Memory & Horror Vacui in In the Shadow of No Towers

As we discussed in class, Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is fueled by horror vacui, both in terms of content and form.  The visual networks and layerings that saturate each page and even seem to extend off of the page in its intensity.  Various narratives entrenched with a multiplicity of themes and symbols intertwine and constantly complement and compete with each other.  Spiegelman’s obsessive dependency on intertextuality in constituting his work also contributes to the overall cenophobic aesthetic.

The maximalist principles that No Towers operates under root in that the work explores the nature of memory; specifically, the complex and idiosyncratic individual systems of remembering and forgetting in regards to traumatic experiences.  Spiegelman had already begun to unfold a discourse on how trauma shapes an individual’s agency in accessing and understanding his or her memories in Maus.  The experience of trauma that the character of Spiegelman undergoes as he navigates through the account that his father presents has as much to do with Spiegelman’s father’s willingness and capacity to recount, how the character of Spiegelman internalizes the information available to him, and the framing device and formal constructs that the character of Spiegelman channels his newfound trauma narrative through, as the initial first-hand experience of trauma that Spiegelman’s father experienced.

In No Towers, he intensifies his interrogation of the problems of remembering and forgetting and the interstitial space between and around, as he immediately contextualizes the trauma that he experienced post-9/11 within the lineage of trauma embedded within him beginning with the second-hand trauma that his interaction with his father as portrayed in Maus initially spurred.  A recurring integral intertextual moment is when Spiegelman draws from Maus and layers the representation of himself as a mouse as in Maus with the representation of himself in the wake of the 9/11.  For example, the series of panels entitled “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist” on the second page show four different iterations of the author Spiegelman’s pereception of the character and narrator Spiegelman.  The way in which the four faces are presented compactly and serially in relation to each other not only chronicle the different manifestations of self as undergoing traumatic experiences but also introduces the obsessive rehearsing of identity as well as how traumatic experiences complicate representations of self.

On a broader scale, the acknowledgement, if not celebration, of the multiplicity of truths that No Towers draws upon emerge as an integral property of postmodernism.  Much like how Jameson dissociates the notion of the “ultimate truth” from postmodernity, Spiegelman poses that there is no neatly packaged linear, unified narrative that accurately accounts for all the multifaceted responses to the universal trauma of 9/11.  Not only is Spiegelman commenting on the extent of the impact that 9/11 had, but he is also alluding to the essential (if I can say that) condition of postmodernity that there is no single all-encompassing narrative and that the individual narratives have a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, relationship with one another.  A recurring example of Spiegelman’s anti-minimalist presentation of assorted intertexts that simultaneously remarks on the construct of memory and postmodernity are the interweaving of a multitude of public and public source materials such as on page 3.  On page 3, a number of different media compete with one another for attention yet complement each other in that they serves as diegetic worlds and metanarratives for one another simultaneously, much like the self- and otherwise referential nature of memory and postmodernity. (Maybe it’s mostly in the semiotics and it’s the “language used to describe memory” versus “language used to describe postmodernity”—but does it matter?)

In fact, not only do multiplicity of truths fuel No Towers, but explode it.  Spiegelman is constantly establishing and challenging frames within frames in the giant book form that he chose.  Each frame seems to contain a kind of structured universe, but the expectation is quickly subverted when the boundaries between the frames literally become destroyed and the “inside” and “outside” become moot points.  For example, on page 8, a magnified rendition of the face of the character of the author intrudes upon the neatly contained world of a single panel where the character dwells at the same time—or is it the other way around?  The outside lining of cartoon figures on the page “PLATE V” seems to constitute their collective identity in that they are anonymous faces outside the “main” narrative, and seems to invite the reader to identity as one of them.

Navigating through the thick jungle memory that Spiegelman created reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov’s quote: “I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.”  Without being sappy about the graphic novel and putting Spiegelman on a pedestal too much, I think it is important to note the immense generosity and bravery that must have been required of Spiegelman to vomit in text and images his process of coping with the accumulated trauma.  The intense vulnerability that Spiegelman as a narrator allows us to access makes the work a one that constantly corporealizing itself in ways that are unique and compelling to individual readers.

Attention & Distraction in Gone Home

Gone Home plays with the player’s attention and distraction through the formal elements it borrows from the horror genre.  From the get-go, the game makes the player hyper-aware of the surroundings through the establishment of the atmosphere as being mysterious and suspenseful.  We are compelled to, if not forced to, investigate every object with a heightened sense of attention as if doing so would earn us somewhat of an immunity against the impending doom.  In this mode of perception, every little detail of the world becomes monumentally important, and nothing is inconsequential.  In other words, the attention that the game commands from the player in turn shapes the world of the game into a stylized, bracketed space where everything takes on symbolic meaning and therefore everything also loses symbolic meaning.  Distraction almost become a non-existing stimulus in the world, as everything calls for intense attention, and even when the player is “distracted,” they are distracted in a manner that the player is still expending the same kind and sum of attention in attending to the source of distraction.

Specifically, the manner in which the game manipulate the player’s attention mirrors the crux of its narrative: the coming-of-age tale of Sam.  The game already draws a pretty explicit parallel between the entire slew of miscellaneous objects that are littered about in the giant mansion and the scattered and isolated incidents in Sam’s life as are sprinkled sporadically throughout the gameplay experience.  However, we could go further and consider the formal presentation of Sam’s journals as not just a narrative with a deconstructed chronology, but also a formal analog to the life and struggles of the character of Sam.  Much like how the player learns about Sam’s story through connecting the discrete dots and generating constellations, Sam’s story is in fact non-linear and is characterized by isolated events clumping together to birth a renewed sense of significance.

Without making a sweeping generalization about narratives that have to do with queer identity or identity in general even, the narratives of both Gone Home and Dys4ia are quilts of disparate episodes.  Perhaps the lack of a single driving force that organizes the episodes under a unified superstructure has to do with the structuralized oppression that the queer identity suffers from.

The spatial storytelling that the narrative roots in resonates with the spatial logic that Jameson claims postmodern narratives to follow as opposed to temporal logic.  I was worried when I was playing the game that I was discovering Sam’s journals in the “wrong order,” but I gradually realized that there is no set order that I, as the character in the game, is supposed to discover the journals in, but rather, am supposed to interact with the various locations in the house in order to earn the privilege to listen to the journals.  Each location triggering an advent of a piece of information and the relationship between the pieces of information having a horizontal rather than a hierarchical relationship is also, interestingly, a characteristic of locative literature.  Instead of a mimetic representation of Sam’s physical existence telling the story, the entire mansion was serving as testimony to the emotional journey that she has gone through.  And so, once I had intensely meticulously scrutinized the whole house, I felt like I was connecting with the character of Sam on a very intimate, visceral level.

Art Games and Boredom

I’ve been thinking more about the concept of the “fun” that my group talked about in class.  Patrick mentioned how the universal perception of what “fun” should look like, sound like, etc. has naturalized a single prototype of video games as the ideal form for the entire industry.  Is what we consider fun conditioned by a simulacrum of fun that gets manufactured somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the realistically radically different individual perspectives on fun? 

Since it’s supposed to be the case that “gaming” is what we do to relieve ourselves from the stress of “working,” gaming should inherently strive to be “fun,” right? And that supposedly means that the most statistically popular games share the most characteristics with the simulacrum of the ideal form of the “fun” game.  Some of the properties of the so-called “fun” games share, as we discussed in class include spectacular visuals, immersive experience characterized by perspective-based control, and narrative with a clear objective.

 Specifically, the goal-oriented aspect of mainstream games is challenged in the art games that we played for class.  Some contemporary examples of video games focus on the experiential aspect of gameplay, as opposed to putting the entire emphasis on competing towards a singular objective.  In fact, more than a few games deliberately and overtly obscure what, if any, the player is working towards, and makes statement out of it.

The experience of playing Between, for example, did not involve any kind of dramatic emotional rollercoaster riding towards pre-determined climactic moments, but rather, was an experience in itself.  The lack of a explicitly designated endpoint, or a presence of a very murky one at best, forced me to make decisions in the present moment for their own sakes rather than deliberate a future moment which may-or-may-not exist.  The prospect of not having a satisfying finale perhaps fulfills exactly the expectations for the antithesis of the conventional “fun” in video games.  Lack of objective also connotes a lack of consistent validation or approval, which conventionally encourages and fuels the player through some of the less “fun” parts of “fun” games, and without any of that, the game is essentially empty of “fun.”

 So why are we drawn to these games that are not “fun”? I am not returning to Heidegger’s notion of “profound boredom” now.  I spent a lot of time not doing anything, or, waiting while playing Between, both because I literally did not know how to proceed but also as a strategic tool, and those in between moments of silence and stillness began to dominate my gameplay experience, more so than the actual kinetic, active moments.  As opposed to in my experience playing spectacle-based, fast-paced RPG games, where I am busy making sense of the myriad of events exploding in your face at any given moment, I was doing a lot more internalizing of what was going on, as if my digestion of the game was as much the part of the gaming experience as the game itself.  It’s as if we are taking the “grinding” moments in traditional RPG games and expanding that into its own universe, and enhancing it, as the “grinding” moments at least have some kind of ulterior purpose in RPG games.

 A particularly impactful example of a “boring” art game, I think, is “Everyday the same dream” (http://www.molleindustria.org/everydaythesamedream/everydaythesamedream.html).  The graphic design of the game is very simple and basic, and so are the game play controls and the progression.  In this specific case, the inanity of the gaming experience marvelously mirrors its subject matter of the repetitive and droning routine of a modern working person.  Going through the routine within the diegetic world of the game over and over again without encountering any surprises or changes for a long while, I was being evoked the similar sentiments of frustration that I feel in my own real life routine.  At that point, I realized that I kept on playing the game as opposed to quitting it not to be thrilled or laugh, but to interrogate my own bodily experience in reality.

Boredom

I’ve been thinking all weekend about the profound boredom that The Pale King invokes within us.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about boredom in performance; both in terms of the performance of the bodily habits that boredom inspires and boredom laden in works of performance.

We talked in class about how the experience of reading The Pale King triggered a visceral bodily response for us in a variety of shapes and forms, whether it be depending on social media to distract ourselves, drinking caffeinated beverages, or concocting a methodology of reading that makes the text seem more digestible than otherwise.  The animated response in the body of the reader seems to oppose the implied stagnation of “boredom.”

I was thinking about the categories of kinetic and static art that James Joyce devises in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man.  Joyce says that kinetic art moves the audience towards an ulterior objective, whereas static art arrests them and encourages them to transcend above excitement.  Joyce renders the former to be improper, and the latter to be the ideal.  I think the “profound boredom” that characterizes The Pale King problematizes Joyce’s polarization between kinetic and static art in that it employs elements of both.  While boredom itself inherently implies a kind of stalemate, a total paralysis and a lack of movement, the boredom that DFW creates seems to inspire a whole range of animation in the audience’s body.  However, the performative behavior of the body that The Pale King triggers is not necessarily in the direction of a loaded, political agenda but rather manifests as literally performative for their own sakes and in their own rights.  Also, the movement of the reader’s body is incited by a desire to combat and subvert the agenda, rather than in accordance with it.  In that it contests Joyce’s distinction between high art and low art, The Pale King fulfills a certain criteria of postmodernism that Jameson elucidates.

I went to the screening of Richard Linklater’s film Before Midnight; a third installment in the series alongside Before Sunrise and Before Sunset starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.  The film employs an idiosyncratic mode of framing each moment; the entire film is a sequence of extended shots of people having long-winded conversations before a cinematographically idyllic background.  During some of these lengthy, beautiful shots, I often found myself drifting away from focusing on the content but rather investigating the formal compositional elements.  For example, I grew hyperaware of the syntactical constructions of the seemingly entirely casual and colloquial statements and I found myself following the shifting of the perspective into the horizon in the background as the characters moved forward.  I felt that the kind of heightened awareness of the stylistic elements over the actual subject matter that I adopted while watching Before Midnight paralleled my experience of reading The Pale King.

A performance inspired by Charles Reznikoff’s long-form poem Testimony called Testimonium that attended this weekend was another instance through which I experienced boredom.  Formally, the performance paralleled the dread and drone that is inherent in the legal rhetoric that is inherent in Reznikoff’s original writings.  The persistent and seemingly infinite inane details presented to the audience manifested the role of the text in the performance as an object.  That is, the performance took three distinct approaches towards performing text—recitation of the literal text, movements as dictated by directives, and songs—whose boundaries then were contested and deconstructed, and the boredom that the content inspired heightened my attention to the medium.  Similarly, in The Pale King, at points, the text begins to manifest in the audience’s minds as holding more significance as a medium rather than an explanatory device.  Then, the metanarrative beyond the diegetic world of the text, or, the framing device that envelops the content, emerges naked before the reader’s eyes.

In these instances of boredom that I experienced in these performances this weekend, I found my role as an audience expanding into the role of a co-author alongside the actual creators of the pieces.  By that I mean that the visceral and animated response that I had to the performance ended up feeling like an integral part of the experience as a whole.  Likewise, when I was reading DFW’s work, it felt as though the thought process within me that was provoked by the text served as a counterpart and complementary material to the text itself, and ended up working itself into the larger scheme of experience that I had.  In this sense, the boredom of The Pale King is a productive one by definition, as it forced me to contribute to the manifestation of a kind of a whole.  This kind of plurality of voices and truths is an aspect of Postmodernism that DFW seems to be astutely aware of.

Finally, the boredom that The Pale King inspired in me made me think about the relativity of the concept of boredom.  Since the boredom in DFW’s text was an integral driving force rather than an affect, it seemed like it held a uniquely absolute place in the world.  That is, I think boredom that DFW generates manifests as an ambience in itself, and does not necessarily depend on exterior elements.  I think this dynamic power that DFW’s boredom holds parallel’s Heidegger’s idea of profound boredom; that it has more than enough potential to motivate the reader, as opposed to merely manifest as tedious against something else.

 

The Seduction of the “New Weird” in the Marketplace

In attempting to delineate the place of “The New Weird” in the “real world,” Jeff VanderMeer illuminates the commercial reality associated with the genre; that it seduces the publishers and the readers by establishing itself as a nebulously charming category.  That is, VanderMeer actually suggests that the “confusion about the specifics of the term created a larger protective umbrella for writers from a publishing standpoint” (xiv).  So what is this “original umbilical cord” that VanderMeer talks about that sparked the beginnings of many strange writers’ careers?  What specifically about the ambiguousness about the terminology of “The New Weird” manifests the genre to be inherently enticing?

We briefly discussed the emergence of the reiterated version of the original “Weird” in this specific contemporary literary landscape and attempted to make a connection between the “New Weird” being a successful marketing category and its prosperity in general.  It was fascinating to me that the ambiguity in its terminology was a foundational force in the “New Weird” legitimizing itself, but I couldn’t quite fathom the scope of the enigma of the genre.

Certainly, the “New Weird”‘s complex relationship with the original “Weird” contributes to the attractive air of mystery that it carries.  The “New Weird” adopts various elements such as horror, visceral triggers, bodily functions from the original “Weird” in an overt manner that loads it immediately with a sense of familiarity but obviously does work on its own that contextualizes it to be more relevant to the contemporary audience… but now we are back to the question of how the “New Weird” “feels” so attractive to us.

VanderMeer suggests that the “New Weird” has “become a shorthand for readers.” Although he doesn’t describe the process through which it has taken on that particular identity, he does illuminate the popular phenomenon of the genre being received intuitively, perhaps phenomenologically (“I know it when I read it” (xv)), and how the viscerally intimate relationship the readership has with the genre manifests it as an immediately accessible one.  The notion of accessibility here is a problematic and perhaps ironic one, as the opaqueness of the genre delineation, by definition, creates a sense of availability. 

In order to further gauge the span of how the “New Weird” is defined, I searched for other perspectives on how to define the genre.  Interestingly, my search results support my conviction that the “New Weird”‘s charm in part roots in its limitation of only being able to be defined relatively. That is, most definitions that I have found describe the “New Weird” using the rhetoric of what it is not, as opposed to what it is.  For example, sources repeatedly reported that the “New Weird” is not slipstream fiction or interstitial fiction (http://www.sfra.org/sf101newweird).  VanderMeer’s report that the newer works by the authors he anthologized in his volume are already transforming into something that is decidedly not the “New Weird” is also a potent example of the relative dimension of defining the “New Weird.”  However, to merely deem the “New Weird” to be an abstracted gesture of “subversion” or “transgression” or “revolution” would be undermining the subtlety of it.  While it is at large nebulously contextualized, the “New Weird” definitely has its specific particularities and idiosyncrasies (see my discussion of the genre in relation to the original “Weird” above, as well as what a lot of people have already mentioned on the blog about the recurring motifs in “New Weird” work).

Stylistically, a lot of the lingo used to delineate the properties of the “New Weird” seemed to parallel the various attempts at grappling with the essence of Postmodernism. For instance, a recurring avenue through which Postmodernism is approached seems to be understanding it literally, as something that is after modernism, or simply not modernism.  On a semantic level, Postmodernism presents itself in a relative manner, much like how the “New Weird” does.

To see a whole slew of individual authors’ perception of what the “New Weird” is – which seems to me to be the best if not only way lens through which to understand the genre – visit the Science Fiction Research Association’s page at: http://www.sfra.org/sf101newweird.  For me, I felt that I came the closest to grasping the essence (for the lack of a better word) of the genre was when I rejected the idea of VanderMeer’s “working definition” for it, but rather created a pastiche for myself drawing from the various individual author’s perspectives on it.