Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Do Dreams Need Guns?

I just finished watching Christopher Nolan's most recent film, Inception. I found this movie perplexing on many levels, not the least of which was its relentlessly derivative post-Matrix feel. This included all the fights and guns, which never cease to confound me in the context of reality-bending films: if reality can be bent at will (and we see entire cities literally bent in Inception), then of what use are straight punches, combat rolls, and sharp shooters? This makes no sense, and only distracts from the ostensibly philosophical edge of the plot—or perhaps it's that the plot needs these violent charades precisely in order to mask the fact that there is no consistent philosophical project at work in the film.

The subject of dreams should make for fertile imagistic ground in a film; we've seen this in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and Michel Gondry's Science of Sleep. But what these films did well was to harness the minutiae and at times truly nonsensical residues of everyday life as a way to animate and (partially) translate or interpret the dreamworld. Inception, on the other hand, tries far too hard to pull off an aesthetically complex but still basically linear narrative of multi-layered dreams. There are dreams within dreams within dreams—and finally, the film leaves the viewer wondering if the whole movie was itself a dream. (I actually think Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, a remake of the Spanish film Abre los ojos, pulled off such an indeterminate ending more convincingly.)

The problem with Inception is akin to the problem of Plato's allegory of the cave and the problem of The Matrix, where there is no anchor point for something like actual reality. In each of these cases the supposed real 'reality' (beyond the Matrix, outside the cave, really being awake) always is open to being exposed as a further layer of simulation, sleep, or otherwise mediated deception. There is an infinite regress shot through all levels of the 'real'. Waking Life played with this infinitely looping regress, but in a more truly playful way, accepting as it were the erosive quality of such speculation. Waking Life followed Nietzsche's theory that "a dream, if repeated eternally, would be felt and judged entirely as reality"—and thus everyday life is just a long dream by another name. (And this is similar to Chuang Tzu's "butterfly dream" puzzle: upon waking from a dream in which one was a butterfly, one might not be certain whether one is actually a human who has just dreamt of being a butterfly, or a butterfly who is presently dreaming of being a human.) Even a film like David Fincher's Fight Club did more justice than Inception to the question of what is at stake when the line between the real and the fictitious gets blurred by the threshold of sleep. In that movie, the nameless narrator played by Edward Norton wakes up too late, just as the real world around him is starting to fall apart.

It is clear that Inception is not a radical break from the lineage of recent dream/simulated reality films. But as the latest and most acclaimed of these films, it is worth asking: what might Inception tell us about what all these characters are looking for with such consternation?

I wonder if this collective, outward looking gaze returns us to the topic of violence and guns in Inception. Perhaps the nightmare that all these characters are looking to find their way out of is a dream of military dominance. For what else can all the scenes of paramilitary sniping, blasting, and machine-gunning possibly be about? Somewhat against Freud's formulation of dream-displacement (by which things of high psychic value are de-emphasized in the dream, and low value things get exaggerated and thus serve as psychical red herrings), I think that the guns & violence of Inception (objects and actions that only become more overdetermined as the characters go further 'down' into the subconscious) in fact function as fairly obvious dream symbols in this film.

The twist, however, comes at the level of whose dream we are referring to. In my reading, the film is not about the various characters' dreams or nightmares at all. In fact the dream of Inception is a cultural dream work, a mass condensation of promises and investments concerning precision firepower and discrete time-frames for exiting certain theaters of war. In short, Inception is about a very unfulfilled and dispersed desire for pinpoint military action and tidy resolution in Afghanistan—and by extension, all the other parts of the world for which Afghanistan stands as an untidy metonymy. The symmetry is all too obvious, in this case; it's whose dream this really is that is the question—not to mention how we might wake up from it.

Afghanistan ———————— Inception

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Air Travel Conundrums

I'm currently writing an article on airport screening for an upcoming issue of the journal Media Fields. I'm going to use this post to think about some of the timely aspects of this topic—some spurs that don't exactly fall into the purview of my article, but that I've been nonetheless thinking about along the way.

Airport screening has been in the news lately, with an ad hoc resistance movement emerging out of ordinary passengers frustrated at the TSA's newly deployed full-body scanners, or Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT).

The websites We Won't Fly and Opt Out Day called for passengers to either avoid flying altogether on November 24 (the nation's busiest travel day), or to opt out of the full-body scans, submitting themselves instead to time consuming "enhanced pat downs"—and thereby snarling airport security lines. Either way, the intent was to send the message to our government that airport security has crossed the line.

But as the day unfolded, as one NY Times article reported, "most travelers seemed more interested in getting to their destinations than in making a political statement."

Indeed, the issues around airport screening would seem to be all about politics—but it is a very ambiguous and confused set of political ideals, assumptions, and priorities. Perhaps this is why no unified political statement was available to be made.

First off, there is the questionable use of the full-body scanners. Objections have been raised concerning an invasion of privacy involved in imaging the whole body. Several questions arise from this point: What if I don't want a random person to see the shape of my body? (Ans a subset of the question: What if my body does not conform to normative body images—am I then suspect?) Does this technology really make the sky a safer place? What if the TSA agents are taking sexual pleasure in seeing virtually stripped bodies? (Encouraging this last point, the We Won't Fly website calls the AIT devices "porno-scanners.")

Second, when a passenger opts out of the full-body scan and then must submit to a pat down, this arguably reflects an intrusion of government into private lives: the claim is that passengers literally feel the arm of the government feeling them up if they opt out of the full-body scans. The language gets ramped up to the point that the pat downs have been referred to as "sexual molestation." Again, there are hovering questions of whether these pat downs really make the sky safer, and whether the TSA agents enjoy their work. (The excellent Saturday Night Live skit was perhaps the most astute reflection on this conflation of issues, so far.)

Third, there is the constitutionally defensive and vaguely homophobic rhetoric expressed by the folk hero of the moment John Tyner, who after opting out of a full-body scan in the San Diego airport, then chose to opt out of the pat down, with the insistence that "no one but my wife and my doctor" are allowed to "touch my junk." This sentiment seems to house a dual core of affronted masculinity mixed with a fierce protection of private property (the body serving as the zero level of private property).

This last point brings me to what I think is the real crux of the matter: Is air travel a form of public transportation, or is air travel an extension of private life? Can it function effectively as an equilibrium of both, or are these two things incommensurate (or at least in high tension) on some base level? In other words, how much are private lives translatable into public spaces as ethereal and interpenetrating as the air? Civil aviation, which literally takes airspace as its medium and message, has come to signal a crisis point where private lives can never be adequately defended—neither in theory, nor in practice.

The most nuanced response to these various concerns might very well be reflected by a certain ambivalence: On the one hand, yes, we must admit that the latest safety procedures verge on the absurd, they strip citizens of their rights to privacy, and they arguably do nothing to make flying any safer. On the other hand, though, we should legitimately wonder if these analytic categories—absurdity, privacy, and safety—in fact have ceased to be useful measuring devices when we are dealing with something as tenuous, as globally complex, and as intimately shared as air travel. (Of course, if we were to admit this, we then would have to think seriously about land travel...and the politics of 'land' in general.)

If we were to take air travel seriously as a form of public transportation—if we acknowledged our flying selves as a kind of ungrounded body politic, and not simply as independently mobile cells—I wonder how this might shift the ways we talk about airport screening, and how it would complicate the various points of accountability and responsibility for all parties involved? In other words, what would happen if we were to take the air more seriously as an inescapably shared medium, a public space that we can never escape nor neatly privatize?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Libertarianism and Leaf Blowing: An Aporia

Tad Friend's recent New Yorker article on the suburban politics of leaf blowing suggests a very troubling state of affairs ("Blowback," October 25). The article pits quiet-loving citizens against "the libertarians" who want to be able to pay gardeners to leaf blow because it is the cheapest (i.e. fastest) way to have an immaculate yard.

And yet what Friend's reporting reveals is that all parties involved exhibit a staunchly libertarian ethos. For the leaf blower advocates, this comes across most obviously as a fierce protection of private property: no one should be able to coerce another individual to spend his or her money in a prescribed way. As for the opponents of leaf blowers, their corralling of ostensibly scientific evidence (including careful measurements of decibel levels and toxic "nanoparticles") represents another, if more subtle, form of libertarianism: this preference-based science is flouted as cultural capital, where the goal is still, finally, to protect private property.

The rights of the individual and the fierce protection of private property are thus effectively gained by dollars, or by scientific sense. This might explain, in part, the surge of the Tea Party candidates in this current election season: across seeming political divides, libertarianism wells up in strong individual feelings. Unfortunately, as Friend's article aptly shows, such an uncompromising philosophy of the individual and private property does not translate very well to living together; libertarianism is far better suited to living apart. (As if that were ever an option.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Anticipating the Ecological Thought

This week I am hosting one of my mentors from UC Davis, Timothy Morton, who is giving a talk at Loyola University New Orleans. His talk in entitled Hyperobjects, and it deals with, in Tim's words, how, industry and technology have created and discovered phenomena that are massively distributed across time and space: the BP oil slick, global warming, evolution, nonlocality (in quantum theory), radiation.... These “hyperobjects” pose huge problems for humans, not only in terms of how to deal with plutonium or global warming, for example, but also in terms of how they defy normative understandings about what “objects” are in the first place. In particular, hyperobjects compel us to think beyond the confines of anthropocentric philosophy. I shall explore how to address the challenges hyperobjects pose.
The talk stems from Tim's most recent book, The Ecological Thought, which argues that we need to radically rethink the mesh of interconnectedness that is existence. But I suspect Tim's talk will also push into new territory—namely the ground (or non-ground) of "object-oriented ontology," or what goes by OOO for short. (There's an impressively clear definition of OOO here.)

In my critical theory course this semester, with Tim's work in mind, I have been trying to plot some anticipatory moments in earlier texts.

So, for instance, in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin posits: "The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology." The 'here' in this statement is the culture where reproducible art is created for masses; Benjamin seems to be saying that in such a culture, it is rare to have an 'immediate' experience of 'reality', because people come to expect a certain type of heightened artifice as reality. (One wonders if iPhone apps and the like function as a contemporary analog? It's somehow more stimulating to watch a machine identify an overheard song, than to remember or figure it out myself.) Yet, the ecological thought pushes through this apparent divide, and finds the orchid and the land of technology to be intimately enmeshed, even growing out of one another. It's not that Benjamin was wrong, but rather that he sensed the limits of the concepts in play: reality, artifice, immediacy, technology...they were breaking down and congealing around him. It's as if Benjamin intuited the ecological thought.

This is a barely conceivable thought. It's like something cooked up by Sigmund Freud, who suggested that "an unconscious conception is one of which we are not aware, but the existence of which we are nevertheless ready to admit on account of other proofs of signs." The ecological thought emerges this way: by associations and metonymic chains that spread out and take on an overwhelming scope.

In a different context, when Frantz Fanon ponders his fraught subjectivity and states, "…in one sense, if I were asked for a definition of myself, I would say that I am one who waits; I investigate my surroundings, I interpret everything in terms of what I discover, I become sensitive."—this too reminds me of a moment akin to the ecological thought. There is a weird sense of hesitation implicit (or really, explicit) in this that seems to belie the urgency of the situation (for Fanon, "the fact of blackness"; for Morton, the ecological catastrophe). In Morton's words, "We shouldn't be afraid to withdraw and reflect" (ET, 9).

Fredric Jameson's "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" likewise contains a moment arguably anticipatory of the ecological thought, when he describes how certain new forms of representation stand "as something like an imperative to grow new organs to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions."

It is as if Don DeLillo has this in mind, or is unconsciously channeling Jameson, when, in his most recent novel Point Omega, he writes:
…Something’s coming. But isn’t this what we want? Isn’t this the burden of consciousness? We’re all played out. Matter wants to lose its self-consciousness. We’re the mind and the heart that matter has become. Time to close it all down. This is what drives us now. … We want to be the dead matter we used to be. We’re the last billionth of a second in the evolution of matter. … Look at us today. We keep inventing folk tales of the end. … We need to think beyond this. (50-51)
Against what first sounds vaguely apocalyptic, I want to suggest that this is no simplistic imperative, nor is it dismissive of human thought or action. There is something importantly mind blowing happening here, and it touches everything. Does this sound reductively expansive? Yes, but I think it is from within this paradoxical feeling that politics get tempered and beliefs are humbled, and the ecological thought can become praxis. What this praxis will actually look like? Well, we don't know yet. As Morton notes in the introduction of The Ecological Thought, "Like archaeologists of the future, we must piece together what will have been thought" (3). In such a piecing together, we have our work cut out for us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Express Yourself! Don't Change.

For anyone who cares about social justice, it should be a sickening fact that an astonishingly small percentage of the people in our country control such a disproportionate amount of the wealth. And even somewhat apolitical figures or what we might call 'progressive' companies take part in this, as SCS suggests in his shrewd post concerning The Fisher Collection of artworks, amassed over the years by the co-founders of The Gap clothing store. While the Fishers 'made their money' by means of ethical wages paid to workers around the globe, the immense value of the collection reflects just how much was systematically (even, again, 'ethically') extracted from these workers, as surplus value, and then used for other means—in this case, to buy art.

Another contemporary company that figures into this problem is the notorious social networking site Facebook. As Jose Antonio Vargas puts it succinctly in his recent New Yorker profile of the founder Mark Zuckerberg, "If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires." I have been grappling for several years with the phenomenon of Facebook (almost more of an epiphenomenon), willingly staying 'out of the loop', as it were. I have a hard time justifying my reluctance to 'join'—it is not like it would be any added expense, and as my friends tell me, I could just choose to limit my time on it, and maintain a very bare-bones profile.

And yet there is something about Facebook that still causes me to resist. Perhaps it relates to a point in Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, when he writes: "Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production." The "consciousness" of Facebook would seem to be all of the things it allows for that are distracting at worst (like constant status updates), and pragmatic at best (e.g. connecting with other people in emergencies). However, the "contradictions of material life" that play out while these things go on are striking: by converting the notion of 'friends' into a commodity, Mark Zuckerbeg becomes worth billions of dollars; the members of Facebook, meanwhile, (re)acquire their friends.

To recast the words of Walter Benjamin, from only a slightly different context: Facebook "sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; [Facebook] seeks to give them an expression while preserving property."

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Contradictions of Modern Libertarianism

I read with great interest Jane Mayer’s illuminating and incisive profile of the arch-libertarians Charles and David Koch in The New Yorker a couple weeks ago. I'm particularly interested in this subject, because as an undergraduate I attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, a small private school that requires its students to attend free-market seminars, and where the recommended reading list includes works of Friedrich von Hayek, Frédéric Bastiat, etc. Thus I am well familiar with the strong rhetoric and provocative discourse that permeates the libertarian ethos. The college has a fantastic liberal arts core, but the hovering aura of libertarianism at times seemed to compromise the intellectual rigor of my actual classes.

I appreciated very much Mayer’s exposure of the deep contradictions that run through the heart of modern libertarianism. The promise is that everyone and anyone can rise up and exert individual creativity and independence; however, the real material structure of such a belief system requires that there be a privileged few (the likes of the Koch brothers) who disseminate and regulate these ideals from a position of extreme luxury. Meanwhile and always, a confused multitude is charged to struggle endlessly against mystified forces (such as the “socialist” Obama)—forces that are in fact energetically invented and covertly maintained from within. As Mayer indicates, modern libertarianism seems to require its own secret center, a form of government all the more insidious for its innumerable deceptions.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Most Important Things

I recently received a Hallmark card in the mail that said "The most important things in life are not things." The card basically was telling me that people are more important than mere 'things'. This sentiment rubs completely against the book I just finished reading, the political theorist Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.

Bennett suggests that all things are, well, things, and that far from this being a reductive or depressing situation, this in fact should open the way for new ways of being—even new ways of being mindful. Acknowledged and accepted as things, we might then engage more ethically and thoughtfully with other things...even things that escape our human scale, or slip away from consciousness.

The most important thing is to accept that we are things—and so is everything else. All things are things; and it might help us to act accordingly. Don DeLillo reflects on a similar idea in his most recent novel Point Omega: "Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have being. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone" (73).

As a retort to DeLillo, Bennett might propose that it is not a "mystical shift" that places "being in a stone"—rather, a vibrant thingliness infiltrates people as much as stones, and it is from this 'lower' level of shared being that we might rethink things—from stones to other creatures, from living trees to trashy litter. Bennett terms this philosophy "vital materialism," and it is a call "to consult nonhumans more closely…to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objects, testimonies, and propositions” (108).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Airport Paradoxes

I took the above picture sometime in the Summer of 2002, when I worked for SkyWest Airlines at the airport near Bozeman, Montana. Sometimes I would take a camera with me when I went to work at the airport, and between flights I'd take pictures like this one, in which there is nothing to see, really—just the drab tarmac against vague mountains and building clouds in the distance, and some empty baggage vehicles awaiting the next arrival.

One thing that has always struck me as odd is how people tend to talk about airports as awful places (especially after a long delay or a lost bag)—but when I suggest that perhaps air travel will cease because of how awful airports are, the same people are appalled, and refuse to entertain this notion. Indeed, people are often all too willing to reassert the eternal presence of airports and air travel (or if not quite eternal, at least perpetual, leading forever into the future of human existence).

Reflecting the common sense perception of airports as horrid sites are airport scenes in literature, in which these built spaces often are denigrated for being worst-case places.

For instance, one of Annie Proulx's satirical tales in her recent collection Fine Just The Way It Is performs this sort of airport reading. The story is called "I've Always Loved This Place," and it narrates a hilarious post-modern (or really, we might say post-western) Devil who rides around Hell on a golf cart and comes up with the idea "to upgrade the current facilities" (36). One of his plans is to renovate "the Welcome to Hell foyer" to include the "combined features of the world's worst air terminals, Hongqiao in Shanghai the ideal, complete with petty officials, sadomasochistic staffers, consecutive security checks of increasing harshness, rapidly fluctuating gate changes and departure times"...all of which ending with, "finally, a twenty-seven-hour trip in an antiquated and overcrowded bucket flying through typhoons while rivets popped against the fuselage" (40). The "finally" here takes us back to the everyday paradox of air travel, which is that the things that passengers (and laborers, for that matter) tolerate for the sake of air travel seem to be forgotten fairly soon after a travel stint (or a work shift) is complete. Or if not forgotten, the absurdities of airports get left in the baggage claim of the mind, where one can retrieve the stories at will, but these stories never quite accumulate into a cumulative critique.

What does Proulx's evil airport figuration have to do with Wyoming? This is a complex dynamic, something I am writing about in my current book on airports: the convergence of airport aesthetics and environmental awareness—here, the way that airport commonplaces become a foil for the rugged, pastoral beauty of the American West that Proulx is so effective at complicating, and exposing for its ideological pitfalls. Airports evoke or spur spatial awareness in all sorts of ways—usually not romantic, often more existential or even post-apocalyptic, and this awareness is all the more sensitive around airports that are supposed to deliver passengers to privileged spaces, like Wyoming.

I noticed another instance of an airport paradox in Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland. In this book, one particular airport scene follows the logic of what I call "terminal immaterial": how in literary representations airports can be put to use in such ways that the actual sociality and functional operations of airports do not even need to exist—the airport simply makes empty, open space for other observations (and usually grim ones, at that). Here is the passage from Netherland:
We turned south onto the unpopulated, quasi-rural section of Flatbush Avenue, where the road was lined with barren trees. Half a mile or so down, Chuck swung left through a wide gateway and onto a concrete private road. This lead to a no-man's-land of frozen bushes and scrubland. Another turn, leftward, led to an immense white emptiness. The snow had not been plowed from this portion of the road, and like a wagoner, Chuck steered and bumped us along in the hardened ruts of old tracks. A desolate, complex of buildings—warehouses, a tower—was now in view on the left. The sky, aswirl with fleet, darkening clouds, was magnified by the flat null steppe that lay to the east. If a troupe of Mongolian horsemen had appeared in the distance I would not have been shocked.

"Jesus," I said, "where are we?"

Chuck, both hands on the wheel, spurted the Cadillac forward. "Floyd Bennet Field, Brooklyn," he said.

As he spoke, the tower assumed a familiar outline. This was once an airfield, I realized. We were on an old taxiway. (80-81)

In the rambling first paragraph of this passage, the airfield lurks and looms at both the periphery and eventually as the center of the scene—the airport serves as a "barren," open space that actually startles the narrator into uttering "Jesus." For O'Neill, the airfield stands as a long detouring pathway to introducing the character Chuck and his obsession with the sport of cricket. The leveling out of landforms, and the stock masses of the old airport, create empty space and yet firm structure for developing the character of Chuck. The airport is simultaneously a blasted wasteland, and fertile narrative ground. The airport is counter-intuitively cast as an organic zero level: an "immense white emptiness"—almost a blank page. Idyllic, individualistic fantasies and the hard realities of cosmopolitanism are in friction throughout this post-9/11 novel; in this oblique airport scene, Western civilization is at once wiped away and exposed in stark, skeletal form.

One might also note the offhand, Orientalist gesture in both Proulx and O'Neill's airport readings: in each case, a specter of exoticized, 'Eastern' otherness is called into being by the airport space. The American West (or Western State) is vaguely threatened by a phantasmagorical Asia, either in the form of a super chaotic bustling international airport, or by ethnically authentic "horsemen" riding into the open terrain. This undercurrent suggests an anxiety about global space and flows, and thus there is a glimmer of something like ecology: how airports materially express the migrations and populations of our species. Here is another seeming airport paradox: airports comprise incredibly elaborate networks of culture, and yet at airports we can also locate a cipher for nature: how a species 'advances', and possibly, how it might fade away.

Works Cited
Joseph O'Neill, Netherland. New York: Pantheon Advance Reader's Edition, 2008.
Annie Proulx, Fine Just The Way It Is. New York: Scribner 2008.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Boy Detectives

Over the past month I have been reworking my current book project, a literary-critical study of airports. In particular, I have been drawing on some very helpful feedback from friends and mentors. So, in the midst of heavy duty rewriting and revision, it was very gratifying to receive in the mail a copy of the just published book The Boy Detectives: Essays on the Hardy Boys and Others, edited by Michael Cornelius. I wrote one of the chapters for this volume, and I was thrilled to see it in print.

My chapter is entitled "Terminal Immaterial: The Uncertain Subject of the Hardy Boys Airport Mysteries." In this essay I consider the roles of airports in three Hardy Boys detective stories, one from 1930s and two from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I find that these three garishly boyish representations of airports are in fact entirely consistent with (and no less philosophically complex than) the broader trends that I locate throughout my larger book project, tentatively called The Textual Life of Airports. In one chapter of my book project, I discuss the idea of "airport reading" as light, undemanding entertainment. In this sense, the Hardy Boys stories serve as excellent case studies for how the heaviness of airports infiltrates the lightness of everyday life in 20th-century U.S. culture.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Perspectivism in "The Vagrants"

Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants is a staggering work of narrative perspectivism. By this I mean to describe how the novel moves fluidly between many different characters; over the course of three hundred pages, each character gradually yet steadily takes hold, and becomes an ‘eye’ through which the reader starts to assemble a Chinese town called Muddy River.

In The Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche outlines this idea as such:
All seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing. The more emotions we allow to speak in a given matter, the more different eyes we can put on in order to view a given spectacle, the more complete will be our conception of it, the greater our “objectivity.”

Nietzsche’s scare-quoted objectivity is no less than the (of course impossible) sum total of perspectives—an impossibility that balloons when one considers the vast and myriad scales of perspective possible in this world. Indeed, in The Vagrants, even weather patterns attain a valid perspective, one that merges with the political consciousness of the human characters:
“In this period of indecision and uncertainty, old winter-weary snow began to melt. The ground became less solid, the black dirt oozing with moisture in the sunshine.” (179)

The ground that becomes "less solid" is at once the physical earth and epistemological foundations—the mindsets of those who are increasingly aware of the power struggles taking place in Muddy River during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The Vagrants has at least eight main characters—but that number can slide up to ten, or twelve, easily. In a quite fascinating way, Yiyun Li does not obey the logic of ‘main’ characters: any character is likely to become an eye or a mind through which we see or understand (or not) the world of Muddy River. The novel, in other words, permeates a range of characters—major and minor, there almost is no difference in terms of serious treatment. Anyone—and one is almost tempted to say anything—is potentially a real, noteworthy perspective to inhabit…whether that be for a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or across one of the broader narrative arcs of the novel. At the same time, the novel ranges over the geography of Muddy River, such that the landscape features, seasonal shifts, and animals themselves become narrative material—character vantage points, as it were. The characters—all the possible perspectives of a place—are expanded and carried out beyond limitations of age, class status, or even sentience. At one point in the novel, “Han sank into his parents’ sofa; a new television set, on its beautifully crafted stand, watched him like a dark, unblinking eye” (264). Here the perspective is given a startling rotation in 180 degrees: the character Han goes from seeing to being seen, by a TV—even better, a TV turned off. Later, in a brief passing paragraph, we meet the carpenter and his apprentice who built the TV stand, and see inside their thoughts about the work they were commissioned to do “without more than the minimum compensation” (281). Yiyun Li thus uses perspectivism to swivel around from subjects to objects, exposing the dynamics and mechanics of the social system at hand.

The Vagrants is full of philosophical images and mind-benders, and these often make the reader pause to consider the perspectives available through the lens of narrative. Often, when the novel comments on the work of language and storytelling, these enunciations come across as the most enigmatic and unclear. Take, for instance, the character Teacher Gu, who on his way to deliver a letter to the mailbox, mumbles to someone else: “Don’t ever believe in what’s written down” (275). Yiyun Li asks readers to think simultaneously about an event and its record, about how many ways an event can be seen, and how the act of retelling creates innumerable new points of view. The Vagrants does not advocate perspectivism as any kind of simple formula or positive philosophy, but rather shows perspectivism to be an inescapable condition. This is a condition that, when acknowledged and embraced, can lead to what Nietszsche elsewhere calls "slow reading": a decelerated mode of interpretation that keeps doors of thought open, and does not rush to easy conclusions. Yiyun Li's The Vagrants provides all the pleasures—as well as all the demands—of perspectival slow reading.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Summer Reading: "Quiet As They Come"

I have just finished reading Angie Chau’s tidally moving book Quiet As They Come, which will be on bookshelves this September. I call it "tidally moving" because, like James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room, Chau's book is a meditation on people trying to adjust to an unfamiliar continent, balancing newfound freedoms with bouts of disorientation—and constantly reflecting on ocean expanses and water movements that can both facilitate and bar transit back home.

Chau’s book resonates with echoes of Sandra Cisneros’s classic work The House on Mango Street, and also shows stylistic resemblances to Maxine Hong Kingston’s multi-generational narrative China Men. However, Chau’s book is really the closest in form and content to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In fact, Quiet As They Come should be appreciated in terms of its critical addition to O’Brien’s Vietnam War stories: Chau contributes another set of vital stories that emerged from that conflict. Through the shifting perspectives of Vietnamese family members who fled to San Francisco in the mid-1970s, Chau narrates the obverse side of the war...the distant ripple effects and far reaching consequences of a war that punctuated the age of modern globalization.

In chapter-stories that strategically accumulate over the course of the book, Chau tracks repercussions subtle and profound, deeply personal as well as complexly cultural in scope. There is so much going on in this book, from the Vietnamese cuisine delectably sprinkled throughout in surprising ways, to the eccentric focus on minute images, such as a mother's "perfume samples that will never know the inside of a wrist, old keys that open forgotten doors" (164), or a high school gym class in which "everyone wore blue short shorts with a serial number on the right leg" (135). Chau does not deploy these images gratuitously; the reader finds that every image is placed tactfully (but quietly, as it were) in the broader composition of the narrative.

For my purposes here, I wish to give attention to one key aspect of Quiet As They Come. What struck me while reading the book and sorting out the characters in my mind was how most of the characters find themselves brushing up against American pop culture—to varying degrees of influence, numbness, and mania. For instance, Chau surrounds her characters with the ever-present, synaesthetic buzz of television, a media form that the characters experience as both enchanting and oppressive, as a sign of status and as a phenomenological sinkhole.

One character, Huong, sits on a couch "with her remote control, vigilantly watching the twenty-four hour news channel, waiting for the next cruel blow to hit" (72). This scene is especially stinging when one considers the Vietnamese American shrimp fishermen on the Louisiana Gulf Coast in the ongoing aftermath of the April 20, 2010 oil rig explosion—at once a heavily mediatized and an intensely immediate event, a "next cruel blow" that resonates poignantly with the tension points that Chau catalogs throughout Quiet As They Come.

Another character, Viet, was a philosophy professor in Vietnam—but is relegated to a monotonous job at the post office in San Francisco, where he stands over a bin, "sorting mail by zip code" (69). His life follows a downward spiral in which TV functions as a visually dominating vortex. This is Viet's daughter, Elle:
I came home and asked my parents, "Why don't we talk more?"

My father said, "We talk plenty." He switched back to the TV.

One day I said, "We watch too much TV."

My Father said, "But we watch TV to improve our English. You said you wanted us to talk more." (102)

Chau thus outlines the viciously circular logic of an advanced consumer society, in which TV constrains possible forms of life by presenting illusions of total knowledge and infinite access.

Still another character, Duc, held captive and tortured in Vietnam, is finally reunited with his family in San Francisco only to find himself still prisoner to post-traumatic stress syndrome, a condition refracted back to him on the TV screen, and routed through his somatic engagement with the media form:
In the living room, Duc changed the channels incessantly. Images flickered by of human bodies loving or abusing each other. He stared ahead with the television set on mute. All the while his thumb beat on the buttons, click, click, clicking." (112)

This scene recalls a similar moment in Louise Erdrich's story "The Red Convertible," when the main character Lyman buys a color TV set and finds it to be the only thing that can tranquilize his Vietnam war veteran brother, Henry:
He sat in front of it, watching it, and that was the only time he was completely still. But it was the kind of stillness that you see in a rabbit when it freezes and before it will bolt. He was not easy. He sat in his chair gripping the armrests with all his might, as if the chair itself was moving at a high speed and if he let go at all he would rocket forward and maybe crash right through the set.

Once I was in the room watching TV with Henry and I heard his teeth click at something. I looked over, and he'd bitten through his lip. Blood was going down his chin.

Like Erdrich, Chau lingers on the "clicking" strain between the television and war scarred soldier: the TV soothes the sufferer of PTSD, but being transfixed does not equal being healed. Indeed, Duc does not easily assimilate back into his family, and this thread of the story becomes one of the intentionally elided chapters of Chau's book.

Chau's TV scenes illuminate what the French theorist Guy Debord refers to as the Society of the Spectacle. In such a society, Debord suggests, "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." The detailed TV, pop music, and Hollywood allusions in Quiet As They Come forward a sociology—as well as a media ecology—of the characters. We see how the characters are not simply or blandly 'Americanized,' but rather how their interactions and self-expressions are actually produced (and reproduced) by the matrix of sounds and images that swirl out of the television sets blaring around them—Chau's characters adapt to inhabit the increasingly immersive TV environment of the 70s, 80s, and 90s U.S. culture. (This use of TV is in the lineage of Hal Ashby's 1979 film Being There, with its constant, ambient use of television clips that at once hollow out and completely form the main character Chance the Gardener, played by Peter Sellers.) In the last chapter of Quiet As They Come, on her first visit back to Vietnam, Elle observes inside a rustic outhouse: "There is Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, a Vietnamese newspaper, a Japanese comic book, and an Italian porno mag to choose from: a true global village" (181). Also in the final chapter, while on a ferry, Elle observes tourists standing on the deck of the boat, and notes: "We all know the poses. We learned them from watching the Titanic" (185). Consistently and throughout Quiet As They Come, Chau pays attention to the ways that media forms interpenetrate and interpellate her characters, actually forming social relations.

In tracking how her characters drift into mainstream American culture, Angie Chau has written a book that confluences elegantly with the currents of contemporary U.S. fiction. The book is both an endearing account of a becoming-American family's survival, and a nuanced report on the deracination and integration of Vietnamese individuals in a new place, namely the San Francisco bay area—with all the personal connections, emotional fragmentations, pop culture explosions, and social fissures that occur along the way.

(Page numbers cited here are from the advance reading copy.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writing in Michigan

I am going to be in northern Michigan this summer, living in a "writing cabin" of sorts. I am working to finish a draft of my book manuscript, a revised and expanded version of my dissertation, which was entitled "Airport Reading."*

I'm thinking of calling the book The Textual Life of Airports. It is a book about airport stories. It is about the common narratives of airports that circulate in everyday life, and about the secret stories of airports—the strange or hidden narratives that do not always fit into standard ideas of these sites. I locate these airport stories primarily in American literature, and I argue that literary representations reveal what I call “the textual life” of airports. This textual life is an interpretive aspect of airports that often rubs against common sense understandings of what airports symbolize. My book on airports is unique in that it uses literature not merely as one form of cultural representation among many; rather, I turn to literature as a critical material for thinking about how airports function culturally, psychologically, philosophically—and finally, environmentally.

*I'm also thinking of recycling the title "Airport Reading," and using it for a very short non-fiction book about my time working at the airport in Bozeman, Montana. This book would contain the stories of the strange things I saw and did 'behind the scenes', as it were, at the airport. I wrote these stories during the time that the poet Mark Yakich and I were collaborating on a book on flight—a book that could never quite get off the ground...perhaps because it was so interested in plane crashes—a subject that is not exactly "light reading."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Of Wolves and Men

Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men was a National Book Award finalist when it was first published in 1978, and this book has come to exemplify the author’s truly interdisciplinary style: his works deftly fuse literary acumen with ecological awareness and ethnography. Of Wolves and Men is not just about wolves, but about how little is actually known about wolves—in other words, Lopez is interested in the mythologies that circulate around wolves. And, of course, humans are the creators of mythologies, so the book is just as much about humans. The book is also about how humans visualize wolves: Lopez’s writing is woven around visual culture, from historical photographs, to an Eskimo print of wolves eating a caribou (84), to illustrations of the wolf and the crane attached to the eponymous Aesopian fable (260).

Lopez introduces his book by placing the act of writing in the foreground, and thereby seeking to embed the reader in a detailed (if also entirely mediated) environment:
I am in a small cabin outside Fairbanks, Alaska, as I write these words. The cold sits down like iron here, and the long hours of winder darkness cause us to leave a light on most of the day. Outside, at thirty below, wood for the stove literally pops apart at the touch of the ax. I can see out across the short timber of the taiga when I am out there in the gray daylight. (1)

This is a prime example of what the literary scholar Timothy Morton calls “ecomimesis,” or when environmental writing attempts to “break the spell of language” and “go beyond the aesthetic dimension” (30–31). Lopez is calling on his readers to get into a scene—or as his next sentence puts it, “Go out there” (1). The ‘there’ in this sentence is both the Alaskan terrain and the inside of the book, a landscape of the mind. Lopez acknowledges a distance from his subject (he is writing here, not looking at wolves) precisely in order to achieve “a sense of the surrounding environment, not by being less artful, but more so” (Morton, 31). This is a common tactic throughout Of Wolves and Men, by which Lopez reminds his readers that, finally, the real environment of this text is not the behaviors and habitats of wolves, but rather the (un)knowing human mind in relation to all things wolves. As Lopez writes: “…in the wolf we have not so much an animal that we have always known as one that we have consistently imagined” (204).

Thus Lopez starts the first chapter with a visual directive to the reader: “Imagine a wolf moving though the northern woods…” (9). The following paragraph goes on to flesh out this imaginary scene, and the sentences are rife with figurative language: “The wolf’s body, from neck to hips, appears to float over the long, almost spindly legs and the flicker of wrists, a bicycling drift through the trees, reminiscent of the movement of water or of shadows” (9). The third paragraph, however, strikes a quite different note, scientific and declarative: “The wolf is three years old. A male. He is of the subspecies occidentalis, and the trees he is moving among are spruce and subalpine fir on the eastern slope of the Rockies in northern Canada (10). This type of stylistic shift is characteristic of how the environmental critic Lawrence Buell has described Lopez, as a “roaming” ethnographer, “gleaning insights more from interdisciplinary study and place-based informants…than from staying put” (69). Of Wolves and Men follows an indeterminate yet cumulative pattern of roaming between personal narratives, rumors, pictures, field accounts, and observations. This methodology allows Lopez to draw something of an open perimeter around his subject, which he defines as “a variable creature” (83).

The literary scholar Susan Kollin has shown how “…Lopez dismantles notions of Alaska as a pastoral or wilderness retreat, a place somehow cut off from the rest of the United States or the world” (46). So while certain passages from Of Wolves and Men linger on classic environmental imagery and specific ecosystems, the book continually shifts ground, requiring the reader to recalibrate and come to terms with outlying horizons of knowledge and experience. Indeed, Of Wolves and Men focuses on the lore and legends of wolves in order to expand a general sense of consciousness about how humans, in Lopez’s words, “…struggle to come to grips with the nature of the universe” (204). The scope of this book is at once narrowly focused on wolves, and almost endlessly expansive.

In one section Lopez explains a social phenomenon between wolves and ravens: ravens will often follow wolf tracks in order to discover (and clean up) fresh kills. In the next few paragraphs, Lopez follows this ecological dynamic into the realm of play, and relates stories of how ravens and wolves have been observed to tease one another and engage in games of tag, for fun (67–68). Such a move from scientific documentation to fanciful speculation is a signature feature of Lopez’s writing.

As Peter Wild writes in his book on Lopez, “Of Wolves and Men, founded on the premise that men have created varying concepts of wolves, tells perhaps more about the human psyche than it does about the physical wolf loping along in isolation through the centuries” (26). Of Wolves and Men appears to have a fairly traditional ‘environmental’ subject, yet there are ways in which this book can be understood to have anticipated contemporary intersections between critical theory and environmental studies, such as recent discussions of the human–animal conjunction (e.g. Agamben, Derrida, Haraway, & Wolfe). Near the end of the book, Lopez writes:
I think, as the twentieth century comes to a close, that we are coming to an understanding of animals different from the one that has guided us for the past three hundred years. We have begun to see again, as our primitive ancestors did, that animals are neither imperfect imitations of men nor machines that can be described entirely in terms of endocrine secretions and neural impulses. Like us, they are genetically variable, and both species and the individual are capable of unprecedented behavior. They are like us in the sense that we can figuratively talk of them as beings some of whose forms, movements, activities, and social organizations are analogous, but they are no more literally like us than are trees. (283–284)

This passage shows what the philosophical stakes are for Lopez in taking animality seriously as a subject of investigation; these sentences also demonstrate how, for Lopez, the wolf is both utterly unique and also a metonymy for life at large.

Of Wolves and Men is a hybrid manifesto on behalf of “human inquiry” and against “dogmatic certainty” (285), and its resistance to be strictly defined in terms of any one genre is in part what makes it such a significant environmental literary text. Barry Lopez’s work ranges across diverse subjects and fields of speculation, as one can tell from his more recent short story collections Field Notes and Light Action in the Caribbean. Of Wolves and Men offers an early indicator of how Lopez’s environmental sensibility functions as an elastic point of consciousness: it is both the space between humans and the world, and that which makes the two inseparable.


Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man & Animal. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.
Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.
Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Kollin, Susan. Nature’s State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Lopez, Barry. Of Wolves and Men. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.
Wild, Peter. Barry Lopez. Boise: Boise State University, 1984.
Wolfe, Cary. “Flesh and Finitude: Thinking Animals in (Post)Humanist Philosophy.” SubStance Issue 117 (Volume 37, Number 3), 2008.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Environmental Dimensions of Hemingway

In this post, I wish to discuss the environmental-theoretical significance of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). I am using this post as an occasion to redress some of the offhand associations that the name "Hemingway" evokes, and to expand appreciation for how Hemingway's writing might be contextualized in terms of environmental theory.

From his birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway went on to explore and write about environments all around the world. In 1918 Hemingway volunteered as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross; he was assigned to Italy, where he was wounded by a trench mortar near the front lines. Many of Hemingway’s early works reflect on the horrors of WWI, particularly as these experiences and memories get filtered through a return to familiar rural and domestic American settings. Hemingway’s prose is an icon of Modernism, bringing an acute sense of the art of language to bear on the overwhelming realities of the first half of the 20th-century.

Hemingway wrote about fiestas and guerrilla fighters in Spain (The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls), Parisian café life (A Moveable Feast), and Caribbean culture in the Florida Keys and Cuba (To Have and Have Not and the posthumously published Islands in the Stream). The author pays close attention to environmental details, regularly lingering on animals, weather, food, and landforms as focal points for his stories. Hemingway spent portions of his childhood in Northern Michigan, and this ecosystem figures heavily in many of his works. For instance, in numerous short stories Hemingway casts his semiautobiographical character Nick Adams at different ages near the shorelines of Lake Michigan, where Nick experiences both epiphanies and existential dread in this glacially formed landscape. The literary scholar Thomas Strychacz has noted how Hemingway’s Northern Michigan scenes rely on concepts of nature inherited from Native Americans as well as from American Transcendentalism (82). Hemingway’s Northern woods serve as spiritual registers even when the characters themselves seem spiritually devoid.

However, beyond mere recapitulations of older traditions, a distinctly Modernist concept of the environment emerges from Hemingway’s oeuvre, as well. For instance, A Moveable Feast begins:
Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. (3)

This passage starts out with clear seasonal imagery involving rainstorms, temperature shifts, and plant life—and then ends in a gritty city with public transit and obscured visibility. In a characteristically Modernist fashion, Hemingway presents a nature that is fragmented and eludes objectification: the natural environment surrounds, flows through, and encompasses human culture, such as in this description of Paris.

Hemingway is often cited for his aura of outdoorsy masculinity, but it is key to understand that he was first and foremost a writer. Hemingway was just as taken (if not more so) with the wildness of words as he was with trout, tigers, and rugged terrain. The Hemingway scholar Peter Hays puts it succinctly as such: “his greatest accomplishment was with language” (137). Where one might assume, then, that the obvious scenes of hiking, fishing, boating, or hunting are what make Hemingway’s works environmentally significant, a subtle and pervasive wilderness also exists for Hemingway at the level of the writing. As the literary theorist Fredric Jameson has shown, the form of Hemingway’s writing complicates what can otherwise seem to be simplistic descriptions of the natural world (408–413). Indeed, Hemingway’s writing is almost always as interested in language itself as it is in whatever subject the writing appears to be about. It is useful therefore to think about Hemingway as a writer who encountered language itself environmentally.

Consider the first sentences of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about the Spanish Civil War:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

“Is that the mill?” he asked.

“Yes.” (1)

While upon first glance this novel appears to begin with a relatively simple and elegant depiction of an alpine vista, the words are also extremely self-involved. These sentences pose implicit questions about the most basic qualities of sight, space, sound, and communication. The opening dialogue is somewhat redundant, since the first paragraph reports the mill, and then a nameless “he” rhetorically questions this report, only to be reassured “Yes”—it is really the mill. Language is working overtime to set the scene: the word “mill” points at the setting of the novel as well as at the very words used to tell the story. Such meditations on language and perception are a constant preoccupation in Hemingway’s works, and are often evinced through sheer repetition. When Hemingway repeats words or sentences, he is calling attention to the medium of language. This intense sense of one’s artistic material is not only indicative of high Modernist aesthetics (related to how cubists worked to foreground the two-dimensionality of paintings), but it also signals an awareness of how the environment and language are entangled. Actual pine needles have feeling against the skin similar to how the alliterative words ”summer sunlight” appear to the mind’s eye or sound to the ear. Hemingway’s writing fixates on irreducible thresholds between the external world and the human mind, and in this regard the works are key environmental literary texts.

Another compelling environmental aspect of Hemingway’s writings is how his style is often described through recourse to a natural metaphor: the “iceberg” theory. Hemingway considered that as only the ‘tip’ or 1/8 of an iceberg is exposed above the surface of water, likewise writing should not reveal everything, but should only express the bare-minimum of action, dialogue, and plot. Meanwhile, the remaining 7/8, the bulk of thought, feeling, and emotion remains hidden under the surface of the text (c.f. Death In the Afternoon, 192). This schema imagines language itself as a kind of environment: a cold, deep sea in which massive icebergs drift, poking out from the page but hiding a lot, too. Such a framework posits an extra layer of environmental imagery on top of the content of writing. According to the iceberg theory, acts of writing are reflections of an arctic phenomenon, no matter what a story is about.

For example, The Sun Also Rises catalogues a seemingly endless series of drunken parties and inane conversations among American expatriates in Europe. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg; an accumulation under the surface of the words is made up of the exorbitant violence of WWI, a sense of despair at the futility of so-called ‘progress’, and general cynicism concerning the viability of romantic love in the modern world. At one point in the novel, when the main character Jake and his friend Bill are headed on a fishing excursion in the hills near the Basque town of Burguete, Hemingway provides the following account of their walk, a strong example of classic environmental imagery:
It was a beech wood and the trees were very old. Their roots bulked above the ground and the branches were twisted. We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big, and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth grass, very green and fresh, and the big gray trees well spaced as though it were a park.

“This is country,” Bill said. (122)

Just before this passage the two had been bantering playfully—but when Bill mentioned Jake’s war wound, the conversation was shut down. The novel transitions into a picturesque landscape scene as a way to avoid Jake’s inner-subjective quagmires; this avoidance is reflected in Hemingway’s use of apophasis, or the rhetoical technique of mentioning of things claimed to be not present (no gloominess, no undergrowth), drawing the reader’s attention to these things while also claiming that they are absent. Bill’s understated pronouncement that what surrounds them “is country” marks the dialogic iceberg’s suggestive tip. There is a lot left unsaid: a critical mass concealed and congealed beneath a surface of words that deflects our attention to a spectacular (but incidental) forest. The iceberg theory reveals the operative environment to be not just in the greenery of this passage but also how it functions: the verdant description suggests a vast and looming world of things, only some of which can be glimpsed through words.

Hemingway’s works are highly sophisticated in terms of their environmental aesthetics. Hemingway was obviously enthralled by landscapes and animals, but it is essential to realize that language itself was just as captivating to the writer, and just as wild.


Hays, Peter. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner, 1964.
---------. Death In the Afternoon. New York: Scribner, 1932.
---------. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner, 1940.
---------. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1926.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.
Strychacz, Thomas. “In Our Time, Out of Season.” The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nothing Beside Remains

I presented a version of the following essay at the American Comparative Literature Association conference on April 3 2010, on a panel called "Cosmopolitan SciFi: Reevaluating the Urban through Technology & Culture."

* * *

In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, the world is in tatters and ruins. The remains of an advanced civil society are visible in rare Coke cans, wobbly-wheeled grocery carts, occasional jars of food, and a skein of empty roads, bridges, and streets that wend through the blasted terrain. The Road is not a science fiction allegory of a world like ours; rather, this novel is a gloomy prediction of a future to come that is very much grounded in our present. In this essay I consider what remains within the post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road. By focusing on what remains in the bleak and near future-scape, I argue that we can better understand how the present functions as a repository for a certain kind of apocalypticism.

Early in the novel, the man and the boy trudging "south" encounter an abandoned supermarket with “a few old cars in the trashstrewn parking lot” (22). This is a standard landscape setting for the novel, and the pervasive emptiness of the geography causes the remains to appear in stark relief. For example, in the supermarket the man makes a precious discovery:
By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar. Coins everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat. For you.
What is it?
Here. Sit down.
He slipped the boy’s knapsack straps loose and set the pack on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the aluminum clip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.
The boy took the can. It’s bubbly, he said.
Go ahead.
He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said. (23)

The narrative buildup to this scene causes the Coke can to be a glistening feature in the overwhelmingly drab topography of the novel. However, the Coke can is hardly a good omen. With its stark singularity and its “slight fizz,” the soda drink functions as a bittersweet reminder of mass production and consumer culture—indeed, in this scene the man and the boy take pleasure in the very sort of object that has tilted humans toward a catastrophic contemporaneity.

When the man and the boy later approach a deserted city, they see “long concrete sweeps of the interstate exchanges like the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk” (24). The roadways here are depicted in a strange hyperbolic form, as they are in fact “ruins”…but not of any “vast funhouse”—unless this “funhouse” is the very Lady Gaga-esque phantasmagoria of neo-liberalism itself, that hyper-serious state that promises privatization, inalienable individuality, and endless accessories. It is precisely this sense of the centered, knowing self that is challenged by what remains in The Road—or in many cases, what no longer remains. At once point, the man is pondering the de-linking taking place between his memory and the world:
The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever. (89)

Here, the existence of things is directly tied to their names; when the signifiers go, that means that the ‘reality’ has gone, too. The prediction is not hopeful for a world of things whose idiom has lost its value. Shortly thereafter in the novel, an instance of this occurs such that we can see the process taking place:
He looked at the boy. I’ve got to go for more wood, he said. I’ll be in the neighborhood. Okay?
Where’s the neighborhood.
It just means I wont be far.
Okay. (95)

The word “neighborhood” has lost its meaning for the boy, for whom “neighborhood” means nothing in a landscape of dead wood and charred roads. The idea of the neighborhood remains intact for the man, but the boy contradicts this idea, and shows it to be a mere remnant of thought, no longer remaining as material reality.

In The Road we often see these threshold remains that splinter the distinctions between the mental and physical, thought and things. For instance:
They passed through towns with messages scrawled on the billboards. The billboards had been whited out with thin coats of paint in order to write on them and through the paint could be seen a pale palimpsest of advertisements for goods which no longer existed. (127-128)

The billboards and their layered meanings indicate what the narrative calls “the richness of a vanished world” (139)—this is a fraught richness, a textual surface that is both dense with meaning and but also evacuated, and losing significance everyday. The narrative meanders through this world in a documentary fashion, noting “odd things scattered by the side of the road. Electrical appliances, furniture. Tools” (199). Toward the end of the novel, the scenes continue to degrade, time turning into “days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire” (273).

At one point along the way, the man and the boy discuss the fate of “the states” and the geophysical tenacity of “the road.” While the state-level governmental systems of the U.S. have collapsed, the road remains with nothing to “uproot” it, at least not “for quite a while,” as the man remarks. This conversation is sparked by a physical arrangement of the roadmap that the man and the boy use to travel south:
The tattered oilcompany roadmap had once been taped together but now it was just sorted into leaves and numbered with crayon in the corners for their assembly. He sorted through the limp pages and spread out those that answered to their location.
We cross a bridge here. It looks to be about eight miles or so. This is the river. Going east. We follow the road here along the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the black lines on the map. The state roads.
Why are they the state roads?
Because they belong to the states. What used to be called the states.
But there’s not any more states?
What happened to them?
I dont know exactly. That’s a good question.
But the roads are still there.
Yes. For a while.
How long a while?
I dont know. Maybe quite a while. There’s nothing to uproot them so they should be okay for a while.
But there wont be any cars or trucks on them.
Okay. (42-43)

The Road demonstrates how civil society—even in its decline—cannot be disentangled from the ecological baseline of the world. The lack of living roots are as much of an absent force on "the state roads" as the absence of operable "cars or trucks." Likewise, for the man and the boy the icy rains and gray skies are as hostile and looming as the scattered hoards of other people who threaten to rob, kill, and/or eat them. There is a productive ambiguity about the novel in the way that the cause of the apocalyptic shift is kept obscure, thus allowing for the human presence to be the flashpoint for apocalyptic imagery, and also a sort of mere medium through which we understand apocalyptic effects (climate change, food scarcity, unchecked violence, contaminated water, etc.). In other words, the apocalypse has both already occurred in the novel, and is ongoing. The narrative through-line of “the road” accommodates this temporal stutter, serving as a space that remains functional, and yet also registers as an ambience of social breakdown with its noticeable lack of vehicles punctuated by vehicles in various states of decay, such as a wrecked semi-truck on the bridge with its trailer full of dead bodies, or the burnt and hollow cars that mark the edge of a ruined city.

What is utterly unsettling about The Road is that it takes place entirely in a landscape of remains, and posits remaining as a state of being. The novel renders completely obsolescent notions of progress, whether in the geographical sense or in a moral, personal, or governmental sense. Whereas one reading of the novel’s ending highlights a note of hope and possibility for survival, I would like to suggest that the novel undercuts its own teleological promise by being, consistently and throughout, a narrative based on remains: things remain, whether they be human or not, whether humans are able to adapt to remaining conditions, or not.

The question of what remains can be used to map post-apocalyptic science fiction on an axis of things and thoughts that remain—or how such remains usher in different thoughts, different things. We can think about how texts in this genre retain or repurpose things and ideas from the present—or, conversely, how texts empty landscapes of familiar features, and reconfigure the minds of characters. In The Road, not much remains, and what does remain takes on a weathered, dated aura—the novel does not reify the Coke bottle or the burnt out vehicles along the road. Rather, these objects reflect the reality of finitude, and as remains, they facilitate the awareness on behalf of the man and the boy that the Earth will never be as it was. We can take this novel as a precautionary tale, or as a dire prediction. But what I want to linger on is how The Road unravels a landscape very present and real to us. Nothing in the novel is alien or otherworldly, and yet everything is shown to be in a state of ruin. The remains come from us, now. What is different is that their functions, values, and styles have been reduced to nearly a zero-level.

I would like to end by discussing very briefly James Cameron’s recent blockbuster movie Avatar. This film, too, takes place in a terrain of remains, even as it ostensibly envisions a futuristic, distant moon where people are blue and mountains float in the sky. While a wasted Earth is alluded to at one point in the film, what we see on the moon Pandora is a wealth of earthly remains: normal military bases, buzzing command centers, edgy science labs, computer stations, recognizable video recording technologies and familiar machine guns, even nicely pressed men’s clothes on the corporate boss played by Giovanni Ribisi.

The plot of Avatar is supposed to take place 145 years from the present, and yet everything appears eerily the same: in short, everything of the present remains. As if to entirely and ridiculously over-determine this point of present remains, when the smart ecosystem of Pandora decides to revolt against the humans, we even get a rendition of a ubiquitous aviation problematic from our contemporary moment: bird strikes. In the movie, large flying reptiles hurl themselves like martyrs into the warplanes and helicopters of the human army, causing explosions, crashes, and general pandemonium. But we have seen this before, in the images of Captain Sully’s Airbus floating in the Hudson River, and in numerous other stories disseminated since, documenting how birds and planes do not mix. My point here is that even in the most fantastical moment of Avatar—the spiritualized ecosystem of Pandora turning against the machines—it is nevertheless an insistence that what is now, will remain.

The Road, on the other hand, takes place maybe a few years in the future. What remains in The Road are worn out objects and manufactured items kept in meager circulation by a diminishing thread of human agency. The natural world remains, largely in hibernation or in a state of scalded holding. Human agency remains, but The Road suggests that this is on its way out. The Road is far scarier than Avatar, as it does not allegorize or push our fate into a future beyond our present generation. Science fiction texts grapple with the question of remains, but what they do with these remains makes a world of a difference—for reception as well as for ‘meaning’—if meaning still remains at all, which is another pressing question for our contemporary moment.


Cited: Cormac McCarthy, The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Monday, April 5, 2010

On Myths of the English Degree & Myths in General

Recently I was asked to give a talk to English majors at Loyola about what they can "do" with an English degree. The poster for the event suggested that I would help to "debunk" English degree myths. I used this as a jumping off point for my talk, which is here:


I was surprised to see on the poster for this event that it would debunk the “myths of the English degree”—but this got me thinking about my presentation tonight, in which I will suggest a kind of inverted relationship to this standard notion about earning an English degree, and that there are ‘myths’ peculiar to it as a field of study. In short, this is my thesis: it is not the “myths of the English degree” that we should worry about; rather, what we need to think about carefully and critically is the strange way that being an English major seems to produce a unique sort of ontological anxiety: What does it mean to ‘be’ an English major? What will I ‘do’ with the English degree? How useful—or, what I really fear, useless—is this degree? How will I know if I am using my English degree to have a meaningful life?

These types of questions haunt the English major in a distinct way—well, along with the philosophy major, perhaps. Think of Sofia Coppola’s joke about this in her film Lost In Translation, when the bored and aimless Scarlett Johansson explains to Bill Murray that she was a philosophy major, and he says, sarcastically, “I hear there’s a real racket in that.” Or, as another example, in my very first college English class, the professor stood in the front of the class and said “People will always ask you what you can do with an English degree. Here’s what to say: Tell them you can do anything with an English degree.” I don’t remember if that inspired me, or if I thought it was bullshit—but now, at some remove, I wonder why my professor started a Great Books course on this weirdly anxious occupational note? Did this really assist us in our readings of ancient Greek epics and tragedies? Why do we feel the need to carry around these fears of “what we are going to do” after college? And can we dispel such fears at an event such as this one?

Here is part of the problem: it is so ingrained in our culture to think that earning an English or a philosophy degree is a deficiency, a kind of booby prize in the collegiate competition that should result in a buttoned-down practicality called ‘real life’. Or, such degrees are only for misanthropes and agitators—these worries are so culturally ingrained that one finds it difficult to speak concretely about how this problem arises in the first place, not to mention what to do about it.

My hunch is that the “myths of the English degree” are in fact not the myths we need to fixate on. These very myths might even serve a hyper-real function in the first place. Allow me to explain what I mean by this statement, that the “myths of the English degree” function as a hyper-reality.

In his book Simulacra and Simulation, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has a brilliant argument about Disneyland, in which he suggests that while we think we know that Disneyland is a fake place, and thereby we can appreciate the reality of society outside the theme park, it is actually something like the reverse that is true. Baudrillard points out that all the processes and experiences of Disneyland are really very familiar to daily life: in the theme park, you purchase tickets to participate in certain events, you stand in line to wait for rides, you interact with people in absurd costumes, and you abide by basic geographic sensibilities that assure you that the rules of Disneyland rely on certain physical boundaries and topographical features (think of Space Mountain, or a plastic “wild river” rapid). While these experiences may be exaggerated in the setting of the theme park, they in fact mimic parts of everyday life: we drive around in cars called the Honda Odyssey, the Ford Focus, or the Toyota Matrix; we wait in line at Starbucks to use a clever credit card to buy a personalized, frothy drink; the person behind the counter at Starbucks wears a little outfit that assures us that we are in a special place, experiencing something real, Italian; we abide by the rules of grassy lawns and sidewalks, overpasses and “scenic views.” Baudrillard argues that whereas we commonly think of Disneyland as fake, and as opposed to the rest of the real world, it would more accurate to say that Disneyland functions as a “hyper-real” site: it is just like the ‘real world’, and even more so, by consolidating everything we know from daily life, and presenting it to us in embellished form. In other words, we require the allegedly fake ridiculousness of Disneyland so that we do not question the ridiculousness of the things and processes in so-called ‘real life’. The myths of Disneyland reproduce and reflect the myths of real life, such that it is incorrect to think that Disneyland is fake: rather, Disneyland is the realm of the hyper-real—it is all the more real because it shows us the reality we’ve constructed around us.

I want to make an analogous claim about the “myths of the English degree.” When people talk in nervous or vapid ways about the English degree, and what you can or cannot ‘do’ with it, they are really articulating a far more widespread anxiety about the possibilities and limits of life in general. The myths of the English degree are the myths of life: that you have to ‘do’ something that you have planned out beforehand; that you have to have certain credentials to act certain ways; that if you don’t know what to do, you will become lost or be a deadbeat, like Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” in The Big Lebowski; that if you ask questions of life, or want to be “different,” you will end up like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, having a sordid affair and pissing off your parents. These are some myths in circulation, and they all seem to converge mythically around earning an English degree, and knowing what you are supposed to do with one.

So let’s get to practical matters: at the end of my theorizing, what can you really do with an English degree? Well, this is precisely where theory meets practice: as an English major, you can learn to read well, and think clearly, even when you are confused by the stuff of life. (And in my experience, the more I read and the more I think, the more confusing it all seems.) Luckily, the training you get on the way to an English degree includes reading and thinking about myths. When you seem to encounter mythical territory concerning your major, see what psychological terrain it is reflecting around other degrees, or other ways of life. You really don’t have to worry about what “dream job” you will have, or what your “true calling” in life is: for those are major myths, and ones worth jettisoning or putting in brackets as soon as possible. You might have many jobs in your life, or you may find something that sustains your lifestyle and is tolerable—that can be enough. You may also land a job that is very fulfilling, but this will not keep the myths of life at bay: remember, there are next year’s models of cars to worry about, what you should or should not smell like, where to go on vacation, and what to do when you get there—ironically, the more settled in a job you become, the more myths will present themselves to you in the form of consumer demands. But again, here’s where your English degree can help: read the myths trafficking around you, think about just how mythical they are, and feel unsettled by this vast fiction that we are a part of. I am not advocating nihilism here, but rather suggesting the creative potential that we have as human beings—and urging you to participate in the creativity, as readers, and as writers who write the world. Again: it is not the “myths of the English degree” that you need to worry about—it is the myths of life, all the demands and stresses and pressures that you feel, the unanswered questions that you think you have to answer now...that vague sense that brought you here, tonight. Studying language and literature, we can learn to think about life’s myths, and we can talk & write about these myths clearly, analytically, & poetically—that’s what we can do, and frankly, I find it to be a real relief.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

class blog posts and academic writing: a theory

A colleague and I were talking recently about how much extra writing (translation: time) blogs take to use seriously as a teaching tool. Often, one ends up writing a comment to a student's post that is as long as (or longer than) the post in question; sometimes, a follow-up student comment then provokes another comment...and suddenly the post and comments start to resemble a lengthy collaborative essay, nearly self-contained.

How does all this writing figure in to one's more formal, research-based academic writing? Perhaps not at all—or maybe just not directly.

Upon first glance, it might appear that this sort of writing would distract from or deplete one's energies from the serious, scholarly writing that one has to do to earn tenure.

Yet my colleague and I have found that our own productivity—especially the ability to simply sit and write, to work on a project—increases dramatically during periods when we are using blogs in class as writing components. Through having to write regularly, thoughtfully, and consciously for an audience of one's students, the writing mechanisms are maintained, and kept flexible; it becomes easier to turn to one's own work and write a new paragraph here, revise an old essay there.

While this conversion is not always clear or distinct in the moment, we do find that writing articulate and detailed comments, each aimed at once toward an individual author and an entire class, our own scholarly writing tends to happen with fewer blocks and less inhibitions.