This interview was conducted by email in April 2012. It was published by an outfit called Something Dark, which no longer seems to exist. "Coprophilia for the Masses" is a short text which Supervert gave Something Dark to publish.
I'll cut straight to the bone. SomethingDark is utterly committed to artistic freedom, yet I found myself asking you to delete or modify one short passage in "Coprophilia for the Masses" not because I thought your words possessed the ability to scythe down millions or to precipitate a plundering invasion of another country, but because I had reason to believe that perhaps three words in particular would expose us to the outrage of a moralistic minority, and, potentially, to legal consequences. As a writer and an editor I've never been in this deplorable position before. How did you receive my request, and have you been in this position before?
Your request was perfectly reasonable. There are contexts in which a word is worth the risk of incarceration or death. But this short passage, which contained racial slurs intended to reinforce the text's theme of power in abjection, was not critical.
In the 1990s, I co-created a series of multimedia "art CD-ROMs" called BLAM!. These were officially banned in Japan — but the ban only seemed to contribute to the disks' popularity. Aside from that, it shames me to admit that the lone time I can recall being censored was the one time I did it to myself. Originally I wanted to give the title Alien Fuckfest to Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish. Nowadays I wouldn't hesitate to use an obscenity in a title, but at the time I worried about my ability as a lone novice publisher to distribute a book with the word "fuck" in the title. I opted for the more pragmatic title and thereby made an aesthetic compromise that I hope not to make again.
(To be clear, renaming Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish was a weightier act than agreeing to a small edit in "Coprophilia for the Masses." There is a difference of scale in changing a title versus a few words in the body of a text. Also "fuck" is a very different type of obscenity than a racial slur.)
After the epic US and UK censorship trials five decades or so ago over works such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, literature today enjoys a degree of protection that imagery doesn't — at least in print. But while literature in print appears to have won the hard-fought battles of the last half-century, it appears to be a barbarians-are-(still)-at-the-gates scenario: the passage in your "Coprophilia for the Masses" that concerned us could probably appear in print without any problems, but for web-only publishing, new laws are emerging to suppress all manner of material. Would you agree that we have entered a new era of censorship, and that the internet is the new frontier for the censorious?
Yes, the lines have been redrawn. It used to be that sex was taboo. Nowadays it's hate speech. It would be fun to speculate what will follow that. Perhaps the future will prohibit the disparagement of artificial intelligence or the humiliation of clones — "You're not a real human, you copy you..."
You're well travelled and well studied; bearing in mind significant differences in their societies and political and economic systems, have you found, or do you suspect, there is any common thread in Anglo–Saxon culture that connects the countries of the English-speaking world or leads to some kind of interplay between them when it comes to moralism and attitudes to "obscenity" and, latterly, what appears to be parallel moves (which does not mean the same moves) to censor the internet?
New York is such a melting pot — as is London, and you have mentioned that your own Bristol is vibrant too — that it is difficult to imagine specifically anglophone tendencies toward repression. But then our hometowns may not be representative of our countries. It's funny — the notions of "exoticism" and "colonialism" have been impoverished by communications technology, global travel, and deconstructionist intellectuals, yet I wonder if there isn't a new form of exoticism emerging, one that has less to do with faraway lands than with internal differences, "foreignness" not as a place but a state of mind. This would help to explain why New York is so alien to the rest of America. We have mentally seceded — or perhaps never belonged.
This may also point back to your question. What these censorious moves have in parallel is the desire to suppress internal differences — differences in the expression of sexuality, differences in the conception of art, differences in the evaluation of freedom.
"Our hometowns may not be representative" — I don't think they are. I'd probably include Bristol; would you also include San Francisco?
Definitely. San Francisco is a peninsula and New York is an archipelago. Perhaps there is something about dense populations huddling at geographical extremes that isolates us mentally as well as physically.
A number of UK laws that effectively restrict creative expression on the internet are supported by the joint industry watchdog, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), "the UK Hotline for reporting... [c]riminally obscene adult content hosted in the UK." Members of the public can report anonymously to the IWF, which then notifies the police, who then investigate. Any comments on this modus operandi?
I only wish there were a mechanism for reporting criminally juvenile content hosted in the UK. I'd report... uh....
One of the IWF's "visions" is to "[m]ake the UK internet free of..." etc. etc. What do you think of any attempt to censor or purge the internet of certain categories of material within any national jurisdiction?
Government attempts to censor the internet are doomed to fail. Police raids sometimes make it harder to buy sex or drugs but they don't eradicate prostitution or addiction. So too will it be with online vice squads. The internet will continue to offer so many communications opportunities that ultimately there will be only one way for a tyrant to suppress a speech act — by killing or inflicting direct personal violence on the speaker. Has history not already shown that it is easier to organize a genocide than to play whac-a-mole with the web?
It's not just about governments and law, either. What is your opinion of the growing power of private sector censorship that is now being enforced by the likes of PayPal, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook? Would you agree these entities are effectively circumventing national legal systems to ban digital material that isn't actually illegal?
While this is worrisome, in the sense that business decisions can have the same results that moral prohibitions used to have, I'm not sure it's truly censorship — yet. In the first place, none of these companies has the authority to inflict violence. Amazon can refuse to carry my books but it can't jail me or kill me. The state can. In the second place, if any of these companies cuts off an entire market — pornography, prostitution, drugs, gambling, terrorism, self-harm — other businesses are free to fill the void. In the third place, it's private enterprise. Apple has no obligation to carry Supervert books in the iTunes store. I remain free to sell the books elsewhere or to give the things away. Anyone can still access supervert.com on an iPhone. But the situation changes if Apple begins to filter what I can access on a web browser or if bandwidth providers decide to moralize about the traffic they carry.
Anyone with a computer and internet connection can put whatever material they want on the internet, and they do. Do you think there is any material on the 'net that should be censored? Do you think there is any material that should be illegal, whether in print or on the internet?
In principle I am opposed to censorship, yet I am... ermmm... philosophical enough... or perverse enough... to recognize that I ought to approach any "principle" with skepticism. It doesn't take much effort to imagine some benefits of censorship. Allow me to do the censoring...
I forbid corporations from putting logos on Vincent Van Gogh.
I forbid intellectuals from appearing on television.
I forbid the celibate from touting the virtues of celibacy.
I forbid novelists from putting product placements in satires, bodice-rippers, anti-novels.
I forbid Americans from adorning their cars with bumper stickers that say "Be nice to America or we'll bring democracy to your country."
I forbid advertisers from bastardizing philosophy with "I shop, therefore I am."
I forbid the terminally ill from renouncing their beliefs.
I forbid terrorists from vlogging the execution of hostages.
I forbid control freaks from issuing instructions.
I forbid anti-semites from using smilies.
I forbid legislators from making decrees about love.
I forbid reporters from sticking microphones into the face of misfortune.
I forbid doctors from prescribing antipsychotics to children.
I forbid the sane from proposing definitions of sanity. It's a conflict of interest.
I forbid suicides from writing notes that pretend there are reasons.
I forbid the sexually frustrated from discussing atomic secrets.
I forbid coroners from filing autopsy reports on matters of aesthetics.
I forbid the CEO of death from issuing his annual report on nihilism.
I forbid God from the practice of literature.
That's quite a fascinating list; it could spawn a battery of new questions, but I'll keep it to one I find particularly intriguing: why would you forbid intellectuals from appearing on television?
Schopenhauer once said that "whoever writes for fools always finds a large public." If he were alive today, he might modify this to say that whoever addresses a large public has to make himself into a fool.
I'm being cheeky. After all, you could rightly ask, "Why stop there? Why not forbid intellectuals from posting to YouTube? Why not forbid them from every form of public appearance?" But then I think of how enjoyable it can be to discover online video of, say, Georges Bataille. The joy, though, has nothing to do with his intellect or what he says. Instead it is a matter of a non-intellectual experience of the man — his voice, expressions, gestures, dress, composure. So if intellectuals are to appear on television, perhaps they should do it in the manner of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests or the recent vogue for "long portraits." They should relinquish discourse for the difficult art of posing, concentrating their powers of thought in an expression of the eyes or the movement of a pinky across an eyebrow.
How difficult do you think it is, or what problems are involved in, defending artistic and literary freedoms when the internet is flooded with material that claims to have some kind of artistic or literary intention but is of very poor quality? Will the Henry Millers and the William S. Burroughs – or even the David Brittons – of tomorrow be banned by corporate decree, if not by law, before their work has had a chance to be recognised, and be lost along with the third-rate outpourings of a multitude of bloggers and scribblers?
At a gallery opening I met a social scientist who told me about a paper he had published. It put forth the idea that literacy should be redefined according to the number of people who read what you write. If you have less than a hundred social-media followers, the man suggested, you're functionally illiterate.
Is "literacy" the right word? Should it be literary merit or literary significance?
He meant "literacy." The idea is that reading and writing already imply sociality. While it's possible to write for oneself, it's more common to write for others. If so, can you set a quantitative baseline for literacy? A person who is illiterate reads the work of no one and writes for no one. Illiteracy = 0. But how literate is a person who has one or ten or a million readers?
I would disagree with this social scientist. I think the widespread adoption of his theory would represent the triumph of mass culture and the industries that profit from it.
I'm not sure I agree either, but his theory does point to the challenge that the internet poses to writers. What does it mean to be a writer when everyone is now able to publish to a network of family, friends, fans, and followers? I am optimistic that writers will find the answer to this question, much the same as painters responded to the problems posed by the invention of photography.
Incidentally, this scientist came off as a bit of a creep. As we spoke, he took out a pad of paper and — without asking permission — made a sketch of the person accompanying me. He gave the impression of using the drawing as an excuse to grope her with his eyes. The chivalrous thing would have been to tell him to fuck off, but I was too interested in the psychology of the moment — the superficial discourse about literacy concealing a subterranean flow of desire, art, violation. I don't mean to ennoble what he did but, as I think about your question, I wonder if there isn't something inspirational in the way he was untroubled by the context or the meaning of his impulse to draw. The way forward lies in obsession.
What do you see as the greatest threats to freedom of speech and artistic expression in our so-called liberal democracies?
Fundamentalism from the outside, conformism from the inside. They're the walls that close in on unrestrained expression.
Of course, censorship does not exist in isolation. It occupies one corner in a quadrilateral of power relations. The other corners — as I see them — are literature, propaganda, and provocation.
Literature is a form of language in which words have power. That's an idea that Thomas De Quincey puts forth in an essay distinguishing between a "Literature of Knowledge" (e.g. cookbooks) and a "Literature of Power" (e.g. Paradise Lost). In contrast, propaganda occurs when power has words — when a despot puts language to the same use he might make of a militia or a tank battalion. Censorship occurs when power deprives words of power. Under conditions of censorship, you can say anything you want so long as it is inoffensive, banal, harmless. Conversely, provocation occurs when words deprive power of power — a crowd shouts down a speaker or a tweet causes a flash mob that destabilizes a dictatorship.
Looking at it this way, you can see that censorship is a negative expression of the same power relation that gives rise to propaganda. You can also see that literature shares a blood tie with provocation, which is doubtless why totalitarian regimes suppress writers even when they do not comment explicitly on power.
A "quadrilateral of power relations"... Is this the symbolism you invest in your avatar, Malevich's Black Square?
That's a coincidence and I'm wary of the word "symbolism" because it seems to reduce things to a word game, a straightforward act of substitution in which a snake is not a snake but an allegory of temptation. Abstract artists refer to this contemptuously as "literature in art," and it is not my intention to reinsert Malevich into a system of easy correspondences.
If I am powerfully attracted to the black square, it is precisely because the painting is literal and not literature. It galvanizes the field of vision and thereby causes something inside to flourish too, some power of thought. A symbol is limiting because it implies a thought that can be completed — "the black square is a symbol of death, like the black flag." An abstraction gives no bounds to thought and merely transmits itself, stirs you or doesn't stir you. Even if it is dark in tone, it is rousing in its force. The only termination it implies is the one you arrive at by exhaustion or entropy.
Moving on now, you taught philosophy at New York University. Can you tell us something of your background in and approach to philosophy?
I have no formal training in philosophy. I completed a master's degree in the history of art at Yale and then dropped out of the PhD program. It's a twisting but dull story to explain how an art historian manqué ended up teaching introductory classes in philosophy and logic at NYU. Suffice to say that I did it for five or six years, enjoyed it very much, then decided to move on.
I do not consider myself a philosopher. It's a label that belongs to those professionals who are reinventing the discipline with neuroscience, computation, and experiment. To encounter something like the extended-mind hypothesis of Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers is to know that good things are brewing in philosophy. I do, however, hope that my literary efforts have a philosophical import, perhaps in the sense that Wittgenstein meant when he declared that "It's only by thinking even more crazily than philosophers do that you can solve their problems."
If my writing does "think more crazily," however, it's a lucid sort of madness. I knowingly use philosophical means for literary ends and literary means for philosophical ends. For example, I formulate concepts such as exophilia and perveme, yet I deploy these concepts in texts oriented less toward truth (as in philosophy) than toward impact (as in literature). Conversely, I use narrative as a way to articulate a philosophical position, such as the redefinition of the sex-death nexus that occurs in Necrophilia Variations. Using literary means for philosophical ends in this way is not unique. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre all used techniques borrowed from novelists and playwrights.
Since you apply philosophy and art history to "novel pathologies," as you say, you tend to cover some unusual ground. Did you apply the full range of your interests to your teaching, and, if so, how was it received by the university and by your students?
The classes focused on philosophy. If sexual pathology snuck in sometimes, it was not because I meant to teach it but because I couldn't help it.
What were your motivations for your PervScan web project and for writing Perversity Think Tank? And do you think you have gained an insight into the psychology and philosophy of, shall we say, "unusual predilections?"
PervScan came together when I realized that a blog could serve as a living, breathing psychopathia sexualis. I registered the domain name in May 2003 with the intent to document cases of perversion. At first I feared that I wouldn't be able to find enough material, but the internet soon became a cornucopia offering up an endless supply of realtime deviance. It became overwhelming and deadened my palate. You can only read so many news items before you get like, "Ah, right, another guy caught sodomizing the neighbor's pooch... Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher..."
The most important thing I learned from PervScan was how perilous writing can be. Naively, I did not anticipate that writing about various examples of perversion would involve me in them. Victims of sex crimes would beg me to change or delete information on the site. Criminals would leave comments — often written in capital letters — pleading their cases and blaming the victims. An arson fetishist tried to become a penpal and resorted to cyberstalking techniques in an effort to get a reaction. One time the FBI subpoenaed PervScan — an unpleasant experience that put me in the difficult position of not wanting to fink on a user but not wanting to protect a violent person. Fortunately, by the time I hired a lawyer to respond, the FBI had already obtained information from another source and did not need anything further from PervScan. But experiences like these were really enlightening. When you write about ontology, individual beings never protest. When you write about life, the living respond.
As PervScan progressed, however, I became frustrated with the way that my concept — a daily dose of psychopathia sexualis — required me to keep an episodic focus. I was making observations but I wasn't really thinking through things, formulating theories, concepts. Consequently, I wrote Perversity Think Tank as a way to digest what PervScan taught me.
Our North American editor, Marilyn Jaye Lewis, was convinced you were not American, and that you were probably European, by the way you use language; she detected a style and a great many expressions and specific use of words she thought could not come from an American. Have you encountered this impression previously? What do you make of it?
Ah shit... Now I'm Eurotrash... Perhaps the foreignness that Marilyn senses is simply strangeness. "Dude can't be one of us..."
I'm very attached to New York and it plays more than a background role in the work I've done. But is New York even an American city? The very notions of "nation" and "nationality" have been disintegrating for a long while now. If I don't sound like an American, it may be because I sound like the post-national denizen of the information age that I am. Recently some talented musicians from Slovenia did an improvisation on the radio that included excerpts from Necrophilia Variations. Listening to it, I was amazed at how great the text sounded in their English-as-a-second-language rendition. I wondered if all along I'd been writing in a Slavic accent without realizing it.
Non-Americans (such as myself) may be intrigued by some of your allusions. For example, what is the significance of the Nevada plates mentioned in "Coprophilia for the Masses?"
"Coprophilia for the Masses" was partly inspired by Arthur Rimbaud's poem "Qu'est-ce pour nous, mon coeur..." The "coprovocateurs," imaginary confederates of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, stage an assault on New York (hence the references to landmarks such as Madison Avenue). The Nevada license plates on their repurposed tanker are a minor way of suggesting that these insurgents come from outside, like barbarians sacking Rome. I imagine them gathering in the desert, a place whose barrenness might inspire them to discover the unexpected powers of abjection, and crossing the country in a ragtag caravan in order to inflict their excremental terror on the privileged classes of Gotham.
You have three books, and you told me you "plan to limit [your]self to six Supervert books." Why impose any limits on Supervert's creative output?
Quality control. It's unseemly to publish twenty books. Nobody has that much good stuff in them. I hope that by setting a limit I can keep myself from devolving into self-parody or schmaltz. But then who knows... Maybe it's like drinking — the more you drink, the worse your judgment becomes, and all of a sudden you exceed your best-laid plans for moderation. I might well do the same with books — write six and then crank out another dozen in an orgy of literary intoxication.