Your Weirdness is Political

A Note from the Editor.

Since the November 9th election, I have been trying to make some measured sense of what it means, and what it will mean. I still think the greater part of that answer is ‘we don’t know.’ I want to offer a smaller message, though, to devotees of weird culture.

If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself wondering whether world events render a love of monsters and noise and strange combinations of words frivolous, superfluous. If, perhaps, the blossoming of the weird over the past few years was that of a hothouse flower, a form of cultural indulgence only possible because a small slice of the population existed in a state of self-satisfied comfort.

You may wonder, in short, whether we should all put down our fantasy tales and start reading political science.

And the answer is: Absolutely not. Because weird culture is resolutely political, down to its bones.

Kafka, probably the weirdest of them all, has left us one of the most profound critiques of modern life we have. The Dadaists, much more self-consciously political, gave birth to a long line of resistant absurdism that, consciously or not, all experimental artists continue today. William Burroughs’ vampire sex-aliens and time-travelling shootists carved out a space for the truly, polymorphously queer.

The politics of strangeness takes many forms, but at heart it is about the resistance to all forms of authority, all forms of identity, and all forms of fear – three words whose contemporary relevance are inescapable. Of course, this resistance doesn’t take the form of fist-shaking, of confrontation. The weird is about subversion, escape, troublemaking, trickery.

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At the most abstract level, there is the weird’ s hostility to language itself, from genre’s crude gestures at the unknowable, to formalist rejections of linearity and sense. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 Ubu Roi inaugurated anti-language as the mode of resistance, setting its satire of authority and hate in a patois of slang, puns, and word-play that highlighted the hollowness of despots.

Take, also, the weirdness of Samuel Beckett, from whose blasted landscapes and inarticulate, deformed heroes Ligotti draws his soul. Beckett was active in the French Resistance, and his writing was just as anti-authoritarian as his life. He was the bard of ignorance, of broken words, of failure and darkness. That exposure of the holes in the world, of human frailty and ignorance, is the political essence of the weird. What Kafka spelled out more clearly is there in Beckett in elemental form – that all claims to rightness are ultimately illusions, and crimes committed in their name are never justified.

The assertion that the world is unknowable and our own efforts ineffectual can, of course, also be fuel for the authoritarian. Beckett manages to salvage not just a difficult beauty, but a certain nobility from the ruins. That is one way of facing the terror of universal nonsense without reclining into true nihilism.

The counterpoint, some might say, is Lovecraft. His xenophobia and fear of change sometimes seem to invite the destroying hand of the Old Gods. But as I’ve written elsewhere, Lovecraft’s abject revulsion towards difference and change contained an inevitable fascination with them – as many forms of racism do.

How to live with the unknowable. That is the question that humans have always faced. We have struggled to paper over the void of existence with religion, with power, with myth, with science, with racial scapegoating, with material plenty. Look at that list and you’ll see that these efforts inevitably fail, to various degrees.

That doesn’t mean we should simply become friends with darkness, acquiesce to despair. Rather, we must look the void in the face. Understand its presence, and even its attractions, and try and make a life with that knowledge in hand.

That is the therapy of the weird, and its politics. Contemplating strangeness, dread, non-sense, and non-being is an inoculation against existential dread. And perhaps it can blunt our seemingly genetic impulse to hoist up tin-pot lords and empty banners and fictional Races to shoulder the threat of nothingness on our behalf.

David Altmejd is all of you weirdo hipsters’ daddy.

Early last week, I was visiting my brother in Houston, but swung by Austin, where I lived when I was a good bit younger. I bought some records at Waterloo, and then swung by a place I’d never visited before – Farewell Books. For some reason, the Yelp review set off my “awesome shit” spider-sense – and it wasn’t wrong.

Farewell is in the former Domy Books space, and was actually taken over by former Domy employees when that awesome, awesome project wrapped up. It’s now technically four businesses – the bookstore on one side, the equally rad Las Cruxes avant-clothing/jewelry/record shop/gallery on the other, and two I was a little less clear on somewhere in back. I was reminded just how great Austin can be when I ran into the critic George Elkind and, along with Farewell intern Jori (sorry dude, I forgot your last name!) went down several rabbit holes’ worth of conversations about comics, movies – and, finally artists.

I seriously mulled picking up Farewell’s copy of a complete Cremaster compendium book which, at $120, was an absolute steal. But then Jori got me to take a look at a David Altmejd book, and I instantly saw it was the more interesting choice.

Altmejd’s work does everything I so badly want someday to accomplish with my writing. He takes the fantastical and the grotesque and refines it to its absolute peak, making it impossible to say it’s not ‘art’. He is to studio art what Thomas Ligotti or Michael Cisco are to fiction, what Matt Brinkman or Charles Burns are to comics, what Alejandro Jodorowsky is to film, what True Detective Season 1 was to TV. He takes outre, low-brow ideas and formalizes them to a powerful sheen, explores their depths to find what really makes them tick – but without intellectualizing or sucking the life out of them.

I’ve just discovered the guy (shamefully), so I haven’t seen these works in person. But even on the page they are staggering, mind-bending, specific yet visionary. His creatures transcend anything that Tolkien ever cooked up, instead having more in common with the horrific beauty of ’70s extremists like M. John Harrison or Michael Shea (or their godchild, Jeff Vandermeer). These are things that most people aren’t creative enough to cook up even in their wildest nightmares.

He first came to prominence with a series of monster bodies and heads encrusted with crystals, which seemed to grow on them like mold or mushrooms. If you recognize the crystals, you might be a certain sort of witchy hipster, living a realm where the otherworldly has become at least a little bit more relevant. It’s unclear to me whether the chicken or the egg came first (crystal imagery has been around in hipsterworld for a long time), and saying that Altmejd’s work influenced the design of a few tops at Urban Outfitters is pretty insulting anyway.

But more importantly, his work expands on and delves deeper into what those trifles are just barely brushing the surface of – a certain kind of intense wonder, sometimes stomach-turning as much as brain-bending, that we experience in contact with that which is truly, deeply different. Altmejd’s figures are often vaguely humanoid, but nothing about them works according to rules we would recognize – gravity, biology, chemistry.

The fact that they gesture strongly towards the human, of course, makes them all the more astounding when they go a drastically different direction. They open up, turn inside out (both, admittedly, shortcuts to the uncanny), grow things, fall apart. They’re the wrong color, with the wrong affect – most often, none at all.

I’m just getting to now him for the first time, but just as much as Matthew Barney or William Burroughs before them, I can already tell that David Altmejd is sure to be that worst and best of things – an inspiration who is also an intimidation. A fragmentary dream of what I would like to achieve, but maybe never will.