I did this interview for a Spanish newspaper El Pais a few weeks ago and figured I might as well run it here in the original English. The Spanish publication of Memphis Underground has been generating a lot of interest there….
Jaime Casas: I see many different genres in Memphis Underground: from autobiography to meta-literature, but above all there is a sense of passion in everything said and done by the characters. It is a very a nondescript book it seems, and an experiment. But, I guess there are some ideas and intentions, what are they?
Stewart Home: At the most basic level I’m saying there are many new ways in which we can write, and by analogy many new ways in which we could organise the world. My writing varies from book to book, but very often I sample a lot of other writers (and correct them too of course), so that what I do becomes a collective authorial practice. Actually Memphis Underground has less of this sampling than many of my other books but it is still an attempt to move away from the ideas of possessive individualism and character (or what I view as bourgeois subjectivity) that characterises the reactionary literature of the capitalist ruling class. Most successful writers subscribe to the backward world-view of the bourgeoisie because they are more interested in being celebrities than in writing worthwhile books. Time will judge them very harshly – or to put it another way, they will very quickly be completely forgotten.
Moving from the macro to the micro level of the book, I’m dealing with how large sections of the working class has been forced out of London through the process of gentrification. Unlike in much of Spain, the property bubble has yet to burst in London but there is also a debate to be had here on how we can be more proactive rather than just waiting for the next crisis of capitalism.
Jaime Casas: Anyway, I’d say the protagonist Jack Johnson, has a lot of you in him, and yet many other modern characters too. It seems that he is some sort of collective consciousness…
Stewart Home: John Johnson is feisty like the boxer Jack Johnson – and he has some of me and some of a lot of other people in him. He’s a kind of (post)-modern everyman figure… We’re all unique in that we’re different people but actually the similarities between us far out-weight the differences – and so I’m not into creating the kind of generic but supposedly unique ‘characters’ you find in bourgeois fiction. As a consequence I’m able to think of John Johnson as my pet rock… so it doesn’t really matter whether or not I remember to give him food and water… he’ll just keep on keepin’ on right to the end of the book.
Jaime Casas: So he is not an alter-ego although you have described yourself as “an egomaniac on a world historical scale”; but is he still a platform from which you provide people with a different perception of yourself as an artist, writer, or whatever you consider yourself…?
Stewart Home: The protagonists in my books could never be identical with me even if I wanted them to be – and this definitely isn’t my intention anyway. When I call myself an egomaniac on a world historical scale this is intended to be humorous – and obviously I’m invoking Hegel in particular and to a degree Marx too. However, humour should be like an iceberg. The laughs are the ten percent visible above the water but the real matter lies below.
Historical changes in how egomania is perceived and what it means are certainly worth considering here. Max Nordau in his infamously reactionary late-nineteenth book Degeneration used the concept of egomania to attack the avant-garde of the fin de siècle as criminals and madmen. I wouldn’t want to defend politically all of those Nordau savages – including Wilde, Ibsen, Wagner and Nietzsche – but at the same time I’d want to resist his line of attack. And because many people still use the term egomaniac in the moralistic and negative sense Nordau deployed it, I think it is worth adopting as a form of self-description for humorous purposes.
That said, I would also reject the more recent positive use of the term to describe the quest for success and celebrity by the likes of businessman Donald Trump. A business celebrity like Trump is a superficial egomaniac who doesn’t take the concept seriously enough to make it worthwhile pursuing. Trump doesn’t want to change the world we find ourselves living in today, he just wants to sit on top of the stinking capitalist heap. There’s not much ambition in that – which is why I would distinguish world historical proletarian egomaniacs like myself from the half-hearted capitalist egomania of Trump. My ambitions aren’t focused on the world we live in but on one we’ve yet to create – which is why I (like all self-conscious proletarians) am genuinely ambitious and tossers like Trump aren’t worthy of our consideration.
I think the whole purpose of revolutionary activity is to overcome capitalist canalisation. Rather than being one thing we should all be many things. So I can take on the role of artist, writer, egomaniac etc. But what I want to avoid above all else is being ‘myself’ – accepting a limited identity which is exactly what capitalism encourages us to do. Instead, the proletariat does much better by working through in practice the theoretical implications of the slogan: “I am nothing therefore I must become everything….” And so one minute I am a comedian and the next I am a lover… and I consider one of my greatest accomplishments to be the fact that I can make my lovers laugh at the same time as they have an orgasm…. Which is, of course, one of the many reasons why I’m sexy, seductive and smart!
Jaime Casas: The paradoxical relationship between the hero and the anti-hero is perhaps an integral part of this book?
Stewart Home: In this fractured world we must leave for a better one we’ll create collectively, we’re all as imperfect as each other… we need to do away with the notion of heroes and the anti-hero can play a role in that…. The important thing is not to get too caught up in any role, including that of the anti-hero.
Jaime Casas: As a free form expression, it seems that this novel is a complaint against the British high culture, or at least that kind of literature covered by this concept…
Stewart Home: The conventional novel is the most favoured and privileged cultural vehicle of bourgeois ideology – although obviously it would be pretty useless were it not backed up by the army and the police force. The emphasis on character in the novel reflects the bourgeois conception of the individual as the sole proprietor of his or her skills and as owing nothing to society. These skills (and those of others) are presented to the reader as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market in a society where a solipsistic and unending thirst for consumption is considered the crucial core of human nature. These ideas found their clearest articulation in the non-fiction of liberal political writers such as Hobbes, Harrington and Locke; but they have also formed the bedrock of bourgeois literary fiction for the past few hundred years.
Jaime Casas: The language that you use in this book is very direct, very in your face and spoken as if you were a tough or a hoodlum; is this related to the narrative or just the way you like to use language.
Stewart Home: I prefer to use direct language so that my meaning is clear. I say what I want to say as simply as possible – that said a complex idea requires more complex expression. In other words it is easier to say ‘fuck off’ than it is to articulate a critique of commodity production and capitalist alienation. Nonetheless, I try to keep things straightforward and at the minimum necessary level of complexity for what I want to say. Literary writers do the opposite, their defences of bourgeois society are really very simple and not at all convincing, which is why they try to dress them up in unnecessarily mannered and complex language. In this and all other senses literature is decadent. And it is also why in the long run literature stands no chance against those who – like me – have learnt the collective strength ‘secrets’ of the proletarian superwomen.
Jaime Casas: I know that you are not the biggest fan of most well-know English writers, people such Martin Amis. Do they represent an idea if England that goes against yours? Or is just that they are in your opinion “bad writers”?
Stewart Home: Bourgeois writers like Martin Amis represent a world I want to leave behind. I am against nation states and have no time for the idea of England; whereas these hacks want to deny the power of the international working class and thus are very often fixated on national differences. Their bad writing follows on from their reactionary political views and vice versa – each flows from the other. Those that want to defend a discredited capitalist system can’t write well, they have to obfuscate.
Jaime Casas: As you said when we interviewed you in London, capitalism has led to an individualised culture and this is weaker than one that is created collectively. How we can stop this process and recover some kind of common creativity?
Stewart Home: I think the answer to this problem can only be found collectively, and in a continual reforging of the passage between theory and practice. This is not something that one person can resolve in isolation. It requires mass movements and we’re beginning to see these becoming more effective in the face of the ongoing crisis of capitalism. Movements like Occupy Wall Street and the indignant ones (indignados) provide a great starting point – but things need to be taken much further.
Jaime Casas: In a society that has overcome any postmodern considerations and is no longer affected by anything, it seems impossible provoke any commotion in the audience, but you still do. In a way, we live in a hyperbolic reality, where we accept everything without questioning anything. We accept everything in the a context of hyperreal simulation, as theorised by Baudrillard. But provocation seems to be an essential part of your work!
Stewart Home: It is interesting to go back to Baudrillard’s earlier work of the 1960s and look at his attempts to break with Marxism; and when you do this his whole project and critique becomes much clearer. I’m thinking of books like Mirror of Production and For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Those are his better works, but if you think of Baudrillard’s later writing in relation to Marx then you can see that rather than breaking with Marx, what Baudrillard did with his notions of the silent majority, the destiny of objects and simulation was invert him. So in the critique of alienation where through the process of commoditisation subjects appear to become objects and vice versa, Baudrillard is simply celebrating what Marx condemns. Rather than seeing alienation as a bad thing, Baudrillard argues the masses taking on what he calls ‘the destiny of objects’ is something positive. Once you understand matters such as this you can see that post-modernism is a continuation of modernism rather than a break with it. The basic nature of capitalist alienation has not changed and yes, what I write provokes those who wish to defend the global capitalist system because I am able to focus on this rather than being distracted by irrelevancies. Obviously to claim that society and/or the masses are not effected by anything is both ideological and untrue. Right now you can see the effects of the banking crisis everywhere in Europe.
Jaime Casas: The transmedia narrative brings new meanings with changes in technology but I think you are also drawing from older forms – from pulp fiction to avant-garde literature, and even many influences from music. What are the main reason that you have used these things and how do you see the evolution of transmedia narrative after the irruption of technology?
Stewart Home: Again the problem I see here is a failure to think historically and an over emphasis on what is alleged to be unique now. Technology has been transforming the world for hundreds of years. One could compare the introduction of the internet to the introduction of the railways. Both transformed society and have had a massive impact on everyday life. The railways made it possible to commute long distances to work and led to a process of suburbanisation; in theory the internet should act to bring this process of suburbanisation to a logical conclusion with home working – but in practice we’ve yet to see it have much impact in this area.
One can look at the avant-garde and transmedia practices without over emphasising the distinction between them. These are often grossly overstated anyway, given the ongoing blurring of lines between them. For example, when I checked it just now, Wikipedia (in English) defines flarf poetry as ‘an avant-garde poetry movement of the early 21st century’ – and obviously flarf poetry would not exist without the internet (since it is generated through the deployment of search engines among other things). Likewise all culture today exists partly in and through the internet. Once cannot escape the implications of this – which is why in my last anti-novel published in English – Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie – I incorporated a huge amount of penis enlargement spam.
Likewise it is not a matter of doing away with the culture of the past in its entirety – but rather of bringing selected parts of it back into play. In many ways so much has now been written that all we need to do is plunder and rewrite what’s already online – and this is in many ways the basis of new movements in the arts such as conceptual literature. It is no longer a question of writing but of editing – and editing with a complete disregard for the logic and narrative structure of the texts we plunder. As the Lettrists declared back in the 1950s, the cultural heritage of mankind is to be cut-up and used for partisan political purposes.
Jaime Casas: New technology and the internet has created new ways to consume culture. Its seems to have created a new passion for music and all kinds of old pop manifestations, from you side, how do you watch that new phenomenon?
Stewart Home: The internet has meant that there is a greater accessibility to pop culture. For example, for years I had been hearing rumours about a film called Bruce Lee Vs Gay Power, but many people doubted it existed. Now it is possible to view the whole of that film online and discover that the English translation from Portuguese is not exactly accurate (the film itself is not available in English dub or with English subtitles). The original title of this Brazilian film is Kung Fu Contra as Bonecas – and when I saw it I immediately understood that it was a mid-seventies parody of the popular Brazilian genre of bandit films, and that the kung fu comedy element within it has more to do with David Carradine than Bruce Lee. I don’t speak Portuguese but whether the film has anything to do with ‘gay power’ is also something people are still arguing about online.
On the one hand it is possible to have instant access to all sorts of things online… and to me this is great because it demystifies and devalues them. When I was teenage I would hear about films and bands and would sometimes have to wait months or even years to see or hear them. That meant when I did get access to something that had really captured my imagination I paid it a great deal of attention. Among those of us with instant access on the web neither I – nor those who are still teenage – tend to give what we’re accessing nearly the same amount of thought. One day I’ll discover an incredible cover of the song Gloria by US sixties act Robb London and the Rogues, and the next I’ll have forgotten about it because I’m trying to locate a streamed online copy of Official Exterminator 3: Joy of the Living Dead. Right now Official Exterminator 3 is holding my attention because I can’t even find a single scene from it uploaded online – but once someone makes the whole film accessible to me my interest in it will no doubt wane.
The profits to be made from films, books and music have declined greatly with the rise of the internet. This is a good thing because it has resulted in such pursuits being of less interest to those who merely wish to make money and/or become celebrities. Those of us wanting to develop proletarian culture into something even more revolutionary will keep doing what we’ve always been doing and we’ll become even more effective at it.
Jaime Casas: Is passion the ultimate appeal of pop culture?
Stewart Home: Pop culture and high culture produce and mediate each other. If I had to choose one then of course I’d take pop culture. But I don’t have to accept class society and so my aim is instead to overthrow all capitalist canalisation including the division between high and low culture. While there is still more passion in pop culture than art, I don’t think there is much real passion left in either and our passion should be directed towards overthrowing both of them.
Jaime Casas: What does the term post-capitalism means for you? (I ask after listening to your words in our video)
Stewart Home: Post-capitalism will be a world in which money, commodities, nation states and classes have been abolished. It will be characterised by the free movement of vast majorities – and exactly how it operates will be decided by those vast majorities from moment to moment without interference from so called leaders or states.
Jaime Casas: In Memphis Underground music plays a strong role. You write about a very concrete period of the music history but without any sense of nostalgia of the past, and I think that’s the difference. Would you agree?
Stewart Home: I personally like the sounds of the 1960s and 1970s best because that is the music I encountered as a child and which had the greatest immediate impact on me. I had less to judge the music against then but if I was 8 years old now I’d probably be knocked out by Lady Gaga rather than Marc Bolan and T.Rex. That said, in the eighties I was massively into everything from early hip hop to go go to techno; and in the nineties I remained impressed by a great deal of minimal techno and breakbeat. I have seen fewer musical innovations in the past ten years but while I love music it is not the only thing I live for, so there is no reason to be nostalgic about the past. Some things are better and some things are worse than 50 years ago – and we can be sure we are closer to overthrowing capitalist social relations now rather than then. I certainly wouldn’t want to revisit London in the 1960s or 1970s for the food, which was terrible then and is much better now!
Jaime Casas: The northern soul period, the punk and the rave music explosion (from Madchester to Summer of love and the pirate radios scene from the 90)… all of that music movement were assertive. Is there any new genre, movement or ideas that could do the same now?
Stewart Home: I think the things that have come closest recently seem to have emerged from south London (where I was born) in the form of grime and dubstep. But maybe something even better has emerged more recently and it just hasn’t come to my attention yet…
Jaime Casas: What kind of music do you listen now?
Stewart Home: I listen to many different things but soul, jazz and funk from the 1960s and 1970s more than anything else. Willie Mitchell, Eddie Bo and Eddie Harris, number among my favourites.
Jaime Casas: Do you think that is possible to break the boundaries between the art and the politics? What do you think about the new protest movements (Occupy WST, 11-M, Arab Spring)?
Stewart Home: I find it incredibly exciting to see and participate in such movements. I was lucky in that I was in New York for some of the highlights of OWS, but was also close to the Occupy movement in London. Close up one can make many criticisms of these manifestations, but from a distance they are a massive inspiration to many across the world – and I think that for now that inspiration is more important than the criticisms one could make of the politics connected to these mass mobilisations. Of course, they need to go much further but then that’s something we all need to participate in to make taking these movements further a reality.
And as I’ve said, what I’m interested in is overcoming capitalist canalisation, so of course the distinctions between art and politics need to disappear into a revolutionary praxis.
Jaime Casas: There is a formal critique in your work of the gentrification of the cities, but London has the strongest role, of course. Do you think that this is a irreversible process?
Stewart Home: The gentrification of London and New York in particular has been horrific, but this could still be reversed even under the capitalist system – and may well be depending on what happens economically. Of course, in a post-capitalist world there will be no gentrification since private property will be abolished and this is the solution we should really be aiming for.
Jaime Casas: We met at William Blake’s tomb and there is a quote from him in your book. The “greatest artist that UK has had”, as someone said. Could you tell me something about him?
Stewart Home: What I like most about Blake is the way the City of London dislikes him and the fact that his tomb is in the City of London. Much more than his poetry and art work, his real value lies in the way he is perceived as a threat by financial self-interests…. Blake serves us well as an example of the proletarian flood that must sweep over the over-cultivated planes of capitalism. The City of London can celebrate republican leaders like Cromwell (there is a tower block in The Barbican complex named after Cromwell), but those who stand fundamentally against the idea of leadership like Blake are anathema to them.
And yes there are even more interviews around the publication of Memphis Underground in Spain that I may or may not post in English on this blog in due course…..
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!