Sunday, January 9, 2011

Of Etewaf and Otaku

Thus wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra ("Of Reading and Writing") --

He who knows the reader, does nothing further for the reader. Another century of readers -- and spirit itself will sink.

That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too.
In contrast to Friedrich Nietzsche, Patton Oswalt is just a man who makes the funny in public for cash. He is a genuinely funny comedian, and being a comedian, his claims about society, the human condition, history, life, the universe, and everything merit total deference.

Or so goes a line of argument to which I do not subscribe in the least. Consider Oswalt's remarks about nerd culture's diffusion into mass culture, which vaguely echo Nietzsche's concerns about reading and thinking. In contrast to the Goode Olde Dayes when only nerds possessed a broad, deep understanding of their pop culture favorites, says Oswalt,
Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun. The Lord of the Rings used to be ours and only ours simply because of the sheer goddamn thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling.
The topsoil has been scraped away, forever, in 2010. In fact, it’s been dug up, thrown into the air, and allowed to rain down and coat everyone in a thin gray-brown mist called the Internet. Everyone considers themselves otaku [possessing nerd-level passion and knowledge] about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef ... There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans.
Let us stand back and regard the hideous wreckage Oswalt has sketched: nerds are no longer as distinctive as they once were, or at least not as distinctive as they formerly thought themselves to be; and it's no longer especially difficult to be a nerd because the internet has created "Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever."

If you're not filling an astronaut diaper with terror scat at this diagnosis, it's only because you haven't considered the danger. What danger?
Here’s the danger: [Etewaf] creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists — just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix. [emphasis mine]
We're back to Nietzsche's fretting over the ruin of "not only writing, but thinking too" caused by increased literacy. How did that one turn out? If writing and thinking ceased with the rise of literacy through the 20th century, the cessation was hidden in the devilishly clever guise of enormous quantities of output across the sciences, arts, humanities, technology, and engineering --- including, it should be noted, every piece of nerd-beloved culture Patton Oswalt cites in his article.

So in reply to Patton Oswalt's poignant, despairing question -- "[w]hy create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate ...?" -- a few obvious answers suggest themselves:
  1. If my experiences with satiety have taught me anything, it's that they're followed by a fresh wave of hunger. Finding a new obsession and plumbing its depths in a few hours works exactly the same as doing it in a few months or a few years (I know, I've done all of the above) --- soon enough, what seemed so terrific and inexhaustible turns out to be flawed in one way or another, and thus begins the search for something that produces the same excitement as before. If you're sufficiently creative, knowledgeable, and/or talented, you might be inspired, vexed, annoyed, or otherwise moved to create the next obsession-worthy unit of culture.
  2. "Nothing new under the sun" was likely a tenth-order borrowing by the time it appeared in Ecclesiastes, but it's no less true for that.  The sooner we embrace this and see that human culture unfolded as it did -- from the fire, agriculture, the wheel, Hesiod and the Epic of Gilgamesh up to this week -- despite the truth of it, the sooner we'll move on to more interesting questions and fruitful endeavors.
  3. This is really a corollary of #2, but here goes -- there is nothing intrinsically wrong with remixes, re-edits, adaptations, retellings, redactions, repurposings, borrowings. Nothing. Nothing at all. It's all in the execution. Ovid's Metamorphoses wouldn't have gotten off the ground without his Greek sources; Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was borrowed from contemporary retellings of classical source materials; Joyce's Ulysses wouldn't make sense without the Odyssey; Picasso's Guernica references Goya's Third of May 1808; McCarthy's The Road echoes Faulkner, the book of Revelations, and much else between; There Will Be Blood rhymes, in important ways, with Citizen Kane, Moby Dick, Frankenstein and Paradise Lost.
The worries of Nietzsche and Patton Oswalt are misplaced. As long as there are people capable of being both creative and disatisfied, culture will continue forward.


Dylan said...

I don't think Patton Oswald has any issues with remixes or retelling but more with the over saturation of them, most of which are done without any actual thought or consideration for the source material. Also the article is quite satirical.

Dale said...

Dylan, I realize there's a strong element of irony/satire/humor here, but just as that's a weak excuse when Rush Limbaugh uses it, so too is it a weak excuse here. It's possible to be funny *and* right.

Yes, we certainly have a lot of shitty reboots going on right now, but this is a constant. Culture is nothing but reassembled, tweaked, and rejumbled blocks of what was already done before. Everything is a retelling. Execution is everything.

He seems to concede the point (as I think he must) that it's all a retelling -- so he needs to show that the difficulty/time required to gather cultural influences makes a difference to the quality of what will be reassembled into something "new." Asserting it doesn't make it so.