Monday, May 29, 2006

Play It As It Lays

Useful application of the concepts Muse and improvisation are coming back in force on the WWW.

For example, Quickmuse, featured in the New York Times book section today.

Don't even think about Baudrillard, Virilio, Cixous, or Heidegger Schmeideggger. Just poeticize:
Mr. Gordon, a poetry enthusiast who is editor of, a Jewish literature site, said he was interested in the general subject of improvisation in the arts. "Improvisation makes it fresher, more vital," he said. "It doesn't give poets a chance to be careful. It offers them the opportunity to surprise themselves, to say things they didn't know they wanted to say, things their fingers know but their brains do not."
This reminds me of something my old Prof, Alain Robbe-Grillet, once said, when he was attacked by a budding PhD feminista in our class, whereupon she accused him of exploiting the women characters in his novels and films. Robbe-Grillet, full use of his arms and hands in gestural mutation, said: "My mind can't control what my hands are creating."

The Times article continues:
And of course improvisation has a long history in American culture, especially in jazz. Frank O'Hara and Jack Kerouac wrote quickly, though Truman Capote famously derided Kerouac's work as typing not writing.
Typing not writing? Kerouac or Capote? We report, you decide.

Anyway, I knew a resurgence of interest in improvisational writing would rematerialize on the WWW during the latter stages of the Bush fiasco, how could it not? Interestingly enough, not only is engaging in an improvisatory writing style a countercultural political move that breaks away from the strategic hustle of wannabe millionaires and Cinderella-waiting-to-be-discovered writers alike, it's also an alternative way to counter the commercial logic of the traditional publishing space that seems to value everything I find wrong in contemporary fiction (overwrought, preconceived, and desperately seeking political correctness).

These days it looks as though improvisational musing also challenges the small press scene too, which though valiant in its efforts to keep the cult of print literature (per se) alive in the digipop culture, is really being run (overrun) by the PhD crowd weaned on post-structuralism and what I think of as "fine-tuned" postmodern workshop-style fiction. Although I still prefer work from the indie presses over the congloms, the indies do seem to be suffering from the "look how smart I am, I understand Baudrillard, Virilio, and Cixous!" anxiety of influence that has killed the creative spirit of so many potentially illuminating writers. But hey, isn't it great to use standard pomo narrative tricks to show the world (or the 300 people in it who will peruse your pages) that your character is really nothing but a simulation of her former self?

Again, not to sound too anti-theory, but there are too many so-called "creative writers" going for their PhD as the only way to evolve a life practice that will afford them the time they need to write their novels. No worries, go for it. That's your way, and it may be the only way you have left open for personal artistic development. But the "cognitive loading" and "opportunity costs" that come with such pursuits seems to be making most of the work too smart for its own good, lacking a sense of what I have previously called "experiential tagging" (writing from the angle of experience), and now the best of the small press scene, or what's left of it, is still highlighting their affiliation with the books and thought of the trendy French and German philosophers of 20 years ago, as if the literature (per se) that grows out of that (higher) education will resonate with what we think of as posterity and seriousness.

The best book of "not-fiction" fiction I have read all year is Chris Kraus' Torpor. The most delicious irony of its publication is that it is published by Semiotext(e) - thanks to Sylvere Lotringer who, it's no secret, is the model for one of the two leading protagonists. It would be good to follow-up reading Kraus' book with Kathy Acker's Don Quixote: a dream (again), another book that Sylvere appears in. Read those two books, then never pick up a French theory book again (OK, never is a long time). Clean your brain of it all and keep trying to tap into that unconscious neural mechanism that no brain scan in the world can seem to find (amazing, isn't it?).

Start over. Just improvise new works of art and, if ya like, shoot them over the net.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Torpor is a terrific book, isn't it? It works the outsider/insider edge to perfection. Kraus can write sentences that seem to me cast in stainless steel.

But Mark, how to improvise without retreading old Jack an' Al's jazz schtick? Because, let's face it, there's plenty of that on the market too.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Professor VJ said...


You are right about Torpor. It was one of those books that I couldn't put down, and I say this after having started about four or five other fiction books that I keep picking up and putting down (not that they're bad books, some of them are actually very smart and funny, like Jeff DeShell's Peter: An (A)Historical Romance published by a hot new press called Starcherone Books).

Re: your Q about "how to improvise without retreading old Jack an' Al's jazz schtick?" - as you know - it's something I've been dealing with for a long time now. My sense is that you have to expand the concept of improv - extend its boundaries - into other metaphorical spaces besides jazz - although jazz can be useful at times and - when it is - then use it.

Two examples: 1) in my "surf-sample-manipulate" projects, I find myself intersubjectively jamming with the data on the web, tagging it with whatever stylistic tendencies I happen to be feeling that day. This means surfing the web randomly as I comb the mediascape for useful data that I then select, copy, paste, and remix/manipulate for my own pseudo-autobiographical uses (and by that I mean, something that tells my story as it is, although the "my" is a continuous fiction-in-the-making - which is itself a kind of remix of Whitehead's "Religion In The Making"...).

- and 2) set up arbitary parameters to use as a writerly constraint (this, of course, is sampled from Dada and OULIPO among others), so that instead of just doing improv-as-stream of consciousness riffing off whatever thoughts fight their way to the front of my fringe-flow, I now have to improvise my writing within the conceptual framework I've designed for that particular performance. For Ginzy or Jack, that might have been breath or open measure, and that's cool too, I'm doing that now in my own way right here in this response to your comment, but I could just as well have set up a different improv environment, for example, one where I start every sentence with the letter W and always start a new line before the preceding one wraps at the end.....

What would that look like?
Why would I do it?
Where would the langue be coming from?
Want to bet I stop it here?

11:22 AM  

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