Random Theory: Present Im/Perfect










NOTE: This article includes minor spoilers for episodes of 11.22.63, The Man in the High Castle, and (in a footnote) the Quantum Leap episode ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’.  You can see the first season of The Man in the High Castle, in its entirety, on Amazon; 11.22.63 is currently airing weekly on Hulu, where you can also view the entire run of Quantum Leap (1989-93).


So, I’m currently watching The Man in the High Castle and 11.22.63, two television series based on historical fiction novels.  The Man in the High Castle (1963) is one of the higher-profile pieces in Philip K. Dick’s canon, while 11.22.63 is one of Stephen King’s more recent books, published in 2011. I’m a fan of both authors, but I’ve not read either work before, so I’m coming into these plots fresh, as a viewer[1].  The bulk of each story takes place in the early 1960’s, though 11.22.63 opens in the present.  Both are science fiction tales, but their plots turn on dissimilar (though not necessarily unrelated) conceits.  The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history[2] with an infusion of multi-dimensionality, while 11.22.63 is a time travel tale whose functional approach to alternate dimensions is, as yet, unclear.  The ethos of 11.22.63’s plot, however, suggests that we take the timeline of the moment, whatever shape it may be in, as the sole extant dimension–the only possibility that matters.

Philip K. Dick's other cannon

Philip K. Dick’s other cannon

It’s especially neat to be able to watch the two together, then; using their respective conceits as the means by which to express ideological orientations, both shows position themselves in some proximity to ‘the world as we know it’.  As narratives, as not real the way we are real, neither story can really disrupt our material existence except by its influence on our discourse[3].  Yet, there are characters in each story who are written to recognize and understand our material reality[4] as, at the very least, identical to some realm they might be able to access for themselves.  In other words, there is some significant way (differently in each story) that our own America [5] is narrativized (and this is the important part) without significant fictionalization.

Both plots are about changing the world–or rather, changing the positions of their characters in respect to our own world, which could be said to stand between the two as a kind of ‘control’ reality.  They take dissimilar approaches to different events, but each conceives of our material world with respect to a past that went ‘wrong’ and needs be ‘adjusted.’  The most meaningful difference, then, lies in ideology: how each views that narrative simulacrum of our world that it can recognize–whether it views us as we actually exist as approaching an ideal, or, rather, as in woeful need of revision.[6]

Ideologically, then, The Man in the High Castle presents its own realm as inferior to ours, and we are moved to agree: the Axis won WWII and Germany and Japan co-occupy the US, while the Reich is shown to control much of the rest of Europe and, quite likely, the World.  In what we’ve seen in the first season, there is no means presented by which this outcome can be ‘undone’, but there is the tease of an escape from it: a number of filmstrips circulate through the free Underground, featuring footage of alternate outcomes of the war, the most prominent so far being that of the Allied victory.  This specific piece of footage is, for us, of course, historical: it need not be synthesized for the fiction of the narrative, but can rather be culled from our own material records[7].  Pieces of footage from other realities also surface–one featuring the Russians as the chief victors of the war, another in which the Germans won even more thoroughly–but our own material realm (or its filmstrip re-presentation) is only made that much better of an option, given how it compares with those moribund outcomes.

But, if The Man in the High Castle sets our world as ‘correct’, as having ‘worked out’ in ways its own history didn’t, 11.22.63 claims that we inhabit the vestiges of a historical mistake nonetheless–a state of being that is, itself, ethically insufficient to the moral standards it itself sets.  If The Man in the High Castle could then be said to ideologically (not narratively) ‘end’ at our own world, it is from that same position that 11.22.63 opens and begins its retreat.   To that show’s point: what would our world look like if JFK hadn’t been assassinated and, so we’re lead to assume, the Vietnam War had not been escalated by the Johnson Administration?  Regardless of how 11.22.63 might use its conceit of time travel as a means to change its own reality, and regardless of how successful that effort proves to be, its opening is still rooted to that nexus of a fictionalized ‘real’ Earth that we’ve already identified as the ideal of The Man in the High Castle–the only significant difference being that, once we pick that realistic realm back up at the beginning of the King story, it’s several decades later and we’ve (still) won the war, but Kennedy has also (still) been killed.  But, then, they’re realistic decades, on an Earth that has matched its development to our own, that we can logically, sensibly, in detail, chart from the end of one story to the beginning of another without need of any other interstitial fictions to make it all sensible[8].  It is the world we know because it’s the description of the world we live in.

We could likewise argue that the sci-fi devices of each narrative mean that their renderings of our own world need not even be different from our own world itself, at least in terms of numbers.  It can be inferred that, by whatever means, all of the filmstrips of The Man in the High Castle that have been circulated through that realm have come into it from outside of it, from the worlds depicted firsthand in the films themselves: though Nazi America might have a view into the ideal realm, there is no way to make contact with it, touch that world (this world) back.  So, for us, since we don’t so far have enough detail of that ideal reality to know better, all that’s left is to assume its sustained verisimilitude with our own history.

Meanwhile, as far as 11.22.63 goes, the exigency of time travel fiction means that almost anyone in such a story can be unmade entirely, especially characters who are complete inventions of the narrative.  In fact, in the historical record of a fictionalized Earth, The Allies can always eventually be made to win the war and JFK can always, over and over again, eventually be killed in Dallas; each of these narratives could respectively be made to render–as its primary reality, based on the success or failure of the schemes of each story–worlds so insignificant in their differences from one another or our own history that it might become problematic to know when we’ve stopped telling the story of one fiction or another and started telling our own actual history. Even if such a state of verisimilitude doesn’t stand as the final outcome for any of the timelines concerned[9], even if the representation of our own state of being is not the final achievement of either of the narratives, the fact is that, for whatever period of those narratives that the situation does exist in which fiction could only point to reality as the best description of itself, the definition of reality as not-fiction is made commensurately murky.

Wait! What? Why the hell is this here?

Wait! What? Why the hell is this shot from Tristan + Isolde (2006) here?  And why does it feel like we just broke something?

[1] My experience in consuming these stories is going to be fundamentally different from someone who works it in the ‘right’ order, who reads the books before watching the shows.  For instance: Jake Epping will never not look like James Franco for me, from before I was even introduced to the character by name.  Juliana Frink will never not have been Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos).  These are only the most superficial differences from how a reader might have initially encountered these stories–how the medium shapes our experience of the narrative–but they’re enough to at least show that such experience does make a difference.

[2] Dick’s novel is regarded as one of those whose existence prompted the consideration of ‘alternate history’ as a science fiction subgenre in the first place.

[3] Which does, in fact, lead to all sorts of potential material developments: more books, more shows, more media products, as well as both ‘official’ merchandising and all the events and artisanal products of fandoms.  But all of this, still, with the discursive, conversational, even-if-only-implicit understanding of the narrative-as-narrative, as not, itself, fully materializable as itself; not fully possible as anything other than media.

[4] History as it has turned out for us in the material world; what has lead to the current material moment.

[5] And, presumably, the rest of Earth, Space, and everything else.

[6] Don Bellisario’s Quantum Leap provides a great example of a similar problem all by itself; though the plot takes viewers across several decades of American history, whether the objective is to make the narrative realm more or less like our own material world is consistently unclear, since we have precious few views into that show’s ‘now’ or ‘future’.  The best hint we have is, rather ironically, the two-part storyline ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’; the series’ protagonist, time traveler Dr. Sam Beckett, leaps into the life of Oswald at several different points in order to stop the Kennedy assassination.  Unable to prevent the assassination as Oswald, though, Sam finally leaps into a nearby Secret Service agent (real-life Agent Clint Hill) who was running behind the President’s car as it passed through Dealy Plaza on the day of the assassination (11/22/63).  Sam is, again, unable to save JFK, but Al, his holographic partner from the future, eventually informs Sam that he did manage to save Jackie Kennedy, who had been killed in their original, fictionalized, ideologically-unacceptable timeline.

[7] At least, in part.  There are likely to be additions and other edits to any ‘original’ footage, but such is Hollywood.

[8] King, among many others, especially in science fiction/fantasy/horror, has collected several of his tales within a unified narrative realm, with The Dark Tower series standing as that world’s unofficial center.  That realm also includes The Stand, an apocalyptic piece first published in 1978 and set contemporaneously with its writing.  Though, again, I’ve not read the text-version of 11.22.63, the television adaptation indicates that the ‘modern-day’ portions are, indeed, set in the 21st C., well after The Stand’s armageddon happens in its own timeline.  Of course, this does not resolutely prove that the two realms are separate (nor how separate), but it offers the suggestion of a meaningful distinctiveness.  At least, until some considerable gesture is made to change this status, either on King’s part or in some substantial way within the larger conversations about his work.

[9] The two shows as well as our own, material, linear progression, most neatly and easily assessed in the immense, growing, chaotic tidal wave of our persisting human discourse, as a whole.  What?  You thought I wasn’t going to get to Hegel?

Wut up?

Wut up?

Random Theory: The Inflatability of Relatability

When it comes to considering the popularity of a narrative, we over-invest in the very concept of ‘relatability’.  It’s a largely discursive maneuver, too.  We go to Star Wars because it’s Star Wars, not Farm Wars; what attracts us is the exoticism of space, the novel unreality of a well-detailed realm in which the reliability of physics are defamiliarized by the manipulability of The Force.  We don’t go to Star Wars to get the low-down on how Uncle Owen’s moisture farm is doing–I don’t care how big of a John Deere fan you are–and yet, with all that other stuff of The Force and the Death Star and droids and prophecy, and how do we persist in identifying this farmboy?  But do we need any of those other fabulous elements to be, themselves, ‘relatable’ to be understood?  We might call The Force ‘magic’ or even compare it to religion, but neither can we experience what ‘all’ of religion is like, so we’re still not really trying to relate it to a fundamentally human condition that we feel, for some reason, we can ‘know’ despite the fact that literally 99% of us exactly AREN’T farmboys.

I guess the deeper question might be, then: if we can so readily conceive of so much, in both physical and abstract terms, that is not human, yet we can come to understand it all so vividly nonetheless, why can’t we do the same for subjects we do identify for their humanness, if not necessarily for their humanity?  Is it really such a need of the audience to be able to ‘relate’ to a protagonist somehow, or have we long been sophisticated enough in our discourse to be done with that crutch of expectation?


You know, Heartbeeps (1981) bombed–but I really can’t tell if that supports my point or refutes it.


Random Theory: “THIS IS AWE-SOME!”

In Barthes’ understanding of the performance of the wrestling narrative (‘In the Ring’, from Mythologies), we might consider the narrative subject, the character in her presentation to the world, to be quite literally surrounded, inside and out, by the linguistic subject, the actor playing that role.  The actor likewise surrounds herself with the character, taking on the aura of that narrative subject and making it move in gesture weirdly akin to Zizek’s observation of larger social interaction as a kind of puppetry act:

I am not human, I am a monster, I claim. It’s not that I have a mask of a theoretician and beneath I am a more human person; I like chocolate cake, I like this, I like that, and so on which makes me human. I rather prefer myself as somebody who not to offend others, pretends, plays that he is human (Taylor’s Zizek!, 2005).  

The actor, the technically-proficient, trained, experienced performer, does not wish for us to see her in the ring, to recognize her as someone having a material history.  we must instead, if all goes according to plan, see only the heel or the babyface.  

The wrestlers, men of great experience, know just how to inflect the spontaneous episodes of combat toward the image which the public creates out of the great marvelous themes of its mythology.  A wrestler may irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always ultimately achieves, by a gradual solidification of signs, what the public expects of him (Barthes 13).  

The actor’s ‘real-life’ identity can be implicitly recognized, and she can even be referred to in a kind of semi-absence as we actively discuss the match, but the persona that she has taken on is the one who is ‘really’ seen flying around the ring–even to the point that, like any other type of actor, she might willfully ‘lose herself’.  

Though, this losing of self is, in reality, just as much a moment of authorship as any other: in fact, by influencing the character’s outcome by her performance, by exercising her authority to improvise in wrestling’s particular way, the performer exerts her professional, creative will on the narrative in ways that, say, conventional stage actors don’t have opportunities for.  The structure of the wrestling performance as semi-scripted/semi-improvised allows for the individual presenting the narrative, the wrestling performer, to associate herself in literally meaningful ways with that character that she both represents and embodies.  The performer might well ‘lose herself’ in the performance, but she cannot be said to fully ‘go away’; regardless of whether she identifies herself in the moment as the material person or the assumed character, it is all the same brain that makes the movements, that acts as the director of the scene, the match–at least insofar as that single character is concerned.  

And the position of the wrestling performer is, of course, also unique for the way she is enabled to interact with her audience, her fandom–those most immediately present and concerned with the match at hand and the character’s role in it, able to high-five their favorite character as she walks into the ring, but still members of that broader discourse who can, at less exciting moments, consider rationally the situation of the actor as something different, a real life that is not nearly so iconographic, mythical, or plain to navigate.  By contrast, the traditional stage actor is presented with an audience whom they, for the most part, ignore, under the authority of a script that gives nothing to the uniqueness of an unscripted moment; and the television and film actor has not even an audience to ignore, but instead performs only in the company of a crew, including a director who’s happiness with the product is, often, the principal judge of how the story continues.  The wrestling performer, given that afforementioned degree of improvisability in her matches, can see the impact of her performance immediately and directly from the mass audience that surrounds her–boos and cheers, which, depending on the role she was playing, can each be equally confidence-stirring.  In the wrestling ring, the narrative subject is literally interposed between the audience that approves or disproves of a performance and the most immediate author of that narrative, the performer using her own body to tell her own character’s story in her own way, right on the spot.  

Ashley Fliehr

I’d thought about featuring Charlotte, but I decided to go with this picture of Ashley Fliehr, instead.