Professing * Reflecting

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Wondrous Strange

Can it be? I actually found notes--detailed notes--for what I am teaching in my three-hour seminar this week. Love my uncharacteristically organized last-year self who took actual, useful notes and carefully filed them away. Actually feeling intimidated by last-year self and wondering if I can live up to her standard this year. Anyway, I am now free to dither about and engage in my obsessions.

Obsession #1: Duh, blogging and reading blogs. Now that I seem to have readers, I not only read their blogs but also my own blog over and over again, in an attempt to see what they see (which is what a professional mirror compulsively does). This is sick, I know. The one thing that may trump the narcissism (a narcissism I claim to detest) is this weird inverse narcissism. Even more disturbing? I have decided that one possible reading of the whole anxiety-at-being-seen may lead to the idea that I am hideously ugly, and AND I feel compelled to convey somehow that I am good-looking. I even considered sly ways to do so, e.g. The guy at the falafel stand still can't believe that such a "hottie" is a college professor; I wish my students would stop looking at me like they want to bang me (except that beautiful kid from Spain); or I suspect my collegues don't respect me, because I don't look like a "typical academic." And then I would rail at the injustices of not being taken seriously, of needing to be plain or ugly to be considered "serious," of the stereotypes that demand that professors who are women must be sexless. Ugh! Ugh! Ugh! Who am I? Slow realization of just how much I depend on my looks: in my day-to-day life, I think I might need the first identifying characteristic to be "good looking." The "wow, she's smart/funny/cool/successful" must follow from that. I think I even EXPECT and LIKE the confusion that results from the contrasting stereotypes. But, I bristle (or do I?) at these stereotypes. The anxiety-at-being-seen problem is based on the fear that people will see NOTHING below the surface, that the space where smart/funny/cool/successful is supposed to be is really empty (which it is, ironically, when I am mirroring). I see myself as fighting to prove myself as smart/funny/cool/successful and therefore to show that beautiful/sexual/"hot" women can be those things. Am I just performing this fight, even to the point of fooling myself? If not, why do I feel compelled to identify EVEN my anonymous/pseudonymous self as not just "good-looking" but "sexy" and "hot"? Why do I feel like I can't continue until I establish that fact? Am I trying to debunk the myths or am I taking full advantage of them?

Obsession #2: Best-friend-turned-suitor-lover. Last night, he came by for drinks and, as I soon realized, a friendly game of mindfuck. Our Tuesday-night rehash of the weekend has been a regular thing, made slightly irregular last week by the (actual) fucking. The mind-fuckage became apparent when he starting talking about "this incredibly intense moment that I can't quite figure out" between him and this woman he was working with this weekend. So, he wanted me to help him to understand this "intense moment." Incredibly geeky explanation of this particularly event according to the specifics of this particular profession followed. (I am not going to reveal his profession. Suffice it to say that it is perceived to be ultra-cool, so there is nothing funnier than these people going all geeky about it.) After I made fun of his geeky jargon, he busts out with, "It was so strange, but so . . . intimate. Almost . . . sexual. She was trying to intimidate me, but I didn't back down. I could definitely be into fucking her." Heh. Heh, heh, heh. See, since last week's night of passion, I have been acting very casual, continuing to talk in a friend-like way about men I find attractive and men I've fucked (including my ex-boyfriend, who happens to be his friend and "colleague"). In general, I've adopted an isn't-this-fun-aren't-we-such-a-horny-incestuous-bunch attitude about that night (which really was quite intimate and sweet and very, very hot). Of course I--a freak and fully freaked out--have been doing this to push him away. But now, he's mirroring me! Doesn't he know you can't mirror a mirror? What can possibly result but endless deflection? But, this is where he is soooo clever. Because it's working. How is this possibly working, I ask myself? Duh, because I am totally into endless deflection. Checkmate.


Monday, September 27, 2004

Monday Monday

Things I should be doing:

1. Grading the 98 (!) response papers I have somehow managed to let pile up
2. Prepping for tomorrow's classes
3. Drafting a proposal for a campus lecture series
4. Writing a description for the new course I am teaching next semester

What I am doing:

1. Marveling over the last (casually embedded) phrase I read in one of said response papers: "because women killed chivalry"
2. Wondering a) if I took notes on what I am teaching tomorrow the last time I taught it; b) where those notes might be; and c) if those notes--if they exist and wherever they might exist--could possibly be of any use
3. Being pissed that the lecture series (which under normal circumstances I could really get into) is ultimately a way to "increase my visibility on campus" (i.e. among the members of the p & t committee)
4. Resenting the fact that I have to write the course description so that I can "advertise" and therefore fill this course with students who will then think of themselves as my clients

What I am doing that has nothing to do with work:

1. Reading blogs (must create a blogroll)
2. Wondering if anyone will ever (or should ever) read my blog
3. Smoking too many cigarettes (must slow down, or--dare I say it?--quit)
4. Wondering if my left breast really is bigger than my right breast or if it's just an optical illusion
5. Thinking about sex but not with best-friend-turned-suitor-lover
6. Thinking about best-friend-turned-suitor-lover
7. Considering whether best-friend-turned-suitor-lover might be up for continuing to be best friend but not being a suitor BUT occasionally being a lover
8. Considering when the earliest possible time to switch from coffee to wine might be appropriate

Hmmm . . . once again the not-work list is double the work list (unless we count the ways in which I am sabotaging the work list). All in all--the week seems to be off to a good start.


Sunday, September 26, 2004

Shiraz, Suitors, Shields

Perseus & Medusa
Originally uploaded by dr. medusa.
. . . so the Shiraz led to crazy good sex with one of my best friends who has somehow become a suitor (and now a lover)--a turn of events that has left me too flustered to blog. I hope that this flustered = no blogging pattern does not continue, because a) such "random" events followed by such fluster seem to "happen" quite a bit in my life, and b) I often know about or even plan these events so that I can then claim a "flustered"position, and c) we really can't call that flustered or "becoming confused" since it is really not a passive thing at all; so d) actively planning to put myself into a confused position can not be used as an excuse for not blogging or for anything at all (although I use it all of the time).

More on that later. Have to get back to the second great mirror scene. Actually, looking at this particular scene might help to explain the above nonsense.

Why is the story of Perseus and Medusa ultimately a great mirror scene? Again, according to the basic tenets of Great Scenes, I don't need to explain. But, again, since I am not Harold Bloom, I will say why I think it deserves attention (and I will try not to use the Kabbalah, even though it's an excellent mystification technique for which I applaude Bloom).

The great scene under consideration is basically the murder scene--Perseus catching sight of Medusa in the shield, whacking her in the throat, and cutting off her head. How can I call this a "scene"? It's dramatic and it's visual. Yes, it's been translated into the directly visual in the occassional B-movie or Saturday-morning cartoon (a lovely, informative introduction into socialization for the kiddies, right?), but it is also conjured as a scene in "non-visual" forms. The Romantics, for example, got a particular kick out of it. In short, it's a scene because it is about sight and seeing (or seeing without seeing).

I want to freeze-frame the moment when Perseus catches sight of Medusa in the mirror, which in this case is a shield. Perseus has borrowed the mirror/shield from Minerva for the express purpose of killing Medusa. Minerva is pissed at Medusa for banging Neptune on her temple floor. Actually, in most versions, Neptune rapes Medusa, but this is of no consequence in the mythology. The woman is made the monster--literally--when Minerva changes Medusa's golden curls into snakes. Whereas the beautiful Medusa may have figuratively been able to kill or to turn to stone anyone who looked at her, the monstrous Medusa has the literal power.

This puts both the pursuer, Perseus, and the pursued, Medusa, in a bind. I am more interested in Medusa's bind. Medusa can look at Perseus without being harmed. Her gaze, at least from her perspective, is not dangerous. She, however, is left looking at a dead body or a body made of stone. While these bodies might be spectacular for a moment, they are ultimately empty of life. I don't see this Medusa as a beautiful and laughing uber-woman (vis-a-vis Cixous) but more as a "bored-now" specatator (vis-a-vis Evil Willow in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). But, if we refuse to consider her position as one of a feminist survivor or of an evil superhero, we can perhaps better see what meaning these bodies hold. The bodies hold one of two (or both) meanings for Medusa: 1. I looked at them, so they died/turned to stone; or 2. They saw me, so they died/turned to stone. I like (maybe for personal reasons) the second one better. I also like the turns-to-stone aspect of Medusa's gaze better than the killing aspect. The variations in the story--Medusa's gaze petrifies or kills--are treated casually by most critics, maybe because the difference seems minimal. I think the difference is important. Medusa gets to gaze upon her pursuer all she wants, before and after he's petrified. Trouble is, once he looks directly at her, all she has to work with is a petrified shell. So, the real problem for Medusa is the pursuer seeing her, not her seeing the pursuer.

Let's look at it from Perseus's perspective, which is our point-of-view in the scene. Perseus does get to look at Medusa, albeit through a shield. In the reflective surface of that shield, he sees her looking at him. More importantly, he sees her. He sees her, and he--back turned--kills her. His point of contact is the throat (which contains her monstrous voice), and the final blow removes her head (which contains the offensive stare). Which--her sight or his--is more distressing? In this moment they share in the mirror, his sight--his ability to see her--is more significant. Think of the shield as a mirror. Perseus looks in the mirror and sees not himself but Medusa. At this moment, Medusa not only gets to see Perseus, but she also gets to see Perseus seeing her. Next thing she knows, she's without a head. For Medusa, seeing someone see her = death. For Perseus, seeing Medusa has always meant his own death. He needs the mirror to survive. If the thing in the mirror is not him, he needs to kill it.

If Medusa had mirrored Perseus's mirror with her own mirror--if she had shielded herself from view and reflected back Perseus's own reflection--she would have survived. As it turns out, she lets Perseus see her. Fatal error? Sure. Her only means, as a monster, by which to share an intimate (intimate in terms of seeing and being seen and seeing oneself being seen) moment with someone, however fatal that moment may prove? Fucked-up but exactly right.

So that brings the scene back to me, my Shiraz, my suitors and my shields. I have named myself "Professional Mirror" and "Medusa," because I see myself as both. A mirror who mirrors rather than letting anyone see her. Dr. Medusa and not just plain Medusa because the Ph.D. helps me think through and talk about my personal dilemma via fancy theory and from a safe (in terms of really revealing myself) academic position. In my personal life, my Shiraz lets me let go of my defenses so that I can let myself reveal myself. Revealing myself--even through the haze of a wine buzz--is not easy. That's where my suitors step in. My preferred suitors are thorough-going narcissists. My shield is their mirror. As long as I mirror back their own reflections to them, everyone is safe. But, like Medusa, I often slip and want a moment of intimacy--that moment of seeing and being seen and seeing myself being seen. So far, that moment of intimacy has been a mirror scene exactly like the one I describe between Perseus and Medusa. Except I don't die. But they do go away, and the whole anxiety of intimacy is neatly avoided. I do, however, get it for a moment.

But, to be honest, I am tired of replaying that one moment. Bored now. Not evil-bored like Willow but lonely-bored. What does border on evil (which, by the way, I don't believe in except in the most banal sense) is that I think I will fuck things up with anyone who really sees me and wants to keep on seeing me. Best-friend-turned-suitor-lover (have to think of a pseudonym) is no Perseus. He, being my friend for so long, sees me and has seen me in all of my (what I perceive to be) monstrousness. To complicate matters, he does not see me as a monster at all. All of this being seen terrifies me. So far all I have done with the fear is to claim a passive flustered position. But I do know that I wanted this to "happen," even to some extent made it happen. And I do know that my desire is now waning. Maybe I need "the moment" to be the mirror moment even more than they do?


Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Great Mirror Scenes, Part Two

Perseus & Medusa
Originally uploaded by dr. medusa.
Comments to follow, when I am not tipsy from the Shiraz and expecting a suitor . . .


Monday, September 20, 2004

Great Mirror Scenes, Part One

"You talkin' to me? Are you talkin' to me? . . I don't see anyone else here."

Yes, yes--it's far too easy to say that DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver performed the greatest mirror scene of all time, so let me explain something about "great scenes." One night over the phone, my best friend from graduate school (also an assistant professor on the t-t, but at a different school in a different city) and I--tired from teaching, frustrated from grading papers, but giddy from the healthy doses of red wine required to grade said papers--dreamed up the perfect undergraduate course: Great Scenes.

My friend, let's call her Coco, and I have been amused and confused for years by student writing that makes grandiose claims about the obvious greatness of certain texts and authors over wildly illogical spans of time, e.g. "Throughout the history of man, Shakespeare's plays have proved to be great." Why not just give in? Why not do away with analysis and theory all together? Why not adopt a sadistic form of criticism that fully embraces the idea of quality and the process of mystification?

So the class would go like this: one text per semester would be covered and it would
be presented as "the greatest text in the history of man." The text would change each time the class is taught and would still be presented as "the greatest text in the history of man." The chosen text should not be one that the students would recognize as "great," but rather something like "The Cosby Show" or Armageddon. (Incidentally, Coco and I actually do find many, many scenes in this show and in this movie to be incontrovertibly great.) During each class session, a scene would be viewed and proclaimed to be great. Students who would want to discuss why the scene is great would receive a rigorously critical lecture about greatness and how you can not and should not explain it. Exams would consist of a list of scenes accompanied by a yes/no question: Is this a great scene? Students should only circle yes or no. Any attempt to explain why or why not the scene is great would result in failure of the exam. For the final project, each student would choose a "great scene" not covered in class. If the professor finds it to be a great scene, the student would pass. If not, the student would fail. Any failing student who attempted to explain why he or she thinks the scene is great even though the professor might not think it is great would face possible expulsion from the program.

So, in one sense, I do not need to explain why DeNiro's "You talkin' to me?" scene
is a great mirror scene. But Coco and I have yet to realize our vision for the future of literary/cultural criticism. If the pseudo-mainstream popularity of critics like Harold Bloom-who has always been a "great scenes" critic, but most recently and overtly and unapologetically in Genius--is any indication, we are well on our way. Until then, though, I will try to explain why this is a particularly satisfying, memorable, or interesting scene:

1. The acting: Given the direction "Travis looks at himself in the mirror," DeNiro improvises the entire scene. Improvisation is particularly satisfying, because through it we get to see the actor's process at its most creative point. The actor becomes the writer and this "writing" seems spontaneously present to us.

2. The mise-en-scene: Scorcese (at least in this film) is obsessed with mirrors. The film begins with the camera as the rear-view mirror, watching Travis's eyes as he drives around the city. When Travis applies for the job at the cab company, the mirror above his interviewer shows two men arguing. One man keeps pointing a finger at the other. When the camera's point-of-view shifts to the interviewer's point-of-view, facing Travis, the two men disappear. They are only present when the camera shares Travis's point-of-view. In the proposed "great scene," DeNiro is looking into the "mirror" that is the camera, which is watching DeNiro watching himself. Travis is watching his alter-ego, the bad-ass with enough (however twisted) political conviction to assasinate a presidential candidate and thereby to impress Betsy. Travis is pointing a gun at the bad-ass, taunting him. Go crazy with the camera/mirror thing, especially if you are into film theory via Lacan.

3. The cultural impact: Before I knew this film, I knew this scene. I knew this scene, because it was constantly quoted and performed by high-school friends, particularly boys looking into the mirrors on the inside of their locker doors. And it still happens. Most recent sighting--last Saturday night outside of a pub among the smokers on the sidewalk. Can we call this a "cultural impact"? I don't know. We do know that this scene made it into a federal courthouse in 1982. The defense's argument--John Hinckley, Jr. was inspired by the film and through identification with Travis Bickle to attempt assasination--is problematic. Their argument that Hinckley "absorbed" the character of Travis Bickle and was therefore "insane" is really fucking interesting for anyone studying film.

4. Narcissism & psychosis: The film--especially in the "great scene" under question--explores the connections between alienation, narcissism, and psychosis.
Does an alienated narcissist "become" what might be called "psychotic"? Is narcissism a form of psychosis? Does the mirror separate the narcissist from the psychotic? What happens when Narcissus falls through the water and meets his reflection? Finally, what's our beef with narcissism? Doesn't it, by definition, provide the line that keeps us from becoming totally "absorbed" and--according to the defense and to the jury--"insane"?

OK--have gone on for far too long. Just realized this as I realized that the "Kerry" they were discussing on the radio show I was half-listening to was NOT Carrie Bradshaw from "Sex and the City."


Sunday, September 19, 2004

What the Hell

Have been lurking around silently in the blogosphere for far too long. Time to chime in. Feeling pretty anxious about it, so as an introduction I'll share the somewhat schizophrenic conversation I have been having with myself about why I read academic blogs obsessively while refusing to blog myself:

DAB [Downer Anti-Blogger]: You are by nature a "floater"--happiest on the margins, entering into groups at their edges, observing, absorbing, then leaving.

BABS [Be a Blogger! Speak!]: This "floater" you describe sounds self-absorbed, pretentious, and just plain creepy. I reject it as a way to identify myself. While an earlier version of myself--the one who was shuffled from state to state, school to school--may have by necessity been a floater, it is no longer me. I often find myself on center stage--in front of the classroom, at the podium at conferences--and do quite well, to the point of [gasp] enjoying it. I also have many, many meaningful (and meaningless, but purposely so) relationships with many, many people. That particular jig, DAB, is up.

DAB: By deciding to be an anonymous blogger, don't you realize you are just trying to find a new way to float? To express yourself without any real consequences? To speak but to hide at the same time?

BABS: Again with the pretentiousness, DAB. Who cares? A voice is a voice, no matter where or how you find (or create) it. Do I have any more of a "real" voice in the classroom, in my adademic writing, or even in the pub with friends? I have chosen to be anonymous, because I imagine I will also be discussing my personal life in somewhat vivid detail. I fret, bitch, rage, fuck (and fuck up) with reckless abandon--an abandon that those who want or need to see me as "professor" or "scholar" do not necessarily want or need to acknowledge. And . . .from what I've learned by reading blogs, anonymity is pseudonymity at best. If someone by chance or by effort finds out who I am in "real life," then they will just have to deal with the disconnect between what they want to see and what they see here.

DAB: Don't you think it's all a bit narcissistic?

BABS: Yep, I do. That's something I will be thinking about and writing about here. I am starting to rethink the whole narcissism thing.

DAB: Is that what the whole "Professional Mirror" thing is about? And you accuse me of pretentiousness.

BABS: Point taken, but I think you are starting to get it.

So here I am, still to some extent battling the Downer Anti-Blogger but listening more to BABS. We'll see what happens.