The Culture Vulture as Hero: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (and Slavoj Žižek)

I picked up Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel, Chronic City (2009) for perhaps two reasons: 1) it had an interesting dust jacket,[1] and 2) his name is one of those vaguely familiar ones I’ve heard bandied about for awhile now so figured it was about time I read something of his.  W/r/t many of the concerns of this blog, there are a number of interesting things about Lethem’s most recent effort, but for the purposes of brevity I’ll focus on one particular aspect: the hero as culture vulture.

In my mind, Chronic City is perhaps singular and original in casting its protagonist, though not its narrator, as, for lack of a better term, a “culture vulture.”[2] What I mean by this term (and I, of course, am not the first to use it[3]), is a person who (sorta) mercilessly picks at the refuse and detritus of culture for their own ends, literally a cultural scavenger.[4] The “culture vulture” picks apart culture, finding it where and when they can (if at all. . .), filling themselves, gorging themselves on “culture,” and, after some amount of digestion, shits something out that combines everything digested.  Unlike other definitions of “culture vulture” (see note 3), I make no distinction whatsoever b/t “high” and “low” culture here.  Everything is on the table, from—to allude to my titular parenthetical—Wagner to “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter.”[5] Again, w/r/t to my titular parenthetical, perhaps one of the best formulations of (perhaps) what I mean by “culture vulture” is given by Slavoj Žižek in his “Preface” to Looking Awry:

“Walter Benjamin commended as a theoretically productive and subversive procedure the reading of the highest spiritual products of a culture alongside its common, prosaic, worldly products.  What he had in mind specifically was a reading of the sublime ideal of the love couple represented in Mozart’s Magic Flute together with the definition of marriage found in Immanuel Kant (Mozart’s contemporary), a definition that caused much indignation within moralistic circles.  Marriage, Kant wrote, is ‘a contract between two adult persons of the opposite sex on the mutual use of their sexual organs.’  It is something of the same order that has been put to work in [Looking Awry]: a reading of the most sublime theoretical motifs of Jacque Lacan together with and through exemplary cases of contemporary mass culture: not only Alfred Hitchcock, about whom there is now general agreement that he was, after all, a ‘serious artist,’ but also film noir, science fiction, detective novels, sentimental kitsch, and up—or down—to Stephen King.  We thus apply to Lacan himself his own famous formula ‘Kant with Sade,’ i.e., his reading of Kantian ethics through the eyes of Sadian [sic] perversion.  What the reader will find in this book is a whole series of ‘Lacan with. . .’: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Colleen McCullough, Stephen King, etc. (If, now and then, the book also mentions ‘great’ names like Shakespeare and Kafka, the reader need not be uneasy: they are read strictly as kitsch authors, on the same level as McCullough and King.)”[6]

Lacan’s formula—which Žižek exploits so mercilessly (though not ineffectively) it might be put over the doorway of all his work—“Kant avec Sade[7] might describe the limits of what I mean here by “culture vulture”—i.e. there are few, and the boundaries which are present spread out so widely as to be Nietzschean horizons rather than limits at all (or maybe “Foucauldian limits” . . .).

Another way of looking at how a culture vulture might operate is to recall the excellent Japanese video game: Katmari Damacy (2004).[8] [9] The point of the game is simple: roll your “katamari” (a ball) around, running into things.  Anything you run into that is smaller than yourself will attach to your katamari, thereby making it bigger and it becomes subsequently possible to pick up bigger and bigger things.  Basically, by mercilessly, gratuitously, and non-selectively rolling around, you will pick everything up, becoming, w/in the game’s logic, bigger than the earth-/solar-system-/galaxy-/universe-/etc.-/itself.  After this is done, you have two options: 1) hoist this katamari into space to make something new (planet, nebula, constellation, etc.), or 2) explode the katamari into star-dust.  Either way, the random accumulation of objects—all sorts of objects (really, play the game and try to think of objects they don’t include. . .[10])—is directed toward the end of becoming something else.  The objects are merely consumed, absorbed, and “rolled-up” so that the stars that have fallen down[11] can be reconstituted; in other words, new forms of “meaning” can again be introduced into the universe.[12] (I also am aware of how much I harp on this game, but hey, it takes one to know one. . . .)  Basically, this is a “pure” sorta “culture vulturing.”  Nothing is off-limits; everything can be combined.  And Lethem’s creation of Perkus Tooth in Chronic City is a representation of a culture vulture par excellence.

Perkus smokes massive amounts of marijuana,[13] imbibes a constant stream of coffee, and basically never leaves his house except for the daily necessity of eating.[14] He is an out-of-work rock critic who, for reasons that are left (mostly) unexplained in the book, basically just sits around and absorbs culture all day, every day.  And all kinds of culture: film, music, literature, “art,” celebrity, political-stuff—you name it, it is part of Perkus’ cognitive mapping of the world.  More to the point, he is fascinating.  He talks.  He absorbs and talks.  Eats and Regurgitates.  Scavenges and shits.  Best of all, Lethem only gives us fragments and moments of these talks, allowing “us,” through the narrator, to merely get a sense, an atmosphere of what he is talking about.  Everything he says seems important, the result of a deep engagement w/ contemporaneity, and a fluid, dynamic, and quick intellect that, through constructing various networks b/t cultural products, is also eminently creative.  (Suffice it to say, he is a living, breathing archive who produces more entries into the archive.)  For anyone familiar w/ Žižek’s work or his public persona,[15] it is quite possible that Lethem constructed Perkus on the model of ole’ Slavoj.  A lengthy passage from the very early in the novel I think displays all this quite well:

“So if I had a secret, it was that I had conspired to forget my secret.  Perkus eyed me slyly.  Perhaps it was his policy to make this announcement to any new acquaintance, to see what they’d blurt out.  ‘Keep your eyes and ears open,’ he told me now.  ‘You’re in a position to learn things.’  What things?  Before I could ask, we were off again.  Perkus’ spiel encompassed Monte Hellman, Semina Culture, Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, the Mafia’s blackmailing of J. Edgar Hoover over erotic secrets (resulting in the bogus amplification of Cold War fear and therefore the whole of our contemporary landscape), Vladimir Mayakovsky and the futurists, Chet Baker, Nothingism, the ruination Giuliani’s administration had brought to the sacred squalor of Times Square, the genius of The Gnuppet[16]Show, Frederick Exley, Jacques Rivette’s impossible-to-see-twelve-hour movie Out 1, corruption of the arts by commerce generally, Slavoj Zizek [sic] on Hitchcock, Franz Marplot on G.K. Chesterton,[17] Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer on graffiti and the space program, Brando as dissident icon, Brando as sexual saint, Brando as Napoleon in exile.  Names I knew and didn’t.  Others I’d heard once and never troubled to wonder about.  Mailer, again and again, and Brando even more often—Perkus Tooth’s primary idols seemed to be this robust and treacherous pair, which only made Perkus seem frailer and more harmless by contrast, without ballast in his pencil-legged suit.  Maybe he at Jackson Hole burgers in an attempt to burgeon himself, seeking girth in hopes of attracting the attention of Norman and Marlon, his chosen peers.”[18]

A series of fairly random quotations from Žižek should make clear the affinities here (I literally just sorta opened the book to any page):

“At some point, Alcoholics Anonymous meets Pascal: ‘Fake it until you make it.’”[19] “So the idea was formulated that, just as people sign a form giving permission for their organs to be used for medical purposes in the event of their sudden death, one should also allow them to sign a form for their bodies to be given to necrophiliacs to play with. . . . Is not this proposal the perfect illustration of how the PC [politically correct] stance realizes Kierkegaard’s insight into how the only good neighbor is a dead neighbor?  A dead neighbor—a corpse—is the ideal sexual partner for a ‘tolerant’ subject trying to avoid harassment: by definition, a corpse cannot be harassed.”[20] “A kind of musical equivalent [Schumann] to the Heidegger-Derrida ‘crossed-out.’ Being.”[21]

Though again, there are many things about Perkus (esp. w/r/t the fact that he may be Lethem’s fictional Žižek) which are interesting, one thing stands out (perhaps) the most: Perkus feels like a kind of “perfect” postmodern subject/character.  He is at the center of the narrative while never being clear—i.e. he is a thoroughly opaque character who always seems to exist in a kind of pure present.  He absorbs everyone—esp. the narrator—into his circle; and the entire novel becomes simply how the other characters orbit within this circle—i.e. the narrator, despite being a fairly famous ex-child-actor, is very clearly a kind of Everyman who is also thoroughly opaque, kinda dumb, and just as fascinated by Perkus as the reader is.  Most importantly, the only thing that really makes him interesting, gives him any kind of “fictional roundness” or complexity. . . the only thing that makes him a character at all is that he is a vast reservoir of cultural knowledge and production.  If Žižek is one of the most famous, fun, and widely read theorists right now (for [whatever/good] reason), then this simulation of him into a fictional form completes the (parallactic) circle of Žižek’s project.  In other words, Perkus, though being himself a product of (ridiculous) cultural production, a node where various cultural products meet and are clarified in their relationship, and (of course) a commentary on the position of the postmodern subject in a hyper-mediated cultural space—despite all this, there is something weirdly, disturbingly, and comfortingly familiar about him.  We all have a friend like Perkus, if in fact we are all not Perkus himself.  Our encyclopedic desire to consume culture, to culture vulture everything, is not only expressed in Perkus, it is expressed sympathetically and tragically.  Yes, of course he is a symptom, but he is a parasitic symptom, a figure who is simultaneously both the cure and the disease.  (And don’t think the narrator’s many musings on the subject of Perkus are so off w/ my own. . . .)

Furthermore, he dies offstage.  We get no answer of how to get “rid” of this symptom/disease/cure, nor, and this is most important, is it really so important that he dies at all.  In other words, because of his ambiguous and ultimately meaning-less/ful death, there is something eminently tragic about this figure disappearing.  We don’t know how or why, don’t know what forces could possibly get together to make such a thing happen.  The book (sorta) suggests it is some kind of conspiracy, that amid Perkus’ myriad cultural re-in-digestion he has happened upon the “truth” and that the forces that be cannot abide such insights; but really, and this is kinda the point, he “cannot be killed,” for he is himself endemic, and his death is really not symbolic of anything whatsoever.  We both “need” Perkus and we “need” him to die.  But his death cannot be seen to be at the hands of anything (except his own internal workings and hemorrhagings).  The clear Baudrillardian simulation-stuff[22] in the novel perhaps call into question if Perkus ever indeed existed at all, that he was a kind of pure simulacrum, a simulated product of what is already a simulation, but I think this is perhaps a bit too easy.

Ultimately, what Lethem has done, as said before, and I do think this is a fairly singular and emergent expression,[23] is to make the culture vulture into a hero.  The massive, hyperarchival over-accumulation of (the) “culture” (industry) combined w/ (perhaps) the failure of cultural studies has made anyone attempting to confront it always already into a kind of Perkus.  His Sisyphean task to understand, well. . . anything merely through what we “have” (i.e. culture), to “read” texts, to “find connections,” etc. etc. etc., and then to employ all that shit in any sort of meaningful way to our own specific historico-cultural moment is doomed to fail; and not only doomed to fail, but it will fail offstage, no one having heard what the cause of the failure was, nor the voice when it was speaking and alive.  Perkus functions as a kind of perfect allegory for the grad student/academic right now.  We know there is something incredibly important about, say, Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando. . . but what?  We’ve written stuff up, published it, other people have responded, etc.—but that doesn’t mean we still don’t die offstage.  This might be a little corny, and perhaps ridiculously politically irresponsible, but Lethem has constructed the grad student/academic[24] into a tragic hero.  But the tragedy here lies not in the hero’s death, nor even the hero’s quest, but in the very fact that it is now possible to imagine this type of figure as a hero! Perkus has no great antagonist, no great struggle, no great conflict.  His conflict is Bartlebian (at best).  And it is this that is tragic and why I think that Lethem’s novel is so interesting for, though I will refrain from going into it here, he truly does attempt to understand what the antagonist of this type of figure may be.  And though I think Lethem ultimately fails (and knows it), the amount of nodes he introduces as possible sites, even if they are feedback loops operating w/in the totality of a system w/o origin or end, draw the rolling katamari forward, but this time, perhaps w/ some sense of direction.


[1] Seriously, I’m a sucker for a pretty book w/ interesting blurbs, and now totally disagree w/ the ole’ “don’t judge a book by its cover” cliché.  In this day-and-age of even small and university presses producing ridiculously attractive books, I’m beginning to think perhaps the only way we can judge a book is by its cover.  This contentious observation, however, will have to wait to another time for anything resembling full-development (that is, if I ever remember I said this or get around to it).  A corollary of this is that we might refuse to judge books w/o covers—i.e. e-texts; but again, for another time.

[2] I’m sure it’s not, but nothing is readily suggesting itself to me at this moment.  I’d be interested to hear of other, as singular, examples.

[3] For instance, the “free dictionary” (.com), says it is an idiomatic expression meaning: “someone whom one considers to be excessively interested in the (classical) arts.  ‘She won’t go to a funny film. She’s a real culture vulture. They watch only highbrow television. They’re culture vultures.’”  This definition is (perhaps) supported by http://www.culturevulture.net/.  That said, I would like to use this term in a far more inclusive (and perhaps even more exclusive) manner.  See above.

[4] Btw, it is in no way lost on me that I am a culture vulture (so is virtually everyone I know to some degree or another).  In other words, I don’t necessarily mean this term in a derogatory manner, but rather in the sense of: I don’t know how it’s possible to be a “postmodern subject” and not be a culture vulture in some way.

[5] See Slavoj Žižek, “Why is Wagner Worth Saving?” Journal of Philosophy & Scripture 2.1 (Fall 2004): 18-30, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York: Verso, 2002), respectively.

[6] Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacque Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991, vii).

[7] Žižek, in his classical reversal, develops this formula more fully in The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): “This is also why we should reverse the standard reading of ‘Kant with Sade’ according to which the Sadeian perversion is the ‘truth’ of Kant, more ‘radical’ than Kant; that it draws out the consequences Kant himself did not have the courage to confront.  It is not in this sense that Sade is the truth of Kant; on the contrary, the Sadeian perversion emerges as the result of the Kantian compromise, of Kant’s avoiding the consequences of his breakthrough.  Sade is the symptom of Kant: while it is true that Kant retreated from drawing all the consequences of his ethical revolution, the space for the figure of Sade is opened up by this compromise of Kant, by his unwillingness to go to the end, to retain the full fidelity to his philosophical breakthrough.  Far from being simply and directly ‘the truth of Kant,’ Sade is the symptom of how Kant betrayed the truth of his own discovery—the obscene Sadeian jouisseur is a stigma bearing witness to Kant’s ethical compromise; the apparent ‘radicality’ of this figure (the Sadeian hero’s willingness to go to the end in his Will-to-Enjoy) is a mask of its exact opposite” (94).

[8] Which, according to Wikipedia translates as “clump spirit,” though I have also heard “dung-beetle of love,” which I very, very much prefer.

[9] I also don’t think this is the first—nor will it be the last—allusion to this game I make.

[10] Well of course they can’t include everything (which is also kinda the point. . .), but the sheer amount of things they do include is staggering. The game even contains an in-game-archive of all the objects you’ve collected.  Try to collect them all! for a sense of virtual accomplishment (and genocidal mayhem).

[11] The metaphorical and allegorical gravitas of this should not be underestimated.  (Also see Theodor Adorno’s book, The Stars Down to Earth).

[12] That said, try getting any “meaning” out of the conversations b/t the Prince and the King (or pretty much anything in the game, and this is, again, sorta the point); Hamlet had a better time than your little avatar.

[13] Thus part of the “chronic” in Chronic City.  I know, it’s kinda dumb, but the book saves itself on this one for “chronic” becoming other things as well. . . .

[14] Do not think it is lost upon this author, btw, how this, minus the marijuana, resembles himself. . . .

[15] See Žižek! (Astra Taylor, 2005).

[16] I think it is very important that throughout Chronic City, the Muppets are constantly referred to but, for what I presume are copyright reasons, they are always the “Gnuppets.”

[17] Žižek also writes on Chesterton: see The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).

[18] Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 13, my emphases. Though Žižek is a bit buried here, I think it is very clear that one of the figures Lethem is modeling Perkus on is the “Giant from Ljubljana” himself.

[19] Žižek, The Parallax View, 353.

[20] ibid., 309.

[21] ibid., 365.

[22] The book feels a bit dated, btw.

[23] Again, if it isn’t please let me know.

[24] Or perhaps I am simply over-identifying w/ all this shit right now.

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One thought on “The Culture Vulture as Hero: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (and Slavoj Žižek)

  1. Pingback: The Culture Vulture as Hero: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (and Slavoj Žižek) « insequential

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