Phallos

Phallos, which came out last year (2004), is the most recently published novel by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a short work — a mere 95 pages — dense, playful, and delightful. The blurb on the back of the book calls it “a Lacanian riddle to delight,” and that isn’t far wrong.

Delany’s Phallos takes the form of a summary/synopsis/commentary, on the Web of a gay porn novel called Phallos, set in ancient Rome and apparently written in the 1960s, that is out of print and very difficult to find. So I guess it could be called meta-pornography: it’s a pornographic narrative that is only presented indirectly, through all the screens of a somewhat unreliable narrator choosing excerpts, and discussing issues of provenance and textual details about a book that (of course) only exists inside the book we are actually reading. As a result of this strategy, also, the copious sex of the pornographic narrative is not explicitly described on the page in any great detail, but mostly just alluded to. The book is allied, therefore, to Delany’s other sexual narratives (Hogg, Equinox, and The Mad Man) but in a reduced (in size and scope) and considerably more indirect manner.

This indirection is of course the point of the book, which is a book about the phallus of Freudian/Lacanian theory, the signifier of desire, and of erotic (& masculine) potency, but which (as a mere signifier) is always absent, or other than itself. The phallus in Phallos is both the unavailable, and only indirectly narrated, pornographic narrative itself, and also (within that distanced, non-present narrative) the missing male organ of an obscure god (or more precisely, of a statue or idol of an obscure god) whose absence, or quality of being missing, circulates through the narrative, and is the “absent cause” of its repetitions, permutations, and deviations.

Describing Delany’s novel in this way, however accurate, also sells it short, because it makes it sound as if the book were just an allegorization, or an “illustration,” of a philosophical idea: which it is not; because Phallos is not exhausted by its allegorical or ideational nature. This is because it is an affectively powerful work (with an intensity that is both playful and emotionally deep and compelling, if not — for me, at least, as a heterosexual reader — directly arousing). You might say that the novel embodies the absence, the non-identity, the simulacral emptying-out of virility, that is its subject: if embodying something non-present (if not quite a “lack” in orthodox Lacanian terms either) is not too much of an oxymoron.

Actually, the most accurate categorization would probably be to say that Phallos is a philosophical novel (or novella), in precisely the sense that Voltaire’s Candide and Diderot’s Bijoux indiscrets and Jacques le fataliste, together with other 18th century fictional works by Sade and others, are philosophical novels. It’s a work of speculation, and even of wisdom — but one in which the thought is carried by narrative, rather than by theoretical argument. It touches on metaphysical issues, having to do with the nature of selfhood and of desire; but ultimately it is a book about how to live.

The absence that is the phallus/phallos means that desire is never sated by total satisfaction, but always awakened again; that life necessarily implies a certain degree of loss, disappointment, and unfulfillment. The phallus, therefore, always implies change and becoming, without the possibility of attaining a final state of peace: it is “that signification itself by which something else always molds us toward something better — or sometimes, something worse — than what we already are” (77). Desire is never entirely realized — there is no utopia or nirvana — but nonetheless “desire is as endlessly unquenchable as it is repeatable” (62).The novel — or, rather, the novel within the novel, indirectly refracted to is — is filled with orgies and all sorts of sexual extremity; but (as has been the case in some of Delany’s earlier works (and as I have previously noted with regard to his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue) this sex is not presented as transgressive: rather it’s seen as a rather civilized way of negotiating the delights and disappointments, opportunities and limitations, of life. There may be a “lack” at the center of desire; but (sexual) variety is literally the spice of a life of desire, and does not contradict, but supplements a main sexual and partnering relationship that is secure and lasting; as Neoptolomus, the hero of the novel-within-the-novel, reflects at one point (not too far from the end), “with such variety [of sexual experiences and pleasures] it becomes hard to hold on to where that lack lies, since that absent center moves about so: If I have learned anything in this time, is that losing track of it, in such a secure relationship, is surely the closest we can come to filling it” (75). I’m not sure if this difficult pronouncement is sufficiently clear apart from its context in the narrative; but it does express a kind of pragmatic utopianism, if I can dare to use such an oxymoronic phrase, that does not make its point, or achieve its hope, at the price of ignoring change and loss — though it is a perspective that is scarcely intelligible or admissible within contemporary American social, political, religious, and psychological discourse, and in fact serves as a terrible condemnation of the wretchedness of mainstream America’s hopes and fears today.

I’ll stop there, though Phallos, for all its brevity, is so rich and (indeed) inspiring a text that it calls out for a more extended, as well as less muddled, appreciation than I have been able to provide here.

Phallos, which came out last year (2004), is the most recently published novel by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a short work — a mere 95 pages — dense, playful, and delightful. The blurb on the back of the book calls it “a Lacanian riddle to delight,” and that isn’t far wrong.

Delany’s Phallos takes the form of a summary/synopsis/commentary, on the Web of a gay porn novel called Phallos, set in ancient Rome and apparently written in the 1960s, that is out of print and very difficult to find. So I guess it could be called meta-pornography: it’s a pornographic narrative that is only presented indirectly, through all the screens of a somewhat unreliable narrator choosing excerpts, and discussing issues of provenance and textual details about a book that (of course) only exists inside the book we are actually reading. As a result of this strategy, also, the copious sex of the pornographic narrative is not explicitly described on the page in any great detail, but mostly just alluded to. The book is allied, therefore, to Delany’s other sexual narratives (Hogg, Equinox, and The Mad Man) but in a reduced (in size and scope) and considerably more indirect manner.

This indirection is of course the point of the book, which is a book about the phallus of Freudian/Lacanian theory, the signifier of desire, and of erotic (& masculine) potency, but which (as a mere signifier) is always absent, or other than itself. The phallus in Phallos is both the unavailable, and only indirectly narrated, pornographic narrative itself, and also (within that distanced, non-present narrative) the missing male organ of an obscure god (or more precisely, of a statue or idol of an obscure god) whose absence, or quality of being missing, circulates through the narrative, and is the “absent cause” of its repetitions, permutations, and deviations.

Describing Delany’s novel in this way, however accurate, also sells it short, because it makes it sound as if the book were just an allegorization, or an “illustration,” of a philosophical idea: which it is not; because Phallos is not exhausted by its allegorical or ideational nature. This is because it is an affectively powerful work (with an intensity that is both playful and emotionally deep and compelling, if not — for me, at least, as a heterosexual reader — directly arousing). You might say that the novel embodies the absence, the non-identity, the simulacral emptying-out of virility, that is its subject: if embodying something non-present (if not quite a “lack” in orthodox Lacanian terms either) is not too much of an oxymoron.

Actually, the most accurate categorization would probably be to say that Phallos is a philosophical novel (or novella), in precisely the sense that Voltaire’s Candide and Diderot’s Bijoux indiscrets and Jacques le fataliste, together with other 18th century fictional works by Sade and others, are philosophical novels. It’s a work of speculation, and even of wisdom — but one in which the thought is carried by narrative, rather than by theoretical argument. It touches on metaphysical issues, having to do with the nature of selfhood and of desire; but ultimately it is a book about how to live.

The absence that is the phallus/phallos means that desire is never sated by total satisfaction, but always awakened again; that life necessarily implies a certain degree of loss, disappointment, and unfulfillment. The phallus, therefore, always implies change and becoming, without the possibility of attaining a final state of peace: it is “that signification itself by which something else always molds us toward something better — or sometimes, something worse — than what we already are” (77). Desire is never entirely realized — there is no utopia or nirvana — but nonetheless “desire is as endlessly unquenchable as it is repeatable” (62).The novel — or, rather, the novel within the novel, indirectly refracted to is — is filled with orgies and all sorts of sexual extremity; but (as has been the case in some of Delany’s earlier works (and as I have previously noted with regard to his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue) this sex is not presented as transgressive: rather it’s seen as a rather civilized way of negotiating the delights and disappointments, opportunities and limitations, of life. There may be a “lack” at the center of desire; but (sexual) variety is literally the spice of a life of desire, and does not contradict, but supplements a main sexual and partnering relationship that is secure and lasting; as Neoptolomus, the hero of the novel-within-the-novel, reflects at one point (not too far from the end), “with such variety [of sexual experiences and pleasures] it becomes hard to hold on to where that lack lies, since that absent center moves about so: If I have learned anything in this time, is that losing track of it, in such a secure relationship, is surely the closest we can come to filling it” (75). I’m not sure if this difficult pronouncement is sufficiently clear apart from its context in the narrative; but it does express a kind of pragmatic utopianism, if I can dare to use such an oxymoronic phrase, that does not make its point, or achieve its hope, at the price of ignoring change and loss — though it is a perspective that is scarcely intelligible or admissible within contemporary American social, political, religious, and psychological discourse, and in fact serves as a terrible condemnation of the wretchedness of mainstream America’s hopes and fears today.

I’ll stop there, though Phallos, for all its brevity, is so rich and (indeed) inspiring a text that it calls out for a more extended, as well as less muddled, appreciation than I have been able to provide here.

Everything Bad Is Good For You

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite non-academic, nonfiction writers. (I’m sorry that seems like such a negative description; but one of the virtues of Johnson is precisely that it is difficult to pigeonhole him positively in terms of content, as he writes on the boundary between culture, science, technology, poststructuralist theory, etc…). I don’t always agree with Johnson, but he always makes me think, as well as being one of those writers who can convey complex ideas in prose of great clarity. (I wrote about his last book here). Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, is as intelligently provocative as anything he’s written.

As its title and subtitle indicate, Everything Bad Is Good For You is a polemical defense of the value of contemporary popular culture. Johnson contests the all-too-often repeated claims that American popular culture is vile and debased, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator, that it is all about sensationalistic exploitation and dumbing down. He argues, instead, that popular culture is actually making us smarter, in ways that can even be quantified by intelligence tests and the like. Johnson’s method of analysis is basically McLuhanesque; that is to say, he pays attention to the medium rather than the message; or (in the Deleuze/Guattari terms that he cites briefly in an appendix) to what works of popular culture do rather than what they mean, what connections they make rather than what symbols they deploy, or what ideologies they express. Rather than lamenting any alleged decline from print/books/literature to the various multimedia modes in vogue today, he asks the McLuhanite question of how these new media engage us, what modes of perception, action, and thought they appeal to and incite, and how this makes for a qualitative difference from print/literary sensibilities.

Johnson focuses at greatest length on computer games and television. Games involve us actively in difficult tasks of multi-stranded and multiply hierarchized problem-solving; recent TV series involve us in tracking multiple plot strands (The Sopranos), mastering multiple forms of allusion and self-reference (The Simpsons, Seinfeld), comprehending elliptical, convoluted plots (24), and making sense of dense social networks (24, The Sopranos). (He especially stresses how much more complex, rich, and rewarding these shows are than the relatively linear, slow, and stolid shows of the 1970s(. At lesser length, Johnson also discusses multitasking and mastering different software paradigms in order to use the Internet, and the effects of challengingly non-linear movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half of the book, he then goes on to generalize about economic factors that have led to greater complexity in popular culture in the last 20 or 30 years, as well as speculations on collateral subjects ranging from neurobiology (the dopamine reward circuits in relation to gaming), to studies of IQ tests (scores have risen steadily over the last few generations).

As a polemic, Everything Bad Is Good For You is right on target and extremely welcome, and I hope people actually listen to it and get persuaded by it. (Of course, I was already on Johnson’s side before I started reading the book, so I may not be the best person to judge its success as rhetorical persuasion). I have no use for the high culture elitism that still exists in certain intellectual quarters; and I have no use for the nostalgia of all too many people my age (the baby boomer generation) who assert that the pop culture of our youth was somehow necessarily superior to what is going on now. When the late Susan Sontag, for instance, suggested in her otherwise very fine essay on Abu Ghraib that the culture of videogames could be blamed for the soldiers’ readiness to engage in torture: this was really no more than gross ignorance, and she needed to be called on it. (I don’t mean to pick on the recently dead; but this was the best example that came to me, honest). Hopefully Johnson’s book will make it more difficult for such assertions to pass muster in the future.

All that said, there was one aspect of Johnson’s approach and argument that I found disappointing and limiting. This was his almost exclusive focus on the cognitive aspects of how the popular media he was discussing work, and his nearly complete avoidance of any discussion of how they work affectively. (I should note that this has nothing to do with the focus on form instead of content, or medium instead of message; it’s the McLuhanesque effects of the new electronic media themselves that need to be formulated in affective terms as well as cognitive ones). This is a problem I’ve discussed many times in the course of this blog, and it’s something less specific to Johnson than it is a characteristic of our general contemporary scientific and intellectual culture. Despite the efforts of a few prominent neurobiologists (like Damasio and LeDoux, who to my mind raise crucial questions even if they don’t go far enough), the understanding of “the mind” in this post-Freudian age is almost exclusively through the lens of “cognitive science.”

How does this work out in Everything Bad Is Good For You? For Johnson, the important thing is how computer games train us in “participatory thinking and analysis,” how they “challenge the mind to make sense of an environment” (p.61); the fact that this works through the dopamine reward system, so that we feel a rush of pleasure when we overcome our frustration by solving a puzzle, is really only a secondary matter for him (it is part of the explanation of why and how it all works, but he doesn’t find it important in itself). This seems wrong to me; the emotional states that we experience through our participation in cultural forms are as important, perhaps more so, than the training skills we establish and sharpen. In any case, we need to question the subordination of the affective dimension to the cognitive one, the positioning of the former as just an instrument to aid in the latter; though (or precisely because) this seems to be one of the most central and unquestioned tenets of postmodern thought and culture.

So I want to know more about how games work affectively; even though it may well be that the whole point of games, the reason why they are so central a formation in our culture today, is precisely because, like the cognitive science Johnson uses to understand them, their whole point is to subordinate affect to cognition. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gamer; it may be that my anti-cognitive-centrism, like my boredom at the sort of problem-solving that goes on in games, is itself a symptom of my being still all-too-entrenched in print culture. But I don’t think so; I can make a stronger case for the importance of affect to other media that I know better than games, and that Johnson discusses in wholly cognitive terms: like television and movies (and comix, which Johnson says very little about, though in an endnote he quotes at length from Henry Jenkins, who rightly indicates that contemporary comix would fit very well into the argument, since in recent years they have become dazzlingly complex both narratively and visually). Buffy isn’t nearly as dense in terms of narrative threads as some of the shows Johnson discusses, but it is as dense in terms of allusiveness, self-referentiality, and the demands it makes on its audience to remember seeming minor details from past episodes, etc. Yet — as I said in my recent post on the show — its cognitive density serves its affective richness, rather than the reverse: and the ways that Buffy explores affect, together with the sorts of affect it displays, strike me as very different from anything you would find in traditional (or modernist) print culture. And I’d say the same for Charlie Kaufman films, and for the few gaming experiences I have tried (admittedly, mostly outdated ones at this point, like Myst and online role-playing in MUDs). Whatever cognitive abilities these works of popular culture instill or assume, their “payoff” has always been (for me) affective, with a wide variety of emotions ranging from ecstasy to fear and anxiety, and with a basic temporal orientation towards the future (in its openness and unknowability) — which is something beyond the reach of cognitive skills.

All of which brings me to the most crucial omission in Johnson’s book, which is that he says almost nothing about music. Now, there needn’t be a requirement for a commentator to master all genres. I can scarcely fault him for having as little to say about hip hop as I have to say about computer games. Still, music is arguably the one field of popular culture in which affect (as opposed to cognition) is most central, most foregrounded, and most powerful; and some theorists (Jacques Attali and Kodwo Eshun, among others) would argue that music is the most future-oriented of genres as well. The only time that Johnson discusses music (in a footnote on pp 225-226) he curiously says that his argument about how economic and technological factors have made games and television much more cognitively complex in the last twenty-five years or so doesn’t apply to music, because the analogous technological revolution happened in music much earlier, in the switch from “throwaway singles” to “albums designed to be heard hundreds of times” in the 1960s. He implies that music, unlike TV and games and movies, hasn’t gotten any more complex since that time (and may even have been dumbed down, to judge from his pejorative comments about MTV videos, whose elaborate fast editing styles he doesn’t consider to be an example of cognitively interesting complexity). He says nothing about how digital technologies (sampling, synthesizing, multiple tracks) have changed music; and he fails to consider how the rhythmic complexity of Top 40s hits today goes as far beyond the pop of the 60s and 70s, and the verbal dexterity of Wu Tang or Jay-Z or Eminem goes as far beyond that of The Sugarhill Gang or The Furious Five, as the narrative complexity of The Sopranos goes beyond the simple-minded linearity of shows like (one of his favorite negative examples) Starsky and Hutch.

Such musical examples entirely support Johnson’s polemical point about how popular culture today is in many ways richer and denser than that of thirty years ago. But the reasons for this happening in music are much more difficult to state in cognitive terms (and, let’s face it, much more difficult to render in language altogether) than is the case with things like problem-solving skills and narrative structures. (You could discuss it in relation to musical relationality — songs sampling or otherwise alluding to previous songs — but that would only be scratching the surface). Music remains for me, therefore, a privileged instance in which McLuhanesque change resists definition in cognitive-centered terms.

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite non-academic, nonfiction writers. (I’m sorry that seems like such a negative description; but one of the virtues of Johnson is precisely that it is difficult to pigeonhole him positively in terms of content, as he writes on the boundary between culture, science, technology, poststructuralist theory, etc…). I don’t always agree with Johnson, but he always makes me think, as well as being one of those writers who can convey complex ideas in prose of great clarity. (I wrote about his last book here). Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, is as intelligently provocative as anything he’s written.

As its title and subtitle indicate, Everything Bad Is Good For You is a polemical defense of the value of contemporary popular culture. Johnson contests the all-too-often repeated claims that American popular culture is vile and debased, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator, that it is all about sensationalistic exploitation and dumbing down. He argues, instead, that popular culture is actually making us smarter, in ways that can even be quantified by intelligence tests and the like. Johnson’s method of analysis is basically McLuhanesque; that is to say, he pays attention to the medium rather than the message; or (in the Deleuze/Guattari terms that he cites briefly in an appendix) to what works of popular culture do rather than what they mean, what connections they make rather than what symbols they deploy, or what ideologies they express. Rather than lamenting any alleged decline from print/books/literature to the various multimedia modes in vogue today, he asks the McLuhanite question of how these new media engage us, what modes of perception, action, and thought they appeal to and incite, and how this makes for a qualitative difference from print/literary sensibilities.

Johnson focuses at greatest length on computer games and television. Games involve us actively in difficult tasks of multi-stranded and multiply hierarchized problem-solving; recent TV series involve us in tracking multiple plot strands (The Sopranos), mastering multiple forms of allusion and self-reference (The Simpsons, Seinfeld), comprehending elliptical, convoluted plots (24), and making sense of dense social networks (24, The Sopranos). (He especially stresses how much more complex, rich, and rewarding these shows are than the relatively linear, slow, and stolid shows of the 1970s(. At lesser length, Johnson also discusses multitasking and mastering different software paradigms in order to use the Internet, and the effects of challengingly non-linear movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half of the book, he then goes on to generalize about economic factors that have led to greater complexity in popular culture in the last 20 or 30 years, as well as speculations on collateral subjects ranging from neurobiology (the dopamine reward circuits in relation to gaming), to studies of IQ tests (scores have risen steadily over the last few generations).

As a polemic, Everything Bad Is Good For You is right on target and extremely welcome, and I hope people actually listen to it and get persuaded by it. (Of course, I was already on Johnson’s side before I started reading the book, so I may not be the best person to judge its success as rhetorical persuasion). I have no use for the high culture elitism that still exists in certain intellectual quarters; and I have no use for the nostalgia of all too many people my age (the baby boomer generation) who assert that the pop culture of our youth was somehow necessarily superior to what is going on now. When the late Susan Sontag, for instance, suggested in her otherwise very fine essay on Abu Ghraib that the culture of videogames could be blamed for the soldiers’ readiness to engage in torture: this was really no more than gross ignorance, and she needed to be called on it. (I don’t mean to pick on the recently dead; but this was the best example that came to me, honest). Hopefully Johnson’s book will make it more difficult for such assertions to pass muster in the future.

All that said, there was one aspect of Johnson’s approach and argument that I found disappointing and limiting. This was his almost exclusive focus on the cognitive aspects of how the popular media he was discussing work, and his nearly complete avoidance of any discussion of how they work affectively. (I should note that this has nothing to do with the focus on form instead of content, or medium instead of message; it’s the McLuhanesque effects of the new electronic media themselves that need to be formulated in affective terms as well as cognitive ones). This is a problem I’ve discussed many times in the course of this blog, and it’s something less specific to Johnson than it is a characteristic of our general contemporary scientific and intellectual culture. Despite the efforts of a few prominent neurobiologists (like Damasio and LeDoux, who to my mind raise crucial questions even if they don’t go far enough), the understanding of “the mind” in this post-Freudian age is almost exclusively through the lens of “cognitive science.”

How does this work out in Everything Bad Is Good For You? For Johnson, the important thing is how computer games train us in “participatory thinking and analysis,” how they “challenge the mind to make sense of an environment” (p.61); the fact that this works through the dopamine reward system, so that we feel a rush of pleasure when we overcome our frustration by solving a puzzle, is really only a secondary matter for him (it is part of the explanation of why and how it all works, but he doesn’t find it important in itself). This seems wrong to me; the emotional states that we experience through our participation in cultural forms are as important, perhaps more so, than the training skills we establish and sharpen. In any case, we need to question the subordination of the affective dimension to the cognitive one, the positioning of the former as just an instrument to aid in the latter; though (or precisely because) this seems to be one of the most central and unquestioned tenets of postmodern thought and culture.

So I want to know more about how games work affectively; even though it may well be that the whole point of games, the reason why they are so central a formation in our culture today, is precisely because, like the cognitive science Johnson uses to understand them, their whole point is to subordinate affect to cognition. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gamer; it may be that my anti-cognitive-centrism, like my boredom at the sort of problem-solving that goes on in games, is itself a symptom of my being still all-too-entrenched in print culture. But I don’t think so; I can make a stronger case for the importance of affect to other media that I know better than games, and that Johnson discusses in wholly cognitive terms: like television and movies (and comix, which Johnson says very little about, though in an endnote he quotes at length from Henry Jenkins, who rightly indicates that contemporary comix would fit very well into the argument, since in recent years they have become dazzlingly complex both narratively and visually). Buffy isn’t nearly as dense in terms of narrative threads as some of the shows Johnson discusses, but it is as dense in terms of allusiveness, self-referentiality, and the demands it makes on its audience to remember seeming minor details from past episodes, etc. Yet — as I said in my recent post on the show — its cognitive density serves its affective richness, rather than the reverse: and the ways that Buffy explores affect, together with the sorts of affect it displays, strike me as very different from anything you would find in traditional (or modernist) print culture. And I’d say the same for Charlie Kaufman films, and for the few gaming experiences I have tried (admittedly, mostly outdated ones at this point, like Myst and online role-playing in MUDs). Whatever cognitive abilities these works of popular culture instill or assume, their “payoff” has always been (for me) affective, with a wide variety of emotions ranging from ecstasy to fear and anxiety, and with a basic temporal orientation towards the future (in its openness and unknowability) — which is something beyond the reach of cognitive skills.

All of which brings me to the most crucial omission in Johnson’s book, which is that he says almost nothing about music. Now, there needn’t be a requirement for a commentator to master all genres. I can scarcely fault him for having as little to say about hip hop as I have to say about computer games. Still, music is arguably the one field of popular culture in which affect (as opposed to cognition) is most central, most foregrounded, and most powerful; and some theorists (Jacques Attali and Kodwo Eshun, among others) would argue that music is the most future-oriented of genres as well. The only time that Johnson discusses music (in a footnote on pp 225-226) he curiously says that his argument about how economic and technological factors have made games and television much more cognitively complex in the last twenty-five years or so doesn’t apply to music, because the analogous technological revolution happened in music much earlier, in the switch from “throwaway singles” to “albums designed to be heard hundreds of times” in the 1960s. He implies that music, unlike TV and games and movies, hasn’t gotten any more complex since that time (and may even have been dumbed down, to judge from his pejorative comments about MTV videos, whose elaborate fast editing styles he doesn’t consider to be an example of cognitively interesting complexity). He says nothing about how digital technologies (sampling, synthesizing, multiple tracks) have changed music; and he fails to consider how the rhythmic complexity of Top 40s hits today goes as far beyond the pop of the 60s and 70s, and the verbal dexterity of Wu Tang or Jay-Z or Eminem goes as far beyond that of The Sugarhill Gang or The Furious Five, as the narrative complexity of The Sopranos goes beyond the simple-minded linearity of shows like (one of his favorite negative examples) Starsky and Hutch.

Such musical examples entirely support Johnson’s polemical point about how popular culture today is in many ways richer and denser than that of thirty years ago. But the reasons for this happening in music are much more difficult to state in cognitive terms (and, let’s face it, much more difficult to render in language altogether) than is the case with things like problem-solving skills and narrative structures. (You could discuss it in relation to musical relationality — songs sampling or otherwise alluding to previous songs — but that would only be scratching the surface). Music remains for me, therefore, a privileged instance in which McLuhanesque change resists definition in cognitive-centered terms.

Teranesia

Greg Egan is one of the finest contemporary writers of “hard” SF, which is to say science fiction that strongly emphasizes the science, trying to keep the science coherent and to extrapolate plausibly (at least) from currently existing science and technology. Most of Egan’s books involve physics and computer science, speculating about such things as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics. Teranesia is something of an exception in his work, as it deals with biology, takes place in the very near (instead of far distant) future, stresses character development and emotion — especially guilt and shame — more than his other novels, and has some directly political themes (Egan touches on religious and ethnic strife in Indonesia, with its heritage of both colonial exploitation and military misrule and corruption; as well as on Australia’s shameful mistreatment of asylum seekers — a matter on which he expands in his online Afterward to the novel). I read Teranesia mostly because I am looking at “bioaesthetics”, and at the “the biological imagination” (though I wish I had a better phrase for this); I was curious to see what Egan would do with biology.

The novel worked for the most part in terms of plot, characters, and emotion; but the biology was indeed the most interesting thing about it. The major conceit of Teranesia is the appearance of strange mutations, initially confined to one species of butterfly on one island in the Molucca Sea, but increasingly manifested across animal and plant species, and in a wider and wider area. These mutations seem to be too radical, too well-calibrated, and too quick, to be explicable by chance mutations plus the winnowing effect of natural selection. In the space of twenty years, entire animal and plant species develop altered body plans that allow them to feed (or to protect themselves from predation) much more easily, to squeeze out all competitors in the ecosystem, and to proliferate themselves from island to island.

It’s almost as if Egan had set himself as a task to envision a scenario of “biological exuberance“, a scenario that would seem to strongly imply some other evolutionary force than Darwinian natural selection — whether Christian “intelligent design,” some variant of Lamarckianism, Bergsonian elan vital, Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters”, or the constraints of form championed by such non-mainstream biologists as Stuart Kauffman and Richard Goodwin — and yet to explain the scenario in terms that are entirely in accord with orthodox neodarwinism and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. How could rapid and evidently purposive evolutionary change nonetheless result from the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection? All the scientists in Teranesia take the orthodox framework for granted; and in opposition to them, Egan sets religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and “postmodern cultural theorists” who celebrate the trickster mischievousness or irrational bounty of Nature on the other (Egan’s heavy-handed, Alan Sokal-esque satire of the latter group — the book came out at around the same time as the Sokal-vs.-Social Text incident — is the most lame and tiresome aspect of the novel).

[SPOILER ALERT] The way that Egan solves his puzzle is this. The mutations all turn out to be the result of the actions of a single gene, one that can jump from species to species, and that has the ability to rewrite/mutate the rest of the genome in which it finds itself by snipping out individual base pairs, and introducing transcription errors and replacements. Given a random DNA sequence to work with, the effect of the mutations is basically random. But given an actual genome to work with, the new gene enforces changes that are far from random, that in fact optimize the genome for survival and expansion. The new gene does this by, in effect, exploring the phase space of all possible mutations to a considerable depth. And it does this by a trick of quantum theory. Egan calls on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Mutations are correlated with the collapse of the quantum wave function. All the mutations that could have happened to a given genome, but did not, in fact have occurred in parallel universes. Over the course of a genome’s history, therefore, all the alternative universes generated by every mutation constitute a phase space of all the possible changes the organism could have undergone, and it is these “many universes” the new gene is able to explore, and “choose” the changes that, statistically speaking, were the most successful ones. In this way, the new gene is able to optimize the entire genome or organism; even though it itself is purely a “selfish gene,” driven only to maximize its own reproduction. Egan wryly notes that “most processes in molecular biology had analogies in computing, but it was rarely helpful to push them too far” (256); nonetheless, he extrapolates this logic by imagining a DNA “program” that works like a “quantum supercomputer” (289).

Egan’s solution to his own puzzle is elegant, economical, and shrewd. He’s really doing what hard SF does best: applying the rigor of scientific reasoning to an imaginary problem, and (especially) abiding by the initial conditions set forth by the problem. He successfully constructs a scenario in which even the most extreme instance of apparent design can be explained without recourse to teleology. Though Egan’s hypothesis is counterfactual and probably impossible — which is just a fancy way of saying he is writing fiction — it does in fact usefully illuminate the logic of biological explanation.

And it’s this logic to which I want to turn. Getting rid of teleology is in fact harder than it might seem. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how meaningful and functioning complex patterns can emerge from randomness, without there being a pre-existing plan. “Intelligent design” theory today, like the 18th-century “argument from design,” claims that a structure like the eye, or like the interwoven network of chemical pathways that function in every cell, are too complex to have arisen without planning. Darwinian theory argues, to the contrary — quite convincingly and cogently — not only that “selection” processes are able to account for the formation of these structures, but that these structures’ very complexity precludes their having been made by planning and foresight, or any other way. (For the most explicit statement of this argument, see Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins gives a reductionist, atomistic version of the argument. I would argue — though Dawkins himself would not agree — that this account is not inconsistent with the claims of Kauffman that natural selection rides piggyback on other sorts of spontaneous organization in natural systems).

But none of this stops Dawkins, or other hardcore Darwinians, from using the vocabulary of purpose on nearly all occasions. The eye is a structure whose purpose is seeing; genes are “selfish” because they “want” — i.e. their “purpose” is — to create more copies of themselves. Dawkins, at least, is aware that his use of purpose-language is metaphorical; but the metaphors you use affect your argument in powerful, structurally relevant ways, even though you may intend them “only,” and quite consciously, as “mere” metaphors. As Isabelle Stengers puts it, Dawkins is still describing life by comparing it to a watch — or to a computer — even if the “watchmaker” is “blind” and not purposeful or conscious. Kant’s pre-Darwinian observation, that we cannot help seeing life as “purposive,” even though we would be wrong to attribute explicit “purpose” to it — still holds true in evolutionary theory.

This is partly a question about adaptation. Hardcore neodarwinism assumes that every feature of an organism, no matter how minor, is adaptive — which is to say that it has a reproductive purpose, for which it was selected. And evolutionary theorists go through extraordinary contortions to explain how “features” like homosexuality, which evidently do not contribute to the production of more offspring, nonetheless must be “adaptive” — or reproductively selected for — in some way. In a case like homosexuality, it seems obvious to suggest that: a)it is not a well-defined category, but one that has a lot of blurry edges and culturally variable aspects, so it’s misguided in the first place to find a genetic correlate to it; and b)that to the extent that genes do play a role in same-sex object choice, it may well be that what was “selected for” was not homosexuality per se, but something more general (the sort of sexual disposition that is extremely plastic, i.e. capable of realizing itself in multiple forms).

More generally, adaptationism is problematic because defending it soon brings you to a point of reductio ad absurdum. Many features of organisms are evidently adaptive, but when you start to assert that everything must be, a priori, you are condemning yourself to a kind of interpretive paranoia that sees meanings, intentions, and purposes everywhere. You start out aware that (in Egan’s words) “evolution is senseless: the great dumb machine, grinding out microscopic improvements one end, spitting out a few billion corpses from the other ” (112). But you end up with a sort of argument from design, a paradoxical denial of contingency, chance, superfluity, and meaninglessness. Evolutionary theorists assume that every feature of every organism necessarily has a meaning and a purpose; which is what leads them to simply invent purposive explanations (what Stephen Jay Gould disparaged as “just-so stories”) when they cannot be discovered by empirical means.

All these difficulties crop up in the course of Teranesia. Egan’s protagonist, Prabir, is gay, and he supposes that his sexual orientation is like an “oxbow lake” produced by a river: something that’s “not part of the flow” of the river, but that the river keeps creating nonetheless (109). Conversely, he is (rightly) angered by the suggestion that homosexuality is adaptive because it has the evolutionary purpose of being “a kind of insurance policy — to look after the others if something happens to the parents” (110). Angry because such an explanation would suggest that his being as a person has no value in its own right, for itself. And this is picked up at the end of the novel, when the new gene crosses species and starts to metastasize in Prabir’s own body. As a ruthless and super-efficient machine for adaptation, it threatens to wipe out Prabir’s own “oxbow lake,” together with anything that might seem “superfluous” from the point of view of adaptive efficiency (310).

By the end of the novel, the new gene has to be contained, for it threatens to “optimize” Prabir, and through him the rest of humanity, into a monstrous reproductive machine. Teranesia suddenly turns, in its last thirty pages or so, into a horror novel; and the final plot twist that saves Prabir is (in contrast to everything that has come before) exceedingly unconvincing and unsatisfying, because it hinges on seeing the malignant gene as purpose-driven to an extent that simply (I mean in the context of Egan’s fiction itself) isn’t credible.

Teranesia thus ends up tracking and reproducing what I am tempted to call (in Kantian style) the antinomies of neodarwinian explanation. Starting from the basic assertion that “life is meaningless” (338 — the very last words of the novel), it nonetheless finds itself compelled to hypothesize a monstrous, totalizing purposiveness. The specter of biological exuberance is exorcized, but monstrosity is not thereby dispelled; it simply returns in an even more extreme form. Even Egan’s recourse to quantum mechanics is symptomatic: because quantum mechanics is so inherently paradoxical — because it is literally impossible to understand in anything like intuitive terms — it becomes the last recourse when you are trying to explain in rationalistic and reductive terms some aspect of reality (and of life especially) that turns out to be stubbornly mysterious. Quantum mechanics allows you to have it both ways: Egan’s use of it can be compared, for instance, to the way Roger Penrose has recourse to quantum effects in order to explain the mysteries of consciousness. In short, Teranesia is a good enough book that it runs up against, and inadvertently demonstrates, the aporias implicit within the scientific rationality to which Egan is committed.

Greg Egan is one of the finest contemporary writers of “hard” SF, which is to say science fiction that strongly emphasizes the science, trying to keep the science coherent and to extrapolate plausibly (at least) from currently existing science and technology. Most of Egan’s books involve physics and computer science, speculating about such things as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics. Teranesia is something of an exception in his work, as it deals with biology, takes place in the very near (instead of far distant) future, stresses character development and emotion — especially guilt and shame — more than his other novels, and has some directly political themes (Egan touches on religious and ethnic strife in Indonesia, with its heritage of both colonial exploitation and military misrule and corruption; as well as on Australia’s shameful mistreatment of asylum seekers — a matter on which he expands in his online Afterward to the novel). I read Teranesia mostly because I am looking at “bioaesthetics”, and at the “the biological imagination” (though I wish I had a better phrase for this); I was curious to see what Egan would do with biology.

The novel worked for the most part in terms of plot, characters, and emotion; but the biology was indeed the most interesting thing about it. The major conceit of Teranesia is the appearance of strange mutations, initially confined to one species of butterfly on one island in the Molucca Sea, but increasingly manifested across animal and plant species, and in a wider and wider area. These mutations seem to be too radical, too well-calibrated, and too quick, to be explicable by chance mutations plus the winnowing effect of natural selection. In the space of twenty years, entire animal and plant species develop altered body plans that allow them to feed (or to protect themselves from predation) much more easily, to squeeze out all competitors in the ecosystem, and to proliferate themselves from island to island.

It’s almost as if Egan had set himself as a task to envision a scenario of “biological exuberance“, a scenario that would seem to strongly imply some other evolutionary force than Darwinian natural selection — whether Christian “intelligent design,” some variant of Lamarckianism, Bergsonian elan vital, Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters”, or the constraints of form championed by such non-mainstream biologists as Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin — and yet to explain the scenario in terms that are entirely in accord with orthodox neodarwinism and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. How could rapid and evidently purposive evolutionary change nonetheless result from the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection? All the scientists in Teranesia take the orthodox framework for granted; and in opposition to them, Egan sets religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and “postmodern cultural theorists” who celebrate the trickster mischievousness or irrational bounty of Nature on the other (Egan’s heavy-handed, Alan Sokal-esque satire of the latter group — the book came out at around the same time as the Sokal-vs.-Social Text incident — is the most lame and tiresome aspect of the novel).

[SPOILER ALERT] The way that Egan solves his puzzle is this. The mutations all turn out to be the result of the actions of a single gene, one that can jump from species to species, and that has the ability to rewrite/mutate the rest of the genome in which it finds itself by snipping out individual base pairs, and introducing transcription errors and replacements. Given a random DNA sequence to work with, the effect of the mutations is basically random. But given an actual genome to work with, the new gene enforces changes that are far from random, that in fact optimize the genome for survival and expansion. The new gene does this by, in effect, exploring the phase space of all possible mutations to a considerable depth. And it does this by a trick of quantum theory. Egan calls on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Mutations are correlated with the collapse of the quantum wave function. All the mutations that could have happened to a given genome, but did not, in fact have occurred in parallel universes. Over the course of a genome’s history, therefore, all the alternative universes generated by every mutation constitute a phase space of all the possible changes the organism could have undergone, and it is these “many universes” the new gene is able to explore, and “choose” the changes that, statistically speaking, were the most successful ones. In this way, the new gene is able to optimize the entire genome or organism; even though it itself is purely a “selfish gene,” driven only to maximize its own reproduction. Egan wryly notes that “most processes in molecular biology had analogies in computing, but it was rarely helpful to push them too far” (256); nonetheless, he extrapolates this logic by imagining a DNA “program” that works like a “quantum supercomputer” (289).

Egan’s solution to his own puzzle is elegant, economical, and shrewd. He’s really doing what hard SF does best: applying the rigor of scientific reasoning to an imaginary problem, and (especially) abiding by the initial conditions set forth by the problem. He successfully constructs a scenario in which even the most extreme instance of apparent design can be explained without recourse to teleology. Though Egan’s hypothesis is counterfactual and probably impossible — which is just a fancy way of saying he is writing fiction — it does in fact usefully illuminate the logic of biological explanation.

And it’s this logic to which I want to turn. Getting rid of teleology is in fact harder than it might seem. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how meaningful and functioning complex patterns can emerge from randomness, without there being a pre-existing plan. “Intelligent design” theory today, like the 18th-century “argument from design,” claims that a structure like the eye, or like the interwoven network of chemical pathways that function in every cell, are too complex to have arisen without planning. Darwinian theory argues, to the contrary — quite convincingly and cogently — not only that “selection” processes are able to account for the formation of these structures, but that these structures’ very complexity precludes their having been made by planning and foresight, or any other way. (For the most explicit statement of this argument, see Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins gives a reductionist, atomistic version of the argument. I would argue — though Dawkins himself would not agree — that this account is not inconsistent with the claims of Kauffman that natural selection rides piggyback on other sorts of spontaneous organization in natural systems).

But none of this stops Dawkins, or other hardcore Darwinians, from using the vocabulary of purpose on nearly all occasions. The eye is a structure whose purpose is seeing; genes are “selfish” because they “want” — i.e. their “purpose” is — to create more copies of themselves. Dawkins, at least, is aware that his use of purpose-language is metaphorical; but the metaphors you use affect your argument in powerful, structurally relevant ways, even though you may intend them “only,” and quite consciously, as “mere” metaphors. As Isabelle Stengers puts it, Dawkins is still describing life by comparing it to a watch — or to a computer — even if the “watchmaker” is “blind” and not purposeful or conscious. Kant’s pre-Darwinian observation, that we cannot help seeing life as “purposive,” even though we would be wrong to attribute explicit “purpose” to it — still holds true in evolutionary theory.

This is partly a question about adaptation. Hardcore neodarwinism assumes that every feature of an organism, no matter how minor, is adaptive — which is to say that it has a reproductive purpose, for which it was selected. And evolutionary theorists go through extraordinary contortions to explain how “features” like homosexuality, which evidently do not contribute to the production of more offspring, nonetheless must be “adaptive” — or reproductively selected for — in some way. In a case like homosexuality, it seems obvious to suggest that: a)it is not a well-defined category, but one that has a lot of blurry edges and culturally variable aspects, so it’s misguided in the first place to find a genetic correlate to it; and b)that to the extent that genes do play a role in same-sex object choice, it may well be that what was “selected for” was not homosexuality per se, but something more general (the sort of sexual disposition that is extremely plastic, i.e. capable of realizing itself in multiple forms).

More generally, adaptationism is problematic because defending it soon brings you to a point of reductio ad absurdum. Many features of organisms are evidently adaptive, but when you start to assert that everything must be, a priori, you are condemning yourself to a kind of interpretive paranoia that sees meanings, intentions, and purposes everywhere. You start out aware that (in Egan’s words) “evolution is senseless: the great dumb machine, grinding out microscopic improvements one end, spitting out a few billion corpses from the other ” (112). But you end up with a sort of argument from design, a paradoxical denial of contingency, chance, superfluity, and meaninglessness. Evolutionary theorists assume that every feature of every organism necessarily has a meaning and a purpose; which is what leads them to simply invent purposive explanations (what Stephen Jay Gould disparaged as “just-so stories”) when they cannot be discovered by empirical means.

All these difficulties crop up in the course of Teranesia. Egan’s protagonist, Prabir, is gay, and he supposes that his sexual orientation is like an “oxbow lake” produced by a river: something that’s “not part of the flow” of the river, but that the river keeps creating nonetheless (109). Conversely, he is (rightly) angered by the suggestion that homosexuality is adaptive because it has the evolutionary purpose of being “a kind of insurance policy — to look after the others if something happens to the parents” (110). Angry because such an explanation would suggest that his being as a person has no value in its own right, for itself. And this is picked up at the end of the novel, when the new gene crosses species and starts to metastasize in Prabir’s own body. As a ruthless and super-efficient machine for adaptation, it threatens to wipe out Prabir’s own “oxbow lake,” together with anything that might seem “superfluous” from the point of view of adaptive efficiency (310).

By the end of the novel, the new gene has to be contained, for it threatens to “optimize” Prabir, and through him the rest of humanity, into a monstrous reproductive machine. Teranesia suddenly turns, in its last thirty pages or so, into a horror novel; and the final plot twist that saves Prabir is (in contrast to everything that has come before) exceedingly unconvincing and unsatisfying, because it hinges on seeing the malignant gene as purpose-driven to an extent that simply (I mean in the context of Egan’s fiction itself) isn’t credible.

Teranesia thus ends up tracking and reproducing what I am tempted to call (in Kantian style) the antinomies of neodarwinian explanation. Starting from the basic assertion that “life is meaningless” (338 — the very last words of the novel), it nonetheless finds itself compelled to hypothesize a monstrous, totalizing purposiveness. The specter of biological exuberance is exorcized, but monstrosity is not thereby dispelled; it simply returns in an even more extreme form. Even Egan’s recourse to quantum mechanics is symptomatic: because quantum mechanics is so inherently paradoxical — because it is literally impossible to understand in anything like intuitive terms — it becomes the last recourse when you are trying to explain in rationalistic and reductive terms some aspect of reality (and of life especially) that turns out to be stubbornly mysterious. Quantum mechanics allows you to have it both ways: Egan’s use of it can be compared, for instance, to the way Roger Penrose has recourse to quantum effects in order to explain the mysteries of consciousness. In short, Teranesia is a good enough book that it runs up against, and inadvertently demonstrates, the aporias implicit within the scientific rationality to which Egan is committed.

Save CBGBs!

Action is needed now, to save CBGB’s, the club on the Bowery in New York City where American punk music really got its start in the late 1970s. I won’t pontificate like an old geezer on the evenings I spent there in 1977-1979. I’ll just say that CBGBs is part of musical history, and doesn’t deserve to be destroyed by the forces of gentrification. Nightspore alerted me to this, and he has more information here; the official “Save CBGBs” page is here.

Once More With Feeling

So, I am continuing to work my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, watching all the episodes in order, as I have been doing for quite some time. I am now about a third of the way through season 6. I’m getting there.

There are many reasons why I love Buffy. (This is a topic that I will not exhaust anytime soon). A lot of it, of course, has to do with the particulars of the characters, the changes they go through, their relationships, their transformations and growth. (By season 6, the teen angst of the first two years has been left behind, for other — equally heart-wrenching — difficulties). But rather than writing a dissertation on Willow, or Giles, or Spike (let alone Buffy herself), I want to work through something about the generic aspects of the show.

Buffy works for me largely because it’s melodrama: you know, like Douglas Sirk, or daytime TV soaps. Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved. (Think of the climactic scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at the Club Silencio, when Betty and Rita are utterly moved to tears by the ostentatious fakery of Rebekah Del Rio’s lip-synching of her own over-the-top Spanish-language rendition of a Roy Orbison song).

Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-“. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand. And instead of repression and symptom-formation we get expression and objectification, often in the form of character doublings, or episodes of hypnotic influence and of possession (Personality-changing possession, or occult influence, is of course a continual theme in Buffy; and there are lots of character doublings as well, literally in the episode when Xander gets split in half, more metaphorically in rivalrous pairings like that of Buffy vs. Faith, who actually exchange bodies in one episode).

It’s precisely because melodrama is not “psychological,” not oriented towards interiority, that it so often functions as social critique. Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, as is well known, work through the gaps between what women want (or emotionally need) and what they are actually able to get; as well as the gaps between the American promise of happiness, and the dissatisfying emptiness of material wealth or commodities. More generally, and still in social situations that differ as much as middle-class American life today differs from middle-class American life in the 1950s, melodrama is always about desire as unfulfillment (or what the Lacanians call “lack”): for even if it is a general psychological truth that desire always exceeds its objects, so that it is intrinsically unfulfilled, still the hole of this unfulfillment is always filled by the social, or (better) is where the social can be located within the psyche. Because melodrama exteriorizes everything, it is always social and political, often more so than other genres that have political themes as their more explicit subjects.

There is melodrama in books and plays and of course in the movies; but melodrama really finds its home on television. The intimacy of the small screen, and the serial structure of televisual narrative, are ideal conditions for melodrama. In daytime soaps, but also in weekly evening shows with a melodramatic tinge, character is iconic, conveyed by definite, recognizable gestures; devastating plot turns are frequent, multiple plot strands can be carried through at once, and narrative closure is almost never really attained (since there always has to be something to justify another episode). One might even argue that the continual transformations of melodrama, and the continual repetitions of the same configuration in sitcoms, are the two most basic televisual forms. In TV melodrama, there’s leisure for repetition and amplification, as well as for the characters’ gradual growth on the one hand, and sudden transformations on the other. A TV series also allows for multiple allusions (e.g. to other TV narratives and genres, and more general features of popular culture) as well as self-referential turns self-parody, and so on. Dramatic television series these days tend to alternate between self-contained episodes and ones that advance the overall “plot arc,” to include topical episodes now and then (like a Christmas episode — or in Buffy, a yearly Halloween episode), and occasionally to involve crossovers with other, related shows (especially with spinoffs: in the case of Buffy, this of course means Angel). One should also mention the ways in which TV series allow for a particularly intense sort of contact with the shows’ fans, who argue online in astonishingly minute detail about the pros and cons of every episode, as well as writing fan fiction and otherwise offering alternative directions in which the show and the characters might have proceeded, but did not. (This has to do with how television remains, as McLuhan said it was, a “cool” medium, one which therefore solicits its audience to project themselves into it, and participate in it in depth: the artifice and artificiality of melodrama are strongly consonant with the artifice and artificiality of the televisual medium itself).

Buffy, of course, is something of a closeted melodrama. Its official genre, I suppose, is horror, or more precisely the supernatural thriller. And we expect that every episode will contain at least one good fight scene, where Buffy kicks ass. And that there will be some comedy to leaven the prospect of apocalypse, or Buffy’s pain at always having to do what she does. Nonetheless, melodrama is never far from the surface. Buffy’s relationship with Angel in season 2, and the death of her mother in season 5, are perhaps the two most obvious examples of melodramatic plot lines. But melodrama is everywhere in the show: it’s all about impossible situations, unfulfillable desires, and people confronting passions that they didn’t know they had, or that feel to them as if they were coming from elsewhere. Relationships frayed, and yet inescapable. The supernatural elements of the show — the vampires, the demons, the multiple Hell realms outside our own, and always threatening to break in — these are all othernesses that yet seem all too close to us, intimately close, closer perhaps than what we take for granted in the everyday. In the course of the seven years of Buffy, vampires become everyday. And if horror as a genre is about our intimate contact with radical otherness, then melodrama is precisely its obverse, the genre that projects everything intimate into the outside, into otherness. Horror, and supernatural excess, become mundane, even as the mundane is the realm where the most unbearable things continually happen. And Buffy is all about this identity-by-inversion; indeed, it’s only through Buffy that I have come to understand it. This inversion is what grounds all the great, heart-wrenching moments of the show: Buffy’s having to kill Angel precisely at the moment when, after so much suffering, she has gotten him back; Buffy having to sacrifice herself to save Dawn; the tenderness of Faith’s daughter/father relationship with the Mayor, even as this relation has drawn her into the utmost abjection; Spike’s pained lust and crippling inhibition beneath his punk sneer; Willow’s moments of desperation and grim determination and rage…. The list could go on. What Buffy does is to linger on all these moments, to draw them out, to make them both painful and awkward (I mean both the awkwardness that the characters often feel, as well as the frequent awkwardness of the show itself, as if it were continually trying to express something that went beyond its means, and that it could not portray quite convincingly).

The thing that I find most fascinating about it all, however, is something that includes but goes beyond melodrama, or (better) something that Buffy shares, not with other melodramas, but with other examples of science fiction or speculative fiction. This is the need to take the show’s situations literally. By this I mean that the supernatural elements of the show’s melodramatic situations cannot be read as allegories of more familiar emotional states, but have to be taken precisely for what they are. When Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, because of a Gypsy curse that means such consummation will take away his soul and turn him back into an evil vampire; when Buffy, returned from the dead, cannot experience life with anything but pain and dread, because she has been riven away from Paradise: these do not symbolize or allegorize any actual or possible situations that you and I might really experience ourselves. They are impossible, strictly unimaginable situations; and their emotional intensity depends on the fact that we cannot really conceive of their possibility, and yet we have to accept them (in the “suspension of disbelief” — a formulation I am not at all happy with — of our immersion in the show) as being not only “real,” but even mundane. This is the part of the experience that I find it most difficult to “theorize,” or to make sense of in terms that satisfy me.

So, I am continuing to work my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, watching all the episodes in order, as I have been doing for quite some time. I am now about a third of the way through season 6. I’m getting there.

There are many reasons why I love Buffy. (This is a topic that I will not exhaust anytime soon). A lot of it, of course, has to do with the particulars of the characters, the changes they go through, their relationships, their transformations and growth. (By season 6, the teen angst of the first two years has been left behind, for other — equally heart-wrenching — difficulties). But rather than writing a dissertation on Willow, or Giles, or Spike (let alone Buffy herself), I want to work through something about the generic aspects of the show.

Buffy works for me largely because it’s melodrama: you know, like Douglas Sirk, or daytime TV soaps. Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved. (Think of the climactic scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at the Club Silencio, when Betty and Rita are utterly moved to tears by the ostentatious fakery of Rebekah Del Rio’s lip-synching of her own over-the-top Spanish-language rendition of a Roy Orbison song).

Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-“. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand. And instead of repression and symptom-formation we get expression and objectification, often in the form of character doublings, or episodes of hypnotic influence and of possession (Personality-changing possession, or occult influence, is of course a continual theme in Buffy; and there are lots of character doublings as well, literally in the episode when Xander gets split in half, more metaphorically in rivalrous pairings like that of Buffy vs. Faith, who actually exchange bodies in one episode).

It’s precisely because melodrama is not “psychological,” not oriented towards interiority, that it so often functions as social critique. Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, as is well known, work through the gaps between what women want (or emotionally need) and what they are actually able to get; as well as the gaps between the American promise of happiness, and the dissatisfying emptiness of material wealth or commodities. More generally, and still in social situations that differ as much as middle-class American life today differs from middle-class American life in the 1950s, melodrama is always about desire as unfulfillment (or what the Lacanians call “lack”): for even if it is a general psychological truth that desire always exceeds its objects, so that it is intrinsically unfulfilled, still the hole of this unfulfillment is always filled by the social, or (better) is where the social can be located within the psyche. Because melodrama exteriorizes everything, it is always social and political, often more so than other genres that have political themes as their more explicit subjects.

There is melodrama in books and plays and of course in the movies; but melodrama really finds its home on television. The intimacy of the small screen, and the serial structure of televisual narrative, are ideal conditions for melodrama. In daytime soaps, but also in weekly evening shows with a melodramatic tinge, character is iconic, conveyed by definite, recognizable gestures; devastating plot turns are frequent, multiple plot strands can be carried through at once, and narrative closure is almost never really attained (since there always has to be something to justify another episode). One might even argue that the continual transformations of melodrama, and the continual repetitions of the same configuration in sitcoms, are the two most basic televisual forms. In TV melodrama, there’s leisure for repetition and amplification, as well as for the characters’ gradual growth on the one hand, and sudden transformations on the other. A TV series also allows for multiple allusions (e.g. to other TV narratives and genres, and more general features of popular culture) as well as self-referential turns self-parody, and so on. Dramatic television series these days tend to alternate between self-contained episodes and ones that advance the overall “plot arc,” to include topical episodes now and then (like a Christmas episode — or in Buffy, a yearly Halloween episode), and occasionally to involve crossovers with other, related shows (especially with spinoffs: in the case of Buffy, this of course means Angel). One should also mention the ways in which TV series allow for a particularly intense sort of contact with the shows’ fans, who argue online in astonishingly minute detail about the pros and cons of every episode, as well as writing fan fiction and otherwise offering alternative directions in which the show and the characters might have proceeded, but did not. (This has to do with how television remains, as McLuhan said it was, a “cool” medium, one which therefore solicits its audience to project themselves into it, and participate in it in depth: the artifice and artificiality of melodrama are strongly consonant with the artifice and artificiality of the televisual medium itself).

Buffy, of course, is something of a closeted melodrama. Its official genre, I suppose, is horror, or more precisely the supernatural thriller. And we expect that every episode will contain at least one good fight scene, where Buffy kicks ass. And that there will be some comedy to leaven the prospect of apocalypse, or Buffy’s pain at always having to do what she does. Nonetheless, melodrama is never far from the surface. Buffy’s relationship with Angel in season 2, and the death of her mother in season 5, are perhaps the two most obvious examples of melodramatic plot lines. But melodrama is everywhere in the show: it’s all about impossible situations, unfulfillable desires, and people confronting passions that they didn’t know they had, or that feel to them as if they were coming from elsewhere. Relationships frayed, and yet inescapable. The supernatural elements of the show — the vampires, the demons, the multiple Hell realms outside our own, and always threatening to break in — these are all othernesses that yet seem all too close to us, intimately close, closer perhaps than what we take for granted in the everyday. In the course of the seven years of Buffy, vampires become everyday. And if horror as a genre is about our intimate contact with radical otherness, then melodrama is precisely its obverse, the genre that projects everything intimate into the outside, into otherness. Horror, and supernatural excess, become mundane, even as the mundane is the realm where the most unbearable things continually happen. And Buffy is all about this identity-by-inversion; indeed, it’s only through Buffy that I have come to understand it. This inversion is what grounds all the great, heart-wrenching moments of the show: Buffy’s having to kill Angel precisely at the moment when, after so much suffering, she has gotten him back; Buffy having to sacrifice herself to save Dawn; the tenderness of Faith’s daughter/father relationship with the Mayor, even as this relation has drawn her into the utmost abjection; Spike’s pained lust and crippling inhibition beneath his punk sneer; Willow’s moments of desperation and grim determination and rage…. The list could go on. What Buffy does is to linger on all these moments, to draw them out, to make them both painful and awkward (I mean both the awkwardness that the characters often feel, as well as the frequent awkwardness of the show itself, as if it were continually trying to express something that went beyond its means, and that it could not portray quite convincingly). (This is also why the show’s bizarre juxtapositions, its invocations of the most unlikely and artificial genres — like the 1950s musical in the “Once More With Feeling” episode — work so brilliantly. There’s an arbitrariness that fits perfectly with the strained unnaturalness of melodrama itself).

The thing that I find most fascinating about it all, however, is something that includes but goes beyond melodrama, or (better) something that Buffy shares, not with other melodramas, but with other examples of science fiction or speculative fiction. This is the need to take the show’s situations literally. By this I mean that the supernatural elements of the show’s melodramatic situations cannot be read as allegories of more familiar emotional states, but have to be taken precisely for what they are. When Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, because of a Gypsy curse that means such consummation will take away his soul and turn him back into an evil vampire; when Buffy, returned from the dead, cannot experience life with anything but pain and dread, because she has been riven away from Paradise: these do not symbolize or allegorize any actual or possible situations that you and I might really experience ourselves. They are impossible, strictly unimaginable situations; and their emotional intensity depends on the fact that we cannot really conceive of their possibility, and yet we have to accept them (in the “suspension of disbelief” — a formulation I am not at all happy with — of our immersion in the show) as being not only “real,” but even mundane. This is the part of the experience that I find it most difficult to “theorize,” or to make sense of in terms that satisfy me.

On and On

“On and On,” the new Missy Elliott song from her forthcoming album Cookbook, is really amazing: gurgling synthesizer lines over a heavy booming beat, and the art of declamation honed sharp as a razor. Wow. Produced, not by Timbaland, but by the Neptunes, and one of their best tracks ever (enough to make you forget “Milkshake”or “Drop It Like It’s Hot”).