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Reading the Pharmakon: Part I

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

A Primer on the Work of Michael S. Judge

Over the last decade or so, Michael S. Judge has produced a body of literature that is astonishing in its depth of conviction and intensity of vision. After a string of three published works between 2012 and 2016—…And Egypt Was the River (Skylight Books, 2013), Lyrics of the Crossing (Fugue State Press, 2014), and The Scenarists of Europe (Dalkey Archive, 2016)—nearly all of Judge’s work has appeared in excerpted form on his own website. The writing is dazzling in its grasp of syntax, its lexical range, and its sheer imagistic power. It draws upon most major domains of knowledge, from myth and religion, to geopolitics and history, to chemistry, astrophysics, computing, economics, and on and on. And yet, by all dominant metrics, his work is almost entirely unknown. Still, while writing multiple texts per year in relative obscurity, he has also produced an extraordinary podcast, Death Is Just Around the Corner, that details the fascinating and maddeningly evil tangle of war, art, history, information, and power that marks the last century, with special attention to both the JFK assassination and the work of Thomas Pynchon. The episodes are brilliant, including not only direct access to his mode of thinking, but also hilarious sketches such as “Spotlight on Hitler’s Patreon” and Matthew McConaughey as fascist propagandist (hint: it’s indistinguishable from a Lexus ad). Taken together, all this work suggests an unusually serious, capacious, and poetic mind that is as responsive to present realities and possibilities as any artist at work today.

In what follows, I want to provide a kind of primer for those new to Judge’s writing. While I consider the neglect of his work almost criminal, I am also aware that many readers feel it is not easy to grasp. Certainly, when approached with conventional expectations for “prose fiction,” the work may seem bewildering. But what I find in it is an inexhaustible, exhilarating richness of music and vision that, frankly, puts to shame much so-called experimental writing, as well as much lyric poetry. Ultimately, Judge’s work defies distinction between poetry and prose, lyric and epic, narrative and vision, and compels the reader to approach it in a manner more like a dream or meditation in which you allow it to operate as a cosmological force, spinning realities and grafting them onto our own, even as the spinning itself bears traces of realities recognizable and historically actualized.

For any reader unfamiliar with his work, I recommend first reading whatever works you can find, and get a sense of its orientation. In addition to his published work, there are many excerpts and some complete manuscripts online. For those who have read some of this work and felt it was inaccessible to them, I would first refer one to my review of The Scenarists of Europe. There, I offer a rather straightforward summary of that novel (to the extent that is what it is), which is representative of Judge’s earlier and somewhat more accessible style. If possible, also explore episodes of his podcast, as these can give you a grasp of his basic orientation as writer and thinker. Alternately, one may want to dive right into the more challenging later work, such as Post-Solar Histories, and that’s what I would like to do here.

After the title page of Post-Solar Histories, we have two epigraphs. The first is from Christian mystic Meister Eckhart: “[W]hen we know all things, the sun is black.” The second comes from Canadian poet Lisa Robertson: “[W]e rise into the failed libraries of civitas.” Chapter one is titled, “an introduction to the modernized theory of solar waste,” and then it begins:

green saline glare through skylight some nonspecific naphtha-fractioned miles above us (paleontology of genetic overdubs cracked free of their petrol storage in hydraulic-fracture star, the osteocyte code worn through scab’s telomere till acid patchbay feels again along the latency of small damp cables sprawling, reignition of an insect epoch, cyclical-resonant star’s surgery upon the fossil record)

while mathematical parameters of the explosions rip through the trading floor, maybe not triggered yet and maybe triggered several hundred thousand times in a past which can probably not be called “recent,” no matter how few hours or days ago it’s said to have occurred: very little is recent now, very little bears the rhotic-to-sibilant sting of a history still seething, because there’s so much machinery in place to salve that burn by overload, pure neuromodulator excess pumped in alkaline straits and the ruptured housing of lithium batteries across xerographic dry wash of the modem star’s throughput

always more, and not just more, and not just always, always more than more in thinner and thinner slices of time, cross-section of the MRI star in functional transplant to hemodynamic axes, the spike in the blood and the intravenous metallurgy surging

To my mind, this is an undeniably singular and astonishing form of writing. For many like me, the relentless power and originality of this style will be all one needs to be persuaded. For despite, or in addition to, the extreme technicality of some diction (osteocyte, telomere, rhotic-to-sibilant, etc), there is a deeper movement going on here, a process of unfolding, that does not require us to grasp the precise denotative meaning of each element (though there is nothing stopping one from trying). And so instead of asking, “What exactly does this mean?” the more relevant question is, What is this doing? How is it working? What is the operation it is performing and how can I follow its maneuvers? And how might I lose myself in them more knowingly?

A good parallel might be the work of J.H. Prynne. His texts, too, are known to be “difficult,” and yet there is some agreement that reading them involves tracking the language as an assemblage or collage of signifiers that simply refuse the transparent, realistic mimesis of conventional writing (or, more pointedly, the language of ads that do not know they are ads). The poems are about putting different registers of diction and domains of knowledge into dialogue and refusing to naturalize and accommodate their interactions through modalities of (sustained) narrative, exposition, or argument. And the domains we see “collaged” in this passage from Judge belong to (put broadly) chemistry, sound recording, oil extraction, genetics, archaeology, astrophysics, technology, financial capital, history, and human nervous systems, among others. In other words, Judge is evolving an idiom that allows him to speak these things simultaneously: to give us the texture of their interpenetration and reciprocal or parasitic re-writing of one another. Nervous systems are fracked. DNA becomes externalized in cables and wires. Stock markets absorb shockwave data. Stars speak into fossils. History is an engine. Earth becomes a battery whose fluid spills across stars. And someone or something is recording all this. Some-one/-thing is doing this. And so what is the speaker/scribe of this text, then? A witness? A victim? Someone doing their own version of these same operations? Keep reading. Soon you’re doing all these things too. One might call this omnigraphia: all writes into and out of all else.

And guiding one through this is the reiterated motif of a star whose identity mutates—or an ever-expanding constellation of stars Judge’s writing is in the process of trying to chart. Here we have “facture star” and “cyclical-resonant star,” and all throughout the text we see an ongoing litany of such stars: attack-vector star, karyotype star, “mineralized throughput of fluidic-computer star,” etc. This is all open to interpretation, but one thing to be taken from this is the divinatory mind that tracks stars is here not settling for eking out personality types and horoscopes; instead, the very motion of this intelligence—the stereoscopic eye of the augur—is as though sutured to matter and technology, and the writing enacts what is ultimately an historically specific juncture of all these elements. In no other era of history would such writing even be possible, and so Judge’s writing endeavors to reveal this emergent possibility as a psycho-material event in language.

For a reader who might find this tough going, elsewhere in Post-Solar Histories more linear voices and even monologues emerge: “so you should, I mean to see to say, be looking sideways, rather than anything you took for above: dismiss the diagrams as known, or rather don’t dismiss, but take them lightly, as a public-access legend to be held somewhere along the sides of the mind [.]” These are instructions for reading not just his work but for the world we live within. A world increasingly foreclosed into technological and ecological apocalypse. How does one take ones bearings? Where do we look to be anything but cruelly duped, repeatedly, by the voices performing reality for us? Ultimately, Judge is a psychic cartographer, and for one who may feel the excerpts here a bit enigmatic, one may refer to his podcast to gain a sense of the absolute rigor and intelligence of his political and historical understanding. And even with Post-Solar Histories, we encounter passages such as this:

and the skinny old men are smoking short black cigarettes with gold filters and are staring at the “nonpartisan international weapons inspectors,” who are notably not raking dirt or bagging stone and plaster or scraping paint . . . here’s the coast, here are the Damascus suburbs, here’s the Settlement zone, variously Judea Samaria Gaza I think or maybe that’s West Bank or Hebron or whatever, the hospital at Golan that flies Israeli colors but regularly seems to discharge what we think are ISIS militants into convoys heading north again, and. . .

In Judge’s work, these varied modalities of consciousness and attention are not separable: the psychical, the world-historical, and the concrete socio-political; what he calls the “alchemical index” and the basic, newsprint reality constructed for and inflicted upon all people by the Archons of the present reality—these commingle.

And this commingling, in fact, is essential to understanding the potency of their operations. For it is not only the “artists” who wield powers of imagination and work to insinuate worlds through psyche and neuron. Diplomats, intelligence agents, assassins, prime ministers, presidents, cartels, executives—all these enact degrading and violent operations upon reality, performing surgeries that rewrite the psyches and bodies and environments of billions. And as the tools such “artists” employ have been enhanced by technology and seizures of unprecedented, centralized, and concealed power, what is an artist to do when their desire is to write, to redeem imagination, and to identify and resist evil? What can one do as a writer? And what does writing under such psychic conditions do to the writer? And the same goes for reading. If I include the possibility that language is a psychic organism, and if technologies of writing and recording can structure reality for good or ill, then literary writing—as “heightened” writing; writing exploring its written-ness—is a psychic and cosmic act capable of altering, damaging, and/or healing effects, for both writer and reader. In this, it is a form of shamanic practice: a re-constellation of psychic traces the dominant reality has tried to subjugate or otherwise control.


In the next post, I’ll be exploring the connections between Judge’s work and that of William Burroughs, as well as diving more thoroughly into the Derridean pharamakon. If you’re interested, feel free to add me to your RSS feed.

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