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

Family Life in Postmodern Literature

I think it’s interesting how the chapters in Tropic of Orange correspond with the characters. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s clearly another expression of fragmentation, but it’s odd that she outlines it for us in the beginning. It almost seems like a key, in the way that some of the information in House of Leaves seemed like a key. Yamashita is, in a way, telling us how to read the book. She organizes the information, it seems, to help us make sense of the novel. Doesn’t this sentiment seem slightly anti-postmodern? However, I’ve never seen it done in another text, so it is an innovative technique. I wonder if anyone read the chapters out of order. I’d like to go back and reread this in a year, but instead of reading straight through, I’d read the chapters the way they appear in the outline. I wonder how that would change the meaning of the text.

I liked this book, in particular, because it gave me some ways to continue thinking about my research topic. Most of the books we’ve read don’t deal closely with family life. In fact, their seems to be a lack of families, or a tearing apart of families, in most of the books we’ve read. Pynchon doesn’t depict a family and gives very little weight to the one marriage in the text. In House of Leaves, the Navidson family is figuratively (and literally in the case of Tom) torn apart.  There is one marriage in the Lathe of Heaven, but it is also made to be a background issue. 

We do see marriage and family life in The Female Man, but it is completely different from the traditional idea of the nuclear family. In Belovedthere are families, but they are often separated by death and slavery. In this text, family members never seem to work as a cohesive unit, but instead stay isolated from one another. In Mao II, Bill, Scott, and Karen make up a sort of untraditional family unit.  However, this family is also torn apart by the end of the novel. In The Tropic of Orange, Rafaela, Sol, and Bobby are at the center of the story. Although family members, such as Rafaela and Sol, seem to operate in normal ways, their are various abnormalities surrounding them. In this case, the family life is altered, not internally, but externally as the geography around them twists and turns from its natural state.

 Sometimes the aspects that interest me most in a book are not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. There is an obvious absence of family life in the books we’ve read.  This lead me to wonder – where do families (especially nuclear families), marriage, and love fit into postmodernism?

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.

“The darker the news, the grander the narrative.”

I think Mao II is a perfect example of postmodernist writing thematically albeit not so much in its form. While I do not think that Delillo uses a writing style or structure that is viewed as “traditionally postmodern” (sounds like an oxymoron because postmodern writing is supposed to be innovative and defy any restrictive rules of form and function), I do think that the subject matter of this novel is distinctly postmodern in that it presents the stories of characters who live in a postindustrial and postmodern world and are seduced by the metanarrative of consumerism, where media images are constantly idolized and accepted as representations of objective truth.

The novel’s recurrent allusions to news and advertisements on TV and the pervasive influence of the images they produce is really interesting especially as it relates to crowds and groupthink (in the end leading to a cult mentality). I also found the idea of writer as commodity both fascinating and frightening. Bill repeatedly shares his opinion of the “cult” of writers, and he admits to Brita that he is has “become someone’s material” (43). This view is substantiated by the fact that Bill’s identity is represented as a objectified commodity—in terms of what writings he has produced: “There were reviews of Bill’s novels, interviews with former colleagues and acquaintances […] stacks of magazines and journals containing articles about Bill’s work and about his disappearance, his concealment, his retirement, his alleged change of identity, his rumored suicide, his return to work, his work-in-progress, his death, his rumored return […] booklength studies of Bill’s work and work about his work” (31). With all this trouble that writers go through to publicize their works and yet remain reticent about their private lives, you would think that their influence extends far and wide and that they are respected and admired; however, Delillo argues the exact opposite.

In one of the most interesting discussions that takes place in the novel between Bill and Brita, Bill points to the destructive effect of the commoditization of the writer—writers no longer have the power to “alter the inner life of the culture” (41). Now, people can only be influenced by brutal acts of terror that “make raids on human consciousness [because] News of disaster is the only narrative people need” (41). Another really important idea in the novel) is when Brita discusses terror as “the only meaningful act” in a society where meanings and messages are superfluous and overwhelming in depth and extensiveness: “There’s too much everything, more things than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the one who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed” (157). In this seminal paragraph, Delillo points out to the reader a number of interesting questions that relate to this idea of terror as the only “real” thing in the context of media produced for the masses. As I was thinking about this statement and about the different characters’ journeys within the novel as a whole, it occurred to me that maybe Delillo is making a deeper statement about the existential nature of society as a whole—a person has to choose either to submit entirely to a higher power, or to a painful and reclusive life alone void of any moral direction. Bill Gray, represented as the antihero in the novel, clearly suffers from this lack of guidance as well as Karen who never successfully breaks free from cult; they both represent the resulting loss of a society that has abandoned this idea of objective truth. Hence, by focusing specifically on the metanarrative of consumerism, Delillo is emphasizing its futility and meaninglessness especially when placed within the grander and darker narrative of life and death.