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Tiring of Fatigue

February 28, 2012

Last Friday, after weeks of delay, the web comic was released to the wilds.  It was not ready.  It struggled to walk, for it possessed an abrupt termination where one would expect hind legs and a tail.  Sometimes you write and learn what works, sometimes you just learn about all the shit that can go wrong.  All you can do then is take your two-legged poodle of a story to the doggy park and throw it into the pond, hoping no one will notice.  Sometimes the poodle doesn’t sink,  it just bobs along the top of the water where everyone can see.  You may not look back, but the whole walk home you can hear it begging.  Kill me, mercy, kill me.

Stare at the maimed poodle if you must, I won’t be waiting up.

Last week I posted a quote from an essay David Foster Wallace wrote in the early 90’s.  I had intended that as an introduction to a larger, comprehensive piece.  This piece would be framed around one question: What exactly is Wallace’s “literary rebel” rebelling against?  I tried to answer this question succinctly, then Mickey Mouse and Chevy Chase showed up, the Twilight saga entered the discussion, and shit got “real”.

Getting to the Point…

In the article “E Unibus Pluram”, Wallace concludes with the following thought,

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as a bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.  Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.  Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.  These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started.  Dead on the page.  Too Sincere.  Clearly repressed.  Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic.  Maybe that’ll be the point.  Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.  Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. (A Supposedly Fun Thing… pg. 81)

So what is it this rebel is rebelling against?  Here’s another quote from earlier in the same article. The bracketed numbers are my addition, so we can break this thing down into little pieces for easy digestion.

[1] If postmodern church authors found pop images valid referents and symbols in fiction, and [2] if in the 70’s an early 80’s this appeal to the features of mass culture shifted from use to mention… [3] the new fiction of image uses transient received myths of popular culture as a world to imagine fictions about “real”, albeit pop-mediated, characters. (A Supposedly Fun Thing… pg.50)

This quote is a little more difficult to unpack.  Wallace had a background in philosophy and the lingo comes out strong here.  Quick and dirty terminology: The referent is the thing referred to by a name, the symbol is the name doing the referring.  A use/mention distinction is the distinction between the word and the referent.  For example:

  • In the sentence Portland has 8 bridges, the word Portland is being used to indicate the city.
  • In the sentence “Portland” has 8 letters, the word “Portland” is being mentioned, indicating the word, not the city.

When a word is being mentioned, quotes are placed around the words in question.  Portland is a city, “Portland” is a word.

This brings us to another feature of this quote – Italics. The words “referent” and “symbol”; are placed in italics because they are being used in a specific sense.  This is a common feature of philosophical texts.  When a word is used in a way distinct from it’s casual day to day use, it is often placed in italics to remind the reader of this.  Typical style guides would have these words placed in quotes, but that would cause confusion with use/mention distinctions, so italics are used instead.

All this considered, there is something very unusual going on in this sentence.  Wallace is proposing that, in a quite literal way, pop-iconography is functioning as a kind of language.

[1] In the beginnings of the “postmodern church” pop images became valid referents and symbols.  They could refer to things, and be referred to.  This doesn’t sound like a dramatic claim, and it isn’t. Essentially it means that we (as a culture) gained the ability to use “Mickey Mouse” the same way we can use “chair”.  The claim here is common sense: by developing technology to send a piece of media anywhere, everyone could know what it was and talk about it meaningfully.  The same way that everyone knew what a tree was, they now knew who Mickey Mouse was, because both were everywhere.

When [2] the use of “features of mass culture shifted from use to mention” ironic use of these symbols began.  In step [1], Americans all learned who Mickey Mouse was.  Soon after, there was another shift.  People became aware not only of Mickey Mouse the character, but Mickey Mouse the corporate mascot.  In essence, Mickey was locked up in those quotation marks from the use/mention distinction.  Mickey has a steamboat, but “Mickey” is a national company worth billions who has made racist cartoons, and only releases their vault cartoons every seven years because it’s more profitable than letting parents buy them for their children whenever they like.  Mickey is adorable, “Mickey” is a bit of an asshole.

The last step [3] repositions the characters into a world that is “real”.  If Mickey had adventures in a fictional realm that mimicked the real world, “Mickey” has adventures in a mimicry of the real world, the “real” world.  We liked Mickey, he was a decent fellow.  But we don’t trust “Mickey”. He’s not one of us.

So where does this leave the storyteller?  The goal was once for characters to be based on the real word (i.e. mimetic), but the viewers no longer trust them to do this, they know who “Mickey” works for.  Now the stories point to the act of pointing at the real world.  A self-conscious wink-and-a-nod put the fiction and the viewer back in the same place.  You don’t trust me? No Problem! Neither do I, I’ll make fun of me for you.

Humor and flattery of the viewer are easy ways to win an audience.

In television this comes out through cheesy one liners.  Watch early Saturday Night Live and you can see it; the goofy jokes that would get a groan, but when Chevy Chase mugs just a little too long, you know he’s in on it, and you can have a good laugh together.  In the literary world you have authors like John Barth exploring the meta-fictional narrative.  He too believes the story has lost its ability to mimic the real world, forcing it to mimic the “real” world portrayed in its former self.

To clarify, neither Wallace nor myself take issue with this.  Irony is a fun, effective narrative tool.  But to use Wallace’s metaphor, it’s narrative booze.  You shouldn’t build an entire diet out of it, otherwise you’re the literary equivalent of that guy at the bar who keeps ordering Pabst even though every other beer on tap is better.  It’s not that he likes PBR, it’s just, you know, funny.

The Point.

To paraphrase whats come so far:  Ironic fiction flatters and amuses the viewer by acknowledging their knowledge of [1] the referential nature of pop-icons and than [2] turning those icons into self-conscious irony at the cost of the ability to point to anything real.  Instead [3] the fiction can only point to the way it used to point at the real, before patting the viewer on the back and telling them “You got the joke. Good Job.”

Like most people who have taken literary coursework in the last decade, I’ve taken classes where this essay was read and discussed.  Generally, everyone agrees with what Wallace says.  They’ll get up in arms about how there should be more non-ironic literature, and how there should be more honest literature in the world.  They’ll talk about how fiction should be too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. They’ll mean every word.

The discussion will carry on, and at some point someone will bring up something that’s currently popular.  Let’s go with Twilight, because if you want to see some venom talk about Twilight in a graduate fiction class.  Twilight, you’ll learn, is awful.  It’s just so sincere. Clearly repressed. Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic.

I think Twilight was pretty awful (as book or film), but my complaints are largely technical.  The writing was just plain bad, but it connected to people despite this.  I was working in a movie theater when the first film launched, and I was there for the midnight show.  You know what? I find it really hard to despise the people who came.  This was a group of people who had chosen to believe in Edward, Bella, true love, and sparkly vampires who symbolize hidden beauty.  I think it would have been better if they engaged with something where the gender politics weren’t so damn weird, but I still think the world is a better place for it.

Why did people connect with the story?  Warts and all, it was sincere.  That’s the part all the cash in knockoffs that followed didn’t get.  It wasn’t about the vampires, werewolves or whatever else.  It was about a bunch of people who wanted to believe in true love for a night. What’s so fucking confusing about that?

And this gets me to the big point.  In his essay, Wallace talks like sincerity does not exist in modern fiction.  My memories of the 80’s are minimal, and largely Ninja-Turtle centric, so I have a hard time assessing his accuracy.  I suspect the sincerity he longed for was out there, somewhere, even if it wasn’t popular.  Now though?  God help us, it’s coming back.  Go look on the fringes; the comic books, young adult literature, genre fiction (the unpopular kind), Blogs, all that stuff we don’t take seriously. Single-entendre stories.  They’re coming back in the hands of a bunch of out-of-date anti-rebels who are content to let human struggles be a meaning in themselves.  Sometimes when people are honest about what they believe, we find out they believe some pretty weird things. That’s part of the deal.

And now I get where I was going all along: this is why I think the way I do.

In a proper academic paper explaining my views, I would talk about the Platonic idea of art, and the power it gives narrative.  I would move on to Aristotle, who allowed art to not only instruct, but give catharsis.  I would mention classical Jewish hermeneutics as an aside, and how a text can elude us and grow over time.  Next comes Kant, where art is pushed out into the world, where it can overwhelm us.  This comes at a cost.  We are no longer invested in the story.  Art is to be studied– appreciated— not experienced.  Derrida comes along, and begins chipping away the foundations of language, causing literary theorists to get really confused.  They take pieces of his language theory, ignore his actual literary theory, and go from there.  Barth tells us that the narrative form as we know it is exhausted, that we need a new one.  The story can no longer tell us about the world or about ourselves, it can only tell us about the story.  Wallace writes about the futility of self-conscious narrative.  Why do it?  What will that accomplish?  At the same time, radically different thinking emerges in the world of academic philosophy.  Kendal Walton writes a book about how important play is, and how our stories are just another kind of play.  Theories of language emerge that allow it to function as a meaningful thing.  The mind begins to re-tether itself to the world, as skepticism goes mercifully out of style.  From all of this emerges what I can only call my Aristoplatonideconstructoromantiherminomimetirepresentationalevolutionary view.

But it’s not about Kant, or any of the thinkers above.  Not really.  It’s about my wife spending 8 years slowly convincing me that there’s nothing wrong with single entandre stories.  It’s about a bunch a bunch of awkward high school girls who want to believe that people really can fall in love.  It’s about putting away blind cynicism, and learning to recognize when honesty breaks through all the manipulation.

On a technical level, what is it about stories and art that makes it so they can do this?  How do they work? Beyond that, how can we learn about them, and ourselves, without building an arbitrary rubric of quality?  I’m not interested in the depressingly expanding world of criticism that judges.  This is good, this is bad, so on, so on.  I’m interested in criticism that provides tools methods for understanding why things are, not how they should be.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 1:52 pm

    I suppose there’s enough outside work discussed here that I should give some sources.

    All the Wallace quotes come from the essay “E Unibus Pluram”, as it was published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

    The philosophical terminology can be found in most any dictionary of philosophy. My initial acquaintance came from an anthology simply called The Philosophy of Language, edited by A.P. Martinich. His introduction offers a good framework for the field.

    The authors mentioned in the end are cited as figures, but the works most relevant to the topic at hand are:

    Plato: The Republic, Ion, Phaedrus
    Aristotle: Poetics, Rhetoric
    Maimonides: Guide for the Perplexed
    Kant: Critique of Judgement
    Derrida: Signature Event Context, Plato’s Pharmacy, Limited Inc A B C
    John Barth : Literature of Exhaustion
    Kendal Walton: Mimesis as Make Believe

    Also, although there are no direct references, A lot of terminology comes courtesy of The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducability, by Walter Benjamin.

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