Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation (2015)
Within, Aside, and Too Much
On Parentheticality across Media
The previous chapter delineates the period’s ubiquity across the visual culture of digital media, arguing that it serves as a periodizing tool for digital culture in general but that its shifting roles also serve as periodizing tools for specific phases of the Internet’s history. This chapter similarly takes a single punctuation mark, the parenthesis, as a reading lens to think through the broader textual shift associated with the emergence of digital media and its visual culture. As we will see, the parenthesis presents continuities that bolster the book’s broader inquiry into the cultural logic of punctuation in the computer age. Like the period, following the parenthesis allows one to trace a parallel paradoxical visual ubiquity but cognitive neglect of punctuation. Yet it also presents noteworthy differences that draw attention to the specificity of the mark and the ideas it gives rise to, which in turn brings the specificity of the period into sharper focus at the same time. Indeed, the parenthesis inscribes a particular logic that is all its own, found in distinct aesthetic, epistemological, and media contexts. If the period is more tied to a corporate, global aesthetic of digital media’s innovation ideologies and postindustrial capitalism, exemplary of what Alan Liu refers to as “information cool,” the parenthesis, by contrast, is more apposite to what could be identified as a relative warmth — offering a textual hug — and a logic of alternativity.1
Yet this is not to say that parentheses are only found in the margins of culture or are exempt from information cool. On the contrary, parenthetical symbols are largely continuous with the aesthetic. Though we might not think about them much, they are everywhere throughout contemporary media cultures. Think of the smiles and frowns of emoticons, the iconography used for volume control on iPods and MacBooks, the “(RED)” stamp affixed to commercial products that donate money to fight AIDS in Africa, the presentation of “texts from last night” on the amusing website of the same name by area codes in parentheses, and even the laurels that on a film’s poster announce its placement and prizes awarded in prestigious festivals. With the proliferation of information about media, too, certain secondary types of details are generally contained by parentheses, such as a movie’s running time or rating, the name of a guest musical artist featured on a pop track, or a book’s publication information in scholarly citations. Parentheses would seem to be in the most obvious sense of the term floating signifiers, helping to both manage and complicate information, alternately evoking an air of distinction, an independent quirk, the banal, or the cute, along with the gimmicky aesthetics that sometimes accompany these features at the same time, a paradoxical set of qualities perhaps best illustrated by their use in intertitles throughout the stylized romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb, U.S., 2009) to alert us to the film’s disjointed presentation of different days of its protagonists’ (non)relationship.
Figure 14. One of many parenthesized intertitles structuring the disjointed narrative of (500) Days of Summer
It was not until 2012 that a Google search for a parenthetical mark began to retrieve results for it, and still as of this writing in 2014, somewhat curiously, the top site a search for a single parenthetical mark currently leads one to is Wikipedia’s entry for “bracket.” This years-long failure to retrieve offers an instructive lesson about what we might think of as the parenthetical’s null value, which is perhaps even more effectively illustrated by the frequent scripting of empty parentheses in computer code that many everyday programmers widely perceive as perplexingly useless. Attending to the parenthesis activates movement toward moments beyond the text and drives that have been contained. Such attention also gestures toward a set of questions the parenthetical raises that are particularly related to “new media,” a category this chapter in particular will consider and problematize.
Scanning the areas where the parenthesis leads our thought, this chapter employs a mode of critical reading that shuttles between the literal and the figurative (the parenthesis and the “parenthetical”), accounting for epistemological and aesthetic interactions among language, the moving image, and theory in our current moment. In part this reading demonstrates, if in a necessarily aleatory manner, that parentheses have grown in cultural significance, appearing as mechanisms that signal the undecidability, hubris, and materiality of the textual condition. The parenthetical in this sense delineates a conceptual genealogy of postmodernist aesthetics that connects not only issues of writing and language but also of deconstruction, contingency, authority, sound, humor, cultural anxieties, sexuality, narrative, and independent modes of creative production and distribution.
The parenthesis in particular frames that which is set aside within the logic of a given textual protocol, perceived to be too much to handle yet too important to delete. Pursuit of this punctuation mark and the particular cluster of characteristics it represents forges valuable critical space within which we can think through the definitions of new media and especially the roles of theory and analysis in relation to them. The parenthesis — an inscription that separates insides and outsides and that calls into question the boundaries between them — moves between digital and nondigital, new and not new, and ultimately helps to trouble and shift the distinctions we make in defining and desiring these categories.
Derrida and Deconstruction: The Paren(t’s) Thesis?
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is, depending on the edition, usually at least 300 pages long. In an essay examining the significance of the book’s parentheses, Duncan White writes that Lolita “is certainly a haven for charged punctuation and more specifically a novel that teems with parentheses: there are a staggering 450 bracketed-parentheses in the novel (that is, opposed to rhetorical asides, apostrophes, and other rhetorical parentheses contained between dashes or commas). This abundance intrigues.”2 By contrast, consider Derrida’s “Signature Event Context.”3 By my count, this twenty-one-page essay contains 191 bracketed-parentheses. “Signature Event Context” is, by the most generous estimate, no more than one-tenth the length of Lolita, and it features almost half as many parentheses. If Nabokov’s use of parentheses is “staggering,” how does one begin to qualify Derrida’s?
No doubt, such a comparison must be taken with a grain of salt; certainly fiction and theory are very different kinds of writing. However, these figures provocatively suggest that, if one can attend to closely reading Nabokov’s parentheses, one way to begin tackling how to read Derrida’s difficult writing might be situated in considering the significance — indeed, the necessity — of his reliance on parenthetical form. Probing this issue also stands to offer some insight into practices of critical theory within academic culture, which have themselves inherited parenthetical affectation to a “staggering” degree. This inheritance undoubtedly owes a great deal to Derrida’s legacy, writing style, and philosophy.
Many of Derrida’s parentheses in “Signature Event Context” do not take on the form of general asides or clarifications, although most do. Many take on the form of enumeration (a parenthesis following a number in a list), many are translations, some are parentheses within parentheses (designated by brackets), and a few are page references. Some are signed clarifications or remarks, such as the parenthetical signature that closes the essay, and some reflexively call attention to their own parenthetical nature, as in this passage:
It seems self-evident that the ambiguous field of the word “communication” can be massively reduced by the limits of what is called a context (and I give notice, again parenthetically, that this particular communication will be concerned with the problem of context and with the question of determining exactly how writing relates to context in general).4
The fact that Derrida is writing about writing — and in sections such as this, parenthesizing about parentheses — registers his deliberate grammatical style. In Derrida’s characteristically performative mode, the reflexive parenthetical of the above passage seems to help answer our question regarding the significance of Derrida’s reliance on the parenthetical.
If, as Derrida directs us in the parentheses, the ambiguity of “communication” is tied up in the matter of “determining exactly how writing relates to context,” then parenthetical form seems to be a textual metonym that foregrounds the difficulty in thinking through writing’s riddled relationship to context. By this I mean to say that the parenthetical is a form that, within written text itself, invites one to question how writing relates to context, since it sets apart, disrupts, or postpones the space of the “primary” writing. It seems safe to say that part of the reason parentheses are important for Derrida is that they displace. They displace the flow and authority of the nonparenthetical.
This sort of parenthetical displacement is critical to Derrida’s project of deconstruction, as he describes it in this essay. He writes,
Deconstruction does not consist in moving from one concept to another, but in reversing and displacing a conceptual order as well as the nonconceptual order with which it is articulated. For example, writing, as a classical concept, entails predicates that have been subordinated, excluded, or held in abeyance by forces and according to necessities to be analyzed. It is those predicates (I have recalled several of them) whose force of generality, generalization, and generativity is liberated, grafted onto a “new” concept of writing that corresponds as well to what has always resisted the prior organization of forces, always constituted the residue irreducible to the dominant force organizing the hierarchy that we may refer to, in brief, as logocentric.5
In this passage, Derrida writes about the importance of working —or, more specifically, writing — within the conceptual order, but of simultaneously “displacing” it from within. This act of conformity and nonconformity, of reversal and displacement, is central to Derrida’s performance and theorization of language. Following this passage, which comes at the end of the essay, he goes on to suggest that in referring to his own work as “writing,” he has engaged in this very act of reversal and displacement with writing itself. While there is always meaning in writing, there is also always a field of forces in which writing generates more than meaning; writing is, in Derrida’s language, “non-saturated” (“generality, generalization, and generativity” — the generation of the “genera-” in his phrase is a continuing expansion and mutation of language, signaling the precariousness of generalization, which slipperily turns on itself — as a generative act of production and as a generalizing act of category-covering, of contextualizing in a broader sense).6
In Derrida’s spirit, then, parentheticality can name a philosophical concept that borrows a typographical metaphor to strain upon the limits of non-saturation, as a way to explore how language, grammar, and displacement might apply to figuring activity in the cultural realm. Parenthesis, in Greek, means “to place in beside.” What, in culture — in our lived practices and relations — is placed in beside? The use of parentheses brings to mind subordination and displacement in discourse, as by definition, they can, but need not, displace grammatical order. Historically, too, attention to them seems to be best characterized by subordination. Theodor Adorno, in his essay on punctuation, contemptuously issues a caveat against their use: “The test of a writer’s sensitivity in punctuating is the way he handles parenthetical material. The cautious writer will tend to place that material between dashes and not in round brackets . . . , for brackets take the parenthesis completely out of the sentence, creating enclaves, as it were, whereas nothing in good prose should be unnecessary to the overall structure. By admitting such superfluousness, brackets implicitly renounce the claim to the integrity of the linguistic form and capitulate to pedantic philistinism.” He proceeds to liken the use of parentheses to “shutting” language “up in a prison.”7
Figure 15. Parenthetical proliferation: a photograph of four pages of Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” side by side, with text whited out and just parentheses highlighted
In another essay examining rhetoric about parentheses, mostly in literary handbooks, Robert Grant Williams observes that “the parenthesis exemplifies the marginalization of certain figures —particularly schemes — since not only has little been said about the parenthesis, but what has been said . . . sounds strikingly denigrating and dismissive. From the Renaissance to the present, value judgments have obfuscated the ways in which the parenthesis generates meaning, and often have wheedled themselves into definitions of this figure.”8
Consider two examples from recent cinema and film criticism. At the end of Roger Ebert’s four-star review of (500) Days of Summer, he includes a “note” to his readers: “The movie’s poster insists the title is ‘(500) Days of Summer.’ Led by Variety, every single film critic whose review I could find has simply ignored that punctuation. Good for them.”9 Or, in a pivotal scene from another of 2009’s most critically acclaimed films, Up in the Air, Ryan (George Clooney) discovers that Alex (Vera Farmiga), with whom he has been having an affair, has a family she did not tell him about. Immediately afterward we see Ryan (figure 16), looking down and riding in a train, receive a mobile call from Alex, inside a parked car. She says, “I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape, you’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.” Ryan responds, “I’m a parenthesis.” Alex: “I mean, what do you want? Tell me what you want.” The sequence cuts to Ryan, forlorn, unable to speak. We return to Alex: “You don’t even know what you want.” She goes on, while Ryan, holding back tears and unable to say more, hangs up in silence. In a film widely praised for its screenplay, this is one of the most cited scenes, referred to in various commentaries as the “parenthesis scene.” Joseph Natoli reads it as containing the movie’s moral: “One way of looking at the movie — call it the ‘constructive’ way — is to think that Bingham learns in the course of the movie that when you avoid the serious in life no one makes you a serious part of their life. You become as Alex, a woman he assumes is as totally an air borne wanderer as himself, no more than a parenthesis in another’s life.”10 The parenthesis, in other words, is a metaphor for the metaphor of the film’s title and theme: being “up in the air,” living lives increasingly in transit and online, connected but disconnected. Whether or not we find the scene as heartbreaking as we are supposed to, there is no question that Farmiga’s comment is a devastating blow for Clooney, signaling the slightness of his place in her life.
We might bring such popular perceptions into contact with theoretical arguments for the productivity of studying marginalization and think about what Williams identifies as the parenthesis’s “marginalization”; we might, in effect, read the parenthesis into intellectual histories. Foucault writes, for example, “Silence itself —the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers — is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within overall strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things.”11 Foucault’s stress on the different ways in which silence operates “alongside” and “within” nonsilences, and its not operating in terms of strict separations and boundaries resonates in the context of a consideration of the parenthetical, as curved lines whose very shape resists rigid, linear boundaries, and as a punctuational structure that brings into flux the boundaries between saying and not saying things.
Figure 16. George Clooney as Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air’s “parenthesis scene”
To invoke a common example of this latter point, observe whether when a speaker reads passages of texts aloud, the reader chooses to articulate parenthetical text or to skip over it. She or he often pauses briefly and seems uncertain as to whether or not to read it. Regardless of whether it is spoken, most of us following along likely read the parenthetical text. Why is it that we read the parenthetical but only sometimes speak it? This uncertainty indicates that parenthetical text is an intriguing case for thinking about the ways we imagine the relationships that exist between silence, (declining) speech, writing, reading, and their dynamic discursive fields.
Within parentheses, the writer can get away with writing what he might not otherwise be able to write outside of them (a joke, a value judgment). Writers can use them to write something that crucially clarifies what they might not have felt was appropriate to explain outside of them. Writers can use them to displace not only grammar but also their tone of address. Finally, it seems that in parenthetical space, the writer is also allowed to convey herself as a noncohesive subject. In readings throughout the Nietzschean genealogy of cultural theory through Foucault and Derrida, one can observe the importance of this writing strategy, which one might trace back to the incertitude and reflexivity of Nietzsche’s own writing, in which the text’s author engages in conversation with himself, doubting the authority or coherence of what the writer just wrote. Nietzsche writes in Genealogy of Morals, for example, “Am I understood? . . . Have I been understood? . . . ‘Not at all my dear sir!’ — Then let us start again from the beginning.”12 He then proceeds to start his essay over again. While this text is not physically in parentheses, one might certainly understand it as interrupting the text and its movement in a parenthetical manner. In fact, one might make sense of much of a work such as Genealogy of Morals by applying the notion of parentheticality to it, as the text hovers between different tones and voices, without always distinguishing them from one another grammatically.
Parentheticality does not occur only in written texts; its recessive generativity offers a framework for moving beyond the text and thinking through other, nontypographical things that circle in its conceptual orbit: comedy, sexuality, narrative form, affective cues, value relations, cultural hierarchies, and taboos. In the next two sections of this chapter, I turn to two primary examples from audiovisual media in American culture: the sitcom laugh track and the film Me and You and Everyone We Know. In divergent ways, both cases seem apposite to the concept of parentheticality in literal, textual, and cultural senses of the term. Even though typography figures in both cases, there is no reason why parentheticality needs to draw upon written parentheses; here they add texture to thinking about the concept’s dynamics.
(Laugh track.): Parenthetical Anxieties
How, then, might the logic of parentheticality take shape as a cultural form? Its logic is particularly resonant in the intersection of comedy and sound: the parenthesis as a structure, as we have observed, is especially suggestive of the relationship between sound and silence; and on top of this, the parenthetical is a textual site where a joke can take place, where the text is able to laugh at its own discourse and puncture its own seriousness. For these reasons, the televisual laugh track could be understood to be an exemplary manifestation of parenthetical cultural logic.
When asked by a BBC reporter to compare deconstructionist philosophy to Seinfeld, Derrida, seemingly taken off guard and unfamiliar with the series, responded, “Deconstruction in the way I understand it doesn’t produce any sitcom. And if sitcom is this, and people who watch this think that deconstruction is this, the only advice I have to give them is just read, stop watching sitcom and try and do your homework and read.”13 While his response implies that popular television was outside his field of interest and not of significance to understanding his philosophy, in this quick dismissal, Derrida might have given the endless openness of his philosophy more credit. The ideas we have just revisited and developed in relation to the parenthetical resonate particularly when we pause to take the laugh track seriously. Moreover, the cultural anxieties the track registers open up a line of thought upon which we can consider the status of new media and its relation to the parenthetical — itself offering a parenthesis of sorts within this book’s broader focus on the digital.
There is a volume of television criticism, The Show and Tell Machine, written by Rose Goldsen, that speaks to the laugh track’s stigmatization in popular culture. In her brief chapter on the laugh track, Goldsen goes into great detail about how the laff box works. She explains how it is played like an organ, that it can make almost an infinite number of different laughing sounds, and that it requires high-level skill to operate. She then writes about the laugh track in animated series:
The laugh track is built into the factory-made animations no less than the shows performed by live-on-film actors performing before live-on-film audiences. Bugs Bunny engages in his usual antics with Elmer Fudd. (Laugh track.) An animated doctor car pours medicine into the carburetor of an animated car that is ill. (Laugh track.) A bumbling Great Dane is chased by a caveman. (Laugh track.) The Addams Family enters a baking contest and uses alligator eggs to make the batter. (Laugh track.) Pebbles and Bamm Bamm are chased by a weird-looking prehistoric creature. (Laugh track.)14
Goldsen describes various scenes of animated gags. Then, after each sentence, “laugh track” gets its own grammatically incomplete, parenthetical sentence. The words are repeated identically each time, even though she acknowledges in the same pages that the possible sounds it can generate are nearly infinite. In other words, she never writes, “(Guffaws.)” or “(Explosion of whoopers.),”15 only “(Laugh track.).” This writing of the laugh track seems to reflect how we imagine the track parenthetically — invariably, grammatically separate, an aside.
Goldsen’s literal parentheses bring to mind a more figurative parentheticality that helps make sense both of the laugh track’s sonic suturing into the rhythm of the sitcom and of its place in cultural consciousness more generally. The sound of prerecorded laughter, coming from the position of the audience — structured into the soundtrack of the television program — interrupts or displaces the principal flow of the program. But at the same time, its very interruption becomes integral to a show’s flow, in a manner similar to the function of a parenthetical in a written sentence. In this spirit, Rick Altman has referred to the laugh track in passing as an “audience within the spectacle.”16Indeed, the idea of the parenthetical as a form that allows for the shifting of the cohesion of the articulator within the articulated is very much in line with Altman’s characterization of the laugh track — and with Derrida’s theory of writing, as well.17
One of the most notable opponents of the track was Larry Gelbart, M*A*S*H’s creator and writer. Gelbart adamantly protested the track’s deployment in the series with CBS network executives, who wanted to use it consistently throughout the show. CBS eventually decided to compromise and agreed to keep it out of scenes that took place in the operating room, but they insisted that it be engineered into all other scenes.
Gelbart’s M*A*S*H production files contain a manuscript written by him in pencil, which reads:
Gene [Reynolds] and I fought two of life’s unnatural forces, the network and the studios, for the right to deal with bolder subjects than they were inclined to allow. We wanted to explore the effects of violence, examine pro-war attitudes, adultery, pain and death, impotence, homosexuality, race relations, a never-ending list of topics not generally considered subject for comedy.
Most of those battles we won (as our ratings climbed, network resistance fell). Our most notable loss was on the matter of the laugh track.
that insidiious practise, They CBS would never let us do away with it no matter what other compromises they were willing to make. So there it is, on almost every episode, a machine reacting a recording of recorded reaction to every funny line, a good many people guffawing at material they never heard, a good many of them long dead. The only thing I ever learned from the track was that while I can’t be sure of life, we all have a chance at a laugh after death.
Except for that, we achieved a creative freedom that is unheard of in the medium. We needed as much as we could get, for there was an ongoing restlessness about trying different ways to dramatize our material.18
Gelbart’s own cross-outs in his description of the laugh track (not unlike Goldsen’s writing of the track) can be taken as symptomatic of its aside-ness in cultural discourse. Moreover, these notes take on an even more striking position of parentheticality in the context of their relationship to their own transfer to publication. The specifics of this history were not deemed necessary enough to tell M*A*S*H’s “complete” history, as it is excluded from Suzy Kalter’s quotations of Gelbart’s words in the essay “The Making of M*A*S*H,” which she includes in her The Complete Book of M*A*S*H. What she attributes to Gelbart in the essay instead is the following:
“The network was not anti about our being anti-war. They were antiheavy and antiserious,” Larry Gelbart says. “Most of our battles with them stemmed from the fact that we wanted to veer so far from what was considered half-hour comedy. They called us up periodically to have it out with us. While the cast and crew were out at the Fox Ranch fighting the elements, Gene and I fought two of the most unnatural forces in the world — the network and the studio — for the right to deal with bolder and more serious subjects than they were inclined to allow, like the effects of violence, adultery, amputation, derangement, impotence, homosexuality, transvestism, and interracial marriage. Most of the battles with Army brass on the screen came out of our battles with the network.”19
Read in juxtaposition to Gelbart’s note in the original manuscript about the laugh track being their “most notable” lost battle with the network, his reference in the published material to wanting to break free from conventions of half-hour sitcom is clearly primarily about the laugh track. It is quite telling that the very documentation of this debate is left unarticulated in the official version of his words. The laugh track’s omission here resonates with its underregarded status in popular culture and, for media scholars, also with its largely overlooked position as an object of media studies.
Historically, the deployment of the track and its reception have been bound up with anxieties that might be characterized, and made sense of, by the track’s being haunted by the sounds of possibly dead people laughing. As Gelbart’s notes suggest, it seems that these anxieties (among others) are closely connected to the ways in which we tend to overlook and disdain its presence in sitcoms. The presence or absence of the laugh track in a TV series often becomes an inverse marker of how publics perceive the show’s quality.20 This is increasingly an especially popular and accepted opinion today, as many contemporary, critically acclaimed comedies — The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and The Office, to name a few — do not deploy the track. This more social and historical characteristic of the laugh track, too, seems capable of benefiting from a conceptualization of parentheticality: recall Robert Williams’s observation that the “parenthesis exemplifies the marginalization of certain figures.”21
Indeed, the laugh track seems to mark American cultural imagination as something that is best forgotten and ignored: in a Derridean sense, as a sort of structured absence, as a parenthetical. In one of the only published historical analyses of recorded laughter, Jacob Smith writes, “the laugh has been presented as the ultimate expression of the human, and its mechanical reproduction serves as a lightning rod for anxieties concerning authenticity and the social dimensions of mass media consumption.”22 To extend Smith’s convincing and researched argument, I would propose that the laugh track likely becomes worth overlooking discursively as a means of managing the anxieties that it induces and reveals. These are fundamentally about sonic nonsaturation and the uncertainty of context — the possibility, for example, of hearing a long-disassembled audience’s laughter recorded at a Red Skelton Show pantomime skit, worked into the rhythm of Americans fumbling through the Korean War (by a sound engineer in a Fox studio in the 1970s), and then heard in a rerun syndicated for your home entertainment in the twenty-first century.23 On DVD, viewers have the option of turning M*A*S*H’s laugh track off entirely, adding a new dimension to the unresolved debates and anxieties indexed by these documents’ parentheses, cross-outs, and neglected words.
In other words, by dint of its status as recorded and reusable, fixed and moving, the laugh track’s temporality extends indefinitely, much like Derrida’s theorization of writing’s ontology. Here, this case study of the laugh track’s parentheticality stands to offer perspective on and pose questions about our conceptualizations of “new media.” The laugh track represents the embedding of the old in the new. The uncanny, parenthetical presence of the old in the new, of the human in the machine, inscribed by television’s prerecorded laughter, represents a structural possibility of temporal layering found across all media texts and forms, which Derrida reminds us is ontologically part of every inscription. A logical extension of this claim is that the “new” of “new media” is necessarily relative. All media are at once new and old, depending upon our vantage point — a valuable lesson many scholars have suggested in recent work, perhaps most compellingly by Lisa Gitelman in her comparative framing of Edison’s nineteenth-century phonographs and the history of Arpanet in the twentieth century as new media.24 This is not, importantly, to dismiss “new” as a categorical marker: debates about the laugh track’s use in M*A*S*H in fact prompt us to move toward a potentially useful, relational understanding of “new media” in which the new incorporates the old, rendering it parenthetical: staying there, but on the side, making us uneasy.
))<>((: Inside Out and Back and Forth
If the laugh track’s parentheticality foregrounds the necessarily relative and vexed temporality of the new, I will now explore another multilayered reading of the concept that turns it inside out, while foregrounding digital iconography. Miranda July’s film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) seems to articulate, and to be articulated by, a variety of parenthetical forms and qualities.
An appropriate transition from M*A*S*H’s laugh-track optional DVD feature and entry into this discussion might be found not in the final film itself but in looking at the deleted scenes on its DVD. Each of these scenes that has been deleted from the film, but which parenthetically remain in the movie’s digital packaging — as “special features” for the viewer to watch at his or her discretion —stars children. In one, Peter (Miles Thompson) scolds his brother, Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), for pooping outside, and he goes into great detail recounting stories about the dangers of human poop in the animal environment. In another, Sylvie (Carlie Westerman) shows her parents one of her dolls, and they tell her that the doll looks like it will grow up to be a prostitute. A third, titled “Lesbian Mom,” shows three girls making believe they are family in a schoolyard, and Sylvie grows jealous of the other white girl’s claim to be the black girl’s mother, so they decide that they are lesbian mothers, but Sylvie whispers to the black girl that she is the mother who gave birth to her. It is quite suggestive that these scenes are each in different ways exploring children’s worlds and their (il)logics, and exploring how they play out in relation to, and especially prior to, socialization. These might be read as being “too much” for the film to handle — be it because of their treatment of two difficult social issues at once (race and homosexuality), or because Sylvie’s parents are depicted too negatively and the film ultimately aims to depict its characters in a less indicting fashion. The film itself, though, very effectively (in my opinion) works through what is “too much” and how to make it not too much. In this sense, the film is exploring a Derridean sort of parentheticality: how to expand what is articulated within a given context, how to displace conceptual order, and how this, through “writing,” creates “new” writing.
Moreover, the writing that takes place with “new,” digital media is central to the film’s themes. One of the film’s memorable subplots involves an agrammatical use of parentheses, which become windows into the film’s open-minded treatment of the ways in which human — particularly childhood — interactions and relationships are inflected by digitally mediated cultural practices and psychologies in contemporary society.
Two of the film’s young characters, Peter and Robby, seem to spend most of their free time being socialized into the world on their shared computer. In one scene, they sit in their bedroom, enter a chat room online, and talk to an anonymous user. Peter is suspicious that the user is not really a woman, since, he asserts, people always go into chat rooms and pretend to be people they are not. They ask her about her “bosom,” which Peter mispronounces in explaining to Robby. Robby, the younger of the two, then suggests they write to her that their Internet personage wants to “poop back and forth”: that he will poop into her butthole, that she will poop it back into his, and that this will proceed “back and forth. Forever.” The woman they chat to is intrigued, to Peter’s surprise. A few scenes later in the film, we see Robby on a public computer, presumably in a school library, and he is instant messaging with the woman again. She writes to him that she has “been thinking about the ‘back and forth.’ ” The chat proceeds:
Untitled: Do you remember what you said the last time?
NightWarrior: I [Robby cuts and pastes “remember” from Untitled’s message] remember. The poop.
Untitled: Yes, the poop.
Untitled: It makes me want to touch myself.
Untitled: Is that very bad?
Untitled: Sounds like you’re excited too.
Untitled: I am touching my “bosoms.” What are you doing?
NightWarrior: I am drawing
Untitled: OK . . . Drawing what?
[Robby looks at a sketch he made of pooping back and forth at the beginning of the conversation.]
NightWarrior: Back and forth.
Untitled: I get it. When can we meet?
NightWarrior’s parenthetical expression goes on to do some traveling.
We discover that the untitled woman turns out to be the art gallery curator, Nancy Herrington (Tracy Wright), whom Christine Jesperson (Miranda July) has been trying to contact to review her artwork. On the poster for Herrington’s multimedia digital art exhibition at the end of the film, we see “))<>((” reprinted as the exhibition’s tagline, thereby serving as a ;-) to the spectator, since the only characters in the film that would recognize the expression would be Peter and Robby, who are not at the gallery.
Figure 17. Chat screen in Me and You and Everyone We Know
Figure 18. Publicity poster for Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
“))<>((,” followed by the word “forever,” was also essentially the film’s own tagline. It is featured in one of the film’s two primary publicity posters — the text in large font stands alone as the poster’s only image — and in the film’s T-shirts. An uncredited website, backandforthforever.com, has twenty screens one can move through (back and forth), which contain images of Miranda July-like messages written on a static television screen and three photos of a large banner with the expression “))<>((” hanging and held up in public spaces. Given the expression’s origin, its reappearance in these various diegetic and nondiegetic contexts helps drive home the film’s themes of connection and loneliness in our ubiquitously digital era. Moreover, it also drives home the film’s suggestion that the art show within the film parallels the film itself: July, a performance artist — who plays a performance artist in the film — in effect opens an internal parenthesis. Both the film and the exhibition depicted within it are exploring these themes, and the very double-mediation of these again foregrounds the same themes of contemporary communication and awkward technologically mediated human connections that “))<>((” evokes. (Recall Derrida’s parenthetical comment about communication and the question of context. Here, the parenthetical expression’s serial regression might be taken as exemplifying Derrida’s outline of the problematic of the parameters of contextualizing.25)
As one of the film’s most memorable exchanges, this nongrammatical use of parentheses to stand in for the butt, and more generally the nongrammatical use of parentheses and other punctuation marks in instant-message communication, is a case where punctuation is not used for what it means but for what it looks like. Rather than being used grammatically, it becomes useful for creating expressive imagery, such as emoticons. New-media practices such as text and instant messaging thereby reappropriate grammar’s textuality, typographically inflecting culture — as opposed to the way the laugh track might inflect cultural imaginations in a more grammatical manner. (I would point out, though, that both the laugh track and the emoticon are affective cues: imagine a flashing smiley face punctuating a sitcom, telling us to laugh.) Me and You and Everyone We Know intelligently captures the strange, imaginative impact such new processes harness upon our everyday lives and psychologies.
Significantly, the reappropriation of parentheses originates in the film with a six-year-old’s communication to an adult. In an interview July conducted when Me and You’s production was in progress, she explained, “I’m trying to figure out how to have a romance between an adult and a child that isn’t offensive, that somehow gets it. Because it is something that exists in the world, even though we can’t deal with it. It’s almost a symbol of what we’re not getting to have because of fear and systems based on fear.”26 Perhaps it is not completely arbitrary that Lolita, the most exemplary child-adult love narrative, also “teems” with parentheses. The hesitant, displaced space and tone of the parenthetical might prove useful to narratives that explore sexual encounters between children and adults, to help “reverse” and “displace” the “conceptual order” that determines what is sexually acceptable. If one were to pursue this Derridean reading, one might read the very inversion of parentheses in Me and You as a gesture to make the uncomfortable more comfortable, much as July attempts to do in general with her nonjudgmental and genuinely curious treatment of children’s sexuality. Indeed, when the parentheses are turned inside out, we are dealing with what we cannot deal with (and likely laughing about it, too, not least of all because punctuation marks representing poop are between them and outside them at the same time).
It seems, then, that one could read the film’s parentheticality in a figurative sense of the concept as well, on both narrative and cultural registers. In her Los Angeles Times review of the film, Carina Chocano writes, “Miranda July’s gorgeously loopy Me and You and Everyone We Know is made up of . . . nonsequiturs that make perfect sense, banal images that turn transcendent on a dime, casual exchanges that seem to encompass the entirety of human relationships.” (Is the parenthesis not a loopy nonsequitur?) Chocano goes on, “July takes a world in which everything ugly is a distinct and lurking possibility — rejection, stagnation, lack of money, sex between adults and teenagers, virtual coprophilia, your true love dumping you because she’s dying — and turns it into an oddball love song.”27 One might read the film’s narrative as a series of parentheticals — a series of asides that depict sexually curious, childishly innocent, and seemingly inessential parts of its characters’ lives.
These sorts of encounters do not generally make up the dominant fabric of plots in American cinema, whose narratives tend to be limited by — or tightly and economically woven around, depending upon one’s point of view — sets of conventions that reiterate particular unions of romantic relationships between characters, as much film scholarship stemming from Laura Mulvey’s observations in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” has critically analyzed over the past forty years.28 To apply Foucault’s phrase for rules governing representations of sexuality, we might understand the film as “putting” the cultural and sexual parenthetical “into discourse.” Outlining his work in History of Sexuality, he writes, “What is at issue, briefly, is the over-all ‘discursive fact,’ the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.’ Hence, too, my main concern will be to locate the forms of power, the channels it takes, and the discourses it permeates in order to reach the most tenuous and individual modes of behavior, the paths that give it access to the rare or scarcely perceivable forms of desire, how it penetrates and controls everyday pleasure.”29
With several plotlines about these various parenthetical social practices and states, particularly the frequent interspersing of children’s explorations of sexuality throughout the narrative of a romantic comedy presumably motivated by the reconciliation of an adult man and woman, the film in effect relies on these practices’ parentheticalities (their marginalized/set-aside statuses) in order to bring their very parentheticality to the fore, and to demonstrate — in tandem with Foucault’s theory of the history of sexuality — that their liminal positions are perceived as deviant only in specifically constituted social and historical contexts. These contexts include codes that regulate the conventions of classical Hollywood storytelling, which have ideologically and considerably carried over into postclassical American cinema. Along these lines, an IMDb user attends to the movie’s dynamic narrative silences and perceptively observes, “The movie is notable for what isn’t in it — both malice and pain are almost absent. Removing malice — July’s world is one in which a kid can safely walk alone through some seedy parts of Los Angeles — is unfashionable, brave and, given the gentle tone of the piece, necessary. But the absence of pain isn’t intentional: July would like us to feel the loneliness of the characters.”30
In this way, then, one can understand the film’s parenthetical inversion in the expression “))<>((” as representative of the film’s narrative parentheticality in a more general sense, in that the film consists almost entirely of parenthetical content, diegetically inverting the very rule of the parenthetical: that it is set aside from, but within, dominant discourse. In other words, in Me and You and Everyone We Know, the parenthetical becomes the dominant, so that a map of the film’s plot looks like:
“X” represents strands of the narrative that revolve around Christine and Richard Swersey’s ( John Hawkes) coming together as a romantic couple, and the parenthetical letters represent the various scenes that feature children learning about the world they live in (where “a” stands for Robby’s Internet exploring, “b” for two girls’ flirtation with an older shoe clerk, “c” for groups of children at school, and “d” for Sylvie, a young neighbor of Peter and Robby, who obsessively collects items for her dowry in a large chest).
One might follow the outward pull of July’s parentheses even further. It would be instructive to distinguish Me and You’s narrative parentheticals from a more modernist cinematic parenthetical: the classic sequence in Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), where Godard’s three protagonists unexpectedly break out in a dance in the middle of a café (since quoted in Pulp Fiction). We might remember that as Odile, Franz, and Arthur dance, though we continuously hear the diegetic sound of clapping and feet moving on the floor, music cuts out of the sound track, alternating with a narrator’s voice that announces: “Parenthetically, now’s the time to describe their feelings,” proceeding at intervals to describe the sexual and otherwise invisible desires of each character. For Godard, this parenthetical, which calls attention to the discrepancy between sound and image, is one of a variety of techniques used regularly throughout the film to expose the cinematic apparatus.
July’s parentheticality thus instantiates a cinematic evolution from the thorough anti-illusionism of Godard’s modernist filmmaking to a postmodern formal experimentation and trademark “quirk” within more or less familiar conventional narrative structures (here of the romantic comedy) that audiences have come to expect of independent cinema and the interlocking stories that characterize what David Bordwell calls “network narratives.”31 Bordwell identifies Me and You as a key example among many recent network narratives, alongside films such as Short Cuts, Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Crash, and Babel. While it certainly shares a postclassical, multistranded narrative style with these films, grouping them together obscures Me and You’s distinct stylistic sensibility and feminism. While the other films for the most part are overdetermined, July’s storytelling is distinctly feminist, playfully whimsical. Though the “Everyone We Know” of July’s title would seem to suggest an affinity with the global ambitions of other network narratives (Bordwell himself grapples with how to read the film’s title in this context), it is significantly underdetermined, directed by a woman with a demonstrated interest in non-feature-length and multimedia forms of storytelling. July’s idiosyncratic film shares more in common with the modes of video art, short story prose, and feminist punk rock that she has been involved with over the course of her career than with the films of Tarantino, Altman, or Inárritu. Breaking down Me and You’s narrative, we see that the parenthetical in a sense becomes the very dominant that the structure strives to displace.
Figure 19. Sexually suggestive parentheses in publicity posters for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013)
The affinities of the parenthesis more generally with indie aesthetics that one finds across independent cinema and indie rock here coalesce into the foreground. Musical examples of parentheses include Sigur Rós’s 2002 album ( ),The Blow’s 2006 “Parentheses” single, and the band Parenthetical Girls (contradictorily and playfully composed of three men and one woman), active since 2004. Notable cinematic examples include Me and You, (500) Days of Summer, (Untitled) (directed by Jonathan Parker, U.S., 2009), and the suggestively sexual O formed of two parentheses in the middle of the title in advertisements for Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac(Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium/UK, 2013). Von Trier’s parenthesis is especially evocative, not only of the mark’s ability to visually stand in for body parts (here, the labia). It also typographically suggests (1) the film’s symmetrical structural division into two volumes, the second of which could be seen to be much more “maniacal” than the first more “nymphic” half, and (2) the textual symbols appearing within the film, which punctuate the image with superimposed numbers and words that complement themes of the storyline. These inscriptions within the film serve to render the story on one hand more serious, connecting it to the chain of classical, philosophical, historical, mathematical, and literary references cited and alluded to in the film’s framing story. (And of course the framing device itself could finally be viewed as lending the film a parenthetical structure, where the characters parenthetically comment and reflect on the stories Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character shares.) Yet at the same time these textual inscriptions are playful, forming conscious jolts out of a spectatorial suspension of disbelief that the unpunctuated image track seduces us into. This wave of titles, bands, songs, and films featuring parentheses all emerge after 2002, after Adaptation. and the collapse of dotcommania ideologies outlined in the previous chapter — as if to suggest the parenthetical serves as a metaphor for a new waiting period in media culture, as if to ask whether this is a phase of or against the digital (it is telling in this context that The Blow’s album featuring “Parentheses” is called Paper Television). The appeal of the parenthesis across independent media cultures is that it comes between, goes both ways, and thus stands for embrace and resistance at once.
Postmodernism, New Media
To close, we might return to the issue of the enterprise of critical theory. Indeed, this chapter largely emerged out of an encounter with Derrida’s essay on intersecting visual and cognitive levels: observing patterns of ink on paper while reflecting on his arguments about text, context, philosophy, and communication. Why, I asked, using “Signature Event Context” as a defining example, do so many texts of critical theory rely so heavily on parentheses in their prose? I have offered some speculative answers to this question, which I believe are related to the deconstructive impulse: to unravel language and to expose its inherent contradictions. We should read critical theory’s parentheses as bearing Derridean traces, but also as tools for identifying and marking continuities and ruptures in intellectual histories and paradigms. As Fredric Jameson notes, performatively in parentheses himself, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, “One of the concerns frequently aroused by periodising hypotheses is that these tend to obliterate differences and to project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity (bounded on either side by inexplicable chronological metamorphoses and punctuation marks). This is, however, precisely why it seems to me essential to grasp postmodernism not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features.”32
The parenthetical and the parenthesis, from television’s laugh track to the instant message’s emoticon, resonate with postmodernism more generally because they challenge textual authority and master paradigms. We might even say that the parenthesis makes the very reading of postmodernity’s break with modernity legible. From Rosalind Krauss’s sustained engagement with parentheses as a model to describe the ontology of video and instant feedback in her influential essay in the first issue of October to Jean Baudrillard’s reference to the automobile as a “sublime object” opening a parenthesis “in the everydayness of all other objects,” the parenthesis figures as a recurring, if little noticed, metaphor in seminal works of cultural criticism since 1968.33 Jean-Louis Baudry, writing in his canonical 1970 essay of film theory, for example, uses the mark as a metaphor to explain the phenomenological encounter with the cinematic apparatus, “At the same time that the world’s transfer as image seems to accomplish this phenomenological reduction, this putting into parentheses of its real existence (a suspension necessary, we will see to the formation of the impression of reality) provides a basis for the apodicity of the ego.”34 Such passages suggest the agency thinkers were beginning to find in textuality to account for, critique, and especially render visible cultural formations. Perhaps most representatively and even more recently, in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Bruno Latour reads modernity itself as a parenthesis:
My point is thus very simple: things have become Things again, objects have reentered the arena, the Thing, in which they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart. The parenthesis that we can call the modern parenthesis during which we had, on the one hand, a world of objects, Gegenstand, out there, unconcerned by any sort of parliament, forum, agora, congress, court and, on the other, a whole set of forums, meeting places, town halls where people debated, has come to a close.35
In this widely circulated essay, Latour admirably attempts to rethink the foundations of the entire field of the history of science that he played a central part in shaping. In the context of the disavowal of global warming and the emergence of the 9/11 Truth movement, to which we might wish to add more recent critiques of the Republican Party as the “Post-Truth Party,” Latour holds himself accountable for promoting this same alarming cultural logic that denies truth. He calls for a future of critical thought that is stubbornly realist and empirically grounded.
Though he argues for clarity, this passage admittedly remains somewhat opaque. What exactly does Latour mean by the modern “parenthesis”? He seems to suggest that we have arrived at a point of return, back to the way things were — a premodern, preprint, and, in some respects as Latour freely admits, fantasized intellectual history. The model he posits, put simply, is premodern (modern) postmodern, where these terms visualized in sequence help suggest the parallelism between what lies on the parenthetical marks’ outer sides: the prefixed modern. Latour’s “modern parenthesis” relies on a familiar visual model, whose closure is suggestive of a return to a prior stage — picking up where the parenthesis was opened — and whose epistemological incertitude also allows us to entertain the provocative notion he coined elsewhere that “we have never been modern” in the first place.36 In this context, the implication of the parenthesis, then, is that the “modern” might only be a placeholder for the real epistemological need at the heart of the matter: periodization. (And the “period,” after all, is the final punctuation mark.)
By extension, this chapter has suggested that rather than understanding “new media” as historical forms collapsed definitively (with a period) into the decades that see the emergence and evolution of digital technologies, it could be useful to understand the “new” of “new media” as parenthetical. In other words, the necessity of “new” is questionable, always fundamentally relational, bound up with anxieties, value judgments, and gimmickry, but also with potentials to subvert, rethink, and displace the status and authority of what lies on the parenthetical’s other side — in this case, “media.” For example, the common aversion to the use of the laugh track could be understood as anxieties over the relationship between the new and the old: in terms of Goldsen’s and Gelbart’s historically situated anxieties in the 1970s, when the track was a fairly “new” technology; in terms of the track featuring “old,” dead voices laughing; or in textually relative terms as a “new” element inserted into a program. These questions, I hope to have demonstrated, are most productively understood as relational, discursive, and thus epistemologically parenthetical.
Brought into more explicitly digital contexts, whether in the surfaces of emoticons, graphic designs, and word documents or in the depths of computer code, contemporary parenthetical marks could be read as historically layered with previous parenthetical inscriptions’ structural possibilities, discursive tensions, and performative politics. In this sense, we might therefore view the parenthesis as a mark inscribing the very legacies and possibilities of the status of critical theory for visual culture today. More than any other mark, it channels Barthes’s punctum into the current moment, unexpectedly offering a way of reading the shifting nature of textuality in the computer age, at least as I see it.
Visualizing textual ruptures, the parenthesis brings the relationship between media and theory into focus, or perhaps more properly, into question. The proliferation of and play with parentheses in popular culture, whether in writing, as metaphors, or as icons, tends to wager on the punctuation as marks that embrace and connect, but as we have seen, they also shore up the loneliness, anxieties, and fears that structure the recessive undersides of the utopian connections and dominant myths of modernity — and now, in what quite possibly looks like a return to a time we might have never left, of the new media age.