April 14, 2013 § 6 Comments
And also a month late–my review of Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: Power and Failures of Paperwork. This book was frustrating. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. What I got out of it: 1) Paperwork makes assholes out of us; 2) Paperwork may facilitate, but mostly gets in the way, of people power. I don’t like those conclusions, or rather, I’m not sure why Kafka didn’t take them further. It’s a thoroughly engaging and well-researched book, though, but not much to wrangle with beyond the historical facts and some Freudian speculations. Maybe the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the research overwhelmed Kafka in the end, too.
The key feature of all the “paperless” offices that I have worked in was the abundance of paper. While doing temp jobs that came with various spine-tingling designations like “data entry assistant” or “clerical assistant”, I only knew that my job was to make all that was solid—paper—melt into air—data. But certainly, you don’t have to work with paper to know how paperwork gets in the way of everything: a marriage or a driver’s license, a new passport, citizenship.
Paperwork makes you wait. Paperwork disappears, sometimes never to return; or to return much later, with the vengeance of the repressed. Paperwork obstructs. Paperwork keeps you in limbo. Paperwork means what you don’t know will hurt you, or eventually bite you in the ass when it turns out that all that stands between you and your goal is, “I’m sorry, it’s just that there’s a file missing.“
Ben Kafka, media theorist and professor at New York University, understands this. That’s why he’s titled his book The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork—the ghosts of paperwork haunt every missed opportunity and unforeseen error in the attempt to fashion a structured, disciplined, and well-documented life. At the heart of Kafka’s book on paperwork is the rerouting of Marx’s theory of paperwork—what he called the “bureaucratic medium”—by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis. Paperwork has its pleasures, and more important—its powers—but it is fundamentally unstable.
Kafka begins his inquiry with a chapter called “The Disciplined State”, in which the story of an 18th-century French clerk who loses his job—and his failure to recover it—is what Kafka calls “the story of the French Revolution’s success”, or how the bureaucracy became an essential component of the state. This bureaucracy, however, was a double-edged sword: “The disciplinary state, which relied on documents and details to keep track of its subjects, would also have to be a disciplined state, aware that those same documents and details could be used to keep track of it.”
Morizot, the clerk who found his appeals and attempts to recover his job thwarted at every level by the power of paperwork—“What he needed was the right signature on the proper letterhead”—wrote frantic pamphlets to bring his case of bureaucratic misery to public light. As Kafka writes, “The French, Morizot asserted, were living ‘among the debris of a ruined monarchy, now converted into a bourgeois aristocracy’” and, as such, “a world of privilege was becoming a world of rights; the personal state was becoming the personnel state.”
While paperwork was designed to produce a more equitable form of society, where accountability for each citizen was recognized as an “inalienable, individual right”, the “foundation of representative government”, it also proved to wield power in inequitable ways. Kafka recounts the story of Labussière, an employee in the Committee of Public Safety’s Prisoners Bureau, who in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror, destroyed the files of the prisoners before the Revolutionary Tribunal could get its hands on it, thereby destroying significant information about the prisoners and rendering punishment impossible or eternally deferred, subsequently saving lives. Perhaps Labussière, whom Kafka depicts as a kind of trickster figure, practiced a form of radical clerking—paperwork for the people, as it were. But the significant point, as Kafka points out over and over, is that paperwork makes paperwork fail, because the “proliferation of documents and details presented opportunities for resistance as well as for compliance.”
Kafka’s theory of paperwork loops around the same premise—paperwork can consolidate power as well as unsettle it and render it futile—and is determined to remain in history without the slightest detour into the present. One wonders about his theory of paperwork and shifting powers in relation to Wikileaks while Bradley Manning is held within state power. “The duplicitous simplicity of the trickster”, as Kafka writes of Labussière, clearly doesn’t apply in Manning’s case, and if bureaucracy has the potential to beat state power at its own game, it’s difficult to think of a way out of situations where the state’s malpractices, corruption, violence, and excesses are laid bare—made transparent to all with access to the internet, even—while its powers remain firmly lodged in place.
In The Demon of Writing, Kafka circles around the same premise: “It is the story of how paperwork, even when it works, fails us. We never get what we want.” As such, a psychoanalytic theory of paperwork by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis, or “the Freudian slip”, much like the political theory by way of Marx that leaves Kafka unconvinced, also leaves us wanting:
“Like the symptom or dream, the slip represents an attempt by the unconscious to get its message across—an attempt that is made difficult by repression, the primary processes, and any number of measures taken by the ego to prevent embarrassment or worse. The question to ask is: What was being communicated? And the answer is: We don’t know. We will never know. We can’t know.”
The Demon of Writing is witty and entertaining, and Kafka seems both charmed and inspired by writers and thinkers who disliked paperwork, like Rousseau, or who found both paperwork and its pushers to be quite contemptible, like Balzac, who writes of the clerks in Les employés: “It is difficult to decide whether these plumed mammals were getting stupider because of their careers, or whether they had these careers because they were born stupid. Perhaps it is equal parts Nature and Government.” On the other end of the spectrum is Barthes, who predictably experienced jouissance while “dramatizing paperwork”.
But as a theory of paperwork The Demon of Writing, in its impact and potential uses, is slight. How to explain, for instance, the parapraxis of paperwork—the “powers and failures of paperwork”, as it were, to a “paperless” immigrant? To most, even while paperwork delays and obstructs and fails—or precisely because of this—the powers of paperwork and the administrative apparatus that supports it remain entrenched. If our stories about bureaucracy and its horrors are a means to thinking about the state, then this book shows that “we” don’t always get what we want; instead, paperwork provides “us” with the opportunity to “fulfill fantasies of power and powerlessness, revenge and love”. That leaves too much to chance and individual temperament, and material circumstances—economic and political systems—are able to remain very much unchanged despite these fantasies of power and revenge.
In his closing chapter, for example, Kafka talks about the short film The Paperwork Explosion that IBM commissioned in 1967 to promote its word-processor (see video, below). “Machines should work, people should think” was the message of the film, and Kafka wonders if the film could be read as a warning “against its own techno-utopianism”. Perhaps, but the present shows us that IBM is a corporate giant, and in the age of smartphones and gadgets, people, more than ever, are being put to work for machines. Maybe corporations want you to think, but it’s usually because they want you to think what they think.
Fantasies of revenge are compelling to consider, but if the powers of paperwork—in other words, the powers of the capitalist state—are unstable and diffuse, then it seems like Kafka’s argument merely boils down to how the unconscious life of paperwork can often exceed or limit individual or collective expectations. This leaves no room for an alternative to paperwork. And as long as we have our fantasies and narratives of revenge, nothing really has to change.
April 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In yet another instance of Shameful Neglect of the Blog, I share with you a review of Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image by Yiu Fai Chow and Jeroen de Kloet that came out in Pop Matters a month ago. A whole month!
Why have I been slacking off on self-promotion? I don’t know. I’ve been away, travelling in Sri Lanka, writing fragments in my notebook, fragments in Microsoft Word (do MS Word users still publicly admit to using MS Word?) and staring into my dogs’ eyes in an attempt to find the answer(s) to various hard questions. No answers are forthcoming, but one of my dogs does like to nibble on my chin and nose–perhaps that should be enough for now.
I’m going to do a revolutionary new thing and post the entire review here, below.
When did Hong Kong popular music die? Theories abound as to the death of Hong Kong pop songs delivered in the local language of Cantonese, or Cantopop. Some say it died when Hong Kong was handed over by the British to the Beijing authorities in 1997. Others say that it died along with its two international superstars, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, in 2003.
Either way, facts and especially figures are marshalled up in defence of this death, with decreasing record sales being the primary means of assessing the pop music’s industry ill-health. If the industry isn’t making money, or as much money as it used to, then it’s clear that something is ailing the Hong Kong pop music industry. The industry cannot imagine that Cantopop continues to live on in various different forms and places: as karaoke, for one, or on the internet, for another.
Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image enters into the discussion as a sort of corrective. Jointly authored by Yiu Fai Chow, assistant professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s department of Humanities and Creative writing and songwriter of Chinese pop songs, and Jeroen de Kloet, a professor in globalisation studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of China with a Cut, Sonic Multiplicities is deeply immersed in theories and techniques of cultural studies as it sets out to look at (and listen to) the multiple ways in which Cantopop has proliferated into new and different forms in late capitalism.
The issues of Chineseness and Chinese national identity is the spectre that haunts Hong Kong pop culture, and Chow and de Kloet are interested in troubling or resisting conventional “rise of China” narratives that present a stable and uniform history and Chinese subject. With Hong Kong’s colonial legacy as the geopolitical starting point, the first chapter of Sonic Multiplicities is a combination of theory and autobiography that sees Chow speak on a political and personal level about the “politics of Chineseness” through articulations on nationalistic songs, or folk ballads known as minzu gequ.
The autobiographical “I” in this chapter is refreshing in an academic book, and Chow’s struggle with notions of Chineseness growing up as a young boy Hong Kong, and later while living in the Netherlands, is reflected through the changing political and social mores of the ‘90s when, as Chow explains, “the Chinese Communist Party replaced its legitimizing ideology from communism to a market-driven nationalism”. Chow’s analysis of how Chineseness is performed in nationalist songs is undercut by his own ambivalence in having written songs meant to serve as nationalist propaganda and his attempts, within that particular framework, to subvert and discreetly undermine accepted, conventional narratives with his lyrics. How are newly (re)nationalised subjects allowed to dream of a nation, or a better nation?
“For the Hong Kongers at the time of imminent changes, we willed ourselves to be brave, to be Chinese, to become one with tens of thousands of those who at least looked like us. But it is not easy… It necessitates a logic of empowerment by conjuring up an enemy, the other… It also necessitates a submission of the part of us alien to the whole, the part of the city alien to the nation, the part of the future alien to the past.”
To be of a nation but not of it is a theme that resounds over and over again throughout the book, and in their sensitive and generous assessment of the politics and cultures of fandom, the authors aim to show readers how “the fans” exercise their agency in their consumption of pop music and their engagement with, and celebration of, celebrities. In this sense, by focusing on two “local” celebrities from the Netherlands and Hong Kong, Marco Borsato and Leon Lai, Chow and de Kloet shift the pop cultural focus away from the US and onto what is truly a global sphere, although they recognise the hegemony that operates within “global pop culture”, where North American pop stars are often claimed as “international stars” while Asian pop stars are rarely so—even when they are truly international, as was the case with Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. In this sense, “whose international” seems to the concern here—whose cultural production is centred and considered “global”?
One of the more intriguing chapters focuses on sex and morality in Hong Kong and Chinese pop culture by way of the Edison Chen scandal. Far from adopting simple and reductive positions that sees the scandal as either bad (yet another spectacle!) or good (sex is healthy and we should enjoy it!), the authors interrogate the questions of morality that were mirrored in the media coverage of the scandal, particularly in how the subjects involved in the scandal immediately sought to control their reputation and image along conventional binaries of proper male and female behaviour.
Edison Chen, the sole male actor, sought refuge in cringe-worthy pleas and what the authors term “extreme moralism”, even announcing at one point that he will need to “step away from the Hong Kong entertainment industry… to heal myself, and search my soul”, in addition to performing the role of the moral, law-abiding citizen by publicly promising to assist the police in ongoing investigations. As the authors point out, the mediatised nature of the public spectacle demands the so-called salacious or transgressive act for collective consumption and, following Rene Girard, also demands a public scapegoat.
Meanwhile, with the women involved automatically framed as victims, the female stars in Chen’s videos had to take another, culturally proscribed route: that of repentance with a feminine/maternal slant, as in the case of Cecilia Cheung, who said “I have to stand up for the sake of my son.” The authors ensuing discussion of spectacle and conspicuous consumption—as evidenced by Edison Chen “bouncing back” from this scandal by throwing himself into his fashion business, and by co-opting the scandal for an art show—and its connection to “mediatized moral panics”, which, by way of Stuart Hall’s arguments in Policing the Crisis, act as “vehicles for the transmission of dominant ideologies.” The more scandalised we are, it would appear, the more things stay the same.
If there is a problem in Sonic Multiplicities, it’s that its ethnographic approach produces a rather shaky foundation on which the authors juggle multiple concepts and theories, going as they do from Rey Chow to Theodor Adorno, back to Guy Debord, then to Fredric Jameson. While discussions are deep-rooted and show an inclination to resist pat conclusions and easy assumptions, Sonic Multiplicities suffers from a less-than-rigorous consideration of political economy, as in the chapter on Beijing’s Olympic ceremony and the production and interpellation of national subjects in spectacles of global sporting events.
In discussing Soviet and Chinese authoritarian communism, the authors rightfully resist dominant narratives in liberal democracies that tend to depict “the masses” in these countries as totally docile and utterly subject to control—being away from the local particularities and nuances, these narratives often miss out, or simply can’t see, the necessarily discreet or prudent forms of resistance. But while they discuss the performative aspects of nationalist songs and speeches, the authors neglect to tease out the implications of a kind of performative Communism as espoused by China’s main party, even while market reforms put into place by Deng Xiaoping since the late ‘70s have had everything to do with capitalism. In this sense, the authors missed out on an opportunity to interrogate China’s official communist position against its increasingly capitalist reforms. While the authors state that “performative contestations” of the spectacle is not something unique to China, they neglect to draw connections between performativity and late capitalism and continued Western political and cultural hegemony in the global pop culture marketplace.
However, Sonic Multiplicities is an intriguing study of pop culture that doesn’t take North America as its starting point and yet does not avoid analysis of political or cultural forms of dominance that affect and, indeed, produce these forms of “globalised” pop commodities. The authors are particularly attentive to the formation and production of both the national and diasporic subject, consistently grounding these subjects in temporal and spatial circumstances, especially or even when these circumstances are stable, shifting, or ambivalent. It manages to trouble notions of a radical or emancipatory potential in pop culture without demeaning either the cultural workers or the consumers—indeed, recognising that subjects and producers of popular culture using the internet as a platform are most often both.
Hong Kong pop is not dead, but it has transformed, mutated, and altered, and the authors want to encourage people to see, listen, and think in new and altered ways.
January 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I am sorry, once again and for always, for the absolutely crap blog post titles.
I have three reviews out in Pop Matters:
- Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
- Aman Sethi’s A Free Man—this one messed with my head a little, or a lot, and thus the review is an incoherent mess; it just seems difficult to rate a book about poverty, written by an educated journalist from a different class, as “good” or “bad” or profound or moving or well-done or whatever, without implicating oneself in the consumption of these narratives.
- Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff—this is the first book I’ve read by Lewitscharoff and she has such a great style, strengthened by the bleakly funny, whip-smart voice of the protagonist, and this book has about a billion frustrating and revelatory Eurocentric anxieties and neuroses to wade through, or drown in.
Is it in bad taste to link to one’s own reviews and then rant about someone else’s review? Probably; all the more reason to do it.
I was reading the review of Sheila Heti’s latest in the LRB and I was (am) so perplexed:
Much has been made of the fact that How Should a Person Be? passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man, invented by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), but its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt.
“that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves” – this is such a coy argument. Is the reviewer objecting to or applauding the narcissism of Sheila Heti’s character? Does the reviewer think that feminism—FEMINISM IN ITS ENTIRETY—only exists because feminists are supremely interested in themselves? Does being “supremely interested” in oneself preclude the desire/ability to be “supremely interested” in other things? Is this form of supreme self-interest only to be found in feminism and/or woman-centred narratives, although the reviewer seems to think these are interchangeable / mean the same thing? Is this state of supreme interest in oneself a problem or not a problem, reactionary or revolutionary? Why is Sheila Heti, or the Sheila Heti of the book, a stand-in for feminism? Whose feminism?
“Woman-centredness” = “feminism” = feminists “supremely interested” in themselves (“even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt”).
I think it’s interesting that this review takes the book’s “woman-centredness” and presents it as feminism’s “dirty little secret” without making an explicit value judgment, although much of its judgment, or what it thinks of “woman-centredness”, is contained within its use of the phrase “dirty little secret.” How nice to be able to mime at making an argument without making an argument. It’s such a useful way to say something provocative and yet distance oneself from the implications. In this way, it becomes nonsense. And the arrogance in the assumption that a broad movement like feminism, with its multiple global proliferations and histories, can be assessed and diagnosed by narrowing it down to how two (fictionalised) North American women, Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson, relate to each other.
Not just a secret, but dirty, too.
December 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
It would seem like after I wrote that last blog post I exhausted myself and my capacity to spew words and collapsed in a crumpled heap near the bottom of my closet while looking for something decent to wear but no, that is not what happened. At least I don’t think so? I have been reading a lot of books lately and wondering why I have a stupid blog, i.e. business as usual. Or maybe more so than usual, especially since you can find any number of comments online about how people want other people to bring back the copy editors because so many articles these days read like crummy, messy, awkward, shit-as-hell, hell-as-shit blog posts.
A blog is a much-maligned thing.
Hug your blog today.
Pet it, stroke it, maybe even write in it.
Can we talk about the fetishisation of edited writing? What are the magical powers of editing that will make a piece of writing automatically better (suited to consumption)?
I neglect to put up my Pop Matters reviews as they go up, so this is delayed self-promotion in one post. (And that’s a funny thing about self-promotion. It’s never eschewed, only postponed.)
1) Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam
This was dense, long, and really fascinating. Probably because it’s such a vast topic –there is so much history to sift through and situate—the book is very disciplined, never straying far from the outline of each chapter. I kept wondering about the women, who were mentioned so rarely. How did they see religion?
How did Maymuna know God? Women were illiterate, we see from this example, but they weren’t silent. How do we know which words were their own, which were put into their mouth? And if their words weren’t recorded or archived then how would we know how they saw God? This book takes its title after Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who makes a cushion (here Elias tells us that in another account, it was curtains) that troubles the Prophet because of its images. Aisha’s artistry in keeping house and making household objects for her husband is a domestic problem, a spiritual problem, a metaphysical problem. In both examples of Aisha and Maymuna, women pose a problem or they neutralise a problem. Men reign, men look, men decide, men theorise, men historicise, men write and this is not so much Elias’ fault as it is a huge gaping hole, a glaring silence, a substantial lack. Aisha’s Cushion is all men, all the time.
2) Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home
I’m pretty sure I said enough about this book in my review. I couldn’t shut up and keep it brief, but I will add that I enjoyed reading about Hausa popular literature just as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Although “enjoyed” is a term not without its problems—there was too much to relate to, on the level of the operations of patriarchy through familial and social institutions—that it was a bitter pill to swallow, or more like cough syrup: deceptively sweet but ultimately unpleasant. I’m still wondering what Saudatu thinks of her marriage. I also want to know how the women see, how they look at their men. Yakubu is pretty clever in how she manages to depict instances of masculinity that come off as, in the words of Aaron Bady in this tweet, beyond satire. (And this is also due, no doubt, to Aliyu Kamal’s translation.) The world of Sin is a Puppy is a world that’s too-familiar because most straight men actually want others to believe that their intentions, thoughts, and actions are produced and defined by their hard-ons. They spy a beautiful face, a comely figure, and they are ready to disavow previous wives, existing kids, current jobs and social and political positions. AND THEN THEY’RE LIKE, SHIT! WHY ARE THINGS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT? This is basically the position of Rabi’s husband, who really doesn’t need a name because he’s All The (Straight) Men We’ve Known Before. I was pretty happy to read Aisha’s review because she was similarly troubled by the book’s complexities: I am not alone in my discomfort! I admit I am pretty chuffed, because Aisha is smart and wonderful, and it’s good to be of like mind.
3) Kate Zambreno, Heroines
This is another long-ass review where I couldn’t shut up. Heroines is troubled and troubling; I’m frankly quite puzzled by reviews that seem to consider it a superficial or simplistic look at constructions of femininity. It’s also a ridiculously quotable book, and if I were allowed to write like 10,000 words I’m sure I would have quoted multiple passages. Zambreno seems to be circling around mothers in her work—on her blog she has talked quite frankly about her relationship with her own (now deceased) mother: her relationship to her mother, her relationship to her death. There’s a great line in Heroines about “panopticon mothers”, one that echoes a line from her first book, O Fallen Angel: “Maggie was born in a repressive regime (her mother has policed her since birth).” We don’t talk enough about the mother’s all-seeing gaze. (Do we? Is it all-seeing?) What happens to the daughters of panopticon mothers? I also feel like the proper review of Heroines would have entered into the spirit of the book like Helen McClory’s review, because it feels like she really engaged with the form and spirit of the book, although the style of it is still distinctly Helen’s own. But I’m sure this book will continue to ooze out of me in the months to come, in blog posts and other kinds of writing. I would like it to ooze; I’m sick of the capitalist mode of literary production, after all, quite sick, so it’s only expected that books will ooze and fester.
November 12, 2012 § 52 Comments
I’ve been reading sad books. Books about sad people. While I was reading Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (which I reviewed here), I was rereading Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, and at this point in my life I must have reread it five or six times. It’s always a bad idea for me to read this book—I’m always in a funk for a week after, sometimes longer, or perhaps but now it’s just lodged itself somewhere inside me and each time I reread it it’s like lighting a match. Two Girls is about two girls, but it’s also about gender war(s), heterosexuality as violence. Chris Kraus writes about wanting to solve heterosexuality before turning 40 in I Love Dick but I feel like every conversation with single straight women friends over beer is an attempt to solve heterosexuality, and after a few drinks the solution is simple: Drink some more or dance; failing that, overthrow the patriarchy and end heterosexuality (somehow).
But what do I know?
It’s just that when I walk around this city I wonder if it makes sense to talk of the Neoliberal Heterosexual Couple. Gym-toned bodies, “tasteful” dressing (“Keep it classy!”—I fucking hate this fucking ubiquitous phrase), identical cannot-be-arsed-about-anything-except-ourselves faces. The couple that won’t let go of each other’s hands even in a crowded walkway; not so much because they’re so In Love and cannot bear to let each other go, but because they have so much contempt for everyone around them who is not-them; contempt written on their faces. Handholding as a weapon, maybe, handholding as a contemptuous gesture. I mean, not being able to step aside, even for a second, for an elderly lady with her shopping bags. The Couple as a Fuck-You-to-the-World might have been a romantic idea at a certain point in time, or even a form of resistance against the status quo, maybe? But now just a part of the obnoxious status quo.
But what do I know? I am single and bitter. (Maggie Nelson, in Bluets: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”)
And no doubt dying to get married, as various members of the “older generation” have implied to me over the last year. Not even a question, “Do you want to get married?” No. They just know that you need to get married because if you do not you will rot and die. I bumped into an old acquaintance of my father’s a few days ago, while I was with my sister, and among the things he said to me after not having seen me for close to twenty years (I didn’t even recognise him!) was the ever-reliable, “You should get married and take care of your family.” It was the last bit that puzzled me, this idea that I could not be otherwise taking care of my family if I was not married. But it’s not a puzzle really; Tamil people everywhere are on autopilot when it comes to giving Life Advice to wayward young (and not-so-young) women doing horrible things with their lives like being unmarried, cutting their hair short, and wearing red lipstick. GET MARRIED> MAKE THE BABIES> TAKE CARE OF YOUR FAMILY BY MAKING MORE BABIES> YOUR MOTHER IS WORRIED
Overthrow the patriarchy. End matrimony. (I shouted, in my head, while smiling vaguely into the distance while this man gave me free life advice. Oh, the smile, how it makes you fucking complicit.)
Thinking about singleness and marriage, stewing over it, often means that I start thinking about beauty. Because it’s beauty that I’m struggling with at this point in time. That is, I lack it, but this is not news to me; when I say “this point in time”, I mean that at this point in life as I know it, it seems that everything is the exterior, that the image is you, and you are nothing but the image. (This day in Capitalism it was discovered there is no there, there.) Romance is a marketplace, and you are one of the many images on sale, and if you’re not the right image you are, essentially, shit. “Never before has society demanded as much proof of submission to an aesthetic ideal, or as much body modification, to achieve physical femininity,” says Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory and I’m suspicious of the phrases here—“never before”—“society demanded”—yet this sentence rings with truth, for me, and perhaps for other (cis, straight) women who are single and wanting (yearning? dying for?) a connection with someone else that isn’t predicated on aesthetic ideals, all of us who identify as “normal-looking” or “not beautiful” or whatever-
“What if the self-commodification of individuals is all-encompassing, as the analysis of the job market suggests? What if there is no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”
“Objectification implies that there is something left over in the subject that resists such a capture, that we might protest if we thought someone was trying to deny such interiority, but it’s not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life in the way that we might once have understood it.”
-Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman
What if the outside is all we have left?
When I talk about beauty I don’t know what I’m talking about, particularly if I’m also talking about desire, and I want to talk about beauty without talking about Plato or Kant (I just can’t with Kant), and I know for a fact that desire is a colonised space.
“We speak, act, think, behave, and micro-manage ourselves and others according to the “score” that is the general intellect—in short, the protocols or grammar of capital,” Jonathan Beller reminds us. Love in the Time of Capital. Yes, okay, I tell myself I know how to grasp this intellectually, but the bigger fear is that this is the only way I know how to love: according to the protocols of capital.
I watched Love of Siam a few weeks ago and cried all the way through it, and after it was over, cried some more, and felt like I couldn’t understand myself—why all these tears? And the movie is a “tear-jerker”, in a sense, in the vein of Asian family dramas that are a blend of realism and melodrama, and so it wasn’t unexpected that a person watching it would cry. But it’s also a film that’s unabashedly pro-love. And as soon as I write that I know it sounds silly—what does it even mean? But I guess it means what it is: it’s a film about love, and not just the “provocative” aspect of young gay love between two Thai adolescent boys that’s highlighted in all the promotional reviews of the film, but also about all the banal and taken-for-granted forms of love between friends and family, the kind that is familiar to me because the families and the communities in Love of Siam remind me a little of what I knew growing up in Malaysia, of how I came to understand the intersection of multiple identities. The differences between these (often conflicting) identities–of discovering one’s queerness, of being a son of an alcoholic, of being a brother, a friend, a grandson, a pop star, a boyfriend—aren’t reified; one identity doesn’t trump the other, and it makes no sense to speak of Love of Siam as a movie only about romantic love or gay love. I contain multitudes, said some American poet and everyone went ooooh, but come on, Asian people have known this forever.
But a big part of this movie is about love between these two boys, Mew and Tong, and it’s the genius of the movie (the result perhaps of the direction and the casting decision to go with two young, relatively inexperienced actors), that the love between these two boys feels so organic and unforced, an entirely surprising yet predictable outcome of shared moments and the pull of desire. Looks are not the currency, eroticism isn’t purchased or a choice[i]; love happens because two people like each other so much, and the question of attraction—sexual or otherwise—is not absent or glossed over so much as it is depicted whole. Mew and Tong are attracted to each other because they’re drawn to each other as people containing multitudes, not because they possess an alluring physicality; not once does anyone tell the other “You’re hot” or “You’re sexy” and I don’t know if I’m regressing or blossoming into full-blown prudedom, but it was so fucking refreshing I don’t even know how to talk about it. I recognise that a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenes are necessarily circumscribed by the cultural norms in which it was made—in this case, Thai society and Thai censors—but it’s astonishing how much is and was conveyed through looks and faces, and tenderness and understanding. So much of how we understand romance these days is mediated through this narrative of consumerism: “I’m worth it”, “You’re worth it”, “I deserve the best”, “You’re hot”, “I like a nice smile and nice tits”, “I need a man who’s all man, you know what I mean?” All these standards that we think arrive fully-formed in our heads without any external influence, all these principles of picking and choosing The Right One, of having control and autonomy—this movie sort of chips away at those assumptions very quietly and tenderly. The camera loves its subjects; the film loves its characters. The act of loving reveals the love.
But talking about how it’s not a choice doesn’t simply mean that love is something that chooses you. It’s a convenient poetic fiction, and poets and writers and artists talk about it this way all the time, and I fall for the force of that fiction: It wasn’t my choice, I can’t help who I fall in love with. In order for that to happen there has to be an “I” who stands outside of economic, political, social, and cultural influences. So maybe part of my love of Love of Siam is a desire to want to believe in that fiction again. I don’t know though: everything I just wrote down, I believe and don’t believe. Love is attachment, so maybe love is a kind of choice or decision to allow oneself to like/become attracted to a person who is close to you (literally, in the sense that the other person is physically present, as opposed to, say, an image on a dating site; also, figuratively in the sense of a mental and emotional connection based on shared moments, experiences, conversations, and silences that constitute shared time[ii]). Mew and Tong turned inward, toward each other, and it was love. But the movie didn’t require them to turn away from other people, or from life itself. (Although there were necessarily moments where they retreated from life, from people, pulled away and stood aside in order to stand beside each other. But it wasn’t a mode of being, this retreat from life. Their love isn’t about making an investment in coupledom as the only form of solace in a difficult world.)
Similar to the points Elaine Castillo makes about Senna, another movie that moved me in an almost forceful way, Love of Siam is in love with faces—long close-ups of faces dominate throughout. The camera lingers tenderly, lovingly, on faces. I watched it online where the sound and subtitles were off-time; characters would say things before the audio and subtitles kicked in, and although it’s one of the most agonising ways to watch a movie, I kept watching because once I watched the first ten minutes I was hooked. I had to closely watch and observe the faces to understand what was going on before the subtitles arrived to provide the language with which to make sense of these faces. The camera follows their faces slowly and closely, and because the two actors in the lead roles were so young, and almost naïve, watching their faces is a kind of heartbreak. The close-ups of Mew and Tong’s faces are also meant to reveal how much they want to look at each other. The frequency with which they simply look at each other is astonishing; astonishing in the sense that it’s unashamed and assertive. (Here I think about Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look, and what it means that two queer Asian boys claim this right so forcefully and tenderly.) I also think about Kelly Oliver’s “The Look of Love”:
“A loving look becomes the inauguration of “subjectivity” without subjects or objects. In Etre Deux, Irigaray suggests that the loving look involves all of the senses and refuses the separation between visible and invisible. A body in love cannot be fixed as an object. The look of love sees the invisible in the visible; both spiritual and carnal, the look of love is of “neither subject nor object”.
Irigaray’s suggestions about the possibility of loving looks turn Sartre’s or Lacan’s anti-social gaze into a look as the circulation of affective psychic energy. The gaze does not have to be a harsh or accusing stare. Rather, affective psychic energy circulates through loving looks. Loving looks nourish and sustain the psyche, the soul, as well as the body. Irigaray’s formulation of the loving look as an alternative to the objectifying look, and her reformulation of recognition beyond domination through love, suggest that the ethical and political power of love can be used to overcome oppression.
There is no happy ending in Love of Siam, though. Nothing is “resolved”. Life goes on and love adjusts its proportions to let life pass through. Love is the vessel and life rushes in to fill it. “If we can love someone so much, how will we be able to handle it one day when we are separated? And if being separated is a part of life, and you know about separation well, is it possible that we can love someone and never be afraid of losing them? Or is it possible that we can live our entire life without loving at all?” Mew asks Tong, and it’s a question that isn’t answered. “Now that we’re grown up, loneliness seems so much worse,” says Mew, and it’s true, and the movie doesn’t rush to fill the loneliness with love. Rather, it suggests that love doesn’t replace that fundamental sense of aloneness, much less transcend it. In the end, Mew and Tong don’t end up together as A Couple, and Tong tells Mew, “I can’t be with you as your boyfriend. But that does not mean I don’t love you.”
Maggie Nelson, in Bluets:
238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”
Like when Courtney Love sings in “Malibu”, “I can’t be near you, the light just radiates”.
No happy endings in sight.
When I think about Senna, too, I think it’s a film about love. It feels like it was made with so much love, and it’s also a movie that’s in love with its subject, a subject who’s not afraid to love his life’s work, the people who matter to him, God. I love that Masha Tupitsyn focuses on what is, for me, the most moving scene in Senna: that brief moment between Senna and his father, which she describes here:
In the scene where Senna wins the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991 (after he won the race, Senna actually passed out, so great was the anguish of his ecstasy. Victory.), he suffers unbearable shoulder pain from the tremendous stress of the race. He is literally pulled out of the race car and driven off the track. He can barely move. But when Senna sees his father, he calls over to him, “Dad, come here. Come here.” His father hesitates, but Senna insists. “Come here. Come here! Touch me gently,” he orders. His father, much taller, stands beside his son, as Senna rests his head against his father’s chest for a moment. When he starts to walk back, Senna tells everyone else (even before anyone actually touches him; even if no one is trying to touch him at all), “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” He commands everyone but his father to get away from him. This scene, which is the difference between touch me gently and don’t touch me at all, between everyone else and you, between a son and his father, beloved and not-beloved, can also be read as a love story.
If ever a moment could be charged with love, a love so rarely seen on screen in its rawness and vulnerability—the love between father and son—it was this. I think I scrunched my eyes a little when I watched that scene, I wanted to keep looking and then I looked away, mostly because I wanted to cry (tears! again!) because watching felt like I was looking right into a bright light.
Being a witness to love can often feel like an affirmation of something (of what? something you had but lost?), but more often it feels like a wound. Late-capitalist society doesn’t tend wounds; it just looks for ways to avoid it and move on.
[i] There is one scene that involves a kiss. The camera doesn’t intrude; it pulls back, and then goes a little closer, but maintains a respectful distance—this kiss isn’t for the benefit of an audience.
[ii] Which makes me think of this: http://likeafieldmouse.tumblr.com/post/33874562265/felix-gonzalez-torres-perfect-lovers-1987-91 What if lovers are not in-time? “We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space. We are a product of the time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time.” And yet—as if it can ever be that simple—“[A]s military time has become militarized time over the past few years, time itself, what is defined as ‘my’ time, has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. We are in the time of service.” How does militarised time shape how we love? What is the neoliberal couple in service of?
October 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
I was in Sydney for two weeks, which was nice, but nice doesn’t quite capture it. And what was nice about it? Being away from KL was nice. “I need a new city”, someone I follow once said on Twitter, and that seems to be the thing: I need a new city. I don’t think Sydney will be my city, although I loved it, and I loved spending time with my nephews while they were on their school break, I liked the idea of a wholesome PG-13 holiday and I liked being asked by the barista if I was enjoying the school break, being away from school must be fun and all, he said. And then I said no, I’m no longer in school, and then he was like, Oops and Are these your children, then? referring to my nephews, and I somehow went from high school kid to mum in like two seconds but look, if someone wants to think I’m still in high school I am going to silently, gratefully thank the universe. But why should I thank anyone or anything, fuck this ageist capitalist society, fuck it, yes, but I still live in it, so how to fuck it is the question. The barista was cute, and my sister watched me from afar, and then calmly informed my nephews that the barista was trying to flirt with Aunty Suba and then my nephews giggled and I stammered and blushed as much as I could blush with brown skin. And the one thing they don’t tell you about older sisters is that you might get older but you’ll always feel (be) 12 around them.
We went to Darling Harbour while I was there, and that’s the one part of the city I loathed because it was a nightmare concoction of what corporate city planners think is “wholesome family fun”, there are restaurants and malls and museums and an IMAX theater and carefully-planted trees and Disneylandesque stone paths and manufactured conviviality and it reminded me so much of Singapore’s Marina Bay, another place that makes you want to run away as you enter into its vicinity.
While taking the train from the suburbs, where my brother’s family lives, to the city, I stared out of the windows and saw things — shops and places and people and the “Say no to burqas” graffiti next to the one proclaiming “Free speech”.
Things that stick in your mind.
The one place I can’t get out of my mind is Cockatoo Island, which was formerly a penal colony (in the mid to late 19th century), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourist spot (when we went it was a long weekend and families were coming in on the ferry to camp there for the weekend). While I really wanted to visit the place — absorb it, in a way — because of its history (that awful, almost unavoidable touristy need to cannibalise history and its affects), I also couldn’t shake off the wrongness of my presence, my out-of-placeness, or the out-of-placeness of all “visitors” in a place that was formerly a site of discipline, surveillance, and hard labour. “Foucault tourism” as Nicholas Mirzoeff writes, in a piece which you should read:
My British forebears did know how and where to build prisons, you have to give them that. The island is isolated in the middle of Sydney harbor, with the prison itself located on top of a steep cliff. Recent excavations have uncovered minute solitary confinement cells, which have a distinctly contemporary look in this Abu Ghraib era. The officials built themselves sandstone residences with a Georgian feel but placed at the highest point to give them a panoptic viewpoint. Grain silos dug into the rock still have chain rings, to which the excavating prisoners were linked while working. The prison was created right at the end of the transportation era in 1849–convicts were not sent to New South Wales after 1850, although they went to Western Australia as late as 1868.
I stood inside the the military barracks/guard house, the place from which military supervisors of the penal colony monitored the prisoners, and took pictures of the panipticon while watching other tourists take pictures of the panopticon, all the while waiting for an answer from Foucault. Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist. What am I doing here?
In 2000, a group of Aboriginal people occupied the island and claimed it as sovereign territory. You can still see their murals, using the Aboriginal flag as a motif. Using the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, Isabell Coe and others asserted that Britain had never formally claimed the island, a claim rejected by the courts as “inconceivable.” Really? A deserted island on the edge of the harbor? Regardless, Coe created a tent embassy on the island and asserted sovereignty. The occupation of occupied indigenous land and the counterclaim to sovereignty was a powerful performative act.
The art exhibition was over when I was there and so the island was populated by adults and surly teenagers and perplexed babies, looking at the air raid shelter and the powerhouse chimney and the sewerage treatment plant and perhaps recognising the ghosts among us. It’s a quiet, isolated place; perfect, in fact, for isolated disciplinary methods and punitive labour. Strong winds, the bright sun. “This place is fascinating,” said a mother to her two teenage sons, coming down the road just ahead of us. “It was the most boring experience of my life,” said the elder son, shoving his younger brother.
While I was in Sydney my review of Roshi Fernando’s Homesick went up on Pop Matters. I didn’t expect to like it for various reasons I talk about in the review, but it surprised me. You can read the review in full here but here’s an excerpt:
One of my favourite stories, “Sophocles’s Chorus”, gives us a youthful Preethi slowly blossoming into her sexual and intellectual powers: she kisses the most lusted-after boy in school, she reads Howard’s End and Antigone, she is the star in a school play, and her dreams and words and images slowly bleed into one another until fantasies and imagination hold the possibility of becoming real. But these moments of youthful potential and hope, moments that appear to be touched by a sort of otherworldly grace, sour pretty quickly, and the kiss becomes a shame that Preethi must endure under the watchful, cruel eyes of her peers.
What starts out as tragedy on the page, experienced from a distance as a reader of Sophocles, becomes the unwished-for reality: all that held the promise of something sweet becomes rank with wrong choices and misdeeds, and Preethi slashes her wrists in the bathtub. She survives this suicide attempt, of course, but the Preethi we meet later will always be raw and vulnerable, always approaching the edge of something, only to be pulled back by someone: a husband, a cousin. Families will consistently fuck you up, Fernando seems to say, but sometimes they also don’t let you die.
I was supposed to stay away from the cinema but I didn’t. I watched Looper and I am flummoxed by all the swoony reviews. The reviews don’t really tell you what it’s about. It’s about Mothers! MOOOOOOTHERS! MOTHERS ABANDONED US BY US I MEAN LITTLE LOST BOYS WE ARE BAD MEN NOW FROM BOYZ TO BAD MENZ BECAUSE MOTHERS CRISIS OF MASCULINITY GUNS MONEY BRUCE WILLIS GOES APESHIT SILENT CHINESE WIFE IN SLOWMO EMILY BLUNT CRIES AND TOUCHES HERSELF BUT AT LEAST SHE GETS TO TALK
Also if I had to choose between watching a slice of dry toast sit on a plate and a Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance, I’d go with the former.
People tell me that JGL is Great and Hot but I think Toast is Better, Seriously. I know he was supposed to be really good in Brick, which I think I watched, although I can’t remember maybe I just ate some toast who knows, so maybe I should watch Brick and revisit my opinion of JGL.
September 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
My review of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? went up on Pop Matters awhile back and I’ve been tardy in doing one of these exciting blog updates where I tell you that The. Review. Is. Up #breakingnews
The short of it is I reallyreallyreally did not like it. I wanted to talk more about why I did not like it but it occurred to me that I have written a review about exactly that. So I will put up a Fiona Apple song instead as a fine, tongue-in-cheek, clever example of feminine discontent that Sheila Heti is unfortunately not:
Michelle Dean, whose Slate essay is otherwise spot-on about how sexism works in book reviews and definitions of what counts as Serious Lit, draws a comparison between Heti and Apple which I quite obviously disagree with. Heti’s whole book is determined to absolve Sheila, the (fictionalised) character. I mean, as Jessa Crispin points out, she compares herself to Moses—this was either meant to be flippant and subversive (as in, why can’t women characters lay a grandiose claim to greatness like men often do in their books?) or serious and earnest (as in, look, Sheila is like Moses). Either way I can’t help but feel so strongly against the style of the book, which I suppose means that I dislike the writing, which probably means that I dislike the thinking. As Jessa writes:
But the Heti is sneakier. Part of it is the self-help aspect. The way she compares herself without blinking to Moses. The way the book gets historical fact flat-out wrong. The selfishness and the lack of awareness of the real world, and the certainty of it all. The girlishness. The, god help me, tweeness of it all. And then, behind all of that, a tone of cynical “just kidding!” to protect itself from criticism. None of this is necessarily frustrating in and of itself, at least not in an intense way. It should have just been a “not for me” book that I set aside after two pages.
I disagree with Jessa about the girly aspects of the book; or rather, that girlishness is somehow always-already twee and fluffy and shallow. I just don’t think Heti’s exploration of female subjectivity is at all compelling or interesting or new or challenging or bold or anything. And this is where I do agree with Jessa’s comments: the “tone of cynical ‘just kidding!’ to protect itself from criticism”—yes. That’s why I mentioned Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl in my review, because Green Girl is about female subjectivity, girlishness, hysteria, sensitivity, emotions, but it’s bold and strongly-written; it doesn’t shy away from its subject, whether it’s shallow or unintelligent or whatever, it plunges right in, and as a result it is a ferocious, tentative, vulnerable, intelligent book. Heti’s tone, in contrast, is coy in a way that I really can’t stand; I don’t know if this just boils down to taste, and if so, what that says about me.
(Anyway, I’m generally in agreement with most of Jessa’s thoughts about How Should a Person Be? and also way too thrilled that she linked to my review. #notahumblebrag #anoutrightbrag)
Meanwhile, Fiona Apple is fucking up and making a mistake and telling us that she “sure had fun”. And that’s why she’s different from Heti, who compares herself to Moses. (Also, Apple is just a few years older than me and I’ve been a fan since her first album, so I feel like I “grew up” with her and I cannot bear to see her compared favourably with Heti, just nonononopleaseno.)
August 27, 2012 § 12 Comments
I don’t mean to pop up every few weeks on my own blog only to say, “Here is my review of …” but here is my review of Amit Majmudar’s Partitions for Pop Matters. I found the book to be … not good, and here’s a little extract to explain why:
Majmudar’s characters appear to serve as vessels for goodness, innocence, and hope. They are good Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and for that reason they come together. Consider his Hindu characters: two children, wide-eyed and confused and learning about the greater world as their world falls apart. Consider his Sikh character: a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, a girl so immersed in religion that several characters in the book understand that for her to be raped would be the worst thing of all. Our male narrator with the probing medical gaze tells us this about Simran: “It baffles me at first, but she has no way of truly understanding what those men will want with her.”
Or consider Simran seen through a sex worker’s shrewd, world-weary eyes, seen through the male narrator’s eyes: “It’s part of what confuses Aisha’s feelings towards Simran: her vulnerability, her hypersensitivity to things Aisha herself scarcely registers. Like the gazes of men.” (Later on, the narrator will tell us that “the partition between Aisha’s first and second mind, the woman and the whore’s, tore open” while listening to Simran speak of religious purpose. Clearly, one can be a woman or one can be a whore, but one can’t be both.) Consider his Muslim character: a bleeding heart doctor with a stammer, the latter marking him out of the orbit of adulthood because he is unable to converse with other adults, only children—and later on, Simran. Simran comes to symbolise the curative properties of womanhood, psychically healing herself and the men and boys of her newfound family by sheer presence of her pure soul.
I was reading Manto’s short stories at the time (am still reading, going through them slowly, taking my time to let the flavours of Manto’s translated prose sink in) and it’s unfair to compare anyone to Manto, really, but it was my first time reading Manto as opposed to reading about him. And Manto’s short stories work a kind of subtle magic, and I was trying to think what it is that makes Manto’s short stories work (for me) while something like Majmudar’s doesn’t—Manto recognises chaos and ambiguity, while so many contemporary writers want to resolve it. Partitions is written like a dose of strong medicine that wants to cure humanity of its ailments; Manto seems to have written his stories to feel and think and live within the muck—not above it, not beyond it. Reading Partitions made me a feel a bit queasy, actually. Though it was written about the events of 1947 India, it feels like a response to current, post 9/11 phobias: fervent moralising about the goodness of different people from warring/contesting ethnicities and religions.
My review of this book, seemingly highly-praised elsewhere, is a negative one. I’ve been reading the current flap over nice reviews vs not-nice reviews and wondering what this says about me, that I write not-nice reviews. Maybe I’m a not-nice person. (A revelation?) The flap over book reviewing started off on the wrong foot, with a bizarre Jacob Silverman piece that claimed to be “against enthusiasm”, which is silly—presumably people get into book reviewing as a Thing To Do because they’re really enthusiastic about books? Surely it’s not about enthusiasm and niceness and more about the demands of the market and book industry and the concurrent intensification of networking, “branding” (with “positivity” playing a part; less about niceness than shrewd, aspirational ass-kissing.) I mean, I liked Silverman’s initial blog post enough to expect that he was going in a different direction than where he ended up going in that Slate piece. I think he had a bigger, more interesting point buried in that piece, part of which I saw as having to do with how social media functions to uphold or replicate hierarchies of print capitalism, as such, and how reputation, expertise, and cultural capital accrue to reviewers from corporate media and media dynasties—and now, online magazines (some which formerly started out as blogs.) I mean, think about the networks of visibility on what is considered book talk worthy enough to be retweeted, reblogged, or linked to and they’re basically writers, contributors and editors for the The Millions, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, The Awl, to name a few. And if you follow enough of them on Twitter and Tumblr you begin to see that the editors, writers, and contributors for these publications tend to know each other and prop up each other’s work—fair enough (or not), but it’s particularly North American, and it’s particularly insular. If we want to talk about social media and book reviewing, it should probably be a conversation about the reification of these digital connections in social media; how social media is implicit in dominant modes of cultural production and dissemination.
This discussion about book reviewing/criticism is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.) But you would think that any discussion about social media and economies of attention in The Literary World (forget the reductive discourse on enthusiastic vs critical, for the moment) would be more illuminating if it focused on the entrenched hierarchies of reputation/knowledge, within the North American milieu itself and between North America and the rest of the world. Someone can write a fantastic critical piece for the India-based The Caravan or Livemint and it will mostly be retweeted/liked/favourite/whathaveyou by other Indians or a select number of people within Asia and North America. But even a middling review or piece of criticism in The Rumpus or Slate will generally enjoy the privilege of being seen and read by readers from all over the world. (That is, by readers who are interested enough in books to actually want to read book criticism and reviews.)
I mean, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes a negative review of a highly-praised cultural product from the first world—the kind that enjoys wide distribution and robust marketing—is a necessary intervention by readers at the margins, at the borders, from other places and spaces.
I mean, I know. Cultural hegemony, imperialism and its discontents. I’m simplifying the argument greatly to think of it wholly in terms of first world vs the rest. I’m thinking of Aijaz Ahmad’s argument in “Literary Theory and ‘Third World Literature’” (Ahmad is magisterially scathing throughout In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures; he will no doubt be magisterially scathing of the half-baked, incoherent thoughts in this post):
By the time a Latin American novel arrives in Delhi, it has been selected, translated, published, reviewed, explicated and allotted a place in the burgeoning archive of ‘Third World Literature’ through a complex set of metropolitan mediations. That is to say, it arrives here with those processes of circulation and classification already inscribed in its very texture. About this contradictory role of imperialism which simultaneously unifies the world, in the form of global channels of circulation, and distributes it into structures of global coercion and domination, I shall say a great deal throughout this book. Suffice it to say here that even as we open ourselves to the widest possible range of global cultural productions, it is best to keep in view the coercive power of the very channels through which we have access to those productions.
But this is a Very Big Topic that probably wouldn’t have generated as many page clicks or as much worthless discussion as an article titled, “Against Enthusiasm”, so. But when you write a piece like that you will predictably get a very meh response about “the case for positive book reviews” which is about as useful as being “against enthusiasm”. What is Laura Miller saying here? I’m particularly peeved because I used to enjoy reading her in the (distant) past. Here she basically says, “Meh! I’m paid to write this so I’m just going to write a few hundred words about nothing at all” and bizarrely (or not) it ends up being widely circulated. And her response prompted a particularly abrasive response from Scott Esposito (though I might add that the terms of which the debate is framed was always-already stupid). Then there’s the response from Dwight Garner, who actually writes these words: “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Abusive enough? Punishing? Gold stars? #NODADS for fuck’s sake.
I’d much rather think about Tom Ewing’s brief but useful post on “criticism as a vehicle for ideas about things”. I also appreciate Michelle Dean pointing out the gendered aspects of any discussion on nice vs. not-nice, but I tripped over this bit:
“And why do I need to be nice?” these men ask, when actually all you are asking is that they not approach you as some aspiring immigrant from another country, and one on the bad end of a trade deficit, at that.
I want to be a compassionate reader. I am concerned with learning how to inhabit a text in a way that encourages more reparative readings than merely being satisfied with a paranoid reading (the result of having recently read the chapter on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” in Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling—her ideas run deep and I probably need to reread it a few times). But where does the anger go? How to place it within narratives of love and compassion, to strike that crucial balance between anger that illuminates and anger that becomes moral authority, as Audre Lorde recognised in “The Uses of Anger”? I am an angry reader a lot of the time and I want to be nice, but niceness rarely allows me to say what I need to say. I also want to be responsible in saying what I need to say, not to let honesty and anger become an excuse to hurt. But sometimes I just want to shout because being told to be nice and positive is often a mode of suppressing something uncomfortable for the status quo and when faced with the authority of reason and objectivity, particular groups of vulnerable are often the ones who already feel the pressure to be nice: women; people of colour; people from other parts of the world interested in Literature and All Its Glory and but who aren’t well-versed in Literary Theory, Philosophy, the Classics, etc.; people whose first language isn’t English but who write and think in English now because fuckyeahcolonialism.[i] (As Lorde reminds us, much of this has to do with trying to avoid the anger of others; there is the need to make nice with racist/imperialist/patriarchal authority so that it doesn’t hurt you further; for bare survival.) Notice the trend that Dean points out: white male reviewers are comfortable with not being nice and writing about not being nice, but female reviewers are writing about being nice. Female reviewers also recognise the burden of being nice and the burden of being subject to (often sexist) vitriol and unkindness.
You bring all your issues to the table when you read, when you write about what you read and how you think your way through a text. Do we keep those issues separate from the text under our scrutiny? I’m thinking about Chris Kraus on female writing and schizophrenia, and in that vein, female criticism and ALL FEELING ALL THE TIME. Because conventional wisdom states that good, proper criticism should be objective, cool, rational, distant. What to do with all these feelings? (But how then to avoid the inevitable overemphasis on individual subjectivity, and the subsequent professionalisation of feeling, resulting in something like Sheila Heti’s loathsome How Should a Person Be?) The thing is, I abhor “against enthusiasm” but I also abhor “the case for positive reviews” and the constant reminders (demands/pressure) to be nice; it’s a tyranny of its own sort, no less harmful than “objectivity” or the “critique the hell out of everything, hold nothing back, make people whimper and cry” position that some heavyweight tough-man critics want to adopt.
Perhaps I should just leave you with some words from Kate Zambreno (from an interview in The Millions):
I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.
This is so relevant, and you can see this in a lot of blogs by book reviewers/critics, too, who link to their published review and append messier, chaotic, less-publishable thoughts in their blog posts, saying, “This is the longer version”. And those “extra” thoughts are always so much more interesting to read alongside the “proper review” itself.
[i] As Aijaz Ahmad puts it, “One cannot reject English now, on the basis of its initially colonial insertion, any more than one can boycott railways for that same reason.”
August 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Genet has been messing with my life lately. In a good way, I think. It’s just that I haven’t had much time for reading lately, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, and after coming out of my Genet fever I had to read an astoundingly mediocre book for a future review. After Genet, the mediocre seems offensive.
My review of Sartre’s Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr is up on Pop Matters. I talked about it a bit in a previous post. I have to say that I dislike the Pop Matters rating system because I’m not sure that a rating system is helpful to anyone. Quantifying the qualitative seems doomed from the start. I gave Saint Genet a 6/10 rating, which is wholly inadequate (because neither a higher nor lower number would have been more adequate) and doesn’t much describe how I felt about the book. In any case, I’m meant to rate all the books I review, but it really hit me when I was trying to assign a number to Saint Genet. It’s hard to evaluate in terms of rating. It’s a book that infuriates, and for that I think I love it. Saint Genet is provocative and chaotic and smart and silly and essential; I disagreed very strongly with HUGE CHUNKS (and there are a lot of chunks), but assigning it a number just feels wrong because it’s not about whether it’s “average” or “good”. And as I continue to read Genet I will no doubt continue to dip in and out Saint Genet and have long conversations with the text that begins with, “Sartre, you turd… ” (said in total affection and dislike, of course.)
I can’t help but turn to Susan Sontag’s words in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, where she begins an assessment of the same book with these words: “Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” Grotesque and ghastly—Sartre’s work is a monster that will devour the reader’s presence of mind, to be sure. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I began readingSaint Genet while Kanye West’s “Monster” played in the background: much like Nicki Minaj’s persona in the song, Sartre’s implicit announcement to his future reader seems to be “First things first, I’ll eat your brains.”
Read the entire review. (If you like.)
July 23, 2012 § 4 Comments
(Fragments of thoughts on Genet that was supposed to go on Tumblr until it grew too long. The value of shutting up–I’ve yet to learn it.)
I read Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and now I’m reading The Thief’s Journal. I seem to have reached a point where Genet’s voice is what I really need. (Well, his and Fiona Apple’s.) Genet’s voice is the voice I need to get me through sad and sullen days, or nervy, awkward, self-conscious days. It’s the voice that says, Fuck all these people and their reactions to you, look instead at the shape of this cloud, take note of the precise tone of colour of the sky, devote your attention to the charmless gestures of a man with an unexpectedly beautiful smile. Which is really strange, because Genet is nothing if not in his body and extremely self-conscious, always excessively aware of his physical being in relation to others, always watching himself through others, always keeping tabs of his place in relation to others. But maybe intensified self-consciousness can become a space, a refuge, from the need to feel/know the consciousness of others, and maybe a temporal liberation is what Genet achieves in his writing, and what he’s able to convey to (some) of his readers.
There is always someone saying that reading is dead in the age of the internet or some such nonsense, but to read Genet is to recognise that reading is not dead, just dreaming. To check tweets in the middle of reading Genet is to undream. No tweeting, no tumbling, no texting, no external words, just the Genet-words on the page or screen. Dreaming as reading as immersion. This dream-state of Genet-reading is fevered. You, the reader, get in the way of the text all the time, and so does Genet. He gets in the way of your reading. His words are profoundly disorienting; they will undo you. Genet knows this, knows that you know this, and enjoys it. No, I mean I think he strives for it—writing isn’t writing if this doesn’t happen.
In the the 600+ page Saint Genet, Sartre says a lot of things about Genet until Genet ceases to be Genet, but he does say one thing about Our Lady of Flowers that rings true to me: “No wonder Our Lady horrifies people: it is the epic of masturbation.”
And Genet’s narrator is perpetually always on the edge of orgasm, one presumes, because he is fervently, religiously jerking off:
It was a good thing that I raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult! I have only to begin the gesture and a kind of unclean and supernatural transposition displaces the truth. Everything within me turns worshipper. The external vision of the accessories of my desire isolates me, far from the world.
Pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and about, that air of supreme indifference towards everyone and also a certain awkward manner that, if you have gone to bed with a boy, makes you feel as if you have bumped your head against a granite slab.
“a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures … the air of supreme indifference towards everyone” — masturbation as strategy for navigating the trauma of the social. One of the ways to attempt to love your queer self in a society that deems your sexuality monstrous is make love to yourself. But it’s never that. It’s onanism and masturbation and selfish pleasure but rarely ever spoken of as self-love. Genet forces you to reckon with the hierarchies of acceptable bodily pleasure. Genet forces you to reckon with the anguish of being an undesirable desiring the desired. (“What could I commit so as to be worthy of his beauty? I needed boldness in order to admire him.”)
Guattari in “Genet Regained”:
It is true that Genet’s creative process always made a strong appeal to fabulation (masturbatory or otherwise) but his fundamental aim nevertheless remained a poetics with a social impact.
Genet makes you think about shit a lot, which is very uncomfortable for me because I am not fond of shit. Regrettably, this makes me sound like Sartre, who says in Saint Genet: “Genet is excrement, and it is such that he asserts himself … As for myself, I am not as fond of shit as some people say.” One part of this formulation is false; either Genet isn’t excrement or Sartre is extremely fond of shit, because Saint Genet is about Sartre the heterosexual man’s man trying to “philosophically diagnose” Genet, in Sontag’s words, in order to love him better. But also to outdo him; Sartre’s worldview in Saint Genet is so limited, so conservative, so heterosexist, that I think it drives Sartre crazy to know that a man like Genet exists, that a radically different version of masculinity is not only possible, but desirable. (Dear Sartre, I don’t mean to get Freudian on you. But in the final analysis, you know I’m right.)
Genet on love:
I should like to play at inventing the ways love has of surprising people.
It enters like Jesus into the heart of the impetuous; it also comes slyly, like a thief.
Love makes use of the worst traps. The least noble. The rarest. It exploits coincidence.
If masturbation is a kind of redemption from everyday anxieties then love is the path that takes us right back to it. Love is trauma. It’s a kind of horror, actually, because I get the sense that Genet’s hyper-corporeality (explicit, almost tender descriptions of bodily fluids, wastes, processes) is a way to transcend the body he so loathes. Loving another is hard when you hate your body. Or rather, allowing another to love you is hard when you hate your body.
There are “problems” with Genet. His fetishisation of a certain type of normative masculine beauty, and of the sexuality of black men (large appendages, always); the odd comment about Arabs and their odours. This prefigures his later politics, where he spoke of the Black Panthers and the Palestinian struggle as aesthetic projects, as Things in which he can find a space for himself. But there is something here: if Genet is writing against bourgeois values (i.e. hypocrisy), then his writing never lets you forget that you are complicit, or a part of it; and sometimes you wonder if he’s merely writing through these hypocrisies to test them out on the reader, to see how far he can push. You wonder if the text is showing up your own prejudice. “Our future burglar starts by learning absolute respect for property,” Sartre tells us of Genet, and perhaps this is true: Genet also writes to investigate his own complicity.
The other “problem” with Genet is the Problem of Women. Meaning, the lack of women. Women as absent-mothers. Men mother each other; then turn on each other. Within a patriarchal society Genet’s queer men identify as women, or want to be women, or recognise some element of femininity in themselves, and hate themselves because society hates them. But in his writing Genet is perpetually in drag. I can’t help but read the text of Our Lady as a parody of phallocentrism. (Sartre, meanwhile, thinks Genet is FAKE: a FAKE man, a FAKE woman, writing FAKE prose, but in a GOOD way.)
And I can’t help but think of Genet as Hermes, appropriately enough. Genet seems to embody the trickster in terms of how he presents his art/writing and how it is received. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde writes that “trickster stories themselves have been told in ways that marked them as ‘special speech,’ so that, no matter how profane their content, they belonged to an anomalous category, a sort of sacred lack of the sacred.” This wrestling with the sacred is the core of Our Lady. Genet venerates that which polite society is perpetually trying to ignore. The excluded, the marginalised, the spat upon, the lost, the anus, thieves, shit, doubt, queers, self-doubt, unwanted erections, artifice, base desires, pretension — these are some of Genet’s favourite things (to write about). As Hyde says about Hermes:
For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve its shape is quite another, especially if, as is always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed … ” Whoever has the wit to break these rules, whoever puts the guards to sleep, slips across the threshold and floods the sacred meadows with contingency, whoever steals the boundary stones of clear distinction, that person strips design of its protective glamour. Hermes does all this and by it he disenchants the world into which he was born.
Later Hyde reminds us that Hermes, in the Homeric Hymns, tells his mother that “either they give me honor or I steal it.”
I’ve been thinking about the idea of beautiful writing lately, and what it means when I say it and when others say it, or when it becomes sort of an institutionalised demand. Beautiful writing as good business. The idea of “beautiful writing” as a mechanism to limit and to police, to keep writing within acceptable boundaries of acceptable taste. Prose that is polite and distant. In contrast, reading Genet in all his wrongness and his flaws cracked my world right open.
(I don’t know how to explain it but maybe what I’m trying to say about writing is what Voyou says about football and Euro 2012 and Spain’s neoliberal style: “In flexibly-specalized postfordist capitalism, to be businesslike is to be virtuosic.” i.e. Spain’s football team is Michael Chabon. This makes complete sense to me. I fall asleep watching Spain play; I’ve tried to read the much-praised Michael Chabon about four or five times now but had to stop because I only ever felt crushing boredom: Death by eminently well-adjusted prose. To be fair, this also applies to Safran Foer, Lethem, Barnes, later Amis and Rushdie, and The Franzen.)
Sartre: “(Genet) has no particular desire to produce a ‘well-made work’; he is unconcerned with finish, with formal perfection.” A huge part of me is attracted to this lack of finish in Genet, excited by this undone-ness. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that “writer’s block” or the inability to write feels like constipation; finishing something often feels like you’ve just had a good shit. (Kate Zambreno: “My blog I think is a sort of toilet bowl.”) I feel that way; I think I started this blog in order to shit things out, but because of my aversion to excrement, my disgust, I prefer to stay constipated. It’s not pleasant; not for me, and not for anyone reading my jejune thoughts about shit/writing, but Genet makes you think, Fuck that shit, just write shit down.
Genet, on writing:
Since it is impossible to make a ballet of it, I am obliged to use words that are weighed down with precise ideas, but I shall try to lighten them with phrases that are trivial, empty, hollow, and invisible.
I’ve been thinking about ugliness lately. (Lately? All the time.) I was thinking about how I felt—like I was about to burst—when I first read Virginie Despentes and she acknowledges it:
Of course I wouldn’t write what I write if I were beautiful, so beautiful that I turned the head of every man I met. It’s as a member of the lower working class of womanhood that I speak, that I spoke yesterday and am speaking again today. When I was on unemployment I was not ashamed of being a social outcast. Just furious. It’s the same thing for being a woman. I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that—as a girl who doesn’t attract men—I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around. We have always existed.
Genet, too, he writes as one of the ugly ones. He writes ugly down: all of the things you want to clean up, forget, pretend doesn’t exist.
I need to be reminded, often, that beauty doesn’t always take you places.