Rib Gets in the Way
So far in life, I’ve learned two things. One: when you create or come across a strange beast or organism, you must be very careful what you name it. And two: not everything can be alive at the same time.
I recently turned 50, and so its time, I think, to refocus my work. With only a couple of decades left, I’ve had to make some firm decisions about which projects to continue and which to dump. I’m gonna tell you about two I’m orphaning.
I’ve been taking all the Charles M. Schulz Peanuts cartoons in which there is a reference to Beethoven — basically all those Schroder/Lucy strips — and replacing every Beethoven reference with an equivalent Karlheinz Stockhausen reference.
That project is actually pretty small and finite, but it implies a larger project: to enter the archive and switch out one sign for another, to make the archive drift away from all that death and repetition to something relevant and strange: a kind of sea change through particular transpositions.
What we need is a mobile army of termites, of cultural producers, to infiltrate every archive — and infiltration is easy: the material is just sitting there, waiting for us — and switch things up. Through this slow erosion of the authority of the archive, the true relevance of things will finally be revealed.
Second orphan. Also engaging with the archive. I’ve been taking the American military casualties of the 2nd gulf war and arranging them in order from least to most attractive.
This seems to me the only reasonable response to all these images, all these corpses. Because attractiveness is subjective — desire is a sticky web — there is an implicit invitation here for every viewer to re-organize my grids to their own tastes. But there is a larger project implicit, too: to make a similar determination, conflict by conflict, nation by nation. I think I could happily do this task for the rest of my life, shuffling these little images until every archive commemorating the fallen also corresponds exactly to my tastes, my proclivities. Only for the military casualties, of course. Civilian casualties would be in bad taste.
Okay, okay, I’ve got two more opening sequences for you to try out.
“A” is working a kind of post-surrealist vibe. The connections between shots are strong and necessary, but they don’t follow any particular narrative, description or argument. They make their own way, as inexorably as a stream or the roots of a tree make their way through any sad, forlorn meadow. Words are secondary. Meanings and affects are proposed, but float away before any resolution curdles them. This is a machine that is not a machine. “B” and “C” actually are machines. “A” is a flow, a suspension.
“B” lays components out on a grid. A grid that can be easily rearranged, an infinite grid with infinite possibilities, making and remaking the world. Every component of the grid — every module, every node, each drawing — is potentially equal. Some are hotter or cooler, faster or slower, smarter or stupider, but potentially equal. “B” is a combinatory machine. An analog computer. Associations are produced.
A machine to drain meaning from the world. A joke, a hijacked premise, setting up tracks and then derailing the train. At the moment of rupture possibilities emerge. Possibilities emerge where meanings are destroyed.
I like Smithson fine. Some of his work is kind of interesting. I don’t have urge to banish it from the world, say. Yet it does seem to me that he is annoyingly over-rated, that at core the work is coy and bratty and kind of brittle. That it could crack under the weight of its underdeveloped and preposterous conceptual glaze. I need to get away from Smithson and his boyish pretentions in order to look at the work in a new way. The death of the author is fine for writers. Writers never really have a life off the page anyway. But there is no corresponding death of the artist. That stack of felt over in the corner, it only has meaning because of Joseph Beuys. God-like, he magically imbued it with value and significance. If we remove him, very little is left. So, it won’t really work to consider Spiral Jetty as just a thing in the world, as a work independent of its author. We must see it in the larger context of Smithson’s writings, drawings, other earthworks, etc. We must become more active and creative in terms of art and authorship. For starters, I propse the creation of a hybrid artist: Smithson-Mapplethorpe. If we collect the work of Roberts Mapplethorpe and Smithson and consider them as the work of a single artist, we suddenly have an oeuvre much more interesting and significant than their separate bodies of work. Whole new possibilities open up, and not just for academic scholarship.
I don’t believe that people have spirit animals. Balloons do, though. Mostly poodles, giraffes.
How many things in the world are, I wonder, right now, at this very moment, dripping with semen. I’m allergic to pollen, but semen’s no problem.
I often want to rape soldiers and marines, less often: sailors.
In one puddle we put everything that is forgotten, in the next everything remembered. The puddle of forgotten things is the deeper of the two. Remembered things stick out the top of the puddle of remembered things, and many of them bob and float.
It is not just a matter of convenience that the horse is depicted by two separate actors in the pantomime. For every horse in reality is two separate horses. One animal, the outer horse, completely encompassing the other, inner. The inner horse is not a little horse, but another genus of mammal altogether. Like a raccoon, but more dog-like, though without a trace of loyalty. Loyalty would be redundant, trapped as it is within the equine belly. It determines not when to run, but when to stop running. Without it, the outer horse would run to death, as happened to all the mono-horses, another extinct species.
Death . . . Discourse . . . And in the midst of all this . . . the reason I’m telling you . . . is because I’ve seen it. One of my patients, long ago . . . you wouldn’t have heard of her . . . Anyway, she suddenly dreamt . . . that the force of existence would spring forever from her . . . Pascalian dream . . . an infinity of lives descending from her . . . in an endless line. She woke half mad.
I’m collecting worms. Not from the earth itself, but from potted plants. I think they’ll be more refined, more trainable. I’m gonna form a worm chorus, teaching them songs and hymns, both popular and classical. I think this task will be easier than my other project: making a good structuralist film.
I’ve spent my whole life waiting for deliriums, for hallucinations. Fever dreams. I thought it might happen here, in the United Arab Emirates. I thought, at the very least, withdrawal from alcohol might give me delirium tremens. But, nothing. If you can’t hallucinate in the desert, well, its hopeless. What did Genet say about it?
PUT ALL THE IMAGES IN LANGUAGE IN A PLACE OF SAFETY AND MAKE USE OF THEM FOR THEY ARE IN THE DESERT AND ITS IN THE DESERT WE MUST GO LOOK FOR THEM
The first category is WHATEVER MIGHT BE IMAGINED. And that includes, you know, the set of whatever we might imagine. Category two is a subset of WHATEVER MIGHT BE IMAGINED and that is WHATEVER MAY EXIST. Okay. So we can chart that out. If this is WHATEVER MIGHT BE IMAGINED, with that, as a subset, is WHATEVER MAY EXIST. Okay. Third category is THAT WHICH EXISTS. And that in itself is a subset of WHATEVER MAY EXIST. Then we have, as our fourth category of things in the world, THAT WHICH WE HAVE IMAGINED. And that isn’t a subset of category three, at least not purely, as WHAT WE HAVE IMAGINED may or may not exist at this time. Okay, here’s where things get interesting, in how these categories relate. Between WHATEVER MIGHT BE IMAGINED and WHATEVER MAY EXIST, that’s GOD. Um, and between THAT WHICH EXISTS and THAT WHICH WE HAVE IMAGINED, that is SCIENCE. There’s also a line here and at the top half is the realm of the VIRTUAL and the bottom two are the realm of the ACTUAL. So you see that GOD and SCIENCE are just the VIRTUAL/ACTUAL inverse of the same thing. Okay, between WHATEVER MIGHT BE IMAGINED and THAT WHICH EXISTS, that’s the realm of INVENTION. Between WHATEVER MAY EXIST and THAT WHICH WE HAVE IMAGINED that, of course, is the HUMANITIES. The diagonal ones are more interesting. Between WHATEVER MIGHT BE IMAGINED and THAT WHICH WE HAVE IMAGINED — and these arrows go both ways — that’s ART. And between WHATEVER MAY EXIST and THAT WHICH EXISTS, that is DESIGN or ENGINEERING. They’re the same thing. We could also if we wanted make a counter-clockwise circuit from THAT WHICH WE HAVE IMAGINED around to WHATEVER MAY EXIST to WHATEVER MIGHT BE IMAGINED to THAT WHICH EXISTS and back to THAT WHICH WE HAVE IMAGINED. And that, that circuit, is MAGICK.
I think the devil is skin.
Open the so-called body and spread out all of its folds, wrinkles, scars, with its great velvety planes, and contiguous to that, the scalp and its mane of hair, the tender pubic fur, nipples, nails, hard transparent skin under the heel, the light frills of an eyelid, set with lashes — but open and spread, expose the labia majora, so also the labia minora with their blue network bathed in mucus, dilate the diaphragm of the anal sphincter, longitudinally cut and flatten out the black conduit of the rectum, then the colon, then the caecum, now a ribbon with its surface all striated and polluted with shit; as though your dress-maker’s scissors were opening the leg of an old pair of trousers, go on, expose the small intestine’s alleged interior, the jejunum, the ileum, the duodenum or else, at the other end, undo the mouth at its corners, pull out the tongue at its most distant roots and split it, spread out the bats’ wings of the palate and its damp basements, open the trachea and make it the skeleton of a boat under construction; armed with scalpels and tweezers, dismantle and lay out the bundles and bodies of the encephalon; and then the whole network of veins and arteries, intact, on an immense mattress, and then the lymphatic network, and the fine bony pieces of the wrist, the ankle, take them apart and put them end to end with all the layers of nerve tissue which surround the aqueous humours and the cavernous body of the penis, and extract the great muscles, the greta dorsal nets, spread them out like smooth sleeping dolphins.
Death . . . Discourse . . . If we couldn’t totally rely on the certainty . . . that it will end . . . how could you bear all this?
Human beings — all of life, really — may not be terribly interesting on the macro level, but if you dig deep enough, go down to the molecular, things become fascinating. Each cell is a complex, infernal machine. We know this mainly through cartoons, little scientific educational cartoons, perhaps schematic, but still accurate. Not precise, necessarily, never giving the complete picture, but accurate, as far as it goes. I don’t want to get AIDS, so I’ve started taking Truvada prophylactically. It's a big blue pill from Gilead, a combination of 300 mg tenofovir and 200 mg emtricitabine. Here is the virus attaching to receptors on a t-cell. Attachment is quite complex and involves conformational changes in both the virus and t-cell, or lymphocyte, receptors. Attachment is sometimes described as a ballet, which seem to me an unfortunate analogy. Do you know why ballerinas are so brave? They leap thirty feet across the stage, depending on the fag at the other end to catch them. There were many bad things about the 80s, but one of them was all those guys dying so quickly. Lurching toward the grave should happen slow, so that we almost don’t notice the inevitable degradation of the body. Now the viral membrane has been integrated into the cell membrane and the viral capsid has entered the innocent lymphocyte. But the capsid just dissolves, dirty sac that it is, and releases the guts of the virus: two RNA strands and three enzymes for replication: integrase, protease and reverse transcriptase. The reverse transcriptase begins its work on the viral RNA, but the Truvada stops this; it is a reverse transcriptase inhibitor. Then, a lot of other tuff happens. But not in my cells, where replication is stopped short. When I first started taking Truvada, I became a bit of a hypochondriac. I was sure it was littering my cells with all kinds of junk. After all, the drug’s only been in existence for a decade or so, and I’ve seen all the wondrous side effects earlier cocktails had. A friend of mine practically turned to coral. But that was a long time ago — 1992 — now things are more refined. So, at first I didn’t know what to be more scared of: a virus, certain sexual practices, or a pill. Now, I’m not scared at all. I habour only the slight anxiety that my health insurance will stop covering the drug.
Earlier I made a map of things in the world and how they might produce various effects. God, art, magick: those kinds of things. But the world, the exterior world, however large and unstable, however shaky and contingent, is only so interesting. It means nothing until we break it down and bring little bits inside. Cartoons help us understand how these interior spaces function. The inside of a cell is a subconscious space in which all the usual psychic forces are in play: condensation, displacement, etc. Viral replication is not an adequate model for human psychic functioning. This is how it works. At bottom, at core, is a well or reservoir of primal impressions: images, words, gestures. This is cushioned by a later of fluid anxiety. A piston, lubricated by anxiety, the false hope that things must make sense, be meaningful, forces up random unconscious material. And we are stuck, then, perpetually shuffling these bits around, forming them into unlikely scenarios, appalling stories, even as more primal bits are flung up.
Sometimes I forget I’m an atheist. Nature will do that to you. Sometimes I forget I’m an atheist, but never at night. Never in the dark. The endless primal night of all things eradicates any possibility of a light-filled transcendent realm. Any possibility, and any need. Daytime is boring, even for plants.
Spider, fly. Take this to be analogous to a sexual encounter. A gay, predatory sexual encounter. The fly is a prop and could easily be replaced by a dog collar and jock strap. All the action is really between the spider and the web. The web has more consciousness, more agency than the fly. It is more alive, more vibrant. The fly is poor-in-world, like a clump of dirt or soiled tube sock. The fly’s imminent death, then, is a kind of sub-death. It need not be counted.
I saw Thundecrack last night. I was expecting to see you there. It was kind of amazing. Although, possibly the best part of it was an introductory video that George Kuchar had recorded especially for this screening. It was about ten minutes with his face up in the camera like this.
And he used to eat, his dad used to eat a lot of jelly donuts and sleep under the kitchen table. So Curt wanted to be with his dad and so he didn’t feel bad about leaving this earth, maybe he would see his dad again.
Animals don’t love us the way we love them. When I first realized this, as a child, I was terribly disappointed. Then I discovered it was all about locomotion. They move through the world in their own ways. Many animals don’t even have legs, or hands. Love is very different when you don’t have a head.
Surrounded by all this death, its hard not to get more and more philosophical, or perhaps just more physical. I wanna be buried with my moustache attached to my nipple rings. That is my final wish, to be laid out with the ends of my moustache firmly attached to my nipple rings. And then cremated or something, I don’t care. Of course, I don’t have any piercings; they disgust me. They can pierce my nipples on my death bed. It’ll take a few years for my moustache to grow that long, I know. That’s how I’m going to measure the remaining years of my life, by the shrinking distance between moustache tip and virtual nipple ring.
Death . . . Discourse . . . We know that language never gives, never allows us to formulate . . . anything but things which have three, five, twentyfive meanings.
—Oh, are you going to rough me up? I was just expressing myself, like this gentleman. Understand?
—Yes, I understand.
—If all the people here now were to join together . . . and freely ans authentically wanted to communicate . . . who with a guilty conscience will pick up the remains . . . of the avant-garde and the decaying spectacle. That’s why I chose this precise moment to have some fun . . . to be like those guys who express themselves authentically. I didn’t do it to annoy you, but I did choose this particular moment . . . I want to do just one thing: make revolution.
—“It’s love!” That is where love turns . . . toward that kind of vibrant call . . . to that union with . . . What? . . . with something . . . something obviously very alienating . . . What is really incredible . . . is that he imagined that by beating the sky with his fists . . . that this alienation, which was exactly what he was telling you about . . . is a sort of . . . is a call . . . for what? For more of what? For more truth? His words were identical to the truth he believed at that moment . . . and he became the instrument, the messenger, the angel . . . come to rescue you . . . from what? From your sleep, in the end.
So Chicago — all of Cook County, really — has a pretty good Artists-in-the-Classroom program that I was part of this year. They always have a shortage of people for the primary grades, so I happily went there, where the little humans are anyway more fresh. I wanted to be posted somewhere on the northside — maybe even here in Evanston — I thought they'd have better crayons and stuff — but instead I got a southside posting. But the crayons were fine there. Really, its Crayola everywhere, they've kind of got a monopoly. Anyway, my plan was to get the kids to illustrate Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Just as Swift's Gulliver's Travels became, over the course of, say, 120 years, a book for children, so, I predict, will Thus Spoke Zarathustra be a children's book by 2040. None of his other books, obviously, just Zarathustra. So, in a way, I'm just trying to stay ahead of the curve. My plan was to take the children's drawings and animate them. It turned out, though, that they didn't really have the skill or patience for the kind of frame by frame pictorial consistency that kind of animation requires.
The Honey Sacrifice
Narrator: And again moons and years passed over Zarathustra’s soul and he took no notice of it. His hair turned white. One dawn he sat on a stone in front of his cave and gazed outward. His animals milled about pensively until finally they stood before him.
Animals: Oh, Zarathustra. Are you perhaps on the lookout for your happiness?
Zarathustra: What does happiness matter?
Animals: But Zarathustra, do you not lie in a sky-blue lake of happiness?
Zarathustra: You foolish rascals! How well you choose your metaphors! But you must know my happiness is much heavier than water; it presses me with the insistence of heavy tar.
Animals: Oh Zarathustra! Is that why you are turning dark with yellow, even as your hair and beard grow white?
Zarathustra: What are you saying, my animals? What’s happening to me is common to all fruits that ripen. It’s the honey in my veins that makes my blood thicker and my soul calmer.
Animals: It will be as you say, Zarathustra. But do you not want to climb a high mountain today? The air is pure and one sees more of the world.
Zarathustra: Yes, my animals. Your suggestion is superb. I do want to climb a high mountain today. But there must be honey at hand for me there: fresh golden honey straight from the comb. Because know this, my animals: I want to offer the honey sacrifice up there.
Narrator: But when Zarathustra was up on the summit, he sent all the animals home. Finding himself alone, he laughed with his whole heart.
Zarathustra: That I spoke of sacrifices and honey sacrifices was merely a slight of speech. What sacrifice? I squandered whatever gifts were given me, I, the squanderer with a thousand squandering hands. And when I desired honey I merely desired bait and sweet ooze and mucus, such as growling bears and odd, surly, evil birds lap. For I am a fisher of men, and honey is my mucus, my bait.
Narrator: The next day Zarathustra again sat on the stone in front of his cave, while the animals roamed about in the world, looking for food. In particular: honey, for Zarathustra had used all of their existing supply the day before as part of the honey sacrifice. But as he sat there, deep in thought, stick in hand, reflecting, he was well and truly startled by a shadow next to his own shadow. It was the Soothsayer, proclaimer of the great weariness.
Soothsayer: All is the same, nothing is worth it, the world is without meaning, knowledge chokes.
Zarathustra: Welcome, you soothsayer of the great weariness. Not for nothing were you once guest at my table. Eat and drink with me today, too and forgive that a contented old man joins you at the table.
Soothsayer: A contented old man?!? The waves around your mountain rise and rise; waves of great distress and gloom. Soon they will carry you away. Do you not hear anything yet?
Narrator: Zarathustra kept silent and listened. He heard a long, long cry that the abysses threw back and forth, as if none wanted to keep it, so evil and forlorn did it sound.
Zarathustra: That is a cry of distress. It comes from a human being, even if it comes from a black sea. But what is human distress to me? My final sin, the one I’ve saved up — do you know what it is called?
The Stepped-On Man
Narrator: Zarathustra walked on pensively, deeper through the woods and past vast swampy valleys. Eventually, as happens to one who reflects so intently on grave matters, he stepped on someone.
Zarathustra: Forgive me! By way of apology, I offer you a parable. A wanderer who is dreaming of distant things unintentionally stumbles over a sleeping dog on a lonely lane, a dog lying in the sun. Both startle and attack each other like deathly enemies. And yet had things been slightly different they would be caressing each other by the side of the road, for are they not, after all, both lonely?
Stepped-on-man: Your parable is stupid and insulting. What am I, some kind of mongrel?
Zarathustra: My friend! You are bleeding. Things have gone badly for you in this life, you wretch. First you were bitten by beasts and then you were stepped on by a human being. Who are you, friend?
Stepped-on-man: For the leech’s sake I lay here at this swamp like a fisherman.
Zarathustra: You are making my day increasingly pure and bright. Perhaps you are an expert on the leech?
Stepped-on-man: Ultimate leech knowledge would be a monstrous undertaking. I could not presume to such a thing! What I am master and expert of, however, is the leech’s brain — that is my world! And it is a world! Forgive me that my pride speaks up here, but in this matter I have no equal. Here, in the swamp, I am at home. How long already have I pursued this one thing, the brain of the leech, so that the slippery truth no longer slips away from here? Here is my realm! This is why I threw away everything else. Right next to my knowledge my black ignorance lurks.
The Ugliest Human Being
Narrator: And again Zarathustra’s feet ran through mountains and woods, and his eyes searched and searched, but nowhere to be seen was the one whom they wanted to see, the great sufferer and crier of distress.
Zarathustra: What a lovely day it’s been, and after such an inauspicious start! What strange interlocutors I’ve found. Now I want to chew on their words for a long time. My teeth will grind them until they flow like milk into my soul.
Narrator: But then the path disappeared around a boulder, all at once the landscape changed and Zarathustra stepped into a realm of death. Here black and red cliffs jutted upward: no grass, no tree, no birdsong. It was a valley that all the animals avoided, even the predators; all except one species of hideous, thick, green snake that would come here to die when they got old. And for this reason the shepherds called this valley: Snake Death. Now Zarathustra sank into a black reminiscence, for it seemed to him that he had already stood in this valley once before. And much graveness spread itself over his mind, such that he walked slowly and ever more slowly until finally he stood still. When he opened his eyes he saw something sitting beside the path, shaped like a human but scarcely human, something unspeakable.
Ugliest: Zarathustra! Guess my riddle! What is revenge against the witness?
Zarathustra: I do not know.
Ugliest: Then here is an easier one: who am I?
Zarathustra: I recognize you alright. You are the murderer of God. You could not bear the one who saw you — who saw you always through and through, you ugliest human being. You took revenge on this witnessing!
Ugliest: God had to die! He saw with eyes that saw everything. He saw the depths and grounds of human beings, all their hidden disgrace and ugliness. God’s pitying knew no shame: he crawled into my filthiest nook. This most curious, super-pitying one had to die.
Zarathustra: My cave is big and deep and has many nooks, there the most hidden person will find a hiding place. And close by are a hundred burrows and tunnels for crawling, flapping and leaping wildlife. You are an outcast who cast himself out. Come to dinner tonight. You should speak with my animals; they’d have a lot to teach you. The human is being is something that must be overcome.
The Last Supper
Narrator: It was not until late afternoon that Zarathustra returned home to his cave. What an eyeful awaited him! Sitting all together were the ones he had passed during the day.
Soothsayer: We need wine, Zarathustra. We are not all water drinkers.
Stepped-on-man: I have wine for everyone. What we need is bread.
Zarathustra: Bread? Bread is the one thing that hermits do not have. I have two lambs. We can quickly slaughter them and spice them with sage; I love sage with my lamb. But you must all pitch in.
Narrator: This appealed to the hearts of all. As they prepared the food, Zarathustra discoursed.
Zarathustra: When I first came to mankind, I committed the great folly: I situated myself in the market place. When I spoke to all, I spoke to none. But by evening I had companions. They were tightrope walkers and corpses, but that was better than nothing — I’d been a hermit for years. Nonetheless, the next day, I decided the marketplace was not the place to be. It was fine for Jesus — preacher of the little people, worms and lilies — to labour and suffer under the sins of mankind. Mankind must become better and more evil.
Narrator: With the last of his words, he slipped away from his guests and fled for a short while into the open. The guests were happy for the reprieve, and kept on with their preparations.
Narrator: Zarathustra, in the open before his cave, sings to his animals.
Zarathustra: Oh clean fragrance around me! Oh blissful stillness around me! But where are my animals? Come here, come here. I love you, my animals!
Narrator: His animals gathered. They surrounded him, enveloped him, but did not speak. Zarathustra opened his heart and understood. From that moment he remained mute, eternally, joyously mute.
[To see this video, click here.]