Rone Shavers argues that making readers aware of subjugation - the strategy of Harold Jaffe’s False Positive - exposes little and hardly changes our relation to power.
False Positive, the latest book by the prolific and combatively iconoclastic experimental author Harold Jaffe, is preceded by an “Author’s Note,” a caveat that serves as an explanation and explicit statement concerning the pathology of the stories that follow, and the methods used in order to achieve their desired effects. It is worth repeating:
Each text in False Positive was initially a newspaper article which I have “treated.” I enter the article, and by various stratagems expose the text’s predictable but absurd ideology, in the process teasing out its most fertile (that is to say, terrorist) subtexts. Thus rearmed, the prosthetic text is released into Culture to do its dirty work.
Each of False Positive ‘s fifteen short stories was inspired by a newspaper article that Jaffe creatively appropriated and altered, either by almost completely rewriting the article, or by inserting new passages and descriptions in it, thereby opening up an agonistic (à la Homi Bhabha), dialogic (à la Bakhtin) space in the reader’s perception of quotidian informational texts. Thus, the “terrorist” subtext that Jaffe seeks to “tease out” in this collection is intended to effect tri-fold results: challenge the dominant ideology; make the reader aware of his or her interpellation; and force the reader to realize that almost all forms of popular media are used as a means of preserving, re-inscribing, and reifying interpellative power.
But is making a reader aware of his or her subjection enough to somehow change a reader’s relation to a (actually, the) dominant power structure? Jaffe seems to think so, for each story in this collection attempts to passively impart a resistance to Culture by presenting a simultaneous and potentially dialogic version of the article chosen. Therein lies the first problem with False Positive, for the form (and formal aspects of the work) “exposes” little that is truly detrimental to Power’s (or “Culture’s” if you prefer) interpellative acts and ideological claims. Effective dialogic texts often (re)present an alternative to the culture resisted, an alternative view, but because Jaffe has merely made “prosthetic” articles, because he has only cosmetically altered his source-texts, his stories are as effective of inducing Cultural resistance as a Saturday Night Live skit. Faux journalism is still a form of journalism, after all, and therefore the prosthetic stories of False Positive must be read as essentially parodic mimicries and not “terroristic” texts as he asserts, because the counter-narratives (re)presented are actually both stylistically and formally not that different from the source material Jaffe hopes to undermine. For instance, regard the following passage from his story entitled “Carthage, Miss.,” and note that because Jaffe’s counter-narrative appears in italics, I reproduce them below:
When Crystal Wells died on Nov. 3, her son Travis draped her denim jacket over her body, covered her face and shoulders with newspaper, and laid her, face up, in a corner of the cramped family room of the one-bedroom trailer.
When Crystal Wells died on Nov. 3, her son Tyler covered her body with her pale mauve terrycloth bathrobe, placed sheets of toilet paper over her face and shoulders, and set her, face up, in a corner of the cramped family room of the one-bedroom trailer.
Crystal was petite, just five-feet-one in her stocking feet.
Crystal was petite, just five-feet-two in her lizard skin line-dancing boots.
After his mom’s death, Travis prepared meals - mainly frozen pizza, Froot Loops and beef jerky - and went to school every day until her body was discovered Monday by family friends Dot and Earl Begley.
After his mom’s death, Tyler fixed his own meals - mainly frozen pizza, chocolate energy bars and chunky style peanut butter - and went to school every day until Crystal’s body was discovered Monday by her half-sister and brother-in-law, Dot and Earl Begley (False Positive 33-34).
It is difficult to say exactly what “predictable but absurd ideology” is exposed above, because aside from changing a few details and familial relations, one reads nothing that truly challenges “Culture” in a specific or explicit way. Without the insertion of a counter-ideological position, an alternative view, Jaffe’s attempt to create a supposedly subversive dialogic text reads only like two equally solipsistic monologues. The author is a bit too faithful to the original source material to effect a reader’s psychic break from interpellation; to engender Cultural resistance.
Throughout these pages, Jaffe’s reliance (despite its significance, its primary importance to the work) upon journalistic reportage as the ur-source of all his textual play makes this collection seem like an exercise, an experimentation, like yet another diversion in the long list of language games; like something worthy of perhaps one story, but not an entire collection of them. In a society where even a fourteen year old can define and provide examples of propaganda, and competing news networks can provide wildly uneven coverage of events (for example, compare the discrepancies in coverage of our recent war in Iraq between the far-Right FOX News, the center-Right BBC, and the Left-of-center, in this instance, Al-Jazeera TV; or the oftentimes conflicting details of reports issued by embedded, dis-embedded, and un-embedded journalists), it is too reductive and simplistic to premise one’s fiction on the notion that reportage is far from factual. Almost every American author of the past quarter century with even a miniscule political inclination has in one way or another implied that journalism/reportage is far from the “truth” (and to cite just a few random works from the top of my head, Joan Didion’s Salvador, Percival Everett’s Erasure, and William Gaddis’ Carpenter’s Gothic spring readily to mind); that truth is often determined by what one is willing to identify, acknowledge, and believe; and that truth is as subjective as it is subjected to media “spin.” To devote a book solely to exposing this “absurd ideology” smacks of critical and aesthetic regression, not innovation. Since the Vietnam War, distrust of the media has been a symptomatic condition of intellectual maturity, a prerequisite of both Right- and Left-leaning critical thinking, and thus the simple deconstruction of media(ted) “Culture” in a work of fiction amounts to nothing short of an endeavor that can rightfully be called so Grad School 101; so 1989; intellectual navel (or in this case, newspaper) gazing at its most creative finest.
This is not to say that False Positive is bad collection of stories, rather that it is disappointing. Its anti-hegemonic potential is not realized, for the collection requires that a reader already have knowledge of Jaffe’s particular ideological and theoretical positions. One must know the context in which (and for what purpose) this work has been made in order to truly understand the cultural depth and literary gravitas of the author’s intentions, and the information provided in Jaffe’s one-paragraph Author’s Note is simply not enough.
Heavily influenced by such radical and foundationally disparate thinkers as Guy Debord, Paul Virilio, and E. F. Schumacher, Jaffe attempts through his writing to subvert - although pervert is a more apt description - Western bourgeois capitalism (what he often calls the “technoculture”), and reclaim both art and art-making as something potentially able to inspire action and capable of destabilizing hegemonic forces wherever these forces may be. Yet it is mainly through his non-fiction writing that his desire to reclaim art is made explicit. For example, the following quote is from his non-fiction work entitled, “Slash and Burn: A Narrative Model for the Millennium” (excerpted in ebr) and it reveals volumes more about his authorial intentions than the entire paragraph that precedes his current fictional collection:
We know that official culture employs its media, both print and electronic, to subsume us with its version of its own narrative. Other versions - counter-narratives - are either not represented, marginalized, or deliberately misrepresented….
There isn’t, then, a contemporary audience for revolutionary art as such. This doesn’t preclude more limited art - acts of, as it were, beneficent terrorism, which have the potential to spread like bush fires, but at the very least will have some small usefulness in defamiliarizing official ideology. I’m referring to narratives which are parallel to the dominant narrative, but largely invisible, marginal, subjugated….
According to Jaffe, then, the more dominant forces (read, the aesthetics) of “official” Culture have “marginalized” and “subjugated” other, perhaps more subversive (thus less controllable) aesthetic and formal choices in art, and so he presents the stories in False Positive as a counter- (with all that the word implies) -cultural alternative, a “parallel” to the dominant narrative/aesthetic which can be used as a means of “defamiliarizing official ideology.”
There is nothing wrong with such a view - in fact, I wholeheartedly endorse and agree with Jaffe’s condemnation of the aesthetics of “official” culture - but the (or at least my) problem with the idea that a “parallel” text can destabilize ideology is that it assumes that defamiliarization will instantly engender a resistance (and a continuously resurgent resistance at that) to official ideology when that is often not the case. Louis Althusser, in his famous essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” astutely depicts how interpellation into the dominant ideology is a constant process, one that perpetually re-occurs to individual subjects again and again and again. Ideology, according to Althusser, thus begins to function as an individual’s “comfort zone.” Still, if one of the intentions of False Positive is to make its reader aware of exactly how newspaper articles reinforce interpellation, does Jaffe really think that merely making one aware of newspapers’ - and by extension, journalism’s - interpellative properties is enough to forever prevent a reader’s re-interpellation into the (aesthetics and narratives of the) dominant (or “official”) culture? Can a “parallel” counter-narrative, simply because it cleverly mimics the dominant narrative, give rise to a new Aufklarung? A moment of temporary enlightenment that might lead to a state of permanent enlightenment is what Jaffe seeks to create in his collection, it is the “beneficient terrorism” he hopes to enact. But because of the power of interpellation, the absolute hegemony Culture possesses, rather than the terror of awareness Jaffe hopes for, readers experience naught but a startle, what happens when one experiences a tiny, inconsequential fright that remains forever unregistered by memory.
Jaffe himself seems to be conscious of this intellectual and aesthetic impasse though, for in “Five-Point Restraints: Art Making in the Technosphere,” after intimating that art has lost its significance in our increasingly technological and commodified culture, he posits an alternative purpose for art in Western bourgeois capital culture - a raison d’ecrire, as it were:
The “prescription” which follows is eclectic, combining the modernism of Brecht and Debord’s Situationism with activist components of Conceptual Art and contemporary theory. The object is not to enunciate a new artistic credo but to rearticulate certain art practices which have been unjustly abandoned. What is called for, then, is a Crisis art…. [C]risis art is able to locate the seams in the techno-system in which to plant its counter-ideological mines. These seams are the rents, or fault lines, in the web of interlocking ideology which prevent us from being ourselves.
How does the “guerrilla” artist lay these counter-ideological mines? She looks for a juncture or seam that is relatively unguarded, or less rigorously policed, she plants the mine and scuttles away….
Judging from the above statement, one may then assume that the stories of False Positive are representative of Jaffe’s “Crisis Art”: a necessary fictional intervention that plants a counter-ideological mine in the mind of its reader while its author “scuttles” quietly away. Yet my point of contention is that Jaffe’s solution to this crisis, his attempts to illustrate critical, cultural resistance when reading a text - and then seduce the reader into doing the same - only works if and when the reader is made aware of the political underpinnings of his quite strategic textual moves, and the stories in this collection (what can rightfully be described as the articulation of his ideology in a fictional form), do not reveal enough about the author’s intentions to carry their desired weight, to produce any sort of ideological effect at all. The stories written here lack true disruptive or counter-ideological force because they are, as he attests in his Author’s Note, merely passively “released into Culture, to do their dirty work.”
By not including his own ideological content in his stories, Jaffe nullifies his own attempt to create, portray, and maintain a counter-ideological connection, if only because he gives the reader neither clear indication of what his counter-ideology entails, nor what benefits he believes his liberatory, counter-ideological position provides. Instead, he leaves the reader to guess at the goal of his directed work, and a reader that is resistant or even just unaware of the subversive intent of its presentations may miss the point entirely. In short, then, False Positive preaches to the already-converted, an idyllic choir of pre-illuminated, “guerilla” artists, because for the uninitiated, for those not privy to Jaffe’s intention to stage a critical intervention, the counter-ideological mine will never detonate in a flash of obvious revelatory shrapnel. Those who get it, will get it; those who don’t (or even more problematically, won’t), are left to wander aimlessly throughout thetext in a self-defeating search for meaning.
Because Jaffe provides no indicative or exemplary way to possibly counter hegemony and instead merely “parallels” (i.e., parodies, mimics) hegemonic texts, he leaves intact the selfsame ideology that his stories are supposed to disrupt, even while tacitly positing that there is indeed a way to counter them - a way that is implied in his exhortation to “find a seam, plant a mine, slip away….” I find such a contradiction to be emblematic of the collection’s essential antilogy, for False Positive is equally as dependant upon the same set of social forces and narratives as the newspaper articles it seeks to eliminate. I say this because as previously stated, False Positive must remain faithful to journalistic tropes in order to create its dialogic, agonistic space, but also because, precisely like the journalism it mocks, it impotently hides its ideology under layer upon layer of just the supposed (and sometimes fictional) “facts.”
This is not to say that all narratives must illustrate a distinct and discernable ideology, or that all fiction should be written with an easily-identifiable ideology in mind, but rather that if one attempts in one’s work to destabilize one ideology and posit another, then one’s work must clearly state and/or represent one’s counter-ideological vision. Jaffe’s project is not new (and to his credit, he does describe it as the re-articulation of “certain art practices”) - the exposure of the absurdity of ideology of the Western narrative, in its literary, historical, contemporary, and colloquial sense - but the project has been more successfully realized before, most recently and notably in the work of Kathy Acker. Acker’s Don Quixote, Empire of the Senseless, and Great Expectations are also examples of “terrorist” texts, texts where a “guerilla” artist writes brazenly “parallel” narratives, but the difference between the work of Acker and Jaffe is that Acker’s work reflects an explicit counter-ideological commitment, a position that is further made self-evident when one reads any one of her texts. Acker actively releases her work into Culture - that is to say, it is impossible to not know Acker’s aesthetic and counter-ideological positions when reading her texts - in contrast to Jaffe, who unnecessarily compartmentalizes his views, articulating his counter-ideology and aesthetic claims only in his non-fiction. To return to one of my earlier claims then, if faux journalism is still a form of journalism, and if Jaffe is right in his assessment that we can read most dominant culture journalism as a form of propaganda, then the failure of Jaffe’s story collection is that it, too, functions as a sort of propaganda, but unfortunately, he does not deign to tell the reader what his particular brand of propaganda supports.
By exposing the dominant ideology of the narratives while simultaneously evacuating them of any mention of his intended counter-ideology, Jaffe has done his text a great disservice. And it is indeed a disservice, because aside from their initial shock value, the stories in False Positive, stories such as “Pizza Parlor” (which describes a wife’s revenge on her child-molester husband), “Nameless Moroccan 12 Stories Up” (which recounts one man convincing the title character to not attempt suicide), “Slurry” (in which the story of Sunny Boy Nuñez is juxtaposed with a brief description of what is necessary to carry out an anthrax attack), and others, fall shy of true provocation, intellectual, cultural, or otherwise, for they do not reveal the underpinnings of Jaffe’s counter- (or anti-) Cultural views. His desire to find a seam and slip away. Jaffe’s effort to destabilize bourgeois hegemony in False Positive is both a laudable and worthwhile act, but he fails in the execution. The author does indeed plant his terroristic, counter-ideological mine (mind) and slip away, but alas, he leaves it in a place where far too few people will ever step.