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The significance of plot without conflict
In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem” appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.
The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general—arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.
The Death of the Book
Pity the book. It’s dead again. Last I checked, Googling “death of the book” produced 11.8 million matches. The day before it was 11.6 milion. It’s getting unseemly. Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality. Their pages grow brittle. Their ink fades. Their spines collapse. They are so pitiful, they might as well be human.
Why did the Chicken cross the road?
- Plato: For the greater good.
- Karl Marx: It was a historical inevitability.
- Machiavelli: So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road, but also with fear, for whom among them has the strength to contend with such a paragon of avian virtue? In such a manner is the princely chicken's dominion maintained.
- Hippocrates: Because of an excess of light pink gooey stuff in its pancreas.
- Jacques Derrida: Any number of contending discourses may be discovered within the act of the chicken crossing the road, and each interpretation is equally valid as the authorial intent can never be discerned, because structuralism is DEAD, DAMMIT, DEAD!
- Thomas de Torquemada: Give me ten minutes with the chicken and I'll find out.
- Timothy Leary: Because that's the only kind of trip the Establishment would let it take.
- Douglas Adams: Forty-two.
- Nietzsche: Because if you gaze too long across the Road, the Road gazes also across you.
- Oliver North: National Security was at stake.
- B.F. Skinner: Because the external influences which had pervaded its sensorium from birth had caused it to develop in such a fashion that it would tend to cross roads, even while believing these actions to be of its own free will.
- Carl Jung: The confluence of events in the cultural gestalt necessitated that individual chickens cross roads at this historical juncture, and therefore synchronicitously brought such occurrences into being.
- Jean-Paul Sartre: In order to act in good faith and be true to itself, the chicken found it necessary to cross the road.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein: The possibility of "crossing" was encoded into the objects "chicken" and "road", and circumstances came into being which caused the actualization of this potential occurrence.
- Albert Einstein: Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road crossed the chicken depends upon your frame of reference.
- Aristotle: To actualize its potential.
- Samuel Beckett: It got tired of waiting.
- Buddha: If you ask this question, you deny your own chicken-nature.
- Albert Camus: The gods had commanded it to cross and recross the road.
- Winston Churchill: It was moving into broad sunlit uplands...
- Howard Cosell: It may very well have been one of the most astonishing events to grace the annals of history. An historic, unprecedented avian biped with the temerity to attempt such an herculean achievement formerly relegated to homo sapiens pedestrians is truly a remarkable occurence.
- Salvador Dali: The Fish.
- Darwin: It was the logical next step after coming down from the trees.
- Emily Dickinson: Because it could not stop for death.
- Conan Doyle: It is quite a three-pipe problem, Watson.
- T. S. Eliot: To examine the wasteland for worms.
- Epicurus: For fun.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson: It didn't cross the road; it transcended it.
- Richard Feynman: Surely it was joking.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The eternal hen-principle made it do it.
- Ernest Hemingway: To die. In the rain.
- Werner Heisenberg: We are not sure which side of the road the chicken was on, but it was moving very fast.
- David Hume: Out of custom and habit.
- Saddam Hussein: This was an unprovoked act of rebellion and we were quite justified in dropping 50 tons of nerve gas on it.
- George Mallory: Because it was there.
- Jack Nicholson: 'Cause it (censored) wanted to. That's the (censored) reason.
- Pyrrho the Skeptic: What road?
- Ronald Reagan: I forget.
- John Sununu: The Air Force was only too happy to provide the transportation, so quite understandably the chicken availed himself of the opportunity.
- The Sphinx: You tell me.
- Henry David Thoreau: To live deliberately ... and suck all the marrow out of life.
- Charles Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, chicken were crossing roads, chicken were staying behind...
- Orwell: All roads are crossable by all chicken, but some roads are more crossable than others.
- Dostoyevsky: After having killed an old hen, the chicken was wandering deliriously along the empty night streets of St. Petersburg and waiting for the darkness that never came; he crossed Nevsky and after a while found himself in an unfamiliar part of the city.
- Ecclesiast: There are times for the chicken to cross roads and there are times to stay at the roadside.
- Hamlet: For 'tis better to suffer in the mind the slings and arrows of outrageous road maintenance than to take arms against a sea of oncoming vehicles...
- J. R. R. Tolkein: The chicken, sunlight coruscating off its radiant yellow-white coat of feathers, approached the dark, sullen asphalt road and scrutinized it intently with its obsidian-black eyes. Every detail of the thoroughfare leapt into blinding focus: the rough texture of the surface, over which count-less tires had worked their relentless tread through the ages; the innumerable fragments of stone embedded within the lugubrious mass, perhaps quarried from the great pits where the Sons of Man labored not far from here; the dull black asphalt itself, exuding those waves of heat which distort the sight and bring weakness to the body; the other attributes of the great highway too numerous to give name. And then it crossed it.
- Dorothy Parker: Travel, trouble, music, art / A kiss, a frock, a rhyme /The chicken never said they fed its heart / But still they pass its time.
- Edgar Allan Poe: Never More.
“For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realized itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity. Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.”—Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx
Nikhil Padgaonkar: You have argued that language is subject to a generalized “iterability” - that is, it can be grafted into new and unforeseen contexts…
Jacques Derrida: I have a vague idea of the Sanskrit etymology of “itera” which means again, the same, repetition, and something else, some alteration…
Nikhil Padgaonkar: …so language reproduces itself in new contexts, in new frames, and it becomes impossible therefore to limit the range of possible meanings it thus produces. Significantly enough, iterability suggests that one cannot attempt to delineate the meaning of a text by referring to the intentions of its author. This much said, is there any possibility of holding an author responsible for the fate of his or her book? I am of course thinking of your discussion of Nietzsche, but more generally, can a writer be held to account for the way his or her writings are interpreted or could possibly be interpreted? Is there any way for an author to regulate, in advance, the range of possible interpretations?
Jacques Derrida: If you expect an answer in the form of a “yes or no”, I would say no. But if you give me more time, I would be more hesitant. I would say that a philosopher or writer should try of course, to be responsible for what he writes as far as possible. For instance, one must be very careful politically, and try, not so much to control, but to foresee all possible consequences some people might draw from what you write. That’s an obligation - to try to analyse and foresee everything. But it’s absolutely impossible. You can’t control everything because once a certain work, or a certain sentence, or a certain set of discourses are published, when the trace is traced, it goes beyond your reach, beyond your control, and in a different context, it can be exploited, displaced, used beyond what you meant. And this is the question I asked about Nietzsche since you mention him. Of course, there was an abusive interpretation of Nietzsche by the Nazis. No doubt, Nietzsche didn’t want that, it is sure. But, nevertheless, how can we account for the fact that the only philosopher or thinker that was referred to as a predecessor by the Nazis was Nietzsche? So there must be in Nietzsche’s discourse, something which was in affinity with the Nazis, and you can say this and try to analyse this possibility without of course, concluding that Nietzsche himself was a Nazi, or that everything in Nietzsche was in affinity with the Nazis. But we have to account for the fact that there was a lineage, there was some genealogy. So, we are all exposed to this - I am sure that some people could draw reactive or reactionary or right-wing conservative positions from what I say. I struggle, I do my best to prevent this, but I know that I can’t control it. People could take a sentence and use it… let us take the example of what I was telling you this afternoon: of course, I am in favour of, let us say, the development of idioms, the differences in language so as to resist the hegemony or the monopoly of language. But I immediately added to this statement that I was also opposed to nationalism. That is, to the nationalistic reappropriation of this desire for difference. Now, maybe someone can say, “well, you’re in favour of divisions against a universal language, then we would use your discourse in favour of nationalism or reactionary linguistic violence” and so on and so forth. So, I can’t control this. I can only do my best, just adding a sentence to my first sentence, and to go on speaking trying to neutralize the misunderstandings. But you can’t control everything, and the fact that you cannot control everything doesn’t mean simply that you’re a finite being and a limited person. It has to do with the structure of language, the structure of the trace. As soon as you trace something, the trace becomes independent of its source - that’s the structure of the trace. The trace becomes independent of its origin, and as soon as the trace is traced, it escapes. You cannot control the fate of the book totally. I can’t control the future of this interview (laughter)… You record it, but then you’ll re-write it, re-frame it, build a new context, and perhaps, my sentence will sound different. So, I trust you but I know that it is impossible to control the publication of everything I say.
— An Interview With Jacques Derrida (by Nikhil Padgaonkar)