Columns

Justin Isis Unveiled: On Neo-Decadence and the Literature of Anti-Apocalypse – Ben Dreith

I first discovered Justin Isis’s work in the depths of the pandemic when I came upon a sprawling post by novelist Dennis Cooper about the 2018 anthology Drowning in Beauty: The Neo-Decadent Anthology, edited by Isis. Fresh off a graduate program in literature, I had been sifting through what I considered at the time a literary world so nostalgic or pandering or self-involved that I was beginning to wonder if I should give up on contemporary fiction altogether. 

I quickly made contact with Isis, who, along with a slew of writers he’d connected with all over the world, was occupying the ruins of Facebook with a vibrant group. I quickly read the anthologies, manifestos and immersed myself in the world of Neo-Decadence. Finally, I thought, a self-described scene in which I can play out my historical fantasies of salons and badges and affects. But I quickly realized that, while having manifestos and unified opinions, the group was made of disparate voices ensconced in nightlife Japan and post-industrial America, green-bright India, and swirling Lima. It was clear that instead of writing toward the group, the aesthetic concerns had brought in a bunch of already-brilliant writers. 

Isis, who has been living and writing in Japan for decades, has built a movement on the skeleton of a concept that Neo-Decadence’s unwilling progenitor Brendan Connell outlined years ago. His fictions, organizing and personality sit at the centre of the movement, and his output in various pursuits is matched only by his propensity for raw meats and fine liquor. 

His work deals with the spectrum of small mysticisms and cultural sublations, from the Lispector-like gnosis of Japanese nail art workers in “The Quest for Nail Art” to the LinkedIn bildungsroman of his Pleasant Fictions. Mostly short stories and poetry, his fiction deal covers the quiet epics of the prepubescent and the petty social lives of future gods who weave art from pure emotion. Recently, he released a poetry book called Instagrimoire//Fax Screen Sect: The Cancellation of Graham Greene, Volume 1: Tales from Orthographic Oceans, or: A Room with a View (Self-Portrait in a Concave Mirror with Interior Landscape & Key to the Scriptures) that touches on a hagiography of trashy saints and holy trash, filled with insightful, clear-eyed summations of literature, art and the present. 

The following interview is a consolidation of nearly two years of digital correspondence between myself and Justin, who, unlike many, lives what he preaches, sailing in fur-lined depravity, full of DMT and DH Lawrence in Shibuya.

 

You’ve been an evangel of the Neo-Decadent movement for a while, what do you say to someone who doesn’t give a fuck about literature when you describe what it is?

 

Neo-Decadence is the first coherent and comprehensive artistic movement of the 21st century. By “coherent” I mean the terms are set out clearly in the manifestos and then executed in the work, and by “comprehensive” I mean the focus isn’t merely on poetry or painting or fiction, but on all art forms + aspects of everyday life. The ideas on cooking, fashion and video games are as important as the ideas on literary style. At present there are at least 30 volumes of more or less conscious Neo-Decadent material, and there will be more anthologies, art books, etc. to come. This is all without any real mainstream appeal, and without recourse to genre cliches.

 

Neo-Decadence is simply consciousness of the fact that “things fell apart a long time ago; we are already living in the ruins of civilization,” as Brendan Connell’s original manifesto has it. It’s anti-apocalyptic, in a way. Things will continue, and continue, and continue. You’ll never have the satisfaction of a cleansing end of days. Ugliness, stupidity, grotesque cliches, commercial sentimentality: all of them will keep being rewarded, as they always have been. Things will just keep getting dirtier, so you might as well enjoy it; even find a genius in enjoying it. 

 

In your stories the subject matter fluctuates between banal apotheosis and depraved boredom, but you still use long sentences and descriptive language that recalls 19th-century writers. Why do you think that content or shock value isn’t enough and what’s your relationship to “transgressive” fiction? 

 

Style will always win out over content, because sensibilities change and what seemed relevant or shocking or incisive to one generation seems merely tedious to the next. This was already clear by the late 19th century, but a lot of people seem to make an exception for “upsetting” content. And they really shouldn’t.

 

The idea of “transgression” is stuck in the 1980s. What is the point of reading “edgy” books written by harmless and hypercivilized types who are agreeable nonentities in real life? Or, worse, academics? Most of the recent writers who default to “transgressive” subject matter can’t really write, and are using it as a crutch to hide their lack of underlying rhetorical and technical skill, not to mention the absence of any real stylistic felicities. 

 

Plus: too many sacred cows. I think the whole “transgressive canon” should be thrown in the trash. I don’t want to read anyone who seriously considers themselves influenced by Sade, Lautreamont, etc. at this point. Much less someone who thinks William Burroughs is the height of experimentation in 2023. You’re living in the past; grow up and push art forward yourself.

 

You mentioned before that you are working on a story with 50+ named characters? How do you keep track of them? Do you ever find yourself being judged –aesthetically or morally — by your characters?

 

Usually by making a list. 

 

I’m interested in portraying social fields as opposed to single characters. The standard advice of course is that you’re not supposed to “move around” or switch from viewpoint to viewpoint. But I don’t think free indirect style is a terribly meaningful concept, so I don’t really “identify” with any character. And social media makes nonsense of the “lone protagonist” or “village scene” novel. We know that thousands of people are realistically within reach at any time, many of them already connected in ways we wouldn’t ever have guessed. The “alienation” novel is outdated at this point.

 

I wish I could claim that all this was some recent unprecedented development, but the truth is that Zola’s 19th-century novels do the same thing, effortlessly shifting between multiple social scenes and tiers of characters. The current fictional emphasis on limited, parched, inward awarenesses seems tedious to me, a kind of Modernist leftover that we forgot to discard when it was time. No one seems that interesting to me, especially not Knausgaard types who are living the most “inoffensive” PMC lives. Criminals, warlords and presidents probably aren’t interesting enough to warrant that level of omphaloskepsis either. Autofiction is just a drag at this point. 

 

So then what sort of lives do you think are interesting? And is “interesting” even something we should be aiming for in our writing? Your first book of short stories I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like focuses on the lives of disaffected teens and unfulfilled psycho saints in aughts Tokyo, does this choice of subject matter reflect more than your actual living in Tokyo for years?

 

It’s been said that Neo-Decadence is about rich and poor. The reality becomes clear through extremes. Failing that, intensity of purpose, intensity of interest, and a correspondingly detailed focus seem important for Neo-Decadent ends. I’m as interested in serious eyelash technicians as I am in serious occultists.

 

With that said, I’ve never thought of myself as portraying particularly fringe or exceptional characters. Human Flesh was an attempt to document the kinds of young people I often encountered in Tokyo at the time, and was intended to be a more or less realistic, even mundane depiction of their circumstances. It surprised me when it was classified as “weird horror” or “surreal.”

 

I think I just don’t care at all about the lives of the professional-managerial class. They seem like Lutheran robots whose ideas of writing are really just a sort of moral grandstanding within their class group. I’m not writing for some NY-based publicist whose parents were dentists and who is concerned with “trauma,” “imposter syndrome,” “sustainability,” etc.

 

What makes Japan so prime as a setting of your stories that examine intense beauty and dissolution in highly artificial, neurotic post-traditional environments?

 

Japan modernized itself so rapidly at the end of the 19th century that it didn’t really have time to make sure everything was “put together correctly.” In effect, it jumped out of bed and hurriedly threw on a bunch of modern clothes as soon as it heard the doorbell (gunboat warning shots, in this case). Throughout most of the 20th century it had a kind of canary-in-the-coalmine role, first suffering through a literal nuclear apocalypse, then becoming a laboratory for advanced forms of industrial capitalism, engineering, electronics, etc. What was all this doing to the country’s psychic underworld? I’ve been preoccupied with this question for years and years and years.

 

Mishima once remarked that Japan died when Hirohito renounced his divinity, and in its place there is now only an anonymous East Asian nation, a sort of qliphothic ghost-country or necronation. I’m interested in mapping this ghost-country, this neoliberal revenant haunting the remains of Japan. Some of my stories are initially written in Japanese and then translated to English. Particularly with dialogue, this results in a productive awkwardness as I try to directly translate idioms, slang, etc. It creates a distance, in which, hopefully, underlying tendencies can be perceived more accurately than they would be if the reader were simply skating along on an easy current of recognition.

 

I’m going off on a tangent here, but I think that all cultures are depicted most accurately by outsiders, provided they’re determined enough to really pay attention and get it right. Most of the people criticizing “cultural appropriation” or worrying about “sensitivity readers” will never actually live long-term in a foreign country or establish real cross-cultural collaboration, which would mean getting their hands dirty, making mistakes and actually working together with people who might have fundamentally different values and assumptions. It would also mean learning other languages, which they won’t do either. So, sensitivity readers are a bit like treating syphilis with mercury and makeup. The underlying disease of monocultural ignorance can’t be spot-corrected with edits any more than the nerve-eating bacteria can be removed with a layer of foundation. But at least you won’t look TOO hideous in public.  

 

What is the capitalist time hole?

 

A commodified nostalgia cycle/marketing strategy, linked to the “end of history” and corresponding “end of artistic innovation.” Its event horizon is made of solid cash since it’s more profitable to endlessly recycle the same properties. Capitalism, having appropriated all available physical markets, has moved on to conquering time. Think of the new feudalism of film franchises, fiction series from corporate publishing houses, and repetitive gallery shows displaying the artists of the past (presided over by the academic guilds).

 You could think too of the Neo-Passéist dream as a perpetual motion machine in which immortality in the physical sense figures as the ultimate out-of-reach prize. “Immortality for the rich” is the vampiric ambition of financial and technological elites, who are attempting posthuman schemes to reach it. Life extension, anti-aging and the pursuit of youth correspond to the pursuit of childhood, which is played out in terms of Neo-Passéist cultural productions. In this conception of time, the future leads to the past and nothing is ever truly dead or transcended. The vampire constantly revives itself by draining the vitality of its victims; similarly, the “revival” of musicals, TV series, film franchises, etc. proceeds as vitality is drained from aesthetic time itself. Popular characters from the Victorian era are still alive and with us, as if the corpses of our great-grandparents were shuffling around downstairs in the kitchen, hungering blindly for fresh fluids. The concepts of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, etc. are themselves memetic vampires capable of superficial shapeshifting and endless revivals. Capitalist Tradition becomes a repertoire or breviary, a stained glass window of familiar figures, and the consumer a peasant who reads only his memorized bible (by tuning into Netflix, for example).

 This is the background for Neo-Decadence, where we’re at now. 

 

In Welcome To The Arms Race you move past recognizable forms of storytelling altogether. When we’ve reached a saturation point, why is it important to use remote views and intense relativism to comment on the infinite variations of human concepts? How does your brand of science fiction work with decadence? 

 

I’m interested in counterfactuals, and in transitional periods when things went one way in our universe but could have spiraled off into something completely different, if certain events had happened differently, or if certain trends had developed further than they were allowed to in our familiar history. To identify these neglected potentials, I’m forced into reading novels and stories from the 1890s, 1930s, etc. This is not because I have any romantic attachment to these periods (nor would I want to personally visit them), but simply because they exhibited literary and artistic possibilities that were never fully exhausted (next to nothing was really done in English with Symbolism, for example).

 

One such current of potential animated 1960s and early 1970s New Wave science fiction. Formal possibilities were pushed, the imagination was engaged, and human existence was viewed more accurately (some would say pessimistically) than is allowed in the current climate. At present, unfortunately, SF is a dismal corporate genre written by PMC mediocrities raised on television and genre film, and it goes out of its way to be as anodyne and accommodating as possible. 

Despite its concern with the weight of history, Decadence was always in line with SF. Witness Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Eve of the Future, the first android (gynoid?), or Huysmans expatiating on the artificial beauty of locomotives and their superiority to anything produced by Nature. Will Neo-Decadence be another interesting Current? I hope so, although these things never last long and it remains to be seen what more people will make of it. I’d like to see a “non-genre” SF so we can get away from the boring hegemony of the genre publishers. The Neo-Passéist idea of SF (a testing ground for films and television series) holds no interest for me.

 

You’ve derided the sincere as a literary affectation in favor of the pleasant. What is pleasant fiction and why is it important to imagine Neo-Decadence? What does it have to do with your ideas of transgression nostalgia?

 

After a long day spent making money, most people want to read something pleasant. The impulse to snuggle up with a good book is fitting and natural. Why would anyone want to read conflict-strewn works arising from the insecurities of anxious professionals seeking validation from complete strangers? (the stereotypical “reader” whose opinion is evidently held to be of great importance, even though most “readers” are naive types seeking release from real life in overwrought fantasies of various kinds). 

 

One of the worst looks has to be over 40 types who complain about what they perceive as a lack of innovative new creators, but then don’t make any attempt to look beyond outdated distribution channels and gatekeeper media. Damian Murphy gave the classic example of someone complaining there was “no underground music now” because they weren’t hearing it on the radio. Nothing exciting or new is going to come from within the incestuous echo chamber of any kind of fandom or vetting circle. Radio, legacy media, Big 5 publishers, corporate SF, academia-vetted writers etc. are dinosaurs at this point. Stop looking to award winners for actual quality.

Really we’ve been burdened with what we might call “progressives with conservative aesthetics.” They’re the hip, inoffensive “creatives” who’ll provide familiar tropey hits with up-to-date morals and optics. Their task is to water down whatever formal advances they can steal from their superiors, while filling them with “relatable” anxieties. Their sincerity can only be a grating embarrassment. 

 

On top of being a writer, editor and publisher  you also are heavily involved with the club scene in Japan. What does this work look like and how is it related to your literary output?

 

At the beginning of the pandemic, my friends and I decided we needed to get serious about having a pleasant time in public while dancing as much as possible, and the lockdowns and closing of national borders made this much easier. By simply weeding out all the humans who were inclined to listen to the government and stay home, we quickly amassed an interesting collection of adventurous types who were interested in enjoying themselves, whether this meant having group sex in public or combining psychedelics with fairly technical ceremonial magick work that they weren’t entirely qualified to undertake. Because we were usually the only ones outside, we started repurposing public places for our own use: turning a coin laundromat into an improvised psytrance event, or painting large canvases in the middle of a supermarket.

 One of our friends with real estate connections managed to snag a luxury house at a low price that had just been vacated by a foreign official who’d fled back to his home country after the Covid outbreak. About ten of us moved in and turned it into our own venue for exploring our interests. Music, drug exploration, communal sex and artistic creation took place 24/7. I finished most of the Neo-Decadent manifestos during this period. We made some of the rent back by charging high admission to very detailed parties advertised on a guerrilla basis.

 

After several police raids and some extensively ludicrous drama, we eventually lost the house, but the club promotions continue to this day. Hit me up if you’re in Tokyo and I’ll show you some events.

 

Old transgressive forms are definitely “out” in the Justin Isis logo-verse, but you’ve talked a lot about the importance of drugs, sex and occultism for the project of Neo-Decadence and your own work. Why should we all be on that piff?

 

Occultism seems the most important at the moment, just because people are liable to underestimate the discipline needed to get anywhere with it. It’s much closer to maintaining a consistent gym routine than it is to launching into a mental flight of fancy. If you’re not engaged daily with something like the G∴D∴ or A∴A∴ curriculum, this will probably seem counterintuitive. But it’s absolutely necessary to be an occultist to get anywhere with interesting writing in the 2020s. Why is this the case? Because writers with greater perceptive faculties tend to produce more interesting writing. It’s similar to the way a writer with very clear vision is going to produce better ekphrastic writing than one who’s blind. So, I’m obviously going to prioritize a fiction writer who’s consistently doing astral work and engaging with the Enochian system over one who isn’t. I’d encourage people to Google my interview with Damian Murphy for more on the coming wave of occult fiction. (here – BD)

 With all this said, I don’t think you need to undertake any of these explorations, provided you’re willing to withdraw from life in an excessively ascetic way. A total virgin shut-in who’s disgusted with life would make a better Neo-Decadent than a “well-adjusted” PMC type who pursues their drives in a “healthy” way. TOO MUCH or NOTHING AT ALL are the only options here.

 

What is your experience with the American writing community and why do you think the world needs to detox from New York?

 

Americans in general are poorly dressed, and this seems to pertain doubly to the American writing community. These Muppetlike “adults” are supposed to be the vanguard of literary style? 

 

I have little interest in New York, and I doubt much interesting writing is going to come from there in the near future (although you’re obviously welcome to prove me wrong here). The things I’ve read from recent “scene” types seem like pathetic moral handwringing of various stripes (woke, counterwoke, Tradsgressive, etc), or else inarticulate bloviations lacking any awareness of the underlying meanings of words and simply deploying them as cheap rhetorical camouflage to hide basically conventional and uninteresting minds. 

 

I’m sure some of the blame lies with the workshop model of writing, which is both a CIA-funded quietist strategy and an unnecessary guild obstacle to wide publication. But I think people are just lazy and unimaginative, raised in a culture that encourages cliched approaches to thinking and writing. I’m more interested in recent writing from Lima, Tokyo, Beijing, Bangalore, Copenhagen, Tehran, etc. 

 

There are MANY RESTAURANTS I would visit in New York, though…!

 

It seems to me that social media and digital technology is so infused in our existence that it’s not even worth talking about anymore.. How do you approach these phenomena and what are some trends that are actually emergent in society and worth examining?

 

The world is becoming more beautiful by the minute as the ongoing project of fusing the human psychic image-repertoire with external reality continues. Instagram, for example, is more beautiful than the Sistine Chapel. I enjoy writing about everyday life, and this includes imagining the social media accounts of fictional characters, etc. My strategies for dealing with and representing everyday life will obviously differ from yours, and from other writers’. But to retreat into the past or pretend that technology doesn’t exist is moronic.

 We are about to witness a Neo-Medievalism of absolute idiocy, an attempt to define “the human” in terms of sentimental fantasies of the past. So, it’s time to start thoroughly mocking it for what it is. Much recent pessimism seems to me unfounded, or at least misdirected. Why would anyone worry about digital AI when most current human “creatives” are basically just a slower version of it? The flesh and blood Neo-Passéist writers and artists of the commercial schools have spent their entire lives trying to become reliable “content producers,” so it would seem to make little difference if a literal machine took over the task from them. I HOPE we can get AI to render the writers of middlebrow fiction obsolete.

 

ND seems to transcend the reactionary impulses of many writers who simply try and get rises out of PMC types. Has anyone ever tried to “cancel” you?

 

I don’t think the cancellation concept has much meaning at this point, especially for writers with zero ties to academia or large corporate interests. I could of course say a lot more obviously “offensive” things in this interview, which would probably be amusing, but in the end I’m most concerned with continuing to release books for whoever is interested in the same set of aesthetic concerns that I am interested in. This audience might expand or contract over time for various reasons, but I doubt my politics/personal conduct/illegal activities/taste in shoes is going to have much effect on it. The only ones who will fall away are those who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

To put this another way, I don’t want INDISCRIMINATELY MANY readers any more than I would want indiscriminately many friends. I don’t think most people need to be reading my books, so I’d prefer to lose them within the first paragraph, if possible. It shouldn’t take you longer than a page to get that this is either really going to be YOUR THING or really NOT. 

 

What are you reading now?


I’m mostly rereading pieces of things that interest me. I’ve become obsessed again with Damian Murphy’s story “Permutations of the Citadel” in his collection Daughters of Apostasy, and I’m doing a second readthrough of Adolphe Retté’s Symbolist masterpiece Misty Thule, which breaks rules most readers probably still don’t know exist.

 Brendan Connell’s Heqet is a brief, visceral piece of Neo-Decadence that explores the revelations of the gutter. He has another work coming out soon called Spells, a collection of sketches and vignettes somewhat in the manner of his earlier Metrophilias. I’ve been reading and rereading both these works for a while now.

 

On the occult side, on the recommendation of Keith Schuerholz, I’ve been getting more into the G∴B∴G∴ material of C.F. Russell/Frater Genesthai: things like his Barbara Cubed are much stranger than almost anything in the tame playpen of most current “experimental fiction,” while still performing their intended function as instructional exercises. Next up is his autobiographical work Znuz is Znees.