Jim Blackburn is the kind of editor every writer wants to work with. He is totally professional, well read, unobtrusive in his approach, and he has a clear understanding of what he wants for his magazine. South Jersey Underground is one of a kind: a beautiful, eclectic mix of styles that does not need to define itself by adherence to genre and at the same time has its own identity. Jim is also a historian with a versatile knowledge of history. His insights into the kind of politics we have inherited inform his approach to art without politicising it.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the underground and Spengler.
It was actually a couple of forking paths coming back together which led me to start SJU, which I like to refer to more as an experiment than a literary magazine or whatnot. The first is that instead of going to college out of high school or attending the classes I did sign up for, I spent most of time with aspiring artists and musicians, basically just hanging out at diners, coffee shops, and bars. But in southern New Jersey you are really outside the periphery of New York, which is a few hours away. So I sort of came up with an idea one night to focus on what was happening regionally, but I really had no clue how to go about it. It was a few more years before the magazine came together, but I feel it really came out of this time period a few years earlier.
The second factor was that technology finally caught up with what I wanted to do. When I put SJU together in 2009 you could finally design a website without having to write code, there were various submission managers, and electric publishing made it possible for me to get around the enormous cost of printing. Social sites made promotion easier and cheaper. But what really opened my eyes was the initial overwhelming response, both in the volume of submissions and the amount of visitors to the site. I think there is a real desire out in the public for authentic voices expressing themselves through words or artwork or music, and that, I feel is the foundation of what we do – to act as a platform for those who maybe get lost or overlooked or don’t fit the mold in the vast bland sea of what passes for creativity in America at present.
Do you think there is a particular flavour to South Jersey writing and Art?
I would like to say that there is not, but I think my taste is probably reflected in the content. SJU is definitely not bound to any specific genre or aesthetic, only I hope, by the quality of the submitted work regardless of the submitter’s degrees, previous publishing history, or any of that resume kind of self-validating nonsense. What matters is what you have created and put into publishable form. In that same spirit, I try to approach every issue as unique, no two are ever published in the same format, and I try to create a space on the web which reflects the individuality of the issue. As editor I guess I like to wear the hat of a collage artist, creating something I hope reads more like a group project rather than just a collection of accepted submissions from a certain time frame.
What I try to avoid is the cookie cutter products rolling off the assembly line of the current American MFA factory. Not that good or even great work is not coming out of the madness and predatory profiteering of the MFA writing culture in America, but overall it is generally just a big fucking bore. Though I do notice that people “teaching” in MFA programs excel at making snide remarks on the grammar of others, especially on social media. Even with such talents, they are mostly as forgettable as the mold they fit their students into. I mean, without students or social sites, who would actually listen or read the work from most of them? But I guess I cannot fault the good ones from trying to make a living from the system either.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
It really has been a revolution and radically changed how creative products reach an audience. I have to admit that I am a late convert to the e-readers or the tablet, I think mostly because I contracted bibliophilia early in life, and there is nothing I’d rather do for a day than get lost in a book store. But getting beyond my personal love of the physical book, I think e-publishing is an overall positive development. The e-format has really empowered authors and artists on many levels. And as well as reinforcing the already strong genres of the novel and non-fiction, it has revived those with generally less content and that are less attractive to print publishers, such as poetry, short fiction, and the essay. Especially horror and science fiction, which seem to thrive in short story form, but could not easily reach its audience through print.
What do you think the underground represents in modern society?
Not that long ago I decided to shut SJU down, the main reason being that I felt it was getting to be too much for me to manage. The closing was only temporary but it gave me time to think about what the experiment was all about, and what the word underground means in a modern context. An underground movement is by definition a sub-culture or something created out of restrictive circumstances, like censorship, which represents something going on outside the norm. But as we move through the twenty tens there seems to be less of a mainstream culture, a lack of homogeneity where all society is broken down into sub-categories. But it is not that neat, many categories bleed into others and many aspects of society defy easy delineation or generalization. As a result, isms which have been used to define social, political, and cultural movements have become less pronounced. The limitations of these structures were their strength last century, providing a group identity, are now a disadvantage when time and space no longer limit social interaction. By time, I mean the breakdown of what was considered generational, where a group of people the same age were connected through shared experiences. We now live in a time where one can choose how an event is interpreted through social and news media of their choice, there is no longer any sense of shared empathy or adulation. Generation has been replaced with sub-group consensus, meaning one can find others who share their same opinions on issues on all levels regardless of where one lives and what age group they belong to.
A contemporary example of this is gun culture in America. From the outside it seems irrational that one should be stockpiling military grade firearms, but within the culture is a support structure of news media and social media which is reaffirming and makes those outside the gun culture seem irrational. I myself find it bizarre, but if I was gunned down tomorrow, those who are part of the gun culture would point to my being unarmed as the cause of my death. It has a logic, but what they don’t take into account is that even if I had a gun and could shoot someone before they shot me, I would not pull the trigger. I just don’t think I want to live in a world where my survival is based on killing someone before they kill me. I guess, in the larger scheme of things, my life is not that important that its continuation validates violence to another human being.
But, not to get too off course, I don’t know if I have an answer to what is underground in a society that lacks any firm grounding. I find myself drawn to people regardless of age or geography, and this new fluidity in society is both exciting and unsettling, as new developments can be. Ultimately, we have entered into an era where we are all connected, and in turn, disconnected. We are adrift, a collection of floating generations.
Do you think we are living in an increasingly paranoid era and how is this reflected in contemporary writing?
I guess every era thinks it is unique, and in some ways it is, but overall though the lifestyles and technology of the human species has altered dramatically in the past few centuries, the human being itself and its psyche has not essentially evolved. I really admire this passage from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which I think fits this context:
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And there will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
I believe those words to be true enough, then and now. I also think that the voices of those on the fringes of society are being heard through social media in a way that is unprecedented, and that their conspiracy theories are disconcerting to those that in the past would not be exposed to paranoid thought on such a level. The web has a democratizing effect that in some instances may not exactly be positive. True democratic culture cannot by definition ever reach complete consensus, and if an event or phenomena cannot be agreed upon, it leads to conspiracy theory and paranoia.
On a positive note, SJU started as a regional publication and has spread out almost in a ripple like fashion to include at first contributors from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York – especially Brooklyn. And then from outside the Americas it has had contributors from Ireland, Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and others in Europe, as well as India, Iran, Pakistan, Japan, China, and even Connecticut. As an example of this democratization, the contributors represent in a way how the internet has made geographic borders more malleable, if not in physical travel, then in the travel of ideas and culture. The concept that people are living in these nations conceived before their own birth with happenstance borders, an idea brought to prominence by Benedict Anderson in his work Imagined Communities, is really being pushed to the forefront by this open exchange – most notably in social media. But try to unpack Anderson’s thesis on the border without proper identification and you will not get far. So you have these polar extremes in many areas of the world, where people are physically limited yet they can project their voice around the world.
But to focus on the question, human beings are a peculiar species, unpredictable; everyone has the potential to be a Gandhi or a Hitler, a George Washington or a George W. Bush. This erratic nature does not inspire trust in ones fellows. As a student of history, I would predict the world in the next few decades is heading for either utopia or dystopia, and that either path will eventually lead to the other. As for contemporary writing, I love the work of Philip K. Dick, so the more paranoid the better. But it should be noted, just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not after you.
Do you think mixing Spengler’s theories with Philip K Dick’s ideas might create an interesting genre?
What a coincidence that you mention Spengler! I was just having a cigarette at Hannah Arendt’s grave the other day, which it was just picturesque with fresh snow covering everything, and I thought about Spengler sort of indirectly as I was mulling over the historiographical approach of Toynbee. Spengler is an interesting intellectual; I guess you noticed the influence of the social cycle theory in my last answer. He had deep German philosophical roots like Arendt, especially Goethe and Nietzsche in the case of Spengler. His influence is immense, especially in the development of the world systems perspective, which looks at universal, often slow rhythms in history without the constraints of nationhood, another theme in my last answer. I am an admirer of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School of history, which takes this approach and makes it their own through the longue duree.
But Spengler is probably best known for his pessimism, his famous quote “optimism is cowardice,” and his first published work – The Decline of the West. But the “West” has not so much declined as the rest of the world has been rising. It is usually a slow painful birth into a new era and the growing pains are unforgiving for sure. The West had the benefit of two world wars which accelerated social progress as well as helped it develop new technology quickly, and condensed its human sacrifices into years rather than decades or even centuries. Much of the rest of the world hasn’t had a go at something akin to the two world wars of the last century yet.
Pessimism and optimism I think are both valid viewpoints, one of the few choices in perspective an individual can make. I have been optimistic about this second decade of the century, especially in comparison with the first. I mean, in the first decade the country I am a citizen of for the first time in its history started to openly torture human beings illegally, and engaged in two wars which were completely unnecessary. Believe me, it was lonely being against the Iraq War in the beginning, and even lonelier being adamantly against the Afghanistan War at its inception, with emotions running high after the terrorist attacks on New York. Americans like to blame certain politicians or political parties for the illegal torture and wars of the first decade, but I think the fault falls on everyone, including myself. Hopefully in the court of history, we will all be found guilty for our war crimes. Even today, I feel we could do better with our drone fleet by dropping knowledge instead of bombs. It sounds weak or trite, but it would be cheaper, and in the long term more effective to drop books or maybe devices with access to a wide range information like laptops, smart phones, and iPads into these areas. Allowing those there to have access to the best deterrent to violence, plus knowledge is the currency of the universe, or at least a universal currency that rarely deprecates in value.
Concerning the hybrid genre, Spengler’s work was influential on the Beat movement, of which Dick was connected to at least generationally, and the counter-culture which followed. I think it would be an interesting genre to combine the two, but the authors may need to add some teenage vampires or zombies to draw the large audience such a synthesis deserves.
To what extent do you think Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism is applicable to the surveillance societies we inhabit?
I named an issue we did last year that was made up of short fiction and the work of one artist “Hey Panopticon! – Some Fiction?” The title came from a book which I was reading at the time and spoke on some levels about society and surveillance, which was called Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by the famed Foucault. The idea originated as an eighteenth century architectural design meant to optimize control and cost. In its simplest form it was a circular design where the prisoners are separated from each other around the rim of the circle, while one person positioned in the center could view them all yet the prisoners could not see the observer. Foucault took this architectural theory and produced his own social theory called panopticism, which focuses on the dynamics of power and social control. I don’t know if I completely agree with Foucault’s theory, and I think he even had second thoughts himself later in life, but it is one of those great starting points to start thinking a bit deeper on surveillance in our digital age. I really was intrigued by this idea that we act differently if we feel we are being watched, when in reality there maybe nobody really watching – just the idea of constant surveillance has the ability to change behavior. I remember when the Occupy movement was physically occupying parks and whatnot, and one of the most effective modes of crowd control and a deterrent to some people staying with the protestors was the use of cameras by the police. They would just be there videotaping the protestors or taking pictures, and I think this had an incredible psychological effect. In the end, I doubt they did anything constructive with all the video and photos, but it speaks to the darker side of what is possible with new technologies and how they can be used as a force of intimidation.
As for Arendt and surveillance societies I am sorry to say I have only read a few of her works and not completely, so I don’t know if I will do her justice but I will try. Arendt was in a sense a disciple of Kant, meaning she dealt with morality and words linked with incredibly complexity, such as love and evil. She viewed these concepts through a political lens, and she applied her theories of thought on the phenomena of totalitarianism. Her views match on some level with what I mentioned in my last answer concerning wars and torture, that at times a leader has no choice but to follow the will of the people. Arendt refers to Hitler and Stalin as non-entities or non-persons, they were the product of society, society was not a product of them. Meaning, in a totalitarian society the ones in charge are the masses and the leader is an extension of the will of the people, but the majority of these people never bear any responsibility for the crimes they commit. Arendt was criticized for her essay on the trial of Eichmann, as she approached her role of journalist from a philosophical perspective (though the term philosopher did not agree with her). Everyone simply wanted to view Eichmann as a monster, someone who was morally bankrupt and psychotic, but what was unsettling was the fact that he was a somewhat normal person who had committed monstrous acts. He was not out of the ordinary in any way, psychologically or morally. Eichmann was
not a danger to himself or others; he was just like the millions of other Germans who abandoned totalitarianism after their defeat. But she did agree with his death sentence, as his war crimes were unforgivable.
I think America has gone through a transformation this century that most are not even aware of, meaning that the wars at the beginning of the century started out on a political level but the incredible length of these engagements turned them more into an economical concern, and I think since the Bush bailouts of 2008 the political and economic systems in America have intertwined in a unique way. The Bush bailout or the more formal Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 gave away – meaning not a loan – $1,632,000,000,000 trillion dollars of tax payer money between March 2008 and October 2008. This was the beginning of this new synthesis and I would highly recommend reading Matt Taibbi’s Taibblog, he is really one of the few journalists on top of this new phenomena. But, it also highlights how bizarre Americans are politically, I mean they recently almost didn’t pass a relief bill for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, and they are always trying to cut essential services like health care or nutritional support. I guess maybe because people can see those programs at work in their everyday lives, like those who receive supplemental nutrition assistance, which some derogatorily call the sustenance program “food stamps,” a term from the 1980’s. But most don’t see the Wall Street CEO who pisses away in a night tax payer financed champagne worth more than most people will pay in their whole life in taxes. I guess it’s easier to kick those that are down on their luck too, or not living up to the expectations of people who criticize the lavish lifestyle they perceive those sustaining themselves through nutritional assistance to be living, with such luxuries as maybe cigarettes and gut rot booze, but hey, the government found some batshit crazy amounts of money when it needed to finance unnecessary wars or prop up a hollow Wall Street financial system.
But on the flip side, America is fostering much of the new plurality of culture. Plurality and active thinking are the two stumbling blocks to totalitarianism in the thought of Arendt. Many young people do not identify in traditional ways. Gender and race are becoming a secondary characteristic like eye color or something like that, as well; sexuality is becoming more fluid and much less rigidly defined. Politically, the paradigm of the right or left, or liberalism versus conservatism is becoming less pronounced. Young people are not identifying with one political party or another; they tend to lean more towards what is considered independent. I think those viewing the world through this left/right political paradigm are living on borrowed time, but this shift will not happen overnight. I mean, it will literally be a new world, which means many that inhabit it now will have to pass away before it will take the healthy shape socially that it could in the future. These changes are positive in almost every respect, and it may be possible for the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to finally be achieved, though maybe not in my lifetime.
As for surveillance, this may be the part of Arendt’s thought that I am not familiar with. I would like to say that surveillance in society is a negative development, but I am just not informed enough to speak with any depth. I think the future of surveillance is in drone technology, which even now drones can be fitted with license plate scanners, thermal imaging, and facial recognition systems. They are being used in both private and public interests, some that are worthwhile like the monitoring of endangered species in nature reserves and other conservation efforts, plus they have been useful in forest fire detection. The difference between grounded and aerial surveillance is that people have virtually no right to privacy from the air. You have many rights on the ground level of the property you own, but you do not own the air space above your property. That is public air space which can be used for aerial surveillance or whatever; I think this is a civil liberties debate waiting to happen. Arendt viewed the present as a gap between the past and future, as she used a historical perspective throughout her work. One of her favorite sayings, and one that maybe fits in the ongoing conversation concerning privacy and surveillance, was that she would encourage her students to “insert yourself and make the world a little better.”
Do you think there is too much emphasis on genre in publishing today?
Genres are most useful in organization; whether in a bookstore or in helping formulate a publishing strategy, while at the same time it helps some readers find works that appeal to their sensibilities. Is there too much emphasis? I don’t know, I personally do not think genre is that important. As an editor genre for me is comparable to the set design for a play, and to the costumes and makeup that actors wear on stage. It can be really interesting, and a high quality production does add something to the overall experience if the content is honest. And what I mean by honesty is that the writing itself deals with universal truths. A good piece of writing could be appreciated many years into the past and future, though it is conceived in its own time, it speaks to elements of the human existence that are timeless. But whether it is the written word, artwork, or a piece of music, when it speaks honestly it has the ability to transcend time and space. And it can accomplish this feat because it can change the person who comes into contact with it, I mean it literally reaches in and can touch the soul, whatever that may be. Genre can be nothing but secondary to this, or maybe it is really nothing at all. But the money made and lost in publishing is very real, so I can see their point of view. That
doesn’t mean many publishers don’t do business with a conscious or an eye towards quality work, it just means they do business.
What is next for South Jersey Underground?
I do not know if there is much of a future for SJU in its current format. It will probably get folded into something larger, which I have not decided if that should be a non-profit model or something in the vein of a non-traditional publishing format. I think I would ideally like to continue with an art, poetry, and fiction based content, but I would really like to add some experimental journalism and something that deals with music on some level. With journalism, I really admire what Nieman Journalism Lab and ProPublica are doing, and also some of the older publications which seem to be getting better in their digital format, like The Atlantic and The Nation.
Musically, I was really interested with everything that was coming out of Brooklyn a few years ago, but the whole scene now has morphed into some sort of bizarre trustfund wonderland. I mean, I think it’s cool that children of privilege are interests in the arts and want to live in an artistic community, but they have altered the whole dynamic there. It is an interesting social paradigm, many of these rich kids are looking for an urban artistic experience, but there movement to Brooklyn has produced a faux urbanism, something which does appear to be edgy from the outside but is in reality completely sanitized and safe. Really, the sorts of existence trustfunders are used to. Not that there are not a legion of cool and talented people there, but they will be the first ones to tell you that Brooklyn’s not where it’s at anymore. I heard someone say that Brooklyn is the new Westchester. I would not go that far, but maybe in a few more years. But I would like to add music content; I am just not sure how I am going to go about it yet.
Ultimately, I do not think the name or much of the format will remain of SJU in the future, but I hope the spirit of the “other” remains present in whatever it evolves into. I mean, who can say what technology will bring to publishing in the next few years, never mind looking farther into the future. I definitely feel honored that the contributors have given me the privilege of displaying their work in our publication. I hope I have done them justice, and I look forward to discovering new worlds in the SJU inbox. I also hope to be a character in a novel by Richard Godwin, or perhaps that is what I really am.
What advice would you give yourself as a younger man?
I don’t know, maybe to live more in the moment. A life happens while you are busy making other plans sort of advice. But I have a suspicion that my younger self thinks my older self is uncool or lame, and will not really take my future self’s message seriously, and will in fact start giving advice to my older self. As I think maybe it should be.
But a bit more seriously, I like to think about what connects our past to our present, and how that orients our direction into the future. I received a poem from Louie Crew on my birthday this year which I just found both intriguing and amazing, as maybe life itself is at times. Crew is just himself, which is no minor feat, and I would recommend his verse and his message of tolerance to anyone, including my younger self. Here is his poem and my birthday present “reVisit” –
Imagine the five minutes before your mother
learned that she was pregnant with you.
Imagine the five minutes before your father
Let those minutes tick slowly by.
Fill in any blanks with your best guesses.
Connect intimately with their world
before you were.
Imagine the five minutes after they knew,
their readjustments, their expectations.
Then reconnect intimately with your gestation,
when you were becoming,
when you were a presence and a promise.
Celebrate your wholeness.
You are a presence and a promise still.
for this is your day.
reJoice in it.
Thank you Jim for an insightful and great interview.
Please feel free to connect with Jim Blackburn on Twitter – https://twitter.com/SJUnderground
Learn more about Louie Crew – http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/