Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments

I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?

But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.

So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)

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The review in full:

I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.

As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.

Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.

Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.

As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.

Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.

When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”.  When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.

If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.

It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.

When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.

And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.

Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.

She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.

As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.

Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”

It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.

Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently)  pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.

Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.

Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.

But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”.  Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.

For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.

Love Dog, and looking

September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is my review of Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Dog for Pop Matters.

There’s a passage that brought on a feeling of instant recognition:

In the opening scene of Days of Being Wild:

He comes in for the third time, after he’s told her that she will see him in her dreams, and asks her why her ears are red? I think: why is this whole movie red? And green. Green tint­ed (made green) and truly green (the jungle, the trees). Green like Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Red like Marnie. But parts of Days of Being Wild are shot like The Third Man, only all the shadows on the narrow streets are green. Outside, the angles belong to that noir. It’s overwhelming to see these two colors together like this in one movie after ev­erything they have meant to me the past few months. Maybe always.

She’s embarrassed. Embarrassed because she is excited, so she can’t look at him. I like people, no love people, who take looking and being looked at this seriously.

Because 1) I love Days of Being Wild and 2) I too love people who take looking and being looked at this seriously.

days of being wild

This leads me to think about that troubling passage in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray):

Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill. Not only do we not talk to one another, we don’t even look at one another. When you’re being looked at you can’t look. To look is to feel curious, to be interested, to lower yourself. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning.

I always stumble over those last four sentences because it seems to contain contradictory ideas about looking. I’ve been trying to write a post about looking for a long time now but I have no ideas about looking, only collected thoughts and impressions from various sources.

Something about how people are meant to look now, at themselves and each other, seems impoverished and demeaning, in a way. Now people are meant to glance at each other with speed and efficiency, and sum up, very quickly, whether they want to pursue the gaze or not. You are not even worth looking at in the mirror, sometimes. Or you must earn your own gaze, of yourself, by working hard to present a seamless, attractive self.

Nicholas Mirzoeff has written about looking and slavery, and Jonathan Beller on the labour of looking and how it is embedded in the history of racism and colonialism. So you can’t think about looking without thinking about power.

Sometimes you wish for the mutual look to be an equaliser but it never is.

I don’t know. Circling around the idea of looking, of how we’re trained to look, about what Mirzoeff says about it, that “the right to look is not about merely seeing”; where he thinks about “a time in which my claim to the right to look is met by your willingness to be seen”.

Like 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.”

Today, while out on the streets, I told myself not to fall into my habitual pose, which is to stare at the ground or at my feet or off into the distance, but to look at faces, to offer this silent gesture of something in what I think now was just an attempt to feel less alone while among so many people. But it’s hard(er) now to return the glance or to initiate one. The faces are opaque; or rather, faces have become obscure screens we can’t afford to waste eyeballs on.

Sometimes I wonder if I learned how to unlook in Winnipeg as a way to avoid the endless stares of a certain kind coupled with the amazing number of white dudes, bros, men, whatever who could never make eye contact but only dart glances your way when they think you’re not looking. (Which — when I sat down to analyse this with fellow not-white women in Canada, all from other countries, 100% of whom experienced the same — basically boiled down to endlessly complicated discussions about racism and fetishism of “the exotic”, discussions that were never resolved, of course not, how could they ever be.)

Also, the ever present threat of misogyny that makes looking such a fraught affair for a woman who just wants to claim her right to look.

The Outsourced Self

August 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is a review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us that first appeared in Pop Matters. If you expect The Managed Heart-type analysis and insight, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Barring any structural analysis, it appears as though Hochschild just wants to let us know that life is pretty shitty these days–and for all of us equally, at that.

(Nope.)

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Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist who published an influential book about emotional labour and gender in late capitalism, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, in the early ‘80s. For that book, she studied two types of workers for major US airlines and companies, flight attendants and bill collectors, to explicate how the discipline and management of feeling became embedded in service work in ways that both shaped and produced gender norms. In her description, emotional labour is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” that is meant, of course, to produce the “proper state of mind in others”. The “others” in this case are the consumers of a particular service, a service which is either increased or diminished in value by the emotional labour of the workers performing it.

Twenty years later Hochschild’s latest book, The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us, delves deeper into privatised emotional labour, exploring how the free market logic has spread its tentacles into the sacred haven of the home. While The Managed Heart was informed by Marx’s theory of the alienation of labour—“If we can become alienated from goods in a goods-producing society, we can become alienated from service in a service-producing society”, Hochschild wrote—The Outsourced Self is less interested in providing an analysis or, indeed, a workable solution or alternative to the market-driven logic. Rather, it tells stories of the people who are caught between its contradictory demands and impulses.

If The Managed Heart was about how emotional labour was becoming a fundamental job requirement among white-collar or “pink-collar” service jobs undertaken by largely middle-class white American women, then The Outsourced Self is about how middle and upper class white American families are made to cope with the disconnection of late capitalism by having to outsource the most private, emotional aspects of the self.

Hochschild emerges as a dogged and determined sociologist and storyteller, and the examples she cites are numerous. They run the gamut from love coaches and surrogate mothers to nannies and wedding and party planners and care work for the elderly, with companies offering personalised services for the disposing of the ashes of the a deceased love one as well as services for grave and headstone maintenance. Hochschild interviews both the people employing these services and the people who perform them, the latter being overwhelmingly female.

If being an efficient worker under capitalism means making enough money to have a comfortable life, having the means to acquire that comfortable life means not having the time to participate in the personal and social relationships that make it comfortable. When the bride is too busy working, it’s the wedding planner who has to figure out “how to coax the groom to get more involved”. When the private equity fund manager-father with a strong “faith in the global free market” is too busy to have mastered the art of party organising for kids, it’s the children’s party planner who comes up with the perfectly productive party that keeps the children occupied from start to finish.

If capitalism requires a productive, efficient worker to be available around-the-clock, then the increasingly inconvenient business of being human has to be outsourced—ideally for a negotiable fee.

Part of the business of being a productive worker is to project the image of how productive one is, to crow about one’s lack of sleep and inability to stay away from email as a form of accomplishment that justifies having a job and a salary. It’s a particular class of people who get to boast of this busyness and be admired for it. And it’s this class of people that can afford to outsource the undesirable or scary or unpleasant or unproductive aspects of their emotional lives to others and set the terms of the contract.

The reason why some of Hochschild’s critical analysis is blunted, one suspects, is because underlying these examples is Hochschild’s own story detailing her struggle to find an adequate care provider for her aging and increasingly frail Aunt Elizabeth. The stories of others are refracted through a personalised lens, and while this serves a particular motive—showing how people’s lived reality is often at odds with their intentions, for one thing—it doesn’t attempt to contextualise these forms of late-capitalist living for the reader, preferring instead to merely conclude that the logic of neoliberalism has penetrated into the most intimate aspects of our lives.

Hochschild’s sociological framework doesn’t render her oblivious to the ways in which capital works through race relations to create a class of precarious American emotional labourers who are largely working class black and Latino Americans and migrant women from Central and South America, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. In this book she travels to India to speak to surrogate mothers and notes how the Americans using the services of these women seem to consider this situation through the lens of free-market democracy.

Talking to an American couple who used the services of an Indian surrogate agency, Hochschild notes how some aspects of guilt at the nature of the transaction and the imbalance of the power between the employer and the employee are justified through contradictory rationalisations by the couple doing the choosing. They attempt to reach out to the women they hire, to convey their gratitude for the monumental service that is provided, but at bottom they remind themselves that, as one woman named Lili did, that “this girl is poor and she’s just doing it for the money”. Her husband, referring to the surrogate’s reticence and lack of amiability—she had asked the American couple no questions while they had “reached out” and asked her about herself—says, “I’m sure for them it’s a pure business transaction. Payment for surrogacy could equal ten years’ of salary in India. Still, if she’d been more cheerful, maybe we could have talked more.”

In another example, while relating the story of a relatively well-off American family and their Filipino nanny, Maricel, Hochschild writes:

“In the eyes of their employers, the actual stories of the Maricels of the world are often replaced by mythic ones. In the global South, people live more authentic and relaxed lives, Alice Taylor felt … Other versions of the “happy peasant” fantasy held by other well-meaning employers draw a similar curtain over the fractured lives of the many Maricels around the globe.”

There’s a lot packed into that phrase “well-meaning employer”, obscuring the ways in which people simply choose not to see what’s right in front of them. But of course, they don’t have the time. The imbalance of power between the people who do the outsourcing for emotional and care work and those who actually do the work is simply that the former consider themselves important enough; their needs and desires and lifestyles trump those of their employees even if they’re not aware enough to recognise it, or choose to misrecognise what they see. It’s enough to have their nanny’s authentic Filipino self present to care their child, but who cares for Maricel’s child back in the Philippines?

A curious contradiction emerges among the affluent professional class who can afford to outsource whole chunks of the self: they don’t have a “choice” to do otherwise, but their employees seem to have freely chosen this particular type of work. As such, at the end of the day, it’s just a perfectly legitimate and necessary pure business transaction. The privileged can afford to lack self-awareness at the expense of hiring someone from a poorer background from another country. Having internalised the logic of the market, they imagine they’re helping to ease the poverty “over there”. As for the other details, such as who cares for their family while they care for yours—well, it’s a working relationship and it might be unprofessional to pry.

This is how people are encouraged to think, as Leopoldina Fortunati pointed out in 1981 in her seminal autonomist feminist text, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, because it’s how they are meant to live. As Fortunati says,” It is not by chance that under capitalism, while at the formal level there appear to be many opportunities for individual relationships, in reality there exists a high level of isolation between individuals, who are obliged to produce surplus-value even in the moment in which they reproduce themselves.” She’s referring to the family nucleus, which she says provides a “sufficient nucleus in the sense that this time, these relations, and these exchanges must suffice for labor power to reproduce itself”. Anything more than that is a waste. The more time you have, the less time you have—and that suits capitalism just fine.

Lacking more of an analytical framework, Hochschild’s book seems to posit historical problems with capitalism as new and novel issues. Because of this she is sometimes left asking us questions to which answers seem glaringly obvious, and have been, for awhile. “Can it be that we are no longer confident to identify even our most ordinary desires without a professional to guide us?” Well, perhaps. Part of the genius—or insidiousness—of capitalism is how it sells you a solution to a real or imagined fear, then sells you the uncertainty of an incorrectly or inadequately applied solution, thus creating an endless cycle of zero confidence—which it can sell back to you. (Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, for example.)

More interesting are the unasked questions, like how life coaches help their clients “redefine their desire”—redefined according to what standards and why? What’s shaping these new desires? These aspects of the production of disciplined subjects are factors that Hochschild does not examine. The book is also is burdened by Hochschild’s hazy nostalgia, based on her own memories, for a time before urbanisation when agrarian village living held out the best possible alternative to atomised neoliberal societies, offering emotionally-connected communities where people showed up unannounced at each other’s doorsteps with pie. While it may not have been her intention, Hochschild’s reminiscences seem to imply that the dangers of capitalist living began right on the dot when Hochschild started to take notice.

Hochschild’s work in The Managed Heart has been particularly useful for feminism in showing how emotional labour and care work are gendered and how subjects who perform these forms of emotional work are transformed, and social relations altered, when the practice of “deep acting” and emotional performance are exploited for the purposes of capital. Therefore, her tendency to frame the situations in The Outsourced Self as specifically new and novel problems under neoliberalism rather than as symptoms of capitalism seems particularly ingenuous, since her arguments in The Managed Heart could have predicted this outcome. It also allows her to sidestep how emotional labour was always required of women and the working classes performing domestic service in the past, or the ways in which emotional labour was required of labouring colonial subjects—both men and women.

While the aim of The Outsourced Self is not to present in detail the varied histories of forms of emotional labour, its tendency to skip from story to story with minimal analysis renders it essentially unremarkable, especially coming from a scholar and sociologist like Hochschild who has offered challenging and useful arguments for the field of labour theory in the past. The Outsourced Self is essentially pop-sociology light reading, a collection of anecdotes interspersed with brief (mostly personal) reflections. Hochschild is good at pointing out the general ambivalence and contradictions that underlie “intimate life in market times”, but the reader is not left with much more than a general sense of how troubling and inescapable it all is.

girl, awkward

August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Taking this blogging thing to a whole new level and putting up a review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband,  and He Hanged Himself some three months later. #awkwardblogging

This originally appeared in Pop Matters:

In her book of short critical commentaries and interviews with ten contemporary writers, Voices of Russian Literature, Sally Laird describes the women and girls who populate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories as hapless and ill-suited to even the most basic machinations of life. They seem to lack “even the rudiments of pride or strategy,” and on the surface, as Laird points out, “many of Petrushevskaya’s heroines appear to live their lives ineptly.” Nothing better describes the heroines of the stories in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself.

These girls and young women are average-looking or sometimes outright unattractive, as in the case of the protagonist in “Give Her to Me”: “Karpenko… was one of those unfortunate creatures forced to compensate for their appearance with a pleasant disposition and a carefree attitude.” They’re barely visible to the world outside of their cramped apartment shared with family members. “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else,” begins one story, for example. “Until Clarissa turned seventeen not a single soul admired or noticed her—in that respect she was not unlike Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling,” begins another.

Motherhood is a central theme in these stories, and mothers loom large over these inept, awkward daughters. But these daughters then grow up to become inept, awkward mothers. This pattern keeps repeating itself throughout Petrushevskaya’s stories. That the parents are practically indistinguishable from their children is one of the key tropes in this collection.

In her interview with Laird, Petrushevskaya is keen to emphasise that she doesn’t regard herself as a women writer.” As she says: “I write above all about children, not about women; the land I inhabit is a land of children, not of grown-ups.” These love stories are as much about women trying to find their lost or dead babies in grown men as it is about love between two adults or supposed “equals”.

If Petrushevskaya’s women are hapless, then the men are clueless. But if there is a war of the sexes in Petrushevskaya’s stories, however, it’s a war between two losing sides. Husbands have lost their jobs, money, and teeth, and their wives plot to escape to another apartment inherited from dead aunts. Husbands and wives scream at each other over dinner and stomp off to bed; they wake up the next day and show up to perform the same ritual all over again.

That’s because they have nowhere else to go. Another central theme in Petrushevskaya’s stories is that of space or the absolute lack of it—the key characteristic of the Russian kommunalka. Petrushevskaya’s stories make no overt mention of politics, but her characters are constantly manoeuvring their way around the cramped spaces of communal apartments; the concept of privacy is literally impossible, barely even imaginable. The space of the communal apartment organises the behaviour of the inhabitants; it mediates their social interactions.

Petrushevskaya may eschew overt discussion of Soviet communism in her stories—all the action tends to take place “inside”, in these apartments and in offices, bus stops, grocery stores—but the Soviet-era administration of space haunts each and every personal encounter. In “Young Berries”, one of the collection’s most poignant and formally-inventive story with its alternating first and third person point-of-view, a young girl finds that she’s unable to have the phone conversation she wants to have with her crush because “the apartment’s entire population now stood in the hall… The conceit was that everyone was waiting to use the phone after me.”

More central to the story, however, is how the girl’s stay in a sanatorium—with its autumnal park and lush trees, with all its space—is what she comes to miss the most after she returns to a crowded apartment shared with one too many family members. “By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians.”

To the extent that this collection features “love stories”, however, love is a mangled, ugly thing. Despite love’s viciousness, manipulations, and violence, however, Petrushevskaya’s characters are lonely, and they want some of the sweetness it brings: human contact, warmth, an elevated sense of self, the idea that there must be something better out there than life as they know it. Often, it’s a means of escape—a way out of those damn communal apartments, for one thing (and into another, as it often turns out), but for children, it’s primarily a means to escape the pressing weight of their parents.

In “Father and Mother”, for example, Tanya leaves her bickering parents’ home with her lover after deciding that she’s had enough of them, and she never looks back: “Everything that happened to her afterward—homelessness, then a landlady who drank nothing but kefir and tried to hang herself every March but was rescued by her son—all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” In the hands of a different writer, the bleakness of these stories would be overwhelming, its black humour enervating or merely “ironic”. But Petrushevskaya wants her characters to have a better life. She’s not sure if they can, given the fact that the world is a pretty shit place, but she’s not going to give up on them.

It’s this aspect of Petrushevskaya that American reviewers seem to adore, perhaps assuming that this reveals a kind of liberal humanism that has seen the worst of Soviet communism and whole-heartedly refused it. And perhaps it does. Petrushevskaya is well-known playwright and writer in her own country and has been writing since the ‘70s, although it was only after the implementation of glasnost under Gorbachev during the ‘80s that her prose writings began to see light of day.

Meanwhile, she became well-known to American readers (and by proxy, readers in other parts of the world) after the publication of a collection of “scary fairy tales” by Penguin Books, ,i>There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in 2009. While Petruskhevskaya, in Laird’s interview, says, “I’ve never concerned myself with politics—it doesn’t interest me at all, for all sorts of reasons,” this strikes one as a particularly disingenuous statement because while it’s never overt, there is a sense of resistance or criticism to forms of communal living, and by extension, the Soviet communist project at large, in all her stories. This seems to indicate a particular political position, even if it’s not explicitly articulated.

In this light, then, her characters’ absolute lack of drive, ambition, or self-transformation is particularly interesting—their incompetence at life becomes more of a political stance and less of a quirk of the “the mysteries of human nature” variety for which Petrushevskaya’s stories are often praised. As Jochen Hellbeck points out in his study of diaries written during the Soviet revolution, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, “The concern with self-transformation, shared by the Communist regime and these Soviet diarists, was rooted in the revolution of 1917, which promoted a new thinking about the self as political project… Talking and writing about oneself had become intensely politicized activities. One’s ‘biography’ had become an artifact of considerable political weight.”

Petrushevskaya, whose forebears were part of the Old Bolsheviks and comprised the Russian intelligentsia, lived a life of poverty and neglect. Anna Summers writes in her translator’s introduction that as a young girl in Moscow “Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments,” while in the interview with Laird Petrushevskaya talks specifically about wanting to write the stories of “ordinary people” outside of the circle of politicians and intellects that she knew grewing up.

The characters of her book don’t keep diaries or ruminate on their innermost thoughts—they are consumed by detail and the minutiae of the everyday life; in those cramped apartments, they barely have space to think. This fulfils one common narrative beloved by liberal capitalists about life under Soviet communism: people are so victimised they barely even know how to have thoughts! On the other hand, as Hellbeck points out, Soviet diarists came from varied backgrounds and occupations, and many were wrestling with the summons to “internalize the revolution” with a personal attempt to write themselves into “the revolutionary narrative”. In this sense, while it was a Communist dictat that the people should write their lives and transform themselves into ideal revolutionary subjects, indicating a certain form of political and social coercion, people retained a sense of agency in their writings and sought to shape their troubled, conflicted individual narratives within a larger, collective one.

Petrushevskaya’s stories of “ordinary people” are ambivalent and unsettling because while people show up to help each other, they seem unaware of their own actions or the impulses, desires, and reasons behind it. Petrushevskaya wants her characters to come out on the other side, still surviving, but this concern for her characters can be as forceful, patronising, and muddled as the love parents have for their children. In her introduction, Summers wants us to see that Petrushevskaya “wants us to be strong, and clever, and resourceful, like the Russian people she loves.” But if the characters in her stories stand in for the Russian people she loves, then these are a people who are exhausted and perplexed, sent out into a world they don’t quite know how to navigate, subject to love, luck, and brutality by the incomprehensible energies of an indifferent universe (or, depending on your point of view, a gifted and shrewdly manipulative writer). There’s a sense that some readers can take some form of comfort from that, but for others, these stories merely suggest business as usual—only bleaker.

Duras, etc.

June 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

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Jane Winston, “Marguerite Duras: Marxism, Feminism, Writing” in Theatre Journal (Vol. 47, No. 3, Oct 1995)

I was reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover again a few weeks ago. It’s so weird, how political this book is, in its exploration of white femininity and colonialism and poverty. Weird because appreciation of The Lover, or criticism of it, tends to depoliticise the book—it’s often reduced to generalised descriptions of “female desire” or “love” when the crucial thing about The Lover is how her desire and her gaze is refracted through poverty; her poverty shapes it and give it its energy. How the gaze is that of a poor woman, but also that of a white French woman in colonial Indochina. Poor colonial women among the natives. How that makes of also a monster of sorts, and not through her own making. Sour maternal love and the regime of brotherhood and property-less girls and relations shaped and defined by a cold colonialist-capitalist logic, the relation with her lover that both mirrored that logic and exceeded it.

Winston writes, “there was nothing really revolutionary about the claim that the desire and sexuality at issue in Duras are ‘feminine’.”

There really isn’t. That’s why it’s that claim that has gotten the most traction.

Review of The Demon of Writing

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.

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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.

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Review of Sonic Multiplicities

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.

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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.

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