The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is my review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for Pop Matters. I’m still steadily trying to post reviews up here and so this one is also several months old. Yes, we’re still in 2013. Today in my Twitter feed, Sridala linked to an article about the atrocious racial politics in the book, and I was so glad to read it, and so glad that this piece exists. Joy Castro, who wrote the article, makes some pertinent points. This was something that I picked up on while reading it — it’s hard not to — but was familiar enough with Tartt’s previous two books to know that she only cared about moneyed, slightly disgraced WASPs. That’s her Thing. By the time I got around to writing the review for The Goldfinch I was so tired. So tired of noticing and caring too much about how white people write about, and thus write off, people of colour in their highly-praised bestsellers. But Castro makes an important point about the depiction of racialised others in the book that fits in with the theme of the book at large: that of Art and Beauty and Great Literature. No room for anyone less-than-white (and rich, rich rich rich!) in that world. Castro emphasises how the working class non-white others in this book are willing to put themselves in service of these Great White People Living Their Fascinating Lives; willing to put their own (mediocre and unimportant, presumably) lives on hold so that whiteness can flourish. The labour of black and brown bodies for white ones is a story that must be told that way, as one of great willingness and good cheer. This view of the world is of a piece with the rest of the book. If great art must circulate (and this book does nothing in terms of deconstructing what great art is, how it’s made, or what it does), it must always return to white “culture”. For my part, by the time I got to the phrase “dead-eyed ethnic families”, I was ready to stab Tartt in the face with an expensive, beautiful, authentic fountain pen.

***

I read Donna Tartt’s impressive first novel, The Secret History, at an impressionable age and in a stage of my life I will politely refer to as Colonised Mind v. 1.0. Having grown up middle-class and Tamil in Malaysia—title of my forthcoming memoir, hahaha!—and fed Austen, Dickens, Christie (Agatha) and Blyton (Enid) throughout a very protected childhood, I was very susceptible to romantic Life of the Mind-type ideas and proclivities.

Besides, I had a tattered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology that followed me everywhere. I—like about a zillion other young kids who came to learn about Greek mythology by way of Anglo-European classicists—loved Greek myth. Who doesn’t? Myths are great. Why would you not like stories? Stories are great.

So when I found a tattered copy of The Secret History in a used bookstore, an Ivy Books trade paperback with a lurid cover image comprising a mishmash of an imposing New England colonial building, a Doric column and a single stem rose, with various phrases like “Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured,” “a terrifying secret that bound them to one another”, “an incident in the woods in the dead of the night”, “an ancient rite that was brought to brutal life”, and “gruesome death” strewn across the back cover copy, it worked like a charm. I bought it, devoured it, and read it over and over again, before I even knew that Tartt was “a sensation” in that faraway place called the literary world.

This makes The Secret History sound almost flimsy, even silly, but it’s not. Despite its premise, Tartt is a writer who plays with excesses and extremes in the most delicate way. You don’t read Tartt for pared-down elegance, although there are moments when she does this, too. You read Tartt like you would watch Pretty Little Liars: for the unalloyed pleasure of surrendering to a familiar story that is, at turns, also new and menacing.

Tartt’s third and most recent novel, The Goldfinch, was hugely anticipated among industry types and fans because she’s only written three so far; ten years separated the publication of her second novel, The Little Friend, from her debut, and 11 years separates The Goldfinch from her second. I still pull The Secret History from the shelves every so often, skipping the parts that bore me, and going over the passages where the Greek scholars who so fascinated the novel’s protagonist, Richard Papen, are at their most knowing and obnoxious.

Now older, wiser and bitter, I’m tempted to throw copies of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena at their heads, then set off on a long lecture about the appropriation of Greek knowledge and thought by Eurocentric thinkers and writers. Still, the story remains tantalising. And, as reductive as this might probably sound, this is what Tartt does very well. She tells a good story.

The Goldfinch can be said to be an anti-bildungsroman, in that it traces the life of one Theo Decker from about 13years of age, where he survives a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that kills his mother, until his late 20s, where he reflects on this life while telling his story. It’s an anti-bildungsroman because Theo, much like Richard in The Secret History and Harriet Dufresnes in The Little Friend, has his head firmly turned back to the past, to that point in time where a singular event changed his life.

This isn’t a straightforward novel of growth and progression as it is a novel of regret, and for much of the book, Theo exists in a state of anguished perpetual adolescence. He’s always that 13-year-old boy on that fateful day at the Met.

The premise of the novel hinges on Theo’s possession of Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch” following the museum bombing. When Theo and his mother first arrive at the Met, Theo is drawn to a young girl with red hair and her elderly male companion, and after the blast, Theo finds himself in the same space with the dying old man, and in a distinctly hazy, dream-like encounter, this man gives Theo a ring and encourages him to leave the museum with the painting.

Later, after learning about his mother’s death from a pair of social workers—his father having long since disappeared from their lives—and after having narrowly escaped a life in care by moving in with his friend Andy Barbour’s family, the ring will lead Theo to the old man’s business and home, an antique shop in the West End, and into the orbit of the lives of the man’s business partner and Theo’s future mentor and guardian and father-figure of sorts, Hobie, and the man’s young niece, Pippa, the redhead of the museum encounter. The painting stays with Theo until, of course, it doesn’t, which is a sort of plot progression the reader would have seen coming from the start.

Throughout the book we meet a cast of characters that includes the family members of the Barbour household, as well as Hobie, Pippa, and Theo’s estranged alcoholic father and his new girlfriend, Xandra. Theo moves from the Barbour’s upper-class posh lifestyle in New York to Las Vegas with his father and Xandra and makes a life-changing new friend named Boris, and then moves back to New York again, with a fevered, nightmarish pit-stop in Amsterdam before the novel’s end.

Boris, as it turns out, is the novel’s most entertaining character probably because he’s Polish-Ukrainian and is made out to have both socialist and criminal tendencies, a perfect foil to the generally law-abiding and liberal Theo. Tartt’s liberal American imagination allows Boris to be the wild and fun and yet corrupting influence in Theo’s life—yes, he’s a good friend, in his own way, but in some ways Boris just an amalgam of how Americans view foreigners who have lived in countries with different political systems. Those insane Eastern Europeans and their dangerous political ideas and lax ways with the law! Crazy Boris even tried out being Muslim for awhile, which teenage Theo finds positively incomprehensible.

While The Goldfinch is set in a politically-charged landscape—the bombing at the museum is vaguely attributed to “terrorism”—Tartt is a writer of bourgeois psychological novels, and the large cast of characters in this book only serve to contextualise Theo’s interior life. This isn’t to say they aren’t well realised, even larger than life, as in Boris’ case—but this isn’t a novel that’s grappling with social and political issues surrounding the bombing in 21st-century New York. It’s about a boy and his painting, and how it both circumscribes and expands his relation to other people, and serves as a talisman that links him to his mother and to a gentrified world of art and beauty and stability—Hobie’s world—that he wants to be a part of, even while he realises he stands outside of it.

Tartt’s fascination with rich WASPs continues in this book, as seen in Theo’s perpetual amazement of the Barbours and their lifestyle, but equally unappealing for me is the casual othering of people of colour. Boris is larger than life because he’s a central character, but otherwise while criminal white Germans might each have a name, criminal Indonesians only appear inscrutable and are compared to anacondas, while criminal Chinese are inscrutable and wily and are in possession of a name that all the white people can’t be bothered to remember, or have “difficulty” remembering, because it sounds so strange. (Theo can’t even tell at one point, if this person is a man or a woman or a boy or a girl, and somehow this problem seems related to this person’s Asianness.)

When Theo arrives in Amsterdam and looks around at the airport and sees “dead-eyed ethnic families”, it’s hard not to flinch, though I was also curious about where one could obtain this all-purpose “ethnic family”—at the gift shop, presumably? Does the ethnic family come in all sizes and colours? Theo even exoticises his own mother’s appearance because she was part-Irish, part Cherokee, telling us that “in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight”—the what and the what?, was my question—and that sometimes the exotic character of her facial features were too stark when her hair was pulled back, making her look “like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji”. Okay.

There’s a Dickensian aura running through The Goldfinch, most notably Great Expectations, and there are certain similarities between Pip and Theo as they navigate their orphan hood (Theo’s father is far from a father) and find parental figures in the unlikeliest of places, not to mention their inability to love anyone but the one woman they can’t have, though Theo’s spiritual twin appears to be The Secret History’s Richard. In all her novels, Tartt is particularly adept at conveying the banal hazards of estrangement and evoking sensations relating to place and space. Both Richard and Theo, for example, wish they were anyone but themselves, and are particularly gifted in losing themselves in copious quantities of alcohol and pills. “A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help,” as Theo puts it. And while The Secret History will always be reminiscent of frost and snow and ice and the chill of the unknown, this book is notable for the hot, barren, drug-infused Las Vegas suburban desertscape and its air-conditioned ennui.

In this novel, as with her previous two, Tartt seems to be circling around the same concerns about a person’s fatal flaw. “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”, Richard begins in The Secret History—and the same is true for Theo. His longing for beauty, and his inability to let go or exist separately of “The Goldfinch”, once he’s set eyes on it, is his constant downfall.  For one thing, it connects him to his mother, who loved Fabritius’s work before Theo even began to pay attention. But more alarming, for Theo, is how hard he fell for the painting, and the lengths he with which he destroyed little aspects of his life in order to keep it:

What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?

This is a thread that runs through all of Tartt’s novels, with protagonists floating in a sea of banal everyday life routines, desperately wishing for wings to fly out and touch the sun. Even in The Little Friend, Harriet was convinced of her difference—her fatal flaw being the morbid longing to find out the truth, at all costs. (And the price is steep, as she learns by the end.)

While the ending for The Secret History was rather exquisite, evoking the tragic in a way that was both sad and tender, The Goldfinch ends with what feels like a sermon from Theo, desperately trying to attribute meaning to everything that had happened thus far while still assuring us that the knows that “life is catastrophe”. It feels tacked-on and forced, and one wonders if Tartt felt compelled to drag the novel on for as long as close to 800 pages in order to give us A Lesson to make up for the dissatisfaction many felt with The Little Friend, which ended on a totally bizarre note, with no resolution of any sort for anyone—and which, I thought, was perfectly in keeping with the slow drip of menace that increased with every page.

While talking about how a novel is about one thing is a sure way to kill the experience of reading, the ending of The Goldfinch seems to want to reduce it to a meaning: about the magic that exists in that unfathomable place between illusion and reality, that lives on between people and things—in particular, things that are passed on from one hand to another. After some 700 pages of one catastrophic event after another, after repeated attempts at self-erasure, these words don’t seem true delivered in Theo’s voice, and the conclusion seems too tidy, too hopeful, too trite.

Tartt’s novels aren’t novels of ideas—there’s a reason why I compared reading a Tartt novel to watching a TV show, and it’s because it’s propelled by a forward-moving momentum; it’s about action and places and people. These are novels concerned with the psychology of its characters. The Goldfinch seems ripe for meditations on art commodities, and ideas and politics that are transmitted through works of art, as well as deep explorations about what cultural anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai have called the social life of things, but any asides or discussions on books or paintings and the exchange of and desire for commodities are tangential to the main story of Theo’s life. It’s only at the very end that Theo attempts to weave the history of this masterwork he’s kept, hoarded, and lost into the trajectory of his own life, but by then it’s all delivered in one big rush of a moral lesson, and the effect is one of vague disorientation at this newly-wise Theo.

The Secret History was a compelling modern tragedy because its effects were rooted in mimesis, in replicating the elements of the Greek plays in the catastrophes of Richard’s, and his friends’, modern American lives. The Goldfinch merely uses the central artwork as a prop for the plot, for the service of the protagonist’s inner life, even while Theo tries to convince us otherwise through occasional meandering and repetitive musings on art that are, unfortunately, superficial and uninteresting. Tartt’s novel is eminently readable and entertaining, even moving at times, but while I kept turning the pages I never wanted to linger over it like how Theo does when he looks at the painting and meets the eyes of Fabritius’s all-seeing goldfinch.

 

tweets on magic mike

September 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

I watched Magic Mike early this year and was troubled by it, and in a fit of earnestness composed some grumpy tweets about what I thought, and posted none of it up except, I think, the link to the Joshua Clover article. Recently someone was talking to me about movies and this person had seen Magic Mike, and “as a feminist” was thrilled about how it centered “female desire”, which is something that a lot of people have said about the movie, I think? Or at least that’s how a lot of discussion on it was framed. And I’d have to agree with Clover that this film is not at all interested in women, or “female desire”, whatever that means — I’ve used that phrase before, too, but now it makes no sense to me, and so it made me newly irritated with the film.

  1. Yes: “In the sex work movie, men get happy endings.” Joshua Clover on Magic Mike (& Step Up Revolution) http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/dance-dance-revolution-20130204
  2. Wonder if Magic Mike is entertaining because it doesn’t take sex work seriously when done by men. Think it wants to take precarity seriously
  3. but this is undermined by inability to show how precarity structures lives when focus is on hot white male leads who seem to be having “fun”.
  4. It’s a weird movie & completely unsexy since it is about sex work. So the comments about how this is the sexiest movie ever? Perplexing.
  5. How to unpack the layers of wrong in commentaries that celebrate this film for catering to “female desire” without acknowledging the work that produces it
  6. Talking about male sex work in a not-Soderbergh situation, in a dehumanising capitalist system, female desire comes at what expense?
  7. Not to mention what happens when it’s First World women and Third World men. But here the main leads are conveniently white.
  8. Is this what liberal feminism means when it talks about “equality”
  9. “despite its stylized hetero-swinger proclivities, the film is interested in men”–yes, which is why this is strange: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=956
  10. Her comments on Heti are astute but MM doesn’t “play with female fantasies of submission” so much as affirm men’s fantasies of dominance…
  11. Which I suppose is contrasted with how their material lives are out of their control/in capitalism’s hands — thus, not about female fantasies.
  12. Because yeah Alex Pettyfer is unemployed but at the end of his first performance he gets a blowjob and an actual job out of it.
  13. Meaning, it you’re an attractive heterosexual man and you’re lucky enough to be a sex worker in a film
  14. with an attractive heterosexual female audience — jackpot!
  15. Heterosexual relations between thin, attractive white people. Rinse and repeat.
  16. How do they know which woman to pluck out of the crowd, who would enjoy being on stage with a strange man’s groin in her face? Important q
  17. I mean, just because you show up to see men gyrate does not mean you want to be gyrated on. Or do you? What is “consent” in this case?

all the single ladies

June 15, 2013 § 4 Comments

Why capital doesn’t like single women:

A woman of marriageable age who is neither wife nor mother, or who for some reason does not become fully a part of the housework labor-force, is under-employed. In other words, she carries out housework in a more limited way than her potential work capacity would allow. Hence single mothers — who do not reproduce a husband/male worker — are under-employed; so is a married woman with no children, who reproduces only a husband; and so also is the divorced, separated or widowed woman who has not remarried. The woman who is of marriageable age but remains single is, however, “non-employed”: she reproduces neither husband nor children. (“Unemployed” cannot really be used here, because every woman living under capitalism who does not live on unearned income, must always reproduce at least her own labor-power.)

From Leopoldina Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital.

Let’s get #reproducingneitherhusbandnorchildren trending on Twitter!

I’m too dumb for Fortunati but I press on. I was bingeing on Trixie Belden books and Josephine Tey mysteries for the last week because I needed comfort reading, where I wanted to read and couldn’t read and so I read things where everything followed a convention, a formula. And so, dear reader, I discovered that you must not go from Trixie Belden to Italian autonomist marxist feminism just like that — you gotta ease into it.

Despite that, Fortunati is, as the kids say, blowing my mind. (Do the kids still say that?)

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.

*

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.

*

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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this land is your land

March 5, 2013 § 6 Comments

Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body.[i]

My nephews go to bed with their gadgets. Or, the gadgets go to bed with my nephews, which sounds worse and somehow wrong. They are put to sleep by gadgets. Gadgets put kids to sleep. They clutch their overpriced smartphones in their hands, headphones in ears, and I watch them under blankets as the screen illuminates their soft, gently rounded vulnerable faces.

The younger of the two, who is happy to tell people “I’m the IT guy”, taught me how to download YouTube videos on my overpriced, overvalued smartphone, and now the gadget puts me to sleep, too. Over the last week I’ve been downloading Jem and the Holograms episodes and watching them before bed. I haven’t watched the cartoon in years, probably decades, but I was obsessed with it when I was younger, and while I used to want to be Jerica/Jem mainly because of her access to Synergy (by way of really funky star earrings), now I watch Jerica/Jem being perfect and I want to vomit. I see The Misfits driving tractors through mansions and I feel a true fellow-feeling of solidarity. The Misfits “are allergic to work” say one of the members of the Holograms, and they all smirk, because the Misfts are mean and they’re lazy, but I can relate. All I want to do these days is have big hair, sing shit songs with my shit-sounding nasally voice, drive tractors through mansions, refuse work, and scream.

Jem and her friends are so earnest. I want to ask them why they abide by the rules that were made by someone else. Do they think they will be granted a space in hologram heaven? And if so, what does it mean to them to be good girls in the here and now? Do they get the boyfriends? The record contracts? The cool earrings? The mansion? The legacy from dead daddy?

(All of the above.)

Just when I want to write a Marxist reclamation of the Misfits, I remember that the “leader” of the group, Pizzazz, is basically a rich twat. This complicates matters, because her group-mates all come from a poor(er) backgrounds. The Misfits are made to appear “tacky”—loud, brash, uncivilised and unladylike in comparison to the docile, polite, and pastel-attired Jem and friends, who speak proper English, not slang, in modulated voices. Jem and the Holograms are a band of Kate Middletons. Even if they are not well-off, or orphans, they come from good stock. They have a claim to a legacy of good breeding. But the Misfits are always destroying things, even property.

The Misfits are also patriots

The Misfits are also patriots

*

Property is the problem. Even for Tom Branson, the sexy Irish chauffeur-revolutionary turned sexy Downton Abbey husband. Downton domesticates; it wants to tame Branson’s wild side. Alas, Branson was found to be present during a protest at a Dublin castle, a protest that involved burning the said castle. The Earl of Grantham, hitherto utterly nice and utterly useless, has now found his raison d’être, or rather the raison d’être of his entire class: to be really really really angry about the destruction of property. He’s really angry, the Earl. I mean, he was almost resigned to losing his property but now it is saved, and so he knows about real tragedy, the Earl, and it is with this full force of the pain of an almost-lost Downton Abbey that he takes it out on Branson. He is really angry. ALSO, HE IS AGAINST VIOLENCE AND WANTS TO KNOW IF BRANSON IS AGAINST IT, TOO? Branson capitulates; half-revolutionary, half-son in law. Yes, Branson was at the meetings where the planned this attack, but no, Branson does not condone the burning of property and violence against harmless aristocrats. Really, Branson? THEN WHY WERE YOU AT THE MEETINGS?

The writers of Downton Abbey can’t come up with anything so nuanced or sensitive as such an answer might require, so they leave us with silence and the face of Allen Leech, hoping that his sad, beautiful eyes will distract us.

It does, but only for a bit.

Branson is also uncomfortable being in Downton Abbey—first as tragedy servant, then as farce family. He wants to hightail it out of there.

Then why marry the Earl’s daughter? Don’t you know that the Earl’s daughter comes with the Earl’s family and however many centuries of dead ancestors? How did you think you were going to outrun that, foxy Branson? One look at this family, Branson, should have reminded you of Marx’s words: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Luckily, Branson’s wife dies, leaving behind a young daughter. Branson gets to live out the life that his wife would have wanted for him. He knows this is the life she would have wanted for him because everyone else tells him this. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes—not a fan of the rich, as such, but like all the servants in Downton, committed to and invested in class difference—tells Branson not to be embarrassed that he’s a rich fuck now, and part of a rich fuck family. She uses different words, but the message is the same. Mrs.Hughes tells him that he has “come so far”, and it’s a good thing.

This is a relief, as the formerly Marxist Branson is now co-manager of the vast estate Downton estate. He can forget about the people, think about profits, raise his baby, enjoy stately bedrooms, be waited on hand and foot.

He has come quite far.

Branson, now in the garb of  Gentleman™

Branson, now in the garb of Gentleman™

*

I’ve been thinking about witches and spinsters and property. Once I started reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner I realised it spoke to my unmarried spinster witch self in a way that so many books by women don’t, anymore, because: 1) now it’s important to show how women are a hot mess in a sexy way (i.e. you must be a mess but sexually available to men, and not that those stories are wrong and shouldn’t be told, but the underlying premise is that you must be sexually available to men and you must perform your femininity in this socially idealised ways and above all, please be pretty, try to be pretty); and 2) “modern” stories also remove the extended family from the equation. The assumption is that all single women the world over live lives like those of American or European women in big cities—where they’re single in a way like Charlize Theron’s character is single in Young Adult. It’s interesting to me that the character of Lolly Willowes is given a brother as patriarchal gatekeeper after her father’s death. I quoted this bit out of Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Regime of the Brother on Tumblr while I was reading it and I’m quoting it again because it’s relevant:

What then does this son enjoy in replacing his father? Well, he gets to act as if, without having to take any action. A father-figure, he mimes, selectively, the father’s features. But he also gets to imitate and mock up relations to all other family members, too: not only is he the “father” (but only metaphorically) he is the mother’s lover (the object of her love, but only in her dreams) and he is his brother’s lover (but only rhetorically—the brotherhood of man). But most of all he is his sister’s boss, and really so. It seems that what he “enjoys” is the power to distort and center all familial relations on himself alone, warping the world into a fiction of fraternity, the dream of a universal, which becomes the nightmare lie of the family of man. Agent and sole heir of patriarchy’s most negative features, he creates as many false leads and artificial ties as he needs to cover his destruction of his real familial roots and relations. And he thus absolves himself of any obligation toward them. He does not have to fill the father’s role any more responsibly and positively than the tyrant had: he is only acting, after all. It is he who is a pro forma father, without a communal or global species-saving goal, a despot, a mute sovereign, the (only) one who really enjoys.

If there’s one thing you learn about being an unmarried woman in a Tamil family is that Tamil culture really needs the sister to be bossed around; if not her father who is sadly now dead, if not her potential husband who is sadly nowhere in sight, then a brother or an uncle will do in a pinch.

What relatives don’t want to talk about when they’re exhorting you to get married and “start a family” is that you’re out of place, overstaying your welcome in your original family, because inevitably it’s about property. You must belong to a father or a husband but not exist in a liminal state of belonging to no one, especially if you’re doing it on family property. (How about belonging to yourself, you might ask, and others will laugh—we all belong to someone, if not a husband for life, then maybe a corporation.) So Lolly Willowes, in the world of 1920s Britain, is shunted about from one brother’s home to another brother’s home because as a genteel woman she is not meant to work for a living.

The thing about being a witch woman like Lolly is that there is a still a male presence in the form of the Devil. Clearly the Devil is interchangeable with capitalist patriarchy. There’s no escaping the male power. When I see the Misfits driving a tractor through the property of a rich man I feel satisfaction even while I recognise that their brand of liberal feminism is thoroughly self-serving: they are not even there for each other. Their manager is the one rubbing his hands together in glee, thinking of publicity and future sales. Behind every so-called misfit is a male manager/disciplinarian waiting to make a profit. Sometimes it’s money; sometimes it’s an investment in souls.

More from The Regime of the Brother:

The way it works in traditional Oedipus is that the woman is the living embodiment of a deficient male identity: wanting physically and emotionally. The girl-child is supposed to assume an identification with the father and then be left with/as nothing—unless or until she becomes a mother, her only acknowledged relation to sexual difference. But the mother is precisely what Oedipus rejects and is designed to reject, so the cycle begins anew.

The girl under patriarchy is faced with an inhuman choice: to do without an identity, or to identify with what she is not (it amounts to the same thing).

she can demand no special love—except according to a male agenda, set by a father, a husband, or a son.

This mother desires only a phallus (a baby, a son, power) and forgoes other options for her desire.

Under the modernized Regime of the Brother, however, the father/son relation ceases to have centrality. Woman potentially comes into her own.

the “patriarchy” in modernity is less a symbolic than an imaginary identification of the son with the father he has completely eliminated even from memory. He has thrown off the one—God, the king, the father—to replace it with the grammatical and legal and emotionally empty fiction of an I who stands alone and on its own: “his majesty the ego.” Self-created, however, he is only a figment of his own and not the father’s desire. This is the dilemma he simply refuses to acknowledge: he makes the law.

The brother denies his sister her identity, affirming his own. This is not just in the abstract, no mere question of repressed instinctual desire. Because the brother cannot recognize his absolute reliance on her for his identity, her place and her desire are “not there.” While the mother of Oedipus might want her son and the phallus, the post-Oedipal sister is permitted to want nothing. To regulate woman’s desire—and thereby her identity—was always the way of the patriarchy; to outlaw it and do away with her identity is a cardinal feature of the Regime of the Brother.

*

In volume one of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the brother permits his sister to want nothing. It becomes quite clear how patriarchy nurtures (produces?) the regime of the brother with its careful disciplining of women’s bodies. Clarissa is kept to her room for not performing her duties as daughter and sister and marrying the man the family has decided upon. The brother is an engineer of both her punishments—the potential marriage to a man she finds repulsive, and the current punishment where she is kept mainly to her room and ostracised by her family who won’t see her directly or talk to her. Clarissa seems content to see her problems as her own, which is perhaps not her fault—surrounded by her odious family members on all side and increasing lack of agency/independence, she can hardly be faulted for not seeing some commonalities between the personal and the political. Her friend, Anna, to whom she writes, is clearly the only feminist killjoy of the story we can hope for, thus far. Anna zeroes in on the mother’s role in Clarissa’s predicament:

Your mother tells you, ‘That you will have great trials: that you are under your father’s discipline.’-The word is enough for me to despite them who give occasion for its use.-‘That it is out of her power to help you!’ And again: ‘That if you have any favour to hope for, it must be by the mediation of your uncles.’ I suppose you will write to the oddities, since you are forbid to see them. But can it be, that such a lady, such a sister, such a wife, such a mother, has no influence in her own family? Who, indeed, as you say, if this be so, will marry, that can live single? My choler is again beginning to rise.

Why all the fuss about marriage if a mother can only subject her female child to the whims of the father, the brother, and the uncles? Who indeed , if this be so, will marry, that can live single?

*

How brothers (sons?) are inducted into the regime.

*

I’m not a mother, just as aunt, but I can see how boys grow into young men, and how the ideal of masculinity means that boys often have to suppress the part(s) of them that are sensitive, tender, loving, affectionate, in order to “become a man”. And when you notice how it becomes a requirement for boys to hurt others in order to achieve this ideal—then you truly realise how men are made. Hurting others is part of the deal; it is how men are defined as men. To put others in their place and to claim their space as yours. And it hurts to watch young boys who have been taught not to hurt others struggle with the full force of societal expectations that makes it (implicitly or explicitly) known that they will have to hurt others in order to become men.

*

The eternal problem: We need to talk about sons/we’re always talking about sons.

*

There has been “unrest” in Sabah for the last few weeks. Property is the problem. Who “owns” Sulu?

The Malaysian twitterati, its bourgeois heart ever in its proper place, is grieving over the death of Malaysia’s policemen involved in the “clashes” with “armed militants”. Malaysian policemen have died while trying to take out these intruders/militants/insurgents (i.e. they were protecting the nation). What’s interesting about the nation that is protected is that we still don’t want to think about how some of us are more protected than others. Sabah, on the East Coast, is one of the poorest states in Malaysia; there is no protection, it seems, from economic impoverishment. But there are tweets from the West Malaysian public thanking the “security forces” for their service to this country. There are tweets praying for their souls in heaven or wherever they might be. Everywhere on Twitter people seem to be simultaneously praying and wishing violence upon the enemy. This ritual is meant to keep the good ones, we the citizens, safe.

The police. The soldiers. Law and order. There are self-proclaimed Progressive Activists ™ who bring the MILF into the picture and cry out “the militants are everywhere in Sabah!” with every tweet. The macho politicians and lovers of Malaysia who cheer on a “military offensive” with encouraging, optimistic tweets like, “Kill or be killed” or “Just gas and smoke ‘em”.

Malaysian Defence Minister, Zahid Hamidi, tweets about the military assault as a “clean-up operation”. (Tweet is in Malay.)

Or,

dzirhantweet

People might be of a land, but there are false borders now demarcating different nations and these borders may not be trespassed.

Meanwhile: “Kiram’s people are demanding Malaysia recognize the sultanate owns Sabah and share profits from economic development in the state.

Profits. Economic development. Who “owns” Sulu and who profits? Malaysians don’t really care, but “we” are here now, and “they” are not; property is for those who claim it by any means possible. And perhaps the Sulu sultanate is also flexing its muscles. As for the people who are put to work on these lands?

1)

“Filipinos living in the tension-gripped Sabah territory in Northern Borneo said they have been segregated according to tribe and that their movements have been limited and closely monitored by Malaysian authorities.”

2)

“A farmer who tried to enter the tight security cordon surrounding the heavily armed men was turned back by the police early on Monday.

Police feared the food supplies he was carrying could fall into the hands of the gunmen.

The farmer, who wanted to be known only as Ghafur, said he was trying to get to his oil palm farm for his twice-a-month harvest.”

3)

According to them, the violent encounters in Sabah villages have been displacing some of the 600,000 Filipinos quietly living and working there, forcing them to flee to ARMM or causing them to be deported. But the region may not have enough resources to feed and house them.

At the same time, the conflict has been affecting the people in ARMM by driving up the prices of commodities, usually sourced from nearby Sabah, they said.

The Malaysian twitterati is not impressed with how our government for its soft-handed approach. They have ideas, these Malaysians, and it involves Malaysia flexing its military might. We must let the intruders know that “they” are on “our” soil, and the military will convey this message. Men on Twitter berate our ineffectual Prime Minister, exhort him to “be a man” and protect this country, take action. I have no interest in defending our Prime Minister, and as much as I might want to write a separate 3,000 word essay on gender performance and construction, this is not the point (although it’s part of the point). But this demand of a Prime Minister to be a man, a father figure, to exercise force and violence if he must, to defend his property is so chilling precisely because these demands are not self-aware. Malaysians on Twitter—a good number of them of the upwardly mobile, “educated” and comfortable, their lives mediated by gadgets and social media, are okay with owning property and being property—tweet about the stupidity of feudalism and think capitalist democracies are the best thing, the ultimate manifestation of human progress. Yet, they want to be protected by a violent patriarch. They want a “man” in charge, not in form necessarily, but in spirit.

They have no time for history, or maybe it’s just an inconvenience in a time when we have to be militarily efficient. Improve border control. Prioritise domestic security. Stamp out terrorist activity. Enemies are everywhere. We must smoke ‘em out.

So the Prime Minister demonstrates his manhood. Or maybe the postcolonial nation performs its masculinity.

Be a man. This land is your land.

sabah


[i] Marshall McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” in Understanding Media

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you can’t hurry love

November 12, 2012 § 54 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

Etc.

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.

“Aren’t simple desires dead yet? Are we still so obsessed with the hegemonic body?”

/

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?

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“i bit my tongue and stood in line”

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.”

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Addendum to Coca-Colanisation

July 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a brief post about Coca-Cola in Sri Lanka a few months ago and came across this picture by Yannik Willing. It’s part of his ongoing photography series titled “Before Tomorrow”, which in his website he describes as a project that is concerned with “the imminent radical changes of tourist regions in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war in 2009 that had lasted almost thirty years.”

It’s a perfect picture, I think, because the war is over but the army apparatus is ubiquitous in most of the places we visited in Sri Lanka—almost as prevalent as the Coca-Cola signs.

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The panic, the vomit, God loves his children

June 23, 2012 § 6 Comments

I disliked Prometheus intensely. I do think that having acrimonious feelings towards the film is the actual point—the film seems to be a stand-in for a certain segment of humanity and its imperialist, ruinous ambitions, though like most films coming out of Hollywood this seems to coexist with its appreciation of capital, technology, and involuntary/reproductive labour. That in itself doesn’t make it inherently unlikeable, not at all. But as Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view,” and perhaps it’s the nihilist technological determinism of Prometheus that is inherently unsettling. Perhaps it’s this utter lack of meaning in the movie that is its meaning, and consequently the source of my loathing. Maybe a part of me just wants machines and people to get along? I’m not sure.

I read Elaine Castillo on Prometheus and realised this is the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the movie. Besides, she addresses the questions/concerns I had with more thought and care than I could have ever managed. Still, I’ve apparently written a lengthy post on Prometheus because there are just some issues that I can’t stop thinking about, and Castillo’s post is the spark.

The stuff I can’t stop thinking about includes Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) auto-caesarean scene, for one. This scene, where Shaw basically has to perform a caesarean procedure on herself because, as Castillo points out, “the apparatus—medical, state, corporate—is literally not equipped for what she needs to do,” was, for me, the most unsettling scene in the entire movie. Primarily because it’s filmed in a way to expressly provoke horror and/or titillate. Seeing Shaw’s writhing, jerking slender female body clad only in underwear reminded me of Linda Williams’ essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”. In it, by way of Foucault, Williams talks about how “audiences of all sorts have received some of their most powerful sensations” through the “sexual saturation of the female body” and Shaw’s female body is textbook horror movie trope: a body that is saturated with sex and drenched in blood. And it’s a body that’s intruded upon: first by an unknown alien substance, then by the machinery that’s supposed to remove it out of her.

That Prometheus follows in the footsteps of Alien in blending the genres of both science fiction and body horror is obvious. But in the midst of trying to isolate my visceral horror (and empathy?) for Shaw’s distressed female body on display from thoughts about what was being shown I realised that what was being shown is pretty unusual: a female protagonist actively trying to get rid of her baby. (Castillo: “[T]he only American movie where I’ve ever been able to hear a woman saying, with absolutely no regrets or qualms—GET IT OUT GET IT OUT—hear a woman declare that she does not want a baby in her, and do what she needs to do to terminate the pregnancy.”) Of course, it’s not an actual abortion and it’s a monstrous alien baby, which somehow makes this a “safe” option to explore, perhaps. The more crucial point is that Shaw’s agency is limited in the face of technology—the machines aren’t equipped to do what she needs.

So technology fails her—women’s reproductive needs somehow never being important enough on this planet or any other planet, even in 2089—and Shaw, both the Good Scientist and the Good Woman, keeps the alien fetus alive presumably to learn more about it in service to science and for the benefit of human society at large. (What is this thing? What can we do with it?) Lurking in the background, much like the creeping aliens, is the fact that Shaw is Christian. There’s probably no room in the film’s imagination for Shaw to want the alien fetus dead; not only would she be a bad scientist for not wanting to keep this specimen alive but inevitably she would be seen as a hysterical, selfish woman making an irrational choice for wanting to kill this thing that was growing inside her body through no choice of her own. And we can’t have that. So this scene was an expedient way for the film to work around this issue: you can remove your alien fetus and keep it alive too. (Furthermore, in terms of a movie franchise, this decision to keep the alien alive conveniently segues into the world of Alien.)

Ohai!

After the procedure, Shaw stumbles about bloodied and disoriented and no one around her actually cares or even attempts to portray some semblance of human concern. It’s clear that she’s undergone some form of physical trauma because it’s written all over her body i.e. blood everywhere. It’s only David the android who hands her a robe, or maybe it was a towel, I don’t know. Granted, he is the only one who knows what she’s gone through because he basically engineered this non-immaculate evil conception by introducing alien goo into Shaw’s boyfriend’s system (thereby killing the boyfriend). In the larger scheme of the machinations of corporations and capital, Shaw’s body is used and discarded as a birthing device; the physical and emotional demands placed upon her female body are secondary. In fact, it’s barely an issue. The body must get back out there and perform.

These messy, inconveniently frail and bloody human bodies are foregrounded against the supremely immaculate interior of the spaceship;  gleaming metal, shiny objects, pristine surroundings. The year 2089 gives us some pretty amazing technology in terms of what capital needs and dictates, but where the human body is concerned, it’s still going to bleed and fuck and become impregnated against its will. Nowhere is the disparity between body/space clearer than during the aforementioned scene; blood spurts out of Shaw’s body while outside of the surgical pod/chamber is glaringly monochrome, flawless, and unspoiled. The human (female) body and the grotesque alien-monster coming out from inside it are the contaminated bodies, ugly in its inefficiency.

This is in contrast to the ship’s physical interior in Alien. This movie was made in 1979 and clearly movie technology has “improved” since then, but that movie reflected a messier, chaotic, lived-in atmosphere of actual living, breathing humans. But the stark sterility of the ship in Prometheus is mirrored in the cool, inscrutable blondeness of Michael Fassbender’s David and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers. In fact, the moment Vickers steps out of the ship into the cosmos in the final scene where she’s trying to save her life, you know she’s going to die immediately because she’s in the wrong place. Her place is with capital and machinery; she’s practically powered by the forces of profits and technology. Accordingly, she is immediately crushed to death by alien technology. A silly, pointless death—cruel irony, perhaps, or maybe Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof were simply not too fond of Theron. In any case, this death-by-machinery is, back home on Planet Earth, a lived reality for the vast majority of the population working with wayward, hostile machinery in unsafe, unregulated conditions. Very rarely is this a concern for a Corporate King and his family members and fellow plutocrats. In Prometheus, “one of the ‘cheapest’ big-budget films of the year”, the white American 1% has to make a trip outside of Earth to learn that its lives are literally worthless.

Just a vague suspicion that he/it will not be very welcoming.

Then, there’s Idris Elba. Castillo on Idris Elba’s character (and related, the Aryan-android):

I think there is also a comparison to be made here, too, between David and Captain Janek, played by Idris Elba. Janek’s pragmatism, his lived-in clothes, his race, his accent (somewhere between the American South and Hackney), his embodiment, his sexuality, his noble going-down-with-the-ship-to save-the-world death. The conversation he has with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), their flirting, the moment when he asks if she’s a robot, and she responds by telling him to come to her room in ten minutes (implying that the sexual act will prove whether or not she is truly “human” or not). Janek’s basically good humanity is never questioned. I wondered if this was another case of “people of color as containers of good old homespun wisdom and goodness, to be dispensed to the grateful white people who still dominate them, but a little more nicely in recent years, sort of.”

It strikes me of note that it’s the one black male character on this pristine white ship who gets to needle Meredith Vickers about her anger issues which, to his mind, stem from a presumed lack of sexual activity. Elba’s character also gets to joke about gay sex: When two of his ship’s crew are stuck in the alien cave during a sandstorm and can’t immediately return, he (strangely) seems to exhibit very little fear and concern and instead jokingly tells them not to “bugger each other”. We have to thank Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof for this macho posturing; we clearly don’t get enough of this in our lives and what’s more a science fiction slash horror film will be nothing without it. But it’s also important for the movie to give us the One Black Dude. In an impressive display of moviemaking imagination, the movie’s creators cast Idris Elba to give us a spot of colour and to be the resident homophobic/sexist douche. To be sure, none of the human characters in the movie perform against heterosexist conventions, but Elba’s character is the one who gets to explicitly make homophobic/misogynist jokes. So in a really creative display of characterisation we have this black male character who is one part goodness and one part macho hypersexuality. He left his station to have sex with Vickers! And didn’t even get anyone else to cover for him! During this very crucial time in alien land with strange happenings! Because sex!

(And since we’re talking about spots of colour, let us now devote one sentence in this blog post to Benedict Wong who plays the requisite Asian-everyman with a few clever quips. He gets a few sentences in the film.)

After the predictable and expected deaths of practically everyone, Shaw and Vickers are the last two people alive if you don’t count David who, after an unfortunate encounter with the nasty “Engineer”, is reduced to a talking android head. (“Off with his head, man!”) The movie brings us to the almost-end with both women still alive! (“Feminism!” writes Ridley Scott in the margins of Damon Lindelof’s script). This is also a great way to remind the audience of Alien. (Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley! Didn’t you guys love her? Love this movie, too!) But this brings us to the standard trope of body-horror movies: the good girl vs bad girl trope premised on the whore/virgin dichotomy. Or, as Linda Williams puts it:

The sadomasochistic teen horror films kill off the sexually active “bad” girls, allowing only the non-sexual “good” girls to survive. But these good girls become, as if in compensation, remarkably active, to the point of appropriating phallic power to themselves. It is as if this phallic power is granted so long as it is rigorously separated from phallic or any other sort of pleasure. For these pleasures spell sure death in this genre.

A twist to this trope in this sadomasochistic adult horror film: Vickers is the bad girl because she cares only for profits and power (to usurp her father’s place) while Shaw is the good girl because she’s a believer and has faith, both in the religion in which she was raised (she still has her father’s gold cross), but also because she “believed” in the idea of the existence of these alien-man engineers who made us. The latter fact flies in the face of her religious belief, naturally, but Shaw’s beliefs are framed as both irrational and “right”, and the movie rewards her by letting her stay alive. I’m not sure if Shaw appropriated phallic power—unlike Ripley in Alien there’s nothing about her battling hostile alien beings on her own. In fact, perhaps we can read the talking android head David as her source of phallic power. (Maybe that’s stretching it. But I do enjoy the idea of phallic power = android head.)

Still, as expected in a horror film that’s also a sci-fi film, redemption lies in technological knowledge and expertise. And Shaw, along with David, heads back out into the unknown in search for our makers and why they hate us. “We” human beings apparently want nothing more than to be in search of hostile gods who will be the leaders of our technocracy. And if “human agency, like capital, is a technological body, is something made,” as Timothy Mitchell points out in Rule of Experts, then it seems to me that the android is the clearest example of human agency in this film and also the means by which phallic power is exercised. This is really interesting in light of Castillo’s question: “If we think the cyborg body as techno-human hybrid and metaphor for raced gendered bodies, how do we think the android commodity body, especially David’s blond Aryan android commodity?”

Fassbender’s David inhabits his android body with soft, gentle, yet very precise actions—not a gesture is wasted. He is, on the surface, an ideal disciplined subject. This particular manner of inhabiting the male body is often read as effeminate (particularly in discourse on racialised/colonised subjects). And in this movie, his presence is in contrast to the wayward, raucous, contemptuous masculinity of the human men. Yet there is the bare fact of David’s physical presence: queer android, perhaps, but in a masculine-presenting Aryan body.* Far from a paranoid android, he is a supremely confident one.

(*Or maybe it’s just hard for me to separate this notion of phallic power from the kind of power that Fassbender himself seems to command among movie audiences and critics. I think about Shame and how the widespread acclaim for his performance seems to have been conflated with praise and acclaim for the bold presence of his actual penis. It was collective swooning over an appendage that overshadowed what his performance was about or, indeed, what the movie was about. But then, maybe that’s what the movie was all about. I think it’s a movie about man tears and a capricious penis that, on the surface, wants to be understood as being in tension with or against the phallocracy, but deep down inside is just totally enamoured with phallocracy. But that’s another movie for another overlong blog post discussion.)

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