“This is the commonly reigning form of barbarism: that one doesn’t even realize that morality is a matter of taste.” — Pierre Klossowski
Social media offers us an opportunity to control the way we appear to the world. Generally, people want to appear to be moral and tasteful; we post articles and petitions that reflect our praiseworthy political commitments, we can scroll down our profile and be reminded of what Good People we are. A quick look at novelist Dennis Cooper’s Facebook profile demonstrates that he doesn’t seem to care about appearing to be a good person—he regularly posts links to male prostitutes he’s been checking out online and one of his recent cover photos was of a would-be school bomber. This isn’t because Cooper is an actual connoisseur of underage prostitutes or a violent criminal, but because he recognizes that the internet is a place to explore fantasies. The predominant fantasy that gets explored involves being a coherent, morally upright person. Social media enables this kind of behavior—it’s profitable.
A theme throughout Cooper’s work is the aestheticizing of morally reprehensible behavior—typically sexual violence and pedophilia. This is exemplified by the mostly out-of-the-picture music critic father in 1994’s Try, who is sexually obsessed with his young son, but whose rhapsodic appreciation of his son’s beauty is part and parcel with his ability to exploit him. Cooper’s often relentlessly dry, museful prose style desensitizes us to the heinous acts he describes. This isn’t an authorial strategy used to teach a moral lesson, it is an effort to render whoever is reading an accomplice in the character’s violent acts. After murdering his own brother, the narrator of 2011’s The Marbled Swarm’s internal monologue unspools:
…I no more spend time reading novels than you would kill your brothers. Hence, how authors give dead characters’ survivors room to grieve while, presumably within the same handful of paragraphs, checking off new plot twists as though nothing diabolical has happened is wizardry to me.
This suggests that formatting and narrativizing human debauchery and misery is just another “form of barbarism.” Cooper has said in many interviews that he is not interested in politics, but I think this has political implications. With the apparent triumph of global capitalism and liberal democracy, the ideals of progress and unity are accompanied by realities of exploitation and imperialism. Just as our political agendas are tainted and rendered all but vacuous by their complicity with fetishistic capitalism and the human misery it begets, Cooper’s characters’ obsessions with beauty drive them beyond fabular or ethical confines—they end up being too evasive and discerning to be evaluated in a conventional moral framework (sort of like successful politicians).
Cooper’s work reflects the fact that personal aspiration in capitalism is tied to exploitation. In his 1989 novel Closer, a middle school boy named David constantly fantasizes about being a pop star. The chapter narrated by him begins, “I’m a talentless but popular young singer and I have the feeling someone is watching me.” Throughout the chapter, David claims that because of his physical beauty he is worthwhile and deserving of a high level of visibility. In the end, it is revealed that David was raped by a man claiming to be an A&R executive for a major record company—this incident being the impetus for his seemingly superficial preoccupation with pop stardom. David says, “I’m sure he doesn’t remember the incident. Still, I can’t forget.” Believing that we are intrinsically special or beautiful may be the only way we can cope with the world, but in David’s case, the event that instilled that belief in him also brutally proved that he was totally fungible.
Articles Cooper wrote for Spin magazine in the ’90s, including Kurt Cobain’s obituary, dealt with exploitation in the music business directly. For Cooper, it was unclear whether Cobain’s music transcended or perpetuated the demoralized world generation x-ers were emerging into. Who benefited from Cobain’s success? Was it the people who saw themselves in his music, or the people who got rich off of it? Was Cobain’s inner turmoil accessible to his fans in the same way that the dollar bill was accessible to the baby on the cover of Nevermind? Does it matter? Cobain, Cooper writes, “with his stupid, infuriating death… showed us what our belief costs.” When Cobain sings “I’m buried up to my neck in contradictionary flies…I’m too busy acting like I’m not naive,” we’re reminded of Cooper’s characters whose voices are decentered as the confusion of their lives envelopes them.
“All I’m trying to say is, I have no idea what I’m after. I just know how it looks on the surface.” –Dennis Cooper, Guide
Cooper is probably best known for the five-part George Miles cycle, named after a friend and lover of his who committed suicide. The cycle was partially an attempt to make sense of his friend’s death, but also features characters (some named “Dennis”) who are obsessed with finding romantic and/or sexual partners who share George Miles’ physical and mental traits. This leads to art (being concerned with enduring issues like loss, love and death) becoming indistinct from pornography (where human characteristics are more or less effects of lust). A decade before Jean Baudrillard claimed that “the illusion of desire has been lost in the ambient pornography and contemporary art has lost the desire of illusion,” Cooper wrote:
Just as contemporary art eschews the traditional notion of subject, relying instead on a display of purely aesthetic components, pornography’s not about what it appears to observe—sex. Porn’s simply intimate with human beings, its components… but they’re hardly porn’s real subject. That subject is lust—theirs, their director’s, their viewers’.
Many of Cooper’s characters are totally driven by lust, and also see the world in ‘purely aesthetic’ terms; they have a sort of overdetermined acumen when it comes to recognizing beauty. His rigorously surficial way of describing his character’s perceptions doesn’t become a mere exercise in effacement (as so much art has literally become) though. This is because Cooper recognizes that confusing artifice with reality is the core of being human; we can’t deliberately pursue triviality any more than we can wisdom. In 1997’s Guide, the fourth book in the George Miles cycle, a character named Dennis Cooper is in love with a man named Luke, who is exactly his “type,” down to the last detail. While Dennis’s lust gains total purchase on Luke, his advances get rejected and he ends up fascinated not by how well Luke adheres to his lust’s typology, but by Luke’s solipsism, beliefs and behavior—his inaccessible interiority. This demonstrates that, even as our identities seem to collapse under the weight of banality, our lust can inadvertently lead us to stare at our own blindness.
Amidst this political landscape of rampant exploitation, objectification and complicity, our humane sympathies are also at the mercy of our blindness— there is no higher authority to guide us. A passage in the 1980 story “A Herd” depicts god himself taking a break from his serene, omniscient perch to scrutinize an apparent pedophilic homicide taking place somewhere outside Los Angeles. Afterwards, while flying through space, god’s reaction is “a little like Martin Balsam when he flailed down the staircase in Psycho. But God was laughing, not shrieking. And that was how He would stay.”
A slightly different version of this article originally appeared earlier this year on Inebriated Spook, which you can visit here.