This post is the first in a series by guest author, Carter Weeks Maddox. Carter Weeks Maddox teaches English composition at Texas State University-San Marcos, where he recently completed a graduate degree in literature. His resume, CV, and portfolio are here.
Immediately after Björk releases Biophilia, Galactic Zack invites me to his East Sixth Street apartment in Austin, TX, for a listening party. We drink whiskey and smoke herb, preparing our minds and bodies for Björk’s music.
— Fuck the neighbors, Zack says as he begins playing Biophilia. He turns the volume on his stereo to full-blast and pulls his signature flat-billed cap over his eyes.
We swoon as Tesla coils provide the bass for “Thunderbolt.” When the Gameste in “Crystalline” fades and the song climaxes into a drum-and-bass cadenza, Zack falls to the floor and pulls me with him, pinning me down with his hand on my chest. Our bodies vibrate with the bass.
— FEEL IT?
— I FEEL IT.
— HOW DOES SHE MAKE SO MUCH SOUND OUT OF NOTHING?
— I DON’T KNOW.
I’m not an electronic musician. I really don’t know. But I know that Zack knows.
The previous night, we discussed literature while listening to The Carpenters’ The Singles: 1969-1973 on vinyl. In some mid-sentence claim about the perfection of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Zack stopped talking and leapt up to plug cords into his record player. He apologized for our conversation’s abrupt end.
— I’m sorry; I have to do this.
— Do yo thang.
Zack transferred a three-second sample from The Carpenters’ vinyl onto a cassette tape. He played his sample backwards and moved the recording to his computer, slowing the sound down, elongating its sonic waves. Zack chopped his sample up, repeated it, reversed it, flipped it over itself. Sonic acrobatics. He laid more tracks on top of his sample: frenetic 909 snares and 4-to-the-floor bass, hands clapping at 155 BPM. Zack turned the sample into his own, new, five-minute long track.
— Do you like it?, he asked me.
— Of course I do. What kind of music is it?
— It’s juke.
— What is juke?
— This, Zack said, pointing to his speakers. This is juke.
Now, listening to Bjork’s “Mutual Core,” Zack again jumps up and begins recording. He apologizes for the second night in a row. Again, I tell him I’m not offended. Again, I say:
— Do yo thang.
To literary critics, formalism, or structuralism, is a conversation that began when people started arguing about the methods by which humans construct narratives. Narratives are, of course, tangible objects that take up space and time; the book on the corner of my desk is literally occupying a spot within this moment. Texts, like any other item, are constructed forms. Structuralists, or formalists, discuss the structure of stories much in the same way that architects discuss how people structure buildings: an I-beam is to a builder as plot is to a storyteller. Aristotle began recording this dialogue millennia ago, with Poetics. Within the past hundred years or so, some scholars who discuss literary form have called themselves “New Critics.” And according to structuralists / formalists / New Critics, literature does provide objective measurements by which readers might gauge it.
In the 1920s, Russian formalist Mikhael Bakhtin appropriated a concept called the chronotope from Einstein’s theory of relativity, and he began using this concept within literary studies. The chronotope—literally, “time-space”—manifests within a narrative as an author writes about time in such a way that it “thickens, takes on flesh,” and appears as a tangible spatiotemporal plane within his/her text; “likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the moments of time, plot and history” (Bakhtin 84). Any given chronotope, Bakhtin argues, necessarily works as a generative principle of the narrative within which it appears and therefore limits the scope of that narrative; certain types of characters appear within certain types of spaces, and the actions those characters perform will be limited to what might realistically happen within that space. Chronotopes are interesting inasmuch as they might manifest within many texts from different time periods and because they exist cross-culturally. And because they signify real-world time-space, chronotopes reflect the real-world planes within which we exist.
To prove his theory of the chronotope’s manifestation within literature, Bakhtin identifies a few chronotopes, one of which is “the chronotope of the road […] and of various types of meetings on the road” (Bakhtin 98). Roads exist in literature primarily as historically bound liminal spaces wherein historically bound characters may travel from one place to another and interact with other characters who also do the same. Any given road within any particular text is informed by that text’s existence as a specific, tangible, “piece” of material made from the fabric of space-time. A road in any particular literary text, then, will be constructed in direct response to its author’s historical situation. Or, as Bakhtin writes, “In the chronotope of the road, the unity of time and space markers is exhibited with exceptional precision and clarity” (98).
Indeed, a road is a specific, constructured spatiotemporal plane that exists in the real world and within which travelers travel and encounter other travelers who are also traveling. Our real-world road spaces also manifest within our narratives. Of course, the motives we have for being on roads will no doubt change between our stories, and the appearance of the roads themselves—as well as our means of transportation on those roads—will change between texts, too. The historical moment determines this variation; however, a road is a road is a road. The spatiotemporal plane of the road exists in the real world, and as roads manifest within literature, we discover the narrative trajectory that roads offer to people who travel on them.
For example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century text The Canterbury Tales, the chronotope of the road manifests as pilgrims—“sundry folk”—travel from Southwark down a pathway toward the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Along their way down this path, the pilgrims engage in a storytelling competition to pass the time, and their stories reveal historically based class, religious, and gender tensions between the characters. Additionally, in her 1991 screenplay Thelma and Louise, the chronotope of the road appears as Callie Khouri writes about the titular characters setting off on a road trip to escape the patriarchal systems that oppress them: after a man attempts to rape Thelma, she kills him. She and Louise then speed away in a blue Thunderbird. They are chased by law enforcement, which views them as outlaws on the run, and they ultimately drive their Thunderbird into the Grand Canyon, crashing the car and presumably killing themselves. The chronotope of the road for Khouri’s characters ends with death—albeit their death stands as a metaphorical escape from the patriarchy which subjugates them.
Though the road in these stories manifests in different forms and though the method of transportation by which these travelers navigate their roads differs, we should notice that between the narratives, the chronotope of the road provides a spatiotemporal plane through which characters travel in order to reach some desired destination. That destination differs between the stories, too; still, as a “set” plane of existence, the chronotope of the road actually determines the spatial narratives of these texts. Characters who enter the chronotope of the road are offered a spatiotemporal plane through which to travel to some destination, and when they reach that destination, they eventually leave the road; therefore, the chronotope disappears from their texts and the spatial narratives of their texts change.
If we think about the spatial narratives provided by chronotopes that manifest within stories, then, we can reproduce those narratives by fashioning their chronotopic spaces into existence in the real world. Of course, our real world does not exhibit a lack of roads; the spatial narratives that our real-world roads might provide are, without a doubt, plentiful. An entire literary genre called “road stories” does exist. However, certainly there are other chronotopic spaces that might be useful for us to construct in the real world—and particularly in our cities.
In my Master’s thesis in Literature, entitled Patti Smith and a Tradition of Transgression in Women’s Autobiography, I indentify one of these chronotopic planes, and I name it the chronotope of the artistic frontier. My chronotope of the artistic frontier is a spin-off of the chronotope of the road inasmuch as it provides a spatiotemporal plane through which a character might travel in order to reach a destination. However, within the artistic frontier, the destination that a subject reaches is a life as an artist.
I develop my chronotope by comparing Patti Smith’s 2010 autobiographical book Just Kids to Diane di Prima’s 1969 Memoirs of a Beatnik, showing that both texts include their subjects moving to urban areas. They acquire jobs at arts-based venues and live in communal “pad” spaces with other artists. They often feel that their work is pointless, not suited for the times in which they live. Still, in the “pad” spaces, the subjects are able to “woodshed,” practicing their art alongside other to-be artists. At least once, the subject leaves the urban area s/he moved to at the beginning of the narrative in order to live somewhere else, but s/he eventually returns to the city with a new appreciation of it. The subjects continue to make friends with other artists whose artistic philosophies run parallel to their own, and these other artists become their mentors.
Eventually, the tangible plane of the chronotope of the artistic frontier disappears from the narratives altogether when the subjects create art that others recognize. The subjects therefore become artists within their own rights. By moving away from the urban area s/he originally came to at the beginning of the narrative now that s/he has become an artist, the subject enters another space that s/he created while exploring the chronotope of the frontier: an artistic career, as well as the world as it exists after the artist has changed it.
As it manifests in literature, then, the chronotope of the artistic frontier provides a plane within which individuals can become artists. That is, the chronotope of the artistic frontier determines a particular spatial narrative for those who exist within its manifestation. Perhaps we could implement the literary study of the chronotope into our practice of constructing our urban spaces. By being aware of how chronotopic planes actually generate particular spatial narratives, we can improve our methods of achieving our desired spatial narratives for cities. And if we want our cities to be ones that produce artists, perhaps we should construct the chronotope of the artistic frontier within them.
Of course some cities already do provide the conditions under which the chronotope of the artistic frontier might manifest within the spatial narratives of their citizens. Austin, TX, is one of these cities, and Galactic Zack is an artist who currently traverses the chronotope of the artistic frontier as it manifests in Austin.
Even more interesting, though is that Zack, along with many of his fellow Austin juke artists, is queer. Austin has definitely experienced urban growth in line with what Richard Florida mentions about the “Gay Index,” which assists in the creative class’s rise within urban areas. Along with the rise of the creative class, Florida reminds us, a city becomes more corporatized. This claim therefore indicates that the “queerness” in Austin has no doubt assisted in the city’s overall urban growth and corporatization.
However, if we follow Zack and some of his fellow artists through their own chronotopic narratives of how they became artists, we find that the players in Austin’s juke scene actually resist the corporatization that has impacted the city as it has grown around them. What we then discover is an exception to Florida’s “Gay Index” rule and a re-working of how he claims an urban queer community shapes the landscape within which it lives.
In my next entry, I will explore the chronotope of the artistic frontier’s characteristics in more detail. In turn, we can more fully understand how Galactic Zack exists within Austin’s manifestation of this chronotope, as well as how this chronotope is a tangible structure that we can emulate by literally building it into reality elsewhere.