Pierre Joris on the NOET

Pierre Joris on the NOET

We can still use notions such as Burroughs’ ‘astronaut of inner space’, or Dorn’s ‘inside real and outsidereal’, though we must be aware that for the nomad-poet, the NOET, even those distinctions have to be abolished. There is no difference between inside and outside at the poem’s warp speed. We can still use Olson’s statement that the need is to move, instanter, on – but no Interzone for us, no Idaho, in or out, no Gloucester hankering for a more perfect past. (A Nomad Poetics, p. 31)

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May 18, 2014 · 6:36 pm

Dancing in the woods

Dancing in the woods

‘The rumour about the Scots sounded unlikely – though no less likely than other tales that travellers had brought them, that a Chinese army was marching on London, or that gnomes and elves and men with badger faces had been seen dancing in the woods. Scope for error and ignorance seemed to grow season by season. It would be good to know what was really happening …’. (Brian Aldiss, Greybeard)

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May 18, 2014 · 4:39 pm


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January 25, 2014 · 11:30 pm

Taking Shots: The Photography of William S Burroughs

Exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Opens 17 January 2014.

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January 15, 2014 · 4:26 pm

Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs

Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs

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January 14, 2014 · 9:58 pm



I retweeted earlier today a quote by P J O’Rourke: ‘Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ Currently I’m in the middle of, near the end of, or just about starting, several different books (examples currently piled on the bedside table: Brion Gysin’s The Process, Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames, Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics?, a collection of essays edited by Ian Bell on reading Ezra Pound, a recent Reaktion Press biography of Poe, David Bellos’s biography of Georges Perec; then there are more in the living room …). Some of these are re-readings; some are new obsessions; some random charity-shop finds. While I care little whether I’ll look good if I die in the middle of this pile, why I get involved in this largely pointless but somehow satisfying feat of literary juggling has been bugging me for a while now. Why can’t I finish one book before I move on to the next one? Why am I lured away from one book before completing it, to another, from which I’m then lured again by a third, and so on? Am I going to finish all these books soon (when? how soon? which ones first?), and how big will be the pile that replaces them?

This readerly situation, a kind of pleasant overwhelming, is partly to do with the nature of my book-buying habits, which have evolved (due to economic, political, addictive, and recently new-baby-related, as well as other causes) in particular ways that militate against the logic of what I’ll call sequential text completion, centering instead on chance finds, temporary obsessions, momentary but irresistible drives to completism in relation to an author or genre or movement. These have also, not incidentally, impacted in different ways, I suspect, on exactly how I read, which is what I’m concerned with here. But it’s also something to do with the nature of reading itself: simultaneously sequential (following words across the page, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter, section by section, until the end (‘The End’), and then taking up the next text to repeat the process; and diversionary, drifting as one reads from the middle to the end of the paragraph and back, focusing, losing focus, refocusing, skipping sections and then returning to them, noticing repetitions that make me turn back to seek the half-remembered earlier instance of a word or phrase, and so on. I read more than ever before, it seems, but what I read and how I read it – on the page, online, in books, in downloaded journal articles (I don’t have a Kindle but Apple’s iBooks winks at me from the bottom of this screen as I type) – is constantly mutating, bringing its own new kinds of what used to be called distraction, which are I think rather productive, enabling new interactions with texts that redefine both reader and the texts one reads.

At a conference a year or two ago one speaker presented some interesting scientific research into the cognitive activity of reading that made use of eye movement mapping, tracing the eye as it scanned a page, marking its movements forwards and backwards across texts containing surprising words, so that the tracked eye jerked back and forth at certain moments. This suggested a particular grasp of how we read sequentially and via diversions; but it didn’t address how the act of re-reading a text with which one is half-familiar might differ from the fresh encounter with a previously unread text, nor did it explore how differently motivated readings might differ in such an analysis – a student or critic performing a ‘close’ reading while sat at a desk, say, from the less rigorous or more languorous drift of the casual reader’s eye across the page during a train journey. I find myself on occasion somewhere between these exemplary extremes; unable not to read critically and thus, I hope, carefully and closely (it’s a professional and private habit, but what ‘carefully’ and ‘closely’ actually mean is becoming for me increasingly uncertain), but also drifting through the books while I’m reading them, distracted productively into a different kind of readerly interaction with them. Each book, for example, rubs off in unpredictable ways on those I read around it; Gysin’s magisterial late-modernist prose, imbued with wide cultural knowledge and a kind of mid-century American colonial confidence, bounces off the colloquial bourgeois Parisian of Zola, well-rendered, I think, in the translation by Robin Buss that I have; Peter Nicholls’ thoughts about reading Pound’s Cantos refract and intensify, even apply, some of Calvino’s limpid arguments about reading itself.

Reading functions, of course, as a complex signifier of a variety of interconnected attributes (which are also difficult, attention-demanding preconceptions) to do with cultural health (ill-read, well-read), wealth (poorly read), and metaphorical breadth of experience (widely read). It’s a signifier of gender and class (it’s to do in part with available leisure time and perceptions about how best to use it), and education (being bookish; as a mate of mine once said, ‘You must have been crap at English at school if they’re still making you do it at university’). So we tend conventionally to see reading as a cumulative and teleological action, just as we read these different attributes in terms of volumes, quantities, degrees. But, thinking about this pile of books I’m currently failing to read completely, I’m wondering these days about the significance to my own grasp of what reading means of the incompleted reading, of the unfinished, partly-read text, the book found on the shelf many years later with a railway ticket stuck between pages 422 and 423 indicating a failure to finish something once significant enough to spend time to read 420 pages of it, and the trace of that failure marked in the text as it suddenly is, on its rediscovery amongst other half-read, half-finished books, in the memory of the failed, incomplete reader.

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‘Their skin had touched and it was worth all the troubles in the world.’

Apocalypse Baby (Serpent’s Tail, 2013) is Virginie Despentes’ sixth novel. Originally published in 2010, it’s been translated from the French by Sian Reynolds. Touching on a series of key contemporary concerns, the novel negotiates a truncated, atrophied, but nevertheless caressive and affective, language of touch as a grounding for its exploration of contemporary violence, an exploration in a fictional language mediated by frequent allusions to cinematic style and gothic tropes (the novel is prefaced by a quote from Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie). These referential sets coalesce into different configurations of contemporary female experience (or, for some readers, cliches of femininity) as the text develops. One character raises her eyes, ‘quite slowly, a very elegant movement, like in a black and white film’; another experiences a ‘burning’ face, ‘her fine skin irritated and painful’ after a few nights with her new male partner (the sex of partners is important here); a central character has shockingly ‘metamorphic’ abilities in which she becomes violently other to herself, a symbol of the social violence in which she’s deeply implicated:  ‘she could be in a horror film’, we’re told, ‘just like she is, no need for special effects, torn-off limbs, nothing’. After one such moment, the same character tells Valentine, the teenaged victim-perpetrator around whom the plot revolves, ‘No hard feelings. Just a little injection of reality. Just like when a vampire bites an innocent victim. Crunch! It’s over.’

Heterosexual sex is at one point described as a kind of friction, an affectless contactual / contractual performance: ‘He rubbed the parts of his body he thought relevant up against her, giving the impression of taking advantage of what she let him do.’ Moments of violence are marked by sharp, unexpected contact, tiny mises-en-abyme of the entire conceit of the plot: ‘Wallop! Not an ordinary slap with the flat of the hand, a brutal blow, using the edge of her palm, and the deaths-head ring makes a long red scratch on his cheek. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think he did, either.’

As might be expected from the author of Baise-Moi, the insistent trope of contact – sexual, intimate, and violent – mutates, just as caressing sometimes mutates into beating and stroking into striking, as the narrative progresses to develop an abiding preoccupation with some of the ‘failures’ of contact that orchestrate and interrupt social relations in the age of ‘social’ media. Apocalypse Baby, generically a crime novel, examines how an entire civilisation becomes contaminated by the ‘corruption’ (moral, political, ideological, religious – the novel wants them all) of certain vulnerable and susceptible but (crucial ambiguity) dangerously complicit and control-needy elements in a society. In a dramatically telescoped final section (which, along with some of the character-narratives earlier on, is one of the more effective parts of the novel), it considers how all aspects of the social might become disastrously contaminated by the paranoid narratives and their consequent technological enforcements that society nurtures.

All these tropes effect a general sense that the novel’s superficial concern with the tactile, with the effects of touching and of (making, losing, re-establishing, sustaining) contact between characters, masks its inability to resist the fictional allure of a deeper set of anxieties, about not simply touching, but the consequences of the touch – the risk of contamination. In this anxiety, commonplace social niceties become fraught with ambiguities that divide the generations (a division that’s another key theme here): the narrator wonders, offered a handshake by her collaborator, ‘whether she thinks I’m going to give her some infectious disease or whether at her age she doesn’t know that these days between girls we kiss.’

‘Fear of contagion’ becomes the central concern and structuring metaphor, as the novel sketches a violently dystopian future state response to the viral threat of terrorism, clearly (too transparently: ‘the Ground Zero of the City of Light’ doesn’t reimagine Paris as the new locus of terrorist outrage so much as fail to imagine whatever the next form of terrorist outrage will be – one of several false notes in the novel) reading off the ‘War on Terror’ and its sickening transformations of notions of freedom, democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity. And this ‘fear of contagion’ becomes the ‘contagion of fear’, a web-like process of disastrously ramifying interconnections – the new and menacing neoliberal Real that would enmesh us all – that the detective-genre structure of Apocalypse Baby mobilises. Fredric Jameson argues that the genre enables the detective to operate as social geographer, cognitively mapping social realms otherwise inaccessible to the reader in order, ultimately, to reassure us that some kind of order (the order, perhaps, that we remember from ‘not so long ago’) exists, even if Law is necessary to enforce it. Despentes’ detectives, driven more by individual desires than by the logics of plot resolution, work as versions of us all; the ‘contagion of fear’ embeds us all as objects of impersonal power, seeking escape both in (the novel’s last words) ‘a story I can be satisfied with’ – in the satisfaction of personal desire – and in the potential reassurance of the (nevertheless infectious) nostalgia evoked by its opening clause: ‘Not so long ago …’.

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