:: Article

Lumpenproletariat. Writing Attack/Antisystem/Subliterature

By Louis Armand.

Valorised by the Situationists as a demographic of urban drift and a manifestation of the “no work” ethos, this sub-proletariat is the very opposite of anything that could be called a movement let alone a class, and is perhaps better considered according to the sense of Bataille’s l’informe : that non-category of the conventionally “excluded,” as in gobs of spit, vomit, piss, shit, ejaculate, etc.; as in the reviled; as in human waste, trash, scum. If the “subliterary” draws its impetus from such an aesthetico-political formlessness, it does not thereby represent it, rather it amplifies its disturbances, which (like a retrovirus) are in turn “given form” by the expropriative whitewashing action of institutional power – exposing, by infecting, that “secret” and equally unformed reflection at its core. It is like that abominable unsleeping creature that flies through the night polluting the vacuous dreams of all the little infant captains of industry, whose beatific repose is the faceless pornography of other people’s nightmares.

The apocalyptic tone of ’80s underground art, film, writing – from prognostications of the coming police state to a refusal of commodity hypernormalisation – has all the poignancy today of a Cassandra Complex on permanent exhibit at any one of those bastions of State Culture, from the Tate Modern to MoMA to the Palais de Tokyo, that encircle the Western World’s collective consciousness like the mind-forged manacles of a “mythic postmodernism” in which “everything is permitted” because nothing unpermitted is in fact possible. Confronted with the present state of the Culture Industry, history would indeed appear to repeat, no longer as the outrageous parody directed by the underground at ’80s institutional kitsch, but as realism: today, what Richard Marshall called the “insolent laughter of the angry and the powerless” has itself been appropriated by the forces of reactionary normalisation, from Brexit to Trump to the general drift throughout the socalled West towards a “permissive authoritarianism” – authoritarianism dressed up as righteous indignation, as the legitimate voice of the “dissenting imagination.”

Addressing the fate of the underground through the intervening years, cinematographer Duncan Reekie has identified a common set of causalities centred on a state-funded institutional project to construct a vertically-integrated monopoly over all aspects of contemporary culture. Similar effects can be identified across the arts, with their increased separation and compartmentalisation within a corporate/bureaucratic framework, constituting the gentrification wing of industrial mass consumption. With the incorporation of the ’60s counter-culture into the machinery of normalisation, the re-emergence of an underground from the late ’70s onward corresponded to an increasingly fraught and combative stance. “Learning from the vulnerabilities of the 1960s,” Reekie argues, where “the counter-culture in Europe and America lost its radical momentum whilst the avant-garde effectively institutionalised itself as the legitimate dominant form [of experimental art],” the new underground – finding itself doubly excluded “in the face of a reactionary political backlash, comprehensive… appropriation, commodification, disenchantment and compromise” – specifically valorised “the radical democratic and egalitarian aspects of popular culture: amateurism, conviviality, improvisation, illegitimacy, profanity, transgression and collectivity.”

Abandoning “the naïve optimism of the ‘hippie love generation,’” this new underground “traced a darker subterranean course which retrenched counter-cultural opposition as an ironic celebration of disillusion and negation [centred around the punk and post-punk movements].” In doing so, it “deliberately and ironically sought to outrage and incite… audiences by enacting spectacles of lurid violence, sex, drug use, blasphemy, obscenity and perversion,” exemplified in the work of filmmakers and writers in the US like Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, but also Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper. In the UK there’d been Alan Moore, Chris Petit, Peter Whitehead, but more decisively Richard Allen (aka James Moffatt), whose 18-volume “skinhead Bildungsroman” (including Boot Boys, Teeny Bopper Idol and Knuckle Girls, all published by the New English Library during the 1970s) echoed through the work of Stewart Home, Jeff Noon, the ’90s “New Weird” (China Mièville, Jeff VanderMeer, K.J. Bishop), and Steven Wells’s Attack! Books.

In a series of related articles for the journal Alluvium in 2012 focused on Home and Wells, Mark P. Williams developed the term “subliteratures” in reference to “fictions of resistance” and “insurgent subcultures” emerging in tandem with the new underground: a kind of writing radically opposed to the “dominant culture of postmodernity” – what Francis Fukuyama famously called capitalism’s masterstroke, being in every essential respect “the culture of globalisation.” Corresponding to a millennial turn marked by widespread popular protest against the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and IMF that culminated in violent clashes with police in Seattle and Prague, Williams identified “a demotic, DIY approach to textual experiment” infused with radical politics, whose “defining aesthetics are characterised by excess and resistance to dominant culture.” With roots in the Thatcher/Reagan era anti-Establishment, “subliterature,” like the new underground cinema of the time, produced interventions in “mythic postmodernism’s” rehabilitation of culture into a “heterogeneous spectrum,” one that was supposedly “democratic” and “egalitarian” but was in fact designed to expropriate positions of potential opposition and disguise the hegemonic ambitions of corporate state art, in the “post-historic” absence of countervailing political forces.

Redolent of Debord’s “integrated spectacle,” this heterogeneous spectrum was specifically intended to define, of course, such contestative terms as “underground,” “experimental,” “anti-art” and “transgression.” Williams’s “subliteratures,” then, were concerned not only with a critique of a dominant status quo, but an effort to combat those forces of expropriation aimed at neutralising precisely such critique – both in literary and broadly cultural terms. Informed in part by an insurgent anti-art tradition traced by Home in his book, The Assault On Culture: Utopian Currents From Lettrisme To Class War, and by anti-novels like Home’s Defiant Pose and Red London, this emergent “subliterature” actively eschewed the status of Literature in any conventional sense in order to operate as an extension of “other cultural realms” that likewise “offer resistance to categorisation by form.” For Home in particular, writing (in the genre-bound sense of the commercial publishing industry and its various academic fronts) has never been a justifiable end in itself, but one of an integrated set of means of pursuing an “abolitionist” programme to undermine “social separation” by “simultaneously confronting ‘politics’ and ‘culture.’” This places his work, along with other “subliteratures,” within a broader framework of experimental activism that doesn’t reduce to the usual categories and overlaps with similarly heterogeneous projects, ranging from the Detroit-based Underground Literary Alliance to “the radical feminist peace movement, the free festival/traveller subculture, the urban squatters network, the anarcho-populist Class War group, the fanzine/mail art network and the post-Situationist provocations of groups such as Karen Eliot and Smile magazine.” In keeping with the nonconformist ethos of such groups, part of the “subliterary” aim has always been to confront official cultural inertia by sabotaging its schemes to put the underground – as Michael Jackman says – “under glass.”

As a broadly experimental writing, these “insurgent subliteratures,” “have common tendencies rather than traditions, playing,” as Williams observed, “at the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable representation” – ranging from the world of British action comics and the “avant-pulp” scifi of Jeff Noon (“exploring the ever-changing borderzone between genre fiction and the avant-garde” ) to NME music journalist Steven Wells’s Attack! Books. Founded in 1999, Attack! – described as “a series of millennial anti-novelistic assaults on literary culture” – was a shortlived imprint of London-based Creation Books running to only six titles: Mark Manning’s Get Your Cock Out, Raiders of the Low Forehead by Stanley Manly (pseudonym of Neil Nixon), Tony White’s Satan! Satan! Satan!, editor Steve Wells’s Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty, as well as Vatican Bloodbath by Wells’s collaborator and British music journalist Tommy Udo (who happens to share a name with the psychopathic gunsel played by Richard Widmark in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 Kiss of Death), and Stewart Home’s Whips & Furs: My Life as a Bon-Vivant, Gambler and Love Rat by Jesus H. Christ, published in 2000, a “détourned ‘historical’ novel… based on the faked fifth volume of My Life and Loves by Frank Harris” fusing plagiarism, pornography and an “extremely distasteful” internet autobiography of the Son of God.(Home: “The content is lifted and adapted to the required historical setting from two out-of-copyright sources: An African Millionaire by Grant Allen and The Lustful Turk by Anonymous. Just as Alex Trocchi – who faked the final volume of My Life and Loves – satirised Frank Harris in his text, so I’ve used this work to burlesque Anonymous in particular (whose squib The Lustful Turk really stinks).”) Occupying “the dangerous borderland of grotesque comedy, sexual liberation and vertiginous horror,” Attack! Books was founded on the premise that “contemporary Literature (as index of middle-class culture) could be short-circuited with contemporary tabloid writing (as index of working-class culture) to produce something which would upset all of the social conventions surrounding the two.”

Self-consciously adopting the stance of a “pop-cultural avant-garde” in the tradition of Swift and Sade, Dada and Burroughs, Attack! Books aimed at subverting what Richard Marshall, writing in 3:AM Magazine, called “Rupert Murdoch’s efficient hegemonic tabloid machine,” by mimicking the “tabloid gothic style in a gloriously brutalising, cranked-up extreme inversion” infused with “cartoon violence and sex” in order to affect a “splenetic satire” and “sustained scorn” of “radical dissenting” intent. According to Marshall, Attack! Books constituted a two-pronged cultural offensive, aimed both at the “boring self-regarding prose” of the British literary Establishment – which had sought to monopolise the discourse on contemporary literary culture “to the exclusion of anything else and the exclusion of anyone else” and in whom it sought to provoke “anguish and disgust” – and at the “right-wing tabloid agenda” which, by “master[ing] the prurient moment” had usurped the expression of a popular consciousness, “relat[ing] the lurid details of the murder or rape case in order to put across their wobbly moralism that murder and rape are terrible and not entertaining.” Consequently, it was the aim of Wells’s Attack! Books to “tap into a popularist, inclusive and democratic context that rudely dissents from the powers that be…” an “insolent laughter,” as Marshall says, “of the angry and the powerless.”

Wells’s “splenetic satire” was as far removed as might conceivably be possible from “civilised ironies” familiar to readers of The New Yorker or Times Literary Supplement, where one was more likely to encounter – in the words of Australian poet Michael Dransfield – “the Official Poets, whose genteel / iambics chide industrialists / for making life extinct.” A sense of just how removed can be gleaned from Wells’s Attack! Books manifesto:

‘This generation needs a NEW literature – writing that apes, matches, parodies and supersedes the flickeringly fast 900 MPH ATTACK! ATTACK! ATTACK! velocity of early 21st century popular culture at its most mEnTaL! We will publish writers who think they’re rock stars, rock stars who think they’re writers and we will make supernovas of the stuttering, wild-eyed, slack-jawed drooling idiot-geek geniuses who lurk in the fanzine/internet shadows…
The self-perpetuating ponce-mafia oligarchy of effete bourgeois wankers who run the “literary scene” must be swept aside by a tidal wave of screaming urchin tits-out teenage terror totty and DESTROYED! ATTACK! ATTACK! ATTACK!’

Wells’s generic hyperbole, like Wyndham Lewis’s détourned tabloid Vorticist rants against the

RHETORIC of EUNUCH and STYLIST – SENTIMENTALIST HYGIENICS / ROUSSEAUISMS (wild Nature cranks) / FRATERNIZING WITH MONKEYS / DIABOLICS – ruptures and roses / of the erotic bookshelves/ culminating in / PURGATORY OF / PUTNEY,

wields a brand of “humour… caused,” as Lewis says, “by sudden pouring of culture into Barbary”: “We set Humour at Humour’s throat.”

Like Lewis’s moral scourge, Wells targeted the “impassioned and judgemental right-wing prose” of the British tabloid press “using sex and violence as entertainment whilst simultaneously attacking such a use” as a counter-tactic to the prevailing culture of hypocrisy, from The Sun newspaper to the Arts Council. “This is,” Marshall argues, “in a sense outlaw language” evoking a “stupidly powerful affective moment” that “doesn’t make any concessions to ‘polite society.’ After all, decorum and sophistication are the mannered restrictive forces working out of the middle class elitist position that reviles this sort of writing. As Steven Wells wrote in one of the many publicity manifestos he put out for Attack! Books, ‘Subtlety is found in the dictionary between Shit and Syphilis.’” As with Lewis’s barbarous “humour,” the obscenity and infantile joke at the heart of tabloid culture is here détourned into “the tough, idealistic egalitarianism,” as Marshall calls it, “of the dissenting dream; it discloses the dream and mocks the trials… it bombs into view the stupidity of the present, and clears the ground for a full view of the lost Eden, to which we are thus, ideally, restored. Its baggy, dirty vernacular pulse and vision is that of the Luddite historical imagination, the humane bodily material understanding that is found in every fart, dump, piss and fuck of James Joyce’s anti-colonialist, dissenting masterpiece Ulysses.”

And here, too, the double-pronged aspect of this attack is brought clearly into view, in the evocation of an aggressively “pop-cultural avant-garde” in the post-Joycean mould, for whom the language of dissent must be re-expropriated from the tabloid press and turned upon the Eliotic decorum of a literary Establishment for whom “dissent” is domesticated windowdressing of the “worlds revolve like ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots” type. The ideological (aesthetic, class) normalisation of “literature” – according to “taste, decency, commercialism” – is thereby exposed in its core contradiction. As Marshall goes on to note, “The Attack! Book project, in its essential thrust ventriloquises in maniac tongues the organising idea… that modern literature, as opposed to other types of writing such as pulp and genre fiction, is a strategic response to mass literacy by an intellectual elite wanting to keep out the great unwashed and thus maintain what Bourdieu would call their cultural capital.” There is, so to speak, no neutral ground, contrary to that “heterogeneous spectrum” hocus behind which the Oz-like machinations of the Culture Industry have sought to disguise themselves. Hence, for Marshall, “Only by understanding this phantasmagoric world… is it possible to understand what [Attack! Books are] attempting to challenge.”

[Jean Dubuffet, L’adieu à la fenêtre [Farewell from the Window], 1949]

In a review of Tommy Udo’s Vatican Bloodbath in 3:AM Magazine, Marshall elaborated further. “Art critics,” he advised, “can look at the primitivist art of Alfred Wallis and understand it as great painting even though it’s not Canaletto. Attack! Books are designed to bring about the same inclusivist approach to writing.” Wallis was a Cornish fisherman and self-taught painter born in the mid-nineteenth century but who only began producing art in the 1920s. Described as “naïve,” his work – often painted on cardboard from packing boxes using industrial marine pigments – ignores perspective and possess a topographical “map-like quality” reminiscent in part of later artists, like Sydney Nolan and Jean Dubuffet. Ben Nicholson, in a remark made at the time that was somewhat prescient of Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 pronouncements on “Action Painting,” asserted that, “to Wallis, his paintings were never paintings but actual events.” Wallis’s vernacularism, like Joyce’s, represents for Marshall an essential “contemporaneity” bound up with an array of “critical and creative techniques” that “embrace contingency, juxtaposition and stylistic dissonance.” At the same time, their work explores “the centrality of contradiction and excess… which extends to the attempt to classify them in aesthetic or political terms,” such that the style of their language (painterly, writerly) constitutes at the same time a critique. This eventness of the artist’s vernacular is what informs the sense of militant action Wells injects into the “verbose and symbolic excess,” the “transgressions of theme, style and taste,” typified in Attack! Books: a trait Marshall comes to identify with what he calls the “dissenting imagination,” to whose antecedents he adds John Milton as “the poetic godfather” – “republican, libertarian and anti-hierarchical” – claiming Paradise Lost and Absolem and Achitophel as “its great Ur-texts.”

And if the reader detects a whiff of pretension that gilds the lily of absurdity in this retrospective secondment of the high canonical Milton (deemed by Sam Johnson second only to Homer) to the Attack! mob – aping, so it may seem, the Surrealist rummaging for ancestral portraiture à la Sade, Lautréamont, et al.) – it’s worth for a moment considering the more vital legacy of this seventeenth-century civil servant’s poetic dissidence. This legacy, for which he is acknowledged in the Romantic and Modernist traditions, stems not from the routine anthologisation of blank verse ditties sacred and secular, but from Milton’s apology for regicide, his polemic against censorship, and what must – at least since Blake – be attributed a subversive employment of the heroic couplet on such regal and grandiloquent a scale. Keeping in mind, also, that the equally bold iconoclast Blake (“ruin of space, shattered glass and toppling masonry” ) – and one of Milton’s most incisive readers – was, till quite recently, condemned by the same Establishment that accorded Milton such fulsome praise – as a lunatic purveyor of mystical kitsch. Yet Blake, like the “acrimonious and surly republican” Milton – but unlike the fair-weather-“radical”-turned-Poet-Laureate Southey – refused to be redeemed by later recanting himself. Blake’s uncompromising refusal, to submit before the sacerdotal order of literary-political taste, provides a direct model for Wells’s own “passionate ethical desire,” in Marshall’s words, “to point up the hypocrisies and stupidities of the world around him” – but most importantly to do so, like Blake, in the language of that world. For Blake, this meant the all-pervasive language of institutional Christianity and its manifold dissimulations; for Wells, it meant the equally pervasive and dissembling language of tabloid media.

[Stewart Home by Marc Atkins, 1999]

Marshall finds a similar core critical impetus in the work of Stewart Home, whose anti-art activism clearly impressed Wells and has persisted beyond the limited scope of the Attack! Books project. Home, who Mark Williams described as “a self-conscious enigma” and who Iain Sinclair once called “a dynamo of invention, recycling Dadaist provocation into fugues of inspired counter-terror…,” had more or less systematically set about during the 1980s to position himself within precisely the sort of dissenting tradition Marshall identifies with Milton, Blake, Carlisle and Hazlitt – one that, as Home himself proposes, runs “from the Free Spirit through the writings of Winstanley, Coppe, Sade, Fourier, Lautréamont, William Morris, Alfred Jarry, and on into Futurism and Dada – then via Surrealism into Lettrism, the various Situationist movements, Fluxus, ‘Mail Art,’ Punk Rock, Neoism and contemporary anarchist cults.” A tradition, Marshall adds, of “piss-takers, pranksters and jokers who used their slapstick rhetoric and parodic works to entertain, incite, educate and instruct a huge radicalised readership.”

These last remarks first appeared in 3:AM Magazine in April 2001, in Marshall’s “review” of Home’s second novel, Defiant Pose, ten years after that book’s release, but coinciding with the height of Wells’s activities at Attack! Books for which, in many respects, Defiant Pose – “a story,” as the dust jacket blurb announced, “straight from today’s headlines” – served as a model. In fact Marshall’s review was intended to appear “in a filthied-up version” as part of one of several Attack! Books later abandoned when lack of funds forced Wells to discontinue publication at the end of that year. New additions to the franchise eventually made its way before the public under the title Dirty Manga Bastards, by the pseudonymous “Johnny Pulp” – one of eleven books authored by him (including Cancer Boy, Postcards of the Hanging and The Millennium GM Killer Mutant Lesbian Baby Plague) in a binge of attempted institutional sabotage and printed simultaneously under Randolph Carter’s Neo-Attack imprint in 2005. The new series – part continuity, part homage to what Marshall described in his obituary to Wells (who died of cancer in 2009) as “a publishing venture that is still… one of the most daring and truly radical of its kind” – was a bizarro mash-up of post-apocalyptic noir, pulp action comics, cyberpunk, transgender porn and continental philosophy (Jonny Pulp’s “filthied-up” review of Defiant Pose – comprising chapter 16-17 of the book: “Madame Atamos Sheds Her Skin” – is punctuated with random appearances by “the Jean Paul Sartre Mayhem Monster,” “the Albert Camus Car Crash Killer,” “the Roland Barthes Blitzkrieg Beast,” “the manically depressed Louis Althusser Strangling Raptor Creature,” “the incredibly complex and convoluting Jacques Lacan Ringmaster Killer Psycho Hysteric,” and “the Nietzschean House Of Whipcord Foucault Fuck Machine”).

The Neo-Attack project, in common with its predecessor, only accedes to being “Literature” in ways similar to Home’s claim to being an “Artist” and “Writer” – which is only insofar, as Williams says, that all three terms are thereby exposed as “public demonstrations of the inevitability of reproducing one’s own alienation under capital and therefore show forth the contradictions which affect us all.” Like Williams’s term “subliterature,” the labels Home’s work has been least inclined to reject are anti-novel and anti-art: the assault on reactionary culture and the “negation of present social conditions,” in Williams’s view, being “key to all his writing.” What all of these subliteratures share, however, is an additional scepticism towards the sort of liberational narratives lazily associated with historical avant-gardes, whose “socially-transformative aspirations” are boiled down to the sort of naïve soundbite “dialectics” of “opposition and transcendence” that can fill a column-inch of catalogue space in the latest Taschen Art Now. As Jack Sargeant writes in his recent study of underground film: “The notion of an authentic moment realised in transgression would render such actions beholden truth” – for which reason neither Home, Wells nor Marshall “depict nor search” for any such “truth.” Instead, where they arrive is at “the Wittgensteinian place where there is nothing that can be said and all that is left is silence… No amount of irony can redeem it, and so it is redeemed!”

Redemption here is thus never of the concluded sort, but a tactical détournement: a parodic excess always prepared to up the ante on each occasion that “realism” – as the discourse of institutional normalisation – rises to meet it. Such acts are beyond mere satirical grenade-lobbing and verge on all-out aesthetic “terrorism” – insofar, at least, as that term is denominated by the powers-that-be. Home once suggested his work occupied “the opposite position of Baudrillard, who says what’s real becomes simulated. My position is what’s simulated becomes real.” There is a sense that Home sees the task of “subliterature” as not simply opposing or sabotaging the status quo, but as inciting the status quo to assume its “forms” – or rather its parodic non-forms – by way of a perverse incrementalism. On the one hand this produces the absurdities and self-contradictions we witness with such things as the Goldsmith’s Prize for “Innovative Fiction” – declarations of intent, as Reekie says, designed to appropriate a subcultural style “whilst actually showcasing their own state-funded institutional product” ; on the other it conjures into reality such obscenities of naked power as Donald Trump. Trump, who could just as easily be the product of Jonny Pulp’s “Attack! Anime” – a grotesquely overblown super-ego rampaging through the halls of consolidated Western power – represents precisely that species of negational avatar which “subliteratures” exist to incite, like the proverbial Golem, from an oblivious sleep atop its horde of dirty linen. If there is any “truth” to be revealed here, it is that the radical nihilistic impulse that appears to be embodied in these texts, is in fact “nothing” but a cracked mirror held up to the image of Power: that violent automaton pursuing its apocalyptic career in the blissful illusion that the supposed consumers of this Zardoz fantasy are somehow unaware.

These are properly “deconstructive texts” in the sense that they burlesque rather than conventionally critique: they occupy the very language of disenfranchisement that is otherwise employed to demonstrate that they do not really exist. There is nothing of a Foucauldian paradigm here: this is not some pretence to an authentic voice of the excluded, a critique of the history of reason from the POV of the madwoman in the attic. The truly subversive character of the sublit project is that it is first and foremost a “locus” of détourning action – a radical poetics – a tropism. While the theorisers of the recuperated avantgarde toil to contain and expropriate the thing they imagine subliterature to be, their grasp necessarily comes up empty: there’s nothing to grasp, in any case, but a hologram of their own transgressed image, which they are more than adept at attending to. Moreover, if the subliterary assault on the “elite nepotistic enclaves” of Culture shares an historical impetus (as Home and others insist) with a broadly “proletarian” stance, it does so in the sense that proletariat – specifically in its “radical” formulation as what Marx called Lumpenproletariat – defines a non-possession of “means of production” as well as evoking a non-class of non-productive, degenerated, submerged social elements, a species of formlessness, in fact, constituting an unshaped (and categorically resistant) political consciousness – one that, in its chronic heterogeneity, necessarily remains unclassifiable, unredeemed, useless.

Valorised by the Situationists as a demographic of urban drift and a manifestation of the “no work” ethos, this sub-proletariat is the very opposite of anything that could be called a movement let alone a class, and is perhaps better considered according to the sense of Bataille’s l’informe : that non-category of the conventionally “excluded,” as in gobs of spit, vomit, piss, shit, ejaculate, etc.; as in the reviled; as in human waste, trash, scum. If the “subliterary” draws its impetus from such an aesthetico-political formlessness, it does not thereby represent it, rather it amplifies its disturbances, which (like a retrovirus) are in turn “given form” by the expropriative whitewashing action of institutional power – exposing, by infecting, that “secret” and equally unformed reflection at its core. It is like that abominable unsleeping creature that flies through the night polluting the vacuous dreams of all the little infant captains of industry, whose beatific repose is the faceless pornography of other people’s nightmares.


Louis Armand is director of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory. His books include Videology (2015), The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey (2013), Cairo (shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s Not-the-Booker Prize, 2014) and The Combinations (2016).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017.