Monday, January 30, 2012

Culture and Reality

So I'm taking a Cultural Studies class in Graduate School. And so far the class is wonderful, but nothing frustrates me more than the concept of "Culture."

My favorite professor in Graduate School - well at least this go around (I did MA work in Boone where I met the incomparable Orus Barker) - is Dr. Stephen Yarbrough, who I think is brilliant. He has a wonderful book called After Rhetoric. In this book, well he does a lot of things, he takes Donald Davidson's critique of language, at least as understood by a certain brand of postmodernists and applies it to culture.

Okay, so here's Davidson's quotation.

"I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. And we should try again to say how convention in any important sense is involved in language; or, as I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions."

Now, what Yarbrough does is substitute the word "Culture" for "Language." So he thinks neither Culture nor Language is what a group of Post-Moderns thought it was. That is to say, there is no medium between you and the world, between you and the Real.

So why does this matter? Well, it seems to me that if we assume a medium, whether it be language or culture, what you are ultimately saying is that Reality takes place inside your noggin. And that means you're a Cartesian. And well, that means your wrong.

Our reality is, OF COURSE, conditioned by culture, but to suggest that that means we have no access to The Real is really problematic.

I experience Reality. I don't experience a Representation of Reality. And that simple fact makes this whole thing quite a pickle.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Right-Wing Postmodernism

I've been thinking about this one for a minute.

In the beginning of Chuck Klosterman's last book he quotes an unnamed Bush administration official saying something along the lines of this: See we act and you try to study that reality. But we create reality. So while you're studying, we'll act again and create another, new reality and then you will study that.

I think the "you" is directed at a journalist, but it could be extended to academia with little problem. What's interesting about the post and the Right in general today is that they have become full-fledged post-modernists.

Now Right and Left are weird terms and I'm not always sure exactly what they mean - but that's for a different post. Right now, let's just go with the broad, general understanding of the terms - meaning the way they are thrown around in popular culture, whereby Noam Chomsky is Left and Bill Buckley is Right.

Okay, so as an academic who identifies with Postmodernism it seems apparent to me that Postmodernists tend to be leftwing. In fact that's almost universally the case because Right Wing people find Postmodernism to be a variation of Relativism and hence immoral and something to fight.

Okay, all that makes sense except for the way the two sides use Rhetoric. The Right is using a far more sophisticated PoMo rhetoric and has been, at least since the Bush administration - basically since I've been following politics closely. By that I mean they embrace the idea that language does not simply describe reality, it produce reality. They have often taken a Left-Wing academic model and used it on a political level.

See the Left Wing academics, people like me, have often said things like we need more voices in the canon of literature. We have too few people of color and women speaking. Now nobody thinks we should throw out the greats - they just mean we should add to the list. Make it more inclusive. (I like most people get tired of this argument if it ever suggests that diversity for diversity's sake should be incorporated. But I don't actually hear people in my world making this argument - I just hear it described that way by people not in my world)

Anyhow, so the Right started using the let's-include-more-voices when it came to things like Global Warming - issues that don't have a lot of disagreement among experts.

But the Left-Wing Politicians (as opposed to Academics) do not embrace Postmodernism. Instead, they all sound like Enlightenment Rationalists. Believing that Truth is out there and if it's just described well enough - in the form of Policy - that people will change their minds. However, that aint how minds change.

And one would think the exact opposite - that The Right - to combat Relativism would seek Truth, instead of believing it can be created linguistically. However, it seems the two sides have somehow flip-flopped.

This is weird and bad for The Left. The Right continues to understand Rhetoric better and the outcome cannot be good if you're a Leftist. If you're on The Right. Keep it up. You're winning.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Old Fiction - Riffing on Beckett

Riffing on Beckett

Always the same – sometimes different, but basically the same. Always the frustration and anxiety, always the fear of ridicule by contemporaries. Must write about something. Could write about nothing. Cannot write about writing - tired worn out, muck on boots, metafiction. Nobody likes shit-kicking metafiction anymore, even in the slippery-when-wet halls of academic discourse where people used to find it witty and insightful – a comment on the fractured nature of contemporary consciousness living in a post-industrial age, coming to grips with the society of the spectacle, like mirrors in a funhouse, always reflecting, refracting, laughing – nope, can’t go there anymore, too pretentious even for the pretentious. Question: How come this insurgence of pretentious metafiction happened at a time that corresponded with the death of the author, birthplace of the equally pretentious post-modern? Is it possible that metafiction is a reaction, a psychological condition whereby an author, attempting to live, thrive and survive, will not only reinsert himself in the text, but assert that he knows, is fully cognizant of, his insertion back into his own text? Related question: Should Barthes have refused to sign his name to his text, after he claimed that there was no author to be found in or behind the text? What matter who’s speaking. No matter, but somebody is speaking. But who is this somebody – that is the question we always get to. No answer. Never an answer. No matter no answer.

Like wiping shit off boots, shit still ends up somewhere. What matter who’s shit. No matter, still shit.

Today, unlike the destructive and insincere days of meta this and post that, we are interested in real things – authentically real, quantitatively verifiable, easily understandable and applicable datum, that has been known to be real and to predictably work, unless at really teeny, tiny, sizes, where nothing works or pretends to or makes any sense anyways. Some people say the teeny-tiny things do make sense, but what do they know – they have shit on their boots like the rest of us. Maybe the muck – that is what we can all turn to – the muck on our boots is the one real thing we can count on in this god-forsaken (literally and figuratively) world of authentically verifiable people writing themselves both into and out of their writing like some kind of high-tech revolving door, where one is both the operator and the operated. Kill god, replace with people, some assembly required.

Back to the drawing board. New beginning – Need a story. Things must happen. Events must be meaningful – lives will be changed.

Tom and Dick were sitting in the muck firing AK 47’s at a rebel insurgence. They were close friends, brothers in arms, and would die for each other. Don’t know enough about war. But war’s real if anything’s real, Baudrillard said so and he says the real is vanishing. Real go poof. Do they really use AK-47’s anymore? I don’t know enough about war. War stories are meaningful, people cry their eyes out, especially people who were really in the muck – they get together with their friends, those that co-habitated in the muck laden muck, and talk about old times in a meaningful and moving way.

New story. Tom and Jane were having moving and meaningful sex, outside in the grass, next to a tablecloth, one of those that’s red and white in a checkerboard pattern, but where both red and white bleed into each other, (maybe revise word “bleed”) under a tree, next to a picnic basket, contents emptied. After completing the moving and meaningful sex act Tom commented on how he felt all mucky from rolling around in the dirt and what he could use was a beer. No, no beer. Tom can’t drink beer - if he drinks beer he’ll turn into an alcoholic and morph into an abusive miscreant causing pain to both his woman and his child, which must now be born from Jane’s womb as they just had moving and meaningful sex, implying a child, as opposed to unmoving and meaningless sex, which would have no child-bearing obligations. But they can’t have meaningless and unmoving sex as this must be a meaningful and moving story.

Tom sitting all alone in a dimly lit, smoke filled apartment, together with vermin that usually remained out of sight, let out an expectorant cough, causing slimy colored microscopic bacteria to be propelled out of his mouth. Tom was sick and drunk – he had been drunk for a long time, ever since Jane took his son, and ran out to live with her mother in Nebraska. Tom has revelatory moment upon running out of liquor, as his body begins to feel hollow, whereby he believes his pernicious past can be overcome via hard work and determination. Tom turns his life around – stops drinking… Why does he have to stop drinking – how about a flair of originality – Tom keeps drinking, but is fine – he is given a rare gift, by divine forces, to live a meaningful drunken life. No, nobody will ever buy that – alcoholism always equals destruction, except when Humphrey Bogart is a detective.

Tom was a hard working detective on the case to find his son, who had been kidnapped and held for ransom by Dick, his former partner. Tom goes from place to place, asking witty, insightful questions with hidden intentions, all the while being flirtatious with the females, all of which are attractive, and drinking expensive whiskey or brandy from carafes. Well this won’t work, Humphrey Bogart has already done all of this shit – I need a meaningful and moving story, also containing originality, as to give me a sense of self-hood – I must be able to say, “I wrote this witty, and insightful story, originally told, full of moving and meaningful events.”

Dick, Tom’s long lost brother, was having an affair with Jane, Tom’s fiancée. Neither Tom nor Dick knew about each other. Jane knew about both, but was unaware of their kinship. When Dick discovered that someone was sleeping with his fiancée he plotted a complicated, yet believable murder, which he got away with. However, after a while it was revealed to Dick, via the court, that his brother had been murdered and that his brother had managed to accrue a substantial number of debts, which could not be expunged, and would have to be paid by Dick’s closest living relative, Tom. Tom had to slave away day and night paying off Dick’s debt, which he felt obliged to, being as though he now knew he had killed his brother. Then, about nine-months later Jane has a son. Tom forces her to have a paternity test; he says he needs peace of mind – he does not get peace of mind when he finds out that Jane’s son is not his son, in fact he is the uncle. When the boy grows up he begins to be suspicious, and discovers what happened, in a believable yet obscure way and then vows, in a samurai liked manner, that he must assert revenge. But now it’s become Hamlet, and Kurasawa already did Japanese Shakespeare, though I don’t think he did Hamlet. But I don’t want to do Japanese/American noir-ish Shakespeare – I want to do something deep and meaningful, yet personal. Besides this story is getting too far away from the muck – the one thing we’ve all decided is real and worth fighting for.

Dick and Tom are kids, playing in the muck – throwing muck back in forth, becoming consumed in muck, when Jane comes. (Maybe, less muck in revision – but we’ll keep it in for now) Jane is carrying an AK 47 that she had obtained from her dad, who obtained it while he was in the muck in Vietnam. She lays waste to both Dick and Tom, who hold each other, proclaim their child-hood love for each other, then die face down, together, in the muck. Original, moving, but we need a moral. Maybe the moral is not to play with AK 47s. A reasonable moral, but not quite good enough – we need hidden, understated, meaningful, full of complexity because humans are complex, morality. New moral: You cannot transcend the muck.

Day 1, Birthday. And Stuff

Every Spring semester starts right around my Birthday. That sucks. That could be the end of this post, but it won't be. I don't really take much stock in Birthdays. But I'll be 31, which feels closer and closer to the inevitable adulthood - a classification I refuse to accept until absolutely necessary.

So for my birthday I will do what I have tended to do over the last 3-4 years. I will go to Chad's amazing restaurant - The Steele Pig. I will eat and drink and then walk over to my local watering hole Local Joe's, have a couple drinks and go home. No big deal. But I love every minute of it.

That's what I've learned in my 31 years - well almost 31 - I still have a couple hours. You must embrace the minutia. Today was day one of teaching and I was making that same point. I said something akin to "I have a pretty bleak worldview, but I'm a fairly happy person. And what you have to do is to learn to make the everyday count." Most of my week is already planned out - I know how tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday will basically look.

Friday I have a cool gig at a place called World of Beer - played there once before and I really enjoyed it. This time, just like last, I have this drummer that's from Mars - Shedrick Williams. I've played with a lot of drummers but I can say he's right up there with my favorites - honestly probably him and Brandon Allred - another monster player who I don't play with a lot anymore, but can play drums as well as anybody.

Anyhow, so I have no real center to this post - just thinking about day-to-dayness - the way most of the world seems boring and uneventful. I think that's the question though - how does one still live meaningfully in a world that's repetitive.

Hopefully, I'll have something more substantial soon - just sort of worn out tonight - my thinker is broke - taught 4 classes today.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Weird Experience of Authorial Absence

And so I'm rereading all this stuff I've written over the last several years tonight - sharing many pieces with a former student of mine and I'm struck by how much I love what I had to say. And then I'm struck by how much I don't recognize who's saying this stuff.

It's really weird to enjoy one's own writing. Well let me rephrase. I have a hard time admitting that I enjoy my own stuff. It feels ego-driven and pushes hard against a very sincere desire I have to be humble. Somewhere in between those two is my desire to appear humble. But that's a whole other conundrum.

So I'm reading old short-stories - these uber pomo pieces that have no soul, but lots of heart. I'm happy I wrote them, even though I can't imagine writing them today. Well, not exactly. I've always been drawn to the post-modern form of story writing. Most of this has to do with one interview about 13 years ago when DFW mentioned Donald Barthelme's story "The Balloon." So I immediately went out and got a copy of Barthelme and started reading. That led to Barth. That led to Pynchon. Then to Gaddis - who I still haven't finished and Delillo - who I've read a ton of books by - always from start to finish.

When I had to take Comps in my M.A. program one of my fields was Literary Theory and the topic I wanted to write about was the nature of the author. Being a good student I had read my Barthes and Foucault and Derrida and I knew that the author's head wasn't something I had access to. However, I argued that the authors who most tried to prove this point ended up being the authors who were easiest to recognize. I mean I know Beckett by smell. I can taste a sentence by Derrida. Essentially, what I was saying is the more you try to disappear, the more you appear. Which, and I didn't get this at the time, is exactly the point the people I thought I was arguing with were making. At least I think.

So what I noticed today, rereading short stories and essays that I wrote is that I didn't always recognize "me" in the piece. At times I was dumbfounded - what the hell does this mean? At other times I was in awe of a particular sentence - oh that's nice - I can't believe I wrote that.

What's so strange is the absence I felt when reading. I know the words didn't come from the ether - I wrote them. But I wrote them at a particular time, under certain circumstances, while dealing with particular issues. And I don't always remember what they were. What we have, at the end of the day, is text. And text, words, gestures, figures are beautiful - the saving grace. Without them we not only lose the past, we lose the present, and hence the future.