Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nightcrawler and The Social Network: Sociopaths, Entrepreneurs, and Masculinity

I finally saw The Social Network after joining the conversation about David Fincher's latest movie, Gone Girl. I gave the former a miss when it came out because I read Zadie Smith's scathing article on it in The New York Review of Books, where she describes how the movie's central idea – that Zuckerberg created Facebook so that socially inept, computer-loving nerds like himself could have the illusion of having friends – was based on fabrications about Zuckerberg. Specifically, whereas the fictional Zuckerberg is dumped by a girlfriend in the first scene and starts down the path toward creating Facebook as an act of revenge, the real Zuckerberg has been with the same woman (now his wife) since they met at Harvard, where she was a fellow student. If you google her, she's both accomplished and gorgeous. Whatever trouble he may or may not have had making or being nice to friends, Zuckerberg evidently had no trouble attracting or maintaining relationships with women.

But then The Social Network isn't about Zuckerberg, or about Facebook. It's about the myth of the internet, and of a new masculinity that doesn't look much like the old kind but has all of its problems anyway.

Angry Guys on the Internet and Beethoven in a Hoodie

Remember all of those pop sociology books that came out when the internet was exploding, about how geeks had gone from being at the bottom of the social hierarchy (and, it goes without saying, the hierarchy of masculinity) to being the future of business, but without having learned any social skills? Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is that guy.

He's also, of course, as Smith notes in her article, an irritable and irritating “autistic genius,” which is how we've come to picture genius in the digital era, although on TV this type has been associated with professions ranging from medicine (House M.D.) to physics (Sheldon Cooper). The ancestor of the type is Sherlock Holmes; Steven Moffat's updated Holmes, the first series of which aired the same year that The Social Network came out, explicitly married the modern “autistic” Holmes to the idea of the sociopath. I can't imagine what autistic people think about all of this – but, to paraphrase Jerry Lewis, these are the tropes, let's face it.

As Zuckerberg, Eisenberg never smiles, a striking way of communicating the flat affect and lack of social skills associated with autism. If you google Zuckerberg, he's always smiling. He looks like a nerd, alright – but like a kind of goofy dork, not like Beethoven in a hoodie.

Fictional Zuckerberg is also “an angry guy on the internet,” as someone calls him at some point (is it Rooney Mara, the dumping girlfriend?) in response to his revenge-on-all-women move of inventing on online game in which Harvard students can rate the attractiveness of their fellow – and female, naturally – students. Already in 2010, way pre-GamerGate, the internet is gendered, and way pre-Elliot Rodger, the world is concerned about its presumed denizens: basement-dwelling young men without social skills who are so desperate for sex and status that they've turned misogynous.

This isn't my internet, I hasten to add. I've been a non-angry, non-male internet user since 2004 or so, and in the early days, when I was thrilling to being one of the settlers of the cyberwilderness, I was writing and reading fan fiction, and, accordingly, hardly ever interacted with a male on the internet, angry or not. I kept hearing in the media how it was mostly men on the internet, but I couldn't have told you where they were, or what they were doing.

None of this changes the popular narrative, in which the internet is gendered male, and women are either indifferent or even hostile to it (like Mara in the movie, who is so uninterested in social networking that she sneers at the newly popular Eisenberg, “Good luck with your video game, or whatever”), or endangered by it. Watching The Social Network, I felt the thrill that you can only get when your subculture is recognized by mainstream media when Zuckerberg blogs on LiveJournal – except that the movie associates LiveJournal with “online misogyny” by making it an angry post about the girlfriend who just dumped him. I knew LiveJournal as a fun, messy, transgressive place where women – queer, straight, cis, trans, single, coupled, students, graduates, moms – poured their guts out in journal posts and participated, often raucously, in fan communities. The Social Network is so committed to its message about masculinity, to fusing the tech nerd with the internet user and making them both misogynists, that even though the film is critical of masculinity and misogyny, it feels like having my experience erased – which is no new experience for women.

A Genius at What?

Our cultural concern about angry men is hardly anything new either; the internet just provides us with a new angle. Fictional Zuckerberg is hardly your angry guy on the internet stereotype, though. He's going to Harvard, not playing RPG games in his parents' basement. As we learn in the hilarious scene where the athletic, blond WASP twins use their connections to get a meeting with some Harvard bigwig who finds their request that he intervene to stop Zuckerberg from stealing their idea ludicrous, Harvard is the breeding ground for the entrepreneurs who will be tomorrow's leaders. While the scene itself is comical, it's hard to know how seriously, or ironically, this sentiment is supposed to be taken. Certainly, if the young men who are either brilliant or privileged enough, or both, to be at Harvard do not take advantage of the opportunity to make some kind of cultural contribution, it's a huge waste. Zuckerberg, the business innovator, is doing exactly what's expected of a Harvard man.

And I say “man” advisedly, because despite the recognition that women are among the students (their looks get rated, remember?), this is a movie about the power plays of men. The men do some of the things they do for or because of women, but even in the 21st century, women are not imagined (neither by the movie nor by the men in it) as being among those future leaders that Harvard churns out to justify its existence. And in fact, there were no women among the key Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: the names we know, besides Mark Zuckerberg, are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Google and Yahoo were founded by men (two each).

The Social Network is bookended by scenes between Zuckerberg and a women. In the first, Zuckerberg is spurned by his girlfriend; in the second, he receives some sympathy from a young female lawyer. We are meant to believe that even the lawyer has “people skills,” by virtue of her femaleness, and that Zuckerberg's achievements compensate for not having the access to people that women have because of their people skills or the access to women that he could have if he had people skills. In his only other scene with Mara, the one where she belittles his “video game,” he sees her at a table full of people who are her friends – one of them a black man. Mara's black friend serves as a symbol of those effectively debarred from Harvard and all it represents, despite its “diversity” (the WASP picture is complicated by the presence of the twins' pal Divya Nirendra, who, according to Wikipedia, is the near-perfect-SAT-scoring son of immigrant doctors from India).

He is also a symbol of those with no social capital, who are of no interest to fictional Zuckerberg. In the first scene with Mara, he snobbishly puts down her school and obsesses about the high-status clubs at Harvard while making a strenuous effort to prove to her that he's smarter than she is. The thing is – he sort of succeeds, although she does get in a couple of good psychological diagnoses. (People skills. Women have those. You got that, right?) The Social Network may critique the White Male Genius archetype, but it doesn't question it. Only this new White Male Genius isn't creating art, or adding to our scientific knowledge. Ultimately he's a businessman, even if his product happens to have changed the way human beings socialize. But what's unique about the movie's Zuckerberg is that his story is not one of becoming an all-powerful, Charles Foster Kane-style tycoon. It's one of a new American dream/nightmare, exemplified by Facebook and the way it forces us to be constantly social and visible: of being a loser and becoming cool.

Nightcrawler: American Nightmare

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum is Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. When we first see him, he's a lone, violent thief who's having no luck getting legitimate work although he's seemingly willing to do anything. We don't know anything about his background or how he came to this state. He talks about unemployment and the recession; presumably his employment was precarious, he lost it, and now he can't cross back over to legitimacy.

Bloom doesn't have Zuckerberg's genius, although he does seem to share his “autism.” Gyllenhaal plays him in that general mode, twitchy, odd, and clueless about human interaction. He's given to rigid repetitions of platitudes and long business-speak diatribes. At other moments, flashing an oxymoronic creepy charm, he channels Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates. We see him at first as a victim, possibly, albeit a potentially dangerous one. Definitely, he's a desperate man, and if one is able to identify with him, on the basis of his need and vulnerability and Gyllenhaal's freaky charisma, one can't help but hope that he'll succeed in pulling himself by his bootstraps. That is the bait the movie holds out, I think; and if you take it, you are put in a position of moral complicity as Bloom does what he has to do to go from loser to success.

Lean, mean, and misanthropic, like its protagonist, Nightcrawler is no more interested in creating a complex sociological portrait of contemporary urban life than Bloom is in saving the whore whom he takes on as his “intern” – a young man who's lived on the streets and whose only source of income, currently, as Bloom understands right away, is turning tricks. Given Bloom's isolation, alienation, and general oddness, I, too, like some critics, thought of Travis Bickle (and I think we're supposed to in the one scene where he lets out some animal rage, into a mirror), but Bickle has a kind of innocence that makes his violence all the more horrifying – because it's the expression of his innocence. Bloom has a wide-eyed (saucer-eyed, in fact) credulity with regard to the American religion and philosophy of business and success, but he is no innocent. His credulity and sociopathy are one and the same: he embraces this sociopathic philosophy of exploitation without a qualm, believing in it with the faith of the hopeless, and it rewards him.

Nightcrawler is less a new Taxi Driver than an American Psycho for bust-phase capitalism, proving that you don't need money or power to be a corporate psychopath. Whereas Taxi Driver is, I think, really trying to understand urban male isolation and alienation and how it leads to violence, Nightcrawler is a blackly comic parable. The reason Bloom can't get sex isn't his oddness but his lack of success. We only see brief glimpses of him going about his domestic life in his tiny apartment, laughing at Danny Kaye on TV or watering his plant, but it's enough. A man without money or prestige can't get sex, which makes him doubly unmanned.

When we first see Rene Russo's morning news director, she appears to be a ball-busting, no-bullshit, empowered female boss who offers herself as a mentor in sleaze to Bloom. When he makes a pass at her, the power seems to be largely on her side: despite the fact that she's twice his age, as she points out, she's an attractive woman of normal social skills (when she's not busting balls at work) who seems to be in a position of power, and he's a 30-year-old man who's socially inept and barely starting a career. He's in no way sexually viable. The gender's on the wrong foot, but Bloom is going to set that right. First, he “negotiates” her into having sex with him by reminding her of the things he's learned about her from his internet research (the same way he learned business philosophy), which show that her employment is precarious, and convincing her that his footage is the only thing that's going to save her job. He doesn't persuade her into bed based on these facts, mind you, since he lacks the social finesse for that: he blackmails her into it by threatening to stop bringing her footage if she doesn't comply.

The next time up, he fucks up royally, and she chews him out in front of staff as he used to watch her do to other men. Russo is great in this scene, her voice cracking a little hysterically for the first time during one of her harangues: she let him have sex with her and now if he doesn't “man up,” as she puts it, it will all be for nothing. It's after this emasculation that he briefly goes wild in front of the bathroom mirror. But once he deals with his competition, he makes the next big opportunity he has really count. Russo is so impressed with the results that she coos at him, submissive for the first time, and it's hard to know whether she's just doing what he wants so that he'll give her more of the same or if she's genuinely attracted to him now that he's done what he's supposed to do to prove he's a "real man." Does she even know herself? 

Scrounging for Survival

The point of the movie's satire is not, I think, that the problem with corporations is that they're staffed by individual sociopaths. It's that the fact that Bloom is a sociopath makes him better at following corporate principles than normal people who have ethics and empathy. The movie isn't necessarily saying that all entrepreneurs are sociopaths, only that sociopaths make great entrepreneurs.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort is another kind of sociopath – one without any autistic traits. I don't know about the real Belfort, but DiCaprio as Belfort has such lust for life that he's fun to watch no matter how much you disapprove of him. Gyllenhaal is fun to watch in a different way: for me there's no way not to want him to succeed despite what it entails, because the stakes are so great and so final every time. Nightcrawler – in sharp contrast to both Wolf and Network – shows exactly how difficult it is to not only make a living but get ahead. The competition is incessant and terrific: Bloom's with other freelancers to get and sell the footage; Russo's with other stations. Every fuck-up makes a huge impact on his business – a word I want to put in quotations, except that's what it actually is. It's not much different from scrounging for survival as a thief, except now he has a chance of eventually making big money and getting respect. Because it's America.

The movie's third main character, Rick, is, of course, in a precarious position as well. To show the contrast between Wolf and Nightcrawler: when Belfort meets his second-in-command, the man gives up his life to follow Belfort, like a twisted Jesus, after hearing how much money he's making as a penny stocks salesman; in Nightcrawler, Bloom, who has nothing so far except for a contact at the lowest-rated station in the city and his vision, tells the desperate young man who's taken three buses to meet up with him in response to his ad that he's got the job, and then announces, “It's an internship.” The American dream, in Wolf, is to be making more money than you know what to do with, right away – by whatever means you can get away with. The American nightmare, in Nightcrawler, is to be making no money at all for a long time and still having to sell your soul.

For Rick, who has no job history, the “choice” is between working at a dangerous job for a madman for $30 a night (as he manages to negotiate) or going back to the streets and prostituting himself. Actually, the latter seems almost better, but the former is at least a real job with, he's told, a future, even if it pays less than minimum wage. When Bloom needs his help to do something both shockingly immoral and dangerously illegal, Rick finally “mans up” and manages to demand half of a large reward, and for a moment it seems as though Bloom might want to be a mentor to him and make him a full partner. Maybe, just maybe, homosocial dynamics will triumph, and a man will fare better with Bloom than Russo's character did. Rick, however, makes the mistake of thinking, like we do, that's he's done the thing expected of him as a man, and can now speak to Bloom like they're equals. Women can fulfill physical and emotional needs once they've been made subservient (one of the most horrifying, and hilarious, parts of the blackmail scene is that Bloom specifies to Nina that he is negotiating for her friendship as well as her body). But men who aren't subservient are merely competition. These are the laws of capitalism and masculinity, and the profession of nightcrawler shows them in about as naked a form as it can get – with no golden parachutes or offshore accounts.

On High in Blue Tomorrows

The reason that women aren't Mark Zuckerberg is, possibly, that we're not Lou Bloom. The entrepreneurial spirit has less to do with privilege or perfect SAT scores, Nightcrawler says – both movies say, really – than with being socialized to think that your identity depends on being successful and having sex, with the latter dependent on the former. But that doesn't mean that women can't or won't want to learn how to be self-made like Lou, a point the movie makes when it includes an eager-looking young woman the three new interns Bloom has hired as part of his expanded business in the movie's final moments.

Another movie that one can compare Nightcrawler to in its critique of the American dream and the men whose identity depends on pursuing it is Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, in which the young Jewish protagonist, already feeling suffocated by his new marriage, meets the WASP princess of his dreams on his honeymoon and begins a pursuit of her that's all the more relentless because he understands now that life is not worth living for him if he can't get the things he's been conditioned to want. The subversiveness of the script and direction lies in the way that it's impossible not to want him to succeed even as you're outraged by the things he'll do in order to do it, because he's doing exactly what he's supposed to: he wants what he's supposed to want and he's showing initiative and persistence in going after it. The black comedy of Charles Grodin's performance resides in his character's endless ability to justify himself as, like Lou Bloom, he talks and talks and talks. Whereas The Heartbreak Kid ends with a subtle hint that attaining his dream is a bit of a let-down, however, Nightcrawler suggests that today's entrepreneurs of tomorrow have their needs fully met by the philosophy of business. After all, if your goal is to eternally grow and expand, how can there ever be that moment of disappointment when the dream doesn't live up to your dream of it?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gone Girls: Amy Dunne, Francesca Woodman, and Vivian Maier

Note: Spoilers for David Fincher's Gone Girl begin in the first paragraph and continue throughout, and it's not a movie that you want spoilered.

In an atmosphere on the left where it often feels like one is walking on eggshells to avoid giving offence, David Fincher's Gone Girl, based on the novel (and screenplay) by Gillian Flynn, is less a breath of fresh air than a bull in a hatchery. A movie that has the capacity to seriously offend both feminists (a heroine who is highly skilled at faking that she's been raped) and MRAs (the same heroine gets away with brutally murdering a man), Gone Girl is probably the most controversial movie about gender roles and relations since Paul Verhoeven's 1992 Basic Instinct, which also featured a psychopathic blonde as an uncomfortable figure of female empowerment. But whereas Sharon Stone's Catherine was an independent career woman, Rosamund Pike's Amy Dunne is a throwback, a woman who is obsessively concerned with her marriage.

Our new concern with marriage and wife roles can be traced back to Mad Men and its retro premise. It showed that while TV viewers could become deeply attached to a male throwback and his reassuring masculinity, with all of the flaws that entails, and to a flawed female character who showed all the proper “modern” characteristics of women, all of our disavowal and disapproval of those former times was directed towards “the wife,” whom we sneer at as passive, pampered, parasitic, and puerile. Then Breaking Bad proved that the show doesn't have to be set in the past in order to generate viewer contempt for “the wife”: just make her blonde (it's part of every man's American dream) and make her the stay-at-home mom to the protagonist's breadwinner. Skyler got on fanboys' nerves even more than Betty did because she stood up to her husband. “The wife” doesn't know how to be assertive, unlike the independent career woman, so if she's strong-willed she just comes off as “shrill” and “shrewish.” If she's not, but doesn't succeed in pretending to be nice, either, then she's manipulative and passive-aggressive.

Either way, she's a “bitch,” as Flynn's screenplay insistently reiterates in Gone Girl. It's not really all wives that we hate, though. It's the privileged woman who is the “princess” that parents are supposed to raise and men are supposed to desire, but whom, at the same time, we consider a waste of space. Hence the anger and resentment toward Girls, and the use of that character in Orange is the New Black, where she's still hated but the show more obviously examines her privilege.

The banality of the Hitchcock blonde that is not captured by the character of Catherine in Basic Instinct, who owes a lot to her but also to the femme fatale of film noir. Originally representing nothing more than Hitchcock's own sexual fetish, the Hitchcock blonde was a reserved, ladylike, empty-headed socialite, ideally realized by Grace Kelly in Rear Window and Tippi Hedren in The Birds. Vertigo got meta about the Hitchcock blonde, who's shown to be nothing more than a fiction, while Jimmy Stewart victimizes a real woman due to his obsession with the fiction. Psycho made the Hitchcock blonde (downsized to an outwardly demure secretary) the victim of a serial killer, and in doing so spawned the slasher genre.

Sometimes a victim, the Hitchcock blonde becomes a victimizer as well in Marnie (1964), in which Tippi Hedren's heroine is a psychologically damaged frigid woman who serially exploits men by robbing the places where she works as a secretary. Sean Connery's Mark becomes obsessed with her apparently due to her exploitation of him, offers her marriage or jail, and rapes her on their honeymoon. He also helps her to discover the roots of her trauma and deal with some Mommy issues. At the end of the movie she reiterates her choice of him over jail, but still does not seem overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the marriage.

In Repulsion (1966), Roman Polanski wedded blonde, frigid Marnie to Norman Bates in the person of Catherine Deneuve's heroine, who has a psychotic break when her sister goes on vacation and leaves her alone in their apartment, alternating between murdering men she deems sexually threatening and fantasizing about sexual violation. Deneuve is repelled by men and sex because of the cultural script that requires women to be innocent, which is the same reason she can only imagine sex as men forcing themselves on her against her will. Her murders of the men are treated as black comedy: one is a lecherous landlord who thinks he's found an easy victim, the other a monologuing boyfriend who's so oblivious to her reality as a person that he doesn't even realize she's completely insane. Likewise, Marnie's thefts, as we see in the case of Strutt, a portly businessman in his 50s, are clearly depicted as evening the score not only for her bosses' objectification of her but also for their greater socioeconomic power.

Unlike Marnie, who's from the lowest socioeconomic stratum and who, as a single woman in the 1960s, must struggle to get by as a secretary, Amy in Gone Girl doesn't just look and act like the WASP dream girl: she's the real thing, Harvard-educated, with a trust fund. Like Marnie, she's the archetype of the woman-as-actress, lacking any fixed identity or sense of self. Marnie changes her hair colour and name as she goes from job to job; in one shot we see that she keeps her different identity cards behind her compact mirror. But she's no mastermind manipulator of appearances like Amy.

As many critics have noted, Gone Girl is all about Amy's relationship to roles and narratives. Her parents let her know that she was supposed to be perfect by writing a better version of her in their Amazing Amy children's stories, while the world didn't know that she couldn't live up to her fictional self. In her Vertigo-like midway point voice-over monologue, we learn that she pretended to be a certain kind of woman for her husband so that he'd love her; we know that she felt he cast her in the nagging wife role after they lost their money in the recession and he lost the will to make an effort. By staging her husband's murder of her, she invents another, better Amy. Missing Amy, the victimized woman, like Amazing Amy, the perfect woman, has great popular appeal: they are both things that women are supposed to be.

Going into hiding, Amy dresses in a slovenly manner and pretends to be poor. She's not as good at that role, and her companions see through her act. The Hitchcock blonde can be a working-class woman pretending to be upper class, but it doesn't work as well the other way around. After she's robbed, she has to take refuge with her first great love, who's still writing her, and who she claims has stalked her in the past. In another Vertigo reference (thematic this time instead of structural), he continually, unsubtly prods her to get to work on herself so that she'll look like the woman he remembers – “like yourself,” he tells her. He has an idea of who she really is or ought to be, just like her parents did and her husband does. She may think she's her “real self” now: no makeup, with weight put on from the snacks she's been gorging on since leaving her husband and becoming “dead.” But that, too, is just another woman written about in a faux-empowerment magazine article, a Bridget Jones idea of “real womanhood.”

Gone Girl is so postmodern that it's hard to know when its satire is supposed to be directed at the news media, when it's supposed to be directed at movie narratives, and when it's aimed at our actual relationships. Is Gone Girl about the narrative device of the murdered woman, as Todd VanDerWerff suggests when he says that the movie “takes a character who would just be a corpse in so many other stories and turns the entire movie over to her” – the Marion Crane or Laura Palmer? Instead of presenting us with a corpse wrapped in plastic around whose absence the narrative turns, or killing the heroine part of the way through the movie, Fincher and Flynn let the corpse speak and act.

What's fascinating, however, is that at first all Amy can foresee for herself is turning herself into that corpse. She briefly imagines her corpse floating under the water, which reminded me of that greatest of all movie images of an aestheticized dead woman, after Shelley Winters, responding rapturously to her preacher husband's patriarchal misogyny, takes the submissiveness of the Christian wife to its logical extreme by pretty much acquiescing in her husband's (eroticized) murder of her.

For a moment, Amy is confused about whether she wants to be part of the “gone girl” narrative or to manipulate it for her own ends. Although she chooses the latter course, her masochistic streak does not go away, whether she's hitting herself in the eye with a hammer to look like a battered woman or penetrating herself with a champagne bottle to fake her rape. Like Marnie and Repulsion, Gone Girl juxtaposes the ideas of woman as victim and woman as victimizer. Amy is as fascinated by the idea of her victimhood as anyone else.

In one of the most extraordinary scenes, Amy learns that her ex is monitoring her every movement using the security cameras at his lake house. If this is a metaphor for filmmaking, Amy is both star and director; I also like it as a metaphor for the scrutiny under which women exist turning into megalomania. There's a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street (a movie I loved) that seems to be a direct allusion to Basic Instinct, in which Leonardo DiCaprio's trophy wife tries to punish him for already cheating on her by denying him sex and parting her legs to show him what he's missing. We then learn that he's had the upper hand all along when he reveals that she's exposed herself to a hidden security camera – and the security guy watching the screen. It's a curious and uncomfortable little scene that made me ponder double standards. Was what he did to her a sexual violation? If a man were to accidentally expose himself, the audience would surely just find it funny – as DiCaprio apparently finds his prank on his wife. If a man were to accidentally expose himself to a member of the opposite sex, we'd probably think it was a violation of her faster than we thought it was a violation of him. Our views of female sexuality are often still shrouded in an unexamined Victorianism, which feminist discourse too often reinforces.

What Amy does is – of course – immediately size up how she can gain the upper hand on her creepy ex by faking her rape for the cameras. She gets power not by using her sexuality – which, as the Wolf of Wall Street scene shows, and as we saw in the recent furor over the online theft and distribution of female celebrities' nude photos, is also a source of vulnerability for women. Instead, she understands that her vulnerability is her greatest source of power, because the world just can't get enough victimized women. We construct lurid cultural narratives in which women, because they're vulnerable, are victims, and, because they're victims, are pure. To be a gone girl is to give everyone what they want. As your husband's murder victim, you will finally achieve perfection, the narcissistic goal toward which middle-class, high-achieving girls are prodded.

Gone Girl wears its influences (discussed by Flynn in interviews) on its sleeve: I caught the reference to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (also alluded to in another strange and dark recent film about marriage, The One I Love) and saw the influence of Notes on a Scandal and the tonal nod of the ending to Rosemary's Baby (as in The One I Love). In Richard Eyre's film version of Notes on a Scandal, Cate Blanchett's WASP wife and mother is manipulated by Judi Dench's psychopath, who has contempt for her and her banal life but also desires her. In Gone Girl, it's the wife who's the psychopath and who has contempt for the women who are actually the way she's supposed to be. Fine as long as she's part of a New York City power couple, she's too sophisticated for the small-town wife role when they move to Missouri, yet her problem doesn't seem to be the Hedda Gabler one of ennui.

The fact that she goes psycho on her husband's ass when she discovers that he's having an affair with a younger woman doesn't make a lot of sense, either. Traditionally we have given our sympathy to women whose husbands throw them over because they are economically dependent on the men and devoted many years of their lives to raising children. But Amy has no children, she's only been married for five years, and she owns the bar that her husband runs. Contra VanDerWerff, there's no reason we should give any greater sympathy to her decision to get revenge on her husband than we would to a male character's decision to get revenge on his wife for cheating on him – which I'm pretty sure we would consider a misogynous impulse originating in a desire to control female sexuality.

But of course no man would choose this way to get revenge. Okay – no woman would either. But no man could get revenge this way if he did choose to. The Gothic plot of the misogynous bastard who disposes of his wife after he's found a younger woman is a narrative to which our culture subscribes, although admittedly I think it's one that we find in movies and books more often than in news stories. But even in a movie, we'd never buy a man framing his wife for murdering him. Well, unless she's Courtney Love.

My point is that it's not about getting revenge on your husband for cheating and symbolically on all men for their cheating ways. Richard Brody mentions Medea in his review, but although Medea's punishment of Jason far outweighs the crime, a savage retribution (by an actual witch) for all of the wrongs men had done to women up to that point in history, the fact is that Jason has done some serious dirt to his wife. By agreeing to help Jason out of love for him, Medea gave up her family, her homeland, and her status as a priestess. Jason agreed to take her home with him and marry her in return for her help, without which he could never have acquired the Golden Fleece. He has children with her, but then agrees to a political marriage to another woman, leaving Medea, a “barbarian,” without any status at all. The moral of this story is: don't promise to marry a priestess of Hecate to get what you want and then piss her off.

Amy is no Medea, made desperate by a man. Furthermore, if she's angry enough at her husband for cheating on her to murder him, why doesn't she go ahead and do it herself? Women attacking or killing their unfaithful husbands isn't unheard of. It's less that Amy has to fake her murder to get revenge on her husband than that she uses the excuse of her failed marriage to arrange her disappearance and fictional death. Amy, I would contend, has always wanted to be a gone girl; she has always been tempted by the desire to disappear. Disappearing is the ultimate act of exhibitionism.

A Real Gone Girl: Francesca Woodman

And no one knew this better than Francesca Woodman, the precociously talented photographer who took her own life when she was 22 years old. Woodman's work is indescribable if you haven't seen it (which fortunately you easily can, because internet): unique, haunting, theatrical, disturbing, sensual, irreducibly strange. She usually used herself as her subject, sometimes nude.

Woodman's photographs often show her disappearing into her environment – often a decaying house, sometimes the outdoors. (The haunted house as a metaphor for a woman's body, as in Kate Bush's “Get Out of My House.”) She camouflages herself, for instance by pulling wallpaper over her nude body, but the act of concealment makes her extremely conspicuous, although it's impossible to know whether that effect is intentional. It almost seems as though it must be in photos like the one where she's “hiding” behind a mantel that has seemingly become detached from a bricked-up fireplace, looking less like she's becoming part of the architecture than that she's the mantel come to life, or a genius loci. Her photographs visualize Keats's notion of the identity-less poet who wants to know what it “feels” like to be not only other people but even inanimate objects.

In my favourite of the photos I've seen online, called It Must Be Time For Lunch Now, Woodman's blurry, androgynous face (her flowing, Victorian hair, an important feature of many other photos, is in shadow) floats into view under a windowsill and a piece of cloth. There are utensils on the windowsill, and what seem to be painted utensils on the cloth, and a fork rests on the upturned palm of Woodman's hand, as though she and the cloth and the windowsill are imitating a table. But why – any of it? Windowsill imitates table, cloth imitates windowsill imitating table, Woodman imitates cloth imitating windowsill. Her face is unsettling, animation in the midst of the inanimate, as if your lunch looked back at you, or as if she waited there forever, calm and serene, for you to discover her and be startled out of your wits. She offers herself up for consumption, everything turns into and pretends to be everything else, and she is a liminal being, a creature of thresholds.

Sometimes the photo doesn't seem to record much more than the simultaneous, contradictory impulses of concealment and exhibitionism, as in one photo where she crouches in front of a wall and puts a hand over the lower part of her face, covering most of her mouth, while using the other to raise her shirt, revealing some skin and a bit of a breast. Sometimes she used long exposures to show her in the process of disappearing, her presence in the photo speaking of her absence. In a series called “Angels,” she leaps around in a white Victorian-looking costume in what looks like a warehouse, with a large, theatrical-looking pair of wings looming over the scene, or simply hangs from a doorway, from her hands, with her face concealed. In one photo she lies limply on the ground, off to the side of the frame, vulnerable to attack or perhaps already dead. A small snake (responsible for her condition, like Blake's invisible worm?) slithers over her arm, incongruous against the elaborately patterned carpet and given that Woodman is wearing a party dress.

About the only thing that's clear from her photographs is that Woodman obsessively imagined, staged, and rehearsed her death, or disappearance, or transfiguration, for years before she committed suicide. She was also, more broadly, obsessed with herself, her body, and her sexuality. Like other female photographers and filmmakers who have taken themselves as subjects (e.g. Maya Deren and Chantal Akerman), she has been accused of narcissism. I don't see why anyone should feel the need to defend Woodman against that charge, since narcissism is as likely a basis for great art as anything else. We should recall, however, that since men have made women such an important subject of Western visual art, it's hardly surprising that some women, when they enter that tradition, should take up that subject, using themselves and viewing themselves as object and Other. Male artists are often autobiographical to the point of narcissism, but they do not typically consider or present themselves as sex objects or play dress-up to explore alternative identities. Robert Mapplethorpe springs to mind as an exception, and I imagine his homosexuality had something to do with his willingness to see himself as “feminine,” and therefore objectified.

The Woodmans is C. Scott Willis's 2010 documentary about the impact this gone girl's absence continues to have on her family – her parents and brother, all artists. Her father was a high WASP, her mother of Eastern European Jewish extraction. They came together over their devotion to art and are obviously still extremely close. One gets the feeling of a close-knit family full of intense, brilliant personalities, like the Jameses, say; a family where ambition developed early and from which one might never entirely escape, psychologically, because the rest of the world is fatally less interesting. A family where one's parents were at least as interested in each other and in their work as they were in you – unless you could prove yourself brilliant too.

The father seems more emotional, more vulnerable, and more taken with his lost daughter, whose “sparkle” he describes. The mother gives off a whiff of harshness, reserve, rejection; probably just a different personality type, trying, with the best intentions, to correct for Daddy's besotted indulgence of their weird, charismatic daughter, although ultimately she is just as in awe of the girl. After Francesca killed herself, her father imploded much more obviously than her mother did. Later he switched from painting to photography, using a style whose resemblance to his late daughter's is even more marked than he seems to know. It's as if he's trying to understand Francesca and to keep her with him even as he acknowledges her far greater ability; as if she has possessed her father, the weaker artist and personality.

More than one blogger has speculated that Francesca Woodman was the victim of sexual abuse. It's sheer speculation; when it occurred to me, from hearing about her suicide and contemplating her imagery and themes, I googled it and found no corroboration, only blogging. It would conveniently account not only for her suicide and many aspects of her imagery, but also for the teenage promiscuity mentioned in the documentary. However, we have no way of knowing. Without that speculation, we have the story of a young woman who developed early, sexually and artistically; who took her sexuality as one of the main subjects of her art; a young woman whose intensity and fragility are obvious in her art; and who killed herself when she was barely out of her teens because a relationship ended and her career was not advancing as quickly as she wanted it to.

The Francesca Woodman whose oddities are not explained by something a man did to her is a total mystery in every aspect. How could someone have developed their own, wholly original, artistic language and be so single-mindedly committed to their vision at such an early age? Why was this artist's dream life dominated by the idea of her own disappearance – as well as her appearance? Why would she need recognition so fast – as if her premature artistic development was something she'd brought on through impatience?

Victim and Victimizer: Vivian Maier

Speculation about abuse also comes up in the course of the documentary about Vivian Maier, a “spinster” nanny who obsessively took photographs but seems to have never seriously tried to get attention for them, and who is now seemingly in the process of slowly becoming part of the canon of 20th century street photographers. Abuse is called upon to account for Maier's solitariness, as well as the expressions of disgust with male sexuality recalled by her former charges. We do know, from one of those former charges, that Maier herself had a terrible temper and could be physically abusive.

In a piece on the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, in the New Yorker, Rose Lichter-Marck argues that iconoclastic “difficult women” are treated by biographers as “problems that need solving,” writing, “The unconventional choices of women are explained in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference.” It's true that unconventional people are often treated this way, but men are hardly exempt. Writing about biographies of Joseph Cornell and Samuel Steward, I noted that the sexuality of each man was pathologized by their biographers (a woman, in Cornell's case) for opposite reasons: Steward was too sexual, while Cornell wasn't sexual enough. Reactions to Woodman and Maier can be divided along these same lines, although there is one gendered difference: when a woman is a sexual outlier, we assume she was made that way by a man, whereas when a man is a sexual outlier, we at least grant him the dignity of getting that way himself. (Well, maybe with a little help from mom.)

Joseph Cornell seems like the closest temperamental parallel to Maier among well-known 20th century artists. Cornell never married and had no relationships until late in life. He worked at low-paying jobs for most of his life and lived at home with his mother and his brother, who had cerebral palsy and whom Cornell helped care for. He was a self-taught artist who made only a small effort to be part of the art world, but by the end of his life he had developed a reputation. Like Maier, he was a hoarder, although he used his hoarded magazines and junk to create his collages, shadowboxes, and experimental films.

Cornell and Maier are the artist as intensely private ascetic with a vivid mental life that occupies them to the exclusion of relationships. The opposite of Woodman in this regard as well, Maier continued to make art prolifically throughout a long life despite having no recognition at all; what makes her as much of an enigma as Woodman is the fact that she seemingly never attempted to make herself known as an artist. Her activity wasn't even known to her family and friends, because she had no close friends and the last of her family was in Europe. She didn't hide the fact that she obsessively took photos, but she didn't show those photos to her few friends and family members, or discuss her intentions with them. In fact she was more interested in taking the photos than in even developing them and looking at them herself.

Even if simply the fantasy of being an artist was enough to keep her going all those years, what did she think about her life's work towards the end? (And what do I mean, “the fantasy of being an artist”? Are you not an artist if no one sees the art you make?) Was she too poor and senile to reflect on it? Did she hope that somehow her work would be discovered rather than discarded after she was gone? But how could she have anticipated what happened – or how the internet would make her instantly famous, without waiting for the slow process of canonization?

To me it's important to look at the lives and think about personalities of artists like Cornell, Woodman, and Maier, and colourful minor historical figures like Steward, who show us very different ways in which people can live their lives than the narrow choices we're presented with in the media, as well as in the more familiar narratives of the lives of artists who were famous in their lifetimes. It's not that any of these people were content; on the contrary, they all seem to have been demon-haunted. But is contentment the most important thing in life? Or is it more important to have the courage, or foolishness, to live the way you want to live, unhaunted by conventional notions of importance and success? 

What Lichter-Marck says of Maier is equally true of Cornell and Steward: “To suggest that her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain. But this shoehorns her into the very conventions of capitalism and bourgeois values that she eschewed so aggressively.” That also goes for assuming that Cornell and Steward chose the lives they did because they were damaged somehow – Cornell, his biographer speculates, by repressed homosexuality; the extremely unrepressed Steward by societal disapprobation of his homosexuality.

Maier and Woodman are two very different kinds of gone girl. Maier was invisible in plain sight, not considered an artist by anyone despite her constant picture-taking because of her low economic status. She spent her life as a servant, the favourite persona of Robert Walser, a writer so consumed with the idea of disappearing that he was only able to trick himself into writing by writing in microscript. Woodman's art revolved around making her proleptic absence visible and dramatizing her relationship to visibility.

How To Be a Gone Girl

Just because Gone Girl has gender on its mind doesn't mean it has anything coherent to say about it. As I already indicated, if this is a blackly comic feminist revenge-on-men movie in a fine tradition that stretches from Medea in the 5th century BCE to Hedda Gabler at the end of the 19th century, and in the film era includes Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (Medea as a screwball comedy), Repulsion, and Basic Instinct, Amy's angst lacks what T. S. Eliot called, critiquing Hamlet, an “objective correlative.” There is no real difference in power between her and her husband. If anything, the balance is in her favour. 

This gap between Amy's situation and her actions has allowed critics to read into the film what they will, depending on how they feel about such loaded things as marriage and gender. In the New Yorker piece “Marriage Is an Abduction,” Elif Batuman argues that the film is about the tragedy of still raising women to think that marriage and motherhood will be the most important events in their lives even when those women are well-educated and have career aspirations. When that happens, says Batuman, marriage – and men – are sure to disappoint. Again – is finding out that your husband has been socially constructed to be a useless slob (which you could have learned from watching The Simpsons) enough of a reason to frame him for your murder?

I also think it's a mistake to simply say that this is a movie about women's victimhood when it goes out of its way to call that notion into question. Batuman has to really fudge facts to fit Amy into the victim role, claiming of her bizarre masochistic tendencies that she “doesn't invent abuse so much as anticipate it,” and recounting the plot like so: “At one point she hits herself in the face [actually, she takes a hammer to her eye!], to look like a battered wife – and a few scenes later a couple gangs up on her, beats her, flings her onto a motel bed, and steals the money she wears under her dress, leaving her howling into a pillow.” Actually, it's made pointedly explicit that the woman has orchestrated the robbery (she tells Amy so), and it's also the woman who beats her, smashing her head into the wall, apparently in retribution for her faked abuse (she declares, “I bet you've never really been hit”).

It's true that despite mocking the Gothic narrative of the murdered wife, the movie seems to partake of the Gothic genre itself. The world is portrayed as an extremely dangerous place for women – at least for pampered middle-class women who can't avail themselves of their socioeconomic power because they're hiding out in grubby motels. After being exploited by the robbers, she's forced to turn to the only person in the world who'll always help her – her stalker ex-boyfriend. And that, of course, turns out to be another situation of peril, as he makes it clear that he intends to keep her a prisoner and badger her into sex (and working out and wearing makeup). (Are Neil Patrick Harris's Scottie Fergusonesque demands parallel to the bit of effort to be a better person that Amy demands of her husband?) The logic of the movie is not that she anticipates abuse, rather than inventing it, but that she can only get out of situations of victimization by staging a much more elaborate, camera-friendly victimization.

What is a gone girl? There's the wife of Gothic fiction, shoved into an attic so her husband can marry someone less “difficult” or murdered for her fortune. Sometimes – or okay, just in Lolita – the less difficult “woman” is her own pubescent daughter. There's the dead, blonde, victimized woman, whose death perfects her “feminine” passivity, beauty, and purity. Vertigo is the ultimate meta-examination of the “falling in love with a dead woman” plot. Laura Palmer was an updating with more of a sleazy, ripped-from-the-tabloids vibe: the universally beloved homecoming queen who was secretly a bad girl because of even-more-secret abuse.

Layered on top of these tropes is feminism's idea of the silenced woman, which we (ironically) hear a lot about: the women whose voices were removed from history, and still aren't fully represented in public life; the women who are apparently afraid to speak up in class (my professors had to actually tell me to stop talking so that someone else could have a chance, but anyway); the women whom men interrupt or talk over all the time (apparently, again); whose online harassment is not like men's online harassment, because it represents a concerted effort by men to force women offline so that they can no longer air their opinions. Mingled with those ideas is, again, the notion of abuse: of the abuse victim who is afraid to speak out, who has been peremptorily silenced by the patriarchy. Surprisingly, it's a trope that predates second-wave feminism, present in the 1942 melodrama Kings Row. Maybe the ur-example is the fate of Philomela, although to call Philomela a "silenced woman" is to forget that she finds a way to speak out even after her rapist cuts out her tongue.

Just as there are many sources of the gone girl, there are many reasons to long to be one. Internalized misogyny combined with received notions of femininity are a great recipe for masochism; add to that an ambivalent attitude toward being looked at, which is the surest source of your power and also a huge source of vulnerability. You want to be looked at and know that the surest way to get people to pay attention to you is to act the part of a victim, so you perform your masochism (and may even observe your own victimhood with the excitement of an onlooker). It all makes sense in the feminine id, which is on fascinating display in Woodman's photographs – and in Fincher and Flynn's Gone Girl

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why You Can Never Go Back to the Future: Time Travel Logic and Narrative Perspective

Note: This essay was written for the Facebook page of Another Kind of Distance, my time travel podcast with David Fiore. If you want to quibble with our theories or interpretations or offer completely different ones of your own, please comment there or contact us at Our Back to the Future series episode isn't up yet, but this essay may help you get your bearings in our Timecrimes/Primer episode.

EDIT: the epic 3-hour podcast stroll through the BTTF trilogy is now available

I bet when you were ten or eleven or in your early teens, or however old you were when you first saw the Back to the Future series, you followed the movies without any problem and didn't find anything confusing or problematic about the way they handled time travel. That's in stark contrast to Primer, where the time travel is probably internally consistent but the narrative is hellishly confusing. But if you actually lay out the time travel plot in the BTTF series, suddenly it starts sounding just as complicated as the time travel in Primer. And when you then try to figure out how

Ever since Episode 6, The Elements of Time Travel, I've been developing a theory of how narrative perspective relates to the time travel genres that Dave is fond of referring to, and how it can either fix or fuck a time travel narrative. So buckle your seat belts and prepare for a front-seat roller-coaster ride as I describe the time travel plot of the BTTF series; what's wrong with it and how it ought to work (according to how your hosts currently understand time travel narratives); and how thinking about narrative perspective can help make everything clearer.

But only after things get really confusing first. Obviously – spoilers, right?

The Time Travel Plot of Back to the Future

Marty goes back in time and alters the past, creating a Fixed (as in “corrected”) Future.

Marty, Doc, and Jennifer go to the future from the Fixed Future. Future!Future!Biff uses the machine to go back in time, altering the past and therefore changing the future. Then he comes back – although weirdly, nothing has changed yet. There's some kind of delay between changing the past and the changes taking effect?

The original three time travellers go back and find the changed world. Marty and Doc go back in time again, leaving Jennifer in the Alternate Future. They end up in the most recently created past, the one that causes the Fixed Future. Except that F!F!Biff has already been to this past, because it's the past of the timeline that he comes from. (The post-time travel timeline, that is, at the end of the first movie, which goes: Altered Past, Fixed Future, Future Future.) So it's not the Original Altered Past, which we saw in the first movie, but rather the Alternate Future Past, which is the same as the OAP, but with F!F!Biff in it.

Marty intervenes and gets the almanac from F!F!Biff, thereby preventing the Alternate Future. However, when the Doc goes back to what is now again the Fixed Future, he leaves Marty stranded in the altered Alternate Future Past. We are given to understand that the Doc ends up in the Wild West and leaves a letter to be delivered to Marty right after he disappears.

Marty (actually Marty 2) enlists the help of 1955!Doc (who just sent Marty 1 back to the future) to send him to where 1985!Doc is, in the Wild West. Stuff happens in the Wild West with no relevance to time travel, and Marty 2 makes it back to Fixed Future, where he finds Jennifer on the porch where he left her in Alternate Future. Does that seem wrong? Hold that thought.

The timeline is now: Altered Past with Doubly!Thwarted!Biff, Fixed Future – and Future Future. Jennifer has a document from Future Future showing the bad things that we know will happen to Marty as the result of a character flaw. However, based on his experience in the Wild West, he's able to overcome that flaw – and the document changes (in accordance with the rules of this movie). So the final timeline is: Altered Past with Doubly!Thwarted!Biff, Fixed Future, and Fixed Future Future.

Here Come the Problems

How can Future!Future!Biff travel to 1955 then back to the Future Future? In perfectly consistent time travel, from the perspective of Marty and Doc, Biff would disappear forever from their timeline when he went back to 1955 – and they'd also be stranded in the Future Future, because he would have the machine. If we followed Biff's perspective, on the other hand, he would travel back to an Alternate Future Future that follows from the alternate 1985 we saw. And once he's created the Alternate Future,
Marty 1 doesn't time travel in the first place (1985!Doc of this timeline is in an insane asylum), so no Biff would have any reason to worry about Marty 2 coming after him: Marty 2 doesn't exist in this universe.

Imagine, on the other hand, that the Doc builds another time machine so they can go back to 1955 and stop Biff from giving himself the almanac. Now, that doesn't make sense, does it? As soon as Biff has time travelled, he's given himself the almanac: there's no time delay. They should now be in an alternate reality. Except in an alternate reality, they'd be different people or may not even exist. By the movies' logic, maybe their bodies would start disappearing and text would start altering around them.
By strict multiple-timelines logic, on the other hand – F!F!Biff has started his own AU and disappeared permanently from theirs. When they get in the new time machine and go back to 1985, then, it will still be the Fixed Future.

As long as we follow the perspective of one time traveller (or more if they use the same machine at the same time), everything works. When Marty 2 returns to 1985 from his original trip to 1955, he's actually in a new timeline to which he's not native – Marty 1 is. So if he intervened and somehow stopped Marty 1 from going into the past – there would now be two of them in this new timeline. This is the problem faced by the protagonist and the scientist in Timecrimes. Or they think it is – although since that's a loop movie, everything is foreordained anyway. Whereas the problem when Marty 2 watches AU!Marty 1 get into the time machine and go back to 1955 is that BTTF briefly thinks it's a loop movie. In fact, even if this universe's Marty 1 somehow did go back in time at the same moment, in the same way – he would not have been motivated to fix things in 1955, because he already grew up with the fixed family. Which is fine, because he didn't fix his family – Marty 2 did.

Remember: one perspective=one timeline. Marty grew up with the original family. Marty travels into the past – where he meets earlier new-timeline versions of that family that are identical to the original-timeline versions – unless he changes things. Marty (the same Marty, the one we're following!) then goes into the future, where he meets identical new-timeline versions of the family he's altered. If they have a son, and that son is “him,” that son grew up with them, not the original timeline family.

The perspective problem is illustrated again by the events at the end of BTTF 2. When Doc is zapped back to 1885, from his perspective, he arrives in the Wild West, prepares the letter for Marty, and dies. You could film this as consistent time travel by showing him arriving in 1885, then doing a “70 Years Later” ellipsis, where we see Marty watching him disappear and then getting the letter a moment later. Of course that would ruin the pretty awesome timey-wimey, mindy-bendy surprise of how Marty gets the letter, which depends on being limited to his perspective. But the fact is that perspective interruptus occurs throughout the movie. 

Perspective and the Two Kinds of Time Travel

In alternate-universe/multiple-timeline time travel, your time-travel is paradox-free because every act of time travel creates a new timeline. That timeline is identical to the one you just left – until you change something. So, at 40 you could travel back to when you're 20 years old. If you never do anything to affect the life of Me 1, Me 1 will grow up to be you and “become” you by time travelling – but “you” in a different timeline. If, on the other hand, you give yourself some stock market tips and then travel back to the future, there will be two versions of you: Me 1, who is rich, and you.

The only thing that's consistent in all of this is you. You keep creating different timelines, and everyone around you is from these alternate timelines, but you are the same self, from the original timeline. Movies start running into trouble with this when there are multiple time travellers and the filmmakers think they can adopt the multiple-character/omniscient perspective of an ordinary movie.

Because multiple-timeline time travel gets enormously confusing, and movies seem to have a haphazard approach to it, I don't think we've seen any clean, consistent example of it, although both Butterfly Effect and the BTTF movies partake of it. Primer might be the cleanest example we've seen, although that didn't make it any clearer.

In “loop”/single-timeline time travel (major examples we've seen: Somewhere in Time, Time Traveller's Wife, Timecrimes), your time travel is paradox-free because everything has already happened the same way. For this, see Time Traveler's Wife and Timecrimes. If at 40 you visit your 20-year-old self, you already have a memory of that visit from the 20-year-old self's perspective. You can't visit your past self bringing new information, because the visit already occurred and you already have all of the information from it.

Although in this type of time travel you have memories of your visits from the earlier self's perspective, what you don't have are memories of people whom you will encounter in your future and their past – when in the future you travel into the past and meet them for the first time from their perspective. They remember your future; and when you do travel back in time, you experience their past.

Initially I found this kind of time travel hardest to understand, but once you get it, it's actually much easier than figuring out all of the permutations of multiple-perspective time travel – especially when you add separate acts of time travel by different people. Since I'm one who prefers clear, uncluttered storytelling so that the viewer can focus on the interesting stuff, like the characters and issues, rather than the plot (or, alternatively, no plot at all, as in late Lynch), I think the storytelling challenge is to keep the possibilities under strict control. Which is easiest when you stick to a single perspective, as our own David Fiore does in his soon-to-be-published Hypocritic Days....

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Partially Examined Life (As A Perplexed English Student), Part 2

Part 1 on this topic was one of those things where I didn't figure out what my subject was until I had finished writing the post (and didn't want to rewrite it to incorporate the new ideas). (That's what Part 2s are for.)

In Part 1 I outlined several threats to traditional (humanistic) literary studies, both within literary studies and external: postmodernism, pop culture, new media, cultural/media/communications studies, and the scientific and capitalist values of our culture. I gave Northrop Frye's idea of making literary criticism into a human science as one alternative to both traditional humanism and postmodern theory.

Frye wanted to get away from the kind of fuzzy-wuzzy, willy-nilly teaching of literature that was making his discipline a laughingstock in our new science-oriented culture. But unlike the postmodernists, Frye (writing in 1957, just before the mass media explosion) assumed that no matter how we studied it, what we would be studying was the literary canon.

There is, however, nothing intrinsic to his vision of the science of criticism that entails that you have to study masterpieces – or, for that matter, in most cases, that you have to study literature, since many of the generic elements Frye identifies are found in all narrative arts (as anyone user of TV Tropes knows). We could agree to study the canon because it's convenient, but then there'd be no obvious reason ever to allow a new work into it, because ancient literature plus five or six centuries of modern literature surely gives us enough to work on.

So we'd have to add to Frye that we are not only studying the masterpieces of literature to give us a theory of criticism; we are also developing a theory of criticism in order to be able to better understand the masterpieces of literature. With that proviso, a science of literary criticism could very well provide a compromise between the humanists and the theorists. It would not, however, look anything like the traditional humanist study of literature, and there remains no obvious link between the lover of literature, or man/woman of taste (to use Frye's terminology), and the scientific critic. That is, it's not obvious why the man/woman of taste would want to do what the scientific critic does; or, if they do (as I do), whether there's any connection between the two things.

The music student doesn't complain that “The point is that this music is so beautiful and moving! Why do I have to study this theory junk? Why can't we just study the music itself?” Although a music lover, the music student realizes that she will understand music, and be able to appreciate it more, when she understands music theory. Should literary studies move in this direction? Or is there something to be said for its remarkable resistance to being turned into a science?

The Books Themselves

Perhaps the notorious weakness of literary studies as a university subject is also, from another perspective, its greatest strength. While most of the humanities are in fact human sciences, and 20th century Anglo-American philosophy has aped math and science, and the historical method follows scientific principles in its treatment of evidence – then there's English, where the true humanists go to weep and wail (myself included), “Why are we talking about Derrida, or Lyotard, or Girard, or Insert French Guy's Name Here? When are we going to talk about the books themselves?”

Of course, as we saw in Part 1, it's not possible to talk about The Books Themselves. We can talk about their form (language, structure, imagery), their content (psychological, social, philosophical), their historical context, their sociological interest. We can also talk about the ideas of various theorists. None of this, however, makes up a systematic study of literature. Humanist professors are the most mute of all. In the classroom, their enthusiasm for their subject is infectious; they can inspire students to also become people of taste. Their teaching is creative in nature: they observe closely, make inspired connections, stimulate students' thought. They do not, however, teach students about anything, as though there were a body of knowledge at issue, or how to do anything. Whereas history or philosophy students learn both: they learn information or ideas, and they learn how to practice history or philosophy.

Reading a work of literature is an experience, like listening to a piece of music: neither, in themselves, involve learning anything. Yet we get confused about this when it comes to literature, because, as Frye points out, we have such trouble distinguishing between literary and non-literary uses of language.

Based on what I've written, there are only so many outcomes possible for literary studies:

Humanism wins

By far the least likely. In this scenario, science relinquishes its hubris and we realize that humanism and science are two distinct and complementary orientations towards the world, each with its areas of strength. Science is great at getting things done, but the humanities help us to understand certain things in a different and more satisfying way that can never be replaced, let alone improved upon, by science. Literary studies ought to be allowed to be what it is and to be taught non-systematically; the emphasis should be on teaching, not research; and the teaching, like any research that is done, should be directed towards facilitating the student's encounter with the text. The teacher (like Frye's public critic, which he or she may also be) will model the man or woman of taste for the student. The student will continue to muddle along, guided only by his or her native intelligence.

It still leaves the problem that students will be faced with a canon made up of almost entirely of white men. There's not much we can do except teach the problem. As Graff points out in Professing Literature, criticism of humanism is a humanistic enterprise, which is probably just as much of a reason for the flourishing of this criticism in literary studies as the subject-vacuum of which Frye complains. Never was the glory of the Western tradition more trumpeted than by literary humanists, and so never would it be more harshly criticized than in literary studies.

Cultural studies wins

This is what Harold Bloom predicted, predictably gloomily, in either The Western Canon or that Shakespeare book, I can't remember which: English departments would become what classical studies departments are now, tiny and irrelevant; the study of literature would become an antiquarian enterprise; and cultural studies would take its place, with the unruly mob studying TV shows, comic books, maybe even movies, and other unspeakable trash guaranteed to send a shudder down the Bardolator's spine.

For a while I thought it might happen, too, and couldn't quite decide whether it was an apocalypse of the human spirit or the natural order of things (or both). But let's face it, from the perspective of capitalism, cultural studies and literary studies are equally useless.

We teach the controversy

That's Graff's suggestion with regard to the eternal battle between humanists and theorists. Sort of a “let the students decide” solution. Certainly postmodernism is a tendency in 20th century thought with a lot to offer, and even students who find themselves falling more on the humanist side would benefit from knowing about the postmodern critique of humanism. However, personally I'd prefer for things to go all the way, one way or the other: I'd like us to choose either a non-scientific humanism (with the postmodern critique incorporated) or a scientific criticism. Or else I'd like to divide literary studies up between them and get a little of the best of both worlds.

Capitalism wins

Currently the most likely scenario. At present the war on the universities, and the humanities in particular, is taking the form of the degradation of undergraduate education by overworking and underpaying part-time professors who have no benefits or job security but do have massive student loans. Support for the arts, education, and arts education has to come from governments committed to not only reflecting but actually creating public interest in the arts, because they give more than zero fucks about their citizens being smart and happy people, that is, flourishing. In North American right now, however, our governments don't seem to give more than zero fucks about anything except big business.

Everybody wins! Yay! 

Sometimes I think that making literary criticism into a human science would be a disaster akin to the rise of analytic philosophy. (It seems to be in absolutely no danger of happening, though. Frye's own delightfully abstruse, esoteric, and eccentric system sure didn't found it.) Yet what draws me to Frye is the tantalizing realization that it's true – we haven't even begun to understand what this extraordinary thing, literature, is. We've barely started asking the questions. It's not work that has anything to do with reading literary masterpieces, necessarily, but it is work that could reasonably be expected to excite someone of a particular character who loves literature.

Rather than giving literary studies a scientific makeover, however, I don't see why we can't admit that the study of literature actually serves many functions. Undergraduates should be exposed to the humanist experience of reading the masterpieces of literature and studying them in non-systematic fashion with enthusiastic teachers. Since it seems to have been left to literary studies to embody humanist values, students should also be taught the controversy within humanism in the 20th century. If students were made to understand how this controversy relates to their subject of study, rather than just having ideas and names thrown at them willy-nilly all the time, it might all fit together a bit better.

Other seemingly useful courses would include hermeneutics (most useful if interdisciplinary) and approaches to criticism from close to reading to deconstruction. Students can't be either responsible or creative interpreters (and we want them to be both) if they lack knowledge of the theory of interpretation and of a range of interpretive practices. Personally I'd also advocate a course (possibly interdisciplinary) on canon formation, to make students aware of the politics, contingencies, and utility of canons, as well as of the fact that they are not formed by universities; that universities are not the only institutions that can lend their authority to them; and that they are always in flux and always contested. (I'm aware, of course, that many of these things are actually happening in various universities, even if not all of them are happening in any one university.)

And then, at higher levels, we can move on to trying to understand literature as a whole. We would still have historical periods as one of the ways in which we divide the labour of literary scholarship, since in order to compare literature across periods we have to rely on the scholars of particular periods and figures. Presumably, some scholars will be drawn to particular periods and some will be drawn to theorizing about the whole. As far as I understand Frye's model, however (and I need to read the Anatomy again), you could easily spend your whole career studying one genre, especially if it's Menippean satire.

Those are the next things on my list: re-read the Anatomy, and finish Professing Literature. Perhaps then I can report back with clearer thoughts. Or – from what I remember of the Anatomy – maybe not.