The Dark and Darker Sides of Bill Clinton. An intermedial reading of consciousness representation and some remarks on multiply mediated experientiality

The Dark and Darker Sides of Bill Clinton. An intermedial reading of consciousness representation and some remarks on multiply mediated experientiality
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Transcript 39 The Dark and Darker Sides of Bill Clinton. An intermedial reading of consciousness representation and some remarks on multiply mediated experientiality Maria Mäkelä Comparative Literature University of Tampere ——— 1.   Background: Literary narratology, narrative mediacy, and textual mind construction The recognition of the omnipresence of narrative in human endeavors and in human imagination has had a controversial impact on the study of literary narratives. On the one hand, the explosive interdisciplinarization of narrative studies has given a much needed boost to literary narratology, which has resulted in various postclassical approaches – the most pertinent and advanced of those new approaches being cognitive narratology. Yet, on the other hand – and I am aware that this is a strong claim – these all-embracing theories of narrativity have made us less sensitive to some narrative phenomena that are characteristic – and, I would even say, essential – to narrative fiction (see Mäkelä 2006 and forthcoming, Tammi 2006 and 2008). Literature nourishes its readers’ narrative appetite with a peculiar set of modal, structural, and thematic schemata, and if one wishes to expertise in literature, one’s interest should be turned to those peculiarities rather than to cognitive universals. At the wake of the narrative turn in the humanities as well as in social and life sciences, interdisciplinary breakthroughs in the literary 40 camp are not to be expected until we are able to get hold of the narrative mechanisms that give literary culture its characteristic shape. In this essay, my aim is to highlight some aspects of the overarching frame of today’s culture and academia, the LIFE READS AS NARRATIVE frame – aspects, that are best highlighted from the estranging angle provided by narrative literature. However controversially, the test case is both non-fictional and non-literary: this paper examines the infamous Clinton-Lewinsky media scandal as one of the archetexts of late modernity and as a real treasure trove of culturally emblematic narratives. This discussion is extracted from my Ph.D. study project  The Romantic Frame of Mind: Narrative and Literary Mediation in Textual Representations of Consciousness  , which mostly deals with novelistic representations of consciousness and focuses on literary narratologies, past and present. As a textual artifact, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is a mosaic of legal reports and testimonies, biographical and autobiographical writing, e-mails, academic essays, public appearances, photographs, and so on. Consequently, in the context of a literary-narratological study, it is exceptional in two regards: first, it is a text made of many pieces, and second, those pieces are essentially nonfiction. Yet, in the context of my Ph.D. project, the Lewinsky scandal appears as a crucial cultural text in the long continuum of narratives on passion and adultery. Furthermore, I go on to claim that it is a text that invites its reader to adhere to frames and conventions that are emblematic of literary and fictional mind construction. In another words, it is a text which stimulates our “mind reading” capacity in the manner of the best Victorian or Modernist fictions whose allure is based on the “who-thought-what” and on the “who-knew-who-thought-who-knew-etc” type of ambivalence (cf. Zunshine 2006, Butte 2004). Finally, I suggest that a  certain   kind of reading of this scandal highlights the  literarily estranging effects that textual and narrative mediation may have on experientiality   (as defined in Fludernik 1996: 12 as the “the quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real life experience’”, and as such, as the core of all narrative understanding). Since the entire Clinton-Lewinsky text is admittedly a messy case, as such it is a most fit and appropriate example for demonstrating the peculiarly multi-cognitive   dynamics of narrative and textual mind construction: unlike in real life intersubjective exchange (people guessing at each other’s thoughts at a staff meeting), in written representations of consciousness the experience is multiply mediated, first by the experiencing I, then by the narrating I or by some other extradiegetic narrator, and finally by the reader. Furthermore, in the Clinton-Lewinsky case, we encounter narratives that are multiply told, and retold in diverse contexts and genres. By discussing a few examples on how different texts and different readings construct the mind and 41 the experience of Bill Clinton, I wish to point out how a text or a reading, instead of celebrating the intersubjective quest for shared human experientiality (“What was he thinking of?”; “His behaviour was understandable” etc.) , demonstrates how the mediacy of experience   itself becomes foregrounded. Just to say a few more words about the narrative theoretical context of my study and the role of this particular test case in this particular context: The aim of my forthcoming doctoral dissertation is to discuss, challenge and reform the various theoretical conceptions of the fictional mind inscribed in contemporary narratology. By combining thematic analysis with an approach to the evolution of literary techniques, I wish to offer a counter-reading of the analogy between “natural” mental functioning and literary conventions (an analogy cherished by most of the cognitively inclined narratologists) by pointing out the “unnaturalness” of fictional mind construction and the ways this unnaturalness reflects the complexity of literary interpretation. As a final test case of the study, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal upends this “natural”/”unnatural” binarity and thus probes and problematizes the claims about the literariness of consciousness representation, made in the earlier analyzes of classical adultery novels and of their modern and late modern applications. How can a true story assume frames of understanding that are characteristic of literary interpretation? Reading a real life scandal from the vantage point provided by literary narratology challenges several major assumptions governing the study of minds and narrative today. First of all, the universalizing view that the construction of one’s experience and one’s identity happen on the same narrative terms as the interpretation of literary texts – a stance taken by most cognitive narratologists and also by some narrative psychologists – may start to seem reductionist. Secondly, the “natural narratology” notion that all story-telling and story-processing is based on experientiality (Fludernik 1996) calls for refinement and attention to the nature of mediated experientiality. Thirdly, a literary reading of a non-literary text takes up the issue of the “Theory of Mind” in literary interpretation (see Zunshine 2006) by weighing the similarities and differences between our basic cognitive ability to attribute thoughts and emotions to other people and our methods for constructing “minds” from textual representations. Finally, the so-called “Psychological Narrativity Thesis” (see Strawson 2004) – that coping with experience equals to keeping a coherent story-line and reaching a “closure” (seminal writings on this by narrative psychologist Jerome Bruner) – meets its limits and proves a lopsided conception of human reasoning. 42 All in all, I hope that the following examples demonstrate that the feature that I so persistently call “literary” inheres in readerly strategies  , and is not in any definite way immanent in specific texts. 2.   Palimpsestuous minds The scandal known as the “Lewinskygate” evoked many far-reaching and contrasting narrative interests, and the focal point of those narratives can be expressed in the shape of one question: “What was he thinking of?” In line with the recent assumptions made in narrative psychology, constructions of Clinton’s mind leaned heavily on the ideal of coherent story-lines and easily accessible generic codes: reading the President’s mind and telling his narrative went hand in hand. Yet even today Clinton’s juvenile transgressions seem both imaginable and unimaginable, his mind both penetrable and impenetrable. This is how James R. Kincaid analyses the difficulties the public encountered when trying to find generic frames for what they were told: Perhaps it’s not our inability to cast Bill and Monica in a pornographic narrative that’s at issue but our more humane willingness to see them in a small and sad human drama. Perhaps it reminds us more of sit-coms than of high tragedy or good erotica. […] We wish Bill and Monica could have it better, since their petty failings hardly deserve the stories that try to get told about them. […] We have a story forlornly looking for a genre. (Kincaid 2001: 81-82) Indeed, the scandal appears as both easily narrativizable and beyond (or below) any narrative causality or structure. A look at the textual representations of Clinton’s mental activity may help us understand how we detect such narrativity under erasure   when reading the scandal. Many of the texts depicting Clinton’s point of view or his experience are multiply mediated. The special investigator Kenneth Starr’s 445-page report with its abundant appendices forms the very core of the collective Clinton ToM: it is a text that serves as a background for every speculation on the workings of the President’s mind. Every text must make take its stance in relation to The Starr Report   (1998), a legal document that spread over the internet right after the scandal broke and was published in several paperback editions. Palimpsest 1 -like, it shows through even in texts that are written in hope of erasing it. Yet the legal document itself is not the scriptio inferior  , the first layer of the palimpsest, but is itself based on other narratives: 1  The Latin word ‘palimpsest’ refers to a ”rewritable” manuscript page which may bear traces of earlier writings that have been scraped off. Philippe Lejeune and, later but more famously, Gérard Genette (1982) have adopted the word to literary terminology where it refers to intertextual practices. 43 testimonies of Lewinsky, Clinton, and dozens of others as well as other evidence. One attempt to rewrite the narrative and rearrange the evidence is Andrew Morton’s Monica’s Story   (1999), a bibliography written in co-operation with Lewinsky. With a poetic flourish that goes rather beyond the legal necessities, the Starr Report describes the scene thus: “A ray of sunshine was shining directly on Lewinsky’s face while she performed oral sex to completion on the President. The President remarked about Lewinsky’s beauty.” This description provoked much public mirth, but Monica stresses that the moment was a very private, intimate, and romantic one, during which for the first time they enjoyed brief genital contact, “without penetration”, as the Starr Report, less poetically, puts it. ( Monica’s Story  : 131) The example nicely demonstrates the rivaling narrative ambitions and “Theories of Mind” at work in textual representations of the scandal. The extract is framed by the best-selling romantic discourse of Andrew Morton (known also as Princess Diana’s personal biographer), an ingénue-  story of Lewinsky in which Clinton appears as “a flawed individual, riddled with doubt and desire” ( Monica’s Story  , 5). Inside the biographical discourse we read another best-seller,  The Starr Report   – or, in fact, an examination record of the initial interrogation of Lewinsky (which, outrageously, happened without her lawyer present). Two genres, romantic (“poetic flourish”) and juridical, both collapse and intermingle; it almost seems as if Morton were jealously guarding his own discursive realm, where rays of sunshine are stock material. Yet these competing narratives are both based on interviews with Lewinsky and the wordings hark back to her romantic frame of mind. Thus the narrative situation seems analogous to those in narrative fiction where the oscillation between narrator’s discourse and character’s discourse creates double-voiced effects such as stylistic contagion or free indirect discourse. This is not the end of embedding, however. Where is Clinton in this passage? He is, after all – as Henry James would put it – the “centre of consciousness” who detects the ray of light illuminating Lewinsky’s face. Although the subject of the romantic discourse may be Lewinsky, the narrative levels (or the “levels of intentionality”, see Zunshine 2006) are “infected” by this banally romantic discourse top-down from the juridical discourse all the way down to Clinton the focalizer, constructing him as a true connoisseur of beauty. The discursive elements make a loop from the initial experiential level (of Lewinsky) onto the extradiegetic level of narration and then back to the level of experience, where this time (at the time of reading) Clinton must be constructed as the centre of consciousness. Such embedded focalizations are common in modernistic prose (Ron 1981: 23-24; McHale 1983: 33-34; Jahn 1992: 357-358; Zunshine 2006; Butte 2004; Mäkelä 2006 and forthcoming). In the above example, structural ambiguity is not a product of one intentional discourse but a result of narrative rivalry between different texts represented in different media with contrasting intentions.
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