About Schtick

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Adventure can fail us. Not by failing in the task or the aim of the adventure, but by failing to really be “adventurous” in any proper, braggable sense, or in the sense laid our by Simmel. Things collapse right in the middle. The eventness of the event lacks luster. The production of desire seems forced or hokey— even or especially when we’re listening to the adventures of others. Someone might be raving about a crazy tale that— even in the experience itself— seems contrived, scripted, reducible to some recognizable form. The event is pure symptom, lacking true risk and contingency. I’d call this schtick: whenever the Life-Narrative, while trying to shape everyday life into poetic or narrative form, overflattens all the jagged complexity and contingency of experience for the sake of an ideal form. It doesn’t always happen when life clichés (on ayahuasca in the Amazon or trainhoppng through Middle America). Schtick can sneak into fresh forms, too; it’s an inherent hazard of all Life-Narrativization. Of overperfection. I remember Milan Kundera trying to stuff a roughly equivalent sense into the term “kitsch”— as the “sentimentalization of reality,” as Harold Bloom called it— but I think the term “schtick” is more distinct and narrative. Even the word “adventure” is suspect, but still we can’t blame adventure for our failings.


Once past the wide-eyed years, the salty will often reach a wholesale disillusionment with all “adventure” or “experience,” weary of the after-emptiness, or of eye-rolling at the teen-dreams of others. They wipe their hands of it: adventure is impossible. Roquentin, the unhero of Sartre’s La Nausée, for example, adopted just such a post-schtick attitude. The marriage of everyday life and poetic form, for Roquentin, inevitably ended in bitter divorce. “This is what I thought: for the banal even to become to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story. But you have to choose: live or tell.”

Roquentin’s belief in adventure― of travel, of event, of moments― bottomed out: “I have never had adventures. Things happened to me, events, incidents, anything you like. But no adventures.” Same with his ex-amante, Anny, who returned briefly to reveal that she had also come to crisis: she no longer believed in “perfect moments”― those lyrical bolts of time closely resembling the Lefebvrean moment, “those instantaneous tragedies where the masks and shawls, the furniture, and myself… where we each had a minor part to play.” For Anny, the perfect moment required a seizure or sudden deed that exploited what she called the “privileged situation,” a situation imbued with “a rare and precious quality, style, if you like” that ranged from disaster to royal fantasy to romantic love. Privileged situations set the stage for the perfectible moments to follow. “First there are annunciatory signs. Then the privileged situation, slowly, majestically, comes into people’s lives. Then the question whether you want to make a perfect moment out of it.” Roquentin, who had never been avid of the art to begin with, finally catches on:
“In each one of these privileged situations there are certain acts which have to be done, certain attitudes to be taken, words which must be said― and other attitudes, other attitudes are strictly prohibited. Is that it?’
‘I suppose so…’
‘In fact, then, the situation is the material: it demands exploitation.’
‘That’s it,’ she says”

The soil was by now all salt, infertile. She could no more believe in perfect moments than Roquentin could in adventure. Contingency, being, everyday life— everything ballooned out and over possible poeticization or narrativization.


But is this wisdom or mere weariness? A breakthrough or a failure of courage? Certainly, it’s an aesthetico-poetic decision of a kind: poetic form and life cannot be fully reconciled; we might as well cease trying. Existence resists; it is a superfluity that will overrun and defeat any form imposed upon it. It is de trop, as Sartre says. Even history― the existence of others― squirms free. Pinning down the biography of a M. Rollebon, Roquentin cannot shake the spuriousness of his conclusions. “These are honest hypotheses which take the facts into account: but I sense so definitely that they come from me, and that they are simply a way of unifying my own knowledge. Not a glimmer comes from Rollebon’s side. Slow, lazy, sulky, the facts adapt themselves to the rigour of the order I wish to give them; but it remains outside of them.” This ordering, this imposition, is a “work of pure imagination” better suited to novels. And rather than existence, his or others, Roquentin would prefer the ideality and obedience of fiction, something “which would be above existence. A story, for example, something that could never happen, an adventure. It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.” There you have it: narrative on one side, everyday life on the other.

But the problem with most supposed “adventures” or “moments”— with the ones that collapse or cause you to roll your eyes— is that they are anything but adventurous or momentous. They banish real risk and contingency for well-rehearsed effects and affects. They are schticky to the degree that, within our Life-Narrative, we’re trying to surprise others without surprising ourselves. We want to tell others and ourselves about an experience precisely in order to avoid it. But, again, schtick is inevitable with the attempt, which is noble— even though it usually stops you sometimes from documenting certain things (travel, rites of passage, peaks in the Life-Narrative that don’t “come out right”). I get a bad taste in trying.


Uncle Erving Goffman tells us that we’re always be engaged in some form of script or subconscious dramaturgy in our everyday lives. Only, in the act, once we’ve become overly-aware of this narrativization, it suddenly seems forced or in bad faith— schticky. In Schillerian terms, we subjugate the rich complexities of everyday life to an overly ideal or simple form, and “bring about unity by suppressing variety” and thereby “depopulate the kingdom of appearance.” On the other hand, if we shape too loosely, everyday life returns being mere circumstance. Mere tubing down the stream of experience. The big question is how to unite, as Schiller believed the Greeks did so admirably, “at once the fullness of form and fullness of substance?” Or rather: how do we approach this unity, given the ultimate impossibility of total reconciliation?

Contingency is the best antidote to schtick. Let’s say you’ve pegged the script you’re riding— the “a Manhattan bar night followed by late-nite pizza ” (one of my most hated) or the “this is like that movie, Band of Outsiders.” How do you derail the narrative, or rather introduce openness or indeterminism? You can call out the points of falsity— the places where your intuition tells you that Band of Outsiders is pulling you in the wrong direction, stories that you already know the ending of, half-hearted affectations that are covering real affects— and deflect things down different paths and moods. You can turn to method: rolling the dice, figuratively or literally speaking— by saying “I know this is not how the story is supposed to go, but I’m doing it because I need a different story to really engage me.” You might call up and name the form just enough to break it. If we’re bookish, let’s turn to authors who always face the question of contingency and predetermination with their own characters. Life-Narrative is after all narrative, written inside out.


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