Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

'Darkness… Night… Things of the night… Dracula…'

Not that anyone reads this, but I’m contending with a bit of a stumper and could do with some input.

I’m stuck on the question of narrative format in “Dracula” by Bram Stoker (1898), wondering specifically why the author chose to use the epistulo-diaristic mode as opposed to a straightforward first- or third-person approach. It may be a convention of the period; and I’m reminded somewhat of the framed narrative approach Mary Shelley took in “Frankenstein” (1818).

In “Dracula” the mitigating devices of letters and journals render the tale as a historical document as opposed to the sort of ur-story of first- and third-person narrations. By this I mean that in a modern novel it’s essentially a given that the narrator is not producing an actual document; that the book we hold in our hands is actually a ghost: a constriction of one point of view created for a fiction reader and not an archivist. The narratives of most novels, in this sense, do not exist actually or tangibly; whereas diaries and letters definitely do.

“Dracula’s” epigraph calls the book “a history almost at variance with the possibilities of latter-day belief [that] may stand forth as simple fact.” Here and there are comments by the characters on the keeping of this record, and sketches of journalistic convention at the time.

Mina Harker (nee Murray) writes: “I shall try to do what I see lady journalists do, interviewing and writing descriptions and trying to remember conversations. I am told that, with a little practice, one can remember all that goes on or that one hears said during a day” (57).

There are included in the novel, as if pasted into a scrapbook, two newspaper clippings: one from the “Dailygraph,” (80ff), and one from the “Pall Mall Gazette” (143ff). Striking about these -- to a newsman like myself anyway -- is the approach. There are no snappy ledes or nutgrafs, no inverted pyramid. Rather they are chronological and overly detailed accounts not of the news itself but the reporters’ efforts in getting the news.

Organizing the documents into a coherent narrative clearly serves a purpose for the protagonists. They are assembling clues to a mystery. And Jonathan adds: “Mina and I fear to be idle, so we have been over all the diaries again and again. Somehow, although the reality seems greater each time, the pain and the fear seem less. There is something of a guiding purpose manifest throughout, which is comforting” (334).

I feel a distant echo of this tendency toward constricting the relevant past to a coherent historical present in the Netherlandian Dr. Abraham Van Helsing’s inability to use the perfect tense. The learned foreigner’s linguistic shortcoming is most assuredly the author’s invention, but it may be an elucidating one.

Perhaps I’m stuck on this question of narrative because I came to the novel already knowing roughly what would happen in it. “Dracula” is one of those texts so encoded in the pop culture psyche that its outlines can be guessed with some accuracy even on a first in-earnest reading. None of the adaptations, I recollect, concerned themselves with Stoker’s bulky storytelling apparatus.

Five points for anyone who recognizers the quote in my headline. For those who don’t, see this.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Joanna Russ’ “The Female Man” (1975) is one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a long, long time.

First because I am a male and the book is openly hostile toward males.

Secondly because, unlike a lot of other science fiction, it doesn’t let you get comfortable after it has estranged you. That is to say: Once you’ve figured out that androids are an underclass you’ve pretty much got “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” under control. But with unexpected bursts of narrative jujitsu, “The Female Man” keeps upending the reader’s control over it.

It’s all very pomo and self-referential and I don’t know how I feel about that type of thing anymore … but here it seems necessary in a non-abstract way. Russ devotes a page and a half to fragments of very probable book reviews, worth quoting at length:

Shrill … vituperative … no concern for the future of society … maunderings of antiquated feminism … selfish femlib … needs a good lay … this shapeless book … of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond … twisted, neurotic … some truth buried in a largely hysterical … of very limited interest, I should … another tract for the trash can … burned her bra and thought that … no characterization, no plot … really important issues are neglected while … hermetically sealed … women’s limited experience … another of the screaming sisterhood … a not very appealing aggressiveness … could have been done with wit if the author had … deflowering the pretentious male … a man would have given his right arm to … hardly girlish … a woman’s book … another shrill polemic which the … a mere male like myself can hardly …

I’ll stop there because that last one’s the one that really kicked me in the balls. The mode of the foregoing is easily recognizable: moving from outright dismissal to condescension and at all times chauvinistic. Then imaginary critic No. 26 invokes his own deficiency in understanding “the female perspective,” but the condescension is still taut.

This stings because I have spoken words to this effect to a woman --- and I know I’m not the first --- and now I have been given them back to ponder. How much more sarcastic could this phrase be, “a mere male”? Rhetorically it’s very elegant because it compacts whole paragraphs of opposite meaning into that one word “mere.”

I never realized.

Men in “The Female Man” excel at being deaf and dumb (Cf. Boss in Eight/VIII and Davy in Eight/XI). Men in this book are assaulted by women for being ignorant. One is killed. Holy shit.

I’m in a weird sort of double bind trying to write about this novel: On the one hand I feel like anything I could write would, at best, convince Joanna Russ to keep walking if she ever found me bleeding to death in the street. On the other hand I feel silly for feeling that way. But that’s not simply a contrarian reaction of the first feeling: I think it has more to do with being afraid of committing the sin of trapping myself in the gender binary while at the same time fearing the binary is inescapable.

Both pretty weak positions from which to be actively offering critical insights.


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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Of monsters and the men who slay them and the men who tell their tales

Let me just say I’m now a certifiable George Guidall fan. Who’s he? He’s the fellow who, on recent car journeys, read to me Gilgamesh (700 BC, in a “new English version” by Stephen Mitchell, AD 2004) and Beowulf (circa AD 700-1000, translated in 1999 by Seamus Heaney).

Hearing Guidall I picture an older man, not physically strong though certainly powerful of voice, who is somehow perfectly suited to these tales of manly monster-hunters. Having spent much of my life with a pretty Homer-centric view of epics, I found myself utterly captivated by these non-Greek myths; which are nonetheless just as morally ambiguous as the Odyssey. Mitchell points out that the monsters Gilgamesh faces down -- Enkidu, Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven -- don’t actually threaten his kingdom in Uruk.

Beowulf does a bit better: he stops Grendel and his mother, who individually pose threats to the Danes, and goes after the dragon, who only became a menace after treasure hunters violated his horde. The ambiguity in this tale comes from its awkward point of narration: set in heathen times and lands but told by a retroactively proselytizing Christian Anglo-Saxon.

My (rather distracted) riff on ciphers completed, I’ll be setting in now on some considerations of monster hunters, all of whom could do well with a George Guidall treatment, I think.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

A followup to that germ of a thought I left dangling in the last post:

It seems to be that the discourse of both the press conference and the locker room always tries to transcend itself.

The press conference is, for its presenter, meant to be a controlled situation, where information is doled out within implied bounds of propriety. For its audience, it is inevitably an impediment to getting at the heart of the matter, but oftentimes the only avenue into that matter at all. While the presenter holds back, the press pushes hard in the hopes of getting through to something less prepackaged and more satisfying.

The locker room tirade, on the other hand, is something in which the presenter tries to lay bare the deepest emotions and truths before a hostile audience -- the press -- who must inevitably boil down the flurry of statements directed at them if they're to include it in their 30 column inches.

Tirades are a curious thing. It seems to me they are most of them purely internal: When one is angry one envisions oneself dominant over the object of that anger, telling it like it is and settling the score in a masterful coup de grace. But it's rare that such an utterance can ever be externalized, at least in an uninterrupted fashion, because the listener will always feel inclined to interject.

Before a gaggle of reporters, however, (as opposed to a nemesis, a friend, or a lover) interjections are kept to a minimum. This is a function first of surprise -- reporters are used to transcribing and inquiring about external topics, not being the topic of discussion. It may be a function of decorum -- for to interrupt an interview subject who is really wound up is to risk silencing that subject. And it is definitely a function of amusement -- for rants are essentially amusing in their onesidedness and gratuity.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008


A sports fan I am not, but I do love it when athletes ramble, rant and fly off the handle. So I was delighted the other day to learn of this painful 2006 Allen Iverson press conference:

Here's a classic "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" situation. The question clearly touches a nerve, but Iverson spends the next three minutes trying to deadpan it, becoming less and less graceful as he goes. Why? Because he's stuck. The cameras are rolling and he knows he must and thinks he can save face.

If this were an off-camera locker room conversation, no doubt Iverson would be a bit more vehement and probably start repeating another word than "practice." That is, his response would be more akin to the the classic tirades of Goose Gossage and Lee Elia.

Different forums naturally give way to different types of discourse. The press conference, whether in a sports stadium or at the White House, produces one type. The locker room, whether or not there's a gaggle of reporters present, produces another.

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Monday, July 07, 2008


Why is it that so much imaginative storytelling must refer back to Biblical themes and events?

This I ask after watching (and thoroughly enjoying) the new Disney-Pixar film “WALL-E,” which, after I stopped to think about it for two seconds, was no more original than Genesis 2-3 and 6-8 and Luke 23-24. (That’s the stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark and the death and resurrection of Christ, for all us philistines.)

Thankfully the film isn’t evangelizing, and none of the characters are seen standing or lying with arms outstretched a la the crucifixion. But sadly the cute anthropomorphic robots of the film are needlessly inscribed with the doings of Adam, Eve and Jesus.

To review: WALL-E (Johnny-5 lookalike, stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter/Earth Class) finds a lone weed growing in a discarded boot. He gives it to EVE (blatant Bible crib, stands for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). EVE puts the plant inside her Mac-inspired white streamlined body and waits for a ride back to the starship Axiom, where the human survivors a trash-swamped Earth have been camped out for 700 years.

My gloss: WALL-E as Adam impregnates EVE as, well, Eve. She takes the specimen to Noah’s Ark. There she and WALL-E defy the almighty robots in charge, who are programmed to believe Earth is lost forever.

Tension, drama and hilarity as the weed is tossed about, exposed to the vacuum of space, saved, lost, found, etc. etc. In the climax WALL-E is crushed in a piece of machinery while trying to bring humanity back to the Promised Land. But he is repaired and given a new motherboard and rebooted by EVE. For a moment he doesn’t remember EVE at all --- for the first time in the film he is actually robotic and not anthropomorphic. But then, disappointingly, he remembers. And Christ is risen indeed.

Is any of this necessary? is the point I’m trying to make. It’s not really a question of whether the film’s writers were going for the Biblical parallelism. These tales are so totally engrained in our collective consciousness it becomes hard to escape them. But escape them we should. These tropes are hackneyed beyond belief. In the Bible and in classics is where they should stay. Let’s branch out, for Christ’s sake.

One thing Biblical the film did but I rather like: The Ark, that is, the Axiom, is clearly a capitalist venture as opposed to backup storage for genetic material. The first generation aboard, we may safely infer, paid to be there. Their fat, atrophied and osteoporosized great-great-great-grandchildren are mostly white.

What is the Axiom’s axiom? Perhaps that to save humankind is inevitably to exclude parts of humankind.

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How I spent my 4th of July

Picked up the final trade paperback installment of “Y: The Last Man” this past Wednesday, and resolved to read all 10 volumes in one go. I averaged about an hour and a half per volume, so it turned into a two-day affair.

For the uninitiated, “Y” is the story of the eponymous Yorick Brown, ostensibly the only male to survive a mysterious plague that spontaneously and immediately wipes out every mammal with a y chromosome on July 17, 2002. Womankind then inherits a devastated, corpse-strewn Earth.

Yorick teams up with secret agent 355 and geneticist Allison Mann to: (a) survive, (b) figure out what killed all the other men, (c) find a way to save humankind from extinction, and ultimately (d) find his long-lost girlfriend.

All of these things are accomplished in the end, and none of them matter. I’m not too concerned about spoiling anything --- the storytelling in “Y” is so compelling that there’s nothing really to spoil. As Yorick himself remarks, discovering what actually caused the plague is “vaguely unsatisfying,” and that aliens, witchcraft or nanobots might have been cooler (“Whys and Wherefores,” 58-9).

The “gendercide” is one of the baldest plot devices ever conceived and executed in fiction. More than simply propelling action and character development, though, it creates an artistic canvas on which the “hard” science fiction of an Isaac Asimov and the idealistic science fiction of a Thomas Moore can converse.

What would happen if there suddenly were no men in the world? Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra envision marauding bands of “Amazons” bent on toppling remnants of the patriarchy, like the phallic Washington Monument, and harassing those who cling to memories of beloved men as well as female-to-male transgender people. Marauders in fiction are rarely so idealistic. Think Morlocks who read Dworkin. The Amazons are just one example of the myriad ways in which female society could go; but the richness and diversity of the creators’ vision of the post-male planet is fantastic.

Another thing I love about “Y” is that readers see every one of the major characters as a child. One of the earliest flashbacks of Yorick as a boy is more clever than illustrative, but the episodic Bildungsroman sequences only get deeper and more relevant as they go. Rendered in pictures and words or just words, fictional characters don’t often have such detailed histories.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

In “No Country for Old Men” (2005), Cormac McCarthy leaves it almost entirely up to the reader to determine what motivates Moss, or rather lets the reader superimpose his own desires. Moss is an underdog and self-effacing -- and clever -- and so we can see ourselves doing as he does. McCarthy creates a solid enough shell of a character for us to climb inside.

The author provides the most open-ended, vague, preliminary reaction of his character to the almost-inconceivable sum of money he finds, and never supplements it:
There was a heavy leather document case standing upright alongside the dead man's knee and Moss absolutely knew what was in the case and he was scared in a way that he didnt even understand.
It was level full of hundred dollar banknotes. They were in packets fastened with banktape stamped each with the denomination $10,000. He didnt know what it added up to but he had a pretty good idea. He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down. His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.
The money is metanym for almost any opportunity. When one first presents itself, before all the what-ifs are sketched out, it is unreal, exhilarating, terrifying.

If Moss is a cipher, then Anton Chigurh is an alien. With Sheriff Bell’s soliloquies as a guide, we inevitably come to him as a force virtually extraterrestrial; non-human at least. His motivations are opaque; as opposed to Moss’s, which are indeterminate but certainly there.

Bell speaks of a kind of harbinger:
Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he's real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again.
The boy Bell sent to the gas chamber seemed a sign of dark things to come, people without souls; Chigurh then must be that thing: he is a cipher for Bell’s and our worst fears about the outer limits of moral turpitude.

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