Reruns

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
– Proverbs 26:11

Thinking about Cam, the recently released movie by screenwriter Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber (streaming on Netflix), I’m struck by how long I’ve been trying to do the same things.

  • I keep wanting the world to be other than what it is.
  • I keep imagining other ways it could be.
  • I keep trying to figure out how to move the world, or some small corner of it, from what it is toward what I imagine.
  • I keep realizing that I can’t do it, or that it can’t be done.
  • I keep making phase shifts, from imagining changes in the world-that-is to imaginary alternative worlds-that-aren’t.

There have been times in my life when I’ve allied with others who also want to change the world incrementally from what it is to what it could become. Mostly those efforts proved disappointing, to me at least, and arguably also to the world, though lots of people have made their careers that way.

A prototypical conversation between my father and mother:

Father: I did my best.
Mother: Your best stinks.
Father: Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.

A prototypical conversation between me and myself:

Me: No reason it can’t be.
Myself: No way it ever will be.

If you’re chronically dissatisfied with the world as it is, don’t you at least once in a while have to acknowledge that the problem might be yourself as you are? It’s more adaptive to take what the world gives you by making the world a little bit more like itself.

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Take Cam. Alice the cam girl is taking what the world gives her by giving the world what it wants. She’s good at it, but she’s insatiable: she wants more. The world is insatiable too: it doesn’t just want what she can give; it wants all of her. She resists. With no allies and no resources other than her own ingenuity and pluck, she reasserts herself as an autonomous agent in the world. The movie is smart, arty, engaging, exciting. It might be the sort of movie you make if on some level you’re satisfied with the movie world as it is, if you can take what that world will give you, if you’re prepared to make that world a little bit more like itself. Maybe you can resist, can retain your autonomous agency while immersed in an insatiable world, can climb the charts to a position where you’re able to call the shots. Maybe, if you’re prepared to do what it takes, you deserve what you get. You have to work at it, but you also have to want it. Not only do you have to accept the world as it is; you have to love it.

I can’t do it. I lack the drive, the energy, the desire. I lack the love.

When I started writing fiction it was mostly because I loved the world of fiction. Not pop genre fiction, but what for lack of a better adjective has to be labeled literary fiction. I wanted to adapt to that world of fiction, to exert personal agency in that world by writing my own fictions, to make that world more like itself through what I wrote. In retrospect I concede that I misread that world, that I was adapting to a fictional version of the world of fiction, a world riddled with holes and lumps and contorted by digressions and loops, unreal as psychosis, as science, as theology.  Since coming to that realization I’ve wanted to make the fictional world-as-it-is into something closer to my imagined fictional world-as-it-is-not. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked. My best stinks; expect the worst and I won’t be disappointed. No reason it can’t happen, no way it ever will.

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When I first met Danny he was a senior at our daughter’s high school, introduced to me by Isa, the older sister of our daughter’s best friend from early childhood. At the time I was thinking about starting a film project among high schoolers who wanted to make movies, not for class credit, not as a program they’d have to pay for, but as an endeavor motivated by shared enthusiasm. I imagined a project called Reruns — here was the gist:

It’s a zombie world. Sitting zombified on the couch, you click through the TV channel changer. Every channel is showing reruns of old zombie programs. The collaborative project is to write and film these short clips of zombie TV shows, assembling them into a simulated trip through the channel changer. The clips will be short — from 5 seconds to a minute long — and fragmentary. All genres of programming are fair game: drama, comedy, reality TV, quiz show, news, documentary, sports, ad… The unifying structure or narrative isn’t imposed on the fragments; it emerges from flicking through them one after another.

Sounds a lot like Son of Strands. I presented the idea to Isa and Danny, both of whom were adept at cinematic art and craft. They liked the idea and were prepared to help me get it going. Around that time, out for an afternoon run, I came across the father of one of our daughter’s other childhood pals. The dad was a PhD physicist who worked in a government alternative energy lab but who had toyed with the idea of quitting to become a science teacher. Figuring him for a fellow traveler, I ran the Reruns idea by him as we ran along the Boulder trails together. Now’s the wrong time of year, he said; you should wait till the summer. And do you have any experience with filmmaking? with teaching? I told him to go fuck himself, to shove it up his ass — the last conversation I ever had with him. But I abandoned the project shortly afterward, having decided that I was attempting to manipulate kids into doing something that I wanted to do. It would be better if the high schoolers themselves initiated and ran their own project — as Danny had done a couple of years earlier, starting and running a kids’ theatre troupe.

Son of Strands. Do I write short stories? No. Have I ever edited a literary magazine or anything like it? No. Go fuck yourself and shove it up your ass. But you’ve got a point. I’m an outsider to that world; I don’t like many aspects of that world; I’d want Son of Strands to take shape in an alternative world of short fiction that’s more to my liking. Shouldn’t this sort of project be launched by people who already live inside the world of short fiction, who love that world, who want to carve out a niche in that world by making it more like itself? I’m the wrong guy for that job.

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Around the time I was sketching out the Reruns project I wrote “Looking Up” for an Open Mic event at a nearby bookstore. It’s a 2,000 word story about an unknown novelist who suddenly achieves worldwide fame, reading long portions of his work in progress aloud to a vast and rapt audience, a novel that seems to be writing itself as he turns the pages. I asked Danny to read my story, giving particular attention to the ending: should the writer continue reading his self-writing novel and increasing in renown, or should a sniper from the audience shoot him dead and take his place at the dais? Danny thought ending A was better. I posted the story on my blog: most of the commenters preferred ending B. I went with ending A for the Open Mic reading, but in subsequent rewrites I stuck with the B version. Analogously, in my imaginary ending to Cam Alice wins the competition against her AI döppelganger by snuffing herself on-screen; the audience, oblivious, celebrates AI-Alice for having staged such a clever CGI performance, propelling “her” to the top of the charts.

 

Cam by Mazzei & Goldhaber

A postcapitalist interlewd:

I.  The cam girls and boys organize themselves into a collective syndicate, ousting the corporate platform that takes 50% off the top of their earnings and replacing it with their own DIY platform.

II.  The Syndicate develops a profit-sharing program in which a substantial proportion of the revenues is divided among all of the members of the Syndicate, substantially leveling the income disparity between high and low earning cammers.

III.  Instead of a free-for-all of individual cammers copying the top earners to boost their ratings and earnings, the Syndicate establishes an R&D lab for developing routines, props, staging, acting techniques, etc. with proven audience appeal.

IV.  With competition being minimized as a motivating force, many of the more ambitious and high-achieving cam girls and boys quit the business.

V.  The Syndicate establishes a school for novice cammers, with courses taught by experienced practitioners based on their own experiences and lab findings.

VI. The cam customers organize themselves into a purchasing co-op, negotiating a per-performance price paid to the Syndicate for unlimited open-access viewing instead of individually paying subscription fees to the cam platform and/or tips to the cammers.

VII.  No longer able to juice their competitive sense of power and status through extravagant tipping, many of the big-spending audience members abandon cam world.

VIII.  Together, the cammer Syndicate and the customer Co-Op promote camming not as a consumer commodity but as a performance art, a liberated form of entertainment, a collective intervention for enhancing pleasure among the populace, a valuable cultural resource.

IX.  The cam audience dwindles, the covert thrill of indulging covertly in naughty behaviors being replaced by the wholesome patronage of the arts.

X.  The Syndicate’s R&D lab launches a fleet of cam AIs, able to perform 24/7 at a high level without taking a share of the revenues.

XI.  The cam audience dwindles further, no longer positioned as sadistic voyeurs paying to watch human cam girls and boys abase themselves for money but as rubes watching simulated girls and boys perform simulated masochistic acts.

XII.  A revival of old-school camming springs up, with cam girls and boys competing for ratings and tips while audience members compete for sugar-daddy spending status.

XIII.  Rumors circulate about an alternative underground camming movement in which cam girls and boys perform for no money before simulated audiences or no audiences at all, motivated solely by self-expression and the perfection of art for art’s sake.

XIV.  Solo onanism, unaided by device or gaze, enjoys a resurgence, while copulation, experienced by those who’ve tried it as too interpersonally threatening, sags into impotence.

Cam the movie can be streamed on Netflix.

A Tentative Ecology of Literary Short Fiction

When I started this website I hoped to open a collaborative experimental space for exploring postcapitalist fictions. While the collaborative part hasn’t taken off, I have run some experiments of my own. In recent months I’ve read quite a few short fictions published in a variety of online literary magazines. Previously I’ve made some empirical observations regarding my efforts to interact with the authors; this time I’m hazarding some preliminary observations about the world of contemporary short fictions that I’ve encountered.

Most of the literary magazines I’ve dipped into are open access, so the publishers aren’t making money from readers’ purchases. Some mags are funded by grants; others are subsidized by universities with which they’re affiliated; no doubt some are labors of love. Few pay the authors of the texts they publish; still, there’s no shortage of submissions. For some short fiction writers, having their unpaid work accepted for publication enhances their market value as commercial writers, teachers, and editors; for others, authoring a published work is evidently its own reward. Few open-access litmags enjoy a wide circulation, so reaching a broad readership isn’t a likely motivator for the writers. Most published short stories enjoy only a short shelf life before fading into the unread archives, so the authors’ longing for literary immortality isn’t likely to be fulfilled by having their works appear in literary magazines.

Published short fiction writers surely read each other’s works, but the linkages among writers and texts are atomistic, with little effort evidenced by the magazine publishers to build interpersonal networks among authors or thematic connections across published pieces. While the online format minimizes barriers to reader access, it also exacerbates the emphasis on individual stories over the compilation. Many of these publications have abandoned altogether the traditional structure of the periodical issue, opting to publish stories online one at a time.

While not all of the stories I’ve read suit my personal tastes, most are well crafted, coherent, fluently phrased, interesting enough to hold my attention to the end. Nearly all of the published short fictions I encountered were stories, in the sense of hewing to the  narrative form. Most of the stories were realistic, though some were fantastic, folkloric, surreal; nearly all featured identifiable characters engaged in situations and relationships, though some of the stories took a more poetic, abstract, or expository shape; most set a serious tone, though many incorporated funny moments or absurd developments; most were literary fictions, though many veered into territories traditionally staked out by genre. My impression is that the world of contemporary published short literary fiction exhibits more variety in style and content than I typically encounter in contemporary American literary novels.

There are a lot of literary magazines out there; still, because there are also a lot of fiction writers, most of the mags receive plenty of submissions, so they can be selective in accepting manuscripts for publication. Most of the publishers don’t do much editing of individual texts, so manuscripts must already be in polished form when submitted. Because open-access publishers don’t rely on sales revenue, they can establish selection criteria that meet idiosyncratic rather than popular tastes, that value artistic merit above commercial potential. Authors who submit their work evidently embrace the publishers’ editorial standards. To be published — to meet stringent selection criteria by those deemed qualified to render judgment on literary fiction — is to be validated as a literary artist. Having a story singled out for publication means that the writer has won a competition — not unlike getting an “A” in an English class or getting accepted for admission to a selective liberal arts college, a college whose prestige doesn’t necessarily correlate with its graduates’ earnings. Authors seem less concerned about how widely their stories are read after publication, the presumption being that the magazine’s acquisition editor is a better judge of literary merit than are the magazines’ readers, just as a professor is deemed the best judge of a student’s work by dint of expertise and exposure to a large sample size.

In a subsequent post I hope to explore the possibilities for opening up postcapitalist experimental niches within the contemporary short fiction ecosystem .

Random Irruptions of Surreal Absurdities

On Friday I tentatively concluded that the introduction of radical anomaly into ordinary reality, with grim comic effect, is a literary deployment of hammerspace — a reminder that even a seemingly realistic narrative is, after all, imaginary. More aptly, a fictional narrative never corresponds fully to the real world; it’s a mongrel entity, combining aspects of both the actual and the imaginary. Roadrunner drawing a door on the face of solid rock and running through it, Bullwinkle pulling a roaring lion out of a top hat: even little kids who’ve grown accustomed to cartoon animals talking and scheming like humans respond with surprised delight when sheer impossibilities show up in cartoon world.

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

Thus spake the Cardinal in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu, or the Conspiracy (of course I’ve never seen or read it: that’s what Wikipedia is for). Writers of fiction can, like sorcerers, use words to conjure things in readers’ imaginations, can deploy imaginary objects metonymically or metaphorically or symbolically, can build up whole realities out of thin air. But actual little kids literally pick up pens and joust with them like medieval knights. The kids know that pens aren’t real swords, that they themselves aren’t real knights, that the loser lying slain and bloodied in the castle keep is going to hop back up for another round. It’s fun to pretend.

Is pretend play instrumentally useful, a kind of practice session for later in life when kids grow to adults, wielding real weapons in real battles or staging real theatrical enactments of imaginary battles? Kids often gloat when they win and sulk when they lose, just like adults do; kids try to get better so they can win another day, just like adults are encouraged to do. The justification of playground as training ground has been extended to “serious” fiction, the reading of which purportedly enhances language skills, or the ability to navigate conflicts, or empathy. Even kids though know that sometimes winning is beyond your control. You need a miracle, but you know you don’t deserve one. Or luck, but you’ve found that it tends to work in the other guy’s favor. You need hammerspace to open up a portal for you, like it does when Bugs Bunny needs to escape the clutches of Elmer Fudd. It’s kind of like cheating, but you’re not morally culpable. Hammerspace is the instrumental irruption of a surreal absurdity, letting you beat the odds and your opponent.

But kids don’t always play to win; sometimes they just play. No goal to be pursued, no tactics to accompish the desired goal, no instrumental agency for deploying tactics, no well-defined outcome, no exultation in victory or desolation in defeat, no lessons to be learned on how to play better and win next time. Aimless play — it seems to escape the boundaries of  the training ground, where children acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve success, not just individually but also for those who benefit from their achievements: parents, societies, investors. Jokes without punchlines, stories that diverge from well-defined linear plots and character development, activity without production. Maybe aimless play is a training ground for insurgents, exposing them to a different sort of game, a game where the rules aren’t constraints on play but are part of the game, to be altered at will or even discarded; where process is the outcome; where the play’s the thing, play for play’s sake, art for art’s sake; play staying play without getting co-opted into work; where the aggregate of all games isn’t a zero-sum killing field of winners and losers but a playground where everybody wins or, even better, where nobody wins or loses.

It turns out though that the insurgency playground, just like the competitive playground, is owned and controlled by the players of a larger game. They don’t have to win because they’ve already won, don’t have to resist because nothing stands in their way. You can play whatever games you want — in fact you’re encouraged to do so — but you always have to buy the equipment and rent the playing field, to defer to the refs and in the last resort to the Commissioner. Whatever game you play and however well you play it, you’re bound to lose. Even hammerspace is controlled by The Man, letting him rig the game to suit his own purposes.

The situation is ripe for random irruptions of surreal absurdities.

 

The Jolly Surreal of Hammerspace

In yesterday’s post I explored three interrelated aspects of Elizabeth Bruenig’s WaPo piece on millennial humor: grim jolliness, absurdity, and nihilism. These three aspects can be regarded as moods: not just subjective emotions, but ecological responses to being-there, to being immersed in a world that generates these moods.

Comedy sketches, TV ads, short stories: they’re all forms of narrative fiction. Comic routines and commercials deploy grim-jolly absurd nihilism tactically, as a means of distracting their audiences from the darker manifestations of being-there. What about short stories: do they offer distraction or immersion, lamentation or cure?

Of the 21 short stories in the latest Gone Lawn issue, the most prevalent mood is serious nihilism. The characters in those stories are immersed in a meaningless world, instilling in them a sense of loss, anomie, isolation, drift, inertia, confusion, sorrow, rage, and other variants on grimness. Arguably this mood has pervaded serious fiction for a hundred years or more. When in these narratives the realism veers into absurdity, it often takes on a symbolic cast, with the world and its denizens literally falling part, fragmented into shards, becoming collections of inanimate objects that stand in isolation from one another rather than cohering into a whole. It’s the kind of artistic move away from realism that characterized cubism and, later, abstract expressionism.

In a few of the stories the absurdity twists toward dadaism and surrealism. Things aren’t just falling apart; they’re morphing, multiplying, hybridizing, reassembling themselves into bizarre configurations, filling up of the formless void, the nihil. Creative destruction: when the old rules no longer hold and everything collapses, then the constraints are relaxed, allowing strange mutant forms to explode across a grim and barren world. The explosion might be disconcerting — it might even signal the end of humanity — but it does offer some interest, and maybe even something like anticipation, that this incongruous congeries of mutation might assemble itself into an alternate reality that’s more fecund, more alive than the desolate and dying world in which we’re immersed. Maybe this new reality assembled from the detritus of the old might even restore some sense of meaning — or else meaning itself will fall by the wayside as no longer relevant, a dead aspect of the dying world it had once inhabited before being cast off.

The surrealistic explosion of mutant plenitude might instill curiosity, awe, abstract speculation, poetics, but what about jolliness? I don’t see it, don’t feel it in these stories. They’re abstract, literary, serious. Sorrow, regret, rage — the old negative affects might fall away with the collapse of the old reality, but so too do the old positive affects. Jolliness seems like a particularly archaic mood, the manifestation of a childish innocence and delight that’s been crushed under the weight of time. Jolliness feels a lot like nostalgia, a return of the old dying world to an earlier, more vibrant and surprising era.

Maybe that’s where the absurd jolliness shows up in the neo-dadaist and the neo-surreal — not in mass destruction, exodus, and burgeoning alternate realities, but in small unexpected interruptions of the preposterous. Grandma dies on the living room sofa, a grandson tosses an ugly quilt over the body, and life goes on pretty much as it did before. Eventually the family wonders what happened to Grandma. They shrug and carry on, looking forward to Christmas. Childish innocence? It sounds hard and cold, either autistic or psychopathic. But isn’t that how children deal with the disturbing, the annoying, the uncomfortable: throw a comforter over it and act like it’s disappeared? Hammerspace in reverse: throw something in and it’s gone. Of course Freud and a panoply of B horror movies have warned us about the return of the repressed, but as the severed hand in Evil Dead II demonstrates, even the return can be a laugh riot.

Not a succession of realities, the replacement of one with another, but the irruption of an alternate reality into the already existing one, a two-way hammerspace, a bidirectional portal tenuously linking ordinary everyday reality with an alternative reality. The juxtaposition proves dadaesque, surreal, absurd; it might be grim, but it might just as plausibly be jolly.

Does an irruption of absurdity, however limited and brief its appearance, reveal a gap in the matrix of the everyday, a gap that with attention and imagination can be widened until the whole artifice crashes? Or does the irruption offer an exit strategy, a way of stepping through the portal out of this reality into a different one? Or is it a reminder that any narrative, no matter how serious and how realistic, is an invention, an illusion, a fiction, no more real than hammerspace?

Surrealist Facets in Contemporary Short Fiction

Does Breunig’s interpretation of contemporary absurd surrealism apply not only to humor but to fiction? To find out, I’m revisiting the 21 short fictions in the current issue of Gone Lawn that I posted on earlier.

“How Would You Call Me if You Forgot My Name,” By Mileva Anastasiadou

My mind is stuck on this song, as if all meaning of life is hidden in it. I repeat it over and over. So there’s the meaninglessness, but it’s wrapped up inside the head of a character with dementia, for whom meaning, like memory and language and eventually life itself, gradually drifts away. It’s a subjective loss of meaning, but the narrator believes that the meaningfulness of life had begun to slip long before the disease set in. So I suppose there’s a kind of metaphoric nihilism at work here. What about the “grim, jolly absurdism”? It’s grim to be sure, but whatever jolliness there was is long gone, from the world and from the minds of those who occupy it. What about absurdity? Well there is an awareness that everything has become pointless, but there’s nothing incongruous or preposterous going on. Surrealism? Well, the narrator refers to herself and her partner as formerly being clouds, now transformed into trees, but it’s metaphorical — a transition from drift into rootedness.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

Grim, jolly absurdity: check. Surrealism: check. Nihilism: not really; the perspectives are too subjective for evaluating the state of the world. But then the story ends with a “purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope”: a mood of nostalgic sorrow that retrospectively embeds the whole story in a more traditional inwardness or depth psychology.

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

Decidedly nihilistic and absurd, there’s plenty of crazy incompatible stuff going on in this story. It’s self-reflexively cubist, which suggests multifaceted views of a recognizably meaningful subject, but the center cannot hold for long and the text veers onto full-on chaotic neo-surrealism. Grim? Serious to be sure, the story is too abstract and external to be grim. Jolly? To quote myself from my earlier post: “Not a funny one, this story; not just disorienting and disconcerting either. It’s fully aware that things are falling apart, that attempts to build alternate realities from fragments and components is doomed, that entropy will prevail. Not a lamentation, more an abstract expedition into the weird.”

“The Imp and the Bones,” by Joanna Galbraith

This is a folk tale, which provides a traditional premise for deviating from ordinary reality. There is a kind of grim humor interspersed at times, though for the most part it’s a serious and linear narrative. The story is meaningful; it even has a moral to the story. It is posthuman though — evidently the humans didn’t get the moral, didn’t heed the warning — which gives it a nihilistic edge.

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I realize in going through these stories a second time that I pretty well covered the neo-surreal aspects of each in my first post. I also see no point in building the Surrealty Algorithm and running each story through it. The idea of the stories’ “mood” seems more important, more pervasive than breaking it down into discrete variables and scores. Does the story itself generate affordances of grimly jolly absurdity? The other overriding consideration is the relationship between the world of the story and the actually existing world we all live in. Does the story, whatever fantastic and impossible contortions it describes and whatever imaginary reality it occupies, purport to offer commentary on or interpretation of the actual world?

On quick review I’d say that each of the 21 stories makes at least some commentary on the actual world. For two of them, the links to ordinary reality are particularly tangential. Still, the writers who create/discover/describe these fantastic worlds find themselves unable to escape their own humanity.

Carrao’s “Three Anomalies”: the title describes the relationship of the fantastic fiction to the actual world: anomalous. The text is self-aware; it notes its own trajectory of increasing deviation from normalcy. There are also explicit references to the text’s relationship to other artistic media, notably painting and film, drawing parallels to their previously executed exit from realism into fantasy, distortion, abstraction. While Carrao’s neo-surrealistic worlds might be born of nihilism, they’re anything but a formless void, overflowing with impossible hybrid entities exercising varying degrees of agency.  In the end: Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented: this could refer to a kind of computer engineering, but more likely it’s a reference to the online ontologies of the so-called “speculative realists,” who purport to describe objects as they are, independent of human ways of perceiving and knowing. These subjects turned objects will become meaningful in the way that Someone is not. Does this text enter a realm of meaning outside of human perspective? The text ends with this promise, or threat; it doesn’t elaborate on this new kind of meaningfulness. But isn’t meaning an all-too-human affordance; isn’t the insistence on becoming meaningful a concession, an acknowledgment that he can’t object-oriented enough?

Ives’s “In a Country East of South Chicago”: like Carrao, Ives invokes the plastic arts and the cinema as he veers sharply away from realism. Also like Carrao, Ives’s strange worlds aren’t empty but overflowing with content. Again like Carrao, Ives acknowledges his own inescapable humanity in these neo-surreal depictions, bringing him up short in his escape from the actual. Is there something else, some way of seeing or creating that isn’t human anymore? sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it’s not as hungry as I am, and it doesn’t need me. It’s got something better to do, and I want to know what it is. Wanting to know what it is keeps him from going over the edge, from exiting the human, from exiting himself — not unlike Carrao’s becoming-meaningful.

What about the grim jollity? There’s plenty of grimness in these 21 short fictions, along with other sombre variants: sorrow, regret, loss, anomie. There is some playfulness and wonder expressed, especially in the folk tales. There are some funny moments scattered here and there. Still, for most of these stories the overriding mood is a serious one. This is a literary magazine after all, meant for the showcasing of serious fictions. In only one of the stories does funniness figure as dominant mood: Pfister’s “A Family Reunion.” And it is a grim sort of funny, a nihilistic and absurd kind of funny. But it’s not a surreal sort of weird: the story remains resolutely embedded in ordinary reality, even when it’s past time for the denizens of that reality to acknowledge that something out of the ordinary has been happening. Kafkaesque absurdity, where someone ordinary crosses without fanfare the threshold into the realm of the inhuman.

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Why is this analysis meaningful? I forget; please discuss amongst yourselves.

 

Contemporary Fictional Surrealism

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.