“Toyota Celica”

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

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

Toyota Celica.

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

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

 

*Also, sorry this is a little late!

Failure

(If you haven’t finished the book, I’d skip my post for the time being.  I don’t want to ruin the end for you.)

If “all plots tend to move deathward” (26), but nobody dies, then is the plot complete?  I don’t believe the absoluteness of this statement, that all plots move in this direction, but the phrase and its failure to come to fruition in the novel called my attention to the multiple instances that failed in the novel.

There are parallels to be found in the attempt of Orest to set his record of time spend in a space with venemous snakes and with Gladney’s way of dealing with Willie Mink.  Gladney mentions his plan several times to “swivel my head to look into rooms, put him at his ease, wait for an unguarded moment, blast him in the gut three times for maximum efficiency of pain, take his Dylar, ger off at the river road, shut the garage door, walk home in the fair and the fog” (293).  But neither of these events is realized in quite the way they had envisioned.  Orest is forced underground, the humane society is against him and his attempt, four snakes are provided instead of twenty-seven and his is bitten within minutes.  So despite the exhaustive preparation, his moment of glory only results in him being a “jerk” as Heinrich put it.  Gladney’s revenge follows a similar pattern.  He doesn’t put in the effort Orest does, but his revenge, his quest for Dylar, encounters results that are much the same.   He doesn’t kill Willie Mink; he is himself shot and on top of it all, he discovers nuns don’t believe in heaven and angels either (not immediately relevant, but an interesting conversation).

The two events were both ways of challenging death, to stare it in the face (cliche, I know) or to absorb somehow the life of another by becoming a killer and not a “dier”.  So what’s the conclusion about death then?  If plots move deathward, but nobody dies and attempts to challenge death or gain life from death fail, then is it more about failure than death?  Because it isn’t just Orest and Gladney who are failures (their’s just concern death), but there are additional things in the story: Dylar did not work, the town did not evacuate due to a strange smell, despite the extensive practice drills, and the supermarket fails to provide the comfort after re-arranging its shelves.  Do all these failures tie in with the critique of consumerism and mass culture perhaps?  I don’t know yet.

The Political Antecedents

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

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

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

Week #2 – The reluctance of characters in White Noise to say what they really mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most difficult/surprising thing about the power haunt

The most difficult thing about the power haunt inquiry was trying to reign in all the ways that the single power haunt (in my case, the ATM) related to million other themes in the novel.  The novel is so dense that a single paragraph can allude to millions of different ideas.  It was also difficult to pin down exactly how the place was a “power haunt” or a “source.”  Even Gladney himself didn’t really understand why certain things and places had a mystical, spiritual element to them.  Trying to talk about all of these themes within a coherent argument with a logical structure was tough.  Themes branch out and connect in non-linear ways.

In writing this inquiry, I ended up thinking about themes in the novel I hadn’t expected to discuss or even find in the passage I was analyzing.  For example, I discussed a seemingly random line about the deranged man being escorted out of the bank within the paragraph in which Gladney discussed his ATM transaction.  That led me to compare the state-mandated insanity of the crazies in the insane asylum and the zany citizens of Blacksmith who are allowed to roam free.

While slow soaking my tomatoes…

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

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

Week #1 – The Commodification of Aesthetics: A High-Tech Capitalist Conspiracy or a Protest by the Other?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruminations

Several particular aspects of postmodernism and Western culture, primarily from our class discussions but also from the readings, have been ruminating in my mind since we last met.

I have found the discussion of the “real” vs. simulation–the question of authenticity–most troubling. What exactly are the implications of redefining our concept of what is “real”? Jameson, it would seem, believes that in a postmodern society, an original and real object distinguishable from its substitute or reproduction would essentially not exist. “This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at least compatible with addiction–with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for psuedoevents and ‘spectacles‘ (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed.” (pp.27-28) This brought to mind an essay I recently read by the decidedly UNpostmodern author C.S. Lewis, in which he quite insightfully discusses the question of distinguishing the real from from the substitute (or the simulation). Even at the time in which he was writing (the late forties and fifties, primarily), this question was one wrestled with by the society. Although his discussion addresses primarily the concept of religion as a reality or a substitute, he makes several points that came to mind as I contemplated the possibility of our society coming to a point when we can no longer determine any difference between the original and its imitation. Lewis first notes that our initial conclusions, when based upon whether something feels or seems reality or original is often deceptive and must be further scrutinized before we make a final analysis. But he also suggests that a copy or substitution for something real (“real,” as we are assuming this is in question) is ultimately always distinguishable as exactly that: “Authority, reason, and experience; on these three all our knowledge depends…I am not now saying that no one’s reason and no one’s experience produce different results. I am only trying to put the whole problem right way round, to make it clear that the value given to the testimony of any feeling must depend on our whole philosophy, no our whole philosophy on a feeling.” (p.41) Granted, Lewis was not addressing the exact same questions of authenticity which we now face, but it made me wonder if indeed we would come to similar results in our determining the real from the simulation if we employed those three tools to test the things in question. However, perhaps it isn’t even a matter of social anxiety at all. Perhaps the reason alarmists such as Jameson bring the issue of originality up in the first place is because they believe that in a postmodern society, those questions would be irrelevant or at least that no one would care or think it mattered much.

Pastiche, which, according to Jameson is directly linked to the loss of originality, could indeed have a lot to do with a loss of historicity which Jameson seems to fear. A YouTube video I saw recently (don’t worry, it’s short, and, I think, quite absurdly amusing, and you’ll need to watch it to understand the following discussion) is an excellent example of verbal pastiche. The creator of the film used clips from an actual interview with Salvador Dali to create a cartoon “interview” that, while ridiculous and funny, entirely lacks a real historical context, at least for me. I have never heard the interview itself, nor have I recently seen a picture of Dali. In watching this video, I found that I constructed a sort of vague structure of Dali as a person, in which he says utterly absurd things (which is, given what I DO know about him, perfectly plausible) and takes on a cartoonlike appearance in my head. And really, in watching and laughing at the video, I’m really not thinking all that much about the actual historically real person of Dali. He is a foil for entertainment. I was actually a little surprised at the ubiquitousness of pastiche in the world around me, and it does cause one to question how much we as a society may indeed have lost a sense of context and meaningful history. I am not saying I agree entirely with Jameson’s “doomsday” theorizing, but I think he raises some valid questions.