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Fair Trade?

I’m not very good with promises, but I’m aiming for one blog update per weekend (and I hope one during the week, but we’ll see) just to keep me going, because this has been an unexpectedly taxing autumn. To prove I can keep promises after a fashion, though, I once told Jim Henley I’d write more about my thoughts on The Filth and gender. And while I’m on a roll, I asked Graeme McMillan whether he thought Rosie in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a good guy, a bad guy, or neither, but I never responded with my thoughts.

Rectifying two old birds with one stone, in quasi-realistic situations (and it’s not entirely clear to me why I put The Filth in this class) we expect the good guys to avoid trading sex for information. OK, it’s entirely possible that this is just me and that the rest of the world assumes that the FBI adheres to James Bond standards of sexual involvement and intrigue, but I think not. And so in The Manchurian Candidate it set off alarms for me that Rosie was willing to become (I assume sexually) intimate with Ben to be a part of his deepest secrets. We see her doing other things like being involved in evidence tampering that make it seems she’s not interested in preserving truth and encouraging justice, at least as those terms are generally used. And then at the end of the movie she’s still with Ben at the scene of the crime that thrust him into this whole mess, and he’s letting some memory-heavy artifacts wash out to sea. Is she at his side because she really came to love this broken man she met on the train, this man she spied on and comforted? Is this part of her job, to keep him whole enough that he can finish the job of putting this plot in the past? Or is something more sinister going on? Sure, her work helps bring down members of the Manchurian Corp. conspiracy, but in a movie where every conspiracy is linked to something deeper and more far-reaching, why should we believe that this pulls out a root? Could she be working for some even more shadowy group to defuse this conspiracy and take control of Ben? Her demeanor doesn’t change from when she’s pretending to love him so she can keep him under surveillance to the time when she tracks him down at the scene of the assassination to their farewell to the past at the seaside ruins. Something strange is going on here, and it’s not just that she seems to use sex or even (worse?) love as a weapon but that this is so mundane. Perhaps it is in the normal world, although I don’t think many people could pull it off as calmly as Rosie seems to, but I think we hold our national security folks to higher standards, or at least I do.

And that brings me to a slight aside, which is that I don’t think it’s meaningless that I’m talking about female spies here. This is not Mata Hari-style seduction but is still a power play in a way that perhaps James Bond dalliances aren’t. After all, Rosie doesn’t have signature drinks or swank suits or anything obvious at all, but it’s the conspicuous lack of anything extraordinary, a seeming sweet absence of guile in a movie where everyone else churns with intrigue, that makes her suspicious. But sometimes it’s just the gender patterns that are suspicious. In gearing up for Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion, which I read this weekend, I reread his The Diamond Age last weekend. One of the strangest episodes, and one that has soured the book for me a bit each time I’ve read it, involves a cult called The Drummers who live in a sleeplike state under the sea while their dreaming minds interact to form a sort of metaphorical computer. They carry particles in their bloodstreams that enhance this process and they can exchange these particles through intercourse, basically sharing smart STDs. The way this is carried out is that periodically there will be all sorts of drumming and then a woman becomes the center of attention and men dance around her. Eventually, after much buildup, each of the men has sex with her in front of the whole group, during which time she gets hotter and hotter because each of these little viruses raises blood temperature, until eventually she explodes and releases the viruses like spores and the men have picked up her viruses and so it keeps on spreading. Now, the book never says that this is how it always works, but it also never shows us a man being this exploding vessel in the several times we see the scene played out. To me, that’s telling in the same way that it’s telling that Rosie’s mother/lover act seemed uncontroversial. If the genders in The Manchurian Candidate had been reversed and Ross had seduced Beth to be able to keep an eye on her and keep her out of trouble, I don’t think I’m the only one who would have found it weird and problematic.

And that’s why I’m not sure what to make of this issue in The Filth. The way Greg/Ned changes from nobody to superspy is through psychedelic sex with agent Miami. But how does she change over, then? And is this in her job description? That’s what I kept thinking as I read, wondering whether she enjoyed this aspect of things, this being a virus that translates a man into part of a larger being/organization and I don’t think there’s any way to know. Jim wanted to know whether female characters were fully realized enough for female readers to make guesses about their motives and so on, and while right now I can’t look at the book because I’ve lent it to a friend who is probably reading this and feeling guilty, I can say that I wished I knew better what was going on in Miami’s mind, but that we never really knew what was going on in any of the character’s heads. If Jim’s theory that the women are all playing almost archetypal roles of what men expect from them, maybe that’s why the absence of Miami’s viewpoint seemed more poignant than that of the unnamed female Dreamers or Rosie, who at least seems to have a mind of her own in there somewhere. At the core of this, for me at least, is curiosity about to what extent sex like this is fully consensual for the (admittedly fictional) women involved. If it’s your job to have sex with guys to make them remember how cool they really are, do you hate your job? I realize I’m probably making too much of this, but it’s something that stuck out enough that I still think of it months later and I really don’t know what the answers are. I do know I’m probably having a nonstandard response to all of this, but I accept that too. I just think it’s interesting that sexual ethics don’t necessarily follow the same track as political ethics (or perhaps, in The Filth at least, they do) or professional ethics and yet this disconnect is commonplace enough that I haven’t seen people commenting on it. I suppose once this is posted, though, I will have, and that’s what counts.

31 October 2004 Update Just to be clear, since I’m pretty sure I didn’t say this outright, I have no problems whatsoever with people choosing to trade sex for whatever they like, although my general ideal is that everyone should be as close to fully aware and fully consenting as possible. I do think it’s problematic for employers to expect their employees to have sex as part of their work, especially if this is something expected only of female employees. And if, in the case of The Manchurian Candidate, we assume that this is Our Tax Dollars at work, I imagine that would ruffle some feathers too. But I’m not trying to be anti-sex or opposed to these texts in general, because I think their creators were trying to grapple with just these sorts of messy issues and I’m glad that they did as it gave me something to think about and post.


  1. Tim O'Neil says:

    I am always interested in reading what other people think of The Filth, but the interesting thing for me is that I do not believe that the implied sexism is anywhere near as bad as the overt misanthropy throughout the piece. Whether or not inter-agent sex is demeaning is not as much of an issue to me as whether or not the fact that all of their personalities are cultured idea viruses kept in a cryogenic closet. All the characters in The Filth, except for Greg Feely, are essentially ciphers created for the purpose of fulfilling there role in the grand scheme, or whatever. Ultimately, the fact that the Powers That Be in The Filth regard individual personality as something malleable that can be infinitely coopted and compromised is ultimately more important. I don’t think there’s a sexual act in the entire book that isn’t - on some level - rape, because every character is a brainwashed tool of a fascist superstructure.

    — 1 November 2004 at 3:37 am (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    Tim, I dunno. Maybe I’ve been reading to much philosofiction and drawn I Heart Huckabees a bit too close to my own heart, but I don’t know how we can be sure that Greg is actually a person/personality. This is the point I was getting at in talking about The Manchurian Candidate, that when you’re looking at a conspiracy the hardest thing to tell for sure is where it ends, and I have that problem with The Filth as well. If all the people who initially seem to be people are these malleable parapersonae, then how can we believe that the people who appear to be controlling them and making the decisions aren’t just puppets for someone higher up the ladder? Maybe I’m a skeptic, but that’s not a leap I’m inclined to make, and instead I remain unconvinced and find that more satisfying than any kind of certainty.

    The problem with these sorts of questions, at least as I see it, is that I don’t think we can all agree on where to draw the line. If your last line is true, it seems in some ways equivalent to Andrea Dworkin’s argument that because of the way history of patriarchy insinuates its way into all our lives, there can be no such thing as truly consensual heterosexual sex. I’m not implying you believe that, certainly, but it seems like the same argument with a different philosophical system plugged in, and that’s why I find myself uncomfortable with all of them. If The Filth is a book about puppets or a book about a video game, basically, as far as the characters are concerned, then is what the characters do rape for the reasons you mention, or should we look at it from their perspective and see if they think they’re giving consent, the way we might imagine a video game fighter agrees to slice people up or whatever? I’m not sure how it works exactly or if what I’m saying makes sense to anybody else, and my initial response to The Filth, especially in the comments thread, did touch on both the troublesome sexual politics and, to a lesser extent, the view of predestination or puppetry or whatever we want to call it.

    One thing I have found interesting, though, is seeing how others talking about The Filth address the idea of identity, who does think Greg is real and what parts of him are real and so on. I remain pretty firmly in the in-between category, but you’re certainly not alone in finding something genuine about Greg and I wonder (in general, not just in your case) whether that’s because he’s at the core of the text or because he does seem to be teh catalyst for the story and existing, living and dying, one level above it, or because readers identify with him and his foibles or because they just need something to hang onto because the absences of anyone human, humane and free would just be too discouraging.

    — 1 November 2004 at 12:08 pm (Permalink)

  3. David Fiore says:

    this is great stuff Rose, and, like you, I’m loathe to draw the line when it comes to thinking about who is determining whom. it seems to me that, in The Filth, what you get is “I-life” and “parapersonae”. It’s not a matter of separating out the “persons” from the “anti-persons”, because everyone is a mixture of those two things. Unfortunately, that makes it impossible to tell who the “real” “fascists” are, but such is life!

    I agree with you that the characters in the Filth do perform gendered roles, and that anyone who wishes to understand what Miami gets out of her encounters with Greg/Ned is going to come away disappointed… I’m not sure what to make of this though… You could certainly find support in the text for a claim that there is some kind of gender essentialism going on there, however, and now I’ll just be silly, I don’t think that it’s essential to a reading of the text!

    Your question about the people whose job/role/etc. is to have sex with others in order to make them feel good about themselves is really interesting to me! While this problem has traditionally been explored (or at least posed) through female characters, I don’t think that there’s any reason why that should be case. Have you ever read West’s Miss Lonelyhearts? It’s kind of like The Filth from Miami’s perspective–except of course that “Miss Lonelyhearts” is a man! And it’s no accident that there’s some gender confusion there. Unquestionably, the “woman’s role” in the Western understanding of sexual relationships has been one of self-sacrifice for the “greater good” the man’s ego/ability to deal with economic/social reality.

    Obviously, this paradigm (while still pretty powerful) is breaking down–and this, I think, is forcing more and more people of both genders to deal with the fact that no one can ever be completely sure why they want to have sex with another person. I think the problem of “sympathy sex” is an immensely interesting and complicated one, and some of what goes on in The Filth can be made to speak to that issue!


    — 2 November 2004 at 12:27 am (Permalink)

  4. Jamesmith3 says:

    I find it really interesting that you’ve taken such issue with the Greg/Miami sex scene, Rose. Specifically because, if memory serves, it’s the only instance of sex in the entire book that is engaged in for ostensibly positive purposes.

    Also, the question of whether the female “sex-worker” (for the sake of brevity) might hate her job is interesting for what it doesn’t ask: How does the guy feel about needing to be “serviced” in this fashion? I submit the question hasn’t been asked because it’s typically understood that any straight male would be more than happy to have sex whenever the chance arose. But it’s Miami who smiles, and Greg who says, “This is making me a bit uncomfortable.”

    “Positive purposes”: the Greg/Miami clinch is about breaking down the persona of Greg so that the (presumably primary) Ned can return. Little birth, rather than little death.

    I don’t think Miami’s thoughts could be any clearer, myself. She’s doing a job, one where she feels comfortable enough that she can smile and make jokes, and shave her head while waiting for her (john? patient? victim?) to come home. The Hand exist outside of normal perception, and it appears this puts them outside of “normal” morality as well. In it’s whole presentation here, it appears sex out there on the margins isn’t such an issue. It’s part of the job, as in no different from any other part of the job.

    Ack. The rice is burning. Was this relevant?

    — 2 November 2004 at 2:42 am (Permalink)

  5. Rose says:

    I certainly wasn’t trying to say that Miami was being victimized in any way (except inasmuch as it seems sort of victimizing to me to be a parapersona, whether you realize it or not, and that’s where the real tragedy is) so I’d really basically agree with what you wrote. I think I’m just out of practice writing and phrased things badly. I was just trying to trace a pattern of what ends justify what means in these specific works and for me Rosie in The Manchurian Candidate is a clearer example because I do think The Filth is dealing with a different sort of morality that has perhaps evolved from ours. I really enjoyed The Filth and found this sequence in particular fascinating because, as you said, it’s the only positive instance of sexual behavior between partners and yet it has these aspects that would make it problematic in our realtiy. But I guess it is hard to talk about things like this out of context without making it sound like this issue ruined the book for me, which it didn’t at all. If anything, it made the work deeper and more interesting.

    For pure visceral and intellectual excitement, I still prefer Seaguy and Kill your Boyfriend, but I’m looking forward to rereading The Filth again soon. And so I hope I didn’t spoil your rice!


    Um. I assure you I’m not a gender essentialist! I thought it was interesting that women were playing these roles because it would have been more interesting if it had been men, and it wasn’t. The Filth is definitely playing around with a world in which what we’d consider out-of-control sexuality has become normalized, and I enjoy looking at the way gender roles play out in that setting, the way they manage to be not twisted far from our own, and I’m especially interested in women like Miami and Mother Dirt who are trying to do something not-norm. It seemed like men had a lot more power than I would have expected, maybe because we were seeing the world through a Greg lens, but women didn’t seem to be chafing or subtly fighting back in ways I would have expected either. It’s something I’ll come back to when I get a chance to reread, perhaps. It didn’t seem that gender didn’t matter, but it’s hard for me to puzzle out how it does matter, and I don’t think I’m anywhere near having a handle on it yet.

    And I know neither of these is really a full or good answer, so I’ll be thinking more about what you’ve said and see if I can improve on my responses.

    — 2 November 2004 at 4:03 am (Permalink)

  6. David Fiore says:

    Oh, hey Rose, I hope you didn’t think I was calling you the “e’ word!

    I guess I was trying to say something exactly like what you’ve just said–gender roles are not dealt with in The Filth as well as they might have been… And you’re right, a lot of that probably does come down to inevitable distortion created by Greg’s role as protagonist–but it’s still somewhat problematic.


    — 2 November 2004 at 4:34 am (Permalink)

  7. David Fiore says:

    I guess the statement I’ve been fumbling for is:

    It’s easy to read The Filth and come away from it thinking that Greg’s problems are “guy problems”, rather than, say, problems that inhere in subjectivity itself (as, it seems, many people have). I, personally, didn’t think this for a moment–but the text could easily be used to support either contention.

    there! I feel a bit better now!


    — 2 November 2004 at 4:54 am (Permalink)

  8. Rose says:

    OK, Dave, I was indeed assuming you don’t think I’m an essentialist, but I know you have non-standard thoughts about dealing with gender, so I wanted to be as clear as I could be. I guess the real problem with dealing with gender in The Filth is that what gender is (at least as defined on this blog) depends on the environment, so what it means to be a man or a woman in a given cultural context is gender. And that’s why The Filth gets confusing, because there seems to be a power gap and yet we just don’t have enough data (or I don’t think I do) to construct even a patchy picture of what gender norms are there.

    I do think your last comment is a very good summary of your views, but I’m interested to hear whether you think guy problems are just a specific subset of subjectivity problems or whether these are mutually exclusive views. While Greg’s dealing with many more abstract problems of identity, he does also seem to be figuring out what it means to be a man who nurtures his cat and watches hardcore porn with the window open and has a secret identity and so on, that perhaps gender matters to him, if that makes any sense. That’s how I would think of it, that it is a problem of understanding or relating, but that he has to do it in his own context form which the fact that he’s a man in a society that seems to privilege them can’t be entirely meaningless or separated.

    — 2 November 2004 at 11:21 am (Permalink)

  9. Jamesmith3 says:

    I’m sorry I haven’t seen Manchurian Candidate, so I can’t comment on that. I did get the sense that you saw Miami as having been victimized, so thanks for clearing that up.

    Tangent: I wonder whether Morrison would see the parapersona as a negative. I suspect he does not, but I’ve been wrong before. Often.

    — 2 November 2004 at 1:43 pm (Permalink)

  10. Rose says:

    To muddy things even more, I’m not sure I see the parapersona as a negative, but the characters who were aware they had/were parapersonae did seem conflicted about it, at least as I recall. I think the reason Morrison might not see it as a negative is that many of his works seem to suggest we’re all just parapersonae, if not in such a technologically advanced sense, and there always seems to be a question about whether we can break out of our everyday stupor into real understanding. I’m just not sure what the answer is and not sure whether he’s trying to advance one, but this is definitely an issue that arises again and again here and in The Invisibles and Animal Man and Sebastian O and Seaguy and arguably elsewhere. I guess my answer is that it’s sad for us as individuals (or “subjects,” Dave) to think that we’re just automata or that we don’t have the level of control over ourselves that we’d like, but that not wanting to believe doesn’t make this untrue, if you see where I’m going with this.

    I think I’m just muddling through a lot of things, because I’m obsessed with I Heart Huckabees and keep just saying, “How am I not myself?” when I think about all the things coming up here. And then I’ve been reading my way throughThe Baroque Cycle, which features all sorts of Natural Philosophers in the 17th century, as well as pirates and slaves and Puritans and much more, and so I spent the weekend in a mental world where people were debating predestination and free will and the ultimate nature of matter and the universe, and I suppose I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how this big-picture stuff affects me and I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t do it on the blog!

    — 2 November 2004 at 3:04 pm (Permalink)

  11. Jamesmith3 says:

    “and I????????m thinking maybe I shouldn????????t do it on the blog!”

    Where’s the fun in that?

    — 3 November 2004 at 12:22 am (Permalink)

  12. Rose says:

    No, that’s the wrong answer! You were supposed to say, “That’s right, you should sleep more and take lots of baths and go for walks if it ever stops raining.” Something like that would have been a much more welcome answer. But once I’ve done at least some small fraction of those things, I’ll try to get some more thoughts written down. More regular writing keeps me sharper and also keeps me from letting ideas fester so long I flush them out in one messy post like this.

    — 3 November 2004 at 2:32 am (Permalink)