Monthly Archives: August 2012

“Call Me Maybe”: The Deconstruction

Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is the musical embodiment of what critical theorist Jacque Derrida refers to as “différance.”  Unlike “Call Me,” the previous hit song by Blondie of almost the same name, “Call Me Maybe” throws the initial utterance, the command to “call me,” into question, even forces it under erasure, through the retroactive emendation of final ambiguity, “maybe”; “call me” lies simultaneously with its very negation.  Yet the call itself has not been placed, and in fact exists only in the world of the Imaginary—that which, in Lacan’s parsing, by definition we cannot know. The call forever remains hypothetical, subjunctive, unrealized: deferred.  As Derrida explains, “the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being—are always deferred.”

At the same time, the title’s syntactical construction posits its speaker, “me,” in the object position, the patriarchal relegation of the feminine, even while the speaker simultaneously issues the grammatical imperative, “[You] call,” (re)positioning her in symbolic authority.  Derrida suggests that “Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences … the simultaneously active and passive…”—just as the speaker of “Call Me Maybe” implies as well.   Further,  the lyric sheet reads “Call me, maybe,” with the comma to separate the command from the adverb, suggesting a heightened claim of ambiguity.  Yet the title, “Call Me Maybe,” with its elided comma and conventional titular capitalization, refigures its meaning entirely: the statement employs the dative declension, echoing literature’s most famous manifestation of this form, Herman Melville’s opening line to Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”  She is commanding the listener that she should herself be called Maybe, a name that is Not.

The speaker’s utterance, but also the speaker herself, has thus been rendered indefinite, unknowable, and differed ad infinitum.  The title must be read simultaneously as “Call me, maybe,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Call me, maybe,” if the call is never placed, or “Call me, maybe” if it is. We therefore find Carly Rae Jepson in the rhetorical situation of Derrida translator Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak.  In her Translator’s Preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Spivak writes that her “predicament is [that of being] ‘under erasure.’  This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both the word and deletion.  (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out.  Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)”

While I have been using the gender specific pronoun “she” to refer to the speaker, since Carly Rae Jepson’s voice, clothing, and sex all code her as “heterosexual female,” the gender identity and sexual orientation of the speaker are in fact ambiguous as well. The opening line, “I threw a wish in the well/Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell” recall the famous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law established under the Clinton presidency preventing gay and lesbian solders from revealing their sexual orientation, under the risk military discharge.  The ending, or “punch line,” of the “Call Me Maybe” music video introduces the possibility that what we had been viewing all along is not a heteronormative enactment of adolescent dating rituals but rather their subversion, playing upon the complacent viewer’s culturally rigid assumptions of masculinity.

Indeed, the song not only embodies différance; it embraces paradox.  The repeated last line to each verse, “And now you’re in my way,” as well as the reiterated “Where you think you’re goin’, baby?” imply the threat of male coercion despite the feminine vocal delivery.  And the final bridge section, repeating  “Before you came into my life/ I missed you so bad” like a mantra, becomes a Zen kōan, reflecting upon a sublime yet uncanny sense of temporal disconnect.  The notion that one can miss something that has not yet been experienced recalls haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, who writes of the ways in which one can long for an interior, emotionally subjective construction of life even at the expense of its own reality:

Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto

The sense of différance set forward by the lyrics is further augmented by the music behind the chorus. The standard popular song follows a I-IV-V-I pattern: firmly establishing its chord progression with the I cord, developing tension through the IV and V chords, and then resolving the musical conflict by reestablishing the root or alternately moving to the root’s relative minor.  In “Call Me Maybe”’s key of G major, however, the chorus chords move back and forth between C (the IV) and D (the V) without ever returning to G (the I) or moving on to E minor, never resolving, a musical manifestation of différance itself, even throughout the end of the song, which, unlike the conventional fade-out, ends in a pitchshifitng downward spiral, deferring even the idea of a musical conclusion.

The final result of this radical indeterminacy is that “Call Me Maybe” is a musical Mona Lisa, rendering itself a cultural cipher, a tabula rasa upon which any reader may impose meaning; with over 222,500,000 views on YouTube, its video is a floating signifier capable of accommodating virtually any viewer.   As such, the Internet is inundated with “Call Me Maybe” memes, each imagining a different, resolved signified of the song that, taken together, negate each other, paradoxically denying any such certainty.

And so many more

Maybe.

Time: 75 minutes

Derrida quotations from “Interview with Julia Kristeva” in Positions (University of Chicago P, 1981)

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The New School Year! Or, Despair is Not Just for Students; Or, Two Cheers for Uncertainty

Dickens’ opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities—the famous “best of times; worst of times”—sometimes at risk of turning into a cliché, instead seems truer all the time.  I can listen to any song ever recorded and ingest better wines, cheeses, fruit, and fish than all the kings of yesteryear, even as the world is plagued by more apocalyptic scenarios that I can recount here, from scorched earth to possible pandemics to rogue nukes to real-life zombies to the end of year tax cliff.

In keeping, this best of times/worst of times dichotomy also works for the opening of the college term. For students: friends! College life! And best of all: possibilities.  And the worst, as they often discover after a class or two: the pressure, the exhaustion, the work. College would be so much fun if not for the classes.

I too relish the energy and opportunity of the beginning of the school year.  But I also feel doubt, even dread.  Unlike for students, the angst isn’t about work, which I love.  It’s existential. Does teaching students to read, write, and think make any difference in the world at all?  Americans hardly read books anymore; schools are teaching less and less fiction and creative writing; writers can’t stop plagiarizing anyway. So why bother? The majority calmly play Angry Birds while Rome burns, but is teaching writing and literature—or, worse, writing or blogging itself—any better, or just a more painful and equally pointless endeavor?

I didn’t always feel this way. If anything, ironically I worry more now that I have more experience and am, arguably, at the top of my teaching game. Unlike during my first few years, I no longer feel like an imposter, and unlike future decades from now, when I’ll remember the good ole days of online course management systems, discussion boards, and blogs before it all went downhill with the introduction of cerebral cortex implants in 2032, I still know what I’m doing.

Maybe it’s me.  An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring suggested that mid-career professors were less happy than those who were starting out, despite better pay and job security: “The survey shows that on most key measures, professors are actually happier while working toward tenure than they are once they’ve earned it.”  This reversal calls for more clichés: journey not destination, be careful what you wish for, etc etc etc.

But in another sense, this dissatisfaction is a narrative problem as well: what do you do after you’ve reached the end?  I am applying for my final promotion this year, to what is commonly known as full professor, and after that, despite that I’m on the early side of midlife, I have nowhere left to go professionally. Except, I suppose, down.

Or maybe: it’s OK.

Not the problems, but the doubt, the ambivalence, the conflict.  In addition to more doubts, I feel a concomitant skepticism of the usual virtues of certainty and decisiveness.  It appalls me that the dictionary lists “weakness” as an antonym of “determination,” and that, say, Hamlet’s doubt is often taught as his tragic flaw.  If anything, the seven deadly sins get it right: pride is far more dangerous than uncertainty, since it is through doubt, even vacillation, that we grow, reflect, change, and learn.  If anything, Hamlet’s real flaw was the same as in the ancient tragedies: his hubris.  He believed that the world revolved around him, and that he could treat those closest to him, especially Ophelia, with caprice and contempt, BECAUSE HE WAS WRONGED.

The little voice inside that always asks, “Why should students have to do this?” is my students’ best advocate, so that when they think—or ask—the same question, they’ll learn that I do not treat the question casually or cynically.  It’s the best question I can think of.

One of my little pleasures is that the word “Commencement” means beginning; it is used to signal the opening of the term, but it is also now synonymous with completing one’s education, graduation, or what feels like the end of something for students.  Yet once they graduate, most jobs are about the same in September as they are in January or April, and the narrative wonder that’s built into the school year disappears.  But I cherish it, so that I always have another start, and a new conclusion that begets a new start and another finale, to look forward to. Students—and teachers—get to experience life with a series of beginnings and endings built in.  Everyone else receives only one ending.

At the risk of sounding trite, students should read because it’s fun, and a different, deeper, better, even more lasting kind of fun than Fruit Ninja.  And that sometimes, it also happens to be beautiful, or ugly, or compelling or—and I use this word despite doubt, skepticism, and ambivalence—true.

Although I reserve the right to change my mind on that.

Time: 60 minutes. Back on schedule.

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Why is the Second Movie Always the Best One?

Batman II

What The Dark Knight poster should have looked like.

Despite that it needs no wordplay to be turned into its inevitable porn version, The Dark Knight Rises—subject of my last blog—simply cannot compete with its predecessor, The Dark Knight.  And I think at this point it’s a truism that the second of the series is, in general, the best.[i]  The best of the Star Wars movies is The Empire Strikes Back. The best of the Lord of the Rings Movies is The Two Towers.  Spider-Man was great; Spider-Man II is better. X-Men is great; X2 is, if not better, pretty spectacular in ways that X1 was not. The same can be said of Terminator and Terminator 2. Most people prefer Aliens, with its almost unheard of 100% Rotten Tomatoes approval, to Alien (with its mere 97%)[ii]. Toy Story II is better than I and III. Few people have seen Mad Max, but everyone knows Mad Max II: The Road Warrior; Silence of the Lambs was technically a sequel to some movie that I didn’t see and am too apathetic to even Google.  Even going back to the Cambrian Age of sequels, the 1970s, Superman II is better than the original, and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan far surpasses Star Trek: Look, It’s a Movie Now, which I do not remember at all.

A sneaky way to get the word “Two” into the sequel. Yet Three Kings is not the next movie and is an entirely different film. Hmmm.

Yes, these are all genre movies, but so what?  I’m sorry that Citizen Kane II: Rosebud’s Revenge, was never completed at the time of Orson Welles’s demise, when he died of embarrassment after voicing the original Transformers movie.  (Its non-sequels, Transformers I and II, mess with my title, as they are equally terrible.) 

But even the best of the non-superhero, non-sci-fi Godfather movies was still Godfather 2.   Why?

The second film, the first sequel, especially when envisioned as a trilogy, tends to be the deepest, darkest, and most adventurous.  Screenwriting conventional wisdom says that it’s the middle of the story that’s supposed to be the hardest part to write.  The opening sets things up, the ending wraps them up, but how do you take the characters from their dramatic situation’s conflict to their ending’s resolution?  It’s why so many movies feature the long chase scene in the middle—they’re running from the beginning to the end.

But in the second film, you can see how well writers and directors do when they are freed from what turns out to be the tyranny, the narrative straightjacket, of beginnings and endings.  Every beginning is the same: establish characters. Establish situations. All well and good, and as Americans we seem particularly obsessed with origins.  But there’s not a lot of room for creative maneuver.

The end provides a little more room. There’s happy—conflict resolved! It all worked out! There’s sad—conflict resolved, but a character, or the relationship, died! There’s bittersweet—a character, but not the main one, and probably a dog, died, but the main character learned a valuable lesson!  There’s the non-ending ending, and the recursive we’re back at the beginning ending. 

But the middle! Ahh. The middle is the sweet, sweet cream between the hard cookies of beginning and ending.  And it’s made of pure, delicious conflict.  

Take Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s opportunity to shine.  He tried to shake the narrative shackles of beginnings and endings in Memento, and came close.  He later figured out a way to use frame devices and plots in plots to mess around with beginnings and endings in Inception.  But Dark Knight allows him to take the narrative gloves off and provide nothing but climaxes for two and half hours.    Unlike Batman Begins, Dark Knight Rises, and most adventure movies, DK completely eschews the three act structure or even the Aristotelian conventions of plot and action.

Get your mind out of the gutter, people.

It’s a cliché, but Dark Knight’s narrative arc really is like a roller coaster–build up, rush down, build up, rush down, repeat.  The opening establishes the Joker = up! Then there’s a party or something = down/building up. Batman flies in Hong Kong to capture that guy = up!  Then lots of other stuff with equal signs and ups and downs that’s kinda boring in summary (read it here if you want to, although Wikipedia does not supply the equal signs) but that includes what feel like multiple false endings and climaxes again and again—Bruce is gonna reveal his secret! Lt. Gordon is dead! (For a while.) Batman’s gonna kill the Joker! But he can’t! He captures him! But the movie isn’t even close to being over—the Joker escapes via that horrific scene with the cellphone in that guy’s stomach! Then Rachel gets killed and Harvey Dent becomes Two Face! God, I’m getting out of breath, and I’m just typing.  Then Joker threatens to blow up a hospital! Then he DOES blow up the hospital! Then the hostages are dressed as clowns and Batman has to fight a whole SWAT team to stop them from killing the wrong people! Then there’s Two Face, then the Joker, andthenBatmansomemore, and Gordon’s not dead but Two Face is going all Sophie’s Choice on Gordon and his family, then Two Face is dead and Batman is all running away and he like takes the fall AND THE TWO NOTE SOUNDTRACK MUSIC GETS LOUD AGAIN—Daaaaaaaa! DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!—AND IT’S SUDDENLY OVER! Also, somewhere in there Joker makes a pencil disappear and also creates another Liar’s Dilemma by giving those two boats detonators that may or may not detonate their own vs the other one’s boat, and I don’t even remember when that happened and Wikipedia forgot about it but IT WAS THERE.  

It’s an exhausting but brilliant movie. When I saw it in the theater, my wife’s contact lens actually fell out of her eye because she had not blinked for so long. It felt like it was never gonna end, in a good and a bad way, and I felt shaken by it for at least a day.  

And if you prefer, you can use Kurt Vonnegut’s plot graph.  He’s less interested in charting the action than in the character’s good of ill fortune.  In this case, Batman has nothing but ill fortune from beginning to end.

Batman Begins and then Dark Knight Rises are more narratively conventional, because they have to be.  BB, as the title straightforwardly tells us, begins the Batman myth once again, if with some revision.  DKR works hard to pull together the loose strands of BB and DK, so that the Ra’s al Ghul and Harvey Dent plotlines connect.  DK, though, is nothing but middle.   You can say the same things about many of the movies I listed in the opening—freed from the necessity of telling, or in many cases, retelling, the foundations, and freed from the need to wrap the story up in a tidy closing bow, those movies can provide murky thrills without any final sugarcoating—Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke gets the worst news of his life and is symbolically castrated by his new father, and the Empire has, um, struck back.  The Fellowship has separated and, individually, faced to worst fight of their lives—but they now realize that the worst is really still ahead of them.  Godfather II—and, perhaps amazingly to say in the same sentence, Spider-Man 2 and X2—use their predecessors to deepen what we already know about the characters, or develop what previously were mere glimpses of backstory, or to provide dramatic irony for the audience, as when Ripley is ASSURED by that dickhead Paul Reiser that there are no such thing as aliens, or in Terminator 2, to pull disparate and unlikely continuities together in satisfying compositions.

Every summer it’s the same movie critic’s crisis: originality good, sequels bad.  But when critics lament yet another summer of sequels, they’re missing the vast narrative possibility that lies in the middle of things.    

Time: 90 minutes! I really need to get my time back down.


[i] I am not counting cash-in made for DVD retreads, so don’t throw, say, Lion King II: Simba’s Pride back at me, OK?

[ii] For the record, I prefer Alien. So much for my title.

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