In David Lodge’s parody of upper-class academia and theory, appropriately titled Small World, Morris Zapp, the hip semiotician or postmodern critic, assesses the scholarly world as composed of cities strung together by airports, a topography of conference topics. Zapp: “Zurich is Joyce. Amsterdam is Semiotics. Vienna is Narrative. Or is it Narrative in Amsterdam and Semiotics in Vienna?. . . Anyway, Jerusalem I do know is about the Future of Criticism, because I’m one of the organizers. . . .” “Why Jerusalem?” “It’s a draw, a novelty. It’s a place people want to see, but it’s not on the regular tourist circuit. Also, the Jerusalem Hilton offers very competitive rates in the summer because it’s so goddam hot.”1 Funny, perhaps true, but very clever parody.
The Arthurian narrative and structure—replete with arch, jet-setting, literary clashes between doddering humanism (and sex) and philandering theory (and sex), in mise-en-scenes of identical cities and the same speakers—is Persse McGarrigle’s (from Limerick) search for the ideal woman, Angelica. The book is also a parable of this young assistant professor’s quest for the holy grail of tenure and his initiation into the rites of scholarly luck and fame. Along with ideal woman as lure, the prize is an expensive UNESCO chair. There are various female academics, among them the glamorous, kinky Italian, Fulvia Morgana, but they are objects not subjects of desire. The book concludes with the young Lancelot’s reverie: “as on to a cinema screen, he projected his memory of Cheryl’s face and figure—the blonde, shoulder-length hair, the high stepping gait, the starry, unfocused look of her blue eyes—and he wondered where in the small, narrow world he should begin to look for her?”(385). The eternal dream of woman has been an inspiration for myth and modernism; here it is the raison d’etre of conferences. Crucial, of course, is the fact that the ideal woman cannot be found; if she were, desire and motive, like the story, most international cinemas, and presumably male scholarship, would end.
When asked why he travels so much, Philip Swallow (married but looking for joy) says: “Happiness? One knows that doesn’t last. Distraction, perhaps. . . . Intensity of experience is what we’re looking for. We know we can’t find it at home anymore, but there’s always the hope that we’ll find it abroad. I found it in America in 69.” “With Desiree?” “Not just Desiree, although she was an important part of it.” “It was the excitement, the richness of the whole experience . . .” (75-76). I wonder. Is male desire interchangeable with the object of desire, Desiree? Is this not redundant? What of the female traveler, the female academic? If told from her point of view, an actual rather than dream woman, in a claim for women’s historical subjectivity and existence, the story and the theory would necessarily be different.
At a Milwaukee film theory conference, Teresa de Lauretis began with Italo Calvino’s parable of the dream girl; this is a dream of history, of founding the city of Zobeide: “men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked.” They dreamed of pursuing her, and then constructed a city built on the memory of her. “At the spot where she had vanished, there would remain no avenue of escape. Those who had arrived first could understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.” “The City” functions as a “delusion and dream” “to keep women captive”—and it is ugly. Zobeide is a Greek maze, with the minotaur or a woman at the center, with no escape. As de Lauretis writes: “It does not come as a surprise, to us cinema people, that in that primal city built by men there are no women; or that in Calvino’s seductive parable . . . woman is absent as historical subject.”2
A detour beckons me. Lodge’s “High stepping gait” has led me to a byway or blind alley—to Freud and Delusion and Dream: Small World is the comic remake. Like the mediocre novel which inspired him, Gradiva: A Pompeiian Fancy by Wilhelm Jensen (translated in 1917), Freud analyzes the male scholar’s search for the classical woman. Taking his cue from Jensen, however, Freud knows that “the City,” in this case Pompeii, is an excuse, a symptom; the dream girl has nothing to do with cities, science, or research but everything to do with desirous men. Norbert Hanold is an archeologist; “his interest is fixed upon a bas-relief which represents a girl walking in an unusual manner. . . . he spins a web of fantasies about her. . . transports the person created by him to Pompeii. . . . he intensifies the fantasy . . . of the girl named Gradiva [the girl splendid in walking] into a delusion which comes to influence his acts.”3 Norbert travels to Rome and Naples, grumbling about encountering so many married couples, and pursues his delusion through the ruins of Pompeii. Norbert has confused the real, a girl from his childhood, with the imaginary, her image. He is not a well man.
“There is no better reason for repression . . . than the burial which was the fate of Pompeii and from which the city was able to rise again. . . . in his imagination, the young archeologist had to transport to Pompeii the prototype of the relief which reminded him of the forgotten beloved of his youth” (61). Along with the importance of the city and childhood memory to repression (and the unconscious; Rome was another of Freud’s inadvertently feminist metaphors), what intrigues me is Freud’s analysis of Norbert’s problem: “A psychiatrist would perhaps assign Norbert Hanold’s delusion to the large group of paranoia and designate it as a ‘fetishistic erotomania,’ because falling in love with a bas-relief. . . the interest in the feet. . . of women must seem suspiciously like fetishism.” But Freud dismisses erotomania as “awkward and useless.” He goes on to hypothesize that “an old-school psychiatrist would, moreover, stamp our hero as a degenerate . . . and would investigate the heredity which has inexorably driven him to such a fate.”
Freud’s third and preferred analysis is the literary interpretation of Jensen, the author, who was “engrossed in the individual psychic state which can give rise to such a delusion. . . . In one important point Norbert Hanold acts quite differently from ordinary human beings. He has no interest in living women; science, which he serves, has taken this interest from him and transferred it to women of stone or bronze. Let us not consider this an unimportant peculiarity” (66-67). Indeed, let us not. Unfortunately, modernists paid scant heed to Freud. Scholastic delusions have continued to have “no interest in living women.” The delusion might be more telling than the cover-up journey or scholarship—a (bas-relief) fetish. Freud’s prognosis for Norbert might serve as a cure for theories of modernism and postmodernism; otherwise, the future is bleak: “The condition of continued avoidance of women results in the personal qualification . . . for the formation of a delusion; the development of psychic disturbance . . .” (68). A real woman, Zoe, is the end of the delusion, the end of the story, and Norbert’s cure. I would argue that this might also be one cure for postmodernism, the inclusion of emergent voices as subjects rather than fantasy objects.
However tongue-in-cheek popular the novel Small World, or mediocre Jensen’s Grad/Va, they share a common premise with the great writers of modernism—the myth of the city as a woman. As Michel de Certeau argues in The Practice of Everyday Life, when encapsuled as myth, “the City” works to contain specificity and repress all differences or pollution; it is a myth which creates “a universal and anonymous subject” coterminous with “the city” itself;4 the subject is male and the myth totalizing (albeit more poetic than the concept generated by city planners) and functions to “eliminate and reject” waste products which, like poverty, homelessness, and presumably women, can be reintroduced outside the myth, e.g., in welfare discourses. De Certeau’s acute assessment of this “concept-city” points to “its forgetting of space, the condition of any city’s possibility.” “The City” is neither place nor space but a universal figure of history, “the machinery and hero of modernity” (95). To his critique, I must add contours: as this figure comes into focus, it is a shapely female image, de Certeau’s blind spot, a telling oversight.
Before arriving at the movie theater, I want to stroll through Reflections with Walter Benjamin. “A Berlin Chronicle” sketches a topography of childhood memory—a provocative map of his youth drawn from the streets of Berlin and Paris. “Now let me call back those who introduced me to the city.”5 Like medieval chronicles, this vivid, spatial map of “moments and discontinuities” (unlike the temporal sequence of autobiography which “has to do with time . . . and the continuous flow of life”) (28) begins with a nursemaid, a trip to the zoo, mother and shopping, wanders through adolescent encounters, fancies sex and love, is guided by poets, essayists (particularly Baudelaire), and friendship, meanders to finances, father, and hated school discipline, and concludes with a paternal tale of death and an ominous warning, “syphilis.” As enchanted as I am by Benjamin, I will focus on two recurring, interrelated and troubling figures, representative of the city, which are superimposed over his oedipal walk: the labyrinth and the prostitute.
Childhood is a “period of impotence before the city” due to “a poor sense of direction” (4) blamed on his mother; adolesence is “a crossing of frontiers not only social but topographical—a voluptuous hovering on the brink in the sense that whole networks of streets were opened up under the auspices of prostitution” (11). His political awareness of what the city hides, the poor, and his social awakening are equated with sexual awakening: “crossing the threshold of one’s class for the first time had a part in the almost un-equaled fascination of publicly accosting a whore in the street.” Behind the facades of the city architecture, its public image, hidden in the center was either a prostitute or Ariadne to lead him safely through the labyrinth of sex—eroticism initially curtailed by his nursemaid or his censoring mother. No matter. “Nor is it to be denied that I penetrated to its innermost place, the Minotaur’s chamber, with the only difference being that this mythological monster had three heads: those of the occupants of the same brothel. . . . Paris thus answered my most uneasy expectations” (9). (On his quest, Theseus had an earlier encounter with Medea, who, after her separation from Jason, had become the wife of Aegeus, the father of Theseus. She convinced her husband to try and poison Theseus, whose sword identified him to his father. Bulfinch [an outdated source on Greek myths who conflates Media with the country of the Medes who occupied northern Iran before the Persians, much later than the presumed time frame of the Medea myth] writes: “Medea, detected in her arts, fled once more . . . and arrived in Asia, where the country afterwards, called Media, received its name from her.”6 The shift from Medea to Media, from woman to country, intrigues me.) In Benjamin’s account, Medea is the figure on a ring purchased with friends and destined for his fiancee—“you only entered its secret by taking it off and contemplating the head against the light” (33).
Benjamin sees Berlin through the streets of Paris and the eyes of Baudelaire: “What is unique in Baudelaire’s poetry is that the images of women and death are permeated by a third, that of Paris.”7 In the city, the oldest technology, sex, combines with the newest technology, mass culture, celebrated as mass transit, skyscrapers, or decried as commodity fetishism. In his wonderful portrait of arcades and shopping, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Benjamin writes: “Such an image is presented by the pure commodity: as fetish. Such an image are the arcades, which are both house and stars. Such an image is the prostitute, who is saleswoman and wares in one” (157).
The city existed paradoxically as the exemplar of art and creativity and as the symptom of commodity culture—resolutely linked to the figure of woman. As Patrice Petro so decisively argues in joyless Streets, “Berlin also served as the decisive metaphor for modernity, and modernity was almost invariably represented as a woman.”8 In “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other,” Andreas Huyssen argues that modernism’s fascination with imaginary femininity “goes hand in hand with the exclusion of real women from the literary enterprise and with the misogyny of bourgeois patriarchy itself.”9 Mass culture, site of the contemptible, is equated with women; real, authentic culture “remains the perogative of men” (191). The city is the turf of both, although in mythology, one serves the other.
The modernist art and commodity, cinema, picked up this division of the fetish woman. And if Benjamin is right that “only film commands optical approaches to the essence of the city . . . like conducting the motorist into the new center,”10 then cinema, like modernism’s city, is also built on a boyhood dream of woman, a dream arrested in adolescence, endlessly repeated. Benjamin’s chronicle of modernity is also an old story, a Bildungsroman in which the young boy conquers the city and woman via desire, on his way to manhood and mastery; in the end, he casts his lot with his father in a shared secret, syphilis. This old story and the need to retell it might explain why the image of “the city” is such a totalizing figure. If Oedipus is our repeated narrative, then the modern city is its site. However, as Petro says, modernism is not the same as modernity, just as women and their experiences of modernity can never be captured in accounts of male modernists. As Sally Potter demonstrates in The Gold Diggers, the city also contains historical women who reject scenarios of male desire.
That the image of the central city of modernism is built from male desire analogous with “woman” is not, of course, new or surprising. That the city streets are not safe for women is frightening. That the feminist project in, for example, Born in Flames and The Man Who Envied Women, involves reclamation of city streets, taking on the historical weight of this modernist construction, makes their actions more culturally radical than initially imagined. That this unreconstructed myth has persisted in postmodernist claims for decentralization, pluralism, and the vernacular is rather surprising. A desirous cartography of Berlin and Paris of the 1920s, along with the visage of the male modernist author, hovers over London, Chicago, New York, and indeed cultural studies everywhere in the 1980s. While the specificity of war, recession, and industrialism have vanished, the eternal, naked woman has been transported around the world and back. What is missing from most accounts is that historical women comprised a significant part of the crowds of modernity; they went to the cities, to work, and to the movies. And we still do.
If told from the point of view of the naked woman of Zobeide, the story might be different. She must have been very frightened and cold. Was she from Zobeide? Or a visitor? Why was she naked? What had happened to her clothes? Why was she running away? Where had she been? Where were her friends? Did she make it home? Or was she murdered in a dark alley? Why didn’t anyone help her? What was her name?
Or, perhaps she was more clever than imagined. Rather than guiding Theseus through the labyrinth, or believing his false promises that they would have a long-term relationship, did this Ariadne, like Collette Laffont in The Gold Diggers, take him on a wild goose chase? Instead of being abandoned, in need of redemption by Dionysus, she has led modernist and postmodernist alike astray, down ever narrowing argumentative paths of their own repetitive making. Everything, for them, now, is simulation or vague and constant pleasure; all the streets look alike, all their names sound alike. Her lovers are trapped in an ugly city; like a video game arcade, the maze has become crowded while she has gone home, to work, to think. She can no longer be bothered (or frightened) by his desire.
Unfortunately, the Marco Polo school of critics, like Theseus, believing they have abandoned Ariadne while she was sleeping, are now casting their wandering, fickle eyes on other cultures, specifically Eastern and third world, depositing the same myths of mysterious otherness applied to women in foreign terrain, seeking answers but not really caring if anyone lives there. After their sabbatical sojourns into the wilds of “other” university cultures, somewhere in the East, scholars return with intellectual souvenirs in the form of Ph.D. persons who give talks at scholarly symposia, frequently on Western authors.
To return to Paris and the 1960s, and issues of postmodernism through Godard and the situationists, with japan on the horizon via Oshima. Both filmmakers occupied the streets and populated them with youth, drugs, transients, bars, rock ‘n’ roll, pop culture, and philosophy—celebrating the vernacular, sometimes the inarticulate, emphasizing the sexual. Godard’s central characters are women, discontent with home and marriage. However, his metaphor for capitalism is prostitution, played out over women’s bodies and lives. For me, this is yet another, albeit working (or not) class and gritty, everyday manifestation of modernism—the banal rather than glamorized dream whore.
Oshima’s metaphor for imperialism and cultural struggle is rape. Although inscribed within a complex of avant-garde performance, a layering of the levels of representation, a revelation and interrogation of the cinematic apparatus’s complicity and complexity (not unlike Godard’s project), a rewriting of narrative conventions and enunciation, along with an almost parodic inquisition of the intellectual’s or artist’s connivance or role in dissecting capitalist exploitation, the sexual metaphor and enactment is again on woman’s body. In both cases, with cultural specificity and difference in mind, woman (and her victimization) is the central myth. For me, neither prostitution nor rape will do in 1988. While these “liberated” or “radical” films posit woman as victim, she is still an object of pursuit, without subjectivity of her own.
There is a strange similarity between the concerns of Godard and Oshima then and the writers of cultural studies now, a similarity suggested to me by a passage in an essay by Morris, “At Henry Parkes Motel”: “as an account primarily (and avowedly) based on the emblematic street experience of un- or under-employed males in European or American cities . . . it restricts the scope of enquiry. . . . Perhaps this is one reason why women . . . still appear in apologetic parentheses or as ‘catching up’ on the streets when they’re not left looking out the window. The ways that economic and technological changes in the 1980s . . . have been transforming women’s lives simply cannot be considered—leaving them not so much neglected in cultural studies as anachronistical ly mis-placed.”11 Remember the conversation scenes in various Godard films where famous philosophers either appear, are directly quoted, or whose words are embedded in dialogue. Oshima also quotes great, sometimes scandalous, male modernists, his films, like Diary of a Shinjuki Thief, peppered with meaningful, enigmatic citations, primarily from literature but also, like Godard, from pop culture and trash references. Citation and quotation are favored tactics for both. 1988 cultural studies might entail the sublation of 1960s politics, with Marx dropped out and postmodernism or cultural studies plugged in. If the 1960s have returned intellectually, vanquishing the gains of the women’s movement and feminism by jumping over them, this might explain the anachronism. If I am right, the appropriation is depleted, divorced from Godard’s and Oshima’s political concern with the means of production. In the end, I prefer the modernist image of woman out front, leading a merry and dangerous chase, rather than pathetically tagging along behind.
However, there are other ways of thinking the city, other ways of charting postmodernism—the first being locating it earlier, in postwar nuclear rhetoric and realities and mass culture artifacts. Another locale might be that of Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima Mon Amour and Michel de Certeau’s metaphor of the pedestrian, a guide highly recommended by Morris. To a degree, de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” is a postmodern rendering of Benjamin (read through Foucault and linguistics). Later on in “A Berlin Chronicle,” Benjamin imagines the labyrinth in another way. Rather than what is installed “in the chamber at its enigmatic center,” he is concerned with “the many entrances leading into the interior—primal relationships, so many entrances to the maze, with men drawn on the right and women on the left.”12 This maze of stories, of books, of wandering through the city as a place of unpredicted events, while rigidly gendered, is entrancing to Benjamin and to me. The outline of the labyrinth has shifted—from the Greek model with its central chamber in which “terror is born” (according to Umberto Eco in Postscript) to the mannerist model, “a structure of many blind alleys . . . a model of the trial and error process,” and perhaps on to the “rhizome” of Deleuze and Guattari, a labyrinth with no exit because it is potentially infinite.13
Benjamin calls this way of thinking the city “the art of straying.” “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest. . . .”14 The wanderer, the strayer from the path, listens, gathers clues, pays attention to the details of the city, without mastery or a system, yet with knowledge. The wanderer does not have a grand theory, or central image, but learns (rather than proves) along the way; the adventure does not have a predetermined destination. For me, this is the inventive, scholarly path of discovery.
The “art of straying” is the way of the lovers in Hiroshima Mon Amour; wandering through the cafe streets of Hiroshima and the paths of their mutual desires. The French woman is the traveler, making a peace film; the Japanese man is an inhabitant of Hiroshima; trying to find each other/avoid each other, they speak of history, of person, of otherness. In the famous opening scene, their bodies form a topography of desire, of glistening catastrophe. “Who are you? You destroy me. How could I have known that this city was made to the size of love? How could I have known that you were made to the size of my body?”15 Newsreels of the atomic bomb’s victims, tourist monuments, Peace Square, and a busload of Japanese tourists are intercut; place and history are personal and impersonal. She has seen the tourists’ view of Hiroshima and catastrophe; he insists that she has seen nothing, that she knows nothing. “No, you don’t have a memory” (23). Knowledge is inextricable from memory, from lived experience, as is history. The film then precipitates the memory of her history, France’s cultural history, women’s history—her humiliation, her victimization for desire, loving a German soldier, in Nevers. It concludes with these remarks in the screenplay: “He looks at her, she at him, as she would look at the city . ..” “Hi-ro-shi-ma . . . that’s your name.” He: “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers in France” (83). Cities, proper names and sites of enunciation, are lived places of memory, spaces for history, love, and desire—for women travelers as well as men.
In an uncannily direct way, the film documents de Certeau’s claim that “the Concept-city is decaying. . . . The ministers of knowledge have always assumed that the whole universe was threatened by the very changes that affected their. . . positions. They transmute the misfortune of their theories into theories of misfortune . . . they transform their bewilderment into ‘catastrophes’ . . . they seek to enclose the people in the ‘panic’ of their discourses” (96). De Certeau suggests a way out of castastrophe; his Diogenes is Michel Foucault: “one can analyze the microbe-like, singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress . . . following] the swarming activity ... of everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are . .. concealed by the . . . discourses of. .. organization” (96). For him, in the footsteps of Foucault, who was looking for a “theory of everyday practices, of lived space,” and like Benjamin strolling and remembering history in the present, the scholarly and creative act is that of passing by, the operation of walking, wandering—the art of the strayer.
(I question de Certeau’s tinge of nostalgia, as well as a politics of space which doesn’t emphasize the twentieth-century determinant of time. Some of us might be driving rapidly in cities, on crowded freeways, or flying from airport to airport, vague and similar networks without borders or difference, a distillation of cultural differences into the mass, institutional international airport style of bland sameness depicted in Small World.)
In Hiroshima Mori Amour, the lovers walk away and toward each other, their wandering the enunciation of desire. De Certeau might assess that the museum, Peace Square, the newsreel footage, and the guided tourists have the status of the “proper meaning of grammar... it is a produced fiction. Theirs [urbanists and architects] is the image of a coherent and totalizing space—spaces in this view are both singular and separate” (101-103). Against this official rendering is the space and memory of the lovers: “the pedestrian walker” tells a “story jerry built. . . from common sayings, an allusive and fragmentary story whose gaps mesh with the social practices it symbolizes” (102). As if analyzing the film, he writes: “To walk is to lack a place.” As if writing an epigram for the film: “Memory is a sort of anti-museum; it is not localizable.”
For de Certeau, like the woman from Nevers and perhaps Norbert Hanhold, travel “produces an exploration of the deserted places of my memory, the return to nearby exoticism by way of a detour through distant places and the discovery of relics and legends. . . .” “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” Like Benjamin, travel involves a return to childhood— “to be other and to move toward the other.” Unfortunately, for both writers, “walking” is moving away from the mother, a game of Fort da! De Certeau’s conclusion (the royal road named Lacan), like Benjamin’s “syphilis” and jabbing denigrations of his mother, was unexpected, a letdown. While women travelers have come at least some distance—just before the end, de Certeau says that this experience will be different for “the female foetus introduced into another relationship to space”—Barthes might be right: to write, for men, involves the body of “the Mother.”16 If they can live through this separation (Barthes could not), then they come out siding with the father, like Benjamin. In de Certeau’s account, women are still unborn.
However, there are other ways to think the city and its inhabitants: The Gold Diggers is one; Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women is another.