Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Interview with Andrei Codrescu

Andrei Codrescu was born in Sibiu, Romania, in 1946. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1966 and became a U.S. citizen in 1981. He is a poet, novelist, essayist, teacher, and lecturer. Codrescu is MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he edits Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Letters and Life. He is also a regular commentator on National Public Radio and winner of the Peabody Award for the film "Road Scholar." He received National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for poetry, and editing, the Romanian Literature Prize, the ACLU Freedom of Speech Award, and the Ovidius Prize.

His most recent book is The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenis Play Chess. A vibrant and playful work of philosophy, the book confronts the challenges of contemporary society with the ideas of a radical art movement from the early 20th century; dada. Through Codrescu's telling the joy and nonsense of dada become a powerful counterforce against the consumerism and dogmatism at the heart of so much of the world's problems. Along the way Codrescu introduces us to some fascinating and forgotten characters like the poet, artist, muse Mina Loy, as well as original ideas for describing contemporary society, such as the "e-body." Below is our interview with Codrescu.

What is a Posthuman?

The Posthuman is the technically enhanced biological creature that we are becoming. Count your wires, your extentions, and the environments you are part of: the screen that connects us, the light you used to see at night, your quasi-automatic house, your machine-run city, your car, the rails and roads that determine your geographical location, and the nature of your work. Your "self" or your "I" has been replaced by your iPhone, iPod, IRobot. If 40-60% of your activities and needs are technologically determined you're a posthuman-in-the-making. We also stand on the edge of physical immortality, and the things we think of as "human," such as "feelings" are in fact retrograde reactions and reflexes to a reality that disappeared at the start of the 20th century.

Is 21st century dada different from 20th century dada and if so, how?

The spirit of negation and the generating force are the same but the media has become more complex and there are a hell of a lot more objects and techniques to make Dada with.

Are there any contemporary artists of any kind, who you think embody the ideas expressed in the book?

Everybody does, not just artists, because culture is the way we now express ourselves, through various media. My book is just a current report on the obvious; we embody the creatures we are becoming because we have flesh bodies that need to be connected to the spectacle and the stage that we are performing and living on. Some artists are distinguished by a sense of humor about our hilarious hybrid condition, suspended like stunt actors between the branches of an old tree floating on a river of junk. The tree is the old idea-cosmology that used to have us in the middle beween heaven and earth: that tree's been uprooted and is being carried away fast on the objective excrescences of a disappearing material world. If you want names, take down Mel Chin, for instance, and all the multimedia postpunk saboteurs working in various virtualities, like The Yes Men.

Is there a "dada solution" to the problems of the 21st century, or are we even allowed to think about dada in terms of problems and solutions?

Dada doesn't demand solutions, it must reject them whatever they are. Reality has become Dada, so whatever the contexts are and wherever they shift, they meet the resolute negativity of Dada, the big NO that says, this ain't it, but it could be made more interesting by rearranging it, cutting it up, outing it, making its ridiculousness obvious. Dada is a kind of self-cleaning machine for the evolving "self" of flexible androids: it cleans out the pieties of "humanism" and the "eternal verities" invented by state, church, and centralization of labor and living spaces. Not to speak of the timid attempts of art since the Renaissance to offer virtual alternatives derived from the "real" world.

We all love your unique angle of approach, in your capacity as a sort of link between the New World and the European avant-garde tradition. Do you think the ghost of Tristan Tzara is happy with what he sees? How would he describe our world?

Thank you. Tristan Tzara didn't have Marcel Duchamp's good fortune to come to America and to know that Dada had already (by the 1920s) become the de facto reality here. Had he come and worked here he might have catalyzed American literature in the way Duchamp did American art; he could have saved us from the mind-numbing "realism" of ten billion bad books and the self-conscious "modernism" that tried to imitate typewriters and telephones, and ended up in the same "realist" mainstream. Now that the whole publishing biz is collapsing of its own conceits and because of the new media, it's obvious that our primitive psychology has not kept up with technology, and that we are like kids with pocket nukes who never had the opportunity to actively rethink and reject the kitsch and goo of humanism, or the ideas of "exploration" and human superiority that were part of American expansion into the wilderness. Tzara stayed in Europe to fight the Nazis, and became a communist by default (no one else was organized enough to fight Nietzsche's deformed children). Tzara never went away culturally or philosophically, so he is not dead in any essential way. The "virgin microbe" of Dada is more active now than it ever was; if Tzara "thinks" in any way, it's through the mouths and motions of our manipulations of the "reality" spectacle.

Do you see any parallels between your journey out of Romania and Tzara's?

Tzara went to Zurich in the middle of an insane war between national armies, and I came to America in the mid-sixties in the middle of a generational war. The butchery of Europe was a lot worse, so he got to overthrow centuries of artistic ready-made ideas and to deal with evil post-war ideologies, while I frolicked with my generational comrades in pleasurable communion and contradictory delusions. The only parallel is that we are both Romanian Jews and poets and take a similiar delight in absurd humor and theater. We may be related in other ways, but I can't see them right now.

Exquisite Corpse is one of my favorite websites. It's one of the few that I've seen that I really think reaches some of the potential the Internet possesses. How would you describe your ideal or utopian internet?

We got ourselves some cyber real-estate early when we went online in 1996. We had the good fortune of a webmistress, Andrea Garland, who is a fine designer and technologically savvy -- she kept up with the incredibly fast developments in internet technology. She was followed by Plamen Arnaudov, another techno-whiz, who learned his English from Animal Planet in his native Bulgaria, and built computers as soon as he was old enough to use a screwdriver. The Corpse changed with the internet: we added audio and video, we opened a real-time cafe that we had to shut down because it was hard to manage hundreds of instant discussions, we linked to sites with similar interests, and we played a number of practical jokes that stayed, mercifully, anonymous. As the whole world is now moving into cyberspace, it's nice to have such a large spread, and I'm glad that we bought it early and cheap; we are like a farm in the middle of Manhattan now, with a million page-views every time we change the Home Page.

When you got to America, what was the most jarring difference between your no doubt keen fantasy construction and the actuality?

The actuality was that you couldn't get anywhere without a car, that American cities had no centers, and that there were few real bookstores (this was before Barnes & Noble, not that they are so great), so I had to posthumanize myself in a hurry, but the only place I could live for a while was New York, which was only "Europe with an erection," as I put it somewhere. I also thought, of course, that the streets were paved with gold, and the truth was that they were covered with dogshit -- until the 90s in New York when Giuliani had the streets covered with mayonnaise instead, so that if midwestern tourists dropped their WonderBread they could pick it up already slathered. The great thing was that I was 19 years-old and so was mid-sixties America: I was an "alien" in an "alienated" generation that found me charming; I found the girls intoxicating.

It seems the arts respond to situational pressure from the surrounding world (a more intense example being Weimar). Have you noticed a new density of response to the geopolitical ugliness of the last eight years? As a generality, has more poetry addressed the slow lunacy of the world or gone more solipsistic?

Well, again, it's not a matter of art. The world is itself an art work that needs to be taken apart, reassembled, rethought. Weimar or WW 1 and 2 are egregious examples of bad art, of reality-constructs by bad megalomaniac mediocrities who dragged the sleeping spectators along. Dada did not believe in spectators or "art" for that matter, so it saw itself as a continual and total theater at war with the images and psyche of the times (any time). Our own recent geopolitical reality was the result of consumption-bloated and entertainment-bludgeoned masses going along with a foreign policy disconnected from the new realities of globality and instant communications. Artists, poets particularly, responded feebly, by singing to the choir and trading cliches with bored people who agreed with each other just fine. The only political response to G. Bush's stupid wars was forwarding e-mails. Happily, the collective nausea swept the bums from office and now we have a hipper fresh face in Obama, a guy who understands that a paradigm shift to the posthuman is in fact taking place.

Art has always been an interaction between a person and an "object" not made by that person. If the "world itself is an art work" and there are no "spectators" as the Dadaists believed, what happens to that interaction? Does that interaction have any value? Is there any activity with art that is not making art?

Well, the interaction between artists or any human beings IS the artwork, in the Dada view; if you and I got drunk together at Molly's on the Market in New Orleans and met fifteen people and wrote an Exquisite Corpse poem collaboratively (which has happened, often, though not when we were both present, as far as I know) we have made a collective work of interaction. We can even "sell" it to each other by making copies when we are "sober" (i.e, inattentive); the currency used in this "sale" is also known as "attention." Attention is the Dada dollar: in the current market 1A (one Dada Dollar) = $25 (US dollars).

Is there any honkin' good poetry in response to, or even coming out of, the Lower Ninth Ward? We've seen it addressed in the odd poem, but is there a work of elegant outrage like Alabanza out there?

The Ninth Ward was part of Prospect One, the New Orleans Biennale that transformed the whole city by handing out vacant buildings and various spaces to artists. I've seen some good documentaries, but as to anything that was truly transformative, I haven't seen or read anything. Whoever owns the real estate will transform the place any way they want to, so artists have a chance, if they want to, to get those owners in a room without windows and show them 66 hours of uninterrupted Dada film and provocation, and then take them back to their suburban manses where their families are living communally in naked harmony with parolees from the New Orleans Parish Prison.

In your PBS car trip documentary you compare notes with Mexican migrants about oppression in the bottom reaches of US society versus back in a soviet-style state. This was an eye-opening reminder that there are many kinds of human hunger, including simple freedom of thought. Do you see a revolutionary outflanking of the tyrant's impulse to thought control in the plethora of instantaneous communications (the Web etc.)? As in Iran, even now?

The tyranny of bad conventions will not go away until physical borders disappear, and they are. There are a lot of struggles ahead, but the new media is making it possible, as in Iran, to see directly what horrors governments are inflicting on demonstrators. I don't think that it will be possible to hide violence and deceit in the same way now that we've moved into a communal mental space (soon to be physical).

Finally, what are you reading now?

The Romanian newspapers and one billion submissions to

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