Unreason as Relief Therapy

By Ben Watson, 10 September 2001

Ben Watson takes us on a tour of logic-defying literature, connecting James Joyce and Hackney Punk to shed some light on the Mad Pride movement

Accelerating economic rationalisation not only produces the visible features of modernity – private wealth, public squalor, accumulating crisp packets – it also generates mass craving for the irrational. This craving manifests itself in a thousand ways, from Hollywood films whose plots are triggered by gnomic comments from black soothsayers (Unbreakable, Family Man) to the dark side wooed by pop acts like Radiohead. Reacting to such ‘exploitation’ by all-too-rational commercial enterprise, Mad Pride has proposed a DIY-agitprop celebration of madness, brushed with the grime of metropolitan streets. Its Hackney Punk ethos comes spiked with the acerbic lumpen-realism of fictions by Iain Sinclair and Stewart Home. Under its grubby anarchist flag, Mad Pride congregates a host of protests and demands which were previously dispersed and so invisible, dismissable as the ‘paranoid/neurotic’ fringe of literature, rock, stand-up, cultural theory and political science. Here is a psychogeographic guide to some of Mad Pride’s contributing sources.


In their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Adorno and Horkheimer applied the hacksaw of dialectical reason to the tap-root of European thought. Contrary to official accounts, Plato’s idealism – vaunting the concept over the thing conceived – was not the foundation stone of philosophy and democracy, but an ideology for slave owners. Today, the Platonic Rule of the Concept (aka capitalism) does not just exploit labour economically, it travesties our desires and represses the nature within us. Ecological destruction is merely the outward sign of mass psychic damage. Phrased in gleefully compacted jargon, Adorno and Horkheimer’s polemic needed Mad Pride to liberate it from the shackles of theory, and give it a vital jolt of populism. Taking its cue from punk’s manhandling of situationist theory, Mad Pride responds to Adorno and Horkheimer’s assault on the bourgeois ratio by lining up its victims, cans of ‘self-medication’ (Tennants) in hand, primed to jeer and gob at Tony Blair.


Mad Pride’s most obvious forerunner is Surrealism, a movement long misunderstood in Britain because it was received – courtesy Roland Penrose and the Institute of Contemporary Arts – as simply a new manner of painting, rather than a revolutionary practice. Recruited by advertising to serve the ends of market rationality (any technical overspill mopped up by the spectacular lunacy of the establishment’s Modern Art), Surrealism’s imagistic disobedience is discredited among today’s Cadres of the Insane. Now that London tourists are queuing outside a Dali Museum, those seeking effective UNREASON AS RELIEF THERAPY must dig deeper, seek out those zones where the protest barks out at the cash-nexus itself. Outed by Mad Pride, agents across the globe are revealed as incubating a counter-virus to the society-of-means-without-ends, spiking their genetic products with unrecuperable poisons. Whether disguised as ‘literature’, ‘academic papers’, ‘music criticism’, or even ‘poetry’, the pertinent dialectical retort to Rupert Murdoch’s version of the Enlightenment can be identified by its ability to stop the media-receiver in his/her tracks, and thereby foment critical thought and resistant action.


The unsacred book-of-choice for any Mad Prider has to be James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a deliberate affront to snooty comprehensibility and conceptual hauteur concocted between 1922 and 1939. It could only have been produced in Paris, a transcript of the multi-lingual squabbles and misunderstandings during the high point of the century’s avant-garde. Wake is the most powerful antidote to conceptual repression ever formulated: a super-unalienated text, where every word explodes into discussion with its neighbours – and its reader. When it was finally published, there were questions asked in the British Parliament in case it was a code-book for Nazi spies. What those engaged in World War II could not guess was that it was actually a code-book for the destruction of cultural distinction, class hierarchy and wars generated by the commodification of military violence.

The seventeen years James Joyce put into Finnegans Wake made it a future encyclical for anti-capitalism, giving the acolyte the ability to see through the commodity fetishes of the media spectacle, and connect to the poetry of resistance, however manifested. The domination of the generalised, transparent concept – the language of alienation and power – is ceaselessly degraded by regression to the biological facts, the common matter of humanity. The spoken spunk of Joyce’s verbiage refuses the tightlipped, silent spell of Latinate logico-legalism, forcing the reader into lipwork and tonguewaggle. Gilles Deleuze urged his readers to enter ‘the polyvocal real’, Finnegans Wake hurls you there:

‘Polthergeistkotzdondherhoploits! Kick? What mother? Whose porter? Which pair? Why namely coon? But our undilligence has been plutherotested so enough of such porterblack lowneess, too base for printink!’ (p.187)


For a decade, scavenger-artist Gerry Fialka – living and operating from a shed built of vinyl LPs, cassette-tapes and videos in a back lot on Glyndon Avenue, Venice – has been leading a Finnegans Wake reading-group in a Los Angeles public library and mounting festivals of homemade PXL-2000 movies. He proposes a revolutionary, propertyless artistic communism in which the life works of Captain Beefheart, George Clinton and Rahsaan Roland Kirk cross-pollinate and merge with the whole mediated environment of late capitalism, where playtime unravels the knots of economic domination. Fialka’s politics of experience refuse conventional literacy and cultural value. He yearns to make real the tokenistic substitutions of ‘art’ and ‘literature’, a collective psychogeographical testing of limits as the masses turn against the blandishments of a reality defined by TV, and begin to interrogate their artificial surroundings: ‘as question time drew nighing and the map of the souls’ groupography rose in relief within their quarterings’ (FW, p. 476). In July, Fialka addressed the James Joyce 2001 Conference in Berkeley, drawing connections between Finnegans Wake and the oeuvres of Frank Zappa and Marshall McLuhan.


Dr Yaguello teaches linguistics at the University of Dakar, Senegal. In 1977, she translated into French Valentin Voloshinov’s crucial Marksizm i Folosfiya Yazyka (Marxism & The Philosophy Of Language), Volshinov’s devastating and conclusive critique of Saussure, written in a spate of revolutionary enthusiasm in 1929, and only now beginning to challenge the structuralist paradigm in Anglophone studies. Following up Nikolai Marr, a seriously-demented linguist appointed by Stalin as the Pope of Soviet Linguistics, Yaguello stumbled on the realm of glossolalia and invented languages. Her Lunatic Lovers Of Language: Imaginary Languages And Their Inventors (translated into English by Catherine Slater in 1991) is a Mad Pride primer in anti-Kantian body-language poetics.


A poet who has been printing his own poetry – thus bouleversing the cosy gameplan established by T.S. Eliot and Faber & Faber – since 1942. Involvements include practically every destabilising artistic current since then. Writers Forum, the open and active workshop he founded, is still running, having produced such unlikely wonders as Maggie O’Sullivan, Adrian Clarke and Paul Hill. This zone of poetry is so raw and ungentrified, it’s practically unEnglish. Cobbing’s recent appearance at the Hackney Punk Festival this Spring – along with gasmasked guitarist Hugh Metcalfe and saxophonist Lol Coxhill in a group called Birdyak – caused a stage invasion. Cobbing currently operates an industrial-sized photocopier from his frontroom, producing eyeball-crumpling graphics which give new meaning to the words ‘black’ and ‘white’. (Margaret Thatcher once asked for one of his abstract paintings to be removed from North Finchley Library because it was ‘obscene and blasphemous.’ Asked to explain her aversion, she replied, ‘It’s all sperm!’) Cobbing tramples distinctions between artistic disciplines – and ill-disciplines – with a practical intelligence that has made him legendary. A book like Shrieks & Hisses: Collected Poems Vol. 16 (Buckfastleigh, Etruscan, 1999) contains more arresting ‘things’ on the page than can be held in the brain at one sitting. Proud and barking.


Masquerading as a new music magazine, Bananafish – published by Tedium House Publications, PO Box 424762, San Francisco, CA 94142 – has recently discovered writers capable of the Wake’s submergence of abstract discourse into the communist body. J. Crouse, collaborator with saxophonist Stanley Jason Zappa, writes: ‘Welcome to opportunity charms. Where commemorated skullmugs stroke imperial tikis & thinktank apes concrete readymade geek artifaces. Where dross epics vomit external heart watermark dungs when wholeness falls appart as value. Hello country bumpkin. Who information?’ Mad Pride enthusiasts will applaud the magazine’s crusade for Ant-Honey, the brain-injured vocalist of Volvox, a Melbourne manifestation of Birdyak’s anthropological research. In a recent issue, S. Glass’s ‘What Planet Is The Ass You Have Your Head Up From?’ at last finds a prose equal to the terrifying task of commenting on the tottering towers of CDs issued by artist-run labels every minute: ‘Keith Rowe and Evan Parker’s Dark Rags (Potlatch) conjures in title and style tales of topographic glue factories in which kissed-by-death rabbits reason their way out of employ by Elmer’s epoxybots.’ Flower Power failed because it underestimated the sheer brute nastiness of the opposition: with Bananafish there to remind it, San Francisco won’t make that mistake again.

Ben Watson’s publications include Frank Zappa The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play and Art, Class & Cleavage: Quantulumcunque Concerning Materialist Esthetix, both published by Quartet. He also helped edit Mad Pride: A Celebration Of Mad Culture, published by Handsell