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.