May 12, 2010

Three abstracts
(Response to CFPs; on narrative structures; 1st draft)

1. Closure is Bullshit: The narratological problems of unclosed cases

James Ellroy, the brassy crime writer whose own mother was murdered, has said that if he could abolish one concept from the common parlance, it would be “closure.” He has often loudly proclaimed that “closure is bullshit.” “Closure” is not just a term bandied about in pop therapy, however. It’s also a key element of successful narratives, something that narratives of murder are supposed to provide, and it is one of the basic ways in which death is given structure and sense in modern society. Contemporary, common understandings of death, especially violent death, are shaped and given shape by the conventions of narrative, especially conclusions. The confusing, random and meaningless nature of murder is given form and, thus, coherence, by being shaped into a story. These constructs are terribly fragile, though, and only provide a paper-thin protection against the nonsensicalness of violent murder. Narrative gives a sense of understanding, without any actual understanding. With an eye to Niklas Luhmann’s argument against the consensus model of society and to Rene Girard’s theory of the founding function of scapegoats, this paper examines the way that fragility is exposed by the failure to find closure in three narrative presentations of “unclosed cases.” Considering James Ellroy’s autobiographical My Dark Places, David Fincher’s film Zodiac, and newspaper accounts of the 2006 identification of a woman four years after she was found dead in a lake, this paper argues it is only failed narratives that do justice to the complexity of murder in modern society.

2. The Other Answer: A reappraisal of New Journalism

There is a real alternative. There is another answer. Instead of the instant news cycle, the bloggers and twitters, the automated aggregators and commentators commenting on commentators, another form of journalism is possible. The time is right for a re-evaluation of the mostly-forgotten long-form journalists: Careful writers, craftsmen and women with two-, six- and ten-thousand-word pieces that are interesting, easy to read and – more! – worth reading even after a couple of days. This paper argues that New Journalism, that experimental reporting style of the 1960s and ’70s, is a viable alternative to current media trends. Using the author’s own experience as a newspaper reporter as well as making a careful consideration of relevant issues in literary theory and media criticism, this paper argues that the troubling trends of today are not just responses to market forces and technological changes, but also answers to a certain set of unarticulated questions. Those questions, almost rigorously avoided in current discussions of new media and new directions for media, go to the heart of journalism. Those questions, such as why one writes like this, and what news is actually for, can be made explicit by a comparison with New Journalism, which actually asked the questions, and then answered them in a dramatically different way. Contrasting the works of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and Hunter S. Thompson with current media stars such as Mike Allen, Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, this paper elucidates the root questions of contemporary media choices, and demonstrates a viable alternative: the vibrant, thoughtful, innovative and informative media form that was mostly rejected, but is now ripe for reconsideration.

3. The Complicated Story of the Death of Carlnell Walker: One black-on-black crime and the construction of communal, African-American identity narratives

When Carlnell Walker was killed – beaten, kicked, stabbed and left in the trunk of a car to roast in the summer in the American south – his corpse lay at the intersection of a number of normally disguised divisions in the African-American community. African-American identity, both individually and communally, is normally presented, both by observers and by those inside, as homogenious and harmonious. Deaths, even tragic deaths, normally serve to reinforce these narratives of identity, and act as invitations to tell and re-tell identity-forming stories. With Carnell Walker’s death, however, the story was complicated. The manner of his death was unusual, the motivations for his murder were convoluted, and the ways in which various African-American communities – rich and poor, educated and ghetto, religious and secular, institutional and anti-authoritatian – could adequately respond to his death was unclear. His death revealed the seams of an identity sewn together, and responses to his death served to show the constructed, composite character of a community that is, in fact, communities. The only easy narratives belonged to the white racists and black conservatives; some black communities preferred not to speak of the death at all, responding with silence to a death could apparently only disrupted their communities. A narratological investigation based on the author’s own work as a newspaper reporter in Georgia, this paper will examine Carlnell Walker’s death, explicating the complications of his own narrative identity and the narrative identities of his four accused attackers, the intersecting community identities, the functions of competing, communal narratives, and the ultimate difficulty in any narrative understanding of the brutal killing.