Terrorise The Reader – A Stephen Barber Interview
Interview by Andrew Stevens.
3:AM: You’ve written widely on other authors, but if I can address your own fiction works first, they’re done in very much a straightforward ‘pulp’ prose style. What influences came into play here when you were writing the novels, specifically?
SB: The Tokyo Trilogy was commissioned by its publisher and I had no previous intention of writing anything like it. Both the publisher James and I are admirers of Georges Bataille, especially the Tears of Eros as well as fiction such as the Story of the Eye, and the original, drink-fuelled idea was to write something with the sensorial and corporeal impact, and with the sparse and headlong style, that Bataille’s Story of the Eye carries, but set in an engulfing, contemporary digitized megalopolis in technological meltdown: Tokyo, which I know well from having lived there — all of the locations in the three novels are real places, such as the Shinjuku Park Tower Hotel, the Koma Ballroom and the bars of Shinjuku, where there’s an Artaud Bar as well as a Genet Bar, though those locations get psychogeographically mutated and scrambled in the novels. The American writer Edmund White, who is a good friend, had recommended to me several years ago that it would be an interesting experiment or challenge to write fiction that was one long, escalating act of multiple sodomy, so the inspiration for writing the Trilogy arose from that incitation too. My next-published novel, Cities of Oblivion, is about new forms of ocular perception provoked by a worldwide digital crash and the way in which the memory of obliterated cities can be recreated from fragments of film; it has a different dynamic to the pornographic charge of the Tokyo Trilogy, even though it’s mainly set in a Bangkok sex-bar. I haven’t read any English-language pulp/crime fiction so my influences are more in French and Japanese sources, especially experimental film as well as writing.
SB: Ballard is the only British writer I’ve been consistently reading for many years, and his obsessions infiltrate some of the scenes in the Tokyo Trilogy, such as the crash of the idoru-obsessed schoolgirls on the Narita highway and the response of the spectators to that incident. Ballard has a very spare style in parts of his writing, in Concrete Island especially, and a pared-down or skeletal style is an effective medium to convey extreme imagery and ideas, by building up a series of deadpan sentences and then unexpectedly adding one with a detonative content in the same style. I haven’t read all of Kathy Acker’s writings though I was recently working at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles where she was based for some time and her literary executor Matias Viegener still works there — and Pussy King of the Pirates swallows various bits of one of my books on Artaud.
3:AM: So the Acker thing is concindental or concurrent to yourself, via Artaud, rather than any kind of linear progression?
SB: Yes, I think that’s coincidental, since I never met Kathy Acker and she used bits of my Artaud Blows and Bombs book in her Pussy novel without asking me, though I think she still has an infiltrating, tangential influence (like that I mentioned with Ballard) on a lot of European writing and art-practice, and I’m interested in how she moved to England as a result of her contacts with Paul Buck and his Curtains text/image magazine, and how Paul anatomised the memory of their contacts through documents and letters in his recent book Spread Wide. It’s been said of Ballard that there’s no linear progression in his work, just an intensification and refiguring of his obsessions, and maybe that’s true of all obsessional writers, including Artaud and Bataille — Susan Sontag used to say that only obsession and extremity are really interesting, when it comes to writing and art. With the rest of it, you might as well let someone else do it.
3:AM: She also collaborated with The Mekons on Pussy. Are there any musical influences on your own fiction?
SB: Each of the three Tokyo Trilogy novels features the characters attending a riotous Keiji Haino concert, either in the Shinjuku or Asakusa districts of Tokyo. Keiji Haino is a real figure, a legendary extreme-noise musician in Japan, also known to some extent in Europe, and as I learned from meeting him in Tokyo, he has a consuming interest in wah-wah pedal technology, second only to that of Ron Asheton of The Stooges, whose ‘Search and Destroy’ song-title from Raw Power is painted on the bus carrying the gang of Magadan usurpers towards their gang-warfare combat in Tokyo in the second part of the Trilogy.
3:AM: Edmund White’s suggestion sounds like a literary version of the “queer fatwa” (1,000 years of relentless sodomy) mockingly envisaged by militant gay activists in Britain against Islamist homophobes. And in the books you place that act in a political context, namely that of Japanese nationalism.
SB: The Tokyo Trilogy is set in the imminent future, but it was written at a time of resurgent Japanese nationalism, especially in its relationship to China, whose economic expansion now threatens to subjugate Japanese corporate interests as thoroughly as militant Japan decimated China in the 1930s. In the Trilogy, the characters are caught in a kind of knife-edge dilemma between allying themselves with ecstasy-propelled revolutionary nihilism and with neo-fascistic militarism (both with their sexual dimensions), maybe a more technologically-enhanced variant of the same dilemma that existed in the 1960s Tokyo of streetriots, with figures such as the filmmaker Koji Wakamatu and the choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata on one side of that divide, and the writer Yukio Mishima on the other — the two contrary sides often united by close, sexually-inflected friendships, as between Mishima and Hijikata, both of them admirers of Sade, for example.
3:AM: You’ve published a lot with Creation. What appeals to you about them as a publisher?
SB: I’ve published with a fair number of publishers (Faber, Reaktion, Picador, Berg and Gili) but Creation are my favourite in many ways. Nothing daunts them and no book-project can appear too strange, outlandish or experimental, if they like it. I share a lot of interests with the people who run Creation and also their art-book imprint Solar and their new fiction imprint, Future Fiction. Most publisherrs are amorphous but Creation have a clear style and design, and a hardcore of readers who probably read everything they publish, maybe in the same way that readers of the 3:AM site will assume that if 3:AM are interested in it, it must be worth their time. Creation have survived the publishing industry for almost 20 years as wholly autonomous and uncompromised outsiders, so that must make them an example of some kind to anyone now thinking of starting a new publishing company with innovative ambitions. I’m not personally an admirer of conglomerate publishing.
3:AM: You once said to me that Creation brought a number of non-business activities together for them.
SB: One of the Creation centres of operation is in East Asia — Bangkok and Tokyo — and that allows for a useful compacting of geographical, sexual, and creative preoccupations.
3:AM: Back to Acker, can I ask simply: why Artaud?
SB: Antonin Artaud was a French artist and writer who worked from the 1920s to the 40s. He was originally a dissident surrealist, then worked in films and theatre, travelled to Mexico to take peyote in 1936 and to Ireland to watch the apocalypse take place in 1937, then was incarcerated for a decade in insane asylums, almost starved to death and underwent electroshock treatments, before finally being released in 1946 for a final prolific and furious two years in Paris. His last work was an astonishing recording of screams and percussion which was banned by the radio station that had commissioned it. He’s a seminal figure for experimental culture of all kinds, and has been for decades — across digital art and theory, beat poetry, situationist art, Japanese butoh dance, punk and industrial noise, for theatre directors such as Grotowski, poets such as Patti Smith, filmmakers such as Marcus Reichert, French theorists such as Deleuze, Derrida and Baudrillard, and the list could go on — an endless inspiration in all forms of writing and art. In recent years, the drawings of human figures and corporeal fragments that he undertook in the asylums and in his final period back in Paris have been shown in art museums in Europe and the USA.
I wrote a trilogy of books on Artaud’s work — an exploratory biography, Blows and Bombs, a book on his recordings, film writings and drawings, The Screaming Body, and a new book titled Terminal Curses on the working notebooks he used at the end of his life, and which form the raw material for all his final projects as well as bearing the physical traces of his working process: he impaled the pages with knives, burned them with cigarettes, lacerated and stained them, at the same time as creating the images and texts they contain. In those final notebooks, Artaud was obsessed with intsigating a violent transformation of the human body, to be carried through by a radical autopsy-process to result in a body solely formed of bone, nerve and movement — a ‘body without organs’, as he called it. When I lived in Paris around the beginning of the 1990s, I met many of the people who had been most crucial to Artaud’s life, including the psychiatrist who gave him electroshocks, Gaston Ferdiere, and his closest collaborator at the end of his life, Paule Thevenin, and many others. So the books bear the trace of that primary contact with the people Artaud had scarred or been scarred by — all of whom have since died, except for the filmmaker Chris Marker, who briefly worked as Artaud’s assistant in 1946. That last book on Artaud, Terminal Curses, published this year, goes as far as I could take my exploration of his work, and it’s now over. I’ve also written books on other writers and artists that seem vital to me: Jean Genet, Tatsumi Hijikata, and the Vienna Action Group artists.
3:AM: As you mentioned, your writing output was non-fiction until recently. Earlier reviews for 3:AM argued it was history as porn. Can I first ask why do you think the systematic torture programme by the Japanese under Dr Ishii has largely been avoided by mainstream historians (compared to decades of studies on the Nazis)? Secondly, in Annihilation Zones you explore the idea that Stalin sodomised Hitler in a secret meeting. Where did you get this idea?
SB: The industry of books on the Nazi era is colossal; J.G. Ballard has described the Bentall shopping centre in Kingston-upon-Thames as the ‘Auschwitz-Birkenau’ of consumerism, and that book-industry could be described in similar terms to the art of writing. Annihilation Zones came out of my interest in the Situationist art movement and was intended as a semi-fictional book (a corrosive kind of mutant and shifting amalgam between non-fiction and fiction, designed to disorient the reader — or ‘terrorize’ the reader, as 3:AM’s Richard Marshall wrote — and the same strategy has also interested me, in a different idiom, in the books on cities and urban history I’ve written for the publishers Berg and Reaktion, such as The Vanishing Map and Fragments of the European City); Annihilation Zones came out of my response to the great fashion at the turn of this decade for television documentaries that obliviously falsified history, such as The Most Evil Men in History and Hitler’s Henchmen. I have a particular dislike of ‘media historians’, such as Anthony Beevor, and one of the episodes in the book was inspired by Beevor’s spurious claim that Hitler and Stalin both annexed the Baltic countries in order to seize control of particular minerals for their nuclear-weaponry programmes. To annul that media-propelled banalization of history by overloading it, I thought it would be interesting, and surreal too, perhaps, to up the stakes and devise an even more gratuitously spurious and outrageous reason for their annexation of the Baltic countries’ ‘resources’, which anyone who has read the book will now know. Since the book was also conceived as a turn-of-the-centry one, it was intended as a corrosive looking-backwards at the profoundly black and murderous joke of the entire twentieth century, in the same way that, for example, when the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni was finishing his film Zabriskie Point, which looks back at the 1960s in the USA, he planned to end the film by having a skywriting plane write the words ‘Fuck You, America’ in smoke above the city of Los Angeles, and that would have been the film’s terminal image — something which his film studio vetoed, But, since I was doing the book for Creation and not for a film studio, I could do what I had in mind. I know that very many readers of the book have loved the sequence in which Stalin sodomized Hitler in a train carriage in a goods-yard outside the city of Lvov (then a Polish city, though it’s now in the Ukraine); it’s a historical ‘fact’ that this meeting took place on 1 September 1939, that it was the only meeting between the two figures, and that Hitler left in an outraged fury, determined to crush the Soviet Union, even if it took him another two years to actually launch his invasion. So it seems only natural to assume that Stalin — who had spent years in a sodomy-rife seminary, was physically stronger and younger than Hitler, and always exerted his will by brutal means, would have sodomised his opponent in order to subjugate him.
I’m not sure why the literature on Japan’s actions in the 1930s-40s, such as the Dr Ishii’s Unit 731 human experimentation centre for bacteriological warfare, has formed less of a mainstream publishing industry than that on Germany’s actions in the same period, but it’s still very extensive, especially in the USA, centred on Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. One of the first books on Japan’s aggressive acts, and its plans to dominate East Asia through imperially-sanctioned genocide and new forms of colonization, was published as early as 1933: Taid O’Conroy’s The Menace of Japan — an extraordinary book of vitriol, hallucination and forewarning, written at a time when Japan was only just getting started with its plans.
3:AM: Finally, are you really “the most dangerous man in Britain”?
SB: That was something a reviewer from the Independent newspaper said about my book Extreme Europe and I thought it sounded funny, so I’ve used it on several book covers. At least I’ve not yet been called one of ‘the most evil men in history’…
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Stephen Barber has been hailed as “the most dangerous man in Britain” by The Independent. The Times has called his work “brilliant, profound and provocative”. He is a noted cultural historian and author of many acclaimed books. His writing has won many awards and been translated into Japanese, French, German and Italian. Formerly Professor of Digital Media at the University of Tokyo, he is currently Professor of Media Arts at Kingston University.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 23rd, 2008.