April 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
I taught my last class at my small college yesterday. My contract is up in May. The visiting professor has finished her gig. In a month I hit the road for a summer of research and visiting family. At the end of the summer I hit the road again, out into the sunset to start my tenure-track job at a public university. Needless to say, the roller coaster of the 2012-2013 job market set me down on terra firma. All’s well that begins with promise.
ON the Job Search
Knowing that something was up, my students have been asking all month where I’ll be going next. I was finally able to tell them. They talked about their own plans. The recession terrifies them. Some are going to grad school, others are relieved to have landed “for now” jobs, and then there are the dreamers and adventurers, off to join the Peace Corps, to teach in the Czech Republic and Argentina, play pro basketball in Germany, or WWOOF their way around the US. I don’t envy them the insecurity of entering adulthood in this job market, in this economy. But I told them — with a rawness that may have poked through — NEVER GIVE UP. You HAVE to keep trying, keep applying, keep planning, keep dreaming, even if you change directions a dozen times. You can only control what you put out into the world. ”Sorry kids, I’m being preachy, it’s the last day of classes. Indulge me.”
Things that I didn’t tell them: When I thought I wouldn’t find a job next year I called my Mom crying, as one does, and she said something very very very wise. ”It will work out honey. You’ll find something that will make you happy. You are a fighter, a hard worker, you always have been.” ”But Mom, not everyone gets an academic job.” ”I know honey, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that something will work out and it may not look the way you expected, but it will only work out if you don’t give up. And you may have to adjust your image of what that looks like. But it will work out.” Luckily, I haven’t had to adjust my image that dramatically. I have a TT job at a public university. That was — is — my dream. But everything my Mom says still holds. You have to keep fighting and pushing and dreaming. That’s all there is.
I learned a lot from my students this year, practical things about how to structure — and not structure — courses, classes, assignments. But I also learned more abstract lessons about communicating and listening and caring and challenging them. I was so anxious, this semester, about teaching 20thC liberalism and the rise of neoconservatism to a population with a large number of very religious political conservatives. And teaching Civil War and Reconstruction in the South! Whoa Nelly! I found myself continually returning to a piece of advice I received from a colleague earlier in the year: They want to know that you care about them — as people. And everything, all the learning, flows from that.
Small liberal arts colleges — and church-affiliated SLACS especially — talk a lot about educating the “whole” person. As an agnostic Jew, I find the prospect of conversations about vocation (not professional vocation — religious vocation) deeply discomforting. But here’s another spin on educating the whole person: it is a reminder that our students are more than the sum of their views or their politics. Like many of my colleagues, I approach teaching as a somewhat evangelical exercise. I want to challenge, complicate, widen my students’ worldviews. And I am going to try. But I also must recognize that I am never going to get a Romney supporter to come around. And that isn’t the point. I like to think that my dear little conservative ducklings have had the valuable experience of being exposed to a liberal feminist from New Jersey, and learning a somewhat more complicated version of U.S. history than they will probably receive — well — most places.
As I reflect on my own college experience and my own goals for my students, I come back to my conviction that college is about opening up, rather than simply replacing. It’s not reeducation — you’re adding to the pieces and shaking it up, rather than reshaping it (though we of course ardently hope that some pretty significant reshaping occurs on our watch). Then again, given the number of students who wrote on my feedback forms or told fellow colleagues that they discovered that they had grown up learning history based on Lost Cause ideology, that my classes helped them see this — well, a little reeducation is indeed in order!
But zooming out from this to the whole person business, we are also teaching skills for navigating a complicated fractious world. Listening, analyzing, discussing, explaining, writing a cogent essay, getting up and out of the door on time, taking responsibility for yourself, showing respect to your colleagues and to your superiors — these things are harder to do when the things that we are learning challenge our core assumptions or cherished narratives. And these skills are more difficult to teach when many of the students in front of us don’t share some of our core assumptions — assumptions from which we construct our narratives. I think that the way you manage this challenge is to go back to that little piece of advice I got at the beginning of last semester. You let them know that you care about them, as people. Mutual respect and intellectual openness can only follow from that premise.
Now I am not going to lie: I have had my share of frustrating experiences this term. Oh yes I have. But when I tried to leave my assumptions and judgements and anxieties at the door and focused on opening up questions, problems, challenges, rather than simply telling them what to think — well, they responded. Some of them responded. And some of them read novels during my lecture and turned me into a towering column of barely contained rage. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.
I will miss these kids, the test subjects of my first experiments in teaching the youth.
February 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
In December 2012, I traveled to China for 10 days as part of the Center for American Culture, a State Department program that sets up mirrors between Chinese and American universities. I briefly toured Beijing and Shanghai, and visited and gave a talk at a university in southeastern mainland China. When asked to write a report on this trip, that report came out in the form of an essay. This is the essay, a little rough around the edges, but my attempt to capture my experience of this exercise in cultural exchange.
* * *
“Are you saying that in America women and men are still not equal?” the student asked incredulously. “Well, yes. What about in China? Are women and men equal?” “In jobs we are, yes.” Others piped up cautiously, suggesting that maybe there was not perfect equality in the negotiation of career and family. “But maybe women in America want too much,” one woman suggested. “Perhaps,” I responded, “but isn’t it our job as a society to continue to reevaluate the relationship between our ideals and our opportunities?” I reiterated the central argument of my talk, “American Career Girl: Jobs, Romance, and Family” that the gains of feminism from the last fifty years did not mean that there were no more battles to be fought. Rather, Americans today continue to engage in an ongoing debate about the terms of equality. The host professor then rose to provide her own assessment of the conversation. With a curious twinkle her eye she intoned, “As you can see, America is not a perfect utopia” and yet, she implied, in many places the revolution is not quite finished.
I hoped that my audience had gained some appreciation of the complexities that women face in contemporary America. My talk connected American women’s history with analysis of popular culture today. After providing a quick historical overview of the expanding field of women’s employment across the twentieth century and the watersheds of Second Wave Feminism, I used the characters in the HBO series Sex and the City to explore the dilemmas that young women continue to face around the expression of their sexuality, work-life balance, the ideals and realities of domesticity and motherhood, and the ongoing search for and revaluation of the ideal partner. I concluded by suggesting that the struggles of feminism would never be over, but that each successive generation needed to revisit these questions anew: in many places, the revolution is not quite finished.
As I suspected, the question of gender equality, like the question of social equality or even terms of citizenship and capacity for dissent, were far from resolved for modern Chinese. One of our guides observed privately to me that there continued to be major obstacles to gender equality in government. But I quickly discovered that the terms according to which Chinese men and women evaluated their society differed in subtle but significant ways for the terms in which I framed my questions. For the graduate students at Guizhou University who showed us around the beautiful countryside, let us shadow their lives as students, and shared their dreams and passions, education was the key to their visions of personal and professional fulfillment and social mobility. Mobility more so than equality seemed to be the central theme of many conversations. I learned about the thousands of Chinese men and women, the “immigrant” masses who left their natal provinces seeking jobs and education in China’s burgeoning cities. Physical mobility to achieve the dream of social mobility.
One of our interlocutors described the advice given by her parents—themselves the children of property owners who became twin outcasts in the wake of the Chinese Revolution—to “cherish this life” and its range of opportunities. In America, partisan politics has frequently played on fears of a rising Chinese threat to America, representing Chinese students as heartless automatons coming for American jobs. The profound lack of empathy—indeed, the jingoism behind these representations astounds me. As Americans today face real, even insurmountable obstacles to our own dreams of mobility we must be careful not to dismiss the diverse and complex human strivings and histories that shape the growth of our industrial “rival.” But I also found myself wondering about the degree to which the recognition of a legitimate shared human striving is enough of an end in itself, to what degree it can stand up to the growing intensity of this global political and economic rivalry.
In Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that the positivist stance of cultural relativism is not a real strategy for negotiating our global world. Rather, we must resist the frameworks of us and them, reject the “clash of cultures” model and engage in dialogues that strive for recognitions of similarity and difference. “Depending on the circumstances, conversations across boundaries can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable.” To confront this new global modernity we must engage.
American news media fixates upon the rampant corruption in Chinese bureaucracy. Today I read about evidence of China’s use of technological warfare targeting America’s power grid. Missing from this media coverage is any real sense of how the textures of people lives and their dreams relate to the transformations of the Chinese state. These were questions I could not ask my hosts. The silences within our conversations were deep and wide.
But surely the questions they ask of us form a close mirror. When I spoke in my talk about contemporary political struggles over the question of social family policies like paid maternity leave or explained how women had used the court system to test the terms of the civil rights legislation, a palpable ripple of discomfort crossed the room. What did they know about our political institutions? What did I truly know of theirs? One of our guides told us about her determination to join the Party. We were surprised. This is the only vehicle to change, she explained. Our other guide seemed less sure. She wanted to engage with the wider academic world, she looked outward.
But this binary of looking inward and outward fails to capture the complexity of cultures and forces shaping the lives and dreams of young women and men in modern China. During my time in Guizhou, I was confronted with a recognition that the key mediator of cultural exchange, and perhaps the most lasting, is neither the state nor the school, and even continues to defy China’s widespread state censorship. In 2013, cultural exchange is principally mediated by a global mass culture. Consider our (truly delightful) visit to a local primary school, where students held a birthday party to illustrate their most recent English language lesson. They paid tribute to us as honored guests, feeding us a dizzying array of local delicacies before serenading us with karaoke to Pink Floyd and Lenka songs. Everyone was taking pictures of everyone, unabashedly, intensely, as if the gaze could both distill and dispel difference. It took very little prodding before my companions and I joined them in a rousing group rendition of “Gangnam Style.” We all knew the dance and the words even though we could barely talk to each other. The hour we spent with this class felt intensely intimate and completely superficial. I was left wondering whether engaging through a global hit song softens the hard angles of cultural and political difference or creates a neutral shared space within which we can recognize our shared dreams.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2007), xxi.
December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
It happens to most women at some point in their lives. Many hear it as girls and develop major self-confidence issues or a thick skin or both. Some lucky ones call this nonsense by its true name. To quote a brilliant feminist academic I know and love, “It’s the patriarchy.” If you let it get you down, if you internalize that shit, then “they keep having the power.” Totally.
I have amazing friends who are part of movements to reclaim the word “fat” and decouple body size from health. This work is important. But I find myself consistently struggling to emotionally internalize the political ideals and feminist critiques that fill my reading, my writing, and conversations with friends. For far too long I have internalized the values of a culture that is quick to dismiss a woman’s value in a word, a culture that consistently shouts down my feminist superego.
This patriarchal body-shaming BS has wriggled so deep inside me that last night I found myself bursting into tears in a bar when a smart, funny, “nice” guy whom I had met the week before — whom I had had the balls to ask out the week before — told me that his friends had said I was fat. And I started crying. In a bar. In front of everyone.
“It’s the patriarchy.” I keep letting them have the power.
Why does that word continue to have such power over women? I have been called many many things in my day. I am not a stranger to being called ugly or annoying or stupid or uncool. But when I was younger it was par for the course, I was a hyper sensitive nerdy kid in public school. And I never let them see me cry. Or at least, I think, rarely.
But as I struggle to negotiate a hellish job market and singletonhood and a body that is changing as I get older, I find myself with all of my defenses down, and was so taken by surprise last night that I sat there and cried. And then asked why the hell he thought that was an acceptable thing to tell a woman.
Would I have cried had he called me a “buttaface”? Is fat different than ugly? Sarah Jessica Parker is a polarizing figure in the annals of American beauty. An ex-boyfriend who is intimately familiar with my own struggles to accept my face nevertheless persisted in joining the collective who call SJP “horseface.” But one thing Sarah Jessica Parker is not? Fat. Oh no! The degree of shame heaped on women whose bodies are not the “right” size comes from the particular way our Protestant society collapses the assessment of body size into assumptions about self-transformation and worth. Ugly people are ostracized or shamed and face discrimination in hiring, but fat people are a special disgrace in our culture because large bodies visibly defy vaunted principles of self-control and belief in self-transformation. This is why we shame fat people for eating. I direct you to the Fat Studies Reader if you’d like to learn more.
The point here is that fat is a particular kind of slur in our culture that fits into a larger pattern of dismissing a woman’s worth based on her appearance. So was it the word “fat” that did it to me last night or the incredible pain of knowing that I was sized up and dismissed in a moment? Actually, it’s more than that. The man I was with, to all appearances a smart, articulate, interesting, and politically-attuned fellow did not recognize that it is never appropriate to dismiss a person based on her appearance — to her face. He wasn’t the author of the dismissal, sure, and he professed that his friends are idiots, but at the moment he probably laughed. Or maybe he didn’t. I wasn’t there. But he didn’t know enough to realize that you do not ever share that kind of statement with a virtual stranger. You do not say to her face, my friends dismissed you because they thought you were fat and they thought I should dismiss you too.
He later explained to me that he doesn’t care what strangers think of him, so he didn’t consider that I would care or be bothered. First of all, that is epically obtuse. But it also is very revealing of a persistent problem with gender and empathy in our culture. I know that white heterosexual masculinity has some major problems, places an inordinate amount of pressure on men, and really needs to be reevaluated. But it’s not a zero sum game, this is not a contest. Feminist critiques of gender in our culture haven’t done any good if men still don’t understand, can’t empathize enough to recognize that their experience of criticism, their way of handling it, their particular emotional response to judgements of their bodies are not normative. If they can’t recognize that by relaying this kind of a judgement they are complicit in a real feminist problem. Because of “the patriarchy” many women experience these things quite differently. And it is never OK to dismiss a woman to her face about her body, even if you are merely relaying it secondhand.
These things can hurt men too. They hurt men a lot. But the entitlement to dismiss a woman based on her appearance, which we have recently seen enacted quite a bit in politics – politics! – this entitlement is powerfully gendered. And you’re not an educated man, a “sensitive” man, an “enlightened” man unless you have figured that out.
I suppose I can’t expect men to stop with this nonsense until I stop calling myself these things as well. Until I stop “giving in to the patriarchy.” I suppose I had my eyes opened last night about how easy it is to be so fragile even when you think you’re scrappy and strong. Sometimes you’re not your own worst critic. No, the voices in your head come from the world around you. And I wish we could make it stop.
October 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week, at my cousin’s wedding (which was FAB-ulous, by the way), the maid of honor (sister of the bride and my cousin) was very adamant that I not put too much makeup on her. I have wanted to do her makeup for a while, because she has these really large interesting eyes, darling rosebud lips, and fair coloring that looks dramatic next to her red-streaked brown hair.
But my cousin, we’ll call her Eve, did not want me to change her appearance. Why would you want to look like a different person? she asked. Well, because it’s a special occasion, I responded, and because makeup is fun, it’s fantasy, it’s the opportunity to be some one different. (I love makeup, by the way, but I also have a very complicated relationship both with makeup and with my own appearance. It’s a double-edged sword. But more on that later.)
Eve wasn’t buying it. I want to look like myself, she insisted. To her, a special occasion was a time to see the people you love, but to see and enjoy them as they are. Get dressed up, of course. But paint your face so that you look like a completely different person, completely different from the woman your parents, your siblings, your partner, your children love and look to every day? Not for her!
At first, I dismissed this. That Eve! she’s just one of those “natural” girls. She doesn’t get the fun of it at all. But her comments stuck in my mind as I made sure to do her makeup, and that of my other cousin, who had a similar request, in a way that still looked like them. I, meanwhile, tried to use restraint when approaching my own face, which I sometimes see as a misshapen and flawed palette that only the right lighting and elaborate painting can transform, on special occasions, into something dramatic and lovely. With my flair for the dramatic and my history as a dancer, I frankly enjoy the play of makeup. But as I made up my own face that day I wondered, did I really look that much better? How would I find the right balance so that I looked dramatic and lovely, but still looked like “myself”? And as I thought more about my cousin’s words, I was reminded again of the trap that I often find myself in around these questions, and that I have been struggling to emerge from these last few years.
Eve, you’ll pardon me if I’m frank with my readers.
You see, neither Eve nor I have those smooth and luminous and even complexions that are the holy grail of our beauty culture. We have both struggled with acne over the years. But whereas I have spent most of my adult life trying to find ways to cover, conceal, transform my face, Eve is very matter-of-fact about hers. She wears a little makeup and concealer, but I have never gotten the impression that she is trying to hide herself the way I often am. And therefore Eve is far less concerned with what might show through than I am. This is who she is, take it or leave it. Of course, she still feels crappy when she’s having a bad break-out. (We commiserated over the irony of breaking out the week of her sister’s wedding. Classic.) But if it bothers her, I don’t get the sense that she feels a need to hide from the world that things that bother her about her appearance. Whereas I do.
Today, Eve posted this on facebook. It’s pat and cheesy and all that. But I really liked it. It’s a cliche to say “those are not flaws, they are differences and your differences make you beautiful, they make you who you are.” But it’s really important to be reminded of this. Again and again and again. Because you see, I don’t just have a problem with my skin. I don’t like my teeth. I don’t like my smile. I don’t like my droopy right eye. I don’t like…lots of things. I suppose I like the whole package, but when I step back, it’s hard to just see the package rather than pick it apart. It’s challenging to see and accept that this is who you are, this is what the world sees, whether you are looking tired, or breaking out, or are simply luminous. It’s difficult, on all occasions, to simply be neutral about it all. These aren’t my flaws, these are my differences, and this is what I look like today.
I know that many men have similar insecurities about their appearance. Acne and wrinkles and skin tone and hair growth. But I know from conversations that my male friends rarely go into the world thinking actively about whether the world is evaluating them positively on their appearance that day. Yes, I know, beauty culture is a very gendered phenomenon. I’m a women’s and gender historian, I get all of that, I’ve thought and written about all of that, about the different pressures beauty culture places on men versus on women.
I am not here today to critique or deconstruct beauty culture. After all, I fully embrace aspects of our beauty culture because I think it’s fun. I like wearing makeup, dressing in something approaching a personal style, thinking about and transforming my appearance. Beauty culture is a double-edged sword, and I’m not interested in rejecting it anytime soon. But I would like to be able to change the underlying sense of self through which I approach beauty culture and my own beauty.
To aspire to look a certain way on certain days, to seek the opportunities of self-transformation that makeup and fashion allows does not necessarily require that we devalue or reject ourselves in different states or states of performance. Do I have more value at a wedding when I am “all did up”? The performance is calibrated to the context, but that doesn’t mean that we need to devalue the other days or all the stuff “underneath.” I HATE the natural beauty discourse that shames women for wearing makeup, because it privileges women whose un-madeup appearance conforms more readily to beauty ideals. That is a game I am also not interested in playing.
But here is something that I have discovered. About a year ago, I stopped wearing a full face of foundation every day. I switched to a tinted moisturizer because it was easier, felt better on my skin, and required less maintenance throughout the day. I slowly got used to seeing more of me. There was less of a screen between my complexion and the world. But it also became easier to not worry, on a daily basis, about how perfect that face was.
I work hard at my job, I have exhausting days. I discovered that on some occasions, I have actually made it several hours, even an entire day without checking or adjusting my appearance. I taught a 70 minute afternoon class yesterday and only realized afterwards that I hadn’t done my post-lunch shine and mascara sludge check. Had I looked perfect? I discovered: no. Did it really matter? My job is not to be perfectly made up from 9:00 until 4:00. My job is to teach a room of 20-year-olds to understand how the actions of freed blacks during and after the Civil War shaped Reconstruction politics on a grass-roots level, participating in politics even before the citizenship and franchise amendments. My job is to teach my students that Reconstruction is not just a story of white northern policy makers in Washington. My job is to get up in the morning, get my appearance to a place that I am comfortable with, and then go forth and teach.
I have discovered that in the last few months, whether as a result of the exhaustion, the intense days, or a gradual shift, I spend a fewer hours of the day worrying about how I look. As my colleagues-cum-friends know, I have my moments. Oh, I have my moments! Emily, what’s going on up there? Am I a frizzy rat’s nest? Too much bronzer today? Are you sure it’s Ok? But I also have started to discover that whether I am shiny or greasy or tired or rosy or Hermione Granger-esque, I look like myself and it doesn’t make the job I do any different. And that most of the time, this should be my goal, should be our goal. Wherever we find ourselves on any given day on our personal beauty spectrum, it is A-OK. Because we look like ourselves.
September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
Yesterday I celebrated a cousin’s wedding. Next weekend I celebrate another cousin’s wedding. And this morning I opened up the Styles section to Matt Richtel’s “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part.” This.
My feelings on the subject are endlessly complex. As I live and work, I am surrounded by marriages, successful marriages, enduring marriages, tense marriages, wandering marriages, broken marriages. The cohort of incoming faculty at my SLAC is perhaps an apt microcosm of marriage patterns in my professional and personal demographic. In a cohort of three men and three women (all white with advanced graduate degrees), we were two married men, one married woman, a man in a long-term partnership, and two single women. I’m not going to attempt any exegesis on reasons for gender disparity in marriage patterns, except to direct any and all partisans of Hanna Rosin’s idiotic “End of Men” arguments to an exceptional counterargument, also in this weekend’s NYT, by the historian Stephanie Coontz, “The Myth of Male Decline.”
Instead, I’m going to ruminate in a somewhat personal vein on the problem and persistence of the marriage myth in our culture….especially given the high likelihood of divorce among our families and friends. I’ve seen it in my own family and am arriving at the age when statistically a high percentage of marriages may slowly start to crumble — or have already crumbled.
Divorce is messy. The fallout is a long and winding road. We can’t make our exes disappear in a puff of smoke, regardless the convenience of the fantasy that if the relatives don’t invite my ex to the wedding, the funeral, the bar mitzvah, s/he doesn’t exist. Alas, even in our globalized world, we cannot escape from the ties of our failed relationships. Nor is a divorce the end of a relationship. Rather, it is a reconstitution of a relationship originally codified in marriage. It is in this messy context that I look upon the events of a wedding and am convinced that in 2012, the expression of sentiments like “for the rest of my life” are naive at best, and certainly foolhardy.
But should we stop saying these things? Do we need to say these things to articulate a love and a partnership and commitment? Perhaps we should examine more carefully why we feel the need to say these things about our relationships. “Forever” in a world of divorces performs some powerful cultural work. Is it a persistence of youthful idealism despite a sea of evidence to the contrary? Perhaps this is a good thing, the foolhardy idealism of youth, not cowed by the disappointments of our parents.
Not so fast. There is more going on, and much of it has to do with the privilege, both economic as well as social and cultural, that we continue to confer on the married.
Young married folk like to express sentiments to young non married folk on the order of “it completely changes your relationship” and “you won’t understand until you’re married.” Such statements are baldfaced in their invocation of privilege. Understanding is predicated on experience, thus precluding deniability. You can’t challenge the claim, unless you too join the ranks of the foolhardy married. Motherhood has a similar aura of unapproachable privilege wrapped around it, in that no woman in our culture is allowed to speak authoritatively about motherhood unless she has become a mother herself. Ah! the tyranny of personal experience to confer privilege. I face my 30s with a mounting frustration with the realization that if I choose not to marry, or still yet, have children, I will never really be regarded a full adult. Yes, yes, cue the trombones and piccolo to commence this misshapen swan song.
I recently had a blistering fight with a close friend about the relative choices that let to our relative relationship status. She cohabits with a boyfriend of several years. I’m single and frustrated with the lack of dating prospects. The comment that set us on a tear? “I guess I just got lucky.” Everyone who is single despises the condescension captured in that statement. Luck does have something to do with many of these life choices, but emphasizing luck at the expense of choice obscures a much more significant fact that the kinds of relationships we are in owe a great deal to choice. I’m sick of hearing about waiting to be lucky. It smacks as much of privilege as “you won’t understand until you’re married.”
(Amended to add: Then again, as a friend and reader has pointed out to me, too often the discourse of choice is used to shame single people for our BAD choices, instead of acknowledging our lack of options. Well. Perhaps those coupled up could apply the discourse of choice to their own circumstances a bit more, because you don’t fall into a relationship, after all. You a lucky and you make choices.)
Bitterness! The bitterness of the single woman, you say.
(Now the gratuitous turn to the personal.) But I think it is important to separate the reasons that I am single from the reasons that I am not married. (And granted, my friend is not married either, nor does she profess a strong investment in becoming so. But she has committed to a relationship that is as imperfect as my singleness or as imperfect as any other relationship.) When I reflect on my singleness, I am convinced that I am single because I have not found the right person to be in a relationship with at this time in my life, but unmarried because marriage was never a major goal for me.
I have always wanted to be in relationships, to meet and connect with and love another person, deeply and fundamentally. But I have only recently realized that for much of my 20s, I did not assume that these relationships should lead to marriage, that this was the goal for which I was striving. Maybe I was just a cynical child of an ugly divorce. Or maybe I’m doing revisionist history. And perhaps many of my friends — married and unmarried, in long term committed relationships both — were equally vague about their long-term goals for their relationships. But this is not the narrative that emerges in the choreographed nostalgia of a wedding. This is what gives me pause, and makes me feel that my conflicted feelings about weddings and marriage must be separated from my feelings about committed romantic partnerships.
The irony of all weddings that I attend, no matter how much they reshape tradition to suit contemporary visions of a “non-traditional” wedding, whether couples write their own vows or recite an edited version of the traditional vows, whether the wedding is outside or in, whether the bride wears a veil or not, walks out to Bruce Springsteen or Antonio Vivaldi, hangs out with guests before the ceremony or only appears at the end of the processional in a fantasy cloud of tulle — whatever the architecture of the affair, all involve a teleological narrative rife with the expectations of nostalgia. All road lead to Rome. We are creating memories of a story foretold. The wedding is the ultimate nostalgic performance, the epitome of our culture’s hyped-up sense of performativity.
Permit me a momentary diversion.
At a recent student-led discussion of The Hunger Games at my SLAC, we commented on the unique feature of Katniss’s negotiation of the games, unprecedented in all dystopian literature: Katniss becomes a good competitor not only because she is an exceptional shot and a skilled survivalist, but because Katniss learns — almost a minute too late, but in that moment, uncannily well — the ability to perform herself, to play to the cameras, to choreograph and perform every emotion and decision. In order to win the Hunger Games, Katniss must not only compete, but perform herself for millions of viewers. In the process, Katniss begins to question the terms of her own reality, her own subjectivity, the nature of her “true” feelings. She begins to lose “herself” to the game.
This is far more complex than the usual shorthand that Collins is writing a critique of reality TV. Reality TV is a device here used to reveal a larger point about contemporary subjectivity. As one professor at the discussion pointed out, The Hunger Games is so appealing to this generation of readers because Collins has captured the defining feature of our modernity: our lives are lived through a hyper-awareness of our own participation in elaborate performances of self. We watch ourselves regardless of whether we are ourselves aware of being watched by another. This is not only because of the possibility that we might in fact be surveiled but also because subjectivity and knowing the self occurs through the performativity of self. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether we are or are not being watched. It is the performance that matters. This is not the invention of the early 21st century, but the result of a long evolution in modern subjectivity that began sometime in the 19th century.
Indeed, our culture exists in a strange counter-poise — like a glove turned inside out — to construction of subjectivity and performativity — the relationship between external and internal character — in early-19th-century society. In the early 19th century, scholars like Karen Halttunen and John Kasson have argued, middle-class evangelical strivers embraced a cult of sincerity, grounded in the belief that the body was the visible and unmediated manifestation of internal character. This culture was deeply ambivalent about performativity, even as it engaged in highly choreographed rituals to convey that the exterior appearance was a transparent reflection of inner character.
Around the middle of the century, the rise of a new middle class culture shifted this relationship between performativity and character, such that theatricality was increasingly embraced as a positive value. This shift also participated in a larger transformation in the relationship between middle-class culture and theater, the implications of which are far-reaching (and the subject of my own work). The theater became what it had been in the eighteenth century, a site in which modern subjectivity was performed. (This trajectory and shift is far more complex, but one way of periodizing this is to see the early 19thC as a kind of back-lash against the hyper-performativity of elite culture in the eighteenth century. The late 19thC marked a democratization of the process of achieving subjectivity through performativity. Now, a return to your regular scheduled program.)
If Americans two centuries ago imagined the outside as the transparent reflection of inner truth, in our culture we find the truth in the outside, and in turn view the inside as existing only through the truth of the outside. This is not a moral judgement. My observation is not intended as some armchair indictment of the shallowness of our culture. To the contrary. Our culture, like most, defines the relationship between truth and character and performance in its own particular way, which is both the beauty and the trap of our modernity. We know ourselves through our performances. And what better way to understand the enduring myths and dreams of self than through one of the last formal rituals that a majority of Americans, across boundaries of class, race, ethnicity and sexuality, increasingly embrace!
A long and perhaps unnecessary diversion to come to this, my final point:
I both love and despise weddings. I love the pageantry and spectacle, the magic of getting dressed up — a rare treat in our casual and informal culture — of being surrounded by good friends and family and strangers drinking, dancing, and celebrating. The performativity of the wedding appeals to me. But it also disturbs me, deeply. You see, I can’t pretend that I only like weddings for the red lipstick and silk chiffon. I am not a cold cynic, but a deeply emotional one. My friends tell me that I am not a cynic at all. I am single because I am a deep romantic. Case in point: my anxiety about weddings leads me to embrace the performativity and then wrap myself in a mantle of scotch and cynicism that ultimately proves a very fragile shell for the turgid emotions beneath. At weddings, I frequently drink too much and cry.
I love and despise weddings because I am terrified of my own desires. Because I secretly wonder, can I ever really know myself unless I too join in this lovely charade?
But it is this aspect of wedding culture, as Virgina Rutter radically asserts in Richtel’s article, that we must eliminate. Our fetishization of all aspects of this performance prevent us from imagining something different in the architecture of our relationships, from finding our way into a new culture of partnership, family, and sexuality. A wedding-less world that would discourage us from “buying into the fantasy” seems both shockingly bleak and fundamentally vital. Without the fantasy of marriage as a nostalgic crutch to hang our choices upon, perhaps we would be increasingly pressured to continually redefine the meanings and terms of our partnerships, our commitments, and the arc of our futures. Without finding our way to ourselves through our performances of nostalgia. We know the choreography of the wedding, but it leaves us ill-equipped, in this day and age, to negotiate the improvisation of our relationships.
Next weekend I will walk joyously down the aisle before my cousin. I will celebrate her marriage and I will cry. A lot. Writing this even now brings a knot into my stomach. But find me at some point in the evening and ask me and I will tell you that deep down inside I am wondering, wondering, about the price of these, our deepest and most jealously guarded and highly performed fantasies.
September 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
About twenty minutes ago I submitted by first book review, 1000 words to a peer reviewed journal in my subfield. The review was a week late, written only after three beers and my alma mater’s first football win for the season. When I finally sat down last night, a review that I had been so anxious about writing — in part because I had some mixed feelings about the book — came pouring out. And I am comfortable saying that I think it is both a good review and a good piece of prose.
Because, you see, as I pounded away at the keyboard amidst the white noise of college football on the living room TV, I realized that I have an opinion, I have a strong perspective on my field, and I have a stake in its future. Writing this dissertation, which for so long I feared was just indulgence in my own narrow scholarly and personal interests, was in fact a process of shaping me as a scholar who has a perspective on questions that I care about and other scholars also care about.
I know what you’re saying, WE HAVE BEEN TELLING YOU THIS ALL ALONG. But I still didn’t quite see it. And I think I see it, finally, and I’m excited about this review because as the analysis came pouring out of me (it was surprisingly easy and quick to write in part because I’d been thinking on it and avoiding it all week) I realized that I have more things to say, many more things to say, than my dissertation. That was just the beginning. And it will need its own considerable share of work from here on on out.
And now, friends, as I sit in the cool sunny Southern morn chowing down on toasted pancakes, leftovers from yesterday, I find myself staring down my first week on the job market. On Friday, the first applications with be due. Between now and then I’ll need to write a few lectures, prep a few discussions, read one overly long paper on Civil War and memory by an enthusiastic student, AND revise my job materials. I’m scared, I’m excited, I’m not ready, I am ready.
I also found out this week that despite what the rumor mill was churning out about the possible future of my position, the faculty member I am replacing for the time being has decided to return to the post of professor in the coming year. That means that any possibility of renewal that I may have harbored is now completely dashed. For this reason, my Wednesday was quite rough. I got the news as I watched Michelle Obama deliver a stirring “I love my husband and I’m the most articulate first lady ever so elect him president” speech and wrote my lecture on the wars between English and Algonquians in the 1600s. And I cried with frustration, even while knowing that on paper nothing had changed. I was still a one year VAP, but I had lost the hope of a small safety net that I had been foolish enough to harbor for the last few weeks. But there are jobs for me to apply for and postdocs and there will be visiting positions, and I am a scrappy lass, I’ll make it through. We’ll all make it through.
September 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Friends, this job is hard. It will get easier, once I have a corpus of (awful) lectures written and under my belt. In the meantime, this job will be hard and I will be not very good at it. But getting better.
A few years ago, a friend of mine described his frustration with his performance his first year on the job. I remember thinking, at the time, well maybe this just isn’t really his thing. Oh! you ignorant lass, it was just his first year on the job and like the rest of us he was writing lectures cobbled together from mostly textbooks because that was all he could do because the stream never let up. And you can’t delay a project, you can’t shut down your computer and say, “I’ll pick it up tomorrow,” because they’re sitting in front of you at 9:00 in the morning and at 10:00 in the morning and at 1:00 in the afternoon twice and three times a week and waiting just waiting for the information you will pour into their little heads and the insights you will draw, drag, squeeze from their sometimes tired, sometimes vacant, sometimes willing and eager brains.
And the stream never lets up. You finish your classes and you are reading through scholarship, feverishly formulating your next lecture, designing the Powerpoint, the study questions. You collapse in bed at midnight and are up again at 6:30. You deliver that lecture and then move on to the next one. And soon, soon, the assignments will come in and you will have to read those pages of their mediocre prose. And it will be so refreshing. Anything except lecture writing. I now know how wrong I was. My friend was perfectly cut out for this job. It was just his First Year.
So at the risk of being condescending and dramatic, I will tell all you dissertators out there reading this that while teaching is a wonderful, wonderful blessing, it is an entirely new kind of hard. So love your dissertations, but do not martyr yourself by deferring evenings off to read or write when you could be drinking, watching Style channel, or reading Game of Thrones. That day will come when you have to work from 9:00 am until 12:30 am. And until that day comes, have a beer instead. And trust me, I’m having a few myself anyway.
My students are great. I have a lot of young men. That’s new for me. And a lot of ROTC guys who are among my most articulate and engaged students in my survey course. According to my chair, the ROTC produces some of the strongest students we have in History. They’re strong leaders, articulate, and very motivated. It’s a nice unexpected answer to my fears of facing a room full of good ole boys. Instead, I have a diverse group of students with some really smart and articulate and respectful young men.
Meanwhile, I am periodically accosted by shy young women asking whether it’s true that I’ll be teaching American Women’s History next semester. The rumors are true! I love you WOMENNNN! Oh wait. No. Not like that. Sorry, Ann Romney, there’s no romantic, cult of domesticity womanhood in my class — except as a historical artifact and object of analysis We’re going to be talking about mothers and sisters and wives and religious leaders and wage laborers and labor activists and social reformers and teachers and prostitutes and philosophers and traders from the 1600s to the present. Can’t. Wait.
I am currently attempting to stay up past 11 tonight. Last night, I crashed at 10:30 then regretfully woke up at 7:45 am, went for a long bike ride, watched me some Melissa Harris-Perry, did some laundry, went on a date, attempted to read the book I am supposed to review for a journal (deadline yesterday!) and then fell asleep from 7:30-9:00 pm. Meanwhile, all my friends are up in Maine celebrating a wedding. Much as I’d love to be there, OH the work I have to do this weekend! AND school is open on Monday. I know. Labor Day? What is up with that? At least my only scheduled commitment involves my honors advisee.
But wait — a date, you say? Why yes. In the interest of not feeling like I am completely ineffectual and failing in my personal life (the part that doesn’t involve incredibly stimulating convos with friends during my daily commute or beers with new colleagues, mind) I decided to return to the internets, the most passive form of dating for a socially atomized modernity. Or something like that.
My expectations in this quarter are being realized. That is, I am vetting a slow trickle of generally intelligent and liberal young men who in no way inspire much enthusiasm from me. Though my screening strategies produce no horror stories, they also produce nothing much by way of inspiration. And yet, I’ll probably stay on the internets. Especially since I am facilitating my introduction to Cosmopolitan Southern Town by engaging in nice activities like a trip to the farmer’s market and a visit to the local history museum. I am really glad I love what I do. Otherwise, my dating prospects would make me depressed as heck.
And NOW, I’ll return to cheering on my alma mater – currently losing its first game – and trying to get through another chapter in the book I’m supposed to review. Happy weekend!