(Excerpts previously published in Overture Global Magazine, Fall 2018, The Election Issue: Issue 002)
Rick Moody—acclaimed novelist, short story writer, essayist and incredibly socially and politically-conscious individual—was kind enough to speak with us regarding the impact of innovative technologies (most specifically social media) and their effects on upcoming political elections. He also discusses literature, the impetus to combine politics and aesthetics in his prose, his 2016 Election Diary and political involvement by those who dwell outside of the “process.”
Katherine Sloan: You addressed some ideas posed by George Orwell in Meredith Maran’s 2013 non-fiction book of essays Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors On How and Why They Do What They Do; in response to one of Orwell’s “four great motives for writing” (from Why I Write, 1946) where he stated “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude,” you said “I think all art is political, but that some art, by being quiet about its politics, supports the status quo in a slightly sinister way.” Who do you think, in terms of popular artists, would be benefited from being more political and how can they use technology to get valuable information across?
Rick Moody: There are two questions here, and so perhaps I can come at them one at a time. The above remarks by me were definitely about writing, were writing specific. In popular culture, there is a view that writing can be “escapist,” that it might on occasion have a specific function, which is to allow the reader to be swallowed into a story that distracts from reality (let’s say the political reality for the moment). This belief restricts story to a sort of narcotic effect, rather than allowing it to have mimetic value, in which commentary on the political realities of the day can be a part of the work. Never mind whether a “narcotic effect” is worthy, or a just use of one’s literary powers, the idea that the work can somehow avoid having a political effect, strikes me as somehow odd. If you look, for example a speculative fiction (scifi, as we used to call it), an understanding that these stories are often allegories or political parables (as in Star Trek), is now widespread. The so-called genre fictions are legion in their attempts to distract rather than inform, but they are not always effective at it. The political leaks into them. That’s a use of genre that I can powerfully support (Ursula Le Guin or Octavia Butler would be good examples of this political imagination in a genre context).
The same is true of the popular media generally. I think for those thinking carefully about cinema and its history, it is now widely understood that our present period of Hollywood filmmaking is among the very least interesting, the least thoughtful intervals in the history of the form. The dominance of a Marvel/DC franchise-oriented product-placement-oriented era of filmmaking is doubtless, for example, anathema to anyone who wants to see adulthood dealt with in film, or the political upheavals of our time accurately rendered. And yet the Wonder Woman film, or Black Panther, indicate that at least in terms of empowerment and access to the means of production, these films can be caused to do more than simply provide air-conditioning for underserved communities.
Maybe my answer here is an allegory in itself. While empowerment and enfranchisement are worthy goals (more black horror writers, more black crime fiction writers, more Asian American writers of every sort, more indigenous or First Nations writers, more writers from Africa, more Rohingya writers, more writers from Northern Ireland, more writers from Kashmir, more writers from Cypress, more Venezuelan writers, more Inuit writers, etc.), they are especially worthy goals in an environment in which these newly empowered artists come to understand themselves to possess a bullhorn that will allow them to militate for political change. Kathryn Bigelow is a good example of a filmmaker who has made that journey, starting as a very rare woman director with what were clearly genre-inflected films, and then subsequently moving into films that attempt (whether successful or not, and some have not been successful) to employ filmmaking to deal with politically charged topics. Spike Lee, however you feel about his recent film, may be a good example too. This migration into engagement is powerful to behold.
Where there is no political purpose, there is a de facto political purpose, which is support of the status quo. So goes Orwell’s argument. The most potent example of this, for me, is the action film genre. I can remember, in the eighties, that there was a period of widespread acceptance of the action film in the culture as a whole, the apex of which was a decent review commanded by a Steven Segal film, Under Siege, in The New Yorker, which review said in effect: morally vacant but very entertaining. You could make a good argument that the tolerance for action films in the eighties was as a result of the Reagan-Bush presidencies, and the ethical softening on violence in the service of patriotism that accompanied that time. Whatever the cause, the action film (in Die Hard and sequels, to give one obvious example, or Rambo, or The Terminator, et al.) got a free pass for a while. It is impossible to watch these films now, however, without understanding them to be advertisements, or infomercials, for gun-manufacturers and the entire military-industrial edifice. The action film as a genre could theoretically be used to do ethical good, maybe, but has not yet, and in that absence of that, it’s impossible but to see it as a defense of a nationalist/conservative message-making. (Someday I will try to construct a good argument on “torture porn,” and its moral vacuity, but that’s for another day.)
You ask me to name names with respect to who it is I believe is failing to understand the role that politics play in art and literature, and it’s not in my nature to name names, but I do think that it’s possible to see a general tendency in the popular arts, a slower acceptance of the understanding that one’s power is political. I find contemporary popular music, for example, in particular the “top forty” wing of American popular music, particularly slow-moving in this area. A sex-and-loot-and-party-time thematic ambition seems pretty pervasive, and one can only think of, for example, Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” or Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” or Joni Mitchell’s Mingus, or Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess, or The Pogues’ If I Should Fall from Grace with God, or The Slits’ Cut, as examples of a popular music that is more willing to take a risk on explicitly or implicitly political work, as a way of looking away from the dull repetitiveness of some of what passes for popular in popular music. Of course, there is always dull, repetitive, sexist, and witless popular music. There is always jingoist and flag-waving country music. But it’s in the hands of the makers of this music to do otherwise, and it’s in the hands of the audience to understand the silence of the performers on politics as, for example, pro-Trump, pro-authoritarianism, pro-homophobia, pro-racism, etc. I hate that ZZ Top, a band with an extremely good guitar player, plays for Republican rallies. And: is it surprising, for example, that the Grateful Dead featured lyrics by a libertarian? Not exactly. Is it surprising that the drummer of Aerosmith complained when Steven Tyler and Joe Perry met then president Barack Obama? Not exactly.
The second part of your question is about technology and its relationship to this question of political messaging in the arts. There are two ways to answer this. Clearly the popular and widespread approach to technology is to adapt quickly to the new platforms as they emerge, and to try to be the artist who capitalizes here first. This means making music for a Whatsapp world or a 4Chan world, where quickly linking or streaming is the norm for how music is being consumed by a younger audience. It means giving up on monetizing art some or all of the time (perhaps, as the joke goes, in favor of dry goods manufactured like tour t-shirts). It also means understanding how these new media become part of the art-making process (collaborating on YouTube, for example, to achieve a more global music). But another way to use technology for politically oriented art is to critique and to refuse it. The Ned Ludd approach to refusing is often ridiculed and held to be impossible, especially by apologists for the dominance of Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, et al., but I think hatred of technology and resistance to technology are noble and worthy endeavors, and keep the large capitalist purveyors of tech on their toes. There should be more resistance. Making arguments against tech is to speak more exactly to what is human in the world now. Apple, as we all know, is the most successful corporation in modern human history. It is the Dutch East India Company of its time, which means that it is, as Wikipedia says of the Dutch East India Company a “company-state,” a trans-national entity, one that has crossed over the boundary of the corporation into some pseudo nation-state or city-state, or religious entity, that cannot be controlled by any nation or any army. The same is true of Google. To speak to these facts, to speak against tech, is to be political, perforce. When these corporations (I’m thinking of Tesla now) become bent on lofting their brand capitalism into space, all I can think about is how badly we’re going to fuck up the rest of the solar system, too, and how many workers will be oppressed on the way to doing so.
KS: You also said, in response to Orwell’s impetus to write about political positions, that “I have always tried to stake out political positions in what I do, but not in a manner, I hope, that is aesthetically dull, or too shrill, etc. I believe the two—aesthetics and politics—may go hand in hand.” How do you, as a writer, use your fictional work to form a political stance while remaining “invisible,” so to speak?
RM: This is an important problem, and one I have given a lot of thought to over the years. Why is a certain amount of invisibility aesthetically valuable? Why is shrillness contraindicated? I still think that both these perceptions are valid, that art that is tendentious is less valuable than art that does the same job obliquely, and I dislike a certain kind of raised voice. I feel these things—with the emotions, with the heart, with the elective affinities—I still think that work that is too reductively political loses the art in the art, and becomes merely rhetorical and not artful. (Joseph Campbell used that term “didactic pornography” to describe this work.) My emotional response is a sort of historical marker that may be less valuable to the current political debate, to the way younger artists are framing the debate now. Part of the way these issues were articulated in the late seventies, for example, is that one should strive above all not to be the enforcer in political debate, that the role of enforcer is inhumane on its face. Who is the enforcer? What have I done to merit the role? Why not allow others to have arguments of their own without needing them to constantly provide ideological support for your arguments? But I am well aware that this seventies anxiety is sort of out of the mainstream now.
Implicit in this older way of formulating the question is the idea that political polyphonies, gradients of difference exist, and should exist. They are never going to be entirely eradicated, and the desire for ideological purity is vain and rash. I am related to a number of people whose politics I find indefensible, for example, and I love them anyway. I find the argument that I should not associate with people outside of my narrow ideological ditch somewhat abhorrent. I think love and compassion are human values that are apart from political dispute. I aspire to them. I aspire to loving people no matter their beliefs. I aspire to love them more the more objectionable their beliefs are.
In answer to your question, then, how do I use the form in the pursuit of political aims, part of the answer to this is in believing that humanism is itself a political remark, and at some remove from, for example oligarchical capitalism, which is the law of the land, and which is founded on the idea that compassion is impossible (I mean that this is literally the philosophy of the ruling class), and it is also at some remove from the ideas on the left that only the ideological pure, or the like-minded, are on the team. Humanism, in literature, is about seeing the contradictions and paradoxes and uglinesses of human consciousness as the truth of the matter, and worth investigating, and understanding, and feeling sympathetic about. That’s how I practice it. The other issue is: what is art? Is art a kind of rhetorical statement that’s different from political agitation? I can think of cases where the two are very close, like Sister Corita Kent , or, for example, there are songs by Pete Seeger that fulfill both functions, art and persuasion, but in general there is a sheen of contemplation and crafting and complexity and a sense of being in art that is more premeditated and more effective than with agitprop, and I understand that to be part of my mission.
Another consideration, a potential difference between art and agitprop might adhere to the element of time. Art understands itself to be patient and enduring, valuable across time, across decades, whereas political persuasion wants to be effective now. I despair, personally, about being effective now. I am always thinking, to the best of my ability, about trying to be effective ten years from now.
KS: How do you combine aesthetics and politics without interrupting John Gardner’s goal of creating a “vivid and continuous dream” in your fiction?
RM: I truly want that vivid and continuous dream. That’s a part of reading that I really love myself, but I believe it can coexist in space with political sentiment, or critical observation about the world. The Grapes of Wrath would be a good example. One gets involved in the story, and one admires the sort of panoptical and disembodied voices that orbit around the book occasionally. It’s a beautiful and written thing. Does it have an agenda? It most certainly does. Another example for me would be M.I.A. I really admire some of her music a great deal. I can’t hear “Pull Up the People,” without feeling in the presence of something really important. It’s fierce, provocative, and deeply felt, but it’s also a really good recording. The strange mix of extended vocal technique and jagged electronica still feels both minimal and artful to me. She straddles the music world of London and the culture of Southeast Asia, and makes a song like this out of a conjunction of these places, and it is a kind of dream that you’re in when you listen to that song (and “Paper Planes” is also excellent). I think you can have both things, the dream, and the political sentiment, and that “art for art’s sake,” that is an art that is somehow free of the political, is always somewhat elitist, and is busy eliding the dialectical struggle in which the work was made. (Some of M.I.A.’s work was probably made on a laptop, for example, and if they were Apple products, you can surmise that the laptop might have been produced in the Far East, in factories who conditions and wages do not meet our definition of fair trade. M.I.A. is an artist who, by virtue of her being and point of view is doing something about oppression in Asia. She is representing and making art about oppression.)
KS: You are active on social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram and you published something not too long ago that reminded me of Joan Didion’s famous remark “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (The White Album, 1979). In reference to Roy Christopher’s Summer Reading List, 2018 in which you contributed, you suggested it to your friends and followers “in case you want to be distracted from the monstrous facts of life happening around you.” How do you think that the need for a distraction is, not just an excuse to become more literary, but, an impetus to participate in upcoming elections?
RM: Every now and then in an interview, one if confronted by an interlocutor who simply knows too much about your work, and by virtue of knowing so much, can catch you giving the appearance of the contradictory! This is obviously one of those moments. These days I both do not want to be distracted at all, because the monstrous situation we find ourselves, and I feel sullied by contact with the regime I dislike so violently. I mean this literally. I feel soiled by reading the tweets of the president of the United States. I cannot read them, and don’t read them, therefore, and I feel that protecting myself from that use of language (very much in the shrillness subgenre, by the way) is valid. It’s to love the suppleness of more sophisticated thinking about life and politics. I believe I can still effectively oppose the regime without having to be inundated by its tidal wave of hate. Sometimes, as I was saying above, refusing to participate is a radical act. It worked for Christianity in the early church! And sometimes really great writing, among other things, is enough, simply by its greatness, to distract from the heinous tweets, the tweets dragging down the reputation of a nation, despoiling it. The humanism of art, the lasting and powerful capacity to observe and represent in art, that is perhaps other than being immersed in the grim particulars, but also supportive of resistance.
KS: Do you think this involvement will bring about progressive change?
RM: There need to be many kinds of political involvement, and many skilled parties. I am satisfied with where I am now, though I know there are others who are going to staff the phones and make the fundraising calls, and I admire their contributions greatly. Often, I wish I were that person, the person who still had enough uncommitted hours to be manning the phones or going out and knocking on a lot of doors, or, perhaps, getting involved in spiritual kinds of engagement that are meant to oppose things as they are.
KS: Speaking of Joan Didion, her political essay Insider Baseball (originally published for The New York Review of Books) details the political powers at work during the 1988 presidential campaign between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis and what is referred to as “the process.” Because Didion wasn’t directly a part of this political “process” limited to its own professionals who invent “the narrative of public life,” it seemed that she was on the outside in what was a campaign that startlingly revealed its “remoteness from the actual life of the country.” How does social media, in your opinion, serve as a means for ordinary people to become involved in the political conversation?
RM: I think Didion’s piece is excellent, and I think Didion, by and large, is an exacting and observant observer of politics. I admire her work a great deal. I admire her sentences. I can think of few contemporary writers I admire as much. Woodward’s Fear, which is very popular as I write these lines, has a much less sophisticated agenda than Didion attempts in her political work. Woodward is just marketing his access. As a result, his work, to me, is valuable in the debate, but is better suited to excerption and sound bite than it is to long term consideration. In some ways, Woodward is just the thing in the short term. I would rather read Didion’s long game.
Social networks are, as in the Woodward example, oriented toward instantaneity. That’s great. But in some very deep precinct of my own constitution, I am resistant to instantaneity. It’s only valuable up to a point. I don’t tweet (I believe I have tweeted five or six times during the whole time of Twitter), and I find Facebook less and less relevant. Oddly, I really love Instagram. In a way, image saturation is really compelling to me. I think of Instagram as a totally allegorical space. These are not true statements about life, these photos of kids and sunsets and good meals. They are little allegorical bulletins about life. The more creatively Instagram is used, the better I like it. Though that may in part be due to teaching photo students at the Yale School of Art for seven years. They all have really excellent Instagram presences.
KS: Do you think it’s possible for this potential involvement to have any real impact when it comes to future elections?
RM: I’m slightly vague on the antecedent of “this” in the question. Do you mean does a social media presence have impact? Or do you mean does politics in art have the potential to create change?
Were Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg able to levitate the Pentagon? They were not. So on an empirical basis, they failed, and yet we are still talking about that day 51 years later. I remember being involved in an action with the PEN American Center wherein we tried to take a petition to the Chinese embassy in New York City. When we got to the embassy there were some interviews. There was a journalist from the UK who had that kind of jaundiced mien that BBC people sometimes have (only we know how really awful the world is), and he asked, “Do you really think you’re doing any good at all?” The assumption being that the Chinese embassy (which happened to be entirely locked and shuttered and would not respond to the doorbell, in anticipation of our approach) did not care a fig for some bunch of writers from some pipsqueak NGO. No political prisoner would be released, perhaps. I disagree with the jaundiced view, though. I think the poetry in going there, to the embassy, to hazard a cry of injustice about Chinese political prisoners, is an indication about what justice is and means, and when you cry these cries, the apparently futile cries, not only do you help the historical memory of civilization, but you are made better by using language in that way. And: there is a way that PEN does what they do that I really admire. They are seasoned veterans, and they often cause prisoners to get released. If not in this case, in a great many other cases, and the validity of their efforts is in their general willingness, despite apparent futility.
In the same way, we should all understand political activity of whichever kind to be beneficial. From each according to her ability.
KS: Finally, your 2016 Election Diary (published by The Believer) is one of the most comprehensive responses to a presidential campaign I have read. As the results unraveled, you noted, at 10:22 PM on November 8th: “Susan Sarandon? Wanna rethink that endorsement?” On that note, how important is a respected public figure’s support of a political candidate and, more importantly, should this be relevant?
RM: I think the political opinions of celebrities (and this includes writers, probably) are much less important than we think. No one thinks that James Wood is going to shift anyone to the right because of his kooky non-symmetrical smile and former charm or his brutish arguments. Kanye West’s reflexive defense of the Trump regime is probably not going to cause that many people to vote for Trump. Susan Sarandon certainly didn’t make the Sanders campaign look better. The change happens, I suspect, from an overall rhetorical accumulation, rather than from one celebrity. They are certainly entitled to their political passions, but they should be understood to be mere voices among others.