Thursday, May 04, 2006

leafy limbswish

let's get serious for a minute.

about prostitutes. (alternate title: see, I do work!)

“Leafy Limbswish; Limpid Thoroughfare”
The Boulevards, the Baroness, and the Otherhow of Benjamin’s Prostitute

And already, even as she stood there, in her very well cut clothes, it was beginning…. People were beginning to compare her to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies; and it made her life a burden to her…. For it was beginning.
Virginia Woolf

Information sheet question: “Does she enjoy having her photograph taken and posing for them?”
Rachel Blau DuPlessis

In his essay “The Voids of Berlin,” Andreas Huyssen reminds readers that “the trope of the city as book or text has existed as long as we have had a modern city literature.” That is, he goes on to suggest, there is nothing inherently new about reading the city. Yet it is still crucial to contemporary narrative theory to ask, with Dianne Chisholm: “How does the city function as a vision of collective memory when official history dominates image production?” In this paper, I will argue for a re-imagination of the figure of the prostitute in the work of Walter Benjamin as an understanding of how narrative can figure the city to produce what Chisholm calls “critical countermemory” (“CM” 197). More specifically, I will suggest a reading based on Benjamin’s repeated imaginings of “prostitutes in doorways,” which figure the prostitutes at the thresholds of public sexuality and the domestic interior. Here, these women of the night figure as indexes of desire in late capitalism and thus support an avant-garde urban topography based in the erotics of countermemory; we can read Benjamin’s prostitutes as perhaps a “conceptual bridge back from ‘now time’ to a new narrativity,” as agents of “the creative intensity of the erotic and the political as a double awakening.” Of the possibilities of reading an agent at the threshold, Benjamin writes: “I am not concerned here with what is installed in the chamber at its enigmatic center… but all the more with the many entrances leading to the interior…. These entrances I call primal acquaintances… so many entrances to the maze.” Benjamin’s entrances, read through the figure of the prostitute, mark the “profane limit of bourgeois decency,” where embodied desire cuts across the modern city as a “nomadic assemblage” of radical sexual resignification.

What is at stake here is a re-imagining of the prostitute that resists what Chisholm calls “the recuperation of sexual outlawry by a politics of representation” (“OM” 171). Instead of “colluding with the mechanisms of legitimization which aestheticize and neutralize” radical sexuality, it is necessary to find, in the figure of the prostitute “a final front against rationalization and embourgeoisment” (“OM” 195). I mean for this paper to be an exploration of the possibilities of resignification as a strategy that replaces “reverse discourse and other foibles of ressentiment” with a mobilized Benjaminian feminism that works within the Passagenwerk’s “entry-way” poetics of contiguity to deploy this poetics in the figure of the prostitute (ibid.). Benjamin opened this figure in “Berlin Chronicle”:
There is no doubt, at any rate, that a feeling of crossing the threshold of one’s class for the first time has a part in the almost unequaled fascination of publicly accosting a whore on the street. At the beginning, however, this was a crossing of frontiers not only social but topographical, in the sense that whole networks of streets were opened up under the auspices of prostitution. But is it really a crossing, is it not, rather, an obstinate and voluptuous hovering on the brink, a hesitation…. But the places are countless in the great cities where one stands on the edge of the void, and the whores in the doorways of tenement blocks and on the less sonorous asphalt of railway platforms are like the household goddesses of this cult of nothingness. (“BC” 11; emphasis added)

Revisionist Modernism insists, as I do, on reading Benjamin’s texts as “deployed” in the Foucauldian sense, wherein, according to Eva Geulen: “Emphasizing the kind of intimacy and clearly erotically overdetermined relationship that binds sexuality to image and image to sexuality in Benjamin’s writing surely catapults the discussion out of the confines of Benjamin scholarship and into the highly contested arena of debates over the relationship of discourses and gender, images and bodies.” To read Benjamin’s texts as eroticized illuminates the entry-ways and passages as moments of what Geulen considers “the site of Benjamin’s challenge to feminism, which has for the most part avoided the true scope of the gender problematic in Benjamin by restricting its investigations to safely identifiable motifs of (presumably) determinate gender, such as the lesbian and the prostitute” (168). Resignifying Benjamin’s prostitute would amount to a realization of the erotics of Benjamin’s texts as “a moment of discursivization that emerges in the diversification, disruption, and pluralization of sexuality and gender” in both the content and construction of the texts (ibid.).

The figure of the prostitute, then, can be deployed in and by Benjamin’s work as a figure of “countermemory,” itself a Foucauldian term, defined as “a competing narrative of the past composed of memories that exceed official public history.” Countermemory, for Foucault, is a way to “remember having been,” wherein intimacy “becomes a shared history as much as a shared space; internalized as behavior patterns through its integration into memorial narratives of pleasure, intimacy becomes the basis for a collective futurity” (11). While Foucault’s countermemory is specifically queer, and is a function of urban gay males, I would argue that narratives of sexual outlawry can and do produce countermemory in similar ways that are crucially aligned with eroticized materialist history. More to the point, countermemory creates “moments of discursivization” that confront the normalizing “sexualization of discourse” that seems to hold sway over desire (Geulen 168). Benjamin’s Passagenwerk “Invents techniques of remembrance… bound up with objects of the past still traceable to the present”; his “city of memory,” mapped by the prostitute, “harbors erotic fantasies at the thresholds of life and death, antiquity and modernity, propriety and delinquency, and transgression and prostitution” (“CM” 198;200). The situation of the prostitute at the threshold or limit of bourgeois decency should, as the Passagenwerk demonstrates, be read as a simultaneously discontinuous and contiguous index of desire that “affects the story of calling history to remembrance”; here, feminism can read the prostitute’s situation as an opening of the multi-directional historicity of Benjaminian contiguity that allows for discursive intervention (“CM” 214).

In the Passagenwerk, Benjamin writes: “We have grown very poor in threshold experiences.” The statement comes from one of the passages that comprises “Convolut O,” which is titled “Prostitution, Gambling.” In what follows, Benjamin makes clear his idea of the threshold, seeming even to anticipate later criticisms of his treatment of the prostitute: “It is not only from the thresholds of these gates of imagination that lovers and friends like to draw their energies; it is from thresholds in general. Prostitutes, however, love the thresholds of these gates of dream. – The threshold must be carefully distinguished from the boundary. A Schwelle is a zone. Transformation, passage, wave action are in the word schwellen, swell, and etymology ought not to overlook these senses” (494). I would argue that this passage confounds simplistic readings of the prostitute as “both seller and commodity in one”; likewise, the metaphors of “penetration” that saturate, to greater and lesser extents, feminist readings of the figures in Benjamin’s city, would find themselves troubled. If the threshold is a “zone” of the type constructed by the Passagenwerk, we could argue, along with Judith Butler, that the construction of the figure of the prostitute is no longer simply a matter of “constructivism, but neither is it essentialism.” Geulen notes that the saturation of Benjamin’s texts with “the imagery of gendered eroticism” informs “the political materialism of his thought that is, after all, concerned with ‘bodies that matter’”(Geulen 162). In Bodies That Matter, Butler writes: “For there is an ‘outside’… but this is not an absolute ‘outside,’ an ontological thereness that exceeds or counters the boundaries of discourse; as a constitutive ‘outside,’ it is that which can only be thought – when it can – in relation to that discourse, at and as its most tenuous borders” (8; emphasis added). “Construction,” Butler concludes, “must mean more than such a simple reversal of terms,” a foible of ressentiment; in turn, as Sue Best writes, “penetration is thus no longer possible” (Butler 9).

Put far more simply, the deployment of the prostitute as an agent of countermemory mobilizes her arrest as “trope.” This “new and disturbing articulation” of textual erotics via countermemory “cuts into the sequence” of representation (“CM” 213). Historical sequence, like a signifying chain, determines the relative immobilization of gendered representations. “Experienced in sequence,” Chisholm writes, “history appears continuous,” as does signification (ibid.). Radical sexuality “cuts into the sequence,” across it, with mobilized, eroticized narratives. In The Pink Guitar, Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls this cutting “Rupture”: “To refuse the question asked. To break through the languages of both question and answer. To activate all the elements of normal telling beyond normal telling.” DuPlessis’s countermemory as activization “beyond normal telling” points to the avant-garde potentialities of the kind of Benjaminian feminism that I am proposing here.


Blogger Jessica Smith said...

i was going to comment on this, but then for some reason i didn't. i was going to say that lilliane weisberg (burg?) might have an article on this? she gave a lecture on it when i was visiting penn 2 yrs ago. i was also going to say that it looks really interesting and i'm going to read it when i'm done pretending to write my papers.

2:04 PM  
Blogger sarah ruddy said...

i'll check out what weisberg/burg has to say. i'm thinking of making this into the representative chapter of my dissertation (there's like 20 pages more than what you see here) so i'll absolutely be looking into what else people have to say about it.
thanks for the tip.

4:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home