So I got into a discussion this weekend about movies and television shows and books, and we were throwing stories around, by which I mean naming and recommending and panning narratives by title, and there wasn’t that much more to it, except that when you’re dropping the references to which the referents are hundreds or thousands of pages or dozens of hours as the final product of thousands of person-hours of writing and directing and costumery and millions of dollars or blood and tears invested, then the mind can reel a bit when you try to wrap your head around it.
On the face of it, though, it was just a bunch of people talking about the books and movies and TV shows that they like. The idea that one could be entertained or enlightened by the exchange of references seems to be a source of some angst. It need not be a source of guilt. Postmodernism isn’t really going to destroy anything worth caring deeply about after all, except maybe its adherents’ career prospects, eventually.
And I didn’t want to mention David Foster Wallace again so recently—I like his stuff but I think he was wrong about a lot of things—but he thought a lot about the things I think about, and in many similar avenues of thought, and so when I was thinking/reading more about our conversation, his name ended up coming up again. It actually came up because of this review of Sheila Heti’s new book How Should a Person Be?, which book I haven’t read but really want to now, but which review I have read. The review refers to Zadie Smith’s reading of DFW’s stance via this interview, which I hadn’t read, and just perused, and that’s just part of a much larger but poorly articulated background mish-mash I have in the back of my mind related to some interesting stuff. [By the way, do people really question or diminish Fiona Apple's sheer awesomeness? WTF?]
This was intended to be a seasonal blog post—apparently in the summertime I think about final causes and self-referential art as a path to Armageddon. So yeah, the jumping-off point is, I suppose, this quote: “Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon. Art’s reflection on itself is terminal, is one big reason why the art world saw Duchamp as an Antichrist.”
Which misses the point in kind of the way that existentialism did, or perhaps more correctly: the idea that self-reference cannot save us does not mean that self-reference condemns us. I think that what art has done, or at least one thing that art has done, for the last several millennia, is slowly allowed us to strip off our clothes. And for a long time, that was important and useful in itself, because if art is about what it is to be human, then sloughing off a layer is one way to gain some new insight into what it is to be human.
There’s only so far to go in that direction, and maybe that’s what is meant by the “therein lies Armageddon” stance on metafiction, and on self-referential art more generally. It’s mostly just culture shock, though. I’m not sure if this is a generational thing or not, but I can imagine that if one were brought up to believe in the honorability of public officeholders, or in the stability and trustworthiness of the institutions of one’s parents, or in the sanctity of traditions, then there’s maybe a stark revelatory frankness that comes with the awareness that there is not, in fact, a “there” there. For some people, that is a liberation; for others it is the loss of something held dear.
The truth is that art has done an excellent job of depicting our beliefs and our cultural structures and our constructed selves as a web of mutually contingent assertions, and it is unclear from whence any truth might derive. It feels like art has done to meaning what cosmology did to the prime mover—pushed it over the horizon so that it takes something like faith to ascribe it.
But the radical project of destroying meaning hasn’t really worked. It has destroyed authority per se pretty successfully, which is actually kind of awesome. It has revealed our culturally transmitting discomfort with admitting we don’t know. The notion that nihilism is the only response is based on a false premise—the notion that one must decide now what to believe, or to believe nothing. What about putting beliefs in the on-deck circle?
I am a member of that class of people that feels discomfort with wishy-washy beliefs, but we’re a pretty small class. Descriptively, most people seem content to just kinda know what’s going on well enough for their purposes, which seems like a really efficient way to go about one’s business. I’ve had to make do, and what has worked for me has to become the sort of person who is always in search of truth but never finds it.
All of which is to say:
- If there is a telos, or final cause to life, the universe, and everything, it appears to be unknowable.
- This need not be that big a deal.
- Fiction will survive because people keep doing stuff.
- The next generation won’t think self-referential art is necessarily self-destructive art.
The example in our conversation that keeps coming to mind is baseball. I like baseball. It can be kind of dull and then there are moments of excitement and disappointment and some people get their just desserts and lots of people get screwed by blown calls or bad fielding or a wicked line drive that just happens to find the glove. It recapitulates life nicely.
And we’ve been playing baseball for years, for years, and we still haven’t used up the stories. We’ve been fathers and daughters, mothers and sons for years and it’s still fresh. My relationship with my siblings is visceral and new and different and very similar to others’ relationships with their siblings.
No baseball player tells the story. Not one of them has a story in mind, and yet every day, during the season, a story gets told—a dozen of them do. And they’re all different, but similar. None of these words contains the meaning of this essay, and you could get rid of a lot of them without changing the meaning beyond recognition. So where is the meaning? What is the locus of the meaning in a baseball game?
I asked my four-year-old daughter which loop in a knit sweater was the one that turned it into a sweater, and she said “the last one”. Which is a good guess. I was disinclined to agree, until I thought about it a little more. My thought was—well, get rid of the last one—you still have a sweater. But then “the last one” has a new referent. I don’t think she was making this argument, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
It’s emergent, though, right? I mean, the yarn was a sweater in the process of becoming and then it became a sweater, and will be a sweater until it becomes a rag. Much of the last several thousand years of art has been pointing to sweaters and saying “it’s yarn,” and then maybe dying the yarn in such a fashion that, upon being knit into a particular sweater, the pattern spells “I’m yarn.” Which is true, and maybe interesting in a way, but it’s still a sweater.
A baseball game is just rules and people playing it. We people are just doing what we do, each with our own telos, assuming such a thing exists. Some of the story comes from action within the bounds of those rules. Some of them comes from human experience entirely tangential to the game—a wedding proposal or a post-game interview or a guy who breaks his hand because of a suitcase. But postmodernism didn’t do much to destroy the narrative capacity of a baseball game. It doesn’t change the arc of a life, not generally.
And, so far at least, the human experience tends to be human. Self-reference is a new kind of brush stroke, helping us to understand the human experience through a different lens or from a different angle. Post-postmodernism, with its web of references supplanting characterization—it’s not the apocalypse. It maybe isn’t narrative either. Maybe it’s a game, like Boggle, or Connect Four. It’s a scavenger hunt that makes use of the culture we’ve consumed to generate new entertainment. Saying that this kind of entertainment, designed to produce pleasure, is bad art, is like saying that Totino’s Pizza Rolls are bad fruit. They’re not fruit—they’re not even food. But they are something else entirely—something to be consumed in moderation, and maybe we need to work on that. But something that can be transcendent nonetheless.
For now, if you need an answer for a quiz, which brush stroke contains the beauty of the picture? Which pitch contains the meaning of the baseball game? Well, maybe it’s the last one.