Post-Boredom: The Cultural Significance of Bizarro Fiction

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INTRODUCTION

This is the last of my three essays I wrote in the second semester of last year that I’ll be posting here. I chose to share these three essays and not the ones I wrote earlier on in my course because last semester was all about the things I’m really interested in, and by this time I’d learned a thing or two about essay writing. These essays are about topics I love and they’re basically the entire reason why I’ve been at uni for the past three years.

This last essay was for my creative writing supervised project, it’s 3,000 words and I submitted it alongside a 7,500 word creative project called “Once Upon A Time On Mars”, which I have also made available a while ago on this blog and on goodreads. This assignment is a smaller version of what I’ll be doing in the second semester of this year and first semester of next year for my honours project. I’m thinking for honours I’ll examine characterisation and the counter-cultural protagonist in bizarro, but that’s not set in stone yet.

This essay is about the bizarro movement, and what it says about the contemporary culture in which it was produced. This essay may feel a bit heavy on the academic jargon, but I usually try to keep things relatively easy to understand, regardless of your background. If anything needs clarifying, I’d be happy to oblige.

On another note, if you’re writing an essay on a similar topic, you’re welcome to reference this essay, but remember, I’m an undergrad and this essay is a little rough around the edges. It’s no honours/PhD thesis, and it’s not published in any academic journals. If you’re after solid, reliable reference materials, maybe try hunting down some of the stuff in my “Works Cited” list.

POST-BOREDOM:

THE CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF BIZARRO FICTION

When you pick up the books; Zombies and Shit, by Carlton Mellick III; Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy, by Bradley Sands; or The Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island, by Cameron Pierce, you should hold at least some understanding that the books you’re about to read are going to be different from Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or the Brontë Sisters. That’s not to say bizarro fiction is less accessible to the mainstream than other genres or styles, or that it is of an inferior literary class, but rather that it is the product of a different culture. The website Bizarro Central defines bizarro as “the genre of the weird,” and “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.” They state that “Bizarro was created by a group of small press publishers in response to the increasing demand for (good) weird fiction and the increasing number of authors who specialize in it.” Bizarro is a response to mainstream fiction which employs basic literary techniques to represent a (sub)cultural identity that transcends the boredom of postmodernist experimentalism – which is to say that bizarro works with more than just simulation and the depthless aesthetics of contemporary fiction.

‘Weird’ – it is a term that is too vague and broad to accurately summarise an entire genre. Science fiction can be weird, as can fantasy and horror; even realism can be weird sometimes. None of these genres are necessarily bizarro because of this simple trait. We must instead seek a more technical way to address the question: what makes bizarro, bizarro? There is often an emphasis on crude, violent, sexual or offensive elements (which are openly represented on the books’ covers and titles), and they can function around one (or more) other genres, transforming them into something strange and warped. Here, bizarro fiction borders on the uncanny, what Freud calls the ‘unheimlich’ or ‘un-homely’. Fistful of Feet, by Jordan Krall, is recognisable as a western, but a modified, estranged form of the genre that is less homely than generic westerns, and it is transformed beyond normal-weird and into bizarro-weird through its use of nonsensical elements and perverse detailing of obscure fetishes. Based on these loose elements, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult western film, El Topo, could be read as a bizarro film. However, bizarro is a movement as well as a genre; it is centred around a small group of authors and publishers, where texts such as El Topo can only be identified as being bizarro-like in nature. It is important when examining bizarro fiction to keep in mind the common elements of bizarro texts, and the literary movement which produces them, to avoid confusion between bizarro and texts that appear bizarro-like on a surface level.

It could be argued that bizarro fiction’s imitation of cult status films, and emphasis on violence and sexuality, signify that it is a form of posmodernist literature which only connects with its audience through a simulation of television and film – it is only good for entertainment, and nothing more. Baudrillard writes that “Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original – things are doubled by their own scenario. But this doubling does not signify, as it did traditionally, the imminence of their death – they are already purged of their death, and better than when they were alive; more cheerful, more authentic, in the light of their model, like the faces in funeral homes,” (11). To Baudrillard, the universe is a simulation; everything within it is a copy of something else, detached from its original meaning. We can never really access the original because the real world has become what Baudrillard calls a ‘simulacra’, reality is only imagined as real – an ideological construction, or ‘hyperreality.’ Fistful of Feet, as a bizarro-western, is only accessible to its readers through its simulation of western films, which are predominantly simulations of pre-colonial American culture, which is history – an ideological construction of past events, an imagined reality which has since been fictionalised and removed from its original context. Bizarro texts can be read as postmodernist narratives due to the novelty of their presentation as depthless entertainment, genre blending, intertextuality and the use of bricolage, mash-ups, and pastiche. Later on in this study we will examine how bizarro functions as a reaction to this concept of simulation and the meaninglessness of postmodern culture, but first we must have a firm understanding of these surface level observations.

Bizarro texts are something of a novelty, as they’re published by small, independent publishers and distributed online(with the ease and access of ‘virtual bookstores’ such as Amazon providing alternate distribution methods), and are not subject to the same scrutiny that you would find with mass market fiction relying on sales in book stores. This is most evident when observing the titles and covers available from bizarro publishers such as Eraserhead Press. Titles like Warrior Wolf Women of the Wasteland, Zombies and Shit, and The Morbidly Obese Ninja, all by Carlton Mellick III, draw attention towards the novelty of bizarro, hailing readers to view these texts in terms of their shock value and ‘weird-ness.’ In addition to the bizarre titles, each of these texts feature fetishised pin-up girl illustrations on their covers; a gun toting wolf woman, punk zombie, and anime schoolgirl (respectively) – which are novelties in their own right. However, they exist for aesthetic values only, as a simulacrum of sex and violence. When bizarro fiction resorts to shock value through a barrage of sex and violence, it only engages with the reader on a surface level, it is neither thought provoking, nor intellectually stimulating. It is just eye candy for the postmodern subject, a product of a culture driven by aesthetics and simulation, as opposed to meaning and representation.

In postmodernity everything is commodified. Jameson states; “Universal commodification, Marx would have called it… [is] the reorganization of everything in terms of money, the replacement of all earlier forms of global activity, forced and unforced, by wage labor, the reification and commodification of everything from art to feelings, from nature to social relations: everything is reified, and reified irrevocably – no return possible to the old, natural, prehuman or nonhuman things and states of affairs,” (378). Everything is removed from its former meaning (simulacra) and commodified. Books become more than just basic consumer goods, the ideas themselves become commodified, and they are organised and marketed by genre and demographic. A significant portion (not all) of bizarro texts employ elements of genres, sub-genres, blending between genres, intertextuality and the manipulation of genre conventions as the main selling point. While bizarro texts are virtually limitless to which genres they can use, there is a general focus towards older film genres with cult status, especially if it has recently experienced a resurgence in pop culture; genres like zombie/horror, noir, apocalypse, and the western. The re-presentation of genre makes bizarro more accessible, aesthetic, and consumable to the postmodern subject. On the blurb of David W. Barbee’s A Town Called Suckhole, Jeremy Robert Johnson calls the book “the finest post-apocalyptic southern gothic mudpunk buddy-cop blow-out ever put to print.” As global culture transforms into a larger, and more technologically advanced state, information is organised and broken down into smaller consumable amounts; while the blending of genres could be potentially problematic to the commodification of bizarro fiction, the use of genre is made visible to the reader of the text, and generic elements become a way of categorising bizarro texts as ‘this’, ‘that’, or ‘other’.

Another notable element of bizarro fiction is that it is short – most books fall within the range of 100-200 pages, where novellas less than 100 pages and flash fiction collections are quite common, and novels greater than 300 pages are quite rare. This reinforces the idea that the postmodern subject consumes everything in small doses, fragments at a time. People buy ebooks and store them on electronic devices that also store and organise their music and movies. Bricolage, pastiche and mash-up texts take advantage of this trend toward fragmented consumption, taking bits and pieces of what is already familiar to the reader, and commodifying them further. Zombies and Shit draws upon the zombie, horror and apocalypse genres, and filters it through a death match game show plot which references Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale [Batoru Rowaiaru]. This blending of different genres, styles and texts is not limited to bizarro fiction – Seth Grahame-Smith rewrote Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the zombie apocalypse to produce the mash-up text Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; the Star Wars series is a pastiche of western and science fiction tropes; and the anime series Cowboy Bebop [Kaubōi Bibappu] blends the genre aesthetics of the space western with musical (predominantly jazz) influences. These texts recycle the old into pop culture commodity, simulating postmodern culture, where meaning is arbitrary and the culture is already superficial, depthless.

While bizarro is a product of contemporary consumer culture, it is not all just superficial entertainment. It is not enough to simply outline that bizarro exists within a wider network of simulation and fragmented commodification – we need to examine how it simulates genre and culture. We must not forget that bizarro is a movement in response to “the increasing demand for (good) weird fiction,” (Bizarro Central). The core ideal here is the need to provide readers with fiction that the mainstream has yet to offer – as with the 1970s punk movement, bizarro provides a subculture where chaos and anarchy is the norm and nothing is too weird or obscene. Bizarro deviates from the mainstream, and is represented by a small number of independent publishers and authors who actively engage with their online readership to help progress and define the bizarro genre as a community. In a culture where meaning is arbitrary and the mainstream is built upon depthlessness and simulation, bizarro provides an otherwise identity-less culture with something to identify with.

In his essay, Experimental Fiction vs Bizarro, Carlton Mellick III distinguishes between the two genres, stating that “bizarro fiction is weirdness of plot and experimental fiction is weirdness of style.” While strange, an important element of bizarro fiction is its accessibility to its readership – using conventional narratives to tell bizarre stories. If a story is too complex or experimental in style, it will disorient the reader in a way that distances the reader, where a bizarro story told in a familiar way is disorienting the same way that science fiction or fantasy is disorienting; which is where the reader is presented with a world that is, at a glance, far removed from the real world. This is where genre, intertextuality and pastiche gain their depth. The Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island, by Cameron Pierce, is a story about a young pickle who falls in love with a pancake. While it is read for the novelty of the idea, the bizarre concept is framed around a narrative of unconventional love. The text performs cultural work beneath the surface of the narrative, as the pickle people and pancake people are born into cultures with polar opposite views of the world – the pickles, a lifetime of pessimism; and the pancakes, a lifetime of optimism. The protagonist pickle chooses to challenge his naturalised position in this world, and lives by Captain Pickle’s motto: “Unchain yourself from this briny fate, oh pickled prisoner!” (15). Bizarro texts don’t always have to be doing something, but when they do, it comes out through the narrative, and often reflects on culture in similar ways to fantasy and science fiction – with the unsettling representation of themes and issues that are connected to the real world, yet mediated through the fictional world.

In the introduction to Jordan Krall’s book, Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys, Gordan K. Smith writes: “after reading this story from Krall, I am not sure what he wanted to do to the reader. I’d say he was trying to entertain, but there’s something under the surface I cannot identify but it nags me nonetheless,” (9-10). Carlton Mellick III’s article, Weird For the Sake of Weird argues that bizarro fiction hinges upon strong storytelling – which is to say, basic literary techniques such as narrative, plot, setting and character development are more crucial to bizarro than making the weird elements of a story into metaphors or themes. Considering bizarro fiction’s cultural context as a movement, and its transformation of the familiar (the homely) into the uncanny (unhomely), it can be understood that the combination of strong, clear storytelling and absurd/bizarre content performs cultural work that transcends the simulacra of the texts, there’s something under the surface that goes beyond postmodern experimentalism.

The worlds of bizarro texts reflect those in science fiction, in that they go beyond the imagination of ‘the real’, yet the narratives still feel familiar; Darko Suvin calls it ‘cognitive estrangement’. This is where Zombies and Shit (a bizarro novel) is differentiated from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a mash-up novel). Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is set in a world we are already familiar with and uses characters we are already familiar with, and blends it with a zombie apocalypse – which is a strange and frightening situation for Jane Austen’s characters, yet the zombie apocalypse is a familiar scenario for the reader. While the blurb on the back of Zombies and Shit defines the book as “Battle Royale meets Return of the Living Dead,” it is set in a radically altered world, with a fresh cast of characters that is not immediately familiar to us. This is reflected in the opening paragraphs of the text; “Charlie rolls over in his sleep and spoons his wife lying next to him,” (9) and he proceeds to smell and feel her neck and hair in detail, gradually noticing unusual things about her and begins to doubt the reality of the situation until the moment of realisation; “This is definitely not his wife,” (9). The reader, like Charlie, begins the narrative with a general idea as to what he can expect, yet the bizarro worlds only reflect the real world in fragments through characters, plots, and settings that are estranged, yet realistic in their own framework, through the willing suspension of disbelief.

Genre, intertextuality and pastiche function both to entertain and to subvert the commodification of genre and pop culture. Where other genres have clear parameters, bizarro functions to demolish the rules of genre fiction, to take tropes and elements of genres and blend them with other tropes or genres, or subvert, deconstruct or parody genre, or to use their aesthetics to subvert the meaninglessness of postmodernity and tell stories that transcend the parameters of the genre(s) being reworked. Fistful of Feet is informed by the western genre; it follows a western narrative in a western setting with western characters. The world of Fistful of Feet is immediately more recognisable than Zombies and Shit or Pickled Apocalypse, yet it is gradually transformed by things that don’t belong in the traditional western; cattle with tentacles, a burping gun, a squid fetishist – all functioning to defamiliarise the reader and to transport them into a bizarro setting. Again, there is an emphasis on narrative and entertainment, yet Fistful of Feet is complicated by its moral ambiguity; it is a novel filled with scoundrels, thieves, outlaw gunslingers and prostitutes, with each character more despicable than the last. It sends out a different message to Pickled Apocalypse, yet it is nonetheless significant to the culture in which it is produced – a postmodern culture of excessive commodification where genre is just another category for organising and storing information.

In his essay, Politics in Fantasy, Jeff VanderMeer posits that; “’politics’ in fiction is not just about using a backdrop of war or atrocity or city dynamics at the macro level to explore questions that affect us in a long-term, broad way. It is also about understanding that all people are political in some way, even those who seem apathetic, because politics is about gender, society, and culture. Every aspect of our lives is in some way political. So if we don’t, at some point during our writing, think about this consciously – if we simply trust our instincts as writers – we may unintentionally preserve cliché, stereotype, and prejudice,” (39). VanderMeer is a part of the ‘new weird’ literary movement, which shares some common ground with bizarro in that it seeks to rework fantasy into a bizarre, imaginative, and contemporary setting. He mentions that fantasy has the ability to appear both timely and timeless, and that; “seen through the mirror of a fantasy setting that allows the real world to be reflected in it, a writer can perhaps more easily be relevant – in the short term – without running the risk of becoming dated in the long term,” (40). Bizarro is inherently political in its juvenile liberation of fantasy, where the new weird is political in its literary re-imagining of fantasy. Bizarro fiction, Bradley Sands argues, is more like children’s fantasy, and “while the majority of adult fantasy may involve elves and dragons and magicians, most children’s fantasy concern protagonists having experiences that are strange and entirely new to them (and the reader).” There is also the political in the way bizarro represents that which society has attempted to hide – the uncanniness of the bizarre, of fetish and taboo. The politics of bizarro is not limited to the representation of fetishes, taboos, and the obscene, but rather that they are part of a larger discourse of politics that is defined by the unsettling nature of cognitive estrangement and the uncanny, the ‘weird.’

Ultimately, bizarro fiction boils down to two elements; being weird, and being entertaining. The effectiveness of these elements is determined by the reader, and (as with all genres) some texts are more effective than others. As a product of postmodernity, bizarro could be read as depthless, superficial commodification of genre, however, the cultural movement signifies a desire to transcend the boredom and depthlessness of mainstream fiction by subverting genre and pop culture – its focus on creativity and cognitive estrangement highlights the desire to take postmodernity into a state where meaning can be found in amongst the meaninglessness, a state that is post-simulation, post-boredom.

REFERENCE LIST

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: T. Egerton, Whitehall, 1813. Print.

Austen, Jane and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009. Print.

Bizarro Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.

Barbee, David W. A Town Called Suckhole. Portland: Eraserhead Press, 2011. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Carrol, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan, 1865. Print.

Cowboy Bebop [Kaubōi Bibappu] Dir. Shinichiro Watanabe. Madman Entertainment, 1998. TV.

El Topo. Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky. Douglas Films, 1970. Film.

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2001. Print.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. [Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo] Dir. Sergio Leone. United Artists, 1966. Film.

Jameson, Fredric. “New Literary History after the End of the New.” New Literary History 39.3 (2008): 375-87. Project Muse. Web. 7 Oct. 2011.

Krall, Jordan. Fistful of Feet. Portland: Eraserhead Press, 2009. Print.

Mellick III, Carlton. “Experimental Fiction vs. Bizarro.” Bizarro Central. N.p. 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 12 Sep. 2011.

—. The Morbidly Obese Ninja. Portland: Eraserhead Press, 2011. Print.

—. Warrior Wolf Women of the Wasteland. Portland: Eraserhead Press, 2009. Print.

—. “Weird for the Sake of Weird.” Bizarro Central. N.p. 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 12 Sep. 2011.

—. Zombies and Shit. Portland: Eraserhead Press, 2010. Print.

Pauley III, William. Doom Magnetic. Portland: New Flesh Books, 2010. Goodreads. Web. 19 Feb. 2011.

Pierce, Cameron. The Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island. Portland: Eraserhead Press, 2010. Print.

Rango. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Paramount Pictures, 2011. Film.

The Return of the Living Dead. Dir. Dan O’Bannon. Orion Pictures, 1985. Film.

Sands, Bradley. “Bizarro vs Children’s Fantasy.” Bizarro Central. N.p. 24 May. 2011. Web. 12 Sep. 2011.

—. Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy. Portland: Lazy Fascist-Eraserhead, 2010. Print.

Smith, Gordon K. Introduction. Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys By Jordan Krall. Copeland Valley Press; n.p. 2011. Print.

Star Wars Original Trilogy. Dir. George Lucas. 20th Century Fox, 1977-1983. Film.

Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics od the Science Fiction Genre.” College English 34.3 (1972): 372-82. JSTOR. Web. 7 Oct. 2011.

Takami, Koushun. Battle Royale [Batoru Rowaiaru]. Tokyo: Ohta Publishing, 1999. Print.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy Through Essays, Articles and Reviews. Bowie: Guide Dog Books, 2011. Print.

Frodo Lives: Where will online piracy end up?

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A lot of people have been following the whole issue with SOPA/PIPA and online piracy that’s been going on lately, and it seems to have a fair number of internet users in outrage, and while there are people on both sides of the argument, I’m firmly against how the American government have decided to handle copyright infringement over the internet. While I like owning books and movies and music and things like that, I don’t believe the government should be allowed to ban and punish every website that contains copyrighted material that doesn’t belong to them. For one thing, the internet is saturated with this material, it’s hard to say what websites to shut down and what websites to keep. With the takedown of Megaupload, yes, there is a whole chunk of online piracy that has been prevented, and with other media sharing websites changing their policies to prevent further piracy, there is also a chunk of perfectly legitimate users who are now unable to quickly and conveniently share their work with the world. How is it fair to them?

The introduction of SOPA/PIPA is not a sustainable solution to piracy. I have a few theories of plausible solutions that I think would be a drastic improvement over a complete takedown of the internet.

Our culture has gradually shifted towards piracy for what I feel can be put down to a number of key reasons. First is the money. The RIAA and MPAA are rich enough as it is without having to capitalise on royalties every time someone uses copyrighted material with their permission. There are so many musicians who use samples, and I don’t think it’s fair that some pay ridiculous amounts to clear the samples where others sample without permission and run the risk of being sued for copyright infringement.

I watched a movie on the issue of sampling for uni a couple of years ago called RIP! A Remix Manifesto, and it breaks down the issues with copyright infringement, royalties, copyright laws and such. I went to the official channel on YouTube (RemixManifesto) and the first part of the film was blocked in my country for copyright reasons.

That is the problem right there.

Fortunately, there are a few copies of the film up on youtube, and I’d imagine there are more floating around the internet elsewhere. Well, the first part is here:

The 21st century culture is hellbent on mashups and remixes, artists are constantly working with pastiche and bricolage, borrowing bits and pieces from things that don’t belong to them to make something entirely new. It’s creative, it’s entertaining, it’s against the law, apparently.

The first thing I’d like to see change is the laws. Copyright, in its current form, is ridiculous. Of course, it prevents people from taking something they don’t own and making a quick buck off it, but a remix or a still picture from a film or a clip from a larger video used for creative purposes is not a crime. It’s just another way for the RIAA and MPAA to capitalise on a bit more cash.

At this point, I’d like to call America out for its double standards, and I’d like to refer to a particular moment in copyright history that reflects the true nature of what I feel copyright should be about.

Back in the 1950s, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a book. Well, technically, he wrote three books. They were the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They came out in hardback in the UK, and they were selling for an ample price. Then, in the ’60s, the books were published in America as a trade paperback. They were dirt cheap and ridiculously popular amongst college students and hippie types. The problem with the US publication was that J.R.R. Tolkien and his UK publishers did not approve of this, nor were they receiving any royalties for it. At this point in time, the US copyright law allowed for a publisher to print the book and keep all the profits.

Of course, this is wrong. Surely, Tolkien was entitled to some of that profit. Well, I can’t remember the specifics, but his publishers ended up rushing their plans to print the books in the US, and the books, while still more expensive than the unofficial version, were (as a result of the unofficial books in the market) still cheap.

Since then, laws have changed and you can’t do that sort of shit in America any more. However, over the years they’ve become a bit too power-hungry to be taken seriously. Sure, originality is a good thing, but the punishments for copyright infringement is getting way too ridiculous. Back in the 18th century, if you steal a loaf of bread you face a lengthy jail sentence. The punishment for copyright and cyber crimes is getting to be that way. It’s barbaric.

It’s foolish for the American Government to think they can do what they’re trying to do.

I think they need to do what they did with the Lord of the Rings books. People are downloading everything nowdays because it’s too damn expensive, and buying into their shit ensures the corporations get richer while the consumers stay poor. That economy will not sustain itself. People are getting their hands on illegitimate copies of books, films, music that they are legitimately interested in, and they’re doing it en masse. You can’t just lock everyone up. Cut off the head of a hydra and two more grow. You’ve got to feed it, you’ve got to give it what it wants: affordable media. Why can’t books or movies or music (especially in light of the digital revolution) be two dollars or five dollars as a standard retail price across the board?

There are plenty of ebooks that are dirt cheap, why not all of them? Why do ten dollar albums have to be a discount price on iTunes? Why, when these things are so cheap to reproduce, are we forced to pay ridiculous prices or resort to pirating to obtain these consumer goods?

If the RIAA and MPAA were a little bit smarter and a little less greedy, they’d throw a bone to the consumers that support them, otherwise, they’ll get bit in the ass.

Welcome to Vulgaria: the ‘Real’ (Irreal) Suburban Simulacra of Blankety Blank

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INTRODUCTION

This is a 4,500 word essay I wrote for my Literary and Cultural Studies class called Reading the City. I chose to write about the representation of suburbia in D. Harlan Wilson’s Blankety Blank. It’s a third year LCS essay, so it’s pretty heavy on the LCS academic jargon, but I usually try to keep things relatively easy to understand, regardless of your background. If anything needs clarifying, I’d be happy to oblige.

Also, the topic is quite specific, so I really hope people are interested enough in it to read through the whole thing. I submitted this in second semester last year, so I’ve really got nothing to gain from this, and it was just going to sit idly on my computer, so I thought I may as well put this up here. It should at least give you guys a bit of a picture as to what I’ve been doing at uni for the past three years.

At the very least, it’s great to feel passionate about things. And I guess that’s one reason why I feel like putting this essay up here instead of some other essay I wasn’t really interested in.

On another note, if you’re writing an essay on a similar topic, you’re welcome to reference this essay, but remember, I’m an undergrad and this essay is a little rough around the edges. It’s no honours/PhD thesis, and it’s not published in any academic journals. If you’re after solid, reliable reference materials, maybe try hunting down some of the stuff in my “Works Cited” list.

HOMOGENEOUS SUBURBIA AND POSTMODERN IDENTITY:

CONFLICTING IDEOLOGIES

The suburbia as we know it exists in two realms: the real, where suburbia is defined by physical location; and the imagined, where suburbia is constructed in our minds as an ideology, or the ‘suburban ideal’. In this project, we will examine how the imagined suburbia encroaches on the real, where ideology conflicts with physical suburban spaces. In order to do this, first we must retrace our steps back to the origins of suburbia as an escape for the bourgeois families of London, to the suburban ideal as a product of America’s post-WWII migration to the suburbs – the ‘American Dream’. From there, the homogeneous suburbs begin to conflict with the commodification of postwar America and the suburbs are transformed into a space of intense commodification as a means of establishing an identity. What a house says about the family living in it, and how one house distinguishes itself from the others, become important questions for those living in a suburban community and centres around anxieties of surveillance of private/public spaces; ‘what do my neighbours think about me?’

The suburban family takes on a performative role, where their private life is projected out onto the neighbourhood as a display of their social class and success within a capitalist discourse. The suburbs therefore require the ability to function on two levels; to be generic enough to develop housing on a large scale – a limited choice in architecture; yet it must remain flexible enough (customisable) to allow for commodification – a limitless variety of aesthetic design choices, furnishings, etc. As the concept of suburbia becomes reinforced in the media (through countless TV sitcoms), ideology becomes integrated with culture and the nuclear family becomes the norm. Real life suburbia becomes a simulation of television suburbia, of the (imagined) suburban ideology. We will examine how postmodern texts highlight and subvert traits of suburban ideology such as commodification, and social activity, to provide an uncanny (sometimes gothic) juxtaposition between the imagined suburbia and the performed. D. Harlan Wilson’s Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria represents a hyperreal suburbia called ‘vulgaria’ – which simulates ‘reality’ in its attempt to imitate ideology – and signifies the death of suburbia in postmodernity; it only exists as simulacrum.

THE SUBURBAN IDEAL: RETRACING THE HISTORY OF SUBURBIA

Suburbia wasn’t always the performative/ideological construct it is in postmodernity. The postmodern suburbia is a response to the commodified suburbia of post-WWII America. The postwar American suburbs were a response to the middle class shift away from the working class industrial areas of the city to a more private, pastoral setting. In the suburbs, they could maintain a close proximity to the city, yet they were distanced (both physically and ideologically) from the working class slums and the unsightliness of the urban sprawl. The suburbs trace back to eighteenth century London, where overpopulation in the inner city industrial/business districts caused the merchant class to move out of their shops and into the pastoral countryside just outside of the city centre, separating family/home life from work life. It was the bourgeoisie, and not the working class, that made this move because they were the ones in the position of wealth; they could afford to buy land, build homes, and travel to and from the city for work. This contextualises suburban ideology around class and wealth, and the desire of the middle class to distinguish themselves from the working class, in terms of location, quality of life/luxury, and ideological position.

Robert Fishman posits that “[suburbia’s] form and function reflect many of the most pervasive cultural elements in eighteenth century civilisation, but the suburb also reflects the specific conditions of the city in which it was born,” (18) London. The cultural elements and conditions Fishman refers to are of industrialisation, economy (international trade), and urban growth. “It was also the political capital of the British Empire and its center for the production and consumption of luxury goods,” (19). The economics and urban growth meant that London was “attracting an increasingly wealthy elite to an urban core that was, at best, crowded, dirty, noisy, and unhealthy,” (23). For the ‘wealthy elite’, the solution to this problem called for the “radical decentralization of bourgeois residence that we have come to call suburbanization,” (23). To the London bourgeoisie, the city is aesthetically unpleasant, the quality of the urban lifestyle is much lower than what they require to raise their families. The solution to move away from the city signifies the desire to distance themselves from the crowded, dirty streets and the working class citizens that live in the urban centre, contributing to its unpleasant nature. In the suburbs, the wealthy elite have the time and space to indulge in the consumption of luxury goods. The economic growth in this market signifies not only that merchants of such goods are at a financial advantage, but also that there has been an increase in bourgeois residents able to afford luxuries, and by extension, they can afford the suburban lifestyle.

From eighteenth century London, the suburbs began developing in other cities and countries. In America, the suburbs didn’t just appear right after World War II as a fully formed ideological construct. The suburbs only appear to have a close connection to that era of American culture because it “offered a sympathetic world of security, stability, and space for creativity” (Wong, 446) in an America trying to recover from the Great Depression and World War II. The suburbs existed in America before the war, yet it wasn’t until the collective national trauma of post-WWII America that a large scale migration to the suburbs took place. Where the eighteenth century London suburbs were ideologically constructed around luxury and the distancing of bourgeois culture from the working class, the suburbs of postwar America were constructed around safety and community; the class distinction became less rigid as a much wider population gained access to the privileged middle class. The suburban ideal became an integral part of the middle class American dream, the home became “a repository of dreams – [where] spaces, intimate but expansive, are imbued with memories and images,” (Wong, 446-7). The suburban ideal is about creating an image (an illusion) of suburbia which reflects the ideologies of security, stability and creativity.

While those were the primary ideologies of American postwar suburbia, there was another important element that was present back in eighteenth century London that was vital to the American suburbs: the consumption of luxury goods. However, the distinction between the two is that London’s bourgeoisie consumed out of luxury, where America’s middle class consumed out of necessity, to stimulate the economy to restore a prior state of capitalist normality. This necessary consumption implies that normality is an ideological construct that is to be performed, as luxury, too, must be performed to provide the illusion of a perfect (utopian) suburban lifestyle. Kim Dovey suggests that “the house as a symbolic package both establishes status and communicates it to others through the ‘impact it will make on all future visitors,’” (141). It does this through the size, location, aesthetics, and furnishings acquired through the capitalist discourses of choice and consumption. The house then transforms from an architectural building into a space of commodification. How well the suburban home reflects the ideologies of the American dream relates directly to how well the home owners perform the American dream.

The 1998 film, Pleasantville, explores the ideologies of 1950s suburban America, framing the story around two teenage siblings from the ’90s who get sucked into a ’50s sitcom called Pleasantville. The trailer states that the fictional town of the Pleasantville sitcom is “a place that’s as far from reality as we can imagine,” and that it is a story about “the loss of innocence.” The film constructs suburbia as an ideology that is comforting, yet totally unrealistic. The characters from the sitcom are safe from any outside threats because to them, literally nothing exists outside of Pleasantville. It is only when the two ’90s teenagers enter their world that the suburban way of life comes under threat. The characters in the sitcom gradually become aware that not everything that is foreign or different is bad, they have just been naturalised by the suburban ideal. The creativity that Wong mentions is non-existent in the town of Pleasantville, it is only performed, imagined, as is the safety of the suburbs. As hard as the parents try, they can not protect their children from the youth culture their ’90s counterparts introduce them to. Pleasantville suggests that the world of 1950s suburbia is far removed from 1990s American culture, and possibly that the 1950s suburbia never existed at all, that the suburban ideal was only accessed through the performativity of suburban ideologies to appear ‘real’.

The suburbs as we know them have developed from the bourgeois desire to distance themselves from the working class and indulge in a private and luxurious lifestyle. The suburban boom in post-WWII America saw a shift that brought the suburbs to the mass culture and represented a suburban ideal that constructed the home as a space of “security, stability,” and “creativity.” These ideologies were enabled through a capitalist discourse, where the commodification of the home reflected on the family, or (more accurately) reflected how the family wanted to be viewed by the rest of the neighbourhood. However, the suburban ideal and the American dream are ideological constructs that can only be accessed through performance; suburbia, and its subsequent comforts of safety and stability are imagined, and yet it seems real through the mass culture engagement with suburbia as a result of postwar America’s collective desire for suburban utopia.

THE POSTMODERN AND THE GOTHIC:

RECONTEXTUALISING SUBURBAN SPACE

Suburbia, from a postmodern context, has become radically altered from its setting in the American ’50s. As Pleasantville questioned the authenticity of 1950s suburbia, it could be argued that everything relating to the suburbs after the ’50s never really happened either. What is suburbia, if not a bunch of 1950s American values that have since been exhausted on television and merely performed in real life? That would then signify that acting out suburbia would have a similar effect as acting out anything else as seen on TV. After the initial postwar stage of suburbia ended, the following generations were informed of the suburban ideal through culture and the media. They began to simulate the suburbia of television sitcoms, representing the Baudrillardian concept of simulacra. As the suburban sitcom became more prominent, there was an increase in the production of media that subverted the suburban setting, or represented it in a different light. Postmodernist texts shift the suburban ideal away from its utopian setting into a more flawed, uncanny, and sometimes gothic setting, which raises the reader’s awareness of their position within the discourse of suburbia.

The representations of suburbia in postmodern texts (as products of the postmodern era) are ideologically constructed to reflect the suburban ideal, where postmodernist texts (those employing postmodern techniques) are ideologically constructed to challenge this. Suburbia in the real world has become a hyperreality, nothing more than a simulation of TV suburbia.

“Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original – things are doubled by their own scenario. But this doubling does not signify, as it did traditionally, the imminence of their death – they are already purged of their death, and better than when they were alive; more cheerful, more authentic, in the light of their model, like the faces in funeral homes,” (Baudrillard, 11).

The suburbs are still around only because they are “better than when they were alive; more cheerful, more authentic,” and regardless of whether they are real or not, the suburbs have become a source of comfort. The suburban ideal must exist because it has become immortalised on TV. When postmodernist texts begin to challenge suburban ideologies, the suburbs appear less utopic, less authentic, and the illusion of security and stability falls through. The simulation is exposed as a double, a replica that is “strangely similar to the original,” both vacant and hollow.

In the suburban gothic, we see “the depiction of suburbia as a placid and privileged locale beneath which terrible secrets and irrational forces lurk, waiting their chance to erupt violently into the open,” (Murphy, 166). Where texts usually position the threat to the suburban ideal as ‘other,’ an external force that obviously doesn’t belong, the postmodern gothic places the threat within the suburban community. The idea that any one of your neighbours could pose a threat to the suburban ideal and you have no means to identify them is unsettling. The home is transformed from a space that is ideologically constructed as safe and secure to a place that could be open to attack at any moment. It is a literal interpretation of Freud’s ‘unheimlich‘ (uncanny), the home suddenly becomes ‘un-homely’ or ‘un-home-like’. The real suburbia is more flawed than its ideological representation, yet this position is foreign to us because our experience of suburbia is acted out to be utopian, its flaws are hidden from us because we do not wish to see them.

Freud posits that “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar,” (340). It is that which frightens us because it is connected to what we are already familiar with, yet it is different, unsettling. The suburbs are familiar to us, if not through direct experience of living in suburbs, then at least through television, through any number of cartoons and sitcoms, new shows and reruns. We grow up knowing what the suburbs are, and we are familiar with the nuclear family and what roles each member of the family typically performs. Even when the traditional roles are subverted in a traditional sitcom, we are aware the subversion signifies a dysfunctionality that is utilised for comedic effect. Postmodernist texts can create a sense of uncanniness by changing the nature of suburban spaces to appear familiar, yet different, frightening in their representations of suburbia, where the wholesome utopian ideologies are absent. As with the gothic, postmodernist texts provide an alternate reading of suburbia that goes beneath the surface, beneath the simulation of the suburban ideal, to expose the flaws and weaknesses that come with an unrealistic (utopian/hyperreal) perspective on suburbia.

The Sims is a computer game which simulates suburban lifestyle and interacts with its environment on a postmodernist level; it presents the player with a suburban setting that has the potential to fulfill the suburban ideal, yet it also allows for the simulation to fail, for suburbia to act outside its ideological positioning. To clarify, the game will only reflect the suburban ideal if the player him/herself performs the role of the ideal suburban character – if they buy the right furniture, appliances, if they decorate the house fashionably, and if they maintain an active lifestyle for the ‘sim’ characters which they control. Ann McGuire argues that The Sims “offers the experience of exploring spatial and social arrangements that seem to improve on the contemporary context, and thus the game potentially constitutes a site for active speculation about the ways in which the contemporary social environment positions its subjects,” (55). The player, in their process of performing a simulation of suburbia in a virtual environment, becomes aware of the possible ways in which they may be positioned in real life.

Postmodernist (and gothic) texts, in their representations of suburbia, highlight the flaws of the suburban ideal – that it represents security and stability based on the concept that the middle class are a particular type of subject sharing a particular set of (non-threatening) values. Suburbia is a utopian ideology which is an entirely simulated experience, yet when confronted with texts that represent suburbia in an insecure or counter-productive way, the illusion becomes threatened and the ‘reality’ of suburbia becomes exposed as simulacra. When postmodernist texts explore beneath the surface and highlight the performative nature of suburban life, they create a sense of uncanniness, they threaten a suburbia which has been integrated with middle class culture where every child is raised believing the ideologies of the patriarchal, nuclear family, that the suburbs are a space of safety and privacy, and that you can always trust your neighbours. Texts like The Sims and Pleasantville represent a suburbia that is ‘too simple’ to be real (we recognise its artificiality, its constructedness), and the idea that the suburbs aren’t as ‘real’ or as ‘authentic’ as initially expected is gradually becoming more common.

THE ULTRAVIOLENT DESTABILISATION OF SUBURBAN UTOPIA:
THE MEMOIR THAT IS NOT A MEMOIR THAT IS
BLANKETY BLANK

DISCLAIMER

This is a memoir, which is to say, a collection of my personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, which is to say, a work of absolute truth, which is to say, a work of unadulterated fiction, which is to say, a wild extrapolation of people, places and things that may or may not exist in the real world, as in a novel, or a movie, or the news, or history, or a dream, or, as it were, a memoir…” (Wilson, 5).

D. Harlan Wilson’s Blankety Blank is not a memoir. It is a work of fiction, of a genre which the author himself calls ‘irrealism’. It utilises the memoir genre, and uses various other literary techniques such as parody, self-reflexivity, ultraviolence, and absurdism, to construct a hyperreal suburbia called ‘vulgaria’. Vulgaria is constructed around similar ideologies as the suburban ideal – commodification of the home, the nuclear family, the security and stability of the suburbs – yet its ideologies are are an uncanny simulation of suburbia. What is normal in vulgaria is far more violent and destructive than in suburbia; it has taken sex and violence from popular culture and television and made it part of ordinary life. The utopian ideology of this world is destabilised when the main character obsesses over what the neighbours think of him, resorting to ludicrous displays of hyper-commodification and ultraviolence (the threat from within), meanwhile a serial killer called Blankety Blank enters the community and starts butchering people (the external threat).

Wilson uses the memoir genre to blur the liminal space between fact and fiction. The memoir is a genre that is based off the author’s personal experience; it is a subjective perspective of events that is both fact and fiction at the same time. It is ideologically constructed to present the author in a particular light. Helen Garner states that “I don’t feel exposed – because in this mysterious way I’m trying to describe, the ‘I’ in the story is never completely me,” (42). Garner recognises that the ‘I’ in her story is (to some extent) fictionalised. Wilson’s ‘memoir’ is very obviously fictional, yet the ‘I’ in it is nearly invisible. The story is told from the third person point-of-view, and it is only through the collection of ‘facts’, ‘quotes’, ‘definitions’ and ‘articles’ (complete with appropriately styled formatting) that the story imitates the real, and even then the majority of ‘authentic’ material is fictional. They appear to ground the narrative in the real world, to validate the memoir, yet “A Short History of the Silo,” (11), “A Short History of the Werewolf,” (17) and “A Short History of the Man Who Created a New Kind of Pickle,” (156) are parodies of the feature article, yet occasionally a genuine article appears in the text imitating the feature article style much the same as the others, such as “A Short History of Vulgarias,” (158). Where the conventional memoir is a work of non-fiction that contains traces of fiction, Blankety Blank is a work of fiction that contains traces of non-fiction.

As Blankety Blank subverts the memoir, it likewise subverts utopia in recreating a suburban setting that is familiar, yet is neither ‘ideal’ or ‘utopic’. “The word ‘utopia’ punningly combines the Greek words ‘eu’ (good), ‘ou’ (no) and ‘topia’ (place) to signify ‘the good place that is no place’,” (McGuire, 55), so the suburban utopia in Blankety Blank is constructed around “spatial and social arrangements which, by improving on those of the author’s own context, positions the reader to think critically about the inadequacies of that context for its subjects.” The improvements that Wilson has made were not to the real world, but to the imagined space of the suburban ideal, which are enabled by balancing out the utopia with excessive violence and highlighting the flaws of this imagined space. Vulgaria aspires to be a utopian community, yet it is a place without cohesion, with no collective ideology or shared community, it is (like suburbia) only a community through performance, a collective simulation of culture and ideology. Darko Suvin states that “some basic structural characteristics of utopia seem to flow logically from its status as a discourse about a particular, historically alternative, and better community,” (133). The vulgaria of Blankety Blank is a historical alternative to suburbia, yet as suburbia is already ideologically constructed as a utopia, its “better community” is a parody of an already non-existent place, the “good place that is no place.”

Blankety Blank provides a juxtaposition between a featureless, homogeneous suburbia and ultraviolence which is indicative of the mundane and everyday, yet it is uncanny in its transition between the mundane and the ultraviolent. This style of understated violence reflects Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho:

“I drag her back into the living room, laying her across the floor over a white Voilacutro cotton sheet, and then I stretch her arms out, placing her hands flat on thick wooden boards, palms up, and nail three fingers on each hand, at random, to the wood by their tips,” (235).

In Blankety Blank, Wilson writes:

“After slashing her throat, he rinsed the blood from the Buster sword in a stainless steel sink and waited for her to die. It didn’t take long. He had cut her exactingly, deeply, down to the spine, and she dashed around the kitchen for half a minute like a chicken on fire, blood exiting her neckhole in thick, oily spurts,” (63).

Wilson’s absurd matter-of-fact tone carries throughout the book, where such violence does not belong in the over-protective bubble of suburban culture, the residents of vulgaria are desensitised to ultraviolence, they disregard the serial killer and think nothing of the fact that he has a barbershop pole for a head. Blankety Blank is bland and affectless, and there is no clear motivation for the excessive violence, as there is no clear explanation for many other things in the book. Vulgaria simulates violence as it does identity or culture, as an imagined ideology, a hyperreality that is dangerously like the ‘real’ suburbia. The fact that not everything has a meaning signifies that vulgaria is more like the ‘real’ suburbia than its ideological representations.

Edward W. Soja argues that the postmodern city is what he calls the “carceral archipelago,” a place consisting of many micro-communities that have formed their own means for maintaining order according to their own ideological positioning within the city. The suburbs are patrolled by the members of the neighbourhood, they watch out for each other, they are self-policing. Yet this only works if everyone shares a set of communal ideologies. In postmodernity we are already aware that the suburban ideal is not as solid as the ’50s would have us imagine. Surveillance of the neighbourhood then shifts from making sure everyone is safe to making sure no-one is ‘acting out’ from their role as ideal suburban subjects. In Blankety Blank, these postmodern anxieties are expressed by various members of the community in various different ways. The main character assures his neighbours he is the ideal suburban subject by building a giant (and totally pointless) silo in his front yard, buys a luxury car, and throws dinner parties to impress the neighbours with the aesthetics of his commodified McMansion. Another character is a neighbourhood superhero by night, watching over his neighbours as a masked vigilante, should they come under harm from strangers or each other in the night.

Suburbia is simulated in Blankety Blank through a postmodern subversion of genre and culture which highlights the anxiety that a threat imposes suburbia from within – a threat to identity; and an external threat from that which does not belong – the foreign subject that doesn’t fit in with the ideological construction of suburbia. The characters in Blankety Blank are like any other person in suburbia; they engage with the suburban space on an ideological level, constructing an imagined utopia by acting out the notion of ‘suburbia’. Their performativity simulates the performativity of the ‘real’ suburban space in that they are ultimately flawed. While the characters attempt to construct a utopia from their neighbourhood, they are jaded by their own personal needs and desires; they can not all collectively share in the suburban ideal. This leads to their eventual self-destruction, as their suburbia is merely a hyperreality, and their false sense of security fails to keep Mr. Blankety Blank out of their neighbourhood. Their death, as a result of their misguided security, signifies the death of suburbia.

POSTMODERN REPRESENTATIONS OF SUBURBIA (SUBURBAN IDEAL)
AND REPRESENTATIONS OF POSTMODERN SUBURBIA (COMMODIFIED CULTURE)

One of the last scenes in Blankety Blank involves the main character reflecting on a newspaper article titled, “Man brings cow to testify for him,” (Wilson, 181).

“There was something familiar about the article. He had read it before. Years ago. In a different paper. And the story had taken place in a different city. And instead of a cow, it had been a donkey. A male donkey named Buddy… How many years ago was that? Over ten. Why did he remember it? Was the newspaper recycling its stories? Of course. Narrative regurgitation is the flux capacitor of all media. But why did it bother him? It had never bothered him before,” (181-2).

As the donkey has transformed into a cow over time, the suburbs have transformed from place into ideology into simulation. But the suburbs in Blankety Blank are just not quite right. Vulgaria is not quite right in the same way the world of The Sims is not quite right or the way the town of Pleasantville is not quite right. There is nothing beyond them. They are constructed around the utopia of the suburban ideal, or a more flawed manifestation thereof.

These texts reflect on the real suburban space only as sitcoms do, as a simulation of the 1950s American ideology. They are a response to this ideology, as the suburbs can only exist as part of a larger industrial network, and the ideologies can only be engaged on a superficial/performative level. The suburbs, as an ideological construct are not real; they are simulating the suburban ideal of TV sitcoms. Blankety Blank engages with the suburbs on this level, of an enacted ideology that tries, but fails to conjure up a reality where the suburban ideal exists; it highlights the flaws in 1950s suburban logic while it mourns the death of the postmodern suburbs – an imagined space that never really existed and a physical space that is gradually slipping away from the utopia it was built around.

LIST OF WORKS CITED

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Dovey, Kim. “Dreams on Display: Suburban Ideology in the Model Home.” Beasts of Suburbia: Reinterpreting Cultures in Australian Suburbs. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1994. 127-47. Print.

Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1991. Print.

Fishman, Richard. “London: Birthplace of Suburbia.” Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books, 1987. 18-38. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Art and Literature: Jensen’s Gradiva, Leonardo da Vinci, and Other Works. Trans. Albert Dickson. London: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

Garner, Helen. “I: Helen Garner explores the new and different persona a writer must adopt in each successive work.” Meanjin. 61.1 (2002): 40-45. Print.

McGuire, Ann. “Simplification: The Sims and Utopianism.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature (special issue: New Media and the (D)igital Generation.) 14.2: (2004). 55-64. Print.

Murphy, Bernice M. The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. Houndmills, Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 166-92. Print.

Pleasantville. Dir. Gary Ross. New Line Cinema, 1998. Film.

Soja, Edward W. Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Malden: Blackwell, 2000. Print.

The Sims. Designer: Will Wright. Developer/Publisher: Maxis/Electronic Arts, 2000. Macintosh/PC Game.

Suvin, Darko. “Defining the literary genre of utopia: some historical semantics, some genology, a proposal and a plea.” Studies in the literary imagination. 6.2. (1973): 121- 45. Print.

Wilson, D. Harlan. Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria. Hyattsville: Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2008. Print.

Wong, Yoke-Sum. “Modernism’s Love Child: The Story of Happy Architectures.” Common Knowledge. 14.3. (2008): 445-71. Project Muse. Web. 23 Aug. 2011.

Rebuilding Neo-Tokyo: The Search for Normality in the Apocalypse of Akira

Uncategorized

INTRODUCTION

This isn’t something I’m going to post on my blog often. It’s something I may do only two more times. This is a 3,300 word essay I wrote for my Literary and Cultural Studies class called New Media Narratives. I chose to write about Akira and its representations of WWII Japan. It’s a third year essay, so it may feel a bit heavy on the LCS academic jargon, but I usually try to keep things relatively easy to understand, regardless of your background. If anything needs clarifying, I’d be happy to oblige.

Also, the topic is quite specific, so I really hope people are interested enough in it to read through the whole thing. I submitted this in second semester last year, so I’ve really got nothing to gain from this, and it was just going to sit idly on my computer, so I thought I may as well put this up here. It should at least give you guys a bit of a picture as to what I’ve been doing at uni for the past three years.

At the very least, it’s great to feel passionate about things. And I guess that’s one reason why I feel like putting this essay up here instead of some other essay I wasn’t really interested in.

On another note, if you’re writing an essay on a similar topic, you’re welcome to reference this essay, but remember, I’m an undergrad and this essay is a little rough around the edges. It’s no honours/PhD thesis, and it’s not published in any academic journals. If you’re after solid, reliable reference materials, maybe try hunting down some of the stuff in my “Works Cited” list.

REBUILDING NEO-TOKYO:

THE SEARCH FOR NORMALITY IN THE APOCALYPSE OF AKIRA

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb, ‘Little Boy’, hit Hiroshima, and on August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb, ‘Fat Man’, hit Nagasaki, causing death and destruction, not only to those two cities and those who resided there, but also to Japanese culture. From those two bombs, Japan’s history was divided into two very distinct and separate categories; ‘before the bombs’ and ‘after the bombs’, or pre- and post-apocalypse. Katsuhiro Otomo’s science fiction/cyberpunk manga Akira (1982-90) and animated film adaptation of the same name (1988) represent the cultural anxieties of post-WWII Japan, exploring the struggle to find normality in amongst the social and architectural collapse of Neo-Tokyo, to learn that there can be no returning to the pre-apocalypse, only the memories can be accessed through trauma and imagined nostalgia.

First of all, we must acknowledge that we are engaging with Japanese texts through a western discourse, and unless we learn to read and speak Japanese, the only way to access them is through translation. While we trust that the Akira manga and anime translators kept things as accurate to the original as possible, we must also acknowledge that we are engaging with a re-presentation (a copy) of the original texts, where some elements of the story (eg. cultural references) may have been altered or removed to make the texts more accessible to a western audience. Of course, one of the benefits of Akira being in manga and anime format is that both are largely visual media, and aside from the translations of dialogue, sound effects, signs, and the flipping of images to read left-to-right (where traditional manga is read right-to-left), the visual language of the manga remains in its original Japanese context (as is the same with the film). The importance of the manga, as a form of graphic novel, is that word and image coexist on the page and tell stories in ways that other media can not; “with image playing off of word, word playing off image,” (VanderMeer, 29). As a cyberpunk text, Akira‘s representation of Neo-Tokyo as a techno-capitalist nation state translates smoothly onto western cultures, and its visual iconography is not limited by a restricted Japanese discourse. It is barely identifiable as Japanese by image alone, yet in combination with the text/dialogue it becomes clear that we are engaging with Japan in its ‘post-WWII’ stage, and more specifically, as it constructs a new history in the wake of an apocalypse that eclipses/erases the apocalypse of 1945.

It is also worth noting that Akira was translated into English (and several other languages) in the first place; while it is set in a Japanese culture, it is a globalised Japanese culture. Neo-Tokyo is a place of industrial capitalism, represented by its tall buildings and dystopian techno-culture; elements that are common in Japanese and western science fiction alike. Akira‘s popularity outside of Japan can be attributed to its thematic accessibility, yet its setting requires its readers (both Japanese and western/other) to view it within the discourse of Japanese culture. It incorporates themes of globalisation, technology, hegemony, and capitalism, yet it is not about just any city or culture which represents those ideologies; it is about Neo-Tokyo, and the restructuring of Japan post-apocalypse.

While the image of Neo-Tokyo is familiar, the narrative provides us with a “non-Western worldview,” (62) as Susan Napier calls it, “in which good does not always triumph over evil,” and while Napier refers particularly to the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, her observations can also be applied to Akira. We engage with Neo-Tokyo on two distinct levels; as a product of a particular place, and of a particular time. Neo-Tokyo is physically closer to its Japanese audience than its western audience, however, the time frame in which the narrative takes place is foreign to Japanese and western readers alike. The present in the narrative is a dystopian future that is wildly unstable; it begins with an apocalypse that, decades later, Japan is still trying to recover from. The post-apocalypse narrative reflects the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII, yet it is temporally detached from that particular moment in history and becomes metonymous of not just that apocalypse, but apocalypses in general. Therefore, readers/viewers can access their own experiences of trauma and apocalypse (whether lived or mediated) to inform their understanding of Akira.

From the very first pages of the manga, and the opening scenes of the anime, Akira confronts its audience with an apocalypse which mimics the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first page of the manga is of a satellite-type image of Earth, white clouds swirling above blue ocean and converging, tornado-like, upon a small black sphere, with the caption; “At 2:17 P.M. On December 6th, 1992, a new type of bomb exploded over the metropolitan area of Japan,” (1: 9), and on the next page, the black sphere is shown taking up the whole double-page, at street level; all the surrounding buildings have fallen down or are in the process of falling down. The next couple of pages show more images of the bomb’s destruction, and the text informs us that it was the beginning of World War III.

From there, the manga leaps ahead 38 years to 2030, where a map-like aerial image of Neo-Tokyo signifies that it is a long way from recovery, and that its geography has become permanently altered; Neo-Tokyo can not be completely restored to the way it was. Just as ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ signalled an end to WWII, the bomb at the beginning of Akira signals the beginning of a new world war. James Hirsch relates trauma to the Freudian concept of “fright,” which is to encounter a dangerous situation without being prepared for it. Hirsch focuses his studies on Holocaust documentaries, yet his definition of trauma can also be applied here. The reason why the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so traumatic was that the magnitude of the death and destruction “were literally inconceivable; they did not fit any imagined possible reality,” (96). Katsuhiro Otomo was born in 1954, after Japan had already entered its ‘post-WWII’ stage, his experience of WWII (and pre-WWII Japan) is mediated through history; the intense ‘fright’, the trauma belongs to the generation before him. Akira reconstructs the apocalypse of WWII Japan (and resulting trauma) for the younger generation; the narrative begins decades after the apocalypse began. The generation that lived through the trauma is thrown into chaos, and the next generation is raised where post-apocalypse is all they’ve ever known, the chaos is normal, ‘natural’. The narrative begins with a teenage motorcycle gang who, like Otomo, are of a generation removed from the trauma; they know nothing of Neo-Tokyo before the apocalypse. Even the reader knows nothing before WWIII, in the pages of the first volume there is nothing before the bomb.

After WWII, Japan turned into a culture where everything was informed by WWII; Japan ceased to be Japan and started being post-WWII Japan. Japanese history became pre-WWII Japanese history. So, too, the novels, films, and manga created after WWII became post-WWII texts, regardless if they related to the war or not. They could be about the war, or about Japanese culture after the war (eg. the technology boom, hyper commodification, or globalisation), or a reflection on pre-war/imperial/pastoral Japan (where texts produced before the war were automatically pre-war, they became consciously ‘escapist’ or ‘nostalgic’ or ‘historical’). In the years after the end of the war; books, films, and manga being produced were starting to reflect upon the war. Of course, the trauma didn’t just disappear, and Japan was trying to deal with the culture shock; film and literature were outlets for dealing with the shock and trauma. The 1954 film, Godzilla explored the tense relationship between Japan and USA at the time. Eldad Nakar has collected and studied a variety of manga from 1957-1967, where there was a boom in WWII related manga where narratives were focused on aerial combat and the tragedies of war were substituted with the heroics of individual pilots, Japan’s overall defeat was recontextualised around the small victories of Japanese fighter pilots in the later stages of the war. These texts reflected upon the war, yet remained largely absent of bloodshed, death, and trauma; instead, focusing attention more towards the “friendly camaraderie” and “dedication to their country,” (61). After a decade or two, these texts still avoided direct representations of the trauma of war, and even Godzilla could only access the trauma (as Akira does) through science fiction, the estrangement of a world that is familiar, yet obviously fictional. It is only after Japan has started to re-establish itself that these representations of trauma become more common. The further we become from the source of the trauma (in Akira‘s case, it is a temporal displacement) the easier it gets to handle the trauma.

In 1988 Studio Ghibli released an animated film called Grave of the Fireflies [Hotaru no Haka], which was directed by Isao Takahata. The film follows the narrative of a young boy and his infant sister, orphaned by the firebombings of Kobe in WWII, and their struggle to survive through the chaos and tragedy. Takahata was born in 1935 and had a first-hand experience of the war, and “with one of his siblings was separated from his family for two days during a firebombing,” (Goldberg, 40). He belongs to the generation of Japanese who lived through the trauma. Grave of the Fireflies reflects this position of immediacy, the trauma is personal, individual. Where Akira is concerned with politics and power in post-war Japan, Grave of the Fireflies is concerned with the individual experiences of trauma, and a nostalgic view of the past.

As a direct representation of WWII, Grave of the Fireflies differs from 1950s and ’60s war manga in that it openly displays what those texts tried to mask: the abundance of death, injury and illness of the Japanese people. The film shows us not only the trauma of the main characters, Seita and Setsuko, but also the hardships and tragedies of the people they come in contact with. Goldberg refers to the film critic, Roger Ebert’s reading of the film, “when we see images of Setsuko starving and finally dying, because she is animated, she becomes the idea of a child starving and not the child herself,” (42). Their trauma is so severe and overwhelming, yet it is contextualised around a collective national trauma, where everyone is mourning the loss of a care free pastoral Japan. In their patriotism, the characters become blind to the fact that their nostalgia of the past is ideologically constructed, and the trauma they experience turns them apathetic to each other’s needs; with all their resources spent on their own survival, no one can afford to look after Seita and Setsuko.

The teenage motorcycle gang in Akira, like Seita and Setsuko, are orphans; their gang is unified by the fact that they have no parents (no family history), and have therefore transformed the gang into an unconventional family, where the main protagonist, Kaneda, performs the role of father (as leader/protector/provider). As the characters in Grave of the Fireflies are apathetic to those outside their immediate family, Kaneda’s gang is apathetic to Neo-Tokyo, and yet they are very close to each other. They share a camaraderie and unity that give them a sense of identity while their city is in a state of post-capitalist anarchy. To the gang, the streets are their home. The city belongs to no one; it is theirs for the taking, and it is theirs to defend, should some other gang or higher authority choose to challenge them. The lack of authority figure in the city signifies the social collapse of Neo-Tokyo which, like its architecture, takes time to rebuild.

The city is a space where many cultures converge, and unless there is a clear sense of authority and order, there will be anarchy. In Grave of the Fireflies, Seita resorts to thieving to provide food for his sister, taking advantage of those who have let their guard down in the chaos. Setha M. Low posits that “[in New York] there are important differences in the responses of culturally identified individuals in the communities closest to the World Trade Center,” (168). After the September 11 World Trade Center attacks (the New York apocalypse) it was clear that the buildings held cultural significance to New York, and therefore they could not just be rebuilt, nor could the site remain empty. The problem was that it meant too many things to too many people. While neither were a landmark in their own right, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were home to many thousands of people, and the only way to progress with the recovery from such apocalypses is to have an authority figure present and factoring the cultural dynamic into the new city. Akira does not have this. Instead, it has a military authority competing against various rebelling factions, political parties, underground movements and biker gangs.

The discourse of power in Akira is unstable and shifts constantly throughout the text, as competing factions fight over the possession of Akira, a child of immense psychic power. Whoever can contain and control Akira’s power will control Neo-Tokyo, with the option to spread their influence nationally/globally from there. Here, Akira uses what Darko Suvin calls ‘cognitive estrangement’ to represent the cultural anxieties of the post-WWII Japan where weapons of mass destruction are a reality in the world. “[Science fiction] sees the norms of any age, including emphatically its own, as unique, changeable, and therefore subject to a cognitive view,” (7). While there are weapons of mass destruction, Japan (and the rest of the world) can not return to a time before such threats existed. Akira explores how the presence of weapons of mass destruction change the dynamics of power relations. Suddenly, what matters most is not the loss of history or identity to an invisible/non-existent authority figure, but the prevention of another apocalypse.

Kaneda becomes involved in the chaos when his close friend Tetsuo gets taken by the military and starts developing psychic abilities at an alarming rate. Tetsuo poses a new threat to Neo-Tokyo that is more aggressive and self-destructive than Akira. At various moments throughout the narrative, several different groups work together to fight the destruction of Neo-Tokyo, as the city has essentially become their own, and become worth defending, yet there still remains the firm distinction from one group to the next, and what they are willing to do to ensure the safety of their people. Napier posits that “the film is both a subversion of traditional power and authority and a celebration of a new kind of power, one linked to the issue of identity, in the form of Tetsuo’s astonishing metamorphoses,” (340). In the end, Tetsuo’s power becomes excessively unstable, and he undergoes involuntary physical transformations where he withdraws into his own powerless and voiceless past, until Kaneda saves him, affirming the notion that power is not static, and resolution is only found through movement, finding a new balance when power becomes destabilised.

Post-WWII Japan found its balance in a globalised capitalist network, and its technological boom signified (to some extent) the popularity of science fiction texts in Japan. It could not hang on to its imperial culture after its losses in the war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be repaired without factoring in the new Japanese culture. Even natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans signify some cultural shift. Before reconstruction began on New Orleans, Carolyn Kolb posed the question: “Can New Orleans be rebuilt as a major city?” and she follows up this thought by suggesting “some city will continue to exist here at this bend of the Mississippi,” (111). In Akira, whether or not Neo-Tokyo can be rebuilt is irrelevant. The fact that an attempt was made signifies a need to retain the image of the capitalist city. This desire to hang on to the old, the nostalgia for capitalist ideology is problematised when the city is stuck in a position where no progress is made on the city’s (re)construction, yet more damage is being done by all the different organisations trying to take control of the city. There is no room for nostalgia or trauma. Only after nostalgia is out of the way, and the threat of apocalypse (and a relapse of social collapse and trauma) is removed can the city start to be rebuilt – and built around the new culture, not the old.

With a new hegemonic order, the past must (to some extent) be erased and nostalgia pushed aside to make room for the emerging cultural model. Akira signifies direction towards a post-capitalist discourse which is less static – more like the ‘metamorphoses’ Napier mentioned – and with a stronger sense of individual identity. The characters were so desperate to control Akira, not only for the power and authority attributed to him, but to also carve out an identity for themselves in the new world that goes beyond the anonymous/affectless masses of techno-capitalist Japan. Thomas Lamarre argues that “we confront in such images [of mass destruction] a compulsion to repeat what terrifies us, but repetition of the terror of world annihilation also numbs us to it, and larger doses of destruction become necessary,” which “[makes] anything less than mass destruction feel a relief, a ‘victory’,” (131-32). While the people of Hiroshima or Nagasaki may not have wanted to flirt with the danger of annihilation by nuclear apocalypse, it is certainly true that Japan’s involvement in the war ran the risk of destruction on some scale. What is at stake, and what is to be won from taking such risks needs to be factored into account when heading into these situations. It could certainly be argued that the characters in Akira would have faced a greater risk from another apocalypse by doing nothing than the risks they ran by trying to catch Akira. However, it is more important to note the relationship between power and identity.

Akira highlights the danger not only of war and apocalypse, but also of the cultural conflict caused by an over-reliance on history, nostalgia, and patriotism in the building of a new world, and neglecting to factor the shift in dynamics of the new world. Trauma is only real for those who directly experience it. Of the instances where collective trauma takes place, it can take up to a few decades before the generation gap is wide enough for the trauma to turn into history, something only accessed through a mediation between the past and the present. Jameson states that “it is instructive to step away for a moment and to deny that it is natural and self-explanatory for masses of people to be devastated by catastrophe in which they have lost no one they know, in a place with which they have no particular connections,” and he asks us “is nationality really so natural a function of human or even social being?” (298). It is no coincidence that in Akira the only characters interfering with Akira and the military that aren’t directly affected by the events are the Americans.

Akira is obviously about post-WWII Japan and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet “the referent in such post-apocalyptic films need not exclusively be the past, but may also be the past conceived in terms of the present,” (Baishya, 4). It is about post-WWII Japan, yet it is about the distancing of trauma, the representation of power and identity in the emergence of a new culture, and the abjection of nostalgic ideology from the new culture. As the text engages with audiences both of Japan, and outside Japan, it provides a globalised warning that in the apocalypse, there is no returning to normal, holding on to patriotic or nostalgic ideologies only delays the inevitable shift in power and identity. After the apocalypse there is a reinvention of the culture and the self, a metamorphosis, and a new normal.

LIST OF WORKS CITED

Akira. Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo. Toho Company, 1988. Film.

Baishya, Anirban Kapil. “Trauma, Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction & the Post-Human.” Wide Screen. 3.1 (2011): 1-25. Print.

Godzilla [Gojira]. Dir. Ishirȏ Honda. Toho Company, 1988. Film.

Goldberg, Wendy. “Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies.” Mechademia. 4 (2009): 39-52. Project Muse. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Grave of the Fireflies [Hotaru no Haka]. Dir. Isao Takahata. Studio Ghibli. Toho Company, 1988. Film.

Hirsch, Joshua. “Post-Traumatic Cinema and the Holocaust Documentary.” Trauma and Cinema: Cross-Cultural Explorations. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. (2004): 93-121. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Dialectics of Disaster.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002): 297-304. Project Muse. Web. 7 Oct. 2011.

Kolb, Carolyn. “Crescent City, Post-Apocalypse.” Technology and Culture. 47.1 (2006):

108-11. ProQuest Social Science Journals. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Lamarre, Thomas. “Born of Trauma: Akira and Capitalist Modes of Destruction.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique. 16.1 (2008): 131-156. Project Muse. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Low, Setha M. “Spaces of reflection, recovery, and resistance: reimagining the postindustrial plaza.” After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City (2002): 163-71. New York and London: Routledge. Print.

Nakar, Eldad. “Memories of Pilots and Planes: World War II in Japanese Manga, 1957-1967.” Social Science Japan Journal. 6.1 (2003): 57-76. Print.

Napier, Susan. “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira.” Journal of Japanese Studies. 19.2 (1993): 327-352. JSTOR. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

—. “The World of Anime Fandom in America” Mechademia. 1 (2006): 47-63. Project Muse. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.

Otomo, Katsuhiro. Akira. 6 vols. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1982-90. Print.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy Through Essays, Articles and Reviews. Bowie: Guide Dog Books, 2011. Print.

Welker, Mark: To See is to Know: Naturalism and Trauma in The Road. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. (2009): 1-12. Web. 12. Sep 2011.

Author Spotlight: Steve Lowe

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I’d like to take a moment to shine a light on a relatively new author making his mark on the bizarro scene: Steve Lowe.

He released two novellas in late 2010; Wolves Dressed As Men from Eternal Press (it’s not really bizarro), and Muscle Memory from the Eraserhead Press imprint, the New Bizarro Author Series.

2010 was the second year the NBAS was running, and seven titles were released by seven first-time authors.

Muscle Memory was the first book of the seven that I read, and it has gone on to earn him a handsome book deal with Eraserhead Press.

From Amazon: “Billy Gillespie wakes up one morning to discover his junk is gone. In its place is his wife’s junk. Billy is now Tina, and Tina is dead. That’s because Billy’s dead. His lifeless body is still in bed and empty beer bottles and a container of antifreeze litter the kitchen counter. Over the next 24 hours, Billy and an odd assortment of neighbors, all experiencing their own bouts of body switcheroo, try to figure out what happened and why. Can they do it before the Feds find Billy’s body? Was it aliens that caused this, or God, or the government? And did Edgar Winter really sleep with his sheep? Pro football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw has those answers in a story that asks, What Would Kirk Cameron Do?”

And right now, you can read Muscle Memory on your Kindle (or device with Kindle App) free of charge. The price will go back up in a few days, so don’t miss out on this fantastic offer! It’s a simple, fun concept for a story, but it is remarkably well thought out that it  doesn’t have that body switching “gimmick” feel about it. Steve’s taken a familiar trope and made it his own. And if you do happen to miss out on the free promo, its regular price is US$0.99, which is a bargain in itself.

Link to Muscle Memory in Kindle Store.

If you don’t think that’s enough, he’s also written a sequel to Muscle Memory (which I haven’t quite read yet), which is also free. But the catch to this deal is that it’s always this price.

Link to Muscle Memory 2: More Muscle, More Memory on Smashwords.

On top of that, he’s a really friendly guy. Alongside Jordan Krall, he was one of the first bizarro authors I spoke with online, and I thought that was really cool.

I’ve been hearing bits and pieces of the projects he’s working on, and I’m really looking forward to Steve Lowe’s first full-length novel. And I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes over the next few years.