Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Marcuse and the Cup of Death

Marcuse characterizes one-dimensional language as “speech [that] moves in synonyms and tautologies; actually, it never moves toward the qualitative difference,” but is essentially a “realistic caricature of dialectics” (Marcuse). Gilligan’s text demonstrates how language tinged with false familiarity and operational choice flattens out a conceptual experience.

“Your boring New Year’s vacation is about to get a lot more interesting” (Back Cover Gilligan). Notice the personal language (what could be perceived as novel technology because of reader interaction), that allows us to self-identify with the narrative, but we will see that this promised interaction is actually motivated by operational rationality, that despite the construction of the sentence to include the reader, that the text offers no real emotional attachment in the disembodied experience, but rather a flattened perspective that impedes conceptual thinking.

Gilligan’s language, vague and empty, attempts to allow its readers to experience a different culture without having to be physically committed to experiencing that environment:

true spirit of tea? What's that?' you press your friend.

'You will have to study the way of the tea to find out.'

THE END" (111)

Not only is this an empty, stereotypical dialogue, but Marcuse would call it “anti-critical.” Gilligan's language is obviously aimed toward American youth, but doesn't carry any "authentic linguistic representation," but instead "demonstrates its cultural superiority" (Marcuse). "Cup of Death" sounds like an exotic Japanese mystery, but really it relies on stock caricatures to place us in Japan.
The format of the interactive book consists of “segments of facts which, if taken for the whole, deprive the description of its objective, empirical character” (Marcuse). Instead of transitive characters that give reference to historical and cultural reality, Gilligan’s characters function according to operational rationality, losing specificity in language and eliminating any emotional resonance.

The YOU that is experiencing this narrative is actually experiencing a story line in which the author doesn't need to make any real choices, therefore the art makes no statement. It is not transcendent. In the same way video games attempt to give you a simulated experience (skinny nerds can jump cliffs on snowboards or shoot terrorists), without even a bit of real commitment or experience, Cup of Death gives little background, but instead focuses on many smaller plots in which the reader has no time or incentive to become emotionally invested. Therefore, the text “impedes conceptual thinking” (Marcuse). The concept of death loses its meaning when pointless decisions drive a plotline’s outcome.

The idea behind interactivity is that YOU the reader can influence the outcome; however, the author’s arbitrary organization of the book results in endings that the reader could have in no way strategically planned around, and suddenly, “the car sinks to the bottom of the lake, and no one ever finds you” (Gilligan 99). How can one take this death seriously when avoiding it is entirely a matter of chance? This interactivity is one that is totally manipulated by the structure and language of the technology, and cannot offer the experience that it is meant to in the same way that freedom and democracy lose their meaning in political and propagandist discourse—because it is language designed to reduce “the tension between thought and reality.” We have to see Gilligan’s story as one-dimensional because there is no real threat or risk, there’s no contradiction or stakes involved at all.

The flattening out of contradiction in Gilligan’s novel through language that removes the critique of facts and realistic/historical representations is a tact of political propagandists today: the warped definition of the word family to exclude citizens from participation in society, the desensitization of the phrase water-boarding until it no longer means torture, and the scene in Dr. Strangelove (perhaps what would be Marcuse’s favorite example), the substitution of the word megadeath for billions of people’s lives. Gilligan demonstrates that turning narrative and language into processes of operational forms causes a disconnect between the reader and the genuine emotional meaning behind a piece of language, making a process that claims to provide interactivity and choice result in one-dimensional meaning that lacks transcendence.

1 comment:

Adam said...

What you're doing here is quite interesting. I'm friendly to some aspects of it, and I think in other respects, you're putting the cart before the horse.

Fundamentally, I think approaching Cup of Death by way of Marcuse's thoughts on language is great - and that conducing that critique by way, especially of the "You" (I'd use the section on the importance of brands being "for us" even though they are really for millions - let's remember that Choose Your Own Adventure is a brand which has made a good bit of money!) and the stereotyped characters.

That being said, you don't really work with Gilligan's text. You generalize about it, for the most part. You also, I would suggest (predictably, based on what I said in class), avoid engaging with the fact that Gilligan is engaging in a flawed attempt to represent rough-hewn buddhist concepts through form, not just through content.

I'm not trying to insist that my reading is right, or that you're under any obligation to engage with it. Why I am suggesting is that you make no attempt to engage with Gilligan *as if* she is serious - you dismiss her before engaging with her. Maybe she doesn't deserve extended engagement - but you might ask, for instance, whether the "true spirit of tea" is ever elaborated on in the book. I'd argue that it is, at some level, and that this is an aspect of the book that you need to engage with.

Indeed, your argument would be far more devastating if you'd acknowledge that she's trying (at least a little bit) not to produce pure commercial trash - but that the form betrays her so utterly that she must.

Also, connecting her to Dr. Strangelove, etc., is extreme. Maybe it's not wrong - but to justify that connection, again, you need to engage more with the details of her language, or context (there's a total silence her about the American military in Japan which is telling - that's a direction for you).

Very interesting and ambitious, but you need to do more with the text - it might not deserve *much*, but it deserves *more*.