Can’t Stop the Signal

I was puzzled by some of the posts I read talking about the graphic novel form as comical or simplistic – I never carried those expectations, so to me what “Shooting War” felt most like was pulp fiction or even young adult fiction. While the content was adult and somewhat explicit, the style of writing was hackneyed and the characterization and narrative were rushed and incomplete. I heard that the authors were asked to expand this novel from the first two chapters, and if so, that accounts for what I felt as a confused narrative arc with an ending that I can only call… pasted on. (Also, wow, I hope those blog posts were meant to be whiny and annoying …because they were.) Not only was Jimmy’s redemption unbelievable in terms of his previous actions (With so much previous introspection there was surprisingly little immediate insight into what made him upload those clips.), it was unbelievable in terms of the world he lived in. With such a media splash with those Youtube clips, there’s no way he would be allowed to be freelance and not get snapped up again! Maybe I just wasn’t reading closely, but does anyone know what happened to his people at Global? And what was up with the sanctification of Yoda Rather? Is he some kind of hero to the Left that I don’t know about? I felt in general like I was watching a made-for-TV movie with cut and paste bildungsroman characters.

The art style, however, was arresting and very effective at conveying the aesthetic message, I thought. I particularly enjoyed the skull and cross that formed the maskfaces of the soldiers. Talk about anti-religion! Overall, while the story gave a good framework for the art’s scope, I didn’t feel like each carried the other to its full potential or to a true marriage.

I did fully enjoy the alternate universe aspects of the novel, however, as science fiction works best when it is scarily plausible. McCain and the eminent domain struck a chord in me, as some have pointed out in their posts, but I still don’t see what the solution to fight back against the Evil Oppresors is. I suppose we should all become vloggers and keep information flowing constantly?

“In the Shadow of No Towers,” on the other hand, was very charming and effective. I was a bit taken aback by the extreme leftist views of the text. No matter if I share those views, it’s disorienting and strange when literature and propaganda/advertising explicitly overlap. Of course I was charmed by his references to his own work when the mouse appeared. I liked the image of his family running away from the disaster paralleling his own running away temporally to the old comics. It’s strange how influential these comics were but how we don’t typically read them either as part of the canon or as popular ad-packaged entertainment. The traces of their influence on pop culture and literature is all that’s left, so that’s one reason that I was excited to see some of the original works (especially Little Nemo and Upside-Downs).

Cultural Betrayal in The People of Paper

As I was reading The People of Paper, I found myself paying considerable attention to the indictment for Mexican females who choose to be with white American males in a sort of treason against their Mexican heritage.  It is easy to consider all of the suffering and pain in this book, but I found myself aware that the empathy in this book is directed towards the “good” Mexican characters who stay true to their culture (and therefore, do not go outside the culture to look for love): Federico de la Fe, Froggy, Sandra, Julieta, among others.  On the other hand, much criticism is directed towards Mexican characters who betray their Mexican heritage: obviously Rita Hayworth, Merced (Federico’s wife), and Liz– who we might assume has committed the ultimate betrayal which led to the writing of this book (and the creating of this world at all).

This brought to mind a recent news story about Obama’s brief exchange with Hugo Chavez at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad this past weekend.  According to reports, Chavez took the opportunity to hand Obama a copy of a 1970 Eduardo Galeano book called The Open Veins of Latin America, which has apparently shot to the top of book sales list as a result of the exchange.  The New York Times article reads, “Whatever one thinks of its message (it denounces both U.S. imperialism and the ruling élites of Latin America from a Marxist-Leninst perspective), the book has a fascinating history. Galeano, who is Uruguayan, wrote it in the last three months of 1970, and was eventually forced into exile as the book grew in popularity. It has sold steadily ever since, in Latin America and around the world, with more than fifty Spanish editions, and translations into more than a dozen languages.”

I see this news story as particularly relevant because, as much of the Latin American world struggles to find its new place in a postmodern world, books like this one by Mexican writer Salvador Plascencia remind readers that there is a strong sense of indignation directed towards Americans, but also at Latinos who “betray” their heritage by either assimilating too much or creating too much of a bridge between their own culture and American culture.

In Tropic of Orange, the “bad guy” is the body parts smuggler who betrays his own people to make a buck; in The People of Paper, it’s the women (several of them) who have left their Mexican lovers/husbands for American ones.  “Saturn” is the angry Salvador Plascencia who creates this world of like-minded, betrayed Mexican victims who suffer so much emotional and physical pain that Plascencia even suggests that readers will do the same.  Though we might say that there is some kind of healing by the end of this story, I find it to be a very, very angry story, one that some of us might write in the heat of a devastating breakup and then, some years later, be embarassed that we even considered to be literature.  Plascencia’s saving grace is that his book is about more than just a breakup; it’s about paper, people, people made of paper, betrayal, multicultural relations and relationships, and of course its format makes it stand out as postmodern, with its metanarrative, self-reflexivity, careful use of columns and black squares, and other creative choices.  But essentially, at its very core, this seems to be like a breakup story– and at the heart of the anger over this breakup is that these women (Liz, Rita Hayworth, and Merced) left their Mexican men for American men.

This anger is most clear in the heated conversation between “Saturn” and someone we may assume to be Liz in Chapter 10, in which Saturn says, “You are awful.  Worse than Rita Hayworth.  Too good to fuck us lettuce pickers.” And Liz responds, “That is not what it’s about.”  Saturn says, “You sell-out.  Vendida.  You are worse than the Malinche, worse than Pocahontas.  Fucking white boys and making asbestos fall from the attic.”  Then Liz points out that “Saturn” has had his own white lover which he brushes off with, “She was after you.  When you would not answer the phone or my letters” (118-119). 

Though there is much else going on in The People of Paper, it has gotten me wondering whether one of the connections between many of these postmodern stories is the multicultural perspective which shows the victims and sufferers of American (and European) domination.  This is not just a breakup story; it is also the story of a writer whose world, even the world he has created, is colored by anti-American sentiment, betrayal, and resentment.  We could also have a field day considering some of the misogynist lines in this book, but I find more use in considering the complicated choice to emigrate to a place like Los Angeles to reap the benefits of American consumerism, education, and opportunity in general, and then the resentment many of these characters feel for the place and the people because they have to go there and be among these people to do just that. 

Cold War and the Net, and 9/11 too.

This is the third of fourth time I’ve read through the Adams article and I’m still really hung up on the open vs. closed system idea. At first, I think I pretty much bought her argument, although cautiously. I was thinking particularly about the flow of information and how in Pynchon’s world it is overwhelming and intrusive – this leads to paranoia and chaos; yet in Yamashita’s world it is “designed less to entrap both character and reader in a postmodern labyrinth than to evoke the dense networking of people and goods in an age of global interconnection.”

The more I considered this idea, the more I began to agree with Adams’ assessment. The concept of, let’s say, the Internet, would have seemed incredibly threatening to someone like Pynchon in the 60s, through the end of the Cold War. Consider the earlier reception of Sputnik – an informational satellite perceived as everything from spy to death-ray – instant and global information-sharing must have been a terrifying prospect to those alive during the Cold War. Flash forward to the 90s, after the Cold War, and in the heyday of the early Internet and society had a completely different attitude towards information-sharing networks. The paranoia was gone and people, for the most part, saw the approaching global interconnectedness as a positive, rather than something to be feared. People sought out information, and instead of information being chaotic and cryptic (Oedipa), it made lives easier (Wikipedia!!!).

My main issue with/question for Adams, originally was concerning the effects of 9/11 on the ‘new’ era of literary postmodernism. I originally figured that it would have been a Cold War redux situation…in that it would have increased paranoia and a fear of global information sharing. However, while paranoia was on the rise immediately following 9/11, I think people actually embraced technology and information sharing EVEN MORE. Sure there was some techno-fear (and considering the amount of fear-mongering…I think we all did pretty well..), mostly of the shoe-bomb/exploding shampoo bottle variety, but consider the boom of the 24hr news networks, the talking heads(not the band), the marketing. And here

We, instead of developing a legitimate fear of spies or technological home-invasion (at least not from the enemy…possibly our wire-tapping govt though), sought out every piece of “news” that we could get our hands and ears on. Information (the open system) was our friend, it was comforting, even when it was scary, to know that we knew as much as we could know. And the Internet was the biggest, most instant-gratificacious (not a word) tool at our disposal. We were not, as Adams says “entrap[ed” in any kind of “labyrinth,” but rather we reveled in our interconnection. So, indeed, it seems that the end of the Cold War WAS a major turning point, not just in literary postmodernism, but in societal understanding/comfort with information-sharing and global networking in general. Not even a trauma like 9/11 could make us turn our back on technology/information.

Sure, even Yamashita illustrates that “California (or the Net for our purposes) is a nodal point where globalization threatens to erupt into environmental and human catastrophe…..But she also hints that, as Adams says “[It can] also [be] where people find themselves creating unlikely coalitions that might work to remedy these problems.”


Freeways, Highways, & Underpasses

As I read Tropic of Orange, I was immediately draw to the highway images.  Thanks to twenty-four hour news stations, I have seen many high-speed chases down 805, 1, or some other highway in LA.   While there are a few chase scenes in the novel–Gabriel and Emi after the woman and child in a taxi; the Jaguar and the bus–this wasn’t what attracted me to the highways . Rather, I was draw to the apparent use of the highway as map in the novel, albeit not one that is easy to trace.   

Yamashita is able to have her characters situate themselves in connection to the roads.  Sig traffic accidents happen, the “NewsNow” van arrives on the scene, cars pile up for miles.  Many homeless men and women, such as Manzanar, are described as living under it or compose music by it.  Goods such as oranges and body parts are transported along its veins.  Each character could be placed on or around the highway, thus creating a map of sorts.  However, I don’t think the map would lead the reader anywhere, but would be constricting in some points and expanding in others.  It was this idea that made me think of the staircase in House of Leaves that continually alters and changes on itself.   The highway, like the staircase, traps and confines characters to enclosed spaces.  Such as when Emi gets caught in traffic on page 58,  “Doing the Joan Didion freeway thang.  You know, slouching around L.A.  Sorry, babe, but it’s hard to feel exhilarated going five miles an hour.”  Other characters are situated and sometimes confined in cars–Buzzworm sets up a semipermanent headquarters in a gold Mercedes (186), Mara Sadat does a live TV broadcast from “the open hood of a rusting Cadillac” which is filled with dirt and to grow herbs and vegetables (191).  At other times, the highway seems to stretch in unusual ways, “Harbor Freeway.  It’s growing.  Stretched this way and that.  In fact, this whole business from Pico-Union on one side to East L.A. this side and South Central over here, its pushing out. Damn if it’s not growing into everything!” (189-190). These images seems to link with Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” essay that we read many weeks ago.  He could bring to the table a discussion of the highway as a public or private space.  (I think a case could be made for its functioning as both.) On page 23, Foucault says, “We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside  a set of relations that delineates sites, which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.” Couldn’t these “delineate[d] sites” be transfered to the way we view highways in the novel–a way in which to organize our lives?

Another way to look at the highways could be to see them as another character in the novel.  Adams briefly touches on Yamashita’s humanization of the highway, “The great flow of humanity [runs] below and beyond his feet in every direction, pumping and pulsating, that blood connection, the great heartbeat of a great city” (35).  Adams contrasts Yamashita’s anthropomorphizing of the highway to Pychon’s passive description.  As I was reading Tropic of Orange, I found that not only was the highway given human qualities, but in some cases it served as another character making an appearance in almost every chapter.

“Representation as itself a simulacrum” Baudrillard

I had some trouble understanding Jean Baudrillard’s article and what he means by Simulacra.  It’s one of those articles that I start off thinking “I got it!” and then the more I read I realize that I don’t get it.  But I noticed he explains in his description of the representations of reality, “no more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept; no more imaginary coexistensivity: rather, genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation.” For some reason that reminded me of the 500+ photos that I have saved on my memory card.  The memory card can be seen as a “miniature” of different realities, photos of my family, my friends and myself in different occasions that can be “reproduced,” duplicated, and even shared with others.  These digital pictures are now even substituting the tangible ones that we used to keep framed around the house and that are compared with the “map” Baudrillard mentions that was once used to represent reality. His explanation also made me think of Plato’s theory on art being an imitation of life that is thrice removed from reality.  Baudrillard suggests a new dimension to the whole notion of art and imitation, and mostly focuses on an absence of reality that proliferates a new and different, I am hesitant to call, reality.

As to House of Leaves, I was curious to know if there was a certain method for reading this book or whether it’s best to go along with the shifts in narratives and the interruptions.  I personally can’t stand elaborate footnotes because of the distractions they create when I’m reading and I tend to ignore them and maybe go back to some of them at the end of a chapter.  With this book, I felt an obligation towards these footnotes, even though I know they are mostly made up information, and I also decided to read both narratives along side because I thought it would give me the necessary “feel” of the layering and the fragmentation in the book.  As if the book wasn’t fragmented enough, I tried reading parts of Baudrillard’s article along with the book.  Maybe not a smart move but I was initially put off by the article’s difficulty and decided to take that approach.  Going back to the point I mentioned, I noticed the same idea somewhat “echoed” by Zampano in chapter 5.  His “odd murmuring” about the significance of echoes in a way resonates, I think, with what Baudrillard was saying about what he calls simulacra.  Zampano explains the mythological history of Echo and concludes that Echo’s repetitions were colored “with faint traces of sorrow or accusation never present in the original” (41).  In a way it could be taken as an example of one of Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image” which is that it “masks and perverts a basic reality” that will eventually lead to it baring no relation to any reality and would have “its own pure simulacrum.”  Zampano explains that Echo’s voice then “possesses a quality not present in the original, revealing how a nymph can return a different and more meaningful story, in spite of telling the same story” (42). 

Harvey on Genre vs. Characterization in Postmodernism

In “The Condition of Postmodernity,” David Harvey attempts to define postmodernism in relation to modernism, and in myriad cultural contexts, including literature, architecture, psychology, and art. In his definition, Harvey discusses the blurring of genres, and specifically mentions the postmodern tendency to dissolve the “boundary between fiction and science fiction” (41). This is definitely true of The Lathe of Heaven, a novel that cannot fit into either/or category of science fiction/postmodern literature. LeGuin’s novel is most striking in its ability to use science fiction to cause disorder and confusion in reality as we know it. However, as opposed to the reality featured in Crying of Lot 49, which defies any sense of reason and is completely fragmented, the reality in The Lathe of Heaven is more believable, and also more ordered. Though George’s prophetic dreams do influence reality, this pattern is more noticeable, and therefore, expected in the novel.

Jennifer asks in the first post on this topic whether all science fiction novels can be considered postmodern. While it is definitely a valid and interesting question, Harvey posits in his article on “Postmodernity” that while “modernist literary critics do tend to look at works as examples of a ‘genre’ and do judge them by a ‘master code’ that prevails within the boundary of the genre, [the] ‘postmodern’ style is simply to view a work as a ‘text’ with its own particular ‘rhetoric’ and ‘idolect,’ but which can in principle be compared with any other text of no matter what sort” (44). If I understand this correctly, I think Harvey is specifically drawing attention to postmodernists’ attempts to eschew “genre” as we know it; therefore, we cannot really classify any postmodernist work as “science fiction” or any other genre. Though this seems easy enough to digest in theory, it becomes problematic in practice to shy away from categorizing literary works for the purposes of comparison and analysis. On one hand, postmodernism is fragmentation and chaos, as Harvey defines it; and on the other hand, in order to legitimize its impact, we need to understand postmodernism logically, and in terms that we can easily decipher and comprehend.

Leaving the genre debate aside, it becomes easier to think of postmodernism as a way to propagate equal representation: “The idea that all groups have a right to speak for themselves, in their own voice, and have that voice accepted as authentic and legitimate is essential to the pluralistic stance of postmodernism” (Harvey 48). Hence, when discussing postmodern literary works, such as The Lathe of Heaven, it becomes apparent that issues of racial construction, for example, are called to be eradicated. Dr. Haber states that we should have “no more color problems. No question of race […] Nobody in the entire history of the human race has suffered for the color of his skin” (LeGin 129). Additionally, “characters no longer contemplate how they can unravel or unmask a central mystery, but are forced to ask, ‘Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of the mysteries is to do it? Instead” (Harvey 48). This shift in focus from genre to characterization, and their influence on/perception of reality is a defining feature of postmodernism. The effect of this shift in focus is striking: “to break (deconstruct) the power of the author to impose meanings or offer a continuous narrative” (Harvey 51). Therefore, instead of the focus being on how LeGuin weaves the plot to create a work of science fiction, the focus shifts to how the characters—George Orr, Dr. Haber, and Heather—develop throughout the novel, and whether or not their respective dreams/ realities materialize and coincide.

Against Meta-narratives

I think Todd brings up some valid points about The Lathe of Heaven presenting a view that contradicts modernism and goes against meta-narratives.  I hadn’t even considered Haber’s incredulity toward Freud and Jung.  Certainly, looking at the institution of psychiatry as a whole, the work portrays the field as misguided.  Haber may not believe in the theories of Freud and Jung, but he creates his own belief system that has its own flaws.  In The Crying of Lot 49, we say psychiatry represented in the absurd, cartoonish, unreliable, untrustworthy, and immoral figure of Dr. Hilarius.  In Le Guin’s work, Dr. Haber appears more realistic, but also more controlling, manipulative, and negative (I feel there is a certain irony in my saying that Haber is a negative force because it means that I’m comparing my meta-narrative against his and if all meta-narratives aren’t to be trusted, then…oh never mind).

I tend to think of Dr. Haber as a modernist character, someone who has certain beliefs that cohere with a particular meta-narrative who seeks to bring about a world the resembles/better coheres with his own system of beliefs.  I’ll admit that his intentions are noble; the elimination of war, overpopulation, hunger, disease, racism, and the invention of nine-foot tall turtles are all worthwhile endeavors.  However, in bringing about his vision of the world, he condenses and contains life into a small package to fit his equally small view.  

For me, the most horrible byproduct of his plans for his meta-narrative’s domination is the elimination of races with the elimination of racism.  Le Guin makes it very clear that this lack of diversity is a terrible thing: “But now, never to have known a woman with brown skin, brown skin and wiry black hair cut very short so that the elegant line of the skull shoed like the curve of a bronze vase- no, that was wrong.  That was intolerable.  That every soul on earth should have a body the color of a battleship: no!” (130).  The very symbolism of the color gray, already a hue of somber connotation, now becomes a color of sterility and violence by associating it with a battleship.  Dr. Haber essentially achieves Hitler’s dream of a master race, but instead of killing a few billion people he has Orr disevent them.  I think that Le Guin is very aware of the connotation of Dr. Haber’s actions and how they relate to evil predecessors; she makes a point of writing near the end that after the Break there are still gray people and many of them reside in Germany.

I tend to think that had Orr not met Heather, then he might not have worked up the nerve to stand up to Dr. Haber and step away from the downward spiral toward one meta-narrative.  Orr’s actions and feelings and the novel as a whole, I think, respect and revel in the many varieties of reality, the spectrum of meta-narratives, and the diversity of humanity, even in the midst of its chaos.  The final scene of the novel shows a nine-foot tall alien armor turtle watching a black woman and a white man meet and reunite at once over a cup of coffee.  What could be more uplifting, absurd, and positive toward the vast array of meta-narratives in existence and yet to be thought of?

The Color of Battleships

The Color of Battleships: Racial Identity in The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven confronts the “problem” of racial identity and the implications of, what Toni Morrison terms, the “deliberateness of the construction, the conscious necessity for establishing difference” (Morrison 39). Le Guin uses two methods of exploration. First she intentionally racializes her characters, calling into question the role of racial appearance on perceived identity. Le Guin offers focused descriptions of George Orr from the perspective of both Dr. Haber and Heather Lelache. Haber describes George Orr as having “Light hair and eyes, a short, slight, fair man, slightly undernourished, good health, twenty-eight to thirty-two. Unaggressive, placid, milquetoast, repressed, conventional” (Le Guin 7). Heather Lelache, the “Black Widow” (42), finds him “A born victim. Hair like a little girl’s, brown and fine, little blond beard soft white skin like a fish’s belly; meek, mild, stuttering” (42). In both instances, Le Guin marries the physical/racial with the psychological/emotional. This marriage leaves the reader to ask: how much does race have to do with who we are and how we are perceived? How much does race have to do with identity?

To answer this question, Le Guin proposes a universe that “undoes” this racial construction. Dr. Haber suggests that there should be “no more color problems. No more questions of race” (129). Consequently, human beings become gray, “the color of battleships” (130). With memories of both worlds, Orr struggles to integrate his ideas of a racial identity with a non-racial world. He notes, “That’s why she [Heather]’s not there… She could not have been born gray. Her color, her color of brown, was an essential part of her, not an accident. Her anger, timidity, brashness, gentleness, all were elements of her mixed being, her mixed nature, dark and clear right through, like Baltic amber. She could not exist in the gray people’s world. She had not been born” (130). Orr feels that race is essential to Heather’s identity or his perception of her identity. Resigned to this new world without Heather, George encounters the arrest of a short man for the crime of cancer. Instead of racial persecution, disease is “other.” By doing so, Le Guin emphasizes the metaphorical implications of race as a “way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic then biological ‘race’ ever was” (Morrison 63). To demonstrate this point, disease and race become interchangeable. Just as one can produce a racial identity, so can one produce one based on a particular illness or good health. These identities are not inherently evil; rather, suffering comes from the appropriation and misuse of these identities to create difference.

Le Guin depicts racial identity as something that gives human beings shade and dimension. To further emphasize this point, Orr compares the racialized Heather to the gray one: “His wife had been a gray person, a far gentler person than this one… This Heather carried a big black handbag with a brass snap, and probably a half pint of brandy inside; she came on hard. He wife had been unaggressive and, though courageous, timid in manner. This was not his wife, but a fiercer woman, vivid and difficult” (182). Like Morrison, Le Guin finds race as an asset rather than a detriment. Racial diversity allows for a “deeper, richer, more complex life than the sanitized one commonly presented to us” (Morrison 66).

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. New York: Scribner, 1971.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1992.

Notes on Heather’s Character- Orr’s Name

Karin brings up an interesting idea when she mentions that Heather may be seen as Orr’s antithesis.  While I was reading I thought Heather’s character was unexplainably inconsistent, but then I thought this whole book is based on inconsistencies.  While the spider metaphor that first introduces her accentuates strength in her and shows her as aggressive and fierce as she’s described as predator and Orr as her prey, the portrayal of her character as Orr’s grey-skinned wife is more domesticated and she appears more vulnerable.   The role reversal is certainly apparent when she becomes the needy one who seeks reassurance from Orr.  As Orr explains it in his thoughts about his wife, her “brown” color was what made her who she was.  Her history as one of mixed race and her struggle with issues of belonging seemed to have created that complexity in her character that had fed her strength.  In the final version we get of Heather towards the end of the book, she’s even fiercer than Orr remembers her to be and is “vivid” and “difficult.” In a continuum where they never married but only knew each other briefly in a far past she grows more into the aggressive person she was when Orr first met her at her office.  This may be an indication that her relationship with Orr seemed to have had an effect on her assertiveness as her color did or does. In the cabin scene we sense her weakness for the first time as she begins to have warm feelings towards Orr.  This shows how her relationship had an effect on her character as it toned her down a bit and penetrated the façade of fierceness that she had maintained before she met him.  I think this point really exemplifies Le Guin’s thoroughness in her depiction of character without dwelling on the minor details as a modernist writer would.

As to Orr’s name and its signification that’s been brought up by Sara Flood and Karin, I agree that his name suggests that his mundane character is the polar opposite of the typical science fiction hero.  Further, I think it cleverly represents the nature of his super power: the ability to alter reality and create multiple options and realities.  In his brief meditation of the Alien in front of him Orr explains, “It was not standing there… not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be.  It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing.  It was there in a sense that in a dream one is somewhere” (178).  While the repeated “or” is what made me realize the mentioned connection, this line, I believe, is crucial in examining Orr’s understanding of the realities that he creates.  He’s beginning to realize that it is not actual reality that he alters but a reality that is existent only in dreams, and now he’s in another person’s dream and hence in a different reality.   There is no actual reality but only coexisting, colliding and interpenetrating realities, which is a prominent characteristic of postmodern fiction, as Harvey explains.

Rejection of modernism

One of the possible ways of defining or categorizing postmodernism is by its rejection of modernism ideals.  The Lathe of Heaven does this in several ways.

One is by its rejection of Freudian and Jungian ideas.  Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis and Jung’s archetypes figured heavily into modernist ways of thinking.  Both obviously were also interested in dreaming and what it said about the human psyche.

Haber’s therapy sessions seem to reject basic Freudian ideas and techniques.  At one point he says the only holdover modern psychology still has is the couch, but he uses it for patients to sleep on, which Freud very much opposed.  For Haber, modern psychology is all about technology, not about the analysis that Freud and Jung practiced.

Haber also rejects the ideas of Freud and Jung that the unconscious was a dark and scary place:

Your unconscious mind is not a sink of horror and depravity.  That’s a Victorian notion, and a terrifically destructive one.  It crippled most of the best minds of the nineteenth century, and hamstrung psychology all through the first half of the twentieth.  Don’t be afraid of your unconscious mind! It’s not a black pit of nightmares.  Nothing of the kind!  It is the wellspring of health, imagination, creativity….. there is nothing to fear. -88.

For Freud and Jung and their patients, there was very much something to fear.  They told us that our subconscious was full of dirty thoughts and secret motives and monsters that we were not even aware we had.  The idea that there was a whole other layer of the brain that we could not tap into, yet was controlling our behavior to some point was a scary notion indeed.

Haber also is rejecting the Jungian ideas of archetypes, which was found throughout modernist literature.  When he is trying to make George feel better, he rejects the idea that the aliens are some universal archetype that represent the fear of the unknown, and says that they were probably just influenced by sci-fi movies from the 70’s.  George wants to stop before he brings out more monsters from his unconcscious, but Haber tells him he is being silly and that they must proceed.

Another way that this postmodernism rejects modernism is the “incredulity towards meta-narratives” that we discussed in class and that Harvey discusses in his article.  The Lathe of Heaven definitely rejects meta-narratives in the fact that there is no consistent reality.  How can there be one meta-narrative when reality is fundamentally altered every time that George Orr has an effective dream?  A world with 7 billion people can not have the same narrative as a world with 1 billion.  A world with racism can not have the same narrative as a world with no race.  A world with aliens living among us can not have the same narrative as one that doesn’t.  By rejecting the idea that the world has any singular, continuing reality the idea of any narrative to go along with reality is rejected as well.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you’ve always imagined. -Henry David Thoreau

I randomly grabbed a bookmark from my desk for The Lathe of Heaven, and this Thoreau quote was on it, it made me laugh.

Continuing Themes with Pynchon

Reading The Crying of Lot 49, I’m struck by many of the similarities between this work and Pynchon’s first novel V..  Oedipa Maas’s quest mirrors that of Herbert Stencil’s search for the illusive figure of V. in the earlier novel.  Both characters become obsessed with goals of discovery (and to a certain extent self-discovery) that seem perpetually out of reach.  The clues that they follow are random and not firmly grounded or linked together.  In V., Pynchon emphasizes the wild-goose-chase nature of the search writing that the journey becomes such an obsession that without the search Stencil has no meaning so he deliberately perpetuates the fruitless search. 

The Crying of Lot 49 also contains traces of another pivotal character from V. named Benny Profane.  Benny seems to have no purpose in life, no internal drive, no meaning or anchor.  I think that at the beginning of the novel Oedipa seems stuck in a similar kind of apathetic malaise.  Many other characters in the novel, particularly the Paranoids, display the same detachedness as Benny Profane and inclination toward debauchery as the Whole Sick Crew, Benny’s group of drinking, partying, whoring, irresponsible companions.

Pynchon continues his interest in entropy from V. on into The Crying of Lot 49.  In The Crying of lot 49, Pynchon actually touches more directly on the subject of entropy in terms of its scientific definition.  At the same time though, there appears to be a kind of social entropy taking place as well.  The order of things is breaking down in Oedipa’s world.  It is a world where a psychiatrist can get away with calling his client at three in the morning, a husband and wife nonchalantly and knowingly cast fidelity out the window, and people feel little reverence for dead American soldiers.  There is something amiss in this setting.  Social entropy similarly appears in Pynchon’s earlierst novel, most notably manifesting itself in the chaotic activities of the Whole Sick Crew.  

Pynchon also carries weird names over from V.  V. is populated with characters with strange yet meaningful names like Dewey Gland, Pig Bodine (one of the more profane characters), Slab (ironically an artist by profession),Rachel Owlglass (easily one of the most compassionate and insightful characters in the novel), and Benny Profane (a combination of Benny as in Benzadrine, an amphedamine drug, and Profane, which stands for his degenerative path).  I think that Oedipa Maas’s name has a similar imbedded meaning to that of Herbert Stencil.  Like a Stencil, Herbert Stencil is empty and must fill himself with something outside himself to give him meaning.  For Herbert, his meaning derives from his search for V.  Similarly Oedipa Maas or “more” seems to be searching for something “more.”  To me, the word “more” connotes reaching higher or aspiring; in a capitalistic society we try to achieve “more” money, toys, happiness, et cetera.  Her first name calls to mind Oedipus, the hero of Sophocles’s Greek tragedy about a man who makes an unsettling self-discovery and, perhaps on some level, mirrors Oedipa’s personal quest to discover the meaning of the Tristero System.

Oedipa “More”- A Postmodern Protagonist

I would like to address Pynchon’s choice of Oedipa Maas. Interestingly, Pynchon chose to center his story on the experiences and investigations of a housewife before the Feminist movement. Indicative of the time in which the story was written, Oedipa is a housewife; however, Oedipa does much more than the average housewife usually would. Yes, the story begins with her return home from a Tupperware party, but her role as protagonist serves as that of a detective, even an amateur scholar. Then again, she is the product of her experiences, in some ways, and so are others in the story, particularly women.

For example, Oedipa does not ask nor does she expect to be the executor of Pierce’s estate, nor does she choose many of her experiences in the book. Even the Remedios Varo painting in Mexico which makes Oedipa cry under “her dark green bubble shades” depicts “a number of girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void” (21). The women in the painting are stuck, prisoners, trying to “fill the void” that, one could argue, is their lives. This calls to mind the Jameson article and his assessment of Postmodern art, particularly Munch’s The Scream which Jameson says “deconstructs its own aesthetic of expression, all the while remaining imprisoned within it “(62). The same mediation occurs with the art within art in the Varo painting and in Oedipa’s interpretation of their hopeless attempt to “fill the void.” Both Oedipa and the women in the painting are, in part if not completely, helpless and powerless, but at the same time, they are working to fill some void or in Oedipa’s case, to deduce a potentially arbitrary and nonexistent mystery.

Todd Kelly and Professor Sample both commented on Oedipa’s name, and Professor Sample suggested we consider the implications of the last name “Maas” in terms of the Spanish term for “more” (“mas”). As Oedipa tries to make sense of the postal service, the stamps, and the horns, among other things, she is demonstrating her almost insatiable curiosity about life. As opposed to the passivity I discussed above, in most of the book, Oedipa exercises control and power over herself (and sometimes her surroundings) as she resourcefully attempts to make sense of the seeming senseless “mystery.” She is going out into the world, away from her husband in particular (and after her own mystery, her own role as the executor of the estate) and discovering a complicated set of connections that to others have often overlooked.

On the other hand, Oedipa’s encounters are often mediated by other associations, often seemingly random associations, a fact which indicates some passivity in her experiences. Furthermore, both we, the readers, and Oedipa are left waiting for the anonymous bidder of Lot 49. The story ends with Oedipa waiting, which can be interpreted as both passive and active, but also leaves a void, a mystery unsolved, for the reader which makes the experience itself almost seem fruitless.

I do not, despite what I have written, find the novel or Oedipa’s role in the novel to be depressing or desperate. On the contrary, I see Oedipa as revolutionary as a character; her curiosity and deftness in uncovering the traces of a mystery (though not the entire mystery) reveal a new kind of Postmodern female. I would argue that Postmodernism, as Jameson explains, has more to do with fragmentation than the alienation so important to Modernism, and thus, it is not Oedipa’s alienation as a character (though she is depicted as very lonely at times) or her inability to solve this mystery which holds her back, but rather, the fragmented story she is trying to piece together.  It is almost necessary to Postmodernism that the story remain fragmented rather than whole or complete or even solved; thus, Oedipa is left perpetually waiting for “more” or “Maas”, and her story is never quite finished.

I have much more I want to discuss concerning Oedipa, in particular, but I will save some of that for class.

The problem with certainty

 I must admit to being a little dazed after completing The Crying Lot of 49.  What is a reader to make of symbols of postal horns appearing in windows of  herbalists in Chinatown, or children who have sketched them on sidewalks, or on the bathroom stalls, or in the corners of stamps?  I think I am just as confused as Oedipa as to whether or not there is a secret conspiracy to suppress Tristero/Trystero or if it is all a hoax?  Clearly, this is one of Pynchon’s points.  

It seems that everywhere Oedipa turns, she encounters uncertainty regarding The Tristero. After she meets with Mr. Thoth and sees the WASTE symbol on his ring, she is compelled to tell Fallopian.  “‘You think it’s really a correlation?’  She thought of how tenuous it was, like a long white hair, over a century long.  Two very old men.  All these fatigued brain cells between herself and the truth” (74).   Chasing after leads, Oedipa tracks down the missing line in the “Whitchapel” fragment, only to find out later that that version is corrupt according to professor of English at Cal, Emory Bortz.  Then there is the concidential (?) meeting of Arnold Snarb who dons the WASTE symbol on his lapel pin, but he uses it as a symbol of his membership in I.A. or Inamorati Anonymous. It is Arnold who Oedipa contacts at the end of the novel, who now seems to be involved in The Tristero after all.  Even Dr. Hilarious’s experiments with LSD and other drugs on suburban housewives like Oepida seem to give rise to the question of whether or not she is involved in a larger plot against her.  Ironically, Hilarious preformed experiments of induced insanity–certainly calling into question Hilarious’s own sanity.    In the end, he too is silenced by the “cops.”

As the novel progresses Oedipa appears to question this idea of truth and certainty more frequently.  “Oedipa wondered  whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself[…]” (76).  The notion that she is in a dream continues to appear, as Oedipa encounters more clues.  Leaving her to “have trouble sorting the night into real and dreamed” (95).  When her perception of reality fails her, she is left to test reality through touch.  When the sailor throws a letter at her in the hallway, “she was overcome all at once by a need to touch him, as if she could not believe in him, or would not remember him, without it” (102).  Poor Oedipa. What is she to make of all of this?  Her notion of certainty has been turned upside down.  

The notion of certainty seems to be the pivotal idea when discussing the difference between modern literature and postmodern literature.  The modernists– Eliot and the like– established New Criticism in hopes of identifying one meaning in a text.  Hemingway wrote in excruciating detail about certainty with stories about the practical– how to fish for trout or watch a bullfight.  Whereas in postmodernism, nothing is certain.  Fact and fiction are one in the same.  

Just for kicks, I looked up up the Thurn und Taxis family and it turns out they have their own website.  Click the link below.

Don’t skip the intro that contains pictures of their palace.  You can even rent out the dining room to throw a private party.  In addition, the current Prince turns out to be a 25-year-old who loves to race Lamborghinis.  Here is a picture of him.  


The Experience of Postmodernism

Many of the previous posts have discussed this feeling that it is unsettling and seemingly impossible to try to deduce Postmodernism, and I wanted to say that while I feel the same way, I also think it is comforting to consider that the experience itself may be the point.  I get the impression that these writings intend to unsettle us and that unsettling feeling can also apply to understanding the point of the pieces themselves and the point of the movement in general.

I, too, felt the inclination to look at the stories as an aggregate group.  I concur with Alana that the first thing I noticed was “the element of something unsettling or something that doesn’t ‘fit’-that forces you to stop and think or retrace your step as it jars you out of the rhythm of reading.”  I, too, was more than uncomfortable with the content in DeLillo’s story, and though we had no warning of the content, I think that is, again, part of the experience.  While I had to tell myself multiple times to look past my own offense at the content, I can admit that the story effectively shocks, disturbs, and unsettles. 

In fact, the dehumanization Sara discussed in her post as applied to Foer’s piece also pertains to DeLillo’s story; both the characters in the story and the readers themselves may be viewed as dehumanized.  I went back, after reading “The Uniforms,” to find how many times gratuitous sexual violence occurs in the tale, and I found at least eleven examples.  I am curious, having never read DeLillo before, whether he usually includes this kind of sexual violence and why.  As I said, I think feeling unsettled is important in Postmodernism, or at least a little confused, but when I read this story in particular, the excessive mentions of rape and castration distract and offend so much that I feel more disgust than appreciation.  Then again, I feel as if that may be the point.

Another common element in some of this week’s reading is the questioning.  I have already mentioned the reader’s experience of confusion, but perhaps the same is true for many of the characters in the stories, as well as in Cage’s piece.  For example, in “Super Goat Man,” after the superhero fails to save one of the frat boys from his six-story fall, the narrator asks, “Had the hero failed the crisis?  Caused it, by some innate provocation?  Or was the bogus crisis unworthy, and the outcome its own reward?” (73).  The narrator questions, and probes those questions in the (confused) reader, what it all means when the bizarre hero does save the drunk college student.  Likewise, in Foer’s piece, the misunderstandings which are carefully delineated for the reader almost all result from questions that the narrator’s family members pose to him, to which he cannot or does not verbally respond.  For example, the narrator’s mother asks, “Are you dating at all?… But you’re seeing people, I’m sure. Right?… Are you ashamed of the girl?  Are you ashamed of me?” (82).  In this case, the mother cannot understand the son, but he tries, perhaps successfully, to understand them both.

And in Cage’s piece, almost every statement incites questions, though few are actually phrased in the form of questions.  The questions that do appear tend to ask the reader to think through society’s logic, like this one: “Why is it that children, taught the names of the months and the fact that there are twelve of them, don’t ask why the ninth is called the seventh (September), the tenth called the eighth (October),  the twelfth called the tenth (December)?”( 204).  This question reveals a logical fallacy and effectively pokes fun at what society would call “logic” at all.

The questioning in these pieces does not necessarily lead to answers, as is the case in much of Postmodernism, but it sure does make you think.  What I am wondering, and I am guessing we will address much of this in class, is what it was in our American society which affected our literature so much?  I can name a few triggers on my own, but I am very interested in the historical events and trends which triggered, in particular, the tendency to disturb and to question which is evident in this literary era.

On Lethem, DeLillo, Hassan, and Cage

I was excited to see that Jonathan Lethem was one of the included authors in the download. I had read Lethem before but only his non fiction, an essay entitled “The Ecstasy of Influence” which appeared in an issue of Harpers. The essay was so well written and convincing that I read it twice in one sitting, which is a rare occasion considering my short attention span. “Super Goat Man” was just as engaging. I thought the story had great blend of fantasy and reality, which I suppose is indicative of a postmodern story. Super Goat Man is not revered by the youth like the other grandiose superheroes; instead he is small time, which I think adds a bit of reality into the plot, making Super Goat Man more of a human. The narrator’s parent generation embraces Super Goat Man for his rejection of pedestrian life, as Everett says in the opening paragraphs, “It was our dads who cared.” This was a facet of the story that I found interesting. Everett disliked Small Goat Man, and also it seemed to me that he disliked his father for his interest in the minor hero. It bewildered Everett that his father and Super Goat Man had so much in common. His detest for this connection comes at the end, “I knew that my loathing had its origins in an even deeper place, in the mind of a child wondering at his father’s own susceptibility to the notion of a hero.” From the hippy parties to Jazz music, Super Goat Man is the hero of the past, a hero that is unrecognizable in Everett’s generation. Furthermore, I thought the element of Jazz was metaphorical for its association to Super Goat Man and Everett’s father. Everett has little interest in it, as if Jazz is passé for Everett’s generation.

Don DeLillo’s story was difficult to digest, not just for the grotesque killing scenes, but also the barely there plot. There story didn’t seem to be heading in any sort of direction, but only to show the depravity of the terrorists. Jean Claude describes the War uniforms shown in film, claiming that uniforms from the civil war are connected to success. Color and personality are encouraged. “We will shoot in color because color is the color of childhood fantasy.” The terrorists’ uniforms reflect Jean Claude’s argument; they are motley dressed with various styles that even exceed cultural boundaries. I could possibly infer from this that the consumerist culture, which is today’s culture, embraces personality and color, bears the new uniform and it is this uniform that cloaks the depravity of DeLillo’s terrorists. This sounds like total bs but it’s the only thing I managed to pull from the story.

I agree with Alana’s post that the typography and position of the text have an impact on the Cage and Hassan essays as well as the content, and that it influences the reader’s perception of the essays without even having read the words. From what I’ve seen, this tactic seems to be a reoccurring one in postmodern literature.

Week One Post: Responses to Short Stories and Journal Articles

After reading and rereading this week’s journal articles and short stories, I started looking for similarities-not necessarily similarities in content, but similarities in “feel”-to see if any of the pieces made me feel like they were linked. As we discussed in class, the question of what exactly constitutes a postmodern piece of writing is still rather fuzzy. Personally, it’s always made more sense to me to talk about literary genres more in terms of stylistics than era (meaning that I would respond to a Gothic novel written recently as a Gothic rather than a postmodern novel, while still acknowledging the work’s context). I also tried to compare the pieces to the different postmodern artifacts we looked at it class.

The first piece, John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)” is, I think, the most obvious piece just in terms of how it’s constructed, with the varying fonts, lines, and split-up occurrences that don’t seem to have an ending or a point. In this piece, the aesthetics of the work itself seem to have as much of an impact as the content, by which I mean the piece would read (or “feel”) very differently if it was presented, for example, with traditional margins and all in the same font. Similarly,  Ihab Hassan’s POSTmodernISM has a very conscious style or format that greatly impacts how the work is read-text as object and not merely content.

Looking at the short stories as an aggregate group, I think the first thing that stood out to me is the element of something unsettling or something that doesn’t “fit”-that forces you to stop and think or retrace your step as it jars you out of the rhythm of reading. Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece does that purposefully with his symbols that indicate a certain feeling or emotion as they stand in for something that cannot necessarily be conveyed through text. (How would one write a willed silence?) Jonathan Lethem’s “Super Goat Man” introduces a unbelievable character into an otherwise realistic piece, and then demands the reader’s acceptance of the believability of  Super Goat Man in these otherwise banal surroundings. The strangest thing for me in Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” is not the zombie plans or the presence of the zombies in the text, but the painting that seems to have come from nowhere.

Don DeLillo’s piece reminds me of Brett Easton Ellis (although it would be more fair to write that the other way): all surface and very brittle, like a sheet of caramelized sugar. (I would appreciate a trigger warning before texts with content like DeLillo’s.) I found it interesting that the figures in DeLillo’s piece seem concerned mostly with aesthetics-surfaces and appearances-than ideology (the attention to their clothing, the wish for a “black militant” on page 10). In this piece, I think DeLillo takes particular expectations and refuses to fulfill them, in favor of a facile piece that, in its very shallowness, reveals the emptiness of the characters’ actions.

Finally, I suppose I can say that if a pattern emerged for me, it was the pattern of something unsettling or “out of place” that I mentioned before. The best example that I can think of off the top of my head of other authors who achieve this same effect is the poet Frederick Siedel, although I’m not sure if I can confidently say that I’m any closer to understanding how to classify things as postmodernist.