During the summer of 2008, Larry Fondation interviewed Harold Jaffe for Rain Taxi. To buy the issue, click here.
Larry Fondation: Talk a little bit about docufiction – how and why you started producing it…
Harold Jaffe: Some thirty-five years ago, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and a few other “journalists” set about deliberately melding journalistic “fact” with fiction; the suggestion was that this is what mainstream journalism was doing without acknowledging it, so they (Wolfe and Thompson) would foreground the melding for their own purposes.
The usurpation of “fact” has moved very rapidly, even exponentially, along with the almost total reliance on technology. Information becomes disinformation without apology; one datum contradicts a previous datum posted a few hours before; corporate ads are inserted into TV news programs as if they are news; medical technology makes no distinction between the “artificial” and the “natural.” For example, when Janet Jackson’s wardrobe “malfunctioned” a few years ago during the Super Bowl halftime show and a “breast” was exposed, the institutionalized media went wacky, but nobody pointed out that it wasn’t her 45-year-old breast but rather the surgically implanted “artificial” nubile breast that was briefly exposed.
Before the techno-cult became omnipotent there was at least a nominal distinction made between the “real” and the image or mask. Now virtually everything depends on the efficacy of the mask. The notion of sincerity and authenticity (in Lionel Trilling’s words) simply has no purchase.
Hence, my use of docufiction attempts to ape the mainstream culture while deconstructing it; the deconstruction is what puzzles less discerning readers, who don’t see the pastiche element, the deliberate distortions.
How does my docufiction make the reader feel? Disconcerted, I hope. With Brecht (contra Aristotle), I’d like readers to come away from having read my work pent rather than purged; with troubled questions on their mind.
LF: In the August issue of Esquire, Stephen Marche writes: “Obsessed with violence and terrified of sex: That’s practically the definition of American culture.” What do you think about that?
HJ: Too easy a formulation, I’d say. If Americans are terrified of sex what do we make of the huge online pornography industry featuring young middle-class Americans engaged in just about every sexual configuration imaginable?
It is a complex phenomenon. The fact that the “extreme” sex is online appears to insulate it from “real time.”
Also this is the first full generation since the HIV pandemic and — more important — the HIV propaganda which transformed the flesh and blood body into a site of struggle.
Do my sexual organs belong to me or to the US government who tells me to beware of the poisoned body?
Partly in response to the HIV-era repression, the sexual body is currently foregrounded, especially when mediated by the Internet. But the sex itself, interfacing with what traditionally has been considered pornography, is moving so fast from one “deviation” to the next that it is likely to expire in its own ashes. Aided and abetted by corporate American morality.
Violence in America is often related to sexuality. That a newspaper can represent a body mutilated in war but is prohibited from representing that same body naked and healthy suggests that the two images are neurotically allied.
“Repressive desublimation” is Marcuse’s term for an image that appears to expose or “desublimate,” but is in fact repressive; such as obscenely representing the body in pain instead of the prohibited body in pleasure.
During Lent we need surrogate releases for the sexual demon, such as exulting in the violence of the NFL and extreme sports.
During Carnival the pleasurable body requires no surrogate.
Sustained carnivals have been rare in the US.
LF: The sexual obsession novel has been with us since at least The Scarlet Letter. Violent books for a long time stayed away from sex. Most of your previous docufiction books have focused on violence — both state-sponsored and individual violence. Of course, 15 Serial Killers by definition elides sex and violence. Did that “cocktail” lead you to Manson?
Why Manson? And in what sense is he a “resistance” figure? There was no “publicness” to his violence — he attacked actresses and grocers, not bankers and oilmen. In “the family,” sexual control masked as sexual freedom. He was racist. The killings seemed designed as revenge as much as rebellion. And you have written a novel based on that. I’m repelled a bit, but I’m intrigued.
HJ: Manson’s apparent racism is, as I see it, a kind of reflex. He was the bastard child of a teenaged Appalachian prostitute. 74-years-old now, he started serving time when he was an adolescent and has been in one or another kind of penal institution for more than 60 years.
The swastika tat on his forehead, his attitude toward African Americans and other races . . . To say they come with the territory is not to apologize for them. But I don’t read him as a racist.
Yes, his “free” sexuality was a “controlling” sexuality. Nor did he necessarily harm the people that needed harming.
But that is only part of the story. What he is primarily, at least to me, is a shape-shifter, trickster, survivor, wizard, even a kind of shaman.
His resistance takes the form of refusing to die; of thrusting his scabby old ass in official culture’s face; of his defiantly virtuosic discourse which segues instantly from hipster to hobo to autodidact to raging Appalachian proletariat.
Decrepit and mad as he may seem, ain’t nobody out there in normal-land sharp enough to pin him.
LF: I love the posthumous statements in the Jesus Coyote section called “Night of the Thousand Knives.” You always seem to surround your subjects from multiple points of view — like the sound at a good concert. It allows you to knock “officialdom” off its pedestal. Do you think pulling apart a story in fact rebuilds it?
Has to do with staying a step ahead of The Man. And, in narrative terms, with portraying the complexity of the Manson phenomenon which is nearly always dumbed down, force-fitted into the Procrustean bed of “Serial Killler.”
LF: Returning to the idea of resistance figures — whether we pick Manson or Kathleen Soliah — why do you think there is so little resistance now — when things are so fucked up, much worse than in 1969?
HJ: Official culture’s facility to deceive is infinitely more advanced than in the Sixties. Successful revolutionary models are either not represented or brazenly misrepresented. And Americans are trained to rely on official representations far more than on their unmediated experiences.
Among other lies, we are told that the worldwide student revolt in ’68 was a failure, that revolution as such has lost its purchase, when in truth revolution and the ethical dissent which leads to revolution are ongoing, perennial.
In our rapid move to global homogenization, power has become decentered, much less palpable. The iconic industrial engine with its gears and levers has been replaced by the limbless computer. The question is where in this apparently seamless network of power do you apply pressure?
Even Abbie Hoffman could not figure that one out. When he emerged out of hiding after seven years it was into a world in the process of changing irretrievably.
The culture of gears, levers, big noses and humans who moved their arms while they walked was fading fast.
None of the slick moves Hoffman made in the late Sixties and Seventies could transport him anywhere in the affectless, virtual Eighties.
LF: I really like the line: “The favored theory [for the police investigating the Tate-LaBianca murders] centered around illicit drugs.” Talk a little about the “war on drugs” — then and now.
HJ: Were this 40 years ago, many of the very bright young people invested in “high” technology would instead be writing and ruminating about mind-expanding drugs.
Right brain, dream-space, Buddhism, the flesh and blood body, jouissance. As opposed to left brain, calculation, the virtual body, material advancement, security.
Different Zeitgeist, different accommodation.
The crucial point, I think, is that people are constrained to believe official culture’s definition of happiness and unhappiness. And official happiness notably excludes dream, vision, and psychotropic-induced epiphanies.
Unhappiness, official culture instructs us, must not include sympathy for the thousands of brown-skinned children and adults who have been murdered in Iraq or are sick unto death because of the US’s unconscionable use of depleted uranium in its weaponry.
In a word: Ingesting the appropriate drugs might invoke autonomy and a broad compassion — each of which is prohibited in our global village.
There has been a New Age cooptation of mind-expansion agents: expensive, orchestrated sojourns to the South American jungle to swallow ayahuasca. But that is a different phenomenon from the ingestion of peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, hashish, and LSD in the Sixties.
True, some of the Sixties drug use was promiscuous, but the fundamental inclination was to cultivate inwardness while broadening experience and sympathy.
That inquisitive young people no longer experiment with psychotropic agents testifies to the efficiency of official propaganda. There is also the practical difficulty of locating the substances, since they are responsive to the principle of supply and demand and to the severe penalties for distribu-tion and possession.
LF: I’m surprised there’s so little political anger out there now. Despite the fact that most things public have turned to shit. When the LA murder stats come out each year, a friend of mine — who grew up in South Central — and I always threaten to write an LA Times op ed expressing our surprise not that the homicide rate is so high, but that it’s so low. More broadly, people are riding bicycles and nobody is blowing up gas stations, which puzzles me. What role does anger play in your writing?
HJ: I don’t believe official statistics, whether of nationwide unemployment, homicides in LA or the death-count of US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Political anger has been derailed by the Eighties and Nineties phenomenon of “identity politics,” when marginalized groups were fighting among themselves for a larger slice of the ever-shrinking pie rather than thinking and working collectively.
As I said, official power is itself less palpable and mostly decentered, so that it is much harder to know where the pressure points are.
And there is the constant government-media propaganda assuring us that we are just going through a bad patch, that global capitalism allied with technology are still President and Prime Minister of our rapidly degenerating planet.
You ask about my own anger? Heck, I’m as placid as a bodhisattva.
It’s Jesus Coyote who’s pissed, filled with murderous rage at his unforgiving country.
LF: Have you seen Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes? He has a chapter called “Revolutionary Terror from Robespierre to Mao.” His project seems in some ways to be a companion to your own. Any thoughts?
HJ: Here’s something you evidently do not know about the brilliant, elusive Lacanian-Marxist provocateur Zizek.
Please keep it confidential.
Zizek is in fact the doppelganger of the raunchy-assed, lifelong incorrigible commonly known as Charles Manson.
LF: What’s next?
HJ: I just completed a volume of docufictions called Orfeo, where I inscribe in formally various ways aspects of hell: Wallmart, death row, areas infected by war, corporate boardrooms . . .
I also completed a daily journal while I was in Paris called Paris 60, sixty narrative entries, modeled loosely on Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen.
Now I am working on a novel featuring Marlon Brando.