At a recent presentation in London of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I structured my remarks entirely around an explication of the work’s difficult title. There, it was a matter of associating each component of the title (including, I hasten to add, its punctuation) with either knowledge an audience would need to understand what the book will be (i.e. what a meme is, what a Batman meme is) or with aspects of the book itself that I wanted to present to the audience. But, now continuing to plough my way through Gerard Genette’s maddening book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (maddening because the topic is so interesting and yet the discussion of it so long and boring), I am inspired to say something about the rhetoric of my title.
Genette notes that it is virtually routine for academic books to have a title that “evokes symbolically or cryptically” (by means, often, of metaphor, metonymy, antiphrasis, etc.) and a subtitle that “gives a more literal indication of the theme.” American publishers, he says, call the main title “catchy” (or even “sexy”!!) but the subtitle “is often a complete cure for love.” Occasionally, however, he notes that the relation between title and sub-title, with regards to their capacities to enflame or douse the reader’s ardor, may be reversed.
I don’t know whether A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is an academic work. It may stand to academic books as Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry does to auction catalogues. This novel has the form of an auction catalogue but isn’t actually one. Likewise, my book will certainly have the form of an academic book (something like a catalogue raisonée) but I am unclear whether it actually is one.
This uncertainty, of course, affects how one reads the title but I am unable, at present, to see my way clearly on this. So let us simply take the title as a title of an academic work (which at the very least it pretends to be). In that case, I am happy to conclude that it presents simultaneously both the traditional arrangement of title and sub-title and the reversal that Genette notes is occasionally found. In other words, the reader can find herself aroused by the title’s rhetorically complex nature, only to experience the prosaic sub-title as a slap in the face; and, simultaneously, can be left cold by the unenticing title, only to find a blush rising to her cheek as she proceeds to the sub-title.
Taking the more usual ordering first: The title is a synecdoche. One aspect of the work is the image of Batman slapping Robin; one aspect of that is the slap; that, under the description “a certain gesture,” becomes the name of the whole work. But the description of the slap is vague and the use of “certain” to mean “a specific one but I am not going to make explicit which” is arch. The reader may or may not guess, from context, that the certain gesture is in fact the slap. Some readers may also be dimly aware of the resonance with the language from G.E. Moore’s ‘proof’ of the external world (in his eponymous essay) which ties the expression “a certain gesture” to doing something with one’s hand. But all of these potentialities are swept away by the wordy sub-title which, in good academic fashion, tells us exactly what the book is about – Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and its parerga (though some small flicker of excitement may persist in the suspicion that the very title and sub-title might themselves be part of the parerga of the Batman Meme Project).
Conversely, however, one might find the title itself flaccid. “A certain gesture”… that comprehends just about anything and everything. A synecdoche is where a part functions for the whole: but an expression as elastic in its application as “a certain gesture” is almost an anti-synecdoche, obliterating all distinctions between parts and whole. Furthermore, its lazy, unspecified specificity might be felt to leave too much for the reader to do herself and to hold out too little promise. Its extreme vacuity, however, is remedied as if with a shot of adrenalin the moment one hits the subtitle. Batman! Pow! And the confusing fact that the author’s (or editor’s? see this post) own name appears in the sub-title. The recondite word “parerga” and its proximity to the pop-cultural references to Batman and memes. And most important of all, the presence of the exclamation mark! How often does the upright form of the exclamation mark appear in the sub-title (usually, as Genette says, a complete cure for love) of an academic work? All of this makes of the sub-title a kind of riddle or rebus to be solved by the now passionately committed reader.