Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”

1990

1999 PREFACE:

It is in sexual practice that gender is destabilized because “policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality” xii [Foucauldian?].

“The sexist claims that a woman only exhibits her womannes in the act of heterosexual coitus in which her subordination becomes her pleasure… a feminist view argues that gender should be overthrown, eliminated, or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women” xiv.

While we assume that gender is “an interior essence that might be disclosed,” this is “an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” xv. This Butler stages as “metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself” xv. The notion of performativity Butler advances is “a repetition and a ritual… a culturally sustained temporal duration… the gendered stylization of the body” and “an hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” xv. This narrativization of performance also interests me in terms of duree. (Interestingly, Butler also asks us not to transpose the theory onto race unproblematically, but to consider what happens when it performativity tries to come to grips with race.)

In a way, this is an advocation of surface reading, for if we see a person in drag and take their assumed gender as the opposite of their performed one, we give the first one priority and call the second one “mere artifice, play, falsehood, and illusion” xxiii [Blade Runner]. Butler’s goal is to explore the vacillation of reading between categories as “the experience of the body in question” xxiv.

“To the extent that gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real,’ they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression. If there is a positive normative task in Gender Trouble, it is to insist upon the extension of this legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible. Drag is an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be” xxv.

While this implies a history of symptomatic reading (the surface belies depth), it also values surface. It is neither pure surface, self-invention, language, or theatricality xxvi. “Those who are deemed ‘unreal’ nevertheless lay hold of the real” xxviii.

1990 PREFACE:

If woman is mystery for de Beauvoir, it might stem from the “trouble” Sartre locates in her ability to return the gaze xxx. For Butler, “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” xxx. In a Foucauldian genaeological approach, Butler will look at gender as a set of effects, rather than causes.

“Gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real. His/her performance destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” xxxi.

1: SUBJECTS OF SEX/GENDER/DESIRE

Rather than feminism based in identity politics, which glosses over issues of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and individuality, Butler invites us to consider a coalitional feminism (rather than a universal basis on identity politics, which, as bell hooks suggests, already confronts issues of race) that would undermine the term “woman” and upset the patriarchal linguistic binary. In fact, gender is multiple and unstable 4.

The split between sex and gender is false for Butler, since both, and not just gender, are constructed: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” 10. If de Beauvoir sees men constructing their gender against woman’s lack and Irigaray holds that it is One phallogocentric gender that cancels woman altogether, Butler questions the idea of “being” a gender at all, as well as the necessity of being represented as such.

“Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure” 22 [Foucauldian, Deleuze & Guattari]

Gender, instead, is performative. “Intelligible” genders uphold “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire 23.

“The identification of women with ‘sex,’ for Beauvoir as for Wittig, is a conflation of the category of women with the ostensibly sexualized features of their bodies and hence, a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women as it is purportedly enjoyed by men. Thus, the destruction of the category of sex would be the destruction of an attribute, sex, that has, through a misogynist gesture of synecdoche, come to take the place of the person, the self-determining cogito” 27 [Isherwood!]

Institutional heterosexuality has created this, since “gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender” 30. [But where does that leave us now, since we can’t all drag and still get laid?] Another issue is language – Wittig claims it is only problematic in its applications, Irigaray in its content. Wittig ends up making polymorphous perversity a “telos” of human sexuality rather than its former state, however. “Woman itself is a term in process” 45.

 

Gender’s acts of “expression” constitute, rather than reflect, gender [vs. symptomatic reading! Here surface is content.] Both genders are open to resignification. This is where she calls for “gender trouble,” performance that troubles the binary: “a proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” 46.

2: PROHIBITION, PSYCHOANALYSIS, AND THE PRODUCTION OF THE HETEROSEXUAL MATRIX

In this section, Butler challenges a utopian “pre-patriarchal” ideal as it appears in much feminist literature. Structuralist accounts, such as that of Levi-Strauss, depend on an idea of the transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo, which creates a kinship structure around the exchange of women. Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic approach claims femininity is a masquerade to hide masculine identification and lesbian desire. Finally, Freud’s theory on mourning and melancholia posits cathexis as identification, as the traits of a lost loved one are incorporated.

Butler challenges all three. In the case of incest, she argues that it is the presence of the taboo that incites incestuous desire. In Riviere, mimicry are the essence of gender, not an outward concealment of it. In Freud, we actually internalize the prohibited object via melancholia as we construct our own gender. This involves homosexual cathexis, but “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities.” Heterosexuality depends on homosexuality for its existence (is it Sontag who says this?). Approved heterosexuality and subversive homosexuality only exist after the law, which is generated and regulated via the incest taboo [Foucauldian]. “Not only does the taboo forbid and dictate sexuality in certain forms, but it inadvertently produces a variety of substitute desires and identities that are in no sense constrained in advance, except insofar as they are ‘substitutes’ in some sense” 103. Incest incites desire for the mother or father but also displaces that desire: “the notion of an ‘original’ sexuality forever repressed and forbidden thus becomes a production of the law which subsequently functions as its prohibition” 104.

3: SUBVERSIVE BODILY ACTS

In this section, Butler addresses Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Recalling Kristeva’s argument that the feminine surfaces in language via the semiotic (vs the symbolic), Butler challenges the notion of writing and womanhood as reclamations of the body, but not homosexuality: “the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocally to psychosis” 117. On motherhood: “Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, but she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress.” In a Foucauldian argument, she claims that ideas of maternity themselves are products of discourse and power. “The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive but operating in the service of that law’s self-amplification and proliferation… If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself” 127 [faceting!].

Butler examines the journals of the hermaphrodite Herculine who committed suicide when forced to live as a man. Prior to this, Herculine lived in “nonidentity.” Butler sees this idealism as a sort of “confessional” on Foucault’s part of his own (silent) homosexuality, since the idea contradicts what he argues for in History of Sexuality: namely, that there is no sex “prior” to power, and that sex is not a solution to discourse but part of it. “S/he is ‘outside’ the law, but the law maintains this ‘outside’ within itself… the law’s uncanny capacity to produce only those rebellions that it can guarantee will… defeat themselves” 144.

Sex is produced by compulsory heterosexuality – compulsory reproduction. Therefore, the binary of gender only exists in “the heterosexual matrix” and are naturalized there to conceal and reproduce it 150. Butler examines and agrees with Wittig’s formulation of lesbian sexuality. Wittig argues that women carry the burden of sex because they are always identified with/as sex. Thus sex is a way to designate the non-male by absence, and the synecdochic division of the body into parts (which we now feel is fact) fragments what is really a whole. “The body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.” In lesbian sexuality, partners might multiply and proliferate signifying parts of the body. Lesbian sexuality must not posit itself all too radically outside heterosexuality, lest it consolidate that hegemony 174.

In the last part of the chapter, Butler asks why bodies are the surfaces on which gender is written. We enforce the boundaries of the body as a means of establishing taboo (thus AIDS being equated with anal sex – a threshold being crossed). Drag is a way to playfully exaggerate and undercut “original” gender.

“If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial [since the former implies truth, but the latter implies there is no prior truth]… Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived. As credible bearers of those attributes, however, genders can also be rendered thoroughly and radically incredible” 193.

It’s interesting to use the word incredible – unbelievable – here. It ties this to fiction and narrativization, which she has done all along. )It is also, again, a form of surface reading, at least insofar as it makes surfaces count.)

4: CONCLUSION: FROM PARODY TO POLITICS

Butler tries to imagine a feminism free of the binary – the us/them or object/subject divide, as many feminists have thought before, is itself problematic and hegemonic. The subject is formed by repetition as signification (think of Stein!) Drag and other forms of parody destabilize and make apparent hidden assumptions about the “ontological locales” of gender (like Adorno on Beckett!) Butler hopes to have demonstrated how “the signifying practices that enable this metaleptic misdescription remain outside the purview of a feminist critique of gender relations” 202. We have no choice but to repeat the terms – the question is how or “to repeat, and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” 203 [how multiple is gender already, before this, I wonder?] Feminism’s foundationalist frame “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate,” in an “internal paradox” 203. The task is to “redescribe those possibilities as they already exist,” but in “unintelligible and impossible domains” 203. Gender’s “present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness” 203.

Eric Naiman, “Nabokov, Perversely”

2010

Naiman’s book is premised on the idea that “the ‘good reader’ of Nabokov must be alert to the hidden meanings suggested by all sorts of seemingly chance or inconsequential details in the text; he must work to distort the normal meaning of language” 2. One of the most refreshing experiences of reading Naiman’s book is the feeling of being liberated from the enslaving attitude of genuflection so many critics of Nabokov have indulged in over the years. Naiman reads closely, carefully, and responsibly, but he also reads Nabokov’s instructions to us themselves as riddles and contradictions, rather than as orders we must follow blindly. Still, Naiman says that his book is about “loving Nabokov as he wanted to be loved. It is also about why it is difficult to do so” 14. 

Nabokov invites us to read perversely, but also ridicules the too-close reader, placing our anticipation in a fearful and anxious place. Nabokov naturalizes “perverse” forms of reading. Lolita, for instance, is “a perverse book, if by ‘perverse’ we mean a book that induces readers to express symbolically and vicariously impulses they normally censor and suppress,” he quotes Sarah Herbold 10. Perversion in the Freudian sense is the lingering over intermediate objects or regions of the body that are not directly involved in genital sex – this is also, however, the erotic. 

The chapters of Naiman’s book exploit the Shakespearean resonance of “nothing” as female genitalia in Lolita and moves on to queerness and aggression in reading Pale Fire and the use of con and chat in Pnin, an argument that has defined my reading of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 

Katherine Mansfield: Stories

Mansfield’s stories are remarkable for their clarity of image, their stirrings of stream of consciousness, and the way in which they resonate with the work of Virginia Woolf.

“PRELUDE,” 1918

Lottie and Kezia are moving away. Kezia is startled when she goes back into the house to get something. Aunt Beryl and the grandmother put Lottie, Kezia, and Isabel to bed together. The grandmother washes dishes and recalls Beryl being stung by red ants when they lived in Tasmania. The children play at being grown-ups. Kezia tells her cousin to “put head back on” the duck he has decapitated. They eat the duck for tea. The story ends with Beryl writing a letter to her ‘nan’ saying she is bored and false in the country. Kezia calls her to dinner and marvels that a jar of cream that flies off the dresser does not break.

“BLISS,” 1920

Bertha Young’s consciousness unfolds over the course of a dinner party she throws with her husband Harry. She starts out filled with bliss, as though she had “swallowed” part of the afternoon – she plays with her baby and looks at “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom” in the garden. In attendance are the Knights, as well as the implicitly gay Eddie and the fascinating Pearl Fulton. She thinks Harry is rude to her, and hers is the only perspective we have as readers. She thinks again of the pear tree, which “would be silver in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon.” Bertha tries to locate her interest in Pearl, which is at the fringes of desire, but ultimately realizes that she shares with Pearl an attraction to Harry. She realizes they are having an affair when she walks into the hallway and sees her husband take Pearl in his arms. She “laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile.” As she leaves, Pearl mutters, “Your lovely pear tree!” “Bertha simply ran over to the long windows… But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.”

“GARDEN PARTY,” 1922

The in medias res beginning of the story, “And after all the weather was ideal,” reminds me so much of Mrs. Dalloway. The similarities continue as we watch Laura and Jose Sheridan and their mother prepare for a garden party, which is nearly interrupted by a death (recall Clarissa!). The sensations of the house, where all the doors and windows feel open, and there are an abundance of fragrant cut lilies, also remind me of Mrs. Dalloway. When the Sheridans learn that a man from the cottages at the edge of the property has died, Laura wants to call off the party. Mrs. Sheridan considers this “extravagant.” She sends Laura to the cottages with leftovers afterwards. Laura is taken with the beauty of the young man, who seems to be peacefully sleeping. The story ends with her musing, “Isn’t life…” to which her brother says, “Isn’t it, darling?”

“AT THE BAY,” 1922

This story seems almost like the bits of The Waves that begin each section with a time of day and the sea. It is told in one day, like the structure of that novel (which imagines each stage of life as a time of day), and involves the same characters as “Prelude.” It begins with Stanley swimming in the sea, tracks Kezia, Isabel, and Lottie playing, Linda remembering, and Beryl fretting over growing old alone. It ends with a cloud floating across the moon, and then “All was still.” The way the story draws attention to the objective world is also like To the Lighthouse. 

 

Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”

1964

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of “Camp.”

Camp is especially hard to talk about because it is not natural – “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques. Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954), it has hardly broken into print. To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.

For Sontag, the draw to talk about Camp seems parallel to how Kant describes the sublime (think of Ngai?):

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

Though I am speaking about sensibility only — and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous — these are grave matters. Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.)

Again, Sontag’s insistence on some sort of consistency appears Kantian:

Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste. A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea . . .

The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.

In her “jottings,” Sontag argues that Camp is an aesthetics not of beauty, but of artifice and stylization. “To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content… disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical.” Camp is not simply a way of seeing (Kantian/idealist), but also a quality that inheres in objects: “the camp eye has the power to transform experience,” but only certain objects will work. Among the objects Sontag names are Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley, “The Enquirer,” Bellini’s operas, women’s clothes of the twenties, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

Visual decor, fashion, and furniture are particularly amenable to camp (think Mad Men’s surfaces…). “Camp is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.”

“Most people still go to the movies in a high-spirited and unpretentious way. There is a sense in which it is correct to say ‘It’s too good to be Camp’… Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all though… some art which can be approached as Camp… merits the most serious admiration and study.”

Nature cannot be campy (think of this vs. the sublime). Camp often has an element of naivete, however, that might be called “urban pastoral.” Camp is “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Art Noveau is a perfect example because it “convert[s] one thing into something else… the Paris Metro entrances.”

“The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility… the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo… a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.”

Camp also favors “a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms… movie stars.”

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks… To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It’s the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

“Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing’… Life is not stylish. Neither is Nature.”

“The dividing line seems to fall in the 18th century… Gothic novels… caricature, artificial ruins… Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.”

This sounds quite a bit like James Wood on hysterical realism or Jameson on postmodernism – how might artifice work differently, though? As other than nostalgia? She pics the 18th century for “that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry… conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character… continuing wanly through 19th century aestheticism… emerging full-blown with the Art Nouveau movement.”

“Art Nouveau is full of ‘content,’ even of a political-moral sort… also… a disengaged, unserious, ‘aesthete’s’ vision… what the lens of Camp, which blocks out content, is.”

“The Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.”

“To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.”

“Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”

Sontag’s examples for such seriousness include the Tiffany lamp, Busby Berkeley, and other musicals.

This is not so with such famous would-be Camp films of the fifties as All About Eve and Beat the Devil. These more recent movies have their fine moments, but the first is so slick and the second so hysterical; they want so badly to be campy that they’re continually losing the beat. Perhaps, though, it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody and self-parody in Camp. The films of Hitchcock are a showcase… When self-parody lacks ebullience but instead reveals (even sporadically) a contempt for one’s themes and one’s materials -… North by Northwest — the results are forced and heavy-handed, rarely Camp… Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious.

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish… The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers… Gaudí’s lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their style but because they reveal — most notably in the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia — the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation, a whole culture to accomplish.

Eisenstein’s films are seldom Camp because, despite all exaggeration, they do succeed (dramatically) without surplus… The same for Blake’s drawings and paintings, weird and mannered as they are. They aren’t Camp; though Art Nouveau, influenced by Blake, is.

Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp — what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.

Of course, the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive.

Such temporal distance as is necessary for the Camp lens would be interesting in comparison with postmodernity and nostalgia:

This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment — or arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility.

Thus, things are campy, not when they become old – but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt… Garbo’s incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She’s always herself. [January Jones in Mad Men]

Camp exhibits an essential flatness (of character):

What Camp taste responds to is “instant character” (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing.

Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.

There are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.

For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result…This sensibility also insists on the principle that an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life) is not possible. Only “fragments” are possible. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human – in short, another valid sensibility — is being revealed.

And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.

The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary “avant-garde” art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.

One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness – irony, satire – seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality. Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.

Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp — Dandyism in the age of mass culture — makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted.

It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.

The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it’s not true that Camp taste ishomosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap… homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp… The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.

Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.

Camp is (to repeat) the relation to style in a time in which the adoption of style — as such — has become altogether questionable. (In the modem era, each new style, unless frankly anachronistic, has come on the scene as an anti-style.)

Taste:

The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is the reason why such kitsch items as Peyton Place (the book) and the Tishman Building aren’t Camp.

The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.

D.A. Miller, “Anal Rope”

1990

Criticism of Hitchcock’s Rope, D.A. Miller points out, always strives to make Hitchcock’s irregular approach (shots ranging from 3 to 9 minutes) into a string of identical 10 minute shots – the fantasy of the film done in one take, as it were 145. Nevertheless, this is also often considered a gimmick, even by Truffaut and Hitchcock himself, who said it was a “stunt” that violated his own interest in montage. At the same time, Hitchcock insisted later that he “maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode” 146. All of his explanations, however, continue to circle around the film’s technique.

In Truffaut’s short plot summary, Miller argues, the word “homosexual” stands out – it is not “furnished on the direct evidence of what we hear or see in the film,” unlike the other facts, so that “in an account that is attempting to reduce the story to its most abbreviated articulation, their homosexuality must seem at once a remarkable and a remarkably pointless piece of information” 147. Truffaut “constructs it into a homosexuality of no importance” 148. But in this culture, “a truly offhand reference to male homosexuality must hardly be credible… The heavy silence surrounding homosezuality requires explanation no less than the featherweight fussing over technique” 148.

“The reason that both questions have been unconsciously but definitively crossed with one another, so that technique acquires all the transgressive fascination of homosexuality, while homosexuality is consigned to the status of a dry technical detail…” 148.

“How do we think we know?” 149. It could not be named or shown because of the code, but the “post-coital nuances of the dialogue between Brandon and Philip after the murder” would be a place to start 149. “How did you feel – during it?” “I don’t remember feeling much of anything – until his body went limp, and I knew it was over, then I felt tremendously exhilarated,” etc. 149. “Connotation will always manifest a certain semiotic insufficiency,” Miller continues 150. “Connotation enjoys, or suffers from, an abiding deniability” 150. In this way, “Rope  exploits the particular aptitude of connotation for allowing homosexual meaning to be elided even as it is also being elaborated” 150.

“Until recently, homosexuality offered not just the most prominent – it offered the only subject matter whose representation in American mass culture appertained exclusively to the shadow kingdom of connotation, where insinuations could be at once developed and denied, where… one couldn’t be sure whether [it] was being meant at all… the silence necessary to keep about [the codes] deploy[ing it]” 151.

This engages an accumulative hunt for verification – “a redundancy of notations” 151. If Philip and Brandon are gay, why not the Michaelangelesque David, his friend Kenneth who is often mistaken for him, or their teacher Rupert as well? Hysterical and frigid Janet is there to “grant all three men an ostensible homosexuality” (everyone but Philip has dated her), “it does so by making suspiciously intense the homosocial bond between boyfriends” 152. Rupert’s excuse at the end, that the boys had no right to twist his words into action, restores the male heterosexual subject, and his gunshot is a sort of cathartic ejaculation 153. But the tension never clears in the film.

As the camera holds on them sitting in a triangle to await the police, “the moment… is eerie not just in the sense that one doesn’t know what to make of it, but also in the sense that one rather does… homosexuality provides the marking term, whose presence or absence is wholly determining for what lies on both sides of the virgule” 154.

“At Rope’s end… it is precisely the developed heterosexual subject who is most definitively implicated in a structure of homosexual fixation, a notion that accordingly proves to have perhaps as little to do with gay men as penis envy does with women” 155.

“Connotation, we said, excites the desire for proof, a desire that, so long as it develops within the connotative register, tends to draft every signifier into what nonetheless remains a hopeless task… the dream (impossible to realize, but impossible not to entertain) that connotation would quit its dusky existence for fluorescent literality, would become denotation” 155.

Thus a gay subtext always gives on to the imagined or desired spectacle of gay sex. It is less on the level of language than the image that this occurs in Rope: “able to suggest that Brandon and Philip are actually touching, holding, or leaning against one another, when they are only occupying parallel spatial planes’ 156. They are often “too close,” and their arguments and wrestlings involve hand-holding and visual tropes of the Hollywood embrace 156. Part of the suspense of the film, then, is the almost-painfully prolonged desire for the gay spectacle 157.

As the straight [male] viewer looks to see if the looks of the two men are too lingering, he himself becomes involved in a potentially homosexual gaze. “How might a desire to see what one is afraid to look at ever be gratified?” In the closet, Miller answers. We never see the body in the trunk – we are not forced to look in. (Isn’t it also interesting that the clue is the hat in the closet?) Of the 5 blackouts that do link rolls of film, 4 are of men’s backsides and one is of the trunk lid. “The blackouts come as proof positive that there is nothing to see, unless of course what is laid bare, through the imperfections of the joins, is the structure of the join itself, hence the very operation of the closet” 159.

But what is the gay sex the viewer anticipates? “The cavital darkness” of the anus, and “the cut,” both and one represented by the man’s backside, as Miller has it 160. One “hides the cut” because “it is imagined to be a penetrable hole in the celluloid film body,” but the anus is “hidden here as what remains and reminds of a cut” 160. The binarism of the male body fears castration because the anus reminds the man of the fear projected onto the vagina – the fear of being on the bottom 161. Straight men “need” gay men, Miller argues, to “imagine [themselves] covered front and back” 161. Hence Hitchcock’s relegation of the techniques to normality, rather than perversity. In fact, we see the cuts at Janet, Mrs. Wilson, and Rupert, we see them as blacked-out backsides with the “gay” characters: “Only to the extent that they are seen can the cuts at a man’s backside promote a heterosexualizing castration anxiety” 163.

The fifth and final blackout on the trunk, then, focuses on David’s body as somehow “obscene – and so to be kept offscreen” (literally, re: on/scene and obscene, Linda Williams says) 163. Perhaps the stiff has a stiff or has been abused, Miller suggests: “Far more disconcerting than the evidence of a penetrated anus or an erect penis is the prospect of their copresence on the same male body” 164.  The rope itself “now dangles and tautens like a penis and now encircles and tightens like a sphincter” 164. Ultimately, the film is both afraid of castration and its negation, Miller contends. Rupert’s last moment is to look behind him and sit down – to cover his ass, literally 164.

dir. Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner”

1982

Ridley Scott’s futuristic post-human adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” an assasin who is neither exactly vigilante nor part of the legal institutional framework, hired to kill “replicants” who have tried to return to Earth to live from the planet where they are slaves. As he falls in love with Rachel and tries to teach (program?) her about love even though he is supposed to kill her, the film leads us to question whether Deck himself, like Rachel, Pris, Zora, and Roy, is himself a replicant. The mixture of film noir and 1980s corporate culture with an imagined ‘future’ another 40 years hence (now almost the present!) suggests a concern not so much with the traditional noir anxiety about gender (though that is present as well), but humanity itself.

The “simulation city” of Scott’s imagination also has the dark, steamy fog and cramping light and space effects of film noir, where Rachel plays Joan Crawford to Dex’s Humphrey Bogart. It is carceral, hierarchized, and Foucauldian in its ‘futurism’ (not only in its surveillance, but in the brief lifespans of the “lower class” of replicants, which reminds me of what Foucault says about the bourgeois “cult of life” and trying to live forever). While the machines breathe and flicker like humans, naturalized, the humans are mechanical, robotic, unrecognizable in their humanity. The presentation of space renders the horizontality of LA as verticality, but often flatly – the opening scenes present the buildings as cutouts against the smog, the flying craft move in gridlike patterns (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “striated space”), and the advertisements playing on the sides of high-rises are like the opening credits of Mad Men – massive plays on surface and the Jamesonian sublime (many of the products are real, too – like Coke). This LA has illegible foods and surfaces, saturated as it is with a melange of “Asian” cultures – bicycles, noodles, and characters from numerous Oriental languages.

The film engages intertextually with a wide range of other materials. As a reworking of Shelley’s Frankenstein, it at least materializes women (which that novel does not – Dr. Frankenstein throws the component female parts into the sea in a trunk). But it parallels the classic novel in presenting the rejected spawn of the scientist’s mind as “human” – returning in this case to beg for more life. His queer, campy brand of aestheticized violence and superhuman capabilities remind me of Omar in David Simon’s TV series The Wire, and like the gay murderer of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Scott provides another model for homosexual masculinity than effeteness. Many of the female characters are strikingly robotic and, in Pris’ case (Daryl Hannah as a sex slave), unintelligent, suggesting that men have “programmed” them that way, both literally and metaphorically. Like Pynchon’s Pierce Inverarity, who lives on “as a paranoia,” Tyrell’s death fails even to dent the monolith of social change is corporation has wrought.

It would be interesting to think about how the original ending of the film – with the unicorn sequence revealing Deck as a replicant and the fantasy of “driving away” into the country would act in conversation with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, an urban tale focused on the many nodes of city space, as well as its resistant fringes (the underbelly of the city, too). This “resolved” ending is more 50s, or 80s-conservativist, and the more ambiguous end of the origami unicorn and uncertain escape seem more 40s, or noir, in tone.

The film interests me in terms of surfaces in a number of ways. First, it challenges the status and even the value of memory as a source of depth, as it was in many modernist works. Like the “unicorn sequence” that suggests Deckard’s “memory” is false as well, all the replicants are “implanted” with memories from a computer database, which they believe to be their own, but which are fabrications. Deckard’s name also has the ring of Descartes, or “deck-of-cards” – you might connect this to the crisis of the cogito, ergo sum in the film or to Eliot’s The Waste Land and the shuffling of pieces in and out of persona. Pris and Roy’s insistence on styling themselves is a sort of queer-empowered surface rendering of Foucault’s ideas about self-fashioning. Roy speaks largely in song lyrics, and the cheesy, melodramatic flight of the dove at his death makes him (his body) into a work of art in a paradoxically humanizing mode. The replicants also squat in an empty building like artists as well. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go seems to have faith that art is redemptive, whereas that is a subject for contemplation and distress in Scott’s universe.

 

dir. Paul Schrader, “American Gigolo”

1980

Schrader’s American Gigolo, which the director positioned in the tradition of Taxi Driver and created as an adaptation of Bresson’s Pickpocket, was the first film ever to expose a man in frontal nudity. The moment was unscripted, but Gere felt it unfolded in the love scenes.  The story is of Julian Kaye, a male prostitute who “mostly” turns tricks with older, wealthy Beverly Hills women. Like Bladerunner, American Gigolo employs a noir lense to describe and exaggerate the visual landscape of 1980s Los Angeles. In this sense, it is an invitation to think about that masculinity as somehow post-traumatic, endangered, or cornered. The violence by and objectification of men in the film would seem to corroborate this.

The film explores Julian’s pride and joy in giving women pleasure, “the only thing I’m good at,” which makes him interesting both as an object of desire and the film’s gaze as well as a study in male arrogance in the guise of “generosity.” He parades around in fancy suits, learning different languages to impress rich women and amusing them with his antics, but when he is accused of a murder of a girl in Palm Springs the same week he had a job in that house, none of his women (nor his madame) will provide an alibi. Julian turns to Leon, his seedier, black male pimp, and trusts him to come up with an alibi (it turns out to be a trap – It is Leon’s gay lover who kills the woman, inflecting the “subtext” of gay sexuality in the film, as Gere called it, with a different mode of physicality than was typical of portrayals of homosexuality at the time). When he meets Michelle (Laura Hutton), he is so enchanted that sleeps with her for no fee. The scene is largely shot from his perspective looking at her naked body, but also vice versa, objectifying him. After she sacrifices her public name and marriage to provide a (false) alibi for a murder Julian is accused of committing, the film resolves their story as a moralizing ‘true love’ – she has become public and liberated, he private and unselfish.

 

Allen Ginsberg: Poems

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is perhaps the most famous of the Beat poets.

“A SUPERMARKET IN CALIFORNIA”

      What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
          In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
          What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families
shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

          I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
boys.
          I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
          I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
detective.
          We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

          Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in
an hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
          (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
          Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be
lonely.

          Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
          Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

In this poem, Ginsberg considers Whitman’s legacy – and himself, as another gay poet, the inheritor. Its wild toggling between the “peaches and penumbras,” the “neon fruit” or “shopping for images” to the more transcendental “Are you my Angel?” locates a cultural contrast nascent in Whitman that is only clearer a century later (the poem is written at the centennial of “Song of Myself’). At the end, Ginsberg points to the fact that America always looks back nostalgically to an imaginary lost time, ever receding and never extant at all.

“AMERICA”

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for
murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over
from Russia.

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that goes 1400 miles and hour and
twentyfivethousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underpriviliged who live in
my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his
automobiles more so they’re all different sexes
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they
sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the
workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party
was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother
Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have
been a spy.
America you don’re really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

This heteroglossic poem is one of my favorites by Ginsberg because when you hear recordings of him reading it in Berkeley, you can tell that it was meant to be humorous – he and the audience are laughing. Its notation of the time and amount of money he has look ahead to Frank O’Hara’s cataloguing, and his lists look back to Whitman’s.

“HOWL”

The poem is introduced by William Carlos Williams (“Hold back the edges of your gowns, ladies, we are going through hell), who befriended Ginsberg in New Jersey after the younger poet left the mental hospital. Howl traces a course of American poetry of identity from Whitman into the 20th century, touching on the Inferno and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” as well. “The spontaneity of surface in Howl conceals but grows out of Ginsberg’s care and self-consciousness about rhythm and meter.” The first few lines actively set up over 10 pages of predicate clauses beginning with “who”:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up…

Part II turns more Yeatsian: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” proceeding to posit answers beginning with “Moloch…” Part III is the famous “I’m with you in Rockland” section to Carl Solomon, which ends:

I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night.

The footnote is a cry for sacredness in its ironic repetition of “Holy!”

“KADDISH”

Written after his mother died in 1956, Kaddish is a moving exploration of the relationship of one’s personal and family memories. The speaker remembers his mother, Naomi (a leftist/Communist who was often in and out of mental hospitals), but also weaves her memories that he has inherited from her into the work:

Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment—the flower burning in the Day—and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—escaped back to Oblivion—

The poem is filled with love, but also with horrifying images of madness, loneliness, anger, and violent sexuality. It is written in a mix of Whitmanian, surrealist, and stream-of-consciousness styles. Part of the anxiety of the poem is the internalization of his mother’s madness, as well as a feeling of guilt, since he could not amass the necessary number of  men to properly make a minion to say Kaddish over her body. In this sense, his voice strains to “contain multitudes,” as Whitman’s speaker also claims. Much of the imagery seems miscegenous, from the “crown of thorns” outside of Judaism to the mix of metaphors and styles the speaker uses in straining to talk about his mother. Even the crows that caw are sad copies of the cries that end Eliot’s The Waste Land, scavengers like the birds in Yeats come to feed on the available carrion. Like O’Hara’s more lighthearted poems, it begins with the strange thought of being out on the street and thinking of his dead mother, now gone:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

Mixing tradition and mourning via pop culture, the poet expresses a desire for death himself:

And you’re out, Death let you out, Death had the Mercy, you’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path thru it—Done with yourself at last—Pure—Back to the Babe dark before your Father, before us all—before the world—

The poet turns back to memories of caring for his paranoid, ill mother:

By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your nervousness—you were fat—your next move—
       By that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you—once and for all—when I vowed forever that once man disagreed with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost-
       By my later burden—vow to illuminate mankind—this is release of particulars—(mad as you)—(sanity a trick of agreement)—
       But you stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and spied a mystical assassin from Newark…
…  The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhdanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician’s bar, scheming of Hague? Aunt Rose passing water thru the needles of the Spanish Civil War?
There is something fearful in the fact that her paranoia, as the witch hunts of the 50s demonstrate, was somewhat justified. Her diminishing, ‘irradiated’ body registers the Cold War as manifest phenomenon, diminishing almost by half-life. Repeatedly, the speaker attempts to confront the horror of his own mother’s body (perhaps a stand-in for the ravaged dreams of the old Left in America), now gone:
     Naomi, Naomi—sweating, bulge-eyed, fat, the dress unbuttoned at one side—hair over brow, her stocking hanging evilly on her legs—screaming for a blood transfusion—one righteous hand upraised—a shoe in it—barefoot in the Pharmacy
Picking her tooth with her nail, lips formed an O, suspicion—thought’s old worn vagina—absent sideglance of eye—some evil debt written in the wall, unpaid—& the aged breasts of Newark come near—
       May have heard radio gossip thru the wires in her head, controlled by 3 big sticks left in her back by gangsters in amnesia, thru the hospital—caused pain between her shoulders—

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink—lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs—What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold—later revolted a little, not much—seemed perhaps a good idea to try—know the Monster of the Beginning Womb—Perhaps—that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.

As his mother begins to die, the speaker turns back to her days of youth in his imagination:

   O Russian faced, woman on the grass, your long black hair is crowned with flowers, the mandolin is on your knees—
       Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand—
….
blessed daughter come to America, I long to hear your voice again, remembering your mother’s music, in the Song of the Natural Front—
       O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision—
       Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin
O beautiful Garbo of my Karma—all photographs from 1920 in Camp Nicht-Gedeiget here unchanged—with all the teachers from Vewark—Nor Elanor be gone, nor Max await his specter—nor Louis retire from this High School—

At her death, Kurtzlike, she yells out “All the Horror!” The poem’s mystical, bizarre ending picks up many of the references from earlier stanzas (keys, bars, sunlight), seemingly reclaiming the visionary status of the poet for the modern era:

2 days after her death I got her letter—
       Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
                                                       Love,
                                                               your mother’
       which is Naomi—
The key that unlocks the beginning of the poem is death itself. The last line plays on the adjectival meaning of Naomi – “beautiful or delightful” (in the Bible, the mother in law of Ruth who lost both her sons and her husband), turning over some of the horror of the memories with an act of love. The “roar of memory” at the end of the poem comes back as a vast highschool, representing America’s institutional wasteland and yet its unbounded possibilities as well.

Frank O’Hara: Poems

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was of the New York School of poets, along with Schuyler, Koch, and Ashbery. Born in Baltimore, he moved to New York in 1951, where the city became for him “what the pastoral or rural worlds were for other writers, a source of refreshment and fantasy.” He explores the richness of locality, extinguishing the need for Old World symbols and charms and settling instead on the pleasures of the body. His poetry is notable for its insistence on joy and consumerism alongside loss and skepticism. In Lunch Poems, O’Hara explored the consumer’s midday break time as an innocent, rejuvenating participation in the city, including its capitalist delights. Unlike the nights of the Confessional poets, O’Hara’s poetry is distinctly a daytime voice. His campy humor (overperforming and neither affirming nor denying, but seeking a “3rd position”) is sometimes viewed as an important precursor to the work of poet laureate Billy Collins. He is also interesting to compare with Isherwood, especially A Single Man. O’Hara was killed in a beach-buggy accident on Fire Island at 41.

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER,” 1957

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Considers the medium of language via the medium of language, whereas the painting juxtaposes language and paint – a different project. The painting is concise and masks its inspiration because it needs to simplify; the poem is prolix and can never arrive at its topic.

LUNCH POEMS, 1964

“A STEP AWAY FROM THEM”

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
                                          On
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.
                Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S   
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
             There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
                A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
This poem juxtaposes death and the quotidian details of everyday life, the personal (“I,” the timestamp, the particulars) and impersonality (“One,” life, etc.). It emphasizes the vitality of the dead, as well as a delicious joie de vivre, a comfort that Puerto Ricans in the street can create happiness and one can carry one’s heart in one’s pocket as a book of poems.

“THE DAY LADY DIED”

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                                           I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Billie Holliday, the topic of the poem, is never mentioned. Rather, the poem explores how she lives and exists in collective memory, as well as in the atomized experience of the individual. The speaker obsessively timestamps the day and how he moves through it. At the end he feels a personal sadness and rage, remembering the night “everyone and I stopped breathing” at the sound of her voice – an ironic phrase that captures the suspense in terms of her actual death, but also maintains the personal/social dichotomy that characterizes so many of O’Hara’s poems.

“AVE MARIA”

Mothers of America
                                     let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                                             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                            they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                                            they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
                                                            for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                                       and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
                                                                                 and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
                                                       oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
                                                         and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
                                                                 or up in their room
                                                                                                     hating you
prematurely since you won’t have done anything horribly mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys
                                                                             it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice
                                                                                      and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set
                                                                                                        seeing
movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young
This poem is an ode to the movies, a lighthearted delight in the sex kids will find there that I’d like to contrast with Larkin’s darker, more depressing aesthetic in “High Windows,” which almost feels like a grungy attempted ripoff of O’Hara’s style. Also interesting to think about in terms of Vivian Sobchack and Linda Williams.

“STEPS”

How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

The rushed, passionate, run-on sense of the poem is explained by its ending, where the speaker has overconsumed on all the stuff of life. The montage of pop and politics, personal and social is a whirlwind tour of O’Hara’s stylistic devices.

Roland Barthes, “Camera Lucida”

1980

Notes on Roland Barthes with some ruminations ca. 2010 on how the text might relate to Nabokov’s Pale Fire…

In Camera Lucida, Barthes tries to find the noeme, the essence of photography. What he notices first is the distinction between the studium – the ostensible subject or meaning of the photograph – and the punctum – the small detail that pricks through the surface of certain photographs to wound one, and, as he eventually argues, evince pity. This is often an individually chosen detail. The noeme of photography is actually its haunting quality of “that-has-been” – not language, not a story or a described history with a mediator, but the knowledge that the object has been there, and is there no longer – thus, it is a kind of theater of death for Barthes, as it presents as living something that is nonetheless static and dead, even an instant after its capture.

Something of this is captured in the famous Stieglitz photograph that Barthes includes – the steam rising off the horses, ghostlike, is as static and as weighty and as permanent – or, in fact, impermanent – as the horses themselves – there is the certainty that this has been, and also the certainty that it is no more, that it cannot be recreated. This becomes still more haunting for Barthes in the photo of the boy sentenced to die – though I don’t totally understand how that is the punctum and not the studium of the photograph.

The photograph doesn’t recall, like memory, it attests, and the most wounding photograph is ultimately personal for Barthes – the Winter Garden photograph of his mother. It is in spite or perhaps because he did not know her when the photo was taken that he can find her true essence in that photo and his true wound of mourning for her as he cannot in photos where he “remembers” the circumstances in which they were taken.

“Black Mo’nin” picks up on this idea of mourning, echoing the Wittgensteinian idea that “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent,” but expanding it. The photograph, and particularly the photograph of atrocity, for Moten, must be seen and listened to – it rehearses a silent scream, it speaks publicly for private grief, it performs – like the theater of death, a reenactment of a living moment, a this has been,

Pale Fire employs a notably photographic language – There is also a spylike/voyeuristic quality, examination of all through crystal, glass, lenses, etc. Also,There are a few aspects of these texts I want to hold especially close as we move forward:  First, Barthes’ Kafka quote: “ ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’ ” (53)

If we can consider Pale Fire a highly visual novel, which I think we can, we might also consider it a novel that attempts to employ an almost photographic language. Shade looks out through the ‘picture’ window of his house, and the prisms of his interpretations are filtered through the media of crystal and glass throughout his poem.

Photographs are all over Pale Fire. Shade’s poem is a series of snapshots of the ordinary shot through his picture window of ordinary objects and their hauntings by his dead daughter Hazel. In his poem, he says, line 30, “My eyes were such that literally they/ Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit, /Or, with a silent shiver, order it…” – these trophies and stillicides then appear on his “eyelid’s nether side.” The “pert pictures” of the Goldsworth daughters irritate Kinbote (as so many photos irritate Barthes, and he throws them in a drawer.

On 101, Kinbote shares with Shade that the King (probably Kinbote) was also, like Shade, unable to recall his father’s face, though he could remember the candy in his hand in that last photograph taken on King Alfin’s lap, a phenomenological oddity that provides what seems to be the punctum of the photo and the passage. It is through “ghastly photographs” that the young King Charles sees the gruesome plane accident that killed his father – this evidence makes particular and visceral that which was only alluded to delicately and elliptically before. He looks at Fleur, his ex-wife, in a photo, and says that “one involuntarily lingers over that picture, as one does when standing at a vantage point of time and knowing in retrospect that in a moment one’s life would undergo a complete change.” 105.

The pictures of the king are reproduced and hung all over the kingdom as he tries to escape, and his friends all dress like him to help him escape. They attempt to replicate him in reality as the photo does with technology. It is also through a photograph that Kinbote mourns Shade in the Foreword, before we have even read the poem or the commentary or the index. In the photo, “Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his Aunt Maud (see line 86.) which then leads you to another note in a paper chase. My left hand is half raised – not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses, which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture.” This is the punctum – the realization of the incomplete gesture that inspires tenderness.

Kinbote, too, is haunted by the what has been. In one scene, Kinbote tells us that a visiting professor strains to make Shade see the similarity between the Zemblan king and Kinbote, and Shade refuses, saying ‘Resemblances are the shadows of difference. Different people see different similarities and similar differences.” 265 In this discussion, an “eerie note throbbed by” – the haunting of Kinbote on the photograph. “What a pity I cannot prove my point,” says the German. “If only there was a picture here. Couldn’t there be somewhere” – 267. They find him in an encyclopedia and a comparison ensues, problematic because he is young in the photo – the photo has preserved him as a what has been. This is also paradoxical, however, because the king has been missing, and no one knows what he looks like now, or whether he is alive or dead, as he has been in hiding. Thus the photograph in Pale Fire points to the issue of deictic thinking. However, because it is a novel, or a poem, or neither, but in any case fiction, the photograph in Pale Fire cannot function as it does for Barthes. For the reader, the photograph is evidence, but only within a fictional world, rather than clearly evidential.

As Barthes says, “Language, by nature, is fictional.” We also find out on the same page (quite near the novel’s end) that Zembla is not just like zemlya – which means land – severnaya zemlya – but of “Semblerland – a land of reflections, of “resemblers”.” 265. Thus the image created by language or the image described in created language is never exactly duplicable like the photograph, but then it is never quite proof, either. Its deictic gesture says something, but proves nothing.

Barthes said in an interview that the reader should consider Camera Lucida as being spoken by a character in a novel, and indeed, in the Winter Garden photograph, he provides us not with the photograph that wounds, but with a description of it. To say, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden photograph. It exists only for me” is to say, “I am acceding this photograph as evidence and allowing it to become imaginary, even fictional, for my reader.” What Barthes does is leave this as language, rather than as photograph, and therefore open to be filled by the reader’s photograph and feeling.

The photo within the novel shows not the wound but the ellipsis of the wound. Interestingly, Shade, whose poem absolutely turns on the mourning of his daughter Hazel, does not invoke photographs, but his memories of her, though Kinbote describes this descriptions as “his picture of Hazel is quite clear and complete” – maybe too much so, says Kinbote, maybe embellished by memory and loss. It is through Hazel’s toys, through sensations of her ghost, through her handwriting, through their shared memories, indeed, through Shade’s poem, that John and Sybil remember and love their daughter, and not through photos of her. It is a verbal, rather than a photographic memory – it becomes the property of photography to particularize grief, it is the property of poetry to give all its readers access, to allow us all to project onto it. In this way, perhaps Barthes’ exclusion of the Winter Garden photograph creates a hole where we can all fill in the image that we think is TRUE of a beloved, so that we can understand the meaning of his words.

Ultimately, photographs fill us, but it is language that can be filled by us. They both, however, allow for the observance of particular punctum that enlivens and involves. The changing meaning of a photo over time, like a lynching postcard, which was once victory and is now evidence of atrocity and an ironic rehearsal of mourning, or the Winter Garden photograph, which preserves for Barthes something the photographer could never have anticipated. In this way, reading the photograph over time is not so different from reading the details of a text as you finish it – different things stick out.

Ultimately, Nabokov is also more filmic than photographic – even Barthes says on 88 that film is protensive, recalling the Iser-Jauss language of the novel. Pale Fire’s dramatic, moving moments are always given with the language of scenery and theater, and Shade exclaims, “Retake! Retake!” thinking of his daughter’s death, and in Kinbote’s last lines of Commentary, he contrasts his real life with his fantasy one, in which he will make a motion picture with his (the King’s) gay lover, Odon, from his Zemblan childhood – Shade, he says, has only been caught in “the clash between the two figments.”

However, the particularizing quality of the photograph is lauded in art in general – the great sin in Nabokov is to generalize, to confuse individuality, to make an individual the same as another. Indeed, Gradus kills himself for “killing the wrong person when the right one stood before him” – it is a novel about the problem of not seeing carefully enough, and, as I want to argue, in a more political way, about moving to action because of paranoia which is disguised as evidence. This imagination as evidence is delusion, or paranoia in the novel. To imagine evidence, to point to the nonexistent photograph, the elliptical wound as proof, to overread every clue as evidence, is to assemble the fictive evidence of a paranoid.

Kinbote says, “we are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new wolrds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing.” 289. There is also the narrative quality of the “unintentional” details included by delusional narrator? Kinbote, like a bad photographer, cannot edie, cannot “frame” his subject, cannot see the image he is “developing” for us? This actually results in a kind of punctum, as well as an invitation to overread his narrative and become paranoid.