Friday, January 27, 2006


Amelia Jones: She Giveth, and then She Taketh Away.

I’d like to thank Amelia Jones for introducing me to Elsa Baroness von Freytag- Loringhoven last week. In her short piece from The Dada Seminars, Jones convincingly presented the Baroness and her “oversexualized self-performances” as somehow working to collapse the distance of signification by repeating her relationship to the modern object-fetish as “too close.” This introduction of a logic of “too close” to be used as a tool for treating history, the body, and signification in revisionist accounts of the avant-garde seems to me both appealing and appealingly problematic.

So you can imagine my disappointment when Jones herself fails to use this tool. Her book-length examination of the Baroness is bereft of “too close.” Instead, Jones offers readers neurasthenia, the blasé aesthete, the détraqué (“ragpicker”), and feces. In so doing, she manages to misread Benjamin, Baudelaire, Djuna Barnes, and even the Baroness herself in one fell swoop. And this is but a partial list of her abuses. I would argue, as I began to in class, that the above theoretical apparatus could be replaced with the dialectical relation of “too close” and “ennui.” While Jones seems to have some kind of chip on her shoulder regarding Charles Baudelaire, to perhaps let him introduce “ennui” would allow her to skip a forced, tiring, and ultimately wrong reading of the flaneur (whom she equates, not entirely correctly, with the dandy). Via Baudelaire and Rimbaud, a working concept of ennui looks something like an overdetermined boredom or numbness caused by the excessive shocks of modernity. It is thus the opposite of the grotesque “too close” which also contains in it as its cause that same “too close.” Ennui gestures toward bodily immersion instead of the removal of the body that seems to set it up for Jones’ misreading of neurasthenia. It is, maybe, over-enchantment; Jones could here avoid the binaries that ultimately ruin her gendered reading and render her concept of “lived Dada” suspect. She could also use the Baroness’ body in a more interesting way than “it smells like shit.”

Jones’ endemic misreading eventually leads her to argue that the Baroness was the model for, and can thus be equated with, Robin Vote in Barnes’ Nightwood. And I really feel like Jones didn’t start out intending this; more likely, her forced and overwrought readings got her to the point where she had to make this assertion: “the Baroness, as model for Robin Vote, is precisely such an abject, queer figure or détraqué: she can be viewed… in her stench, in her overt sexual displays…. a ragpicker and department-store thief” (189). But Robin Vote is a somnambulist, a sleepwalker, imbued with irrationality, yes, but more a figure of ennui than of neurasthenic (stinking, abject) display. It is Barnes’ Doctor who stinks, who lies in bed wearing a stained nightdress and the remains of cheap make-up, who is arrested for “cruising,” and whose room is a monument to abjection, who embodies the qualities Jones attributes to the Baroness and then somehow links to Robin. Robin’s “promenades” are not at all like the Baroness’.

But in keeping with her tradition of non-readings, Jones presents Elsa’s poem “Ostentatious,” and then proceeds to read it, well, literally:

Vivid fall’s
Bugle sky–
Castle cloud’s
Leafy limbswish –
Saxaphone day’s steelblast galaxy –
Big she-moon’s cheekflushed travesty
Ultramarine venues limpid thoroughfare.

Okay, so, yeah, there is walking going on here. But what if we read the images and words dissolving into sounds (as they do) not as a narration of oversexualized self-performance but as the enchantment of the Baroness’ sexual body with the ruins of the city? Like a “limpid thoroughfare,” the moving body swallows manifold images and transforms shocks into a “cheekflushed” sexual wish using the pairing of “too close” and ennui. The revised and embodied history that this would allow for is much less limited than Jones’, and sounds to me more like Dickerman’s read of Schwitter’s Merz, wherein “the monument, emblem of the collective and of history, is swallowed by the interior.”


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