Wednesday, January 25, 2012

David Halperin--Forgetting Foucault (1998)

Halperin takes the title of this article (which was later included as a chapter in his 2002 How to Do the History of Homosexuality) from Jean Baudrillard’s 1977 pamphlet Forget Foucault (Oublier Foucault).  Halperin is not only critical of Baudrillard’s take on Foucault—which he disparages for Baudrillard’s insistence on “leaving the sexual aspects [of Foucault’s work and life] aside” (93)—but sees his work as symptomatic of the continued misreadings of Foucault’s work, especially that of his 1976 History of Sexuality, Volume 1.  In this article, Halperin elucidates two key misunderstandings of Foucault’s text: (1) the oversimplification and misunderstanding of Foucault’s differentiation between the sodomite and the homosexual; and (2) the misunderstanding of his deployment of “bodies and pleasures” as the “irreducible elements of sexuality” (112).
To Halperin, the most significant misinterpretation of Foucault has been to “mistake his discursive analysis for a historical assertion” (111).  What Foucault originally intended as an analysis of “discursive and institutional practices” (97) in his discussion of the differences between the early modern sodomite and the nineteenth century homosexual has been instead misunderstood as an almost dogmatic distinction between sexual practices and sexual identity.  Using the work of John J. Winkler (who examines the category of kinaidos in ancient Mediterranean societies) and Johnathan Walters (who compares Apuleius’s story of the baker’s wife to that of Boccaccio), Halperin explains how these works “challenge the orthodox pseudo-Foucauldian doctrine about the supposedly strict separation between sexual acts and sexual identities in European culture before the nineteenth century” (108).
Halperin intends his argument to encourage a more nuanced and complicated investigation and understanding of the ways in which sexual identities have changed over time, as well as a more nuanced and complicated understandings of Foucault’s work.  And although anymore it seems as if the inclusion of a section such as “Forgetting Foucault” is almost mandatory in queer scholarship, such clarifications do seem to continue to be necessary, as the examples Halperin gives amply illustrate.  In fact, I would argue that Halperin’s complaint that Foucault’s work has been reduced to “a small set of received ideas, slogans, and bits of jargon” (94) is true because Foucault’s work (even—or perhaps especially?) in translation uses such pithy phrases to convey quite complicated ideas.  It’s very tempting to pull a line like, “Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence” (History of Sexuality 60) out of context, simply because it is so enticing—though to do so completely undercuts the statement’s meaning.
Halperin attributes much of this misunderstanding to readings which focus solely on the aspects of sexuality in the work and don’t take into account his larger arguments regarding discourse.  It’s true that Foucault “deploys” sex and sexuality (and his very specific uses of these words) within a larger discussion of the history, meanings, and interactions of power and discourse.  However, I’m concerned that Halperin himself might be misunderstood as advocating for a kind of “leaving the sexual aspects aside,” similar to that for which he takes Baudrillard to task (93).  I wonder if these misreadings might be accounted for (at least in part) because the concepts connected to sexuality are more exciting (or graspable) than those connected to discourse?    
Halperin also addresses the equally misunderstood and misquoted Foucauldian phrase “bodies and pleasures,” with which Foucault ends his text.  As I personally found this to one of the more confusing aspects of the Foucault reading, I appreciated Halperin’s clarification that “bodies and pleasures” should be understood as being elements of a different sexual economy than the current one, which consists instead of “such familiar and overworked entities as ‘sexuality’ and ‘desire’” (94).  Halperin grounds this distinction in the post 1960s sexual liberation era within which Foucault was writing, which encouraged people to "liberate our 'sexuality' and to unrepress or desublimate our 'desire' (94).  Can we tease out this distinction further?  How is a sexual economy grounded in “bodies and pleasure” different from one grounded in “sexuality and desire”?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Michel Foucault--The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1

I've taken pretty serious notes on this Foucault, given how foundational it is to everything else that I do.  Sexuality and bodies are pretty central to my own diss topic of ugly women, so even though he's pretty phallocentric, I'm going to be thinking about his ideas quite a bit.  Especially as I note at the end, I'm not completely clear on how "bodies and pleasure" are in opposition to the agency of sex.  As I'm responsible for summarizing Halperin's article "Forgetting Foucault," which takes this up as a central point of misunderstanding and misinterpretation on the part of those who have come after Foucault, it's probably significant that this is where I myself am getting tripped up.
Looooong notes after the jump.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Eudora Welty--Curtain of Green (1941)

Last spring, I did my class presentation in Southern Lit on Welty and Curtain of Green, her 1941 short story collection.  I also did my final paper on her.  So, rather than try to write a short summary, after the jump I'm posting my notes on Welty and Curtain of Green, as well as the text of the paper I wrote (which I'm working on revising in order to try to get it published.

Katherine Anne Porter--The Old Order: Stories of the South (1944)

I adored this collection, and intend to read more by Porter as soon as I can.  The Old Order is a collection of short stories concerning the life of a rural Texas family ruled by Sophia Jane, the matriarch and mother of eleven children. The first half of the collection deals with Sophia Jane and her African American servant and companion, Nannie. Their relationship comprises the closest bond in the family, more so even than that between Sophia Jane and her children. The second part of the collection concerns itself with the family of Harry, one of Sophia Jane’s favorite children, and his daughters Maria and Miranda, who are four years apart in age. 
Consisting of most of the second half of the text, “Old Mortality” is a longer piece in three parts: 1885-1902, 1904, and 1912.  In Part I, the girls Maria and Miranda cannot escape their family history: overshadowed by stories of their late Aunt Amy’s great beauty and romantic escapades, the girls struggle to discover their own individuality under the weight of so much history.  In Part II, they experience a small break from their “immured” existence at convent school when their father takes them to the race track to bet on their Uncle Gabriel’s horse.  Uncle Gabriel, the romantic hero of so many stories involving Aunt Amy, is a great disappointment, as he is a fat, desolate drunkard, whose horse (which the girls are forced to bet on) is given 100 to 1 odds.  Miraculously, the horse wins, though Harry takes the girls money to be put in the bank.  In the final section, Miranda, who has left school and eloped, encounters her old maid Cousin Eva on the train, as they both travel home for Uncle Gabriel’s funeral.  Aunt Eva tries to set Miranda straight about a few of the more romantic and sanitized versions of family stories.
Porter is rather frank about the existence and effects of slavery in the first section.  Slavery has yet to be abolished when they first meet as children, when Sophia Jane’s father purchases Nannie along with her mother and father; Sophia Jane is so taken with Nannie that she insists, “I want the little monkey….I want that one to play with” (14).  Appalling as it is to read this, it gives a proper sense of verisimilitude to their relationship.  Sophia Jane never undergoes any dramatic epiphanies about race relations, though over the years she and Nannie forge a bond by their shared experiences and hardships.  Most striking to me was Sophia Jane’s taking over as wet nurse when Nannie almost dies from puerperal fever—not only is it astonishing that she nurses her own children (allowing her access to a bond with her children she’s never experienced before, and which she insists upon having with her subsequent children), but she also nurses Nannie’s child Charlie.  It was striking enough to read a scene in which a white southern women nurses a black child at this time in Sherley Anne Williams’ 1986 Dessa Rose; to read such a scene in this 1944 collection was quite surprising.  The stories also contain variations on the white liberal consciousness raising scene, quite common in southern literature from this era (Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, for example, was published in 1949, five years after this).  In these stories, much of this is a result of Nannie’s move from the big house to an empty cabin in her old age; the white family members are surprised that she does not wish to live with them any longer, which prompts realizations such as that by Maria, who thinks with a pang that “they had not really been so very nice to Aunt Nannie” (42).
Not only a commentary on race relations in the South, these realizations also illustrate the conflicts at the heart of southern life, especially between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement.  Sophia Jane’s children are described as unable to function alone:
As their fortunes went down, and they have very few servants, they needed her terribly.  They realized how much the old woman had done for them, simply by seeing how, almost immediately after she went, everything slackened, lost tone, went off edge.  Work did not accomplish itself as it once had.  They had not learned how to work for themselves, they were all lazy and incapable of sustained effort or planning.  They had not been taught and they had not yet educated themselves.  (44)
In fact, Sophia Jane and Nannie share this disdain for her children and grandchildren, and spend quite a bit of their time as they grow old complaining to each other about these children.  Not only do they share contempt for their children, but also, more generally, of men.  In fact, another important theme throughout the piece is the solidarity with which women meet life, and the kind of “deeply grounded contempt for men” which most of them share (here used to describe Sophia Jane) (24).  Both Sophia Jane and Nannie survive despite of, rather than because of, the men in their lives.
They must be strong, because the limitations placed on them as women are great.  A theme which I’m particularly interested in which occurs often is the relationship between these limitations and a women’s physical beauty.  Old maid Cousin Eva’s entire life seems to have been determined by her lack of chin, which is blamed for her failure to marry as well as her strident political activity as a suffragist: “For even then it was pretty plain that Eva was an old maid, born.  Harry said, ‘Oh, Eva—Eva has no chin, that’s her trouble” (111).[1]  Harry makes clear the connection between appearance, value, and character:
“He was a pleasant, everyday sort of father, who held his daughters on his knee if they were prettily dressed and well behaved, and pushed them away if they had not freshly combed hair and nicely scrubbed fingernails.  “Go away, you’re disgusting,” he would say, in a matter-of-fact voice.  He noticed if their stocking seams were crooked.  He caused them to brush their teeth with a revolting mixture of prepared chalk, powdered charcoal, and salt.  When they behaved stupidly, he could not endure the sight of them. (112)
In fact, Harry also passes judgment on Miranda, saying that she “was going to be a little thing all her life, she would never be tall; and this meant, of course, that she would never be a beauty like Aunt Amy, or Cousin Isabel.  Her hope of being a beauty died hard, until the notion of being a jockey came suddenly and filled all her thoughts” (130).  Once again, once the hope of beauty is gone, it seems to clear the way for other possibilities.  The life of the beautiful belle is fixed, determined, and tragic; in these stories, it seems to be the ugly women who have the potential for more interesting lives.  It’s certainly not an easy life—at one point, contemplating Cousin Eva’s life, Miranda wonders, “why was a strong character so deforming?” (158). 
The collection does ultimately return to a larger question of the future of the South.  At the end of the novel, as Cousin Eva and her father good-naturedly banter, Miranda feels out of place, wondering, “Where are my own people and my own time?” (163).  Along with her sister, “they had lived not only their young years, but their memories, it seemed to them, began years before they were born, in the lives of the grown-ups around them, old people above forty, most of them who had a way of insisting that they too had been young once” (98).  Ten years after Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and the youth of the South are still trying to live not only their own lives but those of a past which refuses to die—or even be past.

[1] The more complete description of Eva given:
Eva, shy and chinless, straining her upper lip over two enormous teeth, would sit in corners watching her mother.  She looked hungry, her eyes were strained and tired.  She wore her mother’s old clothes, made over, and taught Latin in a Female Seminary.  She believed in votes for women, and had traveled about, making speeches.  When her mother was not present, Eva bloomed out a little, danced prettily, smiled, showing all her teeth, and was a like a dry little plant set out in a gentle rain.  Molly was merry about her ugly duckling.  “It’s lucky for me my daughter is an old maid.  She’s not so apt,” said Molly naughtily, “to make a grandmother of me.”  Eva would blush as if she had been slapped.  Eva was a blot, no doubt about it, but the little girls felt she belonged to their everyday world of dull lessons to be learned, stiff shoes to be limbered up, scratchy flannels to be endured in cold weather, measles and disappointed expectations. (104)
However, it is Eva who survives, compared to the beautiful Amy, who dies a tragic and mysterious death on her honeymoon in New Orleans.  Ugliness here is connected to industriousness, studiousness, and intellect, perhaps not considered attractive in a woman by society, but that Porter allows Eva to end the collection reveals a certain sympathy for Eva rather than Amy, whom she kills off.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lillian Hellman--The Little Foxes (1939)

This play, first staged in 1939 with Tallulah Bankhead starring as Regina Giddens, dramatizes the conflicts between the old and new Souths.  Set in 1900 in a small (unspecified) town in the South, it tells the story of the Hubbard family’s attempt to make their fortune through industrialization.  Brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard have struck a deal with William Marshall, a Chicago businessman who wishes to build a cotton plant there—as Oscar frequently says, to bring the factory to the cotton rather than the cotton to the factory.  However, they require funding from a third party, and expect the funding to come from Horace Giddens, the dying brother of their sister, Regina.  Horace has been unresponsive to her pleas to him about the money, as he is away at a sanitarium, suffering from heart trouble.
The Hubbard family, though quite southern, lacks a true aristocratic pedigree, as their money was made through business—as Birdie Hubbard, Oscar’s wife, says (quoting her own mother in her reluctance to marry her daughter to a Hubbard), they are “people who made their money charging awful interest to poor, ignorant niggers and cheating them on what they bought” (59).  Birdie was raised in a truly southern aristocratic family on a plantation called Lionnet, and spends most of the play inebriated and reminiscing about how much better life was there.  Oscar is openly disdainful and downright rude to his wife, and she in turn dislikes both her husband and their son, Leo.  Leo works for Horace at his bank, though he has already been caught stealing from him once.  The Hubbard siblings, in addition to their business dealings, are also at work to set get Leo married to Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra, in order to further cement a financially lucrative bond with Horace’s money.
Horace returns home with the knowledge that he will die soon, intent to punish his wife and her brothers as well as safeguard his daughter from their clutches.  He discovers, in light of his refusal to invest in the Hubbard’s new business deal, that Leo has used his position at the bank to steal bonds from his safe deposit box there, and that Ben has absconded with the bonds and made the deal with Marshall.  However, Horace is able to use this knowledge to further his ends, explaining to Regina that, rather than accuse her brothers, he will instead call the money a loan from Regina, and leave the rest of his fortune to their daughter, resulting in Regina’s complete dependence on her brothers after Horace’s death.  Their confrontation, however, is too much for Horace’s health, and he dies before changing the will.  Regina is able to utilize her position with her brothers, then, to end up the financial winner.
Throughout the play, the conflicts over the changing nature of the South are highlighted again and again.  Marshall’s position as an outsider is part of this, as his image of the south as an unchanging aristocratic paradise is shown to be untrue, as Birdie’s drunken romanticism demonstrates.  Those who aspire to be like the North, however, like the Hubbards, are also shown to be amoral and corrupt.  Truly, the only sympathetic characters in the play are Alexandra and Addie and Cal, the two black servants.  These three are the only ones who take care of Horace; Addie, Alexandra, and Horace are also the only ones who show any sympathy for Birdie, who is presented as a pathetic creature unable to survive out of her own time.  Still, that the life for which Birdie yearns required the support of the plantation system makes it difficult for me at least to be fully sympathetic for her, as she represents the typical southern plantation novel claims that slavery was an acceptable system for those who treated their slaves “right.”  The treatment of the black characters is particularly interesting, especially given the repeated explanation of how the Hubbards earned their money.  Addie and Cal are not fully developed characters, but are there to further the plot and provide care for ailing white characters. 
Alexandra is presented as the true hope for the future, as she sincerely mourns for her father and rejects any overtures from her mother, even more so after learning the full scope of the machinations which have been taking place.  Regina plans to leave the South altogether and follow Marshall north to Chicago, which holds the promise of the kind of life unavailable to her as a southern woman.  After all, she claims that her behavior would not have been necessary had her father left her any money, rather than leaving it all to his male heirs.  Her brothers, however, refuse this explanation, as Ben repeatedly insists that she would be more successful if she would only be more feminine: “You’d get farther with a smile, Regina.  I’m a soft man for a woman’s smile” (73).  The play ends with Regina alone, rejected by her own daughter, who plans to leave as well: despite the larger themes of southern identity in the play, perhaps the most pressing question it raises is whether it is possible for the narrow identities allowed southern women to provide any happiness at all.  Is it possible for a proper southern woman to be happy?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Eudora Welty--The Ponder Heart (1954)

Edna Earle Ponder narrates this story about her Uncle Daniel, accused of murdering his estranged wife Bonnie Dee.  Taking place in rural Mississippi, Edna Earle runs the Beulah Hotel, a family business given to her by her Uncle Daniel after her grandfather turned it over to him to run.  Uncle Daniel, whom Grandpa at one point describes as hiding behind the door when brains were being handed out, was institutionalized at one point, though he managed to escape almost despite himself.  Once out of the asylum, he marries: first Miss Teacake Magee, and then Bonnie Dee Peacock.  His first marriage doesn’t last, and Bonnie Dee only agrees to marry him on a trial basis.  Eventually, she drives him out, and he leaves her living at the old homeplace while he lives at the hotel with his niece.  Bonnie Dee leaves town for a while, causing Uncle Daniel to pine for her and repeat the story of his heartbreak daily for the hotel’s dinner guests.  When she returns, she invites him back; upon his return, however, she is found dead, and Uncle Daniel is put on trial for her murder.  Fortunately, Uncle Daniel is acquitted.
Edna Earle is identifiable as a Welty narrator, for me evoking Sister in “Why I Live at the P.O.”  Though she makes occasional references to her on-again, off-again romance with Mr. Spring, a traveling salesman who occasionally stays at the Beulah Hotel, she is primarily a supporting character in her own story.  I read her role as caretaker and narrator as an important analysis of the role of women in Southern communities: in her own words, “I’m the go between, that’s what I am, between my family and the world.  I hardly ever get a word in for myself” (404). 
Bonnie Dee also reminds me of a Welty short story character, that of Lily Daw in “Lily Daw and the Women.”  Both Lily Daw and Bonnie Dee suck on flowers (357), an odd characteristic I’m curious about.  Though Bonnie Dee is often described as pretty as a doll, her appearance is marked as odd: “She was little and she was dainty….But I could tell by her little coon eyes, she was shallow as they come” (355).  Edna Earle claims to be able to read people from their appearances, a trait she connects to her job as innkeeper: “I don’t run the Beulah Hotel for nothing: I size people up: I’m sizing you up right now” (341).[1]  Like Lily Daw, her lack of intellect is apparently readable in her appearance, as well as connected to a certain implication of wantonness.
It would take a certain kind of wantonness to take advantage of a man as simple and sweet as Uncle Daniel.  His primary motivation in life was happiness; according to Edna Earle, “H loved happiness like I love tea” (343).  Such vulnerability also has a physiological manifestation, which is what is meant by the title reference to the “Ponder Heart”: “Well, it’s our hearts.  We run to sudden ends, all we Ponders.  I say it’s our hearts, though Dr. Ewbanks declares Grandpa just popped a blood vessel” (358).  While she’s referring specifically to their hereditary heart condition, she could also be referring to the vulnerability of their very way of life.  Though their family at one point was “rich as Croesus” (410), Uncle Daniel throughout the novella is constantly giving away not only their possessions and property, but cleans out their bank account and gives away most of their cash money as well.  There is a certain satirical tone about the South and its wealth and identity throughout the novel—at Uncle Daniel’s trial, a relative of Bonnie Dee is quite disparaging of the Ponders’ wealth, claiming that it comes from the fact that “the Ponders did not burn their cotton when Sherman came” (418).  And Edna Earle dismisses the judge’s authority because he “wasn’t even born in this county” (418). 
Published in 1954, the novella’s representation of and commentary on the South comes at a real moment of crisis and change for the American South.  In this texts, African Americans are still treated as childlike inferiors by the white people, and there does not seem to be any irony in this presentation (despite claims I have heard by Welty scholars to seem willing to perform major contortions to make Welty seem in retrospect to be much more (anachronistically) politically liberal that seems plausible).  Nevertheless, it’s a very fun read—Welty’s use of language is really stellar here, with lines such as, “with the wrong element going spang through the middle of it [the town] at ninety miles an hour on that new highway” (342). 

[1] As an aside, Welty several times uses this double colon sentence structure (which I don’t think I’ve seen before) in this story; I’m curious to think more about it’s meaning.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Kate Chopin--The Awakening (1899)

When Edna Pontellier is first described, the narrator says that “She was rather handsome than beautiful” (5).  The novel opens with Edna vacationing at Grand Isle with her husband and children.  Over the course of the summer there, she experiences the “awakening,” a growing awareness of herself as an individual spirit, apart from her identity as wife, mother and daughter.  Recognizing herself as different from the kind of “mother-women” who populate the beach, whose lives are filled with pregnancy and devotion to their children, Edna tries to explain her difference to her friend, Madame Ratignolle, who exemplifies just such a “mother-woman”: “”I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (46).  It is this enigmatic statement which sets up the rest of the story, as Edna works to uncover just what within herself is this “essential.”
The novel ends with her death, either by accident, or active or passive suicide, depending on the reader’s perspective and understanding of Edna.  She returns alone to Grand Isle and swims out too far to return.  As she swims, the narrator notes that “she understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adèle Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children” (108).  At the time of the novel’s release, it was condemned for its amorality: critics said that no woman would behave like this.  When I have read this book in classes, students are often critical of her leaving her children behind.  Typically, attention is brought to the lack of options which Edna has: although she has a caring, supportive husband who, despite his preoccupation with maintaining duties to society such as regular at-homes, does seem to genuinely desire Edna’s happiness, even in these best of circumstances, her options are quite limited.  There does not seem to be a way in which Edna can live a happy life.
Chopin seems to be drawing attention to the illusions with which people surround themselves, in an attempt to believe in their own happiness.  Throughout the novel, Edna discards and leaves behinds more and more people, items, and parts of her identity (itself possibly a suicidal characteristic): first in giving up her social obligations, then her move from her stately house on Esplanade for her “pigeon house” down the street, delivering her children to mother-in-law’s in the country, and finally her disrobing on the beach, standing naked by the ocean, which makes her feel “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known” (109).  Once again, the feeling that Edna is in a world in which she does not belong is evoked.
The story of the championing of the novel is as significant as the novel itself.  Upon its release in 1899, critics were appalled at its portrayal of such an amoral woman, and it went out of print.  It was not until the 1960s that it was rediscovered by a generation of feminist readers and scholars who championed and celebrated its honest and frank portrayal of both feminine sensuality and crisis.  Since then, however, it has become one of the most commonly read novels in higher education.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sherwood Anderson--Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Considered one of the earliest works of modernism, this collection of short stories is structured around the childhood and adolescence of protagonist George Willard who grows up in the small Ohio town of Winesburg.  Loosely based on Anderson’s own childhood in Clyde, Ohio, George wants to be a writer, and to that end writes for the town’s newspaper office, whose mission is to include as many names of locals in each issue.  The final story of the collection sees George leave Winesburg for the big city.
Each story follows a different character, and over the course of the collection a sense of the town’s character as well as the changes it undergoes over time emerges, as it takes place during a period characterized by “a sudden and almost universal turning from the old handicrafts towards our modern life of machines.”  While there is a certain romanticism present in many of these stories—or rather, romance, with so many stories following couples in the dark—there is also a certain frankness to these romances, as young men and women both succumb to physical desire, with few long-term ramifications other than emotional confusion and yearning.  Several men experience homoerotic desire, desire which is shunned and marked as wrong by the larger community, but the very presentation of such desire is quite startling in a text from 1919.
The collection is characterized as a collection of “grotesques,” and opens with a story of an old writer who leaves his bead in order to capture a sense of the parade of figures he seems to be haunted with in his old age, figure of all of the people he had ever known who in his head had become grotesques: “The grotesques were not all horrible.  Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness.”  Claiming to have read this unpublished collection of grotesques and have it “made an indelible impression on my mind,” the author then proceeds to write such a collection.  The word “grotesque” here highlights the very selective and stylized nature not only of Anderson’s own writing, but of the nature of writing in general.  In keeping with the larger themes which would become so important in the works of high modernism, in which authors experimented with forms in an attempt to make a real connection, to more fully convey a human experience, Anderson early on identifies the difficulty (and potential futility) in any such attempt.  By rejecting any larger theme of plot or narrative for instead this collection of stories and characterizations, Anderson creates a very real and believable community.