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.

Irritation: Helga vs. Bartleby

While reading Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, I was struck by the term “Bartlebyzation”. I didn’t know what it meant, and it seemed to be something Ngai was suggesting her readers should know, since she didn’t offer any context or explanation. After some Internet research I discovered that this term is a reference to Herman Melville’s acclaimed short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”. While I had never read the story before, after reading and some research it became clear that there seem to be more underlying parallels between it and Larsen’s Quicksand than Ngai mentions in her chapter on Irritation.

As Ngai does discuss, both Bartleby and Helga experience their talents demoted, misplaced, and belittled to banal, mediocre tasks; Helga’s by her secretarial position, and Bartleby’s by his scrivener position when he is in fact able to write extensive high-quality material. This “artistic misplacement” reflects the other societal misplacements the characters experience, Helga with her racial displacement and Bartleby with his physical displacement.

Both characters experience a certain level of “homelessness”. Bartleby experiences it in more of a literal sense when he ends up living in the office building he was supposed to be working at, curling up in doorways and stairways. Helga’s own “homelessness” is primarily experienced in the metaphorical sense. She feels a lack of belonging and a sense of misplacement wherever she lives, and thus refuses to get comfortable anywhere, pushing every potential “home” away. In that sense, she differs from Bartleby, who seems perfectly content and even insistent to sleep on the hard floors of a rigid office building. But he provokes Helgaic frustration when the story’s narrator invites Bartleby to come and live with him, in a real home, and Bartleby refuses, clinging to his discomfort as Helga does throughout Quicksand.

This discomfort seems to be comfortable for the two characters, or at least habitual. Both characters have experienced certain things in the past that have affected them long-term: Helga with her parents and her childhood of abandonment and racial misplacement, and Bartleby with his rumored former job of working in a dead letter office and thus being surrounded by missed connections and emotions lost in the mail. These events cause the characters to lose hope, to turn their backs on the possibility of happiness to a certain extent, to have little motivation to put effort into their own success or even survival.

Both characters capture hearts on a fairly wide scale and are the subject of the affections of many people they come into contact with. Helga has her many suitors, whom she routinely turns down and pushes away. Bartleby appeals to the emotions of his boss and the story’s narrator; as previously mentioned, the narrator offers him a place to live, and despite his odd behavior and lack of action, Bartleby affects his boss emotionally so much that the man moves his business elsewhere rather than kick Bartleby out of the building. Readers are repeatedly left in frustration, wondering why the respective characters would not seize their multiple opportunities for a sense of home and security and possibly even happiness. But the characters’ backs are turned away from the light and towards brick walls, partially ones of their own creation.

Both Bartleby and Helga are presented with multiple pathways, in the forms of people, places, and actions, towards making their lives better for themselves despite their past pain. Bartleby could have simply made the copies at his new firm, and supported himself that way, or moved into the narrator’s home. Helga could have settled into one of the various places that could potentially have worked as satisfying homes for her. She could have acted more decisively in that sense, and also in the sense of sticking to her seemingly confident decision not to have children. Instead of just doing these things, Bartleby dies in prison and Helga is left trapped in a prison of her own baby-making. This provokes a Romeo-and-Juliet reaction: if the characters had simply done what readers knew were the right choices, if they had made some minor changes, then their chain reactions towards imprisonment, discomfort, and even death could have been avoided. In Ugly Feelings, Ngai cites Barbara Johnson’s assessment that “chapter breaks often occur where psychological causation is missing… and is the difficulty of defining the causes of Helga’s suffering that leads to irritation.” It is human nature to feel satisfied when we understand something, and intensely frustrated, irritated, even threatened when we do not, and these literary works so excruciatingly hit the nerve of perplexity.

Helmers, James, and trying to understand Paranoia

I did my “make up class” post on James’ The Beast in the Jungle and related it back to the Halberstam reading. For this post, I want to focus more on fleshing out the Matthew Helmers reading. This essay was definitely more difficult than the last one. I was able to understand the first part of the reading as I have read some of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work before. I think there are a few places in the text that point to the possibility that Marcher is homosexual, for example, when Marcher tells Bartram that she helps him “pass for a man like another” (James 51). He also realizes his potential deeper feeling for Bartram after witnessing strong feeling coming from another male (James 69). On the other had, I am really more interested in May Bartram. I can’t help but wonder if she is actually satisfied in her arrangement with Marcher. Her satisfaction can be supported by the fact that she never wants any payment from him, but simply asks for him to continue “going on as you are” (James 51). Maybe she doesn’t want to marry, and is content living an independent life. If Bartram acts as a sort of surrogate heterosexual partner for Marcher to pass as “normal,” I don’t see why she can’t be using him for the same reason. As Bartram says, “If you’ve had your woman I’ve had,’ she said, ‘my man’” (James 50). Of course, this is just one possible theory, and it could very well be that I am still just being influenced by my Willa Cather class. One of the questions that I had in my last post was why Marcher is so interested in payment. I think that the Helmers reading and our discussion in class have helped me understand this a little better. Helmers writes that “paranoia enjoined us to look at time and see a system that applies to knowledge as well, to look at knowledge and see a system that applies to desire, and to look at desire and see the same system that applies to sexuality and, through syllogism, to reduce all of these elements into a well-understood structural unity: the tessellated pattern of Western culture […]” (Helmers 114). If I am understanding this right, Marcher begins to think of Western culture as the only correct form of knowledge, despite “his struggles to exist within [this] system” (Helmers 115). A point in the text where I think James points out the failure of this system is when Marcher doesn’t understand why, despite their close relationship, he had such “few rights, as they were called in such cases, that he had to put forward, and how odd it might even seem that their intimacy shouldn’t have given him more of them […] He was in short from this moment face to face with the fact that he was to profit extraordinarily little by the interest May Bartram had taken in him” (James 64). In this quote Marcher seems to be wondering how such a deep relationship could be considered lesser by society solely because they were not, for example, legally documented as married. This could be James’ way of questioning capitalism/ Western culture and values, or strong theory. To end this post, I admittedly struggled with the idea of paranoia, so I hope I articulated myself well enough. I am sure as the term continues I will gain a better understanding of this reading.

Bartram’s paranoid system

I used my post from earlier this week as a jumping off point. In this post I explore what “paranoia” means and how it relates to time and Marcher’s relationship to Bartram. I attempt to flesh out what Helmer’s is getting at and look closely at the scene of re-encounter between Bartram and May.

Helmers talks about “the possibility that knowledge itself can be conceptualized in a different fashion, that we can queer knowledge and point toward the possibilities of un-totalized epistemic systems” (112). He sees this kind of knowledge as a different approach than the “paranoid reading” which formulates knowledge as something that can be uncovered and brought to light, that guards against surprises and seeks a total account of a situation or text. He points to examples of Marcher’s “queer knowledge” which exist before and after he is entwined with Bartram. While Bartram functions to give Marcher a more-or-less heteronormative existence, at least on the surface, she also gives him a different a sense of time, time that is normative and not queer, time that is linear, made up of pasts and futures which “enable the enactment of desire,” a paranoid system (14). Among these examples that Helmers mentions of Marcher’s queer-time which he exists in without Bartram are Marcher’s ability to “take things as they come” before (second paragraph, first chapter) and the return of the sense of surprise as May is dying: “His surprises began here; when once they had begun they multiplied; they came rather with a rush: it was as if, in the oddest way in the world, they had all been kept back, sown in a thick cluster, for the late afternoon of life, the time at which for people in general the unexpected has died out” (chapter three).

I think another, revealing example takes place when Marcher first meets Bartram and he is trying to place her. This exchange comes after Marcher has believed he has recalled the specifics of their encounter successfully, only to be told he is wrong by Bartram. (I used this quote in my previous blogpost but I am going to post it again for easy reference):

“He would have liked to invent something, get her to make-believe with him that some passage of a romantic or critical kind had originally occurred.  He was really almost reaching out in imagination—as against time—for something that would do, and saying to himself that if it didn’t come this sketch of a fresh start would show for quite awkwardly bungled.  They would separate, and now for no second or no third chance.  They would have tried and not succeeded.  Then it was, just at the turn, as he afterwards made it out to himself, that, everything else failing, she herself decided to take up the case and, as it were, save the situation.  He felt as soon as she spoke that she had been consciously keeping back what she said and hoping to get on without it; a scruple in her that immensely touched him when, by the end of three or four minutes more, he was able to measure it.  What she brought out, at any rate, quite cleared the air and supplied the link—the link it was so odd he should frivolously have managed to lose” (first chapter, 5th paragraph).

I think that here we see Marcher engaging with a sense of time, memory, and knowledge, that is queer rather than normative. When Helmer talks about knowledge as something that can be reconceptualized, queered, un-paranoid, and outside of the ignorance/knowledge binary, I think that imagination/creation play a part in this kind of knowledge, knowledge of the past and future that is flexible and creative and subjected to human will (I think this a major theme in the novel). When I first read this story, I immediately forgot about this exchange, and took for granted that Marcher’s original confession of a secret was what bound him to Bartram and that the secret was the most important motivating thing in Marcher’s life. But in rereading this passage, there is no way to understand this and still think of Marcher as essentially engaging in a paranoid, linear, or normative sense of time. He forgot that he told her, and then wishes he could invent a past between them in order to forge a connection. This suggests that Bartram has more power over what the secret is and its importance than Marcher, or fate, or whatever does. There is an odd sense of collusion in the paragraph, “she herself decided to take up the case,” and in that moment Marcher shifts into what Helmer calls “Bartram’s paranoid system” (112). The link is made, and Marcher surrenders himself to Bartram.
What I wonder is why Marcher participates in this surrender? Is it out of loneliness? A need to feel normal, motivated either by closeted queerness or by an original inability to conceptualize knowledge and time in a normative way? And what is Bartram getting out of it? Perhaps Bartram has more practical or romantic concerns (she asks him if he’s ever been in love soon after this exchange). Maybe she is just waiting around for him to marry him (the comment she makes about being his “dull woman” seems like her in a moment of irritation and resignation as she realizes she has wasted her life waiting for this man to marry her).