Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Song for the dumped

At the risk of steering what has so far been a very serious and mostly impersonal blog in an opposite and possibly LiveJournal-ish direction....

It’s been roughly six months since I got dumped. Hard. To express at the turbulent and feverish emotions following the event, I had my own private diary. Having gained a little distance and composure, I think it might be worthwhile here to try and parse the experience as a semiotician might. I’ll enlist the help of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.

I’ve known all along the discourse of love is a selfish one, one spoken by the ego if not the id. I now know this is especially true of the discourse of canceled love, of love wrenched away. It’s been useful of course to survey my turmoil by superimposing upon it the six “stages” of mourning, particularly denial and bargaining. But ultimately what’s at issue is the self, less so the mechanisms it swings into place nonsequentially, gratuitously, and ineffectually. I yearned to come to grips with what happened, but I rarely let a lack of results get in the way of continuous probing.

To understand – is that not to divide the image, to undo the I, proud organ of misapprehension?
Interpretation: no, that is not what your cry means. As a matter of fact, that cry is still a cry of love: “I want to understand myself, to make myself understood, make myself known, be embraced; I want someone to take me with him.” That is what your cry means. (60)
It is shocking and infuriating that a change of circumstances can abolish love. Love, if indeed it was love – shouldn’t it have withstood the change? Isn’t it transcendent? Evidently not.
There exists a “higher value” for me: my love. I never say to myself: “What’s the use?” I am not nihilistic. I do not ask myself the question of ends. Never a “why” in my monotonous discourse, except for one, always the same: But why is it that you don’t love me? How can one not love this me whom love renders perfect (who gives so much, who confers happiness, etc.)? (186)
A hard realization, but still an acceptable one. It allows me to revile myself, but for reasons under my control. It is a personal failing, selfishness, that sustains my agony of separation; not, instead, a deficiency perceived by her. This enables the realization that her motivations are internal as well, selfish also – I don’t enter into her actions; or if I do, it is only as an afterthought.

This too is disheartening, but not insuperable. If, after everything we vowed and demonstrated and shouted from the rooftops (indeed, we often did these things with irony), I suddenly become trivial to her, then to hell with her! [I draw my mouth to a noble frown and angle my chin upward slightly.]

I am caught in a contradiction: on the one hand, I believe I know the other better than anyone and triumphantly assert my knowledge to the other (“I know you – I’m the only one who really knows you!”); and on the other hand, I am often struck by the obvious fact that the other is impenetrable, intractable, not o be found; I cannot open up the other, trace back the other’s origins, solve the riddle. Where does the other come from? Who is the other? I wear myself out, I shall never know. (134)
My estimation of her was off kilter, insufficient, idealized. Now, I do not try to correct the model: I cease to measure: I become stoic. The latest stage is an impasse. Not so many years ago I was a skeptic where love was concerned. Talking Heads’ “More Songs about Buildings and Food” seemed to sum it all up. She negated that for a time; now again the album is upon my turntable.
I-love-you [je-t’-aime] is without nuance. It suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples. In a way – exorbitant paradox of language – to say I-love-you is to proceed as if there were no theater of speech, and this word is always true (has no other referent than its utterance: it is a performative). (148)
A page later Barthes is so bold as to call the utterance “phatic.” Perhaps. It is at any rate dialectic: once she began to hesitate in the performance, I knew something was up. It couldn’t be missed. But then, by that point, what was there to be done?

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The king was in his countinghouse

So recently one of the folks in my Ulysses reading group stumbled across, at Amherst College's Johnson Chapel, a rest room decorated with Joyceana. I took a field trip there this past weekend to investigate. Essentially there are four quotations: the opening and closing lines of Ulysses (3.1-5, 643.1596-1609) and the opening lines of Giacomo Joyce. I've posted more photos on Flickr.

I emailed the Amherst English department to see what I could learn about this wonderful little curiosity. Professor John Cameron replies:

The “grafitti” appeared mysteriously sometime in the 1980s or late 1970s (I’ve forgotten but can look it up). For a long time the mystery of their appearance remained. But someone hinted that the answer could be found in one of the senior class books (for that year which I’ve forgotten). I looked it up and there is a picture of four young women students doing the job. Several of them were students in my Joyce course. I have a Xerox copy of the picture. A few years later someone, still unknown to me then inscribed the excerpt from Derek Walcott. A few times since there have been crude attempts to add comments. We’ve managed to have most of them removed.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Last and First

Not only have I set myself lately to reading from the canon of English literature, I’ve deemed it wise to peruse also some of science fiction’s foundational texts. Yesterday afternoon I finally got to the end of Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon.

A not altogether very enjoyable read, for one very obvious reason: the “novel” has no characters. My dust jacket calls this and its follow up, Star Maker, “the finest future histories ever written.” I suspect, though, that this refers to a very narrow category of future history indeed.

Of “speculative fiction” there is much; but none that encompasses so broad a span of time. In Last and First Men, Stapledon paints in very, very broad strokes 2 billion years of the human comedy, from 1930 up to the twilight of the race. In that time the organism progresses through eighteen distinct permutations, many of them artificially advanced. At the end, humanity’s only hope of leaving a legacy is the ultralongshot chance that deep-space probes filled with primordial (but inherently human) stuff will take root on some distant planet or planets after humankind proper is extinct.

Stapledon himself compares this saga to myth; indeed there is nothing else to compare it to, for nowhere else is so huge a history ever set down. It’s as though Stapledon were a forward-looking Edith Hamilton. He is certainly not of the same category as an H.G. Wells or a Jules Verne.

In his preface, Stapledon formulates – perhaps even better than Chip Delany (who said it best as far as my reading has shown me hitherto) – the importance of science fiction: “Today we should welcome, and even study, every serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarize ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds” (9).

Stapledon of necessity skirts the issue, however, of truly formulating the more developed minds that follow our own. I can’t blame him. Bear in mind: we may represent a three-dimensional object in just two dimensions; but although we might conceive of a fourth dimension, how are we to represent it even using three? The future humans are all oblique. The more advanced, the narrator tells us, operate on planes beyond our grasp; while the more primitive are barely worthy of contemplation. The only “characters” who “speak” in this chronicle are of the First Men – our breed – and even so they are not named or distinguished beyond their role in historical events.

Two billion years. Not as backstory, but as foreground. The only novels that come remotely close, in my experience, are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, both of which deal with well-articulated characters who technology has blessed, or cursed, with tremendous lifespans. (Oh, I guess Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love should be acknowledged here too – though there’s a novel whose boredom quite possibly exceeds that of Last and First Men.)

Stapledon’s premise is that the virtue of speculative fiction (or in his formulation, myth) is that it “expresses richly, and often perhaps tragically, the highest admirations possible within a culture” (9). He does his best at the end to tie it all together into a unified expression. Divergent as are the Second through Eighteenth men from the First, the narrator opines that there is nonetheless something common to them all:
We remember obscurely, and yet with a strange conviction, that all the age-long striving of the human spirit, no less than the petty cravings of individuals, was seen as a fair component in something far more admirable than itself; and that man ultimately defeated, no less than man for a while triumphant, contributes to this higher excellence.
(227)
But the “petty cravings” of individuals is precisely what this “novel” lacks. It sometimes summarizes or encapsulates them. It can tell us but not show us; and in this way it can’t help but sterilize what could have been vital. As fiction, the novel is unsatisfying. Perhaps it expresses the highest admirations possible within a culture, but fails to do so richly.

Somehow, though, I can’t pan Last and First Men completely. The book does have one distinct character: the Last Man who contacted Olaf Stapledon and beamed to him the fanciful narrative that is the actual fact of 2 billions years’ history. There is the shift in this narrator’s distanced and believably objective tone in the first 14 chapters to the subjective mode of the final two, during which he describes his own people. And there is the second shift in the epilogue, set 20,000 years after his dictation of the rest of the book, when melancholia and insanity have set in.

This character is entirely too much in shadow; but how else could the narrative itself be served? Sax Russell or Abelard Lindsay or Lazarus Long could not tell this story.

Next: Wells’s Time Machine.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Dem bones, dem bones

A short supplement to the last entry:

“The Prisoner” always seemed to me preoccupied also with death. While Foucault provides the critical tools with which to parse the series as it relates to power, I’m at a bit of a loss to decipher the show’s morbid undertones.

Each episode begins with the summary of how No. 6 was whisked away to the Village. He tenders, angrily, his resignation, and later is gassed. The men who anaesthetize No. 6 in his London flat drive a Hearse (with the license plate designation TLH 858 – significance?). When he wakes up, No. 6 quite literally arrived at his “home from home.” He has not been simply relocated, he’s been severed from his life and forced into a new existence.

Across the series, No. 6 makes occasional forays into the world of the living, such as in the “The Chimes of Big Ben” (here it is purely Their illusion) and “Many Happy Returns” (where it is actual but completely contrived and regulated by Them). In “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” No. 6's mind is swapped into another body. He is reincarnated, but Death trails close behind him. When at last it seems he really has returned to London, in “Fall Out,” it is both real and an illusion – a synthesis; and yet, he is unquestionably still in the realm of the Village.

It is never revealed which “side” controls the Village; nor is it revealed whether the “sides” in play are the ones they’re implied to be: i.e., the capitalist and communist hemispheres. Other characters who die and are resurrected – Cobb, Dutton, Leo McKern’s No. 2 – seem to switch sides in the process. So: is the Village on the side of life or of death?
‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.”’
(Ezekiel 37)

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

You are, No. 6


[Author's note: Years ago I designed to write a paper about how Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner" TV show (1967) anticipated in eerie ways the revelations of Foucault's work on systems of power. I never wrote it. So recently when I came across the notes I'd made, I said to myself, "Blog it!"]

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered."
(episode one, “Arrival”)

In “The Prisoner,” a protagonist known only as No. 6 qualifies his opposition to the power structure of the Village by resisting all of the things he already has been as a secret agent of the Crown. Briefings and debriefings were his stock and trade as long as he was employed; and we can only assume that, like 007, his real name is classified, and neither he nor anyone else reveals it through all 17 episodes of the series.

To escape being pushed, filed, stamped and indexed is why he left Her Magesty’s Secret Service. Yet to No. 2's incessant question, "Why did you resign?" he never replies, "I’ve already told you." Perhaps No. 2 realizes the question has been answered; and perhaps he doesn’t care. We hear him demand “Information, information, information”; but perhaps this is actually an order: perhaps he is commanding No. 6 to get “in formation.”

Almost a decade after No. 6 made his stirring assertion, the French thinker and historian Michel Foucault would write, "Discipline 'makes' individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise" (Discipline and Punish, 170). Read the 169 preceding pages if this assertion seems to you counterintuitive. To hastily condense and summarize, Foucault demonstrates how the concept of individuality had little meaning before there were instruments to observe or measure individuals. The phenomenon, in other words, is a byproduct of the apparatus.

Surveillance is a constant quantity in McGoohan’s (here I yearn to insert an adjective, yet “prescient,” “surreal,” “bizarre” all ring insufficient) television series. No. 6 defines and redefines his identity and individuality by way of opposing to the wardens of his prison. Likewise, the wardens try to remake his identity: from trying to elect him No. 2 in the second episode (“Free For All”), to creating his doppelganger in episode eight (“The Schizoid Man”), to placing him on the throne in episode 17 (“Fall Out”).

Independent of these machinations, we know nothing about No. 6, save his late occupation and romantic life as detailed in episode 13 (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”). In "The Schizoid Man," No. 6 is robbed of his identity when They abduct and recondition him, transforming him into No. 12. Then, a play-actor assumes the No. 6 mantle. No. 6 is literally duplicated (6 x 2 = 12). Realistically, in the end, the only identity No. 6 reclaims is that he is given by Them.

His only recourse and only weapon is anonymity. He never gives his name (nor does anyone ask it), and he refuses to wear his numbered badge. Only after his final "escape" does he take on a new appellation: the closing credits of “Fall Out” list him as "The Prisoner."

"The power in the hierarchized surveillance of the disciples is not possessed as a thing, or transferred as a property; it functions like a piece of machinery. And, although it is true that this pyramidal organization gives it a 'head,' it is the apparatus as a whole that produces 'power' and distributes individuals in this permanent and continuous field." (DP177)

Whether he knew it or not, Foucault was describing the Village. Why is No. 2 played by a different actor in every episode? Producer Bernie Williams said it was merely a way of keeping the audience interested. A reasonable claim: think of “The Prisoner’s” contemporaries on television – like Adam West’s “Batman” -- where there was a new villain every week. But what sets “The Prisoner” apart from and above its peers was the fact that the ever-changing villain was never defeated, merely replaced. No. 6 occasionally wins moral victories, and in one case (episode 12, “Hammer into Anvil”) drives No. 2 mad; but always his adversary is replaced by another one intent on breaking him. Beneath him are equally anonymous mechanisms of power, from the Guardians to the Committee to the surveillance team overseen by “the supervisor,” No. 28 (who, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to M. Foucault).

Anonymity is the last resort and refuge of resistance; though No. 6 often, and sometimes successfully, interferes with those slotted into the mechanisms of the Village’s power structure. As Thomas Pynchon reminds us, “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures” (Proverbs for Paranoids #1, in Gravity’s Rainbow, 237).

In “The Eye of Power,” an interview transcribed in Power/Knowledge, Foucault muses that Jeremy Bentham, inventor of the panopticon, never stated clearly who should be in the central tower of the prison, who should hold the power that is constituted by the ability to see without being seen. From the standpoint of the seen, anyone at all could be the seer. This is certainly borne out in “The Prisoner.” No. 6 in “Free For All” vows to “discover who are the prisoners and who are the wardens.” He never succeeds. Foucault observes: “[A]n unbroken succession of observations recalling the motto: each comrade becomes an overseer.”

No. 6: Has it ever occurred to you that you're just as much a prisoner as I am?
No. 2: My dear chap, of course -- I know too much. We're both lifers. I am definitely an optimist. That's why it doesn't matter who No. 1 is."
(episode five, “The Chimes of Big Ben”)

Of course it matters who No. 1 is. Finding out, of course, is one reason we keep watching. In "Free For All," No. 2 urges No. 6 to run for public office, and explains, "If you win, No. 1 will no longer be a mystery to you, if you know what I mean." No. 2 clearly does not say No. 6 will learn who No. 1 is; he merely states that No. 1 will no longer be a mystery. In a way, the mystery’s solution is obvious from the outset; yet its implausibility makes it perpetually compelling.

Iconic as No. 6’s refusing to be numbered is his demand to know, “Who is No. 1?” The eternal reply is equivocation: “You are No. 6.” The delivery of this response is uniform throughout all the No. 2s. They appear to dodge the question, refusing the hero’s question and slapping him down with the mark of order they wish to impose upon him. But clever viewers and critics long ago began re-punctuating the reply thusly: “You are, No. 6.” The insertion of that comma makes the statement anticipate what is evidently shown in the series finale -- that No. 6 is No. 1.

The startling revelation is debased into a joke in the final episode. While No. 6 sits upon the throne, restored to his own clothes (“We thought you would feel more comfortable as yourself,” says No. 2), No. 1 observes the proceedings with a giant mechanical eye: a childish pun on the number one: Roman numeral I. When No. 6 takes the podium to deliver his victory speech, the only way he knows how to begin is with reference to the ego, “I…”; but he is repeatedly drowned out, before he can ever utter another word, by the chorus that shouts, “Aye! Aye! Aye!” Here, an assertion of selfhood and individuality is subsumed by a signal of agreement, compliance, subordination.

What does it mean that No. 6 -- the resister -- is also No. 1 -- the master, the state, the archon, God? For Foucault, the individual is to a large extent a fiction or an artifact; yet, having been engineered, the individual nonetheless becomes vital. Each individual is an “atom” helping to constitute the totality of the system. There’s something more than implicit in “The Prisoner” about the individual’s complicity in the power structures of the world. No. 6 moves from playing a very active role in that system as a secret agent to being a dissident; he revolts against the system he once defended. His resignation, whatever the reason behind it, does nothing to extricate him from the system; it only enmeshes him more thoroughly within it.

See also:
Thomas M. Disch, The Prisoner (I Books, 2003)
Dean Motter and Mark Askwith, The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (D.C. Comics, 1990)

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