December 2012

Josh Cook


An Interview with Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu is the author of dozens of books: poetry, memoir, philosophy, fiction, criticism, works that fall somewhere between stable categories of writing. He's commented on NPR's All Things Considered, won a Peabody Award for writing and staring in the film Road Scholar, and founded Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Books & Ideas. For over forty years he's been pushing at the seams of literature, carrying the project of his Dada forefathers through fad and fashion, over movements and monuments, into a space unique in contemporary literature.

Erudite, intellectual, playful, complex, abstract, Codrescu's recent books, The Poetry Lesson, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, and his newest book Bibliodeath, have pushed the bounds of writing even further, finding joy in the action of difficult thinking, while writing the best exploration and explanation of the act of writing itself. Andrei Codrescu discusses Bibliodeath with us. 

Why does the rise of digital technology have to result in the death of print technology?

Because Mr. Ford ate the last working horse, thus making room for the racing horse. Technologically, the horse is a skeuomorph, but symbolically its power is increased tenfold by its selectively bred descendent. What we call "book" now will also likely be a magical thing that was once common. They symbolic book of the future will be a deluxe object related only slightly to its current Random House ancestor. Current print technology is dying as a mass-tool and will be reborn as art. Art is the last stage of capitalism.

Can we hold on to the sensuality of page turning and digitize the world's books?

If you're a twentieth-century-born reader, odds are that books are your best furniture, either as a library, a room divider, or a straightener of crooked things. If you can stay home, have the luxury of time, and are reading your English class homework under adult supervision, the sensuality of turning the pages is your consolation. But if you're a grownup, you now have some mighty forces aligned against that setup: books are heavy, and you're never alone. An electronic butler is with you always. Reading on public transportation is a good defense against the mob, but the pleasure is marred by the sea of judgment about your reading matter -- everyone who sees the cover pigeonholes you, a real buzz kill. In your car, the complexity is increased: you cannot read a print book unless you are a cult follower of Ed Dorn's essay "Reading and Driving." Barring that, you will nonetheless experience an ongoing battle between good and evil: an invisible e-reader going at it in the womb of your car titillates you with the hands-free choice between fast food and literature. You can mix it up between porn and the classics by just pushing a couple of buttons, a sensual experience more intense than turning pages, albeit briefer.If you like your reading dirty with just a touch of "literature" to justify your college debt, like a sprinkling of truffle on a cheeseburger, you can only have it electronically. If there are enough stoplights, that is, and it's a light day on .doc, Facebook, Twitter, and spouse on Skype. Time is speeding up, and there is less of it, so you might want to hold the truffle.

But if you do enjoy the aesthetic of the paper book, you have a vast back list at your fingertips (i.e., search engines), and you will also be catered to by makers of book-art, objects that serve simultaneously as things to read and things to wear (or display). If you enjoy book-art, you will need to obtain leisure by any means possible ("Poetry Requires Unemployment," Andre Breton, or "Independent Wealth," Andrei Codrescu). Architects are already using the millions of hardback remainders from vanished commercial houses as bricks to build houses that "read" to their residents, and there is at least one car manufacturer making a car from books that doesn't just read out loud as you drive, but moves also like pages sensually turning. (Infrastructure TK.)

In other words, yes, of course, the sensuality of turning pages will be available, but at a much higher price, like organically grown coffee. The paper book will be a boutique product, far from the products of today's publishing giants that are collapsing as we speak. The noise that you hear is actually the sound of editors-in-chief being sucked down the Amazon-dot-vacuum. So, the short answer is: yes. All books will be digitized, and all print books will be available either as print-on-demand from your computer or as art from your local snob-shop owner. The only problem is the one that freaked me out in Bibliodeath: all writing, print, digital, archived, anything recorded anywhere, will not only be with us, but it will occupy every space available, including our bodies, which will function as storage units. The real problem is that nothing really dies; it just piles up in every media and fills the world with endless copies. Our consciousness is bound to go nova at some point from the weight of endless repetition.

It struck me that some of the rhetoric of the fascism you experienced, such as a lack of educational attainment proving one's purity, or the anti-Semitic association of Jews with city living, is similar to the anti-intellectual rhetoric of contemporary conservatism; you can't be a "real American" if you're too educated or your city is too big. Are these similarities meaningful, or are they the result of my efforts to find a personal connection with what I'm reading? How do you tell the difference?

There is no comparison at all. The rhetoric of commie national-fascism in my native Romania was backed up by the secret police. It meant nothing to anyone, except that any dissent was punished, and anything (not just violation of the rhetoric) could be interpreted as dissent if a cockroach in the state apparatus chose to interpret it that way. The individual was both powerless and silenced. The American brand of anti-urban, anti-immigration, anti-college sentiment is a populist strain that runs throughout American history: it's Jefferson versus Madison. Ruralism versus urbanism, self-sufficiency versus government planning, these are rhetorical tropes trotted out by politicians at every election. No secret police enforces either of them: they are the warp and woof of our national fabric. There is no telling what a third party committed to the rural rhetoric might do if it ever got into power, but at this point it's just how we roll.

Footnotes usually prioritize. The ideas footnoted are less important than those in the body of the work. What happens to that organization when a footnote fills entire pages, replacing the body on those pages?

In Bibliodeath, I used footnotes to write a parallel book, related to the main text, but standing on its own. The footnotes here are irruptions of the unconscious (or whatever it is that interrupts you when you're talking). Most writers choose to ignore that voice (it often contradicts the just-typed assertion), but I decided to let it surface. The result is that whenever the voice wants the podium, my sentence makes room for it, so there is often a footnote appearing mid-sentence like a lava upflow.

The result, methinks, is a topography: the text gets texture. Less typography, more topography. My use of footnotes in this way started with the book Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments, and it was suggested by the fact that The 1,001 Nights have been so often translated, each version deserves its own book, a fact that mirrors in an odd way the frame-story of the Nights. This use of footnotes to make books-within-books like Russian egg dolls is different from Nabokov's use of the novel-length footnote in Pale Fire to explain a poem, or David Foster Wallace's sinking into self-canceling analytical essays, though they are all related as a fictional technique. I've been working on a new form that incorporates memoir, exegesis, poetry, and philosophy, since The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess. The three books that followed employ this combo and can be read, I hope, pleasurably, without any overt tricks of perspective.

Is there a difference between the archives we make through writing, Tweeting, posting on Facebook, and the archives we generate with the information we leave in our wake from our genes to our credit card purchases? Will these two personal archives converge as information-gathering technology becomes more advanced and more omnipresent? Do the systems of power value one archive higher?

That's a grape cluster of questions, Josh. Let's see if we can break them down a little. To your first big question, as to the difference between our so-called private social traces and the products we consume as a result of being commercially read, I'll say that there is no difference. I'm fine with your opinion that our social ejaculations exhibit genetic markers (one can't help but be who one is when one speaks or writes), but your archive of communication with your intimates differs only infinitesimally from the reading of product peddlers. The infinitesimal difference is the illusion (or delusion) of the autonomy of your sentiments. One imagines that within the imaginary circle drawn by notions of privacy, autonomy, and genetically-tinged desire, one individual speaks specifically to another. In the faith-based production of this archive, it is possible to ignore that anyone else is listening, and that this particular listener is a corporation or a robot. But the net effect of creating a personal archive is to broadcast desire that will or will not be accepted by particular individuals, but will always be accepted by the collective or corporation. The archive of desire always has an attentive listener called The Consumer Index. (Our true and faithful lover.) The Consumer Index values archives equally, it cares only for the specifics of what the message broadcaster requires. The merger, if there ever was one, occurred with the advent of language; the ability to convey desire symbolically was collective property from the start.

Excepting those physically stained with actual bodily fluids and residues, are there any works of literature impossible to digitize or particularly resistant to digitizing? If a writer wanted to resist digital archiving are there stylistic techniques to do so?

Everything can be digitized, including your jizz on page twenty-three of Spinoza's Ethics. In fact, that jizz might help clone a whole Spinoza. There are only technical difficulties. Why would a writer resist digitization? A person who did that would not be a writer. Herm would be a silent monastic. Anyone who writes will be digitized, and there is no great drama in this. The mystery I chase in Bibliodeath is that of communication, in whatever media. Who or what is it we are talking or writing to or for, and where and when and why or why not?

You've written and read in several languages in your life, sometimes translating your own work from one to the other. You've also written poetry, fiction, memoir, and have recently worked in a critico-fictive or fictional-critical voice, and those voices and styles could be considered foreign languages. Do all of these languages unify in the brain? If so, what does that sound and feel like? If not, does this mean you experience a kind of controlled multiple personality disorder, or is there a better metaphor for the experience of language and voice in your mind?

There is no "foreign" language. Before going to school I spoke German, Hungarian, and Romanian, but I didn't know that they were separate languages. They were just how I talked to my friend Peter, who spoke Mitteldeutsch, like my nanny Ilse; to Istvan, who spoke the way I did with my grandmother; and to Ion, who spoke how most of our neighbors did. In school, I learned that I conducted these friendships in different languages. That never took. I didn't believe it then, I don't believe it now.

Everyone can speak every language, and it's only lack of practice and opportunity that creates inflexible monolinguism. I agree with Roman Jakobson that all languages derive from an ur-language, and that the ur-language is hardwired in the brain and can be activated to go live into any of its branches (any language or linguistic family) whenever called upon. When my writing works well you can hear the hum of that ur-language in every sentence. If you use, in addition, the mysterious tool called The Language Crystal, you have extraordinary powers. I'm not going to describe this tool in any way here, but it's in the book.

Is there a difference between words in your head, words archived on paper, and words digitally archived? Is there something inherent in the "word," that is preserved no matter the storage or transmission technology?

Yes. The words in your head cannot be archived by any known means. It's possible that the akashic records have that ability, but I don't know. The sign has to manifest to be reproduced.

You talk about writing as a method of reaching hyperlucidity. What can you see from this state?

Everything I missed before.

Is there a universal style or genre you, and maybe all writers, strive for?

Yes. Poetry.

One of the main characters in Bibliodeath is your first writer's notebook that you lost. What would you do if you found it?

I'd burn it.