JULY 28, 2013
THERE ARE TWO KINDS of things, wrote J.L. Austin in an essay that Arthur Danto made famous: things that are part of the world, and things that are used to refer to part of the world. The things that are used to refer to part of the world can, of course, also be things in the world. Ink on paper, for example, or pixels on a screen. Ink and pixels are part of the world at every moment except the moment when they are used to refer to something in the world. Then they disappear from the world; they take on a semantic quality, an “aboutness” that causes them to vanish from the realm of rocks and stones and trees.
Literature is one of these ambiguous “things,” both an object in itself and a reference to the world. When I become conscious of the materiality of the text, when the surface of the words closes up, I’ve probably stopped reading. Take any word in the preceding sentence, stare at it for three full minutes. There. You now have a hard, opaque thing, divested of the quasi-invisibility of words about things. The terms associated with pop cultural artifacts are words that have already undergone this process. Words like “Coca-Cola” and “zombie” float on the text like bits of colored paper on a pond. You see them as much as you read them. Writers of literature use these terms to create a surface. From Don DeLillo’s fiction to Michael Robbins’s poetry, brand names and action movie stars glitter atop the text, giving the illusion of a surface. When writers want to create solid, common ground, they dump pop references over their stanzas and paragraphs, flat images — Alien, “Wonderwall,” Gucci, Paris Hilton — that are so over-processed they defy interpretation.
Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is perhaps the most celebrated example of this kind of writing. Open a page from this novel at random and the odds are that you’ll find numerous fragments of popular culture floating on top of the texts. Little bits of genuine surface matter. And between “Coca-Cola,” “Gucci,” or “Genesis,” the writer gives us flat characters, flat affects, a flat plot. The effect is curious, like a ghostly mosaic, some pieces of which are real glass or stone or metal, while other pieces are projected images of glass or stone or metal.
Critics tell us that writers want to pattern their texts with flat surfaces in order to express their sense of the increasing flatness of the world. From Fredric Jameson’s virtuoso reading of postmodernist poems, to Mark McGurl’s brilliant reading of posthumanist novels, the jerry-rigged flatness of the medium is the message. For Jameson, the flatness of Bob Perelman or E. L. Doctorow refers to the flattening of history into the spatialities of the postmodern now. For McGurl, the flatness of the zombie novel refers to the flattening of human agency across the distributed networks of neoliberalism. Pop literature, to adapt Austin, is flat at every moment except when it refers to our flat condition. Pop literature is flat things floating in texts about flatness.
Or rather, this was pop literature, a kind of pop made suddenly and irreversibly ancient by two slim recent volumes. Bennett Sims’s new zombie novel, A Questionable Shape, and Dana Ward’s new collection of poems, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, reverse pop literary tradition. Sims and Ward don’t want flat writing; they reject the 2-D illusionism of the postmodern past. They come to free pop culture from the material world. Anyone who has ever felt his or her surface open under the torrent of a pop song will recognize the power the new pop writers worship. Beneath the surfaces of zombies and top-40 tunes, they discover a world-dissolving agent.
The first of our songs I ever loved was “Sir Duke.” I heard it through the walls in the house. It made them seem watery. […]
Our songs were like a movie of Romeo & Juliet made in a commune by the sentient effluvia of nothing, mainly gold, & demanding you tell them you loved them.
The most important thing I am still learning from our songs is just do whatever you want to do & don’t worry too much about it.
Dana Ward creates a new pop poetry by looking back to the pop art that emerged in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. People sometimes forget that two distinct versions of pop art grew up in this period. The one everyone remembers is symbolized by Andy Warhol’s giant flat Marilyns. But the pop art tradition Ward reactivates begins with the New York School poets’ writing about mass culture. Ward proclaims his allegiance to this school in a number of ways: by modeling the form of “Our Songs” on Joe Brainard’s work, for example, or by the third stanza’s shout-out to such mottos of Frank O’Hara’s as, “Just go on your nerve.”
Frank O’Hara’s view of the possibility of art that incorporates mass culture was the exact opposite of Andy Warhol’s pop art. O’Hara saw Larry Rivers’ paintings of media icons like Camel packs and George Washington as a way forward. Rivers’ paintings, O’Hara wrote, are “the opposite of pop art.” Rivers clarified his opposition to Warhol or Jasper Johns in an interview with O’Hara.
“Some painters think that associations with real images are terribly strong, and that people in general identify the same meaning with them as they themselves do. I don’t think so.” Instead of showing us how “people in general” might perceive Camel backpacks or George Washington, Rivers expresses his “private associations.” Instead of flat public images scrubbed clean of any trace of subjectivity, Rivers’s pop artifacts are deformed by intense, private, idiosyncratic experiences. As O’Hara remarks: “What his art has always had to say to me, I guess, is to be more keenly interested.”
Dana Ward is keenly interested in pop songs. Larry Rivers’ Camel packs are the ancestors of Ward’s pop. When we read “Our Songs,” we’re not hearing pop as “people in general.” Ward’s poem records marvelous “private associations” with popular music. But this alternative pop art moves in mysterious ways. It isn’t quite what it appears to be. One might, for example, confuse the Rivers-O’Hara-Ward school of pop art with a kind of vapid individualism, a celebration of the rich diversity of different people and their special experiences. One might imagine that Ward is saying that while “Sir Duke” belongs to everyone, each one of us hears something different and unique and personal when we listen to it.
But he’s not saying this at all. The poet has no truck with this kind of vacant postmodern pluralism. His poem moves back and forth between how “we” hear the songs, how “you” hear them, and how “I” hear them, without detectable change in tone or meaning. Turn on “Sir Duke” and the walls become watery. Who hears this way? Anyone. Everyone. Identity doesn’t matter here. The songs matter.
But this can’t be quite right. “Sir Duke” is the only song title given in this long poem, and there are no quotes from any song, no references to any specific hook, bridge, or chorus. Curiously, pop songs as “people in general” might recognize that they are only intermittently present in the poem. It seems as if there are two kinds of pop song here. On the one hand, we have “Sir Duke,” the pop song as it blares, identically, from a million speakers and headphones. On the other hand, we have intense private experiences of listening, in which the pop song appears inside listeners as “bright orange moons” or “an airbrush of jewelry.”
“Playing our songs was mainly dreaming,” Ward writes. The pop song has a double life in this poem. It is a private dream, and a public product. How do we understand the passage from thing to dream? The easiest way would be to say that while the songs are everyone’s, the experiences are yours or mine. But as we’ve seen, Ward’s language refuses this option. The “bright orange moons” and “airbrush of jewelry” are ours, mine, yours.
The paradox, I think, lies not just in Ward’s language but also in the nature of pop songs. Ward understands something basic about the way a pop song works. There is no route linking the song’s status as ubiquitous pop cultural artifact, and the intense experiences the song triggers. There is no way to get from how “people in general” hear the songs, to how Ward’s “everyone” hears them — no passage from “Sir Duke” to “bright orange moon.”
People in the music industry sometimes refer to “pop magic.” Here’s the magic: a pop song is not one thing, but two. It sounds crazy, but it’s easy to illustrate. Let’s say you’re walking down the street with a group of friends when a car drives by. The chorus to “Billie Jean” wafts out of the windows. You and your friends turn to each other and nod and smile. One person starts humming the tune. What’s happened is that you’ve all recognized the song. The thing hangs there in the air for all to hear, it rings out for “people in general.” Nothing turns watery. This is Andy Warhol’s “Billie Jean.”
Now imagine another scene. Let’s say, if you’re Dana Ward’s age (and mine), that you first heard this song when you were seven years old. It was the first record you ever owned. You put it on your parents’ turntable and sat back and the walls became watery. Or maybe you’re 16, stoned, listening to it on headphones. The walls become watery. Or maybe when that car drove by, all of you, instead of smiling and nodding to each other, closed your eyes. Felt your inner walls go watery. And then everyone opens their eyes, looks around, nods.
This is Dana Ward’s “Billie Jean.”
By suppressing almost every identifying detail of “our songs,” Ward suppresses the Andy Warhol aspect of pop songs in order to record the mysterious vital experiences the songs create in us. From Warhol’s angle, the air of our world is shellacked with shiny flat sounds. From Ward’s angle, the air of our world is dense with matter-dissolving hooks and choruses.
“Our songs made us go to extremes.” Something extreme happens here. Outer space leaks into our world through the little trap doors of pop songs. Angels speak through the horns of pop songs. “The sentient effluvia of nothing” speaks through them.
Ward insists on the immaterial nature of our pop songs. Why? Is this cheap mysticism, some kind of pop religion?
In fact Ward’s poetic language here rests on pretty firm philosophical foundations. David Chalmers has popularized the thesis that subjective experience is immaterial. And Immanuel Kant long ago told us how, when we think a song is beautiful, we talk as if the beauty is in the song, when it’s really in us. And this beauty we feel when we listen is intensely private, but it isn’t individual. Close your eyes and listen to “Billie Jean.” That beauty. I expect to find it in you. You expect to find it in me. We expect to find it in everyone.
Examine the philosophical supports of “Our Songs” at your leisure. Dana Ward has simply written a poem that takes seriously what happens when we who love pop songs really listen. We curl up inside us to watch the flat surfaces of the old pop art get eaten away by an army of tiny sprites, “mainly gold.”
Zombies don’t have experiences. This doesn’t mean they can’t perceive the world. They can recognize edible things, like human heads, for instance. In Day of the Dead, George Romero showed us that zombies can recognize toothbrushes, razors, even a Walkman. They can probably recognize a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Most likely they know “Sir Duke” or “Billie Jean” when they hear it. But they don’t experience these things. The zombie way of perceiving the world — recognizing things without experiencing them — makes zombies something like Warhol’s ideal audience. Their way of seeing things resembles that of the phantasmatic being that Larry Rivers’s calls “people in general.” Bennett Sims wonders what it’s like to be one of them.
What is it like to have no experience? To exist as a being there’s nothing it’s like to be? For Chalmers and other philosophers, the zombie figures the possibility of action and perception without consciousness. Writers and artists have also used the zombie to imagine new kinds of being. Zombie novels, films, and comics are “posthuman” genres. As Andrew Hoberek writes of Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, in the zombie story “the goal of art becomes not the defense of old definitions of the human […] but the bodying forth of new forms that might emerge from the old.”
Sims writes about zombies in exactly the opposite way as Whitehead. A Questionable Shape is a rewriting of the genre in rather literal sense. The novel takes place in the world of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The characters reference broadcasts and events depicted in that film. The action starts some time after the film’s narrative closes, however, at a time when the zombie infection has been somewhat tamed. The infected are kept in quarantines, and while occasionally the human characters will glimpse one on the streets, the epidemic appears to be under control.
Sims’s real reenvisioning of the genre, however, takes place not on the plane of plot, but on the level of style, in the incredible, painstaking descriptions of the human narrator’s perceptual experiences. The proximity of zombies, of these beings without consciousness, cause Sims’s narrator to compulsively record human consciousness in all its ephemeral, nearly invisible, virtually inexpressible glory. To capture the inexpressibility of the quality of conscious experience, philosophers point to the way the color red appears. They then ask us to imagine describing what red looks like to a blind person. Sims’s zombie novel is suffused by the narrator’s description of an even more ephemeral experience: the way light itself looks.
In a characteristic sentence, he writes of how “sunlight radiates off the gravel and onto the storefront’s stucco, which looks buttered with noon light.” A footnote expands his investigation of the details of the experience of light. “What is it about white stucco that makes it so absorptive of sunlight? At noon especially, a wall of it will glow with weird, backlit intensity, sort of throbbing with light.”
In another passage, he observes of his girlfriend:
On our hike, she kept stopping to admire the sun’s suffusion in the air, pointing out the way that it punched through the pine branches in great gold shafts, so like the conical tractor beams of hovering UFO’s that all those backlit motes of dust, which were in fact being circulated in every direction, seemed to float only upward, in abducted currents.
Note how in this sentence pop cultural reference works exactly unlike postmodern type. UFO tractor beams, familiar from countless sci-fi shows and video games, are here used as a model for capturing a subtle aspect of the human experience of the natural world. This sentence accomplishes the novel’s work in miniature. Popular cultural reference is used not as a sign of the evacuation of intensely private experiences by the icons of mass media, but as an aid to realizing in language states of being that shrink from public exposure. Sims’s zombie novel perhaps contains the highest proportion of great descriptions of light per page since Proust.
What is it about the proximity of zombies that elicits this heroic effort to count and catalog the varieties of perceptual experience? In this novel, the zombie is like the totally black space in photos of the sun, against which you can see the superfine, violent arcs of sunflares. The zombie is like a silence so deep you can hear vibration becoming sensation on the surfaces of your eardrums. Bringing the zombie into a story causes the unaccountable dimensions of the human to multiply, and to reveal a truth first perhaps glimpsed by Richard Matheson in I Am Legend: the posthuman is one thing. The posthuman is simple. The human is legion.
Consider this passage, in which the narrator encounters a zombie while out for a walk:
He swayed there, and I stood and watched him sway. Above me a breeze passed through the oak trees’ leaves, and I watched as a current of rustle traveled up the block, live oak by live oak, in a line of thrashing branches. Eventually they reached the infected’s far white figure, overtaking him. As the branches between us swayed, their shadows swished atop the intervening concrete, and I could see that all of the street leading up to the infected was shaded: the pavement roiled with movement — with black turmoil — as if being buckled by an earthquake of shadows. Down at my feet some of its tremors swished over my shoes. And raising my eyes from my feet, moving my eyes slowly along the length of the street, one patch of thrashing shadow at a time, I could almost believe that I was following just a single tremor in motion, one black seism traveling up the block. This shockwave, beginning at my shoes, seemed to ripple outward, breaking over itself in crests and troughs until it broke over the feet of the infected. His white shape stayed in place, being lapped at by the blackness […] Could he perceive any of this? There was a great vacancy in his staring. He was present, but only as the manifestation of an absence […] I felt something like the awe that the visitant must feel, in the presence of the archangel, or the alien, and I knew then that I would do anything to understand.
This image of the zombie, standing like an “archangel” on a pavement of roiling shadows, might be the emblem of the new pop literature. The reference to Yeats’s greatest poem, “Byzantium,” is inescapable. In that poem, the reader, after encountering “Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth,” witnesses the following visionary stanza unfold:
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Readers may well object to my comparison of this stanza with Sims’s passage. Even if willing to admit something like zombie imagery in the poet’s reference to Hades, or beings that exist as “death-in life and life-in-death,” readers might point to one key feature in which Sims’s passage is not at all like Yeats’s. Unlike the poem’s shapes, the images flitting across the pavement in Sims are not supernatural, but natural.
But this is only a surface difference. The archangel zombie utterly transforms the very nature of the human’s rich description of shadow and light. This lightplay on the surface of the world is invisible to the zombie. The zombie can recognize things, but he cannot experience them, and all these boiling shadows are the stuff of experience.
The zombie’s presence thus opens a gap between experience and recognition, between Rivers’ world, and Warhol’s. If Sims’s references to pop phenomena like UFOs and video games operate like Ward’s references to pop songs, through the pop figure of the zombie Sims explores the chasm separating the old pop iconicity from the new pop intensities. The zombie installs at the heart of the novel a perspective from which the polymorphous dynamics of the human experience of light disappear. Like Yeats’s “flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” these roiling shadows, this buttery light, these dust motes in a sunbeam, are both in the world, and outside it.