Get You Back Home
1. Gamma on Fashion
Gamma sat back heavily on the park bench and hoisted a plastic bag of clinking bottles onto his lap. He examined them one by one, pulling them up to read the labels, then dropping them back.
`Careful, you'll break them, don't do that!' cried Flo. A thin, wiry woman, she deployed a girlish dependence as her primary weapon. Large eyes and sunken cheeks emphasised her cheek bones, giving her a feverish kind of prettiness. She always managed to find some kind of outrageous dress or wrap - generally of thin material, and highly coloured - that emphasised her fragile figure. She was like a kitten, always asking for protection, always just about to be crushed. Though she drank all day, she maintained a kind of lunatic smartness in her verbal ripostes. Usually flighty and laughing, her tantrums, however, were legendary.
`Now, Flo, don't you turn - you're horrible when you turn, just don't do it. I'm only looking for the right bottle.'
Gamma proceeded to look at the labels, often pulling out bottles he'd looked at before. There was no method in his madness. He was eight cans of Diamond Lightning into the morning. A sudden windfall had allowed him to buy more wine than even his cracked consciousness would tolerate in a single afternoon's drinking.
`Where is it - I want the Rioja!' He pronounced it `ri-ojer', enjoying the word's resemblance to `roger'. `Ri-ojer, I wanna ri-ojer, I wanna roger ...'
`Roger who, you dirty bastard?'
`Roger the Dodger.'
`Dodgy enough without saying names.'
Gamma ignored her. Finally he found it. A net of fine gold wire surrounded the bottle.
`Vintage Rioja, the very best - a bucket of rubies!'
`It's wasted on you. You'll just chuck it down your neck. You should use a glass with fine wine, one with a stem.' Flo spoke with the exaggerated emphasis of the habitual drunk, the discourse where any fact is gloated on and treasured like some jewel plucked from the outside world - and its veracity defended with fists - and in Flo's case, teeth - if need be.
`Oh, fuck off with you.' Gamma yanked the gold thread down from the neck, tore the black foil off the top, and pushed the cork in with one movement of his broad thumb. Then, extending a forefinger, he carefully kept the cork beneath the surface of the wine as he inverted the bottle, hoisted it in the air and placed the spout near his mouth. He quickly withdrew his finger and positioned the aperture in his mouth, but not before a splash of red appeared on his Steve Vai t-shirt.
`You're spilling it!' Said Flo
`Didn't spill a drop,' said Gamma, emerging from a lengthy glug. He handed the bottle to Flo, who took a swig, then choked and went into a coughing fit. When she'd recovered she looked at Gamma, tears in her eyes, and said.
`My that's strong. Gets right up your nose.'
Gamma took back the bottle and swigged again: `Not mine. A fine Rioja. We're just missing the tappas. Hey, you!' he said, hailing an unfortunate passer-by. `Got any tappas? Can I tap you for a tappas, mate?' Gamma laughed uproariously at his own joke. Like every wino, he was totally into his role; he knew that inflicting his own private connections and puns and psychic fixations on strangers kept them at a convenient distance, served to protect his park bench. He exteriorised his interior monologue and wielded the resulting grotesques like a weapon. The net effect was like the puppie dog passed through space by the machine in The Fly: a pullulating, exposed mess. The public invariably recoiled at this inside-out affront. But not this passer-by.
`No, I haven't got tuppence, tell the truth ...' It was Laura Hunter, the art-student from the Holloway Road. She was passing through Cantelowes Park; having alighted from the 253 bus at the Jewish Free School, she was hurrying through Kentish Town to drop off ten of her CDs at Nail Records. Laura wasn't intimidated by winos. She'd been taught by a student of Jeff Nuttall's: the wino is a sacred institution, a font of transgressive wisdom. True, they could get a bit fucking boring with their endless sitting around on park benches, the way their conversation revolved a flotsam and jetsam of useless information filched from tatters of stray newspaper and radio news overheard in off-licenses. But at least they had a sense of humour, a sense that life is here and now, not just a transparent, substanceless medium for maximization of exchange values. Who knows? This pair might tell her something that would impress Nellie and get her a `special arrangement' for the CDs. A window display. Maybe even some cash upfront. `So no money, I'm afraid, but I'll have some of your wine.'
Laura sat down on the bench beside Gamma. Perhaps the presence of Flo made her confident that he wouldn't try anything on too gross. Besides, his wilful sprawl reminded her of the way Out To Lunch sat when he was tanked. He handed her the bottle, and introduced himself.
`I'm Gamma - and this is Flo. Who are you?'
`Laura's the name, Laura Hunter - as in "she's a law-unto-herself" - though the dance contingent know me as Nervous Trix ...'
Was he drunk, or did he think that was her name? She'd heard about a Trish lately. Some kind of scandal.
She looked at the label, thought she'd try some wine speak: `I see they're still using baroque scrolls and gothic script. I'm glad that the Rioja lot haven't gone for the new-age minimalism that's all the rage in Spain. Makes one think the wine might not have been brewed up yesterday by some peasants under orders of some Californian yuppie who thinks he's some vinicultural expert. Ugh! Yes, that's got the true old-world tang-of-the-soil. No new-world ingratiation, no user-friendly "drink-me" fruit - just dust and must ...'
She leaned forward and offered the bottle to Flo, who took it and smiled back. The effort looked like it might crack her chin. Gamma was silent a moment, outdone by Laura's merry conviction that the open-air inebriates would cotton on to her high-flown rhetoric.
`Musty mites, the sod-hopping fleas of necessity - the lees I sometime slaked!' He finally exclaimed, grabbing the bottle and swigging some more wine.
`You're quoting?' Asked Laura.
`No. I make it up as I go along. As Derek Bailey said to Pat Metheny. Hey! Look at him!'
A young black guy walked past. He was wearing a deer-stalker's hat. He didn't give them a glance. His old-fogey headgear clashed with the rest of his apparel - all streamlined sportsgear. He looked completely barmy, but supercool - all at once. Quite an achievement.
`Is that what the youth are wearing today?' said Gamma after all three had watched him sail past. `What museal haberdasher could have supplied that titfer? Doctor Watson where are you? - I've found you a streetwise Holmes! All he needs is a magnifying glass ...'
`History is not a museum,' said Laura, `but a junkpile: a repositary of undetonated potential. When official society declares particular ideas or styles "outdated", such discarded items become explosive materials begging for use ...'
`In other words, forms to be deployed in subverting hegemonic normalcy!' exclaimed Flo, screwing up her face in a grimace to accomodate Laura's freak perspective.
`Precisely, my dear Flo,' said Laura, falling in with Gamma's literary allusions (though Conan the Barbarian was more her style than Conan Doyle). `Because so few commentators are aware of social class, Walter Benjamin's line on fashion has been the cause much confusion. In typical middle-class fashion, academics see themselves "above fashion". They're so hypocritical, so repressed. Making youself attractive by orienting yourself around current modes is considered a sport for kids - or the lower classes and races. Hence they discuss the pros and cons of fashion as if it were an undivided entity - just as they discuss `violence'. In fact, the point about fashion - or violence - is what is expressed, its social content. Benjamin, for example, was hip, which means cleaving a path through banality. When he says "Fashion is a tiger's leap into the past", he is describing a participant seizing upon a discarded item - like that guy with his ludicrous hat. The middle-class, in contrast, equate fashion with successful mass-production and the realisation of extra surplus value - the operations that get promotion for middle management - and so they think of fashion as a matter of mere conformism.'
`The middle-classes decide something's fashionable only once they've noticed it - ie when it's dead. Or at least smells pretty rancid,' said Gamma.
`In fact,' said Flo, `us three here - we're the most fashionable people on the planet!'
`But the pigs don't know that,' said Gamma.
`Only we know that!' said Flo.
`Benjamin called the alienation of society from its active subject universalising history,' said Laura. `Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogenous, empty time. My approach, on the other hand, is based on a constructivist principle.'
`Like the path of the deer-stalker, it takes a brush through the thicket of time ...' said Gamma. `Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Revolution always has its set-backs. Think of Russia in 1905, Portugal in 1975, England in 1999. Where thinking stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock - like tapping an oversaturrated solution of sugar - and crystallizes a monad. If you can't get to the monad, forget it. You're just laying trophies on some bench-marked shelf in the school-room!'
`This is the montage principle as against realist narrative. Rather than the in-filling of a preconceived schema, the syntax of montage is based on the materials themselves.' Said Laura. `That's what I'm working on with my music. I'm moving away from automatic beats to a music defined by the recorded sounds themselves. Why must everything fit into a preconceived pattern, be subordinated to ready-made software parameters? That's why most Techno is complete garbage - it's just sounds organised according to Sony Corporation's interpretation of the tempered scale.'
`Benjamin's thesis is itself a monadic crystal, pregnant with the revolutionary Marxism of the 1930s. He puts the human subject in the centre of history. He blames the atrocities of Nazism on the Social-Democratic politicians who feared that working-class revolution would destroy their all-important privileges.' Said Flo.
`Detachment from the political urgencies of 1939 has allowed Benjamin's text to be embraced by precisely those liberal faint-hearts he castigated: now is the time to make the monad explode! Flabby ventricles await the piercing shard,' said Laura, finishing off the bottle of Rioja, `well, I'm glad we got that one sorted - but I must be off.'
Gamma was already pushing in the cork of another. Laura stood up and took the empty over to an over-flowing litter-bin. She stood it upright on the tarmac in front. She returned and stooped to examine the label on the bottle Gamma was holding: `Vinho Tinto'. Generic Portuguese. Less promising.
`I'm off. Thanks for the wine and the discussion. Most illuminating. We must make this revolution we're talking about happen some time.'
Flo and Gamma waved their farewells. Swinging her bag of CDs, elated and a little drunk, Laura plunged off towards Kentish Town.
`Interesting lady,' said Gamma, `... fascinating, what conceptions can be brought out of a hat.'
_2. Lunch & Punnck: OTL Reports #3
Finally, I caught up with Esther Punnck. She was on her own, looking through a soggy cardboard box of books at Brick Lane market one drizzly Sunday morning. I went straight over.
`Anything of interest in there?'
She looked up, wide-eyed, reminding me of a wild animal trapped in netting. `Lunch!'
She wasn't stupid. `You're paying?'
We made our way down the market, past the vegetable stalls, tomatoes wet and gleaming red, to the row of curry and sweetmeat shops just down from Truman's brewery. We entered one with a curtain of plastic beads before the door. Inside it was dark, red plush on the walls and diminutive candles flickering inside the hot-plates that are de rigueur in a Balti House.
`This is one of the few authentic Balti houses on Brick Lane,' I said, as Esther removed her fur wrap revealing a top made of some kind of silvery material. She glistened in the half-light.
`A real Balti!' she exclaimed as she tucked into her chicken curry. `A proper Balti is served in the dish it was cooked in, it's a joke when you go into an Indian restaurant only to find the dish your hot Balti has been served in is cold!'
`Look,' I said as I used a spoon to make an excavation into my Korma, `this is the real test that the food has been cooked in the dish, the coloration around the edge should be different at the top and the bottom. This one passes.'
`You're right,' Nafisah confirmed, `and mine passes with flying colours too.'
`Tastes good!' I yelped as I tore a strip from my nan and dipped it into the Korma.
I could feel myself getting an erection as Sayyida slopped a piece of nan around her dish, then shoved the princely delicate into her O-shaped open mouth. I imagined the way Esther's breasts and stomach would swell up if she were placed on a regime of forced feeding.
I decided to change the subject. Knowing she was a Benjaminian, I thought I'd rile her about her hero's misapprehensions about Josef Dietzgen.
`You know, Esther, I don't think Benjamin was quite right about Dietzgen in the "Theses on the Philosophy of History". First of all, Benjamin thought Dietzgen was called Wilhelm - and Hannah Arendt describes "Wilhelm Dietzgen" as a "nineteenth-century socialist" in the glossary of Illuminations. He had a son called Eugen, but no Wilhelm Dietzgen ever existed! With this kind of sloppiness, everything becomes uncertain. What with the sentence missed out from the preface to the "Artwork" essay - where Benjamin is made to say he is formulating theses that will be "completely useless for the purposes of revolutionary politics" instead of "completely useless for the purposes of fascism" - it seems impossible to tell who's talking about whom - or, in many cases, who's even doing the talking!'
`I wouldn't know about the English edition of Illuminations. I read it in German,' she said smugly, a fork of authentic balti-fried chicken poised in front of her mouth. I noticed that her scarlet lipstick was off-centre, like a stamp postmarked by a drunken postman.
`Benjamin also attacked Dietzgen as a servile reformist.'
`Everyday in everyway, things are getting better and better and we see clearer and clearer ...' she shot back. Punnck knew her stuff.
`According to Dr Bruno Willie, Josef Dietzgen preferred the company of younger comrades. He disliked both respectable bourgeoise and the increasingly conservative SDP officials. In 1886, after a bomb exploded at the Chicago Haymarket stock-exchange and the editors of the anarchist Chicagoer Arbeiter Zeitung were arrested - sentenced to death - Dietzgen took over as editor. This despite the fact that the National Committe of the SDP in New York had - quite opportunistically - repudiated any connection with them. Hardly the actions of a reformist! With a track record like that, if he'd lived, he would surely have voted against war-bonds along with Luxemburg and Liebknecht. He argued against the reformist tendency in the party, saying, "According to me - and I am at one in this with all the better and best comrades - we shall not arrive at the new society without serious struggles. I even think we shall not get along without disorderly uproar, without `anarchy'".'
`Okay. But in defence of Benjamin,' said Esther carefully, her eyes focused on the candle flame flickering beneath my pan of authentic Balti Korma, `Dietzgen's writings lack the abrasive clarity of Marx and Lenin. His blithe optimism must've looked fatuous and hollow by 1939. And the Gotha Programme of 1875 drew him towards the right. Writing in Volksstaat in 1876, he used the very phrase that Marx objected to - "one reactionary mass".'
I tore another strip of my nan and dipped it in my Korma.
`But there's more truth in Dietzgen's use of the phrase than in the Gotha Programme! As Marx said, the Lassalleans were agglomerating all the non-proletarian classes and thereby creating confusion. Dietzgen uses the phrase to describe the idealist collusions of the state-funded intelligentsia - the philosophers who are a "more or less progressive offshoot of the theologians and doctors of divinity". Class fractions certainly need to be distinguished; they represent real divided interests that the proletarian party must exploit - playing off the bourgeoisie's progressive aspirations versus the landed interest, for example - but regressive ideology is colloidal, molar, homogeneous, "one reactionary mass". As he says, the professors - then as now - did all regard the universe as the product of the Intellect.'
`You're splitting hairs, Lunch. Benjamin was right to use Dietzgen as an example of Social-Democratic complacency following the Gotha Programme! The quotation Benjamin used about getting better and better - let's all improve our shining tail - comes from a passage where Dietzgen shows Lassallean illusions in Bismarck, for fuck's sake! He says that the issue of "time, means and method of the transformation" - his word for revolution, the collective seizure of the means of production - "could be via a variety of methods - a parliamentary petition, a barricade fight, or a secret treaty with Bismarck!" That's sad, dreaming that workers could liaise with Bismarck to tame the bosses - it's worse than having illusions in Blair, it's proto-fascist, it stinks! He even says revolution could be achieved by alliance with the frigging suffragettes - that hopeless collection of Bloomsbury bints ...'
The way Esther spat out the word `Bloomsbury' brought a warmth to Lunch's heart as poignant and romantic as the flame flickering beneath his curried authenticity.
`Dietzgen said all precise politics - which is really just a word for Leninism - were "extravagant, untimely and foolish considerations". Benjamin was absolutely right to point out how close such reliance on foggy notions of paternalism and progress are to Stalinism. All those idiots trusting to Uncle Joe in the '30s - and then getting shot if they started seeing the reality of working-class self-emancipation! Their way there was paved with Dietzgen's blathering flannel ...'
Her eyes sparkled. I tore another strip off my nan.
`"We bide our time"!' - her sarcasm was acrid enough to peel the pile off the plush on the walls - `"the material must be submitted to our understanding before we can rationally think the matter out"! "Our cause is getting clearer every day, and the people are daily becoming more enlightened"! The guy was a jerk. Walter was absolutely correct ....'
`I concede the point.' I said, tearing another strip off my now greatly-diminished nan. `But he did ascribe these sayings to a non-existent "Wilhelm Dietzgen". Hardly the "abrasive clarity" of a Marx or Lenin! I'd say Benjamin had more of a reputation for numinous mystery. Think of Christ Neinhamm's talk at the Conference of Leninists ...'
`That arsehole!' He wouldn't know an abrasive clarity if it reared up and bit him. We're talking the get-up-and-use-me challenge of poetic provocation here. Besides, don't talk for other people, Lunch. Isn't the Materialist Esthetix of the divine Walter clear as day to you?'
She was asking for a declaration of love. I got up from my chair and fell to my knees before her.
`Yes! Yes! Boredom is not clarity. Clarity is not vision. Snodgrass is not Blake. I need this subjectivist accuracy, honesty, numinous precision. Take me, I'm yours, Esther Punnck! I LOVE YOU!!'
I could feel myself getting an erection as Sayyida slopped a piece of nan around her dish, then shoved the princely delicate into her O-shaped open mouth. I imagined the way Esther's breasts and stomach would swell up if she were placed on a regime of forced feeding. She quickly changed the subject.
`Of course, Benjy was also subject to the hippie devil-weed. He was probably so stoned he couldn't keep Dietzgen's correct forename in his mouth. I might excavate materialist truths from his dope-smoked fantasias, but I reserve the right of editorial discretion!'
Her eyes sparkled with materialist pride, a here-and-now debunking that blew sparks of blueish orgone-energy at the red-blush womb of the walls.
`As well as the blunder about Dietzgen's first name,' she continued, dipping her nan in her chicken curry, `Benjamin mistakenly ascribes the Dietzgen quote to "The Religion of Social-Democracy", whereas it actually comes from his "Social-Democratic Philosophy". This mistake indicates that, rather than subjecting Dietzgen's whole philosophy to a conscientious critique, Benjamin was using him as an exemplar of "sell-out Marxism" in general. The low-regard orthodox left activists like this Neinhamm have for Benjamin is a sad illustration of the decay of revolutionary ideas today.'
`Yet even Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme was circulated to but a handful of party members,' I replied, hoping to dispel the air of melancholy that had enwrapped her, `and despite the fact that it's a great polemic - and so productively correct about the relationship of human thought to politics and nature - it failed to raise sufficient support.'
`Of course,' she said, `it wasn't published until 1891, eight years after Marx's death, and even then Social-Democrat officials insisted on "moderating" its pointed spleen.'
The words `pointed spleen' coursed like fire down my veins. I could feel myself getting an erection. I tore another strip off my nearly-finished nan.
`Politics that seeks to articulate real social forces,' she continued, her eyes flashing over her curry, `depends on the existence of those forces to manifest itself. Despite his friendship with Marx, Dietzgen did not encounter the "pregnant monad" of his Gotha Critique. Compared to Marx's words, Dietzgen's formulations of the 1870s are hopelessly vague. He says that the workers may need to use "the mailed fist", then qualifies his militancy: "yet we need not fear it will come to that". His words on the relationship of person to nature, of consumption to distribution, on political tactics, are all loose and complacent. Dietzgen was suffering from the same political malaise as the rest of the Social-Democracy. In 1880, Marx remarked to Engels that Dietzgen's work was deteriorating and that he found the man's case "quite incurable".'
`Yet Lenin liked him,' I countered, `and in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he calls him "that worker-philosopher". He says that Dietzgen discovered dialectical materialism in his own way, and that "much in him is great".'
`Benjamin's use of Dietzgen was polemical,' said Esther, dipping a nan into her chicken curry, `selecting quotes to portray the criminal banality of middle-class pseudo-socialism and positivist reformism.'
`Exactly,' I concurred, `because he also tiraded against the short-sighted and narrow-minded who couldn't give up what he called the "fad" of moderate organic progress. He said "Don't you perceive that struggle and destruction must precede peace and construction?" and "History stands still, because she gathers force for a great catastrophe." Hardly the words of a "wait-and-see" apologist for capitalism! Far from embracing the Protestant work ethic as Benjamin charges, Dietzgen denounced the "nauseous lukewarmness of the privileged" who tell us to "pray and work". His description of the bourgeois fear of rational socialism was "those who squeal if the people do no more believe in anything, who will sanctify our property and supply the dear fatherland with food for guns or cannon?". Dietzgen was hardly lining up to vote for war bonds! Benjamin accused the Social-Democrats of making the working class forget its all-important hatred, but Dietzgen answers the Christian concept of "love" by quoting Georg Herwegh ...'
Esther abruptly burst into song, an impromptu setting of Herwegh's words (to the tune of `Mack the Knife'):
Love can't save us, can't redeem us,
So come on Hate and break our chains!
Until we've smashed the bourgeois system
We'll use our Hate to keep us sane!
I responded with UB40's incendiary lines:
Take the man in the white cloak
A pointed mask to hide his face
Murders in the name of religion
If you're not the right colour or race
Take the man in the black cloak
He's holding justice in his hands
Lets the man in the white cloak go
Calls it the law of the land
Love is all is alright
But you left it a little too late
Love is all is alright
But you've got to find a little more hate ...
I could feel myself getting an erection from all this sublime revolutionary hatred spilling over the curry-house table.
`Benjamin selects from Dietzgen the affirmative delusions that allowed Social-Democrat leaders to betray the working class,' she resumed, `and I concede that these co-exist with others that lead in the diametrically opposite direction ...'
`Benjamin denounces him for saying that nature "exists gratis", for example,' I said, `because it leads to an idea of exploiting nature rather than realising nature's potential.'
`Yet Dietzgen's remark is actually a rebuttal of feudal land rights,' said Esther, `insisting that nature is nobody's property. Saying that nature lies outside the property system is different from making it an inert object of human exploitation.'
I suddenly felt an impulse to come to Benjamin's defence: `Surely Benjamin's "unfairness" to Dietzgen is not the result of either stoned sloppiness or malicious duplicity, but a response to the tone of the Volksstaat essays of the 1870s. Like Marcel Duchamp disfiguring the Mona Lisa, Benjamin was protesting at the glazed impersonality of positive culture in a period of atrocity and holocaust! By 1939, any trace of confidence in automatic progress was surely obscene.'
`Given the social tensions surfacing today,' said Esther darkly, `as the post-war boom runs into repeated slumps, anyone who declares Benjamin simply paranoid and misguided would be tempting fate ...'
I asked for the bill. Out of character with her Nafisah and Sayyida manifestations, which now seemed to be some literary-satirical importation of offensive cliches from an `alien' text, Esther insisted on paying half the bill. I thought perhaps we'd be seeing some more of her. I certainly hoped so.
_3. Mind & Matter
It was a Wednesday morning. Rain battered mercilessly out of a steely-grey Hackney sky. Out To Lunch heard the communal-block door bang ajar, then the familiar sound of the postman wrestling a bundle of mail past the coats hanging on the back of his door. The envelopes had spots of wet, evidence of the postie's encounter with the elements. The usual sorry pile of review CDs, a bank-statement and a manilla envelope that appeared to have nothing in it. He ripped it open. A calling card fell out: the word `Rimshotz' printed in zigzag script on blue, surrounded by gold stars. The word `tonight' had been scrawled over it with a brown crayon. He recalled Wendy Fishbait's invitation as he took leave of the art class, and felt a simultaneous wave of lust and fear. On the back were the words `Mysticism is nothing other than unconscious longing for orgasm (cosmic plasmatic sensation)/Sexism is just the need to kiss ass'. Had OTL mentioned any of his mystical researches to Fishbait? Was she planning to inflict some kind of Reichian sex-therapy on him? He wanted to dismiss the idea, but found that his penis was responding; early-morning semi-tumescence had turned into an erection as stiff as a poker.
He went to the kitchen, filled the electric kettle and punched the rocker-switch. He began opening up some of the jiffy-bags of CDs, an automatic exercise, years of reviewing having eclipsed the delights of hard-earned commodity acquisition. The first contained re-issued CDs of Miles Davis from the early 70s - Dark Magus, Live-Evil, In Concert. These went straight in the bin: slowed-down blues and bossas, impressionist hung-harmonies learned from Gil Evans, a fetishistic spectacle of the latest technological gimmickry! Cyberdrivellers called it `the female will-to-chaos', Lunch called it boring shit where the solos never effect the limping rhythms. The second was from Sony Corporation, part of their vampiric blood-sucking of little labels from the past, in this case CTI, Creed Taylor's home for late-nite eezi-spread funk. Mega! These were reserved for later use. The third was from a label he wasn't familiar with. On the cover was an early-century photograph of two guys in flatcaps with a barrel organ.
By redeploying out-dated commercial imagery, the surrealists had sought to outwit science's repression of subjectivity. Torn from nineteenth-century department-store catalogues, engravings of men with handle-bar moustaches perched on penny-farthings took on a ridiculous aspect. Max Ernst used them to mock the commercial imagery of his day. Dragging its embarrassing predecessors into the light of day made the current charade look creaky and temporary and stupid. The `rationality' of freezers and toasters was denounced as ideology, cement for a restricted and ludicrous state of affairs.
`The measure of the strength of working-class resistance to bourgeois ideology is how patently absurd and irrelevant the images of the advertisers look to the mass audience,' OTL pronounced as he poured boiling water on a teabag and groped in the fridge for a pint of milk. By revealing the erotics behind the mechanical rationalism of the Victorian commodity, the surrealists showed how they marshalled human desire. Scientific imagery was revealed as pullulating with sexual, commercial and historical interests. Consumerist drives were exposed as a ludicrous sex game which could be disrupted and subverted. However, this CD with the barrel-organ was just using ersatz surrealism as a trivial, decorative motif. It might be on the same label was the divine Billy Jenkins, but it had none of his arresting shock, his contrary poise. It sucked. He threw it into the bin without even checking to see who played on it. Probably some of those washed-up wankers who'd been in that big-band embarassment of wet-behind-the-ears music students. What were they called? Tubular Losers? Lubricious Tubers? Lost Yorubas?
OTL went to a bookshelf built over the kitchen door and extracted a slim volume: G. Zhdanov's Cosmic Rays, a slim, clarifoiled volume issued by Lawrence & Wishart in 1959. On the cover, wiggly arrows in white, grey and orange arose in a tangle from the terrestrial globe. The sky was blue-black with a milky scattering of stars. Outdated science books got Lunch going, whizzed his brain, broke the boredom of the spectacular lie. He detested the way the latest pop-science bestsellers try to announce the latest discoveries of science as cosmo-spiritual consolation. James Glieck, Joseph Silk, Stephen Hawking ... they all report back from the pinnacles of specialism, assertions that brook no reply from their disempowered readers. They may start from the best of motives - populism, lust for fame, economic greed - but finished by cementing hierarchies of knowledge, refusing the working class their right to criticise everything under the sun. What Lunch objected to was the way slippage from speculation about recent statistics to ultimate philosophy allowed such scientific second-raters to pose as gurus. Science reduced to Cosmic Debris. He took the Rimshotz card in his hand and re-read the slogan printed on the back. The longings for cosmic truth that gave these writers mass sales was surely nothing other than Fishbait's `unconscious longing for orgasm (cosmic plasmatic sensation)'. Science made for bad philosophy. Whereas reading the divine Giordano Bruno could still alter someone's sense of self and society, these report-backs from the astronomy lab belittled lay-people, reduced them to onlookers on the march of `progress' - while new technology wreaked havoc on world employment, Africa starved and chaos reigned across ex-Communism.
OTL's Critical Materialism preferred to indict the creaky man-made absurdism of all `world-pictures', the struts behind the flats of the astro-sublime. Without reference to G. Zhadonov's mistakes, all positive science becomes an ideology of disempowerment. Antiquated science brought in historical perspective, made room for critique. Any person is just a person and everyone wants food, drink, shelter - and an orgasm too if they can get it. The embarrassment that the ideologists of scientific `objectivity' show towards history parallels the grown-up's embarassment with infantile play: beneath the calls to sober reason lies repression, a refusal to countenance the material facts of the body and the temporary nature of all knowledge - and all social arrangements.
The stern papa sees the wavy lines drawn by the child in imitation of `proper' joined-up writing, and tells the infant to start learning serious things; but when the day comes and the chastised child has learned the alphabet, all that results - in the normal run of capitalism - are the banalities of the rule-book. The runic improvisations of the child are an imago of Modern Art: a mimicry that carries a formal wisdom beyond the ken of literal deathliness.
OTL, for whom nothing human was foreign, would put a frame round these lines, discovering in them a unique document of a particular pen and paper wielded at a certain psychic and historical moment. He doted on identifying eras of paper production and the exact date-ranges of felt-tips and biros. To him, the structuralists - with their loveless rhetoric of system and instrumental efficacy - were simply ashamed about historical specificity and individual aetiology. They were the kind of people who hid the albums they bought as teenagers - when these were probably the only worthwhile records in the house.
Lunch felt like having a go at someone. Fishbait's note had produced the strange mix of philosophical agitation and sexual arousal that always preceded a rant. He flipped open his Great Yarmouth Mercury telephone book - a slim, chrome device where you slid a button to a letter and the relevant page sprang open - and got to `A' (he'd failed to adjust the pointer). Aha. Andy Wislon, just the guy - a science-lab nerd in the Party of Leninists if ever there was one!
He dialed the number.
`Okay, Andy - give us your best. We're taping brief statements that define your personal version of Marxism for Pink Papper.'
`Just a minute, let me think, I've just got out of bed ...'
He'd fallen for it. The guy was incapable of saying no the `media' - even if moralistic, patronising, badly distributed and appallingly laid-out.
`Marxism is ...' Wislon began. The idea of a series based on `Love is ...' occurred to Lunch: definitions inside thought bubbles over two wrecks slumped at a pub table, beer-glasses in hand. `Well, it's a matter of reconciling an objective, scientific understanding to one particular aspect of reality - namely, the struggle of the working class.'
`That implies a choice spectrum that might comprise, say, speculation on the Stock Exchange, computing, gardening or "working-class politics" ...'
`Yes, well, you've got to decide what to do haven't you? - What Is To Be Done, in other words ...'
Lunch was not to be deterred by this reference to Lenin's famous pamphlet. `Reconciliation? This is not a revolutionary concept, Mr Wislon. Surely Marxism is not about reconciling a transcendental spirit to a mundane reality - even if to its class-struggle aspects - but of bringing the already-existing necessities and motivations of social existence to consciousness. Your concept of struggle only fits in the list when conceived in a mechanical manner as a matter of paper sales and picket lines. Your notion of "reconciliation with reality" is closer to the "blind leap" of existentialist engagement than Marxism. Suffering from the anxiety that "self-indulgence" or "dreaming" will lead away from "struggle", you evinces the Spartan voluntarism of the less convincing party full-timer. In common with the situationists, Materialist Esthetix contends that only revolutionaries who follow through their deepest desires will ever make a revolution. Exhortatory moralism is as insulting as it is Kantian and politically ineffectual. The notion of choice presumes a transcendental mind hovering the difficult matter: the point is that we are that difficult matter itself.'
`Doesn't such subject/object identification leads to idealist solipsism?' said Wislon.
`By no means. For example, Materialist Esthetix points to the political superiority of the committed "romantic" early Luk cs to the Stalinist professor of the later years ...'
`Look, did you phone up to get my views for Pink Papper - or simply to spout sub-situ abuse?'
Lunch had achieved his object. He replaced the receiver without a word and dialled the Victoria & Albert Museum library.
`Librarian Ford, please.'
There was a click on the line. The canny archivist had switched on his taperecorder. Only situationists called him `Librarian Ford', and he had found a perfect way of dealing with their abuse - he archived it. More power to his elbow as the stubborn bibliographer of the would-be untraceable sect.
`Librarian Ford - are you seeking to become the Jon Tame of the Situationists - the incomprehending bimbo who records the external details, but has no idea of the current's inner structural motivation?'
`How else to get a definitive account? The only other way is to wait until all the protagonists are dead ...'
`Such aspirations to graveyard "objectivity" are the inevitable outcome of the reified, neo-classical mindset! It's like those who want to fix the absolute weight of a pound of sugar. You need to freeze time down to a non-existent instant, to caste everything into the catalogued death of the catacomb.'
`Sugar bags? That's a Trotskyist image. You're no situationist! Who am I speaking to?'
`Out To Lunch.' There was another click. Some people weren't worth archiving, evidently. Maybe Lunch should have put on his Inspector Clouseau accent. Still, what did he care? The catatonia of the archive is a morbid fantasy. Real life is elsewhere.
`Look, OT. The most I have been able to do is to dip into the literature of particularly thorny and controversial questions - say, the history of May 1968 or of Genesis P. Orridge - far enough to satisfy myself that the views expressed in my books are tenable in the light of specialist research.'
`That's Hobsbawmite surrender to the powers that be, passivity posing as science. You've got no self-reflection, no acknowledgement of your contingent relation to things. Come on, man, surely you grasp that even in science, Relativity insists that the position of the observer is relevant to measurement. This idea of transcendent scales balancing the evidence, it's liberal hogwash! The non-dialectical mind is content to "summarise the literature" because it's addicted to the comforts of being in a position to survey the "literature". It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, the opposite of Marxist critique, which attempts to understand thought in its materiality: as an expression of the social being of the thinker.'
`What's that when it's at home? Give me a concrete example.'
`Try this for size. It's impossible to understand the holocaust revisionists without understanding the role of racism in today's politics. How can the findings of "current research" on responsibility for the 1933 Reichstag fire be understood without looking at the anti-Communist ideological requirements of a reunified Germany? A "balanced assessment" of the literature will only ever reflect the hegemony of current interests.'
`You just want a leftwing bias!'
`Not so. It's simply a matter of bringing every element to consciousness. You repress the politics of the situation you operate in. The ideological motivations and economic career-structures of those who "study" require consideration: a traditional blindspot for bourgeois academics. The class struggle is no game, and no-one heeds the whistle-blowing of the self-appointed referee!' Lunch paused. Though not given to literary vanity, it occurred to him that the last statement had a certain ring to it.
`Trotsky,' he continued, `gets it right: "The critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, but a scientific contentiousness. True historians wear their sympathies and antipathies open and undisguised. They seek support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism."'
`Sounds like postmodernist relativism to me ...'
`There's a difference between Relativity and mere relativism and scepticism, Librarian Ford - it can predict results. Like dialectics, it includes the contingent in its purview, but without thereby abandoning the absolute. Trotsky's location of mind in the social participant is the core of dialectical thought. Western so-called "Marxism" ...' the scorn in OTL's voice burned down the phone line, `proposes "objective" methodologies that can take their place next to the natural sciences. Those who admit their contingent relation to the world and confess what they have in common with the rest of humanity - those who declare they eat and drink and crap and lust, make puns and dream dreams and rave to music - are dismissed as clowns, unworthy of a place in the priestly hierarchies of academe. The dialectical, revolutionary, egalitarian spark must be snuffed by all who aspire to the transcendent and divine. With its emphasis on the disruptive and intransigent, Modern Art is nearer to preserving this spark - than any academic system - however professedly "Marxist" - on offer!'
`What? Now, Lunch, you've taken leave of your senses ... Modern Art?'
`Not what Charles Saatchi buys, you moron, I mean the principle of maladjustment that means that every area of cultural "value" appears to turn into its opposite ...'
`That sounds exactly like the kind of stuff which Saatchi buys, don't you think?'
Lunch lost his patience. `I didn't phone you to answer cuntish questions!' he shouted, and slammed the phone down. What had happened to the morning? Someone who accepted Time Out's definition of Modern Art was turning his brain upside-down. And, like all the politico-cultural questions of the day for this brainwaved, quintessential lumpen-intellectual, the toast was burning. Lunch rushed to the kitchen and hurled the black and smoking remains into his pedal bin, the chrome lid banging against the radiator with a resounding clang. Then he had another thought. He opened the door to the refrigerator and seized an antique piece of gorgonzola, drooling noxious vapours and mephitic pus inside its broken celluloid sheath. He returned to the bin, stamped on the pedal, causing another clang, and fished out two particularly black and carbonated pieces of toast. He clapped the cinders round the reeking formaggio and took a gleeful mouthful, revelling in the beckettian contrast between the vapour-absorbing charcoal envelope and the noisome dairy content.
Another phone call! Here he was, a man who believed in customised postcards and perfumed missives decorated with fruit gums - answering the bloody telephone again.
`Lunch here', he said gruffly, placing the sandwich behind one ear and crooking the receiver between head and shoulder. The caller shot out:
`Every neophytic scribbleworm blurts its wake upon your user interface! Even my hungryfingers unload their shitty greasetraces on my digital keypad in order to hum the mantra of your telephone number. Over here, pomo language-poetry bullshit still reigns over experimental life/word actuality. They're using the limp fatuities of deconstruction to explain bpNichol, Fuck! It's like some sinister parisian turn-of-the-century disease!'
`Where's "over here"?'
`The University of Victoria in Victoria, Canada. I'm just off to a theory seminar where we'll have to hear the grandiose polished canon of french post-structuralist philosophy let off its feeble pop. Then we'll be granted a little Horkheimer and Adorno - "just for fun".'
`"Just for fun", like some warning notice printed in military stencil-letters on a ten-foot-high barbed-wire fence in the Gaza Strip?'
`Yup, that kind of fun. Keep it up, Lunch, and tell us more about Oswald the Cobbler. We need your leatherine refusal of terms like "ontological breadbasket", "redemption" and "performativity". We want the issues pictured in vorticist black and white, stark onions penetrating the nasal membranes like newl-made wasabi.'
`Well, thanks for the advice, man. Who am I talking to, by the way?'
`Not the Leeds surrealist, publisher of Manitou, and a worthy correspondent until I made the mistake of taking the piss about poems with lines like "the blue doors of the imagination creak open/to show a thousand enormous cauldrons/whose copper bottoms perch upon myriad flames/ which are like caressing hands tattooed in ultramarine, verdigris and marigold/and which form the image of an immense idol/who slowly rises over the windswept clouds jumbled together like the grey-on-grey roofs of wistful back-to-backs which are longing to send a letter to the bereaved postman"?'
`No, that's Ken Cox ... more Oswald, Lunch! That's all. Gotta go.' A transatlantic phone-call just to demand more news of a fictional character! Things were getting curiouser and curiouser. Lunch staggered over to his word processor.
_4. Leathern Philosophy #2
Oswald the Cobbler finally made it to the British Copyright Library. Everywhere else he'd drawn a blank. No-one had heard of Josef Dietzgen, let alone his letters to his son Eugen about logic. Oswald hovered by the catalogue computer-terminals for quarter of an hour, waiting for a vacancy, an ungracious spot of clenched impatience in the house of learning. Finally, a sports-jacketed American got up to leave, thrusting his papers into a green plastic bag with the Harrods logo on the side. Whiff of ham sandwich. Man shouldn't have brought food in here, it contravened a bye-law. Oswald blew down his nostrils and occupied the free place.
Although Oswald hadn't used one of these machines before, Lunch's scribbled instructions were to the point, and he was soon sending off his order for the books. The reference Gyp had given him didn't indicate any particular volume, so he listed every volume of Dietzgen's they had, seven in all. The librarian to whom he handed the request - a lopsided relic from the 60s, who grinned cryptically when he saw the request and did a little mad-old-hippie caper on the institutional lino - told him it'd be a little while, but he'd see what he could do to hurry the process up - `seeing as it was a request for the redoubtable Dietzgen'. After half-an-hour waiting at his appointed desk, a light went on and Oswald went to collect the books. The guy handed him half-a-dozen red-bound volumes, plus a pamphlet with the words `Mobile Click Ulli Freer' on the cover.
`That one's, mmm, on the house, man.'
`Thank you very much!' said Oswald politely, and took the pile of volumes to his desk. He inspected the contents pages of each. Finally, he found the heading: `Letters On Logic. Written to his son Eugen Dietzgen. 1880-1883.' It was inside The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, translated by W.W. Craik and published by Charles H. Kerr in Chicago in 1928.
`This'll be a good craic!' he punned to himself, pleased at this serendipitous concatenation of `c's, all looking like portraits of himself hunched over the British Library desk. `Charles H. Kerr!' - maybe Simon Fell's `H' was not quite so cringeworthy as he'd been led to believe. He quickly found Letter XXII, and read the following:
In order to be able to use your reason in all research and on all objects in a reasonable manner, you must know that the whole world is of one nature, even leather and your sister.
Gyp had not lied. This Dietzgen was right into the leatherman's dialectic!
Apparently there is a wide gulf between these two, and yet in both of them the same stuff and forces are active, just as a black horse has the same horse nature as a white horse, so that from this point of view your sister is indeed leathern and leather sisterly. Such statements sound paradoxical enough, yet I insist in making them in this extreme manner in order to sufficiently emphasize the absolute oneness of all existence, since it is the indispenable basis for a reasonable employment of reason.
This explained Gyp's cryptic remark about `horsey nature beneath the skin'. He was voicing impatience with black/white distinctions - at just the same time that he was celebrating the way black leather straps and suspender belts set off white skin. Or, Oswald reflected, the way chrome handcuffs looked good hanging from Mark Morrison's arrogant black hand. He looked round for the photocopy room. Dietzgen's extraordinary words needed to be transposed into the species of black and white marks he could fold into his pocket. Without such wicked contrasts, his existence would succumb to the grey miasma of capitalist business-as-usual.
As he got up to see about a photocopy, he remembered the small pamphlet given him by the librarian. The cover looked like a photocopy of someone's wallet. It pattern was snakeskin, a fine network of grey and white veins. Why had the lopsided librarian given him a book? He opened it at random - a quick sample before he called the library authorities to complain about literary harassment. These kind of `poets' made the world unsafe for the bored.
gift self-destruct stare future
air north on a black line through system
below & above ground northern on
whispering phoenix fetish
snort that smoke
a fervour that sinks
thought the amazing shopping list
thats calling you
Jesus! Oswald felt his consciousness tear at the corner, like someone showing you that what you thought was real was only a mock-up. He heard the sound of the Barnet-bound tube-train rattling out of its tunnel into blinking sunlight, the limitless expansion of the tobacco inhalation that contravenes a bye-law, the stinking febrile favour of a begged-for Mary Jane. He slipped the magic volume in a pocket. He hadn't checked to see if Mr Freer had passed him a copy catalogued and stamped as British Library property. If the bells went off as he made his way out of the bookzone, he'd know that poetry and truth had gone their separate ways and nothing that lives is holy.
Oswald made his photocopies and returned the books to the relevant counter. Freer's snazzy snakeskin production seemed to burn a hole in his trousers as he made his way to the exit and the electronic turnstile. He pushed through. No bells. Oswald made a little mad-old-hippie caper as he walked past Paolozzi's Newtonian abomination of a monument. Life was possible!
On to Chapter Nine
Get You Back Home