Interview with Larry McCaffery

by Alexander Laurence
with Jill St. Jacques
Venice, CA -- August 1994

(c) 1994 Alexander Laurence

Alexander Laurence:
What is your definition of Avant-Pop?
Larry McCaffery:
The first time I saw the word "Avant-Pop" was in Tower Records, when I saw a record by Lester Bowie and The Chicago Art Ensemble called "Avant-Pop." I liked Bowie and incidentally the loudest concert I ever heard was a Lester Bowie concert. So I picked up the album and the first song was "Blueberry Hill" by Fats Domino, and Bowie did a weird twisted version of it. I realized that he was playing with this popular tune, improvising and opening it up to what was already there but just needed to be let out. I thought it was similar to what Kathy Acker was doing by re-writing Great Expectations and stuff. That was in 1987. When I came back from China, after I'd been gone and totally cut off for a year, Mark Leyner was a kind of pop star. I talked to Ron Sukenick about this and Ron said, "what Mark is doing is something I'd call 'avant-pop'." So the word registered again. The first time I wrote about this was for a Japanese magazine. They asked me to write about the post-Pynchon post-modern American fiction. I wrote in one section about the Avant-Pop phenomenon, which was about the increasing popularity of genuinely radical stuff like Mark Leyner, who became a sort of college cult hero. Burroughs was viewed as a kind of rock star (he's even doing Nike ads now). I wrote about how it came to be that these radical materials were becoming mainstream. MTV is radical, from a purely formal standpoint--even the worst MTV videos are using stylistic devices that in the '60's would've been considered avant-garde. Now radicalism has become a kind of clichŽ. In the '80's the logic of hyperconsumption (which requires new things, constant turnover) began to dominate, and a lot of radical stuff was produced and then sold to mainstream audiences. You see it on TV. Music's the best example. Nirvana I think is pretty radical, yet Nevermind entered the charts at #1.

In Japan I met a lot of young writers and musicians who struggle with the same problem American avant-garde artists face, and that is, how do you compete with a media that is instantly able to appropriate radical aspects of your work and put it into a Nike ad? If you consider yourself a radical, dangerous, subversive artist, how do you do that in an age in which radicalism itself is so easily appropriated and recycled as "alternative"? Right now we have so-called "alternative radio" which we all know is just a label, a marketing gimmick--it's not alternative at all. The Japanese artist I met decided to enter into media materials and transform it, fuck around with it, like Lester Bowie did with "Blueberry Hill". So rather than ignore mass culture and make it the enemy, you use it for your own purposes. It's the cyberpunk idea of using the technology against the guys who created it. Also, the Japanese, like the Americans, realize that popular culture is now the main source of people's myths, notions of identity and narrative archetypes. Pop material plays the same role that the Bible used to play for people--it's the main referent for ordinary people. To ignore or deny that and do your own high-modernist serious work by definition makes it almost impossible to reach people. If you do that, you're not dealing with the central myths of our age. All this leads up to the book I'm doing with Viking. In the introduction, I talk about how Avant-Pop is a new kind of organism that has arisen since post-modernism arose in the '50's. Post-modernism arose concurrently with Pop Art, which essentially signalled the death of the avant-garde. Ron Sukenick agrees with me here, that the avant-garde died in the '60's because conditions were no longer conducive to what it was doing.

AL:
In literature, the people you mentioned like Mark Leyner and Kathy Acker are considered post-modern, and they come out of a tradition that included Borges, Beckett, Sukenick... How would you define Avant-Pop as being different from post-modernism?
LM:
Post-modernism as a label doesn't really mean anything. Most of the supposed post-modernists are actually modernists--like Robert Coover. We have to define what we mean by "post-modernism".
AL:
Modernism took place in the early 20th century, artistic and literary movements, and Beckett and Borges, post-modernists, were an extension of that. Then there was another group of people in the 60s, also post-modern, possibly anti-modernist, who were more interested in speed culture and pop culture. But there are still writers who are embracing slower modes of thought, who seemed to be a continuation of Modernism.
LM:
Most of the things we're saying about post-modernism are already present in Modernism--like Futurism, for example. One of the differences between the '50's and '60's modernisms is that writers were starting to deal with the media. Coover, Barthelme and Burroughs all recognized the significance of the rise of the media, and that didn't happen until after WWII. After the war is when consumer and media culture took off. Pop Art was the first movement to recognize this and represent it in a neutral, realistic way. Avant-Pop isn't interested in representing pop culture in a neutral way as Warhol or Lichtenstein did. Avant-Pop wants to work in a more flexible, collaborative way. Rather than showing a Campbell's soup can in a banal, almost celebratory way, the Avant-Pop artist might recontextualize it and turn it into a condom, or something. One of the differences with today's writers like Leyner and Acker is that they grew up in pop culture. They're part of a new species, a vivisystem analogous to what Kevin Kelly talks about in his great new book Out of Control. Bruce Sterling sent me this book and told me to drop whatever I was doing and read it.

The avant-garde saw its relationship to pop culture as oppositional. They were going to lead the way--it was a movement with leaders and orders. Avant-Pop isn't really like that. Its relationship to media culture is one of symbiosis or co-evolution. An example from Out of Control: there's a plant which has developed all these defenses against bugs. But somehow, one kind of ant is allowed to overrun this system. These two antagonists co-evolve, so that eventually the ant requires the plant and vice-versa. If one died, the other would perish. That's what's happening with Avant-Pop and pop culture, which are now existing in a feedback loop. They feed off of and influence each other.

AL:
Some writers today seem to fit your definition of Avant-Pop artists: David Foster Wallace, Lance Olsen, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Joyce. But others, like William T. Vollmann and Eurudice, seem to be doing something else. Vollmann writes these heavily researched, massive, historical novels, and Eurudice is dealing with classicism and myth.
LM:
Well, Vollmann in You Bright and Risen Angels is Avant-Pop in that he deals with technology; but you're right, he's generally not so interested in popular culture. He's doing his own thing. Where Vollmann is similar is in the sense of collaboration -- a lot of his historical books are often based on earlier texts that he opens up and crawls inside the spaces that are left within the original narrative. His first couple of novels, including Rainbow Stories, deal with media, technology, and computers. Eurudice is more interested in classical, biblical and Greek myths. What's pop about her stuff is the freedom and playfulness of her imagination. She's very influenced by post-structuralist theory and also the idea of not having to "fix" the text, the final text. It's always open ended and there are other variations. But neither of these writers focus exclusively on pop images.
AL:
I thought that Vollmann's big influence early on was more LautrŽamont's Maldoror than the pop stuff. What do you think of LautrŽamont's influence in general?
LM:
Well, LautrŽamont's influence created almost a straight line to Dada, Surrealism, Burroughs, punk, and Kathy Acker. It's interesting how many of these Avant-Pop writers have backgrounds as artists and painters: Vollmann, Steve Katz... Going back further, Coover started out as a painter. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute. Steve Katz was very involved with the New York art scene, he lived with Philip Glass for a while, and he was involved with happenings. Susan Daitch started out as a painter. Her book, The Colorist, is about a woman who colors in the frames of cartoons for a living. I do consider her Avant-Pop, though her first novel isn't like that. One of the themes for these writers is the way that texts of all sorts, including images, are circulated; and the saturation point we've reached: the effect that has on people, what do we do, we're almost drowning in the sea of images and narratives. The Avant-Pop spirit is that "more is better." Rather than decrying the mass media, you say "This is great!" The more stuff there is out there, the more weird combinations you're going to get. There's more material for a writer. The bad thing is that people just take this as it is. The media isn't the enemy. It's doing great things for artists, providing new things to fuck around with and recombine and collaborate with. The bad thing is that media, especially TV, encourages people to passively receive it. Avant-Pop is about taking that material and playing with it, making it your own. In my introduction to this book I say: "Bad news, yes, the apocalypse is here, it should be arriving on schedule at about the year 2000. The good news is that the bad news isn't bad news!" The changes that are taking place now, which are apocalyptic, are not necessarily bad. A single page of Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenteroloist is just chock full of hundreds of little simulogical fragments drawn from the media. The effect isn't surreal so much as realistic; it's the way people receive information today--it's constantly coming at you and creating weird juxtapositions. You can see it right here on this boardwalk. There's a Japanese tourist wearing a NY Yankees hat, a William Burroughs T-shirt, drinking a Heineken beer and eating sushi.
Alt-X:
This sounds like a modern day Babel. Unless this stuff is given artistic shape, it's just a barrage of images and things. For me pop culture is synonymous with consumer culture, and if that's so, don't you have an obligation to subvert or oppose that somehow?
LM:
Yeah, you're right. Subversion in the connection to Avant-Pop. The goal is to liberate people, and the way it's done is through extreme formal methods of experimentation. You want to create exemplary acts of the imagination to show people that they don't have to sit there and passively receive this stuff. Avant-Pop is not just a celebration of pop culture. Most of these writers are people like me, who are deeply ambivalent about it. But Elvis Presley definitely saved my life! No kidding. I also think Bruce Springsteen is Avant-Pop--his album The Wild, The Innocent and the East Street Shuffle used rock music to deconstruct rock music. But without shaping it, this stuff is deadening. When Vollmann talks about TV as being horrible, we know what he means. It's a brain-drain. But we're about to enter an age of interactive television. You'll be able to re-colorize it, provide a different soundtrack, or enter into it yourself. As Counting Crows say, "When I look in the television/I want to see me". So there's definitely still an avant-garde aspect operating here. But one reason the avant-garde died is that it kept following a single program of experimentation: "the new". You had to demolish tradition. The problem was, a lot of the traditions were quickly exhausted in 30 or 40 years, and then you'd done everything there was to do.
AL:
Like iambic pentameter.
LM:
Yeah, and traditional poetry and all its methods. Eventually, all this began to undermine the two most important aspects of Western art: the idea of artistic originality, and representation itself.
AL:
Can you talk about the introduction of Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation? I know you've discussed it before, but I found your explanation more confusing than the piece itself!
LM:
The introduction was a kind of detective story. I wanted it to not only be about Avant-Pop, but to be Avant-Pop itself. The detective novel mode is great because of its sexist implications, which I subverted. The usual story involves a powerful, knowledgeable man who has a powerless sexy woman come to his office to help find the answer to her problem. I amused myself with the irony of putting Kathy Acker in the role of the weak submissive woman. I already knew that the roles would reverse in a key scene. I would be a detective but also a literary editor, and there'd be a clash of discourses going on in the piece. So I asked Kathy if I could use her image in the piece, and she said, "sure". I wrote the first half of it and sent it to her, right at the part where she arrives on her motorcycle with her tattoos and black leather. There's a moment wear she slips the handcuffs on me, and I asked her to write a speech to Mac, the detective, and sort of read him a (riot act?) about what a sexist pig he's been. She wrote a surreal speech that was perfect, where she says, "Give it up, Mac. There are no rules but the rules of the body. Everything else is death and chaos. All there is is missing evidence, missing people." She introduced some bizarre sexual stuff, too. At the end, I decided we'll have this wild orgy which will be a metaphor for freedom and for getting out of these stupid roles. The detective, Mac (who's not really me, of course, nor is Kathy's character Kathy) gets to break out of this confining, two-dimensional role. At the end, Kathy takes off her motorcycle boots and puts on sneakers.

I wanted to undermine readers' expectations about what an introduction should be. But now I'm out of that mode and more into the symbiotic, feedback loop idea--coevolution. I want to strongly recommend Out of Control by Kevin Kelly. It's a study of the evolution of consciousness in life and how small but closely linked simple materials interact together to create levels of complexity that the individuals are not aware of. Examples are an ant hill, a beehive or a flock of birds. What's producing that movement, that the individuals aren't aware of? You can compare this to economic or artistic systems, as well. Avant-Pop isn't a "movement", there's no center, it's not a top/bottom organization. You have individual artists who work together, like ants--who collectively produce a pattern I call Avant-Pop. The avant-garde was parasitic to mainstream culture. But now, it's a two-way street. And now that the radical has become something to sell, it's harder to make the distinction between radical and mainstream art.

AL:
Don't you think that embracing the speed culture produces a sort of dizzyness?
LM:
I want to emphasize an important distinction: Avant-Pop art and Avant-Pop culture are two different things. Avant-Pop culture is the world we live in today, which we moved into about ten years ago. It's the point where everything became even bigger and more saturated. It's a world of absolute superficiality, a mind-numbing, confusing prison. The role of the Avant-Pop artist is to do something with this material that will a) help make sense of it in some ways, and b) act as a model for creative thought. This flood of images numbs people and takes away any sense of sincerity. It's cynical manipulation. The Avant-Pop people are all serious writers--they're not like MTV.
Alt-X:
Are Avant-Pop artists concerned with reaching the masses in a way that a more elitist artistic group wouldn't be?
Well, that's a problem. I'd say, without exception, that all writers want to reach a mainstream audience. They want to be read by as many people as possible. Look at Mark Leyner--in 1983 he was able to publish his book with Fiction Collective, but no literary magazine would publish him; his stuff was seen as too weird. We published about half of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist in Fiction International, because nobody would touch it. And Mark always thought his work had mainstream appeal. But it never happened, not so much because of the work but because it wasn't marketed...
JSJ:
And it was a little ahead of its time. Sometimes people have to catch up--this stuff takes awhile to leak in. That's what happened with Burroughs--people had to catch up a little before they could even begin to hear that discourse. Mark Leyner is pretty complex, he's operating with a system of floating signifiers, and he leaps from base to base alternating these signifiers.
LM:
Both of those writers are good examples. Burroughs wasn't understood, much less imitated, for two generations. But as to the question about mainstream acceptance...first of all, Avant-Pop doesn't refer to poopularity. Some people in the Avant-Pop anthology will never be popular.
AL:
I thought the idea was to take pop culture and transform it into a fictional web-work. The pop culture element, the what, isn't as important as the how and the doing something else with it, altering it.
Alt-X:
So there's no social agenda?
JSJ:
There is a social agenda.
LM:
There's a social agenda in the larger sense. The goal of the avant-garde was to free people's minds. Avant-Pop culture is a power structure that dominates people, and this art is an attack on that sort of mind-control. I think it can reach a mainstream audience. The way has been prepared by punk and by writers like Leyner and Acker. The problem is the publishing industry.
JSJ:
But then it's dead. Reaching the mainstream is the worst thing. As soon as something gets accepted by pop culture, that means it's fitting into some hegemony of "p.c. chic". The problem Avant-Pop will face is dealing with elements of p.c. chic found even in avant-garde culture.
LM:
This is getting into tricky areas. We're asking, if something becomes popular, then by definition does that mean it has no power to change people? I don't believe that.
JSJ:
No, it's just been co-opted at that point. It might still have power, just not the same power.
LM:
What do you mean by "co-opted"? JSJ. Absorbed by a network of p.c. chic that isn't trying to reject the "foreign virus" Burroughs was talking about in his Linguistics, Language and Virus. Avant-Pop writers are looking for their own viral mechanisms to subvert and fuck up the system. But as soon as they're absorbed by the system, it's time for a new way. It's time to break the fucking p.c. codes that dominate society and continue a form of repressive taboo.
AL:
There's a sort of neutralization, where radical aspect of writing or art becomes a dusty old museum piece...
LM:
One of the good things about capitalism is that it's blind to what it sells. It's willing to sell anything, even that which is damaging to it--bombs, guns, whatever you need. I'll go back to Elvis Presley, who had the biggest single influence on American culture of anybody, period. It was a profound, disruptive, dangerous change. When Elvis came out in the '50's and became huge, it opened up a new world for people, and it wasn't something the system wanted. They hated Elvis--he was white trash, and what he represented was sex and freedom.
JSJ:
He was a sort of half-breed...there are boundaries of race that people are beginning to transgress. Howard Stern, for example, who I don't necessarily endorse...
LM:
I do...
JSJ:
Well, I do sometimes--it depends on whose backyard he's pissing in. But he's part of breaking those p.c. codes.
LM:
I don't agree with the basic premise that the mainstream system takes you in, markets you, and then you've sold out, you've been co-opted. It's that either/or thinking again. The system isn't really the enemy. It's blind, all it wants is to replicate and do more things. So you have Elvis, who became very popular and got marketed, but he stands for everything the system doesn't want.
AL:
The writer Takayuki Tatsumi said in the recent American Book Review: "Writing has to reclaim its important sadistic role." What do you think he meant by this?
LM:
I think he means making it painful to read! But what's painful for one generation of writers is less so later on. It's not a matter of being absorbed by the system, it's that once the system "gets you," it tends to reproduce you until you get watered down. So after Elvis, you get Pat Boone. That happens all the time. You have the originals: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard and then in two years you get Bobby Valens, Frankie Avalon and Pat Boone, who are copies for mass consumption. This happened with tattoos and S/M. The key here is recognizing that pop culture's not the enemy. Pop culture is now the dream imagery writers use, it's a landscape they can tap into and fuck around with. It's the same idea the Surrealists had, and it's a huge area that so-called serious writers ignore. Coover and Sukenick were doing this early on--Coover's book The Universal Baseball Association was totally ignored because it was about baseball. And Don DeLillo, who I think is our greatest living writer, was doing that from the beginning with his books about Kennedy and rock and roll. This is part of the mythology now. To ignore that is to ignore what's going on in the real world.


Alt-X