• Theory 08.18.2009

    I was a member of the Postmodernism group for class, and I’d just briefly like to go through what was in my presentation.

    I did my section of the presentation on the effects of postmodern thought on literature, art, and technology.  I tried to incorporate many of the techniques already described by and explained by my group partners.

    First section I discussed was literature.

    The first story I did was Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”

    I included the first line from the story as follows:

    As Gregor Samsa Awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

    I discussed this as an early influence towards post modern writing, and identified the following elements:

    • Sudden Transformation
    • Interstitial Space (spaces between spaces, or reality, the dream he awoke from)
    • Pastiche (the name Samsa is an allusion to the concept of Samsura)

    The second story I discussed was Donald Barthelme’s “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” and I used the following excerpts:

    K. at His Desk

    He is neither abrupt with nor excessively kind to associates.  Or he is both abrupt and kind.  The telephone is, for him, a whip, a lash, but also a conduit for soothing words, a sink into which he can hurl gallons of syrup if it comes to that.

    K. Saved from Drowning

    K. in the water.  His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword are on the shore.  He retains his mask.  His hands beat the surface of the water which tears and rips abiout him.  The white foam, the green depths.  I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of the water.  He has missed it.  No, it appears that he has it.  His right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him.  I am on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock.  K. now has both hands on the line.  I pull him out of the water.  He stands now on the bank, gasping.
    “Thank you.”

    Elements in this story were:

    • Self referential material (meta-narratives, a story about a story)
    • Breaking the 4th wall (the narrator installing himself in the story)
    • Self cancelling contradictions

    The third story discussed was Kelly Link’s “Travels with the Snow Queen”

    I used these excerpts:

    Original Ending of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”

    Kay and Gerda looked into each other’s eyes, and at last they understood the meaning of their old hymn:

    “Where roses bloom so sweetly in the vale,
    There shall you find the Christ Child, without fail.”

    And they sat there, grown-up, but children still-children at heart. And it was summer, warm, glorious summer.

    Near the Ending in Kelly Link’s version:

    You help him collect a few puzzle pieces.  “Will you at least do this much for me?” he asks.  “For old time’s sake.  Will you spread the word, tell a few single princesses that I’m stuck up here?  I’d like to get out of here sometime in the next century.  Thanks.  I’d really appreciate it.  You know, we had a really nice time, I think I remember that.”

    The robber girl’s boots cover the scar’s on your feet.  When you look at these scars you can see the outline of the journey you made.  Sometimes mirrors are maps, and sometimes maps are mirrors.  Sometimes scars tell a story, and maybe someday you will tell this story to a lover.

    I used the original and the secondary text to contrast the styles of grand narrative versus the postmodern piece, and discussed Link’s methods of using pastiche, feminist theory, dark humor, and irony.

    My second section was about postmodern art and I specifically focused on guerrilla street art, specifically about the artist “Banksy”, and discussed the postmodern ideas about using industrial constructs as canvas and the highly politicized nature of the pieces.  Images included below:


    The next section I discussed was in regard to “memes”.

    I defined memes as:

    /meem/ [By analogy with “gene”] Richard Dawkins’s term for an idea considered as a replicator, especially with the connotation that memes parasitise people into propagating them much as viruses do.
    Memes can be considered the unit of cultural evolution. Ideas can evolve in a way analogous to biological evolution. Some ideas survive better than others; ideas can mutate through, for example, misunderstandings; and two ideas can recombine to produce a new idea involving elements of each parent idea.

    I showed some memes with accompanying mutations of the originals to illustrate:

    i-can-has-cheezburgerLOLcatI discussed that the original ‘cheezeburger’ meme had propogated into many different forms, and that itself has spawned a version of pidgin english called “Kitteh” or “LOLcat” language.  (I will insert some more relevant links here soon)  And that a meme like the second one incorporates intertextuality in regards to it borrowing from 2 memetic ideas, the lolcat and monty python, thus forming a new mutation of a meme.

    I also discussed that many of the intertextual elements of memes require a knowledge of specific lexicons, current events, or sub cultural knowledge in order to understand at times, and to illustrate I posted the “I’m Only 12” meme, which propagates itself from the hacker attack on Youtube several months ago in which pornography was uploaded to youtube in massive amounts to flood their system, and there was an accompanying BBC article where they quoted one child as saying “I’m only 12 and what is this?”  From this spawned a picture meme, and subsequently, mutations there of:


    And finally just for a little fun, I spoke about arbitrary absurdity, and a brief mention of semiotics and how things are what they are not, as illustrated by pacman below:


    I definitely want to expand on this article in the near future, but for now I am not feeling very well this week, so if anyone wants any more information on any of the topics discussed above, feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail me, and I will address that soon :)

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  • Theory 08.18.2009


    When you think of Marilyn Monroe most people invoke the same image into their mind.  Marilyn with the pouty lips making a kissy face, slightly crouched, wearing her signature white dress.  A selective few in the pantheon of celebrity to be considered an “icon”.  Read as a sign she can symbolize sensuality, Hollywood, movie making, and hundreds of other images and virtues that just her presence brings to mind.  Yet for all the biographies, images, and tales of Marilyn, we each shape our own identity for her.  Much like Marilyn, in the political realm the Kennedy family has risen in prominence and many of their members are considered to be “iconic”.  In Donald Barthelme’s “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” the author makes use of an unreliable narrator, a main character rife with contradiction, endlessly opening stories and pastiche to question not only the identity of celebrity and icons, but also the reliability of history, story telling, and meaning from one moment to the next.

    The reliability of celebrity identity is already a shoddy one at best.  What can be gleaned from smatterings of celebrity magazines, news articles, and promotional materials put a sort of piecemail identity together for most celebrities.  One can discover that their favorite celebrity likes “puppies” and their charity efforts are focused towards cystic fibrosis because they had an aunt with the condition, or maybe that “they are just like us” in pictures of them doing mundane tasks like grocery shopping.  One may get a sense of some sort of stable historicism from some sort of biopic, or “True Hollywood Story”, in which there is a sense of it being the “official” story that taps into the root of celebrity identity.  The problem with constructing identity this way is that it becomes just a system of binaries in regards to what someone’s identity is and what it isn’t.  It is as if identity just becomes a series of yes and no questions.  Do they like puppies?  Yes.  Do they like ice cream?  Yes.  It disregards the complexities of human identity, and that people are not a stable system of yes and no’s.  It becomes even more problematic in regards to political celebrities such as Robert Kennedy.  One expects a more stable identity in historicisim, as if historians by default take more care in their due diligence than casual observers, or any other form of storyteller.  In the end, however, history is just a series of symbols and stories and Barthelme’s telling of the story of Robert Kennedy seeks to debunk the stability of this sort of storytelling.  One ends up having to question if there is “a stable subject, an authorial identity that anchors meaning and intention, or is writing a transpersonal process so involved with models and transgression of models as to be completely without stable reference, let alone verisimilitude? (Molesworth 1).

    Immediately in Barthelme’s tale our title character is stripped of his name, and he is simply referred to as “K” throughout the rest of the piece.  Already we begin to see that there is no stability in identity, and that this newly formed identity of “K” is not just the man himself, but an identity filtered through the lens of our narrator, who he himself claims in one of his two appearances that “I am a notoriously poor observer” (Barthelme 73).  In this way the narrator seems to be reconciling the fact that even his own observations on which he reports are not infallible, and are subject to his own determinations and that “characters, setting, action, and viewpoint, are, after all, the creations of language” (Roe 46).  “K” therefore is just a creation of language, and not really the person itself, but the idea of a person, the construct of the author.

    Being the construct of the author, one might believe that identity would be assembled in the more modernist way of archetypal virtues, or a series of positive and negative attributes, like many of the heroes or characters in the meta or grand narrative style, but Barthelme’s style borrows heavily from the avante-garde and postmodern techniques in order to criticize just this type of structuralist approach.  Because of the often bizarre avante garde style of his writing “one is tempted to call his a slightly irregular postmodern, but it would be more accurate to say that his eclecticism is symptomatic of the loping, amorphous beast that gets blithely labeled postmodern” (Nel 92).  And amorphous is exactly how he portrays this problem of identity, as a constantly shifting, transient thing.  “K” has no stable identity which becomes apparent in the first lines of the first vignette entitled “K. at His Desk,” in which “he is neither abrupt with nor excessively kind to associates.  Or he is both abrupt and kind” (Barthelme 68).  This is an immediate rupture from the prescriptive logic of structural and formalist pieces.  Instead of the algebraic and rigid, Barthelme is offering the conditional.

    One of the ruptures from traditional pieces is the fact that the story is broken into small vignettes.  Each seems to be a fragment of a story, or the beginning of a story, with no real resolution, ending, or narrative arc.  Often K. is recounting his own experiences, but we also get vignettes that involve the observation of others.  In “A Friend Comments: K.’s Aloneness” even those around him find him hard to pinpoint as “he’s very hard to get to know, and a lot of people who think they know him rather well don’t really know him at all” (Barthelme 72).  What is called into question I believe is that how well can anyone know someone, even oneself, given that identity is not only personal but a shared entity.  It is apparent in the story that “though K. is a public figure, dogged by aides, political colleagues, family, waiters, and reporters, no one – not even K. himself – really knows this enigmatic personage” (Roe 44).

    Not only is the question of truly knowing someone addressed, but Barthelme calls into question the reliability of language itself and how shifting understanding and meanings color what we observe.  In “Sleeping on the Stones of Unknown Towns (Rimbaud)” we find K. slipping between countries in which “shop signs are in a language which alters when inspected closely, MÖBEL becoming MEUBLES for example” (Barthelme 70).  When we move through public and private spaces language is always in a state of change, whether we are navigating in between lexicons of different professions, dialects or language by neighborhood, or country.  While “K.” may feel some alienation while citizens “mutter to themselves with dark virtuosity a mixture of languages,” there is a universality behind basic human needs and interaction, as “K.” wonders to himself as he navigates in foreign places “what are their water needs?” (70).  Like their water needs, “K.” addresses public transportation in what appears to be an allegory for language, in that it is “at once complex and inadequate” (70).  Perhaps any system in which interpretation is subjective is inadequate.

    In interpreting Barthelme’s work one might come to consider what is the purpose of such a fragmented piece that seems to have no resolution, no narrative arc, and applies so many experimental techniques, in which it seems to criticize the art of storytelling itself.  It has self referential material, and elements of pastiche in it, especially in regards to the sections about Karsh of Ottowa and Georges Poulet (which I will return to later), and sections seem to be bad replications of historical elements.  Is it appropriate to seemingly criticize historicism when “to claim juxtapositions and pastiche as ahistorical assumes that the viewer or reader has no sense of history and forgets the real itself is always historically contingent” (Nel 93).  And if the historicism is meant, then is the purpose of the story itself self contradictory and canceling itself out?  It certainly is a piece that takes careful consideration about what its ultimate goal is, if any.  It has been thought that “Barthelme’s constant innovation can be both bane and benefit.  His enthusiasm for different forms can be effective or confusing depending on the form that he adopts” (Nel 92).  While the forms may be confusing, the ultimate goal may be to stimulate thought and to encourage discourse, which is accomplished rather well with the particular methods that Barthelme employs.

    Through his use of pastiche Barthelme is able to convey a deeper subtext of what these moments may be trying to express.  In “Karsh of Ottawa” which references the famous portrait photographer we find that there is “one shot in each sitting that was, you know, the key shot, the right one” (Barthelme 71).  Portraits are static images, that portray that just one moment.  Is that what identity might be?  Snapshots, frozen in time, a particular set of statics that put something into definition.  Perhaps all the flux and constant change of language, space, time, personality, and preference are not what defines oneself, but the frozen moment, the remembered or written act?

    Of course with Barthelme’s story one cannot just take a single concept like the frozen moment as identity, since there always seems to be some sort of irony, or contradiction to show another facet of the possibilities of interpretation.  In “He Discusses the French Writer, Poulet” Barthelme uses pastiche in a discussion by “K.” of the ideas of Georges Poulet.  Poulet famously rejected many of the tenets of formalism and was influential in the move away from the structure that formalism entails, and instead focuses more on the universality between author and reader.  This section of the story entails what I believe to be one of the substantial elements to call into doubt any static qualities about identity, history, and story.  “The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant,” is one of the strongest statements made about how from moment to moment everything is recycled and refreshed, constantly shifting and in question of its meaning (Barthelme 77).  It calls out historicism in that these “instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant and not the line” (77).

    Should everything be considered moment to moment, without considering the past moments, as may be posited from the frozen moment earlier of Karsh of Ottawa?  Is language and identity something that has to be negotiated constantly?  Even if something is recorded and static, it is still in flux with regards to its meaning, so is the current moment the only thing that we can regard any sort of historicism with?  These questions are being posed, and don’t seem to get resolved, which is perhaps what is intended by Barthelme.  By creating the means of bringing up these questions, these considerations of contradicting edicts and imagery bring into the dialectic the outsider, the reader, who perhaps is the one whom needs to be considering this, instead of the authoritative figures that often dictate meaning.  After all “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable” (Lyotard 356)

    In the end of the story, the narrator steps in and breaks the invisible fourth wall between reader and author.   The narrator saves a black hatted, black masked K.  Who seems to have been transformed into that hero, that archetype that we are looking for, only he is in trouble, he is drowning, and the narrator goes on to say “I pull him out of the water.  He stands now on the bank, gasping. ‘Thank You’” (Barthelme 77).  What is the narrator saving?  Who is this person, this “K.” that we have studied and considered, who is still as much of an enigma as he was from the very beginning.  Is “K.” an individual?  Or is “K.” an allegory, a device, divorced from his real life persona, “for what the author is saving is less an individual than the center of his own story, the excuse of his fiction making” (Molesworth 72).  We are left with ambiguity, contradiction, and a sense of no real resolution.  Is this what the story may be, what history might entail, and what identity really is?  These may be irresolvable constructs, whose meaning is subjective, unstable, and subject to deferment of significance depending on the moment, the context, the reader, the world.  Barthelme’s use of experimental techniques and postmodern ideologies construct a story in which the purpose of the story is not to resolve these questions, but to urge us to consider them.

    Works Cited

    Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. A penguin book. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

    Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed.  Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.

    Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. A Literary frontiers edition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

    Nel, Philip. The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

    Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s studies in short fiction, no. 32. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

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  • Theory 08.13.2009

    Just a note here: I thought that in lieu of opting out of the optional assignment, I would post an older paper of mine originally from English 311 because I feel it relates to recent classwork, especially since this paper involves sex/gender, class, cultural studies and semiotics of public and private spaces.  By no means am I posting this to count towards the optional assignment, but I thought maybe a few of you in the class might like to read it and hopefully it is somewhat enlightening.  Anyways, enjoy.


    In Petry’s The Street we follow Lutie Johnson in her efforts to navigate public and private life against obstacles set by society in regards to race, class, gender, and space.  Lutie Johnson is trying to secure a safe future for her and her son and is often met with boundaries, both visible and invisible, due to the stigma of being an African American female.  There is an invasive quality throughout all the domains Lutie Johnson must move through in terms of being sexualized, trivialized, and monitored.  Lutie Johnson is determined to achieve her idea of the “American Dream”, especially in regards to monetary security, and a safe environment for her son.  The freedom to navigate the world in both the public and private spheres is restrictive based on race, class, and gender.

    The Street was published in 1946.  The novel is an important work that reflects the unfortunate circumstances that most African Americans had to live in at this time due to segregation and racist political policies.  The establishment of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 only served to further discriminatory practices in housing lending and housing availability.  Many African Americans could not receive mortgage loans, and if they could they were relegated to segregated communities.  The practice of redlining, in which properties lost value if they were in proximity of minorities gave incentive to realtors to maintain the practice of housing segregation.  Many African Americans had little choice but to live in crowded tenements in the inner city, unable to save enough for house payments due to prohibitive rents and grossly uneven wages.  This is also a period of urban decay, and the housing was often in poor to wretched condition.

    At the start of the novel Lutie Johnson is dissatisfied with the environment of her father’s home and is seeking to secure an apartment for her and her son Bub.  Immediately we get an assault on the senses and restriction of mobility.  Lutie Johnson is battered by the wind on 116th street which exudes vulnerability as “the wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she felt suddenly naked and bald.” (Petry 2)  This struggle against environment is a recurring theme throughout the novel.  The description of the wind assailing her evokes the dangers of navigating through the world as an African American female and shows “African American women attempting to circulate through public space always find their mobility compromised.” (Wesling 120)  Her introduction to the harsh environment of 116th street also enforces a sexualizing of Lutie Johnson, which is a theme throughout the novel as “the sexualized violence of Lutie’s initial encounter with the street introduces the terms of her mobility in the world, which is predicated on the presumption of her sexual availability.” (Wesling 120)

    Lutie Johnson’s sexualized status presents great obstacles for her.  In the public sphere she faces constant pressure to perform as a sexual object.  These pressures come from both the male and female characters in her life.  Mrs. Hedges wants her to compromise her ideals and come to work for her as a prostitute.  The white man Junto desires her for himself and is willing to exercise his power (including denying her wages for singing) in order to do so.  The super Jones not only tries to rape her, but also invades her private space, inappropriately goes through her closet and puts her son in danger.  Boots Johnson as well tries to rape her, and treats her as if she is by default sexually available when he declares “let him get his afterward.  I’ll have mine first.” (Petry 428)  This is an invasion of Lutie’s space is the most personal of all, since “our most important boundary is our own skin; the most significant ‘home’ for any of us is within our own bodies.” (Greenbie 672)  Even when she is not being pressured into sex she is under the stigma of racial and gender discrimination.

    Lutie Johnson’s time in Connecticut exposes her to the very private lives of affluent whites.  Although she is technically free to move about she is still restricted by her station in regards to race and gender.  On more than one occasion Lutie has the opportunity to overhear the attitudes of her employers about her sexuality.  Lutie overhears Mrs. Chandler’s mother say “That girl is unusually attractive and men are weak.  Besides, she’s colored and you know how they are.“ (Petry 45)  However Lutie has a strong will to achieve for herself and strongly resents these kinds of assumptions about her and fumes that in the eyes of whites “if a girl was colored and fairly young, why, it stood to reason she had to be a prostitute.” (45)  Part of this strong will to achieve and believe in the “American Dream” comes from her time with the Chandlers.

    Although the Chandlers are highly dysfunctional, she admires the ideals that the Chandlers tout.  After spending a year with them she comes under “the belief that anybody could be rich if he wanted to and worked hard enough,” and blames her station in life because “they hadn’t tried hard enough, worked long enough, saved enough.” (43)  However this belief discounts the fact that there are discriminatory policies and reduced opportunities for African Americans.  Her time at the Chandlers’ home is as confining as any other space she lives in within the novel, especially when you consider that it is a separation from her family.  This is a separation, facilitated by her husband’s inability to find work.  It eventually costs her her marriage and is another step to her final move onto 116th street.

    Lutie finds herself in need of her own private space due to the fact that she disapproves of the environment at her father’s house, and its effect upon her son Bub.  She is in the belief that anything is better than a place where Bub is exposed to drinking, smoking, and crime.  When she first finds the apartment house on 116th street the sign reads “Three rooms, steam heat, parquet floors, respectable tenants. Reasonable.” (Petry 3)  Lutie Johnson is a keen observer however and is able to read the true text of this sign.  She knew that “. . .the wood was so old and so discolored no amount of varnish or shellac would conceal the scars,” and respectable tenants only meant “anyone who could pay the rent,” and was able to size up the true quality of the tenants (3).  Despite her reservations she takes the place, although her transition into her new private space is restrictive as well.

    Just navigating into her apartment on a daily basis provides obstacles for Lutie.  Mrs. Hedges is always situated in her window and keeps track of the comings and goings of all the residents.  Even in her first encounter with the superintendent Jones she is restricted by her fear of him and the hallways that are “so narrow that she could reach out and touch them on either side without having to stretch her arms any distance.” (12)  She can hear other residents through the thin walls, there is poor lighting and the floors are covered in dirt and trash.  This provides an ambience of claustrophobia and a lack of privacy in a place where everyone can hear what everyone else is doing.  Even control over her own private domain is compromised by super  Jones’ misguided obsession with Lutie.  He paints her apartment many different colors in an attempt to please her, when she was set on having plain white walls.  This act adds to the feeling of helplessness of Lutie to control her privacy.  In an apartment with only one small window you get a sense of claustrophobia and such architecture speaks volumes about it.  In a private space “walls enclosing a space make the difference between a boundary and a barrier, between an enclave and a prison.” (Greenbie 674)

    The obsessive Jones’ repeatedly invades Lutie’s private space.  This culminates in his sexual assault of Lutie and his framing of her son Bub for mail fraud.  Lutie is constantly wary of the danger of Jones’ proximity.  She is well aware that the circumstances and conditions of the street she is living on produce negative consequences.  She regards Jones’ after learning that he has been visiting her son as someone who “had been chained to buildings until he was like an animal.” (Petry 191)  However, Lutie does not completely assign blame on the environment and recognizes that individual experience is a factor as well.  This is shown after Mrs. Hedges prevents Jones from raping Lutie and Mrs. Hedges remarks “he’s lived in cellars so long he’s kind of cellar crazy.” (240)  Although “Lutie, interestingly enough given her later convictions about the oppressive environment, disputes the idea,” which shows despite her constant narrative about the effects of living in poverty she realizes, “environmental explanations, both necessary and insufficient, must be complemented by immersion in personal histories.” (Eby 38)

    Despite this need for explanations outside the environmental role of poverty the focus of the novel is about restrictions by society in freedom of choice of environment and the lack of opportunities to break free from assigned spaces due to segregation.  Lutie makes observations about how the wretched destitution of poverty and being assigned to live in squalor affects its residents throughout most of the novel.  She observes that the young girls walking the streets have “faces that contained no hope, no life.” (Petry 188)  In psychology, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides an outline for what are basic needs that must be met in order to function effectively.  Foremost on the list is the need for food and shelter, and after that safety, in regards to housing and of the body.  Lutie must struggle with all of these most basic needs which leaves her no time to satisfy any of her greater desires for an improved life for her son.  She is aware of the fact that living in such harsh conditions of poverty and hopelessness that achieving any kind of success is severely impeded and that is why it is so important to her that, “she couldn’t let Bub grow up in a place like this.” (188)

    The constant pressure that Lutie feels to achieve the idealized “American Dream” are dashed by discrimination, exclusion and exploitation.  The oppression of poverty and the circumstances that it provides for her are a constant drain on her emotionally, financially, and physically.  The story culminates in her murdering Boots Jones who is going to rape her, the ultimate invasion of her personal space, which is an issue with people and spaces throughout the novel.  While environment is not the sole shaper of who people are, living in squalid conditions surrounded by hopelessness, depression and cramped spaces clearly affects those who are confined to this level of destitution.  Petry viscerally brings to life the despair and difficulty of navigating through the restrictions placed on African American females.

    Works Cited

    Eby, Clare Virginia. “Beyond Protest: The Street as Humanitarian Narrative.” MELUS 33.1 (Spring2008 2008): 33-53. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Cal State Northridge, Northridge, CA. 25 Nov. 2008

    Greenbie, Barrie B. “Home Space: Fences and Neighbors.” Signs of Life in the U.S.A. 5th ed. Sponia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 672-674.

    Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston: Beacon, 1946.

    Wesling, Meg. “The Opacity of Everyday Life: Segregation and the Iconicity of Uplift in The Street.” American Literature 78.1 (Mar. 2006): 120. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Cal State Northridge, Northridge, CA 20 Nov. 2008


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  • Theory 08.13.2009 3 Comments


    Excerpt #1 from George Saunders’ “The End of FIRPO in the World” (The Beginning):

    “The boy on the bike flew by the chink’s house, and the squatty-body’s house, and the house where the dead guy had rotted for five days, remembering that the chink had once called him nasty, the squatty-body had once called the cops when he’d hit her cat with a lug nut on a string, the chick in the dead guy’s house had once asked if he, Cody, ever brushed his teeth.  Someday when he’d completed the invention of his special miniaturizing ray he would shrink their houses and flush them down the shitter while in tiny voices all three begged for some sophisticated mercy, but he would only say, Sophisticated?  When were you ever sophisticated to me?  And from the toilet bowl they would say, Well, yes, you’re right, we were pretty mean, flush us down, we deserve it; but no, at the last minute he would pluck them out and place them in his lunchbox so he could send them on secret missions such as putting hideous boogers of assassination in Lester Finn’s thermos if Lester Finn ever again asked him in Civics why his rear smelled like hot cotton with additional crap cling-ons” (Saunders 128).

    Excerpt #2 (The End):

    “Oh the freaking FIRPO, why couldn’t he just shut up?  If the stickman thought he, Cody, was good, he must be FIRPO, because he, Cody, wasn’t good, he was FIRPO, Mom had said so and Daryl had said so and even Mr. Dean in Science had told him to stop lying the time he tried to tell about seeing the falling star.  The announcers in the booth above the willow began weeping as he sat on Mom’s lap and said he was very sorry for having been such a FIRPO son and Mom said, Oh thank you, thank you, Cody, for finally admitting it, that makes it nice, and her smile was so sweet he closed his eyes and felt a certain urge to sort of shake thing out and oh Christ dance.  You are beautiful, beautiful, the stickman kept saying, long after the boy had stopped thrashing, God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight” (Saunders 135).

    George Saunders’ use of experimental and postmodern literary techniques in “The End of FIRPO in the World” shift between worlds, one in which elements are firmly grounded in the real, another which occurs interstitially between the real and imaginary, and the real colored by the imagination.  His comedic tone is colored by the ambiguous line between humor and cruelty in the human experience.  His use of erasure and free indirect discourse focus and involve us on a protagonist whom we may find hard to decide is sympathetic or just an awful little kid.  By looking at Saunders’ methods and the ideologies that helped shape the postmodern story we can take this study of tween awkwardness and see how it relates to the enigmatic human experience.

    We immediately get erasure, as the names of Cody’s neighbors are assigned merely nicknames, and their absence of identity focuses us keenly on Cody’s imaginative view of the world.  We are taken into immediate action with “The boy flew by,” but we are immediately taken out of the action into the freely reeling mind of Cody (128).  We are taken to a place in between the reality of the world and one in which flights of fancy are played out.  Because of this we lose a sense of time and space, which helps to reveal the hidden insecurities and cruelties our protagonist is beset by,  and we find out as well that Cody is not the nicest kid, hitting neighbor’s cats with lug nuts and such.  This compression of time and loss of reality open our view to the complexities of disputing human qualities, as “beneath the veneer of common sense and seemingly natural ideas about space and time, there lie hidden terrains of ambiguity, contradiction and struggle” (Sarup and Tasneem 99).

    In our final scene with Cody he has been struck by a car on his bicycle and lays dying in the road.  Cody continues to daydream and moves between the real and imaginary once again, only to mourn the fact that he was such a FIRPO, and thinks the perhaps Christ-like figure of the stickman who is assuring him of God’s love cannot possibly be right about him being a good person which shows a discontinuity between perception of the self and the other.  This brings up one of the most compelling elements of the story, the word FIRPO.  A perfectly grammatical sounding word, FIRPO is never explained, is all in capitals so it invokes curiousity about it being an acronym, and one begins to fully understand what it is by the end of the story.  His mother and her boyfriend pretend it’s affectionate at times, and other times they say it in whispers about him in mean tones, and one begins to gain an understanding of it not only by what it references, but what it doesn’t reference.  It does not mean good, it does not mean coordinated, it does not mean you are right (“If the stickman thought he, Cody, was good, he must be FIRPO, because he, Cody, wasn’t good,” (Saunders 135)) so one begins to get the gist of what FIRPO might encompass, as Derrida wrote, “Whether in the order of spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present,” and what is not present in the use of FIRPO are virtues and human strengths (337).

    Saunders’ careful construction, or rather destruction of time, space, identity, and unhindered access to the thoughts of our protagonist Cody allows us to see a blurring between binary oppositions, such as affection and derision, cruelty and humor, as well as reality, the divine and illusion.  Perhaps that is the human condition, an endless series of contridiction, ambiguity, and perception, and one which may be examined through the lens of the postmodern.

    Works Cited

    Derrida, Jacques. “Semiology and Grammatology” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.

    Sarup, Madan, and Tasneem Raja. Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

    NetLibrary. California State Univ, Northridge. 13 August 2009. <http://www.netlibrary.com.libproxy.csun.edu:2048>

    Saunders, George. “The End of FIRPO in the World.” Pastoralia: Stories. NewYork: Riverhead Books, 2000.

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  • Theory 08.06.2009


    Excerpt from Terry Pratchett’s “Making Money”

    “When he got back to the Post Office, Moist looked up the Lavish family in Whom’s Whom.  They were indeed what was known as “old money,” which meant that it had been made so long ago that the black deeds which had originally filled the coffers were now historically irrelevant.  Funny, that: a brigand for a father was something you kept quiet about, but a slave-taking pirate for a great-great-great-grandfather was something to boast of over the port.  Time turned the evil bastards into rogues, and rogue was a word with a twinkle in its eye and nothing to be ashamed of” (Pratchett 71).

    Terry Pratchett takes a satirical stab at the extreme upper class, those who are “old money”.  The wealthiest among us are often targets for satire, but they are also admired, held up to celebrity status, and often painted as people whom we should be jealous of and aspire to be.  Many of the families considered “old money” in the United States are relatively new to wealth in the longer timeline of the existence of countries, and a lot of them came into power by less than honorable means.  However, as Terry Pratchett points out, time has indeed turned “evil bastards into rogues”.  Karl Marx’s views on class and divisions between the masses may help to explain why it is we celebrate the richest portion of our population as “captains of industry”, and their children as “socialites” whom we admire.
    It is commonplace these days to see images of the ultra-rich on the cover’s of magazines, out on their yachts, out on the town, and crossing over and hob-nobbing with entertainment celebrities.  Those who are celebrity fetishists follow their every move, and admire them for their “tenacity” and hail them as brilliant business people when starting their own line of clothing or a new fragrance, no doubt bank rolled by their prestigious parentage.  Others see the ultra-wealthy as vapid, without substance, and an annoyance that we are supposed to think that these are better people than the common person.  Yet the idea is always there that they are somehow better than the common person.  Our country was formed on the principles of free trade and the open market, but like any society the ones with the upper hand establish the rules off the bat.  One explanation may be that “for each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed as an ideal form” (Marx, “The German Ideology” 657).
    One glaring example of this was the way William Randolph Hearst used his media empire to libel his competitors and on frequent occasion color everything from business to politics in order to gain advantages.  Depending on who you ask, or which biography you read, he was either a brilliant businessman, or a tireless thug.  Surprisingly he’s portrayed as the brilliant businessman more often, as time has turned him from thug to clever rogue.  But this is nothing new as the upper class and “all the preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation” (Marx, and Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”).  As long as the upper class is allowed to dictate to us what is desirable, what we should strive towards (their status), and perpetuate the image that we can all achieve with hard work what many of them have solely because of the inexhaustible resources they possess, society will continue to be stratified unequally and we will continue to falsely worship “evil bastards” as “rogues” to be admired (Pratchett 71).

    Works Cited

    Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed.
    Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.

    Marx, Karl and Engels, Friederich. “The Communist Manifesto”. Project
    Gutenberg.  January 25, 2005.  Accessed August 2, 2009.

    Pratchett, Terry. Making Money: A Novel of Discworld. New York, NY: Harper, 2007.

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  • Theory 07.21.2009

    ingres-apotheosis-of-homer1A man sits among a crowd, his left foot’s toes soaking in the sun.  He is wrapped loosely in thin white material, while a supernatural entity is crowning him.  Surrounded by the crowd, some in awe and fealty, some indifferent, some jealous and spiteful.  At his left foot a woman in cool spring green, at his right the parched orange and red of fall.  He is being offered gifts of music and literature, and boxes with mysterious contents, but are gilded with the promise of riches.  Colors like the varied temperments of the crowd on either of his sides, the refreshing cool blues of contentment, the firey red figure promising passion and pain.  Far below the man sit the men in black, their eyes full of anger and resentment, and among them one man dressed in white sketches the scene on his canvas, his eyes stare up to the celebrated man, and he feels deep envy.


    In this painting, the poet Homer is seen surrounded by admirers and being crowned by the goddess Nike and surrounded by other great creative figures of history (eg Virgil, Sappho, Euripides, and strangely enough Shakespeare).  The feminine are only portrayed in Nike, and the two women at his feet.  Nike symbolizes victory, and is crowning Homer, as if to declare that he is above all others represented in the painting.  The two females represent his two major works, the Iliad (featured in red, perhaps signifying the turmoil and inner fire of youth, who is sitting next to a sword, which may speak to the brashness and passion of youth), and on his other side sits the Odyssey who is clad in green and holding a boat oar, which may represent the calm and reflectiveness of his older works.  Some of the great artists represented seem to hold him in great awe, and he is offered a lute and a scroll, which would represent the musicality and rhythm of poetry in the lute and literature represented as the scroll.  Homer is dead center in the painting and is elevated above the crowd, which helps emphasize the meaning of the title, where the word apotheosis helps to solidify the intent of the painting, being as the word apotheosis means “the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god” (dictionary.com).  We can find meaning in the similarities of the situation as well as the dissimilarities, as Saussure espouses that language values “are always composed” of either a “dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is determined,” or “of similar things that can be compared with the thing” (Saussure).  Some similarities occur in the fact that almost everyone around him is an artist, however, he stands apart, in that he is the admired, and not the one doing the admiring.  The situation is also representational when compared as resembling “the format of an altarpiece, with its godhead and descending tiers of the elect” (University of Michigan).  It takes the form of something else that also serves to exalt the centerpiece of the work and meaning can be extracted by comparing the similar and dissimilar in the signifiers and what they signify.  The overall aesthetic of the painting is achieved well, and does give the sense that Homer is being uplifted into the position of at the  least “the celebrated”, and at most a god among artists.

    Works Cited

    "apotheosis." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc.
         23 Jul. 2009. <Dictionary.com
    "Apotheosis of Homer by Ingres" University of Michigan. n.d.
          Web. 22 July. 2009.
    Saussure, Ferdinand de. "Course in General Linguistics"
         Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie,
         and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.

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  • Theory 07.16.2009

    In the YouTube video clip Coffee Is Not a Drink for Pussies, poet Rick Lupert does a stylized presentation of one of his poems.  I intend to analyze its diction, form, and address critical objections using ideas espoused by Aristotle in his work Poetics.

    The first aspect of the poem being recited is that it is in a conversational tone.  Based on Aristotle’s observations, iambic meter is often employed when using the style of normal speech as “we most usually drop into iambics in our conversation with one another” (Aristotle 62).  Given that the poem is delivered in an informal conversational quality the meter lends itself to establishing that it is being spoken to an audience in this manner.

    The poem is about coffee and incorporates imagery that is common in the human experience with the beverage.  The setting is in a coffee shop, and there are images of cups of coffee, coffee presses, and coffee machines.  This imitation of the coffee drinking experience offers us a way to relate to the material, but what helps it achieve the poetic and comedic affect is how “the execution or colouring” of the situation deviates from our normal view of the coffee drinking experience (Aristotle 61).  The camera work and demeanor of the poet convey an exaggerated, twitchy style that lends itself to speaking about the stimulating drink.  By coloring the experience in this way the poet represents it in a comedic tone, given that it has taken something commonplace and made it worse, in the manner that by worse, I mean ridiculous, and “ridiculous is a species of ugliness,” and while this reimagined view of coffee may be “distorted and ugly,” it “causes no pain” (Aristotle 63).

    The poet talks about common experiences with coffee, such as “one drop will stain your shirt forever,” however he also includes the ridiculous and attributes it as the cause of such things as “premature ejaculation”, and “undercooked omelettes” (Coffee).  A critical objection in Aristotle’s view may be that perhaps this is a lack of skill or an error in the way this imitation is represented.  However, to illustrate the aim of the poem (representing coffee as a dark and ominous force), the poet has “depicted something impossible,” however, “he is justified in doing it as long as the art attains its end,” and has made “this or some other part of the poem more striking” (Aristotle 93).  Therefore, the exaggerated simile and conceits of the poem move to further the comedic, ridiculous aspects and do not taint the imitative representation of the object.

    The poet’s use of diction and form suggest a carefully crafted work, with fully intended use of poetic structure and language, and not a flawed imitative representation.

    Works Cited

    Aristotle. “Poetics” Classical Literary Criticism. Comp. Murray, Penelope, and T. S. Dorsch. Penguin classics. London: Penguin Books, 2000.

    “Coffee Is Not a Drink for Pussies” 24 May 2006. Online video clip. YouTube. Accessed on 14 July 2008. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQFobxyP5xE>

    Additional Notes:  Rick Lupert hosts an open poetry reading every tuesday night at the Cobalt Cafe in Canoga Park, CA —  More information can be found on his site at: www.poetrysuperhighway.com/cobalt

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  • Theory 07.15.2009



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    Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular. -- Aristotle