Saturday, April 2, 2011

women's styles and lifestyles

She's got style. At least, that's how it seemed for the few moments I saw her on the train and afterwards. She wasn't cheerful, per se, and she had that peculiarly British way of turning inward, which can seem like a lack of confidence but is another way of having a British reserve. But when I asked if I could take her picture, she said, "sure," and, for a moment, seemed satisfied. It struck me as very un-American the way she didn't smile when I took her picture. This not-smiling gaze was a kind of style that I noticed the moment I saw her.

One day, when I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, I encountered a man on the bus, either the 40, the 40L, the 51, or the 51A, going between Oakland and Berkeley. I'm not even sure if these bus lines exist anymore, but I used to take them regularly. I might have been with friends this time, because when I was with friends on the bus and people said things that were memorable, often homeless or nomadic people, we would repeat these things to each other for the rest of the day.

I don't remember much about the man or what he looked like, but, like many nomadic people, he had a philosophy that he was ready and willing to share with us, a philosophy of women. On the one hand, he was developing it as he went, and on the other hand, he was kind of trying to instruct us, as if he knew that we didn't have much experience with women, as if he knew that he could tell us something about them. He was both developing a philosophy and acutely exasperated with the lack of a certain trait among women. He kept saying to us, "gameless bitches, man! Gameless bitches! Don't mess with them gameless bitches!" He was describing to us how "gameless bitches" are something to be avoided, a kind of horrible affliction. We didn't discuss it much, probably because we were still very unsure what it might mean to have any kind of "game" ourselves, or what having "game" might mean, and for what, but for the rest of the day we repeated it with a kind of intoxicated glee. We couldn't tell if we were ridiculing him or spreading his insight.

It's really astonishing how many times I've returned to that day in my mind, how many times I've found it utterly treacherous to deal with a woman who has no notion that it might be a good thing to have game. This is something that I have to put into writing to get a hearing for it, because people find it so difficult to believe when I say it to them in speech. The computer screen can't disagree with me and tell me I'm full of shit. The truth is that it's not just a woman's looks that matter. Or, when we say a woman is good-looking, we aren't talking, simply, about her physiognomy or her "natural" features. As Oscar Wilde said, acting natural is a difficult act to keep up. The idea that a woman is beautiful simply because she was born that way is, on a certain level, a complex ploy, a conspiracy perpetrated by an alliance of that woman and a community of style. This is how a woman becomes beautiful, by mobilizing a kind of propaganda machine, a subterranean logic of capture and withdrawal, in order to display a kind of game whose rules are both incomplete and full of traps.

Style is inseparable from looks, in the same way that race and gender are inseparable from behavior. It's not possible to silence the hordes of blank starers who never get tired of insisting on the naturalness and biological predeterminedness of separable and isolated race, gender, and culture. But they protest so much because they know, on a liminal, subliminal layer, that there is something about identity which is not at all predetermined or genetically written. Women have known this for far longer than men. There is very little about Humphrey Bogart's physical body, his facial structure, the shape of his torso, that makes him a sex icon to women--it's all about the way he turns words around, the flick of his cigarette, the positioning of his shoulders, the pursing of his lips, the gaze beyond time which he gives when he looks at a woman, as if to say, I could have you but that might be irrelevant, because there's only one way of all flesh. Game is something like this, a social physics of entanglement which is at peace, what Achille Mbembe has called "serenity in the face of tragedy" in his "Variations of the Beautiful in Congolese Worlds of Sound."

I don't want to disparage "gameless bitches" as much as the guy on the bus, because I know that so many of them are kind and well-meaning and intelligent people. It's not simple enough to say that it's the woman who believes herself not to be beautiful. Game is not the same thing as beauty, because the concept of beauty is older, and has more to do with the object of desire. Game is something like the object that desires, or the object that breaks out of its objecthood through a deployment of desire.

Increasingly, to be a beautiful woman is to have style which is to have game. One impact of feminism and of changing conditions in gender relations is that women are implicated in strategies previously thought to be the domain of men alone, like having game. Her "natural" capacities, then, the things which she possessed when she emerged from the womb, are backgrounded and couched in a rhetorical assemblage of enunciation which is her "game" and her style. The way she allows her body to inhabit her clothing, the way she styles her hair, her makeup, her technologies of the self.

P.S. the woman with no game watches a LOT of television.

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