April 2018

Holy guacamole, Batman. This is really upsetting. It’s all Virginia’s fault — Woolf I mean, we’ve discussed the various possibilities for her culpability elsewhere. There I was, innocently reading an essay of hers about the uniqueness of de Quincey’s prose style, and BAM, it hit me. There’s not a drop, not a smidgen, not even a teensy weensy little bit of irony anywhere in her essay. The tone is uniformly calm, cool, elegant, without any untoward eruptions of opinion or sentiment. Reading the flow of words is like being rowed across a placid lake with the sun shining and Dutch landscape painter clouds in the sky. It’s deja vu with the heaven and Vandyck thing all over again.

But as soon as I open my big mouth irony splats all over the place. I could be said to projectile vomit it as soon as I open my gob.  I got that ole time irony way down in my heart. Jeez, Jemima. How did this happen? How did it get there? And can we get it out without undue discomfort or excessive collateral damage?

Not only that, I break authorial register right and left to the point that literary critics would find me tasty pickings as a case in point for the theory of the social construction of narration. How, I ask myself with my eyebrows arched in alarm, did I stumble unawares into this lion’s den? We need to sort this out — and pronto, Tonto.

Oops, just did it again … Damn.

I’ve just done a panicky Google search on “social construction narrator voice,” like somebody with a bad stomach pain frantically Googling symptoms, half afraid of what might turn up. This is scaring me … … … Oh CRAP. “Narrative Practices and the Social Construction of Self.” I knew it was bad but I didn’t think it was that bad … This is some serious doo doo. Might even have to call in … Foucault. 🙁 OMG why me, God, why ME??

(a few hours later …)

OK, I think we’ve got it under control now. Thank God I didn’t use all those 20mg Valium tabs the dentist gave me two weeks ago when I had that wisdom tooth out. I’ve never been one to turn up my nose at a bit of better living through chemistry. So down the hatch and shortly afterward aaaahhhh, everything seems a little bit easier. 🙂

So, irony is the bugbear. It’s through and through me like mold through blue cheese. I never paid attention to its spread and was astonished to discover (thanks a lot, Virginia) that apparently no aspect of my consciousness or conscious expression is exempt from it. If I ask myself, when are you absolutely sure you’re not being ironic?The answer is: when I’m asleep. Damn.

But I’m such an ordinary bloke, so vastly unlikely to become a blip on anybody’s genius radar, that I can’t possibly believe it all comes from my own doing. Something else is going on here, something of which I represent merely one example readily to hand, not some anomaly of beingness that never was before nor shall ever be again. Heavens no. We’re dealing with something entirely commonplace here, so let’s pick things apart and see what’s in the nasty stew that bubbled over this morning (thanks again, Virginia, kick a girl when she’s down why don’t you).

The social construction of reality, of consciousness, of self. That’s the dark tunnel we’re headed into. But before you start Googling and pulling up articles from Professor This and The Center for Advanced Studies of That, let’s remember one important thing. We mustn’t throw the “subject” — that is to say, the breathing, thinking, feeling, excreting individual every one of us is — out with the bathwater, as so often happens in discussions of these things in the academy. The “subject” in an academic paper is one thing; somebody rummaging through a bathroom drawer for a Valium after getting clobbered by Virginia is quite another. So let’s not forget: we’re talking about lives here, not just a composite locus of narration or a nexus of social positing. I would never deport anybody to that academic La La Land, no matter what they’ve done — not even Virginia after she whapped me up side the head this morning and sent me lurching for a tablet.

It all sounds very lah-tee-dah when you read about it. The social construction of identity. Ooh la la. You’ll never find that at WalMart, I bet you’re thinking. Well babes, it’s there, trust me. It’s everywhere these days, which, I now see, is how I ended up with it way down in my heart. The reason it’s everywhere is quite simple: the world is different now than it was in Virginia’s day. Life has changed. People have changed. And there’s no turning back the clock, as the saying goes.

What has happened to the individual since the days of dear old Virginia? Think of her and what the texture of her life was like. She spent the entirety of her lifetime in London or somewhere nearby in the Home Counties and she was a posho. The input range she had during her life was limited to what we today would call snail mail. People sent notes round inviting each other to tea. The telephone was the Big New Technology — land line, babes, with the kind of handset that looks like a big candy box. That was it, period end of story. Virginia had nothing else to deal with except what went on in her head. occurred in conversation or showed up in print.  Nobody trolled her beach pics in Instagram. She didn’t have Facebook feeds coming in from tons of friends with recipes, funny animal pics, anonymous words of wisdom (so-called, anyway), or ads from Marks & Spencer. The headlines of the world did not hit her notifications bar or show up unrequested in her browser. So her world was, in effect, quite small, although it was a relatively rich world as far as available intellectual content is concerned. It was, however, not a world continually up in her grill. It never bombarded her, overwhelmed her, wore her out as she tried just to keep up with all the stuff that came at her every day.  She did get worn out, true, but not because of input overload.

Fast forward to 2018. Now, I’m a Luddite by both inclination and preference, although I have fairly developed IT competencies. But I don’t do Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat or Twitter because I don’t want to be overwhelmed by the painful ordinariness of human existence to the point that I begin to feel (even more) like Sartre: l’enfer c’est les autres. Hell is other people. Having somebody’s idea of “fun” or “cute” or “sweet” shoved in my face is a sure way to get me into a major grump very quickly, indeed. So as a retro oddball I do the thing that came to Virginia naturally, especially when she was stuck out in the backwaters of Richmond or her house in Sussex: I curate my environment to make sure there’s as little noise (in the communication theory sense of the word) as possible. I have things to think about, thank you very much. I don’t need to have my awareness flooded every second of the day with external stimuli. To put it plainly, I don’t need that crap — let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? — in my face all day, every day. It only distracts me from what I have a mind to do.  And to be blunt, IDGAF about funny dog pics and what your lunch at Restaurant X looked like.  Leave a girl in peace, will ya??

But despite my valiant efforts, I still get my party crashed. I do have a smartphone and I do use apps because I need to keep in touch with people. I use the Internet a lot for research and the quantity of stuff I have to plow through to find something useful tilts things toward the overload range on the attention gauge. Outside the virtual domain, all I need do is to go grocery shopping to find myself under a sensory onslaught that will have me crying uncle in half an hour max. Music, voices, commotion, and all of it having absolutely nothing to do with me. Noise, in the communication theory sense, pure and simple, to the point I soon run away to save what little sanity I have left.

This is, I admit, anomalous behavior vis-a-vis (OMG! I sound like a professor!) the general population, especially its younger members. In the environment I make for myself a standard issue millenial wouldn’t last half an hour before developing a twitch. I’ve seen them, sitting by fours and fives in a cafe lost in the screens of their phones with their headsets piping music into their ears all the while. Hardly a word passes between them. And I can tell from the hand motions that they’re almost exclusively consuming, not producing content.  Producing is something somebody else does.  But who exactly?  Does anybody know?  Does anybody care?

Just what are our blokelets consuming? What assaults us every day of our lives from all the input channels we have pointed at us like the guns of Navarone? In-depth analyses of the dangers of monopoly capitalism?  Gripping exposes of new evidence for global warming?  Hardly. Try: funny cat pictures. Or videos of people lip synching to Lady Gaga in outfits they’ve made in imitation of that fashion icon of the improbable. Or a video of somebody’s toddler falling over in a wading pool and screaming his head off. Try turning on the TV. What are you gonna get? ESPN. Reruns of Lucy. Or how about: “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” or “Say Yes To The Dress” — OMG STFU YGTBKM.  No, Bridget, dead serious here, babes.

And here’s a biggie yardstick of change: just how well do you think dear old Virginia would hold up in an app chat? OMG LMAO. She would suck at it, you don’t have to be a genius to see that. Nobody would have any idea what she was on about with her posho words and her perfect grammar. WTF, a subjunctive? Never heard of it. Sounds like something you’d go to a doctor for. Or let’s plop Virginia down in Richmond, Virginia — yes, I know, how IRONIC — and see how she does in 2018. Stuff some Poppadaddy’s Fried Chicken and Biscuits down her and she what fancy talk comes out after that. Let her mosey on down to WalMart on the day of a big sale and see how she fares.  Then take her to the mall, let her wander around for four hours and make her buy at least $100 worth of stuff from the sale racks.  And while she’s doing all that make her post to Facebook and Instagram about her purchases and tweet about the sales she finds.  If she isn’t twitching and foaming at the mouth by the end of it I’ll eat my hat.  Pardon me: my millinery.

Virginia’s authorial voice is cultivated, in the sense that a garden is cultivated and not wild, but it isn’t constructed in the way a contemporary voice is constructed. If you do the narrative analysis thing on Virginia the result will not yield a road map with arrows pointing every which-a-way. You can’t have a human being without a social substrate, they ain’t no such thing on God’s green Earth. So the fact that Virginia’s voice is traceable to a particular social class and a particular set of linguistic practices common to people of that class is no big deal, in my humble and academically unqualified opinion. Duuuh. It’s gonna happen as sure as the sun comes up in the morning. I find Virginia’s voice authentic — yes, I just knocked Derrida out of the ring before he tries a nelson on me, the twat, il n’y a pas de hors-texte OMG AYS?? What’s more, I find Woolf’s voice autochthonous. Now’s there’s a fifty-dollar word for you. Here, I Googled it for you already:

formed or originating in the place where found

And guess what popup appeared on my screen right after I found that definition:

I rest my case LM(F)AO. I’m sure Kitty Poo uses subjunctives properly — just look at those specs, they tell the whole story. Anybody with specs like that is gonna know how to use subjunctives, duuuh.

Oops … just did it again. Dad gummit.

Virginia’s prose may be a social product, but it’s a natural product of her environment like the alpine gentian (Gentiana nivalis) is natural to its native habitat.  This is also extremely important: nothing in the social domain Virginia inhabited was anonymous. Everything that came to her or at her had a name attached to it.  Think back now to our blokelings in the cafe glued to their phones.  What proportion of the content they consume is anonymous, done by somebody they don’t know, about whom they know nothing, whom they could not identify even if held at gunpoint?  The major portion of it, that’s how much.  Much of what they stuff into their heads is effectively anonymous in origin.  Somebody created it, obviously, but not as an authorial presence cultivating a focus of consciousness. Production is a social construct done by people doing a job for some company somewhere making money off media production, or by an individual who is a product of the social sphere itself running off a feedback loop (aka “likes” or “followers”) .  There is no authorial voice like Virginia’s in today’s mass media culture because it’s not about cultivation or even curation, it’s about branding.  The only authorial voice present is corporate, or, if you will, socially constructed with regard to both the voice and the content.  It’s a content factory, in essence.  Just ask Kitty Poo, you’ll find he (or she? I didn’t look down there, sorry) nods in agreement with my every word. 🙂

If I put myself in Virginia’s shoes the result is not a happy one.  Had I remained in my native environment like she did, the most you’d likely get out of me is: Howdy, podner.  And maybe a YEEHAW! or two.  So thank God I thithered myself hence from that place.  As a result of my geographical and experiential peregrinations over the course of my lifetime, however, I’m not a unitary consciousness.  I’m a composite from the word go.  On top of that — to my infinite shame and horror — I, too, am a product of The Modern World with its Technology Age.  I know what LOL means and I use internat chat abbreviations … ummm … ironically. 🙁  I’m shooting myself in the foot here every five minutes, jeez …

I’ve had all sorts coming at me over the years.  Southern belles going on about their mommas, Germans giving me the details on what being a Nazi was like, French people remarking that my accent is remarkably good for an American (because we all know what to expect from Americans, don’t we, harumph).  I’ve had stare-downs with iguanas in South America, made merit in temples in Thailand, wandered into Gringolandia in Mexico, and now here I am in PH being an old fart and minding my own business.  The “me” in all of this is crystal clear to myself, of course, but if I attempt to express that self, things from all over the place jump into the empty space I’m trying to fill up.  The Southern belle squeals “Lord have mercy!” The Germans erupt with “um Gotteswillen!”  The Mexico Connection sighs “ay, Dios mio!”  And there I sit, in the middle of it all, feeling ironic.  Because it’s all part of the big Relativity Game, isn’t it.  There are no absolutes anymore, nothing is fixed, tradition is a joke and whatever you say online is inevitably going to be contradicted by somebody on some app or website who thinks they know better from the midpoint of their own experiential miasma.  Newsflash, Bridget: we’re all social constructs in this day and age.  Even if we stay down on the farm we’re doing online gaming made in Korea with game adversaries in Azerbaijan.  The wide world has shrunk to the size of a smartphone screen for many people.  We’re all impregnated with the same cultural tropes and give birth to the same disjointed and ultimately ironic narratives, no matter what language we use. Virginia would hate it.

Nobody talks like Virginia anymore, anyway.  Tragic, I know, but there it is.  Her kind of authorial consciousness died out with the advent of modern mass culture. She’s as much a fossil relic now as the dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum.  And to judge from our blokelings in the cafe glued to their phones, we might just be seeing the onset of another mass extinction event: that of thought itself, to be accomplished in another few generations.  Fortunately, by that time I’ll be in the same boat as Virginia so IDGAF.  Not my prob, Bob.  Couldn’t care less, Tess.  Deal with it.

So give it a rest, Virginia.  Everybody is ironic these days.  It’s in the very air we breathe.  It comes as part and parcel of everything that moves on two legs and talks.  I’m off the hook, babes, and you can swing your purse at somebody else’s head next time, thank you very much.

And if you think that’s just the Valium talking, you can GAL, gal, ROFL.

Yaaassss … RESULT! 🙂