This entry was originally posted on the now-deceased Literature’s Next Frontier on February 8th.
As the suspense of the U.S. presidential primaries continues on unbroken, I thought I’d just drop in to remind everyone that They are watching on in amusement as we vote on which of Their puppets They will string into the White House next.
Yes, I have been reading Pynchon. And no, I’m not serious, but the problem of co-opted resistance is one that has been bothering me lately. I am currently writing a thesis about the literature of the carnival, a time in which the norms and boundaries of society are temporarily removed in favor of universal hedonism, and I can’t decide what to think – is this really a form of transgression, or does it only reinforce the social norms that return once everyone goes back to work?
Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote one of the classic studies of carnival (or at least of Rabelais, whose work was a large part of its culture in France), thinks that carnival cannot be co-opted. Laughter, he says, will always remain a free weapon in the hands of the people. But I can’t see how laugh tracks are in any way in the people’s hands. Theodore Adorno, to pick on a particularly sad curmudgeon, argues that television comedy makes light of social inequalities to distract from their seriousness, and to keep people from feeling outrage where they rightly should. Couldn’t the carnival be seen in the same way? As a way of quelling all the people’s rebellious and transgressive urges at once in, say, one week of utter revelry, so that the rest of the year they will be docile?
It has been. The debate has been swinging in that direction since the 90s or so. But it hasn’t exactly ended. The original arguments for carnival’s power got sort of abstract after Bakhtin – Julia Kristeva writes that carnival forms are different from modern forms like television because in their language they do not allow for binary distinctions, instead letting opposites coexist. There is truth to this – the forms of parody that occurred in medieval carnival were not unilaterally negative as modern forms often are, but instead tore down and elevated at once, like insults exchanged jokingly between friends – but the way that sort of argument goes is too structuralist for the present taste. Mine too, but I still tend to agree with the conclusion even if I don’t like the argument. True dissent is possible, or at least I’d like to think so so much that I’m going to think so regardless.
But even if it’s possible, it might not happen much anymore. Kristeva agrees with Adorno that the supposed boundary-breaking we see in modern forms of humor (like, say, Family Guy) is evidence of nothing but a “law anticipating its own transgression;” in such cases, the transgression comes from the same system that makes the laws. If we accept that there is one, unified “system,” then this is certainly true. There’s where Pynchon comes in. The whole basis of his novels is the belief that everything is controlled by the same, invisible Force – both the squares and the rebels, both the Allies and the Axis. If we accept this, there can be no real escape because all the means of escape that are open to you have been specially designed to lead you right back into Their clutches. Scary.
But Pynchon writes satire. As much as I think Pynchon’s novels reflect on his times, I don’t take all the elaborate paranoid systems he constructs as anything more than grotesque absurdities. He’s not advocating that sort of thought – he’s making fun of it. I imagine he’s a bit of a paranoid himself, but I’m sure he’s painfully aware that it’s a delusion. What he’s saying with all the paranoia has more to do with our unfulfilled need for structure than with the actual order of our society. It’s more about the lack of structure in our world than anything. Of course I don’t think there’s a Them.
Even so, dissent is often corralled into a fenced-off place by one institution or another, and that must weaken its power to some extent. The obvious example is those “free-speech zones” from a few years back, but you can also think of television shows like South Park that break norms just to shock people – ultimately, this sort of comedy does nothing but underscore the norms that it breaks.
The solution, of course, is to avoid defining your new position in terms of the thing you’re trying to escape. This means that art must become ambivalent again. Art that leaves some of the thinking up to the reader can’t be filed away so easily as art that really, overtly attempts to tear things down – it’s better to let dissent flow than to crystallize it. And as for revelry, I’m all for it, but you shouldn’t just drink to forget.