“The Megatext and Neoliberalism” and “Metaproceduralism: The Stanley Parable and the Legacies of Postmodern Metafiction”

April 11, 2016

I’ll be giving two talks in Pittsburgh over the next two months on May 13 and June 22, 2016.

 

1. Friday, May 13, 2016 — 2:30 – 4:30. Part of a panel on “The Novel in or against Neoliberalism” at the 2016 Studies in the Novel Conference, The Novel in or against World Literature, Wyndham University Center – Oakland Room II.

Chair: Jen Fleissner, Indiana University

“The Megatext and Neoliberalism,” Bradley J. Fest, University of Pittsburgh

“The Novel in India and Neoliberalism,” H. Kalpana, Pondicherry University

“The Novel and Neoliberal Empathy,” Alissa G. Karl, The College at Brockport-SUNY

“Immanent Value in The Golden Bowl,” Paul Stasi, University at Albany-SUNY

 

The Megatext and Neoliberalism

With the steadily increasing storage capacity and processing power of contemporary information technology, enormously large texts are beginning to emerge that rival the books and libraries once imagined by Jorge Luis Borges. For instance, at some point in the near future, poet and novelist Richard Grossman will install Breeze Avenue—a five thousand volume, three million page “novel”—as a reading room in Los Angeles, and will also make this text available online in a fluid version that will change roughly every seven minutes for a century. Grossman’s text is, quite simply, too big to read; it is a megatext. This paper will consider the appearance of the unreadably massive novel as an emergent form native to the neoliberal era.

The writing, publication, and distribution of megatexts are impossible without the informatic, technological, and economic transformations of neoliberal globalization. For instance, the composition of Breeze Avenue would be inconceivable without big data and algorithmically generated text, without significant funding and personal wealth (Grossman was a high-level executive for a multinational financial firm in the 1970s), and without transforming the labor of the author from writing to managing. Mark Z. Danielewski’s twenty-seven volume meganovel-in-progress, The Familiar (2015-    ), takes full advantage of contemporary digital composition and production to create a work deeply enmeshed in the digital present by self-reflexively remediating the new media forms made possible by the distributed networks and posthuman technologies of the twenty-first century—including electronic literature, premier serial television, social media, videogames, and YouTube. And Mark Leach’s seventeen volume, ten thousand page, open source, digitally generated meganovel, Marienbad My Love (2008), takes advantage of crowd-sourced, collective authorship, reflecting the always-on unpaid digital microlabor that has come to characterize work in the overdeveloped world. Understanding such texts as unique outgrowths of and important critical reflections upon the age of neoliberalism allows us to explore important questions about the role of the novel in the twenty-first century and the possibilities for responding to the nonhuman logics of contemporaneity.

 

 

2. Wednesday, June 22, 2016, 1:30 – 3:00, I’ve organized a panel on “Videogame Adaptation” with Jedd Hakimi and Kevin M. Flanagan, colleagues in the Film Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, for the Keystone DH 2016 Conference, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh. (A schedule of the conference.)

 

Videogame Adaptation

baby

As videogames continue to emerge as a dominant twenty-first-century form, it is becoming clearer that they have complex relationships to other media. This panel, part of a larger collaborative project, will address issues of adaptation and videogames from a transmedia perspective, drawing particularly on the resources provided by film and literary studies.

 

Videogame Adaptation: Some Experiments in Method
Kevin M. Flanagan, University of Pittsburgh

This paper outlines the concerns and conceptual practices of videogame adaptation, noting the many ways in which videogames shape, or are shaped by, ideas, narratives, and mechanics from other media. In situating videogames into the discourses of textual transformation that animate current work in adaptation studies, I argue that traditional approaches to adaptation in English departments (which privilege novel-to-film adaptation in a one-to-one correspondence) have a lot to learn from games, which function as adaptations at all stages of their production and consumption. I also demonstrate how adaptation studies challenges claims to medium specificity that form a foundational conceit of videogame studies.

 

Metaproceduralism: The Stanley Parable and the Legacies of Postmodern Metafiction
Bradley J. Fest, University of Pittsburgh

Most critics of contemporary literature have reached a consensus that what was once called “postmodernism” is over and that its signature modes—metafiction and irony—are on the wane. This is not the case, however, with videogames. In recent years, a number of self-reflexive games have appeared, exemplified by Davey Wreden’s The Stanley Parable (2013), an ironic game about games. When self-awareness migrates form print to screen, however, something happens. If metafiction can be characterized by how it draws attention to language and representation, this paper will argue how self-reflexivity in videogames is best understood in terms of action and procedure, as metaproceduralism.

 

Playing Los Angeles Itself: Experiencing the Digital Documentary Environment in LA Noire
Jedd Hakimi, University of Pittsburgh

Almost everything about the predominantly faithful depiction of 1947 Los Angeles in the recent, police-procedural videogame LA Noire (2011) was based on archival material, including period maps, photography, and film footage. And while scholars have thought extensively about how film spectators experience mediated depictions of real-world cities, the videogame player’s parallel experience has been relatively unexplored. Accordingly, I take LA Noire’s simulacrum as an opportunity to reflect on what happens when a real-world environment is adapted into the setting for a videogame. Specifically, I position LA Noire in the tradition of the “city-symphony” film and a particular sub-set of Film Noir known as the “semi-documentary” to make the case LA Noire contains crucial aspects of the documentary image. Consequently, LA Noire is not so much creating a fictional, diegetic world, as it is presenting our own world back to us in a manner that changes the way we experience the world in which we live.


MLA 2016 Panel: The Anthropocene and Deep Time in Literary Studies

December 1, 2015

At this year’s MLA Convention in Austin, Texas, I will be on a panel on The Anthropocene and Deep Time in Literary Studies. I have included the information on the panel and an abstract for the paper I will be presenting below.

 

670. The Anthropocene and Deep Time in Literary Studies

Saturday, 9 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 6B, ACC

Program arranged by the forum LLC 20th- and 21st-Century American

Presiding: Heather Houser, Univ. of Texas, Austin

Speakers: Gerry Canavan, Marquette Univ.; Bradley J. Fest, Univ. of Pittsburgh; Kristin George Bagdanov, Univ. of California, Davis; Rebecca Wilbanks, Stanford Univ.

Session Description:

The notion of the Anthropocene was coined in 2000 to highlight that human beings’ transformation of the planetary environment will be visible in the geological strata. Beyond its crucial influence in the environmental humanities, the Anthropocene links to discussions of deep time in literary studies. This session taps into and elaborates on these two ongoing discussions.

 

“Fictional Quantities That Make Themselves Real”: Speculation, Petropolitics, and Deep Time in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia

Since its publication in 2008, Reza Negarestani’s experimental work of “theory-fiction,” Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, has become somewhat of a literary touchstone for a variety of writers and thinkers revolving in the orbit of speculative realism. Resembling what would happen if Deleuze and Guattari collaborated with H. P. Lovecraft, Cyclonopedia is a serious, albeit ironic encounter with non-correlationist thought, with speculation, deep time, and hyperobjects of all kinds. It is also a rigorous literary attempt to think through climate change, the War on Terror, and the petropolitical realities of the twenty-first century. This paper will explore a variety of issues that converge in Negarestani’s remarkable book. Beginning with Cyclonopedia’s implicit emphasis on how speculation is necessary for thinking the present (rather than, say, rationalism, measurement, or management), this paper will argue that Negarestani’s encounter with geology and nonhuman hyperobjects indicates that experimental literature may be uniquely suited to thinking about deep time and the realities of climate change in a way unavailable to more conventional narratives. If Steven Shaviro has recently suggested that “at its best, speculative philosophy rather resembles speculative fiction,” then Negarestani’s “novel” is evidence of what might happen when speculative philosophy becomes speculative fiction. Cyclonopedia is not only an important text for thinking about nonhuman entities and deep time in an age of observable climate change, it is also an important entry into the ancient debate between poetry and philosophy. Less a “novel after theory” than theory as novel, Cyclonopedia demonstrates that literature will continue to play an important role for understanding the Anthropocene.


Panel Abstract: Utopian Geologies

September 6, 2015

I just got word that a panel I organized was accepted for the 2015 Society for Utopian Studies Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, taking place November 5-8. I have included the general abstract for the panel, and the abstracts for each individual paper.

The panel will take place on Saturday, 7 November 2015, 8:30 -10:45 am.

 

Utopian Geologies

Panelists: Racheal Forlow, Dan Malinowski, and Bradley J. Fest

In the twenty-first century, the Anthropocene has emerged as an important concept for understanding the impact of human life on the planet. As activists, journalists, and scholars attempt to respond to the challenges this new epoch presents, many invoke deep time as a significant mode of thinking. This panel will take up the question of how the utopian imagination, long a site for speculating about the future, might contend with such geologic timescales. Responding to the conference topic of “global flows” by discussing things that flow at very, very slow paces, each paper will consider an important literary encounter with utopian geology. From Walt Whitman’s emergent poesis, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s posthuman environmental ethics, to the emphasis on human finitude in recent speculative thinking, these papers all signal a desperate need to reinvest in the imagination in the face of observable climate change.

 

Walt Whitman’s Geologic Imagination and the Future

Racheal Forlow, University of Pittsburgh

Western utopian traditions imagine how human activities might create better futures. Today, those who pursue projects of this kind confront a singular set of challenges. Scientists argue climate change and a range of other environmental emergencies threaten the future of the species. Because most agree the activities a tradition of Enlightenment thinking privileges produced these threats, the present seems to demand we conceive anew the ways we hope to project and build better worlds. Some artists, intellectuals, and activists committed to this work therefore suggest we abandon anthropocentric views of the universe and autonomous views of human individuals for more broadly materialist accounts. In this paper, I argue a tradition of American poetry Walt Whitman originates offers projects of this kind historical and conceptual resources. Whitman treats the human faculties contemporary projects require—among these imagination, reason, and feeling—in thoroughly material terms. In “Song of Myself” (1855), he imagines human creative power is an evolutionary force that emerges out of deep, geologic history. So conceived, the human is not a powerful, autonomous agent that dominates what is not identical to it. Instead, the species participates in a broader set of transformative processes. I believe recognizing US traditions offer this alternative vision of the human might serve attempts to project and build futures in the novel ways contemporary crises compel.

 

Should We Eat the Dirt? Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Geology, and New Materialism

Dan Malinowski, Rutgers University

No matter where humanity goes, it will shape and be shaped by its environment. In this talk, I will explore the ways in which Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1994-96), through the long time-spans in which it occurs, allows us to follow the flow of human society on literally untouched land, providing a useful thought experiment for exploring the ethics of the relationship of humanity to geological features. I will examine the debates surrounding terraforming enacted within these novels, highlighting their central aporia: namely, how a utopian society can (or cannot) coexist with a posthuman ethics towards the natural landscape. I will show how the recent work in the New Materialism can articulate this problem more productively than the Heideggerian model of geological ethics proposed by Fredric Jameson in his essay on the trilogy. In doing so, this paper will articulate a view of the world in which the interactions of the “dead” world and its new inhabitants flow back and forth in an ongoing and multi-directional process, a consideration inseparable from any utopian possibility whether here on Earth or there on Mars.

 

Speculative Criticism, Black Metal Theory, and Utopia: Richard Grossman’s “Torah Ball”

Bradley J. Fest, University of Pittsburgh

In recent years, invoking Fredric Jameson’s famous quip about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism has become something of a cliché. Given the realities of observable climate change and the seeming inability for human institutions to make the broad, sweeping changes necessary for responding to life in the Anthropocene, one might find it difficult to disagree with claims about the foreclosure of the utopian imagination. So it is perhaps surprising that a variety of thinkers, emerging from the school of Speculative Realism (or New Materialism), have been emphasizing species finitude, particularly with regard to deep, geologic timescales. Rather than explore possible utopian futures, writers like Ray Brassier, Nicola Masciandaro, Reza Negarestani, Eugene Thacker, McKenzie Wark, Evan Calder Williams, and others, often writing under the heading of “Black Metal Theory,” frequently invoke the utter inevitability of human extinction. As part of a larger project of articulating what I am calling “speculative criticism,” this paper will explore what such dark geologies might offer for both the study of literary works massively extended in space and time and the pressing need to reconceive and reinvest in the utopian imagination in the twenty-first century.


Abstract: Geologies of Finitude: The Deep Time of Twenty-First Century Catastrophe in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega and Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia

February 20, 2015

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, taking place February 26-28, 2015. I will be presenting this paper on a panel titled, “Postcolonial Finance and Disaster Capitalism in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Fiction.” The panel will be taking place 2:45 – 4:15 Saturday, February 28th, in room 122 of the Humanities Building at the University of Louisville.

Geologies of Finitude: The Deep Time of Twenty-First Century Catastrophe in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega and Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia

Abstract: The twenty-first century has seen a remarkable confluence and transformation of twentieth century narrative and historical discourse. On the one hand, the Cold War nuclear sense of an ending and US national fantasy of Mutually Assured Destruction has multiplied, producing a diverse array of eschatological imaginaries. Indeed, in the age of disaster capitalism, this multiplication has caused some to revise earlier concerns and to now suggest that we are “witnessing the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” On the other hand, there has been an increasing sobriety from a host of intellectuals and writers about human finitude, especially considered in light of the postnatural condition of the Anthropocene, with its present focus on deep ecological and cosmological futures. Human extinction is no longer shocking; it is a mute fact of geologic time. At the intersection of multiplying, immediate, and local disaster—both real and imagined—and a perspective on the deep history of human finitude, this paper will argue that Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010) and Iranian writer Reza Negarestani’s remarkable Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008) make strong cases for the novel’s continuing ability to complicate and illuminate human finitude and historical temporality in contemporaneity. Written in the midst of the long and disastrous US incursions in the Middle East from two distinct transnational, philosophical, and aesthetic standpoints, DeLillo and Negarestani raise important political questions about vital materiality in the age of hyperobjects and the ecological realities of the War on Terror. In decidedly different and complimentary ways, each novel acknowledges that though the twenty-first century has made it clear that the catastrophic present cannot be divorced from the inevitable doom at the end of the world, we still desperately need to imagine something else.


Immersive Pedagogy: Teaching Videogames In and Out of the Classroom

November 13, 2014

digitalbrownbag

As part of the Digital Brown Bag Series, a series of talks on various ways one might incorporate digital tools into their teaching and scholarship, tomorrow, November 14, from 12:00 – 1:00, I am giving a presentation on “Immersive Pedagogy: Teaching Videogames In and Out of the Classroom” at the University of Pittsburgh in room 435 of the Cathedral of Learning. Here’s a brief description of what I will be addressing:

Teaching videogames present a number of pedagogical challenges and possibilities that are not involved with teaching more traditional media objects. Many things can go wrong when teaching videogames: they can (and do) frequently break down or are incompatible with certain machines; they are hardware dependent, thus limiting the games that can be included in a syllabus; they are actionable rather than passive—they need to be played—meaning that students with less familiarity or skill with videogames can struggle. But videogames also open up a number of pedagogical avenues that are unavailable to other media: they can be radically immersive, collective, and social, reconfiguring the classroom into a virtual space that can extend significantly beyond the physical boundaries of traditional instruction; they provide new ways of looking at and interacting with media objects in the classroom, promoting new pedagogical methods of critical engagement; and they are, inevitably, fun, inviting students to participate in what I call “critical play.” This presentation will discuss some of the logistical, critical, and theoretical challenges presented by teaching videogames, how these challenges might be addressed, and some exciting pedagogical possibilities that are opened up by bringing videogames into the classroom. The presentation will conclude with an interactive demonstration of how one particular videogame, The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013), might be taught. (This talk largely reflects my experiences teaching Narrative and Technology.)


Repackaging the Archive (Part XI): Decadence and Sincerity in the Risk Society: Partying Until the World Ends

August 22, 2014

I originally delivered the following remarks at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They seem oddly appropriate at the moment.

It is a familiar trope in the rhetoric of the American jeremiad to draw a comparison between the high decadence and subsequent fall of the Roman Empire and the similar decadence of the contemporary United States. So it is tempting to make such a comparison when considering a recent series of pop songs released in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that celebrate “partying.” Since Lady Gaga’s first single, “Just Dance,” appeared,[1] a series of prominent female pop singers have released music videos that unambiguously celebrate decadence. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” (2009), Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (2011), and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” (2011) all portray gyrating bodies having simply way more fun than anyone could possibly have, reveling in their own meta-celebration.[2] Such images easily invite a critique of these videos’ lack of self-awareness, their problematic support of binge drinking, and their apolitical celebration of decadence as a mode of being in a time of global financial crisis and austerity. Inarguably outgrowths of a specific brand of American exceptionalism and a youth culture in which hedonism has become an end-in-and-of-itself, what is perhaps most disturbing about this party program, however, is its relative sincerity.

By focusing on Ke$ha’s invitation to an eternal party, Perry’s strangely sincere meta-filmic nod to the 1980s, and Spears’s dance club at the end of the world, I will argue that these videos should be read not as jubilant affirmations of existence and individuality, but as particularly cynical expressions of life in what Ulrich Beck calls the “risk society.”[3] These singers signal a cultural inability to imagine a coherent future in the face of the present multiplying networks of global risk, and exemplify a need to perpetuate and maintain a decadent cultural fantasy by erasing the disasters and crises that define the present through the spectacle of nostalgically reappropriating the past or fervently anticipating the end.

Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” released in April 2008 roughly six months before the full impact of the financial crisis became apparent, functions as a kind of template for the decadent party anthems that would follow:

Notice here that Lady Gaga is already presenting a number of features that will get repeated by both Ke$ha and Perry. The house Gaga enters at the beginning of the video has clearly already been a site of revelry and substance abuse, as the previous night’s passed-out party goers have merely to await Gaga’s arrival before reawakening and resuming the party. Gaga is not separate or detached from the hedonism, but rather a full participant in both the revelry and the blacked-out aftermath of binging. She has perhaps had more to drink than “a little bit too much,” as she asks, “Where are my keys? I’ve lost my phone,” but the deleterious effects of alcohol—e.g. not remembering the name of the club one is in—are “alright, alright” because the solution to whatever problem the world of this song presents is simple: “just dance”; everything is “gonna be okay” if one simply dances.

The logic of this song is repeated almost verbatim to the point of plagiarism in Ke$ha’s own debut, “Tik Tok.” Unlike Gaga’s video, however, when Ke$ha sings, “Wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy; / Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, I’m gonna hit this city. / Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, / ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back,”[5] it is difficult to perceive any irony in her voice. For whether considered by itself or with the considerable retrospect provided by Lady Gaga’s subsequent career, “Just Dance” at least holds out the possibility of critical self-awareness toward the hedonism the song appears to be advocating. For not only does “Just Dance” acknowledge that something may actually not be all right with the world—that things need to be made okay, somehow—but that perhaps “just dancing” is not an adequate or acceptable solution to the problems being presented. In other words, an ironic reading of the video is not foreclosed, and the call to “just dance” might very well mean something else.

The partying Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” advocates, on the other hand, appears to foreclose any reading other than full-blown support for the decadence of the video, as it is difficult to argue that its hyperbole is in any way tempered by self-awareness. The partying Ke$ha portrays is not in reaction to anything or offered as the solution to a problem, but rather is something that she says, quite clearly, never stops. Partying, even if it doesn’t start until Ke$ha walks in, is a state of being in “Tik Tok.” (If the party starts when she walks in, then it is going on around her all time time.) Decadence becomes a kind of perpetual present, a nightmare eternal return of partying and drunkenness, resulting in hangovers that, one might imagine, also never end. Ke$ha cannot stop partying, whether she’s doing something as banal as brushing her teeth or whether she’s being groped (“boys tryin’ to touch my junk”) “the party don’t stop, no.”

In this way “Tik Tok” is emblematic of life under late capitalism. The logic of Ke$ha’s nonstop party wagon depends, like current theories of the free market, on the exploitation of illimitable resources so that it can grow without end toward no goal other than its own disastrous perpetuation. Further, as someone once pointed out about the cultural logic of late capitalism,[6] the song has no sense of history (other than an incoherent reference to Mick Jagger), and it is incapable of acknowledging the history of its own form (i.e., its blatant indebtedness to Lady Gaga). Simultaneously, the video is unable to posit any coherent sense of the future (let alone imagine some kind of utopian project). The song and its title, “Tik Tok,” while acknowledging that time exists, subsumes the human experience of temporality within the regime of its party-ontology, foreclosing any past or future. If Frank Kermode were once able to famously read the poetic expression “tick-tock” as “a model of what we call plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form,” then Ke$ha’s song remains only “the interval between tock and tick [a] purely successive, disorganized time of the sort that we need to humanize.”[7] In other words, the experience of the perpetual present of Ke$ha’s decadence eschews any narrative structure, any sense of a beginning or end that would make sense of the actions of the party’s participants. Consequently, there is something deeply inhuman about Ke$ha’s call for constant partying, and I do not think it too much of a stretch to equate the inhumanity of Ke$ha’s pursuit of unending decadent pleasure that has no other aim than the production of more pleasure with the inhumanity of being implored to constantly enjoy that is so much a feature of the contemporary experience of late capitalism. “Tik Tok” thus evinces a profound despair about the state of the world, one in which the fleeting present of youth, with its all-too-brief but ultimately damaging and disastrous holiday from history, is the only option left in the wake of the global financial crisis. Both the past and the future have been foreclosed, and Ke$ha’s song only holds out one incredibly cynical alternative: forget about the world and turn toward a solipsistic and uncritical pursuit of pleasure at the expense of everything else. And the most disturbing part of this injunction-to-enjoy is how sincerely this message is delivered, with no alternative imagined or even hinted at.

Something similar occurs in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”[8] and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.” If “Tik Tok” is a nightmare glimpse of an eternal present with no sense of a past or future, Perry and Spears are emblematic of further failures to engage with history or imagine a future from within the regime of contemporary decadence. To turn first toward “Friday Night,” consider the following moment from the video, right when Perry receives the classic 1980s filmic makeover that turns a nerdy girl into a (more-or-less) conventionally attractive one:

The logic of this video is persistent. The alcohol-fueled regime of (poorly remembered) contemporary decadence is framed by the nostalgic (and anachronistic) reappropriation of the 1980s. Perry’s nod toward this period, however, glosses over the deep and abiding irony of 1980s popular film that she draws upon so heavily, an omission perhaps best evidenced in the video’s use of saxophonist Kenny G. Not even the sax player on the original track, Kenny G’s “lip-synched” sax playing functions strangely. Rather than being used ironically—i.e., everyone knowing that Kenny G is thoroughly uncool, but pretending to like him in an ironic, hipper-than-thou manner anyway, as would have been historically appropriate—he is presented as the apotheosis, both musically and visually, of the video’s nostalgia. In Perry’s historical vision, it is Kenny G that fully represents the past, even though anyone who could actually remember him would have thoroughly reviled his music. Juxtaposed against party-goers playing Just Dance 2 (2010) and the presence of the house band, the pretty much always reprehensible late-1990s boy-pop group Hanson, history from within the logic of Perry’s decadence becomes merely a playground of now empty cultural signifiers that can be strung together in whatever loose fashion serves the video’s own fairly obscure ends. This is only exacerbated by the appearance of Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson as Perry’s parents near the end of the video, who serve to reinforce how incoherently popular culture from the relatively recent past is perceived from the decadent alcohol-haze of contemporaneity.

Though he was describing a possible future for American fiction rather than what I am calling “Lady Pop in the Age of the Networked Star,” David Foster Wallace’s comments on sincerity that conclude his 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” on the relationship between irony and postmodern cultural production, might equally apply to the strange sort of sincerity I would like to suggest that “Friday Night” displays:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-conscious and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.[10]

Though clearly Perry is neither “literary” nor much of a “rebel”—even in the sense Wallace gives the word—she most assuredly appears “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs,” for she does not appear to be desiring any other reaction to this video. Rather than be impressed by her hyper-self-aware postmodern recursive reflexivity, her anachronistic, Pynchonian use of reference used in the necessary service of debunking and exposing the illusions of postmodernity, her audience is merely encouraged to affect a cool smile of knowing (but not really knowing) that Kenny G’s presence in the video is slightly off, a bit too sincere even as it attempts to produce the kind of ironic stance that once was not a staple of popular culture, but a violent critique of its implicit and uncritical assumptions. In other words, in the same fashion that Wallace once relentlessly critiqued postmodern televisual production for cashing in on the literary irony of Thomas Pynchon et al, Perry is cashing in on the naïve sincerity of the present, a sincerity perhaps best captured in the phrase, “just express yourself.” Even in something that on its surface first appears to be hyper-referential and recursively ironic becomes, in Perry’s vision, yet another articulation of the overwhelming call of contemporary mass media to: just be yourself, express yourself, be true to yourself, in other words, to be sincere. What the self is that is being expressed, however, is anyone’s guess.

Britney Spears takes this sincerity, as she puts it, “to the next level”[11] in a video that unintentionally contemplates the eschatological horizon of the solipsistic, yet empty sincerity of contemporary decadence. Her video for 2011’s “Till the World Ends” is set on 21 December 2012—the purported date of the Mayan Apocalypse—as what appears to be a meteor approaches the Earth. In the video Spears and a gang of rejects from the Mad Max films, in light of this dire situation, have decided to stage a dance party at the end of the world:

There are a number of striking things about this video and, to my mind it is a fairly incredible allegory for certain contemporary approaches to global risk. First, the disaster Spears and her cadre of orgiastic pre-post-apocalyptic dancers anticipate is thoroughly fantasmatic. We are not within the realm of the (still realistic) cultural fantasy of Mutual Assured Destruction that Donald E. Pease and others have located as the dominant US national fantasy of the Cold War,[13] nor are we within a postmodern simulation in which the disaster explodes into reality that Slavoj Žižek finds when he analyzes the attacks of 11 September 2001.[14] Rather, the disaster fantasy here is a loosely fabricated fringe-eschatology thrown together by people trying to sell books by exploiting the historical deferment of the millennium, something that Norman Cohn pointed out long ago has been going on since at least the Middle Ages.[15] For Spears, in other words, the Mayan Apocalypse is just the most convenient and visible contemporary sense of an ending, and its lack of any correspondence to the very real, very persistent contemporary sense of disaster, whether it be ecological, economic, or political, matters not in the least. What matters is merely the fantasy of apocalypse. We are living in what Ulrich Beck calls an era of “global risk,” so the pervasive and ubiquitous sense of disaster that characterizes the world risk society gets transformed in Spears’s eschatological vision into whatever old disaster she wants. Divorced from the realities of the last decade, the natural disasters, the various wars being fought by the US, and a time characterized by what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,”[16] Spears is able to sublimate the anxieties and fears of contemporaneity and turn them into a dance party that, even with disaster looming literally right outside of its door, cannot seem to concern itself with the impending doom nor step away from the decadent enjoyment of the club long enough to attempt to avert.

So second, it is further striking that in “Till the World Ends” the disaster appears to have actually been averted. One is encouraged, I believe, to imagine that the dancing was so good, that Spears and her pals got “on the floor” so well, that the meteor was diverted, and though there is little-to-no diegetic evidence to support such a reading, this redemption-through-dancing speaks to the pervasiveness of the fantasy on display so blatantly in Spears’s video and the depths of its cynical despair. Not only does the video exemplify a cultural inability to imagine other modes of being or a coherent sense of the future that is not eschatologically foreclosed by the conditions of contemporaneity and its redemption-through-partying validates solipsistic decadence as a proper mode of reacting to disaster in an age of global risk—i.e., ignoring it—but “Till the World Ends” suggests that this decadence actually might save us from disaster—i.e., that if we all just partied enough, kept dancing hard enough, the world might not end.[17] The horizon of this stance, if we recall Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”—and it should be mentioned that Ke$ha also co-wrote “Till the World Ends”—is that if we just let capitalism run its course far enough, that if we all just ignore the increasingly dire ecological realities, economic catastrophes, global violence, and just keep enjoying ourselves, everything will be “okay.” This is in no way to suggest that we should be looking to these female pop stars to articulate a coherent politics, that if pop music was less decadently fantasmatic it might solve problems, et cetera. But it is to suggest that these videos brilliantly capture contemporary modes of decadence and put on display, with very little window dressing whatsoever, the solipsistic sincerity that ideologically props up this decadence. And of course it is fitting that I am delivering this paper mere days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast of the US and only a week before an election in which climate change and the environment have been discussed precisely zero times by the candidates. In other words, the world is ending and we need to stop dancing.

 


[1] Lady Gaga, “Just Dance” (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records, 2008), 12” single. The single was released on 8 April 2008, and her full-length debut album, The Fame, was released 19 August 2008 (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records), mere weeks before the full impact of the financial meltdown became apparent. Like so much else in her career, Lady Gaga was ahead of her time with regard to post-crisis decadence.

[2] For these videos see https://bradfest.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/abstract-decadence-and-sincerity-in-the-risk-society-katy-perry-and-britney-spears-partying-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

[3] See Ulrich Beck, World at Risk, trans. Ciaran Cronin (New York: Polity Press, 2009).

[5] Ke$ha, “Tik Tok” (New York: RCA, 2009), CD single. The single was released 7 August 2009, and Ke$ha’s full-length debut, Animal, was released 1 January 2010.

[6] See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

[7] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45, emphasis mine. I would also mention that Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” in which “Back and forth, Back and forth / goes the tock, tock, tock,” is really about “All autumn, the chafe and jar / of nuclear war; / we have talked our extinction to death” (Collected Poems, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 329).

[8] Hereafter “Friday Night.”

[10] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997), 81.

[11] Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends” (New York: Jive Records, 2011), CD single.

[13] See Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[14] See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York: Verso, 2002).

[15] See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and ex. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

[16] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

[17] As David Foster Wallace once said of something else, this is so stupid it practically drools.


Abstract: Apoclaypse on Repeat: William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and the Nuclear Imagination

May 14, 2014

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at the 2014 American Literature Association Conference, taking place May 22-25. I will be presenting this paper on a panel organized by the William Carlos Williams society, titled, “William Carlos Williams: The Poet-Doctor as Environmentalist.” The panel will be taking place 11:10-12:30 on May 23.

Apocalypse on Repeat: William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and the Nuclear Imagination

Long out of print after their initial publication in 1923, the prose sections of Spring and All offer remarkable critical avenues for discussing William Carlos Williams’s environmentalism. Serving as both a frame for some of his more well-known poetry and a theoretical engagement with the volume’s central concern—the imagination—the prose of Spring and All cannot help but strike a contemporary reader with its anticipation of the post-apocalyptic and eco-disaster narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To begin the aesthetic work of poetic composition, Spring and All enacts total destruction followed by material repetition in order to allow Williams to formulate an imagination distinct from a romantic apocalyptic, a formulation essential for the development of his ecopoetics. The imagination in Spring and All is a material force. It is vibrant, organic, and radioactive. It is scientific and geological, and it is concerned with atomic physics well before the atom was split. This paper will argue that Spring and All articulates what I have called elsewhere a nuclear imagination. Drawing upon current reconsiderations of modernism’s relationship to atomic technology and my own conversations with J. Hillis Miller about Williams’s poetry and romanticism, I will suggest that Williams, through embracing this destructive, recursive, ironic, nuclear imagination, abandons an eschatology that could in any way be positive, even as something to be gone “beyond.” In this way, reconsidering Spring and All opens up a space for the contemporary environmental imagination that is neither apocalyptic nor post-apocalyptic, but rather thoroughly material and ecological.


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