Essay Series by:
Adam Lehrer, ”the vampires are grey today,” c-prints and mixed media, 2020.
PART II: TROLLS OF POSTMODERNISM
Kathy, if you were still here, would you lie to me? Would you seduce me? Would you make me feel stupid? Would you emasculate me? Would you laugh at me, Kathy? Would you?
To read your work is to be equally mesmerized and stupefied. Your books fail to fit neatly within any aesthetic or literary category. While informed by poststructuralism and other modes of hyper-intellectual thought, they never cease to tap into something personal, primordial, brutal, and tethered to chaotic nature.
It’s all too easy to label your work “postmodernism” even if it is, in many ways, postmodern. By appropriating the texts of classic writers into your novels — Dickens, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Eliot, many more — you injected your work into a temporal loop with the history that preceded it. But I don’t think that this stylistic choice of yours was indicative of a tendency towards the “nostalgia mode” that Frederic Jameson warned against in his essays on postmodernism.
Instead, Kathy, what I think you were interested in was the construction of myth! You were fascinated by the image of the great writer, equal parts saint and devil. Noble and cruel. Artist and thinker! Rimbaud. Genet. Baudelaire! These writers aren’t just authors, they are myths! And a myth, like a story, must be told.
The late comparative mythology professor Joseph Campbell defined the myth as a story that emphasizes mankind’s search for meaning and connection to the mysterious and the eternal. By turning yourself into a cultural myth — the tattoo covered, nymphomaniac, transgressive author — you became a symbol of our quest to understand the society that we inhabit.
You, Kathy, became the myth through which we funneled our alienation. You embodied the post-punk refusal to be subsumed by the logic of the postmodern cultural marketplace. Your mythical presence in the discourse was a constant reminder that something was indeed rotten in Denmark; that lurking beneath the veneer of prosperity and upwards mobility was the reality that the postmodern political economy was built atop a network of exploitation, war, and death.
The myth of “Kathy Acker” and its projected image was an artful construction. “Kathy Acker” the writer —a work of art created by an artist named Kathy Acker — was like a concept. Kathy Acker” is the rebelliousness, disaffection, and disassociation of the postmodern intellectual! In the 1980s, cultures were no longer being formed out of communities. Cultures, according to Jameson, were now being shaped by the mass media. And the mass media needs an image.
And you cut one hell of a striking image, Kathy. There’s a photograph of you on a motorcycle. Your back is towards the camera, face in side profile. That massive koi fish tattoo drapes your back, which is rippled in the muscle that you achieved through your diligent weight training routine. Your hair is cut short, and bleached. This image is the full realization of the myth of “Kathy Acker.” And yes, Kathy, I know this photograph doesn’t necessarily reflect the totality of who you were, vulnerabilities and all, but I want to believe in it. I want to believe in the concept of you.
Art is about de-mystifying difficult truths, is it not? It helps us orient ourselves to this chaotic and unforgiving world. According to Hegel, the function of art is not just the creation of beauty, but the creation of a beauty that engenders a particularly sensuous form of self-understanding. And that’s what reading your work does to me Kathy; it allows me to disassociate from the systems I’m tethered to and to search within my psyche and beyond the material world.
The creation of “Kathy Acker,” Kathy, was an infallibly noble pursuit. But in that pursuit, purity can be a hindrance. And you were not pure, Kathy. You courted scandal. You entertained controversy. And you lied, Kathy, lied about who you were and lied about what you had done. Your work is a hallucinatory matrix of lies and truths, facts and fictions. And what is a myth, and what is art, if not a series of exaggerations and falsehoods that coalesce to reveal profundity?
Chris Kraus, one of our greatest writers now and a sexual competitor of yours then, wrote a biography on you, and it isn’t always flattering. But nevertheless, she lauds your devotion to the creation of myth and art: “Acker’s life was a fable, and to describe the confusion and love and conflicting agendas behind these memorials would be to sketch an apocryphal allegory of an artistic life in the 20th Century,” writes Kraus. “And like other lives, but unlike most fables, it was created through means both within and beyond her control.”
Your texts, Kathy, are oozing, amorphous, lysergic baths of acid that dissolve literary history and social critique into a primal scream of stream of consciousness, phantasmagoric musings. You were truly a reflection of the social conditions you inhabited, Kathy. Postmodernism devoured and regurgitated history, and so did you. Your work was about your obsessions, perversities, confusions, and the books that you ingested to make sense of it all. Like the logic of postmodernity itself, your work constantly looms with the threat of pandemonium. To be lost in your text is to be lost in an ordered chaos that could devolve into disarray at any moment.
Your two masterworks, Great Expectations (1983) and Blood and Guts in High School (1984), were both published inside a year. For that brief window of time, you had achieved a mastery over this amorphous prose, this “formless” (if I can use a Bataillean term) literature that you had pioneered. These texts are dripping with violence, sexual and otherwise, and death. They expose a rot beneath neoliberalism’s sanitized cosmetic veneer. Your art was a tool for puncturing ideological hegemony.
Great Expectations is a virtuosic work of literary cannibalism, Kathy. Your greatest work was written at the “End of History,” when liberal capitalism had utterly eroded the capacity for modernism or the creation of the new. You had the foresight to accept this, and in a sense you were liberated by it.
You took Dickens’ classic novel of the same name and freed it from the constraints of the canon and history. “I have no idea how to begin to forgive someone, much less my mother,” you wrote. “I have no idea where to begin: repression’s impossible because it’s stupid and I’m a materialist.” You had internalized the cynicism and nihilism of the postmodern generation, Kathy, but you remained remarkably self-aware. That is what makes you such a particularly engaging troll: you didn’t act like you were above us, but you made sincere efforts towards making us aware of what we had become.
Blood and Guts in High School chronicles incest, rape, the sex trade, and Jean Genet as your spiritual father. Genet’s genius was in his celebration of the decadent freaks at the fringes of society. But you seem to have recognized that decadence and degradation were no longer at the fringes of society; that they had been woven into the fabric of “normative culture.” Neoliberalism was the force that sought to conceal the degeneracy of the ruling class from the under classes, but you wouldn’t let them hide.
Blood and Guts in High School’s most unsettling gesture is its protagonist Janey’s utter indifference towards the rape and abuse she endures throughout the text. This indifference was your indifference. There is the vaguest sense of self-critique in it: even though depravity has been normalized doesn’t mean it’s normal. “The shit hits the fan and everything becomes chaos and wild again,” you wrote. “There are no more secrets.”
Too true Kathy. The mass media had rendered all of society’s dysfunction simultaneously hyper-visible and yet utterly dulled in affect. People seemed to know that the world was being built atop a cesspool of corruption, exploitation, and evil. But they didn’t care. And Kathy, I’m not even so sure that you cared. You were too caught up in your ambitions, your perverse and insatiable desires, and your masochistic fetishizations of your own ego to pay heed to the chaos happening outside your door.
The troll is inherently a force of mythology, and mythology is the space from which your work emanated. By mythologizing America, circa 1980s, you were able to contextually moralize the stakes of human suffering. Men were still murdered. Women were still raped. “Kathy Acker,” postmodern literary troll, was a force of de-mystification.
Adam Lehrer, “Pandrogyne in the Woods,” digital c-print, 2019.
It was just a couple months ago that you were still bound to your form. Your pandrogynic body. Your body was perhaps your greatest creative gesture. A sculpture in permanent process. The more you altered it, the closer it came to representing the essence that is you, Genesis. You were beyond the physical, which is perhaps why it feels so natural to converse with your ghost.
The further your gender distorted, the closer you came to attaining the status of the pandrogyne. The pandrogyne is your spirit. The body could never fully express the fluidity of the pandrogyne, leaving you in a permanent state of evolution.
I have no doubt, Genesis, that you were anything other than exuberant about your ability to shock and repulse the normies! The pandrogyne was a troll, indeed! Your aesthetic wasn’t targeted solely at the mainstream, but also at the ostensibly radical albeit functionally conservative art world.
I too despise the art world, full of petit bourgeois cowards who stand for nothing as it is. The art world is a more deeply institutionalized variant of the identiarian neoliberalism that permeates mainstream discourse: it must be exposed! This ideology, and the artists and thinkers that adhere to it, claims to build its thought upon a foundation of tolerance. But tolerance for what? Certainly not for thinking differently!
Your pandrogyny was an act of mysticism. You recognized society as a series of systems that limit the growth of human consciousness, by freeing your human form from its scientific limitations you freed your mind from the constraints of life in the late 20th Century.
Your heroes were the artists and thinkers who transcended the material and quested for the ethereal. Lovecraft. Aleister Crowley. The artist and mystic writer Austin Osman Spare. The psychologically fragmenting cut-up techniques of Burroughs and Gysin. Even your musical tastes were a touch unorthodox for an artist associated with the noise and industrial sub-undergrounds. You loved hippie shit! Hendrix! Zappa! The Doors!
These artists and musicians are connected by magic. They were either unconcerned or even violently opposed to orthodox intellectualism, critical standards, and institutional approval. All they were interested in was the transportation of the human psyche into a realm of the unknown, just like you Genesis!
Nothing is more subversive in postmodern society — a society bound to systems and simulacra —than magic. Magic happens beneath and above those systems. It courses through them. Art, like magic, should be treated as an immaterial force. You treated art like it was a force to be conjured and wielded.
There were very few precedents for the guerilla style theatrical performances of taboo flouting and transgression that was COUM Transmissions. Its concept came to you during a daydream, when the phrase “COUM Transmissions” was beamed mystically into your brain and repeated as a mantra. Was this even true, Gen? Or was it one of the many pieces of folklore you composed to bolster the cultural narrative of your work? With you, one can never tell where fact ends and fiction begins.
I love that COUM’s membership consisted of both artists/intellectuals and criminals, Gen. Never has there been such a profound confluence of both the high-brow and literary with the low-brow and the base! COUM was where you honed your persona as Manson-esque cultist guru, capable of magic and evil alike. Everyone from back then describes you as a manipulator, and I’m not here to excuse your misconduct but to acknowledge that your power to influence was inevitably tied into the force of your art.
After being brandished a “wrecker of western civilization,” by the media after COUM’s ICA exhibition Prostitution was perpertrated against the cultural elite, you courageously decided to disband COUM at the heights of its ascendancy! With the institutional apparatus around the art world as exposed as conservative and plagued by moral cowardice, it was time to infiltrate pop culture. “Suddenly we were performing at the big Institute of Contemporary Art, we’d done it!” you told artist Tony Oursler in his film Synesthesia “We were paid, just to be performance artists. That made me uncomfortable, because what we were interested in was reconstructing and deconstructing characters and targeting and infiltrating big institutions.”
It’s stunning to think that a time when bands like The Sex Pistols (Chuck Berry riffs sped up with really awesome clothes) were considered radical, Throbbing Gristle was in the culture pioneering the noise underground! You, Cosey, Sleazy and Chris Carter appropriated the noisy and avant-garde experimentation of Stockhausen, John Cage, and others, liberating atonal sound from the shackles of the academy, while freeing the “rock band” approach from sonic limitations of rock music.
In effect, you created industrial music, ultimately paving the path for decades of idiosyncratic musical geniuses: avant-garde and unclassifiable artists like Nurse With Wound and Current 93, 1980s power electronics groups like Whitehouse and Ramleh, 2000s noise bands like Wolf Eyes and Sightings, and even artists that broke through to the mainstream like Trent Reznor were influenced by what you, Cosey, Sleazy, and Carter created with Throbbing Gristle.
You performed with so much passion and intensity! Genesis, even Cosey conceded in her book that you were like an avant-garde rock god/dess, a decadent master of ceremonies: “SUBHUMANNNNNNNNN!!!!” you shrieked on stage night after night, rolling around the floor, disassociated from your body, and lost in the K-hole!
Throbbing Gristle dissolved, but you were far from done. You started Psychic TV, arguably foreseeing the acid house movement in the UK. You further immersed yourselves into the studies of mysticism and paganism by founding the “anti-cult” Thee Temple Ov Psychik Youth. What began as a Psychic TV fan club evolved into a commune of sorts, and Thee Temple would incorporate the theories of Burroughs, Crowley and Bataille into rituals of “chaos magic.”
You were pretty famous by that point Genesis, and mainstream society had you in its sights. The British government continuously tried to set you up for child pornography charges. Thee Temple got caught up in the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, and Scotland Yard launched an investigation into your occultist activities.
But these assaults on your freedom validated your entire artistic philosophy! You had started enough controversy to get them to engage with the SUBSTANCE of your ideas! You trolled them, and you won!
I imagine you lived in two zones, Gen: in your body, and in the cosmos. And your body was the portal through which you travelled. Your art brought you closer to the unknown. To a world beyond us. To the eternal. And knowing that you believed in this immaterial realm of pure light and consciousness, I am comforted. I’m comforted that your final and ultimate project has met its conclusion. Your death, agonizingly cancer-stricken as it was, allowed you to free your consciousness from its biological prison. You are with Lady Jaye now, two spirits as one, connected to all of nature and that which lies beyond. You are the grand troll in the sky, merged with the cosmos, your mischievous magic still reverberating throughout the physical realm that you left behind.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pier, you were no doubt fascinated and repulsed by power, and your work often sought to heroize the ordinary people amongst the Italian working class being crushed into condensed, lifefless flesh beneath those power structures. You were their champion, this I cannot deny! You were a moralist, and against my better judgement, so am I.
But I also relate to your contrarianism! Shocking an audience was, for you, nothing short of thrilling, an act of sorcery! Better than sex, better than politics even; film was a perfect vehicle for your art because of its largesse, and its absorption into popular discourse. A Pasolini film release was a mushroom cloud that would reverberate outwards and send a shockwave of outrage and paranoia throughout the culture. Shock was your joie de vivre Pier!
When your admirers boxed you into an aesthetic and ideological corner, you’d introduce an unforeseen anarchic element that further complicated the dialog that was solidifying around it. Your art was too infinite to be contained by criticism, and I imagine there were few things more offensive to you than a finite art, Pier.
You, Pier, were an apex troll. Handsome, with chiseled figures and the enviable physique of a 20-year-old gymnast. Openly gay, outwardly Marxist, and enthusiastically contrarian. You used art to assault the Italian aristocracy, its bourgeois sensibilities, and its tendency towards fascistic fetishizations. You used art to wage ideological war upon the philistines that couldn’t understand art beyond their own moral and ethical limitations. “To hell with your beliefs!” you declared. “Life is shocking, and horrific, and beautiful!” Bataille used the term “Acéphale” to describe a “headless” philosophy, or a philosophy that cannot be concluded, that continuously grows outward without forming a cohesive whole. Pier, your cinema was an acéphalic one.
I suspect you might take issue with the use of the term “troll” as a signifier of both you and your work, given your penchant for moralism, dignity, and sophistication. But that’s the point, Pier. In a culture in which values and traditions have been dissolved into the chaos of market discourse, nothing is more radical than he who is true to his principles. You were principled, Pier. Few artists and thinkers of your fame have ever adhered to an ethical dogma to the extent that you adhered to yours.
When I think of the courageously unpopular political and artistic stances you took throughout your life — stances that often put you at odds with both comrades and colleagues — I am emboldened. Your life, cut short as it was, offers me strength and fortitude to hold onto my ideological values regardless of the extent to which they alienate me from my ostensible allies.
The leftist working class movements of recent history, as you’d probably assume, were crushed. Crushed by capital, crushed by the media, and crushed by the contradictory tendencies of the contemporary left itself. Your class enemies then are the same ones we face today. The left has proven itself incapable of self-analysis. If you were still here, Pier, I can imagine you chuckling at the never-ending rollout of content-devoid slogans spewed into the discourse by the left: abolish the family, abolish the police, abolish joy and laughter. It sometimes appears that the contemporary left is more concerned with abolishing the institutions within capitalism that hold us together (family, community, religion) in this alienating political economy than abolishing capitalism itself. All that is solid continues to melt into air, Pier. The left is, perhaps more than ever, a petit bourgeois project that represents the material concerns of the petit bourgeoisie. All that is “left” is culture war.
My god, I think of the bravery and ideological consistency you displayed in the face of the Italian student riots of 1968, when leftoid university students waged a guerilla style campaign against the Roman police. Most left intellectuals offered full throated support of what they viewed as an uprising of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. But these students were not the proletariat, you noticed, they were the children of the bourgeoisie.
You sent shockwaves through the intellectual left when you published the poem The PCI to Young People clarifying your stance on the conflict. “Obviously we are against the police as an institution,” you wrote, before ending with, “Do I have to take into consideration the possibility of fighting the Civil War on your side, setting aside my old idea of Revolution.” Your implication here is clear and brutal: during your revolution, the cops (the workers) would be revolting against the students. I wish the contemporary left could understand the world with this level of complexity and consistency.
But enough about politics! Let’s talk about your art! Your cinema! It is a cinema of life! Every film of yours is saturated with the bottomless contradictions and conflicting emotions and experiences of being a human being who is alive! You adopted a literary term “free indirect discourse,” a term that would be absorbed by Deleuze in his text Cinema! and described a way in which the director could create a story that was told from both the first and third-person, into your directorial sensibility. By allowing us to view your characters from both a voyeuristic gaze and through the eyes of the characters themselves, you produced a peculiarly intense connection between viewer and character.
Your films highlight these characters attempting to find freedom beyond the prison of systems and institutions. A turn towards the spiritual and the transcendental frees your characters from the modern. The dysfunctional bourgeois family in Teorema (arguably my favorite film of yours) is liberated from their passive, repressive existences through the unexplained appearance of a handsome stranger. The stranger, implied to be a mystical presence of some sort, allows the son to shed himself of the fear he felt as he felt his repressed homosexual desires bubbling to the surface, and the stranger instills in him passion and creativity by tenderly showing him a book of Francis Bacon paintings.
The stranger sleeps with the mother, freeing her from the sexual rigidity of her husband. The husband, inspired by the stranger, renounces his own business and bourgeois responsibilities, to go on a journey of self discovery and reflection. Your films suggest that modernity hasn’t solved any of the historical and ancient conflicts, but has instead made transcending those problems all but impossible. Without love, without family, without religion, where do we turn to? One must connect to a plane of spiritual awareness beyond the material to cope with the material, your films suggest.
And then there’s Saló, Pier, your final and arguably most incendiary work of cultural trolling. I have to hand it to you, to this day your last film is mentioned as one of the sickest and most disturbing works of cinema ever made. But true transgresion (true trolling) cannot be reducible to the mindless grotesquerie of de-intellectualized shlock. While Sade, your source material, emphasized the ideations of heinous sexual violence as activators of the absolute limits of human consciousness, you were interested in the material. In political economy. True transgression, like yours, confronts society with its own grotesquerie. It is the grotesque of the real!
What’s so striking to me about Saló now is the way in which it takes the viewer on a journey from victim to torturer (a journey mimicked by the child victims in the film, who form their own hierarchy of relations below their aristocratic fascist captors). Viewers of Saló are corrupted alongside the film’s characters. As a great filmmaker of the 21st Century named Catherine Breillat (surely an inheritor of your legacy of trolling, Pier) wrote in an essay about your film decades after your death: “Long after I first saw it, this film haunted me. I couldn’t rid my mind of the spectacle of torture, now a victim, then a torturer, what a hellish position, to have one foot on one bank of the Styx, the other across the water...”
Saló treats power as an amorphous, near mystical force that we are useless to resist. Before your death, you claimed that you didn’t just want Saló to be your last film, but the last film ever! You forecasted the end, Pier! A film for the end of history! Power, you saw, had taken on a life of its own, effectively neutralizing individual subjectivity. Saló then is like a document left to new species of intelligent life, a warning of what went wrong with mankind. “The images of Salò – revelatory of the structures of cruelty and of the sexual origins of human atrocities and massacres – would then form a kind of malign legacy, left for any non-human species which, at some point in the future, might want to look back upon the memories and obsessions of the human species,” writes visual studies theorist Stephen Barber.
Your brutal death — run over several times by your own car, testicles crushed by a lead pipe — martyred you as a righteous hero of the avant-garde and the communist left. I close my eyes, and I see you as you are being beaten into a bloody pulp by your vitriolically homophobic assailants, while looking at them with empathy and forgiveness. You didn’t see thugs, did you Pier? You saw young men, confused and angry, doing the bidding of an oppressive system. You saw humanity in its full scope: prone to violent destruction and still worthy of absolution. You have shown me that the troll need not be malicious. The troll can be an agent of purification. Through art, you sought spiritual freedom. Through your art, I seek moral guidance. The communist poet, the moralizing troll. Pasolini, may you live on.
Adam, Lehrer, “the lingering of blue beard,” c-prints and mixed media, 2020.
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