Illegal clothes

June 29, 2011 § 10 Comments

In the midst of a seemingly incoherent yet systematic crackdown by the Malaysian police force on politicians, activists, and citizens found to be associated with Bersih’s upcoming July 9 rally for “free and fair elections”, I couldn’t help but focus on the more mundane or trivial aspects of it – the policing of clothing. In Malaysia’s cultural climate, the policing of clothing is a collective national interest – as any woman will be able to tell you. But today’s announcement by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein really drove home the point of the policing of clothing:

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said today T-shirts with messages in support of Bersih have been outlawed because they were related to an illegal assembly.

“The Bersih T-shirt is related to an illegal assembly, then whatever they are wearing is illegal,” he told reporters.

Malaysia has a constitution that apparently grants us freedom of speech and expression [Article 10] that should, technically, grant each citizen the right to wear what she or he pleases.  Yet, this freedom can be revoked at any point because, as Art Harun reminds us,

Article 150, Clause 6 of the Federal Constitution allows the Parliament to pass any law and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to promulgate any ordinance during state of emergencies and those laws and ordinances will be valid even if they are repugnant or inconsistent with any of the provisions of the Federal Constitution.

At any point, then, something could be deemed illegal – and a piece of clothing associated with the something-illegal will become illegal clothing. This isn’t new; I suspect that clothing has been banned, outlawed, and deemed illegal in various ways for as long as clothes have been in existence. Gang-affiliated clothing. Clothing affiliated with political parties or movements. The burqa. Yes, women’s clothing, in particular, has always been suspect and subject to policing.  Clothes are the easiest points of reference in the policing and surveillance of the field of ‘visuality’, which as Nicholas Mirzoeff explains in his superb essay ‘The Right to Look’,  is the authority that lays “exclusive claim to be able to look.”*

The fabric of a flawed democracy in knots

What confounds me about this context is once again the arbitrariness of the authority of visuality that deems something illegal. That the Home Minister could come down hard on an article of clothing, as opposed to his past wishy-washy response to the display of cow heads, for example, is something that has kept Malaysian twitterers going for some days now. The spectacle of dead animal heads was seen by the Home Minister as a legitimate form of expression, as one of rightful dissent. An article of clothing, however, its outlawed. Ultimately, the law is used and will be used. But how the law is justified and implemented depends on an entirely arbitrary set of circumstances. This is how it has always been done in Malaysia. I am tired of this nation’s circular logic that presents confusion as a gift to its citizens. A state of the perpetually-mystified. It is not the blind leading the blind so much as it is the over-seeing authority leading the rarely-seeing. Visuality in the eyes of the few.

I am trying to wrap my head around thoughts but these thoughts are fleeting and elusive because I’ve been relegated to the not-think section of my mind for a week now, finishing a copywriting assignment that demands the brain be stopped while the body churns out words. The things you do for money, as they say. But this thought about clothes and the outlawing of clothes makes me think about the ‘The fabric of democracy’ essay on South/South and ‘Ignorance and the Moral Fabric of the American State’ on zunguzungu. What does it make me think? I am not sure.* I just know that I can’t quite make sense of what this means yet for the fabric of the “flawed democracy” of Malaysia.

[* Thanks to @southsouth for the link to the Mirzoeff essay. I read it yesterday and it's so dense and rich with ideas that I'll have to return to it and reread it in order to do it justice.]

[** What is the point of a blog post of uncertainties? I am not sure. But I wanted to try something on this blog - to write regularly and think out loud without fear or shame of my writing / thoughts "not being ready". Not-ready has been the bane of my life. But I've somehow fallen away from the initial goal of blogging and have allowed this blog to sort of flounder. Not that it should matter to anyone but myself. But since it does matter to me it should somehow be rectified.]

[Image from Dancing Canvas on deviant ART.]

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Open City by Teju Cole

June 26, 2011 § 8 Comments

I reviewed Teju Cole’s Open City for Pop Matters. I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve been having trouble reading fiction for awhile now. I’m not sure if I’m having trouble or I just haven’t been interested enough to read a novel or a collection of stories. I’d read only good reviews of this book prior to reading it and, as a result, was dreading it. But having read it – count me in among the swooning masses.

This book was hard to get through because I read it during a time when I wanted to escape my own mind – and it was impossible, because Open City places you smack dab in the narrator, Julius’ mind, and of course this means you’re in your mind while in Julius’ mind. I wanted to be less think-y. Julius is think-y. So I read it slowly, and felt slowly consumed by the ever-present consciousness that belonged not to me, but to a fictional character, and yet one that was refracted through my own consciousness. Short of escaping myself, it was an invitation to dwell.

I think I’ve recommended Open City enough in my review and on Twitter that I probably don’t need to say more besides invite you to read the review for yourself, if you’re into the sort of thing. Speaking of Twitter, Teju Cole is on Twitter, and you’ll want to follow him. None of that “I will be launching my book at ______” or “Read a review of my book at __________.” Nope. “News from the Lagos papers, remixed” is what Cole’s Twitter bio tells us, and that is exactly what you get.

(If I swoon a little too much when I talk about Teju Cole it has nothing to do with anything.)

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Grief and mourning, by way of Barthes

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s June 12 — what would have been my father’s birthday if he were still alive. This isn’t the first time in the twelve years since his death that I think about the cognitive dissonance in remembering a birthday for someone who has died, but I suppose this is the first time that I have a blog on which to write about it. Somehow I imagine that the act of writing for someone will provide a shape for grief. It’s not that I miss him more on his birthday than on any other day; it’s just that grief settles in comfortably, for the long haul, where the ladders start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.  When the grief was fresh it was impossible to write about it. But now that the grief is a permanent fixture in life just like that dull ache in your back from having spent a lifetime sitting hunched over computers, it’s harder to write about what was absolutely life-changing without reducing it to the sum of its parts: anger, tears, pain, abandonment; without succumbing to the ever-present clichés.

It’s like I keep forgetting how I remember him, or I forget how I want to remember him, and I imagine the dark-brown skin and those strange green-hazel eyes never before seen on a Tamil-Ceylonese person (as family myth/lore will have it) and the words start intruding, pushing their way in, and reducing what was flesh and blood to a simple phrase – “He was an attractive man, if not in the conventional sense.” Or, “He was a good father, if not in the conventional sense.” Or the lesser-said words, “There was his drinking problem, but…”

I’ve been circling the topic of his death for twelve years. What I need is a shelf. A feelings-shelf. Place rage on the top shelf, place regret on the bottom, and somewhere in the middle the warm living mass of hurt and despair and joy and pride and love that will enable me to reach in and pull out the appropriate one when I finally say, “Here, I am going to write the story of my father.”

Feeling-shelves have to be built from scratch.

The problem with writing is that you write about the living as if they’re already dead, and the dead die all over again.

*

I read Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary some months back, and I’m a coward all over again – I gave up on building feeling-shelves. I allow Barthes to build it for me. Did Barthes imagine that his scribbled words on index cards would be published one day, giving shape to his grief and that of others who read him? Was he conscious of his attempts to build a feelings-shelf or did he just have to eliminate the words getting in the way? “Depression comes when, in the depths of despair, I cannot manage to save myself by my attachment to writing,” Barthes writes.

Yet one saves others.

As an example, something deep inside me flickers in recognition when I read this:

As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the furniture (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.

And I’m reminded of how we busied ourselves moving the as-old-as-I-am bamboo-sofa out of the living room in order to fit in a brand-new, gleaming casket, my mother avoiding the casket and focusing on the sofa, “Should we throw it out? Do we keep it? We need new furniture.” Futuromania.

Now, from time to time, there unexpectedly rises within me, like a bursting bubble: the realisation that she no longer exists, she no longer exists, totally and forever. This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival – dizzying because meaningless (without any possible interpretation).

A new pain.

The non-existence of a person, formerly so present, whose very existence was threaded, linked, with your own. How do you build an interpretation of an existence turned non-existent? There is none.

I had thought maman’s death would make me someone “strong,” acceding as I might to worldly indifference. But it has been quite the contrary: I am even more fragile (unsurprisingly: for no reason, a state of abandon).

And a few pages later, Barthes continues:

It is said (according to Mme Panzera) that Time soothes mourning – No, Time makes nothing happen; it merely makes the emotivity of mourning pass.

Recently, talking to someone about my father – the strangeness of it, because it’s been twelve years and I don’t talk about him to most people who never knew him, or didn’t know me from then. It’s been twelve years. But – and here comes the cliché – it could have just as well been yesterday. There is no bravery involved in grieving. It’s a wound, you take care of it so you don’t bleed all over the place and repulse people and you carry on. This person says, “Well, at least it must be okay for you now – it’s been awhile.” That statement bore no malice, and the sentiment was sincere, but inside my heart of hearts some tiny anguished animal let out a roar.

Seeing the swallows flying through the summer evening air, I tell myself, thinking painfully of maman: how barbarous not to believe in souls – in the immortality of souls! the idiotic truth of materialism!

After my father’s death, I could no longer believe in my atheism in good faith. I’m well-aware that one level of it is wishful – the belief in life after death, or the eternity of a soul, as a means of keeping a dead loved one alive. Beyond that, there are dreams, old scents and smells returning for a visit, memories, and the foolishness of the immediate. The “idiotic truth of materialism”.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this. Circling, circling again – never coming close. Mainly to suggest that Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary is a gift for anyone in mourning. (And we all will be, at some point.)

But mainly to wish you, pappa, a happy birthday. Today we received news of the death of an old family friend, your old friend, a “brother to you” as you’d like to tell us before things went wrong and you never spoke to each other again; him never seeing you for years until he showed up at your funeral. I imagine you and him together now, maybe, grievances put aside? Maybe you’re sharing a pint in a pub in Brighton, where you said you had some of your happiest and most miserable moments of your life as a young man in the 1960s. And then I imagine you back in Jaffna for the home you’ve missed all the years you lived in Malaysia in order to give us – as clichés would have it (being right) – a better life.

Every birthday is the start of death. “Henceforth and forever I am my own mother,” writes Barthes, and I suspect you’ll laugh, pappa, if I tell you that being my own father is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And then you’ll tell me to stop indulging in self-pity and get on with it, your face serious, those hazel-green eyes smiling.

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Peggy Orenstein’s ‘Cinderella Ate My Daughter’

June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I reviewed Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter for Pop Matters.

Reading Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture, one realises that Michelle Obama has sold herself and American society short by waging just the one war on obesity. My takeaway from reading Orenstein is that there are other more significant wars to be fought: The War on Pink; The War on Sparkle; The War on Disney; and perhaps most crucially of all, The War on Marketers and Market Forces that Make Parents Buy Pink and Sparkly Things from Disney For Their Daughters.

Orenstein, as the publicity material tells us, has garnered a reputation as a “girl expert” after the publication of an earlier book, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gap. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, her focus as girl expert is brought home by the fact that she’s now a mother of a young girl, and that all the expertise in the world doesn’t prepare a parent to face the vagaries of American culture that lays itself pink (it never goes away), shiny, and bejewelled at the feet of a young girl.

The review in full is here.

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