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,
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
"Tape Piece 1
Tape the sound of the stone aging."
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.
Hit a wall with your head."
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,
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):
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,
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
"'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
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
"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
"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:
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)
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
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
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:
the clouds dripping
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in
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:
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
(Local Boy, 8).
Austin, James H. Zen and the Brain (Boston: MIT Press, 1998).
Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York:
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;
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,