Sunday, August 9, 2009

from Dead Carnival: The Disjunctions and Conjunctions of the Fragments and Unities

Kenny Goldsmith’s typically provocative but also typically incorrect claim recently that “Disjunction is Dead,” and the intriguing follow up post and discussion on Nada Gordon’s blog, reminded me of the following section from my novel Dead Carnival.

The issue I take up in it has to do with the problems of fragmentation and unity both in fiction and in philosophy, of focus and distraction, argument and digression. But I think they resonate pretty closely with dynamics of disjunction and conjunction in poetry, synthesis and the rejected, and also even with recent discussions around the notion of the hybrid as something that either disrupts genres and traditions or unifies them. It also highlights the problem of what used to be called, back in the Golden Days of Theory, a binary opposition.

This section of the novel was probably written 10 or 15 years ago. It’s one of the many essay moments in a novel that includes essays, plays, poems, and multiple story lines. A hybrid monstrosity that connects and disconnects various genres (the essay here is a fairly good description of some aspects of the novel). I might now change one or two of the ways that I said things in the section (my conventional and questionable use of the metaphor of blindness now bugs me), but its ideas still ring true to me.

What does it mean to be distracted? What does it mean to digress?

Looking around, it's hard not to conclude that distraction is a bad thing. Perhaps more than ever, the supposedly civilized human mind exists in a constant state of distraction. It's practically impossible to focus on anything. At any given moment, there's something else waiting to grab your attention. It's not just a matter of entertainment, a question of what to do with free time, whether to watch movies, exercise, go out for dinner or drinks, take drugs, develop a hobby. It's that focus has become increasingly impossible even in the work one wants to do. We never seem allowed more than a little time to concentrate on anything. Now that jobs have become so unstable, how much more time do people spend thinking about what their next job will be? It's hard to focus today on the job you were hired for when you know you may need another tomorrow. Besides, it's hard to focus on things one needs to do on a job when those things always change too; here's the new computer system, the new rules and regulations, the new competition. And maybe we shouldn't even speak about those whose world is not so simply divided into jobs and entertainment. What can we say about those who think of their real work as something not a job, that can't be defined by wages and possibility for advancement, but by the chance for creation? What can we say about those who see entertainment, however entertaining at times, as simply a displacement of a more significant human value, which is play? How does one play anymore, if one means by play the chance to participate in games that might change who you and others are, whereas entertainment is simply the things you do in the time you have off from the work you don't want to do? How easy it is to be distracted from that creative work that is perhaps the same as creative play. You want to create, but your bank book is empty, or you have to go to dinner with someone you don't like. So creation will have to wait.

Looking around, it's hard not to conclude that distraction is a good thing. Perhaps more than ever, the human mind is constantly in a state of tunnel vision. I must organize my present, future, past. I must have goals I can clearly express to others. Anything that doesn’t fit the pattern, that can't be immediately centered around the goal at hand, must be rejected, denied, eliminated. If the need to function increasingly takes up all human time, then anything that lies outside that functionality gets perceived as being in the way. In such a situation, distraction becomes a necessary reminder that human life is about more than functioning. Distraction points out how much lies beyond the state of tunnel vision. Distraction reminds us that the things we're trying to forget might be the most interesting of all, it reminds us that some things can never be organized or unified in the name of the goal. Here I was trying to develop a new credit card, but somehow I find myself listening to music. Distraction reminds us that the urge to unify, to control the world in the name of what we intend, can never be the whole story, that it’s crucial to have one's mind wander, to recognize there are things one does not know, to understand that perhaps we are most alive when we are discovering, not when we are controlling.

Some thinkers will have it that all these distractions are leading to a world where people never take any significant action, because they are buffeted relentlessly by this and that. To these thinkers, human beings are becoming dangerously fragmented. These thinkers want a way to avoid fragmentation, so people can be returned to feelings of unity.

To other thinkers, the attempt to impose unity, to see everything in terms of the tunnel vision of the goal, has made the world unlivable. To these people, fragmentation is the savior of a world that has become too controlled. They want fragmentation to break down the illusion of unity.

It's hard not to see that both types of thinkers have a point. But I can't help believing that both of them also miss the point. Because the question seems like it can't be whether one is pro-unity or pro-fragment. Rather, the question seems when does unity help us, when does fragmentation help us? And the question seems also, isn't it true we will always have unity sometimes when it doesn't help, always have fragmentation sometimes when it doesn't help?

One can hardly be in favor of a world, for instance, in which someone's mind is bouncing from one thing to another so fast that they can't think, work, love, even tie their shoes. Similarly, one doesn't want to live in a world where people are so obsessed with their goals that they kill everything that doesn't fit the picture.

Perhaps we've all known people who digress because they have no idea what they're saying. Such people don't even know they don't know what they're saying; people who knew they didn't know what they were saying might be interesting to hear, because one could hear them discover what they're saying. But people who don't know what they're saying, and don't know they don't know it, are at best boring, and at worst deadly.

But perhaps we've also known people who seem so certain about what they're saying that they're not believable for an instant. Such people don't digress; they know, apparently, everything already, and all that remains is to tell us about it. But their certainty makes them blind, for whenever they come across something that doesn't fit with what they're sure they know, they can't see it. People who think they know everything, and who ignore anything that differs from what they know, are at best boring, and at worst deadly.

People who don't know they don't know what they're saying, and people who think they know everything they're saying, turn out often to be the same people.

What most interests me, here, is the idea of conscious digression. Conscious digression prevents any simple unity between things. It doesn't try to make the world add up to a new tunnel vision. But it is equally not the chaotic words of people who can’t help anyone because they're so busy being distracted they don't even know when someone is listening. Conscious digression suggests there are times when certain things might almost be unified, that, if no exact unity exists, similarities do, and those similarities matter. But it also suggests that one must not make too much of similarity; one must remember to digress precisely at that moment when it would be a mistake to tie up all loose ends.

A narrative of conscious digression would be one in which there is not one story but many, but those stories would be related. But it would also be a narrative in which the moment one tried to say it all added up, that everything was similarly headed in the same direction, one would find that the pieces didn’t fit, that some things could not be made to belong. Even when things did belong, they would not belong in order to tell one story with one meaning, but to say that many stories together might have many meanings. There might even be a central story, but it would not be the only story, nor would it be one that could exist without the others. And it would not be a story easily made complete.

Now that I'm thinking about all this, it reminds me of something else...

But I digress.


Ian Keenan said...

Sterne's Tristram Shandy came out of the disagreements about digression and form between Fielding and Richardson, the non-digresser. Usually, the non-digressor is tied to stylistic convention and moral instruction of some kind, as parody and the picaresque journey are used by people who perceive themselves to be either changing the form or completely outside it.. but it doesn't always work that way. Fielding was into Cervantes and Joyce was into Rabelais. Kafka is not one to digress. Borges is often 'focused digression.' Bolano is much the digresser, as with folks like Infante. In American prose now, there's the Carver tradition and the Joyce tradition which effects digression, + the Gaddis-DFWallace digressers.

In poetry, Creeley liked to talk about how Duncan would hoard stuff, while Creeley kept things clean and neat. That came through in their style.

Humans developed agriculture and grazing livestock during the Neolithic age and suddenly it made sense to focus on one thing for an extended period of time rather than run around with a spear looking for animals. Men that didn't want to focus on one thing could be sent out to wars. The men driving jeeps around Iraq with machine guns are generally from rural, agricultural societies. Thousands of years later, Asian, Mesoamerican and then European cities were founded so that people could be distracted that way.

People who focus on one thing can function differently for a culture than people who are easily distracted. It is believed that generals are easily distracted. Gender comes into play with art.. I will leave it for others to summarize this but you have Austin, influenced by Richardson, and the easily distracted Dickinson.. but I think males and females are distracted in different ways.

Don Zirilli said...

Dang it, someone beat me to Tristram Shandy. Interesting that it's one of the earliest novels. It sounds as though you're describing Tristram Shandy in your excerpt.