Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Signage and Signification; or, a Fresno Fantasia

In grad school I dutifully read all the French-Eurotrash-words-are-the-only-reality-dumbass-postmodern-literary nitwits I was supposed to--Derrida', Lacan, Foucault, Lyotard--that whole ghoulish dead-wrong crowd.  I also reveled in Camille Paglia's spectacular demolition of the whole edifice of word-drenched academia at its 1990s worst (See her essay "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.You might have to pay for it or check out her first book of essays from the library.  Also check out The Postmodernism Generator for a great parody site where you can create your own critical theory masterpiece.

The Achilles heel of all language-is the-only-reality assertions is modern neuroscience and its long-established and rather ho-hum empirical, testable fact that the brain has numerous non-linguistic ways of filtering and constructing experience.  Simply put, science kicks literary theory's ass, which is why most liberal arts types hate science and piss on the Enlightenment.  Academia has never recovered from physicist Alan Sokal's brilliant hoax article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," which proposed that gravity was a linguistic construct.  Big Dog Journal "Social Text" took it seriously and preened and strutted about its publication for six months before Sokal revealed the gag.  What a bunch of marooooons!

I actually wrote papers using this crap to get A's from French-ass-kissing professors, possibly the most evil thing I've ever done, except for some mean things I said and wrote to loved ones, something no one can ever   erase from time/space.  

 Well, language is powerful and mysterious, and words really can do more damage than sticks and stones (don't ever drink and e-mail), but magic isn't really real and you can't fill your gas tank with distilled water from Whole Foods, call it "petrol," and expect your car to run.  Still, there's a part of me that agrees with Stephen King, who once asserted that he simply knew that somehow, someway, Frodo and Sam really were in some reality somewhere actually toiling up Mount Doom to destroy the dreadful Ring.   

Winging it one day with a group of 4th graders at a "talent" magnet school (we had 20 minutes to kill before lunch, which is an eternity in a kid classroom if you're not well-armed or have some seasoning), we began fantasizing about the kind of stores--I taught them the word "emporium"--they would like to see in the strip malls and their neighborhoods if there were no limits: "Anything Goes!" I declared.  Aside from a few duds like a Justin Beiber store or a Lady Gaga emporium/eatery, the kids came up with some pretty cool ideas:

--An ice cream and milkshake shop staffed by intelligent cows whose udders gave out any flavor or consistency of creamy confection you could imagine.
--A Venomous Pet Emporium, where the creatures never bite or sting their owners, only burglars.
--A kid's Homework Hangout and Hamburger House where "Fairy Tutors" helped you with assignments.
--Be an Animal Emporium, where Avatar--style technology allows you to be a lion or a giraffe or an eagle for an hour. .
--A luxury spa/retreat for the Homeless.  Price of admission: recite the Declaration of Independence from memory without mistakes.

One foggy night, wandering about in the cold because I'd arrived at the Mission after chapel and the bastards wouldn't let me in and I had no where else to go, I wound up in the parking lot of my favorite strip mall.  It's my favorite because it has a wonderful branch library right next to the hardware store and the kickboxing academy and close to the liquor warehouse.  It's also close to a friend's apartment, but he wasn't home that night.  So I walked.

At these malls I've always been struck by the big displays of narrow slotted signs in rows and columns that let you know what's currently available on the strip.  In the post-apocalyptic future these malls will seem a horrible blight, a memory of a bad dream, but on this misty wet night a magical possibility began to glimmer.  What if words really could change reality?

In Fresno after one foggy night, many people remember seeing a large number of unmarked white vans cruising the streets and avenues.  In the daylight people are plagued by a vague sense of change when they visit their neighborhood strip malls.   First they notice, almost subliminally, that the displays of signs signifying the mall contents seem changed; the more attentive are certain the signs have been shuffled about like cascading lemons and moneybags on slot machines.  Surely, think young housewives, the salon was always in the southwest corner, not tucked in between the corn dog shack and the empty store that never comes alive.   Others wonder, Why has the liquor store been moved?  Why did the barber shop trade places with the Subway?  

That night the white vans are noted again, but slip strangely out of consciousness like elusive dreams.  In the morning, a low-level city-wide confusion emerges as people can't find their favorite shops or listen incredulously to a friend who tells them that the Power Gym has moved to the other side of town or that the Thai Hut is where the library used to be.   The strip mall library has moved into the space formerly occupied by the Pet Warehouse, and is three times larger.   By the end of the day the confusion again fades and most are sanguine about the city's contents.   One 13 year-old blogger posts a paranoid conspiracy warning about white vans and sinister sign companies, possibly of an alien or Eldritch nature, but no one pays any attention.

One morning people across the length and breadth of the Fresno sprawl begin to read in full consciousness, fear, and wonder signs in the displays of their neighborhood strips unlike any they've seen before:  May May's Mushroom and Alkaloid Emporium.   Mr. Chang's Nude Aromatherapeutic Massage Parlor.  Sam's Sperm World.   Great White Shark Swim-Along.   All Starbucks formerly residing in strip malls are now named Ahab's or McGillicuddy's.  Exotic Brothels with racial or combat or science fictiony Queen of the Solar Federation themes appear.  Non-addictive Drug and Alcohol Emporiums and Ecstasy Booths pop up everywhere, but the police seem vague and distracted when asked about them.  

Soon Fresno residents begin finding stacks of flexible self-adhering signs on their lawns in the morning and discover to their joy and terror that they can fling them against the walls and doors of their homes or neighborhood eye-sores and with a fleeting, unbidden thought transform the structure into the Safest Day Care Center In the Universe or Self-Service Barber and New Joke Generator Shop or the Church of Mutual Masturbation.

Fresno residents live for the next month in a swirling intoxicating cloud of life possibilities and pleasures both bodily and mental.  

Then one night the vans return and over the ensuing week or so a gradual fade begins.  Residents feel their minds are scraped and prickly, and sleep comes with difficulty or visits upon the slumbering bizarre dreams of drains, half-empty swimming pools, mouths with missing teeth.   Fresno fades back into its squalid sprawling stupor and residents bat vaguely at the air as if trying to penetrate something.  The vans never reappear.  The 13 year old blogger is half-way through a novel explaining the whole thing.   Everyone grasps at wisps and whispers of something wonderful that may have happened long ago, or might happen again someday.

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