A house. There’s a dream of a house, like there always is. The house has blue walls.
It’s four years ago. I have a boyfriend. He is the only boy I’ve ever dated that my parents have liked. Mostly it works against him. He’s a grad student. His family is Jewish, but he’s from Colombia. He is handsome. I think I’ve fallen in love with him, but now I know differently. It is a pale and diluted sort of love, a vague feeling of something pure and elevated. I am not carried off by a genuinely ardent and inflaming affection. My senses are not completely overturned. The sky is red. It’s cold. We’re on our second date. I take him out to Brighton Beach on the F train because I like the sea in the winter. We eat blintzes and liver. I try to talk to him about poetry. He isn’t a poet, so this is hard. I tell myself it’s OK because I believe that Art is only good for suffering. He pets me on the head, and I cough. He leans over to kiss me, but his lips are too thin and I cannot find his teeth.
We walk past a business that takes your photograph and prints it on any piece of china–a teapot, mug, or plate. It’s only our second date; it would be creepy if we decided to make an object together, especially one so permanent. We do it anyway. We stand awkwardly in front of a tiny digital camera. A Russian woman belligerently tries to pose us. She insists, over and over, that we move closer together. She insists, over and over, that we hold each other more tightly. “To make you look good!” she exclaims in broken English. I can feel the tickle of his plaid scarf against my cheek. I complain that I cannot find a comfortable position. Eventually we let her manipulate our bodies. I’m stiff and sweaty. Her bony fingers press into my forehead. She bats my head this way and that. I feel as if the meat of my arm is loose, as if she might pull it away from the bone and shred it, then tie it onto the flesh adjacent to mine.
The way we end up standing is awkward and painful. We can’t afford a whole plate, so we get our picture printed on a small ashtray. There, we’re wrapped around each other, heads tilted together. It looks easy and natural, as if we’ve been married for at least five years. We smoke cigarettes and laugh as we stub them out carelessly on different parts of our porcelain bodies. We are a boy and girl, walking together. We are a boy and girl, holding each other. Even partially ashed upon, there is something regrettably marital about the object, so much so that I almost believe it. We are a reasonable representation of “being in love.” Typically, there is no suspicion in the reality of such a bond, so I don’t suspect ours. It seemed real enough, I guess.
I’m at home, reading and eating a tin of sardines. I’m bored, so I post a photo to an Instagram group Eli runs called @sensualsardines. It’s exactly what it sounds likes. All of the sardines on this Instagram have been delicately and deliberately posed. Some of the pictures are inspired by Renaissance portraits, tiny tinned fish in profile, framed in gilt, sometimes juxtaposed with pale, luscious girl flesh. Realism is a funny style. It is the continuous resurrection of a blind and arrogant belief that humans are capable of constructing something so lifelike as to truly represent the world. It never dies. It’s like the plague. Of course, realism is not always about how an artwork appears visually. Rather, as Victor Shklovsky writes, it is about art that can “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”1 It’s arguable that many aesthetic movements have been, in their own way, a sort of realism, each positing a specific technique’s superiority in depicting the world at any particular moment in history. And these techniques of realism do not exclude formal innovation. Even when it explicitly rejected realist ideology, modernism used fragmenting language and image to give a truer picture of post-war devastation. Similarly, nineteenth-century Romanticism was about creating affect at such an intense pitch that it emulated the actual sublime. Either way, when it comes down to it, I think realism’s defining quality is just that it’s faking.
It’s Sunday. I manage to leave the house. I’m on the train, reading Wilhelm Stekel’s Sexual Aberrations, deep in a case study about a girl, Gerda, who has a fetish for heels. Citing Ludwig Binswanger, who has conducted this study, Stekel writes “whenever Gerda hears the word “heel” or so much as thinks the word herself, she imagines a half-torn heel hanging by a thread to the shoe and showing the nails or tacks; she is simultaneously provoked by the clean, light color of the inside leather thus disclosed…She may imagine to herself that a skate has been torn from her foot, leaving some part still attached…She produces the phantasy that some man grasps her foot between his legs, quickly puts a skate on her, and then turns the screw clamps. She feels anxious that he might turn the screw up too quickly and tightly….She feels that such a situation in reality could end in nothing else but her fainting….She says: The very worst is to feel the clamps slowly biting into the heel when a skate is put on. She feels as if she herself were being clamped.” Stekel writes, “This displacement of feeling from the foot to the whole person is noteworthy,”2 because fetish is always a metonym.
I’m at home, texting no one. I’m thinking about nothing. I’m playing the game where I delay by seeing how many double negatives I can’t help but not put in my sentence, you know, the more I think about it, the more I believe the paragon of realist art is the 1993 Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park. Recounting a botched attempt to create a theme park of free-roaming dinosaurs cloned from prehistoric DNA, the movie boasts—even now, even after recent developments in CGI and animation—some of the most realistic dinosaur special effects I have ever seen. The reason for this is disarmingly simple. When you see a massive, life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex bounding toward the camera, i.e., toward you, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying because a large portion of the Jurassic Park production budget went toward building a massive, life-sized animatronic dinosaur that could be filmed just like its reptilian counterpart. Sure, if you pricked it, it wouldn’t have bled, and sure, it might not have been sentient per se, but there’s no doubt that this dinosaur existed, materially. It was no CGI nightmare. You could touch it. It could chase you. In other words, it’s no surprise that Jurassic Park looks realistic. Jurassic Park is realistic because they made a real dinosaur.
Like all objects made true to life, though, there are lots of things wrong with this dinosaur. Jurassic Park is a movie full of bad weather, since the rain heightens the suspense of the dinosaur threat. During shooting, water keeps soaking into the “skin” of the robot T. rex. It slows the dinosaur down. It interferes with its movement. The directors stop filming every five to ten minutes. They have to. They dispatch large crews to dry off this gigantic fake dinosaur, each crew member armed with towels and a hairdryer. They start filming again. Rinse and repeat.
That’s not the worst of it. The robot has one significant flaw. While drying, the robot has a tendency to malfunction: the life-sized dinosaur will, for no reason at all, randomly turn itself on and off. It simply starts moving. It seems to have developed free will, a mind of its own. Its jaws snap. Its head moves from side to side. It becomes common for cast and crew members to scream bloody murder while they’re eating lunch or off camera. The dinosaur glitches while a crew member is doing repairs inside of it. He is almost sheared to death by pieces of grinding metal. He narrowly escapes when his colleagues pry the dinosaur’s jaws open and pull him out of its open mouth.
I really like the dinosaur special effects in Jurassic Park. Part of my pleasure is in knowing the incredible, even life-threatening efforts that have gone into making it seem as though dinosaurs really exist. I really like how the giant machine can function as a real-life dinosaur without actually having to be one. I’m not sure what one is supposed to marvel at here—maybe the mastery of cinematic realism? At the depth of its artistic illusion, at its craft?
I don’t remember the last time I saw the ashtray we made in Brighton Beach, but I think it was right before the breakup. Neither of us was crying, but the touches between us had become rote and glazed, we already knew. It was spring, and the exhaust fan blowing the cigarette ash out your living room window was half broken; it spit back sooty chunks. I was sitting on your lap. Ash all over your pink shirt. The yellowing cigarette stub in my hand. It was all turning my stomach. But I looked down at us on the ashtray, smiling and plump, the plaid of your scarf in its bright primary colors, my hair in two sensible braids, and the way my heart sweetened seemed true.
Whatever, reality can never be objective. I’m not sure what Jurassic Park says about realism, apart from that it’s a prime example of the lengths to which humans will go to prove their authority over the world. I’m not sure what I know but that realism will almost always be betrayed by the skill in the making of it.
I’m on the train, reading my book. Joey texts me to ask if I’ve decided to assimilate myself into what he thinks is the predominant aesthetic of Bay Area poetry—what some might disparagingly call socialist realism. He’s not joking. I snort softly through my nose. The schoolgirl beside me doesn’t notice. She’s playing Candy Crush on her phone. Her eyes are glazed over, a little too wide, their focus a little too vast. As though she could elide the predestined scripts of her life by the very act of looking. I roll my own.
In the book Vision and Communism, the art historian Robert Bird and his co-editors claim that for some artists, socialist realism was not a restriction but an opportunity to demonstrate how “freedom ha[d] become the liberation from having to measure the image against any notion of reality.”3 To Bird, socialist realists were not trying to depict the “communism” they saw directly in front of them. They knew the revolution they wanted to celebrate, no matter what the Soviet state claimed, was not yet within their reach, and therefore was still unrepresentable. That although they wanted to look toward these ideals, the reality in which they had achieved them was still so far in the future as to be impossible to imagine. In other words, these artists might have been charged with producing propaganda. But what they painted or sculpted or created were not idealized versions of their current reality; they were imperfect images that evoked the perfect unknown. A partial vision of the revolutionary future they believed was coming but could barely glimpse. It’s about looking beyond. It’s about—
—a metonym. It’s a figure of speech in which an object or concept is referred to not by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with it. It substitutes what is small and material for what is grand and abstract. Say tit and you might mean milk, or even a whole woman. Say ear, and I might lend you one or bend it. Say finger and I could fuck you. Barbara Browning always talks about how metonyms are just meaty like that. A metonym is an invocation. It’s what happens when you take metaphor so far that it becomes performative—it does something in this world. Like when I say the word shoe, a shoe could form inside my mouth. And when I say street, the whole street could end up in my mouth, and it would be difficult for me to pronounce it. A metonym is partial. It means you never know what might follow. Realism can be beautiful, but metonym is what makes you view a dagger and a hairpin as equivalent and interchangeable. Both might be symbols, but their sharpness is real.
I’ve left the house. I’m on the train. I’m not sure how anyone is supposed to care about realism qua realism. As far as I can tell, it’s the same old shitty world painted out in different ways. Someone once told me a good story about shit. Along with all the fiber and waste that your body needs to expel, shit also contains all the hormonal waste your body has metabolized. When you’re constipated and your shit is stuck inside your large intestine, unmoving, your body reabsorbs the fluid from your shit, sucking the hormones it wants to excrete right back into your system, and preventing the body from producing useful “fresh” ones. This is why people who are constipated experience intense mood swings. I’m thinking about what Lisa Robertson said that one time. About how, you know, “utopia is so emotional.”4 I’m thinking about realism. There might be a whole set of visual codes and histories behind its aesthetic, but to me it’s just the same old shit, an ideal we’re continually reabsorbing into our aesthetic ecosystem, always tied to some universalizing perspective.
I’m on the train, reading Sexual Aberrations, and Stekel reports, “It is also interesting to learn that when she walks in the street, Gerda feels impelled to look at the heels of everyone who is walking ahead of her. But she feels quite embarrassed if anyone else looks at her feet.”5 More like sci-fi than any still-life painting, perhaps socialist realism, can show us how “profoundly we are haunted by the ghosts of what has not yet happened.”6 The next stop, that is. How it can remain a tense and delaying metonym for what is yet to come. I don’t know how to tell if I’m almost there.
I’m staring at a pizza, chewing apart my lip. I don’t want to cry. The boy from Brighton Beach is trying to get me to eat more cloves of preserved garlic on my pizza. I don’t want to. I don’t like this artisanal pizza (which, frankly, has way too little cheese on it), but I feel unable to tell him. It’s easy when cruelty is operatic because then you can name it as real. Events that purport to be real garner sympathy because they are authentic and therefore exceptional, but the truth is that what happened was banal. Sympathy is the cruelty of the weak. Easily inflicted, it costs the sympathizer nothing; in fact, it rewards him. She notices in every interaction with this boy that for him, sympathy plays an important role. She notices that when he is on top of her, heaving and thrusting, he experiences moral suffering that he will later lament. When he goes crazy, it is just another event in a progression of events.
The boy destroys all the electronics in the house. He leaves panicked voice mails about how I am collaborating with the FBI and his therapist to surveil him. This is neither authentic nor exceptional. He calls me repeatedly, threatening to kill himself if I don’t answer this call, his text messages, he sends a hundred every day. My phone flashes and beeps convulsively next to me as I pant on a stationary bike to the sounds of Taylor Swift. I apologize to the spin-class instructor. I say it is an emergency. He asks me why I didn’t pick up, but I say I don’t know. The phone flashes and beeps as I walk to the store. My friends ask me about secrets I’ve never told them. The boy from Brighton Beach is sending them detailed emails about private conversations we had. I do my best to answer my friends’ questions. They are sympathetic. They say this is just the way my life is now. I open my mailbox. He’s sent me a sweatshirt with Pikachu ears on the hood. He begs for another chance if I will apologize for selling him out to the cops. He threatens to get me pregnant so we’ll have to be together forever. He calls my office and won’t stop. My boss tells me I have to handle the situation. I agree. I know it is my fault. I accept this. This is just the way my life is now. This is my reality. I get home. There are a dozen roses outside my door. I hate being alone. I spend a lot of time lying on my back, dart-straight in bed. I stop sleeping comfortably on my side. The phone flashes and beeps. It no longer tells me what time it is. I have to handle the situation. I agree. This is my fault. My eyes are wide. I am trying to look beyond my own fear. I accept this. My life. This is just how it is now. Where I live, there’s a house painted blue and red. Here, they knock the fish against a sharp edge so that their necks will be broken. I often watch them do it when I am at the beach. You see, I like the sea in winter.
- Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidou (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 219. ↵
- Wilhelm Stekel, Sexual Aberrations (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1952), 87. ↵
- Robert Bird et al., eds., Vision and Communism: Viktor Koretsky and Dissident Public Visual Culture (New York: The New Press, 2011), 68. ↵
- Lisa Robertson, Magenta Soul Whip (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009), 19. ↵
- Stekel, Sexual Aberrations, 87. ↵
- Steven Shaviro, Connected: Or What It Means to Live in the Network Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 250. ↵