Category Archives: Bakhtin

Finding the Essence of Life and Art: Bakhtin’s Open-Ended Dialogue

Current linguistic studies tell us much about the formal characteristics of language, it’s static structural elements, but they don’t tell us a whole lot about the living, all inclusiveness of language and its many contingencies, cultures, groups, levels, jargons, etc. However, understanding, examining, and practicing open-ended dialogue, as Bakhtin terms it, in both art and life, becomes effective when one understands texts, artistic artifacts, and even conversations, not within their constituent parts, but as residing within the dialogically interactive sphere of speech life as it exists in its ever-changing entirety.

Here’s what Bakhtin says about it:

“The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the
open-ended dialogue. Life by very nature is dialogic. To live means to
participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so
forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole
life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds.
He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the
dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium. Reified (materializing,
objectified) images are profoundly inadequate for life and for discourse. A
reified model of the world is now being replaced by a dialogic model. Every
thought and every life merges in the open-ended dialogue. Also impermissible is
any materialization of the word: its nature is also dialogic” (Bakhtin, PDP

Also posted in Art, Critical Theory, Essay

Batman (The Dark Knight) and Social Zeitgeist

After reading the New York Time’s cleverly but inaccurately titled article “Art of Darkness” byJonathan Lethem, I realized something about the interplay between the Joker and Batman, especially after watching “The Dark Knight” for the second time at a friend’s house and then again on a trip. In my previous post on the movie I briefly talked about “The Dark Knight’s” contingencies with current politics, which Lethem somewhat touches on in his article, but my views on the movie have been prompted by a new notion of how popular culture, the public itself, fits in with the movie. But to complicate matters more, I have found that the simple logocentric binaries that Lethem uses to analyze the movie (the left and right, good and bad, dark and light, or morally productive and immoral) are not adequate to thoroughly understand and comment on what the movie “does.” I have also been reading Derrida, specifically excerpts from his book “Of Grammatology,” which exhorts me to question Lethem’s black versus white, conservative versus liberal reading of the movie, especially concerning deriving coherent meaning from the movie.

Wishing to dispel a binary reading of the movie, and using literary critic/cultural theorist/metalinguist/anthropologist Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, I will provide a useful analysis that contrasts and refutes a few points that Lethem , the novelist and NY times author, makes, specifically in regard to the intrinsic and varying dialogical relationships between the two powerful characters: Batman and the Joker. These two characters, the Joker representing, the centrifugal, outward moving, chaotic forces of society, and Batman, representing the centripetal, logocentric order hoping to keep Gotham society in check and under control, must be examined as two mere contingencies, voices, within a closed system. The two characters exist to exemplify the range of pathos, desires, chaos, and desired order existing in a society, and their carnivalistic exchanges serve to show the audience the possibilities for chaos and disorder, the possibility for true social change, regardless whether its for the better or worse, and also the effects of stolid thinking.

In his article, Lethem initially focuses on the correlatives that the movie makes to contemporary culture, talking about fearing the unknown, the other. I think these are fine points to make as they are quite valid. I can easily agree with Lethem’s argument that Batman’s plight is that of the conservative upholder of values of what he considers to be “right.” I can even agree with the author’s reading of the dark knight’s calling card correlating with the former president (the “W” shaped spotlight the chief traces across the sky when Batman is needed); although I don’t understand how useful this metaphor might be to understand the movie. However, Lethem notes that the movie may be making a pat statement on the contrivances of society when he says “Perhaps I’m too prone to bear down on ‘The Dark Knight’ as the tea leaves in the dregs of a political season’s cup,” but then goes on to state that the movie’s final statement was its incoherence. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. I can agree that incoherence begins to seep into the movie as the movie builds towards its climax in the form of building un-reason, but what does this mean?

Noting the movies supposed incoherence and “tide of contradictions” (emphasis mine), Lethem loses the movie’s underlying comments on society’s perennial method of creating clear-cut binaries such as good/bad, right/wrong, win/lose, and so on, for the purpose of making meaning of something that is confusing or contradictory. Derrida explained this faulty method of thinking decades ago. In the end, Lethem states that Batman does not represent us as a society, but that the Joker does. This supposedly clever bifurcation does not work for me; Lethem’s assessment loses the important contingencies that attach the Joker and Batman to each other. Lethem states that the Joker does not expose his “real” face, yet he may be forgetting that the joker wears face paint which does indeed reveal his “face,” but only changes its color and causes him to look like a freak, both to the general populist and to criminals. In a number of scenes the Joker’s face paint becomes smudged and in the Hospital explosion scene he doesn’t wear any at all. In all these cases the Joker is easily recognizable, but it’s his behavior that he uses obfuscate.

More importantly, the Joker does not reveal his history. Lethem’s explanation of the Joker as as a man behind the mask does not allow for an interplay between these two supposedly allegorical characters. And interplay, especially contingency, is something that the Joker realizes to be the reality of his and Batman’s dialogical relationship. When someone like the Joker can operate effectively in a world in which he can orchestrate indiscriminate death and destruction, while also causing the most upright and code-driven citizen–Batman–to have to choose between saving two lives, those of Rachel and Harvey–thus subverting Batman’s perceived upright role in society–then we see prime examples of the subversionary ritual that Bakhtin terms carnival. The Joker obviously represents the low, grotesque, revolutionary aspect of carnival’s riotous uprising. He says while Batman interrogates him, “The only sensible way to live in this world is to live without rules.” Here, without rules, the Joker is the outward moving, centrifugal, entropic force that wishes to overturn everything that Batman holds dear to show that the threads holding it all together are much weaker than what Batman thinks.

However, the film is not a bildingsroman meant to uplift the audience to greater social awareness as Lethem expects it to be; achieving greater social awareness would be an incidental and subjective by-product. Instead, and this is where Lethem really misses the point, the movie serves as a showcase for the frailties and contingencies of systems of social behavior and supposed “rightness” that cause a specific yet purportedly permeable zeitgeist within a given society. Showing society to truly be a construct, as the Joker desires, becomes the bond connecting the two characters to each other, to drive the plot, but more. They pose as two pieces to the same contingent puzzle, and it is this interplay where we can get the most from the film.

The Joker operates within Gotham’s society as an a-histrionic castoff, a degenerate, an idealistic saboteur who does not fit with the populous’ socio-cultural logic. Batman, if one has watched the previous installment “Batman Returns,” has a fairly clear back story. And if “The Dark Knight” is the viewers first experience with Batman, he or she still has a clear understanding of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s socio-economic position in Gotham society. Batman sees his duty as the protector of people and values alike. In contrast though, the Joker’s history is not quite as clear, and the Joker himself obfuscates it by telling different stories to different people about how he received his scars.

However, despite existing outside Gotham’s stratified society, the Joker understands its cultural workings and uses this understanding to subvert it. The Joker momentarily resides within accepted roles of both power and respectability, and sheds each of these roles almost as quickly as he defines himself in each. When he sheds his makeup he becomes a nurse in the trade off, a societal role signify healing, nurturing, safety, science, all positive things. The Joker fills his role as nurse though, to facilitate and midwife Harvey Dent’s decent into madness, and the Joker uses the prospect of revenge to achieve this. Likewise, the Joker wears suits that intimate at respectability, business, capitalistic commerce, but he cares nothing for money. He views it as a piece of leverage with which to enact his pursuits in chaos. At times he is a respected criminal at the apex of his abilities, and at others he denounced as an illogical and dangerous freak.

The Joker desires for pure chaos to rise and take over Gotham. He gets at this goal by calling into question Gotham’s inherent values. The Joker assumes that people naturally wish to save themselves rather than look out for the greater good of society, that “good” that Batman wishes to uphold. We can see this in the Joker’s burning the huge mountain of money, as he says, “my half” to the mystified mobsters. The Joker may not have reached his goal of complete anarchy, but he does realize some change in his primary object: Batman. As the Joker hangs upside down in the final scenes he says, “…madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” This statement implicates Batman’s (and any one else beholden to gravity) natural potential for “madness” as we witness varying shades of it throughout the movie, including Batman’s desire to be framed for Harvey’s murder. The Joker does not care if he wins or loses, whether he makes some impact or none. He does what he does simply to make noise, to create disruption, yet his illogical, carnivalistic method meets greater gains than the Joker expects.

Batman finds himself, the avenger of justice, the moral driven self-imposed outcast of the world of Gotham, which contrasts the Joker only in goals; Batman wants to keep everything together to create a safe, fair and just world at the cost of his own place in the system. Likewise, the Joker seems to be a self-imposed outcast of Gotham, and does not care an iota whether he has a clear place in the system or not. He just wants to maintain order and we can see this desire in the movie’s final scenes. After subduing Two-face, and almost getting himself killed in the process the cops show up, and as they do, Batman and Gordon must make a quick decision: how to explain Dent/Two-Face’s death. The only solution to maintain Dent’s legacy, and consequently social order, is to blame his death on Batman. Batman loses his sense of justice and denigrates his image as he says, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things because I am not a hero, like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be.” Batman willingly puts on another mask, the mask of the villain, and subverts himself once more for what he thinks is the greater good, to maintain social order, to allow the populace to believe in a hero who stands for the just and the good. Batman lies and becomes a murderer, embodying the one role he never wished to embody. Gordon realizes a truth that Batman does not–that what Gotham needs is not necessarily the hero Dent, but the anti-hero Batman. He says of Batman, “Not the hero we deserved, the hero we needed,” implying that Gotham society intrinsically looks on deviousness or destructive behavior as effective. The Joker, when one examines this scene, would feel some modicum of success, as he has succeeded in toppling Batman from his rationalist and ordered position in society.

Getting back to Lethem’s appraisal of the movie, though, I must contemplate, as he puts it, “right” and wrong to understand the “tea leaves” the movie provides at the bottom of the viewer’s cup. That the movie is arguably incomprehensible at the end has an effect on making meaning. That the movie creates questions that go unanswered have an effect on making meaning. That Batman becomes the culpable “Dark Knight” by movie’s end has an effect on making meaning. However, the movie is not a math equation and easily remains unfinalizeable as the credit roll. The writers throw two characters into a situation that cause the viewer to question what’s right and wrong that possibly incite them to look at the structures that dictate such mutable and impermanent things. To read the movie as an austere display of social allegory misses the depth of thought that the movie offers. After all, as the Joker aptly queries, “Why so serious?”

Also posted in Carnival, Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Film Review, Literature, Love

Re: Carnival, Carnivalesque, Carnivalisation

I’ve got a couple of posts I’m working on that deal with this subject, so I feel it’s probably a good idea to provide a reference point from which to begin the discussion of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival.

Carnival, Carnivalesque, Carnivalisation
Article contributed by
Simon Dentith, University of Reading
(307 words)
The term carnival came to have particular prominence for literary criticism after the publication of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World (1965; translated by Helene Iswolsky [Indiana University Press, 1984]). In this book, Rabelais’ writing is seen as drawing its energies from the historic practices of carnival which preceded and surrounded it in Renaissance Europe. Bakhtin gives an especially benign account of carnival rituals, in which the time of carnival features as an utopian irruption into the workaday world, a time of feasting when normally dominant constraints and hierarchies are temporarily lifted. The subversive and anti-authoritarian aspects of carnival are here emphasised – authority figures are mocked, the joyless routines of everyday life are abrogated, the lower bodily strata are allowed both to degrade and to regenerate those conceptions of the world which seek to exclude them. Rabelais’ writings, and those of his near contemporaries Cervantes and Shakespeare, are seen as drawing their energies from these carnival practices, and from the epochally established view of the world which they embody. In this specific sense, in which there is a direct connection between historically-existing carnival practices and artistic forms which reproduce them, their writing can be described as “carnivalesque”.
Bakhtin extends the idea very significantly, however, in the notion of “carnivalised” writing which succeeds these Renaissance models and thus long outlives the actual historical location of the practices from which such writing takes it name. Carnivalised writing is that writing which mobilises one form of discourse against another, especially popular against elite forms. In this usage, “carnival” tends to lose its historical specificity and comes to resemble a transhistorical generic principle which can be actualised in widely differing periods; it is present in the Menippean satires of the ancient world and also in the novels of Dostoevsky, written in a society having little contact with historic Renaissance carnivals.
Published 18 July 2001
Citation: Dentith, Simon. “Carnival, Carnivalesque, Carnivalisation”. The Literary Encyclopedia. 18 July 2001.
[, accessed 24 February 2009.]
Also posted in Carnival, Critical Theory, Essay, Literature, Politics, Religion

The Pun’s (Lack of) Humor From A Bakhtinian Perspective

I knew someone whose prime source of laughs was the pun. The pun! The most delight this person got from jokes was prompted by this paronomasiac form of jest. However, I found that this person consistently failed to get the ironic, the sarcastic, the satirical, the parodic, or the ludicrous. The pun was this person’s champion of jest, and all other forms of jovial double-speak were a lost cause.

Yeah, sure, this person isn’t here to mount a defense against my accusations, but I feel, I’ll call the person Pat for the sake of ease, that Pat had every opportunity to develop a feel for other forms of humor. Pat enjoyed wealth and education as a child, and continues to now as an adult, living a professionally leisure-filled life of ease. Thus, I might conclude that a developed sense of humor is more related to mental aptitude, not social status or monetary remuneration, or the four-year vacation at college for which that daddy paid. Besides a passing review in a linguistics class, I do not understand why anyone would devote much more time and energy to the paltry pay-off of a pun than one would devote to throwing junk mail into the paper shredder. This idea leads me to believe that something suspect exists within those who do take time and energy to read and propagate puns.

Puns are thinly veiled mistakes; puns are fortuitous; puns test one’s patience; puns are non-recursive grammar errors; puns are simple; puns are like infomercials: rarely do they succeed and almost always do they cause one to pull one’s hair out of one’s head. Within the context of novels, Bakhtin championed double-speak as he called it (note that double-speak does not mean speech with two meanings, but speech with meanings amounting to more than one), the sideways glances of sarcasm and off-handed comments, the multivalent utterances that cause sentences to spiral parabolically towards multiple levels of meaning, both for the utterer and the listener(s).

Okay, so we know that Bakhtin likes multi-voiced utterances with many meanings. But what would he say about puns? They are grammatically ambiguous, abortive pieces of sometimes intentional yet equivocal one liners whose effect is always varied, if not consistently bland. If the always “humorous” pun did something besides annoy, Bakhtin’d probably get behind the “clever” construction. Non-pejoratively, he’d call it a flip-flopping utterance with the ability to always get the last word in, but I think he would fail to find that puns create exteriorized tropes of meaning telling of a literary character’s indications of “outsidedness” due to pun’s grammatical and structural limitations; they, after all, can only posit two possible meanings. They’re but jovial accidents.

Also posted in Comedy, Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay

Zlomislic’s "Scar Tissue"; A Contemporary Look at the Gore of Existence

After reading through the April 08 issue of the CTHEORY newsletter, I found a piece that hit me pretty hard called “Scar Tissue” written by Zlomislic. At the topical level I found it interesting because it deals with a number of old theories on deconstruction, mettanarrative, abjection and the grotesque, but on a deeper level it explores issues of contemporary thought and existence of varying socio-economic levels, including issues of tradition, commercialism and consumption, the solace of death, social constructs of love and security, and of course happiness and its absence. I am going to paste the piece below and provide an analysis following.Briefly, here’s what I would like to bring up as I explicate the piece. Zlomislic talks about the capitalist/technologist postmodern world in terms of facing the “Real” of death (a term Kristeva brings up in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection), the structured existence of millions of Americans and their hope for orgasmic release, the hope in a lastingly residual genius in our society, more of Kristeva’s “Real” of the eventuality of death, and finally the futility of resisting it through social upheaval and reinvention. I believe this reinvention begins with Zlomislic’s proposition of the mixing of high and low artifacts of culture to show their absurdity and illusoriness in the populist’s psyche and hope for happiness. He causes the reader to question the ideal that one can create the perfect view of life using technology, ritual, and bought “things.” Buying ‘things,’ then, becomes an act of quelling the chaos, and therefore empowers the inevitable commodification of and lionizing of goods that are espoused as the cure for sadness that these same goods and beliefs arguably cause, whether they be artisanal foodstuffs, cars, beauty products, holidays, marriage, or image editing computer software. Finally, Zlomislic satirizes the one thing that the postmodern human may still feel some solace in or have hope for: love; love, to Zlomislic is nothing more than a repeated construct of our cultural notions of safety (by extension I would say as a result of commodification, ie, you can’t buy me love, but you certainly can buy me a beautiful house full of nice furniture, expensive audio/visual equipment, and complicated cooking equipment so that we can enact pseudo conversation using these items as a conduit for so-called true and heartfelt exchange).

I am going to take specific stanzas of this piece apart and do a few readings using Jameson’s notion of mettanaritives as they apply to ritual and commercialism, Bakhtin’s notion of carnivalistic outpouring within a community, and Kristeva’s theories of death and how people’s notions of death provide information on their buying and consuming power. I feel that Zlomislic is proposing a wholly new, deconstructionist, and radicalizing way of thinking that hopes to shed the old methods of living, buying, consuming, and thinking that many people in the contemporary world sell themselves to and relish in without a second thought.

Scar Tissue

Marko Zlomislic

Cinema means pulling a uniform over our eyes, warned Kafka
— Paul Virilio, _Open Sky_

You are taken to see but your eyes are not prepared to look at the
spectacle placed gently in front of you like a birthday cake.

It is the dead who blow out the candles as your illusions are cut
into pieces.

The dead devour what still lives even as we eat the recycled remains
of what is planted in the field, delivered to supermarket spouting
forth freshly sprayed.

To live on as one of Prometheus’ children. Shreds of his liver torn
by the eagle to re-grow. We are his scar tissue.

The sweep of the broom over polished concrete stepped on by a
million daily commuters, mute and unthinking, blind to the little
pleasures as they search for the nuclear fusion of the orgasm

A shoulder to sleep on as your head is cradled. But there you
already feel the skeleton underneath the varnished skin dying to
leap through tissue, sinews, frayed nerves and muscle.

The little acts of revenge are sweet especially when you have a key
to the Other’s door. Declare a war against vending machines and
parking meters. Fill their slots with Chuck E. Cheese tokens. The
Real seeps in through the cracks of the imagination to leave its

Left on the doorstep, a letter, a video, a dead mouse; all brought
as a gift. These do not satisfy your hunger.

On TV a horse takes the lead in the Tour de France. A preacher plays
the electric guitar for Jesus who is still smoldering on Golgotha.

It is a fun house ride with death hitching on your admission ticket.

Magnify the details to bring the disaster near. Cut and paste until
you create the ideal Adobe view. Where and when will we meet?

We seek order where chaos rules. The bits are packaged: salad, porn,
apples, cuts of meat, coffee spoons.

The light enters when the illusion becomes tired. The cliche, “I
love you” should be returned with silence. The echo you seek is an
old repetition.

The knock on the door, the ringing of the telephone are all
reminders to stop eating the remainder.

How is this possible when Death nourishes what survives?


Marko Zlomislic is professor of philosophy at Conestoga College,
Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario.
He has recently published _Jacques Derrida’s Aporetic Ethics_ with
Lexington Books and is currently writing a critique of Slavoj
Zizek’s work.

First, I’d like to make quick note on the epigraph. I found the Kafka reference to be a pretty good appetizer to the piece itself, especially Virilio’s use of “uniform,” as popular, commercial culture hopes desperately to make the act of life just that: uniform. That Virilo, a sociologist studying war, made a career of arguing that war drives much if not all of human history provides an ironic note to kick off the piece. Uniformity, taken as soldiers wearing uniform’s, immediately becomes a metaphor for inevitability and movement. Even in hopes to disrupt uniformity, many contemporary clubs and groups still hope for uniformity and rote collusion no matter their purported goals. An example of this is the supposed alternate culture system called the slow food movement, which nobly wishes to subvert the mass producing corporate food industry by empowering people on the singular level. The movement espouses a clear purpose and does so by collecting members at $60 a membership–a fairly exclusionary price levied on the masses who could care less about the politics of taste and who simply want any food on their tables. The sentiment is positive, but transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson would scoff at the exclusionary thought that this homogenizing club mentality has on its participants. I develop this point more when I bring up Jameson’s issue with metanarrative in regard to capitalism.

However, I digress. The first two stanzas deal with tradition as passed down by culture. Yet, Zlomislic is satirizing tradition as nothing more than handed-down commodification in the form of the birthday cake. Ah yes, the birthday cake, baked by a loved one using ornate frosting and the like–quite simply a construct meant to signify the annuity of life but more closely used to represent group-given love for the now one-year-older person. The commodity here is time spent on the cake, whether real time, or the Marxist notion of time spent: money. In short Zlomislic makes the allusion to the year’s passing in a human’s life and the construct of celebrating it joyfully with an icon (the keyword here is icon) of joy and happiness inculcated in us by our environment from our earliest culturally injected memories. This joy and happiness is bought and represented by an icon.

And yes, as he says, the dead are the ones who blow out the candles. Here he is getting at the notion that tradition, again, as personified by the dead, is moving the birthday boy or girl forward, yet from this point forward in the piece the reader seems to get a wrench because, purposefully, Zlomislic no longer makes the birthday cake a happy image. He notes that “illusions are cut into pieces,” just like a cake is divided up into pieces for consumption, only to miraculously reappear the following year as nice and tidy order is restored. But why is illusion and consumption important?

Illusion is a key element in this piece. A birthday cake, an allusion to happiness, growth, joy, gifts, family, and so on, serves then as an illusion for something else: normalcy in culture and the eventual and ironic consumption of purported happiness through rituals. Rituals are a key aspect of retaining order and normalcy, a metanarrative that runs through the celebration of birthdays. Not to say that celebrating birthdays are bad, but they espouse a specific story that holds the participants closely within a stratified, commercialized metanarrative. Birthdays are comprised of a cake, made from store-bought staple ingredients, commonly mixed together and made specially for the birthday boy/girl/man/woman by the objectified housewife; guests are invited and are socially expected to bring a gift, one that they almost always buy from the store; and finally the birthday party is often catered, which of course is a hefty investment, or if it’s not, the “housewife” again must prepare an adequate amount of food or refreshments, requiring her time, which again makes her a contingent part of a capitalist postmodern society.

Therefore, the metanarrative of consumerism becomes a key driving force behind supposed happiness. Jameson, in his book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism exhibits a skepticism for metanarratives on the grounds that they are produced by the very late capitalist environment that initiates and propagates them, or in other words commonly held values are self-propagated by a group. These self-propagated values then become a cultural movement to keep order, to prevent chaos from occurring. Going back to the piece, we read the lines “The dead devour what still lives even as we eat the recycled remains / of what is planted in the field, delivered to supermarket spouting / forth freshly sprayed.” Consumption becomes an image of irony for Zlomislic as he describes what is in essence the metanarrative of eco-stewardship and healthy eating habits. Eco-stewardship comes in the image of recycling, yet this image is subverted; the living do not eat the recycled dead, as horrible an image as this even conjures. Instead the dead–the long deceased, the memories of the past, history itself–come back to feed us, regardless of our so-called good intentions. The supermarket, a historically-based image of the American notion of health, bounty and nourishment (although lately it has become an image for corporate control over American’s eating habits), becomes a simulacrum of the “freshly sprayed,” and problem-solving arrogance that the mettanarrative of eco-stewardship espouses.

Zlomislic brings this point home as he conjures the image of Prometheus, the anti-tyrant, the archetypal giver of technology (fire) to the mortals, stealing it from the gods. Again, Zlomislic turns a culturally conceived positive image into one that stands for a metaphor that shrouds what Jameson would call “reality.” Modern humanity becomes the “scar tissue” of Prometheus’ liver, a symbol of his resulting punishment from the gods, but the scar tissue has not healed or become a solace just as contemporary humans’ condition remains inevitably in stasis and conflict. The next stanza throws more irony into the reader’s field of view. We get scar tissue, then images of the cyclical work that chains most people in America today: “a / million daily commuters, mute and unthinking, blind to the little / pleasures as they search for the nuclear fusion of the orgasm / afterglow.” Chasing careers and their next paycheck in hopes of getting the big orgasm of success, people are content with being automatons in traffic. Yes, the scar tissue remains, hard and obvious, and Prometheus’ parable seems to not have sunk into the contemporary American metanarrative of consumerism.

Later Zlomislic describes the notion that people can change their view of the world quite simply, that they can remake it to their liking using the tools of capitalism: photo editing software made by Adobe can aid someone in revising his or her image in finding a lover. Zlomislic might have added Facebook or Myspace to this line. Tied to the question of “where and when will we meet?” is the quelling of disorder, which shows a continued agitation contemporary humans feel towards the unknowing and the upheaval they fear may happen. Bakhtin, as does Jameson some 40 years later, identifies spheres of dialogue, the heteroglossia that make up the many competing dialects, thought systems, vernaculars, and cultural centers of modern consciousness (you can find more information on dialogics and heteroglossia in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics). Key to these spheres are those that subject a hegemonic rein over others. Capitalism becomes a heteroglot that places its adherents in subjection to its systems and dialects of control. Zlomislic makes this point when he writes, “We seek order where chaos rules. The bits are packaged: salad, porn, / apples, cuts of meat, coffee spoons.” Food and its commercialist paraphernalia, some of the most intimate things a person can utilize and imbibe become something mediated by commerce, by capitalism, and breaking from this commericalist cycle, seeing the ridiculousness of it, laughing at its seriousness, embodying Bakhtin’s carnivalistic behavior is exactly what capitalism hopes consumers not do. To revolt and overturn a system that’s only a system as long as they buy into it, even for a moment, becomes an event that subverts systems of power to cataclysmic extent.

Zlomislic provides more keys to subversion that Bakhtin would identify as carnivalistic: “The light enters when the illusion becomes tired. The cliche, ‘I / love you’ should be returned with silence. The echo you seek is an / old repetition.” The illusion is that of bought happiness, of bought safety, of bought and consumed love. Zlomislic’s commentary on love in contemporary society, then, argues that love has turned to an illusion of completeness and happiness just as the birthday celebration becomes a structured practice of quelling people’s doubt for the disquieting aspects of life. Love, like other normative forms of culture (ie, religion, politics, etc) is safety, collusion, and togetherness with another individual or group, making the individual no longer an individual, but an agent of the body of thought, and in the case that Zlomislic describes, feeding and bolstering the structure of capitalism. But to fit with Bakthin’s notion of capitalism, we must find the upheavel, the overthrow of “natural” order that’s replaced with grotesque order.

Zlomislic peppers the element of upheavel in interesting ways, by using images of death and chaos juxtuposed with images of commercialized order. And to understand how these elemements work I call to Julia Kristeva. Much of Kristeva’s post-structuralist work deals with issues of horror and abjection, and one idea she develops, that of “the Real,” can be used to understand the capitalist/grotesque structure Zlomislic is illustrating (for more of “the Real,” refer to Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection). Zlomislic says, “Left on the doorstep…a dead mouse; …brought as a gift,” then later “It is a fun house ride with death hitching on your admission ticket.” In each of these lines the reader gets the image of death paired with bought things–gifts, rides, tickets–causing the reader a considerable amount of fear, confusion, and dissalusionment as the images rush past. Kristeva’s notion of the real describes how we humans deal with the horrific inevitability of our own deaths. Death is real and cannot be explained away. But also, Kristeva makes a distinction between how we humans deal with knowledge of death, and how we view the symbolism of death. The symbol of the dead mouse on the doorstep is a symbol of quaint gratitude (I am thinking of your mouser dropping it there in exchange for praise), but the dead mouse becomes a symbol of un-quenched appetite, looking back to American culture’s assumed solace in the quenching of consumerist appetite. Although the dead mouse does not “satisfy your hunger,” it is offered as a solution as such, denoting the possibility that it might. Death then, as Kristeva would read it in this piece, becomes an unsettling symbolic image that points towards people’s the inability to buy themselves out of death and also their inability to construct a symbolic meaning for it outside of a commercialized understanding.

Keeping in mind Bakhtin’s notions of subverting power structures, and Kristeva’s notions of human’s attempts at dealing with death we must review the piece’s final lines: “The knock on the door, the ringing of the telephone are all / reminders to stop eating the remainder.” Notifiers of guests, new conversations, and new information, along with the opening of doors, and the creating of human connection is followed by an admonition to become conservative. Odd and aporetic, this paradoxical statement is one Derrida would relish. However, the reminder to stop eating the remainder refers to stopping culture’s robotic and blind forward fall of production and blind consumption. The remainder signifies the largess of consumerism that American’s simply excuse, not as largess, but as the insignificant curlings of the trinkets and baubles that make us happy. (Please remember to throw away all your myriad of wrappers, packaging, tags, bags, and bottles.) And as the piece closes, it is Death that propels the machine, empowering the American goal to prosper and leave a mark on the world, good or bad, destructive or creative. The real of death becomes nothing more than a will and trust fund I suppose. The “this” in the line refers to American’s accepted reality that happiness can be bought and that true feelings can be based on buying and consuming. It’s a good question, one that no one can easily answer. The statement hangs on the presumption that all humans do not need to live a materialistic lifestyle to be really happy.

Zlomislic’s use of satire and irony would make Derrida chuckle with glee as Zlomislic reconstitutes Derrida’s theories on deconstructing culture. Interestingly, many do and have derided this method because of its nihilistic conclusions. Well, sure, that’s a pretty easy gripe. But why are people afraid of a little nihilism? Really, will the world come to a halt if everyone gave up hope in a system of reality that spirals beyond their tolerance for grotesquerie? Yeah, maybe for a few constructive moments. Actually, pulling oneself from the notion that life is set, that humans are static in an irreversible structure of culturally derived and limiting perception that prevents psychic and intellectual thought to move forward, is probably one of the most important exercises humans can do, especially as we humans live in an over-commercialized and individualist-centered existence of hedonism and solipsism. Why not participate in thinking hedonism and social defiance rather than be a taste-bud, a simple receiving mechanism, in the capitalist-driven and controlled form of existence humans unabashadly operate in now?

Here’s Zlomislic’s new book “Jacques Derrida’s Aporetic Ethics.” I have begun to skim it and it’s quite interesting.

Also posted in Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Food, Gender, Jameson, Kristeva, Literature, Love, Poetry, Pop Culture Issues, Religion