Saturday, April 21, 2007

Not Real Cream

We must not dismiss as beneath contempt such humble but familiar phrases as “not real cream.”
–J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia

Everything in Austin’s utterance turns out to be crucial to the discourse of reality: the reaching for familiar maternal sustenance; the muted sense of disappointment in the substance found; the implied context of potentially contemptuous interlocutors; and above all, the double negation to which Austin subscribes his inquiry. “Not real cream,” rather than “real cream,” is paradigmatic for Austin because “real” is an example of what Austin calls (unfortunately) a “trouser-word,” a word whose force is located in its negative form, which “wears the trousers.” The significance of the phrase “real cream” is secured by fake cream. The core meaning of “real” is “not unreal.” Austin’s notion of the “trouser-word” reinforces the inherently gendered nature of cream, the humble familiarity of our concern for which may fall beneath contempt. Unreal cream walks down the street and real cream has to go along like a shadow. Yet the substantive partner is negative and the shadowy one positive. She is made shadowy only by her defensive adjective “real,” which calls attention to her injury. But the relevance of the injury isn’t to be dismissed. So Austin’s little sentence creates a miniature myth: the fall of cream into reality. The background story is fatalistically linear except for the fact that the narrator hasn’t forgotten it. But the sequence of the words when each is taken separately, as if they described different states, reverses time: the ironic sternness of the commandment of loyalty (WE MUST NOT) regresses in happy silliness through humility and familiarity to rejoin its lost utopia: NOT. REAL. CREAM.

Image: Wayne Thiebaud, Lunch Counter

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