Monday, February 22, 2016

"The Philosophical Code: Dennis Cooper's Pacific Rim" - Avital Ronell

I would take recourse to French theory to designate a particular modality of thinking about literature because Cooper engages three aspects of literary questioning that I find compelling and that exceed the thematic thrills of which he is an acknowledged master. In the first place, his writing is a reflection on writing. To put in in condensed form, "French theory" is a way of not having to decide between literature and philosophy; it offers a site that circumscribes the undecided limit between literature and philosophy. Though it may come as a surprise, Cooper's work, it seems to me, signals a philosophical urgency and points to a subterranean corpus designated by so-called French theory. Admittedly, nothing could seem further from the truth. But Cooper is far from the truth, thankfully, though his tropology is engaged by the dominant tendencies of our modernity. Thematically his work travels through the devastated landscape of love, mortality, consciousness, representation, identity, and so forth. 

Dennis Cooper's work calls and compels me. It orders me around according to prescriptive moves that I can barely fathom. In one sense I am called to the scene of reading by a resolutely French space and dossier that his writing opens up. If one had to issue identity papers to his text, one might be tempted to conclude that there is nothing more American than the corporeal scanners, the permutations of slacker ethos, and the pallid landscape of Cooper's precise suburban explorations. You would be wrong. Besides the fact that desire is made in France--I stand by this statement: desire inevitably arrives at our shores as a French import that needs to be translated into American idioms and practices--it is the case that Cooper's works are explicitly tagged by French markings: nearly every work opens--is cracked open like an ass--with a French citation. The stench in any event is decidedly French. Thus we are led into or met at crucial junctures of the works by Rimbaud, Genet, and Bresson, and more recently, the sublime Blanchot heads up the work.


As in the case of Schlegel's novel, an eighteenth-century scandal that infuriated the greatest philosophers, Cooper's novel gets into trouble by installing two incompatible codes--that of philosophical speculation (albeit covertly transmuted, discreet and in drag, philosophically in drag, disfigured but still traceable) and pornographic description. His descriptive technique often resembles what Deleuze, writing on Sade and Sacher-Masoch, prefers to see as pornology, rather than pornography, since Cooper's writing carry a pocket of reflection, an allegorical avenue that offers a crawling commentary beneath the text's explicit facet. It is a language not satisfied with mimetic pretense, no matter how close it gets to the bone of naturalist description. The truly scandalous marks of texts such as those of Schlegel, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch reside in their compulsion to provide theoretical sidebars and philosophical disquisitions--often, as Deleuze points out, cruel and cold, toned by apathy or distance. If Sade had been a mere pornographer, he would not have been locked up; if Schlegel had separated out his philosophical obsession from his sexual diction, he would not have been the persistent target zone of thinkers including Hegel, Kierkegaard, Dilthey, and Schmitt. Just as Sartre could not abide Bataille's philosophical raids in his most graphic exposures, Shlegel and Sade courted trouble for their politics of contamination, folding in philosophical speculation on the subject of their foldouts. Hence the need for uberpsychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to come in and put Kant and Sade on the same couch.

Lacan points out, where bodies aren't hurt or made to fall ill after endless sessions of pounding. the pornographized body maintains its unshakeable integrity, staying intact regardless of the degree of intrusive pitches and relentless sieges. The body barely burps. Only Masoch has the masochistic torturess sneeze all the time, but that's another story. Cooper, by contrast, strokes corporeal anxiety, exposing its fragile finitude at every bend. Its susceptibility to exhaustion is one means by which he passes the body through the lockup of metaphysical pornography, which at once asserts the freshness of the finite body but does not let it wither or fade. Even in its desecration it remains theologized, always awake to the entreaties of others. The noiseless negotiations with metaphysics let things fade and wither, expire of exhaustion.

That is why, if time allowed, I would want to read with you the theme of exhaustion in Nietzsche and also in Blanchot, whom Cooper cites at the beginning of Period.
Blanchot opens his important book The Infinite Conversation with two weary men, fogged by fatigue, contemplating the exhaustion of language and the faded promise of guiding philosophemes. Fatigue deserves its own history, if something like fatigue were locatable or in any serious way readable. Or, to put it in a more familiar way, the history of consciousness might be reconsidered in light of fatigue and the persistent wearing down of mind by weather or drugs or disappointment or grief and other nebulae, other barely appropriable formations of mental eclipse that also belong to our histories without quite showing up. I remember one Saturday sitting around the table when Levinas asked the children he was working with, "If God is what He is, why does He need a day of rest? God cannot be susceptible to fatigue, can He?" They were translating passages of the Old Testament. Levina's response to the stumped silence of the gathered children was that God was setting an example of which He was not a part: God's children need to rest, are prone to fatigue. But let us return to the sentence, "Nietzsche, right? Whatever. Drugged brains are so easily exhausted. Whatever"--a series of sentences to which we are sentenced.

Naming Nietzsche, it opens the dossier on the culture of narcotica that Nietzsche had said we have yet to read and write about. "Who will write the history of narcotica?" Nietzsche asks us at one point, indicating that our so-called high depends upon drugs and persists in masking chronic dependency. Drugs not only belong to a repressed thinking of culture but point to a nanotechnology installed in the human body, which is set up with receptors to receive the chemical prothesis. Why is the body prepared for drugs? The enigmatic technology of drugs sends signals all along Cooper's work, transforming the way we think about consciousness and marking a region of being that Cooper relentlessly explores: the whateverness of being.

"Nietzsche, right? Whatever. Drugged brains are so easily exhausted. Whatever."


The disquisition on the ass continues later in the novel, making room for itself: "Ahem. What is the source of my interest in asses? (This gets better. Wait.)... An ass is the most vague in meaning and structurally flexible," he writes.

'What is an ass if not the world's best designed, most inviting blank space, on the one hand, and, on the other, a grungy peephole into humans' ordinariness, to put it mildly?' (Try, 100)

I am interested in the double trajectory that is being established: one that reads and maps the ass as a place of writing, a space of considerable indeterminacy yet open, as it were, to (critical) approach--a page, a blank space inviting intervention, marking, the stylus, the hand, the tongue probe (not to mention the way it reasserts the excremental structure of all writing). Yet, at the moment one might have been led to expect the glorification of the ass, instead of a displaced glory hole, we are given a peephole. Into what? Into ordinariness. The ass offers a figure for sheer vacancy, a blank yet ordinary space yielding a dumb body, evacuated, so to speak, by the promise of transcendence. Life unfolds in its idiomatic dumb-ass terms, stuck between trauma and meaning. The ass is the space of signification to the extent that it resists signification, hovers between singularity and generality: it is recessive and quasi-absent when compared with face and genitalia, which threaten it with excess. All I can now say, as time presses, is that, in what we think or are led to believe is the greatest pornographic moment, a rhetorical switch occurs: the act of penetration is reassigned, though without a colloquial hitch, to designate a problem of cognition.

The ass, in a certain sense, designates an originary scene of writing, a wounding--a traumatic imago that guides the narrative unfolding of other novels by Cooper. Submitted to rimming rituals, it offers itself up as something that cannot be assimilated or internalized like a phallus yet is ever mourned as the lost, beloved object, unyielding because it rebuffs symbolization. In cooper, the ass, already a metonymic displacement of cock and face, circumscribes a trauma zone that gets marked by intrusive phenomena, unsettling flashbacks, and the instant replay that inhabit the work at hand. Read in its entirety, the corpus engages a theory of mourning--more exactly, of failed mourning and breached introjections that could be said to disclose the pathology we call America:

"I would hazard a guess that this little fixation involves an avoidance of more resolute body parts, namely the face and genitalia, both of which, while fascinating, present too much personality, thereby reinforcing my failure to penetrate the givens of people I crave. For, of the body's main features, an ass is the most vague in meaning and structurally flexible..."

Something is lost in these transactions on the level of understanding, grinding down the certainty that one has understood desire and the sum of privations on which it is postulated. Intelligence can be feigned, artificially manipulated to show up as a kind of sacred stupidity. Or stupidity could be the way things are run nowadays, without shame or apology, without bothering to accommodate the rumored showdown with intelligence. In any case, Roger's attraction to ordinariness, and the work of mourning that his disquisition on ass and meaning implies, redraws the map on which aggression builds its arsenal. Phallic prongs are dulled, faced blurred to a ground level of bald stupefaction. By no means diminished, aggression finds different, less pointed outlets. Things have become pointless. In a Nietzschean sense, there is good and bad pointlessness--the measured scales of liberation and continued suppression. All sorts of unanticipated occurrences can creep up when everything has become pointless, when the gods and worldly telos have receded. The ordinary ass thrones on the metaphysical recession. When Roger writes of the ass that it "is the most vague in meaning," he gives focus to that which withdraws, veils, and refuses itself. Feminized, it is organized around an abyssal center, a hole, that, for Roger at least, marks the defunct matrix of signification. The writer Roger positions asses )they start out as split and double, even as they fold into an abjected center) as the serialized marks displaced and deferred presence, as the nonpresence that causes Roger to write and assert the excremental nature of all writing. At the same time, they turn things around, averting though from the emblazoned logos, the centered pride of phallic discursivity and derivation. There is no weapon that purposefully duplicates the ass. Withholding face and phallus, the ass doesn't even invite a proper mourning or a syndromic anxiety, such as the complex that Freud designated as castration anxiety. In terms of presence, light and logos, the ass is already lost to figuration, a flattened face of metaphysics. Much of Cooper's work leverages the flattening of landscape and desire, the dulling and dimming of mind. His world is exercised on a kind of fringe mourning, whimpering or grieving over that which is not entirely absent, never having given enough to merit a full-on work of mourning, if such a thing were possible. 

Uh, my intention, as confided to Dennis, was to talk about the registers of stupor that inhabit his texts. I wanted to explore the minutely filtered residue of traumatic events in Cooper's novels, the way they are circuited through different qualities of stupefaction, ranging from drug and sex and America-induced mindlessness to the sheer stupidity of Being--its whateverness or failed "consciousness." I have managed to correspond only minimally to my intention. Everywhere in Dennis's oeuvre you find the trace of irreducible stupidity--from the I.Q.-less employee to the lover who appears mentally retarded when looking up from one's ass, to the asinine lyrics of Slayer's Heavy Metal Onslaught, the idiot addictions, and dumb corpses. The surrender of the body, abandoned to its fate and solitude, has little to do with cognition or revelation but expires with a dull existential thud. Or it shakes itself off, the body, and gets over itself excrementally: "shaking piss off their dicks" (Guide, 8).

Throughout the word we encounter aporias of intelligence, intricated relations to dumb bodies we trail around, a diminished consciousness or fake intelligence carried around like a fake ID. Intelligence, like identitarian closure, tends to crumble. Many of the tracks on stupidity, be they effects of rock lyrics, drugs or metaphysics, revert to Dennis's uncompromising hermeneutics of the body. In your work we consistently get a portrayal of the body without transcendence, sheer corpse, mangled and mutilated, which has yet to be rescued by the promise of release. I think that when I pick this up and rework it, I want to write on the becoming-corpse in your oeuvre, the sputtering epiphanies that occur in the undead moments of threadbare existence, the minute detachments that you trace and convolute in your incomparable way--it seems more like a... whatever, liminal, abyssal probe of destructive, uhm, jouissance

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