6 | Reworking the Past / & the Future / & the Present
"Factoid storieville or dead-time storage sways not heavy in I-o’s activated-life, or such-iteration, coz me, I-o, switch off/ on, extending heart-chip to fail-never,” begins Lynne Tillman’s future language "Future Prosthetic@?" Looking back from the present, a sophisticated man cannot say to a sophisticated woman, "I love you madly," Umberto Eco writes. Both know that the romance writer Barbara Cartland has already drained these words of their ability to express true passion by putting them into the mouths of characters in some 500+ Harlequin-esque romance novels. Eco’s solution? The sophisticated man can tell the sophisticated woman, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, ‘I love you madly,’" and the sophisticated man will know that the sophisticated woman will know that he knows that she knows that the words are cliché, but that the sentiment behind them is, nonetheless, sincere. He has found a way to use the old to speak anew.
In order to speak anew, numerous authors today are appropriating and reworking older forms, or forms not thought of as literary. Stacey Levine, for example, appropriates the simple prose style and plot of the “girl’s adventure” or “nurse novels” from the '50s and reworks the genre as a philosophical novel of identity and difference in her Frances Johnson. Mark Z. Danielewski creates a hybrid of horror movie and literary theory in House of Leaves. “It’s not that all the stories have been exhausted and so the only possibility we are left with is to write about the impossibility of reading and writing,” Johanna Drucker writes in Narratology, “but rather… one must write through them in order to reclaim a language." Or recast expression in ways that speak to our moment. An artist mounting her first show today is as far from abstract expressionism as Jackson Pollock was from turn-of-the-century painting, as far as Kate Bernheimer’s reworking of Star Wars movies as contemporary fairy tale is from modernist irony, or Robert Coover’s reworking of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” as anti-war story is from existentialism. Indeed, given the millennia of writing about love, justice and other eternal concerns, it does seem plausible to think that there is nothing new to say. Given that today's AI authoring software is trained on 45 billion times more words than any one human will read in a lifetime (and can be trained to complete our thoughts), one might wonder, Whose language is it? What is the role of the author? What is the status of what was once thought of as the "individual self"? Questions such as these come to the fore in much writing by authors who use computers to generate their texts.
What motivates many authors to appropriate or rework past forms is often a desire to express something from their own lives in terms that seem authentic, at least to them, and these old, beloved forms are part of their own personal history. That is, unlike Eco’s sophisticated man, there is often as much love for these old or non-literary forms as there is for the sophisticated lover they wish to address: a love of comic books, or the narratives created by Mexican wrestlers in Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper. In Harryette Mullen’s Muse and Drudge, the blues lyrics are reworked as high art, not out of ironic distance, but homage. Comixs, lucha libre characters, blues lyrics, space operas, and nurse Betty novels are also the material of life.
So is the thought behind the aesthetic. Just as contemporary feminists take for granted some of the changes first-wave feminists fought and died for, many authors today take for granted much of the thinking that fueled postmodernism at its inception: though radical at the time, the idea that history is always open to revision has become part of the general cultural landscape. The gesture of creating a Twitter-bot to churn out poetry (or fake news) is no more an act of throwing a brick through the window of High Art than is breathing.
Yet, as in Stephanie Strickland and Ian Hatcher's recycling of canonical thoughts on liberty (Liberty Ring!), appropriation of the past can also be an acknowledgement that, as Jack Spicer says, literary works “cannot live alone any more than we can.” To be alive they must resonate with each other. And the more consciously a text works to do this, Michael Davidson maintains, the more these anti-generic texts are tied to the past, the more they force us to look at traditional texts from “new perspectives.” Which is also to say the more they must, and can, resonate with contemporary perspectives.