Impressions of Shooting War

Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman capture very well the banality and shallowness of much of the broadcast media in Shooting War.  We see it immediately with the ubiquitous attractive female anchor (perfectly named “Briana”) with her vacuous questions (“But tell us, what was it like to have a bomb go off so close to you”) and breathless exaggeration (“It was truly incredible live television. Truly incredible reporting”).  Of course, every event has a special graphic, including disasters (“Brooklyn Explodes” with a Starbucks logo behind it; “Bangalore Nightmare”), turning tragedies into media commodities.

Shooting War itself is a panoply of stereotypes: the idealistic “independent” blogger who gets sucked into the Establishment media but ultimately decides to “do the right thing” and not be a sell-out; the slutty, self-absorbed magazine reporter; the crazy, out-of-control soldier in the form of Lt. Col. “Crash” Crowley (a la “Apocalypse Now”); the demur but street-savvy native producer; the high-tech terrorist with a Plan for world domination; the mysterious CIA-type “watcher”; and so on. In a way, that well captures what the media, most particularly broadcast media, are constantly seeking: images and stories that horrify or tug at the heart strings, with characters and situations that “fit” a type or preconception rather than be overly complicated or nuanced. Additionally, American “branding” is everywhere, from KFC to McDonalds, a sort of commentary on the notion that everywhere America goes, even in a war zone, we bring with us our commercialization and capitalism.

I find Shooting War to be overtly cynical, highly politicized (not one honorable soldier in the bunch), lopsided, and heavy-handed, but also bitingly satirical.  It achieves what it sets out to do, I think, and also shows how the growth of amateur video reporting (and the presence of YouTube) has “democratized” reporting and has circumvented both governments (of the left and the right) and mainstream media.

Finally, as a graphic novel, this also has a special kind of structure that makes it necessarily telegraphic.  It’s like looking at a storyboard for a movie; you get the main narrative and the pictures show the action and emotion (the reader doesn’t have to “imagine” the action), but it’s like reading Spark’s Notes without the accompanying analysis. It’s an interesting way to visit the new media and its reimagining of the novel, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Characters as Stand-ins

In class the other day I half jokingly suggested that maybe every character in The People of Paper was in some way a stand-in for the author (or “Authors” in general).  I abandoned the idea, but there is definitely a fluidity, a “fungibility,” of characters in this book. One could certainly make the case that nearly everyone in it stands for something else.  I offer this interpretation when I go back to the end of Part II, which includes as its last line, “Start this book over, without me” (138).  Sure enough, Plascencia does “start the book over,” but there is no escaping Liz (the point being, perhaps, that you can disguise or invent people and events in a fictitious novel, but your own life experiences, including the people you know, will somehow make their way, consciously or unconsciously, into your writing).  Federico de la Fe pines for Merced, the wife who left him long ago for a white man (appropriately named Jonathan Smith, like the Captain John Smith who brought the Europeans over and vanquished an indigenous population).  Federico writes to her, he hopes for her return, and he carefully prepares a perfect lawn that won’t hurt her knees when she comes crawling back to him (he wishes).  Merced never comes back, however, just as Liz never returns.

Also consider Baby Nostradamus, another stand-in for the author perhaps, who is baptized in the Church of Thieves (is it really the Catholic Church or something else; think publishers and editors) that is satirized as the Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno (175-76). Baby Nostradamus’s footprint on the parchment shows “maps and timelines of the world, fortunes we were never intended to see” (177), a footprint Apolonia quickly smudges to ensure that the Cardinal does not see it. The author, like Baby Nostradamus, naturally knows what’s in store for the characters.  Also, Little Merced is “resurrected,” on the whim of the author or perhaps by an imagined reader demand (Conan Dolye, after all, had to bring back Sherlock Holmes after initially killing him off). Little Merced, however, is never the same; she breathes out a kind of stench that cannot be remedied. Sometimes characters overstay their welcome in a novel, and it’s necessary for an author to kill them off when they offer nothing new to the narrative; otherwise they just hang around and stink up the story (“Even the words of Little Merced smelled like rot,” says Julieta [217]).

Even Samson, who destroys the Philistines by pushing over the columns of a coliseum (234), is something of a stand-in for the author; he challenges those who would constrain and chain him, but destroys himself along with all the spectators.  In the same way, the author is consumed, even devoured, by his work and his characters.

In the end, despite the “substitution” of Merced for Liz, Liz still comes back into the story, evidenced by Saturn/Sal’s failed phone calls (236) and her transition to old age, still with her husband-who-is-not-Sal (244-45). She has a way of dominating the novel, no matter how vigorously she and the author resist or try to rewrite history.  It’s a daunting problem: How does one put words onto paper, specifically a narrative story, that express the sadness and loss experienced after a failed relationship? Perhaps the novel is one answer to that question.

The ‘Suspension of Belief’ among Readers

As we discussed briefly in class this week, the “world” of People of Paper is a strange mix of realism and fantasy in which the characters accept every premise and every invention of the author.  On the one hand, the book presents us with actual, living people made out of paper; mechanical tortoises; the strange “unmasking” of saints; and towns that, literally, disintegrate. On the other hand, the events and characters are all within the context of a “real” world of flower pickers, dominoes, cock fights, and travel in dusty pickups.  Tijuana and El Monte are real places; Rita Hayworth makes a “real” appearance as herself, but with a completely fake biography. This strange juxtaposition of the fantastical and the real is not always easy to follow, but, surprisingly, it is still easy to “go along” with these odd premises and become engaged in the story.

This makes me think more about the notion of “suspension of belief” when we read a novel.  When we enter a world created by an author, we as readers give that author a certain credibility and latitude; we’re willing to go along with whatever scenarios and characters he or she has created in exchange for (one hopes) a well-constructed narrative, interesting characters, good writing, thought-provoking themes (writ small or large), or just a good story. We willingly share the author’s make-believe world, and there is, I believe, a kind of covenant between reader and author; we suspend belief to dive into the creative work of the author. This is true whether we are considering “fantasy” works like Harry Potter or the “realistic” fiction of Flaubert or Hemingway.

In postmodern fiction, however, is that covenant on shakier ground?  Does a covenant even exist; are all bets off? If nothing, postmodernist fiction, as we learned in our first week in this course, is frequently counterintuitive. Our patience was tested (sorely) in House of Leaves, for example, as Danielewski alternately drew us in to a compelling, scary story and then taunted us for getting sucked in. The Female Man messed around with character identities in a way that was frequently confusing.  Dream Jungle drew us into characters but kept those characters at times hidden from us; many of their story lines, such as that of Rizalina, simply petered out with no conclusion (maybe that was the point). I seriously don’t suspect that postmodern writers, if they even think of themselves as postmodern, care nothing for their relationship with readers (why would any author want his or her work to be a failure, after all?); I assume they want to bring readers along for their experiment with new forms and challenges to old conventions and histories.  I just wonder if all of this will soon take on a dated feel, a faddishness. In People of Paper, for example, Chapter Three begins with “Many years after the Saturn War and in the unwritten afterword of this book…” (41). Here we go again, another instance of the book/author speaking directly to the audience, breaking down that “fourth wall.”  I kind of get this “been there, done that” feeling. So, ultimately, what must hold up a novel against the test of time is not just its form but also its content.

The Role of the ‘Outsider’

The discussion this week raises the possibility of further debate about the role of “outsiders,” specifically privileged outsiders, when they come to less-developed countries.  Certainly in Dream Jungle, author Jessica Hagedorn offers a pointed and cynical view of the negative effects of a paternalistic, Western society (and, in her novel, represented mostly by male characters). She does so, I believe, in a captivating literary style that, as noted in class, challenges our traditional understanding of “history” as written by the usual WASPs.  Still, are Americans really so awful and insensitive?  The country that ran off the Native Americans to reservations, killed all the buffalo and nearly self-destructed in a civil war over (among other things) slavery is the same country that has welcomed millions of refugees and immigrants no one else wanted, defeated Hitler and enabled millions of low-skilled workers on the factory floor to join the middle class. 

The same issues might be raised in the context of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay, “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern.”  In Africa, writes Appiah, “the distinction between high culture and mass culture, insofar as it makes sense at all, corresponds, by and large, to the distinction between those with and those without Western-style formal education as cultural consumers” (435). Thus, he seems to be suggesting that a Western sensibility creates a “market” for certain African art (he specifically mentions David Rockefeller) and creates an “international commodification of African expressive culture” (442).  If Africa and African art represent the “other” to the American/European art collectors, is it a valid characterization of a continent whose identity is intertwined with colonialist occupation and influence? What is Africa’s “real” identity?  What, for that matter, is the “real” identity of the Filipino culture on the other side of the world?

Ultimately, if “historiographic metafiction,” as we discussed in class, offers a platform for “marginalized voices,” how do we know that these new voices are any more authentic or emblematic of a culture than voices that have come before? My guess is they would be provocative and challenging and at least broaden the canon, so to speak, but they could also be not very interesting and not particularly insightful.  It’s just like any artistic endeavor; there’s good stuff and there’s not-so-good stuff.  If the history and culture of any peoples is “mediated” by a Western European, is it by default invalid or somehow tainted?  Appiah’s essay prompts a lot of interesting questions and I look forward to more discussion in class.

Good Themes from a Bad Book?

After completing The Female Man, I was glad to leave the book behind me.  I’m not sure why I didn’t like this novel; it was not because of its feminist sensibilities, nor was it its odd narrative style that marks it as postmodern. I haven’t been able to pin it down exactly, but as a literary work, it struck me—to bring up Russ’s own words in her mock review blurbs (141)—as, well, just plain bad.

Maybe that is too harsh, but I’m thinking now of one of my favorite aphorisms from Gustav Flaubert (although I don’t know if this is completely accurate since I could not locate the original source): “The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  The trouble with Russ’s novel, for me, is that the author is both too present AND too visible.  Perhaps that’s the point of the challenges to traditional structure of fiction in postmodernism, but by way of contrast I recall House of Leaves, in which the author is very much present but only as an unseen force and background. Danielewski masterfully makes himself felt throughout his novel without intruding too much into it.  As readers we often wonder what he is “up to,” but he has a way of never revealing himself too much.  With House of Leaves, one gets a genuine sense of the tenuous line of trust that must be established between an author and reader that can be tested but should not be shattered. The Female Man, on the other hand, seems to be heavy-handed and self-conscious; it lacks the accompanying wit or engaging intellect. It is as if the novel simply became a prop for an ideological tract. Nevertheless, perhaps it served its purpose at the time and the author herself would be delighted if later audiences found it dated (although she probably would be offended that I also thought it was characterized by a lot of drivel, another word from her mock reviews).

Having said all that, I found the essay by Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” that we read as a companion assignment to be interesting and thought-provoking.  My initial dislike of Haraway’s essay was mitigated by further exploration in class of what she was trying to say, so I was better able to engage in the themes she raised and how they related to Russ’s book. Also, despite all my complaining about The Female Man, the class discussion, generated by the themes of the book and the questions raised by Professor Sample, has been lively, engaging, and even hilarious at times.  So I guess even a bad novel can generate great discourse.

If there is a hero in The Female Man, I would guess it might be Joanna, simply because she most often serves as an observer of the others and raises questions/challenges to the other characters. She questions Jeannine about her source of unhappiness, for example, and Jael about the necessity of killing the man in Manlander (although they all seem to question it). If there is an “everyman” (or, more accurately, an “everywoman”) in this novel, it seems to be Joanna, who is, not uncoincidentally the same name as the author. Through Joanna we get the various and most cogent “speeches” about the unfairness of (and the need to resist) the male world, male domination, male expectations. This is outlined particularly in the final section, the “Book of Joanna,” which has the most human-like “voice” of the novel. It also seems to be written more like a feminist essay than a novel.

One other possible “hero” of this novel is the novel itself. The last chapter seems to turn toward the role of the novel in expressing both the author’s views and those of all the characters, and gives a certain voice to the power of literary expression (I don’t think it’s very good in this novel, but that’s another issue). In a way, the novel “liberates” Russ and the broader feminine world that she speaks for by alllowing her to create characters and situations that are imagined but that express real-world frustrations, anger, etc.

Looking for a new twist

“I had got stuck with Jeannine,” writes the invisible narrator at the beginning of Part Five (83) of The Female Man.  Indeed, we readers may at times feel as though we are trapped with this odd character, reluctant voyeurs of an unhappy life. As Christina notes in this week’s post, it’s interesting that Jeannine seems to be the only character who does not speak in the first person.  What I also notice about Jeannine in Part Five and most notably Part Six of this novel is how she comes to dominate the narrative while her “voice” becomes increasingly erratic and unstable.  We have three pages 105-107 of detailed exposition of every motion and action that she takes in her apartment, for example, including inane efforts to “clean up,” sew, polish her shoes and pack (with excruciating detail) her suitcase.  It’s emblematic of her world of small things (like the lists that go on and on in White Noise) and small thoughts.

This is juxtaposed with more cynical digressions about female happiness (plastic women in a plastic world), from various versions of “When are you going to get married?” (113) to the “Great Happiness Contest” (116). The fact that Jeannine’s story takes up so much space, especially her rambling and contradictory self-talk that is increasingly depressive and cast against feminist sensibilities (“Do you want to be an airline pilot? Is that it?  And they won’t let you?”) is both interesting and exasperating.  The only conversation here, I think, is the one going on the author’s head, and it’s an angry one from the sound of it.  Well, it’s just SO 1970s, and I can say that, I’ve been there.  It was fresh for its time and well overdue, however, so I should not be too critical or impatient; heck, when I was in college for the first time there were more men than women enrolled.  Imagine that.

Still, The Female Man is not feminist utopian fiction, as Professor Sample assured us, so what is it? At first I liked the idea of further considering the “thought experiment” he mentioned that explores what happens if the author presents different versions of the same woman who SHOULD think and feel alike but do not. One could explore that with any identity group—women, ethnic minorities, teenage boys, born-again Christians, and so on—however, so that seems insufficient.  I want more.  I’m banking on reading more about Whileaway and the elusive utopia (or distopia) it may or may not represent.  If it all turns out to be simply a way to point the finger at men for our problems of dissension, aggression, and warmongering in the world, well, that’s still not very interesting or illuminating in 2008.  How about Maggie Thatcher and the Falklands War?  She was tough; they didn’t call her the Iron Lady for nothin’ (okay, if she was a man they wouldn’t call her Iron anything, they would just call her Prime Minister). Still, Jael has yet to come into the picture here in this novel, so I’m looking forward to being surprised.

What Is ‘Postmodern’ in the Digital Environment?

In light of the readings in class from our textbook in recent weeks, I wonder how many of the digital works that we have studied this week are true “postmodern pieces.”  They all seem unconventional and creative, offer a commentary on modern culture, present “old” media in a new setting, and challenge the traditional way that we “read” or experience artistic work. But the fact that they are part of the relatively new digital environment does not make them necessarily fit the criteria (at least for literary works) as postmodern expression, I think.

I keep thinking there must be something more there that makes them warrant study and debate. “Nio” strikes me as original, witty and appealing, while the Weather Visualizer is, to me, just plain silly (sorry).  What makes either of them “push the boundaries” and turn modernism upside down, however? The Whale Hunt (the project I chose for my inquiry), for example, certainly challenges the traditional form of the photojournalistic essay; it presents artistic work in unusual ways and includes the viewer/reader in the adventure.  We even have the ability to create our own “ending” by leaving the narration at any point.  Okay, we’ll call that “postmodern.” But how many of the digital creations are “antidetective” stories described by William V. Spanos in “The Detective and the Boundary” (173); or recreate reality in the dramatic way that Baudrillard anticipates in “The Precession of Simulacra” (105); or drastically “re-frame” the narration to expose the literary conventions of storytelling, as Patricia Waugh notes in our assignment for next week “From Metafiction” (247)? Some yes, some no?

Finally, how is all this affected by the presence of the “database” as the “center of the creative process in the computer age,” as Len Manovich argues in his essay? As was discussed in Tuesday’s class, perhaps the criteria for a postmodern piece is that it is transformative, as was noted in the example of “Star Wars, One Letter at a Time.” It still raises a question: To what extent are these works mediated by the creator/artist, the viewer/reader, or both? Does it matter? More discussion and enquiry, please.

The Interview with MZD

After completing House of Leaves, I felt as though I had experienced the literature of the exhausted.  It was just plain tiring at times, although I always had a sense that this was an extraordinary author at work.  This was confirmed in the interview of MZD that we read for Thursday’s class.  I found myself feeling a little more patience with this book, knowing that it’s something I might go back to (or, then again, maybe not).

One aspect of the interview that I found interesting was that MZD stated, quite matter-of-factly, that “there are no errors in the book” (114).  It was a provocative comment, but how can one disprove it?  He did not say that there were no inconsistencies or contradictions in the book; he simply noted that there were no errors in the book.  It works on two levels; if one finds something one thinks is an error, MZD will simply respond that it was meant to be there, and he is also inviting his readers to “catch me if you can,” sending devoted fans on a treasure hunt (hey, it’s the journey, right?).

Another part of the interview that intrigued me was how MZD views readers.  I was impressed that he created House of Leaves over ten years.  That’s a long time, indeed, to become an expert on the pantheon of theorists, essayists, scientists, literary figures, etc., who appear in this novel. He insisted that he wrote always with the most careful and intelligent reader in mind: “I would write for the reader who gets it all, who can suspend it all, until the last possible moment before it necessarily resolve with that final chord,” he told the interviewers.  “[G]radually this idealized reader I addressed came to life in my imagination, taking in every single note, noticing every twist of phrase, appreciating all the intrinsic complexities of my narrative, understanding every modulation and harmony…” (124).  I felt a little guilty over the many times I became irritated and exasperated by the book.  If he put that much care into creating this work, maybe I should be a little more careful as a reader.  It’s a strange feeling to actually try to be objective about how I read something when the experience of reading is always so utterly subjective. As Professor Sample noted at the end of Tuesday’s class, maybe MZD is writing about reading itself.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

The most startling thing about David Lodge’s essay, “Postmodernist Fiction,” was how old it was; it was published in 1977.  As I read it, I thought his insights were as apropos to House of Leaves as to John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published in 1969. It was astonishing to me that this essay was written more than 30 years ago!  It also reminded me of the discussion we had in an earlier class where Professor Sample pointed out that every 15 years or so someone decides that the novel is finished and that there is nothing new to invent, but then something new always comes along in spite of the predictions.

My first “recognition” of a connection between Lodge’s essay and House of Leaves was when Lodge discussed the writing of Beckett, which, he noted, had reached a stage where first-person narrators were “increasingly isolated and deprived of sensory stimuli, desperately trying to make sense of their experience by recalling it” (255). This is exactly what seems to be going on with the various narrators, most notably Johnny Truant, in House of Leaves.  Also, the multiple footnotes and digressions into every permutation of literary criticism contained in House of Leaves seem to be reflected in Lodge’s observation that postmodernists tend to resist compulsive attempts of the human consciousness to interpret the world and operate from a point of view about the general absurdity of the human predicament (255).  There is a of absurdity in House of Leaves, and if nothing else, the novel lays bare (and thus defies) all attempts to interpret it by anticipating (and parodying) every possible style of literary criticism.

In terms of the various alternatives to the “metaphoric or metonymic” poles of language that Lodge says may be indicative of postmodernism (258), House of Leaves is a poster boy for them all: contradiction; permutation (i.e., “alternative narrative lines” [259] like Johnny’s “revised” list of Lude’s conquests); discontinuity (chopped up texts, including unusual layouts of the text); randomness; excess (the list of photographers beginning on page 64 of the novel and the even longer list of “houses” that begins on page 120, to name just two); and the desire to “short circuit,” that is, “to administer a shock to the reader and thus resist assimilation into conventional categories of the literary” (269). Ways of doing that, he suggests, include “combining in one work violently contrasting modes—the obviously fictive and the apparently factual; introducing the author and the question of authorship into the text; and exposing conventions in the act of using them” (269). That’s our House of Leaves, for sure.

Finally, one passage that struck me was Lodge’s discussion of a theory (Jakobson) about the nature of discourse, noting that “if you attempt to group topics according to some other principle, or absence of principle, the human mind will nevertheless persist in trying to make sense of the text thus produced by looking in it for relationships of similarity and/or contiguity; and insofar as a text succeeds in defeating such interpretation, it defeats itself” (258). Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing in our attempts to “map” themes or motfis within House of Leaves?  Is our mapping exercise a postmodern endeavor itself, or is it just a new twist on our traditional, hard-wired-in-our-heads basic human need to interpret and make sense of the novel?  It’s just a rhetorical question; obviously sitting in an English class and resisting attempts to interpret a text would soon prove to be unprofitable, not to mention no fun at all.

House of Leaves: It Keeps on Ticking

Thursday’s discussion about the preponderance of literary analyses embedded within House of Leaves offered, for me, a new way of looking at the novel.  As Professor Sample noted, if Danielewski thought of every line of enquiry, one wonders if there are any new secrets to unearth that the author may have hidden, consciously or unconsciously.  Can we sit in an English class and explore this novel in any way that has not already been explored?

I thought about this as I took a second look at the “letters” written to Johnny from his mother (p. 587-644).  They are, on their own, a rich source of debate and discussion. Certainly I think we can experience the pathos of a woman gone mad who inflicted burn injuries on her young son (or did she? See footnote of page 129) and at some point tried to strangle him.  The letters give the reader a “back story” for how a traumatic childhood could inform what we know about the “narrator” of this story. But, as I re-read the letters, I thought they had an inauthentic feel to them.  Like a good novel, they reveal character and plot and motivation and emotion, but in some ways they strike me as too literary.  Did this crazy wife and mother have another life as a brilliant academic (or perhaps just a prodigious autodidact), tossing off lines in Greek and Latin and French and Old English? The letters are stuffed with intertextuality.  We have Mars and Apollo and other characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Odyssey (hmm, one imagines a entire paper just on the mythological references in Pelafina’s letters).  Then there is a slew of tragic figures, from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Claudius to Ugolino (wait, another paper topic!).  One could analyze the letters to death. And is the “secret” message relating to Zampano (p. 615) supposed to point us to the “real” author of the letters?  Are Pelafina’s letters a red herring, just more unreliable text in a sea of unreliability? Is Danielewski brilliantly layering every possible interpretation, detour, and dead end (like a labyrinth) for us to discover, or is he just messin’ with our heads?

Perhaps, as John Barth suggests, the exhaustion of the novel itself is a new and rich source of discussion and artistic expression, and that maybe we fret too much about our propensity to analyze and discover “the hidden meaning.”  House of Leaves certainly has challenged me to think about what a novel is and why this literary form continues to appeal. I can only think of something a little more clichéd: storytelling, whether it is highly literate or folksy, gets to a part of our intellect that craves an imaginative life, that “takes us out of ourselves.” Given that online forums, YouTube and Facebook references to this novel abound and thrive (even this blog entry and more to come from our class), it would appear that no one has yet exhausted the themes suggested by this novel. House of Leaves just keeps on going and going.

This brings me also back to Barth’s essay—and a digression (which should be allowed, I think, especially since I refrained from making this a footnote). For some reason it reminded me of another piece of work, by Shakespeare scholar and Yale professor Harold Bloom, who is just about at the other end of the literary criticism spectrum, I would think (he dismisses historicist/Marxist/feminist criticism as “The School of Resentment,” for starters).  Bloom, who wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), explains in his preface why the Great Writers pushed the envelope of their day by what he called “strangeness”; their works were astonishingly revolutionary and original in their time. He includes Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and more (he also includes Jorge Luis Borges in his canon, incidentally, and quotes him extensively). “One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies,” writes Bloom (5).

What particularly struck me about Bloom’s argument and Barth’s essay is what Bloom refers to as the “anxiety of influence” among writers. “There can be no strong canonical writing without the process of literary influence,” writes Bloom. “Any strong literary work creatively misreads and misinterprets a precursor text or texts.  An authentic canonical writer may or may not internalize her or his work’s anxiety, but that scarcely matters: the strongly achieved work is the anxiety” (8). For Bloom, this originality is everything; Barth perhaps would not disagree, but he seems to suggest there is plenty of room for the imitators, and the imitators of the imitators, presumably if they are, well, original about it. —Trish

Is Experience Always ‘Mediated’?

Although in many respects I’m ready to leave White Noise behind me, there are still so many nooks and crannies of this novel that still invite exploration, especially after reading the essays this week by John Drow and John Duvall. One thing we did not talk about in our Thursday discussion, although it was definitely related to the themes we touched on, is how both of these essayists focused on the “most photographed barn” in the country in the novel.  Both DeLillo’s novel and the two essayists (on pages 422 and 444, respectively) explored how the obsessive public recording of the image of the barn demonstrated that the “representation” had become the substitute for the experience itself. In White Noise, we are told that Jack and Murray take a road trip to see the barn and discover that “All the people had cameras” (12). “No one sees the barn,” Murray tells Jack (not unlike the image of the crowds in front of the Mona Lisa that we looked at earlier in the semester).  In other words, no one was there to see it or to experience it; they were there simply to mediate it.

I have so often had that uneasy feeling when I am in a place that is photographed frequently that I and the people around me are not really “in the moment” or genuinely experiencing the scene, artifact, building, etc. Are we just having a quick look and then spending the rest of our time framing the photo opportunity?  Do a little experiment: Watch how long it takes for someone to “take in” a scene before he or she lifts up the camera and starts to snap away. Maybe five seconds? It’s a little scary.  Sometimes I deliberately will not bring a camera to an event or a family outing for precisely that reason; I don’t want to focus my energies on recording the experience; I simply want to experience the experience (duh). 

And yet…the camera or the camcorder is not the enemy, either. A photograph from the perfect day with my husband and his brother and wife in the South of France way back in the 1980s, the hiking trip to the Lake District of England, the day my daughter won a gold medal in the collegiate rowing championships (and yes, I photographed them, here and here), is only a slice of the experience.  The photographic image, or even a video, is a memory of the event; it evokes a wave of feelings and its own narrative.  But, I would argue, it is never the substitute for the event or the experience. Thus, I would push back a little on Baudrillard’s notion that the representation becomes a stand-in for the real (“The Precession of Simulacrum,” Postmodernism and the Contemporary Novel, 95).  Our memories of an event or a defining moment in our lives (I think of the birth of my two children, for example), the feelings of immense love and joy and satisfaction, are NOT a copy of a copy or a download of a “script”; they are inside our heads and are at the core of our being, imprinted in a fundamental way that requires no mediation.

Indeed, my best memories of birthdays and holidays and countless school concerts, wrestling matches, track meets, rowing regattas, and family vacations are rarely the stuff we accumulated or the photos and videos we took; they are of the indefinable and inexpressible emotions generated by a real experience that are hard-wired into my psyche. There may be plenty of Hollywood interpretations and TV dramatizations of exactly these kinds of events, but those mediations nevertheless remain to me largely irrelevant. Perhaps Baudrillard’s essay expresses well what it is to be a consumer, especially an unthinking and manipulated one, in our advertising- and media-driven society, but, I would argue, it falls short of what it is to be human.

Comments on Inquiry 1

The most difficult aspect of doing the inquiry was deciding what details to focus on to support my main points. There was so much richness to the text; everything had the potential to have “meaning” and to suggest multiple themes. So I guess narrowing things down to categories of detail (I chose objects, events and dialogue) was one challenge; the next was deciding what details to select within those categories.

The most suprising aspect of this exercise is that the closer I read, the more interconnected I felt the text was within the scene that I chose (supermarket). The events, the objects, the dialogue were, in my mind, more deliberately and carefully chosen by DeLillo than I had at first thought; in other words, there as a “method” to his randomness.–Trish

DeLillo and White Noise: Is there a method to his meandering?

One aspect of Don DeLillo’s White Noise that intrigues me is the novel’s narrative style and structure. The author certainly opens his novel in a traditional way: he sets the scene of a college campus and the circumstances of the narrator and his wife and family. And certainly DeLillo’s telegraphic sentences, almost Hemingway-like, are straightforward and factual. He’s sparing in his use of adverbs and adjectives and generous with his nouns and verbs.  But there is so much that is unexpected about this narrative style, which must have seemed astonishingly fresh, if not puzzling, to readers in 1985. DeLillo effortlessly moves back and forth between the present tense and past tense.  Much of his narration consists of sentence fragments. He includes seemingly irrelevant sentences or sentence fragments in seemingly random areas of the text (“The Airport Marriott, the Downtown Travelodges, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Center” [15]; “We believed something lived in the basement” [27]; “We had two closet doors that opened by themselves” [64]; “MasterCard, Visa, American Express” [100]).

Along the same lines, interspersed throughout the narrative are references to disembodied bits of television broadcasts, often begun with the phrase, “The TV said” (95, 96). This narrative style, I am certain, is carefully constructed to reaffirm the ubiquitous presence of advertising (billboards and elsewhere) and of television and to point to the fragmentary nature of our modern-day, media-soaked experience. It’s just a little, well, disconcerting, because it seems like an odd overlay to the story unfolding before us. But perhaps, as I suspect, that’s the whole point.

Further, there is quite a bit of dialogue to consider in looking at the narrative style, which often gives us our only glimpse of emotions and feelings of the characters, but often the dialogue veers “off topic” and peters out without coming to a conclusion (hmm, sort of like my conversations with my 20-year-old).  There are also seemingly random events and scenes to wonder about. The mysterious crying jag of Babette’s son Wilder (75-79), for example, seemed bizarre and unrelated to the story. This narrative style strikes me as “deliberately randomized” to achieve effect.

Is DeLillo toying with readers, asking us analyze and connect these odd scenes and sentences and get to a “deeper” meaning? Having read only to page 105, I don’t know, but I’m guessing it will continue in the same vein and that he will make us work hard to peel back the layers of this intriguing novel.

Fredric Jameson’s Essay: The Theory of Everything

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