September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
This is my review of Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Dog for Pop Matters.
There’s a passage that brought on a feeling of instant recognition:
In the opening scene of Days of Being Wild:
He comes in for the third time, after he’s told her that she will see him in her dreams, and asks her why her ears are red? I think: why is this whole movie red? And green. Green tinted (made green) and truly green (the jungle, the trees). Green like Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Red like Marnie. But parts of Days of Being Wild are shot like The Third Man, only all the shadows on the narrow streets are green. Outside, the angles belong to that noir. It’s overwhelming to see these two colors together like this in one movie after everything they have meant to me the past few months. Maybe always.
She’s embarrassed. Embarrassed because she is excited, so she can’t look at him. I like people, no love people, who take looking and being looked at this seriously.
Because 1) I love Days of Being Wild and 2) I too love people who take looking and being looked at this seriously.
This leads me to think about that troubling passage in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray):
Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill. Not only do we not talk to one another, we don’t even look at one another. When you’re being looked at you can’t look. To look is to feel curious, to be interested, to lower yourself. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning.
I always stumble over those last four sentences because it seems to contain contradictory ideas about looking. I’ve been trying to write a post about looking for a long time now but I have no ideas about looking, only collected thoughts and impressions from various sources.
Something about how people are meant to look now, at themselves and each other, seems impoverished and demeaning, in a way. Now people are meant to glance at each other with speed and efficiency, and sum up, very quickly, whether they want to pursue the gaze or not. You are not even worth looking at in the mirror, sometimes. Or you must earn your own gaze, of yourself, by working hard to present a seamless, attractive self.
Nicholas Mirzoeff has written about looking and slavery, and Jonathan Beller on the labour of looking and how it is embedded in the history of racism and colonialism. So you can’t think about looking without thinking about power.
Sometimes you wish for the mutual look to be an equaliser but it never is.
I don’t know. Circling around the idea of looking, of how we’re trained to look, about what Mirzoeff says about it, that “the right to look is not about merely seeing”; where he thinks about “a time in which my claim to the right to look is met by your willingness to be seen”.
Like Nelson in Bluets, “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”
Today, while out on the streets, I told myself not to fall into my habitual pose, which is to stare at the ground or at my feet or off into the distance, but to look at faces, to offer this silent gesture of something in what I think now was just an attempt to feel less alone while among so many people. But it’s hard(er) now to return the glance or to initiate one. The faces are opaque; or rather, faces have become obscure screens we can’t afford to waste eyeballs on.
Sometimes I wonder if I learned how to unlook in Winnipeg as a way to avoid the endless stares of a certain kind coupled with the amazing number of white dudes, bros, men, whatever who could never make eye contact but only dart glances your way when they think you’re not looking. (Which — when I sat down to analyse this with fellow not-white women in Canada, all from other countries, 100% of whom experienced the same — basically boiled down to endlessly complicated discussions about racism and fetishism of “the exotic”, discussions that were never resolved, of course not, how could they ever be.)
Also, the ever present threat of misogyny that makes looking such a fraught affair for a woman who just wants to claim her right to look.
August 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
Genet has been messing with my life lately. In a good way, I think. It’s just that I haven’t had much time for reading lately, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, and after coming out of my Genet fever I had to read an astoundingly mediocre book for a future review. After Genet, the mediocre seems offensive.
My review of Sartre’s Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr is up on Pop Matters. I talked about it a bit in a previous post. I have to say that I dislike the Pop Matters rating system because I’m not sure that a rating system is helpful to anyone. Quantifying the qualitative seems doomed from the start. I gave Saint Genet a 6/10 rating, which is wholly inadequate (because neither a higher nor lower number would have been more adequate) and doesn’t much describe how I felt about the book. In any case, I’m meant to rate all the books I review, but it really hit me when I was trying to assign a number to Saint Genet. It’s hard to evaluate in terms of rating. It’s a book that infuriates, and for that I think I love it. Saint Genet is provocative and chaotic and smart and silly and essential; I disagreed very strongly with HUGE CHUNKS (and there are a lot of chunks), but assigning it a number just feels wrong because it’s not about whether it’s “average” or “good”. And as I continue to read Genet I will no doubt continue to dip in and out Saint Genet and have long conversations with the text that begins with, “Sartre, you turd… ” (said in total affection and dislike, of course.)
I can’t help but turn to Susan Sontag’s words in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, where she begins an assessment of the same book with these words: “Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” Grotesque and ghastly—Sartre’s work is a monster that will devour the reader’s presence of mind, to be sure. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I began readingSaint Genet while Kanye West’s “Monster” played in the background: much like Nicki Minaj’s persona in the song, Sartre’s implicit announcement to his future reader seems to be “First things first, I’ll eat your brains.”
Read the entire review. (If you like.)
December 22, 2011 § 7 Comments
It’s not like it’s the end of the world–
just the world as you think
you know it.
Rita Dove, “The First Book”
A few days ago, I finished writing a review of a book. I KNOW! MOMENTOUS. I felt like I had shat out a diamond mine, minus the diamonds. I used to think that reviewing books I liked was hard, because it was important to keep the swoony gushing to a minimum and to consider the text for what it was, to reconsider the text for it was, because wasn’t it possible that in liking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have overestimated its worth? But then I realised that reviewing bad books is equally hard – I would have to reconsider the text, because wasn’t it possible that in disliking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have underestimated its worth?
Forget all that – I’ve decided that reviewing “meh” books is the most difficult. One has to dig around a bit in the muck of one’s brain-swamp to find out why a book has aroused such profound indifference. And then, because everyone knows book reviews are useless, to wade through that muck and reconsiderthe text in front of you and write a review that attempts to listen to the book, pay attention to what it doesn’t say, and wrestle it down not for meaning or for Truth but for a imaginative or intellectual expansion, to pay attention to when the book provides a way in or a way out of wherever you are at any given moment. To say to the world, here, look: a book review should never be useless, even on a bad day. (I know, of course, that Elizabeth Gumport’s piece wasn’t just to say, “Book reviews are useless”, and perhaps I wilfully misread to be wilfully churlish. Maybe.)
There is constant grappling with MEANING and INTERPRETATION. Frequent questions about WHAT THE FUCK IS ART ANYWAY.
And while you’re sitting there mulling things over, in particular that one question: WHAT THE FUCK IS ANYTHING ANYWAY, Susan Sontag comes up over your shoulder, hectoring you about interpretation, shouting into your ear, “INTERPRETATION IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON ART. EVEN MORE. IT IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON THE WORLD.”
This is the trigger.
You’re angry now, and you tell Sontag, “Listen, white lady with a wide vocabulary and excellent critical thinking, you cannot be against interpretation when this interpretation is the revenge of the brown woman intellect upon the world, and goddamn you, this revenge shall be had.”
The review goes unwritten for a few more hours.
“In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act,” Sontag continues to say in “Against Interpretation”, somewhat conciliatory.
“Who decides the contexts?” Subashini writes in her journal at 11:53 p.m. on December 7, 2011, brown woman intellect in a muddle.
The review of the book that inspired strong feelings of meh was finally completed in a blur of tears, when I decided to reread Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks while writing the conclusion and remembered the first time I encountered Fanon in the chilly aisles of the library at the University of Winnipeg at some point during the fall of 2005.
Who knows why I had to cry six years after reading him for the first time in order to remember what it felt like reading him for the first time.
I think I realised why, sometime later. Perhaps?
An introductory Critical Theory class, in which I encounter many of the thinkers and theorists in my Critical Theory reader for the first time. It’s all about timing, someone wise said once upon a time. I think if I was a young undergrad, the way undergrads are supposed to be, and also if I was white, male, and straight, I would have become a theory-jerk. You know the type? You bump into them everywhere into the blogosphere – theory as a belief system instead of a means to get somewhere. Where? I don’t know. But is should never be a belief system. This much I know.
(But I was older and uncool, having taken a few years between college in Malaysia and university in Canada to work temp jobs and despise life. So I became a theory spinster.)
We read an extract of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex during the second or third week of class, at a time when Frantz Fanon was just a name to me and nothing more. Our excellent professor made us all gather into pairs to discuss a particular Beauvoir excerpt. We broke into pairs with the person seated next to us. The person next to me was a guy: pale of skin, blue of eye, fair of hair.
I had seen him around some of my other literature courses and had entertained a mild crush on him until I heard him speak. There was nothing wrong with him, certainly. He was popular, even! Well-liked! A sort of rising star in the English Department! The kind of rising star who, along with other rising stars of the English Department, never really spoke to me, even when I spoke to them. The kind who were forever speaking to someone or apparition behind you, next to you, an embodied presence floating above your head, perhaps, even when they were having a conversation with you. The kind who could never really look you in the face.
“It’s my hair, perhaps my scalp-“
“My skin, my tropical-bred skin, so oily and shiny and perhaps they can’t bear to look at it… maybe I have a pimple-“
“My facial hair, I can’t help it though, it’s my Tamil-genes, oh god, it’s probably my eyebrows, did I remember to tweeze, do I have unibrow because I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror this week because it’s finals week-“
–Just some of things that ran through my mind when fresh-faced, white-skinned English department rising stars couldn’t talk to me by looking at me in the face.
I had a sense in those days, you see, which were the longest period I’d ever lived in a North American space, that some white people didn’t know how to react to me because of the colour of my skin, perhaps, or the strange tone and texture of it; the strange tone and texture of my wild, wavy hair, perhaps, or the strange tone and cadence of my English – always proper, but somehow strange.
So. Pair discussion! A few things were said, and then I blurted out how valuable it was to me that Beauvoir expounded on the construction of “the eternal feminine”:
“The similarity just noted is in no way due to chance, for whether it is a race, a caste, a class, or a sex that is reduced to a position of inferiority, the methods of justification are the same. ’The eternal feminine’ corresponds to ‘the black soul’ and to ‘the Jewish character’.”
That passage is flawed, of course, for Beauvoir insisted that the “woman problem” is equivalent to “the Negro problem”, or “the Jewish problem”. Despite the flaw, it was an opening for the conceptualisation of identity that excited me, then – as it would, I think, for any woman encountering Beauvoir (and Foucault, simultaneously) for the first time.
I really can’t remember what my discussion partner was saying about a great many things, because everything he said prior became a blur following what he said after I said something along the lines of, “I’m really wary of people who aren’t black going on and on about ‘the black soul’, for instance,” and he replied with (paraphrased), “What’s wrong with saying that? What’s wrong with ‘the black soul’? They have soul. I think it’s a compliment.”
And I fumbled, as I am wont to do when flustered, angry, and unable to articulate what I feel somewhere deep in my physical self but can’t quite put into words.
How to begin? Where to begin?
I had a sense that our professor, from way yonder, noticed my expression and swooped in just in time to come find out how we were doing with our discussion, in which case the point I wanted to make was lost as we talked about other Beauvoir things and not the one thing that was rattling around the walls of my feeble mind.
I felt an immense sense of shame over that ridiculous pair-discussion; shame that I carried around for awhile; shame at not having said what was on my mind, shame that came from knowing English and explaining for years to curious white Canadians – “It’s practically my first language! My mother spoke and read to me in English when I was in the womb, even!” – and failing, at that crucial point, to find any use for English.
To find English failing me, or myself for failing English, and wondering how it was that people – like this guy, for instance – came to possess such an expansive view of themselves in the world, that they had no doubt that they can say anything and be unafraid or uncomfortable, knowing that room will be made for them at the table, that their words will be heard, that it won’t unheard or ignored or simply misunderstood because they speak English the wrong way, and with a strange accent?
Fanon was on the syllabus. He was to come many weeks after Beauvoir. But I was a Good Student, as I was told all my life, I got good grades and I did all my readings – and better yet, professors said, beaming at me: I read more than the required readings!
An excerpt of Black Skin, White Masks was on the syllabus, but a copy of the book was available in this university library which so often did not have copies of anything beyond lots and lots of copies of dead, white men.
So what I learned then, or perhaps realised what I’d always intuited about how I sometimes read and why I read, that maybe you stifle the shame with reading. Sometimes.
“I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” Fanon wrote in his introduction to Black Skin, White Masks and with that, I had found my words.
I had found it too late, obviously. And had I known it then, that this was what I felt but could not say because I didn’t know how to – if I had known it then, would I have had the courage to say it? I don’t know.
And still – gaps exist. What do I, Malaysian-born woman of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, have in common with Martinican-born French-educated Frantz Fanon of African descent who died twenty years before I came into the world? There are gaps. I don’t expect Fanon to fill it.
But he gave me words that day in a way that made me realise how we sometimes drink books down as if we hadn’t had a sip of water for days. Or how you breathe a book in before you even realise you were gasping for air.
I can only think, like Keguro wrote in his post Listening to African Queers: “Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”
Timing is everything.
I think, maybe, that’s why I cried when I picked up Black Skin, White Masks again recently six years after reading it for the first time. The book I had finished reviewing was set in the global South with characters who were struggling to understand themselves beyond how they were taught to see themselves. I felt, at that moment, threads of connection between one unrelated book and another and myself as the eye of the needle through which they passed.
And so I sat down for awhile and cried.
Or it could have been hormones. I am Woman[i], after all, and 98.25% of the time we are fluttering about in a state of agitated hormonal activity. (I am told, by reliable sources.)
Sometimes you’re going along, doing your own thing, reading some great essays in a highly-praised online magazine of “ideas”, and then you read a profile on the editors and founders of this magazine, and you realise that they appear to be all white, and young, and you remember flashes of another life in another country, of English departments and rising English department stars and graduate students, and you think, “Why are they consistently white and young?”, knowing that these questions are not quite generous, knowing that seeing people in terms of skin colour and youth and shared experiences and networks and educational backgrounds is to limit how you see the world.
Or does it?
I don’t know.
“The extent of my perversity overwhelms me,” said Aimé Césaire.[ii]
“Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”
I’m sorry Sontag, but sometimes my (our) intellect needs to take revenge upon the world.
Fanon gave me words. There is – yes, still! – the rubble of white man’s artifacts both out there, in the world, and in here, inside my mind. Sometimes I need all the words I can get.
“What can I do?
One must begin somewhere.”[iii]
[i] And that means grappling with Fanon’s complicated gender politics – women are an afterthought, and as David Macey writes in Frantz Fanon: A Life, “feminism was not on Fanon’s agenda” (despite him knowing Beauvoir personally, and Black Skin, White Masks sharing a conceptual framework with The Second Sex). Macey tells us about Fanon’s first white girlfriend, who because she was pregnant with his child out of wedlock, and because of their interracial union in conservative Lyon, failed her medical exams and saw her medical career aspirations come to an end as she went off to have their baby. And what of Fanon’s wife, Josie, who typed his Black Skin, White Masks manuscript? She casts a shadow, but she is sketched into place with faint lines. The story is of Fanon the man, of course, and the women were merely… there. Macey’s biography is magisterial in its scope and its love for its subject, but as a woman I wrestle with the little stabby pains to the heart in recognizing how little Women actually mattered to Fanon.
[ii] In Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
January 18, 2011 § 20 Comments
The experience of reading Awkwardness was awkward. It’s a clever book that started off really well with a smart and well-done first chapter (everyday awkwardness vis-à-vis modern urban working life, as filtered through the pop-cultural lens ofThe Office) but sadly petered off into superficiality with the subsequent chapters. The book is divided into three key areas: everyday awkwardness, cultural awkwardness, and radical awkwardness. For each chapter, Kotsko draws on TV shows or films to help him make his case and further illustrate his theories. He’s very good at doing this without losing focus on his key points and careening wildly off into the vast expanse of pop culture, but this, as I point out later on, might be most significant weakness of his book.
I wanted so much to like Awkwardness – nay, love it unabashedly. The topic of awkwardness is one close to my heart, but even as Kotsko finally admits in his chapter on cultural awkwardness and Judd Apatow, it’s a largely male phenomenon. The boyz, they are so awkward! LOLZ. Throughout the book, the key examples Kotsko references are from shows and films that feature male characters grappling with awkwardness. Certainly, I’m not holding Kotsko responsible for a representation that’s played out in throughout much of American popular culture. But it seems as though Kotsko’s not quite sure how respond to the representative lack of awkward adult women either, although the fact that he limits his scope to TV shows and Judd Apatow films has much to do with this problem. American TV has not really given us enough awkward adult women to deal with, and Judd Apatow gives us women as harpies. Like, LOLZ!
On the one hand, Kotsko says that awkwardness is a male phenomenon precisely because men have reacted to crumbling social norms with regards to “traditional” gender relations with lack of grace:
If social awkwardness seems like such a male-dominated field, it’s because men have descended into self-pity, defensiveness, and even wilful denial in response to their loss of relative privilege and the cultural awkwardness that followed.
So, men are kind of useless and that’s why they’re awkward, Kotsko seems to say, but it reads like a weak appeasement proffered to women readers. Something about the offhand insertion of that sentence into what could potentially be a more complex issue rubs me the wrong way.
On the other hand, Kotsko’s entire book is written to make a case for awkwardness, and as he writes in the final chapter, awkwardness can be utopian; it can be “full of grace” and create its own spontaneous community that cuts across barriers of race and class. (Gender? We’re not so sure; he doesn’t say.) If this quality is largely male and the phenomenon is largely a male one, women are peripheral to Kotsko’s proposed project of awkwardness. Which is, to say the least, awkward.
Kotsko neglects to ask why women are projected to be in possession of this “basic social grace”, even if they are very often not. Are women inherently “better” at these things? Why is it useful to portray men as awkward and adolescent-like while women are portrayed as “fairly accomplished”, as Kotsko writes, like Katherine Heigl’s character in Knocked Up? Do we not know of real-life women who are, as we would say, a mess and far from accomplished, women who are similarly befuddled as men by changing social mores?
Previously the system was, though obviously unjust from the woman’s perspective, relatively simple for men to navigate: the man got to be in charge, and in exchange he provided for the woman. Now that women have claimed their right for self-determination, however, the situation becomes much less clear, and – most importantly – the inherent prestige that came along automatically with being a man has largely fallen by the wayside. Women are newly-competent and self-assured, while men have followed the opposite trajectory. In short, men are expected to pursue women who all seem to be too good for them, in order to establish a partnership whose parameters are so vague as to virtually guarantee failure.
This is the Apatovian world Kotsko is describing, but it seems that Kotsko seems to agree that it reflects a certain strain of reality. Indeed, if I often seem to confuse Kotsko’s arguments with Apatow’s vision, it’s simply because this chapter makes it hard to separate Kotsko’s arguments from Apatow’s vision; I’m never quite sure of Kotsko is merely elucidating an Apatovian world, or approving it. Kotsko’s arguments don’t seem to go beyond Apatow’s reductive vision, and it makes it difficult to take the entire chapter seriously.
So. How are women “newly-competent and self-assured”? Economically, maybe, a point he points out but doesn’t dwell on. Were men always competent and self-assured in the past and in cultures where they are still considered the “head” of everything: family, society, the workplace? I understand Kotsko’s point on how, post-feminist “revolution” in the States, the erosion of boundaries that prescribe gender relations have left American men confused, the poor things. But I don’t understand how women have responded with “basic social grace” to these changes that leaves them somehow superior in their approach to relationships. This attributes to women some sort of secret, mystical, always-present knowledge about gender relations that gives them a one-up over men. There’s no room, in Kotsko’s formulation of new cultural mores, for the confused or awkward woman. And this is troubling, because it simply reverses the gender binary and pits women against men – again.
Kotsko points out that Apatow seems to have captured a particularly white, middle-class, American male zeitgeist – hence Apatow’s popularity. But while Kotsko acknowledges Apatow’s misogyny and recognises how it undermines the very idea of demand-free, spontaneous and natural “bromances” it purports to promote, it’s also unclear what this misogyny actually means for awkwardness in general. This is because Kotsko wants to hold up a certain element of the awkward male – particularly, his relationship to other awkward males – as ideal and worthy of emulation. Why? Precisely because it hearkens back to a time of adolescent friendship between boys that is free of demands and rigid social norms, and thus spontaneous and agreeable to all involved:
In this sense, we could say that these friendships that take place during or mimic adolescence, the most intrinsically awkward period in a person’s life, are themselves structurally awkward insofar as they fall outside any given set of recognized cultural conventions – but awkward in a good, promising way.
So it seems that while (white, generally middle –class) men are essentially awkward and unaccomplished, they’re also the key to the “good, promising way” of life, while women (white, generally middle-class), accomplished and “successful”, are the moral police who seek to reinforce social norms and serve as the barrier to true community. Again, this places female adolescent friendships outside of the “good awkward” sphere, as well. But, you say, female friendships, especially in adolescence, comprise manipulation, hatred, envy, competition over BOYS, and girls stabbing one another in the back with their fake long blood-red nails, etc. Boys rarely beat each other up, sexually demean one another by comparing penis size in the locker room, taunt and tease, or police each other’s “gayness” – boys, forever and ever, are like, total BFFs! So of course male adolescent friendships are “awkward in a good, promising way” because boys just want to get along, until the Eve-like harlot-type snake-ish women come into the picture and instigate social policing and rivalry, hot though they are!
Outside of Awkwardness, let’s admit that adult women aren’t generally thought of in terms of “awkward” or given enough leeway to be awkward. For a woman, awkward is shameful and not a trait that can be referred to with affection or lenience. Some of us certainly tend to imbue women with a certain sense of gravitas or “seriousness” like it is somehow intrinsic to the sex when it is certainly not. But perhaps it’s just that biology trumps everything else for some. It certainly does for Christopher Hitchens, who seems to think that the vagina exerts a heavy weight upon the female funny bone, wherever the hell that’s located. There is all that monthly bleeding, leading to a policing of one’s own body – an act that must continually resist awkwardness.
Awkwardness indicates a lack of ordering and policing, but for a woman to relax and slip up means bleeding all over the place, even after the invention of the tampon. To relax and slip up can also mean an unwanted penis inside you, or perhaps a wanted penis, but then again, with undesirable consequences if one is not careful. There is that pesky thing that women have: The Womb. Sex, even when it’s fun, can quickly become unfun with the weight of pregnancy. The potential for a girl or a woman to become a mother is always there, underlying even meaningless sexual intercourse. And mothers are always policing social norms, are they not? The father lays down the rule, but the mother implements the rules. Women just can’t laugh or be awkward. They stand rigid and unbending and unsmiling, like an army of governesses from hell.
The current trend, as Nina Power pointed out in One Dimensional Woman, is the imago of the “sorted woman”, insofar as it serves capitalism’s basic need: labour power. But as Power reminds us, “Sometimes women are supposed to be demented harpies with wombs full of devils and other times they’re supposed to fold up nicely like the ironing board in a suburban bungalow.” As she continues further on:
Certainly, there is this prevalent image of the successful, sorted young woman with enough enthusiasm and emotional reserves after passing all those A Levels to look after a fragile, tortured young man. But really, women no more know what’s going on than men do, and they certainly don’t have an insight into nice, normal stability (as if anyone does).
This could be read as a direct response to Kotsko, only that her book was written and published before his. It must also be noted that Power is British and therefore analyses American culture from a British perspective that is somehow more valuable because it’s better clued in to current capitalist ideology than most mainstream American feminist perspectives. (Um… is my bias showing?)
It’s important to note that there have been awkward women of film and literature, though as with the case of all womanly things, and if women are awkward then they’re also often shown to be seriously fucked-up on some level – and somehow all roads lead back to sexuality. Again, it’s the Unbearable Wombness of Being. There is a compulsion to present awkward women as otherwise inherently neurotic or hysterical; usually suffering from some form of trauma due to sexual repression, or mentally ill and thus manifesting some form of sexual deviancy. There’s always something excessive about womanly awkwardness that sends them off the “normal” course of things, even if they are stunningly beautiful. In fact, if they’re stunningly beautiful they’re often to be pitied and may even be desired, but more importantly, they must be tragic. If they’re not beautiful, then they’re most likely “doomed” to a life of spinsterhood or lesbianism. In their approach to social relationships and their response to social norms, however, awkward women can certainly demonstrate Kotsko-prescribed traits of awkward. They are unsure of how to deal with men, retreat into their imagination and solitary lives, and demonstrate very little competence in any “worldly” skills. It seems unfair that they can’t somehow get away with just goofing off with their fellow friends, like the male characters cited by Kotsko. Instead, awkwardness for women comes at a heavy price – they go off the deep end, kill people, or die. Some quick examples I’m thinking of include:
- Carol in Repulsion
- Jane Eyre in, well, Jane Eyre
- Narrator of Rebecca (Joan Fontaine does a smashing job in the film version, too)
- Nina in Black Swan
- Faye Dunaway in Chinatown
- Lucy in Villette… well, all of main characters in Charlotte Bronte’s books
- Barbara in Notes on a Scandal (wonderfully brought to life by Judi Dench in the film version)
- Erika in The Piano Teacher
- Carrie in Carrie – um, hello? Awkward as PSYCHOTIC BURNING RAGE KILL KILL KILL?
The singular trait of the female characters in film and literature who demonstrate awkwardness is that they are very likely to be solitary creatures; alone in the real sense of the word, unable to form proper sexual relationships with men or healthy friendships with women. These are other elements of awkwardness, then, that don’t fit in neatly with Kotsko’s proposed thesis – and one that is very different from the overtly male phenomenon that Kotsko talks about at length. It is perhaps out of necessity that Kotsko had to limit his scope and survey of cultural products – but his argument is certainly weakened and almost flimsy in its acquiescence to awkwardness as being an inherently male phenomenon, and precisely because he chooses to look at shows and films that only confirm and affirm his argument.
By framing cultural awkwardness as a largely white male phenomenon, Kotsko is able to make the point that men are confused by changing mores brought upon by the feminist movement from the 1960s and beyond. Yet this also implies that women are somehow less confused because they spearheaded the change and are therefore running the show (at least in terms of social relations between the sexes), which is quite untrue, and a reductive view of gender relations. It also seems to imply that some men’s resistance to changes brought on by feminism only manifests itself in behaviour as trivial as “awkwardness”, when this is hardly the case. Awkwardness, in the case of the characters in Apatow’s movies, is more often than not refocused as a form of wilful passivity and an “opting-out” of gender relations and serious thinking. This is far from being a generally harmless and benign approach.
In the final chapter of Awkwardness, this male phenomenon of awkwardness is also shown to pave the way for an utopian mode of being that is inclusive and non-discriminating, which seems to imply, perhaps unconsciously on Kotsko’s part, how women can prove to be the barrier to this utopia due to a relentless impulse to order social relations. Or something? The womb, it gets in the way? I don’t know. Basing his theory on St. Paul’s conception of a utopian community, Kotsko points the way using Larry from Curb Your Enthusiasm as his example. Although he cites female characters, they are often mere participants in a male-led revolution of awkwardness. If Kotsko were to explore female awkwardness, as mentioned in some examples above, then he would have to reassess his entire thesis – and conclude that awkwardness is a lot more problematic than his too-neat conclusion supposes. To be fair, if Kotsko had explored male awkwardness from another angle – that of anger – then he would also have to think about ways in which awkwardness influences violence, like how it was explored in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (just to cite one example).
In short (could I have said this at the start?), this book feels like a book written by a white man for white men about middle-class white men and their middle-class white awkwardness.[i] To his credit, Kotsko doesn’t pretend to try to do otherwise, but still. A subheading that said “For middle-class white men who believe they leave in the Apatovian real-world” would have helped. That kind of honesty would have made the strange slide into the final chapter’s “we are the world” utopian vision less off-putting and more palatable. For an example of white men doing awkwardness in a way that simply does not exclude – just watch Peep Show. You’ll be all the better for it.
It seems somehow wrong to talk at length on awkwardness without mentioning one of pop culture’s – British, in this case – best inventions of an awkward female character. Who is it? It is, graceful and awkward readers of this blog, Daisy Steiner of Channel 4’s Spaced. Jessica Hynes plays Daisy as one of the most idiosyncratic, hilarious, and genuinely interesting female TV characters of recent memory. She is totally the opposite of accomplished and graceful and bullshit-female characters of most American popular culture. (Sorry, my bias is showing again.) In fact, she is totally unaccomplished in the conventional sense, is a writer who does not write, is quite certain she is a Very Intelligent Person although she makes what are usually the worst decisions, is cheerful and annoyingly optimistic and always pleasurably aggressive when you least expect it, and quite possibly just plain batshit crazy. But crucially, she is batshit crazy in the way boys are allowed to be! She is, you know, not weighed down by The Unbearable Wombness of Being! Hyuk hyuk. Etc. Anyway, I love her. You will, too:
May 23, 2010 § 2 Comments
Reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man slowly and laborously. Not that the book is a ponderous read – it’s heavy-going and dense, yet eminently readable – but it’s a bloody effort to read it as I am on my laptop, in PDF format.
Passages that I currently find profoundly relevant:
That a political party which works for the defense and growth of capitalism is called “Socialist,” and a despotic government “democratic,” and a rigged election “free” are familiar linguistic—and political—features which long predate Orwell.
Relatively new is the general acceptance of these lies by public and private opinion, the suppression of their monstrous content. The spread and the effectiveness of this language testify to the triumph of society over the contradictions which it contains; they are reproduced without exploding the social system. And it is the outspoken, blatant contradiction which is made into a device of speech and publicity.
The unification of opposites which characterizes the commercial and political style is one of the many ways in which discourse and communication make themselves immune against the expression of protest and refusal. How can such protest and refusal find the right word when the organs of the established order admit and advertise that peace is really the brink of war, that the ultimate weapons carry their profitable price tags, and that the bomb shelter may spell coziness? In exhibiting its contradictions as the token of its truth, this universe of discourse closes itself against any other discourse which is not on its own terms. And, by its capacity to assimilate all other terms to its own, it offers the prospect of combining the greatest possible tolerance with the greatest possible unity. Nevertheless its language testifies to the repressive character of this unity. This language speaks in constructions which impose upon the recipient the slanted and abridged meaning, the blocked development of content, the acceptance of that which is offered in the form in which it is offered.