Thursday, May 29, 2014

Updated thoughts on Vanderbilt comfort. Something occurred to me just now: what if the feeling of comfort I get from the perfume Vanderbilt comes from associating it with 'old ladies'?

At Fragrantica, it is deemed very poor form – n00b behaviour – to dismiss a perfume as smelling like or being for 'old ladies'. The usual rebuttal is twofold: either "this perfume isn't for old ladies, it's for real women who flaunt their confidence, sophistication and taste" or "when you get older, you might find your tastes changing and maturing and then you'll understand".

Personally I reject it because the perfumes I tend to like are those with long histories which, simply because they've been around for decades, have accumulated memories of people's grandmothers and mothers wearing them. Rather than using perfume to express my modernity, I use it as a kind of olfactory continuity between me and all the glamorous women in the past who've previously loved and worn these scents.

This is an extension of my thinking about secondhand clothes – I use these signifiers of 'old-fashionedness' to draw on previous iterations of feminine glamour, and as a means of affective time travel. Also, generally I prefer to find echoes of human continuity throughout history rather than seeing radical breaks between the past and present.

But anyway, usually I seek these feelings from 'classic' perfumes, which Vanderbilt isn't. It's a daggy perfume. But what if its dagginess – its association with mums and grandmas – is the source of my feelings of comfort? What if I am dousing myself in this perfume to imagine being hugged by an older woman who loves me?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Vanderbilt comfort. In the lead-up to Mother's Day I noticed that there were perfumes being sold at the supermarket – for the truly lazy person who picks up a gift for mum while doing the weekly grocery shop. I eagerly anticipated going back the week after Mother's Day to see if they were reduced.

Yes! It was cheap, mumsy perfume, however. There was Elizabeth Taylor's Diamonds and Rubies and Diamonds and Emeralds, in giant bottles in gift sets. And then there were small 15ml bottles of Red Door by Elizabeth Arden, Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden and Vanderbilt by Gloria Vanderbilt. 

I consulted Fragrantica, the perfume website with which I have become increasingly obsessed as my interest in perfumes has grown. (You can see my profile here, which lists my reviews and the perfumes I own and am interested in.) And on the basis of the descriptions, the notes listed and the reviews by other Fragrantica users, I figured that Vanderbilt would be the perfume I'd like most. So I bought it.

I remember seeing ads for Vanderbilt perfume in magazines during the '80s and '90s. It had a blurry, mysterious swan motif, as if wearing it would transport you into Swan Lake or something.

The Vanderbilts are one of New York's oldest and historically most privileged families. (I have a personal tenet that if a New Yorker's surname starts with 'van der' then they are very wealthy and established.) But the Vanderbilts' social and economic clout had waned by the mid-20th century.

Gloria Vanderbilt inherited her dad's vast fortune as an infant, but her globetrotting mother was accused of frittering the money away. After a sensational 1934 custody trial, ten-year-old Gloria went to live with her aunt, the artist and Whitney Museum philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Gloria also became an artist, specialising in design for textiles, pottery and glassware. In 1976 she ventured into fashion, putting her name and swan logo to a range of eyebrow-raisingly tight jeans, along with other clothing and accessories.

She also licensed her brand to Estée Lauder, which engaged the nose Sophia Grojsman to create Vanderbilt in 1982. Grojsman's other well-known fragrances include Estée Lauder's Spellbound and White Linen, YSL's ParisBvlgari Pour Femme, Trésor by Lancôme and Volupte by Oscar de la Renta.

Some reviews suggest that Vanderbilt is quite powerful and strong-smelling, but to be honest, I find it relatively subdued. Maybe it's because I have the eau de toilette. I can't smell it on myself, really, without sniffing my wrist.

At the beginning I get a tiny fizz of aldehydes – as much fizziness as you'd get from an open then resealed bottle of soft drink. Nowhere near as aggressively fizzy as White Linen. On me it disappeared quite early and I get a sweet and powdery scent like carnations and jasmine, with a warm undertone. I can smell the pineapple in the bottle but it doesn't seem to make it onto my skin.

It's not sweet in the gourmand, fruity way that many contemporary perfumes are sweet, but it's still one of the sweetest perfumes I own (maybe April Violets by Yardley is sweeter). It smells old-fashioned but not in the complex, 'expensive-smelling' way that 20th-century classics do – rather, in the daggy way of formerly trendy perfumes that have gone out of style.

Perhaps it's the powdery spiciness of it, but Vanderbilt gives me a warm, comforting feeling. For me it's not a glamour perfume that you put on when you want to feel sophisticated; it's a comfort perfume for when you want to feel secure.

As my purchase of it has coincided with my malaise, I need a lot of comforting right now. So I have been spraying myself with Vanderbilt much more liberally than I normally wear perfume. I've even been spraying some on before I go to bed, which I would never normally do.

I've since discovered that you can buy giant 100ml bottles of the stuff from Chemist Warehouse for $13. I sometimes wonder if in future, this will be the olfactory motif of my malaise, but for the moment I'm deriving tremendous solace from wearing this.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Human, machine, system. Right now I have three neighbouring browser tabs open, each containing a fascinating article. Together, they seem to tell a dispiriting story about the relationship between capitalism and the human body.

The first is 'You're A Woman, I'm A Machine', Haley Mlotek's essay on Donna Haraway's cyborg theories and women's self-help narratives. I thought it was just extraordinary that such an essay might be found on BuzzFeed, of all places – snobbish media narratives hold it is only for moronic listicles and quizzes. (Look, I wrote an essay of my own about the quizzes.) But it seems that it's precisely the hectic pageviews BuzzFeed attracts that enable it to feed investigative and intellectual enquiry. It's just hired one of my favourite pop-academic writers, Anne Helen Petersen, away from academia.

"Nobody ever asks if a cyborg can have it all. Nobody ever tells a cyborg to lean in," writes Mlotek. "For a cyborg, identity is a fusion of organic and/or human elements with machinery; a cyborg cannot be one thing, stretched in too many directions, because a cyborg has always been a multiple within itself."

I've never studied Haraway and have never really got my head around what she means by 'cyborg'. I get the idea that she doesn't take the obvious definition of organic bodies incorporating machine parts, but instead more an idea of how our human capabilities are augmented by technology, and how even our organic selves are being made machinic through the robotic way we subject them to systems to work, in Daft Punk's words, "harder, better, faster, stronger" as "more than ever, hour after hour, work is never over." As Mlotek notes, the word 'robot' means 'slave'. 

"Years of slavish devotion to my own labor and the labor I sell to companies and individuals at a premium rate has already made me into a kind of machine; I am an impatient, unsatisfied person, constantly looking at the easily quantifiable achievements of my labor and forcing myself to do the same, but better and faster, next time."

This paragraph really struck a chord with me regarding my malaise. Mlotek wonders if the very category of 'woman' is cyborg: "a hybrid body made up of organic material and the implanted subconsciousness of those voices telling women how to behave, how to be better."

"Maybe, instead, we should think of our consciousness as a circuit board that we are in control of. Instead of being something that must be formed, we can hold ourselves as individual units open to being rewired, to adapting to new advances, and not simply mechanisms who are in need of constant repair from some sort of patriarchal tool box."

The second article is an essay by Jeff Sparrow about Soylent, that gross chemical slurry that some Silicon Valley bro with poor social skills dreamed up so he wouldn't have to waste his precious brain time on a task as onerous and expensive as eating.

Now, as a terrible cook and a fierce loather of foodist culture in all its repulsive decadence, you would think I am into Soylent. I am not, because while I dislike the palaver of cooking and banging on about food, I really enjoy eating. Pretty much the only pleasure in my life is reading novels in cafes and restaurants.

Because Soylent is designed to remove the rituals and the sensory experiences that constitute eating 'meals', it's not a genuine meal replacement. As Sparrow points out, it's "a product designed not to feed people but to feed people under capitalist conditions".

Sparrow points to Marx's description of 19th-century workers, trapped in rigid regimes of productivity, who could only exercise their humanity through the necessary actions of life: dressing, eating, drinking and procreating. This is a familiar argument to me from my days studying Marxist subcultural theory, which argued that 1970s youth subcultures were so spectacular and homologous because society offered young people no other exercise of their human agency.

But as Sparrow argues, our entire lives have become colonised by work. 'Life hacking' – a diffuse field of technologies and logistical strategies ostensibly intended to buy the user free time to pursue his or her own interests – instead structures all time, turning leisure into a resource from which to mine more labour productivity.

Just as life hacking represents "the internalisation of management practices by the managed themselves", Sparrow writes, "Soylent’s deliberately unflavoured because it’s a utility rather than a snack, a system rather than a supplement."

Convincing people to pay money for this horrible slurry, with the intention of 'becoming more productive' – and naming it after a dystopian system! – is the ultimate triumph of the anti-human neoliberal project. "Soylent presumes and promotes an order in which working people possess no agency whatsoever but simply embody a labour power to be grudgingly replenished with spoonfuls of sludge."

Perversely, Sparrow adds, Soylent making has become a hobby. "This, then, is the strange paradox of life hacking: simply, in the era of neoliberalism, we can feel most human by eroding our humanity." Soylent Green may have been people, but Soylent is not.

Yet Sparrow ends on a utopian note. "What would happen, we might ask, if the creativity now expressed in private activities like cooking found a public and social expression? What possibilities would open up if, instead of replacing meals, we replaced social structures; if, instead of hacking our lives, we hacked our society?"

It's ironic indeed that I have now been writing this blog post, ostensibly in my 'leisure' time, for about four hours, and it is feeling really onerous. But I want to think through these ideas and find connections between them. So, to return to the first article. What if the corporate women's self-help books Mlotek rejects – Lean In and so forth – arise from the same culture as the life hacking Sparrow critiques? They both have their origins in the tech sector, and they both encourage adherents to work within systems rather than to imagine ways to flourish around or outside them.

The final article appears on radical, pseudonymously authored investment website Zero Hedge. It's called 'Where the World's Unsold Cars Go to Die', and it's extraordinary because it reveals car manufacturers' obscene reactions to supply shock

Basically, car manufacturing is run using frictionless just-in-time systems that assume a certain steady market. When demand is steady the system works. It's great; you get your car a day after ordering it. However, the continued world recession following the GFC means people simply aren't buying as many cars, or buying them as frequently. There's a glut at the supply end.

However, the manufacturers must maintain the illusion of a market for their cars at full price. Rather than altering the system to produce fewer cars, or pricing them lower, car manufacturers are burying their mistakes. Worse, car manufacturers must produce the appearance of technological innovation, so they are continually advertising newer and better cars they must then make. 

Why? "The car industry cannot stop making new cars because they would have to close their factories and lay off tens of thousands of employees. This would further add to the recession. Also the domino effect would be catastrophic as steel manufactures would not sell their steel. All the tens of thousands of places where car components are made would also be effected, indeed the world could come to a grinding halt."

It is just overwhelming to me to think how dependent we are on systems and procedures, to the point where it defies logic, logistics and economics. 

At the moment I'm driving my brother Matt's 1991 Mazda 626 Eclipse while he is working in Singapore.

This is not the actual car, but it looks exactly like this. I sometimes ponder that this car is 23 years old. But it drives pretty well. And it doesn't seem ancient to me in the way that, say, the 1975 Volvo sedan I first drove in 1997 did, or indeed the way my 1985 Camry did in 2005. Maybe, growing up with a Car Dad has inoculated me to the virus of newness that seems to afflict the car market.

At the moment I'm watching The Walking Dead with my brother Lina. Of all the TV shows I feel an intense pressure to consume, it's the one I seem most interested in right now. And partly what I find interesting about The Walking Dead is that its zombies don't merely bite you and move on; they fucking feast on you. They take massive chunks out of you. They pick corpses clean to the bones. Are they not the ultimate avatars of our Soylent society, keeping themselves busy by consuming, without any 'higher function' in mind? (I still get a lot out of Annalee Newitz's Marxist analysis of horror tropes, Pretend We're Dead. I also notice the publisher's website selectively quotes a very boring bit of my review.)

Part of my fascination with zombie/pandemic narratives is in observing systemic breakdown and renewal: the complete inability of governments, police and the military to control a mounting crisis; the strategies of individuals; the replacement systems they devise; and the decay of infrastructure when nobody is there to keep it running.

I remember reading that the United States' roads and bridges are already in a parlous state, and we haven't even had the zombie apocalypse yet. All those millions of cars just sitting there – maybe it's better than trying to navigate another busted system.

Monday, May 19, 2014

I'm in a malaise. I've known something was wrong for most of this year but I always thought it was a temporary period of stress or discouragement that I could work through and emerge clear-headed and ready to tackle life. But I was out for dinner just last Friday with Tash, Amanda and Lucy, and I felt very heavy and sad because they were all talking about their husbands and children. I was disinclined to talk about myself because all I do is sit at home in my pyjamas, so I said "I'm in a malaise" and as I said it I realised it was absolutely true.

It is an irritating thing to say about yourself, like something Frances would say in Frances Ha, only I lack Greta Gerwig's adorability. I am not merely undateable (though I am also that!) but also unloveable and also much older than her. I find my general mood is one of annoyance and I constantly have to stop myself writing needlessly mean things on social media. Even so I still manage to, quite a bit of the time. And I find myself seeking support from my various coteries only in terms of criticising people I don't like, which I recognise is a way to make myself feel less like a loser but is pyrrhically the behaviour of a loser.

I feel overwhelmed all the time and find myself frittering away my days, taking long lunch breaks and binge-reading novels, staying up way too late and then oversleeping. It is my turn to choose the next book club book and I haven't been able to rouse myself to that. I berate myself for my laziness but I can't seem to

My work is feeling like a real slog of bits and pieces at the moment with no narrative of progress. I keep saying to myself that once I hit this or that deadline I'll be free to work on things that are of bigger-picture importance but I never seem to be able to get off the treadmill, and it is dispiriting to me that I put such painstaking effort into things that don't get read and don't get paid enough to justify the effort.

Perhaps the malaise started when it became obvious my book was a failure. I find it hard going into bookstores because I can't see any copies of my book in there any more. At least I've never seen one in a bargain bin or op-shop (SO FAR: TOUCH WOOD I BET IT HAPPENS TOMORROW). I felt so embarrassed today because one of my Facebook friends posted a pic he took of a signed copy in a bookshop in Sydney. I signed it last July and clearly the only reason the book is even still in the shop is that they can't return it to my publisher because I ruined it by signing it. Ha.

The rituals of successful authorship just bum me out beyond belief because I am not participating in them. I haven't won or been shortlisted for any awards and have stopped asking my publisher if they have entered me in any because they have moved on to other authors with fresher, more successful books and it embarrasses me to have to remind them that ole yesterday's news still exists.

I have received absolutely no money from the book and honestly I doubt I'll even pay back my advance. Not that I was expecting to receive a red cent; you write a book for the opportunities that 'having written a book' gives you, rather than to earn a living from it. But still, I felt sad that another writer earned enough from her royalties this quarter to get her hair permed. I haven't had a haircut since last August and a fringe trim since last December and my hair looks terrible, and perhaps that's part of the reason for my malaise – having to look at my stupid forehead.

I also haven't been invited to any writers' festivals apart from last year when I did my hometown writers' festival and the Emerging Writers' Festival. This year I am feeling really heartbroken and excluded from the EWF because even though I haven't actually emerged I have technically 'emerged' on their terms because I have participated in the festival for a few years in a row and now I suppose it's time to give younger, better-looking and more successful people a go. I'm feeling really old and past it and as if the generational torch has been passed straight over my head to people ten years younger than me.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a party and someone was asking me about my book and honestly I was in such a deep malaise that I didn't even want to talk about it, but I was trying to anyway because you've gotta Self-Promote, right, and even as I was trying to explain the book (which I have obviously done many times before), I realised what a ridiculous, overly complex book it was and marvelled to myself that my publisher had taken a chance on such a weird book, and thought to myself that no wonder it sank like an absolute stone.

People are always asking me, "What are you working on now?" and honestly I have a text file with six different synopses in it, and several other ideas that are so dumb they haven't even got to synopsis stage yet. My plan was that I was going to sit down and finish all the synopses so they were basically one-pagers and then just send them all to people like a menu and maybe they would point at one and say, "That one" and then I would write it.

But I am struggling to emerge from this malaise. For instance, writing this has made me feel so low that I don't even feel like watching Game of Thrones which is not only one of my favourite TV shows but also I have to recap it for tomorrow morning. I just want to go to bed.

Once again, super glad that like five people read blogs these days. I let my ten-year blogging anniversary go past without comment. Ten years. That's a lot of crap I've written that I could have monetised or some shit.

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