The excellent new issue of PANK Magazine has some excerpts from The Book of Scab, my fake-ish memoir epistolary novel ‘under the sign of poetry’ (a phrase I borrow from our brilliant friend Kate Zambreno). This includes MP3s of me reading the excerpts wherein you cannot hear my teenaged neighbor playing a warbly, tripped-out electric guitar version of the melody to Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” but rest assured I could. The first excerpt is ars poetica re: beauty & sincerity:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I wanted to make something clean. Don’t you know? I wanted to make something that was not porous, no matter how closely you looked—and not you, but your machine, lens exponential in its uncompromising pronouncement. Something without fleck or pore, without texture. I wanted to make a surface that exceeded all classical efforts in its commitment to beauty. I did, then. Like everyone.
Did I lose my taste for beauty, or did I just cross into the room where its mask was worn?
(The second is all crush-abduction–maybe a hint of Johannes’s Dear Ra Shirley Temple gender-inverted–and the third has psychic powers, FYI. Includes melodramatic sincerity & brattiness. No sadcore tigers, yet, unless you count Mötley Crüe.)
Carina Finn’s throwdown “MELODRAMA IS THE NEW SINCERITY” reminds us that in order to convince the normate (see Rosmarie Garland-Thomson) of one’s sincerity, a feminine subject must do things like widen her eyes, tear up (real or with irritants; see America’s Next Top Model crying photo shoots), dilate her pupils with physical effort-conjuring-special drops (movies often use the drops; pupil dilation also conveys sexy feelings and possible anime conversion!), tilt her head (trust; exposed jugular; etc.), spread her hands out in front of her (see “The Girl Without Hands” Grimm 031), and show restraint in the face (on the face!) of overwhelming emotion (see Boris Kachka on Joan Didion in the recent New York Magazine: “Both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are recognizably memoirs of grief, but they’re rendered in Didion’s familiar remote voice. It’s an oddly effective fit: Her coolness plays against the genre’s sentimental excesses but still allows her to avoid argument and indulge in open-ended reveries built from repetitions of painful facts.”).
It’s not surprising. Identity studies has long demonstrated that if marginalized subjects wish to communicate sincerity, trustworthiness, honesty, and the like to those in power, they must early on learn to properly perform humble and subjugated gestures. & since none of us is a performance-bot, these embodiments become complex messaging systems (see, for instance, George Yancy Black Bodies, White Gazes). Like any other, the learned sincerity-performance may be internalized, may become a central component of the subject’s experience of essential self. When I meet your eye, widen my eyes, when I blink back the tears, am I revealing myself or my construction? I’m sure I don’t know.
As part of the social contract, as elements of performances which often protect us from violence, suspicion, slander, etc. we take these gestures for granted and attribute to them a naturalness, particularly when we remain isolated in our own cultural contexts. Consider eye-contact. Scholar Susannah Mintz points out how astutely Georgina Kleege’s memoir & monograph on blindness Sight Unseen denaturalizes vision, destabilizes its power, and asks us to question how sincere/deeply-telling/soul-connective eye contact is when we consider how blind individuals can manufacture many of its markers (see Feminist Disability Studies). Mintz points out that Kleege calls this “faking” (well analyzed by Mintz). What we might come to realize is that when we lower our chins and make eye contact through that pretty fringe of lashes, or when we furrow our brows and lean into the interlocutor, we too are faking something–or adjusting for something–or performing the ballet that says I-wish-I-could-extend-myself.
& it’s not surprising that poetry (or other arts) would assume and contribute to the (seeming) naturalness of dominate modes of affect performance. Poets are products of the culture as much as anyone. But when poets buck against these modes and their readers cannot process unusual performances of affect (melodramatic-sincerity, for instance), we’ve got a literacy problem. When readers fail to recognize an affect because they’re only looking to receive its most common denominator, we’re not analyzing. We’re just skimming for hot relatability (as the kids would say). We also fail at interpersonal literacy. What gives you feelings doesn’t always give me feelings, and certainly we don’t get the same feelings off the same works, so what do we risk when we privilege one emotional currency over another?
Some thinkingaloud to mull:
-Teenage dramadies (see above, Blair Waldorf, who’s actually expressing disdain, but totes sincere in her expression) center around the ever-scheming teenage girl’s capacity to perform a flawless sincerity (repentant, affectionate, self-effacing, etc.). The viewer doesn’t simply follow along, but is brought in to experience the subterfuge as s/z/he falls time and again for the reformed act. We know the good girl harbors secrets. We know the girl gets possessed by demons. Can the girl, and by extension the feminine subject, ever perform a believable sincerity? (Notice how rarely my “believable” has a subject to do the believing! Panoptical!)
-Consider the media coverage of Amanda Knox or Casey Anthony. Consider Joan Didion: is her sincerity effective because of its masculinized restraint (note the article’s attention to Didion’s remove which serves to support the suggestions that she’s 1. a questionable mother and 2. a writer who deserves greater recognition).Under what conditions is feminine sincerity believable? Does it require more or less hyperbolic performativity than masculine sincerity? What happens when the subject’s gender performance defies the norms?
-How are ableist systems reinforced by the performance of sincerity required of subjects with disabilities who seek accommodation?
-Does the white or hetero or otherwise privileged feminine subject have greater latitude to screw with the performance of these affects so intimately tied to our safety, security, success in the patriarchy? I love the brattiness Carina explores, and would love to see other thinkers join her in its expansion. I wonder about its relationship to privilege. Which isn’t a slight. If Lana Del Rey’s privilege is what allows her to–via performance–critique heteronormative expectations of femininity, whiteness, wealth, etc., then I’m glad. Thank goodness someone’s using her power for this. What about bratty performances by feminine subjects of color, with disabilities, working class, etc.?
-What do mirror neurons have to do with it? Let’s go read: “Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula”: Mirror Neuron Theory and Emotional Empathy by Ruth Leys, Johns Hopkins University
I’ll be writing about some of this for a Feminist Poetics issue of Evening Will Come… more on that when it happens!