Tag Archives: surfaces

Apple’s Modernism, Google’s Modernism: Some reflections on Alphabet, Inc. and a suggestion that modernist architect Adolf Loos would be totally into Soylent

It’s weird how in the “post-postmodern” era (as Jeffrey Nealon has a ruefully called it) what counts as modernity remains so attached to the styles of modernism, a formal signification of newness long after these styles could conceivably be thought of as new (that is, long after they became styles).1)Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012).

im in ur font library
im in ur font library

The modernist aesthetics of Apple are well documented.

Aaron Betsky argued in 2012 that “the company that has already done more to bring the notion of clean lines, abstraction, white, and every other surface attribute of Modernism to the masses than any architect or architectural theoretician.” (There’s modernism as style again, or even simply as brand—a list of formal features or “surface attributes” to be checked off a list, rather than a philosophical or political engagement with historical modernity.)2)I am not, for the record, suggesting that this is any more debased than historical modernism. Gordon Bruce has similarly discussed modernist aesthetics not only in Apple’s contemporary designs but in those of IBM in earlier decades, seeing in them echoes of Bauhaus design.

The Apple store on 5th Ave., New York.
The Apple store on 5th Ave., New York.

Lori Emerson notes that even Apple’s “flagship store in New York City, which has been made to appear as if it’s within a glass cube (made of nonreflective glass to create an even more convincing illusion of a marvelous, even pure, reality) that sits above ground, when in fact the store is underneath.”3)Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) 188n29. Talk about modernist autonomy—the very fact that it’s a store is occluded by a vision of pure structure.

And in 2011 Blake Gopnik complained in Newsweek that “I may be in love with my new Air, but giving it a prize in 2011 is like giving a rave to contemporary paintings that rehash Mondrian’s grids. For me, Apple’s modern styling is like work by Chippendale and Tiffany: you may love it, but you know your love is stuck in the past.”

Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, marble, 1923.
Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, marble, 1923.

The joke’s on Gopnik, of course; he concludes that Apple’s design endgame is pure featurelessness, a design so recessive that it appears as pure function—but there’s nothing so modernist as a claim to stylelessness.4)Andrew Goldstone, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Moreover, to point out that grids, smooth white and metal surfaces, and the refusal of ornament aren’t new is to miss that they still mean newness.

The fantasies of purity that animate this style, now applied to the laptop I’m writing on, can certainly no longer be read as a resistance to the mass or to mass production, a sentiment that crops up in the Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos’s famous and weird repudiation of kitschy ornaments, “Ornament and Crime.” (That resistance’s reputation has taken a beating in the last several decades anyway.)5)For example: Kevin J. H Dettmar, and Stephen Watt, eds. Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Naomi Schor reads Loos as making a fundamentally economic, not aesthetic, judgment about frills and baubles: “it is a crime against the national economy that [in fashioning ornaments] human labour, money, and material should thereby be ruined.”6)Loos 21, qtd. in Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 2007): 61. If modern people are beyond ornament, as Loos argues, it is because they know better than to waste their energies on it; plain things are cheaper and you save money on not buying what’s unnecessary and, what’s more, is junkily unnecessary, now that lace and color aren’t the work of craftspeople but of tacky marketers looking to build obsolescence into what we buy.7)Perhaps Apple’s modernist aesthetics aim to give off the impression that they aren’t building planned obsolescence into their machines, even though anyone who’s ever owned an Apple product knows that they totally are.
By the way, Loos definitely isn’t arguing for an Arts-and-Crafts-style return to artisan decoration; rather, he argues that mass production liberates us from the laboriousness of ornament and thereby lets us see how superfluous ornament is.

Adolf Loos, Villa Müller, Prague, 1930.
Adolf Loos, Villa Müller, Prague, 1930.

Unadorned aesthetics, here, are no more than an alibi for the supremacy of the economic principle. In that sense, the mass production (safely elsewhere, out of sight) of modernist Apple machines is an apotheosis of the version of modernism Loos seems to propose.8)That much of this labor famously occurs in China—long an avatar for a hypertrophied capitalist modernity, as Colleen Lye has pointed out—only adds another layer beneath the sleek cladding of Apple’s image. See also Alexander Galloway’s critique, in the context of the “Chinese gold farmer” trope in gaming, of displacing the apprehension of global labor exploitation onto an abjected racial-geographic other as if it were a property of the racial-geographic others themselves, as well as Andrew Ross’s reading of the tight interlacing of western precaritization and globalized hyperexploitation. See Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005); Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity, 2012): 120-143; Andrew Ross, “In Search of the Lost Paycheck,” in Trebor Scholz, ed., Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013): 13-32. “Modern man [sic],” Loos concludes, “uses the ornaments of earlier or alien cultures as he sees fit. He concentrates his own inventiveness on other things.” Other things like startups, presumably! You can tell that if he could try Soylent, Loos totally would.

My comparison between Loos’s “Ornament and Crime” and Rob Rinehart, the inventor-marketer of Soylent, is a bit gratuitous, but not just. Rinehart’s minimalism shares with Loos what turns out to be not mere style, but a form of historical engagement after all—in the sense of a deep investment in one’s own modernity and, indeed, futurity.9)Rinehart’s minimalism bears a striking resemblance to Marie Kondo minimalism in its enthusiasm for externalizing disorder—a sort of hybrid, that is, between the lifestyle outsourcing that Kondo advocates and the literal labor outsourcing represented by the global supply chains that make our hardware.
By the way, I’m very persuaded by Aaron Bady’s reading of “How I Gave Up Alternating Current” as science fiction, and not at all the less for Rinehart’s apparent sincerity.

It’s the kind of futurity that depends on someone else being behind, as Loos discloses from his opening sentence: “The human embryo in the womb passes through all the evolutionary stages of the animal kingdom.” He’ll go on about development in babies and others for a good two paragraphs, concluding with the assertion that any modern person who self-ornaments by getting a tattoo is degenerate, out of phase with their developmental stage (and out of phase in a particular way—backward), and without question literally a criminal: “If someone who is tattooed dies at liberty, it means he has died a few years before committing a murder.” (Hence “Ornament and Crime.”)

The developmentalism here is thoroughgoing, but notice how Loos starts out with the human embryo as a sort of model system for every other kind of development (which is imagined as highly normative, teleological, and of course concluding with Loos himself). To begin with, Loos rehearses the popular (but basically wrong) notion that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” but the parallel between human development and evolution soon spreads to a developmental theory of culture and, indeed, of race, which requires “the Papuan”—paralleled, again, to the child—as a figure of primitivism against whose perfectly natural tattoos he can hold up the degenerate, criminal tattoos of the (white) “modern adult.”

Leo Frobenius, The Childhood of Man, 1909.
Leo Frobenius, The Childhood of Man, 1909.

In a course I teach, “Modernism and Childhood,” we spend a good amount of time thinking through the ways that various early twentieth-century thinkers (Freud being a prime example) rely on these parallel developmentalisms, using each “primitive” exemplar (the child, the animal, the racially other) as figures and explanations for the others. That’s what Loos is up to here. Beliefs about the child—whose relative disempowerment is profoundly naturalized—enable beliefs about many other kinds of processes.

It probably won’t have escaped your attention that this modernity is actually less about time than about hierarchy; Adolf Loos hasn’t been around any longer than “the Papuan” (nor is he any younger), but somehow he’s ahead. Aesthetics—plain style—is his proxy for time rightly met (which is in turn, as Schor argues, a proxy for economic incentives rightly met).

Rinehart’s technological futurism is equally about imposing hierarchy, peppered with oddly melancholic refusals of reproductive labor,10)“Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears.” Compare this with Loos in 1908: “The show dishes of past centuries, which display all kinds of ornaments to make the peacocks, pheasants, and lobsters look more tasty, have exactly the opposite effect on me. I am horrified when I go through a cookery exhibition and think that I am meant to eat these stuffed carcasses. I eat roast beef.” Told you Loos would have tried Soylent. which mark out what is feminized and outsourceable as worthless, unfit for conscious beings, and—as of Rinehart’s self-retrofitting—temporally past: “I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots.”11)I’m taking for granted some Marxist feminist accounts of reproductive labor and that, furthermore, you’ll have caught the historical resonances between feminized and robotic labor, both of which are devalued under current conditions. See e.g. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Thoroughly infused by what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls “historicism,” in the specific sense of the the temporalization “first the West, then the rest,” Rinehart’s narrative cleanly (so to speak) encapsulates the interarticulation of modernist plain style qua style and post-postmodern, just-in-time capitalism.12)Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000). “The new” is not actually about being new; it’s about being ahead of somebody else. It’s not much different from what we already knew about post-Fordist capital’s love of “innovation,” “revolution,” and “disruption”; it just brings into relief that rhetoric’s modernist antecedents and the developmentalist primitivism that makes it work.

This brings me to Google.

google

Yesterday, Google announced its restructuring under a new holding company, called Alphabet, of which the G for Google would become just one of many letters.13)At least one Twitter joke about Alphabet pointed out the modernism of this move.

G is for Google.
G is for Google.

The original Google product, the search engine, has a famously minimal UI design. Here’s how a writer for FastCoDesign described it in 2014:

Arguably, there’s no better example of efficient web design than the Google homepage. Every little design tweak goes through rigorous A/B testing, and yet the homepage does not look fundamentally different than it did 10 years ago. In fact, it’s so simple and iconic that, back in May, lead Google homepage designer Jon Wiley told us that he wasn’t sure if the design would ever fundamentally change.

Efficient! Rigorous! Simple! Iconic! Timeless! So far so modernist. But Google’s simplicity doesn’t go for sophisticated (read: adult) simplicity in the way that Apple’s design so openly does.14)When Anne Cheng reads Josephine Baker’s skin—so often draped with gold cloth or lit as if to reflect light—as metallic cladding, it makes me wonder what she might say about Apple’s attachment to brushed metal finishes: armor as nakedness, nakedness as armor.

Contrast this with the conscious citation of children’s alphabet books in the title of Google’s Alphabet announcement, “G Is for Google.” With its logo in primary colors, the letters in a serif typeface as if on toy letter blocks, and of course a name that’s nearly a gurgle and a corporate headquarters (the “Googleplex”) that’s a pun, Google has never exactly gone for the grown-up look. On the contrary, they are, like Facebook, famous for ping-pong tables in the workplace and Silicon Valley’s “youth culture.”

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, 1934.
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, 1934.

One of Google Search’s most famous features, in fact, is Google Scholar an ornament: a fast-rotating (24-hour) decoration on the homepage, usually a drawing or an animated cartoon, or sometimes a game, always topical and never repeated, called a “doodle.” Google itself describes the doodle feature as “the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists,” and, I am not making this up, the first one was made to mark Burning Man. Thus the “simple and iconic” Google Search page is frequently ornamented for amusement (“fun”) in just the way that Loos describes in the child and the primitive.

That is not to say that Google’s design strategy is antimodernist. Not at all. For the childishly-named doodles don’t register as ornaments without the “simple and iconic” reputation of the default search page. More to the point, though, the performance of childishness is a key form of modernist primitivism, a way of superseding modern civilization’s (supposed) hypercontrol, not by admitting to being decadent or regressive but rather by appropriating a position of genuine newness in the form of youth (which is also, of course, a proxy for other alleged developmental earlinesses—modernists like Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams freely appropriated African-American, Native American, and immigrant positions).15)Lest there be any confusion: this was racist. Thus Loos is a key example for Anne Cheng, in her book on the modernist surface, of the ways that, mediated through racial discourses, ornament and nudity could come out to the same thing.16)I know I cite this book constantly, but: Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). In this way the impulse to decorate—to doodle—can signify, not decadence, but rather creativity and a return to the elementary (“primitive”) processes of making art.

It’s interesting that Google entrenches in this self-presentation as infantile and unthreatening precisely in the act of basically announcing itself to be en route to multiplying itself 26-fold, which is, let’s face it, terrifying.17)I don’t take “infantile” to be a pejorative because I reject the model of development as hierarchy. For more on the practice of calling adults infantile, see the ever-brilliant Tyler Bickford.

Don't be evil, it said with its dead eyes.
Don’t be evil, it said with its dead eyes.
This has something to do with what I’ve elsewhere called “puerility,” although I don’t think it’s quite as complex in Google’s case. (Soylent, on the other hand, I see as thoroughly partaking of a puerile politics, seemingly enthusiastically running headlong into utopianism while sipping on a food replacement literally named after one of those sci-fi morality tales that reveal the terrible cost of a popular, futuristic tech solution—in this case, famously, “Soylent Green is people.”)

It’s not that Google/Alphabet’s design can be classed as “modernist” in the way that Apple’s can; rather, their seemingly opposing design strategies draw on two sides of the same idea. For example, the names the two companies chose for their respective web browsers—Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari—temporarily reverses the polarity between shiny modern surface and primitivism that each brand usually evokes.

Sianne Ngai has brilliantly elaborated “the cuteness of the avant-garde,” and perhaps that cuteness, with its violent undertows, helps explain what is happening in the transition from Google (the rounded letters, the repetitive bisyllable that pushes the mouth into a sucking motion) to Alphabet (the Greek word that literally starts you saying your ABCs).18)Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Ngai, following Lori Merish, reads cuteness as an aesthetic of the commodity, emphasizing the plasticity and thingness of the cute object. Perhaps one reason cuteness is a good branding strategy for Google is that its “products” are so much more confusing and elusive than Apple’s. Apple can design a sleek metal machine; Google is selling search, targeted advertising, email, and a variety of other less material goods, often for no obvious money. Often, further, it’s not clear who the customer is. They can use a little reification.

The danger with cuteness is to read it as a form, rather than as the formalization of a temporal concept, a transformation that the concept of “the child” routinely enables.19)What is “a child” but the remaking of an unmanageable temporal concept of earliness as a set of physical forms? Parents of infants sling biometrics like it’s nothing. As Ngai so persuasively details, to find something cute is to call up whole histories of its existence. Cuteness’s closest relative is the Freudian uncanny, an even more explicit example of an aesthetic concept that formalizes a temporal one. The uncanny is Freud’s (rather less repudiated) version of a tattoo, the atavistic return-out-of-time of some laid-to-rest part of oneself.

In Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), strenuous labor is figured as literally being on the clock.
In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), strenuous labor is figured as literally being on the clock.

These temporal aesthetics, Google’s included, tell us something about the repurposing of modernist style for post-Fordist capital. Modernist style still succeeds in evoking newnesses even when wholly “unoriginal” because it so successfully dehistoricizes.20)I don’t even really need to trot this out, but I will: Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985). That it still totally works, and that it remains congenial to capital in the face of capital’s transformations, hints that we have in modernist ideology a powerful actor.

Consequently, the study of early twentieth-century style can be understood as neither irrelevant nor innocent. The quasi-Darwinian, developmentalist ideologies of Silicon Valley have their correlates in styles that disguise their basic violence as design. Its results are, among other things, political transformations of the Bay Area that seek to do to San Francisco what Rob Rinehart did to his apartment—rely heavily on exploited labor that has been geographically displaced. It imagines people of the future living side by side with people who lag behind—but not literally side by side of course! because the laggards commute from Vallejo. Anyone who isn’t on board with the spatial segregation of the temporally disparate is an “enemy of innovation.” Again, this is actually less about time than about hierarchy. After all, the temporal difference between any two people in existence at the same time is completely made up: it’s an effect of style, which is in turn (if we follow Loos’s logic) a proxy for economic dominance. Time is, so to speak, money.

Loos (who was Austrian) wrote in 1908:

The speed of cultural evolution is reduced by the stragglers. I perhaps am living in 1908, but my neighbour is living in 1900 and the man across the way in 1880. … Happy the land that has no such stragglers and marauders! Happy America!

How will Alphaville look?

Pooh-bath-mat

[UPDATE 11 August at like midnight or something:

Will Fitzgerald points out a Wired story about Alphabet’s new logo, which couldn’t be more perfect if I’d made it up myself: “Google Announces It’s All Grown Up with Alphabet’s New Logo.”

Whereas Google’s goofy logo reflected a not-quite-mature web, Alphabet’s rational, bright red wordmark signals a growing-up phase. If Google’s logo reflects a campus with multi-story slides and themed conference rooms, Alphabet’s says, “I have a lobby full of Knoll furniture.”

This “maturing” process (how naturalized it is!—”Why Google Had to Create Alphabet” etc.—a corporation, like a child, must grow!) occurs entirely within the modernist design idiom. To be “grown up” is read as owning furniture from Knoll, the company with production rights to designs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen, among others.21)“Over 40 Knoll designs can be found in the permanent design collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This “sophisticated” modernism is, as Loos shows, only the other side of the performance of infancy enacted by some of Google’s earlier design choices, with simplicity and elemental design now taking over the function of signifying newness.]

[Update 1 September 2015: Tyler just pointed out to me that today’s Google doodle announces Google’s new logo, in a sans serif typeface resembling the Alphabet logo. While inching toward Alphabet’s “mature” look (see above), though, the logo retains its bright primary colors. More importantly, the animation depicts a hand erasing the old Google logo and writing the new one out as if in chalk on a blackboard, as if to depict an exercise in elementary literacy in the classroom. (Tyler feels like, alternatively, it could be crayon.) The Google blog post announcing the new logo, “Google’s look, evolved,” adopts a different developmentalist narrative (evolution), and is accompanied by a short video that runs through a chronological sequence of Google product rollouts, emphasizing constant change.]

[Further update, 1 Sept 2015: Gerry Canavan tipped me off to the AV Club’s rather funny writeup of same.]

References   [ + ]

1. Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012).
2. I am not, for the record, suggesting that this is any more debased than historical modernism.
3. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) 188n29.
4. Andrew Goldstone, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
5. For example: Kevin J. H Dettmar, and Stephen Watt, eds. Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
6. Loos 21, qtd. in Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 2007): 61.
7. Perhaps Apple’s modernist aesthetics aim to give off the impression that they aren’t building planned obsolescence into their machines, even though anyone who’s ever owned an Apple product knows that they totally are.
By the way, Loos definitely isn’t arguing for an Arts-and-Crafts-style return to artisan decoration; rather, he argues that mass production liberates us from the laboriousness of ornament and thereby lets us see how superfluous ornament is.
8. That much of this labor famously occurs in China—long an avatar for a hypertrophied capitalist modernity, as Colleen Lye has pointed out—only adds another layer beneath the sleek cladding of Apple’s image. See also Alexander Galloway’s critique, in the context of the “Chinese gold farmer” trope in gaming, of displacing the apprehension of global labor exploitation onto an abjected racial-geographic other as if it were a property of the racial-geographic others themselves, as well as Andrew Ross’s reading of the tight interlacing of western precaritization and globalized hyperexploitation. See Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005); Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity, 2012): 120-143; Andrew Ross, “In Search of the Lost Paycheck,” in Trebor Scholz, ed., Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013): 13-32.
9. Rinehart’s minimalism bears a striking resemblance to Marie Kondo minimalism in its enthusiasm for externalizing disorder—a sort of hybrid, that is, between the lifestyle outsourcing that Kondo advocates and the literal labor outsourcing represented by the global supply chains that make our hardware.
By the way, I’m very persuaded by Aaron Bady’s reading of “How I Gave Up Alternating Current” as science fiction, and not at all the less for Rinehart’s apparent sincerity.
10. “Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears.” Compare this with Loos in 1908: “The show dishes of past centuries, which display all kinds of ornaments to make the peacocks, pheasants, and lobsters look more tasty, have exactly the opposite effect on me. I am horrified when I go through a cookery exhibition and think that I am meant to eat these stuffed carcasses. I eat roast beef.” Told you Loos would have tried Soylent.
11. I’m taking for granted some Marxist feminist accounts of reproductive labor and that, furthermore, you’ll have caught the historical resonances between feminized and robotic labor, both of which are devalued under current conditions. See e.g. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 2003).
12. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000).
13. At least one Twitter joke about Alphabet pointed out the modernism of this move.
14. When Anne Cheng reads Josephine Baker’s skin—so often draped with gold cloth or lit as if to reflect light—as metallic cladding, it makes me wonder what she might say about Apple’s attachment to brushed metal finishes: armor as nakedness, nakedness as armor.
15. Lest there be any confusion: this was racist.
16. I know I cite this book constantly, but: Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
17. I don’t take “infantile” to be a pejorative because I reject the model of development as hierarchy. For more on the practice of calling adults infantile, see the ever-brilliant Tyler Bickford.
18. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Ngai, following Lori Merish, reads cuteness as an aesthetic of the commodity, emphasizing the plasticity and thingness of the cute object. Perhaps one reason cuteness is a good branding strategy for Google is that its “products” are so much more confusing and elusive than Apple’s. Apple can design a sleek metal machine; Google is selling search, targeted advertising, email, and a variety of other less material goods, often for no obvious money. Often, further, it’s not clear who the customer is. They can use a little reification.
19. What is “a child” but the remaking of an unmanageable temporal concept of earliness as a set of physical forms? Parents of infants sling biometrics like it’s nothing.
20. I don’t even really need to trot this out, but I will: Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).
21. “Over 40 Knoll designs can be found in the permanent design collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

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).

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-4x3
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.

beyonce-ghostbeyonce-ghost6beyonce-ghost10
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.