Corporations and Flat Characters

Some of you have commented on the parts of Shooting War that seemed flat (the characters) or gimmicky (the ending).  I agree with those comments, but I also think that the book gives us a very real sense of the fine line between our current way of life and a full blown dystopia.  As Don DeLillo points out in “The Guardian,” corporations have become a fatally important part of our society, deemphasizing the power of our own government.  Our current market is run according to the idea of exponential growth.  Corporations go uncontrolled, wreaking havoc on the environment and the economy. 

One of the first things we hear about in Shooting War is “eminent domain.”  In the dystopic America that Burns lives in, the government has the ability take private property and redistribute it to the corporations who can promise the most revenue.  Although we don’t see this idea fully fleshed out, it is easy to imagine the horrors that would accompany this law. 

In this scenerio, the government doesn’t work for the people anymore, but for the big corporations.  Lappe shows how the government is not only ineffective, but actually harmful.  All the government actions we see, such as the masacre of citizens, culminates to the final action in the book.  The last thing we hear about the government is that McCain will not run for another term, a sign that our government has failed.

Getting back to the idea that the characters were flat, what did people think of Abu?  Like most of the characters, I felt like he wasn’t very developed.  The psychological underpinnings of a terrorist just weren’t there.  I was hoping for more complexity from that character, but instead I got things like “of course I may die, but this isn’t about me.”  His dialougue often seemed cheesy and oversimplified. 

But to be fair, Burns and Crash are not very complex characters either, so perhaps its just a flaw of the medium. I have to admit, I’m not an avid comic reader, so I’m not sure how the medium may stifle some the psychological development of characters.  Unlike the terrorists in Shooting War, DeLillo gives an eery look at terrorism: “He builds a plot around his anger and our indifference. He lives a certain kind of apartness, hard and tight. This is not the self-watcher, the soft white dangling boy who shoots someone to keep from disappearing into himself. The terrorist shares a secret and a self. At a certain point he and his brothers may begin to feel less motivated by politics and personal hatred than by brotherhood itself. They share the codes and protocols of their mission here and something deeper, a vision of judgment and devastation.”

I think this passage does a better job getting at the psyche of the terrorist.  DeLillo shows the terrorists’ intense sense of separation from the rest of the world.  In one passage he discusses the lifestyle of the terrorist, their vision, their motiviation, and their sense of self, which is more than we see out of Abu.

The Frequency is Courage!

Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman’s Shooting War was humorous, entertaining, but also informative and politically charged.  The graphic novel seems to revolve around the issue of media manipulation.  At the center, Jimmy Burns finds himself blogging politically charged journalism,  field reporting, and dodging rocket-propelled grenades all at once.  Initially seen as a maverick of sorts capable of penetrating the political agendas, Jimmy Burns and his camera become tools of manipulation for various ‘parties’: terrorists and the sensationalist American media.  Shooting War seems to be commenting on the dangerous powers of instant media outlets.  The graphic novel brings to mind Don DeLillo’s Mao II and the manipulative power of images.  It is suggested that Brita’s photography might be turned into a political tool used by Bill Gray (or at least he initially intended to use his photograph) and Abu Rashid, but Brita demonstrates that the image can be used by any person or party (she ‘claims’ the child terrorist by removing of his hood and taking his picture).  In Shooting War, we see a similar trend: Jimmy Burns is used by both terrorists and media outlets like CNN.

Visually, Shooting War is equally intriguing, mixing drawings and real photography.  I think one of the most interesting illustrations done by Dan Goldman is the convoy ambush scene (sorry, no page numbers).  We enter the point-of-view of an American soldier through his tactical mask.  If you have ever played a ‘first-person shooter’ video game, the layout is very similar.  Later, we see another connection between video games and warfare with the mobile robot guns controlled by ‘gamers’ of the ’10th Infantry Division, Remote Battlefield Operations’.

Side Note:

I thought the inclusion of Dan Rather was hilarious, and apparently, “The frequency is courage” is a reference to a 1986 mugging of Rather by a man who said to him “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” which has become somewhat of an inside joke for pop culture.

On a completely unrelated note, I was watching an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” [#2.18, Up the Long Ladder] (…Yes, I’m a dork…), and I found quite a postmodern twist in the episode: Picard and his crew come across a planet with two near-extinct societies (Bringloidi and Mariposan).  The Bringloidi are a pre-modern, agricultural community, and the Mariposans are a technologically superior society who have stricken sexual reproduction from their way of life; they have survived only through generational cloning.  They are nearing extinction, however, due to ‘replicative fading’, which reminded me of the essay we read from Jean Baudrillard (‘Simulacra and Simulation’) earlier this semester.  The colony’s clonal replication has become reductive: each subsequent copy of a copy becoming less defined, more incomplete, and eventually fatal.  The solution was to merge the pre-modern Bringloidi with the Mariposans to ‘replenish’ the DNA pool.

Tropicana of Orange

Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange seems to me a smorgasbord of postmodernism qualities: shifting point of view, issues in globalization and consumerism, media saturation, a mixture of genres (magical realism, film noir, disaster fiction, etc.).  Indeed, as I read Tropic of Orange, a number of other texts came to mind.

It was one of those days when [Emi] just felt like a little adrenaline high for real-life horror.  Maybe because it was disaster week.  So far she had been to a fire, to the scene of a robbery, and had chased the NewsNow van chasing cops involved in a two-hour car chase that started in Burbank and ended up in Whittier.  But the thought of seeing mangled bodies in a car wreck suddenly churned about in her stomach.  She could always see it on TV.

Perhaps it is becuase we just read Mao II not too long ago, but this passage (and many others in the novel) feels like it could be in one of Don DeLillo’s novels.  The idea of this ultra-saturation in media; Emi has an obsession with disaster footage like Mao II‘s Karen.Yamashita’s dialogue also feels a bit DeLillo-ian with its peculiar wit and humor.

Tropic of Orange‘s structure reminded me of another American author often associated with postmodernism (also female, also a minority [Native American]).  Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is told through many different characters, whose stories and lives collide and contest with one another.  Like Yamashita, Erdrich also employs elements of folklore and magical realism.

Side note: In the spirit of disaster oranges, I heard about this recent product marketing debacle from a friend.  Earlier this year, Tropicana changed their ‘classic’ straw-in-orange  logo to a new image.  Tropicana enthusiasts, however, were not so pleased with the new look, and Tropicana saw a substantial drop in sales over only a matter of months.  One of the popular reasons for the mass- disapproval was that the carton looks ‘cheap,’ too much like the generic-food brands.  Consumers said that they might as well buy the generic orange juice if their Tropicana was going to look generic itself.  Subsequently, Tropicana has decided to bring back their classic carton design.  I chuckled when I heard the story.  Has the consumer gone from buying food because it tastes good to buying food because its container looks good?  Has the image of the orange juice surpassed the juice itself?  I think we can attribute some of this to a nostalgic demand.  I thought this was a tiny bit postmodern and appropriately orange.  I only hope McDonald’s doesn’t decide to freshen up their logo…we could be looking at World War III.

The Real Disaster Orange
The Real Disaster Orange

Writers and Dictators

Several years ago Don DeLillo archived all of his notes, drafts, manuscripts, correspondence and various other written material (up to 2003) at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, located at the University of Texas at Austin.

I’ll talk more about this archive in class, but I wanted to send you the link to a New York Times Book Review article that DeLillo had cut out and included in his research materials for Mao II: “Writers and Dictators” by Michael Levitas, then the editor of the book review. Presumably, then, the article had inspired some of DeLillo’s thinking about his novel. In particular, DeLillo had highlighted the closing paragraph:

A bleak prognosis, but perhaps no worse than that of a younger Argentine writer, Martin Caparros, who is 31: ”There’s a difference between the 60’s people and us,” he said. ”They thought the novel would change the world. We don’t know what will change the world, but it won’t be the novel.”

This pessimism — that the novel can no longer change the world — is something we’ll have to address in class.


I recently read Alan Sinfield’s “Cultural Materialism, Othello, and the Politics of Plausibility” for English 551 and I feel that it contains several ideas that relate to Don Delillo’s Mao II.  Sinfield’s article deals with how literature was able to attack the dominant ideology in Shakespeare’s time, the type of attack ability that Bill Gray sees missing from current literature in the novel.

Sinfield states that the elites are the ones in society that shape the dominant ideology.  They are able to create ideology by telling stories that are “plausible” or that appeal to what would seem to be common sense.  Sinfield also writes that dominant idologies inevitably contain “faultlines,” contradictions or instances of weakness that are susceptible to being exploited.  Sinfield believes that literature is a means for society to examine and confront these faultlines of the dominant ideology.  In Othello the dominant ideology that is being attacked is that a white noblewoman would be able to willingly fall in love with a black man.  It is not seen as plausible that Desdemona would choose to marry Othello, and the venetian nobles make up lame excuses to try and fit the marriage into their dominant ideology.  Desdemona’s father insists that Othello must have used some sort of magic to entrance his daughter.  Iago is able to use the dominant ideology to his benefit by telling lies that seem more “plausible” than the truth.  Cassio believes Iago that Desdemona would be more interested in him than Othello because that is more in accordance with society’s beliefs.  Othello begins to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful because it is hard for him to situate their marriage in the “common sense” beliefs of the time.

This theory would be in accordance with Bill Gray’s belief that writers were at one time able to shape the consciousness of the masses.  However, in the world of Mao II, and maybe our world too, writers are no longer able to effectively challenge and exploit the faultlines in the dominant ideology in society.  Terrorism has become the medium in which we question the common sense notions of our society.  Sinfield points to one possible reason why Bill Gray, and Delillo for that matter, may not see literature as an effective way to shape  consciousness or challenge the power structure of society.  The rise of theory in the twentieth century has led to the questioning of many differnt previously held assumptions, including previously held assumptions about theory itself.  If we accept the idea that consciousness is constructed within a language created by existing power structures, then is it even possible to conceive, let alone organize resistance to that power structure using the language it created?  Words and language are owned by those who dominate and any attempt to subvert from within the existing power structure is bound to be futile.  Resistance had to move outside of language, mainly towards acts, and more important the representation and reproductions of those acts in the media.

One possiblity is the Delillo is not actually saying that it is hopeless for a novel to shape consciousness.  He may just be using the novel to expose a faultline in our dominant ideology, namely that the novel is no longer able to effect change consciousness.  Irony is pervasive in postmodernism, and it would certainly be ironic to write a novel about the ineffectual nature of literature to point out how effective literature can still be.  It is also entirely “plausible” that I have gone off the deep end and am seeing things that are not there.

Terror, Global Connectedness, and Brainwashing in Mao II

Although I am much less familiar with DeLillo than a number of students in our class, I am quickly becoming a fan.  I read Mao II in less than a day (which is unusual for me these days), and I found myself really intrigued by the notion that art and terror may be intimately connected. 

The first thing which struck me as horrifying and yet somehow remarkable was DeLillo’s connection between the World Trade Center towers and terrorism.  How was he to know that the United States would come to understand terror because of the World Trade Center exactly ten years after this novel was published? 

In Chapter 3 when Brita is photographing Bill, they are discussing how she feels about New York City and she complains about it “all being flattened and hauled away so that they can build their towers” (39), which leads to their specific discussion of the World Trade Center towers.  She explains that her “big complaint is only partly size” when it comes to those two towers, and that “the size is deadly.  But having two of them is like a comment, it’s like a dialogue, only I don’t know what they’re saying” (40).  On the next page, Bill explains one of the major themes of the novel, the connection and transition from art to terror, saying, “There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists… Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture.  Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.  They make raids on human consciousness.  What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” (41). 

Somehow, these few pages seem so ominous and yet entirely innocent.  All we knew of terrorism before 2001 was international terrorism really, not terror on our own soil, well except for  incidents like the the Oklahoma City bombing and the unabomber.  But for the most part, we were ignorant of terror incidents.  DeLillo takes us into various worlds where people are brainwashed into submission and/or acts of terror, but to do so, he uses international figures  and groups like Mao Zedong, Ayatolla Rhuholla Khomeini, el Sendero Iluminoso (the Shining Path), the Unification Church and Sun Myung Moon (and his “Moonies”), among others.  And yet, only ten years later, he would have been able to cite a relevant situation here on our own American soil to add to Bill Gray’s notion that terrorists are taking over the part of artists in shaping culture.

I began also to consider how this book adds to my understanding of Postmodernism.  Again, we see the complex and multi-layered use of art in Mao II: Brita uses photography to record writers’ faces, and then towards the end, to document what is going on in the outside world: “barely watched wars, children running in the dust” (227), while Gray writes novel, well actually not anymore, but has written novels, and of course, we are reading DeLillo’s novel.  The metafictive and self-reflexive nature of the novel suggest, once again, that Postmodernists love to self-reflect, and they love to reflect on art and what it all “means.”

As for reshaping my understanding of Postmodernism, so far I have decided that DeLillo’s book suggests that international awareness as well as a brainwashing motif run through this contemporary literary period.  I suppose it is obvious that international connectedness is pertinent to our contemporary literature simply because technology has made our world infinitely “smaller,” or at least better connected.  Karen constantly watches the world on television; she sees Khomeini’s funeral chaos and crowds of Mao’s China (always crowds).  Bill travels to New York City (from his hideaway home), then to London, then Cyprus, and then tries to get to Beirut, all to save a Swiss writer who has been abducted.  The international connectedness appears throughout the story; even when Karen meets people in the park from all over the world, she seems to be stationary and confined to the United States, but she is really very much tied to the foreign experience through both her conversations at the park and the world news she watches on television.

I also see brainwashing as an element closely connected to postmodernism; Karen is portrayed as a brainwashed Moonist who can never quite shed her Unification beliefs.  When Brita travels to Beirut at the end of the novel, she meets Abu Rashid and his brainwashed youth followers.  She thinks to herself, “Eloquent macho bullshit” (254), a favorite line of mine from the book, after Rashid explains, “Mao believed in the process of thought reform.  It is possible to make history by changing the basic nature of a people” (233).  That lines seems a rather fitting way to end this post: Mao’s “thought reform” or “brainwashing” has moved from using art to using terror, if we are to follow DeLillo’s suggestions in this book.  Terror has, unfortunately, become beautiful, meaningful, and vital to some cultures (albeit mostly radical and marginalized groups, many DeLillo seems to anticipate here), and the art that once had the power to shape culture may, indeed, have been replaced by violence.

On Dehumanization and the Humanization of Silence

Sorry this post is coming a little late. I was without power–but thankfully still had gas for heat–last night!

I noticed many people spoke about the dehumanizing aspects in the stories like Super Goat Man and Don DeLillo’s “The Uniforms.” However, I see an oppossite effect occuring in Foer’s story, “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease.”  While I would not make the claim that this is a depiction of the most functional family, I will make the claim that the way Foer presents silence actually humanizes the characters and by using symbols, adds dimensions to silence–or a lack of speech–that are rarely represented.

A basic function of many stories and human interaction, in general, is communication. Represented in stories through dialogue, it is how the characters interact. However, in “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” the characters interact almost entirely through silence. Foer’s use of specific symbols to represent specific types of silence convey more emotion and meaning than words themselves could. This story deals with relatively heavy topics. As Foer states in the opening paragraph, “we have forty-one heart attacks between us, and counting” (135). The dialogue that follows is then represented by four open squares, or absences of language between the narrator and his father. In a typical story, this would be a hard conversation to write. However, in Foer’s story, we see that first the father says nothing, then the narrator, to which the father replies with more nothing, and the narrator once again follows suit. This is not just a period of silence, this is an open exchange of nothing said.

Additional marks like the closed square and the ‘??’ add new elements of silence to the conversation the narrator has with his mother, who is intent on loving some grandchildren–not yet birthed–before she dies. In this exchange we see the open squares (nothing said) and also the narrator’s willed silence–he has nothing more to add. When the mother answers with “??” her silence insists on an explanation that will not be offered.

Not every mark deals with silence. The ‘¡’ mark is a whisper and the ‘::’ marks point to a deeper meaning in the relationship between words. In this case, “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” deals as much with the “unsaid” as the silent. In describing the ‘←’ mark, the narrator says, “familial communication always has to do with failures to communicate.” This line cuts to the heart of this story (pardon the pun). Silence and the unsaid take on whole new meanings in this story because of the variety of representation. And this is what this story is really all about. While I see the dehumanizing effects that come from a family that barely say any “real” words to each other, I see the humanizing aspect in their varied silences. The real issue in this story is not silence, but a family who has 41 heart-attacks between then, and a son who has not yet found a companion. The silences that take place between father and sons revolve around the fear of death and failing hearts. The dialogue exchanges between mother and son incorporate the fear of death but add the element of loneliness to it. What’s worse than dying of a bad heart? Dying of a bad heart before finding love, marriage, and providing grandchildren for your desperate mother. This can be seen in the final pages of the story when the only things spoken are:  “Are you hearing static,” “Jonathan?,” “Jonathan~,” “I::not myself~,” and the whispered, “I’m probably just tired.” For so few words spoken, this passage conveys an intense amount of emotion. The concerns about health and loneliness are poured onto the page, creating an almost overwhelming sense of emotion, yet very little is said. It is in this way that the many faces of silence–as interpreted by the narrator–are used to humanize a family that appears to have serious communication issues. A story where they simply say nothing would be void of emotion and create a dehumanizing effect. A story where they say nothing, but in a myriad of different ways and in many different contexts is one that humanizes their fears and also their unspoken love for one another.

-Jared Clark

Work Cited:

Foer, Jonathan Safran. “A Primer on the Punctuation of Heart Disease.” Eggers, Dave, ed. The Best American Nonrequired Reading. New York:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003: 135-142.

Response to First Week’s Reading

One of the things that I noticed in many of the works we read for this week was the tension between the past and the present.  In “POSTmodernISM: A Paracritcal Bibliography,” the author attempts to go about defining postmodernism and its predecessor modernism with mixed success.  In Foer’s short story there is both admiration and conflict between the different generations represented within the author’s family.  “Super Goat Man” depicts the distance between the nostalgic older generations and the less interested and invested younger folks.

This tension reiterates the trend of fragmentation in postmodern work.  Together, the inability to fully understand and reconcile the past to the present and the fragmentation of structure in these postmodern stories contributes to a feeling of uneasiness that others have mentioned in previous blog postings.  The disconnection between past and present in terms of memories and values makes for a seemingly foundation-less, free-floating contemporary point of view; the younger generations do not immediately identify themselves with their parents’ generation, thus leading to a fluid, undefined sense of self.  The uncertainty, ambiguity, and rejection of the past mirrors the unconventional structure of many postmodern narratives.  The story “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” serves as an example of internal conflict and structure.  Structurally, the story unfolds in un-chronological order, which then establishes the character of Arthur/Art/Soap/Wolverine as a somewhat disembodied individual.  I also think that a large part of the mystery, the reason why we as readers keep reading is not just because we want to know what Soap is going to do at the party, but that we want to know who he is, his identity.  

Despite the negative connotation I associate with fragmentation, I think many postmodernists (?) view this division as an advantage.  John Cage writes that “Now there’re more and more of us , we find one another more’ n’ more interesting.  We’re amazed, when there’re so many of us, that each one of us is unique, different from all the others.”  While few of the works we read this week label the postmodern identity as an improvement or a tragedy (Foer’s story seems most at odds with the ideas of heritage and the permanence versus fleeting nature of family values and traits), I think it is interesting that this conflict can be viewed as both good and bad.

In reading Dr. Sample’s post about the atrocities in “Uniforms” I’m not sure what he means by diminishing and multiplying effects.  The randomness, repetition, and an underdeveloped context for the violence (at least to me) made the acts of atrocity seem pretty meaningless and petty.  I’m interested to know what others’ thoughts are on violence in postmodernism.  Clearly, DeLillo’s “Uniforms” depicts extreme violence in a very matter-of-fact, detached manner, which, as many have said in previous posts, is extremely disturbing.  I wonder where one would place a work like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in terms of postmodernism.  McCarthy’s work is similar to the  piece that we read for class in that they both possess an indifference toward acts of atrocity, but McCarthy goes into much more detail.  How does this difference change things?

Response to first week’s reading

Foer’s narrative is probably the only one of the short stories that seemed relatively clear from the beginning.  It draws attention to the importance of listening to what is unspoken and untold and cleverly frames the story through the narrator’s instructions on the uses of the “silence marks”:: with each explanation, we are given a piece of information about him that ultimately narrates his story.  I’ve come across some writings in psychoanalytic criticism, such as Cathy Caruth’s “Unclaimed Experience,” that emphasizes the significance of reading into the silences that is particularly to be exercised with narratives that deal with trauma.  I wouldn’t know how to approach this story in terms of psychoanalysis, at least not for now, but I get the sense that we are left with an opportunity of exploring the narrator’s silences more deeply and examining not only what he doesn’t say in his conversations but what he doesn’t tell his audience. 

Don DeLillo’s  “The Uniform” reminds me a lot of Joseph Heller’s novels in terms of its use of elements of absurdity and irony.  It appears to me that this story follows the style of black comedy and I see the “cartoonishness” that Dr. Sample points to in the portrayals of the killing and raping that paradoxically makes the scenes all the more disturbing.  This narrative style serves the purpose of depicting a grotesque image without the descriptiveness expected and with simplicity and flatness that makes it more comical in a way.  But to understand the purpose of this use, I’m reminded of something Heller had said about Catch-22, that he had wanted his readers to laugh and then look back in horror at what the they were laughing at.  There’s also the recurrent attempt to articulate a traumatic experience (Harlow and her history of sexual abuse) and not being taken seriously and not being capable of comprehending it that we also see in Catch-22.  Is the excessive use of absurdity and hilarity a retreat from the futile attempts of expressing the horrific and the grotesque?  Does that suggest the inadequacy of language in these cases?

Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plan” I liked the most, despite its difficulty and ambiguity.  By taking the setting and the several references to horror films into consideration, the story seems like a mimicry of horror films of the 80’s and early 90’s that typically start with a group of unsuspecting teenagers gathering at a party where there’s music and beer, midway through the villain crashes and the slaughter begins.  But in this story the zombies never show up.  I’d hate to take this story back to psychoanalysis, too, but does that mean that the whole idea of zombies is just in the protagonist’s head? And why does he continuously slip into different identities as the narrator uses different names for him?

As to Hassan’s “POSTmodernISM” I was initially put off by its difficulty as I had trouble understanding what he was talking about, but reading more into it, I kind of get him.  I think his article is interesting and useful.  I especially appreciate the attempt he makes to compare Modernism and Postmodernism and show how they are different. It’s quite an interesting and ambitious attempt, and I mean ambitious in a good way, considering the time his article was published. 

DeLillo’s “The Uniforms:” Violence Mediated Through Film

War, terrorism, rape, murder…gauche boots? baseball? Lucky Strike? Luis Bunuel?  Where and how do we connect the associative lines?  In a world where terrorists carry Molotov cocktails “in a Coca-Cola sixpack,” these associations are jarring, yet feel somewhat natural (DeLillo 5).  Don DeLillo’s “The Uniforms” is a crossroads of many things: sex, violence, and consumerism (perhaps accurately identified as the DeLillo-ian trinity), and this trinity is mediated through DeLillo and delivered to the reader; however, he is not the sole “owner” of the texts.  As expressed from the lips of DeLillo himself, the short story “is an attempt to hammer and nail my own frame around somebody else’s movie ( Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend.”

In a sense, the story reads like a script for some terribly perverse action film (hence, Godard).  DeLillo’s descriptions are limited to whom and how a band of terrorists rape, pillage, burn, and mutilate its victims, and like any good screenwriter, DeLillo provides detailed sketches of costumes and props; “Bradley wore Hassan’s red beret; a blue bandanna around his neck; buckskin pants and moccasins and a bright green football jersey with the silver numeral on the front and back.  He put some lampblack under his eyes […]” (11).  Amusingly, Bradley (or “Wheaties”) emulates the American jock turned brutally hard soldier, often associating what he sees in battle with sports (He thinks of Jean-Claude’s Molotov toss as “girlish” and un-baseball.  He fashions his own grenade tossing as a Kareem-esque skyhook).  This merger between sport and war is a theme that DeLillo experiments with a lot (most notably in End Zone).

Interestingly, many of the sporadic, anecdotal interjections made by the characters/actors reference directors and films:

“[Harlow] told them this was a trick she had learned in Algiers during the time of the filming of Pontecorvo’s great fictional documentary” (5).

“Jean-Claude asked the crew whether it was true or false that Resnais had faked the filmclips of the bomb victims in his movie about Hiroshima” (8).

“Jean-Claude had learned the lighter fluide trick from his father, who had been in the hills with Bunuel when the latter had declared that the days of the slow dissolve were numbered” (9).

And so on…

Jean-Claude, thinking like the filmmaker that he is, provides a mini-lecture on the importance of effective uniforms in war films/newsreels; “The revolutionary uniform must be tight and spare.  Touches of color, individuality and personal fantasy are to be encouraged. […]  We will shoot in color because color is the color of childhood fantasy” (7).  Summarizing Jean-Claude’s remarks, the violence they commit becomes and image mediated through film and delievered to the masses.  Thus, the lethal consequences of war/terrorism come to mean less than the emotions and reactions evoked from the audience viewing this product (Examples?  DeLillo points to the Zapruder film in later works.  Our generation? 9/11?).  As Jean-Claude might suggest, in today’s world, history is often learned through (and altered by) media.  (I’m reminded of the persuasive power of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” or Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin.”)  I think DeLillo is trying to illustrate this point for us.  As we are reading through the story, Jean-Claude is filming all the horrific acts, ensuring that the violence reaches its potential as a visual media.  Sadly, violence has been reduced to its prospect as images on a screen, losing its entrie connotation as lethal.  In “The Uniforms,” life has become mediated through film, and the result is propagandisitic art for the anxious consumer.

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.

Hassan’s “rhetoric of dismissal”

Reflecting on Ihab Hassan’s “POSTmodernISM,” I am struck by one (seemly) vital difference between modernist and postmodern literature. In modernist literature, language (in the sense of word choice and syntax), integral to the core of the work, directs the form (e.g. Joyce’s Ulysses). However, postmodern works employ different architectural processes for “attaining such an aesthetic” (Hassan 16). Is this, as “some profound philosophic minds of our century” (15) suggest, “the disease of verbal systems” (15), a reflective condition of deterioration achieved by creating texts in a new way and using old rules to analyze them? Clearly, Hassan’s “rhetoric of dismissal” (9) is easy to achieve, but what does it mean?

A. The Fad. In the case of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” the success of the story is contingent on punctuation and symbols. Printed in standard typography, the story would, in effect, disabled. Instead, the punctuation and symbols take on the function of language. Is it likely that we are to see more stories of this kind, that it will be a new movement in literature? Or will this too “quietly go away” (9)?

B. The Old Story. Don DeLillo’s “The Uniforms” uses another effect to stand in for language: shock value (a combination of “dehumanization” (19) and “antinomianism” (21)). DeLillo employs (to borrow from Professor Sample) “cartoonish violence” as both a structural support and to facilitate movement in the text. Censored even in the most basic way, there would be little to nothing left of the plot, characterization, etc. in the same fashion as a Quentin Tarantino film “edited for tv.”

C. The Safe Version. Jonathan Lethem’s “Super Goat Man,” like the two previous pieces, adopts another type of structural support: the insertion of the strange and unusual, treated as ordinary. This technique is not new, but the emphasis put upon it to carry the story is. Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” offers as an excellent modernist (though this label could be debated) point of reference. Though Kafka employs a similar device, he adjusts the syntax of his sentences, often reversing the places of the direct object and the verb to further defamiliarize the reader. Lethem seems to make no effort to tinker with the language, instead relies wholly on the “oddity” of a superhero to do most of the work for the story.

D. The Newspeak of Art. Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” marries the “strange and unusual” with an eccentric main character. She returns to old method of storytelling. She relies on language, demonstrating the contingencies of identity by adjusting the main character’s name. At times, the story seems both “conventional” (9) and “innovative” (10). Whether this serves as refreshment or irritation is contingent on the reader.

Though it may seem unfair to apply the rules of the old system (aka “rhetoric of dismissal”) to new works, this phenomena is neither new nor game-changing. For as literature changes, there will always be older (and yes, at times, antiquated or cultured) points of comparison (as was it for the Victorian writers, the realist and naturalist, and the modernist to name a recent few). And as time goes on, new works continue to be baptized and welcomed into the canon. This “cruel” vetting process seems, as Hassan observes, to be more endemic to the change itself than the quality or the “lasting power” of a particular literary movement, technique, or device.

I was struck by the part in Hassan’s piece “POSTmodernISM” about “Periods.”  I am trying to wrap my head around periods as well.  This short post sorted out some of my confusion with Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism, but considering that those three movements came over the span of only 60 years, it stands to reason that individuals were alive and writing over multiple literary periods, and perhaps in multiple literary styles.  Hassan asks, “Does modernism stretch merely to stretch out our lives?” (7)  I would be interested in knowing the reactions of authors historically to shifts in literary trends.  Do they welcome the change, or try to “stretch out” the old period?  Hassan says that the avant-garde should “serve as the agent of change, which is recognizable when still newer change is in progress” (10).  Can we really not recognize change as its happening enough to name it?  Will post-modernism acquire a new name after something else takes its place?  It’s strange that although Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism all reacted to each other and were more or less chronologically progressing, we don’t call Naturalism “Post-Realism,” etc.  (What did they call Naturalism while it was happening?) So why is postmodernism called postmodernism?  The name is almost a negative space – a sign: “Reserved for the name of the period after Modernism.” Does postmodernism have no defining characteristic of its own other than that it defies categorization?  And seeing as many authors neither knew nor cared what literary period or style they were writing in, how useful are these literary categorizations – and to whom are they useful?

In a related development chronicled in the article “Modern Book Publishing and Book Culture – TIME, the publishing industry seems to be shifting into a more postmodern form. So not only literary movements are shifting, but literary media are shifting as well.  As we discussed in class, postmodernism is a product of new technology. I liked the lip service to fandom, but it was a little vexing that the author implied that fandom’s postmodern activities only started recently with the Internet.  The article’s vision of the future of publishing – amateur writers blazing new trails while professional writers lay back and watch – reminded me of Hassan’s view of critics “Taking few risks, the best known among them wait[ing] for men of lesser reputation to clear the way” (9).

The DeLillo piece I found extremely offputting at first, but as the narrative became faster and more ridiculous it caused a sort of Brechtian-alienation shift within me to not only become aware of the component parts of narratives but also to become aware of the component parts of our visual experience of society. By starting in a more conventional, slow-moving narrative style and then moving toward the more extreme style, it also exposed my own assumptions that stories are supposed to “make sense,” characters are supposed to be developed, and actions are supposed to be motivated.  At the end, I found myself wondering if the soldiers that they killed would be soldiers if they had been out of uniform, and if the women that they raped would be women if they weren’t wearing skirts and dresses.

Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” was one that I loved at first – I found Soap’s internal narrative hilarious.  That’s why I was so taken off guard by the kidnapping at the end.  I felt like I had missed some sign earlier – a clue that this was going to happen.  A big clue, of course, is the painting.  It is at the center of what caused Soap’s life to change so dramatically by going to prison, and Soap shows a strange attachment to it that even he does not understand. Its shifting identity parallels Soap’s and Carly’s own shifting identities.  It changes depending on how the viewer looks at it.  So too do Carly and Soap’s identities shift depending on how another person perceives them.  Soap’s name was given to him by others, and the reader only realizes Carly’s “friend of the family” identity is false when Soap points it out.  Given the extent to which the reader sees the inside of Soap’s head, it’s amazing that I just didn’t see the kidnapping coming.  This lack of real internal access, coupled with the emphasis on outer identity implies that there IS no real internal identity, that we are all shifting constantly like the painting, made up of “stuff that isn’t the same every time you look at it.”

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.

On Foer, DeLillo, and Link

I thought I’d post in regard to some of the short stories while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s short story, “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” intertwines visual media with text in an attempt to simplify conversations he has had with his family. The symbols ultimately stand in for dialogue and therefore complicate rather than simplify these conversations, at least for the reader who, if he/she has as short-term of a memory as I do, must flip between pages in order to decode the symbols. Thematically, this story works in that it reveals the complex dynamics of communication (and the futility, I suppose, in attempting to simplify it). And, of course, post-modernly, the story makes good use of mixed media and substitution.

I read somewhere that Don DeLillo’s “The Uniforms” was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Weekend, which I had seen once a couple of years ago (yay for Netflix). I don’t remember the film well enough to have made this connection on my own. If anything, the absurd fast-paced plot made me think of Voltaire’s Candide. In researching “The Uniforms,” I came across a passage in Marc Osteen’s American Magic and Dread that I thought the class might find interesting:

“The story dramatizes DeLillo’s recognition that, as Steven Connor argues, in postmodern culture ‘images, styles, and representations are not the promotional accessories to economic products; they are the products themselves’…DeLillo’s prescient vision of terrorist manipulation of the media anticipates the themes of Mao II as well as the media savvy of real-life terrorists. But the relationship between the media and violence works both ways: the bombardment of consciousness by images is itself a form of violence.”

Like Don DeLillo’s “The Uniforms,” Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plan” makes use of lists in the text. It took me about ten pages into Link’s story for me to realize that I’ve read her before. Another of her short stories, “Stone Animals,” appeared in Best American Short Stories 2005. The thing is, it wasn’t the author’s name that made me recall this other work; it was something in the style of the writing. I disliked “Some Zombie Contingency Plan” for the same reasons I disliked “Stone Animals.” I’m having a hard time trying to express exactly what those reasons are; maybe they’re based in my aversion to fantasy, or, on a related note, maybe it’s the nonfiction writer in me talking. Or maybe those reasons are the same inexplicable reasons I have for being unable to sit through many of David Lynch’s films (most notably, Inland Empire). I think it’s just that, while I enjoy the absurd, the bizarre, I need it to make sense in the end (or at least some weeks thereafter, when I’ve thought about it enough). I had originally been excited to read “Some Zombie Contingency Plan,” solely because of the title, having been a fan of zombie films for a long time (I even own The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks), but the use of zombies (as metaphor?) in this story threw me off. I’m interested in what the rest of the class thinks. Oh, and check out this blogger’s post about Link’s use of zombies as metaphors: