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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Mike Topp, Yoko Ono and Deleuzian Order-Words
by Kirby Olson
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Mike Topp references Yoko Ono as his seminal influence (personal communication May 12, 2000). Topp's poems continue Ono's Zen-fluxus tradition, and circulate in micro-press editions, live performances, and in journals such as Exquisite Corpse, The Poetry Project Newsletter, and Talisman.
     Ono's work often consisted of strange advice, and weird instructions, and focus on a kind of rule-making which can't be followed, offering injunctions which it wouldn't make sense to follow, and are thus implicitly anti-authoritarian. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write, "The elementary unit of language - the statement - is the order-word" (Thousand Plateaus 76). We are surrounded by commands, injunctions, social obligations, and Ono's work is to dislodge the force of these commands. As G & D write, "Order-words bring immediate death to those who receive the order, or potential death if they do not obey, or a death they must themselves inflict" (107). Yoko Ono provides us with gentle commands which kill no one and release a kind of peaceful revolution:

"Tape Piece 1
Stone Piece
Tape the sound of the stone aging."
     (Grapefruit, n.p.)

Deleuze and Guattari suggest that "In the order-word, life must answer the answer of death, not by fleeing, but making flight act and create ÷ to transform the compositions of order into components of passage" (110). Ono takes the authoritarian instruction of the order-word and turns it against itself, using its own force to deflect it and turn it towards becoming and humor.

"Wall Piece
for Orchestra
Hit a wall with your head."
      (Grapefruit, n.p.)

Topp's work is conceptual and revolutionary and requires an understanding of the Fluxus sensibility (http://www.fluxus.org) which enlivened the art world and Peace Movement of the 1960s to appreciate it fully. What Yoko Ono and the other artists of Fluxus were doing was to take the sting out of the judgmental territorializations of art in order to "draw out the revolutionary power of the order-word÷ for the question was not how to elude the order-word but how to elude the death-sentence it envelops, how to develop its power of escape" (Deleuze 110).
     What rules were the Fluxus artists (and their best-known artist, Ono) playing with? The artists of this group certainly had an ethos, or a set of injunctions that they were particularly fond of setting into chaos. Non-violence, playfulness, life-accepting, happy, one can see in them one of the best aspects of the 1960s. It is hard, however, to pinpoint their sensibility, which is surely composed of a set of customs, or anti-customs. As Brendan Wilson writes of Wittgenstein, "Wittgenstein says that a person could not obey a rule only once, 'It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule÷ To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions)'" (17-18). Also, to turn against a set of rules, or to deterritorialize them, would mark a counter-culture.
      Mike Topp's poems play with injunctions handed down; for instance, in the poem "Bad Luck," a set of 48 statements concerning bad luck play which countermand superstitions such as "step on a crack break your mother's back," as they formulate rules for behavior which are seemingly nonsensical, and yet exercise their tyranny on the minds of young and old. Topp begins his poem:

"It is bad luck to drop a book and not step on it.
It is back luck to bring a hoe into the house.
It is bad luck to sweep the floor before the sun rises.
It is bad luck to count the stars."
     (High Priest of California, n.p.)

In the Fluxus realm, as in Topp's realm, rules and commands and statements are given, which perform a détournement against the militant insistence of tyrannical injunctions, in this case giving us so many rules that they temporarily ease the well-known taboos against dealing harshly with mirrors, and worrying about black cats. Topp and his mentors among the Fluxus group attempt to invent an autonomous zone, a paradoxical rule which links this group as a community. The rules they present, the order-words that they invoke, temporarily free us from the phallic commands which surround us, and imprison us. This freeing is cause for celebration, and is what links the community. Norman Malcolm argued that "Wittgenstein's claim is that the actual presence of a multiplicity of persons is necessary if a person is to have thoughts, devise a system of signs, set down rules of action for his own guidance and so on" (summarization of Malcolm in Wilson 19).
     In Culture and Value Wittgenstein writes certain aphorisms and anecdotes which will help set up the point I'd like to make about the mini-culture of Mike Topp, and especially his humor: "The concept of a 'festivity.' We connect it with merrymaking; in another age it may have been connected with fear and dread. What we call 'wit' and 'humour' doubtless did not exist in other ages. And both are constantly changing" (Wittgenstein 78e). "Two people are laughing together, say at a joke. One of them has used certain somewhat unusual words and now they both break out into a sort of bleating. That might appear very extraordinary to a visitor coming from quite a different environment. Whereas we find it completely reasonable" (78e).
     Topp's short poem "Advice" was directly influenced by Yoko Ono (personal communication):

     "Listen to a pillow by pressing your ear to it. Listen to a table by pressing your elbows to it and listening through your palms."
      (High Priest of California, n.p.)     

This mysterious advice is meant to send the reader into a non-threatening double-bind regarding a table and a pillow. How does one listen through one's palms? An opening of a kinesthetic compassion with a table is meant to recall an entire tradition of innocent humor in the experiential art of the nineteen-sixties. The idea was to render the ontologically inferior, such as tables and grapefruit, into the sacred, and a lot of this rendering was based on Zen and humor. Gregory Bateson writes, "I once heard a Zen master state categorically: 'To become accustomed to anything is a terrible thing" (304). One of the ways of disorienting our accustomed ways of thinking is through humor. But humor also offers an orientation, a culture, or, in certain cases, a counter-culture. Wittgenstein writes,
"What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humour? They do not react properly to each other. It's as though there were a custom amongst certain people for one person to throw another a ball which he is supposed to catch and throw back; but some people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket" (83e). Humor is a game, a game played in the experience of love and invention, and it is played between people who share a certain sensibility.
     Gregory Bateson writes that the Zen masters and their koans evoked a kind of double-bind situation, in which the mind was forced out of its normal categories. "÷in the Eastern Religion, Zen Buddhism, the goal is to achieve enlightenment. The Zen master attempts to bring about enlightenment in his pupil in various ways÷ We hypothesize that there will be a breakdown in any individual's ability to discriminate between Logical Types whenever a double-bind situation occurs" (208). Bateson suggests that one of the ways in which a double-bind can be created is when a serious injunction (such as is made in an art piece, that one should think or feel something) is made in a playful or a lunatic frame of mind, as are the poems of Ono and Topp.
     Wittgenstein writes: "Humour is not a mood but a way of looking at the world" (78e).
     James H. Austin, in Zen and the Brain, writes that, "Overly religious orthodoxies might view the comic as an affront to the sacred. Not Zen. The comic perspective plays an integral role in Zen, perhaps second only to the cosmic..." (414). In addition, Austin writes that Zen humor works on the basis of "playfulness, surprise, energized levels of activity, and novelty attached to the collapse of old barriers. What barriers? The ones we had previously set up between categories, that is, between sense and nonsense, victory and defeat" (415). Austin writes, "If there is no access to humor, problems arise from being overearnest, and from endowing one's person, cause, or situation with unqualified seriousness. Overly solemn persons can become especially vulnerable to the heavy burden of their religious preoccupations. Recognizing this syndrome, the old masters and monks spoke of those overearnest persons who had gotten so involved that they 'stink of Zen.' The antidote for this solemn situation is the light touch, the simple-minded comic spirit" (416). This is what Topp brings into the art experience, which has such a heavy stench of pretentiousness, exactly like religion when it goes too far. Topp himself pokes fun at the heaviness of Zen in his short volume Basho's Milk Dud:
      "A handsome young Zen monk came to Bankei and complained: 'Master, I have an uncontrollable boner. How can I master it?'" (Basho's n.p.).
     When the Zen master asks to see the boner, the young Monk is unable to produce it and says that it arises "unexpectedly."
     "'Then,' concluded Bankei, 'it must not be your own true nature. If it were, you could show it to me at any time. When you were born, you did not have it, and your parents did not give it to you. Think that over'" (Basho's n.p.).
     The essentialism of many Zen answers is undercut by Topp's positioning of the Zen master's sententious answer, as well as the material with which the anecdote is concerned. Sex is never a concern of the Zen monks, as they seem to only want to deal with enlightenment. Even Zen masters give order-words, and it is up to handsome young monks to deterritorialize them. In a similar mode, Topp ridicules the pretentious order-barking of art manuals:
      "Blend into the background. The best photographers become part of the scenery. Hang around a place until other people begin not to notice you and appear natural and relaxed. Do what others are doing, whether it's reading in a park or watching a ballgame -- the object is to fit in. This photo is of my shower and I am by the door." (1994, Topp 10)
     Mike Topp grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. As he describes his ancestry and biography, "My parents. My dad died when I was 14; he was 43. He had a massive coronary on Nixon's birthday. He smoked two packs of Pall Malls a day, drank a lot, was 6'5", 260 pounds, never exercised, ex-football player, ex-detective, ex-MP in the Army, a salesman for Standard Register when he died. He had a funny sense of humor. He grew a mustache; when he shaved it off, he just shaved off half of it, and walked around for a week with a mustache on one side of his face÷. We got along very well. He was very nice to me, built me toys, played sports with me, went swimming, etc. Our family kind of lost its equilibrium after he died÷. I grew up in the suburbs always, except once we lived on a farm in Pennsylvania when I was very young. I lived in Fairfax, Virginia, after I was born in D.C. I lived in suburbs in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Illinois. I had a subscription to Reader's Digest from my grandmother when I was nine. When I moved to New York City I applied for a job that was 'blind' - the interviewer told you AFTER the interview what company it was. After being told I was perfect for the job, I was informed the company was Reader's Digest. I turned them down. It didn't fit in with my self-styled boho image; I was an intern then at Franklin Furnace, a performance space founded by Martha Wilson, one of the original 'Guerilla Girls'" (email of July 10, 2000). The cultural gap between the domestic area of experience and the world of art he has entered is explored in Mike Topp's "Life in These United States:"
     "Last night my wife shoved some beads up my ass, promising me an explosive orgasm. The next thing I know, I'm in the hospital, a doctor is yanking out the beads, and I'm coming like a house on fire. I only wish my parents weren't there." (1994, 11)
     This poem reads as a satire of the short anecdotes found in Reader's Digest, in which a pleasant story of suburban life is related. Topp's poem has about the same size as these, but his content is unprintable in the mass circulation journal. Topp plays as well with other suburban material in a good number of his poems:

For my first big dance I bought an orchid corsage for my date. I could have just bought her a gardenia but I really wanted to make a good impression. I kept it in the refrigerator so it wouldn't wilt but I forgot to cover it and Saturday night my date said it smelled like salami. When I got home the first thing I did was to check and see if the salami smelled like an orchid." (1994, 7)

Topp writes that "Iggy Pop once wrote and said my writing made him 'feel better'" (personal communication). Topp is a very skillful comedian, but he could be seen as having the lightness of a good Zen shrink for an art world based on pretention.
     Topp is 42 years old, and lives in New York City. His work often consists of nonsensical commands, or kind order words, which deterritorialize the harsh order-words of American society: the strictures of bad luck, the laws against listening to tables, the need to buy expensive flowers for dates, the sexlessness of Zen and Reader's Digest. Like the work of his mentor, Yoko Ono, Topp's work is anti-authoritarian and against rational mankind as having the final say in life. Like Ono, Topp finds animation in tables, and poetry in the clouds. In his article "Perspective-Taking Humor and Authoritarianism as Predictors of Anthropomorphism," Herbert F. Lefcourt argues that "Perspective-taking humor assumedly reflects the degree to which people can distance themselves from their own concerns, and can laugh at their own pretensions. Perspective-taking humor would seem to be in natural opposition to anthropocentrism. Persons capable of perspective-taking humor could be expected to reject beliefs that our species is special, superior to all others and therefore, deserving of all possible privileges at the expense of other life forms" (61). Topp's ecological dimension has been little remarked upon by his critics to date:

"Natural History
Calf, calf,
polka-dot calf,
Mother Cow
is a polka-dot cow.
Look like Mommy."
     (High Priest, n.p.)

Topp's work is at odds with authoritarianism and "lampoons the 'special status' of our species" as Lefcourt remarks in another context in his article on "Predictors of Anthropomorphism." Topp came from the suburbs, from a family that had not attended university, for whom Reader's Digest was the standard reading matter. He writes, "I'm the first in my family ever to graduate college - my mom and dad were the first to attend; they each did one year at Washington University and then dropped out" (email of July 10, 2000). Topp's subsequent rise and achievement in the art world, from his early internship at Franklin Furnace, to his later apprenticeship in the writing workshops at St. Marks' Church under Anne Waldman, and the seminal influence of Yoko Ono on his own oeuvre can be seen as a political reaction against the more militant aspects of his suburban background.
     He writes of his family's lack of interest in art and their interest in guns, "My mother wrote poetry when she was young. Everyone else in my family has had zero interest in books or art÷ My grandfather gave me a lot of guns: seven. Shotguns, rifles, pistols, switchblades, blackjacks. I'm a sharpshooter. He taught me juijitsu. One of my cousins was in the CIA ÷ and he and my grandfather were always showing me how to kill people - no kidding. I've broken three people's arms, including my mother's. But that was all a long time ago. I sold all my guns; I quit hunting when I was 13; I haven't had a fight since I was 21 or 22. Two guys in New York City tried to mug me in the early 1980s but I beat them up; my landlord watched the whole fight and wouldn't help me because as he squishily informed me later, they might have had a knife or a gun. I don't get in fights ever now. I walk away usually if people try to start something. People sometimes try to pick fights with me, but I'm sure those people try to pick fights with everyone" (email of July 9, 2000). Although he came from a violent background of guns and fist-fights Topp walks away from fights today, although he is tall, and muscular, and does a few hundred push-ups every week, and could easily win them. Can Topp's work thus be seen as a part of the nonviolent peace movement, of which Yoko Ono and Fluxus played an important part?
     Charles Chatfield writes of Nonviolent Social Movements in the United States, that "Organized nonviolence, in United States history, characterized sporadic and essentially religious or moral opposition to war and injustice in the nineteenth century. It was employed self-consciously as an organizing principle in relation to the campaigns of Mohandas Gandhi, and over the next 30 years, small groups emulated him by applying nonviolent tactics against racism and other violations of civil rights. In the second half of the twentieth century, nonviolent direct action was applied in campaigns against racism, nuclear weapons, war, and ecological degradation to such an extent that it became institutionalized in US political culture" (283). Furthermore, Chatfield writes, it constitutes, "÷direct action undertaken at risk÷" (283). To this extent, Topp's work doesn't qualify as a direct action, and yet, he was able to disarm himself, which surely must count as the beginning of non-violence. An art that can teach human beings how to do something else with their minds except viciously win (as the destructive mentality of the C.I.A. would have it) is inherently political. In this sense, it is easy to see what Topp has found in Yoko Ono's work and to see how his work has an implicit nonviolent dimension. Ono was, for Topp, the most influential of the 60s artists connected to the Peace Movement, which managed for a brief time to link art and politics in a simple and effective manner through the bed-in and songs such as "Give Peace a Chance," which, although written by her husband John Lennon, was backed up by the Plastic Ono Band. Ono's sensibility, like Topp's, is inherently political, although without the self-righteousness which we have come to think of as politics today. Ono and Topp's order-words lead not to anger but to a kind of mystical calm:

"Cloud Piece

Imagine the clouds dripping
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in
     1963 Spring"
     (Ono, n.p.)

 Topp takes a lot from Ono's anti-authoritarian grammar, which plays order-words against gentleness. Deleuze and Guattari write, "Every order-word, even a father's to his son, carries a little death sentence, a Judgment, as Kafka put it" (76). Topp's poem "Flag," plays a variety of order-words against themselves, in order to create an autonomous zone against the phallic regime:


We were pledging allegiance to the flag and Dad caught me looking out the window. Mom said she didn't think that was very patriotic of me. I said I was looking at the flag outside on the pole. Dad thought it over and said that from now on we were to all look at the flag outside."
     (Local Boy, 8).

Austin, James H. Zen and the Brain (Boston: MIT Press, 1998).
Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972).
Chatfield, Charles. "Nonviolent Social Movements in the United States: An Historical       Overview," in Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999): 283-301.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. trans. Brian Massumi             (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
Lefcourt, Herbert M. "Perspective-Taking Humor and Authoritarianism as Predictors of       Anthropocentrism" in Humor, volume 9 (1) 1996: 57-72.
Ono, Yoko. Grapefruit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961; 2000).
Topp, Mike. Basho's Milk Dud (New York: Low-Tech Press, 1999).
---. High Priest of California (New York: Beet, n.d.).
---. Local Boy Makes Good (New York: Appearances, 1994).
Wilson, Brendan. Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: A Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980).

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