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.

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Irritation: Helga vs. Bartleby

While reading Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, I was struck by the term “Bartlebyzation”. I didn’t know what it meant, and it seemed to be something Ngai was suggesting her readers should know, since she didn’t offer any context or explanation. After some Internet research I discovered that this term is a reference to Herman Melville’s acclaimed short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”. While I had never read the story before, after reading and some research it became clear that there seem to be more underlying parallels between it and Larsen’s Quicksand than Ngai mentions in her chapter on Irritation.

As Ngai does discuss, both Bartleby and Helga experience their talents demoted, misplaced, and belittled to banal, mediocre tasks; Helga’s by her secretarial position, and Bartleby’s by his scrivener position when he is in fact able to write extensive high-quality material. This “artistic misplacement” reflects the other societal misplacements the characters experience, Helga with her racial displacement and Bartleby with his physical displacement.

Both characters experience a certain level of “homelessness”. Bartleby experiences it in more of a literal sense when he ends up living in the office building he was supposed to be working at, curling up in doorways and stairways. Helga’s own “homelessness” is primarily experienced in the metaphorical sense. She feels a lack of belonging and a sense of misplacement wherever she lives, and thus refuses to get comfortable anywhere, pushing every potential “home” away. In that sense, she differs from Bartleby, who seems perfectly content and even insistent to sleep on the hard floors of a rigid office building. But he provokes Helgaic frustration when the story’s narrator invites Bartleby to come and live with him, in a real home, and Bartleby refuses, clinging to his discomfort as Helga does throughout Quicksand.

This discomfort seems to be comfortable for the two characters, or at least habitual. Both characters have experienced certain things in the past that have affected them long-term: Helga with her parents and her childhood of abandonment and racial misplacement, and Bartleby with his rumored former job of working in a dead letter office and thus being surrounded by missed connections and emotions lost in the mail. These events cause the characters to lose hope, to turn their backs on the possibility of happiness to a certain extent, to have little motivation to put effort into their own success or even survival.

Both characters capture hearts on a fairly wide scale and are the subject of the affections of many people they come into contact with. Helga has her many suitors, whom she routinely turns down and pushes away. Bartleby appeals to the emotions of his boss and the story’s narrator; as previously mentioned, the narrator offers him a place to live, and despite his odd behavior and lack of action, Bartleby affects his boss emotionally so much that the man moves his business elsewhere rather than kick Bartleby out of the building. Readers are repeatedly left in frustration, wondering why the respective characters would not seize their multiple opportunities for a sense of home and security and possibly even happiness. But the characters’ backs are turned away from the light and towards brick walls, partially ones of their own creation.

Both Bartleby and Helga are presented with multiple pathways, in the forms of people, places, and actions, towards making their lives better for themselves despite their past pain. Bartleby could have simply made the copies at his new firm, and supported himself that way, or moved into the narrator’s home. Helga could have settled into one of the various places that could potentially have worked as satisfying homes for her. She could have acted more decisively in that sense, and also in the sense of sticking to her seemingly confident decision not to have children. Instead of just doing these things, Bartleby dies in prison and Helga is left trapped in a prison of her own baby-making. This provokes a Romeo-and-Juliet reaction: if the characters had simply done what readers knew were the right choices, if they had made some minor changes, then their chain reactions towards imprisonment, discomfort, and even death could have been avoided. In Ugly Feelings, Ngai cites Barbara Johnson’s assessment that “chapter breaks often occur where psychological causation is missing… and is the difficulty of defining the causes of Helga’s suffering that leads to irritation.” It is human nature to feel satisfied when we understand something, and intensely frustrated, irritated, even threatened when we do not, and these literary works so excruciatingly hit the nerve of perplexity.