Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Explaining Patton Oswalt's "Etewaf"

Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever.

There are so many ways that Patton Oswalt's Wired article from this January speaks to The Inappropriate Thesaurus' central mission statement, and so many ways to go about examining it, that I'm almost reluctant to get started. Because if I don't commit to an angle, if I simply keep you loitering in the pre-contextual foyer of this very paragraph, then the joy that is anticipation of writing the following essay--for which I have almost no fully formed thoughts, and which will mostly be screaming neurons shredding through myelin sheath like a frothing crowd of parents trampling trough a Walmart on Black Friday--will shortly give way to the pressures of arranging statements with varying importance into a vaguely readable scaffold, like those of a sweaty air-traffic controller on his ninth Pall Mall.

Okay, so that's out of the way. Here goes...

I've talked in the past about how the internet is probably the biblical antichrist, but Patton goes one further and accuses it of stealing the very soul of nerd-love everywhere. After my first read-through of his article, titled Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die, I was reminded of Fred Armisen's chin-beard hipster on Portlandia, who goes around town reacting with disgust whenever a regular-dude type square is enjoying something once only enjoyed by the chin-beards. But, upon a re-read, the main crux of the article isn't classical elitism, but more that nerd-fervor, once reserved for things that were truly marginal and often polarizing--and indulged in only by those folks alarming enough to get their rocks off on cultural obsessions--is now partook in by everybody, about everything.

The fervor, that is.

Patton wistfully mentions Lord of the Rings, which used to be a secret club for those who could actually read the entire books. But the important implication of the article is not that regular guys at the gym are fans of Star Wars, but that every participant of pop-culture (read: everybody) is enjoying nerd-caliber rumination on every imaginable morsel that sprouts up on the pop landscape. Patton's main thesis is that, with the current array of technology from internet message boards to DVD director's commentary to spoof youtube vids, nobody has to endure the labor of love that was once required to build your "thought palace" in tribute to whatever cultural unit you personally adore. The pop logosphere is being populated by a modern army of shallow experts. The end result is that there's no underlying passion; no patriarchal transcendence gleaned from years of tutelage over your cerebral shrine to The Simpsons or Pearl Jam or Homestar Runner, what have you.

I have no incentive to tape House MD on a VHS every week--like I did in 7th grade with La Femme Nikita, Bill Nye The Science Guy, and Comedy Central Presents--until I've experienced the entire narrative over the course of several years, rewatching episodes many times during the interim. Now I just download the entire seven-year series illegally in ten minutes and watch them over the course of a long weekend like a weird combination of the human passengers from Wall-E and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And the end result is a hapless, well indulged asshole who might as well have just eaten a year supply of over-sweetened birthday cake because... I LIKE BIRTHDAY CAKE! AND LOOK, I JUST PUSH A BUTTON AND BIRTHDAY CAKE APPROACHES MY FACE!

So that's Patton's main concept regarding Etewaf: effortless consumption yields a massive lolipop guild of youtubers, VH1 list shows, and cultural aggregation blogs (perhaps not unlike this one), both lowering nerd standards by obsoleting the forge that once build geek kings, and cluttering the creative spirit away from any drive of originality since you can just go out and play on the pop-trivial swingset. And Patton longs for Etewaf to speed up, because he posits that it will culminate in a type of pop culture singularity--an event horizon at which everything's value will revert to zero, and arts and entertainment will have to start over (for a while, he says, it will be nothing but "politics and farming").

I know Patton is being ironic about this "A-pop-alypse", but I really can't tell which type of irony he's using: the hyperbole type (my personal favorite) or the sarcastic type (the only part of the 90's I don't miss). I would assume it's the sarcastic type, because Patton's smart enough to know that entertainment is such a massive social system that, regardless of how asinine it gets, it will never be deflated since there isn't enough atmosphere outside of it for all of that value to escape to. At whichever point entertainment implodes, it's not going to implode on its own, leaving the rest of America fine and dandy, glad for the palate cleanse. It's going to implode along with the economy and the American way of life. And since Patton surely knows this, I don't think he's using hyperbole irony. I'm afraid he's using sarcastic irony because it seems axiomatic that arts and entertainment--while they may certainly reach some point where they slow their pan-cultural malignancy once most pop entities have over-lapped with most other pop entities--they're not just going to pop like a zit and shrink back down to zero. We've never seen history reverse itself in any other social cross-section, and we're certainly not about to watch pop culture actually turn into a Hindu Brahma. So I fear that Patton's apopalypse is simply his hopeful daydream that will never be realized.

But is Patton definitely justified in longing for this? Is the current mode of nerdery definitely less advantageous than what Patton grew up with? Could his article simply be Patton's version of "You kids today and you're robot servants!" Nobody likes to grow to a certain age and see that certain facets of life that meant so much to us are virtually meaningless to the next generations. We like to have things in common with the next generations because it makes our essential irrelevance seem either palatable or like a shared burden. Lets attempt to empirically examine the difference between a pop-culture landscape in which one must to go out of one's way to saturate oneself over many years--vs Etewaf, Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever.

In 1987, you had your pick of top 40 radio artists. If you were the type to really nerd out about your favorites, they really had to allure you.

Today, a website called Pandora asks you what musician you like and then says, "Here's five or ten other bands stylistically similar to your favorite, you've never heard of them, and one or two of them does better whatever you like about your current favorite. By the way, the stuff that was available in 1987 is still here (available, forever... as it were) but now we also know about the stuff from 1987 that nobody knew about. No, no, put your wallet away. I insist."

In 1987, Lord of the Rings was--as it still is today--a seminal nerd/stoner tome that managed household nomenclature. You read it for weeks, and each book was a triumph to complete.

Today, you go on Amazon and find used copies of LOTR, saving money, and when you go to check out, some magical aggregatrix says, "People who bought this ALSO bought these..." which you can now afford because you found a dusty LOTR sitting in a warehouse in Sioux Falls. So instead of re-reading LOTR, you're enjoying a different book recommended by Amazon that you can compare in a meaningful way to LOTR and gain some more perspective on what you like about literature. You're less of a LOTR monolith, but if it means that much to you, you can always tell well-roundedness to go screw.

In 1987 you were a lucky film consumer if you happened to work at the cinema (which Patton did), because you just happened to see a shite-ton of movies. Otherwise you were only likely to see the blockbusters, and unless you went to college in a major city, the chance of you seeing a picture that wasn't OKAY'd by a dozen businessmen in suits was virtually nill.

Today, you pick any movie or television series in order of how badly you're interested in them, and the internet mails them to your house (but not before showing you recommendations, plot summaries and trailers of five or ten films you haven't heard of, based on your tastes). So you watch a number of different movies and only watch Bladerunner twice per year instead of 8 times per year.

Okay, so we have a wider net to cast in Etewaf, and a deeper net that goes back farther (obviously). But is it really all that tragic that instead of a thousand people having 4 "thought palaces" each reaching a mile high, now a million people have a hundred palaces each reaching twelve stories high?

There's still a heirarchy in the nerd world, and the fact that nerd is now the mainstream currency doesn't necessarily ruin the potential for robust creativity. The emotional attachment that one has to one's obsessions does not have to suffer due to one's obsessions coming saturation-ready. I've discussed Marc Maron's Nerd Cock Theory, and the manner in which the internet simply levels the playing field for all people, allowing for equal cultural opportunity so that only the most intelligent and inspired people will shoot ahead. And in that regard, it's better that we have Etewaf, because a hypothetically reluctant film nerd who lives next to a theatre no longer has any advantage over a naturally curious, sensual glutton who was forced to take care of his ailing family matriarch until he was twenty-four.

And guess what? Those people who have that inner flame burning will always shoot ahead. The nerd army of meh will have to be led by generals. In 1987, the people who are generals today would have been the only ones on the field. Monolithic appreciators and insatiably creative personalities will always stand tall over the din. There's no real suffering in Etewaf because whatever extra effort you might have had to put forth in 1987 will now be used to build your palace wide, in addition to tall. You can be rest assured that youtube mashups aren't distracting the next Kafka. Quite the opposite, I'll bet...

One last thing. There is a third type of modern irony in addition to hyperbolic and sarcastic, and I'm starting to think that this is the one Patton was utilizing. The third type is absurdist. Absurdist irony is simply a statement whose meaning is not an exaggeration of what is written, nor the exact opposite of what is written... But it's a playful, aesthetic dance of unveritable post-truths whose meaning is simply in the--almost erotic whimsy of shared thought. This is probably what Patton does best, which is not to say that he doesn't have important messages for his audience to hear. But the nihilistic glee of postmodernism is a mastery for which I bet Patton is half-embarrassed. Not that there's shame in the non-literal message, but one must admit that it's suitably less importa [the author died mid sentence]

2 comments:

Paul Tsikitas said...

Good post. I definitely think the idea of the internet ruining nerdom as bollocks. if anything, it's proving the point that everyone is a nerd. Everyone.

Dr. Carey said...

True, all though Patton would say that the concept that "everyone is a nerd" is antithetical to the classical nerd archetype. I think he believes that nerd-dom is simply too important to be a universal part of bovine america. I probably would disagree, since we haven't observed a complete cycle of the modern nerd, and have not seen sufficient proof that widespread loss of substance results from Etawaf.