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“Itemizing Violence as Cuteness and Gesture”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 ‘Itemizing’ Cuteness as Violence and Gesture

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Bollywood’s sexy item songs and Christopher Marlowe’s scenes of de-ritualized/hyper-ritualized eroticism are cute for similar reasons. They each “create or facilitate kinds of ‘betweenness’—relays, conduits, associations—that in turn facilitate the circulation of texts, objects, and signs” (Ngai 115). A bubbling confluence of cuteness and violence, the songs and scenes are also what Giorgio Agamben in State of Exception refers to as “anomic feasts” that bring “to light in a parodic form the anomie within the law, the state of emergency as the anomic drive contained in the very heart of the nomos” (72-73). This drive, akin to the death drive to which I will refer later, complicates narratives (semantics and semiotics) invested in futurity by dismantling them from their core purpose and positing nothing concrete in their place—neither in terms of directionality nor in the sense of purposefulness. My essay attempts to make explicit the action of cutting or laceration that renders dangerous the invasive potentiality of cute substance. Like many of the essays in the present collection reveal, cuteness isn’t a new thing. Nor is it a predominantly Western, or First World, phenomenon. Despite its overt connection to Western articulations of global capitalism, as a phenomenon cuteness predates the modern, just as it thrives in non-Western cultures. Toward this end, I offer readings of two instances of cute laceration—a scene from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and a song from Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Omkara—to highlight the affective irreverence and violence of cuteness when it collides with normative (serious) narratives of biological or reproductive futurity. While Marlowe’s text focuses on the development of cuteness as surreptitiousness and as manipulation of reproductive bodies and ideologies, Bhardwaj’s film erupts with cuteness as refusal of the place of symbolic meaning in narratives of futurity. In both instances cuteness mobilizes, that is, “‘item’izes,” itself as violence.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Mapping the Violence of Cuteness
The implicit violence of cuteness rests within the etymological action of cutting the word “cute” out of “acute.” The word “acute” has various uses and related meanings, its earliest usage in the medical context of sickness or disease traced by the OED to 1398. Acuteness retains its sense of sharpness throughout its development in the English language: as painful, pointed, penetrating, keen or intense, pungent, severe or critical, and as urgent. While in its early use the word “cute” alludes to keenness or sharpness—I imagine Ophelia could chide Hamlet just as impatiently by replacing Shakespeare’s word “keen” with “cute”: “you are cute, my lord”—somewhere along its history, it breaks away from acuteness and relocates its meaning within the context of ineptitude. Daniel Harris reminds us that, in the context of modernity, “[s]omething becomes cute not necessarily because of a quality it has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of a hideousness we find more touching than unsightly” (4). Indeed, the break-as-birth of cuteness is hideous, as violent as a C-section, but also as deteriorative as the stub of an umbilical cord freed from its function 1

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 If cuteness elicits in modern humans of the West what Hannah Arendt condemns as their quest for “being happy … between dog and cat and flowerpot,” it also harbors a brutal potential for dislodging the very foundations upon which dog, cat, and flowerpot stand as objects capable of producing commonplace happiness (qtd. in Ngai 3). I am interested in the brutality of purposeless cuteness, which is made all the more brutal (all the more cute) owing to the ease with which it invades the environments into which it is introduced. In its careful avoidance of sharpness, cute substance manages to present itself immediately to the human as harmless, indeed, as matter and affect that require protection from acute states of being and feeling, including human being and feeling. In other words, the protective impulse that cuteness mobilizes in us thrives on our knowledge of our own ability to crush and destroy the thing we feel compelled to cuddle almost, but not quite, to the point of permanent damage or destruction. (In an important sense, our love affair with cuteness hinges on the paradoxical resilience of cute substance that we expect will always bounce back each time, reshaping itself into a cuddly or fuzzy helpless mass, ready to be felt and ab/used repeatedly by us while perpetuating our investment in its symbolic appeal as our Other.) 2

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Yet, as Ngai notes, the “equivocal nature” of cute aesthetics often also prompts in us suspicion regarding its manipulative capacity: “the aesthetic experience of cuteness is a pleasure routinely overridden by secondary feelings of suspicion” (23, 25). The suspicion, which, scientific writers suggest is a product of our angry recognition of “being exploited or deceived” by an object for which we have little to no regard and that we assumed can easily be destroyed by us (Angier qtd. in Ngai 24), complicates the initial violence we feel toward it. Our suspicion also leads to violence, but the latter violence we often enact upon ourselves and not so much on the cute object: we restrict our own actions, deprive ourselves of the predictable sensory and affective pleasures to be had from cuddling, touching, or helping cute substance. Fooled by the deceptive object, we punish ourselves for having fallen for cuteness. In a word, our violence takes shape as repression cast as a lesson to be remembered by us for all our future encounters with cuteness.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But, like graphene—the thinnest, strongest, stiffest, and stretchiest material we know—cute substance fools us repeatedly because its irresolvable contradictions baffle us continually. Recasting itself each time as a familiar thing or a recognizable feeling, cuteness remains a little new each time we encounter it. Like a petulant child, its stubbornness or refusal to be reasoned with gives it a sharpness, that is, an acuteness that lacerates the critical and aesthetic hierarchies constructed as human organization. The brutally cute, in other words, retains in secret and ever-changing ways and in spite of shifting locations and temporalities its connection to the radically acute, dismantling in the process the sustainable means by which it might be consumed and fetishized by the human.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I Violating Biological Futurity: The Cuteness of the Pregnant Body in Doctor Faustus
The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus is a notable exception to Marlovian standards of violence and is surprisingly scant in its spilling of blood and guts, focusing instead on Faustus’ tragic mental transformation. But even as the text consumes its protagonist with self-doubt and despair about the future of his body and soul, the play is riddled with cute substance that vehiculates multiple states of exception. Doctor Faustus comprises multiple scenes of anomic feasts or confluences of law and life, as Agamben might put it, where the violence of the law—making and/or breaking of the law—is first anticipated and then matched by the rhythmic cuteness or musicality of resistance. In a sense, all of Marlowe’s characters in the play could be called cute. More precisely, they are barbed-cute insofar as their cuteness has teeth that cut into spaces and bodies whose violent potentiality lies sedated within spaces that appear to be aesthetically closed operational systems. The good and bad angels in Doctor Faustus, for example, are potentially cute because they nip, nip, nip at Faustus’ conscience. The matter of the soul, otherwise in the domain of the sublime and seemingly immune to the minoritarian manipulations of cuteness, is in the end dragged away by cute carriers that, terrier-like, lacerate Faustus.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 For T.S. Eliot, Marlowe’s aesthetics is “always hesitating on the edge of caricature at the right moment” (54). Eliot may not have used the term “cute” to describe Marlowe’s style. But what is cuteness if not a momentary hesitation on the edge of caricature—a caricature of all things serious: the law, the gods, the state, desire, the future? The hesitation lacerates these systems and contaminates them with the energy that informs the graphene aesthetic of cuteness. As a result, the state, the law, desire, even the gods and devils become cute for an instant before they reterritorialize bleedingly onto the plane of seriousness and visible power in the play. We discover as early as in the first scene of the play that John Faustus is a man discontent with what Deleuze and Guattari might call the molarity of his present condition. Thus, he obsesses over his future and strives to escape the limits of temporality by aestheticizing his experiences through non-normative means. Weighing the benefits of established forms of knowledge and self-empowerment, he dismisses them hastily, announcing that the fields of “Oeconomy,” “Physic,” and even “Divinity” are limited in their scope, since they cannot help him “be eternalized” (1.1.14), or furnish him with wisdom that could “make men … live eternally” (1.1.22). Faustus’ denunciation of the branches of institutionalized knowledge has to do with the fact that they, being rooted within the temporal and spatial schemes, cannot stretch to accommodate other zones of pleasure. Consequently, he abandons these pursuits and promises instead to glut himself with magic—a graphene medium of aesthetics through which he hopes to find the limitless pleasures of “omnipotence” (1.1.54). Magic, as Faustus imagines it, offers him the possibility of experiencing limitless movement between spaces and forms. Even before he trades his soul with the devil in exchange for what he hopes will be seamless and uncensored identity, Faustus prophesizes his magical capabilities and claims boldly that he will have his “spirits fetch (him) what (he) please[s]” (1.1.78), be it “secrets” pertaining to “foreign kings” or rarities from India and the new world—pearls or fruits, cute objects whose physical qualities are pleasurable to touch and taste (1.1.86).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 But his plans for experiencing a transcendent cuteness outside of time are promptly shattered by Mephistopheles. Receiving equivocation from Mephistopheles in place of guidance regarding the location and condition/s of hell, Faustus reverts to thinking more structurally about his material future: he demands to have a wife who would satiate his “wanton and lascivious” desire to procreate (2.1.141). But Mephistopheles refuses to fulfill this normative drive, proclaiming it to be “but a ceremonial toy,” a tiresome institution that would detract from Faustus’ quest for alternative aesthetic pleasures (2.1.146). He distracts the new recruit from seeking the socio-legal, Christian, and contractual means of procreation and futurity, promising him in its place innocuous moments of cuteness, sexually gratifying experiences with courtesans that would necessarily be more immediate (and less Christian or contractual) in nature.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Important to note here are the differences in aesthetic judgment that inform Faustus’ shifting desires. His initial quest for omnipotence and unbounded knowledge is unschematized, shattering the organization of epistemology, power, and the sublime. When the pleasure of unorganized being is denied to him by the force of Mephistopheles’ ambassadorial refusal, Faustus is forced to define structurally the scope of his quests and reduce himself to seeking futurity within earthly realms; thus his wish to be married. But even this desire is refused him because its institutionalized constituents conflict with those of Satan’s contract, itself a product of aesthetic organization. With marriage taken out of the dynamic, Faustus is offered what seems to be a viable option for sexual gratification, perhaps even reproduction: countless encounters with diverse courtesans. However, the apparent freedom from the marital sexual economy is undercut by the twofold limit of the “courtesans”: being products of Mephistopheles’ conjuration, even if they are capable of bearing children, surely they would be servile to their devilish maker and therefore reproduce his ideology, not Faustus’ 3 Moreover, as courtesans and not wives, their wombs would be refused recognition as legally valid, socially accepted spaces to generate proper bloodlines.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Recognizing fully the precariousness of his offer of the courtesans, Mephistopheles is careful to throw in by way of additional recompense a cute tool that would continue to keep the Good Angel at bay and Faustus in check: a magic book that will instruct the scholar in ways of manufacturing gold, “thunder, whirlwinds, storm, and lightning” (2.1.157). However appealing these shiny toys may be to Faustus, he recognizes them to be impotent in their generative capabilities and, in keeping with his acuteness of intellect (Prologue 16), he quickly sees the ineptitude of necromancy: it is a fickle pursuit that will at best provide him with cheap thrills but not more sustainable sources of proliferation or satisfaction. Having given up, perhaps prematurely, the possibility of experiencing becomings, Faustus reverts to the manipulation of patriarchal ideology of secured biological futurity. The cuteness of the magic book becomes for him an opportunity for invasion, for the insertion of the self into the body and being of the Other. From this point on he combines his existent knowledge of the conventional arts and sciences (for instance, the Andromeda effect) with the hard-earned petty privileges of magic to attempt to insert himself into the future. In other words, he finds ways in which to make the cuteness of magic count toward a violent transformation of the organized spaces within which he must function. Since magic cordons off the experience of unearthly eternity (timelessness) at the same time that it distances Faustus from the social institution of marriage and its accompanying promise of legitimized continuity, he hybridizes and perverts his approach to futurity: he focuses on his monstrous potential to infect the female body with (his) desire, to disrupt the process of “natural,” biological reproduction and inject himself—as an object of “unnatural” female desire—into the pregnant woman’s body. Put simply, he manipulates the aesthetic confines of magic and science to transform his desire into a cute substance that, consumed by others, would be capable at once of lacerating their realms of being and dismantling the sublime affects of eternal damnation.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The most striking instance of lacerating cuteness in Doctor Faustus is the scene involving the Duchess of Vanholt who, through her body, offers the protagonist the possibility of escaping the complete extermination and deterministic fatalism to which he has contractually been bound. Grape-craving and pregnant, the Duchess of Vanholt seems at first glance to be irrelevant not only to the grand scheme of the play, but also to the majority of critical conversations about the role of women or gender in the text. Even a text such as Sara Deats’ Sex, Gender, and Desire in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe, which offers a “feminist reading” of the play (217), manages only once to mention the Duchess in a chapter titled “The Rejection of the Feminine in Doctor Faustus.” Indeed the Duchess is an oft-rejected figure in Marlovian criticism. Yet she is one of two female human subjects in the play, 4 and the only woman to escape omission from the “A” and “B” texts 5 I would argue that the Duchess survives these textual cuts because she is crucial to the play’s overarching investment in cuteness as violent potentiality and in pregnancy as cute medium for disruptive futurity.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 No doubt because of its overt connection to reproduction and the production of cute substance, the pregnant woman’s body itself is often rendered cute in popular culture. Even in its appearance the pregnant woman’s belly might be likened to other cute objects, such as overblown balloons or bubbles stretched almost, but not entirely, to the point of bursting. The roundness and smoothness of a pregnant belly is not unlike the stretched roundness of a balloon. At the same time, the clumsiness of a pregnant woman’s gait likens her body to a doll like Shy Sherri, whose form is so obviously “malformed,” it represents “anatomical disaster,” everything that opposes adult human investment in normative ability, functionality, symmetry, and proportion (Harris 3). Just as the body and actions of the child or baby are aestheticized as cute to “blur the profound drudgery of child-rearing with soft-focused sentimentality” (15), so the mundane yet destabilizing transformations of the pregnant body—the physical discomfort, the hormonal fluctuations, and the emotional anxiety, to name just a few changes—are reorganized in the popular imagination as cuteness, an aesthetic that situates the woman in a future of maternity while serving to occlude her own and others’ vision of pain, mortality, and laborious domesticity.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The early modern investment in cutesy pregnancy may not have coincided with our modern aesthetic claims on the pregnant body, but the dominant narratives of the Renaissance were similarly keen to separate the female’s experience of bodily transformation by aestheticizing pregnancy in the popular cultural imagination. The material horror of pregnancy was not only linked to the horrors of mortality but also to the pregnant body’s substantive potential to mark and impress other beings with her aberrant and secret desires. Thomas Underdowne’s Æthiopian Histories (1569) is the first known English translation of Heliodorus’ romance, Aithiopika, the popular tale of the dark-skinned Queen Persina, who during conception was affected by an image of the white-skinned Andromeda to give birth to a child—Chariclea—who is marked by the whiteness of the mythical princess and not the blackness of her biological parents. As Sujata Iyengar notes in Shades of Difference, Underdowne’s was not the first nor only Renaissance text to adopt the ancient story about bodily transformation (19) 6

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 While Iyengar suggests that the Andromeda effect made available the notion of racial passing, and even allowed for the benevolent reception of difference (racial but also biological), I would argue that the popularity of the tale simultaneously betrays contemporary anxiety regarding a dangerous cuteness, that is, regarding unclean bloodlines, corrupt lineage, and the participation of non-biological agents in the conception or manipulation of a biological product: the human fetus. M. D. Reeve suggests that many Renaissance scholars and scientists offered the notion of the maternal impression or the Andromeda effect to account for physical attributes—desirable or otherwise—of a child. They proposed that the child might be shaped in the womb either by the mother’s visual perception of an image or by her secret desire for sources of pleasure. Referring to the popular Renaissance rationalizations of monsters and monstrous births, Marie-Hélène Huet states that “a remarkably persistent line of thought argued that monstrous progeny resulted from the disorder of the maternal imagination” and desire. Consequently, “[i]nstead of reproducing the father’s image, as nature commands, the monstrous child bore witness to the violent desires that moved the mother at the time of conception or during pregnancy,” and was scarred by her perverse desires instead of by the legitimate markings of its “legitimate genitor” (Huet 1). Similarly, tracing the history of science’s fascination with the possible relationship between the womb and the female imagination or desire, Simon Reynolds notes that thinkers ranging from Aristotle and Saint Augustine to Montaigne and Robert Burton warned against the “dangerous power of strong (female) imagination” (436). The effects of a pregnant woman’s fantasy could be as harmless or cute as to produce in the offspring “blemishes and birthmarks”; but they could also lead to “the creation of monsters” (Reynolds 436).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Reeve, Huet, and Reynolds note that early modern scientists and philosophers were not only cautious of the fetal corruption caused by the Andromeda effect; they also warned against female acts of transgressive desire, such as “sex with devils or animals,” which could lead to monstrous births (Huet 6). But even more innocent female fantasies were not without consequence. Pregnant women’s cravings for certain food items also could shape the fetus and leave physical marks or scars on it by way of evidence of the mother’s fetish, for example. It was commonly accepted that “[i]f a pregnant woman greatly desire(d) a chickpea, she will deliver a child bearing the image of a chickpea,” or “[i]f, during pregnancy, she desire(d) a pomegranate, she (will mark) her child with a pomegranate or something that resembles it” (Pietro Pomponazzi qtd. in Huet 17-18). Clearly, in the early modern mind cute monstrosity resulted from an intervention that “literally imprinted on progeny a deformed, misshapen resemblance to an object that had not participated in their creation” (Huet 5). While in rare instances the monster may have reflected the glory of God, as in the case of Chariclea, who bore the markings of white royalty, the most common assumption was that it was a horrible aberration that “shamelessly reveal(ed) its shameful origins” (Huet 31).

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Reading Faustus in light of the Andromeda effect and of the sinister implications of birthmarks, we come to recognize immediately the potentially monstrous connotations of the cute “little wart or mole” that marks the neck of Alexander’s otherwise “fair” paramour, whom Faustus conjures for the viewing pleasure of the Emperor (4.1.110-11). Similarly, later in the play we are troubled by Faustus’ use of the common knowledge regarding “great-bellied” women’s desire “for things … rare and dainty” to extract successfully from the Duchess of Vanholt her craving for “a dish of ripe grapes” (4.6.10-15). These troubles are heightened by our recognition of the cute acuteness of “the sweetest grapes” that the scholar has his spirit deliver from India or Saba (4.6.30): nothing good could possibly spring from a culinary concoction conjured by the Devil’s advocate for consumption by a pregnant woman. In discovering the Duchess’ pregnancy-induced food fetish and then fulfilling it by using his craft of magic, Faustus makes a singular attempt “to shun the snares of death” using cute substance and his own cuteness (which remains embedded in acuteness) to doubly lacerate the bodies around him (5.1.67). Through the grapes he feeds the Duchess, the scholar inseminates and fertilizes her desiring body and imagination. Knowing full well that he is “but a man condemned to die” (4.4.21), that his “flesh and blood (are) frail” (4.6.76), and that Helen’s kiss will not “make (him) immortal” (5.1.95), Faustus tries to secure within the Duchess’ body the shape of his future. In the process, he perversely fulfills in the immediate sense his earliest prophesy (1.1.78-86), as he has his “swift spirit” conjure “pleasant fruits” from the orient (1.1.81-4). More acutely, he uses magic and earthly knowledge to transform the Duchess’ body into “a vessel for reproducing … [his] bloodlines,” into a cute space wherein his powers may be exerted on the “products of her body” that will record his “paternal” influence (Jankowski 228). This progeny would not only corrupt the noble lineage, but also help the dying scholar escape absolute extinction by retaining for posterity marks of his hybrid, conventional-magical creation. Having lost forever his place in Heaven—possibly the only space where he could finally break out of the cyclical burdens of both temporality and the conventional experiences of futurity—Faustus combines his knowledge and desire to return himself to a position of social power: having no clear future of his own, he manages nonetheless to participate in a cute biological futurity that is as irreverent as it is monstrous.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Faustus’ attempt to defy molar or high aesthetics and leave behind the cute monster-child of his desire is echoed in Negotiations by Deleuze, who announces that when studying the ideas of a philosopher he imagines himself “taking (the) author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous,” a violent mix of ideas, “all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions” (6). The imagined child, Deleuze proposes, could be the fruit of his “buggery or … immaculate conception” (Negotiations 6). While the philosopher’s fantasy has nothing directly to do with Faustus, it nonetheless emphasizes the common movements of lacerating cuteness through knowledge, appropriation, and penetration that mobilizes its potential to break free from defined and organized, in a word, territorialized, modes of being and knowing.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
II Refusing Futurity: Cute “Sinthomosexual” Gestures in Omkara

The uncertain result of mixing energies is also a common feature of “item songs” in Bollywood cinema. For the purposes of this essay, I will concentrate on the song Beedi from the film Omkara (2006). Not connected in any obvious sense to Faustus, the film is a Bollywood adaptation of another Renaissance play marked by anxious futurity: Othello. But in its toying with the stylistic and generic, in a word, aesthetic, compositions of Bollywood films, Omkara mobilizes a lacerating cuteness that parallels the violent potentiality of Faustus. While the OED dates the earliest use of the word “Faustian,” meaning “of or pertaining to John Faust, … the hero of dramas by Marlowe and Goethe” to 1876, the word “Bollywood,” which came to be listed in the Dictionary in 2005, dates back to 1976. As its dating suggests, in one sense Bollywood, or the “[h]umorous blend of Bombay and Hollywood” that is the mainstream “Indian film industry,” is rooted in modernity. Vijay Mishra notes that it “is nothing less than a floating signifier which, in popular imagination, has come close to acquiring a transnational or pan-Indian meaning” suggestive of a cosmopolitan aesthetic (439). He explains, “‘Bollywood’ as a name, a fashion, a style, a way of doing things, has no real location beyond its simulacral, ‘techno-realist’ image which is why it can be so readily packaged and re-packaged for consumption by almost anyone, including Indian popular regional and other national cinemas where its ‘system’ is often internalized. … [T]here is no real cultural capital required to read or enact Bollywood” (440).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Owing to its cultural accessibility or, rather, porosity—even its name puts on display its blended beingness—Bollywood as understood within modernity is an “innocuous” product, “readily transmitted as the signifier of a non-threatening Indian modernity …, the function of cultural accommodation so that no one feels excluded” (Mishra 440). But this Bollywood has an older sibling, a monstrous past lurking beneath the colorful kitschiness definitive of its present aesthetic, that is always present in the gestural practices the cinema typically absorbs as innocuous components of its celluloid history. Bollywood’s gestural history is steeped in the ancient aesthetic theories of rasa, the Sanskrit word for “taste.” The nine key rasas that inform the dynamic of art, particularly the dramatic and performance arts, are: Shringara (love, eroticism), Hasya (mirth, joy), Adbhuta (wonderment, curiosity), Shanta (peace), Raudra (anger, irritation), Veera (courage, pride), Karuna (sorrow, pity, compassion), Bhayanaka (fear, anxiety), and Vibhatsa (disgust, loathing). Together the rasas comprise an aesthetics of the body. The gesturing or performance of each rasa mobilizes its respective bhava or mood, thus creating a template of affects easily recognizable to those familiar with traditional Indian performance art forms, such as Bharatanatyam and Kathakali.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In his essay Mishra focuses on the rasa of karuna and claims an inextricable relationship between it and the sentimentality that is the cornerstone of all Bollywood cinema. (He states in his conclusion, “[n]o amount of references to the production and circulation of (a Bollywood) film brings us any closer to the inner dynamics of the form, to the design and antecedents of the song texts, unless one can shed a tear and sing with the film” (457).) Mishra’s point is well noted. For, while with its increasing spread or popularity Bollywood audiences shift in composition and location, the cinema’s sentimental streak grows in strength, if also in elasticity.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Sentimentality stretched as violent/gestural cuteness is at the center of the “item song” in Bollywood. Amita Nijhawan’s definition of the Bollywood item song captures its essential function in the economy of the cinema: “[i]tem songs are big-budget song-and-dance numbers that are played on television countdowns … and work as snappy advertisements for a film and original music score with their quick cuts and sexy imagery” (100). Besides their crucial role in boosting the popularity of the respective films in which they feature, they also have a dense association with the performance of sexual desire, particularly heteronormative desire. As Jenny Sharpe notes in her essay on the role of gender in Bollywood productions of national and global identities, the song and dance routine that comprises an item song, “which generally serves as a fantasy space in Bollywood films, provides an occasion for staging female desire, even if in the last instance this desire is contained” (67). Over decades the permissibility and limits of itemizing female sexual desire through the songs has undergone several transformations while retaining their economic centrality to the films’ box-office success. Where the item song was once in the purview of the “vamp” or the male villain’s female sexual servitor, by the middle of the 1990s it came to be embraced as a routine that enabled the female protagonist to reveal her sexual energy. The most recent iterations of item songs are looser and more promiscuous in their scope than they were in years past. Now, for example, male characters can occupy the central space of item songs as performers whose buff and well-oiled bodies are intended to draw out female sexual desire within the films 7 Despite the variations, the central theme of the item song remains the articulation and mobilization of sexual desire, specifically heterosexual desire.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 At the same time, the song-and-dance routines enable the manipulation of spatial and temporal realms within the films to reconfigure the possibilities of envisioning non-normative sexual energies. Punctuating the scenes featuring the “real” experiences (mostly struggles) of the central characters, they simultaneously “provoke[…] fascination and anxiety”: for, while designated “as a ‘fantasy’ space” the item song “is often denied ‘realness,’ … yet it is a space with potential for production of emerging cultural and gender ideals,” as Nijhawan notes of the recent item songs that have come out of Bollywood (100). That is, located on the cusp of reality and fantasy, the item song is Bollywood’s primary medium of acuteness through which it narrativizes transversal sexual possibilities of pleasure that, in rubbing against the fabric of the central, dominant forces of the story, often lacerate the structures that the main heternormative plot strives to uphold or protect. The result of the production of cute pleasure could be monstrous or miraculous. In any event, the item songs bear within them the potential to defy the molar structures of reproduction, biological or epistemological. Their potentiality emerges not so much through the lingual or lyrical force of the item song as through the physical gestures or rasas that enable the articulation of non-normative pleasures that remain on lockdown within the confines of language.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Physical gestures in Omkara’s song Beedi unlock the film’s cute reproaches of heteronormativity, specifically of marriage and heterosexual union, while working throughout with the aesthetics of the item number. Vishal Bhardwaj, the film’s director as well as music producer, is an acclaimed composer and director in Bollywood whose recent adaptations of three of Shakespeare’s big tragedies—Macbeth (Maqbool), Othello (Omkara), and Hamlet (Haider)—have won him critical praise around the world and a central place in early twenty-first century Bollywood aesthetics. In an interview with British actress Felicity Kendal that was featured in the documentary film Shakespeare, India, & Me Bhardwaj speaks of his investment in mainstream Bollywood culture that necessitates the inclusion of songs in his films 8 But where most songs in the cinema are hiatuses in the overarching scheme of storytelling insofar as they stop the progress of the central narrative, often working as generically autonomous features that have nothing to do with the main story but that spin their own fantastic tales of sexual desire, Bhardwaj claims of his songs that they are “justified” in their presence because they function as organic parts of the main plot and carry forward the central story that “keeps moving” in and through them.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Bhardwaj suggests that the pausing or stoppage of the central narrative is itself an act of violence, a cute cutting into/apart the primary meaning that drives the story. He suggests, moreover, that he has made every effort to eliminate cute non sequiturs from his films. But violence is an act of seepage, and in Omkara it invades the item song as gestural cuteness. The organic structure of the main plot, in itself a violent retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello set in the rural landscape of North India overrun by politically backed gangsters, is lacerated by another kind of violence, by a cacophonous musicality that accompanies the demise of hetero futurity. Despite Bhardwaj’s insistence in his interview that the item song featuring Billo (Bianca) and the inebriated characters of Kesu Firangi (Cassio), Langda Tyagi (Iago), and Rajju (Roderigo), among other men, is both central to the main plot and truthful to the generic hybridity of his source text which, as he notes, includes a drinking song sung by Iago (2.3.64-68), Beedi ceases to be about the main characters or even about the related incidents among the ancillary characters that thrust the chief drama—the marriage plot—into tragedy. Instead it concentrates on the gestural development of a homoerotic shringara rasa, that is, on the physical movements of sexual pleasure transplanted from the meaningful heternormative space (occupied in the song primarily by Billo and Kesu and, symbolically, by Dolly [Desdemona] and Omkara [Othello], whose impending coital union is included in the song’s narrative as pregnant pause and montage) and relocated onto men’s cutely violent bodily play with one another. The violent pleasure of gesture in Beedi is that it gestures “toward the death drive that lives within reproductive futurism,” and within heternormativity more generally, at the same time “scorning domestication in the form of romance” and exposing “the misconception on which its reality rests: the misconception that conception itself can assure the endurance, by enacting the truth, of the Symbolic order of meaning and preserve, in the form of the future, the prospect of someday redeeming the primal loss that makes sexual rapport impossible and precludes the signifying system from ever arriving at any closure” (Edelman 132, 134).

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The OED defines gesture as a “manner of carrying the body, bearing.” In the narrower sense, it is also a “posture” or “attitude,” even a “movement of the body or limbs as an expression of feeling.” “Gesture,” Elizabeth Cowie states, “is the performing of the body as a living being in specific time and space and social context” (83). It is, moreover, “a kind of event, crystallising meaning at a moment, while opening up to something next (Cowie 83). Therefore, “[t]o consider gesture in film is to be brought to think about the performance of an action as a movement that introduces a change,” as a paradoxical moment of hanging that both pushes forward and back (82). For Agamben gesture is a crucial factor in cinema because it makes visible the failure of language by setting it in time and enacting it in/through motion: “what is at issue in gesture is not so much a prelinguistic content as … the other side of language, its speechless dwelling in language” that is always also a “gesture of being at a loss in language” (Potentialities 78). Put differently, gesture is pure laceration—it lacerates the time within which it is located, lacerating also the language that fails as medium. It enacts its violence by mobilizing an exaggerated cuteness not unlike the violent cuteness that permeates Takashi Murakami’s notorious DOB paintings and installations 9 Its violence toward language is all the more potent when gesture simultaneously dislocates itself from contributing to a semiotics of symbolic meaningfulness, offering pleasure or enjoyment instead of direction or guidance toward continuity or the future.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The lyrics of the song Beedi are steeped in sexual innuendo, just as the scene in which it is performed is a familiar tableau of cute seduction. Billo, the professional singer and performer who, in the film, is also lover to Kesu, bursts into song at the behest of her male audience, who wish to hear her sing Beedi. Prompted by the audience, chiefly by Kesu, who initiates the song, singing its opening lines in hopes of refreshing his lover’s memory of it, Billo takes over from the men and performs the song from thereon in true femme fatale fashion—as the jewel of the item number, in keeping with the expectations of the genre. There is no denying, the music is catchy, its rhythm pulsating and inviting, its lyrics repetitive enough to be memorable in spite of the unfamiliar dialect. Besides, the song’s thesis and accompanying symbolism is simple. Billo and the others sing about cigarettes and sex, the cigarette as phallus the barely veiled if familiar metaphor propelling its agenda. In the song Billo asks her lover to light his cigarette with the great fire he has kindled within her. The refrain, “beedi jalai le jigar se piya, jigar ma badi aag hai” (light your cigarette with the fire raging passionately within me), punctuates verses otherwise saturated with double meaning: there’s much made of snatching blankets in the wintry cold; stealing fires from the neighbor’s kitchen; of bite marks made by a lover that are deeper and sharper than those that might be made by a farmer’s sickle; and so on. The performance is also awash with hip thrusting, chest jiggling, and other jerky movements that draw attention to the rhythmic movements that signify the human sexual anatomy caught in the acts of foreplay and sex. Overall, the song cutely stands in for and means to give meaning to the mobilization of sexual desire.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 But it is in its meaningless gestures that the song erupts simultaneously from the predictable rhythm of the narrative and the language of desire to become a cute signifier of the instability that is pleasure without meaning or purpose, of what Edelman calls “sinthomosexuality.” He stresses that “sinthomosexuality,” in “denying the appeal of fantasy, refusing the promise of futurity that mends each tear, however mean, in reality’s dress with threads of meaning (attached as they are to the eye-catching lure we might see as the sequins of sequence, which dazzle our vision by producing the constant illusion of consequence) … [,] offers us fantasy turned inside out, the seams of its costume exposing reality’s seamlessness as mere seeming, the fraying knots that hold each sequin in place now usurping that place” (Edelman 35). While the song itself works as cute sinthome, a “template” or “knot that holds the subject together, that ties or binds the subject to its constitutive libidinal career” (35-36), particular gestures within it refuse participation in the cohesive harmony of signification. In other words, the pleasure of these gestures is acutely enacted in sinthomosexuality, in their refusal to be meaningful or symbolically relevant to the central scheme of the narrative.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 I will focus on those gestures in the song that revolve around the physical object that is the cigarette. In the context of the song, the cigarette is an object steeped in contradiction. The song’s title itself means “cigarette,” beedi (or bidi) a cheap cigarette made of unprocessed tobacco wrapped in leaves 10 As a signifier, the cigarette can hardly be called cute. This is because, in most social contexts, it symbolizes either a jaded adulthood or else a diseased precociousness, its most recent aura immersed in narratives of dangerous medical and social unhealthiness. At the same time, in the song the beedi transforms into cute substance, a thing that squishes together highly adult practices (sex, smoking) with a childlike forgetfulness and repetition. For, while in the performance Billo asks her lover to light his cigarette by the fire within her, notably she first claims to have forgotten the lyrics and needs to be reminded of the words to the song. Also, Billo’s actions toward the end of the song make clear she despises cigarettes and seems to have an allergic response to them. (In fact, the fight that breaks out between Kesu and others is occasioned by Rajju’s insistence on igniting another cigarette in Billo’s presence after Kesu puts out his first one.) Yet once it gets going and before it is forced to its conclusion, the song functions like a catchy pro-smoking jingle that associates the act of smoking with sexy bodies enacting heterosexual fantasies 11 Surprisingly, in a song about smoking none of the gyrating men, whose collective sexual desire is concentrated on the sequin-clad body of Billo, smokes in the scene. Because the film overall, which otherwise could boast of its authenticity in the context of representing rural Uttar Pradesh’s culture, 12 has hardly any cigarettes or smokers present in its scenes, the song itself becomes a cute signifier of repression. Pitted against the scene of men fantasizing about smoking the red-hot Billo and/as beedi are Langda and Rajju, who revel in the pleasure of the literal and unlit cigarette made visible as the thing in itself. Rather, they take pleasure in the gesture made available to them by the cigarette. (In the song, after a few seconds of taking aim Langda successfully pops an unlit cigarette into Rajju’s mouth. Rajju is never seen lighting up this cigarette but later in the song carries an ignited cigarette in his mouth, presumably the same one offered him by Langda.)

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 By itself the cigarette carries no relevance in the story other than becoming the occasion for Kesu to perform his drunken rage at Rajju (and the only other character seen smoking in the song) for the seeming offense given to his lover Billo. But as something exchanged between two men, it also refuses to bear the song’s overarching hetereonormative, metaphorical, weight. Important to note in this context is the moment at which Langda pops the cigarette in Rajju’s mouth. The song breaks away once from the scenes focusing on Billo and the men to reveal the intimate (silent, gentle) lovemaking of Omkara and Dolly. Omkara, who gifts Dolly his family’s most prized heirloom, a kamarband or waistband that, in previous generations, adorned the bellies of all the wives of his household, commands her to keep it safe at all times; for it at once symbolizes the dignity of his ancestors and the high place in which he holds marital fidelity. Before handing over the heirloom, Omkara also tells Dolly that it was the event of his birth that broke the generations-long drought of offspring in his family. Having laid on her all of its symbolic weight of reproductive futurity and heterofidelity, he then asks to see Dolly wear the kamarband. Obedient to the end, Dolly returns to their bedchamber with the kamarband around her waist. Omkara gently pulls her to him, presumably to initiate their coy sex act, coy insofar as the violence of their sex is always already legitimated by monogamy and heteronormativity—when the scene cuts back to the raunchy festivity of the song Beedi. Only, the scene’s return to raunchiness is marked by a non-hetero gesture, for the camera focuses on Langda and Rajju’s pleasure of/through the cigarette. If the sexual encounter between Omkara and Dolly is meaningful in its potentiality and optimism regarding the promise of reproductive fruitfulness (biological futurity), Langda and Rajju’s enjoyment of the cigarette, even if it is locked into the narrative of the song and twisted to occupy a metaphorical space within it, is remarkable for its acute fruitlessness: it is disruptive because it leads nowhere—the cigarette is unlit for the most part, after all. Counter to all the heteronormative tropes of futurity that inundate the song, the cute gesture of the cigarette pop exchanged between Langda and Rajju in Beedi celebrates petulantly the sinthomosexual pleasure of pleasure as the death drive.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 ***
Through magic, which is a corruption of language combined with gesture, and sinthomosexual pleasure, cuteness in Faustus and Omkara accesses normative futurity only to disrupt its functions. Varied in its approaches to its own invasive potentiality, cuteness in these texts finds gaps in the narratives and aesthetics of maturity. Inserting itself into the gaps, it stretches almost, but not quite, beyond recognition the spaces it invades secretly, from which it erupts as paradoxical resistance—as blunt force energy capable of violent penetration precisely because it severs itself from the predictable and unified aesthetics of acuteness, desire, and usefulness, either winking pleasurably or blinking uselessly at us instead of offering us alternative narratives of resolution and cohesion.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Bibliography

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy.
Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
—. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
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Deats, Sara. Sex, Gender, and Desire in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe.
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Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations: 1972-1990. Trans. M. Joughin. New York:
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Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham:
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Eliot, T. S. “Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe.” In The Sacred
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Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic:
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34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Notes:

  1. 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0
  2. Cute on multiple levels that intersect with grotesque violence, the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road includes an interesting example of cuteness rendered as appropriately dysfunctional within the genre of the dystopic action movie. In a scene during which a pregnant woman falls to her death in the midst of a rigged-up version of a car chase, a makeshift doctor cuts out the fetus from her body, only to announce to the antagonist, the father, that it has no life in it but that “he (the dead fetus) was perfect.” He makes the announcement while twirling the umbilical cord nonchalantly in his hand, as though it were a shiny keychain. The scene is both hideous and funny. Most of all, the doctor’s gesture of twirling the umbilical cord casually while dismissing possibilities for the antagonist’s future of “perfect” progeny, is cute because he refuses to take seriously others’ anxiety about the dearth of normative human bodies.
  3. Ngai makes a similar point in her discussion of Gertrude Stein’s cute poetics. She observes that Stein’s question in Tender Buttons—“What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it?”—is a rhetorical exercise in “cute eroticism” that suggests “the pleasure offered by cute things lies in part in their perceived capacity to withstand extended and unusually rough use” (Ngai 88).
  4. It is evident that the service of the courtesans will be modeled on the dynamic that we observe between Lucifer, Mephistopheles, and Faustus: Mephistopheles’ true affiliations are to Lucifer; his simulation of service to Faustus is a matter of opportunity. So in all matters of consequence, he prioritizes his true master Lucifer, as is made amply clear when Mephistopheles resists once again Faustus’ questions regarding the maker of the world by asserting that he is only bound by contract to answer questions that are “not against (Lucifer’s) kingdom” (2.3.70).
  5. It is evident that the service of the courtesans will be modeled on the dynamic that we observe between Lucifer, Mephistopheles, and Faustus: Mephistopheles’ true affiliations are to Lucifer; his simulation of service to Faustus is a matter of opportunity. So in all matters of consequence, he prioritizes his true master Lucifer, as is made amply clear when Mephistopheles resists once again Faustus’ questions regarding the maker of the world by asserting that he is only bound by contract to answer questions that are “not against (Lucifer’s) kingdom” (2.3.70).
  6. While the Dramatis Personae of the B-text include “A Woman Devil,” Alexander’s “Paramour” (a spirit), “A Hostess,” “The Duchess of Vanholt,” and “Helen of Troy, a spirit” as the play’s cast of female characters, only the Hostess and the Duchess qualify as human. Notably, the A-text’s abbreviated list of characters makes no mention of the Hostess, listing the Duchess as the sole female human subject in the play.
  7. Early modern authors seem to have been fascinated with the physical miracle that was Chariclea, and various texts such as Jacques Amyot’s Histoire Aethiopique (1559), William Lisle’s The Faire Ethiopian (1631), John Gough’s The Strange Discovery (1640), and the anonymous The White Ethiopian draw from the Greek romance to narrativize miraculous births.
  8. The 2012 New York Times article by Jim Bradley characterizes the inclusion of male-driven Bollywood item numbers as the primary reason for the explosion of gyms in urban locations throughout India. The chiseled male abdomen or the six-pack in particular has come to be fetishized as an object to be displayed in item songs and many of Bollywood’s leading men have shown their hard-earned hard bodies on screen by means of the item song that showcases their sexual allure. Referring to the actor Arjun Kapoor’s performance in the recent film Ishaqzaade, Bradley states, “[i]n the film, Mr. Kapoor fires pistols, stares down rivals and woos his love interest, keeping his abdomen on reserve until the item number, … (when) he lustily pulls up the bottom of his shirt, biting it between his teeth, as he undulates his exposed stomach toward his female prey, the dancer Gauhar Khan.
  9. IMDB’s biography of Felicity Kendal refers to her as an actress who “was best known at one time for her ‘cute’ roles.” As an infant Kendal appeared in several plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, put on by her parents’ touring Shakespeare company Shakespeareana that performed plays around India from the late 1940s until the 1960s. Presumably as one of the cute fairy minions in Dream and, later, as the embodiment of cute 1970s femininity in her adult role as Barbara Good in the BBC sitcom The Good Life, Kendal in her interview with Vishal Bhardwaj offers yet another dimension of cuteness, one that positions her in the role of a nostalgic child retracing the adventures of her parents’ flirtation with “Shakespearizing” India. The documentary, which begins with a cutesy retelling of the history of Shakespearean performances in 1780s India concludes with Kendal’s trip to Bollywood, where she interviews Bhardwaj and watches his film Omkara in one of the cinema theaters that she frequented while growing up in the country. That the item songs in Bhardwaj’s “Indianized” Shakespearean films are themselves cute texts but ones that lacerate master texts is, for the purposes of this essay, a twisted bit of fortuitousness.
  10. Sianne Ngai’s discussion of Takashi Murakami’s body of work pays particular attention to his creation of Mr. DOB, a character as/and product that the artist copyrighted in the 1990s. Ngai notes that when Murakami first created DOB’s character, it was to give shape to his “antagonism toward an ‘anglicized pseudo-letter art’” invasion that he wished to “‘crush’” with a rivaling force of cute objecthood (Our Aesthetic Categories 86). See Ngai’s chapter on “The Cuteness of the Avante-Garde,” especially 80-86.
  11. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states in its overview of bidis that they are “small, thin, hand-rolled cigarettes imported to the United States, primarily from India and other Southeast Asian countries.” See http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/tobacco_industry/bidis_kreteks/.
  12. In this sense the song’s repeated references to smoking mimic the appeal to hetero male fantasy made in many US advertisements for mass produced beer and other alcoholic products.
  13. A fact sheet presented by the Government of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare indicates that over thirty percent of adult residents of Utter Pradesh are active tobacco users. See http://www.who.int/tobacco/surveillance/en_tfi_india_gats_fact_sheet.pdf Despite its claim to authenticity and its accurate portrayal of rural life in the state, Omkara foregoes the representation of smokers in a film that is awash in other vices condemned in the popular moral and social imagination, such as excessive use of liquor, violence, and foul language.
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Source: http://retrofuturismofcuteness.net/itemizing-violence-as-cuteness-and-gesture/