The viral tip is part of a broader phenomenon in which the ease of making digital imagery — which can be shared at unprecedented rates — is turning all the surfaces of the world into potential screens. To spoil the predictable end of It Could Happen To You, the police officer and his lottery-sharing server end up married, and they begin their honeymoon in a hot air balloon with the words “Cop Weds Waitress!” printed across it in giant letters. In our era, the surface itself does not have to be large to broadcast our personal feelings or milestone events. Our camera phones let us inflate any message to the size of blimps and beyond.
Meanwhile, the family diner continues to haunt social media feeds, its analog mix of warmth and chill having made the successful crossing to digital. In early July, a man in Boise, Idaho was at Big Jud’s burger restaurant with his family. During the meal, he wrote “F*** OFF” in crayon on one of the free face masks that his server, Alesia Jones, had provided. As the management pointed out in a post on their Facebook page, masks are mandated in Boise. This post included a picture of the profane mask: yet another surface turned, through digital technology, into a billboard visible around the world. Jones received a seven percent tip from this table, and then was overwhelmed with well-wishers who heard about the story online.
The loss of a ritualistic sense of time is at root a loss of symbolic perception. Symbols are the things which bind us to a reality outside of ourselves. Han explains that “Symbol (Greek: symbolon) originally referred to the sign of recognition between guest-friends (tessera hospitalis). One guest-friend broke a clay tablet in two, kept one half for himself and gave the other half to another as a sign of guest-friendship. Thus, a symbol serves the purpose of recognition. This recognition is a particular form of repetition…” And repetition is a vital element of ritual. There can be no recognition without repetition and vice versa. Within the symbolic logic of the ritual, we recognize more than simply the experience of “duration” itself, but through that experience intimate permanency. Han writes that
'Symbolic perception, as recognition, is a perception of the permanent: the world is shorn of its contingency and acquires durability. Today, the world is symbol-poor. Data and information do not possess symbolic force and so do not allow for recognition. Those images and metaphors which found meaning and community, and stabilize life, are lost in symbolic emptiness. The experience of duration diminishes, and contingency dramatically proliferates.'
If we’ve lost symbolic perception, what exists in its place? Han explains that “Symbolic perception is gradually being replaced by a serial perception that is incapable of producing the experience of duration.” There are echoes in this (unintentional, I’m sure) of Walker Percy’s idea of the symbol as something which binds us together in mutual perception as opposed to a sign, which merely suggests a one-to-one referent and elicits something which Han calls “serial perception.” Serial perception, the constant registering of the new, does not linger. Rather, “it rushes from one piece of information to the next, from one experience to the next, from one sensation to the next, without ever coming to closure. Watching film series is so popular today because they conform to the habit of serial perception. At the level of media consumption, this habit leads to binge watching, to comatose viewing.”
The old net delusion was naïve but internally consistent. The new net delusion is fragmented and self-contradictory. It vacillates between radical pessimism about the effects of digital platforms and boosterism when new online happenings seem to revive the old cyber-utopian dreams.
One day, democracy is irreversibly poisoned by social media, which empowers the radical right, authoritarians, and racist, misogynist trolls. The next day, the very same platforms are giving rise to a thrilling resurgence of grassroots activism. The new net delusion more closely resembles a psychotic delusion in the clinical meaning of the word, in which the sufferer often swings between megalomaniacal fantasies of control and panicked sensations of loss of control.
The shift toward a subtle endorsement of manipulation and propaganda — itself an expression of a desire for control — is a result of the fracture of our information ecosystem. The earlier cyber-utopian consensus overrated the value of information in itself and underrated the importance of narratives that bestow meaning on information. The openness of the media system to an endless stream of new users, channels, and data has overwhelmed shared stable narratives, bringing about what L. M. Sacasas calls “narrative collapse.”
Another function of the Narrator is to be a sort of hyphen between the main characters and their distant past, thus giving to the immense story a further coherence and some of the harmony necessary to keep control over its expanse and its many facets.
While working on J R, Gaddis supported himself by writing copy for Ford, Kodak and Pfizer, a task that immersed him in the cant of product launches and advertising campaigns. It is a language that expects to be heard, but one to which we cannot properly respond. His characters have internalized this language to their detriment. They may engage in ostensible conversation, but they are forever talking only to themselves. They interrupt one another constantly or linger in pockets of reticence and hesitation, licking their wounds and planning their next fusillade. Here all dialogue is disguised monologue. For all its polyphonic content, J R is finally a study of Americans’ unwitting isolation amid technologies of mass communication.
The buzzing nightmare of this empty linguistic system stands in for the vapidity and spiritual inertness of postwar America itself. In their endless dithering, their misdirected energies, their grotesque, Pavlovian responses to stimuli, Gaddis’s characters fail to make significant commitments, whether to work or to art. They lack the conceptual resources with which to properly see, let alone reject, the system they are entangled—or entombed—within. In The Recognitions, art and religious tradition could yet redeem. J R offers a bleaker vision: a world bereft of exaltation. In the welter of noise and image the novel presents, America is not so much cut off from recognition as drowned in its impossibility.
It is crime that bridges the two novels. For Gaddis, the deepest crime, whether in the forgeries of The Recognitions or the financial schemes of J R, is the loss of meaning, of actuality, of our perception of the real. It may finally be impossible to achieve lasting recognition—recognition certainly seems to be the case in the jangle and glare of the latter novel—but to forgo the possibility entirely is to risk a kind of damnation. This is the hopeless, hopeful refrain of Gaddis’s works: that even in the terminal incoherence of America, purposive attention may yet furnish dignity, if not redemption. “Nothing’s worth doing till you’ve done it,” the composer Edward Bast says, “and then it was worth doing even if it wasn’t because that’s all you…” As befits the novel, he trails off, the thought interrupted.
American pessimism is much changed since Gaddis’s heyday. Today it is less lofty, less coolly resigned, more shot through with terror and angst. In the shadow of climate catastrophe, economic inequality and an ongoing pandemic, the very concept of recognition can come to feel impractical, even quixotic. Yet when I return to these two landmarks of postwar American literature, it is their alchemy of earnestness and defeatism that strikes me as so contemporary. It is the posture of abused, but not abandoned, hope. Gaddis, continuously surprised and offended by American life, managed to retain a semblance of faith, no matter how beleaguered. The proof is in the works. To write a one-thousand-page novel about American emptiness might be a sign of youth’s outsize ambition. To write two of them over twenty years is an act of devotion—or, one might say, of recognition.
When I was stationed in Germany years ago, some of my fellow soldiers would get bored and pick fights with young Russian men in the local clubs. The German locals never seemed to have the heart to duke it out, and the Russians were not only eager and willing to trade blows, they were an even match. On particularly debauched nights, the club floor would suddenly transition from dancing to punching, a roiling frenzy in the loud dark of Schweinfurt’s Rockfabrik club. What stood out the most to me in those moments wasn’t the violence itself — young soldiers abroad get restless, after all — but how similar the Americans and Russians appeared. Both “sides” were tattooed and weighted down by jewelry, with close-cropped hair and tank tops. Sometimes, you couldn’t tell who was who. In those moments, I couldn’t help but feel a resonance between our two cultures, deeply buried, perhaps, and difficult to articulate, but there all the same. I was convinced that the fighting was really a catalyst for some deeper communion.
Something of that affinity is captured in the recently published collection of essays Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited by David Deavel and Jessica Wilson. Many will have heard of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of such works as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, but they may regard him as a relic of the Cold War, interesting merely as an example of a dissident victimized by Soviet brutality and censorship. If they know anything about him beyond a general sense that he opposed totalitarianism, they might cite his deep Orthodox Christian sensibility or his sharp criticisms of Western decadence. But this book complicates that understanding both by deepening our appreciation of Solzhenitsyn as an artist and by illuminating the cultural context in which we understand his art.
Rituals are the process by which we fully inhabit time in the way that humans are meant to. Do we experience time in clicks? In bandwidth? In quantifiable streams of data, raw and mindlessly accumulating? “Today,” explains Han, “time lacks a solid structure. It is not a house but an erratic stream. It disintegrates into a mere sequence of point-like presences; it rushes off. There is nothing to provide time with any hold [Halt]. Time that rushes off is not habitable.”
This ritualistic meandering within time belongs to the symbolic order. “Rituals are constituted by symbolic perception,” Han reminds us. And the symbol is a sign of recognition and repetition. Its historical meaning was a recognition of the relationship between guest and host, sealed with the promise of recurrence. In truer sense, Han’s sense, symbols are perceptions of “the permanent: the world is shorn of its contingency and acquires durability.” Han quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writing in his novel Citadel to provide an example of such ritualistic durability:
And our immemorial rights are in Time what the dwelling is in Space. For it is well that the years seem to wear us away and disperse us like a handful of sand; rather they should fulfill us. It is meeting that Time should be a building-up. Thus I go from one feast day to another, from anniversary to anniversary, from harvestide to harvestide as, when a child, I made my way from the Hall of Council to the rest room within my father’s palace, where ever footstep had a meaning.
It would be easy to say that we no longer live in a world where every fooststep has meaning. But we do. Every footstep does. We just also happen to live under an economic and political regime which devalues symbolic logic. For the purposes of production and efficiency, our current social dispensation instead silos us into autonomous experiences, financializes communication, and urges us towards auto-exploitation. “The disappearance of symbols points towards the increasing atomization of society,” writes Han, “While at the same time society is increasingly becoming narcissistic.” Form is anathema to narcissism. Narcissism devalues form as just another barricade hedging in a restless self. Subjective states are preferred to objective form. But most importantly, symbols disrupt the suzerainty of the narcissistic ego. “Those who devote themselves to rituals must ignore themselves,” Han writes. “Rituals produce a distance from the self, a self-transcendence. They de-psychologize and de-internalize those enacting them.”
In DeLillo’s books, rituals are like punctums. They are tiny fissures or wounds through which the enigmatic can speak. Characters instinctively engage in ritualistic behavior while at the same time they long for the kind of symbolic vision which would give the ritual life. Rituals devolve into cargo cults, their value diluted by a culture without recourse to symbolic logic. Mao II begins with a mass cult-wedding in a baseball stadium. In White Noise marriages dissolve and recur with the same ease as changing a television station. Pilgrimages decay into tourism. Deaths are either too easy or impossible.
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