Thursday, March 18, 2010

Marginal Culture, Marginal Writing

Radical Calls To Impossible Actions

I figured out what marginal culture is through the process of induction. It all started, I think, at some time in 1987, when I noticed what a peculiar assortment of books I'd been reading in the previous few months.

I'd read about movies made on minuscule budgets and the amateurish hustling directors who made them. I'd read true crime books. I'd sought out books about people I considered conspicuous failures in their personal lives (Nietszche, Pollock, Strindberg, etc.). I rented a P.O. box and started an organization whose letterhead I used to appeal for copies of rants of all types on the grounds that I was forming a "free information database."

While some might consider the material I was reading just so much junk, I had the feeling it was all shaping a particular and peculiar view of the human experience in my head.
I discussed the situation with a friend, who said he had been reading exactly the same sorts of materials, and that these were the materials that were likewise being read by the small number of people he wished to associate with. We both agreed we were hooking into an odd and noteworthy cultural phenomenon.

But what kind of culture were we investigating? I didn't have to look at the data too long to figure out I was reading about misfits, freaks, fish out of water and guys who were so ordinary that their unblemished banality made them de facto weirdos. To some degree, and usually a large one, these people failed at everything they tried to do. Some were way beyond the whole question of success and failure; one might have been a diary-keeper obsessed with the notion that the supervisor who'd fired him two decades ago was a CIA assassin; another might have been a self-publisher convinced the Vatican was administrated by the Trilateral Commission.

Others about whom I read were simply eccentric in the extreme: they were robot builders; music makers who used jackhammers, industrial saws, caves and explosives as musical instruments; performance artists who tore up their bodies for nauseated audiences.

I wound up tagging the collective written work of all these authors and subjects "marginal culture." The projects to which they devoted themselves, or their lack of success at these projects, kept them at the margins of social activity. Their preference for the workings of their projects over the niceties of social interaction made it likely that few of the marginal people were popular with their contemporaries or are popular today with present-day book readers. (There are exceptions. The writer Edward Lee is popular, and it must be a great strain for the typical reader to imagine in even a vague way the bizarre worlds he creates with words.)

Each marginal writer or subject of marginal writing was or is off in his or her own little world. That puts each in stark contrast with the drones contentedly immersed in the mediocre mechanics of everyday living — the zombies whom you and I must tolerate and work around just to survive.

Before I was even 20, I'd said to a friend, "Life is banal." Never, as far back as my memory goes, have I been able to generate any interest in the conversation about fripperies that is zombie talk: the discourse of middle-class American society. People talk about how so-and-so is "doing." Some other so-and-so is said to be going to such-and-such a school. He's in such-and-such a grade and making such-and-such grades. Another so-and-so is working at such-and-such a place. And how is he doing? Oh, he's doing pretty good, I guess. He's started dating again. Oh, really? Who's he dating? Oh, so-and-so. Really? How's she doing? Oh, she's doing pretty good, I think ...

And on and on and on it drones. When I can manage to think in the mist of this verbal spew, the only thoughts I can muster are, "Who cares? Do the people talking care about what they're saying and hearing? Why do they keep talking?"

But people will always do as they have always done and talk as they have talked. That's why one seeks out marginal cultural. Vicarious experience of marginal culture is the means of escaping the democratic populace; of fleeing the discourse of those who find it fascinating to discuss Wal-Mart parking conditions.

The marginal is anything that falls far outside of convention. The marginal shaman has the useful power of making the everyday and banal magical by putting it in a context for which it was never designed. A simplistic but precise example is that of the writer who took Donald Rumsfeld's press conference meditations and ramblings and published them in the form of poems.

Readers of the marginal can make a text marginal by placing it in a context different from that used by the text's author. To take another painfully obvious but apt example, if a writer puts in words his experience of terrifying, complex and far-reaching paranoia, he creates a piece of writing that's in the margin. Now, if the reader reads the text not as an cautionary guide to the dangers of mind control or the revelation of a vast conspiracy, but as an unintentionally humorous schizophrenic rant, the reader places the text in the margin.

Any text the reader sees as kitsch (whether it was meant to be kitsch or not) is a marginal text. Also qualifying are any texts the readers sees as evidence of outlandish and indemonstrable theories and ideas, radical calls to impossible actions, evidence of lunacy, demonstration of appallingly bad taste and documentation of lives lived in squalor and monstrous excess. Street people, pimps, crackheads, backwoods loons, serial killers, homeless schizophrenics, channelers — their stories lift us out of our habitual stress and tedium and give us relief. We feel, for a moment, as if there might be real life on the planet.

There is a gargantuan storehouse of marginal writing that extends far beyond library walls to the boxes in vanity publishers' warehouses, the graffiti-covered walls of dead factories, the diary-filled boxes of estates and the rant-covered telephone poles in the urban wasteland.Nietzsche: A Critical Life

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