JNT 53.2 Featured Author: Liwen Zhang

JNT 53.2 Featured Author: Liwen Zhang

Flirting with Filler: Significance is Overrated

“Flirting with Filler” was originally a discarded chapter draft from one of my previous book projects. This may well be a fitting origin for an article that talks about filler: behind every discarded draft there were many once-exciting scavenger hunts from archives, libraries and brains that turned out pointless for the topic at hand or for any topic at all. Ironically, a published article doesn’t seem to be a fitting destination for, let alone celebration of, filler. To be published means this article’s content is significant in the eyes of editors and readers, even if the article wants to explore everything that is insignificant in the eyes of everyone. But I’m glad this article gets to see the light of day: even when it cannot afford to be insignificant itself, it draws attention to the possibility that some things are simply so insignificant that no one bothers justifying them.

Perhaps too much attention has been given to significance. We are always asked to explain the significance of our research projects, our fields, our disciplines, our eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes we do so with alacrity and earnestness; sometimes with reluctance. I am yet to conceive a post-significance world: after all, even if every neoliberal worker bee manages to turn into the perfect Marxist hunter-fisher-thinker, we will still be producing value (in a positive sense, to be sure). Much as I wish I could proudly declare that worthlessness is its own merit, it is probably for the best, at least for now, to concede that nothing is worthless if you look closely enough.

Though it is not yet possible to celebrate utter insignificance now, I am glad that I did not have to settle entirely for the (albeit reasonable) compromise that one man’s filler is another man’s key concern. Instead I have made a partially successful case that some things are doomed to be insignificant to the majority even though they might be occasionally significant to a few concerned individuals. The details of old Harmon’s business, for example, turn out to be too boring for Mortimer’s audience. The neighborhood’s unsafety is surely an unnecessarily sideways interpretation of Lizzie Hexam’s disappearance even though this far-fetched safety issue genuinely worries some listeners of Lizzie’s story.

Today’s cultural industry is probably oriented to offering filler its deserved chance to stand out while conscious of filler’s limited potential to take over the main stage. Although Robert Oppenheimer’s hatred for piano lessons did not get a scene in the Nolan movie, Sherlock Holmes’s and Albert Einstein’s violin hobby is a movie director’s favorite motif. Dicey Dungeons (2019) gives every character some distinctive quirks, from a favorite book to a favorite karaoke song, which have no impact whatsoever on gameplay strategy but—not surprisingly at all—have their place in the game’s Fandom Wiki pages. Stay tuned for my upcoming book project on insignificance! It will study the Victorian novel but hopefully it will be of interest to all literary critics that have a soft spot for the imperfect, the trivial, and the forgettable. “Flirting with Filler” is the only completed chapter up to this point so I’m wide open to new chapter ideas!

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