Have a Good Time

February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

January 21, 2011

Favorite movies (about the humanities?) of 2010, with digressions on resistance to affect and on leaving grad school

I guess I’m really not alone in finding that 2010 was, even more than usual, a year when I didn’t see a lot of movies, and when most of the movies I did see I had mixed to negative feelings about.  I never worked up the enthusiasm to get to many of the big releases I was told I should like. About The Social Network—I know it wasn’t Lisa Nakamura’s intention, but this is the kind of great critical paragraph that tends to kill the last trace of interest I might have had in seeing a film that felt seriously overrated even from a distance.  About True Grit—maybe it wasn’t Evan Calder Williams’s intention either, but this is the kind of great critical post that makes me decide I might see it after all.  And I’m sure I’ll get to Black Swan eventually, mostly because Kate Bornstein praised it on Twitter and Eileen Myles praised it on Facebook, and in spite of the way its 15-second YouTube ads make me take off my headphones and go for some deep breaths.

Some of the mixed feelings: The Fighter really does have nice performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Mark Wahlberg, and a sound design that I loved; but as a movie about class in America I think it’s deeply bizarre, in the sense that for most of its running time I could see it only as a real-life story shaped into the story of how, if you happen to be as beautiful and charismatic as Mark Wahlberg, your future depends on removing yourself from the unforgivably trashy, vulgar, non-movie-star folks with horrible hair who are your family.  (Once you do, it gets better! Or maybe you’ll realize in the end that your brother is OK, and maybe your mother too, but as for the indistinguishable mass of nagging bodies constituted by your sisters, forget it.)  Atom Egoyan’s Chloë (released in 2009 in Canada, in 2010 in the U.S.) was a movie with an even more emphatic message, which was that lesbian sex workers are FUCKING CRAZY AND HAVE COME TO DESTROY YR STABLE HETERO UNION FOR NO REASON, RUN: I think it has the sketchy distinction of coming closer than any film I can remember to a full-fledged presentation of female sinthomosexuality? And I had fun at Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but I couldn’t quite share Steven Shaviro’s enthusiasm for it, partly because its sensibility struck me not just as unrelievedly white (Shaviro’s phrase), but as unrelievedly white and male in some particularly troubling ways—I appreciated Mike Barthel’s post explaining departures from the original comic in that respect.  (With Nakamura’s paragraph still in mind, you could even say it was a conspicuously bad year for Asian girls in American movies about white boys and their computers.)  My reaction to Tangled is here.

Two of my favorites were both studies of prison and punishment, again actually released in their countries of origin in 2009: Un prophète and Vincere.  Not that I saw many documentaries, but I liked Tamra Davis’s Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child a lot better than its title.  Three of the performances I valued most were Greta Gerwig’s, Ben Stiller’s, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s in Greenberg—which I almost didn’t see, because I was basically unthrilled by a trailer that seemed to promise not much more than a celebration of the world’s stretching to accommodate a privileged person (no indication of his mental illness) who wanted to “do nothing for a while.” (This was a reaction of guilty disavowal, because it hit close to home.  But I think maybe the trailer for Greenberg was a trailer for the kind of movie Roger Greenberg would like to see about himself, and Greenberg isn’t that movie, one good illustration of the fact being that it gives two awesome actresses so much space for thoughts and gestures that go way beyond Roger Greenberg.  Call my standards low, but I also really appreciated seeing a movie that was just so nonchalant about presenting, first, a woman whose uncertainty about what she’s doing in the world doesn’t prevent her from making reproductive decisions that are in no way demonized or Douthatized; and, second, a protagonist who in his constant letter-writing may look like a kind of one-man L.A. Bouvard and Pécuchet, but who ultimately stands revealed as someone who tried successfully to get the New York Times to care more about Pakistan.  I started to wonder whether with one line of dialogue the movie had conjured up its own counterpublic—audience members whose main reaction was, What a fantasy.  They’ve never printed any of my letters on Pakistan…)

My favorite American movie was Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways—not perfect, and Susie Bright’s lament on its insufficient attention to “the Underground Dyke Punk Groupie Slut culture that stretched from the San Fernando Valley to the bowels of Orange County” is one I take quite seriously … but the use of multiple songs from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, as one way of hinting at how badly the glam/punk scene of that time and place needed a real gender revolution, was the kind of of touch that definitely worked for me, and of which there were lots.  Plus, it looked to me like the most satisfying realization yet of Kristen Stewart’s invaluable negativity, which Voyou has been posting excellent things about—because, here, we get to watch that negativity become confidently other-directed, the classical punk rerouting, a move out through Bella Swan’s aphasia and into “I’m-a-fuckin’-wild-thing” and new political possibilities.  I’m sure it helps that I’ve been reading Sara Marcus’s truly amazing book Girls to the Front, and remembering Joan Jett’s friendship later in life with Kathleen Hanna and her encouragement for projects like Bikini Kill, and being reminded that the history of riot grrrl, is, in part, the history of women who were tired of hearing that they should let themselves be eclipsed by Edward fuckin’ Cullen.

So there were bright spots.  But I’m pretty sure this was a year in which I got more out of things I watched online than from trips to the theater to see feature-length, narrative-driven movies.  Because I’m aware this is true to varying degrees for a whole lot of people, I won’t bore anyone with a long list of my favorite YouTube clips of 2010, which is what I was thinking of doing at first.  Instead I’ll briefly talk about two videos that meant a lot to me last year, that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but haven’t really been able to process well enough to write about them, and that are related to each other, among other ways, in being about robots and in not being about robots.

Last year there were many music videos I liked, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say my favorite was Janelle Monáe’s self-described “emotion picture” for “Cold War,” directed by Wendy Morgan.  The basic act of performing a song with these lyrics and this title, taking the name of a conflict which everyone recognizes as “dead” and which still serves as the metoynm for history as such; and telling all comers that it isn’t over, it’s still proceeding, only it’s gone further underground and gotten colder; it’s a struggle that doesn’t afford neutrality, even if it’s harder than ever to be sure what you’re fighting for, but you have to try to know: I think this is a pop gesture whose significance shouldn’t be underestimated.  Like the 2008 short film based around “Many Moons,” “Cold War” almost works as a concentration of the whole ArchAndroid album, in its effective ability to make itself felt at once as a document from the year 2719 and as an inevitably but spectacularly failed exorcism of the long 20th century—except this time it’s played out in real time, over one face, captured and transformed by what Monáe would describe on Twitter as “an uncontrollable emotion.”  And while I appreciated learning from Anwyn at Popular Demand and others about the connection to Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U,” I’m even more interested in the affiliation with two more recent texts, namely Grace Jones’s and Nick Hooker’s “Corporate Cannibal” video from 2008 (a link Erik Steinskog makes here), and Chris Crocker’s “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” announcement from 2007.

These arguably stand at and for the two affective poles between which “Cold War” defines itself in oscillation.  The first is an emotion/less picture in which, as Steven Shaviro notes, Grace Jones fearlessly transfigures her upper body into a “chilly and affectless object-machine,” digitally distorted and modulated in order to ventriloquize the cold, infinitely mutable, vampiric-robotic charge of Capital in 21st-century corporate culture.  These modulations are echoed visually in “Cold War” at moments when the camera’s focus on Monáe’s face suddenly blurs, while its ever-present readout in the lower-right-hand corner ticks away pristinely, and while Monáe’s eyes widen and her face tilts upward and back as if in terrified recognition of the cold world that both her lyrics and Jones’s have described.  (Two further modes of musical engagement with capitalist realism, which maybe aren’t so different from each other: Jones speaks as the “I” of Capital, addressing a “you” who can only ever be devoured alive—the end of history confirmed, but as a nightmare from which there’s no way out; and even if Monáe interpellates the viewer as a historical subject who retains some theoretical capacity for resistance, her “Do you know what you’re fighting for? / Do you, do you?” is less hopeful than it is melancholic, vexed, almost undecidable.  Still—at least queries are being made, and the possibility of struggle is there.)  And the posthuman/Afrofuturist poetics of Grace Jones’s whole career (thoughtfully analyzed in the same post by Shaviro) resonate in the unifying conceit of The ArchAndroid, which is that “Cold War” and all the other songs are the work of an asylum inmate named Janelle Monáe who has been kidnapped from the future, sent to the present, and replaced, “back in the year 2719,” with an android named Cindi Mayweather, who might herself be the savior sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the Great Divide.  (“Is the American government tied to the Great Divide?”  Seriously, if you haven’t already, just listen to the album.)

If this is an android we’re watching, though, she’s an android who starts to cry uncontrollably, in what the opening title assures us is an unfiltered “Take 1,” while the sonic world that she’s trying to keep up with continues on without her.  (War is not over if you, as an individual, want it.)  Which leads me to my second companion text—a straight shot of e-‘mo/tion in which Chris Crocker freaked everybody the fuck out, four years ago, by focusing on one of the most prominent faces and victims of 21st-century corporate culture’s entertainment industry, and making the radically unsettling gesture of considering her as a person.  Chris knew what he was fighting for, and it was, by extension, the right of young women to show their vulnerability in public without being humiliated and harassed, which is something.  That his video then became an international joke about the horror of young androgynous people showing their vulnerability in public (and provoked an unending tide of YouTube comments along the lines of, “I have no problem with gay people, but this fag is gross”) only proved his point.  And if “Cold War” inspires unease in anyone, it’s likely to be unease of a related (though crucially nonidentical) kind: wait, are they faking it?  Isn’t this all really narcissistic?  Isn’t there something suspect about deliberately giving yourself over to an emotion in public that way?  (And who cares about Britney Spears, and isn’t the Cold War over?)

These concerns are most revealingly (and infuriatingly) voiced by someone like Larry Ryan, writing for the Independent. Ryan has no problem with the “Cold War” video itself, understand, because Monáe is “poised” (!) and because he can tell that the tear running down her cheek is just an artful homage to Sinéad O’Connor.  It’s Monáe’s revelation on Twitter that these were actually real feelings, worth talking about, that gets under his skin: quoting her tweet about the uncontrollable emotion, and her exchanges with fans who told her that they had shared that emotion, that it had been important to them, and that they’d felt a connection with her that had changed their lives, Ryan declares that “Janelle Monáe has fallen off her tightrope” and that the whole online conversation amounts to a “hideously lame display of bogus pyschobabble.”  He’s not done, either: after this weird failure to consider what Monáe might be doing as an artist (“Tightrope” does come right on the heels of “Cold War” on the album, like the quenching of a thirst, and the first words she sings in “Tightrope” are “I’ll take your pain away,” and just maybe the first song is evoking an environment and the next song is making some suggestions about managing affect and surviving within it, and she had an interesting reason for reversing the order of the music video releases, because sometimes nothing and no one will come to take your pain away) … the article then offers the unbelievable spectacle (or maybe not so unbelievable) of a white man telling a black woman, in print, that she shouldn’t be having or expressing the feelings she’s had and expressed, because it makes her look too much like Oprah and Michael Jackson.  The lines in “Cold War” that provoke Monáe’s tears and change the video’s course, the most exquisite lines in anything I heard or read or saw in 2010, are: “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me / There’s nothing wrong with me / And it hurts my heart.”  Those are words sung by a woman of color, calling out a system of norms in which we all participate, and which, at this moment, a music journalist confirms by participating in it enthusiastically.  (Maybe you could even say that this point, about “poise” and how certain bodies are especially policed to conform to it, is one that Chris Crocker picked up on and tried to explore in some problematic videos, post-“LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE,” where he adopted the stereotyped speech and mannerisms of urban black femininity.)

One of the messages a fan sent to Janelle Monáe, and that Larry Ryan mocked, read: “I feel human again.”  I wouldn’t be one to say this can never be problematized, or thought more about.  I’d only say that it isn’t advisable, it doesn’t work, to problematize it from a perspective according to which feeling, or even feeling human, is inherently laughable.  Because that leads to bad criticism; and it leads to bad art, like Seth Green’s fucking awful “Leave Chris Crocker Alone” video; and I don’t think you actually have to stretch it too far before you reach the sadistic limit point of Glenn Beck laughing at Nancy Pelosi’s prophetic tears for Harvey Milk in 2009.  (You know, I don’t think the best way to critique Glenn Beck or John Boehner is to say they cry too much, either!  Or that they need to man up.)  And while I might not be doing much more here than glossing k-punk’s wonderful writing on Fans and on the Trolls and Grey Vampires who attack them, I think my three near-arbitrary examples—Larry Ryan, Seth Green, Glenn Beck—point toward something which k-punk doesn’t address explicitly, and which it’s very important to me to keep in mind: which is that, while something like trolling or Grey Vampirism does represent “a subject position that (any)one can be lured into,” surely it tends to flourish most nastily in settings where there are already important differences in place between subject positions or levels of privilege.  It’s always easier for some people to troll than for others.

All of which leads me really indirectly to my other favorite short Internet movie of the year, whose key sentence, arguably, is “Let us stop saying that it sounds stupid,” and which contains another line that might inspire trepidation (but above all among those of us playing the Troll or the Grey Vampire?): “I am a person.  That’s why I study the humanities.”

This comes in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?,” an xtranormal response to the “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video that so many people were passing around in October 2010.  I don’t have much to say about the first video, because Aaron Bady said the important things in a lovely post about it.  (It was thanks to Aaron that I saw the response video too.)  I also really don’t mean to attack the first video’s author, a PhD student who was voicing genuine concerns about what the future held (and calling out Harold Bloom’s misogyny—always a good thing), and who wasn’t actually as cynical as the video itself (no one could be), and who I think never expected it to get so popular.  What bothers me, in fact, is precisely the way this text left its author behind and seemed to become almost universally beloved—even (or especially?) by people outside the world it discussed—and accepted as the truth about what graduate school in the humanities was like.  And distributed by everyone as a reason not to go to graduate school in the humanities.  But I had enjoyed a couple of xtranormal videos before, and it wasn’t until I watched “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities” (and thought more about the “Cold War” video) that I realized one of the generative structural limitations of the xtranormal form, which many users have taken advantage of, is that it gives you the ability to craft reasonably lifelike human conversations, without the ability to make one of the participants burst into tears.  In response to this depiction of an impossibly clueless student berated by an impossibly heartless professor, though, the second video, “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” (where, as the title indicates, the question of graduate study is actually a question), shows a teacher who warmly compliments her student’s paper on Hamlet and its “comparisons between liturgy and theater,” in a conversation that is itself somewhere between liturgy and theater: almost a secular prayer for, or a profession of faith in, the 21st-century humanities; which, as such, has something in common with Derrida’s late lecture “The Future of the Profession or the University Without Condition,” possibly my favorite thing Derrida ever wrote, and possibly an underread work of his.  To recognize (as Derrida does) that the university without condition has never existed, and never will, is not the same as telling a student, You are in no condition to go to graduate school, and you never will be, and on no condition will I prepare you for it properly. It’s even, you could say, the opposite.  “A PhD in the Humanities?” would obviously not exist without “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and maybe they do need to be watched together (in the same way that “Tightrope” wouldn’t be what it is without “Cold War?”), but the affects and implications of the second video are so blessedly different from those of the first that I’d just like to find the person who made it, ask if it’s OK for me to give them a hug, and give them a hug if it’s OK.  I’d also like more people who work in the humanities to see it.

(I really can't figure out how to embed the video, but please click on the picture for the link)

“Perhaps, even, we will speak in human voices”: isn’t this also a Pinocchio story, in the form of a beautifully self-reflexive rumination on the difficulty of finding your voice as a writer and pedagogue, in a setting that might have a lot invested in turning you into a puppet or a robot?  And so, speaking of animation, I don’t think it’s irrelevant at all here to note that Melissa Harris-Perry says Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story reminded her of being a grad student (or that Toy Story 3 provoked such fantastic further thoughts from other academics on labor, alienation and commodification).  To a sort of striking degree, the distance between “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” and “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is the narrative distance covered in the first Toy Story movie.  A few months ago, a frankly baffling number of people seemed to have fun watching Professor Jerk curse like a cowboy at a student who trusts her, effectively telling her, “You! are! a! toy!” … and, as Aaron’s post suggests, there’s a recognizably Woodyesque ressentiment at work: you yell at this person, you try to hurt and diminish this would-be voyager, not just because you think they’re stupid but because it’s obvious to everyone that they are newer and shinier than you, readier than you are to think about going to infinity and beyond, and eventually you may be forgotten and they may well have taken your place.  Of course, in Toy Story, Buzz has something to teach Woody; and part of what’s being conveyed in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is that, if you’re lucky and things go right, a PhD in the humanities can mean, if not exactly flying, then at least falling with style.

That’s especially poignant, as I’m sure you can imagine, for someone who came across this response video at just the moment when it had become totally clear that grad school wasn’t going to be manageable, at least for now—partly because of the pressures that always come with it, but at least as importantly because of individual issues with depression and anxiety.  When Daniel and I started this blog about a year ago, it was partly as a way for me to keep writing and thinking and preparing to re-enter an English PhD program, after briefly giving it a try in the fall of 2009.  Then it didn’t work out in the fall of 2010, either (in spite of the unbelievable generosity shown by everyone in my department about giving me a second chance).  So I’d just like to close by stating, for the record, that I’ve seen “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and I left graduate school in the humanities, but it wasn’t because of that.  And, finally, now that this blog is no longer serving the function for me that it once did, I’m already really intensely aware of the temptation to let it become a kind of fantasy space, where I invest a lot of my time and energy into trying to feel like a grad student without doing any real work, instead of actually getting my shit together and figuring out where my life is going to go now.  So I’ll try to resist that.  But I’ll also definitely try to keep writing things here—possibly shorter things, possibly things of a more personal i.e. even more boring nature, while Daniel (if he’s able to) keeps contributing his own thoughts from an academic setting—and if anyone kept following along, that would be nice.

January 14, 2011

What Mother Gothel knows, and what Rapunzel sings

[Spoilers are below, but if you were going to see Tangled you’ve probably seen it already.]

Growing it out

Lauren Berlant has recently been publishing an amazing series of posts on combover subjectivity, and one (inadequate) way to describe the project would be to say that, if we’re approaching the anima in a certain way, then what people do with their hair can be especially helpful in allowing us to think through its incoherences and how we try to smooth them out and cover them up.  Hair and heads are hard to animate.  They are also hard to draw, color in, and set in motion on film—and so it seems worth noting that the most expensive animated movie ever made is one released at the end of 2010, the last Disney princess movie, whose narrative and affective strategies are woven around strands of impossibly long, impossibly blond, gorgeously rendered flowing hair.  It’s always interesting to see what artist-technicians reserve their energy for, what they’re waiting for their machines to be able to give them.  For James Cameron, it was aboriginal blue aliens who had breasts even though they weren’t mammals.  The less said about what it was for George Lucas, I guess, the better.  For Disney’s animation division it was Rapunzel.

I saw Tangled over the holidays at the same multiplex where the rest of my family (who are half English, if that’s relevant) were going to see The King’s Speech, a movie that stood out for me in the extraordinary, almost visceral lack of interest it inspired.  I’m sure it’s not out of the question that The King’s Speech has some valuable things to say about non/sovereignty and dis/ability, and that’s not a possibility I want to dismiss.  But still.  I just couldn’t get psyched, at that moment, about a film asking us to give two hours of full attention and sympathy to the English royal voice, when we can hear the voice and feel its effects whenever we want to, and often it’s more than a voice, it’s (say) a truncheon smashing the brain of Alfie Meadows.  So I decided to see Tangled mainly for three interrelated reasons.  First, if I was going to see a royalist fairytale, I wanted to see one that had no pretensions of being anything else.  (There are, intriguingly, a king and a queen who have a substantial amount of screen time in Tangled—and literally no lines: the silent sovereign might be what The King’s Speech fears most, but Tangled knows what kind of power can reside in that silence.)  Second, this royalist fairytale had anthropomorphized animals and opulent animation and the voices of Mandy Moore and Donna Murphy, come on!  And, third, I was curious about the way Avatar, released a year earlier, had been immediately seized upon and widely and insightfully written about as an ideological symptom, whereas Tangled—which, in addition to being the avowed final entry in a long and fascinating series, is in fact a more expensive movie than Avatar, costing a total of 260 million dollars (260 million dollars! 260 million dollars) had not to my knowledge received anything like the same kind of attention.  A brilliant pre-release post on white femininity by Renée of Womanist Musings (with a follow-up post addressing reader comments, and more on this shortly) was about all I had seen.

I’m sure part of it is that there are just plenty of great critical blogs I’m unaware of, and part of it is that Avatar was a more obviously exigent target in presenting itself as a “leftist” film, and part of it is that people have had a lot of other things on their minds.  But I did find myself also wondering if one reason why I’d heard about Tangled only a tiny fraction of what I remembered hearing about Avatar (or even Toy Story 3) was the same reason why the movie itself was retitled by Disney, after years of development as Rapunzel: you know; it’s for girls!  In any case, I’m here to report to anyone who cares that Tangled is stunning and complicated and, in its engagement with the Disney tradition and that tradition’s legacy of hegemonic white patriarchy, something like a disturbing national combover fantasy.  Like Lauren Berlant herself, I should say, I’m not uncritical of combover subjectivity as a sufficient model for thinking about how persons operate; but I’d like to suggest that part of Tangled‘s interest lies in the way it simultaneously relies on such a model for its characterization and its narrative maneuvers, and exemplifies it in the ideological work it can be seen to perform.

I. Gothel

A woman

who loves a woman

is forever young…

Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel”

While the hair in question here is Rapunzel’s, the actual over-comber, and as such the site of most of the film’s anxious projections, is Mother Gothel.  My first real post for this blog, which set Coraline and Avatar side by side back in March, was an underdeveloped attempt to suggest that something was going on with the rapid rise of the 3D computer-animated fantasy and the fixation, in the imaginations of the movies themselves, on alternative maternities that wanted to absorb you whole.  The role was played benevolently in Avatar by Eywa, the divine supplement for a Mother Earth who had been “killed,” and in Coraline, less benevolently, by the otherwise unnamed Other Mother, a 3D computer animator ghostly dollmaker who wanted Coraline to stay with her forever, at the cost of her eyes.  (Stay tuned later this year for Mars Needs Moms, in which aliens kidnap Joan Cusack because they need to “steal her mom-ness.”Tangled gives us a remarkably queer new entry in this tradition, in the form of a Gothel portrayed by the great Donna Murphy as a sort of Rose Thompson Hovick in reverse.  Utterly consumed by narcissism, this Gothel (as distinct from the Grimms’) kidnaps the princess from her crib and raises her as her own, in total  isolation, for the sole purpose of exploiting the magical healing and age-reversing properties that have been transferred from a flower into the infant’s hair.  18 years later, Rapunzel has grown into a thoughtful young woman who’s ready to see the world; Gothel, continually renewing herself through Rapunzel’s hair and voice, has blossomed into a campy, superbly passive-aggressive undermining stage mother whose stage is the cramped chamber at the top of a tower no one else ever visits; she fawns over an innocent stolen “daughter” while sucking her life out through the roots.

Mother Gothel’s narcissism is fascinating in its naked lack of any external motivating object, any audience other than Rapunzel and herself: before her princess leaves the tower and the story really kicks into gear, there’s no indication that she has any interest in relationality with anyone else in the world.  She wants only to hang onto youth, and she wants it only for Rapunzel and for herself.  The pathos of which is hard to ignore, and, at least in the first half of the movie, there isn’t a total absence of imaginative sympathy for Gothel, and so I was surprised and dismayed to see her meet a violent end, and in a familiar Disney manner: she’s wicked for wanting to be beautiful, now her true face is revealed; she sure is ugly, and it sure is a sign of her wickedness! The one character in Tangled who does win the audience’s sympathy after a fully dramatized critical-ethical transformation, a realization that he has been an unquestioning participant in an oppressive normative system and that his behavior can change for the better, is a white horse.  More on that whiteness in a moment.  What I mean to say about the relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel is just that, first, as an addition to the “Wait, Are They Really Mother and Daughter?” canon, Tangled arguably ranks right up there with Desert Fury (to say nothing of Sexton, whose “Rapunzel” is an ode to stolen mom-ness that resonates with Tangled in some striking ways); and, second, that I suspect this serves to make Gothel a perversely perfect example of the combover subject, as described by Berlant:

The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear.  No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially[,] confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.

No active relationality.  Compare this with the barely restrained desperation in Gothel’s eyes when she realizes that it’s time for another song and another combover to make her younger … and then her blissful, other-negating relief as, afterward, she stands in front of the mirror with her companion.  “Rapunzel, look in that mirror.  You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady.  Oh look, you’re here too!”  At moments like this I could feel the audience bristling around me in an ecstasy of indignation, and I could feel the same thing in myself: we were upset because Rapunzel wasn’t being given her due, and because we knew that, title aside, this was her movie, and Gothel’s exquisitely captured and all-too-relatable just-so was taking it away from her.

II. Rapunzel

But why is it her movie, exactly?  Why Rapunzel and why now?  Why are we at the Mandy Moore tour?

I hope it’s clear I don’t mean any disparagement to Moore herself, asking that.  She really does act and sing beautifully in Tangled, and I’m glad she keeps getting better roles than Sadie Jones in License to Wed.  Moreover, for whatever it’s worth, I wouldn’t by any means say that her part in Tangled amounts to faux-girl-power posturing; Rapunzel really does wield her hair like a badass (and not just her hair, but also a frying pan, throughout virtually the whole film—a nice touch, and the source of lots of satisfying kongggs).  She really does get her friend and partner, the thief Flynn Rider (née Eugene Fitzherbert), out of as many scrapes as he gets her out of.  And she’s smart … or, as Bruce Diones of the New Yorker puts it, she’s “given a sharp wit and intelligent concerns: she doesn’t sound like a nattering teen-ager.”  (I’m sorry, but give me a fuck-ing break.  The social war on teen girls and the descent of much of the New Yorker into willfully archaic gendered awfulness continue hand in hand.  One of the things about I liked best about Tangled, actually, was its capacity to give Rapunzel both a sharp wit and a tendency to, you know, “natter,” or whatever, like a teenager who has thoughts that are hard to articulate and wishes that aren’t being met.  Not mutually exclusive, Bruce!  I’m also thinking here of Isabel’s guardedly sympathetic reading of The Little Mermaid at Feministe, one of my favorite blog posts of 2010.)  It could even be argued that Tangled adapts the story of “Rapunzel” specifically in order to give eloquent voice to a certain strain of girlie feminism: maybe you see my hair and think it’s only an imprisonment, but I’m attached to it, and you’re not, and it’s also a weapon, a ladder, an escape, a thick rope to tie up the  stranger who breaks into my house

Yet it’s at just this juncture that I think some points about how a particular kind of corporatized girlie attitude can get tangled up in whiteness most urgently need to be remembered.  Annalee Newitz kicked off the online discussion of Avatar at the end of 2009 by asking when white people would stop making movies like it; you could also ask when white people will stop making movies like Tangled, and the answer is probably that we just did.  Within the last two years, in fact, Disney has triumphantly released its first film with a black princess, and triumphantly said goodbye to its fairy-tale sequence altogether with a crowning 50th animated feature, widely heralded as a return to form, celebrating a young woman who faces all kinds of external pressures managing her hair.  These two gestures were not consolidated.  Which is why I think Renée is spot-on when she says the return to form really has to be understood as a return to color, or rather to the normative “non-color” of whiteness.

Nonhuman creatures become essential here, lateralizing characters’ attributes and defining a space where hair is something between dead and animated.  Among the problematic aspects of The Princess and the Frog itself, as Renée also observes, was that Tiana the black princess not only had hair that was decidedly less than kinky, she spent a good part of her own movie as a frog, and it doesn’t get much more hairless than that.  In contrast, Tangled‘s adorable chameleon, Pascal, is fully an extension of Rapunzel’s hair, the daemon to the golden compass that’s on her head: he’s constantly stepping in to finish what the hair has started, he changes color as swiftly and as completely as we might wish our hair did when we dyed it … and he bears additionally the reptilian trace of an archetypal, murderous, unmanageable female rage-in-hair that is, in this film, predictably, invoked only to be projected elsewhere, onto the one character who can safely be killed off.  As a hair extension, the chameleon is also, like the king and queen (and the whiter-than-white mime who plays a key role), voiceless.  It’s a marked change both from the frogs and fireflies of The Princess and the Frog, and from Sebastian of The Little Mermaid, and that’s arguably the kind of Pascalian wager on which this movie’s aesthetics depend.  “We have nothing to lose by making the companion creature a silent creature this time; maybe in twenty years our movie will look less racist!”

Even without Pascal’s help, though, the blondness of Rapunzel’s hair is so formidable as to be unsettling.  People get mixed up in hair here, but hair qua hair never, ever gets tangled.  We see Rapunzel brushing it more than once but it always looks perfect anyway.  At no point is it anything less than a supernaturally potent substance, somewhere between sturdy rope, honey, and lava, with the ability to untangle any problem that presents itself.  The mournful incantation Rapunzel repeatedly sings to activate the hair’s charms—first to restore Mothel Gothel to youth, but also, crucially, as a blonder-than-blond way of getting herself and Flynn out of a tight spot by lighting the way underwater—turns around the line “Make the clock reverse; bring back what once was mine“; and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that with these lines Disney unconsciously ventriloquizes the segment of white America that was raised on Snow White and Cinderella, would never see The Princess and the Frog, and wants its country back.  The open secret: the seams, the lacks.  If this sounds like an overreading, I would say it really is remarkable that Tangled should take place in an ambiguously medieval European fairyland that is (of course) anachronistic in every way, except (of course?) not quite enough to include a single character of color.

The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness.  Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel.  At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity!  Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations.  (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on.  Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?)  They go on to help Rapunzel and Flynn escape from the tavern, return at the climax to offer their services again, and, at the end, realize their big gay dreams in a kingdom restored to proper royal order.  My first reaction to all this was to appreciate how ostensibly hypermasculine supporting characters had been queered; reflecting more on it later, I realized how queer they’d been from the beginning.  Their menacing costumes were really always just so much S&M gear, and the all-male space of the tavern (which is named The Snuggly Duckling) reminded me of something a friend had once said to me about a Christopher Marlowe play that was “very, very homosocial—no, wait, never mind.  Just gay.”  What we watch, then, over the course of Tangled, is the full recuperation of these white queers into a comic story that resolves itself with the necessary murder of a woman who has darker hair, darker skin, a shawl that sometimes looks something like a veil, and (in her monstrously narcissistic devotion to the girl-who-is-not-her-daughter) the wrong kind of queerness.  The gay ruffians “have some humanity” even before Rapunzel urges it on them, and then they’re happily absorbed into the royal state; the only figure who is finally denied humanity and thrown from the tower of the film’s sympathy is Gothel.  In this sense, Tangled demands to be considered in light of Jasbir Puar’s work on the rise of “properly homo” subjects in Terrorist Assemblages, and it starts to look more and more like the perfect major film release to cap off a year that saw the celebrated repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the resultant guarantee that, as Giovanni Tiso put it on Twitter, “[b]rown people worldwide can now look forward to being butchered by more people who are comfortable with their sexuality.”

 

 

To ask who gets to be counted as fully human, in this context, is to ask for whom the combover works; or, as Berlant says, “[f]or whom is there give in the system of norms?”  These are questions that haunt Tangled in an odd intertextual way at its dramatic climax, when Flynn Rider—separated from Rapunzel, trapped in the royal castle, and about to be executed—sees a miniature unicorn sculpture in the corner of his chamber, and takes it as his cue to realize that his friends from the Snuggly Duckling will rescue him after all, allowing Rapunzel to be saved by a traumatic, liberating haircut and Gothel to age a thousand years in a minute before plummeting to her death.  A tiny unicorn left as a calling card, as a sign that your life will have the fairytale ending you didn’t dare expect: if only for an instant, the voice that seems to echo silently across Tangled‘s landscape is Edward James Olmos’s, asking, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” and reminding us of the difference between the original release of Blade Runner and the director’s cut that excised the fairytale ending, and of all the differences that cuts can make, not least to our sense of whose story is being told, for what reasons, what’s excluded, for whom there’s give.  It’s too bad Gothel won’t survive the Rapunzel story…

These are also related to questions that I’ll try to take up in another post soon, on some of my favorite filmed things from the last year, and in particular a couple of short films that pose questions of their own about “humanity” and even what it might have to do with the humanities.  In the meantime, I’ll wrap this up by suggesting that in many ways, after all, maybe the more satisfying “Rapunzel” update of 2010 is “Whip My Hair”—the work of another young person whose power derives from some obscure alchemical combination of hair and music, who’s trapped in a classroom instead of a tower but who’s keen to transform it, and whose song, instead of looking back toward (or seeking to recreate) a kind of dubious fantasized coherence that’s felt to have been lost, is deliriously happy to go back and forth, in full acceptance and celebration of what is “fugitive and unraveled in ordinary affectivity and self-performance”—incoherence and hair’s part in it, a riot of blurred vision and color everywhere.  Whether it’s long or short.

July 17, 2010

…but enough on that subject?

The politics of truth pertains to those relations of power that circumscribe in advance what will and will not count as truth, which order the world in certain regular and regulatable ways, and which we come to accept as the given field of knowledge. We can understand the salience of this point when we begin to ask: What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Subjectively, we ask: Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth? Is this not precisely what is meant by “the desubjugation of the subject in the play of […] the politics of truth?”
—Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”

One day Emily was holding a very high and intellectual conversation with ———— where they were quite above the mundane plane. Mrs. Dickinson had fussed in and out many times to see if they needed anything, and at last she bustled in, just at some fine climax of the talk, and asked if ————’s feet were not cold, wouldn’t she like to come in the kitchen and warm them? Emily gave up in despair at that. ‘Wouldn’t you like to have the Declaration of Independence read, or the Lord’s Prayer repeated,’ and she went on with a long list of unspeakably funny things to be done.

—Millicent Todd Bingham, quoted in Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson

Two recent news stories about the discovered textual practices of the framers of the U.S. Constitution seemed to assume an easy metonymical resonance. First, on the margins of the origins of American exceptionalism: three months ago we learned that George Washington stole the book on international law, and the debt has been accruing ever since. And late last month—certainly in time for July 4, but also broadly in time for Arizona’s escalation of the “debate” over “illegals,” and just about in time for the delivery of an involuntary-manslaughter verdict in the case of the unspeakable Oscar Grant—a U.S. citizen who was suddenly not a citizen, because he was lying face-down on the ground, a picture of guiltless subjection to the law, when the law, as represented by Johannes Mehserle, shot him in the back—the Library of Congress announced that when Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence he wrote “fellow-subjects,” blotted it out, and replaced “subjects” with “citizens.”

A computerized column showing five grayscale views of Jefferson's handwritten "fellow-citizens," with his original second word, "subjects," progressively emerging in yellow and, by the final image, replacing "citizens" completely

Above is a digital snapshot of the hyperspectral imaging process, from the AOLNews story. It embodies an archaeological reverse-teleology that I would hope to pause or to apprehend, at least for a moment.  Like Micki McGee, writing for the Social Text blog, I’m not sure how helpful it is to describe this correction the way the news stories do, as the heretofore-successful burial of the traces of a “Freudian slip”—although I’m unsure for different reasons. McGee says it is “not clear at all that this wording and rewording would qualify as a repressed idea or desire percolating up from Jefferson’s unconscious, even if such psychoanalytic parlance can be applied to a draft developed more than a hundred years before Freud came up with the concept”: for one thing, I’d say (if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader), wouldn’t a century-old draft be almost the ideal site for the application of this parlance? (But if I were pretending to be a strict psychoanalytical reader I would go on to say something really tedious about the distance between the parlance of strict psychoanalysis and the popular parlance of “Freudian slips”…) More to the point, though: noting that the import of the words “subject” and “citizen” is in so many ways still under contestation, McGee adds that the picture of those words here led her back to John Zerzan’s anti-anti-humanist “critique of the post-structuralist parlance of ‘subjects’ and ‘subjectivity'”—the implied move being, I think, an affirmation of Jefferson’s corrective intentions, a celebration of the autonomy that might result from thinking of ourselves as (global?) citizens over thinking of ourselves as subjects. I was actually led in what must be the opposite direction—back to Butler’s “What is Critique?”, with its reminder that Foucault’s project aims to involve not only the delineation of the constraints of subjectivity, but also the desubjugation of the subject. And I started to wonder if this account of Foucault and of critique (not to mention Butler’s more recent thinking on states and citizens) might enable, or even necessitate, a kind of Dickinsonian choosing-not-choosing among variants in the reading of Jefferson’s draft.  A kind of recognition that, however much we might debate the benefits of considering ourselves subjects over citizens or citizens over subjects, we remain something unspeakable (at least by a single voice): .

I’m talking about “us” partly because that’s how McGee frames her question.  (“On this Fourth of July weekend, I find myself wondering broadly: where are we building spaces of autonomy, and where are we bowing like subjects?”)  But I also want to call “us” into question, because it’s worth saying something, though I’m not an especially well-equipped person to say it, about the context of Jefferson’s revision, and about the relation between his erasure and the further erasures that are enacted in all the popular news coverage of this story.  The sentences in which Jefferson replaced “subjects” with “citizens” run as follows:

he has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence;

he has incited treasonable insurrections in our fellow-, with the allurements of forfeiture & confiscation of our property;

Those sentences don’t quite appear in the final draft of the Declaration:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us , and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

“Domestic insurrections” are slave revolts.  In Jefferson’s original draft the charge of “insurrections” is followed by the self-incriminating condemnation of the slave trade that was simply cut from the final document; Congress’s version also turns “incited” to “excited” (muddying the question of agency), “treasonable” to “domestic” (because slave revolts aren’t treasonable, because slaves are neither subjects nor citizens), and an ambiguous “in” to an all-too-comprehensible “among”; and collapses “Indian savages” and unspeakable slaves into one group, the Others at the frontiers of a frighteningly simple “us”—”we” who incorporate “all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence,” or in other words we white people who belong on this land—as if admitting that the choice between “citizens” and “subjects” was in the end both undecidable and irrelevant.

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