Since 2010, Gauss PDF has published eighty-nine .pdfs, .docs, .movs, and .zip files that explore questions of appropriation (see Christine Jones’s The Vision of Love, which reworks and recontextualizes the Mariah Carey tune), medium (see Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Air the Trees, which uses Word’s corrective underlines to create treelike images), the profane (see Josef Kaplan’s One of These Cocks Is Mine, which is every bit as NSFW as it sounds) and scale (see Nicolas Mugavero’s Eight Million Copies of Moby-Dick, which is ostensibly exactly what it sounds like, though I didn’t count them). Gauss PDF’s catalog makes for a great introduction to the widely various scene of contemporary conceptual poetry.
Among their recent releases is Angela Genusa’s Jane Doe, in which Genusa appropriates language without making appropriation itself the subject of the work. By taking appropriation’s legitimacy as an artistic process as a given, she puts aside discussions of aestheticism and process to ask questions about the way we live not only in the textual world, but as living bodies and beings. Jane Doe appears to borrow its language from websites like this one that advertise and sell vintage dolls. Here is one of Jane Doe’s thirty-six entries:
She has red head titian hair with bangs
which appears uncut. No missing plugs
noted; not sure if some may have thinned.
She has blue eyes, brown brows, and pale
butter yellow lips. She has no nose nip, no
green ears, no neck splits. There is a tiny
spot on lower left cheek with faint
greenish stain—hardly noticeable, unless
closely inspected (won’t show in picture).
She has all her fingers and toes and limbs
are attached. Right arm is not as tight as
the left arm. Her back and legs have few
minor, hardly noticeable, scratches. She
has a rattling sound inside her; not sure
The text immediately conjures an odd feeling of slippage into a kind of verbal uncanny valley. One associates the initial description with a woman’s hair, but once her bangs are described as appearing “uncut,” the analog begins to break down. This effect repeats itself numerous times within each piece. One feels again in this piece in the line, “She has blue eyes, brown brows, and pale butter yellow lips.” Once you reach the “rattling sound,” the effect is comedic, and this is often the case in Jane Doe.
More often, though, this slippage is a discomfiting reminder of how women’s bodies are critiqued, how men scan women for flaws and how women do the same to themselves and each other. “Her limbs and head are still nice and tight and in good working order,” (#19); “still,” implying it is only a matter of time before this is no longer the case. The endless search for parts that are “broken”—“Right knee is broken inside, and does not click, skin is not broken,” (#20)—brings to mind the chauvinist observation of “damaged goods.” And the bizarre nature of the categories of defects that are examined here—the collectors are forever on the lookout for “missing plugs,” “green ears,” “neck splits” etc.—brings to mind the ever-expanding laundry list of bodily details women must correct. One thinks of the ludicrous “thigh gap,” the lack thereof being a so-called problem that seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of an enterprising Cosmopolitan writer.
The cold, flat, repeating descriptions of bodies in Genusa’s work here also reminds me of the chapter of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 entitled “The Crimes,” in which the author presents crime scene descriptions of the bodies of victims of a serial rapist/murderer, inspired by a long series of similar crimes near Juarez, Mexico. The title Jane Doe implies the unknown identity of such a victim. Just as Bolaño’s victims often show the same types of mutilations, many having had a nipple bitten off, many of the dolls in Genusa’s work are said to have bite marks on their extremities, their noses. Some of the dolls are missing fingers or toes, presumably victims of a more innocent brutality. This attempt to simply report the objective facts lends the descriptions of the dolls the tone of a pedophiliac detective novel.
And yet despite these attempts to remain distantly objective, the collectors sometimes demonstrate a clear affection for their doll subjects, though always qualified by the acknowledgment of at least one imperfection.
She has the most beautiful full head of
oxidized hair I’ve ever seen. It is thick and
absolutely shining. She is perfect with big
brown doe eyes, rosy cheeks, real lashes
and pink mouth. No neck splits, no green
ear. Her body is in excellent condition as
well. Her legs work well and hold three
positions. Her hands are perfect with all
fingers present and no chews or nicks.
The only minor issues are a few pin pricks
on her right leg on the foot.
Despite seeming to be in love with this doll for her “oxidized hair,” “doe eyes,” and “pink mouth,” she still comes up short. She is “perfect,” “excellent,” except for her “minor issues.” And though the collector insists her pin pricks are something to be looked past, he does so, presumably, in order to preserve her value in the eyes of potential buyers.
But what is it that the collector seeks to buy and sell? The consistent use of feminine pronouns to refer to the dolls emphasizes the assumption of a personality, an ontology in the mind of the collector. Due to their anthropomorphic qualities, the dolls are subconsciously imbued with human qualities, and referred to as if they were people rather than a conglomerate of plastic, rubber, and synthetic fibers. Just as the line between object and person is blurred for children in the experience of playing with dolls, Genusa points that this line is never fully brought into relief as we become adults. Dolls are made to resemble us, and we can’t deny or ignore that resemblance. Our treatment and discussion of our anthropomorphized toys then is unavoidably an analog for the way we talk about people. And this is what makes this collection more than a little unsettling.
It seems ironic that in choosing to collect used dolls from a previous generation, these collectors have made perfection less attainable. If what one truly desired was a perfect doll, it would be easy enough to buy a new one from a toy store. The problem is that anyone can do that, while it takes a more skilled collector, an aficionado, to find the perfect used doll, one that has been owned so well previously, that perfection has become an integral, if fragile, part of her being. Her perfection becomes the collector’s perfection. It takes the perfect collector to locate and preserve the perfect doll.
Michael Flatt is a PhD candidate in the Poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of Absent Receiver(SpringGun Press, 2013) and with Derrick Mund, Chlorosis (Bon Aire Projects, forthcoming).