So far as Lance Olsen goes, his latest novel, Head in Flames
, is par for the course. That’s to say it’s unlike anything he’s ever written and yet distinctly Olsenian and absolutely worthy of your attention. Charting the path to three gunshots—the one that killed filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the one that disabled his Islamic extremist assassin, Mohammed Bouyeri, and the one that led to Vincent Van Gogh’s one hundred years earlier—Olsen tells three separate stories that resonate with one another on numerous levels: the logic of extremism, the role of the dissident in Dutch society, the limits of tolerance, the purpose of the artist, the feeling of the most important five minutes of your life.
What is most striking about the book is that Olsen parcels out these three narratives in one-sentence dabs that are mixed in together on the page. (Don’t worry, for clarity he assigns a different font to each man.) The result is a novel that plays with concepts of time and form while proliferating with serendipitous connections and elevating the prose sentence to a meditative, highly exacting realm that has known the likes of Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee. In Olsen’s hands, the three men become three very different manifestations of the same anti-conformist point of view, all juxtaposed within the rarefied space of a limit experience. Recalling the radically condensed novels of David Markson, the fragmented storytelling of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the high-velocity jump cuts of an action movie—or maybe an MTV music video—Head in Flames
is the rare novel that satisfies equally as an exploration of personality, character, novelistic form, and narrative potential.
I conducted this interview during a month-long email exchange with Olsen, and it has been lightly edited and rearranged for concision and continuity.
Scott Esposito: To start, I wanted to ask you about research. The book steps into the consciousness of three individuals—Vincent van Gogh, the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and the latter’s murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri—and all the voices are very distinct, even drawing on numerous of their utterances and letters. How long did you spend learning about these people and what kinds of sources did you consult?
Lance Olsen: The whole project took maybe three years to complete from first vision to final version, with several false starts up front. The specific voices suggested themselves to me as I became interested both in Theo’s murder at the hands of Mohammed in 2004 and, through it, Vincent and his 1890 suicide. I believe I began by reading Vincent’s letters, then moved on to various quotes by Theo that appeared in various media (he had his own TV show, for example, and a website called—very Theoesquely—The Healthy Smoker), and the trial transcripts and poem and five-page letter Mohammed left with Theo’s body (the latter stuck into the filmmaker’s chest with a large kitchen knife). Those shards suggested certain rhythms, dictions, obsessions, shadings, thought processes, metaphors, syntax—all the things that make somebody’s language somebody’s language.
While on occasion I quoted those shards verbatim in Head in Flames, most of what developed as I went along was a mixture of slant quotes (what I think of as the equivalent of slant rhymes: imperfect, partial, off) and a faintly more insistent form of voice for each character than was present in the original: perhaps something like a concentrated version of each man’s style of communicating in the world.
I read quite a lot about Theo’s murder and the facts surrounding it; read about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial Dutch politician who wrote the script for the film, Submission, for which Theo (who produced it) was killed, and read the transcript of it and watched it more times than I can remember; traveled to Amsterdam and spent time in and around Oosterpark, where the actual events took place. I traveled as well to Auvers-sur-Oise, the small town outside Paris where Vincent van Gogh spent his last days, the field where he shot himself, the sparse room with a single skylight in it where he died. I visited museums in Paris and London that housed van Gogh paintings, sat for ages in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam absorbing his work, delighting in its extraordinary growth over the course of his life, enjoying its wild brushstrokes, trying to imagine a linguistic equivalent to them—which turned out to be the one- or three-sentence paragraphs a-sea in white space that defines the look of Head in Flames.
History writing concerns itself with getting every bloodless fact right, and that’s well and good. But fiction can do something shockingly different: it can allow a person to experience an experience from inside out, from within a player’s consciousness, from multiple subjective perspectives, can release the diesel scent into the air, the background sounds of trams clanking on the streets bordering Oosterpark, the way the light falls on a field of wheat at twilight after a hot day, the cadences of a fanatic’s voice. That’s what engages me: the complexities of a moment felt.
SE: I wanted to touch on what you said, “the complexities of a moment felt.” For clarity, the book consists of the experiences of each of these men narrated concurrently, so you have one sentence of Theo, one of Mohammed, and one of Vincent, on and on, till the end. Most (or maybe all), of the statements uttered in Head in Flames are just one sentence long, as you say, and they’re generally short sentences, so I was impressed with how much nuance and character you manage to attach to each of these three men. What kinds of questions and objectives were you considering as you put each one of these statements down on paper?
LO: I’ve always been drawn to the epigrammatic power of the rich quote, the concentrated flash of the well-phrased phrase, how the rest of the world seems momentarily to reorganize itself around it. Nietzsche wrote that it was his ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in whole books . . . and then he added, in a wonderfully Nietzschean aside: what other’s don’t say in whole books. That’s the effect quotes have on me: they’re insight-compressions—in the same way that van Gogh’s brushstrokes are color- and emotion-compressions. So much work goes on in both.
|Photo credit: Andi Olsen
But I also like misbehaving with quotes, and hence the notion of the half-quote or slant-quote. I was drawn to the idea of juxtaposing quotes and semi-quotes and made-up things to create a kind of verbal collage on the page, enter a musical mode where the voices mixed, and banged up against each other, and generated sums greater than their parts, all in an effort, really, to understand these brutal moments in 1890 and 2004, the movement of these individuals’ consciousnesses and, on perhaps the largest level, to think about one of the most important and uncomfortable questions for our culture: what are the limits of tolerance?
SE: I really liked that aspect of the book, particularly where there was an extended narrative going on in, say, Theo’s voice, but it kept getting butted into by these completely out-of-context statements from the other two. And then you, as a reader, had to decide how much of an attempt you were going to make to let those other two voices get into what was happening in Theo’s narrative. Of course, for confusion’s sake I was glad you went with a different font for each voice.
LO: Font influences how we read, how we think of the text before us, how we (usually unconsciously) process it. I’m intrigued by that fact, intrigued how many writers don’t seem to contemplate it, seem to believe instead that a font is a font is a font. I came to associate a gentle, graceful Times one with Vincent van Gogh. The brash bold version of it seemed quintessentially Theo. And one from an entirely different dimension—elementary, harsh, even—felt right for Mohammed: a Courier for the courier delivering a message that the western world doesn’t want to listen to.
And in terms of my questions and objectives with all this? Well, I think I was drawn to exploring the possibility of creating and presenting character in ways other than conventional fiction has taught us they can be created and presented, in trying to get fiction’s language to labor as hard as poetry’s.
SE: Do you think this is something that’s been getting a little more accepted lately? I know prose poem is still a term of denigration in most quarters, but it seems to me that fragmented narratives are making greater inroads into the mainstream. You have people like Wallace, DeLillo, and Coetzee selling a lot of copies of books with very fragmented narratives. You have David Markson, and then there’s someone like David Shields who’s basically shilling for the fragmented narrative at this point. And when you look around at things like Twitter and Facebook, why not?
LO: The movement of the last hundred and ten or twenty years in the arts has been toward greater structural sharding. Nietzsche’s epigrammatic composites, Eliot’s appropriation of others’ words in The Waste Land, Picasso’s appropriation of others’ material in his collages, Joyce’s exploded architecture in Ulysses, Cage’s sound collages—such gestures precede the writers you mention, let alone Twitter and Facebook, by decades and decades. In a way, it seems those writers you mention and our culture in general are just catching up with what’s been going on in the avant-garde for more than a century. At the same time, we’ve been witnessing at the creative peripheries of our culture during this time the proliferation of a post-genre composition that questions the need for discussing such apparently singular species as, say, narrative and poem; the proliferation of a post-critical writing that questions the need for discriminating between such apparently singular species as theory and fiction. Is Markson’s Last Novel really a novel, and not, say, a memoir, a critical investigation of the artist, a prose poem? That blurring impulse, this stuff, fascinates me.
At the heart of it all is a collage imagination (Barthelme: “The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th century.”) committed to liberating fusion and confusion, juxtaposition, cyborg scripts, centaur texts, narratologically amphibious writings that embrace a poetics of beautiful monstrosity. As you say, it’s probably been gaining wider acceptance since, not so much Twitter and Facebook, as the hypertextual Web itself, which tends to be all about abrupt and discontinuous lexia, but I think, too, such distinctions between “avant-garde” and “mainstream” are becoming increasingly fraught, as is the relationship of sales figures to quality.
SE: I agree completely with what you say about the antecedents to the kind of fiction that’s becoming much more mainstream now—my contention would be that popular culture has finally reached the point where it’s essentially priming audiences for this kind of art, instead of telling people, “No, what you need is a nice straight story.” Which makes me wonder about that quote of Barthelme’s about collage’s importance to 20th-century art. It certainly was important to a lot of innovation during the last 100 years, but do you feel like now that mentality has reached its limits? I love collage and what people have done with that kind of sensibility, but I also feel like at this point those ideas have become fairly implicit to our understanding of art and culture . . .
LO: Existence, most of us now take for granted, you’re saying, comes to us in bright disconnected splinters of experience. We then narrativize those splinters into forms that accommodate them. In a sense, whether we’re talking Facebook, the latest video, or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the dominant form appears (at least to my eye) still to be collage—if we define the term liberally, if we keep in mind its French root: coller, i.e., to paste, to glue. I’d love to think through that form to others, although, right now, I’m not sure what those might look like, exactly. Collage grew into its own in the early 20th century, modernist moment. What form or forms are appropriate to the early 21st century, postmodernist one? That, I suppose, is the question the real avant-garde (the research and development wing of our arts, as Markson puts it) is currently working on.
Speaking of roots, it’s interesting to note in this context that the word narrative is ultimately derived, through the Latin narrare, from the Proto-Indo-European root gnō-, which comes into our language as the verb to know. At some profoundly deep stratum, then, we conceptualize narrative as a means of understanding, a means of creating cosmos out of chaos. But these days it feels right to a lot of us to incorporate a certain degree of chaos into cosmos. Collage, it could be argued, is still the realism that best captures much of our culture’s sense of the world.
What I’m suggesting with all this is simply that meaning carries meaning, but structuration carries meaning as well. That is, the way we shape (or, more engaging for me, misshape) our narratives means. Every narrative’s form is thus a politics; the question is whether we’re aware of that, whether we fully engage with the illumination provided by such a statement. “Our satisfaction with the completeness of plot,” Fredric Jameson once noted, is “a kind of satisfaction with society as well.” I’d say much the same is the case with our satisfaction with undemanding style, conventional character construction, familiar subject matter, et cetera.
What I’m doing, or trying to do, what many of us are doing or trying to do, is to rethink structuration in ways that allow us to contemplate how narrative works, and, I hope (although admittedly I remain an optimist), in ways that invite us to contemplate how we might challenge those narratives repeated by government, the entertainment industry, religion, and academia so many times that we actually begin to assume they must represent something like the truth.
SE: This interest in revising narratives seems like something that would work well with Theo and Mohammed, given how their story lends itself to rethinking structure beyond the boundaries of government, entertainment, etc., and because each in his own way was fighting against dominant narratives. This was one of the things that I appreciated about the book—and that experimental fiction is often cited for lacking—how these characters are very palpable human beings, and how they, as individuals, are suited to the stylistic and structural questions you’re intent on exploring here. You’ve already mentioned your very personal responses to Vincent’s paintings; as to the other two, did you identify with them much simply as men?
LO: I can’t imagine not identifying with at least some corner of each of my characters—particularly those, like these, who in complex ways fall beyond the pale. Fiction is the ultimate travel literature, of course, in that it allows you to inhabit someone else’s mind, come to understand (at least a little) how he or she feels the universe, how he or she plays a language game completely different from the ones you tend to play, and, by doing so, I like to believe fiction makes us more available to others, others more available to our own plural selves.
While Theo is no doubt crass, no doubt an attention-seeker, no doubt unpleasant and frequently simply embarrassing in much the same way someone like, say, Michael Moore is here in the States, I also find him somehow lovably mischievous and even something like naïve, yet at the same time I admire—even indentify with—his will toward iconoclasm, toward challenging traditional beliefs, toward showing the emperor often goes clothesless. I admire how he embraces free speech and democratic conversation at any cost.
What caught me most about Mohammed was something very different, yet something most of us experience at some level or another: the feeling of being angry outsiders to this tribe or that, of needing to belong and needing not belong simultaneously, of being other even to ourselves.
SE: It seems that Vincent and Theo left much larger written and artistic footprints than Mohammed, whom, I would think, would be limited to the final letter, the trial transcript, and the occasional piece of journalism written about him. Was that a challenge for you, to make Mohammed as rich and convincing as the other two?
LO: There’s a lot of Mohammed in Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance, which I relied on a good deal, and, although he barely appears there, a lot of insight into Mohammed in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s extraordinary memoir, Infidel. What’s remarkable about him for me is how Mohammed is a space of excruciating confliction. He fancied himself a poet and polemicist, yet was suspicious of how Western culture manipulated language against fundamentalist Islam and, during the limit situation of Theo’s murder, refused language altogether (Theo’s last words, ironically, and chillingly, were: “Can’t we talk about this?”—the default Dutch and late Enlightenment position) while nonetheless using language (the poem, the letter) to get his point across. He was Dutch, born and raised in the Netherlands, and throughout his teen years drank, smoked pot, listened to pop music, partied, and wore western clothes just like most Dutch teens, yet after 9/11 became increasingly radicalized, grew a beard, began wearing a djellaba, began shouting down people who disagreed with him, refused himself liquor and drugs and music, came to believe in the segregation of men and women, came under the crazy sway of Samir Azzouz, and with him helped form a terrorist cell called the Hofstad Network. Emblematic of Mohammed, at least in my mind, is that, when he returned to Morocco once to visit his ancestral home, he felt deeply alienated because he couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t communicate with his own relatives, his own past, a piece of himself, and yet fancied himself a part of it.
The challenge for me was, on the one hand, trying not to let him come off as stereotype, cliché, while, on the other, keeping close to the factual details that painted him as he wanted himself painted: an absolutist. He exists in a territory of inbetweenness that rejects the language of inbetweenness.
SE: In a weird sort of way, I liked Mohammed’s voice the best. In large part it consists of this fundamentalist hate-speech that sounds copied from some jihadi manual, but stripped of its context it becomes these extremely concentrated maxims that sound vaguely Buddhist. I’m thinking something like, “There is no aggression except against the aggressors,” which, once you start thinking about it, actually starts to get fairly deep. I wanted to ask for your thoughts on the counterpoint between Mohammed and Vincent, who also strikes me as very absolutist in his philosophy at times.
LO: All three—Mohammed, Vincent, and Theo—are, from a certain angle, absolutist in their worldviews. Each considered himself an artist of a kind, yet each held a radical and radically unique view of what art was, why it was, how it functioned and should function. If, to simplify to an uncomfortable degree for the purposes of this interview, Mohammed sees art as monologic religious polemic, then Theo sees art as playful, irreverent, atheist political critique, and Vincent as spirituo-existential aesthetic exploration. Each, in a sense, turns his view of art into acute faith—with, in each case, disastrous consequences. Yet there’s something to be learned from each man’s perspective, flawed as each surely was.
SE: That corresponds to this line Vincent says: “Rather, he is the one who fights with all his individuality against official conve—.” When I read that line I drew a little circle around it because it hit me that this was the thing that each of these men shared. I agree with you that this was each man’s undoing, but in a “tragic flaw” sort of way this was also the thing that made these men the kind of people you’d write a book about. Was this anti-conformity streak the thing that first drew you to this story, or was it something else?
LO: I was first drawn to the Theo-Mohammed story by the brutality of Theo’s murder, by the nearly unfathomable hatred Mohammed housed within himself, by how, as brash and unlikable as Theo was, it would never occur to most people to silence his voice through violence, let alone to silence it in such a horrible public way.
My mother used to teach humanities to nurses at Englewood Nursing School in northern New Jersey, where I mostly grew up. When I was nine or ten, she started sharing some of her art history lectures with me. I was intuitively taken with the modernists, including van Gogh. I adored his shameless brushstrokes and colors, like everyone else, but, more, I adored how he transformed the world around him into a manifestation of his psyche. When I heard about and began following the aftermath of Theo’s assassination, I was transported back to Vincent for the first time in years, and from there it was a short step to beginning to think about the relationship of his death to Theo’s, how each became resonant metaphor.
I think I was intrigued from the start, too, by how each of these men, as you say, embraced a kind of radical form of art for radical and radically different purposes. Each refused to speak the bland language of social convention.
SE: To stay on this topic of correspondences just a little longer, there’s a real mutilation theme in this book, from Vincent’s ear (which he calls “a treasure” when he gives to a prostitute named Rachel) to Ayaan’s clitoris and Theo’s head. Control over the various parts of the body has a real symbolic importance for these people—even Mohammed, who, though not mutilated per se, believes that Allah is acting through his body. Why do you think the body, or certain body parts, is such an important thing to control for these people?
LO: That’s a beautiful point—one I hadn’t been conscious of until you mentioned it. For the fundamentalist, the body is the site of sin, the site of desire, of longing, the fleshy real that separates us from the meta-body ideal. The ear allows us hear the voices of others. The clitoris allows us feel ecstatically. The head allows us think. It’s a powerful insight that each must be mutilated, and mutilated horrifically. Control the body, and you are well on the way to controlling the mind. I honestly can’t think of anything more frightening—abjecting part of us that contributes to making us fully human.
SE: One of the striking things about this book was how it messed with my feeling of time, or maybe duration, as I read. For instance, the climactic moment when Mohammed finally confronts Theo, assassinates him, and severs his head lasts for 40 pages. The way we process it—firstly, through these short sentences that have to imply a whole lot of action, and, secondly, fragmented and broken up by Vincent’s musings—give it this disconnected, slo-mo feel, somewhat like watching a gunshot frame by frame. So two questions: Was the sensation of time something you were consciously trying to upset while you wrote this book? And what other books or media were your reference points for upsetting traditional conventions for novelistic time?
LO: I’ve always been interested in the two things fiction can do that film can’t: textured language and deep consciousness. If not those, then why aren’t you writing a screenplay or piece of journalism? Head in Flames, although filled with external action, is at the end of the day all about external action perceived, all about interior spaces, how the mind moves—how, as Henri Bergson and phenomenologists like Husserl reminded us, time is a completely different (and completely elusive) experience when sensed from the inside out. So the whole of Vincent’s narrative lasts from late one afternoon until early the next morning . . . and lasts the length of a gunshot and a dying. The whole of Theo-Mohammed’s narrative lasts a matter of minutes. Yet in both cases I wanted the reader to feel the inner clocklessness we all feel at times of extremis.
SE: At one point Mohammed put it as “Timelessness wedging time in two.”
LO: Exactly. Time is another convention with which my narrative and the iconoclasts within it want to misbehave. I don’t quite know what it is that attracts me to other fictions that do the same, but I’ve always enjoyed those that treat time as a revelatory aspect of consciousness rather than the ordinary tick of a Timex: everything from, say, Huysmans’s A Rebours and Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Joyce’s Ulysses to Robert Coover’s “The Baby Sitter” and Steve Tomasula’s amazing recent hypermedial novel, TOC, about the relationship of time to narrative, whose epigraph, from St. Augustine, suggests that the nature of time is a cinch to talk about . . . until someone asks you to define it, talk about it in a serious, self-reflective way.
LO: It’s been a constant interest of mine these last ten years of so: how the circus of the mind in motion apprehends time. With Head in Flames, the question was how to go about exploring that in a formally effective mode. Weirdly, I started writing the book as a fairly conventional, realist novel, feeling my way along—you know, one long section from Vincent’s point of view, one from Theo’s, one from Mohammed’s, all in limited third person, all sequential, then repeat. But early on this other structure that we’ve been discussing began to present itself as somehow inevitable. I realized the story I wanted to tell was all about interlacing subjectivites, all about the possibilities inherent in the idea of consciousness’s musicality.
I threw out what I had done and went back to the launch point and started writing again, and the text became what it is, a very odd animal. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sustain that structure for the length of a novel, let the novel become itself. That’s what drew me on. As much as the complicated characters, the exceptional events, and the politico-ethical implications of those events, it was this investigation into form and its relationship to temporal subjectivity that kept me going.
SE: I like this idea lot, and this gets back to something you said earlier, where each of these sentences can be likened to a dab of paint on one of van Gogh’s canvasses. Obviously there’s a certain resemblance here to a lot of the innovation in painting among the moderns, which was in part an attempt to render various subjectivities on a single canvas at once. I’ve always found the overlap between literature and other art forms extremely interesting and very fruitful for developing the form—do you think there’s something particular about literature that lets it take in these other forms and turn them into spaces that can add something to the text?
LO: Literature in general and fiction in particular have always been omnivorous, and have been especially so over the course of the last fifty years or so. Think of the novel in particular. The novel has become its outrageously amorphous self by gobbling up other genres and forms—in the 18th century, for instance, travel journals, the diary, autobiography, and journalism; in the last thirty or fifty years, well, everything in sight. As I write this, I’m in the middle of teaching Danielewksi’s House of Leaves through the lens of remediation, J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin’s idea that new digital media’s modus operandi is the appropriation and manipulation of previous media: television, radio, print journalism, film, et cetera. Of course, the novel has always in a sense done that, always remediated other genres and media, as I say, and a book like House of Leaves is consciously obsessed with remediating the likes of the horror film, hypertext, scholarship, Greek myth, literary theory, psychiatric discourse, poetry, letters, photographs, collages, even the notion of what an index is and does. So, paradoxically, currently we have novels, a relatively old genre, whose M.O. is to appropriate and manipulate the new media it finds around themselves.
That’s what’s gorgeous and delightful about the novel as a genre: it’s never figured out what the hell it is or should do. From its beginning, as its name implies, the novel has been on a quest to discover itself, to discover narrative newness. The its reason for existing.
SE: I’ve seen Head in Flames described elsewhere as part of a loose trilogy reimagining the great moderns, where your investigation of Vincent van Gogh here joins your previous novels Nietzsche’s Kisses (investigating Nietzsche) and Anxious Pleasures (Kafka). It seems like writers of your generation have constructed a lot of very interesting projects around either the lives or texts of great thinkers and artists from the last hundred years or so. Do you feel like this is a particularly postmodern pursuit, or would you say this is more or less similar in character to what writers have always been doing with their antecedents?
LO: I’ve always been drawn to artists and thinkers who are out of step with their times, who proceed through paralogy rather than homology toward creation, who believe, as Lyotard once pointed out, that “invention is always born of dissension.” Now I’m not sure how much, if anything, my Nietzsche or my Kafka or my van Gogh have to do with the flesh-and-blood people who once shared those names. The relationship of fiction to fact is nothing if not mind-bogglingly problematic. Rather, those characters remain, despite the research I’ve done on them, fictions for contemplating the role of the artist or philosopher in our culture, as well as troublings incarnate of what we think about when we think about selfhood. That is, through their fictional iterations, they ask in what sense all selfhood is full-on fiction, all history and biography and memoir subsets of storytelling, what the connection is between subjects acting in the world and “subjects” translated into words.
From that perspective, the perspective Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction, where texts exhibit both intense self-reflexivity about their own processes and (incommensurately) “historical” “events” and “personages,” such an aesthetic and ontological gesture is definitional, I suppose, of the postmodern pursuit.
SE: Lastly, since we’ve been talking a lot about form, I wanted to ask how you felt about ebooks and electronic literature. I know you’ve worked with hypertexts in the past, but I also get the sense that a lot of what draws you to these projects is making them work within the boundaries of a printed, bound book. So how do you feel about the prospect of reading on these electronic devices, and do you think there’ll always be a place for the printed book in our reading culture?
LO: Books—in essence data-delivery systems—have been many things over the last couple thousand years, from clay tablets to wax, scrolls to illuminated manuscripts, atoms to bytes. In that history, the book we currently conceive of when we say the word, that bunch of paper bound between hard covers, has been a fairly short-lived event. I wouldn’t be at all surprised, given mounting market pressures, production costs, environmental concerns, and the proliferation of new reading technologies like the Kindle and iPad that make the act of experiencing text digitally more and more comfortable on the eyes and body, if the printed book itself were to become gradually (and I emphasize gradually) scarcer, just as the hardcover has gradually given way to the trade paperback.
Next fall I’m teaching a seminar on electronic literature that centers on this question: what happens to our ideas of “literature” and “the literary” in the age of proliferating digital technologies? To our ideas of authorship and authorial control, readership and the act of reading, textuality, language, interactivity, immersion, aesthetics, the future of sequentially-dependent narratives, genre, innovation, the politics and power of information dissemination, gender, “writing” and “film,” the “body” and the “mind,” the “real” and the “virtual”? The seminar will experience various forms and examples of new media (Jim Andrews, Young-Hae Chang and Heavy Industries, Shelley Jackson, Kenneth Goldsmith, Michael Joyce, Maria Mencia, Nick Montfort, Stuart Moulthrop, Stephanie Strickland, Steve Tomasula, and others); the rise of the art book (e.g., Jen Bervin’s The Desert, which sews across 130 pages of John Van Dyke’s 1901 prose celebration of American wilderness, leaving a new poem in its wake), as a reaction against mass reproduction and textual disembodiment; the rise of books that couldn’t have existed before the advent of electronic literature (e.g., House of Leaves); and the theories that underlie and emerge from these forms (Baudrillard, Benjamin, Derrida, Jackson, Hayles, Harraway, Moulthrop, et al.). But most important we’ll be investigating our own positions—on the page, in front of the screen, inside various networks, as always-already prosthetic subjects within an increasingly transhumanist moment.
Part of me is fascinated by exactly that shapeshifting, those new iterations of narrativity, what sorts of possibilities open up with each manifestation of bookness, what constraints that can lead to new forms, new engagements with what we used to think of as the page.
And part of me remembers, when you ask that question, what Jerzy Kosinski once said about serious innovative fiction: that it is an experience that has always-already been limited to a very small percentage of the public, an experience that will increasingly “be a pursuit for those who seek unusual experiences, moral fetishists perhaps, people of heightened imagination, the troubled pursuers of the ambiguous self.”
I wonder: would any of us really have it any other way?
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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