Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Close Reading of an Essayist Under Self-Imposed Duress

The multi-talented Elena Passarello was in Tucson for a few days last week, and I saw her at what feels like at least a half dozen or so different literary events (a reading with the inestimable David Shields, a reading for the Essay Daily anthology book launch, some craft talks, a Friday afternoon happy hour (the authorial happy hour is, in some ways, perhaps the most sacrosanct of all possible literary events), and some other events I am probably forgetting).  I then spent a good chunk of this past weekend thinking about her excellent March Fadness (i.e., the latest incarnation of Ander Monson's obsessive-yet-compelling literary community/pop culture bracketology experimentation) video essay set on Mark Morrison's "Return of the Mack" (which, coincidentally, knocked my own beloved Semisonic out of the tournament, alas).  I'm interested here in March Fadness & Passarello's video essay not so much in pop culture/cultural crit terms (though that's undoubtedly an important and interesting way of thinking about both these projects) but rather because of what they might reveal about the way we essayists conceive of and engage with persona and performance.

Although our discipline is self-consciously intellectual and often overtly concerned with epistemological limits, there are some ways in which our practice seems, well...odd in a theoretical sense (if not naive or even retrograde) to other artists and scholars.  To put it rather bluntly: essayists often have an uncommon amount of faith in the capacity of an I to constitute or articulate or represent (at least partially) a stable, coherent self.  I don't mean to suggest here that the essay is an area where 19th-Century notions of authorial intent live on.  Both New Criticism and Roland Barthes have rendered those easy, determinative notions of intent-as-meaning impossible, incomprehensible.  And I don't know of any essayist who thinks that their person can be easily slipped en tout into the page.  There's always elision, construction, subtraction, a certain amount of squeezing and trimming, and so on and so forth.  There's never quite going to be total agreement as to what forms of alteration are/aren't acceptable (e.g., we will never live in a world free from think-pieces about D'Agata's projects), but there's a general consensus that what an essayist ends up offering the world is a contingent persona (a representative aspect or set of aspects of the self) rather than the self per se (as if one could even get at such a thing directly).  What's distinctive about the essayistic use of persona, as compared to the way it's used in say, poetry, is the implicit expectation of partial correspondence with authorial self.

It might be helpful to think about some of this in light of Ander's conversation with Yiyun Li earlier this month, particularly in light of the distinction between self-as-subject and self-as-instrument.  Self-as-subject can be a rather boring thing to encounter.  But self-as-instrument?  Self-as-instrument (i.e., applied persona) offers something rather unique: a chance to partially invite the reader into the unspooling mind of the essayist, a sort of performance of intimacy, connection, empathy.

Passarello's March Fadness video essay is absolutely fantastic at this sort of connection-making, which is why I'm going to proceed here by offering a short reading of each video segment, in an effort to articulate some hopefully useful/steal-able craft moves.

[The Stage is Set; Rules are Introduced; And So We Begin]

This first video does much of the necessary expository work with regards to the essay's conceit: the essayist will listen to "Return of the Mack" on repeat for 24 consecutive hours.  This is, obviously, a sort of performative set-up, and an excellent example of what Ander calls the Bad Idea Essay. One is struck by two competing sentiments: "oh God, Elena, please don't do this to yourself" and "oh God, Elena, please continue with this terrible idea so that we can see how it goes".  But the stakes go beyond just the stunt quality of the conceit: the persona on display here has a real question (i.e., why they like this song, and whether or not their attraction to it is ironic, sincere, "feigned ardor", some combination, or something else entirely) and tacitly invites the reader/viewer to connect themselves to that investigation.

[Regret Sets In; Admissions of Fallibility; an Anecdote of Youth; the Cat is Disinterested]

Immediately the essayist confesses that this entire project is "a little harder than I thought it was going to be," i.e., the nature of the Bad Idea Essay is made explicit.  But again, the piece offers us more than just the amusing spectacle of a witnessing a person survive the experience of a '90s 1-hit wonder on endless, droning repeat.  The reader gets a relatable anecdote (who hasn't at some point been in a crappy job or gig where the playlist was an easy way to mark time?).  And there's a sort of intimacy-building confession: "my journey involves a lot of misinformation" with regards to the lyrics of "Return of the Mack" (which means that the essayist is going to be working through this reprocessing for the benefit of the reader/viewer).

[Encounter with a Senator; Identification with the Lyrics; the Essayist Explicitly Acknowledges that in Other Contexts this Project would Constitute Literal Torture; Significant Lip Syncing]

Another appealing aspect of this essay is the everyday ordinariness of the setting.  Yes, the conceit of listening to a song on repeat over 24 hours is ambitious and extraordinary, but in other regards this video essay gives us a sort of fly-on-the-wall observational window into the familiar: we're situated in an ordinary home, listening to a person talk about familiar stuff: errands and politics.  We also get a long, rambling, things-are-starting-to-unhinge-a-little-bit-maybe digression that nonetheless ends at a moment of real insight about what the repetitiveness of this song must mean in Mark Morrison's life.  Are the digressions offered by this essaying persona practiced?  Mostly impromptu?  Kind of extemporaneous?  Carefully rehearsed?  Totally off the cuff?  Does it matter? (No, it does not: the experience of connection works the same either way).

[A Brief Silence is Enjoyed; a Lively Karaoke Performance Occurs]

A different, more self-explanatory form of skillful performance.

[The Woman is Considered; an Unknown Cocktail is Consumed; Comparisons to Writing Exercises; Was that a Skype Noise?]

The conversational working-through of the song's significance continues here, marked again by expressions of intimate ordinariness, e.g., the essayist drinks....something(?) and there is a background noise that is possibly from Skype(?), serving as a reminder that a real life is continuing in and around the moments of this experiment selected and performed for us, the readers/viewers.

[Obvious Exhaustion; a Spoken Recitation]

The grinding forces of seventeen hours of consecutive repetition continue their erosive motion.  The only possible response is Chekhovian: immense sympathy tinged with morbid amusement.

[The Essayist Considers Vanna White; the Rise of the Machines; an Expression of Concern]

This check-in is very similar in structure to that of hour eight in that we get to see the action of a digressive (perhaps even now somewhat unmoored) mind working through its own ruminations, this time by centering on Vanna White as a sort of metaphor or representative figure for machine automation as a segue to a frank consideration of human agency (i.e., "the Vanna-ness of Vanna") and doubt.  The editing deliberately refuses to show us a neat resolution to this thread of thought, thus formally enacting the same murky ambiguity experienced in real time by the essaying persona.

[A Dream is Recounted; the Essayist is not a Poet; a Momentary Headphone Lapse]

Another uncertain confession: "I feel like I'm not really learning anything" (but we, the readers/viewers, certainly are).

[Oral Care]

How else could all this end if not with flossing?

Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily.  He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

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