I’m not sure how many of the 21 stories in the current issue of Gone Lawn — stories I explored briefly in my last post — can be categorized as surrealist, or dadaist, or absurdist. My sense was that most of them manifest one or more facets of what I think of as surrealism. What are those facets; how many facets does each story manifest? I could build an algorithm and run it on each of these stories separately; I could compute an aggregate Surrealty Score to the stories collectively. I was going to say “I could, but I won’t,” but I won’t. I might go ahead and generate the algorithm, run each story through it, compute a score for each and for all. The exercise would keep me focused, grounded in actually existing fictions rather than abstracting to fiction generally or contracting into my own fictions — the ones I’ve written or might write in the future.
What variables could be incorporated into the Surrealty calculator? Plenty of surrealist manifestos were written nearly a hundred years ago, but their authors were attempting to dictate what should happen, not to document what had already happened. Besides, I’m not sure whether contemporary fiction writers consciously regard themselves as surrealists, either through exercise of an idiosyncratic aesthetic or through participation in a more widespread movement.
In August 2017 the Washington Post published an article by Elizabeth Bruenig called “Why is millennial humor so weird?” I don’t have access to WaPo online, so I’m reading the article on my wife’s mobile device. I won’t put up a link, but I will excerpt freely. Bruenig regards contemporary surrealism as a kind of affect-laden subjective orientation to the world, an orientation that seems widespread:
I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.
“Grim, jolly absurdism.” Is that three variables, or one? Arguably all humor has a dark side: funny and cruel, funny and sad, funny and humiliating. There is a butt to the joke, even if it’s the jokester. But “grim” seems less interpersonal — a mood that’s more austere, serious, veering toward depressive. And “jolly” is a good-natured kind of funny; not laughing at or even laughing with, jolliness is more of like a personality trait, an open happy orientation to the world and its occupants.
It might be a mistake to characterize both “grim” and “jolly” as subjective states. The world can be grim — or, perhaps more accurately, the world can “afford” grimness, can create situations that provoke a grim mood in those who participate or witness such situations. The world can also afford jolliness, can generate situations that prompt amusement, even ebullience. Grimness and jolliness aren’t just emotions, nor are they objective features of the world; they’re ecological, generated in the interactions between people and the world they occupy. Heidegger regarded being in a mood as being attuned to the world, as being-there.
A situation doesn’t necessarily generate the same mood in everyone. In part that’s because individuals often respond differently to the same stimulus; in part it’s because situations aren’t univocal in their affordances. A situation can prompt both grimness and jolliness in the same person. How do you reconcile seemingly opposite and incompatible moods? You can eliminate the dissonance by turning up the volume on one while muting the other. Or you can try to find a middle ground: neutral indifference, for example. Or you can try to remain attuned to both poles at once, immersing yourself in opposite moods at the same time.
Maybe that’s what defines the absurd: simultaneously being attuned to opposite affordances from the world and being immersed in opposite moods. A second-order way of being-there.
That Bruenig explicitly disavows her own nihilism suggests strongly that the absurd mood she identifies in herself and her fellow millennials is associated closely with a sense of meaninglessness. Again, where does meaning reside: in the world, or in the head? Neither and both. Meaning too is an affordance, a subjective attunement to objective features of the world. Meaning could be a way to reconcile contradictory affordances like grimness and jolliness, but that would necessitate that the meaning be univocal, unambiguous. What if the same event, the same situation, can be embedded in multiple systems of meaning simultaneously? Now the failure to achieve a unified attunement to the world results not from the absence of meaning but from its surfeit — an overload of mutually contradictory meanings.
Some of those meanings are themselves meaningless — affordances generated not by the world itself but by those who would manipulate the world for their own gain. Bruenig again:
Yet the world is full of noise. Information is both more accessible (and perhaps more oppressively omnipresent) than ever and also less reliable; people select their own facts, and business-funded think tanks produce reports indistinguishable from hard data, except that they are not remotely true. Brands pose as friends on social media, especially to millennials, and if the line between real and artificial isn’t obliterated, it certainly seems to matter less than it once did.
How does this “mood of grim, jolly absurdism” manifest itself in fictional form?
To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.
Dream world? Well, we are talking about fictions after all, even if they do stem from a mood induced by real-world contradictions between grim and jolly, between empty and oversaturated. The implication though is that these sorts of absurd fictions aren’t realistic but dreamlike, suggesting that millennial comedy, and perhaps other millennial fiction induced by the contradictory meaninglessness of the contemporary world, constitutes not an artistic depiction of that world but an escape or exit from it: not a being-there but a being-elsewhere.
Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early 20th century.
Surrealism in its original manifestation was an attempt, through the juxtaposition of radically disparate elements, to bring together the actual and imaginary worlds, the waking and dreaming states, the conscious and unconscious minds, into a single super-reality. The presumption was that these two aspects of sur-reality had been artificially divided, and so it was the task of the artist to bring them back together. Can the same rationale be inferred from today’s neo-surrealists, who jam together in preposterous admixtures the grim and the jolly, emptiness and excess, information and noise, meaninglessness and supersaturated meaning? Do the incommensurable fragments cohere into a super-reality, twisted, incoherent, and weird though it might be? Or is the opposite impulse at work, demonstrating that even the most ordinary aspects of life become incongruous when pried loose from ordinary reality, left to dangle in metaphysical isolation or else grafted into an alternative reality? Instead of unifying the fragments into a single super-reality, the new surrealists might be bent on fragmenting the seeming unity of the everyday world, revealing that there is either a plethora of realities, or else no reality at all.
And then there’s the absurd humor it all:
this giant emptiness of meaning… this giant race to the bottom of irony… [Absurdity with humor] lol nothing matters, but things might turn out all right anyway… After all, the weird — even the exceedingly weird — doesn’t have to be purely distressing… …millennial surrealism intermixes relief with stress and levity with lunacy.
Does Bruenig’s thesis fit the short fictions in the latest issue of Gone Lawn? Tomorrow or the next day I’ll go back through each story and see.