an excerpt from THE COMPLETE WORKS OF MARVIN K. MOONEY
by Christopher Higgs
352 pp. $13.99
[Mooney unashamedly delivered this paper—which amounts to a glowing critical appreciation of his own creative work—at the 2001 Symposium for Postmodern Studies, to a room full of colleagues who reportedly felt a collective discomfort. Mooney, however, seemed genuinely pleased, because, like all good Americans, he loved to hear himself talking about himself. Eye witnesses said Mooney wore a blood red cloak, along with a purple skull and bones bandana tied tightly around his head, and spoke with a grizzly (affected) Southern accent. He was subsequently fired from his teaching position at the University of Albania for misuse of funds.]
Organs Without A Body:
The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney
A Rhizomatic Assemblage
“Here is a paradox: it has been noted that academics write in a particular register using a simple structure, employing an introduction, development and conclusion, and eschewing repetition, puns, jokes and irony, especially when writing about post-modernism; use of a post-modern idiom, however, involves the rejection of grand meta-narratives (Lyotard, 1984).”
—Robert Withers, “If on a winter’s night an editor…”
Teaching in Higher Education, Oct ‘97, Vol. 2, Issue 3
Per paradigmatic assumption, your present impulse is to listen interrogatively for what you hope to be a clear introduction followed by the formulaic placement of a thesis statement, that conventionally boring germ of a typically univocal argument, which you will no doubt expect to see posited here, in the opening section, centered neatly for use as a pivot from which to orchestrate my intentions; perhaps you also expect to hear, at this point, a description of Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the Body Without Organs, and a specific hypothesis pertaining to its relevance vis-à-vis the work of Marvin K. Mooney. Then you will certainly expect me to rearticulate and recapitulate this argument over and over and over again until it is made into a somnambulant mush, or until I have violently bludgeoned you into submission through my clever manipulation of rhetorical devices and my ruthless regurgitation of all previously constructed arguments regarding the text under the auspice of them being my own unique revelation.
To deviate from this prescriptive custom endangers a work of criticism in much the same way that deviating from the dogmatic Aristotelian structure of psychological realism endangers a novelist like Mooney: by presenting work which boldly seeks to deterritorialize conventions, writers run the risk of losing readers in all manner of ways: by confusing them, irritating them, or worst of all: by being accused of purposeful obscurity, unnecessary cuteness, or downright self-indulgent cheekiness.
Fortunately, Mooney’s text exemplifies a liberating aspect of just such an approach, one that turns the limited, superficial assumptions of conventional protocol upside-down.
And echoes John Hawkes’s now infamous dictum, “The true enemies [of the novel are] plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking, totality of vision or structure [i]s really all that remain[s].”
But how strange that such an unconventional outlook could also contain the conventional impulse toward privileging the totality of vision or structure; shouldn’t any kind of totality be considered antithetical to the postmodern/poststructural text? Perhaps not.
Remember Stephano Tani’s assertion that in postmodern literature, “Conventions become deceitful clues planted by the writer to rouse the attention of the reader before disappointing his expectations; conventions are paradoxically functional in the disintegration of the genre.” From this, one might conclude that by destroying assumptions through the formal reconfiguration of novelistic conventions (how’s that for a paradox: novelistic conventions), Mooney forgoes all the standard trappings and vacuums out the fetus of our expectations; but then in its place he cultivates a garden with eleven different kinds of bright flowers, which turns out to be a contradictory move, however subtle, for it is a move toward a totality of multiplicities. Unless it is understood otherwise, this paradox gives us yet another opportunity for inquiry.
Thus, I now invite you, dear listeners, to consider the heterodoxical ramifications of a rhizomatic conference-style paper hell-bent on tackling these and other paradoxes while loudly dismantling the normative approach to this genre by proliferating a similar multiplicity of theoretical concepts in an attempt not only to model loosely on the primary text at hand, Marvin K. Mooney’s The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, but also to be true to the polymorphous nature of postmodern literature, and maybe most importantly to expose a particularly abysmal failure of—and inherent fallacy in—constructing lame-ass myopic argumentation with the reductive intention to conclude, summarize, or totalize, especially when dealing with postmodern texts like The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, which in many ways grapple with the very idea of totality. In short, to discuss a work of “postmodern” fiction in semantic terms or in terms of authorial intent or univocal ideology is frankly antithetical to the modality in which we here find ourselves situated. It’s kinda like being president of the Anarchy club, or treasurer of the Kleptomaniacs club. Or to put it another way, in the immortal words of Johnny Cochran giving the Chewbacca Defense on South Park (1998): “Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense.” This text, for example, would scarcely benefit by discussion aimed at proving it is about something because more importantly it is something – to borrow Beckett’s suggestion that Joyce’s “writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” What that something is, and how it functions, is exactly two of the things I am striving here to articulate. Therefore, to proceed authentically while giving respect to the philosophical discourse of postmodernism, as well as the particular underpinnings and flows of Mooney’s novel, we might first approach it by suspending our heart’s burning desire to “make sense,” and instead remember Linda Hutcheon’s salient comment that, “[P]ostmodernism remains fundamentally contradictory, offering only questions, never final answers.”
Never final answers, dear listeners, only questions.
And by its very nature, contradictory.
Just ask poststructural godfather, Roland Barthes (Mooney’s colleague at the Sorbonne), who said, “To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it.” Now consider the plurals of Mooney’s assemblage—roots, books, recursion, alternating chapters of author-reader interaction – a specific narratological flow coined “metafiction” in 1970 by William Gass. But as C. Nella Cotrupi points out, The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney takes a step beyond metafiction, to what he calls hypermetafiction. “In achieving this level of thematic self-engagement, Mooney’s work moves beyond the fictionalized cataloguing of the categories of fiction and of the processes of fiction making; it manages to incorporate and artistically problematize the very issues, questions, and theoretical implications that are at the heart of metafiction and its criticism.” A book that asks questions about the act of asking questions, a book that creates itself by blooming multiplicities.
Now to think, dear listeners, without alerting you to my intentions, I’ve spent all this time gabbing, whilst coyly leading you down this path toward the brink of heavy metaphysical investigation, to the basic ontological question of identity raised by the use of the second-person, “You,” when Mooney quips, “You’re the absolute protagonist of this book.”
Let us take another cue from Beckett, and (Pause). Scratch the old noggin. Rub the old chin. And ask ourselves: what implications are we to uncover by examining such a self-reflexive statement? On the most basic level, it begs the mightiest question of all, does it not? Namely: who are you?
I now ask, dear listeners, like the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice’s Wonderland: Who are you?
And is the “you” that Mooney refers to the same “you” who is listening to me speak right now? Are you, as the ink on paper, the same you who sits now and listens to the utterances ushering from my lips? To whom am I referring when I say the words, “You are the absolute protagonist of this conference paper”?
As the ebb and flow of this line of questioning is interrupted, shifted, twisted, moved off course like Brownian motion, a new line of flight emerges, moving us toward the issue of gender tension. Yes, Mooney gives us both male and female protagonist-readers, but not until halfway through the book do women get their “personhood” in terms of the text’s cosmology. We start male and end male and now it appears this idea has disintegrated and flows into the question of space. For space, too, occupies court in the literary auditorium of Mooney’s creation. Not exactly space in the phenomenological sense that Bachelard might have explained, necessarily, even though content-wise certainly such a connection could be made, but I direct my comment to the assemblage, more like a kind of liminal space existing in quantum terms simultaneously as both and neither biunivocal outcomes to Schrödinger’s famous feline uncertainty experiment, in a space we might call heterotopic. Not the (dead) “placeless place” of utopia, nor the (living) real space as we commonly except it, but rather a third space, an interstitial space, what Cotrupi calls “the grey zone between the world of the text and the actual world itself,” a space that sounds an awful lot like Foucault’s famous mirror example of heterotopia. Furthermore, The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney speaks directly to Foucault’s third principal of heterotopias, that they are “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”
[See: Mooney’s polyphonic assemblage entitled The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, a single artifact containing several incompatible artifacts.]
Perhaps turning Foucault’s theory into practice requires a more badass substantive representation, such as the image of Organs in need of a Body, all pink and squishy and disparate in tone, theme, mood, and genre, just as Deleuze and Guattari speculated.
But first, let’s return to Barthes, who said, “In the ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one.” Now an argument almost begins to take shape, nearly comes into focus. Namely, that which seems formless is most formidable in its orchestration of pluralities. By de-centering the narrative we turn the reader’s attention back upon itself, invariably revealing a rhizomatic pivot in place of the univocal arboreal pivot of convention.
Here we are again, dear listener, back at the issue of convention. Could we complicate it more by pressing against Brian McHale’s famous argument over the change of dominant, from the binary of modern/postmodern = epistemological/ontological? What happens when we find that The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney exhibits both modern and postmodern tendencies by grappling with issues of epistemology as well as ontology: questions about the world as a book, what is that book, who is really behind it, how many worlds can there be inside it, and how is this book constructed? Could a book be used as a Body for eleven Organs?
Yes, yes, Deleuze and Guattari, who take Barthes two steps back, three steps forward, over the hills and through the woods, to their complex theory of the “Body Without Organs,” a term they borrow from Artaud to illustrate a particularly interesting point regarding destratification made by the Danish linguist, Louis Hjelmslev: “[Hjelmslev] used the term matter for the plane of consistency or Body Without Organs, in other words, the unformed, unorganized, nonstratified, or destratified body and all its flows: subatomic and submolecular particles, pure intensities, prevital and prephysical free singularities” (D&G 43).
Now, if we could transpose this idea to illuminate that which signals the pluralities, we would get a collection of Organs Without A Body. Just imagine each one of Mooney’s beginnings as a separate Organ unable to exist without its Body: the artifact of the complete text itself. These would be interchangeable, since the word “interchangeable” implies a specific origin for each separate part, which would account for the distinguishing characteristic of each singularity or that which makes it possible to actually be interchangeable. In essence, creating the question of organization: why begin where we begin? Why not find such and such section of the book first and then happen upon another? Why end at the point when we end? What does it mean to have an encore in a work of fiction? Given these paradoxes, recall D&G’s feisty discussion of rhizomatic flux, wherein they describe the point of subjectification which replaces the center of significance as displaying both entrance and exit, beginning and end, contingent upon the shift of its multiplicities:
The notion of unity appears only when there is a power takeover in the multiplicity by the signifier or a corresponding subjectification proceeding: This is the case for a pivot-unity forming the basis for a set of biunivocal relationships between objective elements or points, or for the One that divides following the law of a binary logic of differentiation in the subject.
For Deleuze and Guattari, there is no beginning or ending, there is always only the middle.
Complicate this further by considering the establishment of the “I” narrator: the addressor who quests for the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind, the one who is both Mooney and not Mooney simultaneously, the one who says:
“I’ll tell you a fucking story but I’m gonna be pissed off about it the entire time so you have two choices: either quit reading this right now, or accept the fact that telling stories pisses me off and watch how brilliantly I do it despite my irritation.”
What an exquisite example of the rhizome, as well as a beautiful reification of Derrida’s concept of the trace, that which remains after something is put under erasure—what Baudrillard would later slap us with: a copy of a copy without an original, which implies the famous M.C. Escher image of the man in the mirror holding a mirror showing a man with a mirror holding a mirror and so on, to infinity, with no way to distinguish the alpha or omega. “The trace,” says Derrida, “is not only the disappearance of origin—within the discourse that we sustain and according to the path that we follow it means that the origin did not even disappear, that it was never constituted except reciprocally by a non-origin, the trace, which thus becomes the origin of the origin.”
Take that thought and stretch it out like warm taffy until you get Delueze and Guattari’s principal of multiplicity, which wagers, “Multiplicities are rhizomatic…there is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide in the subject….A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature.”
Ok, now stop for a moment and marinade on the idea of changing the nature of a multiplicity, in order to increase its magnitudes, by replacing the tyranny of the author with the tyranny of the reader.
Mash that idea with a question Žižek poses in The Puppet and the Dwarf, “Who among us has not experienced when fascinated by a beloved person who puts all his trust in us, who relies on us totally and helplessly, a strange, properly perverse urge to betray this trust, to hurt him badly, to shatter his entire existence?”
Does Mooney want to hurt you? Do you want to hurt Mooney? Are there imaginary people who want to hurt other imaginary people?
Only questions. Never final answers.
—completed: April 2001
Santa Monica, California
Once, when asked in an interview to share his thoughts on posterity, Mooney quipped, “I want to be famous or I want to be forgotten. That is what it means to be an American. Mediocrity is utterly unacceptable. Extremity is the only viable ontology remaining.”