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."

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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.