All posts by Catherine Gander

Masquerade and Myth: Examining the Authenticity of Selfhood in Mad Men, Housekeeping and Casino

by Sarah McCreedy

‘I like being bad and then going home and being good’. (S2, ep3). Mad Men’s Bobbie Barrett can scarcely be called a moral instructor, but her acknowledgement and acceptance of her masquerade can be called authentic. In the context of this critical review, authenticity cannot be discussed without reference to imitation. To clarify, Miles Orvell has considered the shift in cultural privilege from the latter to the former which emerged between 1880-1940 as, ‘an effort to get beyond mere imitation, beyond the manufacturing of illusions, to the creation of more ‘authentic’ works that were themselves real things’. (xv). Mad Men is this manufacturing of illusion in the form of an imitation of American life in the 1960s. Therefore, how can we expect Donald Draper, an occupant of this copy, to be anything close to the ‘real thing’? Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s Casino, ‘offers a mythologized version of the last days of the mob in 1970s Las Vegas’. (Rothman, 307). Before we can even interrogate the authenticity of selfhood depicted in the film, we are aware that the characters Sam Rothstein and Nicky Santoro are based on mob figures that can be situated in reality. Antithetically, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is located in Fingerbone; an imagined space authentic precisely because this novel marks its debut. I am not asserting that, because Fingerbone is ‘original’, every individual who occupies it is bursting with authenticity. Robinson needs to include characters such as the sheriff, offering his ultimate American symbol of apple pie, in order to represent the traditional hetero-normative American experience as the alternative for her female protagonists. All I propose is that Robinson privileges Sylvie and Ruthie in this space in which, because it is primarily original, and secondly new, their identities are permitted authenticity. To define what is meant by ‘myth’ in this context, Roland Barthes asserts that the, ‘function of myth is to empty reality’. (143). Whilst Housekeeping may not restore this reality, it attempts to negate myths.

Mad Men also challenges these myths surrounding the white, male, American elitist. R.W.B.  Lewis saw the ‘American Adam’ embodied in the characteristics of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ‘liberated, innocent, solitary, forward-thrusting’. (28). Mad Men supports the idea that this figure is indeed a myth. Gene Wise argues that, ‘Those who still envisioned themselves isolated “American Adams” by the 1950s and 60s were largely deceived’. (310). Authenticity, as I have already enforced, cannot exist in an inherently constructed environment, but Mad Men indulges in particular ironies which clarify this truth. To exemplify, Don’s creativity demonstrated in his various pitches for Sterling Cooper is precisely what acquires accounts. However, outside of this context, his creativity is absent. His only authenticity lies in the act of imitation. Like academies throughout America in the 1960s, Don can be accused of being a ‘bastion[s]of reaction’. (Wise, 311). Even in a seemingly authentic moment of realisation, in which Don reads Frank O’Hara poetry in an attempt to display spiritual or emotional depth, it is difficult to shake the imitative origins of this discovery.

Of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his iconic essay “Self-Reliance” states, ‘imitation is suicide’. (1164). In Housekeeping, the train that passes before Sylvie’s (debatable) suicide attempt embodies the order she wishes to escape from: ‘From such a distance it seemed a slight thing, but we all watched it, perhaps struck by the steady purpose with which it moved, as methodical as a caterpillar on a straw’. (80). Her largely unsuccessful masquerade of ‘steady purpose’ as a mother and as a socially accepted member of the community tortures her as it is indeed an imitation – Ruthie and Lucille are not her children, and she is a transient not wishing to reside for an extended period of time in Fingerbone. This denial of the authentic self is what inspires her depression and suicidal tendencies.

Ultimately, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping presents the resurrection of Eve, privileging her over the American Adam. Maureen Ryan acknowledges this fact, ‘Marilynne Robinson revises the traditional American myth of freedom and transcience, endorsing not independence over commitment, autonomy over family, but both; affirming, finally, female difference’. (86). Ruthie notes, ‘Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection. Perhaps we expected a train to leap out of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward, and then to continue across the bridge’. (96). Sylvie and Ruthie are granted this resurrection in the act of leaving the house, and Fingerbone, the site of patriarchal tradition. Ryan states that, ‘The classic American experience is the rejection of the restrictive forces of civilization’. (81). On conclusion of the novel however, Ruthie informs us that she still works occasionally as a waitress. Housekeeping begs the question then: can the idle and the civilised coexist? For Emerson, ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members’. (1165). Arguably then, the restrictive forces of capitalist society will always undermine the authenticity of selfhood, and induce a form of masquerade.

Rather than rejecting these ‘restrictive forces’, Don and Ace Rothstein are captivated by them. Sylvie rejects the institution of marriage often entirely omitting her husband’s existence, and as a transient, never embarks upon a career. Don and Rothstein however, sell their souls to work, and with such a sacrifice they become their work. Rothstein’s marriage is indeed a gamble, ‘For a guy who likes sure things, I was about to bet my life on a real long shot’. Rothstein rejoices in his expertise as a bookmaker, and so, the authenticity of his selfhood is compromised with this knowingly impetuous decision. Mad Men’s Don inhabits a world of myth. According to Roland Barthes, advertising itself is a myth, ‘1) Myth, close to what Durkheimian sociology calls a ‘collective representation’, can be read in the anonymous utterances of the press, advertising, mass consumer goods; it is something socially determined, a ‘reflection’’. (165). Don mythologises his family by using their photographs in his pitch for Kodak (S1, ep13). The images are indeed a ‘collective representation’, in which even Don’s understanding of them as a fabrication becomes dangerously distorted.

Don’s truly American desire for innocence deemed, ‘part of the national character’, (O’Connor, 21) also aggravates his lack of awareness. Like Bobbie, he is ‘being bad’, but unlike Bobbie, he refuses to acknowledge that he enjoys it. In Scorsese’s Casino, Rothstein advocates that Las Vegas is a ‘Morality Carwash’ in which all sin can be swept aside. In his mind, Don Draper visits this car wash every day, wiping the dirt of his affairs off his pristine Cadillac in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of his family. He preaches such a philosophy of denial to Peggy Olsen after the birth of her son, ‘This never happened. It will shock you, how much this never happened’. (S2, ep 5). It is only when Bobbie points out Don’s promiscuous reputation (‘you have lots of fans’, S2 , ep 6) that his self-imagined identity is shattered, and he retaliates leaving her tied up in a hotel room. Only then, and of course, in the domestic sphere of the Draper residence, do we see the duplicity of Don’s selfhood as the camera zooms in on his reflection, finally abandoning his physical form.

mad men shaving
Still from Mad Men. Lionsgate.

Needless to say, the camera invents this separation. This is an example of an occasional visual ‘sign’ in Mad Men which instructs meaning, but predominantly, in visual terms, the stylisation of the show is prioritised, undermining the attempt to critique. Homogenously, the authenticity of selfhood in Casino is sabotaged by the grotesque nature of its characters (which develops as they further masquerade in their lives), with Santoro’s white stripe of hair, Rothstein’s array of vibrantly coloured suits and oversized sunglasses, and Ginger’s chinchilla coats and changing hairstyles, stereotypically representing the trends of the late 70s/early 80s.

de niro
Still from Casino, Universal Pictures

Jean Baudrillard states, ‘it is myth that invades cinema as imaginary content. It is the golden age of despotic and legendary resurrections. Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, finds refuge in cinema’. (43). As with the function of the Barthes myth, reality is emptied in Mad Men and Casino. Barthes explains the limitations of visuality, ‘we find ourselves immediately at the heart of the most important problem facing the semiology of images: can analogical representations (the ‘copy’) produce true systems of signs and not merely simple agglutinations of symbols?’. (32). Put differently, is meaning lost in something which is firstly, a ‘copy’, and secondly, overloaded with images like some kind of visual explosion? Subsequently, do we begin to immerse ourselves in this visual world of escapism?

‘…whatever in the past happens to have been of significance or value ought to be held in memory, insofar as that is possible, so that it can give us guidance. Then, too, nostalgia, reaction, and denial, all of which assume a meaningful sense of the past, are potent energies in any civilization at any time.’ (1998: Robinson, 5-6).

This escapism then, in Mad Men at least, becomes a nostalgia for something we never had in the first place. Robinson’s three components of the past are important as they all intertwine. This nostalgia for the 1960s is a reaction to the show, and also, a denial of who we are, and where we have come from. Life was not better then. For Baudrillard, ‘When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning’. (6). The real is resculpted, masquerading in the form of glorious myth. Emerson considers such glorification, ‘Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul’. (1171). Why do we doubt ourselves and glorify our predecessors? Baudrillard answers, ‘We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end. Because finally we have never believed in them’. (10).

Such senseless and desperate nostalgia is even exhibited by the house itself whenever Ruthie sees her grandfather’s paintings on furniture in Housekeeping, ‘over the years the white paints had absorbed them, floated them up just beneath the surface’. (90). Additionally, they provoke a reaction from Ruth and Lucille, ‘the two cherubs who swam in ether’ (90). Will they embrace the hunting scene, or become the symbol of renewal, the peacock? The peacock cannot fly, limiting Ruthie’s evasion of ‘restrictive forces’, which prompt the masquerade. Throughout Casino, ‘back home’ is consistently referred to as some sort of parallel universe which Rothstein and Santoro have departed from. Santoro refers to ‘back home’ before he has even left, showing a denial of not only the past, but the present. Miles Orvell views our approach to authenticity in contemporary life thus, ‘We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but we are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile’. (xviii). Suddenly, ‘it is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real’. (Baudrillard, 2). We become the advert; we become the reflection. We are the masquerade; we are the myth, and unless we abandon civilisation, and its  ‘culture of the factitious’ (Orvell, xviii), there is nothing we can do about it. Emerson believes that, ‘Society never advances’. (1178). He describes it as a wave, which, ‘moves onward, but the water of which it is composed, does not’. (1178). Society cannot advance because no matter how much she masquerades or mythologises herself, America cannot escape her past, and notably this denies the American Adam. To conclude, Emerson states,

But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (1172).

The future is anticipated, or even feared. The past is worshipped through television shows like Mad Men. Whilst these two distractions dominate, the present suffers, and the impulse to seize the day is lost. The self cannot be found in the past. If the authentic stage we occupy (the present) cannot be embraced, the authentic self is surely obsolete.

 

 

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1977.

—. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Jonathan Cape, 1993.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Casino. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal, 1995. DVD.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance”.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol B. Ed. Nina Baym & Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. 270.

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Mad Men: Seasons 1&2. Created by Matthew Weiner. Perf. John Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser. Lionsgate, 2008. DVD.

O’Connor, William Van. The Grotesque: An American Genre and Other Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. 1989.  North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Robinson, Marilynne. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

—. Housekeeping. London: Faber & Faber, 1981.

Rothman, Hal K. “Colony, Capital, and Casino; Money in the Real Las Vegas.” The Grit beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas, ed. Hal K. Rothman & Mike Davis. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002. 307.

Ryan, Maureen. “Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: The Subversive Narrative and the American Eye.” South Atlantic Review. Vol. 56, No.1 (January 1991): 79-86.

Wise, Gene. “”Paradigm Dramas” In American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement.” American Quarterly. Vol. 31, No.3 (1979) 310-312.

 

Photo credits:

1. Photo by Alan Sepinwall, ‘Mad Men, “Maidenform”: Reflections of the love you took from me’, www.nj.com.

2. Photo by luckystrike721, bamfstyle.wordpress.com.

McCarthy, Klein, and the overlooked crisis

In this talking point, Aimee Walsh reads Cormac McCarthy’s The Road through the lens of Naomi Klein’s ground-breaking This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate.

Post 9/11 America is in an on-going, ignored-by-the-masses crisis. It is a warranted fear for our safety and not from any bombs, threats or debts. It is much bigger than that. There is a crisis going on that is being overlooked; the world is in the midst of an environmental crisis. America, as the biggest super power and second highest carbon emitting country, are notably looking the other way.

The lack of safety from a natural, environmental disaster is a theme that runs through Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The dystopian novel gives a glimpse into the nightmarish world that America, amongst other high emitting countries like China, is currently taking marching steps towards.

The absence and search of natural light in The Road heeds a warning of the fragility of the  global climate; the environment is not secure and definitely cannot be sustained at current levels of deforestation, carbon emissions and consumption of fossil fuels. Whilst battling to survive in the snow, the nameless father and son attempt to kindle the light as if it alone can give relief from the unnamed disaster. “The fire was little more than coals and it gave no light and the wood was nearly gone and the trees were falling all about them in the darkness” (McCarthy 102). The pair’s unsuccessful attempt to harness and sustain light throughout the novel is used as a hope for emotional security to the uninhabitable surroundings. There is a fear of the darkness and the unknown that lurks beyond their circle of light. The Earth has rejected civilisation as a whole despite the accountability in carbon emissions lying with the second highest emitting country America.

The male duo in The Road are continually searching for light and a (false) feeling of safety that it provides. They are hiding from the darkness and the unknown of what civilisation Earth will continue on to, if any. “They lay in the woods like fugitives. Nowhere to build a fire. Nowhere safe” (McCarthy 198). They are prisoners to the extreme effects of years of disregard from America for the preservation of the global environment.  However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything argues that complete environmental disaster, like that seen in The Road, is avoidable only if we act now (4). So, why is the world reluctant to change?

America’s current reality, one of consumerist and capitalist driven ideologies, toes the capitalist nation party-line on climate change through soothing tones from the megaphone of political and corporation driven media; climate change is not a serious issue yet. The United Nation’s Climate Summit 2014 uses ‘catalysing action’ as the programme’s current slogan, though the World’s governments have been reluctant in the past to enter into binding agreements to decrease the fossil fuel consumptions or greenhouse gas emissions. Klein states that “preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest” (Klein 11). A recent agreement was reached this week (12 November 2014) between America and China, the top two carbon emitting countries, which will aim to decrease carbon emissions. China, which is still a developing country and is heavily reliant on coal, has agreed to cap emissions by 2030 when a peak is reached, whilst the U.S. has committed to a 26 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2025. While this is a historic step in the right direction for tackling climate change we must keep in mind that there is no set limit on the peak which China’s emissions can reach by 2030. We are not in the clear yet. Klein calls for a movement and as a result to obtain a “far more just economy” (10). For this to be reached a global community’s interests must be considered when ‘catalysing action’ but still allowing an increased, and unlimited, peak in emissions to be reached in 2030 before a cap is set.

McCarthy’s hellish dystopia shows America’s, and indeed the world’s, “ecological amnesia”(Klein 4) to be a false and unwarranted sense of safety. The mother in The Road, prior to her suicide, says, “We’re not survivors. We’re the walking dead in a horror film”(McCarthy 57) in response to being told by the father, over the security of the lamp light, that they are survivors of this disaster. Klein states “a great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial” (3) in believing that we can be “survivors”(McCarthy 57) of the disaster. If there is not change now our reality will be “the walking dead”(McCarthy 57) unable to survive in the uninhabitable landscape we have created.

Not only is creating an unliveable environment an issue for the capitalist epicentre, America, it is a global crisis. The Earth, when eventual environmental destruction occurs as shown in The Road, will take no consideration of borders, race or wealth when it cracks under the pressures that increased greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and the consumption of fossil fuels are causing. The boy in the novel, who was born into this nightmarish world and knows no alternative life, asks his father:

 

“Why are they the state roads?

Because they used to belong to the states. What used to be called the states.

But there’s not any more states?

No.” (McCarthy 43)

 

This breaking down of borders gives us a sense that we should seek to come together as citizens of one global community where we are all affected by the same issues. Instead of the segregated geographical communities we live in that are largely dictated by capitalism and corporate agendas. Shouldn’t we put human survival before profit?

The nameless two wanderers in The Road trudge through the barren landscape in a daily renewed longing for food and light to keep them safe and alive. In one scene in the novel the father retrieves a can of Coca Cola from a tipped over vending machine amongst scattered “coins everywhere in the ash”(McCarthy 22). It was the boys first, and probably, last can of Coke. This symbol of American capitalism being extracted from the rubble is not vision of hope, but rather one that begs the reader to question what good capitalism is in the face of civilisation crumbling at the hands of catastrophic, global disasters. What good is the government’s dollar funding economic recovery when the efforts to keep our very habitats from climate change is minimal? What good will wealth be when civilisation itself begins to wilt?

America’s and the majority of the World’s governments lack of urgency in implementing solutions to the climate change crisis is nothing short of terrifying for the safety of the population of the world. There is a disregard of communities being anything more than consumers. “Clearly, what gets declared a crisis is an expression of power and priorities as much as hard facts” (Klein 6). The economic crash, that started on Wall Street, in 2008 and the destruction of the Twin Towers as symbols of economic dominance and growth on 11 September 2001 both received ‘crisis’ status from American government. “Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings” (Klein 6). It begs the question, can governments really have a population’s best interest in mind when publicly recognising a crisis if “power and priorities”(Klein 6) are in the equation?

The lack of support from governments to stem the climate change since 1990‘s beginning of the continuing journey to reach a climate treaty has only made the battle harder. Klein states that we have already reached a stage where what we are doing on a daily basis, what we are consuming and what we are refusing to change on a global scale has gone beyond being able to edge backwards to have a look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture has hit us in the face and nobody is seeing it. Klein argues that we are “faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of grease behind it” (2). An effort from all countries is needed to battle this global crisis.

To avoid this nightmare world that is foreseen both by scientists and in the dystopian world in The Road there must be continued commitment to keep tackling climate change and indeed increase efforts to stem it. We must act as one global community through action on local levels for the human species to stand a chance in surviving this environmental crisis. So, as Klein rightly questions, why is nobody acting?

 

Bibliography

Atkin, Emily. What Scientists Have To Say About Obama’s Deal With China. ThinkProgress, 12 Nov 2014. Web. 13 Nov 2014.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac.  The Road. London: Picador,  2006. Print.

Taylor, Lenore and Tania Branigan. US and China strike deal on carbon cuts in push for global climate change pact. The Guardian. Web. 12 Nov 2014.

United Nations. UN Climate Summit Programme. United Nations, n.d. Web. 12 Nov 2014.

The Road to salvation?

Paul  McArdle offers a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a cautionary post-9/11 tale.

In a post 9-11 context, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road  presents to the reader  through the characterisation of the ‘man’ and the ‘boy’, a quest for survival against the backdrop of a pillaged and desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. McCarthy creates a world which has been decimated, and the writer’s depiction of America specifically as a barren wasteland in which; “The Road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise” (4) communicates to the reader a sense of fragility and unease  in relation to the precarious nature of twenty-first century living. Indeed, the years directly following the 9-11 event and arguably, the global events leading up to the present time are a hybrid of social and political uncertainty and unease. The issues concerning the degradation of the environment, coupled with the political aftermath of the events off 9-11 have perhaps characterised many works in the past decade, and specifically, McCarthy’s The Road. Therefore, it is this global sense of unease which I believe is captured in McCarthy’s narrative, and is perhaps translated in the plot of the narrative as a possible consequence to the unsustainable twenty-first century way of life.

The imagery of “Human bodies. Sprawled in every altitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes” (48) undoubtedly conveys a disturbing scene to the reader, and through evoking a sense of hysteria from the reader, McCarthy depicts the possible consequences of unsustainable social and political ways of life. The underlying sense of motionlessness in the novel signals an end to the twenty-first century way of life effectively, and bemoans a loss of human interactions and societal conventions. Indeed, McCarthy presents America in the aftermath of an extreme, cataclysmic event which we cannot deny is directly related to the loss of humanity which is an underlying theme throughout the novel in its entirety. McCarthy presents an end to ‘normal’ twenty first century human conventions as the narrator claims in relation to the ‘man’ that: “This is my child. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job” (77) conveying a complex scene of survival in the in juxtaposition to paternal bonding.

Significantly, the cataclysmic event which triggered the alternative reality McCarthy creates in the novel is presented to the reader as an effective end to time. It is claimed in the novel therefore that “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (54) which creates a sense of obscurity in relation to the catastrophic event, whilst signalling an end to the human measurement of time and  thus, any resemblance to social reality in the twenty-first century. Again, throughout the novel as a whole, there is an evident loss of humanity and civilisation, “the richness of a vanished world” (147) and this sense of loss appears as a direct consequence of unsustainable ways of twenty-first century living.

Yet, in a post 9-11 context, it is my critical opinion that whilst McCarthy effectively conveys a deep loss of humanity in a post-apocalyptic landscape, to some extent, we cannot deny that there is an inherent sense of hope for the survival of humanity and of normal social conventions throughout the novel as a whole. The characterisations of the ‘man’ and the ‘boy’ represent the lost humanity through being referred to as ‘the good guys’. Despite killing for survival, there is a sense of an uncompromising desire to uphold pre-apocalyptic attitudes and morals, and this perhaps evidenced through the boy’s desire to “carry the fire”. 

Therefore, I argue that whilst McCarthy respectively creates an alternative apocalyptic reality which mirrors the consequences of unstable twenty-first century living, it is through his protagonists that there is an evident  quest for the survival of humanity.

Image: Dorothea Lange, 1938.

Postmodernism and the Absolute

In this Talking Point, Rebecca Dillon considers two extremes of capitalist absolutism and wonders whether they represent end points of an America-centric global narrative, or points on a cyclical timeline.

Jean Baudrillard has taught us that postmodernism and Las Vegas go hand in hand.  Yet the bleak postmodern setting of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seems the complete opposite of Vegas.  McCarthy’s road is drenched in darkness and rain; Las Vegas is the city of lights in the desert.  However, they both present ideas of postmodern absolutism and map America through these ideas.

The settings of both The Road and Las Vegas present ideas of absolutism and truth; they differ only in what that absolute force is.  In The Road, nature and the earth are the final absolute in the novel’s dystopian environment, 

he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world.  The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth … The crushing black vacuum of the universe.  And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground foxes in their cover (McCarthy 138). 

Here McCarthy presents the overwhelming power of an earth that lives on, despite no longer sustaining life.  After the fall of American civilisation, the earth continues to circle in its yearly procession without ceasing, not thriving and not declining.  This creates an absolute force as the earth lives, despite the disconnection that exists between it and man.  

The American natural landscape featured so heavily in The Road is mapped onto the back of this earth, “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains … On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming” (306-307).  It exists without relation to any other entity and maps its meaning within itself.  The last truth in the destroyed American setting of The Road is the earth and its continual and everlasting existence separated from the lives of the creatures that happen to cling to its surface. 

Contrary to this, in Las Vegas, nature takes a back seat and capital becomes the absolute force that exists and thrives in the American landscape.  In fact nature suffers at the hands of capital and those that work within it,

But Las Vegas haughtily disdains to live within its means.  Instead, it is aggressively turning its profligacy into environmental terrorism against its neighbours.  ‘Give us your water or we will die,’ developers demand of politicians grown fat on campaign contributions from the gaming industry (Davis 88).

The absolutism of capital in Las Vegas is totalitarian.  The gaming industry that thrives in the city provides the means through which developers and politicians can demand that water be given to them. 

Not only is the allocation of a life-sustaining element such as water controlled by capital, but so is the provision of open space within Las Vegas’s urban sprawl,

Las Vegas, meanwhile, has virtually no commons at all … This park shortage may mean little to the tourist jet-skiing across Lake Mead, or lounging by the pool at the Mirage. But it defines an impoverished quality of life for thousands of low-wage service workers who live in the stucco tenements that line the side streets of the Strip (95).

The continued demands from corporations to build more hotels and more casinos means that land is not set aside for actual residents of the city.  This creates the notion that the ultimate power of capital within Las Vegas fences in its own residents, reducing them to a cattle-like work force that graze on left overs in strip malls.  The lack of green space within the city also continues the city’s environmental warfare against its landscape, ensuring that the city becomes the absolute and final mirage allowed to exist within the dry desert beyond.

Between them, The Road and Las Vegas present two ideas of postmodern absolutism and their effects of both the present and future American landscape.  The question that remains is, will the capital-driven environmental terrorism of Las Vegas absolutism eventually lead to the dystopian absolutism of the earth in The Road?  Is America’s doom mapped out already?

 

References

Davis, Mike. Dead Cities and Other Tales. New York New Press, 2002

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road.  London: Picador, 2010

Hyperreality in Late Capitalism

In this Talking Point, Simon Mernagh discusses the enduring implications of the logic of late capitalism and Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal.

According to Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (550). In addition to the expansion of forms considered ‘literary’ and a dedicated interrogation of hitherto unchallenged cultural metanarratives, postmodernism is partially defined by considerations of ‘hyperreality’, or a reality dominated by symbols and signs which signify no deeper meaning. America, as a bastion of postmodern literary movements and capitalist ethos, boasts a profoundly hyperreal society and culture.

Throughout his Travels in Hyperreality, Eco recounts the American museums filled with updated and ‘improved’ reconstructions of classical ancient and Renaissance artworks, noting that visitors “enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it” (46); to contemporary audiences, a three-dimensional, human-scale diorama of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, complete with audible dialogue and a hymnal soundtrack, is more appealing than a mere painting.

As an inherently visual medium, simulation is vividly expressed in film. The depiction of the cinematic simulacrum of Las Vegas in Casino and Ocean’s Eleven mirrors Baudrillard’s definition of Disneyland as a location “presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real” (10); Las Vegas is regarded as the zenith of capitalist extravagance and overwhelming hedonism, as if the typical American city of ‘late capitalism’ did not espouse these same ideals.

Simulation harbours severe socio-political ramifications. Baudrillard argues that the Watergate ‘scandal’ acts as a hyperreal decoy used to defer attention away from the truly scandalous effects of neoliberal economics. Similarly, the German police in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man demand a swift apprehension of the titular Chechen refugee in order to publicly present a victorious battle amidst the ‘War on Terror’. If “it takes a minnow to catch a barracuda” and “a barracuda to catch a shark” (Corbijn), a minnow supersedes a shark in this artificial, rhetorical hyperreality.

However, to evoke Arendtian thought, it is in the banal where simulation manifests in its most insidious form. A ‘Big Mac’ bought in Belfast will match those available in Boston and Belgrade. Yet, ‘McDonalds’ is not real – the buildings exist in the physical realm, as do its staff and produce, but there is no singular entity which can be highlighted and categorically designated as ‘McDonalds’; the restaurants are individual signifiers, representing an unreal, or hyperreal signified.

How do we respond to a world dominated by simulacra? Do we accept it as a harmless by-product of free-market globalized capitalism, or should we adopt the “psychotic” (Žižek, 9) position of maintaining a critical distance from the symbolic order of hyperreality?

 

Sources

A Most Wanted Man. Dir. Anton Corbijn. Perf. Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Grigoriy Dobrygin, and Willem Dafoe. Lions Gate Entertainment, 2014. Film.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of the Simulacra”. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. University of Michigan Press, 1994. 1-30

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1987.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 550–587

Žižek, Slavoj. “How the Non-Duped Err”. Qui Parle. Vol. 4, No. 1. (Fall 1990). 1-20.

Illuminating the hyperreal

In this extended Talking Point, Kelsie Donnelly reads George Saunders’ short story ‘Jon’ (In Persuasion Nation, 2006) through the lens of Jean Baudrillard’s celebrated theory of hyperreality (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981).

According to Baudrillard, hyperreality is a ‘model of the real without origin or reality’ (Selected Writings 166). It is constructed from ‘simulacra’, which challenge truth, objectivity, and ‘reality’ by feigning the existence of reality. The ‘reality’ which is constructed within the hyperreal, thus, appears to be more real than reality. Consequently, the boundaries which demarcate illusion and real collapse. The Facility, which Saunders constructs, embodies Baudrillard’s definition of hyperreality. Baudrillard argues that the sign, be it words, images, symbols, or objects, originally reflected a ‘profound reality’; later, it evolved to distort or ‘denature’ reality; then, it pertained to ‘the absence of a profound reality (6). Finally, the sign’s relationship with reality has dissolved to the extent that it exists as a ‘simulacrum’ or a copy of the real. I propose that Saunders’s Jon displays the unravelling stages of Baudrillard’s ‘sign’ which impels his readers to reconsider what constitues the truth and reality in today’s society.

Baudrillard’s second phase in the evolution of the sign signifies a distorted reality. The managers of the facility employ hyperbolic rhetoric which dilutes and disguises the truth. One such instance is Mr Dove’s attempt to persuade Jon to stay within the Facility. He says:

why would a talented young person like yourself wish to surrender his influence in the world and become just another lowing cattle in the crowd, don’t you know how much people out there look up to you and depend on you? (47).

Appealing to Jon’s ego, and painting a grossly exggerated misrepresentation of Jon’s status, Mr Dove conceals the most pertinent reason for retaining Jon: that he has been well conditioned to life within the Facility. Thus, Jon does not think autonomously, and he is productive having won awards for his assessing prowess. At the time of Dove’s plea, Jon is not disillusioned with the quasi-totalitarian state of the Facility. Dove and his fellow authoritarians nourish the development of self-satisfied assessors who do not desire anything other than what is imposed on them, and who do not seek the truth. Dove twists the true state of the situation to conjure up a polished view where Jon is showered with compliments, celebrated to the extent where he assumes a God-like status. Undeniably, in a consumerist society, where the importance placed on products is paramount, an assessor of goods and services is indeed valuable. Jon, however, exists in the Facility as a product himself. Jon’s passive confirmation of Dove’s allusion, ‘And that was true’ (47), contradicts precisely the distorted image of the all powerful Jon which Dove has sewn. Dove’s subversion infiltrates the true state of reality, which illustrates the ease with which meaning and truth, the unreal and real, can blur into one.

In The Vital Illusion (2000), Baudrillard writes, ‘virtual history is here in place of real history; the information the replica stands for, stands in for, the definite absence of that real history (50-51). He adds that society salvages fragments of history for infotainment value; Western culture selectively chooses and erases historical documents and events in accordance with the historical narrative they wish to construct, namely a more perfect, mythic past. In a world where truth is relative, historical events are refashioned and recuperated to fulfil our ‘retro fascination’ (Simulacra 44). In his depiction of the Facility, Saunders illuminates the selective erasure of historical facts to demonstrate the unreality which plagues contemporary society. The figure of Jon’s ‘mom’ on the Memory Loop epitomises Baudrillard’s third stage of the unravelling of the sign, for it masks the absence of a basic reality. The figure of Jon’s fictitious mother is that of the archetypical family matriarch ‘baking a pie’, who is a mouthpiece for the Facility operators. ‘Her’ reason for parting with Jon is dripping in sentimental language, ‘I love you so much, which is why I did the most difficult thing of all, […] so that you could use your exceptional intelligence to do that most holy of things, help other people’ (39). The mother is an illusion; an image constructed by the Facility, to mask the absence of Jon’s familial history: the reality he was born into prior to becoming a product of the Facility. She features on Jon’s ‘memory loop’ (39), which ‘stands in for’ the absence of Jon’s real history, until he is shown footage of, what is supposedly, his ‘real’ mother. Jon responds to ‘his mom’s’ explanation by saying, ‘Thanks, Mom, you have always been there for me…’(39). The hyperreal appears to be more ‘real’ than reality. Consequently, his ‘mom’ appears real and is not deemed fictional, although she is a simulacrum. Baudrillard writes:

When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths and origins and signs of reality; a second hand truth, objectivity and authenticity […] the production of the real and the referential (1989:171)

The managers of the Facility have erased Jon’s history and replaced it with a whitewashed version in order for Jon and his fellow assessors’, ‘own good, not wanting you to feel bad about who your real mothers were’ (52). The stylized mother’s explanation for leaving her ‘son’ is a refracted from Jon’s ‘real’ mother’s. His original mother’s own reason is, ‘due to my relation with the dad’ (51), with the extension of giving her child a better life, the latter vocalised by the ‘unseen guy’ (51) who primes her.  In this way, historical truth is volatile for it is dependent on those who seek to refashion it. In addition, the renaming of Jon ruptures the relationship between sign and signifier, that is the name of Jon no longer signals Jon embodied. ‘Jon’ is thus rendered a simulacrum by the managers, a representation or a copy of the real Jon. The fabric of the representation of ‘Randy’ is woven from ideological, predominantly capitalist, threads and stitched together through illusory stories and images, ‘Aurabon’, and the psychobabble of the management.

Baudrillard offers a framework in which to understand Saunders interest in advertisement discourse and its misrepresentations of reality. Baudrillard argues that advertising fragments the relationship between a sign and its reference in reality. It is the constructed representation of the product, its sign-value, rather than its component qualities, its use-value, which matter. Advertisements operate as an ‘automised medium i.e. as an object referring not to real objects, not to a real world or a referential dimension, but from one sign to the other, from one object to the other, from one consumer to the other’ (Simulacra 125). Accordingly, the value attributed to the advertised product is allocated according to its portrayal, that is, a representation of a representation or a simulation of a simulacrum. In the advertisement for ‘Lysol’, a cleansing product, the creation of meaning and subsequent prominence placed on its sign-value, bears testimony to Baudrillard’s theory. Firstly, the bottle assumes vocal capacities, as it delivers the ultimatum, ‘you are either with me or agin me’ (31).  The depiction of the bottle declaring an iconic ultimatum is not grounded in historical meaning or in actuality. Rather, it is meaningful with respect to the world of the theatrical fight of good versus evil or hero against the enemy. In this context, ‘Lysol’ becomes the ‘sign’ of this web of associations and assumes a new meaning. The advertisement does not convey information about the functioning quality of ‘Lysol’, but situates it in a sphere along with other un-related signs, such as the grease stain embodying ‘evil’, characterised by the Mexican bandolera and ‘threatening fist’ (31). Effectively, the Lysol’s cultural significance is enhanced and it is valuable according to its embodiment of ‘goodness’. Subsequently, the Lysol product is moralised which catapults it toward the realm of unreality even more so. The fact that upon perceiving Carolyn’s statement, ‘you are either with me or agin me’ (31) Jon immediately recalls its reference in the advertisement demonstrates the extent to which reality, for him, is entrenched in unreality. It is the simulation of a simulacrum which facilitates his understanding.  Incidentally, it cannot escape one’s notice that the ultimatum Lysol delivers is a variant of that uttered by Bush, ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. Nor is it accidental that the grease stain is portrayed as a cultural other. Bush uttered the words in the ‘real’ world, but now they are being articulated by a talking bottle. Bush plucked the ultimatum from a world distinct from the ‘real’ world where morality is not such a dichotomous issue. In doing so, Saunders conflates the real and the hyperreal which propels the reader to question their assumptions of the constitution of reality and who constructs it.

Jon’s linguistic incapability also illuminates how advertisement discourse promulgates hyperreality. The advertisement discourse becomes the lingua franca. Jon’s self-deception is apparent for he believes that he is adequately expressing his own feelings. He declares:

‘I do not want to only speak of my love in grunts! If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor![…] if I want to say Carolyn, Carolyn, LI34451, check it out, that is how I feel about you – well, then, I want to say it! (30-31).

Jon’s articulations are dependent on the retention of the simulations which the media generates, the only means through which Jon can draw insight and meaning.

Baurdillard writes, ‘by shifting to a virtual world, we go beyond […] negativity […] ‘we are dealing with an attempt to construct an entirely positive world, a perfect world, expurgated of every illusion, of every act of evil and negativity…’(The Vital Illusion 66). The Facility attempts to construct this utopian state but it does so on the basis of eradicating disorder and human desire.  This is evident from the beginning of the story when Jon recounts the instructional video, ‘It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!’ in which, ‘teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching’ (23). Love is described as a ‘mystery’, but the ‘mechanics of love’ need not be (23). The mystery of love is unknown to them, and the managers of the Facility do not appear to have facilitated their understanding of it for they have no advertisement to draw insight from. Self-love through masturbation, however, can be operationalised and contained. Mutual love and eroticism epitomise Baudrillardian ‘evil’ in the facility.  Josh’s sexual escapade with Ruth disrupts the perfectly functioning order. Josh moves ‘snakelike’ into the girls’ quarters (24), which conjures up associations with the serpent tempter who instigated man’s fall in the paradisiacal Garden of Eden. Josh’s act leaves ‘evil’ in its wake; the outpouring of collective grief, a human emotion but unproductive, when Amber dies. To exorcise the ‘evil’, Jon and his fellow assessors are plied with Aurabon to readmit them to the realm of delusion.

The authenticity of human emotion remains with Carolyn as she cannot take Aurabon to quell the grief. Consequently, she appears more in tune with nature, devoid of the artificiality which envelopes her fellow assessors. This is reflected not only in her desire to leave the Facility but also in her language. She states, ‘wake up and smell the coffee, you feel bad because a baby died, how about honouring that by continuing to feel bad, which is only natural…’(29) and on hearing Slippen’s ironic statement that, ‘Nobody can know someone else’s experiences’ (33), Carolyn responds, ‘Larry, no offense but you are talking shit’ (33). In a world where language is removed from human emotion and meaningless, Carolyn’s words resound for they are the only source of truth and individuality in the Facility. Saunders creates a relationship of equivalence between Carolyn’s name and embodiment, sign and signified: Carolyn is the ‘real deal’, as they say, and the simple articulations of her emotions reverberate in the text as they are meaningful and do not mask her true intentions. As Eve ate from the tree of knowledge then encouraged Adam to do so, Carolyn’s desire to exit prompts Jon’s ‘fall’ from the Eden-like Facility.  When Jon peers out of the door at the outside world he describes it so:

Looking out, I saw no walls and no rug and no ceiling, only lawn and flowers, and above that a wide black sky with stars, which all of that made me a bit dizzy, there being no glass between me and it (55).

Jon merely catches a glimpse, and it is framed within the confines of hyperreality, but the disorientating effect it has demonstrates the profundity of nature which the Facility has forsaken. Saunders reveals that life on the outside is not necessarily more ‘real’. Images and models of reality dominate daily living in hyperreality and the children living on the outside seek a glimpse of Jon. They:

come over and stand in our lava rocks with our Trendsetters & TasteMakers gum cards upheld […] when we would wave to them or strike he pose we were posing on our gum cards, they would race back all happy to their crappy apartments (47-48).

Jon and his fellow assessors signify status and fame, they are worshipped, and the supposedly ‘real’ children uphold this. Jon is portrayed as ‘trendsetters’ and ‘taste makers’ on the gum cards rather than assessors. It is, again, their sign value not rooted in reality, which will encourage consumers to purchase the gum cards. Moreover, the consumer society on the outside is, to some extent, organised around the knowledge gained from the facility as they rank products sold to the outside. When Jon has left the Facility his thoughts are still permeated by the hyperreal, ‘Maybe we can come to be normal, and sit on our porch at night, the porch of our own house, like at LI 87326, where the mom knits and the dad plays guitar…’ (60). What constitutes ‘normal’ is defined according to the image depicted in the advertisement. The nation, thus, is constituted from thousands of ‘images and stories’ (32) or simulacra. Media generated simulations dominate the ‘outside world’ as well as the hyperreal, thus the two become interchangeable. Jon’s epiphany is centred on his change of perception and how he perceives his social environment. He treasured his existence in the Facility and wished Carolyn realised how ‘lucky we were’ (39), however, this former paradise is exposed as unrewarding. His dalliance outside alerts his consciousness to a world departed from superficiality which cannot compare to the splendour of natural beauty. Natural flowers are ‘even better’ than ‘the silk on that Hermes jacket’ he craved (55). So too, does he recognise Carolyn’s natural beauty, ‘tell you the truth, even with a DermaFilled neck-hole and nada makeup and huge baby belly, still she looked so pretty…’ (57). Moreover, Jon wishes to think autonomously and find meaning distinct from the images which swarm his mind. He ponders, ‘when we look at the stars […] if choosing to do that, we will not think of LI 44387…’(60). Saunders’s story encourages the reader to open their eyes to the beauty of nature, an Emersonian notion, for nature and natural beauty may be the only authentic real in a world where artificiality reigns supreme.

In today’s world Colbert’s concept of ‘truthiness’, that is, the relativity of truth, predominates (cited in Hayes-Roth 5). Saunders’ exploration of the untruths and artificiality of simulated realities is necessary. By illuminating the connections between Saunder’s Jon and Baudrillard’s insightful commentary on the simulacra rampant in society, I have aimed to reveal how simulated realities have transformed America into a hyperreality. Consequently, in Jon, Saunders invites us to read our own lives as well as those depicted in the Facility. In assessing the assessors’ lives, we are called to reassess our own, which resemble the assessors more than perhaps we would like to admit. The world which we inhabit today is a version of the Facility; the antics of trending celebrities garner more attention, to an extent, than the unfolding of ‘real’ events which impact our lives. In an age of text messaging and social media, to what extent do our ‘communication skills’ contrast Jon’s? In a world where human emotions can be medicalised, we have our own versions of Aurabon, which control our psychic well-being. In the midst of this, Saunders still retains hope for the world and humanity. He demonstrates that true love, in the case of Carolyn and Jon, cannot be suppressed. Carolyn demonstrates that language can be redeemed; it can be used to testify to the truth. Even when entrenched in a world where real and unreal are intertwined, she can still differentiate between language which expresses truth and language employed to subvert and distort it. This can only be achieved, however, Saunders reveals, if we too, like Saunder’s name-sake Jon, ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (29).

– Photo montage by Ralf Roletschek via wikicommons

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.

–  – – . Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser and Ann Arbor. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

–  –  – .The Vital Illusion. Ed. Julia Witwer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Hayes-Roth, Rick. Truthiness fever: how lies and propaganda are poisoning us and a ten-step program for recovery.  USA: Naval Postgraduate School Information Sciences Department, 2011

Saunders, George. ”Jon” In Persuasion Nation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.  23-61.

Blank Spaces: America Reimagined

In this Talking Point, Sarah McCreedy considers blank spaces and shifting territories in post-9/11 American fiction.

Michael Rothberg demanded a change in the post-9/11 novel.  He acknowledged that ‘an intellectually and politically mature literature must leave national-domestic space behind for riskier “foreign” encounters.’ (157). Writers on the module* so far including Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, George Saunders and Maureen McHugh have met this demand unconventionally. Their ‘riskier foreign encounters’ are constructed by  blank spaces, worlds never encountered before, in which America can be reimagined and redefined. Such environments provide a safe distance in which to critique America. Behind the comfortable laughter we experience reading stories like Saunders’ Jon, is the frightening realisation that America is currently only a few miles away from these turbulent realms.

In The Road, McCarthy’s blank world is composed by its complete namelessness, and its breakdown of language. The boy asks his father, ‘Where’s the neighborhood?’ (100), and should we not be asking in the digital age, where is our neighbourhood? Are we becoming McHugh’s ‘sightless’ (7) zombies whose communities are reduced to virtual ones? Saunders’  Jon observes, ‘Maybe we can come to be normal,’ (60). However, even in his moments of supposed authenticity, ironically, Jon bandwagon advertises his own philosophy, ‘isn’t that how it is with our heads, when we are in them it always makes sense, but then later, when you look back, we sometimes are like, I am acting like a total dumbass!’ (47). Is this humorous? Or is it a prediction of the future for Americans? Or have we already reached this point?

In DeLillo’s Point Omega, Jim notes how Elster is situated, ‘somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether.’ (25). Are we truly in America in this novella? The landscape is of course intentional, the anonymity of Jessie’s ‘killer/kidnapper’ ambiguous, and the unsolved nature of the case reminiscent of the fact that war in the Middle East is ongoing. In addition, in McHugh’s ‘The Naturalist’, Cahill imitates an Islamic terrorist, becoming that individual, sacrificial force, driven by ‘suicidal craziness’ (11), fighting against those ‘Zombie businessmen’, (12), or, American capitalism. America subconsciously rejects this simulation of Islamic terrorism in its own territory and thus Cahill is rescued and reappropriated back into American ‘civilised’ society.

In these blank spaces, these ‘riskier foreign countries’, masquerades in the form  of, for example, missing person cases or  zombie breakout narratives can be decoded to reveal much more important social and political commentaries, which magnify the cracks in contemporary America. Trauma is remembered in these dream-like environments, these distorted images of America. In these texts, America is outside America, and inside America, all at the same time.

*MA Module: Literature in Crisis: American Writing in the 21st Century

 

Bibliography

DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road.  London: Picador, 2006.

McHugh, Maureen F. “The Naturalist.” After the Apocalypse.  East Hampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2011. 1-29.

Rothberg, Michael. “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray.” American Literary History. Vol. 21, No.1. (Spring 2009), 152-58.

Saunders, George.  “Jon.” In Persuasion Nation. Riverhead Books, 2006.  23-61.

[Image by Alanthebox (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons]