The aesthetic category of the last five minutes* is “cursed,” as in the “Cursed TikToks” Twitter account. The original cursed TikTok that I saw floating around was a looping video of a young woman crying abjectly while dancing to a song I didn’t recognize. You have to understand that I’m too elderly to actually understand what TikTok is, but basically it involves these short looping videos, which I think may be key to the “cursed” concept. However, “cursed” has traveled as an aesthetic category to apply to other things that can circulate, especially images (for example, @CursedArchitecture).

As far as I can tell, there are a few things that “cursed” involves:

  • the cursed object is aesthetically bad or upsetting—often uncanny or involving a jarring clash of sensibilities (genre flail?) rather than straightforwardly ugly or violent; it may be funny, but if so, then uncomfortably so
  • although the cursed object is upsetting, it seems more victim than perpetrator; it is the thing being portrayed that is “cursed,” although, by looking at it, we might ourselves become “cursed”
  • its stasis (still image), looping (TikTok/gif), or other intimations of perpetuity are somehow foregrounded (not everything that is static or looping is cursed, but everything that is cursed is static or looping)
  • the cursed object usually wears a mask or is on the cusp of animacy (a doll, taxidermy, an animated figure) or inhabits a stereotyped role in a masklike way; in this way, the cursed object’s trappedness is foregrounded; suffering is possible (animate) but escape is not (inanimate)
  • Some report that “cursed” is pronounced “cursèd,” introducing intentional anachronism (I haven’t seen this but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true)

It seems clear that “cursed” is the necessary inverse of “blessed” (or “#blessed”), the generic explanation for anything good turned on its head. It is thus appropriate for circulation on “this hell website” in particular (Twitter). Cursed is an anachronistically supernatural explanation for a badness—or ubiquitously visible suffering, violence, and death—that we feel powerless to change. Look at those poor rubber chickens up there, cursed to scream out little streams of water in perpetuity (and there’s nothing we can do to stop their suffering). Cursed images and cursed TikToks are manageably upsetting, the little fort-da game covering over the too many videos of tear gas and police shootings and images of dead migrant children that we see interspersed with dog pictures on the internet.

a corgi running toward the camera

The rise of the cursed is, perhaps, parallel to astrology’s resurging popularity, a kind of paralyzed aesthetic mindfulness with which we can mark suffering without trying to change it, nor explain it except generically. Mercury’s in retrograde and those chickens are cursed. It is a self-deprecating admission of analytical defeat, occasioned by the cursed object’s overwhelming self-dissonance (the absurdity, for example, of sympathizing with a rubber chicken), and, perhaps, too, an acknowledgment that we cannot analyze our way out of some kinds of terror.

Evoking the supernatural to explain the present in all its modernity is nothing new (Apple’s whole brand is built on it). The cursed as an aesthetic category acknowledges the roughness of late capitalism’s magic.


* According to internet people (see below) it’s actually been a thing for several years and started on Tumblr. Insert how do you do fellow kids gif here.

Update: Here are some earlier write-ups of the “cursed.” Thanks to Jesse Raber for these references:
Gizmodo | Intelligencer (a debunking)

This essay by Rahel Aima (via Joseph Mosconi) is good.

bookmark_borderNew at this

I. Learning

Let’s start with a few pedagogical principles. First, learning takes time. Matrix style fantasies of uploading “skills” to your brain (essentially what most policy-makers and ed tech enthusiasts think learning is) notwithstanding, learning is processual, and actually spending time on it is part of the process. Often it is a training of the body as well as of the mind: learning, for example, to read long books is a bodily discipline that is different from the ability to read short things. (The erroneous belief that reading a long or sustained argument or narrative is merely more of the same is why reading in quantity often is not taught.)

Second, in order to learn we have to be in a state of willingness to learn. Pedagogy experts call this “growth mindset”; Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz call this “the novice as expert.” I’m suspicious of prescribing feelings and attitudes, but I am certainly willing to grant that it is much harder to learn when you think you have nothing to learn.

Third, we are all learning all the time. We cannot confuse learning with formal education. The ideological confinement of learning to formal education (and the further ideological association of formal education with youth, which is counterfactual) only obscures the ways that people in all life phases must learn. Think of a new parent’s learning curve, or the massive onboarding not only of information but of concepts that must happen when you move to a new geographic area or a new job, or when you undertake a new project, or when you buy a house or flat for the first time (if some rare cosmic alignment or, more usually, intergenerational wealth tranfer makes that a possibility for you). In my late thirties, I have still never learned to wear makeup and I am still trying to cultivate the bodily discipline of suffering something (“lip gloss”) to come between me and my coffee. (So far the results are not good; I don’t like it.) It is not only the young who are learning; it is, however, more socially acceptable for the young to admit that they are learning. Learners should not be shamed for learning at any age.

II. Formal schooling and emergency learning

In our formal schooling, we are taught things that we are told we need to know, which seem to us more or less practical at the time. How many generations of students have moaned that they’ll never need to use trigonometry (say), not thinking of the training in abstraction that it gave them? I’m obviously a believer in “useless” education, of course; I’ve been involved with it one way or another basically my entire life. The great advantage of formal schooling is the way that it forces you out of yourself; it makes you say, it’s true, this is not about me; it’s about someone else, or something else, and it’s something I don’t necessarily intrinsically care about, but all the same I need to know about it; my knowledge of the world is not sufficient if it is limited to the things that already interest me.

There are many problems with formal schooling too, obviously. Some people are made to do more of this traveling outside themselves than others; to give an example from my own education in Virginia public schools, for some students, Virginia history was a story of their own rocky but ultimately glorious path to the present, dotted with Great Men whose legacy led straight to them. For others, Virginia history was a history of their domination, in which they figured, but rarely as protagonists or as victors; Virginia history as taught in our schools did not lead straight to them; like junior Prufrocks, they were “not Prince Hamlet” in this drama. And for others still, Virginia history was a history of other people; it was the history of a geographic territory in which you happened to be, to which you were a complete outsider despite being, perhaps, “from” there.

I think it’s fine to learn a history of other people. It’s actually a good idea. But the pattern of who has to learn quickly to abstract, to take in “irrelevant” things or things that don’t seem of immediate use is not random, nor does it happen just once. Some students get a soft, slow onboarding to the kind of stretch you have to make to think trigonometry matters to you (or is worth learning despite “not mattering”); others have to get there much earlier and much more often, and when this early extra stretch fails (which it well might), those students may become “turned off” from formal education. It can create a sense that “there is something to learn here, but I can’t learn it; it’s not for me.” (There’s a third, unhappy possibility that I won’t get into much, which is embracing a radical individualism in order to identify with power.) So I’m not saying it’s all roses. Formal schooling is often ideological, violent, oppressive. But to me, when it works, that cultivation of curiosity in things that “don’t matter” (to oneself) is so valuable for creating capacities for further learning, for the ability to say later, in other circumstances, “yes, I have something to learn, and I can learn it.” Formal education is not the only place you could get this, obviously. But if we are thinking about people in academia (which I am), then formal education is at least one of the places where we should have gotten it.

Outside of formal education, there is also the “emergency learning” that we all do. (I just want to stop here for a moment to note: not all informal learning is emergency learning. This is not a comprehensive taxonomy of learning.) For some of us, emergency learning can coincide with formal education; at other times it can’t or doesn’t. When I google eco-friendly ways to clear a drain, that’s emergency education; I need information now because my goddamn drain is blocked. When a Black parent teaches their kids how to respond to cops, that’s emergency education. When a teenager goes to Planned Parenthood for birth control, that’s emergency education. It’s learning that we seek out, or are given, because we definitely, practically need it. When we seek out emergency education, we are learners; we are new at this. Emergency education is practical. Often, it is about ourselves.

When we’re outside of formal education, and even when we’re in it, a lot of our learning is emergency education. Sometimes our formal education prompts emergency education: we learn someone else’s history, and then we realize we know fuck-all about our own, and think that maybe we should find out. It is about ourselves but unlike with the Revolutionary War battle sites that we’ve been hearing about since third grade, we are new at this; in a way, we are new at ourselves. Sometimes this means a shift in academic study: for example, we can pursue Asian American history formally, if we want to (we can now, anyway—students and faculty once protested to make this possible, and that, too, is something we might learn on an emergency basis); when it does, we still have to have mastered the “mainstream history.” And sometimes it doesn’t mean that; sometimes it just means you’re finding some stuff out on your own time, in the interstices of your day job. (The “emergency” doesn’t necessarily mean you do the learning fast, or that the need for it comes on suddenly. Realizing that you’ve always regretted never learning music and taking music lessons could be emergency learning.)

When we do emergency learning, we are putting ourselves in the position of a beginner, someone who is new at this. We might never get to be more than beginners; we might learn just enough. We know that we have something to learn, and we hope that we can learn it, because we need it. We get it where we can: Tumblr, Instagram, third-hand Audre Lorde channeled through an Anita Sarkeesian YouTube video or a pop feminist memoir. When we need it, it doesn’t matter where it comes from; we’re willing to give it a go if it works, just like I’m not that concerned about the credentials of whoever wrote some blog post about clearing a drain using baking soda. And that’s fine. Not everyone needs or wants to be a theorist of gender and sexuality, just like not everyone with a shower needs to be a plumber.

I will not exactly be blowing your mind when I observe that some people have to do more emergency learning than others.

III. Mainstream feminism as the emergency learning of the relatively privileged

A lot of our learning about gender and sexuality is emergency learning. We only study these topics formally if we luck into it; it’s always considered an add-on in a general university education, and people who actively make it their primary area of study are typically marginalized within the academy. Gender and sexuality programs are always on the verge of being cut; it’s both more prestigious and safer to be a “feminist historian” than a “women’s studies professor.” Even in humanities disciplines in which the study of gender and sexuality (and also race, although this is even more marginalized than gender and sexuality in academia) is now considered important, you often kind of have to luck into it, or you might only get “Judith Butler week” on the intro course (where a chapter or two of Gender Trouble has to do the work of standing in for the entirety of western feminist thought).

Nevertheless, some people are going to have to learn about gender and sexuality whether they want to or not. The oppression of women as a group, as women, is so thoroughgoing that even the most privileged women sooner or later have to find out about the pay gap, whisper networks, mansplaining, and the innumerable “or a bitch” double binds (you’re maternal or you’re a bitch; you’re a slut or you’re a bitch; you’re invisible or you’re a bitch; etc., etc.) of everyday mainstream femininity. The only real alternative to experiencing gender as an incoherent mass of isolated incidents is to learn something about gender, which is to say about feminism. Not all women are feminists, obviously; in fact most are not. But patriarchy will oppress you whether you want it to or not, and either you try to make sense of it or you don’t.

This is the situation of mainstream white feminism, including most academic women (who are overwhelmingly privileged, white, cis, straight, and partnered, although there are obviously exceptions). We have done some emergency learning about ourselves—and gone no further. The benefit of emergency learning—its practicality, its immediacy, its applicability—is also its limitation, especially for people who don’t really have to do that much emergency learning. Learning about the wage gap (almost always stated in the terms that apply primarily to white women) is actually pretty basic. It’s “gender-based oppression exists and is not great.” It requires no reconceptualization, or theorization, even, of the category “woman,” for instance. The emergency learning that you have to do (and it is usually not optional) to survive as a working class woman, a disabled woman, a trans woman, a Black woman requires more emergency learning, more advanced levels of emergency learning. The wage gap is such beginner feminism. So if you’re as privileged as Sheryl Sandberg, reading Lean In might be all the emergency learning you need. It might help you! (Just you.)

I once taught A Room of One’s Own to a group of first-year undergraduates. They were new at thinking about gender and not at all new at watching Disney films, so they found the thought experiment of Shakespeare’s equally talented sister absurd. “Why doesn’t she just dress as a man?” they said. The answer, of course, is that exempting one woman from the punishments of femininity does nothing to liberate women as a group. But on an emergency education basis that was limited to the emergency at hand, their answer made sense.

In her keynote for the recent Scholar Activism conference at the British Library, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argued that personal experience is important, but it is not sufficient. If we understand the world solely on an emergency basis, to make sense of our own problems, we will never arrive at a vision for justice. Mainstream feminism shows this so clearly. Is the wage gap bad? Sure. But so is the global pattern of poverty that forces women to migrate to the US to do domestic labor so that rich heterosexual white women can lean in without having to have a tricky conversation with their male partners about housework. These things don’t actually happen in isolation, but if you occupy certain positions, you can limit your emergency learning enough that they can seem to do so.

Or, to put it another way, if you’ve done all of your learning about gender and sexuality on an emergency basis (and most of us have), then it’s perfectly possible to be a “feminist” and not have heard of Catharine MacKinnon, think “the male gaze” is just literally when men look at something, and, (not having read it, or not having read more than a chapter) think the argument of Gender Trouble is that gender is a spectrum and it’s kinda fluid. (That is not the argument of Gender Trouble.) You might not grasp the analytic distinction between sex and gender, nor know much if anything about feminist work (including Butler’s) that complicates that distinction. Becoming a feminist because you need it is not the same thing as having taken Women’s Studies 101. If you didn’t need it to help you unblock a drain, you might not have thought very much about gender or sexuality per se at all.

This is not a reproach. There is always more to learn about everything in the world, and if I knew a lot about plumbing, perhaps my whole worldview would change, the way Lila Mae’s worldview shifts in The Intuitionist when she trains as an elevator inspector and becomes an intuitionist. And it might not be immediately obvious how gender and sexuality structure so many aspects of daily life (the concepts of “public” and “private,” for example—the right to privacy being the thin wisp of the law that currently protects US women’s still-very-conditional right to abortion). It is the case, though, that there are a lot of people who don’t think that gender or sexuality should ever be a matter of formal learning, that it can only ever be emergency learning, “me-search,” and that it should never go beyond this.

The value of gender and sexuality studies as a field (although not the only value) is that it brings into relief knowledge that is typically seen as not-knowledge: you’re imagining it, it’s a feeling, it’s not in the (official) archive so it doesn’t exist, it’s not in the (official) archive so it doesn’t matter. Studying it doesn’t only mean you learn some facts and concepts, although they are good facts and concepts to learn. They also alter what it is we think we mean by a “fact” or a “concept” when we realize just how much has been left out of what we were once told was the whole story. This is a compromise, of course. It is institutionalization. It is not as if the academy is innocent. By enshrining this work as knowledge we risk reiterating the hierarchy that delegitimized the history and theory of women and sexual dissidents in the first place. “We ask that you approach this material with a clear understanding of the long history of her thoughtful and successive mentorship, the singular brilliance of this intellectual, the international reputation she has rightly earned as a stellar scholar in her field….” But this is true of all knowledge-making practices. And we might learn from the field that, for instance, men can experience misogyny—that in fact, much policing of masculinity is based on misogyny. We might learn that a penis is not a phallus. We might learn that “biological sex” is far from a straightforward concept. We might learn that all of our concepts of gender and sexuality are embedded in historical conditions that change, and that contingency does not invalidate a category. We might learn some things about people who are not ourselves—if we accept the premise that we have something to learn, and can learn it.

IV. New at this

Imagine the amount of emergency education Shakespeare’s sister would need to convincingly pass as the “opposite” sex. Even Shakespeare knew this; in Twelfth Night, Viola’s lapses in masculinity are a constant source of anxiety. Passing for a gender is hard even if it’s “your” gender: think of Malvolio, tricked into thinking yellow tights could constitute desirable masculinity and then violently ridiculed for it. Shakespeare’s sister would be trying to make it in the cutthroat world of Elizabethan theater while learning masculinity on the side. She’d be new at masculinity, like Viola is new at masculinity. But Malvolio is also new at masculinity, in a way, just like I’m new at letting lip gloss interfere with my coffee.

It’s not contemptible to be new at something. We are all new at things; we’re all doing emergency education all the time. But it is problematic to be new at something and think that our own newness means that our every realization is not just new to us but also new.

What does it mean to be “new at this”? Sometimes it means you haven’t done the reading. That’s ok, but if you are new at this and want to be less new, then you should do the reading.

Other times, though, it means you haven’t paid the price.

But why should there be a price?

V. Old and new: misalignments

Recently we’ve seen controversies around the UK government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act of 2004—and in particular, a wave of rising transphobia instigated by a number of senior feminist-identifying academics and public figures who claim to speak for “women” (a group that exists very securely for them when defining “women-only spaces” but which is illegitimate and oppressive when a trans woman inhabits it, or appears to). I am obviously not linking to any of that; if you have avoided it so far, all I can say is lucky you. As I’ve witnessed its unfolding with horror all summer, I’ve been brought back time and again to the idea of being “new at this,” and the ways that queer generations are evoked.

In particular, it brought back the conversation spurred by Jack Halberstam’s 2014 post about oversensitive students, whose desire for non-abusive learning spaces was cast as a “neoliberal” demand (on which see Sara Ahmed). The framing of queer generations, and of the new generation owing something (something specific) to queer elders who had it so much worse, is repeated in the transphobic cis “feminist” claim to true and sole ownership of misogyny and injury. Young, ungrateful queers, we were told in 2014, were being too sensitive. We see it, again in H*dley F******’s accusation that “men” (she means trans women) are daring to tell her, a genuine cis woman, what it’s like to be a woman. You’re new at this; respect your elders. You haven’t paid the price. It’s fairly transparently a threat: you must pay. And we see it again in the way that certain “feminists” have staked a claim to an earlier and more “radical” feminism; “we’re the originals,” they claim. It is a claim to expertise and the respect that expertise is due, a claim made by way of “personal experience,” since in fact transmisogynists can only hold their position if they ignore the vast body of scholarship on sexuality and gender. “Huh, could sex and gender be linked?” is so not a new question that we’ve been there and gone and gone beyond; there is something so heartbreaking about looking up from rigorous debates about the limits of feminist new materialism to see people yelling on the internet that women can’t have penises. Read a book. Even the claim to prior experience isn’t very solid; in reality, this portrait of second-wave lesbian feminism as necessarily and homogeneously trans-exclusive is a fiction, as Emma Heaney has shown. But I am less interested in the holes in this claim to authority than the generational structure—as Keguro Macharia points out, a kinship structure—that it presumes.

Which brings us around, of course, to the Avital Ronell case, and to the thoroughly upsetting letter in support of Ronell by a number of leading feminist scholars (although, as Andrea Long Chu has pointed out, it would be inaccurate to call Ronell herself a feminist scholar). It is deeply disappointing to see so many brilliant thinkers defend Ronell on absolutely irrelevant grounds, even if, as Lisa Duggan argues, it was a strategy cynically addressed to the values of a university administration. It is all the more disappointing, perhaps, in light of a different place where we could have used a few voices of authority using their powers for good, namely the attack on trans people in the UK. If ever we could have used Judith Butler pulling a Marshall McLuhan “you know nothing of my work,” this was it.* Instead, she used her position as one of the world’s foremost theorists of gender, sexuality, and power to defend what is at best exceptionally terrible, abusive advising.

Yet I think the Ronell allegations and the discourse around them help us to see more about what is at stake in this generational framing, especially when those closing ranks around Ronell, or trying to “broaden the conversation,” are distinguished not by a particular political or theoretical commitment but rather by being, well, distinguished. Marisol LeBrón put it very well: “This is the generational aspect I think. A kind of ‘this is the way it’s always been done and this is the way I came up’ that is an undercurrent to these debates.” What is being defended as good is a certain kind of relationship between the queer elder and the ephebe, a dynamic of queer reproduction and queer survival which is also absolutely a dynamic of material circumstances that we might call, provisionally, pre- and post-2008. Macharia explains this well in his gloss on the demands of “queer kinship”:

It emerges as repeated assurances that younger scholars respect and follow the work of older scholars.
Kinship as mutual obligation—even love, or perhaps duty—cannot exist under ethno-patriarchy. The power asymmetries make mutuality impossible. These power asymmetries are most visible as demands for respect, deference, honor.

This is what seems to me to underpin the logic of queer generations, literalized in the grad student/advisor relationship. It’s an ultimately conservative repetition of, or replacement for, a structure that queer theory would otherwise disavow, the “impossible” patriarchal demand on the Child: “to live from the outset an after-life as ambassador of the dead without, in the process, becoming a mere ambassador of death. … He must live, that is, in perpetual arrears.”** In many ways, those being targeted by cis “feminists” in the UK and those potential and actual victims of harassment/bullying that Halberstam called “neoliberal” and that Duggan has more recently called “neoliberal” are the same people: late Xers, millennials, and postmillennials, ungrateful ephebes, most of them (or should I say us) definitely doomed to live in perpetual arrears of the most basic sort, often for having paid tuition at places like NYU, and infantilized into our forties for that very reason. By that logic, we’ll never have sufficiently paid the price, can never pay it off, and will therefore never not be “new at this,” even when, as in the UK case, it’s the supposed elders who haven’t done the reading. The second sense of “new at this”—not having (sufficiently) paid the price, paid dues, paid back—too easily substitutes for, and obliterates, the other sense, the sense of learning.***

VI. Back to learning

The thing is that we do owe something to those we would call forebears, when they are part of the historical and intellectual continuity that made our own categories possible. And we owe something to expertise too, to the learning that is not just emergency learning for oneself, to learning both formal and informal gathered over years. We owe something in a way that we owe something to biological parents: they gave us life, and we didn’t have a choice about it; sometimes our forebears turn out to be awful (or partly awful and partly not) but they still made us. As gutted as I am by her signing that letter, I will always feel I owe something to Judith Butler and her powerful thinking. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when real expertise becomes a warrant for demanding deference instead of a pedagogical responsibility. That’s why it’s so outrageous that Reitman has been cast as taking advantage of Ronell for seeking her feedback on research—as Annie McClanahan rightly puts it, “IT. IS. CALLED. BEING. AN. ADVISOR.” A grad student being “new at this” field—in the most literal sense, not (yet) having done the reading and needing to—became transformed through a notion of “queer kinship” that all too perfectly echoed patriarchal kinship into the kind of “new at this” that had not yet paid the price, that could only ever owe.

To come back to the scenario that is more local to me, we have a different distribution of newnesses, in which a lot of cis feminists and “feminists” who have done just a bit of emergency learning about gender and sexuality are claiming the position of the experts, experts on being women by virtue of having paid the price, which those who are “new at this” (new at being women, that is, but of course not everyone who’s new; not cis girls, for instance) have not. Just to be clear: this is a price (i.e. misogyny) that as feminists we are supposed to be united in agreeing that no one should have to pay. Yet this claim to expertise makes perfect sense if we imagine that emergency learning is the only learning, or, to put it another way, that personal experience is the only source of knowledge about gender and sexuality. (I think it hardly needs observing but just in case: it is not.) It is true that trans women sometimes say things that are annoying, or wrong; some of them are “new at this” in the sense of not necessarily having done much or any reading around gender and sexuality any more than your average cis woman. But they are afforded no leeway to be new in that sense; whereas cis women, equally new or newer in the sense of not having done the reading, are thought to instantly trump trans women’s expertise in the register of personal experience, in the register of having paid the price for being women. (Having paid the price for being trans, it seems, does not “count”; they still “owe.”) If we want to talk about “neoliberalism,” perhaps we can look at the model of learning that sees only that learning which is immediately applicable to oneself as valid or real, in which YouTube plumbing videos are good but reading Gender Trouble is unnecessary and maybe even self-indulgent.

This conflation of newnesses, and the erasure of learning beyond emergency learning on which it depends (the learning that takes one outside oneself), is a way of relabeling violence as pedagogy, and it is anti-intellectual as well. It is “teaching a lesson” as beating. It rests on the fallacy that learning is an office of youth, where youth is a category of subjection to legitimate violence. (That is to say: it makes plain the violence on which the designation of “youth” is constituted under patriarchy.) We can learn something from paying a price, but being made to pay is not a pedagogy. Pedagogy means: letting people who are new at this learn, and not imagining that we have nothing to learn ourselves. I absolutely do not mean this in some liberal “let’s all be nice to each other and hear all sides” way. In fact, I believe that “being nice” and the regimes of favor that it entails often lead straight to abuse. What I mean is: let’s not confuse doing the reading for paying the price.

*This is not an endorsement of Annie Hall or its director.

**Lee Edelman, “Against Survival: Queerness in a Time That’s Out of Joint,” Shakespeare Quarterly 62.2 (Summer 2011): 167, 168.

***Further muddying the waters are the gleeful harangues of non-expert opportunists hoping to discredit feminist philosophy while clearly having no idea about its actual contents.

Thanks to Rachel O’Connell for helping me think through some of this.

bookmark_borderSUSSEX DETECTIVES


It’s a definitely real mystery tv show set in UK academia…not among dreaming spires of legend but in the contemporary corporatized uni. Two anti-cop academics just get want to get on with their teaching and research, but end up having to use their academic research to solve loads of mysteries because their line manager insists they need the REF impact. They do not get a course release for this.

Featuring downs, Stanmer Pippins, the mycological turn, and both restorative justice and seagull justice.

bookmark_borderThe salad-soup continuum

I don’t really believe in recipes and am incapable of following them (except when baking and sometimes not even then). Recipes are suggestions, in my view, best read for their theoretical contribution and not to be taken literally. Nobody should measure parsley; that’s ridiculous.

One of my primary theoretical, and also practical, interests is salad. Anything can be in a salad. French salads were a real eye-opener for me; you can literally pile anything on a plate and bam, it’s a salad. Nachos are a salad. Etc.

So when we contemplate the category of a dip, we are really looking at a thickened salad dressing. Consider the salsa. It is a salad…it is also a dip. Tweaked slightly, it is also a soup. And what to say about pesto? Salads, dips, and soups are homotopy-equivalent: each space can be continuously deformed into the next, usually with the help of a blender.

For example, by changing the proportion of solid and liquid ingredients and chopping or blending as needed, the following can be a salad, a dip, a vinaigrette (very close to the classic one you get on salads at Japanese restaurants), or a soup (with added water or broth):

  • roast carrots
  • roast garlic
  • fresh ginger
  • spring onions
  • jalapeño peppers
  • tamari (or soy sauce)
  • lime juice
  • fresh cilantro (“coriander leaves”)

I like this best as a dip, but it clearly occupies the entire salad-soup continuum. A lot of combinations are like this. Think about it.

Then eat it.

bookmark_borderPrecision and the one mile blast radius

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.[1]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.”[2]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.[3]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.[4]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.)

What recent events seem to me to make visible is the baseline assumption that they violate: that the future would be new.[5]McKenzie Wark has floated the possibility that capitalism is over, replaced by something worse….


* * *



Chow, Rey. The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Corsani, A. (Antonella). “Beyond the Myth of Woman: The Becoming-Transfeminist of (Post-)Marxism.” Translated by Timothy S. Murphy. SubStance 36, no. 1 (2007): 107–38.

Crane, Conrad C. Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Daggett, Cara. “Drone Disorientations.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 17, no. 3 (July 3, 2015): 361–79. doi:10.1080/14616742.2015.1075317.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

James, Robin. Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism. Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2015.

Kaplan, Caren. “Precision Targets: GPS and the Militarization of U.S. Consumer Identity.” American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 693–714. doi:10.1353/aq.2006.0061.

MacKenzie, Donald A. Inventing Accuracy: An Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. Inside Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990.

Morris, Adam. “Drone Warfare: Tiqqun, the Young-Girl and the Imperialism of the Trivial.” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 30, 2012.

Parks, Lisa. “Drones, Vertical Mediation, and the Targeted Class.” Feminist Studies 42, no. 1 (2016): 227–35. doi:10.15767/feministstudies.42.1.227.

Porter, Theodore M. “Speaking Precision to Power: The Modern Political Role of Social Science.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 73, no. 4 (2006): 1273–94.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Tiqqun. Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. Edited by Ariana Reines. Semiotext(e) Intervention Series 12. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012.

Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989.

Wise, M. Norton, ed. The Values of Precision. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.


1 See Schor.
2 Schor, Reading in Detail, p. 53.
3 Insert mangled parable about foxes and hedgehogs here.
4 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.
5 McKenzie Wark has floated the possibility that capitalism is over, replaced by something worse….

bookmark_borderPeople confusing Tr*mpian “alt facts” with feminist standpoint theory have it backwards.

People confusing Tr*mpian “alt facts” with feminist standpoint theory have it backwards. Right-wing “alt facts” insists reality is legitimately determined by the powerful, that if someone simply posits a fiction with enough conviction then it becomes true, or at least “alternatively true.” This is wrong.

Standpoint theory is very different. It says that knowledge is shaped by social position and therefore that we can’t just ignore the knowledge-positions of indigenous people, women, minorities, and the working class, who have historically been cast out of eligibility for scientific expertise (so that e.g. the knowledge of European noblemen is “science,” but indigenous knowledge is historically framed as “superstition”—we even have a special term for discrediting women’s knowledge: “old wives’ tales”). Sandra Harding calls this “science from below” (to parallel “history from below”). The “below” part is important.

Standpoint theory says (and really, how controversial is this?) that we must acknowledge positionality in order to correct for the limitations of what we know, and social positionality can have this limiting effect just as much as the position of your telescope. This doesn’t mean facts are arbitrary or that you can just make some up, Sean-Spicer-style. On the contrary, it means extending your rigor and considering context.

I know there’s a little complexity here and that is difficult for the “Fuck Yeah Science!!” (…”where by Science I mean Neil de Grasse Tyson memes and punching hippies!”) crowd to accept. It’s not very Facebookable. But we will get nowhere by insisting that facts (Lt. factus, made) are immutable things, or by yelping that we must simply trust the (authoritative white first-world male) scientists.

What is truly pernicious in the “alt-facts” ideology is the claim of epistemic marginalization embedded in the term “alternative,” as John Pat Leary has recently pointed out, and the suggestion that that marginalization (due to lack of correspondence to reality) is equivalent to, or even of a kind with, the epistemic marginalization experienced by (e.g.) the woman at your company whose good ideas always mysteriously go unheard until a man says them. You see the difference, right? She doesn’t have “alt ideas”—and she doesn’t have a press secretary, either.

To claim that pomo feminists somehow empowered “alt-facts” or made them possible is to accept the dangerously false reversal of power relations to which the Tr*mp administration has laid claim, in which well-off white Americans with disproportionate influence in policy and media (and, at this point, control of both the executive and legislative branches of government, despite not actually winning the popular vote) somehow become the “unheard.”

The kind of epistemic conservatism that retrenches in the authority of established experts is no answer to this problem, because it denies that thinking and evaluating knowledge is something for all of us, not just for a few. If the Tr*mp administration is backing its “alternative facts” with naked power, the answer is not to reply with more power, just from different institutions. Access to, and understanding of, the production of knowledge—how we get from “here’s a phenomenon I observed” to “here’s a generalization I can make about the world”—should be general and widespread.[1]Kath Weston’s recent exploration of right-wing “embodied empiricism”—i.e., the expectation that your body should be able to register climate change—illuminates how it is … Continue reading

Standpoint theory doesn’t say we can just make shit up; it says we need a clear-eyed understanding of power relations in order to understand and evaluate knowledge-claims. In other words, pomo feminists didn’t create “alt facts”; it’s pomo feminists who have given us the tools to oppose them.


1 Kath Weston’s recent exploration of right-wing “embodied empiricism”—i.e., the expectation that your body should be able to register climate change—illuminates how it is precisely questions of positioning, literal positions in space in this case, that need to be better understood. See Animate Planet (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

bookmark_borderMLA 2017

I’ll be on two panels at MLA in Philadelphia this winter.

I co-organized “Feelings of Structure,” a roundtable on the ways that affect theory and institutional speak to one another, with the brilliant Scott Selisker. The other panelists are Joe Jeon and Patricia Stuelke, with Lauren Berlant responding to our precirculated papers. I’ll be talking about puerility.

Yohei Igarashi organized the other panel I’ll be on, “ELIZA at 50.” The other panelists are Ryan Heuser and Marijeta Bozevic. I’ll be talking about ELIZA, Villiers, the app Pager, and fantasies of free care work.

It should be super fun. See you in Philly!

bookmark_borderHe just wants to sing

[An incredibly long, rambling, and probably flat-out boring meditation on the Broadway show An American in Paris.][1]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.

Still of Prince Herbert declaring his love for singing in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975.
He just wants to sing. (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975.)

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.

Film poster for An American in Paris, 1951.
Film poster for An American in Paris, 1951.
(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.

Georges Guétary, Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant sing about Strauss.
Henri loves the melodies of Strauss.
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).[2]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.” [3]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. [4]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

Lise (Leslie Caron), performing in illustration of Henri's description of her to Adam.
Lise (Leslie Caron), performing in illustration of Henri’s description of her to Adam.
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).[5]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.

Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), now diegetically a ballet dancer, in the Broadway musical.
Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), now a ballet dancer as well as played by one, in the Broadway musical.

Screen shot from official Broadway video. Ensemble dancing at the Galeries Lafayette.
Seriously, they are good dancers. Another interesting change from the film: Lise no longer works in a perfume shop, but rather at the Galeries Lafayette; the ballet of commodities that Wheeldon sets in the store is basically right out of Zola. Also, I wonder if the Galeries Lafayette paid for the #brandexposure?
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.

After a series of variations on "Embrace Me," each danced in a different costume and style, Lise (Leslie Caron) is displayed five ways at once.
After a series of variations on “Embrace Me,” each danced in a different costume and style, Lise (Leslie Caron) is displayed five ways at once.
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.)

Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris.
No giraffes here. Lise’s fantasy version of the ballet, with Jerry’s abstract, color-soaked design. (NYT photo.) Jerry is danced by Robert Fairchild in this photo.
In contrast, the film's version is filled with props and costume changes. Gene Kelly is in red; Leslie Caron is the female dancer in the middle foreground.
In contrast, the film’s version is filled with props and costume changes. Gene Kelly is in red; Leslie Caron is the female dancer in the middle foreground.

This video offers very short snippets of the dancing.

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.)[6]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.[7]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?

Look at that dorky bow-tie. (Max von Essen and Leanne Cope as Henri and Lise; screen shot from official video.)
Look at that dorky bow-tie. (Max von Essen and Leanne Cope as Henri and Lise; screen shot from official video.)

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.”[8]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.[9]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.”[10]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.”[11]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. [12]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.[13]Miller, Place for Us, 80. Speaking of hobbling, we’ll get to Adam in a minute.

Georges Guétary as Henri, singing "Stairway to Paradise."
In the film, Henri’s stage act is old-fashioned but completely successful.
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.[14]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.[15]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”),[16]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.[17]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.[18]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.[19]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.[20]David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 115-16.

Henri and Jerry begin to sing "S'Wonderful" in the 1951 film. Meanwhile, Adam (Oscar Levant) has just worked out that both are in love with the same woman, and nervously pounds coffee and cigarettes.
Henri and Jerry begin to sing “S’Wonderful” in the 1951 film. Meanwhile, Adam (Oscar Levant) has just worked out that both are in love with the same woman, and nervously pounds coffee and cigarettes.
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.[21]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.”

Henri and Jerry sing "S'Wonderful" in a swooning duet.
Henri and Jerry sing “S’Wonderful” in a swooning duet.
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.[22]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.”

Still from An American in Paris.
Dissolve from one Paris icon (the Arc de Triomphe) into another (the Seine) in the opening sequence of the 1951 film.
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.[23]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?)[24]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.[25]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.”[26]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 heard that song?

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.[27]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.”[28]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.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?" Adam's desperate attempt to change the subject does not succeed.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?” Adam’s desperate attempt to change the subject does not succeed.
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.

Adam (Oscar Levant) drinks and smokes his nervousness while Henri and Jerry discuss their personal lives all too openly.
Adam (Oscar Levant) drinks and smokes his nervousness while Henri and Jerry discuss their personal lives all too openly.
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.

Brandon Uranowitz as Adam, the show's framer and narrator. He and his piano are often shown tiny on an otherwise bare stage.
Brandon Uranowitz as Adam, the show’s framer and narrator. He and his piano are often shown tiny on an otherwise bare stage.
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.

Adam (Brandon Uranowitz), Jerry, and Henri sing "S'Wonderful" at the 2015 Tony Awards.
Adam, Jerry, and Henri sing “S’Wonderful” at the 2015 Tony Awards.
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 accepts his defeat, singing "But Not for Me." Honey, we all knew.
Adam accepts his defeat, singing “But Not for Me.” Honey, we all knew.
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.[29]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.


1 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.
2 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).
3 Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003): 221-23.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 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.
9 Miller, Place for Us, 13.
10 Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008): 1.
11 Miller, Place for Us, 89.
12 Miller, Place for Us, 134.
13 Miller, Place for Us, 80. Speaking of hobbling, we’ll get to Adam in a minute.
14 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.
15 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.”
16 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 success.
17 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.
18 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.
19 Miller, Place for Us, 132-33.
20 David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 115-16.
21 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
22 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.
23 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.
24 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).
25 Yes, yes; I’m well known for my adherence to #teamdepth, but this is another matter.
26 Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, 72-73.
27 Miller, Place for Us, 3.
28 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.
29 Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015).