Category Archives: history

Simulacra

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic has inspired me to revisit the classifications of postmodern fiction with which we began the semester.  Not only in the form of her art, Bechdel demonstrates a living postmodernism in her family’s lifestyle, a lifestyle that continually measures itself against and recreates fiction, history, and artistic styles.  Instead of just writing a postmodern work of art, Bechdel demonstrates the “tragicom[edy]” of a family that loses itself in the simulacrum.  The first phase of the family’s immersion in simulacra in the restoration of the mansion: “It’s tempting to suggest, in retrospect, that our family was a sham.  That our house was not a real home at all but the simulacrum of one, a museum.  Yet we really were a family, and we really did live in those period rooms” (17).  The daily act of living becomes a struggle between inhabiting the real (a home, a family) and fading into the background of a display (museum, period rooms).  Yet as Bechdel proves, sometimes there is no difference.  Real life as an imitation of art, history, or fiction, is still real life.

Bechdel imagines her parents’ courtship as a recreation of a number of classic novels and plays, from Fitzgerald to Henry James to Oscar Wilde.  Bechdel seems to accuse both parents of deluding themselves into believing they inhabited certain types of stories, and that the dysfunction of the family arose when reality proved these simulacra false.  She suggests that her family fell in love not with her mother, but with her mother’s contextualization as a part of New York City: “Had he somehow conflated her with her address, like Proust’s narrator had with Gilberte and the Garden?” (105).  Bechdel’s own retelling of her family’s history imitates this strategy as she reads different meanings onto the events.  She contemplates the meaning of the snake as a symbol, seeming to believe that the snake she saw as a child and the snake her father might have seen before his accident are connected by narrative trope (116).  After her father’s death, she feels the need to revise her entire past relationship to him: “But his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through the time I knew him” (23).  Bechdel demonstrates the simulacra are not necessarily empty, but can in fact be models for living and making sense of one’s life.

Does Robinson ambivalently write race, or is it just me?

After stepping away from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I’m ambivalent about so many things… I’m not even sure I liked the novel—for the most part I was unaffected by it, a rare experience for me as I tend towards emotional extremes when invested in a fictional world. To be honest, I think I might appreciate this novel when I’m older and perhaps more interested in delving into spirituality and “the meaning of it all,” but currently, the oscillation between confessional and sermon, intimacy and aloofness (an aloofness I found particularly noticeable around her treatment of race) was alienating for me—I didn’t seem to be a target member of Robinson’s audience.

The novel takes place in 1956: two years after the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, during the times of Negro Church bombings and bus boycotts, a year after Emmett Till is murdered in Mississippi, and just one year before nine African American students would step foot in Central High in Little Rock. I say all this to underscore the importance of race and the particular and peculiar violences of Jim Crow and the system’s dismantling. Robinson takes an interesting look at this time of extreme racial tension through the lens of a small family battling its own evils in Iowa and although race play does a pivotal role in the entire plot—the narrator’s militantly abolitionist-grandfather, Boughton’s secret black family and the narrator’s mistrust/misreading of him—I feel like Robinson’s treatment of race was used a device to illuminate (im)morality and filial piety in a lineage of men I felt very disconnected from. I’m a little disturbed that the morality and faith of Christian men are tested through black figures who do not move and talk freely in this world, they are bodies remembered or told of, but they have no active part in Robinson’s story (for instance, we see John Brown in a fragmented, hazy way as the narrator recounts a story told to him by his father).

I hoping I’m making some sense here, I’m finding this feeling I have about the novel hard to capture—but its as if race is everywhere in the novel but only in the background, looming and oppressive but still out of sight. For instance, when the reader is first introduced to the Negro church, it is mentioned in passing as the narrator states he “didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather” (37). Keeping in mind the author chose to write in such a style as to distance the narrator from the events of racial conflict partially retold in the novel, I have to wonder about the consequences of writing in such a way. The very ordinary lives of the town of Gilead are impacted by race relations, the town itself serves as a spot on the underground railroad, but I feel like the treatment of race within the novel is buried (Ironically, I’m thinking of the scene with the horse that gets stuck in the middle of the road—like the specter of race in this novel, everyone can see the horse, but they just stick a tent over—hidden in plain sight). Do you guys agree or am I just being hypercritical?

Also, what to make of this ending and what I interpreted as a reference to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”?

“This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope” (247).

Gibson’s Pattern Recognition + Post-9/11 Affect

I found William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition to be comfortably familiar and probably the most relatable of all the novels we’ve read so far this semester. I see resonances with all of our former primary readings: conspiracy tales and the search for truth in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, intuitionism and sensitive protagonists of Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, concern with commoditization and recycled images in Mao II (simulacra of simulacra of simulacra)… and the list goes on. I think we could probably spend a classtime just discussing these resonances and adaptations that Gibson skillfully writes—but what I’m impressed with, in particular, is his ability to capture our early twenty-first century moment of mass mediated imagination, oversaturated “productizing,” and, what I would argue is a type of hyperawareness, a deep visceral sensitivity regarding sovereignty, the individual body and its autonomy, but also the national and its tenuous relationship to globalized systems. I know we all remember the rapid movement of affect that briefly “united” the US in nationalistic solidarity in our post-9/11 mourning state—I read Cayce’s deep feeling (that Rebecca discussed in her post) as a representation of that hypersensitive state, the “violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace” in which one must confront their role as exploited/expendable/threatened in a global system of sovereignty-making and oppression-enforcing nations.

Okay, now saying all that, I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, but was thrown by its conclusion. As Julia pointed out in her post, the novel wraps itself in a big shiny ribbon—the quest is successful and the world moves on, and the Russians were behind it, naturally… I can’t make sense of this strange Cold War-holdover ending that forces Cayce to deal with her father’s disappearance—is Gibson pointing to the nature of pivotal events that recycle and resurface to disrupt successive generations (I’m thinking of Beloved and Morrison’s multitemprality that indicates our future is continually impacted by our traumatic pasts)—or is there more satire

*Can we please talk fashion in class on Monday, I loved this particular aesthetic focus in the novel

“…pomo bellowings,” authorial self-hauntings, and trajectories (47)

You’ll have to pardon the quote in the title. Couldn’t resist. While we’re in a confessional mood, full disclosure, I’m a William Gibson fan. I know this must come as a shock. Moving right along…

William Gibson tore up the sci-fi scene of the 80s sci-fi paperback scene with his first novel, Neuromancer, whose disgraced hacker hero is named Case and opens the book essentially allergic to computers. Pattern Recognition’s Cayce Pollard is, as we well know, allergic to all kinds of ad copy, much of which is transmitted via computers. Rather than it just being a renowned author making a winking reference to the work that launched him to sci-fi superstardom, Gibson makes the echoed name of his protagonist a conscious choice on her part; she is referred to as “Case?” by Voytek, and she goes on to explain that “it should be pronounced ‘Casey…’ But I don’t” (31). I’m not quite sure what to make of this echo, but it comes up a few more times throughout the novel, and I’m wondering whether or not Gibson is deliberately trying to link his Blue Ant trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History) with his famous Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive); if I’m not mistaken, that would be impossible, judging from the alt-history Gibson set up in the first series.

In any case, I thought it deserves some mentioning. If there are any other Gibsonites out there who are willing to speculate, then we can talk about it in class on Monday. I want to know what Gibson might gain, from a narratorial perspective, by linking Cayce Pollard with Neuromancer’s Case? Is Gibson deliberately haunting a newer novel that takes place well before an older novel that he set in the future?

I’m also intrigued by the trajectory of heroine-versus-conspiracy novels we’ve read thus far in class, and how Pattern Recognition fits in. The Crying of Lot 49 spans California and sees Oedipa Maas, a swingin’ 60s suburbanite, negotiating secret postal services and countercultural terrain that is completely alien to her; aside from Pynchon’s perfidious and persnickety pop culture references, we don’t explicitly deal with much in the way of the commercial, since both WASTE and Thurn & Taxis are much more concerned with countercultural and subversive political organizations. The Intuitionist never leaves the Ed McBain-esque pseudo-NYC that Whitehead sets up as a much more explicitly commercial battlefield; however, Lila Mae still contends with and ultimately champions a (pseudo?) religious epistemology that guides her to some kind of victory. Here, in Pattern Recognition, Cayce begins the story completely involved in the commercial world as a “coolhunter;” the mystery surrounding footage never gets a chance to assume the sort of religious/mystical nature seen in the 2 previous novels, because Cayce only ever engaged with the footage in 2 equally commercial capacities: 1) a fan/consumer, 2) a coolhunter/investigator hired by a major corporate interest to root out the producer of a desired commodity.

The Undead: Art and Intelligence Gathering

Amid the Russian mafia, not only does Cayce discover the beloved, elusive maker of the footage, she is given enough information to finally put the mystery of her father’s disappearance to rest, both personally and legally.  Intelligence gathering (particularly, an intelligence apparatus residual from the Cold War) is the key to her closure.  Win Pollard could not be proven dead, because no one could definitively place him at the scene of the attack.  The legal proceedings necessary for Cayce and her mother to move on, particularly his life insurance, were stalled, leaving Win in the “undead” status of missing person, like so many of the victims of September 11th whose bodies were never found.  Cayce goes on to describe her father as “doubly undead” because not only could they not find his body, they could never determine why he was in New York at all (192).  Cayce’s mother demands to know “exactly when, and how, and most importantly where he crossed over, as we’d then have a shot at some DNA and proof that he is in fact gone.  The legal aspects of his disappearance are not progressing…” (192).  Despite hiring private investigators and interviewing cab drivers, Cayce and her mother cannot legally prove Win dead and thus remain in “an ongoing nightmare” (192).

Lack of evidence, Cayce explains, is actually a central part of the masterful art of the footage.  “They are dressed as they have always been dressed, in clothing Cayce has posted on extensively, fascinated by its timelessness…There is a lack of evidence, an absence of stylistic cues, that Cayce understands to be utterly masterful” (23).  Cayce is fascinated by the footage because (like her father) it cannot be placed.  Does her discovery of the mystery of the footage diminish the power of its art, for Cayce, and for us as readers?  Why does the lack of information surrounding her father’s disappearance create a “nightmare,” while the lack of evidence surrounding the maker of the footage denote its artful mastery?  Cayce’s mother postulates that perhaps Win’s own role as a professional risk consultant contributed to his disappearance: “Her mother had once said that when the second plane hit, Win’s chagrin, his personal and professional mortification at this having happened, at the perimeter having been so easily, so terribly breached, would have been such that he might simply have ceased, in protest, to exist” (362).  Similarly, Bigend draws a connection between risk management and a lack of futurity: “Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day…We have no future because our present is too volatile…We have only risk management” (59).  Is the footage such a powerful art form because it resists the intelligence gathering imperative of the post-911 world?  If so, then why do our protagonists spend so much time (and money!) uncovering the source and identity of the footage, denying the footage the very non-specificity that makes it appealing?

“It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far.”

Everyone’s posts this week are really thought provoking over here. I had to stop reading so I can join the conversation in time!  My copy of Beloved is from high school. It’s underlined pretty thoroughly for about the first two-thirds of the text–the last always reads like lightning–and has, scattered throughout, such marginal gems as “memory” and “thresholds.” Oh, mandatory annotation.

This time around, I’m paying special attention to the book’s geographic movements.  In high school, it appears I was reading it like a mystery novel; I was trying to puzzle it out (figured that’s worth a mention, as several of you have brought up the question of genre). But it always seems significant to me that this book takes place, for the most part, in Ohio. It exists in a liminal regional zone (which, isn’t the midwest almost always defined by its liminal status?). And, as Valerie puts it, “law placed geographical freedom at odds with legal bondage.” The story moves the reader back and forth across the line between enslavement and freedom, in time and in space. The territory it maps is one that history has trouble dealing with–transitions, in-betweens are so often elided in historical narratives, excising the aftermath of violence, the memory and the rememory of it, the haunted places. The book is so much about inhabited transitional space. And, in a way, about movement. Paul D. walks. The phrase that sticks with me is “make tracks.” To move is never abstract in the novel’s world. You do not go, or leave, or travel. You make tracks. You leave traces. You map your path as you take it.

Sethe’s attachment to 124 is as much an attachment to place as it is a need to remember. Memory is necessarily implaced. She tells Denver that she doesn’t believe in time, only in place: “Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head” (43). Sethe’s description is one way to come to terms with a plot that seems to hinge on mysticism. If we read the book as a remapping, does it perform something akin to Jameson’s cognitive mapping? Or, am I really talking about something else when I say that by reading Beloved, the reader’s imagined geography (and geography is only ever imagined, perceived, refracted through an individual’s perspective, colored by all previously ingested representations and characterizations) shifts, is redefined, and, as the map is redrawn, so the reader’s historical narrative must also accommodate and reconcile a new layer? Whoa, convoluted question!

Finally, I want to throw the (annoying) question out there: is this postmodern? If so, how? How does it fit or require that we adjust our definition of postmodern lit? Maybe another way to address this is: what does it have in common with other texts we’ve read? (Pynchon, Reed, and DeLillo come to mind as good comparisons.) Also: Anne, Rebecca, Laura, and Sequoia all touch on the book’s mixing of history, biography, autobiography, fiction, and poetry. Let’s talk about that!

Human objects and material humans

Beloved fascinates me as a reimagining of the legal and ontological consequences of the real-life decision of Margaret Garner, upon whom Sethe is based, a woman who did in fact kill her young daughter rather than allow her to be returned to slavery.  The trial that took place to decide Margaret’s fate casts into sharp relief the ontological horror and confusion produced when a person is considered an object.  The trial, the legal apparatus given power to rule on whether Margaret would be tried as a person, guilty of murder, or dismissed as an object of property, converted the infant’s death into a destruction of property.  The legal categories at work, which allowed human life to be labeled as something other than human life, were compounded by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which defined slaves who had escaped to the North as still legally the property of their masters.  This law placed geographical freedom at odds with legal bondage.  I believe Morrison dramatizes the consequences of mixing the categories of human and non-human via the sentience of house 124.  The haunting emerges from the manipulation of the human-nonhuman boundary.  If the law can turn a human into an object, then Morrison’s novel turns a building into a manifestation of human will.

Morrison expands this ontological boundary-blurring into an exploration of the effects of slavery on familial bonds, arguably one of the strongest defenses against the law’s dehumanization.  The haunting drives away Sethe’s two oldest children, Buglar and Howard, who refuse to inhabit a place in which objects (the mirror, the cake) reflect the malice of the baby’s spirit.  The haunting begins to subside when Sethe, Paul D. and Denver begin to constitute a family unit after their day at the fair, but that is also the moment when Beloved appears in her fully manifested human form.  Morrison’s ability to convincingly shift a character from disembodied material existence to human existence is derived from the ontological destruction initiated by the legal definitions that underpinned slavery as an institution.

narrative authority in Beloved

Taking a curious story from the newspaper, whether yesterday’s or one from 150 years ago, and spinning it into a work of fiction is something authors do that often bothers me. There’s a burden on the work to justify what insight the artist brings to the story. Yet the public seems to accept that fiction can give us insights into “true events” that more empirically-evidence-based reportage cannot (Lyotard’s narrative knowledge?).

Readers1 believe that Beloved offers insight into the Middle Passage, slavery and the Margaret Garner case, and the meaning this history holds for us today. Walter Benn Michaels contends that racial identity is the basis for Morrison’s authority (Michaels 136). My impulse is to disagree with Michaels, to argue that Beloved‘s power lies in the text itself. But I don’t want to just say that this book makes me cry, therefore it is True. I’m uncomfortable equating emotional intensity with authenticity. As I reread Beloved, I’m pondering a nexus of questions: what does Morrison in particular add to the our understanding of US chattel slavery, of the Middle Passage, of Margaret Garner, a woman who might otherwise have been a historical footnote? (why) do we trust Morrison’s version—and what does “trust” mean here? does this novel dramatize its status as an imagined, hypothetical fiction? what kind of witness is Morrison performing?

The haunted house aspect immediately puts readers on notice that we aren’t reading a history textbook. Morrison situates this book in years and street addresses, but the narrative slips and slides. In the first few sentences, we learn that “by 1873” only Sethe and Denver are left living in 124, but this is not the year when most of the plot of the novel takes place. Morrison carefully foregrounds questions of how the characters know the past. Denver “steps into the told stor[ies]” of her mother’s past (29). Denver, who alone knows “the downright pleasure of enchantment” in being haunted (37), functions here as an author surrogate, engaging with the presence of a past she did not experience directly (or can’t remember because she was just an antelope in Sethe’s belly). Together, Denver and Beloved imagine the former’s birth: “Denver spoke, Beloved listened, and the two did the best they could to create what really happened, how it really was, something only Sethe knew because she alone had the mind for it and the time afterward to shape it” (78). Readers encounter the birth story in pieces, partially told by Sethe in Denver’s memory, situated in the moment when Denver remembers seeing a white dress kneeling next to her mother (31-35). Denver tells the ending as “a net to hold Beloved” (76). Histories in Beloved are mediated, fragmented, provisional, told and retold with different purposes. But this is only a brief sketch of a beginning of an answer to my questions.

1When I talk about “readers” here, I mean myself, and almost everyone I’ve ever studied or discussed Beloved or Song of Solomon with, as well as the people who’ve written the vast majority of criticism and/or reviews I’ve read of Morrison’s novels.

Legacies of the Middle Passage in Morrison’s Beloved

Toni Morrison’s watershed 1987 novel Beloved never fails to make my heart ache as she so vividly imagines the lives of postbellum blacks living amid the Fugitive Slave Act and other traumatic vestiges of slavery. Born enslaved and now living “free,” Morrison’s characters mark a pivotal unstable and transitory period of American history that ask us to question the psychological life of slavery in today’s world. Her telling of place, both imagined and literal geographical sites, carries with it a palpable psychological legacy.  I read 124, Sethe’s “home,”[1] as a microcosm for American society. 124 houses those trying to survive the daily lived conditions of blackness while haunted by the spirits of dead ancestors and a persisting melancholy. Collapsing time, blurring past and present, Beloved looks to the future as it enacts the postmodern condition of fragmentation in the form of inherited memory, rememory, and disremembering.

“Beloved” is the name given to mark the grave of nameless crawling-already baby, a life snuffed out by the pressures of society’s racialized terror. Symbolizing the “Sixty Million and more” scarred, exterminated, and displaced, Beloved morphs into many forms throughout the novel. She is either crawling-already-reincarnate returned to avenge her violent death, or she is Erzulie[2], fierce lwa of love, or she is the girl who “was locked up with a whiteman over by Deer Creek” (277). Morrison’s collapse and remixing of time and space allow for all these possibilities. For evidence of this, I’d like to look specifically at the two chapters told in Beloved’s voice (pages 248-256). It is here that Morrison chooses to swerve from form and writes in a type of prose poetry.

Beginning “I am Beloved and she is mine,” Beloved relays two teologically incompatible stories. I interpret the first as a voyage across the Middle Passage, so unbearable that the enslaved “are all trying to leave our bodies behind,” willing themselves dead rather than bear horrors of the Atlantic crossing. Made to drink piss (morning water), lie constrained among dead and dying bodies, shackled with “circles” around their necks, Morrison confronts the formation of modern blackness upon the slave ship. Beloved next remembers her drowning, rebirth, and return to Sethe. Transcending time, Beloved as ancestor, lwa, child, and mother links past with present and future, instantiating that contemporary black identity is indelibly linked to the hauntings of the Middle Passage and its denial of realized subjectivity.

Other interesting topics I was too wordy to get around to:

  • Community, collectivity
  • Unimaginable queerness
  • Black masculinity and relationships
  • Motherhood

[1] I’d like to discuss how Morrison troubles “home” in Beloved. The novel is full of wandering men moving to where the work is. The brothers, born on the ironically named “Sweet Home” plantation, were taught to perform a certain type of “noble” black masculinity that shapes the ways they move through the world. Im wondering how the originary space of the plantation informs how blacks move, in limited fashion, in the world today, how the slave ship as episteme made home impossible.

[2] Erzulie is known for her passion, beauty and fierce nature—she is woman etherealized. Mounting both men and women indiscriminately, she is sexually ambiguous. Her symbol is the red heart, often pierced with a dagger. She is elegant and often brings excess, emotional and material. Like a Siren, she can lure anyone with her beauty, but like Medusa, she can quickly turn jealous and evil, sucking the life out of her admirers. She is not a fertility goddess and she is not a mother. [Referenced from Joan Dayan’s Haiti, History, and the Gods].

Legally Defining the Human

As a posthuman novel, one that ostensibly explores the definition of the human and deliberately pushes against this category’s boundaries, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was rather disappointing in its failure to push the android question to its limits (in the end, I found myself easily rejecting their humanity).  Therefore, I am much more interested in how the “specials” trouble the definition of the human, particularly since they are a legal as well as a biological creation.  As Rick Deckard reflects, “So far, medical checkups taken monthly confirmed him as a regular: a man who could reproduce within the tolerances set by law…Continually, new specials came into existence, created out of regulars by the omnipresent dust.”” (8).  Rick raises the question of what makes a special, citing the radioactive environment, but in truth they are a product of a legal definition set to decide what type of human is desirable enough to be included in this society’s vision of its future.  These legal “tolerances,” of course, speak to the discriminatory nature of a practice that denies a certain class of citizens the right to reproduce.  The status of the “special” is complicated by the supposition that certain mentally or emotionally handicapped persons could not pass the Voigt-Kampff Scale test that provides the legal basis for “retiring” an android, in other words, gives a bounty hunter the right to kill.  Falling within the category of “special” not only erases one’s right to live on through biological reproduction, but also simply the right to continue living.

Despite Rick’s tendency to think of “specials” as a biological category, we can easily recognize that the legal standards are arbitrary human inventions: “Loitering on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race.  Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history.  He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind” (16).  At stake is not simply the survival of human kind, but rather the notion that the “race” should be kept “pristine.”  This gesture toward purity, cleanliness, and aesthetics evokes the reality of the eugenics movements that took place throughout the 20th century in the United States and elsewhere and left thousands of people forcibly sterilized.  While the novel’s conclusion, for me, clearly places androids outside the human, J. R. Isidore’s status remains provocatively ambiguous.