Monday, June 30, 2008

Of Labrynths and Pornography, Information and Holidays: Gravity's Rainbow, Chapter 2

As I finished Chapter 2, I found myself wondering what the hell just happened to me. I'd suggest that I'm merely a tad paranoid (as I am), but it feels far too much like I'm buying into Pynchon's Pavlovian-paranoiac reality.

Ah, gads.

Pynchon left me hanging on the matter of 19th century German history and literature. Poof--it was gone! Turned into a fetishistic nightmare of golden showers* and coprophagia. Ahem.

So, I have four points to piddle with here.

Holidays and Octopuses

I had Duff McKagan's voice in my head while reading this (surprise, surprise), singing Al Bloch's "Holiday," particularly this part:

"Dreaming off in space/ Time and a place/ Life calls my name/ Won't play the game/ Little joy sleep brings/ Telephone sings/ Answering machine/ Won't you please kill the ring/ I'm on holiday"

The cadence of Chapter 2 was often similar to this punky gem. We spend our time in Casino Herman Goering (I can't say that name enough....Casino Hermann Goering...there is something so fitting to a Casino, with it's bloated indulgences and Goering...with his) in France, away from the chill of Chapter One, and a bit more distant (for most of the chapter) from the reality of war. We are on holiday for a spell. The war continues on, however, as characters disappear, lie, and are recovered. And, one cannot forget Slothrop's ugly American moment, as he dresses in a Hawaiian shirt that gives poor Tantivy chills. Peculiarly, the opening of Chapter Two had all the elements of a good, old fashioned B-monster movie. Complete with an attacking octopus, which threatened to consume poor Katje. As with all B-movies, the staging rapidly evident, even as Slothrop impotently beats the octopus with a whiskey bottle--to no avail. The scene is worth reading repeatedly, even if only to see the following remark: "...and who as to know that among her last things would be vulgar-faced hula girls, ukuleles, and surf-riders all in comic colors...(186). What a way to go.

Chemistry and the Art of Fetish Pornography

The B-monster-cum-manipulation movie rapidly transitions in to a fetish flick. Indeed, Chapter 2 may have had one of the oddest collections of verbal pornography I've ever seen. I noted part of it above--the golden showers* and coprophagia. I know why my buddy R. ran screaming from this novel (and from Modern Literature in general) years ago; she retreated wholly into the medieval world as an act of self-defence. Poor lamb. The chapter's finest moment, however, comes when Pynchon reveals the power of chemistry (which he also alludes to in the dozens of references to Sandoz Labs and, consequently, the 1943 invention of LSD):

"His classic study of large molecules spanned the decade of the twenties and brought us directly to nylon, which not only is a delight to the fetishist and a convenience to the armed insurgent, but was also, at the time and well within the System, an announcement of Placiticity's central canon: that chemists were no longer to be at the mercy of Nature" (249).

Keep in mind that I'm married to a man with degrees in chemical engineering. Don't think I haven't heard this speech before, but Pynchon's repackaging was genius: Nylon--the godsend of insurgents and fetishists everywhere; the book practically screams: "Better living through chemistry--are you fucking kidding me? This is better??" And, oddly, the control over nature that chemistry, with it's codes and diagrams, is mirrored by architecture, that art of the Nazi world and blueprints. And, such control, Pynchon seems to make clear (or, my brain on Pynchon anyway) is not ideal.

The problem of the line and diagram shows up in other elements of the narrative. I'm a cartographer at heart, so the following was a bit of beauty:
"We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain andsky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us...Beneath the city streets, the warrens of rooms
and corridors, the fences and networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity...that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky..."(264).

The city as maze and rabbits' lair (ah, we who overpopulate the earth, yes?), the insistence on marking property with fence and stone...if you've read Gilgamesh, you've seen an early rendering of this habit: the epic begins by asking readers to witness it's truth by "touching the walls of Uruk." The walls and lines give us physical manifestations of civilization, even as we are simultaneously reduced to rabbits in warrens. Those same markers of civilization also separate us from, as Pynchon suggests, the "anarchic oneness" of nature--spaces that lack definition and the borders that at once offer comfort and generate the paranoia that they will eventually be breached. The need for lines and visual confirmation of ownership exists most firmly, I suspect, in the blueprints that float about in Gravity's Rainbow. Blueprints allow us, like walls, to imagine borders and control, even when we, like Slothrop, have none.

I'm hovering near a conversation about decentering with Pynchon. I've got Deleuze and Guattari on the brain after this chapter, but I need to ruminate a bit. "A Map and not a Tracing...," they write of Rhizome. A map and not a tracing. Chew on this: "What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious" (Deleuze & Guattari 12). A blueprint is a tracing, not a map; it cannot reveal the real. But a map...a map we can imagine and shape into a thousand necessary ideas: "The map is open and connectible in all of is dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation" (Deleuze & Guattari 12). A map, then, has power--and we have power over it. Slothrop cannot understand blueprints alone because they are merely tracings that are part of a map; once he begins to see the interconnectivity of Katje, Tantivy, and information, and zoot suits, he can be gin to understand. The tracing of a rocket has no meaning outside the conspiracy; it is merely a rocket.

A map, though. Much more powerful. Maps connect image and idea--connect nylon to insurgent to freedom from the perceived tyranny of nature.

I think I need to reread a bit of D & G....

Oh hell.**

One of the most interesting parts of the novel so far is Pynchon's discussion of the commodification of information. Black market dealer Semyavin accedes to Slothrop that his game has fundamentally changed: "Information. What's wrong with dope and women? Is it any wonder the world has gone insane, with information come to be the only medium of real exchange?" (258). karen-the-great and I have talked around information exchange time and again (indeed, it is the heart and soul of her dissertation-to-be, I suspect). I was delighted to find it wandering around in Pynchon. Information, dope, and women, the great sins of 20th century man?

Oh, one more. Speaking of commodification, we had Zoot Suits. For those who've never seen the wonder that is the drape, I give you this gem with Edward James Olmos. Do see the film if you never have.

C. would be so proud. The Zoot Suit Riots at Casino Hermann Goering . I'd put my pic of C. wearing his drape up as an example, but I didn't ask him first, so Mr. Olmos will have to do.

I'm afraid to admit this, but I think I'm enjoying the novel.

Works Cited

Bloch, Al. "Holiday." Beautiful Disease. Perf. Duff McKagan. Recorded 1998. Unreleased.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minn P, 1987.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

*Interestingly, distribution of images of urophilia, as it is properly (?) known, carries a potential for imprisonment in New Zealand.

**Proof that graduate school ruins the mind, you know. Go back to D & G? AGAIN? Shit.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Work of Art in the Age of Duff McKagan

I'm a self-confessed addict. No worse sillier(?) addictions are there for me than the two men referenced in the title of this ramble: Duff McKagan and Walter Benjamin.

The chance to wax ecstatic about both is this junkie's dream, man. Seriously.

See, I have a collection of video clips on my cinema course website called "Things to Do With Video Cameras," most of which are snippets from Youtube of folks playing Rockband, recording themselves while drunk (thank you Duff--Big Dogs!), and creating instructional videos on raising cats. I've been meaning to blog on the youtube/Benjamin things for some time now (oh, since my dissertation was finished in 2006, I think), but I couldn't pass the chance up today, when Duff delivered up a slice of morning silliness.

I put the clip collection up in order to show my darling students one example of what Benjamin might have been getting at in the "Work of Art" essay. If we accept that the information sharing capabilities of the Internet are indeed for everyone (and there is plenty of evidence that this is not the case at all), then Youtube is a logical end of Benjamin's ideas; theoretically, all of us have ready access to the machinery of production (video cameras) and machinery of distribution (Youtube and the like). Youtube is an ideal space, one without the controls created by a capitalist machine such as Hollywood, that tends to isolate art and attempts to preserve a false aura (including in how we view the stars themselves) in a medium (film) that is, according to Benjamin, devoid of aura because there is no "original." Benjamin remarks that (thinking, no doubt, of Riefenstahl here) that "the violation of the masses, whom Fascism with its Fuehrer cult, forces to it's knees, has it counterpart in the violation of of an apparatus [film] which is pressed into the production of ritual values" (241). Film, as a mechanically reproduced medium, lacks aura, which contains within it all the "ritual values" Benjamin worries over, as they are often used to control the masses. He earlier remarks that a "...the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man's legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances, the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest if the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations" (232). These spectacles (think of the lighted sign under Hitler in Triumph des Willens) are intended to produce a false ritual value. And it works, which is why Triumph is so freaking frightening. If, instead, the masses control the property (in this case film production property and, presumably, the distribution as well), then the "absent-minded" masses cannot be lulled into a false sense that their needs and wishes are being expressed, rather than controlled.

Youtube suggests that the masses are now in control of both production and distribution. What this says about us may be a bit more frightening.

Ignore for a moment that Duff McKagan is hardly an example of the masses that Benjamin writes about, though I would argue that he saw himself in that light during the GNR days, when he steadfastly held to the belief that he really was blue collar. Mick Wall (why do I keep turning to that godforsaken interview??) quotes our hero as remarking in 1990 that "I'm just a normal guy, man..." (92). This after handing his fellow inebriate a $100 bill, because it's all he had in his wallet. He seems to have, largely, left this particular pretension behind.*

So, the example that provided the fodder for this morning's ramble. Loaded, Duff's band, posted the next video web thingy (can't think of what they called it right now--oh, webisode); they are currently recording their second album and are periodically posting snippets for the pleasure of, and no doubt adoration from, their fans. Included in Webisode #2 is, oddly, a grocery store shopping adventure with Jeff and Duff. The clip is below for the curious; note the overweening presence of technology, including the occasionally mentioned Blackberry (Duff is wearing glasses this time, so we can all feel a bit safer about him using it):

I am not getting into whether or not this constitutes art. Forget it. It's Duff, so just work with me.

So, the masses (band and fans) have access that was once previously denied to them; the band can self promote and the fans can enjoy at leisure. No waiting until the record comes out to hear the tunes--fans get to play along. No evil record company jealously guarding and "reframing" the truth in order to protect the "image" (aura) of the band. Consider GNR (of course)--Geffen promoted them as dangerous, unstable, drug and alcohol fiends. It was a realistic schtick, but schtick nonetheless (one that the band had already exploited in their own promotions). The schtick worked too.

Aaaand, the webisode erodes the aura of the "rockstar." Fans are RIGHT THERE! Jeff and Duff are shooting themselves in a grocery store; can't get much more "everyday" than that, right? Except it too is an illusion (fuck). Would I watch the everyman in the grocery store? Probably not. Would I watch Duff? Duh.

My silly Duff example aside, I do think that Youtube provides interesting fodder for the Benjaminians of the world. What happens when the masses have the machinery at their disposal? What will they do with it?
  • Record themselves beating up other people?
  • Record their band fantasies (ala the Rockband videos)?
  • Produce new art from a montage of old such as in the infamous "Brokeback Squadron" or this "Lord of the Flies" bit or any of the fan made Duff videos?

What do we value in all of these postings? The art? The people? The notoriety? The comments? We have the access and control over the production and distribution. Now what?

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schoken, 1968.

Wall, Mick. Guns N' Roses: The Most Dangerous Band in the World. New York: Hyperion, 1992.

*On further reflection, the fact that he's recording himself in the most "normal" of places--the grocery store--may belie my comment. Maybe he's just repackaging the normal bit. With Chocolate-covered kettle corn, you know?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pynchon, Carlin, and Snapshots: Gravity's Rainbow, Chapter One

You know, it occurs to me that my problem with Gravity's Rainbow is simple: the Sledgehammer Effect. I get it: Penises, Missiles, War. I got the joke on page two. By the time we get to the bananas--I'm over it.

See, George Carlin said it well (and considerably more concisely) here. Watch the whole thing or, pick up with 3:30 and following--"Bigger Dick Foreign Policy":

Yep, war and sex. How intimately linked.

And, I hope, a fitting tribute to Carlin, who died yesterday in Los Angeles. Thanks for the laughs, man. You will be missed.

And, back to Pynchon and sex Gravity's Rainbow, which might be described best as Dexter's Lab cum Beavis and Butthead (many thanks to G. for pointing out the Dexter bit). One can almost hear Beavis laughing: "Heh, heh...he said hardon..." An extended joke by 13-year-old males, perhaps? Like the sex scene in Return to Horror High: welding sparks, sex, welding sparks, sex, welding sparks, sex--only Return is somehow more subtle than Pynchon.

I suppose that my focus on the sexual metaphors throughout Gravity's Rainbow says more about me than about the novel, though, so I'll allow myself a few digressions from the point as I did manage to finish Chapter One, and I did manage to notice other ideas, themes, and images. Really, I did.

Nearly all of them were wrapped up in sexual activity, but that's another day.

First, I'm resisting the urge to Google Pavlov, about whom I know little, because the "ultraparadoxical" theory of neurosis was intriguing. Now, it was conceptually appealing: neuroses are borne of a "a confusion of ideas of the opposite" (90). Once trapped in a habit (?) of looking for stimulus in the place where it is specifically absent, we find ourselves (thank you, Kingston) unable to tell our stories, which is one of the hallmarks of insanity. That and, as the adage goes, doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So, knowing nothing more of Pavlov than what Pynchon gives me in the novel, I'm reticent to go any further here. I'll hit the library and then return to this point. What caught my attention, even in my ignorance of all non-dog Pavlov things, was that "ultraparadox"--both in the prefix and in the way Pynchon discusses it, reminds me of Burgess' "ultraviolence." In fact, as I read page 90, it dawned on me that this novel reminds me of Burgess' novel (1962) and Kubrick's film (1971) A Clockwork Orange in several ways, particularly the behavioral conditioning, of course, but I wonder how intentional that was. Research point #2: Gravity's Rainbow with annotations.

So, two (other) things stood out to me: cartography (related to my geography bend in Blood Meridian, I think) and photography.

The cartography is absolutely everywhere-- Slothrop's map & the V2 bombings. I'm particularly intrigued by the mapping of Africa (as ever--as my Brit lit classes are well aware) in the novel. I'll have to see where this goes.

The photography (and film) language recalls both Benjamin and DeLillo for me. Here's what Pynchon has to say: "No one listened to those early conversations--not even an idle snapshot survives (92)." This remark (while watching Pointsman and Mexico fade into the winter) recalls DeLillo's "Most Photographed Barn in the World" in White Noise. The barn has no significance beyond the exhibition (oh, thank you Benjamin) value created by its status as "most photographed." We want to be spectators; we want to have been there, then. We want evidence (a photo, often) to show that we were there. Proof, rather like the pins on Slothrop's map. So, Pynchon allows us to watch the fade out, but denies our position as spectator because no photo exists-not even a photo--to preserve the moment.

That the narrative immediately fades into film intrigues me. Katje is being filmed and the narration provides a number of insights from the camera's POV, such as "The camera records no change in her face, but why does she stand now so immobile at the door" (93)? The juxtaposition of the images (camera images purport to share a truth, after all) challenges the truth of the image--her expression doesn't change--we can see that--but her body language suggests something off camera that has caught her attention enough to stop her movement.

This section was particularly curious--a pornographic, modernized Hansel & Gretel, all of which reads as if we are seeing through a camera, allowing us to experience the unseen "cameraman's pleasure" (96), if only through the particulars of what he chooses to focus on. And that focus is decidedly pornographic, here in particular, in so far as the bodies are rent apart--Gottfried as "docile spine" and "upended asshole" (94). I hope that the repositioning of the Grimm tale (and of 19th century German history, I think) is a breadcrumb trail Pynchon will follow in the novel. The particulars of the pornographic vision and of the remarks regarding injury on pg. 88 recall J.G. Ballard rather strongly. I could follow these lines of flight if Pynchon will allow it.

We'll see.

Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof has an interesting spin on the significance of capturing and owning an image, for anyone interested. Or, if you'd like to see a really young Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe. Always a good thing.

Works Cited

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Things I Should Have Read, Update

I finished Blood Meridian about two weeks ago.

The book was recommended by a number of my colleagues, each of whom said something to the effect of "it's really violent. Just your thing."


Anyway, yes, very violent. A few intriguing moments in there--the repositioning of the Western genre (about which I know precisely bupkis, but I could recognize those moments anyway) in particular. The comma splices and the apostrophe use was irritating to a degree I never imagined possible; I read freshman compositions for a living, and my students' papers don't bother me as much as McCarthy's choices did. I found myself highlighting the idiosyncratic apostrophe use.

So, I'm a pretty lousy Americanist, I know, so take whatever I say here for what it is worth. The book was worth the read for a curiosity factor. The violence was not as overwhelming as I had imagined, though fairly explicit in its detail. I suppose what bothers me about the violence is that much of it was overblown. I didn't read it with any ideas about McCarthy "reflecting the true past" or any such nonsense, so my problem isn't so much that it was unrealistic--it just felt forced at times. Oops, we've gone three pages--we need another scene in which bodies are strung up or otherwise brutalized.

That said, I was intrigued by the geographical space, in large part because it required some research out of me. When McCarthy first mentioned riding to Mexico, I thought "south." Upon arriving in Comanche territory, it became clear to me that my assumptions about geography were wrong; I had to reposition my mental map to this. Challenging, but quite fun.

So, the list is down by one.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Give me Mann or give me Death, er, Pynchon.

Or, how to read a novel that has defeated you more times than you care to admit to anyone.


karen-the-great and I have decided to team read Gravity's Rainbow (BTW: a Pynchon wiki? Holy Shit).

I admit it; I have never finished Gravity's Rainbow. I think I probably should have, but it defeats me (read: bores me to tears or annoys me) every time. Then again, I did try to read it while writing both my thesis and my dissertation, so my timing was a bit, well, poor.

So, we'll each take a chapter and...

Just kidding. We'll both read the whole thing; we're just going to hold each other accountable for it. And, as a bonus, we're going to blog the experience, though probably not as amusingly (or for as long) as slacktivist has with Left Behind.

Each Monday, we'll each post our thoughts, digressions, or excuses for not completing the chapter. Stay tuned.

Other current reads (understand, I seldom read only one book at a time--each has its designated spot, with occasional scenery rotations):

  • Magic Mountain (for times--and there are many--that I have to wait in the car)

  • The Tin Drum (travel and couch)

  • Christine Falls (couch option #2)

I'll conquer that "Things I Should Have Read" list, dammit. I will. Of course, I just noticed that Tin Drum wasn't on that list--it really should have been though.