September 21, 2014
A Theory of the Young-Girl
Posted on Nov 22, 2013
“Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl”
“The mission she has been given is to re-enchant a devastated world of commodities, of prolonging the disaster with joy and insouciance.” —Tiqqun
The first TV commercial in which I had a starring role was for Mattel’s Free-Moving Barbie. Barbie had a swivel waist and a lever that popped down from her back so you could hold her straight but turn her upper torso from side to side. I swiveled her and cooed, “Barbie, you’re beautiful.”
It sounds glamorous—and I was able to put myself through college thanks to many TV spots—but the memory turns my gut. Blond with a helpful smile, I was packaged as the perfect specimen of American girlhood. I wasn’t allowed to be anything else. Who was I, really? I knew only the marketing of myself.
That girl is, to some degree, all of us. A slim, shattering, lipstick-pink book called “Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl” shows us the “Young-Girl” in everyone in consumer society—experiencing ourselves almost entirely as commodities to be valorized and marketed. The book was published in France in 1999 and translated and published in English in 2012. The author is Tiqqun, a collective.
There’s an oft-quoted Kafka line that a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us. This book is an ax. Most of it is a collection of statements, set in different fonts, that reveal the way of being that is the Young-Girl: “obviously not a gendered concept.” (All italics are Tiqqun’s, which likes them.) Some of the statements are exclamations in the Young-Girl’s voice; most are analysis.
Except for the exclamations, which are dark with a lack of ironic self-awareness—“Because I’m worth it!” “My boyfriend’s a poet” “Be yourself! (It pays.)”—the text is dense, the usual semiotics style. The book starts with an essay that defines the Young-Girl as “the new physiognomy of Capital” who “no longer has any intimacy with herself except as value, and whose every activity, in every detail, is directed to self-valorization.”
Some bits to chew on:
• “The Young-Girl wears the mask of her face.”
Why can’t she snap out of herself? Gear up for this one:
“Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl” is thin on explaining how or why this inescapable self-commodification took root. It assumes that the reader is familiar with Marxist and anarchist concepts. A single paragraph says that from the early 1920s and faced with a challenge from socialism, capitalism had to “colonize everything that is beyond the strict sphere of production” to survive—to likewise “socialize.”
But explanations aren’t the point of this book. Rather, it presents the Young-Girl as a character for us to identify with. We see her in society and are brought into her inner life, such as it is (and it’s there, just not accessible to her). She endures a hidden anguish “when she is shut away at home, far from any gaze,” and “sobs and sobs. For she who is gnawed by nothingness, this anguish is the other name for the solitude, the silence, and dissimulation that are her metaphysical condition, which she has such a hard time getting used to.”
I can’t help recalling the opposite experience as articulated by black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde in her classic essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in “Sister Outsider.” The erotic—not synonymous here with the sexual—“lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling,” and allows us “to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.” Lorde notes, “Of course, women so empowered are dangerous.”
But for the Young-Girl, her image “possesses her, in the full sense of the word. The Young-Girl lives under the tyranny of this ungrateful master.”
You may have spotted a new incarnation of the Young-Girl at Whole Foods and at the yoga studio: the “organic Young-Girl,” a “qualitative jump” over “the industrial Young-Girl.” The organic version is “responsible, ecological, ‘in solidarity,’ maternal, reasonable, ‘natural,’ respectful, more self-controlled than falsely liberated, in a word, fiendishly biopolitical.”
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