‘Cultural Citations’

Occasion: Our contemporary culture political discourse

Relation to my Thesis: Less of a stretch than it may seem

Request: Not to respond to the politics of the people featured here because that would be both totally besides the point and more than a little ironic


I’m not sure about the legality of doing this, but I’m going to lift excerpts from a Facebook argument between someone I went to high school with and one of our teachers. In using this example, I don’t mean to suggest that the arguments taking place in Facebook comments represent the height of our political conversation –pretty much all political exchanges on social media are entirely pointless glorified shouting matches (I only know about this particular example because my friends from high school were making fun of it in a group chat) — but they do represent the average political conversation. More than anything, it’s just an easy example to use and it conveniently demonstrates the more universal points I need to make.

The conversation started when the person I went to school with, let’s call him (she’s actually a “she,” but I’m pretty attached to the pseudonym) Louis Guzman, made a post about the New York terror attack and “open borders” or whatever the fuck. This wasn’t the first time Mr. Guzman had seen it fitting to espouse his beliefs on the social media platform and so very loudly voiced ideological sympathies had been well known to all his Facebook friends for quite some time. Apparently, this latest post so “disheartened” (her words) a former teacher of ours, who we’ll call Liza Minnelli, that she saw it fit to respond to her one-time student, writing a long comment which included the following,

“Since Trump has been in office there have been more deaths due to acts of terror committed by white American men with no ties to Islam than by Muslim extremists. Of course ISIS inspired attacks are terrifying and need to be taken seriously and prevented, but completely shutting down borders or banning people based on their religion is not only unacceptable, its also not a solution. Primarily, because we would still suffer from regular acts of domestic terrorism by white American men, but also because we live in a global world. The NYC attacker was not radicalized until long after he had been in the US and he planned his attack information he got from ISIS online while in America” [sic]

and was capped off with a link to a Vox article in support of her first statement.

Mr. Guzman, not one to be uprooted in his own terrain, responded to Mrs. Minnelli with a comment that featured the following selection of prose,

“However having open borders and lottery visas today without proper vetting can only lead to more attacks that kill not only innocent Americans but innocent humans. It’s not rocket science why Poland and Hungary, European countries with the strongest border control (I believe Hungary even put up a wall) are the SAFEST.. and countries with open borders are suffering the consequences, and even now making their laws stricter. The radical Muslim mantra is to kill any and all in their way. It is preached and imbedded from a young age” [sic — to like the entire quote].

This exchange is so typical as to be almost unsubstantial to the uninvolved reader. To my friends and I, it was worthwhile only as a case study in the political interaction of our peers and I mean to analyse it in a similar regard here. Because, the fact that this sort of thing — people foisting their opinions on one another from across generational, social, and (of course) ideological divides — is so typical is exactly what’s worth noting about it. A sort of conversational complacency has taken place, where the means by which to change the minds of others have become so close at hand that we’ve forgotten why we use them in the first place.

My thesis is about the use of citations in literary criticism and using them to examine the notion that we understand the papers and arguments we read. Part of what really stuck out to me about that topic is the appeal to authority that’s evident in the use of citation. There’s a similar effect at play in the kinds of conversations I’m discussing now, but instead of acting to aid in the argument being made, it generally only functions in those readers who have already accepted the arguments conclusion.

In the example of discourse I’ve referenced, there is one genuine use of citation, but much more prevalent in both posts are what I’ll call “cultural citations.” To demonstrate, I’ll pull out the claims in both Mr. Guzman’s and Mrs. Minnelli’s quoted work,


1: but completely shutting down borders or banning people based on their religion is not only unacceptable …

2: .. it[‘]s also not a solution

3: Primarily, because we would still suffer from regular acts of domestic terrorism by white American men …

4: … but also because we live in a global world. The NYC attacker was not radicalized until long after he had been in the US and he planned his attack information he got from ISIS online while in America

5: having open borders and lottery visas today without proper vetting can only lead to more attacks that kill not only innocent Americans but innocent humans.

6: Poland and Hungary, European countries with the strongest border control …

7: … I believe Hungary even put up a wall …

8: … are the SAFEST …

9: … and even now making their laws stricter

10: The radical Muslim mantra is to kill any and all in their way.

11: It is preached and [e]mbedded from a young age


While at a glance it may appear that the arguments being made are just assemblages of sentiments, they both feature a great deal of claims with seemingly no support. Here is where the “cultural citations” tie in. Each of those claims is tethered to some Vox or Breitbart article that the authors read at some point in the past and the information gathered therein lodged in their brains as a ‘fact’ (this claim — the one that I just made — functions in the same way. I’m making it based on my own experience doing the same damn thing and then halfheartedly condemning myself for doing so and ascribing the practice to people engaging in hastily-made arguments, assuming that you’ll have done the same and so identify the claim as being universally true).

However, when you do this, there’s a high chance that anyone who identifies your claim as a fact already agrees with your conclusion because they’ve frequented the same sources as you and so likely share your specific political stance.

Furthermore, since someone who doesn’t agree with you will be dubious of your sources, they’ll likely dismiss any claims they don’t identify as being grounded in “proof” and if they do know the source you’re assuming is understood, they’ll likely dismiss it as disreputable (ex: I know exactly what Liza is talking about in all her claims because I’ve made those arguments before, while I have no clue whether or not Hungary “built a wall” because that’s never been a talking point in my circle).

Normally, citations are an author’s way of saying, “you can look this up if you really want to, but trust me, I did my research,” while in the case of “cultural citations,” the author is appealing to some piece of rhetoric they believe their “side” of the debate has already shown to be true — they’re appealing to the authority of arguments they see themselves as already having won.

Just think about how ludicrously pointless that is. In both of the comments quoted above, the author is arguing that they’re right because their claims are all correct.

I bring up “cultural citations” not only to try to improve the ways in which we engage in political discourse, but to examine literary citations via the example. Normally, citations are universally understood to accurately reflect knowledge before being convinced of the argument’s conclusion, but with inherently ‘understood’ “cultural citations,” anyone unconvinced of the argument will immediately dismiss the claims being made due to an ignorance of and/or distrust in their sources. That just leads me to wonder what the experience of reading a piece of literary criticism would be like if I distrusted every citation.

And then I can segue into an example of exactly that.

How To Think About Books You Think You’ve Read

Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read argues that you don’t really need to read books to understand them and that there really isn’t such a thing as ‘reading’ as we think about it. He describes four different relations that you could have to a book: books you don’t know, books you’ve skimmed, books you’ve heard of, and books you’ve forgotten. Not that he doesn’t include either side of the read/haven’t read binary in that list.

He is, however, writing this all down in a book, and as a reader of that book, I had to ask myself the question “how does the fact of a reader’s consumption of his argument influence said argument?” Bayard’s two arguments — that you don’t need to read a book to understand it and that there’s no such thing as ‘reading’ as the word is traditionally defined — are influenced differently when their mode of conveyance is considered.

His argument on the first point is long and complicated, relying on another argument he makes about books, as they exist in the sphere of conversation, being informed more by the opinions that are known to be held by others regarding them than they are by the actual texts of the books themselves. In the book’s second section, “Literary Confrontations,” he covers all the scenarios in which discussion of books can arise, and demonstrates how someone who either has only heard of a book in passing or is learning about it for the first time, can more accurately just the book than someone who’s supposedly ‘read’ it. He does show that, in all those scenarios, someone can demonstrate that they’ve read a book without putting in the work required to actually do so, and this is what he bases success in these scenarios on — avoiding embarrassment. After all. the book is titled How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, it shouldn’t be surprising that it bases reading’s worth on whether it improves your ability to talk about books.

So, bearing in mind that the book assumes the farcical stance that reading a book is only valuable so long as it helps you avoid embarrassment, the reader’s actually taking the energy to read the book becomes an extension of the joke — you don’t read for the sake of others, reading is a process of personal enrichment. In this way, the book argues against one of its supposed theses, pointing out the problems with using breadth of book consumption as a status symbol within the literary community.

In regards to the other half of the thesis, since by reading the book, the reader flips the book’s first argument into an argument that reading is an activity motivated principally by personal enrichment, the argument that we’re incapable of actually ‘reading’ a book in the way we think we’re supposed to stands in stark opposition to the theory of personal gain. Bayard doesn’t allow for ‘reading,’ only skimming or forgetting. This invites the reader to think back over their ‘reading’ of the book and see how accurately those descriptors apply. There were likely parts that the reader only glossed over and he likely forgot enough of the closely-read rest of the book to make that ‘reading’ indistinguishable from skimming. Even if the reader memorizes the words, Bayard argues that actual reading requires putting oneself into the gaps in the language to actually understand what’s being said, and that experience of reading can’t be remembered with the language.

Bayard allows for the possibility that reading exists, but it surely isn’t something that can be claimed when talking about a book. We can ‘read’ a finite section of a book, but after the words are even slightly in the rearview, the experience of interpreting them is so foggy that we can only rightly describe our knowledge of that experience as skimming. That’s because Bayard thinks that books aren’t the words on the page, but the associations derived from them, which inevitably deteriorate in time. Just as, when discussing a book, an awareness of the opinions surrounding a book are more material than the text itself, when reflecting on a book, our memory of the reading experience — which is only ever imperfect — is the only thing of actual worth.

Updated: Reading About Citations

Secondary Sources:
-Bagnoli, Carla. “The Authority of Reflection.” Theoria: Revista De Teoria, Historia Y Fundamentos De La Ciencia, vol. 22:1, no. 58, 01 Jan. 2007, pp. 43-52. PDF File, Accessed: 24 Sept. 2017.

-Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read. New York, Bloomsbury USA, 2009. Print.

-Hansen, Hans V. “Whately on Arguments Involving Authority.” Informal Logic, vol. 26, no. 3, 01 Sept. 2006, pp. 319-340. PDF File, Accessed: 24 Sept. 2017.

-Hilgartner, Stephen. “The Sokal Affair in Context.” Science, Technology, and  Human Values, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 506-522. PDF File, Accessed: 24 Sept. 2017.

-Fish, Stanley. “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One”

-Nelson, Cary. “Reading Criticism.”

-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Truth. Web, Accessed 10-22-17

-Walton, Douglas. “The Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority.”
Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, vol. 74, no. 289, 01 July 1999, pp. 454-457. PDF File, Accessed: 24 Sept. 2017.

-Wimsatt/Beardsly. “The Intentional Fallacy”



Likely the Review of English Studies — for both primary and secondary sources.

Narrative (Ohio State)

Key Terms:
Citations, Argument from Authority, Intentional Fallacy

Primary Sources:

-Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read. Les Editions de Minuit. New York, Bloomsbury USA, 2009. Print. (Using it as both)

-Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel.” Print.

-Borges, Jorge Luis. “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain.” Print.\

-Gladwell, Malcolm. “Blink”

-King, Lovalerie. “Property and American Identity in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

-O’Brien, Flann. The Third Policeman. Flamingo Press. London. Print.

-Sokal, Alan. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Social Text, vol. 46/47, pp. 217-252. Web. Accessed: 10-22-17.

-Wallace, David. Infinite Jest. Back Bay Books, New York, NY. 2016. Print.

In the past week, I’ve taken more and more to the idea of writing about the validity of citations in critical writing. To summarize, I think I want to write about how literary critics will cite something in lieu of making an argument, which is known as an argument from authority. This sort of argument is flawed in two huge ways. First off, it presupposes that the writer has understood exactly what the person he or she is citing wrote. This is hazy territory, but it’s possible that this in itself is a violation of the intentional fallacy, depending on your viewpoint. So, I’m going to have to ask whether the author’s intention can ever be understood, then move on from there. The argument from authority is also problematic because there really isn’t any authority in literary studies. To make this claim, I’m going to have to come up with a working definition of truth to rely on which stipulates that there isn’t an actual authority on literary or philosophical matters. This is going to require me to cite something as part of my argument and therefore violate one of the premises on which it is based, so that should be interesting. I’ll also talk about people will oftentimes lazily cite things just as a way of passing the actual work of argumentation onto someone else, often without having really read and/or fully understood that person’s writing. That should sort of segue into the way that literary writing is done and the sense in the current form of practice, which I’m pretty eager to start just throwing garbage and screaming at (it’s so unnecessarily tedious and has all these fake authority complexes built into it to give it the illusion of thoroughness and technicality).
In preparation for compiling this list, I talked to Professor Maher and Steirer. I asked Professor Maher about where I could look for a definition of truth and papers on philosophy, and he directed me to great sources on that front. I then asked Professor Steirer about specific instances of lazy citations in literary writing and fictional accounts of same, and he came through with a ton of fantastic stuff, most of which I didn’t have occasion to put here, but will definitely read and (I’m sure) put in the paper.


I chose Narrative as my journal rather than the one I had previously because I first made my choice pretty arbitrarily and Narrative actually includes a lot of discussion about the ways in which stories are told, which could be useful to me.

I’m starting to think more about the relation between novels and criticism and the difficulty in understanding criticism at all. I think I’ll use the possible argument from authority inherent in citations to highlight a broader problem with the overall intelligibility of any writing. Essentially, my original point was that some authors rely on sources to make, rather than support, their arguments, which is an appeal to authority. However, I’m now more interested in the fact that the author always assumes that the reader isn’t familiar with the sources they’re citing and so the act of citing is essentially just a reference to that author’s reading of the text, which they slot in as support for their argument. It’s possible that the author could either be misappropriating the source’s argument (whether intentionally or not) or just fabricating an argument and bolstering it with a tangentially related source. Since the reader is obliged to believe the author’s reading of their sources since it’s unreasonable to expect the reader to have either read all those sources beforehand or to go read them afterwards, they’re relying on the author’s professed interpretation of their sources. However, for mere evidence the source exists as this infallible authority which authors are almost encouraged to exploit by the difficulty of doing the work required to use them properly and the improbability that someone will refute what is ultimately a reading (both a reading of the author’s use of the source and the author’s reading of that source).

So, I’ve added some sources to contrast the way in which novels and criticism are read and some other secondary sources needed to establish the position my essay will assume on truth, readership, the intentional fallacy, and knowability.

In my primary sources, …Books You Haven’t Read makes an argument about unintelligibility that I’m both going to use and push back against (I plan to argue that criticism is ultimately comprehensible despite the problems my analysis of citations points out) which also slots in nicely with “The Library of Babel.” My other primary sources complicate the ways in which citations are used, either by using them inappropriately (in the cases of Gladwell, Wallace, and Sokal) or by using them subversively (as Borges and O’Brien do). I’ll also discuss the ways in which Bayard and King (she talks about both primary and secondary sources and I figured that since I already did a pretty in-depth reading of the article, “why not use her?”) read novels and criticism to compare and contrast the two styles of reading with respect to my essay’s previous assertions about the limits of understanding written text.


I have no fucking clue what my focal text is. How to Write About Books you Haven’t Read sounds super on the nose, but I haven’t read it and happen to know that it’s had a pretty unremarkable publication history. Pierre Bayard hasn’t led that wild of a life either (his wiki page is two sentences followed by his bibliography).

So, I’m going to talk about Alan Sokal. Sokal and “The Sokal Affair” were introduced to me as something that I “probably wouldn’t be able to avoid” in my thesis — which I’ve been trying harder and harder to figure out ways to do the more I’ve learned about it (while I read an academic retrospective on the affair, the wikipedia page was more succinct and still accurate [as far as I can tell] so I’m mainly referring to that here).

Essentially, Sokal submitted an article titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text, in which he made an intentionally nonsensical argument about how the methods used to study quantum gravity have positive corollary implications for the burgeoning methods of postmodern criticism and philosophy, a school of thought which Social Text subscribed to. His modus operandi was to bait the journal with rhetoric they’d like and a conclusion that appealed to their philosophical and political sensibilities to see if he could get a crappy paper published in the hopes of pointing out that

My thesis is going to have something to do with the faulty  appeal to authority argument implicit in a lot of citations in literary criticism. So, even though the Sokal ‘Affair’ runs pretty tangentially to my topic, it’s going to be hard to talk about people getting away with pretending to know more than they do without bringing up this very famous incident.

However, I’m really hesitant to bring it up for a few reasons.

First off, the Social Text responded to Sokal’s admission of the hoax by saying that they’d asked him to make edits to the paper, but he was able to get away with refusing to do so because he was a well-known figure. That fact calls attention to a couple key points: A- it’s unclear how egregious of an oversight the paper’s publication was and B- Sokal’s celebrity was a very big factor that he didn’t properly take into account. Journals are businesses, and while there is an element of tacit endorsement that they lend to the papers they publish, their readers consist both of people who read everything in the journal because they trust it and people who want to read articles from specific, big names. So, journals have undue pressure on them to publish work from these big names. Therefore, for a big name like Sokal to single out this one journal is pretty unfair.

I’m also hesitant to talk about it because Sokal seems like an ass, got into an ill-tought-out argument with Derrida because of the paper (putting him on the wrong side of history), and because a “study” with the same goal was done much more scientifically to less fanfare before Sokal came along.

To linger on that second-to-last point: the Sokal ‘affair’ has a weird mix of pro and anti-intellectualism to it. If I do end up talking about it, this point will probably be my takeaway. While Sokal was supposedly motivated by a desire to point out a lack of thoroughness in academic work, he also discredited some valid intellectual work (such as Derrida’s philosophy) because it seemed too involved to him. That’s sort of like the opposite of having your cake and eating it too: pointing out that journals need to think really hard about and research the shit out of everything they consider publishing because it’s really hard to tell whether the author actually knows what she’s talking about while simultaneously not thinking hard enough about valid scholarly work because he didn’t want to waste time thinking about something that may have been bullshit.

One takeaway of the double edged sword of cynicism and guillibility this whole thing brings up is that academic-speak of the kind used by Sokal (and the author I’m presenting on tomorrow) really needs to be burned because it makes a really hard job even more difficult. There’s a sort of appeal to authority implicit in overly-complex writing — a suggestion that the author knows what he’s talking about because he can manipulate language and use the words oft associated with academic writing (trust me on this count — in my experience, this is usually a defense mechanism to mask ideological floundering on some level or another).

I’m over the word count so I guess I’ll figure out a more compelling takeaway at a later date (but don’t worry, I definitely know what to make of the whole thing — I read the wiki page).

EDIT: I wrote the title before I knew what I was writing and then I accidentally published without changing it. I was going to think of something that made sense, but then I realized that it actually worked with the writing — you have no choice but to assume it was an intentional statement about something or other, then you probably read a little bit of the post and figured it had something to do with incoherence, then got sort of pissed because it’s a really fucking pretentious thing to do. That works super well because that pretty closely parallels my thought process regarding Sokal’s stunt, which makes it infuriatingly applicable. Since it is applicable, you as the reader must have assumed it was intentional, while it was really a mistake. My concluding point was that it’s damn-near impossible to tell whether writers actually know what they’re doing, so it functions as a really good meta-point. However, the same mechanism that renders is valid (the fact that it was unknowably unintentional) also renders it invalid as an artistic statement because it was an accident and not a statement. Now that I’ve written this, affirming that it was an accident originally, you know it’s now intentional because I didn’t change it. I assume you think I’m a pretentious little shit for doing that, because that’s exactly what I think of Sokal, but since I know I’d hate me I’m somehow better (?).

Past Remembered and Told in ‘Beloved’

“The mind of him that knew her own. Her story was bearable because it was his as well–to tell, to refine and tell again. The things neither knew about the other–the things neither had word-shapes for–well, it would come in time: where they led him off to sucking iron; the perfect death of her crawling-already? baby” (116).

For both Sethe and Paul D, remembering the past is painful. However, as Sethe comes to realize, by sharing memories with Paul D, her past becomes his own (above) and this somehow renders the “intolerable” tolerable.

Telling stories of her past to Beloved gives Sethe a similar rejuvenating energy, but for the opposite reasons, “…as she began telling about the earrings, she found herself wanting to, liking it. Perhaps it was Beloved’s distance from the events, or her thirst for hearing it–in any case it was an unexpected pleasure” (69). Sethe’s words shouldn’t be taken at absolute face value here, since she’s been enchanted by Beloved (not a topic I have space to get into), but her assertion that she enjoys telling stories to Beloved because of her distance doesn’t seem to be thrown into question by this fact.

Beloved, likely being the incarnation of Sethe’s self-murdered crawling-already? girl, represents some aspect of the tantalizing allure and strange permanence (43) of history (adequately supporting this fairly fundamental claim would take up a lot of space, so I’m going to assume it’s pretty much a given). Morrison has constructed a binary with the relationships Between Sethe and her past through two different figures from that past. The reading of the entire text hinges on this duality: Paul D’s affair with Beloved (and so Sethe’s and his own history); Denver’s reliance on and strange attraction to Beloved (and the things unknown to and responsible for her being); and the very way in which storytelling morphs to and from subject and form throughout the novel.

In telling stories to both Beloved and Paul D, Sethe is able to cope with her past through its expression, but as I wrote above, this end seems to be achieve by opposite means with her two listeners — Paul D is a figure from her past who already knows her and continues to know her better, bit by bit, with the telling, while Beloved is the murdered daughter who simultaneously haunts her and remains totally oblivious who she is. Proximity and distance.

The two disparate experiences of Sethe’s past function in different ways, but they seem to enable each other to have an effect. Paul D came to 124, bringing Sethe’s past to her present, then beat away the baby’s ghost (22), leading it to return as Beloved. Sethe then went from telling her stories to beloved (more candidly than she had with Denver), to taking a further leap and sharing them with someone who actually knows them intimately.

Paul D is her history — they share a past. At the point of the first quote I selected, they know everything about each other other than that traumas that make their pasts painful in the first place, “where they led him off to sucking iron; the perfect death of her crawling-already? baby.”  Beloved is the source of Sethe’s pain. Now that Paul D has rendered it unable to haunt her as a spirit, it has descended on her to haunt her with the truth of its existence — the truth that it exists for everyone.

The Weirdest Part of ‘Illinois’

Disclaimer: While it would be untrue to say that the text I’m covering has nothing to do with my research, this has more to do with the forgiving definition (or lack thereof) of the current range of my inquiry than the focused attention I’ve laden on this artist. That being said, I do think of this text and its author quite a lot, so I may try to work them in somehow (but I’m highly dubious that I’ll actually put serious effort into doing so).

Disclaimer Two: I could probably pontificate at an unwilling listener about this album for the literal duration of my natural life, so while I’m going to knowledge that I’m barely going to scratch the surface here in hopes that I don’t try to do more, I’m going to try and just set up the connections without synthesizing them to avoid going over the word limit.

For a while, I would skip over “The Man of Metropolis Steal our Hearts” whenever I would listen to Illinois (Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 concept album about the state). I fucking loved the album, it was (and still is) my favorite album hands down, but I had no idea why he went from singing poignant ballads about wrongheaded teenage misanthropic, childhood sweethearts with cancer, and old ladies painfully reminiscing, to devoting a (six minute) song to Superman. It totally threw off my whole idea of the album and so I decided to just try to forget about it.

About a year after I first heard of the album, I saw a video of Stevens performing “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” (the one about the old lady [maybe — the gender of most of his narrators isn’t specified] I mention above). He and his bandmates stood on stage, all wearing the kind of fairy wings that parents buy for particularly girly girls. My first reaction when I saw the wings and saw the light sort of glitter off of what appeared to be glitter on his face was: “oh, that’s… oddly effeminate” — which I immediately regretted having thought, even while acknowledging that it was the most succinct phrasing of my genuine reaction.

To gloss briefly over that offputting statement (I swear I’ll come back to it): at the end of the introductory monologue, Stevens says, “maybe this is one of our theme songs for this tour, ’cause that’s why we all have wings on, it’s sort of to overcome my fear of flying things.” When I heard that, pieces immediately started to click together. When I began to think about it, I saw that flight was one of the main motifs on the album. From the UFOs on the opening track, to the Black Hawks on the next one, to the metaphorical “flight” of escape on “Chicago,” all the way to the predatory wasp of the song at hand (if you want to browse the full track listing to identify more instances, here it is), and, of course, to Superman (who’s even pictured flying on the album cover).

I then began to realize there were some more parallels between “The Man of Metropolis….” and “The Predatory Wasp…” Specifically, the former song espouses some pretty bold (though ironic/non-literal) statements about masculinity (“only a real man can be a lover… / only a steel man can be a lover”), while the latter stands in a very fragile relation to conceptions of gender (the narrator wears leg warmers, but Sufjan sings the song from his perspective / it’s not clear whether the love between the characters is a romantic or kindred one or even which gender the narrator is either way).

So, I began to associate flight with this struggle with masculinity, and then I realized that the motif of faith intersects with flight on “Casimir Pulaski Day” (“And the cardinal hits the window / … All the glory that the Lord has made / and the complications when I see His face / in the morning in window”) and with masculinity on “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” (the person referred to by the title being God… need I say more?) and “Casimir Pulaski Day” (The song’s namesake was a most likely transsexual military general / the indeterminate genders of the characters). Then, I realized fate and flight intersect on the title track with the UFO delivering the holy spirit unto some lowly cornfield.

With that simple guiding directive to focus on a specific element on the album, so much other shit just immediately popped out and began to intersect and this album that I knew and loved took on this vast, richer life in a matter of moments.

It was one of those spasmodic, beautiful moments of rapid-fire entanglements that overpower you with this overwhelming sense of density and scale. I stopped skipping “Man of Metropolis…” after that and, more importantly, I stopped trying to confine the import of someone else’s album to what made sense to me.

Re-purposing Reality in ‘Good Bye, Lenin’

“As I stared at the clouds that day, I realized that truth was a rather dubious concept — easily adapted to how Mother saw the world” (1:05:25).

This line is taken from the scene where Alex and Denis first shoot a fake news segment to account for a seeming irregularity in the world Alex has constructed for Christiane. This specific “report” was necessitated by the unfortunate placement of a giant “drink Coca Cola” banner on the one building that Christiane was able to view from her bed, her seeing of which brought an impromptu end to their slapdash parties with their neighbors and the (former (and impressively inebriated)) principle of Chrisitane’s (former) school. In order to try and explain how such a blatant capitalistic endorsement could be so proudly slung over the once hallowed condominium halls of their esteemed Socialist Germany, Alex decides to film a report outside of Coca Cola in which Denis details the unlikely story of how Coca Cola came to be integrated into a society in which it takes over three years to get a car.

From the very beginning, things don’t go as planned. An employee immediately walks into the shot and demands to see their permit, then storms inside to call the cops. However, instead of rushing to shoot the scene and get out before the balding harbringer of the sucralose-saturated free market, they decide to wait for the clouds to part and the lighting to improve.

In the final cut of the report that Alex shows to Christiane, a shot of the Coke employee trying to stop them from filming is used to show how, embarrassed by having to “meld with a factory in East Germany that actually invented Coca Cola,” the giant West-German conglomerate is trying to censor the press of the East. Christiane rightly points out that she thought Coca Cola was invented before the war, not in the 1950’s (and in America, not East or West Germany) as the report stated, but she readily dismisses that unsavory remembered fact for this new, fulfilling revelation that Coca Cola is a Socialist invention that the Capitalist West had tried to pry away from them. The reality of their situation — that they were rightfully prevented from filming without a permit in the attempt to concoct some far-flung lie — is able to be re-purposed into the truth of the lie they’re trying to tell.

The irony here is that truth isn’t being shaped to fit how Christiane sees the world, but how Alex sees it for her (and, as is revealed in the second half of the film, how he’d like Christiane to see him wanting it to be himself — which she (and he) ultimately does (/do)).

A further irony is that the realization Alex arrives out about truth by crafting his own for the sake of his mother, runs counter to the very socialism at the heart of his personal truth. The notion of a shared, objective reality seems to conform much more to the socialism he’s trying to proclaim still lives, than to the Nietzschian, forcefully imposed perspectivism (note the visual references to the beginning of Breathless in the scene where they all drive to the cabin). To my mind, the subjectivity implied by the phrase “dubious truth” seems much more akin to the free market he’s proclaiming they aren’t a part of.

As the film progresses, Alex’s ironic, dismissive attitude towards the politics of his upbringing dissipates as he’s made to keep it alive. In the scene where his money is refused he seems to have totally become the bitter East German he’d mocked earlier.

In having to create a reality out of reality and reinstate the universality of socialism out of his perspectivism (and fighting against the seemingly universal truth of his living in a dog-eat-dog free market), Alex is forced to repurpose the truth — both the truth of the outside world and his own, personal truth. His ironic dismissal of politics gave his mother a literal heart attack and so the only way to ensure her safety was to find some way to genuinely connect to the ideology he now had to keep alive.

So, sitting outside Coca Cola while the employee rings the cops, he looks at the clouds and waits for the sun to come out so he can show his mother their world as it really is(n’t).