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Rant #11
(published Late in the Year, 2000)
Mistakes Were Made
by Erik Garner Warren

I recall an essay that appears in Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House, called "Dysfunctional Narratives." In it he describes the modern narrative result of Watergate: the "dysfunctional narrative", a story in which culpability cannot be placed on any person, a narrative where blame is free floating and inexplicable: "Mistakes were made"; a non-linear stack of possible pieces organized not by reader and not by writer but instead by chance collisions in the transmission like a garbled and static filled radio signal that mysteriously breathes not actual words of meaning but instead tonal signifiers like ghostly moans and screams which hint at communication but never confirm it. This is the narrative of conspiracy theory, distributed computer networks, channel surfing, satellite TV, cellular phones, packet switching, terrorism, subliminal advertising, pornography, football telecasts. We are not riding down an orderly Superhighway of Information, but rather we SinkFloatSwim in a garbled pool of data which has no center, no edge and no current. We are suspended and sway somewhere in this four dimensional fluid, like a crone in a Witch's Cradle, looking out trying to hear the voice of our lover through the thick cat-calls of the Global Mind, desperately begging for release and absolution. This is in stark contrast to Mr. Baxter's preferred "functional narrative," in which blame can be concretely laid upon character X or circumstance Y.

Of course, any cursory examination of our world quickly provides ample evidence that Mr. Baxter's preferred mode for fiction (that is, the "functional" sort) is itself a fiction. Who caused the Columbine Massacre? Who enslaved the Africans and dragged them across the oceans? Who built the pyramids? Show me these men, so that I can jot down their hair color and shoe size for our records. This is why people seek out islands like Disneyworld. In the fiction narrative of the theme park we feel that comfortable hand of the author controlling the experience for us, a thing quickly evaporating in a world where Nietzsche has killed God. But the flaw of Disneyworld is that in all of its micro-managing megalomania (a hall mark of a truly powerful artist on the caliber of Shakespeare or Hitler[1]) it has no message for you beyond "calm." For all of the effort expended keeping the Small World small and the Main Street clean, Disneyworld fails to exploit its direct line to the heart of the participant or reader of the park. They exploit their conduit to your pocketbook for certain, but for all the money they take, leave not a trace of a Message or Meaning. The theme park, the massage parlor, the football game, the hunting trip: These last great, authored super-narratives are essentially without a message— a text without content, the hushed, cryptic mumblings of fortune cookie, or a grandmother attempting to sooth a hurt child. Yes, such Events of Control create an isolated, idyllic bubble in the confused fluid of our lives, but it is a sealed bubble that allows you to see your lover floating out in the great roiling "world" but still prevents you from communicating with him.

In this new world of relativism it is not that motivation has really vanished, but instead it is morality that has fallen away, decaying along with the corpse of the Nietzschean God[2]. That is the confusion that we are all trying to deal with and that is the vaporous mystery of our modern narratives. Dear Richard Nixon was already living with it when he said "Mistakes were made." But that phrase does not arise out of a lack of motivation or the willingness to own up to culpability, instead it is an admission of the death of Blame as an agent of Morality. Nixon wants to secure his presidency and so he breaks into the Watergate building. That is plain. But Blame cannot be assigned, not because we don't know the specifics of what happened but because we cannot honestly and as an entire society decide together if what happened was in fact strictly wrong.

We are at a moment of vast cultural equivocation. Disneyworld and the "functional narrative" it turns out is just one possible course, a single snowy station on the great, multi-cultural 500 channel direct-feed satellite cable-enabled, HDTV All-Seeing-Eye of Modern America. Megalomaniac art of the Shakespearean kind is one small western model for narrative expression, Mr. Baxter. The Author and the Reader, server and client, is just one potential mode. Hitler was an Author of that type[3], like Wagner, Disney, Mozart, John Irving[4].

The emergent decentralized narrative is the first fully recognized alternative to "functional" narrative, and I submit it will not be the last. Characterized by the work of Nixon, Henry II, Kennedy, William S. Burroughs, Roland Barthes, Don DeLillo, Robert Anton Wilson, and most importantly the anonymous authors, this narrative problamatizes our relationship with "narrative" by drawing us into itself. Where as the "functional" narrative is created by one person— a God-like Author standing above and beyond us simple plebes— and stands aloof from us, the icy bitch who we may view, but never really touch and certainly not BE, the "dysfunctional" narrative draws us close, and if we refuse to breath our life into him, well then, he pins us to the ground and breaths *HIS* life into *US*.

A guerrilla art, the decentralized narrative is not necessarily dysfunctional. This is the narrative of the coming millennium precisely because it is the narrative of the past millennia. I maintain that urban legend and conspiracy theory are not so much futuristic trends as they are anachronistic models which hearken back to a pre-literate tribal world of myth. And, Gentle Readers, please bear in mind that it is this mythic world from which we draw some of our most cherished Authorial and Functional Narratives: The Iliad, Beowulf, King Lear, and on and on.

While Mr. Baxter circles of the wagons of "functional narrative" and gets the Monolithic Authors (I'm looking at *you* Stephen King! And you, Mrs. Oats! Carver, wipe that smirk from your mug!) into their armor and atop their white chargers, what he fails to see is that the "dysfunctional narrators" are not a roving band of berzerkers closing in across the frozen tundra, nor a party of red-skins skulking up through the tall prairie grass, but rather the whispering maids and menservants in their homes, the forgotten dregs who seep in, like radon, through the cracks in the Monolithic Author's pine-paneled basement, until their superstitious, half-mumbled yarns become the very voices of Monolithic Author's blessed Muse.[5]

Editors' Notes:

1. In defense of Mr. Warren's reference to Hitler as an "Artist" and "Author," I ask that we turn to the words of Primo Levi (Auschwitz survivor and author of some dozen books— a seminal voice in the Jewish understanding of the Holocaust), who observed that for the Jewish People the Holocaust and its body of stories forms a new Bible, a Bible which supersedes the Five Books of Moses, and forever informs their experiences, as individuals, of their membership in that group which the German's had deemed to be "rats in the house."
2. It seems certain that, for legal reasons, we'd best tip Mr. Warren's hat to James Morrow (author of Towing Jehovah) for this piece of imagery.
3. ibid., note #1.
4. Bearing in mind #1, isn't it funny how many of these referenced "Great Men" were virulent anti-Semites? Just food for thought, people.
5. We have no idea what Mr. Warren meant by this remark. When we pressed him for revision (or at least expansion) he refused, explaining that he had to catch a flight to Fire Island. Although, despite his theoretical vacation, we've seen him around town quite a bit. Erik, do you really think that mustache fools us? We're a lot sharper than that, man.

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