There’s been so much scholarship on why the face of neoliberalism is female. The language of precision, targeting, and the “surgical” transforms the weapon into the scalpel, makes the wound into the kind of cut that heals.
Against genius, against charisma, the technocrat wields this scalpel; someone detail-oriented. A woman.See Schor. As Bayard de Volo and others note, you don’t need upper body strength to operate a drone, complicating narratives of military masculinity.
In my thinking about Marianne Moore, I’ve often run into the way that Moore is represented, or represents herself, as the kind of woman who wields “various scalpels”; she is the kind of poet who prides herself on making “tough decisions” that take the form of cuts: “Omissions are not accidents.” Through Moore, we can see how an ambivalent, queer femininity is embedded in historical uses of precision. “Détailler: to cut in pieces.”Schor, Reading in Detail, p. 53. (Here ends all discussion of Moore in this post.)
Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last year exemplified this dynamic: contrasting her defense policy with that of her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, Clinton fashioned a persona of female executive power predicated on the use of military strength in a “precise, strategic” way. The linking of the “precise” to the “strategic” (not to mention the “smart”) fully upholds the ideology of the drone. The agile and smart, this idea goes, defeat the merely strong.Insert mangled parable about foxes and hedgehogs here.
Donald MacKenzie and Caren Kaplan have, in different ways, outlined how the ideology of precision produces deaths. As MacKenzie points out, you develop precision targeting for weapons that you actually plan to use. If the stockpiling of weapons is theoretical, meant for deterrence and not for use, there is no reason to have sophisticated missile guidance. Conversely, if you develop sophisticated missile guidance, sooner or later it is going to seem like a good idea to use it. Strategically, of course.
Neoliberalism holds that these are kinder cuts, surgical cuts, healing cuts. That we kill only to save. That smart drone targeting based on smart metadata analysis of smart surveillance (that other form of targeting, as Kaplan explains) means we are most definitely cutting out a cancer, as ISIS is so often called (1, 2, 3).
The blunt, openly retrograde machismo of the Trump campaign went hand in hand with his rejection of the agile and smart.It also explains the deep streak of left sexism against Clinton; there was a genuine way in which her neoliberalism manifested through the way she performed her femininity, and indeed her feminism, … Continue reading Trump hated women, and he wanted everyone to know it. Most especially, he hated the woman as expert, the woman as thinker and overachiever, the kind of detail-oriented person who might use weapons in a “smart” way. It is easy to see why his sexism was seen as a rejoinder to neoliberalism. He even wanted to know why he couldn’t use nuclear weapons. He didn’t even comprehend the concept of deterrence. Details; girl stuff.
Yesterday, the US military dropped a 22,000-pound bomb in Afghanistan. Reportedly, it has a blast radius of up to a mile. It is difficult to comprehend, although not more difficult—indeed, not as difficult—as comprehending the countless smaller bombs the US has dropped in the Middle East and elsewhere in its state of permanent war.
I’m not really interested in which kind of killing is worse. I’m not in favor of killing. What still astonishes, months after the election, is how unprepared we seem to have been (or how unprepared I was, at any rate) for what looks for all the world like regression—and not just in the form of the infantile narcissism on constant display. It is “old” models—the World War I era “unstrategic” bombing that the ideology (if not necessarily practice) of precision bombing replaced (see Crane); obvious displays of force, ye olde kleptocracy—that seem to describe the present and the future. For decades now all attention has been on “innovation” and “the future,” an ever-speeding horizon toward which we breathlessly ran and, in so doing, made. Universities chased DARPA grants, built neuroscience and HCI centers, closed Slavic Languages departments. How will capitalism (by which we in the university of course meant war, our major source of funding) mutate next? we all wondered, and how can we get on the right side of it? (Robotics? Self-driving professors?)
Well, would you believe primitive accumulation in its most obvious and violent forms? What do we do when the next thing is not a new thing, not even an interesting thing, just an old and obvious brutality, uncanny and seemingly out of place because out of time? Are there thinkpieces to be written about The Way We Bomb Now (Same As Before)? About the New New Jim Crow (Suspiciously Familiar Voting Restrictions)? This shift from scalpel to hammer seems to me to be different from the lapsarian story of postcriticality, which was at any rate a story about neoliberal cynical reason. (I have enormous reservations about that story and especially the temporality it presupposes.)
It also explains the deep streak of left sexism against Clinton; there was a genuine way in which her neoliberalism manifested through the way she performed her femininity, and indeed her feminism, although I don’t think this excuses the sexist terms on which she was so often attacked.
[An incredibly long, rambling, and probably flat-out boring meditation on the Broadway show An American in Paris.]Some movie adaptation context: On the Town (1949), a ridiculous and frothy Gene Kelly musical based on a 1944 Broadway show, was revived at the Lyric Theatre in 2014, and Gigi (1958), directed by … Continue reading
“Well see, the thing is, I thought your son was a lady,” says Sir Launcelot. “I can understand that,” replies the king.
Of course there’s gender confusion, we’re expected to see: after all, Prince Herbert’s dream is to sing.
Recently, with some trusty and incredibly patient companions, I went to see the Broadway production of An American in Paris, having recently taught the 1951 film. The musical is billed as “inspired by” the film, and that’s about right. Like the film, the stage musical takes a premise (the Gershwin tone poem An American in Paris and its title) and a cluster of Gershwin tunes (all established hits, strung together well after Gershwin’s death in 1937) and hangs them on a fairly flimsy plot whose only real requirement is that, in the end, the American GI, Jerry Mulligan, gets the French girl. (Why else would you go to Paris? “Art,” Jerry’s initial motivation in the film, is fully substitutable by romantic love, or at least so we are told.)
How to establish that Lise (Bouvier in the film, Dassin in the musical), the aforementioned girl, does not belong with her dorky French fiancé is a question that each production must address. Like the film, the stage musical resists making any of the decoy lovers (whether Henri Baurel, Lise’s fiancé, or Milo Davenport, Jerry’s rich American sponsor) into enemies; the musical goes further still in attempting to complicate the film’s economy of value (American/French, modern/old-fashioned, “jazz”/waltz, matches of convenience/matches for love). I found this one of the most interesting and complicated, as well as troubling, aspects of the stage play. It definitely complicated the bright American modernity represented by Gene Kelly’s tap dancing, but in doing so, the musical also added an incoherent layer of masculinity panic, one that was particularly flatfooted in the context of Broadway.
The film (1951)
In the 1951 film, Lise (Leslie Caron, in her film début) is engaged to Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), out of an affection based in obligation: Henri hid her in his home during the war, which emphasizes their age difference (Lise is only nineteen), although we are also reassured in dialogue that they did not “fall in love” until after. Henri, here, is a mature, successful, attractive, and confident adult, a music hall singer and basically pretty good guy. He’s much more successful than Jerry (Gene Kelly), who paints kitschy cityscapes and sells them on the street in Montmartre. Well, “sells” is putting it nicely—he never sells anything until a wealthy American heiress, Milo (Nina Foch) “discovers” him. (This is part of the reason we will so strongly suspect that Milo’s desire to support Jerry’s “talent” has an ulterior motive.) There’s no clearer indication of Henri’s superior position than the fact that basically the first thing he does upon meeting Jerry is lend Jerry 300 francs.
Film Henri: a bit square
There is one reason only that Henri is not perfect for Lise: he’s a bit square. Not even square—tricornered, as he announces in a song sequence with down-and-out Americans Jerry and Adam, the latter being a pianist and Henri’s on-and-off accompanist. “This isn’t music! It’s uncivilized!” Henri yells as Adam plays a lick of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” This names the danger that the film’s France faces: that in clinging to “civilization,” it will fail to meet modernity. Obviously, we’ll need a jazzy American to save the day.
Notably, neither song nor composer is named; instead it is categorized as (American) “jazz”:
JERRY: Evidently the man doesn’t like jazz.
ADAM: He’s against it.
JERRY: What else is there?
ADAM: I know what he likes; he’s strictly a three-quarter man.
Then, in a a trio with Jerry and Adam, Henri will go on to declare his allegiance to the Viennese waltz, in contrast with Jerry and Adam’s American love of (Gershwin’s) jazz. This is the Henri song: “jazz is too hot for me but I super duper love Strauss.”
Film Jerry: has rhythm
Jerry, an American ex-GI of no money and pretty meager talent, is, as marriage material goes, no Henri. But he has one thing going for him: his postwar American modernity, displayed in the exuberant set-piece “I Got Rhythm.” This is Jerry’s song. He’s got music (jazz, of course, and he doesn’t have to aspire: he’s got it), he’s got rhythm (tap dance, virtuosically displayed); it follows that he’s got the girl as well.
The scene begins with Jerry’s arrival in Milo’s car (French—a Delage—but a symbol of American luxury all the same).Kristin Ross has written famously, and brilliantly, about “la belle américaine” in French films of the same period. See Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of … Continue reading Remarkably clean children flock around Jerry, excited by the car and the potential for bubble gum. The encounter turns into pedagogy, as a child translates his promise of “demain le bubble gum pour tous!” into an English “tomorrow.” Jerry then initiates an English lesson by ostensive definition, pointing to and naming various objects, with the children imitating his words. This segues into “une chanson américaine,” with the children singing (or rather yelling) the repeated, charmingly dialectal “I got” of the song, and then “une danse américaine.” At each stage, a pedagogy of Americanness is explicitly marked. The music is jazz, the rhythm is tap, the girl will come later.
Joel Dinerstein has pointed out how tap, in its heyday, signified the modernity of what Kristin Ross has called “fast cars, clean bodies,” a technological modernity strongly associated with Americanness, especially in postwar France, where it was construed specifically as “Americanization”:
Just as the streamliner represented a light, fleet version of the nation’s foremost symbol of industrialization, the tap dancer was a vision of the industrial body retooled for a rootless, mobile future. Streamlined design appealed to the popular imagination by transforming heavy, clumsy, dirty, smoke-pouring industrial machinery into a vision of aerodynamic sleek lines emphasizing fast horizontal flow and metallic sheen. Similarly, the tap dancer took the speeded-up machine-driven tempo of life and the metallic crunch of cities and factories and spun it all into a dazzling pyrotechnical display of speed, precision, rhythmic noise, continuity, grace, and power.” […]
Tap was the dominant professional and commercial dance style of the 1920s and 1930s, and arguably the most popular (and most participatory) American Machine Age art form. Le Corbusier caught the repetition and rhythmic flow in tap: “silent Negroes, as mechanical as a sewing machine, inexhaustible, holding your interest by beating out a rhythmic poem…with the soles of their shoes.” Marshall Stearns made the techno-dialogic connection long ago: “To his own people, Bill Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps.” Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003): 221-23.
Though a few decades late, Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan confirms tap’s embodiment of modernization in the “I Got Rhythm” dance sequence, which replays symbols of American expansion in tap sequences variously called “cowboy,” “choo-choo train,” and “aeroplane,” not to mention the American film industry, as represented by Charlie Chaplin. When, at the end of the sequence, the children demand “more!” of an exhausted Jerry-turned-John-Henry, he keeps dancing even as he begs off and leaves the scene.
It’s worth pointing out that “jazz” in this film signifies Gershwin, while “rhythm” is virtuosically displayed in the tapping feet of a white dancer, Gene Kelly (dressed in white, no less). American modernity, in this film, is ideally executed through African American art forms as reinterpreted by white artists; indeed, the postwar Paris of the film is counterfactually whitewashed, featuring neither American nor French people of color. At one point a band at a Montmartre boîte, occasionally appearing in the corner of the frame, contains African American musicians—they play Gershwin songbook standards from the 20s. Contrast … Continue reading
Although Caron is unmistakably a ballet dancer, first featured in a series of dance vignettes set to variations on Gershwin’s “Embrace Me,” and although the film famously features a seventeen-minute “ballet” fantasy sequence just before the conclusion, the film is Kelly’s film, and its primary dance idiom is tap, the dance of American modernity (with the undercurrents of immigrant and African-American appropriation that it entails).Of the ballet in the film, Albert Johnson writes: “It is, in many ways, not a ballet, but a sort of choreographic essay, undisciplined, and savagely insistent that the spectator should at some … Continue reading
The Broadway show (2015-present)
This is the biggest and most obvious change that the stage production, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, makes. The role of Jerry Mulligan, originated to Tony-nominated acclaim by Robert Fairchild (who has recently left the show) and now played by Garen Scribner, is no longer a tap role: mercifully, no one has to be Gene Kelly. Instead, the show’s primary language of movement is ballet, filled with a continuous smooth motion not only in the bodies of the soloists and company but also in the stage design: stage pieces sail in on smooth rollers, controlled by just-hidden people, often whirling as fast as the dancers, simulating cinematic pans and zooms, while the projected stage background is frequently thickly animated in constant, continuous motion.
In this sense, the stage production is faithful to the hypercinematic quality of the motion picture, which is enormously self-conscious about its camera angles and point of view, offering cinematic tableaux that (notionally) could never be staged. The stage production does not reproduce the tracking shots of the film’s opening, or the split-screen sequence in which we first meet Lise, but it does offer a number of split-screen moments in which actors are placed next to each other onstage and sing duets, yet clearly are unaware of one another; we are offered views of the café that Adam and Jerry live above from at least two different angles, and in the climactic ballet—preserved, reimagined as a diegetic performance rather than a fantasy sequence, and, in my view, the absolute high point of the stage production—we are at first, and at the end, offered a view from the back of the dancers’ stage. The stage show creates and points out its own camera angles. I found this cinematic quality one of the most impressive and interesting aspects of the show.
Impressive, too, was the dancing. The “American in Paris” ballet sequence, trimmed by about four minutes, is stripped of the wacky props that crowd the film version (a gigantic motionless fountain, several dramatic costume changes, a live-action Toulouse-Lautrec painting, a giraffe, etc.). The ballet, in the musical, is Lise’s début as a ballet star, following in the footsteps of her ballerina mother who has, it is strongly implied, been killed in a concentration camp during the war. Its sets and costumes are designed by Jerry (with no small amount of meaningful mentorship by a renovated Milo, who remolds his knockoff-Cézanne tendencies), and instead of the cityscapes that Jerry paints in the film (often suggested by the projected animations that continually outline the city), these designs are the recognizable modernist abstraction of line, shape, and saturated color. (Peter Bürger would have wept, but really, this was “modernist style” rendered as pure spectacular pleasure.) The ballet, beautifully choreographed, lit, and danced, is breathtaking. (An excerpt from the ballet, sadly sans original set, can be seen in Fairchild and Cope’s performance at the 2015 Tony Awards.)
Yet I cannot but concur with Brian Seibert’s point in a April 2015 review: in a ballet of continuous motion, the big “Broadway number” fails because its antiprogressive force cannot be accommodated.
Where Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography falls short is in the traditional function of the Broadway showstopper. The numbers that seem to be playing that role — “I Got Rhythm,” “Fidgety Feet” and especially “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” — only gesture toward real excitement. Part of the trouble is Mr. Wheeldon’s desire to maintain flow and finesse transitions: he doesn’t want the show to stop, even for ecstatic applause.
The only showstopper is the “American in Paris” ballet itself. And even the ballet—experienced in the film (with its disjunctive giraffes, dudes with canes, etc.) as a genuine interruption in plot, a seventeen-minute interlude between Jerry thinking he’s lost Lise and climactically reuniting with her—serves, in the Broadway show, to forward plot. In the film, while Jerry is fantasizing the ballet, Henri is working out that Lise really belongs with Jerry and, like the solid dude he is, takes her back to him.
In the Broadway show, in contrast, the realization is Lise’s, and the ballet is the engine of this realization, not something we watch while plot happens offscreen, as in the film. The real performance, Lise’s stage début, metamorphoses into a fantasy in which Lise realizes her greatness as a dancer by imagining herself dancing with Jerry, the only way she can draw out her passion as an artist. (The longest stretch featuring Jerry’s dancing, then, is one in which his dancing is fictional—imagined.) Dance and narrative progression thus work in concert in this show, rather than tangling in the opposition that Laura Mulvey so influentially noted.
Broadway: who’s got rhythm?
That’s probably why the Broadway rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” early in the show, is—how can I put this? Disappointing and bad? Or perhaps just incoherent. Adam, borschtbeltedly proclaiming that everything is terrible and art should reflect this, begins to plunk out a lugubrious minor version of “I Got Rhythm” in 3/4. It is a song that he is writing for Henri, who argues (and the hamfistedness of the “art should speak life’s difficulty”/ “art should recuperate life’s joy” debate in the show’s book is truly eyerollworthy—I think my trusty companions and I actually rolled) that the piece needs more snap, and leads Adam into a chipper 4/4 version of the tune we all know. (You can hear audio in the original cast recording.)
“I Got Rhythm” becomes Henri’s song, precisely through a repudiation of 3/4 time—the time of waltz. Jerry joins in (as does the entire company, eventually), but it is no longer Jerry’s song.)Nobody has much of a character in the film; in the musical, Jerry doesn’t even have a national ideology. (All he has is “Beginner’s Luck,” sung to whirling umbrellas that nod … Continue reading
Immediately, the film’s economy of modern (jazzy, tapping, aeroplane-embodying) American versus waltz-loving, backward-looking, stairway-climbing Frenchman is broken, even reversed. It is Henri who is now the voice of a futurity wholly tied not to modernity (of which we audience-goers are now suspicious) but to optimism, resilience, which by the way will also equal romantic love, which will turn out to be precisely the reason Henri must renounce any claim to Lise in the end. (He bounced back from that whole Nazi occupation thing; he’ll bounce back from this too.) Henri’s aesthetic optimism is explicitly marked as French: “I hate it when the French are right!” Adam grouses as he concedes Henri’s aesthetic vision near the end of the show.This quotation is probably inaccurate…it’s hard to take notes in the dark. But it’s something like that; the Frenchness of Henri’s optimism is explicitly marked. But Henri is not right enough to get the girl, not even with all that (ballet) music and (ballet) rhythm.
Broadway Henri: wants to sing
The Broadway musical wants to complicate the narrative of American modernity swooping in to bring lovely Paris into a future of fast cars and clean bodies, and perhaps, since it’s no longer 1951, it must. But what structuring logic will take its place and ensure Henri’s disqualification from the game of romantic love, now that being a bit of a square is no longer enough?
It’s all too clear: the musical puts Henri (Max von Essen)’s heteromasculinity in question. From the first we see that Henri is overly attached to his parents, especially his mother (excellent fellow Hampton Roads escapee Veanne Cox)—parents who do not exist in the film, and whose very presence makes Henri into a child (whereas in the film he is, relative to Lise, a quasi-parent). Worse, he cannot work up the courage to propose to Lise, as his mother repeatedly pressures him to do, and attempts at first to propose to her by writing her a letter. Is it a lack of courage or, indeed, a lack of desire? While the musical insists that Henri really does love Lise (albeit like a “puppy,” as Jerry puts it, infantilizing Henri once again), its winking and nudging around gayness is entirely unsubtle. In fact, his mother asks Henri flat out (albeit—naturally—euphemistically) if he’s gay; the expected denial, required by the show’s structure, is basically the definition of compulsory heterosexuality. One reviewer even reads the show as presenting Henri as unequivocally gay. It doesn’t do that, but on the other hand it does, kind of the way The Picture of Dorian Gray isn’t a gay novel but also completely and obviously is. (The undergraduate essays I’ve read about Dorian Gray‘s “strong homoerotic undertones”! Are they strong or are they undertones? Obviously they’re both: that’s how open secrets work—the more undertone, the stronger.)
Henri, you see, wants to sing. He dreams of being a cabaret performer in New York, a dream that he conceals from his overly respectable parents. Adam repeatedly makes cracks about Henri’s singing ability, casting further doubt on this unsuitable dream.
Of course, it cannot be. When he makes his début at a little Montmartre club, where a gigantic simulacrum of Marlene Dietrich’s face is plastered to the backdrop, he is frankly and rehearsedly terrible. I wish I had an image or clip with which to show you how sad and inept his performance is. You can tell Max von Essen is a good actor because his Henri is so convincingly a bad singer, until the performance metamorphoses into a fantasy in which he is successfully taking Radio City Music Hall. (Adam shows up to join him. “What are you doing in my song?” Henri asks. “I wrote it!”) In the Broadway musical, Henri has to be made a certain kind of pathetic, and the diegetic badness of his showstopper moment is the best, perhaps the only, way to do this.
In his brilliant long essay Place for Us, D. A. Miller outlines a subtle and probing theory of just what it is that makes the musical show tune “gay.”D. A. Miller, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998). Miller’s objects are the Broadway stage musical and, in the right circumstances, the … Continue reading In the economy of the classic postwar Broadway musical, in Miller’s analysis, the star performer is always female—a “diva” or (as he names her in a bravura reading of Gypsy) Star Mother, who is gifted with permission to give voice to (feminine; is it not by definition feminine?) need and be celebrated for it.
Cutting off at the pass the charge of emotional dishonesty that the show tune must always meet, Miller adds that
to charge this rhetoric with dishonesty is itself dishonest for refusing to recognize how little our social order likes to confront the suffering that is paying its installation costs. The rankness of bad faith supposes the availability of more direct, honest ways to express need, whereas everyone knows that the only socially credible subject is the stoic who, whatever his gender, obeys the gag rule incumbent on being a man.Miller, Place for Us, 13.
Lauren Berlant’s description of melodrama’s femininity, its ability to express unbearable need, however cheesily, in The Female Complaint echoes this scenario from another direction: “Everybody knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008): 1.
And like Berlant after him, Miller is not under any delusion that the woman’s place as Star and rightful vocalist of need is a position of power: “the utopia of female preeminence on the musical stage ends up bespeaking the reality of its opposite off that stage, in the musical theatre as well as nearly everywhere else….a woman had better imagine being the star of the show; she could hardly become one of its creators.”Miller, Place for Us, 89. Yet the abjection of femininity at least means escaping “the gag rule incumbent on being a man,” and that escape, into a male femininity, which is to say a male expressivity, is what, Miller argues, the Broadway musical offered gay men of a certain period. “[E]laborating, indulging, and closeting a homoerotically charged fantasy, wistful and aggressive by turns, of taking the Star Mother’s performing place,” the Broadway musical makes (or rather, made: it is the musical of a certain era) a “place for us” in plain sight. Miller, Place for Us, 134.
And yet, of course, this régime also means that while the Star Mother (Judy Garland, say, or Liza Minnelli) may be worshiped and periodically, at the piano bar or while listening to the original cast album, usurped, any diegetic attempt by a male performer to take up her spotlight must be punished. So it is, in An American in Paris. As Miller puts it,
A man who did take the place of a woman could hardly be more abhorrent here than one who appears lacking in sufficient assertiveness to take it from her. It follows that whenever such a regime detects a man—and in particular a young man or boy [as the stage version of An American in Paris makes Henri—NC]—in the ambition or even mere wish to perform on the musical stage, it will be as brutal as it is necessary to make a lesson of him: branding him with the repulsive character of Nerd, Sissy, or Snot, and maiming him so that he can hobble no further than the restricted mobility of these roles permits.Miller, Place for Us, 80. Speaking of hobbling, we’ll get to Adam in a minute.
Contrast this with the “Stairway to Paradise” sequence in the 1951 film. In it, Georges Guétary’s Henri is as assured and successful as can be, with lush if old-school filmic sets and chorines for miles, and a large and appreciative audience. Dorky? Old-fashioned? Sure.Obviously, the degree to which Henri’s performance should be read as “old-fashioned” in contrast with Gershwin tunes from the 20s and 30s is a matter of ideologies of style: after … Continue reading But not abject, not a gaping wound bleeding need. He’s a professional; a showman. In fact, the performance’s success secures Henri’s American tour.Maybe this is the place to point to the semi-documented belief that the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli—husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli—was bisexual, and … Continue reading
Let me add, too, that in the 1951 film, Henri’s “Stairway to Paradise” number in and of itself has no narrative function whatsoever. Sure; it lets us see (as if we didn’t know, ever since that Strauss confession) that he’s a bit square, and sure, the offer of an American tour speeds up the plot by moving up his proposed wedding with Lise. But the number itself is just that: a number.
In the 2015 musical, the number’s plot function is much stronger. Several reviews have complained that the songs in this show are shoehorned in and don’t make sense, and that’s probably true for several of them, especially “Fidgety Feet.” What this complaint misses is how much more the songs in this musical forward plot than do those in the film.
Like the ballet, which offers up Lise’s interiority (she achieves her professional success by wanting a man and thus accessing that most neoliberal of values, her “passion”),For real, don’t get me started…incidentally, it goes completely unremarked that Sad Cougar Milo doesn’t just get Jerry his job as ballet designer—she also secures Lise’s … Continue reading “Stairway to Paradise” offers up Henri’s interiority. Surprise; it doesn’t include Lise—he doesn’t want a woman; he wants to take the performing woman’s place, be the star.
The number is also the means of his uncloseting, as Milo inadvertently takes the Baurels (mère and père) to a club to “hear some jazz” (what?), only to find that the performer is Henri. Henri’s outing as a singer is met by shaky acceptance by his parents, who take his embrace of singing as an embrace of a postwar optimism, a future.The future—i.e., basically the opposite of those classical readings of queerness. In its place, there is openness, sunshine, supreme uncloseting. “No gay man could possibly regret the … Continue reading
It is obviously literally about singing. And yet, just as obviously, it’s also a teen selfie away from being a very special episode of Glee in which your parents might struggle to understand you but they always love you no matter what—no, in fact, they are learning from you, are inspired by you.
The film: between men
As usual, the problem with so hamfistedly thematizing homosexuality is the disappointingly unqueer ecology of meaning that results.It is of course worth asking, as Halperin does, whether an older generation of critics—Miller, but also Edelman and in his own way Halberstam—are perhaps invested in a rather … Continue reading The relentless outings of the post-Stonewall musical, as D. A. Miller puts it, dissipate the earlier (let’s say, closeted) Broadway musical’s “double operation: not only of ‘hiding’ homosexual desire, but also of manifesting, across all manner of landscapes, an extensive network of hiding places—call them latencies—apparently made for the purpose….to glimpse, even as it was being denied, the homosexual disposition of the world.“Miller, Place for Us, 132-33.
In its place is a “knowingness” about “an entity called ‘the gay man’…whose only aim is, by reducing him to a set of signs, to display, amulet-like, its own mastery in reading them.” Henri wants to sing; of course he’s (wink wink nudge nudge we’re all very sophisticated you see). In the same way that, as David Halperin points out, Lady Gaga’s ostensibly straight “Poker Face” was a much better gay anthem than her intentional gay anthem “Born this Way,” the 1951 film seems to make more room for queer possibility than does the 2015 Broadway show.David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 115-16.
Or, in other words, to make Henri the closet-coded holder of secrets is to refuse the possibility of other secrets, other latencies. For example, it refuses the classic “between men” scenario of the film, wherein Henri and Jerry, as rivals in love, bond over the love-object that they do not seem to realize they share.Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). Having ecstatically established that they are both in love, the rivals join in a swooning rendition of “S’Wonderful.”
The standard version of the song is addressed to a lover: “S’wonderful, s’marvelous that you should care for me.” Jerry and Henri substitute “she” for “you,” but as only Adam, in the film, at that point knows, it’s the same she, one that binds them together. As they sing, they are gazing into one another’s eyes and finishing one another’s sentences. Is this a “gay” song? Not really, but it’s just these kinds of latencies as latencies that the 2015 show refuses.See also Miller on A Chorus Line: “the unflinching disclosure that as many as three of the men auditioning for Zach are gay is hardly less fanciful than the naive idea, which it pretends to … Continue reading
An American in Paris: The gritty reboot as epistemology of the closet
“What do you think of when you think of Paris?” asks a solitary Adam, the stage musical’s Greek chorus, at the opening of the show. The stage is bare. He names some stereotypical things—the Champs Elysées, cheese. But Paris wasn’t always the lovely City of Light, he informs us. While occupied during World War II, he says, it went dark. (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but you get the idea.) Very Serious War Things alert! Suzy Evans’s 2015 piece for the Hollywood Reporter describes the change from film to stage, and Wheeldon’s psychologized account of it:
The first thing they decided to do, along with director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas, was move the story up a few years right to the end of World War II. Although the film never explicitly states its exact timing, the story seems to take place a few years after the Nazi-occupation of Paris. Kelly’s character Jerry Mulligan opens the film with a gushing monologue about the City of Lights, whereas the musical starts with a dark opening ballet echoing the lingering effects of the war.
“They would have done that themselves had it not been five years after the war,” Wheeldon guesses about the film’s director Vincente Minnelli and writer Alan Jay Lerner. “It was still an extremely raw and difficult thing for people to face and talk about, certainly in Paris. They couldn’t have written a truthful musical about that in the early ’50s; there was no way. That’s one of the things that was exciting to us. Now we could do that and we could really honestly explain why Jerry Mulligan decided not to go home, and what was going on with Lise Dassin and why she was being protected by this bourgeois family.”
The change is framed as a turn to authenticity, somewhat patronizingly hypothesizing that Minnelli was too traumatized by war to be authentic (never mind that Minnelli has typically been characterized as an almost obsessive master of stylized mise-en-scène, or that the entire musical was made in Hollywood, not France).
In the Broadway musical, in the opening ballet that illustrates the immediate postwar moment, three Nazi flags fall, to be replaced by the French tricolor. Weirdly enough, the audience clapped when that happened, at the production I saw, as if to illustrate that there is nothing as roundly consensus-making and prone to letting Americans pat themselves on the back as the notion of defeating Nazis in general and of liberating Paris in particular. Like a kind of reverse Godwin’s Law, saving French people and especially Jewish French people from Nazis is flagged as the mark of virtue toward which American military power will always tend.Just to be clear: I am not at all saying that war and the Holocaust are not serious. I am saying that their use as a signifier of seriousness, and of American military virtue, can be questioned. (“I did things during the war,” the Broadway Jerry confesses to Lise at one point. Lise has traumatic memories too. The point is, their war trauma—one performing violence, the other its victim—like, she is literally the target of a genocide—is framed as reciprocal and equivalent. Mimi Thi Nguyen has written brilliantly about this move’s post-Vietnam vintage and the ideological work that it does. Is this more “truthful” than half-sweeping the war under the rug?)Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 114-16. On American GIs in France during World War II, see Mary Louise Roberts, What … Continue reading In the musical, Americans also defeat the Nazis in the arena of culture, as the wealthy Milo’s patronage of the ballet where Lise will make her début is explicitly said to replace Nazi funds.
In other words, despite its thematic and completely unsubtle endorsement of resilience and optimism, the Broadway musical is a gritty reboot, endorsing the contemporary ideology that Serious Themes make a serious show. In fact, this is what the resilience and optimism are really about. It can’t be an accident that in the musical’s official trailer, the opening title is “FROM THE ASHES OF WAR.”
You need the ashes of war in order to rise from them. Marilyn Stasio, in her review for Variety, is right to call this move “contemporary”:
What really makes the show feel fresh is the context in which [book writer Craig] Lucas has reconceived it, keeping in mind that reworking any beloved musical or movie can land you in a sandtrap. The writer (“The Light in the Piazza”) aged this show backwards, deepening and darkening the material so it now seems genuinely relevant for our own war-torn age. There’s still plenty of light and laughter in the story of a G.I. who helped liberate Paris and then fell in love with the city and its colorful artistic community. But this isn’t Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor vision, which was set in the postwar 1950s when Parisians weren’t quite so shell-shocked from the German Occupation.
In her characterization, 1951 was a carefree time, not like our “war-torn age,” which calls for something deeper and darker. This is basically the thinking behind all gritty reboots.
What this gritty reboot does, then, is bring into much stronger relief what was only barely hinted in the film, and in doing so, structures the narrative around closets and outings. The “seriousness” of the war context is exactly the same as the “seriousness” (and, as I’ll discuss, the plottedness) of the love story.
In the film, Henri is only helping out a friend, and it is not a secret, just a fact, narrated in run-of-the-mill exposition almost as soon as we meet Henri in between bouts of a comic bit in which Adam keeps ordering coffee and not getting it.
HENRI: Ah, poor Jacques; he was caught in the Resistance. I took care of Lise all through the occupation; she lived in my house.
ADAM: Your house? Shocking, but generous.
HENRI: Oh, she was a little girl then. We only became in love after she left.
There’s no hint of concentration camps here, no whiff even of trauma, despite the fact that “poor Jacques” (Lise’s father) was presumably jailed or executed. There’s no secret here; it’s just backstory, offered to show the origin of Lise’s relationship with Henri and the fact that Henri is pretty much a mensch, and in case we were concerned, also not a creep toward young women in his care. There’s essentially no psychology to it.
Contrast this with the dramatic reveals of the Broadway show, all relating to a war framed primarily in psychological rather than political terms. Lise is Jewish! Her parents were probably killed in a concentration camp! The Baurels worked for the Resistance! Each of these revelations is staged precisely as revelation, as (dramatic, and of course healthy) confession.
When Jerry and Adam show up at a party that the senior Baurels are throwing for the ballet theater, they cheerfully greet Henri, who is horrified that their acquaintance might alert his parents to his singing practice (Adam is his accompanist). “Don’t let them know my secret!” he begs Adam and Jerry. In unison, they reply, “which one?” It is a laugh line, and the audience laughs.
And in fact Henri does have two secrets, one that he is keeping from his parents (the singing) and one that he has been keeping from the rest of the world because, up until now, it has been politically dangerous: he and his parents were active in the French Resistance, and hid Lise because she was Jewish. But at this point in the play, Jerry and Adam don’t know the second secret, and assume that he is gay, or at least inadequate with respect to Lise—that’s the “which one?”
But of course, these are all the same secret in the end. The secret is the only secret, the closet. Consequently, Robert Hofler’s review for The Wrap, slapdash as it is, is not wrong to bundle the two secrets together:
Perhaps Lucas and director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon sensed they’d lost too much conflict, because they overload act two with exposition on Lise’s being Jewish, her family’s extermination in the holocaust, and the Baurel family’s involvement in the French resistance. (In the movie, Lise handles her own backstory in about two sentences.) Oh, and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) is now gay, and so in addition to his loving jazz and wanting to be a stage performer, which his parents (Veanne Cox and Scott Willis) don’t like but then they do, you have to worry if there’ll be a big gay-disclosure scene.
Ok, Hofler is wrong in that the show doesn’t really (technically) make Henri gay, but only because the revelation of Henri’s desire to sing is a proxy uncloseting that doesn’t so much raise the possibility of “a big gay-disclosure scene” as simply substitute for it.
By announcing, gritty-reboot-style, that this is a show with psychological depth, the show has to invest in depth as such, a depth of disclosures and unclosetings that always, in the end, mean the same thing.Yes, yes; I’m well known for my adherence to #teamdepth, but this is another matter. This is why, in the Broadway show, Henri’s uncloseting as a member of the Resistance does nothing to counter the real aim of Jerry’s masculinity-shaming. (Jerry accuses Henri of sitting the war out, essentially calling him a sissy.) Being uncloseted as really brave (really masculine) does not recuperate Henri’s right to pursue Lise; instead, it confirms the structural (that is, political) nature of her attachment to him and all the further disqualifies Henri from the scene of heterosexual romantic love. As Eve Sedgwick argues, the free-floating appropriability of the “closet” as a metaphor for secrecy in general does not leave the closet “evacuated of its historical gay specificity.” On the contrary, the epistemology of the closet has instead suffused a range of “epistemologically charged pairings,” including secrecy/disclosure and public/private, but also, as she puts it, “masculine/feminine, majority/minority, innocence/initiation, natural, artificial, new/old […],” with the valences of “homo/heterosexual crisis.”Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, 72-73.
The Showstopper: He’s going to tell (or, Appropriately enough, a digression)
The scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which an effeminate prince declares his love of singing does an oddly good job of illustrating Miller’s point about the Broadway showstopper.
The king has a plan, or, let’s say, plot—a patriarchal plot; the patriarchal plot: inheritance, heterosexual marriage, lineage, all hinging on the prince’s impending wedding to a wealthy landowner’s daughter. Prince Herbert’s desire to sing is both the occasion for his uninterest in this patriarchal plot (“But I don’t want any of that…I’d rather…I’d rather…just…sing!”) and the thing that literally puts a stop to it by constantly threatening to, so to speak, stop the show. At one point Prince Herbert’s threatened singing explicitly cites the generic conventions—and sentiments—of the (female) Broadway showstopper: “I know,” he replies to his father’s list of the bride’s purported charms, “But I want the girl that I marry to have…a certain…”—and the music swells. How often have we heardthatsong?
When the absurdly overmasculinized Sir Launcelot eventually comes swashbuckling through, killing wedding guests willy-nilly without so much as bothering to ascertain that his damsel in distress is technically a damsel, the king attempts to whack his son and commandeer Launcelot into the heterosexual marriage plot to which Prince Herbert is so patently inadequate. It’s not clear how the legalities of land acquisition would work, but for the king, it seems that the most important thing is that there be a wedding.
Even then, Herbert manages to survive a fall from the castle tower and close the sketch with a big company number (“He’s going to tell”). When the prince finally succeeds in getting his song, the show is well and truly stopped, and so is the wedding—not just his own wedding but any wedding.
The showstopper is thus a loophole, a way out of emplotment. And even if the postwar Broadway musical takes on what Miller calls the “protective coloration” of plot-related reasons for singing, in the end it retains
not the integration of drama and music found on the thematic surface, but a so much deeper formal discontinuity between the two….As often as it had numbers, every Broadway musical brought him [the boy who loves to sing] ecstatic release from all those well-made plots for whose well-made knots no one who hadn’t been a boy scout could possibly have a taste.Miller, Place for Us, 3.
Coherent narrative itself functions as propulsion toward an inevitable heterosexual conclusion that is relentlessly framed as logical. The Broadway show An American in Paris, in contrast with the 1951 film, breaks the (ideological, certainly) economy of American industrial modernity versus a sophisticated but backward-looking France, and it does so by itself moving forward as purposefully as Kelly’s tap-danced aeroplane, unable or unwilling to stop the show, or put a damper on a story about futurity that is all about opening up closets—a Dansavagesque “it gets better.”
Broadway Henri: Being Alive
Consequently, the Henri of the Broadway show, who’s in all the closets, also has in the end to be the the aesthetic and political optimist, the endorser of futurity. He might as well be singing “Being Alive” at the end of Company. The loser in love, he still has to endorse the couple form. It’s the way forward, and there’s nowhere else this show can go.
Broadway Adam: But Not For Him
There’s one loose end that I feel like I ought to tie up here, and that’s Adam. Because Adam, in the Broadway show, has ostensibly been elevated to a main character, and yet also profoundly is not one.
Essential to the “gritty reboot” logic of the stage version of An American in Paris is the amplification of the Nazi occupation of Paris and the dynamics of secrecy and revelation that this entailed. This plays a major role in the new drama between Lise and Henri, and constitutes one of Henri’s closets (his role in the Resistance). And Adam, it turns out, is a curious lynchpin in this structure.
In the film, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) is a sarcastic, comical narcissist, a winner of eight piano fellowships to study in Paris, to the point of feeling like “the world’s oldest child prodigy.”In a rather long scene, Adam fantasizes that he is giving a solo performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F…and in addition to being the piano soloist, he is also the conductor, the entire … Continue reading He once worked for Henri as an accompanist, but “had to give it up, because I was starting to like it and I didn’t want to become a slave to the habit.” Adam in the film is a mediator, the means of Jerry’s acquaintance with Henri. In fact, when Henri loans Jerry those 300 francs in that early scene, he really loans them to Adam, who then loans them to Jerry, after Jerry has protested to Henri that “I never touch a guy unless I’ve known him for at least fifteen minutes.” “I’ve known him fifteen years; lend me three hundred!” Adam says, and the loan is made.
In the film, Adam is the repository of his friends’ private business, which is private but not at all secret—hence the casual way in which Adam learns it. Adam knows who Lise is and that she is engaged to Henri long before Jerry even meets her. And Adam knows about Milo and her sponsorship of Jerry, too, long before Lise does. In the film, Lise and Jerry explicitly agree not to talk about their everyday lives, not because they are secrets but because they complicate the happiness that they find with each other.
That’s why, when Jerry comes to Adam with his dilemma about feeling caught between Milo and Lise and casually tells Adam Lise’s name, and then Henri drops by to announce his engagement (to Lise, obviously, but Jerry doesn’t know that as we and Adam do), Adam tries to stop the revelations precisely because they’re so very likely, because they’re not secrets. Adam ridiculously tries to change the subject by dropping the film’s only mention of actual Nazis: “Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?” It does not work. Yeah, Hitler, whatever: these bros want to talk about their feelings.
Poor Adam, who knows far too much about both of his friends, has to sit there nervously, pouring brandy and coffee down his throat and down his shirt front and smoking multiple cigarettes at once as Henri and Jerry bond over both being in love.
The Adam of the Broadway show could not be more different. He is funny, but he is no longer a comic figure. I can’t even quite say that he’s a tragic figure. He’s…negated. In the show, Adam (Brandon Uranowitz, in a Tony-nominated performance) is no longer Adam Cook but a self-consciously Jewish Adam Hochberg. In this way, the Broadway show thematizes what is, again, only hinted in the film (Oscar Levant, who plays Adam in the film, was, like his friend George Gershwin, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants). And while the Adam of the Broadway show is a pianist and composer, he is also (like Jerry) a former GI, left with a limp from a war injury and burdened by darkness.
He is also, in the Broadway show, another contender for Lise, turning the Henri-and-Jerry duets, including the once-intimate “S’Wonderful,” into trios.
Adam is the show’s narrator, announcing the show as gritty reboot at the beginning and offering its moral near the end—that “love is more important than art”—and at the end of the show, Lise tells him, “you’re my American in Paris.”
Well, swell, I guess. The thing about the newly disabled and Jewish Adam, though, is that he was never a contender for Lise. You don’t put a contender in that vest, and I’m being a little facetious, but not a lot. What is secret for other characters (Jewishness, like Lise; being haunted by war, like Henri) is worn absolutely on the surface for Adam, who self-identifies as Jewish and points out his own limp in the very scene in which he meets Jerry.
Adam’s only secret—which he tries and fails to out—is his attraction to Lise. When he interacts with Lise, he stumbles and Woody Allens his way through the awkwardness. Singing “But Not For Me” at the end of the show, he both affirms that “love is more important than art” and sublimates his desire for Lise by putting her “in my music, where she belongs—at least for me.” It seems incredibly overdetermined that this extra competitor (who was never a competitor) be shunted off in just this way, into (what else?) a newly redemptive art, his disability all too stereotypically a a warrant for “transcending” the body.
Alone he stands on that stage at the beginning of the show, and alone he stands at the end. It’s not so very different from the Adam of the film, except that this Adam too has been made to affirm the centrality of the couple. And if you can’t get that, you can at least recycle your thwartedness into your music, turning damage into profit, as Robin James argues in Resilience and Melancholy.Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015).
Broadway: back to the future
Adam, then, is the final confirmation of the show’s break with the film’s economy of value. American industrial modernity is no longer what’s celebrated; instead, it’s a transnational resilience (relying, of course, on the French Henri’s optimism and Lise’s ability to serve as…well, basically, a muse, even though she is an artist in her own right) that depends first of all on closets of all sorts out of which one can emerge triumphant.
It would be difficult to read either structure as other than politically retrograde, of course, but more importantly for me, what each production reveals is its own conception of futurity.
For one, futurity lies in the fantasy of an ideological escape from the rat race into Paris’s Bohemian paradise (as Jerry says in the opening voiceover, “if you can’t paint in Paris, well, brother, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter”) that everywhere bears the mark of its interdependency with post-Marshall Plan American technology and American money, from Milo’s art sponsorship to the unnamed rich American woman from Milwaukee who buys perfume from Lise’s counter.
For the other, the Broadway show, however, futurity lies in something much more like compulsory optimism. “It’s got to be a celebration!” Adam yells, in what is meant to be his artistic breakthrough. The vacuousness of the realization—basically, cheer up—is what this futurity is about: it’s not for him, but he must still be for it.
Some movie adaptation context: On the Town (1949), a ridiculous and frothy Gene Kelly musical based on a 1944 Broadway show, was revived at the Lyric Theatre in 2014, and Gigi (1958), directed by Vincente Minnelli and also starring Leslie Caron, was adapted for Broadway in the 1970s and briefly revived in 2015. Of the three, An American in Paris has met with the most success.
Kristin Ross has written famously, and brilliantly, about “la belle américaine” in French films of the same period. See Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995).
At one point a band at a Montmartre boîte, occasionally appearing in the corner of the frame, contains African American musicians—they play Gershwin songbook standards from the 20s. Contrast this with Miles Davis’s utterly contemporary score to Louis Malle’s 1958 Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, only seven years later.
Of the ballet in the film, Albert Johnson writes: “It is, in many ways, not a ballet, but a sort of choreographic essay, undisciplined, and savagely insistent that the spectator should at some point gasp in amazement at the technical achievements.” Albert Johnson, “The Films of Vincente Minnelli: Part I,” Film Quarterly 12.2 (Winter 1958): 33.
Nobody has much of a character in the film; in the musical, Jerry doesn’t even have a national ideology. (All he has is “Beginner’s Luck,” sung to whirling umbrellas that nod toward both Kelly’s performance in Singing’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—ok, clever; I chuckled, but maybe fix the bigger issues with the book before adding visual witticisms.
D. A. Miller, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998). Miller’s objects are the Broadway stage musical and, in the right circumstances, the original cast album (vinyl, of course) and the rendition at the piano bar. He has little to say about film musicals, and it is far from clear to me where a musical like An American in Paris, which originated as an insistently cinematic film musical, fits into his theory.
Obviously, the degree to which Henri’s performance should be read as “old-fashioned” in contrast with Gershwin tunes from the 20s and 30s is a matter of ideologies of style: after all, acts like Henri’s are perfectly contemporary in midcentury Hollywood film.
Maybe this is the place to point to the semi-documented belief that the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli—husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli—was bisexual, and possibly even had an affair with Gene Kelly. As Miller observes, “Just think: the golden-age musical that best persuaded the general public of the artistic ‘seriousness’ of the form—and did so, naturally enough, on the basis of a virility so sure of itself, or at any rate, so truculently put forward, that it could even get away with the jetés of classical ballet, without anybody daring to say, though anybody might have seen, from their first cigarette, that the Jets were leaping straight out of the pages of Genet—this was entirely the conception of four gay men who must have been, in a strict sense of the phrase, nothing if not brilliant.”
The future—i.e., basically the opposite of those classical readings of queerness. In its place, there is openness, sunshine, supreme uncloseting. “No gay man could possibly regret the trade, could do anything but be grateful for it,” Miller writes, “that is, if it actually were a trade, and his old embarassments…had not been retained.” Miller, Place for Us, 26.
It is of course worth asking, as Halperin does, whether an older generation of critics—Miller, but also Edelman and in his own way Halberstam—are perhaps invested in a rather generationally specific and closet-centric account of the right way to be queer. See Halperin, How to Be Gay, 116-118. See also Michael D. Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). As with femininity, so with youth: it can be difficult to theoretically tease neoliberalism away from the forms that it has so successfully made its vehicles. Is it that the young bypassed the closet the way they bypassed email and went straight for Snapchat? Or is their love of the closet: bad/out: good binary actually down to the fact that they just haven’t read Foucault? This is hard to say.
See also Miller on A Chorus Line: “the unflinching disclosure that as many as three of the men auditioning for Zach are gay is hardly less fanciful than the naive idea, which it pretends to counter, that none would be. What it really counters, of course, is the widely suspected fact that, where the chorus of a Broadway musical is concerned, gay men do not form a minority at all, and even the true minorities are likely also to be in this same majority. Three gypsies come out so that the chorus as a whole may remain in the closet.” Miller, Place for Us, 130.
Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 114-16. On American GIs in France during World War II, see Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
In a rather long scene, Adam fantasizes that he is giving a solo performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F…and in addition to being the piano soloist, he is also the conductor, the entire orchestra, and the audience.
My essay “Experimentalism by Contact” is now available on Project Muse as part of a special issue of diacritics edited by Brian Lennon on “Thinking with the Sciences.”
The essay is drawn from my book in progress, Experimental, and tries to do a number of things (possibly too many things), including periodize literary “experimentalism,” explain why experimental writing is so white, and extend Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s concept of the “epistemic virtue” as a way of thinking across literature and the sciences.
I wish to say, just to give the academic culture of sprezzatura a little kick, that it was completed under enormous time pressure (not due to diacritics but, mostly, to the huge amount of uncounted labor related to the job market, especially when you’re “successful” but not so successful that you end up “employed”) that nearly killed me dead. I almost didn’t submit an essay because it seemed all but certain at that point—after three postdocs, and after two unsuccessful (and custom-written) job talks that spring—that it was my last semester in the profession. (One of those unsuccessful job talks became this.) Out of pure luck I ended up employed after all, but it was, shall we say, an unpleasant time. And on top of it I was living in Wooster Square, so, you know, there was the constant danger of having my car towed for no reason.* (Damn you, New Haven PD!)
Poor essay, to have such unpleasant origins. I can’t say it’s my favorite piece of writing, but I stand behind the ideas.
On a happier note, though, Diane Berrett Brown was the best, most thorough copy-editor I have ever encountered, and the peer review (one by Brian and two by anonymous readers) was very smart and on point. Working with diacritics was a great experience, and the footnote-checking made me finally get my reader’s card for the lovely British Library.
Lots of people helped me write and think about the essay in various ways. Hillary Gravendyk let me bounce ideas off her; Lauren Klein and Nihad Farooq were generous, patient readers of drafts; and folks at the Newberry Library’s American Literature Seminar, the Penn Mods group (thanks especially to Julia Bloch for inviting me), and the Stanford Center for the Study of the Novel helpfully responded to earlier versions of the essay. Scott Selisker invited me to be the token poetry person on a post-45 science and lit MLA panel earlier that year, basically just because he’s a mensch, and that opportunity proved extremely productive for my thinking about experimentalism, as have my conversations with Scott, who is a brilliant and generous colleague.
The essay is dedicated to the memory of Hillary Gravendyk, who still counted Williams a favorite despite also thinking he was really (as we used to say in grad school) problematic.
*The neighborhood did genuinely smell like pizza in the afternoons, though, which was a definite plus.
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).Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012).
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.)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.
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.”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.”
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.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.)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.”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.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 … Continue reading
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.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 … Continue reading “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.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 … Continue reading
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.”
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,“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 … Continue reading 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.”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 … Continue reading
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.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.
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.At least one Twitter joke about Alphabet pointed out the modernism of this move.
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.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 … Continue reading
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.”
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).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.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.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 … Continue reading 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).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 … Continue reading
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.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.
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.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!
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.”
[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.]
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.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!
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.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, … Continue reading 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.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. … Continue reading 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.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.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 … Continue reading
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.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 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?”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!).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.”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.”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.”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.”)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.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.Mark Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010): 128.
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.” 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.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 … Continue reading
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. █
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Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 232 pages.
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[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.]
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).
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.
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).
City of lights. Capital of the nineteenth century. The clichés pour down: the cultural metropolis, the imperial center, the capital city of the republic of letters.*
But if we press on this just a little further, we also see the city as conduit, as medium. Perhaps it’s not an accident that the great theorist of Paris (and source of not a few of our Paris clichés), Walter Benjamin, was a media theorist, close reading the very materials that made a medium of the city:
Iron is avoided in home construction but used in arcades, exhibition halls, train stations—buildings that serve transitory purposes.**
Recent research by Nancy Green and Brooke Blower has also thrown into question why the quintessential American expatriate in Paris is usually thought to be an artist: these historians have uncovered the deep networks of American business, philanthropy, and diplomacy in Paris, and Paris’s role as a site of U.S. power.*** The ideologies of aesthetic autonomy and romantic love that have long attached to Paris have also made the city a crucial conduit for U.S. interests.
What, for example, is Paris doing for Fred Astaire’s American character in this video?
[Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire]
The clip is from the 1957 MGM musical Silk Stockings, based on the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch (MGM) film Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo. Silk stockings, here, are the luxury commodity that will seduce a Soviet agent (in Ninotchka, it’s a truly wack hat).
Why is Paris the setting for this Cold War comedy, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, he of the “Great American Songbook”? Why is it the logical scene of a seduction into American capitalism? None of this film is set in the United States (except that all of it is: this “Paris,” and “Moscow,” are built in Hollywood).
At the same time, what genuine pockets of resistance or autonomy were opened up by the Paris myth, especially for black Americans and for pan-African organizations?****
Reflecting that American Studies itself has its roots in the extraterritorial extension of U.S. power, we hope that the study of Paris as an American city will open out disciplinary questions as well as historical and cultural ones.
*Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press, 2004).
**Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century (Exposé of 1939),” in The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.
***Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (Oxford, 2011); Nancy Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago, 2014); Green, “Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept”, American Historical Review 114 (2009), 307-328.
****Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, eds., Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minneapolis, 2013); Fionnghuala Sweeney, and Kate Marsh, eds., Afromodernisms: Paris, Harlem and the Avant-Garde (Edinburgh University Press, 2013); Jeremy Braddock and Jonathan Eburne, eds., Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic: Literature, Modernity, and Diaspora. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).