Category Archives: essay

The Cult of Be Happy, Don’t Worry

earthThe science of psychology, such as it is, is catching up with the intuitions of depth psychology and the probings of literary critical theory. Depression is about to have another day.

A new book by Svend Brinkmann, a psychology professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University, is called Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, is just out. In it, Brinkmann says that our insistence have-a-good-dayism is “almost totalitarian” in its rejection of the tempests of being, e.g., sadness at loss, depression generally (which we embrace only with a happiness cure: tea, but rarely any real empathy)–and anger is right out of there. It’s exactly happy-norming that the alt right cucks are using when they say “quit being a sore loser.” Brighten up, lighten up, it’s all great again! Putting the squeeze on unstable emotions is an attempt to reduce the friction of resistance. It works, sometimes. Continue reading

The Narrative Topology of Resistance in the Fiction of Joanna Russ

This essay was originally published in On Joanna Russ (edited by Farah Mendelsohn, published by Wesylan, 2009)

  1. Introduction

joanna-russNarrative is both a kind of engine and a kind of friction, creating a tension that both drives and prescribes story. The stories of our lives motivate us along certain narrative arcs, but to stray from those arcs is to move out of bounds. Narrative, in other words, is a way of mapping and transacting with the epistemologically dicey territory of life, culture and world. Narrative is epistemologically dicey in that knowledge of life and culture is riven with the gaps of the unknown and the plains of negotiated reality. We know and become ourselves in terms of our stories and it is thus appropriate and useful to theorize narrative in explicitly topological terms. Narrative, then, is not only literary. It is, in reality, primarily cognitive, due to the social formation of human ontology (see Ochs and Capp). Narrative exerts constraints on human epistemology (see Harré) and emotion (see Hsu et al.) as well as on human cultural and political constructs (see Bhabha). Continue reading

Permeable Press

A few facts (some may be made up) about Permeable Press. This is a work in progress.

I founded Permeable Press in the early 1990s after having ploughed through several other press names: Comet Halley Press, which came and went about as spectacularly as the comet itself did in the early ’80s; Naked Review, which published exactly one photocopied issue of a zine called (wait for it) Naked Review; and Xerotic Ephermera, the only publication of which was, again, an eponymously titled single-issue zine. Permeable Press published (as far as I can remember) 3 issues of the critically acclaimed magazine Puck; one issue (maybe two?) of a magazine called ShockWave (stories by Paul di Phillipo and Thomas _____?) and several (three, I think) issues of a magazine called Q Zine (thank gouda for google and Jasmine Sailing, whose essay “It’s a Quaintly Weird World We Live In” appeared in issue 1.2 and was voted “Most Bizarrely Schizophrenic” in the 1997 Idiot Savant awards). My, that is, Permeable Press’s, Q Zine should not be confused with Q-zine, a GLBT zine that began publishing several years after Permeable’s 1997 expiration/merger with Cambrian Publications nor with Q-Zine, which “promotes Islam from a Quranic Perspective [and] is dedicated to all who consider themselves as liberal, mainstream, moderate, Quranic or Progressive minded,” nor with Q’zine, a Queeradio show on WXPN, nor the restaurant JerkQ’zine, nor with QZine, which apprently is a science zine having to do with things that start wiht “Q” (such as Questions, one assumes), nor Q’zine, “an extension of Queen´s Alumni Review magazine–Queen’s University being Canadian and therefore above my notice (geography joke), and… well, there are plenty of Q’s on the planet. It is, after all, a lovely letter.

Anyway, Permeable Press went down the tubes. Hey, where’d my money go? Money I can live without (O! thou noble and deep-treasured dumpster), but my sanity–it was a close call. As Margaret Wehr put it in “The culture of everday venality: Or a life in the book industry” (Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1997), “Non-profit and independent literary presses are not able to function adequately because they are day in and day out screwed by the routine and hardly-worth-mentioning venality and psychopathology of everyday American business practices”:

Here is the rap on independent/non-profit/alternative literary presses like McPherson, Semiotext(e) Autonomia, Feminist Press, Coffee House, Dalkey Archive, Sun and Moon, Permeable Press [c’etait moi], Asylum Arts and many others:

  • they’re ineptly run by visionary but incompetent people living in former doll factories in Brooklyn or quaint Ruskinesque cottages in Oregon [this sounds like a reference to David Memmot’s Wordcraft of Oregon, publisher of my novel–plug, plug–Splitting];
  • they have no money for quality production, promotion, or royalties;
  • they owe printers a lot of money;
  • you can’t find their books anywhere.

For those who speculate beyond the ready (and not entirely inaccurate) assumption that these publishers are simply terminal fools, the material cause of all of the above becomes quickly clear. These presses are what they are because they have no money (i.e., are ‘undercapitalized,’ i.e., are not capitalists).

Why are they ‘undercapitalized’? Often it’s because these presses began with nothing. The only ‘original accumulation’ these people have ever had is the impressive shelves of books which they have read and have continued reading in dead earnest since high school. So it follows that these presses are undercapitalized because these publishers are literary people and have no business skills, experience, or instincts. They don’t know how to manipulate their resources so that on one bright day, lo and behold, they could have that mythic creature, a ‘cash reserve.’ But this is all well understood: non-profit literary publishers are idealistic and poor and the only reason they’re in this game is that they don’t like what they see commercial presses doing to their much beloved books.”

Yeah, well… It’s damning but it’s true.

Permeable Press published a bunch of stuff–ink-on-paper stuff–mainly books, chapbooks, and the above mentioned magazines. Here’s a partial list with links to (seemingly) relevant web pages:

First of all, archive.org’s way-back machine can take you back to the 1997 version of permeable.com; just enter Permeable Press’s URL in the search box and click “Take Me Back.” Or get your nostalgia on here. There are a number of excerpts from books and chapbooks archived there, including an excerpt from Carolina Vegas Starr’s novella Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Lambda Award nominated Three-Hand Jax and Other Spells by the fabulous Staszek, AKA Stan Henry.

The Uncertainty Principle by Steven J. Frank, which was the winner of the one-and-only Pocket Rocket First Novel Contest. You can read a review of The Uncertainty Principle, as well as an interview with the author. Dave Langford also wrote a nice review for the British SF magazine, SFX. An excerpt from the novel is archived here.

Several book by Michael Hemmingson, including a lovely little number called The Naughty Yard.

A bazillion chapbooks, including a favorite short story of mine by Catherine Sheer; some poems by Michelle Ben-Hur, who went on to edit 51%; a wonderful story by Doug Henderson called Remote Control…. A chapbook I designed around Rob Hardin’s story “Val Demar’s Pear” is in the permanent book-art collection at the New York Public Library.

In collaboration with Cambrian Publications, Permeable Press published Paul Di Filippo’s first novel, Ciphers, which has become a bit of a cult item. There are a few reviews lying around the net, such as this one at the Center for Book Culture (and that I suspect was originally published in Review of Contemporary Fiction); and here’s the Rain Taxi review. Claude Lalumière wrote a nice article about Paul’s work in Strange Horizons. Here’s an interview with Paul from Locus, and another at Infinity Plus. Web Del Sol has published an electronic chapbook of some of Paul’s work.

Puck Magazine: sheeze, what a fiasco; “The Unofficial Journal of the Irrepressible,” indeed. Here’s a review by Di Filippo of PuckSex [no longer online]; and a review by Don Webb of the semi-infamous psiberPuck issue. Things were going gang busters there for a while. Tower Records sold lots of copies, and then Barnes & Noble picked it up through Austin’s Fine Print Distribution. But then Fine Print went bankrupt and the roof caved it. Fine Print went under owing me for 2,000 copies of the magazine; I never saw a dime of that. Wah.

One of my favorite books was Peter Gelman’s novel Flying Saucers Over Hennepin, which was about, hmm, let’s see, flying saucers hovering above the main drag of Minneapolis? Nah. It’s a love story from beyond the stars, told by a visionary bike-riding slacker. Here’s a review by Bill Meyers and another by Joe Gergen. Pre-Raphaelite Review interviewed Pete in “Interview Over Hennepin.” Pete’s a brilliant writer, deeply imaginative (and all without drugs, as far as I know). Checkout Pete’s novel Moonifest Destiny: The Rough and Ready Balloon Invasion of the Lunar Peninsula of Texas.

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia, daughter of Theon, comes down to us as much a myth as a reality. In the hands of writers of various ideological persuasions, she was a Christian martyr, the last philosopher of Hellenism, or a pagan who deserved what she got. Besides the usual positioning to prove a dogmatic point, the reason for this disparity of opinion is that there simply isn’t much primary source material with which to form a biographical picture of Hypatia. Maria Dzielska, in her book on Hypatia, has combed through the primary and early secondary sources in search of some semblance of truth as regards the life and works of Hypatia. The result is a short work divided into three main sections, each section largely repeating what the other sections portray.

hypatia Continue reading

With Mouth to Ear: Assaying the Essay

The Falkirk Wheel by Kanneth Barker; used under a Creative Commons license

The Falkirk Wheel by Kenneth Barker; used under a Creative Commons license

Why define something positive in terms of what it is not? “Non” fiction: I have no idea how this term came to be applied to writing what is, in intent, a “true” story. David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, titled his film of fictional weavings True Stories.

Although Byrne’s film is highly improbable as a series of “real” events, the voice of his film is quite believable and true. True Stories presents a critique of contemporary consumer culture as sharp and insightful as, say, an essay by the 20th-century German philosopher, Theodore Adorno. In fact, Adorno has a great line about just such things as truth and reality: “In psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true.”

What I think Adorno’s gnome means for “nonfiction”—and I think especially of “creative nonfiction,” but as well of writing in general—goes something like this. The subjective is always going to be subjunctive—wishes, wants, desires, meditations—and therefore unverifiable. There’s always a point of quantum uncertainty when it comes to locating the veracity of any piece of writing. Sometimes that uncertainty reaches critical mass, and is obviously a work of fiction. At other times the quantum uncertainty shrinks smaller and smaller, collapsing into a black hole that sucks in any and all insinuations of imagination. As an example, perhaps Donald Barthleme’s Snow White is clearly at critical mass, while the white pages are pretty much a black hole. Unless, of course, you’re a typeface designer and are engaged in the art of creating tiny letters that can be read quickly and easily. The Dutch type design community, for instance, is famous for its innovations, both technical and stylistic, in creating utilitarian typefaces. It’s like The Rockman said to Oblio and Arrow in the animated film The Point: “You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear.” Continue reading

A Tapestry of Metaphor

tapestry-lion

In this essay I speculate on a possible relationship between “word,” “writing,” “weaving,” and “work.” While the essay is speculative in its etymology, I think it does show a definite intertwining of the histories of metaphors that underpin the changes in meaning we see from Indo-European, Greek, and Latin, into English. Because of limited space, my investigation into the histories of these words is of need cursory. My intent here is to entertain and provoke the reader’s own imaginative speculations, not to create a definitive history or an airtight case. Continue reading

The Power of Naming

“Onomatopoeia / I don’t want to see ya / speakin’ in a foreign tongue,” John Prine once sang—or wheezed, depending on your taste in music. We do it all the time. We growl and mewl at our lovers, bark and howl at friends and strangers. At least we do in my neighborhood. But what is it, in any language, that we are doing when we say “arf arf” or “moo moo”? And if “onomatopoeia” simply means “to make a name like the thing itself” then why the heck does it sound like nothing English speakers ever say or hear? Continue reading

Thresholding

What does a debutante mean when she says, “Simply sublime, dahling”? And what does that have to do with subliminal messages? Why does “sublime” mean “elevated,” while “subliminal” implies “beneath”? “Sub” means “under, below, beneath, down” [AHD]. To “sub lime” should mean “to sit beneath the shade of a citrus tree.” That, of course, would be wrong—unless you’re a punster.

It turns out that sublime and subliminal both have to do with the “lintel,” Latin limen. The lintel is the beam that forms the upper part of a window or door, and supports part of the structure above it [AHD]. This lintel is thus a threshold; we get the word “limen” to mean the “threshold of a physiological or psychological response” [AHD]. “Sub” + “limen” gives us, in various forms, words that mean passing under, through, and over a metaphorical threshold. 1. Continue reading

River Run Requiem

Since his death I’ve been trying to discover who killed my brother.

Is it a crime to kill a man who longs for death? If a man yearns for death so profoundly that he kills himself, has he committed a crime, broken the taboo? I still ask Chris these questions, although he’s been dead for nearly three years now.

cool_waterOf his death, there is only one fact, and this fact contradicts itself. Christopher Michael Clark, aged 37 years, drowned in the Mojave Desert on August 15, 1997. An amazing feat in an accident-prone life, to drown in the middle of a desert. He found the thing he went to find. Death, I see, is as subjective and unknowable as any other experience. Time is relative, Einstein reminds me, and space is curved.

In the lunar Badlands of Southern California are some of the largest free-standing boulders in the world. Boulders big as agribiz barns. Boulders with such high albedo they’re used like lighthouses to mark landing strips in the granite desert sand. Boulders so big some of them have been cult objects for thousands of years. Continue reading