Friday, November 23, 2007

The Renewable Tradition

Quoting from the short story "Death of the Novel":
Obviously there's no progress in art. Progress toward what? The avant-garde is a convenient propaganda device, but when it wins the war everything is avant-garde, which leaves us just about where we were before. The only thing that's sure is that we move, and as we move we leave things behind--the way we felt yesterday, the way we talked about it. Form is your footprints in the sand when you look back.
The author of the story, Ronald Sukenick, uses this quote from his fiction to introduce his artist essay "The New Tradition" which is collected in the groundbreaking anthology of artist poetics entitled Surfiction.

"The New Tradition," Sukenick used to tell me, is the one we're always on the cusp of inventing, yet again, i.e. an expansion of "the rival tradition in literature." For those who may not have encountered this kind of literary thinking before, this is what the rivals of traditional literature do: they take on literature so as to destroy it, and in the process, remixologically inhabit its historical body, pushing tender buttons all along the way. Sometimes the literary-minded remixologists find themselves innovating the mediumistic qualities of the form they are working in without even necessarily thinking about it (this happened to me when I was writing my first novel, The Kafka Chronicles, that is, I was completely unaware of a so-called "New Tradition" and was just writing the only way I knew how to). Other times we who create innovative works of literary art are fully self-conscious of the rival lineage we spring forth from and knowingly take on other remixological styles just to see what happens when we move inside other writer's bodies (of work). Perhaps this is when remixologically inhabiting the spirit of another writer's stylistic tendencies or at least the gesture [gist?] of their thought feels more like an embodied praxis. For instance, I remember Sukenick in The Endless Short Story remixologically inhabiting the 1967 style of Norman Mailer. My second novel Sexual Blood inhabits the style of Lautréamont. Kathy Acker took on the body-language of Faulkner, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, to name just a few.

In this regard, much of what I write when composing my fiction, including the "Distributed Fictions" planted inside META/DATA, inhabits the early developments of Laurence Sterne (and in particular his work Tristram Shandy) and Lautréamont (all of what little he wrote). For those who follow such things, this will make perfect sense since one of these writers is the Godfather of digressionary [hyper-textual] fiction (Sterne) and the other is the Prince of Playgiarism (Lautréamont). Sukenick himself would be quick to point out Henry Miller as the Godfather of a pseudo-autobiographical fictional style that leads the disappearing writer into acts of creative composition. In an email dialogue I had with Sukenick, he said that "Miller was the one who woke me up to the fact that words on the page can be a vital extension of the life of the writer and therefore of the life of the reader." The "New Tradition" Sukenick wrote about in both his fiction and artist poetics attempts to renew literature's potential vitality within a cultural context that, one now has to seriously wonder, may be preformatted to kill literature as such.

Having said that, the issue he and I always traded notes on was "How can the vitality of writing survive in electronic/networked environments?" We were not overly concerned about "saving literature for literature's sake." More important, and perhaps Mailer would have concurred, was saving our own asses by expanding the concept of writing so that it too could infiltrate and have influence on the emerging digital culture. If literature wanted to come along for the ride, then (conjuring the spirit of Mailer circa "Armies of the Night") The Novelists would not stop it from doing so. As long as we are left to our incandescence, our satori, our hallucinatory language adventures, then literature is welcome to join us at its own risk. As much as we would be happy to kill it en route ourselves (this is not a job for Corporate America and its Cable News / Hollywood Sensationalism / Facebook Fakeout culture, it's for The Novelists!), we must accept the fact that it has earned our respect just for having survived this long and, like your rich old man with shiny new tooth implants champing at the bit, if it is hungry for more historical relevance, so be it. We will even acknowledge its tough guy stubbornness till the day it dies.

Still, there are many ways of out-surviving literature per se while expanding the power of writing to hack into the abyss and transform the world. As always, one must persist and never stop hacking the system (this system is not necessarily just the Big Bad Cocoon of Institutionalized Technocapitalism either -- it's just as much a biological system, like the one you're swimming in right now). Taking on the stylistic writing gestures of other artists and then remixologically manipulating them in some ancient form of "realtime" requires practice. Moving in and out of these "ghost tendencies" that mark the outlines of a body language once performed by another writer of the past also necessitates a certain amount of experience. I think of it as body experience, the gesture of writing embedded in muscle memory, something that feels like a deep interiorization of someone else's rhythm. What I learned from Sukenick and Acker, for example, came both from being with them in person and reading them at a distance. Reading their bodies and moving through their books with them kept me on my game. Engaging in dialogue with them, in person, and via email, spurred on more pseudo-autobiographical codework. "You're on fire," Acker told me in the first email I ever received from her. She was right (and knew it).

These artists were the ones who taught me how to haunt the texts that came before me, even as these same texts haunted me back. Think of it as reciprocal literary ghostbusting but with a twist: by creating new iterations of "performance writing" modeled after the resonant styles of the past, contemporary remixologists carry on the next phase of the Renewable Tradition (a "next phase" that opens itself up to the hacking priorities of other remixologists).

By replacing the "new tradition" in writing with a formidable "renewable tradition" in electronic remixology or what Gregory Ulmer calls electracy, we open up future channels of distribution that are fueled by "renewable energy sources" and can begin imagining how the future forms of fiction(al) performance might emerge as "hybrid vehicles" to transport our digital personas in. How would a contemporary remixologist, divining their own just-in-time context for the compositional field of the moment, jump-start a renewable tradition made out of all of the "renewable energy sources" of the past, present, and yes, future?

How could artist-researchers developing new practice-based initiatives in remixology turn the immediate future into a renewable source of "energy" that fuels their unconscious readiness potential?

Success in this area of research could lead to the artist becoming a valuable postproduction medium.

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