Chris Campanioni: “Homage and criticism are really two sides to the same mirror” — Fernando Sdrigotti

Chris Campanioni is a New York based first generation American writer of Cuban and Polish descent. He recently releasedDeath of Art, a genre-shattering work, that shifts between biography, essay, fiction and experimental prose. This is his fourth book, and a perfect example of a writing style he has been developing over the years, releasing stuff prolifically into the void through many online magazines including 3:AM Magazine, Minor Literature[s], Numéro Cinq, and PANK —  a magazine he co-edits — among many others. Campanioni also moonlights as a male model — or does he moonlight as a writer? — something that is not necessarily common in the world of letters. This conversation was conducted over email, in a space of several weeks.

Fernando Sdrigotti: Thanks for accepting to do this interview, Chris.

Chris Campanioni: Thanks for asking me!

Fernando Sdrigotti: I was re-reading one of your pieces today, the one about this afterlife of apps, I think it’s called “Ghost in the Machine”, and I was struck by the ideas you bring into this essay. There seems to be an attempt to decode popular culture, in critical terms, mobilising theory without necessarily doing it explicitly, all the while preserving some kind of fascination about the same things you criticise. This is something that caught my attention about your work from an early moment: this juggling of criticism and fascination. I can’t remember very well which of your pieces I read and published first, but I do remember very vividly not being able to tell the extent to which you were being critical or if you were just somehow paying homage to our contemporary alienation. It might have been the piece you wrote for Numéro Cinq that I published, when I was working with them, about hanging around film execs. Would you like to start this conversation by commenting on these very vague initial ideas?

Chris Campanioni:  I like what you say about mobilising theory without really indicating it. A colleague of mine mentioned the other day that he thinks of my critical work as “middle distant reading” in the sense that it straddles various methodologies and evades borders, or tries to. Inherently personal but also close to the text, and the associations I’m teasing out of it, in a very self-directed, self-reflective way. And I’ve always tried to do that with my creative work too: to use a story or poem or hybrid work to test out theoretical concerns that I’m working through in the class, with my students, and especially out of the classroom, within myself. And I think “distance” is key here but also in regard to decoding, as you say, culture, while embedding yourself in it. And I think it’s almost a prerequisite. I’ve always sort of said (and even sometimes believed) that in order to write about anything effectively and provide a useful critique you’d have to be complicit in whatever it is you are critiquing. There’s no halfway, except in understanding that as a writer, you can be simultaneously within something (or someone) and outside of it, to better understand it and to have that self-consciousness to write about the understanding, which requires distance. And I love what you say about “paying homage” to our culture industry and our contemporary alienation because it seems to me to be less about the binary of celebration/criticism and more about reappropriating these cultural markers … repurposing them in a similar Situationist sense, which is where my work is rooted and whom it is indebted to. What do I do with the voice of the other—the voice of pop culture, the voice of film execs, the voice of capital—do I incorporate and merge it and cross-pollinate it with my own, and how can I invite readers to do the same thing by following the language of the text as an example and exhortation? These are questions I think about a lot, and it reminds me that fascination, for sure, is also what drives my work, even and especially my own fascination with myself and what I’ve produced. I write the work and immediately read the work as if I’m the reader, approaching it for the first time, to probe the work and allow myself to be surprised by it— to learn something, to find something out about the work and its own complications. And I think that might be really important because it also means that I myself am trying to re-appropriate the address of the work to become the other. Alternately reader and writer and voyeur. It has a lot to do with voyeurism, which in itself is an homage, except a private one. Voyeurism is a silent gesture. The sound of pop culture, of capital, of the film execs is the sound of noise, even animation. But animation for animation’s sake. “Everyone, in fact, was nodding, shaking, vibrating.” It’s a manufactured movement and in the outward gesture there is really an inward one: look at me. Really, that’s what the film execs are saying without saying it in that scene you might have been referring to in “Self-Interested Glimpses” which later appears in the book Death of Art. And of course, I reiterate the self-interested glimpse; I take the unconscious invitation of the film execs to tell the reader to also look at me, if only so that they might also look at themselves. Homage and criticism are really two sides to the same mirror.

Fernando Sdrigotti: I do agree that homage and criticism are two sides of the same mirror, and this is something I find missing in most critical appraisals of the Spectacle (with capital S). It is 2017 and many know a bit of Debord and the pro-Situ spawns he might have engendered, and The Society of the Spectacle has become a Twitter-quote favourite. But few people are aware how much Debord and his fellow Situationists were obsessed with popular culture, how much they were film fans, and particularly with Debord, a fan of bad films. Is it possible to launch a war against the Spectacle without first loving it? My impression is that it isn’t — you need to know it, you need to have become incorporated by it, you need to have grown tired of it whilst still finding yourself repulsively attracted to it. But then is possible to fight the Spectacle at all? Do we have any chance? Social media — a medium that features a lot in your writing — has many times been touted as the end of the Spectacle, as a form of democratising it, at least. And yet we have ended up becoming micro-Spectacles ourselves, while we never ceased being an audience — only that we now consume ourselves as producers. The feeling I get is that we can’t seem to escape the need to surrender to the Spectacle, in any of its embodiments. Does your writing contemplate the possibility of a transcendence from this trap or is it an act of surrender? Is it only about these two extremes?

Chris Campanioni: These are some real questions! I’d written in a recent essay, “You & 753 People (Liked this Picture)”, for At Large Magazine: “Destination nowhere. Destination now here. Just lie back & let it happen.” But I think sometimes my tone is too often tongue-in-cheek, and when your tongue is always in your cheek you literally are self-silenced. Surrender is not a choice for any artist, unless it’s a surrendering to desires or ambitions that would otherwise not be realised under specific constraints. I think transcendence comes when we contemplate possibilities, and a lot of that has to do with form. The work I am thinking and working through now is a series of what I call “frieze frames” or Internet ekphrases, and it starts with the basis of using the trash of the Internet—spam language, porn ads, invasive pop-up marketing, social media hashtags, fake robot account About Mes, etc.—and turning all this into art (or just more trash). But I think that’s where some semblance of transcendence is rooted today—not in product but with process. How can I re-evaluate our Spectacle while using the Spectacle? It’s really not so different from the Situationists, except now the simultaneous valorization/critique occurs in a world where every text in our content-rich culture is available to be used against itself. Everything is an advertisement, everything is a product—including ourselves. The brief opening to that project attests to that attempt, a sort of relentless approach to language where the upshot is, maybe, explo(d/r)ing the text, breaking it up, bringing us in, inviting—again—the reader to take part, not just to witness what occurs at the moment of breakdown: Think of these like friezes at a museum, except the museum is the Internet & the exhibition is always on display. In a culture of global visibility, everything can be re-envisioned as an object d’art. What do we choose to reproduce in our camera eye, & what hangs on the wall, without words? Atget’s photographs of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century ushered in a new need for text to accompany images. Captions replaced imagination. I’ve decided that imagination can replace captions.

To return to the issue of tone, I think, returns us to the issue of performance. And that straddling between art/artifice or criticism/comedy, or transcendence/surrender finds its way into the question of theory, as well, that you spoke of at the very beginning of our conversation. I think another way of thinking about “mobilizing theory” is to think about it as performing theory and, through the performance, I’m able to demonstrate how much it matters in the work and for the work.

Fernando Sdrigotti: I was thinking about this the other day, about the need for literature to perform critically, not just to function as a storytelling device. In my opinion, the most interesting books that come to mind — I’m talking about fiction books — function as critical tools. Sometimes this criticism can be socio-political; other times what is thrown into a crisis is literature itself: let’s say that this is a criticism of the form itself. It may be my own approach to writing that leads me to this kind of book— I’m simply not interested in storytelling for the sake of the story alone; like I always say: you find better storytellers in pubs than in literary circles. I feel your writing works along these lines. I mean, I know it does because there is always a subtext in what you write, and that is what interested me the first time I came across your work, as an editor. Is this something you arrive at consciously? Do you tell yourself: “I want to tackle this or that aspect, and I want to do it critically like this or like that”? Or do you find yourself in the act of performing a criticism in the process of chasing a certain story?

Chris Campanioni: It actually works the opposite for me. I’m wholly conscious of a critical position or theory I want to explore, complicate, understand, and my attempts to do so end up materializing in all those other things that add up to “story”—lineation and line breaks, narrative, dialogue, plot, et cetera; they all come out of the “performance of theory”. In that way I think the story itself feels less forced and becomes more of a natural response or byproduct to the critical work being done or undertaken. In an odd or at least non-normative way, I almost need my fiction to check against what I believe to be true, in theory.

I’m also interested in dating work, rooting it, in a very self-aware, self-disclosed moment. So much of what I love about literature is its ability to transport readers back to very specific moments, micro-histories that are evaded or eviscerated by History, the progress of history, all that accumulated garbage … what I love is the garbage that people have discarded instead of held onto and hoarded.

I have a question for you, now: in your role as a curator of contemporary writing, what are your thoughts on work that is so self-aware of its position and location within a specific moment rather than the “timeless”?

Fernando Sdrigotti: I think it is both very necessary and yet very dangerous, to try to get hold of a very precise moment, especially when that particular moment is the present. I find that there is a lot of the writing that attempts to do this that comes across as calculating and half-achieved. And why is this the case? Well, mainly because it’s very hard to pull — it’s very hard to write running a race with the present. My own experience of trying to deal with the present — particularly in long projects — has been catastrophic. For me, as a writer, when it comes to fiction what works best are things that look back, say, four or five years. Works that answer the question “how did we get here?” more than “where are we?”. Obviously there is a lot going on right now and much of the sheer stupidity of the moment we’re living in is worth exploring, particularly as we get used to the stupidity of it and it stops being a novelty. We have Brexit here, terrorism, a massive identity crisis in Europe, and the inability of both right (obviously) and left (sadly) to deal with the challenges ahead. And you guys have Trump, Putin meddling in your affairs, and the threat of a war with North Korea and China round the corner. How not to write about all this, then! Perhaps it’s about the dialogue that comes from things that explore the present and those that look a bit back? But more importantly, I think it’s about how not to let things slide into a dystopia, more fear-mongering, despair? What are your thoughts on this? Why write and how to write about the contemporary moment?

Chris Campanioni: I’ve always 1) written myself in relation to the present moment. I’ve always 2) written myself in relation to everything. Those are two conscious or unconscious endeavours I’ve striven towards in my work. I like what you said just then, that it seems impossible not to write about the current moment when the current is so fucking turgid.

I think the risk here is simply dating yourself, as you rightly point out, but as I’ve said in the past—uhh no pun intended here?—this is actually a good thing. I’ve often thought that what makes a work of art timeless is its being rooted in a particular moment; what would it look like to capture that screenshot and hold it in place; how does one begin to formulate that on the page? And again, I think there’s an element of risk there, mostly in the formal decisions that need to take place at the outset. The challenge then is to describe or characterise what it feels like to be alive now in the midst of it, but by using this form of communication—the mode or method of daily conversations—a stroll through consciousness that includes all sorts of helpful disruptions: tweets, text messages, pop-ups, porn ads, overheard sounds and dialogue from across the street, subject to what is right now playing on your headphones. Walter Benjamin saw pop culture as the potential site of resistance even as everyone else in the Frankfurt School considered pop as an instrument of economic and political control. The answer, I think, is somewhere in-between. The interruption, the rupture, the scratch. What we see as noise could become a pleasure and a purpose, a way to insert other voices in a text, to re-orient our position as readers and writers.

Fernando Sdrigotti: So much for the present… What about the future? What do you think the future holds for you as a writer? What is the future of literature in the USA in the Age of Stupid? Is there a future or it’s all going to the dogs? I know this is a big question but I think that it would be a good way of closing this conversation.

Chris Campanioni: I’m optimistic—I think optimism necessarily characterizes most artists, even if we feign at being skeptics or cynics—mainly because I think the resignification of literature requires opening new contexts, speaking in ways that have not been legitimated. What does that mean? It means producing legitimation in new forms. It means the kind of Post Internet poetics I’m interested in exploring and enacting. Part of that means divorcing poetry and theory from its academic or high-culture roots and holding it up to and in—everyday life.


Fernando Sdrigotti writes and edits Minor Literature[s]. He lives in London. @f_sd.

Image: MirrorSam Sanford, Creative Commons.