All posts by Natalia

The cherry’s on top: Celibacies and surface reading

So, I’m late to this, but I finally sat down and had a proper read of Benjy Kahan’s 2013 book Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life.1)Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
What strikes me especially about it is that I think it’s the first work of criticism I’ve read that really makes me appreciate the promise of “surface reading.” Anyone who knows me probably knows I’m wholeheartedly #teamdepth, not because I love the depth/surface binary in particular but because so much of what’s out there about surface reading and the “postcritical turn” seems dedicated to caricaturing some of the most powerful and interesting criticism of the last several decades and reducing them to some kind of find-the-hidden-code exercise where you line up all the puzzle pieces and the answer is—aha!—a kitten!

Fig. 1. Allegedly, Fredric Jameson's interpretive strategy.
Fig. 1. Allegedly, Fredric Jameson’s interpretive strategy.

Hopefully nobody actually thinks that about critique and we’re all just trying to make a point. Eve Sedgwick does a beautiful job of pointing out the tendencies of “paranoid” reading without erasing its generativity.2)Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 123–51, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
I especially appreciate Sedgwick’s demurral at making “paranoid reading” (a potentially very pathologizing name) about a critic’s unsuitable emotions or state of mind.

Still, the temporalizing effect of the “postcritical” hints that old-school (so to speak) critique is over, not so much wrong as behind the times—it’s not “the way we read now,” to quote the title of the special issue of Representations in which Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus most famously advanced the idea of surface reading.3)Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” “The Way We Read Now,” spec. issue of Representations 108, no. 1 (November 1, 2009): 1–21. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1. Or at least, it’s not the way we should read now. Paranoid reading is proper to the paranoid 80s and 90s, it’s suggested; the criticism of our time must be different.4)This is why I called dibs on the title “Nobody Cares What You Believe: The X-Files Reboot and the Postcritical Turn.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that what we think of as “surface” in the reading that we have produced as contemporary has everything to do with what people thought reading was a hundred years ago, so, okay, I have a little bit invested in the alleged contemporaneity of certain reading practices.5)To clarify: my point is not the boringly true one that people did plenty of reading “at the surface” before now, but rather that contemporary surface reading owes a specific debt to early C20 fascinations with compromised cognition, which directly and materially produced the conditions under which surface reading can now be practiced.

What Celibacies does differently is show why attending to the surface need not be an ascetic renunciation of interpretive richness at all—just as celibacy itself need not be an ascetic renunciation, although sometimes it is that too.6)I think it would be interesting to spend a little time with surface reading’s languages of ascesis in light of Kahan’s reframing of celibacy. (Benjy: guest blog??) celibacies-bookcover Celibacies sets out to question what Kahan, after Foucault, calls “the expressive hypothesis.” If, for Foucault, the “repressive hypothesis” is an erroneous belief that sexual expression has been repressed by social convention (when in fact those very social conventions around sex are an incitement to speech that produces sexuality as a category), “we still have not fully grappled with the immense challenge that the repressive hypothesis poses—namely, how can sexuality studies avoid positioning itself opposite silence, repression, and power?”7)Kahan, Celibacies 3. The expressive hypothesis is another version of the repressive hypothesis: the expectation that every closet will contain a queer (who could, and probably should, be “expressed”—”come out”). The expressive hypothesis forgets the potentially liberatory possibilities (or complex liberal compromises, in some cases) of not saying, not doing, not choosing, not identifying. Hence the epigraph that Kahan chooses for the monograph, from Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet: “Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they don’t do, or even don’t want to do.”

In eschewing a depth model, then, Kahan isn’t repudiating interpretive richness. Rather, he argues, celibacy taken as celibacy keeps its richness on its surface. Taken at face value, celibacy is both normative (no sex happening here!) and deviant (no sex happening here!).8)Kahan, Celibacies 37.

Is it a cover for queer sex? Is it a positive sexuality in its own right? Is it a repudiation of sex? Is it a woman’s regretful renunciation in exchange for rights she could not have under marriage? Is it a queer route to normative citizenship or religious belonging? Is it a lie?

If we haven’t yet steamed ahead with the expressive hypothesis, then the answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. “While the epistemology of the closet is an epistemology of the open secret,” Kahan writes, “celibacy offers an epistemology of the empty secret”: in other words, we can know something, or many somethings, even when there’s “no there there.”9)Kahan, Celibacies 3. Surface, in this “celibate reading,” isn’t a repudiation of meaning but the place where meanings proliferate—and produce text.

The importance of reframing the expressive hypothesis comes to the fore in Kahan’s exploration of celibacy’s specific purchase on the social sphere, contra what Michael Warner calls “the deep and resilient moral fantasy…that reproduction is essentially generous,” which leaves the celibate “estranged from reproductive sexuality” and “from life itself.”10)Michael Warner, “Irving’s Posterity,” ELH 67, no. 3 (2000): 774, quoted in Kahan, Celibacies 54. “Whereas most sexual formations are associated with private interests (even as they have public elements),” Kahan argues, “celibacy is associated with the public good. …[C]elibacy is not just a public identity, but one that motivates (rather than merely instrumentalizes) styles of and performances of publicness.”11)Kahan, Celibacies 19.

Briallen Hopper’s recent, brilliant essay on spinsters brings into relief how truly social the celibate’s alleged unsociability is, and how necessary a lingua franca of celibate sociality is in the present moment:

There are urgent reasons why spinsters need to look beyond the self and resist the system. As [Louisa May] Alcott’s insistence on the ballot box [in An Old-Fashioned Girl] suggests, insofar as the conversation about unmarried women remains a conversation about choice and individual temperament and not about politics, it is missing something important. Even though the contingencies of when and whom I marry don’t define my existence, marriage is still an important legal and social category with implications for many practical and symbolic aspects of adult life. Because in our culture, marriage is a choice, but it also isn’t. It’s a rom-com ending and a party with a cake, but it’s also a systemic mechanism that separates the enfranchised from the disenfranchised, the included from the excluded.

And unfortunately, the momentous Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS decision remedies some of these injustices while shoring other injustices up. In too many important ways, marriage and the couple form are still the legal and social prerequisites for the sharing of resources and lives, the care of sick, the parenting of children. And this arbitrary conflation of marriage with the commitments and responsibilities of adult life sometimes turns unmarried people into second-class citizens, and devalues many necessary forms of love.

In order to recuperate these “many necessary forms of love,” it’s important to be able to read the “celibacy plots,” as Kahan calls them, that run orthogonally to the marriage plot. (In one of the book’s best moments, Kahan reads Andy Warhol’s 1965 film My Hustler as portraying “cockblocking as a celibate act that is both auto- and alloerotic.”)12)Kahan, Celibacies, 133.

As Mark Goble points out in Beautiful Circuits, the scandal of modernist celibacy is actually its surface reading: “Has Gertrude Stein a secret?” Goble asks, citing the title of the psychologist B. F. Skinner’s Stein exposé in The Atlantic.13)B. F. Skinner, “Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?” The Atlantic Monthly 153, no. 1 (January 1934): 50–57. “The answer is of course ‘yes’ and by the way, it’s not about sex.” Instead, it’s about Stein’s history of experiments in automatic reading and writing.14)Mark Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010): 128. skinner1

But the scandalous thing that is “not about sex,” as Celibacies makes beautifully clear, is precisely pluripotential because it remains on the surface—it’s a sexual yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, polymorphously perverse in its denials—of authorial subjectivity, of mind’s supremacy over body, of writing’s “value.” I’ve argued that women’s information work, such as typing (and Kahan notes that when such work was done professionally, it was inevitably by the unmarried, although, as my essay explores, this overlaps with married women’s domestic labor), prototypes the kind of compromised reading that has come to be seen as “the way we [should?] read now.” 15)Kahan, Celibacies, 15; Cecire, “Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein,” ELH 82, no. 1 (2015): 281-312.

Here’s an example from Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that lets us see what “celibate” surface reading offers:

Etta Cone offered to typewrite Three Lives and she began. Baltimore is famous for the delicate sensibilities and conscientiousness of its inhabitants. It suddenly occurred to Gertrude Stein that she had not told Etta Cone to read the manuscript before beginning to typewrite it. She went to see her and there indeed was Etta Cone faithfully copying the manuscript letter by letter so that she might not by any indiscretion become conscious of the meaning. Permission to read the text having been given the typewriting went on.16)Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Writings, 1903-1932: Q.E.D., Three Lives, Portraits and Other Short Works, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Scott Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998).

The propriety of Etta Cone’s refusal to read—her Baltimorean “delicate sensibilities”—is exactly the same thing as its perversity. Celibacies elaborates the logic that locates propriety and perversity the same depthless act.   █

* * *

Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 232 pages.

* * *

pls make this fanfic happen
pls make this fanfic happen

[I did actually try to come up with a title that wasn’t also a filthy double-entendre but failed. Paranoid reading: still the way we read now.]

References   [ + ]

1. Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
2. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 123–51, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
3. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” “The Way We Read Now,” spec. issue of Representations 108, no. 1 (November 1, 2009): 1–21. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1.
4. This is why I called dibs on the title “Nobody Cares What You Believe: The X-Files Reboot and the Postcritical Turn.”
5. To clarify: my point is not the boringly true one that people did plenty of reading “at the surface” before now, but rather that contemporary surface reading owes a specific debt to early C20 fascinations with compromised cognition, which directly and materially produced the conditions under which surface reading can now be practiced.
6. I think it would be interesting to spend a little time with surface reading’s languages of ascesis in light of Kahan’s reframing of celibacy. (Benjy: guest blog??)
7, 9. Kahan, Celibacies 3.
8. Kahan, Celibacies 37.
10. Michael Warner, “Irving’s Posterity,” ELH 67, no. 3 (2000): 774, quoted in Kahan, Celibacies 54.
11. Kahan, Celibacies 19.
12. Kahan, Celibacies, 133.
13. B. F. Skinner, “Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?” The Atlantic Monthly 153, no. 1 (January 1934): 50–57.
14. Mark Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010): 128.
15. Kahan, Celibacies, 15; Cecire, “Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein,” ELH 82, no. 1 (2015): 281-312.
16. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Writings, 1903-1932: Q.E.D., Three Lives, Portraits and Other Short Works, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Scott Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998).

Autumn 2015 reading list: American Lit since 1890, part I

Posting a Sussex Library reading list is a lengthy process that involves my curriculum development, the Library staff, and some clunky software. This means that my reading lists can’t be made available through the library for quite a while after the syllabus is set. I’m therefore posting reading lists for my Autumn 2015 classes here (Am Lit now, Mod&Ch to come). These lists are UNOFFICIAL AND PROVISIONAL. I may change them without warning.

American Literature Since 1890: Part I (Q3171)

Books to buy or acquire from the library:

  1. Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood
  2. Frank Norris, McTeague (This novel is long. I strongly recommend getting your hands on a paper copy of this book, preferably the Penguin. Try not to pay money for one of those garbage reprint editions.)
  3. Willa Cather, O, Pioneers!
  4. William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
  5. Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro
  6. Nella Larsen, Passing
  7. William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!
Week 1 Lights and shadows in the Gilded Age
Stephen Crane, “An Experiment in Misery,” “An Experiment in Luxury,” Black Riders and Other Lines
Jacob Riis, “Flashes from the Slums”
Thorstein Veblen, from Theory of the Leisure Class
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, from Women and Economics
Week 2 Post-bellum, pre-Harlem
Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood
Dudley Randall, “Booker T. and W. E. B.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask”
Booker T. Washington, from Up from Slavery
W. E. B. Du Bois, from The Souls of Black Folk
Charles W. Chesnutt, “A Visit to Tuskegee”
Chesnutt, “The Goophered Grapevine,” from The Conjure Woman
Week 3 Naturalism
Frank Norris, McTeague
Walter Benn Michaels, from The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism
Week 4 The Harlem Renaissance I
The Crisis 1.1 (read all of it)
Countee Cullen, “Incident,” “Heritage”
Langston Hughes, selected poems
Claude McKay, selected poems
Week 5 Regionalism
Willa Cather, O, Pioneers!
Donna Campbell, from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915
Week 6 Modernism and the Little Magazine
Poetry 2.1 (April 1913)
Others 5.6 (July 1919): pay special attention to William Carlos Williams, “Gloria!” (pp. 3-4); Marianne Moore, “Poetry” (p. 5); Mitchell Dawson, “To Diverse Contemporaries” (p. 13); Wallace Stevens, “Earthy Anecdote” and “Life Is Motion” (p. 14); Emanuel Carnevali, “Serenade” (p. 19); William Carlos Williams, “Belly Music” (pp. 25-32)
Little Review 1.2 (April 1914): special attention to Arthur Davison Ficke, “Lines for Two Futurists” (p. 8); Sara Teasdale, “To E” (p. 17); Eunice Tietjens, “To S” (p. 18)
Mike Chasar, from Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America
Week 7 Reading week; class will not meet.
Week 8 Modernists at home
William Carlos Williams. Spring and All. 1923; New York: New Directions, 2011.
Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 1.6 (March 1913): 200–206.
Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Idea of Order at Key West”
James Clifford, from The Predicament of Culture
Marjorie Perloff, “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?”
Week 9 The Harlem Renaissance II
Alain Locke, The New Negro
Nella Larsen, Passing
Judith Butler, from Bodies That Matter
Week 10 Modernity’s pasts
William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!
Week 11 Faulkner continued
Week 12 Synthesis and exam review.

The Novel (Q3060), Spring 2015: Convenor’s response to module evaluation

Many thanks to the students who took the time to evaluate this module. Your input is very helpful.

For Spring 2015, the other tutors and I met to reevaluate the existing reading list. We agreed to skew the secondary reading toward theoretical texts that would be useful for understanding other novels in Year 3, to streamline the reading list, and to add a post-45 novel, while maintaining good continuity with the previous year’s list. I’m grateful to the tutors this term—Sam Cooper, Andrea Haslanger, Bethan Stevens, and Joseph Ronan—who contributed their expertise and intellectual energy toward shaping the module this year.

I’m pleased that so many students enjoyed the novels that were set, and that for some students, at least, the pairing of novels with critical theory worked well. And while this module focuses primarily on the British novel, I’m glad that students noticed and appreciated our commitment to a relatively diverse list that included both some usual suspects (Robinson Crusoe) and some less obvious choices (Good Morning, Midnight).

By far the most common dissatisfaction that students seem to have found with the module is the reading load. We agree that the reading load is relatively heavy. It was actually even heavier last year: when we adjusted the reading list, we reduced the total number of novels from eleven to nine (the student who wrote that we were “reading a novel every week” is incorrect). Unfortunately, this is simply a feature of the novel as a form: comparatively speaking, they are long. Looking at it from another perspective, trying to cover “the novel”—or even just “the British novel”—in only nine texts is almost absurd. We made an effort to balance reasonable reading loads with the intellectual demands of the topic, and I believe that we pared the list down as much as we possibly could while maintaining the module’s intellectual integrity. Reading in quantity is a learned skill that all English majors need.

It is, in fact, possible to do the reading for this and other modules, but I agree that it takes focus, effort, and quite a lot of time. For students worried about doing the reading, I recommend doing some self-research: what are your optimal conditions for focused reading? About how long does it take you to read 100 pages of fiction? How long for 30 pages of scholarly nonfiction?

I’m less sympathetic to the complaint about the secondary reading: while it was often challenging, it was always short—between eight and thirty pages. For second-year students, this should have been more than manageable. One student’s claim on this evaluation that “the secondary reading that is required with this module is particularly heavy” is simply factually incorrect.

One student wanted more support from me in office hours and in essay comments, and specifically “more constructive criticism.” Thanks for the feedback; I’ll try to do more of that in the future.

The same student, who appears to have been in one of my discussion groups, did not like “the worksheets or pop quizzes.” There was exactly one (unassessed) pop quiz, during week two. The only “worksheets” were actually group exercises using written out passages. I’m sorry those didn’t feel helpful to you, but I’m also not sure that you understood the exercise. Perhaps clearer instructions or framing are needed for such exercises.

One student was dissatisfied with Evelina and felt that it only existed to provide an example of a typical marriage plot. It does, of course, do that, and it’s one of the reasons we replaced Sterne’s Sentimental Journey with it this year. But we also included it for a number of other reasons: it was a very popular novel; it’s an excellent example of C18 literature of sentiment; it’s an epistolary novel; and it’s a novel of manners with violently comic set-pieces (like the monkey attack near the end) that reveals the fluidity of genre boundaries. Additionally, we wanted to include a popular C18 novel by a woman, because we wanted to convey something very important about the novel form in English: that women were writing successful novels from the very beginning. There are other novels that could have served in Evelina‘s stead, but we chose it for very considered reasons.

I agree that it would have been nice to have another post-45 novel, as the above-mentioned student suggested, but we couldn’t in good conscience do so at the expense of one of our only two C18 novels—a period that’s incredibly important in the history of the novel. Last year there was no post-45 novel at all, and we were glad to be able to add one this year, since we agree that it’s a fascinating period in the development of the novel.

Thanks again to the fourteen of you who provided feedback on the module!

Best wishes,

Natalia Cecire

FAQ about the May 2015 exam for The Novel

Q. How many pieces of novel theory/secondary reading/literary criticism should I mention in an essay answer?

A. There is no set number. It is possible to get a high mark by citing many, or none at all. Use as many sources as will help you construct a good answer. The best exam answers will demonstrate an understanding of novel theory and history, which will probably involve referring to some theoretical, critical, or historical sources, but an answer without such citations is not necessarily a bad answer. Citing just to cite will not improve your mark.

Useful: “While Good Morning, Midnight is anything but a marriage plot, Sasha’s constant emotional self-diagnosis continues what Nancy Armstrong has argued is a fundamental novelistic assumption: that women are authorities over the domain of emotion and feeling.”

Not useful: “Much like Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, Great Expectations is concerned with power.”
[This isn’t useful because it’s very vague. What isn’t concerned with power? Notice it’s not wrong—you wouldn’t be marked down for it—it just doesn’t add anything to an answer. I can imagine going into the kinds of power Foucault is interested in in greater detail, and that might get you somewhere.]

Q. If I mention a novel or a work of novel theory in Section A, can I write about that novel/refer to that theoretical work in an answer in Section B?

A. The exam rubric prohibits any SUBSTANTIAL repetition of texts. If you write two sentences about a text in Section A, it’s perfectly fine to talk about it in Section B.

Q. Am I allowed to write a Section B answer about a novel I wrote about in my essay or did my presentation on?

A. Yes, if you are writing about a different topic. Avoid using the same textual passages you used in the essay or presentation as your evidence as well. The point of this rule is to avoid self-plagiarism (both words and ideas).

Q. I wrote about a novel in my essay, and also did my presentation on it (on a different topic, but on the same novel). Can I write about it on the exam?

A. No. You need to demonstrate that you have read across the module, and using one text for three different assessments detracts from that.

Q. Do I need to memorize quotations?

A. Obviously, the more you know, the more you know. You do want to be able to balance broad claims with rich detail, and sometimes memorizing quotations can help you do that. But it’s more important to be able to say something about the text than to reproduce it word for word. Sometimes paraphrase can be just as effective, or nearly so, and paraphrase plus analysis is definitely better than just dropping a quotation in there for the heck of it. You can get a high mark without direct quotations if you demonstrate detailed knowledge of the text in other ways.

Quotation plus analysis (good): “Despite explicitly pointing out the uselessness of money on the island, Robinson Crusoe continues to think about his activities in economic terms. For example, when he’s building his first canoe, he say that ‘it cost me a Month to shape it.’ The word ‘cost’ suggests Crusoe thinks of time as a resource that he can spend wisely or unwisely.”

Paraphrase plus analysis (also good): “Despite explicitly pointing out the uselessness of money on the island, Robinson Crusoe continues to think about his activities in economic terms. For example, he repeatedly draws attention to the amount of time it takes him to complete specific activities, such as shaping his first canoe or smoothing planks. This suggests that Crusoe thinks of time as a resource that he can spend wisely or unwisely.”

Quotation but no analysis (kind of pointless): “When he builds his first canoe, Crusoe says that ‘it cost me a Month to shape it.'”

Paraphrase with no analysis (also kind of pointless): Crusoe says it takes him a month to shape his first canoe.

Crash courses for the desperate

Lately I’ve been thinking about what to do with students who suddenly need to get up to speed in a field, and don’t have time to take a course or immerse themselves in it for a year. I’m especially thinking of MA students or students writing an undergrad senior thesis, who need some purchase on the field and can’t just coast on glib summaries anymore, especially if they’re thinking about going on to do further graduate work.

So far what I’ve come up with are some little one-week self-education programs for a few different areas, recognizing that what I’d recommend isn’t necessarily what other people would recommend, and that these might date quickly. You can see why I’m imagining these for grad students or advanced undergrads—you’d have to be pretty self-motivated to do these.

Comments would be welcome.

These are meant to fit on a double-sided half-sheet of A4.

Recently published work by Hillary Gravendyk

Most of these links are compiled by Cindy Arrieu-King. Cindy is also compiling an edition of Hillary’s unpublished poems.

Three poems at Newfound.

The current issue of comma is in memory of Hillary.
Hillary on collaboration.
Three collaborative poems by Hillary and Cindy.

At The Volta, six collaborations with Maureen Alsop.

At Dusie, four poems.

At the Journal of Modern Literature, in an issue dedicated to Hillary, the critical essay “Chronic Poetics” [Muse], on Larry Eigner, time, and phenomenology.

Additionally, the Inlandia Institute sponsors the Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Book Prize.

Resilience and unbreakability

Picture of Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt protecting the other mole women.
Others can be broken, but not Kimmy.

Robin James‘s recent book Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015) isn’t a perfect book, of course. But its theorization of resilience for the age of branded feminism is refreshing and crucial. We need this book.

James uses “resilience” to grapple with the ways that neoliberalism makes use of trauma, and assents to conditional female and multiracial power, but only as an alibi for capital. She’s thus able to confront an uncomfortable, because extraordinarily dangerous, aspect of neoliberalism: the ways in which wielding the language of race and gender critique can garner certain provisional varieties of authority and even celebrity. In the world of Kung Fu Spiritual Bollywood Satires Based on Children’s Books Set in Europe For Hopeless Romantics Directed By Alan J. Pakula, where it’s market niches all the way down, certain kinds of feminism (especially white)—and racial justice—sell. A lot. And this fact of the market then provides an alibi for patriarchy and white supremacy: aren’t we past all that?

That certain kind of feminism and racial justice, James argues, is the resilient kind, the kind that is set back but spectacularly overcomes. Yes, the deck is stacked against you, Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges, but she has a book about how to “lean in” because after all, she overcame. Her face smiles warmly at you from the cover. James further points out that this narrative of overcoming usually involves the scapegoating of already abjected groups for the obstacles that have been overcome, usually men of color, immigrants, and the working class. (Jamal in Empire, clad in white, spectacularly performs resilience by coming out as gay in a public performance, against his father’s protestations that “the black community” won’t accept a gay singer. “The black community” is clearly a proxy for Lucious’s own homophobia, but its repetition still works to scapegoat black people for anti-gay sentiment, even as the camera shows friend after friend nodding respect to Jamal and assuring viewers that he has in fact overcome.)

Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy (market niches all the way down!) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt [pilot], with Ellie Kemper in the title role, is literally and specifically about the spectacle of female resilience. Its theme song doubles as a viral video, a neighbor’s interview about the discovery of four women kept captive by a cult leader in an underground bunker, lovingly hand-autotuned by the Gregory Brothers, of Bed Intruder fame. The repeated refrains of the song are “unbreakable” and “females are strong as hell.”

The victims’ racial coding is also pointed up visually: the news report in the pilot announces “WHITE WOMEN FOUND,” with “Hispanic woman also found” in smaller letters below. It’s a joke about racist media, but it’s also a canny acknowledgment that the spectacle of overcoming is primarily the domain of white femininity.1)Donna Maria (Sol Miranda), the hispanic captive, isn’t outside resilience either, though; she starts promoting her own Mole Woman molé sauce (hilariously, a banner ad for it appears on the website where Titus is streaming the trial) and refuses to testify in English at the trial because it will hurt her brand.

Photo of news anchor; chyron reads "WHITE WOMEN FOUND. Hispanic woman also found."

In the last two episodes of the season, the viral star of the theme song video, Walter Bankston (Mike Britt) returns to warn Kimmy’s fame-hungry roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) about the price of viral fame, pointing to the show’s awareness of resilience’s spectacularity. In fact, throughout the season, Titus struggles to see Kimmy’s experience as anything but a media spectacle, explaining:

http://doomsday519.tumblr.com/post/112976855609


When it’s finally time for Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) to be tried for kidnapping and holding Kimmy and the other women, Titus seems physically unable to stop confessing his desire to watch the trial precisely as media spectacle; the show registers its appeal, while also insisting that to really be on Kimmy’s side is to resist the spectacle.

In S1E05, Kimmy’s co-captive and best friend Cyndee visits her in New York, and eventually reveals that she’s been using her minor celebrity as a victim and survivor to get the things she wants—free stuff, a job for which she isn’t qualified, and marriage to her gay middle-school crush, Brandon. Cyndee plays up the spectacle—even once resorting to “but I’m a mole woman!” with Kimmy (“I’m a mole-woman!” Kimmy retorts)—for material benefit, and in the end Kimmy is not able to fault her. None of it will give her back fifteen years of her life, after all.

But Kimmy won’t follow suit, either, refusing to take what she calls Cyndee’s “shortcut” to realizing her goals. Instead she’ll scapegoat Indiana as a place full of religious fundamentalists and yokels and leave it behind for New York, an act for which she is frequently, if sometimes ambivalently (e.g. by her half-sister Kymmi) castigated in the show. (The kind of crime she experiences in New York, which is frequent, is never going to be Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s particular brand of misogynistic violence, the show suggests.) Cyndee’s lesser, offscreen performance of resilience fades into the background of Kimmy’s greater one, which is the substance of the entire show. As Kimmy tells Titus in the pilot,

Life beats you up, Titus. It doesn’t matter if you got tooken by a cult or you’ve been rejected over and over again at auditions. You can either curl up in a ball and die… or you can stand up and say we’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.

The obvious consequence of that philosophy is that some people aren’t different, aren’t the strong ones, and will curl up in a ball and die. Kimmy’s exceptionality is her unbreakability, and it’s the show’s central spectacle. In this way the show also enacts the spectacle of resilience that it critiques.

And in this sense, too, it brings us back to one of the disturbing consequences of Resilience and Melancholy, which is that while resilience means recycling damage into social capital through spectacle and personal branding, the damage still has to happen for this overcoming to work, and it is real. The dream of neoliberal resilience is that obstacles become opportunities, damage becomes strength. For instance, in the electronic dance music (EDM) that James close-reads to exemplify the aesthetics of resilience, sonic damage is deliberately incited through soars and hyper-fast stuttering rhythms so that a spectacle of repair may supplant it.

That’s certainly one way to read Anita Sarkeesian’s experience: she was targeted with vicious harassment for her feminist analyses of video games, which increased when she began a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new series. Wired then reported, “After posting about the harassment she was receiving, her Kickstarter has grown at an astronomical rate, clocking more than 5,200 backers.” (The harassment, and the donations, have only increased since then.) In a very literal way, Sarkeesian has profited from her damage. But it would be inaccurate—and insidious—to suggest, as a careless reading of James’s argument might, that Sarkeesian herself, rather than the system in which she is embedded, incites that damage, and more importantly still, none of her gains erase the damage. “Anita Sarkeesian” the brand may be able to recycle that damage (and perhaps must), but Anita Sarkeesian the person has to live with it.

Even privileged women and people of color don’t stop being punished by patriarchy and white supremacy; it’s just that they have the opportunity also to advance by it, so long as they will accept an individual solution—”We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us”—and so long as the breakable, instead of cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy, can be scapegoated. The cycle of trauma and healing enforced by resilience discourse is a very bad deal for women and people of color, and it’s the best deal on offer. (What do you do when you’re being sent large volumes of creepy personal emails? Shut up and go away, or perform your resilience?) Maybe “females are strong as hell,” but maybe they shouldn’t have to keep proving it over and over by surviving, and recuperating, damage. And this is one of the complex and disturbing implications of Resilience and Melancholy that I would have liked to see pursued further on the page: how does one critique the practice of resilience, while also registering the damage that resilience constantly absorbs? (I haven’t gone into James’s version of melancholy here, but I don’t think it quite gets at the question I’m posing here.)

In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy undergoes an experience whose status as trauma would be difficult to dismiss (in the way that online harassment has too often been dismissed). For that reason, Kimmy’s experience manifests not only in goofy out-of-date pop culture references but also in nightmares and frightening, violent sleepwalking episodes that signal that the show does not consider Kimmy’s trauma overcome—not yet, anyway. Perhaps this is harm that can be avowed as harm (not a challenge, not an opportunity) after all.

***

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is also all about passing. Hugely so. Maybe someone else can write that post.

References   [ + ]

1. Donna Maria (Sol Miranda), the hispanic captive, isn’t outside resilience either, though; she starts promoting her own Mole Woman molé sauce (hilariously, a banner ad for it appears on the website where Titus is streaming the trial) and refuses to testify in English at the trial because it will hurt her brand.

Theme and variations

I focus here on The Female Complaint not because it is Berlant’s most recent book (it is not) or her best book (though it may be) but because in it she has so much to say about what makes women such agile practitioners of criticism at the present time.1)Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). The book maps the intimate twists and turns by means of which genre as a mode of cultural creation and interpretation becomes indistinguishable from genre as a shaping force in lived experience. Since “femininity is a genre with deep affinities to the genres associated with femininity,” it makes sense that for Berlant women would be skilled in the genres (both literary and lived) of romance and (particularly heteronormative) sentiment — writing them, reading them, and living them. But it turns out that even though The Female Complaint is mostly about those especially feminine genres, women have a knack for genre theory as well — for what Arnold would have called criticism — because genre is the stuff of which women, like criticism, are made.

Virginia Jackson on Lauren Berlant at LARB

Virginia Jackson’s recent piece on Berlant’s criticism beautifully draws out some of the things that were striking me about Lili Loofbourow’s tv and film criticism, which, too, is so often about genre and women’s relation to it. The premise of The Mindy Project, one of the first shows Lili wrote about for Dear Television, is that Mindy Kaling’s character is a woman raised on women’s genres, who interprets the world through them and who constantly performs them. Her writing on The Mindy Project is one of the first places I saw Lili describe the collocation of gender and genre:

If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places in film (besides indie movies, and usually not even there) where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority. One result of this is that the Mindys of the age — which includes, I think, a hefty percentage of early-thirties American women — have developed a viewing practice that precisely opposes the aforementioned over-generalizers: where the latter see sameness everywhere, the former have become experts at spotting slight, apparently irrelevant variations in romantic comedies and savoring them.

Mindy is one such expert. For Emma Bovary, connoisseurship of female genres is a source of disappointment and ultimately misguidedly melodramatic suicide (Andreas Huyssen’s gloss on this move in “Mass Culture as Woman,” which I felt compelled to teach this term in my Novel seminar, is pretty undeniable), but for Mindy, it’s a disappointment-management system in the way that melodrama is a disappoint-management system in The Female Complaint.2)Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62. The disappointments of genre create space for making the disappointments of gender livable. Even for Emma, female genres are an attempt to manage the disappointments of gender: a stupid husband, a tedious town, an unwanted child, and no escape. As Jackson glosses the situation:

The thing is, genre is a heartbreaker. The plaintiveness of The Female Complaint and the cruelty of Cruel Optimism (2011) both turn on the turn that genre takes when its utopian promise breaks down, when our experiments in living can’t remain or become experiments in genre, since, as Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, “genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” If that generic expectation is too starry-eyed, genre will fold up its fragile tents: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”; “Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”3)Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

References   [ + ]

1. Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
2. Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62.
3. Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

And now for something very slightly different

Reading Lili Loofbourow’s new profile of Tatiana Maslany, I’m struck again by Lili’s consistent attention to the relationship between female reading and genre:

In its subject matter, “Orphan Black” broods on the nature-nurture debate in human biology, but in its execution, the show cleverly extends the same question to matters of genre. What does the exact same woman look like if you grow her in the petri dish of “Desperate Housewives” or on a horror-film set in Eastern Europe? What about a police procedural? The result is a revelation: Instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them.

By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, “Orphan Black” seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die. Early in the first season, there is a serial killer hunting down the clones ­— it turns out to be Helena, the Ukrainian — who ritualistically dismembers Barbie dolls after dyeing their hair to match that of her next victim. It’s a creepy touch, but one that can also be read as a metacriticism of how women are used on TV: the punishing beauty standards to which they’re held, the imposed uniformity. (Need a new sitcom wife? Grab the prototype and change the hairstyle.) Our low tolerance for difference among female characters means that they will almost always be less interesting, less memorable and less beloved than their male counterparts. In this context, Helena becomes a kind of hero, slaughtering televisual conformity and constituting, in both her savagery and her warmth, a radical expansion of what women on television can be.

Here I was reminded of Lili’s 2012 review of Pixar’s Brave for The New Inquiry, a meditation on the detection of small differences when every female character is a stereotype.

Barring some truly wonderful exceptions, you get used to eating the same three meals over and over, forever. Without thinking about it too hard I’ll approximate them as spunkiness, pathos, and transformation. Working Girl, He’s Just Not That Into You, Grease. Again, some of these are great. Most are derivative. Given the sameness of the flavors on offer, you become a sort of expert at spotting slight variations.

In the land of small differences, she points out, a princess movie in which the mother is actually alive constitutes a major departure. Stereotype and repetition, the constitution of the feminine as generic, means an attention to the kinds of “slight variations” that we might recognize elsewhere as “gender parody.”

Naomi Schor asks, “Is the detail feminine?” and Lili’s criticism gives an alternate, mass-cultural account of why it might be.1 I hope to see this strain of thinking elaborated further in her future work.

—–

     1 Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (1987; New York: Routledge, 2007): 4.