Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Semi-Sequel. Sorting out Commentary and Genre in a Post-Barthes World

In the last piece, I essentially defended my opinion on The VVitch and found myself stumbling through the implications and complexities of genre fiction. Okay, quick and dirty background. This guy named Barthes put forward an idea called “the death of the author,” essentially that it doesn’t matter what a writer intended with their work, that the reader is where meaning is created and how conclusions are drawn. A major complicating factor is everything that the reader has ever read (and their life experience) influences that meaning. It’s also arguable that everything the author ever read is similarly influential.

There are two big takeaways here. Well, there are a bunch, but the two I’m going to point out here are as follows:

First, this potentially means that the act of reading (or ingesting media in general) is basically crossing a river, and that as we are, all of us, pretty much always consuming more stories and living through our lives, you can never cross that same river twice. The flow doesn’t stop. You can focus on a particularly vivid and meaningful crossing, analyze, apply, and dissect it, but that’s it. And I’d maintain that analysis, in fact, similarly changes the meaning because the act creates new text that someone else could subsequently ingest. Moreover, the basic principles of how confirmation bias works means that the act of creation and revision (especially revision) are creating an ouroboros of self-referential thinking.

Second, this means that any defensible conclusion (defensible being analytically concluded through argument and referential evidence) is valid. At the same time, that conclusion is easily dismissed as a theoretical construct. This ties back to the other previous piece (II. The Pitfalls. . .) governing the popular misconception that social analysis results in concrete and unassailable conclusions rather than positions worthy of  acknowledgement and, in many cases, internal (personal and societal) examination.

And subsequently, what does that mean? It means value and meaning of a given text or idea are not invariable, nor even really definable so much as circumscribed and arguable. What it does not mean is this implies a lack of value, it just means it can’t be measured in troy ounces but instead the potential impact it has.

So what does this have to do with genre? At the end of the last piece, I started to unravel a bit when I acknowledged that for The VVitch to work as a story of a woman’s empowerment by categorically removing herself from a society with catastrophic consequences, regardless of her initial intent, is that, in and of itself, through the nature of the story’s chosen medium (horror) a commentary on that liberation and empowerment? That by using a violent, deadly, supernatural setting, that a woman finding that freedom and empowerment is inherently unnatural, violent, deadly and potentially not worth the cost?

I’d say that the argument can have its place just as much as it’s completely contradictably arguable, defensible that genre is used here to sever, but not completely sever, a connection to current day society and allow an audience to more easily digest what’s going on (or miss it completely, or receive it subtextually), and allow an artist to explore the potentially difficult critique of a society that maligns and mistreats, in ways both subtle and gross, half the population.

Another example of this might be the slasher genre from the 1980s, specifically the Jason Vorhees movies. A friend and former professor and I once discussed these as a monument to “traditional family values” as a part of the culture wars at the time. It’s hard to miss the well-behaved, chaste woman is depicted as the hero while, one by one, the hypersexual partying teens are almost exclusively killed (in sometimes ironic fashion) while “misbehaving” against these traditional family values. Moreover, the monster Jason was (in at least one version) created in the first place because the kids that were supposed to be protecting him, supposed to behave responsibly and live up to their societal expectations at a summer camp, were negligent and he died. This is a keen and specific message to send to an audience (it goes without saying that the well behaved, chaste woman character is also the most likeable, another indicator of a potential message here, the good girl is the nice one, folks. Partying, do what they want kids are jerks).

However, once again, there are instances where Jason, as a child, was already disfigured and/or mentally disabled, and therefore neglected for being different. In the context of the 1980s and the western hemisphere’s punk rock explosion, all of this completely reframes the “bad” kids, making their partying lifestyle (something more socially acceptable if not a non-starter for judgment) among counter culture perspectives incidental to the story. Instead, their lack of character is demonstrated by their shallow neglect. In this sense, Jason represents social progress and/or a power fantasy of the outsider element representing a threat to the “real” problem, “rich mean pretty kids.”

A third option brings us back to the second argument I referenced in the VVitch and (slightly) unpacked here: That if the first or second are what they are, genre can either be a vehicle to tell those stories, or the stories are completely subverted or commented on by that genre. In the first case, the religious right/moral majority represents a hideous, unthinking monster set to destroy free spirits that aim to misbehave. By the same token, genre here implies that the outsider element is similarly monstrous and reactionary, far over-reaching any appropriate methods to affect change or even reach the open minded accommodation outsiders tend to profess, insinuating that calls for understanding and open-mindedness are only present because they are on the outside being judged and that when the roles are reversed, they would be perpetrators of the same crime.

Despite their completely contradictory nature, I don’t think any of these are invalid. Nor do I think they have more or less value depending on the results of that contradiction. The value comes from the inspiration of deeper critical thinking, further close reading, and the acknowledgement that we are complex, our art reflects that complexity even when it may seem like it doesn’t, and that the elements of analysis can scale with the level of the analyzer. What I will say though is there is value in an ability to move in and out of an argument, to ascend/descend through the levels of observation and argumentation (without hierarchy) in the interest of continually evolving perspective.