Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Divergism: Everyone’s a drag queen

This article has over 3600 words so, if you are pressed for time, perhaps bookmark and read it later.

In a speech given in 2019 after she won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, Olga Tokarczuk talked about contemporary publishing and touches on the notion of the demotic. I urge you to read the whole passage included below, as it contextualises my response. My aim is not to contradict but, rather, to open up a dialogue so that new ideas might emerge from synthesis, though I think the Polish author misses something key about how culture, nowadays, expresses people’s aspirations and desires. She writes:
Whenever I go to book fairs, I see how many of the books being published in the world today have to do with precisely this—the authorial self. The expression instinct may be just as strong as other instincts that protect our lives—and it is most fully manifested in art. We want to be noticed, we want to feel exceptional. Narratives of the “I’m going to tell you my story” variety, or “I’m going to tell you the story of my family,” or even simply, “I’m going to tell you where I’ve been,” comprise today’s most popular literary genre. This is a large-scale phenomenon also because nowadays we are universally able to access writing, and many people attain the ability, once reserved for the few, of expressing themselves in words and stories. Paradoxically, however, this situation is akin to a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all traveling similar routes, drowning one another out. We know everything there is to know about them, we are able to identify with them and experience their lives as if they were our own. And yet, remarkably often, the readerly experience is incomplete and disappointing, as it turns out that expressing an authorial “self” hardly guarantees universality. What we are missing—it would seem—is the dimension of the story that is the parable. For the hero of the parable is at once himself, a person living under specific historical and geographical conditions, yet at the same time he also goes well beyond those concrete particulars, becoming a kind of Everywhere Everyman. When a reader follows along with someone’s story written in a novel, he can identify with the fate of the character described and consider their situation as if it were his own, while in a parable, he must surrender completely his distinctness and become the Everyman. In this demanding psychological operation, the parable universalizes our experience, finding for very different fates a common denominator. That we have largely lost the parable from view is a testament to our current helplessness.
Then, in the next paragraph, she talks about genre fiction:
Perhaps in order not to drown in the multiplicity of titles and last names we began to divide literature’s leviathan body into genres, which we treat like the various different categories of sports, with writers as their specially trained players.
She is quite right about the use of genre to categorise what must otherwise be a bewildering array of content coming off the presses and out of the servers of major publishers and minor publishers alike. I think the matter is deeper than that but it is interesting that Tokarczuk found reason, in her address, to remark on this aspect of contemporary society.

I believe that her feeling of alienation from society – expressed here in terms that reflect a deep understanding of the nature of culture – has more to do with her own politics as a progressive in an increasingly conservative global political environment, but she hits on a key aspect of contemporary society, where we are ghettoed by our views into discrete communities, in a unique – and unexpected – form emblematic of a kind of singularity with a collective mind. As though the 20th century’s attempts to impose totalising systems of governance had been a last gasp heralding the dawn of an era of intoxication and diversity.

Taking the blue pill

In the US in 2015, almost half of respondents to one survey admitted to reading mystery, thriller and crime books. In the UK in a 2018 survey the number of crime thrillers sold was equal to the number of children’s books sold. For the UK, says another article: “In 2017, Nielsen BookScan figures revealed that 18.7 million units of crime books were sold, compared to 18.1 million of general and literary fiction.” By 2017 and since 2010, in the US combined print and digital book sales in the genres of science fiction and fantasy had doubled.

It takes time for publishers to anchor a new author in the readership’s imagination, says market expert Jane Friedman, but publishers are less likely to take a risk with a new author because of the possibility of low sales of their book. Genre offers a way to tie a title or author in with people’s predispositions, and it sells well. And nowadays the most politically “engaged” fiction is usually in one or another of the genres that find a market in the economy.

We see this broad interest also in the way the radio station I listen to while driving in Sydney – 2Day FM – plays songs from the 80s, 90s, and noughts, one after the other interspersed, for variety, with more recent tunes, many of which self-consciously sample from earlier styles. I first started writing about Divergism in March last year, and in those posts I talked about how it breeds hybrids. These hybrids proliferate in the spaces between the different strands of the post-war counterculture that has fragmented and atomised. You get a range of different subgenres, such as historical fiction with a focus on transsexualism (Carolina de Robertis’ ‘The Gods of Tango’ and Jordy Rosenberg’s ‘Confessions of the Fox’) or else crime thrillers with feminist themes that are set in country towns (such as Emily O’Grady’s ‘The Yellow House’, Emily Maguire’s ‘An Isolated Incident’, or Shirley Barrett’s ‘The Bus on Thursday’).

Since then my ideas have matured and developed and have also adapted to accommodate new inputs. They have specifically become more closely linked with ideas I have developed about the public sphere, particularly as it relates to social media which, now, is so pervasive that it has changed almost every aspect of our lives, from the ways that we get information to how we form friendships. In fact, this mediated world with its often challenging and sometimes violent virtual interactions lies at the heart of the idea of my conception of Divergism – what I call the “Divergist” project. This trend is present partly because it helps us to cope with the abandonment of convergence as we come to terms with a tribal world of harsh language and loyalties made of steel, and partly because of our sense of panic at the state of a world changing rapidly with new geopolitical realities, with rapid technological advances that often feel overwhelming, and with climate change.

“Stupidity is knowing the truth, seeing the truth but still believing the lies,” tweeted Professor Richard Feynman on 2.27am Australian Eastern Standard Time on 11 May. Underscoring my point about the severity of debate online, by 6.36am of the same day the tweet had garnered 27 replies, over 4600 “likes” and over 1600 retweets. Everyone is stupid except for those who think the same as us.

Tokarczuk said in her Nobel lecture that there is now “a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all traveling similar routes, drowning one another out”. But rather than soloists, the raised voices actually contribute to forming a united chorus within each genre that gives participants solace, gives them comfort, and gives meaning to their lives. In order to achieve this neuro-cultural symbiosis – in the locus of influence that engenders the production of those precious chemicals that make us feel good when someone acknowledges a post on Facebook – there is an unceasing tolerance for what, in the absence of our collective attention, would remain stale forms, each instalment just one in an endless sequence of variations.

This behaviour betrays an endless perfectionism and is itself a perfection of the Postmodern self-reflexive gaze, a regard turned in on itself and onto all of its operations. New seasons of TV shows are constantly loaded to the servers operated by Netflix, each new vehicle in a favoured sci-fi or crime franchise hastening people to the couch or to the cinema. You can get this kind of comment: here – at 8.02am AEST on 11 May – Ohio writer Ben Doublett talks about a Canadian sci-fi thriller that had just been released:
Code 8 on Netflix is everything you want a superhero movie to be: Eye-popping action, tight pacing, and not a second of runtime wasted setting up other films.  
It’s also a powerful meditation on what need, poverty, and inequity does and does not entitle us to take from others.
It’s kitsch with heart, like a drag queen. In fact, everyone’s a drag queen, not just those living on the fringes of society.

Creating community

Tokarczuk calls for the use of parables to give meaning to our lives, through art, but we are already getting this form of work in such common-or-garden action heroes as you might find in a movie by Peter Berg or Antoine Fuqua. Others have made this connection. In his 2019 novel ‘Big Bang’, David Bowman creates a scene with Howard Hughes the American millionaire, in a restaurant with an actress on New Year’s Eve of 1955:
Hughes sat down and began lecturing Jean Peters. ‘You have to understand about westerns. People who go to them don’t care whether they’re good or bad. It’s like going to a baseball game. The difference between a good western and a bad western is infinitesimal. People go to a western for American comfort.’
Moreover, it’s not just comfort that people find. In finding solace, in popular culture, amid the exigencies of the world, they can also find a way forward in a personal journey. This can happen in a way that the originators of those products might never have imagined. On 11 May at 3.31pm, for example, the Guardian Australia Twitter account tweeted: “Trans writer Juno Dawson: 'The Spice Girls were my female awakening!'” The tweet came with a link to a story on the outlet’s website.

I think I understand what Tokarczuk is trying to express in her lecture but, for my part, I think that, rather than “drowning” in products among which they are forced to choose something to read of watch, people in the community are leveraging the diversity available in the marketplace to create community, to find agency, and to express themselves. There are any number of genres and subgenres but different people use each of them in the same way. Memoir or autobiography is certainly one genre that is current today – you can find any number of such titles in your average bookshop – but it is not, I think, the most popular.  And while there is an unlimited number of genres people can use in order to do that for which they need culture, our relationship with such products appears superficial but in fact it answers a deep human need. I will return to this theme later in this article but, for the moment, it is possibly germane to consider the convergence thesis of Teilhard de Chardin and then turn it on its head. Rather than bringing the world together, the internet has actually atomised the community into distinct tribes, each with its own gods, seers, prophets, and acolytes.

Today’s popular culture celebrates the collective as much as it does the aloof, or lone, individual. In depictions of the collective, values must be shared by all members so that it can succeed. The values of the artist are, also, shared with the consumer. What binds people together – as easily as a cliched expression of emotion or a kitsch rendition of perfection – is more important than the uniqueness of the experience for the hero or for the spectator. The artist loads his or her work with easy formulae in order to achieve a symbiosis with the viewer or reader, a moment of communion. In a kind of parable, as Tokarczuk references in her lecture.

Because diversity flourishes. Witness Luc Besson’s stunning film ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ which is a reflection of the reality that we see globally. Every year more and more countries become more multicultural in nature, though there are attempts by some politicians and their followers to curtail this trend. In this environment characterised by diversity, only genre can guide people so that they can orient themselves amid the cacophony of voices, the plethora of inputs. Here, the rhetoric of the visual or written language is just as important as the content, where authenticity resides within common tropes: good-guys and bad-guys, cops and robbers, chase scenes, the stern guardian or head of department versus the posse of mavericks who eventually serve the aims of justice that, in real life, most often eludes us.

There remain spaces for such esoteric modes as Postmodernism and Modernism. Arthouse is a genre, just as is literary fiction, so there is still room for stories about individuals. But it’s no longer the primary space for the creation of essential meaning in society.

The following image shows a Lego model inspired by a classical Roman theatre, but in ruins and captured, using plastic components, in a fashion reflecting how it might have appeared in the Middle Ages. I wanted to use the image to show how art creates community. There are theatres like this throughout the world, in places colonised by republican and imperial Rome, many of them still in a state where they can be used. A key element of classical Roman civilisation, theatres helped to create cohesive communities that could be ruled efficiently, but in today’s agora – the public sphere in social media where people chat and argue and make new friends – there is a diverging of viewpoints and a reforming around certain magnetic poles that attract, as a magnet attracts iron filings, participants who invest parts of themselves in a particular brand of politics, or a particular genre of fiction or nonfiction. The community today is self-organising and disciplined in a way that is new, since organisation is necessary for people to have in order to live together in harmony.

The allure of teamwork

Tokarczuk’s comparison of genres to sport is revealing and by doing so her ideas consone with my own. Not only is sport endlessly fascinating for people – enabling them to express themselves and to create community, both at the same time – but it embodies the idea of the team, as it often involves stories of groups of people rather than individuals. They are important as loci of desire and require soft skills that enable the individual to communicate better, so are critical to both the wellbeing of the individual and to the cohesion of the community. Community in fact results from people living in harmony with each other, on the basis of shared narratives that enable the release, in that brain, of chemicals that make us feel good. It is as old as civilisation. 

In popular culture, Divergism is reflected in the way that many movies involve teams that are engaged in achieving a single goal. Celebrating the collective is pertinent as such enterprises as basic research is nowadays mainly done by teams of scientists working together on one project, often based in different cities and, even, on different continents. Like real-world professionals, the characters in a film that belongs to a franchise such as ‘The Avengers’ combine their talents to enhance their effectiveness.

Teams are common in such genre fiction as action movies. In cultural products designed for children, teams are even more popular – Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, Pokemon, Teletubbies, and the Wiggles come to mind – as we value such themes because they help to properly socialise the young. 

On Netflix, one of the most popular shows in recent years, and the company’s most-popular non-English language TV show, is ‘Money Heist’. In a review of the show, marketer Luca Bertocci writes about how its filmmakers made sure to include a range of different character types when developing the script. There are characters that are more or less impulsive, and more or less extroverted. The most popular ones, going by their Instagram followings, are those with the most extreme profiles. So, a character who is introverted and cautious, and a character who is extroverted and impulsive, ranked highly with viewers. Bertocci writes:
Since viewers might vary a lot and have different tastes and personal preferences, having a broad range of personalities and values is useful, in order to appeal to as many people as possible. However, these very different people must also share the same mission, in order to work smoothly together.
The team is the pinnacle of existence. The tribe, the collective. With genres, furthermore, each singular movie or TV show or book references, in subtle ways, others that have gone before, works by different filmmakers and authors. This diversity of voices reflects the existence of a virtual team produced by Capital in order to indulge a ready market. Every movie is seen to exist within a broader context of influences, spin-offs, and franchises that attract a large following.

It also reflects the existence of a virtual team of consumers who share online, as part of their daily lives, ideas about the artworks. It creates echoes that are comforting, as they make people feel seen in a way that goes to the core of their very identity. Our wishes are acknowledged because what he had enjoyed once is given back to us, in a new guise, by the next artist whose work we sample. We become part of a collective that expresses itself on social media, and also in relation to the artist (or artists), whose personality becomes pertinent to us due to the link that is forged between the artwork and the consumer. Participating in debates about a work of art, we become part of something larger than ourselves, and the forms of genre facilitate this sharing.

There is also an ardent, concomitant need to connect with the movie star or director who makes the film, or with the author who writes the novel. Someone whose ideas we can share, because it makes us feel better to do share, so alone and confused are we in the maelstrom of inputs that make up our world, so precarious are the livelihoods that we rely on to pay for our Netflix subscriptions and our internet connections and our mobile phone plans.

Dark roots

As to the question of where it all started, I find a puzzle, one that is worth a study all of its own – perhaps someone will, one day, write a PhD thesis on it. I think I discovered a hint of where Divergism began when, on 22 April, a friend on Facebook posted this about her boyfriend:
So the man just tried to cheer me up by putting the Bee Gees on and dancing around the kitchen.
It was then I realised how perfect they are for these times. 
Staying Alive.
Saturday Night Fever. 
Tell me I’m wrong.
She was right, and while Covid-19 prompted this educated woman to improvise and deploy popular culture references in order to create community on social media, where her friends and colleagues are watching her activity, she was also saying something more revealing about the world. 

It is in such places that we probably should go to look for the roots of the cultural mode of Divergism; in the exploitation of genre in order to convey meaning. If Postmodernism – with its roots in such works as Mahler’s self-conscious musical constructs – and Modernism – with its roots in the atmospheric paintings of J.M.W. Turner – are centripetal, centrifugal Divergism must take its cue not from Tarantino’s 1994 pastiche, ‘Pulp Fiction,’ but from another movie released in that year, ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,’ which also harks back to the outrageous kitsch perpetrated upon a willing world by the ‘James Bond’ movies of the 1970s, with their ridiculous villains, outlandish scrapes, and voluptuous co-stars. 

The 70s was an era of celebration when, for a moment, people thought that things might get better. Some were more pessimistic. It was an era that also saw the beginning of the trend for wages for the middle class in the US to flatten (a state of affairs that continues to this day). By the naughts, when the end of the Cold War seemed about to usher in a new era again, this time one of concord, new sources of conflict started to appear, as both Russia and China showed that they would not willingly embrace pluralism and democracy, and as radical Islam grew in prominence.

The irony used for ‘James Bond’ movies was both wicked and fitting. Don’t mock it, the filmmakers seemed to be saying, the next person to get it might be you. It’s as though things have gotten so bad that the only thing people can believe in is the most obvious appropriation from some past master of one genre or another. And added to a nostalgia for the past is this desire for collective enterprise and neat conclusions, something to make us feel secure even though, in reality, we are more fractured, especially in the developed world, than ever before. Tokarczuk talks of soloists but where she hears discord I hear the intoxicating harmony of Divergism.

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