Maxi Kim - The protagonist is a metaphor, wanting to negate Japan, but not by writing a novel about Japan, but by writing falsely about it, using Japan as a screen for the author’s innermost hopes and desires. There is no gap between sexuality and textuality; an expression of a pre-modernist, post-human morphogenetic aesthetics in all its wild sacred expressivity
Maxi Kim, One Break, A Thousand Blows!, Book Works, Semina series, 2008.
„One Break, A Thousand Blows! is a novel about Japan. The protagonist is a metaphor, wanting to negate Japan, but not by writing a novel about Japan, but by writing falsely about it, using Japan as a screen for the author’s innermost hopes and desires. One Break, A Thousand Blows! aims to express the claim that there is no gap between sexuality and textuality; it aims to be anti-metaphorical, to escape the logic of modernism and postmodernism and express a pre-modernist, post-human morphogenetic aesthetics in all its wild sacred expressivity.
Maxi Kim is the grandson of illiterate Korean peasant farmers. He is a recent graduate of CalArts MFA Writing Program, currently researching a Phd at the University of Greenwich. He has worked with performance artists Gina Clark & Janice Lee, editorially with Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim, and organised events with Chris Kraus and Mark von Schlegell. This is his first novel.“
„When is a novel a novel, a joke a joke, art art etc? The artist Richard Prince’s jokes are anti-jokes but to be so, they remain jokes but come back with an additional aplomb. ‘ I went to a psychiatrist. He said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.’ A forgery of a joke. A forgey of a self. Can all sheep really be rebellious carnivors? Mr Trippy is not himself entirely. This is not a sentence. This sentence is not true. A card with the same message on both sides: ‘ The message on the other side is false.’ There are, it seems, no truth makers here. Yet the boring propositional paradoxes of the anti-relativist claim that all is relative become mysterious and beguiling when transposed into something other than mere formal play. Enchantment and the paradoxes of desire can be thrilling and sweet.
This thus is the sweetest of novels. There is nothing more traumatic than the artificiality of sweetness, few things as satisfying to the state of the interior whittled down to the few left-over bits of bone bobbing on a river swollen with lilies. This is a novel that is flooding with lists, each list an act of weird delicacy, each list the vast catalogue of bibliofile denial of the possibility of lists with a purpose. Lists with attitude are jokes wrapped in enigmas doubled up as sherbert faux diaboliques. A reality that turns in on itself in a dream-like, beautiful way, delicate as a clichéd literary conceit, an endless procession of loveliness, of dreams of order and coherence suggesting paradoxically a radical freedom from pre-planned manacled curriculum-led theory and a systematic fetishisation of school grades.
Though there is a fear and terror, a loathing of reality and humanism… ‘unfavourable opinions about Cornel West and a few side salads…reality was a total obscenity. He found no meaning in it…’(p67) books and girls and boys and professors and mountains and ruminations on cities … ‘What does London want…What does Tokyo want…?’ snow and snow monkeys make clear that for every dud tomato on the side-plate there are enough bonus lettuce Crimeans to make the taste calmative stay rouged up to the nostrils. Even when you’re tripping with Mr Trippy you are, after all, somewhere. Enlightenment is not, after all, just knowing the idiocy of feet hair.
Kim’s idea of obscenity is what tends towards meaninglessness without emotion and an undead authority. This is contrasted with his enchanted genealogies which sprout emotive meanings in abundance and call for refinement and clarity and submergence. Kim’s lists are the refining of the palette, a clearing of the throat for a more gorgeous intoxication. The strange flow of the novel – and despite initial appearances this book still pulls its reader through a genuinely satisfying narrative thread – has the grace of youthful endearing passion. It is a novel that cares about its characters, all of them plagiarized, dreamt, stolen, duplicated, made artificial. Like Richard Prince’s anti-joke paintings, they are capable of the same resonance of something that might once have been considered the origin – a real joke – but they are paradoxically enriched by having been drained of authenticity, of having gone missing.
Prince in his painting manages this ‘draining’ through removing the joke from its place of origin – either the mouth (spoken joke) or the magazine cartoon – and repositioning them in a different format, painting them, blowing them up to an enormous size, repeating them and so on. Kim’s lists have the same effect of appropriating ideas and deepening them through the act of listing itself. The lists can therefore have resonance and narrative purpose (and anything else he likes them to have – scene setting, character explanation, mood enhancement, atmospherics etc etc). Take, for instance, the one on page 68. The revulsion with the idea of reality incorporates the dream of incorporating, modifying and hybridizing those who already accommodate the distance between reality and something that isn’t reality, the dreamers, artists, enchanters of his character’s mind – so he asks what he needs; ‘A more intellectual Andy Warhol? A more abject Cindy Sherman? A more dynamic Agnes Martin…’ and so on and so on. Ideal types become idealised, the dream becomes folded into something made more perfect, more wonderous. Better salad.
The clever purpose of each of Kim’s list contradicts some of the usual purposes of lists, one of which is, as Catherine Lupton writes in an essay on Chris Marker, ‘…to sneak off the royal road of linear narrative and bypass the need to tell a proper story into the byways and detours of digression, whimsy, free association, mosaic construction or just one damn thing after another.’ Well, maybe we’re just too good at staying on the road whilst daydreaming. It’ll take more than some damn lists to distract us these days. Or maybe it’s just that some lists aren’t designed to work like typical lists. No doubt there is something of a ‘pure feint’, of Cocteau’s ‘Seeing as these things are beyond us, let’s pretend to organize them…’, of Stein’s ‘name dropping.’ No doubt.
And some lists are a burden and remain unreadable. Kim’s avoid that prat-fall. His enumeration is anything but logical. Yet to restore, elaborate and classify, even, is paradoxically a project recognizable from Renaissance humanism – the restoration of ‘good letters’, wherein the role of Asian villains is taken by the Goths, Italy to the rescue, which leads ‘da Cimabue in puoi’ to the perfection of Michaelangelo, as the dodge artist Gombrich puts it somewhere. Again, the droll apercu – Kim’s anti-humanism is a better humanism as well as a damnation on all its houses.
Perversity has its roots in Alexander, the successor of Apelles of Cos, painting Xerxes bridling the ocean with a bridge, the piercing of Mount Athos, Plataera streaming with too much blood and the wealth of the Medes vanquished painted by the Tuscan Pullus. Where dull lists attempt to control, suggesting a riveted, pinned, gridded-out cognition, something all planned and imprisoning, in Kim they seem to be merely the chance concatanation of things, suggesting that there’s nothing fixed here, nothing like a syllabus at all. The precision is just a vague impression of precision.
What is left to be told? Can we subsume the novel and its stories under some intelligent concept? Decline and corruption is clearly one option. Everything is this, or the opposite. A miraculous rescue. This is clearly an old trope, a mannerism of the conservative imagination, the dead end that can breed, nevertheless, a radical continuity. So perhaps Kim’s Mannerism can have a reality of its own. Egypt and Mondrian. Style as a hypothesis. Can we not assume perhaps that Kim is not throwing away the baby with the bathwater but rather merely offering a different way of approaching the same thing – a better way but going the same direction? Have we become so used to assuming the auto-destructive urges of the great Gustav Metzger, whereby ‘Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected’ that every solution that appears to be such a re-enactment is goose-marched into that reading and that reading alone?
Kim’s book pays attention to subscribers to this view but his solution doesn’t have the feel for any such intimidation. It lacks the stealth, the heavy artillery, the militarism of such an approach. It cannot mount the assault necessary to deliver the force that we find in the confrontations of an artist like Richard Prince or a writer like Stewart Home despite everything.
This is not a traumatic read, which the dead-pan, anti-art art of Prince and anti-novel novels of Home are. There is desire in the novel, and a mannerism that is pure ‘writing’, style, fore-grounded and redolent with the anxiety of a real novel, real narrative, close to an appropriated ‘stream of consciousness’ designed to signal a real connection with a psychological realism that, wonderfully, the narration only vaguely understands. It’s a book that doesn’t know as much as its characters, its thinkers, its lists, its editor. No bad thing that. The book is, rather like the Henry James novella What Maisy Knew, one that knows less than its author and its readers.
At the book’s launch reading, Kim insisted that the lists were more than ‘dead lists’ in that he had done the research and knew what each name was about. Hilariously, when he broke off from reading to ask whether he should explain why Heidegger was mentioned in one of his lists Mr Trippy himself interjected with a grin and said that he should certainly not because they’d end up having a row. Mr Trippy explained that he hated Heidegger. The point of mentioning this is that Kim’s reading was incredibly dramatic because he read seemingly against the wishes of the book. The book wanted to be a story, the author knew it was the equivalent of a Prince joke and the tension, nay, downright conflict, between the two created a hilarious, joyful and unresolved, probably unresolvable, drama.
The perversity of the book rests in this conflict. It can’t be avoided by any sprightly reader. The conflict in fact works in both directions, to add to the multiplicity of its perversity. The book also, simultaneously, presents itself as a text. The beautifully produced object with its lists, white spaces, blanked out lines and so on comes on as if an artful glory of semiotextual post-post structuralist nnnnnn to reveal, once more, how regna cadunt luxu and the possibilities of treating the Tournament of S, Croce as a mere reportage. It looks like a text, thinks like a text but it reads like a novel.
When Home confronts this potential paradox he kicks in with a good few jokes to keep his face straight and the bomb detonated. Kim doesn’t really do jokes and so doesn’t do Homean anti-jokes either. Thus his book resists the act of destruction, remaining too energized to be able to pull off anything like the draining blankness of the Warhol, Prince, Home, Metzger funnies. This is not a criticism. Home commissioned and helped edit this and what we have is a great read in the sarcophagus anti-humanist style but done as what Renaissance artist Guilio Romano called narrative all’antica, whose rule is to maximize movement within minimal space.
The interlacing action of the narrative Kim presents, a tangle of human limbs and interlocking bodies, pile up to create a seething action to the reader recalling the struggling group of Leonardo’s Anghiari cartoon rather than any classical prototype. Yet Kim is not failing to either to produce a classical Jamesian motif nor to embrace an anti-classical Homean opposite; rather he has developed an alternative to the classical through application of the laws of economy and the minimal. Perhaps thus the real origin of this might be the Beckett of the anti-chess chess players and ‘…The street for vehicles, the sidewalk for pedestrians. Like a bit of the Old Testement.’ The absurdity of absurdity is a cheese salad with too much egg. It is a book of youthful voices, boys and girls, all zesty youthful ardour where, again expelling Beckett, ‘we may reason to our heart’s content, the fog won’t lift.’ - Richard Marshall
"One of a series of nine carefully commissioned bodies of work, Stewart Home chose One Break, A Thousand Blows! as part of a historical tribute to a previous tendency to choose more difficult, less obvious texts, highlighting the more non-commercialized, avant garde tendencies of the mid-twentieth century's Beat Generation or the somewhat tedious constraint-based Oulipian dialectics. This novel -- like many bubbling up in this millennium -- is tainted in a good way, clouded with previous literary influences, wary of outright acceptance by a quaint populace. One Break can be frustrating, for it could be interpreted that Kim does not care whether or not the reader hears the joke or the punch line. A drum roll doesn't always lead to humor, and humor is sometimes far from appropriate.
Perhaps, Kim's stomach twists and writhes from the sometimes prevailing literary arrogance that comes with being, in part, a Los Angeles based creative writer, for it could be interpreted that the text is a mockery of traditional narratives, with protagonists misaligned, fact and fiction conflicted, where idolatry is seemingly confused throughout his searching and observant histrionics. Blocks of text yell and demand your attention -- even if you do find certain matters or famed artistic references impudent, suffering yet endearingly silly:
BLUE CHINA ASTER! ORANGE NEW DAHLIA ROOTS! BARE BOTTOMED MACAQUE RED! LICORICE PURPLE! FLOURESCENT YELLOW BANANA YOSHIMOTO! IKEBANA GREEN! /I AM NOT POLLOCK!/
It's becoming difficult to maintain one's sensitive side -- the world grows thick with heartaches, flourishing with distractions. Kim is sensitive to your needs as a reader, in that he isn't going to force feed you the same familiar lines, he isn't going to give you what you expect, he isn't going to pretend that the usual hoopla will work for you. Kim understands that some readers today are tired, so tired of being duped, trapped into repetitive scenarios, petty literary tricks or pushy, writerly convoys.
Kim isn't going to dumb-down his overtly sexualized, occasional pornographic references for your sake, yet he won't ignore matters of the heart: such as love, poetry and beauty -- even if you do sense his skepticism or youthful rebellion. In an attempt to transcend something perhaps better left unnamed, this writer expects you to tag along for the ride. Try not to look back at all of the second rate conventions he just shredded and bashed. It could prove worthwhile to observe Kim's forthcoming literary trajectory; he might have plans for the patient readers, even if enough aren't yet interested in his manifestations and effacing antics. What once seemed pedestrian is now pushing metaphysical; what once remained secular waxes the spiritual. Kim has invited you into a domicile of dire questions (i.e. What is it to be narcissistic? Where is the "real" real? WHAT DO I TRULY DESIRE? HOW DID I BECOME MYSELF?) though he probably does not expect you to agree with him on what provides a useful rejection or release in and from the text itself. What Kim asks of you might be: what's left after the tide sweeps you away -- what remains tangible, deserving?“ - Jacquelyn Davis
„In your Semina novel One Break A Thousand Blows you describe Stewart Home as being ‘a teddy bear.’ How was it working with him on the production of the book? How did he contribute to the creative process with you? You say that 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess was an important catalyst for your book – can you say something about this?
- In retrospect I should’ve described Stewart Home as a pussy cat. Prior to meeting him I was nervous; I had this skinhead, too cool for school tough guy image of Stewart in my mind. And it didn’t help that I was told by a friend that he was aggressive and a bit of an exhibitionist. I’ll never forget our initial meeting; he was out of character and wearing a green and red X-mas themed sweater and offered me a cup of tea – I was simultaneously relieved and grew even more nervous. And then he quite nicely invited me to some local readings. I don’t know if Stewart was suspecting it, but a series of silly questions occurred to me at that meet. Was he Stewart Home’s twin brother? An actor perhaps? Or was Stewart Home a complete fabrication? An elaborate postmodern hoax without beginning or end? It’s great that people like Stewart exist in the world, people who can spark off phantom sightings, false erasures, aftershocks – exposing the unreality of reality itself. They’re better than David Blaine, they’re the real magicians.
Working with Stewart Home was like working with Philip K. Dick – without any of the ego. Because he was a cult giant in his own right and because I was working more or less in his terrain, I had complete trust in Stewart. With every one of his notes it was as if I was gaining access to an alien dimension to a familiar text, so I took them terribly seriously – and thought through many sleepless nights about all of his suggestions. It reminded me of the kind of working relationship I had with the writer Matias Viegener (his Random Things About Me lists on facebook are the most intriguing things on the net – you learn about the slow and steady decline of the once sprightly Peggy, his relationship with Kathy Acker, other artists, his nomadic past – it certainly beats all the net.art I’ve seen online). Throughout the entire creative process I was never really worried about how the final manuscript would turn out – which is a unique experience for writers, I would think. Much of Stewart’s contribution had to do with either fine tuning the text or speeding it up, making it leaner and meaner. As a result a chapter dealing with Joyce’s Ulysses was deleted, along with a paragraph on Shakespeare and the politics of plagiarism. I was so pleased with the final result; I like to think of the novel as what an East Asian Stewart Home would’ve written if he had gone to a Southern California art school in a parallel universe.
The first time I read anything of his was by pure accident. I was a sophomore in college, my head was full of mediocre essays in a postcolonial studies seminar and tasteless International Relations theories (this was right after 9/11 so concepts like neomedievalism and medievalist jargon was just getting hot) and a copy of 69 Things To Do with a Dead Princess found me. It was refreshing, something both familiar and new – and I sympathized with Anna Noon, the naive undergraduate student character in the book. At that time I was totally ignorant of The Art Strike or Neoism; in retrospect it was quite remarkable that I was introduced to his work at all. I wasn’t at a specialty book store or even a relatively well-stocked book store. It was at a shoddy Borders, one of those big conglomerate chains where I saw a misplaced copy of Stewart’s calling for me on one of the plastic bookshelves. I’m quite certain that my writing would’ve gone in a totally different direction if it were not for that quasi-divine intervention. 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess was my Catcher in the Rye, my Bell Jar, my very own On The Road - the big difference being that the honeymoon period never really ended with Stewart Home and me, as it eventually did with coming of age writers like JD Salinger, Sylvia Plath and Jack Kerouac. I adored them in college, but I found that as soon as you’re out of that vulnerable first year university environment - their work had that tendency to feel pitiful, pathetic – too much for my shrinking sensibilities. I have had no interest in resuscitating the dead; the two standout exceptions being Kathy Acker and Philip K. Dick (it’s been fascinating as a keen observer to see in my lifetime the whole “art of legitimization at work”, resulting in Acker and Dick’s growing posthumous influence and reputation, especially in academic circles). I have to say – over the last few years I’ve been mainly interested in disseminating writers like Chris Kraus and Stewart Home, essentially writers who can juxtaposition sex and theory; that is precisely what I found so innovative about 69 Things. Of course I was familiar with the Marquis de Sade – but Home I think takes the strategy to a different level. Home is much more strategic and pleasurable, consequently much more readable than many MFA acolytes.
How much of the original Semina series were you aware of and did any awareness of that history influence the book’s completed shape and content?
- Like my encounter with Stewart Home, my introduction to Berman was purely by chance. Ten years ago I was at a summer arts retreat, the model example of a Temporary Autonomous Zone – and there was a book sale at the Cal Arts Library where I discovered a mysterious red untitled book. According to the book - in the fifties, Berman was involved with the California Occult Cameron and an occult theosophy of rabbinical origins. Again I found myself totally ignorant of this rich, Utopian samizdat tradition right under my nose, and what I found immediately sympathetic was Berman’s juxtapositioning of pornography and enigmatic text. Much like Home, Berman had the knack for making connections, revealing alien dimensions to once familiar terrain. Berman was very much into mysticism and spiritualism and the occult; so I felt free to add and really emphasize those dimensions to a book that would be part of a series named after him. I detected a similar kind of sensitivity to secret magic and divination in Bridget Penney’s Semina book, Index; as I was reading it I thought - this is really the perfect book to take to an occult ceremony or a fast night of bibliomancy. All of the acts of bibliomania, dream logic, and weird occult mood of the lists in my book I think is a result of a kind of Wallace Berman aesthetic. I like Michael McClure’s description of Semina: “Seminas are a form of love structure that Wallace made, drawing friends together. Friends are drawn together into the assemblage of the magazine, but then the magazine is also sent to acquaintances who are drawn into the circle of friends, so it expands and becomes a larger event.” After the publication of One Break, I really treated the 100 copies that Book Works gave me as love structures. Just as many of my friends are drawn together in the many lists of One Break, the book itself was sent to acquaintances to expand the event. It reminded me of the CD and DVDs from underground music/art groups such as Vitamin Wig C and the Unsichtbar Birnbaum Exploratory – they are perfect examples of recent attempts at creating Berman-inspired love structures.
The obvious structural elements of the text is your use of lists of names’ of writers, philosophers and artists/cultural workers throughout. At the London book launch event you claimed that all the names meant something to you ie they weren’t just being pulled out of indexes of other books. How did you develop these lists and how do you want readers to interact with them? They seem to be descriptive of characters (just as a novelist might describe what a character looked like you tell us what they read, or what reading describes them) as well as shorthand introductions to the themes running through and being developed by the book.
- I like what Matias Viegener says about lists: “The list is a bastard form, meant to compartmentalize the wildness of things. The list is the instrumentalization of language.” I hope the lists recreates the heady atmosphere of what a real art school environ is like. Hopefully it creates a mood, even if the reader doesn’t know every single reference; hopefully a kind of texture or specter is created. In retrospect that’s what I’m most proud of – the book faithfully captures a certain time in my life, a certain chaotic scene that I will most likely return to in future books and creative projects. As a child I fell in love with those seemingly haphazard lists of things enjoyed or loathed in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, written in the eleventh century. It would be too much to ask readers to have that kind of relationship with the lists in my book, but I hope that for a minority of readers One Break becomes a kind of sourcebook for details and clues to the ideals of the Otaku academic sensibility.
There are probably three types of lists in the book. Some lists are more personal than others. Some lists are purely atmospheric. And other lists are conscious gags; and they’re structured like jokes. Generally I think many readers got it; although, I understand why some people thought it was purely an act of cultural solipsism. Nonetheless I was genuinely surprised by some of the negative reaction. It reminded me of how some critics misread Chris Kraus’ first book I Love Dick; I think it was all just a huge misunderstanding. That Semiotext(e) para-art school Los Angeles environment is swimming with names from French Theory and literature; what some readers took as pretentiousness – was actually quite modest given the circles Kraus ran in.
In introducing us to your book BookWorks write that “One Break, A Thousand Blows! aims to express the claim that there is no gap between sexuality and textuality; it aims to be anti-metaphorical, to escape the logic of modernism and postmodernism and express a pre-modernist, post-human morphogenetic aesthetics in all its wild sacred expressivity.” Could you explain further what this means to you?
- As I’ve answered in the previous question, the sexuality – textuality claim was one of the themes that reverberated for me in 69 Things To Do with a Dead Princess. The back and forth, ebb and flow from a description of a pornographic sex act to the explication of a particular reference of a book was, I thought, hinting at the proposition that all writing, especially academic theory is on some significant level masturbatory and obscene. The latter part of that proposition – the aim to be anti-metaphorical, etc. is a red-herring; although, it is what everyone is trying to do in the arts today. From the conservative aesthetes like Donald Kuspit and Paul Johnson to more progressive aesthetes like Nicholas Bourriaud – I find it interesting that even though each side is fetishizing and emphasizing different looking types of art (from painting to a group of museum goers enjoying soup); they’re all invested in the same impossible project. Deleuzians and many relationalists today talk about being quote-unquote anti-metaphorical. All conservatives want to escape “postmodernism” – every one wants to transcend human creativity as it is. But I think what both sides essentially miss is the fact that they both assume that the primary dilemma today is one of aesthetics. In this respect I think Stewart Home’s book is superior to books like Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics or Kuspit’s The End of Art. Home’s The Assault on Culture emphasizes that the battle is a Utopian one; the battle isn’t to redefine art - who cares about art? Certainly not me. All I care is about utopic performativity. I think the book in this sense achieves something. He was really ahead of the curve; he doesn’t fetishize or romanticize the early Utopians in Surrealism or Dada or Fluxus; he’s constantly pointing out how ridiculous their antics were as he simultaneously traces out the samizdat history. It’s inspiring for someone like me and my group of friends – so inspiring in fact that we’ve all (the sound artist Robert Hansen, photographer Gina Clark, and myself) decided to start The New School for Social Research, San Francisco. The fun starts this fall. In many ways it will be an extension of London’s Second School, but I think Robert and Gina’s presence will stress the point that it is important to return to a zero-level from time to time.
You have argued that the desirable form of social interaction is subcultural, what you call ‘enigmatic nihilism’. Is this an idea that the novel is developing?
- It’s not just that I find subcultures desirable – often it’s the only game in town. I’d just like it if subcultures were more acknowledged in academic settings (not just in terms of Dick Hebdige and cultural studies – but even more broadly). For instance, the school that I attended, the University of California at Riverside had a large population of East Asians, and it would’ve been nice if even a small handful of professors were on the same wavelength as many of the students. In Japan today there are more than a million young adults who literally shut themselves away from society, refusing to leave their bedrooms for months at a time. The so-called hikikomori phenomenon coupled with the growing number of group suicides have alarmed even the most cynical observers. Obviously there is a dimension to the problem that requires socio-economic attention, but I believe subcultures such as otaku, new zoku, and postpunk punks can play a particularly positive role in the current crises. Here I’m not just talking about manga and anime, but also the fact that there is simply a lot of nihilism in East Asia, it’s in the air one breathes and the dream one dreams – imagine a ubiquitous fog without borders or limits. The whole problem appears to be what to do exactly with this nihilism. You can’t really counter it with traditional humanism or nationalism, as many Japanese conservatives would demand (unsurprisingly for them, the millions of Japanese otakus and punks are part of the problem, not the solution). The conservative solution just isn’t all that convincing. For myself and many others the problem lies elsewhere. What if the solution isn’t in culture? What if it’s in subculture? How do you live with nihilism? How do you invent structures in your life without negating that which is Utopian?
For the last two decades this is precisely the kind of question that many of my friends have sought to tackle by attempting to look at subcultural models. From Giant Robot and the New Japonisme to Dick Hebdige and the Cal Arts Samizdat – I believe my novel does a fair job of presenting some of the implications. If you’ve been in school at any time in the last ten years, you’ve probably noticed how nihilism has become an authentic response to the rising discourse amongst student groups of academics like bell hooks and Michael Hardt. Have you noticed how the new humanism codifies love? There is always an assumption on their part that agape and eros necessarily have to be split. And I’m not so sure that’s at all desirable, or even possible with the new nihilism; I think para-academics like Stewart Home, Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus – all of these thinkers don’t really split the two, nor would they want to. That is to say - you can cum on your friend’s face, and then have a meaningful conversation with them about the plight of North Korea while eating dinner, then give your other friend cunnilingus – and then work on plans for a community arts projects to terrorize the Tate. What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. This kind of existence is possible - and it’s happening. It’s not celebrated enough. Sometimes I think there are simply not enough voices for people who are not quite humanists. We parahumanists feel that it’s kind of strange to talk about love all the time, and to endlessly theorize it, and have examples from literature constantly justifying that love is the thing. The real truth for us is that love comes enigmatically. As misfits we can be up to the most nihilistic activities, and somehow love appears, it happens – without any theory or pre-existing discourse justifying the case for love. That’s how enigmatic nihilism is. That’s how enigmatic love is. I’m reminded of that rather obvious point made by Slavoj Žižek: Do you really want to live in a society where you have to constantly argue about how rape is wrong? The same goes for love, simply extend the logic. Do you really want to live in a society where you have to constantly argue about how love is right? Shouldn’t it come enigmatically?
Could you discuss whether or how far it would be right to see the idea of ‘transgression’ in your work being elaborated? In particular, some feminists have argued that the use of pornographic elements as a sign of transgression is merely a reproduction of the non-transgressive mainstream. Where do you sit on this issue?
- Generally, I would agree with certain feminists on this point – but even some feminists as of late have been inconsistent on the whole issue of reproduction. One of the most obvious cases was the recent affair with MOCA’s cover for the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution Catalogue. There was nothing transgressive about having large chested nude women on the cover of the catalogue. While attending the conference hosted by the University of California, I found it rather interesting that although some women found the cover in poor taste, it was the self-described multiculturalists who were the most offended and most vocal. It’s interesting to speculate about these things. Did the editors Cornelia Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark and the MOCA designers think that having large chested nude asian and black women on the cover would make it more transgressive than simply having large chested nude white women? Are the Asian and black nudes simply a cover? Camouflage for an uncritical anti-feminism masked as its opposite? As crazy as this line of questioning sounds, this was precisely the kind of logic that was to be found in some of the private talks and conversations surrounding the substance of Ishmael Reed’s talks at LA’s REDCAT Impunities Conference (Oct 2006). Reed as the big multiculturalist consciously antagonized many Feminist-minded writers at the conference, the enmity was palpable. Of course, I wouldn’t have found it all so intriguing if the experience of that conference was an aberration – but it wasn’t. I have noticed how in a number of schools - multiculturalism has broken rank with feminism. Was this the case in the 90s? What does this break bode for feminism? For multiculturalism? What does it say for the state of liberalism in general?
I suppose it’s really about how you go about reproducing pornographic elements. It’s also about timing and the audience you’re communicating with. Many fans of Ranciere have pointed this out to me; how we can’t continue to critique consumerism by painting giant portraits of Barbie dolls and coca-cola bottles, etc. Much of the Chinese art that’s coming out at the moment, I would say, is really this kind of art. But it can all become very muddy and complicated, very quickly. When Cal Arts was having its 2007 Feminist Art Project – they cited and quoted Kathy Acker as one of their heroines; but I wonder how many of them knew that Kathy Acker was a huge fan of Richard Prince. They also cited Cindy Sherman, but her new giant photos of rich women posing are still very ambiguous for many viewers. At the end of the day I ask myself – is this work convincing? Do you trust this artist? For me the big names like Prince and Tracey Emin are still big question marks. What is the true positive emancipatory potential of their work?
There are many anti- or para-literary models for successfully transgressing using pornography. For myself I’d say Home is the father, Chris is the son/daughter, Kathy is the holy spirit. I don’t know if my book succeeds in blowing people’s minds – but I pick up where many of these writers left off. In so far as institutional transgression is concerned I don’t think we should look to the Dadaists or the Situationists as many of my art school colleagues are prone to do. Look at what Sandy Stone is doing with her innovative new media arts program in a conservative institution like University of Texas. Or what Dick Hebdige did with Cal Arts in the 90s and what Hebdige is attempting to do now with the University of California schools. Or what Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim are doing with the REDCAT experimental writing conferences. The answers and motivations and justifications are all around us. My pet peeve is the knee-jerk tendency to romanticize May 68. As Stewart Home is right to remind us – many of those guys were pretty pathetic.
How far do autobiographical elements become important to the writing?
- On the whole issue of autobiography I’m reminded of Kathy Acker’s position: “First, in fiction, there is no ‘true’ or ‘false’ in social-realist terms. Fiction is ‘true’ or real when it makes. . . . When I placed ‘true’ autobiography next to ‘false’ autobiography, everything was real.” One could say that this was the driving modus operandi of my book. In a way the entire game of the novel is how to juxtaposition the real and the fake. I believe the reader gets a macro-sense of that as the book interchanges between East chapters and West chapters. All of the micro examples – how the seams often show, how ruptures are caused by this process, and how certain elements in the book never quite dovetail, the fact that there’s a degree of hot glue-ing or suturing – hopefully hits this idea home, even if it is unconscious on the reader’s part. But generally speaking I would claim all autobiographies are lies. Or as Slavoj Žižek might put it – the Real is on the side of Fantasy. On the face of it it sounds like a terrible proposition. Yesterday a Korean student asked me if I would even consider Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang, the memoir of growing up in a North Korean concentration camp; if I would even consider that autobiography a lie. I told him, yes I do think even that is a lie. But I reminded him that it is precisely because the book is a lie that the concentration camp survivor’s experience is all the more tragic, poignant, and devastating. If the book were to somehow reproduce the actual hell of Kang Chol-hwan’s plight, the book would be absolutely unreadable. Upon opening the book, the words would’ve simply imploded.
You have worked with performance artist Gina Clark. Can you say something about her work. Book Works works at producing books at the interface between art and writing. How do you understand the relation between the two in your own work?
- There are a few chapters that were either directly inspired or partially informed by the work of Gina Clark. Clark is the founder of the Unsichtbar Birnbaum Exploratory, and her work speaks to a growing number of people who find themselves in the gap; that is to say art students who are totally turned off by the conservative discourse that privileges certain paintings & painters, but who are equally & simultaneously turned off by the French Theory-driven discourse that privileges certain relations and relationalists. When I was in London teaching at Second School (a Do-It-Yourself art school near Goldsmiths), I was surprised by the sheer number of people who were interested in her work; there are probably a number of reasons for this. First of all I believe her video art such as the one where she is using her menstrual blood as body paint at CalArts – and the one where she is inside her tent (where she is living at the moment, and have lived for over six months) and collecting and drinking her own urine – reminds people about the forgotten Guattari, in many ways the more radical Guattari. If you read a lot of theoretical art theory texts today, for example Bourriaud’s book – the homogenized, sanitized picture of Guattari you get there is totally alien from the Guattari who said in 1973 “let us not forget the pleasure of shitting and the pleasures of the anus . . . Or the pleasure of masturbating happily and without shame . . . of expressing oneself, of feeling delirious.” Today many Guattarians and Deleuzians alike will say this kind of behavior is naïve, that there is too much naivete in artmaking, that becoming animal has literally nothing to do with behaving or interacting with real animals. But I’m always wondering - do they realize how naïve they themselves are sounding? When a Deleuzian like Manuel Delanda talks at students about how intrinsically beautiful nature is, how artistic animals can be, how we can even derive moral lessons from chemical antagonisms – I can’t help but wonder, could he even last ten minutes, let alone ten seconds with Gina Clark’s work?
3:AM: Which writers, artists and thinkers have been significant in your own development? Are there people you’d recommend?
- Philip K. Dick and Rudy Rucker have been important to me, especially Dick’s later work; I often read their work simultaneously, I can start off by reading Dick and inevitably end up in Rucker’s cyberpunk territory. Dick and Rucker are my Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Dick’s Valis and the cyberpunk stuff Rucker wrote in the 80s are personally meaningful. Two living authors to be considered are Christine Wertheim and Vanessa Place; their work ought to really be read together. I consider Wertheim and Place my Kobe and Pau Gasol. Much like with certain sci-fi writers, you can feel the interior of your brain physically changing as you read Wertheim’s Ti’me’S-pace (Les Figues Press) and Place’s La Medusa (FC2). All of the descriptions and online reviews of their work are totally misleading; they’re working on a seperate plane, a different universe altogether. Drugs couldn’t do what reading Dick, Rucker, Wertheim, and Place have done (and will continue to do) to my brain. As of late the only thing I’m looking forward to is my friend Janice Lee’s first book, Kerotakis. Janice’s book is the only book that I know of that convincingly deals with how artistry or aestheticism might be perceived by cyborgs. Other texts tend to either get mired in Donna Haraway’s take or the well-worn Bladerunner territory.
We’re living at a time of political upheaval in some respects – the so-called credit crunch is having a major impact and as the Iraq war may be closed down a new one in Afghanistan seems to be starting – in Europe there is talk of the rise of the extreme right but in the US of course there is the election of the first black President. How do you see the current cultural scene in relation to this new social and political environment? Is the current ‘crisis’ over North Korean nuclear missile testing particularly worrying for you?
- There are many things that the popular discourse simply can’t begin to address. I’ve noticed how with every new theoretical text that comes out – it only takes a single year or so to pass for the book to feel dated and it has to be replaced. Here I’m not just talking about big ideological texts such as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History or Hardt and Negri’s academic bestseller Empire – but even very recent, relatively modest books such as Bruce Holsinger’s Neomedievalism – they all feel dangerously under-equipped to assess our present condition. We have no cognitive mapping, no ground, no convincing theory to withdraw to; this is partly why I’m so big on Žižek. In Los Angeles I run a local Žižek group reading seminar, partly because I’ve found that many of my academic friends strongly distrust him. I am the first to admit that Žižek has his limits; his talks can be mired in Lacanian-Marxist Hegelese. However he is reliable and constant in reminding us that we really have no good accounting, not even an approximation of how we should move forward in to the future; none of the old paradigms are of much help – and the biggest challenge is to not only think, but to invent new ideas about the world around us.
In terms of North Korea, yes indeed the Korean peninsula has particularly worried me for quite awhile now – but not because of the nuclear missile testing. We tend to forget that Kim Jong-il’s DPRK not only runs concentration camps, but that the entirety of North Korea is itself a slave state. Conservatives in the United States who lump in North Korea with Iraq and Iran have absolutely no idea to what extent the private life there has been entirely negated. Relatedly I’ve also noticed how liberals too in the United States have a tendency to treat Pyongyang as simply another unfortunate case in a series of unfortunate cases in the third world. What has become impossible to express to even my relatively open-minded academic friends is the truly singular, ‘ahistorical’, uniqueness of North Korea. As Christopher Hitchens so aptly put it, “But not even in the lowest moments of the Third Reich, or of the gulag, or of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” was there a time when all the subjects of the system were actually enslaved. In North Korea, every person is property . . . [e]very minute of every day, as far as regimentation can assure the fact, is spent in absolute subjection and serfdom. . . . George Orwell’s 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint.” To underline the point again (if you didn’t get it at the first go around) - as a point of fact North Korea as a system is not only the worst totalitarian system compared to other systems from modern history, but it is even worse than the worst fictionalized, dreamt up system in recent history.
What are you afraid of?
- A permanent holocaust. To be quite cynical I can well imagine a distant future utopia where humanity has colonized Mars, the fight against AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa have been won, the peaceful two-state solution is thriving in Palestine, while a democratic Iraq and Afghanistan is flourishing. Meanwhile, North Korea is still being run by the Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il father-son duo – only this time it is the son of the son of the son of the Dear Leader who is deemed the heir apparent of North Korea. I know that Obama has a lot on his plate at the moment, but there would be nothing more important to the eventual emancipation of North Korean slaves – if Obama were to begin the process of pressuring the Chinese to stop propping up Kim Jong-il. We know how keen President Obama is on the 16th President of the United States. And what’s not to love? Lincoln preserved the Union and ended slavery. Just imagine what it would mean for the United States’ 44th President to re-unify the Korean peninsula and end North Korean slavery? As it is the emancipation of North Koreans seem anything but eventual. Hillary Clinton made it quite clear to China that the United States considers human rights concerns secondary to economic concerns. And if we are to believe all the analysts and the XXIst century does indeed become the Chinese century – hold on for dear life, for in all likelihood we really are looking at a permanent holocaust, a forever war without beginning or end.
How far is music part of what you do? What music do you like/think is interesting currently?
- Like the trash or furniture or the air in a room - I think of music as simply another extension or part of the antechamber; music creates a texture, a weird sci-fi atmosphere. One way of getting into my book is listening to Japanese D.I.Y. music paired up with contemporary art school music like the group, Black Black. I just had this thought, try to watch the movie Blade Runner with the soundtrack off – it’s impossible.
I really don’t think anyone who is at all interested in the appreciation of music has any business not knowing the work of Robert Hansen Jr. He is the most interesting sound artist to come out of Southern California for quite a while. He is a secret fixture in LA, he is my Philip Glass, my John Cage, my Brian Eno. At the moment he is coming out with these lovely music video-type DVDs; I suppose Robert is one of a handful of artists attempting to treat their music projects as if they were works of literature or philosophy – rather than treating it as a vehicle for your personality or celebrity.
Finally, Bridget Penney likes a good non-instant coffee, Mr Trippy a fine whisky (not Bells), Mark Waugh a Haut Medoc. What’s your poison?
- A hot sake at the best Thai restaurant in Southern California, Mom Can Cook - with my partners in crime, Gina and Robbie.“ - Interview by Richard Marshall
Maxi Kim: A NECRO LETTER TO WALT DISNEY - 19 MARCH 2009
Maxi Kim: Did Somebody say North Korea?