Friday, June 29, 2012

Tennessee Williams--A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, Streetcar follows Stanley, Stella, and Blanche in Stanley and Stella’s apartment in New Orleans.  Its New Orleans setting is a heavy influence on the story, for its jazz and its sense of decayed beauty, a place where Stella’s sister Blanche has to take a “street-care named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields” (I.1).  Blanche is described as having a “delicate beauty [which] must avoid a strong light.  There is something about her unusual manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth” (I.1).  Blanche, like New Orleans, is a decaying beauty, and it is her fraying beauty which gives away her own immorality.  Stanley, her foil, is of an animalistic masculinity: “Since early manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women…with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens” (I.1).  (Notice how his masculinity is defined as sexual and in contrast to hens.)  Interestingly, Blanche’s difficulties are traced to her marriage to a “beautiful and talented man [who] was a degenerate” (I.7)—as with many Williams’ plays, the taint of homosexual masculinity is present and degenerative.

W. J. Cash--The Mind of the South (1941)

Even in retrospect, Cash’s text still remains a rather cogent masterpiece in describing the history and emergence of the “mind of the South” as he saw it in 1941.  Keeping in mind the caveats noted in the 1991 introduction by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, especially that of his audience—which was generally an audience of like-minded, white, middle class-to-affluence southern men—Cash sketches out the evolution of the current state of the South, at least from his vantage point.  Cash’s definition of the South is based on the Civil War: “roughly delimited by the boundaries of the former Confederate States of America, but shading over into some of the border states, notably Kentucky also” (xlviii).  One of the most significant reasons why Cash thinks the South has developed so differently from the North is that he sees it as kept in a series of frontier stages—pre-Civil War frontier, post-Civil War destruction and Reconstruction which returned the South to a frontier status, and then finally a burgeoning industrialization period (under the leadership of Henry Grady and those who shared his vision of a South who will beat the North at their own game), which when compared to the North continued to keep the South in a kind of frontier status (especially the poor whites, who were used as mill fodder, just as they were used as cannon fodder during the Civil War).
This continuing frontier status allowed the South to keep values more in keeping with frontier communities: fierce independence, romanticism, and violence.  This self-reinforcing values combine with what Cash identifies as gyneolatry.  After making an argument that the South has long been viewed as a quarantined area of sexual deviance (an argument which Gary Richards quite convincingly makes in his 2007 Lovers and Beloveds: Sexual Otherness in Southern Fiction), he then explains that the southern white woman grew to represent the South itself, and any attacks against her were understood to be attacks on the very traditions of the South itself: “the Yankee must be answered by proclaiming from the housetops that Southern Virtue, so far from being inferior, was superior, not only to the North’s but to any on earth, and adducing Southern Womanhood in proof” (86).  His discussion of the threat of sexual violence in the South is unsatisfying: in contrast to the white southern woman (which he does not even identify as “white,” assuming that the descriptor of “Southern woman” as sufficient (84)), and even more so in his discussion of black female sexuality: “Nor…must we overlook the specific role played by the Negro woman.  Torn from her tribal restraints and taught an easy complaisance for commercial reasons, she was to be had for the taking….For she was natural, and could give herself up to passion in a way impossible to wives inhibited by Puritanical training”(84).  I find “taught an easy complaisance for commercial reasons” a troubling euphemism for “raped.”
While his discussion of the contemporary race relations seems a bit naïve (or at least overly optimistic) for 1941, one of the most significant aspects of his discussion of racism and lynching in the 20th century South is his insistence that it is not simply the province of the lower classes.  Rather, Cash important observes that “the major share of the responsibility in all those areas where the practice [of lynching] has remained common rests squarely on the shoulders of the master classes” (303).  He makes similar assertions about the KKK, claiming that they were made up primarily of lower class and poorer whites, though “its blood…came from the upper orders” (336).
Additionally, his discussion of the threat of sexual violence against white women by black men is equally troubling.  While he admits that “It is true that the actual danger of the southern white woman’s being violated by the Negro has always been comparatively small,” he maintains that “if the actual danger was small, it was nevertheless the most natural thing in the world for the South to see it as very great, to believe in it, fully and in all honesty, as a menace requiring the most desperate measures if it was to be held of,” because of the fear and terror of white women, the “neurotic old maids and wives, hysterical young girls”(115).  Cash scapegoats pretty much everyone for the southern rape complex—everyone, that is, except white men, of whom  there is plenty of documentation of perpetrating actual rapes (though as most of these are against slave women, I’m dubious if Cash would have characterized them as rape).
Cash claims both that the South has had a hierarchical class system, and yet is a much more democratic system than the North; the backbends of logic he undertakes to support this is rather ludicrous.  First he gives a rather essentialist depiction of class, locating class status as a biological (perhaps even genetic) characteristic: when describing the lazy type of the white trash southerner, he describes it as manifesting in a “distinctive, physical character—a striking lankness of frame and slackness of muscle in association with a shambling gait, a boniness and mis-shapeliness of head and feature, a peculiar sallow swartness, or alternatively a not less peculiar  and not less sallow faded-out colorlessness of skin and hair” (24).  Despite his subsequent claim that it is impossible for even the best southern stock to have been diluted with inferior blood, and the fact that quality southern folk still abound disprove the validity of such a genetic basis for character, his argument rings rather false to me.  Rather, the analogy that he makes in his “Of Time and Frontiers” section regarding how a family of brothers can, within a few generations, result with widely disparate social conditions—to the point that relatives with the same name will no longer be aware of their own kinship—seems a weak example of social Darwinism (albeit one which is echoed in Gone with the Wind) (27).
It is in the post-bellum South that Cash claims the real myth of the aristocratic Old South took hold (124).  Such mythology was reified by characteristics of the South which Cash throughout his text identifies as its primary values, across the entire South: sentimentality, politics, and love of rhetoric characteristics which were present in the antebellum period, but which only grew stronger under the torture of Reconstruction (126).  Importantly, though, one of the most important aspects of the South’s struggle under Reconstruction was its tragic dependence on cotton as its key crop: not only did such a one-crop strategy deplete land already unsuitable for the crop, depleting the land of its fecundity, but it also meant that the “yeomen and poor whites” who were “converted to cotton culture…no longer produced provender enough at home to take care of themselves and their animals form crop to crop, and must, therefore, somehow manage to secure it from outside” (147).  Further, once the South began to pursue technological progress, Cash importantly points out that the mill system was at heart another plantation: “the Southern mill factory almost invariably was…a plantation, essentially indistinguishable in organization from the familiar plantation of the cotton fields” (200)—because “Progress depended upon the cheapness of labor was a new and powerful block upon any possible advance en masse for the lower classes in the South” (203).  The South’s pursuit of progress encouraged a return to individualistic thinking, and the plantation/factory system meant that poor whites, needing a scapegoat for their poverty, were encouraged to view blacks as their enemy.  Loyalty, instead, grew to the twinned giants of Progress and Religion, which were considered the be-all saviors. 
Interesting to my own work is Cash’s brief description of another “type”: the “Yankee schoolma’am who, in such numbers, moved down upon the unfortunate South in the train of the army of occupation, to “educate” the black man for his new place in the sun and to furnish an example of the Christian love and philanthropy to the benighted native whites.  Generally horsefaced, bespectacled, and spare of frame, she was, of course, no proper intellectual but at best a comic character, at worst a dangerous fool, playing with explosive forces which she did not understand….if she not was not an intellectual, the South, with its vague standards in these manners, accepted her as such.  It saw her, indeed, as a living epitome of the Yankee mind, identified her essentially with Northern universities, read in the evils springing abundantly from her meddlesome stupidity categorical proof that Northern ‘theory’ was in toto altogether mad” (137).  Though he makes a brief aside to blame the northern journalist as well, it is clear that he lays the majority of the blame on meddling northern women.
He then discusses the seeming paradox that the South during Reconstruction, as it became more religious and anti-intellectual, began to for the first time develop a real literature of its own.  However, he explains the paradox that much of the literature, with the exception of Sidney Lanier, was quite propaganda-esque in nature, in its nostalgia for the Old South, noting Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, and George Washington Cable (the Grandissimes in particular) as examples.  I’m a bit confused by this last characterization—while Cash notes that the The Grandissimes is “so predominately a piece of sentimental glorification that it goes mainly unread nowadays, yet had so many flashes of untrammeled insight, so many sudden lapses into realism, that his countrymen actually denounced it as libel” (143).  Certainly, The Grandissimes relies heavily on sentimentalism, but I don’t see how the story of Bras Coupé (or of Honoré Grandissime, f.m.c.) can be considered “sentimental glorification.”
Interestingly, he points to Ellen Glasgow as the first example of a writer in the South who was “approach[ing] the materials of her world almost exclusively from the viewpoint of an artist” (144).  He then gives her as an example, along with James Joyce, of authors to which educated southerners turned in the 1920s instead of traditional southern authors such as Thomas Nelson Page (325).  In his discussion of the flowering of southern literature in the 1920s and 1930s, he points to Barren Ground (1925) as “the first real novel, as opposed to romances, the South had brought forth” (374).  He considers Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner together with Thomas Wolfe, deeming Caldwell and Faulkner “romantics of the appalling” (378).  The success of these generations of authors in creating a truly southern literature, according to Cash, was their ability to stand “intellectually at least, pretty decisively outside the region,” no longer writing about the South as “Never-Never Land” (379).  In his analysis of the rise of the Vanderbilt Agrarians in the wake of Mencken’s “Sahara of the Bozart,” he says that, “These men were mouthpieces of the fundamental, f sometimes only subterranean, will of the South to hold to the old way: the spiritual heirs of Thomas Nelson Page.  And their first joint declaration, I’ll Take My Stand, was, like their earlier prose works, essentially a determined reassertion of the validity of the legend of the Old South” (380).

John Steinbeck--The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family in their migration from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma west to the promised land of California.  What’s sadly striking about it is how timely the commentary still seems, about how the banks and corporations are inhuman monsters destroying human lives, and even the sections such as Chapter 7, told from the perspective of a used car salesman, is voice which resonates with texts such as Glengarry, Glenn Ross and even Fargo.  However, Al is not completely their fool, and his explanation for buying that particular car—that its parts are readily available, for example (100)—shows the Joads to be more unfortunate victims of circumstance, rather than ignorant yokels—even if they do seem to mostly believe the hype about the wonders of California.  However, even at the outset, it’s clear that it’s more that they believe they hype because that’s the only thing left to believe.  This is in stark contrast to something like Tobacco Road, which was published seven years before The Grapes of Wrath, and treats its characters with much less respect than Grapes of Wrath does, even though both novels are making similar indictments of big business.  Grapes of Wrath, goes a step further in its articulation of the situation, with statements such as, “fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe” (151).
The novel uses interesting changes in points of view throughout, moving from following the third person omniscient narrator pretty closely following the Joads, to passages of more general narration of the landscape and setting (which is at times a bit heavy on the symbolism), to third person narration of scenes involving generic types (the used car salesman, for example, or the workers in the diner) to narrate difficult scenes involving the Joads—the diner scene, for example, in which dialogue between Mae (the waitress) and Big Bill (the truck driver) reveals that a family which sounds like the Joads have been in an accident in which a child was killed.  We assume that he is talking about the Joads, though it turns out to be another family.  Our relief is tempered by the reminder that the Joads story is emblematic of so many others.
Over the course of the novel, the importance of community is emphasized again and again.  What started as a family migration became from the very beginning a community endeavor, as the former pastor, Casy, is included in the trip.  Early on, the Joads collaborate with the Wilsons, joining forces in their grief for their grandfather who dies early on in the trip as well as in more practical matters, pooling their resources.  The communal camp that the Joads live in in California exemplifies the potential for pooling of resources; however, such potential must be stanched, as it is detrimental to profit margins.  Steinbeck drives home the message again and again that the only way out of crises is community and collaboration, not profit and exchange, ending the book with the Rose of Sharon, who has just delivered a stillborn child, nursing a sick, starving stranger as the families wait out the storm outside.  Steinbeck, then, finds a way to end the novel both without assuaging any of the dangers he’s evoked, but yet still on a feeling of hope and possibility.  True charity, however, is the only solution.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Paule Marshall--Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)

This bildungsroman of sorts follows Selina, American daughter of Barbadoan immigrants, as she grows up in Brooklyn during the 1930s and 1940s.  Throughout most of her childhood, she worships her father and feels anger toward her mother—to the point that her mother is often referred to as “the mother” throughout the text.  Her parents represent two very different immigrant positions in American: her father, who left Barbados for what he thought would be the promised land of America, has been disillusioned by the racism he’s experienced in America, and has given up, only coming up with schemes to try to get back to Barbados.  Her mother works several jobs and keeps tenants, in an attempt to buy the brownstone they rent to try to establish a foothold of success.  Over the course of the novel, her mother becomes more and more involved in the Barbadoan community in Brooklyn, made up of those who similarly sacrifice and at times run roughshod over others in order to try to make it in the face of American racism.
It really isn’t until Selina leaves her immediate community and goes to college that she really starts to understand what has motivated her mother for so long.  Though she still believes in her father’s dream of Barbados, her exposure to the wider world of racism in college toward the novel’s end finally allows her to wake up, somewhat, to the nature of the struggles which she has witnessed—but never completely understood—her entire life.  Dissatisfied with the various solutions she encounters—career ambition, acquisition of money, sex, marriage, art—at the novel’s end, she has decided to go to Barbados alone.  Though on the surface it represents her father’s dream, she realizes that it in fact shows her to be her mother’s child, telling her mother: “Everybody used to call me Deighton’s Selina but they were wrong.  Because you see I’m truly your child.  Remember how you used to talk about how you left home and came here alone as a girl of eighteen and was your own woman?  I used to lave hearing that.  And that’s what I want.  I want it!” (265).
An interesting element of the novel is of the Barbadoan immigrant experience in America.  Not only is there prejudice within the community toward not only other marginalized communities—such as against their Jewish bosses—but also against other blacks in America as well, whom many of the Barbadoans look down on.  Also interesting are the assumptions made by the whites Selina encounter, many of whom assume Selina must be from the South.  Regardless of these assumptions, though, as Selina’s circle expands, she realizes that many are only able to see her skin color, and are incapable of seeing any aspect of her humanity.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Judith Butler--Bodies that Matter (1993)

Ultimately, in this text Butler wishes to “think further about the workings of heterosexual hegemony in the crafting of matters sexual and political” (xii).  Specifically, she asks if there is a “way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender” (1), a question which is connected to my different question about the materiality of the body which is judged “ugly.”  Though she admits that even the materiality of the body is difficult to differentiate from its surroundings— “Not only did bodies tend to indicate a world beyond themselves, but this movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies ‘are’” (ix)—she still insists that there is such a thing as materiality of the body.  Further, this materiality has a demonstrable effect on the performance of gender.  Addressing criticisms that her previous work has been so focused on the performative aspects of gender, to the point of some questioning if there’s anything but constructions.  However, I like her observation that even constructions have a real effect, that “certain constructions appear constitutive, that is, have this character of being that ‘without which’ we could not think at all” (xi).
While Butler goes along with the general understanding that gender is culturally constructed[1] and sex is physiologically based, she makes the important point that sexual difference itself is also culturally constructed: “Sexual difference, however, is never simply a function of material differences which are not in some way both marked and formed by discursive practices” (1).  Invoking Foucault, she observes that sex not only functions as a norm in society, but “is part of a regulatory process that produces the bodies it governs” (1).  She stresses the importance of reiteration in the process of sexual differentiation, and points out “that this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialization is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled” (2).[2] 
Butler defines materiality in terms of power,[3] as “an effect of power, as power’s most productive effect” (2).[4]  As “the materiality of the body will not be thinkable apart from the materialization of that regulatory norm,” so sex is “one of the norms by which the ‘one’ becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility” (2).  Butler is talking about abjection here, as intelligibility being necessary for acknowledgement by and interpellation in the system.  She delineates the following as being at stake in her discussion:
(1) the recasting of  the matter of bodies as the effect of a dynamic of power, such that the matter of bodies will be indissociable from the regulatory norms that govern their materialization and the signification of those material effects; (2) the understanding of performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains; (3) the construal of “sex” no longer as a bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but as a cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies; (4) a rethinking of the process by which a bodily norm is assumed, appropriated, taken on as not, strictly speaking “I,” is formed by virtue of having gone through such a process of assuming a sex; and (5) a linking of this process of “assuming” a sex with the question of identification,[5] and with the discursive means by which the heterosexual imperative enables certain sexed identifications and forecloses and/or disavows other identifications. (2-3)
And in conclusion, this “exclusionary matrix…requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject” (3).[6]
Butler explains that “the forming of a subject requires an identification with the normative phantasm of sex”; this identification “creates the valence of ‘abjection’ and its status for the subject as a threatening spectre” (3).  This seems to be a good explanation for the gothic nature of so much the ugly women in the work I’m looking at; the threat of ugliness is always there.  Butler goes on to say that “the mobilization of the categories of sex within political discourse will be haunted in some ways by the very instabilities that the categories effectively produce and foreclose” (4).  Again, there’s this idea of hauntedness and ghosts: I wonder if this might speak to Yeager’s thesis in Dirt and Desire, that the dirt and ugliness in southern literature marks a history of racial violence?  Incorporating Butler’s ideas here, perhaps ugliness in a similar way speaks to a history of gender and sexual insecurity and even violence?  Certainly, the racial aspect is coded in the very definitions of ugliness, as beauty is typically defined in terms of a white, upper-class idea.  As sex is used to regulate “which bodies matter,” as Butler articulates (4), so, too, beauty is used to regulate which personae matter.  Those who are marked as ugly, then, inhabit a different space—but it’s an important space worth investigating.
Butler refers to these spaces, these “excluded sites,” as ones which “come to bound the ‘human’ as its constitutive outside, and to haunt those boundaries as the persistent possibility of their disruption and rearticulation” (8).  So perhaps that’s why the 1930s and 1940s—with the fear of the “new woman” rampant—have so many ugly women in them, as the fear of “rearticulation” was wide-ranging.  As Butler says, “the limits of constructivism are exposed at those boundaries of bodily life where abjected or deligitimated bodies fail to count as ‘bodies’” (15), and so what is counted as “ugly” so exposes the limits of acceptable bodies in the South.  Further, the South itself as a marginalized space—one which the rest of the country uses to confirm its own boundaries and identities—is so often the “ugly” side of the United States (accused of racism, racial violence, sexual deviancy) that perhaps some of the ugly women in the literature are simply reaffirming this idea?  Or perhaps it’s what Flannery O’Connor said, that those in the South can still identify a freak.  Given the emphasis on southern beauty,[7] are ugly women perhaps are deployed to act as a foil to southern beauty?  Or simply reflect the ugly nature of the South?  Southern literature itself so often tells the stories of those considered less than human (whether through the dark humor of Tobacco Road or more tragically in Barren Ground) that it’s already comfortable with a mode that presents what’s often considered uninhabitable zones. 
She begins by addressing the antagonism she observes between “post-structuralism” and :the body.”  Questioning the “material irreducibility of sex” as well as the idea that everything can be reduced to a text (and thus is rendered ultimately meaningless), Butler wishes to consider “the scenography and topography of construction.  This scenography is orchestrated by and as a matrix of power that remains disarticulated if we presume constructedness and materiality as necessarily oppositional notions” (28).  Importantly, she goes on to consider the very category of “woman”: “the category of women does not become useless through deconstruction, but becomes one whose uses are no longer reified as ‘referents,’ and which stand a chance of being opened up, indeed, of coming to signify in ways that none of us can predict in advance” (29); in fact, she says it is possible to both use the term woman at the same time one is subjecting it to critique.
She then gives a rather extensive consideration to the “sex of materialism,” concluding with the observation that, “to invoke matter is to invoke a sedimented history of sexual hierarchy and sexual erasures which should surely be an object of feminist inquiry, but which would be quite problematic as a ground of feminist theory” (49).  From here, she moves on to examining the meaning of the phallus by both Freud and Lacan, considering the ways in which it has been both connected to and disconnected from the material site of the penis.  In her section on the “lesbian phallus,” Butler states that, “Insofar as any reference to a lesbian phallus appears to be a spectral representation of a masculine original, we might well question the spectral production of the putative ‘originality’ of the masculine” (63). 
In this section, she addresses the very question of what we should consider as constituting the very body itself.  She says, “psychic projection confers boundaries and, hence, unity on the body, so that the very contours of the body are sites that vacillate between the psychic and the material.  Bodily contours and morphology are not merely implicated in an irreducible tension between the psychic and the material but are that tension” (66).  In reaching a consideration of Lacan’s description of the recognition of bodily boundaries during the mirror stage, Butler explains how such bodily differentiation is connected to language development as well.  She then focuses more specifically on the emergence of sexed positions (or gender), particularly in Lacan’s system.  She importantly not only highlights the heterosexual bias implicit in Lacan’s description of interpellation into gender, but more importantly calls attention to the necessity of paying attention to the function of repudiation inherent in identity formation.  Admitting that repudiation is irreducibly a part of differentiation, Butler insists that “It will be a matter of tracing the ways in which identification is implicated in what it excludes, and to follow the lines of that implication for the map of future community that it might yield” (119).

[1] Her discussion about the nature of construction is quite useful, especially in terms of quelling criticisms about the prime mover in gender construction.  More importantly, I like her characterization of gender (and gendering) as a relational action: “gendering is, among other things, the differentiating relations by which speaking subjects come into being.  Subjected to gender, but subjectivated by gender, the ‘I’ neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering, but emerges only within and as the matrix of gender relations themselves” (7)
[2] Ugliness, perhaps, calls attention to itself in never quite meeting these ideals.  And reiteration only works to emphasize their failure to comply—like the sounds of corners of square pegs scraping against round holes.  As Butler notes, “it is the instabilities, the possibilities for rematerialization, opened up by this process that can mark one domain in which the force of the regulatory law can be turned against itself to spawn rearticulations that call into question the hegemonic force of that very regulatory law” (2).
[3] She later clarifies power, in Foucault’s original use of the term, as that which “orchestrates the formation and sustenance of subjects,” and construction as “a process of reiteration by which both ‘subjects’ and ‘acts’ come to appear at all”: “there is not power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability” (9).
[4] Throughout the text, Butler returns to the problem which grammar brings to discussions of power, as “power is not a subject which acts on bodies as its distinct objects.  The grammar which compels us to speak that way enforces a metaphysics of external relations, whereby power acts on bodies but is not understood to form them.  This is a view of power as an external relation that Foucault himself calls into question” (34)
[5] Perhaps this is related to the poor aunt in The Old Order, whose life was determined by her lack of a chin?
[6] Ugliness complicates this inside/outside binary.  Ugly people have a particular kind of subjecthood—in fact, that which makes us stare (as opposed to appearances which we try to ignore or don’t even see) gives the ugly person a certain kind of power, in that she can’t be ignored.  The kind of ugliness caused by indifference to appearance demonstrates another kind of freedom (as Barbara Ladd discusses).  And while perhaps the ugly are abject to a certain kind of system—Lily Daw, for example, being unsuitable for the marriage economy—this dismissal frees them for other things.  Because there are so many women in southern literature who live in this “zone of uninhabitability” (3) as Butler calls it, I think there must be some sort of interesting life going on there.  Maybe because traditional southern femininity is so often unable or unwilling to bestow subjecthood on women?
[7] See that annoying post-feminist Garden and Gun article.