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Safety Propagandist #8: Richard Cabut
Adam Lehrer corresponds with our 8th Safety Propagandist, the writer Richard Cabut, about punk rock, philosophy, censorship, drugs, and his two recent novels 'Dark Entries' and 'Looking for a Kiss'
The British writer Richard Cabut has the kind of career trajectory that I naturally covet and (for obvious reasons) relate to. Emerging out of punk rock in the 1980s as a member of the group Brigandage (you can listen to the group’s session with John Peel here) and producing the KICK fanzine that theorized a “positive punk rock”, of sorts, Cabut started writing cultural and music criticism for outlets like NME. His 1983 article for NME “Punk Warriors” is now infamous for further outlining the positive punk concept and is said by some to have conceptualized the cultural leanings that would soon after the article’s publication coalesce as what we now call the goth movement. Yeah, Cabut has been one of the realest heads out there for decades now, and his music writing is as sharp as as any that I’ve read. Even if I’m not so “punk” in my surface-level aesthetics (not that I dislike punk or anything, I worship Darby Crash and post-punk and hardcore were my earliest underground music loves, but industrial, noise and black metal is, you know, whatever, my foundation), Cabut’s deep commitment to artistic freedom is one that I feel spiritually aligned with (his punk ethos is most thoroughly outlined in the anthology of punk-related writing that he edited for Zer0 Books, Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night).
The other reason I’m so into Cabut’s work is that he and I are both artists with backgrounds in disciplines outside writing (him with rock n’ roll, me with visual art) before finding our voices in cultural criticism and graduating to literary and narrative art. On that note, Cabut has published two novels recently, both of which totally blew my mind and rank among my favorite works of fiction over the last couple of years. Dark Entries from 2019 is a brutal, dark and at times very funny look at contemporary eroticism, or perhaps we should call it “neuroticism”, dealing with pornographic addiction. 2020’s Looking for a Kiss, in my mind his masterpiece to date, finds Cabut back in a Jarman-esque punk rock fever dream of his experience with punk and subculture in the late ‘80s and then travels through time, collapsing temporal sensations in a manner evocative of the postmodern condition. The story follows a punk rock couple seeking transcendent meaning within punk, acid, sex, speed and living squalor in Camden. That’s all I’ll say because this is a lengthy interview but seriously: buy this man’s books. He is a Safety Propagandist of the highest order and a most respected functionary of the Counter-Agency of the Avant-Garde.
Adam Lehrer: The primary characters in Looking for a Kiss appear to be trapped in a construct that is itself embodying of the "No Future" of no wave and post-punk. Since you were there, do you remember feeling this essence of "no future" and as a result feel less surprised that we've gotten into such a cultural and societal abyss than those who were still feeling the spoils of prosperous late modernity until recently?
Richard Cabut: No Future. I loved the pessimism/negativity of it all, actually. But, in fact, actually, some would say that extreme negativity equals true positivity. A la the theory that true optimists are the most acute pessimists –”‘they are the optimists who have run out of options,” as it were. I think this is what Nietzsche called a “pessimism of joy.” And I think that’s what punk was. For sure.
In presenting a problem – a feeling – or no feelings – without solutions, pessimism is epic in its refusal to pretend it’s all for a purpose – no real reason. But for the hell and heaven of it.
Anyway, let’s say that it was part of the post Heideggerian philosophical drift that was all about deconstruction, not thought as calculation – which is way more fun.
In this, I guess we can understand an indication of a deep emptiness so colossal that it goes way beyond cynicism – and comes hustling out of the other side as positivity – beyond the simple levels of perception – like shadows and omens, unkempt magic, and how and why every single little thing is reduced to vanity through social media. (no future).
With Looking for a Kiss, I think we can see that foreshadowed in one of the characters, Marlene, while the other Robert sees it all more through a prism of metaphysics. For both, punk is a change of civilization. Or, at least a heartfelt desire for that change. Revolt as a movement of meaning.
AL: Punk (and hip-hop, and perhaps for a time industrial/noise) was arguably the last musical subculture that required commitment, an ethos, and a way of being in the world. This type of deep engagement is totally lost in this liquid society, subcultures are gone. Do you feel a kind of mourning for what we have lost, especially given that your body of work has remained committed to understanding a microcosm of that very thing that we've lost?
RC: Mourning? Not at all. I never saw punk as simply a subculture. Neither did the characters. As per previous question, the understanding of punk in the book is akin to change in religion – and all the psychic carnage that might accompany that.
Subcultures are more akin to children who can believe in dreams, can pretend, can be seduced by their own make believe… until the child inside dies. By murder or suicide. There is that in the book, too – on one level, their lawless hand-to-mouth existence quickly became fruitless, antic and untenable – it was repetitive and repetition is annihilation.
On another level, it was a frantic and violent effort to reach out beyond the emptiness, into a universe where it is very possible to discover meanings – which could and would, in the case of one protagonist, sustain a lifelong character arc. Everything is always building towards climax, in one sense or another.
AL: You've talked about punk as method of overcoming conformity (of the 1970s, etc..), but now we live in an era of what I tend to call non-conformist conformity, in which everyone tries to make themselves as individualistic as possible but only to fit within a preordained paradigm, and that paradigm has subsumed all. Do you have any feelings about this, and if there's still a form of non-conformism that could overcome such a bleak condition?
RC: Culturally, these are weird and terrible times.
Fake morality as barometer of status, as group dynamic, as tribal resource.
Of course, morality is a historically evolved behavior – differentiating not evil from good, but distinguishing those who are part of the tribe from those who aren’t. Since it’s easier to survive in a tribe than as a sad Billy-no-mates loner, people learnt quickly to signal their virtue. Or be cancelled, as it were. In this respect, they learnt even more quickly to seem to be good rather than be good. One of the best ways to display your goodness is to chastise perceived moral deviants and delinquents.
Now, the internet allows the prevailing moral system – Woke, as we call it – to be ostentatiously, aggressively and easily enforced on a massive scale.
Every day, people lose their reputations, status, jobs, for having the wrong opinion, or expressing the right opinion in the wrong way or simply because the mob sniffs blood and attacks before moving on to the next victim.
This is dangerous because as philosopher John Gray said: “Visions of justice are as immutable as styles of shoes." What morality demands shifts across the generations and may change more than once within a single human lifetime. Not so long ago morality required spreading civilization by extending imperial power. Today, morality condemns empire in all its forms. These judgements are irreconcilably opposed. But they provide the same satisfaction to those who pronounce them – a gratifying sense of virtue.”
Someone mentioned that when playing the after dinner party game “Which of my friends would have become Nazis in the 1930 Germany,” he always declared that people least likely to have started goose stepping weren’t the ostensibly moral and virtuous ones, but the cynics, the heretics, the disbelievers. Herman Goering was acting according to the prevailing moral codes of his group.
The most important non-conformism at the moment is to retain our sense of skepticism and cynicism in the face of the moral and virtuous mob – and all that it represents and implies.
AL: 2021 largely feels blanker than what Richard Hell and you call "the Blank Generation," do you have any lingering hope that something might be "conjured or created" to fill that void?
The epithet to the introduction to my Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night book (Zer0 Books, 2017) came from Donald Barthelme’s Snow White : “Our becoming is done. We are what we are. Now it is a question of rocking along with things as they are until we are dead.” Making the point in the beginning punk was constantly in the process of forming. If the permanent sense of punk is to be found anywhere, it is in this formative gap, this disjuncture – a blank zone inhabited by a Blank Generation – a term used in the way Richard Hell originally intended: a void to be filled by whatever might be conjured and created and produced.
The notion of reality, the world we see around us, is a kind of process of work of the exalted kind, an act of continuous creation. Richard Hell’s Blank Space – well, not just his, but you know… – is the work, then, that offers a reply to the vertigo of emptiness and boredom of the world in which such work has ceased , for whatever reason.
Revolt has to be constantly reinvented just like the life it affirms.
If we don’t keep it up the uncertainty of revolt that punk represents then there is little left but to submit to the overwhelming power of administration and management that characterizes the fragile ends times – a closed and ossified system operated according to the logic of nothing but business. Indifferent to the individual who feels a little crushed or crumpled by new illnesses of the psyche by a world that’s fully automated, plastic, prescribed, digitalized, fabricated, conditioned, phony, sterile – and who is asking for an authentic experience.
I guess it’s that, so-called, ‘irreal’ idea of jouissance – ‘the antithesis of happiness as satisfaction of consumer needs’. Jouissance as connection to an art of living – spirit and flesh.
… into the pure darkness where everything is destroyed except the feeling of being destroyed.
We must always keep looking for a kiss. Yes?
AL: Aside from your subcultural backgrounds, who are your most enduring literary influences? Who are the writers you think about the most when producing fiction?
RC: Aside all the authors in the extensive bibliography at the end of Looking for a Kiss I’d like to mention Harold Pinter, Jean Rhys, Fassbinder, David Mamet, Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Irish Murdoch, Bret Easton Ellis, Virginie Despentes, Leila Slimani, Ann Marlowe, Andrzej Stasiuk, Edward St Aubyn. I could go on.
AL: Looking for a Kiss happens in 1988, at the end of something, but one gets the sense that the protagonists are perhaps looking for something that never quite existed the way it did in their imaginations. Do you think there's often a contradiction between the reality of the cultures we dream about versus the dreams of those cultures that are never quite realized?
RC: I remember hauntology. I remember nostalgia. And fake nostalgia.
It was, of course, a word coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx. The word is an assemblage of haunting and ontology – the philosophical study of the self. Hauntology looks at the concept of how elements from the past return to haunt the present and future, the same way that a ghost does. The same way Mark Fisher does.
It is because of Fisher, far more than Derrida, that hauntology has gained what standing it has in the present – and the future. It’s a blur.
Mark wasn’t nostalgic – this is not simple nostalgia after all – not even fake nostalgia – but he was immersed in the idea of remembering and mourning – mourning – and being shocked and amazed by lost futures from the past, now part of the present and future once more ad infinitum like a persistent echo made of imagination and memory. I remember I remember I remember.
I remembered this when I thought of the ghost of Mark. So, to answer your teasing question:-
‘Suffused with an overwhelming melancholy.’
‘Loss of the future.’
A meditation on memory.
The sounds of these technologies breaking down.
Worlds breaking down.
A return from death fracturing all traditional conceptions of time.
‘The future is always experienced as a haunting: as a virtuality that already impinges on the present.’ – Mark’s voice echoes from 2012.
There are all sorts of pasts, both good and bad, that we can be haunted by – all sorts of ghosts.
All floating amidst the crackle, the surface noise, of now.
Surface noise as the crackle of lost poise.
AL: The book also makes use of LSD and psychedelic drugs, which at the beginning of punk was largely rejected as an affectation of hippie parents. But post-punk largely wedded the experimental ethos of the late '60s and early '70s with the industry splitting power of punk rock. What do you think psychedelics opened up in the music, and what do they open up in you creatively?
RC: I like things that pull against reason – the linear, the chronological etc – it’s illuminating. Offering a glimpse of a transcendent way of life, within different levels of dream and fracture. Seething with restless desire and craving freedom.
There’s poetry in the experience – sometimes an ache like real pain in the dark – a question of reaching the unknown by derangement – and the unknown is where the poetry hides. You have to look for it. And listen out for it – it sounds like a moan and a cry from the gut not the throat.
AL: You've spoken about the concept of the "poetic truth" though I suppose the Interned fried millennial reactionary/commie weirdos like me would call this "theory fiction," or a way of mythologizing reality in a way that leads to an even greater almost clairvoyant understanding of reality itself, do you think your work functions in this way?
RC: In an 1873 essay, Nietzsche argued that we create truth about the world through out use of metaphor and myth. It gets us closer to the psychological literary truth. I’d agree. Truth is a relative concept, constantly in motion, more liquid than solid. We are all unreliable narrators.
So – no buts – Looking for a Kiss is a genuine encounter. From the moment you step in to the moment you stumble out, you sense that the book has been created by forces that are fierce and real. I hope.
No one is happy. No one relaxes. The only relationship that seems to be working is the one between the book and the characters and the reader.
Literal and ‘factual’ representation in art arouses in me boredom and disgust.
Is some of it true? While writing, the grip on memory, the part represented by hard facts and certain correctness was slipping and losing track of itself. Events were melting away – heading into the future if I could help it, and I decided and I couldn’t wait to get there. That was the idea and the impetus.
It’s not historical – more allegorical.
The instinct is always to change shape before facts have a chance to settle, before they ca turn him into dull, static caricature.
Looking for a Kiss is existential in nature. The philosophy of modern alienation, blurring the barriers between literature and philosophy and art – where the subject brings together the requisite elements of transcendence and facticity necessary for Sartrean authenticity. Really. Trust me. It is about smoking the right cigarettes – it’s never too late to start – and it’s about the past and future and mobility/immobility in relation to memory. It’s about memory as both a limitation and a condition of freedom. Events, capital E, allegory and testimony form noeuds de mémoire – knots of memory – identity and self – provoking the creation of the story itself. And the story, fiction is nothing if not a collage, an assemblage, of imagination and memory.
AL: I feel like there's this strange inverse relationship between Dark Entries and Looking for a Kiss in that the latter focuses on a perhaps futile but nevertheless transcendent quest for meaning and adventure while the former is about the collapsing of meaning and the attraction to the stultifying deadness of pornography. Do you feel that these books are companion pieces to a degree, and do they reflect an overall attitude towards you hold towards the temporal settings of your books.
RC: I’ve written a lot about punk rock and post-punk. In music papers such as the NME (in the 80s), in my own fanzine, Kick (1979-82) and in various books, including Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Zer0 Books, 2017), and in Looking for a Kiss (Sweat Drenched Press, 2020)
One of the most glorious aspects of punk was its power to bring together those people who didn’t fit in. The 70s was a period dominated by conformity. Irony and individuality didn’t exist. If you didn’t conform to the expectations and parameters set by your peers, or wider society, you were subjected to varying forms of violence – verbal, physical, mental. Punk, almost overnight, by connecting disparate and wonderful concepts like rebellion, fashion, sex, tower blocks, etc mapped out routes to a different possible future. Mavericks and misfits were empowered and a community established – a community of outsiders.
My novel Dark Entries (Cold Lips Press, 2019) is ostensibly far removed from punk rock, post-punk and the world of Looking for a Kiss. In fact, it’s not.
Dark Entries is a pitiless and uncompromising dissection of the contemporary psyche. A savage and brutally honest peek at a modern lifestyle characterized by aimlessness, and self-abuse via reliance on extreme pornography and alcohol. Containing an atmosphere laden with sexual anxiety and frustration, the novella is both a psycho pulp and an urban blues.
A cultural critique as well as fiction, Dark Entries reveals deeper patterns – male entitlement, relationship breakdown, pent-up misogynistic rage, self-loathing – all incisively traced… even though I say so myself.
In its confessional bite – even though it is not actually based on myself – the book illuminates issues that lie largely outside of societal norms. Its sense of verité is all important.
As this passage from the book illustrates:-
Ray [the book’s protagonist] likes the writer Allen Ginsberg – he picked up a DVD feature film about him called Howl for a couple of quid in the local charity shop. Ginsberg said the Beat Generation tried to make a cultural breakthrough by talking in public as in private, extolling the importance of naked confessional art. The private/public interchange is the ultimate politics because it reveals the total truth about humanity. Something like that.
“Ray applauds. He likes the idea of letting it all hang out. Reality. Strip the veneer off the human condition. Expose it in all its gory glory. Like Ginsberg, who was happy to reveal that he used to stick candles up his arse. Go Ginsberg go!”
“‘Yes, tell it,’ thinks Ray. Who knows what it might give birth to? Perhaps even a new understanding of real people, with real feelings, real joys, and real failings?”
And even now who knows what that might give birth to? Maybe even a sense of true art in which the affirmation of individuality conveys universals to unite and make connections. Creating a greater sense of empathy and, yes, community. Maybe the same sort of community of so-called outsiders forged by the advent of punk, arising from the artistic/personal break with adherence to tradition and social norms in exaltation of unfettered personal expression.
AL: These questions are ever-annoying, but let's do it for the fans. What are your five favorite records and what are the secrets of the world that they unlock?
The secret is: no secret; the music is just the ghost in god’s strong signal.
All images courtesy of Richard Cabut