I’ve been enjoying the work of Joseph Mosconi for a long time. To read his work is to navigate through the linguistic eddies of cultural subsets often overlooked in experimental literature. From the extreme metal vibe of Fright Catalog (Insert Blanc Press, 2013), to Renaissance Realism (Gauss PDF, 2016), which is listed as “Potential lines for a children’s book” on Mosconi’s website, there a braided thread of fascination, play, and oblique interrogation that runs through the entirety of his output. I had the pleasure of visiting with Joseph last May in Los Angeles around the time his latest book, Ashenfolk (Make Now Press), was published, and was thrilled to receive a copy. Shortly after our visit, having found myself blown away by the scope and novelty of his newest project, I began a correspondence with Mosconi about Ashenfolk which spanned the course of several months.
Adam Tedesco (AT): In every discussion I’ve had about your new work, Ashenfolk, form is a primary consideration. I remember you handing it to me when I saw you in LA. You said something like “No, it’s not a D&D kit, it’s my new book.” Before we dig too far into praxis and the theoretical, how do you describe Ashenfolk to people who aren’t physically experiencing it?
Joseph Mosconi (JM): That’s so funny. I must have been responding to some of the feedback I received shortly after the book was published. A few people told me it reminded them of a fantasy roleplaying game. To be honest, while there are a ton of allusions to D&D, World of Warcraft, and other RPGs in the book—even the name Ashenfolk is shared with creatures and clans from several different fantasy fandoms—I wasn’t thinking specifically about game kits when I designed the box. Usually I tell people that Ashenfolk is a book that comes in the form of a 10-inch box set, which houses various booklets, zines and ephemera. I was inspired by the box sets produced by enigmatic record labels like Folklore Tapes, which specialize in documenting and researching the folklore and mythology of rural counties and abandoned industrial sites. As I began to design the book, at first as a typical perfect-bound paperback, I found myself dissatisfied with the flow from page to page. While all the poems in Ashenfolk are related thematically, the individual pieces are totally different formally, and the overall experience of reading the book, with all the different typographical and design elements, felt too discordant. I kept thinking: I wish there were a way to present all of these poems as separate booklets. And then it struck me—of course! There is a way! I could make zines, just like I did when I was in my teens and early 20s, when I made fanzines to sell or give away at punk rock shows. Then it was only a matter of making a box to put them in. And since so much of Ashenfolk is concerned with music and fan culture, it made perfect sense conceptually.
AT: Much of your prior work seems built from specialized language. The thematic link between the elements of Ashenfolk seem to be a natural progression from these works. Is it fair to say your approach here is similar and yet functions on a larger scale?
JM: Most of my writing is fairly research-heavy. Poring through old books and magazines, watching old film clips, attempting to unearth how people spoke or wrote in the past—not just in a literary or theatrical way, but in their everyday lives—the slang and vernacular of subcultural and discrete communities. I’ve consistently been interested in language that signifies in that sort of Dick Hebdige way—where members of a subculture recognize one another through symbolic mannerisms and argot (today this is accomplished online partly via memes)—from trucker and military slang to art and academic jargon to consumerist hailing and corporate newspeak to death metal and black metal lyricism. My research and composition methods in Ashenfolk are similar, but you’re right—the scope is much wider. In many ways it’s a natural progression from Fright Catalog, a previous book—so I’m following different strains of heavy metal and youth culture through fantasy and science fiction; hippie idealism and Silicon Valley vapidness; arcade games and fandom; the revolutionary cultism of avant-garde filmmaking and the problematic aspects of classification and virtual worldbuilding. That moment in 1975 or thereabouts, the year I was born, when utopian ideals gave way to the dystopia of technocapitalism in the popular imagination. Also, in regards to typography, I’m tracing (perhaps too subtly) the development of band logos—from psychedelia, with its sort of warped 19th century typefaces, to black metal, where the logo becomes totally illegible (but also resembles Art Nouveau design patterns). Something I stress is that typography always conveys ideology. The book also feels larger in scale, at least to me, because it incorporates aspects of my personal life and memory. There’s a lyric quality to some parts of Ashenfolk that I don’t think was present in my earlier books.
AT: Having grown up in and around extreme music culture, Fright Catalog seems very much written in my language, or in my corner of language, but functioning in a higher order. In reading it I feel I know what’s in the sausage, a feeling that instantly endeared me to the book. Whereas this same feeling may be a turnoff in terms of a more formalist poet’s work, the way it works against the remove of conceptualism is truly disarming. And here of course, is the bones of how a meme works, right?
What I find so impressive about Ashenfolk is the way this knot of known and unknown communicates the experience of bombardment with the background noise of the past forty or so years of America. I realize this includes more decades than you mention the project covered, but what I mean is there is a texture, a film grain, to the experience of being a certain age at a certain place and time and looking back on that.
I watched the movie Simon all the time when I was a very young kid, read Omni magazine, watched a lot of early Sesame Street animation, In Search Of, hung out in new age bookstores with my mom and her friends. There’s a certain way of seeing the world now when that’s how you started out. About ten years ago my brother got married in hill country, outside of Austin, on the ranch owned by the founders of Whole Foods, the ranch was named RISA, after the pleasure planet on Star Trek. The founders of Whole Foods are friends of my brother’s in-laws through all being long time members of the Austin Sufi community together. Does it make sense to you why I’m saying all of this? Do you believe communicating this sensation can be powerful as critique? Do you ever feel a pulling stomach sensation about this stuff, like the come-up on strong but speedy acid? Is any of this intentional?
JM: There’s a scene in the 1987 movie River’s Edge, one of my favorite movies of the 1980s that I can’t get out of my head. A boomer high school teacher is lecturing in front of a bunch of bored students—Ione Skye is rolling her eyes, other students are holding back laughter, it seems like it must be a Civics class or something—and it’s just a total fucking lament: “So, what was accomplished? I mean, uh, that’s a normal question…all the hippies are executives now and everybody sold out…but let me tell you something…fundamental changes were made! Changes so basic that we now take them for granted…the Civil Rights movement…later the Women’s Movement…I mean, like it or not ladies you’re now expected to have careers…then maybe later the husbands and the babies…and Vietnam! We stopped a war, man! We took to the streets and made a difference! We turned public sentiment around and we made people see the truth. Not that we were always thinking good thoughts back then…I mean, cops around you cracking skulls…you got a picket sign in your hand, you’re not thinking specifically about stopping the war right now, you’re…you’re thinking about knocking a few pigs on their asses! But as crazy as it all seemed, though…there was a meaning in the madness…a clear and a real purpose.” Suddenly a stereotypical 1980s movie nerd interrupts him: “But don’t you think violence is wrong?” Only to be shut-down by a metalhead: “Oh fuck off Kevin, wasting pigs is radical, man!” Then the school bell rings.
I’m surprised that a mainstream movie managed to have this much self-awareness in the mid-1980s—the character of the teacher is written as having this insufferable self-regard which expresses itself as sexism and paternalism. He’s nostalgic for the glory days of revolution and fighting cops in the streets, but ultimately sides with heteronormativity, wistful inspiration and personal transformation. Though I guess it was de rigueur to make fun of hippies and 60s radicals in the 80s. The point is, the counterculture and corporatism (along with the military-industrial research culture) were never mutually exclusive. Even Steve Jobs was an acid-gobbling commune dweller. It wasn’t as if someone flicked a switch and all that utopian fervor suddenly just became channeled into tech startups and self-actualization retreats. The ideas were always coterminous: the hippie and the yuppie; the commune and the Googleplex; the guru and the life coach. It doesn’t surprise me that the founders of Whole Foods would be Star Trek fans and Sufis. Star Trek itself, even though we think of it as a fan subculture, is entirely the product of mainstream forces: the CBS Corporation. One could also point to Peter Thiel, the PayPal entrepreneur, who owns a data mining company named Palantir — “palantir” being the name of a dark crystal ball from The Lord of the Rings. Thiel also invests in a military defense company that has created a “virtual border wall defense system” called Anduril. Any Tolkien fan knows that “Anduril,” also called the Flame of the West, is the reforged sword from the shards of Narsil. Far less evil, but somewhat emblematic of this creepy sensation we’re describing, is Peter Coyote. He was a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a founder of an anarchist collective called The Diggers, which aimed to raise awareness of consumerism, private property and labor issues. The Diggers provided free food to people in the Haight, ran the Free Store (where everything was free), the Free Medical Clinic, the Free Bank, etc. In 1982 I didn’t know anything about any of this. He was known to me primarily as the co-star of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
These communities of care—such as the Diggers—these networks of communes and intentional communities, were once widespread across the United States (in the early 70s it was estimated there were upwards of 10,000 of them). It’s heartbreaking to read about their slow decline and abandonment over the decades. But eventually new, different communities formed. When I think of my own family and its recent history, it almost seems like a fever dream of the white, American, middle-class 20th century. My grandfathers fought in World War II and my grandmothers supported the war effort via civilian duty. My parents were essentially hippies, though I don’t think they would have called themselves that. My dad was at UC Berkeley in the mid-to-late 60s and was a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. He loves to tell stories about defending People’s Park and the riots and protesting and running through the streets escaping the tear gas rained down on the protestors by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. My aunts were involved in the student movement and various new age and radical cults, from Eckankar to some unnamed political cell that at one point, so I’ve heard, had plans to assassinate President Reagan. My uncle died of AIDS-related complications. Another uncle made a career in the military and later in life convened an expedition to the southwest desert in search of ancient, buried spacecraft. So one of the central questions of Ashenfolk, really, is how to make sense of these various beliefs, actions, inactions, events, happenings, and ideologies? How did we end up here, today, with seemingly inescapable capitalism, incipient fascism, looming environmental disaster, and mass extinction? And as much as I’m critiquing my parents’ generation and the whole fucked-up world I was born into, I am also critiquing myself. I am also complicit. I worked in the tech industry for 15 years. That “pulling stomach sensation” that you’re talking about? Like the come up on strong but speedy acid? I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ll never forget the first time I visited the main Google campus in Mountain View and gazed out the window during the middle of a PowerPoint presentation or whatever, and realized, to my horror, that I was directly across the street from Shoreline Amphitheatre, where exactly 20 years earlier I was tripping on acid in the mosh pit at a Butthole Surfers show.
Can communicating this sensation, as an act in and of itself, be powerful as critique? I’m not so sure. I think you need to do more than simply point to things—I crave more from critique than just a mirror or a reframing. The idea that recontextualization is inherently an act of criticism seems untrue in the era of 8-Chan irony and deepfakes. It reminds me of that internet phrase, “Presented without comment,” where the awfulness of what you’re presenting is supposed to be self-evident (and of course, the phrase itself is a coded speech act implying critique). But you need to work through things. It needs to be transformative. Of course, “communicating a sensation” can take several forms.
AT: It certainly can. The more I think about that sensation itself, the more I want to call it possibility, not necessarily hope, but possibility. One of the ways in which Fukuyama’s “end of history” rings true for me is that as the neoliberal project has atomized the left, along with culture in general, there is a prevailing lack of collectively imagined possibility for anything to exist outside of capital, outside of the current state apparatus. I feel Ashenfolk does a bit of unwinding to a place before that, to that place of possibility. Does that make sense?
JM: I haven’t read Fukuyama in years, and my impression is that his thesis had become unfashionable after the events of 9/11, when many theorists and critics proclaimed history’s re-awakening (just as others claimed that history took a look around and went right back to sleep). But I do think there has been a persistent and pervasive sense, since 1989, that capitalism has foreclosed the possibility of a future. Or at least there used to be. I think that’s changing now. There was a period during the mid-aughts to the early-teens, during the worst years of the financial crisis, where you couldn’t go a day without reading or hearing Frederic Jameson’s famous and perhaps apocryphal near-truism: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to capitalism.” The earliest pieces in Ashenfolk were written during this time. And I must admit that these “communicating sensations,” as you call them, these possibilities, have a certain hauntological vibration to them, something like the “lost futures” that Mark Fisher described: things which never happened but which could have happened, or could still happen. And yet…something about the language of “possibility” unsettles me. Perhaps it’s due to all the time I spent in the tech industry. Capital’s claim on this language is especially pernicious there. Some of the mantras of my former workplace were “We don’t believe in impossibilities” and “Make the impossible possible.” Of course this was all with an intention to encourage overproduction and innovation (or even worse, disruption). It’s important to resist capital’s co-optation of this language. Or, at the very least, be aware of the context in which the language is variously used, and to hold the contradictions in mind when speaking or thinking about ideas like possibility.
As I was approaching the end of writing Ashenfolk, just when I thought it was finally complete, I started to worry that I had spent too much time describing the absurd and negative contours of our world, and the worlds of fantasy and folk horror and science-fiction; that there were not enough avenues of possibility and imaginary potentiality. So I added a few different things to make the book less overwhelmingly pessimistic. One of them was the poem titled OUTSIDE UFO-5440, which is a détournement of a Choose Your Own Adventure book called INSIDE UFO-5440. This was one of my absolute favorite books as a kid. In the book, you’re on a plane traveling to London, and at some point you are abducted by a UFO. There are a variety of absurd choices and gruesome endings to the book, but throughout the various read-throughs you keep hearing about this utopian planet called Ultima. Ultima is supposed to be the best place in the universe, and so of course as a reader you want to try to get there somehow. But no matter how many times I read the book, I could not get to Ultima. It didn’t matter what choices I made. I knew it existed and was actually in the book, because when I flipped through the pages of the book I could see, in the middle of it, a two-page spread featuring a drawing of Ultima, which looked like a pretty cool place, and I could read the passage describing the beauty and awesomeness of the place. A perfect happy ending. Finally I got so frustrated that I meticulously went through every single page of the book that offered a choice to the reader. I wanted to find out which choice I had to make in order to get to Ultima. But none of the pre-existing choices led to Ultima. There was no way to get there by following the rules of the book. The only way to get there was to break the rules. To not make a choice—at least not from the various choices on offer. You had to decide to just go to Ultima yourself. To flip to the page yourself. I loved this. It was like avant-garde literature for 8-year-olds. In my Ashenfolk poem it’s a little different. You don’t make a choice, you make a refusal. And you approach “a great glistening gelatinous sphere.” And most importantly you’re not alone.
AT: One of the most satisfying parts of Ashenfolk to me is a pamphlet which contains eight pages of prose. Here you write that “There have been people in my life that have become jealous of a computer”, then later, “Artificiality offers the only possibility for escape from this specific world.” I’m reading this as you constructing a technocratic argument as foil, pointing to the sticky lures of accelerationism. Is this a fair reading? Do you ever feel like a narcotized technocracy is an inevitability, pulling us toward it from the future? I ask because one of the ways I see Ashenfolk is as a metaphysical object to guard against this tractor beam.
JM: That particular piece is one of the earliest I wrote for this book. I think I wrote it about 15 years ago. The text is a mystery to me because I don’t remember exactly how I wrote it. I know I was using some literary constraints, because I was really into constraint-based writing back then, and I know some of the language is drawn from the various films and plays of Rainer W. Fassbinder, who is one of my favorite filmmakers. But when I’ve gone back to see how I incorporated Fassbinder’s language into the text, I’ve come up blank. I think I changed the language so much through various writings-through that the text no longer resembles its various sources. But it does follow a familiar Fassbinder-esque theme: an outsider (in this case an alien or a sentient AI) has been sent to Earth in order to investigate the languages and emotions of humans. It encounters bourgeois, contemporary Western society, and must learn how to assimilate, but the assimilation is faulty—it is resisted and rejected—and, perhaps, engenders creative adaptation. I had been reading a lot of theory about degrowth and affect during this period, so I’m sure some of that must be evident in the text. There’s a certain moral harshness radiating from the narrator as it devolves into artificial forms of emotional communication—which is ironic, because I have an aversion to moral tales. But I do appreciate cautionary tales of horror. I love your reading of the text, Adam, and I do think Ashenfolk can be read as a fairy tale—not in the popular sense of a happy ending, but rather as a collection of urban legends or creepypasta for a future generation.