Feral Fieldnotes is a new series on FRC, a bid to document our ideas in progress and highlight work worth seeing. For these posts, each of your editors will take turns rounding up their recent thoughts in light of work they’ve recently encountered. Check back periodically for more!
“The People I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt, all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.” – Michael Chabon, Mysteries of Pittsburgh
We expect many things of our creatives and our celebrities, to push the envelope, to show us the possibilities and ultimately to crash spectacularly. This is more complicated than mere schadenfreude, it is a ritual of reenforcement and demarkation: an establishment of what is “normal” and what is “extra normal” with the emphasis on consequence so that while some of us are allowed to fly, it is only for so high and so long. When something awful happens the narrative searches for a reason, for hints of transgression so that the crash can be deserved. Celebrities and “creatives” are the anointed canaries: the court jesters that act out cultural fantasies so we can observe and record the results.
This exercise presumes a standard narrative which, as artists and agents of the feral, we look to disassemble, a work which is increasingly necessary as the internet provides us with our own moments of fame both welcome and unwelcome. We are looking for new rules, new ethics and I think ultimately seeking something old: kindness and empathy.
This work is deeply necessary but rarely welcomed, thus as Dave Hickey writes on Mapplethorpe in The Invisible Dragon, the best and worst thing he ever did was make transgressive queer sex beautiful.
It’s worth considering as we mourn the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose personal life was, unsurprisingly, as complexed and nuanced as the roles he filled in life and the characters he portrayed on stage and screen. If in someone’s public death you can say there is a goodness, it’s that we’re sometimes able to share voices of fear and surprising empathy among salaciousness.
Author Olivia Laing beautifully explores this notion of addiction, narratives and narrators, both the reliable and un-, and the complex overlaps between journeys, stories, fictions, alcohol and our search for our own origin stories in her book The Trip to Echo Spring. In this extended interview she discusses what drives her own crafting of that particular book and suggests our attachment to social media, while not nearly as potentially destructive as alcohol, might be serving the same purpose and filling our insecurity, loneliness and social unease. As she says: “…I do think that it can be wonderful and connecting and a source of joy too. Though that’s true of alcohol, isn’t it?”
Dwelling on the internet is an exercise in living among unreliable narrators: the stories we tell ourselves, each other and how we reconfigure of our time, our space and our relationships. It’s the kind of complex performance which humans have always engaged in, but writ large as we learn to take control of the medium of celebrity.
In this we find ourselves still, as always, needing to draw lines and formulate narratives, but the boxes are no longer so simple or satisfying. Thus we discover our words sometimes kill people (or maybe they don’t), but as Maria Dahvana Headley reminds us, the story is no longer the most important thing. I found myself considering this during the 8th Co-Present Film Festival, while watching Sleepers, a powerful memoir about abuse and revenge that the City of New York says never happened. What are we to make of this while we more recently give No Second Chance to Stephen Glass, whose author shares this anecdote:
When my eight-months pregnant wife, Charlotte, and I stepped out of a car to walk the red carpet for the premiere of “Shattered Glass” at the Toronto Film Festival, the paparazzi were out in full force. I felt ridiculous as we were showered in photo flashes, until one of the photographers screamed, “Who the fuck are you!?”
I told him my name.
“Are you in the movie?”
This caused me a minor existential crisis. “Kind of,” I said.
“You either are or you aren’t.”
“Steve Zahn plays him,” my wife added helpfully.
You either are or you aren’t.
The work is important. The work is rarely welcomed. Mostly, confronting the privilege of narrative requires self-critical reflection like this post by Computer Science Professor Philip Guo who talks about the magical effect being an asian male in Computer Science. Articulating this magic as problematic (even, or perhaps especially, when we are the beneficiary) is a necessary part of growing up as a culture, but it is a scary one.
This, I think, is the role the feral can take: an ownership through refusing to allow our wings to melt and our narratives to collapse. Sharing the outlier with criticality but also compassion and joy because, as writer Quinn Norton reminds us in Sexytime, Gender Roles, and Credit Where Due: “Both our anger and our magical thinking have served us, but like many tools, they serve to get us to a point where we don’t need them anymore. When we open up these lines of communication between men and men, as well as between men and women, when we drain them of anger and magical thinking, wonderful things can happen.”