Last October, I began my first blog post with the qualifier “because I am who I am”, and I feel this sets the tone for the journey that followed. I came into my MA with a fair idea of where I wanted to go with my thesis already set out before me, so, rather than simply barrell blindly into research on that topic, I wanted this blog to have more of an “exploratory” agenda. I thought of this process as if embarking on a Dantean pilgrimage, stepping off in the opposite direction of my destination, with faith that I would eventually arrive back there, transformed. This circular schema of my academic journey is one I would return to throughout, first in my description of a passage from McCarthy:
As they dance their courtship crabwise in the sucking mud, each unspools his fate to an entwining
and later again in my conference presentation and thesis title, each small reference a rosary to guide my hand back towards its goal. This framework of departure and return licensed my research here to cast off into unknown waters, without fear of losing myself in the abyss.
My first step on this journey was an interrogation of punk ideology through the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. This post, “Anarchy and the Culture Industry“, established a methodology that would prove invaluable – by taking an established academic topic (critical theory) and engaging with it through something peripheral (punk), I found a way to both legitimise the outside subject and unsettle the established one. This method also functions on a personal level, by taking something familiar to me and looking at it from a foreign perspective, I push my critical thoughts in unexpected directions, yet by that same process I am also attempting to make the foreign perspective something more of my own. The result in this case was a kind of rhetorical provocation against the comfortable inertia of my own thinking:
whether you interpret the style of late 70s UK punk exemplified by the Sex Pistols as an avant-garde series of elaborate situationist pranks, or the nihilistic roar of a young working class being starved by a crumbling economy, any contention that this was a serious challenge to the capitalist establishment is undercut by the groups’ reliance on and operation within the mainstream record industry. Likewise, the record industry’s happiness to co-opt rebellion against itself and exploit punk’s theatrics for profit demonstrates capital’s readiness to wear the mask of revolution, while in truth shoring up its own authority. Just what does the “anarchy” of the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” signify? Surely it is more bauble than gunpowder plot. Punk, at least in this early form, is a carnivalesque reflection of mainstream culture that, because it can only exist with the consent of that order (using its capital to produce and promote records and tours), cannot affect structural or sustainable change against it. Each would-be revolutionary is in fact a double agent against their own will, as détournement inevitably cedes to recuperation.
However, while the post served as an effective way in to learning about critical theory for me, looking back on it now the analysis seems shallow, focusing on the surface of the quotations from Benjamin and Adorno, rather than the depth of thought each critic opens up with their theory. Appropriately, this difference between surface and structural interpretation was something I would explore I greater detail in my next entry:
while this type of evocation certainly enriches the mental imagery involved in our reading of the novel, by only looking at aesthetic similarities between the works we fail to explore what affinity there might be between both the subject matter rendered by the artists and the techniques involved in doing so.
The idea for “Plain Killing: Scenes of Slaughter in the Work of Goya and McCarthy” was one I had been contemplating for a while. Because of the preponderance of writing on McCarthy, I initially expected the research for this post to be much lighter than it turned out to be; I thought someone surely would have beat me to the punch. Instead, I again found myself tasked with putting together a comparative study which bridged the gap between two disparate bodies of criticism, with some grounding in one side of the equation (McCarthy/literature/American history), but little to none on the other (Goya/fine art/Spanish history). Despite (or perhaps because of) this steeper difficulty curve, I think I fared much better in reconciling these disparate strands of thought than in my previous attempt:
Goya’s plate 16, “They make use of them”, shows a group of slain soldiers being stripped nude by what could be either their enemies or compatriots, and this stripping away of political difference, an exposure of the workings of war on the undifferentiated individual, becomes a motif in Blood Meridian. In the section titled “A Burial”, Glanton’s gang disguise their murder of Mexican soldiers: “the bodies of the dead were stripped and their uniforms and weapons burned along with the saddles and other gear and the Americans dug a pit in the road and buried them in a common grave, the naked bodies with their wounds like the victims of surgical experimentation lying in the pit gasping sightlessly at the desert sky as the dirt was pushed over them” (194). The ”Attacked by Comanches” scene further draws this association between stripping of uniform and dismemberment of the human form, as the victorious Indians set about “stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals…” (56). Again, in the “Slain Argonauts” section, this neutering of stripped corpses occurs – pilgrims are found “nameless among the stones with their terrible wounds, the viscera spilled from their sides and the naked torsos bristling with arrowshafts. Some by their beards were men but yet wore strange menstrual wounds between their legs and no man’s parts for these had been cut away and hung dark and strange from out of their grinning mouths” (161). Goya parallels McCarthy’s methodology in plate 33, “What more can be done?”, depicting soldiers hacking at the genitals of a stripped corpse with a sabre, and this shared process of neutering the dead might be read as a further deindividualization of the victims of this violence: just as the stripping of uniform eliminates distinctions between sides in the conflict, and the lines between civilian and soldier, the removal of sex organs calls into question the boundaries of violence between sexes, prefiguring the extensive accounts of soldiers’ sexual violence against women in both Disasters and Blood Meridian (see plates 9, 10, 11, 13 & 19).
I feel that this success was at least in part due to the fact that, by being clearly aware of the limits of my approach from the outset, I was paradoxically also able to begin exploring areas outside of my purview:
Since we have once again fallen into the trap of evocation, rather than interpretation, we might as well conclude by adding the work of a third artist to our comparison. John Gast’s American Progress is perhaps the ultimate idealisation of 19th century America’s faith in manifest destiny. Here, as Colombia leads the way across the plains, American expansionism is given divine writ, and the settlers moving westward bring with them the illuminating light of progress to the darkened savages on the frontier. […] Rather than Gast’s idyllic Americana, what McCarthy’s passage evokes much more strongly is Goya’s The Colossus – a grim scene of war and chaos, as the people below on the plain are abandoned by the ancient giant. In concert, these three scenes reveal McCarthy’s depiction of America as a godless land consecrated in blood, and the rhetoric of progress espoused by the Judge as nothing more than the seductive call of base and brutal instinct. Gwyn A. Williams said of Goya’s Disasters “it could be anywhere. It could be My Lai” (1) – perhaps it could be America too.
Of course, each success is the measure of another failure, as my next entry illustrates. “A Pleasant Way” was conceived from the outset as a stopgap, and this shows through in its one-dimensionality and lack of any real connection to my larger project or methodology:
Note: This month I’m juggling travel and assignments, so this blog might be looking a little neglected. To make up for it, here’s a short piece I wrote on Wilde’s prose-poem “The Doer of Good”. I’ll be back in the New Year with lots of great things lined up, so happy holidays everyone! -Cian
It’s by no means a bad piece of writing, unintentionally and ironically full of turns of phrase that seem now subtly suggestive of its alien status in the wider project of this blog:
Instead, through “the art of elegant inversion” (Inventing Ireland 35), damnation for Wilde consists of a society which can only exist through a perpetual denial of its natural selfhood, where, like the Christ of “The Doer of Good”, “the only real fool is the conventionally ‘sincere’ man who fails to see that he, too, is wearing a mask, the mask of sincerity” (Inventing Ireland 38).
Yet the slightness of this piece is only compounded by the long stretch of time before my next entry, and I feel this merits some explanation here. Around this time I started research on a piece that was to develop my critique of commodity culture through a reading of the anthropocentric narrative techniques of nature documentaries, particularly the then recently released Planet Earth II. My research tossed me deep into the world of ecocriticism, and intersected with a wide range of continental philosophers such as Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, writers like John Berger, and filmmakers including Jean Painlevé, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris. Unfortunately, my methods were too ill-defined and my means too meagre; the piece eventually collapsed under its own weight. Whatever map of motion I had set out for myself at the beginning of this enterprise had now coiled its labyrinthine corridors around me. While colliding head-on with the limits of my research method was not without educational merit, the overall effect of the experience at this time was hugely dispiriting. This, coupled with personal events, and compounded by the November 8th crescendo and ensuing fallout of America’s political circus, left me with deep doubts about my ability as a writer to say something meaningful about the world around me.
I’ve been finding it hard to write lately. Writing has never come easy to me – the things I have to say which are worth saying come slowly, and with difficulty, if at all. I’ve spent the last few weeks researching a piece on anthropocentric narratives in nature documentaries, but given the chaos unfolding in the wider world at the moment, I’ve had a hard time pushing myself to finish it. As I watch the systematic destruction of the values I hold dear from afar, a deep hush descends, blanketing all. How can I justify holding forth on literature when fascism, white-supremacism, and mob rule are in ascendancy? And yet I know as well as anyone, silence is complicity. So I must act, act now and not later. I’ve always thought I believed deeply in the power of literature, and yet, submerged in the maelstrom of the now, I can feel those foundations start to quiver. Make no mistake, we are already at war, and if we in academia (and especially those of us in the humanities) do not now learn to use the critical tools at our disposal to defend ourselves and those around us, our side is already forfeit.
As I note above, in times of crisis we are compelled to act. Yet, to do so, we must uneasily tread the line between the purposeful and performative senses of that word. Looking back on this piece now, I wonder how well I navigated that line. Did I act, or merely seem to? Is there always a discernable difference between the two? Either way, “Towards an Academic Imperative” served as a turning point for me, not back inwards, towards the beginning of our journey, as I had expected, but an inflection of our circular path, outwards once again into the unknown.
What fundamentally changed for me in writing this piece was the notion that I should account for every subject position except my own. It can be easy to be overcome by the heteroglossia of academic discourse, even to feel a giddy rush at the freedom of losing your voice within that cacophony. But here I found the need to return to the limits of my body and my experience, if only to feel the ground beneath my feet once more.
I feel like both of my next two posts show evidence of this turn. “Editor Jones” recounts my experience of the Wikipedia Editathon, which allowed me to peek beneath the heterodiegetic veneer of Wikipedia, and concretely add something of my own to the discourse. My review of Sean Travers IAAS presentation allowed me to achieve a similar task, though this time within a specific and material academic community, rather than an anonymised virtual one.
I should note that, while not my first academic conference, the IAAS conference last year was an overwhelming experience for me, and I really felt quite out of my depth when listening to the high quality of academic research presented. This feeling was not unrelated to the wider sense of academic isolation I was experiencing at the time I mentioned above, but I think part of this was also due the conference being an interdisciplinary event, and thus not knowing much of anything about many of the papers presented. In that context, Travers’ paper was a lifeline for me – if there’s two things I happen to know much more than I should about, it’s David Lynch and video games. By returning to her paper and adding my own research to it, I was able to rid myself of some l’esprit de l’escalier that had lingered after the conference. In fact, the points I make here are really just clarifications of points I had somewhat muddledly made to Sean at the conference.
A game very close to my own heart which deals with trauma is Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero. KRZ is an episodic, narrative-led point and click adventure game which draws heavily from Southern Gothic and Magic Realist fiction, as well as experimental theatre and film techniques. It certainly owes more than a passing debt to Twin Peaks in its realisation of abstract, surreal universes located deep in the American woodlands, and someone like FWWM‘s Carl Rodd would fit in well with KRZ’s catalogue of the disenfranchised. However, all this is just (admittedly gorgeous) set dressing for the issue at the heart of KRZ: trauma. This trauma takes a multitude of forms, but despite the abstract setting (or perhaps because of it), the problems of the characters always feel incredibly grounded in materiality. They deal with alcoholism, unemployment, debt, lack of health insurance, disruption of community, and loss of family. The player’s only way to respond to these kinds of losses is to talk to other characters and engage in social bonding. While you are presented with dialogue options, instead of allowing you to assert yourself in terms of moral superiority, all you can do is choose how to orientate yourself to the grief which imposes itself so insistently. Do you wallow in self pity? Or crack a joke? Or share a memory from your past that’s painful, in the hope that it might lighten the load of someone else. As Cara Ellison points out, KRZ is a game where the unsteady steady the unsteady. Much like Trout Creek, the Zero is no place for heroism, the problems here are ingrained too deeply, too systemic. Instead, as Ellison suggests, “it asks no questions, and gives no answers. The problems are part of the landscape of being. They are part of the experience of play. You can only go through them, you cannot run away from them. You can merely choose what you say in response”.
Again, by returning to my own personal experience, I felt able to enunciate a unique point of view, and channel the passion I have for projects like Twin Peaks and Kentucky Route Zero into a more nuanced critical position. This was fortuitous timing, as the next task on our academic calendar was the Textualities conference, and involved finally presenting our own research to a wider audience. Something I didn’t mention in my reflective post on the conference was that Sean was kind enough to attend my presentation, and during a break in the proceedings, just before I had to run off and live blog the next panel, she thanked me for writing about her research. It meant the world to me.
While I sincerely enjoyed the day of the conference, having to sit down and write about it afterwards seemed to me a needlessly laborious task. With that in mind, I’ll admit to a certain spurious exaggeration in the search for profundity I embark on in my reflection as a corrective to what I felt at the time to be the inanity of the task assigned. This resulted in a kind of self-parodic circumlocution:
For just a moment we were no longer mere windstrewn motes of the academy, but, instead, an assemblage giving voice to a sonorous heteroglossia, with a clear view of the immanence driving ourselves into becoming.
However, I must also admit that obscuring my opinions behind this mask of irony paradoxically allowed me to be more open and honest about the very real pride for and connection to my classmates I felt on that day than I might have otherwise, as well as the innocent exhilaration I felt at presenting my work to a crowd.
The cold mathematical logistics of the thing hack away at the perhaps and maybes of your nascent thoughts until all ephemerality is shorn. What’s left is a lustrous core, nude and shimmering in the fading evening light.
Perhaps my earlier comments about sincerity in Wilde’s poem were not so aberrant after all. Of course, I can’t honestly dismiss this tendency of mine toward periphrasis as a kind of put-on, and I fear some of this prolixity may have overflowed into my review of David Pattie’s seminar.
Pattie introduced what he calls the “negative immanence” of Beckett’s theatre, based on Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, which posits one nature for all bodies and individuals, and nature as an infinite number of variations of these bodies. This concept of negative immanence is slightly opaque in its construction, so I’d like to expand on it. Generally, immanence is defined, if not strictly in opposition to, at least in relation to transcendence. If a system based on transcendence is structured by that which is outside of it, then one on based on immanence is structured by the internal relationship of parts. In Spinoza, this takes the form of monism, which denies any distinction between the divine and material worlds. We can take this concept and apply it to a moment in Beckett’s theatre such as the end of Endgame – here we would explain Clov’s inability to leave as a denial of the possibility of transcendence; his world consists purely of the social relationship he has with Hamm. He cannot leave, because there is no outside, no other which would delimit the space they inhabit. There is no there, only here.
I am, however, still very taken with the gifs I made for the post.
My final post, and one of the pieces I’m most proud of, is my literature review. I’m dealing with a significant number of texts for my thesis, and in writing the review I had my doubts as to my ability to coalesce all of these into something that would be understandable to not only myself, but to others too.
This is obviously quite a large range of texts, and I’m well aware that this approach runs the risk of my study becoming overwhelmed with secondary sources, rather than my own original reading of the primary texts. However, I’ve purposely attempted to keep the breadth of my study quite wide at this early stage of research, and, accordingly, the range of texts above will shrink as my study progresses and I hone in on specific aspects of the texts, and also as I begin to select certain paradigmatic or illuminating stories of O’Connor’s for discussion, while excluding others. As O’Connor herself put it, “I suppose you come to know yourself as much by what you throw away as what you keep and at times it is appalling” (195). As the range of texts narrows, I hope that the framework of the approach outlined above will remain flexible enough to accommodate my needs. In doing so, I aim to build meaningfully on the body of O’Connor scholarship that has come before me, while also developing my own critical skills.
Clearly, I shouldn’t have worried, because, if I’ve learned anything from this endeavour, it’s that the process of writing itself gives things a reality of their own. My meandering course through this few months of writing has, as promised, delivered me back to my point of origin, though not necessarily by the route I expected. Yet I’m glad for the wandering, and glad too for this moment’s rest before the next off.
O’Connor, Cian. “Anarchy and the Culture Industry”. Ciango, WordPress, 31/10/16. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2016/10/31/anarchy-and-the-culture-industry/
– “Plain Killing: Scenes of Slaughter in the Work of Goya and McCarthy”. Ciango, WordPress, 30/11/16. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/plain-killing-scenes-of-slaughter-in-the-work-of-goya-and-mccarthy/
– “A Pleasant Way: On Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Doer of Good'”. Ciango, WordPress, 23/12/16. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/a-pleasant-way-on-wildes-the-doer-of-good/
– “Towards an Academic Imperative”. Ciango, WordPress, 1/2/17. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2017/02/01/towards-an-academic-imperative/
– “Editor Jones: UCC Wikipedia Editathon 2017”. Ciango, WordPress, 12/2/17. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2017/02/12/editor-jones-ucc-wikipedia-editathon-2017/
– “Sean Travers: ‘Who is the villain?; Perpetrator trauma and the role of the reader in American fiction'”. Ciango, WordPress, 1/3/17. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/sean-travers-who-is-the-villain-perpetratortrauma-andtherole-of-the-reader-in-american-fiction/
– “Textualities 17 Live Blog: Panel 4”. Ciango, WordPress, 10/3/17. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/textualities-17-live-blog-panel-4/
– “Textualities ’17 Conference Reflections. Ciango, WordPress, 23/3/17. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/textualities-17-conference-reflections/
– “David Pattie : ‘”At me too someone is looking”; Hidden Coercion in Beckett’s Theatre’. Ciango, WordPress, 26/3/17. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/david-pattie-at-me-too-someone-is-looking-hidden-coercion-in-becketts-theatre/
– “Literature Review”. Ciango, WordPress, 27/3/17. https://ciango.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/literature-review/