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“Toyota Celica”

In class we brought up the passage containing the line “Toyota Celica,” and the confusion behind its meaning; however, then and now, I myself can’t get past the thought that this line and others like it are mainly Delillo’s attempt to make us laugh. Lines like this are absurd, and seem to add to the absurdity of everything that is going on in the plot before they occur. “Toyota Celica” is a perfect example of this:

Steffie turned slightly, then muttered something in her sleep. It seemed important that I know what it was. In my current state, bearing the death impression of the Nyodene cloud, I was ready to search anywhere for signs and hints, intimations of odd comfort. I pulled my chair up closer. Her face in pouchy sleep might have been a structure designed solely to protect the eyes, those great, large and apprehensive things, prone to color phases and darting alertness, to a perception of distress in others. I sat there watching her. Moments later she spoke again. Distant syllables this time- but a language not quite of this world. I strruggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, world that seemed to have ritual meanings, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant.

Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? She was only repeating some TV voice…(154-155)

We discussed the possibility of this passage and others being Delillo’s shots at American consumerism. And while maybe he is trying to make a point here, I can’t help but think he’s not as serious as he may sometimes be taken to be. Nothing in the passage leading up to “Toyota Celica,” about Steffie’s sleep-talking was really as mind-blowing and crucial as the passage makes it out to be, as Jack is watching her. For me, the only thing that this passage is really doing is poking fun at the fact that when we all read “Toyota Celica” after a passage like this, we are all going to scratch our heads and wonder what all deep symbols this absurd statement carries in it. “Ten minuted passed,” seems to be making fun of us trying to find deeper meaning as well- ten minutes pass while we struggle in vain to pick out the profundities of this statement. It really just seems like another sardonic statement to me, but I could be wrong. It does stand out, but I’m not sure Delillo meant for readers to look into it as much as they may tend to.

 

*Also, sorry this is a little late!

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Jean Baudrillard does quite the number on liberal ideology in his piece, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’.  The great work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein is very much a symbol of hope for our modern day journalists, that there are perhaps those who will not sit by abated by the scandals of the White House filling their articles and instead set out to inspire someone out there to take notice and put an end to them.  Does Jon Stewart and Bill Maher really want Bush to leave, or to pass on the punching bag McCain would very well become?  They are liberal talking heads, and yet they fight the forces which make their shows so powerful, painful, and awfully damn funny with 99% of their talking points.  To say that Woodward and Bernstein were mere pawns, or even concious manipulators, in the turnover of power, even the destruction of true political morality, strikes of grand apostasy.  Furthermore, to denounce the great social contract which allows us liberals to constantly hold our government accountable to a higher standard as flim-flam, that power has never and will never reciprocate that contract outside of political conventions, and that to fight with whatever tools we have to get what’s always been acknowledged as ours (social justice) merely aids in the procession of next wave of corrupt politicians…well, needless to say, our friendly Frenchman invited quite an amount of rancour on my part.

Well, I must say that I can’t completely disagree with him.  Take the 9/11 Truth movement, for instance.  Regardless of my stance on the subject, I saw in his discussion of Watergate an eerie simularity.  As much as O’Reilly and the rest would love to point to liberal freak-shows as the main purveyors of what surely is one of the greatest calumnies of our American government, the fact remains neither Barack nor Hillary nor the ever loquacious Biden have even mentioned this atrocity.  However, John Buchanan (Republican presidential contender in 2004, fighting for the Truth movement) and Chuck Baldwin (Constitutional Party presidental nominee this year, a ‘right-wing fringe group) are perhaps the most vocal advocates, seemingly out to inundate their own party for the death of thousands of innocent Americans.  In Baudrillard’s view, these men are either out for the selfish reasons of getting Bush and Cheney and the old Republican guard out of the picture or are out for their eponymous Truth.  Can Baudrillard, as with Watergate, claim the only way to maintain any political justice is to forget about the alleged conspiracy, and instead blame these candidates for pretending any justice could possibly exist in Washington?

I believe that this small example shows the issue one might have with Baudrillard on the much larger issue of who to vote for this election.  With both parties, especially the incumbant party, calling for change, are we all simply duped into believing this to be a possibility?  Or, must we just be amazingly ‘naive to see an embittered good conscience at work here’ (100).  Does either candidate really mean to change the business of Washington?  I think Baudrillard would say we’re helplessly fighting the ‘precession of simulacra’.  Obama’s appeal relies on his appearance of change–as he says, ‘he doesn’t look like those presidents on dollar bills.’  He’s channeling JFK, most strikingly Jimmy Carter, even Mr. Lincoln, with the idea of adding historical precedent to an otherwise ahistorical candidate.  He is the change of the past and the face of the future, all in one earnest and appealing package.  McCain–he relies on his former position as a maverick to call for change, but also to warn us that the wrong change will throw us into a communist, god-hating, valueless USSA.  These bottled packages and ideas and rechanneled fears and hopes–what is real?  This is politics, but surely what we feel, those ecstatic tingles we feel when a phrase or policy strikes the timbre and heartstrings we assume have laid dormant these past eight years: those are certainly very real for me.  Yet Baudrillard, in his way of viewing things, sees all this as a farce, as the ever-shifting tango of corrupt power, all to the beat of the never-changing capitalist drums.  Let us hope he is wrong.  Obviously I have enlarged and politicized a small component of his argument, but that is how things reach my perception in this most political of years, where Baudrillard seems to attack everything I’m fighting for with my one frail vote.

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DeLillo goes into detail to describe the conversations Jack Gladney has with family and friends.  The conversations that stick out to me most include the bedroom conversation between Babette and Jack in Chapter 7 in which they argue for almost two pages about who should be pleasing whom.  Jack says about the interaction, “I get the feeling a burden is being shifted back and forth.  The burden of being the one who is pleased” (28).  Both are reluctant to spell out what they want and instead act ridiculously polite.

Though the interaction was supposed to be arousing (it’s about sex), the conversation is not sexy at all.  I got the feeling that neither wanted to be pleased, and that perhaps neither wanted to do the pleasing.  Babette doesn’t necessarily enjoy reading “sexy stuff” to Jack, though she seems to do it regularly-just like she reads the supermarket tabloids to Old Man Treadwell even though she thinks the reading material is trashy.  Why does she do this?

Another conversation that stuck out to me was one that Jack and Babette had with Murray Siskind in Chapter 9.  Murray invites Jack and Babette to dinner, but is inordinately polite about it to the point that it sounds self-deprecating and silly.  He says:

I don’t want to feel like I’m holding you to something.  Don’t feel you’ve made an ironclad commitment.  You’ll show up or you won’t.  I have to eat anyway, so there’s no major catastrophe if something comes up and you have to cancel.  I just want you to know I’ll be there if you decide to drop by, with or without the kids.  We have till next May or June to do this thing so there’s no special mystique about a week from Saturday.  (40)

He seems desperate to make sure they know he isn’t trying to force them into “an ironclad commitment,” giving them several ways to back out of his invitation to dinner.  He never says, “I really want you to come to dinner.”

In both conversations, there’s a noticeable reluctance to state clearly what one wants, how one truly feels.  People in the novel seem to use others as a gauge for how they should feel.  I think that’s why the family watched Wilder “with something like awe” after his marathon crying session.  Jack describes Wilder as coming back from “a place where things are said,” emphasizing how people don’t really say what they mean (79).  Wilder’s crying was a true, intense expression of personal feeling, something that his family regards as a feat “of the most sublime and difficult dimensions” (79).

Wilder doesn’t seem like a “normal” child.  Jack mentions that he thinks Wilder is too big to sit in the supermarket shopping cart, yet it is his childlike behavior that endears him so much to Babette.  Does Wilder have a mental disorder?  It hasn’t been explicitly mentioned.

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Inquiry Debriefing

Bear with me here; I am tired.

The part of the essay I found most difficult was finding a way to generalize and correlate distinct components of the mysticism that DeLillo grants his settings.  Fortunately, he seems to use characters throughout the novel to present various hypotheses about how meaning is constructed in consumerist society, and once remembering and locating these, the going got a lot easier.  I also had difficulty at times telling if I was being hyperbolic, as the characters occasional fall into reveries which can be difficult to categorize as either valid within the meanings of the text as a whole or merely as products of individual characters.

I was interested to notice how much depth there are to character’s own preoccupations, in spite of the “shallowness” of consumerist culture, and how fundamental some of the issues are in a philosophical sense

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Inquiry #1

I guess I was suprised by all the little details I noticed, and how they fit together so well (the lists of threes happen much more often than I first thought), and the fact that I noticed them after walking away from the paper for a while.

The thing I found most difficult was trying to keep it concise and limited. The little things in a particular passage were applicable to so many other ideas found throughout the novel.

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As I sat on my small porch that has been taken over by my tomatoes, herbs, lettuce and broccoli (my attempt at a gardening in an apartment), I was slow soaking my tomatoes (the best way to water them), and reading White Noise (while underlining and making notes in what I forgot was a library book).  I finished Chapter Six and remember thinking - that it was probably the most post-modern thing I’ve come across.  But then I had to think about why.  And here’s what I’ve come up with…

In the conversation about rain between Heinrich and Jack, Heinrich continually response with questions to the questions that his father puts forth.  “What truth does he want?  What good is my truth?  Is there such a thing as now?  How do I know that what you call rain is really rain?  What is rain anyway?”  It is a constant challenge to the power of language, symbolism,  and the weight of an idea if looked at as a subjective thought and not a concrete reality.  But I don’t think that captures all of it.  I think it is part of understanding that the not knowing, the “only guessing” is postmodern in and of itself.  It is in part why Huyssen took a “different route” in his essay “Mapping the Postmodern” and did “not attempt here to define what postmodern is,”  and instead decided to discuss the characteristics of the phases of postmoderism because of the limitations of language.  He concluded that it is moving beyond the binaries and into the tension between them (much like we discussed in class), that there is a breakdown in what is what.  Or maybe the conversation is more easily linked to the discussion of Plato’s “simulacrum” in the Jameson essay as an example of a ”culture of the simulacrum (that) comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced.”  Heinrich voices this idea in a way that captures some what I’ve come in the last week to think of as post-modern.  A kind of blurred feeling out of gray areas, and an expression of only guessing.

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[Note:  "Hereticsnail" is an anagram of "Christina Lee."]

The two authors we read this week-Fredric Jameson and Andreas Huyssen-both agree that aesthetics has undergone a process of commodification; however, each author cites different causes for why this has happened. 

Jameson believes that postmodernism is a widespread paradigm shift that grew out of late capitalism.  He says: “this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and super-structural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world” (23).  Therefore, according to Jameson, “every position on postmodernism in culture…is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (22). 

The commodification of aesthetics is, for Jameson, a terrible reflection of the postmodern condition.  Late capitalism has produced a culture marked by depthlessness and a death of the self.  Thus, postmodern art is dominated by pastiche: it’s all surface and no center. 

Huyssen, on the other hand, focuses on postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon rather than a paradigm shift.  He believes that postmodernism started a protest in the 1960s against the authority that modernists had placed in so-called “high art.”  Early postmodernists used “pop avante-garde” as their weapon of protest, attempting “to validate popular culture as a challenge to the canon of high art” (63). 

Huyssen believes that the recent insurgence of minority movements has contributed to postmodernism by “undermin[ing] the modernist belief that high and low culture have to be categorically kept apart” (64).  The result is “a new creative relationship between high art and certain forms of mass culture” (64).

Whereas Jameson believes that the commodified postmodern aesthetic is empty and damaged, a sign of how messed up our late capitalist culture has become, Huyssen argues that the new postmodern cultural aesthetic is more inclusive and less elitist, a result of positive social change.  Who’s right? 

Both authors seem to me to be writing about different kinds of art altogether.  Jameson might be talking about the darker forms of postmodern art that discuss the fragmentation of our lives.  His description of the lack of depth and waning affect remind me of the stories by Amy Hempel who weaves together bits of mundane conversations to form her haunting narratives.  

Huyssen seems to be talking about “Other” art, art produced by nontraditional artists who might not otherwise have gained any institutional prestige.  For example, black American artists are often not included in the canon of high literature, but my 20th century African American Norton literature anthology includes the lyrics to the song “Things Done Changed” by Biggie Smalls and “RESPECT” written by Otis Redding and sung by Aretha Franklin.  I’m not really sure how the two types of “postmodern art” discussed by Jameson and Huyssen can be compared.

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Jameson states of his theory on the “waning of affect”: “As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society,from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings…are now free-floating and impersonal…”

Could this be the reason for why depression has become almost a way of life for Westerners in this so-called postmodern era? With modern technology, have our social interactions become emotionless and shallow? Are we lacking in real affection? Has the information age imprisoned Westerners rather than liberated us?

And what about the cheapening of sex and intimacy through the information age and modern technology? Sex, as well as “media, arts, and education” has also become commodified in contemporary culture, has it not? And even the intimacy of a well thought-out letter to a friend or family member has been lost in the meaningless chatter of the information age. While the response may come quick and easy, it’s not exactly fulfilling- it lacks depth.

Is it possible for Westerners to be fulfilled after the effects that late-capitalism has had on contemporary society, and with the commodification of basically every aspect of our lives?

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Jameson’s essay requires that readers bring with us a great deal of cultural literacy, if nothing else. I understood his allusions to Munch’s The Scream, the “Faulknerian long sentence,” Freud, Stravinsky and Wallace Stevens, but they were swimming in a greater sea of off-hand references that repeatedly sent me to the dictionary and the Internet for further illumination. In today’s psycho-babble parlance, I don’t find his essay particularly accessible.

Aside from that quibble, I did connect well with his discussion of “pastiche,” or the “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past” (28), which to me so accurately describes popular culture and seems to be central to his argument on postmodernism. These observations are particularly telling as he relates them to postmodern architecture, which, he says, “randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles” (28). We see the result in buildings encumbered with classical columns and Chippendale pediments (that one is okay, I guess) or of McMansions in the suburbs that feature turrets, oversized Palladian windows and porticoes, and multiple hip roofs. What are these people thinking???

Also, I found Jameson’s discussion of the “historicist” version of events interesting, especially as I could see that this inevitably results in the representation of an event that becomes “factual” to the viewer or reader. Thus, the historical novel, from Walter Scott’s Waverley to Leon Uris’s Exodus, or TV and movie “dramatizations” of real events, become to us “how it happened,” even if it didn’t happen that way at all. Is that a manifestation of postmodernism, however? How would the tradition of folktales, ballads and epic poems, many of which build on “real events,” fit into the theory? Are some of our oldest literary traditions, if they are harking back to a previous history or even a pastiche of histories, “postmodernist,” too? Am I missing something here?

Overall, Jameson’s main thesis, if I understand it at all, argues that today’s art, literary criticism, architecture, philosophy and psychoanalysis, not to mention pop culture, are all the result of the overwhelming economic force known as capitalism (which, one can infer, is bad in Jameson’s book). Bran Nicol in his introduction refers to this as “totalisation.” It’s a sort of “theory of everything” where all roads lead to a society that is defined by “class history,” by an American postmodern culture that is explained by “a whole new wave of American military and economic domination through the world” (23). Now, wait until capitalism reaches China, Mr. Jameson. Oh wait, it already has.—Trish Higgins

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Course Guidelines

COURSE DESCRIPTION

Experimental form, a breakdown between high and low culture, and hyperbolic self-referentiality are just a few of the hallmarks of postmodernism, a notoriously slippery concept that is the focus of this Honors Seminar. But what else is postmodernism? Is it a literary movement? A moment in history? An economic condition? A state of mind? We may not arrive at a definitive answer to these questions, but the novels and theoretical texts we will encounter in this seminar suggest that postmodernism is marked by a fundamental shift in our relationship to technology, mass media, and pop culture. We will closely study novels, graphic novels, and films that revel in, critique, or even resist these elements of postmodernism.

READING

WORKING

  • Participation in the day’s discussion is essential. And of course, to get the most out of the discussion, you must have read and thought about the day’s reading, thoroughly and critically.
  • Every student will contribute to the course blog at least once a week. Posts should run about 300 words and should strive to be thoughtful and nuanced, offering questions and insights rather than descriptions or summaries. You have between Sunday through Saturday to post for the week. Late posts cannot be made up; if you miss a week, then you receive no credit for that week’s blog. Occasionally I will provide questions for you to respond to, but most times the posts will be more open-ended. You might begin with an aspect of the reading that you don’t quite understand, and work out a tentative answer in your post. Or you might relate some of the theoretical work to the fiction we are reading. You may also respond to another student’s post by building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it.
  • There will be four inquiry papers this semester, each around 3-4 pages in length. These are not full-blown essays so much as they are structured engagements with very particular aspects of a text.
  • The final project for the class will be an 8-10 page analytical paper, which offers a critical reckoning of some of the larger issues relating to postmodernism as a style or thematic mode, and locating these issues within one or two of the novels we have encountered, or possibly outside texts. A research proposal will be due several weeks before the end of the term. The paper will require outside research, using sources from established academic journals or academic press books.

GRADING

The final grade will be weighted and calculated in the following manner:

  • Course Blog: 20%
  • Inquiry Papers (15% each): 60%
  • Final Project: 20%

I evaluate the blog entries on a scale of 0-4, while I give every other assignment a letter grade. In order to calculate your final grade, I convert the letter grades into a percentage. I weight the grades, and then convert the average back into a letter grade. I use the following standard grading scale:

A+ = 100% / A = 95% / A- = 92%

B+ = 89% / B = 85% / B- = 82%

C+ = 79% / C = 75% / C- = 72%

D = 65% / F = below 60%

Attendance is mandatory (excepting medical emergencies or observation of religious holidays). From the 2007-2008 University Catalog:

Students are expected to attend the class periods of the courses for which they register. In-class participation is important not only to the individual student, but to the class as a whole. Because class participation may be a factor in grading, instructors may use absence, tardiness, or early departure as de facto evidence of nonparticipation.

Late assignments will be lowered one letter grade for every weekday they are overdue, unless prior arrangements are made. Even if you are not in class the day an assignment is due, it is still due for you that day. Assignments more than a week late for any reason will simply not be accepted. Therefore, failure to hand in every assignment on time will make it extremely difficult to pass the course.

HONOR CODE

Students of George Mason University pledge not to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie in matters related to academic work. The English Department has issued a statement further clarifying what is meant by “plagiarize”:

Plagiarism means using the exact words, opinions, or factual information from another person without giving that person credit. Writers give credit through accepted documentation styles, such as parenthetical citation, footnotes, or endnotes; a simple listing of books and articles is not sufficient. Plagiarism is the equivalent of intellectual robbery and cannot be tolerated in an academic setting.

Remember, it is perfectly acceptable to refer to and build upon others’ ideas, but you must always identify the source, even when paraphrasing. The university uses turnitin.com to detect plagiarized papers, and I may occasionally require students to submit their written work to turnitin.com’s database. If I suspect plagiarism or any other violation of the Honor Code, I will report the offender to the university Honor Committee, whose penalties range from an F for the course to expulsion from the university.

SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES

If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC) at 993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through the DRC.

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About 414

ENGL 414:003
Meeting Time: TR 3 - 4:15 pm
Meeting Place: Innovation 333
Course Guidelines | Course Calendar

Professor Mark Sample
Department of English
George Mason University
Office Hours: T 4:30 - 5:30 pm, R 11 am - 12 pm and by appointment
Office: Robinson A 441
Phone: 703-993-4798
Email: msample1 at gmu dot edu
Website: http://mason.gmu.edu/~msample1/

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