By Dr. Terry Williams
Julie Oakes, through the character Justine Quercia, has a sexual design on the world. Her bold, provocative, Daliesque text is a kind of labyrinth of the self, where a sexual double helix twists and turns, evoking art and science, traversing sexual adventures and misadventures, amassing a cluster of uninhibited kaegle muscles reaching for orgasmic ecstasy everywhere.
Ms. Oakes began her adventure with my class on sex and the city - a seminar of engagement imploring students to find the answer to the conundrum: how do you know what you know? The knowledge the ethnographic researchers sought was more specifically sexual knowledge about themselves and others, and such knowledge was to be captured in the city.
Oakes has taken our soft city manifesto and embellished it with a power none of us realized possible. This manifesto is in part her invention. She uses a series of observational techniques and questions we weren’t expecting her to employ that included tactile personal involvement. We were to be “intellectual voyeurs”, our world was to include “group gazing”, a way of looking at events and “collective experience,” in order to note and analyze our different perceptions of the same event. We had “fantasy banking,” where we would take an event back with us to use later in our private lives but not engage in public.
Ms. Oakes stories are ethnographic renderings on the one hand and pure literature on the other, because she moves between private experience and public adventure. Her work is a classic example of the super liberated woman experience, where her deepest convictions as an artist, a conceptual artist, a living artist, are anchored in a bold, honest portrayal of life, by and through a living theatre tradition - where sex is the ultimate prize, without atonement, without compromise and without renunciation.
The book she has written is, at the same time, not an example of “false imaginings” to the ways of the city. Oakes is a true informer, a hard core diarist confessing to the real world of sex and the city - not a simulacra imitation. For instance, she relates the details of an ecstatic experience:
“He looks princely. He stares vacantly blue-eyed and bronze as my memory sculpts the lover whose chest was so broad that it blocked out the light of other suns. His sex embarrasses me. I become a prepubescent girl giggling at the lewd prospect of penetration by such an odd piece of flesh.
Hidden underneath the irony and humor in the marvelous prose theatre of her story “The Revolving Door”, Oakes’ work is a remarkable paradigmatic example of sublime realism where the notion/idea of the everyday is writ large on the faces and bodies of the city at night, where every smell, aroma, funk, and delight is amplified by her sentences of astonishment.
Payer de sa personne (pay with one’s person.)
Oakes’s “The Revolving Door” captivates us like hypnotic traces pulling us along her phenomenological road. The character Justine allows us to see her world and understand how definitions of situations are arrived at and how these definitions result in certain patterns of actions/behavior. She uses ethnography in a French way (payer de sa personne) - as her intellectual toy, her metaphoric dildo, unlubricated, shattering traditions and stereotypes. She makes her mark on the notion of false notes by using fiction for her ends. This is her approach - a new way of using fiction and non fiction in parts so that there is mystery for the reader in the sense that one cannot tell where truth begins and her stories end. She challenges the discipline at points where the old ethnography only shivers at the possibilities. It is a daring piece of narrative construction and many will marvel at her audacity and courage to present us with a piece of work that suggests both physical and intellectual risk.
Oakes likes sex. Justine declares that a healthy human being is one who loves sex, and if one is free and open about their sexuality they are generally a more vital human being. Oakes treatise is nothing more than a challenge to all of us in the discipline to move beyond the narrow confines of ethnographic research and reach out and discover our own “imaginary” - a realm only the most courageous will ever attempt.