Particulate Matters

An unmade bed with mint green duvet showing an open notebook,hot water bottle and dressing gown

It was the morning I had decided to stop living as if dust wasn’t the primary community in which I sobbed and thrived, daily, towards dying. I spent Tuesday night in a frenzy trying to discern what particular dust or pollen (animal, vegetable, floral) had triggered my allergies anew, what baseline materiality had exploded in my small room its abysmal density. All recommended air filters had sold out online in the midst of other consumers’ presumably asthmatic dust panics; the highly desirable Vax filter seemed sold out across all channels, and I eyed up the pre-owneds of eBay with lust and suspicion, through a fug of beastly sneezes. A friend recommended the insufflation of water as a temporary remedy: ‘I drop some drops on my chopping board, get a straw and snort it up like a line of Colombian snow’, he texts me. I sneeze at the thought, but have to admit that the promise of clearing one’s nasal cavities with water is somewhat appealing. For isn’t water, like sneezing, a force in itself? Some kinds of sneeze come upon you as full-body seizures of will; so that to sneeze repeatedly you must surrender an hour or so, sometimes a full day, to the laconic state of being constantly taken over by this brute, unattractive rupture. ‘Sneezing’, writes Pascal, ‘takes up all the faculties of the soul’. My soul is in credit to the god dusts, who owe me good air. It’s why I am always writing poems (the word air meaning song/composition). But maybe I need good water, a wave of it. 

In Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture (1990), the philosopher Catherine Clément characterises sneezing as an instance of ‘syncope’: a kind of ‘“cerebral eclipse,” so similar to death that it is also called “apparent death”; it resembles its model so closely that there is a risk of never recovering from it’. My muscles ache; I eclipse myself with blood, cellular juices and water. What kind of spiritual exhaustion results from being cast into eclipse repeatedly? Quite simply, one becomes ghost: blocked, momentarily or otherwise, from the light of consciousness. One becomes lunar and attached to the dark bright burn, the trembling red of their inflammation. Those who suffer respiratory allergies might better glimpse what Eugene Thacker calls ‘a world-without-us’. I sneeze myself to extinction. It is the hyperbole of a felt oblivion. I do this on random days of the year, at random times; it is beyond my control. But can I derive pleasure from it, as one does the other varieties of syncope (orgasm, swoon or dance)?

From Spirited Away (2001)

Let me admit, I have always had a fetish for those moments on television and film where a character is administered, or self-administers, an intravenous dose of painkill so sweet as to enunciate this ecstasy simply by falling to a sweet slump, their eyes rolled back accordantly. The premise of silencing the body’s arousal so completely to blissful inertia (suspending the currency of insomnia, hyperactivity, anxiety and attention deficit) is delicious. The calmness of snowfall, as if to swallow the durée of its full soft melt. From quarantine, I fantasise about having adequate boiler pressure as to run a bath and practice the khoratic hold of hot water’s suspension. This is not what I text my landlord. 

Recently, my partner spent several hours unpacking boxes from the attic of their parent’s house, in preparation for moving belongings to a new flat. The next day, I found myself suffused in the realm of allergy: unable to think clearly, or articulate more than three words without the domination of a sneeze. On such days, I am held on the tight leash of my own sensitivity: I tremble pathetically, my blood temperature rises; my nose glows reindeer and no amount of fresh air, hydration or sinus clearance will appease it. I am not ‘myself’. The body has enflamed itself upon contact with the ambient and barely visible. I feel an intimate, but non-consensual relation to the ghost trace, the dust trace, of all boxed things — finally been given the attention they so summoned or desired in dormancy. I mourn with objects the passage of time and neglect so betrayed on their surface; I never ask for this, but my body is summoned. Dust presses itself upon you, even as you produce it. I’m scared to touch things because of the dust. What is it but the atmospheric sloughing of something volatile, mortal — the grammatology of our darkest spoiler, telling the story of how bodies are not wholly our own, or forever. 

Sneezing disrupts and spoils nice things; it is an allergic response to both luxury and decay. Cheap glitter, rose spores, Yves Saint Laurent. Sneeze sneeze. ‘When a student comes to class wearing perfume’, admits Dodie Bellamy, ‘my nose runs, my eyes tear, I start sneezing; there’s nowhere to move to and I don’t know what to do. When the sick rule the world perfume will be outlawed’. Often I have this reaction too. It prompts a fury in me: Why can’t I have nice things, as I used to? During my undergraduate finals, I developed phantosmia: a condition in which you smell odours that aren’t actually there (olfactory hallucination). Phantosmia is typically triggered by a head injury or upper respiratory infection, inflamed sinuses, temporal lobe seizures, brain tumours or Parkinson’s disease. Often I have tried to conjure some originary trauma which would explain my condition: did some cupboard door viciously slam my head at work (possibly), did I fall over drunk (hm), was I subject to some terrible chest infection or vehement hayfever (often)? Luckily, my phantosmia was a relatively benign and consistent scent: that of an ersatz, fruity perfume. It recalled the pink-tinted Poundland scents I selected as a twelve-year-old to vanquish the horror of body odour raised by the spectre of Physical Education, before graduating to the exotic spices of Charlie Red. I was visited by this scent during intervals of increasing frequency as I served customers at work, cooked or studied; I trained myself to ignore them by pinging a rubber band on my wrist, or plunging my nose into scented oils I kept on my person. Years later they returned at moments of stressful intensity; the same cryptic, sickly smell. 

More recently, phantosmia, under the umbrella of a general ‘parosmia’ (abnormality in the sense of smell) is associated with Covid-19. Not long ago I realised I hadn’t been smelling properly for months, despite not testing positive until very recently. Had I, like many others, a ghost Covid that went undetected by symptom or test? Drifting around, deprived of olfactory sense, I felt solidarity with the masses of others in this flattened condition. I eat, but when was the last time I truly enjoyed food? My body doesn’t register hunger like other people’s; unless it is a ritualised mealtime summoned in company, I eat when I get a headache. Pacing around the flat, I plunge my nose again into jars of cinnamon, kimchi, mint tea bags, bulbs of garlic. Certain things cut through the fug: coffee, bleach, shit. I remember a friend, who was born without a sense of smell, telling me long ago that the absence of that sense made her a particularly spicy cook. Often she wouldn’t notice the over-firing of a chilli until her nose started running. What does scent protect us from? What does it proffer? Surely it is the unsung, primal gateway to corporeal desire itself: the gross and indescribable comfort of a lover’s sweaty t-shirt, the waft of woodsmoke from a nearby village, the coruscation of caramelised onion to whet your appetite. Scent is preliminary in the channel of want. Without it, I feel cast adrift into anhedonia. I begin chasing scent. Still, I sneeze.

Dust gathers. Is it yours or mine? Can we really, truly, smell our dust? How does dust manifest as material trace or evidence? In Sophie Collins’ poem ‘Bunny’, taken from the collection Who Is Mary Sue? (2018), the speaker interrogates an unknown woman on the subject of dust: 

Where did the dust come from 
and how much of it do you have? 
When and where did you first notice
the dust? Why didn’t you act sooner?
Why don’t you show me a sample.
Why don’t you have a sample?
Why don’t you take some responsibility? 
For yourself, the dust?

It would be perhaps an act of bad naturalisation to read the dust allegorically, or metonymically, as a figure for all kinds of evidence we are expected to produce as survivors of violence and harm. This evidence is to be quantified (‘how much’, ‘a sample’) and accounted for temporally in terms of cause, effect and responsible agency (‘first notice’, ‘act sooner’). The insistent repetition of dust produces a dust cloud: semantic saturation leaves us unable to discern the true ‘meaning’ of the dust. That anaphora of passive aggression, ‘Why don’t you’, coupled with the wherewhen and why of narrative, insists on a logical explanation for the dust that is apparently not possible. For anyone summoned to account for their trauma, the dust might be a sort of materialised psychic supplement: the particulate matters of cause and effect, unequally distributed and called for. It seems as though the speaker’s aggression, by negation wants to produce the dust while ardently disavowing the premise of its existence. The poem asks: is it possible to have authority over one’s experience when others require this authority to take the form of an account, a story, with appropriate physical corroboration?  The more I read the poem, the more ‘dust’ becomes Covid. But it could be many things; dust always is.

‘Bunny’ also reveals the process by which testimony is absorbed into a kind of white noise, a dust storm repugnant to those called upon to listen. As Sara Ahmed puts it in Complaint! (2021), ‘To be heard as complaining is not to be heard. To hear someone as complaining is an effective way of dismissing someone’. Collins’ poem performs the long, grim thread of being told to ‘forget’, bundling us into a claustrophobia whose essence, the speaker implores, is ‘your own / sense of guilt’. Does this not violently imply (from the speaker’s perspective): as producers of dust, we take responsibility, wholly, for what happens to our bodies? I take each question of the poem as a sneeze: it is the only answer I have. I feel compelled to listen.  

As she is asked, ‘Why don’t you take some responsibility? / For yourself, the dust?’, the addressee of the poem becomes conflated with the dust itself. I often think of this quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), where erstwhile sweetheart Buddy Willard announces to budding poet Esther Greenwood, ‘a poem is […] A piece of dust’. Poems can be swept away; they are miniscule in the masculine programme of reality. They are stubborn, perhaps, but easily ignored by the strong and healthyy. In ‘Bunny’, the addressee’s own words are nothing but dust, ‘these words, Bunny’: the name ‘Bunny’ hailing something beyond the colloquial term, dust bunny — a ball of dust, fibre and fluff. The invocation of the name a kind of violent summons: you, the very named essence of you, are nothing but words and dust; there is no proof. The more I say the word ‘bunny’ aloud, the more I become aware of a warm and tender presence; this entity who has lived so long in the house of language — under the stairs, on the mantel’s sentence. Bunny, bunny, bunny. Clots in syntax. Dust can be obliquely revealed to all who notice; it coats the surface of everything. It is in the glow of wor(l)dly arrangement, the iterative and disavowed: a kind of ‘paralanguage’ Collins writes of in her nonfiction book small white monkeys (2017):

similar to ours but that is not ours […] when a writer manages — nearly, briefly — to access this paralanguage, we get a glimpse of what could be expressed if we were able to access this other, more frank (but likely bleak, likely barbaric) reality. 

Running parallel to, or beneath ‘Bunny’, is the addressee’s reply, or lack of: the dust of her permeable silence, or inability to speak. It catches as a dust bunny in the throat. So how do we speak or listen, when faced with the aporetic knots of a hidden, ‘barbaric’ reality that is glimpsed in various forms of testimony and written expression? ‘Citation too can be hearing’, writes Ahmed. The title of Collins’ poem cites implicitly Selima Hill’s collection Bunny (2001), which she writes of extensively in small white monkeys as a book ‘I am in love with’. This citation opens ‘Bunny’ through a portal to the household of trauma that is Bunny: documenting, as Hill’s back cover describes, ‘the haunted house of adolescence’ where ‘Appearances are always deceptive’ and the speaker is harassed by a ‘predatory lodger’. Attention (and reading between texts) offers us openings, exits, corridors of empathy, solidarity and recognition. Its running in the duration of a poem or conversation might very well relate to the ‘paralanguage’ of which Collins speaks, in the oikos of trauma, grief and counsel. If poems are dust, then to know them — to write them, read them aloud and listen — is to disturb the order of things, one secret speck at a time. But the sight of each speck belies the plume of many.

The morning I tested positive for Covid on a lateral flow, having assumed my respiratory problems were accountable to generalised allergies, I decided to blitz my one-bedroom flat of dust. In the hot panic of realising my cells were now fighting a virus, I vacuumed my carpet and brushed orange cloths over bookshelves. I was really getting into it. Then my hoover began making a petulant, rasping noise. I turned off the power and flipped it upside down. To my horror, in the maw of the hoover’s rotating brush, I saw what can only be described as dust anacondas: huge strings of dense grey matter attached to endless, chunky threads of hair. Urgently donning a face mask, I began teasing these nasty snakes out with a pencil, as clumps of dust emitted from the teeth of the hoover and gathered on my carpet, thickly. All this time I was crying hysterically at the fact of my having Covid less than two weeks before my PhD thesis was due, the hot viral feeling in my head, and of having to deal with the dust of my own flesh prison: the embarrassment, shame and fail of it all, presented illustriously before me. 

From My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

If only I could have purified my air! Forced to confront my body’s invasion (this time coronavirus, not just dust), I try to settle into the ‘load’. I make lists of the smells I miss, research perfumes online (aerosols glimpsed from the safe distance of text). I sneeze a lot, cry a lot, wheeze a lot; and then my sinuses go blank. Is this breathing? I imagine the cells of my body glowing new colours from the Omicron beasties. I re-watch one of my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, My Neighbour Totoro (1988), which features anthropomorphic dust bunnies known as susutarawi, or ‘soot sprites’ (which also appear in Spirited Away (2001)). The girls of Totoro, Noriko and Mei, initially encounter these adorable demon haecceities as ‘dust bunnies’, but later they are explained as ‘soot spreaders’ (as per Netflix’s Japanese-to-English translation). When the younger girl, Mei, gingerly prods her finger into a crack in the wall of the old house she has just moved into, a flurry of the creatures releases itself to the air. She catches one in her hands, and presents it proudly to Granny, a kind elderly neighbour who reassures her the soot sprites will leave if they find agreeable the new inhabitants of their house. When she opens her palms, the sprite is gone, leaving just a smudge.

An absent-presence in My Neighbour Totoro is Noriko and Mei’s mother, Yasuko, who is in hospital, recovering from an unexplained ‘illness in the chest’. Mei’s confrontation with the animated dust mites, or soot sprites, acts out the wound of her mother’s absence. With curiosity and panic, she and her sister delight in the particulate matters of the household, of more-than-human hospitality. What is abject about history then, or even the family, its hauntings, is evoked trans-corporeally through the trace materials of a powdery darkness, dark ecology (see Timothy Morton’s 2016 book of this name) that is spooky but sweet. (S)mothering in the multiple. My sense of smell now is consumed entirely by a kind of offbeat metallic ash; I’m nostalgic for cheap perfume. I’m not sure if this essay is a confession or who is speaking; it seems increasingly that I speak from a cloud of unknowing coronaviruses. And so where do I end or begin, hyperbolically, preparing my pen or straw? The ouroboros of my dust anacondas reminding me that I too was only here, alive and in this flat, by tenancy and to return from my current quarantine having prodded the household spirits for company, with nothing for show for it these days, except these, dust, my words.

My Difficulty(ies) with Sex and the City 2

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Image source: fanpop.com

I really don’t know what convinced me to watch Sex and the City 2. I suppose it was a case of finding something that wouldn’t require much brain power; some easy viewing for after exams. Little did I know the film would prompt some serious feminist and post-colonial rage.

Sex and the City 2 is, like the show that ran from 1998-2004, a romantic comedy. It follows Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda as they travel abroad to a holiday in Dubai. Like the show, the film engages with the issues of being a woman in a ‘post feminist’ age, but also involves itself in questions of cultural difference and orientalism. Sex and the City 2 was released in 2010, in the midst of the turbulent relations between the West and East defined by the on-going war in Afghanistan.

Firstly, the question of feminism. Sex and the City 2 is a salient example of a ‘post feminist’ film. According to Angela McRobbie, in her work ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’, popular culture of the 1990s reflects a turn away from the gains made in the second wave feminist movement, through an exhibition of what McRobbie calls ‘post feminism’. Post feminism, for McRobbie, entails the notion that contemporary culture relies on the achievements of second wave feminism. Indeed, it takes these achievements – equal rights, liberated sexuality, economic independence etc – for granted, takes them as socially ‘obvious’ and in existence without need for critical reflection. The widespread assumption that women are sexually, economically and socially ‘liberated’ allows popular culture to represent female characters who embody an autonomous, self-reliant and empowered lifestyle: this includes having high-flying career women, sexually-liberated women; women with choice, education, power. It doesn’t take much effort to see that Sex and the City is a prime example of this: there’s Samantha the PR businesswomen, Carrie the writer, Miranda the lawyer.

Nevertheless, the empowered women portrayed in popular culture do not fit the aims of feminism, even though on the surface they appear strong and ‘free’. These women are presented as self-made, fully in control of their own destinies, fully unshackled from the chains of patriarchy and power and also the feminist movement itself. Their achievements are represented as examples of personal triumphs rather than identified as part of wider shifts in female employment and gender roles enabled by the feminist movement and its transformation of the systems of power and social mores which formerly would have constrained them. Since these women are depicted as independent and disengaged from feminism, their representation contributes nothing to the political ambitions of feminism, and also undermines the need for any contemporary feminist movement. Indeed, many popular renderings of the modern, empowered women (the post feminist female subject) in fact not only detract from the political weight of feminism but they also associate this new freedom with certain practices which actually restore traditional gender roles – the gendered behaviours that feminism set out to radically change.

In Sex and the City, both the show and the films, female liberation and empowerment is predominantly expressed through sex and consumption. Yet it is debatable as to whether these practices actually enable the women to free themselves from conventional gender norms or whether they in fact throw the characters back into the cycle of cultural constraints that rigidly define ‘women’ and ‘feminine behaviour’. Samantha, for example, is frequently depicted as the most sexually voracious of the four women. She enjoys the kind of sexuality – one night stands and the like – that men have been enjoying for centuries; she offers no apologies for her behaviour; it is, at least from the two films I have seen, seemingly morally accepted. Moreover, as a successful businesswoman, Samantha enjoys an economic independence which allows her to splurge on clothes, holidays and anti-aging products. It isn’t difficult to see where post feminism fits in here: while Samantha does have an assertive sexuality and personality, her empowerment is presented chiefly through consumption. Rather than making any significant political statement about female power or positioning, the show and films seem to reaffirm the status quo by confirming consumption as not only the vital source of contemporary identity but also the glittering route to status and power; yet a route that leads continually to traditional female objectification, with the body becoming a cultural mannequin, dressed up with the latest dresses, shoes and anti-aging potions to create the perfect sexualised subject. Of course, there is an inherent ambiguity about whether the woman is in control of herself, as she travels down this route of credit cards and department stores, or whether she is pressured by the powers of female-directed advertising and capitalism.

In any case, Sex and the City may appear feminist but it certainly contributes very little to the political movement of feminism. The girls may spout their girl power in a karaoke session singing second-wave feminism’s theme song ‘I Am Woman’, but their empowerment is arguably a superficial concealment of how they are trapped by the mind-numbing machines of advertising and the fashion and beauty industry which continue to pressurise and mould women’s sense of self, perpetuating gendered regimes and practices. Samantha, the only unmarried character, uses her economic power in ways that confirm her adherence to standards of femininity that are perpetuated by the beauty industry in order to exploit and extend female insecurities. She enhances her libido in the wake of menopause through guzzling handfuls of pills, to ‘trick [her] body into thinking it’s younger’, to which Miranda adds: ‘I’ve tricked my body into thinking it’s thinner – Spanx!’. While feminism as a movement attempted to open up new kinds of beauty, which included those who were not young, white and skinny, the characters are depicted as mindlessly striving towards and approving the stereotype, rather than in any sense shattering it. As Hadley Freeman of The Guardian astutely describes this scene: ‘it’s like being lobotomised with a pink teaspoon’.

Well this is all fair enough: perhaps you could argue that she is making the conscious choice to do so. Other characters have different means of empowering themselves, after all. There’s Miranda, the lawyer, and Carrie, the fashion-crazed newspaper columnist. Yet all these women are privileged: rich, often from affluent backgrounds or have wealthy husbands. They are friends for one thing because they have a shared class position. Their empowerment through shiny New York careers and the shopping is more of a class privilege than a political statement about girl power, and in this sense I would argue that the show is highly problematic in its potential to be cast as ‘feminist’.

While the issue of feminism and Sex and the City is ambiguous, I would argue the sequel film leaves little ambiguity about the issue of racism; or, more specifically, orientalism. The film follows the four girl’s holiday escapades in Abu Dhabi, the second biggest city of the United Arab Emirates. Hadley Freeman contrasts the ‘smart, funny, warm and wise’ TV show with the ‘pink-fringed, cliché-ridden, materialistic, misogynistic, borderline racist’ film; while the show ‘had genuine emotional truth’, the films are all about the ‘sex and shopping’.  I’ve never watched the shows, so cannot make a judgement other than my impression of the films. And my judgement is that their vision of women, homosexuality and ‘the East’ is distinctively narrow, shallow and hollow.

With Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte sent off to Abu Dhabi, the film immerses itself in a world of blatant, unapologetic orientalism. Edward Said in his book Orientalism described orientalism as a concept which encompasses the binary distinction often made between West/East. This distinction comes with other stereotyped and hierarchical binary pairings such as civilised/uncivilised, us/them. Charting the history of colonisation, Said suggests that Europeans have for many years set up Eastern countries as ‘oriental’, as exotic Others by which they may define themselves against. For Europeans, whatever the Orientals were defined as, they (the occidents) were not. This allowed the West to position themselves as an inherently superior ‘race’, which in turn provided the justification for colonisation by using the ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising the ‘uncivilised’ world to legitimise their imperial domination of Eastern countries. As with most stereotyping and binary oppositioning (think man/woman), this process involved enormous cultural and social simplifications and generalisations which shaped prejudices against the ‘orient’ commonly held in the West. You only have to take a glimpse at today’s papers, with the generalisations about Islam and terrorism, to see how Orientalism still operates. Indeed, the USA in particular has frequently justified its occupation and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of tackling the women’s rights records of these countries; but it is possible that this constitutes an imposition of Western norms on different cultures, and moreover, the USA’s record for women’s rights is itself questionable, as it is one of the few countries that has refused to ratify CEDAW, the UN’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This is just one contemporary example of how the West stereotypes Eastern cultures in opposition to its own cultural model, and reflects a complex entanglement of neo-imperialism, orientalism and feminist issues.

Back to Sex and the City 2. The representation of the Middle East is highly stereotypical, and makes a great effort to exoticise Middle Eastern men and women into characters which perpetuate traditional oriental images of the East found in films like Arabian Nights. The men are presented with a glamorous strangeness: with the mundane, clichéd dialogue and the glittering, stereotypical oriental music that accompanies their appearance. Upon arrival, the American women are treated like queens, each getting their own taxi and personal man-servant who stays up all hours to service their every petty whim. This sets up a kind of neo-colonial relationship where the ‘respectable’ Eastern characters are represented as intrinsically deferential to their Western ‘superiors’.

Additionally, the cultural status of sex is clear-cut into a binary issue, with Western liberation contrasted with a complete repression in the East – Samantha’s kissing on the beach is met with armed response and a permanent criminal record. Rather than acknowledging the nuances that characterise how sex is accepted and perceived in different contexts, the film forces the issue once again into stereotypical binaries.

Perhaps most significantly, the film also cashes in on stereotypes of the mysterious veiled Muslim women. Carrie and co ruminate over the sartorial restrictions of wearing a veil, and watch in awe as one eats her chips underneath the burqa. The Muslim woman is thus shown as an object of curiosity, and we viewers are forced to voyeuristically observe her eating chips as if she is some strange, voiceless creature. By minimising the actual interaction between the American women and the Middle Eastern women, the film negates any possibility for exploring the unique subjectivity of Muslim women and their experience of wearing a burqa as well as their religious beliefs. Instead, they remain Oriental objects of Western curiosity. Rather than respected for having their own minds, they remain quite obviously in this film, to borrow Chandra Mohanty’s phrase, under western eyes.

And indeed the moment that really struck me was when the Muslim women were given a voice. After helping the four girls escape a mob of angry Arab men (who Samantha has offended by spilling condoms all over the floor and announcing loudly that ‘yes, [she] does have sex!’, so yes – another stereotype about all Arabian men as women-haters) a group of Muslim women shed their niqabs to reveal they are wearing the latest New York runway collection. Delighted, the four American women laugh and praise their fashionable style. This is so obviously patronising that even after a film peppered with references to magic carpets and other Middle Eastern myths I was shocked. Being the primary scene where the main characters actually interact with Muslim women, it states, quite clearly, that Western and Eastern integration can only occur through consumption. Moreover, Muslim women can only be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of their own culture and religion (defined in the film by the recurrent veil image) by conforming to Western stereotypes of beauty and fashion. It’s a sickening simplification of the complexities of female identity within different cultural contexts, and seems to send out the message that globalisation (or rather, Westernisation) can only be a good thing because it is spreading a ‘liberated’ (or rather, shackled to consumerism) Western femininity to the poor, silenced Muslim women, who live in a culture that remains ‘backwards’. In doing so, it leaves out other more critical consequences of globalisation that could be explored, such as migrant labour in the Gulf, which is only skimmed over in Carrie’s conversation with her Indian servant Gaurav – who she benevolently bestows her money upon, as if this single lavish expenditure makes up for the capitalist restructuring which has necessitated Guarav’s move abroad away from his wife in the first place. Another example is in the nightclub where ironically the girls play karaoke and sing ‘I Am Woman’ while at the same time they are probably in the company of trafficked sex workers. Charlotte asks why the club’s belly dancers are allowed to show lots of flesh while every other woman in the East seems to cover up, and Miranda provides the pathetic response that there is a ‘nightclub loophole’. Many of the single women in Emirati nightclubs are indeed trafficked sex workers, but the film completely glosses over the possibility of critically engaging with this.

Finally, the wedding opens with another obvious stereotype that should’ve prepared me for the cliché trail that characterises the rest of the film. The wedding of two gay characters involves many stereotypes attached to homosexuality – infidelity, flamboyance, the pomp of a completely OTT ceremony, complete with boy choir and Liza Minnelli performing ‘Single Ladies’. It’s utterly cringeworthy and I had to temporarily mute the film so that my flatmate didn’t have to wonder what the hell I was watching. A fitting beginning to a film rife with caricature, condescension and cartoonish representation.

I can’t, however, completely make my mind up how I feel about the representation of women in this film. While there are many simplifications and the fact that the women conform to gender stereotypes through shopping, there are some moments where the difficulties of trying to ‘have/do it all’ are reflected. It is possible to look upon Samantha with pity, as a character who isn’t liberated but sucked too far in to the rigid, gendered standards of the beauty industry, and perhaps the patriarchal expectations of the area she works in – PR – which is based so much on appearance. Another example is the scene where Charlotte cries in the cupboard, hiding from her screeching children in a moment of genuine motherly breakdown. Nevertheless, these remain very limited representations, in that Charlotte’s troubles are the troubles of a privileged housewife. She’s crying because she worries about her husband having an affair with the nanny (an idea bizarrely stemming from the fact that the nanny doesn’t wear a bra) and because her daughter messed up her designer jeans. Not because she doesn’t know where her children’s next meal is going to come from, or because she’s overworked with three jobs to make ends meet.

So while the film touches on feminist issues, its dealing with class and ethnic difference is shockingly narrow. I couldn’t even enjoy it as a slice of indulgent consumerist fantasising, because the racial, sexual and cultural stereotypes, and the flat script and conventional female behaviour ascribed to many of the characters were so obvious and unsettling. It almost makes you feel guilty to watch. Of course, it all ends happily, with Charlotte’s nanny turning out to be a lesbian and thus in no danger of seducing Charlotte’s husband, and with Samantha finally consummating her passion for the Danish guy she got arrested for kissing in Abu Dhabi. Well, of course, the film suggests, everything happens correct and best in the West. Yet I’m not sure that all’s well that end’s well: the film prompts more questions about the implication of its depictions of women, homosexuals and the Middle East than it answers.

Bibliography:

McRobbie, A. (2004) ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’ in Feminist Media Studies, vol. 4, no. 3 , pp. 255–264.

Said, E. (1977) Orientalism. 

Sex and the City 2: Orientalist Boogaloo

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/may/23/sex-and-the-city-film-terrible

http://feministing.com/2010/06/03/sex-and-the-citys-women-of-color-problem/

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Explorations in Nostalgia: Midnight in Paris

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Why is there a certain nostalgic quality to rain? Rain can be beautiful to imagine: the quietly rushing sound it stirs as it starts to fall, the peaceful pattering it makes on roofs and windowpanes, the tingle of droplets on your skin, the way it clings in watery beads to your lashes, the sweet earthy scent it trails as it vanishes from the vapory air. Thinking of rain conjures images of afternoons hiding indoors with a good book, of splashing in puddles as a child, of running makeup, of the high romance of kissing outside in a storm, and the satisfaction of coming home, changing into dry clothes and getting warm.

Most people living in Glasgow would be less lyrical about the drizzle that bursts ever too frequently upon the city. Rain can be a pain. Rain can mean struggling with a broken umbrella, feeling cold droplets drip down your back; it can mean delayed tennis matches, ruined picnics and cancelled plans. Yet rain is also one vein through which we are transported smoothly to some heart of our past; often our recollection of events and people is framed by weather, and rain can add a cinematic backdrop to memory that reflects the misted quality of nostalgia. It has a certain sense of deja vu, of transient confusion. I remember being here before, and it was raining. Like this…or was it somewhere else?

Yet rain is perhaps, like memory, never as lovely as we imagine or remember it to be. It is part of our wistful fantasies.

Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris opens with a beautiful montage of Paris in the rain, accompanied by accordion music. The shots slip effortlessly between postcard highlights of the city and panoramas of people in the street with umbrellas. It sets the scene for the film’s at times poignant but mostly witty and lighthearted exploration of nostalgia.

I first went to see Midnight in Paris at the kooky little Grosvenor Cinema on Ashton Lane in Glasgow’s West End. An appropriate venue, seeing as it is modeled on an old-fashioned picture-house, with red carpeting, plush seats, vintage interior design, glamour and the availability of wine.

Midnight in Paris is a pastiche of genres, styles, characters and references. Not only does it include an array of (slightly caricatured) figures from the 1920s creative scene in Paris, but it also welds together flashes of political satire with Hollywood rom-com and magical realism.

The film’s protagonist Gil is a Hollywood script-writer discontented with his sell-out job and longing to produce something creative in his writing. Perhaps there is a certain irony here: a search for authenticity staged within a film that is playfully anything but ‘original’. A trip to Paris with his fiancé and her parents, Gil hopes, will provide the spark of enchantment. The first conversation of the film sets up the juxtaposition between the romantic Gil and his pragmatic wife, who appropriately later has an affair with the ‘pedantic’ ‘pseudo-intellectual’ Paul:

 Gil: Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!

Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What’s wonderful about getting wet?

Already we get the sense that Gil wanders a little too much into his imagination, particularly his imagination of the past – of Paris in the 1920s. Gil’s first actual delve into the past occurs one evening when after the stroke of midnight a strange black cab stops to pick him up, full of revelers drinking wine and champagne. Through this mysterious portal, he is transported back in time to Paris in the 1920s. The film handles the visuals sparklingly well, with stunning 20s costumes, cocktails and the lovely decor of the bars and clubs. It’s all quite magical and dazzling, and we experience the wonder Gil must feel as he is teleported into his favourite fantasy. It certainly got me excited for Baz Luhrmann’s soon-to-be-released The Great Gatsby.

Except unlike us, the audience, Gil becomes a participant in his fantasy, not merely a spectator. Among his adventures, Gil encounters a plethora of characters from the 1920s literary and arts scene, including Hemingway, Dali, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso and Gertrude Stein. There is definitely an element of caricature here, which reflects the play of irony and pastiche characteristic of the post-modern: the film reminds us that these characters are just representations of real figures, who themselves were in a sense self-styled personas, who we knew predominantly through their art. From Dali’s raving about rhinoceroses, to Hemingway’s speeches about war and truth and sincerity, Allen plays with exaggeration to enrich the sense of fantasy and nostalgia. There is a scene where Zelda Fitzgerald is trying to commit suicide because she thinks her husband does not love her and Gil, trying to stop her jumping, tells her that he ‘knows’ that F. Scott Fitzgerald really does love her. Why? she asks. How can Gil possibly know? He’s read all the books and biographies about and by Scott, of course. I think the film here raises an interesting question about subjectivity and literature: what is the real version of events? What is the truth behind the writing? It seems that there isn’t one: instead there are all the fragmented perspectives of those involved, and those who write the books. Right now I’m reading Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz, which critics say is Zelda’s version of the semi-autobiographical events of Scott’s Tender is the Night, both depicting the breakdown of minds and marriages, but from the different perspectives of wife and husband. Gil’s attempts to claim that he can know better than the woman involved only underline the absurdity of any narrative which claims ultimate objectivity.

Gil’s encounters with the resurrected ghosts of the 1920s stage a playful juxtaposition of past and present. His quotative use of ‘like’ and his mundane discussions about his relationship to Inez contrast heavily with the stylish and hyper-surreal world he finds himself in. For example, his conversation with Adriana (Allen’s fictional amalgamated embodiment of Picasso’s lovers) about his engagement to Inez highlights the time and culture gap, but also the disparity between reality and fantasy. He realises that there is in fact very little he and Inez have in common, which perhaps suggests that his engagement itself was built on a fantasy. Gil admits that they have a ‘little bit of a disconnect with the big things’ but at least they agree on the little things:

Gil: I will say that we both like Indian food, not all Indian food, but the pita bread, we both like pita bread, I guess it’s called naan.

The likelihood of the super-stylish flapper Adriana knowing what pita bread is, let alone having eaten it, is pretty slim. In addition to this, Gil’s comic response to Hemingway’s question as to whether he’d ever been hunting – “only for bargains” – presents the playful irony of the film’s exploration of past and present, and the discrepancy between the dramatic, larger-than-life lives led by the characters of a by-gone age and the inane realities of the present.

Another funny encounter between past and present occurs when Gil gets into a cab driven by T.S. Eliot and exclaims:

Gil: Thomas Stearns Eliot? T.S. Eliot? T.S. Eliot? Prufrock is like my mantra.

The comedy here is that this reflects how many of us would behave – awkwardly unrestrained – if we were thrust into a world where we could meet our long-dead heroes. There is the hilarious sense that Gil is behaving as a teenage girl would if they encountered Justin Beiber. And yet he is not meeting the teeny-bopper Beiber, but one of the twentieth century’s finest poets (with all the linguistic prestige that entails). The film collapses the language of the present incongruously with the literary visage of the past.

Gil’s general obsession with the literature of the 20s is reflected in his view that Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is his ‘mantra’. This itself is an interesting mise-en-abyme of intertextuality, as Prufrock itself is a thoroughly intertextual poem, referring for example to Dante. It is also a difficult poem, an internal monologue that follows a complex and fragmented pattern of thoughts which seem to have no definite direction and nor indeed association. Yet its line, ‘Let us go then, you and I’ creates an evocation that resonates throughout Midnight in Paris. It is a speech act, an announcement: let us go. The film itself is built on such a contract of ‘let us go’, asking the audience to suspend their disbelief with regards to the unexplained time travel and enjoy the magic, follow the journey and watch as it restores reality only to thrust us back into fantasy.

Let us go’ seems to suggest an address to time itself – come with me, time, follow my fantasy – but also of linking arms or minds with someone and going someplace else. Time travel can be a solitary or a joint affair. Gil travels back in time to the fin de siecle with Picasso’s lover Adriana, because this Golden Age is Adriana’s fantasy. Here he realises that there is no Golden Age, the Golden Age myth is just a nostalgic longing to escape one’s present: ‘that’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.’ We tend to travel when we are unsatisfied with where we are right now.

The spellbinding world that Gil occupies by night is by far the best part of the film, and Allen frustrates audiences by delaying these ventures with the mundanity of the film’s present narrative. Gil has to follow his spoilt-brat fiancé around shopping for furniture, have dinner with her ultra-conservative parents and trail around with Inez’s ‘pedantic’ lecturer friend Paul. There are slightly tedious scenes about lost earrings, relationship breakdowns and dinner-table conversations which leave us irritated with the twenty-first century rom-com drama, and desperate, like Gil, for the exciting narrative in the past. These temporal fluxes from past to present serve to delay and prolong the audience’s desire to go back into the past, and so highlight the unsatisfactory nature of the present in comparison with rose-tinted history.

Despite the occasional bore of the present, there are some gems slipped in by Allen amongst the rom-com rubble. These include the parodic representation of Inez’s conservative snobbery and naivety – ‘Inez: You always take the side of the help. That’s why Daddy says you’re a communist’. Also, Gil’s mocking of the Tea Party movement, calling them ‘crypto-fascist airhead zombies’. The film is not entirely an adventure into the past but also an aping of the absurdities of the present – from politics to romantic relationships.

And so back to memory. In the film there is the repeated question of ‘is nostalgia denial?’ Denial of the present, denial of reality, denial of the irretrievability of the past. Nostalgia can relate to more fantastic recollections of a past, a past that was only accessible in the first place through mediation such as literature, film and art – the very instruments of romanticism and fantasy. This is definitely the kind of nostalgia Gil suffers or experiences, but there is another kind of nostalgia that is more personal. This kind of nostalgia was famously articulated by Marcel Proust in his book In Search of Lost Time, in a scene where the narrator experiences an involuntary trigger of memory caused by a tea-soaked cake:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.” (Marcel Proust, “The Cookie” from In Search of Lost Time).

This kind of nostalgia is one most of us can identify with: the slightly uncanny sparking of a past personal memory from some kind of sensory trigger. That is how perfume gains its emotional quality, through the way its scent weaves swirls of associations between our past loves, lives and histories, and stirs these up again for us from one whiff in the present. Each time I put on my Body Shop Japanese Cherry Blossom, I fondly and wistfully remember (and long for) my holiday in Rome. As Proust describes it, the unintended evocation of a past memory makes us feel as if we transcend time and morality, collapses our identity ‘this essence was not in me it was me’ and produces an ‘all-powerful joy’. Food is nostalgic because it combines different senses: taste, smell, touch, sight. From your granny’s best soup to those warm chewy cookies they used to make at school, our gustatory pleasures are a minefield of nostalgic resonances.

The point here is that nostalgia is not just an affliction, a slightly unhealthy yearning to escape the present and return to a past that has been forever forlorn in the timeline of history. Nostalgia can be pleasurable, even if the pleasure is a little bittersweet – that feeling of longing and sadness for the person you once were or once loved when you hear the opening bars of an old song. Gil’s nostalgia perhaps goes too far: his novel is set in a nostalgia shop, and he spends his real life dreaming of forgotten times. His fiance accuses him of having a ‘brain tumour’ when he begins talking about the past as if it were real. This is an interesting image, as it suggests something psychologically corrupting about the past: it seeps into the present inevitably and transforms the way we experience the here and now. It is a kind of everyday madness.

Yet Midnight in Paris leaves us with a vision of nostalgia that encapsulates its positive effects. Gil’s decision to break up with his ill-suited fiance, and the final scene where he walks into the rainy Parisian night culminates in a strange blurring of his reality and fantasy. He has finally made grown-up, significant choices, but he has also walked into the sweet allure of a romance that reverberates with his early fantasies of Paris in the rain. It is an elusive, probably unrealistic ending, but this is the magic of the movie. Woody Allen gives us the happy, fulfilled ending we’ve been hoping for – it’s not quite the kissing in the rain at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s but the rain still provides an amorous atmosphere – and this ending, quite nostalgically, recalls all the dreams Gil has at the beginning of the film, and all the familiar romance films of bygone times that end similarly. So this is nostalgia: the little dab of illusion to soften the edges of reality.

Further reading:

Nostalgia: Sweet Remembrance. Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200605/nostalgia-sweet-remembrance

Proust, M. 1913-1927. In Search of Lost Time. 

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