Friday, August 13, 2010

Whimpers, Bangs, and Reality

When humans first starting entertaining themselves with staged narratives, audiences expected protagonists to make some type of "dramatic exit." Oedipus needed to gouge his eyes out. Medea had to kill her children and fly off in the sun god's chariot. A lot has changed since the day of Aristotle's three unities-- we no longer expect the action to take place in real time, in one place, with one mood. But we continue to anticipate narratives that end with shock and awe. It's no coincidence that when T.S. Eliot set out to Modernize literature by repudiating and reinventing what came before, one of his most enduring lines became "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper." This was a shock to our sensibility that closure requires a shock to our sensiblity.

But contemporary storytellers who have attempted to make a statement by ending with a whimper have more often than not met with a backlash. When Larry David tried to emphasize the fact that his characters were supposed to be "hollow men," viewers and critics alike derided the last episode of Seinfeld. But that episode at least had some narrative closure--unlike The Sopranos, which caused many people to contact their cable company to report a technical failure.

So in this postmodern era, creators have become confronted with a dilemma. We have entered a philosophical age in which closure is resisted and the existence of singular symbolic events is doubted. Furthermore, those who seek mimesis in their art are offended by the notion that we need to have dramtic events at the climax of a situation. After all, in real life a dramatic event usually happens first, (if it happens at all), leaving people to slowly pick up pieces rather than becoming spurred on to another dramatic moment. But on the other hand, audiences usually don't care about philosophical zeitgeist or representations of reality, they want what they always have--a story that has a climactic ending!

Given this tension between artist and consumer, somebody has to compromise. In our culture, that for the most part, has been the artist. If someone were to sit through the top 10 movies of the summer box office and then go to the beach and read through the top 10 fiction bestsellers, I would speculate that they would get 20 stories that end with a bang instead of a whimper. But the events of the past week leave me wondering if there has been or will be a shift on the part of the consumer.

I'm not suggesting that people are suddenly embracing non-dramatic, ambiguous endings. Rather, I'm suggesting that instead of changing fiction to fit reality, they are changing reality to fit fiction. JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater became an overnight sensation for reasons that no cultural theorist need elucidate. I'm sure that even for people who leave jobs on good terms, there is something anti-climactic about farewell cards and cake in the breakroom. And even though the HOPA dry erase gal turned out to be a hoax, the fact that her stunt was seen by millions of people in one day's time certainly unearths the same deep-seated phenomena that Slater tapped into.

So while Aristotle asserted that on-stage drama allowed people to achieve catharsis without having to experience (additional) real life drama, our contemporary culture has created memes that A) make it harder to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, and B) potentially allow dramatic events to bleed over from the realm of make believe. This is attributable to not only the Internet, but so-called reality television as well. As contestants on these shows have become more aware of exactly how to garner maximum attention, it stands to reason that an emerging generation of solipsists is learning how to manipulate events in order to align with their inner scripts. And the fact that those scripts seem to mesh with the kind of script that consumers have demanded since Aristotle's day may make a lot of people happy. But there may be a few folks who suddenly want to gouge their eyes out.


Anonymous Tim said...

I was wondering how you were going to end that post. #meta

11:22 PM  

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