When Val Patterson died on July 10 of this year, he left behind a first-person obituary that shocked his friends and enchanted a nation. Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune, Patterson’s obituary started making the rounds on Twitter yesterday morning. Eventually, it won a spot in The Huffington Post’s daily lineup of weird, funny, and otherwise un-newsworthy news. Why did the obituary of an exceptional and ordinary man garner national media attention? In his 875 word autobiography—because that’s really what it is, not a memorial or a eulogy or an epitaph—Patterson makes a number of confessions. As he clearly preferred, I will allow him to speak for himself:
Now that I have gone to my reward, I have confessions and things I should now say. As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971. I could have left that unsaid, but I wanted to get it off my chest. Also, I really am NOT a PhD. What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the U of U, the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn’t even graduate, I only had about 3 years of college credit. In fact, I never did even learn what the letters “PhD” even stood for. For all of the Electronic Engineers I have worked with, I’m sorry, but you have to admit my designs always worked very well, and were well engineered, and I always made you laugh at work. Now to that really mean Park Ranger; after all, it was me that rolled those rocks into your geyser and ruined it. I did notice a few years later that you did get Old Faithful working again. To Disneyland - you can now throw away that “Banned for Life” file you have on me, I’m not a problem anymore - and SeaWorld San Diego, too, if you read this.
I apologize for the length of the excerpt, but I feel that it is disingenuous to summarize what are, in essence, a man’s last recorded words. The Huffington Post gleefully notices that the obituary is “rife with grammatical errors.” Apparently, we are to believe that Patterson’s confessions amount to a “list of shenanigans.” It is worth noting that Patterson’s wife, Mary Jane, claims that everything in the obituary is true. Even if everything in the obituary were a lie, the text would remain a testament to a remarkable, and remarkably ordinary, life. “Electronics, chemistry, physics, auto mechanic, wood worker, artist, inventor, business man, ribald comedian, husband, brother, son, cat lover, cynic.” He “enjoyed one good life.” That about sums it up.
There are two interesting characteristics of The Huffington Post article: first, that The Huffington Post chose to publish the obituary at all; second, that The Huffington Post treated it in such a condescending manner. The tone of The Huffington Post’s coverage could best be described as amused and belittling. That is not to excuse the coverage of television news outlets, etc., which for the most part shared in the mean-spirited fun. Characteristic one and two, in combination, produce a peculiar effect. The phenomenon of exposure—that the obituary reached such an enormous audience—is counterbalanced by the phenomenon of condescension. It is as though the amplification of the obscure to populist proportions must be met with an equivalent and dampening dose of ridicule. The juxtaposition of obscurity blown into celebrity with celebrity demeaned carries a disorienting, nauseating charge, like watching an IMAX movie, an experience that I have always considered a cheap optical trick. Reading Val Patterson’s obituary, it is difficult to reconcile yesterday’s viral proliferation with its implicit content. Whereas Patterson chronicles the joy of his everyday life, his extraordinarily mundane and satisfied existence, in death, he achieved the kind of fame that makes everydayness impossible.
When we encounter something like The Huffington Post’s article, headlined, “Val Patterson Obituary: Man Confesses To Stealing Safe, Having Fake PhD,” a record of the ordinary transforms into news. Of course, the obituary form lends itself to this transformation. The obituary, though a biographical document, renders lived experience in the cold, static terms of news media. In its conventional manifestations, the obituary looks backwards and recollects the past as an artifact. Thus, the obituary is at home in its newspaper setting. Thin columns of newsprint are the obituary’s natural milieu.
Yet, news does not happen in the first-person; news is necessarily detached from its human subjects, distanced, and objective. Kevis Goodman has defined news as “precisely what is not yet—although some of it may become—history.” News is the annunciation of what has happened but has not passed into the domain of the historical. The experience of the news is of separation from the events in question, temporal and spatial, and simultaneously, of proximity. News brings the distant and the past into close quarters with the present. As Goodman argues in “The Loophole in the Retreat: The Culture of News and the Early Life of Romantic Self-Consciousness,” it is no coincidence that the development of modern newspapers in the 18th century replicated imperial politics. The project of imperialism—to hold the colonial subject at a distance and to bring its excrements into the imperial home—was supported by and rehearsed in newspapers. News coverage represented the colony as both impossibly distant and threateningly near, projected into the domestic spaces of the imperial reader. The effect—witnessing an enormity of life, of activity, of production, held at arms length on the kitchen table next to the toast and marmalade and a cup of tea—was sublime.
In his essay, “The Sweatshop Sublime,” Bruce Robbins sketches sublimity with a little Kant: “that in comparison with which everything else is small” and, more opaquely:
a feeling of the inadequacy of [the] imagination for presenting the ideas of a whole, wherein the imagination reaches its maximum, and, in striving to surpass it, sinks back into itself, by which, however, a kind of emotional satisfaction is produced.
Although Robbins applies Kant’s idea of the sublime to encounters with globalized commodities, the definition holds equally true for news and newspapers, of the Romantic period and its long aftermath. Through the news, we come to recognize the vastness of human existence and experience. We are confronted with our own relative smallness and with our incapacity for an imaginative grasp of all human life. The Val Patterson obituary is not, in and of itself, sublime. But the most important consequence of Internet newsmaking has been the unrelenting generation of sublimity. When we are confronted with the story of an ordinary life, amplified to extraordinary proportions, we are confronted with the collective enormity of all ordinary lives. Just as the heroine of David Lodge’s novel Nice Work—Robbins’s example par excellence—thinks about how housewives look at their kettles and fail to comprehend:
the building and maintenance of the power station that produced the electricity, the mining of coal or pumping of oil to fuel the generators, the laying of miles of cable to carry the current to her house, the digging and smelting and milling of ore or bauxite into sheets of steel or aluminum, the cutting and pressing and welding of the metal into the kettle’s shell, spout and handle, the assembling of these parts with scores of other components—coils, screws, nuts, bolts, washers, rivets, wires, springs, rubber insulation, plastic trimmings [pause for breath] then the packaging of the kettle, the advertising of the kettle, the marketing of the kettle, to wholesale and retail outlets, the transportation of the kettle to warehouses and shops, the calculation of its price, and the distribution of its added value between all the myriad people and agencies concerned in its production and circulation—
We all too often fail to witness the subjectivity, the mystery, and the wonder of the other beings who surround us. The secrets—indeed, the confessions—of our closest acquaintances escape our notice. When one such confessional is brought to our attention, the whole weight of what is missing bears down. The volume of absence, of negativity, dwarfs the significance of our own insular lives.
As Robbins sees it, the problem with the sublime is political: what to do with the realization that a consciousness of inscrutable, immense life, of pain, inequality, suffering, is not readily convertible into action. To rephrase Robbins, the sublime may not seem like the most useful way to pose the question of our responsibilities as citizens faced with the reality of a digital news cycle. But I contend that the sublime offers a useful way to think about the troubled negotiation of aesthetics and ethics in digital news media. Robbins cites Randy Shaw, a historian of anti-sweatshop activism, whose book Reclaiming America: Nike, Clean Air, and the New National Activism includes a relevant anecdote:
A Disney spokesman named Green, responding to accusations about conditions in a Haitian factory that produces Disney clothes, shot back at a newspaper reporter: […] ‘With the newsprint you use, do you have any idea of the labor conditions involved to produce it?’
I am reminded of Herman Melville’s short story The Tartarus of Maids, in which the narrator visits a paper mill. Echoing Ishmael’s obsession with the color white in Moby-Dick, the narrator is fixated on the blankness of paper and the mute, blank, pale suffering of the maids who labor in the factory. In the inverse scenario of Lodge’s heroine, who traces a final product backwards along its lines of production, Melville’s narrator looks at the blank paper and wonders at:
those strange uses to which those thousand sheets eventually would be put. All sorts of writings would be writ on those now vacant things—sermons, lawyers’ briefs, physicians’ prescriptions, love-letters, marriage certificates, bills of divorce, registers of births, death-warrants, and so on, without end. Then, recurring back to them as they here lay all blank, I could not but bethink me of that celebrated comparison of John Locke, who, in demonstration of his theory that man had no innate ideas, compared the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper; something destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell.
The irony is sharp: the blankness of the women in the factory does not represent unwritten potential, but rather, lives foreclosed by conditions of labor. Human potential is transferred into a commodity, paper, which, like money, is infinitely fungible, flexible, and open to the inscription of meaning.
Today, paper newspapers are an endangered species. The labor behind digital news has been shifted into electronics factories where working conditions are notoriously brutal. Although there is much to be said about the concealment of the labor behind digital news, I am more interested in how the actual subjects of digital newsmaking, the humans behind the news “stories,” are stripped of their agency and objectified. When we read digital news, we experience two sublimities: the sweatshop sublime and the news sublime. The latter involves the apprehension of total human narrative, the sum of our life stories, once merely implied by our immediate social interactions but now rendered explicit and textual. George Eliot puts it better in Middlemarch, in a passage that Robbins favors:
Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she [Dorothea] felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
Robbins ignores Eliot’s metaphor of spectatorship and focuses on what happens later, Dorothea’s “resolution to act.” Robbins chooses 19th century realist fiction as his centerpiece because of its concern with social and industrial reform. The sweatshop sublime is, strangely enough, an invention of 19th century literature that has resurfaced in contemporary America. Activism in 21st century America and 19th century Britain follow parallel tracks and prompt parallel accusations. If we take practical action within our limited spheres of influence, then we are hypocrites; if we refuse to act or lapse into inaction, then we are immoral. Robbins frames this paradox as the crisis of public intellectuals and academicians, who often find themselves at a loss for what exactly to do about their criticisms. While Robbins wants to reject “action” and “activism” as virtuous and incumbent on the elite, in my opinion, he does not reach an adequate alternative. After a long analysis, too complex for recapitulation here, he decides, with his colleague Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, that:
northerners have to forgo the illusory satisfactions of immediate action in a domain of ostensible political transparency and ethical universality…constraints, obscurities, hesitations, and self-questionings, the inevitable by-products of capitalism in its global mode, must be factored back into the tempting simplicity of action…
Perhaps then, we can say that the news sublime, in its extreme ambiguity, beauty, and mysteriousness, prompts ethical “action” in a way that the sweatshop sublime cannot. In Val Patterson’s obituary, the contrast of a first-person narrative with the news context and the modulation between ordinariness and strangeness prevents easy action or activism. What exactly would we be acting against? The condescending exploitation of provincial subjects for metropolitan amusement? Despite the condescension of the digital media, Val Patterson’s obituary resists ridicule. Patterson asserts an ineffable truth about the value of human life. His truth inhabits an aesthetic space far removed from the infectious touch of snark. In the presence of the aesthetic object, we are always uncertain about how to convert the sublime into something actionable. Like Dorothea, we are stuck in-between spectatorship and blindness.
The stalled spectatorship of Dorothea and the digital news consumer finds its match in a famous passage from John Keats’s Hyperion:
Hyperion arose, and on the stars
Lifted his curved lids, and kept them wide
Until it ceas’d; and still he kept them wide:
And still they were the same bright, patient stars.
From this passage, Rei Terada derives an alternative to “action” and “activism” that, though compatible with Spivak and Robbins’s “hesitation,” is more extreme. In “Looking at the Stars Forever,” Terada outlines the “Romantic impasse,” a kind of political action that is not action at all.
Our response to the news sublime is, like Hyperion’s gaze, a “looking that seems openly absorptive, yet withholds realization.” At its heart, this variety of aesthetic response is the “would-be ethical condition of not knowing what to do,” what Carl Schmitt believes is the penultimate state of Romanticism. But where Schmitt feels that Romanticism fails to engage in the political order, Terada argues that “political possibility has already been eliminated and that what the romantic declines to participate in is the perpetuity of this ongoing elimination.” The refusal to participate, Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to,” in Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” is an absolute expression of pointlessness. In his essay “Ventriloquous Evil,” Jean Baudrillard calls this form of resistance “terroristic.” In a world where capitalism speaks its own criticism, where, according to Baudrillard, the truth comes straight from the mouth of Evil, “straight from the mouth of the dominant power itself, and that power, secure in the knowledge of its total immunity, admitted its ‘crime’ quite openly,” the public intellectual, the critic, is obsolete. For an example, Baudrillard uses a statement from French CEO, but he might as well have chosen Shaw’s Disney executive. In Baudrillard’s estimation, “the truth has been stolen by an ‘arrogant’ discourse that thwarts any form of criticism by short-circuiting it.” The only possible resistance is Bartleby’s No, the No that is a “strange, non-political, non-dialectical elusive No, since it runs counter to enlightened self-interest. It is a No that isn’t the opposite of a Yes.”
Dorothea’s half-spectatorship, Hyperion’s gaze, and our response to the news sublime is, properly, a Bartleby No. Against Robbins’s paradox or the traditional binary of Hyperion’s Titan, who could take constructive action “amid a certain sense of absurdity, thinking all the while about a larger justice gone missing” or could “declare that he’d rather die (even if he actually cannot); organize ‘futile’ rebellions; or take drugs or pursue other ‘trivial’ or ‘self-destructive’ occupations,” we have the Romantic impasse. Political activity is impossible, because political action works in opposition to nothing: activism has been coopted by structures of authority. The emergence of a digital news sublime allows us to see, finally, inaction as both aesthetic and political.
Ironically and inadvertently then, The Huffington Post has incorporated terroristic resistance into the patter of ventriloquous evil. Unlike other containment structures, which successfully circumscribe subversive voices within dominant ideologies and the logic of authority, The Huffington Post’s presentation of the Patterson obituary cannot contain the obituary’s subversive force. When Val Patterson died on July 10 of this year, he left behind a first-person obituary that shocked his friends and enchanted a nation. That obituary, however, announces, “I would prefer not to”—and in its propagation across the web, challenges the world to impasse.