Wonderful things I read in 2011, or thankf******god for bookmarks

December 30, 2011 § 6 Comments

I love year-end lists. I loathe year-end lists. Year-end lists get me excited. Year-end lists just make me tired. Year-end lists make me anxious.

If it’s a competition – “Have you heard this year’s must-hear albums? Have you read this year’s must-read books? Have you watched this year’s must-watch films?” – then I’ll come right out and say I disqualify myself from the competition because who has time and did you know I only watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes for the first time this year BECAUSE THERE’S A LOT OF CATCHING UP TO D-

I digress.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a blog will want to offer you a humble list. And thus, I offer you a humble list. Maybe not quite humble, since there are 40 items in this list. A quiet list, then, a quiet list of no particular order. This is a list of some things that I read online this year; things that I appreciated, things that I loved, things that I disagreed with and made me rethink my own position on a certain something or someone, things I am glad to have read because it altered something in me. It is a haphazard, utterly biased list of my notable blog posts/essays/articles for the year 2011.

It’s also a sort of thanks to the people who wrote them, a way of saying, “Hey, you wrote that great thing in March when the world was a very different place and I want you to know that I still remember it in December.” (Really, when you think about it, this is fucking outstanding considering we’re in the age of the internet where the human brain is morphing into hamster brain and we have no more attention to give and are we still human? etc.)

“We like lists because we don’t want to die,” Umberto Eco proclaimed recently, and initially I was all, “Ooookaaay, take it easy there Mr. Eco,” but now I think I agree, though at the risk of remembering some things we essentially have to forget about and bury other things…

… but never mind that.

Here is my not-so-humble, quiet, haphazard, and utterly biased list of notable 2011 blog posts/essays/articles:

Isaac Miller – Who Runs the World: On Beyonce, Sampling, Race, and Power

Beyonce’s incorporation of Dancehall, as well as Kwaito through Tofo Tofo and “New Style” hip hop dance through Les Twins offers a glimpse into a more holistic, global hip hop culture. However, this global vision is still mediated through the work of a U.S. superstar. This is symbolic of the overarching global balance of power. However, while the U.S. still acts as the global center of media, music, and film, immense networks of media production are burgeoning across the global south.

It seems like Diplo wants to create networks, audiences, and opportunities for the communities he engages with. But so long as he is the necessary Western interlocutor for artists of color from the global south, I question how much will these artists and cultures actually be “represented” globally. Like other forms of Western “development” that created the very conditions of poverty that these musics and cultures exist in, Diplo’s brand of development reproduces the very inequality that it claims to solve.

Boima Tucker – Global Genre Accumulation

The art of DJing is as postmodern as it gets. Its essence is appropriation. A DJ re-contextualizes pre-existing cultural expressions to resurrect or re-interpret cultural memory for an audience. For me, Diplo and Venus exemplify two different ways of doing this.

Diplo has become known for taking an “unknown” culture and exposing it to the world. He mixes dominant American culture cues, with “foreign” cultures, and positions himself as the “in the know” intermediary, in turn reinforcing a separation between audience and subject. Venus uses culture memory of various both underground and mainstream cultures to create safe spaces for, and communicate messages to groups that are underrepresented in mainstream cultural discourse (groups that she herself is a part of.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham – Unintentionally Eating the Other

The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.

Robin James –  Beyoncé, Gaga, Race and Sexuality, or 1+1 Doesn’t Always Equal 2

Gaga has license to queer femininity—to make her body monstrous, either through monster-drag or king-drag—because she is white. In other words: her gender identity is not already qualified by non-whiteness. In the hegemonic, mainstream eye, Beyoncé’s blackness already qualifies her femininity. She often plays around with femininity by adopting stereotypically white feminine iconography, e.g., in “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (where she does the 60s housewife thing), or in “Video Phone” (where she does the 40s pinup/Betty Page thing). So it’s not that Bey just uncritically adopts normative het-fem identities/images. She just troubles femininity most obviously through race—which is not to say that she’s not also troubling its heteronormativity. If race and queerness are mutually intensifying, then Bey’s playing with femininity via race is also an experimentation with its sexuality.

Agata Pyzik – Ostalgia Trips

Ostalgie means and captures much wider contemporary cultural phenomena than the mere recuperation of the once-rough life under the system. That we’re now drowning with various Ostalgie projects symbolizes the weakness of contemporary, nostalgia-driven culture of constant revivals (show me a musical genre or style in art or architecture that hasn’t been revived in the last ten years). This is also related to the so-called hauntological current in culture, itself a coinage from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994). So is Soviet-focused nostalgia wrapped up with kitsch and appropriation, or does it express something more important: a need for an alternative to a collapsing capitalist system, a need for evoking a past that never actually happened? But instead we all behave like we believed Francis Fukuyama’s much-ridiculed vision of the end of history: everything happened already, we can only rehearse it once more, like living in one gigantic museum.

Alexander Chee – Fanboy

Comics regularly get in trouble for depicting the forbidden, and have for years. You could imagine, then, that comics are revolutionary, that they could foment turmoil and rebellion. But so far, I think we use them to stay asleep. Superhero comics in particular. We read them, we watch them now in movies, increasingly—comics are the new hot film properties, complete with serious stars and directors, huge budgets. We dream of heroes fighting evil together in the dark theater, but when we wake, we live alongside evil, uncomplaining.

What, then, are we dreaming?

Manan Ahmed – At Sea

It is wrong to claim that Osama b. Laden was irrelevant long before he was killed. He wasn’t. He represented, and represents, hundreds of thousands of lives lost since December 2001 when US forces reportedly failed to capture or kill him. He disappeared for the next decade but that absence was filled with wars in Iraq and Pakistan – wars waged on the heads of civilians, among urban centers, and at the cost of trillions. Just the technological developments of killing from the skies accomplished in this decade are mind or moral numbing. No, Osama b. Laden was never irrelevant and he was never off the script. Sure, George W. Bush or Pervez Musharraf told us that the battle was now bigger, the stakes higher and the cost greater, but they were empty words. The deaths of September 11th, 2001 and the destructions that followed hold us accountable – to remember that the cost of those lives began in a bid for this one life. So, we must deal with that life and the narratives it spawned. NYT claims that he was a “hero in much of the Islamic world”. The obituary moves on, and we are left with that “fact”. What are we to make of it? Heroes, after all, were gods and immortals.

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi – The Fabric of Democracy

The democratic ideal of the poikilon as a varied and brightly-colored garment alludes to two kinds of creatures: women, by virtue of their tendency to adornment, and proudly plumed peacocks. This resemblance may reinvigorate the logic behind (what I assume to be) a digitally manipulated photo of Gaddafi as poikílos, ‘spotted’ or ‘embroidered.’ The caricature is easy because Gaddafi is the subject of both fascination and horror in the way he transposes the appearance of sartorial freedom with the eradication of democratic freedom. Ridicule or amazement cannot obfuscate an underlying admiration for brazenness, which for Gaddafi translates freedom to dress as a metonymy for democracy.

Jane Hu – “Are You Airminded?” The Slang of War

As media critic Friedrich Kittler proposes, technologies repeatedly find their ancestry in the mouth of war: “war was called the father of all things: it was supposed to have been responsible (borrowing loosely from Heraclitus) for most technical inventions.” For Kittler, all technology begins as war technology. Whereas contemporary and commercial uses of machines obscure their military roots, languages face similar signifying concealments. Expressions such as “airminded” disappear from the vernacular as they decrease in culturally potency, or are reinvested with new meaning. “Trench coats,” for instance, initially referred to coats worn by soldiers in the trenches, while “going over the top” once pointed to the moment when British soldiers crossed the parapet that separated trench from no man’s land. “Airminded” is just one significant example of how war and its accompanying innovations have always shaped how we speak.

Aaron Bady – A Zionist Night Shelter in Africa

For Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, settling Jews in Africa would have seemed like it could solve several problems. One was that — as Heymann delicately suggests — genteel anti-Semites like Chamberlain and Landsdowne shared with Herzl a desire to discourage the mass migration of East European Jews into Western Europe. For Herzl, the fear was assimilation, and though it was the reverse fear for men like Chamberlain — non-assimilable Jews immigrating into Britain! Horrors! — they had in common the desire to find some other place for those migrants than Europe. And as pogroms in East Europe worsened — increasing the number of emigrating Jews even as the prospects of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine looked increasingly dim, Africa suddenly popped up as a possibility.

Darryl Li – Shades of Solidarity: Notes on Race-talk, Intervention, and Revolution

The “foreigner” is not always a stranger. The discourse on “foreigners” as fighters or mercenaries tends to resonate on the assumption that these people have somehow dropped out of the sky without any precedent or context, and find it easier to kill people they have nothing to do with. This assumption of strangeness, however, defies history. Libya and Bahrain have both long hosted large migrant worker populations, largely drawing from the same regions now racially linked to the idea of “mercenaries.” Mercenaries are, among other things, workers. Some (especially if they happen to be white) are insanely overcompensated and accountable to no local actors; but many others are in a far more ambiguous position vis-à-vis locals. If they were not carrying guns, some may instead have been construction workers, drivers, or cooks (similarly, many of the Arab mujahids who fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina were migrant workers coming from Italy).

Sumeja Tulic – In Which We Experience the Charm of a Libyan Night

Suddenly, our green love experienced its autumn. In an early morning, Suleiman, our young and handsome imam, was arrested and taken away. There were no charges and no appeal. Suleiman was “too Muslim” with his white tunic and therefore, a threat to Jamahiriya. The morning he was taken away, many others also vanished. For months, there were no wedding celebrations. Women whispered, men didn’t gather. Life was painfully discrete and silent.In years to come, coffins were brought to the doorsteps of those taken away years ago, before the sunrise, as when they were handcuffed and taken away.

Years went by, fast and uneasy. The imposed economical sanctions on Libya meant fewer things to buy. Oddly, the so called social supermarket distributed Benetton apparel. We may have craved all sort of different sweets, but we were dressed in Italian designer cloth from a decade ago.

V.V. Ganeshananthan – The Politics of Grief

It is a way of humiliating people, to say that their dead are not dead, to say that people are not even allowed to mourn. There was little room for the legitimate expression of grief during the war, and after it was over, what little was there dwindled. As the government said they were for reconciliation, they moved to shut down the spaces where Tamil civilians and loss could be remembered. Tiger cemeteries were razed, even when families survived who might have wanted to visit the markers. In one instance, Army headquarters were built in the same space. When some Tamil civilians attempted to gather to remember their dead on the anniversary of the war’s end, they had to face down officers of the Sri Lankan Army, as the north and east of the country remains heavily militarized. Indeed, in certain places civilian gatherings now require military approval. Innumerable people looking for a missing loved one filed cases and gave testimony, but many never found who they were looking for.

Nadim Damluji – Made for You and Me: Localizing Disney’s Imperialism for an Egyptian Audience

As was the case of Superman’s translation into Arabic, the perceived ownership of Mickey Mouse by an Arab audience exemplifies the pervasive reality of American imperialism. I have little doubt that this particular point is made more thoroughly by the remarkably-relevant and sadly out-of-printHow to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), written in Spanish by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart about how Disney comics spread capitalist ideals throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world. In their Marxist critique of Mickey and friends, Dorfman and Mattelart specifically observe how the relationship between Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and his nephews is more commercially centered than familial (potently pointing out the conspicuous absence of mothers and fathers among the Disney characters).

Daisy Rockwell – Funny Face

Whenever an impossibly famous individual disappears without a public viewing of the body (and sometimes even then; cf: Elvis), rumors abound as to whether the personage in question is actually dead. The curious decision to keep from the public the image that would prove the kill has naturally fueled an abundance of theories. So that members of the United States Government might not also feel inclined to indulge in such conspiracy theorizing, the White House set up a limited access peep-show to which select individuals of prominent stature, such as John McCain, were invited to see the booty captured and killed by our boys. They came away convinced, slightly shaken, perhaps a little horrified, but gratified that with their tremendous stature came access to the nation’s top-drawer death porn.

Salman H – An Abandoned Man

The state claims to be merely the nation’s representation and self-realization in whose interest it selflessly acts. But it is, in fact, a self-interested arbiter of the politics and culture of the very nation it shapes and constitutes. The state of Pakistan has, through legislative and juridical means, not only made it increasingly harder for Ahmadis to live as Ahmadis by criminalizing Ahmadis to live as Muslims, but also by being unable and/or unwilling to hold vigilantes to account, has made it fair game for Ahmadis to be coerced, violated, or killed as the persecutor sees fit. Those with a grudge against an Ahmadi have the legal route at their disposal to inflict violence through the state and/or hang a target on his head through the blasphemy law which would materialize in the state or a vigilante doing the job for free.

Ira Livingston – Darth Vader and Occupy Wall Street: A TwitterEssay

This is why I want to say to those occupying Wall Street, and occupying and animating these words and thoughts, thank you.

As a Word Person, it’s taken me 50 years to admit– as various therapists and lots of less verbal people have been telling me–

that the words themselves are always trumped by the ways they are wielded, the feelings that animate them.

Jennifer Doyle – Ball and Chain: Notes on Anne Hathaway, James Franco, and the Oscars

The fact of the matter is that in last night’s performance the person on stage closest to Kalup Linzy’s universe was Anne Hathaway – producing a theatrical, desperate and frankly scary version of feminine performance, not just alone, but in compensation for someone else’s failure – as if, if she worked hard enough, nobody would feel Franco’s absence. As if, if she worked hard enough, it would feel like her presence mattered. As if, to matter, her performance must anchor his.

Supriya Nair – Rainbows in the Sky at Night

The funny thing is, if I were a Fenerbahce fan in Istanbul I might have refused to go when called. I might have argued that I didn’t want to be there as a fucking punishment for my team, especially if they did deserve to play behind closed doors. I might have argued that the punishment and this fix exposed flaws in the system that could not be papered over by a single glorious matchday, that it was not genuinely inclusive, that it would be a better gesture if every team in the Turkish league could do the same. I might even have argued on principle against gender profiling on behalf of the excluded majority of innocent male fans, perfectly aware that none of them would ever do the same for me. And watching the 41,000 other women on TV that night would still have been the most radically uplifting thing I ever saw.

Maya Mikdashi – Waiting for Alia

Alia’s picture does not play by the rules, and this is why both liberals and Islamists have condemned her. She is not “waiting” for the “right moment” to bring up bodily rights and sexual rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. She is not playing nice with the patriarchal power structures in Egypt. She is not waiting her turn. Her mouth is not open and pouting. Her breasts are not large. Her eyes are not hungry or afraid. She is not wearing high heels. Her vagina is uncovered. She is not selling anything, and she is not trying to turn us on. Her use of fishnet stockings appears to be a commentary on the clichés of commodified seduction. Her nudity is not about sex, but it aims to reinvigorate a conversation about the politics of sex and the uneven ways it is articulated across the fields of gender, capital, and control. She is staring back at us, daring us to look at her and to not turn away. Daring us to have this debate.

Nivedita Menon – Modest? Sexy? Or just an athlete?

In short, they want to be modest or sexy outside the rules – the fat woman who refuses to tone or shave her legs but will wear mini skirts; the modest believer who insists that women can conduct puja/namaz/service. Or women who don’t care much about being either modest or sexy, but just do whatever it takes to do what they do very well.

Carla Fran – A Thousand Ways to be Pissed Off: The Green Hornet

Instead, you get a tour of how great it is to be a privileged white guy. The movie could practically be a manual for how to move around with privilege and power built by race and gender. Seth Rogen, as the Hornet, becomes our very lucky white guy/textbook example of power and privilege. He has inherited his fortune from the empire building of his dad. He parties and likes to ruin things with abandon (there is a distinct joy in smashing plasma TVs in the movie).  He gets a super powerful job because of his family. He has little regard for how his actions affect others. He’s stupid, but it doesn’t matter. He never gets called on any of his trespasses.  The world changes on his time alone–it’s only when he realizes things matter that they actually matter.

Kim Morgan – It’s a Thin Line: My Summer of Love

Young, intriguing, different women/teens can be viewed as odd birds, no matter how acceptably “wacky” cinema attempts to paint them. We see movies like Mean Girls, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Juno, Easy A or even, Thirteen, and are left with impressions that may ring true for certain aspects of the teen population, but remain utterly false for others. Girls who related to Ghost World (as I did and still do — though I find myself in both Birch and Buscemi, which disturbs me at times), don’t see the big deal in 13, would laugh at the “mean girls” in school, and wonder why Juno would let some older guy convince her that Blood Feast was better than Suspiria. No way. In My Summer of Love, issues, or catch-phrases like “sisterhood” (especially in regard to traveling pants), and “rebellion” aren’t terms  these beguiling leads would even bother to utter. That kind of drama is just there —  the regular aspects or impediments to a type of life they’re attempting to escape and re-create. And re-creation is key.

JR – What Mother Gothel knows, and what Rapunzel sings

The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness.  Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel.  At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity!  Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations.  (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on. Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?)

Kuzhali Manickavel – I hate scorpions and liars. I love ice cream and my mother.

Female arrogance in general is apparently at the root of most bad things in the world today. For instance, that whole Maoist problem that is happening somewhere over there is really all about Arundhati Roy and how she’s like so arrogant yougaiz. I’m pretty sure that bird flu was created and perpetuated by arrogant chickens.

Nicholas Liu – “A darkness was ripped from my eyes”, or, How can anyone like Mary Oliver’s “Singapore”?

So the poem serves as a wake-up call to people who think, and would otherwise carry on thinking, that having better jobs makes them better people, and that menial labourers are not really human beings. (It also encourages them to instead view said labourers as picturesque bits of scenery existing for the moral education of the middle class and up, but hey, win some lose some, right?) In other words, it is a machine for making walking scum that much less scummy.

Aishwarya Subramanian – DU and Hatterr

We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.

Norhayati Kaprawi – Bila rogol dikatakan halal

Ramai ulama mendakwa dalam Islam tidak boleh menggunakan akal fikiran, harus berdasarkan keimanan.  Pada saya, kenyataan sedemikian bertentangan dengan wahyu Allah yang pertama, iaitu “Bacalah”. Tentu saja membaca memerlukan akal fikiran yang tajam bagi memproses informasi yang dibaca dengan menghubungkannya dengan alam dan hidup kita.

Dalam hal ini misalnya, apakah beriman atau meyakini itu adalah dengan meyakini apa yang dikatakan oleh pemimpin-pemimpin Islam yang mengatakan perempuan boleh dirogol? Bukankah pandangan mereka juga hasil dari menggunakan akal fikiran mereka?

Juana Jaafar – Menelaah pengalaman menonton 3 karya kontemporari dalam Bahasa Melayu

Penulis juga tertarik dengan perspektif evolusi yang diketengahkan Norhayati di mana budaya hijab di Malaysia dipautkan kepada kebangkitan politik Muslim di Iran dan Tanah Arab pada era 1970an dengan politik tanahair. Dalam menghuraikan perspektif ini Norhayati menyelitkan klip video ceramah ulema kehormat parti Pas, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, yang mencaci wanita yang tidak menutup aurat sebagai mengundang malang, malah menggalakkan agar mereka dirogol untuk diberi pengajaran. Menurut Norhayati, setakat ini belum ada penonton yang melafazkan rasa terkejut atau tidak bersetuju dengan Nik Aziz.

Pada pendapat penulis, jika ada kegagalan besar dalam Aku Siapa ia adalah ketiadaan perbincangan berkenaan pengaruh parti Umno dan dasar-dasar kerajaan dibawah pimpinan Umno dalam evolusi hijab di Malaysia. Norhayati mengambil masa untuk menelanjangkan hipokrasi pemimpin sanjungan ahli Pas dan Parti Keadilan Rakyat tapi tidak pula Umno yang tak pernah putus kuasa diperingkat nasional sejak negara Merdeka.

Haneen Maikey, Sami Shamali – International Day Against Homophobia: Between the Western Experience and the Reality of   Gay Communities

During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine). There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.

Keguro – Listening to African Queers

Following the U.K.’s example, the U.S. has bought into aid conditionality tied to so-called sexual rights. It’s not yet clear what this will mean. But it is worrying.

Multiple blog posts from the U.S. have celebrated this “victory” for gay rights, this assertion that gay rights are human rights, universal rights: the U.S. is now on board with gay activism.

I am not celebrating.

In fact, I am disheartened by what feels like myopic celebrations that confirm, or suggest, that what is at stake in such a decision has nothing to do with helping African queers and everything to do with domestic U.S. feeling and neo-imperial machinations. I have no problem with U.S. queers celebrating this decision as an advance for U.S queer struggles; but let’s not confuse the issue and claim this decision has anything to do with African queers. Or that African queers were in any way consulted—not that we need to be, of course: knights in shining armor rarely ask whether the maiden and the dragon are engaged in an inter-species romance.

Jenny Turner – As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes

How has Western feminism drifted so far out of touch? By narrowing its focus, Eisenstein thinks, to culture and consciousness and personal testimony, neglecting what she calls ‘the political economy of feminism’, and in particular the economic peculiarities that caused Women’s Liberation to happen where and when it did. Never mind the Pill, the miniskirt, the ‘problem with no name’, Eisenstein says: all that is a sideshow. The rise of Western feminism came about because there was a widespread shift, around 1970, of middle-class women from the home to the workplace: partly, no doubt, because they sought fulfilment and financial independence, but mostly because wages overall were in decline. Women entered the workforce bigtime, in other words, just as the ‘long boom’ of the postwar years was ending, and since most women get lower-paid jobs anyway – part-time and casual, unskilled, mommy-track – most of them went ‘straight up the down escalator’, the phrase coined by the economic historian Teresa Amott. This is the way it has been for most women ever since.

Nandini Ramachandran – Borges and I

Borges essays, while short, can be baroque affairs. They are the mark of a “delirious archivist,” as Umberto Eco called him, of a man who lives amidst legions of chattering books. He constructs his essays like a vast puzzle, piling quip upon quote, leading you ever deeper into a thicket of metaphors. Occasionally, they are almost formless, as if their writer has been so carried away by the force of his reading that he has forgotten the point he set out to make. Yet, a careful reading will always reveal the fragile thread between each idea, the links that made Borges not only a consummate reader and thinker but a peerless writer.

Elizabeth Bachner – Dwelling Made of Not Knowing Which Way to Turn: Reading Aimé Césaire

When Aimé Césaire edited Soleil cou coupé in 1961 to construct Cadastre, he eliminated thirty-one poems and cut out material from another twenty-nine, leaving only twelve of these poems intact. “Unmaking and Remaking the Sun” was cut out. “Attack on Morals” was cut out. “To the Serpent” was cut out. If repetition is apocalyptic, what is excision? I’ve had this line from Rimbaud in my head: “It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.” La fin du monde, but there’s a French word, apocalypse, that’s the same as the one in English — from Greek, meaning revelation, lifting the veil. Exposing whatever is true.

Debbie Hu – To Heartbreak Hotel

That night I got stoned and I was frustrated with myself for not writing. So I typed a manifesto called THE WRITE WRITE JUST FUCKING WRITE MANIFESTO. “It is important to get out of the habit of checking to see if what you’re doing is proper and valid before doing it,” I wrote. “Exuberance is not incompatible with care and beauty. Slowness and sadness are not incompatible with diligence. If you have never seen anything like what you are writing don’t be scared be excited. If you feel like you’ve seen what you are writing 1,000 times don’t hate yourself get pumped. You are in an arena you know,” I wrote. “It is important to have concrete goals rather than abstract ones such as ‘being loved’… Your need for other people will have to sort itself out.”

Giovanni Tiso – The Well-Adjusted

Job insecurity and living from contract to contract are a source of anxiety? Then there must be somebody for whom this is not so, somebody for whom the designation of freelance (lovely word, that) is an opportunity for deducting some cost of living items from their taxes and who uses the enforced downtime as an opportunity for rest and recreation. The social and professional demand to be always communicatively available and plugged into multiple networks is a source of stress? Then there must be people who are only too happy to always be available, and for whom checking Twitter and Facebook updates or new emails and text messages never becomes a compulsive habit.

Rob Horning – The Accidental Bricoleurs

Like fast fashion, social media have brought with them a profusion of means and ways to reshape and display our identity. Constantly given new tools to share with, always prompted to say something new about ourselves (“What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks thoughtfully), we are pressured to continually devise ingenious solutions to our identity, which suddenly appears to be a particular kind of recurring problem: one that can be solved by replenishing social media’s various channels with fresh content. Just as fast fashion seeks to pressure shoppers with the urgency of now or never, social media hope to convince us that we always have something new and important to say—as long as we say it right away. And they are designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear. One can easily fall out of fashion with the algorithms Facebook uses to select which content users see out of the plethora of material friends in their network contribute.

Wu Ming Foundation – Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden Exploitation: the cases of Amazon and Apple

It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as “the nature of things”), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the “naturalization” of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.

Sam Jacob – Everywhere is a target, everywhere is symbolic: An op-ed from London

We might understand these riots as simultaneously an attempt to claim and reject the modern commodified city. While their apparent chaotic nature represents a logical form of escape from the totalising effect of neo-liberal urbanism, at the same time the riots reinforce the very things they attack, binding their actors tighter to the frameworks of commodity culture.

Evan Calder Williams – Hostile Object Theory

This is an instance of what I’ll call hostile objects: a conviction that the objects of capitalism aren’t just indifferent to us or darkly coherent beyond our intentions. They are structurally hostile, and, more often than we’d like to admit, locally hostile: uncertain, unstable, loathing or loathsome, dangerous, and weirdly incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed. This isn’t to speak of nature per se, not an Algernon Blackwood-esque thought of a savage animism.Nor is it a unified theory of what the world would be without us even as we still are in it; the dark and threatening woods. For my concern is not ‘what is without us’, but the shitty flashlight we carry through those woods, the kicking-back chainsaws we wield to take them down. This is an Unnaturphilosophie, concerned not with humanless ecologies but the self-sabotaging, crumbling inhumanity at the core of the economic.

There. These are some things you can read, if you haven’t already, during a particularly tedious moment at whatever social obligation thing/party/event you have to be at on December 31st. Or perhaps you’ll be having so much fun at whatever thingamajig you’re at that you won’t have to surreptitiously check Twitter on your phone at all, not even once. In which case, go show off somewhere else, won’t you?

Me? It’s very likely that I will continue my occupation of the couch, swaddled in blankets and doused in Vicks VapoRub and blowing my nose, for I have the flu and it is Terrible.

Have a happy new year, and may we find time we lost or put aside in 2011 in 2012.

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Fanonian moments, Fanon’s words, and… well, me

December 22, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s not like it’s the end of the world–

just the world as you think

you know it.

Rita Dove, “The First Book”

 

A few days ago, I finished writing a review of a book. I KNOW! MOMENTOUS. I felt like I had shat out a diamond mine, minus the diamonds. I used to think that reviewing books I liked was hard, because it was important to keep the swoony gushing to a minimum and to consider the text for what it was, to reconsider the text for it was, because wasn’t it possible that in liking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have overestimated its worth? But then I realised that reviewing bad books is equally hard – I would have to reconsider the text, because wasn’t it possible that in disliking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have underestimated its worth?

Forget all that – I’ve decided that reviewing “meh” books is the most difficult. One has to dig around a bit in the muck of one’s brain-swamp to find out why a book has aroused such profound indifference. And then, because everyone knows book reviews are useless, to wade through that muck and reconsiderthe text in front of you and write a review that attempts to listen to the book, pay attention to what it doesn’t say, and wrestle it down not for meaning or for Truth but for a imaginative or intellectual expansion, to pay attention to when the book provides a way in or a way out of wherever you are at any given moment. To say to the world, here, look: a book review should never be useless, even on a bad day. (I know, of course, that Elizabeth Gumport’s piece wasn’t just to say, “Book reviews are useless”, and perhaps I wilfully misread to be wilfully churlish. Maybe.)

There is constant grappling with MEANING and INTERPRETATION. Frequent questions about WHAT THE FUCK IS ART ANYWAY.

And while you’re sitting there mulling things over, in particular that one question: WHAT THE FUCK IS ANYTHING ANYWAY, Susan Sontag comes up over your shoulder, hectoring you about interpretation, shouting into your ear, “INTERPRETATION IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON ART. EVEN MORE. IT IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON THE WORLD.”

This is the trigger.

You’re angry now, and you tell Sontag, “Listen, white lady with a wide vocabulary and excellent critical thinking, you cannot be against interpretation when this interpretation is the revenge of the brown woman intellect upon the world, and goddamn you, this revenge shall be had.”

The review goes unwritten for a few more hours.

**

“In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act,” Sontag continues to say in “Against Interpretation”, somewhat conciliatory.

**

“Who decides the contexts?” Subashini writes in her journal at 11:53 p.m. on December 7, 2011, brown woman intellect in a muddle.

**

The review of the book that inspired strong feelings of meh was finally completed in a blur of tears, when I decided to reread Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks while writing the conclusion and remembered the first time I encountered Fanon in the chilly aisles of the library at the University of Winnipeg at some point during the fall of 2005.

Who knows why I had to cry six years after reading him for the first time in order to remember what it felt like reading him for the first time.

**

I think I realised why, sometime later. Perhaps?

An introductory Critical Theory class, in which I encounter many of the thinkers and theorists in my Critical Theory reader for the first time. It’s all about timing, someone wise said once upon a time. I think if I was a young undergrad, the way undergrads are supposed to be, and also if I was white, male, and straight, I would have become a theory-jerk. You know the type? You bump into them everywhere into the blogosphere – theory as a belief system instead of a means to get somewhere. Where? I don’t know. But is should never be a belief system. This much I know.

(But I was older and uncool, having taken a few years between college in Malaysia and university in Canada to work temp jobs and despise life. So I became a theory spinster.)

We read an extract of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex during the second or third week of class, at a time when Frantz Fanon was just a name to me and nothing more. Our excellent professor made us all gather into pairs to discuss a particular Beauvoir excerpt. We broke into pairs with the person seated next to us. The person next to me was a guy: pale of skin, blue of eye, fair of hair.

I had seen him around some of my other literature courses and had entertained a mild crush on him until I heard him speak. There was nothing wrong with him, certainly. He was popular, even! Well-liked! A sort of rising star in the English Department! The kind of rising star who, along with other rising stars of the English Department, never really spoke to me, even when I spoke to them. The kind who were forever speaking to someone or apparition behind you, next to you, an embodied presence floating above your head, perhaps, even when they were having a conversation with you. The kind who could never really look you in the face.

“It’s my hair, perhaps my scalp-“

“My skin, my tropical-bred skin, so oily and shiny and perhaps they can’t bear to look at it… maybe I have a pimple-“

“My facial hair, I can’t help it though, it’s my Tamil-genes, oh god, it’s probably my eyebrows, did I remember to tweeze, do I have unibrow because I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror this week because it’s finals week-“

–Just some of things that ran through my mind when fresh-faced, white-skinned English department rising stars couldn’t talk to me by looking at me in the face.

I had a sense in those days, you see, which were the longest period I’d ever lived in a North American space, that some white people didn’t know how to react to me because of the colour of my skin, perhaps, or the strange tone and texture of it; the strange tone and texture of my wild, wavy hair, perhaps, or the strange tone and cadence of my English – always proper, but somehow strange.

So. Pair discussion! A few things were said, and then I blurted out how valuable it was to me that Beauvoir expounded on the construction of “the eternal feminine”:

“The similarity just noted is in no way due to chance, for whether it is a race, a caste, a class, or a sex that is reduced to a position of inferiority, the methods of justification are the same. ’The eternal feminine’ corresponds to ‘the black soul’ and to ‘the Jewish character’.”

That passage is flawed, of course, for Beauvoir insisted that the “woman problem” is equivalent to “the Negro problem”, or “the Jewish problem”. Despite the flaw, it was an opening for the conceptualisation of identity that excited me, then – as it would, I think, for any woman encountering Beauvoir (and Foucault, simultaneously) for the first time.

Frantz Fanon - Black Skin, White Masks Advertisement (1967)

I really can’t remember what my discussion partner was saying about a great many things, because everything he said prior became a blur following what he said after I said something along the lines of, “I’m really wary of people who aren’t black going on and on about ‘the black soul’, for instance,” and he replied with (paraphrased), “What’s wrong with saying that? What’s wrong with ‘the black soul’? They have soul. I think it’s a compliment.”

And I fumbled, as I am wont to do when flustered, angry, and unable to articulate what I feel somewhere deep in my physical self but can’t quite put into words.

How to begin? Where to begin?

I had a sense that our professor, from way yonder, noticed my expression and swooped in just in time to come find out how we were doing with our discussion, in which case the point I wanted to make was lost as we talked about other Beauvoir things and not the one thing that was rattling around the walls of my feeble mind.

I felt an immense sense of shame over that ridiculous pair-discussion; shame that I carried around for awhile; shame at not having said what was on my mind, shame that came from knowing English and explaining for years to curious white Canadians – “It’s practically my first language! My mother spoke and read to me in English when I was in the womb, even!” – and failing, at that crucial point, to find any use for English.

To find English failing me, or myself for failing English, and wondering how it was that people – like this guy, for instance – came to possess such an expansive view of themselves in the world, that they had no doubt that they can say anything and be unafraid or uncomfortable, knowing that room will be made for them at the table, that their words will be heard, that it won’t unheard or ignored or simply misunderstood because they speak English the wrong way, and with a strange accent?

**

Fanon was on the syllabus. He was to come many weeks after Beauvoir. But I was a Good Student, as I was told all my life, I got good grades and I did all my readings – and better yet, professors said, beaming at me: I read more than the required readings!

An excerpt of Black Skin, White Masks was on the syllabus, but a copy of the book was available in this university library which so often did not have copies of anything beyond lots and lots of copies of dead, white men.

So what I learned then, or perhaps realised what I’d always intuited about how I sometimes read and why I read, that maybe you stifle the shame with reading. Sometimes.

“I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” Fanon wrote in his introduction to Black Skin, White Masks and with that, I had found my words.

I had found it too late, obviously. And had I known it then, that this was what I felt but could not say because I didn’t know how to – if I had known it then, would I have had the courage to say it? I don’t know.

And still – gaps exist. What do I, Malaysian-born woman of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, have in common with Martinican-born French-educated Frantz Fanon of African descent who died twenty years before I came into the world? There are gaps. I don’t expect Fanon to fill it.

But he gave me words that day in a way that made me realise how we sometimes drink books down as if we hadn’t had a sip of water for days. Or how you breathe a book in before you even realise you were gasping for air.

I can only think, like Keguro wrote in his post Listening to African Queers: “Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”

Timing is everything.

I think, maybe, that’s why I cried when I picked up Black Skin, White Masks again recently six years after reading it for the first time. The book I had finished reviewing was set in the global South with characters who were struggling to understand themselves beyond how they were taught to see themselves. I felt, at that moment, threads of connection between one unrelated book and another and myself as the eye of the needle through which they passed.

And so I sat down for awhile and cried.

Or it could have been hormones. I am Woman[i], after all, and 98.25% of the time we are fluttering about in a state of agitated hormonal activity. (I am told, by reliable sources.)

**

Sometimes you’re going along, doing your own thing, reading some great essays in a highly-praised online magazine of “ideas”, and then you read a profile on the editors and founders of this magazine, and you realise that they appear to be all white, and young, and you remember flashes of another life in another country, of English departments and rising English department stars and graduate students, and you think, “Why are they consistently white and young?”, knowing that these questions are not quite generous, knowing that seeing people in terms of skin colour and youth and shared experiences and networks and educational backgrounds is to limit how you see the world.

Or does it?

I don’t know.

“The extent of my perversity overwhelms me,” said Aimé Césaire.[ii]

“Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”

I’m sorry Sontag, but sometimes my (our) intellect needs to take revenge upon the world.

Fanon gave me words. There is – yes, still! – the rubble of white man’s artifacts both out there, in the world, and in here, inside my mind. Sometimes I need all the words I can get.

“What can I do?

One must begin somewhere.”[iii]

 

 


[i] And that means grappling with Fanon’s complicated gender politics – women are an afterthought, and as David Macey writes in Frantz Fanon: A Life, “feminism was not on Fanon’s agenda” (despite him knowing Beauvoir personally, and Black Skin, White Masks sharing a conceptual framework with The Second Sex). Macey tells us about Fanon’s first white girlfriend, who because she was pregnant with his child out of wedlock, and because of their interracial union in conservative Lyon, failed her medical exams and saw her medical career aspirations come to an end as she went off to have their baby. And what of Fanon’s wife, Josie, who typed his Black Skin, White Masks manuscript? She casts a shadow, but she is sketched into place with faint lines. The story is of Fanon the man, of course, and the women were merely… there. Macey’s biography is magisterial in its scope and its love for its subject, but as a woman I wrestle with the little stabby pains to the heart in recognizing how little Women actually mattered to Fanon.

[ii] In Notebook of a Return to the Native Land

[iii] Ibid.

*The stunning image of the Black Skin, White Masks ad is from Alex Weheliye’s excellent Tumblr.

 

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How to doubt your writing

December 19, 2011 § 19 Comments

Use Twitter, for one. Use Twitter, and then;

  1. Assume that the best blogs need to be written in the Grad Student Voice because you follow a lot of grad students on Twitter and quite a number of them follow you, and so you to try to write like they write their blogs, because other grad students like it, and retweet those blogs, and;
  2. Assume that retweets mean something, and assign GRAVE IMPORT to those retweets, and become convinced that they not only create meaning about your worthiness as a writer but also assume that retweets are an indication of your worthiness AS A HUMAN BEING AND IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN RETWEETED YOU’RE JUST A FUCKING FAILURE, OH JUST GIVE UP ON LIFE ALREADY and then realising, in essence, sometimes retweets, i.e. attention, is like bird shit, sometimes you get splattered, and most days you don’t, really, because;
  3. Quite a bit hangs on spheres of influence, networks, and who knows you, who really knows you, and whether or not they’re influential in the blogosphere and the Twittersphere, and how;
  4. One day, if they decide to like what you write and say, “THIS IS AWESOME”, then all the people who are their friends and who want to be their friends or who are merely influenced by their tastes or opinions will also retweet what you wrote and say, “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER, I LOVE HER BLOG”;
  5. And promptly forget about you or your blog the next time you link to a post or to something you wrote;
  6. Which you, being silly and foolish, will see as a sign of your failure as a writer or a blogger, and perhaps it is a sign of your failure of a blogger, if being a blogger means garnering page views and “hits”;
  7. After which you try to repeat your style, your writing, whatever it is that brought about that first bout of attention, and slowly realising:
  8. The influential grad students of Twitter have probably stopped paying attention to your blog, and they’ve stopped talking to you anyhow, and you’ve stopped talking to them, and the previous compliments and attention had really nothing to do with what you wrote, it just had something to do with you being there at the right moment, i.e. it’s all about whether the BIRD HAD TO SHIT AT THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT;
  9. And you realise that you’ve wasted a lot of time on really stupid self doubt and you’ve been a fool for not actually using your blog the way you promised yourself a year or so ago when you started it – to test out ideas, to write bullshit, to think through things, to write, to write in any way that comes to you without being hemmed in by the “right style” or the “right form”, and realising that maybe, just maybe, the grad-student style was never your thing because;
  10. You’re not a fucking grad student, and;
  11. You remind yourself that the things you write should not be contingent on retweets and attention, or maybe-
  12. In the digital economy and online spaces where you publish, retweets, links, and attention are exactly the factors that make or break a writer, except with the volume of writing that is online these days, you either get noticed or you don’t, and then you remember the people who have noticed you and who have taken the time to consistently remind you, even through emails and private DMs, that they read what you write, and that you tend to forget about them thinking about the people who don’t pay attention to you;
  13. And there is really no particular explanation or reason as to what makes people consider you good one day and meh the next, but then you realise this isn’t true, that there are perhaps complex factors about your “audience” and where you live and where they live, and that the politics of space, race, gender, sexuality, and class will also have a role to play online, both in the type of attention you get and don’t get, and the type of attention and validation you seek, and then realise you’re beginning to have a headache;
  14. Because does it, and if so, how?
  15. And you entertain the idea that far from erasing boundaries and limitations and constraints, Twitter really does reinforce “the power of place” and that maybe, politics aside, because you don’t know how to deal with the politics of digital attention at the moment, but you can deal with your Individual Feelings, so you deal with your feelings and decide that this is what they meant when they said be fearless and fail in your writing, when they said that if it mattered to you, you really should not care who else cares or who else does not care, and maybe this lack of attention allows you to fail spectacularly, in front of an audience, an audience that is present and aware but does not really care either way whether you write or you don’t, an audience that does not really pay attention to you unless you say something at the right moment, when circumstances are right, when people see what you say and feel moved enough to want to read what you wrote, which is essentially Twitter in a nutshell;
  16. And you learn to show up and write, regardless of who’s paying attention to your fucking tweets, grad students or no, and you suddenly think of Rilke, who will be shocked, and then embarrassed, at this woman who is sitting here writing, nay BLOGGING, about retweets and page views, a woman who will then comfort herself by imagining him repeat these words: “I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.”*
  17. (And to ignore the little voice that won’t shut up, that wants to ask Rilke how to ignore the outside when the outside seeps into the inside, and the inside exists in the outside?)

* From Letters to a Young Poet

 

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Poem

December 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have a poem titled Stories from the City in Sein und Werden’s Metropolis issue.

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