Book review: 'Uncanny Valley' by Lawrence Weschler

Uncanny Valley

Adventures in the Narrative

Lawrence Weschler

Counterpoint: 306 pp., $26.95

First, to digress (but not really): I've been wondering these last few weeks why Occupy Wall Street hasn't moved me, even though I am sympathetic to the cause. Partly, I suppose, it's the relatively small size of the protests, although as Castro proved in the Sierra Maestra mountains, revolution is not necessarily a numbers game. But even more, it's a lack of focus, the inability of the movement to define itself, a failure to explain its terms. An absence of narrative, in other words — something I didn't understand fully until, in the middle of Lawrence Weschler's "Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative," I came across an essay called "Waking Up to How We Sleepwalk" that cast my reservations in sharp relief.

Here, Weschler recounts the experience of watching, on the coastal grounds of Denmark's Louisiana Museum, a 1982 anti-nuclear protest-turned-performance piece, in which dozens of participants slowed nearly to the point of stillness, "moving, in suspension, maybe a few feet each minute — but moving nonetheless toward the bluff." Over the course of a couple of hours, these people, in their slow-motion choreography, moved from dry land into the water before returning to shore.

"Slowly," Weschler tells us, "one by one, the sleepwalkers emerged from the water and filed — still trance-slow, dripping, shivering violently — through the doors of a large converted boathouse." The idea, according to one protest organizer, is to "[slow] things down to help people notice them. In a way that's what we were doing here — trying to find an image, a way of helping people to notice what is going on."

"Waking Up to How We Sleepwalk" is a nearly perfect metaphor for what Weschler is up to in "Uncanny Valley," a book of 23 essays and investigations that stands as a companion volume to his 2004 collection "Vermeer in Bosnia." In both works, Weschler moves fluidly from politics to art, human rights to human wonder, tracing an elliptical path (is there any other kind?) through the density of existence, with its contradictions, confusions, coincidences and incompatibilities, all of which, he suggests, can be resolved only through narrative.

This conceit ("We long to lose ourselves in stories — that's who we are," he writes in "Uncanny Valley's" title essay) has long been one of Weschler's abiding fascinations, but what's striking is how far he pushes the idea. Computer animation, translation, war crimes, experimental cinema, even the Holocaust: all of them echo throughout these pages, doubling back on themselves, constantly refracting, as if to challenge us to pay attention, to see the world around us, to wake up to how we sleepwalk so that we don't lose sight of our own experience.

That, of course, has been Weschler's agenda from the beginning — to get us to stop, to see. His breakthrough book, 1995's "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," addressed this imperative through the filter of Culver City's Museum of Jurassic Technology. It was another instance of the museum as performance space, where facts and put-on are combined so seamlessly that we cannot help but constantly reassess and reimagine and in the process become more fully engaged. It's not enough, Weschler means to tell us, merely to notice; we also need to synthesize. This is the root of narrative: the construction of a frame, a story, a shape to hold the chaos at bay.

"To say that artists and writers today have a particular responsibility with regard to [the nuclear question]," Weschler writes in "Uncanny Valley," "is to acknowledge that in this particular crisis the specter of obliteration bleeds into all areas of human life, and most profoundly into those very areas that have always constituted the life source of culture and civilization. Being, time, vision, presence, copresence, tradition, posterity — the fundamentals out of which art has always sprung — today all of these are in jeopardy. It's simple: Artists are inexorably implicated in the current crisis of vision." What he is articulating in those lines is a moral sensibility, a point of view from which all his stories emerge.

Nowhere is this more vividly expressed than in the writings on human rights that fill the middle of the book. And why not? For Weschler is saying that without such rights our essential human narrative is destroyed.

In "Sentries," he uses the preamble to the Declaration of Independence to make the point: "We hold these truths — these truths and nothing else: Aside from them we are naked before power. Nothing is there except the bold, scary insistence that something is there: the ineffable but essential thing called human rights." Nothing is there, he might as well be saying, but the story of human rights, the belief, as he suggests 50 pages later, that we are subjects, rather than "good little mute and neutered objects," and, as such, bigger than our fear. This may seem a semantic distinction, a matter of word choice, but really, it's the most important distinction there is. It is only when we begin to verbalize something that we begin to imagine it, only in our narratives that our values can be found.

And yet, as Weschler notes, narrative is also fluid. It changes as we do, takes on different meanings, ends up recast in different terms. "Exceptional Cases in Rome: The United States and the International Criminal Court" looks at the 1998 conference "aimed at promulgating, for the first time, an International Criminal Court" — an initiative undermined by the very country that gave the world the Declaration of Independence: the United States. "Valkyries Over Iraq" dissects the irony of an antiwar film such as "Apocalypse Now" being used to pump up soldiers in the first Gulf War, a phenomenon reported by Anthony Swofford in his memoir "Jarhead," filmed in time to do the same for soldiers in the second Gulf War.

What does this mean? For Weschler, it's more evidence that the world is always just beyond us, which, of course, only means we need narrative all the more. Or, as he writes of a 2006 visit to Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, where German high school students flirt and play among the monuments, oblivious to history: "I don't know, I didn't know, sitting there on the perimeter plinth among the whoops and shrieks of those happy German kids. Maybe life does just go on, and that is its blessing (as well as its curse)."

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