Magnets and Babble

Falling in love also conforms frequently to this type, a latent process of unconscious preparation often preceding a sudden awakening to the fact that the mischief is irretrievably done. –William James, on conversion

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BOB: Well, what are you waiting for?
LITTLE KID ON TRICYCLE: I don’t know. Something amazing, I guess.
BOB: Me too, kid.
The Incredibles

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This is intended merely as a sketch. It certainly is not about Gothic subculture; for more on that — the winsome, charming population I call army noir — see this post from September.

There is a popular misconception that entering adulthood means giving up on the ideals of youth. In other words, it is commonplace to speak as though adulthood, with its almost hopeless list of responsibilities, and its hard-won experience of the world, is a time when life is worn down to the simplicity of the practical act. One cooks food, changes tires, changes diapers, wakes up too early, entertains relatives, sends holiday greetings, and manages the remote corners of the house: the closets, the cabinets, the photo albums.

This is hopelessly misguided. Youth is actually the period of exploration, reversal, and lambency; age brings with it the increasingly powerful temptation of ideology. Without breaking any confidences, I can say that part of “adulthood” has been watching friends get caught up in ideological movements; in fact, people in their mid-twenties tend to become converts if they do not marry. A source of conviction becomes essential.

Marriage is a humanist bulwark. It brings in its train a host of consuming problems, including the practicalities of the wedding ceremony, as well as a truly serious merging of financial, residential, and professional interests. Couples begin to plan around living together. Their plans stretch out to years ahead; to children, even. Marriage affirms the fundamental rightness of the myth of romantic love; it binds and suspends whatever uncertainties or lacks each individual previously suffered, particularly in the continually uncertain territory of romance. Although it is not a panacea, it is the story of the end of uncertainty.

In the absence of that vow all bets are off, by which I mean that the marriage vow is probably the only act in our society still granted sufficiency. (Of course, most every story published in the New Yorker disputes this claim, and follows the aesthetic pattern of rupture outlined below via the adultery plot.) The rest is insufficient until the conversion experience, which is actually identical with the Barthesian aesthetics of rupture.

This rupture is supposedly the jamming of ideology, the loose stitch in a packet of received ideas. Pulling on it, one supposes, unravels the norm. Thus in Camera Lucida Roland Barthes informs us that the best photographs are the ones in which the smooth functioning of conventional tropes is disrupted in grotesque fashion: for example, a picture that would normally manifest only the dead iteration of “family” and “slavery” and “hardship” reveals an enlarged hand, ugly and abnormal. The hand draws the eye irresistibly; it mocks the rest of the photograph, cutting it loose from belief. In the end, the grotesque hand is what persuades us that the photograph is real, and that it shares in the uncollected, uneven script of real life, and the easily readable tropes are revealed to be the illusions of convention.

For as long as I have been keeping a blog, I have been writing about the value of the radical break; admiringly, I noted that Alain Badiou describes St. Paul as writing from a subject-position of continual negation, enacting a continual “break” with what is. Now, in considering what that break can be — its ugly, pedestrian possibility — I am afraid of it.

In the moment of conversion, one acquires a new vocabulary: a vocabulary of self-realization (self-help groups), a vocabulary of recovery (support groups), a vocabulary of method (schools of philosophical, political, or religious thought). I am looking right now at the copy of the Derrida documentary on my desk: “What if someone came along who CHANGED not the way you THINK about everything but EVERYTHING about the way you think?” This is not Derrida’s fault; he didn’t write it. There is nonetheless a blantant similarity between this promotional moment and the self-help rhetoric of “starting from scratch.”

In other words, the moment of adoption is the moment when language becomes force, which, in fact, is exactly what it is (and how he idealizes it) for Derrida in that opening salvo of an essay, “Force and Signification.” The young scholar comes upon a particular thinker — Lacan, or Rorty, or Derrida, or de Man, or Foucault — and the reading of that work becomes the Year Zero from which the scholarly project commences. Meanwhile, “campy” bad art is the bliss of the canon.

Beck is a Scientologist. Tom Cruise is a Scientologist. The fact gnaws dimly at a corner of our consciousness, baffling us. A friend sent me an article today, which noted that Jennifer Lopez may be a Scientologist, and Jim Carrey may be a Scientologist. Tom Cruise goes insane in front of a live television audience, insisting that psychotherapy is criminal. He writhes hysterically, caught up in his faith. We watch fascinated, in part because every ideological moment produces this automatism and compulsive re-framing.

In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes takes the next logical step in developing his theory of the rupture. He identifies the rupture with jouissance, with pleasure beyond pleasure, with the splitting open of the self in a moment as luscious as the splitting of fruit. That is what we are witnessing, watching the Scientologists: the bliss of the undeniable. In Six Feet Under there is the continual spectacle of these ruptures: weird intrusions of faith, including the personification of Life (a big black woman) and Death (a mordant old white guy), and quotations from the Bhagavad Gita. There is The Plan, a fictional version of life coaching; just as easily as she adopts and discards The Plan, Ruth Fisher starts a “new life” by cutting and arranging flowers, in imitation of the flower arrangements that the funeral home is obliged to provide for the dead. It is a knowing symbol, since the “new life” is always built on the foundations of the previous, exiled life. It is built on the exultant feeling of a symbolic murder. Every living member of the Fisher family takes Ecstasy, intentionally or not (there is a lame plot device where it gets mixed in with aspirin), and experiences a rebirth.

The modern omnipresence of compulsiveness: for example, the urge of the collector. I remember growing up with the phrase “Collect ’em all!”, and I suspect that phrase is still used to encourage toddlers to buy things. That rhetoric disappears after a certain point, replaced by the rhetoric of the break: “A sleeper hit!” “In a year of uninspired hip-hop records that preached a disposable confidence, this album dared…” “If you see only one movie this year, see…” The collector begins searching insatiably for the One.

The cult of ideas of force: in Pynchon’s Against the Day, his fascination with forceful discourse makes Tesla a central figure with hypnotic eyes, studying the “magnetic resonances” of the earth. Deuce Kindred, outlaw, murderer, is a mentalist also. The gods and scripts buried in Northern ice magnetically compel the crew aboard a hot air balloon to set an ancient evil loose in the world. (Yes, Pynchon is writing about ancient evils. He’s a sensationalist.)

My friend R. Sheehan mentioned one day that the hooded figure of terror, one incarnation of the evil psychiatrist in Batman Begins, resembles the blue-faced monster behind the diner in Mulholland Drive. Well, Nolan and Lynch mirror each other: the amnesiac Rita in Mulholland Drive mirrors the amnesiac Leonard in Memento. But there is also a correspondence between the apparition of the monster, and the apparition of the naked Rita as an object of Betty’s desire, and the original illusion of the new life in Hollywood when Betty arrives in a state of dewy excitement. Jean Genet once wrote, dazed with love, “The Absolute passed by in the form of a pimp.” That is how the Absolute manifests: it is thrust, ecstatically, between the ribs of the ordinary. The television show Lost begins with the explosion and the crash.

Thus we re-live the Gothic. The Gothic world is one in which the self, and the world, are the sum of their forces, the dangerous effects of multiple magnetisms; it is the Gothic that gave us Jekyll and Hyde, and the Gothic that gave us Trilby. In their place we have the Cylon Sharon, trying desperately to point out a source of available water, even though her Cylon nature resists helping humanity.

And wherever there is no eruption of pleasure and loss of integrity, there is idiocy and echolalia. If the dominant trope of pleasure is the reveal, the triumph of force over the expected, the dominant trope of certainty is the mad structure — dark, prison-like rooms, apparently underground. Staying with Battlestar Galactica for a moment, there is the vision of Starbuck walking cautiously through the eerie ruins of a museum on Caprica, until all that is interrupted for a battle. It is fitting that the metaphors for Ruth Fisher’s self-help program should be building metaphors, and that the symbol of her husband’s madness should be his subterranean, emergency shelter. In Mulholland Drive, Betty’s tenuous hold on identity merges with the dark wood interiors of the house, and her appropriation of Rita begins with the question What are you doing in this house?

I think here of the idiocy of Lacan, alongside his formidable psychological insight, which comes through in his odd confidence in diagrams, and especially in his references to Freud, to what Freud was “really” saying, to the truly rigorous reading of Freud. At the peak of his own originality and influence Lacan still refuses to describe himself as less or more than Freud.

I don’t know where precisely how to begin to win language back from the idiotic materiality of structure, and the magnetizing worship of force. But perhaps it begins with an immersion in the old Gothic, as we know it through Poe, and Radcliffe, and James, and the rest. In mapping those labyrinths, who knows? Perhaps we will recover the present.