Tag Archives: Postmodernism

Terrorism: The Memetics of Guerilla Warfare

Since beginning this blog together, Stan and I have continued a running discussion on what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of military siege or action. To isolate a single specific cogent meaning that fits every popular usage would likely be impossible. Stan at one point suspected the major difference in usage stemmed from the weapon used. We went through a pile of different definitions and I at least don’t feel any closer to a single word I could graft over the entirety of usages or even a three or four entry definition that could cover most usages.

The coordinated attacks on Paris last week add another wrinkle to this and give me the sense that the defining element of the phenomena hinted toward in the increased cultural fixation on the word in the last 15-20 years has been defined more frequently by the narrative implied by the target than the manner or strategy of attack. What’s called “peacekeeping” or “intervention” tends toward the striking of strategic targets, while what’s labeled “terrorism” tends toward symbolic targets. There is little traditional military strategic value in the Bataclan Theater, and it seems difficult to think the attackers, whoever they were, wanted to or thought they could take over Paris or France as a whole through a couple coordinated strikes. Formal seizure of territory is no longer a common goal of military actions. Satellite power and puppet governments make more sense than taking over the actual governance and ownership of a territory. Why buy the cow etc.

The idea of France being under fundamentalist religious law for any sustained period of time seems similarly ridiculous, at least with the current population, even if the military power of ISIS were expanded to the point of being comparable to the major UN powers. The cultural differences are too great and especially now as ISIS doesn’t have military power anywhere even remotely comparable to the UN powers. The significant aftershock of a large attack like the one in France or even smaller ones therefore would be pitched in two directions, mirror images of the same morale problem.

What is the tactical effect the terrorist desires from the terrorist act? It’s not seizure of territory clearly. It can’t be the actual installation of religious fundamentalism in the territory struck. There are only two actual end gains I can think of from the perspective of the terrorist organization.

The first is the more obvious. Every press release or statement by a terrorist organization “claiming” an attack has two broad points which are stated each time. The first statement is “This is in retaliation for (insert western military intervention),” the (relatively) logical strategic impetus toward attack then the second “…and because of Western  decadence (many roughly equivalent phrasings exist.)” This first reason stated, the one that anything could be done about, is categorically ignored by the attacked state  and the corresponding government, at least in the US. reliably since the beginning of the W. regime. The first reason isn’t stated as a communication to  peoples attacked but as a recruitment megaphone; by aligning themselves with the counter-cultural capital inherent in broad civilian misgiving in the middle east (or in immigrant populations elsewhere), ISIS or similar organizations legitimize themselves with domestic populations. The elements in propaganda intended to be broadcast to the people inside an organization/country are usually quite different from the ones intended to be focused on from without. In an internationally broadcast message, the elements meant to draw the eyes of the foreign and domestic populations need to be pitched in ways where the likeliness of hearing one decreases the likeliness of hearing the other.

The second reason, “western decadence” is pitched at the attacked population. It’s intentionally far more vague, as vagaries make for more dynamic political capital after the fact. The western decadence is pitched in the most broad terms possible to incense the widest range of people. Paranoias of vagueness run on the fuel of victims’ collective energies to imagine the worst; paranoias of the specific have no such engine to propagate themselves. Specifics isolate, vagueness spreads. A wide net.

The aesthetic progression of terrorism from the 1970s to the present has centered around the creation of a symbolic malignant other in the form of the terrorist, a branding campaign supported equally by the terrorist and the governments of the terrorized territory. The terroristic/international memetic guerrilla militia meanwhile attempts to move toward a less coherent display of violence to weaken the sense of control in the attacked population. The shared antagonism between the two groups needs to be legitimated by continued violent flare-ups in order to sustain its strategic benefits as a means of molding public opinion. If you have a territory with multiple non-state actors vying for power that aren’t larger enough to control the entirety of the state, foreign invasion by a power like the US can be advantageous to a specific faction in their organization against the others even if the supposed endgame of taking on the US isn’t intended seriously. The mutual antagonisms so convenient for both sides in propping up national identities during the Cold War are extended into a changed paradigm. In the manner of a reality contest show, different antagonists within a limited spectrum are rolled out before the public to be judged as a sufficiently stirring dramatic foil.

By mobilizing as a relatively amorphous idea, waging “memetic warfare” as Howard Bloom might call it, the terrorist movement gains the decided advantage of being able to harness the publics’ incredible capacity for self-centered misreading in both directions. Terrorism works on the principle that if a thing manages to not effectively or coherently be about anything, the outside observers will consider it to be directly bearing them in some correlative measure. The insults against “western living” are meant, of course, as taunts. To try to isolate specific tangible targets we could call strongholds of “western living” would yield about as much stuff of use as looking at a person’s actual mother to understand a “your mom” joke. In asymmetrical warfare that isn’t centered on a traditional linear notion of victory, engagement inherently favors the smaller entity.

The US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the wake of 9/11 were not, as they were initially pitched to the public and discussed in mainstream venues at the time of the initial strikes and for a while afterward, wars of ideas or based around the adoption by one side or the other of a national or religious identity. The wars themselves were a way of creating oppositional identity to cover for a lack of shared identity that likely sits at the center of the US and in the disaffect that drives people to join ISIS. In a time of widespread discontent the most valuable branding a thing can have is an image of not being the other thing.

The Germaine Greer Controversy: A Drive-By Man-On-Mansplaining for Our Reading Dudebros

In high school my Social Studies teacher, who also happened to coach the football team, showed us a TV documentary on the 1980 USSR vs. US Olympic hockey championship game. This was the only event that got across “how the Cold War actually felt” he claimed. I don’t remember much of the documentary now, but I do remember the gist of history he got across over that year even if I can’t remember specifically which year of high school it was. He claimed the major racial breakthrough of the 1980s as a decade and the decisive marker that the civil rights movement had triumphed was The Cosby Show‘s extremely high Nielsen numbers.

Even being something like 15 years old, I felt something fishy in these assertions. By then I had figured out the primary function of school was as a series of “scared straight” encounters with the less appetizing dysfunctions of middle aged people who’d decided to become high school teachers. Rooms filled with the many ghosts of innumerable Christmas’ futures.

At the same time, this stands out in my memory as one of my first encounters with the “culture war” notion, the lens through which history is viewed as a long procession of symbolic cultural artifacts clawing each other for prominence, where the battles and famines and tensions and rudiments of existence past are merely the raw material for eventual movies or television programs. Like most ideology, an adherent’s depth of immersion is best measured by the extent to which they’re sure they’re not immersed in it. The bizarre circular justifications and inchoate arguments signal an unspoken (unspeakable?) thing believed in more definitely than the speaker believes in their own words. This has been the defining tone of internet discourse for most of the time I’ve been writing these essays; the proportion and saturation of online outrage seems inversely proportionate to the actual importance of the event being discussed. Much the same as many of the most ludicrous fictional narratives in recent times have made aggressive claims to “realism”, the “real” situates itself as the ultimate vehicle toward the suspension of disbelief.

And so this week we get yet another controversy revolving around a person whose cultural capital has been waning to the point the only time anyone pays attention to her is when there’s a controversy. I’m talking about Germaine Greer and her comments on Caitlyn Jenner and transgender women.

Germaine Greer has been in the cultural eye for some time now but not with any special prominence since the 1970s. That she’d suddenly come to be noteworthy in the news cycle for saying offensive things about transsexuals that she’s been saying for 10 years now says more about the internal logic of the news cycle than Germaine Greer, the place of transsexuals in the world at present, or the schism between second-wave feminism and the queer studies that have come to replace it.

Still, I should probably engage in some man-on-mansplaining for the benefit of our readers on the cishet-dudebro spectrum as to what this whole second-wave vs. queer theory controversy is.

Boiled down, it’s an issue concerning the intersection of theory and praxis. Greer is a second-wave feminist. The broad group of writers and activists who have been labeled as a tendency to be the “second-wave” feminists emerge in the years after WWII and probably peaked in cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s. Like any umbrella term, it covers a lot of texts and figures who don’t necessarily agree with each other on anything besides the broadest of notions; any club that would include both Gloria Steinem and Monique Wittig is going to be more of a convenience for theory writers/historians than anything concrete. But I’m a theory writer and it seems convenient. I’ll take the bait.

The schism between “second wave” and “queer theory” is the problem of structuralism. Structuralism was a popular tendency that attempted to attach the systemization and assertions of super-structural truth that had proven so powerful in the natural sciences and apply them to the social sciences and literary criticism. Structuralism was huge between ~1870-1959 or so but has persisted in pockets up through the present. Structuralist thinking that still has currency now can be seen in dribbled down cliches like “There are really only 10 basic stories” or the Joseph Campbell style analyses of Star Wars and The Matrix you run into so often at college parties. Second-wave feminism was by and large structuralist. The main structuralist assumption running through the literature being: there are men and women, these two categories exist to the exclusion of any other sexes/genders, they are immutable facts.

This seems like a fairly harmless presumption to make. It informed the construction of the historical narratives of oppression that inform how forward action toward the project of liberation should be undertaken in women’s liberation for a long time. Cracks start to show in the literature with the relatively benign domestic orientalism toward “foreign” or “primitive” cultures, a hangover of romanticism (think all those “find your inner (pagan) goddess” type self-help books), but more dangerously toward the divorce of the issues of women from the related issues of race and class. While not all second-wave feminism or even the larger portion of the documentation it’s left behind necessarily marginalizes these issues, the pieces that did were given outsized cultural capital for a time because they were the least threatening; if women’s liberation was a matter of hiring a maid and self-actualizing, then it could sell things and basically recreate the then current hierarchy of power that existed in the world outside the feminist movement within the feminist movement. The current careerist “lean-in” feminism draw its roots from this tendency.

More determinedly anti-capitalist flavors of feminism, of which there were and still are many, are of course not going to be welcomed quite so warmly by a system self-satisfied with its own capitalism. Even these though, in their second-wave incarnation, are still largely unwittingly walking toward the then as-yet unlabeled trapdoor of the thing that came after structuralism, conveniently referred to in most quarters as post-structuralism.

Post-structuralism, in this context, attempts to correct for the sins of structuralist feminism by focusing more on those who had been marginalized by the prior incarnation of feminism, namely those not positioned comfortably within the gender binary. It does this by knocking down the gender binary. “Man” and “woman” become performative roles first as opposed to their prior positioning as “biological realities”. This is not to deny that there are penises and vaginas, but to say that they have no inherent connection to what we’re referring to culturally as being “manly” or “feminine”. This line of thought had overstepped its bounds by making absurd metaphysical claims of essential tendencies in academic literature all the way down to folk sayings that imply an essential gender character like “You pitch like a girl.”

Post-structuralism becomes extremely problematic for the prior theoretical work because it knocks down that structuralist presumption I mentioned earlier, the “there are definitely and only men and women” thing. For our brocialists, this might be easiest explained as being analogous to the issues within Marxist organizing after it became obvious that whole “organize the people in the factories as collective concentrated single class” wasn’t going to bring about political revolution after the class structure splintered away from centralized industrial activity. If there isn’t a category of “woman” or “man” that can be claimed as natural and immutable, if both are in fact performance identities, then that raises a lot of problems for theoretical works that come to their analysis from a starting point of an essential “male” or “female” identity, and does collateral damage to both the Norman Mailers and the Germaine Greers of the world.

Which brings us back, finally, to Germaine Greer and Caitlyn Jenner. In the immortal words of dudebro-laureate Lil Wayne: “Everybody got beef and I just came to eat.”

Put less cryptically, the epoch in which Greer’s theoretical contributions had contemporary relevance has passed her by and for at least the last ten years she’s been making trans-baiting statements. I can’t say what her motivation is. I can speculate that it has to do with a sliding sense of relevance. She may actually be offended by the idea of gender flexibility. She may think of sex/gender as a burden placed upon us all at birth that creates a solidarity that leads to eventual liberation and that the loss of this solidarity by means of externally imposed definition is damaging to feminism. It could be sheer opportunism. Either way it would seem pretty clear by now that she’s on the wrong side of history in this regard. That in and of itself isn’t that interesting.

What’s interesting is the fact that this is being blown up. Not every beef grows legs. This one has grown legs. Lil’ stumpy ones, but legs nonetheless. The reasons I suppose this has taken off are two: 1) internet commentators are not really that much different than my high school social studies teacher and look for symbolic interactions to stand-in for and replace the reality of a situation-this may in fact even be their primary social function, 2) this can be a way of summing up in allegorical (ironically) binary terms the larger more complicated series of disputes that have been taking place since roughly when Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990.

Like most beefs amplified by the internet; it’s the made for TV movie summarizing/replacing the event as it happens; that it’s compiled from things that actually happened allows for the suspension of disbelief the actual TV movie can no longer provide. A well timed beef can narrow the number of characters in the narrative construction of an event in the way that a fictionalization used to; the troll initiating the beef, in this case Greer, provides a valued public service by willingly being the symbolic “wrong” position actualized; the parameters of the melodrama can be trod once again and all the news sites can line up to the trough to imbibe the clicks and controversy.

That the choice of events to be fetishized in a news cycle biases the actual event most given to the symbolic, to the allegorical; that they constitute bed-time stories that sneak by undetected as such because we read them in the morning is hardly a new observation. McLuhan’s first paragraph in The Mechanical Bride, commenting on a reproduced NY Times front page reproduced on the opposite page, draws this analogy quite explicitly:

“…any paper today is a collective work of art, a daily ‘book’ of industrial man, an Arabian Nights’ entertainment in which a thousand and one astonishing tales are being told by an anonymous narrator to an equally anonymous audience.”

We read the chaotic mass of texts looking for themes and meaning in the morass; we “make” history. History is no more “what happened” than this is a pipe.

It’s a troll’s market right now. Insofar as gender is a performative creation, so is the news. The principles of performative reification as a theory open up many more cans of worms than just the gender thing, and we’re going to be confronting the implications for a long time to come.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 5: The Living Room

(Check out Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, and Pt. 4.)

Hip hop is bullshit, talentless crap and if its the face of modern black music that our musicians are aspiring to then we need to just give up. Rap requires no skill and only a slight grasp of language. Studies show most rappers have IQs average or below and people who listen to hip hop do too. What is this telling you?

-Candace Laytrene, Topix messageboard thread “Hip hop is shit-you’re dumb if you listen to it”

She (Tipper Gore) also wrote a book in 1987, “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,” plugged as “a practical guide for parents and consumers concerned with increasingly explicit material in today’s entertainment for children.” She wrote: “Something has happened since the days of ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Love Lucy.’ “

-Melody Simmons, Baltimore Sun, 1992

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And I did it my way
See, hip hop is what you make of it
And I’m makin’ a lot of it
See that’s a quadruple entendre, Jay Z eat your heart out

-Yelawolf, The Shady Cxvpher

The stylistics of the later James Joyce, Perfect Lives, and the vast majority of hip hop records share one major technique-the use of entendres and puns in a manner resembling a fugue. As the fugue is structured by the layering of a musical phrase over itself in different permutations to create a total effect and display slight variation as a unified totality, so that the cliche, and/or the disposable language, and/or the cultural context and colorings surrounding a word or phrase are compressed towards their opening up. The omnipresent language, the “sound we take so much for granted”, the “sound of God” Ashley discusses in Pt.4, is pivoted against its own history into becoming a fugue unto itself through the overlaying of its various connotations. This overlay is achieved through the inconsistency of punctuation, the breaking apart and recombining of cliches, and the very inconsistencies of language which your English teachers taught you repeatedly to avoid.

In other words, Robert Ashley has received numerous tributes of late in the form of his work being performed by indie rock bands, but the people who most successfully followed in the footsteps of Perfect Lives and its loose anarchistic relation to language are numerous rappers who never heard it. There’s something very beautiful in that.

The ways that race is codified in grammar and how grammars codify what constitutes racial identity in turn, how these relations to language influence a persons’ grasp on their surroundings and their shape are touched upon briefly in both “The Bar” and “The Living Room”. In “The Bar”, Ashley, while giving his sermon as the itinerant preacher in the titular bar, makes a couple mentions that the character within the loose narrative of the opera is black, though Ashley doesn’t do a verbal blackface (blackvoice?) or an Al Jolson routine; he sees the racial identity as one of a relation to language much as John Cassavetes sees race as a performative identity in Shadows.

“The Living Room” is framed as a conversation between Will, the sheriff of the town where Gwyn, Duane etc. stole the money from the bank, and his wife Ida. Ida asks Will questions, and Will gives answers that don’t satisfy the desired effect of what “answers” or, as the episode’s subtitle would put it, “solutions” are. The visual elements work at counterpoint to the images and the words keep trying to rein themselves in but run around wanton, destroying solidified meaning wherever they go. Quite a problem for a sheriff.

No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.

No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.

Another iteration of the problem of nothing/everything as a binary comes up very early on in the dialogue. Ida asks Will, “at the risk of everything, what’s the answer?”, and Will gives as good an answer as we may ever have for that particular question. It still, of course, doubles as an evasion. Will says “I’ve been practicing how to say it right the first time.” She volleys a restatement of the initial question, “could you give me a f’r instance?”,  and Will is back in the land of metaphors and stories that Ashley the narrator begins each episode with over the credits, giving the vaguely Aristotelian circular logic of two men talking about birds.

“one says, when I see those birds in cages,

I know they’re sad. two says, that’s a mistake. birds don’t get sad. that’s just how they look when they can’t…fly. one says…

wisely…well, that’s what sadness is.”

Emotion is performance or its inability in this example, something similar to Freud’s theories of energies of the self that transfer into different quadrants depending on their being repressed in other quadrants of the self. This may seem like sloppy writing on my part, a mixed metaphor, but as Ashley is an ecumenical ponderer of possibilities of everythings, this seems like the way by which I can engage with the spirit of Perfect Lives. The specific use of birds as an example could also be an allusion to Maya Angelou, though even if it isn’t my intuition says Ashley would find the connection interesting. It also fits in well with the playful discussions of race in the dialogue, like this one:

“she says: would you call this an alienation?

he says: this is…truly a nation of aliens, not the

only one, but probably the biggest. so I guess I would call it

an alienation. a friend of mine says it’s not a nation at all,

that they’re all aliens”

Similarly, when Will is trying to imagine who took the money from the bank, he can only describe the imagined culprits as being of foreign extraction in escalating absurd phrasings like “there’s no doubt the mexican is in it. the doubt is if he’s mexican.” The more frequent focus on race in this episode makes sense as it’s also a meditation on names. That all of language could be considered the naming of things

Will's not making the puns. The puns're making Will!

Will’s not making the puns. The puns’re making Will! And unmaking him at the same time.

The credits play on this concept and, being an episode concerning names, run a full 5 minutes and play on two separate occasions while also negating themselves.

Numbers, faces, the people who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not like a roulette wheel.

Numbers, faces, the people and institutions who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not, like a roulette wheel.

Even Will and Ida’s names, their claim or at least shield around which they construct their self, are in fact multi-layered puns (Ida-ea) which the opera evoke with similar inconclusiveness at other points. To go back to the first episode, the overture: “The will is almost nothing, he thinks to himself.” and “There is something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air.” Their names as puns don’t bring the reader/viewer/listener to any definitive reading any more than the line in the Saussure diagram makes the word tree correspond to the actual tree and vice versa.

Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in

Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in “Of Grammatology.”

“Names”, already an abstract concept, split and also repeated in a screenshot from “The Living Room”.

Will and Ida’s conversation is a Platonic and Hegelian dialectic. Will discusses Tourette’s syndrome as Ashley himself does in the interview I transcribed an excerpt from in the first installment of these reviews. For Ashley, Tourette’s syndrome, the spontaneous coming to language and sound, is the postmodern anamnesis, the possibility of God after meaning. Derrida’s narrative of being lost in a sea of images that can never reach the comfort of monolithic actuality, to the student of theology that thinks God is reality manifest (a belief that exists in various forms from philosophies of science to deism to the Zohar), is a fall narrative with its possibility of redemption removed.

Put otherwise: if God is everything around, beside, inside and outside of us, all images are graven images. All language is left with after meaning is being.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, Pt. 1: The Park

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Years ago, I became interested in the notion of involuntary speech. My way of approaching Perfect Lives came out of that interest. I had been observing people-particularly in New York-and I noticed that many many people were talking to themselves, publicly. Since I talk to myself privately, there seemed to be only a thin line between their madness and my madness. (Except I thought of mine as music.) At the same time, an idea that I was trying to confirm for myself was that there may be no problem, no discontinuity, between the thinking mode in music, and the way you correct that mode to make it something that everybody else recognizes. It’s the question of the origin of consciousness.

-Robert Ashley, printed interview

So like, um, for Bazin, what the ontology of film has to do is it has to deal with, you know, with what photography also has an ontology of, except that it adds this dimension of time to it, and this greater realism. And so, like, it’s about that guy, at that moment, in that space. And, you know, Bazin is like a Christian, so he, like, believes that, you know, God obviously ended up like, everything—he believes, for him, reality and God are the same. You know, like—and so what film is actually capturing is, like, God incarnate, creating. And this very moment, God is manifesting as this. And what the film would capture if it was filming us right now would be like God as this table; and God as you; and God as me; and God looking the way we look right now; and saying and thinking what we’re thinking, right now, because we are all God manifest in that sense. So film is actually like a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God.

-Caveh Zahedi, Waking Life

Silence is the soul’s invisibility. We can, of course, conceal ourselves behind lies and sophistries, but when we speak, we are present, however careful our disguise. The monster we choose to be on Halloween says something about the monster we are. I have often gone to masquerades as myself, and in that guise no one knew I was there.

-William H. Gass, “On Learning to Talk”


EPISODE 1: THE PARK

I have tried on and off for several years to write an essay on Perfect Lives and in all of these attempts I’ve failed.  It’s the center of my personal canon; the libretto atop the pile of books that form my bible-like any good post-structural Gideon I keep them next to my bed-and I find I revisit and ponder passages from it with a frequency that far outstrips any other book. It defies categorization, understanding, it refuses to be anything but itself and evades the bounty hunters of language that might desire to tame it so it might serve them on their own terms.

As such, there are few things I can accuse Robert Ashley of “understanding” with a clean conscience. But if even the most diffuse work has some sort of pivot point, if anything has a container even if the container can’t be specified to anything smaller than “the universe”, I would phrase the pivot point to Perfect Lives as follows:

Words don’t want understanding. They want children.

Perfect Lives is a work obsessively concerned with flatness; the flatness of Ashley’s voice, the flatness of the Great Plains, the flatness of common language, cliches, the flatness of the television. And so a flatness of language-and everything’s language, everything can be read-gives a suggestive depth and a sense of the things we can’t see (or perhaps that we don’t realize we’re seeing) that nevertheless never stop moving. The video shows static shots, the characters rarely ever move, but the shot keeps changing ever so slightly or with allusive turbulence. As presence implies lack; as the a widely spread line on the battlefield implies few reinforcements; as the things that seem to coat the world grow thin the way the uniformity of the paint on a house only maintains itself by our constant touch-ups, so Perfect Lives glimpses at something larger through the cracks. It’s an architecture that seems to touch the sky by its falling apart.

That meaning is a process, a calculus of the senses made in the face of a nothing that threatens to divide anything into the infinite is dramatized most cogently in the first episode; note how the intellectual determination is characterized as a preference. Interjections by the chorus in parentheses:

He studies the ashtray and tries to rule out preference, pre-

ferring (of course) over not preferring,

but he prefers, gravity (over what other state?) pre-

ferring in this case, (of course) earth

(the earth as they say), preferring

some state over non-state. (of course)

Now he grips himself with determination,

even knowing it causes sadness. (of course)

He is determined to be what?

(of course) He is determined to be serious,

not for the first time, not for the first time, there is the feeling

(of course) of a mistake.

But too late, he has arrived…

Ashley leaves in the corrections one makes mentally when speaking and in these suggests the tenuous, flowing nature of the conclusion of the language is betrayed; the clean confidence with which the writer or speaker is implored to present themselves to the world is but a construction; behind and around it sits, as Ashley puts it, “a ball of hot stuff we haven’t put our minds to yet.” Ashley is the first ‘pataphysician in earnest, a gentle explorer into a world of subjective pluralities after meaning that was always there, but may never have been. The chorus repeats, in each installment, the corks with which the shifting narrators attempt to bottle language unsuccessfully as it fizzes out all around them. (Of course.) It’s a coming to terms (and more terms) with the traumatic experience of facing language to see it has more powers greater than we ever imagined and that we can’t actually own it-the chickens of the word and the image come home to roost and the aftermath in which we all diffusely exist.

The overarching plot of the opera, which is barely touched on in favor of seeming digressions that may or may not be such, dramatizes this shifting exultation or transgression around a thing that seems, sometimes, to be there, and other times, more frighteningly might not. Perhaps it both is and isn’t, and this might be the most disturbing thing of all.

I quote the summary from the back of the Dalkey paperback edition of the libretto:

Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it the next day.

Episode 1 is the overture and lays out the primary question: There’s quite possibly nothing and quite possibly everything behind language. The gut seems to suggest whatever this sensed (no)thing is contains both the elements of overwhelming joy and of the worst sort of existential misery. What to do? What to say?

Knowledge as conquest of the surrounding world doesn’t seem to be the answer. Throughout the piece, in the manner of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, Ashley is using words that have multiple definitions to stand in for several of the multiple senses in which they can be used. The word bursts forth as a wellspring of plurality in opposition to the tight academic “grasp”. In this passage, this method is spoken of and demonstrated simultaneously:

I am not sitting on a bench next to myself, (true enough) whatever that means.

I am a city of habits.

I am completely knowable in every way. (true enough)

I recognize superstition in every form.

The anger of the words wakes me in the dream of myself. (true enough)

Note the shift from the earlier interjection by the chorus of “of course”, a confident punctuation, toward the less certain and oddly quantitative “true enough”.

This and the other episodes are portraits of the words use to dance around the means in which we “master” the word. In the overarching structure of the piece is suggested a more anarchistic relationship to the word, but in this anarchistic relationship comes a very different landscape that looks superficially but precisely like the one that preceded it.

This is why Ashley names each installment after a common space. Tomorrow we’ll look at Pt. 2: The Supermarket.

An Introduction to the Works of Mark Rappaport

I should mention that I’m friends with Rappaport. I helped him with his fight with Ray Carney and gave the push for him to publish his absolutely delightful book of fiction and essays The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much in the native English it was written in. I sought out his acquaintance because of the admiration for his work I express in this essay, and therefore I don’t feel there’s a conflict of interest. However, such connections should be noted.)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Mark Rappaport, though retired from making films, is still busy at work recombining images and impressions of films past in his photo collage work. Despite this, he is the very short list still for the greatest living American filmmaker because of the absolutely essential work he did, first in his early fictional narratives from 1974’s Casual Relations up through 1985’s Chain Letters, then in a second phase of fictional autobiographies of movie stars that have an utter lack of use for the tenets of realism that’s inspiring, especially seeing how they were made parallel to the dire trend in more commercial US cinema of “realist” (re: swearing and torture scenes) genre films that proliferated in the early 1990s.

Rappaport’s stance on the narrative and “psychological” shibboleths that loiter, tired but possessed with insidious powers of seduction, in the dire waiting room of the vast majority of American and world cinema collecting gilded dildos and money in a manner that inclines one to agree with the psychoanalytic tendency to trace the origins of such tendencies to the infant’s urge to play with feces, is revolutionary because it doesn’t violently reject such things in search of the real, but deflates them so they’re no longer gods to be venerated or scorned but half-remembered scraps in the junk pile ghost story of consciousness. While often screamingly funny, they’re just as often uncomfortable as listening to a recording of one’s own voice. Frequently in the same segment.

While his early shorts are amusing, especially Blue Movie, the best place to come to an appreciation of Rappaport’s distinctive style is his first feature Casual Relations, a collection of around 12 shorter meditations on the place of boredom, apathy, and in-between moments. It doesn’t have quite the same Jamesian complexity of his later narratives but is, as these sorts of things go, straightforward, hilarious, and more digestible. Casual Relations establishes Rappaport as perhaps the only American filmmaker to understand the artistic potentials and the specific textures of what’s been crudely dubbed “the postmodern condition”-he’ll use outdated stylistics for his own purposes and switch them out frequently and without concern for reveling in or directly and narrowly commenting on them-they’re language, and language is a tool that he’s free to use however he sees fit and established style something he can pick up or discard at whatever tempo he chooses. An especially memorable sequence superficially resembling Rashomon perhaps best sums up this peculiar film whose greatest asset is its lack of a center. A stabbing or shooting occurs, and we see it in various states of revision until it comes up against the void of meaninglessness and becomes more and more absurd. Pluralism isn’t the keyword but rather the emergence of something more sinister, more given to dangerous laughter, something more all-encompassing, a trap perhaps…it’s no accident the film ends with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” playing over a blank screen and then credits…

The later films tie their strands together in more complex ways than simply a shared theme make them more complex. It took me three failed runs through his later Local Color before I could allow myself to be ensnared in it’s internal logic, but on the third time it was sheer delight, dread and awe that the movies could do such things. The film, his third (I’ve yet to track down a copy of Mozart in Love though it’s now available on Fandor and I hope to review it here soon) is his masterpiece, though in a body of work this good that means it’s a split second finish. A story of incredible complexity and one of the only, maybe the only, besides Rappaport’s own The Scenic Route, film to take the innovations of the greatest post-war writers in prose, the Pynchons and Barthelmes and Gaddises, and employ them to film on the same level to and sometimes even surpass them. To recount the plot here would be to miss the point; the plot is so byzantine and winding that it seems so on purpose so as to force the viewer in being overwhelmed to let go and stop reading it the way they’ve always read films; as things with characters who have goals and represent eternal melodramatic forces. Nothing is so cut and dried here. Character isn’t a matter of surface level coherence but of self-contradiction, petty urges with unknown origins, layers of masks draped one over the other like thatch over a pit. Attempts have been made to imitate the power and unusual tone of this film in later films to such dire effect it would be insulting to Local Color to mention them here. Some of these attempts were by filmmakers I’m not even sure saw Local Color, maybe the impetus came to them half-digested in dreams. Such things happen…

This is getting long, so I’m going to split it up into two articles. In the second installment I hope to go over his later shorts and fictional documentaries/autobiographies.