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