5.01.2011

It's All in the How

My friends I watched this as comedy. Even the cover is hilarious. The point being: a thing flourishes in its use, not its self-declaration.


In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that the notion that power works top down — the message is declared and people succumb — is simply wrong. He refocuses our attention on the singular moment of consumption — the housewife perusing the shelves for wares, the pedestrian walking the streets, the Native Americans praying. De Certeau argues that as individuals, we make use of the so-called system in creative ways, in ways that often undermine the claims of power, in ways that further our own being rather than the presumed agenda of power.

He gives the example of Native Americans under Spanish rule, forced to pray in a Christian manner. From the outside, it looks like the Natives have been subdued, converted, that they've seen the light. On the inside, however, they continue to prey to their own idols using the figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

De Certeau's point is that power can declare any message it wants, disseminate its mandates through the media. But at the point of consumption, we do all kinds of things with these messages.

When I was in college, my friends and I would pick a movie and decide it was a comedy. The one I remember the clearest is "Clan of the Cave Bear." Holy shit! For the first 3o minutes of the movie, we laughed uncontrollably hard — it was, by far, the funniest film ever made. Of course, it did not see itself as a comedy. But, in our use of it, we turned it into one.

Why only the first 30 minutes? Because sustaining that diligence is fucking exhausting. The film just keeps coming in its inane seriousness and to continue to metabolize it as comedy wears the body down. Plus, the pot wears off. (Drugs are a very good, very important way of shedding habit to see things anew, to put them to new use. This is one reason for the so-called war on drugs — which shouldn't be called a war because wars end (Carver, "The Wire").)

This is the way we watch television all the time — we watch it ironically or as a kind of pornography or or or or.... Just because someone watches this or that says nothing about that person. What matters is how they watch it.

I was out with a friend last — smart, cool, all good things — who informed me that she hates the word "joy." It's too self-help, she said. Me, I don't hate any word; I love them all — even words I don't enjoy saying. What interests me is the way a word is used. Sure, shmucks use all kinds of words badly — so badly it's enough to make us hate them. But that's not fair to the word. The word is a person like anyone else. It can do all kinds of things — if you know what you're doing.

Don't blame the word. Blame the speaker. When you see a word being misused, rather than avoid it, you should swoop it up and save it, use it in a more interesting, more engaging, fresh manner.

After all, what is more glorious than a word or phrase, long hackneyed to death, suddenly sprung to life?

8 comments:

drwatson said...

If you watch Road House and pretend David Lynch directed it - it immediately becomes a surrealistic masterpiece.

Every scene has something impossible in it. Plus you have a world-renowned bar bouncer - who has a better - Sam Elliot - that is a philosophy major, who carries around his medical records and says things like "pain don't hurt."

Oh and Swayze rips a man's throat out. It's pretty genius.

Linz said...

It was a huge bummer for me when I learned (in the female sexuality de-cal at Berkeley) that the word cunt had been "reclaimed." There's probably nothing more violent you can do to a dirty word than reclaim it. It was the opposite of what you did with "Clan of the Cave Bear": they took something fun and turned it into something serious.

There's something delightfully smug about the example of Native Americans praying to their own idols. The Berkeley feminists and their ilk are also trying to undermine the agenda of power, but they do it resentfully and whiny. It's the opposite of sexy.

drwatson said...

I can't speak about Berkeley feminists - as I don't know what they are like. But I often find it ironic that White-Marxist Elitist is a category of white people, found so often around college campuses.

I have often thought that someone could make a great nature-style documentary about white people shopping at whole foods stores. (And I'm sort of one of these people)

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dr: It is a great exercise to mix and match authors with texts. Borges talks about this in "Pierre Menard."

@ Linz: Academics want so badly to control how words are used. The academy is where words go to die the most tortured death imaginable. And, as a rule, academics are bereft of the erotic — they'll talk about it in the most sterile terms but actually be sexy? That is anathema to everything they are.

roca de carioca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey, Roca: Why'd you remove your comment? It was the most eloquent, smart thing I've read in ages.

roca de carioca said...

I had some troubles with the posting. Here it is again:

As I read your blog, I keep thinking about this program whose viewing, I think, is conceptually relevant to parts of your posts which address different treatments of words. This program on the interwebs takes a word (a name, actually) and, from the projected depths of the letters’ impressions, rotates the word 180 degrees and creates another word (it’s at this link here, hope you don't mind if i post it -http://en.genzu.net/sokumen/).

The graphic turns the impressions of the word, seeing them as if the ink on the paper weren’t just flat units but stamped layers that mix with a piece of paper in the same sort of way that a painter’s paint enfleshes with a canvas. While the program can sometimes creatively interlace the letters’ impressions and demonstrate their three-dimensionality, because it can’t pair the input and output intelligently, it opens a limited vision of words’ potential dimensions. Such a limited vision is what is utilized by a speaker who fails to effectively engage a word—the speech act sputters like a bunk firecracker.

Yet the graphic can be a springboard into thinking about words differently; through this vision, we can see how words create different spaces and different modes and moods of sphering, of cubing, of shaping. We see how they can make sense, from a different perspective than what we’re used to. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this type of fresh perspective is where I think you’re coming from when you say, “The word is a person like anyone else.” Words deployed properly demonstrate themselves as can an oak whose gnarly posture intrigues the eye to trace its bark.

As you say, words are lively and when used appropriately they become things with depth and palpability by virtue of how their reader sees or looks or examines them. Words can affectively echo the clacking of a typewriter, now clicking of keys. Reading your blog with this program in mind reminds me how it feels to carve a word into a thin slab of glued tree pulp, leaving a paper tattoo or two.

roca de carioca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.