Narratives of the Small

Collecting is not acquiring, it is more like planning a delightful small party, where everyone will find a friend and feel at home.[1]

The red book was also an alluring tactile object – its cover could handle my peanut butter and jelly coated fingers, and on the last page there was a pop up anatomy of a man that I quickly demolished. I don’t remember why I tore it out, probably because I could. I liked to feel my strength in those days, and paper was a foe I could master. I remember looking at the hole I had made with great pride. I showed it to my sister, laughing about how this outline was a much better anatomy of a man than the one with red ink and blue veins provided by the book publishers. My sister did not understand my delight but she indulged me anyway and asked me if I wanted to make another pop up model. I did not, but I lacked the words then to tell her why. [2]

In 1997, I found a small ad in the back of the Evening Standard, “Are you Female? 18+? Do you like talking on the phone?” Which I duly noted to be an advert for telephone-sex chat-line operators. I showed it to my flatmate, Zoe, purely for entertainment purposes and she, quite naturally, dared me to ring the number at the bottom. Clearly, my terribly home counties accent must have just what they were looking for, because before I knew it, I was wearing a headset and secret listening to a conversation between top girl, Julianne and a Texan truck driver. Or rather, I was listening to a conversation between Christy-Anne and a Texan truck driver, as Julianne was studying to be a speech therapist and the kind of things coming out of Christy-Anne’s mouth were not on the list of approved therapeutic sounds. No, this was a completely different sort of noise and she was not the only girl making it, rather she was one of 20 on the 6am-2pm shift. We sat in a room that could have passed for a telesales or market research office, grey carpet, regulation desks, tiny booths. Spouting obscenities for 8 hours at a time (with a half-hour lunch break) 5 days a week. This is, to say the least, a somewhat peculiar thing to do. Not nearly as peculiar as our regular callers though, who were either morose, unimaginative and generally personality deficient or completely bizarre loners dying to share their obsessive strangeness with a paid, non-judgemental stranger. Sadly for them, the girls on the 6-2 shift were anything but non-judgemental. Most of us felt nothing but contempt for their pathetic fantasies, their neediness, and their very selves. Luckily, some of the girls were talented vocal actors, able to disguise their disgust and thus encourage and inflate their customer’s desires and egos, not me, though. Instead I discovered a way in which I could legitimately tell them exactly what I thought of them. I became a specialist in domination. By taking on the role of Mistress Carla, I had carte blanche to be as sneering and as dismissive as I liked. Unfortunately, this also meant that I attracted the strangest of the customer base, the fetishists, the trannies and the slaves. The slaves were relatively easy to deal with, as I could pretty much be as mean as I liked and the only effort required was spent coming up with new and imaginative insults and perfecting a clipped Queen of England style accent. However, the trannies were a little harder.The ladies were essentially concerned with the same thing: creating, nurturing and maintaining a constructed identity. What they required from the phone lines was an external validation of that identity. They wanted to “pass” and they wanted someone else to tell them that they did so. If “…the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies”[3] then the trannies wanted to be the evidence of this. But a conversation with a person in flux regarding their gender identity is fraught with problems, not least regarding pronouns and I should have had empathy for them, if not sympathy, but I did not. Their obstinate clutching at the concept of binary genders infuriated me. Their languid, loving descriptions of the outfits that they wore enraged me. The pink bridesmaids dresses, the leather mini skirts, the stockings and suspenders, all strictly obeying the rules of the stereotype, creating grotesque parodies of womanhood. Not only did I question their motivation, “A man imitates an image of a woman in order to confirm that she belongs to him”[4] but a quick glance around the room revealed none of what the trannies seemed so desperate to embody. Quite the opposite, as a job where you are only ever heard and never, ever seen is the perfect place for the imperfect woman to hide. In the booth to my left, Alexia, 24 stone and on the waiting list for gastric bypass surgery. To my right, Joanne, young, beautiful, brunette Joanne, a below the elbow amputee. Opposite, Rochelle, loud, raucous, bawdy and an achondroplasic dwarf. Perhaps it was not so hard to understand why a job that allowed you to construct your own appearance through verbalisation would appeal. Thus, it seemed the girls in the office had more in common with the “girls” on the phone than they might have liked to believe, even if the common ground lay in the performativity, rather than the performance. The phone girls performed for full time hours, 40 hours a week, playing the role of a person that did not really exist; we did not even know each other’s real names.

However, I never sought to create a new identity. Instead, I wanted to fix mine, make it permanent, unalterable, to do anything else would to be inauthentic, unreal, to sell out. It was incredibly difficult to tolerate the pretence of my Mistress Carla persona. My enforced, constructed identity was informed by the same sad stereotypes that the trannies were using as their template. I was a female, female impersonator, a faux queen[5] and even the adoration of my fans could not compensate, no matter how total (nor how peculiar) that surrender.

Quite the strangest of my regular callers was an American man that I knew only as The Miniature Boy. He wanted to be shrunk, which at the very least was an unusual fantasy, one that had at least not been directly lifted from the pages of the Sunday Sport. This caller wanted to be Lilliputian to my Titan. He wanted to be small enough to be kept as a well-loved pet. He wanted to be told that I loved him, to be adored:

The reduction in scale that the miniature presents skews the time and space relations of the everyday lifeworld, and as an object consumed, the miniature finds its “use value” transformed into the infinite time of reverie.[6]

He needed to be told that I would care for him, like a pet, but that his opinion should be too inconsequential to matter to me. I should carry him in my hand to protect him from everything that is so huge and frightening. He needed me to be his protector, his saviour, to feed him, to care for him. He called frequently, eager to discuss his fantasy, and through description and language alone I would render him small and weak merely by talking to him. In a world where the male of a species is usually both size dominant and socially dominant the fantasy of disruption of these norms holds my attention for a while, even if the male desire for submission is relatively common, at least in the world of the phone lines. Of course, there is no need for the usual kind of physical reinforcement and corporal punishment required in a more common domination scenario, there is simply no question as to who is in charge if the woman, me, is a relative giantess to a tiny man. I can crush him; swallow him, if I will. His only defence is to run, run and hide.
I still tire of playing along with his game though, tire of his squeaky, high-pitched voice. The very fact that I am paid to provide the service that he is buying (for £3.99 per minute) renders it conceptually hollow. As per my usual style, I terminate our relationship by pushing his fantasy further than he wants. I know this means he will prevent him from calling me again and it is the only way to be rid of unwanted customers without risking my job. For miniature boy, the time of reverie has come to an end. I know he has an ongoing need for nothing more than the tender descriptors that create his tiny status, my adjectives cause his miniaturisation:

The depiction of the miniature moves away from… narrative in that it is caught in an infinity of descriptive gestures. It is difficult for much to happen in such depiction…[7]

So, the way to end him is obvious. I get out my swish, powerful, super-suction vacuum cleaner and plug it in. It has very powerful suction. He is hiding from me, but I go hunting for my shrunken prey. My Hoover has everything I require to find my little shrinkee, no matter how hard he tries to escape me. I can collect him, possess him. Keep him caged away from prying eyes, or show him off. He is mine, to do with as I will. I can eat him, crush him. Instead, I destroy him with narrative. And through the power of this story telling, I eradicate him with a routine domestic appliance.

The miniature, collection, possession, control. Is this what Sir John Soane felt as he surveyed his collection of scale architectural models?[8] Displaying models of his own buildings alongside his extensive collection of similarly miniaturised versions of iconic classics such as the ruins of Pompeii and the temple of Minerva, in the Acropolis of Athens and the Arch of Theseus in their own, top floor room against a panoramic backdrop of London must have been a tremendous ego-constructing triumph:

By their form as models, the models of Soane’s own buildings marry with the classical models to form a single collection, a single set. This is an outrageous parallelism, of course. It implies, with little space for modesty, not only that Soane’s buildings may dwell with all that is classical with architecture, but that together (together in miniature on the pedestal) Soane’s buildings and ancient architecture constitute a single new entity… The siting of the model room, high in the house, is hardly accidental. The conflation of ancient and Soanic in miniature is deliberately juxtaposed against ‘the rather extensive view of London to be obtained from the gallery, or loggia of the second floor’. To invoke a pun of which Soane was not unconscious, the model room serves as a model, a set of criteria, against which the actual architecture of London is to be judged. In effect, these actual buildings now become items in the same set as those in the Model Room…[9]

The subsequent preservation of Soane’s home and its contents, guaranteed by an Act of Parliament, froze his environment and its associated objects, his collection. Suspending it like a photograph and thus further miniaturising it, as a tableau:

The tableau effectively speaks to the distance of the context at hand and the narrated context; it is possible only through representation, since it offers a complete closure of a text framed off from the ongoing reality that surrounds it. Here we might think not only of sculpture but also of the photograph…[10]

This specifically requested and officially deigned conservation leads one to further assumptions that Soane’s investment in the tiny served to inflate and massage his ego, to extend his feeling of power. His authority over his mini-Parthenon was as real and as intoxicating as my own control of Sindy’s three story townhouse. But the dollhouse is a strange sort of miniaturisation, quite oppositional to Soane’s museum diorama, which he positioned as part of the seemingly open London landscape and invited the public to view. Instead, the dollhouse’s domestic position, inside the real house, poses it as a secret:

Occupying a space within an enclosed space, the dollhouse’s aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart: centre within centre, within within within. The dolls house is a materialized secret; what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority. In fact, we can see the dollhouse-maker’s relative inattention to the exterior of his or her structure as further evidence of this movement inward.[11]

Internalisation and secrecy bode well with the idea of labour for labours sake. Keeping those idle hands busy, yet again, producing an object laden with the products of hours and hours of activity. The dollhouse is a container for the painstaking results of hours spent, and, like the family album and the compulsive hoarders[12] accumulation, intended to be enjoyed by those intimately involved. The depicted, the collator, the maker.

The diminutive size of the dolls house makes it the perfect place for discards and offcuts, the kind of stuff deemed to inconsequential for uses elsewhere. Thus, the dollhouse becomes a site of salvage, a place where if you waste not, you want not. Its modest scale means that it is a place where otherwise unobtainable dreams can be realised. No matter how elaborate, it retains an air of piety, the labour value outweighs the cost value and objects and furnishings normally outside of ones financial reach are easily approximated here, if only through the labour of the hand-made. The relationship between the craft object and the body of the maker is perhaps perfected in the example of the dollhouse:

The dollhouse erases all but the frontal view; its appearance is the realisation of the self as property, the body as container of objects, perpetual and incontaminable.[13]

As the frontal view is the view of the portrait, perhaps the miniature house is a portrait of its maker, a self-portrait, after all, its boundaries are as defined as firmly they are on the surface plane of a painting, but nonetheless, painting is quite different to domestic crafting. A painting is completed when the activity of painting stops, it is the cessation of the verb that creates the noun and this peculiarity of language that intimates that neither activity nor object has precedence, but that both have equal value.

Most domestic craft exists on either side of these two ideas i.e., the emphasis is usually on activity or the object, the act of passing time, or the making of something useful. Occasionally, like in the painting, these two elements are found in combination, with the labour and its result in balance. This resulting object is imbibed with an aura that is impossible to define but can be likened to the romantic concept of love. In these perfectly equated quantities, with perfect balance and emphasis in neither place, craft + crafted object = love. This equation is most readily visible in the special outfit, the bodily-worn object, such as the bridal trousseau, the ballroom dress, the Sunday best. This “special-object-clothing” marks the boundaries of the internal and external in much the same way that the dolls house does. It defines the boundary of the body, marks out public and private space. The heavily beaded bodice is perhaps the dollhouse turned inside out.

As noted previously, Susan Stewart has compared the dolls house to a locket, declaring it “a materialized secret”; she goes on to state that:
The locket creates additional recesses of the body. Such recesses, which depend upon the protective functions of clothing, are always vulnerable to exposure. In contrast to the bursting sexuality of the carnival, they typify the restrained and domesticated sexuality of “the private life”.[14]

So, if the locket “typifies the restrained and domesticated sexuality of “the private life” then surely she has intimated that the dolls house does too. But what of the dolls house made by the hand of the body that belongs not to the internal domestic, but instead to the “bursting sexuality of the carnival”? Surely, the tattooed lady must also partake in crafts, as despite her status as decorated object, she must surely have time to pass as the fair travels from city to city and, unlike the menfolk of the carnival, her allotted menial work is negligible. Nevertheless, Stewart is adamant:

The antithesis of the locket is the tattoo. The tattoo creates not depth, but additional surface. It is publicly symbolic; calling on communal symbols and communal values, it is easily read and easily exposed. The locket is always threatened by loss, for its magic is dependent upon possession. But the tattoo is indelible, and in the sense that all ownership proper implies potential separation and loss, it cannot be “owned”. It represents incorporation just as other carnival grotesques images do.[15]

But the tattooed body, the carnival exhibit, is like the special-object-dress, it is the sum of both activity and product and, like the encrusted beadwork of the wedding dress, its commitment to both labour (through craft and the physical pain endured) and the finished product (through it’s life-long permanence) are of equal importance. Besides, if the tattoo is easily read and exposed, it is just as easily hidden and its wearer’s intent can be very hard to read, with intent and semiotic readings refusing to co-exist peacefully. Also, the “bursting sexuality of the carnival “belongs to the miniature just as much as it belongs to the tattooed, or the giant, as the Miniature Boy will attest. This equation of secret-miniature-internal and open-giant-external is perhaps overly simplistic.

I wonder where the miniature boy discusses his fantasises now that the phone line trade is all but over. The Internet has everything, so I expect he has found a whole community of shrunken men and giantesses, all macrophiles, like him. It is good for the trannies too; they can find each other so much more easily nowadays and can construct and validate their new identities together and find admirers through dating sites. The Internet killed the phone trade, as surely as video killed the radio star. Web cam girls are cheaper than premium rate numbers and now there is one less place for the imperfect girls to hide now that the soundtrack has its visual. Where have they gone?

The Internet is about looking, about display and about voyeurism. It is here that the modern day bodily grotesque resides. It is a freak show in the comfort of your own home. Only now you can view the freaks without the awkwardness of having to look them in the eye, without the risk of them staring back at you, forcing you to question your own gaze. The guilt and shame that closed down the carnival has shifted. Now the thrills of voyeurism are sought out through late-night Google searches and Channel Five shockumentaries, they are mediated by the lens and the screen. The danger is gone, the “Bursting Sexuality” is absent. Only the looking remains.

[1] Green, V. in Nicholson, V. (1995) The Vivien Greene Dolls' House Collection Woodstock, NY Overlook Press 1995, Woodstock.

[2] Phelan, P. (1997) Mourning Sex : Performing Public Memories London ; New York, Routledge. Introduction

[3] Butler, J (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity Routledge. p174.

[4] Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked: the Politics of Performance London ; New York, Routledge. p17.

[5] Women that pretend to be drag queens, also known as female impersonator, impersonators. description is “A Drag Queen trapped in a woman’s body.” [accessed August 2008]

[6] Stewart, S. (1993) On Longing : Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection Durham, Duke University Press.p65

[7] Stewart, S. (1993) On Longing : Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection Durham, Duke University Press. p47.

[8] Sir John Soane's Museum comprises his collections and personal effects, acquired between the 1780s and his death in 1837.

[9] Elsner, J. The House and Museum of John Soane in Cardinal, J. (1993) Cultures of Collecting Reaktion Bks, 1993. Reaktion Bks. p166-167

[10] Stewart, S. (1993) On Longing : Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection Durham, Duke University Press. p49.

[11]Ibid. p61.

[12] As discussed more fully in my Diploma Stage Learning Record, May 2008.

[13] Ibid. p62.

[14] Stewart, S. (1993) On Longing : Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection Durham, Duke University Press. p127

[15] Ibid p127.

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