Semina’s Dark Object
Katrina Palmer Interviewed by Richard Marshall.
3:AM: The Dark Object‘s a work where Žižek plays a major role. Just what do you take from Žižek and why did you fix him in such a role. It’s a book with a lot of deflationary activity – bringing intellectuals down to earth in a way. So who are your heroes – if you have any – what are the ideas and stuff that you drew on for this work? Are you part of a wider group?
Katrina Palmer: I chose Žižek as the central character’s object of desire because I wanted it to be an unhealthy obsession. I am interested in some of Žižek’s ideas, as I am in those of Butler, Hegel, Blanchot, Gallagher and many others, but also the way Žižek confronts pathology made him fascinating to develop as a character. He’s a collision of ideas and embodiment, in that he produces meaning in his writing and the meanings are also manifest in his body as a site of desire and drive and trauma. I wanted it to be implicit to my writing that a split between the object and theorising is of course a false dichotomy because it’s not possible to pretend that theory is not material, it emerges from the body and has to manifest itself in some way. And conversely it doesn’t make sense to describe the object as purely sensual or material because there is no object without reference to the mind and ideas that it relates to. This collision in Žižek seemed like an opportunity to take the character, Z, on a libidinal adventure. I think of the writing about Z, like making sculpture or producing any form, it’s an investment in the gross banality of physical presence, and whilst there’s a pathos to materiality there’s also no choice but to go on confronting it.
3:AM: To begin at the beginning, can you introduce yourself?
KP: I’m from London. I did other things for years before I started making sculpture. I went to St Martins and then the Royal College. I used to make things in a more conventional sense, then I started constructing spaces to write and read in and now the attempt to fabricate objects is in the writing. I still see myself as a sculptor, but it’s more like I’m making conceptual objects. I still live in London.
3:AM: Your Semina book is a complex text. Can you tell us how the project actually started for you – how aware were you of the original Semina texts, of Stewart Home or Bookworks or the other Semina books in the new series before you started working?
KP: Yes, I went to a Book Works event to see Stewart because I’m a fan of his writing, and it was there they announced the Semina open submission. I hadn’t read the original Semina texts but I read the new Semina books, they’re all really powerful. I didn’t have The Dark Object as whole when I approached Book Works, but I’d already written a number of the short stories. My original proposal suggested a slightly more abstract final text, less driven by the college narrative and neither the student or the college had names. It was really good to work that through with Stewart and Gavin at Book Works.
3:AM: It’s interesting that your text has a strong narrative – what drew you to that particular form?
KP: Flann O’Brien At Swim-Two-Birds for the way a complex but insistent narrative merges with dialogue making it all about storytelling within storytelling. Woody Allen‘s Broadway Danny Rose springs to mind for similar reasons. And there’s Kathy Acker‘s Blood and Guts in High School often described as anti-narrative, but for me anyone who can throw everything at the reader and still make it a compelling book is a skillful narrator. And I’ve recently been looking at the endnote to Borges‘ Library of Babel, where it follows a story about infinite number of books with the suggestion of a single book with infinitely thin pages. I think this imaginary object’s got curious significance for storytelling. It doesn’t simply describe an object within a narrative, but the figure of the object is the spatial and conceptual metaphor that forms the story. So what’s constructed is something like an allegory on the concept of infinity and an infinite concept of allegory in storytelling.
3:AM: The book’s clearly got things to say about gender politics and lots more besides. Can you tell us about this – is feminism relevant here?
KP: Well maybe we only see what we want or expect to see in things, but yes, The Dark Object is certainly concerned with power relations – the fetishistic manner in which control is exercised, implemented and administered and how that’s expressed in the way we negotiate objects. Originally, when I started writing, I wanted to avoid the story being read as solely about gender, then I realised without gendering the protagonist it became even more about that, but in a nuanced way. I think it’s natural to read the student as a female because the book’s written by “a woman writer” and because the character is subject to an eroticised excess of power. I wanted to keep open the possibility of that subject of abuse being a male. It made me more aware of each scenario from two perspectives, I mean, the affect changes if it’s read as a male character or a female one, and it became interesting to think how fundamental gender is to conventional ideas about characterisation. There’s an awkwardness in writing without the use of pronouns, but that became an exercise for me.
There are other self-imposed constraints on my writing, like the ‘abstract’ chapter that’s written to a specific word count, because it’s becoming increasingly important for me to describe the material and spatial parameters of my work, it’s part of what makes the writing a formal entity.
3:AM: At the book launch you read a particularly confrontational section. Why did you choose that section?
KP: I read ‘Chair-Bed’ because it’s right at the core of The Dark Object and the whole point of that text is be explicit about something that’s covert. The female character I refer to is Carolee Schneemann and her performance Interior Scroll. You can interpret the extraction of the scroll from her vagina as pure gesture or you can see it as a dialectic between the internal mind and external body. In my narrative of Carole E’s thoughts, all are all silent and internal, apart from when she tells her fantasy story. The catalyst for that story was the actual chair-bed I had in my studio and its peculiarity of folding in on itself to form a chair and the unfolding that is involved in revealing itself as a bed. I used these spatial forms and actions as metaphors for a story about concealing, revealing, exposing, stories within stories, secrets, non-disclosure, unfolding etc.
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?
KP: Mine’s a pint of Guinness or a glass of red.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 6th, 2010.