Miranda July: Interrupting the Conventions of the Personal


The paradoxical and perplexing work of writer and filmmaker Miranda July honours the struggle to communicate and to belong while also making it strange again. Adamant that “the whole point is to be able to feel more, to connect more” (Kushner 65), her work acknowledges the contingency of being human in a way that is both profoundly consoling and powerfully affirmative. Her non-fiction book It Chooses You, an account of her quest for meaning while struggling to finish the screenplay for her film The Future, is testament to her ardent commitment to intimacy and connection, as she strives to feel the reality of the lives with which she comes into contact. The second person address of the title to her short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is characteristically inclusive, as is the play on interpersonal pronouns in the title of her first feature film, You, Me and Everyone We Know.

The journalist Katrina Onstad argues that July’s work “is desperate to bring people together, forcing them into a kind of fellow feeling. She’s unrelentingly sincere, and maybe that sincerity makes her difficult to bear” (Onstad). Whilst Onstad’s statement is incisive, it ignores the ambivalence of her work. She is difficult to bear, but not because of her unrelenting sincerity. She is sincere but she is also ironical; her work both consoles and abrades. The oscillation between opposites that is central to Vermeulen and van den Akker’s conception of metamodern practice is fundamental to her work. Wary of the uncritical consolation of the therapeutic – arguably one of the most dominant contemporary ideologies – her work critiques the culture of self help and the solipsistic pursuit of self-improvement and authenticity, which privileges the suffering self, and creates an alternative space of perplexing strangeness that dislodges complacency and interrupts conditioned responses. The same space that acknowledges and affirms the struggle of existence also feels deeply dangerous, a kind of ground-zero of razed conventions and preconceptions. Her approach is rich in paradox, austere in style yet excessive in content, transgressive and troubling: one sister helps another masturbate, malignant strangers break into homes, peep show customers wait to attack in car parks, intimacy itself is “incredibly dangerous” (‘Ten True Things’ 139). The narrator of the short story ‘Something That Needs Nothing’, both broke and broken hearted, walks across the city “in tiny shorts and a half-shirt that said HONK” (‘Something That Needs Nothing’, 80) – an emblem of her own vulnerability;

I often felt that I would be shot in the back with an arrow or gun, but this didn’t happen. The world wasn’t safer than I had thought, on the contrary; it was so dangerous that my practically naked self fit right in, like a car crash, it happened every day (‘Something That Needs Nothing’, 80)

July looks to meet and acknowledge the fear and paranoia rife in the contemporary world, without privileging it. She critiques the dependence upon the psychotic as a standard of interpretation, the “wound culture” evoked by Mark Seltzer, which relies “on paranoia to provide its model of ‘the social’ and the psychotic to provide its model of ‘the symbolic'” (Seltzer 19), while also acknowledging the urgency of its manifestations.

One of the most palpable ways in which July engenders strangeness is the careful poverty of description in her work; the material information about the characters’ appearances or possessions is somehow insubstantial. There are patio chairs and couches, and people work in offices and go to shops: these are familiar things but July renders them unfamiliar. The ambivalence of the context is troubling; it makes the ground unstable, leaving the reader with little by which to navigate. July creates spaces of profound doubt, “where it’s not clear, or maybe not even interesting, whether someone is good or bad or crossing a line” (Kushner 65), which seems revolutionary given our hunger for clarity about what to feel, and whom to declare the enemy. She is intent upon working against the paranoid hunger for classification, and the fearful and salacious determination to categorise and define.

July engenders identification with her narrators and then complicates the attachment. Her use of the first person is one obvious way in which the reader is implicated in the inner world of the individual, which also encourages the assumption that the narrator is simply a variant of July’s own voice. The ardency of the narrator’s voice in the short story ‘The Shared Patio’ is very close to July’s own: the narrator’s submissions for the magazine she works for (Positive, for people who are HIV-positive), echo July’s intensity: “Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you[…] It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise” (‘The Shared Patio’ 11). Her submissions are offbeat, vivid. Yet while the optimism and affirmation and lack of moral judgment within these short self-help pieces is easy to like, there is also a suggestion that the universality and inclusivity of the language are mistaken, operating as sentimental padding that obliterates particularity. There has to be something a little askew, for instance, in the narrator’s total identification with HIV sufferers, when she does not have the disease:

If it weren’t for the advertisements – Retrovir, Sustiva, Viramune- you would think it was a magazine about staying positive, as in upbeat. For this reason it is my favourite magazine. All the other ones build you up just to knock you down, but the editors at Positive understand that you have already been knocked down, again and again…(‘The Shared Patio’ 10)

The narrator’s identification with the magazine is a means of accessing a community of suffering, an intimate public defined by victimhood and trauma. In its avoidance of negativity while asserting the appearance of happiness at all costs, the magazine ignores the troubling reality of the disease. The effect is assimilative, smoothing away the ‘incommensurate’; as affect theorist Lauren Berlant puts it, “the racially, economically and sexually incommensurate audience [is] translated into a shared mass of feeling,” (The Female Complaint 51) which denies the non-universality of pain. July destabilises the complete, uncomplicated identification produced by self help magazines and talk shows, and disturbs our identification with the narrator. Identification then dis-identification: is this woman sane or mad? Good or bad? July’s work certainly affirms – we all suffer – but she does not offer an uncritical embrace.

The self help model is also ambivalently presented in July’s story ‘Mon Plaisir’; where the therapist, Ruth, counters the narrator’s despair about her relationship with cosy euphemisms, and anecdotes about her own marriage, telling the narrator how her husband:

…loved her for being a sourpuss, and she laughed sheepishly about what a sourpuss she was. God, it sounds so fucking great; I want to laugh sheepishly at myself, I want to be a sourpuss. Ruth hands me the Kleenex box and our time is up. I half blow my nose, waiting until I get outside to do the full blow. (‘Mon Plaisir’ 153)

There is no real recognition of the individual situation; just generic, woolly consolation. The inadequacy of the interaction is clear: there is no satisfaction gained from the encounter: the narrator does not even feel able to blow her nose properly until she leaves the room. The therapy feels like a holding mechanism, a palliative to sustain the narrator’s dysfunctional relationship; in Lauren Berlant’s terms, it provides the means to sustain a ‘cruel attachment’, ‘when the object or scene of desire is an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that bring people to it; but its life organising status can trump interfering with the damage it provokes’ (Cruel Optimism 2).

July’s work explores alternatives to such ‘cruel attachments’; ways of loving that are culturally beyond our ken, too high or low pitched for our docile senses, schooled in convention, to comprehend; the process she describes as trying “to pin a tail onto thin air, nowhere near the donkey” (It Chooses You 101). It is difficult to define the tenderness that develops between the two middle-aged women in ‘Ten True Things’, and between the elderly men of ‘The Sister’, and any attempt feels clumsily reductive. In ‘Ten True Things’ we might wonder if the connection between the women is sexual, and it is because one of the women cannot let go of the need for such a definition that the intimacy is thwarted: convention vanquishes their fledgling attachment. In ‘The Sister’, however, the narrator does not allow convention, or hidebound resistance to the “new life” to frustrate his relationship with Victor; fittingly, given language is one of the shaping forces of convention, it gives way and he growls, “the new life came easily after this, a growl” (‘The Sister’ 51). As July writes elsewhere, “there are some great reasons for resisting language, and one of them is love” (‘Making Love in 2003’ 123).

July is well aware of both the risk and the potential absurdity of her attempts to unpick conventional templates of meaning. In the story ‘Ten True Things’, the narrator is indignant at her classmate Sue’s freewheeling invention:

Is she even trying to make a kimono-style robe, or does she think we are making dog-beds? I used to get incredibly distracted by her; I was just so amazed at her interpretation of the directions…What happens when you do the exact opposite of everything you are told? How would she know when she was done? And why wasn’t anyone doing anything about this…But then one day the teacher came around and told me to rip out my last five seams and I wanted to yell, My seams? At least my seams are for bipeds, what about her last five seams? (‘Ten True Things’ 132)

In a self-reflexive manoeuvre, July occupies the irritated, comic reaction to the kind of interruption of convention she is proposing, “What happens when you do the exact opposite of everything you are told? How would she know when she was done?” The story offers an allegory for July’s endeavour in making art that dares “to mean nothing” (It Chooses You 199) and so demand everything; Sue, as July’s stand-in, is inept and/or uninterested in utilitarian dress making, and at the end of the sewing course cannot put on her robe because it “wasn’t really a robe, it was nothing”. Naked, she:

plants her wad of flannel in the middle of the floor like a pink hive or a giant tulip bulb. All the women gathered around it like a fire, like fire we knew better than to touch it, but we could not look away (‘Ten True Things’ 142).

The women recognise the audacity, and the radicalism, of something without “inherent meaning or value” (It Chooses You 199). What might the wad of flannel symbolise? Pink flannel evokes flesh, a hive suggests a hidden world of life and complex activity, as does a bulb, which is a dormant flower. It is a resonant, humming presence.

Instead of the placatory affirmation of self help and therapeutic jargon, and the intimate publics of talk shows and magazines, July offers an alternative sentimental education, that proposes perplexity, and unknowing, in place of judgemental conformity. It is a hugely ambitious endeavour that is fraught with risk. Her description of Escher’s impossible staircase, the image pinned to the wall of the couple’s apartment in her film ‘The Future’, as “my own joke with myself about what I was trying to do – to be almost kitschily surreal and yet also really mean it” (It Chooses You 203), suggests the scale of that ambition. She is looking to create paradoxical, impossible spaces outside of convention, beyond the binaries that order our existence. But the sincerity of her commitment to that endeavour is countered by her irony: she is “kitschily surreal”. In their discussion of metamodern practice, Vermeulen and van den Akker describe theorist Raoul Eshelman’s concept of performatism as “the wilful self-deceit to believe in – or identify with, or solve – something in spite of itself” which is precisely what July is doing in citing Escher’s staircase. The image – which suggests an aspiration for art as capable of re-ordering and re-imagining the world – has become kitsch, tired, and in using it, July seeks to capture both the original aspiration and the subsequent registration of apathy and defeat. The idealism and optimism of modernism and the cynicism and doubt of postmodernism are contained in one gesture. In Vermeulen and van den Akker’s terms, July’s intention is not to fulfill the attempt to transform the world, but “to attempt to fulfill it in spite of its ‘unfulfillableness'” (Vermeulen and van den Akker 2010).

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren, The Female Complaint (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008)

Berlant, Lauren, Cruel Optimism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011)

July, Miranda, No One Belongs Here More Than You (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007)

July, Miranda, It Chooses You (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012)

Kushner, Rachel and Miranda July, BOMB, 92 (2005), 62-65

Onstad, Katrina, ‘Miranda July Is Totally Not Kidding’, The New York Times, 14 July 2011. Web. 21 Sept. 2012

Seltzer, Mark ‘Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere’ October, 80 (1994), 3-26. PDF

Vermeulen, Timotheus  and van den Akker, Robin. “Notes on Metamodernism,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2 (2010): Web. 8 Sept. 2014

Image by Miranda July, from noonebelongsheremorethanyou.com