All posts by Natalia

Paris as an American City

film poster for MGM musical An American in Paris, 1951
An American in Paris, MGM, 1951

City of lights. Capital of the nineteenth century. The clichés pour down: the cultural metropolis, the imperial center, the capital city of the republic of letters.*

But if we press on this just a little further, we also see the city as conduit, as medium. Perhaps it’s not an accident that the great theorist of Paris (and source of not a few of our Paris clichés), Walter Benjamin, was a media theorist, close reading the very materials that made a medium of the city:

Iron is avoided in home construction but used in arcades, exhibition halls, train stations—buildings that serve transitory purposes.**

Recent research by Nancy Green and Brooke Blower has also thrown into question why the quintessential American expatriate in Paris is usually thought to be an artist: these historians have uncovered the deep networks of American business, philanthropy, and diplomacy in Paris, and Paris’s role as a site of U.S. power.*** The ideologies of aesthetic autonomy and romantic love that have long attached to Paris have also made the city a crucial conduit for U.S. interests.

What, for example, is Paris doing for Fred Astaire’s American character in this video?

[Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire]

The clip is from the 1957 MGM musical Silk Stockings, based on the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch (MGM) film Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo. Silk stockings, here, are the luxury commodity that will seduce a Soviet agent (in Ninotchka, it’s a truly wack hat).

Greta Garbo in a truly wack hat
Greta Garbo in a capitalist hat.

Why is Paris the setting for this Cold War comedy, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, he of the “Great American Songbook”? Why is it the logical scene of a seduction into American capitalism? None of this film is set in the United States (except that all of it is: this “Paris,” and “Moscow,” are built in Hollywood).

At the same time, what genuine pockets of resistance or autonomy were opened up by the Paris myth, especially for black Americans and for pan-African organizations?****

Notes for W. E. B. Du Bois's speech at the Pan-African Congress, Paris, 1919
Notes for W. E. B. Du Bois’s speech at the Pan-African Congress, Paris, 1919 (U of Massachusetts Library)

Questions like this drive the “Paris as an American City” project, a new Sussex Centre for American Studies international research network, co-directed by Daniel Kane (AmStuds/English), Katharina Rietzler (AmStuds/history), and me. We are funded by a Sussex International Research Partnerships and Network grant and are delighted to be working with collaborators including Nancy Green, Brooke Blower, Jonathan Eburne, Abigail Lang, Vincent Broqua, Olivier Brossard, and Daniel Katz, in partnership with Stanford Arcade, the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture at Chicago, and the Musée Franco-Américain at Blérancourt.

Reflecting that American Studies itself has its roots in the extraterritorial extension of U.S. power, we hope that the study of Paris as an American city will open out disciplinary questions as well as historical and cultural ones.

[Ideology at its very purest. Paris, je t’aime, 2006.]


*Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press, 2004).

**Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century (Exposé of 1939),” in The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

***Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (Oxford, 2011); Nancy Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago, 2014); Green, “Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept”, American Historical Review 114 (2009), 307-328.

****Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, eds., Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minneapolis, 2013); Fionnghuala Sweeney, and Kate Marsh, eds., Afromodernisms: Paris, Harlem and the Avant-Garde (Edinburgh University Press, 2013); Jeremy Braddock and Jonathan Eburne, eds., Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic: Literature, Modernity, and Diaspora. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Quick observation, with the caveat that IANAL (I am not a linguist): I’ve noticed that people in the UK (by which I mean Brighton) say “America” to mean “the United States” much more frequently than I’m used to hearing. This happens sometimes in the US, but usually we just say “the US” and reserve “America” for songs that start out with “I like to be in.” Here I’ve heard the United States referred to as “America” approximately one thousand times, as in “Fulbright workshop for people thinking about doing a PhD in America” or “I’m applying to do a year abroad in America.” (Unsubstantiated) conclusion: “America” is a Britishism.

And I have to say, I hear Anita in my head every time.


[Related: my colleague Lynne Murphy on “the States” and objections to the adjective “American.”]

Space whales

Still from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Paramount Pictures, 1986.

I will be talking in the Modern & Contemporary Symposium (part of the curriculum for final-year undergraduates in English) here at Sussex during Week 3 (3 February, 2pm, Chichester Lecture Theatre). My excellent colleague Sam Cooper will be responding. My slides (currently in progress) will be here.

This marks the (sort of) public début of my “Language poetry and space whales” theory, with bonus Sun Ra.


2014 is the name of this WordPress theme,* because it was in this year that I put up the site.

In 2014 I taught at Yale, I stopped teaching at Yale, and I gave talks or did seminars at MLA, C19, ACLA, MSA, Stanford, Penn, Bates, and a few places that will remain nameless as convention requires. I spent a week in Delaware and a week at Penn State. I got a job. I moved to England. I made many lovely new friends, and lost one very dear one. I taught Middlemarch. I taught Tender Buttons. I learned a new meaning for the word “bureaucracy.” I learned that, like the honey badger, the Brighton and Hove buses don’t care (that there is a pedestrian crossing). I came to owe my colleague Sam the internal organ of his choice or black market value thereof after he helped me put together a horrible Ikea bed that cost us a solid four hours and perhaps a few tears. I became incredibly wistful for broccoli raab.** I visited Dresden and Prague. The vast majority of what happened in 2014, I did not see coming in the slightest.***

Hello, 2015.

*Of course, I could change it.
**If you are tempted to weigh in with some bullshit about purple broccolini, let me stop you right there. No.
***Again: Brighton and Hove buses.

Beyoncé’s Second Skin (Part II): How to Be ***Flawless

Cross-posted to Arcade.

I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. My original opinion remains unchanged; but it is only an opinion.

The question is, what and where is the skin of the whale?

     —”The Blanket,” Moby Dick

[I wrote the previous installment of this post in May. Then…some things happened. Hi from England. And yes, my grades are in.]

In my previous post, I argued that Beyoncé: The Visual Album is a spectacle of occluded labor, putting on display not quite the labor nor its product but the hiding of that labor, the acts of partitioning (or what Emily Lordi called “boundaries”) that make for Beyoncé’s whiz-bang she-can-do-it-all appeal.

As I suggested earlier, this is not just a matter of demystifying care work, sex work, beauty work. It’s not a Dove ad. All of this work is crucially bound up in time, from the “forty-five minutes to get all dressed up” to the ironies of the bonus track, “Grown Woman,” wherein adulthood allegedly liberates you to do “whatever I want.” This is particularly evident in the repeated references to Beyoncé’s childhood hometown, Houston, and in footage of Beyoncé performing as a child, which all insist that one is not born, but rather becomes, Beyoncé.

Josephine Baker

Here I want to draw on Anne Cheng’s analysis of Josephine Baker, and especially of Baker’s representation as a shiny, metallic object in her studio photographs:

This is indeed the first time that black skin is, and can be, glamorized. But the point here is not just that Baker assumes a look that has traditionally and ideologically been reserved for white femininity—an amazing and notable fact in itself—but also, and more important, they raise a nexus of intriguing questions about the surfacism of black skin at the turn of the twentieth century. … Her seminudity is invariably accompanied by three visual tropes that have become her visual signatures: animal fur, that almost ubiquitous gold cloth, and dark shadows. We can dismiss these ornamental details as the clichéd conflation between animalism and dark, racialized female sexuality. But by now we are sensitive to the complications of skin and surface in Baker’s art. Does human skin (both literal and displaced by the tropes aforementioned) in these images act as decoration or cladding? Is ‘blackness’ ornament or essence? … From her famous lacquered hair, known as the ‘Baker-Do,’ to the expanse of gleaming skin in her studio photographs, Baker sheen is an integral part of her iconography. (110-12)

Cheng’s reading of the modernist surface that Baker’s skin epitomizes—both nakedness and decoration—helps to make sense of the surfaces in BEYONCE: The Visual Album.

Beyoncé dancing on a stripper pole, leopard spots projected onto her body
Beyoncé in “Partition.” The nearly-nude body (but is that a leotard and tights? skin or cladding?) has the image of animal skin projected onto it. No attempt is made to suggest that this is “really” her skin: this is a surface among surfaces, subject to light.

The production of the glittering surface that is the Beyoncé-image is perhaps nowhere more ostentatiously performed than in “***Flawless,” feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The very title announces the song’s contradictions: flawless with asterisks, flawless with a footnote, with qualifications. Those asterisks are stars, too; they signify sparkle and shine, but the shiny thing here is “this diamond (flawless), my diamond (flawless), this rock (flawless), my rock (flawless)”: the diamond ring that marks Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z, itself (regardless of the actual contents of their personal lives) its own kind of flawless performance. This is the song that announces Beyoncé’s avowal of feminism. And one of its centerpieces is a gorgeous diamond wedding ring.

Elie Nadelman standing next to his sculpture Man in the Open Air
Elie Nadelman, Man in the Open Air, c. 1915

Here, Bildung, marriage, and feminism explode—and are catchy. Contradictions act like glinting facets, throwing off light. As in the Elie Nadelman sculpture “Man in the Open Air,” bare skin and clothing form one smooth surface. As Cheng describes the sculpture, “He is hermetically sealed in a flawless skin that pours down from his bowler hat through his lithe figure down to his toes sinking comfortably into the metallic ground: body, vestment, environment as one” (9-10). It’s not for nothing that Beyoncé wears four pairs of pantyhose while performing. Patting her flawless thighs, she says: “you’ve got to keep it supported!”

The song is framed by footage/audio of a television competition in which a child Beyoncé, as part of a girls’ ensemble, earns only three stars for her performance, thereby losing the competition to long-haired 80s superdweebs Skeleton Crew.*

Skeleton Crew
Long-haired 80s superdweebs Skeleton Crew

When the frame opens, we have only the child performance, which lays the ground for, and complicates, the opening lines: “I know when you were little girls”—this accompanied, in the video, by a comic Bambi-eyed blink—”You dreamt of being in my world/Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/Respect that/Bow down, bitches.”

Who could be the addressee of these lines but Beyoncé herself? A Beyoncé, that is, who is not herself, one who is a (potentially plural) “you.” Claudia Rankine has recently shown how mobile and activating the second person can be: here, self-estranging, Beyoncé addresses a plural “you” who has her history and who once aspired to become herself. “I know” becomes the admonishment to “you”: “don’t forget it/Respect that.” Who are the “bitches” who should “bow down”? Whoever they are, they’re being told to respect the past dreams of little girls.

When the song continues, it’s to claim the right to “have it all”: “I took some time to live my life/But don’t think I’m just his little wife./ Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted;/ This’s my shit;/ Bow down bitches.”Beyoncé Knowles in ***Flawless

In the video, at the word “wife,” Beyoncé raises her left hand, in a gesture that is, for her, iconic; this is the hand of “Single Ladies,” ostentatiously unsingle and, indeed, well populated with rings, too many to make any particular ring stand out. What is being shown here is not a wedding ring but The Hand: she may be married, but first she made what was famously called “one of the best videos of all time” (*shrug*).

This is a classic “having it both ways” moment, one of many throughout the album.** And, I want to suggest, “having it both ways”—self-determining feminist artist and objectified Hot Wife, both “I” and “you” in the same sentence,—is repeatedly figured through a “flawlessness” that is not the less hermetically sealed for being explicitly and visibly constructed.

Sampling a TEDx talk in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a celebrated Nigerian-American novelist, notes reprovingly that “because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage,” Beyoncé piles on signifiers of respectable feminism mere seconds after calling no one and everyone and possibly herself “bitches.” And once Adichie has done her part and pronounced a definition of feminism, the outlandish claims to flawlessness begin: oneself, one’s diamond ring (four times), one’s looks tonight. The slightly rushed, out-of-time “goddamn, goddamns” that end these verses, the injunctions to “tell him” and “say,” the marginally too-energetic dancing in these citations of flawlessness reveal the seams while also showing how tightly and impermeably they are sutured shut.

Nothing could be more ironic, then, than the repeated avowal, “I woke up like this”: we’ve just seen the footage of her long struggle toward becoming Beyoncé. Even being “so goddamn fine” is a constructed process rooted in the family: “My mama taught me good home training; my daddy taught me how to love my haters; my sister told me I should speak my mind; my man made me feel so goddamn fine.” The video closes with the awarding of the three stars that lead to the girls’ defeat on Star Search. Yet those three stars don’t direct personal history toward psychologization or interiority; rather, they route it toward surface and sparkle: three stars that become the shine of being “***flawless.” Thus, as Emily Lordi puts it, “If I never expected to see so much of Beyoncé’s own skin in all my life, [neither] do I experience her self-exposure as self-revelation.” It’s her (flawless) skin and it isn’t (it’s four layers of stockings). Bildung here does not lead to “Reader, I married him,” although she does marry him, unrepentantly, and shows off the diamond to boot. Rather, it leads to something closer to Thea’s magnificent and forbidding impersonality at the end of The Song of the Lark: consummate artist, you cannot tell what and where is her skin. You just see the shine.

Beyoncé in “Ghost”

*No offense to the actual members of Skeleton Crew, who have gone on to haircuts and a better life.
**The album is sprinkled with strange intensified variations on being “barefoot in the kitchen”—inappropriate or reappropriated convergences of the kitchen and sex. In “Drunk in Love,” “We woke up in the kitchen saying how the hell did this shit happen”; in the same song, Jay-Z’s immortal and hilariously Seussian line “your breastesses are my breakfastes” turns sex back into feeding, even nursing. In “Jealous,” Beyoncé sings, “I cooked this meal for you naked.” Is that supposed to be sexy? Or just abject?

Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. Edited by Sherrill Harbison. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.

The Novel reading list for spring 2015

Students wishing to read ahead for the Spring 2015 module “The Novel” can consult this up-to-date reading list of primary texts.*

  1. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed., Thomas Keymer (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2007).
  2. Frances Burney, Evelina, ed. Jones and Bloom (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2008).
  3. Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. Lynch and Kinsley (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2008).
  4. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, ed. M. Cardwell & K. Flint (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1994).
  5. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. G. Wall (London: Penguin, 2003).
  6. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, ed. R. Luckhurst (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2009).
  7. George Gissing, New Grub Street, ed. J. Goode (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2008).
  8. Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight (London: Penguin, 2000).
  9. There will be a post-1945 novel TBA. (Obviously, you can’t read this one ahead!)

*Why aren’t the library and Study Direct reading lists up to date? you may reasonably wonder. It’s because they are slow and cumbersome to update and I have not yet had the time it physically takes to manipulate their interfaces. Typing, however, I can do.

The telephone, which interrupts the most serious conversations and cuts short the most weighty observations, has a romance of its own.

     —Virginia Woolf, “How it Strikes a Contemporary”

Everybody’s Authority

The incursion of the unwanted thus seems to be part of the risk of thinking with others, part of the vulnerability of opening oneself, one’s words and one’s thoughts, to anyone who might venture upon them.

—Jodi Dean, “Blogging Theory

Ah, the peace and quiet that follows a “block” on twitter.

—Saree Makdisi, Twitter

One day in 2012, while a presidential election campaign was in full swing, I wrote a blog post and hit “publish.” The post was pretty niche, I thought—the ninth in a series of posts that I had been tagging “puerility,” all incipient ideas for a future project that would draw on childhood studies, history of statistics, and poetics. With “puerility,” I sought to describe a ludic epistemological mode that draws its power from its very willingness to disclaim power and embrace provisionality—an ambivalence often figured through, and associated with, boyhood. Previous blogging on puerility had mused over the Google N-gram Viewer and the widespread propensity to describe it as a “fun” “toy”; the foul-mouthed parody Twitter account @MayorEmanuel, and Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. The new post was about election predictions and a recent media flap around the statistician Nate Silver.

I was halfway down a badly damaged post-Hurricane Sandy east coast, at a workshop at the University of Maryland, College Park, before I realized that, due to Silver’s celebrity and thanks to a senior economist’s denunciation, the piece had “jumped platforms.” From my usual audience of mostly junior fellow humanities academics, most of them known to me in person, the piece had moved to a different audience, to whom conceptual frameworks that I take for granted were both alien and offensive: the literary distinction between person and persona, the gender studies distinction between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of gendering, the history of science premise that the making of facts is both social and processual. While I placidly took notes at the University of Maryland library, the comments—mostly anonymous, and mostly angry—piled higher and higher.

What gave my esoteric “puerility” post such wide circulation, and why was that circulation particularly pronounced within a wholly unintended and (nominally) wholly unreceptive public? I wish here to sketch out a few conjectures around the nature of what the editors of this special section have called the “semipublic,” which I will suggest is particularly apt for the present phase of academic blogging. Blogging, in its heyday a decade ago, seemed to promise a new, potentially more democratic and more public form of academic engagement, as the historian Dan Cohen memorably explained in a 2006 post energetically titled, “Professors, Start Your Blogs.” Yet as its costs—and those costs’ uneven distribution across different classes of actors—have become increasingly visible, it has also brought more general dynamics of public discourse into relief. Far from constituting an ethereal, “virtual” realm apart, the semipublic web seems to enact the vicissitudes of print and televisual circulation in even more intensive forms, powerfully renewing questions about “public” and “private” speech and the norms that we assign to each.


The above is an excerpt from my short essay “Everybody’s Authority.” A preprint is available here [pdf].

Thanks to the wonderful Miriam Posner and Lili Loofbourow for comments on earlier drafts of the essay.