Friday, October 31, 2008

The Dunwich Horror

"You needn't ask how Wilbur called it out of the air. He didn't call it out. It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Agitprop Reading Series begins its second year on November 1

We hope you can join us this Saturday, November 1 for the next reading
in the Agitprop reading series at Agitprop Gallery (2837 University
Ave in North Park, entrance on Utah, a few blocks west of 30th
Street), featuring STAN APPS and MATHEW TIMMONS. Wine
and snacks will be served. Donations to the gallery are always

Stan Apps is a poet and essayist living in Los Angeles. His books of
poems include soft hands (Ugly Duckling Presse), Princess of the World
in Love (Cy Press), Info Ration (Make Now Press) and God's Livestock
Policy (Les Figues Press). A collection of essays is underway from
Combo Books. Recent work has appeared in Joyland: a hub for short
fiction (, Try Magazine,
Abraham Lincoln, Ecopoetics, and the Icelandic webzine Tregawott.
Stan ekes out a living as an adjunct college instructor, teaching the
poor to write short persuasive essays.

Mathew Timmons co-edits/curates Insert Press (w/ Stan Apps), LA-Lit (
w/ Stephanie Rioux) and Late Night Snack (w/ Harold Abramowitz). His
collaboration with visual artist Marcus Civin, a particular vocabulary
(P S Books), is forthcoming, and his work may be found in various
journals, including: Sleepingfish, P-Queue, Holy Beep!, Flim Forum,
The Physical Poets, NōD, PRECIPICe, Or, Moonlit, aslongasittakes,
eohippus labs and The Encyclopedia Project. He teaches
interdisciplinary arts and writing workshops for CalArts School of
Critical Studies.

We hope to see you there and for all festivities afterwards!

Saturday, June 7th
2837 University Ave in North Park. Entrance on Utah.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Untitled Speculations: Where I'll Be This Weekend

(text taken from the conference website)

Untitled: Speculations on the Expanded Field of Writing

REDCAT and CalArts present the fifth annual series of experimental writing conferences at REDCAT, Untitled: Speculations on the Expanded Field of Writing is a two-day conversation about writing which, in some manner, exceeds the printed page. While familiar with visual artworks constituted as a set of instructions, secrets written by visitors in a book, or one artist erasing of another artist's work, is discussed how to be equivalent in the literary world. The conference is October 24-25, 2008.

Untitled is a common name of contemporary art works and also refers to the incipient moment of a new text or idea. It was chosen to convey a sense of openness and process. A variety of writers and artists will discuss the use of language and words and/or their object status, the book and the letter, the question of the "emptiness" vs. the fullness of language as a poetic medium, the pictorial versus the narrative, the incorporation of extra-linguistic symbols and signs (maps, diagrams, formulas, etc.), the question of conceptual writing and words off the page -- performed, cited, projected, incanted or invoked.

Among the participants is Kenny Goldsmith, an "uncreative" writer who labels himself the most boring writer in the world. He writes books that include everything he said for a week (Soliloquy, 2001), every move his body made during a thirteen-hour period (Fidget, 1999), and a year of transcribed weather reports (The Weather, 2005).

Artist Young-Hae Chang is part of a corporate web art group known as Heavy Industries, whose short Flash texts have mesmerized the art world with their combination of graphic boldness and acute commentary on culture, politics and commerce, yielding a new kind of literary cinema.

Currently teaching in the Writing Program at CalArts, and another participant, Salvador Plascencia's first novel, The People of Paper, takes place in the Chicano Diaspora. Reflecting on the nature of literary characters, some of his people are literally made of paper, and others get paper cuts from them.

The conference will include two panels on the topic of Litterality, and examine how writers use what we normally consider non-linguistic elements, such as symbols, diagrams, maps, or scores placed in the context of writing. Also explored are invented writing systems, and what it might mean to think about the book as an object rather than as a collection of words or sentences.

As in the art world, many kinds of appropriation have been undertaken by experimental writers in the last several years. The panel on Appropriation and Citation will look at these practices, asking questions about whose work and what material gets appropriated, cited or resurrected, who owns texts, and if there is a difference between appropriation and citation.

A panel on The Meaninglessness or -fulness of Language will examine language as a vehicle of meaning. Rather than look at what texts say, it asks if language simply taken on its own is empty, saturated with meaning, both, or something else.

The fifth panel on The Concept of Conceptual Writing, looks at the use of writing not to convey meaning or tell stories but to convey concepts, asking how this might be similar, or not, to the work of conceptual artists in the visual arena.

In addition to the five panels, there will be two evening readings. The participants in the conference are Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Latasha Diggs, Johanna Drucker, Kenneth Goldsmith, Robert Grenier, Douglas Kearney, Steve McCaffery, Julie Patton, Salvador Plascencia, Jessica Smith, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Taylor, Shanxing Wang and Heriberto Yepez. This event is organized by Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim of the Writing Program at CalArts, and funded by The Annenberg Foundation.

Conference Schedule:

Friday, October 24
12.30 p.m.
Opening Addresses

1.00-3.00 p.m.
Litterality 1
Writing is not speech, it is letters on a page. What do we make of the inclusion in writing of non-alphabetic signs, symbols, diagrams; writing as map or score; invented writing notations; or the book as object?

Panelists will includes Johanna Drucker, Salvador Plascencia, Latasha Diggs, Shanxing Wang

3.30-5.00 p.m.
The Meaninglessness or -fulness of Language
As a vehicle, is language empty, saturated with meaning, both, or something else?

Panelists will include Jessica Smith, Bob Grenier, Christine Wertheim

5.00-6.00 p.m
Drinks at REDCAT with participants and audience

8.30-10.30 p.m.
Evening Readings/Performances

Saturday, October 25
10.30 a.m-12.00 p.m.
Appropriation and Citation
Whose work and what material gets appropriated, cited and resurrected? Who owns texts? Is there a difference between appropriation and citation?

Panelists will include Steve McCaffery, Doug Kearney, Kenneth Goldsmith

12.30-2.00 p.m
Litterality 2
Writing is not speech, it is letters on a page. What do we make of the inclusion in writing of non-alphabetic signs, symbols, diagrams; writing as map or score; invented writing notations; or the book as object?

Panelists will include Brian Kim Stephans, Julie Patton, Vincent Dachy


3.30-5.00 p.m.
The Concept of Conceptual Writing.
What is the relation between conceptual writing and the trajectory of conceptual art?

Panelists will include Stephanie Taylor, Heriberto Yepez, Young-Hae Chang+Marc Voge

5.00-6.00 p.m.
Summary Discussion with all panelists

8.30-10.30 p.m.
Evening Readings/Performances

Organized by Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegener from CalArts’ MFA Writing Program.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

White Racists for McCain/Palin

In what ways is the rise of racist behavior among McCain/Palin supporters the same racism that one might have seen in the U.S. in the 1980s, the 60s, or even earlier? That’s one of the questions I’ve been asking myself lately while simultaneously wishing that this campaign season would get itself over with a little more quickly. It’s not a question I have a complete set of answers to (obviously) so much as a set of observations and speculations. I’m not trying here to take up the issues of structural or institutional racism but to look at ways in which racist attitudes showing themselves in this election season seem like or unlike past manifestations.

What’s new is calling a Presidential candidate a terrorist and associating African Americans and other minority groups with terrorism. This seems very much a post September 11 phenomenon.

What’s new also is the degree of fear and anger at the idea that a black man might be President. Of course that’s new because it’s never really been a possibility before.

What’s not new is the anger of economically marginal whites at finding themselves competing for jobs with minority groups and sometimes losing out and believing that such a situation is unacceptable. White people’s feelings about entitlement seem pretty similar to what they have often been.

What’s also not new is the lack of jobs and loss of opportunity in rural areas. That said, there’s certainly a new cycle going on in U.S.’ boom and bust tendencies that has different features than earlier. I’m not sure what those features are exactly, but they have to do with what kinds of jobs have vanished and what few kinds remain. With most industrial and agricultural jobs long gone, what remains other than low wage retail work and various small business attempts at making a few dollars? Still, that particular change isn’t all that new, although at the moment it may be particularly severe.

What is new is the degree to which the white middle class is disappearing in many small city and rural environments. The degree of division between a few elites and a struggling underclass is less hidden, while more small cities begin to resemble abandoned urban areas.

What is also new is the increasing number and types of minority group citizens in small city and rural areas. This demographic shift may suggest that even rural whites now encounter more types of minority groups than in the past.

What’s new also is the degree to which even racists often seem to understand that being labeled a racist is a bad thing. Racists are more quick than ever before to deny that they are racists and to make a public ruckus if anybody calls them racist. As unpleasant as that phenomenon is, it indicates a profound shift in U.S. history. Even many racists grant that racism is wrong and so in some instances have to struggle with how best to code racist language so that it doesn’t seem transparently racist.

But does the above also suggest that there may be less white racists than ever before? That’s something I don’t know.

What’s new also is the relationship between Americans and material goods. Of course if one compares standards of housing and kinds of available material goods between 2008 and the 1960s and further back, it would be immediately clear how many more material goods are available to economically marginal people than were 50 years ago. But, for instance, the explosion of the price of gas means that it’s more difficult to afford to drive a car, if you actually have one, so that a basic element of rural life seems endangered. And people are less likely to own their own homes and more likely to not be able to afford the homes they have recently tried to purchase.

What’s not new is the degree of scapegoating and its perpetual illogic: that minority groups are to blame for the problems of white people, rather than the financial and market practices of people who often may have a similar cultural background.

This list is hardly complete. Certainly I’m not talking here about the more subtle, sometimes even unconscious racism that continues to pervade U.S. culture: the identification of behavioral traits with race and racially coded behavioral preferences, etc. The effects of the less visible racism practiced by comfortably well-off suburban and urban people is also much harder to recognize and describe. And it’s difficult to know the degree to which any of these things will finally affect the voting on November 4. Still, it has been interesting (as well as troubling, obviously) this election season to witness the ways racism itself changes in relationship to other changing social dynamics.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good Americans Hate Cities

There has been a lot of furor lately over the comments of Horace Engdahl, the lead judge of the group who decides the Nobel Prize, made several weeks ago about American literature, calling it too parochial, isolated, and ignorant in contrast to the greater cosmopolitanism of various European literatures. He later backpedaled a bit, saying that he was speaking of no particular author but just American literature in general. But aggressive debate has continued, with many Americans defending American literature and saying Engdahl knows nothing about it, while other critics (see for instance the ongoing discussion on Johannes Goransson’s blog) see in that defense a continuation of an American bullying refusal to engage with literature of other cultures and languages.

I’m not interested in taking a stand on American literature in some general way as much as I am in noting that American parochial anti-cosmopolitanism does indeed exist. In fact it has a long and particular history, one that in the literary furor nobody seems to be talking about in much detail.

For reasons that might seem obvious, early European settlers of America were themselves often anti-European. There’s nothing like desiring or needing to run from a place to turn somebody against it, and early Euro-American culture is full of Europeans who despise Europe, even while a whole range of other attitudes also remain possible.

In fact the rhetoric of colonial America often claims to be in absolute opposition to the principles of Europe. One of these basic principles has to do with cities. European cosmopolitanism was often seen by early Americans as the source of European moral and political corruption. In contrast, colonial Americans often defined themselves in terms of rural virtue. The good, independent farmer whose virtue comes from the land is a stock figure in American culture. Maybe no text defines this figure better than the 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer by John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, a French aristocrat who came to America, changed his name from Michel Guillaume to John Hector St. John, and worked for a few years as a farmer before eventually returning to France and living out his days there, to some extent against his will.

What’s important to note about Crevecoeur is that Europeans can have pro-rural, pro-American, anti-cosmopolitan ideas about Europe too. The idea of rural virtue as an antidote to the decadent city is one developed by Europeans and their Euro-American descendants.

Nonetheless, much of American culture is based in the distrust of cities and remains that way to this day. For instance, one of the things that was so radical about the work of Walt Whitman that we might now forget is not simply that he celebrates American urban immigrant culture, but that he writes about the city at all. In the 1850s the city wasn’t considered by American poets to be a suitable subject for poetry, since the city lacked morally elevating principles. In fact cities are notably absent from most of early American literature, occasionally making an appearance in a book like Charles Brockdon Brown’s 1799 novel Arthur Mervyn, which discusses Philadelphia mainly as a vast gothic breeding ground of contagious illness, not to mention criminality and promiscuity.

Jane Jacobs, in her 1961 book The Life and Death of American Cities, details how the history of urban planning in America is founded in and determined by anti-urban attitudes. That is, the people involved in planning American cities up even into the 1960s did so from the perspective that the city was immoral and that good city planners should make cities feel more rural. Instead of building cities on the idea that urban spaces prosper when neighbors interact on the streets, American cities are often full of anti-urban spaces that try to foster an illusion of privacy but instead mainly destroy street life and turn streets into often dangerous, isolated places.

Another important element contributing to American isolationism is the literal geography of the United States, especially as that geography interacts with the history of the belief that U.S. rural democratic goodness is opposed to European cosmopolitan authoritarian corruption. Both the size of the United States and its distance from other countries that speak other languages mean that it’s more possible for people in the U.S. to grow up without interacting at all, or more than barely, with people who speak languages other than English. Certainly I grew up never hearing any language other than English spoken by anybody I knew well or even casually. I heard Spanish on several trips to Mexico and French once on a trip to Quebec. Although I took six years of French and two of German, I can barely speak a word of either of those languages. In the kinds of schools I grew up in, taking language classes was considered by other teenagers something for sissies, of course. But it also went hand in hand with comments about “When am I ever going to use any of this actually?” I had no opportunities to go to Europe as a boy (in fact I first went when I was 33) , and spending a few days in Mexico or Canada as a boy with my father hardly constituted any kind of major immersion in another culture. I’m not always sure whether people understand the degree of linguistic isolation that exists in many parts of the United States even now. Europeans, of course, other than the most isolated rural ones, are in general much more used to the idea of being around multiple languages. At their worst they tend to see American ineptness with other languages as a kind of moral failing, which in some ways it may be. But it’s also a result of a real linguistic isolation that Europeans don’t have in as significant a degree.

Add all these things together, and one has a country that to this day is often very resistant to the idea of influence from the outside world. Admittedly I find it odd to consider that American isolationist rhetoric hasn’t changed all that hugely in over 300 years, and that it hasn’t significantly changed as the United States has developed from a small country to the world’s predominant military power. But it hasn’t. Rhetoric about good country people is essential to ideas of American exceptionalism—the idea that the past and destiny of the United States make it uniquely the best nation in the history of the world. It’s really both astounding and not surprising, actually, to see some of our current candidates for president and vice-president use the same rhetoric about America and the outside world that they might have used several hundred years ago.

One last point. U.S. isolationism is not only subject to political manipulation, it’s also volatile. While the Republican party is generally more likely to call up this rhetoric and make use of it, isolationism now and then swerves to embrace a more democratic, populist perspective that has sometimes put liberals in office. Consider this: of the 70 to 80 percent of Americans who now feel that the war against Iraq has been a mistake, it’s still only the same 35 to 40 percent of us who feel it is a mistake because of what it's doing to Iraq. Another group of a similar size is more likely to believe that the war is a mistake because it’s a waste of U.S. money and U.S. lives in a country far away that we shouldn’t have cared about in the first place. In other words, if the war against Iraq does finally end, the fact that many U.S. citizens would prefer not to even know that a place like Iraq exists may play a significant role in ending it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Doomsday Is At Hand

Among the many remarkable and ridiculous things about the last two weeks in American politics, I noticed an absolute explosion of Doomsday Rhetoric, beginning with George Bush’s Chicken Little “The Sky Is Falling” speech and the chorus of rhetorical doomsaying that followed.

While a significant portion of what remains of your money is being handed over to the same people that took the rest of it, I thought I’d say a little bit about Doomsday Rhetoric and why Americans love it so much.

I haven’t done any research into the historical origins of Doomsday Rhetoric, but its history is undoubtedly quite ancient. Indeed I can imagine the opening sentence of a typical student paper reading something like the following and not being too far off the mark:

“Since the beginning of time, humans have prophesied about the end of time.”

Certainly the origins of the United States are thoroughly soused with Doomsday Rhetoric. One of the first works written in America that might have been called, by the standards of the day, a best seller, with over 1800 copies delivered in its first year of publication (1662) alone, the Puritan poem “The Day of Doom,” by Michael Wigglesworth, through 224 grinding stanzas described in pleasingly dark and repetitive detail the destruction of human life because of its sinfulness and the tortures of hell that followed. Over the next several decades “The Day of Doom” became a standard work found in many New England homes. It's important to recognize how much fun this poem must have been to read at the time in order to understand how Doomsday Rhetoric works.

Hundreds of years later, Americans continue to be very excited at the thought of Total Destruction, or some especially thrilling degree of it, and flock to movies such as Independence Day and countless others that show destruction at the hands of meteors or monsters from outer space or nuclear war or climate change, anything really, as long as it brings us to the verge of Total Destruction and in some cases takes us over the edge.

Of course, the biggest difference between watching the world end in a movie and watching the world actually end is that if you watch it in a movie, you can come out again next week and watch it again.

For awhile, after September 11, there was a temporary moratorium on films featuring end of the world thrills, since such films seemed, for a little while anyway, to be in bad taste. But there was nothing like Bush’s mantra of “weapons of mass destruction” to get Doomsday Rhetoric on the road again, and in recent years it has been going strong. The absolute flood of it we’ve seen in the last week or two has reminded me once more how much so many Americans love the idea of Doomsday.

Some points though. The Doomsday Tale is always, at its base, a religious tale. Doomsday comes because Human Sinfulness has brought it. We need to understand that a religious thrill underpins almost all Doomsday Scenarios: the great pleasure we take in seeing the sinful (however we define their sin) getting what they deserve.

This fact is important because the use of Doomsday Rhetoric by conservative politicians always taps into the American religious desire to punish the guilty, even as it also taps into the desire to save the righteous. Of course, George Bush’s recent speech had more of the latter than the former, since he hardly wanted to punish the Wall Street players who his policies have been enriching for years. But you can’t evoke Doomsday without the specter of punishing the guilty rising very quickly, and the outpouring of rhetoric that followed tried instantly to find the sinful, an easy enough task in this case: the “Wall Street Fucking Fuck Fucks,” as someone I know likes to say.

But I want to be fair, at least a bit, and acknowledge that the left also has its own versions of Doomsday Rhetoric, coming out of issues like globalism and climate change and many others, each of which similarly, although in various degrees perhaps, looks to uncover and punish the sinful. Remember, “Soylent Green is People.”

Part of the reason that this rhetoric becomes attractive even on the left is that conditions in the world really are frequently as awful as can be imagined and in fact worse. War, starvation, massive capitalist piracy: these aren’t conspiracy theories but social realities, even as none of them really indicate with certainty that after centuries of being prophesied, the Day of Doom is finally at hand. Or as I once put it in one of my books, the problem with Total Destruction is that it happens to someone somewhere in the world every day. Apocalypse is ordinary.

Still, I think we need to be cautious about Doomsday Rhetoric because of the way it plays so easily into a conservative, fear-mongering view of the universe, one in which each of us gets to play the hero by punishing the guilty and saving the righteous. I think it plays into that world view too much even when it comes from the left.

There may be moments, I suppose, when Doomsday Rhetoric might be useful from a leftist perspective, although I tend to be skeptical of it whenever I hear it. On the whole Doomsday Rhetoric remains an obfuscation, one that lends itself not to an understanding of political realities so much as to a titillating religious mythology, one that no doubt even has exciting sexual undertones. Face it: somewhere in the desire for Doomsday is the desire for The Final Orgasm.