Upside Down Reading

The strip I wondered about most from the supplement to “In The Shadow of No Towers” was the one entitled “The Upside Downs of Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo”. In order to read the whole story, the reader must turn the book upside down, considering what had been ground sky and what had been sky ground. The main characters are already pretty silly-looking, and in this fairy-tale story, the reader accepts that this strip uses a fun trick to tell a magical story which functions as a mirror. Each panel depicts two things which happen in the same location at times equidistant from the middle turn-around point where the book is flipped. It’s mostly remarkable because it is both impressive and comical that the story should make sense in both directions.

It’s interesting to compare this strip, which uses the upside-down technique to depict a fictional universe with internal consistency, with “An Upside Down World”, a strip on page 7. When I first read it, I didn’t even bother to flip the book around — I could tell from the little red man’s pointy nose that this demon-filled sky was meant to evoke Spiegelman’s feelings about the unreasonably powerful Republicans. But the strip conveys more than just his anger- the Spiegelman character connects the politics to questions he has about reading: who will read his strip? Will any soldiers even get to read it?

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Those in power are reading “the book of revelations”, and he’s “reading the paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick” — everyone’s reading about the end of this world, but no one is reading the same stories. In the first and last panels, Spiegelman seems to be walking on the ground near a building, but in all of the others he seems to be up in the clouds too – props appear and disappear out of nowhere – his book, cigarette, peace sign. When the page is flipped, a mouse has a nightmare, and then we see red Bush leading his animals back through the strip. This world doesn’t make sense, either from above or below, and the Spiegelman character worries about his page’s being “well-printed”. If it can be said that the old timey comic uses the upside-down technique to create a coherent, but unreal space, this strip depicts some other (maybe inner) world, where all these elements coexist but the meaning doesn’t come from some internal logic. On the purely physical level, these strips invite the same type of “reader participation”, but they depict very different spaces within which the technique’s meaning is drastically altered.

I think that this can also be connected to the book’s title — what is the sense of his (or our) being “in” the shadow of things that no longer exist in reality? Is the shadow the effect of the event — the feeling of a lack, or of a lingering sadness? Or is it something more like the absence of the light of knowledge, logic, coherence? We might be engaging in the same activity with both strips, but the activity no longer has the same meaning it had in the context of the old-timey comics. What does it mean that the way we’re used to reading can no longer serve as a guide?

First person and possibility

The thing I found most frustrating about Galatea was the fact that I was unable to control my tone on a sentence by sentence basis. Although I’m sure there were many stats I did not know how to keep track of impacting the extent to which I sounded unimpressed or patronizing, I felt my conversational intentions undermined by “my own” words practically any time I posed a question. The thing I found must frustrating about Gone Home was the fact that I was looking through Katie’s eyes, but I couldn’t really tell who she was. Her blankness, which we talked about in class, did sometimes make me feel as though I was finding a Walt Whitman book under my own parents’ bed, having those same excited followed by disappointed feelings I’d probably get in real life were I to look through someone I know’s stuff and find nothing really unexpected (which, obviously, I would never do). But for the most part, I felt like something was missing: what did Katie think about most of the stuff she was picking up? At least in Galatea, I could test to see if my character thought something about certain topics, or wanted to say anything about others. In Gone Home, I waited for her to react to objects, and when she did in a way that was (often, not always) predictable, I felt like I was not being given enough of a person to hold on to.

Both games involved first-person perspectives which players are meant to inhabit — we’re sort of in control, but we’re also pushed along a path (even if it’s one of many possible ones). I’m not sure why, but it seems to me that the type of agency I felt I had in Galatea – choice of topic, the opportunity to imagine the way the room looked, maybe even the fact that I was typing – was somehow more gratifying than the powers I was given in Gone Home – ability to move, to set the tone by playing music, to turn on lights and see, to glance at a map, to pick things up, Katie’s being sufficiently open-ended for me to imagine myself into her. I don’t know if this has to do with the fact that most of my favorite books involve first-person narrators, and also maybe because I don’t play video games that often, but for some reason the “world” of Gone Home just felt very flat in comparison to the “world” of Galatea, and I think that had a lot to do with my experience of the characters whose perspective I was inhabiting.

I think I’m associating a world’s flatness (if I can put it that way) with an experience in which I feel like there are not many possibilities. I’m curious to know whether people who often play first-person shooters experienced Gone Home as having more possibilities than I did, in the same way that people more familiar with Super Mario appreciated the gameplay mechanics of Braid in a way that I could not. In both cases, I think that maybe the structure’s being pretty much totally foreign to me encouraged me to focus on the things I am more used to “getting”, like characters and story, and only superficially understanding what makes these games special in the universe of game to which they belong.

The Risks of Representing Past Suffering

In Colin’s reply to my comment about how the idea of “worlds persisting” could be connected to what it means for readers to encounter a seemingly unfamiliar version of the story of slavery they thought they knew, he writes the following: “I’m a bit more cautious about making the same claim for readers of The Known World and their mental maps of slavery history, if partly because (as was touched on in class) I worry that the novel remains assimilable into sentimental genres of “moral porn” about tragic subjects/worlds. The “people down there just talked that way … they didn’t mean any harm by it” (382) that nearly ends the novel could well apply to liberal readers of (neo-)slave narratives, even if each aesthetic case that enters the genre has the potential to open a gap that doesn’t merely confirm for readers what they knew all along about slavery.”

Okay: I didn’t love The Known World. And I also think it’s dangerous when readers are getting off on some feeling that current humans (or they personally) are so good, in a position to cast judgment on those past humans who were so bad. But I think that, just as there are wrong readings of less politically charged works, there are wrong ways of reading books that fall into the neo-slave narrative genre. I think you exactly must focus on what’s going on in this book in particular in order to argue whether the work seeks to elicit that sentimental liberal reaction, or if that’s just the reaction any sentimental liberal would have when confronted with any book in the neo-slave narrative genre.

I actually think it’s useful to think about (some) Holocaust-related art and museums as a counterexample to The Known World. A lot of the photographs you see, of piles of bodies or shoes, elicit from the viewer a feeling of pity or disgust for the dead as dimension-less victims rather than as full people. (Many of those pictures were actually taken by the Nazis, which makes it very troubling that they are presently used in museums which seek to communicate the horrors of concentration camps.) I don’t want to go into this in too much detail, because one’s a picture and one’s a book and one’s real and one’s fictional etc, but I think the creator’s intent/ specifics of the work are crucial to understanding both examples. This seems obvious, but I think it’s important to reiterate because it’s really easy to go from “neo slave novels are moral porn” to “no one should write a neo slave novel because everyone is going to misread it”.

There is a real risk that comes with the representation of unthinkable horror — that people will understand it in a way that is actually politically/ morally damaging — but I think it’s unfair to Jones not to look into the things the book does which actively seek to combat certain types of sentimentality. I think the sheer number of characters, for example, prevents too strong an identification with any individual, such as one might have while reading Anne Frank’s diary or something. And to me, the revelation of the cause of death often right at the character’s introduction, meant there was no heightening of suspense and then resulting satisfaction. A lot of people said they felt like the book was sort of one note throughout, and were a little unnerved by the sense that nothing had happened by the end. I think that’s a really interesting piece of evidence when thinking about how the work resists representing the past as a drama into which we can throw ourselves (even if the book is immersive in other ways). But maybe I am just being too optimistic about what this book can and cannot do?

This also raises questions about the connection between the limitations of a genre and those of particular works. And, I think, questions about the connection between “genre” and “subject-matter” (as we started to talk about in class, between “slavery” and “its genre).

What kind of a contract is the Foreword?

When the Dave Wallace narrator of Chapter 9 addresses the expectations readers have when reading a nonfiction work, he says the following:”as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there’s always a kind of unspoken contract between a book’s author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what kind of book it is, i.e. whether it’s made up vs. true. And these codes are important, because the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction.”

The idea that a book’s ability to connect with the reader is dependent on a certain contract has implications that go beyond the fiction/nonfiction issue (although that is definitely important for this book). It usually goes unsaid that when a book is read an exchange occurs between the writer and the reader, though they do not encounter one another–there’s time spent on both sides, effort expended, and presumably attention paid by the author to the potential reader, and by the reader to the intention of the author. Foreward Dave describes “our mutual contract here” as one which depends on our “understanding that any features” which might undermine the book’s “veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.” This calls for an examination of what we have agreed to and why when we decide to spend time with this book, and what kind of “commercial climate” is calling for the “business” of book-reading to be undertaken in this way.

I think that the fact that this book is asking the reader to, in a sense, agree to a certain set of conditions (but then making these conditions themselves pretty confusing) undermines the statement that “the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction”. The chapters we’ve read demonstrate that a writer can use nonfictional-seeming elements (his real name and address, the footnotes) to convey total fictions about Illinois’s tax history and fictional-seeming elements (such as, potentially, the story about Chris) to convey things that may have been true about his own experience. During the life-changing speech in chapter 22, Chris reflects that he “became aware for the first time that ‘authority’ was actually something real and authentic…and that the authority relation was not a ‘democratic’ or equal one and yet could have value for both sides, both people in the relation” (227 in my book). I think that this description, meant to describe the impact of the substitute Jesuit, can also be applied to the type of contract we have agreed to in reading the Pale King — we are not sure whether we are reading the real-world truth, but there is something about the experience of reading that will be valuable to us if we take the narrator to be an authority of some sort.

I also think that this issue of connectedness necessitating some sort of spoken or unspoken agreement is very present in Chapter 22. In the Foreword, the contract enables a connection between the writer (narrator?) and the readers, but in this chapter, we see: the “social contract, where the obligation to pay one’s fair share of taxes comes in”, Chris’s suggestion that his dad’s “primal, prehistoric fears that you would somehow miss getting to eat your fair share of the tribe’s kill” kicked in before his death, the litigation following his death, and the suggestion that the “Service” (whether military or Internal Revenue) might be the way of maintaining one’s obligations to the country (both of these types of service are also described as “voluntary”, which brings up the issue of what it means to be free within a contract).

All these examples make me wonder: is it only because we live in such a “commercial climate” that the word “contract” is evoked to describe our connection to the author of a literary work? Or is there something to the idea that there is a real relationship between contracts and connectedness? What are our obligations while reading the Pale King, and how does the fact that the book plays with fiction shape them?

 

 

Automation, Emotion, and Engagement

When Oliphant meets Sybil in the Latin Quarter towards the end of the Fifth Iteration, she is surrounded by the kinotropistes and has apparently been accepted into this scene due to her affair with the (real-life) author Theophile Gauthier, whose most famous short story was about a priest who falls in love with a woman’s ghost. She shows Oliphant a daguerrotype of her husband, the (fictional) Aristide Tournachon, who she describes as “real, you know, not just one of them the clackers made up” (446). As she looks at the image with “mingled longing and sadness”, Oliphant understands that she had “never in her life set eyes upon” this man. 

This scene stood out to me, not only because of what we talked in class about the replacement of the artist-class by the technology-dependent kinotropy-creators, but also because of this curious understanding on the part of Oliphant– how did he know for sure that this man never existed, even though Sybil was so emotional in her interactions with the image, and so insistent that he was not someone invented? It made me more attentive to two moments in the modus: the first being the description of the funeral march at Lord Byron’s funeral as the “somber melodies of the automatic organs” (455).  The second was the description of the impact of gambling on The Gaming Lady Ada– “the passions suffer no less by this gaming-fever than the understanding and the imagination. What vivid, unnatural hope and fear, joy and anger, sorrow and discontent, burst out all at once upon a roll of the dice, a turn of the card, a run of the shining gurneys! Who can consider without indignation that all those womanly affections, which should have been consecrated to children and husband, are thus vilely prostituted and thrown away.” (464). This is the voice of the Reverend, who is subsequently murdered, but I was curious about this implied connection between technology-enabled emotion– whether it’s connected to gambling or to an identification with an old picture (since Sybil takes Tournachon’s name)–with the sacrifice of what is “natural” in life. And in the case of the funeral of the Lord Byron, it’s an automation that both takes the place of emotive and creative composition and also enables flesh and blood people to mourn. 

I think the connection between these instances, and what they mean for the society the book depicts, is relatively straightforward — this is a world where technology has somehow made unnecessary most artistic creation, and has also begun to itself provoke the emotional reactions you’d typically expect from art. But what does that mean about this book itself– a depiction of an attempt at self-articulation and self-knowledge by a machine? Does it matter that these people and this world are “computer-generated”, if they’ve provoked interest in us readers? And what’s the difference between author-generated and computer-generated, if either way the effect on the reader is equivalent to becoming excited by a gambling machine, or to falling in love with a ghost in a picture?