Talking with Shane Anderson
Berlin-based Broken Dimanche Press has recently published Shane Anderson’s debut, Études des Gottnarrenmaschinen, which is a beautiful book object, and described thusly:
It’s not often that a collection of writing reaches as far and wide as Shane Anderson’s debut work, Études des Gottnarrenmaschinen…[a] bold collection which includes three works that explore the boundaries of fiction and poetry. Utilizing a plethora of devices – erasures, pseudo application forms, Oulipo constraints, and the limits of the paragraph – this is indeed a virtuoso collection that takes on the problems of (modern) travel, power relations, historical and mental representation.
To help celebrate the publication, Anderson and I discussed the book and many other things related to it.
CH: Here’s an opening question: two opening questions, you can choose to answer either or neither or both: (i) How could you write such a thing? (ii) How could such a thing let you write it?
SA: Truth be told, I don’t know. But, if I try to explain it to myself, then there’s a pivotal moment in 2010 when I decided to stop being ruled by (widespread and essential) fear and to embrace it instead. It meant not letting myself fill my time with distractions to avoid the fear but to sit, for long hours, doing nothing but being yellow bellied. This resulted in directly responding to my surroundings (Rome, Ireland, my bed, etc.) in ways which I could never have foretold and which I still have trouble intellectually understanding but which I feel, affectively, and which I stand behind completely.
This isn’t an answer, really, is it?
CH: Yes, I think it begins to open pathways to an answer or answers. Could you say more about the relationship between the creation of the book and your surroundings? I’m very interested in this idea you’ve raised about affective space.
SA: I grew up in a tourist/casino town and have always hated the idea of travelling but because of work and living abroad for so long, travel is often a necessity. As such, I tend to create tasks for myself in other cities, like searching for every English bookstore in town or trying to find bars or cafes that remind me of the ones in Berlin. At some point, I realized this was pathetic and somehow in contradiction to what I always thought travel could be (which would be akin to some sort of revolutionary act, i.e. of getting away/outside from/of yourself and the way things are and actively changing them, but then of course I always knew this is already tainted by consumption (of goods and experiences) and there’s also a part of me that agrees with Samuel Johnson in his Rambler 6) and so I would look closer at that and try to sit for as long as bearable in front of the Colosseum and observe the tourists taking pictures with the gladiators wearing plastic or watch the tourists on Grafton Street throwing Euros at the human sculptures. I wanted to take part in the fun but I knew I had problems with it and I couldn’t really think of another way to engage in my surroundings, so I started investigating certain historical aspects, turned to books, which is a cop out, I know, another way to distract myself from fear, and then when reading Celtic myths or talking to the composer Luciano Chessa about the occult and Italian fascism, suddenly, the spaces started to open for me and the fear disappeared. The layers became present and it is these layers that endlessly fascinate me. Then, thinking about them, I realized I wanted to capture all of this, to somehow do a geological cross section and have the big hunk of dirt there in all of its ugly beauty.
CH: “…talking to the composer Luciano Chessa about the occult and Italian fascism” seems too juicy to not ask you to elaborate!
SA: Luciano is a dear friend; a great composer, musician, instrument builder, collaborator and musicologist. When I learned he would be giving a concert in the late great Giacanto Scelsi’s living room and would be performing his music and Scelsi’s amongst others, I booked my tickets immediately. Scelsi, who pops up in the Études (namely, in Failed Proposal 89), was very interested in the occult (you should see some of the books on his shelf!) and someone Luciano has studied in depth. In any case, we were discussing Evola, whom Scelsi knew, and Luciano informed me that Mussolini had had some contact with the UR Group and had ditched this pagan-leaning group for the Church only when he realized that there would be no way to take over Italy without the Church’s support. I was astonished. But I shouldn’t have been, really, considering the fact that there had been ties between the fascists and the Futurists and the Futurists and the occult (Luciano’s book from UC Press addresses the latter half of these relationships, mainly). I could be getting this all wrong, but nevertheless, we decided, with the ghost of Scelsi following us, to visit the district EUR (formerly, E42) and I was really spooked when I saw a tumbleweed in front of the Palazzo della Cività Italiana and then saw a really banal urban interaction between a mother and a child. Here was a very rigid (and now practically empty) urban planning sector with very suspect claims to rationalism, the symbol for ghost towns and a domestic scene that was happening in thousands of other places in the world all piled up on top of one another. This terrified me but at the same time made all that dissolve. It’s hard to put it into words, but the idea of so much happening in the same place is astonishing. Think about hospitals, for instance. The whole life cycle is happening in the vicinity of just a couple of hallways and the perception of this is so heightened, I think, because of the institutional setting – just as a gallery or museum heightens the experience of other objects under a different category. Anyway, space is very, very weird when you think about it.
CH: My silence isn’t silence. For some reason, as I think about your last answer I cannot shake the image of Giorgio Agamben in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. I picture his young face. I picture him traipsing across the same landscape as you, dressed as the Apostle Philip. I picture you squinting at the sun. I picture the handheld camera. I picture you wearing sneakers. I imagine the imaginations he must have been harboring as the camera rolled. I imagine the imaginations you must have been harboring as your fingers punched the keyboard to bring Études des Gottnarrenmaschinen (Studies of Godfoolsmachines) to life in some other place. The convergence of neo-realism, contemporary philosophy, and Jesus all in one location. The convergence of fascism, the occult, and music all in the same location. Makes me think of Foucault’s heterotopia, “The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space.” Would you say that the individual parts of Études work toward a convergence or a divergence of space, or rather: how would you characterize the relationship of the different parts of Études, or rather: can these parts make other machines or are these parts the parts of only the Godfools?
God I love that movie! And it makes me sentimental, something I’m not, usually, but the first time I saw it was the first time I met Ferlinghetti at the Castro theater in San Francisco! Glorious! And the music! Bach! It’s just perfect really.
I think there’s something to that Foucault quote that is very pertinent here. And have you read that n+1 article about the stupidity of computers? It seems relevant as well.
Personally, I tend to think of the pieces as exploring different converging spaces (Rome/Las Vegas, Ireland/Mexico, and my bed/a utopian bed) but that they are converging only through our interaction with them. Also, I believe there is some relationship between the places in all three studies but perhaps that isn’t very apparent.
I take the term étude (study) very seriously. These are not an attempt to unify differences but rather to explore and push each of the boundaries as far as I could. What can a form do? A paragraph? A dialogue? Without words? And what about an engagement with Descartes or an algorithm? And homophonic interpretation/play? If not anything else, then each of these studies at the very least began with questions and this is what unifies them; the desire to do more than they probably can.
I don’t believe there is any one machine but a number of machines and that any one machine can be used for different purposes. I’m not sure if we can think about a spoon as a machine, but let’s for the time being. From one side it’s a cup, a bowl, a birdbath and from the other, it’s a pointing stick or even a knife.
CH: Following Deleuze, we can most certainly talk about a spoon as a machine. And your description is magnificently interesting because you make it sound like a ’pataphysical machine, the kind of machine I am most interested in exploring (of course, if you ask Alfred Jarry, all machines are ’pataphysical). Are you familiar with his book Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll Pataphysician?
The experimental aspect of Études seems explicit in your questioning, “What can a form do? A paragraph? A dialogue? [etc.]” But I’m curious to know if these questions preceded the process or if they arose from the process (or perhaps, like a feedback loop, it was reciprocal?)?
And furthermore, if the words form a machine, what other machines would you describe as connecting with Études? You mention Descartes, obviously, and I would venture Chomsky and Jarry, perhaps certain Oulipo texts. Others?
SA: The experimental aspect, as you called it, preceded these texts in that these are questions I have been interested in for a number of years but which found their own specific manifestations only once I had written something I either liked or didn’t but in both cases I felt like it was something which I didn’t know what to do with. For instance, I quite liked the first algorithm text I wrote using Descartes’ Meditations but I didn’t understand it. It felt like there was more in this piece and this system than just the single go. So, I then tried to provide a context for the piece, for my own understanding, and then it slowly evolved into the dialogue with Descartes that is in the book now.
And, to give a contrary example, I didn’t like the arch of the first three Gospels (N.B. they have changed significantly from the form up at Abjective) but I liked the writing and felt like there was something there. I didn’t know what to do with them, but when I returned to Ireland in 2011, I realized that they wanted to talk about the limitations of the paragraph (and even of the sentence) as a means to talk about the limitations of movement (i.e. as something which starts in one place (A) and ends in another (B)) and what movement could mean.
I don’t know, I tend to work intuitively, trusting that my reading will inform my writing and that a healthy dose of forgetting is clouding over everything just enough to not induce panic and I guess I wanted to try and get as deep into these texts as possible, to shed the fear of seeming insane and make them be what they felt like they needed to be and face the consequences later.
Those are all good text machines, you’ve mentioned. Favorites have always been: Donald Barthelme, Flann O’Brien, Arno Schmidt (especially Gelehrtenrepublik), Heiner Müller, John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer and a bunch of other older stuff and theory that I’m too embarrassed to mention.
CH: Allow me to become metatextual for a moment. We are striking through particular words and phrases in this conversation, which mimics a device used in Études, and harkens, at least for me, back to Derrida’s discussion of Heidegger’s concept of “sous rature,” which Spivak translates as “under erasure” in her Translator’s Preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’ve always disliked that translation because to me “under erasure” refers more accurately to something like Tom Phillips’s A Humument or Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os or any number of other “erasure texts.” Instead, what Heidegger does by crossing out Being in “The Question of Being” (which is, to some extent, what Derrida takes him to task for not going far enough on) is different in my mind from erasure, because of the trace, because of the visible presence underneath the violent attempt to silence. As Spivak puts it, “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible.” Do these philosophical conversations resonate with Études, from your perspective? And further, how might you characterize the function of the strikethrough in the book?
SA: Awesome, Chris! Yes, that Spivak quote certainly resonates but I would make the distinction between the two uses of strike through in the studies. In ‘Failed Proposals’, the strike through is in the reality of the fiction (an act of editorial megalomania!) whereas in ‘Cartesian Diver’ it has a closer relation to the sketch you just gave – and these are distinguished by the one being a single strike through and the other being a double strike through. Of course, we could explain the double strike through of ‘Cartesian Diver’ on a purely pragmatic level; that is, we could take the Descartes text as a checklist that was doubly accomplished and then ghosted of its meaning (the embossing, which is supposed to give a text special meaning, looks more like a pallid script, a text that has given too much blood at the blood bank. But, that would be a little too catty, right?).
I agree that the term ‘under erasure’ is less than ideal, and with regards to ‘Cartesian Diver’, I would say the category erasure would be as easy as talking about it on this pragmatic level but also perhaps just as deflating.
I have issues with erasures although I find some of them successful. We don’t need to go into it fully here but very briefly, I would say that erasures tend to restrict themselves only to one or two planes of interpretation (in the best cases, they can be emotional, but mostly they’re merely intellectual games engaging with the source material and the context they’re in in a very ‘smart’ way but which never let the reader take the text much further (perhaps it’s a problem of TMI? A baroque silencing?) – and in the worst of cases they feel like an over-educated graduate student hopped up on too much caffeine and Baudrillard for his/her own good) and they just don’t feel very rich to me. They feel ‘smart’. And it’s like: Bravo! High-five! Phallic totem destroyed! But then, suddenly, like in Terminator 2, the totem’s molecules start to gather again and create a monster even more ugly and more difficult to destruct [insert dramatic music here].
Recently, I translated an introduction to a book on Appropriation Literature with the German poet Uljana Wolf and while I found some of the examples fascinating, they very rarely ever became more than just chin scratching material. For me, the engagement with Descartes was more essential than that. It seems to me, that even if modern philosophy likes to think it has gone well beyond Descartes (although Quentin Meillassoux makes a strong argument that we shouldn’t abandon the Cartesian project so rashly), we still tend to think, on a day to day level, like Cartesians. I’m here and you’re there and I’m inside my head and you’re not, etc. Thus, once I started the project (which actually arose out of a dream I had about Descartes, and then in one of my swimming mantras… long story) and once I got a better idea of what it was that I was doing, it seemed somehow necessary to engage with Descartes in this manner, to use some of the tactics of the past fifty years (Oulipian constraints (the short story ‘Reflections Rendered’ uses only the characters (i.e. letters) of the Cartesian Meditations’ sections that are doubly struck out), erasure and homophonic/algorithmic writing) to demonstrate in some weird way that we’re still human and that we still operate with the same naive belief systems but that frustrating these systems is productive and vital. Hence, the Heiner Müller epigraph from Mauser. But, the goal was also to push it a step further and to begin to make new meanings. Whether this is successful or not is something which I question and which I would say my newer work, in poetry, is moving towards. Not to say that it’s a failure. Only that I’m excited by other questions at the moment.
This all sounds very programmatic and again I would like to emphasize that this all came out intuitively and that I worked on these texts with the Barthelme model of ‘being bored and just looking for a little fun.’ In fact, each of these studies took place when I was taking a break from a novel I have been shelving and unshelving for more than three years. Maybe if I listened to Pascal’s advice on fear and boredom a little more closely, these texts would have never been – but then again, didn’t Pascal have to first write them and ignore his own advice?