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536/1030: TBT White Teeth

It’s just a coincidence that today is Thursday. I wasn’t planning to do a throw-back, I was just looking to see if I can clean out my drafts folder a bit. Then, I found this entry from August 2014. It’s the start of a review from when I was preparing for my MA oral exam, the main impetus for starting this site, and it’s kind of interesting to see that I’ve been carrying around Zadie Smith’s story in my head for 3.5 years. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“While continuing to slog through Tristram Shandy, I picked up Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which I had ordered since it was on my reading list. It turned out to be much less work and more pleasure than the other works on the list so far. It actually seems like cheating to count it as academic studies, mostly because the language was much simpler and there was less close-reading that needed to be done. Plus, I had read a very similar book”

And that’s where it ends. I can’t remember for the life of me what the other book was that I’d read that was similar. Maybe… nope. Can’t remember.

But clearly I never got to write anything of substance about this book. One can see what I have to say about Smith’s other books here and here. But White Teeth? In reviewing my blog archives, I actually wrote a response on German Unity Day, because there is a passage in the book discussing the Fall of the Berlin Wall, which is a major discussion point of mine. So I didn’t completely neglect the book. Of course, there remains a lot more to be said.

In Zadie Smith’s much-celebrated debut novel White Teeth, the reader sees several events in intermedial references to television, but one significant event is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, referred to very shortly, but rather effectively, near the end of Chapter Nine (which is also near the end of the second part, which precedes the section devoted to elucidating Irie’s character). Here the event is used as a backdrop to characters Millat and Irie asserting their opinions in the face of their parents Archie, Samad- though mainly against Samad. Millat’s assertion is quite simply to express his disinterest in the event. Irie’s, on the other hand, is worth examining further.

Irie Jones, “[a] stranger in a strange land” (222), speaks in textbook and Newsnight English.

“That’s totally your problem, Mill. No interest in the outside world. I think this is amazing. They’re all free! After all this time, don’t you think that’s amazing? That after years under the dark cloud of Eastern communism they’re coming into the light of Western democracy, united, […] I just think democracy is man’s greatest invention.” (198).

Before getting into the way that Irie emphasizes the word “amazing” and what she thinks about democracy, one should note how Smith frames her protagonist’s (often considered by critics to be a sort of autobiographical figure for Smith) words by pointing out that she is “quoting Newsnight faithfully.”

Newsnight, started in 1980, is a BBC Two currents affairs program that runs for 45 minutes  every evening and provides analytical reports of current events.

Yet what is it about the language Irie uses that makes it not her own? The criticism is that Irie cannot express herself in an individually persuasive way. She relies on the formulations of other people. However, in using it, it does become hers, to some extent. On the other hand, the question of anything becoming hers, of her having or laying claim to anything is challenged by the way she is inscripted by fate. My use of the word inscripted is not coincidental, since I mean to highlight the medium of writing, but I also want to point out the comments about Irie (obvious through the end, “you can only avoid your fate for so long” (448)) that she is one of those stuck by fate, which is parallel, but runs opposite to, history. This is the truth Smith seems to have and wants to highlight, that one will “race towards the future only to find [one] more and more eloquently express[es one’s] past.” One cannot “escape [one’s] history anymore than you yourself can lose your shadow” (385). Interesting about this point is the way the authorial voice suddenly transitions to second-person, speaking to the reader directly about her personal shadow.

So, in short, the event becomes significant- not because of the event itself (or how it is depicted), but what it creates as a narrative space for the other characters to do and interact. In a book that is very much invested in a realist style- in specific details and dates and specific details about dates-, one cannot ignore the reference to the Berlin Wall, how Irie interacts with the event as a medial event happening on TV that they are seeing together expresses something about her identity and her mode of expression.

And that’s what I have to say today.

In writing news, I finally made it to the Uni and am able to devote all day to cleaning up the mess of an outline (but at least I have an outline!) so that I can give it to my sponsor next week. Aaaaahhhhh!

Oh, and happy International Women’s Day. I support the women who are striking today to show their work communities what a day on the job would look like without their contributions. Unfortunately, me not being on the job today wouldn’t make a perceivable difference, since all I’m doing is sitting alone in an office typing on my computer.

 

522/1030: a structure

Lo and behold, I’ve finally managed something. At least it looks like something. I have yet to decide how useful this thing really is.

IMG_0969 (2) (1)

What I have here are all my key words mapped out in some sort of cluster map showing which ideas are closely related and the degrees in which things are related. From this, I am currently building my working outline, so that I know how I want to organize all the fragments I mentioned last time.

So no real information here today, just an update on the organizing work I’m doing, for the 50th time it seems like. But each time, I’m one step closer to an actual usable structure!

520/1030: some thinking

While on my way home yesterday, I was thinking about what I actually want to do with my Words blog, especially once I actually get into the writing. So far, my work has been fragmented and I used this space as a place to put my fragmented thoughts and know I  can edit them into a complete text, which is what I will do as soon as I have a kind of structure. However, once I have that structure, it will actually make more sense for me to just write my ideas straight into the documents than here.

I’m getting closer and closer to the elusive structure, an outline that actually builds on itself and makes logical sense, but until that happens, this space will probably look the same.

When it happens (my goal is Friday!), this space will probably turn more into a journal where I can reflect on the process of writing itself, and we’ll just have to see how interesting that is for people. In the meantime, carry on!

519/1030: the medium and the message

Once upon a time, there was a Canadian professor who had such a low opinion of literature studies students in the 1960s, or such a high opinion of advertisement and commercials, that he started teaching poetry analysis with media like newspapers. Then in 1964, this once literature professor, now media scholar, published the controversial Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man from which the famous saying comes: “the medium is the message.” With this, Marshall McLuhan started a trend that everyone seems to want to follow, including the French semiologist Roland Barthes. While not citing McLuhan directly, Barthes’ article “The Photographic Message” would not exist without some preconception of the argument that the “channel of transmission” affects the content of the transmission so much, that it becomes the transmission (15). That is, as McLuhan would say, “the personal and social consequences of any medium- that is, of any extension of ourselves- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs […] by any new technology” (107). Or, said in my own words, the form of a medium has so much autonomy that it can affect the content and make it mean something it may not have in another medium. That is, the medium can control the message. In the end, the medium itself carries so many signs, and the message is so bound up within these signs, that the content of the medium does not seem to exist without the medium. It cannot conceivably exist.

That all sounds much more complicated than it has to be. Trying one last time to articulate it, there is a strain of media studies that believes in technological determinism and that one cannot study media without considering their form and their affect on the message. So there. It is with this understanding that I approach literary text, especially when it is put into contact with other media via intermedial references.

However, before assuming “the medium is the message” again, let us consider the two terms in isolation, since I must be able to have working definitions before I can begin manipulating them.

I will start with defining medium, which is often used in its plural form, “media.”  Historically, a medium is a tool, material or technique wielded by a user (an artist/designer, etc.) and used to communicate/accomplish something.  For example, cement, marble, paint, clay, and charcoal could be considered media and the term is often used this way in an art setting.
Now, medium is referred to the technology that allows something to be communicated: radio, television, print, digital coding, etc.
Media can be print or in-person: Text in books, on billboards, in newspapers, etc., sound waves
or electronic and broadcast: Recorded sound, recorded (moving) image. How it is broadcast can be distinguished between analog means or digital (via code). Hence, one can consider the physical qualities of the film, cassette, vinyl record, versus the “invisible” quality of the internet and mobile devices.

In his chapter “The Photographic Message,” Barthes considers the medium of the press photograph. He is concerned with its form as an “object endowed with a structural autonomy” (15). His definition of medium doesn’t stray beyond what I’ve explained above in that the medium is a physical object that transmits as message. However, McLuhan extends the definition of medium to include anything that changes the ways humans can interact. So to him, the light bulb is a medium, since it “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (108), and  it allows us to work and play at night and see in the dark corners of our brain during surgery. Because McLuhan’s definition allows for such a varied ascription of the term, medium is not as easy a term to pin-down as I would like. I may find myself stating that I will only define television and text as media and avoid getting too far into general definitions.

Before actually trying to define the two terms, I thought message would be the more difficult of the two, even if it is a term most readers have an intuitive understanding of message. However, it turns out both are difficult terms to define.

A message (not the thing left on the answering machine, but the one we come into contact with whenever we come into contact with media) is a meaning,  idea or sense of something. It is always conveyed by something, which is why some people say the message is inextricable from the medium, but there is something we talk about when we say “message of this is this.” In the old “form vs. content” debate, the message is the content. Despite these clear statements, defining a message is actually very difficult, since it is an abstract, variable concept. For example, Barthes considers media transmitting two messages, a denoted and connoted message. McLuhan considers that the message of a medium is not the one (or two) message(s) we consider we are being transmitted, but the way in which the medium has changed human interaction. Add to these messages the infinite possible messages an audience or recipient receives based on their/his/her subjective position and interpretation, and one has many possible messages given by one medium or subject of inquiry.

Really, if anything, this attempt at defining  message and media was nice, and may be useful as a general introduction, but I don’t know if I have a working definition yet. Talking about them in general terms is probably what makes it difficult to understand. Once I start using examples, I believe I will be able to work with the terms better.

Now I have to figure out how to integrate this into my dissertation later in a productive way. Sigh.

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland, trans. Stephen Heath. “The Photographic Message.” Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 1977. 15-31. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium Is The Message.” Media And Cultural Studies: Keyworks. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 107-116. Print.

518/1030: More NW

Whelp. I’ve officially passed the half-way mark of my original goal to finish my dissertation, and I’ve also exceeded the bonds of my delusion that I can finish by July 2019. However, I have adjusted and now am looking at a tentative date in December 2019. I’m keeping the 1030 for now, though, and will reset the counter when I am at 15 July 2019.

In better news, I’ve made it through my first semester as a member of a competitive graduate school and also taught a course I designed myself that I called “Mass Media and British Politics”. I gave up my job in the translation office that I worked at to fund my way through my first year in Berlin and instead dedicated myself to preparing for colloquium and classes and trying to set up some structure for my thesis. However, I didn’t seem to ever get to properly work on my thesis, so that’s actually one of the main tasks for today. Before I do that though, I want to catch up on an important analysis of an excerpt from NW. 

One of the authors whom I’m working with is Zadie Smith and I’ve written about her before in this blog. She is a brilliant writer. I mean, I’m not an expert (well, I’m working on it,  but my opinion is not definitive), but I can’t help but notice how well she captures the essence of being human today.

Now, I know my thinking about her relies quite a bit on her background- while she’s not a migrant herself, no one can deny her place in migration literature- but I can’t say for certain she’s affected by this background in writing NW. In fact, I’d say she isn’t. If anything, she is influenced by the modernists and postmodernist who struggle with structure and fragmented reality and being, just like all of us do, really.

I guess I refer specifically to her treatments of new media and how her characters reflect on it. It’s really not fair to say that her treatment is totally unique, but it is well done.

Take for instance Smith’s description of how Natalie sees her children:

It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoilt children sat upon the floor, flicking thorough past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence-outside of dream and miracle- until very recently. Until just before now.

(278)

It may be that Smith is pointing out here how she is the first person to play with technological existence in literature like this. It is, after all, “literally” the first time. And she plays with time here, reminding the reader of the time it takes to read the lines and the supposed time that is created by the lines.

Therefore, as one of my students (with whom I read this passage) pointed out, Smith could just be pointing out the awesome power of contemporary technology to give us a new experience of self-reflection.

On the other hand, I think there is something ironic about her treatment. She seems to be treating this “unknown” aspect with a bit of derision. After all, as Jean Jacques Lacan explains in psychoanalytic criticism, we have had something like a “mirror stage” in our development, where we learn to differentiate between subjectivity and objectivity and recognize ourselves as objects in the world that others interact with, for quite some time. If anything, the selfie is just an advanced mirror that we can pass to each other through the digital codes of our technological devices. On the other hand, precisely this unawareness in which we deal with our selves, our self images and the kind of narcissism inherent in it could both be things Smith is criticizing. Still, she is ahead of other writers in this publishing atmosphere who actually reflect on new media in their work. Since I am interested in television, I don’t need to spend too much time on the new media, but I am keeping an eye on the developments. I do want to address passages like this at the very least in my conclusion.

However, I should get that structure going. And I actually need to get some writing done (not just fragments as it’s been until now), which is the goal for mid-March. Let the writing- the “real” writing- begin!

Work cited: Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin Group, 2013. Print.