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.

Things that look like regular words but are really technical terms

I saw a paper on “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid” on Twitter this morning (via Sarah Rose Cavanaugh), and it made me think I should post something very slightly related, viz. this short handout for undergrad English majors, which I originally put together for the Lit 1860-1945 course that I taught last fall. Terms include “deconstruction,” “Symbolic order,” and “male gaze.”

E.g.:

male gaze A visual orientation structured by gender that treats the female body as spectacle. Women can occupy the male gaze; in fact, that is what classic narrative cinema requires female viewers to do, since the camera is structured by the male gaze.
source: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Cinema and Narrative Pleasure,” 1975
associated with: psychoanalytic film theory
does not mean: a male point of view, any particular man’s perspective

(see also…)

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.
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