Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gun on the Mantle


Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.
-Anton Chekhov

Dramatic structure is our deathblood. Eliminating details cripples our consciousness, preparing us for dumb obedience.

The Backfiring Gun: Parasite Eats Itself

When we tell a story, what are we doing? What relevance does it have to anything? There's an element of entertainment that is sheer sensationalism--flashy dross, pulp fiction, tits and giggles--and it has its place. Like a quick sandwich on the road, rubbing one out in the hotel shower, or watching a couple Family Guys to decompress by downsizing the brain, little nothings offer a padding to empty moments. Those voids only come into being when clocks have been deified, but once they have, there's certainly a place for the tragedy they provide and fulfill.

The arrogantly, short-sightedly self-identified cultures of modernism and post-modernism have made their mission the destruction of quality by the argument that there is no such thing; by the replacement of apples with waxed genes, beef stew with a McDonald's burger and fries, and talking by blogging. Perhaps ironically, it's only food that has survived the modernist movement's chopping block, and only there among those who can afford to care. Everywhere else--from education, to politics, to the arts--the primal dross has become a successful, celebrated originality. No longer is it considered a substitution, but rather, is believed to be the "real thing." The doppleganger has been alive so long that we no longer care to recover our true lost love. Most of the comptrollers of crap have themselves lost the ability to distinguish quality from pulp, cream from crap. Leadership, critical thinking, and deep meaning are invisible; even to greats among the elites, those concepts are phantoms, eldritch and uncatchable, such that they have nothing more to which to aspire than the very same things they have created to ensnare the frightful masses. So they go home to mansions only to spend the evenings with the same whisky and NCIS as the proles; when they're working or socializing, the people and the outfits are more attractive, but their secret wish is to be back home on the couch with the bottle and a new episode. Wilma from Arkansas shares, with Benjamin from Hollywood, the desire to collapse in the den and zone out to Big Bang Theory, even though Wilma's pushing a deuce and a half, had her 48th birthday last year, and has a negative net worth, while Benjamin is a dashing 27, sitting on $17 million, and could call Eminem or Anne Hathaway if he felt like it.

Elite children suffer the same affliction. Like spreading radiation or exterminating proles, the blowback from the attack on free thought rippled the ocean, eventually rocking even continents. Higher-caste children are left, as a result, devouring the same teeny-pulp as kids in the poorer zip codes. The anodyne homogenization that elites created to make the lower classes easier to control has ended up controlling them as well.

The Circular Reference: Narrative Reverberation

Chekhov's Gun--which is a restating of Aristotle; an expression of antilife--propagates the idea of a world where things "fit" into a simplistic pattern. As far as entertainment goes, Chekhov's Gun is a wretched thing indeed, for it produces reverberations in story that have grown sizable enough that even idiots can now perceive them. For the sake of the circus, we try our best to pretend that the Macguffin makes sense, the president doesn't kill children on purpose, and that the herring is red. Audiences are no longer upset by deus ex machina; instead, they expect it, because thank God, it's something they can understand, and it's too much work to contemplate setting things up, or wrapping things up, in any other way.

How do you create something, in such a media-savvy climate, where everyone has seen the same shows, and every plot event that happens to a character can be--and would be, were the character real--likened to an episode of something that everyone else has already seen? Spiraling crescendos of nothingness fill the general narrative, so that it becomes impossible to create any kind of plausible Earth-based narrative in which the characters are not constantly blabbering about how the things that happen to them are just like that one television show. Every event, from tea party to alien invasion to postmodern coma, is a derivation.

The result of the application of thousands of years of narrative structure has been that most entertainment now is not story, but rather homage to story. Almost everything is satire, send-up, easter egg, sequel, remake, or real-life dramatization, sort of like Friends meets Transformers meets Godfather. Reality shows actually are reality, in that sense, because they don't have the requirement of connecting every plot element to a show someone's already seen. Contestants are able to actually be publicized versions of themselves, because they're freed from the restrictive constraints of artistic creativity, which require you to sometimes be incredibly unaware of just such a point of reference. Ergo, sometimes, you're expected to investigate that noise in the backyard after you and your husband have just watched the special report about the escaped serial killer, or you find yourself in a zombie apocalypse, but are amazingly recalcitrant to use the term, "zombie," even though Night of the Living Dead was released half a century ago.

Ironically, the more the thousand idiot monkeys have tried to address the problem by circularly referencing it, the more they've trapped themselves. The more media-savvy characters become, the less plausible it becomes that they would do any of the things that they're required to do in order to make things turn out the way they're supposed to. Evil geniuses continue making fatal flaws in the form of imperfect singularity cascades, heroes continue acting like they actually hate that pesky little blonde who holds the secret formula, and everyone has to pretend really, really hard to give a damn when the Death Star blows up or the sexy couple realizes for the first time ever that they want to kiss.

(Which is to say, as far as idiots go, even Homer Simpson knows that the girl is going to end up with Richard Gere. The result being that you can't blame him for not giving a damn about anything except Duff and football. It's supposed to happen that way; the repeated juxtaposition of Gere and Roberts is so painful that we stop believing love actually exists. Take ten Big Macs and call me in the morning.)

That's why so many adults pitifully memorialize their childhoods--that time when they were so ignorant that narrative structure actually held some punch. Neither George Lucas nor Random House has gotten either better or worse, but the more exposure people have to the drug of banality, the less they're able to care. The terrible experiences of childhood seem to be more "real" and "quality," only because a certain generation wondered, at the time, if the Death Star would actually be destroyed. Not having figured out that it's all the same drivel makes that first shot of H really take you up. Ergo Alec Guinness' arthritic staggering through a 5 mph lightsaber duel is adjudged superior to Ewan McGregor's tennis-derived pom-squad slap fight with Ray Park, and pod races are somehow "gay," but "Almost there...almost there..." and Jek Porkins are not. Even inside of six years, it can happen: big, hairy, chirping aliens are cool, while little, hairy, chirping aliens are not.

The Homogenization of Possibility

The fundamental problem with "narrative structure" is the denial of agency. When Aristotle and Plato used the Athenian Empire to worldbuild banker's hell, a.k.a. western civilization, they were expressing themselves in the language of the essential conflict between life and nonexistence. They wanted an orderly, perfect world, where nothing moved, nothing was out of place, and everything was already dead. Ergo narrative structure: nothing has agency, neither humans nor human characters, for all is an orderly progression from beginning to end. Chekhov's Gun is a modernist retelling of the same requirement. By stripping characters (and objects) of their agency, and requiring plot elements to be plot elements, elites can use their newspapers, books, movies, TV, and internet to disseminate a nearly all-powerful message of catatonic hopelessness.

How so? Look at Chekhov's quote again:
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.

Now, if we're telling a story about some guy's hunting lodge in Yalta, would there be a gun on the wall? Most likely. What if it's a romance? Okay, then, maybe the gun isn't going to go off, but it's necessary to show that the male lead is tough and/or independent. What if it's a murder mystery? Okay, the gun might've been the murder weapon. Or a red herring (a fourth generation concession to the dwindling worldview of narrative structure itself).

A lot of problems with that, though. Why should the gun only be mentioned if it goes off? Does the hunting lodge have a pair of boots by the fire, or is the owner the kind of guy who puts his boots away? Are the couches scuffed, or fresh and clean? There's some kind of trade-off that has to be made in any artistic representation of anything, of course--even in a threed lifeshow, you don't have time to look at everything--but the policy that Chekhov and Aristotle are advocating is one of industrial efficiency. What they're saying is, "eliminate all non-essential details from the narrative."

The catch is, what makes a portion of any narrative "essential"? Easy--it's predetermined. It's 20/20 hindsight. It's a world without Free Will; it's characters without agency; it's a place where things exist only because they have a purpose, and are meant to play a larger role (including red herrings or deliberately innocuous throwaway details meant to distract readers already familiar with earlier iterations of the game). This produces unrealistic, incomplete, bad, and morally wrong narratives, because those narratives then don't represent viable living worlds, but fantasies of [the bad kind of] death. They're narratives of authority, where the viewer/reader knows that everything which is mentioned, or which appears onscreen, has been selected, not for the purpose of accurately representing the reality of the character/setting, but to further a plot purpose. The end result of this process is viewer/reader "cheating," where savvy viewers can guess what's going to happen based on the lines given screen-time (unless they get tricked by a crossword-crafting screenwriter who left a clue only to misdirect you down a different path of the formula). Modern, post-modern, and post-post-modern-whatever literati consider foreshadowing so damn important because it's proof that a plot was planned in advance, by creators who were using characters as agency-less pawns meant to go through the motions that would create the desired scenes.

Vis-à-vis setting, some of this has changed in TV and movies. Budgets are available, now, to pay teams of artists and set designers to create and arrange backgrounds down to the umpteenth detail. In novels, that hasn't changed--most western "readers" don't have the patience to read descriptions of anything that isn't integral to the plot, and pages cost money, so cut it out. In movies and television, then, the time constraint replaces the pages constraint. Everyone can stare stupidly at a screen, and it's comparatively cheap to throw a lot of details into the set. The scenes that are chosen, however, are chosen--like setting description in the realm of literature--to further plot. Pointless conversation doesn't exist, so when you see a TV in the background of an early scene, and the newscaster is talking about how the new sports stadium will be opening in a week, you know the final confrontation is going to be held in that stadium. Gun on the wall, remember? Even in the "finest cinema," there can be no pointless scenery. The camera can spend two minutes watching a leaf on the water, not because the leaf was there, but because "setting the mood" was important, in-between the fight scene and the "moving out" scene.

In life and art, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. In real life, we don't automatically know which details are important. If we're walking out the front door, and the rock we looked at last night is slightly shifted near where the car is parked, we don't always recognize that as a sign that the mob has planted a car bomb. But if the camera zooms in on that rock (the same way it did in the scene last night), then we know one of two things:

1) The mob planted the car bomb, and bumped the rock on their way out, or

2) The mob didn't plant the car bomb, and it was your drunken next door neighbor who bumped the rock, but the hero is clearly concerned because of how he noticed the shifted rock.

That's all great, but what if it isn't a mob movie? Did your next door neighbor still bump that rock a little bit? If you never have the time to consider any of these things, you're not smelling the roses, living life to its fullest, or learning anything about how the world really works. If that rock is only ever shown or written about in a mob story, then whenever you see a rock, you know something's up with the rock or the character--nothing is ever "not up," because if it was, you wouldn't be sitting there eating Junior Mints, you'd be going home to watch Seinfeld reruns. Who has the time to care about the unofficial?

Yes, a slightly-shifted rock is a really boring example, but what about the little conversation you had with the cute checker at the grocery store? Do we have the patience to include that conversation even if the checker isn't (1) a disguised mob assassin, (2) your romantic fallback after you break off your current relationship, or (3) revealing to you innocuously, during the conversation, that the new stadium will be opening up next week?

Practical Applications of Narrative Structure

Manhattan and Hollywood, like Carnegie and Ford, want dull, heartless efficiency, so the "unnecessary" parts of everything have been removed. Now entertainment is as plastic as the lives it inspired, because no one wants to experience vicariously things that aren't "advancing" a "plot." And as a result, they're not able to process those things in their own lives anymore, either. We're falling in love with those we don't know, fetishizing the tiniest details of Batman's costume, but unable to take twenty minutes to pick through Gotham's streets when nothing at all is happening.

WMD in Iraq are Chekhov's Gun. Get it? The masses' susceptibility to the inanities of real-world realpolitik is fostered by elite thoughtform weapons that train human brains to become bored with details and to follow only authoritarian narratives. The reason everyone is so stupid is because they've been taught to be. They can't be any better than the stories they're told, and once their neural pathways have been designed to follow bad plots, all of life becomes those very cliches. (Pattern-molding is far superior to iconography as far as controlling conscious behavior at this stage.) Presidents, wars, the rich and the poor--all of it. Fantasy creators don't have time to fully flesh out their "magic system," nor science fiction creators their technology, because viewers and readers won't tolerate it, and they won't tolerate it because they've been raised to believe in structured lives without details. That's why so few people can understand the relatively simple actions of the Federal Reserve, or why dead baby pictures fail to move them. It's not that they're projectively stupid, because they can do IT, and it's not that they're inhumane, because they can genuinely cry over other "main characters" in their lives. Instead, it's that bad stories have reshaped their gray matter into a form that can no longer process as important things that don't make it into storyboard. Attempts to "educate" people--even by showing them piles of direct proof within sources that they themselves have defined as reliable--fail, because the proles aren't making decisions based on reason, authority, morals, or even popularity. They're being guided by the sense of ethereal purpose in the simple plots they've learned to prefer. Criticizing drone collateral is like criticizing Luke for blowing up any independent contractors who might've been on the Death Star--it's a regrettable, but absolutely necessary consequence, and there's a party afterwards. Even talking about the subject is just a joke, because it's the lives of offscreen people, who by definition never become important and simply don't matter. "I don't like a lot of what Obama's done, but there's just no way to change it." Because it's the plot.

The massive power that corporate news, mainstream advertising, and political leaders have is that they are defined as "characters," so their words and actions mean infinitely more than people who aren't even in the book--even if that means 10 million Congolese who actually are, in the real world, dying. Caring about the Congolese, then, means--at least in part--trying to fix that gray matter. As this one said before:
Crap like Fifty Shades of Grey is among the most subversive pieces of elite propaganda, whether they know it or not. The battle against Transformers, Justin Bieber, and Lil Wayne is, in many aspects, the battle to save the world.
Narrative structure has been the most powerful elite tool for millennia, because narrative structure has confined the most basic element of human thought conception into those very narrative boundaries. People are smart, because they can use computers, design computers, and build rocketships, but they're stupid, because for all their glorious technical feats, they are being controlled by an aspect of the somnatic, faux-powerless humanities. The liberal arts are much reviled as "worthless" by Earth 2014 social critics, yet the liberal arts were the gentleman's education during the formation of modernism; a liberal arts degree was how one got a high-paying job in the mid-upper echelons of society. All those worthless majors taught previous generations of thinkers how to control STEM dunces with nothing more than a few bad sitcoms.

(Those who fantasize about "starting civilization over" would run into this problem, were their wishes realized. All the elites could vanish tomorrow, but their most important poison--their thousands of years of narrative structure--would still control the minds of most of the survivors. And so the same story would be told again. That's why genuine grassroots attempts to "mount alternatives" inevitably fail: in attempts to pitch their ideas to a marketplace of idiots, rebels are forced to simplify their message into soundbites, eliminate complicated details, and work from there. And in so doing, they bolster the system. Not bolster in a dramatic, cheap-sellout sense, but rather, a literal, sad/unwitting sense. Those rebels who make themselves characters in the plot, even as villains--McVeigh, Kaczynski, bin Laden--gain an eerie power over a world of people who think they're living in a 120-minute theater. As a tragihumorous aside-aside, what Saddam Hussein was trying to do was to become a non-character, to withdraw from the movie to spare his life. Unfortunately for him, the posse needed a head in the noose.)

In living our lives, we're sometimes forced to spend time with characters who (1) don't recur, (2) don't appear at all important to our plot, even on our deathbeds, and (3) take up a lot of time and come into full camera focus. In movies and books, by contrast, we can immediately tell who is important, because the full-body pan and four-minute screen-time conversation (movie) or half-page physical description with some clever metaphors (book) is reserved only for people who are conveying important information or who will recur. If we spend that much time noticing others who aren't important, the story is too long, and everyone quits. In the world of scripted narrative, therefore, we can maximize our "being entertained" time by disregarding anyone who doesn't have that level of importance, meaning that we're trained to not form meaningful relationships with people who aren't instantly presented to us as worthwhile. The "decline" of society that we all observe in some form is spawned by television, although not because of the net time people spend watching it. Rather, it's the content, the message being sent, that makes it harmful.

The neural pathways built by Chekhov's Gun tell us that when the authors of society say there's a gun, someone must be planning to use it. (An unmentioned gun, accordingly, must be unimportant.) The thing upon which entertainment is focused is important, while side details are not. Millions of people can squeal about militarism and lobbyists, but the planet's narrative structure doesn't allow those things to be viewed with the importance they actually hold--we focus on the gun mounted on the wall, and never look in the closet for the guy with the knife, because the plot doesn't call for it. Our stupefied reliance on the screenwriter tells us that the story will be controlled by the one telling it, and that we are agency-less, powerless creatures. Rhetoric, not guns, makes sheeple.

Take any Disney movie as an easy example. Not because of feminism, or racism, or any of that--what Disney does so well is to train children not to think; to be dumb and obedient. We can watch a feisty princess defy an overblown dunce-patriarchy for 90 minutes, and be tricked into thinking, "Ooh, this is sending a good message about an individual's independence!" But we'd be wrong. The poison is hidden in plain sight in the unnatural simplicity of plot. Disney is a brutal, brilliantly efficient factory, where plot structure is hammered into the head with maximum speed. Feisty girl chafes against social restrictions, demonstrated by a few blurted interactions with parents/guardians or Girls Who Just Don't Understand; brazen boy chafes against social restrictions, demonstrated by a few blurted interactions with authority figures or Lascivious Boys; villains and meddling side characters begin a chain of events that drives them together, comic relief crashes onto the scene, and, like a storybook with a page limit, happy ending. Disney's evil genius is so advanced that it can produce movies which head-on tackle fundamental social constructions--like Pocahontas, which has hints of anti-imperialism and bank greed, and Beauty and the Beast, which has an excellent, incisive critique of fear- and warmongering--while still dispersing the toxin that keeps the next generation of children from being able to recognize that President Hillary is just a less-attractive version of Governor Ratcliffe. While characters scream and sing about independence and human decency, people are led to believe in lives of crammed plot points, predictable progression, simple motives, and obvious baddies.

Political dissidents, wrong or right, are irrelevant whether or not they possess, shall we say, "facts." In fact, they're even less relevant when they do possess them. A real dissident isn't in the theater saying, "That movie sucked!" or "That movie rocked!" Rather, she's the one who says, "I wish they'd spent another half hour with the brother's character." But we don't have time for that. We're in the business of producing structures. Structures that make sense, with beginnings and endings and things that happen because they were supposed to. There are no false starts or dead ends; simply an orderly progression from good to better to bestest. God bless the broken road; it was ordained to happen; you had no choice, and neither did they.

Prepped by narrative, our stunted imaginations leave us unable to imagine breaking out. We all know, in some sense, that we're headed toward a dystopian future, where a few hyper-urban cities of lavish penthouses and indescribable street poverty exist only behind walls that keep out the irradiated rabble who have it even worse, and yet, despite this knowledge, we read on. Linear media, linear lives. Detail is irrelevant, retcon is the memory hole, and even one Macguffin is the memetic equivalent of pretending Larry Silverstein is just unexpectedly lucky when it comes to leases. Deus ex machina, indeed.

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