Insurgent Subliteratures: Fictions of Resistance
Mark P. Williams
This article is concerned with the fictional forms of cultural resistance and experiment of the last twenty years, which I have called alternative fictioneers. These are networks of fictions whose cultural politics have been operating against the flow of dominant culture, in some cases for many years, but whose resistant qualities have become far more pertinent to twenty-first century literature in the wake of the political struggles, and economic and social upheavals which have come to the fore during the last decade. First, some further explication and refinement of my terms is necessary.
I use ‘alternative fictioneers’ to describe networks of writers and collective cultural producers outside of the current dominant literary modes who are attempting, on whatever scale, to transform contemporary writing to their own purposes. It describes an essentially modernistic, transgressive impulse defined by dissatisfaction with present conventions and an attempt to create alternatives by a mixture of technique and unlicensed exploration. I suggest that ‘Fictioneers’ is a useful way of describing experimental innovations because it suggests comparisons between writing as a technical enterprise on the one hand, i.e. fiction-engineers, and writing as an adventurous and possibly illicit practice on the other: fiction-privateers.
The status of alternative fictioneers is outside national writing traditions but involved, either by inclination or by the accidents of cultural hybridity, within and between the trans-national networks of writing (for example, via ‘cult’ or ‘pop-cultural’ points of contact). I am particularly interested in those alternative fictioneers who resist being appropriated to particular traditions, who actively employ their interstitial status for their own critical and creative agenda within experiments with form/content. Alternative fictioneers whose writing embeds its marginal status to test the cultural politics of the dominant culture form what I call insurgent subliteratures.
Protestas Estudiantiles in Santiago, Chile, June 2011: can political insurgence offer a useful category for reading para-canonical literatures? [Image by Davidlohr Buesounder a CC-BY license]
These insurgent subliteratures have common tendencies rather than traditions, playing at the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable representation. They are neither anti-canonical nor canonical, neither in national traditions (such as “the English Novel”) nor international traditions (the Novel), but partake in aspects of these fields in-parallel to modes such as SF and Fantasy, and forms and genres such as Crime or Literary Fiction without declaring primacy to any interpretive community. I also suggest that this writing should not be termed postmodernist, even though the interests of insurgent subliteratures and alternative fictioneers in general, are necessarily linked to postmodern culture. The cultural status of Postmodernist Literary Fiction is privileged and codified in terms of its themes and characteristics in a way which does not fully apply to alternative fictioneers; while from the perspective of insurgent subliteratures Postmodernism may be part of the dominant culture under critique. The multi-author novel Seaton Point (1998), for example, expressly rejects literary postmodernism as part of the alienation of the ‘cult of the author’ and proposes radical collaborative writing as an alternative.
Because of texts such as Seaton Point, or Jarett Kobek’s HOE#999, alternative fictioneers is a deliberately open collective term; any one writer may find themselves recontextualised within any particular canon or anti-canon, tradition or anti-tradition, but the primary significance of alternative fictioneers is their relationship to the place of literature in the postmodern culture of globalisation as part of interstitial networks — interaction is central to the conception of alternative fictioneers as producers of insurgent subliteratures.
Insurgent subliteratures offer a unique set of critical insights into the development of contemporary fiction into the twenty-first century because they are multitudinous in their affiliations and solidarities. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri designate the concept of ‘the multitude’ as a contemporary subject of postmodern history, distinct from ‘the people’ by its refusal of unity, and from ‘the masses’ by its irreducible differences in subjectivity; in the multitude class is traversed along gender, sexual orientation and racial lines. I formulate insurgent subliteratures also as an allusion to Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos of the Zapatistas (EZLN) who is a common point of reference for Hardt and Negri. As they explain in Multitude, Marcos is an enigmatic, iconic figure and spokesperson, but takes the role of sub-commander because he considers the networks of indigenous peoples he fights for to be his superior(s). The writings of Decadent Surrealist and Pop-Culture Avant-Gardist tendencies are multitudinous insurgent subliteratures for several reasons: they cannot be collapsed into any unitary grouping; they are orientated towards the working-classes but reject homogeneity; and they remain distinct from one another while demonstrating common anti-authoritarian purposes. In this way, I suggest that multitudinous insurgent subliteratures exist within many countries, drawing links of solidarity between each other through their opposition to national cultures and traditions, taking their resistance, their localism, eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, to the level of postmodern culture itself: the linkages and networks of globalisation.
Insurgent subliteratures allude to the networks of indigenous resistance highlighted by Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos [Image by Oriana Eliçabe under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
What follows are brief discussions of some writers and networks I consider prominent examples whose significance has not been critically explored as networks of relationships. These are only the beginnings of a chart of the insurgent subliteratures in the UK, and their relationships with the insurgent subliteratures of other countries—they can, for example, be connected with Eastern and Western European avant-gardes, and with North American and Japanese ‘cult’ writing. Those connections warrant further exploration elsewhere, but even through the present essay’s limited samples we can already trace the progression of wider influence and further transformations into twenty-first century networks. Both Decadent Surrealist and Pop-Culture Avant-gardist tendencies share transgressive qualities because they attack the regulating influences of postmodernity such as media culture and consensus politics (see Richard Marshall, Steve Beard). Both tendencies indicate ways of looking at social being akin to those which John Fowles identified in terms of a ‘dividing line’ between the individualist and the mass or collective interest which ‘must run through each individual, not between individuals’ (9). Insurgent subliteratures may be highly idiosyncratic and estranging but they are fictions which articulate the demand for better social conditions by forming charts of associations and lines of contact between dissenters and Romantics, offering diverse visions of the eclectic and often contradictory developments of contemporary culture.
Decadent Surrealist Tendencies: The Aggressively Illegitimate Subliteratures of Savoy Books
The Decadent Surrealist tendency is my description for the stylised writing that emerges from the remains of the 1960s counter-culture in Britain; it has a significant bearing for the analysis of the styles termed ‘the New Weird’ and for ‘Bizarro’ fictions, and is characterised by verbose and symbolic excess, transgressions of theme, style and taste, and an intense interest in both early twentieth-century avant-gardes and the decadent writings of the fin de siècle. This combination implies parallels with the approaching end of the millennium and an implicit critique of contemporary culture through extravagant prose with a strong disjunctive current. Savoy Books of Manchester, and the fictions of David Britton are among the primary examples: Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer‘s The New Weird (2008) cites Britton’s novels among the precursors of ‘New Weird’, while Michael Moorcock includes Britton alongside Tim Etchells’ enigmatic and disjunctive Endland Stories and the work of Iain Sinclair as he charts parallels for Jeff VanderMeer’s work in the introduction to City of Saints & Madmen (2004).
Influenced by 1960s British counter-culture: China Miéville’s New Weird fiction can be read within the tradition of Decadent Surrealist writing [Image by Catriona Sparksunder a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
Savoy come from the post-1960s counter-culture. New Worlds SF magazine as edited by Michael Moorcock (1964-1971) is the pilot light which sparked Savoy Books’ eclecticism. In Death Is No Obstacle (Savoy, 1991), Moorcock explains how his New Worlds Jerry Cornelius fictions operated as a form of masque drawing on the Commedia dell Arte, invoking both morality plays and the peculiar traditions of British pantomime as a way of satirising the simultaneous demands of change and repetition in popular culture. Lord Horror, with his dandyish clothes and brutish politics is an aesthetic cousin to Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius: he operates not as a character but as a satirical masque which Britton uses to play out controversial variations on British political history.
David Britton’s Lord Horror fictions are a sequence of transgressive, experimental narratives from the perspective of a fantastical British Nazi, Horace Joyce, based on William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw). Lord Horror is William Joyce’s fantasy brother, a dream-form replica, and the ‘real’ William Joyce appears in the fictions as a kind of doppelganger. The Lord Horror and Meng & Ecker fictions are David Britton’s expression of what Michael Walzer, paraphrasing Foucault, terms the ‘micro-fascisms’ which inhere in liberal society, which he addresses through bitter irony; Moorcock calls them ‘contra-fascism’, reading them as an exposure of the psychic underbelly (see Fantastic Metropolis and Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, in which Savoy Books’ Lord Horror and Reverbstorm appears alongside Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell in ‘Y is for Year Zero’).
Savoy Books’ Lord Horror: does this transgressive experimental narrative expose the psychic underbelly of fascism? [Image used by permission of John Coulthart]
David Britton’s characters and caricatures are vile and indefensible but, as Savoy make the case, that is precisely why they defend the fictions so strongly: they are characters used as offensive weapons against cultural authoritarian targets — the class which rules by asserting classlessness and (post)modernity as general character. Savoy publishes texts about their own history by writers like Robert Meadley, D M Mitchell and Brian Stableford as examinations of how Britton’s dark, morally and politically inverted characters can be read against the consensus politics and cultural backdrop of contemporary Britain. For Britton’s fictions, the ethico-aesthetic debate of freedom of expression is central: Savoy republish negative reviews by Julie Burchill and Michael Winner, alongside counterbalancing academic analyses by Benjamin Noys and Julian Petley, and spirited defences of Britton by Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock.
Savoy Books from Banned in the UK [Source: YouTube]
Savoy Illustrator and designer John Coulthart’s retrospective and introduction to Reverbstorm indicates some of the debates of representation at work in Savoy’s comics during the 1990s (see here, for example). Coulthart has since added his distinctive style to projects more in line with the New Weird, such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Lambshead collections The Lambshead Guide and the Cabinet of Curiosities. In these Decadent Surrealist fictions continuity is free-associative. Into the post-millennial period, this fluidity continues: Lucy Swan offers an alternate focaliser of Lucia, Little Lou, Unlimited Lou, as a female counter to Britton’s masculinist characters, while Britton has gone on to write a differently subversive character, La Squab, the Meng’s daughter.
In their Decadent Surrealist tendency, Savoy overlap with the publications of Creation Books such as The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft (Creation Books, 1994), edited by D M Mitchell, which has many narratives mixing gnostic interpretations of Lovecraftian tropes with ‘New Wave’-inflected SF. Mitchell continues this trend in his own imprint, Oneiros Books which published the anthologies Metal Sushi by David Conway, and Lovely Biscuits by Grant Morrison, both published in 1998 (although it should be noted that Morrison’s prose varies between decadence and pop-culture). D M Mitchell’s subsequent publications such as his recent novel The Seventh Song of Maldoror (2012) have continued to perforate this Decadence to the point where it intersects with the contemporary Pop-Culture Avant-gardist tendency.
Pop-Culture Avant-Gardist Tendencies: Stewart Home and the Anti-Novelists
Stewart Home is a self-conscious enigma whose work attempts to create a bridge between mass expression and innovation which will disrupt the social institutions of art and literature in their present forms. He states plainly that he accepts labels such as Artist and Writer only insofar as they are public demonstrations of the inevitability of reproducing one’s own alienation under capital and therefore show forth the contradictions which affect us all. The most consistent labels his work accepts are anti-novel and anti-art: the negation of present social conditions is key to all his writing. His pop-culture inflection is that of Punk rock and the post-punk subcultures which have followed it (see Cranked Up Really High: Genre Theory and Punk Rock — though Home seems equally comfortable with psychedelia and hip hop).
Home makes his opposition to national traditions of art and literature (graphically) explicit, using the form of the political manifesto with subversive humour to attack dominant ‘seirious’ culture from a radically revolutionary perspective, often using ‘bad’ taste humour. He provides knowing commentaries and introductions to his fellow producers of insurgent subliteratures, criticising the practices of editors and publishers in introductions which satirise the function of textual introductions. For example, in his collection Suspect Device (1998), Home writes that the fictions in his collection are ‘written neither within nor against the various canons of English Literature’ and goes on to emphasise that even though the writers concerned are all connected to the British Isles the work they produce is very much transnational and hybrid in its nature, attacking the insularity he sees in mainstream publishing while questioning distinctions such as “mainstream” in the process.
Stewart Home (early) art film with accompanying music by Home [Source: YouTube]
The experimental novelist, Punk musician and founder of CodeX books, Simon Strong, is an alternative fictioneer whose aesthetic moves along a parallel course to that of Stewart Home, and has been informed by Home’s theory and practice. On Strong’s webpage The Leda Tape Organisation he describes himself as the ‘world’s most obscure experimental novelist’, having turned away from conventional publishing following the production of his novel A259 Multiplex Bomb “Outrage” (1996) to working with self-consciously synthetic and anti-novelistic techniques such as using computer programmes to write fiction.
Home’s attitude to authorship is similarly concerned with confronting the special status afforded to some cultural producers with the general status of cultural producers by undermining the importance of particular networks. This tendency is something shared by other pop-cultural avant-gardists whose anti-novelistic projects run in parallel to those of Home.
Bill Drummond and Mark Manning produce texts which fictionalise their lives as self-proclaimed mystics and visionary adventurers ‘Bill’ and ‘Z’ (Zodiac Mindwarp, from Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction) while subverting these personae through counter-narratives concerned with coping with the banality of everyday life. In Bad Wisdom Bill and Z set out on a journey to the North Pole to place an icon of Elvis at the top of the world and spread positive vibes across the mess of contemporary modernity. Somewhere between parodic banality and self-parodic grotesque fantasy versions of Manning’s Northern English and Drummond’s Scottish working-class perspectives, critical insights on British and European culture’s interactions with American popular culture emerge. Home’s distinctive voice offers the critical imprimatur on the cover of the Creation Books edition, comparing them to the heritage of Swift and De Sade, Dada and Burroughs. Even this pithy line is a densely overburdened frame of reference, alluding to Home’s own earlier work in The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War (1991) which both surveys the (anti-)traditions of contemporary avant-gardes and debunks the mythologizing of them by interested parties like critics and journalists.
Stewart Home discussing 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess [Source: YouTube]
Home also wrote for Attack! Books, an imprint of Creation Books edited by Steven Wells, a series of millennial anti-novelistic assaults on literary culture, to which Mark Manning also contributed. Attack! as analysed by Richard Marshall, are termed a contemporary Surrealist assault on the attitudes that predominate populist media discourse using ‘anarcho-commie’ rhetoric. Wells’ imprint posited that contemporary Literature (as index of middle-class culture) could be short-circuited with contemporary tabloid writing (as index of working-class culture) to produce something which would upset all of the social conventions surrounding the two (Marshall expands on the theory of Attack! Books in reviews of Tommy Udo’s Vatican Bloodbath and Raiders of the Low Forehead by Stanly Manly).
What all these Pop-Culture Avant-Gardists demonstrate is the centrality of contradiction and excess to their cultural critique of the contemporary which extends to the attempt to classify them in aesthetic or political terms. Because they are concerned with the moment of contemporaneity their critical and creative techniques embrace contingency, juxtaposition and stylistic dissonance as necessary to the contemporaneity of contemporary fiction.
Going Beyond Contingencies
Ultimately, ‘alternative’ fictioneers operate in proliferating networks of insurgent subliteratures which won’t stand still to be interrogated as objects of study. The forces tapped by alternative fictioneers in the UK are reflective of the position of literatures of resistance within postmodern globalised culture. They share opposition to national British culture, such as that which might be understood in terms of national literary traditions or the “British novel”, or “English Lit”, within any given time frame. Instead, importing the distinctive tendencies of un-English writing they cast aside ‘common sense’ and moderation in favour of theory and philosophy combined with pulp fiction and popular music.
What both Decadent Surrealist and Pop-Cultural Avant-Gardist fictional tendencies demonstrate is a desire to overcome limit and label: the critical lines between them and other multitudinous subliteratures. Stewart Home’s Semina series, edited with Gavin Everall, features work which is self-consciously excessive and draws on widely divergent and non-congruent, international cultural points of contact, forming a critical and creative network all its own. Similarly, Lucy Swan’s Savoy novel The Adventures of Little Lou (2008) uses David Britton’s characters against themselves, with divergent stylization and tone mixing intertextual scenarios which borrow from Richard Allen, Mick Norman, Michael Moorcock and Stewart Home among others.
Next I will explore some of the multitudinous connections between hybrid cultural texts: such as between the theory-fiction of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and the New Weird; the thematic intersections of Jarett Kobek’s HOE#999 and Deadmeat by Q [Kwabena Manso] in its various transformations; and the implications for authorship of the Semina series and the eleven Neo-Attack Books of ‘Johnny Pulp’.
CITATION: Mark P. Williams, “Insurgent Subcultures: Fictions of Resistance,” Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 7 (2012): n. pag. Web. 9 December 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.7.01.
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