Manuel Puig and the Performance of Personality

This is my second post of a promised series explaining why the postmodern Argentine author Manuel Puig demands to be read today. As a reminder, this is in part occasioned by the publication of The Buenos Aires Affair (with my introduction) the Dalkey Archive Press in August, a publication that caps off Dalkey’s placing three of Puig’s books back into print.

It’s a theory of mine that as Western society has progressively moved toward a more self-centered, free-expression based understanding of the individual, the creation of personality has become more and more your own responsibility. That’s kind of a long sentence, so, in other words: the greater absence of moral constraints and fixed social guidelines, the more freedom you have to define yourself. Responsibility for creating your personality becomes less an act of the community and more a personal choice dependent on trying on various selves to see which one fits best.

None of this is entirely new. There have always been seekers in Western society, and people have always been able to exercise some level of control as to their identity. What I would argue is new now is the degree to which identity-creation is thrust at you as a personal responsibility/obligation, and we have been given an unprecedented amount of leisure time and tools with which to try out these new personalities.

So where does Puig come into this? Well, Puig’s books are nothing if not dramatizations of individuals trying on various personalities. Essentially, his characters are placed into situations where they have the opportunity to perform their way into new selves. I explained this all with a reasonable amount of lucidity two years ago right here.

Puig was out in front on a lot of things. He had a very good sense of how mass media were shaping people’s conception of themselves, as well as allowing the middle class to develop strange relationships to individuals who were turned into icons and archetypes by virtue of roles they played in the movies and on radio and TV. In the time since Puig did most of his major writing (late ’60s, ’70s) pop culture has engaged in a process of absorbing a lot of the things he picked up on and turning them into everyday parts of normal life. Reality television would be one example: to Puig is was obvious how much people loved to be voyeurs of each other, and his books offer a literary variant of the fascination that people feel when they’re permitted to watch someone else’s life as a voyeur.

I don’t mean to say that MTV somehow got hold of a copy of Heartbreak Tango and realized it had to invent The Real World. Rather, I think Puig had an extraordinary good sense of where mass media were headed, and this awareness inevitably dictated the kinds of stories he was interested in writing.

In a similar sort of way, I think Puig had a pretty good understanding that with the way culture was headed, people were more and more being asked to be their own method actors and perform their way into new identities. (And in developing this idea, I must admit a debt to Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita.) His understanding of how people saw themselves and how they performed their personality before others is something that writers like David Foster Wallace caught up to a couple of decades later, essentially picking up Puig’s insights once popular culture had caught up to them.

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