Davis Schneiderman is a multimedia artist and writer and the author or editor of ten print and audio works, including the novels Drain (TriQuarterly/Northwestern), the DEADBOOKS trilogy comprised of the largely blank novel, Blank: a novel (Jaded Ibis), with audio from DJ Spooky, and the forthcoming [SIC] and INK. (Jaded Ibis); and the co-edited collections Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization (Pluto) and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game (Nebraska).

His creative work has appeared in numerous publications including Fiction International, The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, and Exquisite Corpse, and semi-regularly in The Huffington Post, The Nervous Breakdown, and Big Other.

He is Chair of the English Department at Lake Forest College, where he teaches a mash-up/remixwriting workshop, and also Director of Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books. He recently edited the American Books Review Focus called “The Collaborative Turn”, and he edits The &NOW AWARDS: The Best Innovative Writing. He can be found, virtually, at davisschneiderman.com

Busted Books, or How I Learned to Stop Authoring and Loving the Book

Somewhere someplace somehow…in teaching what was once my primary upper-level literature course, postmodernism, I came to the long-delayed realization that postmodernism was in fact dead. Deader than Janey in Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School.

No, it wasn’t that the postructuralist underpinnings of postmodernism had suddenly become less relevant; it wasn’t that there was no longer anything to be mined and re-expressed from reading Raymond Federman, and William S. Burroughs, and the rest.

Rather, material conditions have changed.

Or, in the voice of Gertrude Stein: out changed friends had changed friends.

This occurred to me most directly when Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, arrived for his 2004 visit to Lake Forest College. His performance was set for an hour or so after his arrival, and one of the first things he said to me was a request: help me put stickers on a stack of different mix CDs. Freebies to those in attendance for the performance that night.

This became a magical link between gift culture, dj culture, and the physical object; DJ Spooky’s method certainly harkened back to an earlier DIY aesthetic, but it also cemented for me, in his multimedia performance, the death of the old postmodern moment. What distinguishes Dj Spooky’s work and the work of so many others re-purposing art into new directions for this digital age is the material engagement with the culture it samples and deconstructs.

Projects such as remixthebook suggest such a material stance for composition. Words and language stand as physical objects—from a world of heft and heat—far removed from the celestial realms of airy intellectual expression. The collaborations that comprise the most interesting literary articulations of these ideas—the new-er texts, anthologies like I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Les Figues, 2012), Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Northwestern 2011), or texts such as William Walsh’s Unknown Arts: Texts and Poem Derived from the Work of James Joyce (Keyhole 2012) and Jeff, One Lonely Guy (Amazon 2012: based on this) by Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields, and Michael Logan, are all concerned with the substance of the word itself—stolen, borrowed, rearticulated, remixed, and distorted—taken explicitly from other sources and/or composed in tandem with collaborators.

These works process mediascapes unimaginable to the Romantic aesthete skipping through a dandelion field. In this world, we find the conceptual approach: machines tailored to each composition produce outcomes based upon the production methods of the writers. This isn’t mere determinism, but it’s not inspiration either.

This all makes explicit what William S. Burroughs articulated many decades ago—all writing is in fact cut-ups, collaborative assemblages, desiring machines produced more by the circumstances of production (the intersection of socially-constructed notions of individual authorship [authorial “style”])—than the genius of someone expressing her inner feelings about love and nature and heroin addiction or whatever is on the tip of his unappetizing inner person.

Michelangelo thought he was releasing David from his stone prison house using the artificial language of his chisel to reveal the truth and beauty of the world. No wonder so many writers follow the leader, seeking to expose the supposed underlying truth of the world through the artifice of language.

Well, my friends, that ship sailed a long time ago for an agrammatical sea of playful uncertainty. This is the story of words gone wild, gone fugitive. Remix culture is on a black-ops mission to reaffirm the material character of writing. Brion Gysin: “The sentence, the word, becomes a real piece of plastic material that you can cut into.”

And so, in teaching Postmodernism for what may be my last time in a non-historical context, the students encouraged me to take a saw blade to Stephen Colbert’s book I am America (And So Can You), filmed and cut by Jonathan Chiou.

This first video of what later became the BUSTED BOOKS project is an attempt to do two things: 1) have fun, and 2) to stop talking about deconstruction and to start doing it. (The class hoped “The Colbert Report” might put us in the show, and we got as far as talking to a producer before being rebuffed.)

We entered into this with the same sense of playfulness that informed many of the texts we were reading, which also informed my writing—heretofore expressed in a series of playful/dense/“postmodern” novels and short fictions. Yet the physicality of this act, the jumping, the cutting, the consideration not only of the word-as-plastic but also of its contents-and-container-in-the-shape-of-the-book as we sliced Colbert proved almost too infectious.

When Raymond Federman and Lidia Yuknavitch visited Lake Forest College for our annual Lake Forest Literary Festival in 2008, the students wanted me to make another video. They knew Federman’s classic Double or Nothing and its long conceit of noodles noodles noodles; with Yuknavitch in agreement, we decided to boil a book from each of us into the delectable pasta (Federman’s Double, Yuknavitch’s Liberty’s Excess, and my [w/Carlos Hernandez] Abecedarium). Again, Jonathan Chiou put it all together.

Federman and Yuknavitch both understood the absurdity of the publishing and promotion business that we satirized. They also understood the physicality of the book-as-object that we wanted to “cook”—to flip—to boil into its constituent portions—as a response to a particular strand of contemporary innovative publishing that takes it self too seriously while also refusing to recognize the outmoded character of much of its production.

And it was with Yuknavitch, after a particularly absurd panel at some long-forgotten conference, when I cooked up with the idea of blank book, which would eventually become my largely blank 2011 novel, BLANK (with audio from DJ Spooky) the first part of my DEAD BOOKS trilogy from Jaded Ibis Productions. (See their profile in Forbes.com, for Debra Di Blasi’s vision of publishing as a mash-up.)

From there, Busted Books was born, or born again—with director Ioana Munteanu at the head. We’ve been making videos in fits and starts for the last few years, and are finally ready to direct viewers to their humble YouTube home.

Before that, I’ll close with two quotations, one from Burroughs, and one from Henry Mescaline, partial subject of the new edition of my 2006 Spuyten Duyvil book, now called: Multifesto: A Henri d’Mescan REMIX, with remixes from Alissa Nutting, Molly Gaudry, Matt Kirkpatrick, Lily Hoang, Matt Bell, Roxane Gay, Kathleen Rooney, James Tadd Adcox, Ben Tanzer, William Walsh, Craig Saper, and Irene Ruiz Dacal.

“Greek philosophers assumed logically that an object twice as heavy as another object would fall twice as fast. It did not occur to them to push the two objects off the table and see how they fall. Cut the words and see how they fall.”
—William S. Burroughs.

“The ancient Greeks spent a lot of time arguing about whether differently weighted objects would fall at different rates, but they never went up to the roof and starting dropping shit.”
—Henry Mescaline

You can find all the entries here, and I’ll spotlight a few below. Feeling inspired in a non-Romantic way? Take out a handsaw. Get busy.

1) The book trailer for BLANK: an orgy of book destruction.

2) The drowning of Moby Dick (first edition):

3) The Dragging of the Rose: Umberto Eco’s novel…

4) The Great Soak: Chicago’s Printers’ Ball 2011—dunk a kindle or a book?

This project featured invited attendees at the Printers’ Ball to use an artisan-constructed dunk tank to soak either a book or a Kindle—depending upon the dunker’s feelings regarding the printed word and e-readers. With this simple choice, this physical act, readers can finally stop theorizing about the future of the book and do something about it.

5) Like A Patient!

T.S. Eliot’s first major work, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” first appeared in the June 1915 issue of Poetry, Chicago’s three-year-old literary magazine, which now approaches its centennial.  This performance treats Eliot’s poem as its own patient “etherised upon a table,” to be dissected with surgical instruments and supported by on-stage medical personnel.  This dissection removed key words, phrases, and white spaces from the Eliot text, while foregrounding the destruction of this historical artifact.

This collaborative performance combined live close-circuit broadcast of dissection, music, and the costumed-ambience of the operating room.