Powers of the False: The Slender Man and Post-Postmodernism.

Author:Enright, Lyle


By now, most readers recognize the "Slender Man," an urban legend that first originated on internet forums in 2009 and slowly metastasized into popular culture. Fewer, however, may be aware of the frightening amount of real-life violence that has become associated with the figure. In the summer of 2014, in a startling example of cyberspatial activity turning inside-out, two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbed a classmate 19 times, claiming that they were attempting to attract the attention and approval of the Slender Man. Nine days later, a 13-year-old in Ohio stabbed her mother while wearing a white mask and, still later, a Las Vegas couple shot and killed three people, including two police officers, before committing suicide. In one way or another, each of these acts of violence was ultimately traced back to associations with the Slender Man (Tolbert 2015). Reflecting on the cases, media critics Anne Gilbert and Aaron Trammel commented that what began as "horror at play" had mutated into something much different: "An internet meme created with no nefarious purposes, as part of an agenda of leisure and entertainment...turned gruesome, bloody, and nightmarish"(Trammell and Gilbert 2014, 392). Despite beginning its existence as an internet-bound phenomenon, these recent events surrounding the Slender Man have demanded answers from an increasingly wider audience.

The question of how an internet legend with a fully documented online history could transgress its boundaries in such widespread ways has recently caught the attention of many scholars, resulting in thorough treatments of the case from a number of disciplines. As comprehensive as these accounts are, I believe that there is still more to be said about the Slender Man's relevance in contemporary culture by bringing these studies into conversation with ongoing work in critical literary theory. As a step toward mapping those connections, I here examine the Slender Man phenomenon through the diagnostic lens of Jeffrey Nealon's Post-Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Nealon 2012). Specifically, I will be focusing on Nealon's deployment of Gilles Deleuze's "powers of the false," by which contemporary art and literature swerve around the postmodern work of subversion and critique and instead act as "deployments of force" in their own right. By bringing Nealon's theoretical vocabulary alongside the work that has already been done on the Slender Man, particularly in the field of folkloristics, I want to make the case that Slender Man, as a contemporary legend and as a product of "reverse ostension," (Tolbert 2013) provides an example of the powers of the false at work in the contemporary literary imagination as broadly defined by Nealon, recovering for that imagination "a series of other jobs" beyond the postmodern (Nealon 2012, 165). Given that Nealon's excursus is deeply rooted in Deleuze's work on film, I will also be exploring the ways in which the powers of the false extend into the web-series Marble Hornets as one of the most "formative" developments in the Slender Man mythos (Tolbert 2016, 3). Ultimately, I argue for the Slender Man's relevance in validating many of Nealon's pronouncements on contemporary art and culture, and for its potential to help identify and further clarify the sorts of shifts that he characterizes as "post-postmodern."

Defining Post-Postmodernism

Following a multi-work trajectory that explores theory's relevance for the twenty-first century, Nealon's project in Post-Postmodernism brings the methodology of Fredric Jameson into contact with Nealon's recent work on Foucault and bio-power (Nealon 2008). In the spirit of Jameson's landmark work, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Nealon attempts to provide what he calls a "hermeneutic of situation" for the new millennium, as well as a revised role for critical theory in exploring that same situation. Nealon begins the project with his own take on Jameson's methodological starting-point: "[O]ne logic, smeared across a bunch of discourses," leading into a "transcoding dialectical demonstration" that "you can't unproblematically say that the logic of one of those things...somehow subverts or resists the logic of the other" (Nealon 2012, 23). Specifically, Nealon insists on reexamining the state of critical theory from within the economic logic of the twenty-first century rather than from within the "linguistic turn" of postmodernism, believing that the logic of the former has come to dominate the latter. Among Nealon's main contentions is that, having failed to keep up with this shift in "cultural dominant," the current tools of literary and cultural criticism are no longer adequate to the objects, phenomena, and dynamics that they purport to diagnose and study. Steeped as they are in the liberationist political logic of a previous generation, such discourses as "poststructuralist poetics" are liable to blunt the "sinister claims of economic theory," whereas "when one dialectically overcodes the liberated cultural effects of postmodernism with the substantially more dire economic realities that rely on the same concepts, one can no longer assess the cultural effects in quite the same way" (Nealon 2012, 23). Nealon's, then, is a counter-assessment, both of cultural logic after postmodernism, and of the futures of literature and theory from within that logic.

Front and center in Nealon's analysis is the notion of intensification, "the (non)site where the logic of the individual subject overlaps with the logic of globalization." (Nealon 2012, 42) By intensification, Nealon not only means the increasing speed, efficiency, and saturation of various systems of power, but also the types of exchanges in which these systems traffic. For example, "One might argue that contemporary [Las] Vegas doesn't primarily produce either goods or services," Nealon says, suggesting instead that Vegas produces the "virtual 'intensities'" described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: "the thrills of winning, the aches of losing, the awe of the spectacle," in settings where "you don't so much consume goods as you have experiences where your subjectivity can be intensified, bent, retooled" (Nealon 2012, 27-31). Where the individual subject overlaps with the logic of globalization, then, is the point at which a global economy becomes capable of directly manipulating subjectivity via various intensities. Ironically, reifying such a system also means reifying the sort of pluralism that was at one point the hallmark of postmodern artistic resistance to a politics of the "same." Contrary to a Fordist, cookie-cutter economy which encouraged conformity and sameness, the new socioeconomic logic encourages and commodifies difference in all its forms. As Nealon puts it, "Under an economic logic that is in fact dedicated to the unleashing of multifarious individual desires and floating values, the role of social 'normalization'...needs to be rethought from the ground up" (Nealon 2012, 21). If difference has become complicit in the economic project of normativity, Nealon suggests, then the functions of art and criticism also need to be reconsidered.

A related effect of this capitalist appropriation of postmodern pluralism is that the logics of cultural production have collapsed into the processes of economic production. The implication of this collapse is that previously subversive forms of artistic expression, identified as "postmodern," are now operating within the same capitalist logic that has overcoded them. Nealon's project, as he moves away from economics and towards the humanities, is to examine what all of these changes mean not only for postmodernism, but also for the myriad disciplines touched by these effects, and to answer the question of "what nodes of resistance and/or critique are locatable within such an altered diagnosis of the field itself?" (Nealon 2012, 24). Foremost, Nealon says that this shift in philosophical horizons has universalized our attention to the processes of mediation and interpretation which were the hallmark of postmodern theory. Interpretation and mediation are no longer things to be foregrounded in a subversion of dominant cultural narratives; rather, they are now taken for granted as the dominant cultural narrative, leaving the humanities in an odd place after deconstruction:

One might say that if 'fragmentation'...was the watchword of postmodernism, then, of course, reading follows as postmodernism's linchpin practice, largely through synecdoche: the hermeneutic conundrums of literature...functioned as the part that stood in for the whole postmodern world of piecing together undecidables. Post- postmodernism, on the other hand, seems to take 'intensification' (an increased spread and penetration) as its paradigmatic ethos, with globalization as its primary practice--all access all the time. (Nealon 2012, 50) This weakness of institutional obsessions with meanings is paradoxically demonstrated by postmodernism's constant performance of readings which only demonstrate, or gesture towards, the multiplicity of meaning--a maneuver which our culture no longer requires--without mobilizing or deploying it in any relevant way.

Thus, Nealon argues that a return to a more robust sense of the "literary" involves overcoming what he reads as the postmodern obsession with meaning (or lack thereof). To this end, Nealon proposes refocusing on what literature and other cultural products do within a given context and how they accomplish their work, rather than approaching literature and other narrative arts myopically from the question of what or how they mean (or don't). Nealon sees this as a rejection of the linguistic turn, disregarding the now-taken-for-granted layers of cultural mediation and instead shifting "from a focus on understanding something to a concern with manipulating it--from (postmodern) meaning to...

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