An Internal Rant on Absurd, Postmodern Art and Theatre through Stuff about Advertising and Capitalism
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Turn Off My TV.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”—Harlan Ellison

Section 1: “The poet presents his thoughts festively, on the carriage of rhythm; usually because they could not walk.”—Nietzsche

To sum up: life is worthless and we continue to live. Late at night, is there really a reason to go to bed, wake up the next day knowing that your joints will still ache1 , and you know that nothing good will come from the day. I’m not talking a small good like you’re going to engage in some pleasuring activities, like sex or whatever—I’m talking about the really good things, like curing cancer, discovery, creation 2 . That never happens. I am not that person who wins grand prizes or meets an idol of theirs. I am Sisyphus. I am not a secretly important man. This is my life—pointlessly trudging through it though I know it amounts to nothing. All the great lines have been said and all the great stories have been written. All the great lies have been told. I am sure you’ve read the book and seen the movie.

While absurd may originally meant “out of harmony,” and the absurd that Camus uses in The Myth of Sisyphus means less “out of harmony” than that which is more cut off from those things that creates meaning. (Esslin3 1037) Ionesco seems to say the harmony is religion and roots (both meta- and physical), (qtd. in Esslin) but what if there is no harmony and there never was.

Section 2: “The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it.”—Anthony Burgess

Postmodern subject matter in the visual arts can generally be grouped into three areas of critique:

1. The grounds of difference
2. The myth of originality
3. Of historical narratives. (Harrison; Wood 238)

I see no reason why we can’t extend these into literature and theatre, but what I think is key in that list is number 2. Originality is a myth, especially now. The neo-postmodern novels of the past two decades, a type of fiction known as Image-Fiction4 , are simply a reiteration of literary Realism in a world of instant communication, and the effect of electronic communiqué upon literature is to turn the familiar into the weird, whereas with traditional Realism it was quite the opposite. (Wallace 51-52)

We see this in absurd theatre, too. While I’m unsure if True West would be considered absurd, Shepard does focus upon the common, a struggling writer5 and common thief and proceeds to make them very odd. Another theme in the play is wanting to go somewhere, anywhere but where they’re at right now. Ex.: The writer wants to go to the desert. He can’t. His movements are controlled, and while it’s not so blatant as the immobility in Endgame or the simple inactivity of Waiting for Godot, it still, to me, represents a feeling of impotency and of inaction.

The focus upon things rather than speech in Endgame and The Chairs seem to me to reinforce the feeling that we are not what we communicate, indeed, that we cannot communicate, but simply we are what we have laying around the house. It’s not the message, it’s the media. To extend this metaphor poorly back to the central harmony issue, this feeling is the equivalent of not having or owning or knowing or even liking the music but making damn sure you own the CD.

Section 3: “The sun has fallen down and the billboards are all leering.”—Lee Marvin

I don’t think it a coincidence that a major chunk of absurd theatre was coming of age as Television was coming to the fore. The first color TV station in the US started in 1954, but it had originally came into service in Britain in 1936. (Television History) The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco 6 was written in 19587 . This could be a coincidence, but I think that would be even stranger.

Televisions ad structure has changed, too. Children’s things used to be advertised to parents, now they’ve skipped the parents because children make excellent salespeople for the things they need. The typical ad used to involve joining a group, romance, fun, etc. Now they sell to the individual, who just happens to be a member of that group. (Wallace 55)

Personal example: while vacationing two or three years ago, 8 I drove through Atlanta, Georgia, which is the headquarters for Coca-Cola. Me and my girlfriend decided to trudge through the “Coke Museum,” and of course, being hip, anti-consumers, we noticed the irony as we paid 7 dollars each for the permission to wander through, basically, a giant ad. We made fun of the quaint, old-fashioned ads in which people sang about how they would really like to purchase a bottle of coke for the world.9 I find this really ironic now in hindsight. We can look at Coca-Cola’s main competitor, PepsiCo. for inspiration on how, precisely, to do this. I think Wallace says it more succinctly than I could10 , so:

It’s that Pepsi commercial where a special Pepsi sound-van pulls up to a packed sweltering beach and the impish young guy in the van activates a lavish PA system and opens up a Pepsi and pours it into a cup next to the microphone. And the dense glittered sound of much carbonation goes out over the beach’s heat-wrinkled air, and heads turn vanward as if pulled with strings as his gulp and refreshed sounding spirants and gasps are broadcast. And the final shot reveals that the sound-van is also a concession truck, and the whole beach’s pretty population has now collapsed to a clamoring mass around the truck, everybody hopping up and down and pleading to be served first, as the camera’s view retreats to an overhead crowd shot and the slogan is flatly intoned: “Pepsi: the Choice of New Generation.” Truly a stunning commercial. But need one point out {. . .} that the final slogan is here tongue-in-cheek? (60)
“But, Dave,” I want to say at this point, “I didn’t know! I was only 8 when the commercial was on the air. How could I have known?” Is this my parents’ fault for not instilling that sense of irony early? Probably, but that’s beyond the scope of this paper.

“But, Dan,” I can hear you saying, “what does any of this have to do with absurd theatre?” I’m getting to that.

While I can’t give a single over-arching premise of absurd theatre or postmodernism,11 I think I do have something that a most postmodern artists probably would agree on, unless they were being difficult. “The commodity, though a physical object, is a pre-eminent sign of our culture. Commodities don’t just do; they mean.” (Frascina 241) A cigar is never simply a cigar in the Media.

Section 4: “Yes, I do have a Thesis.”—David Foster Wallace

Up to here, I’ve argued, rather vaguely, that absurd theatre is intrinsically linked to the development of both television and advertising, but now I’d like to point out some problems. Namely:

Where is modern absurd theatre? Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter—dead. They seem to not have out-lived McDonalization, and now we have the absurd represented on television, of which the most striking example of is Seinfeld, a show about nothing. We have seen this show board the proverbial skyrocket to fame and integration into our culture. Why? I don’t know, but it’s absurd, out of harmony with the way we “should”12 live our lives.

Sure, intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, and students forced to be intellectuals may go to see The Chairs or Endgame, but chances are the students, who are the future, would rather watch Seinfeld and wouldn’t understand what the play seems to be about. Or even a play a newly written, hip, aware play written by a true artist13 . They won’t understand that, as Beckett said, in a discussion regarding altruistic artists modern art is largely:

{A}rt . . . weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better than the same old thing, of going a little further down that dreary road . . . and preferring the expression that there is nothing to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. (Qtd. in Esslin)
Not only do I like this quote, I think it makes a whole lot of sense. In fact, it nearly sums up my entire paper. Nearly.

Section 5: “When so-called mainstream publishers stop publishing poetry and ignore the needs of young people for poets of their own generation, the young turn to poetry slams and coffeehouse readings.”—Erica Jong

Today, we have artists who don’t really have anything to say but keep on talking and it’s painfully obvious that they, indeed, have nothing to say. It’s not as if they have something to say about their lack of something to say as Beckett said, but it is as if they are legitimatised by their cynicism, which is simply a product of what they are rebelling against.

If that really makes no sense, I will try to break it down a little.

TV has coopted the distinctive forms of the same cynical, irreverent, ironic, absurdist post-WWII literature that the new Imagists14 use as touchstones.” Wallace then goes on about how part of the TV thing is to ensure that there are groups of millions of individuals15 watching through the use of these touchstones to keep the viewer at once attached and divided from his group. (Wallace 59)16

And even our artists have fallen into this trap. Look at popular movies like Fight Club17 , starring, which may have been totally unintentional but I find endlessly amusing, Brad Pitt18 . The fact that this movie was created on the blood money of Hollywood is part of the irony of it being a film against capitalism, et al. They are piling up irony tokens faster than we can spend them or even count them, so much so that it’s kind of pointless to try and so we just kind of ignore them.

I blame this on my parents. I don’t have a reason; I just do.

Probably because I didn’t get it. I didn’t19 see the irony of “The Choice of a New Generationjuxtaposed with the people who are drawn to it like it’s some sort of primal instinct. That’s not choice. Maybe I’m not cynical enough to be intelligent.

Section 6:The Process is yours.”—Skinny Puppy

I was talking to my roommate, who happens to be a painter, about his art, and the thing that was most striking to me was what he said was most important about it. This was not the end result, but the process. His interests lie not with the finished product, which he would probably paint over anyway, but with the process of going to the store, buying\stealing20 the paints, stretching the canvas, photocopying his face21 , getting that photocopy put onto a transparency, projecting that onto the canvas, drawing the picture on the canvas, and, finally, procrastinating on actually painting the thing. He said the painting itself meant little to nothing, but it was creation that was important.

We had that in literature back in the beat days, where people didn’t revise their works. Some people do that now, but now it always turns out awful, probably because it seems so old.

Section 7: “For a smart material to be able to send out a more complex signal it needs to be nonlinear. If you hit a tuning fork twice as hard it will ring twice as loud but still at the same frequency. That's a linear response. If you hit a person twice as hard they're unlikely just to shout twice as loud. That property lets you learn more about the person than the tuning fork.”—Neil Gershenfeld

So, while the painter thinks the process is important, not the product, abstract theatre pushes that things are important, and communication is irrelevant, even distracting. This is also the theme in commercials, if you watch, you trust the product, not the commercial. Specifically, the Pepsi commercials’ message is that Pepsi has been successfully advertised. (Wallace 60) We have been already tuned to that frequency and repeated strikes only seem to create the same ringing message, except the key here is that we seem to be out of tune, but we don’t know with what. Probably with something I don’t understand, which is predictable. Perhaps we’re at a time when even the theoretical enemy of individuality, the television, is telling us we are all individuals. I don’t think the technology will destroy us, but we’re going to have to head for something even more concrete than absurd theatre can give us. Our communication methods aren’t trustworthy. Even this, and the Internet, the great bastion where anyone can say anything they want22 have their trouble with communications not working. The only thing we have left to try is honesty.

The things we own now own us, and while the absurdists just after WWII tried to say that people are untrustworthy because we can’t ever really talk to each other and understand. We’re now waiting, I think. True artists are waiting for some new direction and as they stall, bad artists come out of the proverbial woodwork like termites. Our television has coopted the absurd and the easiest way out is to go backwards, but there, of course, has to be a better way.

And we cant even talk to each-other without already being tinged by something we’ve learned to love and hate at the same time.

Section 8: “I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's; I will not Reason and Compare; my business is to Create.”—William Blake

The possibility that technology may save us from this regression or stagnation is definite, but that would almost be surrender because the machine is doing it for us. I don’t have a real answer about what the next step beyond absurd is. Postmodernism and absurdism are painfully aware of themselves, and I can only see that pain growing as more and more voices pile on those heaps. And I’d like to give you a bit of hope about the future here at the end of this paper, but the truth is that I can’t. The only thing I can say is that TV will go away if enough people will ignore it, and then maybe we can start trusting each other to talk instead of just “show{ing} me the money.”

1 (it will still be cold out)
2 Though curing cancer would technically be destroying it, and therefore it would be a destructive and inherently bad act, but maybe it’s okay to sacrifice the cancer to allow the rest of the body to continue living, but then the same argument could be made by “racial purity” types who think that purity is good . . .
3 Who coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd.”
4 As if there weren’t enough hyphens in this whole artistic mess anyway.
5 Which cost the proverbial dime-per-dozen.
6 Considered by many to be the father (or grandfather) of the Absurd Theatre movement.
7 The same year St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) was declared the Patron Saint of Television by Pope Pius the XII. (I am not making this up. She apparently saw visions of a church service on her bedroom wall while bedridden and was sainted for this miracle.)
8 It’s been a while.
9 Which, at the current avg. price of 89 cents per 20oz drink and one bottle per person (at last count of 6 bil) would come to approximately $5,340,000,000 dollars, which is less than 1/3 of Coca-Cola Co.’s net operating revenue for 1999.
10 Nothing new to see there.
11 Well, I could, but it would be wrong.
12 The way we should live our lives is beyond the scope of this paper.
13 Yes, I realize that this is neigh-impossible to define.
14 Wallace sees this as a literary movement, exemplified by books like My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist .
15 This reminds your humble author of the Monty Python sketch. “Yes, you are all individuals.” “I’m not.”
16 The whole paragraph.
17 While the book came out first, Fight Club the film came out to a much larger audience.
18 Who seems to be lately actually choosing interesting roles instead of his former heart-throb status, like a more robust Johnny Depp.
19 But now I do.
20I don’t know which, neither would surprise me.
22And the problem is that we believe them.

Works Cited

Esslin, Martin. Meditations: Essays on Brecht, Becket, and the Media , Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge, LA. 1980
Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” Drama: Classical to Contemporary . Comp. And ed John C. Coldewey & W.R. Streitberger. Upper Saddle River: New Jersey. Prentice Hall. 1998. 1034-1038.
Frascina, Francis; Harris, Johnathan; Harrison, Charles; and Wood, Paul. Modernism in Dispute: Art Since the Fourties . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1993.
Television History. GizmoHighway. Intown Entertainment. 10 Dec. 2000.
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again . Boston, MS: Little, Brown and Company. 1997. 21-83