Closing Down

I am closing down the ol’ blogaroo for our “Theories of Failure” class. It’s been a pleasure working with everybody!


Prof. Epstein

Cycles of failure in Murphy

Murphy was a character who lived for his own principles, until he lived for those of Celia then shortly thereafter he died. Cecelia represented the physical expectations of society and the moral contortions those expectations impose.

While Murphy lived for his own principles his physical representation was of poverty, which may be construed as failure, but his psyche was liberated, which may be construed as success except that he was dissatisfied. Once he compromised his principles he burned to death. Yet, had he not compromised his principles then his heart-throb, Celia, would constantly nag him. Life would be miserable because of nagging, or there would be the threat of constant dissatisfaction and death by depravation. It was a circular conundrum.

The author of Murphy, Samuel Beckett, shows readers continually, like the continual occurrences of circular motions in the book, that systems are set up and then they fail. In the beginning of the book Murphy had spent six months in a mew watching the sun go round and round, but the place had been condemned. He is tied in his rocking chair and rocking, a semi-circular motion, and distracted by a cuckoo-clock echoing “quid pro quo! Quid pro quo ! . .” or the reminder that life was a mercenary exchange. The cuckoo-clock “detained him in the world to which they belonged, but not he, as he fondly hoped” (Beckett 2). He gets the rocking chair to its “maximum rock” (Beckett 6) but then the phone rings, and worried that his landlady will complain he unties himself. Afterward he reties himself. From this beginning Beckett sets the premise that life is systems of exchanges and that choices must be made. By the end of the book Murphy’s exchanges and choices have failed.

Beckett implies that people are caught in the middle of universal cycles. In the beginning of chapter five, when Celia and Murphy have just moved into a new room, the floor and walls are described as tangible, but “the ceiling was lost in the shadows” (Beckett 64). In the very next page Celia wanted to “make a man of Murphy!” (Beckett 65) but Murphy’s definition of being a man was not succumbing to the forces of society, to be lost in the shadows. Which brings the story back or pushes it forward, in the circular conundrum.

Other characters in the book, Neary, Wiley and Miss Counihan have a perverse fascination with Murphy. “’Our medians,’ said Wylie, ‘or whatever the hell they are, meet in Murphy’” (Beckett 213).

Is their fascination because they were solidly concerned with but unable to explain their own existences? There was also Cooper, who never sat or took off his hat, as a metaphor for physical existence. For Cooper it was matter over mind. His task was to find Murphy. Cooper traced and circled in on, but never really did find Murphy alive. But, once Murphy went to his fiery death then Cooper did sit and go bareheaded. In fact he purposely sat on his hat. Cooper was a microcosm of systems and failures.

To show how solidly concerned with matter over mind Neary, Wiley and Miss Counihan were, in the end, after these three with the help of Celia, had identified the burnt remains of Murphy, Neary took out his check book to pay-off the matter. This totally brings the life of Murphy into the circle of the tangible and mercenary. To capitalize on the futility of that vicious circle is what happens to Murphy’s ashes.

Murphy had written that he wanted his “body, mind and soul . . . burnt and placed in a paper bag and brought to the Abbey Theater” (Beckett 269). The Abbey Theater was co-founded by William Butler Yeats whose poems and other writings were much composed around two main topics, mysticism and reform politics. Murphy’s ideal of life would tend toward mysticism, not literally but that he endeavored to live without regard to the physical world; and toward reform politics, because he so much resisted the oppression that working for money can manifest.

To complete the cycle of Murphy’s life, Cooper is to take the ashes to the Abbey Theater. On the way he stops to get drunk, gets in an argument, flings the packet into the face of his offender where “It bounced, burst off the wall onto the floor . . . ; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits the vomit” (Beckett 275).

So, according to the life of Murphy, the sun and life go round and round, and it makes no difference if one lives for their own theories or the theories of society, all fail.

Make Up Blog: Boredom Remains the Same

I find this essay interesting concerning the effects and importance of boredom, and am with Priest for many sections, of the essential conceit that a society of ceaseless media must be based on a foundation of boredom; and of boredom’s ability to “bore a hole in us” (37). But in the middle Priest loses me. I don’t know that the experience of boredom is ontologically different now than it was in Cage’s time, and the neo-liberalism in particular has dramatically altered how a subject (a person) experiences boredom. It seems in Priest view, that neo-liberalism has severed boredom’s connection to the sublime, and now is only ever capable of delivering us to a thing called stuplime, a word coined by Ngai (36). The concept of the stuplime is interesting, and I wish I had read in full the Ngai’s essay discussing it, because I get the feeling that the stuplime is being misapplied here. Boredom is anti-capitalist, and has been since Cage’s time. Filling space with minimal cognitive or physical activity rebukes the factory floor model of the west handed down from the industrial revolution. Beyond the initial experiencing of the void of the moment, “the sense of senselessness” boredom returns us to the body, as sensation begins to enlarge, stupliminty, may be one more step towards the pay-off promised by Cage. Maybe Boredom hasn’t changed in an intrinsic way in sixty years, and Priest just isn’t waiting long enough.

It seems that Priest wants to problematize difference. Instead of understanding them as discrete modes, or entryways into boredom, Priest wants us to view boredom in a lineage, as having been mutated over the years by our cultural choices. The section “A less promising boredom” is the biggest offender for me. On page 76, as Priest takes the way artists use boredom as a symptom of depression, as a way to simulate boredom for an audience. In his examination of the work of Christine Ross, Priest begins to confuse depression for boredom. While boredom can be an entry point (or exit point) to depression, depression is not “reaching for nothing in particular” or “a sense of senselessness.” From the way, Priest discusses Ross’ work, she seems to understand the difference. On “how slow time in art suggests the way depression interrupts the hermeneutic impulse of perception and revalorizes the domain of sensory appreciation” (76). My problem is the way he concludes the boredom-depression connection, “In this view, boredom no longer forms a dialectical relationship with intensity that Higgins took its contrast with excitement to mean. Where boredom once served ‘as a means of bringing emphasis to what it interrupts,’ it now functions in this ‘culture of individualized independence’” (77). What I don’t quite understand is not that artist are finding new ways of accessing boredom, which would seem like the type of thing art should be doing, but why this other older type of boredom is no longer available. It’s not like the tyranny of individuality is new.

There were other parts of the essay where Priest seemed to be disagreeing with his own text. I was fascinated by the part on 82 where the piano player Barone describes playing the piece Piano Installations. Barone describes the actual playing of the piece to be so endlessly repetitive that it began to simulate being on “magic mushrooms” and that “nothing made sense” and that his own body was “utterly foreign” (85). And yet, Priest tells us, “The expressions of sublime transduction are clearly absent from his description” (85). Really? Playing this piece of music can induce a psychedelic hallucination, but isn’t sublime? How sublime does the sublime have to be for Priest?

So, I was surprised then, in the final section of the chapter, when Priest quickly takes a lot of what he said back. “Obviously, boredom today is not wholly distinct from the boredom of the 1960s and 1970s; the formal and conceptual similarities, as well as the discursive figures that are used by artists to describe and justify the boring things they do, are more than apparent” (96). I’m with Priest here, and many of the other assertions of this sections, including the necessity of the death of the avant-garde in order to preserve the avant-garde, but, considering that last statement above, I wonder if all of those middle sections were necessary.

Make Up Blog

Claudia Rankine uses the television screen in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely as a device to show how perversely informed/involved our society is with current events. Written as an aftermath of 9/11, it seems as though Rankine is commenting on how involved the public is with the events in the news. The people seem to be absorbed completely by the events on the television screen, as if they were living the images that flash upon the screen. One example of this absorption is television screen with the picture of Princess Diana’s front yard after her death. The picture of thousands of mementos left on the front lawn, with the house blocked off by a gate shows how we feel as though we are apart of the events taking place in the news, but we are actually just voyeurs. We passively participate in these events happening around the world, sitting behind the tv screen, feeling as though we are apart of these events that unfold on the television screen.

Rankine writes “Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive to anyone outside of her friends and family—truly?”(39) trying to rationalize with the waves of emotions millions of people felt after Princess Diana’s death. Did these people all around the world ever truly know Princess Diana, or were they simply mourning this false idol? I am not saying that Princess Diana a false idol, I mean that these millions of people that were mourning her death did not actually know Diana, not the Princess, but Diana the woman. There were images of people crying in the street like their grandmother had just died, yet they had never met this woman in their entire life. By asking the question if Princess Diana was ever really alive, Rankine is asking if she was real to those who mourned her death. Did she ever sit and have tea, go to their child’s birthday party or send Christmas cards to these people who were so devastated by Princess Diana’s death? With the example of Princess Diana, Rankine is saying that we, as consumers of these images on the television screen are becoming totally absorbed. We feel as though these people we see on the screen are apart of our lives, which I think Rankine is saying is unhealthy.

Rankine seems to be focusing on what happened after 9/11. It seems as though the bubble that protected the United States had burst. The images that would appear on the television screen now occupy space on the page without the border of the tv screen. All of a sudden we are not protected by the screen, allowing us to participate, without actually participating. 9/11 burst this bubble, causing people to suddenly realize that the news they see on the television can happen to them too. They are no longer protected behind the television screen. The attacks on 9/11 signified a shift in the American population. Rankine notes this by saying,“It strikes me that what the attack on the World Trade Center stole from us is our willingness to  be complex. Or what the attack on the World Trade Center revealed to us is that we were never complex”(91) as immediately after 9/11 it seemed as though that moment in time we retreated back to simple beings. The “them vs us” mentality drew out  ugly responses from many Americans right after the terrorist attack. Solidarity drew us together, uniting us against a common enemy, for that time in our history.

The question if we were ever complex causes us as readers, who most of us witnessed 9/11, to take a step back and reflect. Once we saw that bad things could happen to us, our bubble burst, causing us to no longer look at the world as this complex place. We no longer felt that we were able to build and maintain relationships with those outside of the US, cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. Here, I sort of understand what Rankine is saying, as I feel she is trying to say that we are no longer protected by our television screens, suggesting that we were never really complex in the first place.

Make Up Blog: Deferral

The discussion of time gets irresolute and I’ve often come to the terms that the ongoing filter of the world is in the process of deferral. The consolidation of capitalism and American culture are products of it. These entities were both in play in the style of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. The negative space, television, and footnotes hinted at the dynamo of American culture and its environment.

The negative space is ironically an active and co-creative space. The blocks of text echo with blocks of space, and comes to create the same feeling of left-behindness inherent in language discussed by Dr. Epstein earlier in the course. The television is static and the irony is unsettling in the fact that we as viewers are ok with both the permanence and indifference of television. Disney, fantasy, and internet subculture can all be deemed illusion and American society is ok with that. The sacred and validated has been removed because of the speed and universality of voice, opinion, and change. This, to me, is indicative that the let-behindness isn’t limited to only language but has managed to evolve and spread to culture. The footnotes are the detritus of the things we didn’t have to experience. The result and fact of life were predicted to become irrelevant by Rankine and in the end were prophetic.

The two words that I cannot get out of my head from this course are “deliberate lure.” It’s how Olsen describes Helga. The words are commodifying an individual for a third and independent party’s purpose. The words and culture have been consolidated in America to meet deferrel and its momentum. It manages to promote a peripheral lack of confidence. But I immediately lose care. The aesthetic and repetition of the words “deliberate lure” itself inundates culture and its forced diffidence. That has to be only my bias in preferring form over meaning.


CTT Slacker and Structure

Capture the Tag Slacker:


In the blog post “Slacker and Violent Media”, Madison asserts: “while there may not be much happening in the film, there is a lot happening on the periphery of what is being shown”. This decentralizing of content in Slacker is but one way in which the structure of the film can be discussed in terms of Adornian fragmentation and queer passivity/nonproductivity.

Stephanie, in her post “Thoughts on Slacker” notes how Linklater’s pseudo-scientific “alternate realities” monologue at the beginning of the film might be read to echo Halberstam’s “detours”, i.e. alternative methods of solving theoretical problems within an “undisciplined zone of knowledge production” (Halberstam 15). To supplement Stephanie’s point, I would add Halberstam’s citation of Foucault, which highlights how hegemonic ways of knowing and relating are a constructed phenomenon: “The social worlds we inhabit…are not inevitable…in the process of producing this reality, many other realities, fields of knowledge and ways of being have been discarded and…”disqualified” [Foucault]’ (Halberstam, 9). In his rambling speech about reading in dreams and missed opportunities for bus station romance, Linklater also mentions how each choice a person makes theoretically denies countless other realities. We can stretch this a bit and consider Foucault’s concept of the construction of history in hegemonic discourse as a series of chances, either taken or ignored, that give way to one reality only in the suppression of others. In this context, the conspiracy theories that crop up repeatedly in Slacker can be understood as a paranoid response to literal or figurative violence inherent in the production of a single historical reality.

More generally, the anti-narrative structure and lack of character development can be usefully considered from the angle of Foucault and Halberstam. “We [don’t] get to see any of the characters develop” Stephanie states, “so, by society’s standards, they are all unproductive”. In allowing characters to disappear, the structure of the film also facilitates a characterization of them as failures. The characters are denied profit-based success not because they don’t have jobs (although it seems almost certain that most of them don’t) but because Linklater has manipulated what we see andas a result, how we interpret his characters’ (non)productivity. As Stephanie astutely notes, this fragmentation of form can be read against Adorno’s “false totality”. I want to elaborate on this idea, for it is this fragmentary formal constraint that offers us a disruption beyond that of mere characterization. If fragmentation betrays the truthful counterpart to a totality that, in its generalization, hides holes and disqualified realities, then, by denying the hierarchical structure of narrative, the fragmentary condition of Slacker reveals such realities by its commitment to pursuing the secondary, tertiary, quaternary, etc. characters that standard narrative disqualifies in its orderly pursuit of central character(s), climactic event, resolution or other such formal mainstays. “Never looping back to main characters in the way other vignette movies do” Angelica states in her entry “Transaction and Meaning in Slacker”, “the film…[resists] traditional movie storytelling.” She goes on to say that this resistance mimics the resistance to capitalism many of the characters demonstrate, which I think is a fair assessment. For considerations of length, however, I will only say that the content of resistance is as complex as the form (free weapons giveaway, anyone?).

Formally, Angelica is concerned with a device that she has deemed the “switch off”—a kind of passing of the baton that the camera follows. This is precisely how the film gives us the ability to encounter so many characters in such a short time, while still maintaining a structural through-line and providing what Stephanie calls a “wandering or lingering” quality that cultivates the feeling of nonproductivity. Angelica sees this transference of attention as a “transaction” between individuals that, although it may involve goods, “isn’t mediated by goods at all”. I agree that the switch off is a human interaction, but I think it is most certainly mediated by goods. It is the qualities of these goods that make the switch off different. Firstly, they are often free (although sometimes they are not, ex. the latte, the soda, the diner coffee—mostly beverages, it seems) or stolen. Cigarettes, entry stamps, cameras and books are passed without charge from one person to another and incite the switch off. Secondly, the goods are arguably only valuable in the Slacker economy—the tape of the student hostage-taker, “oblique strategy” cards, the old man’s cassette—and sometimes not even in there (the Madonna pap smear). The transactions themselves often involve bartering, charity, or the aforementioned law-breaking:  when the old anarchist tells the would-be burglar to “look around, take anything [he] like[s]”, or the guys steal the car parts from the pick n’ pull. What makes the economy of Slacker go ’round may not be typical goods or exchange transactions, but both are still present.

Madisonduarte’s observation that there is much happening on the periphery of the film is important, I think, because in a standard narrative we wouldn’t be asked to concern ourselves with it. Slacker draws out peripheries from peripheries from peripheries, and, as a result, is peripheral itself in both in its non-normative form, subversive content and cast of ephemeral “ultimate losers”. As such, the film lends itself to a queer reading that encounters these decentralizing, disruptive elements as a rejection of standardization, normative historical methods and adherence with the global exchange economy.

Quicksand, the Aesthetic Gaze and the Heterogeneous Subject

I would like to look at how the role of aesthetics in Quicksand relates to the “irritation” noted by Sianne Ngai in Ugly Feelings  and informs Helga’s racial consciousness.

Helga relies on the semiotic capabilities of beauty in order to string together a rational narrative of her life from the outside in, despite the inconsistency and tumult of her psyche. It is evident from the beginning, when Helga “smiles inwardly” at the message her small hats and elegant shoes send to the prim-minded employees of Naxos, who find them “positively indecent”(52). Early on, too, we learn that her entire life Helga has “loved and longed” for beautiful and pleasing “things” (41). It is in this desire for material beauty that we can find Helga’s method of anestheticizing the pervasive irritation that motivates her throughout the novel.

When the signifiers of her appearance are co-opted by the Dahls Helga enjoys it—at first. Helga invests her emotional capital in the “business” of her manufacture as an exotic aesthetic product, “[giving] herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired” (104). It is important to remember that Helga consents to this “aestheticization” in the beginning and that it is “intensely pleasant to her” (104). The eventual pleasure Helga finds in her beautiful appearance dissolves the initial “perturbation” (103) or irritation Helga experiences at being a “peacock” (103). In this moment Helga rejects any racial obligation to feel ashamed of her marketability in Copenhagen as an exotic and beautiful object. Her willingness to “try on” the identity the Dahls fashion for her, to try to locate her subjectivity through the eyes of her aunt, uncle and Copenhagen society, echoes the impulsiveness with which she relocates herself geographically. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness. By cultivating her own objectification Helga obtains the ontological glue, so to speak, that temporarily alleviates her riven condition.

In Copenhagen Helga purposefully seeks to claim her blackness through the gaze of the Danish. “Intentionally” she speaks the “slow, faltering Danish” she thinks makes her more attractive for its indication of foreignness, and is gratified by the attention she receives (104). In the same turn Helga criticizes black Americans as hypocritical, denouncing that they “didn’t want to be like themselves”, and desired instead to “be like their white overlords” and “were ashamed to be Negroes, but not ashamed to beg to be something else. Something inferior” (104). In adopting her aestheticized and fetishized identity Helga cultivates a counterintuitive racial pride in opposition to both whiteness and blackness. In her above critique we can read Helga’s earlier criticisms of racial uplift, here characterized as the white washing of an essential quality of blackness. That this critique emerges from Helga’s being recast as a fetish object—a luxury item with the power to promote social buoyancy—is problematic, to say the least. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness.

If Helga’s racial consciousness only manifests from the outside-in, as mediated by her beautiful environment, possessions, or appearance, then it follows that this identification exists only in that it is refracted through the eyes of another. In accordance with this triangulated aesthetic gaze, instances of beauty in the novel become representative of a symbolic observer that has the power to confer upon Helga a particular kind of social capital. Aesthetically objectified and “appraised” (81), Helga is contracted into a value (product) and thereby unified into a singular subject (paradoxically) by another’s objectifying gaze.

To be beautiful and to have beautiful things is a way to surrender to the gaze of another and so solicit the unified value that evades her internally. The pursuit and attainment of beauty alleviates temporarily the irritation Helga cannot seem to escape. In Helga’s characteristic attraction to beauty we can read her desire to anestheticize the irritation that stems from her incongruity with an ever-nagging racial binary. Even the “miraculously beautiful” (149) community she experiences in Alabama is refracted through the fervently religious eyes of Reverend Pleasant Green, her marriage to whom was tonic to the irritative rupture that occurred after her final meeting with Dr. Anderson. Helga chose, chased and conquered the Reverend as a way to still herself, to arrest her roaming consciousness and identity in favor of the numb bliss of religiosity and domesticity. Of course, at the end of the novel, in the bed after childbirth, Helga returns to her nomadic state, if only psychologically, and by the last sentence teeters on the edge of self-obliteration.