Fake-ish Memoir Totes Sincere, Unusually Embodied Affect Performance

by on Jun.19, 2012

The excellent new issue of PANK Magazine has some excerpts from The Book of Scab, my fake-ish memoir epistolary novel ‘under the sign of poetry’ (a phrase I borrow from our brilliant friend Kate Zambreno). This includes MP3s of me reading the excerpts wherein you cannot hear my teenaged neighbor playing a warbly, tripped-out electric guitar version of the melody to Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” but rest assured I could. The first excerpt is ars poetica re: beauty & sincerity:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I wanted to make something clean. Don’t you know? I wanted to make something that was not porous, no matter how closely you looked—and not you, but your machine, lens exponential in its uncompromising pronouncement. Something without fleck or pore, without texture. I wanted to make a surface that exceeded all classical efforts in its commitment to beauty. I did, then. Like everyone.


Did I lose my taste for beauty, or did I just cross into the room where its mask was worn?

(The second is all crush-abduction–maybe a hint of Johannes’s Dear Ra Shirley Temple gender-inverted–and the third has psychic powers, FYI. Includes melodramatic sincerity & brattiness. No sadcore tigers, yet, unless you count Mötley Crüe.)

Carina Finn’s throwdown “MELODRAMA IS THE NEW SINCERITY” reminds us that in order to convince the normate (see Rosmarie Garland-Thomson) of one’s sincerity, a feminine subject must do things like widen her eyes, tear up (real or with irritants; see America’s Next Top Model crying photo shoots), dilate her pupils with physical effort-conjuring-special drops (movies often use the drops; pupil dilation also conveys sexy feelings and possible anime conversion!), tilt her head (trust; exposed jugular; etc.), spread her hands out in front of her (see “The Girl Without Hands” Grimm 031), and show restraint in the face (on the face!) of overwhelming emotion (see Boris Kachka on Joan Didion in the recent New York Magazine: “Both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are recognizably memoirs of grief, but they’re rendered in Didion’s familiar remote voice. It’s an oddly effective fit: Her coolness plays against the genre’s sentimental excesses but still allows her to avoid argument and indulge in open-ended reveries built from repetitions of painful facts.”).

It’s not surprising. Identity studies has long demonstrated that if marginalized subjects wish to communicate sincerity, trustworthiness, honesty, and the like to those in power, they must early on learn to properly perform humble and subjugated gestures. & since none of us is a performance-bot, these embodiments become complex messaging systems (see, for instance, George Yancy Black Bodies, White Gazes). Like any other, the learned sincerity-performance may be internalized, may become a central component of the subject’s experience of essential self. When I meet your eye, widen my eyes, when I blink back the tears, am I revealing myself or my construction? I’m sure I don’t know.


As part of the social contract, as elements of performances which often protect us from violence, suspicion, slander, etc. we take these gestures for granted and attribute to them a naturalness, particularly when we remain isolated in our own cultural contexts. Consider eye-contact. Scholar Susannah Mintz points out how astutely Georgina Kleege’s memoir & monograph on blindness Sight Unseen denaturalizes vision, destabilizes its power, and asks us to question how sincere/deeply-telling/soul-connective eye contact is when we consider how blind individuals can manufacture many of its markers (see Feminist Disability Studies). Mintz points out that Kleege calls this “faking” (well analyzed by Mintz). What we might come to realize is that when we lower our chins and make eye contact through that pretty fringe of lashes, or when we furrow our brows and lean into the interlocutor, we too are faking something–or adjusting for something–or performing the ballet that says I-wish-I-could-extend-myself.

(From You Know You Love Me XOXO Tumblr)

& it’s not surprising that poetry (or other arts) would assume and contribute to the (seeming) naturalness of dominate modes of affect performance. Poets are products of the culture as much as anyone. But when poets buck against these modes and their readers cannot process unusual performances of affect (melodramatic-sincerity, for instance), we’ve got a literacy problem. When readers fail to recognize an affect because they’re only looking to receive its most common denominator, we’re not analyzing. We’re just skimming for hot relatability (as the kids would say). We also fail at interpersonal literacy. What gives you feelings doesn’t always give me feelings, and certainly we don’t get the same feelings off the same works, so what do we risk when we privilege one emotional currency over another?

Some thinkingaloud to mull:

-Teenage dramadies (see above, Blair Waldorf, who’s actually expressing disdain, but totes sincere in her expression) center around the ever-scheming teenage girl’s capacity to perform a flawless sincerity (repentant, affectionate, self-effacing, etc.). The viewer doesn’t simply follow along, but is brought in to experience the subterfuge as s/z/he falls time and again for the reformed act. We know the good girl harbors secrets. We know the girl gets possessed by demons. Can the girl, and by extension the feminine subject, ever perform a believable sincerity? (Notice how rarely my “believable” has a subject to do the believing! Panoptical!)

-Consider the media coverage of Amanda Knox or Casey Anthony. Consider Joan Didion: is her sincerity effective because of its masculinized restraint (note the article’s attention to Didion’s remove which serves to support the suggestions that she’s 1. a questionable mother and 2. a writer who deserves greater recognition).Under what conditions is feminine sincerity believable? Does it require more or less hyperbolic performativity than masculine sincerity? What happens when the subject’s gender performance defies the norms?

-How are ableist systems reinforced by the performance of sincerity required of subjects with disabilities who seek accommodation?

-Does the white or hetero or otherwise privileged feminine subject have greater latitude to screw with the performance of these affects so intimately tied to our safety, security, success in the patriarchy? I love the brattiness Carina explores, and would love to see other thinkers join her in its expansion. I wonder about its relationship to privilege. Which isn’t a slight. If Lana Del Rey’s privilege is what allows her to–via performance–critique heteronormative expectations of femininity, whiteness, wealth, etc., then I’m glad. Thank goodness someone’s using her power for this. What about bratty performances by feminine subjects of color, with disabilities, working class, etc.?

-What do mirror neurons have to do with it? Let’s go read: “Both of Us Disgusted in My Insula”: Mirror Neuron Theory and Emotional Empathy by Ruth Leys, Johns Hopkins University

I’ll be writing about some of this for a Feminist Poetics issue of Evening Will Come… more on that when it happens!

22 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes Göransson

    Great post. Lots of things in here to talk about.

    The crux seems to be the “illiteracy” bit. It might not be that people are “illiterate” to these “performances of affect,” it might be what they do next, after they have experienced the piece – or if they choose not to b/c they imediately recognize it as lowbrow or weird or whatever – that is the key here. We get it, but we dismiss it. The ingenue acts the way an ingenue is supposed to act. So it’s not illiterate exactly? What do you think?

    I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about “identifying” with art or not being able to “identify” with art. What does this mean? Can we identify with strangeness? Does a certain average poetry normalize the “weird” into something we can “relate” to?

    Often contemporary experimental writing valorizes works that pretend to be completely “other,” something that the “mainstream” is illiterate to. For example both Lyn Hejinian and Ron Silliman have said that language poetry is like a completely untranslatable other poetry, and that that gives it its ethics. But as someone who’s translated between languages his entire life, this doesn’t seem to me the most interesting way of talking about foreign languages or literacy (it in fact reinforces a certain binary). I am much more interested in when the other text gets translated, when there is a literacy, but a heavily complicated, slippery literacy, a sincerity with skin problems.

    Part of what makes Carina’s aesthetic here so interesting to me is that it doesn’t “critique” or “distance” – it is much more about “screwing with performance” than critique. We are very literate to it, but we want to dismiss it, and that’s already part of its MO. I think Lana Del Ray’s music is beautiful, but it’s not about ‘power” or agency: “every time I close my eyes, it’s like a dark paradise – she’s always dead in some way, saturated by art, by the noire-ish atmosphere of the ingenue. It rejects conventional notions of agency and “power.”

    I am wary of the ways that the rhetoric of “privilege” is used to undermine ideas in art b/c art is so susceptible to charges of non-protestant, unnecessary expenditure and wastefulness (b/c that’s what art does). Art tends to look like privilege in other words at first glance.

    Besides, I think brattiness seems to if anything proliferate in various ethnic minorities etc – who is brattier than Ronaldo Wilson? Or indeed Basquiat. Or Isiah Rider, the ultimate counterfeit basketball idol of the 1990s.

    I love the bit about secrets of girls. It seems that in the figure of the young girl, secrets replaces interiority. “She’s full of secrets.” In that, the girl is like Art. People always attribute secrets to art, always fear that art is secretly mocking them.

    OK, I’ll stop here… Sorry about hogging the comment thread! I hope I haven’t totally misread your post.


  2. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks, Johannes, these are all really exciting ideas.

    Yes–I think Carina’s read of Basquiat helps us unhinge bratty from the girl. & for poets, Ronaldo Wilson is a great example. Much cultural discourse constructs ethnic minorities & immigrants as immature, so that’s a way to read or perhaps engage brattiness. That would be similar to the gurlesque model. Engaging the negative stereotype (which gets internalized to some degree), engaging the lack of agency, hyperbolic performance of it, embodying it, making an ethically ambiguous tool of it… etc… I presented on The Girl at MLA, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis asked me some wicked smart questions, including if I was invoking a sort of old-school “third way,” envisioning The Girl as a way to escape the patriarchally predetermined, rigidly scripted Woman (I’m paraphrasing clumsy, of course). Though I’ve toyed with this, I don’t think mine is a necessarily positive alternative. I’m not seeing that “third way” or nepantla or not-a-woman as such a rich liminal position, or as a way out. In my own work, I usually only get as far as descriptive, performative retribution: Patriarchy! You made me thus!

    Though part of me must hope for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer style girlvolution… Can’t shake the hope.

    You’re right about the way Art gets read as privilege in that annoying protestant fashion, but I think this is another moment of literacy-resistance. How long ago did Audre Lorde tell us “poetry is not a luxury?” I think enough of us get that. We should be able to undo the flimsy piece of political rhetoric that says Art is for overprivileged wankers, but that people are invested in it for some intense reason I can’t wholly fathom.

    The rhetoric of privilege that’s used in contemporary identity studies, on the other hand, appeals to me. Privilege, there, often seems to mean the ability to move (by whatever literal/metaphorical means one does so) fluidly through terrain, to move without obvious hindrance. On my race vector, I move fluidly through most terrain. On my gender vector, I do not. This is a sort of evolution of the concept. That original Peggy McIntosh metaphor “the invisible knapsack,” can mislead us by suggesting privilege is autonomous self-sufficiency. It’s not so much that as recipients of white privilege we carry everything we need on our backs, but that we needn’t acknowledge our interdependence. I’m partial to the way disability studies and po-mo feminist care ethics reframe privilege as the false assumption of autonomy.

    Lana Del Rey’s money, conventional beauty (comparatively–obvs. one can never match the beauty-ideal closely enough to escape criticism), whiteness, etc. allow her to move fluidly from boarding school to recording studio. People get pissed at her, in part, because she appears ungrateful for this privilege. Instead of producing American Idol-style ballads, she’s producing a weird heap–how dare she! Nikki Minaj & M.I.A. are interesting. They get put through the wringer because a girl (esp. a girl of color) should be grateful to get to play, should demure, not take up too much space. But then their talent clears them. LDR is even worse because her art doesn’t meet familiar quality standards, right? & yet she’s got all these fans who are dosing up on it, getting something from it they didn’t know they were missing–so she’s not illegible. Critics & haters resist reading her.

    I think this is the term I want to use to describe the phenomenon: literacy-resistant. I do not understand how people resist/reject readings or layers of text, insist that slippery-legible texts are wholly illegible, etc. How does a brain do that? & Language poetry–I think of it more as an attempt to create an untranslatable language, but a project that can never be fully realized because of our always-already relationship to language (much like l’ecriture feminine experiments). We trans/re- late it. Meaning slips through, intentional or un-. Which to me is exciting & beautiful. & sincere! A real sincere struggle against/into the thing that makes us!

    Ha! that mocking fear is spot-on. It’s along the cuteness-violence spectrum. We so abhor and violate the girl that we can’t help but invest her with the power to destroy us. We can’t help but fear that we hate/desire her because she embodies all our own worst qualities and darkest secrets. I mean, we dismiss art in part because it can crush us if we don’t resist it, right? We all know you’re soft ’cause we’ve all seen you dancing.

    Okay, now I’m hogging my own thread & somehow haven’t managed to eat breakfast or lunch today, so probably shouldn’t be yakking on without more fuel/filter.


  3. Elisa

    Very interesting post/comments. I like this idea of literacy (“when poets buck against these modes and their readers cannot process unusual performances of affect, we’ve got a literacy problem”) and “literacy-resistance” and will revisit it.

    One of the problems I have with the current bloggo-discourse around sincerity is that the most insistent voices (both writers and critics) seem to win: “It’s sincere if I *say* it’s sincere and it feels sincere to me!” Somehow sincerity has gotten tied up with investment; there’s an idea that if you say a piece of art isn’t sincere, people will think you mean the artist didn’t try or doesn’t give a shit. I’m, shall we say, resistant to this conflation and think that artists can try very hard and care very much about art that isn’t sincere.

    This may be a special problem for women, younger artists, less educated artists — [insert outsider group here] — because they struggle with being taken seriously anyway. So if you’re a woman and you’re 20 and you’re writing in an unconventional mode and playing with tonal registers and metatexts, do you need to insist you’re being “sincere” about it so people won’t think you’re just playing at being a writer?

  4. Danielle Pafunda

    Oh, excellent read, Elisa. I hope that trying to bust open our definitions of sincerity (and its potential as an affect) won’t contribute to the shortsighted assumption that sincerity-in-the-work is the measure of an artist’s commitment. That assumption discounts so much art, so many artists whom we already celebrate! Gracious!

    Though, it is also interesting to me that readers would resist the sincerity in a work like Johannes’s Dear Ra (which he discusses here: http://montevidayo.com/?p=2930 ), and would thus also dismiss him as insincere in his commitment to poetry. Or in LDR’s Born to Die and in her sincerity as a performer. & weird that we try to test for sincerity in artists, anyhow. Why do that?

    Haters/insiders find a way to discount the work of marginalized artists no matter what aesthetic those outsiders embrace, but I think there are extra layers of dismissal and resistance when one’s working in unconventional modes–for the seriousness reason you suggest. Perhaps the establishment might feel the outsider doesn’t even have the good grace to be derivative of that which it pre-approves, while other unconventionals might feel she has the bad manners to try to insert herself into their already embattled terrain and bring them down with her lousy work. Classic, recognizable sincerity seems to provide some insulation…

  5. Elisa

    Yes to this: “Perhaps the establishment might feel the outsider doesn’t even have the good grace to be derivative of that which it pre-approves” and to this: “Classic, recognizable sincerity seems to provide some insulation.”

    To expand on the latter, couching one’s actions in terms of sincerity does seem to offer some kind of protection or preemptive defense from criticism, as in, “Maybe it’s not Great Art but it’s what I really feel!”

  6. Carina

    I’m really wary of lumping sincerity with “feelings,” with making the sincere the always-weepy/wishy-washy. that’s not, at least for me, where the sincerity question is going. At the same time I think it’s really important not to sanitize literature and take out all of the feelings so that we can have a well-made poem; this goes back to what Danielle said in the comments about LDR, how she isn’t making formally familiar pop ballads filled with recognizable emotions. Instead we get songs like Off to the Races, that are so over-full of emotion and so sarcastic with their use of sincerity, they feel at once over- and under-produced. what kinds of songs are these? and how do we get people to stop a) resisting them and/or b) reading them as somehow less-art because they’re Bratty?

    I like this, a lot: “Patriarchy! You made me thus!”

  7. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Danielle, surprisingly I’ve never heard this particular articulation before: “It’s not so much that as recipients of white privilege we carry everything we need on our backs, but that we needn’t acknowledge our interdependence. I’m partial to the way disability studies and po-mo feminist care ethics reframe privilege as the false assumption of autonomy.” I like it a lot.

  8. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Off to the Races is my favorite song on that album. Especially the “scarlet starlet” part. I thought it was “starlet harlot,” though. But I just looked up the lyrics and I’m wrong.

  9. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    oh wait, it’s both. she says harlot later.

  10. Danielle Pafunda

    Yeah, I don’t think this view of privilege gets as much airtime as it should, since liberal policy approaches are still invested in the autonomy of the individual, equity for discreet and equal persons, etc. That kind of feminist approach, necessary as it often seems, unfortunately requires us to invest in a system that does a lot of harm in its misrepresentation of the material & psychic relationships between actual humans (and thereby is also complicit in the harm we do to non-human entities). Frustrating.

    I have to listen to “Off to the Races,” again. I’m completely obvious in my love for Born to Die. Carina, yes, I think it’d be great if we could differentiate between affect (what the text carries) and feeling (how we respond to it, what we suspect authors of having had). No pretending literature is either 100% feelings or an emotion-free zone, calling affect “mood” like literature is a difficult teenager? Hey, maybe we were on to something with mood!

    But of course affect & feeling will enmesh. Maybe we need to overemphasize a temporary artificial distinction just to get our heads around it…

    Anyhow! Quick on the way to a meeting. Love all the work you’re doing this week, Carina!

  11. Beautiful Monsters and Other Internet Hits | Kara Candito

    […] leave, some recommended Friday reading. Check out Danielle Pafunda’s great Montevidayo piece Fake-ish Memoir Totes Sincere, Unusually Embodied Affect Performance, and Sean Bishop’s Ploughshares blog post, Plagiarism as […]

  12. adam strauss

    Danielle–your words on privilege I dig–it seems to point to the fact that some subjects have an unspoken network of support, that there’s a millieu which values them, or to mesh up with critical race theory pointing to Whiteness being a form of property, of currency which makes mobility more possible. Mobility strikes me as interesting because it can be viewed as a signal marker of privilege, but, too, many less enfranchised subject positions are tremendously motile because they have to always be aware of how to present themselves. I guess for me costumage becomes a good way to deduce whether one is looking at compulsory mobility or a more privileged kind. Currently I lean towards thinking costume is more akin privilege: typically as much as anything else costumage anounces what someone is, largely, not. Costumage strikes me as an act, to some degree, of control. I think it’d be interesting to see costumage which so fakes “the real” that the adornment becomes physiological/natural/biologized. But then of course it wld lose its ability to make one motile because one cld actually be mistaken for the un-plush position. Maybe a good example is movies with a character who is supposed to be nerdy/un-hot, and then at the end of the script, lol, it turns out they’re, duh, totally good-looking.

  13. adam strauss

    Too, it seems that costumage might be dependent on a baseline highly legible subject-position, and that costumage works better if what one puts on is less enfranchised (discursively at the, lol, least), whereas to be a not very stable/limelighted position and dress up in a fashion, well, is that costumage or is that envy/self-defense/sorta sad. Can I put on straytness without actually becoming–because that orientation is so primary–strayt, or is that an act which is in the vicinity of devaluing the non-hetero/a method to tap into established power. Would it be wildly irking or really potentially engaging if some people started to pretend they’re not possessed conventionally fully functioning limbs etc?

  14. Johannes

    Adam, This seems like a somewhat simplistic/moralistic take on costume. What would you make of Jean Genet, the most famously pro-costume writer of the 20th century and also a homosexual orphan frequently put in juvie and jail and homeless.


  15. adam strauss

    I think I’m trying to think through the issue of costume as economy, to cite, tho also possibly twist, Carina’s point in one of her posts.

  16. adam strauss

    Too, I think I’m asking–what is a costume and, by extension, what does a costume do and when does costumage become something else.

  17. Carina

    “Would it be wildly irking or really potentially engaging if some people started to pretend they’re not possessed conventionally fully functioning limbs etc?”

    a) There are totally already poets who do this just by the act of writing poems.
    b) I think the question of able-bodiedness is interesting & important because the dis-abled person is constantly melodramatic:

    Merrim Wesbster Sez Melodrama: a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization

    & also absolutely sincere.

    c) Being physically disposessed of a limb is far less gothic & frightening than being a poet with an intact body but for whom the writing of poems is a constant act of in-visible dismemberment #bratty

  18. adam strauss

    I’m confused how by the act of writing poems there are poets who have costumed themselves in “disability”; ok, slight retake, I get how writing can function as masquerade, how via words and syntax one can state anything, but I meant off the page, non-written costume, which often, I’d argue, has an xtremely different effect/will not generally be recieved/percieved similarly–or, better, not that there’s no connection, but that there’s as much difference. I’m working from the assumption that the two-dimensionality of the page (not that there aren’t apt figurations for writing which wld get more spherical or whatnot etc) will frequently seem different enough from a 3-d costumage: the difference of a person with a gun in a stanza versus meeting a gun in a parking-lot on the way to run an errand. I do not mean to devalue the world as its rendered/posited/emerged via “the page.” Trying to think of costumage is, more than less, making me more and more lost/confused; and I’m glad for the bumpy meditation.

  19. Johannes

    I guess I have a hard time relating to your way of thinking – always wanting to divide everything into identity categories with these definitions/taxonomies, the emphasis on differences.


  20. adam strauss

    Is costumage in-part framed/defined by registering as something that can be taken off, discarded? A ball-gown, a dramatic hat or makeup, a mink stole. And, too, should dressing up and costume be seen as synonyms? Are dress-codes a part of costume culture–if only a remote outlying district? Does it make any sense to state that at one level I totally get what a costume is–know it when I see it–but that at another level I want to unknow what a costume is, or know again.

  21. Danielle Pafunda

    The most intriguing use of disability costuming I can think of is Lady Gaga’s. Rosemarie Garland Thomson has some excellent thoughts on Gaga’s use of prosthetics, wheelchair, crutches, etc. Much more developed than mine!

    Anyhow, disabled characters typically serve as limited tropes. Phantom of the Opera, Batman, the madwoman in the attic, whatevs. As Carina points out, they’re often the vehicle for melodrama (often unimaginative, judgy melodrama). In Gaga, disability needn’t be synonymous with evil, madness, or lack of agency. Disabled characters don’t exist in order for able-bodied characters to have epiphanies or fall in love, or to perform any other twee service. That doesn’t mean Gaga’s use of disability markers is unproblematic, but that it’s pleasingly complicated. Not easily parsed. Sure, her use is informed by the gothic, and sure we think missing limbs are gothic (for some pretty f’d up reasons that have little to do with the lived experience of limb variation, and a lot more to do with navigating a rigid environment that demands four limbs and fails to provide for the present and future variation of its population). But Gaga plays with those expectations in productive ways. Other artists do this, too, some more successfully than others, yeah?

    I’m curious about your motility vs mobility, Adam! Will have to think more about it.

  22. adam strauss

    Oh Danielle, I can’t claim I meant a distinction; I just didn’t want to repeat mobility over and over; I totally love the observation though, and agree I should think more ’bout the two terms.