Part 1: Enjoying the New Normal (1/3)
I’m starting this project from my local library. The Woodstock library opened 11 years ago, at the very outset of this new millennium, and I’m sitting here under a skylight at an oversized table, and listening to the Art of Noise on my iPod touch. When I first sat down I spent time fiddling with the various Apps on it as a stalling tactic because I was reluctant to really face how we go about enjoying ourselves during this second round of what’s been dubbed “the new normal,” and just moments ago, before I clicked open my pen and opened my composition notebook I decided to try out an App called Instagram.
Instagram is a photosharing program that features various digital filters designed to give digital photographs an analog look. The aim is to transform cell phone ephemera into simulated artifacts, but more than giving your digital images the appearance of Polaroid photos, Instagram lightens and blurs each image so that it appears to have been lifted from one of your parents’ old photo albums. Instagram artificially ages the present allowing you to decorate your Facebook page or Twitter stream with screen equivalents of pre-faded jeans.
Before I began writing this I captured the aisle of mystery novels to my left with my iPod and then transformed the bookshelves, yellowed the image of them with an Instagram filter labeled “Sunset,” and then tweeted the picture to my followers with the caption “Woodstock library circa 1982.” I turned around again and captured the frieze above the periodicals section on my iPod. The painting entitled “Scriptorium” was created by Margot Voorhies Thompson. It is a long rectangular painting that spans the east wall above an enclave of computer terminals, graphic novels, and magazines. “Scriptorium” is actually four panels joined together.
The first panel features a rendering of a bull done in the style of a cave painting. The Woodstock library website says that this panel was “inspired by …the Lascaux cave paintings that are believed to date back to 35,000 BC.” My digital photo of the reproduction of the bull’s head was backlit, but using my Instagram filter I corrected this problem. Aging the photograph made it more legible, and now it appears like a document of a grade school field trip.
So that’s what I did before I started in writing and now that I’ve plunged in I want to mention this idea of Frederic Jameson’s, this idea of a nostalgia for the present, or Instant Nostalgia because the Instagram App is an such an obvious instantiation of Jameson’s idea, but it’s not the only instantiation. I want to claim that Instant Nostalgia is ubiquitous. I’ve always had a Nostalgia for the Present, even before the iPhone was invented. In fact, I can’t really remember any other way of being in the world.
For example, in the Spring of 1989 my friend Jerry drove a his brand new maroon Ford Taurus to the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings outside of Durango, Colorado and he brought me and my girlfriend Greta along. We were to help him with his Senior Thesis at the Colorado Springs High School. Greta and I were students at Palmer, a public high school, but Jerry attended a private school on what they called the block plan. His schedule was different than ours.
Jerry took one thing at a time. The block plan allowed him to work deeply, to really embrace each subject, and his final course at CSHS was “Seeing Through a Camera.” All the courses at CSHS had similar titles. That same year Jerry took a course called “Existentialism and Addiction.”
In the late spring of 1989 I was already nostalgic for my youth. Riding in the back seat of Jerry’s Taurus, inhaling the new car smell as I cuddled up to Greta on the bench seat, I stared out automatic windows at the glare of sunlight on I-5. I watched the shoulders along the highway, the tumbleweeds and barbed wire fences, and kept my eye out for the exit.
I was in a memory, stuck in a moment that had already passed even before it had begun. The end of the Reagan era, the death of morning in America, coincided with this feeling that I was already complete. The feeling of being whole, of fully enjoying the moment, created a sense of melancholy. Jerry popped in a cassette tape by the Art of Noise. The song “Close to the Edit” sounded retro even then. I remember remembering being 13 from my 18-year-old perspective and how I pined for simpler days.
What we did when we arrived at the cliff dwellings was situate ourselves into a collaged photograph of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. Jerry took multiple shots of the structure from the bridge that led to dwellings inscribed into the sandstone cliff, and Greta and I wrapped our arms around each other, looked into each other’s eyes, and otherwise posed as lovers in the kivas and under the frames of small doors. In Jerry’s photograph we appeared as ghosts, permeating the whole structure. We reenacted our high school fling for him. We presented romance as a code of glances and bodily position inside a space built by aboriginal Puebloans in 750 AD, a space that was to be rebuilt out of photographs.
What was this Nostalgia that I lived through back in 1989? What is it now?
Experience seems to require an audience. In order to enjoy my last summer road trip before college I had to imagine some version of myself from the future, the middle aged me of today who would be able to look back on the me of the moment, the me in the Ford Taurus. In order to enjoy putting my arm around my girlfriend’s waist as we stood next to an adobe fire pit, I had to imagine Jerry developing the photograph, or Jerry’s classmates at CSHS evaluating our visages, our attractiveness.
My family has just arrived at the library. Noah and his older brother Simon just interrupted me, showing me picture books: one about a delinquent mouse, another about a giraffe who hates his little sister, and a third describing the heroism of Barack Obama. Noah is sitting next to me at the table and I’m going to take a photograph of him with my Instagram App. I’m blurring the image with a filter labeled 1977. Via the magic of Instagram my son and I can be appear to be of the same era.
A PHD student named Nathan Jurgenson wrote his dissertation on the subject of the Instagram App and this idea of a Nostalgia for the Present. He wrote:
“What I want to argue is that the rise of the faux-vintage photo is an attempt to create a sort of ‘nostalgia for the present,’ an attempt to make our photos seem more important, substantial and real. The phrase ‘nostalgia for the present’ is borrowed from the great philosopher of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, who states that ‘we draw back from our immersion in the here and now […] and grasp it as a kind of thing.’”
Nathan submits that these Apps provide us with a way to grasp our lived experience. We seem to perceive the past as more solid than the present precisely because the past has gone.
“We draw back from our immersion in the here and now […] and grasp it as a kind of thing.” — Frederic Jameson
As we approach the problem of how we might or must enjoy our lives in this late Capitalist epoch we might start with this difficulty, this tendency toward a Nostalgia for the Present. Our own time overwhelms us, sends us spinning, and we seek an image, sometimes from the past, to make life manageable, substantial, and real.
P.S. While I enjoy getting your letters, hold off writing back for the moment. There is a second idea, something in enjoyment itself that I want to sketch out before this turns from a monologue into a conversation.
Part 2: Enjoying the New Normal (2/3)
In Slavoj Zizek’s book How to Read Lacan, the Slovenian philosopher uses the example of Dostoevsky’s short story “Bobok” to explain Lacan’s aphorism:
“The true formula of atheism is not God is dead… the true formula of atheism is ‘God is unconscious.’”
Zizek quotes a section from Dostoevsky’s story wherein the main character, upon visiting a funeral, is confronted by a hallucination of zombies. The dead, realizing that they are free from life, rise from their graves and promise to tell the truth:
“I don’t want us to be telling lies. That’s all I care about, for that is one thing that matters. One cannot exist on the surface without lying, for life and lying are synonymous, but here we will amuse ourselves by not lying. Hang it all, the grave has some value after all!”
But, before the corpses reveal their horrible truths, before they divulge their horrible secrets, Dostoevsky’s protagonist sneezes and sends his hallucinated zombies back into the void.
Luckily, Woody Allen’s 1996 comedy Everyone Says I Love You follows up on Dostoevsky’s story. In his movie the dead rise up and then follow through on the promise.
About halfway through the picture the character known as Grandpa unexpectedly dies and the movie’s characters sit around at the funeral home discussing, arguing, and generally trying to wring out some meaning from Grandpa’s death. Goldie Hawn’s character suggests that the take away might be that people should cherish each other and never smoke. Alan Alda’s character objects to this by pointing out that Grandpa had smoked for 70 years and that he’d made it to a ripe old age without exercise and while smoking like a chimney. This inspires another mourner to complain that it’s impossible to figure out what is actually healthy because the experts keep changing their minds — one day coffee will be proclaimed bad for you and the next experts report drinking six cups a day helps stave off colon cancer.
Finally the conversation turns to religious matters. Everyone agrees that there is no God and they collectively worry that without God life itself might not have any meaning. They kick around a couple of different political solutions to the problem. The liberal Alda suggesting that protecting the “dignity of man” is what gives life meaning, while his conservative son says that the fight for a flat tax rate, the right to bear arms, and prayer in schools is what gives life meaning. However, out of respect for Grandpa, father and son agree to put their ideological differences aside. After all, Grandpa was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but an apolitical sort of fellow. He was a simple foot fetish.
And it is at this point that Grandpa’s ghost sits up in the coffin and delivers the secret, the perverse truth, to his family:
“You work and work for years and years, you’re always on the go
You never take a minute off, too busy makin’ dough
Someday, you say, you’ll have your fun, when you’re a millionaire
Imagine all the fun you’ll have in your old rockin’ chair…”
These are the opening lyrics from Carl Sigman’s 1949 pop song “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” and the song contains what Lacan points to as the obscene superego injunction to “Enjoy!”
The message delivered through song is that life is meaningless and our task is to enjoy it anyhow. Toward the end of the musical number the various cadaverous ghosts dance out of the funeral home and onto the streets of New York City. Once these specters are out in the sunlight, once they leave the more theatrical space of the funeral parlor, their revelry seems forced, even a bit pathetic.
What Zizek wrote as a description of Dostoevsky’s story “Bobok” applies equally well to this scene from Allen’s film:
“…their impulse is sustained by a cruel superego imperative: the specters have to do it. If, however, what the undead hide from the narrator is the compulsive nature of their obscene enjoyment, and if we are dealing with a religious fantasy, then there is one more conclusion to be made: that the undead are under the compulsive spell of an evil God.”
If this is true then just what is motivating this cruel and evil God? What is he after? Just what is this injunction to enjoy covering up?
According to Wikipedia, Sigman’s hit “Enjoy Yourself” was also “sung briefly by Anne Dudek in Season 5, Episode 23 of the television series House, ‘Under My Skin’.” In episode 23 Hugh Laurie’s character discovers that his awesome powers of observation, his clinical skills as an MD, were not always enough. Dr. House discovers that while he’d managed to diagnose the illness correctly, his reasons were faulty. The symptoms he’d used as the basis for his diagnosis were not caused by the disease.
“I just got lucky,” Dr. House sputtered. And then the deceased character Anne Dudek took the stage at the front of the bar and sang like Guy Lombardo. She sang “Enjoy Yourself” in order to mock Hugh Laurie rather than to instruct or command.
Daniel, if you hang in here with me I’ll get around to divulging my secret.
Ernest Becker argued in his 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death that our fear of death is innate, and that civilization itself is a heroic project created as an attempt to stave off the full realization of the dreaded fact of our transient nature. Even worse, according to Becker, is this claim: Along with a fear of death there is an attendant innate fear of life. Existence itself, as well as the threat of termination, brings anxiety.
When I last wrote to you before I mentioned that my Instagram App seemed to be a symptom of what Fredric Jameson called a “Nostalgia for the Present.” I believe that this kind of nostalgia is a flawed attempt to ward off the anxiety that animal existence represents for us humans. We are the kinds of beings that require a collective narrative, a way of living, that will shelter us from the conscious realization of our finitude. We also need to be protected from the bewildering strangeness of this improbable world.
Anyhow, this need to create a heroic project, even if it is only a symptom of our anxiety, is what I want to discuss. I’ll send one more letter and then the ball will be firmly in your court.
Part 3: Enjoying the New Normal (3/3)
Today everyone seems to believe that it is impossible to believe anything. We live in a disenchanted world, a world that is nothing but a series of exceptions to nonexistent rules. Everything presents itself a challenge, and this is why today’s popular blogs and magazines tell us “How to Watch Television” or “Why Flirting is Fun.” We just don’t know what’s expected of us anymore. The only basis for our lives, the only meaning we might be able to squeeze out of this world, is our individual and unique desire. Today we’re all existentialists; we’re all of us charged with the task of creating our essences, and under such conditions the most trivial details vex us and require explanation.
In this disenchanted world the minutia of our selves dominates us. The body, the personality, the demographic category become the commanding essences of otherwise pointless lives. Today’s existentialist or nihilist masses cling to an essence based on the self. This means that they cling to all or most of the conventional narratives that define the self.
Consider this: In the long running BBC science fiction program Doctor Who there are rules. Even though the main character, a Time Lord, can visit the past or the future on a whim, he is not allowed to travel in his own personal timeline. As long as he travels outside of his own narrative, the Doctor will avoid paradoxes and strange loops. However, in the final episode for the 10th Doctor the rule is violated.
What occasions the violation? Nothing other than the Doctor’s own anxiety unto death. The 10th Doctor is irradiated in a moment of self-sacrifice and only has a short while, perhaps 20 minutes, to live. As a Time Lord, the Doctor’s death represents a transformation and not a termination. (In a clever procedure new actors can come on board in the lead role as Time Lords regenerate rather than die.) The Doctor’s face will change, his personality will be altered, his body will be transformed, but his adventure, his life, will continue.
Despite the promise of a kind of immortality the Doctor resists. Doctor Who does not go gently into that good night, but races for the Tardis, his time machine, and sets off on one last mission. In the half hour he has left the Doctor cheats and sets off downstream in his own timeline. His goal is to visit all of his previous companions, to stop in on all the people and places that mattered to him, and in the last moments of his life to set things right. He’ll say goodbye to a young woman before he originally met her, and peek in on a wedding that his Time Travelling shenanigans originally delayed. The Doctor makes himself whole before he allows himself to die.
I can tell a similar story from real life. A friend of mine had a lover who died from AIDS back in the early ‘90s. This man lived in great pain, just barely hanging on to life from his hospital bed. On his good days he spoke on the phone and made arrangements. The man had to make sure that his divorced parents saw each other again and that they forgave each other. The dying man held on long enough to see to it that his younger sister was accepted back into the family again after years of being ostracized and estranged.
In the end, this gay man who had prided himself as a person set apart from and against the mentality of the straight world found himself compelled to make the story of his own nuclear family cohere. This man could not die until that project was completed.
Neither Time Lords nor queers are immune from the normative stories of the modern world. There is no identity outside whatever space we find ourselves in. The choice lay before us is a seemingly eternal anxiety on the one hand or a false or hypocritical closure on the other.
“Well I think I may be able to help you. You see … (he goes over to armchair, puts on spectacles, sits, crosses legs and puts finger tips together)… your cat is suffering from what we vets haven’t found a word for. His condition is typified by total physical inertia, absence of interest in its ambiance — what we Vets call environment — failure to respond to the conventional external stimuli — a ball of string, a nice juicy mouse, a bird. To be blunt, your cat is in a rut. It’s the old stockbroker syndrome, the suburban fin de siËcle ennui, angst, weltschmertz, call it what you will…” — Graham Chapman, Monty Python Episode 5: Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the 20th Century.”
In the Monty Python Sketch I quoted above Graham Chapman plays a vet who diagnoses a lethargic pet cat, a Calico possibly, as suffering from angst. He refers the cat’s owners to a company called Confuse-a-Cat Ltd. and assures them that, if their cat can be made to be confused, the cat will be restored to his previous level of vigorous and kittenish health.
Now you may well wonder, “How does one confuse a cat?” It is not as simple as hiding his ball of yarn or replacing his rubber mouse with a tarantula or a bat. What is required, what must be created, in order to break an angsty cat from his or her rut, is the creation of a recursively illusionary space.
The employees of Confuse-a-Cat Ltd. build a stage in the cat’s backyard, and then proceed to put on a bizarre and magical Punch and Judy show without puppets. A giant Penguin, Napoleon, a nude man wrapped in a towel, and a Drill Sergeant all go about popping in and out of existence. And this trick, the illusion of a dislocated space, is enough to shake the cat from his rut.
This is what we need. We don’t need to enjoy ourselves or to make sure that our predetermined projects come off just right, but rather we need to get a sense of how our world is uncanny and unreal. We need to find or manufacture a new kind of space, a new gaze, and a new normative principle that will allow us to live with our anxiety.
As Graham Chapman said, “I hope to God it works.”