Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Conversation: Beth Follett with Jacob Wren

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The Conversation: Beth Follett with Jacob Wren

Jacob Wren talks to Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett about his political influences, the upcoming "relay-interview" and his latest book, Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed (Pedlar Press, 2010). Jacob launches his book at the Gladstone Hotel on Monday, Oct. 4. Visit our Events page for more details.

Beth Follett:

You have written a fiction, Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, which explores the emotional and physical costs of left political activism. Can you say something about the evolution of this work?

Jacob Wren:

I started thinking about a comparison between different kinds of fidelity: fidelity to a political cause versus fidelity within a romantic relationship. And then a love triangle. So a strange kind of juxtaposition between a more political question (fidelity to a cause) and a classic soap-opera device (broken fidelity to a lover). What happens to the fidelity of the original relationship in a love triangle, how does it evolve, disintegrate, become more paradoxical? And then how is this analogous, or completely different, from the fidelity to a political cause, to the stubborn, militant dedication that seems necessary in any long-term, effective activism?

But no, before I was thinking about fidelity I was thinking about “the meetings.” The meetings were something that didn’t exist but that I would really like to have in my life: a weekly meeting you could go to and talk freely and consequently about the reinvention of leftist politics. Since the novel is set in a dystopian near-future—perhaps the future we might have seen if Dick Cheney or Karl Rove had become the current president of the United States and other Western countries had followed suit—there is only one rule at the meetings: you go there to talk and only to talk, for fear if you were to do more, if you were to protest, if you were to engage in various forms of direct action, you might be arrested, tortured, perhaps worse. You are there to talk in the hope that soon the general situation will improve, and if we take a step back, give ourselves the opportunity for a period of extended, collective reflection, we can make breakthroughs, discover new ideas to implement when the time is eventually right.

I was interested in the lives of the people who attend such meetings. What might happen to them. And one of the things that happened was a love triangle, a kind of post-capitalist soap-opera.

BF:

Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed will be launched at The Gladstone Hotel in Toronto on October 4, 2010. For this event you have planned a relay interview, where each person answers one question before asking a question of the next person. The questions will have some loose connection to one of the words in the title of your new book: “Revenge,” “Fantasy,” “Political,” or “Dispossessed.” The panel will consist of yourself, Jonathan Adjemian, Marcus Boon, Eric Chenaux, Sheila Heti and Amy C Lam. Why did you invite these particular people to participate?

JW:

Simply because they are all amazing artists and people and I was curious how we will all, together, respond to my proposal of a “relay-interview.” It will be a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants affair. Anything might happen. I am extremely curious how it will all pan out.

BF:

What is the arc of your own political thinking, starting from adolescence and circling round? Who in your opinion are some of the most influential shapers of our current thinking and feeling about the place of humans in the world?

JW:

Wow, starting from adolescence. I could spend hundreds of pages circling around such a question. I’m not sure I really have a clear historical perspective on my own thinking. Everything blurs together. Things I think now and things I thought in the past often flatten into one tangled position, my memories being a bit jumbled.

One place to start might be that I don’t think I’ve ever particularly believed in being consequent. I remember a Nietzsche quip I read when I was a teenager: “The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” To a greater or lesser extent, I’ve always been trying to think about matters in an open way, never to quite make up my mind. Paradoxes have always been important to me.

I remember as a teenager attending anarchist meetings and also an international anarchist convention. One idea that really struck me at these meetings is that in our society, raised the way we are raised, it is impossible to be non-racist and non-sexist. We can only be anti-racist and anti-sexist. I remember someone else saying that whether organized protests were successful or unsuccessful in meeting their stated goals didn’t matter as much as the fact that society always needs a gadfly. I remember being particularly interested in the idea that one is always a part of the society one is critiquing. That the things about the world which seem most pernicious are also very much inside each and every one of us. There is no point, no honest leverage, in taking the moral high ground.

Foucault was a strong influence on my early thinking. I haven’t looked at him in a long time but I remember I was struck by the idea that power is everywhere, in the way we speak and think about things. There was something he wrote about the evolution of the judicial system (I am afraid I am going to simplify this too much): that there was a transition from a system where you stole something so we cut off your hand to a system where we have to look at your motives, where we ask why you did it, where we are expected to internalize the laws, make them part of our daily personalities. The confessional as a tool of social control: where the burden is on you to confess your sins and atone for them, and the psychiatrist’s couch as a continuation of this phenomena.

I also remember reading an interview with Cioran where he said in times of deep personal despair philosophy can offer no consolation, we will receive far more relief from reading literature. But also I have always read theory and philosophy as if it was a kind of literature, a kind of fiction about ideas.

I’m jumping forward many years to my late twenties. Just after 9/11 I met a conspiracy theorist in Berlin. I spoke to him for about twelve hours straight and became obsessed with many of his arguments. The main thing he convinced me of is that the history of political violence is also the history of secret service infiltration. That whenever a left-wing group—or “terrorist” of any stripe—does something violent, you can be almost certain there are government infiltrators within the group encouraging these acts. And that the reality revolutionary violence most serves is that of the state: because it gives a pretext for more police, more sensationalism, more state-sponsored repression, as well as effectively discrediting any groups who oppose the government. And I really think this is true: where there’s violence, there’s infiltration. (I also believe this is the only reasonable explanation for 9/11 itself, analogous to the burning down of the Reichstag in ’30s Germany.)

In my thirties I became quite fascinated by the writings of Alain Badiou. I was struck by the way he attempts to bring the idea of truth back into philosophical discourse, how he accuses most contemporary philosophy of being little more than sophistry, how he defines truth as an “infinite multiplicity;” that we must constantly question the things we consider to be truths because there are always other potential truths lurking around the corner. At the same time he is clear that a truth comes into being through our militant fidelity to it. (It is Badiou’s use of the word fidelity that first got me thinking in and around the term.) I’m not sure what the right balance is. I want to remain open, to continue to question everything including myself. But at the same time it now seems to me that if you’re not fighting for some kind of truth, some sense of principle, if you are without strong convictions, in the long run you are basically not doing anything at all. I believe Badiou proposes philosophy as a kind of activism. He insists that positive change, both in politics and in the world of ideas, can only occur if we are willing to fight for it. It was around this time I started to experiment with the use of polemic in my work, began to wonder how didactic I could be and still have it be art.

More recently, I was fascinated by an interview I read with the American “social and moral psychologist” Jonathan Haidt, especially how he identifies the four foundations of moral sense, which he believes all cultures share, as: 1) Aversion to Suffering, 2) Reciprocity, Fairness and Equality, 3) Hierarchy, Respect and Duty and 4) Purity and Pollution. He goes on to say that Western liberals make use only of the first two of these “moral bases” while conservatives, as well as many other cultures, have a tendency to adhere to all four. If true, this goes a long way to explaining why it is so difficult to open up a dialog between the right and the left. Our idea of what is “right” only partially overlaps.

And last year I read a book by Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism. Fisher defines “capitalist realism” as the idea that capitalism is the only plausible mode of social organization available to us, that as a culture we find it completely impossible to imagine an end to capitalism. He identifies three main areas that could be further politicized in order to fight against this reigning mentality: 1) that capitalism destroys the environment, 2) that capitalism is detrimental to individual mental health and 3) that capitalism buries us in bureaucracy. I find the third point particularly counter-intuitive and intriguing.

All right, what a jumble, I don’t know, all of this seems so partial. There are so many other angles I could have come at it from. I’ve mentioned a few of the classic, trendy names from continental philosophy, plus a few slightly more obscure figures, and yet there are so many other writers who have influenced my thinking: the cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the Polish Marxist/Catholic Leszek Kolakowski (who I just learned died last year), Ivan Illich, the American sociologist Avery F. Gordon, the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the art critic Boris Groys, the novelist Nicholas Mosley. So many books that have changed my life over and over again. I also really love the music of Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. And the Columbian band Las Malas Amistades.

BF:

Has radical feminist thinking such as poet Adrienne Rich’s informed your own thinking about Western domination practices?

JW:

I’m afraid I don’t know the work of Adrienne Rich. I will definitely check it out.

It seems clear to me that we continue to live in an extremely sexist and racist society. So much contemporary social coercion thrives from the fuel of daily sexism and racism and the economic disparity it makes possible. As I said earlier, I know I’m certainly not immune to feeding into these practices, in both my work and life.

It’s strange, I’m quite nervous that Revenge Fantasies is actually a politically reactionary book, though that certainly wasn’t my intention. In some ways all the progressive projects the characters undertake end in disaster. In some ways all their political thinking backfires. However it’s fiction, and such disasters are always about learning from the daily struggle of living and experimenting.

In a similar manner, I worry that the book might be read as sexist, because some of the soap opera type stuff is informed by personal heartbreaks that I, like all of us, have lived through, and heartbreak always distorts ones thinking. I very much hope the book is not sexist. But if, in some ways, it can be read that way, I also hope it is at the very least a struggle with such questions. The macho sexist male author is a twentieth century cliché and also a dispiriting reality. However, in trying to avoid such clichés I worry I might have fallen into even more pernicious traps.

I am writing about politics but my thinking is far from perfect on any of these matters. Perhaps that is why I’m writing novels and not running for office. (At the same time I wish those running for office were far more willing to admit their flaws and mistakes.) I am against virtuosity and I am energized by imperfection. Art is a place where mistakes, where confusions about what it means to live, can resonate in potentially productive and fascinating ways.

BF:

Chris Kraus has written the blurb on the back cover of your book. She says: Jacob Wren’s work has always explored the dissonance between psychodynamics—which reveals the ambiguities and possibilities of human behaviour—and the deadening psychic economy of capital. In Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, he demonstrates how deeply literary these concerns are. Whether depicting the intricate mood-shifts of a triangulated romance, or chronicling the inchoate optimism of marathon group meetings designed to identify “what went wrong” with the left, or recasting the recent political past as dystopian sci-fi, the novel is fascinating, lurid and highly accomplished, evoking the best of Colette, Robert Musil and Julio Cortázar.

Can you say something more about the dissonance Chris mentions, between human longing and the economy of capital?

JW:

Chris Kraus is one of my all time favourite writers (anyone who hasn’t read her Aliens & Anorexia should run out and do so now). Therefore, I’m a little bit embarrassed (and of course also incredibly grateful) she has written such a flattering text for the back of my book. “Evoking the best of Colette, Musil and Cortázar”… I mean, what work of contemporary literature could possibly live up to such a description. Nonetheless, I promise I have tried my best.

“The dissonance between human longing and capital.” Capital makes a great deal of things possible for a relatively small number of people, makes a few things possible for a relatively larger number of people, and makes a great number of things completely impossible for a remarkably large number of people. If one feels heartbroken by the many injustices of the world, as I so often do, one can’t help but look at how the economy is currently set up, the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, and also the direction things appear to be going (in terms of the environment, the police state, right wing governments, etc.) and feel a very complex mix of terror and anger.

But feeling angry and critical—or even actively generating genuine insights—about matters one is powerless to change seems to me to be a frustrating waste of time. So the question for me is always what should we do. In fact, I feel there is really very little that can be effectively done at the moment. Nonetheless, I believe in a continuous quest for new ways of thinking about the situation. (Well, I’m not sure I exactly believe in it, but it’s the least we can do.)

Therefore, perhaps the human longing I feel most curious about is a longing to imagine the world differently, to imagine how we may speak and think about things in ways that create some sort of opening, or sense of opening. To open a window, let in a bit of air. I feel there is something very wrong with me that I cannot honestly imagine the world improving. Why am I so negative? In the realm of honest imagination anything should be possible.

BF:

Jacob, working with you on this book was a deep pleasure for me, made deeper because of how exceedingly mindful and respectful you are of the collective landscape and the intersubjectivity of our labours; yours and mine. I cannot thank you enough. Good luck with this book.

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Jacob Wren is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. His recent books include Unrehearsed Beauty (Coach House Books), Families Are Formed Through Copulation (Pedlar Press) and Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed (Pedlar Press). These books have been translated and published in French by Le Quartanier. Wren frequently writes about contemporary art. He lives in Montreal.

Beth Follett is the publisher of Pedlar Press. She divides her time between Toronto and Newfoundland. Her poetry chapbook Bone Hinged (paperplates, 2010) will be launched at Hart House on Oct. 14. See our Events page for more details.

Click here for more information about Pedlar Press.

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Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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