August 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This is a review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us that first appeared in Pop Matters. If you expect The Managed Heart-type analysis and insight, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Barring any structural analysis, it appears as though Hochschild just wants to let us know that life is pretty shitty these days–and for all of us equally, at that.
Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist who published an influential book about emotional labour and gender in late capitalism, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, in the early ‘80s. For that book, she studied two types of workers for major US airlines and companies, flight attendants and bill collectors, to explicate how the discipline and management of feeling became embedded in service work in ways that both shaped and produced gender norms. In her description, emotional labour is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” that is meant, of course, to produce the “proper state of mind in others”. The “others” in this case are the consumers of a particular service, a service which is either increased or diminished in value by the emotional labour of the workers performing it.
Twenty years later Hochschild’s latest book, The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us, delves deeper into privatised emotional labour, exploring how the free market logic has spread its tentacles into the sacred haven of the home. While The Managed Heart was informed by Marx’s theory of the alienation of labour—“If we can become alienated from goods in a goods-producing society, we can become alienated from service in a service-producing society”, Hochschild wrote—The Outsourced Self is less interested in providing an analysis or, indeed, a workable solution or alternative to the market-driven logic. Rather, it tells stories of the people who are caught between its contradictory demands and impulses.
If The Managed Heart was about how emotional labour was becoming a fundamental job requirement among white-collar or “pink-collar” service jobs undertaken by largely middle-class white American women, then The Outsourced Self is about how middle and upper class white American families are made to cope with the disconnection of late capitalism by having to outsource the most private, emotional aspects of the self.
Hochschild emerges as a dogged and determined sociologist and storyteller, and the examples she cites are numerous. They run the gamut from love coaches and surrogate mothers to nannies and wedding and party planners and care work for the elderly, with companies offering personalised services for the disposing of the ashes of the a deceased love one as well as services for grave and headstone maintenance. Hochschild interviews both the people employing these services and the people who perform them, the latter being overwhelmingly female.
If being an efficient worker under capitalism means making enough money to have a comfortable life, having the means to acquire that comfortable life means not having the time to participate in the personal and social relationships that make it comfortable. When the bride is too busy working, it’s the wedding planner who has to figure out “how to coax the groom to get more involved”. When the private equity fund manager-father with a strong “faith in the global free market” is too busy to have mastered the art of party organising for kids, it’s the children’s party planner who comes up with the perfectly productive party that keeps the children occupied from start to finish.
If capitalism requires a productive, efficient worker to be available around-the-clock, then the increasingly inconvenient business of being human has to be outsourced—ideally for a negotiable fee.
Part of the business of being a productive worker is to project the image of how productive one is, to crow about one’s lack of sleep and inability to stay away from email as a form of accomplishment that justifies having a job and a salary. It’s a particular class of people who get to boast of this busyness and be admired for it. And it’s this class of people that can afford to outsource the undesirable or scary or unpleasant or unproductive aspects of their emotional lives to others and set the terms of the contract.
The reason why some of Hochschild’s critical analysis is blunted, one suspects, is because underlying these examples is Hochschild’s own story detailing her struggle to find an adequate care provider for her aging and increasingly frail Aunt Elizabeth. The stories of others are refracted through a personalised lens, and while this serves a particular motive—showing how people’s lived reality is often at odds with their intentions, for one thing—it doesn’t attempt to contextualise these forms of late-capitalist living for the reader, preferring instead to merely conclude that the logic of neoliberalism has penetrated into the most intimate aspects of our lives.
Hochschild’s sociological framework doesn’t render her oblivious to the ways in which capital works through race relations to create a class of precarious American emotional labourers who are largely working class black and Latino Americans and migrant women from Central and South America, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. In this book she travels to India to speak to surrogate mothers and notes how the Americans using the services of these women seem to consider this situation through the lens of free-market democracy.
Talking to an American couple who used the services of an Indian surrogate agency, Hochschild notes how some aspects of guilt at the nature of the transaction and the imbalance of the power between the employer and the employee are justified through contradictory rationalisations by the couple doing the choosing. They attempt to reach out to the women they hire, to convey their gratitude for the monumental service that is provided, but at bottom they remind themselves that, as one woman named Lili did, that “this girl is poor and she’s just doing it for the money”. Her husband, referring to the surrogate’s reticence and lack of amiability—she had asked the American couple no questions while they had “reached out” and asked her about herself—says, “I’m sure for them it’s a pure business transaction. Payment for surrogacy could equal ten years’ of salary in India. Still, if she’d been more cheerful, maybe we could have talked more.”
In another example, while relating the story of a relatively well-off American family and their Filipino nanny, Maricel, Hochschild writes:
“In the eyes of their employers, the actual stories of the Maricels of the world are often replaced by mythic ones. In the global South, people live more authentic and relaxed lives, Alice Taylor felt … Other versions of the “happy peasant” fantasy held by other well-meaning employers draw a similar curtain over the fractured lives of the many Maricels around the globe.”
There’s a lot packed into that phrase “well-meaning employer”, obscuring the ways in which people simply choose not to see what’s right in front of them. But of course, they don’t have the time. The imbalance of power between the people who do the outsourcing for emotional and care work and those who actually do the work is simply that the former consider themselves important enough; their needs and desires and lifestyles trump those of their employees even if they’re not aware enough to recognise it, or choose to misrecognise what they see. It’s enough to have their nanny’s authentic Filipino self present to care their child, but who cares for Maricel’s child back in the Philippines?
A curious contradiction emerges among the affluent professional class who can afford to outsource whole chunks of the self: they don’t have a “choice” to do otherwise, but their employees seem to have freely chosen this particular type of work. As such, at the end of the day, it’s just a perfectly legitimate and necessary pure business transaction. The privileged can afford to lack self-awareness at the expense of hiring someone from a poorer background from another country. Having internalised the logic of the market, they imagine they’re helping to ease the poverty “over there”. As for the other details, such as who cares for their family while they care for yours—well, it’s a working relationship and it might be unprofessional to pry.
This is how people are encouraged to think, as Leopoldina Fortunati pointed out in 1981 in her seminal autonomist feminist text, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, because it’s how they are meant to live. As Fortunati says,” It is not by chance that under capitalism, while at the formal level there appear to be many opportunities for individual relationships, in reality there exists a high level of isolation between individuals, who are obliged to produce surplus-value even in the moment in which they reproduce themselves.” She’s referring to the family nucleus, which she says provides a “sufficient nucleus in the sense that this time, these relations, and these exchanges must suffice for labor power to reproduce itself”. Anything more than that is a waste. The more time you have, the less time you have—and that suits capitalism just fine.
Lacking more of an analytical framework, Hochschild’s book seems to posit historical problems with capitalism as new and novel issues. Because of this she is sometimes left asking us questions to which answers seem glaringly obvious, and have been, for awhile. “Can it be that we are no longer confident to identify even our most ordinary desires without a professional to guide us?” Well, perhaps. Part of the genius—or insidiousness—of capitalism is how it sells you a solution to a real or imagined fear, then sells you the uncertainty of an incorrectly or inadequately applied solution, thus creating an endless cycle of zero confidence—which it can sell back to you. (Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, for example.)
More interesting are the unasked questions, like how life coaches help their clients “redefine their desire”—redefined according to what standards and why? What’s shaping these new desires? These aspects of the production of disciplined subjects are factors that Hochschild does not examine. The book is also is burdened by Hochschild’s hazy nostalgia, based on her own memories, for a time before urbanisation when agrarian village living held out the best possible alternative to atomised neoliberal societies, offering emotionally-connected communities where people showed up unannounced at each other’s doorsteps with pie. While it may not have been her intention, Hochschild’s reminiscences seem to imply that the dangers of capitalist living began right on the dot when Hochschild started to take notice.
Hochschild’s work in The Managed Heart has been particularly useful for feminism in showing how emotional labour and care work are gendered and how subjects who perform these forms of emotional work are transformed, and social relations altered, when the practice of “deep acting” and emotional performance are exploited for the purposes of capital. Therefore, her tendency to frame the situations in The Outsourced Self as specifically new and novel problems under neoliberalism rather than as symptoms of capitalism seems particularly ingenuous, since her arguments in The Managed Heart could have predicted this outcome. It also allows her to sidestep how emotional labour was always required of women and the working classes performing domestic service in the past, or the ways in which emotional labour was required of labouring colonial subjects—both men and women.
While the aim of The Outsourced Self is not to present in detail the varied histories of forms of emotional labour, its tendency to skip from story to story with minimal analysis renders it essentially unremarkable, especially coming from a scholar and sociologist like Hochschild who has offered challenging and useful arguments for the field of labour theory in the past. The Outsourced Self is essentially pop-sociology light reading, a collection of anecdotes interspersed with brief (mostly personal) reflections. Hochschild is good at pointing out the general ambivalence and contradictions that underlie “intimate life in market times”, but the reader is not left with much more than a general sense of how troubling and inescapable it all is.
April 14, 2013 § 6 Comments
And also a month late–my review of Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: Power and Failures of Paperwork. This book was frustrating. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. What I got out of it: 1) Paperwork makes assholes out of us; 2) Paperwork may facilitate, but mostly gets in the way, of people power. I don’t like those conclusions, or rather, I’m not sure why Kafka didn’t take them further. It’s a thoroughly engaging and well-researched book, though, but not much to wrangle with beyond the historical facts and some Freudian speculations. Maybe the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the research overwhelmed Kafka in the end, too.
The key feature of all the “paperless” offices that I have worked in was the abundance of paper. While doing temp jobs that came with various spine-tingling designations like “data entry assistant” or “clerical assistant”, I only knew that my job was to make all that was solid—paper—melt into air—data. But certainly, you don’t have to work with paper to know how paperwork gets in the way of everything: a marriage or a driver’s license, a new passport, citizenship.
Paperwork makes you wait. Paperwork disappears, sometimes never to return; or to return much later, with the vengeance of the repressed. Paperwork obstructs. Paperwork keeps you in limbo. Paperwork means what you don’t know will hurt you, or eventually bite you in the ass when it turns out that all that stands between you and your goal is, “I’m sorry, it’s just that there’s a file missing.“
Ben Kafka, media theorist and professor at New York University, understands this. That’s why he’s titled his book The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork—the ghosts of paperwork haunt every missed opportunity and unforeseen error in the attempt to fashion a structured, disciplined, and well-documented life. At the heart of Kafka’s book on paperwork is the rerouting of Marx’s theory of paperwork—what he called the “bureaucratic medium”—by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis. Paperwork has its pleasures, and more important—its powers—but it is fundamentally unstable.
Kafka begins his inquiry with a chapter called “The Disciplined State”, in which the story of an 18th-century French clerk who loses his job—and his failure to recover it—is what Kafka calls “the story of the French Revolution’s success”, or how the bureaucracy became an essential component of the state. This bureaucracy, however, was a double-edged sword: “The disciplinary state, which relied on documents and details to keep track of its subjects, would also have to be a disciplined state, aware that those same documents and details could be used to keep track of it.”
Morizot, the clerk who found his appeals and attempts to recover his job thwarted at every level by the power of paperwork—“What he needed was the right signature on the proper letterhead”—wrote frantic pamphlets to bring his case of bureaucratic misery to public light. As Kafka writes, “The French, Morizot asserted, were living ‘among the debris of a ruined monarchy, now converted into a bourgeois aristocracy’” and, as such, “a world of privilege was becoming a world of rights; the personal state was becoming the personnel state.”
While paperwork was designed to produce a more equitable form of society, where accountability for each citizen was recognized as an “inalienable, individual right”, the “foundation of representative government”, it also proved to wield power in inequitable ways. Kafka recounts the story of Labussière, an employee in the Committee of Public Safety’s Prisoners Bureau, who in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror, destroyed the files of the prisoners before the Revolutionary Tribunal could get its hands on it, thereby destroying significant information about the prisoners and rendering punishment impossible or eternally deferred, subsequently saving lives. Perhaps Labussière, whom Kafka depicts as a kind of trickster figure, practiced a form of radical clerking—paperwork for the people, as it were. But the significant point, as Kafka points out over and over, is that paperwork makes paperwork fail, because the “proliferation of documents and details presented opportunities for resistance as well as for compliance.”
Kafka’s theory of paperwork loops around the same premise—paperwork can consolidate power as well as unsettle it and render it futile—and is determined to remain in history without the slightest detour into the present. One wonders about his theory of paperwork and shifting powers in relation to Wikileaks while Bradley Manning is held within state power. “The duplicitous simplicity of the trickster”, as Kafka writes of Labussière, clearly doesn’t apply in Manning’s case, and if bureaucracy has the potential to beat state power at its own game, it’s difficult to think of a way out of situations where the state’s malpractices, corruption, violence, and excesses are laid bare—made transparent to all with access to the internet, even—while its powers remain firmly lodged in place.
In The Demon of Writing, Kafka circles around the same premise: “It is the story of how paperwork, even when it works, fails us. We never get what we want.” As such, a psychoanalytic theory of paperwork by way of Freud’s theory of parapraxis, or “the Freudian slip”, much like the political theory by way of Marx that leaves Kafka unconvinced, also leaves us wanting:
“Like the symptom or dream, the slip represents an attempt by the unconscious to get its message across—an attempt that is made difficult by repression, the primary processes, and any number of measures taken by the ego to prevent embarrassment or worse. The question to ask is: What was being communicated? And the answer is: We don’t know. We will never know. We can’t know.”
The Demon of Writing is witty and entertaining, and Kafka seems both charmed and inspired by writers and thinkers who disliked paperwork, like Rousseau, or who found both paperwork and its pushers to be quite contemptible, like Balzac, who writes of the clerks in Les employés: “It is difficult to decide whether these plumed mammals were getting stupider because of their careers, or whether they had these careers because they were born stupid. Perhaps it is equal parts Nature and Government.” On the other end of the spectrum is Barthes, who predictably experienced jouissance while “dramatizing paperwork”.
But as a theory of paperwork The Demon of Writing, in its impact and potential uses, is slight. How to explain, for instance, the parapraxis of paperwork—the “powers and failures of paperwork”, as it were, to a “paperless” immigrant? To most, even while paperwork delays and obstructs and fails—or precisely because of this—the powers of paperwork and the administrative apparatus that supports it remain entrenched. If our stories about bureaucracy and its horrors are a means to thinking about the state, then this book shows that “we” don’t always get what we want; instead, paperwork provides “us” with the opportunity to “fulfill fantasies of power and powerlessness, revenge and love”. That leaves too much to chance and individual temperament, and material circumstances—economic and political systems—are able to remain very much unchanged despite these fantasies of power and revenge.
In his closing chapter, for example, Kafka talks about the short film The Paperwork Explosion that IBM commissioned in 1967 to promote its word-processor (see video, below). “Machines should work, people should think” was the message of the film, and Kafka wonders if the film could be read as a warning “against its own techno-utopianism”. Perhaps, but the present shows us that IBM is a corporate giant, and in the age of smartphones and gadgets, people, more than ever, are being put to work for machines. Maybe corporations want you to think, but it’s usually because they want you to think what they think.
Fantasies of revenge are compelling to consider, but if the powers of paperwork—in other words, the powers of the capitalist state—are unstable and diffuse, then it seems like Kafka’s argument merely boils down to how the unconscious life of paperwork can often exceed or limit individual or collective expectations. This leaves no room for an alternative to paperwork. And as long as we have our fantasies and narratives of revenge, nothing really has to change.
April 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In yet another instance of Shameful Neglect of the Blog, I share with you a review of Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image by Yiu Fai Chow and Jeroen de Kloet that came out in Pop Matters a month ago. A whole month!
Why have I been slacking off on self-promotion? I don’t know. I’ve been away, travelling in Sri Lanka, writing fragments in my notebook, fragments in Microsoft Word (do MS Word users still publicly admit to using MS Word?) and staring into my dogs’ eyes in an attempt to find the answer(s) to various hard questions. No answers are forthcoming, but one of my dogs does like to nibble on my chin and nose–perhaps that should be enough for now.
I’m going to do a revolutionary new thing and post the entire review here, below.
When did Hong Kong popular music die? Theories abound as to the death of Hong Kong pop songs delivered in the local language of Cantonese, or Cantopop. Some say it died when Hong Kong was handed over by the British to the Beijing authorities in 1997. Others say that it died along with its two international superstars, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, in 2003.
Either way, facts and especially figures are marshalled up in defence of this death, with decreasing record sales being the primary means of assessing the pop music’s industry ill-health. If the industry isn’t making money, or as much money as it used to, then it’s clear that something is ailing the Hong Kong pop music industry. The industry cannot imagine that Cantopop continues to live on in various different forms and places: as karaoke, for one, or on the internet, for another.
Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image enters into the discussion as a sort of corrective. Jointly authored by Yiu Fai Chow, assistant professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s department of Humanities and Creative writing and songwriter of Chinese pop songs, and Jeroen de Kloet, a professor in globalisation studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of China with a Cut, Sonic Multiplicities is deeply immersed in theories and techniques of cultural studies as it sets out to look at (and listen to) the multiple ways in which Cantopop has proliferated into new and different forms in late capitalism.
The issues of Chineseness and Chinese national identity is the spectre that haunts Hong Kong pop culture, and Chow and de Kloet are interested in troubling or resisting conventional “rise of China” narratives that present a stable and uniform history and Chinese subject. With Hong Kong’s colonial legacy as the geopolitical starting point, the first chapter of Sonic Multiplicities is a combination of theory and autobiography that sees Chow speak on a political and personal level about the “politics of Chineseness” through articulations on nationalistic songs, or folk ballads known as minzu gequ.
The autobiographical “I” in this chapter is refreshing in an academic book, and Chow’s struggle with notions of Chineseness growing up as a young boy Hong Kong, and later while living in the Netherlands, is reflected through the changing political and social mores of the ‘90s when, as Chow explains, “the Chinese Communist Party replaced its legitimizing ideology from communism to a market-driven nationalism”. Chow’s analysis of how Chineseness is performed in nationalist songs is undercut by his own ambivalence in having written songs meant to serve as nationalist propaganda and his attempts, within that particular framework, to subvert and discreetly undermine accepted, conventional narratives with his lyrics. How are newly (re)nationalised subjects allowed to dream of a nation, or a better nation?
“For the Hong Kongers at the time of imminent changes, we willed ourselves to be brave, to be Chinese, to become one with tens of thousands of those who at least looked like us. But it is not easy… It necessitates a logic of empowerment by conjuring up an enemy, the other… It also necessitates a submission of the part of us alien to the whole, the part of the city alien to the nation, the part of the future alien to the past.”
To be of a nation but not of it is a theme that resounds over and over again throughout the book, and in their sensitive and generous assessment of the politics and cultures of fandom, the authors aim to show readers how “the fans” exercise their agency in their consumption of pop music and their engagement with, and celebration of, celebrities. In this sense, by focusing on two “local” celebrities from the Netherlands and Hong Kong, Marco Borsato and Leon Lai, Chow and de Kloet shift the pop cultural focus away from the US and onto what is truly a global sphere, although they recognise the hegemony that operates within “global pop culture”, where North American pop stars are often claimed as “international stars” while Asian pop stars are rarely so—even when they are truly international, as was the case with Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. In this sense, “whose international” seems to the concern here—whose cultural production is centred and considered “global”?
One of the more intriguing chapters focuses on sex and morality in Hong Kong and Chinese pop culture by way of the Edison Chen scandal. Far from adopting simple and reductive positions that sees the scandal as either bad (yet another spectacle!) or good (sex is healthy and we should enjoy it!), the authors interrogate the questions of morality that were mirrored in the media coverage of the scandal, particularly in how the subjects involved in the scandal immediately sought to control their reputation and image along conventional binaries of proper male and female behaviour.
Edison Chen, the sole male actor, sought refuge in cringe-worthy pleas and what the authors term “extreme moralism”, even announcing at one point that he will need to “step away from the Hong Kong entertainment industry… to heal myself, and search my soul”, in addition to performing the role of the moral, law-abiding citizen by publicly promising to assist the police in ongoing investigations. As the authors point out, the mediatised nature of the public spectacle demands the so-called salacious or transgressive act for collective consumption and, following Rene Girard, also demands a public scapegoat.
Meanwhile, with the women involved automatically framed as victims, the female stars in Chen’s videos had to take another, culturally proscribed route: that of repentance with a feminine/maternal slant, as in the case of Cecilia Cheung, who said “I have to stand up for the sake of my son.” The authors ensuing discussion of spectacle and conspicuous consumption—as evidenced by Edison Chen “bouncing back” from this scandal by throwing himself into his fashion business, and by co-opting the scandal for an art show—and its connection to “mediatized moral panics”, which, by way of Stuart Hall’s arguments in Policing the Crisis, act as “vehicles for the transmission of dominant ideologies.” The more scandalised we are, it would appear, the more things stay the same.
If there is a problem in Sonic Multiplicities, it’s that its ethnographic approach produces a rather shaky foundation on which the authors juggle multiple concepts and theories, going as they do from Rey Chow to Theodor Adorno, back to Guy Debord, then to Fredric Jameson. While discussions are deep-rooted and show an inclination to resist pat conclusions and easy assumptions, Sonic Multiplicities suffers from a less-than-rigorous consideration of political economy, as in the chapter on Beijing’s Olympic ceremony and the production and interpellation of national subjects in spectacles of global sporting events.
In discussing Soviet and Chinese authoritarian communism, the authors rightfully resist dominant narratives in liberal democracies that tend to depict “the masses” in these countries as totally docile and utterly subject to control—being away from the local particularities and nuances, these narratives often miss out, or simply can’t see, the necessarily discreet or prudent forms of resistance. But while they discuss the performative aspects of nationalist songs and speeches, the authors neglect to tease out the implications of a kind of performative Communism as espoused by China’s main party, even while market reforms put into place by Deng Xiaoping since the late ‘70s have had everything to do with capitalism. In this sense, the authors missed out on an opportunity to interrogate China’s official communist position against its increasingly capitalist reforms. While the authors state that “performative contestations” of the spectacle is not something unique to China, they neglect to draw connections between performativity and late capitalism and continued Western political and cultural hegemony in the global pop culture marketplace.
However, Sonic Multiplicities is an intriguing study of pop culture that doesn’t take North America as its starting point and yet does not avoid analysis of political or cultural forms of dominance that affect and, indeed, produce these forms of “globalised” pop commodities. The authors are particularly attentive to the formation and production of both the national and diasporic subject, consistently grounding these subjects in temporal and spatial circumstances, especially or even when these circumstances are stable, shifting, or ambivalent. It manages to trouble notions of a radical or emancipatory potential in pop culture without demeaning either the cultural workers or the consumers—indeed, recognising that subjects and producers of popular culture using the internet as a platform are most often both.
Hong Kong pop is not dead, but it has transformed, mutated, and altered, and the authors want to encourage people to see, listen, and think in new and altered ways.
August 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Genet has been messing with my life lately. In a good way, I think. It’s just that I haven’t had much time for reading lately, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, and after coming out of my Genet fever I had to read an astoundingly mediocre book for a future review. After Genet, the mediocre seems offensive.
My review of Sartre’s Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr is up on Pop Matters. I talked about it a bit in a previous post. I have to say that I dislike the Pop Matters rating system because I’m not sure that a rating system is helpful to anyone. Quantifying the qualitative seems doomed from the start. I gave Saint Genet a 6/10 rating, which is wholly inadequate (because neither a higher nor lower number would have been more adequate) and doesn’t much describe how I felt about the book. In any case, I’m meant to rate all the books I review, but it really hit me when I was trying to assign a number to Saint Genet. It’s hard to evaluate in terms of rating. It’s a book that infuriates, and for that I think I love it. Saint Genet is provocative and chaotic and smart and silly and essential; I disagreed very strongly with HUGE CHUNKS (and there are a lot of chunks), but assigning it a number just feels wrong because it’s not about whether it’s “average” or “good”. And as I continue to read Genet I will no doubt continue to dip in and out Saint Genet and have long conversations with the text that begins with, “Sartre, you turd… ” (said in total affection and dislike, of course.)
I can’t help but turn to Susan Sontag’s words in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, where she begins an assessment of the same book with these words: “Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” Grotesque and ghastly—Sartre’s work is a monster that will devour the reader’s presence of mind, to be sure. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I began readingSaint Genet while Kanye West’s “Monster” played in the background: much like Nicki Minaj’s persona in the song, Sartre’s implicit announcement to his future reader seems to be “First things first, I’ll eat your brains.”
Read the entire review. (If you like.)
June 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This blog is not dead! It is merely in a state of extreme rest. In a state of hyperrest. (Hyperrest is characterised by placidity or inactivity on the surface, bordering on comatose, as the wheels of the mind’s engine churn and churn in a journey towards who-the-fuck-knows-where.)
My review of Katrien Jacobs’s People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet is up at PopMatters. I enjoyed reading it; Jacobs is an enthusiastic and engaged/engaging writer, but I was troubled a bit by the premise, which seemed to imply that DIY pornography and digital culture are necessarily subversive and/or emancipatory:
Although much of the material Jacobs explores follows the familiar trajectory of pornography that finds men as its main consumers and women as its primary labourers, Jacobs includes plenty of first-person accounts that provides a glimpse into how women negotiate the spaces of propriety and proper “female behaviour”. One blogger who goes by the name Hairong Tian Tian collected and posted pictures of men’s limp penises because she wanted to explore “the root of Chinese masculinity” by showing the “cock in its most mundane state”. Another blogger named Lost Sparrow attempted to compile an encyclopedia of lovemaking sounds “based on the premise that they would sound different in different parts of China”.
These are attempts to remake pornography, but whether or not they succeed in presenting pornography as something more worthwhile than a convenient commodity is hard to tell. For example, the DIY sex videos that Jacobs describes as popular among younger Chinese citizens certainly reify sexual pleasure and emotions and it leaves one to wonder about the emancipatory possibilities of the endless click-and-choose of online porn viewing. As Jacobs research shows, pornography has entered new spaces and is presented and enjoyed within new(er) forms of technology, but the patriarchal structures of society remain unyielding and resistant in the face of all this sexual and technological creativity.
But I also wondered if my own knee-jerk cynicism got in the way of a full appreciation of what was and is taking place. I do recommend Jacobs’s book, even if I had trouble reading it in public because my inner convent-school-educated prudishness kicked in. EXPLICIT PICTURES! CLOSE-UPS OF NIPPLES! IN PUBLIC! OH DEAR! So it was a read-at-home book, but no less interesting because of it.
(I was also reading the Feminism and Pornography anthology while reading Jacobs’s book and Wendy Brown’s “The Mirror of Pornography” was one of the most clear-minded, kick-ass essays in it; it’s essentially a response to Catherine MacKinnon, and I posted a quote from it on my Tumblr. Anyone who’s read even just a tiny bit of MacKinnon might sense the difficulty of countering the force of her totalising arguments against porn. Brown does a sublime job of it while demonstrating how MacKinnon’s style borrows a lot from porn, and reading Brown after reading MacKinnon is like being thrown a lifeline while attempting to swim in choppy moral waters. Sorry, melodramatic analogy, and also vaguely deceptive, because I can’t swim and will technically drown in all waters, but still. Also, this technically doesn’t have much to do with Jacobs’s book but throwing it in here because ♥ WENDY BROWN ♥.)
March 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A moment of textual serendipity, when, in the midst of reading Sonia Shah’s The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years for a Pop Matters review, I decided to begin Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity and discovered that the first chapter is titled “Can The Mosquito Speak?”
I’m still not sure if it spoke, but through Mitchell (and throughout Shah’s book), the mosquito drops clues. Shah’s book sets out on a terrain that Mitchell articulates early on in his book: “Disease often moves with the changing movements of people, and modern war causes large numbers to find routes outside existing networks of trade and migration.” The interesting thing about Shah’s The Fever, to me, was how she consistently mapped out the changing face of malaria in relation to the changing face of empire, and the subsequent merging of modern warfare and modern disease treatment, or what in Mitchell’s words boils down to “physical elimination of the enemy species” where malaria is concerned.
Mitchell’s central project is to acknowledge, examine, and uncover the ways in which “human agency, like capital, is a technical body, something made” – which is something that became brilliantly clear as I made my way through Shah’s book. Shah’s book, I think, undertakes a similar mission even though it’s marketed as popular nonfiction instead of an academic text. Mitchell’s interrogation into the concept of human agency is his attempt to destabilise and dissolve the binary order that social science and its attendant disciplines are determined to (re)create. A binary order in service of agency and expertise (versus nature and the material world), which in turn acts in service of technopolitics and imperial ambitions. As Mitchell explains, in the Egypt situation there were specific factors at play:
The connections between a war, an epidemic, and a famine depended upon connections between rivers, dams, fertilizers, food webs, and, as we will see, several additional links and interactions. What seems remarkable is the way the properties of these various elements interacted. They were not just separate historical events affecting one another at the social level. The linkages among them were hydraulic, chemical, military, political, etiological, and mechanical. No one writing about Egypt in this period describes this interaction. There are studies of military tactics, irrigation methods, Anglo-Egyptian relations, hydraulic engineering, parasites, the sugar industry, and peasants. But there are no accounts that take seriously how these elements interact. It is as if the elements are somehow incommensurable. They seem to involve very different forces, agents, elements, spatial scales, and temporalities. They shape one another, yet their heterogeneity offers a resistance to explanation.
I’m blathering about Mitchell’s book, which is fascinating, although I’m only about a quarter of a way in. But this post is supposed to lead you to my review of Shah’s The Fever, a book that, truth be told, I thought was going to be sheer drudgery. It turned to be lively, sharp, and engaging – largely because, I suspect, Shah never wrote like she was dumbing down the facts and research for a bleary-eyed audience, and also because I felt her project mirrored Mitchell’s – consciously or not – determined as it was to complicate easy, pat conclusions about the nature of human agency vis-à-vis “mother nature” or the material world.
December 30, 2011 § 6 Comments
I love year-end lists. I loathe year-end lists. Year-end lists get me excited. Year-end lists just make me tired. Year-end lists make me anxious.
If it’s a competition – “Have you heard this year’s must-hear albums? Have you read this year’s must-read books? Have you watched this year’s must-watch films?” – then I’ll come right out and say I disqualify myself from the competition because who has time and did you know I only watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes for the first time this year BECAUSE THERE’S A LOT OF CATCHING UP TO D-
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a blog will want to offer you a humble list. And thus, I offer you a humble list. Maybe not quite humble, since there are 40 items in this list. A quiet list, then, a quiet list of no particular order. This is a list of some things that I read online this year; things that I appreciated, things that I loved, things that I disagreed with and made me rethink my own position on a certain something or someone, things I am glad to have read because it altered something in me. It is a haphazard, utterly biased list of my notable blog posts/essays/articles for the year 2011.
It’s also a sort of thanks to the people who wrote them, a way of saying, “Hey, you wrote that great thing in March when the world was a very different place and I want you to know that I still remember it in December.” (Really, when you think about it, this is fucking outstanding considering we’re in the age of the internet where the human brain is morphing into hamster brain and we have no more attention to give and are we still human? etc.)
“We like lists because we don’t want to die,” Umberto Eco proclaimed recently, and initially I was all, “Ooookaaay, take it easy there Mr. Eco,” but now I think I agree, though at the risk of remembering some things we essentially have to forget about and bury other things…
… but never mind that.
Here is my not-so-humble, quiet, haphazard, and utterly biased list of notable 2011 blog posts/essays/articles:
Isaac Miller – Who Runs the World: On Beyonce, Sampling, Race, and Power
Beyonce’s incorporation of Dancehall, as well as Kwaito through Tofo Tofo and “New Style” hip hop dance through Les Twins offers a glimpse into a more holistic, global hip hop culture. However, this global vision is still mediated through the work of a U.S. superstar. This is symbolic of the overarching global balance of power. However, while the U.S. still acts as the global center of media, music, and film, immense networks of media production are burgeoning across the global south.
It seems like Diplo wants to create networks, audiences, and opportunities for the communities he engages with. But so long as he is the necessary Western interlocutor for artists of color from the global south, I question how much will these artists and cultures actually be “represented” globally. Like other forms of Western “development” that created the very conditions of poverty that these musics and cultures exist in, Diplo’s brand of development reproduces the very inequality that it claims to solve.
Boima Tucker – Global Genre Accumulation
The art of DJing is as postmodern as it gets. Its essence is appropriation. A DJ re-contextualizes pre-existing cultural expressions to resurrect or re-interpret cultural memory for an audience. For me, Diplo and Venus exemplify two different ways of doing this.
Diplo has become known for taking an “unknown” culture and exposing it to the world. He mixes dominant American culture cues, with “foreign” cultures, and positions himself as the “in the know” intermediary, in turn reinforcing a separation between audience and subject. Venus uses culture memory of various both underground and mainstream cultures to create safe spaces for, and communicate messages to groups that are underrepresented in mainstream cultural discourse (groups that she herself is a part of.)
Minh-Ha T. Pham – Unintentionally Eating the Other
The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.
Gaga has license to queer femininity—to make her body monstrous, either through monster-drag or king-drag—because she is white. In other words: her gender identity is not already qualified by non-whiteness. In the hegemonic, mainstream eye, Beyoncé’s blackness already qualifies her femininity. She often plays around with femininity by adopting stereotypically white feminine iconography, e.g., in “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (where she does the 60s housewife thing), or in “Video Phone” (where she does the 40s pinup/Betty Page thing). So it’s not that Bey just uncritically adopts normative het-fem identities/images. She just troubles femininity most obviously through race—which is not to say that she’s not also troubling its heteronormativity. If race and queerness are mutually intensifying, then Bey’s playing with femininity via race is also an experimentation with its sexuality.
Agata Pyzik – Ostalgia Trips
Ostalgie means and captures much wider contemporary cultural phenomena than the mere recuperation of the once-rough life under the system. That we’re now drowning with various Ostalgie projects symbolizes the weakness of contemporary, nostalgia-driven culture of constant revivals (show me a musical genre or style in art or architecture that hasn’t been revived in the last ten years). This is also related to the so-called hauntological current in culture, itself a coinage from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994). So is Soviet-focused nostalgia wrapped up with kitsch and appropriation, or does it express something more important: a need for an alternative to a collapsing capitalist system, a need for evoking a past that never actually happened? But instead we all behave like we believed Francis Fukuyama’s much-ridiculed vision of the end of history: everything happened already, we can only rehearse it once more, like living in one gigantic museum.
Alexander Chee – Fanboy
Comics regularly get in trouble for depicting the forbidden, and have for years. You could imagine, then, that comics are revolutionary, that they could foment turmoil and rebellion. But so far, I think we use them to stay asleep. Superhero comics in particular. We read them, we watch them now in movies, increasingly—comics are the new hot film properties, complete with serious stars and directors, huge budgets. We dream of heroes fighting evil together in the dark theater, but when we wake, we live alongside evil, uncomplaining.
What, then, are we dreaming?
Manan Ahmed – At Sea
It is wrong to claim that Osama b. Laden was irrelevant long before he was killed. He wasn’t. He represented, and represents, hundreds of thousands of lives lost since December 2001 when US forces reportedly failed to capture or kill him. He disappeared for the next decade but that absence was filled with wars in Iraq and Pakistan – wars waged on the heads of civilians, among urban centers, and at the cost of trillions. Just the technological developments of killing from the skies accomplished in this decade are mind or moral numbing. No, Osama b. Laden was never irrelevant and he was never off the script. Sure, George W. Bush or Pervez Musharraf told us that the battle was now bigger, the stakes higher and the cost greater, but they were empty words. The deaths of September 11th, 2001 and the destructions that followed hold us accountable – to remember that the cost of those lives began in a bid for this one life. So, we must deal with that life and the narratives it spawned. NYT claims that he was a “hero in much of the Islamic world”. The obituary moves on, and we are left with that “fact”. What are we to make of it? Heroes, after all, were gods and immortals.
Maryam Monalisa Gharavi – The Fabric of Democracy
The democratic ideal of the poikilon as a varied and brightly-colored garment alludes to two kinds of creatures: women, by virtue of their tendency to adornment, and proudly plumed peacocks. This resemblance may reinvigorate the logic behind (what I assume to be) a digitally manipulated photo of Gaddafi as poikílos, ‘spotted’ or ‘embroidered.’ The caricature is easy because Gaddafi is the subject of both fascination and horror in the way he transposes the appearance of sartorial freedom with the eradication of democratic freedom. Ridicule or amazement cannot obfuscate an underlying admiration for brazenness, which for Gaddafi translates freedom to dress as a metonymy for democracy.
Jane Hu – “Are You Airminded?” The Slang of War
As media critic Friedrich Kittler proposes, technologies repeatedly find their ancestry in the mouth of war: “war was called the father of all things: it was supposed to have been responsible (borrowing loosely from Heraclitus) for most technical inventions.” For Kittler, all technology begins as war technology. Whereas contemporary and commercial uses of machines obscure their military roots, languages face similar signifying concealments. Expressions such as “airminded” disappear from the vernacular as they decrease in culturally potency, or are reinvested with new meaning. “Trench coats,” for instance, initially referred to coats worn by soldiers in the trenches, while “going over the top” once pointed to the moment when British soldiers crossed the parapet that separated trench from no man’s land. “Airminded” is just one significant example of how war and its accompanying innovations have always shaped how we speak.
Aaron Bady – A Zionist Night Shelter in Africa
For Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, settling Jews in Africa would have seemed like it could solve several problems. One was that — as Heymann delicately suggests — genteel anti-Semites like Chamberlain and Landsdowne shared with Herzl a desire to discourage the mass migration of East European Jews into Western Europe. For Herzl, the fear was assimilation, and though it was the reverse fear for men like Chamberlain — non-assimilable Jews immigrating into Britain! Horrors! — they had in common the desire to find some other place for those migrants than Europe. And as pogroms in East Europe worsened — increasing the number of emigrating Jews even as the prospects of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine looked increasingly dim, Africa suddenly popped up as a possibility.
The “foreigner” is not always a stranger. The discourse on “foreigners” as fighters or mercenaries tends to resonate on the assumption that these people have somehow dropped out of the sky without any precedent or context, and find it easier to kill people they have nothing to do with. This assumption of strangeness, however, defies history. Libya and Bahrain have both long hosted large migrant worker populations, largely drawing from the same regions now racially linked to the idea of “mercenaries.” Mercenaries are, among other things, workers. Some (especially if they happen to be white) are insanely overcompensated and accountable to no local actors; but many others are in a far more ambiguous position vis-à-vis locals. If they were not carrying guns, some may instead have been construction workers, drivers, or cooks (similarly, many of the Arab mujahids who fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina were migrant workers coming from Italy).
Sumeja Tulic – In Which We Experience the Charm of a Libyan Night
Suddenly, our green love experienced its autumn. In an early morning, Suleiman, our young and handsome imam, was arrested and taken away. There were no charges and no appeal. Suleiman was “too Muslim” with his white tunic and therefore, a threat to Jamahiriya. The morning he was taken away, many others also vanished. For months, there were no wedding celebrations. Women whispered, men didn’t gather. Life was painfully discrete and silent.In years to come, coffins were brought to the doorsteps of those taken away years ago, before the sunrise, as when they were handcuffed and taken away.
Years went by, fast and uneasy. The imposed economical sanctions on Libya meant fewer things to buy. Oddly, the so called social supermarket distributed Benetton apparel. We may have craved all sort of different sweets, but we were dressed in Italian designer cloth from a decade ago.
V.V. Ganeshananthan – The Politics of Grief
It is a way of humiliating people, to say that their dead are not dead, to say that people are not even allowed to mourn. There was little room for the legitimate expression of grief during the war, and after it was over, what little was there dwindled. As the government said they were for reconciliation, they moved to shut down the spaces where Tamil civilians and loss could be remembered. Tiger cemeteries were razed, even when families survived who might have wanted to visit the markers. In one instance, Army headquarters were built in the same space. When some Tamil civilians attempted to gather to remember their dead on the anniversary of the war’s end, they had to face down officers of the Sri Lankan Army, as the north and east of the country remains heavily militarized. Indeed, in certain places civilian gatherings now require military approval. Innumerable people looking for a missing loved one filed cases and gave testimony, but many never found who they were looking for.
As was the case of Superman’s translation into Arabic, the perceived ownership of Mickey Mouse by an Arab audience exemplifies the pervasive reality of American imperialism. I have little doubt that this particular point is made more thoroughly by the remarkably-relevant and sadly out-of-printHow to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), written in Spanish by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart about how Disney comics spread capitalist ideals throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world. In their Marxist critique of Mickey and friends, Dorfman and Mattelart specifically observe how the relationship between Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and his nephews is more commercially centered than familial (potently pointing out the conspicuous absence of mothers and fathers among the Disney characters).
Daisy Rockwell – Funny Face
Whenever an impossibly famous individual disappears without a public viewing of the body (and sometimes even then; cf: Elvis), rumors abound as to whether the personage in question is actually dead. The curious decision to keep from the public the image that would prove the kill has naturally fueled an abundance of theories. So that members of the United States Government might not also feel inclined to indulge in such conspiracy theorizing, the White House set up a limited access peep-show to which select individuals of prominent stature, such as John McCain, were invited to see the booty captured and killed by our boys. They came away convinced, slightly shaken, perhaps a little horrified, but gratified that with their tremendous stature came access to the nation’s top-drawer death porn.
Salman H – An Abandoned Man
The state claims to be merely the nation’s representation and self-realization in whose interest it selflessly acts. But it is, in fact, a self-interested arbiter of the politics and culture of the very nation it shapes and constitutes. The state of Pakistan has, through legislative and juridical means, not only made it increasingly harder for Ahmadis to live as Ahmadis by criminalizing Ahmadis to live as Muslims, but also by being unable and/or unwilling to hold vigilantes to account, has made it fair game for Ahmadis to be coerced, violated, or killed as the persecutor sees fit. Those with a grudge against an Ahmadi have the legal route at their disposal to inflict violence through the state and/or hang a target on his head through the blasphemy law which would materialize in the state or a vigilante doing the job for free.
Ira Livingston – Darth Vader and Occupy Wall Street: A TwitterEssay
This is why I want to say to those occupying Wall Street, and occupying and animating these words and thoughts, thank you.
As a Word Person, it’s taken me 50 years to admit– as various therapists and lots of less verbal people have been telling me–
that the words themselves are always trumped by the ways they are wielded, the feelings that animate them.
Jennifer Doyle – Ball and Chain: Notes on Anne Hathaway, James Franco, and the Oscars
The fact of the matter is that in last night’s performance the person on stage closest to Kalup Linzy’s universe was Anne Hathaway – producing a theatrical, desperate and frankly scary version of feminine performance, not just alone, but in compensation for someone else’s failure – as if, if she worked hard enough, nobody would feel Franco’s absence. As if, if she worked hard enough, it would feel like her presence mattered. As if, to matter, her performance must anchor his.
Supriya Nair – Rainbows in the Sky at Night
The funny thing is, if I were a Fenerbahce fan in Istanbul I might have refused to go when called. I might have argued that I didn’t want to be there as a fucking punishment for my team, especially if they did deserve to play behind closed doors. I might have argued that the punishment and this fix exposed flaws in the system that could not be papered over by a single glorious matchday, that it was not genuinely inclusive, that it would be a better gesture if every team in the Turkish league could do the same. I might even have argued on principle against gender profiling on behalf of the excluded majority of innocent male fans, perfectly aware that none of them would ever do the same for me. And watching the 41,000 other women on TV that night would still have been the most radically uplifting thing I ever saw.
Maya Mikdashi – Waiting for Alia
Alia’s picture does not play by the rules, and this is why both liberals and Islamists have condemned her. She is not “waiting” for the “right moment” to bring up bodily rights and sexual rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. She is not playing nice with the patriarchal power structures in Egypt. She is not waiting her turn. Her mouth is not open and pouting. Her breasts are not large. Her eyes are not hungry or afraid. She is not wearing high heels. Her vagina is uncovered. She is not selling anything, and she is not trying to turn us on. Her use of fishnet stockings appears to be a commentary on the clichés of commodified seduction. Her nudity is not about sex, but it aims to reinvigorate a conversation about the politics of sex and the uneven ways it is articulated across the fields of gender, capital, and control. She is staring back at us, daring us to look at her and to not turn away. Daring us to have this debate.
Nivedita Menon – Modest? Sexy? Or just an athlete?
In short, they want to be modest or sexy outside the rules – the fat woman who refuses to tone or shave her legs but will wear mini skirts; the modest believer who insists that women can conduct puja/namaz/service. Or women who don’t care much about being either modest or sexy, but just do whatever it takes to do what they do very well.
Carla Fran – A Thousand Ways to be Pissed Off: The Green Hornet
Instead, you get a tour of how great it is to be a privileged white guy. The movie could practically be a manual for how to move around with privilege and power built by race and gender. Seth Rogen, as the Hornet, becomes our very lucky white guy/textbook example of power and privilege. He has inherited his fortune from the empire building of his dad. He parties and likes to ruin things with abandon (there is a distinct joy in smashing plasma TVs in the movie). He gets a super powerful job because of his family. He has little regard for how his actions affect others. He’s stupid, but it doesn’t matter. He never gets called on any of his trespasses. The world changes on his time alone–it’s only when he realizes things matter that they actually matter.
Kim Morgan – It’s a Thin Line: My Summer of Love
Young, intriguing, different women/teens can be viewed as odd birds, no matter how acceptably “wacky” cinema attempts to paint them. We see movies like Mean Girls, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Juno, Easy A or even, Thirteen, and are left with impressions that may ring true for certain aspects of the teen population, but remain utterly false for others. Girls who related to Ghost World (as I did and still do — though I find myself in both Birch and Buscemi, which disturbs me at times), don’t see the big deal in 13, would laugh at the “mean girls” in school, and wonder why Juno would let some older guy convince her that Blood Feast was better than Suspiria. No way. In My Summer of Love, issues, or catch-phrases like “sisterhood” (especially in regard to traveling pants), and “rebellion” aren’t terms these beguiling leads would even bother to utter. That kind of drama is just there – the regular aspects or impediments to a type of life they’re attempting to escape and re-create. And re-creation is key.
The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness. Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel. At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity! Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations. (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on. Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?)
Kuzhali Manickavel – I hate scorpions and liars. I love ice cream and my mother.
Female arrogance in general is apparently at the root of most bad things in the world today. For instance, that whole Maoist problem that is happening somewhere over there is really all about Arundhati Roy and how she’s like so arrogant yougaiz. I’m pretty sure that bird flu was created and perpetuated by arrogant chickens.
So the poem serves as a wake-up call to people who think, and would otherwise carry on thinking, that having better jobs makes them better people, and that menial labourers are not really human beings. (It also encourages them to instead view said labourers as picturesque bits of scenery existing for the moral education of the middle class and up, but hey, win some lose some, right?) In other words, it is a machine for making walking scum that much less scummy.
Aishwarya Subramanian – DU and Hatterr
We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.
Norhayati Kaprawi – Bila rogol dikatakan halal
Ramai ulama mendakwa dalam Islam tidak boleh menggunakan akal fikiran, harus berdasarkan keimanan. Pada saya, kenyataan sedemikian bertentangan dengan wahyu Allah yang pertama, iaitu “Bacalah”. Tentu saja membaca memerlukan akal fikiran yang tajam bagi memproses informasi yang dibaca dengan menghubungkannya dengan alam dan hidup kita.
Dalam hal ini misalnya, apakah beriman atau meyakini itu adalah dengan meyakini apa yang dikatakan oleh pemimpin-pemimpin Islam yang mengatakan perempuan boleh dirogol? Bukankah pandangan mereka juga hasil dari menggunakan akal fikiran mereka?
Penulis juga tertarik dengan perspektif evolusi yang diketengahkan Norhayati di mana budaya hijab di Malaysia dipautkan kepada kebangkitan politik Muslim di Iran dan Tanah Arab pada era 1970an dengan politik tanahair. Dalam menghuraikan perspektif ini Norhayati menyelitkan klip video ceramah ulema kehormat parti Pas, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, yang mencaci wanita yang tidak menutup aurat sebagai mengundang malang, malah menggalakkan agar mereka dirogol untuk diberi pengajaran. Menurut Norhayati, setakat ini belum ada penonton yang melafazkan rasa terkejut atau tidak bersetuju dengan Nik Aziz.
Pada pendapat penulis, jika ada kegagalan besar dalam Aku Siapa ia adalah ketiadaan perbincangan berkenaan pengaruh parti Umno dan dasar-dasar kerajaan dibawah pimpinan Umno dalam evolusi hijab di Malaysia. Norhayati mengambil masa untuk menelanjangkan hipokrasi pemimpin sanjungan ahli Pas dan Parti Keadilan Rakyat tapi tidak pula Umno yang tak pernah putus kuasa diperingkat nasional sejak negara Merdeka.
Haneen Maikey, Sami Shamali – International Day Against Homophobia: Between the Western Experience and the Reality of Gay Communities
During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine). There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.
Keguro – Listening to African Queers
Following the U.K.’s example, the U.S. has bought into aid conditionality tied to so-called sexual rights. It’s not yet clear what this will mean. But it is worrying.
Multiple blog posts from the U.S. have celebrated this “victory” for gay rights, this assertion that gay rights are human rights, universal rights: the U.S. is now on board with gay activism.
I am not celebrating.
In fact, I am disheartened by what feels like myopic celebrations that confirm, or suggest, that what is at stake in such a decision has nothing to do with helping African queers and everything to do with domestic U.S. feeling and neo-imperial machinations. I have no problem with U.S. queers celebrating this decision as an advance for U.S queer struggles; but let’s not confuse the issue and claim this decision has anything to do with African queers. Or that African queers were in any way consulted—not that we need to be, of course: knights in shining armor rarely ask whether the maiden and the dragon are engaged in an inter-species romance.
Jenny Turner – As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes
How has Western feminism drifted so far out of touch? By narrowing its focus, Eisenstein thinks, to culture and consciousness and personal testimony, neglecting what she calls ‘the political economy of feminism’, and in particular the economic peculiarities that caused Women’s Liberation to happen where and when it did. Never mind the Pill, the miniskirt, the ‘problem with no name’, Eisenstein says: all that is a sideshow. The rise of Western feminism came about because there was a widespread shift, around 1970, of middle-class women from the home to the workplace: partly, no doubt, because they sought fulfilment and financial independence, but mostly because wages overall were in decline. Women entered the workforce bigtime, in other words, just as the ‘long boom’ of the postwar years was ending, and since most women get lower-paid jobs anyway – part-time and casual, unskilled, mommy-track – most of them went ‘straight up the down escalator’, the phrase coined by the economic historian Teresa Amott. This is the way it has been for most women ever since.
Nandini Ramachandran – Borges and I
Borges essays, while short, can be baroque affairs. They are the mark of a “delirious archivist,” as Umberto Eco called him, of a man who lives amidst legions of chattering books. He constructs his essays like a vast puzzle, piling quip upon quote, leading you ever deeper into a thicket of metaphors. Occasionally, they are almost formless, as if their writer has been so carried away by the force of his reading that he has forgotten the point he set out to make. Yet, a careful reading will always reveal the fragile thread between each idea, the links that made Borges not only a consummate reader and thinker but a peerless writer.
Elizabeth Bachner – Dwelling Made of Not Knowing Which Way to Turn: Reading Aimé Césaire
When Aimé Césaire edited Soleil cou coupé in 1961 to construct Cadastre, he eliminated thirty-one poems and cut out material from another twenty-nine, leaving only twelve of these poems intact. “Unmaking and Remaking the Sun” was cut out. “Attack on Morals” was cut out. “To the Serpent” was cut out. If repetition is apocalyptic, what is excision? I’ve had this line from Rimbaud in my head: “It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.” La fin du monde, but there’s a French word, apocalypse, that’s the same as the one in English — from Greek, meaning revelation, lifting the veil. Exposing whatever is true.
Debbie Hu – To Heartbreak Hotel
That night I got stoned and I was frustrated with myself for not writing. So I typed a manifesto called THE WRITE WRITE JUST FUCKING WRITE MANIFESTO. “It is important to get out of the habit of checking to see if what you’re doing is proper and valid before doing it,” I wrote. “Exuberance is not incompatible with care and beauty. Slowness and sadness are not incompatible with diligence. If you have never seen anything like what you are writing don’t be scared be excited. If you feel like you’ve seen what you are writing 1,000 times don’t hate yourself get pumped. You are in an arena you know,” I wrote. “It is important to have concrete goals rather than abstract ones such as ‘being loved’… Your need for other people will have to sort itself out.”
Giovanni Tiso – The Well-Adjusted
Job insecurity and living from contract to contract are a source of anxiety? Then there must be somebody for whom this is not so, somebody for whom the designation of freelance (lovely word, that) is an opportunity for deducting some cost of living items from their taxes and who uses the enforced downtime as an opportunity for rest and recreation. The social and professional demand to be always communicatively available and plugged into multiple networks is a source of stress? Then there must be people who are only too happy to always be available, and for whom checking Twitter and Facebook updates or new emails and text messages never becomes a compulsive habit.
Rob Horning – The Accidental Bricoleurs
Like fast fashion, social media have brought with them a profusion of means and ways to reshape and display our identity. Constantly given new tools to share with, always prompted to say something new about ourselves (“What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks thoughtfully), we are pressured to continually devise ingenious solutions to our identity, which suddenly appears to be a particular kind of recurring problem: one that can be solved by replenishing social media’s various channels with fresh content. Just as fast fashion seeks to pressure shoppers with the urgency of now or never, social media hope to convince us that we always have something new and important to say—as long as we say it right away. And they are designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear. One can easily fall out of fashion with the algorithms Facebook uses to select which content users see out of the plethora of material friends in their network contribute.
It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as “the nature of things”), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the “naturalization” of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.
We might understand these riots as simultaneously an attempt to claim and reject the modern commodified city. While their apparent chaotic nature represents a logical form of escape from the totalising effect of neo-liberal urbanism, at the same time the riots reinforce the very things they attack, binding their actors tighter to the frameworks of commodity culture.
Evan Calder Williams – Hostile Object Theory
This is an instance of what I’ll call hostile objects: a conviction that the objects of capitalism aren’t just indifferent to us or darkly coherent beyond our intentions. They are structurally hostile, and, more often than we’d like to admit, locally hostile: uncertain, unstable, loathing or loathsome, dangerous, and weirdly incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed. This isn’t to speak of nature per se, not an Algernon Blackwood-esque thought of a savage animism.Nor is it a unified theory of what the world would be without us even as we still are in it; the dark and threatening woods. For my concern is not ‘what is without us’, but the shitty flashlight we carry through those woods, the kicking-back chainsaws we wield to take them down. This is an Unnaturphilosophie, concerned not with humanless ecologies but the self-sabotaging, crumbling inhumanity at the core of the economic.
There. These are some things you can read, if you haven’t already, during a particularly tedious moment at whatever social obligation thing/party/event you have to be at on December 31st. Or perhaps you’ll be having so much fun at whatever thingamajig you’re at that you won’t have to surreptitiously check Twitter on your phone at all, not even once. In which case, go show off somewhere else, won’t you?
Me? It’s very likely that I will continue my occupation of the couch, swaddled in blankets and doused in Vicks VapoRub and blowing my nose, for I have the flu and it is Terrible.
Have a happy new year, and may we find time we lost or put aside in 2011 in 2012.
September 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
So do we perish of shame, or rather, as Bernard Lazare suggests in his extraordinary remark, do we die from hiding our shames? Shame swept under the carpet, this history suggests, breeds violence like nothing else. What would it be like to live in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame?
I just finished reading Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion, which is one of the hardest books I’ve had to read in awhile. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been immersed in as much readings as I could find on the topic of Israel and Palestine for the review I was writing for Pop Matters on Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust, a book I desperately wanted to read but felt underqualified to review, that Rose’s book seemed particularly harder to read and think about than it actually is.
Rose’s book requires a mind willing to go deep into dark, murky, subterranean places, and it requires a willingness to temporarily abandon a position – if only to return to it later – to excavate the tangled, labyrinthine histories of the roots of Zionism. Owing its debt to psychoanalysis, Freud, and Lacan, Rose’s book tries to understand an ideology as symptom – Zionism as a form of phantasy, schizophrenia, and refuge. Because Rose is also deeply influenced by Edward Said, her project follows in his tradition of tender yet ruthless interrogation. She refrains from dehumanising the aggressors and perpetrators of violence, and tries instead to bring into focus the roots of their own torment that led them to this place of terror, both feared and inflicted. Understanding Israel’s violence means understanding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and the willingness (courage?) to locate the roots of deep violence against the Jewish people that shades much of Europe’s history.
Rose doesn’t offer solutions, but a psychoanalytic interrogation of Israel’s violence, I think, hinges upon that quote I’ve referred to above. The shame of the Holocaust, and the burdens of historical marginalisation, are scars that refuse to heal, and continue to inflict their pain through imagined power manifested through brutal oppression of others. Rose refers to the “cruelty that native Israelis had shown to the survivors” of the Holocaust, points to Ben-Gurion’s remarks that “we do not belong to that Jewish people” – that Jewish people being shameful aberrations, people who allowed what seemed to be unimaginable violence to be done to them. In this repudiation of their own history and their own people, Rose seems to say, lies Israel and Zionism’s tragic error – which, for all of us cognisant of the history of Israeli war and occupation, is a tragedy that keeps repeating itself on the Palestinians.
I have been unable to move past some of the more brutal truths that Rose attempted to excavate – it’s a splinter under the skin of my thoughts – this idea of Ben-Gurion’s that “we do not belong to that Jewish people”, this reality of cruelty shown by native Israelis to Holocaust for having been weak, and for bringing about shame, as though if they had been strong the Holocaust would never have happened. (A phantasy, of course, as Rose reminds us over and over – the idea that we can make ourselves infallible. The phantasy that seems to underlie the entire project of the Israeli nation-state.)
No violence is unimaginable, of course. Once imagined, it keeps repeating itself through the shame it inflicts.
*Image taken from A Holocaust Art Exhibit.
August 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
An essay by Urvashi Butalia, one of India’s most prominent feminists, was making the rounds on Twitter awhile back. Written for Granta’s F-Word issue, it was about Butalia’s friendship with an Indian transwoman, Mona. It was an honest essay, and it deserves commendation for its willingness to engage with gender issues without pretension or obfuscation – indeed, one would hardly expect less from Butalia. But there were elements of Butalia’s essay that troubled me. This, despite my fervent wish to simply ignore the gnawing at the back of my mind and fall at Butalia’s intelligent and knowledgeable and formidably-feminist feet.
But alas, the gnawing must be stopped somehow.
I began reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl when I read the Butalia essay and the Granta interview. There needs to be more voices of feminism from the global South, and there are not nearly enough. Butalia’s is especially necessary, particularly when she says something like this:
The Indian women’s movement has a long history, although if you were to read some of the early books on the history of feminism published in the West, you would think feminist activism never existed in countries like ours. I find that infuriating – the lack of knowledge, or desire for it, and the assumption that the West is the centre of the world and the rest of us just poor cousins. The Indian women’s movement is rooted in our political realities, in the history of colonialism and social reform, in the coming-into-its-own of an independent democracy with all sorts of guarantees for women and in the state’s failure to deliver on many of these. Our activism arose out of that. Because of where we are located and the history of India, there is no way the feminist movement can divorce itself, say, from issues of poverty, development, women’s health, education, religious identity … and this is where our specificity lies.
But feminism in its various incarnations has also had trouble with the marginalised of the marginalised – and sex workers and transwomen and transmen are the ones who fall between the cracks and relegated to a space of absence, trotted out when feminism wants to display its progressive, liberal tendencies, and forgotten when it comes to the actual fight for ‘rights’. (I’ve been thinking a lot about the language of ‘rights’ recently but haven’t read enough to actually articulate an argument or even understand what my own discomfort indicates – hence the quotation marks.) As Kathy Newnam writes in ‘Fighting for an inclusive feminist movement’,
Jeffreys and her “radical feminist” supporters cry foul about their increasing isolation within the feminist movement. But the reality is that they are not socially isolated; in fact it is their anti-trans* and anti-sex worker campaigns that get them the most coverage. It is very difficult to argue that Jeffreys – a tenured professor and published author – is hard done by. It’s not hard to get a hearing when you are backing the exclusion of the already oppressed and marginalised.
Similar strains of discomfort are felt when Butalia explains her reasons for writing Mona’s story:
It’s raised many questions for me. I speak about some of them in the essay. I’m fascinated by her desire for motherhood for example. As a feminist, I have grown up convinced that motherhood is not only biological; but to think of a man (and Mona was a man when she knew she wanted to be a mother) wanting to be a mother was still an education for me. My identity as a woman has always been something very precious, very enabling, very empowering – despite the fact that women have to face violence and discrimination – but I have never thought of travel between identities, of switching from one to the other. And yes, gender too, for of course as a feminist, I know gender is not about biology but about socialization, but again, I had never thought of the kinds of issues Mona raises for me. Is she a man or a woman? She assumes both roles; is this exciting or manipulative? Some years ago we had a women’s conference in Kolkata, and at these conferences, which are unfunded and organised by activists within the movement, everyone sleeps in the same place. One of the big questions was whether we should have hijras sleep in the same place as the women, for were they really women or men?
This sentiment is reflected in Butalia’s essay:
What was it with all these men wanting to be women, I wondered. Here I was, a woman who thinks of herself as empathetic and quite open, surrounded by men who were doing their best to switch over to ‘my’ side, and I felt out of place, as if I did not belong. I was reminded of a conversation I’d once had with an Australian friend of mine, a lesbian and a feminist, as she and I stood and watched some hijras dance at a women’s conference. ‘I hate all this,’ she’d said to me. ‘We’ve fought so long and hard to carve out a little space for ourselves in society, to be able to make our voices heard, and here are these men pretending to be women, and they’ve come and taken it over.’ Until she said it in so many words, I hadn’t actually thought of it like that. Instead, I’d been wondering about what the experience of maleness and femaleness meant for the Monas of this world and how someone like me could understand it. Typically, Mona had the answer. ‘Arrey,’ she said, ‘why do you worry so much about this? What is there to think? I’m human, you’re human, I’m a woman but sometimes I can be a man – I don’t like being one, but sometimes it’s useful. And anyway, we have something more in common and that is that both you and I, we’re bachelors.’
In framing Mona’s response as a sort of breezy devil-may-care attitude (and perhaps it was, but we will not know beyond what Butalia chose to tell us), transgenderism and transsexualism can almost be seen as something freeing, something light and pure and unburdened, the ease with which male-to-female transsexuals can switch from being men to being women in order to co-opt this gender-switching as a form of privilege and power, as a right to exist in a dual gender-space and claim the benefits of both. Supposedly, that’s what Butalia is trying to convey, or that’s what I read when I read that paragraph. Butalia’s reference to her feminist friend’s words, “men pretending to be women” strikes me as all sorts of wrong even with the barest hint of awareness of trans issues. If men only want to pretend to be women, and women want to pretend to be men, then transgender and transsexual people don’t even have to be considered real. And the extreme repugnance that I feel when feminists, who should know better than anyone how invocations of sexuality and gender can be used as a weapon to discount and or elevate a person’s status as human, do the same to others who don’t immediately appear “female”. The very subject of “man-pretending-to-be-woman” is produced through this cognitive framing.
This framing, as Serano explains in Whipping Girl, arises out of “oppositional sexism”. I feel the need to quote Serano at length because it seems to speak directly to the kind of feminism displayed by Butalia, in her piece:
While often different in practice, cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia are all rooted in oppositional sexism, which is the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.
Examining the society-wide disdain for trans women also brings to light an important yet often overlooked aspect of traditional sexism: that it targets people not only for their femaleness, but also for their expressions of femininity.
This also speaks of a feminism that is innately suspicious of external claims to femininity; where the idea of enjoying the “feminine experience” (say, for example, in sartorial style and beauty labour) and enjoying the attention that comes with it (whether the gaze is male or female) is seen as somehow weakening the position of feminism.
But of course, when expressions of femininity are taken into consideration, transwomen are made to permanently reside in the realm of awkward, which in Mona’s case Butalia eloquently describes:
‘From the moment I became conscious of myself as a person,’ she says, ‘I felt I was a misfit. I was convinced I had been born in the wrong body. I really wanted to be a girl.’ It wasn’t only the physical fact of her maleness that made her uncomfortable, but also the cultural baggage that accompanied it. She liked dolls and ‘feminine’ things, preferred girls as friends. This made her the butt of many jokes at school, as well as a source of anxiety for her parents. She was a lonely child, an outcast among boys who saw her as effeminate yet unable to join the girls because the society in which she lived was conservative: there was no space for girls and boys to play together. Often, she would leave home for school but instead spend the day sitting in the park, alone. It was not until much later in life that she would find what she believed was a place for herself.
This is a tangible sense of displacement born out of feeling “a misfit”, the kind that comes from knowing you’re out of sync with the supposedly normal manifestations of individuals in society. Serano takes this further, in talking about her experience as a transwomen, to explain how misogyny operates intricately with transphobia to render the male-to-female trans person in a double bind: “If they act feminine they are perceived as being a parody, but if they act masculine it is seen as a sign of their true male identity,” she writes, which is certainly true of a wider strain of feminism that implicitly distrusts transwomen because of their inner male-ness, as though any minute the “man inside” will break out and ruin the rah-rah coven of sisterhood. Which flies in the face of feminism, which is that gender/sex shouldn’t really matter.
It’s impossible to read Serano without thinking about your relationship to sex and gender, and small ways in which we give ourselves away – like when we look at transwomen and say “They are prettier than some of my prettiest female friends!” or some such bullshit. The underlying assumption that seems almost imprinted in the subconscious is that transgender people are always merely performing or playing at their chosen gender, and never actually being their chosen gender. Serano refers to this as gender entitlement, which she says often
leads to gender anxiety, the act of becoming irrationally upset by or being made uncomfortable by the existence of those people who challenge or bring into question one’s gender entitlement.
Butalia’s essay proves that a significant portion of feminism – even radical feminism – is still extricated in what she terms cisgenderism – that all women should display some form of femininity and all men some form of masculinity. Otherwise, there is something suspect about them. This is not the case, of course, if people are cisgendered, in which case ‘proving’ their gender is never a burden, even if they may deal with the consequences and societal pressures/condemnation of not living up to their gender in normative, prescribed ways.
I don’t mean to pick on Butalia as an example of trans-unfriendly feminism, but it reflected a lot of the questions and concerns that Serano assiduously excavates through her analysis of transphobic culture. This also brings to mind the recent profile of Bradley Manning in New York magazine by Steve Fishman, which seemed to encourage its readers to draw obvious parallels between’s Manning’s turbulent inner landscape and his gender identity with Manning’s subsequent actions in leaking the documents. The first time I read Fishman’s profile I was disturbed, but what bothered me more was the speed in which the profile was retweeted and passed around as an example of a ‘searing portrait of a troubled soul’ or whatever, and no one none the wiser about the troubling context in which the profile was situated. Not many seemed to find it a problem that Manning’s sexual identity was posited as a relevant source or root of his subsequent ‘aberrant’ behaviour to leak the documents, the subtext which seemed to say, “Of course he’s fucked up, he’s trans, and yeah, poor thing, and so yeah, he did that crazy thing, that poor thing.” I realise I’m not being fair to Fishman’s profile, which essentially evoked a sympathetic tone in relation to Manning’s “troubled past” and family history. I realise I’m not being fair to Fishman’s no doubt noble and good intentions or whatever, intentions that effectively rendered Manning a troubled soul with “gender identity issues” and individual problems, gently guiding the reader to think that Manning couldn’t handle life in the army because he was trans, not the fact that life in the army has to break every single person before it can absorb it into its war-making apparatus. A sharp, clear-eyed response to this comes from Emily Manuel, who cites also Glen Greenwald’s essential piece on ‘The motives of Bradley Manning’.
If Bradley Manning was a straight white male would there have been an equal amount of time spent cataloguing his sexual anxieties or “gender confusion”? Or do we merely assume that heterosexual, cisgender people never experience these anxieties and confusion, particularly a straight white man in a straight white man’s world?
Closer to home, the recent death of a Malaysian transwoman, Aleesha Farhana, brings to light the severe repercussions of state-sanctioned discrimination of transpeople. Aleesha’s attempt to change her name and gender after undergoing transition surgery in Thailand was rejected by the Malaysian High Court. She died very suddenly on July 30 of reported heart failure. The coverage in the media was largely abysmal, referring to her as the ‘Sex-change man’ or by her birth name, bringing into sharp focus the ways in which we are all complicit in erasing the right to selfhood and self-identification among transpeople. Seen through the lens of law and biology, the issue of gender transformation is quite literally seen as an aberration, and a trivial one, at that. The media coverage seems to begin from the premise that Aleesha is legally male because she was born male, and thus her wish to be a woman is merely wishful thinking or a superficial desire, the equivalent perhaps of wanting to be thinner or prettier or taller. In the midst of their grief, her family chose to bury her “as a man”, because as her father put it:
He was born a male and, therefore, it is only right for us to bury him that way.
Even Shahrizat Jalil, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, referred to Aleesha by her birth name and maintained the male pronoun. This is a significant cause for concern – because issues of gender discrimination and transrights should ostensibly fall under this Ministry’s purview. But this is Malaysia, and so it’s no big shock – none of our Ministries are meant to do whatever they’re supposed to do. It’s just another life loss, grief expressed through a pretty sound-bite for the media, and life as normal.
The only media (that I know of) to refer to her by her chosen name and gender identity was Free Malaysia Today, who also did a good job including a valuable statement by the local trans community:
The community said they believe that Aleesha died from severe depression after her application was rejected and urged the court to give her the justice she sought.
“It is still not too late for the court to allow Aleesha to change her name and gender,” they said.
“Her rights and the court’s duty must not be held hostage by the sensitivites of those who are ignorant about trangenderism.
“By denying her right, the court is perpetuating an environment of discrimination within which she will never find the justice due her,” she* added.
The trans community also said that they held both the government and media responsible for the extreme levels of stigma and discrimination against them.
Among the abuses they faced include being barred from accessing health services, housing, education and employment opportunities.
“The discrimination is often perpetuated by biased, negative reporting from the media and endorsed by state mouthpieces,” they said.
“Unwillingness of the government to recognise trans people as equal before the law facilitate this ugly persistence in violating us,” the statement read.
“The sensitivities of those who are ignorant about transgenderism” is searing critique, and alarmingly it’s been with us throughout the formation of mainstream Western feminism, as Serano points out when she quotes Germaine Greer:
No one ever asked women if they recognised sex-change males as belonging to their sex or considered whether being obliged to accept MTF transsexuals as women was at all damaging to their identity or self-esteem.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the words of Butalia’s “Australian friend” (quoted above) echoes Greer’s.
Serano’s comments the Greer quote:
The immediate sense that one gets after reading this quote (besides nausea) is Greer’s severe sense of gender entitlement. Despite the fact that she knows that transsexual woman identify as female, Greer refers to us instead as “sex-change males”, demonstrating that she feels entitled to gender us in whatever way she feels is appropriate.
If the phrase “sex-change males” sounds familiar, it’s because “sex-change man” was the phrase used in The Star in its report on Aleesha’s death (linked to above).
There is plenty more to think about in Whipping Girl (particularly Serano’s critique of Foucault and Butler) and I’ve only scratched the surface in considering some of Serano’s words in light of some recent reading. I’m not sure I agree with everything she writes, although I’m also pretty certain that agreeing or disagreeing is not the point – it’s a matter of rethinking conceptions of gender and sexuality and unlearning what has been normalised and socialised and starting again from scratch. The significant problems feminism has with transgender issues, the fluidity with which it seems to incorporate transphobic perceptions in order to emphasise what is and is not dangerous for women, as outlined by some of the remarks made by Butalia and friend, as well as Greer’s comments, proves that feminism’s starting point – as Serano outlines it – needs to begin here:
At some point, all of us who identify as female have to come face-to-face with our own internalized misogyny.
*This appears to be an error in the news report.
(Image by Jillian Tamaki, via)
June 12, 2011 § Leave a Comment
It’s June 12 — what would have been my father’s birthday if he were still alive. This isn’t the first time in the twelve years since his death that I think about the cognitive dissonance in remembering a birthday for someone who has died, but I suppose this is the first time that I have a blog on which to write about it. Somehow I imagine that the act of writing for someone will provide a shape for grief. It’s not that I miss him more on his birthday than on any other day; it’s just that grief settles in comfortably, for the long haul, where the ladders start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. When the grief was fresh it was impossible to write about it. But now that the grief is a permanent fixture in life just like that dull ache in your back from having spent a lifetime sitting hunched over computers, it’s harder to write about what was absolutely life-changing without reducing it to the sum of its parts: anger, tears, pain, abandonment; without succumbing to the ever-present clichés.
It’s like I keep forgetting how I remember him, or I forget how I want to remember him, and I imagine the dark-brown skin and those strange green-hazel eyes never before seen on a Tamil-Ceylonese person (as family myth/lore will have it) and the words start intruding, pushing their way in, and reducing what was flesh and blood to a simple phrase – “He was an attractive man, if not in the conventional sense.” Or, “He was a good father, if not in the conventional sense.” Or the lesser-said words, “There was his drinking problem, but…”
I’ve been circling the topic of his death for twelve years. What I need is a shelf. A feelings-shelf. Place rage on the top shelf, place regret on the bottom, and somewhere in the middle the warm living mass of hurt and despair and joy and pride and love that will enable me to reach in and pull out the appropriate one when I finally say, “Here, I am going to write the story of my father.”
Feeling-shelves have to be built from scratch.
The problem with writing is that you write about the living as if they’re already dead, and the dead die all over again.
I read Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary some months back, and I’m a coward all over again – I gave up on building feeling-shelves. I allow Barthes to build it for me. Did Barthes imagine that his scribbled words on index cards would be published one day, giving shape to his grief and that of others who read him? Was he conscious of his attempts to build a feelings-shelf or did he just have to eliminate the words getting in the way? “Depression comes when, in the depths of despair, I cannot manage to save myself by my attachment to writing,” Barthes writes.
Yet one saves others.
As an example, something deep inside me flickers in recognition when I read this:
As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the furniture (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.
And I’m reminded of how we busied ourselves moving the as-old-as-I-am bamboo-sofa out of the living room in order to fit in a brand-new, gleaming casket, my mother avoiding the casket and focusing on the sofa, “Should we throw it out? Do we keep it? We need new furniture.” Futuromania.
Now, from time to time, there unexpectedly rises within me, like a bursting bubble: the realisation that she no longer exists, she no longer exists, totally and forever. This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival – dizzying because meaningless (without any possible interpretation).
A new pain.
The non-existence of a person, formerly so present, whose very existence was threaded, linked, with your own. How do you build an interpretation of an existence turned non-existent? There is none.
I had thought maman’s death would make me someone “strong,” acceding as I might to worldly indifference. But it has been quite the contrary: I am even more fragile (unsurprisingly: for no reason, a state of abandon).
And a few pages later, Barthes continues:
It is said (according to Mme Panzera) that Time soothes mourning – No, Time makes nothing happen; it merely makes the emotivity of mourning pass.
Recently, talking to someone about my father – the strangeness of it, because it’s been twelve years and I don’t talk about him to most people who never knew him, or didn’t know me from then. It’s been twelve years. But – and here comes the cliché – it could have just as well been yesterday. There is no bravery involved in grieving. It’s a wound, you take care of it so you don’t bleed all over the place and repulse people and you carry on. This person says, “Well, at least it must be okay for you now – it’s been awhile.” That statement bore no malice, and the sentiment was sincere, but inside my heart of hearts some tiny anguished animal let out a roar.
Seeing the swallows flying through the summer evening air, I tell myself, thinking painfully of maman: how barbarous not to believe in souls – in the immortality of souls! the idiotic truth of materialism!
After my father’s death, I could no longer believe in my atheism in good faith. I’m well-aware that one level of it is wishful – the belief in life after death, or the eternity of a soul, as a means of keeping a dead loved one alive. Beyond that, there are dreams, old scents and smells returning for a visit, memories, and the foolishness of the immediate. The “idiotic truth of materialism”.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this. Circling, circling again – never coming close. Mainly to suggest that Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary is a gift for anyone in mourning. (And we all will be, at some point.)
But mainly to wish you, pappa, a happy birthday. Today we received news of the death of an old family friend, your old friend, a “brother to you” as you’d like to tell us before things went wrong and you never spoke to each other again; him never seeing you for years until he showed up at your funeral. I imagine you and him together now, maybe, grievances put aside? Maybe you’re sharing a pint in a pub in Brighton, where you said you had some of your happiest and most miserable moments of your life as a young man in the 1960s. And then I imagine you back in Jaffna for the home you’ve missed all the years you lived in Malaysia in order to give us – as clichés would have it (being right) – a better life.
Every birthday is the start of death. “Henceforth and forever I am my own mother,” writes Barthes, and I suspect you’ll laugh, pappa, if I tell you that being my own father is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And then you’ll tell me to stop indulging in self-pity and get on with it, your face serious, those hazel-green eyes smiling.