Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Silence of Repetition, the Ecstasy of Agreement (IPoS,tHL Part 7)

In Gravity's Rainbow, we have a contemporary equivalent of medieval folly, the point at which all of our sophistication bends back to annihilate us. It differs from Chaucer, Bocaccio and Rabelais in that the articles of faith have shifted toward technology. Man, the maker, has mastered his ignorance of the planet enough to create abundance, but he cannot master himself. Sam Cohen in later reflection after inventing the neutron bomb and seeing his design altered for maximum destruction, was said to have noted that as a child he suffered extensive diarrhea and one of the effects of his bomb, if released at the proper altitude was to inflict diarrhea via radiation poisoning to the population living within the farthest ring of the zones of impact. We can see in this a simple Freudian stencil placed over Cohen's guilt, but we may also ask if there is truth within a claim that we do not know the full content of our inner drives and what shapes they can take in the things we make.

There is a separate destructiveness of the hand, not immediately connected with prey and killing. It is of a purely mechanical nature and mechanical inventions are extensions of it. Precisely because of its innocence it has become particularly dangerous. It knows itself to be without any intention to kill, and thus feels free to embark on anything. What it does appears to be the concern of hands alone, of their flexibility and skill, their harmless usefulness. It is this mechanical destructiveness of the hands, now grown to a complex system of technology, which, whenever it is linked with a real intention to kill, supplies the automatic element of the resulting process, that empty mindlessness which is so particularly disquieting. No one actually intends anything, it all happens, as it were, of itself.

-Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power  

I will never touch the sun. With some advanced optics, I can see the surface of the sun and I can feel the warmth of its rays, but I will never touch the sun itself. There's naturally the theory that everything I touch necessarily spun out of the fusion of simple gases into heavy metals and that the sun itself is our local representative of this massive living fusion, the grounding of our orbit and so the source of the mass on earth (unless there is a deeper massiveness I am missing contrived from our solar system's rotation within our galaxy or the larger motion of our galaxy, but these too are extensions of the same counterintuitive principle: though I cannot touch the sun, I can feel its influence through the resistance of every object or body on Earth). It is a statement about the particular fragility of human life- that we can only be sustained en masse at our current distance from the sun - our senses evolved at this distance, so we are necessarily separate from the fundamental source of our life.

You taught me these words. If they don't work anymore, teach me new ones.

The shared nature of language is it's greatest mystery. A population assimilates to varying degrees the rules of speech, adapts and performs its idiosyncrasies. This creates the tension between experiential language, that is private language or the language that reflects back on our subjective place within culture and time, and public language, the language we adapt when are out of our element or when attempting to achieve a sense of timelessness. No doubt there's a spectrum in between that grades that tension, and there are certainly people who speak to themselves in a voice they consider timeless, using what would seem to be a public voice to dictate their inner moods, but in those two modes I generally find the space where we each begin to translate one another, where even within spoken 'Merican, we perform fleeting minor translations of relatability to synthesize what someone is saying. It happens on a nearly unconscious scale, unless you live and work among people who are different than you, then the act of translation can take on semi-consciousness. In resolving semantic differences, exhausting as this can be, the exact points of  exchange between private languages, or things understood tacitly within a specific context, become parsed and the associative webs in which our words are wrapped, come a little more unspooled.

I love Ummmmms. In conversation, ummmmms can signify so much: the brain's attempt to catch up to a line of thought, the brain's inability to properly express an idea, a linguistic gap where the word may not exist for a thought that needs to be expressed-- in short it becomes a catch-all expression for the gap between language and thought.  I happen to love clichés as well.  A good cliché can stave off an ummmmm.  It can work as a distancing mechanism.  A good comment about the weather in the elevator at work can set off a series of shielding words that transfers the tension built by the otherwise ominous silence that goes with being a group of relative strangers in a steel box suspended 100 feet above the ground.  The tension then moves to either extending the cliche, responding in kind or adding some small witticism or personal anecdote about the weather, or in refusing the offer and maintaining your part of the silence. The point being that through clichés, people come the closest to animal calls, to jungle noise-- it's precisely when we have nothing to say to one another that we feel the need to speak.

In art, clichés simply point to the saturation of certain approaches, identities and tropes.  In mass media, the ultimate aim for a work is to become a cliché, something infinitely repeatable that ultimately stands only for itself, but at the same time minimizes any personal content to allow for the maximum number of people to associate with it, to sit inside its disposable hollows and allow its temporariness to be carry the weight of expression, or tune out completely.  There are some images and some songs that I've seen or heard so many times that when they recur, as they inevitably do, I can no longer see or hear them directly.  They have been so effectively imprinted themselves in my brain that my eye or ear skips over it. It's like a type of silence, the silence of repetition. This sadly happens with a lot of my favorite songs and films.  They get played out.  In a way, the compulsion to re-listen to a song or re-watch a movie is just a way of taking their power away because they will occupy a space in my head until I find a way to make space for something new.  Songs especially will repeat themselves ad nauseum in my head, and incorrectly so, until I play them. Then I play them and play them until they erode.    

The worm bird catches the early.

Some work is able to reinvest a cliché with meaning.  I looked at John Wayne differently after watching Full Metal Jacket. I thought about MTV spring break specials differently after Spring Breakers. But inevitably, the clichés win out.  The counter-image resolves, if for no other reason than it's out-numbered.

Though the source of language may be physiological, or a physiological adaptation to a social need, language itself (outside of Braille) is intangible. As with the sun, words derive their weight in their distance from or proximity to their subject.

With Proust, we can see certain luminous subjects (the Vinteuil Sonata or Vermeer's yellow wall for example). It is in his tendrils, though long passages where a he slowly turns a subject, that a full gradation of the voice achieved. The personal is made public. That silent inner reworking of a moment over time, he coaxes onto the page then stretches it to its fullest form.  He gives the type of repetition that grows with each recurrence in his processing of grief or his obsession with Albertine's private life.

Future children our are our.

We normally find ourselves debating gradations by proxy by debating extremes- it's often the case that we push or are pushed towards an extreme form of thought by trying to get to it's logical end, but the illusion of a logical end is doubly impoverishing. In abandoning what may at first appear to be a milder or moderate form of a thought or say political position, we lose the personal understanding of that form and it's associative force. Once moved to the extreme, we have built a lattice of assumption, which may be founded in political reality, but which will always make a convenient fit of something that should be finessed and complicated.

In art we have the chance to share, on a mass scale, the ecstasy of agreement. The form is always there, the icon we can point to, the scales repeatable. The shape we can recognize and fill with our impressions. As long as we remain silent about the impressions, we can evade the personal, elide our differences and assume an equality of consumption, we can conform to the shape and lose everything we placed inside it. We can become the song without singing it.

For a long time, I found after reading a book, its ideas simply melted in, that the book itself stood as a kind of icon I could tap and skim through the highlighted impressions it left, but the details would vanish.  I would forget that my having read a book didn't necessarily mean that everyone had read that book.  It may be a function of the idea that at best we come to another person's work as a second or third generation reader.  In some circles it was definitely true that I read behind the curve. That discussing a book became an act of working up a reading list. That one book lead to another and that it's usefulness could only be described in its relevance to the next work and that in relation to what was yet to be read-- that unread book I always imagined to be more meaningful and more fulfilling than the one I'd just completed. Then in other circles, I'd realize only after slightly painful misunderstandings that everyone had not read the same things as me, that they wanted to talk about Haruki Murakami and I wanted to talk about Bruno Schulz. Or even if they had read Schulz, their memories differed or the scenes that I found meaningful did not match those scenes that stuck with them- ah well. Sometimes shared knowledge can be an illusion.

Today I passed a woman who shared the coloring, height and demeanor of a friend who is currently living on the opposite coast, yet for a moment, rather than allowing this woman's features to remain strange, I conferred on them a momentary familiarity and noticed how the squareness of this woman's face added a melancholy to my friend's, though by this point I knew it wasn't my friend and they really didn't even look that much alike. I have not thought about this friend for months, but circumstance-- chance-- places an approximation in my path and pulls out my memory of her face, her general appearance. This particular friend is out on the lonely spectrum of petite Jewish strawberry blondes and I hardly find people who remind me of her, though this type may be more likely on the sidewalks of Brooklyn than say Mexico City, so it's not out of the ordinary, just slightly less ordinary than seeing someone with my own features, which happens fairly often. Now I wonder if the next time I see my friend, if her face won't appear the more sanguine for the small change made in my impression by this brief interloper.

In public at any given moment we are surrounded by fragments of our own consciousness.  The elements we recognize can blind us. One element of growing up plugged into mass culture is access to its proliferation of types, of faces associated with character traits. The people I see on the street, in the supermarket, strangers, only appear less strange in relation to the faces I already know. This problem is double-edged. The familiarity is a shallow one, misleading, but provides a kind of balm-- that persistent sense that people are knowable, if not already known.  On the other side, people who are not represented on TV or in movies, those faces which don't have any more than a token form of familiarity may seem even more strange than they would normally. They may carry the full burden of strangeness that I withhold from the people who appear at least partially familiar.This may be an especially suburban concern (i.e. any place where different races and ethnic groups can hide from each other by driving to work or living in different neighborhoods, going to different schools, etc) but the families on sitcoms and their variations (groups of friends, of cast-aways, of house-mates) begin as stand-ins, anodyne extensions of our own families.  The faces on TV become masks for the faces we know and in this way they build off of primary familial recognitions, those parental and sibling features we see or do not see within our own faces.    

There's truth to Buggin' Out's complaint with Sal in Do the Right Thing. When we rely in part on the media to tell us who we are, to be unrepresented is to be invisible, or to be wrong.
With every picture there is also the opportunity to turn ourselves into strangers, to allow the camera to capture not the light of friendship or family, but the mere facts of appearance.  Pictures where I don't look like myself are inevitably deleted. The portion of face I never catch in the mirror, the flank-man with a half-open mouth, double chin and mostly closed eyes, who walks ear first into the light of a flash, or just the closed-mouthed unsmiling thing with the rings under his eyes, moving his facial muscles towards an expression-- these images though repeated often enough on the screen of my camera still don't fit-- and who would want them, but they give the visceral recognition of total vulnerability, the poor timing of the self-image surfacing between shutter clicks, vanishing to leave just the transitory animations toward the thing I recognize as me.

Here, young Caravaggio is David and old Caravaggio is Goliath.

With Proust, we can only trust that the truth of what someone thinks about us is said after we have left the room.  Such is the case with Swann.  Though Swann's assimilation into Parisian society is aided by his wealth and intelligence, it is his choice in marriage and the concurrence of the Dreyfus Affair which ultimately limits his access to the Guermantes and the fashionable set and acts for those players, M Guermantes especially, as a kind of proof that Swann will always be Jewish first and therefore not a true Parisian, a kind of eternal traitor in their midst.  With the case of Baron de Charlus, the homosexual brother of M. Guermantes, there is a conformism, his masquerade as a lady killer, that allows Charlus full access to society but also a discretion that links the Baron through to the secrets of the society set, which gives him power.  Proust is careful to show the hypocrisy of a culture both enthralled by and unwilling to openly relate their desires.

...the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display. However deeply heartfelt a motive may be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection, it becomes an object of suspicion...  
For was an authentic problem whether something that 'appeared' to no one except the agent did no exist at all. The Socratic solution consisted in the extraordinary discovery that the agent and the onlooker... were contained in the self same person. ...that the Socratic agent, because he was capable of thought, carried within himself a witness from whom he could not escape.. that tribunal which later ages have called conscience.

-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

In the pursuit of unification or resolution of a blind spot there is a separate pain of wanting to know something unknowable, the pain of Proust's narrator. The pain of wanting to know may be equally horrible as the fate a blind spot can make for us. For some, the vulnerability that comes with an inaccessible blind spot, say from a tic a person may wear but of which they may have no knowledge, can be the exact expression of that person's humanity. In other cases, it can be the exact expression of their inhumanity. If we think of unconscious or semiconscious racist behaviors, for instance, or of hypocrisy, which is the broader context of Hannah Arendt quote above, some examination of our blind spots is clearly requisite to living in the 21st century.

There is a transfixing silence born from where repulsion and attraction meet, that compelling place where it becomes impossible to turn-away.  In fiction, the double or doppelgänger is the physical embodiment of what we cannot admit to ourselves, of the things we find repugnant. Perhaps this is why doubles normally hate each other at first but then buddy up into a kind of odd couple relationship feel the need to kill their opposite. In the double, the tragic counterforce is distilled, the unknown becomes material, fate immediate.

Adrian Piper's Mythic Being

There is also the other.  

There's a moment in J R where a picture of J R's class has been Xeroxed.  The machine reverses the image, so the white children appear black.  The picture is being viewed by the executives in a brokerage firm where J R's class visited on a school trip.  The executives begin to criticize the children. They seem capable of seeing only at this time the kids' flaws and looking at J R they see the raw expression of his greed.  In Gravity's Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop, of Boston-town, is given a dose of sodium amytal and observed in the hopes of getting a greater understanding of the race problem in North America. While Charlie Parker plays Cherokee, Tyrone drops his favorite harmonica down a toilet.  Who should come and help him find it down in there,but a pre-Nation of Islam Malcolm X, known as Red, but only after first finding Tyrone's rear exposed and vulnerable. Tyrone, to escape certain rape (keep in mind this is a psychedelic peek-a-boo into Tyrone that winds up freeing him from a quotient of his inherited racism, which allows him later to buddy up with Oberst Enzian and the Schwartz Kommando, a battalion of Herero from the Sudwest with a collective death wish, against Major Marvy, southern racist leader of a technical intelligence team and buddy of Bloody Chiclitz of Yoyodyne, military industrial mega-weight) climbs down the toilet and is pulled through a sea of shit (batting dingleberries out of his eye). The sense of repulsion is there and maybe for Slothrop an experiment like Adrian Piper's Catalyst or John Water's Pink Flamingos wouldn't seem so extreme an example of what we confront when we approach the notion of otherness.
In her Mythic Being project, Adrian Piper attempted to be herself, a person with her own history and background, while dressing as a man. She considered herself anathema while she performed this, everything you most hate and fear, and noted the ways in which she felt herself adapting towards her appearance. This, as well as her Catalyst exercises, are ways of measuring the weight of different social stigmas and the often unspoken limits and expectations they set, specifically in the context of race in America.

Little is said directly about race in Infinite Jest. Canadians are the ghettoized identity, but with physicality at the core of the novel, it instead takes on handicaps as a kind of ontological limiter or intensifier, where there are Quebecois wheelchair assassins, deformations caused by the toxic environment, mutilations, the list of malcontents in the Madame Psychosis hour, Mario Incandenza and addicts, but everyone is defined in part by their addictions, their maladies, their hypertrophied abilities as tennis players or mothers and their tics in a broad spectrum of behaviors and everyone shares at least in part a type of otherness. This is in part why this book cauterizes the post-modern aesthetic. The other is the norm, to the point that all claims to otherness become flat, but this is also one of this book's biggest weaknesses.  Just read about Uncle Nathan in Scott McClanahan's Crapalachia and you'll see the difference.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Everything Crash (IPoS,tHL Part 6)

Tadanori Yokoo

In the previous posts, I have taken up a lot of time to talk about a number of works that have been celebrated fairly widely within the world of letters.  In part, I wanted to acknowledge that within our culture, the currency of exchange is generally trafficked around attention.  That is, certain works are spoken about more than others because they serve as functional vehicles for the most number of ideas, or as caches for meaning.  This is only one need for writing or art.  On the other side resides those works that measure personal feelings, sentiments or ideas, that always appear as under-appreciated treasures. Often, the preciousness of the text is in direct proportion to its relative obscurity. In some cases, the level of idiosyncrasy assures that while a reader may identify with the work, love it, empathize with it, they may lack the language to describe it or a means to pull it into their everyday thinking.  Mark Costello's Murphy Stories is one of those books for me.  Christine Schutt's Nightwork is another. In both of these cases, I felt the writing dissolve some essential structure in my thinking that then made me a better reader and lifted a psychological burden I didn't know I'd been carrying.  I could add a few more (The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine, Motorman, Firework, Stories in the Worst Way) but I mostly want to stop to acknowledge that though I've taken pains to pace out my thinking here, I am still missing some points and I'll make an effort to pull this out a little further, but that in casting off with this idea I really wanted to get a handle on the means by which Proust makes himself understood and consider the reasons for that form of expression, its value and its short-comings in contrast to other styles as well as to a number of writers I find valuable to find a balance to the means of self-expression and ultimately what is made public within any given form of writing.

Through the pain, I always tell the truth

In this light, I was thinking about Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, and considering the text as an inquiry into meaning that withholds meaning and simply presents the actions of character in their search. As a Vietnam novel and one that deals with the intelligence community leading up to and following the conflict, we already have the cultural implication of a meaningless war, an implication that isn't spelled out in the novel, but instead exists as the fundamental question within, but also the idea of hidden meaning and the variety of truths people seek.  The novel unlocks for me around the early use of the word infestation-- the only four syllable word spent in a sea of single or double syllable words within the early portion of the book and used to describe the state of a tree in a jungle with ants-- then following the assassin Fest and the change in meaning that association ascribes to his name and actions within the book we get to the prime contrast of intelligence, agents of meaning and meaningless death. Not as overt as Harry Mathews, who includes actual cryptograms within the text of Tlooth, but along those lines-- the question of the ways in which people conceal and reveal political truths contrasts to the larger search for meaning and the ways in which we interrogate nature to fulfill our needs.     

Mark Lombardi Global Networks

Everything Crash

Despite all of the energy put into a system, there is always a point of diminishing returns, a point where the system becomes supersaturated and cannot continue to perform the function of its design.  Within the natural world, the system breaks down and transforms through decay into its reduced, constituent parts, nutrient and toxic.  It's written into the second law of thermodynamics.  

Consider what came out of the second world war.

Proust and Pynchon, separated by Puig and Puzo on my shelf, separated by two world wars, separated by an ocean, separated by titanic differences in form, style, and thought. Considering Proust as one removed from Parisian society, sitting in his cork lined room limning the evanescent stuff of memory and its extensions then considering Pynchon, removed as well from the old monied New England and Mid-Atlantic society, self-exiled and wandering, I assume, through bars and back rooms and scenes intellectual or non, it may be worthwhile to consider the type of reclusiveness an author adheres to.

Pynchon has cultivated a charismatic absence. Gaddis's reclusiveness, because of the tone of his writing, the anger, came off with a kind of disdain born of superiority (a Jonathan Edwards type severity and distrust of people).  Nevertheless Gaddis has his followers too and for many Gaddis's and Pynchon's concerns are so close that some assumed they were the same person. I'm assuming someone put this forward before, but I always thought that Pynchon could have been the name Gaddis and Ralph Ellison put on the work that came out of Herman Kahn's Hudson Institute (the institute does pre-date V. by two years).  Come to think of it, Ellison too went into reclusion after The Invisible Man. 

In the absent author, I've found surrogates for other absences within my own life, but  I think of Thomas Pynchon as a kind of reverse Batman. His name appears in lights and he disappears to allow the citizens of Gotham to learn krav maga and assemble the clues left behind in the Riddler's latest puzzle, only the tools he leaves us are our own paranoia, our foibles, our follies and a deep mistrust of authority. Gravity's Rainbow is about the collapse of Europe after WWII and what rose up from its remains. In Search of Lost Time is an attempt to reconstruct in part the society that stood before the first World War.  The two works stand as book ends for the first half of the twentieth century: one looking backwards and the other looking forward (I had read online a while back a letter Dow Mossman had written about GR stating that it goes into the past to talk about the future-- thought that was a good way of putting it, but can't find the link to save my life now).  

Going back through his work, Pynchon presents himself as a kind of paradox.  His books avoid a build to hierarchical meaning, instead setting his balance so that all elements can carry equal weight, a novel in suspension and novels that would appear to highlight the means of control and relinquish the more obvious elements of authorial control.  Indirection, discourse and expansion as the methods of understanding the world. The variety of epistemologies that he uses as lenses (organic chemistry, horticultural, behavioral psychology, parapsychology, film theory, electrical engineering, rocket science, etc) underpins the basic idea that the pursuit of knowledge is inherently Faustian, but also the only means of alleviating the human condition of unknowing, ignorance, subjection and subjugation. While there's always a sense of the absurd, Pynchon is more interesting for his ability to maintain a concept of the tragic, that notion of the innocence lost in the path toward total knowledge (Gnossos and Mathemesis for the Gnostics out there).  To consider Tyrone Slothrop, swabbed by Q-Tip as an infant to build the response that would turn him into the V-2 divining rod he becomes as an adult, that he was sold into said swabbing by his father, so that Tyrone could be eventually the pawn within the questing of industrial, governmental, clandestine and military plots gets at the level and degree with which Gravity's Rainbow points at the embedded corruption, but despite still retains the character's humanity (ironically, the swab in this case).      

Pynchon adapts the Joycean strategy of reference, inference and invocation to attempt a text that addresses a pluralistic readership.  If there should be any one reader who comprehends the whole of Gravity's Rainbow  without additional research, that reader may feel  a bit like Maxwell's demon. The book is there to prompt us out of specialized roles, to sort through the elements of the story to come away with their own sense of understanding, or the reader can simply allow the work to flow, to take it for its ride. Joshua Cohen's review of Bleeding Edge in Harper's captures the effect of Pynchon's influence: people come together to solve the mystery. That this type of collective pursuit of meaning is in a way the best antidote to a corporate system that propagates single, easily replicable solutions may be the unintended extension of Pynchon's charisma.  It reminds me in ways of the work of early Christians, or of Talmudic scholars-- readers can inhabit and question the text in pre-political communities and come away with their own pet theories.

To think of Pynchon's work within the question of publicity, it seems that in his pursuits he has created a matrix of books that would allow for the maximal expression of latent meaning, but that those connections are left for the readers to discern.  The ways in which Pynchon plays with the explicit is always tempered with a healthy dose of the unknown.