I have been reading a bit of Lauren Berlant’s The Female Complaint: the unfinished business of sentimentality in American culture over Christmas. The ideas she explore concern movements around women’s desire for normativity as well as intimate publics. The ‘vagueness of the affective fantasy of the normal’ comes hand in hand with “the privilege of unknowing” what the social costs are for others (Sedgewick). Berlant identifies the “bargaining, strategising, making claims and moving under the radar” that women do in a defense against the difficulties of daily life (2008, 9).
At christmas time (& I had 5 disturbing fits), I questioned whether the concept of an intimate public was relevant for the project, particularly the study of love, disappointment in the circulation of “middlebrow” feminine genres. For Berlant, an intimate public flourishes “as a porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex of consolation, confirmation, discipline and discussion about how to live as an x” (p. viii). I wrote, though my historical time may be similar — I don’t live outside socio-historic time and space — I often feel I am separate from general culture in a corporeal way, as illness can isolate. Despite this, I began to think about what such theories could offer the analysis of my sound installation, Days of Our Lives, particularly, in the framing of yearning for normality. Coming at it in this way is somewhat paradoxical as I draw on the concept of the intimate public, as an epileptic outsider. Butler provides some insight below and desire, plays a part along with its obstruction.
For this particular work, Berlant focuses on what is conventional in women’s culture. She identifies conventionality within both normativity as well as belonging. This implies both constraint as well as conditions of possibility: “to love a thing is not only to embrace its most banal iconic forms, but to work those forms so that individuals and populations can breathe and thrive in them or in proximity to them” (2008, p. 3). I’m interested in looking at conventionality from these perspectives because, although my creative work might sound unconventional to most ears, I do not identify with self-proclaimed experimental music cultures and have often found social relations in such cultures to be uncomfortable for me. In any case I have not found it easy to belong in such spaces and I am not sure if it because my music is unintelligible to the acceptable forms in the scenes or if the limitations on my body in the last few years precludes the fostering of social capital (I can’t get to gigs most of the time, and there are assumptions about networking and alcohol in many arts worlds and music subcultures).
In other thought lines I am chasing, Butler invites me to think about how the norm and its breach or the experimental/margin work together and also, “how those who breach the norm require the norm as well in order to establish their radicalism” (2008, p. 89). I have a list of norms I require and a list of breaches from the bodily, the sonic, the ethnic. (not here, still working on how they work together..). I have felt that having seizures in front of a large number of people to be a performance not of my choosing. I see people, able-bodied and male for the most part (sorry females working here..) making ‘extreme’ and ‘the most innovative’ performances and I see a someone starting from a relative position of privilege, from a ‘privilege of unknowing’ what it feels like to be in the gaze of medicos their whole life, of the social cost of epilepsy in my case.
How does Berlant define femininity? She uses elements of performativity informed by textual features: “(t)o call an identity like a sexual identity a genre is to think about it as something repeated, detailed, and stretched while retaining its intelligibility, its capacity to remain readable or audible across the field of all its variations” (2008, p. 4). This detailed repeating, stretched, buzzing across body, vibrating wood, word and tube, recalls making sonic work. Although to confine my work to a single genre like Berlant’s ‘woman’s film’ is not my purpose. Femininity through aesthetic popular genres requires conventional expectations that, as Berlant argues, people rely on for affective intensities and assurances. It is expectation that shores up femininity here, not an inner essence. Furthermore, Berlant gives the caveat that variations in personality comes by way of performativity that occurs within the “conventional self-and-world-continuity”, rather than persistent radical breaks (p. 4).
Anyway, I’m glad I tackled this one over the holidays, as it’s helping connect some missing conceptual links. One of the best moments came in the chapter about Dorothy Parker — screenwriter, poet –“It’s not the tragedies that kill us it’s the messes”. The context refers to the management of self and not getting the social grammar right: “To know when to withhold and when to tell a story is to be an insider and to belong. To have mastered the performance of conventionality approximates an appearance of an idealised self” (2008, p. 230). This also refers to class and comportment.
The epileptic body in this scenario is quite singular in its experience of the ‘lived real’ despite sharing socio-historic constellations. The epileptic body is sometimes not mastered, is unwound; it is often confused when it comes to getting social grammar right. The mindbody is often stressed and tired at the effort needed to appear ideal, polite, as a normalised self, whether that be in academia or in basic social interactions. It feels often on the back hoof. This seems a good way to make a point about the epileptic body in the social and the way the social world and its spaces press against it. This holds for both subjectivity and body or embodied subjectivity.
(January 12, 2014)