The Stage: Turning On, Tuning In, and Acting Out A Modern Existence
Statement of Artistic Purpose
Medium: The ultimate goal for my thesis is to produce a novella-sized piece of creative writing in conjunction with a modestly-sized research paper that will examine the roles of character and narrator, reality as entertainment, and filmic literature in modern society’s all-consuming media machine.
Subject: I intend to explore the subject of family life in modern America, as it might be analyzed in postmodern literature. Technology – and, specifically, its increasing relevance in daily life through media, the Internet, and various methods of communication – will play a large role. The point of collision between these two most crucial elements of the 21st century is what I’ll attempt to capture through my writing. The end result will reveal how increasingly difficult it is to remain a sociable, multi-dimensional human being in an era glutted with devices and concepts that aid us in doing anything but.
In selecting an appropriately charged nexus between the issues I’d like to address, the implications of reality media (I’m hesitant to limit this discussion just to ‘reality television’) trumped all other frontrunners. It’s a law of physics that the very act of observation changes that which is being observed. What happens, then, to an identity when it is continuously subjected to the nameless face of an ever-present spectator? How would any sane individual react to their private life becoming public? Does this shift adversely affect interpersonal relationships? When considering our need for social interaction, is the family unit the only remaining milieu capable of functioning without technology’s aid?
Americans already spend a great deal of time both maintaining and tracking inauthentic digital personas. We are a society governed by a need to interact, but the methods through which we’re choosing to do so are only succeeding in isolating us further. Social networking sites – including Facebook, Twitter, and the Blogosphere – are beginning to compensate for a legitimate, authentic understanding of other human beings. Even our own personal mannerisms, interests, and daily activities – in short, that which makes us each uniquely human – are being converted into lists, links, and streaming news feeds that serve as hypersensitive testament to the knowledge that we’re all on display, all the time. Coupled with our increasing propensity for personalized entertainment – we’ll watch it when we want, where we want, how we want – and the technological means for turning everyday reality into near-instantaneous Youtube sensations, the line between spectator and spectacle is blurring.
Our collective consciousness is now more aware than ever of an all-seeing presence that governs who we know, how we behave, and what we desire. Media is defined by everything, everywhere, all the time: it’s life. The world, William Shakespeare once wrote, is a stage. As of 2009, his metaphor has taken a distressingly literal turn.
Theme: Any exploration of themes will be the direct result of my final written work. Stating them now would only mean I have to cater the characters toward something that may well end up not suiting them. Still, I feel the ‘subject’ portion of this prospectus is pretty clear about the overarching messages I’ll attempt as best I can to explore. Also, my proposed timetable allows for five weeks during winter term to revise my creative work in an attempt to strengthen whatever significant themes have developed during the initial writing process.
Discussion of Style
I’m claiming an affinity for postmodern literature, although as of this early stage in my research I don’t necessarily agree with a handful of its tenets. Postmodernism as a whole tends to revel in a society on the verge of collapse without inserting any serious empathy into the equation. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions, but overall the period’s great works come across as very dark. I’d like to believe that the circular nature of any argument dealing with the inherent ‘hopelessness’ and ‘irony’ of modern existence has the capacity to end up back on top. By ‘back on top,’ I mean that the best qualities of human nature may – at least in some small part – prevail over the tyranny of our reality.
Still, I appreciate the period’s willingness to abandon traditional forms of literature in search of a more honest representation of the chaos that in equal (?) parts fuels and aggravates our current brand of human race. Postmodernism embraces the anything-goes attitude of an age in which art is on the rocks, where both its relevance to and impact on society are being questioned because of the very relationship between humans and technology that both my research and my creative work will attempt to explore. As M.H. Abrams describes it, “many of the works of postmodern literature… so blend literary genres, cultural and stylistic levels, the serious and the playful, that they resist classification according to traditional literary rubrics” (Abrams, 176).
This very approach makes possible the search for meaning in a socially fragmented society, one in which a strict adherence to form and execution would never succeed in capturing more than a shard of truth from any given situation. David Foster Wallace, an author whose work is massively inspiring my own, further clarifies the task of postmodern literature in relation to the society from which it stems: “If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be” (Wallace). While I disagree that Wallace’s work ever really succeeds in fulfilling the latter half of his statement, that’s exactly what my own creative thesis will attempt to explore.
My intended audience is anyone out there who thinks like I do and whom I’d probably like to be good friends with if I ever met in real life. I don’t write to impress, but to exhilarate and intrigue those who mean a great deal to me. In his book On Writing, Steven King says, “someone – I can’t remember who, for the life of me – once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person… I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part”” (King)?
And I agree. I have a close friend in San Francisco to whom everything I write is directed. As such, I don’t believe any more background information, exposure, or training will be necessary to enjoy my creative piece than would be required to engage with me in a mutually satisfying conversation. The accompanying research paper, though, will almost certainly be of more interest to those who are already well versed in the various objectives, questions, and discussions that rise from the academic field of English Literature. A focus on postmodernist writing and theory would also be preferable. The way my defense committee for spring term has come together indicates I’ve more than my fair share of work to complete before I could even hope to engage in competent conversation with the professors I’ve selected. Still, I’m addressing them because I want to push myself to my absolute limits with this project, and that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t intentionally place myself in the middle of an intimidating, intellectually charged group of professional scholars who know much, much more than I do.
My major artistic influences include David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Mark Z. Danielewski, and John Irving. Wallace dominates in every possible regard; he’s outspoken about media and the outlandish prices Americans will pay for entertainment, he understands the intricacies of family life in modern society, and he’s not afraid to completely revolutionize standard literary formatting in favor of approaches to storytelling that fall well beyond orthodox. Infinite Jest is a beast of a novel, allowing Wallace to experiment with contrasting points of view, voices, and perspectives. My own work is indebted to Wallace in that it explores similar themes – albeit from a vantage point of much further down the road that he was so worried about America treading – and takes advantage of the author’s pioneering form of description, in which seemingly insignificant objects in a scene are rendered so vividly and precisely that they suddenly take on a whole new level of significance. Plus, his (intimidatingly) boundless imagination and dry humor are worthy of deification.
Don DeLillo employs a more obvious satiric humor in his writing to achieve a similar effect as Wallace, although his creative world is decidedly less surreal and absurd. I particularly respect his willingness to smash suburban existence headlong into the lurking entities that are modern technology and consumerism, often resulting in chillingly humorous results. He has a knack for writing dialogue that’s both realistic and revealing of character, while at the same time highlights the meandering, ADD-type attention span that’s become a standard element of interaction in America today – the direct result, some would argue, of a frenzied, domineering, and addictive media. White Noise is written entirely from a first person perspective, which suits its purpose. I don’t like to write in the first person, mostly because it becomes too difficult to establish fact from fiction, but that could be the exact reason I might need to approach my creative project in such a manner.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves toys with perspective and narrative distance by combining three disparate stories into a single cohesive document. Accordingly, three different protagonists – one reading what another collected about yet another’s disturbing foray into the unknown – elaborate upon an occurrence that is documented primarily by video surveillance cameras and interview transcripts. In short, the reader receives no direct contact with the novel’s primary narrative pull. In addition, Danielewski obsesses over signifiers and the signified. For my own work, I plan on expanding upon his methods of conveying drama and tension through a camera’s perspective, in addition to admiring his practice of exploring the same events through multiple detached perspectives.
Finally, John Irving functions as a master of storytelling. I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t want to emulate his ability to completely sweep the reader away in stories that are so convincing as to produce a nostalgic, epic reality all their own. Irving is also a master at observing family drama, and his novel The Hotel New Hampshire manages to completely gut a family’s cohesive reasoning that drives every decision they make. He knows his characters to such a degree that their personalities are built entirely in front of the reader, beginning on page one and crisscrossing dizzily until the ultimate reason for their existence is revealed as being only to keep each other feeling sane and loved. This, I believe, is both what makes family unshakable and ruins those who don’t have it. In my own work, I plan on testing the limits of familial bonds in a manner that confirms what I’ve just stated.
In light of these influences, what’s particularly unique about my own work is that I’ll be incorporating a decidedly present-tense set of issues into its plotline. Blogs, the Internet, twittering, Facebook, and Youtube have allowed for an entirely new and inherently fascinating branch of issues to explore. Whereas spectators also functioning as spectacle has been written about before, to my knowledge there is no current creative work available that draws upon 2009 (and, during revisions, 2010, as well) – and its near-instantaneous ability to turn reality into staged drama – to explore the human condition. Although filmed documentaries and a handful of television shows are already mining the implications of such an existence, as far as literature is concerned, it’s uncharted territory.
Over the past century, American society’s methods of consuming art and entertainment have mutated almost beyond recognition. Literature has been largely replaced in favor of a more visual standard for communicating stories and meaning. As such, technology has been manipulated to serve as an ever-present, ever-watchful eye over society, capable of transforming reality into spectacle with a single touch of a finger. At the same time, Americans are multitasking their way through daily life, embracing maximum stimuli to maintain an exhilarating existence.
To mirror these changes, my writing style will consist of a variety of sentence and paragraph structures, employing both long and short, complete and fragmented. The characters will be barraged with external stimuli, and the way they talk, move, and interact will reflect such pressure. Although I plan on utilizing primarily a close third person perspective, certain segments of the story’s second and third acts will (at least as is tentatively scheduled) pull back to capture the goings-on from the perspective of a camera, and then pull even further back to observe the reactions and opinions of spectators on the other side of the lens. The concept of metafiction also plays into modern entertainment to a near-extreme degree, and I don’t think it would be possible to produce a piece of creative writing about a group of people who are literally ensnared in reality media without being slightly self-referential.
These techniques hold the advantage of being able to explore certain elements of postmodern literature and entertainment that will correlate directly with my research paper. I also realize I run the risk of attempting to create a piece of writing based off of something I’m trying to prove from research, an exercise that practically guarantees creative failure. As such, I’m hesitant to expand upon my techniques at this point because pigeonholing myself based on what I plan to explore would prove disheartening. Still, by spring term, I hope to have become adept at characterization through interaction and the ability to assume a distanced, cold voice when relating movement and interpersonal communication from a totally objective perspective. Again, though, this is all subject to revision as my work progresses.
Bibliography – Annotated
Abrams, M.H. "Postmodernism." A Glossary of Literary Terms. Eighth ed. Boston: Thomson Higher Education, 2005. 175-6. Print.
- Abrams provides reliable, well-cited definitions for this prospectus.
Barthes, Roland. "The Reality Effect." The Rustle of Language. Berkeley: California UP, 1986. 141-48. Print.
- Provides compelling insight into what the true perspective of an objective observer would encompass.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Glaser. 1985. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1996. Print.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. New York: Penguin, 1964. Print.
- Borges’ thought-provoking short stories highlight the complexities of paradoxical situations. He addresses both the problems inherent in replicating art through a replication of the reality that created that art, as well as questioning the duty of the narrator’s role in storytelling. What happens when art gains the means through which to turn on itself? A similar question can be posed in regards to media as dictated by technology, and vice versa.
Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. New York: Picador, 2000. Print.
- Chabon’s careful mirroring of his central characters’ lives with those of their masked counterparts establishes a dynamic between reality and fiction that suggests the lines dividing the two may not be so firmly established. Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier are caught up in an act of their own creation, never fully realizing that they’re playing the parts of both the observers and the observed (the creative and the created) until more distanced spectators begin to intrude.
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.
- Danielewski revels in the interpretation of signs, multiple perspectives relating to a common ground situation, the literary interpretation of events that unfold before an objective camera, and an omnipresent spectator instilling daily life with previously nonexistent drama.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
- DeLillo’s focus on familial camaraderie in the face of debilitating modernity – in this case, a deadly cloud of toxic waste – is hugely inspiring. His deadpan humor and scathing observational skills both characterize and pull together the ragtag misfits that constitute the Gladneys, America’s postmodern response to the nuclear family.
Eco, Umberto. Foucault’s Pendulum. New York: Ballantine, 1988. Print.
- Eco’s fantastical account of a fiction that grows into reality further clarifies concepts that relate to the disconcerting immediacy and influence of popular entertainment. Humans are now fully comfortable reacting in reality to impersonal, intangible virtual experiences, calling into question the very nature of creation. In a situation where humans govern a technology that governs humans, what influences what?
"Hyperrealism." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
- Actually provides both the most accessible and satisfying definition of “hyperreality” I could find.
Irving, John. The Hotel New Hampshire. New York: Ballantine, 1981. Print.
- Stepping away from mind-benders for a moment, Irving is a master at painting thoughtfully rendered portraits of family life, complete with all the requisite pain, bliss, and near-unsettling intimacy that goes with the territory. His characters pop from the pages containing them in a manner that few other authors achieve, allowing for a connection with the reader that renders all else insignificant.
King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 216. Print.
- Provided a quote for the ‘Artistic Influences’ section of this prospectus.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Random House, 1962. Print.
- Nabokov’s twisted exploration of perspective is useful in that it demonstrates just how misinterpreted the lives of others can be when they fall into the hands of objective – or, in this case entirely subjective – observers.
Nicol, Bran, ed. Postmodernism and the Contemporary Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2002. Print.
- A jumping-off point for much of my research.
Synecdoche, New York. Charlie, Kaufman. 2008. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. DVD.
- Although not literary, I’m referencing this film for the creative influence it’s had on my approach to the subject matter of reality as art – or vice versa – and its implications for the creator/narrator/voice of a piece of fiction.
The Comeback. HBO. Summer-Fall 2005. Television.
- Although not literary, I’m referencing this series for the creative influence it’s had on my approach to the subject matter of reality media.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.
- Wallace expounds upon both family life and entertainment in a future where the latter is literally so important that certain \strains of it are likened to fatal diseases, and characters become so caught up in what’s either playing on television, tennis courts, or through their own veins that nothing else matters. His opinion of popular media is a morbid one, as well as effectively hilarious.
Wallace, David Foster. Interview by Larry McCaffery. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide. By Stephen Burn. New York: Continuum International, 2003. 18. Print.
- Provided a quote for the ‘Discussion of Style’ section of this prospectus, as well as insight into the creative intentions of Wallace as an author.
We Live in Public. Ondi Timoner. Interloper Films, 2009. Film.
- I have not yet viewed this documentary, but research indicates it examines many of the issues regarding technology intruding upon human existence that my work will explore.
Fall 2009, weeks 6 – 10: Research academic portion of thesis.
Winter break: Write first draft of creative work.
Winter 2010, weeks 1 – 5: Revise creative work, strengthen themes.
Winter 2010, weeks 6 – 10: Put aside work, produce research paper.
Spring 2010, weeks 1-3: Produce final polished draft of both work and paper.
Spring 2010: Defend thesis in late April or early May.
Hyperreality: “The inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from fantasy, especially in technologically advanced postmodern cultures. Hyperreality is a means to characterize the way consciousness defines what is actually “real” in a world where a multitude of media can radically shape and filter the original event or experience being depicted” (Hyperrealism).
Metafiction: “…An overall term for the growing class of novels which depart from realism and forground the roles of the author in inventing the fiction and of the reader in receiving the fiction” (Abrams, 203).
Point of View: “Signifies the way a story gets told – the mode (or modes) established by an author by means of which the reader is presented with the characters, dialogue, actions, setting, and events which constitute the narrative in a work of fiction” (Abrams, 240).
Postmodernism: “A term applied to the literature and arts produced after World War II. Postmodernism involves… diverse attempts to break away from modernist forms which had, inevitably, become in their turn conventional, as well as to overthrow the elitism of modernist “high art” by recourse for models to the “mass culture” in film, television, newspaper cartoons, and popular music” (Abrams, 176).