Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
Massage from the Dead
Author: Frederick VANDROMME
Abstract (E): Was Douglas Coupland's 1996 attempt to match word with image a successful one, or did it turn out to be a marriage of convenience? We read "Polaroids from the Dead", turned to the likes of Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan to find a satisfying answer and came up with this essay.
Abstract (F): En 1996, Douglas Coupland a publié un livre qui a essayé de "marier" le texte et l'image: union réussie ou mariage de raison? Dans cet article, on s'appuiera sur les théories de Susan Sontag et de Marshall McLuhan pour répondre à cette question.
Keywords: Coupland, Sontag, photography, McLuhan
1. Introduction to the world of Coupland
Together with such authors as Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero), Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Douglas Generation X Coupland gives voice to the concerns of those Americans born in the 1960s to early-1970s, the growing numbers of twentysomethings inhabiting "a society that would rather believe in nothing than accept that there is something special going on" (Thompson) It is an ideology built on absolutely nothing, a post-modern generation with no real values and no real future, a generation stuck with McJobs - which is a neologism Coupland invented to indicate the temporary jobs his protagonists have, jobs with an uncertain future, with little or no dignity and with low pay, it's the archetypal "bottom-of-the-food-chain-job". The concept of the McJob is the perfect metaphor for both the shifting economic climate of the early Nineties, as for the gloomy society with no beliefs that is depicted in most of Coupland's novels.
It is often said that Coupland's ambitions do not go much further than laying his finger on the vigorously beating pulse of the generation he gave a name. In most of his novels he merely functions as a human seismograph more likely to produce sociological exhibits than well-constructed and airtight plots (or: "detached documentary-style prose" (Literature Resource Center)), yet he registers the buzz of our society "with a fidelity that should shame most professional Zeitgeist chasers." (McInerney) Coupland's eye for the banality of everyday life and his unmistakable talent for cultural trendspotting has been his trademark ever since he chronicled the doings of the slacker generation in his debut novel. By simply monitoring what goes on in our world (each new book embraces a different slice of society; e.g. the disgruntled twentysomethings in Generation X, the wannabe yuppie ("a flagrant pop-tart on the make") with an eerie fascination for hair care products in Shampoo Planet, or the computer nerds with an appetite for destruction in Microserfs), he often uncovers its sore spots all the more effectively.
"It's as though I've opened a kitchen drawer and found a Kleenex box full of already nostalgic Polaroid snapshots and postcards," Coupland writes about his 1996 collection of essays and short fiction Polaroids from the Dead. He adds that "in 1990, society seemed to be living in a 1980s hangover and was unclear in its direction." Coupland has no real answers up his sleeve, but he does seem to praise the simplicity of the hippie way of life as some kind of antidote against the nerve-wrecking agitation of today's civilisation. Nostalgia is never far off in the first ten pieces of Polaroids, which portray an assorted bunch of these hippies and neo-hippies (as well as Global Teens (see below)) going to a Grateful Dead concert. The rest of the book contains snapshots from James Rosenquist's F-One Eleven, East Berlin, Kurt Cobain, etc. and explores "the history of the futur" (The Polaroids from the Dead Back Cover) as well as our "fifteen minutes of fam" society. The result is an excellent fusion of Polaroids and text; fact and fiction; serene contemplation and poignant satire.
2. Coupland meets Sontag
Susan Sontag (new intellectual and one of America' s leading commentators on modern culture) has collected some of her old essays on the meaning and the force of photographic images in her 1977 publication On Photography. It is my intention to use this particular book as background material for my critical analysis of Douglas Coupland's Polaroids from the Dead. Sontag's theoretical essays provide an excellent framework for a discussion of the interaction between photography and text, no doubt furnishing our interpretation of Coupland's Polaroids with the extra dimension that is essential for a balanced and comprehensive understanding.
Creating new context
Somewhere in the third essay (Melancholy Objects), Sontag points out that "rehabilitating old photographs, by finding new contexts for them, has become a major book industry." She adds that "a photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading." (Sontag: 71) This, of course, is the exact concept of Polaroids from the Dead; assembling a bunch of faded snapshots and putting them in a completely different context by attaching them to a fictional or non-fictional text.
It is not exactly a closely guarded secret that Douglas Coupland is fond of everything that breathes pop culture. He makes no attempt to disguise his Warhol-obsession and he is the kind of guy that would buy a plastic flamingo simply because it looks "so darned sixties." His website, coupland.com, consists of campy artwork and rock-candy coloured paste-ups, and his fiction is stuffed with pop-culture quotes. Chidley calls him "an Andy Warhol for the 1990s, a spotter of trends and cataloguer of pop-culture artefacts." Coupland, for one thing, loves to parody particular features of the different pulp fiction genres (e.g. science fiction, fantasy, gory horror stories and corny romances). He parodies these literary genres, not with howls of derision, but simply because he appreciates kitsch in all its forms and manifestations. This does not necessarily mean that he reads dime novels in the same fashion a kitchen maid would - like Warhol, he knows how to create a new context around the trivia he processes.
All of this can easily be applied to Polaroids from the Dead, as it is simply packed with pop-culture artefacts, souvenirs of an era which embraces both Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, both Jerry Garcia and Kurt Cobain, and Woodstock as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Polaroids deals with the past decade (or, perhaps more accurately: a nineties view on the past four decades), with the clash between old-school hippies and the Global Teens, which is Coupland's name for the generation raised with Nintendo and Madonna's Disneyland-Erotica; 100% materialistic neo-yuppies simply breathing irony. Global Teens do not care for New Age ("Hippies smell like booger." (Polaroids from the Dead, 7)) and find owning a really good head of hair at least as important as curing cancer. The first part of this book focuses on this clash (the meeting of two generations) and comprises ten fictional stories about people (both young and old) going to a Grateful Dead concert in 1991.
The confrontation of these generations is spiced up a notch or two by the fact that the photographs in question were actually taken in the sixties. And this, of course, is very much in-keeping with Sontag's view on old snapshots: "A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck." Polaroids taken almost half a century ago (during hippie concerts in the sixties) are now given a new context by the fictional texts (stories dealing with a small residue of the sixties in the nineties) printed on the same page. The interaction between word and image displayed here is particularly interesting because it is no one-way traffic; these stories, dealing with the intricate relation between now and then (the punch-up between the Global Teens and the hippies), are given an extra dimension by the photographic anachronism presented by Coupland.
Coupland uses his nostalgic Polaroid snapshots not only as souvenirs of an era now long gone, he turns them into objects of art simply by putting them in a different context (cf. Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades or Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes). Susan Sontag calls it "unpremeditated slices of the world, simultaneously trading on the prestige of art and the magic of the real. They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information." (Sontag: 69) Or, put differently: "Our junk has become art. Our junk has become history."
Of course, there is more to photography is than mere artiness - in fact, most people do not practice or even see it as an art form. People mainly want "to show something out there, just like the Polaroid owner for whom photographs are a handy, fast form of note-taking, or the shutterbug with a Brownie who takes snapshots as souvenirs of daily life." (Sontag: 6) "It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power." (p. 8) In other words, photography often helps people to get a grip on life, to deal with reality or, as Sontag phrases it, "photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something." (p. 10)
In part two of Polaroids from the Dead, Douglas Coupland reflects upon some of the (in his mind) most significant events of the eighties and principally (the first half of) the nineties. A photograph of Nirvana singer and grunge icon Kurt Cobain is enough to get him started on such issues as idolatry and suicide, and a "postcard from the former East Berlin" proves sufficient for a piece about the inevitable decay of our Western society. Looking at photographs is often more than simple observation: it possesses cathartic power that can change our view on things.
Evidently, this is connected to what Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky has called de-familiarisation: i.e. familiar stuff becoming mysterious when it is perceived through a lens (in this case, a lens in its literal sense, viz. that of a camera), because it enables us to look at something from a totally different perspective. In short, "it offers both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others" allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation." (Sontag: 167) The cliché that "a photograph says more than a thousand words" may not be entirely truthful (It is, after all, a cliché), it is not complete balderdash either. Even if a photograph doesn't necessarily say more, it does express things differently. And this difference in approach might just do the trick, it might just be enough for us to see something which we always knew was there, but never really were aware of because of its all too familiar appearance. It is in this way that (some of) these Polaroids have influenced Coupland's world view, and incited him to write about it. This applies to photographs of milestones in history such as the fall of the Berlin wall, but also to trivial photographs of, for instance, the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver. The camera makes no difference; it "levels the meaning of all events." (Sontag: 11)
Some of the Polaroids in this collection, however, have got little to do with the story that is attached to them, and either refer to a small detail in the story or simply display the same kind of atmosphere. Examples are the stick of dynamite and the plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex accompanying respectively the story of the German reporter and that about Palo Alto. The former refers to the anecdote on page 85 (Coupland and reporter find dynamite, throw big rocks at it to try to make it blow up, then decide to just leave it be), but does a whole lot more than that; in fact, the mere presence of this snapshot highlights the essence of the story. "The German Reporter" is about Time, and about the impossibility of bringing the past back to life. Coupland knows that a large part of his youth is gone forever, yet he is somehow comforted when he notices that the German reporter is just like he himself was when he was young ("some form of Dickens-like ghost of myself past" ), and realises that his soul lives on, in some way or another. The knowledge that there is someone like him out there made him feel a lot better: "My sense of time felt, if not healed, then reconciled." (Polaroids from the Dead, 86)
This sensation is echoed in the dynamite anecdote: "But if we ever need a stick of dynamite, we know where to find one. This is not a bad thing to know." (p. 85) And this is where Shklovsky comes back into the picture; the snapshot of the dynamite has altered our perspective and made us read the story in a different way. It has de-familiarised our reading, thereby focusing our attention on the essence. The plastic dinosaur on page 114 and the Palo Alto story interact in a fashion pretty akin to the one presented in these last paragraphs.
3. The medium is the Massage
To take this discussion to the next level, we are to look at the broader picture; i.e. stop focusing on the manifested interaction between word and image and start questioning the medium itself. What this means should become clear after this brief introduction to the former guru of media culture Marshall McLuhan and his 1967 publication The Medium is the Massage.
McLuhan, the self-wrought oracle of the electronic age, promoted interactive media long before the Internet existed. He was a master of aphorisms, and like Heidegger, he loved wordplay, the title of his best-selling book The Medium is the Massage being an excellent example. Perhaps he was making a statement about the way the media massage and pummel us, or it was a pun on the new mass-age, but what he really meant was that once the content is obliterated by the channel, what we say is of little importance - only how we chose to deliver it. McLuhan's belief in technological determinism is obvious by his phrase, "we shape our tools and they in turn shape us." McLuhan as intellectual and pop icon has become a fixture of late twentieth century thought, especially since a computer-savvy generation has turned to him in their explorations for new media ecology. Everywhere his metaphors have new currency, his clichés have become archetypes.
McLuhan versus Coupland
Marshall McLuhan has one or two things in common with that other wacky Canadian, Douglas Coupland, and it might just be useful to explore these similarities before applying the philosophy presented in The Medium is the Massage to Polaroids from the Dead. Reviewer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr once defined McLuhanism as "a chaotic combination of bland assertion, astute guesswork, fake analogy, dazzling insight, hopeless nonsense, shockmanship, showmanship, wisecracks, and oracular mystification, all mingling cockily and indiscriminately in an endless and random monologue. It also, in my judgement, contains a deeply serious argument." (The Medium is the Massage Back Cover) Anyone who has read the book would agree with at least half of this, and it is my opinion that the same characteristics hold for what we could call Couplandism.
Coupland communicates his ideas and thoughts through pop culture references and allusions to the excesses of our consumer society. In this fashion, "the narrator makes his own connections, churning out preposterous metaphors like so many pairs of odd socks that somehow work fine together." (Wright) And Coupland knows how to produce a mighty fine pair of odd socks time and again. Most of his books are written in a dazzling MTV-like vogue, often (as in his second novel, Shampoo Planet) leading to an endless flow of name-dropping. One could, however, ask oneself the question whether his novels are more than hip collections of clever one-liners and surprising neologisms (such as Bambification, Ozmosis and Hyperkarma). Is it mere fun and games, or does this fellow Coupland actually try to get a message across? The answer, of course, is; he does. There is more to it than wit and Zeitgeisty documentary-style prose. In fact, there is a whole lot more to it, but it proves to be not quite that simple to pin the tail on the donkey. In other words, how does this cultural prophet get his message across? How does he create a forum for his so-called psychobabble?
It appears that Coupland has read his McLuhan. Both The Media is the Massage and Generation X, for instance, are stuffed with snappy slogans. For every "All media are extensions of some human faculty - psychic or physical" (The book is an extension of the eye) in the former, there is a "Control is not control" or "Less is a possibilit" in the latter. McLuhan as well as Coupland have been called representatives of the so-called Cyber- or Technoculture - McLuhan being the wise Saint Marshall, Coupland a mere cyberpunk. In short, both have or had their finger on the pulse of their generation, both have used all sorts of media to vent their ideas about the consumer society we all live in, and both have combined this with brilliant off-the-wall humour. In fact, "because of his sharp sense of cultural observation, Douglas Coupland has been hailed by some as a modern day Marshall McLuhan." (Chan)
Massage from the Dead
It becomes clear that many of McLuhan's ideas (as displayed in The Medium is the Massage) are perfectly applicable to Polaroids. To wit, one of the central slogans in The Medium is: ART IS ANYTHING YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH. And this, of course, is totally in-keeping with Sontag's view on photography; "Our junk has become art." It doesn't really matter what you present (anything you can get away with) - it is the context that's important, the way you present your stuff (cf. Duchamp and his toilet bowl). Polaroids comprises snapshots of dynamite, of a pack of cocoa powder, and of (God have mercy) a bunch of smelly old hippies, none of which are really important (let alone arty) outside the context.
Moreover, the essence of The Medium (We are determined by the media we ourselves have created) has already been applied to Polaroids. It has already been asserted in this essay that it is the mere presence of the snapshots that directs our reading; our look upon things has been de-familiarised by the choice of this particular medium (Polaroids and literature). (See above.)
Altogether, Polaroids is, what you could call, a book worth leafing through. Coupland's language is, as always, just right, and there most definitely is quite some chemistry going on between word and image. Furthermore, together with Life after God (which is Douglas Coupland's 1994 collection of short stories), Polaroids from the Dead primarily deals with the spiritual concerns of an entire society. Joe Chidley asserted in Maclean's that, in Life after God, Coupland "strips away the paraphernalia of an age-group to investigate the origins of its angst" In other words, this book (and, indeed, the same very much holds for Polaroids too) goes a lot deeper than its predecessors and tries to do more than simply assess the symptoms.
"Unfortunately," Chidley adds, "he also strips away much of its anger and wit. What remains is the ennui." What remains is Coupland Light, still the real thing but shorn of all its (oh so delightful) frills and trimmings. Perhaps the most conspicuous problem of both Life after God and Polaroids is the fact that the narrator of each of the stories has the same monotonous (almost nagging) voice. Even though there are eight stories and eight different narrators in Life after God, the mind style never really changes throughout the book. Brenda Peterson calls it "a sour Prufrock on Prozac, measuring out his 30-odd years in teaspoon-sized stories." The first part of Polaroids has, in its turn, ten stories with as many different narrators, and pretty much the same phenomenon occurs.
Polaroids' Second Major Flaw is its somewhat conventional layout; it is too much picture on the left page and story on the right page, whereas it could have been a whole lot more than that. Coupland's big example Marshall McLuhan is the real innovator. In The Medium is the Massage, for instance, text and image really merge, resulting in a delightfully non-linear spectacle that really blows one's toupee off. It is, to say the least, a tad more exciting than Polaroids. But don't let that spoil all the fun, just sit back and enjoy the ride, even if it does only go ten miles an hour, like this one.
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