“The edge of the world”: Red Hook in Contemporary Fiction
In Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014), artist Harriet Burden flees the “incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule” of Manhattan (14) and moves to “an old warehouse building” in Red Hook (22). Here she collects “human strays” (22) and conceives the idea for her notorious Maskings project. One of the fascinating aspects of the project is its productively ambiguous orientation to the ideas of authenticity and originality: on the one hand, Burden’s work with Tish, Eldridge and Rune can be viewed as deceitful, inauthentic, a wanton manipulation of “the truth.” On the other hand, the works in Maskings represent an unmasking of the political reality of the art world and thus an exposure of its fundamental inauthenticity.
This paper argues that the Red Hook location is crucial to discussions of these issues. As a symbol of New York’s industrial past now undergoing gentrification, it has served in many recent Brooklyn fictions as a key location for exploring the debates surrounding urban transformations, the vexed relationship between the past and the present, and what an authentic neighbourhood identity might be. With reference to novels including The Blazing World, Gabriel Cohen’s crime story Red Hook (2002) and Reggie Nadelson’s detective thriller, also called Red Hook (2005), the paper will show how different perceptions of this boundary neighbourhood, referred to by Nadelson’s detective Artie Cohen as “a weird fat lip of land cut off from the rest of the city by a couple of highways” (7) and by one of Artie’s friends as “the edge of the world” (30), complicate notions of history, community and belonging and show that there are in fact, as Sharon Zukin and Suleiman Osman argue, multiple authenticities in operation at any point in time.
James Peacock is a Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures, Keele University, and author of Brooklyn Fictions: the Contemporary Urban Community in a Global Age (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Pleasure and Peril: Dynamic Forces of Power and Desire in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blindfold
By analyzing forms of power configurations in Hustvedt’s The Blindfold, using psychoanalytic theories on sadomasochism, I focus on power’s dynamic quality and its connection to desire. Both are represented as seductive and dangerous forces that have a transforming effect on self and identity. Hustvedt’s representation of the shifting between positions of power and powerlessness and the subject’s fragmentation proves that power and desire are not static forces. The power dimension’s ambiguity and complexity form a critical challenge and are partially responsible for the lack of criticism of this work because it defies a strict classification of power. Rather, Hustvedt shows power to be a ubiquitous, amorphous force. The theoretical framework I employ demonstrates the novel’s complexity; it also provides a means of grasping the diverse workings of power and the individual’s responses to and uses of power, as the various S/M theories expose the complex gradations of power in social and sexual relations.
Alise Jameson studied Germanic languages and literature, literary theory, and library and information science in Flanders. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Ghent University and wrote her dissertation on “Constructions of Authorial Personae: Case Studies Illustrating the Conceptualizations, Myths, and Critiques of Eighteenth-Century Authorship.” Most recently, she has published (with Ingo Berensmeyer and Gero Guttzeit) a critical edition and essay entitled “‘The Brain-Sucker: Or, the Distress of Authorship’: A Late Eighteenth-Century Satire of Grub Street.” She has also undertaken research on the representation of power relations and trauma in the fiction of Mary Gaitskill.
‘An anthropology of the present’: caring about objects in The Blindfold
What does it mean to care about an object? And is this different to caring for an object? The Blindfold poses these questions and reveals, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s phrase, a ‘queer phenomenology’ where the apparent ephemera of a dead girl’s life: a cotton ball, a glove – ‘[seem] charged with a kind of power’. In the novel, Iris Vegan/Davidsen takes a job, ostensibly as a research assistant, for Mr. Morning who has found himself ‘in possession of a number of [the dead girl’s] things’ . He asks Iris to take these possessions home, one at a time, and to record herself describing them. She is then to return the object and recording to Mr. Morning, whereupon he will give her another.
This paper will take as its own object of enquiry Mr Morning’s collection of objects in The Blindfold, objects that he has gathered, he tells Iris: ‘[f]or a kind of biography. […] For a project about life’s paraphernalia, its bits and pieces, treasures and refuse’ . Reading this collection, which Morning describes as ‘[a]n anthropology of the present’, our attention is drawn to objects that are ‘lost, abandoned, speechless, but not dead’ . In laying out these as objects for the reader and Iris’ attention, Hustvedt imagines a form of caring for and about objects that often go uncared for. In this, I will argue, her work posits a queer phenomenology which, as Ahmed envisages it ‘might start by redirecting our attention toward different objects, those that are ‘less proximate’ or even those that deviate or are deviant’ [2006, 3]. Doing so, the novel privileges the kind of intense care towards objects that Morning practices, both in and of itself as a committed and meaningful way of being in the world [although this does not go without critique in the novel] and as a route in to imagining new constellations of human-human and human-object contact.
Ruth Charnock is a Lecturer in the School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln. She specialises in modernist and contemporary literature [particularly contemporary American literature], feminism, popular culture, psychoanalysis and affect theory. Her most recent publications include a chapter entitled “’His peremptory prick’: the failure of the phallic in Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve” in Patriarchal Moments [Bloomsbury, 2015] and a forthcoming chapter in the edited collection Gender and Austerity in Popular Culture [I.B Tauris, 2015] entitled “’I want what everyone wants’: cruel optimism in HBO’s Girls.” She is currently at work on a monograph entitled By Heart: Care and Caring in Contemporary American Culture and is the organiser of Court and Spark: An International Symposium on the Work of Joni Mitchell at the University of Lincoln [July 3rd, 2015].
Collecting and Life Writing: Objects, Optics, and Games in Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved
In her nonfiction, Siri Hustvedt has premised the subject’s stability—that is, its very existence—on the ability to self-narrate, to compose an autobiographical story. Looking at Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved, this paper situates the collecting and arranging of personal objects as a preliminary phase in this process of self-composition, a kind of mirror stage through which the subject can inspect themselves in their entirety and translate that image into a narrative whole.
What I Loved’s narrator, Leo, hoards meaningful mementos in his drawer, which stand in for his personal relationships and, so, his internal domain. Leo’s objects, I suggest, function as a mirror in which he can lay eyes on and interact with the usually occluded interior self. By reshuffling his collection and inspecting different arrangements for meaning, Leo turns the archival domain into a space for dream analysis, where the self comes into view and, importantly for Hustvedt, can be translated into narrative. In reviewing the archival game that sees Leo transform his melancholy past into the narrative that is presented to us as the novel itself, I draw upon Jacques Lacan’s theory of the ‘mirror stage’, D.W. Winnicott’s notion of play, and Christopher Bollas’s concept of ‘psychic genera’.
I argue that Hustvedt’s novel challenges and complicates Jean Baudrillard’s understanding of the collection. For Baudrillard the collection is linguistically narcissistic, objects made into a personal patois readable only by the collector him or herself, and so a place where melancholy festers. Hustvedt, however, by turning curating into a game of self-discovery, redeems the archive as an ultimately healing mechanism through which the past can be mourned, metabolised into a personal narrative addressed outwards to the world.
Rob Lederer recently completed his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. His dissertation focused on curating as a technology of self in contemporary American fiction and culture.
Siri Hustvedt and the Politics of Trauma
This paper explores the political implications of neurocognitive trauma theory and its place in Siri Hustvedt’s fictional and non-fictional oeuvre. With the neurobiological turn in psychiatry and the invention of PTSD, trauma came to be defined as an inaccessible “reality imprint” on the brain that cannot be verbalized and integrated into the history of the psyche. In the post-9/11 era, trauma theory has been put to dubious uses by U.S. officials and intellectuals who prefer to ignore the prehistory and complex causes of anti-Western terrorism. In accordance with the current trauma paradigm, they turn September 11, 2001 into an unpredictable and inexplicable ‘accident’ that ‘befell’ an unsuspecting and innocent nation.
In essays and interviews, Siri Hustvedt has repeatedly endorsed the core assumptions of PTSD. Yet, her first genuine post-9/11 novel, The Sorrows of an American (2007), offers a different perspective on trauma that stresses the value of psychoanalytic theory and resists the current trend in politics and cultural theory to dehistoricize and depoliticize traumatic events like September 11, 2001. In doing so, the novel challenges not only established notions of trauma fiction but also mainstream interpretations of American history, where traumas are usually silenced or presented as ruptures in the positive national progress narrative rather than integral parts of U.S. identity.
Anna Thiemann is a postdoc scholar and assistant professor of English at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, where she obtained an M.A. in English, German, Philosophy, and Communication Studies. Her dissertation was entitled “Rewriting the American Soul: Trauma, Neuroscience and the Contemporary Literary Imagination.” Her second book project (habilitation) focuses on “Human Bondage in the Early Modern British Atlantic World.” Her teaching and research interests include American literature, critical empire studies, literature and science, trauma theory, gender studies and Black studies.
No before and no after: Hustvedt and traumatic tradition
Siri Hustvedt writes in ‘9/11, or One Year Later’ that ‘September 11 is finally a story of collective trauma and ongoing grief’. This statement draws together key elements in literary responses to American trauma and forms the basis for this analysis.
The traumatic event is itself a narrative that interconnects with resultant narrative attempts at sense making. Hustvedt’s subjective non-fiction explicitly addresses the narrative desire to explain. Her essay rejects dominant political discourses which construct 9/11 as a ‘media euphemism batted around in political debates from both the left and the right’. As such, this text is a postmodern response to 9/11. It demonstrates the requisite incredulity toward metanarrative, celebrating instead ‘the particular’.
The purpose of this paper is to place this essay into the context of American trauma writing. ‘9/11, or One Year Later’ will be analysed alongside the opening chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Tim O’Brien’s celebrated ‘How to Tell a True War Story’. Each text privileges the subjective and, as a result, addresses trauma narrative as paradoxical yet essential. Kalil Tal writes that ‘one of the strongest themes in the literature of trauma is the urge to bear witness, to carry the tales of horror back to the halls of normalcy’. She adds, however, that ‘the task […] is an impossible one’. Trauma carries an imperative to narrate yet creates conditions in which such narration is destined to fail. Hustvedt, Vonnegut and O’Brien address this paradox honestly. Their writing exposes the artifice of narrative yet simultaneously stresses its urgency. This paper will conclude that the American traumatic tradition is one of subjective metafiction. Only in such systematic artifice can sense making truths take shape.
Fraser Mann is a Lecturer in Literature at York St John University. He gained his Bachelor Degree and Masters from York St John University between 1995 and 2000. In 2004 he qualified as a teacher at the University of Greenwich and spent several years teaching in Further Education in London. He decided to concentrate on furthering his academic career and returned to York St John to begin his doctoral research into twentieth century American war narratives in October 2010.
He is an active member of the Massachusetts based Norman Mailer Society and has contributed to their conferences and journals with papers on the constructed masculine self in war fiction and Mailer’s literary use of ambiguity. He has delivered papers in both European and American conferences and has had chapters published twice by The Interdisciplinary Press.
Siri Hustvedt, Epistemic Breaks and Post-9/11 Trauma
Since 2001, many discussions have raged on the position of 9/11 within the contemporary world. Among these, one argument sees 9/11 as an epistemic break, creating a new era of American history and cultural experience that is markedly different to what went before. The other side of this argument is to keep 9/11 within the historical and social discourse of a nation that is no stranger to violent and traumatic events. Into this confusing and confused cultural milieu many contemporary writers are using their works to position themselves within these discussions, attempting to both make sense of the events of 9/11 and also understand their position within this potentially new society. Many post-9/11 writers are turning to the discourse of trauma and traumatic experience in order to frame their narratives, as Richard Gray claims in his work After the Fall: American Literature since 9/11.
This paper addresses the question of the 9/11 epistemic break in relation to American contemporary fiction in general and the work of American author Siri Hustvedt in particular. First, I briefly explain the arguments on both sides and then turn to Hustvedt to consider how trauma and the epistemic break have shaped (and are shaping) contemporary fiction. Is it possible to say that post-9/11 literature is a literature of trauma, as many have done, or can we see (using Hustvedt as a case study) a more intricate narrative at play?
Dr Harriet Earle is an Associate Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. She recently completed her PhD in American Comics at Keele University. She is currently preparing her first monograph on the topic of comics and conflict trauma. Her publications are spread across the field of comics studies and in the future she hopes to continue working on traumatic representation in comics, literature and art. Harriet is Articles Editor for Alluvium.
Literary Visuality in Siri Hustvedt’s Works
Phenomena that pertain to the visual sense, how individuals perceive the world and how an intersubjective understanding on various experiences – be they of an aesthetic or non-aesthetic nature – can be achieved are central themes in Siri Hustvedt’s fictional and non-fictional works. The literary descriptions of those experiences function as a pivotal aesthetic principle of the fictional texts, create spaces for meta-aesthetic reflections, and are not least crucial from a reader-response viewpoint. In order to describe these phenomena I will outline a theoretical framework of “literary visuality,” that combines concepts of intermediality and ekphrasis with a phenomenological perspective. I will argue that through Hustvedt’s stimulation of the visual sense by means of detailed descriptive passages the texts acquire an aesthetic dimension that oscillates between the static and the dynamic. Moreover these descriptions serve as instructions for acts of visualization in the reader, one of the central reasons for the increasing appeal of Hustvedt’s novels. In the interpretational part I will analyze the changing descriptions of a canvas called Self-Portrait in the novel What I Loved.
Dr Johanna Hartmann has taught American literature at the University of Augsburg since 2010. In her research she focuses on intermediality, literary visuality, and ekphrasis in contemporary American literature and American drama. Among her recent publications is the collected volume and Censorship and Exile (V&R Verlag, together with Hubert Zapf). Both her dissertation Literary Visuality in Siri Hustvedt’s Works: Phenomenological Perspectives (Königshausen & Neumann) and a co-edited volume on Siri Hustvedt with the title Zones of Focused Ambiguity in Siri Hustvedt’s Works: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (DeGruyter, together with Christine Marks and Hubert Zapf) will be published early next year.
“Does Art Really Have a Gender Identity…?”: Siri Hustvedt’s Playing with Perception in the Art World
Anti-female biases in the art world that are represented in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World have become a frequently-discussed problem in gender studies since the formation of the Guerrilla Girls group in 1985. Although there are a number of critiques that prove that the audience would rate a work of art differently depending on whether it is executed by a man or a woman, the reasons why gender is so important in shaping the perception are still obscure.
My paper fills this gap by offering possible answers to that question based on Siri Hustvedt’s most recent novel. I am looking at how the art of Harriet Burden, the protagonist of The Blazing World, is neglected and ignored by the art critics whose perceptions of pieces are informed by the expectations and stereotypes existing in the mind as well as in the culture. Specifically, I will discuss the three male artist characters and juxtapose them against the female protagonist in order to, on the one hand, reflect the drastic change in the public perception of a woman’s art when masked by a man due to the subjectivity and market orientation
of the art world and, on the other hand, represent Hustvedt’s idea of masking as a means of revelation of the male and the female in the person. I argue that art, which “lives in perception only,” as put by Hustvedt, does have a gender identity which shapes this perception. By closely examining the art pieces, the artist characters, and the reaction of the audience, this paper reveals the ambiguities and complexities of The Blazing World and sheds new light on the problematic topic of the female genius.
Diana Wagner is a doctoral student at the University of Marburg.