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Craig Saper, Artificial Mythologies, 1997. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. pp. 208. ISBN: 0-8166-2873-4. (paper)
Other Voices, v.1, n.2 (September 1998)
Copyright © 1998 by Josh Schuster, all rights reserved
I expect great things from Saper's work. Having had the opportunity to study with him, I have come to known how engaging and exciting his work can be. Craig Saper is part of a small group of thinkers who realize how desperate the state of knowledge is in the academy, where too often the question "what is called thinking?" is avoided for the sake of tenure, or more often because of the simple lack of the will to be creative. Saper's project intends to RETHINK the very method by which we arrive at knowledge. Is the future of knowledge really in the academy? If Saper stays as a teacher, the answer is certainly yes.
Not only is Saper inventing a theory, but he is creating a method (a world), such that in reading his work one discovers possibility as brutally fresh and near pure potential. I am on the edge of my seat everytime I hear Saper speak--I wanted to fall off reading this book. Understanding this, knowing that Saper's work pushes the reaches of thinking, my basic complaint against his book is for less description and more discovery. In Artificial Mythologies, Saper's explanatory prose will not energize a pack of mild theorists into marauding gang of cultural artisans. One of the reasons Roland Barthes, Saper's main theoretical programmer, is such a pleasure to read is the paraphranalia effect of his texts, his latter works in particular laden with jumbled adjectives, jungle-gym syntax and aphoristic associations. The majority of influences on Saper, such as Greil Marcus, Avital Ronell, Robert Ray and Walter Benjamin, all excellent writer-theorists, all insist on splicing various textures and styles in their works. Saper's book is too close to dissertation prose. Such straight-forward exposition is a gamble (between catching our attention and our understanding) as well as a concession to the skeptics (pejorative use only) who, perhaps swayed and swooned negatively by Saper's reputation, might expect an obscurely wild and carousing critical fantasy. But Saper resorts to a readable, conventional academic norm of "the first book," making an unusual argument in a typical, traditional, and conservative way. Should one accept this hyena in a suit and tie?
The problem is that this is no time for abating enthusiasm. Energy, teen spirit, the will-to-fuck-around, whatever we call it, is easily the most commodifiable asset available, as well as one of the most crucial potentialities which sparks discovery. Saper can advise a method which provokes invention, but if the performance isn't catchy, then that irreducable spark, that moment of contagious wonder, won't spread to make enthusiasts of us all. Manifestos are like advertizing. Saper needs a better ad campaign.
The ability to harness the bizarre, or the left-overs of other theories, into creative production is what makes Saper's project so risky and so interesting. Saper suggests one can abduct (rather than compromise to) the logic of advertizing or other seamy and vulgar logics to expose new ways of thinking. Concerning the fight for integrity and power between the journalists and the academics, Saper remarks that even if the academics "win" by retaining some autonomy (either leftist or rightist), what would be so easily lost in the fray would be means to further inquiry and understanding. Invention, however, is not reducable to an autonomous scheme. The intent here is to grasp the peculiarly unintentional, to open investigation into the supposedly ridiculous, to locate discovery in the margins and mistakes, that is, to pay attention to distractions, the details which usually outwit the autonomous interest. "The potential detours depend on a sense of humor and an openness to the apparently absurd solution." (11) Artificial mythology implores the conjuring of new ideas using the apparently absurd not just for fringe benefits but as integral knowledge generating possibilities. One marginal aspect can serve as an inviting metaphor to guide the curious to new perspectives. Saper says it well: "The logic involved in artificial mythologies depends on forgotten connections, on impropriety, and on truth as an expirement." (29) In these connections as detours, Saper argues, we may very well find the answers (or at least pointers) to even the most serious of public problems. The notion of truth as expirement (and expirement as risk and chance) is a crucial and brilliant example of how Saper proposes to adopt classical logic, with a giant twist, into producing discovery and knowledge.
These odds and ends (detours, absurdities, tinkerings) which serve as sparks to alternate logics are not part of the obvious meaning but they are very much located within the obvious and common productions. Such examples of the marginal within the ordinary find precedence in Barthes's use of the punctum in understanding photography. Saper revives Barthes notion of the punctum to not just exhibit, or cite, but to perform his suggestion, such that "the text becomes a situation rather than a substance." (37) The punctum as performance. As taken from Barthes, the punctum is wholly unacceptable in every known official discourse, even a subversive discourse. The media refer to the expert, the hardy opinionist, or the interchangeable common person. Radicals accumulate a strategy, seeking a practice which can put their program into process, calling all comrades to disperse the relevant ideals. There is no time or money for the fool, the practical joke, shameful flailing laughter on tv, or thrill of the mislaid plan or miscommunication which, when appropriated by the inventor, induces discovery. The punctum is not the "hi mom" slipped into the newscast from the passerby; but imagine a newscast from a position of the passerby, perhaps lost, perhaps just playing the fool, who is oriented not from clues and advice of the expert, but the details and distractions at hand or out of hand.
At this point I'd like to rattle off a flurry of prime examples, but as I already remarked, these are rather lacking in Saper's book. The witty cases, such as comparing Heidegger to the Amish, only lapses into a moderately interesting theory suggesting the strange co-dependency of the worldly and the earthy. Framing problems of urban decay in performance theory and radical aesthetics is brilliant, but the finishing sample of Ilya Kabakov's exhibit, while interesting, leaves the reader hanging, perhaps thrilled at aesthetically linking decay and urban development, but completely at a loss as to what this means.
In another example, Saper makes an intense argument to show how, in one instance during the Gulf War, the media exposed its possible powerlessness by correcting an error which, the media seemed to assume, no one would notice. A map of Iraq used by CNN had shifted the position of the US Embassy, a slip which Saper pounces on to play off of the collaborations between authenticity, displacement and accident. But the case study is strained by the over-investment in the particular map described and not enough expansion and invention into further combinations of mapping and war. The fact that there are no visual aids here and in other examples is a serious fault (of the publishers--Saper has told me he included numerous pictures but Minnesota University Press edited out these key pieces of knowledge and evidence so as to save on budget expenses).
In addition, Saper does not fully take advantage of the logic of advertizing as might be available. If Saper argues artificial myths serve to make the familiar strange, he misses out on the paradoxical momentum of advertizing, which firsts posits the object for sale as strange, unique and original, then inverts that scheme to promise that the object is quite ordinary, necessary to everyone and familiar once you buy it. Saper needs to take that next step which shows how the artificial is so readily absorbed into regular activity (not to insist that the faux is the real a la simulacra, but to point out how readily we incorporate the bizarre and the obviously fake into our daily "genuine" lives). It is important to note, undoubtedly, that Saper aims his ideas directly at difficult, public problems valid to a general audience, confronting socially relevant issues rather than obscure academic debates.
I have called Saper's book a moderate manifesto not to say that what we really need is more new movements, but to point out the inviting potentiality in his work. This book is a guide, a companion to be carried by one's side, in everyone's war issue knapsack, or fit into the back pocket of your jeans. What is both exciting and demanding is the implicit request Saper makes to every reader to go out and conjure up one's own artificial mythologies. At times, Saper takes on the role of a magician, a Harry Blackstone, who can perform imagination right before your eyes. You are easily dazzled by the myth as magic; or perhaps you know better, for you are the sociologist who brow beats the magician into telling you how the trick is done. But the wonder is irreducable, and the theorist as magician who can conjure a stunning knowlegde-effect out of a cultural shoebox is an artist indeed. At stake is raising the stakes to inventing ideas which spill out, flop amusingly, wobble bizzarely, buzz wonderously, trampling through forgotten connections to effectively change the world.
Perhaps Dziga Vertov should have given Craig Saper a crash course in manifesto writing. Vertov would point out how the rhetorical heroism of words such as "must" and "shall," when combined with programmatic and dynamically confident assertions and punctuated punctuation is quite effective in culling the attention of peers as well as disciples. Manifestos provoke as well as program; they provoke by barrage, a slap on the cheek, shoving and tripping in order to elicit a call-to-arms to organize, to discover, to change. A manifesto raises the stakes. Craig Saper has a plan, really an ingenious project, but his book Artificial Mythologies is sometimes just too much plan and not enough provocation. Saper's creative use of theory is outstanding, but his exposition is dulled by downplaying the surprise and underplaying his examples. He has a toppling gist which intends to inject humor and absurdity not as extras but as methods themselves; but in trying to steady his program so as to be a lucid and clear "guide to cultural invention" he forgets his own advice: often, to be lost, to purposefully take a misleading detour, is the best guide itself. This review then is not so much a "critique" (as in "nice try"), but a challenge, a kind of up-ing the ante, to get Craig Saper, or anyone for any matter, to raise the stakes.
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