Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Interview with Christopher Higgs Part 1

The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney by Christopher Higgs is a playful, tender, intellectually challenging, funny novel built from the collected works of the complex, irascible, and earnest Marvin K. Mooney. Yes, named after the Dr. Seuss character. This collection includes speeches, short stories, quotes, meta fiction, meta meta fiction, and more. It's an experimental assemblage of narrative, philosophy, pathos, and humanity. Christopher Higgs was born in Kansas, grew up in Wyoming, went to film school in Las Vegas, worked in the film industry in Los Angeles, volunteered for the Peace Corps in West Africa, got his MA in English at the University of Nebraska, got his MFA in creative writing at The Ohio State University, and is currently working on his PhD in literature and critical theory at Florida State University. He is the author of the chapbook Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously, the curator of Bright Stupid Confetti, a digital journal of the arts, and a contributor to HTML GIANT. Below is Part 1 of a two part interview with Christopher Higgs. Part 2 will be posted next week.

What is a story? Is it different from a “narrative” or a “novel” or a “book,” and if so how?

A book is an object; a story is not an object. A novel is a descriptor; a story is not a descriptor. Narrative is an action, a piecing together, a verb; whereas a story is dead, finished, complete. Story is a noun. I don’t care for stories unless they are being told to me over dinner or on the phone or unless they are being conveyed on television or in movies that I view for entertainment. Stories are for entertainment.

In terms of art: narrative is a superior concept to story, much stronger, more pliable, more mutable, more multilayered. In terms of art, there is no room for story. Story is a roadblock to art. Look at how narrative can be performed and restaged and rearticulated; a story, on the other hand, goes only one way, has only one voice, is actually quite mute. A story is something you’d find in a newspaper. A story is cause and effect: this happened which caused this to happen – there is no other way, no other options, no other choices. A story is fascist in its totalizing tendencies. A story is always a shortcut to thinking. A story tends to be the most boring aspect of a text, the most simple, the most basic, the most obvious. When it comes to literature, I never care for nor remember stories. The Great Gatsby, I could not tell you what happened or what it was “about,” all I could tell you is the narrator’s name was Nick; in the opening he mentions boxing; later he drives through this ash world where there is a creepy billboard with big spectacles on it; there’s something called egg island; there’s a green light; and, I want to say there was a character named Daisy who was sexy. That’s all. In literature, I tend to be most interested in the aesthetic. Story has nothing to do with aesthetics. Story is content and content is irrelevant. Stein said it, Shklovsky said it, I’m saying it: form is all that matters. Story is dead weight.

What is the structure of a novel capable of communicating?

First of all, I am interested in novels as works of art rather than works of entertainment or education. For me, a work of art has no business communicating anything. Communication is a function of entertainment or education, which I view as categorically distinct from art. When it comes to art, I subscribe to a Kantian aesthetic paradigm: I believe the role of art is not to communicate but rather to excite the freeplay of imagination in the spectator. So my answer, as circuitous as it must be, is that the structure of an artistic novel can work as the trigger for the freeplay of the imagination in the viewer, but not as a mode of transferring communication. The more complicated or complex the structure, the greater the magnitude of excitation within the reader. To the degree in which the structure is formulaic, conventional, traditional, or familiar, we can assume the absence of art and the presence of either entertainment or education. To the degree in which the text transmits communication from the author to the reader, we can judge the readability of the text (in the way Barthes sets out the distinction between readerly and writerly texts in S/Z) but we cannot judge the quality of the text. In other words, I find a successful artistic novel to be one that attempts through its form/structure not to communicate but rather to ignite the freeplay of my imagination.

Is there a meaningful distance between an author directly attempting to communicate something stable and an author directing a reader to free intellectual play? If the author is still the source or inspiration for the reader’s action how are they distinct? Furthermore, can a work communicate to one reader and inspire free play in the other, and if so, how does this affect your distinction between art and entertainment?

Yes, there is a significant distinction. Without going overboard with theoretical hullabaloo, the thing is: communication in literature is an act by which the author directly attempts to clearly articulate a particular message; whereas the excitation of the free play of the imagination is undirected, because it is engendered by provocation or instigation which opens a multiplicity of possible messages.

Example: I want you to buy me a cup of coffee so I ask you “Will you buy me a cup of coffee?” This is directed communication. On the other hand, I want nothing so I ask you, “Besides the moon, how can we see the future?” This is undirected provocation. The former is legible, contains understandable information, and directs you toward a singular interpretation; the latter is illegible, contains incomprehensible information, and does not direct you toward any interpretation. In order for something to be entertainment it must be legible, accessible and consumable. A work of literature that is illegible (or flirts with illegibility) is neither accessible nor consumable: it stymies the understanding. That means it is art.

To help clarify, here are two examples that illustrate the difference.

Take the opening lines of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, which is legible, accessible, understandable, and obviously communicates a particular message:

"The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally -- he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now -- but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times."

Now compare those lines with the opening lines of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which are illegible, inaccessible, nonsensical, and obviously do not communicate a particular message:

"A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading."

The Franzen is an example of entertainment; the Stein is an example of art. Why? Because the Franzen does not excite the free play of the imagination: it is clear and can be understood by the intellect. The Stein does excite the free play of the imagination: it is unclear and cannot be understood by the intellect. Art, according to Kant and me, cannot be understood. That is what makes it art. What can be understood is communication (entertainment); ergo, communication (entertainment) cannot be art.

What can the pastiche style do that traditional storytelling can’t?

When I see the word “pastiche” my Jameson sensor goes off and I get a sour stomach. I don’t believe pastiche can be a credible viable mode of artistic expression because pastiche evokes the idea of imitation, imitation evokes the idea of mimesis, and mimesis, thanks to that dastardly villain Aristotle, is unfortunately responsible for the deplorable orthodoxy for which we think and talk and write about literature. Also, in cultural terms, pastiche seems like a hipster thing: a love of irony for the sake of irony, a purposeful lack of authenticity. I do not like that practice. I believe in authenticity, insofar as authenticity nowadays seems synonymous with the virtual. Authenticity is of course nothing more than a believable simulation (thanks, Baudrillard!), but to the degree of its believability I am committed to it. This whole notion of pastiche as the postmodern version of parody (again my Jameson sensor is going bonkers) seems yucky to me. I don’t like it. It’s ugly. I like pretty things.

How does this compare to traditional storytelling? I suppose I would say that in fact pastiche IS traditional storytelling. It is now fully acceptable and totally familiar; it is Saturday Night Live for heaven’s sake! Pastiche has been subsumed by convention and is now unable to establish enough critical distance from that locus to effectively distinguish itself. Perhaps you raise this question because of the opening of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, which may seem to some readers as a pastiche of academia, but in fact I wrote it in all sincerity. The humor, if one finds it humorous, hopefully comes from the resonance of authenticity. I should think it is quite authentic, given that I actually presented a slightly different version of that opening Prolegomenon at a scholarly conference a few years ago! There are other sections of the book that might also smack of pastiche, might elicit such a critique, but I would contend that such a critique calls into question the contemporary milieu, the literary assumptions of the (post)postmodern reader, etcetera, rather than evincing such a position itself.

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