bookmark_borderTheme and variations

I focus here on The Female Complaint not because it is Berlant’s most recent book (it is not) or her best book (though it may be) but because in it she has so much to say about what makes women such agile practitioners of criticism at the present time.[1]Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). The book maps the intimate twists and turns by means of which genre as a mode of cultural creation and interpretation becomes indistinguishable from genre as a shaping force in lived experience. Since “femininity is a genre with deep affinities to the genres associated with femininity,” it makes sense that for Berlant women would be skilled in the genres (both literary and lived) of romance and (particularly heteronormative) sentiment — writing them, reading them, and living them. But it turns out that even though The Female Complaint is mostly about those especially feminine genres, women have a knack for genre theory as well — for what Arnold would have called criticism — because genre is the stuff of which women, like criticism, are made.

Virginia Jackson on Lauren Berlant at LARB

Virginia Jackson’s recent piece on Berlant’s criticism beautifully draws out some of the things that were striking me about Lili Loofbourow’s tv and film criticism, which, too, is so often about genre and women’s relation to it. The premise of The Mindy Project, one of the first shows Lili wrote about for Dear Television, is that Mindy Kaling’s character is a woman raised on women’s genres, who interprets the world through them and who constantly performs them. Her writing on The Mindy Project is one of the first places I saw Lili describe the collocation of gender and genre:

If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places in film (besides indie movies, and usually not even there) where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority. One result of this is that the Mindys of the age — which includes, I think, a hefty percentage of early-thirties American women — have developed a viewing practice that precisely opposes the aforementioned over-generalizers: where the latter see sameness everywhere, the former have become experts at spotting slight, apparently irrelevant variations in romantic comedies and savoring them.

Mindy is one such expert. For Emma Bovary, connoisseurship of female genres is a source of disappointment and ultimately misguidedly melodramatic suicide (Andreas Huyssen’s gloss on this move in “Mass Culture as Woman,” which I felt compelled to teach this term in my Novel seminar, is pretty undeniable), but for Mindy, it’s a disappointment-management system in the way that melodrama is a disappoint-management system in The Female Complaint.[2]Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62. The disappointments of genre create space for making the disappointments of gender livable. Even for Emma, female genres are an attempt to manage the disappointments of gender: a stupid husband, a tedious town, an unwanted child, and no escape. As Jackson glosses the situation:

The thing is, genre is a heartbreaker. The plaintiveness of The Female Complaint and the cruelty of Cruel Optimism (2011) both turn on the turn that genre takes when its utopian promise breaks down, when our experiments in living can’t remain or become experiments in genre, since, as Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, “genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” If that generic expectation is too starry-eyed, genre will fold up its fragile tents: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing”; “Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.”[3]Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

References

References
1 Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
2 Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman,” In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 44–62.
3 Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

bookmark_borderAnd now for something very slightly different

Reading Lili Loofbourow’s new profile of Tatiana Maslany, I’m struck again by Lili’s consistent attention to the relationship between female reading and genre:

In its subject matter, “Orphan Black” broods on the nature-nurture debate in human biology, but in its execution, the show cleverly extends the same question to matters of genre. What does the exact same woman look like if you grow her in the petri dish of “Desperate Housewives” or on a horror-film set in Eastern Europe? What about a police procedural? The result is a revelation: Instead of each archetype existing as the lone female character in her respective universe, these normally isolated tropes find one another, band together and seek to liberate themselves from the evil system that created them.

By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, “Orphan Black” seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die. Early in the first season, there is a serial killer hunting down the clones ­— it turns out to be Helena, the Ukrainian — who ritualistically dismembers Barbie dolls after dyeing their hair to match that of her next victim. It’s a creepy touch, but one that can also be read as a metacriticism of how women are used on TV: the punishing beauty standards to which they’re held, the imposed uniformity. (Need a new sitcom wife? Grab the prototype and change the hairstyle.) Our low tolerance for difference among female characters means that they will almost always be less interesting, less memorable and less beloved than their male counterparts. In this context, Helena becomes a kind of hero, slaughtering televisual conformity and constituting, in both her savagery and her warmth, a radical expansion of what women on television can be.

Here I was reminded of Lili’s 2012 review of Pixar’s Brave for The New Inquiry, a meditation on the detection of small differences when every female character is a stereotype.

Barring some truly wonderful exceptions, you get used to eating the same three meals over and over, forever. Without thinking about it too hard I’ll approximate them as spunkiness, pathos, and transformation. Working Girl, He’s Just Not That Into You, Grease. Again, some of these are great. Most are derivative. Given the sameness of the flavors on offer, you become a sort of expert at spotting slight variations.

In the land of small differences, she points out, a princess movie in which the mother is actually alive constitutes a major departure. Stereotype and repetition, the constitution of the feminine as generic, means an attention to the kinds of “slight variations” that we might recognize elsewhere as “gender parody.”

Naomi Schor asks, “Is the detail feminine?” and Lili’s criticism gives an alternate, mass-cultural account of why it might be.1 I hope to see this strain of thinking elaborated further in her future work.

—–

     1 Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (1987; New York: Routledge, 2007): 4.

bookmark_borderParis as an American City

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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

rita-moreno_2

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

bookmark_borderSpace whales

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

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

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

bookmark_border2014

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

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

Hello, 2015.

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

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

Cross-posted to Arcade.

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

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

     —”The Blanket,” Moby Dick

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

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

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

josephine-baker-4x3
Josephine Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skeleton Crew
Long-haired 80s superdweebs Skeleton Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

beyonce-ghostbeyonce-ghost6beyonce-ghost10
Beyoncé in “Ghost”


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

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

bookmark_borderThe Novel reading list for spring 2015

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

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

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

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