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Sisterhood

A woman appears onscreen. Her hair is short. While the film is black and white, by the colour gradations I assume she is a redhead. She’s wearing sleek, cat-eye glasses and a polka-dot blouse, while holding a book as one holds a cafeteria tray. She has fair skin and delicate features; her dimples run deep. Sitting in the small, dark room screening Clayton Cubitt’s film Hysterical Literature at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, I am both aware and unaware that today is Valentine’s Day. That is to say, more so than most holidays, if you want to you can forget this one is happening – but you’ll have to stay indoors. And we didn’t, my boyfriend and I. We’re not mentioning the day, but we’re living in it: the other couples around us, in cars, indoors – when did this happen, the fury of coupling? It began to snow moments before we left Northampton, Massachusetts, and as we watched it fall from the kitchen window we had a talk about whether or not we’d go anywhere at all, whether or not we could leave the house, which soon became a talk about what kind of people we both are without our ever saying so explicitly, and also became a call to arms against winter malaise and the circumscribed community one finds in small town New England. We’ve both been indoors so much of the last month and under the impression that little rests between our insanity and faux composure, although this isn’t true, not for us, not for most. We are, unfortunately, so much of our put together selves. And what it will really take may not seem like a lot, although it is. And so we leave; and I undergo that particular staying of the mind, which must take place, when driving in the conspiratorial quiet of new and heavy snow.

 

I have entered this screening space, have found myself standing before this woman – messianic as a large, disembodied torso – and this museum as I enter every exhibition: I look for some form of orientation. I look for familiar names. I look for exhibition descriptions and I hope to be surprised. I let my body follow the motion that the space exhorts it to – whichever direction the architecture propels me. Sitting in this small, dark room, at the back of the Bibliophilia exhibit, I watch a reedier and younger version of Julianne Moore smile and introduce herself.

 

‘Hi,’ she says. ‘My name is Stormy Leather and I will be reading American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.’ This woman is inarguably attractive, a universally pleasant face, taut and angular; made even more classic by the black and white film, and even more statuesque by Cubitt’s keeping step with several commercial conventions – a soft-focus lens, distinct by its redemptive qualities, and blown out lighting. It’s so dreamy, the whole scene. Stormy holds up her book and smiles charmingly, in the style of a salesperson. It works for me, she works for me, just as it is intended. That is to say, like a commercial, which operates a bit like a spider, by stunning and mesmerising its prey – they make you watch. Stormy begins to read: ‘Whitney Houston burst onto the music scene in 1985 with her self-titled LP which had four number one hit singles on it, including “The Greatest Love of All”…’

 

What makes a scene – a real-life one – feel like a confabulation? When does life become a dream? It is not easy to know. But it could be the four words that come before ‘life is but a dream’ in the nursery rhyme: merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. These words are here to lull us; any word in succession is designed for that purpose, to detach itself from its etymological intentions. They are designed to distract. ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ was, likely, originally created and sung by white people in blackface as part of a minstrel show, appropriating and blowing to hell African American rhetoric, song, and entertainment – all in the name of plundering, American fun. But on its surface the rhyme is entrancing, it repeats and coils, just like a dream. I don’t know; I can’t say precisely why real life begins to feel dreamy sometimes. But I can say that Stormy reading American Psycho – especially considering that it is this part, Patrick Bateman’s soliloquized review of Whitney Houston’s album, Whitney Houston – is, for me, but a horrifying dream. Bateman reviews the album with as much depth and flat lining neurotic obsession as he does his murders, while retaining his trademark clinical, capitalist savagery in his inflection. Bateman bought and killed to own. And it’s imperative as a formal literary choice, for several reasons, but it also churns because I love Whitney Houston, we love Whitney – not just in America – everyone, everywhere loves Whitney. To not is to disavow the elusive dream that Whitney represents: young, black, middle-class New Jersey girl in the gospel choir to background vocals in Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ to one of pop music’s best-selling music artists of all-time. There’s feminine muscle, the tenacity white America loves to ascribe to women of colour. Whitney as Rachel – or Rachel as Whitney – in The Bodyguard tells us that someone will save us from the systems that fail us and that someone is a brooding man drinking a glass of milk alone in the dark. When I think of all the national anthems I’ve heard sung, none are as stunning as the one delivered by Whitney Houston before Super Bowl XXV in 1991 in Tampa. The hinges of her jaw seem to be double jointed, her mouth opens so wide, so casually, and it’s almost as if that sublimity puffs out from some deep, bottomless reserve, effortlessly. It’s not like most renditions of America’s national anthem, whitewashing all sporting events with the grammar of exceptionalism. It’s different. I remember watching this one on Youtube over and over several years ago. At the time I was bartending at an Oxford, Mississippi, oyster place, a year out from graduating college, terribly depressed, one foot in a consuming relationship, the other foot out, wheels spinning in mud; and as I began to set up the bar each afternoon, alone, slicing lemons and limes, I would play Whitney’s national anthem, first thing, and for just a moment, I would feel a sort of charge, a boost, a shifting of my mental state.

 

Stormy continues. ‘She was also cited as best new artist of the year by Billboard and by Rolling Stone magazine. With all this hype one might expect the album to be an anticlimactic…’

 

On this word – and this is too ironic for invention – Stormy begins, pauses, restarts and sounds it out phonetically, anti-cli-mac-tic, displaying an obvious difficulty focusing before continuing.

 

In the film a series of polished women of varying races, ages, professions and bodies sit at a table and attempt to read works of literature, which they’ve chosen themselves, while being distracted and stimulated underneath the table by an assistant holding a vibrator. Each new session – new woman, new text – begins with the subject and her book, a self-introduction, and ends in the same way: a repeated introduction from the woman of her person and text, immediately after her climax. This format is not only redolent of commercial-quality flourishes, but it also takes several cues from television, a highly manipulative medium. The TV series fosters an ethos of comfort and stasis by maintaining several control elements – same characters each week, theme music, etc – but subverts expectations slightly in each episode to keep you surprised, eager and ultimately, to keep you tethered. The TV series invites you to identify with its protagonists. The hours one spends watching Mad Men; they are your friends and kin and this is where your home is. We watch a show like this when we can identify with its characters, in some subliminal, aspirational way, and we begin to subtly alter our behaviours and preferences around Don Draper, Peggy Olson and Joan Harris; we want to be and conquer them.

 

While all sessions begin and end in the same way, utilising a ‘theme music’, each woman delivers her reading, her body and her orgasm differently; they could be broken down into categories and conscripted into psychosexual charts – the giggler, the groaner, the nonplussed – providing a taxonomy of the female orgasm by Cubbit’s directive. The camera keeps rolling for a few seconds, post-crescendo, past when the subject thinks the film has cut, so the viewer can see the laughing, the headshake, the glee, the satisfied sigh. I laugh along with them. I am in it. Somehow, it feels intimate, between each woman and myself.

 

But in this room I am not alone. My boyfriend is on his knees a few feet in front of me – his turquoise sweatshirt bobbing as he shifts his legs. He is also in it, laughing along with them, and scribbling notes into his notebook. I take out cashews and offer him one, but he is in an at-work posture. He is writing down everything that is happening, taking copious notes. He is laughing, too.

 

‘What are you doing?’ I whisper.

 

He holds up the notebook just a bit, as if to say, ‘This, of course.’ He is taking notes. He will use this in some way, in some work, I assume – because he is a writer – but I want him to stop. I am feeling unreasonable. This is mine, I think, but do not say to him. It is Valentine’s Day and later I’m supposed to host a Goth Love party with a group of friends, other couples, for which I’ve already laid out a black mesh shirt. I am trying to plan a party, and while I do not know it yet because of the storm setting in, I have an inkling that my plans will fail. We had trouble getting here because the snow was coming in thick curtains, and it hasn’t stopped. Instead, it has picked up, but we’ve resigned ourselves to whatever fate awaits. We may be stuck here now. And it may be in part because of this – the torrential snow – that we are able to stay here and not think of time passing. It is such a great thing, to feel patient. We are complacent, we are lolling, we are willing to ride this to nowhere.

 

‘We’ll pick up chips and booze on the way out,’ he says as we enter the museum, ‘just in case we get stuck.’

 

I am watching him write, and concurrently tuning in as each sequence ends, as each O is made with each puckered pout, and this veritable melting pot boils down to one action: the female orgasm. The hysterics – a Victorian era catchphrase for any aberrant behaviour from women, any derailment from the valued straight-faced stoicism of the time – a word which most often landed women in mental institutions, where a lobotomy, and later, shock treatment, were always on the menu.

 

It is also likely because of this that we are watching a succession of climaxes that we do not think how quickly this day is passing. We do not think of how we look sitting here, warm and slouched, in front of the screen. We are not becoming anything, not from this, and no one else is either – but that’s not really anyone’s fault, is it? The orgasm does not take away, nor does it make meaning. Like film, it bridges time; it creates space. Its shape is a mid-sized bubblegum bubble, small and unobtrusive, a tiny piece of tenuously portioned property between birth and death.

 

While viewing Cubitt’s film and smiling when the women smile, laughing when the women laugh, at all the right times, taking in Cubitt’s system of an all-relational, all-sexual, all-contextual sisterhood, I’m reminded simultaneously of a group of women I used to watch from my window and bars of soap. I ask my boyfriend if he remembers the Dove commercials.

 

‘You know the one,’ I whisper. ‘Hanes does the same thing, I think. Women with curves wearing their bras and towels and touching one another.’

 

He says that he doesn’t remember.

 

‘It’s just like this,’ I say to him, passing more cashews. Another woman wrought with pleasure clutches her book, grits her teeth and moans.

 

‘Just like this?’ He asks. I can see his eyebrows lift in the dark.

 

For the past decade or so Dove has been creating campaigns targeted at women, for women, selling their products alongside better body image, inclusion, oversized empathy and the universality of womanhood. I remember seeing one around two years ago of various women – all of different yet acceptable shapes and sizes appearing on camera, their shoulders bare as they wear only a white towel, as if they have just stepped out of the shower. Each takes a turn in focus, saying one word to complete the commercial’s pitch:

 

‘Real, beautiful, soft, smooth skin deserves to be shared, shown off, deserves to be celebrated. Join us, take a photo of your beautiful skin and add it to the gallery. Become part of Dove’s largest living ad campaign. For real women, by real women. Just like you,’ says a young African American woman with god gorgeous cheekbones. ‘And me,’ says a senior white woman with shockingly cut arms. ‘And me,’ says a perky middle-aged blonde. ‘You’ll appear in Dove ads all across America for everyone to see and love and share again.

 

Sisterhood as the objective identity one inherits, metastasised as commercial. A coalition of women – all in a line, grouped and linking arms – based upon normative fixed gender identities and social discourses that name and categorise. Dove shows us Everywoman as auto-inductees into Club Consanguinity. The Everywoman admires her body, needs to love her body a bit more, or is thinking undoubtedly about her body. It’s more than a glimmer of feel-good, it’s a whole tub of it, one in which she may submerge herself.

 

For years feminist scholars – notably Judith Butler in her most influential book, Gender Trouble – have noted the tendency to collect and generalise women, creating a singular objective identity for the feminine, and most lamentably, under the auspices of a club in which all women belong, membership gained by birth and characterised by bodily maintenance and gentleness, that which hetero normative culture espouses as expressly feminine: a tableau of tears, treadmills and touching.

 

Girl Gear, I’ve called it, as a way of saying that I didn’t want to be a part of it, or maybe didn’t know how to be a part of it – the utopianism of girlhood. I didn’t quite know how to touch other women without feeling that I was either taking or giving something away – holding hands, crossing arms, touching shoulders – not correctly, not with the warmth that seemed to come so easily for everyone else, not without first practising it and talking myself through it.

 

The year before I left Mississippi, I lived in a garage apartment hooked on to the side of a huge Victorian mansion that housed ten? twenty? fifteen? sorority women, and I became their de facto groundskeeper. All of these women were of the same age and car – nineteen, the black Pathfinder. We had a fleet of these in our driveway, up and down our street. Mornings after their parties in our shared backyard, the grass was always filled with beer cans, liquor bottles, and the detritus of a spring break in November, funnels and plastic tubes, the aftermath of a weekday Bacchanal. Of the things I found in my yard, I distinctly remember the following:

 

1. used tampons
2. a boy with crusted vomit, like a comet’s tail, across his cheek, sleeping on my stoop
3. a mouse, stuck to a sticky paper trap, kicking its legs to death
4. two women singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in perfect harmony, before a third walked out and, as if she had planned this, joined them and all together the ensemble finished out the song and then started again from the top, singing it once more, without ever asking one another if they wanted to give it another go
5. handfuls of the fried matter from chicken tenders, scraped off and into a pile
6. a waterlogged Chaucer reader propped up against my back door, as if they had gifted it to me, as if it was the only thing they could think to bestow upon the girl living like a troll in their backyard
7. blood, just a few drops, here and there, sprinkled out over the congregation of our yard

 

I watched them from my kitchen window as if it were a TV, leaning over the sink. They laughed and laughed, lived vehemently and loudly, threw their arms around each other thoughtlessly, sat in one another’s laps without being asked, slid their bodies throughout the yard and one another, draped across knees, legs spread, eating Doritos and nursing Natural Lights, their semi-toned bodies artificially tanned and tended.

 

The sorority women who shared my lawn, all of them touching, taking photos of one another, spilling out of that Victorian mansion in Oxford, MS. They were the chosen muses, frozen in the Villa of the Mysteries, perfectly retained by nine feet of volcanic ash, heads in laps as if laps were divans, bodies partially exposed, all of them touching, the way they would braid one another’s hair, hold hands, touch men, graze each another softly, then roughly, then softly, and talk loudly over themselves. This is how they collect, I thought, as if priming themselves for a hedonistic cult, one that overdoses on heterosexual culture. I pictured the girls frozen there, drunk, in the lawn chairs – recovered bodies in the villa after

 

Vesuvius erupted, preserved forever by plaster-of-paris casts made of them all, in their fallen, tender positions.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the first sororities open on the University of Mississippi campus and by the 1920s, shortly after women receive the right to vote, they begin to burgeon, in Mississippi and across the country, rising and flourishing with a great energy like a micro all-female Rome, with new allegiances, scholastics and loyalties. With the advent of unprecedented opportunities, there is a distinct hunger for a bodily industry not previously found within the domestic situation. Sororities are necessitated by an increase of students from a less privileged position and gender. All the political power, formal and de facto, on American campuses belonged to men or fraternities – the latter being even older than our country – with little to no guarantee of safeguarded housing or commissioned campus inclusion for a growing population of female students. Women, post-suffrage, plucked from the hearth, wandered college lawns with little to no social guidance for this drastically different milieu. Sororities became home base; resources for tactical intelligence in a new, harsh environment, providing social membership and navigational strategies for women with very specific cultural skills that are, in this uncharted land, misplaced and unnecessary.

 

When I remember the women who shared my backyard, I see them as members of the Kappa Delta sorority, I see their letters and colours. But then at other moments, they are in the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. It’s one woman’s face, one woman that I never spoke to, yet remember, with thick eyeliner and a worked-for smile that seemed pressed between two boards. Of course, there are also other times when I can see the Delta Gamma symbols and painted mugs, and then that’s how I remember it.

 

But really, it’s been several years now since I’ve leaned to get a closer look as they played beer pong, since I’ve listened to them squeal in our driveway and found them the next morning, wearing gym shorts, an adult woman’s body asleep and spilling out of a child’s Barbie Jeep. And if I’m honest, it’s getting to the point where the years have been too many, and now I can hardly see them at all.

 

*

 

A new woman sits in front of Cubitt’s camera and somehow, she looks similar, though she isn’t. Though she couldn’t be more different than the women who preceded her, I most notice her similarities, all of them in continuation becoming each and every one, becoming the same.

 

When Van Gogh was in Arles, in the south of France, he painted two portraits of the contemplative and singular ‘Madame Marie Ginoux, L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux’, who was the proprietress of the Café de la Gare at the time. The practice of repetition and pattern-making in technical painting and the two portraits became six over the course of two years – each of which varies slightly in props, vantage point and tonality – but all ultimately contain Madame Ginoux, the female form, as it is most desired and prized at its time: sober. Like Cubitt’s women in succession, there’s a collapse of person taking place. Or maybe it’s better stated that, similar to ‘L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux’, the women in Cubitt’s film all begin to look, well, the same.

 

L’Alésienne translates to the woman from Arlés. You might as well flap your wrist dismissively, only use the corner of your mouth while saying it: the woman from Arlés. Of the six paintings, one version hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and has the woman from Arlés with a pair of gloves and an umbrella. Another version hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and has the woman from Arlés, like Stormy Leather, seated in front of a few books. If only the woman from Arlés had also been straddling a Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator, though this is only a snapshot, only a painting – just one from a series – and we don’t know and we can’t see what is taking place on the periphery. We can’t see what is happening outside and beyond the immediate contexts of the film and the painting. What would happen, I wonder, if we were taken under the table?

Recently I re-watched, and saw for the first time, all of the Dove commercials I could find online. In one series, entitled, ‘Selfie,’ girls and women, young and old, appear together:

 

I don’t want to wear make up and my mom can’t understand that. She says it enhances my features,’ says a young African American woman, looking in the mirror, eyes bulging while her mother applies mascara to her eyelashes – Jacques Lacan would have a symbolic picnic on this picture. ‘If you’re gonna age, you’re gonna age. Embrace it,’ says a young, blonde and bespectacled woman to her mother. ‘I… I… I…’ the mother stumbles. ‘Embrace the age,’ says her daughter, holding her hands up in front of her face, miming embrace. ‘I know but I just can’t.’ And the mother shakes her head. ‘I don’t like my skin. It’s been really blotchy. It’s hard and it’s really sensitive and it breaks out really easily,’ says a young, full-lipped Asian woman, while her mother looks on. ‘I never, ever take pictures with my hair down because it just looks really bad in all of the pictures,’ says a young woman with a long, dark braid slugging down her shoulder.

 

Isn’t it time to re-define beauty? The text appears alone on a white background.

 

It’s the Dove commercials, coupled with Cubitt’s co-opting of the feminine experience, the sober Madame Ginoux and the women who shared my backyard: they’re all a part of the same smear of pre-packaged femininity.

 

When I remember the women who shared my yard, I remember so little about them, not even their names. I knew that they collected themselves under the auspices of their sorority and lived within strict ritual. I knew that there were specified hours for in-house dining, formal dress, informal dress, imbibing, sauntering, gorging, dancing, test taking, posing, strutting and reclining. The Greek system is an old one and it has seen several iterations of its reputation during its existence. Today, it most often makes headlines for its involvement in senseless social ills and human tragedy. The racist chanting of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s at the University of Oklahoma, the hooded isolation and food deprivation of new Chi Phi pledges at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, photos posted on Facebook of nude and sleeping females by the Kappa Delta Rho’s at Penn State. But these are all fraternities, the apex of concentrated male culture. And so I wonder where sororities come into play – running alongside the rampant sexual assault, hazing gone wrong, bullying, violence, misapplied peer pressure, poor academic achievement? Aren’t they, too, perpetuating a quieter but equally insidious version of an all-white, upper class, universalised system of collecting themselves: the sisterhood?

 

No longer analogous with safe spaces, the Greek system, from a surface examination, has entered a veritable Dark Age and it is beyond my comprehension why they have not, altogether, lost their privileges and been disbanded. A power has gone unchecked. The system is too big. The sorority house was designed toward the higher order of feminist ideals of empowerment and individuation, but over time they have instead alienated the female-identified populations that need their communities most, preferring a homogenised and institutionalised female intimacy and solidarity, one which also excludes and disaffects. They share a similar syntax with generalised feminist language, espousing achievement and power, but ultimately use a wildly different vocabulary, creating a discourse that rests somewhere between over-the-counter pop feminism – which supports strict gender binaries – and universalised sisterhood-speak. What young women are given, at a formative age, is a sisterhood that sells.

 

It’s over the top but I can’t pretend I don’t think it. The 1983 horror film, The House on Sorority Row. A simple prank goes awry. A beautiful brunette pretends she is going to shoot the sorority house mom to instill a little fear in her, then accidentally does, and in the process of trying to cover her tracks, other women in the house are implicated, and as the women splinter off to save themselves, they’re murdered by a demonic doll – but they’re also so murderous themselves, even the innocent. They just look so murdery in their pressed spring dresses. What I want to highlight is less the act of homicide and more the setting for roiling evil. It’s what comes before the gore – all of the leg shaving, halls bedecked with streamers and Girl Gear. It lends a surreal aura to the picture and creates the perfect setting for unrest. It’s the desires shared late at night, many drinks in, at the beginning of the film.

 

‘A toast to law school,’ one woman belches, putting her head on the shoulder of the person next to her – a passive pose, a horde of capricious Greek goddesses, lounging, imbibing, ripe and fecund as fruit flies. ‘May it be the three shortest years of my life.’

 

*

 

Cubitt began the Hysterical Literature series on his website in August 2012. According to the project’s homepage, the video series has been watched over thirty million times in 200 countries, and was made using the properties of orgasm, using literature, using women, for several reasons.

 

‘There’s a historical tradition of stigmatising female pleasure more than male pleasure,’ Cubitt says, ‘as referenced in the title of the series.’ He aims to push viewers toward an alternate, conceptual understanding of the erotic in film. He gives his audience two options, to ‘respond to the salacious physical aspects (Sex,) or ‘to respond to the concept and literature (Art?)’. Similar to the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who believed that art needed no definition beyond ‘this is art’, Cubitt asks himself on his Frequently Asked Questions page, ‘Is it art?’ And he provides an answer, from Cubitt to Cubitt: ‘Everything is art when it’s done right.’

 

For me, this says: The female orgasm is so conclusive and accessible that it needs no qualification. Or it means: I just don’t know. It’s a very Hollywood move – hawking one’s work as harmless, as innocuous, because it’s art, because it’s entertainment. This film creates an economy, something is being traded – the ecstasy of art, literature, power – and where there is an economy, there is inherently a political body.

 

Before purchasing an entrance ticket to the museum, I could have viewed all of the women who were projected on the wall, read their thoughts on their participation, performance and the overall execution of the film, alongside the perspectives of writers arguing the work’s artistic value and social necessity – I didn’t. Within this exhibit, I was shown a handful of those sessions offered online, in a diminutive and stark gallery theatre, darkened just enough so that one feels semi-isolated, but not to be fooled into thinking that you are ever alone.

 

What happens when you take a project that is indigenous to the Internet, created for the isolated digital viewership, and put it in a museum, at the end of a particularly social exhibition – one which invites participation by asking the audience to mark favourite passages in a small, provided library of books and displays objects found within their tattered covers, ostensibly by folks like you and me? This is the ethos of Bibliothecaphilia: audience as curator. What is important is the interpretation, not the intention. The curatorial gestures within this small exhibit model a cosy library or an esoteric personal collection; there’s a familiarity and intimacy upon entering the gallery doors, a conviviality as groups grab elbows, whisper names and show whoever they are with, whoever is in their group, within their arm’s reach what it is they’ve found. I touch my boyfriend on the arm. My arm is touched back.

 

We sit on the museum floor, though there’s a single empty bench in the centre of the room. A man enters the space and sits down with his date as a woman named Amanda appears on screen and begins reading Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – her body, not the criminal Alex, the new focus of the text, tethering the body and its corporeal functions to the book’s narrative. At her first fist clench and gasp, the man stands up, takes the arm of his date and leaves. ‘Nothing to see here.’ Or, ‘What filth!’ Or maybe, “You’ve seen the face of one woman climax, you’ve seen ‘em all.’ He shuts the curtain, but not before looking askance at us, still watching, still grinning, up until that moment when the woman lets go and detaches herself from the world and word, from the discourse between gaze and body – another resounding approval of the female orgasm, kept neat – when we finally get a glimpse of woman in her most rarefied, valued state: just a little bit loose.

 

Our staying, our viewing the film in its entirety, an obvious engagement with this work – long after several people come and ago – within this social sphere, renders us perverts.

 

Another couple enters. They stay for one sequence. They hold hands, sit on the bench, look at us on the floor and knowingly grin. She blushes, he smirks. We’ve made a connection. They looked, made contact and they’re now complicit.

 

Here’s the honest truth: I laugh several times while watching Hysterical Literature, because it’s funny. I chuckle like I do when I watch Super Bowl commercials because that’s what they’re made for – and who cares if Lenny Kravtiz’s guitar isn’t even plugged in at the half time show – this is what I’m prepared for and I can dig it. I can slop it up with a spoon and eat it. This is for the spectacle, entertainment over easy. ‘Camp art is decorative art, the filigree of its material, of its genre or mode,’ says Susan Sontag in the essay, ‘Notes on Camp’. ‘The emphasis on style and not on substance.’ I know what to expect in these commercial intervals, the emphatically stylish show, where everyone looks and feels so very good. But what happens when we pre-package the orgasm and this marketability extends to gender? What happens when, within the museum space, we feel like we’ve been pitched? At that moment, I believe, we must pin what it is we are being sold.

 

For real women, by real women. Just like you, and me, and me.

 

The women are trying to reign themselves in, curb the female hysteric of climaxing, letting loose and assume dignity in their reading, but they cannot. And eventually, they will not. While I watch them, I imagine myself among all their acceptable faces, I imagine where our lives might intersect, but mostly how they wildly diverge, and I also imagine myself writing this essay.

 

I imagine how I will describe this, sitting on the floor within a particular space in time, and how I will make one believe that I was feeling and thinking something which had not already been thought and felt, something which wasn’t used up already, worn out before I even got to it. I imagine myself describing them and initially thought that I could describe them all, one by one, go online and watch the whole thing, every series, noting every feature, and maybe I would make an e-book out of it, too many pages long, just sketches of women, one after the other. And what would that do? Wouldn’t that do a lot of the same? Wouldn’t that be refusing to see what is under the table? I imagine mentioning Claude Levi-Strauss’ notion of the female present, wrapped in a bow: ‘Men are the givers… women are the gifts…’ – it goes something like that? And I imagine bucking up against this idea, these gifts and this giver of the film, Cubitt, who says, ‘Some people who see Hysterical Literature get the whole nest of levels. Others only see the surface. This is all part of the experiment.’ The reorganisation of the audience’s sensibility and role, it’s all part of the experiment, the grand point, the thin virtue in this project resting directly on the surface; this is how bland transgression can get. Cubitt is dull and his certitude about the female experience is duller. But still, I imagine finding a channel through which I could press on the notion of the female readymade and contend with my own voyeurism, my own perpetuation of the female touch fascination. I imagine myself jostling with the fact of what I actually felt after sitting with Hysterical Literature, which is what all of the Dove commercials that had come before had exhorted me to feel, in the name of consumerism, because I am woman, the new liquidity, the formidable clientele; and therefore, I now may see my face in the mirror when I’m shown the marketable good life, because believe this: purchasing power gives access!

 

What I am writing now is not something that I am able to fully understand. Or: what I am writing is not something that I am able to fully understand yet. While watching this film, but only in its moment, I felt something pleasant. But it was to my greatest chagrin, like a mouth bubbling over with dollar store milk chocolate, what those soap commercials always wanted me to believe and take on, but for so long I couldn’t: sticky sisterhood, as she writhes, in ecstasy.

 

On the way home I have to drive excruciatingly slow so as to not skid and slip on the icy road.

 

‘Are you nervous?’ I ask him.

 

He tells me he isn’t. ‘The worst thing that could happen to us is we hit ice,’ he says. ‘But we’re not going fast enough, so it would be fine. We wouldn’t get hurt. It would just suck.’

 

‘It would be expensive,’ I say. ‘And I can’t afford it.’

 

‘We could hit ice right before this bridge,’ he says. And we both study the bridge at the bottom of the hill before us. ‘You could lose control. The car could go off the bridge and into the ice and I don’t know how deep that river is.’

 

I think, but don’t say, that it is dangerous to feel this way, the two of us: our jobs are easy on us, of the many things we desire, we have a few. I am barely coasting, barely giving it gas, the car hardly moving, and we don’t speak again until we’re safely across.

 

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a writer and artist in the MFA program at UMass, Amherst.


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