Каминяр Дмитрий Генаддьевич: другие произведения.

Urbanism, Canada and visual/acoustic dichotomy in Russel Smith's "Serotonin"

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   Dmitri Kaminiar
   Student #995059083
   Wednesday, July 14

McLuhan's dichotomy in Russell Smith's "Serotonin"

   Since the beginning of this course, we have encountered several dichotomies, such as Canadian/American, rural/urban and mythic/materialistic, all of which were highly opposing to each other, as dichotomies tend to do. Moreover, we have proceeded to examine them and attempted to see how they fit into the history of Canadian urban fiction. However Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers may introduce to us several new dichotomies, namely the visual/acoustic and the east/west dichotomies - but do those dichotomies relate to Canada and Canadian urban fiction at all? Since the work in question is called "Visual and Acoustic Space and East Meets West in the Hemispheres", the presence and prominence of the abovementioned dichotomies is not surprising, but the title also indicates a lack of specifically Canadian themes. Therefore, this essay will both discuss the usage of the dichotomies used by McLuhan and Powers and discuss how they may fit in into an urban setting via the `intervention' of Russell Smith and his short story "Serotonin". Finally, this essay will discuss how despite being dichotomous authors, McLuhan and Powers, as well as Smith, do not write really about Canada at all, and if they do, they write in such indirect terms about it, that it probably cannot count as such all the same.
   When it comes to dichotomies, then from start to finish the work of McLuhan and Powers is all about them, not only between the visual and the acoustic, but also between East and West, with West being the more visual and the East being the more acoustic:
   We, who live in the world of reflected light, in visual space, may also be said to be in a state of hypnosis. Ever since the collapse of the oral tradition in early Greece, before the age of Parmenides, Western civilization has been mesmerized by a picture of the universe as a limited container in which all things are arranged according to the vanishing point, in linear geometric order.
   The order of ancient or prehistoric time was circular, not progressive. Acoustic imagination dwelt in the realm of ebb and flow, the logos. For one day to repeat itself at sunrise was an overwhelming boon. As this world began to fill itself out for the early primitive, the mind's ear gradually dominated the mind's eye.
   (McLuhan, 36)
   As the quote above shows, McLuhan and Powers are very direct about their dichotomies implying that West is visual and linear while East ("vast areas of the Middle East, Russia, and the South Pacific" (McLuhan, 37)) is acoustic and non-linear at the very least. In addition, their sympathies are positioned at the `eastern' end of that dichotomy as they make it clear on at least one occasion:
   Without being aware of it, North Americans have created the same kind of violence for themselves. Western man thinks with only one part of his brain and starves the rest of it. By neglecting ear culture, which is too diffuse for the categorical hierarchies of the left side of the brain, he has locked himself into a position where only linear conceptualization is acceptable.
   (McLuhan, 38)
   This tone of disapproval is not too atypical, in fact, for post-modern fiction, especially among the American, and to a lesser extent, the Canadian authors. Admittedly, the term of postmodernism is applied very often to the production of the mass, or contemporary, culture, but that term of mass culture does hold many meanings, and can include plenty of topics, including urbanism.
   On the other hand, though, it is hard not to include urbanism into a piece of post-modern fiction, in a matter of speaking. The term urbanism refers to the cities, and cities in the modern `mass culture' often function as the background of a short story, a novel, a poem or any other sort of a literary work, especially that of a realistic one (as opposed to sci-fi, fantasy, or even historical fiction). Therefore, the reason why Russell Smith's short story "Serotonin" stands out of that collection of literature is that it is written along approximately the same lines as McLuhan and Powers' work.
   The story "Serotonin" begins on a visual note, but here the visual note is concerned about the appearances, rather than about sight, seeing and vision per se:
   The boys watched them with their eyes narrowed, watched their bare shoulders and backs in their tie-tops, watched their little sneakers flash, picking up the black light. They watched how other guys turned their heads as they walked past them, how close they came to them. They knew that Sherry and Emily knew they were watching them.
   (Smith, 341)
   Yet, for all of that visual information (sometimes sounding somewhat psychedelic - the black light, the glowing green bracelet), what Jason and Doke are talking about is sounds, the acoustic information in a matter of speaking: "I know," said Jason. "I know. I've seen Helmet before. He's the best. But I don't mind this guy. It's housey, but it's a clean house. No breakbeats, no cheesey samples." (Smith, 341) In other words, the story - not the characters - introduce the conflict-slash-dichotomy of the visual and the acoustic in their lives, even if it a part of the background.
   Speaking of background, what about the cities, what about the urbanism? It is present too, but again as a background - the story, after all, does take place in the city, in an urban environment, as opposed to a rural one. It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine Jason, Doke and the others live in a village, or even a town - the story's atmosphere makes it impossible, especially through the characters of Rajiv and his sister Priti, who make the story more interracial, something that tends to take place in urban, rather than rural, areas.
   Back in the acoustic/visual dichotomy and so does the more traditional one, of substance vs. appearance. Of the two girls mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Emily is the one who is being described in detail, and visual detail at that:
   [...] a head scarf over her pigtails and looked like a little girl. She had her legs drawn up on the beanbag chair, and as she leaned forward to hug them her little collarbones moved forward, the little points at the tops of her shoulders gliding under the thin straps of her top.
   (Smith, pg 346)
   On one hand, this description is detailed, but all the details tend to emphasize her fragility, her brittleness, not unlike that of a hollow glass figure - one wrong blow and it will break. Her male counterpart - Doke - is constantly being emphasized as being `huge' or at least bigger than Jason and Rajiv. Yet that hugeness too is flawed, for it exists only visually, for acoustically, i.e. when speaking, Doke has nothing to say that could be considered worthy of that stature: ""I am what I am", chanted Doke, pointing at Emily. "If I waddnt, why would I say I am? Chill out, my bitch." Emily was not smiling as she slid into the kitchenette" (Smith, 346).
   Emily and Doke are visual, and Jason, the story's main character - and part-time narrator - figures out that they are flawed. This makes them compatible with McLuhan and Powers' suggestion that the western world (which includes Canada) is flawed too because it is too visual and too linear. Smith is not a perfect complimentary of McLuhan and Powers, the world of his fiction includes at least one more dichotomous aspect that McLuhan and Powers had ignored, sustenance/appearance, but the acoustics play a prominent role too. Indeed, it is during the music that Jason has his epiphany about Emily and Doke, and to him the music (the acoustics) is as real as is his visual reality:
   Helmet cut out the kick drum all of a sudden and the lights went down low. There was just the ringing smash and rattle of the snare and high-hat patterns, and the crowd subsided into nodding, waiting for the kick drum to come back. He brought in a siren from underneath, low and rising, and Jason felt excited, waiting for it to come up. [...] The siren began its climb into hysteria, and the sea of shoulders began to vibrate again, willing it upwards and wanting the booming back, the big driving bass and the thump. Jason felt his shoulders began to jump up and down; the approaching climax was bringing him up onto his toes. "Come on," he yelled. "Whooo."
   When the deep big pounding kicked in, there was a communal whoop like release, and a blanket of hands in the air, punching. The bass boomed, the kick drum pounded, the siren wailed, the drums rattled like a train, like a helicopter taking off. The strobe flicked on and Jason was spinning and soaring. He snapped his body about like a snipped wire, whipping and spitting sparks. "Oh yes," he said dancing. "Oh yes." He felt the beat in his veins like light. There were needles in his ears. His rib cage vibrated, the air sucked in and out.
   (Smith, pg 349-350)
   These quotations indicate the start of the climax of the short story as well as the beginning of the revelation of Jason's, that he did not love Emily the way he loved Sherry, that it was all smoke and mirrors. To the fans of McLuhan and Powers' work, however, the fact that the music, the sounds that Jason is hearing, have substance is more important, for McLuhan and Powers had written:
   For the caveman, the mountain Greek, the Indian hunter (indeed, even for the latter-day Manchu Chinese), the world was multicentered and reverberating. It was gyroscopic. Life was like being inside a sphere, 360 degrees without margins; swimming underwater; or balancing on a bicycle.
   (McLuhan, pg 36)
   As this quote show, despite their general differences, when it comes to descriptions, McLuhan and Powers are not that different from Russell Smith; certainly the latter's characters such as Jason, Doke and others would approve of the concept of a gyroscopic world once they got high on either drugs or music/acoustics.
   Going back to urbanism and urban fiction, McLuhan and Powers however seem to have less in common with Smith in that field than they were above, for while "Serotonin" takes place in an urban environment, McLuhan and Powers' work does not. "Visual and Acoustic Space..." is simply not an urban fiction; it is actually a piece of non-fiction that is concerned with the western society. Its statement that "Without being aware of it, North Americans have created the same kind of violence for themselves" (McLuhan, 38) shows that this work is highly urbanized but this statement is also far from being the main idea in their work, as it is the case in Smith's. As some of Smith's short stories (such as "Desire") demonstrate, far from disliking the cities and the western/urban way of life, he was quite fond of it, and the main point of overlap between him and McLuhan and Powers was the visual/acoustic dichotomy.
   Yet, even that area possessed some significant differences. For McLuhan and Powers, the dichotomy was socio-visual/acoustic, as they contrasted the western/vision-oriented way of life with the `oriental'/acoustic-oriented way clearly believing it to be the better one. For Smith, the dichotomy in case of "Serotonin" was appearance/substance rather than visual/acoustic, but because you cannot talk about appearance without visual `aides', Russell Smith somehow chose to invoke the visual/acoustic dichotomy as well. The result was that he created a short story that illustrates the idea McLuhan and Powers that the eye alone perceives the world as it is somewhat flawed when it comes information, a person needs to use his or her other senses to fully understand the truth. In Jason's case, this happened on the dance floor, during the ebb and flow of acoustic signals, when he realized that he had the true feelings for Sherry rather than for Emily, substance rather than appearance, and has decided to make his life accordingly. Then again, many of Russell Smith's short stories have some sort of a dichotomy in them, based on what the main character wants to do as opposed to what he or she has to do to get on in life, so it all may be a coincidence after all.
   To conclude, in this class, we have encountered several dichotomies already and have examined them, or tried to, in terms of how they influenced, and were influenced by, 20th century's Canadian fiction, and this time it was the visual/acoustic dichotomy as well as the east/west one. In their work, "Visual and Acoustic Space..." McLuhan and Powers have contrasted the visual and the acoustic favouring the acoustic, and in the short story "Serotonin", Russell Smith did something similar, using the visual to augment the idea of an empty, or fake, appearance and the acoustic to augment the idea of substance. Helmet, the DJ who never gets to talk, perhaps conceptualizes this idea best: he may look little and bald, nothing much to look at, but Jason knows, and the others know that Helmet is a `ball of testosterone' and he is the master of music, as the story demonstrates clearly. Yet there is nothing explicitly Canadian in Smith's story either, merely the urban background, but that perhaps is important too, for not every author of Canadian descent wrote about Canada, not too exclusively at least at any rate.
   McLuhan, Marshall and Powers, Bruce. "Visual and Acoustic Space and East Meets West in the Hemispheres." The Global Village: (1992) 35-56. Oxford University Press.
   Smith, Russell, "Serotonin" The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers: (2000) 338-357. Anchor Books.
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