I went a little overboard here, sorry! This is not blog post #2.
Lately, I have been thinking about three pieces of media that I’ve encountered in the past month. The first, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, I know the authors of this blog are familiar with. The second is Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, and the third is Fergus & Geronimo’s 2012 album Funky Was the State of Affairs. As similarities between these works made themselves more and more obvious, I thought I might write something about them! This triangulation may not be entirely useful, but it is at the very least entertaining and hopefully insightful to our technological moment. In particular, Funky and The Circle both struck me as very ‘of-their-time’, and White Noise struck me as still relevant, even ‘ahead-of-its-time’. And I think this timeliness is demonstrated in each work by a common interest in communications technology, as well as formal elements like humor and narrative.
For the uninitiated, White Noise is a novel about Jack Gladney, a Hitler Studies professor at a small but esteemed liberal arts college in the fictional midwestern town of Blacksmith. The setting and plot, as well as the Gladney family’s dynamic, are all quintessentially late-20th-century. SPOILER ALERT: The two central plot devices of the novel are toxic cloud of pesticide by-product that suddenly appears above the town, and an experimental drug called Dylar that inhibits the fear of death in humans.
Funky Was the State of Affairs is a concept album, released in 2012 by the Denton, TX punk band (and Parquet Courts affiliate) Fergus and Geronimo. It concerns a loosely defined conspiracy theory involving intergalactic communication, government surveillance, social media, and Ancient Rome. The inclusion of these Roman elements also nicely echoes the irreverent treatment of history in The Circle. For example, the song “Roman Nvmerals” bathetically lists some of the most widely recognized usages of roman numerals in contemporary America: “Boyz II Men, popes and cardinals/Wrestlemania, monarch ordinals”. The album is also frequently called Zappa-esque, particularly with reference to albums like We’re Only in It for the Money and Joe’s Garage, because of its genre pastiche, biting satire, and frequent usage of spoken-word interludes.
The more I listened to/read these works, the less I suspected that their similarities were mere coincidence, and the more I suspected that these themes and techniques pervade almost all contemporary art, regardless of media, and that the only coincidence was my finding three works that spoke to me personally, and that were very direct and up-front in their intentions.
Both The Circle and Funky see social media as a site of pure chaos. White Noise does nothing to predict the rise of social media, but it does see a similar chaos in television and radio, while also suspecting that as these technologies develop, they will only breed more chaos. The novel already presents a disorderly universe with no logic or justice, but an additional element of self-imposed chaos takes form as conversations are repeatedly punctuated and interrupted by non sequiturs presented as dialog spoken by nearby televisions (i.e. “The TV said: ‘Now we will put little feelers on the butterfly’”, “I heard the TV say: ‘Let’s sit half lotus and think about our spines’”). Even educational television cannot evade sensationalist format, and what little information it disseminates is either half-true or yields lopsided intelligences restricted to whatever information is best suited for television programming. It’s all meaningless and useless, blending into the noise that is the novel’s titular metaphor for all-consuming death.
But White Noise is too distant and intellectual of a novel for any of its opinions to be entirely unconflicted. Funky Was the State of Affairs updates this idea of technology as chaos, while also taking a firm stance in opposition to it. Interludes like “My Phone’s Been Tapped, Baby” and “The Roman Stuff Is Where It’s At”, often feature multiple phone conversations, all vapid and insincere, happening simultaneously alongside the various distracting bleeps and bloops of telephones and computers. But as if that over-the-top, gleefully insincere satire weren’t enough, there are also songs like album opener “No Parties” where co-frontman Andrew Savage affects a sneering British accent to deliver vitriolic lyrics with the type of conviction only punk rock can muster. Lyrics like: “It kind of bums me out inside, the way you stare at me/without a screen in front of you to tell you how to think” or “Collecting devices/You’re paying the prices/Of over-consumption/With mental destruction”.
Meanwhile, The Circle finds its angle on chaos through the central company’s attempt to disguise chaos. The moment where Mae has the third screen set up at her workplace, for social media exclusively, the chaos begins to reveal itself in the form of Circlers’ scattershot notices and events. There are aphorisms from Steve Jobs and Mother Teresa, visits from pet adoption agencies and Nobel Prize laureates, chatter within groups from lap-dog owners to Hitchcock fans, and on subjects ranging from old novelty songs to the 1983 invasion of Grenada. There are no common threads; every bit of information is just as irrelevant and disconnected as the last, and the Circlers take it upon themselves to sort through it all. Mae herself falls prey to this desire throughout the rest of the novel, occasionally spending late nights monitoring statistics and organizing information into something digestible, but never truly accomplishing anything.
What’s especially ironic about The Circle’s treatment of chaos through failed attempts at organization is that as a narrative work with an ostensible purpose, it must do some work, other than pointing out this disarray, to organize it into a narrative or argument. And the sense of narrative purpose, not just in The Circle, but also in White Noise and Funky Was the State of Affairs, appears to be produced through humor.
In The Circle, it’s a dry and menacing humor. Our inability to sympathize with a character who is so easily fooled into joining a deceptive and sinister organization like The Circle produces a disconnect and an insincerity, particularly strong when Mae is being chastised by her superiors, that can only be reasoned through with humor. Meanwhile, the gracefully absurd White Noise leavens its classically serious obsession with death and its pessimism toward the future by incorporating relatively palatable dark comedy (for example, the main character inventing the field of Hitler Studies despite speaking no German). And finally, Funky’s sense of humor is just off-the-wall insane. Its final few tracks offer no closure, discussing police drones and computerized isolation alike before collapsing into the final track whose title is also its only lyric: “funky was the state of affairs”. It’s anticlimatic, sure, but it also serves to say something like ‘we don’t really have any answers, we just wanted to make sure you understand what we mean when we say that the world was funked up.’ It’s a step back; it states the purpose of the album’s narrative without denying its ability to be extrapolated. That way, the ending is satisfying, but it acknowledges the continuation of the environment that produced it.
In each case, what propels the narrative and what reasons through the indecipherable cloud of data we often find ourselves lost in is humor, which makes sense. The contemporary world constantly feels like it’s at peak interconnection, peak chaos. To make a narrative is naive, but if you frame your narrative as a joke, an absurd cautionary tale, you can make a connection with your audience without appearing naive, or on the other hand, scaring the hell out of them.