Sunday, April 26, 2009

Norman Mailer's Diagnosis of Mind Rot Revisited

Almost two years ago I wrote an "appreciation" post about the writer Michael Tolkin in which I used some of Tolkin's comments to reflect on one of Norman Mailer's last public appearances, which had the good fortune to be captured on video by Book TV. That reflection tried to go down two paths. The first concerned the deterioration of our capacity for telling stories, which actually had its origin in a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin. The second had to do with the deterioration of the stories themselves.

For several years my wife and I have pretty much avoided going to movie theaters (this in spite of the fact that there is an "independent cinema house" on the Plaza Level of the building where we live). As this blog should make clear, I have no trouble filling my time with "live" performances; and we decided that it made more sense to pay for a level of cable service that would provide us with movies that interested us, even if it meant waiting a few months to see them. Recently, however, I have discovered that we are watching fewer movies and more "extended series," not all of which are on the cable "pay" channels. This has led me to wonder whether this has to do with the capacity for telling stories or with the stories themselves.

About fifteen years ago, when I first started doing research into narrative, I took some time to play with one of those software products that claimed to help you write a screenplay. (This was somewhat in the vein of a study I had done about thirty-five years ago into what made Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "dice composer" work as well as it did.) I did not get much out of the screenplay software other than discover that this particular product was front-loaded with a heavy emphasis of character development. Before worrying about what the plot line would be, the user was required to build up a "cast of characters," sketching out each one in terms of both physical attributes and psychological motives. My guess was that the underlying philosophy was that, if you put a bunch of people together in a room, one of more stories will emerge from the interactions among their character attributes.

Whether or not I accept this philosophy, I find myself reflecting on just how impoverished the characters are that I encounter while reading reviews of films. I compare that with the rich character structures I have found in HBO projects such as John Adams, Generation Kill, and True Blood (choosing examples that run the gamut from the historical through the contemporary to the fantastic). This is not to say that network television has avoided such character structures; but character does not tend to sell soap. Thus we have a series like Southland, which is taking some interesting non-formulaic twists to members of the Los Angeles Police Force, offered to viewers to fill some blank space in the NBC schedule with little (if any) hope for renewal. On the other hand there is at least some buzz that ABC will renew Castle, which, while far lighter than Southland, has been taking some interesting approaches to departing from the formulaic in developing the regular characters.

Thus, if there has been a deterioration in the stories that are being told, regardless of the size of the screen, the problem may have something to do with a tendency to populate those stories with abstractions, rather than with the personalities who give life to those stories. Perhaps this is a narratological version of that Google-making-us-stupid problem that Nicholas Carr explored in the Atlantic Monthly. One approach to the sort of cognitive impairment that Carr tries to explore involves a preoccupation with getting answers without giving any attention to the reasoning behind those answers. This would be similar to focusing only on the destination of the plot-line, so to speak, without caring very much about how the line leads to that destination, let alone the extent to which that line moves at all through the motives (pun intended for those who can notice) of the characters. For all his superficial airs, even Rick Castle goes through life with a non-trivial set of motives; and the production team should be credited for establishing a connection between those motives and the adventures that unfold in each week's plot-line.

This is a phenomenon that I have examined in other settings. I have called it the "objectification of the subject" in past writing about both politics and business. Populating a story you tell with cardboard abstractions of personalities is no different from treating your political opponent or customer as an "abstract object," rather than a motivated individual. The consequences of trying to hide behind such abstractions probably rose to the most catastrophic level when we saw that strategy leading to the devastating mismanagement of the aftermath of Katrina. Yet for all the abundance of examples that caution us against such "objectification of the subject," we continue to practice it; and it continues to deteriorate not only the quality of our lives but the very stories we tell about those lives.

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