David Prater Interviews Talan Memmott

By and | 1 December 2011

DP: All right, if I can ask you to gaze into the crystal ball, ten years on from the demise of Beehive, what about the next ten years?

TM: One thing: I wouldn’t call it a demise.

DP: Sorry. Given that’s been ten years since the graceful bowing out of Beehive, what about the next ten?

TM: I’m going to go all Howard Hughes here – just kidding. I have nothing to say. I write about this, but if we’re going to give credence to open access and to open source and things such as that then a few things need to happen in terms of academic positioning and cultural institutions. I think to a certain degree they need to take a background position to what is happening at the level of cultural practise. They need to observe this as immediate history rather than long-term history. They can do both – those are two different deparTMents, essentially.

Academically I actually think that we might be at the end of the university positioning itself as the authority in terms of cultural practice. That has both positive and negative ramifications. Positively, that opens things up to a lack of things having to require cultural sanctioning, or things being incorporated at the level of becoming corporate, which is an increase in openness. At another level, the lack of a university, especially with regard to the humanities, that the humanities globally (in terms of institutions) is being somewhat destroyed is regrettable, because it means generations of students coming through university with no humanities backing, no humanities consideration, and a lack of history.

That has larger political ramifications that we can’t quite fathom at this point, but will be understood over times, and perhaps regrettably. In terms of electronic literature specifically, thinking about some of the discussions I had at the electronic poetry festival (Buffalo) that e-poetry as a festival or a conference becomes a poetics conference, that e-literature becomes literature, that we get rid of these additional tags, I mean I think that could potentially happen in the next ten years. It’s going to take a level of advocacy and activism for that to happen. And institutionally, it’s going to require a complete paradigm shift.

We can’t look back to look forward because then things are closer than they appear, which increases this cultural paranoia of what is yet to come. I’m not afraid of what is yet to come, but I think we need to be cautious and aware of how cultural practice is actually individual, and this has a lot to do with the way the world of open access and open source works – it does work against certain conditions within the world right now – economic and political – that cultural practise at the level of the individual is being increasingly disenfranchised. Removed …

I mean the one thing I would say over the next ten years is don’t give up on humanistic practise, otherwise we are dehumanised as people, as practitioners, as cultural consumers even. And that’s not appropriate for anyone. Are you willing to do that? At some level, over the next ten years, people need to wake up in terms of the manipulation of information, in terms of what is cultural practise, and remove the politics, and do a culturally qualitative analysis rather than a political analysis of content.

DP: But then are you suggesting that there’s a danger that something as seemingly innocuous as electronic literature can be used for political purposes?

TM: In the negative sense, absolutely, yes.

DP: Okay, how?

TM: Because it’s apparently radical. Apparently. It’s rarely radical, but in terms of appearances and the way it can be manipulated, yeah, there’s a risk.

DP: You’ve been here in Sweden for four and half years now, how has your experience of living outside the US changed your perspective on these issues?

TM: I would say this: first of all, I love California, and I like New England, New York etc but I think living outside the US for the last five years has given me a different view of how the US operates, and maybe politicised me a little bit. I mean I’ve always been a rather political person but at the same time maybe a little less activist than I am now.

DP: Do you see yourself in the future as potentially an electronic literature activist? Is there such a thing?

TM: Well, I think it goes beyond that. I think that electronic literature is one dynamic, but thinking really more about creative cultural practice and how that needs to be protected because it’s one of the most significant points of heritage that is referred to. Go to any museum and what do you see – you see cultural production. So by distorting, destroying creative cultural practice, you’re destroying a culture. Which means not only the end of culture, it means the end of museums, it means the end of heritage, it means the end of history. It means the end of institutions, the end of a lot of things. So it needs to be thought of in a wider scope.

I wouldn’t say that my relationship to electronic literature is activist, it’s more about advocacy, that it’s a valid cultural practice, and then if I consider it a valid cultural practice, then of course I’m going to want to defend cultural practice in general.

DP: What about Swedish or Scandinavian cultural practise, what’s your view on that?

TM: I don’t know if I really have a full view of it at this point. I mean I know the way artists are trained is completely different to the US. It’s an emerging thing, but thinking about practise-based or practise-led research is an unknown notion in Sweden. To me there are certain contemporising aspects of advocacy that I’m interested in. Electronic literature is really not understood here, not viewed as technological practise or cultural practise. A few institutions deal with it, but culturally [it’s] unknown.

DP: But if I can push that a little bit – when you were producing Beehive, did you feel as if you were at home in your self there, as opposed to how you feel now about electronic literature? Do you know what I mean? There’s a sense that you perhaps feel like an exile here (and maybe I’m misinterpreting that) but when you were in the editorial process, did you feel as if you were grounded in that kind of culture, [in a way] that you don’t feel now?

TM: I mean, because I teach and I work in a university – and at that point, doing most of Beehive, I was not – I feel there’s a little more at stake personally at this point. At the same time, I’m not willing to reduce risk within what I say, produce, edit, etc. But what does become frustrating is how it is recognised. But that’s more immediate. In terms of Beehive, there was nothing immediate in terms of recognition. There was no Dean looking at me asking ‘is this research? What is this?’ So by becoming an academic, there’s a certain degree of loss of freedom, which is true everywhere. But I think because everything was so new in 1998, I didn’t have a sense of what risks were being taken until someone told me. Now I’m an old man so [laughs] risk become arthritis, or a symptom or arthritis – inflamed.

DP: So in that sense, you wouldn’t consider starting up a journal like Beehive today?

TM: No, I would absolutely consider it, but like I said earlier, it would be in a completely different context. Electronic literature would only be one focus – critiques of cultural pratice, or the phenomenology of social media, straightforward poetry, straightforward narrative, political editorial would all be part of it. I think the journal would take a different form now.

DP: Do you still think of yourself as an American practitioner?

TM: [long pause]. I don’t know. I’m an expat, an expat practitioner, an ex-practitioner.

DP: But how expat are you?

TM: No, I mean I’m not Swedish in any way but I live here, and politically I feel more detached from the US than I do from Europe right now. In terms of certain cultural aspects I feel more connected with California than with anywhere else on the planet. In other cultural aspects I feel more New England. I’m a citizen of the world, a practitioner of the world.

This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: