South Park is quickly becoming the finest satirical show on TV today. The latest episode “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerBalls” (available here - http://www.allsp.com/) sets up a typical reader-response to “transgression” perfectly. For a person whose favourite book is Naked Lunch, who is also hoping to write a PhD on transgressive experimentalism, I should probably hate it, but I don’t. I guess my “not taking seriousness seriously” demeanour is to thank. There’re plenty of angry academics out there, labelling themselves as anarchists and sporting obligatory tattoos, which would have dismissed the humour as “too simplistic” like the panel of judges in the episode.
I guess the point isn’t necessarily even about “transgression”, or any particular novelistic content, but the act of reading itself. The arbitrary delegation of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art assures that the novel is highly regarded even in its most pulp, blockbuster-ish state; Dan Brown shares the esteemed title of “novelist” with the likes of James Joyce. Similarly, the expenditure of time and effort necessary in reading a novel means that the vast majority of people will only read very occasionally and, in doing so, will then actively will themselves to enjoy the process regardless of its actual content. It’s a lot like spending hundreds of pounds on a computer game console and all the latest games; implicit value judgements are already influencing the virtual experience prior to its actual beginning.
One of my current projects is on this very relationship between the text and the reader. Academics like to pretend that everyone gives the same level of critical reception to the text as them, despite the fact that they are paid to read in a certain way. Yet even the most critical, detached, Barthes-esque Reader cannot ever achieve the perfect reading, the One Great Vision that a work is supposed to bestow. Each reading is separate and distinct, even this sentence will be completely different when you go back and read over it again. Such is the inherent quality of language and the narratives that contain it. This blog has a definite start and end, as does this paragraph, regardless of sentence structures, and all these things place readings within an endlessly-becoming world experience. It’s no wonder then that one critic reads The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerBalls as pro-choice whilst another sees it as anti-abortion (this is me refusing to recognise the fascist term “pro-life” by the way) when both actualised the signifier “Vadgefrogs” in completely separate ways. The Void behind the language takes on the characteristics of the projected Self in innumerable different ways. When one character asks another, “Which book were you reading?” they make an important recognition, for although the same “book” may be read by two people, no two “texts” are the same, and neither are two “readings”. A “book” may contain words but the “text” is in the constantly re-actualising experience of the narrative, story or meaning (the Textual Event of the linguistic State of Affairs). The “text” can therefore only become accessible through the process of reading (the mulitiplicituous becoming of the Reading Event) of which any single present-present moment can never be replicated. Each time you read “Vadgefrogs” you embark upon an entirely new, completely unique (different) Reading Event, each one re-actualising the Textual Event in its constant becoming. I think it’s for this reason that so many people enjoy the Textual Event of Tristram Shandy or Ulysses only once they no longer undertake its Reading Events, believing themselves to have “finished” the book.
I hesitate for a moment here as I realise I may somehow be plagiarising myself in advance, so I’ll just go on to quickly re-mention the Self that I brought up earlier. It occurs to me that the constant acts of projection involved in everyday life, if psychoanalytical terms are to be used epistemologically, would result in a reasonably solipsistic, at least Berklean, model of being. To talk of a self as an Ego/Superego/Id becomes confused in Lacan with the self as a Self/Other of Phantasy/Real(erased); a confusion that, taken ad absurdum in this model would equate the universe to two sides of a cartoon head. We experience our Self and then simultaneously the anti-Self we throw onto our Other. In doing so, our Others must live as equally varied and fulfilling lives as our Selves. The “pro-choice/pro-life” argument in South Park is then a dualistic reading experience ripped from the multiplicitous Void of the “Vadgefrogs”. In the words of the brilliant song at the end of the 100th South Park episode, “Let the flag for hypocrisy fly high overhead”, glorious doublethink reigns supreme.
Although the problem isn’t so much doublethink as overthink. Whilst no two readings can be identical, their content being experienced via the entirely subjective Self/Other, the concept formation still takes place from the same roots of multiplicity, the same book, the same language. The consciousness of Other as Self isn’t the liberating force, it is the counter-actualisation of Self-transcendence that opens the mind to actual others. The impossibility of the One Great Reading is a liberating engine of anti-totalitarianism, and without it there would be no need of fiction in the first place.
March is the cruellest month, breeding Essay deadlines, soggy weather and now some sort of not-quite cold that means I’m not ill enough to stop working, just to wish that I was. Still, I’m in credit for one blog so this one can happily constitute a quick half.
A while ago I realised that my short story “The Coming of the One Great Vision” is oddly of-its-time. The reason for this is in the opening metaphor in which I compare a “badly tuned television” to a street view on a rainy day. My initial intention was to refer to the “white noise” effect that analogue sets give out when reception is poor (the rain would distort the image and make it fuzzy) but since that time the entire country has “gone digital”. In this new context, the same metaphor now refers to the “jumps” that sometimes occur when something goes wrong with the digital input (the rain is now so distorting that what appears through it seems to jump between places in sticking, flashing images). It is still an operable metaphor, in fact it’s probably a little less clichéd than before, yet this initial revelation was nevertheless disturbing. I felt like a modernist poet writing about the wonders of aviation, only to find that it’s become passé in the time it took to publish.
There is a similar event pondered in Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot where a simile describes a colour as that of a certain jam. The main character goes to find this regional jam to discover what exact colour Flaubert was referencing. When he finds that it isn’t quite what he imagines it to be, he then tries to find out whether the jam has changed colours since the time when Flaubert would have eaten it. The recipe, he is told, hasn’t changed; but is that a true guarantee of its verisimilitude?
With culture being in the fluxuous state it’s in, this seems to happen all the time. Nietzsche references the “unconscious” a good decade or so before Freud and the psychoanalysts gave it it’s common definition; Nietzsche’s use is then nothing to do with “repressions” or “desires” but simply a not-but-almost-conscious that the word “unconscious” would have summarised quite well before Freud. The same happens with Descartes’ philosophical “substance”, used long before Spinoza or Leibniz try to pin it down.
I also, somewhat strangely, found a case of it in a “modernised” translation of Locke’s collected writings on Politics. Where all the “thithers” had been replaced by “theres” and the “s” vs. “f”dilemmas resolved (the standard “modernising” translation from the C18th to C21st) , there remained the “divers” spelling of “diverse”. I can only assume that the translator had decided Locke was talking not of the “many and diverse beliefs of man”, but of the “jumping into water head first beliefs of man”. Perhaps he was, I certainly haven’t any evidence to the contrary…
Essentially this process of historical reinterpretation is a natural one; projecting ourselves backwards in time imaginatively is perhaps the true essence of history, even if it does lead us astray every once in a while. It’s all a matter of common sense. Much safer to assume that Homer’s “wine dark seas” describe the opaque qualities of both wine and seas rather than, as some have suggested, that ancient Greeks couldn’t see as many colours as we can so they thought the sea was red.
The same process goes on when Germaine Greer claims Mary Wollstonecraft as a fellow feminist, when Stalinism claimed Marx as its founder, or when “truthers” see CIA files on Bin Laden as evidence of US government cooperation in 9-11. All of them look backwards after a period of immense change and forget that things were different before that change occurred.
But then history is just another form of storytelling after all, and in lining up Germaine Greer next to mass murderers and conspiracy theorists I only aim to show that there are benefits to this process as well. This morning there was a joke on TV that the “women’s section” of Leeds UFC was a kettle stood next to some pots of tea and coffee – I had to have this joke explained as without the in-built historical chauvinism necessary to unite the images, it simply appeared as fractal nonsense to me. Now that’s what humanism should call progress; progress that shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place, but still progress all the same.
This week I’ve written a double-header of blogs, partly to get through the topic I’m writing on, partly to put me in credit for when I begin writing up my next essay and don’t have time to write one. Where the last blog was a determined sniffing-out of meaning-in-itself, this one is the inevitable sneeze that such an activity will provoke. In short, the delicate savours are about to get covered in snot.
Fellow Marple resident, the General (musician, Charlie Brooker lookalike and test-card maker extraordinaire), unites his many projects under the banner of Funsville Memetic Laboratories (http://www.oodletuz.fsnet.co.uk/index.html). The paradox of this title is the unity of “Fun” and “Memes”; the seemingly organic and spontaneous experience of fun being related to the ultradarwinist catch-all theory of memes with its undertones of self-perpetuating cultural viruses. Yet this is not only paradoxical in that ultradarwinists are perhaps the least fun people on the planet, yet also because it unites the meaning-routes of threats and bargaining.
Returning to the pre-Enlightenment ideal of God and meaning as a unity, Pascal is the ultimate demonstration. Inherent within his Wager is the need for God’s existence to be pushed onto the masses by force, whilst the ruling elite are free to create reasons and arguments for God. Yet, as Zizek points out in The Plague of Fantasies, the ruling elite, in order to create reasons for God, must already have accepted his existence in a similar fashion as the masses. In order to bargain with the meaning of God, one must have already succumbed to the threats that impress meaning into God.Similarly, Deleuze describes education as the process of learning both problems and solutions simultaneously. Long multiplication, for example, is the form of maths that is being learned – the actual answers are only of secondary importance; their truth, according to Kant, being a priori. The double learning of problem-solutions operates through social threat. “Education, education, education” being the all important signifier your value during the process of social integration designates arbitrary power-force as implicit in problem-solution forms. The first road to meaning is the road of threat (as any good Catholic will tell you).Once we become “educated”, however, the boundaries shift to bargaining. The techniques I listed last blog as conductors of the power-force of floating meaning are essentially the very forms impressed by threat - except now, as a member of the educated elite, we find that these forms are malleable. The forms, long-rooted in the Laputan soil of meaning, can be bent into any shape desired within the realms of existing problem-solution and then presented to others in the form of bargaining. Academia is thus the great Laputan marketplace where form is bartered for meaning.
Carroll presents this aspect of meaning-in-itself aptly through the form of nonsense. Alice is threatened by Humpty Dumpty for he is the “Master” that creates meaning for words and she, as the uneducated, must accept them, no matter how ridiculous (a process similarly utilised by Carroll himself in the nonsense of Jabberwocky). Yet, we find ourselves asking, what would happen were two Humptys to meet? Well, if they were Oxfordian Scholastics then they would merely argue over Mastery – but if they were true academics of the Enlightenment mode then we would be sure to see an extraordinary display of bargaining commence, and all of it over the meaning of nonsense words.This bargaining over meaning is essential to maintain its power-force. The victory of liberalism/free-market capitalism over totalitarianism is assured by it. The ultimate fascist Icon is presented by Carroll in the Red Queen of Through the Looking Glass – her rule is based on the arbitrary threat of beheading, her own reasoning based on equally arbitrary emotions. The fluctuation of this power seems to lack the force of meaning (her random emotion seems barely human) and, as such, creates an unbearably uncanny mirror once held up to meaning-in-itself.
This brings me back to Funsville Memetic Labs and its central paradox – the paradox of simultaneous threats and bargaining. Fun, as the social emotion of enjoyment, is seemingly organic but (as anybody knows who has been to a party with people they are barely acquainted with) is impressed by social threat. Without the fun-meaning, the party-form would cease to be. Yet, once the meaning is entrenched through the problem/solution of party/fun, then we can begin the bargaining for meaning in our interpretations. Up steps Lacan’s superego - “Enjoy!” - swiftly followed by Dawkins’ meme - “Evolve!” – brisk on his heels is Marx – “Surplus-Capital!”
…and the train rolls on through the night, an inky void of blackness clawing at the windows and everywhere the stale smell of steam.
In Anthony Burgess’ grand-scale novel of the ‘80s Earthly Powers the main character’s homosexuality is explained in terms of Freudian “inversion” by a retired doctor. The character, Toomey, questions as to whether the doctor really believes that he can only sleep with men because he is irredeemably in love with his mother, to which the doctor replies that the theory is “useful as meaning” and, having retired to become a writer, that’s all that really matters to him.
I’ve often thought that an in-depth Foucault-esque “archaeology” should be written on meaning-in-itself. It would perhaps be the next logical step of transcension for western philosophy. Socrates transcended the world by introducing the forms, Kant withdrew into pure reason, Heidegger into Being and time, then Derrida finally transcended everything but pre-existing thought systems and left us with a philosophy of quotations. Obviously I’m simplifying, although I still think it would be useful to really corner “meaning” so that it is no longer a grounded principle dependent upon Godlike truth (much like the Monty Python film intro where the words “Meaning of Liff” need to be zapped by God to properly spell out “Life”).
Derridean “force” and Deleuzian “intensity/extensity” are perhaps the closest I’ve found to an inherent principle of meaning-in-itself, although I’m sure there’s plenty out there. The first move was probably Nietzsche’s Dionysian that rests between subject and object. Yes, the concept of meaning certainly operates as proto-elemental force, a strong savour of the Void. After all, “we’re dealing only in savours” here like Mrs. Woolf.
The savour is perhaps strongest when we say that 1+1=2. It rings of truth, so smells of meaning. But perhaps this meaning is only lent to truth; it needn’t be implicit within it. The same smell of meaning lurked throughout the middle ages in that all-purpose Void-polyfiller, God. God’s smell lingers on throughout the Rationalists of the Renaissance – Leibniz and Spinoza with their syllogistic formulas of meaning that say that 1+1=God, even Galileo’s endless world-formulas are in on the action, never mind the original philosophical a priori – the Cogito.
The Empiricist break (be it Newtonian, Lockean or Humian) is perhaps, for a Brit, the most notable escape from this mathematical meaning into the realm of “common sense” – perhaps mirrored in the Rousseauist naturalism on the continent. The use of examples to back up scholarly argument is a product of the same pragmatist borrowing of meaning. It’s only a small step from here to Burroughs’ faith in a paranoia which grants meaning to infinite suspicions. Meaning thus functioning as the chemical faith of paranoia that finally refuses truth in favour of the safety of fear - vigilance.
Meaning-in-itself then, as it smells to me, is very much the engine that powers our floating Swiftian island of knowledge and power. Swift’s Laputa is the ultimate symbol of meaning – an island unattached to any ground which nevertheless supports endless roots of plants, trees, buildings, whose inhabitants are blind, deaf and dumb, only capable of living through their slavish servants. Of course, the key to Laputa’s power lies in its moving, elevated self-grounding that allows it to control all the lands below it through the threat of being crushed beneath it. Here, meaning floats, created by the very engines that it powers, denying the paradoxes of its own being through the self-omnipotent threat of destruction.
A void engine whose smell-steam lingers in threats and bargaining.
Last week’s Zero Punctuation article (www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/1472-Dantes-Inferno) began with a description of Dante’s Divine Comedy as an epic scale piece of fan-fiction. As I’ve said before of other jokes, this one hides an interesting kernel of truth inside its comic juxtaposition. Dante himself is the hero of his epic, through which he personally meets his hero, Virgil, and makes friends with the Angel Gabriel, then through these ‘spirit guides’ comes into contact with both Satan and God – sounds a clear case of “fanboyism” to me. In fact, when seen in this light, the spirit guides resemble those described in Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars. Such parallels suggest the relationship between fictional characters to the reader being comparable with a schizophrenic’s with their alternate, unconscious egos.
The phenomenon of embodying alter-egos is one well demonstrated in the medium of computer games. Dante’s Inferno, as a game, may simply be a fan-fiction of the ultimate in fan-fiction, but the game that Zero Punctuation compares it to, God of War, explores this concept more fully by setting the game within the realm of ancient Greek myth. The works of Homer are considered “primary” epics compared to the “secondary” epic of Dante (The Odyssey and Iliad being originally spoken unlike the written Divine Comedy) and therefore haven’t a single, authoritative text but rather a conglomeration of alternatives about recurring themes and events. God of War, like the upcoming film Clash of the Titans, can then be as cavalier as it likes in its depiction as there can be no true “correct” version to compare it to.
The essential difference between primary and secondary epics could then be seen to be a preference of “event” over “word”. Homer’s greatness lies in the situations where Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, is great for its precise wording. The primacy of “event” is similarly the key to great games. Every few months a game comes out claiming to be “novelistic”, yet simply supplies an overabundance of words into the event of play, thereby coming across about as interesting as a live reading of the collected works of Dickens – good for about an hour, then punishingly tedious. No, great games lie in great gaming experiences.
The experience of games, and the primacy of event that grounds it, is indebted entirely to the projection of ego; the “immersion factor”. The Avatar that simultaneously “is you” whilst you “play them” is, in essence, an alternate ego-isation similar to day-dreaming (the serious-play of Freud’s creative writer) and thus engages incredibly directly and viscerally with the phantasmic core of lived experience. It’s for this reason that computer games are becoming increasingly appreciated as what they really are, an art form. They’re an interactive theatre that the likes of Brecht or Artaud would have relished the possibilities of.
To demonstrate this in a quick paragraph, I’d like to compare the classic Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with its sequel Modern Warfare 2 – what I believe to be a vastly inferior game. COD4 created one of the most potent images in gaming history in its level “Aftermath” in which, following a gruelling battle through the streets of Baghdad to rescue a single downed pilot, a nuclear bomb hits and you are left helplessly dragging your avatar’s near-dead body around a nuclear wasteland - the facelessness of your character, Jackson (?), greatly adding to the immersion. Here the shock of nuclear breaks in to the phantasy as a fragment of unwanted Real that leaves you feeling exposed and powerless where you had just a moment ago been the great bulletproof hero. Similarly, COD4’s loading screens following your characters death showed quotations from real soldiers and generals mixed with statistics on the price of real weaponry and other ambiguous and troubling actual facts; all of these breaking the screen of phantasy just at the point at which “you are dead” within your avatar.
The opposite effect occurs in Modern Warfare 2. The quotations are replaced by comic war-ironies of the Catch-22 or Dispatches type and rousing patriotic nonsense such as “If you won’t stand by your flag, then you should get another one”. The result is that the game’s phantasmic screen is not broken and, worse, succeeds in enveloping the real that it suggests. This screen of ideology, of the most reactionary and least human type, is not even dealt with ironically (the way that American film noir deals with similar ideology, for example) but instead makes the image of collective murder “cool”; upgrading guns as “bling” for example – the phallic motifs here are so obvious I feel abit stupid even bothering to point them out. Overall, it is games like Modern Warfare 2 that justify the reactionary hysteria that is so ironically misplaced in the likes of the satirical series Grand Theft Auto.
Needless to say, there is still some way to go before computer games are recognised as the potential art form that they are – although the increase in people studying populist film and literature is promising, as is the growing awareness of other previously-pulp forms such as comics. Similarly, game designers need to start taking more responsibility for the politics of their games as “the kids” are far more susceptible to indoctrination through arbitrary hegemonic attitudes than to any amount of the sex and violence that the hysterics worry about. Yes, less Modern Warfare 2, more Bioshock please, or just anything with a zombie Lenin in it would be fine.