Over the past six weeks, I have been teaching a summer semester undergraduate literature course entitled “Reexamining the Body: Race & Gender in American Experimental Fiction.” After a week of introductory material, we dedicated one week (four days a week) to studying a single novel: Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982), Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978), Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005), and Tao Lin’s Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007). Each posed a different set of issues, which allowed us to discuss literature as contagion, as colonization, as assault, as enchantment, and as sedation.
To celebrate the last day of class, I thought I would share with you my notes for Tao Lin’s Eeeee Eee Eeee. These are basically the blueprints for my lectures, or what I use to begin thinking about what I’m going to say in class. In the interest of time, and in the interest of authenticity, I’ve decided not to correct or clean up or organize these notes, but instead share them as they appear in my Word Doc titled “Notes: Tao Lin Eeeeee.” It’s scattershot, sure, but that’s sort of how my brain works.
Notes: Tao Lin Eeeeee
First, present argument: Eeeee Eee Eeee is an extremely smart, extremely provocative, and ultimately indispensable work of contemporary American literature. But it is also a problematic text in terms of both its form and content, and its relationship to, as well as its representation of, race and gender. Why? This is what we hope to uncover.
In terms of the experimental literature aspect of the course, we will investigate the aesthetics, focusing on structure and character as illustrations of what I will call a literature of sedation. The text mumbles, blimps, and shuffles. The hallucinatory mingles with the imaginary to numb and destabilize the sense of reality conjured by the text. Memory recurs and fades away without ever establishing a firm grip. Consistency perpetually comes under suspicion, to the point where contingency threatens to overtake the narrative. Make sure to reestablish that these inquiries are predicated on the assumption of strategy rather than deficiency, so that each item under scrutiny is carefully considered with the utmost respect for the text’s artistry.
In terms of the race and gender aspect of the course, we will look at this text as an example of the tension between absence/presence, as representing a lack of engagement especially with race, despite the fact that the author of the text is Asian-American, and what this absence might signal about our particular cultural/historical moment. Issues surrounding “post-race” should be considered. Compare this book with the other course texts in order to situate it in our ongoing conversation.
Q: Do authors have obligations to their race or gender? Do authors have obligations to other races or genders?
Open with Derrida on absence/presence. Use Paul Fry’s example of the Eiffel Tower. Discuss how absence works to reinforce presence. Idea of the text both creating and being created by absence.
What discursive fields does Eeeee Eee Eeee imbricate? Modernism, Surrealism, Realism, the Absurd, …?
Usher conversations away from symbolism. A dolphin is a dolphin, a bear is a bear. Return to our discussion of surface and depth. (Perhaps share quote from Shaviro’s Cinematic Body about Warhol being pure surface.)
How does anthropomorphism complicate the text?
In terms of Barthes’s distinction between Readerly/Writerly texts, where does Eeeee Eee Eeee situate itself?
In terms of McHale’s division (Modern : Epistemological :: Postmodern : Ontological), where does Eeeee Eee Eeee situate itself?
In terms of the distinction between the Kantian & Hegelian aesthetic paradigms, where does Eeeee Eee Eeee situate itself?
The first 109 pages focus on a character named Andrew, but then the narrative diverges: a chapter focuses on bears, two chapters focus on Ellen (the sister of Andrew’s friend Steve), a chapter focuses on dolphins, another chapter focuses on Ellen, and then a return to the focus on Andrew. However, this schema flexes. For instance, around page 80 the narrator leaves Andrew behind to follow a dolphin to Los Angeles to kill Elijah Wood, and toward the end of the book the narrative is hijacked by a pontificating president.
Aside from these narrative focal divisions, there are at least two other strategic structural devices being employed.
First, the order of information. From the start to the finish, Eeeee Eee Eeee loops and jags and presents information non-chronologically and non-sequentially. For instance, we are not made privy to the background of Andrew’s obsession with someone called Sarah until page 98 when we find out that they had only the briefest of exchange despite the fact that for some reason Andrew attaches great meaning to her and to their imagined relationship. The placement of this scene at this moment in the book is a signal of Lin’s strength as a craftsman, because what it does is recalibrate our understanding of Andrew’s character. Until this reveal, readers are left to imagine the deep relationship these two characters shared, their prolonged affair, their commitments to one another — “He feels nauseous. He’ll never see Sarah again” (74). “The gate has a secret pass code. Sarah has a secret pass code. She should. Andrew would stand there for years trying combinations” (87). — and then when we find out that there was no relationship to speak of, that their exchange was superficial — Sarah asks Andrew if she can read some of his stories, which he agrees to email to her, but she never responds; as well, she tells him she will come and visit him in Florida, but after a year of promises she never comes — the reader sees Andrew in a different light. How sad, one reader might think, that this young man seems so smitten with someone he barely knows. Or: how creepy, another reader might think, that this guy is so obsessed over someone who was clearly uninterested in him. Or: how romantic, another reader might think, how truly 19th century of him. However the reader responds, I think it’s fair to say that the level of narrative complexity would have been severely diminished had Lin chosen to tell the tale in sequential order rather than relying on this nonlinear model. Had we known from the start that Andrew and Sarah knew each other only passingly, our reception of his obsession would be calculated differently, and our judgement of the character would most likely be more cynical, I would suspect.
Second, the denial of escalation. Notice how the text resists Freytag’s pyramid: no inciting incident, no rising action, no climax, no denouement. The text convulses along a flatline, moves in time but never intensifies, ignores causality, instantiates a counter discourse to standard teleological assumptions: a text that goes nowhere, builds to nothing, seemingly akin to the disorder and meaninglessness of life…except, consciously diagnoses itself as art by aligning with Pessoa’s assertion, ” ‘Pessoa said art was fun and beautiful because it was useless and had no meaning’ the alien said. ‘And that life is not fun because there is always a goal; you always need a goal each day” (202). A goalless text. A work of art. A counter to life, not a representation of it.
(ii) Tension between action and inaction.
Throughout the opening section of the book, I recognized a pattern of repetition involving the phrase “killing rampage.” According to my calculations, that phrase was used ~20 times: on pages 10, 12, 19 (x2), 29, 30-31, 41, 42, 51, 52, 54, 55 (x2), 57, 61, 65, 76 (x2), 90. Comparing the frequency of this phrase to the infrequency of characters acting, making choices, or even doing anything creates an interesting paradox: as though the characters want so badly to act but don’t know how — recall Mark’s question to Andrew about “how to have fun” — characters seem to not know how to behave or act or function in society. Perhaps they seek the most intensely imaginable action in order to counter their utterly mundane existence? Compare to Janey Smith character in Acker’s Blood and Guts: if Janey mentioned going on a “killing rampage” we could be sure that she would in fact go on a killing rampage. But when Andrew or one of the other characters says it or thinks it, the likelihood of them really going to do it seems minimal.
“Now Andrew just feels like Snoop Dog all the time. No he doesn’t. He hasn’t once felt like Snoop Dog” (74).
—Draw out the repeated use of the “yes I did, no I didn’t” pattern. Contradiction is ubiquitous vis à vis character.
” ‘I feel like how Honda Civics look. That’s why I drive a Honda Civic,’ Andrew says. ‘Just kidding’ ” (30).
—The way the characters identify with other things: objects, celebrities, etc.
“Everyone at work will be trite and cliched. Andrew is trite and cliched. He has nothing to say to anyone. No one has anything to say to anyone, for some reason. Everything is cliched and melodramatic” (77).
—John Cage (Nothing to say and I’m saying it.) Consider this as the battle-cry of Eeeee Eee Eeee.
Sadness. Depression. Loneliness. Alienation. Suicide. = Recurrent themes
Fernando Pessoa is valorized because “he understood the smallness and uselessness of human life, did not believe in such thing as ‘sincerity,’ and knew the possibility of a maid breaking a cup as the cup using the maid to commit suicide” (172). Pessoa actually plays an interesting role in Eeeee Eee Eeee, especially at the end when a character named Shawn admits to a group of people that he’s unfamiliar with Pessoa’s work, which causes the president to ask him to leave the group. The implication being that Shawn is not a member of the tribe and should therefore be ostracized. Shawn’s “otherness” marks him in a way that most of the characters in the book (be they human or animal) are not marked.
In fact, make case in class for reading every character in the book as the same character, because for all intents and purposes there is no difference between Andrew and Ellen, between Ellen and her mother Jan, between the bears and the president, between the dolphins and Andrew’s boss Matt. They all speak the same way and have the same thoughts. They are all depressed and sad and angsty. (Look at the exchange between Ellen and her mother pgs. 145-155)
Argue: names in Eeeee Eee Eeee are merely labels. But this flatness or sameness is not a mistake on Lin’s part, not an error in need of fixing nor a shortcoming; it is actually a very effective strategic device. Instead of using the conventional wisdom that would suggest the need for “well-rounded characters,” Lin presents an illustration of the philosophy he posits throughout the text as evidenced explicitly in this passage: “It’s depressing that people are different. Everyone should be one person, who should then kill itself in hand-to-hand combat” (27). In other words, the goal of the text is to avoid differentiating characters, to instead conflate and compress characters, to intensify unity to the point where all is one and the same. While this is one of the interesting aspects of the text, it causes a problem for readers looking to examine the role of race and gender.
Notwithstanding the brief mention of “white poeple” on page 101, Eeeee Eee Eeee is seemingly devoid of race. The labels (or “characters”) are hardly described at all, so that they read more like concepts than physical beings. Talking/thinking stick figures. Again, this is not meant pejoratively, but should be conveyed as:
(i) an example of subverting conventional assumptions regarding character and character development
(ii) an attempt to reconfigure our perceptions of the role of character in fiction
(iii) to background the issue of character in order to foreground other, seemingly more important, aspects of the text.
Earlier this year, Lin wrote an article on the future of the novel for The New York Observer where he elaborated his ideas relating to the division between noumenon and phenomenon and how this relates to literature. It would seem that part of Lin’s project is to produce texts that present as closely as possible the ideas existing in his noumenon, devoid of any (what he would see as restrictive) attributes of phenomenon. To put it another way, Eeeee Eee Eeee is uninterested in “the real world.” And therefore uninterested in the real world considerations of race and gender. (We must be careful then with all of those pop cultural references because they are deceiving us: Dominoes Pizza, Target, Honda Civics, Instant Messenger, etc. — these are all props, red herrings attempting to fool us into believing that the text is based in our shred “real world” when in fact it takes place anywhere but here — also beware the geographic locations: Florida, New York City, these labels are misleading) Politics, the book tells us, is a “pretend game” (195). What the book wants us to consider instead are philosophical questions that exist outside the realm of politics: “Why are we born? Why do we die? Where do we go when we die? Where did consciousness come from? Politics does not acknowledge those questions” (194).
Existential inquiry trumps race issues (or cultural politics).
Must consider: to what degree to engage with “existentialism” as a concept. Could make connection to Sartre’s “No Exit,” could make connection to Camus’s Stranger, could even make connection between Eeeee Eee Eeee and the absurdities of Jarry (Ubu Roi), Ionesco (Rhinoceros), Arabal (Guernica), Abby (Zoo Story) et. al. (Thinking especially of the scene where Andrew’s boss calls everyone into his office and they fill up the place and turn off the lights.) Could bring Beckett into the conversation, could show clips from Happy Days. At any rate, would need to point out the rampant overuse of the concept of “existentialism” — remind class that even Sartre, in 1946, recognized the near uselessness of the term in his famous lecture Existentialism Is A Humanism:
Most of those who are making use of this word would be highly confused if required to explain its meaning. For since it has become fashionable, people cheerfully declare that this musician or that painter is “existentialist.” A columnist in Clartes signs himself “The Existentialist,” and, indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all. It would appear that, for the lack of any novel doctrine such as that of surrealism, all those who are eager to join in the latest scandal or movement now seize upon this philosophy in which, however, they can find nothing to their purpose. For in truth this is of all teachings the least scandalous and the most austere: it is intended strictly for technicians and philosophers.
Seems relevant, but could potentially put us on a slippery slope into an outer atmosphere conversation. Would need to explain the ramifications of existentialism as a “pop-philosophical” concept in our current cultural situation, and would need to show its connections and disconnections vis à vis race.
In an interview at Brightest Young Things from earlier this year, Lin was asked about his position on race:
BYT: One subject you do not talk about in your writing (that I have ever seen) is being Asian, or I guess the Asian American Experience. Are identity politics just totally beside the point?
TL: I don’t know what to say about Asians. I think everyone is “racist,” to differing degrees, in that everyone’s brain will automatically associate information with other information, based on the information they are looking at (for example skin color, bone structure), but I think focusing on race in any manner that isn’t neutral or self-aware probably increases racism. If I wrote a book about being Asian, instead of being a person, I would feel like I was openly doing things to increase my own racism and other people’s racism, I think.
It seems like most people will agree that they would like if they were treated by other people based on what they have concretely done in their life, not what other people have done, with their lives. Focusing on being a person instead of an Asian or an [anything] seems to promote a worldview that encourages people to treat others based on what each person has specifically done in their life, which seems like it would reduce such things as war, racism, unfairness, “hate crimes,” [other things most people feel aversion toward].
I think that’s one reason I would avoid writing about “being Asian.” Another is that if I wrote about “being [abstraction]” I would be ignoring existential issues (such as death, limited-time, the arbitrary nature of the universe, the mystery of consciousness) that I feel affect me most in my life and think about most of the time. Another reason is that it doesn’t seem specific or accurate, to me, to write about “being [abstraction].” I think there are some other reasons.
Very interesting and provocative, if simultaneously problematic in its utopian vision.
In Vice last year Lin said:
I also remember you saying something along the lines of “my favorite writers are usually white and rich or middle class.”
Those people aren’t as affected as much by poverty, having to fight in a war, having to earn money to survive, racism, and things like that. Things that, if solved, will leave you with these other problems: knowing you’re going to die, knowing you’re required to make decisions in an arbitrary universe, knowing that you can only occupy one space at one time (so you can never fully be connected with another person). Which are the things that I like to read about. If someone’s in a war, or needing to work two jobs to survive, they’ll probably be focused on writing about that. And I guess when you’re just focused on making enough money to survive, you aren’t worried about “how do I know what to do if the universe is meaningless.”
The jail scene in Shoplifting From American Apparel is one of the only moments in your work where the ethnicity of characters is prominently noted. Would you say your characters live in a post-racial world?
No. I think that’s just a personal preference, because I don’t want to write about racism. Or those other things mentioned earlier. If I put in a character’s race, some readers would assume, like, “Oh his problems are because he’s being discriminated against.” Or, “He doesn’t know his racial/cultural identity, he’s confused about his racial/cultural identity, which is why he is sad or confused.” To me, their problems are the same as any person’s who is not in a war or working two jobs to survive.
Return to our discussion of privilege. Ask: In what ways might Lin’s evidently self-contradictory statements detract from or enrich his project? (He acknowledges that some people struggle with poverty and racism, but seems to imply that these issues can be suspended under certain circumstances.) Ask: under what conditions, if any, can (or should?) a reader forget about or bracket-off cultural/political dynamics in favor of viewing all people (or characters) as equal? Is it even possible? Is it desirable? Can such a text exist as an unfettered product of the imagination devoid of the reciprocal relationship between noumenon and phenomenon — if so, how; if no, why? How does Eeeee Eee Eeee attempt to negotiate these questions?
***Videos to show:
First, Mumblecore clips
Eeeee Eee Eeee movie trailer
Contextualize Eeeee Eee Eeee as a node in a network of affinities (assemblage of sedation/numbness/exhaustion), offer suggestions regarding potential examples of resonant lines of flight:
These clips from early Hal Hartley films:
The Unbelievable Truth
This clip of Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby:
which could be interestingly pared with Tao Lin reading from his memoir:
also pared with Andy Warhol eating a hamburger:
and David Tudor performing John Cage’s 4’33”:
also put into conversation with Marina Abramović’s recent MoMa show, The Artist is Present:
and Slava Mogutin’s tribute to Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s performance Light-Dark (1977), with Gio Black Peter and Neil Young: