised commodity – it works actively to suppress the intricate network of social relations that has produced it. As Pierre Bourdieu phrases it, this process of individualization “directs attention to the apparent producer, the painter, writer or composer, in short, the ‘author,’ suppressing the question of what authorizes the author, what creates the authority with which authors authorize.” Bourdieu suggests that this process is particularly prevalent within the fields of art and literature: “there are in fact few other areas in which the glorification of ‘great individuals,’ unique creators irreducible to any condition or conditioning, is more common or uncontroversial.”
So, what if—in the light of the above—the only position truly “against” the system, at least in the world of contemporary Western letters, is to write literature which exposes its own economic basis & capitalist artifice: to write it without the aura of the transcendent value and merely for the base commercial profit? To write it purposefully badly and carelessly, and for just the economic gain involved? To write it in order to debunk the many of its own clichés: the writer’s “message”, the text’s “mission,” the “hard work” of literary “production”, its somehow inherent or transcendent “value”? And to still write this badly written literature interestingly enough to keep academics such as this one interested in it in essays such as this one: the only way not only to “secure one’s immortality” à la Joyce, but also to keep the sales afloat?
3. This, at least, seems to be the position taken up by D. Harlan Wilson’s poetics of the “splattershtick,” a literary, comic, ultraviolent form of metafiction as practiced in his “scikungfi” trilogy (2007-13) and particularly in the trilogy of his “angry black author” biographies (2014). Wilson, a professor of English at Wright State University, Ohio, writes all over the map, and has been said to defy categorisation; some critics have been cited as calling him “a genre in himself.” That’s lazy, though, for in the best spirit of the avant-garde business, Wilson has helped to cofound and shape the movement & aesthetics of “bizarro fiction,” a mélange of elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with genre fiction staples (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) aiming to create subversive, weird, and above all entertaining works, and defined as “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.” In Wilson’s hands, bizarro is a sometimes extreme, sometimes (hyper-)exaggerated, sometimes flippant, almost always blackly humorous critique of what our lives have become.
As he made clear in several of his interviews, much of Wilson’s writing satirizes the idiocy of pop culture and western society, illustrating how “the reel increasingly usurps the real” – but it’s a Swiftian satire whose critical distance is often and with perverse joy abandoned in favour of joining the ranks of the usurpers. Dr. Identity, Wilson’s novelistic debut, focuses on the feats of an English professor (Dr. Blah) & his psychotic android (Dr. Identity), who unleash a killing spree of epic proportions, in consequence of which they flee from the agents of the law, the “papanazi.” Set in a dystopian, mediatised future where “ultraviolence is as essential as a daily multivitamin,” the text is also a scathing critique of the fetishisation of fiction at the hands of the academia: the “plaquedemia” of the title refers to the literary academics’ tendency to turn into zombie copies of their long-dead authors of expertise (Blah’s colleague, a Dostoevsky expert, undergoes plastic surgery to that effect).
While quite impossible to summarise, Dr. Identity is distinguished by its investment in ultraviolence, media technology, and metanarration, but from the very start also by a critique of the “institutional” takeover of reality. In the case of literature, this takeover materialises in a burlesque of one of its beloved contemporary clichés: the pre-publication promotional blurb. A more or less random selection from the seemingly endless five pages of text reads as follows:
“D. Harlan Wilson is my favorite author. His books are really great!”
“Postmodernism is dead. D. Harlan Wilson is alive.”
“Breathtaking prose. Wilson is the real deal. And he’s not even gay!”
“Breathtaking prose. Wilson is the real deal. And he’s not even gay!”
The Paris Review
“Dr. Identity is an original book with a unique plot and lots of suspense.”
“Dr. Identity is like my chicken: fingerlickin’ good.”
“My son is talented and artistic and smart and a marvelous teacher!”
D. Harlan Wilson’s Mom
“D. Harlan Wilson is very tall. He’s like six and a half feet tall!”
“Not an Oprah book.”
So, side by side with hilarious praise from the likes of Kafka, Stein (her copycat Hemingway), and Kathy Acker, we get an impassioned quote from Wilson’s very own mother, a wonderfully inane quote from George W. Bush’s very own Condoleeza Rice, as well as some promo from the essence of America, Colonel Sanders & Oprah Winfrey.
“Professor Wilson is a big fan of my musicals. He always talks about me. Last year he taught Cats in a LACT (Literature about Creatures with Tails) course. He sends me postcards all the time. Once he sent me a singing telegram
for my birthday. How bad could his writing be?”
Andrew Lloyd Weber
“Wow. This is some book.”
“A real edge-of-your-seat page-turner…Stark and gripping…Absorbing…Chilling…Complex and convincing…Awe-inspiring…Relentlessly intense. Kung fu (not to mention Asian culture in general) will never be the same…Ignites like a flamethrower, burns like a forest fire…Impossible to put down…A terrific read…Compassionate, superbly [argued, fluidly written…Fascinating]…Original…More fun than a pocket full of dynamite.”
Andrew L. Weber’s shamelessly nepotistic quote rubs shoulders & scratches backs with Thomas Pynchon’s non-quote, and Life Magazine contributes its two-cents worth of randomly strung bombastic adjectives, where one almost misses the sly intrusion of bracketed adjectives, signalling editorial intervention.
Where do these come from? Does anybody care, really? And if they do, is there any way of finding out? At the end of the list comes a bizarre disclaimer regarding the coincidence of all resemblance:
(DISCLAIMER: Any resemblance in the above narrative to actual people or publications living or dead or defunct is merely coincidence and should not be taken literally, metaphorically, viscerally, teleologically or otherwise. Blurbs originally written in French, Russian and German translated by Stanley Ashenbach.)
Don’t worry reader, it’s all just fiction! Hands off, lawyers, it’s all just literature! This disclaimer, however, instead of restoring the reality/fiction boundary, serves to blur it even further by mentioning, as “translator”, one Stanley Ashenbach (perhaps an imaginary Kubrick/Mann hybrid? Ah yes, the dedicatee “died in Venice.”)
In this ridiculously overblown lengthy entrée, Wilson sardonically insinuates that literature in the Facebook & Twitter age has a megalomaniacal need to accrue praise to itself as the commercially sanctioned model of public taste, and to negate all else. Just as any and everything that could sell, literary publishing industry has been lobbied to the nth degree, turning fiction into the product of value-independent systems of power, coterie, quid-pro-quos, readily available on every consumer shelf. Perhaps even more easily in the case of “literature” as its “fictional” status outside of “truth” & “fact” enables it comfortably to steer clear of any criteria of “veracity” & “fact checking” – with present-day “post-truth” politics following suit.
4. Megalomania & post-truth sentiments are writ large over Wilson’s recent “angry black author” trilogy of biographies: Hitler: the Terminal Biography, Freud: the Penultimate Biography, and Douglass: the Found Autobiography. On the surface, Wilson’s trilogy claims to be about the secret lives of three of recent history’s most renowned figures. So, on the cover blurb of Hitler, we read that, “based on more than ten years of archival research and German sociological study, this one-volume account covers ground previously uncharted by other biographers.”
That this is a subterfuge whereby Wilson satirizes the publishing industry, media culture, the vagaries of storytelling and truth, becomes clear in the very first chapter where we’re told: “I called it Hitler: the terminal biography so you would buy it. Everybody likes to read about Hitler. I won’t mention him again. Go to the next page please” (3). Again, this disclaimer is patently false as Hitler is mentioned in a substantial portion of the biography’s total of 77 chapters (and, while at it, wouldn’t 88 chapters be more apposite?), but the main point stands, nonetheless – figures as unlike each other as Hitler, Freud, Douglass, can be and have been turned into commodities, and the entire objectivist/historicist basis of the biography genre undermined.
Each biography presents a series of vignettes that are part fiction and metafiction, part mock biography and literary autobiography. Alongside the book’s primary subjects, the cast of characters includes a wide array of other intellectual and literary touchstones (most prominently Jacques Lacan, whose “psychoanalysis is a nice way to enter into a discussion of identity and the politics of subjectivity, but perhaps not the best vehicle to jumpstart any ‘entertaining’ book-length project” ) alongside movie stars like Tom Cruise, athletes like Kobe Bryant, and the various permutations of Wilson’s inscrutable ego.
The “angry black author” trilogy, as the central narrator refers to it, is a kind of guide to anti-writing that puts the roles of both authors and readers in question while problematising the ways in which we process and make sense out of life experience. As the trilogy PR puts it: “how can anybody—alive or dead, famous or infamous or entirely unknown—even approach an accurate representation of the full spectrum of somebody’s identity based upon the fragments of their writing, the record of their exploits, the scraps of their everyday life?” Hitler, Freud, and Douglass recognise the insolvability of this issue while revelling in raising it.
When pausing to cynically remark that “it’s good to be able to make meaning, although it hurts” – just as “truth,” but also “idiocy” (23), Wilson is quick to offer a false solace: good news, dear reader, this is literature, so you’re safe from all of the three! Although repeatedly described as “textbooks for writing,” the biographies end up far more seriously invested in bodybuilding and dietary procedures, since the trilogy is ultimately about Wilson’s own life as, ironically, a hard-drinking bodybuilder and English professor. Staying in chiselled shape and productive with the monkey of alcoholism on his back is, after all, far more of a challenge for Wilson than performing the work of the writer.
So many of the ridiculously and wastefully short chapters (but the more pages you cover, the better for the biz, right?) of the three biographies are comprised of stuff lifted off Wikipedia, copied-and-pasted from email exchanges with the loved ones, ripped off from workout manuals. “here are your shrivelled desires on a dinnerplate,” Wilson informs his readership, here’s capital-l literature packaged & marketed as such, but in the best Lacanian fashion comes also the anti-transferential smack: “I have put the least amount of effort into this book as possible” (32-3). With a nod to Benjamin, Wilson shows how problematic it is, in the age of its digital reproducibility, to still market literature as, in any meaningful sense, “work” or “production” – while perhaps also wondering whether the worthlessness of its writing might be what ultimately saves it from the market?
So, quite appropriately, staring from the cover of the single-tome trilogy edition is Wilson’s own face. There is dietary advice, body-building advice, daddy-daughter relationship advice, writing advice, teaching advice, side by side with, of course, explosions galore. For these “advisory” ideas do not come across as didactic, but are often fuelled by raw anger at systems that stifle creativity and human development. Wilson is here looking into the mirror and seeing Hitler, Freud and Douglass; or perhaps looking at the three and only seeing himself, for what’s literature but narcissistic navel-gazing?
Each personality in the trilogy represents an aspect of Wilson’s human condition as well as the false promises of present-day literary business: we go from megalomania (Hitler), to surrogate libidinal compensations (Freud), to imaginary self-congratulatory empowerment (Douglass).
The failure of Wilson’s biographies as literature is not only consequence of careless writing (however purposefully badly they’re written), but of the impoverishment of fiction at the hands of a cultural authoritarianism, and the failure of its conventional genres, which despite much evidence to the contrary continue to be advertised as adequate means of exploring or explaining our present circumstances. By so blatantly undermining the genre and so shamelessly exposing the commercial purpose of his writing, Wilson demonstrates how wide the chasm yawns between the present moment and the historical avant-garde, between literature’s not so ancient aspirations and its present commodified actuality. Wilson’s writing is not so much literature against system, but against literature as system.
5. In conclusion, I’d like to quote from Louis Armand’s “preface” to his recent collection of essays Organ-Grinder’s Monkey, where he positions the contemporary alternative “culture after the avant-garde” as belonging
To that fringe of anti-concepts at work against the pull of domestication, [… and] feeding indeterminacy into a system that riffs for kicks on the aesthetic pleasures of the indeterminate, but assiduously avoids exposure to it.
Precisely, Wilson’s “splattershticks” and bizarro anti-biographies work against the pull of standardisation while feeding indeterminacy into the otherwise oh so determinate system, rejecting to cast back to “old innovations” for a model of what the “new” could or should be, or to capitalize upon the industry of nostalgia for the “revolutionary moment.”
Instead, they’re marked by a refusal of paradigms, the maintained temper of an open investigation, an experiment in de-institutionalising thought. Or, as Wilson himself puts it, “it is what it is just as I am what I am and so forth. To be or not to be a signifyin(g) monkey—that’s what Hamlet really means. That’s what everybody means; they just don’t know it” (133). Awakening the reader to so many of the “unknown knowns” of literature as business, such is “the cult of awareness” Wilson’s Hitler ends by evolving. Leaving the reader, as Steve Aylett’s introduction to Codename Prague insists, “with the final responsibility to walk away from this trash-catharsis and start using his or her brain, if only in miniature.” For ultimately, if the gist of Wilson’s anti-literary message is that radical literature is dead, it’s not a call for building—out of the debris left in its wake—its mausoleum in which to genuflect before its embalmed corpse.
In fact it’s the very opposite: Radical literature is dead? Well then, long live its undead zombies!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Vichnar works as an editor, publisher and translator. His publications include Joyce Against Theory (2010), Hypermedia Joyce (co-edited, 2010), Thresholds: Essays on the International Prague Poetry Scene (edited, 2011) and, most recently, Praharfeast: James Joyce in Prague (co-edited, 2012). His forthcoming publications include Terrain: Essays on the New Poetics (co-edited, 2014) and The Avant-Postman: James Joyce and the Postwar Literary Experiment (2015). He co-edits the VLAK magazine, co-organises the annual Prague Poetry Microfestival, and manages Litteraria Pragensia Books and Equus Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 31st, 2016.