Monthly Archives: April 2013

Review of “RB” to appear in Romanian Journal, Alecart

The following review is to appear in the Romanian literary journal, Alecart:

Neuronic Revolutions: Harold Jaffe’s Revolutionary Brain

(Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen)

Have you ever wondered what foments in the brain of a revolutionary, what genetic mechanism or extra-circuits keep guard against the apathy and carelessness that numb our neurons? The newly-published book by Harold Jaffe, Revolutionary Brain, suggests a few possible answers. In part shocking, as history also tends to be, in part a meditation, this collection of poems/essays/fiction is a revelation with a fresh taste of revolution, an unveiling of the present moment in the form of active art, reflective art, “crisis art.” Many of the live frames that he captures with something akin to a director’s eye are those moments that move fast past us, barely noticed by the world’s population preoccupied with the illusory elixir of consumerism. Jaffe’s book freezes in amber the moment of “crisis” – and I am not referring here to the most obvious events of recent history, but the subtle writhing of the souls that refuse to be complacent, deviants going in circles in the labyrinth of a stratified society, fists shaken at the sky, or at our contemporary world. All of these are ephemeral pearls of the new millennium, which the writer gathers carefully before they turn to sand. He purposely breaks with tradition, precisely to capture that neuron that doesn’t conform, doesn’t let itself be multiplied and defined, so that in the end it’s hard to explain to what genre to attach his lists, news reports, dialogues and sparks of humanity that come to light from the apocalyptic jungle of a world in decay, as much in danger as the glaciers that are disappearing before our very eyes. The writer forces us to confront the demons of complacency that are crushing our creativity in favor of consumer entertainment.

The revolutionary brain is not only a metaphor for anti-complacency. In the text “Revolutionary Brain,” Jaffe invokes a little known fact, that after the death of certain leaders of the radical German group Red Army Faction, their brains disappeared and were said to have been stolen by scientists and examined in Frankfurt laboratories. We read: “According to the pathologist, Meinhof’s 1962 brain surgery in which a benign lesion was excised generated her transformation from a talented, ambitious journalist to co-founder and intellectual leader of the revolutionary Red Army Faction” (117).

Many of the volume’s texts are manipulated news that, without the writer’s ideas and aesthetical perspective, would otherwise disappear from the public conscience without a trace, without a moral that future generations can derive knowledge from. In a dialogue with a formerly homeless person, Dewey Birdsong, we find out that spirituality is not reserved only for the privileged. This homeless man built with his own hand a mountain that he named “Salvation Mountain,” and when the mountain was declared an object of art and started to bring him money, Dewey used that money for his project, so that the mountain (still growing) is now unique in the entire world. Dewey confesses:

    At first when someone even mentioned me being an artist I’d correct’em.

    No, no, that ain’t me.

    But then it happened so often I got to feeling I should feel good about it.

    Shoot, I don’t care what people call it.

    If they want to push the mountain as art, boy, I’m glad you like that artwork. [laughs]

    Just so “God is Love” is up there and folks can come and draw their own conclusions.

    (104-5)

In one of the shocking, intriguing “lists” from Revolutionary Brain, the voices of people about to be executed rise from the pages as if they were still alive, asking us to understand them, to listen to them:

      Date of execution: January 16, 2002
      Offender: Horace Allen #987225
      County: Liberty
      Last Statement:

    Members of Mrs. Lackey’s family, like I said, I take responsibility for the death of your daughter in 1989.

    I am deeply sorry for the loss of your beloved daughter.

    I am a human being also, I know how it feels.

    I cannot explain and can’t give you no answers.

    I can give you just one thing.

    I’m’a give a life for a life.

    I am not saying this to be facetious.

    I hope yawl find comfort in my execution.

    As for me, I am happy, that is why you see me smiling.

    I am glad to be leaving this world.

    I am going to a better place.

    I have made peace with God, I am born again.

    I hope you get over any malice or hatred you feel.

    God bless yawl.

    (12)

This list, placed at the beginning of the book, contrasts with a list of pornographic sites toward the end of the volume, one that exemplifies the obsession with death, the return of the longing for death that consumer society tries in vain to shield us from. The artist has the obligation to record even these throes of the immoral soul in search for water on an empty, deserted earth. More than that, the artist is not only a man, but a creature of the planet, just like a rabbit that screams in agony, an elephant about to vanish from the earth, or a whale on whose body we placed a “delete” button. The writer explains this preoccupation for subjects that others would exclude from the realm of art:

Art that responds to a crisis is situational, hence created rapidly rather than painstakingly   revised and refined.

Crisis art is directed rather than disinterested; more closely related to art as process than product.

Crisis art is keenly aware of text and context.

Crisis art often works best collaboratively.

(25)

Polemical, refusing to hide in plain sight, Jaffe is a voice that means to be subversive, but at the same time it is full of humanity. It is a voice of confluences, neuronic short-circuits between the internal and the external, between global and spiritual spaces.

Liana Andreasen grew up in Romania and came to the US for more “learnin’.” Her steps took her to Maryland for an MA and New York State for a PhD. Since “way leads on to way” as Frost says, she journeyed on and reached South Texas. Mainly interested in modernist fiction and poststructuralist theory, she published articles in journals such as The CEA Critic and Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and a few short stories. She co-manages STC’s Interstice

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May 1st Reading

hjaffeAuthor Harold Jaffe will read from his work on May 1 at 7 p.m. in Room LL430 of the SDSU Library as part of the Spring 2013 Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series. The event is free and open to all.

Jaffe is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at SDSU and the author of 20 volumes of fiction, docufiction, and nonfiction, including Paris 60, Anti-Twitter, Induced Coma, Jesus Coyote, Beyond the Techno-Cave, Terror-Dot-Gov, 15 Serial Killers, False Positive, and his most recent, OD and Revolutionary Brain.  He is the editor of Fiction International.

For more information, contact Meagan Marshall at marshall_Meagan@yahoo.com. Additional information can be found on Facebook by “liking” The Living Writers Series. This event is cosponsored by SDSU’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.

Larry Fondation on “Revolutionary Brain”

Larry Fondation’s insightful review will appear in Black Scat Review #3 in June.

Revolutionary Brain

By Harold Jaffe

    The end of a life is always the end of a life.  Even bad guys were once swaddling babes.  Since 1976, the State of Texas has executed 493 people – not all of them bad, or even guilty.  But bad is not the point.  “Thou shall not kill.”  The State kills.  In cold blood.

    In his latest book, Revolutionary Brain, Harold Jaffe fires an opening salvo – and indeed it is a rocket shot – with a text called “Death in Texas.”  Jaffe quotes the last words of 15 executed inmates.  The 16th murdered prisoner, Jimmy Blackmon, refuses to speak.

    In fiction, non-fiction and docu-fiction, Jaffe has taken on aspects of our society before – celebrity, serial killers, violence, addiction.  Now he is taking aim at the entire contemporary culture.

    We live in a time of radical disjuncture, discontinuity and disruption.  Social media and, especially the Smart Phone, have created the Instant Society.  Conversations are disrupted by the beep of an incoming text message.  Wonder what movie won the Best Picture Oscar in 1983?  You can look it up – right away!  Power is concentrated, but farther away than ever – even recalling Steinbeck’s famous line near the beginning of Grapes of Wrath:  “Well, who do I shoot then?”

    The sound of the last century was the clang of machinery; the sound of this one is the ever-present beep.

    We have lost our ability to relate and engage.  The result is greater marginalization – more distance, not less – and a focus on trivia and entertainment, yielding a further rupture of meaning.

    Nothing matters more than info-tainment – not our friends, not politics, not the planet.

    Jaffe faces the onslaught – our “hugger-mugger” culture, as he calls it.

    “Truth-Force” opens with an interrogation about whether to execute a torturer or release him, and it ends with a recitation of ten repeating “couplets:”  “Avert your eyes.  Don’t avert your eyes.”

    Several lists of “Things to Do” include taking a bath while on Ecstasy; drinking cognac; and, collecting female hair from airline baggage, then encoding your fantasies on your Smart Phone.

    “Pet Girl’ mimes an internet-style news item in which a girl on a leash held by her boyfriend is kicked off a London bus for being a “freak.”  She concludes by saying what she does “isn’t hurting anyone.”  The bus company issues an apology.

    It’s the way Jaffe cants and assembles the pieces that packs the power.  It’s Julia Kristeva’s “abjection,” with an even further twist.  Our empathy is pulled towards justice – but through shock and mud.  And more than a small part of the shock is simply how quotidian shock has become in the age of “entertainment for profit,” as Jaffe describes in an interview with novelist Joe Haske.

    Jaffe’s response employs a montage technique.  (Indeed he treats Andrei Tarkovsky and James Whale in the volume.)  What he achieves is a kind of postmodern Plato’s Cave.  Jaffe re-orders false reality; he then re-layers reality so we actually see it.

    An archetypical Jaffe inversion occurs in his piece “Freeze-Dry:”

    “Doctors are attempting to freeze-dry a severely disabled girl, 9-years old, to keep her child-size at her parents’ request.  Born with static encephalopathy, she can’t walk or talk, and has the mental capacity of a month-old infant.

    “Watch the child twist her mouth grotesquely and emit animal noises:   [Video]”

    Of course, there is no video; it is a book.  The reader is left to ponder this crazy conundrum.  Above all, Harold Jaffe makes you think.

    Los Angles-based artist, Guillermo Bert had a recent exhibition, called “Encoded Textiles,” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA).  Bert traveled to his native Chile, and collected traditional stories there from native peoples.  Then, using special software, the artist translated their stories into barcode patterns, which were woven into textiles by indigenous weavers.  The results appear strikingly similar to the patterns and forms of historical Native American weavings.  Bert turns the symbol of price, of commodity, into story.  The effect is powerful.

    Though dissimilar in its deployment of technology, the project struck me as similar in vein to Jaffe’s:  to use formal innovation to turn technology against itself in the service of genuine story and real meaning.

    Similar to digesting visual art, Jaffe’s book forces us to see anew.  As in the plastic arts also, Jaffe uses form to serve content, and vice versa.  The “essays and quasi-essays” in the book vary from a few lines to 12-page pieces; from do-lists to interviews; from Q&A to exposition.  In each case, Jaffe adjusts the form precisely to match the social and aesthetic purpose – eye-opening in every case.

    Revolutionary Brain does not content itself solely with cultural critique; it also moves towards prescription.

    Perhaps my favorite text, while not prescriptive per se, is the title piece.  Jaffe describes the authorities’ removal of the brains of the three top leaders of the revolutionary German group, the Red Army Faction (RAF).    All three allegedly committed suicide in German prisons in 1976 and 1977.  The RAF, also know as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, fractured post-WWII European capitalist hype with a series of bombings and kidnappings of industrialists – parallel to, but more dramatic than, the Weather Underground in the United States.  The radical German group spoke of “Nazi capitalism” — an eerie echo in these times of record inequality between rich and poor.

    Elsewhere and throughout the book, Jaffe advocates engaged art and animated activism.

    “Crisis Art” begins with a quote from Woody Guthrie:  “This guitar kills fascists.”  Jaffe then points to a number of artist-activists – Chilean women making protest tapestries to depict the harsh brutality of the Pinochet regime; a Thai artist who set up temporary food and shelter spaces for the homeless; Welsh women setting up a “peace Camp” to demonstrate against nuclear weapons.

    The piece concludes with an imperative for artists and non-artists alike:  “The primary obligation is not to avert your eyes; to bear witness.”

    Perhaps with Harold Jaffe bearing witness to our times, we may be able to hear the screams above the constant din of our century’s seminal beep.

***

Larry Fondation is the author of the novels Angry Nights and Fish, Soap and Bonds, and of Common Criminals, a collection of short stories. His fiction focuses on the Los Angeles underbelly. His two most recent books feature collaborations with artist Kate Ruth.

Fondation has lived in LA since the 1980s and worked for fifteen years as an organizer in South Central Los Angeles, Compton, and East LA. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in a range of diverse publications including Flaunt (where he is Special Correspondent), Fiction International, Quarterly West, the Los Angeles Times and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a 2008-09 Christopher Isherwood Fellowship in Fiction Writing