Flung into the River

The immersed subjectivity capable of producing diagrams like the Tommy Westphall universe is the unintended side-effect of a flow designed simply to produce loyal viewers and customers, accidentally resulting in a cargo-cult of immersed fan-acolytes, for whom the world of TV becomes their transcendental realm. Fan-being requires a spirit of unmitigated naive enjoyment, blind to both the machinations of postmodernism and the realities of the studio production system. It is to follow the Deleuzian spirit of encounter-over-representation, whereby ‘Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter’[1] – the kind of encounter that can only take place when a fiction is approached not as a representation of an author’s will but as a new, cogent formation with which one might become immanent, entering into a relation of becoming.

Such a spirit of encounter goes hand in hand with the search for meaning that so much fan theory is predicated upon. Simon O’Sullivan positions this meaning in the Deleuzian terms of that which is produced through the encounter between a viewer and an artwork: ‘Meaning’ might then be thought as this productive ‘event’, this ‘moment’ of meeting, ungraspable in its moment of occurrence, but real in its effects.[2] Brian Massumi states that in such an encounter of becoming ‘a set of affects, a portion of the object’s essential dynamism, is drawn in, transferred into the substance of the thinking-perceiving body.’[3] The fan’s relation to their object of obsession is not just one of drawing-in, but of gifting-over – seeking to place a portion of themselves, via their productive labour and their credulity, to be nested inside the fictional universe.

The fan’s gifted love is one-sided, in keeping with Sedgewick’s conception of the paranoiac’s devotion: ‘of all forms of love, paranoia is the most ascetic, the love that demands least from its object.’[4] Confined within the flow-consumption of paranoid enjoyment, inspired to productive labour furnished in tribute without reciprocation – whilst demanding little, the fan gives much over in the totality of their immersions. This is the process to which Barthes refers: ‘writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.’[5] If the relationship of reader and work is to be productive, if credulity might lead toward a radical politics rather than gullible passivity, the fan must throw themself fully into the fictional universe, navigating its alienating and immersive qualities and ultimately undergoing a shift in conception of the bodily self.

The ideal fan is also the ideal customer, unfalteringly loyal, their habitual consumption not simply a hobby but an identity-defining lifestyle. In this surrender of subjectivity, does the fan not risk losing all? In performing a radical credulity do they not become blind to the modes of production, the machinations of capital and ultimately the alienations which the studio system and its products serve to enhance? The danger is perhaps that the fan becomes too pliable a consumer, too willing or too distracted by their enjoyment to see the ideologies and hegemonies that hold them in place. Perhaps instead popular culture ought to function to highlight the alienations at play in capital, rather than as a distraction from the crises of our time. The fan ‘fling[s] itself into the story as if it were a river,’[6] in just the manner of the passive audience member whom Bertolt Brecht decried in his A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948), and once ‘carried vaguely hither and thither’ cannot focus on the ideological and hegemonic currents at play, let alone overcome the political impasses of the present.

Premier of Brecht’s musical, The Threepenny Opera, at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 1928 (Accessed September 2, 2019, Image Source: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/bertolt-brecht-and-epic-theatre-v-is-for-verfremdungseffekt)

Brecht’s proposal for an Epic theatre sought to resist the illusionistic plot-river of popular drama and distance itself from its audience, throwing the spotlight upon the alienating tendencies at the heart of capital’s relations with its workers. Through the agitprop of plays including The Threepenny Opera (1928), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1941), Brecht utilised the realities of staging to distance the audience from the stage by use of Verfremdungseffekts (Alienation-Effects): ‘a representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.’[7] Brecht’s catalogue of ‘A-effects’ included breaking the fourth wall through direct address, turning the bright white lights of the auditorium onto the audience, the action being interrupted by the inclusion of musical numbers, the stage stripped as bare of props and scenery as possible – all in an attempt to provoke the audience into realising its political reality and potential.

Walter Benjamin, in his text What is Epic Theatre? writes of how: ‘In one who is astonished, interest is born: interest in its primordial form,’ and that Epic theatre attempts to ‘transform this primordial interest directly into a technical, expert one.’[8] Brecht’s ideal technically-minded proletarian audience member is a ‘child of the scientific age’, who cannot help but react productively and critically when presented with the realities of their time: ‘faced with a river, it consists in regulating the river…faced with society, in turning society upside down.’ The hope is that after experiencing the alienation of the Epic theatre, the audience will seek to produce its opposite in the political and social world around them.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press), 139.

[2] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 22.

[3] Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 36, quoted in Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari.

[4] Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 132.

[5] Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 142.

[6] Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948).”

[7] Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948).”

[8] Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Verso Books, 1998), 4.

Author: danielseankelly

I'm a practicing artist. This blog is for me to channel my ideas into writing, through short form essays.

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