The following is forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Fiction (JEF).
Revolutionary Brain: A Review
Tyrone Nagai (February 28, 2013)
Reading Harold Jaffe’s Revolutionary Brain: Essays and Quasi Essays should be done with both a wide arc that considers the multiple interconnections among the 19 texts as well as precise focus on the book’s epigraph by Julia Kristeva: “as abject—so the sacred.” Throughout Jaffe’s tome, which covers a broad spectrum of topics from “Anal Acrobats” to “Salvation Mountain,” the common denominator is Kristeva’s notion of the “abject.” Kristeva defines the “abject” as the physical and emotional reaction to disintegration in meaning caused by the disruption of the relationship between subject and object, or self and other. In Kristeva’s theorizations, reactions to the abject in the form of horror, vomit, or fear come naturally from experiencing shit, sewage, gaping wounds, or a human corpse. And as the epigraph suggests, Jaffe’s essays and quasi-essays attempt to show this breakdown in the established hierarchies of meaning, social structure, and power relations as not only abject but perhaps as sacred too, for Kristeva argues that one of the means of purifying the abject is through art. Moreover, by reimagining the essay through docufiction, verse, memoir, and agitprop, Jaffe articulates an unrestrained polemics on contemporary political, social, and cultural dogma. His innovative use of form melds with the provocative content to push readers out of their comfort zone and into a space where the intellectual and imaginative must work together to form understanding.
The opening narrative, “Death in Texas,” consists of a list of last statements by death row inmates. Their date of execution, name, prison identification number, and county are the only details given besides their last statement—which must be completed in three minutes or less according to Texas law—yet Jaffe is able to evoke a range of ethnic identities, spiritual orientations, and emotional states. Varying combinations of guilt, love, forgiveness, acceptance, and justice all intermingle in the prisoners’ words, and perhaps this ultimately serves as an indictment of not only the use of capital punishment in Texas, which leads the U.S. in executions, but also the silencing of dissenting voices that come from the margins.
“Crisis Art” reads like a more traditional essay in terms of its form, and it seems to extrapolate from Kristeva’s words in the epigraph. In this text, Jaffe provides numerous examples of crisis art—or “the use of cultural means to effect social change or a wider social awareness”—in order to make the case for more activist-oriented art work. Jaffe’s knowledge and understanding of crisis art’s history and effectiveness especially illuminate his abilities as a writer, scholar, and political thinker. While some may view crisis art as something ephemeral and in need of a “cause” in order to harness its energy, Jaffe instead makes the case for crisis art as a response to the dominant culture that can endure and inspire long after the immediate crisis fades away.
“Freeze-Dry” is a compact text of 48 words about attempts to freeze a nine-year-old girl with severe developmental problems that have left her with the mental capacity of a one-month-old. Perhaps what’s most startling is the last line: Watch the child twist her mouth grotesquely and emit animal noises [Video]. By imitating a hyperlink, this line is suggestive of Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle and contemporary culture’s turn to an actuality mediated through abstract imagery enabled by technology: “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” In other words, the girl’s predicament is broadcast for the world to watch, yet genuine sympathy or compassion remains inhibited while the possibility of individual emotional catharsis remains, like drivers passing a fatal accident on the highway.
In a related way, “Anal Acrobats” amplifies this concept articulated in “Freeze-Dry” by focusing on U.S. culture as a whole, which Jaffe describes as “pocked with noise, blandishments, spectacle, shameless contradictions, brazen lies, squalid apologies.” In turn, Jaffe suggests that the people enveloped by this culture “need extremity beyond extremity to dodge the collective torment we are forbidden to acknowledge.” And how does this extremity express itself? And what is forbidden? Through mainstream acceptance of anal acrobats (porn stars engaged in anal sex), Jaffe proposes that “anal” has become a substitute for “death,” which, in his words, is officially suppressed in the U.S. One can think not only of the silenced inmates on death row in Texas but also the prohibition against filming the flag-draped caskets of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And in a world of “beautiful people wannabes (who may be Tea Partiers in real time)” the destruction of the natural environment caused by “profit-mad industry” with assistance from cynical politicians becomes the impending death we are all too scared to face.
“Pet Girl” is a brief text about a young woman who is led around on a leash by her boyfriend. It serves as a set up for the following story “Animals,” which also seems to connect with “Anal Acrobats” in the sense of interrogating the juncture where “surplus profit metastasized electronically.” Here, notions of property, sexism, slavery, and animal rights intermingle as a trickling thought in the background of the story rather than the forefront, and the text makes a logical transition into the next essay.
“Animals” makes leaps from Jorge Luis Borges’ mythical creature, the A Bao A Qu, to Sri Ganesh, elephant-son of Lord Shiva, and to the poaching of elephants and other animals on the African savannah. From there, Jaffe makes a series of quick turns, touching on Clarice Lispector, Buddhist monks, Upton Sinclair, Gandhi, and “Lord Rama, whose animal familiar was Sri Hanuman, a monkey, infinitely superior to human kind.” The rapid fire references and images accumulate and intersect like a montage to build a larger, more evocative scene. In some ways, Jaffe is pointing to human beings as creatures without conscience and animals as the ones with true dignity and wisdom.
“Fear” is a one-page exchange of questions and answers between two unidentified voices that pontificate about cognac and how it inspires them to become “unafraid.” It is through this imbibing of spirits that one of the characters is able to ultimately lose their fear and becomes merciful, thus suggesting an inhibition against such sympathetic feelings.
“Iso” seems to be linked to “Fear” through the character Qa, whose name evokes the question-and-answer format of the latter story, yet Qa seems to serve as an alter ego that is forced to navigate the strife and anxiety of the present. In terms of style, “Iso” reads like a long jazz riff with the rhythm and burst of a poem. The stream of consciousness associations flow freely, encompassing red-winged blackbirds, Mississippi, Robert Johnson, alienation, Oedipus, zombies, cinema, “the 1%,” and dissident art.
“Sacrifice” initially draws on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 film of the same title to bob and weave its way through a discussion of the meaning and purpose of both real and ritualistic sacrifice in the context of a “diseased earth is in the throes of dying.” Antonin Artaud, Marquis de Sade, Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust, Gustav Mahler, John Brown, slavery, and Pierre Paolo Passolini all appear in “Sacrifice” as Jaffe uses brief anecdotes to illustrate different forms and outcomes derived from both actual and perceived “sacrifice.”
“Bride of Frankenstein,” based on the 1935 film, questions the idea of who or what is a monster by closely following the plot of James Whale’s iconic work. In the process, Jaffe reveals glimpses of the inner lives and personalities of three writers: Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, all of whom appear as characters in the film.
“Things to Do” (1) is a short text with a strong poetic, and it suggests ingesting Ecstasy (uncut), taking a warm bath, and sitting “naked, cross-legged on the Navajo rug loving the world and everything in it” for two hours and forty-five minutes. Perhaps Jaffe is pointing out an ironic truth in that the much maligned ingestion of Ecstasy comes precisely at a historical juncture where the commoditization of time has become an omnipresent, 24/7 actuality in which even love can be ingested in pill form and measured with a clock.
“Truth Force” takes a darker turn in that it deals with torture, violence, and execution as political practice. The story appears to take place in a Spanish-speaking country in Latin America where a military junta has seized power, enlisted a professional torturer from the U.S., and commenced abducting, interrogating, and executing poor and indigenous insurgents. What makes the story stand out is that Jaffe adopts the perspective of the insurgents, and he excavates the process of how they transformed from being nonviolent protesters using Gandhi’s philosophy to being violent revolutionaries in the mold of Che or Trotsky. In short, the insurgents quickly realize that they must fight state-sanctioned violence with their own righteous violence. In their case, there is no other way to work for political change.
“Hijab” continues in a political direction, but the focus is on the anti-Islamic micro and macro aggressions perpetrated by national governments, such as those in France and the U.S. “Hijab” involves two alternating refrains that reset the discourse each time. The first one, “French technocrat and Muslim teenager at the entrance to the lycée outside Paris,” grounds a discussion about the politics of forcing Muslim girls to remove their hijabs before entering public schools. The Muslim teenager only known as Mille, a girl wearing a hijab, rightfully points out to the French technocrat that other African and Caribbean students in France are not required to remove their dashikis, bubas, kaftans, jubbahs, or dreadlocks when they attend public schools. In addition, Catholic nuns are never asked to remove their head coverings. Interspersed with this conversation is a second refrain, “Two global reprobates slouching outside the Bourse, in Paris.” Here, two characters wax and wane about 9/11, McCarthyism, genocide, the internment of Japanese and Arab Americans, female and male circumcision, Nicolas Sarkozy, William James, and the veil as metaphor for various political “curtains,” such as the Iron curtain, bamboo curtain, etc. But, when the discussion reaches the so-called Muslim curtain, one reprobate explains to the other that “the greatest horrors will be wreaked by the other side,” i.e., the West.
“Russian Roo” opens with “See the wizened humanoid in his motorized wheelchair flying a tattered American flag, the flag that maimed him in the war and afterwards.” The disembodied voices of the story discuss the writer Graham Greene’s anti-war novel The Quiet American and the rumors that he played Russian Roulette and smoked opium. But, embedded within this narrative is another one about disappearing the so-called “robotic leaders” and deleting the “corrupt institutions,” which seems to circle back to the opening line: “See the wizened humanoid in his motorized wheelchair flying a tattered American flag, the flag that maimed him in the war and afterwards.”
“Things to Do” (2) veers away from the explicitly political subject matter of the previous three texts by presenting a type of fetish involving women’s hair taken from lost or delayed airline luggage. The last line encourages one to “Encode your fantasies of the hair-owner’s most intimate gestures on your smart phone.” While this tale may seem like a non sequitur, it could be read as an inverted metaphor about corporate surveillance, the invasion of privacy, and the U.S. obsession with air travel security and terrorism in the post-9/11 environment.
“Salvation Mountain” is an interview with Dewey Birdsong, the creator of Salvation Mountain in Slab City, California. In some ways, this text echoes “Crisis Art” in the sense that Dewey has no formal training as an artist, sculptor, or painter, but he is nonetheless making art as a spiritual act in much the same way that crisis artists make art for a political cause. For Dewey, he wants to spread the message that “God is love,” and Salvation Mountain is his testament to Jesus. He survives on the donations and charity of others, and he lives simply in an old truck on the site of the mountain. While Revolutionary Brain often slashes at dominant discourses to peel away their veneer and reveal the fundamental rot and ugliness beneath the surface, “Salvation Mountain” offers a rare glimpse of the sublime.
Like some of the other far-ranging essays in the book, with their intellectual leaps and cultural bounds, “Weep” crisscrosses various persons and political causes to interrogate both the fear and anguish that can move one to tears. From Marlon Brando crying at the casket of assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and many points in between, “Weep” ultimately ends with what may be considered the overarching thesis of Jaffe’s book: “Weeping animals, plants and stones, traverse the benighted globe, commencing in the west, swaying south, east, north. Even as I walk hand-in-hand / hand-in-paw, weeping, I stand sad-eyed by the gravest, the worst-suffering. I pass my hand over their heads. They are impressive in their weeping. Tormented, restless, they weep until bloody, fruitless wars are over. Climate change acknowledged and addressed. Dehumanizing post-capitalism hacked, disempowered. The invisible colored poor made visible. The twisted made sound. Enslaving technology disappeared. How long will all that take?”
“Revolutionary Brain,” the title essay of the book, explains the odd but true story of violent revolutionary Ulrike Meinhof, whose brain was preserved and studied, without her family’s permission, by neurologists after her alleged suicide in prison in 1976. Psychiatrist Bernhard Bogerts had secretly examined Meinholf’s brain for 15 years, and he concluded that surgery in 1962 to remove a brain tumor may have influenced or even caused Meinholf to co-found the revolutionary organization Red Army Faction, which led a series of political killings and kidnappings intended to overthrow the German state in the 1970s. While the surreal nature of this tale makes it interesting by itself, its placement alongside the other essays raises questions about the nature of political resistance and the extremities that dominant actors in the state will go to medicate, sanitize, suppress, or otherwise deflect attention from the inequality, oppression, alienation, and exploitation—all byproducts of dysfunctional governmental and economic systems—that lead to insurrection and revolt. What’s more, Jaffe ends this story with a section titled Revolution Post-Mill, which might appear to be a separate text, but it is actually the second part of “Revolutionary Brain.” Revolution Post-Mill is a list of pornographic web sites, but Jaffe treats them in a way to emphasize their not so hidden racism, sexism, and homophobia. While, on the one hand, the dominant culture casts pornography in a questionable moral light, it is simultaneously a multibillion dollar business controlled by similarly structured corporate entities that administer other sections of the mass media. When placed so close to the story about Meinhof, one can’t help but see how direct political action, such as that carried out by the Red Army Faction, becomes nothing more than a distraction given the heaps of attention paid to online pornography, and this seems to return to the issues raised in Jaffe’s “Anal Acrobats.”
The final text, “Things to Do” (3), offers not a call for liberation through revolution, escape through self medication, or inner peace through meditation, but an enunciation by Joseph Roth: “The world worth living in is doomed. The world that will follow deserves no decent inhabitants.” While some may see this as fatalistic and pessimistic, prolonging the status quo is no longer an option for writers like Jaffe. The Earth is dying. Sustaining our current political and economic trajectories will not result in continuous ascent into greater wealth and prosperity for all. Rather, we are rapidly consuming our way into oblivion. If there is a hope, perhaps it resides in Revolutionary Brain.
Tyrone Nagai received his MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University. His work has appeared in Fiction International, The Strip, New Verse News, and Armageddon Buffet.
His review of Revolutionary Brain, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Fiction.