Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Culture Wars, or, Steve Martin's 92nd Street Y Nightmare, Courtesy of Deborah Solomon

I made a comment about this on the Huffington Post website. I have no idea if it will be posted or not. But I feel strongly enough on the issue to go off-topic in this blog to address it. Following this post is my take on the Culture Wars: from someone stationed in the trenches behind "enemy" lines. First, here is a longer version of the post I made:

I think there is a lot to be gained by looking at the context of the situation. If you check out the webpage of the 92nd St. Y, you will see that they have a tremendous amount of arts and humanities programming, including classes in gay and lesbian literature, studio classes for a variety of art media, museum tours, and of course the arts and humanities lectures and conversations series of which Steve Martin was a part. The people of the 92nd St. Y are not culturally illiterate brutes, but people who love and support art and culture, especially in the education of the young. Which makes what happened with Martin that much more perplexing. I think the A.V Club's speculation that the blame lay with Soloman is probably on-target. An Object Of Beauty came out only a few days prior to the interview, which means the majority of the audience had no experience with it and could not reasonbly be expected to follow an intricate discussion of the book without getting lost. Also, as An Object of Beauty ably demonstratrates, the New York arts world is an elite, exclusive and rarefied place with which Martin--an art collector and connoisseur, and Solomon-- a journalist who has written a significant amount of art criticism, are very familiar. Their audience that night was not. Despite an avid interest in and support of arts and culture, the members of the 92 street Y lack the funds, network, and the access to really understand the art world. Even if An Object of Beauty could help them better understand that world, it came out too close to the interview for them to read it and be able to follow the conversation. In short, the event was derailed by a significant communication breakdown caused when two art world insiders decided to have a conversation that art world outsiders could not possibly follow. When seen in this light it makes sense that the members of the 92 street Y were upset and wanted their money back. They subsidized a frankly self-indulgent conversation that they were not really privy to understanding, and they felt cheated. Even if the conversation had focused on the work but managed to stay more accessible while weaving into the proceedings some of Steve Martin's past experiences as an entertainer, author and thinker- experiences that that night's audience knew about and could appreciate- the interview would have been much more positively recieved. As the interviewer, Solomon was the audience's stand-in who was tasked with engaging Mr. Martin on their behalf. Instead, she chose to pursue her own interests, as informed by her own priviliges experience with the art world, and disregarded the audience entirely. The controversy thus far has been painted as another skirmish in the culture war between the culturally illiterate, as the members of the 92 St. Y have been portrayed, and the art heroes, who are represented by Steve Martin. In actuality, it was a communication breakdown that a little foresight, respect for audience, and genuine interest in opening up an understanding of the art world to people who cannot access it could have totally prevented. This was Solomon's responsibility. She shirked it.

The whole point of this blog is that I try to stick to literary narratives and storytelling. As any postmodernist-educated humanities professor will tell you, societies generate their own narratives about social and cultural conditions within that society. One narrative I have always found compelling is that of the GREAT CULTURE WARS!!! In short, there are a lot of conservative, provincial, backward citizens in America hellbent on destroying arts and culture here, and they will use every ounce of their political, moral, and paramilitary militia might to do so. It is believed that these people occupy every single inch of America outside of San Francisco, LA, or New York and that they lovingly embrace Blue-Collar Comedy, Monster Trucks, and McDonald's. It is further believed that they viciously reject art, literature, and culture (and science, and logic, and reason) with such intense passion that only the passion of their Lord Jesus Christ is comparable is strength and scope. It is also widely believed they fornicate with their immediate family members and hunker down in city-sized militia compounds to do so. According to what I heard somebody might have read in the New York Times, they are all white, mostly inbred, Nazi sympathizers who collect guns and bibles with the same level of alacrity and connoisseurship as displayed by Peggy Guggenheim when she collected the great works that founded the Guggenheim Museum. These are your enemies, O ye right, good and true culture warriors of the 3 civilized cities of America--and your compatriot partisans living in the mostly civilized frontier towns of Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C. You must defeat them if American culture is to survive.

What an epic story. But like all deeply-held narratives, there are extenuating realities that call the truth of this epic tale into question. The first concerns the provincialist mindset of everywhere outside of the cities mentioned above. The most defining characteristics of provincialism are the lack of sophistication, perceived superiority of one's own region, limited perspective, and narrow-minded disinterest in the concerns or perspectives of people outside of one's region. In their (dis)regard of other American people and places, the cities mentioned above exhibit every aspect of provincialism save one: lack of sophistication. To be sophisticated is to be worldly and complex. Yet, how worldly can one be if she or he disregards and dismisses the experiences of those living in the world who differ from her-or-himself economically and socially? Not very. To do so is to be provincial. Thus, New York, L.A., San Francisco--and to a lesser extent Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., etc.-- are in fact quite provincial. But because the nation's media, wealth, and political power are disproportionately large in these places, their viewpoint is disseminated as sophisticated, democratic, and generally superior in every way to those of the rest of America. Frankly, it's provincialism gone berserk and validated by power.

The second idea underpinning the narrative is the presumption that either there is no appreciation of arts and culture anywhere outside the places listed above, or that what is present in those places is so paltry and "provincial" as to be worthless. The fact is that there is a tremendous spectrum of art in "provincial" America. Many talented and committed artists, musicians, writers, actors, and dancers live and work here. Many went to one of the aforementioned cities, did not achieve any level of professional success. One way to look at this is to say they defeatedly returned home. Another is to say that rather than stay trapped in an insanely expensive city where they work two jobs to afford a matchbox-sized room in a bedbug-infested Manhattan hellhole with no money left over to buy materials, and no space or time to practice their art, they left. The returned home to a lower cost of living, reasonable rent on a decent-sized space, and one day-job that leaves them time and funds to pursue what is important to them: their art. Are they art professionals? No. But then again, there isn't really any such thing as "professional art;" art is art regardless of who makes it. Professionals are just those who are well-paid for the privilege of producing art.
What's more, those of us living in these places can attest to the fact that to be an artist, writer, musician, actor, or dancer is to also be an activist, simply through the fact of creating art. Our regions’ reputation for hostility to arts and the devaluation of culture is in many ways deserved. Still, we write, we create. With little funding and less understanding, we carefully mitigate the hostilities to art held by people in our communities and we slowly build audiences and understanding. We volunteer to teach the arts in our schools; risk opening art gallery spaces; repurpose warehouses as theaters, and bars and clubs as venues for literature and poetry readings. We develop tight-knit communities to support each other. The fact that we dare to be writers, artists, musicians, dancers, and actors in places that could never hope to sustain an art industry of any size, and with little hope for financial gain and none whatsoever for recognition in the “art world,” makes us primarily arts advocates who practice what we preach. We are the ones on the front lines of the “culture” wars, because we are working to cultivate understanding and appreciation of the arts in communities that are not very open to it. More often than not, all we’ve got for support is each other. And yet, because we are, for lack of a better term, “geographically disadvantaged,” our efforts are dismissed and our work is derided. It’s easier to be an artist of any sort in New York (or any of the other places aforementioned) because there exists a bigger potential audience that has far more money to spend on art, and there are dozens of shops from which to buy supplies, myriad locales that can be converted into effective performance spaces, and greater access to innovative and inexpensive media and advertising. It is one of the cruelest ironies imaginable that people living and working in the arts and culture industry in New York acquire the lion’s share of nonprofit and federal funding for the arts, because it is the one place in America that can sustain the profitability of an arts business (Martin’s An Object of Beauty demonstrates this fact). Worse yet, funding agencies justify the inequality in funding because they perceive New York as having the best of culture and the finest of art- a situation made possible because the City is so well-funded. Everywhere else has to fight over what’s left. So we do as much as possible with less than nothing and try to engage our communities interest in art and culture.
The third concept underpinning the Great Culture War narrative is that the “enemies” of Art and Culture actually hate art and culture. As I’ve learned from personal experience, this is not really true. I’ve worked in theater and music, but my experience as a museum docent is what really taught me what the problem is. As a docent, it was my job to overcome the hostility or ridicule that corporate seminar attendees, school children, elderly folks from the local day center might dish out when visiting the museum. This was a frequent occurrence. At first I dealt with it by adopting a defensive attitude about the art in question and coldly settling the matter by explaining the greatness of the artist in question and suggesting that while they might have a point that art is in the eye of the beholder, some people clearly have much better vision than others. This approach left the museum visitors and myself really uneasy. Such a stance left no room for dialogue or learning. The approach I eventually developed involved engaging the visitor’s perceptions and feelings- their ‘affect’. I’d tell the visitors about the artist and what ideas she or he had about art and the artistic process, and then I asked them if they though those ideas were presented in the work we were looking at. If not, what seemed to be there? How did it make them feel? Did it remind them of anything? Then I’d talk with them about the artist’s technique and medium. Had they ever seen it before? Why the thick, heavy brush strokes? Why did Jacob Lawrence work in egg tempera when it is such a persnickety and time-sensitive medium? The thoughtfulness of their responses surprised me, and I had many interesting conversations with sixth-graders, retirees, construction workers and pharmaceutical reps about what we were looking at.
I finally figured out that what they had been hostile to wasn’t Art, but how they were treated because of their inexperience in viewing and thinking about art. It is easy to recognize Renoir’s work as art, because his representational style and lush imagery are accessible and recognizable. It is a bit less easy to understand Clyde Broadway’s “Southern Trinity” as art, because the irony and irreverence of the piece prompts the question: “why is it good enough to be in a museum?” However when it comes to works such as Kendall Shaw’s “Sunship,” Vincenzia Blount’s “Tauerna,” or Ida Kholmeyer’s “Fenestrated #6” the question of what is and is not art becomes really complex. And very intimidating. People generally had no visual or experiential points of reference to help the make meaning of those pieces. Once I recognized that, and began a dialogue with visitors to create points of reference which they could use to interpret the pieces, their hostility diminished considerably. Most of the people living in the territory identified as hostile to culture don’t have the points of reference to help make meaning of the more challenging art pieces. Which is only one problem. The biggest problem is that their inexperience is interpreted by the civilized and highly cultured denizens of the coastal metropoles as stupidity and crudity. Nobody likes being made to feel stupid. They like even less being treated like they are stupid, because such treatment is disrespectful and hateful. Many of the people who seem to be anti-art and culture are actually anti- being portrayed as narrow-minded PROVINCIAL idiots because they aren’t sure what to make of certain pieces and genres of art. This is the attitude those of us who live in these areas are really fighting against. The sooner we all realize that the attitude problems surrounding the valuation of art and culture is a two-way street, the better off we will all be.
The Great Culture War won’t end with Westwater Gallery triumphing over macram√©, or with Monster trucks bulldozing the Alvin Ailey dance school. Arguing over what is and is not art, what is or is not GOOD art, or even what makes art better than entertainment, won’t get anyone anywhere. The only real way to end the culture war is to acknowledge two things: First, that all art serves as a jumping off point for discussion and discovery, and that the more challenging a piece of art is, the greater the need to search for points of reference to make it meaningful; and second, what people in some areas find meaningful and important can, should and will differ significantly from region to region, and it isn’t fair to privilege the artistic expressions of one economically and socially (and geographically) advantaged group of people over those of another. All points of view are valid; inexperience doesn’t equal stupidity, and that worldliness doesn’t equal art. Perhaps if Deborah Salomon had considered all this, her interview might not have turned out so dreadfully.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Marilyn Manson's Celebrity Ghost Story is Badly Told B.S.

I seriously doubt Marilyn Manson’s Celebrity Ghost Story.
Over the Halloween weekend, I had the chance to catch Marilyn Manson’s segment on Celebrity Ghost Stories. I wasn’t very impressed. In fact, I think it’s a load of crap. Marilyn Manson’s account was problematic for me because while it was doubtlessly a great story, the narrative structure and his behavior while relating the story are not consistent with the story structure and story-telling behavior of other people I’ve studied, or even of the other celebrities who related their ghost stories on that program. Manson’s chief aim, as I will discuss, was to entertain himself by pulling the wool over the eyes of his gullible fans.

In the labyrinthine shadows of folklore studies lurks the uncertain and uncomfortable realm of memorates/revenants. These are the terms German folklorist Carl Von Sydow gave to describe experience narratives concerning a brush with the paranormal. Memorates are personal, first-hand accounts. Revenants develop when memorates that have been told to a second party are then related by that second party to a third party (folklorist Linda Degh has speculated that this is how the narratives we recognize as folk legend come into being). Please understand that one does not need to believe in the paranormal to appreciate memorates. I study the narrative as a true and honest account of someone’s subjective personal experience. This is to say that I can study the narrative structure of people’s accounts of their personal responses to disturbing events without having to believe that they really experienced a paranormal event. What matters is that the narrator believed she or he experienced such a thing and that they feel strongly enough about the experience to narrate it for others. The narrative structure predicated upon this need is fascinating and unique to this particular genre of story, which is the main reason I study it.

With rare exception, all of the stories related on Celebrity Ghost Stories are memorates. The exceptions involve stories such as Manson’s, which are absolutely fabricated.

It’s true that memorates entail a succession of strange, and often ever-worsening, incidents, which criteria is met by Manson’s tale. Memorates usually conclude with either the teller fleeing the haunted locale, or (less common) sticking around and making amends with the spirit(s), and Manson’s story meets this criteria as well. But even the best storytellers will derail strong narrative structure while relating a memorate, because it is a subjective personal experience that they have had to really process to understand. Memorates generally involve some narrative telescoping. By “telescoping,” I mean that as the teller relates parts of the story, they will intermittently pull back to reflect upon the feelings, and fears, and rationalizations they experienced during the event before continuing on with the story’s events. Personal digression is a hallmark of the memorate and it is notably absent from Manson’s account—it lacked telescoping. He told it straight through with little reflection on his own feelings at the time, and no attempts towards rationalization of the events during the telling of them. Unfortunately, because Manson never experienced the events related in his narrative, the structure of his narrative reflects his lack of honesty in relating this personal experience.

Manson’s primary interest in telling this story is to create an interesting tale that others will believe, because convincing others that his tale is true provides entertainment for Manson. Check out the plot points of Manson’s tale: Point A- beaten and then befriended by a cool guy bully; Point B- cool guy bully invites you over for the weekend; Point C- cool guy bully drags you into his Satanic lair, where he forces you to read the Necromonicon (note irony that cool guy bully is a closet Satanist) and makes you PROMISE not to tell his brother about it; Point D- the bully’s activities are thwarted by the arrival of his brother, a fact he does not take lightly and fortunately he has an alternate venue in mind—a cellar located under the remains of a house; Point E- Bully drags you to the alternate venue and makes you recite the Necronomicon by Bic light; Point F- It seems you successfully aroused some big evil, a fact that freaks both you and the cool guy bully out and both of you clear out of the basement and high-tail it back home (where the Satanic sacrifice blood barn of evil death is, btw). Point G- After staying the night with Satan’s lapdog the two set out to retrieve the Necronomicon, which was conveniently left behind in the mad rush to escape the cellar of doom; Point H- the mysterious house foundation and cellar are gone, replaced by an empty field. As we can see, Manson’s narrative is too tight. He didn’t make the digressions anyone relating a genuine memorate makes, but he does have a double-whammy twist ending for both the narrative and the story related within it, which is a characteristic that memorates generally lack.

Manson makes up for this lack of narrative reflection during the telling by over-rationalization at the end of it. The alleged event ends with the twist that the Satanic cellar has disappeared, and the tale-as-told ends with Manson ascribing his monstrous aspects to the evil he unleashed as a teenager. What links the two is the causal relationship he constructs between his powerlessness in finding and destroying the book and his resultant powerlessness at redeeming himself from the monstrousness he has embraced. Not only has he come to terms with what happened, he has blamed this experience for creating the darkness in his own heart. Significantly, this darkness is the major component of Manson’s public persona. The twist ending catapults Manson past his utter lack of reflection and into an over-rationalization of how the event impacted his life. Memorate tellers usually relate some sort of closure in their tales either with the actual events, or through the narration of them, or both. They may also remark how the experience impacted them for the rest of their lives. But they all stop short of ascribing gigantic chunks of psychosocial development to the experience. And they usually don’t highlight the experience as formative of the personality aspect they are most well-known for.

The interrelationship of plot elements, the lack of reflection, and the convenient pattern of causality are all too neatly interwoven for this to be a bona fide memorate. Yet these are not the only aspects of Manson’s narrative that call its veracity into question. Manson’s devil is found primarily in the details. There are a few carefully related and specific details that he meant to add veracity to the story but which when examined betray the falseness of the story.

The first example came when Manson mentions the blood-soaked hay, littering the Satanic death hayloft in the barn. Curiously, he never mentions any smell. Of the five senses, smell is the most closely related to memory. If Manson was telling a real story, the stench of rotting death and the flies and maggots attracted to the carcasses would have impressed upon his memory far more than the sight of bloody hay. Which raises another point regarding plot plausibility: as the barn was doubtless reeking of the stench of death, how could the bully’s brother have been so clueless about the Satanic shenanigans in the hayloft that the bully needed to warn Manson not to tell the brother anything? Why is it that, upon seeing the carcasses and the Satanic altar, Manson didn’t fear he would end up another sacrifice on the bully’s Satanic altar? Had he felt that fear, it should have come forth in a reflective moment during the narration. That this didn’t happen suggests that the events in question probably didn’t take place. Another question undermining the story’s plausibility is that if the bully was so concerned about his brother discovering the Satanic sacrifices, why not just keep the Satanic altar and sacrificed critter corpses in the cellar in the woods, thus ensuring the brother remain clueless about it all? The bloody hay detail was included to verify the existence of the sacrificial hayloft, and thus make the story more plausible. Yet because Manson’s primary sensory memory was visual instead of aromatic—when there should have been such more overwhelming scent details to remember—his verifying detail becomes a strong indicator that his tale is false.

I very much liked the detail that Manson remembers burning his thumb on the hot metal of the Bic lighter while using it to try to read the Necronomicon. Out of this entire story, this is the one detail that really rings somewhat true. The only criticism I can give is that it is virtually impossible to keep a lighter flame going while turning the pages of a book. Which brings me to the most outlandish detail of this entire tale: The book Manson was forced to read from was the Necronomicon. Really.

Traditionally, the Necronomicon is the name of an evil grimoire, or spell-book, that periodically recurs in horror author H. P. Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft’s disciples Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth also feature recurrent mentions of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. He approved of this because such mentions made it seem as if the Necronomicon was a real book, but in fact it never existed before H.P. Lovecraft invented it. Even then it was an obscure reference in many of stories but was never published by Lovecraft as a work in its own right. In 1977, German publisher Schlangekraft, Inc published a leather-bound edition of the Necronomicon. The grimoire is comprised of spells, rituals, and demonology—largely based on Sumerian and Babylonian mythology—allegedly related by the “Mad Arab” to “Simon,” the grimoire’s alleged author. This detail of conjuring evil from the Necronomicon is so suited to the story being told that it seems to be TOO perfect. This is the perfect book to mention if one is inventing a harrowing tale of compulsory participation in ritual sacrifice, which is precisely what Manson did.

Manson mentions the book but makes no attempt to explain what it is or otherwise contextualize it. He seems to assume that the audience will already know what it is. Given the cultural predilections of Manson’s fan base, it is almost certain that they would know something about the Necronomicon and believe that it is an extant demonic text. But it is unlikely that the majority of CGS audience members would have had any clue what the Necronomicon is. Manson has always been a savvy self-promoter and it is doubtful he would have made this omission if he had been concerned with having the wider audience base understand and believe his story. The Necronomicon reference suggests that although he was telling his tale to a wider audience, he was specifically addressing the narrative to his fans. Conveniently, Manson’s fans are also the least likely among CGS-watchers to question the veracity of his narrative.

Manson addressed his tale to his audience, and as a master entertainer he knows not only what his fans want to hear, but also what they don’t. They would not be interested in the psychological digressions from the narrative’s plot, because they would be too impatient to get to, and linger on, demonic details. He also knows that his fans expect a punchy ending, and he gave them one. The double-whammy twist of the vanishing cellar with the Necronomicon trapped inside, and his assertion that this event made him the twisted creature he is today, makes his tale less of a memorate and more like the plot of a comic book hero’s “origin story.” The convoluted plot events and the tragically dark ending are exactly what his fans expect from their prefered comic books, music, films, and other amusements. These generic conventions are is so ingrained that Manson’s fans wouldn’t recognize or appreciate an honest memorate if they were told one. It would fail to meet their expectations and they would be disappointed, quite possibly to the point of thinking the story false. All of which makes Manson’s story ring true for them. The details about the bloody hay and the Bic lighter are also the sort of things that his fans would find realistic and believable but which in retrospect only serve as red flags to ethnographers like me. Manson lied about experiencing any such events as those he relates, but he does offer an entertaining tale plausible enough to his fan base that they believe him. For Manson, that is pure entertainment.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

White Tiger Bites Indians

Let me preface this discussion by explaining why I have finally gotten around to reading a 2-year-old Booker Award-winning novel when everyone else in the literary universe has already forgotten about it and moved on. I've spent the last two years studying the intricacies of Cajun women's narratives of travel and transformation in order to finish my dissertation. If it wasn't about Cajuns, women's travel writing, study abroad, oral narratives, or rites of passage, I didn't read it. So I was more than ready to devour some new-to-me books. I was out shopping for random knickknacks at Big Lots one day and there Aravind Adiga's White Tiger was, languishing on the .50¢ book table with piles and piles of other enticing tomes, all offered at this insanely cheap rate. I picked up about 15 of them that day, and White Tiger just happened to be the first of the 15 that I decided to read. Having thought this over for at least a week, I can only say that sometimes high literary theory is called for, and sometimes it isn't. In thinking over Aravind Adiga's White Tiger, I'm honestly not sure which way to go. Is it literary, intellectual, art? Oh-my-yes. But it's also visceral, searing, and more than a little cruel. Perhaps Adiga's deft negotiation of this literary tightrope is why this novel won him the Booker prize. It left me feeling deeply ambivalent yet absolutely captivated. I've read it twice in a month. It lingers with me, like the thick smell of cypress water, dead fish and algae drifting up from the Louisiana bayou on a hot and moonless August night. Rather than risk spoilers, I will simply say that Aravind Adiga's tale reads like it's the ideological love child of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Edward Said's Orientalism; a love child that was abandoned at a tender age and adopted by auntie Gayatri Spivak, under whose tutelage it learned when to be silent, when to speak, and when to be snarky.

I think it is very interesting that Adiga chose the epistolary form to convey Balram Halwai's narrative. Framing the narrative as an extended letter addressed to a foreign dignitary automatically casts the reader as an outsider to the discourse. The reader increasingly takes on the role of voyeur, learning things that she shouldn't, by all rights, be privy to. At times, the squalid awful details Halwai gives make his life begin to seem like the sort of awful road accident he studiously avoids while driving the insane streets of Delhi. The novel's readers in turn increasingly become like the rubbernecking drivers clogging up the motorway he navigates so gingerly. One consequence of Adiga's choice of the epistolary form is that the narrative becomes sordid almost to the point of becoming sensational. As a result, those who read White Tiger are implied to be thrill seeking eavesdroppers, vicariously experiencing the biting darkness of the upwardly mobile Indian underclass, all with little risk to their personal well-being. I'm not sure whether this stylistic choice is brilliant or cynical, or both. Maybe it all depends on who the reader understands herself to be in relation to the text. Considering Adiga's portrait of conniving drivers devouring Delhi's popular “Murder Weekly” tabloid, it begins to seem that Adiga was primarily concerned with forcing the reader to come to terms with the voyeuristic (perhaps even sadistic?) streak that compels rapt attention but little else.

I also find Adiga's choice to have Halwai address the Chinese premier interesting: Halwai does not fashion his narrative to inform or entertain white Western ears. He is looking east, to China. In so doing, Adiga subtly connects China and India as twin scavengers whose economic fortunes depend on the astronomical level of commercial consumption that characterizes the Anglophone diaspora, most especially America. If not for the excesses of the comparatively rich white West, neither China nor India would be nearly so financially prosperous. This is acknowledged by Halwai, who believes that India and China have much to offer each other- India has technology, entrepreneurship and democracy (at least the rich, modern parts do), but China has capital, discipline, and most important to Halwai, infrastructure. He offers himself to the Prime Minister as an expert on Indian entrepreneurship, citing his authority as a former member of the servant class working to keep master happy, and as a former driver for wealthy, politically-connected Indian elites. To Halwai's thinking, the government would have to see India as it really is, rather than as they pretend it is, to be able to understand and help replicate Indian-style entrepreneurship for the Chinese, because Indian entrepreneurship relies on recognizing and then subverting the master/servant dynamic. As the chapters progress, the tone and form begin to change, a shift telegraphed by the continuously devolving letter headings, meant initially to parody the conventions of business letter etiquette. The pretensions of proper business negotiations begin to slip away along with Halwai's entrepreneur mask. By Chapter 3, it becomes clear that Halwai is not addressing the Chinese premier in hopes of being acknowledged as an expert on anything, much less entrepreneurship. Rather, it is a way for him to sort through and come to terms with the poverty, desperation, conniving, theft, and murder that made it possible for him to join the ranks of the upwardly mobile in Bangalore. Halwai uses the Chinese premier as an excuse to make and rationalize his confession. In addressing Halwai's narrative to the Chinese, Adiga cleverly sidesteps the postcolonial implications that would arise if Halwai was addressing British, or even American, political figures. Western guilt is not the point Adiga cares to make through Halwai's narrative. He aims his critique of post-millennial Indian society squarely at the economic and political elites in Delhi and the technology entrepreneurs of Mumbai and Bangalore. But then again, it isn't these people who dish out the awards.

Artistic merit notwithstanding, the longer I read White Tiger, the more I had a nagging sensation that something I found myself asking at one point, is White Tiger really the sound that Spivak's subaltern would make if he spoke? Adiga's observational acuity, wit, audacity, and depth made a moving and disturbing portrait of one very exceptional, flawed, (Manna) Balram Halwai--the sort of character who sticks with you long after the story's over. But as I read, I began to have serious doubts about the authenticity that, presumably, lies at the core of the novel. Adiga's credibility as an author counts on the reader's presumption that he knows his people, their struggles, their experiences, beliefs, and dreams--that he is one of them and portrays them authentically. The committee that awarded Adiga the Booker Prize for White Tiger, as well as the authors heartily recommending it in colorful blurbs on the dust jacket, clearly believed that Halwai was a faithful interpretation of the average rural Indian trying to move up in the world. According to John Burdett, author of Bangkok 8, White Tiger “ the authentic voice of the Third World, like you've never heard it before. Adiga is a global Gorky, a modern Kipling who grew up, and grew mad. The future of the novel lies here.” Andrew Holgate of the London Times claims that “unlike almost any other Indian novel you may have read in recent years, this page-turner offers a completely bald, angry, unadorned portrait of the country as seen from the bottom of the heap; there's not a sniff of saffron or a swirl of a sari anywhere...” People who make things happen in the literary world very much believe that Adiga's work is an authentic portrait of the modern India and that Balram Halwai is an authentic portrayal of the contemporary Indian. The more I pondered White Tiger, the more that nagging sensation began to feel like a mosquito attack.

I also find suspect Halwai's attitudes toward his murder of Master Ashok and the subsequent murder of his own family at the vengeful hands of Ashok's landowner-family. Other than Halwai's brief recognition, which occurs in an odd-fitting moment of quasi-magical realism near the end, that his family will be entirely slaughtered in retaliation for the murder he is about to commit, and his blood-boiling rage that his masters dare threaten his family at all, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything resembling love in Halwai's feelings for his family. There are several mentions of honorific deaths and Halwai's touching and dutiful attending these dying family members, and several moments where Halwai's affection for his brother Kishan briefly outshines his absolute resentment for Kishan's removing him from a promising educational opportunity. But there is no joy possible anywhere in Halwai's life, no genuine family love, and beyond the rare misty-eyed lament about missing his village and his family, no affection for anything from his former life. They are the means by which and reasons that he is kept in the “Rooster Coop,” an ideological analogy Adiga invents in White Tiger to describe the social circumstances in which people such as Halwai live. By contrast, Halwai never stops speaking of the lovely and decent master he murdered, portraying them both as victims of a corrupt world. Halwai states that he feels as possessive about master Ashok's life as he does about his murder, and will defend his master's good name to any who dare slander it. If Halwai is meant to explode the stereotype of the good and faithful servant class as an angry, exploited, cruel, and greedy mob victimized by their situation in life, doesn't Halwai's love for and loyalty to the memory of his corrupt master contradict Adiga's explosion of that stereotype and re-inscribe the idea of the good and faithful servant at a much more insidious level? I think it does, and the proof of this reinscription is that Halwai shows zero love, loyalty, or affection for his own family that was murdered by master Ashok's corrupt and wealthy family. Halwai is genuinely more remorseful about having murdered his master to free himself than he is at the death of his family, whose deaths he cannot bring himself to acknowledge. We are led to entertain his feelings on the subject as valid, given the pivotal role that family duty plays in maintaining the “Rooster Coop,” that Halwai murdered and thieved his way out of. In the world of White Tiger, family is an oppressive and evil force that can and should be sacrificed to get ahead in life. This may be true in the world of the novel, but readers are in danger of presuming that modern Indians feel the same way as Halwai. I do not wish to say that Adiga's Halwai is a totally fabrication with no truth anywhere in it, but rather to say that Halwai is not only a “half-baked man” but a half-baked character as well, one who has been mistakenly embraced as authentic, and this leaves a very distorted impression of the people struggling to make lives for themselves in India. Adiga's art here is as brutal in its unfairness to people in India as Adiga portrays Halwai's granny Kusun to be to her family.

As it turns out, I am not the only one to call Adiga's portrayal of the villagers and their lives into question. In the literary review he wrote about White Tiger for the Indian national newspaper, The Hindu, Indian author and Bihar native Amitava Kumar criticizes Adiga's arrogance at portraying life in Bihar while knowing nothing about it. Kumar has a tremendous amount of authority to criticize, Adiga's portrayal of Bihar and its relationship to the rest of India because he was born and raised in Bihar. Kumar points to one passage of White Tiger in particular that he finds so false as to be offensively unfair:

A month before the rains, the men came back from Dhanbad and Delhi and Calcutta, leaner, darker, angrier, but with money in their pockets. The women were waiting for them. They hid behind the door, and as soon as the men walked in, they pounced, like wildcats on a slab of lesh. They were fighting and wailing and shrieking. My uncles would resist, and managed to keep some of their money, but my father got peeled and skinned every time. ‘I survived the city, but I couldn’t survive the women in my home,’ he would say, sunk into a corner of the room. The women would feed him after they fed the buffalo.

Kumar explains that “I had witnessed such men, and sometimes women, coming back to their village homes countless times. The novelist seemed to know next to nothing about either the love or the despair of the people he was writing about. And yet, my objection wasn’t simply that I found Adiga’s scenario implausible. Rather, I wanted to know if others, who might never have visited Bihar, read the last line of the paragraph quoted above and recognised how wrong it was...As I continued, I found on nearly every page a witty observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounded false. I stopped reading on page 35.” Kumar goes on to make an insightful criticism of the novel and the complex politics of the authentic and the real in which the novel is hopelessly enmeshed. I don't care to entirely retread that entire argument here, because my main point is more related to another of Kumar's comments, that “the first-person narration disguises a cynical anthropology. Because his words are addressed to an outsider, the Chinese Premier, Halwai was at freedom to present little anthropological mini-essays on all matters Indian.” Kumar accuses Adiga, and in my opinion rightfully so, of acting in “bad faith” towards his subject. The authenticity issues at the heart of White Tiger are important because the ultimate consequence of Adiga's claims to authenticity have led the British literary elite to embrace this cruel and unfair portrait of modern rural India as true, largely based on a the cynical quasi-anthropological digressions that Halwai makes in his narrative.

It seems that the nagging sensation/mosquito attack I felt was the painful and slowly dawning realization that Adiga's portrayal of Halwai is probably not necessarily an authentic portrayal of a traditional Indian from a small village in a poor state, even though the entire literary world seemed to think it was. As a reader, I felt manipulated and cheated by Adiga's bad faith. As an ethnographer and folklorist, I was incensed at Adiga's pretensions to enthographic authority.
My primary research interests are ethnography and folklore, and I have done much work studying the relationship between folklore and literature. In my research and experience, authors who build their stories on conflicts that are rooted in regional differences will always have culturally specific references in the text. Given Adiga's conceit that inland India nourished by Mother Ganga is Darkness, and coastal India washed clean by the ocean is Light, this novel is crucially dependent upon regional differences for character, plot, and theme. Generally speaking, local folklore is folded into the layers of an author's work, often providing local color but even more often providing a cultural counterpoint to the written text. As this is an epistolary novel narrated by a man claiming insider knowledge that his correspondent needs to know, it makes good sense to include myriad anthropological mini-lectures about life in India; the narrator is building his credibility as a cultural expert. But what these lectures convey in stark indignation and anger they totally lack in local folklore, which is to say that there is a complete lack of reference to, or use of, the culturally-specific expressive culture unique to a place that demonstrates in an artful way the world view and attitudes of the people who live there. In this case, a world view that is not, in all likelihood, as wholly vile and cannibalistic as Adiga makes out.

One striking example of this is Adiga's use of “the Black Fort”. Adiga brought it into the story to serve as a cypher that would be given meaning only when associated with Halwai's dawning consciousness. Lovely symbolism, but when places such as the Black Fort are found in or around a community, they are always the locus of local lore: myths, ghost stories, legends about people, events and battles, memorates of the funny or sad or scary experiences of friends and family members. When authors who have been strongly influenced by place and the specific culture of that place fold things like the Black Fort into their work, it is usually because they wish to convey how that place is a nexus of meanings gleaned from the local lore about it- the site is portrayed as a meaning-drenched symbol. When a character speaks of or interacts with the site, she/he interacts with the many layers of meaning it holds, layers which serve to comment upon and deepen the character. Adiga's Black Fort is devoid of these layers of meaning. It is suggested that Laxmahgarh has a few stories about the fort, but these are mentioned in passing and summarily rejected to make way to use of the site as a literary symbol. Halwai's fascination with the fort symbolizes his fascination for the exotic and the grand—the fort is a synechdoche for The Light of coastal urban India--which is so far from his village life as to seem magical and mysterious. That his granny mocks his fear, claiming (rightfully as it turns out) that Halwai's fear would scare him from exploring the fort, the larger implication is that his fear is would similarly keep him from escaping from Luxmangarh. His later disdainful spitting upon his village from between the walls of the Black Fort clearly conveys the hate he has come to feel for his home, family and neighbors, as well as their cultural values, as a result of his exposure to somewhat better economic circumstances. The Black Fort is suitable as a literary symbol, but it is hardly believable as a special site surrounded by a living community. I grant Adiga's done√© that Halwai is an angry, savvy, wounded man robbed of things he rightfully deserved because of family duty and social inequality, and that he had convincing reasons for spitting upon his home village. But my respect of Adiga's artistic choices and his skillful execution of them pulls up short when I am asked to believe that Halwai and his reactions are representative of an entire group of people- i.e., those who live in Adiga's Darkness.

Sadly, the critics who love this novel clearly believe Adiga is giving a truthful representation. One wonders if those who live in inland India would appreciate Adiga's portrayal of them as backward, petty, peasants living in total Darkness. Would they see themselves as hopeless denizens of villages blighted by Darkness? I think many of them would be hurt, indignant, and angry at being portrayed so one-lopsidedly. Yet there is little danger in them ever encountering Adiga's cynical portrayal of them because, ironically, one detail Adiga got right is the staggering unavailability of actual books in rural villages.

The issue of cultural representation at the heart of my response to White Tiger is one example of the intellectual fallout from the post-structuralism characterizing much of American literary thought since the 1980's that acutely impacted folklore studies. Folklorists conduct hundreds of enthographic interviews with people who often live in marginalized cultural groups or in remote areas that are marginalized by default through being distant from the urban centers where social and cultural policy priorities are made. Very often we are tasked with bringing this work not only to the critical think-tank of the academy but also to the larger public in the form of arts and music festivals and other cultural events. We are on hand to serve as mediators between the performers and the audience, because our primary function in the public presentation context is to provide interpretive background on what audiences are seeing and hearing. Folklore experienced a discipline-wide crisis of representation that left some grappling with whether we should even bother to bring traditional arts into public presentation, as our efforts are doomed to inauthenticity. What we finally decided on is a policy of good faith. We cannot present the “truth” of a culture to an audience. We cannot guarantee absolute authenticity of performance given that the festival stage is very different from the front porch of the local bait shop where fiddles are played and stories are swapped. The only thing we can do is try to be as honest and fair in our presentation and interpretation of the culture as we possibly can be. We don't aim to present ourselves as authorities on the culture whose interpretations are faultless, because we recognize that our duty is to maintain professional integrity by granting the people we work with authority over their own culture, and working to convey that to audiences both public and academic.

Adiga is a journalist, not an ethnographer. In fact, he is a journalist from upper-class India who was raised in Australia and educated at both Oxford and Columbia. He has, as Kumar points out, “taken the bus, or at least a hired taxi, to the hinterland.” and “might have traveled on a boat and risked being eaten by a Royal Bengal Tiger,” or “have walked in the tight, smelly alleys in the slums and...met a hired killer or two”. Kumar admits that White Tiger and novels like it “seem direct responses to the numbing social violence in nearly every strata of Indian society.”, Kumar, even though he is himself a journalist writing in this genre of Indian literature, admits that “...reportage is only an inoculation against the charge of inauthenticity.” In White Tiger, Adiga is only fictionalizing what he saw during his years as a journalist correspondent for Time magazine, and as everyone knows, journalists are concerned with exposing and conveying the gritty reality of their subjects. Which is fine, but a problem arises when the journalist becomes so disheartened and angry that he stops looking for other aspects of real life that don't confirm his pessimistic view of the subject about which he writes. In Adiga's case, that subject is India. Adiga feels anger and indignation on behalf of the people he sees exploited in Indian society, but he is definitely not one of them. Righteous indignation does not a cultural insider make. Consequently, White Tiger is not an expose of any “real” India about which Adiga has authority to speak. Rather, it is an expose of Adiga's experience reporting on India, and the only authority he has is the authority over his own experience. There is nothing wrong with that in journalism or in literature, so long as readers recognize that this is the case. In the case of White Tiger, they clearly don't.

That critics have mistaken Adiga's bad faith for truth is particularly distressing given that White Tiger is necessarily a postcolonial context. One of the reasons that the British empire justified colonizing 40% of the known world was the seemingly unassailable claim to a cultural supremacy made evident through superiority of Britain's military, technology, and economy. The people of India were regarded as dark, backward, and slightly less savage than the conquered people of Africa and the Caribbean, albeit most promising as colonial subjects due to their traditional respect for a caste system so rigid and distinct that the Imperial British class hierarchy seemed to be merely a lax, inconsequential formality by comparison. Adiga's White Tiger more or less confirms the original Imperial view that India was a land of darkness, made light only in the areas where western culture—in modern times the consumer culture of America as well as Britain—had taken root and flourished. Critics who embraced White Tiger so strongly as to award it the Man Booker prize have, albeit unwittingly, perpetuated the Imperial tendency to further legitimize its views by awarding the loyal subject for confirming its views. Adiga's prize was not a win for India; it was a win for reactionary stereotypes that having been embraced and legitimated will only make and honest and respectful understanding of India and Indians that much harder to realize.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Narrative Intentions?

It occurs to me that the term "narrative intent" sounds both titillating and vague. I'm afraid that the only way to clear this up is to wax theoretical for a moment. Skip the next few paragraphs and head to *** if you want to know what I'm up to without having it analyzed, theorized, dissected, and critiqued for you first.

Here goes: For me, the idea of intent is directly linked to the idea of creation. Intent is deliberate and premeditated: it is determined to evoke, direct, conjure, and/or bring about a purpose. I also believe, as pertaining to the human experience of the act of creating, that even the most spontaneous act of creation has at its core a very specific intent, regardless of how small or inconsequential that intent might seem. I even go so far as to suggest that some spontaneous creative acts are done for no greater or lesser purpose than to avoid boredom, which I believe to be the case every time one of my students doodles an Anime pirate figure in her notebook rather than take actual notes during a presentation. Creative, yes. Intentional, yes. But meaningful? Probably not.

This is where "narrative" comes in. Narrative is a product of creativity but what distinguishes it from spontaneous doodling is that narrative is intended to convey a story. Every narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end, even up to and including those postmodern narratives that jumble these elements for artistic impact (or increasingly, entertainment value). There is always a plot of some sort, whether it is a knight's quest to find the Holy Grail, a junket of self-discovery that takes place while meandering Dublin all day, a young film production associate loosing his wrath and indignation upon his cruel and sadistic executive supervisor, or the absurd diversions of two men waiting ceaselessly and endlessly for the seemingly inevitable to arrive. There are plot twists. There is always at least one character, even when the narrator is relating a personal experience she has had, or one that her mother or father or friend has had. Stories are intentional arrangements of interesting elements related in such a way as to deliver a coherent account which the audience of the story can understand and appreciate.

How well the audience receives the story is directly related to the level and importance of meaning they can perceive in and/or derive from the narrative. In my opinion, meaning is not something that is predetermined and then executed by the narrator, but rather it is something that is co-created between the narrator and the audience, each of whom bring their own interests, ideas, experiences, beliefs, understanding, and tastes to the story. The repercussions of this idea are different for live/performed/evanescent narratives than for written/recorded/fixed narratives, but I think the fundamental point that meaning is co-created rather than imposed and received is valid in any case. Reader-response theory scholars such as Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauss, Stanley Fish, Michael Riffaterre, and Gerald Prince have a lot more to say about the co-creation of meaning in a given text. If you're curious, go find out more. I'm moving on.

The idea of narrative as meaning-drenched and intentional act of creation doesn't only to apply to narrative texts imparted from narrator to audience. I'm in agreement with psychologist Jerome Bruner that the human mind structures its sense of reality by using different cultural products- language systems, symbols, and most significantly, narrative. Human beings understand reality primarily because we create an ordered, coherent, convincing story about what reality is, which in turn influences the reality we create through our actions and thoughts. We can only ascribe meaning to things that we can understand. Thus, our ability to make meaning influences our understanding of narrative texts, but narrative is the primary prerequisite human beings have for apprehending the meaning of reality and interpreting it as such in their daily lives. Bruner's essay The Narrative Construction of Reality is a much deeper explanation of this theoretical stance, if anyone wants to know more about it.

In the late 90's Australian psychologist Michael White and his New Zealander colleague David Epston wrote Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends which takes Bruner's ideas much farther. In their work, White and Epston demonstrate that when a person suffering from certain psychological conditions is lead through different layers of their experiences and encouraged to build a new narrative understanding of these experiences, they can release the more damaged and counterproductive identity, for example assault victim, and inhabit a more stable and productive identity- survivor. I am officially out of my theoretical depth at this point. I mention this because I think it's interesting that not only has the discipline of psychology begun to recognize the role that our ability to narrate plays in shaping out reality, but also the role that it can play in helping us reconstruct a less damaged and more stable reality.

The point of this blog is to create a space where we can explore and investigate the relationship between narrative and meaning, whereas narrative is recognized to be an intentional creative act, and meaning is recognized to be an interpretation that is co-created between narrators and those who attend their tales. Sometimes this means picking apart a given narative, and sometimes this involves relating one of my own, or one from a friend.

Narrative Intent- The Backstory

I started this blog over a year ago with a strong desire to blog my own narratives, things about narratives, things about thinking about narratives, etc. My initial posts were more or less fun experiments to get the hang of this blogging thingy. Then I got swept into the undertow of dissertation research, and all things beyond working on my dissertation and teaching a few classes got shoved into the background. I defended my dissertation June 11, thereby earning the title of PhD. After a monotonous and painful revisions process, I sent my final copies in to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Grad School last Thursday thereby finishing the process. Almost immediately my brain flooded with all the stuff I had wanted to do but put off. This blog was among the first things I remembered, and I knew I wanted to re-boot it. After careful consideration, I realized that I really want to better conceptualize what this blog is about and gear the writing toward that concept.

My change in viewpoint is directly related to two important factors. The first and most important is my dissertation work. The dissertation I just defended analyzed the journal accounts and personal oral narratives of four Cajun women's experiences studying abroad in Italy in Summer of 2008. I met them because I was teaching both of the courses they all took. In all honesty, this was my third choice for a dissertation project. My first, intended to analyze the oral histories and personal experience narratives and folk belief of the people living in the Plaquemines Parish fishing village of Grand Bayou Louisiana, was destroyed right along with the village when Hurricane Katrina made landfall a few miles away in Venice, LA. The second, an analysis of the traditional narratives of the Evangeline story as related by five professional Cajun and Creole storytellers was obliterated by Hurricane Gustav, which displaced all of them as well as inundating the archive where much of the Louisiana-specific and Louisiana-generated Evangeline research and material was collected. Thankfully my students and their journals were interesting and available for research. The dissertation did take a very unexpected departure when it became clear that the study abroad experience actually served as a bona-fide rite of passage for the women, but that none of the current ritual theory currently in place was appropriate for discussing the experience as such. So the bulk of my dissertation actually was taken up with this very theory-heavy excursion into lived experience. When I am ready to foray back into my dissertation topic, I'll analyze their narratives. Until then, I'm working on other narrative stuff.

Nonetheless there is a thread running through all of my dissertation projects and that is the importance of oral narratives of personal experiences. This is as it should be, given that my primary research interest is Folklore, and my primary source-gathering methodology is ethnography. For a lot of people, the word "folklore" conjures some strange and exotic notions. Some imagine elderly rural denizens swapping stories, singing folk songs to a scratchy violin or accordion accompaniment; others think of the fairytale books of the Grimms, Perrault, and Anderson; some remember well-known stories of legendary and tangentially historical figures like Pecos Bill, Mike Fink, and Paul Bunyan; and still others think of folklore in terms of mythology, especially of the Greco-Roman variety. They are all correct. But they literally don't have the whole story. I regard folklore as the culturally-specific, tradition-defined, expressive culture of a specific folk group. This definition includes food, dancing, holidays, artifacts, games, holidays etc. but most importantly, it includes personal experience narratives that would otherwise go under-appreciated and under-recorded because they don't fit the easy and obvious categories of folk songs, myths, legends, and folktales. I am fairly committed to exploring the scope of these narratives and cultural expressions, and this is the factor that all three of my dissertation projects have in common.

On the other hand, I am FASCINATED by narratives of all kinds- books, films, video games, YouTube shorts, television programs, news articles, broadcast news pieces, graphic novels, emails and blogs, etc. to name a few. Which is why I figured my work would be a good fit for the International Society for the Study of Narrative. My convictions were so strong as to compel my attendance at the 2009 International conference held in Birmingham, UK. My work got mixed reception, because apparently I am the first folklorist working with ethnographically- gathered, minimally mediated personal oral narrative. I might as well have flown in from Mars., because almost everyone there was a a hard narratology theorist working with literary/print sources. Fortunately, some people were very curious about me and my work. These people are genre (specifically sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery) scholars, graphic novels/comics scholars, slash and fanfic scholars, music lyrics scholars, and media scholars. These people are studying the things I love most. But I was the only one working on oral narratives of any sort, much less personal narratives. Nobody in the narratology field had any notion of ethnography, nor any idea that ethnography has much to offer formal narratology. To be fair, few in my discipline are aware of the valuable insight that formal narratology can bring to our own studies.

Between my professional activity with personal narratives and my interest in all of the things my colleagues from the narrative conference study, I keenly feel a need to explore all of these things in an informed yet informal forum, so that interested and engaged parties can comment on, and contribute to ideas about narrative. With my dissertation project over and my degree finally won, I am branching out into a deeper exploration of all things narrative. Welcome to Narrative Intent.