Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Tears Seven Times Salt" (Hamlet IV.V.155)




“Tears Seven Times Salt:”
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as an Initiation of Social Action against an Ideologically Sickened Society

When confronted with unimaginable horror or devastating heartbreak one’s initial reaction is to stop up the senses, wish the world away and return to a moment of innocence or even ignorance. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, upon realizing his sweet sister Ophelia has gone mad, Laertes cries out: “O heat, dry up my brains! Tears seven times salt,/Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!” (Hamlet IV.V.155-156). So immense is his pain, Laertes pleads for blinding tears. Yet avoidance and denial offer at most a temporary stay of agony’s execution. In order for healing to commence and tragedy to give way to some greater good…be it justice, growth, or social action…loss must be faced dead on. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five confronts the Dresden massacre. Using repetition and a cyclical narrative, he commands his audience to acknowledge again and again war's wretched waste of human life. A Marxist analysis lays bare the capitalist ideology that makes war a glamorous and noble idea.
There is no denying the fact that Kurt Vonnegut' Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel. However, there is an ongoing critical debate as to whether or not Vonnegut is advocating the passive fatalism embodied by the novel's central protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. Albert Cacicedo, in his essay, “You Must Remember This: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five” summarizes the current critical discourse. Citing the novel's sense hopelessness critics, Sharon Seiber and Tony Tanner argue that the novel eventually leads to quietism or fatalism (Cacicedo 357). “James Lundquist connects that hopelessness to black humor and argues that such humor is, in effect, an expression of human inadequacy in the face of the complexities of the universe” (357). While recognizing the validity of these statements, especially as they concern or relate to the characterization of Billy Pilgrim, it is reasonable to argue that they do not fully account for the complexity of the narrative structure as a whole. The Tralfamadorian philosophy that Billy adopts is most certainly one of quietistic avoidance. However Billy functions as a satirical figure--his fatalistic perspective is antithetical to the “ethical engagement” of the novel (357).
According to Mikhail Bakhtin’s Discourse in the Novel, parody and satire depend upon the heteroglossic nature of literature. “All languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them and making each unique, are specific points of view on the world,” parody or satirical social commentary results when the “speech of another is introduced into the author’s discourse (the story) in concealed form, that is without any of the formal markers usually accompanying such speech, whether direct or indirect” (Bakhtin 679). Through Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut adopts the discourse of a society pacified to the point of paralyzation by capitalist consumerism. In a section of his text, Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction, devoted to political criticism Michael Ryan contends that “culture turns everything into a commodity, and commodity culture creates a way of thinking or consciousness appropriate to it” (Ryan 117). Like Billy Pilgrim, “minds become routinized and uniform. We cease to be able to criticize intelligently the world we live in because we are pacified by consumption” (117). Vonnegut uses other perspectives in the novel to further develop and to comment on Pilgrim's satirical characterization. The words of an infantry colonel who checks on Pilgrim while he is lying unresponsive in the prison hospital succinctly epitomize this fatalistic passivity: “How nice—to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive (Vonnegut 134). The sarcasm implicit in this statement alludes to the equating of humanity with feeling and emotion, and thus with a civic and ethical responsibility. Citing Robert Merril's and Peter A. Scholl's essay, “Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: The Requirements of Chaos,” Cacicedo points out that the comfort of this brainwashed bliss “is bought at the price of complicity in the 'indifference to moral problems which is the ultimate cause of events like Dresden'” (Cacicedo 357). With the creation of a narrator whose outlook is antithetical to Pilgrim's--a narrator who is tormented by the evil and injustice of the world--Vonnegut is able to illuminate the inadequacy and irrationality of Pilgrim's perspective.
However Vonnegut is not satisfied with merely commenting on the absurdity of this ethically and socially indifferent approach to the world—the major thematic intent of the novel is to condemn such an approach as inherently dangerous. Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut uses the narrator's sense of morality and responsibility as a counterweight to Pilgrim's passivity and indifference. For example in the beginning of the novel the narrator explains the book's extended title Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death and the reason for the dedication behind it. The book is dedicated to Mary, a war buddy's wife, who made him promise that there will be no part in the movie version of this book that could be played by “Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men” (Vonnegut 15). Mary believes that “wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.” This idea of ideology, or superstructure, as a means of making war “look just wonderful” in order to reinforce the base so that “we'll have a lot more of them and they'll be fought by babies” reflects a basic Marxist tenet (15). “According to Marx, we are all situated historically and socially, and our social and historical contexts 'determine' our shape our lives" (Rivkin 644). In this case the historical context equates to a greed-driven capitalist economy determining the society's culture (including the movies and literature) in order to secure and strengthen its own political and social dominance. Vonnegut is able to call attention to the persistence of capitalist rhetoric in art and media, while avoiding its appropriating arm with this dedication. Furthermore, committing the very title of his novel to a renunciation of capitalism's materialistic agenda is evidence of Vonnegut's social responsibility and principled aims.
This theme of war being “fought by babies” is an especially effective one and Vonnegut returns to the image throughout the novel. In describing a traumatized colonel who who wonders whether Billy is one of his soldiers, the narrator writes: “This was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men—a lot of them children, actually” (84). The narrator's self-correction from men to children again illustrates the ideological dissemination of lies about the nature of war, while reminding the reader of the necessity of truth. Obviously, there is a tremendous difference in the reader's reaction to the narrator's statement that forty-five hundred men were killed in combat and his quick correction that many of them were children. Vonnegut capitalizes on this shift in investment and uses the reader's resulting insistence upon the necessity of truth and reliability to show the peril of the mass-marketing of truth and reality. This shift in meaning is analogous to perpetual deferment of meaning that Jacques Derrida defines in his essay, Differance. Derrida coins the term “Differance” to refer to the both the “temporalizing” and the “spacing” effects that occur in the construction of meaning in order to show that ideas “especially are like units of language; they are generated by difference; they have no substance apart from the networks of differences...that generate them as effects” (Rivkin 278). Thus in following the narrators conscious line of thought the reader must “resort consciously or unconsciously, to the temporal and temporalizing mediation of a detour that suspends the accomplishment or fulfillment of 'desire' or 'will'” (Derrida 283). Alberto Cacicedo connects the argument that Tim Woods makes in his examination of Vonnegut's work, “Spectres of History: Ethics and Postmodern Fictions of Temporality” to “Derrida's treatment of history as supplement or 'other'” (Cacicedo 357). Wood's contends that Slaughterhouse-Five is “a dramatization of Vonnegut's deeply felt need and commitment to justice and ethical responsibility in opening oneself to the other, in recognizing one's indebtedness to the other” (Woods 117).
Part of Vonnegut's commitment to justice lies in revealing the capitalist rhetoric behind sending children into combat. However, the world's problems go well beyond war; Vonnegut extends his argument further to expose the corruption and pollution pervasive in a seemingly healthy society sickened by consumerism. Again Vonnegut uses the satirical figure of Billy Pilgrim to get his point across: “Billy owned a lovely Georgian home in Ilium. He was as rich as Croesus...He had five other optometrists working for him in the shopping plaza location, and netted over sixty thousand dollars a year. In addition he owned a fifth of the new Holiday Inn out on Route 54, and half of three Tastee-Freeze stands” (Vonnegut 78). Pilgrim is living the 'American Dream' and yet: “Every so often for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping” (78). The despair and disillusionment of unexplainable bouts of weeping is testimony to the emptiness of consumerism. Vonnegut suggests this relationship by linking these two depictions of Pilgrim in consecutive paragraphs. In his influential manuscript, Capital, Karl Marx considers the alienation that results when the laborer is separated from his labor. In a capitalist society the exchange value of commodities “manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value” which leads to commodity fetishism (Capital 667). Through this system which obscures the social, political and mechanical means of production, commodities become “mysterious” things (667). This margin of mystery is what enables capitalist ideology to exert such imperious control over society. When the essential value of commodities and labor has been masked...when the “form” obscures the “common factor,” belief in the lies of the consumerist superstructure becomes plausible (666). Ideology equates happiness with “a lovely Georgian home” and a net income of sixty thousand a year in order to further its own means of production. But when the laborer attains this status, this 'happiness,' as Billy Pilgrim does and finds no real satisfaction or fulfillment, there is a resulting disillusionment and depression. The alienation of the laborer from his labor is further represented by Pilgrim's ownership of “a fifth of the new Holiday Inn” (Vonnegut 78). The capitalist logic of this statement is so commonplace that the absurdity of it does not completely register until Vonnegut repeats it again—Billy owns “half of three Tastee-Freeze stands” (78). What does it really mean to own half or a fifth of a business; property and ownership is again obscured and befuddled.
The 'American Dream' that Pilgrim so whole-heartedly ascribes to is an ideal example of Louis Althusser's illustration of the “Beautiful Lies” told by “Priests and Despots” in his essay, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus (Althusser 694). Pilgrim and the rest of capitalism's constituents “represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form--” happiness and security can be bought from wholesale from corporations like Sears and Tastee-Freeze (694). Marx explains how ideas such as the 'American Dream' come to take on universality in The German Ideology. “Each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed an ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.” (German 657) Thus there is nothing inherently rational or ideal about the nature of the 'American Dream.' It is only capitalist rhetoric mass-marketed to a vulnerable and alienated population in order to further capitalism's aims.
Vonnegut directly challenges the subjective nature of these “Beautiful Lies” with the character of Eliot Rosewater, a patient at a psychiatric hospital where Pilgrim is sent after he suffers a breakdown. Pilgrim and Rosewater “both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war...so they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe” (Vonnegut 128). Rosewater says to a psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living” (129). This poignant summation captures both the failure of prescriptive ideology to subjugate the human desire for true meaning and purpose as well as the position of privilege and power that the ruling class holds through the dissemination of these lies. In the psychiatric hospital, a verifiable prison of the 'other' and a microcosm for society at large, patients are subjected to the social power and domination by their doctors that Antonio Gramsci defines as “hegemony” (Gramsci 673). Rosewater and Pilgrim confer “spontaneous” consent to the psychiatrists to direct and control their social life due to the “prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production” (673). Thus the cause of Pilgrim's and Rosewater's oppression as psychiatric patients and as members of a capitalist society is, as Althusser identifies, “the existence of a small number of cynical men who base their domination and exploitation of the 'people' on a falsified representation of the world which they have imagined in order to enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations” (Althusser 694).
The setting of a psychiatric hospital further functions as a symbolic representation for how “citizens of Western democracies act as their own jail-keepers” (Rivkin 549). In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes, “it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies” (Foucault 562). Vonnegut contends that through our dependence upon “lies--” ideology and rhetoric—we have become part of the very machinery that produces our shackles and chains. The Panopticon was an architectural concept designed by Jeremy Bentham to “assure the ordering of human multiplicities” (562). The theories of discipline that have been internalized by the general population of society arose from the disciplinary and punitive techniques originally applied to criminals and psychiatric patients. Accordingly, the various hospital settings in Slaughterhouse-Five correspond to the origins of a “horizontal” structuring of power as well as the idea that criminals, patients, and citizens are all prisoners under systematic oppression (564).
One of the most powerful rhetorical strategies used to keep citizens in a state as docile and sedate as Pilgrim's is religion, which Karl Marx famously defamiliarized as “the opiate of the people” (Introduction). In his Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right Marx writes, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions” (Introduction). Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut, like Marx, defamiliarizes religion to reveal it as a mere vehicle used for the propagation of the means of production. Vonnegut parodies the marketing of wars as holy wars in describing the egocentric and delusional speech made by a soldier: “He dilated upon the piety and heroism of 'The Three Musketeers,' portrayed in the most glowing and impassioned hues, their virtue and magnanimity, the imperishable honor they acquired for themselves, and the great services they rendered to Christianity” (64). Again Vonnegut adopts a rhetorical discourse in order reveal its falseness. Christianity and capitalism are one in the same in that they function ideologically, as Althusser concludes: “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (Althusser 699). Not only do Christianity and capitalism function similarly, they also reinforce each other serving as superstructure and base. Religion indoctrinates citizens justifying war in order to further capitalistic aims.
Critic David L. Vanderwerken's essay “Pilgrim's Dilemma: Slaughterhouse-Five” connects Pilgrim's “new lie” of Tralfamadorianism with “an 'old lie'--God” (Vanderwerken 148). Vanderwerken argues that “for Vonnegut, man's belief in an all-powerful Creator, involved in human history, has resulted in two great evils: the acceptance of war as God's will; the assumption that we carry out God's will and that God is certainly on our side, which justifies all atrocities” (Vanderwerken 148). Vonnegut decries a “murderous, supernatural Christianity that creates Children's Crusades, that allows men to rationalize butchery in the name of God, that absolves men of guilt” (148). Vonnegut unveils a Christianity informed by consumerism and disconnected from ethical or moral instruction beyond the “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament” which teaches “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected” (Vonnegut 138). “Christians found it so easy to be cruel” because the Gospels because teach that Christ is “the Son of the most powerful Being in the Universe” rather than a “bum who has no connections” (140). This message reinforces the class divisions and hierarchical structure of capitalist society. Even more importantly, it leads to the thought: “There are right people to lynch” which reinforces Vonnegut's argument that Christianity propagates slaughter through the ideological construction of 'holy' wars.
In another instance of religious satire Vonnegut reveals the allegiance to capitalism manifest in modern religious practices. When Pilgrim was young his mother could never decide which church was the right one to join. She did, however, “develop a terrific hankering for a crucifix” and bought one from a Santa Fe gift shop. Despite being unable to decide upon a religion Billy's mother was a devout disciple of consumerism; “Like so many Americans she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops” (49). Again through defamiliarization and postmodern elements of satire and irony Vonnegut reinforces the absurdity of American consumerism.
Defamiliarization is a powerful stylistic technique that “makes the familiar seem strange” in order to combat habitualization (Shklovsky 16).In Art as Technique Viktor Shklovsky quotes an entry from Leo Tolstoy's Diary, “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been” (16). “And, art exists,” Shklovsky surmises, “that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony” (16). Vonnegut brilliantly employs this technique of defamiliarization by imagining a film about the “Second World War” played backwards. This reversal not only represents a flight from death to life, from wreckage to plenary, but it also casts light upon the corporations and means of production driving countries towards war. After the bombers are miraculously restored to pristine condition and the bombs or “steel cylinders” are returned to the bomb bay doors, the planes return to their base. Then:
The steel cylinders were taken from racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals...The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them in the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.” (94)

Once the corporations producing bombs and war machinery have completed the unmaking of the bomb the soldiers are allowed to return to high school. High school—Vonnegut reiterates the idea that the soldiers being sent to their deaths by big business are but children. One of the reasons this passage is imbued with such force is due to the diametrically opposed outcomes of the before and after of the film. Running the film backwards produces a movement from war to peace which is revealed to be endlessly more heroic, noble, and beautiful then the movement towards war that capitalism has always compelled.
Almighty capitalism has the power to propel countries towards war due to its pervasive network of rhetoric and ideology. Vonnegut adopts a passage from Howard W. Campbell's monograph to address these “untruths” (165). The opening line is: America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves” (164). Here Vonnegut captures the class struggle inherent in all societies that capitalism attempts to mask through the “belief that each one of us is free and independent” (Ryan 118). But as Marx identifies in The German Ideology, these “ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material grasped as ideas...the ideas of dominance” German 654). Vonnegut continues with the Campbell monograph: “Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money” (Vonnegut 165). Marx addresses this falsehood in his seminal text, Wage Labor and Capital, illustrating the disparity that results when the wage laborer must surrender any reproductive power in exchange for means of subsistence received. As Marx concludes it is nearly impossible for a wage laborer to amass wealth; capitalism depends upon this scheme: “Capital presupposes wage labor; wage labor presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other” (Wage 664). Like a carnival game rigged to ensure its profitability, capitalism hinges upon the misperception of freedom and free will. Vonnegut connects the American inability to exhibit brotherly love to the idea that Americans blame themselves for being poor and therefore cannot love themselves. “They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had less to do for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class” since Napoleonic times (Vonnegut 165).
Billy Pilgrim is a “broken kite” of a man, traumatized and tormented by the horrors he witnessed as a soldier. He turns to Tralfamadorism for relief and escape (124). Tralfamadorism can be seen as a philosophy of Capitalist rhetoric and ideology, as both attempt to divert attention away from true experience and reality, presenting a doctored—much more pleasant and palatable version in its place. The problem with this is that no true healing and thus no social change or ethical action can ever result from a philosophy of avoidance. The narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I believe to be the voice of the author himself, witnessed identical scenes of desolation and devastation in Dresden. In fact in many of the most climatic scenes in the novel, the narrator interrupts the storyline to identify himself as one of the characters present. For example, an American near Billy in the prison camp latrines wails that he is excreting his brains, “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (160). This postmodern self-reflexivity functions to show the similarity of experience the two characters share. The narrator, too, has suffered trauma and torment. Yet due to the alternate ways that the two men come to terms with their pain, their personal outcomes are highly different. Pilgrim achieves a quite limited ‘serenity’ at the cost of social, ethical and personal detachment. Pilgrim does not “shudder about the hideous things he himself had seen bombing do,” nor does he move “to protest the bombing of North Vietnam” (76). Pilgrim sends his own sons off to the Green Berets to fight in Vietnam. The narrator conversely has never escaped the torture of his war memories--the novel is his attempt to therapeutically find some sort of release. He has, however, been able to campaign against war. Unlike Pilgrim, he tells his sons “that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee” (24). Vonnegut continues with the narrator’s paternal prohibitions to argue that the evil of war extends to the companies that profit from it: “I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that” (25). Billy Pilgrim believes God was right in demanding Lot’s wife not look back upon the destroyed villages of Sodom and Gomorrah, whereas the narrator loves her for looking back, “because it was so human” (28). Robert Scholes writing for the New York Times Book Review summarized the theme of Slaughterhouse-Five as: “Be Kind. Don't hurt. Death is coming for all of us anyway, and it is better to be Lot's wife looking back through salty eyes than the Deity that destroyed those cities of the plain in order to save them" (Kurt Vonnegut). There is such great humanity in the act of ‘looking back.’ And, though it may be intensely painful to be fully present and aware; it is that very courageous act that makes us fully alive.

Works Cited
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Cacicedo, Alberto. ""You must remember this": Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five." Studies in Contemporary Fiction Summer 2005: 357-369. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “Differance.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punishl.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Gramsci, Antonio. “Hegemony.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
"Kurt Vonnegut." Contemporary Authors Online. 2009. Gale. Web.17 Aug 2009.
Marx, Karl. “Capital.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Marx, Karl. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, v. 3. New York: 1976.
Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Marx, Karl. “Wage Labor and Capital.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan, ed. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Thomson, 2003.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Vanderwerken, David L.. "Pilgrim's Dilemma: Slaughterhouse-Five." Research Studies 42(1974): 147-52. Print. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dial Press Trade, 2005. Print
Woods, Tim. “Spectres of History: Ethics and Postmodern Fictions of Temporality.” Critical Ethics: Texts, Theory and Responsibility. Ed. Dominic Rainsford and Tim Woods. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. 105-21.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"You dumb cooze...It wasn't a war story. It was a love story...a ghost story" O'Brien




War is Hell: Traces of Truth in Tim O'Brien's “How to Tell a True War Story

Tim O'Brien's short story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” offers a postmodern perspective on the inadequacy of abstractions and absolutisms in communicating the concrete horror of war. He proposes the argument that theories, justifications, and definitions of war are meaningless when it comes to accounting for the daily experience of combat; how can a theory convey the magnitude of the individual lives lost...the death of a brother, a daughter, a lover, a friend? How can a definition of war ever capture the blood and gore of a body torn asunder by a grenade? O'Brien struggles with these limitations of language and imagination while examining the play that occurs between truth and fiction.
O'Brien's thematic statement recalls Jean-Francois Lyotard's discourse, The Postmodern Condition: “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside”(O'Brien 6). O'Brien's writing is characterized by the same “incredulity toward metanarratives,” that Lyotard uses to define postmodernism (Lyotard 356). A metanarrative must as a matter of necessity generalize and abstract. For O'Brien the degree of distance that this theorizing creates causes a story to lose its power. The words no longer hold a visceral influence over the reader.
O'Brien arrives at truth of experience by circling around the actual events; by telling and retelling the same story from different perspectives. This inclusion of multiple narrators relating different versions of same event within a single story exemplifies postmodern historicity. Furthermore, it is in alignment with Lyotard's preference for a multiplicity of smaller narratives versus the “legitimating myths” of the metanarrative (357). Lyotard argues that the metanarrative “is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements...Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these” (356). O'Brien aims for this intersection through the inclusion of his many competing narratives. And, it is due to the contradictory nature of these perspectives that O'Brien is able to come closer to visceral truth than he would have through the use of theory or abstraction.
O'Brien uses the binary of war and peace to elucidate the paradoxical nature of truth: “To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life” (O'Brien 7). This stylistic device, focusing on paradoxical and contradictory nature of reality is characteristic of postmodern literature. It capitalizes on the shadow of “alterity” that all objects of thought—all words—carry, as described by Jacques Derrida in his influential text, Difference (292). Derrida argues that due to “temporalization” and “espacement” the exact meaning or definition of any given word can never be reached...there are no absolutes in language, no actual substance or presence (283). A word such as “war” takes on meaning, as O'Brien demonstrates, in its shades or “traces” of difference from other words. In the above quotation O'Brien juxtaposes “war” with the terms “peace,” “death,” and “life” to create a complex, stratified connotation of war towards which a generalization could but gesture. To conclude his argument put forth in the essay Differance, Derrida refers to the pre-Socratic concept of “sumploke,” the idea that “everything in existence is relationally connected” (Rivkin 279). O'Brien mirrors this idea of interconnectedness in his multifaceted description of war: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead” (O'Brien 7).
Through O'Brien's reflection of Lyotard's “incredulity toward metanarratives” and Derrida's “undoing of binary oppositions” the power of the “legimating myths--” the power of the lies we are told about war-- is discharged (Lyotard 356). “How to Tell a True War Story” disables and deconstructs the rhetoric that the dominant political and social powers use to glamorize and promote war. While instructing the reader on how to tell a true war story, O'Brien reminds us of art's capacity for liberation from society's strictures: “ The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true” (O'Brien 8).

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “Differance.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing, Maldon, Ma, 2004
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing, Maldon, Ma, 2004
Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan, ed. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, Maldon, Ma 2004
"Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story" ". WISC.edu. 7/11/09 .

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pastiche and Historicity: How Postmodernism is the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

Fredric Jameson says that Postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism; the postmodern elements of pastiche and historicity, in particular, support this claim. Pastiche is the "blank parody" of postmodern literature. Blank because the self-reflexivity and intertextuality of the postmodern era no longer seems tied to historical content. It is a jumble of parodies of different styles and voices reflecting the shift from the universalizing meta-narrative to the multiplicity of micro-narratives. Pastiche is a literary technique that also reproduces a political phenomenon--that of micro-politics. Jameson in his book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, explains “if the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today -- are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm” (Postmodernism 18). Literature and the society it springs from is still dominated and determined by capitalist ideology but as capitalism has evolved and progressed so too has literary theory, moving from modernism to postmodernism. Jameson continues, “Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself (18). Jameson criticizes the omnipresence of pastiche, “the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the ‘neo.’” (18). However he finds it an appropriate method in some respects, compatible with today’s culture of late capitalism: “with a whole historically original consumers' appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and ‘spectacles’” (18). Jameson again connects the evolution in theory to the analogous shift in economics--“Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been Generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced” (18). (Simulacrum is a reference to Plato’s concept of an identical copy for which no original has ever existed).
In examining postmodern historicity, Jameson looks back to “the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval” and compares to the “so-called nostalgia” of post-modernism that reminisces of the past because it is a socially and commercially en-vogue thing to do. According to Jameson, “Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation....Faced with these ultimate objects -- our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" -- the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent” (18). Rather than genuine historicity, a representation relating to actual historical content, postmodern art seems more concerned with conveying “pastness…through stylistic connotation” (18). Jameson terms this trend of aiming for an ideological conception of the past through the glossy look of an image or the use of fashion representative of an era to recall the era rather than actual historical content “a crisis in historicity” (18). The literary elements of pastiche and historicity that characterize postmodern work in particular epitomize Fredric Jameson’s claim that Postmodernism is the logic of late capitalism

Works Cited
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ding Dong!




Brass Balls:

A Marxist Critique of the Capitalist Conventions behind the Dangling Appendages of Glengarry Glen Ross
People commonly mistake the phrase “brass balls” as a euphemism for courage or audacity, in actuality the term dates back to a time when pawn brokers would hang three brass balls outside of their place of business to indicate their services (Urban). To have “brass balls” is to drive a tough bargain, to refuse to back down on the asking price (Urban). This definition is a befitting introduction for a Marxist interpretation of the a critical scene from David Mamet’s 1992 film, Glengarry Glen Ross. In this scene Alec Baldwin plays an abusive and authoritarian motivational speaker; while haranguing a satellite office of under-performing salesmen, Baldwin dangles a pair of brass balls before his “passively-consenting” audience of subordinates (Gramsci 673). He bellows: “You need brass balls to sell real estate,” and the varied connotations that the image of the dangling brass balls conjures reverberate in the mind of the audience. The testicular reference is hard to ignore and it is easy to interpret the sadistic call to action as an attack on the salesmen’s masculinity. However an alternate interpretation based upon the historical origins of the term “brass balls” lays bare the Marxist undercurrent of the scene.
In order to be able to drive a hard bargain, an economic system such as capitalism must be in place--without an indeterminate always fluctuating “exchange value” there is no hard bargain, no asking price, no tough sell (Capital 666). In his essay, Capital, Karl Marx illustrates how exchange value which “manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value” leads to commodity fetishism. Through this system which obscures the social, political and mechanical means of production and alienates the laborer from his labor commodities become “mysterious” things (667). Alec Baldwin’s character is thus berating the proletariat salesmen to take advantage of the illusory notions of value that a capitalist market depends upon. Commodities are so divorced from their use value that bargains and tough sells are merely awaiting creation. All a salesman needs to do is decide on an asking price that suits his fancy--that needs relate in no way to an intrinsic or essential value of the product--and then with that price in mind: sell, sell, sell. When Alec Baldwin’s character says: “the money’s out there you go and pick it up,” he epitomizes the Marxist critique of a society where the essential value of commodities and labor has been masked…where the “form” obscures the “common factor” (666).
Alec Baldwin’s character is the voice of the bourgeoisie. His speech is representative of the superstructure of Marxist theory supporting and interacting with the material substance of society, what Marx terms the base. His ideological rant reinforces the relations of production. If the men do not “buy” into his despotic demands…driving the hard bargain, closing the sale…they are threatened with the loss of their means of subsistence. Baldwin’s character’s attack on the individuality, masculinity, and humanity of the salesmen is analogous to the Louis Althusser’s illustration of the “Beautiful Lies” told by “Priests and Despots” in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus. The salesmen “represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form--” their name is wanting because they do not drive an eighty thousand dollar BMW (Ideology 694). The cause of this imaginary transposition is locally and specifically the rant of Baldwin’s character. From a wider, more general perspective Althusser identifies the cause as: “the existence of a small number of cynical men who base their domination and exploitation of the ‘people’ on a falsified representation of the world which they have imagined in order to enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations” (694). In addition to being manipulated by what Althusser terms “Beautiful Lies” the salesmen are also subjected to the social power and domination that Gramsci defines as “hegemony” (Hegemony 673). According to Gramsci great masses of the population give “spontaneous” consent to the dominant social group to direct and control their social life due to the “prestige and (consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production” (673). The salesmen are passively consenting to their own oppression, but under the current capitalist system it does not seem as though they have much of a choice. If they attempt to disengage themselves from the dominant ideology they face “legally” enforced discipline from the apparatus of state coercive power (673). Baldwin’s character directs the sales staff’s attention to the three possible outcomes they face depending on how well they sell: first place is a shiny new Cadillac, second place is a set of steak knives, and third place is “you’re fired” (Glengarry).

Works Cited
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing, Maldon, Ma, 2004.
"Brass Balls". Urban Dictionary. 8/3/09 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=brass+balls.
Glengarry Glen Ross. Screenplay by David Mamet. Dir. James Foley. Perf. Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino, and Ed Harris. 1992.
Gramsci, Antonio. “Hegemony.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing, Maldon, Ma, 2004
Marx, Karl. “Capital.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing, Maldon, Ma, 2004