Friday, May 29, 2009

Alexie's Literary Tunneling

Sherman Alexie's Flight presents the journey of an orphaned teenager, Zits, as he inhabits the mind of various individuals throughout history. When I say inhabit, he literally enters the consciousness of various people, each representing an element in Zits's complex history. The narrative tunnels into the thoughts of various people over time, individual stories that history has overlooked. It gives voice to people and highlights the ethical dilemmas that defined them, while shedding light on the complexity of American history. The novel foregrounds the way stories can bring recognition and return voice, a self-awareness of the way literature functions in the world.

However, this self-awareness does not take the shape of historiographic metafiction like other postmodern texts. The narrator does not reflect upon the construct of the text, nor does he present an awareness of the act of writing. Flight enacts the process of reading through the narrator, Zits, who supernaturally experiences the actions and is privy to the thoughts of other individuals, while remaining conscious of his own thoughts as well. As Zits puts it, "I can fall so far inside a person, inside his memories, that I can play them like a movie." Or, as I am arguing, read them like a book.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Past Haunting the Future

Toni Morrison's Paradise disrupts and dislocates the totalizing views of race, class, and gender that an insular community constructs for itself. It does so by relocating the present inside of the knowledge of past traumas, demonstrating the inability to escape what has come before. In "From Deconstructive to Constructive Haunting in Toni Morrison's Paradise," Tammy Clewell finds constructive possibilities in this "haunting" in the way it "prevents the closure of any totalizing construction of subjectivity or homogeneous social organizations." The past virtually reopens the political and ethical discussion of identity in an essentialist community. Clewell adds, "Morrison's writing, in other words, does not tell ghost stories, at least not primarily, as a means of critiquing illusory notions of self-wholeness and social unity; the novel engages multiple figures of haunting as a work of rebuilding interior and exterior dwelling places worthy of human habitation." These worthy places are contingent upon the past and other racial, class, and gendered identities, responding to the present and historical others instead of fleeing from them. The novel, thus, raises crucial questions about the dependence of one identity upon another and the inability to maintain a community in isolation in today's world.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Foreclosure on the Wall

Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall confronts the media blitz that occurred in the days directly following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Characters routinely find themselves “in front of the TV. Watching the thing happen over and over.” The media is portrayed as ubiquitous, repetitive, and impossible to escape as the infotainment genre takes hold of its audience. Even “in a coffee shop on the boardwalk the TV was on, no escape even at the edge of the sea.” The seductive images become more and more real in their repetition and people confuse reality with the media representation. Renata, the novel’s protagonist, falls prey to the media “fantasies, she didn’t see [9/11] happen, although she’s seen it so many times since that it feels like she saw it.” The footage substitutes for her experience in that it shapes reality and ultimately becomes her perception of reality. She too is drawn in by the bright colors and music in which the news is packaged and by the horrific carnage of the footage. As a New Yorker, it is her environment that forms the backdrop for the media attention that effectively forecloses any and all reaction other than a return to the routine of everyday domestic life and blind acquiescence to authority. Schwartz focuses on the powers that define 9/11 by confronting the media aesthetic that confuses and distracts, allowing meaning to be foreclosed by a simplistic rhetoric of good and evil, vengeance and national pride. A linguistic dichotomy is formed between the simplistic explanations that basic terms offer and words that contain greater nuance and allow for a more meaningful engagement.

In The Writing on the Wall, Schwartz questions the media foreclosure and approaches the mediated trauma in a different way, by acknowledging how it takes away the voice of the victim. She allows meaning to come to the event through understanding over time instead of through a media spectacle that fills in the silence with endless voices, each a parody of the other. The ubiquitous media continues to flood the background throughout her novel to demonstrate how it shapes the American consciousness after 9/11 and influences all aspects of society. The media exists as a constant reminder of how literature needs to crack the all consuming nature of the spectacle and interrupt its influence in order to allow ethical response.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mao Too

Andy Warhol's reproductions of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong comment upon the consolidation of power the original portraits represent. The above picture hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago and clearly shows how Warhol took the iconic image posted around China and added elements. The eye shadow, rouge, and lipstick in this version, as well as various color alterations throughout the series, subvert the intentions of the original portrait to be an ubiquitous and unchanged representation of communist rule. Mao, and in particular the iconic image of the Chinese leader, became the unquestioned symbol of communism, and still are. The repetition of the original in its exact form unifies the image of power, and subsequently the political discourse, by creating a spectacle of the communist leader. Warhol's reproductions parody the original by making a spectacle of his own, shifting elements that point out the construction of the original spectacle while maintaining the essence of the original, the portrait of Mao. The subtle shift posits a new idea about communism functioning as a spectacle in the same way capitalism does. It connects a totalitarian idea to an image, one that needs to be confronted and questioned.

Don DeLillo builds upon this idea in his novel, Mao II. The image of Mao returns again and again alongside those of crowds and followers, people under the sway of the spectacle. I suggest that DeLillo's questioning of the spectacle amounts to another Mao in Warhol's line ... Mao too. Thus, the book attempts in a way to become just another in a line of reproductions that each question the original and add another turn on the totalitarianism of the image in the contemporary world.

9/11 and the Graphic Novel

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation turns the 9/11 Commission report, the findings of the bipartisan committee appointed by the President, into a graphic novel. It takes the events, the testimonies, and the time lines of the terrorist events and puts them into a comic book format. The graphic novel amounts to a pastiche of the elements included in the report and images deriving from both the artist's imagination and ones mediated by broadcast and print media coverage from both the day of the attacks and political figures of the time. I want to think through what the effect is of putting the report into this aesthetic realm. Turning it into a comic should open the discussion of 9/11 to new audiences, but does it have the effect of reopening the tragedy to new interpretations?

If viewed as a reopening of the discussion, the novel can be seen as an ethical endeavor to further understandings
of the tragedy. Consequently, readers may have a new engagement with the event that offers the opportunity for new responses to be formulated from a position of heightened knowledge and the awareness of diverse perspectives. However, by channeling such familiar images, mostly from media coverage, does it simply reinforce existing sentiments? The project mimics the goal of the 9/11 Commission Report, a book that attempted to report rather than engage with the event. But as a work of art, is not the burden one step further, to engage the event, rethink it, ask new questions? I don't know that the graphic novel has this impact.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Absence and Everything in It

Jess Walter's The Zero takes its title from the absence of the twin towers and the holes they left in the American psyche, or maybe not. It is a valid question to ask if the towers left any hole at all. The structure of Walter's novel contains as many holes, gaps, and questions as can be imagined. However, those gaps are quickly filled by a society wanting to quickly fill the gap with meanings and perceptions that make sense, avoiding the void that might lead deeper into the subject. This comes through when Remy, the central figure of the text, remains in a state between consciousness and unconsciousness, unsure whether he is dreaming or thinking:

"A dream - that would help explain the gaps, and the general incongruity of life now - the cyclic repetition of events on cable news, waves of natural disasters, scientists announcing the same discoveries over and over (Planet X, dinosaur birds, cloning, certain genetic codes), the random daily shift of national allegiances, wildly famous people who no one could recall becoming famous, the sudden emergence and disappearance of epidemics, the declaration and dissolution of governments, cycles of scandal, confession, and rehabilitation, heated elections in which losers claimed victory and races were rerun in the same sequence, events that catapulted wildly out of control, like plagues of illogic ..."

Are these what exist in the state between consciousness and unconsciousness, possibly where we all exist today? The text depicts a culture that is not enlightened to the point that it can accept the void and discover the meanings from within it. Rather, society tends to overlay pop culture and populous understanding atop the void.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mediated Cultural Experiences

Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats connects two important aspects of the contemporary world, the media and the politics of the body. Her novel brings together issues of race, reproduction, and the side effects of drug use in the meat industry with the way transnational media influences culture. Jane, the Japanese-American protagonist, directs tv programs about American wives cooking meat dishes to be aired in Japan with the intent to increase meat sales. The sponsor, Beef-ex, an American beef export company remains in the background as the figure of the multinational corporation that has a greater influence on the body than one might imagine. The text ties together the narrative of the production of the program with the story of a Japanese housewife who watches the program to highlight the responsibility of transnational media when challenging cultural norms.

On one hand, the program has an overt goal of producing cultural change; it aims to influence meat consumption in Japan by proffering a vision of the happy, American family eating meat. It sells meat through its association with American values, amounting to what many call cultural imperialism. Media theorist James Lull explains this viewpoint as "a process that homogenizes thought and experience, destroys local cultures, exploits their populations and makes way too much money for the anonymous, often foreign corporate producers." However, Lull argues that this argument does not hold much weight. "Even the most fundamental idea that widespread representation of cultural forms leads to undifferentiated reception of those forms - an unstated assumption that underlies the usual critical argument - simply does not hold." Contemporary media allows for interactive engagement through a variety of communication technologies making the homogenization of culture more complicated.

The novel complicates the view by showing the multiple and singular nature of the American family. Jane takes the responsibility to show the diversity of the American family while challenging the influence of the sponsor by focusing on more than just beef. Jane creates a needed tension between the goals of the sponsor and the show. Thus, she complicates the cultural influence of the program, and as a result, produces a different outcome than expected, demonstrating how the media can be a positive tool for change across borders.

Furthermore, the body remains the central focus of both the program and the text, as the issue of meat production comes to the forefront. Specifically, the effect of harmful drugs used in feed lots and slaughterhouses on human reproduction, antibiotic effectiveness, and other side effects.

The media can make people aware of the problems, but the text specifically highlights the ineffectiveness of the media to create changes in individual behavior. Jane explains the difficulty of linking media information to action. "Coming at us like this - in waves, massed and unbreachable - knowledge becomes symbolic of our disempowerment - becomes bad knowledge - so we deny it, riding its crest until it subsides from consciousness." The realization throws another wrench into the battle over the body for Jane. "Ignorance is an act of will," she explains, "a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence." Thus, she realizes her limitations and attempts to go outside of the mainstream by producing unique programing that confronts the politics of the body. Even thought she realizes the effect may be limited, she still pushes forth, and in the end, changes one Japanese woman who contacts her seeking a new life for herself and her child based upon the diverse views she saw in Jane's programs. Diversity prevailed, even in the media.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Discourse and Terror

Paul Auster's Leviathan foregrounds the way a particular discourse is contingent upon a narrative construct. What a person sees in a situation depends upon the stories that she puts faith in, a perspective built upon communication. The viewpoints of the characters in the novel are each dependent upon who they trust and what story they believe. For example, the narrator, Peter Aaron, comes to understand the differing points of view of a relationship when his friend, Ben Sachs, describes his marital situation differently than his wife Fanny. Ben lies to her to keep her happy, fabricating stories of infidelity to maintain his wife's interest in him. "Words have power, after all." And Ben describes the way the stories "were all very real to her."

When Ben Sachs becomes a terrorist, bombing replicas of the Statue of Liberty, it is to confront the prevailing discourse of freedom in the U.S. "He simply wanted America to look into itself and mend its ways. In that sense, there was something almost Biblical about his exhortations, and after a while he began to sound less like a political revolutionary than some anguished, soft-spoken prophet." Ben aspires to reopen the discussion of what freedom means and not allow a statue to be a misguided icon that people hide behind. This use of bombs to send a message might be "[u]nlike the typical terrorist pronouncement," but it brings to the forefront the idea of terrorism as discourse, violence that attempts to hijack the discourse and put forth its own message. However, the text's critical awareness is always focused on particular perspectives. Terror, thus, amounts to one perceptive, and even though it dominates the headlines due to fear and horror, it must be dealt with through discursive means.

The question then becomes, what is literature's role in this mess? Can writers, in the novel's case both Ben Sachs and Peter Aaron, effectively shape discourse so that terrorism will not? Paul Auster does not answer these questions because Ben becomes the terrorist as a result of his inability to influence political dialogue, and Peter writes to challenge the inevitable opinions that will be formed when the government learns that Ben Sachs is the bomber called the "Phantom of Liberty."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Photograph from September 11

by Wislawa Szymborska

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Translated by Clare Kavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Postmodern Tragedy

I am about to launch into reading texts that deal with postmodernism, terrorism, and 9/11, so I am thinking through the particular aspects of the World Trade Center attacks that make them particularly postmodern. The amatuer and professional footage, the global media networks, the discussions that have carried on through new media, and the terrorists capitalizing on an unwittingly complicit media all make this a particular postmodern tragedy. The question I have is, how can literature shed new light on a decidedly new media event? What is it about literature that makes this possible?

I will always hold to my argument that literature asks unanswerable questions that push the dialogue into new territory. The media foreclosure of the discourse in the post 9/11 world can be confronted anew by literary texts that refocus the discussion on individuals coping with the repercussions of the tragedy and the way it played out in the sphere of new media. Furthermore, literature slows the engagement from its hyperspeed on global networks that infultrate public space and shape cultural memory. The process of reading allows for careful consideration by a lone reader, allowing singular responses to take shape instead of mass consensus. Lastly, many texts not only respond to the tragedy but allow for new responses as well, literature's response-ability.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Biopower's Limit

"You feel that force there on your hand? That's the world. The story of the world is the story of force. It's just some people are better at applying it than others." Torture brings Glen Duncan's protagonist to this realization. In A Day and a Night and a Day, torture amounts to a means of not only collapsing time, as I posed in my previous post, but to a means of collapsing the world in on itself for the tortured, to creating bare life. Torture, thus, amounts to the limit of biopower, the extreme form of enacting power upon a body. It takes voice, Elaine Scarry's point, and it makes one lose faith in the world, Jean Amery's famous words. It leaves the tortured with a single certainty, the body, and the simple realization that the world works by enacting power on the body. Duncan's text explores these ideas and asks what is left once one comes to that conclusion: memory, love, moments in time?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Torture, Memory, and the State

Glen Duncan's A Day and a Night and a Day uses torture as a mnemonic device, provoking questions about the way atrocious acts make one investigate the past. The use of mnemonic devices in literature recalls more subtle moments where involuntary memory is provoked, such as Proust's famous biscuit in In Search of Lost Time. Duncan's novel also links to the cliche of one's life flashing before one's eyes, as in Richard Flanagan's Death of a River Guide, where a man recalls his life as he is trapped drowning between rocks beneath the surface of a river. However, Duncan's use of torture as mnemonic device asks a larger question about the way a country re-envisions its past from the new position of torturer. The tortured subject in the text recalls his past as a black man in America during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era, allowing the text to revisit questions of race and war, linking them to the tortured present and future.

Torture becomes a sort of tumor in society in the same way the Vietnam war was. Duncan uses the My Lai massacre to make his point: "Whatever you thought of war, soldiers in it became the bearers of the world's strange tidings. Among which was the news from My Lai. America faced a tumorous question about itself from its own sons." Duncan's example forms a link between the way Vietnam, specifically the My Lai massacre, made Americans see themselves in a new light and the way torture should do the same. Both Vietnam and today's war on terrorism amount to exceptional circumstances where otherwise unheard of acts are carried out or justified based on the emergency at hand. The question becomes, do we, as a nation, treat the atrocious act as a mnemonic device or a convenient failure of memory justified by the exceptional circumstances? Duncan prefers the former.

Orpheus and Falling Man

The image from the action theatre group PAN.OPTIKUM recalls the photo of the "Falling Man" (refer to my previous post) from 9/11 about which DeLillo writes in his novel of the same name. It forms a connection between two texts, DeLillo's and Janette Turner Hospital's Orpheus Lost. Like the above image, both texts follow a descent and are reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus, with towers falling, terrorism, and a journey into an unknown underworld. But the descents amount to journeys that attempt to reclaim a lost love. Orpheus descended into hell on a quest to reunite with Eurydice, but he looked back before they surfaced and broke his deal with the devil. The characters in each of the contemporary novels seek a lost love, but seem to have learned the lesson of Orpheus, not to look too closely before it has returned. Can we apply this to contemporary politics, terrorism, and texts?