The Self as Schtick: Life as a Bad Movie

Kirby Farrell | September 11, 2015

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Spoiler alert!

If a story can be spoiled by knowing “the ending,” then the ending is likely to be an entertaining surprise, the answer to a puzzle or the punchline of a joke.  If the surprise comes to you like the flash answer to a riddle, bringing closure, then it seems to come from intuition or “the unconscious” or magic.  But the spoiler alert is warning us that the surprise has the contrived quality of a trick. Once you know it, it’s dead.

It’s schtick.

The Yiddish term schtick describes an easy, crowd-pleasing routine that usually has a clichéd or gimmicky quality. We’re ambivalent about schtick. It can be a habit that makes life gratifyingly easy. You sign off with a smiley face or xxxx kisses although that schtick could mean anything from “Have a nice day” to a heartfelt “I love you.” The cliché is boilerplate, a rubber stamp: a cut-&-paste substitute for more personal or even intimate meaning.  As schtick, the sign-off allows you to enjoy a facsimile of closeness. It’s also a labor-saving device, sparing you the sweat or anguish of deciding how you really feel about this relationship at this moment.

In a world overloaded with information, schtick can function as a code. It’s a kind of abbreviation or shorthand. You know what to expect, you don’t have to ponder it, test it, taste it, keep coming back to it. You don’t have to pay attention to details or read the whole thing. This gives you more time to enjoy more schtick.

Fast food is schtick. Most pop music is schtick. Industrial entertainment (TV, Hollywood, social media) relies on schtick. Think of the fights or explosions that climax thrillers. Bullets and fists fly, yet the heroes emerge triumphantly unscathed. Even romances build in a climactic kiss that resolves canned conflicts in a happy-ever-after ending. Advertising is often schtick making fun of schtick.

You can see where schtick shares some virtues of the factory. Identical products manufactured in scale are cheap and familiar. Once programmed, machines make production almost effortless and widely available. What’s not to like?

One complication is we’re pretty ambivalent about factories because they regiment, routinize, and depersonalize life. Schtick looks like “real life,” but you don’t have to take it seriously. It offers closure yet it doesn’t really resolve anything. Formula crime shows solve every crime. Nobody asks where crime comes from or what becomes of criminals after jail, or what happens to their families. In comedies, laugh tracks cue you to share in a nonexistent group’s hallucinatory merriment. The experience may be enjoyable, but like the popcorn box, you pitch it when the lights come on.

It’s a trick of course. Schtick is always going dead. Today’s schtick is tomorrow’s stale formula, so producers have to keep goosing it up to make it seem fresh. Yesterday’s climactic fistfight is today’s disemboweled loser or Los Angeles exploded by aliens, intestines slung in trees like holiday ornaments.

In this respect schtick is a kind of play. As in play, you know it isn’t true, but you behave for the moment as if it is. Here’s the catch: play as entertainment is different than play as exploration or experiment. A formula surprise isn’t the same experience as a discovery. A surprise is a product manufactured for you to use, whereas you have to make the discovery.

It follows that schtick is wish-fulfilling, even flattering. The customer is always right. Literature, by contrast, poses questions that sail off into the unknown, and dramatize suffering, hilarious absurdity, and death. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 asks, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Nah. That would be schtick. His plays don’t really resolve. They explore. In the end characters go offstage to puzzle over the disruptive merriment or horrors we’ve just witnessed. The plays open out into the strangeness of being alive.

Most novels and commercial films rely on schtick—editors think of it as the hook. Writers are under terrific pressure to honor sctick. A recent prizewinning novel, Atticus Lish’sPreparation for the Next Life, describes the relationship of a vet suffering PTSD (Skinner) with an illegal immigrant (a Uigher woman named Zhou) who barely survives in NYC doing scut work. It’s a serious story, full of eloquent, brilliantly detailed descriptions of urban squalor. In the end the vet kills a monstrous ex-con who’s tried to rape Zhou and then shoots himself. The stricken Zhou lights out for the territory and ends up contentedly working on a ranch.

Here’s the catch: the novel vividly evokes the characters’ misery, but neither of them is capable of abstract thinking.  Remember: it’s PTSD and an Asian woman with minimal English. The result is that the action is intense but the characters have almost no inner life. When you want to see what they’re thinking and feeling, brilliant pictures of the soulless city take over. The characters show little ambivalence or resistance to fatality, so the fatality they face seems plot-driven, and the ending contrived.

The novel dramatizes insistent themes in American culture these days: victimization, deadening work, vulnerable immigrants, callous government, damaged warriors, plucky women survivors, and sexual predators, to name a few. What’s eerily missing is inner life. Lots of grime, no imaginative sympathy in sight. The author and fans could reply that Well, that’s how American life is now. A society of cyborgs and ATMs. People talk schtick and self is no more than a logo on a sweatshirt. And yes, it can feel that way. But you could make that complaint about any era in history.

And more crucial still: values don’t pop out of manholes. Somebodies create them. Even when we fail or get it wrong, we’re always imagining values. It’s how we’re built

One sign of a cultural shift away from stories about inner life is the visionary sweep of soap operas such as The Sopranos, The Wire, or Rome. Their characters proliferate rather than develop in depth, but the scripts argue that that’s the effect of looking at a complex, big world. When it works, it’s powerful. It’s an epic perspective, an effect, you might say, of the globalized Information Age, where you get to know a tiny bit about a million people.  Nothing is wholly exotic anymore and your “mobile device” can bring up Uighurs playing kickball in China, quantum diagrams, and flyby Pluto.

We’re ambivalent about this overwhelming scale of awareness. It excites our curiosity and fantasies of escape and apotheosis. But it also shows us how ephemeral we are. We see that universe of information in snapshots of schtick. One fistfight and kiss after another. On this gameboard everybody’s a helpless victim. Inner life seems depleted, waiting for some leader or story to pump it up again. Meanwhile schtick offers merchandized tattoos, “selfies” and “selfie sticks”—Don’t leave home without one.

After all, it isn’t the quantity of inner life we miss—who doesn’t know self-absorbed people? It’s the quality that matters. Something in us aspires to “get real” despite the warnings that life Contains Spoilers.

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PS: it’s liberating to be able to spot when something is schtick and not the real thing. If you have an example, send it along. Let’s collect some tricks and kicks.

 

Helena K. Farrell/Tacit Muse. Used with permission
Source: Helena K. Farrell/Tacit Muse. Used with permission

In slang we talk about flipping out, running amok, losing it, etc., Berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring, since it promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare and business to politics, sports, and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.

One Comment

  1. Maybe sometimes what some folks perceive as shtick, is really a device that allows the ‘shtick figure’ to create what they perceive as safe distance from ideas that might otherwise feel dangerous to their person, career, etc., particularly if explored literally, with work-a-day examples and in depth? The shtickist is not responsible for audience ability to examine beyond their own reflex.

    The Wizard of Oz is an example of a movie full of shtick figures/ideas that addressed, what were at the time, pertinent political and social topics, which if had been merely pontificated upon via dialogue, would not only have found people blacklisted, but also an audience bored to tears by the academic, pedantic, tedious, self-serving and predictable…

    Maybe sometimes “liberty” from shtick is a form of denial, unless it is self-serving and backhanded?

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