King Cang

Stuart Elden – Canguilhem (Polity)

I went through this book on Georges Canguilhem by Stuart Elden in strides, thanks to his excellent explanatory craft. He lays out detailed research with an engaging narrative style and no gloss or loss. I hadn’t explored ‘King Cang’ in detail before and now I see how important he was.

The Foucault link is the thing many people know about, but the oft-mentioned connection to Foucault’s PhD is actually minimal, at the same time as Canguilhem’s work is Ur-Foucauldian.

The Normal and the Pathological is the key work and Elden maps out the text itself with fascinating asides on the histories of some of the concepts and debates Canguilhem grappled with in his time.

Canguilhem was a historian and philosopher of science, he worked closely with Gaston Bachelard, who is largely known for his book on space in Britain, rather than for being the equally paradigm-challenging individual he was in Europe. Shall I talk about Europe? I better not talk about Europe.

These figures – Foucault included – take you right into the roots of epistemology. For Canguilhem disease is not a diversion from the ‘norm’ of health, but a new type of life. Dead things live, hair grows. Live things have deadness. Mechanism and vitalism – and in fact morbidity and life – are not divided cleanly in two by a scalpel blade. The experimental laboratory is not a normalised situation, but a pathological one. Statistical mean averages normalise. The roots of this lie in metricisation and all the way back to the revolution, Bonaparte. Standard measures that were required to control and for warfare.

Scientists may have their eyes down the microscope, but they all live in a social world and they blindly bring elements of that socialisation to their supposedly neutral objective labour.

The links with Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic and other works should now be clear to those who know that material. But the kind of thinking Canguilhem executed is exactly that which is under threat in some places as conservatism and a re-kindled fascism shows a clear desire to close down on all but the most instrumentalised philosophy.

Cang’s work was in fact a kind of philosophical Antifa – as Elden shows – even though the explicit terms of those politics were muted in his writings.

These issues are at the heart of the struggle for the independent soft power of the university in Britain. Canguilhem is a crucial figure to keep as that struggle moves on, his critique of science and its epistemologies are as far-reaching as Adorno and Horkheimer’s in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Elden’s book is the perfect introduction and future guide to ‘Cang’ in English. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

Our Laureate of the Concept Collider

Michael Conley – Flare and Falter (Splice)

This author is so far from the mass of average fiction writers, wrapped up in a fantasy idea of their own life, wanting to ‘express themselves’, or even worse, doing that but not even knowing there’s another way to work.

Conley takes two ideas to his giant particle collider brain – it runs the full length of the Mancunian Way if it had been completed – then he lets them go, BANG round the tubes at a million miles an hour. They smash into a trillion infinitely coloured fragments. A snapshot is taken from every possible angle. Conley writes up the report, lab coat on, biros in top pocket – important that – and then he condenses it into a short story. He repeats the process until he has a short story collection which also works as a novel.

Conley knows that to make good art you have to stand further back, not get closer. That you have to squint, not peer in. That you have to look out, not like, hey, inside yourself man.

He also knows that ultimately this will provide a better snapshot of Michael Conley – as well as a cracking work of fiction – than a decade of soul-searching could ever give. He’s also a bloody great poet.

Now, spoilers are very possible with this one – and will ruin your fun – but all I need to tell you is that one short story involves the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl returned to the next life as a South Manchester pub landlord.

Buy and read immediately.

– Steve Hanson

Fallen Words

Melchior Vischer – Second Through Brain (Equus Press, 2015). Translated by David Vichnar and Tim König

“In fifty years or in fifty minutes will this my good inanity surely become apodictic wisdom”; so predicted Melchior Vischer, writer of the first Dadaist novel, Second Through Brain, in 1920.

Well now it’s almost a hundred years later and far from being apodictic (that is, surely, clearly and indisputably the case), Vischer’s work remains troubling, and in many ways as impenetrable as it was upon first publication.

The novel (if it might be called that) was translated by David Vichnar and Tim König into English for the very first time just over three years ago, and a copy has only recently made its way into my hands. It is a worthy piece of literary recovery, filling a gap in the records that I had not even realised was there, and one conducted in the most rigorous academic manner.

There enough in both the scholarly introduction and annotations to satisfy those with an academic interest in the text, while the text itself is presented in the small, challenging sections that typified the original work. At only 116 pages, it is a work as concise as it is important.

Second Through Brain tells the tale of Jörg, a builder who, while ogling the bountiful bosom of a girl in an office below him, slips and falls forty feet from scaffolding. The manic, linguistically mangled visions that blast into his mind during the one-second duration of his fall constitute the body of the text; ending with the composite image of his last sight, a shop selling eggs, and the cracking of his skull, egglike, onto the pavement.

In the graspable content of the novel, we find a series of dreamlike images. These fray and bend out of shape in the iron wind of broken language. Jörg has little time for the “dumbass languages of the wicked Earthball”, we are told, preferring to present the world, in all its fury and pointlessness, through a slurry of half-images and twisted words.

As a foundational text – the first novel of dada – there are a panoply of techniques on display here that it is tempting to call firsts (although I am no expert). The use of non-sequiturs throughout is reminiscent of automatic writing, although the animals and vegetables of the surrealists are not in as regular attendance here as are soldiers, sex, acts of violence, and language itself.

A favourite trick of Vicher’s is the compounding of nouns and the adverbisation of verbs. “A French victoryofficer” is said to “choke gurglingly”, for example. It is a testament to the translators that such words, and the non-sequiturial sentence constructions that contain them, have been effectively rendered in English despite the many barriers that lie between our own tongue and the German original, especially in terms of approaches to grammar and the use of compounds.

The effect is one of conscious unmeaning. Like the two professors we find wandering through the book at its halfway point, we are left “searching for the point. Yes indeed, the point!”

As the professors are revealed to be deer, watched by “a frog corked with cyanide winking imperceptibly, yet aristocratically”, we can conclude that they never did find the point; nor we neither. Which is precisely the point, after all.

Vischer/Jörg is a Sudetenland German, as German speaking Czechs were known at this time, and is keen throughout the novel to situate himself in the German Dadaist tradition. As if to distinguish himself in the reader’s mind from Slavic contemporaries, he makes reference in numerous places to his “friends” Tristan Tzara, Raoul Hausmann, and expressionist Franz Marc. In Vischer’s own mind he was a bridge between the expressionists and Dada. To the founders of Dada he was a provincial opportunist.

Nevertheless, his most ardent yells are those in the name of Dada: “here still reigns the free, primitive lust of procreation. Da da! Here’s the mother of all culture. Da da!”

It is surprising then to find that, other than Second Through Brain, a novel which constituted both his most important and best received contribution to literary culture, Vischer wrote nothing else in the Dadaist or wider avant garde modes. The “primitive” passions of his twenties burned themselves out chasing abortive careers in the theatre, popular fiction, and then history and literary biography.

In fact, as the well-researched introduction to the text makes clear, Vischer soon dropped everything, including his own name, to join up with the Nazi party and write propaganda under the names Emil Fischer and Heinrich Riedel.

One is tempted to draw a parallel with Hitler’s own failed art career, only Vischer had the added frustration of having had one solitary success, Second Through Brain, and nothing but failures after. That this success was anti-bourgeois, anti-church, and anti-art must have rankled with the later “Fischer”, who lived a buttoned-down, churchgoing, happily married life from the 1930s onward.

So might we consider Vischer’s groundbreaking novel to be apodictic wisdom in another fifty years’ time? The signs suggest not. If, after a hundred years, a novel still has the power to baffle, infuriate, tease, captivate, and offend, then perhaps there is hope yet for the avant gardist mission.

Second Through Brain is nowhere near as elaborately conceived or beautifully executed as, say, Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s The Waves, but it reads as far more contemporary. Time hasn’t dulled the blades on the meat grinder of its language. It is still every bit as curious and mocking as it was back in 1920, and now that English readers can get their hands on it I highly recommend that they do so.

– Joe Darlington

The bard of two-for-ones

Colin Herd – click + collect (Boilerhouse Press)

Book of two halves, Click, and then Collect.

Click begins with the TV remote and the trigger, soldiers captured, shown on television, stripped to their underwear and soon to be dead.

Herd’s confidence is detectable in that he – or he appears to – write easily and relatively unencumbered by the dead weight of ancient verse. Pound’s ‘heave’ against pentameter is definitely over here. No sweat.

But he isn’t presenting a cod modernist piece either, that assumes it has to arrive fractured as though a typesetting accident has occured which looks like a Microsoft Word default.

It’s subtle. It’s dark and light at the same time. It’s everyday and slightly otherworldy at the same time. I applaud all those qualities.

Brilliant book, get it. Then you can find out what Collect is all about.

– Steve Hanson

Enter the Gonkaverse

D Harlan Wilson. Natural Complexions. (Equus Press, 2018).

It is not a good time for transgressions. We like our explorations courteous now. We like our politics earnest.

The boundary-pushing, rude and raucous style of writing that we label “transgressive” has a distinct flavor, and it’s one that feels like it’s from another time. The Dadaists, Artaud, Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Bret Easton Ellis; these all fit the transgressive bill.

But there’s a subterranean element to this tradition as well. Small presses and zines, performance poets and conceptual artists all help to keep transgression alive during those downtimes, like the present, when the toleration of outside voices does not extend to the chaotic, the nihilistic, or the flippant.

It’s during these times when people in search of the lewd and the crude, the grotesque and the trashy, should turn to outside sources. The latest hook-up that I’ve stumbled upon comes in the form of Equus Press, a London/Paris/Prague connection that specializes in the esoteric, the dauntless, and the malapert.

The first work of this press that I encountered is the subject of this review: D Harlan Wilson’s Natural Complexions. With a suitably stomach-churning cover, I was initially trepidatious in my approach to the text. It could contain anything, I realised. There was danger in it. I felt uncomfortable reading it on the tram.

I was right to be nervous, for Wilson’s novel (if we might call it that) takes aim at contemporary mores not so much with a rifle as a blunderbuss. Having written an academic study of J.G. Ballard, Wilson borrows liberally from his techno-apocalyptic imagery. We see a President mown down in a motorcade, L. Ron Hubbard making regular appearances (practicing hypnotism without a license, punching his sleeping wife for dreaming of another man), and the movie star BRIAN GONKA constantly recurs; simultaneously a pick-up artist, a dead man, a police detective, and a host of other manic characters.

The book is structured in four parts, each with a large number of often single-paragraphed sections, all tied together under loose themes and interconnected by recurring characters. These characters are all given highlighted names like Joel Osteen. The visual effect is reminiscent of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, although the piecemeal approach to narrative building is Burroughsian in effect.

Individual lines spring out from the text and surprise you. “Zebras are the primary source of crime”, for example, is hard to beat as an opener. Equally so is Harlan’s reference Greek gastromancy: “they believed the gongs of indigestion might belong to the articulations of the dead, the ghostly, the spectral or the cosmic”. The material bodily lower stratum is never far away from the cerebral, or even the transdimensional in Wilson’s imagination.

Some sections are even laugh-out-loud funny, in a way that only bad taste humour can be. The section “Death Sentences” describes body builder and murderer Maxwell La Fleur, who explains at length his only regret; that he has eaten too many carbs prior to his execution, and thus ruined the final effect of his rippling muscles as they spasm in the electric chair. The innocents he murdered, we are told, deserved it.

“Sisyphus II: The Sequel” is another such piece, funny enough for a stand-up comedian to deliver were it not sandwiched between an email from a Ghanaian scammer and piece of faux scientific speculation. In it, our unlucky speaker describes being shanked from the moment he entered prison. First the other prisoners shank him, then the guards, and then the prison doctor. The journey continues from there, taking in a wide range of shanking situations until our hero is eventually lowered into the grave, the mourners around him all leaning over to shank him on the way down.

By this point in the book I was in hysterics, ruining what little credibility I had left among my fellow tram passengers.

Wilson’s book is a short one at only 76 pages, but it is a slow burn nevertheless. One must push through one’s own reticence in order to find the humour, the satire, and the unfortunate truths that lie behind his often gruesome and gritty takes on the world. For me, the book ended just as I had started to feel at home in Wilsonworld.

It is abrupt, perhaps, but perhaps this is also for the best. For what truly transgressive book would happy to leave its reader walking away untroubled?

Like Burroughs, Acker and Ballard before him, Wilson has written a book that would recommend itself to the atypical reader. If you are a regular consumer of books who is in search of something brazenly original, drawing on known writers but offering something new as well, then this is the book for you.

If you’re a musician or a dreamer, or if you take a lot of drugs, this is also the book for you – although I question why you are reading this book review if you are…

Natural Complexions is a laugh riot that also makes you feel a bit sick, and you can’t ask for more than that in a book. I look forward to tracking down more of Wilson’s writing and I’m glad there are publishers out there like Equus Press who make sure that such writing can still make its way into the hands of prurient reviewers like me.

– Joe Darlington