The Theatre of Operations: 2000-2001—The Disaster Laboratory

(From Laboratoire de catastrophe générale: Journal métaphysique et polémique, 2000-2001)

The mainstream press has now reached the point where, in its rage to put a label on everything, it endlessly compounds errors with lies. In my case, after thinking I was some kind of cyber-nut or punk-blah-blah, it is now trying to promote the idea that I’m a reactionary (and not the press), burying me in every tawdry epithet currently available (fascist, separatist, eugenicist, bourgeois, nouveau riche), and has even invented an unlikely past for me as an ex-leftist because it turns out that I knew Jean-Bernard Pouy at the Lycée Romain Roland in Ivry-sur-Seine twenty-five years ago, and that my editor at Série Noire is Patrick Raynal. Primo, and so that the pretentious hacks get it into their heads once and for all, I was born in 1959 and was, therefore, nine years old in 1968, and twelve when I met Pouy, who was then in charge of cultural and educational activities at my school, in particular the film club, where great French and American classics were screened, alongside cinematic UFOs, like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev, or the collected works of the Marx Brothers. Secundo, as for Raynal, while he may be an ex-Maoist—something he’s never hidden—he’s the only editor who dared publish my work; and I’d like to remind the Jesuits lurking among my contemporaries that it turns out that the people running today’s hypercommunications industry, particularly the publishing subsection, are (nearly) all former leftists, or fellow travelers, because during that period of total disaster known as the second half of the last century, they were practically the only people to actually read books. Raynal is far from being an exception, even though his corpulence and expansiveness have made him one of the most visible. But to return to my present subject, I was described in an article published in Le Temps (Geneva) and signed by one Isabelle Rüf as: “an émigré (who) vomits up his ex-leftist bile.

It’s high time to inform the pen pushers working in the Western liberal-social press that I was a “leftist” once in my life, for approximately one school semester, around 1974, when, through the pressure of events, society, and its collective unconscious—if not its collective ignorance—I joined a Trotskyist group known as the Youth Alliance for Socialism, which I quit rather tempestuously the following fall. Reading Nietzsche, Dick, Burroughs, Kafka, the SI, and Dostoevsky is what saved me from the intellectual disaster in which my entire generation, under cover of “punkitude,” went on to drown itself en masse.

For a time I was also labeled an ex-punk, although I was among those who abandoned the clothes and the sartorial codes they had invented once it became clear that a bunch of ex-hippies, with the support of some recycled sixties leftists, neotrotskyites, and dimwitted anarchists—former Breton or Occitan regionalists—were going to turn this form of mutant pop dandyism into the last nihilist revolutionary religion of the fin de siècle. In short, I was one of those who opted for the aesthetics of the cold wave (was this purely accidental in the winter of 1978?)—gray Soviet costumes and cold postindustrial music—when it became clear that the only alternative to Telephone would be the Béruriers Noirs or the Garçons Bouchers, though it was no secret that the French wave of 1976-1977 had managed to produce Métal Urbain! To be punk in 1976-1977 meant not being punk in 1978-1979, simply because dandyism cannot exist as a commercial art form and it was important to pursue the act of sabotage by inventing a new ethics of conspiracy that allowed us to always know in advance when and how to create an aesthetics from our own ashes, which had constantly to be stirred into flame.

It is essential that we now reestablish the axis of truth: “punk,” when it burst on the scene unexpectedly like an angel of pure electric destruction/salvation in the midst of the bombast of inept mid-seventies progressive rock, was anything but the precalibrated discourse of a revolutionary popular organization. It was, in fact, an antidote. For this “aesthetic,” among other things, brought about the total rejection of the social-Leninist graft that the society of the time and its nihilisms tried to force into my little brain. It was, and this needs to be said, the semi-collective invention of a small group of dandies, writers, and journalists, and a smaller group of musicians; a kind of occult “tradition” that dated back to the secret origins of rock ’n’ roll, passed through the “garage punk” of the mid-sixties and the “hard” psychedelic rock of the first Pink Floyd (with Syd Barrett), through the dark hyperrealism of the Velvet Underground and the transgenic theater of David Bowie (who was far from being a worldwide star in 1972 or 1975) and the New York Dolls, as well as the hypertotalitarian aesthetic of Blue Oyster Cult, the terminal teen rock of T-Rex, and Iggy and the Stooges’s exalted sonic metallurgy for white post-urban adolescents, and culminated in the electro-organic synthesis of Fripp, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, Heldon, and, already, Père Ubu and Television. In an era devoted to the delights of global hyperindustrialization, when all is said and done this represents a very limited circle of authors and composers, for an audience that was much narrower and far more cultivated than the one that eagerly followed Pierre Boulez’s lectures at IRCAM.

In 1976 Malcolm MacLaren, brilliant appropriator, reader of Debord, and shock manager of the former New York Dolls, opened his clothing boutique, “Seditionaries,” on King’s Road, and conceived the idea of delivering a jolt of electroshock therapy to British rock, which was stagnating under the Pharaonic excess of Emerson, Wakemen, Anderson, and the other blowhards of neo-medieval rock. To bring this about, MacLaren, clever cosmopolitan fellow-traveler, took a piece of four-letter New York slang—meaning worthless, poor, and originally a cretin—straight out of articles by Lester Bang and Yves Adrien, giving it, with the help of the Sex Pistols, the fate we are all familiar with.

By the fall of 1977 the battle had begun: The infinite death that propels all twentieth-century art forms into the coma of commercialization was already at work, and two disjunctive phenomenologies appeared, one concealing the other, cannibalizing it shamelessly, appropriating its existence, its codes, and the majority of its insightful discoveries (namely, the overuse of cliché, this being perceived as the residual trace of hidden genius, alchemical and inhuman), to laboriously extract a handful of gimmicks, threadbare from birth, that would help propagate the “revolutionary struggle against capitalist consumer society.”

This doubling in the form of commodities and their nihilisms through which the double feeds off the reality that gave it birth, has been an emblematic figure of fiction ever since its invention by this society (roughly, the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth), and it is not without significance that it was also the emblematic figure of the artists of the “pop mutation,” the dandies of the electronic age I spoke of above. Equally significant is the fact that this figure disappeared when the ideology of personal “creativity” and “authenticity” arrived in force in the modernized socius of the eighties and nineties.

How did this come about?

1) As we have seen, the original “punk” movement can be traced back to a bizarre tradition arising from the syncretic attitudes typical of the postmodern West: a “popular” art form, electric rock of the fifties and sixties, turned out to be, in the hands of a small number of artists committed to a mutant, deviant, and nonconformist approach to music, a powerful aesthetic force that was alone capable of restoring the megapolitan and devolutionary lifestyles of the late twentieth century and, with the injection of a strong dose of negative—therefore antihuman—energy, enabling them to give birth to an authentic poetry. In January 1978, anticipating the positivist “neomilitant” future that the Clash and a few others were about to offer the nihilist masses, John Lydon scuttled his group and officially buried the “punk” movement. This was, whether we like it or not, a highly creative act, sovereign and free, for there was little doubt that the multinational labels were already in the process of hatching their amicable democratic, mercantile plot to make the Sex Pistols the current new fad, piling platinum disc upon platinum disc, a move that would also allow designers short of imagination to regenerate themselves for two or three decades and sell millions of tons of “threads” to vast corporatized tribes of adolescents. Instead, Lydon took the risk of sabotaging the entire enterprise and returned a few months later with the first metarock group in history: Public Image Ltd. Androids in tweed suits, abrasive antirock over a pounding mechanical dub, with the screech of electric guitars and keyboards as the only harmonic background. Gone were the “hardcore” or “punk” attitudes that had made them famous, gone was the call to anarchy, gone the allusion to the Queen and her “fascist regime.” Now there was only a magnetic, hieratic, inhuman presence, and the turning of the spectacle against itself as unique kamikaze aesthetic horizon. There would be little purpose in pointing out that the pathetic hippy cretins and neotrotskyites dressed up as Iroquois were not particularly happy about this, and that during the band’s first appearance on stage in Paris, in the winter of 1978-79—at the Palace as I recall—Lydon and his new group were greeted by a shower of spit and insults.

2) But while this was happening underground, on the surface, in the world of sociopolitical appearances, a much broader and more generalized movement took over Western societies. In France this movement led to the election of François Mitterrand, widespread cultural programming, and the popular development of an innocuous form of “punk rock,” weakly nihilist, lacking potency or culture, a simplistic neotribalism given a “modern barbarian” look, that would shamelessly appropriate the dead paradigms of the de-civilized thought of communal hippy utopias, pasting onto them an accelerated binary rhythm and a few good old saturated guitar licks, which would serve as the “soundtrack” for the bad poetry of retarded antimilitarist students and their theater of physical expression.

It is worth noting that this “second” punk wave appeared around 1982-83, when Mitterrand’s liberal-social state apparatus was established and a handful of mediocrities—and this time not in a metaphoric sense—had already managed to use the energy of 1976-77 to dig themselves a hole in the social termite heap and integrate themselves into the nascent industry of hypercommunication.

A group like the Béruriers Noirs is, whatever one might say, a boon for this industry. First, it generates an unquantifiable volume of clones. Then, it crowns the emerging art form with the leaden dome of artistic nihilism. Finally, and subsequently, it allows journalists from the Nouvel Observateur or the now defunct Le Matin de Paris, or even Le Monde, to keep a better eye on their offspring, to see more clearly, and therefore to write with the aplomb of an ignorant pedant that “punk” is, more or less, a vast movement of social protest by the young, expressed in “loud, aggressive” music, street theater, and a handful of radical political slogans that are then taken up by the man in the street.

Clearly, it is unlikely that such a description would apply to any concert by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, or even the Sex Pistols or the Ramones, not to mention Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television, or Talking Heads. Or in France to groups like the Dogs (about whom French journalists were never able to say anything of consequence), Métal Urbain (the French Suicide), Kas Product (the pioneers of industrial rock blended with soul and funk), or Taxi Girl (during their short-lived glory). For what most distinguishes artists from street musicians or, if you prefer, the punk-dandy from the punk-militant, is as profound as it is sustained, being structured around the autogenetic origins of language and, therefore, of thought, as well as being infinitely objective and, therefore, indescribable within the narrow framework of rationality, although all it would take for a general—I’d even say, natural—hierarchy, to establish itself before our eyes would be to compare the texts produced by these authors against one another.

The dead are terribly alive, and we miss them; the living seem irrevocably dead, and weigh us down.

One of the objectives of this second offensive phase, which will most likely take up the years 2000 and 2001, will be to identify certain targets and concepts that the first maneuver would appear to have left vague, if not obscure. Nothing is more annoying when I reread myself than to encounter, for example, certain uses of the word “metaphoric,” which are not based on a preliminary explanation of precisely what I consider the word to refer to.

For example, I should have indicated that when Aristotle articulates fundamental concepts, he does so by means of an act that far surpasses his own thought¹. Naturally, he intends to introduce a field of research that was still new to Greek science, of which he is, in a sense, the founding father, or its great synthesizer rather, but this investigation was applied to what the physical, mechanical, and biological sciences of his time were unable to elucidate, or even perceive.

Aristotle didn’t appear ex nihilo. Metaphysical questions were present in Greek society since the pre-Socratics at least. The big questions about Being and Time had already been considered by Heraclitus and Parmenides, and their implications for life are part of the discussions that have animated Hellenic thought for generations.

What does the word mean today?

A process of terrifying complexity. For in one sense it is the world itself that is in the process of becoming meta-physical, virtualized by the digital tyranny that modern and postmodern rationalisms will have eventually established, a world that will disappear and be replaced by a shapeless, carcinogenic structure, continuously open to more of nothing, or rather the “not much” that satisfies our stomachs today, that transfinite opening onto the unitary closure of consciousness; in short we are now facing an authentic devolutionary force that is flattening Time in order to hold it in the yoke of a three-dimensional Space reduced to a few mathematical vectors that will soon be able to be neuro-implanted, using bionic processors, directly into the center of our cortex.

No one, I believe, has understood that cyborg man of the twenty-first century will see neither his freedom nor his sovereignty expanded (or even decreased) by this bionic silicon-carbon hybridization in a way that would be—if I may be so bold—self-evident. Quite the contrary. Through the manipulation of our chromosomes, this has in fact become the ultimate challenge that the operative Technology-become-Metaphysics is in the process of throwing at the city-dwelling primate who has just emerged from History, who believes that the cosmos is a vast global theme park, where Time itself has become touristified and digitized in some Disneyland version available to everyone on the planet.

But strangely, it is around the original crime of this first technological aspect of posthumanity (a humanity whose genome has been deciphered and whose cortex has been neuroconnected to a matrix-like meganetwork, of which the Internet is nothing more than a pithecanthropic sketch), at the very heart of the man-machine interface and genetic experimentation, that the critical moment of sudden actualization of the forces of the Logos will be able to crystallize; and what will this “moment” be called if not the moment of Christic emergence as a process of transfinite writing in the very flesh of mankind, in what is most organic (genetic reproduction) and timeless (thought as the organic’s flight toward the Infinite) about it?

The role of literature is expanded and reduced, becomes concentrated, focused like a beam of coherent light on a malignant tumor—the microsurgery of the real, the microsurgery of cerebral consciousness. Through the still secret high technology of fiction, it becomes neuro-operative once and for all, propagates fault lines and disjunctive syntheses in the heart of the Individual’s neuroprogrammed network, exposing the various mechanisms of the Machine, the social network of speech, its intentions and representations, but most of all leading him, through the elaboration of a specific mythology that fiction seeks to make contaminative, to a suitable antiworld, where the laws of the World are reproduced only so they can be more deeply altered, in order to bring about a generalized ontological cataclysm that will be developed in those viral laboratories that cannot really call themselves books until they are free and sovereign beings and, thus, creative acts.

(July 27, 2000)

¹ It was Nicholas of Damascus, a Jewish philosopher at the court of Herod the Great, who was the first to write the words “ta meta ta phusica,” in his commentary on the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus, his disciple. Therefore, while metaphysics applies to Aristotelian concepts, it does so using a synthetic Greco-Jewish-Arabic word. See J.-P. Faye and A.-M. de Vilaine, La déraison antisémite et son langage (Babel, 1996).


Maurice G. Dantec

Maurice G. Dantec was born in Grenoble, France, in 1959. After a period as an advertising copywriter in the early nineties, Dantec turned his attention to writing fiction. He has published seven novels, which might loosely be categorized as a blend of science fiction and crime fiction. One of them, Babylon Babies (semitotext(e), 2005), has been translated into English. He has also published three volumes of journals, Le Théâtre des opérations, the latest being American black box, which appeared in 2007. Dantec has also been involved in the music scene for a number of years and is the founder of the rock groups État d’urgence and Artefact. Since 1997, he has worked with musician Richard Pinhas as a member of Schizotrope. Since 1998, Dantec has been living in Montreal, Canada.

Robert Bononno

Robert Bononno has translated more than a dozen full-length works of fiction and nonfiction from the French, including René Crevel's My Body and I (a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation prize), Hervé Guibert's Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymow's Swan's Way. In 2002, he received an NEA grant to complete a translation of the nonfiction work of Isabelle Eberhardt. His most recent translation was Albert Memmi's Decolonization and the Decolonized, published in 2006. He has taught translation at NYU and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

"The Theater of Operations: 2000-2001—The Disaster Laboratory" (From Laboratoire de catastrophe générale: Journal métaphysique et polémique, 2000-2001).  Copyright (c) Gallimard, 2001.  English translation copyright (c) Robert Bononno, 2007.