Friday, March 26, 2004


“The most remarkable letter came from a woman who signed herself Thérèse M***, who asked the Courrier des spectacles to call on women to join together to "unveil this madness and force her to appear for what she is, so that visible beauty no longer be humiliated by hidden ugliness." It seems that Thérèse's husband was so taken by this "spectacle held up as the triumph of [the female] sex" that he demanded that she make herself invisible, having no further communication with him except through acoustic horns protruding from a globe of glass. "You can easily imagine that a woman of 23, not badly treated by nature, would not accommodate herself with facility to such a condition," wrote the disconcerted wife. Nevertheless, she explained, she would give anything in the world to know this secret, for, she realized, "it is enough to be invisible, however ugly one is, to receive the most flattering compliments." – Jann Matlock, The Invisible Woman and her secrets unveiled.

We can’t do it. We can’t leave the discussion so up in the air.

Jann Matlock, like any good cultural studies theorist, has read her Benjamin, and her Ginzberg, and her Foucault. She is fortunate enough to work on French culture, especially the roots of modernity – which, for French scholars, are easy to trace. You go to the French Revolution, you go to Paris, and you read the papers. Perhaps this is how she found the marvelous Invisible Woman.

This is the layout of the Invisible Woman exhibit of 1800. Spectators file into a room in which a glass ball hangs from the ceiling. Four acoustic horns jut out of the ball pretty far. The spectators can listen, if they wish, to the voice that speaks through these horns. It is the voice of a woman. And the woman’s implicit and explicit claim is to be in the room.

In other words, an invisible woman.

The contrivance is as rich in dialectical possibilities as the Turkish chessplayer to which Walter Benjamin refers in the Theses on history. That chessplayer enters the canon of modernity via Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote a detecting essay about it. Benjamin, no doubt, found the essay through Baudelaire’s translation of Poe.

Just as that chessplaying automaton possessed a solution, so, too, the Invisible woman possesses a solution. Matlock quotes an anonymous demystifier:

“We know today how the show worked thanks to a number of texts published to capitalize on the popularity of this and similar shows. The most remarkable of these, a pseudonymous pamphlet of 1800, entitled "The Invisible Woman and her Secrets Unveiled," was most likely published by Robertson himself and sold to viewers of the rival show at Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois (fig. 5). Decrying the miracle of the Invisible Woman as deriving from "a puerility," the pamphlet proclaimed that its author had no scruples about dissipating "the marvel that fascinates the eyes of the blind multitude": "we believe rather that we should get credit and glory for giving the following recipe for effecting the false miracle that enraptures every day." 48 Anyone wishing to replicate this magic was directed to build an acoustic contraption in a room below another room connected only by a slit in the floor, explained the author of the pamphlet. One should then hang a glass box above the hole in the ceiling of the lower room to distract the public from the point through which they might be seen. "Place in the above room on cushions, so her movements make no noise, a girl who puts her eye to this oblong opening in the floor of her room so she can see the objects presented to her . . . and then name them by applying her lips to the opening in the hidden tube." From her hidden room, the girl would regale the crowd with what she saw in a room where she was supposed to be residing, invisibly, amidst the acoustic paraphernalia that conducted her voice. "You will thus have the magic," declared the pamphlet, "of the Invisible Woman." “

How can LI resist this image, since it lays out so exactly, so suggestively, the situation of the beautiful woman in the novel? Indeed, one feels – or at least the writer fields, with his irritable, extended sensibility, his ludicrous antennae -- the woman on her cushions in the chamber below her description. The words come out, the crowd is, as it wants to be, mystified, and no woman appears in the glass ball, which sways slightly. No one notices the slit in the floor.

As Mattlock remarks, invisibility – from invisible rays to invisible powers – was a popular topic of the late Enlightenment. Remember, this is the period both of Mesmer and Mozart’s Magic Flute. The naturalization of what, in a previous epoch, would have been considered the work of demons or angels, did not so much destroy the power of the invisible as transfer it to another field, and another regime of legimation.

We loved the instruction in sleight of hand that Mattlock finds:

For Robertson [the exhibitor of the IW], the Invisible Woman Show was not an "experiment" of invisibility but rather a demonstration of acoustics like those displayed in Fitz-James's ventriloquism act. 53 Indeed, the Invisible Woman managed to hold the attention of audiences through several decades of the nineteenth century in shows throughout Europe and the United States because the illusionists in whose cabinets she appeared increasingly made claims about the scientific significance of the acoustic system on which the show was based. As Jacques Lacombe remarked in his Dictionnaire des amusemens of 1792, in order to dupe the public one had not only to have several ways to do the same trick but a way of turning arguments about one's tricks to one's advantage. Lacombe particularly cited illusionist Henri Decremps's advice that, when performing tricks before an audience of enlightened individuals, one should always avoid claiming one's powers magic or supernatural, but rather should suggest that they came from "an uncommon source that was extraordinary although natural."

This image and its semantic field, all of which Mattlock so expertly discloses, seems to LI to give us a sense of why it is so difficult to create a beautiful woman in a story. And why, perhaps, it wasn’t so difficult in an epoch that bore the painful detachment from magical beliefs in its recent collective memory. As Mattlock puts it, “As one newspaper article noted, spectators may well have left the show aggravated by its failure to satisfy their curiosity, but they nevertheless repeatedly told others that "in your life you have never been shown anything so beautiful as the woman that one does not see.”

Holly, je pense a vous!

Thursday, March 25, 2004


Two announcements:

One is that LI will be coming out much more erratically in the upcoming weeks, if at all. We talked to a man about a job today -- he actually had one. Seven bucks an hour, telemarketing. If you told LI when he was twenty that he'd be working for seven bucks an hour when he was forty seven, well, perhaps we would have opened the vein right there and then. But so it goes in this ruin of an economy.

Second is that LI has a small piece coming out in the New Yorker. Small as in Books in Brief small. A review of Marilyn Yalom's book. It should be published in the next couple of weeks. These guys have such class -- they are eager to pay me. Unlike some places that I can't name, that have floated me for two months and caused my ability to eat, turn on lights, and talk on phones serious damage.

Alas, we won't have time to examine the conceptual strain in the use of the word 'object' in feminism. Throw it on the fire, boys.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Beautiful women

We’ve reached the fourteenth chapter of our novel. At this point, we have to describe Holly Sterling. Holly’s death is the event that sets in motion the whole plot, and her corpse has been drained and buried since at least the third chapter. Eventually, we knew that we would have to show her in life – we would have to go backwards. And we knew that we had a problem. Holly Sterling is beautiful. Her reputation is held in that adjective. Beauty is one of her assets.

But between the saying of the thing and its credibility lies the whole sad mechanism of art. A mechanism that is as prone to breakdowns as one of those early versions of the horseless carriage. The ones with the engines you had to crank.

The figure of the beautiful woman lies at the very limit of the descriptive powers of the novel. At that limit, it defines the describable. What can be described is everything up to the beautiful woman. She, however, by being so purely descriptive, escapes description. This has been so for a long time. In the Iliad, the events are set in motion by a beauty contest and the seizure of a beautiful woman, Helen. In other words, from the very beginning of Western literature, the beautiful woman has been that figure from which the action flows. If Helen had been another smudged helot, and Paris had been a horny shepherd, who would have cared? In fact, we would have cared -- this question inaugurates another tradition – comedy – and is explored by, among others, Moliere in Amphytiron, as well as Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Class – status – is, in other words, written into the contract between reader and writer that sets the terms of the beautiful woman, and in its clauses we shift from comedy to tragedy and back.

But this is the theoretical fog that hovers over the facts in the case. In fact, how is Helen beautiful?

In that paleo age of the mirror, Homer’s answer is surprisingly modern. Or perhaps I should say that the answer is caught in a mode of representation that operates as a sort of invariant throughout Western literature. He constructs a negative space around Helen – that is, he shows her effect upon her beholders. It is not Helen who is beautiful – or at least, her beauty requires a mirror. It is a relation, not a Platonic form. Her most famous entrance is in the third book, where the elders behold “white armed Helen” at the gates, while the troops assemble below to battle:

Forthwith she veiled her face in shining linen, and hastened from her
chamber, letting fall a round tear; not unattended, for there followed
with her two handmaidens, Aithre daughter of Pittheus and ox-eyed
Klymene. Then came she straightway to the place of the Skaian gates. And they that were with Priam and Panthoos and Thymoites and Lampos and
Klytios and Hiketaon of the stock of Ares, Oukalegon withal and Antenor, twain sages, being elders of the people, sat at the Skaian gates. These had now ceased from battle for old age, yet were they right good orators, like grasshoppers that in a forest sit upon a tree and utter their lily-like [supposed to mean "delicate" or "tender"] voice; even so sat the elders of the Trojans upon the tower. Now when they saw Helen coming to the tower they softly spake winged words one to the other: "Small blame is it that Trojans and well-greaved Achaians should for such a woman long time suffer hardships; marvellously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon.”

Notice how beauty is not only in the eyes of the beholders, here, but is described almost entirely with reference to those eyes, and that effect. The woman herself – white armed, shedding some tears, covered with a cloak – has no real descriptive distinction to set her looks apart from ox eyed Kymene and Aithre. She is filled in, so to speak, by being filled in.

Every writer feels that something is surrendered here. But the defeat is obscure. The stakes of the battle are the writer’s own powers, but what are the means by which one recovers from the certain defeat that ensues from testing those powers on beauty?

That’s a very material question for LI.

However, contrast Homer with Balzac’s managing of the first encounter of Mademoiselle Marnaffe and Baron Hulot in Cousine Bette (note: most early translations of Balzac are bowdlerized. Better to read him in a good Penguin translation, if you don't read French):

Au moment où le baron Hulot mit la cousine de sa femme [poor cousin Bette] à la porte de cette maison, en lui disant: "Adieu, cousine!" une jeune femme, petite, svelte, jolie, mise avec une grande élégance, exhalant un parfum choisi, passait entre la voiture et la muraille pour entrer aussi dans la maison. Cette dame échangea, sans aucune espèce de préméditation, un regard avec le baron, uniquement pour voir le cousin de la locataire; mais le libertin ressentit cette vive impression qu'éprouvent tous les Parisiens quand ils rencontrent une jolie femme qui réalise, comme disent les entomologistes, leurs desiderata, et il mit avec une sage lenteur un de ses gants avant de remonter en voiture, pour se donner une contenance et pouvoir suivre de l'oeil la jeune femme, dont la robe était agréablement balancée par autre chose que ces affreuses et frauduleuses sous-jupes en crinoline.
- Voilà, se disait-il, une gentille petite femme de qui je ferais volontiers le bonheur, car elle ferait le mien.
Quand l'inconnue eut atteint le palier de l'escalier qui desservait le corps de logis situé sur la rue, elle regarda la porte cochère du coin de l'oeil, sans se retourner positivement, et vit le baron cloué sur place par l'admiration, dévoré de désir et de curiosité. C'est comme une fleur que toutes les Parisiennes respirent avec plaisir, en la trouvant sur leur passage. Certaines femmes attachées à leurs devoirs, vertueuses et jolies, reviennent au logis assez maussades, lorsqu'elles n'ont pas fait leur petit bouquet pendant la promenade.
La jeune femme monta rapidement l'escalier. Bientôt une fenêtre de l'appartement du deuxième étage s'ouvrit, et elle s'y montra, mais en compagnie d'un monsieur dont le crâne pelé, dont l'oeil peu courroucé, révélaient un mari.
Sont-elles fines et spirituelles, ces créatures-là!... se dit le baron, elle m'indique ainsi sa demeure. C'est un peu trop vif, surtout dans ce quartier-ci. Prenons garde.

Surely it is the dress, that robe which shows an agreeable motion produced by something other than those “affreuses et frauduleuses” crinoline slips – caused, in other words, by the motion of the thing itself, Marnaffe’s ass – which anchors our sense, from the very beginning, of Marnaffe as a woman who has a carnality that makes Helen’s white arms seem very pale, indeed. Cousine Bette is a novel of vengeance. The vengeance is effected by a very plain woman – Cousine Bette – on a beautiful woman – her cousin, Baronne Hulot – by means of a ‘jolie” woman – Marnaffe. It, too, is about an abduction of a sort, except this time it is a man, Baron Hulot, who is abducted. His abduction is in exchange for the abduction of Cousine Bette’s love, the sculptor Wenceslas Steinbock, who is stolen by the Hulot family for the daughter, Hortense. So we are not, after all, so far from the Illiad. But the emotional values in this story all emerge out of Hulot’s descent into the very delirium of pussy and ass – a delirium measured by the expenditure of money – for banquets, dresses, apartments, jewelry, the draining away the Hulot family fortune. Hulot’s taste for lying between Marnaffe’s cheeks is a ruinous passion, and in its ruin, a perversely heroic one. For all of Henry Miller’s poetic of the Land of Fuck, Hulot seems the truer inhabitant of the flesh. Balzac’s concept of the flesh is to oppose it radically to thought – this is the flesh you find around the bone. This is the pure flesh of the dick: unthinking, its will all rushes and retreats of blood.

But one could well ask: haven’t we slipped off the rails? Is Marnaffe more than “jolie”? For Balzac, beauté is ascribed to Baronne Hulot – Hulot’s wife. Her beauty is made up of the fact that she is a great soul. Her great soul is proven by the enormity of her sacrifices – in effect, she sacrifices the family estate to her husband’s appetite for Marnaffe. This sacrifice entails ruining her children, so that Marnaffe can devour the family fortune. Balzac precedes Zola in Nana in making the voracity of the whore – eating and sex, that everlasting duo -- play into a metaphor of money being spent. Nana eats, at a certain delirious point, whole railroad companies. Marnaffe mearly gulps down the Hulot real estate.

Helen, of course, cries and smiles – but does she eat? Does Baronne Hulot?

Baronne Hulot is nearing fifty. Balzac had a rather charming obsession, even when he was twenty, with forty to fifty year old women. He compares Adeline to her daughter, at the beginning of the novel, and tells us that 'amateurs of sunsets" would prefer the mother. But he fails to make the contract with the reader stick. Baronne Hulot’s beauty is affirmed at the limit of our imagination – we can believe in it, as we can believe in God, through a labyrinth of metaphors. But the thing itself – as a good thing, something as palpable as Marnaffe’s ass – always escapes us.

Next post I’m going to use Jann Matlock’s essay on The Invisible Woman and her Secrets Unveiled, and an ethnographic study of cocktail waitresses by Lorraine Bayard de Volo, to go a little further with this.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Our far flung correspondents

The following is from Paul Craddick, who runs a weblog that we strongly recommend, Fragmenta Philosophica. We want to thank him for letting us publish this letter.


You're beginning to strike me a bit like Hegel - the architectonic is in need of serious repair, but that doesn't prevent you from unearthing shining gems of insight.

I thoroughly enjoyed your latest "Bollettino" - it had real historical sweep, was superbly written, and provocatively argued.

I think you're definitely on to something with your notion that the "bourgeoisification" or the "proletariat" has been helped along rather well by the easy availability of consumer credit, and I can't recall any other writer coming at it from quite the same angle as you. There's definitely food for thought there.

But - surprise! - I do think you omitted something essential in your analysis.

The fountainhead of (economic) social mobility is none other than the market's wealth-creating dynamo: investment for profit. Thereby the productive process is "refined" such that now the same product can be offered at a lower price than before, or a "better" (= more variegated, complex, featureful, etc.) product can now be offered at the same price as was an inferior one previously. Hence even if nominal wages remain static, over the longer term those wages "appreciate" and thus go further and further: purchasing power is extended. My own favored definition of "economize" - informed by the "praxeological" postulates of the Austrians - is "choice reducing its own costs." The market, as the most economical of economies, inherently reduces costs, the corollary of which is that it enriches (economic) choice. Ergo the lot of the worker will tend to improve of the longer haul. (Please don't misunderstand me as an unabashed "supply-sider," but the role of entrepreneurial investment is fundamental no matter what stand one takes on that question).

Though I won't be holding my breath, one could imagine a state of affairs in which instead of issuing ever larger standard notes ($20's, $50's, $100's) a central bank actually divided the smaller units - imagine "deci-pennies."

This puts an interesting gloss on "soak the rich" schemes - and, generally, those interventions into the market order which encourage aversion to risk: the shorter term is purchased at the cost of the longer term. That's my take on the dialectical interplay between socialism and capitalism - infusions of the former's ethos cause the latter to feed off of its own reserves, vitiating self-sufficiency in numerous respects.

The remarkable thing - detailed, for example, in one of my favorite books, Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy - is the resilience of the "capitalist" engine in the face of punitive taxation, wage and price controls, and other interventions that are difficult to metabolize (one of my heroes, Wilhelm Roepke, distinguishes between "assimilable" and "unassimilable" interventions, but that's another matter). The price we've paid for the "mixed economy" is the further encouragement or "evocation" of Big Business - the large-scale concerns can better weather the storms/tolerate the most parasites - and further ourselves down the lamentable road of the "cult of the colossal"; not to mention further disturb economic equilibrium, and risk exemplifying Mises' dictum ("Middle of the road policy leads [logically, though not necessarily existentially] to socialism"). Our impending health care crisis is surely an illustration of the latter.

So there!

On another note, a while back I posted about the political designations "Left" and "Right" in a rather halting and "dialectical" - vs. didactic - manner. I'm sure you'd have some very valuable things to say about this, so if the spirit moves you please have a look and comment (I'd be glad to know your thoughts).



olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...