“Ointment” and the Role of Commodity in Structuring Femininity In James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

February 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

Thomas Richards, in his 1990 exposition on cultural theory, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914 states: “In the mid-nineteenth century the commodity became the living letter of the law of supply and demand. It literally came alive.”(Richards 2) The “commodity” adopts a corporeal cling to Victorian society in the form of the female body, as proposed in James Joyce’s modern epic, Ulysses. Narrative techniques and representations of the human body submit, simultaneously, to the authoritative commodity culture that pervades and structures Joyce’s text. As Richards’ publication claims, Ireland, under Victorian England’s economic influence, experienced significant shifts in cultural values, which began to reflect a modern capitalist system. Joyce, over the course of novel, fabricates an accurate depiction of Dublin during the rise of capitalism; consciously, and predominantly, unconsciously, underwritten by advertising and consumer desires. The narrative is saturated in mercantile discourse, as Molly and Bloom progress through the day interacting with commodities in physical and mental states. With particular emphasis on feminine hygiene products, such as “ointment” and “lotion”, it is evident that Joyce invented characters that are fully immersed in commodity culture, and is especially concerned with constructing an anatomical, female counterpart to the “commodity”.The term “commodity” infiltrated Irish economy at an exponential rate, and with it, capitalism began to permeate the industrial status of the country. In consultation with Karl Marx’s Capital: Critique of Political Economy, it is possible to contextualize objects such as “ointment” and “lotion”, and the characters’ palpable and cerebral interactions with these objects, as occurrences within “commodity culture”. “Volume 1” of the bourgeois driven work, is essentially a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, and the role of the commodity within it. This system is applicable to that which governs the characters, and the consumerist intentions and desires they experience throughout the day. In examining Bloom’s thoughts, particularly those that are topically concerned with the lotion and soap he purchases for Molly, it is apparent that such merchandise is erotic and inspires a sexual appetite in him. Though erotic thoughts are not uncommon for Bloom, it is significant to consider that ointment and lotion, as commodities, provoke a consistent image of woman and a sense of femininity.The “Nausicaa” episode formally introduces the impressionable figure of Gerty MacDowell, Joyce’s literary manifestation of “feminine sensibility”. Gerty represents a hyperbolically feminized ‘poster-girl’ for female hygiene products, as she is appropriately named the “Queen of Ointments”. Her narrative is heavily imbued in mercantile language and consumerist desires; Gerty’s thought process is entirely unique to the novel, but dictates a universal mode of thinking adopted by women in 1904 Dublin. The thoughts that comprise “Nausicaa” reverberate into a slogan for “the seaside girl”, the commercial fantasy for both men and women; for the former, an eroticized jingle that caters to masculine libido, and for the latter, an emblem of female jealousy and standardized beauty. Ointments, lotions, perfumes and creams are the necessary components for constructing and maintaining femininity, much like Joyce’s consciousness of commodity culture is necessary for “writing” literary femininity. Joyce confronts the lived reality of the advertised spectacle, not just as a social space for displaying commodities, but also as a coercive agent for invading and structuring human consciousness. The “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses defines the impact of all this calculated consumption on a single consumer, Gerty MacDowell.Materialism and concerns for acquiring possessions appear persistently throughout the day in characters’ thoughts; Bloom, for example, lives out the day reminding himself of certain items he must purchase and handling those items that he does buy. Consumerism is so deeply ingrained in Bloom, that in the “Circe” episode, during a hallucinatory moment, the bar of soap that has resided in his pocket speaks for itself: “THE SOAP: We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I.”(Joyce 406) The capitalist relationship is present in Bloom’s mind, on conscious and subconscious levels. Marx, in concluding the first chapter of Capital’s “Volume 1”, establishes a definition for commodities:“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”(Marx 663)Marx claims that the ideology that corresponds to the “commodity” functions to mask and obscure that which is at work in what he calls “the fetishism of commodities”. Under a capitalist system, human relations are increasingly characterized by alienation, monetization, and commodification. Relationships between workers and owners, buyers and sellers are mediated through the merchandise produced. These commodities become objects of fetishism; there seems to be an objective existence about them, that obscures the individual labor involved in their production. In the act of exchange, the commodity acquires an inherent value distinct from the use value or physical properties. This relationship is apparent between Bloom and the pharmacy shop: “Better get that lotion made up. Where is this? Ah yes, the last time. Sweny’s in Lincoln place. Chemists rarely move. Their green and gold beaconjars too heavy to stir…It certainly did make her skin so delicate white like wax.”(Joyce 75-76)The passage, extracted from Bloom’s continuous thought process while running errands, exposes his unconscious priority for feminine hygiene products. Bloom considers the chemist’s labor, as his mind wanders into the shop’s territory and the effects that the chemicals may have on an individual who manufactures them for customer use. He also remembers the lotion’s previous effect on Molly, provoking an image of desire, which, as “commodity fetishism” narrates, is evident of Bloom’s Marx was aware of a dichotomy that structured the concept of a commodity; on one hand, commodities are calculable and quantifiable, but on the other, they carry a cultural baggage whose origins are untraceable for humans due to their immediate and omniscient presence in a society. Marx writes:”A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relations of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor.”(Marx 665)Though Bloom is an appropriate candidate for this skewed social relation, Joyce was perhaps doubly aware of the commodification of characters, since the soap performs functions beyond that of an inanimate object. Merchandise becomes part of the mercantile conversation and mystifies the “commodity” further. In “Nausicaa”, Gerty MacDowell’s daydreaming reveals more than simple longings for her “dream husband”; her narrative is littered with “needs” and “wants” for beauty products, which eventually become indistinguishable. Thomas Richards’ comments on the problem of human agency in an increasingly consumerist system, which is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Gerty:“Neatly following Marx’s account of the fetishism of commodities in the first volume of Capital, Gerty exhibits the tendency of failing to see that she is dealing with a social relation among human beings and has supposed instead that she is dealing with a relation between things.”(Richards 218)Richards’ criticism also references Marx’s theory, reinforcing Joyce’s authorial proximity to commodity culture. Joyce, in his choice to utilize free indirect discourse to convey Gerty’s episode, demonstrates the commodity driven thought processes of a young woman cast at the core of a system of which she is both an object and an agent; the vulnerable consumer and the “Queen of Ointments”, simultaneously.The role of the commodity varies within Joyce’s text; Bloom, Molly and Gerty physically and mentally interact with a broad spectrum of merchandise and products throughout the day. By narrowing the commodity, as contextualized by Marxist theory, to female beauty products, a pattern begins to arise. There is a consistent connection between ointment and the provocation of eroticism associated with the female body. Bloom’s head is constantly swimming with sexualized images, as he fantasizes of female hands slathered in ointment: “O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed…”(Joyce 162) This fantasy suggests a subconscious relation between commodity and sexuality, particularly that which corresponds to the female body. In “The Wandering Rocks” episode, Bloom is seen at a bookstore, contemplating pornographic novels for Molly:“Mr Bloom read again: The beautiful woman. Warmth showered gently over him, cowing his flesh. Flesh yielded amply amid rumpled clothes…Melting breast ointments (for Him! For Raoul!)…Feel! Press! Crushed! Young! Young!”(Joyce 226)The commodity which pertains to ointment is highly romanticized in Bloom’s mind; he becomes infatuated with feminine romance, distinctly, the romance of a woman covered in ointments and lotions. Richards theorizes on the model for commercial consumption and the manipulation that the female body undergoes in an economic system dominated by men: “Advertising managed to establish a female model for consumption without ceding the activity entirely to women. Advertisers defined consumption as an extension of the sexual division of labor enshrined in the Victorian household.”(Richards 206)The “female model” endorses the genders equally as consumers of particular products, ointment and erotic novels. Bloom responds to both items; he is aroused by the content of the book and incorporates ointment as a means to standardize “the beautiful woman”, products which are initially targeted for female use. This dual utilization will also surface subsequently when examining Joyce’s narrative technique in “Nausicaa”, in the demonstration of “woman writing”.It is important to consider the intertextual symbols for females in commercials, jingles, and romance novels, alongside the representation of women in Joyce’s text. These figures occur frequently, such as that of “the seaside girl” or “the beautiful woman”, and function to advertise and arouse male and female consumers. Molly, and more specifically, Gerty, interact with such figures on conscious and sometimes subconscious levels. Molly, aware of the scrutiny she faces in maintaining an outward appearance, displays bouts of jealousy and views herself as a singular, sexual figure to be desired by all men, including Bloom. Gerty, however, distributes the same want for an appealing, outward appearance consciously and subconsciously. Her desires are reserved “in secret”, within her thoughts, which reference beauty products and hygiene items persistently. Richards’ diagnoses this mode of thinking in detail, in his chapter entitled, “Those Lovely Seaside Girls”. He claims that,“…this neurosis-racked woman became the prototypical consumer, and her traditionally feminine attributes were translated into a psychology of consumption and preyed upon by a new “science,” the psychology of advertising.”(Richards 206)Joyce provides a psychological profile of the typical consumer, yet the emphasis in this case is on the female consumer. The female model structures and maintains the foundation for consumerism tapered for both sexes. Richards continues his discussion of feminine advertising: “In the early twentieth century advertising became a primary vehicle for condensing the detritus of consciousness into a commodity language. Advertisers now became specialists not only constituting discourse but in constituting selves—especially female selves—to take up positions within commodity culture.”(Richards 210)Gerty’s narrative represents a specifically female experience of Victorian political economy; Joyce’s exposition of female consumerism is inherently suspicious of a world of unrestricted buying and selling associated primarily with men. But Joyce assumes that women are already implicated as both agents and objects in an economics of consumption. Likewise, Joyce himself, as an author, expels a performative female voice, one that is explicitly inserted into the literary market in order to critique the values and concealed suppositions of capitalism.To transition into a critical discussion of the role of commodity and its relation to constructing femininity, it is necessary to focus on Gerty MacDowell and the narrative that conveys the “Nausicaa” chapter. Gerty appears elsewhere in the novel, briefly in “Wandering Rocks”, but is formally introduced in “Nausicaa”. Joyce’s narrative is garnered to a process of innately female thought, as Gerty enters the scene on Sandycove beach:“Her hands were of finely veined alabaster with tapering fingers and as white as lemonjuice and queen of ointments could not make them though it was not true that she used to wear kid gloves in bed or take a milk footbath either.”(Joyce 332)Immediately, Gerty’s body is described; physical appearance is a priority in perceiving Gerty’s character. Primarily, the description illustrates a youthful, child-like girl, however, the insertion of “queen of ointments” suggests two things: firstly, Gerty is perhaps undergoing puberty since “queen” is a label attached to a woman entering or experiencing adulthood, and secondly, Gerty is Joyce’s deliberate “female model” within the established commodity culture of the novel. Richards’ criticism is relevant to this interpretation, as he comments on the language of the consumer used to depict female figures in advertising: “They delivered up a large drama on a small scale, transforming the body from an off-limits zone into a site of voluble speech and the privileged seat of spectacle.“(Richards 203) By describing aspects of Gerty’s body in relation to commodities, such as ointment, she is contextualized as a commodity herself; her body can now be interpreted as a consumable product, a living, breathing advertisement.Joyce provides a concrete characterization of Gerty, which again, lacks human depth:“…as fair a specimen of winsome Irish girlhood as one could wish to see…Her figure was slight and graceful, inclining even to fragility but those iron jelloids she had been taking of late had done her a world of good much better than the Widow Welch’s female pills and she was much better of those discharges she used to get and that tired feeling.”(Joyce 332) By labeling Gerty as a “specimen”, her body is further categorized as a consumable object; she is a physical representative for girls and women in Ireland, and an advocate for the consumerist attitude that prevails that society. Gerty’s character and the act of defining her as an individual are entirely dependent on beauty products; Joyce is essentially constructing a facet of femininity that relies on capitalism for agency. Most importantly, the narrative asks: “But who was Gerty?”(Joyce 331) Perhaps Gerty’s body only exists in commodification, as the question suggests that a physical manifestation of Gerty is not present. Richards’ argument is also relevant in providing context for the rapidly changing feminine identity:“…the quacks had already dug the pincers of the marketplace deeply into the flesh of the consumer. The body had become the prevailing icon of commodity culture, and there was no turning back.”(Richards 203)The “quacks” to which Richards is referring to are dominant males that operate the economy. He claims that female participation in the economic space exists in the form of the body, however, in labeling the body an “icon” perhaps there is no corporeal representation, but rather, a symbolic one. Richards is aware of the significance of identifying Gerty as the “queen of ointments”, he states:“Although an advertisement like the “Queen of Ointments” exercises unprecedented influence over Gerty, it does not do so in a vacuum but remains subject to her varying needs and capacities.”(Richards 224)This point is compatible with the previous characterization of Gerty as an “object and agent” of the capitalist system. To be the “queen of ointments” both limits and liberates Gerty in an economic system; she is encapsulated into a position that restricts individuality, and also equips her with agency in the system that envelops her.Essentially, a contradiction marks the narrative of “Nausicaa” and the portrayal of human consciousness that is exclusive to women. Joyce inscribes a mode of thinking that is associated to feminine desires and the female body. Though gender confusion is common throughout the text, the female voice is most explicitly heard in “Nausicaa” and “Penelope”. Gerty’s narrative, however, dictates the thoughts of the vulnerable, impressionable opposition to the character of Molly. Gerty, the “queen of ointments”, is also the literary embodiment of “the seaside girl”; this figure appears frequently in the whole text of the novel, especially in the minds of male characters, Bloom and Blazes Boylan. The jingle, “Those girls, those girls,/Those lovely seaside girls.”(Joyce 60) reverberates in the various narratives, much like a commercial slogan would in thoughts of consumers. Gerty, whose body lacks palpability and relies on cosmetic products for depth, is the free-flowing advertisement that pervades the minds of men and women alike. Richards’ chapter, “Those Lovely Seaside Girls”, demonstrates an analysis of function of the jingle in regards to Gerty’s purpose in the novel:“Over the course of the late nineteenth century the advertising industry organized a proliferation of commodity narratives into a stable semiotic canopy for capitalist society, bestowing on this integrated universe an ontological status independent of human activity.”(Richards 11)Richards proposes that “commodity narratives” are a form of signification in “capitalist society”; considering this, perhaps Gerty’s narrative is Joyce’s scheme for signifying female identity in the political and economic systems that structure his novel. Bloom muses on “the seaside girls”, as the following passage occurs in his narrative:“Lovely seaside girls. Skin tanned raw. Should have put on coldcream first make it brown. Buttered toast. O and that lotion mustn’t forget. Fever near her mouth. Your head it simply. Hair braided over: shell with seaweed. Why do they hide their ears with seaweed hair?”(Joyce 268)Though the excerpt does not possess the erotic tone that marks many of Bloom’s other mercantile thoughts, his conception of the “lovely seaside girls” requires “lotion” and “coldcream” to satisfy the image of femininity. Richards justifies the form of objectifying women in terms of consumerism:“Because advertisers assumed that women acted as consumers only on the explicit instructions of men, they were not alert to the many ways in which advertising spoke with a female voice and contributed to the formation of a specifically female consuming subjectivity.”(Richards 207)Bloom is conscious of his attraction to women that utilize cosmetic products and the idealized “seaside girl”, yet, he does not hold responsibility in operating the opposition between men and women in the economic space. The narrative that is unique to Gerty is not subject to male consumption, however, Joyce, being a male author, subscribes and manipulates the female voice specific to Gerty, furthering the contradiction.The concept of écriture describes everything about writing that can neither be subsumed into an idea nor made to correspond exactly to empirical reality. It encompasses the ‘textuality’ of all discourses, and Helene Cixous can be credited as responsible for discourse inherently unique to women. Preceding her seminal work in feminist psychoanalytic theory, The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous advanced Joyce studies in writing her doctoral dissertation on his collected works. According to Cixous, Joyce’s late style is perhaps the most accurate endeavor in the English tradition to écriture. Cixous’ écriture feminine aims at rendering the figures of femininity literally, and exploring the consequences of that literalization. Cixous does not privilege the “female” half of an existing binary opposition between “male” and “female”; much like her contemporary theorists of ecriture, she questions the adequacy of said opposition to label the complexity of cultural realities. It becomes evident, particularly in an application of Cixous’ theory to Joyce’s narrative, that, an inconsistency lies at the core of Cixous’ work: her insistence on the two incompatible logics within ecriture feminine. Primarily, Cixous claims that ecriture feminine is characterized by the explicitly female body parts that had been repressed by traditional discourse, and must be expressed by the woman writer. However, she also promotes the use of ecriture feminine for both men and women. It is perhaps more appropriate to interpret Cixous’ “body”, as that of any transgressive or desiring individual; it is conceivably her interpretation of the body itself, that has been repressed. The “body” may not even be a physical body, but rather figurative bodies that possess power or cannot possess power. Traditionally, power, authority, and law have conjectured the male body; but, in consideration that no actual body is represented, both men and women would have access to comment on the body. By writing as if the female body could be asserted, Cixous’ ecriture feminine frees it from invisibility and, simultaneously, does not make it into a new model for the universal human being.By interpreting Gerty’s body as that of Cixous’ theory, a body that exists figuratively to express desire in a consumerist and sexual sense, it is possible to interpret Joyce’s narrative as a garnering of commodity and its effect on consciousness. Cixous states, “woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.”(Cixous 1942) Gerty’s narrative comprises various discourses, all perceived by Irish manhood, Bloom and ultimately Joyce, as constitutive of femininity. Alternately, her discourse emerges as a veritable code of femininity, as recognized from the perspective of the male observer. Gerty is fundamentally the object of her discourse, not the subject; she is constructed by and through it. Similarly, she is the fantasy, not the fantasist, even though her thoughts contain dreams and aspirations of an applicable romance. As fantasy, as object, as consumer, she is also a cultural commodity, a product of societal conceptions of what a “woman” is or should be. Cixous writes:“Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which the publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; not yourself. Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women- female-sexed texts. That kind scares them.”(Cixous 1944)The paradox of Cixous theory compliments Joyce’s technique because as a man, “writing” the woman into a capitalist system, he is simultaneously “writing” himself into the literary economy. By demonstrating an objective female mode of thinking, entirely defined by consumer desires, Joyce fabricates an authoritative stance for Gerty, for women, and ultimately for himself as an author. Cixous regards the female voice as repressive, however, infuses the feminine half of the binary opposition with agency in the system that oppresses the body initially: “But secretly, silently, deep down inside, she grows and multiplies…she knows far more about living and about the relation between the economy of the drives and the management of the ego than any man.”(Cixous 1954)Gerty holds her desires “in secret” to respect the feminine “sensibilities” that reign over the adolescent female demographic; the domestic desires of women are examined as dramas of competitive buying, selling and utilizing, in which females are always at risk as objects to be purchased yet also implicated as agents of consumerism.Helene Cixous’s final lines in her essay demonstrate the function of “Écriture féminine” as a mode of inclusion in male-dominated spaces, such as the capitalist sphere, but also as a mechanism for escape and female individuality: “This is an “economy” that can no longer be put in economic terms. Wherever she loves, all the old concepts of management are left behind. At the end of a more or less conscious computation, she finds not her sum but her difference.”(Cixous, 1959) Joyce’s exposition of female consciousness challenges the prevailing ideology of production and consumption by relocating human value in female sexuality and desire. In doing so, he offers cognition of female economics that could serve as a prototype for twentieth-century feminists, such as Helen Cixous. “Nausicaa” is in essence, an analogy drawn between the bodily mercantile exchanges, which the Gerty and Bloom apply fastidiously to their experience, and the grand narrative of Capitalism, which is rigorously applied to our own. Each is a manner of giving form and significance to existence in the same way as narrative itself lends towards a similar ‘fictitious’ ordering of experience. Joyce confronts the lived reality of the advertised spectacle, not just as a social space for displaying commodities, such as ointments, creams, and lotions, but also as a coercive agent for invading and structuring human consciousness. The “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses defines the impact of all this calculated consumption on a single consumer, Gerty MacDowell. Joyce also positions himself in this analogy by “writing” himself and the female counterpart into the literary economy.Works CitedCixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. 1942-959. Print. Joyce, James. Ulysses: The 1922 Text. Ed. Jeri Johnson. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.Marx, Karl. “Capital, Volume 1: Chapter 1. Commodities: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. 663-74. Print.Richards, Thomas. “Those Lovely Seaside Girls.” The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914. Stanford, CA:

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