I was Literally not Going to Write This Post Today

If I read/hear the word “literally” used to draw emphasis to a phenomenon, my head is literally going to explode.

Alright, you have probably heard the trite use of the word “literally” endorsed from celebrities and rock stars, to journalists and media moguls; but I think it is time to stand up and reconsider the use of the word literally as a way to emphasis and clarify our reliance on clichés and metaphors.

I wasn’t going to write a post about this topic. In fact, I have been jotting down a list of chapter ideas for a non-fiction book regarding the use of popularly accepted idioms such as “like,” “really,” and so forth in order to, perhaps, start a new blog. I firmly think that these words betray something unique about our experience in this world as it is right now. I think it betrays what Jean-François Lyotard first named the “Postmodern Condition” in which all of our experiences are kept at a relative distance form ourselves—obviously I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but you get the point.

In an earlier post, I analyzed the use of the word “like” as a part of speech that frames actions, happenings, occurrences and experiences in a way that keeps those phenomena at a distance from our own lives. So much so that we must then use hyperbolic words such as “really” and “seriously” to bring that simulated experience (the “like”) closer to us.

Here is an example from my post:

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”

It comes down to our basic social function in this world: communicating our experiences and lives to another human being. But if we cannot grasp the fundamental description of life experiences that happen to our own person, then we will find a way to make up for that, let’s call it, gap in proximity or happening.

My point of focus today is the word “literally,” and I think it fulfills three social functions:

  1. It acknowledges the trite overuse—and universal knowledge of this overuse—of a cliché and amends its overuse by attempting to make the cliché a real occurrence.
  2. It removes the abstract object of metaphor (a comparison without using “like” or “as”), and replaces it with a real thing.
  3. It makes the experience closer, more alive, more Real, more True.

Okay, I literally just went to The Atlantic Monthly‘s website and scanned four articles for the word “literally”. I found one use of it in the comment section (yes, it aids my point). So, let’s dissect his or her’s little sentence with and without the word “literally”

“So the point is, you literally *cannot* escape at this point”
“So the point is, you *cannot* escape at this point”

The commenter is discussing Google, Facebook and Technologies hold on our lives. Yes, yes, it’s horrible—he types across a wi-fi network. The author’s point is that we cannot escape from technology. So, why is he or she using the word literally? The sentence functions perfectly without it, right? Well, kind of.

TechThe author is using an absolute idea. To his or her absolutist point: you cannot escape technology. Well, but, you probably can. There is no way for this author to account for all cases of occurrences where someone attempted to escape the Internet’s grasp and succeeded. Because, let’s face it, no one has that knowledge. It’s impossible to know. In our postcolonial era, claiming that you have absolute knowledge is a logical fallacy, and this author is aware of that fallacy. So, what the author does is place the word “literally” in front of the fallacy in order to emphasize the absolutism of the word “*cannot*”. The irony is that the use of the word “literally” implies that the author cannot prove this fact, so without the word “literally” the sentence becomes closer to a type of Truth.

Here is my final argument: it is not that the sentence needs the word “literally” to emphasize the absolutism; rather, it is that the reader needs the word “literally” to verify and communicate something unique to our time and space. As far as I’m concerned that intangible thing that the reader needs is capitalized Truth. And Truth over the Internet is very, very, really, super-hard to come by because it is unverifiable. Truth over the Internet is intangible. It is the very thing that we are seeking when we type “How do I…” on Google, but then scan three sources before believing the top result.

Sure, this could be simple cynicism and mistrust of knowledge, but I am not about to write off the social predominance of the word “literally” by news media corporations, pundits, documentary film makers, learned individuals, and average Americans. It cannot be that simple.

So, I ask you to aid me in my quest for Truth, and let’s reconsider our use of the word “literally” before we speak or write. Hmmmm, I didn’t even discuss the use of metaphor vs. literally, but that’s for a different post.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

(Edited: To add to my point, I found this a few minutes ago by one of my favorite writers, Derek Thompson: “That other websites don’t do this, or (less likely, but possibly) literally cannot afford to pay writers anything is unfortunate, but it is much more complex than gross exploitation”. Sheesh. “Literally” is literally everywhere!)

The Aura and the Art Museum

This post has been inspired by a fellow blogger, one Peter Galen Massey. Recently, he and I had a reply-style discussion that mentioned the value of art and Walter Benjamin‘s interpretation of “aura”. This discussion has inspired my reconsideration of Benjamin’s work, and my own recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago—where a Picasso exhibit is currently featured.

MonetSo, let’s start with the basics. Walter Benjamin, an exiled German Jewish philosopher, critic, historian, etc. wrote a significant essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. (Here’s a link to the pdf). Benjamin defined something he called “aura”. This “aura” is a work of art’s unique presence in time and space. So, one would feel this “aura” if one viewed Monet‘s original Lily Pad paintings. It is akin to authenticity, except “aura” is a thing (for lack of a better term) that the original art work possesses (due to its history, its changes in ownership, its chemical changes, etc.). The thing is that this “thing” that the original work of art possesses can not be felt/interpreted/experienced by a subject, e.g. you, if it is a copy. So, that Mona Lisa on your coffee mug does not possess “aura”. You dig?

You know why? Because, as Benjamin states, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221 of Illuminations). So, any replica loses this “aura”. Only the original possesses an “aura”. (In an exchange of letters between Georg Lukács and Benjamin, Lukács told Benjamin that he was (paraphrasing here) not Marxist enough. I totally understand that now). And with that, let me make a bold statement: that aura stuff is bull**it.

Works of art are locked up behind gates, guarded by numerous security guards, and under constant surveillance. You know why? Aura. Those paintings represent a movement, a theory, a statement, a something; but, Man must eat first, before he or she contemplates art. So, we set aside our earned $30 and stand in line to enter our local Art Institute that houses works of art that should make us feel something (aura, perhaps?). And we see said art, and, lo and behold (!), it produces this feeling! “Yes, I am inspired! I will paint! I will draw! I will siiiiing!” But what inspires this inspiration? Is it aura? No. I will not grant mysticism to oil on canvas, nor charcoal on paper. What inspires us is our own expectation: the room, the lighting, the locks, the guards, the waiting, the entrance fee, etc.; that is what produces this so called “aura”. We don’t need to know about aura to feel this feeling. It is already in our collective consciousness simply by the fact that these works of art are placed in special spaces that are reserved just for them. This grants them an “aura,” not some mystical pronouncement or terminology. It is a collective will to place a value on certain objects (reification…), a value that does not exist, that is what makes these objects special and elite.

PicassoInside the Picasso exhibit, housed under a long wooden table with glass mounted on top, there were roughly a dozen early sketches of Picasso’s before he began painting a series of portraits featuring the infamous Minotaur. These sketches were unfinished and meant to be understood and valued as such. As I walked around the table, I noticed that I was in a room full of people looking at drawings of a Minotaur f*cking a lady, or sometimes two ladies. And I thought this odd. My second thought was: this Picasso guy is a hornball! Drawing pictures of bestiality and such. What a silly fellow! I laughed a bit out loud and caught the eye of my gf who was earnestly studying the sketches, as though she was imagining the burgeoning genius that was Picasso furiously creating this bestial sketch. She shook her head at me and walked on.

After the museum we stopped at ye old coffee shop and discussed “art”. My gf called me cynical due to my slight scoffing at Picasso’s Porn. I took offense. The last thing I am is cynical, my dear reader (a philistine, most likely. But, cynical? far from it). Her defense to my above accusation of Picasso is that he is a genius. My reply was that Picasso was a man. And the sketches of porn he was drawing proves that he eats, sh*ts, loves, f*cks, and drinks just like any other man. Period. He does not possess a gift or genius, he is a man with significant artistic skill, important social connections, and the right social conditions provided so that he could develop that skill and those connections. Punkt. Full stop—as my lady would say.

My point here is not to argue that art and its value is good or bad. No. Our esteem for art reflects our own cultural value. And our culture values art. It shows that despite decades of simulacra, postmodernism, mechanical reproduction, Mickey Mouse, far too many Transformers films, and thousands of $10 Monet Lily Pad prints adorning hundreds of college dorm walls so that some girl will think some boy is smart yet sensitive in the hopes that she will have sex with him, we still value art. It is one of the best ways in which we know how to reproduce and share the human experience. It is one of the best ways to demonstrate to past and future generations that creativity is valued in our society. It is one of the best ways to inspire passion, beauty, love, hate, honor, envy, morality, sex, lust, war, happiness, frustration, etc. And it is one of the best ways to communicate our Truth. Even if it is a sketch of a Minotaur f*cking a lady… or two.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek

The Sublime Object of Ideology (The Essential Zizek)The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Žižek

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I cannot write to the impact that Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology has had upon Lacanian Psychoanalyis or Marxist Criticism. I cannot even lie enough to tell you, dear reader, that I understood the majority of this text. But I do know that of what I understood, I thoroughly enjoyed and gathered not only a new perception of the world, but the terminology with which to envision it.

Before remarking that Žižek’s writing is “____” or that Žižek’s interpretation of the Lacanian “____” is “_____,” let me state why I read this book, and why someone should read this book. I’ll begin with the latter: I cannot imagine a reason for someone to read this book. Unless, said person is interested in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Marxism, Stalinism, a general critique of the Postmodern, etc. But, these are highly individualized and specialized reasons. I read this for one of those reasons: I knew this was a seminal work, and I like Žižek’s writing. I find him quite entertaining, and I appreciate what many criticize about Žižek: namely, his blend of good ol’ Socialist humor adjacent to Marxist/Lacanian theory.

But, on with the show. For a number of years now, quite before I even knew of Žižek, I have been approaching individuals with this notion: there is no such thing as choice. Now, I don’t go saying this willy-nilly to everyone; no. Gosh, no! I only reserve it for those who I wish to engage in a bit of an intellectual battle with, i.e. someone who can, perhaps, change my mind or, better yet, harden my thought. You can work this notion from the consumerist angle of limited selection, or the lovely Leninist paraphrase, “freedom, but for whom and for what!” or any others to fit your sparring partner. But what you really want them to realize is that even what they say to me has been determined. Even me saying “there is no choice” is determined by a mix of my experiences, memory, journeys, gender, class, race, language, nationalism, heredity, and so on, and so on. But, I am totally okay with that.

You see, they (my straw men) fight to hold on to this banal notion of “individuality” being made up of “choices”—I had coffee this morning because I decided to; not because of my environment, my internal make up, my bank account, my access to coffee, the development of coffee as a commodity, etc. And when you present the absurd aphorism that “there is no choice,” the first response is fear. Go ahead, try it on the first person you meet. I’ll wait…

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

IF, a big IF, you can get past this initial fear of the loss of morality, freedom, ability, talent—not to mention the Protestant virtue of the individual—etc., then you must counter their fear. They must know that in the absence of choice, or “free will” for you old school philosophers, we still retain our individuality. There is no one like you. And there is no one like me. (Even an imitation is just that: an imitation of the thing. Even if I am an imitation, I am still this original imitation that is occurring now. God save Postmodernism). Even the hypothetical identical-twin-sci-fi-crap renders individuality a truism. Because no one can occupy your space or your time. Even if they did, the slightest deviance (say, a misplaced hair or an unbuttoned shirt collar) would alter any similarities. (And even those things would not be “choices”).

So, to make the theory of “choice,” one simply must isolate an incident. Then—and this is important, which is why I used an em-dash—the incident, once severed from any prior beginnings or futile continuation, is immediately rendered moral. AND: “There are no moral phenomenon at all, but only moral interpretations of phenomena.” (Agreed, I wouldn’t acquiesce to someone who quotes Nietzsche either.) So, let’s try this:

“the subject must freely choose the community to which he already belongs, independent of his choice–he must choose what is already given to him“. Furthermore, “The point is that he is never actually in a position to choose: he is always treated as if he had already chosen“. Finally, “we must stress that there is nothing ‘totalitarian’ about it. The subject who thinks he can avoid this paradox and really have a free choice is a psychotic subject”. (Žižek 186, original italics)

I feel quite vindicated in my initial philosophical challenge. And the thing is that there are a handful of other chapters and sub-chapters that made total sense to me! Totally. Like: pieces of “How Did Marx invent the Symptom?,” “the subject presumed to…” on page 210, or “Positing the presuppositions” on page 244. (The rest of the text consisting of Lacanian hieroglyphics that I hope to someday render in to perfect psychoanalytic crop circles that eventually reveal, revive and revel in the Real, the Symptom, the Imaginary, and das Ding all in one foul grand gesture in which the proletariat will finally come to total consciousness, amass in the nearest city and stare blankly, longingly at the sky waiting for Lacan to appear in some great 1960s Télévision set floating overhead. Perhaps I’ve said too much… Oder: Vielleicht, ich habe zu viel gesagt).

I think the difficulty of this text lies in the thickness of it; no, no, not the page number; um, the density; yeah, that’s it: density. So, I’ll keep it on my shelf for inefficient perusal; the proverbial “wait a second, I gotta find this quote!”. I can discuss a mere five pages of this text for hours; or, for that matter, write an annoyingly long book review on one sub-chapter. But I only write this stuff for me. And, luckily, you, dear reader, have no choice.

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A Story

“Astonishment gives pleasure; evidence of this is the fact that everyone exaggerates when passing on news, on the assumption that they are giving pleasure”

“If impossibilities have been included in a poem, that is an error; but it is correct if it attains the end of the art itself…”
Aristotle, from Poetics

OJP StreetLast weekend my six-year old daughter told me a story about being at her mommy’s house. We were decorating pink frosted Valentine’s Day cupcakes with sprinkles, and she remembered a time her mother and her made cupcakes. Her story was simple. It began: “At my mommy’s house we made cupcakes for my birthday. Then we brought them to Nana’s (her grandma’s house), and I got to eat two whole cupcakes!” I replied, “What a lovely story.” To which she turned her head with a furrowed brow and a grimace, remarking, “It’s not a story, daddy!” I said, “Well, of course it is. Someone did something; something happened to someone. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wasn’t a very good story—next time include a dragon—but it was a story.” Before you rage against my parenting skills, I’d like you to know I tell this to everyone; I even say this when relating my own stories (“I should throw a dragon in there next time”).

So, her grimace now became frustrated, “But it really did happen, daddy!” Now this is where I shine. I said, “Well, stories can be true and not true. You are still telling me a story when you tell me about something that happened to you. Even if it’s just going upstairs to use the bathroom. It’s still a story. It’s just better when there’s a dragon. More dramatic.” Yes, this is how I talk to my six-year old. I tend not to belittle her or make that awful “child speak” that people often do. I use big words. And I tend to explain everything at eye level. She’s an individual to me, and I am so happy that she finally has an opinion.

OJP CameraAs I was explaining to my gf the other night: many people tend to think children are not very smart, or rather, observant (I am thankful if you, dear reader, are not one of these people; but you should read on anyway). I tend to think they are absolute geniuses. Let me explain with an example. Some people think children don’t consider race, class, or gender when watching Disney films, or, say, playing with toys. And, therefore, do not consider those issues on our privileged, adult or mature level. But I think they are very wise; wiser than us.

You see, they have nothing to do. No bills to pay. No cars to fill with gas. No groceries to accumulate. No job. They don’t worry about sex, or looking good, or being confident around a pretty boy or girl. They don’t worry about shaving, or where food comes from, or what’s in their bank account, or taxes. All they do is watch you. They are learning how to be a person. All day, every day. And playing. 90% of their waking time is figuring out how to best utilize their play time, i.e. who can play with me, when can they play, how long, and what game. They make friends by proximity, not a shared morality, interests, or hobbies. So, that’s it: Play and Mimic us. Children have a sincerely simple and myopic view of life: it is black or white. There is always a rule present: either you follow it or you don’t. That’s it. And following that rule depends solely upon what brand of attention the child wants, and from whom they want it.

OJP Battle CreekSo, to my point. It is clear that my daughter firmly holds this logic: A story is a lie, and lying is bad (due to parental enforced consequences). Therefore, I should not lie; I should not tell stories. Here’s the rub: I don’t see it that way. I think we all tell stories. We are a social, story telling species. When I ask you, “How are you doing?” Then you tell me a story. Same with, “How was your day?” I get a story (hopefully a good one). Now, there is no possibility that you can tell me an accurate version of a story. It is always colored. Your perspective colors it with a Crayola of tones, adverbs, and adjectives like grey sadness (like Eeyore) or pink worry (like Piglet)—for just a few examples. And you decide, every time, how to tell your story. You decide where to begin, where to end, and what details to include. Nietzsche states that we actively forget. If not, we would never move! Every color or smell would provoke a memory, which in turn would provoke another memory, which would provoke another, and another. We would never move; or, even worse, never experience our amazing life; and in doing so never create new memories. So, we forget. Then, we embellish; we tell stories.

I broke my daughter’s chain of logic. She still looks at me with a weird, cock-eyed grimace when I tell her I like her story. You see, I want her to know what pleasure can be derived from hearing and telling a story, whether it is fact or fiction. That her life is not simply Black or White, Truth or Lie, Story or Reality. I don’t want her to tell me everything, but I want her to feel free to do so. In fact, I want her to tell me stories twice. Because each time, even if it is the exact same story, I’m a different person than I was two or thirty minutes ago. And I hear a uniqueness every time she tells it. Same with you. You haven’t told everything. You can’t. But what you piece together is You. So, the next time someone asks you about your day, remember that you’re telling them a story. So, color it well…

On The Geneaology of Morals/Ecce Homo, by Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Genealogy of Morals/Ecce HomoOn the Genealogy of Morals/Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I find it difficult to write a review of a philosophical work; difficult because it is initially put upon the reviewer to agree or disagree with an idea, but one must first summarize–and by doing that, one has already levied judgment.” -me

I wrote that passage on the back page of my copy of this text. The page number I referenced before writing this thought is page 326, which contains the quote from Ecce Homo (1900): “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy: you will guess why I publish this book before; it shall prevent people from doing mischief with me” (emphasis original). Walter Kaufmann, the translator, notes that Ecce Homo was not published until 1908, eight years after Friedrich Nietzsche’s death; eight years after Peter Gast proclaimed at the funeral of his friend: “Holy be thy name to all coming generations” (326). I find this first quote significant for many reasons, and it is the one I will deal with during the entirety of this review.

First, it is important to note what I am reading. This text is one of Nietzsche’s final works. In fact, as the note states, it was published posthumously–not the classical way of familiarizing oneself with a great philosopher, of this I am aware. My interest with Nietzsche began long ago through references by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jasbir Puar, but the first actual text of his that I encountered was: A Nietzsche Reader. This text is organized thematically, and is a good primer for Nietzsche’s writing. That being noted, I began this text with the later Ecce Homo, not the earlier On The Genealogy of Morals. The former text contains Nietzsche’s personal account of his own writing; from The Birth of Tragedy (1872) to The Case of Wagner (1888), and with everything else in between. But I was not reading it for that textual investigation; I was reading it because of the “Why I Am” essays.

You may have heard of them (“Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” etc.), or maybe you passed them in the bookstore and thought “What a pompous ass this Nietzsche fellow is!” I guess so. But I read them because I thought myself clever as well. Actually, I had made this same statement to two people on New Year’s Day 2013; namely, “I am so wise,” spoken with earnest pride. Then the seed was planted, and I went to the local used bookstore the next day to purchase this text after having seen it there over one month prior.

English: Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think one ought to approach Nietzsche in this manner: with a positive interest and happy conjectures, seeking gainful contemplation. Without that, one may happen upon an unhappy and lonely man writing manifestos for the Third Reich; but if that is the case, then one has read foolishly and done grave mischief to Nietzsche. This is quite specific mischief, and it is settled throughout Ecce Homo. If anything, one should take away from this text Nietzsche’s disgust for the Germans, his absolute abhorrence of nationalism, and his utmost desire to be understood. I shall lift another quotation circa 1900: “let the Germans commit one more immortal blunder in relation to me that will stand in all eternity” (Ecce Homo 324). Wie Stören…

But I digress.

For me, reading Nietzsche isn’t about a grand idea or accumulating argumentative munitions against religion or morality, but about approaching art and life with a new and refreshing understanding. I cannot imagine attempting to decipher exactly what point or lesson or utilitarian application the reader was supposed to infer from Nietzsche’s master/slave morality detailed in On The Genealogy of Morals, but I can apply his thesis on ressentiment to the integration of the tragic figure into popular culture, starting with Arthur Miller’s essay on his own Death of a Salesman (1949), entitled “Tragedy and The Common Man” (written the same year). [Essay forthcoming]. It seems to me that Nietzsche is a referential adviser; not a person to whom one should read, digest and discard; nor an author whom one should carry in one’s back pocket; but, rather, an author one should consider from time to time, if only to contemplate our world from a different angle.

Many will advise not to approach Nietzsche lightly, but to consider him gravely and with steadfast measure. I disagree entirely. Approach Nietzsche when you are up, not down; when you have found happiness, not when you seek it; when you are ready to say YES to life, not when you feel it at its heaviest burden. Nietzsche is someone to be taken lightly; without weightlessness one cannot ascend to, and descend from, the great heights he offers; one cannot comprehend his Zarathustra; and one cannot read him free of mischief. So, with this in mind, you are sure to find answers in the divine human that is yourself, before you find them in the Nietzsche whom so many so desperately and despondently seek.

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The Exclamation Point and The Rorschach Test

I have a fatal cyber flaw: I cannot grasp internet sarcasm. I am now wondering if this makes me old (read: unhip), or whether this makes me just not quite cut out for the Internet (capital “I”). Either way, I blame the exclamation point!

errors!Did I just yell? Did I laugh? Was I angry? You will never know. There must be some level of exclamatory congruity brewing across this great cybersphere; there must be some level of mutual understanding: “yes, the exclamation point means this, this or this, depending on the context.” Obviously, it is emphasis of some sort, right? Yes. Ok? Agreed. But! (Interjection) Here is the real crux: I just presume everyone on the internet is being genuine. Sheesh. That was like an AA meeting:

“Hi, my name is Shawn, and I presume all people on the internet are genuine.”
Let’s all welcome Shawn: “Hi Shawn!”

Damnit! What just happened there? Were they excited to greet me? Are they angry with me? Does that (!) emphasize their voices in unison? Oh, man! (Crap…) There it is again. That last time I think it signifies consternation, but I cannot be sure. Although, now I think we are getting to the bottom of this (!) mystery: the signifier. Oh, that slippery signifier. I would like to thank Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure (two people I will NOT be naming my unborn sons after!) for this mysterious signifier; this tender, unreliable thing that invokes and evokes meaning of a unique thing to each and every individual and conjures up images of unique things and memories that tangle (and tango) with other memories, colors, smells, making us unique in our (physique) ambitions, talents, thoughts, actions and desires. Sheesh. Signifier. How ’bout a demonstration?

(I read that last paragraph and think of loveable, furry, old Grover. Remember him? Blue. Monstrous. Real skinny. Flailed his arms a lot. Wandered around Sesame Street. Unassuming. Loves words, letters, soup. Dressing up as a waiter, superhero, cowboy, etc. He had this frequent skit where he would be discussing a thing, say an (!), and that thing, say an orange, foam, 2-foot tall (!) with a little black wire near the bottom that I started to only notice later on in my childhood, would just pop up while he was discussing it. The cool part is that Grover was completely surprised! He was all like, “AAAHHH!!! (Grover yelled a lot, not in a frightening way) WHAT is this thing!?!?!” And then it would go away. He would begin talking about it again, and then BLAAM! The foam (!) would show up! Right in the middle of him talking about the actual thing! Talk about your return of the repressed! Crazy. Anyhooo. Where was I?)

(Oh yeah!) What have we learned? So, the (!) means different things to different people: signifier. And I assume you are all being genuine (you nice folks, you). What is left? Oh, ugh, another confession: I write blog posts either smiling, slightly laughing, or convincing myself that something that does not appear funny actually is funny. Not in a mad-scientist-y way. No. More like a: “Shawn, you are hilarious!”-type of way. Which leads me to my next point: I blame the exclamation point because it tells us about ourselves.

Mr. Johnson (Sesame Street)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The exclamation point is our very own Rorschach test: it reveals to us exactly what we want to see. When I come across an exclamation point in an internet comment, I usually see happiness, laughter, humor, an interjection, or surprise. I cannot locate cynicism. I do not read it. And I do not speak it. I feel as though I need an (*) for every time I use a (!), just to make sure that the commenter believes that I too am genuine. As though I need to convince them ever so desperately, “Listen! I mean it! I truly do! It is not sarcasm!!!” I want them to see my ink blot. My Rorschach. I also want them to see loveable, furry, old Grover perhaps repeatedly attempting to serve a bowl of hot alphabet soup during a windstorm to this other dapper, blue fellow who always yells “Ohhhh, waiter!” with lips hidden behind a glorious, old-school mustache as an obvious signifier of sophistication and learning and the antithesis to Grover’s unkempt, shaggy blue hair, inept social skills, abhorrence of any and all contractions, and inability to secure steady employment leading him to later adopt a schizophrenic, Quixotic personality and dawn a billowing, red cape and an often faulty, metal helmet so that he may be better rescue precious kittens from trees and us from ultimately misunderstanding (!). Whew! Loveable, furry, old Grover. Taught me everything I know about (!).

Thanks everyone. Hope you enjoy!

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yes, 4 stars.
Let’s just get this out of the way: I liked this book. I hope to pick it up again in a few years and enjoy it for other reasons. So, if you don’t like this book, then you should either a) choose another review to read that supports/validates your opinion, b) read this review to see why I liked it so much (& maybe politely disagree with me), or c) read this review and wholeheartedly abandoned your previous conclusion. Go on… I’ll give you some time to decide.

I think something impressive is happening with Dave Eggers’ writing. First off, this is the first novel I have read of his and I did so only after reading a raving review of his latest novel in the NYT Sunday, July 29th Book Review, which I stole from a Starbucks (you know, that wire rack that people put newspapers after they are done with them? That place. It’s next to the fireplace). Eggers confronts the notion of fiction and non-fiction, whether he wants to or not. He refers to his work as “fiction” in the books catalog page, or “semi-fictional” or “semi-autobiographical,” and even once “nonfiction” during the Mistakes We Knew We Were Making section. All these labels really do not matter, simply because all the notes, appendices, etc. that many readers/critics refer to as “postmodern” is Eggers confronting the line between non-fiction and fiction, simile and reality, metaphor and fact. (This is, yes, postmodern, in its confrontation with what we know of as the Modern, plot-driven novel that we often come to expect from our education system of reading The Old Man and the Sea, All Quiet on the Western Front, or 1984 in high school, but that’s another discussion).

You see, there is no possible way for fiction to be eradicated. Any true memoir does not exist, but only in the mind of the author who purports it as such, and the readers who think this phenomenon possible. There is no such thing as non-fiction. Eggers knows this. (Sure, that statement sounded powerful, but how in the hell could I know that he knows that?). No story you tell me, or anyone for that matter, could possibly be a true account of what occurred. It is only a true account of what occurred from your perspective, and your perspective is colored by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, languages known, hair color, age, foot size, diseases had, family lineage, whether both grandparents are still alive, get the point? So, this is what ultimately fascinates me about this text: it’s desire to cling to non-fiction (real phone #’s, addresses, names, etc.), while acknowledging the inability of the author to remember everything and not take “artistic license” for most of the text (example: Bloodstream footnote on page 35 of the Mistakes section reads “This did not happen as stated… I changed and inserted this because it seemed like a good idea at the time”). Of course.

Eggers admitting the use of fiction in order to make a more cohesive story should be an “ah-ha!” moment for the reader simply because it is hilarious! The levity with which he treats a memoir should be duly noted and observed with the same levity. We should NOT take this book seriously as clinging to fiction or non-fiction, nor should we fall into the trap of wanting some break-neck narrative that grips our emotions, blaah, blaah, blaah. This book is much smarter (ugh, quirkier?) than a simple, straight-forward narrative. Again: something very interesting is happening with this text. It could easily have been a straight-forward narrative. Or it could easily have been David Foster Wallace with endless footnotes, small print, and meandering, if existent, plot lines. No. Eggers needs the narrative as a vehicle for his literary criticism; his challenge to genre classification.

Well, this leaves me with the Concluding Paragraph in this 5-paragraph schematic, doesn’t it? Well, you can skip ahead to this point if you would like, but you missed some cool italics and links. Honestly: don’t read this book. (Sorry, Dave!) Buy it, but don’t read it. (There, better?). Especially if prone to complaining about “self-awareness” or “pomo” in writing; and especially if you hate short, choppy sentences. Dickens can make a damn fine semicolon do the work of ten of Eggers’ periods.

P.s. Wow. You made it this far. Congrats. Now welcome to my rant for the reviewers of this book on GR. For those of you who feel this book is to “selfish” or “narcissistic”–all of you writing 17,000 character reviews spouting your opinion, bashing another person’s supposedly self-centered writing, criticizing another person’s “narcissism” on your blog devoted to your life–I have an exercise for you. Go to a mirror–any mirror. Look at the person in the mirror. Now pinch that piece of flesh on your neck, just below your chin. Tell me if it hurts? Yes? Good. That means that you are the only person who can feel your pain, your pleasure, your disgust, your happiness, etc. You are the only person who can tell me what it feels like to have your own neck pinched, or lose both your parents, or raise your younger brother alone. Getting up in the morning is the single most selfish act imaginable. Writing about it doesn’t change that. So quit complaining about another person’s successful ability to tell a story. Get over the fact that someone wrote about themselves. Everyone does. Every single character ever created possesses some trait of a real, live individual the author met, or imagined he or she met. So, trying to be honest about it and calling your book a memoir is just owning up to that phenomenon. And Eggers wrestles with that phenomenon very well. So, you can disagree with me. You can write a scathing review about Eggers’ book. But please, please don’t waste our time by criticizing Eggers’ supposed narcissism. Criticize the style, the language, the syntax, the plot; but shut up about your projected passive fear of your own beautiful narcissism.

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