Quicksand, the Aesthetic Gaze and the Heterogeneous Subject

I would like to look at how the role of aesthetics in Quicksand relates to the “irritation” noted by Sianne Ngai in Ugly Feelings  and informs Helga’s racial consciousness.

Helga relies on the semiotic capabilities of beauty in order to string together a rational narrative of her life from the outside in, despite the inconsistency and tumult of her psyche. It is evident from the beginning, when Helga “smiles inwardly” at the message her small hats and elegant shoes send to the prim-minded employees of Naxos, who find them “positively indecent”(52). Early on, too, we learn that her entire life Helga has “loved and longed” for beautiful and pleasing “things” (41). It is in this desire for material beauty that we can find Helga’s method of anestheticizing the pervasive irritation that motivates her throughout the novel.

When the signifiers of her appearance are co-opted by the Dahls Helga enjoys it—at first. Helga invests her emotional capital in the “business” of her manufacture as an exotic aesthetic product, “[giving] herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired” (104). It is important to remember that Helga consents to this “aestheticization” in the beginning and that it is “intensely pleasant to her” (104). The eventual pleasure Helga finds in her beautiful appearance dissolves the initial “perturbation” (103) or irritation Helga experiences at being a “peacock” (103). In this moment Helga rejects any racial obligation to feel ashamed of her marketability in Copenhagen as an exotic and beautiful object. Her willingness to “try on” the identity the Dahls fashion for her, to try to locate her subjectivity through the eyes of her aunt, uncle and Copenhagen society, echoes the impulsiveness with which she relocates herself geographically. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness. By cultivating her own objectification Helga obtains the ontological glue, so to speak, that temporarily alleviates her riven condition.

In Copenhagen Helga purposefully seeks to claim her blackness through the gaze of the Danish. “Intentionally” she speaks the “slow, faltering Danish” she thinks makes her more attractive for its indication of foreignness, and is gratified by the attention she receives (104). In the same turn Helga criticizes black Americans as hypocritical, denouncing that they “didn’t want to be like themselves”, and desired instead to “be like their white overlords” and “were ashamed to be Negroes, but not ashamed to beg to be something else. Something inferior” (104). In adopting her aestheticized and fetishized identity Helga cultivates a counterintuitive racial pride in opposition to both whiteness and blackness. In her above critique we can read Helga’s earlier criticisms of racial uplift, here characterized as the white washing of an essential quality of blackness. That this critique emerges from Helga’s being recast as a fetish object—a luxury item with the power to promote social buoyancy—is problematic, to say the least. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness.

If Helga’s racial consciousness only manifests from the outside-in, as mediated by her beautiful environment, possessions, or appearance, then it follows that this identification exists only in that it is refracted through the eyes of another. In accordance with this triangulated aesthetic gaze, instances of beauty in the novel become representative of a symbolic observer that has the power to confer upon Helga a particular kind of social capital. Aesthetically objectified and “appraised” (81), Helga is contracted into a value (product) and thereby unified into a singular subject (paradoxically) by another’s objectifying gaze.

To be beautiful and to have beautiful things is a way to surrender to the gaze of another and so solicit the unified value that evades her internally. The pursuit and attainment of beauty alleviates temporarily the irritation Helga cannot seem to escape. In Helga’s characteristic attraction to beauty we can read her desire to anestheticize the irritation that stems from her incongruity with an ever-nagging racial binary. Even the “miraculously beautiful” (149) community she experiences in Alabama is refracted through the fervently religious eyes of Reverend Pleasant Green, her marriage to whom was tonic to the irritative rupture that occurred after her final meeting with Dr. Anderson. Helga chose, chased and conquered the Reverend as a way to still herself, to arrest her roaming consciousness and identity in favor of the numb bliss of religiosity and domesticity. Of course, at the end of the novel, in the bed after childbirth, Helga returns to her nomadic state, if only psychologically, and by the last sentence teeters on the edge of self-obliteration.

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Escaping the Impasse: finding footing by forfeiting the foot? (Capture the Tag: Non-Normative and resistance).

In her blog post, Vanessa summarizes Halberstam’s vision of masochistic passivity, describing it as a form of refusal that resists the seemingly impossible situation of escaping colonial and gendered subjecthood. Halberstam’s description of the impossibility of escaping the “trap” of colonial subjecthood (you’re screwed if you do, you’re screwed if you don’t) seems to me to suggest something like Berlant’s “impasse”. In Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, Xuela, “escapes the hereditary inscription by not only severing the ties of mother and daughter—refusing both the relationship and the roles—she “refus[es] to be anything at all” (Halberstam 131). Vanessa also suggests that, the “refus[al] to identity as African American, or simply passing as a white women,” by Clara and Irene of Larsen’s Passing (a book I myself have not read), is a refusal to be that throws off the yoke of colonially assigned identity.

If we consider the not being, or failure to struggle of Xuela, Clara, and Irene as methods of resistance that have traction because they signify a willingness to turn away from the entire machine of patriarchy and colonialism, is this method of resistance available to the members of Berlant’s “Precariat” as well?

In her blog on the subject, Calextrose identifies in Time Out’s Jean-Michel a figure of a neoliberal subject who has managed to navigate the “impasse.”  She writes: “Jean-Michel’s method of optioning upward mobility is less than honorable but effective. As Berlant mentions, Time Out manages to show how ‘different kinds of people catch up to their new situation’ (192).” This suggests that Jean-Michel’s modest empire of imitation can be read as “footing” found in the depths of the impasse, a sign that he has caught up, has negotiated the abyss of neoliberal precarity. I am inclined to (perhaps this fits the theme) half-agree. I think there is a way of reading the counterfeiting business as the ultimate neoliberal adaptation. The counterfeit merchandise, unlike the “real deal,” is never fixed to the ebb and flow of brand popularity. Unlike the true Reebok, in the event of a devaluation of the brand, the counterfeit item can always morph into an imitation of the new “winners” of the fickle market share. All while avoiding any assumption of the precariousness of the legitimate market. In the era of the “recession grimace” the counterfeit commodity, by existing outside the system of brand signification, is by the very flexibility of its nature virtually recession-proof.

However, one of the primary arguments of Berlant’s essay was that the precariousness made ubiquitous by the neoliberal dismantling of both labor regulations and social welfare programs is not new, but rather is revealed to be the reality that has always existed beneath the fantasy of infinite growth and upward mobility. For the working class, the minority, the mentally ill, the near entirety of the global south, and the criminal, precariousness has always been evident. Furthermore, as Jean-Michel belongs to that last class, the threat of a sudden, rupturing loss of stability and income is just one police officer away. Perhaps the counterfeit item is the perfect product for the neoliberal age, but the neoliberal state knows this well, and in an effort to protect their interests has often made draconian legal consequences for those who would forge. In abstract—as a hydra-headed industry that corporations must simply accept as one of the costs of doing successful business—the forger may escape the threat of capricious market forces, but the actual person who forges always runs the risk that the legal forces shaped by market forces will sniff and snuff her out.

So, if a vision of impasse-navigation is not complete in Jean-Michel, can we find sketch a vision of successful impasse-navigation by asking what Vincent does wrong?

For Calexrose, Vincent’s return to the precarious dependency of the job-market is the ultimate signal that Vincent has failed to negotiate the impasse that is afforded him outside the realm of employment. In a certain way, her reading of this turns accepted notions of precariousness on their head. In the prior configuration employment is what shields the employee from the precariousness of joblessness. In Calexrose’s reading there is something about the dependence of employment that precludes the ability to “find footing” within the neoliberal void. If this is true, what is it about unemployment that allows the member of the precariat to access “the learning curve” of the impasse, or find new footing in a way that employment prevents (Berlant 202)? Is it a question of sovereignty? By depending on a job is one not free or unattached enough to find a new way of life? This would suggest that unlike the previous model (of employment as a shield against precariousness), in the neoliberal void employment both defers the impasse and makes it impossible to truly experience the loss of bearings. This deferral/inaccessibility would prevent the employee from truly learning to adjust to the void of the impasse. If this is correct, the impasse appears fundamentally more akin to a psychoanalytic problem of maturation, one in which the employee is unable to become wholly adult or achieve neoliberal sovereignty because of their unwillingness or inability to let go of the corporate apron strings. To find footing in the void, one would have to let go of the ladder.

While I do have the feeling that if precariousness is as wide-spread a phenomenon as Berlant argues that it is, the precariousness of employment comes to be functionally equivalent to unemployment because of the way the non-permanence of the position of either creates a similar orientation towards the future. The grimace seems, to me, as much a mask of tensing for tomorrow as it is a reaction to the events of today.

A Giant Rant About Failure Followed by the Actual Assignment

Just to get this out of the way, in class we were asked what we hated about Berlant’s writing (for those of us that were bothered), and though I’m no enemy of complexity or difficulty per se, what does bother me is suspiciously full-sounding, but indecipherable and empty writing. While I do appreciate parts of the essay, I’m really bummed-out by moments like this: “We realize later that the image of children wandering around may emanate something the man identifies with or wants to be near, a wandering, purposeless fogginess, that privilege of of childhood confirmed by the beautiful, almost subdermal quietness of Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack” (emphasis mine, 214). Okay, so we are reading an essay deeply invested in an interpretation of the body and the way the body reflects and responds to the environment in which it operates. In such an essay, a soundtrack of “subdermal quietness” might be one thzt operates beneath the “grimace” of the neoliberal subject. Perhaps its quietness operates on the level of musculature, shaping and sustaining the grimace through its refusal of dynamism. It could really work for Berlant, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t for a number of reasons, the first is that the focus on the “visage” or the affect as seen has been central to the consideration of affect theory found in the essay. Secondly, “subdermal” in this sentence is modifying the quietness of the soundtrack, which makes very little sense to me because if the soundtrack is having a subdermal effect (one we can feel under our skin) I would tend to associate that phenomenon with loudness. Third, if subdermal quietness is a quietness that is connected to affect theory it could equally well be understood to mean an effect that fails to become rise to the affective because it remains hidden by the visage. Lastly (and this is simply the last of the ways I am going to mention of the sentences failures, not the last of its failures), writing that the music is “almost” subdermally quiet makes even less sense. From what angle does it almost reach subdermality? Does it not quite penetrate the skin? Does it not quite pass the muscle/fat/cartilage/bone underneath the skin, remaining trapped in a sub-subdermal zone? I mean honestly.

The biggest issue I take with this essay (and those similarly written), is that it passes the realm of clever metaphoric play and enters into a very real parody of itself. A parody that really does damage to introducing new and interesting ways of thinking about the body in a politically-viable or engaging way. Instead, to me at least, it appears as an attempt to drape a veil of defensive and perplexing faux-coherence (through the use of associated descriptors) over an already worthwhile argument. Perhaps this deflationary move fits neatly within our course’s concerns (an unavoidable self-sabotage perhaps?), but I find it off-putting in the extreme. There is no sin in difficult writing that is a by-product of the argument’s inherent complexity. However, needless interpretive roadblocks signal–again, to me–a unnecessary complicity in the upkeep of the “expert” class of academic professionalism that Halberstam so usefully identifies as suspect.

The Beast in the Jungle and the Halberstam Reading

Many themes in the Halberstam reading correspond to Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. For example, I mentioned in my last post that Halberstam uses words such as “shadows” and “detours” to describe her approach to queer theory (Halberstam 4, 6). The narrator uses these same words to illustrate Marcher, for example when he mentions “the great vagueness casting the long shadow in which he had lived” (James 53). I also noticed that a large part of Marcher and Bartram’s relationship consists of listeners not being able to follow their conversation. The narrator states how “on the other hand the real truth was equally liable at any moment to rise to the surface, and the auditor would then have wondered indeed what they were talking about” (James 46). This is interesting to me, because it seems as if James is pointing out how readers never know exactly what the characters are referring to as they get lost in the conversations. This has a (probably intentional) alienating effect on the reader. This concept reminds me of when Halberstam urges us “to think about ways of being and knowing that stand outside of conventional understandings of success” (Halberstam 2). Not succeeding is a large part of this story, and I think the emphasis for both authors is on what can come out of this fail to succeed. One example is when the narrator describes Marcher’s inability to express himself, thus giving Bartram the opportunity to do so. The narrator explains how “they would have tried and not succeeded. Then it was, just at the turn, as he afterwards made it out to himself, that, everything else failing, she herself decided to take up the case and, as it were, save the situation” (James 37). Another instance of opportunity springing from something negative is the death of the aunt allowing more opportunities for the characters to meet (James 41). An interesting passage I think we should look at in class deals again with that locational idea of queer as being “beneath the surface.” The narrator writes how “the rest of the world thought him queer, but she, she only, knew how, and above all why, queer; which was precisely what enabled her to dispose the concealing veil in the right folds” (James 45). In this quote the narrator is explaining how Bartram can see the identity under Marcher’s “mask painted with the social simper” (James 45). We can discuss how masking of identity/knowledge/truth furthers the theme of alienation of the readers who don’t have the privilege Bartram does to see beneath it. I am also reminded of an essay titled “The Thing Not Named”: Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer I read a while ago where the author, Sharon O’Brien, further describes “queer” as a connection not explicitly stated in the text. I think this is in part why the Beast is never named, and why Marcher later confides that “I can’t name it. I only know I’m exposed” (James 49). Lastly, a lingering question I have is why Marcher is so interested in being perceived as unselfish and noble, such as when the narrator comments on the two’s relationship, stating that “the definite point was the inevitable spring of the creature; and the definite lesson from that was that a man of feeling didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady to a tiger-hunt” (James 44). Another example is later when Marcher voices wanting to be considered courageous (James 49). Hopefully you can all help me with this, and why Marcher is also concerned with getting some sort of pay off from their relationship.