Saturday, May 01, 2010

Cinematic Prose and Its Posthuman Other

In one week Lake Forest will hold its commencement and I'll take off my professor's hat for the summer. A few weeks later, in June, I will become a student again for one week at Naropa University's Summer Writing Program. Partly, I'm doing this for pedagogical purposes; it's been many years since I took part in a writing workshop and now that I teach them, I'd like to re-experience what it's like to participate in one. Mainly, it's to "come out" further as a poet who writes fiction, into a critical space that will, I hope, suitably problematize what fiction is and help me to understand just what it and I can do for each other.

I have hopes for this workshop's providing a doorway into the study of fiction, or at least of writing that includes the fictional, that will not simply reproduce the mainstream aesthetic. One of the writers I might study with is Thalia Field, quoted in my previous post, and she's come up with a useful bit of shorthand for that aesthetic that she calls "cinematic prose." At the same time I have no wish to reproduce the affectless postmodern collage aesthetic that I've encountered in my initial forays (though I do often find that work compelling, especially at its most abstract and Asperbergers-esque, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Tao Lin).

The other class I might take will be led by Laird Hunt; I love his novel The Impossibly for the way it plays with noir conventions while inventing an abstract narrative language that constantly deflects the reader from simple identification with its narrator. Though that narrator does happen to be another affectless, Aspergers-esque figure, there's a baroque quality to the lacunae in the thriller plot that he unfolds for us that suggests something more interesting is going on than postmodern minimalism. That and what little I've seen of Hunt's other fiction suggests an appetite for something more heightened--what I think of as the operatic, which is another alternative to the cinematic.

Why we must resort to analogies with performance genres to get at the new in fiction is another question that Field perhaps is best equipped to answer, since her own hard-to-classify writing blends aspects of the essay, the poem, fiction, and most significantly, theater. In one interview pertaining to the "lyric essay," she notes that if you read her work "solely from the point of view of the essay, you might find it lacking. In the same way if you approach it as a story, or certainly as a poem, you would find other things lacking." Yet I can attest that there's nothing minimal about Field's writing; she too is a practitioner of narrative baroquely Swiss-cheesed baroque by lacunae and digression.

In her Context interview (a periodical produced by the great Dalkey Archive Press), Field articulates a compelling defense of hybrid or cross-genre work, taking from John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” the idea that “language can refresh form (naming) by prioritizing nonconceptual freedom rather than ideas which precede perception.” She defends postmodern fragmentation as an ecological imperative: “Cut open to expose the human-centered narrative for its arrogance and ignorance, the complex impartiality of the world without cinematic point of view makes for disorienting, broken, beautiful frames.”

Notice how the word “frames” preserves some analogy to cinema and visual art, even as Field criticizes “cinematic point of view” for the way in which it reinforces the ideology of the rugged individualist that filmed narratives deploy. I am reminded of possibly my favorite of the five remakes of the 1967 short film The Perfect Human that Jørgen Leth directs under constraints imposed by Lars von Trier in The Five Obstructions: “The Perfect Human: Brussels.” This is the remake that Leth makes without actual constraints (or to put it another way, without von Trier’s malicious yet useful mode of collaboration), as punishment for having broken the rules in the previous version, “The Perfect Human: Bombay.” It’s an elliptical noir that deploys certain tropes of the thriller—a mysterious man on a mysterious mission, an equally mysterious and beautiful “woman,” hotels, rendezvous, evening dress, sex—while eliding and eluding the thriller plot. Its most salient feature for this discussion is the voice-over narration, in which an unseen man speculates about the film’s hero, “the perfect man.” “Who is he? I would like to know something more about him. I have seen him smoke a cigarette. Does he think about fucking?” These questions focus the viewer’s attention onto the cinematic tropism unfolding before his eyes: it is enough for a camera to follow a man through city streets and into a lobby where he asks the clerk if he has any messages for us to identify with and invest in his singularity, his protagonism (try this even more unwieldy coinage: protagon-organism). The literary device of the voice-over (which any film student will tell you is a sign of weakness, a crutch that breaks faith with the codes of visual storytelling) breaks the very “perfection” that the film, qua film, pursues.

If film can transgress its own form in pursuit of truth by incorporating the literary, Field seems to suggest that literature must dissociate itself from the cinematic if it is to break from its compulsive anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. “Cinematic prose contains consistent scale, in space and time, and the human figure, whether in close-up or establishing shot, predominates. This aesthetic holds because ultimately we don’t spend a lot of time in the awareness of our world without ourselves as tragic heroes of it.” Instead, she suggests that "Revising our obsession with domestic psychosymbolic tragedies (set on the literary equivalent of Hollywood “soundstages”) could shake the narrow focus and force us to listen differently" to "paradoxical, poly-vocal, cacophonous" stories.

To keep this in a literary frame, you could say that Field advocates a poetics of heteroglossia over monoglossia, and that what takes her beyond Bakhtin is her desire to incorporate not merely non-literary elements and voices into her writing, but also the nonhuman. A heteroglossia of the posthuman exceeds, I think, the bounds of any cinema unless that cinema abandons narrative or even representation (think of Stan Brakhage). A radical materialism, it would seek to embody discourse (making social production discernible and available to critique), and discover discourse in the body (human bodies, animal bodies). It's no wonder that Field's second book of unclassifiable but visually poetic pieces is titled Incarnate: Story Material.

The "cinematic prose" analogy fascinates me because my own fictional investigation began with wondering what it was, exactly, that a prose fiction could do that wasn't at this stage in history a belated form of cinema. My protagonist, or one of them, is a deliberately flat, "perfect" character, very much an object for the imaginary omniscient camera to track through the plot. I am not myself ready to abandon the realm of domestic psychosymbolic tragedy; I hope rather than suppressing that element to heighten it, pushing again toward the operatic, which I would define as a mode that explores opportunities for heightened feeling, for excesses of feeling to match the excesses of language that attract me. For I am simply not a minimalist (nor am I a Buddhist practitioner of non-attachment, as Field is). As much as I admire Beckett, I imprinted early on Joyce, lovely tenor, who certainly remains inexhaustibly "paradoxical, poly-vocal, cacophonous."

It seems then, as ever, I am caught somewhere in the muddy middle between romanticism and materialism, even in my fiction writing; skeptical of humanism but not ready to embrace my inner cyborg either. Perhaps the best I can hope for is that my ambivalence will defend me from received wisdom of whatever stripe. In the meantime I'd like to borrow Field's motto, "Hello, friendly edge!" Whether or not I take her workshop, I feel she's already taught me quite a bit.

1 comment:

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thanks for this post and the link to the Field interview; the workshops sound exciting. I share your skepticism of humanism (I think it's the central ideology informing mainstream "literary fiction" in the US).

Just remember, even if you haven't yet embraced your inner cyborg, your inner cyborg has already embraced you!

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