“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, August 21, 2009

the of course

We are not utterly cut off.

There was, for instance, Mary Collier. An agricultural laborer, a washerwoman, and a poet. She was taught the crude elements of reading and writing and, in the midst of her toils, took some precious time out of the day to read. She read, for instance, Stephan Duck, another peasant poet, and noted his disparaging words about women “sitting in the fields” rather than swinging their scythes. She cried out against the lie here in her own poem, The Woman’s Labour an epistle to Stephan Duck, which was published in 1739. Collier gives us first hand an account of standing outside in the cold winter dark of early mourning, waiting for the maid to get up and let her and other washerwomen into the house, so they could begin the laundry.

But when from Wind and Weather we get in,
Briskly with Courage we our Work begin ;
Heaps of fine Linen we before us view,
Whereon to lay our Strength and Patience too ;
Cambricks and Muſlins, which our Ladies wear,
Laces and Edgings, coſtly, fine, and rare,
Which muſt be waſh'd with utmoſt Skill and Care ;
With Holland Shirts, Ruffles and Fringes too,
Faſhions which our Fore-fathers never knew.
For ſeveral Hours here we work and ſlave,
Before we can one Glimpſe of Day-light have ;
We labour hard before the Morning's paſt,
Becauſe we fear the Time runs on too faſt.

AT length bright Sol illuminates the Skies,
And ſummons drowſy Mortals to ariſe ;
Then comes our Miſtreſs to us without fail,
And in her Hand, perhaps, a Mug of Ale
To cheer our Hearts, and alſo to inform
Herſelf, what Work is done that very Morn ;
Lays her Commands upon us, that we mind
Her Linen well, nor leave the Dirt behind :


In Collier’s account, the labour is overwhelming. Duck had compared the endlessness of it to Sisyphus – and Collier replies:

“While you to Syſiphus yourſelves compare,
With Danaus' Daughters we may claim a Share ;
For while he labours hard againſt the Hill,
Bottomleſs Tubs of Water they muſt fill.”

What Collier complains of most, in the end, is

Our Toil and Labour's daily ſo extreme,
That we have hardly ever Time to dream.

It is being cut off from something vital that is felt to the very root of one’s wet being. And these nattering ghosts can’t be put down, then, by the utilitarian faith that the market will eventually make all parties happy. I’m making a wager that the vital portion is not the philosopher’s individuality, but Rousseau’s solitude – a flashing, unstructured portion of life upon which the community worth having – the community dreamt of by the aliens from happiness culture, the community in which there is time to dream – must be built.

And so she passes by – one of the obscure. Although not by Virginia Woolf’s standards.



“Ann married Mr. G., of course—of course. The words toll persistently through these obscure volumes. For in the vast world to which the memoir writers admit us there is a solemn sense of something unescapable, of a wave gathering beneath the frail flotilla and carrying it on.”

Virginia Woolf’s stunning essay on the literature of the Obscure is not about the literature of the working woman or man, not about the Mary Colliers, but that of the midlevel, that of families in the very cage of respectability, like Jane Austin’s Bennets, who sense how precariously they are perched. If we search for what has been left behind – what dirt, what voice, what soul – in order to reconstruct the wave gathering underneath these routines, we have to have an ear for lateral communication – those moments when the obscure speak to obscure in their own ever twisting language.

We are not utterly cut off.

“The atmosphere of London is so charged with particles of carbon and black smoke that if you hang up a white cloth in a current of fresh air, you will find it, at the end of two hours, entirely covered with little plack spots, and the white vest that you put on in the morning is dirty before the hour of dinner.” –A year in London, Auguste Jean B. Defauconpret, 1819 – my translation.

In Domination and the arts of resistance, Scott wisely sees that the very form of Hegel’s presentation of the master-slave relationship is politically coded. It is a dyadic form, master on one side and slave or servant on the other. This face to face form has been inherited by philosophy since, and even considered the nucleus of revolutionary thought, but… as Scott points out … the dyad is the master’s preference. ‘The politcal symbolism of most forms of personal dominance carries with it the implicit assumption that the subordinates gather only when authorized to do so from above.” And though we have been told that his personalized struggle for recognition is the very essence and myth of liberation, what is avoided here is the lateral, the association, the crowd. When the slave, in the great myth, faces the master, what is pre-emptively excluded is what Scott calls the hidden transcript, and what I would call lateral communication.

‘One has only to imagine a feudal lord noticing a large number of his serfs advancing unsummoned to his manor, a large number of beggarts (masterless men by definition) moving through the countryside, or even a large crowd of factory workers gathered near the plant manager’s office to recognize the possibilities.” (63)

These two modes of conversational direction – vertical and lateral – are, of course, our old friends from school, our first sense of disciplinary space. Lateral speech, at the wrong time, is punishable.

It may seem a long stretch from masterless men to the Bennet daughters, attending a ball in Pride and Prejudice, but I think that the novel, and especially the novel as the symptom of female insubordination or corruption, participates in this grid. Of course, lateral speech happens at the top as well as at the bottom – and the English novel, supremely, wants to make a place in the middle for it. However, even at the top it is felt to be somewhat lowering when it is exposed, as if the masters speaking among themselves go down the hierarchical scale and gossip. They reveal secrets, they lose the mask – and these secrets are precisely what they are accused of by the slave. It is not all recognition, you see.

The pathos of the obscure, the heavy “of course” that Virginia Woolf correctly sees as forming all the motion that sweeps the obscure across history, is lodged in the fact that the secrets aren’t interesting. That so and so slept with x, that uncle y was a drunkard – all of this, in the memoirs that Woolf picks up, has faded away. It has lost our interest. Such is the difference between synchronic interest, in which busy-ness itself engages us, and diachronic interest, in which only the heroic engages us. One definition of revolution is that it is the time when the arms, so to speak, of the synchronic and diachronic are squeezed together, imposed one on top of the other, so that the obscure becomes heroic, the complaints (doleances) of the blanchisseuses of Marseilles exert an oversocial force that is as riveting as the beheading of a king. Obviously, here, too, the forms of vertical and lateral communication correspond, in some way, link up with the synchronic and diachronic sense of interest.

Time, as Hamlet points out, is out of joint. Time, as Derrida points out, quoting Hamlet in Specters of Marx, is out of joint.

No, we are not utterly cut off. We are wired in.

It is this revolutionary energy to which Woolf unconsciously refers when she says that ‘Sometimes it seems as if her creatures were born merely to give Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

at the portals of the modern with a basket in my arms

So my faithful gadfly North wants to know, why washerwomen?
Wash women. Laudresses.

Why not seamstresses? Why not the workers in pin factories? Why not paysannes or prostitutes?

Well, partly it is for that most male of reasons: la donna è mobile. Blanchisseuses in 18th century Paris were not only numerous, but also moved in a number of social spaces. The obscure washed their own clothes, often jostling professional wash women on the banks of the Seine. As one climbs the ladder of notability, however, self-presentation, and thus clean linen, becomes ever more important.

And then, too, what would our artificial paradise be without chemicals? In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, while some remnant alchemists looked for universal solvents or the philosopher’s stone, others – whose very spirit is breathed out by the wonderful planches in the encyclopedia, those busy, small worlds – turned to more practical questions. And what was more practical than a better soap. Various substances – from dried pig’s shit to oak ash – were used to get cloth clean. Soap was the big expense for a wash woman – in 1789, when the cahiers de doleances, or notebooks of complaint (or, to be all Jeremiah about it, books of Lamentation) were collected throughout France, the blanchisseuses of Marseilles presented their complaint that the regulations concerning the composition and price of soap were not being respected.

And the relation between soap and clothes is as dramatic, in its way, as that between thesis and antithesis in Hegel’s dialectic. Clothes, after all, took on the complete impress of the ordinary – and especially the extraordinary. Every wine stain, every drop of grease, sperm, juice, all the perfumes and powders, all the sweat – and it is just these fantasmal half-beings, social doxa, that had to disappear. They had to be trampled, beaten, spindled, driven out – all these real ghosts, ghosts in material time. At the same time, the cloth itself had to be preserved. Soillure, dirt, - ground terms, terms that are rooted in the fundamentals of purity and impurity – and the wash woman stands at these archaic portals of purity. “There is not a city where one uses up more linen,” wrote Sebastian Mercier about Paris. And there was not a city where the archaic so joins the modern.

The modern came in the form of Claude Louis Berthollet’s invention of “l’eau de Javel”, in which chlorine was dissolved in a solution of potash lye. You may think that here we have got away from the gods, but actually, here we begin the divine and diabolic course that has touched every creature on earth – for it is among the elements of social life, raising crops, cleaning clothes, that chemistry turned practical, and then took over the human sphere to a point we cannot even comprehend.

Meanwhile, the body breaking method of beating clothes was also slowly being modified. In London, in 1782, Henry Sidgier was issued a patent for a drum rotating machine to wash clothes. Obscure Sidgier! And yet, as Lee Maxwell points out in his history of the washing machine, the principle of the drum rotating machine remains the same today.

What is funny is that out of this vast, centuries old enterprise, relatively little comes down to us. Compare the songs we all know celebrating the cowboy, to those we know celebrating the wash woman. In fact, do we know any celebrating the wash woman? The ‘we’ here is Anglophone. In fact, in France and Germany, and no doubt in Italy, those songs and the literature certainly remain.

It is to the literature I will go next.

Monday, August 17, 2009

solitude and the washerwoman


=Marie Petiet


It is said that St. Petersburg was built on the bones of the builders, the army of serfs that drained the swamps and laid the foundations.

And then, too, as Emerson once said, there was a deal of guano in every immigrant ship that came to America. Buffalo skinners and railroad track men, how many laid down their only homestead and died.

So while we are on the subject, give a thought to the hundreds of thousands of permanently bent spines, the hernias, the paralyzing shoots of rheumatism that rattle around in your clean clothes. Blanchisseuses, Wascherfrau, laundresses, washing woman – from the early modern period to the washing machine of the 50s, this overwhelmingly female job was ill paid, unhealthy, and exhausting. It is, of course, far from over yet. In Mexico City, with its terrible water system, you will not find the American style washer/drier set up as the convenience we all have, and on the rooftops of even rich mansions you might well find the maid soaking clothes in the tub.

Now there is some justice in asking if intellectual history would come unscathed through the judgment of the bones it ignores. And such might be one judgment on solitude as I’ve been construing it. Solitude is a bourgeois affectation – I can hear the voice of the commissar say exactly that, imagine some cloth capped Marxist enforcer from the 30s or 50s pronouncing the very word ‘solditude’ with the utmost contempt.

But contempt has its day, too, its warrant, its reasons. There were armies of washerwomen, and it is a fair question: what would solitude mean to them? To the 167,607 who worked in England and Wales in 1861 (Malcolmson, 7) To the half of free black women who worked as laundresses in Philadelphia in 1840. In France, in the 1870s, there were 90,000 in Paris alone.

Here is what M. Moisy, author of Les Lavoirs de Paris, wrote about the washerwoman:

She has a good heart. A strong yeller, I concur – like the daughter of Mme Angot – she is not less strong in her good sentiments. When an accident, or unemployment strikes one of her neighbors: let a drive be organized in the lavoir: she always gives, even if the charity is to an enemy of yesterday.

She also has the love or her profession, more than other workers of any other profession, and it is tough, this job: the laundry worker begins at six in the morning, only takes an hour off to eat, and works until eight or eight thirty in the evening, around thirteen to fourteen hours a day.

Returned home, wet down to her bones, she has to prepare the soup for her husband and kids, and doesn’t get to sleep until she has done her housework.

The next day should puts on her humid rags to begin the day’s rude existence all over again.” (Barbaret I: 271 – my translation)

Such numbers of women force an image upon the collective mind. It is a little unsettling that the image of the washing woman in the 18th and 19th century corresponds so well to national stereotypes. In Germany and Austria, there was the hetera washerwoman, the Alte Wascherfrau, who had her place in Volkslied and Grimm’s tales, and even casts a shadow in Kafka’s The Trial. In France, from Jean Vadé’s 1740 comic Parisian dialect novel, Lettres de la Grenouillère to Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse, the blanchisseuse was renowned for her freedom, for her constant presence on Parisian streets, and, of course, for her erotic charm – a charm that wished away the wet rags of Moisy’s description. Balzac’s men, his mature men, ass men, cannot resist her. And in England? England, that frightening, puzzling place. Unlike the cook and the chambermaid, who at least get some bawdy attention from 18th century writers and printmakers, and of course get orders in respectable 19th century households, there is something like a negative space, as though the laundress really was a pariah. Which is not true, of course, about Ireland – the old washerwomen in Yeats, and the voices of them in Finnegan’s Wake, are taken from life – that is where the authentic circus animals come from. In America, as we have mentioned, race has everything to do with cleaning clothes.

Well, solitude and the washerwoman will take us to another post.