Dirt and the housewife

May 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

A fragmented history of bourgeois morality, sexual division of labour, dirt, and the middle-class housewife via two books excerpted below; Kipnis’s one on North American feminism (broadly speaking) and Theweleit’s one on the rise of white supremacy and fascism in Germany in relation to gender relations and the advent of capitalism.

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability:

Note that the dirt-sex dilemma hasn’t only played out in the nation’s kitchens and bathrooms, it’s left its mark on history as well, and nowhere more conspicuously than in the female social-purity movement of  the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The “movement” was actually hundreds of separate organizations and campaigns, with rousing names like the National Vigilance Association and the Moral Reform Union, variously devoted to anti-vice agitation and temperance campaigns, rallying against gambling, prostitution, and general male sexual loucheness. All this first took off in England and the United States, eventually spawning international organizations and world congresses aimed at cleaning up male behavior everywhere. Themes of public hygiene and sanitary reform were tied to morality campaigns, with women undertaking to purify society on all levels, public and private, through legislation, street-corner proselytizing, or whatever it took.

In retrospect it make (sic) sense that with the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a compensatory cult of domesticity took hold. The home became a sanctified realm removed from the tawdriness of the marketplace, and it was the new sentimentality about the home that gave the women the platform to assert a new public authority as guardians of national purity. When Frances Willard, founder of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, pronounced that her goal was “to make the whole word houselike,” she was floating a new political ideology: that the strength of the nation was directly connected to the strength of the nation’s households. The problem with dividing the world into these increasingly separate male and female domains was that it wasn’t just paid work that was assigned to the male sphere, it was sexuality as well. On their side of the divide, men got sexual passion; women got cleanup duty. One again, thanks.

Consider the psychological effects of the flush toilet alone — goodbye to chamber pots, all your bodily wastes thankfully whisked from sight, now only a vague memory — allowing the ever-pertinent question “You think your shit doesn’t stink?” to the enter the social lexicon. Consider too, the new varieties of class contempt directed at the unwashed: if cleanliness is virtuous and the distribution of cleaning advances invariably begins with the moneyed, obviously rich and poor deserve their respective fates. After all, who’s cleaner?

vintage_cleaning_ad-300x201

Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History:

The second characteristic of industrial production is that from the very start, it had the capacity to create specific abundance in the midst of general scarcity: toys and baubles for the rich, fashionwear, and every other kind of garbage imaginable.

Working and making love became exercises in dying, only to a limited extent were they still creative, life-affirming processes. Every single commodity a worker produced was a piece of his own death. Every act of lovemaking carries the bodies deeper into a debt of guilt that accumulated toward death.

Lovers and workers now produce “dirt” from the moment they start their activities. The citizen of a society that began “placing a cover over piano legs, as a simple precaution,” set about keeping both things at a distance, factories and love (flowings as well as machines).

Is it any wonder with all that “dirt” around that the quality of water changed? The habits of washing and swimming in water, including in rivers and lakes, originated in the eighteenth century, in the context of the bourgeoisie’s “moral superiority” over the absolutist nobility. We need to consider the enormously heightened significance of water, in these attempts to implement hygiene in bourgeois society in relation to the simultaneous social proscription of other wet substances (especially those of the body) and the demotion of these substances to the status of “dirt”. At the same time, the phrase “hygiene as a new form of piety” describes only one aspect of the process.

The spring is a kind of natural shower for washing off the “dirt” of society. And showers like that found their way into houses. I’m a little surprised to find that I’ve arrived at the conjecture that plumbing had to be installed in private residences to help carry out the repression of human desires in bourgeois societies. (That repression took the form of gender segregation and sexual repression.)

Starting from the kitchen and the bedroom, Cleanliness began its triumphal march throughout the house. White lines, white morals, white tablecloths: an incessant rustling of white (no longer audible, but ever present). With the drying up of the streams in the bedroom, moving through the water pipes that were the heart of any clean kitchen, the image of the Pure Mother (the propaganda about clean interiors in houses and bodies) slowly gained ascendancy within the house. The housewife gradually came to embody whiteness, while her husband despaired or started dreaming about the sexual allure of nonhousewives (image of the ocean). Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

housework

is jane austen mean

April 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

I managed to get an ARC of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice and thought I’d review it for a local paper. It seems like fun, I thought. It would be nice to review a “light” book for a change, I thought. I don’t know much about Sittenfeld; I do remember reading Prep in a haze while living at Winnipeg, because going from Malaysia to Canada there was not a day that went by when I didn’t marvel at the existence of this grand thing called a library and so I tried to read every book available, and Prep was one of them. It was ok, I guess? Entertaining? I can’t remember much. But I decided to give this a go because how bad can a retelling of Pride and Prejudice be? Additionally, I was curious. Why update what was already very good? “The Austen Project” intrigued me. Who are the writers who willingly offered themselves up to be compared to Austen? Why? Fascinating.

The problem so far is that I’m only about 1/4 of a way through Eligible and I’m bored out of my mind. But I must slog on, because I promised to write a review and this one actually pays (quite well, in fact). It’s not that Sittenfeld is a terrible writer, but that’s a whole other story. She can … write. I’m sure of it. I think. It’s just that this whole world I’m supposed to willingly enter into for pages and pages on end is so devoid of enchantment — everything and everyone is so petty, crude, tedious, and dull-witted, even Mr. Bennet and Liz, whose verbal sparring or conversations are meant to energising. In this update, it’s as limp as an afternoon in KL during the heat wave.

The story of Pride and Prejudice has been updated, so to speak, and so now Liz Bennet is a liberal feminist who writes for a magazine called Mascara and tries to lean in but is hampered by both a not-quite-going-anywhere writing career and love life. So far, so tedious. Jane is now a yoga instructor in New York, which … I mean, I could never really warm to Jane (could any of us warm to such a paragon of virtue, to begin with?) in the original, but in this book she’s just a walking, talking, jogging robot. And when Sittenfeld describes the WASPy Bennets’ decaying Tudor mansion thus, from Liz’s POV — “her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could no longer see, touch or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible” — I flinched. Was Austen ever this small-minded and mean-spirited?

Charlotte Lucas too, has been updated to become nice but fat. Mary, with whom I’ve always had a problem, or rather, I’ve always had a problem with Austen’s gaze when it comes to Mary — so judgmental and, dare I say it, bitchy — fares no better, unsurprisingly. When I read P&P, I try not to think about Mary too much so I could revel in Austen’s sparkling prose, etc., but Sittenfeld’s update has led me to consider if it was a conscious attempt to highlight Austen’s latent uncharitable and mean-spirited perspective, which was at its most obvious when directed at a poor young lady who possessed neither socially-approved looks nor charm. In Sittenfeld’s update, Liz thoughts about Mary are painful: “Mary was proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant”. Was Austen ever this small-minded and mean-spirited? Maybe … yes? She could be?

When I read Austen, especially of late, I’m under no illusions about Austen’s disdain for and simultaneous acquiescence to the bourgeois values of her time. She both mocks it and strives to reach it; or rather, her characters do. Poor Mary; she was noted for being both unattractive and lacking in charm both in looks and in personality, and then dispensed with. Who cares what happens to Mary? I’ve always wondered. In the 21st-century, Mary suffers even more so in a society where social interactions are mediated by images. As does Charlotte Lucas, who for all intents and purposes in this update is not hampered by an inability to support herself independently — in this update she seems like a perfectly decent and functional person, but is fat, and therefore alone. (Until she “settles”, presumably, like the original Charlotte.)

I’ve never resolved the problem of Charlotte and Mary and I do wonder if Eligible’s obtuse characters and inane conversations and utterly horrifying, shallow perspectives on love and marriage and a person’s worth are so bleak not only because it reveals the crass emptiness at the core of the bourgeoisie and upper classes in the times we live in, but also because it reveals something fundamentally — nasty? — about Austen’s conception of femininity and female worth. As a “fan” of Austen, this leaves me more than a little disturbed.

But anyway. There’s still MANY MORE PAGES TO GO before I sleep. I might have a different view by the end of it, and back to loving Austen without having to think too much about it.

excerpts from Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (vol. 1)

March 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

Page numbers are from the pdf version available from Monoskop.

Femininity in particular has retained a special malleability under patriarchy, for women have never been able to be identified directly with dominant historical processes, such as those that gave rise to bourgeois society, because they have never been the direct agents of those processes; in some way or other, they have always remained objects and raw materials, pieces of nature awaiting socialization. This has enabled men to see and use them collectively as part of the earth’s inorganic body–the terrain of men’s own productions. (294)

The Catholic Church offered up the body of the Virgin Mother, more heaven than ocean, as territory for licentious desires. It is possible to trace the process of sexualization of that body through legends surrounding Mary from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward […] The secular body didn’t remain fictional; real women were employed to give form to its function. In the period that most concerns us here, the initial phase of development of bourgeois society, the first such women were those attached to the bourgeois courts of the Italian mercantile capitals of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. With the expansion of the European world, which followed in the wake of exploration by seafaring adventurers, these were supplemented by images of women from other continents–the black slave woman, the woman of the almond eyes, the Indian squaw, and above all the South Sea maiden. Collectively, these images began to construct the body that would constitute a mysterious goal for men whose desires were armed for an imminent voyage, a body was to be more enticing than all the rest of the world put together. It was the fountain men drank from after crossing the arid terrain of their adventures, the mirror in which they sought to recognize themselves. (296)

Second, and more important, holding out the “high-born” woman as a partial reward for the higher-ranking retainers of princes prevented these men from setting out together with women, as equals; from leaving the European terror behind them, to found new, more human settlements elsewhere. […] The maintenance of inequality between the sexes, its perpetual renewal and exacerbation, has always been an important part of the work of the dominant group. (298)

We have seen how the noblewoman was gradually eroticized, in conjunction with a violent de-eroticizing of the common woman. In the course of that eroticizing, the bourgeois male gained access to a female body that had previously existed only as an image: the transcendent body of the noblewoman. The noblewoman herself is made the possessor of the erotic body for two purposes: for lovemaking and for the representation of the power of her overlord, whose commercial wealth made the secularization of her celestial flesh possible. This development was kept from getting out of hand by confining women to a representational function and by monogamizing the male-female relationship. (my emphasis)

Among the people, the (slower) consolidation of monogamy had a different function. Here it wasn’t a limitation placed on a process of sexualization; on the contrary, it was the final stage of a campaign for the total elimination of sexuality–the “lesser of two evils.” Monogamy surfaced here as the new code for a new set of circumstances within which access to the body of the opposite sex, which had for a brief time been relatively easy, was now to become more difficult for both parties. What had been accessible was now made unattainable because it harbored a potential for new freedoms. Alongside the “divine” one-and-only (inaccessible to the man of low breeding), an “everyday” one-and-only appeared as a boundary for the same low-born male). (324)

These were pages and pages of ideas that have been moving around in my mind over these months — and it’s been months since I’ve started this book. I just got to the bit where Theweleit talks about beauty standards (and accordingly, sexual desirability) under the heterosexual male rule as a means to emphasise the hierarchies between women of nobility and women of the emerging bourgeoisie, and “the extent to which the female body served as an arena of competition between bourgeoisie and the nobility”. What it did was make a certain class of women — who adhered to the beauty norms — the prize for both ruling class noble men and property-owning men, thus ensuring that “lower” class women were accordingly devalued. (Devalued, but their bodies still subject to “common” ownership by men of all classes.) In the current society of the spectacle — and I know people supposedly are over the Debordian spectacle or whatever, for some reason? but I think it has its use still — celebrity is the modern version of nobility. This is why thinkpieces that celebrate Kim Kardashian’s agency or whatever miss the central point, that the redirection of people’s attention towards celebrity beauty is a disciplinary apparatus for us, the commoners. As Theweleit explains, this was a process of indoctrination that began with the bourgeois women of European societies, women who “had to be trained (“cultivated”) for their new responsibilities — to be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves.” To be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves — I can’t think of a better description of the ways in which celebrity culture is put to use in the lives of women who will never, ever be able to enjoy a smidgen of the money and power enjoyed by the famous women they’re supposed to emulate and root for through the combined “training” instruction manuals of lifestyle and beauty magazines and libfem pop-culture analysis.

luckiest girl alive

February 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

luckiest girl alive

Luckiest Girl Alive is one of the more horrifying novels I’ve read in recent memory about gender and class relations, not least because it takes a sudden turn midway through and becomes more of a tale of psychological healing and redemption and this somehow makes it worse. Comparisons to Gone Girl are instructive in the sense of coming to terms with what publicists and marketers will do to sell a book–simply refer to a bestselling one that came before because there are vague similarities, like white women authors writing about white women characters. Perhaps I’m being unfair; I enjoyed Gone Girl and also Dark Places; having read two of Flynn’s novels I get the sense that beneath the thrill-a-minute veneer of the carefully-structured plot is an emphasis on what wealth, and how one’s class position shapes one’s social relations and conduct. While I really appreciated Mary Gaitskill’s review of Gone Girl, now archived and sadly no longer available to read for free in Bookforum, I feel that Flynn is interested in showing us just how depraved the wealthy characters are as a means of understanding modern American society. In Gone Girl and particularly Dark Places, we just how ruthless women can be–and not in the “internalised misogyny” way that she is commonly accused of. Flynn shows us how destructive middle and upper class white femininity is, to the women themselves, and worst of all, on the people on whom they’re able to exercise their (considerable) power.

Luckiest Girl Alive starts out like a a cracker of a book, but it pretty much depends on your tolerance for nasty people being nasty. Dark, bitter satires or psychological portraits of nasty women being nasty is a bit like catnip for me. No doubt it’s from having spent the better part of my formative years in all-girls’ schools. It’s not that women are inherently nasty (and I feel so stupid typing that out because obviously it’s not, but people seem to need to have it spelled out); it’s how heterosexual women are trained to be and put to use in that way, in order to win one of life’s many prizes: A Man and A Job (these go together in our lean-in, liberal feminist empowerment times). LGA starts out like very bitter satire; the main character, TifAni who becomes Ani (long story by which I mean it’s literally the whole book) is what you would imagine the misogynist, capitalist spectacle to be if it came alive in one human being. For that reason it was hard to imagine where the writer, Jessica Knoll, could go with such a premise. When I started to get an idea of where it was going, it was troubling to realise that certain “major issues” in the book, specifically high school gang-rape of a fourteen-year-old girl and a school bombing and shooting, were strategically maneuvered as thriller plot points designed to evoke suspense. By the end, then, Ani–who is really quite brutal in how she has found her way from middle-class mediocrity to upper-class feminine security in New York (contingent on her marrying her fiance and “earning” his family’s connections, obviously)–is rescued from her own strategically-designed future by an arc of redemption that involves exploiting the traumatic events of her youth for a documentary. First as tragedy, then as neverending spectacle. In this weird way too, what starts out in the book as an indictment of American middle-class bourgeois clerk values of aspirational wealth becomes, by the middle of it, a purely psychological Ani phenomena. She is so fucked up because of what happened to her that miraculously, towards the end, the functions of her class position–where she has been raised to become arm-trophy to a rich man–is made to be just a problem of her outlandish, tasteless, money-grubbing mother and distant, asshole father, and the combined effects that this upbringing and the awful people in her private school had on her.

I was so appalled by Ani’s hyper-surveillance of other women and her intrinsic, knee-jerk hatred of them, that I looked up the author’s Instagram and Twitter and found her voice sometimes almost disturbingly Ani-like. Of course, it’s a particular effective form of affective writing common in beauty magazines that use the chatty yet judgmental mode of friendly vigilance–from one girl to another!–to sell the many, many products advertised in practically every page, except in Ani the pretense is removed and it is pure self-hating and misogynist surveillance. Knoll used to write for women’s magazines; Ani, too, works for a women’s magazine. Her beauty industry-fortified gaze, when it lands on other women, is ruthless and cruel. Teenage Ani already showed mastery of this gaze in order to best her more languid upper-class contemporaries, secure as they were in their class position made up of inherited wealth, but at least teenage Ani seemed to recognise that a shiny exterior was not the whole. Older Ani had come to fully immerse herself in the spectacle and call it being shrewd, street-smart, and resourceful. The image stands for the whole. It reminded me of “The Girlfriend Gaze”, specifically the bit about how the girlfriend gaze functions as governance:

This obfuscation of the male gaze helps to mystify the technologies of patriarchy that profit from women’s body hatred, particularly through the beauty and lifestyle industries. It reconfigures obsession with body image and consumption as an exclusively female preserve. The women in Heat are in danger of losing their celebrity status as they are seduced into the domesticated spaces of heterosexual love. Because the skinny body is a woman’s cultural capital, the magazine’s subtext implies that to let go of the rigours of self-discipline is a form of naivety. And it also perpetuates the pervasive discourse that defines women’s empowerment through the control they exert over their bodies. Being skinny, or a discerning and avid shopper, is sold as signifier of autonomy: it is because she is worth it that she botoxes, not because she is a victim of the heterosexual male gaze.

Because women exercise ownership over their bodies and can profit from this through the processes of branding, the surveillance of body control is sold as enablement. In an overwhelmingly visual culture, the spectacle of the female body is necessary for self-promotion and therefore success. As the practices of beautifying and “girling” become more complex, it is women who are able to recognise and appreciate the work spent and expertise accumulated. Because the body is represented as integral to success in the labour market, this surveillance of women by women through friendship is represented as entitlement. It is marketed as solidarity or sisterhood through the rhetoric of girlfriendship; it is “girl time”.

It is a white-supremacist, capitalist gaze built on exploited labour and ownership of private property, of course, but these elements are slowly neutralised throughout the book, so that by the end, Ani, who has spent a lot of money and time on crafting the ideal upper-class New Yorker feminine body, still gets to “own” her gifts and be saved from her awful fiance, too. It’s classic lean-in feminism; she crafted an very specific image of herself in order to obtain a man and power via wealth and social capital, but now that she’s ditched the man and found some liberation from oppressive heterosexual norms, she can be kinder in her power, power that she has obtained through looking hot as shit and putting other women in their place. Though it’s made clear a few times that it’s Ani’s ability to take control of herself and her body–after everything was taken out of her control through the events that altered her life in high school–that makes her the hyper-image obsessed person that she is, this is lost in the manipulative aspects of the plot designed to keep the pages turning. And I can’t get past the sense that so much of what is plain old American middle-class striving is displaced onto the mother figure, whom seen through Ani’s eyes is often clueless in her desire for wanting the best for her daughter, but is also often pilloried for being tacky, overdone, and unable to play the game right.

Ani’s only female friend is a rich, obligatorily skinny white woman of epic beauty, so much so that conversation stops when she enters the restaurant, bla bla bla. This friend is crucially, of course, rich, so her beauty can appear effortless, which is what Ani craves most of all. So much of what Ani wants to be–disappear into the spectacle as an emblem of power and wealth–is premised upon the brutalities she endured as a young girl, but the book locates her freedom in an act of personal empowerment. Presumably, she will have earned this bit of freedom, and go back to her life as a cog in the capitalist machine that sells self-hatred as liberation. This minor fact, of course, is never the problem at all. Knoll is pretty deft in sketching out this type of mean girl white New Yorker at the start of the book, but loses steam halfway. It’s almost as if she realises that this type needs to be made likeable to a vast number of female readers who will have to “identify” with a female character who will definitely consider women who don’t live in New York–much less in the Western world–and who lack beauty, wealth, and the means and willingness to cultivate a designer body and designer style, i.e. the vast majority of us, utterly beneath her.

shoulda put a ring on it, shoulda signed a contract, shoulda just kept your head down and worked, etc.

May 23, 2015 § 8 Comments

I had an idea of turning this blog around, as it were, come 2015 — it would be the diary of the angry Tamil spinster, or something. Her eternal disquiet. 2015 came and I spent a lot of time of twitter, faving tweets, retweeting tweets, wondering why bother to write anything. Thus far, I’m still wondering: why bother to write? And have not yet found an answer that is sufficient to make it worthwhile (not for myself, but for others.) Related: why should others read me, or how does my writing contribute to anything, if at all? More important than “why bother to write”.

I’ve started to identify so much as “spinster” in my head, first as a joke, but now as reality, because I think back to how we were made to be afraid of being the unmarried 30-something woman taking care of her elderly mother when were in our teens, and thus encouraged to study hard and look pretty to avert this fate, and how I have arrived at this fate not through conscious choice but a series of decisions based on facts of my life that were beyond my immediate control. Is this what they call agency? Surely the spinster, being in the position she is, should be the most anti-capitalist of them all.

I read Kate Bolick’s Spinster expecting to feel some kinship with it, moments where the writer stares into the abyss of utter aloneness and I stare along with her. Instead, it’s about a pretty woman who is plenty sought-after by men and attends lots of literary parties and can never walk down the street without seeming like she winds up on a date. (This woman is Bolick, to be clear.) There are bits in-between about women from her past who have acted as her awakeners; all of them white, most of them pretty and sought-after by men in the same way, and in a creepy way, all very pale-skinned and eroticised because of this white skin (her descriptions of how Edna St. Vincent Millay was desired by men, for example, works in this creepy way … creepy because desire-for-white-women is always taken for granted.)

This book, as Jessa Crispin writes, also vexed me. At one point, when tracing the life of one of her awakeners, Maeve Brennan, and noting that she did actually end up living the spinster nightmare — that of a “bag lady” — Bolick wonders, “What did it mean that this was the woman I’d aspired to be?” Maybe some spinsters end up as “bag ladies” because of their position in society, alienated, precarious, and unwanted — how are they to thrive under the brutal conditions of capitalism? But in case the cover of Spinster wasn’t already a clue, Bolick’s book is for the shiny and striving. In identifying with Brennan but cringing at the bag lady, Bolick can’t see what she won’t see. All you need to do is awaken the neoliberal soul and be productively employed. Bonus: if you’re pretty and can get a lot of dates, you can only worry about your strange desire to be alone without actually living the alienation that aloneness prescribes in a capitalist society.

The face of the new spinster movement or whatever, as determined by the Publishing World (i.e. New York), is pretty and white, so the rest of us will have to gather under a different banner, I guess. Hag? Bag lady? Take your pick. Like wage labour, the ability to make a choice between being undesirable and unproductive, or being desirable and productive, is a sign of agency. The choice is yours ladies! Will you work to improve your look, lean in, and make an effort? If you do, you deserve to exist.

An excerpt from Saba Mahmood's The Politics of Piety

An excerpt from Saba Mahmood’s The Politics of Piety

Excerpt from Kate Bolick's Spinster

Excerpt from Kate Bolick’s Spinster

whiteness and giants

June 24, 2014 § 53 Comments

Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).

Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.

Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.

To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.

Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.

A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—

Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.

Not everything, as it turns out.

I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:

KL Noir

In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.

I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.

Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?

We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:

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There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.

What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.

On Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition

April 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

This is a piece about the Harvard UP annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks. When I was younger I used to reread Austen fairly often, so I’ve made the grand claim that “Austen’s in my bones”–and perhaps she is, but also, surprisingly not, in a lot of ways. And even when she is, it’s not all good, as Said made it clear. Though I’ve watched adaptations of S&S and read it several times, reading the annotated version felt like I was reading it again, for the first time–and was shocked anew by just how vicious the gender politics are. And because I’m older, and financially unstable (yes children, this is your future too), the fact of money (or the lack of it) made me more anxious than usual as the story progressed, even though I know exactly how it ends. There’s always that fear that the Dashwood sisters might be cast out onto the street into extreme poverty. And the old-fashioned, old-maidenish relief to get to the end and recall that, ah … yes, they make it through “okay”, in a sense.

***

Jane Austen is often accused by less-imaginative readers as a “domestic” writer of small, personal dramas involving the petty concerns of the upper classes of the landed gentry. This usually arises because the central narrative of Austen’s books revolves primarily around marriage, but that’s about as useful as saying that Shakespeare won’t interest some people because he wrote quite a bit about kings.

In Austen’s books, marriage as transaction is the microcosm by which she—quite ruthlessly, at times—explores the social relations between men and women of the upper classes. Mark Twain is known for a famous quote in which he talks about how “detestable” Austen’s characters are, and while this seems quite reasonable, it’s hardly a reason not to read Austen. Even someone who enjoys her books, as I do, find her characters detestable at times, especially her protagonists. It would be strange to love them unconditionally, as it were. Jane Austen wrote about upper class social relations in a newly capitalist society, and it’s no wonder that her characters are (often) detestable.

The new annotated edition of Sense and Sensibility, published by Harvard University Press, brings a sort of clear-eyed examination of the socioeconomic hierarchies and cultural values of Austen’s time without becoming overly fond of, or resistant to, the ideas of love and romance that run through the novel. Patricia Meyer Spacks, an English professor at the University of Virginia, seems neither enamoured of nor contemptuous of the central characters of the novel and is particularly astute at contextualising 19th century thought and ideas for a contemporary audience.

It might be difficult to say anything new about an author as canonical as Jane Austen, and Sense and Sensibility in particular. Its tale of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who find themselves dispossessed of a home—and their subsequent challenges in moving into a new home and society, with all the attendant issues surrounding love and potential husbands—has resonated far and wide that even a Tamil film adaptation of the story exists as a popular hit in its own right.

In the first page of her introduction, however, Meyer Spacks dives right into the nuances of the title, pointing out that the concept of “sensibility” in the 19th century was often an object of ridicule because it “became often less of feeling than of show”. Austen wrote early drafts of the novel in the18th century and saw it come to print in the final version in the 19th, and Sense and Sensibility is often both interesting and hard to pin down precisely because it contains conflicting and perhaps contradictory ideas about sense and sensibility that mirrors turn of the century changes in dominant ideas of social conduct and personhood.

As Meyer Spacks points out, current conversations about the performance of feelings—as demonstrated in blogs and Tumblrs and tweets and Facebook status updates—is often pitted against some notion of “real” feeling and is similar to the novel’s narrative tug and pull between what constitutes good sense and what constitutes good sensibility. Marianne says “Elinor has not my feelings” because Elinor is not quite given to displaying them as Marianne does, and accuses others of “horrible insensibility” when they’re unable to appreciate her piano-playing as she appreciates Music and Art and All of the Other Glorious Things.

It would have been too easy to lampoon Marianne for being narcissistic and self-obsessed, a sort of 19th century Jonathan Franzen who just doesn’t understand why other people like the things they like, but Austen isn’t interested in punishing her for believing her feelings to be more authentic others because they’re more deeply-felt. Instead, Marianne is shaped by the discourse around feelings, particularly by her consumption of novels and romantic poetry. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Marianne, being a reader and lover of nature, and who regularly prefers solitude to the company of others, is regularly so misguided about the intentions and feelings of others.

This is not to say that Elinor, who is consistently attuned to the feelings and needs of others, is necessarily better; only more aware of the disjunction between appearance and reality, or form and content. Marianne, too often, judges by form and appearance, and is led astray by it.

This can raise the uncomfortable question of whether Marianne is thus punished for her sensibility, for the excess of it, for the very fact that she isolates herself from others and considers herself often superior to many people of her company in terms of both taste and feeling. Meyers Spacks is a valuable guide throughout, providing liberal and valuable notes on various iterations of the concept of sensibility, as when she writes, “The sexual vulnerability associated with sensibility is one of the novel’s understated themes”. Virtue is chastity, and the “dangers” of feeling too much correspond to how feelings are embodied, particularly through women’s bodies. God forbid that Marianne becomes a hysterical woman and a lustful one—or worse.

In a thoroughly fascinating reading, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”, defines Marianne’s erotic identity in terms of “the one that today no longer exists as an identity: that of the masturbating girl”. She writes that “Marianne’s autoeroticism is not defined in opposition to her alloerotic bonds, whether with men or with women. Rather, it signifies an excess of sexuality altogether, an excess dangerous to others but chiefly to herself: the chastening illness that ultimately wastes her physical substance is both the image and the punishment of the ‘distracted’ sexuality that, continually ‘forgetting itself,’ threatens, in her person, to subvert the novel’s boundaries between the public and the private”. What is the modern reader to make of Marianne, so alive to her own thoughts and ideas at the start of the book, practically sleepwalking into marriage with Colonel Brandon by the end of it?

Elinor is often read as the opposite of Marianne, and in being more sense and sensibility, she gets her reward in the man she has always and only loved: Edward Ferrars. But here too, the novel doesn’t make it easy to see it that way—Meyer Spacks points out that “the revelation that Edward expects Elinor to accept him promptly, despite his mistreatment of her, reinforces the novel’s emphasis on marriage as an arrangement in which men exercise choice, while women wait to be chosen”. So Elinor, despite her modesty, decorum, and sense, is not quite the winner of these stakes, either. In some ways, we learn that Elinor is also quite like her depraved and materialistic foil, Lucy Steele, but only that Elinor is more proper about her own needs in relations to others; she has disciplined herself well so as not to want too much, whereas Lucy is pretty brazen about wanting money and having it.

The thing about Sense and Sensibility is that you never know if the reward is a good marriage to a reasonably decent man compared to the loutish, insufferable others (Elinor and Edward) or if the reward is financial security, even at the expense of being married to a loutish, insufferable man (Lucy and Robert Ferrars, Edward’s unpleasant younger brother). Maybe it’s Marianne who has it best, after, all—a decent man whom she could grow to like, if not love, and financial security.

If, as Susan C. Greenfield suggests in her essay “Moving In and Out: The Property of Self in Sense and Sensibility”, that “each sister copes with her lack of personal property by imagining she has a Lockean property in her person”, then Austen’s gender politics become a little more muddied, as lack of actual property or access to it makes middle and upper class women protective of themselves in a way that allows little room for sisterhood beyond shared principles and values between actual sisters.

Sense and Sensibility, like other Austen novels, is about central female characters in a capitalist society who are not like the other women, who are determined to avoid being copies of each other in an economic system that encourages and perhaps even requires, instant reproduction and thus, easy substitutions, and who ultimately have to distinguish themselves by being better than the other female characters. In every book, the Austenian heroine, though fallible and flawed, triumphs because she is superior to other women in terms of wit, intelligence, morals, and personal conduct. In short, she is the better product.

It makes sense, then, as Meyers Spacks points out in her introduction, that “characters’ attitudes towards money in Sense and Sensibility provide one index to the nature of their sense and sensibility”, that romance and marriage as transaction is linked to Austen’s focus on money and how capitalism began altering and reshaping relations between the landed gentry and the upper middle classes. Where Edward’s vile mother and sister are concerned, Meyers Spacks writes that “Fanny Dashwood and her mother embody one perverse kind of ‘sense’: constant attention to what will serve their self-interest.

Both also claim ‘sensibility.’ Their intense feelings focus on money”, which shows how affect, or sensibility, is to put to use by capitalist logic—a method that’s not at all unfamiliar to Sense and Sensibility’s twenty-first century audience. This isn’t to say that Austen wrote against the grain of capitalist logic; she was, instead, fully enmeshed in it, but her concerns are more to do with the moral and ethical boundaries of capitalism, as dictated by sense, propriety, and a sense of decency to oneself and others. (This is why a land-owning man like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice can go from being a toffee-nosed snob to a real catch in the space of the book—Darcy was a productive land-owner who put his land to good use by the labour of others, providing them with jobs and caring for their welfare in a distant but imposing way. A real patriarch, a true gentleman, Austen-approved.)

Meyers Spacks says that Austen “writes, and arguably, inaugurates” the kind of “polite or bourgeois novel” that Clara Tuite refers to in her book Romantic Austen, and the polite novel values the well-mannered and well-bred characters that are ultimately the recipient of the narrative’s goodwill. How would Austen have felt about being the new face of the Britist ten-pound note, then? Bemused, probably, mixed with some ironic delight—and perhaps still wary about how terms like “sense” and “sensibility” continue to be twisted and appropriated to mean anything at all by the likes of individuals in power like George Osborne.

There’s so much more to be said about Sense and Sensibility, and this new annotated edition might not be ideal for someone reading the novel for the first time because it might be better to just read it straight through without stopping to thumb through copious notes and illustrations. But for people returning to the novel, Meyers Spacks’ notes are quite illuminating, mostly serious, but occasionally fun—there are illustrations of “very knowing gigs” used by smart young gentlemen, or the kind of toothpick case that might have enticed Robert Ferrars, the type of wallpaper Elinor and Edward might have chosen for their new home, and even how the pocketbook into which Willoughby tucked a piece of Marianne’s hair might have looked like.

Some of the annotations strike a dud note, like paintings of young children whose facial expressions might suggest “the kind of personality manifested by the Middleton children”, as though bratty are not a historical constant and contemporary readers need help imagining how they might look or behave. But these are rare, and Meyers Spacks’ introduction and annotations indicate a person who has spent a considerable amount of time with the Dashwoods and their assorted friends and foes. This handsome edition is all the richer for it.

 

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