Friday, December 31, 2010

One more something...

This is the last paper of 2009, and though it is not the best paper of 2009 (a rushed term paper with winter stomach flu flourishes), it is from a year ago. And so it reminds me again, to remember that a time of reading and writing will return to me.

Post-Postmodern Intertextuality: The Realm of the Text in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

“It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century.” --The Hours, p. 9

When addressing texts that are actively intertextual, that is, they purposefully interact with specific earlier texts, we often find that we are reading “the other side of the story.” This is especially true of texts written during that blurry-ended period we call postmodernism. In a literary climate where challenges to cultural and aesthetic norms were the business of both the critic and the author, novels such as Grendel and Wide Sargasso Sea attempted to show us the folly of taking their partner-texts (Beowulf and Jane Eyre, respectively) at face value. Through stories that carefully reflect the events of the poem and novel, yet cast them in a new light, Grendel and Wide Sargasso Sea show us the dangers of buying into the cultural and social constructions exhibited by the earlier texts, and, in postmodern fashion, attempt to deconstruct the oppositions in the texts by collapsing age-old binaries such as man/beast, colonizer/colonized, and madness/sanity. While the work of John Gardner and Jean Rhys continues to be illuminating, by the end of the twentieth century creative yet still very theoretical approaches like these seemed to have served their purpose. Theory itself was on the wane in the academy, and certainly in the minds of authors who had in the last half-century of theory-dominance been robbed of their authorial intent and made to question their relationship with their work.

The work of authors like Michael Cunningham began to defy the literary and theoretical “decrees” that would have guided earlier attempts at writing or studying novels, intertextual novels in particular. Cunningham’s novel The Hours is undoubtedly a reply, a dialogic interaction of the postmodern variety, to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. However, it does entirely not fit the mold of a postmodern argumentative “address” to an earlier, usually outmoded sort of text, i.e. the epic poem or the Victorian novel. Cunningham’s novel is different in three main aspects. First, The Hours is not hostile toward the original author or text, hostility usually being one of the unfortunate yet prevalent components of a deconstruction. In fact, the novel is an homage to Mrs. Dalloway and to Woolf. Second, The Hours considers the biographical “other side of the story” rather than the fictional one that, in the spirit of Wide Sargasso Sea, would attempt to tear apart Mrs. Dalloway at the seams. Bringing in biography is huge. Finally, The Hours, while it attempts no careful reconstruction of a storyline to oppose Mrs. Dalloway, sets up two new stories that mirror each other, while both of the stories interact with the original text and with the life of Virginia Woolf as semi-fictionalized by Cunningham. The way these stories interact and talk back to one another, while never forgetting to keep the conversation going with Woolf’s novel, is highly complex and even more impressive than postmodern attempts at simply constructing a story that presents a somewhat predictable (given what we know about theory’s aims) opposing argument to a text. We will see that Cunningham mounts similar deconstructive arguments, yet manages to do so without being destructive.

The Hours opens with an account of Virginia Woolf’s suicide. Already, we are in the realms of biography and tribute. Cunningham immerses us in Woolf’s thoughts as “she us almost distracted by the sight of the downs, the church, a scattering of sheep…one of the farm workers (is his name John?)…she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch…” (5). This stream of consciousness is purposely reminiscent of Woolf’s style in Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham also includes Woolf’s actual suicide note (6), bringing in a physical connection to reality, to biography, and all this combined with his moving, almost mystical description of Woolf becoming part of the river, tell us we are reading an homage. (That is, if we didn’t already know from the title – "The Hours" was Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway, and the phrase is repeated in nearly every chapter of the book.) While it would be na├»ve to assume that, for instance, Jean Rhys does not admire Charlotte Bronte simply because she deconstructs her most famous novel, we find nothing of a direct nod to Bronte in Wide Sargasso Sea, nothing bordering Cunningham’s obvious and open adoration for the author his novel treats both as text and as human. The offensive on which theory places the mid-century author of the intertextual text practically prohibits any magnanimous interaction with the partner text, and explicitly prohibits the sort of interaction with the author that we find in The Hours. Julia Kristeva, coiner of the term intertextual in 1966, would have it (along with many other mid-century theorists) that “the author is dead.” Her theory of intertextuality divorces authors and their intent from the text, and in fact treats the author as a separate but related text, his personal history as yet another set of texts. I would argue that Kristeva’s thoughts on authorship are just a traditional look at authors and texts using theoretical terminology as a device to seemingly distance the critic from the literature and the person who wrote it, to create some kind of apparent impartiality so that the theory can be applied as some kind of science that gives objective answers. Her anti-intertextual detractor, William Irwin, would probably agree with me, and has it that Kristeva’s theories, couched in technical language as they are, are “notoriously subjective” (236). However, we cannot ignore the influence that she had as far as forcing critics and students to consider the text as an ungraspable entity, not a product of man’s mind, but a product of myriad forces of politics, culture, history, etc, that feed into the text from the spaces between texts, the intertext (Kristeva 36). It is this trend in the second half of twentieth century writing, theory, and critical work that moved us away from considering any relationship between an author and her work, and from considering the author as a person attempting to deliver a message (isn’t that the usual end of the written word?). Cunningham’s novel defies these newish conventions by considering Virginia the woman, considering Woolf’s life as a writer, and considering the actual penning of the partner-text Mrs. Dalloway as a mirror story to his new Mrs. Dalloway’s exploits.

Cunningham could have used the suicide prologue to establish his Woolf-fandom, to disclaim any attacks he might make on Mrs. Dalloway, but it instead sets the tone for an homage novel, and it does not have to serve as a disclaimer for anything. Cunningham sustains Woolf’s story throughout the novel, and it interacts with the stories of the two other women, Clarissa Vaughan (the surrogate Mrs. Dalloway) and Laura Brown (the historical and intertextual connection between the novels and the people in them). Laura and Clarissa’s stories do bring up questions about the life that Woolf led in the early twentieth century. Women were not properly treated for mental illnesses and depression, and even those women as talented as Woolf often had a dependence on their husbands’ approval and support that could not be overcome. And perhaps most importantly to Cunningham’s aims (for we know he has them), Woolf’s sexuality was as ambiguous as her characters’, in a time when such ambiguity was not socially acceptable.

Throughout the novel, Cunningham cycles through the three women’s stories, giving a chapter to each before jumping to the next... [analysis of how the stories work together, and how they work differently from pairs like Sargasso Sea and Eyre]

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was a welcome novel in a time at “the end of the twentieth century” when a suspicion of authors and of great literature had taken over literary study, when theory had spent its momentum deconstructing every construction, whether literary or political or both, and when biography had been dismissed for years as mostly irrelevant to the study and appreciation of literary texts. Cunningham still tackles social constructs, but with a human and psychological insight that is not so explicit in a work like Wide Sargasso Sea, where the characters, from whom we glean so much in The Hours, for Rhys take a back seat to a mostly political theoretical agenda. And while Gardner has all the insight in the world in his treatment of Beowulf (even shares Cunningham’s knack for stream of consciousness), Grendel remains aloof as a text, “objectively” passing judgment on the values of epic poetry. Cunningham, perhaps because of his own genius, perhaps because he’d overheard the conversations about theory’s last gasps, chose to break out of the postmodern intertextual-writing protocol of having an agenda, of maintaining hostility toward the partner-text and all its values, and of turning a blind eye to the author who penned the work he thought important enough to use as the basis for his what would become one of his most important pieces of work. The Hours is a post-postmodern, post-theory novel, addressing a modern novel that was already dialogic, that already had its own doubts built in, that was asking to be spoken to on the same level. It did not need to be bullied into opening up and giving up some of its secrets, some of its contradictions. Cunningham lovingly opens up Mrs. Dalloway for the contemporary reader, and shows how texts can be addressed in an illuminating way that challenges social constructions without necessarily challenging everything an original text stands for. By contrast, it’s as if Gardner does a stand up routine ridiculing the life and times of Beowulf and the Beowulf poet. Rhys mounts a political uprising against everything Victorian, and does not stop pumping her fist in the air long enough to hear any echoes or insights from Jane Eyre or Bronte. Cunningham, at Theory’s wake, at the end of the twentieth century, sits down with Woolf. And they have a really good talk.

Works Cited
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Picador USA, 1998. Print.
Irwin, William. “Against Intertextuality.” Philosophy and Literature. 28.2 (2004): 227-241. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. “Word, Dialog, Novel.” The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 34-59. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953. Print.

Something to Remember

As 2010 closes (it's no longer drawing to a close -- it's 11:54pm), I want to remember not this past year, but the one before it -- the one where I was in school! Of course I had personal experiences worth remembering in these last twelve months, but as far as academics, writing, reading, and even thinking go, I am looking forward to a new beginning. After a spring semester that wasn't a semester but just a collection of months (I had finished a B.A. in December '09, and was in an awkward interim between programs), followed by my first wretched attempt at grad school that left me...

Happy New Year!

...more than a little pissed off and rightly disillusioned with terminal masters degree programs, I have little to show for 2010 as "A Student of English." That said, I must remember that a new beginning is here, not just because Pope Gregory said so, but because as arbitrary as a "New Year's Day" may seem, semesters always begin in January. I must also remember that writing is what I do, and that by most accounts I am pretty okay at my chosen vocation. I present to you the only paper I wrote for my "prose styles" class that received an 'A' grade. Yes I'm still pissed about the Bs and Cs, but just the same here is my one brief achievement (no paper over two pages was allowed), an assignment to write on Woolf's persona as gleaned from her prose style in the Death of the Moth book of essays:

In Virginia Woolf’s prose essays there is a precarious balance between an informal, stream-of-consciousness voice (a journal-keeper) and an almost pretentiously formal voice (a professional writer). Sometimes these voices inhabit different paragraphs of the essay, but often they are present together, sometimes within the same sentence. The inspired used of unlikely metaphors and the fast-flowing sentence structures of the journal-keeper are evidence of Woolf’s genius. The more formal constructions in her professional writer’s prose (i.e. the use of “one” instead of “I” and other characteristics of high diction), however, seem to be hiding something of her character, especially in her more reflective essays (“Death of the Moth,” “A Street Haunting”). Woolf’s persona comes off as one of a sort of sad brilliance, the professional writer in Woolf couching her depression in her confident “highbrow” formal diction, while the journal-keeper lets an occasional glimmer of inspiration shine through. In these reflective essays, Woolf makes observations of herself (which she sometimes claims are observations on humanity in general) that allude to her internal conflicts. But only in her humorous prose (“Professions for Women,” “Middlebrow”) does Woolf’s conflicted persona seem to resolve itself. She perhaps realizes the duality of her voices, and seeks to reconcile them ironically.

Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness constructions and poignant metaphors characterize her genius writing, those times when the journal-keeper bares herself and manages to share a bit of unbridled brilliance with her readers. The sentences in these sections (or the sections of these sentences) that fit the journal-keeper persona often exhibit asyndeton, ellipses, and other syntactical and rhetorical devices that require a filling-in of the gaps, as one would have to do when speaking to a familiar person. Some sentence fragments that exhibit Woolf’s typical stream-of-consciousness are: “beauty and beauty and beauty…” (13), “floating, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks” (24), “tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space…” (25), “Lady So-and-So with the curls and the emeralds…” (29). The same journal-keeper seems to be the persona who astounds us or invites us in with metaphors such as: “…one could only offer a thimble to a torrent that could fill baths, lakes” (14), “We are warmly wrapped in a rug” (15), “A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board” (211). Though these metaphors seem to grow out of the same raw Woolf who writes in spurts and commas, they begin to take on some of the diction of her more traditional and formal prose voice. It is as if a self-consciousness creeps into her just as she sees things most clearly, just as she wishes to reveal herself most completely.

Most of Woolf’s prose essays are in this more self-conscious voice, and those that are not humorous seem to belie her sadness especially when she takes her professional writer tone. The very language some part of her hopes will hide her fears betrays them. To speak of the death of a creature so tenderly, yet so detachedly at the same time (“…when there was nobody there to care or know, this gigantic effort on the part an insignificant little moth, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely” (11)) is odd. She has been writing on this “insignificant” moth for three pages, and yet she is only “moved strangely”? The understatement and detachment of her professional writer’s voice, its refusal to commit to a strong emotion or a wild metaphor, or to let itself run on at length until it expires all its meaning (as the journal-keeper does) is indicative of the protection from herself she hopes it will give her.

While Woolf’s wit does help her manage her various writing selves in her humorous essays, it is in her most reflective writing that we really find a window into her persona, “streaked, variegated, all of a mixture” (30). Her writer’s formality is her anchor in a river of troubled consciousness, and she holds onto it as long as she can, to keep from drowning.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What's wrong with Literal?

I disagree (with qualifications), Diagram.

Writers, directors, and artists of all kinds shy away from the literal. Literal is predictable, it's been done, and it doesn't often give a new perspective to a treatment of, say, a Shakespeare play or a Bob Dylan song. I once told a music man how I envisioned a video for a certain song, and I was immediately reproached: "That's so literal." Well, what's wrong with a little literal once in a while?

By 'literal' I mean the obvious meaning of words or lyrics, the expected (and even hoped for) staging of a play or movie, or an image that might come to mind for a good portion of 'readers' when they first see or hear something. None of these things have the postmodern factor, or even the cool factor -- but that doesn't mean literal interpretations, presentations, and re-presentations can't be effective.

I think artists and writers across many media and genres (and pardon me but my examples today will be from the realm of advertising) have forgotten how to do literal. They have forgotten how a straightforward voice can communicate clearly and quickly, how a solid and expected image can be grounding for the reader, and they have completely forgotten that to be literal does not mean to give up metaphor and all its possibilities. You can be literal and make meanings multiply. You can be literal and be nuanced.

Unfortunately these forgettings have led to the forgetting of how to say anything that means anything -- how to say anything that's even readable. In the following examples, from a sunglass catalog that attempts to create a 'lifestyle' backstory for its products, language becomes more and more abstract, forgets what the product is, and then altogether forgets what was being said in the first place. This is even more unfortunate, or just plain lame I should say, because the products have interesting, mostly concrete names. These could have been used as jumping off points to keep the copy somehow tied to the product. Some of them start out that way, then trail off into oblivion. You'll see. I'll comment on some of this awfulness afterward, and venture a theory that sticking to the literal helps the writer as much as it can help the reader.

Note: The names before the dashes are the product names. The trails of ellipses are really in the copy. Any misused punctuation or apostrophes are there as well.

Clutch -- When you gotta get a grip come through in the clutch! Don't hang on to the past when the future is in your hands..... and on your face. Make it happen while the rest of the world is nappin' and seize the day -- some how, some way.

Kickstand -- Hey you, get on your bike and ride! Better yet, throw down the kickstand and get down to business.... so you can get back to the business of getting down. Ya heard?

Burnout -- Kill the headlights and put it in neutral, pop off the t-top and crank it to 26! The party's just begun... Smokey's on the way and everybody's looking for the burnout.

Modcon -- In this new age of modern convenience, a jet-setting operator can afford only the finest contraptions and contrivances for... their countenance. Make yourself useful in the modcon. The gizmo of choice when it is time to get your gadgets under control.

Checko -- Microphone checko, one, two. What is this? A yes. So fresh. Four lens jam. Sweeter thana frech's in the place to be. so what do you do so naturally? Be down by law. The center of attention and take yourself to the 4th dimension. Wurd!

Telly -- Who loves ya baby? ....For the bold and the beautiful and everyone in between ... No need to channel surf when your [your!?] rockin' this big screen.....So flip on your telly and enjoy your show....

Skitch -- On any sunday you can smell it in the air. Tatse it in the atmosphere and see it in the clear....The skitch is not a beer goggle, but the next best thing to one. We've go the facts to prove it....

Giggles -- Isn't life a blast? It's just like living in the past. So let's go downtown. do some shopping.... get all silly and giggle our way to the land of happily ever after. Ha! Ho ho ho, hee hee hee, ha ha ha ha!....

All right, now that that's over can I just take a breath and say WTF? Can you tell what any of that means? In an attempt to speak some kind of hipster language that only vaguely refers to reality, all meaning (and interest, for me) is lost. I experienced a similar vapidity when I worked in West Hollywood years ago, making internet cartoons. It was like that episode of The Simpsons where the writers (I'm so glad they make fun of cartoon writers) throw out all these ideas from pop culture and say "No but it will be different because it will have this other idea from pop culture tacked onto it!" Okay, these descriptions are not exactly like that but they keep reminding me of West Hollywood cool types and their "ideas."

As I vainly attempted to glean something of the essence of this brand and its products by reading the above nonsense, I came across a very few descriptions that had a ring to them. Not a crystal clear, resonant ring, but a ring that is definitely more sonorous than the other junk on the catalog pages. How did that copywriter get his act together (so sexist of me to think it's a him right?) and write such tight copy after all that rambling? He stuck to the name of the glasses, what they actually look like, and got down and dirty in literal-land. Here are a couple of those readable descriptions:

Nessie -- The search for the legendary Loch Ness monster is over. It turns out the highly sought after creature is a sexy beast after all! ...The elusive Nessie has surfaced from the depths as a dark and mysterious Italian sunglass ready to be worn and adorned....

Debutante -- When it's time to make a not so formal introduction, beautify yourself with the Debutante and be the belle of the ball.... Next to the gown and the white gloves, this eyewear masterpiece will most certainly make a mark (if not a scar) on society....

Panzer -- The VZ army wants you! As a recruit in the Von Zipper war against the sun's evil rays. Your protection is our first concern... Standard operating protocol calls for you to armor up with the Panzer and blitzkrieg your way though enemy lines....

Other sunglasses with readable and almost successful descriptions were Absinthe, Southpaw, Comsat, Bionacle, Gamma, Tastemaker. They all took these names and the associated style of the sunglasses, and used those words and impressions to create a product, rather than some nebulous vignette into a too-cool-for-you-to-understand lifestyle. (Because that's what I think bad writers who happen to be cool are doing -- trying to make us think we don't understand their writing because we're not hip enough to fill in the gaps and get all the references, rather than because they just actually haven't written anything that constitutes a sentence or even a Beat poem.)

There are 40 sunglasses.

30 out of 40 descriptions are mostly unreadable and therefore uncommunicative as evidenced by the examples above, and 4 out of 10 readable descriptions are poorly executed. Only one of the readable descriptions is non-literal. A few of the unreradable descriptions may have been literal -- it's hard to tell when you have no idea what the writer is saying! Based on this sunglass catalog, I think there is something to be said for thinking literally when you approach a topic or subject. At the very least, fledgling writers should try to think literally before they go out on tangled and indecipherable limbs at the tippy-top of the meaning tree. Stay near the ground until your wings have matured!

Although I don't think that I personally need to stay on the ground, I used literal meanings of the names of these sunglasses combined with real knowledge of the art movements and styles they emulate to create what I would call very literal descriptions. I used humor and storytelling too, but didn't stray too far from the inspiration the names and styles had to offer. Maybe that's uncool, but I was writing over a hundred sunglass descriptions. If I hadn't gone literal, they would have all started to sound the same. And if I hadn't gone literal, I wouldn't have learned so much about the things I was writing on. German tanks, Jackie O, rap rhythms...I even researched how clutches work! A literal kind of writing forces you to be knowledgeable about your topic. If you just start spouting hipnesses and things you heard in a movie somewhere, along with vague descriptive words you may or may not be using correctly, you will have no idea what you're talking about and neither will anyone else.

So the literal not only grounds our writing, ensuring it imparts some kind of easily understood message, but it (counter-intuitively, perhaps) gives us infinite possibilities. Just think how many people, places, and things are in the world! Good God, y'all! If you decide to base your descriptive writing on things, you will never run out of examples, hip references, and even great metaphors -- that work even better because they too need to be based on things.

Apart from how easy being literal makes getting a good hold on writing, I'm sure literal has something to offer for film, art, even music videos (do those still exist?). There is nothing wrong with occasionally saying or portraying something without some kind of postmodern ulterior motive, or some cooler-than-thou, "I don't have to commit to any one meaning" language of youthful bad writing. Think of how much satisfaction we get from convention. Without it, all art would be chaos. Just write (act/direct/paint) something as it is, for what it is, and if you have a voice that really adds to the "text" of whatever it is you're writing on, it will come through.

NOTE: I didn't include any of my rewrites of the product descriptions here because I don't want you to Google them and find out who I was working for when I was knocking Von Zipper (which I've done twice now). Suffice it to say that my rewrites are very literal, and I laughed a lot while I was writing them. What I can do here is refer you to a website I don't do work for that has good, mostly literal descriptions of all these same products, a website I turned to for help when I couldn't figure out what the hell the VZ catalog was saying. sells all the VZ sunglasses, and they have some funny and meaningful takes on the shades. They completely ignored the catalog descriptions and I don't blame them.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What really knocks me out is sexist sunglasses

I recently looked through several catalogs of high end, sporty sunglasses, all marketed toward the same "lifestyle" segment, in an effort to find some mental fodder upon which to build product descriptions for a retailer. Most of the catalogs were great looking, polished, and gave equal time to men and women's glasses, as well as both male and female models wearing those glasses. Lifestyle brands like these sponsor surfers, motocross riders and the like to get their names out there. Lady surfers, boarders, and riders were prominent on the pages of Spy Sunglasses' catalog (see Meghann O'Brien at right, fully clothed). But when I looked through Von Zipper's booklet, all I found were captioned photos of marginally famous surfer men -- and marginally famous men who are famous for no reason (read: Wee Man) -- alongside photos of unnamed women models. Von Zipper sponsors lady surfers, just like Spy, but they failed to include any of them in their catalog. Male surfer models like Taj Burrow and Andy Irons (rest his soul) were used for multiple shots and styles. The women's glasses, and some of the unisex pairs, were modeled only by those unnamed women. And only a few of those styles were even modeled, while all the men's were given face-time.

I don't know why this bothered me so much except that the whole combination of idiotic elements that made up this particular catalog just got to me, after staring at it for hours while writing about these presumably high quality products. (I am about to do another post on the asinine copywriting in this catalog, and on terrible non-communicative writing in general. The bad writing certainly added to the foul taste VZ left me with.)

This would have made some sense if Von Zipper had no connections with women who could model the glasses. But they sponsor women! Why didn't those women model the glasses? Could the industry's belief be that women who surf or ride motocross aren't conventionally good looking enough to photograph well? Spy proves that theory wrong -- while they do feature one very attractive surfer girl three times as often as the more tomboyish surfer they asked to model, they give the girls the same attention they gave the boys. This isn't high fashion, it's lifestyle wear for people who do these sports (or at least pretend to do them). The company's ideal customer is one who wants to see the real surfer chicks let it all hang out, not look at made-up models in static poses wearing men's sunglasses.

Von Zipper features all these wacky dudes living it up on the beach or straddling some graffiti sprayed concrete, with their names plastered on every page. So they not only get the fun of being seen, they get publicity and awareness of their participation in the sport. The women of Von Zipper are easy to find if you look them up on the website, but they never had their day in print. They are not the face of the company as the men are. The women of Spy, however, are back to back with men, all their names emblazoned on the page in a two inch-high typeface.

Some of this may have to do with how marketers think men and women "read" advertisements. Men may need the lifestyle photo more than women. They're visual. Women may do better with just a big honking picture of a product. They're material. (Most of Von Zipper's women's frames aren't modeled they're just huge on the page with names like "Cookie" and "Giggles.")

To name one final difference between these companies, Von Zipper calls their women's section "Girls" and Spy calls it "Womens."

If I ever have the unlikely urge for $180 sunglasses, I'll buy them from Spy. Von Zipper just turns me off. I know there is bound to be sexism of some kind in any catalog that peddles fashion, but Spy does a better job of being classy about it, and a good job of evening the playing field for men and women athletes seeking sponsorships.