GLIMPSES OF THE MYSTERY
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LANGUAGE AND THE LABOR OF MEANING: WHY TWIN PEAKS IS SO DEMANDING OF VIEWERS AND THAT'S A GOOD THING, TOO!
In the wake of Part Eight, it's no longer a stretch to say that Twin Peaks demands more of its viewers than any show in television history. Doubtless, there are occasional patches of smooth, beautiful sailing: with David Lynch skippering, you're going to see lovely things. But the truth is that the show is frequently very, very hard: hard to watch, hard to follow, hard to understand, hard to explain, and increasingly hard to defend to the burgeoning number of viewers who want more coffee and donuts and less primordial egg-ridden spooge hurtling through the tohu wa-bohu.
To be sure, there are plenty of folks who love the show despite (or even because of) its difficulty. But there's no denying that the heat is rising in Twin Peaks discussion groups, with members bickering--occasionally even at each others' virtual throats--over whether Part Eight went too far off the rails to deserve to keep its audience. Some participants even confessed to the advent of significant unrest in their households and relationships over personal disagreements with partners and friends who have had their fill of hanging out in mushroom clouds and watching soot specters shamble around under strobe lights. Critics are increasingly impatient too, with some going so far as declaring their "loathing" for the show and questioning the artistic integrity of Frost and Lynch's motives in making it. Says Scott D. Pierce of the Salt Lake Tribune, "[a]t some point, I half expect that Frost and Lynch will laugh, tell us it was an elaborate joke and mock all who took it seriously." Pierce's view is extreme, but he isn't alone.
I think Pierce and his ilk are dead wrong that Twin Peaks' difficulty disrespects its viewers. On the contrary, I think that Twin Peaks is demanding of its viewers precisely because it respects them. But for the sake of promoting healthy dialogue across differences of opinion, I won't just baldly assert this claim. I'll argue for it in hopes of bridging the gap between those who sympathize with Pierce's view (or something like it) and those who could spend years watching giants and jubilant otherworldly flappers fine-tune their Rube-Goldbergesque time-travel machines unto infinity while Audrey Horne and Big Eg Hurley go hang.
The first step is to challenge the claim that Frost and Lynch's artistic motives are inauthentic--that their aim is not in fact to make a compelling show, but is, at best, to ride their aesthetic hobby horses with no real intention of rewarding the viewer or, at worst, to revel in obscurity for the express purpose of confounding or mocking the viewer.
This outlook seems wildly implausible in light of what we've learned about Frost and Lynch over the course of their storied four-decade careers. Indeed, it is difficult to find two people in the industry who have been more consistently earnest in their efforts to be true to their artistic visions and generous to their audiences. To anyone who has spent even five minutes with Mark Frost's recent novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, the suggestion will seem lunatic that Frost is somehow cynical in his approach to Twin Peaks or anything but fully earnest in his love for the characters and subject matter. Whatever one thinks of the book, the care and delight that went into producing its fastidiously curated content are veritably beaming from every page; whatever flaws one can ferret out, there is simply nothing cynical about the effort.
As for David Lynch, the consistency of his artistic vision is nothing short of legendary and direct expressions of deep respect for his viewership are easy to find. If anything, he gives his viewers too much credit. Consider, for instance, the following long quotation from the "Interpretation" essay in his book Catching the Big Fish, in which he credits viewers with knowing much more than they may realize about difficult films and texts, enjoining them to dive deep into their own intuitive depths with the help of good friends. Says Lynch, "Cinema is a lot like music. It can be very abstract, but people have a yearning to make intellectual sense of it, to put it right into words. And when they can't do that, it feels frustrating. But they can come up with an explanation from within, if they just allow it. If they started talking to their friends, soon they would see things--what something is and what something isn't. And they might agree with their friends or argue with their friends--but how could they agree or argue if they don't already know? The interesting thing is, they really do know more than they think. And by voicing what they know, it becomes clearer. And when they see something, they could try to clarify that a little more, and again, go back and forth with a friend. And they would come to some conclusion. And that would be valid." (Catching the Big Fish, 20)
The book concludes with this blessing to readers: "May everyone be happy. May everyone be free of disease. May auspiciousness be seen everywhere. May suffering belong to no one. Peace." (Catching the Big Fish, 177) And Lynch is not just whistling dixie here. He puts his money where his mouth is, having founded a a non-profit organization--The David Lynch Foundation--the express mission of which is to teach transcendental meditation for the purpose of "healing traumatic stress and raising performance in at-risk populations" (including inmates in prison and students in embattled schools). In short, these simply are not the words and actions of an indulgent elitist who disrespects his viewers, satisfied to waste their time with self-centered, masturbatory obscurantism. It seems plausible, then, to think that Frost and Lynch respect their viewership and have every intention of delivering them an authentic, edifying experience. Their efforts to do so might still fail, of course, but if they do fail, it's not for lack of genuine effort to succeed. The demanding nature of Twin Peaks, then, is not plausibly explained as a one gun (five gun?) salute to its viewership, Dr. Amp's antics notwithstanding.
From this point forward, I assume that Frost and Lynch see the difficulty of Twin Peaks as fully compatible with genuine respect for their audience. My aim in the remainder of this essay is to illuminate the questions of (1) how and why Twin Peaks is so demanding of viewers and (2) why one has good reason to consider the difficulty of Twin Peaks an asset to the show and a potentially edifying gift to its viewership.
I'll handle the questions of how and why Twin Peaks is so demanding in two steps: I'll start with some examples drawn from my own personal experience of the difficulty of watching and interpreting Twin Peaks, and then look to the work of philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer for some help in explaining what's going on behind those difficult experiences. As the subtitle of this essay suggests, the guiding problem is that Twin Peaks complicates and even transgresses our dominant language norms, saddling us with the additional burdens of constructing context and even inventing new language before we can begin to interpret and understand what the show puts in front of us. Whereas most television shows unfold within a familiar context (i.e., realistic police drama, heroic fantasy, psychological thriller, etc.) and abide by well-established conventions of plot development, dialogue, and character type, Twin Peaks resolutely does not and thus shifts the difficult labors of contextual construction and establishing nomenclature (a system of naming and reference for making meaning in a particular narrative or context) onto the viewership. A couple of personal examples might help to bring these problems into sharper relief.
I'm trying to write an episode guide for Twin Peaks and it feels like translating a foreign language. Before I can say anything meaningful about "what's going on" in plain English, I have to have a holistic, insightful grasp on what's going on in the show. The problem is that Twin Peaks keeps showing me things that, first, are incredibly difficult to understand, and second--even once I have (tenuously) understood them--are near to impossible to capture in sensible, accessible descriptive language. Reflecting on these two interpretive problems, it is easy to see that they are intimately connected: of course it's going to be really hard to capture in language something that I don't really intuitively understand from experience. It's hard enough to bridge the gap between having an experience I do intuitively understand and then describing it to someone else in a way that captures that experience. With the added wrinkle that the original experience of the show is often so foreign to my everyday stock experiences as to be initially unintelligible, it's hardly surprising that it ain't easy to capture "what's going on" in words.
To make matters more concrete, think about the scene in Part Three where Dougie is called back into the Lodge and must confront the news that he is merely a spent golem. What happens to Dougie in the wake of receiving this terrible news is so bizarre that one can barely even grasp the basic mechanics of it on a first viewing, much less the significance of it. In attempting to write about this scene, I found myself rewinding the footage five, six, seven, eight times before it was even clear to me exactly what had taken place and even then--still!--I had no idea how to try to convey what I finally understood. Here's what I came up with: "Without warning, Dougie’s head implodes into a menacing black vapor and a gold pearl materializes from out of the vapor. In a flicker, an entity that appears similar to the Arm's disfigured head snaps into the frame and ingests the gold pearl, only then to disgorge it onto the seat before disappearing." To say the least, this sentence was not an easy one to compose even after it was clear to me what had actually transpired. What's more, though the sentence is rendered in clear English, the meaning of the happening it expresses is hardly illuminated thereby.
If it were just the surreal moments that presented this challenge, Twin Peaks might not be so hard; after all, for every Lodge visit, temporal rift odyssey, and gravity-defying dime, there are five scenes depicting regular folks doing mostly mundane, if sometimes odd, things. But those scenes too are often incredibly demanding of the viewer, given the care that is taken with how the scenes are constructed and situated in the series as a whole. Scenes that appear on their face to be relatively straightforward instances of comic relief, or action, or much-needed rest from the action in a clean, well-lighted space often turn out, upon further reflection, to be more complicated or mysterious than they initially seemed (think of Dr. Amp's Gold Shit-Digging Shovel or Ike the Spike's failed assassination attempt on Cooper or Bing's curious behavior at the R&R). These challenging oddities and mini-mysteries strewn throughout even the most seemingly banal scenes are incredibly difficult to capture and convey, assuming one notices them at all.
The upshot is that Twin Peaks is demanding of its audience not just as a task for reflective interpretation after the fact, but also at the most basic level of the viewing experience itself; much of the time, what we experience on screen is not enough to provide the usual assurances that we fully, or even partially, understand what we are seeing, much less the significance of what we are seeing. And this is simply not an experience we're televisually well-accustomed to, even from watching other demanding, well-wrought series like True Detective or The Leftovers where there are interpretive mysteries o'plenty (to be sure) but many fewer disruptions and transgressions of the foundational assumptions that viewers are used to being able to take for granted in watching television concerning, for instance, what and where and when things are, what basic laws (if any) of perception, persistence, and interaction govern these entities, what to expect in terms of pacing and plot and character development, and how to discern the big tops from the sideshows when it comes to interpretive significance for the narrative as a whole.
In Twin Peaks, however, viewers can't take any of these things for granted, but must take on the burdens of contextual construction and meaning-making themselves, wrestling their understanding of the narrative (and the more conventional mysteries within it) from regular bouts with--among other things--extreme abstraction, surrealism, spatial and temporal discontinuity, magic, absurdity, caricature, bizarre characters and their perpetual doubling, unconventional pacing, and exaggerated sonic signification. Even for the most experienced Twin Peaks freaks, the result is inarguably a demanding, disorienting ride.
That these unorthodox features of Twin Peaks complicate things for the viewer is certainly clear enough, but it remains to elucidate why they make it so demanding, and, moreover, why rising to the challenge of these demands (rather than simply deeming Twin Peaks a failed experiment and throwing in the towel) is an edifying prospect. Here, some insights from Hans-Georg Gadamer into the norms of human language and understanding (and how Twin Peaks complicates and transgresses them) can help us to glimpse what is going on behind the scenes as we struggle to make sense of Twin Peaks. [Spoiler warning: Things are about to take a turn for the slow and abstract for the next handful of paragraphs, but only for the purpose of returning to our beloved Twin Peaks with some handy new interpretive tools; besides, if you're reading this, you probably voluntarily watched Cooper standing listlessly under a statue for ten minutes and willingly journeyed to the center of a mushroom cloud aided only by images of white flak and rain falling upwards, so we already know you're adept at negotiating slow and abstract.]
Following his teacher Martin Heidegger who famously described language as "the house of being," Gadamer maintains that language is not just a communication tool that we pick up and use when we need it and then shelve when we don't (e.g., "verbal" communication), but is rather the primary mode of being through which humans meaningfully experience and understand the world in the first place. Because we human beings are always already using language (in this broad, interpretive sense of recognizing and understanding meaningful differences in the world) by the time there is a meaningful world in front of us to speak of, we can never get a fully impartial perspective on meaning-making. Insofar as our understanding of the world is always already taking place within language by the time it's possible to ask critical questions about it, there's no way for human meaning-making to leave language behind.
In "Man and Language" (pp. 69 ff.), Gadamer characterizes this linguistic mode of human understanding in terms of three essential features: self-forgetfulness, I-lessness, and universality. According to Gadamer, when "language is a living operation"--that is, when we are experiencing it in the way we ordinarily do as an open window into the world--language is unaware of itself (self-forgetful), always already absorbed in a community of understanding (I-less), and all-encompassing of our understanding given that every particular linguistic point of reference (ideas, words, sentences, etc.) that is meaningful to us assumes our background understanding of how that particular idea or word fits within the linguistic system as whole (universal). We can make these abstractions more concrete by attending to how they feel in our experience on the ground.
The self-forgetfulness of language feels like breathing or seeing through your favorite pair of glasses: it's influence is simultaneously pervasive and almost completely hidden from you--everything depends on its occurrence behind the scenes, but like a good operating system on a phone or a computer, when things are going well, you'll never even know it's there. Imagine calling to tell your best friend about an amazing night on the town with a new flame: here's what you're not doing--"Now let's see, I want to express my excitement, so I'll choose emphatic verbs, limit my use of dependent clauses, and make sure that my word order is entirely unambiguous, leaving no room for question about the sincerity of my attraction to this fascinating new person." Nope. You simply gush forth your enthusiasm for the person and your excitement about the evening, without any care or knowledge of grammar or syntax, or even basic awareness that you are speaking words at all. The same is true for your friend. Unless she is pissed at you or jealous, she won't even apprehend that you are speaking or that she is listening--you will simply be together in a world of shared meaning, as the words and sentences vanish into their understood significance for the two of you in that experience. And this is the way it goes most of the time in our day to day dealings.
Self-forgetfulness is thus a beautiful thing--it means that, most of the time, anyway, we can live and experience and communicate in a meaningful world without the vaguest sense that we are doing so, without any conscious effort to "construct" what we are seeing or saying or feeling. To appreciate what a blessing it is that language usually functions in this way, consider those terrible moments, hopefully much fewer and farther between, where language is not a living operation and you become acutely and awkwardly aware that you must now "produce" something to say and everything depends on your "finding the words:" the professor calls on you when you're unprepared for class; the person you'd most like to impress in the world turns up next to you at the grocery when you're in your giving-up-on-life pants; you're suddenly on the spot to make an impromptu wedding toast half in the bag, but not far enough in to be oblivious to how badly this is about to go; you're on deadline, but you have writer's block. For most of us, these experiences and others like them make us feel anywhere from uncomfortable to seriously incapacitated: the usual luxury of blissful self-forgetfulness is snatched away and we're suddenly on the interpretive hot-seat, scrambling to discharge a burden of meaning-making that usually happens effortlessly.
The I-lessness of language feels like a fascinating conversation in which you lose yourself in the back-and-forth of the dialogue and emerge a different person, or like a game in which you subordinate your individual performance to becoming one with your teammates and rivals in the scintillating, unpredictable play of the competition. When linguistic understanding is taking place as usual, we are always already enmeshed in a world of shared meaning with others, going about our business in implicit awareness of how the communal norms of meaning-making and -sharing generally function and of how to make our way within them. Even when we aren't actually with other people, the ways in which we understand ourselves and the world are always already deeply inflected by the ways we've been shaped in our language communities. Understanding, as Gadamer elegantly puts it, always takes place "in the sphere of the 'we'".
The universality of language, finally, shows up in our ability implicitly to infer and express all sorts of unstated information from prior understanding of the background context of what is explicitly seen or said or felt. When someone says, for instance, "I'd like two scoops of vegan butter brickle, in a cone, to go.", no one needs to tell us not to prepare six scoops of cow's-milk Superman in a dish for dine-in, much less not to offer a massage or a cab ride or a trip to see the Rothko Chapel in Houston. We already understand all those things implicitly and immediately without having to be told because we already possess a background understanding of the language as a whole and of how the various parts work meaningfully together therein. Thanks to the universality of language, every meaningful sentence we speak brings the entire unsaid background context of the language along with it.
We are now in a position to make it much clearer why Twin Peaks is so demanding of the viewer, in light of these three essential features of language. Most television shows do not challenge these basic conventions of linguistic understanding but rather work intentionally and comfortably within them: they allow us to suspend our disbelief and become blissfully absorbed in the narrative (self-forgetfulness), safely ensconced in a set of shared communal interpretive conventions of meaning (I-lessness) and armed with significant background knowledge from our previous experience of similar shows that enables us effortlessly and implicitly to grasp and infer innumerable meaningful connections between what we see and what we don't see (universality).
Twin Peaks, on the contrary, not only resists easy accommodation to all three essential features of language, but often makes a point of calling our attention very explicitly to the fact that breaking out of these usual rhythms of made-to-order meaning is essential to our ability to wake up to what is really going on, both in the drama of Twin Peaks and in our own daily lives in the world at large. As wonderful a blessing as it is, most of the time, to live in a world that is effortlessly understood (self-forgetfulness), shared meaningfully with others like oneself (I-less), and grasped in advance as a whole (universality), it is nothing short of dangerous to allow oneself to be lulled into believing that there is nothing more to the world than what one has dreamt of in her inherited, accessible, expressible philosophy. To embark on a genuine search for truth, one must wake up from the ingrained tendency simply to accept what has been handed down to one and take responsibility for actively making meaning rather than just always passively receiving it.
Waking up isn't easy, though. It typically requires exposure to some person or place or experience that calls forth a radical rupture from the everyday--a cleavage from our average selves and modes of apprehension that affords us enough critical distance from who and how we typically are to see the crucial difference between who we have been up to now and who we might yet be in a future past. Most of the time, we live from out of the past toward the future, allowing the conventions and inheritances of our heritage to dictate what we see, feel, understand and know--what we will be. But in these rare moments of wakefulness, in these experiences of rupture with the everyday, we live from out of the future toward the past, holding open the possibility of being and understanding something new, something as-yet-underway, something not completely determined by who one has been and what one has understood up to now.
Twin Peaks awakens us from our self-forgetfulness by making it impossible to fall asleep at the wheel. How, after all, can one become anesthetized by inherited understanding when inherited understanding often provides exactly ZERO traction on what is transpiring in front of one at any given moment? When we are sure that we understand, we can coast along and sink into comfort; when we are unclear about what is going on, and yet desire to understand, we must cling to wakefulness, stay alert, remain poised at the edge of our attention.
Twin Peaks forces us into expanded consciousness of our I-lessness by necessitating interaction with different others. When we're confident that the people in our usual orbit have a stranglehold on the truth, there's no reason to go outside the bubble. But when a visceral experience is so confounding that everyone we usually trust is as confused as we are, we have no choice but to broaden our horizons and look for input from elsewhere if we care about truth-seeking. To achieve the understanding we hope for, we must build bridges to communities of interpretation beyond the one in which we began the search.
Twin Peaks pushes outward on the boundaries of the universality of language, finally, by reminding us that our present conception of "the whole" is always too small and that there are beings and experiences and epiphanies out there in the world that our inherited conception of things, at least as we currently apprehend it, cannot sufficiently comprehend.
It is hardly a mystery, then, that most viewers find Twin Peaks exasperating at some point or other. What the series is doing, after all, at least if I'm on the right track in this essay, is nothing short of challenging and even transgressing some of the most elemental ways that human beings go about their business in the world. Self-forgetfulness, I-lessness, and universality are who we are and where we live and what we know. To expose those essential features of our identity to dismantling, expansion, and evolution is deeply unnerving. In the same way that most of us find it uncomfortable (at the least!) to be called on when we don't know the answer, or to be put upon to articulate and defend what we believe when we haven't really thought it through, most of us--if we're honest--will find ourselves put on the spot in various ways by this show that simply refuses to cooperate with our expectations, forces us to hone our perspectives against the whetstone of diverse opinion, and demands that we perpetually find the courage to dismantle and reconstruct the frames of reference we were tempted to think could bring everything together even before all has been revealed.
It seems to me that hanging in there with Twin Peaks is an edifying prospect notwithstanding the various challenges and discomforts that attend to attempting what it demands of us. Those of us who are disinclined to suffer it any further as entertainment, moreover, might do well to abandon it as a leisure activity and take it up instead as a spiritual or philosophical exercise in self-expansion. What Frost and Lynch are offering us here, I think, is nothing short of the gift of an opportunity for cultivating self-transcendence. None of us can achieve that lofty goal, alas, without putting in some hard work. In today's world, with insular group-think on the rise and tyrants o'plenty anxious to exploit our uncritical provinciality, I think we could do much worse than to spend some of our ample televisual experience hard at work on expanding our interpretive horizons.