Transcribing the Incommunicable

Artists often take up the unenviable task of putting into words or images the indescribable via creating scenarios that attempt to distil the essence of the intangible matter at hand. One such example is the efforts of James Joyce in putting on paper the inner monologue of thought in the form of stream-of-consciousness prose. Any student of English will be familiar with the concept but just in case someone missed a few classes (semesters), stream-of-consciousness is constructed as a minimally punctuated succession of words that attempt to mirror the manner in which our own thoughts jump freely from concept to image and so on. Initially it can appear strange on the page as it doesn’t always resemble conventional narrative structure but once the reader is “on board’ then it allows for a unique experience of what one might imagine is akin to exploring another’s thoughts. Though Joyce is the prime example he is not alone in this convention however and counts Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath amongst his fellow “streamers”. 

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Joyce is the best known writer of stream-of-consciousness narration, seen here with spiffing eyepatch. 

Samuel Beckett goes even further into the abstract and is an artist whose entire body of work is infinitely re-interpretable. Biographer Anthony Cronin highlights Beckett’s study of the works of philosopher Henri Bergson who posited a difference in time as measured and in “duration” which is as we experience it (127). Cronin posits that Beckett’s Happy Days exists as a study of time in “duration”. In this compelling reading Happy Days acts as a study of how one experiences time in the moment and distills the act of waiting into an artistic construct. Bergonian time could be read in much of the work of Beckett as a dramatic interpretation of what it can feel like to stare at a clock and the same fractions of time seem to contort and twist into mangled forms though the measure hasn’t been altered at all.

Computer games, while still in relative infancy, have a unique narrative position for transcribing the incommunicable as the player must perform actions to advance the narrative. The potential of this art form to engage people is just beginning to be explored in games such as Hotline Miami’s portrayal of societal violence or The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask’s cyclical time mechanic. Hotline Miami shifts from various perspectives and allows the player to see the effects of violence from multiple viewpoints. The game attempts to distil the essence of humanity’s capacity for violence in disorientating narrative that could only make sense truly in the control of a player.

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Beckett would be proud of the futility of rewinding time in Majora’s Mask.

Attempting to transcribe the intangible is a cornerstone of the arts and has been a part of humanity for as long as there have been humans. When we cannot as a species come to terms with something we often turn to metaphor or story telling to disseminate the information into something conceivable. Fairy tales are used to this day as a means of warning children of the perils of the world and break down complicated constructs into digestible narratives (once we avoid the Disneyification of the original texts). Religions across the globe all have in common the attempt to use metaphor and stories as a means to understand death or time or other ontological quandaries. Art can turn what seemed absurd and unreachable into something discernible or at the very least allow us the language to address innate fears of the unknown or unknowable.

Works Cited

Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. Flamingo, 1997.

Beckett, Samuel . Happy Days. Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works. Faber and Faber, 2006, pp. 135–168.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Oxford UP, 2008.

Hotline Miami. Dennation Games, 2012.

The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask. Nintendo, 2000.

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New Narratives: Death Grips, Bob Dylan and Computer Games

Last October I had the privilege of experiencing three piece experimental hip-hop act Death Grips at The Academy in Dublin. Before materialising on the stage, a droning synth scaled ad infinitum in crescendo. The nauseating effect on the crowd started to cause noticeable discomfort as anxious concert goers demanded the performers emerge. It sounded like a hyper extended intro to one of their own songs, “Inanimate Sensation”. When they finally appeared they didn’t even open with that song. Death Grips produced an avant-garde adrenaline fuelled performance that for many appeared to be a transcendental experience. No other band has pushed the creative envelope as much as Death Grips have in the last six years, and seeing them perform live brought home how important they are as poetic theatrical artists. Their Beckettian theatrics and wonderful cryptic lyrics combined to form a unique narrative. 

It was a beautiful coincidence then that as I ventured home by train I read the news that Bob Dylan was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. While many people praised the decision and hoped it showed a new modernising approach to the infamously anachronistic Nobel committee, for many it was an erroneous decision. That one cannot see the poetic worth of Dylan is staggering. Other than Seamus Heaney, Bob Dylan is arguably the greatest poet of the last fifty years (admittedly this is my own biased opinion). For many the argument was that musicians are separate from poets and writers. This reductionist pap was countered best by a twitter comment from New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch:

“it’s been a big mistake to consider the lyrics of influential blind singer-song-writer & lyre player Homer as literature.”

Interestingly the majority of writers seemed to praise the awarding, bar a Will Self here and there. Most of the scorn came from critics or those offended on behalf of people who can actually create.

Why are people so afraid of the new? When film first started to take off in popularity the censors did all they could to prevent people from actually seeing films. In Ireland they would not allow adult only certificates for decades, as they felt it would encourage children to see salacious material (Martin 153). A similar ‘’logic’’ reappeared nearly a hundred years later with certain countries taking decades to adopt adult only certificates for computer games for much the same reason. The logic went something like, ‘if we restrict these artists’ works to adults, children will still get access, therefore we shall have no restrictions allowing them to experience them unimpeded.’

People fear the new in art even though it is actually not ‘new’ at all. Art is ever evolving techniques for constructing narratives. However the underlining narratives are merely reproductions and new ways of saying the same things our species have been saying for thousands of years. People made facetious comparisons to awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Sting and so on after Dylan’s award was announced. That fundamental misunderstanding belies the ignorance of poetry and art in general. Much like dismissing Homer as a singer-song-writer lyre enthusiast, it is equally ignorant to think of someone as influential as Dylan as ‘just a songwriter’.

Much of the reticence to accept Dylan’s nomination stems from a penchant for categorisation. He does not fit into the intended category for many people – hence the facetious analogies. I would imagine these people would equally dismiss Death Grips or the idea that computer games can tell wonderful stories.

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Screenshot from Undertale. A retro aesthetic references a simpler time in gaming while the storyline is anything but.

Computer games have developed along similar lines to film in the early twenties and thirties. People spent the first few years seeing what they could physically do. Subsequently they began marketing the created works for profit, categorising the different kinds of creations and exploring the nature of the art form. Gaming now has excellent meta-narratives like that of Undertale, which is a game about games, or Hotline Miami which is a hyper violent game about how boring debates on violence in gaming are.

The times they are a changing, and the times they are the same. We reject the perceived ‘new’ because for many the unknown is scary. But in reality the new has been with us all along. Opening up to new experiences and not limiting yourself to one form of story telling will allow for a far richer experience of narrative. Not everyone has to enjoy Death Grips, agree that Bob Dylan deserves his award or that gaming is a worthwhile art form. However, closing yourself off to self contained categories is absurd and limiting what could be a limitless enjoyment of endless creative potential.

Works Cited

Martin, Peter. Censorship In The Two Irelands 1922-1939. Irish Academic Press, 2006.

@PGourevitch “it’s been a big mistake to consider the lyrics of influential blind singer-song-writer & lyre player Homer as literature.” Twitter, 13 Oct. 2016, 12:10p.m., twitter.com/pgourevitch/status/786645288517853184.