In “TV History and Popular Memory,” Steve Anderson explores the notion of Andreas Huyssen’s concept of “creative forgetting” in light of television shows and movies that challenge the conventional narratives of history. Anderson writes, “Just as experimentation with language displays ‘the inherent oppressiveness of the symbolic order,’ histories that are ‘uncoupled from the instrumental need to signify’ may reveal their own kind of creative brand of anarchy (14).
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five displays a historical moment in time that becomes “uncoupled from the instrumental need to signify, in turn unmasking its own brand of creative disorder. Repression is a natural result of the violent removal from the process of signification, and Vonnegut chose to parody his experience in the war via his comic double, Billy Pilgrim. What does war signify other than the Trafalmadorian view of inevitability? Vonnegut’s successful attempt to critique the romantic portrayal of war amounts to forced fragmentation—not a grand narrative exploring the meaning of tragic loss and mass chaos, but one man’s absurdly stoic outlook of a world where meaning fails to convey any particular truth.
According to psychoanalytic theory, one must force a suppressed traumatic memory back into remembrance in order to transcend one’s dread(s). Vonnegut’s fictional experiences (personal and otherwise) with war amount to tale[s] / Told by an idiot, full of sound and,fury, / Signifying nothing. In an interview conducted in 1991 (shortly after the Gulf War), Vonnegut lamented, “We have become such a pitiless people. And I think it's TV that's done it to us. When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears. One was we would be killed. The other was that we might have to kill somebody. And now killing is Whoopee. It does not seem much anymore. To my generation, it still seemed like an extraordinary thing to do, to kill.” Ironically, modern warfare continues to be glorified in our culture, from gangs in Chicago bragging about surviving in “Chiraq” (though it can be convincingly argued that, due to socio-economic alienation due to gentrification among other factors, many in South Chicago and other centers of rampant poverty are doing what the Government intended: killing one another) where the death toll exceeds that of the Iraq War, to various video games (Call of Duty series) and movies (We Were Soldiers, American Sniper).
In our current culture, as underground hip-hop artist Aesop Rock would say, we are “Numb to the Guns,” thanks to television’s tendency to placate violence and promote apathetic attitudes toward horrific acts: “And after bubblegum, he sink into the sofa. / Clicker to pilot his broadcasted choice of cobra (hissssss). / The venom remains the same game of stale toxins/ Camo'd with the now ornamental satellite options…” While Anderson argues the innovative methods in which television has creatively enabled viewers to rethink historical happenings by harnessing cultural memories, televisual mediums (which have rampantly increased in the past two decades) allow a degree of separation between raw reality and experience.
While television and popularized forms of technology increasingly guide humankind’s process of cultural memory, we should remember that with every artistic advantage, including playful revision of history, comes an equal and opposite disadvantage: that of mindlessly surfing channels on the lookout for more interesting realities than we ourselves can manifest. The instantaneous transmission of a multiplicity of messages occurring simultaneously, such as on social media and crawls displaying information and statistics on the bottom of news coverage, has seemed to replace veracity with contending opinions, many of which are trivial and are based upon entertaining or shocking the public. The signifying chain of meaning has altogether ignored that which is meant to be signified, resulting in an extended present that mocks the notion of objective thinking: the bandwagon beckons.
Regarding the meaninglessness of devastation on a grand scale, Vonnegut metacognitively explains the reason his book is “jumbled and jangled” in Slaughterhouse Five”—because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre…All there is [for a bird] to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” which signifies the arbitrariness of signification in the context of war (24). In order to allay the death of innocence and humanity, which war indiscriminately seizes, Vonnegut has produced a novel full of disparaging criticism (scripted schizophrenically) of those who wield the power to wage war, and I would add, who manipulate the media as well.