Books In Conversation
Debra Di Blasi with Joe Milazzo
Debra Di Blasi
Today Is the Day That Will Matter: An Oral History of the New America: #AlternativeFictions
(Black Scat Books, 2018)
In the words of poet Maged Zaher, “we live in an interesting hell.” Consider that one of the most profitable blockbusters of summer 2018 leans hard (and ingeniously so) into its tendencies towards Communist agitprop. Meanwhile, the current occupant of the White House continues to troll the so-called free world with every Tweet, photo op, rally and gut call. To call each and every day we find ourselves further immersed in the fresh horrors of the new Baroque “wrenching” feels simultaneously overblown, even pompous, and inadequate.
Enter Today Is the Day That Will Matter: An Oral History of the New America: #AlternativeFictions (Black Scat Books) by Debra Di Blasi, a collection of vignettes, prose poems, aphorisms, satiric miniatures, and self-consciously tasteless jokes that, together, achieve a kind of mythopoesis. As far afield as Di Blasi’s fictions depart from apparent verisimilitude, they nevertheless present versions of that which is familiar—the overheard, the already-told. As such, Di Blasi’s book serves as an important reminder that all social and political orders cohere around fabulist acknowledgments, equally cautionary and spectacular, of how little we really know about that of which we stump and jabber.
This August, I was fortunate enough to exchange a series of emails with Debra about Today Is the Day That Will Matter (henceforth, TITDTWM, or simply TODAY). With my questions, I tried to rise to the challenges raised by her book. I also worked to assume as little as possible re: her practice, or the origin and ultimate meaning of TITDTWM. However, a few paraliterary queries proved inevitable—questions that spoke to choices made by Debra in her authorial capacities, or which implied that the Pandora’s box of authorial intention was worth prying open. Ultimately, of course, TITDTWM operates “on its own,” but here at least is one context in which it might be situated. Many thanks to Debra for taking the time to engage with these asks, and for holding open multiple spaces within the context of our conversation. / JM
Joe Milazzo (Rail): How would you define transgressive literature? What is the value of transgressive literature in an era during which norms are constantly being violated/upended by the individuals and institutions charged with protecting them?
Di Blasi: I don’t think the definition of transgressive literature has changed since Foucault’s assessment, or from contemporary interpretations of, say, Euripides’ The Bacchae, at least not perhaps through the lens of the author’s conscious or unconscious intent. It’s location in the sociopolitical and cultural landscape, however, may have shifted because of a shifting of that* culture.
*I’m referring primarily to culture(s) like the United States that have the “luxury” of redefining social, economic, political and/or racial (i.e.) statuses versus places like, say, Malawi, where people live on less than $2 per day and women are generally treated like beasts of burden.
I find this term (like most categorizing terminology) now irrelevant to me as writer (and reader), as transgressive literature presupposes that what I’m exploring is written from outside/beyond my and my micro-culture’s personal experiences, or pushed to the Nth degree. My experiences have been far more disturbing than anything I’ve thus far written, and TODAY examines more (of my) interpretations of truths than fictions; thus, #AlternativeFictions. Some of the more unsettling narratives are 90% factual; a few of the nasty pieces are 100% appropriated text. Perhaps one day I’ll get around to telling those more outré nonfictions, though I resist in order to protect the innocent and the guilty—and, subsequently, what remains of my life, because some of those mobsters, drug dealers and political extremists are still alive. The intentional unadventurous trajectories of too many contemporary writers, their insulated intellectual enclave, or their refusal to write honestly about their own or witnessed “transgressions” juxtaposed with those by political, religious and fourth estate, et al., leaders, help prop up those same mobsters and extremists. You know it. I know it. The commodification of literature, of any art, is an attempt by those holding the reins of power to negate or dwindle the potentially positive force of art—to overthrow art’s ability to enlighten those who otherwise have been convinced, en masse, to desire the very things that cannot provide the satisfaction they seek through those things. A compulsion loop. A reaching, reaching, reaching toward the elusive gold ring that proves to be, when the surface is scratched, merely electroplated, worthless scrap at its core.
Back to Foucault: I’ve never read Bataille’s Story of the Eye as anything but an intellectually and aesthetically sumptuous aggregate of horror, beauty, music, and seduction. Theory does not help me appreciate the novella more; it deadens catharsis. My education in and practice of visual art and art history help me gravitate toward those who create from a space of serious inquiry beyond a culture’s generally “acceptable”—but always shifting—boundaries. Matthew Barney immediately comes to mind. His “Cremaster Cycle,” remains one of my favorite bodies of visual art. Every literary writer should know it, the whole of it. I’ve been fortunate to have seen all “Cremaster Cycle” films, attended the Guggenheim exhibition, and possess three copies of the massive book. (I’ve saved two in their original papers as a hedge against inflation or to sell during an apocalypse. [Sarcastic emoticon here.]) I’m sure there exist writers who create intentionally transgressive literature, for the right or wrong reasons; I don’t impugn them. I’m simply not writing from that space.
Current discourses about race, gender and politics, e.g., polarize, disintegrate or effervesce not because they’re new (similar conversations existed in the 1970s when I was a young adult and college student) but rather because they now occur primarily on social media, outside of face-to-face/eye-to-eye conversational space, in tiny, ineffectual assessments, attacks, and annoying bromides. There is, in social media, a modicum of lengthy intellectual debate, few analogous “Standards of Parliamentary Procedure” to maintain civility or fairness, little or no affection for and deference to the complexity of ideas. We can “Like” or “Hate” or “Wow” or “Laugh” at a post; block someone, delete their comment, report them to Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. Does one really believe that one’s comment of “Fuck yeah,” or “WTF” contributes anything valuable to a serious discussion of gender or racial equality or the inexorable rise of Western fascism? Or that commenting on a clickbait headline without reading its linked article illuminates anything but that commenter’s obscene laziness and their addition of more offal to the rancid stew? If you think I exclude myself from these trespasses, you are wrong. I too get drawn into zero-sum games and then have to take a long, hot, shower of purgation.
Rail: Reading TITDTWM, I couldn’t help but think of Daniil Kharms work. Brevity? Sure. But, more than that, the narrator in your book seems to share Kharms’ antipathy towards narrative. So, for example, where Kharms has a “story” end with the declaration, “[t]herefore there's no knowing whom we are even talking about. In fact, it's better that we don't say any more about him [the putative protagonist of the story],” you have a piece here which concludes:
And, now, here you are! You’ve walked into a story. But you’re not the point. Don’t ever think you’re the point of this story.
To work within narrative forms while rejecting the satisfactions narrative typically proffers—this seems to be a characteristic element of contemporary fiction. Fundamentally, however, there’s hardly anything ludic in the simultaneous letting the reader in and kicking them out. (Doors open and slam frequently in TITDTWM.) There’s more of a virality to this meta-ness, a sense of authors surrendering to all the ways in which narratives enthrall in a quite literal sense. Narrative, like language itself, being among the earliest and most destructive technologies we’ve failed to provide good oversight. And so, just as there likely isn’t any technological solution to the climate change been accelerated by our addiction to technology, there’s likely no way to cancel out the effects of ideology with yet another story. In that sense, I also feel the influence of Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms here. At least, a pessimism regarding narrative seems to be a theme of your book.
Feel free to disagree with me, please. In doing so, however, can you also discuss what you felt you learned (or relearned) about narrative in writing the fictions that make up TITDTWM?
Di Blasi: First, I would have to ask you to more specifically define “contemporary fiction,” as my experience is that the majority of it meets rather than exceeds or otherwise defies reader expectations—a result, I think, of the academic and publishing industries toeing the (bottom) line and writers’ unwise goals of a terminal degree and publication as the ends to the more existentially rewarding means of writing as a tool for thinking and learning (she said, then dismounted her high horse). Secondly, in my case, “antipathy toward narrative” would best be restated as “apathy toward narrative standards” created by people and markets that have little to do with the evolution of my creative process.
I started seriously writing fiction in my twenties, after having studied poetry, journalism, and fine art. My goal was to publish, to become famous, remembered. But as the years and my writing progressed, and I did exponentially publish (albeit, with little fame or remembrance), I found the promised rewards vapid, fleeting. So what’s the point? I asked. What matters, existentially? When I began teaching creative writing, primarily experimental forms, at my art college alma mater, my goals shifted from the consumerist world of the publishing industry to the exploratory world of fine art, a world with respectively wide boundaries. The Jiri Chronicles grew out of a multimedia fiction assignment I gave my students, one that intentionally shunned academic accreditation goals of “career training,” to explore how narrative is created from randomness, not just in intentional writing but in our lives: the transit media, the cafe bulletin board, the overheard conversation, the candy wrapper, the radio jingle and the retail window… myriad voices and images we absorb in a single day, and their aggregate effect on our psyche, our public and private identities.
I’ve not yet read Kharms’ work beyond the whole of the above-quoted story you sent me, but know of his influence on the visual art of William Kentridge, whose work I highly respect. That said, Kharms’ “he” is indeed a putative protagonist; I do not read the story as about “he” at all. Both Kharms’ and my “fictions” culminate in anagnorisis. “He” and “wormy dog” are each a vehicle for moving the writer and reader from one normative point to a revelatory other and, in so moving, each allows us to reflect back on our narrative journey and, ideally, on how we vacillate between unconscious and conscious spaces, on how it feels to feel and to thereby manipulate empathy, what role and/or responsibility the writer, reader, human have in/to narrative and thereby in/to real moments that seem to occur beyond our influence. Both stories fundamentally are questions, not answers, and certainly not the decrees with which they conclude: “don’t say any more” and “don’t ever think.” I suspect that, like me, Kharms was, in his conclusion, addressing as much (or more) himself as the imagined reader.
Because TODAY is so much about written and spoken language (semantics) as it relates to (1) the way cultures and their peculiar mores evolve, devolve or remain static, and (2) how narrative intersects with, is influenced by and influences the former, I wrote most of, and certainly edited it in mise en abyme fashion. It’s why I consider the book as much a “novel” (inasmuch as that term is useful) as a collection of very short “fictions.” Working on The Jiri Chronicles for thirteen years, in virtually every genre and medium, taught me a great deal about interconnections, so much so that I cannot now write any fiction or nonfiction without addressing the consanguinity, so to speak, of its disparate parts. Locating the lies in a narrative reveals more essential truths than do empirical facts. And when you emit that sonar, the sky swarms with lies, distortions, evasions and omissions.
I’m interested in lies. Mine, yours, everyone’s. And everyone, everyone lies, whether to oneself or others, to indict or exonerate, hide or deceive, protect or imperil or elevate. (Please do not conflate “fiction” with “lies.”) Importantly, TODAY became also an interrogation of my own being influenced by and participation in the very things I despise: moments when my anger peaks, when I hear myself thinking an epithet or bigoted phrase that I’ve absorbed from one medium or another—music, film, social media, news—over the course of researching TODAY. I’m stunned by my dumb-animal complicity, whether conscious or not. Stunned. But not so much that I’m afraid to look that monster in its cyclopean eye. As some of the “fictions” were older and allowed entry because they were relevant to my exploration or prescient of current events, I enjoyed returning to dissect them, to cull the shit, or multiply it, depending on the intent of the part as related to the whole.
Rail: Your question about what constitutes contemporary fiction is, of course, a necessary one. Perhaps I should have said “zeitgeisty” rather than “contemporary” fiction, for that's what I was imagining. I mean the writing of the here and now that is infatuated with the fragmentary and the ghostly. That writing is mostly elegiac in tone, meaning that even when it confronts trauma—personal or collective—it does so from the relative safety of retrospection. Yet the internet still feels mostly like set dressing in these books. It has a presence, but its function is either atmospheric or expository. Is this an absence you feel in contemporary literature as well? If so, is it something you set out to address when you began writing TITDTWM? Was it something that only really became visible to you in the writing and editing of these fictions? Which other living writers would you encourage readers looking for compelling literary representations of the internet to seek out?
Di Blasi: Thinking back to, and pretending to fully know, the inception of the TODAY, I’d say that the act of composing the book began as a way to intellectually think through my own and others’ online emotional “schizophrenia”—commenting with vitriol in one instant and then with affection a flick-of-the-finger later, back and forth and back and forth, instant abutting instant, caroming and caromed. I sought to develop a creative process that would help me discern some/any significance this phenomenon has to what I value in these last years of my life. Intellectual examination expanded to a self-referential diatribe against the waning effectuality of language as a tool for cultural epiphany; the diatribe intersected with self-referential nostalgia for what remains extant yet is apparently too quickly vanishing. The elegiac tone in some of TODAY’s “fictions,” illuminates a way of being in the physical world without the external-to-internal clatter of more than two billion voices (ref. the book cover), while the “virtual” world meanwhile overwhelms, kills, what this author defines as existentially marvelous and sublime: a hummingbird hawk-moth, for example, and the subsequent derision of its exalted value within the shortening trajectory of one’s life.
Living where I live in Portugal, where the majority of people are kind, generous, exceedingly polite; where I can walk alone at night with little fear of rape or robbery; where I can say “Bom dia” or “Boa tarde” to a stranger and they will respond in kind, with a delighted smile; where attachments to family and friends are so powerful that adult men and women openly talk about crying from homesickness… And yet, young people here seem increasingly sucked into the loneliness of the internet. All of what is beautiful in this sweet Portuguese fishing village, and so many “elsewhere” may be gone too soon, just as the splendid “real” moments of my life before “virtual” (e.g., receiving a ten page, carefully composed, handwritten letter from a dear poet-friend) now exist only in the irrevocable past.
As for contemporary fiction and authors, my current literary choices don’t, in my opinion, reflect that absence about which you speak—perhaps because I now read primarily translations of foreign fiction whose cultures have not yet begun to address the internet’s influence on their lives. I do read quite a bit of nonfiction on the topic of the internet and its aesthetic and cultural ramifications because some of the research is fascinating.
Rail: At the same time I was reading your book, I was also being exposed—via social media, of course—to a selection of clickbait-y think pieces about English as the language of colonialism par excellence. And that got me to thinking about how brilliantly this book speaks about (the very protracted) death throes of the present imperial order using the language of that empire. Semantically, TITDTWM is very “approachable”; word by word, sentence by sentence, there’s a very “topical” fluency to the pieces that disguises the structural risks the book is taking; the intervallic leaps (to use a metaphor) it is taking. (The pieces jab, feint, back into a corner, but it’s all rope-a-dope stuff.) How did the voice of TITDTWM present itself to you/develop/emerge? And how is that voice related to the notion that this book presents—as its subtitle indicates—an “oral history of the New America”?
Di Blasi: It’s interesting that you earlier brought up Nathalie Sarraute. Sadly, she fell off my radar when I stopped teaching experimental writing, yet I have no doubt of her influence, as neither do I doubt the influence of hundreds more, colliding and bleeding, intersecting and overlapping. For the sake of this conversation, I looked up some of Sarraute’s comments regarding Tropisms (alas, my teaching notes are long gone) and can see similarities in her process of writing Tropisms and mine of writing TODAY.
I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we enclosed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. [emphasis mine] That's what I tried to do in Tropisms.
– Nathalie Sarraute, The Paris Review, Issue 114, Spring 1990
Most of the individual “fictions” in TODAY were written with great speed, as if stream-of-consciousness, except that I simultaneously, vicariously, paid obsessive attention to the vocabulary, vernacular, rhetoric, and structure of the parts; the use, abuse and misuse of language and whence it came; threads sewn from one piece to another, knotted here and there, basted, unspooling like the gold thread in “The Museum of Emperors and Their Sullen Offspring.” (This “fiction,” by the way, may be interpreted as analogous to a map of the book.)
I spent over two years researching and painfully assimilating narrative as it seems to exists now in the U.S., and in Portugal, and in Hong Kong (and China, by geopolitical association) where I lived before Portugal, and Seattle before that..., studying syntax and implied motives/motivations on social media, in the comments of a broad sociopolitical spectrum of videos and news, reality TV, personal conversations, eavesdropping, ad nauseam, then regurgitating it; that’s a simplified view of my process. TODAY is, of course, my interpretation of an oral history written through the lens of someone (me) speaking from under the oppressive influence of U.S. culture. We can’t, or shouldn’t, ignore the author’s definitive role in this document, as suggested by the final quote in “Epigraph: This is a Novel”:
[T]here’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
– Joan Didion, “Why I Write”
Rail: Why do you think we look to fiction to diagnose our present ills? What does fiction offer us that the news doesn’t?
Di Blasi: I’m wondering, kindly, who is your “we”? “We” is not the majority of readers who are masticating genre fiction and/or commercial fiction that salves rather than inflames. Nor is “we” readers who burn through a complex work of literature in a few hours or even a few days, knowing—or not knowing—that they could not fully parse the writing in such a short duration. Most definitely, “we” is not writers who increasingly spend more time discussing the newest Netflix series rather than print literature.**
**The plethora of good or competent published books has damaged literary discourse. How many people are simultaneously reading the same book (outside of required academic reading)? The number of streaming series is, by contrast, quite small, and every show is typically bound to a narrow time slot—mostly because people devour each new episode. As television programs become more intelligently conceived and produced and thus more compelling narratives, it’s not surprising that thinking people want to share opinions, theories, and questions.
As a result of the 24/7 media culture, we have the problem of most professional book reviewers who are less likely to take the time to review challenging literature. Thus, too, the problem of writers who are not writing to learn and understand but rather to be published, tenured and/or lauded. I’m not sure the “we” is even me, because I do not believe an accurate diagnosis of present ills can be achieved through fiction. Symptoms, perhaps. But not diagnosis. And surely not cure.
Yet, as I responded in another interview, fiction can produce one benefit that legitimate news cannot: empathy. That old stooped woman on the park bench to whom I will never speak, whose multifaceted loveliness glinted and reached inside my periphery, who will be dead so soon and remembered by so few? She has an interior life as real, important and fecund as yours or mine. Legitimate news does not provide a view of interior life at the depth that literature can.
Tens of people have died after a section of a highway bridge in northern Italy partially collapsed Tuesday, according to fire brigade sources cited by Italian news agency ANSA.
– CNN, August 14, 2018
No news source will reveal the interior thoughts of the male—or let’s say female—the female brigade worker who pulled the dead child out of a crushed car to discover she was holding only a torso. Nor will the news give us the banal conversation she had with her mother that morning, the mother who calls too often (the brigade worker complains), tying up the phone for hours at a time. Nor the brigade worker’s mental breakdown three years later while on vacation, sitting on the very same park bench as had the old stooped woman, now dead. A child standing in the sea, up to his waist, and the sunlight playing on the water’s surface such that the boy appeared to have no legs. A seagull’s distant cry like the voice of her mother, now also dead. Memory stretched too taut…
Bellevue Literary Journal (of New York University Langone Medical Center) was “conceived as a way to improve communication skills and to foster a greater sense of empathy in doctors-in-training.” Increasingly more medical and science programs require students to read and write literature, and study art history, to improve the empathy and diagnostic skills. So.
Rail: Your last book-length work of fiction—The Jiri Chronicles—appeared in 2007. From your perspective, what has been the most positive change to occur in the world of literary publishing in the decade-plus between these books? The least positive change?
Di Blasi: Actually, in addition to TODAY, two books followed The Jiri Chronicles (University of Alabama/FC2): Ugly Town: The Movie: A Novel (June 2016) and Skin of the Sun: New Writing (January 2017).After submitting each book without success to my publishers, I parked them on Createspace/Amazon because I did not wish to spend my shortening days pushing the manuscripts through the metaphorical paper shredder. That action may suggest to you perspectives on my (1) least positive change, that multimedia narratives exploring interconnections between competing disciplines have no place at the literary table because literature, sadly, is so often aligned with English departments and not Fine Art departments; and (2) more positive change, that digital DIY technologies provide ways to create literary documents that otherwise would never see the light of day, or would vanish because of out-of-print decisions. That’s all I’ll say about that because, as the former publisher of Jaded Ibis Press, I learned the hard and expensive way that those literary comfort zones protected by razor-wire erected around readers and writers by the publishing and academy businesses aren’t going away any time soon. If ever.
Rail: “We” and “you” are among the most-used words TITDTWM. (Not “shit,” as one reviewer has insisted.) How would you respond to a reader who would say to you that they are not included within the pluralities formed by either pronoun?
Di Blasi: Aha! Hoisted on your own petard, my friend. Who, indeed, is that “we” that we reflexively use?
Rail: By “we” I mean who we are when we read primarily for relevance. When we read to validate our sense that, yes, this is how things are, or this is how we (as a culture, as a people, as a species) got here, or yes, that is who is responsible. I'm not even talking about a "but the converted need preaching to every now and again" kind of scenario. I'm just talking about the ways in which we don't necessarily own our interests, or aren’t capable of fully admitting to ourselves that larger forces motivate us to care about the things we care about.
Di Blasi: In TODAY I am, in sum, indicting both myself and the barely-imagined reader—and, of course, those “fictive” characters who will never read any of the pronouns. A reader who thinks they are entirely excluded needs to reread the book—maybe thrice, not in quick succession (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). Having made that glib remark, however, I assert that a speaker-writer cannot change the place whence the hearer-reader listens—especially if that hearer-reader listens from a place of gross unmindfulness, prejudice, ignorance, and especially if they/we/you ignore or discount the conflicting voices in their/our/your head [sic]. Also, there exists the obvious (to me) dichotomy that “we” and “you” are simultaneously their grammatical and cultural definitions, and self-referential—to author and/or to reader. The polemical nature of contemporary politics, especially after having researched this book, arises from people never asking themselves, “What is my responsibility in this rippling debacle? How do my words contribute, positively or negatively, to the ecumenical imagination? Where and how am I wrong? When am I, whether publicly or privately, just a different stripe of the asshole(s) I hate?”
Rail: I feel the tyranny of relevance quite often these days, and catch myself wondering if I am a good—that is, pious—reader. Not only is a guide to termite mounds not relevant, so this thinking goes, but, given the present political stakes, spending time reading it is borderline unethical, an exercise of the worst kind of privilege. How would you describe your relationship, as an artist, to relevance?
Di Blasi: If you’re talking about relevance theory, let’s you and I leave that to theorists, not to creators that feed theorists. If you’re referring to the cultural/aesthetic relevance of my art and creative process, I’ll state, simply, that my obligation to be relevant to aesthetic(s) as it/they exist in some literary and visual art spaces is dependent on the question(s) that mystify or gnaw at me. Some of those questions arise from experiments in style, others in content, still others in the overarching structure of a narrative, whether as a static print document or multimedia—any or all combined. It’s no accident that the people I asked to blurb the book are poets or prose writers reshaping narrative through idiosyncratic means. I’m interested in their art because their aesthetic choices and processes often rise above my own rather high expectations while revealing emotive beauty and depth. In this regard, a guide to termite mounds is relevant, especially if the literary art of that guide is as marvelous as Eugène Marais’ The Soul of the White Ant (1937). His manner of exploration is timeless and time well spent for the reader, which is why I’m often reading beautiful meditations on the natural world, like Marais’ books, or J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, or Jean-Henri Fabre’s The Life of the Fly, a book that deeply influenced the later short stories in The Jiri Chronicles book.
Again, interconnections: What is the relationship between those termitaries and their white ant builders to Homo sapiens? To political and social structures? To creative endeavors like TODAY? How does the language move the thoughtful reader, both emotionally and intellectually? Reading is not only (or necessarily) about entertaining oneself—though I find what others may deem “useless information” as highly entertaining. Reading develops analytical and critical thinking skills to, ideally, better understand what it means and meant to be a member of Homo sapiens in a certain place at a certain time. Reading can be a two-sided mirror; or, because I know you’re a jazz aficionado, “about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end of it at the same time . . . both directions at once.“ (John Coltrane)
Not reading by choice is unethical, in the same way that not voting by choice is unethical, because there are people throughout the world who do not have access to either privilege, and have died or been killed for seeking these luxuries some take for granted.
Rail: One of my favorite pieces here is “What Elon Musk Said, Maybe,” which begins, “The clues were always there, that we didn’t exist. Not in the way we believed.” Call it species dysphoria, perhaps, or another, genuinely sorrowful, expression of the same atavism driving all of us crazy right now. But, in the cosmos constituted within TITDTWM, self-awareness doesn’t hold much hope, and that’s true whether we’re talking Descartes or Dr. Phil. Many of these characters see themselves for what they are and it does nothing to adulterate their infatuation with themselves. (Hence the preponderance of fetishes here, perhaps.) Would any of the scenarios described in TITDTWM be alterable or even reversible with the intervention of an expanded consciousness? How would that consciousness announce its existence?
Di Blasi: I do not think many of the characters see themselves for what they are but rather as what, who, how they perceive themselves to be — at least within the context of the book’s overarching narrative, and often within the context of their imagined social circle that creates the overarching narrative of their imagined lives. Thus, I think you’re correct in that self-righteousness remains a kind of constant. Easy example: In “Horror Comics Aren’t Funny at All,” the heretofore hidden pleasure a character (a psychiatrist) receives from viewing a rotting corpse is brought to light by the narrator:
He said the stench was horrifying. At first he said “uplifting” so I asked, “Uplifting?”
He said, “Is that what I said? I meant horrifying.”
I said, “But you said uplifting.”
“Lapsus linguae,” he said, “slip of the tongue.”
I said, “Slip of the indigo tongue?”
Yet the narrator, who claims to not “get a boner” for gore, tells the reader a graphic tale about a rotting body, ostensibly to expose the psychiatrist as aberrant. Then, I ostensibly write this “fiction” to address both characters’ lack of self-awareness and, ergo, unreliability. But what are my real, myriad, deepest and potentially nefarious motives? Can I know even them, trapped within the convoluted fiction of my Self and my culture(s)? Can you, any writer or any reader? And what of the ineffable? Of cognitive dissonance?
Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong," said lead author Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.
—“Hard-wired: The brain's circuitry for political belief,” Phys Org, December 23, 2016. (See also: Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. “Neural correlates of maintaining one's political beliefs in the face of counterevidence.” Scientific Reports, 6:39589, 1-11. 2016.)
Sometimes I’m able to discover my motives. Other times…? What are my motives for participating in this conversation with you? What are yours? What motives lay at the core of each reader’s presumptions and analyses of the fictions within our ostensible meaning(s) of this conversation?
Which brings me to the relevant ideas of Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind andHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow:
Homo sapiens can cooperate, flexibly, with countless numbers of strangers because we alone of all the animals on the planet can create and believe fiction, fictional stories. And as long as everybody believes the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, the same values.
—Yuval Noah Harari, “What Explains the Rise of Humans?” TED talk, July 24, 2015
Self-awareness, dovetailed with species-consciousness, is an ongoing chore because the fictions by which we live are always mutating. The sub-subtitle #AlternativeFictions came from Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts.” Now, a year and eight months later, we’re here:
CHRIS CUOMO: If fact-counting is anything, we've never had anybody with the level of mendacity that [Trump] has.
RUDY GIULIANI: It's in the eye of the beholder.
CUOMO: No, facts are not in the eye of the beholder.
GIULIANI: [laughing] Yes, they are. Nowadays, they are.
– CNN, August 15, 2018
By creating a new fiction, Giuliani is trying to redefine measurable “facts” as fluid. You and I know (or do we believe?) that a fiction exposed as a lie (e.g., Trump’s absurdly bloated inauguration crowd numbers) is not an empirical fact, but we would be hard-pressed to convince diehard Trump supporters of otherwise. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you My Struggle:
[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily… It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.
– Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
Rail: As you reveal, the subtitle of TITDTWM owes something of an aesthetic debt to Kellyanne Conway and her "alternative facts." (Shades of Donald Rumsfeld's "known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.") But that phrase isn't just a phrase. It's ordnance. Perhaps all such self-consciously politicized language is. To escalate my question about the language of empire: what did working on this book reveal to you about dealing with the new ways in which our language is being weaponized?
Di Blasi: As convoluted as Rumsfeld’s statement sounded, it is epistemologically correct: We can know what we know (“It’s 2002 and Saddam Hussein is President of Iraq.”); we can know what is unknown (“We don’t know if Saddam Hussein is manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.”); we cannot know and may never know what is yet or forever unknown to us because: (“We don’t know what ‘it’ [the unknown or unknowable] is.”). (ref: Slavoj iek.) Neither you nor I can know what we will never know about the multifarious realities of our physiological and psychological existence in a possibly multidimensional universe. This includes literature, language, and the nature of the idiosyncratic beast we each and all are. This, we do know.
It's easy to weaponize language when millions lack the critical/analytical thinking skills necessary to disarm the weaponry. One of my favorite courses in journalism school was “The Ethics of Journalism,” which exposed, among other things, the near impossibility of objective reporting. I brought that idea into my course, “Truth or Dare: The Art of the Personal Essay,” to illustrate that the same questions about “truth” and “fiction” exist in literature; for example, a Rolling Stone article that describes the judge as having “cold blue eyes” (subjectively, “bad man”) and the defendant as having a “warm inviting face” (subjectively, “good woman”) is a disingenuous way for the magazine (author, editor, publisher, et al.) to control/sway the opinion of its readers. Ironically, without the article in front of me, my aforementioned quotes may be imprecise and thereby misleading; that is, I may be adding a layer of interpretation to convert you to my argument. For all of Trump’s inane blathering, he’s “very, very good,” “tremendous,” “the best” at political (nearly religious) conversion and attrition prevention of those susceptible to propaganda.
One revelation for me while researching and writing TODAY was how the structure, algorithms, and limitations of social media create an exterior (or ulterior?) context. Twitter’s 280-character limit, for example, prevents thorough analysis of complex topics. And because the majority of users are more concerned with the popularity of their posts and therefore themselves (clicks, likes, shares, followers, e.g.) rather than with the critical effect those posts have on the broadest beneficial dissemination of information, users tend to adhere to ubiquitous advice like this:
“One study by Express Writers found that posts with only 40 characters enjoy 86 percent greater engagement than longer posts…. Do you have something to write that can’t be contained in just 40 characters? If you do, don’t fret. The same study determined that the second-best performing post length on Facebook was 80 characters or fewer, which saw 66 percent better engagement than longer posts.”
Just this month, Facebook prohibited me from boosting my book trailer for TODAY because:
Not Authorized for Ads with Political Content
Your ad was not approved because your Page has not been authorized to run ads with political content.
How I wish TODAY were able to influence the upcoming elections, as Facebook went on to suggest! Facebook subsequently directed me to their list of “national issues of public importance” for which one must get approval to boost a post: abortion, budget, civil rights, crime, economy, education, energy, environment, foreign policy, government reform, guns, health, immigration, infrastructure, military, poverty, social security, taxes, terrorism, values.
Can you hear the word echo, echo, echo toward silence?
Rail: I hate to put you in the position of a prognosticator (a form of reductionism anyway), but… how bad is it going to get? Really?
Di Blasi: Depends on what “it” is. Let’s say, for the sake of brevity, “it” is the near or distant future of United States of America.” (The word “United” makes me wince.) My two nagging fears?
(1) Cyberwar. That Russia or China will hack the U.S. (worse than U.S.’s hack of Iran’s nuclear facilities with Stuxnet) and bring economies, communications, utility grids, and transportation/distribution to a standstill, triggering a nonfictional large-scale apocalypse in which millions around the globe will die or, abandoning society’s moral fictions, become insane in the ensuing chaos that may also include foreign invasions and interior wars.
(2) Fascism. That U.S. fascism will continue to spread, day by day, year by year, election by election until it either becomes the country’s only system of government and/or leads to a protracted civil war that destroys economies, communications, utility grids, and transportation/distribution, triggering a nonfictional large-scale apocalypse in which millions around the globe will die or, abandoning society’s moral fictions, become insane in the ensuing chaos that may also include foreign invasions and interior wars.
When I get overwhelmingly depressed by or enraged at the current U.S. political and social situations, and by my and others’ cavalier language and behaviors, whether online or off, I watch disaster movies because they’re so cheerful by comparison. And they quickly come to an end.