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Proleptic Play

September 7, 2010

This side of Labor Day, I’m starting to realize that summer is rapidly coming to a close. I’ve been kicking around several blog post drafts all summer with half-formed ideas and musings, just waiting for that spark of inspiration (or motivation) to finish them. I’d say for every published post I have one or two ideas floating around. So without further ado, I’ll jump in with one of the ideas that has fascinated and eluded me throughout my summer reading, what I’ll call “proleptic play”:

This blog post is an experiment to re-define a key-term I’ve become accustomed to: the “proleptic ruin,” an idea I developed in my Spring JP. As I was driving my brother back to college today I was trying to explain it, and I had a lot of difficulty in clarifying myself. Doing this kind of explanation to someone who hasn’t read your work–what one professor memorably described as a ‘cocktail party explanation’–is very useful, though much more challenging than it first appears. After feeling out of touch and confused when trying to explain the “proleptic ruin” to my brother, I decided to experiment with “proleptic play,” a similar, though slightly less complicated, key term. Perhaps it will make it into my thesis, perhaps it won’t, but I’ll give it a whirl:

For a simple definition, “proleptic play” occurs when a text toys with the idea of destruction–especially its own–in the face of apocalypse.

Though this makes perfect sense to me, I realize that its rooted in a few arcane theoretical ideas and deserves some unpacking. I’ll go slowly, word-by-word:

Let’s start with “play.” My use of this word is decidedly post-structuralist, and more specifically Derridean. It primarily refers to substitution of linguistic referents for one another, in what Derrida calls différance. I am over-simplifying here, but this idea can refer to how the world is incompletely constituted by referents and texts, because when you attempt to pin one down, the whole system shatters (in essence, what I understand ‘deconstruction’ to be). Along with this conceptual idea, I believe that this term can be used more simply, meaning ‘fun’ (using my own sort of différance, you might point out…).

This leads me to the second word, “proleptic,” a literary term. As I explain in my JP, the word prolepsis primarily refers to the early occurrence of a future event, a diegetic ‘flash-forward’ (as opposed to ‘analepsis,’ or a ‘flash-back’). But is also a rhetorical device used to prematurely head off a potential argument (such as “I’m wrong, you say?”).

So how do these two ideas work in conjunction? When united by an idea I have consistently returned to, that the nuclear apocalypse threatens the death of the textual archive, “proleptic play” refers to a text playing with its own destruction in the face of such a catastrophe. In a sense, the text ‘thumbs its nose’ at the apocalypse.

I was first inspired to such thinking by Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow. Here is a passage where Pynchon describes a bomb that interrupts two characters’ rambunctious sex:

Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me (GR 70; bolded words are italicized in original).

Here, Pynchon’s text holds a decidedly irreverent attitude toward the bomb. While it begins seriously, especially with the weighty words “Death” and “iron,” these apocalyptic words are ultimately replaced by the playful imperative “try to tickle me.” That these words are italicized is no mistake, for Pynchon lends typographical weight to words that undermine any serious consideration of apocalypse. And, at the risk of over-analyzing it, it is a funny moment. Our expectations are reversed, and instead of witnessing death, we laugh in its face. In passages like these, Gravity’s Rainbow does not seem fearfully paralyzed by the threat of atomic devastation, but instead is teasingly allusive, decidedly aware of what it taunts the reader with. Moreover, by teasing us with the threat of apocalypse, it wards it off, causing us to focus on the particular instead of the grandiose.

In reading I have done over the summer about atomic culture, I have come across variations on this theme. In a recent blog post I discussed one of the review snippets on the back of my of my edition of Cat’s Cradle:

Our finest black-humorist…We laugh in self-defense.” –The Atlantic Monthly

This concise quotation, as I mentioned in that blog post, validates and encapsulates my ideas, especially the idea of “proleptic play.” Vonnegut’s novel certainly uses humor to cast a particularizing antidote to the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse. Most importantly, it does so by substituting the nuclear bomb for ice-nine, Vonnegut’s re-imagining of an apocalyptic weapon: play in its formal sense. (parenthetically, I wonder whether the late Frank Kermode’s commentary on the history of eschatology in his seminal work The Sense of an Ending might be brought into conversation here, as cultures tend to replace and substitute apocalyptic visions). In any case, Cat’s Cradle is decidedly an instance of ‘proleptic play.’

I’ve also discovered this phenomenon in criticism about the atomic bomb. In his book book Knowing Nukes, William Chaloupka notes that the nuclear issue

seldom intervenes very directly in our picnic and softball game. Most reminders of nuclearism thus take on an ironic or absurdist quality: ‘How can you call that pitch a strike when nuclear war could break out any time now!’ ( 126)

The first time I read this quotation I laughed aloud. Chaloupka eloquently captures truth with a microcosm, the baseball game, in which we have no choice but to focus on the particularities, like whether a pitch is a strike. It is impossible to zoom out’ and consider the possibility of apocalypse: when we do, it becomes absurd. By offering this commentary, Chaloupka implicitly waves away the possibility himself, showing that we cannot find meaning if our scope is the grand scheme of the universe.

Now, my favorite, which I’ve saved for last. In Peter Hales’ article “The Nuclear Sublime” he describes an important issue of Life magazine, in which the photographs from the first H-bomb test explosions were published. An editorial accompanied the photos, which memorably ended as follows:

P.S. As this issue went to press, we were still alive. (Hales 25)

I am still blown away by this line. Written by the editorial board of probably the most important magazine in American culture in a pivotal issue to the public understanding of the nuclear bomb, this line offers a haunting, yet playful, response. It represents on one hand a deep uncertainty about the future of nuclear technologies (and more specifically, about the effects of nuclear technologies on the future). On the other hand it is ironically playful, as it states something we know is true: of course the editorial board was still alive as the issue was published! At least to me, the playful implication eclipses the serious one, and we are left with a serious editorial warning about the effects of nuclear warfare that ends on a playfully dismissive note. The editorial is absurd and paradoxical, and demonstrates my idea of “proleptic play” beautifully.

After writing this blog post, I’m still uncertain as to the key term I’ll ultimately use to describe the phenomena I’ve just described. But I’m also re-energized about these ideas, especially because thoughts I had about Gravity’s Rainbow, which is about as far as you can get from a Life magazine editorial, has proven to resonate in more than just a work of ‘high literature.’ I can only hope I find more instances of ‘proleptic play’ that are half as exciting!

And, because I can:

P.S. As of the writing of this blog post, I am still alive.

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