Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway”

1925

Probably Woolf’s most widely-read novel, Mrs. Dalloway is a response to Joyce’s Ulysses in its multiple subjectivities, its urban exploration, and its one-day setting. As opposed to the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is usually described as hinging on free indirect discourse. This allows a jumping and flowing between subjectivities, but with an emphasis on the ambiguity of the third-person intercostal phrases that occur as mutually observed objects become nexus points for multiple viewers.

To me, it seems that while the object is the occasion for memory or perspectival change in Woolf, it proliferates in Joyce. That is, whereas the surfaces of Woolf’s world are points of contact with other people and with a deep store of memory, in Joyce, even for the more worldly Bloom (let alone the philosophical Stephen), they are occasions to ruminate and multiply associations. One of the most profound set of images for this in the novel comes with the connection between Clarissa and Septimus, who never meet. Both of them imagine connectedness with other people through trees – materially rooted and reaching at the same time, but imagine loneliness and depression through silent seas – not present but in the mind. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa goes to the window, she is able to imagine his death with her body first – a visceral giving on to his subjectivity in a wonderful moment of genuine sympathy, sadly absent between many characters who actually do know each other.

Woolf’s free indirect discourse also gives itself over to the characters in a sort of democratic consensus. On the novel’s first page:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when… 3.

This is echoed again in the last line, as Peter’s perspective opens outward: “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” 194. The continuous present of Woolf’s past tense, as well as the lack of chapters, encourages the reader to process the novel as an accumulation of thought, of the “atoms as they fall,” as Woolf writes in “Modern Fiction.”

E. M. Forster writes of the “shimmering fabric of mysticism” in the novel, “required like most writers to choose between the surface and depths as a basis of her operations, she chooses the surface and then burrows in as far as she can,” perhaps a reference to Woolf’s own imagining of her characters as caves with tunnels connecting them. I’m also interested in the nascent split subject in this novel, especially Clarissa. Woolf and other modernist writers point to women, specifically, as always split. I will conclude the passage where Clarissa pulls the parts of her self together in the mirror alone:

“That was her self – pointed; dart like, definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room and made a meeting-point, a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives” 37.

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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. 

Joseph Conrad: “Heart of Darkness”

1899/1902

Whenever I pick up Heart of Darkness (and I think this is about the tenth time), I find I can recall the beginning and the end, but the painstakingly slow ‘progress’ between those points – the order in which the almost monotonous series of ‘events’ takes place – falls away from my memory within a few months of each reading.

Part of this, to be sure, is Marlow’s notoriously ambiguous and repetitive narrative voice. The flatness and silence of the landscape to him, the synecdochic swarm of body parts behind the curtains of branches, the nameless character ‘types’ who populate the points of his journey, all contribute to this. But this is also a way in which we are reminded that this is a narrated story, carefully curated in print to appear as orality.

Indeed, the tension in the novel between textual and narrative authority is constant. It is as if Marlow’s wandering “yarn,” full of assertions of the illegible and inscrutable nature of the land and people he encounters in the Congo, is itself striving to have in it something of the unutterable cry. Marlow strains against the fixedness of Kurtz’s report, with its terrible scrawled addendum, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow himself, both here and in Lord Jim, seems to be an outsider as well, one the frame narrator of this tale regards disinterestedly.

I am perhaps most interested in tracing a lineage from this text through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. When teaching this text to students in a discussion section, I also broke them into groups of 5 and gave them a list of page numbers on three major themes: Race, Gender, Empire. They took about 20 minutes to develop a thesis statement of 1-2 sentences. We then reviewed and edited the theses for about 10 minutes and used those ideas to drive the rest of class discussion (20 minutes).

Vivian Sobchack, “Carnal Thoughts”

2004

CHAPTER 3: WHAT MY FINGERS KNEW

Sobchack begins by acknowledging that while film reviews see film as a bodily experience, scholars often do not. Benjamin himself “speaks of cinematic intelligibility in terms of ‘tactile appropriation’ and elsewhere he speaks to the viewer’s ‘mimetic faculty,’ a sensuous and bodily form of perception” 55. She cites Jonathan Crary and Linda Williams as exceptions, as well as Laura Marks’ “haptic visuality.” As Williams points out, we are uncomfortable with the extent to which the ‘low’ genres horror, pornography, and melodrama take hold of and manipulate us as viewers 57.

Our bodily response is unclear, however – “our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more than ‘mere’ psychological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more than metaphorical description” 58. Sensual description in film criticism is considered “excess” (again, think Williams!).

“Contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in comprehending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really ‘touched’ and ‘moved’ by the movies” 59.

“Film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” 60.

“We need to alter the binary and bifurcated structures of the film experience suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film viewer’s ived body as a carnal ‘third term’ that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and the objective image – both differentiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception” 60. [re: the chiasmus as suture, the dialectic – what about multiplicity or faceting?]

“The lived body both provides and enacts a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, between the senses and their sense or conscious meaning” 61.

Sobchack finds herself sensitized by The Piano – in terms of touch: “my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, ‘felt themselves’ as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured onscreen” 63.  “Those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as ‘these’ fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on” [suture] 63.

“Our common sensuous experience of the movies; the way we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight, suffocation, and the need for air… smell and taste are less called on than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see… I did not think a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experienced it without a thought” 65.

“Our lived bodies relate to ‘things’ that ‘matter’ on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and are localized” 65 [diffuse sensuality].

For Sobchack, then, we exist as both here and there, sensing and sensible, subject and object: “Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace” [think Irigaray, Poulet] 66.

“Meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction. We might name this subversive body in film experience the cinesthetic subject – a neologism that derives not only from cinema but… synaesthesia and coenaesthesia” 67. [Nabokov, metaphors that cross senses]

“The cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen – able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen” 71.

Of course, as Ricouer points out in “The Rule of Metaphor,” this is not literal – but it represents a confusion of the senses “from the single system of flesh and consciousness that is the lived body” 73. Thus cinema is presentation and representation – a chiasmus [again, suture?] 74.

“Our sense of the literal and the figural may sometimes vacillate… However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular figure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional trajectory, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible… my own subjectively felt lived body” 76.

“I will reflexively turn toward my own carnal, sensual, and sensible being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and in sum, sense my own sensuality” 77. [faceting – sex imbricated in this?]

“In the film experience, because our consciousness is not directed toward our own bodies but toward the film’s world, we are caught up without thought… in this vacillating and reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of my literal body to the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the screen… my experience of my sensorium becomes heightened and intensified at the same time that it is perceived as general and diffuse” 77.

Thus the fabrics and feelings are “somewhat vague and diffuse… even as it may be quite intense… my gesture of specifically intending toward the screen to rebound diffusely on myself ultimately ‘opens up’  my body to a sensuality that is both literal and figural” 78. For Sobchack, touch is no longer a stretch in film, but a catachresis – not a proper metaphor in that it is a place we are forced to “confront and name a gap in language” like the arm of a chair or head of a pin, because we are supplementing linguistic deficiency 81.

“Reciprocating the figurally literal representations of bodies and worldly things in the cinema, the spectator’s lived body in the film experience engages in a form of sensual catachresis… it fills in the gap in its sensual grasp of the figural world onscreen by turning back on itself to reciprocally (albeit not sufficiently) ‘flesh it out’ into literal physicalized sense” 82. [think Lo-lee-ta]

“As cinesthetic subjects, then, we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins and limits. This is what, without a thought, my fingers know at the movies” 84.

 

Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading”

1969

“Books are objects. On a table, on bookshelves, in store windows, they wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality, from their immobility… Are they aware that an act of man might suddenly transform their existence? They appear to be lit up with that hope. Read me, they seem to say. I find it hard to resist their appeal. No, books are not just objects among others” 1320.

“It would never occur to me to walk around a sewing machine or to look at the under side of a plate [feminized objects!]. I am quite satisfied with the face they present to me. But statues make me want to circle around them… Isn’t it because they give me the illusion that there is something in them which, from a different angle, I might be able to see? Neither vase nor statue seems fully revealed by the unbroken perimeter of its surfaces. In addition to its surfaces it must have an interior… the entrance to a secret chamber. But there is no such entrance” 1320. [think Heidegger and Husserl – the atomization of the object is infinite – also, the illusion of depth – the interface of surface and “depth.”]

“It is this openness of the book which I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled-up as in a fortress. It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it… You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside” 1321.

“I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case, the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself… to think what it thinks and feel what it feels” 1321.

“It is as if [the object] no longer existed, as long as I read the book… no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist… not in the paper object. Nor, surely, in external space… my innermost self… [the objects in it, like fish in an aquarium] need the shelter I provide: they are dependent on my consciousness… in order to exist as mental objects, they must relinquish their existence as real objects” 1321.

“On the one hand, this is cause for regret… I deliver myself… to the omnipotence of fiction… I become the prey of language… [which] surrounds me with its unreality. On the other hand, the transmutation through language of reality into a fictional equivalent has undeniable advantages. The universe of fiction is infinitely more elastic than the world of objective reality… They are objects, but subjectified objects. In short, since everything has become part of my mind, thanks to the intervention of language, the opposition between the subject and its objects has been considerably attenuated… I am freed from my usual sense of incompatibility between my consciousness and its objects… They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject… I am thinking the thoughts of another… as my very own… I am a self who is granted the experience of thinking thoughts foreign to him” 1322.

“Reading is just that: a way of giving way not only to a host of alien words, images, ideas, but also to the very alien principle which utters them and shelters them… the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but feel what I read… Reading, then, is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another… within me” 1323 [facile, also absorption, feminizing]

“The subject who is revealed to me through my reading of it is not the author, either in the disordered totality of his outer experiences, or in the aggregate, better organized and concentrated totality, which is the one of his writings… what matters to me is to live, from the inside, in a certain identity with the work and the work alone… Nothing external to the work could possibly share the extraordinary claim which the work now exerts on me” 1324.

“Such is the characteristic condition of every work which I summon back into existence by placing my consciousness at its disposal… a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, that it is a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects” 1325.

“This astonished consciousness is in fact the consciousness of the critic… an uncertain movement of the mind toward an object which remains hidden. Whereas in the perfect identification of two consciousnesses, each sees itself reflected in the other, in this instance the critical consciousness can, at best, attempt but to draw closer to a reality which must remain forever veiled… since sight, the most intellectual of the five senses… against a basic opacity, the critical mind must approach its goal blindly, through the tactile exploration of surfaces… the material world which separates the critical mind from its object” 1326.

“The critics linguistic apparatus can… bring him closer to the work under consideration, or can remove him from it indefinitely… he can approximate very closely the work in question, thanks to a verbal mimesis which transposes into the critic’s language the sensuous themes of the work. Or else he can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power ont he part of the subject… [the object’s] infinite distance from the subject” 1328.

The first is complicity (union without comprehension), the second is disinterestedness (comprehension without union). He proposes the idea “not of practicing them simultaneously, which would be impossible, but at least of combining them through a kind of reciprocation and alternation” 1329. (A dialectic?) This is “a critical method having as guiding principle the relation between subject and object” 1332.

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. John Stahl, “Imitation of Life”

1934

In this first version of Fanny Hurst’s novel, released just a year after the book, white Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie take in black Delilah Johnson and her light-skinned daughter Peola as live-in help. Bea markets Delilah’s pancake recipe, literally making her “the face” (like Aunt Jemima) of the business (this unfolds in the film through 2-dimensional renderings of Delilah’s smiling face that are continually flipped over – like pancakes – emphasizing their flatness). Jessie falls in love with Stephen, Bea’s beau, and they play out a comical “Boxer and the Bobby Soxer” routine before Bea refuses him, prioritizing her daughter’s feelings, and promises to come find him when Jessie has recovered. Like the Sirk film, the early version ends with the same grand funeral for Delilah, who dies of a broken heart after Peola abandons her, but here we see Peola “accept her race” and return to her Negro college. (See Lauren Berlant on both films.)

 

dir. Chantal Ackerman, “Jeanne Dielman”

1975

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a 1975 film by director Chantal Ackerman. 3 hours and 20 minutes in length, the film shows 3 days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian widow and housewife with one grown son, a university student, who sleeps at home and for whom Jeanne is still financially responsible. Jeanne fills her days from morning to night with the same routine she kept when her husband was alive, going to the market, making tea at a certain time, making particular meals on certain days (Ackerman said in an interview that “she didn’t need a man to go on living in that same way because she was so imprinted”). To make ends meet, she babysits for the neighbor in the morning and sleeps with men between 5 and 5:30 on weekday evenings. On the second day, Jeanne begins to “slip up” and make small mistakes in her routine (dropping a spoon, overcooking the potatoes), which rattles her. On the third day, she ends up with a span of free time because of some more slip-ups and sits in her living room in a restless panic. In the final sequence of the film, she reluctantly orgasms during sex with her client, fixes her hair in the mirror, takes a pair of scissors from the drawer, and stabs her customer to death.

The film is a little over the top in its feminist twist on Lacan (Ackerman said that her “unconscious” starts to come through when Jeanne’s schedule deteriorates and she makes her “slip-ups”), but it is a fascinating exploration of what “the female gaze” is, or what women are outside of their symbolic or exhibitionist value for men. The tiresome repetition with a difference is reminiscent of Stein, though the payoff in the ending here is much more shocking. This is certainly another ‘flat’ film in its shooting, though not in exactly the same way as some of the others. There are very few long shots or closeups in Jeanne Dielman; instead, most of the action unfolds in the mid-range shot typical of TV. The camera is conspicuous through its very lack of movement – we become aware of it because it does not follow Jeanne’s face. It is often positioned so that she is exactly at the center of a head-on meatloaf-mashing session, directly overhead during sex, or squarely off to the side of the kitchen, where she enters in and out of the frame as she continues her routine. It is this very passivity (itself a “feminine trait”) that makes us aware of how little of a woman’s world a movie actually shows, and absorbs us (again, in a yonic mode) in the non-action the film portrays.

dir. Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho”

1960

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller tells the story of Marion Crane – at least we think it’s going to. On the run with $40,000 in stolen cash to her lover Sam, Marion stops at the Bates Motel rain. There she meets Norman Bates, who lives there alone with his mother, whom she has heard shouting at Norman. Marion eats a sandwich with him in his creepy parlor full of stuffed birds, takes a shower (we see Norman voyeuristically watching through a hole in the wall), and is stabbed to death by someone who looks like a woman in what is probably the most famous murder scene ever filmed. After her sister Lyla shows up, the detective on the case is also murdered. Eventually we discover, in the final twist of the film, that Norman is schizophrenic and has committed these murders in the guise of his mother, whose persona he adopts whenever he feels sexually attracted to a woman. He murdered her and her lover many years ago out of jealousy, but out of guilt, he now keeps her mummified body in his house and talks to it.

Namwali Serpell argues that the doubles of the film (2 stacks of cash, 2 lookalike sisters, a lookalike boyfriend and murderer) ask us to re-cathect our attention from one face to another in a concatenation of reorientation as the film goes on and Hitchcock reroutes our attention as characters die. As it is, the film is a study in surfaces – Serpell likens the porcelain, shower curtain, drain, and mop to the skin, clothes, eye, and hair of the dead girl. Marion’s name, birdlike as it is, foreshadows her end. Norman Bates’ name is a sort of descriptor for what the “normal-man” does in the film – he “baits” women. One of the most fascinating surfaces or guises in the film is the drag Norman puts on to kill. Why have him inhabit his mother as persona? Certainly, the glib psychological explanation at the end does not satisfy…