Tuesday, 16 September 2008

From subterranean to suburban....

Recently I've come across Dennis Cooper's blog, and found myself so overwhelmed on many levels that it's taken me a while to begin to formulate any kind of a response. While certainly I was impressed by Cooper's habit of amassing obscure material, such as Marc Almond's paean to Bataille's Solar Anus (not that I've even yet heard his other piece Martin, concerning the eponymous character of George A. Romero's film), along with rare interview footage of Bataille himself, doubts started to set in about the overarching motivation. Afterall, wasn't this just another avant garde formalism, with transgression somehow typifying the seeking by a narcissistic ego of increasingly rarefied thresholds of difference, to escape a "mass" [sic] ? In other words, a phenomenon that Raymond Williams, in The Politics of Modernism, noted as an urban narrative trope?: ..."extreme and precarious forms of consciousness...a paradoxical self-realisation in isolation."
After seeing Cooper's posted profiles of self-proclaimed young male "slaves", and the recurring theme in his fiction of such characters being sadistically eviscerated by serial killers and the like, I also wondered if Cooper was mapping similar territory to nutcases such as Peter Sotos in words, if not in deeds (say Randy Kraft). I'd say "no" after reading interviews to the effect explaining how much he imbues his young victims with character, so the reader really cares about their fate. The major problem has to do with how, despite his qualifications, Cooper remains open to recuperation by those less inclined to read, or even care about, the author's explanations. For once you emphasise how in principle you don't want your work to coalesce into a convention, you leave yourself open to misappropriation by in effect not standing behind your words. This dilemma may simply be a direct consequence of the all too familiar "death of the author" syndrome.
By extension, any attempt to pin down Cooper's characteristic themes as the epiphenomenon of sociological variables becomes inherently problematic. What I find intriguing then (in a suitably ambiguous kind of way) are attempts to portray his work as in some sense the byproduct, if not always a direct commentary, on the epidemiology of AIDS, wherein a queer identity relocates to non-spaces such as the Internet and the suburbs. For Cooper, the blandness of suburbia makes them "perfect hiding places from oppressively conformist narratives of selfhood...suburbs constitute a deterritorialization, an attempt to create a non-defining space free from mainstream, or indeed gay, hegemonic identities". In other words, it is the same tactic described by the emigres in Williams, who were fleeing the upheaval of another form of mass destruction, except here the setting is not an urban centre. Indeed, such a distinction may become meaningless when describing a city such as Los Angeles, given how it derives its distinctiveness as largely a suburban geography where "social structures are at their loosest and least defining" (obviously the more relevant distinction would remain Williams's typology of The Country and the City, as I am unaware of any queer claiming of small towns as the new frontier). The same relativisation might apply to the more traditional "urban" focus of Henning Bech's renowned study, When Men Meet. Notwithstanding any reservations about vulgar sociologism in relation to aesthetics, there may be some value in remembering that Cooper is an LA based writer, when it comes to evaluating his fiction (as even he acknowledges in the link in this post).
I raise these issues here then because they may be a different facet of the question of "other spaces" that have featured in previous posts on this blog, particularly in relation to thana and sex tourism. I can only hazard a guess at the reasons why Cooper does not feature in more "straight" online forums devoted to the likes of J.G. Ballard, who likewise adopts a suburban focus in his work, and whom Cooper has acknowledged in interviews. I particularly enjoyed Betsky's quote about suburbia's moral "boundlessness" [below], which appears applicable to Cooper and Ballard. But there may be more varied lines of flight hinted at in the former than the latter (i.e. not merely a conflation of sex and violence):
Betsky is at least aware that other gay writers have reckoned with and created visions of suburban environments. But his synopsis that “to queer authors like Dennis Cooper [the desire for underage boys] laid bare the rootlessness and moral boundlessness of suburbia in an extremely violent and spatial manner”29 is only partially correct. As we shall see, Cooper amply demonstrates the “boundlessness,” moral and otherwise, of suburbia, yet there is a misplaced negativity in Betsky’s assertion, which no doubt derives from the emphasis on the borderline paedophilia of Cooper’s novels. Betsky describes the emergence of a new kind of non-physical space, imposed on queers after the mass-destruction inflicted by AIDS: “the void,” an emptiness characterised by “that absence, that loss” (182). Through a collective experience of this absence, the void has become “the queerest space of all;” subsequently, queers have learnt how to “build an identity that would then be separate from real spaces of connection and community.”

From Subterranean to Suburban: The Landscapes of Gay Outlaw Writing

However provocative this strategy may appear, unanswered questions remain: at stake is the "when" and the "how" by which these identities could demonstrate any kind of recognisable political efficacy (including the kind that might extend to coalition building). If such networking took place, would it be restricted to cyber interaction, making this non/identity politics comparable to the "hyper realist" position of writers such as Mark Poster, or even (shock! horror!), the "virtual republic" of Ken Wark.......? (both previously critiqued on this blog)
If the answer is "yes", well here is a vision of "progressive" politics I find almost as disturbing as any of the graphic scenes of carnage depicted in either Cooper's "outlaw fiction" or on his blog......

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