Sunday, March 31, 2013

Panoptic Poetry & Everyday Life: Thoughts on the Poetry of Cold War Ring Holders & Cocktail Glasses

We've all heard about how poetry serves as a mnemonic device, right? Its meter, rhyme, fixed forms, and other types of patterned language make it easier to remember stuff whether you're a bard charged with reciting the entirety of Beowulf to a bunch of mead-swigging Anglo-Saxons, a child tramping through the woods with the ranger's advice "leaves of three, let them be" ringing in your ears, the Burma-Vita Company seeking a new Burma-Shave billboard jingle to lodge into a consumer's mind, or a student charged with memorizing a poem for class. We remember which months have thirty or thirty-one days not just by compiling and memorizing a boring list of 'em all, but by making a rhyme:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
Thirty-one the others date,
Except in February, twenty-eight;
But in leap year we assign
February, twenty-nine. 
Dad taught us "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" to remember which way to turn a screwdriver or faucet handle. Old Salt the Sailor taught us, "Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in morning, sailor's warning." And to this day, even the interns at the P&PC Office can tell the difference between a red, yellow, and black king snake and a red, yellow, and black coral snake (pictured above) not because we're some troop of field biologists, but because we once learned the old rhyme, "Red touches yellow, dangerous fellow. Red touches black, friend to Jack."

This feature of poetry starts to explain the two relatively bizarre items that P&PC has gotten its hands on recently—the spooky wooden clown ring holder pictured to the left, and the frosted cocktail glass pictured below. Both items and their respective poems are designed to address common predicaments involving memory or the lapse thereof. Rings are particularly fraught sites where memory is concerned, because, while they are oftentimes meant to help us remember things (like the fact that we're married), we oftentimes need to remove them (like "While you wash the dishes, / While you wash the clothes") and thus we put ourselves at risk of forgetting where we put the thing meant to help us remember. And if you've ever had a party—and then taken off your rings when you wash up all the dishes after that party, natch—you know that one skill in entertaining is to encourage people to drink a bit and thus forget their concerns for a while while at the same time remembering where they put their glasses and which glasses are theirs. A couple of quandaries from la vie quotidienne, no? You might say that when it comes to rings, we risk forgetting what we need to remember and, with drinking, we risk not remembering where we put the thing that we want to help us forget.

We here at P&PC think that both of these items, like the rest of la vie quotidienne, are more complex than they initially appear and that a lot of that complexity has to do with their use in the home and their connection to domestic chores and responsibilities. Why, one might be moved to ask, is there a clown of all things pictured on the ring holder and not, for example (as one P&PC intern suggested), a unicorn? And why do we put a ring on the phallic wooden knob of his oversized nose? In a sense, perhaps, the clown helps turn the removal and retrieval of one's ring into a little circus trick or a carnival ring-toss game—a kind of fun-yet-scary variation on the Fort/Da (Gone/There) game that Freud noticed his grandson playing, with the ring's circular shape troping the child's pleasurable "o-o-o-o" expressed upon discovering items he'd thrown away. Considering the site of the clown ring holder (the kitchen or laundry room in the 1950s), rather than the site of the child's Fort/Da game (the nursery), we can speculate on the nature of this process for the Cold War housewife in particular. In taking off her ring, leaving it on the clown's nose, and finding it later, is she mastering a painful experience of some sort (of being married? of losing the sign and thus status of her marriage?) by reproducing it herself? Or, as other Freudian analysts have suggested of the Fort/Da game, is she responding to a painful experience of some sort (marriage? housework?) by redirecting her anger onto the ring and the clown's woody phallic knob which in some way represent that experience? And to what extent is the grotesque figure of the clown and his Pinocchio nose a stand-in, cartooned version of the male husband and father, whose knob has been made ridiculously large and whose hat has been made ridiculously small? Given how the poem both licenses and instructs the housewife to distance herself from the physical sign of her marriage while doing housework (take off your rings to do your chores, dearie), to what extent does this item thus reveal or manage an anxiety that doing housework over and over (which—as dishes pile up, then get cleaned, only to pile up again—is its own sort of Fort/Da activity) is like getting unmarried over and over again as well? Or that, in order to do housework in the first place, one has to symbolically get unmarried, turning oneself, in an ongoing drama of domestic schizophrenia, from a spouse to a maid, and back again

Given the psychosocial drama incited by Mr. Clown, it's no wonder that Betty Draper might want a cocktail or two. But inviting the neighbors over, passing around the spiked punch, and using drink to help forget one's double identity as a spouse and maid would invite its own set of memory-related issues as the little cocktail glass pictured here suggests. It's a lot like the clown ring holder, actually, isn't it? It, too, is a kitchen-related item from the 1950s. It, too, features a man with a curly mustache. That man wears a particularly noteworthy hat—one that's oversized, this time, not undersized. He, too, has a larger-than-life appendage of some sort (the magnifying glass) that, as it appears to protrude from below the belt of his mackinaw trench coat, also seems to associate with the phallus. (The pun on "knob" and "woody" suggested by the clown's nose even finds its witty partner in the "cock" of the cocktail glass.) And to top it all off, the glass also includes a rhyme that provides crucial information about the object's use:
There isn't a drink snatcher
This side of _ _ _ _
That this little gent
Will fail to smell
Note your name and
Note your drink
And leave the rest to
For all that the two items have in common, though, they differ significantly from each other in that the poems printed on them are addressed to two different audiences: the clown poem is addressed to the woman doing household chores, while the cocktail glass poem is addressed to the person drinking, not to the person who will be doing the chores. In fact, the poem on the glass seems to channel the voice of the housewife herself: "Note your name and / Note your drink [so that I don't have to wash more dishes than I already have to wash!]"

What's so clever about this effort at dish-washing damage control is not just the direct message it sends from hostess to guest, but how, beyond that message, it schools the guest in a self-discipline or self-supervision that Michel Foucault (pictured here) might appreciate. Indeed, since the hostess can't be everywhere watching everyone all the time, she has to establish a sort of cocktail party panopticon in which individual guests surveil themselves in the absence of her authority. This happens in part by linking together the drinker (the potential offender) and Pinkerstink (the figure of law enforcement), as both hold glasses (the former is holding a cocktail glass, the latter a magnifying glass); the criminal and the policeman are thus, in this scenario, two sides of the same coin, as the material glass's cylindrical circuit between the picture of Pinkerstink on one side and his written name on the other might dramatize.

The party's panoptic regime is more fully established, however, by what doesn't appear on the glass at all: by the letters that would fill in the four blank spaces in the poem's second line. As Loren Glass explained in his P&PC posting last September, moments of "censorship" like these give readers the thrill of silently hearing dirty words even though those words have been suppressed by print. The reader, he writes, can "have it both ways: one submits to the censorship of print while evading it in (silent) speech." In the case of the Pinkerstink glass, then, drinkers, too, have it two ways that result in the self discipline the hostess needs her guests to exercise: they are both the offender (saying the dirty word or forgetting one's glass) and the enforcer (leaving the letters blank and thus monitoring one's own behavior and remembering one's glass).

If the picture of the panopticon in the previous paragraph looks vaguely familiar in the context of this posting, it might be because it recalls the clown's nose on the ring holder; indeed, if you set the ring holder flat on its side, the clown's nose projects up from the center of the object just like the tower in the prison's center does—or just like the cocktail glass in a drinker's hand. Incredibly, all three rely on the same physical shape to establish discipline and thus enforce particular behaviors—in prison, in the kitchen, and in one's hand. In the case of the ring holder and cocktail glass, though, that power is further reenforced by the power of poetry to help us remember how things are done, because, outside the clink, ideology needs to do more than in if it would have us act like prisoners in our daily lives as well.