by Carla M Wilson
How many ways can a brain revolt in a technology-obsessed culture? Why do we avert our eyes to the profit-mad corporatization of culture, fruitless recidivist wars, and irresistible climate change? Can “engaged” artists and writers make an impact? What good will peaceful protests such as the creation of “crisis art” do in a culture without compassion?
“It is the gesture that vibrates irrespective of results,” Harold Jaffe asserts in this collection of essays and “quasi-essays.” In his signature style of “docufiction,” Jaffe’s precise prose merges fiction and fact, treating them critically, with a melancholy beauty and comic irony that is clean and sharp, intentionally catching us off guard.
Jaffe’s 20th volume, Revolutionary Brain succeeds in seducing us into seeing by using the very mechanisms by which our own culture subjects us not to see.
Opening with “Death in Texas,” Jaffe depicts an unforgiving culture of imprisonment and execution. Delivering a deadpan list of last statements from various death row prisoners, primarily impoverished Latinos and African-Americans, whose ill-fated deaths will go unrecognized, Jaffe gravely cites date of execution, offender’s name, and serial number. Whether or not “justly” sentenced, Jaffe doesn’t indicate, allowing the prisoners’ voices to resonate, sometimes with remorse, other times with anger, disdain, and even a moral philosophy, as with the eloquent last statement of Adolf Wölfli, #999666, who laments: “You gentlemen and ladies of quality who frequently don’t know yourselves what Christian virtue and justice are, look at the sunken, deep set eyes of the lower classes, where you can see all too clearly the sorrow and misery that weigh on their hearts. Not everyone who sees his grieved and martyred face in the washroom mirror in the morning is a murderer or drug addict. On the contrary, the grounds for his misery are to be sought elsewhere…If among you there is anyone without sin, let him come to me and I will implore him for compassion and mercy.”
The challenge for compassion and sacrifice prevails throughout Jaffe’s large body of work–if readers look closely. In Revolutionary Brain, the “Animals” are sacrificed to grant virility: a virtue unattainable in an “impotent culture”; a Muslim teenager wearing a hijab, or veil, who is harried by a French Technocrat refuses to remove her veil. Referring to the 1935 film, “Bride of Frankenstein” Jaffe implores compassion for the monster, who will “perish, ultimately” while “monstrous acts fester.”
“Sacrifice,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 film of the same title, relates our history of fruitless wars to the artist’s sacrifice, then questions the author as to whether his own writing “counts…as a species of sacrifice.” The indirect response is that “it is the gesture that vibrates, irrespective of results.”
In certain instances sacrifice is equivalent to death. In “Anal Acrobats,” for example, Jaffe suggests that excrement, as it is used in “hetero” pornography, represents a sublimation of the very death “official culture” forbids us to address, even as the author demonstrates his brilliant, cutting irony against that culture (“When I hear the word culture, I reach for my iphone”).
The narrator in “Anal Acrobats,” a self-described “hot-blooded, post-menopausal hetero male,” quickly gets our attention by describing the (free) extreme porn he is viewing behind his bolted door. Emblematic of Eisenstein’s montage technique so skillfully used throughout Jaffe’s oeuvre, where unexpected, incongruent images and references seemingly conflict — layered one on top of the other, Jaffe suggests it was “the Puritan church fathers who established the hetero male code”; that American mega corporations such as Disney, Walmart, Toys R Us, Starbucks and Google can lay claim to ownership, if at least indirectly, of profit shares within the extreme porn industry, monitoring subscribers even as they preach societal morality.
In the porno-virtual world of “Anal Acrobats” the “real world” has been all but deleted, especially with regard to Nature. Climate change largely ignored, animals on the brink of extinction, the “tormented, blighted globe” dying, real time fading fast. As consumers of virtual culture we are forbidden to confront the truth, Jaffe suggests. Unobstructed views of, say, real excrement or real bodies, appear instead as photo-shopped artifice as we surf the Internet under surveillance. Subjects such as the marginalized poor, the institutionalized, the dispossessed and even visionaries (as in “Salvation Mountain”) are suppressed as “real time” becomes a circus of useless distractions in a sanitary, falsely virtuous, cyberworld of air-brushed models with squeaky clean assholes.
Tension builds high in Revolutionary Brain in narratives such as Iso, Sacrifice, Truthforce, Hijab, and Russian Roo, where Jaffe stealthily and skillfully finds culture’s seams and plants his guerrilla mines, slipping away unnoticed. His use of montage here to imitate, then deconstruct in an unapologetic attack on culture, is a tour de force. The carefully constructed sentences zoom in, illuminate, refer, return, then zoom out again, consistently with an eye for aesthetics and an ear for language. Jaffe is like a boxer dancing: as he scatters his trail of revolutionary breadcrumbs, never meaning for them to be precisely followed, the reader is left – as if in a nod to Brecht — pent, rather than purged, with no rest along the way.
It could be argued that Crisis Art is the most straightforward of Jaffe’s texts in the volume, and best conveys his choice of epigraph, from Julia Kristeva: “As abject, so the sacred.” Here, he cites examples of “crisis artists” such as Polish born, Krzysztof Wodiczko, who projected revolutionary images upon well-known public buildings, often without permission; Rirkrit Tirivanija, the Thai conceptual artist who used abandoned corporate megastores (The Gap, Rite Aid, Home Depot) as “canvases” where he would feed the homeless; the women of Greenham Common, Berkshire, England, who in 1981 set up a “Peace Camp” just outside the fence of the Royal Air Force base, adorning it with deliberately mundane objects such as baby clothing, eggs, hand-written notes and funny toys; and the Chilean, working-class women whose complex tapestries depicting harsh conditions of life under the Pinochet regime widely influenced a Chilean and international audience, as well as preserving the memory of “los desaparecidos” and the hardships suffered under Pinochet. As Jaffe puts it, “Preserving this collective memory was itself an act of art-as-protest,” but it also empowered the women, “many of whom experienced a liberation through their work and became involved in further protests against Pinochet’s regime.”
Jaffe maintains that crisis art responds contextually, collaboratively, creating a dialogue that might not otherwise arise were the crucial issue at hand not addressed. Before becoming art, however, the crisis artist must “swallow the poison in order to reconstitute it”; only then can s/he “expel it as art.” In other words, crisis artists should “make art, not avert their eyes.” But what good will art making do? Jaffe’s response is that “serious art of any kind has been rendered negligible in the marketplace, which in the US epitomizes the country’s ethos.” Nonetheless, “art produced rapidly under crisis conditions will sometimes have more lasting power and even esthetic appeal than the painstakingly created seemingly disinterested art that most people identify as quintessential. “Crisis Art” is a call to writers and artists to act authentically, irrespective of official culture’s dictates, implied or otherwise.
In the book’s title essay, “Revolutionary Brain,” Jaffe begins with a detail about German revolutionary Red Army Faction (RAF) founder Ulrike Meinhof and her “gang,” whose brains were extracted purportedly to be medically scrutinized. After detailing the facts of the RAF’s execution and brain extractions, he switches gears to what he calls “Revolution Post-Mill,” a relentless ticker-tape of porn websites including graphic descriptions with (fictively) attached MPEG photos of all colors, ages, sexes, shapes, and sizes. As site after site of extreme porn is listed, Jaffe transforms each into individually sordid objets d’art, ultimately arguing obliquely for outing pornography as another form of mainstream culture’s institutionalized discourse. Just as we read the news, connect with social media, defer to religious institutions, or follow cultural theory, so we become consumers of extreme porn, like it or not, as consumers of culture.
Insightful, potently on target, in his 20th book Jaffe cites our collective addictive behavior as being fed by “extremity beyond extremity to dodge the torment we are forbidden to acknowledge,” The author excoriates our culture, calling it out as the spectacle it has become. Revolutionary Brain is a call to reflect on what we have become and to take action, if by no other way than through the use of dialogic art-making.
Carla Wilson is an MFA candidate at San Diego State University. Some of her work is forthcoming in Fiction International and Black Scat Review. Some of her other art and writing appear online and in print.