Little known in North America today, André DeMerde was once a towering figure in French Letters. In protest over the brutal repression of Algerian dissidents, he moved from Paris to Tangiers in the mid '50s and conducted his literary incursions against what he calls Empirical Culture from this remote expatriate base.
At first, his dispatches were prominently published in the European left-wing literary press and were responsible for vastly increased awareness of the rapidly deteriorating political situation in North Africa. Gradually though, DeMerde's voice was drowned out by a rising tide of drug-addled students, crypto-Marxist philologists and a cadre of Continental philosophes who had, in his view, taken permanent leave of their senses. By the time of the pivotal events of 1968 -- now in their own turn long forgotten -- it was nearly impossible to find an intellectual in Paris, much less the United States, who could recall the crucial role DeMerde had played only a few years earlier.
Always interested in contrary public voices and their fate, EGR was recently fortunate to encounter this venerable patriarch of culture criticism quite by accident. As it turned out, we found him panhandling outside the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City. He agreed to speak with us in return for a bag of fried pork rinds and a pint of Mad Dog 20-20.
Who Owns the Language?
An Exchange With André DeMerdeEGR: You edited the seminal journal Tel Quel in 1965, played no small role in the development of semiotic hermeneutics, and strongly influenced thinkers as diverse as Jacques Derrida, Little Richard, Jorge Luis Borges, Liberace, Julia Kristeva, Ed Sullivan, Jacques Lacan, Pinky Lee, Roland Barthes and Ed McMahon. In a career that has spanned nearly a half century of literary and media studies, what events seem to you especially noteworthy in retrospect?
André: Before we get into all that, I must say I'm amazed. I never thought it possible that very many people -- under thrall to Late 20th Century Spectacle as most are -- would continue to be interested in such weighty matters. Entropy Gradient Reversals must have a very unusual readership.
EGR: Well, yes and no. Our readers are certainly unusual. But they really haven't the least interest in this conversation. Most of them have no idea what we're talking about.
André: Fascinating! I suspected something like this might happen. But tell me, why do they continue reading your publication then?
EGR: Actually, many will unsubscribe after receiving this issue. It happens all the time. Most, however, seem to enjoy abstruse and obfuscatory exegeses on themes that utterly elude them. They take it as a form of stand-up comedy that apparently alleviates their anxiety about not knowing anything that wasn't covered by Geraldo.
André: Ah! Geraldo Rivera, one of my favorite muralists.
EGR: ...uh, you may be thinking of Diego there André...
André: San Diego you say? I been there too. Got beat up by the cops though. Really screwed up my hearing.
EGR: Yes, well let's move on to your thoughts about media evolution. How do you view recent changes in publishing and distribution, especially as these may relate to the phenomenon of online bricolage? Do you see the emergence of non-paradigmatic tropes and metaphors or iconic genre ironies?
André: Mmmmm, you want a hit of this Mad Dog, bro? This is some real good shit.
EGR: No, that's OK, but what about the question?
André: Well, while I was initially intrigued by the deconstruction of totalizing dialectics with respect to popular speech and how this implicated intellectuals in the re-visioning of more rigorous aesthetic strategies...
...uh, what did you want to know again?
EGR: Never mind. What do you think about the Internet?
André: Oh that! Well the net sure fucked a lot of people up, that's for sure.
EGR: How do you mean?
André: Well, see, there we all were, making up these really complicated constellations of interlocking -- or in most cases totally conflicting -- ideas about intertextuality and recursive semeiosis and stuff like that, and then along comes electronic hypertext and p-f-f-f-f-t! That was that. You know what I mean?
EGR: Not exactly. Are you saying that the World Wide Web disproved the hypotheses being posited by literary theory?
André: Nah. It corroborated them. We thought we were saying these really radical things about hegemonic legitimation and referential indeterminacy and that whole bag of shit... But then Internet access started becoming available outside the University and it became patently clear that all this high-sounding speculation was just simple, pedestrian fact. It made it real hard to get grant money for research on how nobody knew what anybody else was talking about. I mean, it was just way too obvious after AOL came onstream...
EGR: Ah ha...
André: Now anybody can put together these kinds of theories. Peer review at least helped to keep it in the family, if you catch my drift. These days, any x-random dipshit can come off sounding profound. It's a shame really.
EGR: So looking back, would you say that Deleuze and Guattari were right in projecting the centrality of the nomadic?
André: Gimme a break! They lifted that whole line of thinking from Lacan -- and he got it from Genet. Genet got it from a male prostitute, who also ripped off his watch and wallet and gave him a wicked dose of the clap.
EGR: So you think this was simply a reformulation of what we would nominally refer to as being "shit out of luck"?
André: Exactly. It all sounded pretty romantic to these faux-seditionist academics with their wire-rim glasses and tweed sports jackets with the suede patches on the elbows -- you know the type. Identifying with The People and all that sorry load of tommyrot. But having been busted flat for the last 10 years, I can tell you poverty ain't really all that much fun.
So there was all that... And then of course, Heidegger and De Man turned out to be flaming Nazis, which naturally fucked things up even worse.
EGR: Why do you call him Da Man? Was he like some really heavy dude or something?
André: That was his name, you ignorant twit. Paul De Man. Since you don't seem to know much about modern philosophy, you may find it interesting that, despite the title of Heidegger's magnum opus, Being On Time, Sartre told me he was forever missing anniversaries and appointments. I gotta say I never personally met the guy...
But anyway, I got out of the whole freaking game in '83. With the arrival of the IBM PC, it was pretty clear the shit was gonna hit the fan sooner or later.
EGR: Really? You saw the ramifications that early? That's pretty impressive.
André: Well look -- all this mysterious crap about codes and semaphores? How long were we gonna be able to handwave that stuff? You had kids writing Dungeons and Dragons games and getting rich at it. Literature was going to hell in hurry. We'd been saying things like "author-ity" was bogus, while slapping our personal copyright on all the journal articles we could possibly crank out. But now with this Internet thing... well, it was just getting too real too fast and -- just like the corporations we so despised -- we couldn't seem to see what came next. It was cool when Foucault laid out the power relations thing, but the whole point was to stay on the winning edge. Jameson has done pretty well -- I understand he bought a Jag with the royalties from that thing he did on The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. But most of these lit-crit guys are total losers today. Christ, look at me!
EGR: You do seem a little off your game...
André: No shit Sherlock! I've got one pair of pants I musta pissed in about forty times this month, I sleep on loading docks, I drink this godawful swill... Other than that, it's a terrific life.
EGR: At least you don't seem embittered by your experiences.
André: What are you, stupid? You think this is some kind of pose? You think I'm like that wino Bukowski waiting to get discovered or something?
EGR: Was he?
André: I think he had it all planned, yeah. We used to get wasted together, Chuck and me. I can tell you that guy was one mean drunk. Even after he got an agent. Funny though, I'll give him that. One time he went into this bank and puked all over a senior vice president. He told us he was gonna do it, so a bunch of us were watching from outside. He got busted of course, but it was pretty hysterical. A regular laugh riot.
EGR: So uh... what advice do you have for our young people?
André: Young people? Are you kidding? Stay young. Get ahold of all the money you can and don't think about stuff real hard. Watch a lot of TV.
EGR: Nothing about the precession of simulacra?
André: Aw c'mon! Baudrillard drives around the States in a nice new car and gets Big Insights. Simulacra my ass! He got that from eating in too many Midwest truckstops. The guy's a hoser. You know what he really likes? He likes to have Bleak House read to him while he's getting his ashes hauled. A seriously messed up dude, no lie.
EGR: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with our readers, André. We're sure they'll get a lot out of this exchange.
André: But you said they wouldn't understand a word of it. Didn't you tell me that? So, how does this work -- you say they're gonna think this is funny? Do you think this is funny? Christ, you need help worse than I do. Why don't you go interview one of those pigeons over there?
EGR: We did an interview with a horse once. He was fairly cogent on the issues.
André: Yeah? Well like I said, I think you're outta your fuckin mind.
EGR: It's been suggested.
André: Nothing personal you understand. Listen kid, can you spare a fiver? I haven't had anything to eat in three days...
EGR: No, but we can offer you up to twenty megabytes of free webspace if that'd help.
André: That wouldn't help at all. Listen, give your freaky readers one last bit of advice from me, OK?
EGR: Sure, what's that?
André: Tell em to study something practical, like maybe hotel management or herpetology.
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