1. Hamlet: human nature and the power of storytelling
In the early sixties, Laura Bohannan, an American anthropologist, performed an informal experiment in order to test her theory that “human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over.” Assuming that the general issues and concerns with which the great tragedies of Western culture engage are universal to all human beings, regardless of geography, history, ethnicity and culture, Bohannan expected that these tragedies would, if properly conveyed, have a powerful impact on any human being that encounters them. While conducting fieldwork in West Africa, she related the story of Hamlet to a group of tribal elders in order to test this theory: the Tiv, an African tribe who had never heard of Shakespeare, who had no inkling of the tradition of the Elizabethan stage, of the tragic genre, or of the existential resonances of “to be or not to be,” would, Bohannon reasoned, nevertheless respond to the central issues of the play — duty and loyalty, motive and madness, seeming and being, love and revenge — which, she thought, are themselves so profoundly unequivocal that they would strike a resonant chord in whoever hears this story.
“I began,” Bohannan recounts, “in the proper style”:
“Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”
“Why was he no longer their chief?”
“He was dead.” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”
“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted. “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch.”
This interruption is but one of many setbacks that Bohannan encounters. The Tiv elders debate whether Hamlet’s dead father is an omen, a zombie, or one of “the beings that lurk in the forest.” The ghost certainly can’t be an emanation of the dead king himself because, the elders astutely point out, “dead men can’t walk.” The nature of the ghost in Act I scene i is not the only issue subjected to serious debate: unmoved by Hamlet’s enraged soliloquy “Frailty, thy name is woman,” the elders applaud the marriage between Gertrude, the dead king’s widow, and her brother-in-law Claudius, explaining that “in our country also the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children.” They are, however, mystified by the fact that the dead king left only one widow in the first place, as a chief, they reason, must have many wives. They are shocked by Hamlet’s confrontation with Gertrude (“a man should never scold his mother”) and aghast at Hamlet’s resolution to murder his uncle Claudius, his father’s murderer and the unlawful usurper of the Danish throne: “for a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father — that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.” In the course of these arguments, discussions and debates, “Hamlet,” Bohannan realizes, “was clearly out of my hands,” and she ruefully concludes that while Hamlet “was a good story to them… it no longer seemed quite the same story to me.”
Since the publication of Bohannan’s account in her widely-discussed essay “Shakespeare in the Bush” this story about storytelling has provided grist for a number of critical mills. One might, of course, well be skeptical as to whether Bohannan recounts the plot of Hamlet in the first place: as she renders a dramatic genre as oral tradition, her struggles to convey the niceties of what she recalls of the plot and her impromptu translations of Western terms into local idioms may well obscure what she initially assumed was universal. The tribal elders (all male) are explicitly condescending towards Bohannan, a stance that dictates both their interventions into and evaluations of her story: “That was a very good story,” the old man (head of the elders) benevolently concludes, “and you told it with very few mistakes… Sometime,” he continues “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning.” Further, Bohannan recounts this exchange through subtle rhetorical gestures that invite another type of condescension: “the playfully ironical tone in which Bohannan relates her encounter with the Tiv assumes a certain complicity with her Western readers, many of whom might smile at the Tiv’s reaction as naïve, ignorant, out of place” (2), writes Gabriele Schwab, adding that “[Bohannan’s] ironical tone, at the surface directed at her own belief in the universality of art and human nature, falls back on the Tiv, exposing them for the amusement of Bohannan’s own cultural peers” (3).
As we can see, the complex interactions between a story, its teller, the way it is told, and the audience to whom it is directed tell an additional story about the complexities of cultural contact. Bohannan and the Tiv tribal elders collaborate in producing and establishing the story of Hamlet, but in the course of doing so they unwittingly generate many other stories: stories about patriarchy, about the legacies of colonialism, about the workings of hegemony, about the function of ideology in the science of anthropology, about the subtle machinations of narrative voice. The story of Hamlet, then, cannot be dissociated from those additional stories about the complex interactions and balances of power — cultural, economical and political — that inform the existence of human beings on this planet.
What can we learn, then, from “Shakespeare in the Bush”? One of this story’s most explicit lessons appears to be how Bohannan’s naïve assumption of the universality of her own culture is powerfully disproved in her attempt to relate the story of Hamlet to the Tiv. However, the Tiv elders conclude the storytelling session with a powerful reiteration of this very assumption: “People are the same everywhere,” the tribal elder informs Bohannan as he concludes the discussion of the story she, and the other elders, have told. If it proves anything at all, “Shakespeare in the Bush” proves that it is in stories and storytelling that the notion of “human nature” is established, perpetuated, and affirmed. It is in this work of storytelling, not in Bohannan’s Eurocentric assumption of the “universality” of this remnant of Elizabethan England’s theatrical tradition, nor in the Tiv’s concerns with genealogical structures, patterns of respect, and the workings of witchcraft that inform their own understanding of Hamlet, that Bohannan and the Tiv mutually assert their human identity. While the content of Hamlet may not produce a single, tangible, immutable, universal human identity, telling the story does.
Walter Benjamin says that “the storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself” (109). I would add that the story and its telling enables humankind — righteous or not — to recognize itself as such. We are the stories we tell about ourselves, be they mythological, historical, philosophical, or literary. That these stories slip relatively easily from their specific cultural contexts and historical origins into broader claims about “human nature” — as Hamlet does, not only for Bohannan but also for the Tiv — is but an index of the extent to which stories, like ideologies, function on so profound a level that their cultural and political operations are invisible from the vantage-point of the identities that they work to produce. Therefore, what Frank Kermode refers to as “the world’s remaking of Everyman in Hamlet’s image” (1135) can be productively addressed if we focus on the work of “remaking” rather than on what Kermode assumes may or may not constitute “the world.” The presumption of Hamlet’s universality, mutually affirmed by both Bohannon and the Tiv, extends the power of stories beyond their unique and specific functions in cultural identity to the production of a global identity, implicitly defining who does or does not participate in the story that humanity tells about itself.
Perhaps the most crucial work in the humanities in the second half of the twentieth century has been to explore stories like Hamlet for what they leave out, emphasizing the untold or silenced stories that, historically, have worked to exclude some types of people from other people’s definition of the human. Telling these stories will, the assumption goes, expand the notion of the “human” to include what is heuristically termed “the Other”: women, non-Westerners, the alternately-gendered, the economically underprivileged, the subaltern, the illiterate, the illegitimate, the dispossessed. Reading texts like Hamlet for what they leave out, gloss over or overlook provides an opportunity to tell the silenced stories of those who had been excluded, symbolically enabling them to recognize themselves, and to be recognized by others, as human beings deserving of their own stories. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, for example, Tom Stoppard casts a whimsical light on two marginal characters who are conjured out of nothingness to provide a foil for Hamlet’s character, and are then casually disposed of when their usefulness for the plot has run its course. In a more somber vein, Virginia Woolf imagines the brief, wasted, tragic life of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister in A Room with a View.
The crucial role of telling silenced, absent or muted stories cannot be taken too lightly. Much recent philosophical work has focused on the severe ethical dilemmas posed by the necessity to render justice towards those who cannot tell their story, or have not had their stories told. Jean-François Lyotard, in his seminal study The Differend, addresses precisely this problem: what would happen, he asks, if an event occurred that was so terrible, so extreme, so horrific that those who were subjected to it were rendered incapable of describing it? How does such an event enter into history? How can we prove that it really did happen? And most importantly: what kind of justice can be rendered to the victims who cannot tell the stories of their suffering, their torment, their distress?
To exclude human beings from the story humanity tells about itself is to exclude those human beings from the category of humanity, facilitating the denial of their human rights as well as contributing to a cultural blindness towards and amnesia about their history, their suffering and their struggle. Claiming these rights, memories and recognitions is especially difficult for the people in question precisely because their story — absent, silenced or wordless — cannot be heard by those who might be in a position to remedy these ills. As Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe learned all too well, your expulsion from humanity makes it all too easy for your fellow-human beings to ignore your suffering, regardless of its visibility, its proximity, its mute or anguished eloquence. “This is the case,” Lyotard writes, “if the victim is deprived of life, or of all his or her liberties, or of the freedom to make his or her ideas or opinions public, or simply of the right to testify to the damage” (5).
The contemporary insistence in the humanities on telling silenced or absent stories invites the storytellers to become more cognizant of, and hence (hopefully) perhaps more responsible for, their own social and political privilege. Further brought under scrutiny is the notion of “telling” (who tells? to whom? under what circumstances? in what language?), and the “story” (what constitutes a story? who gets to be its subject? its audience? does it have to have a beginning, middle and end? does it have to be communicable? translatable? culturally specific? does it have to make sense?). But in any case, stories (however defined) must be told (in whatever way possible). Only then can the invisible become visible, the forgotten remembered, the historically silenced empowered to speak. Only then can the term “humanity” and its corresponding concern, human rights, be an ethically tenable term; and only then can “human” be an ethically tenable identity.
2. The mundane as a site for cultural identity and difference
A useful way to think of the mundane is as a story that, we assume, does not need to be told. If something is mundane, we assume, it is something with which everybody is so well acquainted that relating these details is not only boring but redundant. The assumption that the mundane does not bear examining is the same assumption as that of a story that does not need telling. But it is precisely these stories that we assume are so self-evident they don’t need to be told that play crucial roles in determining who we are and, more crucially, what we exclude, silence and ignore in order to maintain this determination. In other words, our own identities — personal, social, cultural, and human — are circumscribed by the mundane, the untold story — and this untold story must remain untold if our assumptions about our own identity are to remain intact.
Another lesson we can glean from “Shakespeare in the Bush” is how Bohannan’s specific assumption of what is “universal” about Hamlet, what makes it appeal to “human nature the world over,” gets lost as she tries to communicate this presumed universality to a radically different culture. For example, it never occurred to Bohannan to wonder whether Hamlet’s father and uncle were born from the same mother, or who Ophelia’s male relatives (besides Laertes and Polonius) were, but this information is crucial for the Tiv elders, who sternly instruct her to investigate this issue upon her return to her home country so that the “truth” of the story of Hamlet can be revealed. What Bohannan considered to be self-evident, then, turns out to be of crucial and urgent interest to her interlocutors, and in spelling out her assumptions she — and we, her readers — realize how strange and exotic our own culture appears, not only to those who are radically different from us, but also to ourselves.
“Hamlet’s dead father spoke,” Bohannsn relates, still trying to begin the story of Hamlet:
“Omens can’t talk!” the old man was emphatic.
“Hamlet’s dead father wasn’t an omen. Seeing him might have been an omen, but he was not.” My audience looked as confused as I sounded. “It was Hamlet’s dead father. It was a thing we call a ‘ghost.'” I had to use the English word, for unlike many of the neighboring tribes, these people didn’t believe in the survival after death of any individuating part of the personality.
“What is a ‘ghost’? An omen?”
“No, a ‘ghost’ is someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him.”
They objected. “One can touch zombies.”
“No, no! It was not a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat. No one else made Hamlet’s dead father walk. He did it himself.”
“Dead man can’t walk,” protested my audience as one man.
I was quite willing to compromise. “A ‘ghost’ is the dead man’s shadow.”
But again they objected. “Dead men cast no shadows.”
“They do in my country,” I snapped.
When the mundanities of our existence are scrutinized, the underlying assumptions that inform and dictate our social and cultural identities are highlighted; consequentially, we are forced both to confront them and question ourselves. What Bohannan never thought to examine is what the Tiv focus on as crucial, and the dialogue that ensues through the telling of Hamlet raises crucial questions and issues that reveal a great deal about both Bohannan’s culture and the culture with which she is in conversation. As Bohannon continues with the story, one of the listeners asks who married the dead chief’s (Hamlet’s father’s) other wives:
“He had no other wives,” I told him.
“But a chief must have many wives! How else can he brew beer and prepare food for all his guests?”
I said firmly that in our country even chiefs had only one wife, that they had servants to do their work, and that they paid them from tax money.
It was better, they returned, for a chief to have many wives and sons who would help him hoe his farms and feed his people; then everyone loved the chief who gave much and took nothing — taxes were a bad thing.
I agreed with the last comment, but for the rest fell back on their favorite way of fobbing off my questions: “That is the way it is done, so that is how we do it”
Bohannan is reluctant to address the underscoring narratives that prescribe monogamy, feminism, and division of labor, but her account of this exchange brings these narratives, together with their historical origins and developments, clearly into view. In this manner, what was so mundane that it did not bear consideration becomes visible as a complex series of cultural constructs that underscore Bohannan’s culture and strongly distinguish her culture from the Tiv’s. In context of cultural exchange, then, the mundane becomes the site upon which difference is established, debated, discussed.
Studies like those encouraged by the Journal of Mundane Behavior explore how addressing the mundanities of our everyday existence reveals crucial truths about ourselves and our lives that, once put to scrutiny, expose the richness and diversity of what we may have assumed did not bear examination. What aspires to the status of the mundane, how (if at all) it achieves mundanity and what this mundanity enables, excludes and prohibits may, I submit, serve as a crucial locus for exploring not only social, cultural, gender difference and diversity but, more significantly, the “human” part of the humanities: what is it that makes us human? Is the fact or the assumption of our humanity is as much a given as we might like it to be? One way to imagine a work of the mundane in the humanities, then, is to focus on how telling stories both renders their cultural, ideological, and political purpose shockingly explicit and, equally shockingly, covers it up.
How mundane is telling stories? We do it all the time: in introductions, on resumés, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. The telemarketer who wants to tell you about a wonderful new opportunity to increase your frequent-flyer mileage is telling you a story and even inviting you to participate in this story by signing on to the deal. The waiter who tells you today’s specials is telling you a story, and your order (diet coke, salad, and that sinful chocolate pie) tells a similar story about you. Even the sickeningly generic “Hi, how are you today?” and your equally sickeningly generic “Fine, thank you, how are you?” participate in the construction of a societal myth of an open, friendly, caring community. Governments, legal systems, international and domestic politics, as well as our health — both mental and physical — and the intimacies we do or do not manage to maintain are driven by the stories we tell and by how successful these stories are in serving our personal and political agendas. Much as the telling and the retelling of myths is the foundation of society and the means of its perpetuation, telling stories makes us social beings and form the grounds for intimacy. “This is who I am,” the storyteller says, and her auditor responds similarly.
But every story we tell is haunted by the story we didn’t tell, and every element we choose to include in our tale is shadowed by what we decided — consciously or unconsciously — to omit. In this way, telling stories works not only to communicate crucial information about ourselves, but also, and equally, to cover up additional, equally crucial information. David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago opens with the following exchange, which illustrates well how telling stories works both to communicate and dissimulate. Two men are talking in a bar:
Danny: So how’d you do last night?
Bernie: Are you kidding me?
Bernie: Are you fucking kidding me?
Bernie: Are you pulling my leg?
Bernie: So tits out to here so.
The subject of the story Bernie is about to tell is clear, so clear that it doesn’t, for him, seem worth mentioning. At the same time, Bernie rhetorically couches his story as a cover-up: he responds to Danny’s inquiries by assuming a stance of disbelief towards his own untold story, and it is this stance of disbelief that Danny responds to with eagerness, as if the disbelief, and not the sexual encounter, is the story to which he is listening so avidly. Finally, this conversation demonstrates how what goes without saying both establishes an intimate community (between two men) and marks its limits (in their encounters with women).
Viewed through the prism of the mundane, then, stories cover up as much as they reveal. And it is this ability to dissimulate, as much as our ability to communicate, that mark us as human and hence presumably deserving of “human rights.” Were we not able to (somewhat) dissimulate, we would inevitably be labeled as psychotic and denied some of those human rights. Thus, while ostensibly serving as the currency to purchase intimacy, stories also work to efface their own use-value, as intimacy, once achieved, is so often perpetuated by the stories we don’t need to tell each other. “How was your day today?” “Fine.” “Anything exciting happen at school?” “No,” are not necessarily surly expressions of alienation, but rather markers of an intimacy that exists by virtue of their reference to stories that don’t, or no longer, need to be shared: you already know who I am, so I don’t need to tell you my story. But these markers, while they establish and perpetuate intimacy, equally mark intimacy’s impossibility and make a disorienting statement about intimacy’s limits. The story we don’t need to tell may well be the story we need to keep secret: the information we may share on such a deep level that it does not bear putting into words may also and equally be information that, once it is put into words, would drive us apart. Many relationships — not only familial or marital ones — are cemented by precisely such a pact of silence. In other words, stories that cannot be told and stories that must not be told cannot be easily distinguished.
3. Those stories that cannot be told
Given the centrality of stories in the construction of the human, and the crucial imperative to tell silenced or absent stories, it makes sense to turn our attention to the presence and operation of stories that insist, overtly or covertly, on their own untellability. Such stories, present yet absent, silent but volubly so, teeter at the limits of the human, and serve as uneasy repositories for what we know, for what we think we know, or for what we may know all too well.
It is precisely these stories with which Hamlet both begins and concludes. The story of Hamlet is set into motion with Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost who urges Hamlet to revenge his dead father. But Hamlet does not recognize the ghost as his dead father until the ghost identifies himself and informs Hamlet of the presence of an untellable tale:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires.
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fearful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood (I.v.9-23).
If telling a story like Hamlet constructs the universality of human nature, as it did for Bohannon and the Tiv, what do we do with this story that opens Hamlet, this untellable story about what it means to not be human? The story the ghost does tell sets the play’s action in movement and produces the concerns, issues and existential doubts that, Kermode and Bohannan assume, constitute human nature. But it is the story the ghost cannot tell that establishes the limits of human nature, strongly demarcating between flesh-and-blood humanity and its radical other — a demarcation that was, to Bohnannon’s surprise, immediately apparent to the Tiv . While telling previously silenced stories may reflect an attempt to make the concept of the human more inclusive, then, it is this untold, untellable story that marks humanity’s limits: in this case, the crucial distinction between the living and the dead.
The untellable story that the ghost relates to Hamlet, a story about the limits of the human, is echoed by the untold story with which Hamlet ends. As Hamlet dies on a poisoned sword, he instructs his loyal friend Horatio to “report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied” (V.ii.339-338) and, as the rightful king of Denmark, lends his “dying voice” to Fortinbras’ succession (V.ii.356). In the final moments of the play, Horatio steps into the void filled by Hamlet’s death and fills it with the promise of a story: “So shall you hear,” he assures Fortinbras and his entourage,
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause
And in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fallen on the inventors’ heads: all this can I
Truly deliver. (V.ii.380-385)
Promising to retell and deliver what we have just seen unfold, Horatio summarizes and characterizes the action as a wild and woolly tale, the telling of which will, paradoxically, establish order and stability in Denmark’s “rotten state.” The violence and instability performed on the stage, the radical existential doubts that the title character repeatedly voices, the devastating implications of the bloody revenge that the ghost urged Hamlet to exact — all these are, at the conclusion of the play, securely confined to a story that Horatio promises to tell, a story that, in its telling, itself promises to restore order, insure safety, and guarantee a future. If the story the ghost could not tell marked the difference between the living and the dead, the story Horatio promises to tell establishes the continuity between past and future.
But the story Horatio promises to “truly deliver” is, also, a story that will never be told. Presumably, this is because we already know it: after all, we were there, as readers, viewers, audience, actors, and what we know already does not bear retelling. Or does it? Horatio has a significant task, a very important story to tell, and he must tell it in a very precarious political situation. If the play did include Horatio’s version of Hamlet’s story, the story Hamlet would morph into the story of Horatio’s storytelling skills, rhetorical mastery, political acumen and diplomacy — all additional stories that are gestured towards but remain untold, as Horatio’s promise at the end of the play gestures towards a story but, like the ghost, renders this story untellable. Horatio’s promise to tell this story, then, works as a cover-story, a story that claims to both provide the “real” story and to establish the “real” story’s “truth.” Both the untellable story to which the ghost refers, and the untold story towards which Horatio gestures, work to demonstrate how telling a story (an action that, we have seen, works to construct and perpetuate the notion of humanity) is demarcated by the limits of storytelling.
Stories must begin and end somewhere. But just as Hamlet did not begin with Hamlet’s birth, it does not end with his death; rather, Hamlet begins and ends with the promise of a story that cannot, will not be told. Given the prominent role that Bohannon and the Tiv assigned to the story Hamlet in the construction of a universal human nature, the untold, untellable stories that demarcate “Hamlet” both gesture towards the limits of stories and storytelling. If telling a story establishes what it means to be human, the untellable, untold stories play a special role in this definition: both, I argue, mark humanity’s limits. But what lies beyond these limits? How are these limits approached? What role do they play in what it means to be “human”?
4. Roswell, New Mexico: close encounters of the mundane kind
I have a medical condition that requires several injections per day. A couple of months ago, on a road trip with a friend in New Mexico, the bottle containing my medication broke, and I had to procure this medication from a pharmacy in Roswell. In the short period of time when I had no medication, I was in bad physical shape: dizzy, disoriented and shaky; I couldn’t eat, was afraid to sleep, and had difficulty seeing; walking and talking were almost impossible. The head pharmacist in the local Roswell pharmacy was immensely helpful and managed to negotiate the intricacies of my health-care plan quickly and efficiently. Soon I was in possession of my medication, and, as my relieved travel companion informed me, I had become, once again, “human.”
My episode at Roswell brought into high relief just how fragile our definition of “humanity” is, and how strongly it relies on activities all too easily taken for granted: walking, talking, eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating, engaging in sexual activity, driving to work, holding a job or even applying for one — all are activities so easily taken for granted that we tend to relegate them to the “mundane,” “ordinary,” “humdrum” and “everyday”; and those who cannot take these activities for granted are considered “special,” “exceptions,” their hard-fought-for “human rights” still very much under siege. My friend’s remark, while meant to be humorous, did bring to the fore this crucial fact: my acquisition of my medication did not, itself, restore me to humanity. Rather, it enabled me to reclaim mundanity: the privilege of easily dismissing the commonplace, the everyday; the luxury of being able to eat, sleep, walk and talk without having to think too hard about it.
I recently attended a conference that included a panel on disability studies and was struck by the similarity of the rhetoric of disability studies and the rhetoric of ethnic studies: both emphasized that the “difference” their subject portrayed was in no way a value judgement but rather an opportunity for celebrating the infinite diversity of humankind — most crucially, the resilience, strength, and imagination that human beings are capable of evincing when confronted with formidable challenges. The significant difference between the two areas of studies, however, resided in this purpose of the stories they told: while ethnic difference is seen as a source of richness and strength, something to be celebrated and explored and certainly not abolished, disability studies maintain the celebration of difference while simultaneously working to advocate the dismissal of these differences: finding cures for these diseases that render people dis- or differently abled; not only working against the stigmas that these people with disabilities face, but doing away with their disabilities altogether. In other words, in ethnic studies telling your story is a celebratory affirmation of your presence, your voice, your body, your humanity; in disability studies, your story is a story that you tell in the hopes that it need never be told again.
So we are left with these questions: what role does mundanity, or the possibility of mundanity, play in the construction of humanity? Regardless of what such mundanity consists of — driving a car, cooking rice, or herding water buffalo — is it possible to be human in the utter absence of the mundane? From this question, another arises: what happens to our own humanity when confronted with the utter absence of the mundane? And finally, what role do stories — those that are told as well as those that are untold or untellable, play in such situations?
It was with these thoughts that, the following day, my humanity presumably intact, I visited International UFO Museum and Research Center at Roswell and viewed artifacts and documents pertaining to the mythical alien autopsy. There is nothing mundane, I mused, about the alien body. Even its eerie similarity to our own is a cause for uncanny unease. Confronted with the alien body, it is not only the mundanities of bodily functions that are a powerful source for wonder and fear, but the even more intimate details: the shape and color of the organs, the texture and density of the brain, the miniscule complexity of the endochrines, the molecular structure of the blood, the bones, the skin.
If we may dismiss the mundanity of bodily functions in as criteria for our construction of the human, surely, one reasons, we cannot dismiss the mundanity of the body itself. The presence of a body should be one thing that a human being can take for granted. However challenging or unusual such a body may be, however well or badly it is treated, the rights and restrictions that are granted it or denied, regardless of who may own it or think they own it, to be human, you have to have a body. We would not, presumably, grant human rights to the ghosts, to the dead; it is with supreme difficulty that we claim human rights on behalf of the missing, the abducted, the disappeared. One has merely to think about the debates surrounding abortion in order to realize that it is the presence or absence of a fetus’ body — however that body is defined — that determines whether its disposal is or is not murder. But the image of an alien body powerfully forces a reconsideration of this assumption. The presence of an alien body not only calls into question the mundanity of our bodily functions, it questions the mundanity of our bodies per se. Its proximity to our own bodies challenges the very concept of our humanity, repeatedly informing us that “we are not alone.” The presence of the alien body, then, tells a story about the limits of the human, and the muteness of this body reminds us that its story, like the ghost’s story in Hamlet, is a story that cannot be told.
The fact that this story is told, and told over and over again in books, journals, films, news reports, and other mediums of popular and not-so-popular culture, recalls the retelling of Hamlet that Horatio promised at the end of the play — a story that, while we may think we have heard it, we will never hear; while we may think that we know it, we will never know. That is why the story of the alien spacecraft landing in Roswell is inseparable from an additional story, the story of its own silencing: the cover-up story produced by the government to replace and obscure the truth while claiming to uncover the facts.
UFO Crash at Roswell: the genesis of a modern myth is a study of the Roswell Incident phenomenon and its function in contemporary society. In their “Introduction,” the authors note that “the event that members of the community regard as the single most important UFO case is the alleged government cover-up of the recovery of a crashed flying saucer and the bodies of its crew at a site new Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947” (x). That “the single most important UFO case” is, for the authors of this study, not the crashed flying saucer outside of Roswell but, rather, “the alleged government cover-up,” tellingly demonstrates how at Roswell, at the limits of the mundane, and at the limits of the human, the ghost’s untellable story and Horatio’s untold story merge: the story of the limits of the human is the story of its own silencing.
What we can learn from the Roswell myth — and a myth is story that plays a crucial function in our own self-definition — is where our humanity resides: not in the stories we tell ourselves, but rather, in the stories we don’t tell ourselves, and, most crucially, the stories we can’t tell ourselves. At the same time, however, the mythology surrounding Roswell has produced a tremendous array of cultural artifacts: the authors of UFO Crash at Roswell note that “vials of earth from the crash site are available from mail-order entrepreneurs whose advertisements in UFO journals urge readers to spend $10 to purchase ‘your very own piece of UFO history” (xi), and the prominence and popularity of the X-Files series both in contemporary U.S. culture and abroad indicate that this untellable, untold story is the locus of the production of the limits of our humanity — and a lucrative one at that. To conclude, we don’t encounter the limits of humanity when we confront the aliens, just as Bohannon didn’t when she confronted the Tiv. Rather, we produce humanity’s limits, just as we produce our humanity in the stories we tell, or think we tell, about ourselves.
5. Jerry Springer: the mundane, the outlandish, and the limits of the human
This essay ends where so much of the Journal of Mundane Behavior starts: The Jerry Springer Show. As the managing editor of this journal succinctly puts it, “most of us don’t lead Jerry Springer lives,” meaning, one presumes, that most of us don’t consider a raucous television show as the forum in which to assert our sexual proclivities, investigate lifestyle changes, and address formidable relationship issues in dialogue with a boisterous and rowdy studio audience. Nor do most of us, presumably, recognize such proclivities, changes and issues in the everyday fabric of our lives and those of our family and friends. But before we dismiss the content of the Jerry Springer show as hopelessly exotic and hence unfit material for this journal, we should take a brief look at the form and style in which the show is couched.
Not the least significant of these is Springer’s “final word” at the end of each episode, in which he earnestly rephrases some of the issues raised during the show in typically trite and hackneyed platitudes like, “consider the implications of your actions,” “respect yourself” or even (gasp!) “respect others” — platitudes that, themselves mundane, serve the purpose of creating a bridge between the outlandish behavior on the screen and our own relatively boring lives. But the fact that these are platitudes, and that we presume they are mundane, works to obscure the extent to which these phrases, so familiar that they fall on deaf or deadened ears, are simultaneously crucial reminders of the tireless work and infinite complexity that creating a human community requires — work and complexity that philosophers of ethics and ethical practice have been wrestling with for over two thousand years.
If the cross-dressing three-breasted ten-year-old stripper who informs her ancient fiancé that she is having an affair with his thrice-divorced godmother needs to consider the implications of her actions, how much more so do we, as we neglect to recycle, fail to tip generously, or cut some poor soul off in traffic, need to consider these implications? Jerry’s platitudes that close each “Springer” episode reveal how it is precisely through the mundane that we can, if we are sufficiently attentive, realize the relevance of the exotic and the bizarre to our own humdrum lives. If we take into consideration that some of the world’s most profound suffering appears as hopelessly bizarre images on our television screens which we glance at casually as we munch our dinner or talk on the phone waiting for the next installment of “Survivor!”, we can see how it might be possible to utilize mundanity in order to render ourselves more attentive towards, rather than callously oblivious to, the suffering of our fellow human beings.
How can we utilize mundanity, though? What kind of stories do we need to tell about the mundanities of our existence that will turn these mundanities into useful tools for the betterment of humanity? I want to begin to answer these questions by focusing on that element of The Jerry Springer Show so integral to the show itself but too often and easily dismissed from it: the electronic bleeps that replace the expletives and obscenities that characterize so much of the participants’ speech. It should, I think, surprise us that a talk show, for which speech, storytelling, testimonies and accounts are the most elemental constituents, is so profoundly characterized by the limits of speech (would a Jerry Springer show be a Jerry Springer show without these bleeps?) Significantly, these limits of speech are not imposed by the speaker, the moderator or the audience, but by the regulative procedures, determined and maintained by popular demand, that monitor acceptable public speech. These bleeps and silences, then, like Jerry’s address to the camera at the end of each episode, are conduits of mundanity that link the Jerry Springer show to the culture that generated it and that is therefore (however much we may deny ever stooping so low as to actually watch Jerry Springer) reciprocally generated by it.
It is, perhaps, ironic that what is generally termed obscene, and hence unacceptable for public speech, refers in the main to the mundane — specifically, the body and its sexual or excretory functions. The term “motherfucker,” for example, while perhaps alluding to a sexual act that itself is culturally unacceptable and hence relatively rare, is no more than a reference to one of the most foundational Western Classical myths — the story of Oedipus — a myth which, thanks to Freud, is still alive and kicking in contemporary popular theories of the human psyche. The social and cultural distrust of obscenity that informs the bleeps over much of your standard Jerry Springer episode is, then, itself a manifestation of reticence towards expressions of the mundane — as if telling the stories we know so well might pose a serious threat to our society.
Should we be surprised at the idea that telling the untold stories of the mundane can be perceived as an act of such potential violence that the mere reference to mundane activities needs be banned from the public domain? Not, I submit, if we keep in mind the interrelation between the mundane, storytelling, the untellable, untold story and the construction of the human. In my discussion of Bohannon and the Tiv, I mentioned the manner in which spelling out the story of the mundane makes us strangers to ourselves. If storytelling produces and perpetuates our construction of the human, and the limits of stories are humanity’s limits, the mundane rests on precisely that crux: its presence is necessary for being human, but its story cannot be told — for investigating the parameters of the mundane will radically distort our assumption of our own humanity.
In Roswell, the total and utter absence of the mundane merges the untellable story with the untold story, a merging that, I argue, produces the limits of the human. In Jerry Springer, the presence of the mundane is also and equally its absence — the expletives are spoken, but they are also effaced; even though we can’t hear them, we know what they are. The presence of the mundane in its absence conjoins the presence of stories we can, and must, tell, with the absent stories we assume we know, but cannot relate. That this occurs in the moment of translation between the bizarre and the mundane, between the wild goings-on on the screen and our casual glances towards it in our familiar living-rooms, relocates the limits of the human from something that we produce to something that we perform. The limit of our humanity is not something we encounter like beings from outer space, it is not something we flee from as we flee from a ghost or a zombie. The limit of our humanity is what we are.
I want to conclude this discussion by urging a rethinking of humanity, in the humanities, as something that is identified by its own limit. As we persist in telling untold stories, in extending our definition of the human beyond its culturally-established parameters, we need, I argue, to think about whether we want to extend this definition indefinitely, assessing all our close encounters in its terms, or, rather, whether we want to relocate and assimilate it into our own identity. If we continue with the former, we are maintaining the assumption that “the human” has its limits. Further, if we extend the limits of humanity in order to include those who were previously excluded from it, we are still, on some level, appropriating those who were excluded into our own, self-ish, terms. If we embrace the latter, however, we can work to identify this otherness inside ourselves, facilitating the concept that engaging with the Other is self-engagement, and rendering each encounter with difference as an occasion for self-examination, rather than an opportunity for conceptual appropriation. And if looking at the mundane can reveal how the limit of our humanity lies deep inside us, rather than somewhere in our outer reaches, we may well be in a position to recognize our identity with and responsibility towards the infinite diversity of beings who share our planet. Perhaps then we won’t need aliens to remind us that we are not alone.
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Schwab, Gabriele. The Mirror and the Killer-Queen: Otherness in Literary Language. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
Author: Naomi Mandel grew up in Israel. She has just completed her PhD in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, and is currently packing up her life and moving it to the University of Rhode Island, where she will be teaching contemporary American literature and culture. This essay was composed at a diner in Roswell, a coffee-house in Los Angeles, and an airport in Detroit.