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An Eerily Vulnerable Thing. Miranda July and the Failure of Profundity

The Future (Miranda July, 2011)

EssayPart of Issue #7: Show and Tell

Putting on a t-shirt is an easy task. Raise it above the head, push and pull your way through the narrow neck opening until the eyes see light again. Now that you are ready to tackle the day, the brief moment of disorientation, when the head was stuck inside the stretchy fabric, is quickly forgotten. But what about the times when these seconds expanded into eternity, when the head tried to be an arm, the arm a head, everything was wrong, it was dark, the air grew thinner and thinner, you thought you might never get out?  One of the most remarkable scenes in Miranda July’s The Future (2011) recalls this alarming feeling of confusion, brought about by something as harmless as a t-shirt. In the middle of a desperate night, protagonist Sophie creeps into the oversized t-shirt that has literally followed her from her previous life into the new house in the suburbs. After slowly approaching the yellow pile on the floor, she puts on the shirt so that her legs come out of the arm holes. Her entire head and torso disappear inside the garment. The shape into which she has morphed performs some slow dance moves to the sound of Beach House’s ‘Master of None’ before it comes face-to-non-face with Sophie’s new partner, single dad Marshall, and his bewilderment. Contained in this scene are Sophie’s loneliness and displacement within her new life and the need to perform an unsettling act within the settled structures of her surroundings. The warm, dark space inside the garment provides shelter and briefly allows her to be something else, to let go of humanity.

A different shapeless thing appears at night in July’s short story ‘Making Love in 2003’, which was first published in the Paris Review and later in the collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. In the story, a woman shows up at her former college professor’s house to ask for help in the publication of a manuscript, which recounts her relationship with a mysterious dark shape that first came to her as a teenager and has since crossed her path in the incarnated form of two men named Steve, one of them the dying father of a friend, the other a special needs student at her workplace. At least three aspects connect the described scene in The Future with ‘Making Love in 2003’: in both film and story an amorphous, dreamlike object appears at night, initially scaring the woman before she engages in close physical contact with it. Secondly, both take place in suburban surroundings, marked by plush perfection, wholesome tidiness and superficiality—a sharp contrast to the protagonists’ convoluted life circumstances and vulnerable positions. The final paragraph of ‘Making Love in 2003’ saturates this environment with a supernatural awe, as the unhappy protagonist wakes up to the sound of her neighbour cutting down a tree, imagining that he is “sawing through the earth,” all the way to China, even “into outer space, [cutting] through the Milky Way, right through the stars and stardust.” The short story comes to a sudden, banal end, when the neighbour looks up at her, “as if it were his own idea.” The protagonist waves from the window—a gesture that seems simplistic, even foolish, following the extra-terrestrial heights into which the story has just spun. The possibility of transecting the earth and the motif of waving as a way to feign normality also appear in The Future—this motif is the third connection between short story and film. In a scene that precedes the sleepless night and visitation of the t-shirt, Marshall’s daughter digs a hole to bury herself in the small, confined garden, prompting Sophie to ask if she is “trying to get to China.” The girl, more than sceptical of her father’s new girlfriend, tells her to “act naturally” in front of Marshall, who is preparing the barbecue just a few steps away. “Wave,” she demands. Sophie obeys with a hardly concealed awkwardness. The similarities between film and story epitomize how July often brings out a strangeness in mundane situations. Here it is the gesture of waving, by insisting on the bizarre core of encounters with others, with objects, with oneself. The interference of blob-like, haunting shapes with the lives of the protagonists actually provides the women solace, because it externalises their otherwise ungraspable displacement in environments that place importance on maintaining the appearance of a purposeful life. More explicitly than in The Future, Miranda July brings out the disquieting ambivalence inherent to the amorphous shape in ‘Making Love in 2003’. The protagonist is threatened as well as seduced by its presence and their relationship is of a decidedly sexual nature. The reader is thus left in a position of unease, unsure not only whether to judge the shape as a lover or a predator, but also how to make sense more generally of its bizarre nature.

The Future (Miranda July, 2011)

There is a pressure cooker atmosphere to much of July’s work, notable as early as 1996 in her first short film, Atlanta. The fictitious interview with a 12-year-old aspiring Olympic swimmer “going for the gold” and her ambitious mother leaves one feeling suffocated by witnessing the control exerted in their relationship. In both The Future and ‘Making Love in 2003’ suburban surroundings establish an atmosphere of constraint, furthered by the self-inflicted pressure under which the two women toil: Sophie makes a resolution to record one dance per day on video, but is paralyzed by the task. The short story’s central figure has written diligently “every day for a year with [the professor’s] business card taped to [the] computer,” and admits that she has not planned anything for her future beyond handing over the manuscript. The pressure that runs through July’s art arises from the tension of the characters disciplining themselves with projects, hoping that strife can veil the existential void they are desperate to negate. Like allusions to a spiritual depth that cannot extend beyond its own ironization, space, sun, planets, and stars make frequent appearances. The Future grants a special role to the moon, who declares that he doesn’t “know anything” and is “just a rock in the sky”—the film’s deliverer of wisdom is instead a talking cat.

The Future (Miranda July, 2011)

“Like honey—overly sweet and stingy, as if an allergic reaction was immanent to the enjoyment itself,” are the words in which someone has recently described their reaction to Miranda July to me. In the light of the many public successes she has had this past year—the Criterion Collection release of her first feature-length film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), an entire issue of Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin designed by and dedicated to her, a short film and essay on David Hockney’s Nichols Canyon for the Gagosian Gallery, the release of a new movie, Kajillionaire, an anthology of her work, and myriad articles in publications like New York Magazine, Kinfolk, Polyester and InStyle—I want to explore the reasons behind the ambivalent reception of her work and persona, captured viscerally by such a statement. July explicitly sought visibility for herself and others when she started Joanie 4 Jackie (initially called Big Miss Moviola), a distribution system for women-made short films, in 1995. But the successful expansion of her renown and fanbase since the early 2000s has coincided with outspoken disdain: a brief article in the New Yorker classed the dividing line along those who were “endeared” and those who were “infuriated” by her work, finding no better description for its appreciation than a diminutive term. After all, one is endeared by clumsy puppies, toddlers, and local newspaper stories on 75-year-long marriages, hardly by serious art. Kooky, whimsical, and twee are other descriptors that have been widely associated with July—classifications which she herself rejects.In an interview with The Guardian, July is quoted as follows: “Yes, it’s pretty clear that ‘whimsical’ is a diminutising word. […] I almost think asking the question is like I’m being asked to gossip about myself. I think it’s kind of a female thing, being asked to gossip about yourself. I think I’m maybe done with that.” Among the writers who have spoken out against a description of July’s work in comparative terms are Rob Spillman (‘On Miranda July. When Wimsy Becomes a Weapon’, Guernica, February 26, 2015) and Lauren Groff, in a New York Times review of July’s novel The First Bad Man (January 16, 2015).

I believe that the apparently minor or quaint appearance of her work, summed up by these descriptions which all suggest an innocent cuteness, is actually a way of expressing the ambiguous nature of this cuteness and provoking accordingly ambivalent reactions. ‘Making Love in 2003’ emerges as the link between “cuteness” and the eerie, a less obvious dimension of July’s art that is connected with her aim to “create room for [a] conversation” on “how to reconcile spirituality with technological progress and growth.”Miranda July, ‘Some Kind of Grace’, interview by Julia Bryan Wilson, Camera Obscura, no. 55, May 2004.

In her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Sianne Ngai makes a case for the relevance of weak or trivial aesthetic categories, which—unlike their classical counterparts sublime and beautiful—do not make “insistent if necessarily indirect claims for [an] extra-aesthetic power” of moral, religious, epistemological or political kind. Ngai argues that these adjectives can account for aesthetic experiences which are “no longer equated with awe, or with rare or conceptually unmediated experience,” but have become ubiquitous in our highly aestheticized world. According to her, the descriptor “cute” indexes the consumer’s convoluted relationship to commodities. It is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness, marking the encounter between an object characterized by its “exaggerated passivity” and a subject who perceives themselves to be more powerful. However, the cute object actually makes affective demands, leading to verbal mimesis in the manner of onomatopoeic baby language, and an almost aggressive desire to fondle, cuddle, touch. At play in the cute is a dialectic of power and powerlessness, wherein the cute thing seems to address the subject as a potential protector, and precisely through its hyperbolic passivity provokes a reaction that can oscillate between the poles of sadism and care.

Especially relevant in the context of this article is Ngai’s observation that the exaggeration of vulnerability is crucial to cuteness and a source of the conflicting desires for harm and protectionWhich is why the cuteness of objects increases when they are injured or disabled.. The term is frequently associated with July, whose protagonists are usually in positions of powerlessness and marked by personal and professional failure, such as the narrator of ‘Making Love in 2003’, who has poured the most intimate details of her unusual love life into a manuscript which, the reader must suspect, will be of little concern to her former college professor. In a recent interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, July has stated that improvisation in many of her performances serves to diminish her level of control and heighten her vulnerability. She describes how getting “into real crises on stage” can lead to “something truly ecstatic” if they are bravely overcome, like a strong momentous bond between audience and performer. Lauren Groff sees a “longing for a sort of radical, near religious, and ungraspable vulnerability” in Me and You and Everyone We Know. In a review of The Future, Leah Carroll has called July’s characters “infuriatingly vulnerable,” a combination of the two terms which speaks directly to Ngai’s theory of the ambivalent reactions that cuteness provokes.

Despite the recognition of vulnerability as one of July’s preoccupations, the nature of her engagement of this theme—or rather, trope—is usually brushed over. On the one hand, this has led to a hasty equation between July as a person and the vulnerability she probes.An equation which July has spoken up against: “Women writers are often conflated with their narrators—as if we can’t consciously construct fictional worlds from the ground up and can only write diary entries.” (‘Miranda July on the Wild Contradictions of Marriage’, interview by Deborah Treisman, in The New Yorker, August 28, 2017) Those who “hate Miranda July”Not my phrasing but that of the website, which rages against the “insufferable precious nonsense” created by the object of its makers’ fury. do so because they think that she is the vulnerable, cute, kooky, whimsical object by whose apparent powerlessness they feel seduced, betrayed, enraged.Philosopher Dennis Dutton has stated that “the sense of cheapness…and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker […] leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow.” (Natalie Angier, ‘The Cute Factor’, in The New York Times, January 3, 2006.) Those who revere her sense a personal kinship, fuelled by the presumption that she is putting her true self on the line and making it available to the audience. It is not only in the light of her investment in artifice, the careful rehearsal of her performances and the stylized appearance of, say, her Instagram stories that this assumption must be put into question. As Groff points out, it is a “longing” for vulnerability that permeates July’s work. To be vulnerable and utterly open towards the other appear as utopian wishes whose fulfilment would promise spiritual unity, akin to the impossible desire the narrator harbours for the dark shape. She expresses the “terrible longing inside this love” in fairly absurd ways, such as holding “down F-sharp and middle C on [a] plastic Casio” to hear “a far-off staticky voice, like a truck driver on CB.” The short story delves into its protagonist’s desire for radical openness, while showing the bizarre nature of the actions provoked by this longing and the vulnerability it necessitates. July, who describes herself as “pretty thick-skinned,” chases vulnerability to the point of cliché, revealing that artifice goes hand in hand with authenticity and loneliness is an innate part of being human.

Isn’t that frightening? In her preface to a 2004 interview, Julia Bryan-Wilson has situated July’s work in the realm of the uncanny, where the “familiar or close at hand is suddenly made foreign.” This speaks to the latter’s assertion of vulnerability and its simultaneous withdrawal. But there is more: according to Mark Fisher, the Freudian uncanny can account for an outside that exists within the subject’s inside—certainly a concern of July’s—but not for the strangeness that is unrelated to the self, exists independently from it. He conceptualizes “the weird” as something that “does not belong” within previously employed frameworks of reality, and “the eerie” as a feeling of strangeness which “occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something.”

In The Future and ‘Making Love in 2003’, weirdness haunts realistic settings in the form of the dark shape and the crumpled, moving t-shirt into which Sophie creeps; their existence cannot be reconciled with the mundane context in which they appear. An interpretation of these “things” as mere materialisations of the protagonists’ unconscious is unsatisfying, since July clearly toys with the psychoanalytic mining for deep-seated truthThe narrator even brings up the possibility of a psychoanalytical interpretation: “It has been suggested that I invented the story of the dark shape to cope with the pain of a more earthly rapist.” without fully subscribing to it. Both the shape and the t-shirt are marked by a lack of defined features and thus resemble “the epitome of the cute” which, according to Sianne Ngai, “would be an undifferentiated blob of soft doughy matter.” However, the two “undifferentiated blobs” in July’s stories are far from simply being adorable. In line with the inherent ambivalence of cuteness, their inhuman formlessness is actually deeply unsettling, especially since the ability to move signals an agency of their own and hence a reversal of roles: not the shape is powerless, but the human subject. “Obscene jelly”Note the similarity to Marx’s description of the commodity as a Gallerte of undifferentiated human labor, which is crucial for Ngai’s understanding of the “cute” commodity as a thing that is both alluring and repugnant, like the edible gelatinous matter whose name Marx borrows. is the verbal image Mark Fisher has given to the pain and pleasure afforded by the weird thing which “overwhelms, […] cannot be contained, but […] fascinates.” It is a description which is equally applicable to the two shapes, especially the “sexual predator” that “vibes” the teenage girl in the short story. The two allude to the points at which the symbolic order collapses and we glimpse the chaotic reality underneath the neatly built structures of our lives.Fisher does not name a source for his use of the term “obscene jelly,” but it seems plausible that he would have been inspired by Slavoj Zizek’s article ‘The Thing from Inner Space. On Tarkovsky’. The printed version of this text does not mention the term, but an online version circulates in which “obscene jelly” describes Lacanian jouissance. Miranda July’s art is always on the verge of just such an overturn of the card house of meaningfulness. The most radical kind of vulnerability would perhaps lead to this toppling by opening the floodgates of the self to the excess of the real. Our personal symbolic order would simply not be able to cope with this opening—absurdity would be its consequence. The ambivalent reactions to July’s art attest to the appeal and the atrociousness of this possibility.

Because Miranda July toys so wickedly with the collapse of profundity into silliness, her work is often described in diminutive terms. As if the refusal to deliver the depth one may hope to find in “great art” was an unintentional failure rather than a deliberate steering towards the unsettling slippage between life’s emptiness and its emotional plenitude. This is precisely the ambivalence that July is after and at the root of the “infuriatingly vulnerable” characters that inhabit her stories. Their longing for intimacy and openness puts them in proximity to radical vulnerability at the same time as they are stuck in the mundane world of mediated distance. The conflict of these two sides is the reason for the apparent foolishness of the narrator in ‘Making Love in 2003’: on the one hand, she seeks out a spiritual and physical unity with an unintelligible dark shape, on the other she is writing an earnest memoir about it—the latter comes across as silly, because sincerity and strangeness make a dubious pair.

A feeling of profundity arises when one is under the impression that even the concealed ways of the world reveal themselves. While the profound thus suggests the interconnectedness of everything, Miranda July lays bare the eerie suspicion that there is “nothing where there should be something.” No all-encompassing connections, no redemption, no unmediated proximity, no wise moon who will tell us what to do. But: there is a talking cat spreading posthumous wisdom, and the silly hope that love remains possible, in whatever shape or form it takes.