Monthly Archives: August 2013

From Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories. Another similarity between conceptual art and social media: the audiences are also performers, and are “serious” about the medium and concerned about strategies for using it. Social media consumption thus has a meta component built in to it in ways nonsocial media don’t — most people don’t watch TV shows with the intent of making their own (though arguably I suppose some of the same techniques could be appropriated for self-presentation in Facebook, etc.). But consuming social media is often about absorbing how to create social media better — that, and not the specific things mentioned, can be the primary content for consumers.

Our consumption of social media, then, is always inflected by potential jealousy for rivals in the medium or by the alertness for techniques or ideas to borrow. This can complicate the hope we have in using social media of creating an appreciated self, an archived identity that has followers who validate it for its particular content. 

The reciprocity of our being audience for one another, however, has the effect not of emphasizing the “interestingness” of the content but of making the content more like an indifferent placeholder in the game of exchanging gestures of attention and recognition within the network. Circulation of ideas becomes the idea, the content of the ideas being circulated a matter of happenstance. This is why conceptual art could be Ruscha compiling images of gas stations, and why Instagram feeds can be a bunch of pictures of breakfast. What is "interesting" with respect to such media unfolds over time and is not revealed as a flash of captivation, as we are prone to think of it. 

Ngai notes how “the photographic series” was the main mode of conceptual art in its heyday; it is also a chief mode of casual social media use — sharing a stream of photos whose content can be of minimal interest as long as it is part of an ongoing project of sharing and documenting the self. 

Taken to its logical extreme, social media as self-documentation becomes self-quantification as democratized conceptual art. The formulaic obsessions of self-quantifiers resembles Ruscha’s formula for “interesting” art — quantifiers consume themselves as interesting art by purifying and delimiting their experience into what can be captured numerically by rigid formal, form-giving procedures. The quantitative self is a conceptual artwork driven by quantitative logic, just like Ruscha’s. (Alternatively, it is a mode of “living the truth” — truth as beauty, as art, as objectivity — as Foucault outlines in his late lectures.) It’s intentionally boring and inane in any isolated moment, since its purpose is to nullify the moment of interest and stretch the self’s potential interestingness to infinity as the data compiles to make up charts and graphs and so on. 

Ngai quotes Moretti on detective fiction to describe Ruscha’s mode of linking “continuous novelty of content to a perennial fixity of the syntax.” I think that’s a good description of social-media platforms, as well as the epistemological approach of self-quantifiers, who are thrilled to derive aesthetic pleasure in themselves by using a systematic approach to render their life experience “interesting.” Objectively interesting, too — remaking life as data makes it seem universally significant (“quantities are always informative,” Ruscha claims), not a contingent form of purely personal nostalgia. Self-quantification, then, may be an attempt to make personal nostalgia somehow more “legitimate” and less a vertiginous private hole one’s mind can fall into. 

In Ngai’s scheme, conceptual art is part of establishing the definition of the “interesting,” helping establish it as an aesthetic category in its own right rather than the purported opposite of an aesthetic (i.e. “it’s not good, but it’s interesting”). The “interesting,” she suggests, is a response to consumer capitalism’s overwhelming us with novelty; it describes and valorizes the sort of pattern recognition that is never complete, and it is always in danger of collapsing into boredom, of seeing insignificant variations in commodities, say, not as novelty but as more of the same. Something is interesting when we can’t immediately resolve why it has piqued our curiosity or held our attention. It calls attention to the process of being attentive, frames “paying attention” as a kind of important work in and of itself, regardless of what is attended to. Hence “interesting” is the aesthetic category Ngai associates with circulation, with the affective force that yearns for seriality and keeps information moving. 

This seems relevant to the frequent complaint that the stuff many people share on social media is “boring” — as though the specific, discrete updates or images are even the point. Each isolated update is almost structurally doomed to being boring because its chief function is to gratify our wish to long for the next one, to provoke our curiosity for what’s coming. To make our “interest” palpable in the trace of its evaporation, as we consume any given image and yawn. (This is another way of conceiving the “combination of experiment and inertia” I was talking about a few posts ago.)

If any given update or image is too fascinating, it upstages the accumulating archive of self as the center of interest — it halts it. For instance, if any one of Ruscha’s gas-station images is too interesting, it voids the integrity of the project as a whole. The book would become subordinate to the outstanding image it contains. You wouldn’t need to take on the book as a whole any longer to appreciate its genius.

Likewise for social media use. The user’s self in social media is akin to those conceptual artworks (or novels — thinking of Clarissa) that work chiefly in time rather than space. The sum of things shared are more compelling in their flow, in the way they tame diverse experience into an underlying homogeneity required by the social media platforms. The point of this is to secure social recognition and validation of the self, as a dynamic but socially real thing, a coherent concept that takes its stable form as an open-ended progression over time. The self is legitimate as a format.

But an overly interesting image diverts the audience’s attention from the flow, reorients their attention to the singular update. This means that the force of the social recognition audiences supply is diverted away from appreciating the ongoing life one chronicles through social media use; instead recognition suddenly becomes contingent on whether a user can deliver spontaneous moments of true fascination. You get upstaged by the brilliance of what you’ve shared.  

Link

altcrit:

Are robots even better suited to literature than we are?  As far as we know, they aren’t self-conscious.  Grad students who write shitty self-conscious literature often say that self-consciousness is ruining literature.  A robot does not write thinking about where it fits in a critical dialectic.  It is not afraid of failure.  It does not wonder whether it is good enough.  It just puts words on the screen.

Kant says that beauty “has the appearance of purposiveness without a definite purpose.  (Yes, I am sure Kant said that.)  Kant seems to be describing exactly draws people to @LatourSwag and @horse_ebooks.  A robot can literally write something without a definite purpose.  Have you ever tried to write something without a purpose?  Ignoring the whole meta-layer of your purpose being to write something without a purpose, have you ever tried just saying random things?  Doesn’t your mind always default to some sort of selection process?  Is it ever free?

This is an illustration of what I was getting at in the previous post: the future of avant-garde art is in eschewing “selection.” The only avant-garde artists possible right now are bots. 

alt crit: Are these really bots?

from Barbara Rose, “ABC Art” (1965)

I think the combination of experiment and inertia continues to describe some avant-garde activity — though only the mechanistic, anti-creative side of it. (I’m thinking of Kenneth Goldsmith.) It reminds me also of Brad Troemel’s idea of “athletic aesthetics” in its suppression of content for pacing. A better word than “inertia” is “momentum,” the nonpejorative word for it. 

In the essay, Rose quotes Michael Fried, who points out how undermining the difference between art and everyday objects structurally mirrors abstract art’s attack on representation: “there is an apparent expansion of the realm of the artistic corresponding — ironically, as it were — to the expansion of the pictorial achieved by modernist painting.” Social media mount a similar attack on conceptual art. 

Social media invite experiments in inertia, continual additions and variations on themes hard-coded into the platforms. I still think social media are possibly best understood as democratizing platforms for conceptual art projects, for turning an ordinary person’s ordinary life into art. Social media’s project is to radicalize individual subjectivity by making it transmissible; to preserve itself, avant-garde art must then differentiate itself from that, eliminating subjectivity and creativity and, to some degree, intentionality, just as earlier minimalists have done. The depth or complexity of one’s subjectivity can no longer be used to measure how authentic one’s art is. 

So-called autistic fiction, though it can seem maximalist in its dutiful accounting of minutia, is minimalist in its formal approach of emulating machine recording. “Printing the internet” as Goldsmith posited is paradoxically the most minimal work possible. Absolutely no discrimination is permitted.

Another passage from Foucault’s The Courage of Truth lectures:

The consensus of culture has to be opposed by the courage of art in its barbaric truth. Modern art is Cynicism in culture; the cynicism of culture turned against itself. And if this is not just in art, in the modern world, in our world, it is especially in art that the most intense forms of a truth-telling with the courage to take the risk of offending are concentrated.

That is almost a truism, that artists “take risks” and tell untoward truths that ordinary culture refuses to express or tries to conceal. Artists become some of conscience for society. Whether or not that’s true, I think social media, by democratizing the access to an audience and feedback, democratizes the opportunity to conceive of oneself this way, to see one’s way of being (as constructed in social media archive) as a critical practice and an expression of beautiful truth.

Combining this with ideas in the posts above: Cynicism (the critical pose toward society and the effort to live a “truthful” life) has been democratized through platforms that make this sort of self-documentation nearly automatic, and which certainly structure the impulse to self-document and encourage it. That impulse once marked conceptual artists (or performance artists or any proto-hipster living artist as a lifestyle) as Cynics risking everything for artistic truth.

I don’t think people using Facebook risk very much (not enough to keep them from using the site to try to help manage their general anxiety about social inclusion), but I think they believe they are transforming their lives into an “artwork” worthy of an audience, and that they are encouraged to believe they can and should systematically the audience that it is appropriate for. At first, friends. Then “Friends.” Then, anyone with enough Friends in common.

This self-archiving and self-broadcasting carries over from the avant-garde art world the overtones of using personal revelation as a kind of truth procedure, a test to establish the truth after the fact (much in the way I think identity is held to be confirmed in social-media circulation of evidence, not in the phenomenological experience of a moment of consciousness). The truth test becomes a way to ascertain one’s own authentic reality, to register a “true” or “real” self that exists apart from the flux of contingencies that seem to shape us in real time. 

Of course, social-media self-construction merely displaces the real-time contingencies and introduces a different set of displaced structural circumscriptions. Facebook is a not an entirely open, free field in which one expresses a pre-existing truth of the self. The container shapes what we pour into it and only holds certain types of water.

from Foucault, The Courage of the Truth.

I think this pertains to the idea of the social-media archive as forum for parrhesia, for truth procedures, for cultivating tests for the self. The archive is an expression of the “principle of existence as an oeuvre to be fashioned in all its possible perfection." 

It is a place where the attempt to fashion a "beautiful existence” or “true life” collides with the opportunity to play the game of truth, that is, tell uncomfortable truths that may offend an audience with the power to respond with retribution.

The “true life” is no longer given automatically to ordinary people as a reward for their ordinariness. We too must prove our lives are true, are real, are legitimate, to the audiences we marshal on social media. That is, we must demonstrate the productive value of our uniquely wrought subjectivity to experience social recognition that was once built into “traditional” ways of living and participating in a community. In other words, we have to build the community (that once was geographical) as an online audience and hold it together by performing for it perpetually.

In light of Foucault’s late lectures, social-media use can be seen as the contemporary expression of Cynicism. To live the truth as a mode of attention-seeking, as a perpetual provocation to others (a function fulfilled by the social-media archive, as well as by trolling additions to it); to masturbate in public like Diogenes and say, But why are you scandalized?

Pamela and living currency

In reading Pamela, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mrs. Jewkes, Mr.B’s evil housekeeper and henchman. The ambivalence with which she is presented seems worth figuring out because it may shed light on the problem Richardson faced in making a servant girl-heroine. To show how Pamela was worthy of exaltation, Richardson needed a figure like Mrs. Jewkes to contrast her with — an ugly, filthy-talking, insecure servant with a servant’s traditional ethical code: she knows enough only to follow orders, and she can’t distinguish between moral and immoral orders. She “glories in her Wicked Fidelity,” as Pamela explains.

But what merits Pamela’s being “raised up” is her own fidelity to a different code (chastity rather than obedience) that the narrative reasons out, sanctions, and privileges. Pamela’s ethic revolves around her right to remain “innocent,” or her right to preserve her “virtue,” which is about the only unequivocal right that the book suggests anyone may claim. One may equivocate to protect that right; Pamela does quite a bit of that with Mrs. Jewkes particularly, but that right is seen as inalienable.

Why? Because God says so? Pamela would have us believe that God protects her in all the attempts on that innocence she is born with, but does God make it so precious? Her parents put a lot of stock in it, enough to enjoy seeing Pamela put to the test (“What blessed things are Trials and Temptations to us, when they be overcome?” — that’s also a little bit of encouragement to readers of this newfangled “novel” form Richardson inadvertently adopted. The vicarious experience provoked by the novel’s “warm scenes” will be ennobling, not sordid and sullying. It’s necessary for RIchardson to be prurient so we can overcome trial at a safe remove.)

Richardson invites us to see Pamela’s virtue as the only kind of dowry the Andrewes are able to give their daughter — their chief accumulation of capital rests in her chastity. And while they don’t want it squandered, they certainly don’t mind seeing its value go up through those trials and temptations. Rape attempts, when successfully resisted, become capital improvements.

So is Pamela’s “virtue” so valuable because it replaces money for a poor family? That doesn’t seem to go far enough to explain Pamela’s satisfaction in it, though it seems to explain the parents’ attitude: “Let none ever think Children a Burden to them; when the poorest circumstances can produce so much riches in a Pamela! Persist my dear Daughter in the same excellent course, and we shall not envy the highest estate, but defy them to produce such a daughter as ours.” The parents’ attitude toward Pamela’s letters in this instance suggests Pamela’s “innocence” meaning something more to her than to them. Capital is not as valuable when self-aware, subject to its own ideas about its valorization.

If, as Terry Castle claims in “P/B,” “the text models metaphorically the process of female socialization,” then becoming a woman under capitalism is also a matter of becoming an emotional object, a piece of living currency. Klossowski’s “Living Currency” is perhaps pertinent here.

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Pamela is an “object of investment” for her parents in that their care makes her an emotionally resonant object for Mr. B, first as a servant (in part a sort of affective laborer, though she proves to be recalcitrant on that front) and then as desirable interiority, a fascinating consciousness he wants to possess. Pamela also serves as such an object for readers as well, a marker of value that for those readers able to respond sympathetically to her and display their emotional refinement, a status signifier.

Because Pamela’s bodily presence evokes desire, her status as a servant/laborer becomes complicated. Klossowski argues that “from the moment the bodily presence of the industrial slave is systematically collapsed within the surplus value she can produce — her physiognomy inseparable from her work — any distinction between the person and her activity becomes false. Bodily presence is already a commodity, independently and in excess of the commodities this presence  is involved with producing.” In Pamela’s case, she is both a servant performing household labor and an object of desire, a commodity. “Either the industrial slave enforces a strict calculation between bodily presence and money earned” — either Pamela figures out a way to charge for the use of her image, prostitute herself — “or else she substitutes herself for the function of money, since she is already money herself, at once equivalent to wealth.” That seems to be Pamela’s move, becoming an instrument of exchange between the otherwise incommensurate worlds of the aristocracy and those without “noble blood.”  What “beauty” of appearance and sensibility can Pamela embody that would justify the possibility of social mobility, of an alternate store of value to rival properly conserved bloodlines? An alternative form of “authentic” value was becoming economically necessary with capitalism; Richardson was more or less consciously supplying that — something to prove that the quest for profit wasn’t ruining all of society, that there was still some preserve beyond “interestedness.”

Pamela’s parents are not careful readers of Pamela’s letters, because they are anxious to know how their investment turns out, and because the commodity of her emotion-eliciting consciousness was not designed and developed to be sold to them. “We had not read through all yours in Course,” they explain of her packet, “We were too impatient and so turn’d to the End where we find your Virtue within View of its Reward.” For the parents, this is all that matters — had they instilled in her something that will earn her a respectable place in society? will that dowry of virtue purchase the reward it deserves? Richardson, in having her write at such length, finds something different in the trials of Mr. B. Pamela doesn’t see her virtue and its being tested in terms of what it will finally give her, she sees it only in terms of the actions it prompts in her in the moment — her virtue is her subjectivity. It provides a continuity to her behavior that allows her to define herself, allows her to have, finally, something to coherently narrate at such great length to her parents. If it didn’t hone her sense of detail, her virtue would lose some of its value in her own eyes. The more details it can organize, structure and situate in her letters, the more powerful, and thus the more valuable it is.

Richardson shapes the entire form of his novel along this principle, the core of his didacticism. His conception of virtue, if it is to justify a restratification of society in even the slightest way, requires so much self-justification from Pamela, who profits by such a reordering. Richardson must have realized that Pamela would have to write so much if we are ever to believe her truly innocent. The length of her self-defense, the ongoing consciousness implied by it, is shown as the guarantee of the authenticity of her virtue, the purity of her intentions. Perhaps the book seems so tiresome to some now because we don’t need to be convinced that consciousness is virtue, that other people (particularly women) actually possess interiority. 

Now back to where I wanted to start, a servant woman without privileged interiority—Mrs. Jewkes. She provides the necessary contrast that makes Pamela’s protestations of her innocence seem valuable to those readers who are not normally inclined to differentiating among the servants too carefully. Pamela’s “picture of this wretch” is quite memorable, irresistibly quotable: “She is a broad, squat, pursy fat Thing, quite ugly, if any thing God made can be ugly.” Neat how Pamela can seem deferential to God’s wisdom while she is simultaneously, in actuality, explicating it.

Critics point to this moment out as a sign of Pamela’s humanity, a moment of frankness that allows us to love her rather than see her as a conduct-manual robot dispensing holier-than-thou life instructions. It seems appropriate that it should come at the expense of Mrs. Jewkes, who we need to see as inhuman in order to sanction Pamela’s rise. Fitting also that it should be an evaluation of beauty, since beauty is one of the main features that distinguishes Pamela from the beginning. We can be sure that if Pamela had a “flat and crooked” nose and a “dead, spiteful, goggling Eye,” we wouldn’t have a novel to read about her “virtue” being rewarded. Her beauty makes her initially tempting to Mr. B., and this temptation is what generates her story, which gives her “innocence” some juicy material to shape, some temptations to resist and structure into her identity.

Hence Mr. B’s frequent self-justifying retort to her in the early going of the novel, that he and his trials will give her a story to tell: “do but consider what a fine Opportunity you will then have, for a Tale every day to Good mother Jervis, and what subjects for Letter-writing to your father and mother.” Pamela’s virtuous posture is only acceptable to readers as believable in the context of her elaborate expositions of Mr. B.’s transgressions. Mr. B is claiming his droit du seigneur as fundamental to Pamela’s having a story to tell, to discovering an interiority, to her virtue — conceived as resistance — being capable of having any value or meaning. (So you see, when guys cat-call at women on the street, they are just trying to stimulate the development of those women’s interiority.) But these assaults become the framework for female dignity — always a matter of reacting to male threats, never a matter of articulating their own framework for what behavior “virtue” might hinge upon.

Mr B is half-right to fling this accusation at Pamela, and that he gives her a story is, Richardson leads us to believe, most of why she falls in love with him (thus giving hope to cat-callers everywhere). Mr. B’s attention turns a “helpless and even worthless young Body” into a soul, with an identity and a center that coheres. Her innocence, in part, has its origin in his delinquency;  he is as much the source of it as her parents and God, the two things Pamela loves to invoke. Pamela loves them because they make her aware of her innocence, which makes her aware of herself as a separate self, an individual whose “soul is of equal importance with the Soul of the Princess.” She is a self, though, only insofar as she is desired, seen worthy of violation or possession. She is a self only as currency.

This is the paradox that makes this book so interesting: Pamela becomes a worthy soul, an individual soul, by becoming an “equal” soul, a soul that is quantitatively the same as someone else’s, that is commensurable, and in theory exchangeable. If souls are virtue and virtue is equal only to its reward, than this paradox is impossible to surmount: You become a somebody by being somebody else. You become Pamela by becoming Mrs. B and not Sally Godfrey, one of Mr. B’s earlier conquests.

There is always a costume prepared and script written for whatever you choose to be. There are 48 rules to follow — elucidated right in the text of the novel — and there are patterns to pick out, clothes to put on, and performances to make in front of the right audiences (Davers, the Darnfords, Miss Towers, etc.) and you become Mrs. B, you become the “mirror” of your “age and sex,” while simultaneously your story is one that is the most pretty, the most unaffected, the most sincere, the most free, and no one has ever seen the likes of you. Richardson wants Pamela to be both a model and an singular individual simultaneously. (Not every servant girl can marry a lord, but all girls should be like Pamela nonetheless, dreaming of lottery-winning.)

Pamela is “individual,” beyond comparison, yet “equal,” assimilable to the high society to which she is being raised. So she can be judged by her new high-society peers and invested with value by their approval without being tainted by that investment, without seeming to scheme for it. Trying for the approval of her betters would invalidate that approval; it’s like sprezzatura, in that if the effort to be natural is detected, it’s spoiled.

Because Pamela’s virtue needs an audience in a position to validate it, she never quite measures up to that audience and they know it, no matter how often they tell her that she far surpasses them. The aristocrats who validate the currency of her virtue still hold the power to invest a life with value — to make an interiority socially significant.

This same paradox manifests in Pamela’s frequent thanks to Providence, which seem  transparent and self-serving, not to mention disheartening to one who wants to see Pamela take some credit for herself. Pamela’s disavowal of agency is necessary to make her palatable to the Davers of her world, but it ultimately undermines readers’ sense of her worth. She becomes less a heroine and more  a”happy instrument in the Hands of Providence,” a pawn in some divine game of justice. This devalues the process of her narrating herself into being, the individuating power of her own awareness of her own innocence. God (Richardson) saw it fit for me to have these ideas about innocence, and He saw it fit for Sally Godfrey to have different ones, though He later saw fit to let her have different ones later to reform herself. So God becomes responsible for Sally’s weakness? That seems to be the consequence if he is responsible for Pamela’s strength, which obviates the entire moral thrust of the first 250 pages or so of the novel.

The problem of Pamela lies in figuring out who is responsible for Pamela’s innocence and virtue. It’s Providence. No, it’s Mr. B. No, it’s her parents. No, it’s Mr. B’s mother, her original boss. No, it’s Pamela’s beauty. No, it’s Pamela’s ability to write herself into existence, etc., etc. If it’s all of these things, then look at how much must be properly aligned to follow in her footsteps! How can she possibly be considered a model for behavior, when circumstances (Richardson) has conspired to make her so uniquely positioned?

The lesson she teaches us, according to the novel’s non-epistolary mini-epilogue, is of “Her Meekness, in every circumstance where her Virtue was not concerned.” But where is her virtue not concerned? The story is structured so that it is always concerned. Only when her virtue is concerned does Pamela have anything to describe, only then is she authorized to speak, to be. So her meekness is hardly a lesson learned or exemplified; it may be mentioned occasionally, but merely as a ruse to protect that virtue. One must only seem meek, while in practice pursuing moral tests by which one proves virtue, develops a self, a soul.

This kind of thing makes Pamela morally suspect; her virtue requires these kind of equivocations, strategies to seem unstrategic. As currency she endorses the existing means of valorization for women. It requires her to suck up to a petulant Lady Davers and validate the old hierarchies; it requires her to condescend and pretend forgiveness to a fat-faced Mrs. Jewkes, whose ugliness clearly makes her beneath contempt in Pamela’s eyes.

That’s right, I wanted to talk about Mrs. Jewkes. The joy we are supposed to take in hearing Pamela describe her ugliness immediately assures that Jewkes is not to be sympathized with, and reinforces the idea that Pamela’s beauty makes her worthy and sympathetic. Pamela builds credibility and humanity by dropping her circumspect humility in this strategic instance.

But by playing on the notion that beauty earns sympathy, Pamela’s very close to endorsing Mr. B’s attitude toward beauty, that it generates certain responsibilities in its possessor to be compliant. Mr. B accuses Pamela of hypocrisy because her beauty leaves him “bewitched,” and having created this in him, she must be able to remedy it or accept the consequences of it. The scene in which Pamela is presented to Mr. B in her humble “homespun garb” is illustrative here of Pamela’s struggle to keep her identity from being conflated with her beautiful appearance. Mr. B sees her and pretends to think she is someone else to allow himself to take some liberties with her. Pamela protests her identity: “I am Pamela, indeed I am: Indeed I am Pamela, her own self!” The clothes she wears threaten to steal her identity from her; she is in danger in becoming merely what she appears, with no interiority. Reputation hinges on appearance, not on inner depths, which are always notional, merely theoretical, in social encounters. The disguise one appears in dictates how one is to be treated. You can’t wear your virtuous interiority on your sleeve. (The best you can do, judging by Pamela, is hide your diary pages all over your body.)

Pamela, in trying to dress in a humble way she feels is appropriate to her station suddenly becomes less herself to Mr. B. She tries to explain to him about how she had been in disguise and that she is now more herself, but the end result is that the scene gives readers a sense there is no way to manifest the “true self” in one’s costume, that all is a shift of disguises and shifting perspectives. Pamela feels that her identity, as she has pictured it, has been stolen from her in some way, reduced to a disguise, but Mr. B tells her that she has “robb’d” him — stolen from him his peace of mind, and his expectation to see her in the way he wants.

It’s not merely a matter of dressing according to one’s station, which gives no genuine indication of one’s reputation, showing what is socially expected from a person, but not whether their mind comports with that. It goes further. Pamela’s beauty somehow disguises her true nature, as it invites assaults upon itself that she doesn’t wish, while at the same time, those assaults are necessary to elicit that true nature. Perhaps that is why only the beautiful can be truly virtuous.

Pamela’s beauty becomes the costume that paradoxically provides her with a sense of herself, even when that beauty seems out of her control, unable to convey the modesty she wants it to. She wants to look like who she is, but who she looks like, the effects of her look are not hers to determine. Mrs. Jervis tells her that “you owe some of the danger to the lovely Appearance you made.” Pamela claims she “expected no Effect from them, but if any, a quite contrary one.” This is typical of the way Richardson represents her. First she disavows any agency or intent — what she does with her appearance is for herself — but then she confesses the truth, that she wanted to affect Mr. B with her humility. Later this strategy incorporates Providence. God’s Providence allowed these things to happen this way, but I must be careful, etc. etc.

The final disavowal she makes is an attempt to protect herself from accusations of vanity: “if I had had the Vanity to think as well of myself, as the good company was pleased to do, I might possibly have been proud. But I know that I am … a poor bit of painted dirt. All that I value myself upon is that God has raised me to a Condition to be useful in my Generation to persons better than myself. This is my Pride!” Of course she describes her being well-received in great detail, but not for her own sake, just for the sake of glorying God. God deserves all the glory and so on, but she emphatically reminds us that this is “my pride,” that she is the most useful one to God. She claims that she is merely painted dirt, a useless body disguised by God to be beautiful, so that he can make use of her in her “Generation.” Though God saw fit to make her beauty so powerful, she claims her sense of her self comes not from vanity. But that is still what “my Pride!” boils down to. It is her beauty that allows her to have any kind of pride, and that pride is then used to disavow the importance of her beauty.

Pamela wants to be both the source of her virtue and the beneficiary of God’s gift of virtue simultaneously. Then she can be both humble and proud, be both a worthless body and a somebody at once. (This is what Richardson wants too, a nonthreatening social mobility.) To be gracious and humble simultaneously is a dicey thing, if we take graciousness to require a certain amount of condescension. What permits Pamela to be both cause and non-cause of her virtue is a very flexible notion of Providence that sanctions however one decides to define oneself — in Pamela’s case, ever the servant, she defines herself in terms of her “usefulness.”

Pamela gets to be aware of her beauty but not corrupted by the vanity of that awareness, which would be the case if she “used” her beauty rather than suffered assaults by it. Pamela’s story, the words of it, the reasoning implied in the words, and the resistance resulting from that reasoning is what converts Mr. B’s lust to love. The beauty of person only provokes a lust, which must be refined — the neo-Platonic ladder, without the mysticism. Mr. B says that “my Pamela’s person all lovely as you see it, is far short of her mind; that first impressed me in her favor, but that only made me her Lover; but they were the beauties of her mind that made me her husband.”

Love affects Pamela the same way as virtue and beauty — she can’t choose it or pursue it or take credit for it, it must sneak up on her and be acknowledged only after it has infiltrated her and made its effects known. Women have to be passive property on the marriage market. (This is especially legible in Trollope’s novels, which are preoccupied with the incoherence of this expectation. Women are supposed to be true to the desires in their heart, but these desires can’t pre-exist a man’s being interested in her. Like in Pamela, there is no love, no story, no self, until the man begins to force himself on you.)

To Pamela — in the ideology of companionate marriage that emerged with capitalism — “love” means some kind of mutual consent, a conscious choice to love and be loved on both sides. Yet love must also sneak up on Pamela. “Love is not a volunteer thing. . . like a Thief upon me; and before I knew what was the Matter, it look’d like love.” Looked like love, or was love? We have to choose to invest love with virtuous overtones, to make it love?

Just as Pamela realizes she wanted Mr. B all along after the fact, and God’s Providence may be seen to be working only after the fact, applied to what has been, so it might be said generally that what we desire is to a certain extent what we have already experienced, it is a wish to repeat what we know — it can’t be a wish for something unknown. When Pamela reflects and records her experience she discovers what her desire was then, so that she can have an idea of what she desires at the moment.  Does that desire then alter the way things are subsequently remembered, as the story is continued? I suppose so; and that is where it gets really messy. Pamela remembers what she wants to, and those memories are necessarily self-serving. The memories constitute not what she had been, but what she wants to be as she remembers. Her experience gets displaced by the writing experience; this is what makes her what she is.

The novel wants to claim that we only fall in love where there is virtue, and this makes love matches appropriate. But Pamela herself does not love where there is virtue, she loves where there is condescending attention. She loves because social position virtually compels her to, she loves as obedience to class superiority. Love is not allowing her to have an identity, it is not reforming her; it is reducing her to the useful object. Later, when Pamela is trying to decide to return to Mr. B, she remarks that she “loves to be generously used.” Just as God loves us when he makes us the good Instrument of his Providence, so other people love us when they put us to good use — when we can be spent wisely. Pamela remains an object in all this, she might help flesh out what kind of object she is, but objecthood is where all her writing leads her.

Pamela immerses us in the subjective perceptions of what it is like to be an object, what it is like to finally accept yourself as an object, a pawn of God’s Providence. She finally writes herself, then, into nothing; she writes to foster her resistance, and those writings then eliminate what had to be resisted — if we make the claim that her identity appears in that writing, then it is an identity that seeks to annihilate itself.

This raises the question of what sort of identity is possible within a providential framework, if any at all. All these rules and costumes in the end that Pamela gives us; they make it so that she will never have to write another word, once they are all in place.

But what about love? By the end of the novel love becomes the code word for that force by which words can shift meanings, by which perspectives may be shifted. It is the motive force or that narration of oneself into blissful and contented silence. It resolves the contradiction of a “wicked fidelity.” It turns a prison into a palace. “My prison is become my palace; and no wonder every thing wears another Face!” Pamela cries towards the end. Confinement is a matter of perspective, and one must choose to see oneself that way, put oneself into confinement to conserve value. As Castle notes in “P/B”, “In her world, there is no escape finally; the ‘happy change’ itself is but a deepening of imprisonment.”

What gives love its alleged transformative power remains mysterious. Is it just an empty label that consolidates the multiplicity of reasons that perspectives and meanings shift without really integrating them? Is it just a loose baggy monster, like Henry James described the novel as a form? Love and the novel, they come up together and are bound by their ability to contain disparate discourses and tame them, resolve them, transform them into complacent entertainment.

I still haven’t gotten to Mrs. Jewkes. When Richardson wants to hint that Pamela could “fall in love” with Mr. B., Jewkes becomes the main target of the anger Mr. B has engendered in her. Pamela complains of her, and Mr. B. agrees and scolds her. We too can share Pamela’s loathing for her, can appreciate Pamela’s saucy description of her, can see why Pamela is so superior and deserving.

I try to sympathize with Jewkes, but it is continually deferred. Denied the subjectivity-granting special attention of a superior, she never was given the chance to have any meaningful kind of innocence. It’s no surprise to find her egging Mr. B. on in the attempted rape scene. In this scene, Mrs. Jewkes has finally become more repugnant than him. Mr. B is finally in a position to command Pamela to forgive her, which is something Pamela is willing to do, as it cements her superiority to Mrs. Jewkes completely. At last, obeying Mr. B is a way of becoming superior. The ugly, willful woman — the woman who can’t be currency, who can’t passively stand for value —emerges as the true enemy, as she has been all along.