Push My Envelope Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2016-05-24 10:00:00 No comments

Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember? - The New York Times

... the definition of “transgressive” is shifting. It’s no longer appropriate to dismiss disco as superficial. More and more, we recognize how disco latently pushed gay, urban culture into white suburbia, which is a more meaningful transgression than going on a British TV talk show and swearing at the host.

My take is that "transgressive" is always relative to what you're pushing against, and even then it's a moving target, because we're moving targets.

In the 1970s, disco culture was pooh-poohed because it was seen by rock fans as straight America's attempt to be hip. The way it legitimized gay culture went almost totally unseen at the time, in big part because gay culture itself was unseen -- and, in my opinion, somewhat deliberately, by a lot of rock fans. I remember how Queen and David Bowie were, for a big part of my youth, seen by my compatriots as campy weirdos (read: "fags"), but then folks like Prince came along and pretty much knocked everyone's sensibilities on that score into a cocked hat.

What seemed transgressive once upon a time may now look quaint not merely because we've "moved on", but because the thing being pushed against might well have turned out to be a strawman. And what seemed square or irrelevant once upon a time now seems more urgent than ever, because we didn't have eyes to see what mattered. Tackhead, for me, still blow away most of their industrial, funk, and IDM counterparts, despite being little known in all three of those circles at the time.

I tend to think the same way about writing. I don't have a lot of faith in the bizarro genre, in big part because it seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what transgressive means. Writing like William S. Burroughs doesn't make you into the man, let alone an heir to his mantle; you had to first live a life at least as outrageous (and, let's face it, wretched) as his. The writing was just the by-product and the artifact. Ditto Kathy Acker, or Jean Genet, or John Rechy, or even Peter Sotos (even though I'm no fan of his work). When I realized I'd lived too inherently sheltered an existence to do anything in that vein, I quit trying, and probably saved myself a lot of embarrassment and wasted effort.

Another thing that comes up out of this is how to deal with the notion that the artist's highest duty is to push envelopes, to question dogmas, and all that. The problem is first knowing what shapes those envelopes have in the first place, or what the dogmas really are. Maybe this is something best embodied on a personal level than made into an assignment.

I've come around to the idea that if you are honest with yourself, that if you dig down within and find the things that are most you, that are most capable of giving your work an outlook that can't be derived wholesale from someone else, then all this business of needing something to push against resolves itself. Whatever it is you have to push against, it'll suggest itself automatically. So will the way to push against it.

Tags: Jean Genet John Rechy Kathy Acker Peter Sotos Tackhead William S. Burroughs art culture music society writers writing