Monday, April 28, 2014

Bring Chaos to Order

As a writer and a student of English Literature, I have a diverse range of influences, which can be exemplified in the two final papers I am writing this semester: one on John Updike's "Pigeon Feathers" and "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car" from Updike's collection, also called Pigeon Feathers; and the other on Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions.  While stylistically the authors are very different, the more I look at these texts I am studying, the more I realize that, while they are stylistically very different, in some ways they are similar.

Both Updike stories are about the character David Kern, in his teenage years and as an adult, one from a third person perspective, the other from a first person--although the third person is closely focused on Kern's perspective and thoughts, so in many ways it matches closely with the first person, later in his life.  It actually makes a lot of sense that Updike would make this change from Kern's teenage story to his adult story, since adults are much more cognizant than teenagers.  Probably more significantly, Kern becomes a writer, and the latter story represents his writerly musings--he is taking ownership over his thoughts.

Like all of Updike's work (at least of it that I have read), in both stories a significant part of understanding what is happening in the story involves seeing the character's inner-lives realized in the descriptions--as a certain professor of mine would say, Kern is "reading the world like a book."  He is looking for signs of God in the material world, seeking faith in a way that makes sense to him.  However, in "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car", Kern is not merely reading the world like a book, he is forcing the audience to do the same--he is creating elaborate metaphors to signify the ideas he is attempting to get across to his audience.  While, clearly, Updike is doing this in both stories, as the author of the stories, his changing from the third person to the first person illustrates how he as a writer does this.  In effect, he is illustrating how he as a realist sees the world and then uses it as a part of his writing to as a way of creating meaning.  While there might not be that sort of meaning, in the real world, in the things that he describes, it is interesting to see how as a writer he does this.  It is definitely something that I am keeping in mind.

Conversely, rather than mimicking the real world in an attempt to convey his ideas, Vonnegut creates his own universe of characters, which are not intended to be realistic, and, as is the case of Breakfast of Champions, they are, by the admission of the author, characters in a book.  Vonnegut is drawing attention to the writing process and showing how we understand the "real" through language, and thus, anytime we use language we are giving our own subjective viewpoint, no matter how objective we are attempting to be, we can't help but be subjective, since language is our only way of making sense of everything.  

To Vonnegut, and other post-modern/metafiction writers, there is no such thing as realism.  No writer is actually being any more realistic than any other, since it is impossible to be anything other than subjective.  The styles might be different, one might focus on the setting and the scenery and describing what how he perceives through his senses the world around him, it is still his subjective point of view, and thus no more "real" than any other writer.  True, it might be easier to picture what he is describing, but each person will picture it in his own way.  In other words, not only is Vonnegut calling attention to fictional writing, but he is calling attention to the real world, as well.  While there might be an objective reality, there is no way for any one to get more in touch with it than any one else.

Vonnegut's view, therefore, allows you, if you are so inclined, to question the narratives that you have come to believe as fact, since every narrative, be it history, or science, is someone else's subjective viewpoint on whatever it happens to be.  What Vonnegut is questioning is our we all seemed trapped in some sort of materialistic mindset where we are all programmed like robots to spend our whole lives desiring and working towards owning stuff--but the irony of it is, no matter how much stuff we have, we only continue to want more stuff.  There is no end to it.  We go to school, get jobs, go into debt, all just to have this stuff, which is never as fulfilling and wonderful as it seems like it will be before we get it.  We all go about our lives like characters in a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and everything turns out alright--there is some sort of resolution in the end, if you live your life the right way.  And that is the danger of "realism" and writing that purports to be "real" or "nonfiction", because it gives people a false perception that reality is shaped by external forces.

But that isn't the case.  We each shape reality in our own subjective way, through the language that comes naturally to us, through experience.  This is what Vonnegut is getting in Breakfast of Champions at when he says,

"Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling.  I would write about life.  Every person would be exactly as important as any other.  All facts would also be given equal weightiness.  Nothing would be left out.  Let others bring order to chaos.  I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead." (215).

And this is what I intend to do as a writer.  Maybe it will never bring me fame and fortune and everything, but I feel like it is the right thing to do.  This is how I choose my priorities.  While maybe their is no universal moral code, I do follow one of my own.  Maybe it's not religiously based, but I know when something feels right--because it feels right.  It is really just that simply.  It might not work universally, but, as a writer, it works for me.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

White Noise, Propaganda, and Complacency

Increasingly, the more I watch TV, the more I surf the net--as we used to say in the 90's (does anyone say that anymore?)--the more frustrated I get with our culture.  People, myself included, are so easily distracted by inane nonsense, but, I suppose, to a certain degree, we can't help it, because it is designed to distract us from what is going on right in front of our faces.  

I know I am probably a crazy person with tinfoil on my head rambling my crazy paranoid theories about the world, but I really don't think that I am that crazy or paranoid.  While it might not count for much anymore, I am highly educated.  I study language, ideas, and stories--how to analyze language, ideas, and stories, and while that might not get me a well-paying job, they are invaluable skills.  Especially in the everything goes, misinformation age.

These are skills that we all need to develop, to be able to discern  the genuine from the bullshit.  That's the real reason that college degrees have been turned into a commodity--why teachers and instructors are marginalized and paid unlivable wages.  

If people are really educated, then they will be able to see through the illusions.

Good ideas, facts, sound science, get lost in all the white noise that so easily distracts us.  We don't have telescreens, we have the Internet and television.  Instead of the "Two Minutes Hate", we have a nonstop, 24-hour barrage.  We are inundated with messages, most of which can be simplified to, "Look the other way."

It's time for people to wake up and stop following and start listening.  Stop looking the other way.  It's time to find what's real, which is mixed in with the noise that makes us so apathetic.  Stop being apathetic and start being conscientious.

As far as we know, without a doubt, we only have one life, and the only time you can take action is in the present.  Time doesn't stop, it doesn't slow down, and the more of it you waste, the less of it you have.  You can continue to go about your life, and pretend there is nothing wrong, or you can begin to face the truth.  What are you going to do?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Top Five Top Lists from the Interwebs

Lists are everywhere around the Internet these days.  From Buzzfeed to the Washington Post, it is hard to get through the day without reading some kind of ranking of something.  Who are the top ten celebrities with eating disorders, you wonder?  I am sure there is a list out there to fulfill your curiosity.  I don't know whether it's a cultural need to put random things in some sort of arbitrary order, or what, but I kind of hope it's a fad that will eventually die out--although, with the Internet, things never really die out for very long, just look at those quizzes that pop up every six months or so.  Anyways, I am certainly fascinated with this phenomenon, and I hear it helps bring in readers, so I have shamelessly decided to put together my own list, a list of lists--the list of lists, in fact:

Top Five Top Lists from the Interwebs

5. The Richest: "10 Things You Didn't Know About Disneyland"

I have never heard of this website, but I am guessing by the name that it is not for poor people?  I guess that makes sense, since you have to about be rich to afford to get into Disneyland or Disney World.  I have never been to either, but these sorts of lists always fascinate me, especially since most of the time, I know most of the facts that I am not supposed to know.  That's one thing that I do like about this list--I didn't know any of these "facts".  I don't exactly feel enlightened, though.  One thing I really hate about sites like this with lists: you have to watch out for the ads that have arrows in them to make it look like you are supposed to click on the arrows to keep following the list--you savvy bastards.

4. "22 Shocking Celebrities Who Used to Be Young & Hot"

As if the name of their website wasn't pretentious enough, these people actually have the gall to point out that people age!  Shocking, I know, right?  I guess this list blows my theory that all celebrities are actually robots.  Actually, they could still be robots.  They could get refitted every few years to keep up the illusion.  Either way, this is one of those lists where you click through the pictures on the same page, rather than having to follow like fifty links or having to scroll down the page--how annoying, right?

3. Mental Floss: "12 Directors Who Hated Their Own Movies"

Probably not the first list like this, probably not the last.  Probably picked randomly as the next list I came across.  Okay, so maybe this list is more like the first five lists I found.  Still, though, this list has a certain something that makes it stand out.  Oh wait, I follow Mental Floss on Facebook.  Yeah, that's probably it.

2. The Huffington Post: "Top 50 Successful Marijuana Users Who Prove the Person Matters More than the Plant"

It's no secret that the Huffington Post supports marijuana legalization, so it's no surprise that they would make a list about this issue.  I am sure it is not the only one, but, like many of the stoners who would read this, I am too lazy to actually commit to the amount of research it would take to actually prove this without a doubt.  This particular list shows how many hypocrites there are in politics, people that dictate what the rest of us should be doing, but have done the exact opposite themselves.  And, wait, hold up, Snoop Lion has smoked pot?  What?

1. Rolling Stone: "1994: The Top 40 Best Records From Mainstream Alternative's Best Year"

Rolling Stone is not one to shy away from making lists, but, maybe because I am a big music nerd, I don't usually mind their lists as much.  This is a actually good list, although I don't think the order necessarily matters.  Actually, it doesn't.  The order in none of these matter, because they don't matter, they are...  Distractions?  Yeah, that sounds about right.  I actually read this one through, though...  Oh wait, I mean, I read them all...  Or did I?  Did I really read them?  Is this list for real?  As real as any other list, I guess...  That's not a very solid answer, though.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

We Are Our Own Barbarian Hoards

One of my biggest pet peeves about teaching is that I feel like the students think they know more than I do about the importance of being able to write and communicate ideas in a civil way.  How can I teach my students the importance of communicating as in a dialogue when it doesn't seem like anyone in the world is actually doing this?  It's no wonder than so many of my students are unreachable.  And I am not alone in this.  So many of my colleagues experience the same thing and feel the same way.

Glancing through forums, comments on articles, Youtube, etc, it seems like everyone is shouting out their opinions and no one is listening to each other.  Turn on the TV news and you get the same thing.  Why the Hell would you need to learn how to write an essay when people only pick what they want out of it, twist it, and start shouting how they feel about it instead of trying to create a dialogue?  It's no wonder our society, or even our civilization, is falling apart.  I look around, watch the news, look online, and it seems, more and more, like we are headed to a new dark age.  There is no such thing as common sense.  Or even sense.  Everyone is shouting and no one is listening.  One is ineffective without the other.

While I am probably overgeneralizing, as I am sure there are more people like me who are quietly watching everything unfold and are doing what little they can to make a difference--even though it is mostly not making a difference, or at least not any sort of noticeable difference fast enough to actually change anything--the fact is, society only works if there is some sort of social contract holding everyone is check, making sure that most people are following what they agree they should be doing, and that contract has been void for quite some time.  The only way to renew any sort of social contract is by having a dialogue, as a society, where all the disparate parts work together to communicate ideas, resolve differences, or at least agree to disagree, and figure out how to peaceably move forward in a way that mutually benefits everyone.  

But, looking around, seeing what I see, hearing what I hear, I don't feel like this is realistically possible as things are right now.  The only thing I see happening is chaos, like a cancer, stealing its way into every facet of society, sooner or later overtaking everyone and everything.  This is where we are headed.  Unlike the Roman Empire, we are not going to be invaded by barbarian hoards, we are our own barbarian hoards, and sooner or later, we are going to bring down our own Empire.