June 24, 2014 § 44 Comments
Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).
Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.
Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.
To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.
Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.
A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—
Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.
Not everything, as it turns out.
I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:
In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.
I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.
Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?
We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:
There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.
What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.
June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
This is my review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for Pop Matters. I’m still steadily trying to post reviews up here and so this one is also several months old. Yes, we’re still in 2013. Today in my Twitter feed, Sridala linked to an article about the atrocious racial politics in the book, and I was so glad to read it, and so glad that this piece exists. Joy Castro, who wrote the article, makes some pertinent points. This was something that I picked up on while reading it — it’s hard not to — but was familiar enough with Tartt’s previous two books to know that she only cared about moneyed, slightly disgraced WASPs. That’s her Thing. By the time I got around to writing the review for The Goldfinch I was so tired. So tired of noticing and caring too much about how white people write about, and thus write off, people of colour in their highly-praised bestsellers. But Castro makes an important point about the depiction of racialised others in the book that fits in with the theme of the book at large: that of Art and Beauty and Great Literature. No room for anyone less-than-white (and rich, rich rich rich!) in that world. Castro emphasises how the working class non-white others in this book are willing to put themselves in service of these Great White People Living Their Fascinating Lives; willing to put their own (mediocre and unimportant, presumably) lives on hold so that whiteness can flourish. The labour of black and brown bodies for white ones is a story that must be told that way, as one of great willingness and good cheer. This view of the world is of a piece with the rest of the book. If great art must circulate (and this book does nothing in terms of deconstructing what great art is, how it’s made, or what it does), it must always return to white “culture”. For my part, by the time I got to the phrase “dead-eyed ethnic families”, I was ready to stab Tartt in the face with an expensive, beautiful, authentic fountain pen.
I read Donna Tartt’s impressive first novel, The Secret History, at an impressionable age and in a stage of my life I will politely refer to as Colonised Mind v. 1.0. Having grown up middle-class and Tamil in Malaysia—title of my forthcoming memoir, hahaha!—and fed Austen, Dickens, Christie (Agatha) and Blyton (Enid) throughout a very protected childhood, I was very susceptible to romantic Life of the Mind-type ideas and proclivities.
Besides, I had a tattered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology that followed me everywhere. I—like about a zillion other young kids who came to learn about Greek mythology by way of Anglo-European classicists—loved Greek myth. Who doesn’t? Myths are great. Why would you not like stories? Stories are great.
So when I found a tattered copy of The Secret History in a used bookstore, an Ivy Books trade paperback with a lurid cover image comprising a mishmash of an imposing New England colonial building, a Doric column and a single stem rose, with various phrases like “Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured,” “a terrifying secret that bound them to one another”, “an incident in the woods in the dead of the night”, “an ancient rite that was brought to brutal life”, and “gruesome death” strewn across the back cover copy, it worked like a charm. I bought it, devoured it, and read it over and over again, before I even knew that Tartt was “a sensation” in that faraway place called the literary world.
This makes The Secret History sound almost flimsy, even silly, but it’s not. Despite its premise, Tartt is a writer who plays with excesses and extremes in the most delicate way. You don’t read Tartt for pared-down elegance, although there are moments when she does this, too. You read Tartt like you would watch Pretty Little Liars: for the unalloyed pleasure of surrendering to a familiar story that is, at turns, also new and menacing.
Tartt’s third and most recent novel, The Goldfinch, was hugely anticipated among industry types and fans because she’s only written three so far; ten years separated the publication of her second novel, The Little Friend, from her debut, and 11 years separates The Goldfinch from her second. I still pull The Secret History from the shelves every so often, skipping the parts that bore me, and going over the passages where the Greek scholars who so fascinated the novel’s protagonist, Richard Papen, are at their most knowing and obnoxious.
Now older, wiser and bitter, I’m tempted to throw copies of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena at their heads, then set off on a long lecture about the appropriation of Greek knowledge and thought by Eurocentric thinkers and writers. Still, the story remains tantalising. And, as reductive as this might probably sound, this is what Tartt does very well. She tells a good story.
The Goldfinch can be said to be an anti-bildungsroman, in that it traces the life of one Theo Decker from about 13years of age, where he survives a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that kills his mother, until his late 20s, where he reflects on this life while telling his story. It’s an anti-bildungsroman because Theo, much like Richard in The Secret History and Harriet Dufresnes in The Little Friend, has his head firmly turned back to the past, to that point in time where a singular event changed his life.
This isn’t a straightforward novel of growth and progression as it is a novel of regret, and for much of the book, Theo exists in a state of anguished perpetual adolescence. He’s always that 13-year-old boy on that fateful day at the Met.
The premise of the novel hinges on Theo’s possession of Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch” following the museum bombing. When Theo and his mother first arrive at the Met, Theo is drawn to a young girl with red hair and her elderly male companion, and after the blast, Theo finds himself in the same space with the dying old man, and in a distinctly hazy, dream-like encounter, this man gives Theo a ring and encourages him to leave the museum with the painting.
Later, after learning about his mother’s death from a pair of social workers—his father having long since disappeared from their lives—and after having narrowly escaped a life in care by moving in with his friend Andy Barbour’s family, the ring will lead Theo to the old man’s business and home, an antique shop in the West End, and into the orbit of the lives of the man’s business partner and Theo’s future mentor and guardian and father-figure of sorts, Hobie, and the man’s young niece, Pippa, the redhead of the museum encounter. The painting stays with Theo until, of course, it doesn’t, which is a sort of plot progression the reader would have seen coming from the start.
Throughout the book we meet a cast of characters that includes the family members of the Barbour household, as well as Hobie, Pippa, and Theo’s estranged alcoholic father and his new girlfriend, Xandra. Theo moves from the Barbour’s upper-class posh lifestyle in New York to Las Vegas with his father and Xandra and makes a life-changing new friend named Boris, and then moves back to New York again, with a fevered, nightmarish pit-stop in Amsterdam before the novel’s end.
Boris, as it turns out, is the novel’s most entertaining character probably because he’s Polish-Ukrainian and is made out to have both socialist and criminal tendencies, a perfect foil to the generally law-abiding and liberal Theo. Tartt’s liberal American imagination allows Boris to be the wild and fun and yet corrupting influence in Theo’s life—yes, he’s a good friend, in his own way, but in some ways Boris just an amalgam of how Americans view foreigners who have lived in countries with different political systems. Those insane Eastern Europeans and their dangerous political ideas and lax ways with the law! Crazy Boris even tried out being Muslim for awhile, which teenage Theo finds positively incomprehensible.
While The Goldfinch is set in a politically-charged landscape—the bombing at the museum is vaguely attributed to “terrorism”—Tartt is a writer of bourgeois psychological novels, and the large cast of characters in this book only serve to contextualise Theo’s interior life. This isn’t to say they aren’t well realised, even larger than life, as in Boris’ case—but this isn’t a novel that’s grappling with social and political issues surrounding the bombing in 21st-century New York. It’s about a boy and his painting, and how it both circumscribes and expands his relation to other people, and serves as a talisman that links him to his mother and to a gentrified world of art and beauty and stability—Hobie’s world—that he wants to be a part of, even while he realises he stands outside of it.
Tartt’s fascination with rich WASPs continues in this book, as seen in Theo’s perpetual amazement of the Barbours and their lifestyle, but equally unappealing for me is the casual othering of people of colour. Boris is larger than life because he’s a central character, but otherwise while criminal white Germans might each have a name, criminal Indonesians only appear inscrutable and are compared to anacondas, while criminal Chinese are inscrutable and wily and are in possession of a name that all the white people can’t be bothered to remember, or have “difficulty” remembering, because it sounds so strange. (Theo can’t even tell at one point, if this person is a man or a woman or a boy or a girl, and somehow this problem seems related to this person’s Asianness.)
When Theo arrives in Amsterdam and looks around at the airport and sees “dead-eyed ethnic families”, it’s hard not to flinch, though I was also curious about where one could obtain this all-purpose “ethnic family”—at the gift shop, presumably? Does the ethnic family come in all sizes and colours? Theo even exoticises his own mother’s appearance because she was part-Irish, part Cherokee, telling us that “in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight”—the what and the what?, was my question—and that sometimes the exotic character of her facial features were too stark when her hair was pulled back, making her look “like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji”. Okay.
There’s a Dickensian aura running through The Goldfinch, most notably Great Expectations, and there are certain similarities between Pip and Theo as they navigate their orphan hood (Theo’s father is far from a father) and find parental figures in the unlikeliest of places, not to mention their inability to love anyone but the one woman they can’t have, though Theo’s spiritual twin appears to be The Secret History’s Richard. In all her novels, Tartt is particularly adept at conveying the banal hazards of estrangement and evoking sensations relating to place and space. Both Richard and Theo, for example, wish they were anyone but themselves, and are particularly gifted in losing themselves in copious quantities of alcohol and pills. “A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help,” as Theo puts it. And while The Secret History will always be reminiscent of frost and snow and ice and the chill of the unknown, this book is notable for the hot, barren, drug-infused Las Vegas suburban desertscape and its air-conditioned ennui.
In this novel, as with her previous two, Tartt seems to be circling around the same concerns about a person’s fatal flaw. “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”, Richard begins in The Secret History—and the same is true for Theo. His longing for beauty, and his inability to let go or exist separately of “The Goldfinch”, once he’s set eyes on it, is his constant downfall. For one thing, it connects him to his mother, who loved Fabritius’s work before Theo even began to pay attention. But more alarming, for Theo, is how hard he fell for the painting, and the lengths he with which he destroyed little aspects of his life in order to keep it:
What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?
This is a thread that runs through all of Tartt’s novels, with protagonists floating in a sea of banal everyday life routines, desperately wishing for wings to fly out and touch the sun. Even in The Little Friend, Harriet was convinced of her difference—her fatal flaw being the morbid longing to find out the truth, at all costs. (And the price is steep, as she learns by the end.)
While the ending for The Secret History was rather exquisite, evoking the tragic in a way that was both sad and tender, The Goldfinch ends with what feels like a sermon from Theo, desperately trying to attribute meaning to everything that had happened thus far while still assuring us that the knows that “life is catastrophe”. It feels tacked-on and forced, and one wonders if Tartt felt compelled to drag the novel on for as long as close to 800 pages in order to give us A Lesson to make up for the dissatisfaction many felt with The Little Friend, which ended on a totally bizarre note, with no resolution of any sort for anyone—and which, I thought, was perfectly in keeping with the slow drip of menace that increased with every page.
While talking about how a novel is about one thing is a sure way to kill the experience of reading, the ending of The Goldfinch seems to want to reduce it to a meaning: about the magic that exists in that unfathomable place between illusion and reality, that lives on between people and things—in particular, things that are passed on from one hand to another. After some 700 pages of one catastrophic event after another, after repeated attempts at self-erasure, these words don’t seem true delivered in Theo’s voice, and the conclusion seems too tidy, too hopeful, too trite.
Tartt’s novels aren’t novels of ideas—there’s a reason why I compared reading a Tartt novel to watching a TV show, and it’s because it’s propelled by a forward-moving momentum; it’s about action and places and people. These are novels concerned with the psychology of its characters. The Goldfinch seems ripe for meditations on art commodities, and ideas and politics that are transmitted through works of art, as well as deep explorations about what cultural anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai have called the social life of things, but any asides or discussions on books or paintings and the exchange of and desire for commodities are tangential to the main story of Theo’s life. It’s only at the very end that Theo attempts to weave the history of this masterwork he’s kept, hoarded, and lost into the trajectory of his own life, but by then it’s all delivered in one big rush of a moral lesson, and the effect is one of vague disorientation at this newly-wise Theo.
The Secret History was a compelling modern tragedy because its effects were rooted in mimesis, in replicating the elements of the Greek plays in the catastrophes of Richard’s, and his friends’, modern American lives. The Goldfinch merely uses the central artwork as a prop for the plot, for the service of the protagonist’s inner life, even while Theo tries to convince us otherwise through occasional meandering and repetitive musings on art that are, unfortunately, superficial and uninteresting. Tartt’s novel is eminently readable and entertaining, even moving at times, but while I kept turning the pages I never wanted to linger over it like how Theo does when he looks at the painting and meets the eyes of Fabritius’s all-seeing goldfinch.
May 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
Some of the first words you hear in Transcendence are “an unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”. And this, too, before the person telling you the story goes on to narrate a tale about a particular form of technology produced by “mankind”.
So, “unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”—
If we follow the “logic” of the film, and believe me: it’s hard to follow anything in this film, Will Caster, as the all-seeing, all-healing form of consciousness played by Johnny Depp becomes a one-man NSA in this NSA-less America. The future is here, and it’s a white American man who knows and sees everything. Fittingly, he is also the all-seeing, ever-present husband who never goes away. More important—he knows his wife, truly understands her, because he has the data on her hormone levels, etc. The wife is quantified, the husband is knowledgeable. At some point, the wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall), is angry about this, the way her husband has been surveying her like she’s a mouse in a lab—truly angry, because although she is his partner and his wife, she is also a mouse in his lab—but this anger is quickly forgotten as the plot hurtles towards its end. Why? Because love. Because the marriage institution. (And so it is that the one person who could, and would, literally reproduce Caster by uploading him to the internet is his wife, who does so at great personal risk—which is strangely downplayed in the movie as oh, look, Rebecca Hall gets to have a stressful, creepy adventure because love.)
At some point in this movie, through the workings of this miraculous nanotechnology life-rejuvenating cell-healing thingamajig that is Will Caster’s consciousness, Will Caster’s consciousness, everywhere and nowhere all at once, must reproduce itself further in order to become … you guessed it … more powerful. It takes on a little bit of a Heal-The-World type goal. Once Caster convinces his wife to move to a tiny, decaying small town in order to work on their “project” (i.e. to work on Will Caster), he needs the bodies of the poor people in town (all of whom appear to be white) in order to become stronger. The film can’t seem to decide what Caster is doing with the bodies of poor people, whether he’s merely using them or “fixing” them. It does not matter! In the end, it all amounts to the same thing. The intentions of the white male genius are all that matters.
So Will Caster becomes a little bit of every person he heals (fixes) and every person who is connected to him through the process becomes a little bit Will Caster. Supposedly. His consciousness is meant to fuse with that of others and transform into some sort of a “collective mind”, which is what Caster says at one point. This is immediately interpreted to mean “army” by the FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy, and this collective mind, as such, is very quickly seen as a threat to the US government and, by extension of imperialist logic, all that is true and good about this planet, etc. The movie doesn’t understand what to do with this collective mind, or even take a minute to ponder the alternatives. All that the FBI and assorted government agents know is that any notion of collectivity without state or corporate supervision can only lead to bad things. [The point Evan Calder Williams makes in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: “Why do the vast majority of apocalyptic fantasies assume that things going bad with lead to human relations going far, far worse?”]
There is this ambiguous positioning of Will Caster as neither hero nor anti-hero and if the narrative had reflected this, it might have made this mess of a movie a touch more interesting. Except the film is very much in the vein of good guy vs. bad guy; it just isn’t sure who the good guys and the bad guys are. In this sense it mirrors the liberal-moralist handwringing over technology: Technology ruins humans! Technology saves humans! Perhaps it’s important to note that the film’s “neo-Luddites” are never given the opportunity to be good; from the very start, they are “terrorists”. Predictably, they have a very shallow idea of what it means to be sceptical of technology or to be resistant to technopositivism and resort to tossing around reactionary ideas about “human nature”. But the film must fulfil its reductive narrative, and so this collective mind must come to an end. And for that to happen, the entire world must go off the grid in order to get Will Caster off the grid—no power, no internet, no nothing. For the world, apparently. What does this dystopia look like? Oh, I guess like an ordinary day if you consider the American city Paul Bettany’s character is in; people are lining up for coffee at a café, it’s generally okay except things are messier than usual. This is a worldwide catastrophe as seen through the eyes of the few white people (and one token wise black man—introducing Morgan Freeman) in the global North. What’s that you say? Business as usual? Oh yeah, that’s right.
But lest you think the movie was trying to go somewhere with its idea of the “collective mind”, it really wasn’t. The collective mind, as it turns out, is just one (white) (male) mind—because it was Will Caster’s consciousness that was uploaded, Will Caster calls the shots. The capitalist mode of technology that built this collective mind has no capability of making it truly collective; the entire population of the world probably can’t upload their consciousness, and so, predictably, only the few with access can. This collective mind means every one becomes a little bit Caster, but Caster only seems to become more Caster. According to this logic, then, there seems to be no way out—either you become a “collective” ruled by one man, or you go back to how things used to be (just without Gmail and electricity). “Collectivity” is always presented as a bunch of deindividualised, slack-jawed, blank-eyed shells of people who are vulnerable to the (potentially) tyrannical machinations of one man. But while the people are characterless fools, in need of a leader, Will Caster, the one-man NSA, is both genius and tragic romantic hero (wait for the ending, if you want to have a good laugh). It’s hard not to think that the “army” the FBI was so afraid of is only dangerous and unstable because it was corrupted by the presence of so many poor people, by so many not-Will Casters.
The white American male genius, meanwhile? We are meant to mourn him, but don’t be sad! The while American male genius will never die.
[It shouldn't surprise me that this film was directed by Wally Pfister of the Nolan school. I watched it because I think Cillian Murphy is beautiful, okay? Also, Paul Bettany? And Rebecca Hall? CM in his dumbest role ever, possibly, which is not necessarily an insult to his acting, I think? Because he plays an FBI agent whose job is to show up every so often looking puzzled, informing people that they've missed "the real threat" (what is it, though?) and, as an officer of the law, to shut things down--so I thought playing his Agent-Whatever (can't remember his name) as a particularly disinterested and apathetic character was a sneaky way of embodying official rah-rah American authority. But perhaps it wasn't intentional, and perhaps Murphy just fucking didn't know what to do with this role once he realised he was committed to a terrible film? Hard to tell.]
September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?
But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.
So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)
The review in full:
I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.
As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.
Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.
Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.
As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.
Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.
When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”. When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.
If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.
It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.
When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.
And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.
Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.
She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.
As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.
Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”
It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.
Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently) pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.
Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.
Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.
But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”. Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.
For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.
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 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.
March 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body.[i]
The younger of the two, who is happy to tell people “I’m the IT guy”, taught me how to download YouTube videos on my overpriced, overvalued smartphone, and now the gadget puts me to sleep, too. Over the last week I’ve been downloading Jem and the Holograms episodes and watching them before bed. I haven’t watched the cartoon in years, probably decades, but I was obsessed with it when I was younger, and while I used to want to be Jerica/Jem mainly because of her access to Synergy (by way of really funky star earrings), now I watch Jerica/Jem being perfect and I want to vomit. I see The Misfits driving tractors through mansions and I feel a true fellow-feeling of solidarity. The Misfits “are allergic to work” say one of the members of the Holograms, and they all smirk, because the Misfts are mean and they’re lazy, but I can relate. All I want to do these days is have big hair, sing shit songs with my shit-sounding nasally voice, drive tractors through mansions, refuse work, and scream.
Jem and her friends are so earnest. I want to ask them why they abide by the rules that were made by someone else. Do they think they will be granted a space in hologram heaven? And if so, what does it mean to them to be good girls in the here and now? Do they get the boyfriends? The record contracts? The cool earrings? The mansion? The legacy from dead daddy?
(All of the above.)
Just when I want to write a Marxist reclamation of the Misfits, I remember that the “leader” of the group, Pizzazz, is basically a rich twat. This complicates matters, because her group-mates all come from a poor(er) backgrounds. The Misfits are made to appear “tacky”—loud, brash, uncivilised and unladylike in comparison to the docile, polite, and pastel-attired Jem and friends, who speak proper English, not slang, in modulated voices. Jem and the Holograms are a band of Kate Middletons. Even if they are not well-off, or orphans, they come from good stock. They have a claim to a legacy of good breeding. But the Misfits are always destroying things, even property.
Property is the problem. Even for Tom Branson, the sexy Irish chauffeur-revolutionary turned sexy Downton Abbey husband. Downton domesticates; it wants to tame Branson’s wild side. Alas, Branson was found to be present during a protest at a Dublin castle, a protest that involved burning the said castle. The Earl of Grantham, hitherto utterly nice and utterly useless, has now found his raison d’être, or rather the raison d’être of his entire class: to be really really really angry about the destruction of property. He’s really angry, the Earl. I mean, he was almost resigned to losing his property but now it is saved, and so he knows about real tragedy, the Earl, and it is with this full force of the pain of an almost-lost Downton Abbey that he takes it out on Branson. He is really angry. ALSO, HE IS AGAINST VIOLENCE AND WANTS TO KNOW IF BRANSON IS AGAINST IT, TOO? Branson capitulates; half-revolutionary, half-son in law. Yes, Branson was at the meetings where the planned this attack, but no, Branson does not condone the burning of property and violence against harmless aristocrats. Really, Branson? THEN WHY WERE YOU AT THE MEETINGS?
The writers of Downton Abbey can’t come up with anything so nuanced or sensitive as such an answer might require, so they leave us with silence and the face of Allen Leech, hoping that his sad, beautiful eyes will distract us.
It does, but only for a bit.
Branson is also uncomfortable being in Downton Abbey—first as tragedy servant, then as farce family. He wants to hightail it out of there.
Then why marry the Earl’s daughter? Don’t you know that the Earl’s daughter comes with the Earl’s family and however many centuries of dead ancestors? How did you think you were going to outrun that, foxy Branson? One look at this family, Branson, should have reminded you of Marx’s words: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Luckily, Branson’s wife dies, leaving behind a young daughter. Branson gets to live out the life that his wife would have wanted for him. He knows this is the life she would have wanted for him because everyone else tells him this. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes—not a fan of the rich, as such, but like all the servants in Downton, committed to and invested in class difference—tells Branson not to be embarrassed that he’s a rich fuck now, and part of a rich fuck family. She uses different words, but the message is the same. Mrs.Hughes tells him that he has “come so far”, and it’s a good thing.
This is a relief, as the formerly Marxist Branson is now co-manager of the vast estate Downton estate. He can forget about the people, think about profits, raise his baby, enjoy stately bedrooms, be waited on hand and foot.
He has come quite far.
I’ve been thinking about witches and spinsters and property. Once I started reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner I realised it spoke to my unmarried spinster witch self in a way that so many books by women don’t, anymore, because: 1) now it’s important to show how women are a hot mess in a sexy way (i.e. you must be a mess but sexually available to men, and not that those stories are wrong and shouldn’t be told, but the underlying premise is that you must be sexually available to men and you must perform your femininity in this socially idealised ways and above all, please be pretty, try to be pretty); and 2) “modern” stories also remove the extended family from the equation. The assumption is that all single women the world over live lives like those of American or European women in big cities—where they’re single in a way like Charlize Theron’s character is single in Young Adult. It’s interesting to me that the character of Lolly Willowes is given a brother as patriarchal gatekeeper after her father’s death. I quoted this bit out of Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Regime of the Brother on Tumblr while I was reading it and I’m quoting it again because it’s relevant:
What then does this son enjoy in replacing his father? Well, he gets to act as if, without having to take any action. A father-figure, he mimes, selectively, the father’s features. But he also gets to imitate and mock up relations to all other family members, too: not only is he the “father” (but only metaphorically) he is the mother’s lover (the object of her love, but only in her dreams) and he is his brother’s lover (but only rhetorically—the brotherhood of man). But most of all he is his sister’s boss, and really so. It seems that what he “enjoys” is the power to distort and center all familial relations on himself alone, warping the world into a fiction of fraternity, the dream of a universal, which becomes the nightmare lie of the family of man. Agent and sole heir of patriarchy’s most negative features, he creates as many false leads and artificial ties as he needs to cover his destruction of his real familial roots and relations. And he thus absolves himself of any obligation toward them. He does not have to fill the father’s role any more responsibly and positively than the tyrant had: he is only acting, after all. It is he who is a pro forma father, without a communal or global species-saving goal, a despot, a mute sovereign, the (only) one who really enjoys.
If there’s one thing you learn about being an unmarried woman in a Tamil family is that Tamil culture really needs the sister to be bossed around; if not her father who is sadly now dead, if not her potential husband who is sadly nowhere in sight, then a brother or an uncle will do in a pinch.
What relatives don’t want to talk about when they’re exhorting you to get married and “start a family” is that you’re out of place, overstaying your welcome in your original family, because inevitably it’s about property. You must belong to a father or a husband but not exist in a liminal state of belonging to no one, especially if you’re doing it on family property. (How about belonging to yourself, you might ask, and others will laugh—we all belong to someone, if not a husband for life, then maybe a corporation.) So Lolly Willowes, in the world of 1920s Britain, is shunted about from one brother’s home to another brother’s home because as a genteel woman she is not meant to work for a living.
The thing about being a witch woman like Lolly is that there is a still a male presence in the form of the Devil. Clearly the Devil is interchangeable with capitalist patriarchy. There’s no escaping the male power. When I see the Misfits driving a tractor through the property of a rich man I feel satisfaction even while I recognise that their brand of liberal feminism is thoroughly self-serving: they are not even there for each other. Their manager is the one rubbing his hands together in glee, thinking of publicity and future sales. Behind every so-called misfit is a male manager/disciplinarian waiting to make a profit. Sometimes it’s money; sometimes it’s an investment in souls.
More from The Regime of the Brother:
The way it works in traditional Oedipus is that the woman is the living embodiment of a deficient male identity: wanting physically and emotionally. The girl-child is supposed to assume an identification with the father and then be left with/as nothing—unless or until she becomes a mother, her only acknowledged relation to sexual difference. But the mother is precisely what Oedipus rejects and is designed to reject, so the cycle begins anew.
The girl under patriarchy is faced with an inhuman choice: to do without an identity, or to identify with what she is not (it amounts to the same thing).
she can demand no special love—except according to a male agenda, set by a father, a husband, or a son.
This mother desires only a phallus (a baby, a son, power) and forgoes other options for her desire.
Under the modernized Regime of the Brother, however, the father/son relation ceases to have centrality. Woman potentially comes into her own.
the “patriarchy” in modernity is less a symbolic than an imaginary identification of the son with the father he has completely eliminated even from memory. He has thrown off the one—God, the king, the father—to replace it with the grammatical and legal and emotionally empty fiction of an I who stands alone and on its own: “his majesty the ego.” Self-created, however, he is only a figment of his own and not the father’s desire. This is the dilemma he simply refuses to acknowledge: he makes the law.
The brother denies his sister her identity, affirming his own. This is not just in the abstract, no mere question of repressed instinctual desire. Because the brother cannot recognize his absolute reliance on her for his identity, her place and her desire are “not there.” While the mother of Oedipus might want her son and the phallus, the post-Oedipal sister is permitted to want nothing. To regulate woman’s desire—and thereby her identity—was always the way of the patriarchy; to outlaw it and do away with her identity is a cardinal feature of the Regime of the Brother.
In volume one of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the brother permits his sister to want nothing. It becomes quite clear how patriarchy nurtures (produces?) the regime of the brother with its careful disciplining of women’s bodies. Clarissa is kept to her room for not performing her duties as daughter and sister and marrying the man the family has decided upon. The brother is an engineer of both her punishments—the potential marriage to a man she finds repulsive, and the current punishment where she is kept mainly to her room and ostracised by her family who won’t see her directly or talk to her. Clarissa seems content to see her problems as her own, which is perhaps not her fault—surrounded by her odious family members on all side and increasing lack of agency/independence, she can hardly be faulted for not seeing some commonalities between the personal and the political. Her friend, Anna, to whom she writes, is clearly the only feminist killjoy of the story we can hope for, thus far. Anna zeroes in on the mother’s role in Clarissa’s predicament:
Your mother tells you, ‘That you will have great trials: that you are under your father’s discipline.’-The word is enough for me to despite them who give occasion for its use.-‘That it is out of her power to help you!’ And again: ‘That if you have any favour to hope for, it must be by the mediation of your uncles.’ I suppose you will write to the oddities, since you are forbid to see them. But can it be, that such a lady, such a sister, such a wife, such a mother, has no influence in her own family? Who, indeed, as you say, if this be so, will marry, that can live single? My choler is again beginning to rise.
Why all the fuss about marriage if a mother can only subject her female child to the whims of the father, the brother, and the uncles? Who indeed , if this be so, will marry, that can live single?
How brothers (sons?) are inducted into the regime.
I’m not a mother, just as aunt, but I can see how boys grow into young men, and how the ideal of masculinity means that boys often have to suppress the part(s) of them that are sensitive, tender, loving, affectionate, in order to “become a man”. And when you notice how it becomes a requirement for boys to hurt others in order to achieve this ideal—then you truly realise how men are made. Hurting others is part of the deal; it is how men are defined as men. To put others in their place and to claim their space as yours. And it hurts to watch young boys who have been taught not to hurt others struggle with the full force of societal expectations that makes it (implicitly or explicitly) known that they will have to hurt others in order to become men.
The eternal problem: We need to talk about sons/we’re always talking about sons.
There has been “unrest” in Sabah for the last few weeks. Property is the problem. Who “owns” Sulu?
The Malaysian twitterati, its bourgeois heart ever in its proper place, is grieving over the death of Malaysia’s policemen involved in the “clashes” with “armed militants”. Malaysian policemen have died while trying to take out these intruders/militants/insurgents (i.e. they were protecting the nation). What’s interesting about the nation that is protected is that we still don’t want to think about how some of us are more protected than others. Sabah, on the East Coast, is one of the poorest states in Malaysia; there is no protection, it seems, from economic impoverishment. But there are tweets from the West Malaysian public thanking the “security forces” for their service to this country. There are tweets praying for their souls in heaven or wherever they might be. Everywhere on Twitter people seem to be simultaneously praying and wishing violence upon the enemy. This ritual is meant to keep the good ones, we the citizens, safe.
The police. The soldiers. Law and order. There are self-proclaimed Progressive Activists ™ who bring the MILF into the picture and cry out “the militants are everywhere in Sabah!” with every tweet. The macho politicians and lovers of Malaysia who cheer on a “military offensive” with encouraging, optimistic tweets like, “Kill or be killed” or “Just gas and smoke ‘em”.
Malaysian Defence Minister, Zahid Hamidi, tweets about the military assault as a “clean-up operation”. (Tweet is in Malay.)
People might be of a land, but there are false borders now demarcating different nations and these borders may not be trespassed.
Meanwhile: “Kiram’s people are demanding Malaysia recognize the sultanate owns Sabah and share profits from economic development in the state.”
Profits. Economic development. Who “owns” Sulu and who profits? Malaysians don’t really care, but “we” are here now, and “they” are not; property is for those who claim it by any means possible. And perhaps the Sulu sultanate is also flexing its muscles. As for the people who are put to work on these lands?
“Filipinos living in the tension-gripped Sabah territory in Northern Borneo said they have been segregated according to tribe and that their movements have been limited and closely monitored by Malaysian authorities.”
“A farmer who tried to enter the tight security cordon surrounding the heavily armed men was turned back by the police early on Monday.
Police feared the food supplies he was carrying could fall into the hands of the gunmen.
The farmer, who wanted to be known only as Ghafur, said he was trying to get to his oil palm farm for his twice-a-month harvest.”
According to them, the violent encounters in Sabah villages have been displacing some of the 600,000 Filipinos quietly living and working there, forcing them to flee to ARMM or causing them to be deported. But the region may not have enough resources to feed and house them.
At the same time, the conflict has been affecting the people in ARMM by driving up the prices of commodities, usually sourced from nearby Sabah, they said.
The Malaysian twitterati is not impressed with how our government for its soft-handed approach. They have ideas, these Malaysians, and it involves Malaysia flexing its military might. We must let the intruders know that “they” are on “our” soil, and the military will convey this message. Men on Twitter berate our ineffectual Prime Minister, exhort him to “be a man” and protect this country, take action. I have no interest in defending our Prime Minister, and as much as I might want to write a separate 3,000 word essay on gender performance and construction, this is not the point (although it’s part of the point). But this demand of a Prime Minister to be a man, a father figure, to exercise force and violence if he must, to defend his property is so chilling precisely because these demands are not self-aware. Malaysians on Twitter—a good number of them of the upwardly mobile, “educated” and comfortable, their lives mediated by gadgets and social media, are okay with owning property and being property—tweet about the stupidity of feudalism and think capitalist democracies are the best thing, the ultimate manifestation of human progress. Yet, they want to be protected by a violent patriarch. They want a “man” in charge, not in form necessarily, but in spirit.
They have no time for history, or maybe it’s just an inconvenience in a time when we have to be militarily efficient. Improve border control. Prioritise domestic security. Stamp out terrorist activity. Enemies are everywhere. We must smoke ‘em out.
Be a man. This land is your land.
[i] Marshall McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” in Understanding Media
August 27, 2012 § 12 Comments
I don’t mean to pop up every few weeks on my own blog only to say, “Here is my review of …” but here is my review of Amit Majmudar’s Partitions for Pop Matters. I found the book to be … not good, and here’s a little extract to explain why:
Majmudar’s characters appear to serve as vessels for goodness, innocence, and hope. They are good Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and for that reason they come together. Consider his Hindu characters: two children, wide-eyed and confused and learning about the greater world as their world falls apart. Consider his Sikh character: a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, a girl so immersed in religion that several characters in the book understand that for her to be raped would be the worst thing of all. Our male narrator with the probing medical gaze tells us this about Simran: “It baffles me at first, but she has no way of truly understanding what those men will want with her.”
Or consider Simran seen through a sex worker’s shrewd, world-weary eyes, seen through the male narrator’s eyes: “It’s part of what confuses Aisha’s feelings towards Simran: her vulnerability, her hypersensitivity to things Aisha herself scarcely registers. Like the gazes of men.” (Later on, the narrator will tell us that “the partition between Aisha’s first and second mind, the woman and the whore’s, tore open” while listening to Simran speak of religious purpose. Clearly, one can be a woman or one can be a whore, but one can’t be both.) Consider his Muslim character: a bleeding heart doctor with a stammer, the latter marking him out of the orbit of adulthood because he is unable to converse with other adults, only children—and later on, Simran. Simran comes to symbolise the curative properties of womanhood, psychically healing herself and the men and boys of her newfound family by sheer presence of her pure soul.
I was reading Manto’s short stories at the time (am still reading, going through them slowly, taking my time to let the flavours of Manto’s translated prose sink in) and it’s unfair to compare anyone to Manto, really, but it was my first time reading Manto as opposed to reading about him. And Manto’s short stories work a kind of subtle magic, and I was trying to think what it is that makes Manto’s short stories work (for me) while something like Majmudar’s doesn’t—Manto recognises chaos and ambiguity, while so many contemporary writers want to resolve it. Partitions is written like a dose of strong medicine that wants to cure humanity of its ailments; Manto seems to have written his stories to feel and think and live within the muck—not above it, not beyond it. Reading Partitions made me a feel a bit queasy, actually. Though it was written about the events of 1947 India, it feels like a response to current, post 9/11 phobias: fervent moralising about the goodness of different people from warring/contesting ethnicities and religions.
My review of this book, seemingly highly-praised elsewhere, is a negative one. I’ve been reading the current flap over nice reviews vs not-nice reviews and wondering what this says about me, that I write not-nice reviews. Maybe I’m a not-nice person. (A revelation?) The flap over book reviewing started off on the wrong foot, with a bizarre Jacob Silverman piece that claimed to be “against enthusiasm”, which is silly—presumably people get into book reviewing as a Thing To Do because they’re really enthusiastic about books? Surely it’s not about enthusiasm and niceness and more about the demands of the market and book industry and the concurrent intensification of networking, “branding” (with “positivity” playing a part; less about niceness than shrewd, aspirational ass-kissing.) I mean, I liked Silverman’s initial blog post enough to expect that he was going in a different direction than where he ended up going in that Slate piece. I think he had a bigger, more interesting point buried in that piece, part of which I saw as having to do with how social media functions to uphold or replicate hierarchies of print capitalism, as such, and how reputation, expertise, and cultural capital accrue to reviewers from corporate media and media dynasties—and now, online magazines (some which formerly started out as blogs.) I mean, think about the networks of visibility on what is considered book talk worthy enough to be retweeted, reblogged, or linked to and they’re basically writers, contributors and editors for the The Millions, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, The Awl, to name a few. And if you follow enough of them on Twitter and Tumblr you begin to see that the editors, writers, and contributors for these publications tend to know each other and prop up each other’s work—fair enough (or not), but it’s particularly North American, and it’s particularly insular. If we want to talk about social media and book reviewing, it should probably be a conversation about the reification of these digital connections in social media; how social media is implicit in dominant modes of cultural production and dissemination.
This discussion about book reviewing/criticism is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.) But you would think that any discussion about social media and economies of attention in The Literary World (forget the reductive discourse on enthusiastic vs critical, for the moment) would be more illuminating if it focused on the entrenched hierarchies of reputation/knowledge, within the North American milieu itself and between North America and the rest of the world. Someone can write a fantastic critical piece for the India-based The Caravan or Livemint and it will mostly be retweeted/liked/favourite/whathaveyou by other Indians or a select number of people within Asia and North America. But even a middling review or piece of criticism in The Rumpus or Slate will generally enjoy the privilege of being seen and read by readers from all over the world. (That is, by readers who are interested enough in books to actually want to read book criticism and reviews.)
I mean, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes a negative review of a highly-praised cultural product from the first world—the kind that enjoys wide distribution and robust marketing—is a necessary intervention by readers at the margins, at the borders, from other places and spaces.
I mean, I know. Cultural hegemony, imperialism and its discontents. I’m simplifying the argument greatly to think of it wholly in terms of first world vs the rest. I’m thinking of Aijaz Ahmad’s argument in “Literary Theory and ‘Third World Literature’” (Ahmad is magisterially scathing throughout In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures; he will no doubt be magisterially scathing of the half-baked, incoherent thoughts in this post):
By the time a Latin American novel arrives in Delhi, it has been selected, translated, published, reviewed, explicated and allotted a place in the burgeoning archive of ‘Third World Literature’ through a complex set of metropolitan mediations. That is to say, it arrives here with those processes of circulation and classification already inscribed in its very texture. About this contradictory role of imperialism which simultaneously unifies the world, in the form of global channels of circulation, and distributes it into structures of global coercion and domination, I shall say a great deal throughout this book. Suffice it to say here that even as we open ourselves to the widest possible range of global cultural productions, it is best to keep in view the coercive power of the very channels through which we have access to those productions.
But this is a Very Big Topic that probably wouldn’t have generated as many page clicks or as much worthless discussion as an article titled, “Against Enthusiasm”, so. But when you write a piece like that you will predictably get a very meh response about “the case for positive book reviews” which is about as useful as being “against enthusiasm”. What is Laura Miller saying here? I’m particularly peeved because I used to enjoy reading her in the (distant) past. Here she basically says, “Meh! I’m paid to write this so I’m just going to write a few hundred words about nothing at all” and bizarrely (or not) it ends up being widely circulated. And her response prompted a particularly abrasive response from Scott Esposito (though I might add that the terms of which the debate is framed was always-already stupid). Then there’s the response from Dwight Garner, who actually writes these words: “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Abusive enough? Punishing? Gold stars? #NODADS for fuck’s sake.
I’d much rather think about Tom Ewing’s brief but useful post on “criticism as a vehicle for ideas about things”. I also appreciate Michelle Dean pointing out the gendered aspects of any discussion on nice vs. not-nice, but I tripped over this bit:
“And why do I need to be nice?” these men ask, when actually all you are asking is that they not approach you as some aspiring immigrant from another country, and one on the bad end of a trade deficit, at that.
I want to be a compassionate reader. I am concerned with learning how to inhabit a text in a way that encourages more reparative readings than merely being satisfied with a paranoid reading (the result of having recently read the chapter on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” in Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling—her ideas run deep and I probably need to reread it a few times). But where does the anger go? How to place it within narratives of love and compassion, to strike that crucial balance between anger that illuminates and anger that becomes moral authority, as Audre Lorde recognised in “The Uses of Anger”? I am an angry reader a lot of the time and I want to be nice, but niceness rarely allows me to say what I need to say. I also want to be responsible in saying what I need to say, not to let honesty and anger become an excuse to hurt. But sometimes I just want to shout because being told to be nice and positive is often a mode of suppressing something uncomfortable for the status quo and when faced with the authority of reason and objectivity, particular groups of vulnerable are often the ones who already feel the pressure to be nice: women; people of colour; people from other parts of the world interested in Literature and All Its Glory and but who aren’t well-versed in Literary Theory, Philosophy, the Classics, etc.; people whose first language isn’t English but who write and think in English now because fuckyeahcolonialism.[i] (As Lorde reminds us, much of this has to do with trying to avoid the anger of others; there is the need to make nice with racist/imperialist/patriarchal authority so that it doesn’t hurt you further; for bare survival.) Notice the trend that Dean points out: white male reviewers are comfortable with not being nice and writing about not being nice, but female reviewers are writing about being nice. Female reviewers also recognise the burden of being nice and the burden of being subject to (often sexist) vitriol and unkindness.
You bring all your issues to the table when you read, when you write about what you read and how you think your way through a text. Do we keep those issues separate from the text under our scrutiny? I’m thinking about Chris Kraus on female writing and schizophrenia, and in that vein, female criticism and ALL FEELING ALL THE TIME. Because conventional wisdom states that good, proper criticism should be objective, cool, rational, distant. What to do with all these feelings? (But how then to avoid the inevitable overemphasis on individual subjectivity, and the subsequent professionalisation of feeling, resulting in something like Sheila Heti’s loathsome How Should a Person Be?) The thing is, I abhor “against enthusiasm” but I also abhor “the case for positive reviews” and the constant reminders (demands/pressure) to be nice; it’s a tyranny of its own sort, no less harmful than “objectivity” or the “critique the hell out of everything, hold nothing back, make people whimper and cry” position that some heavyweight tough-man critics want to adopt.
Perhaps I should just leave you with some words from Kate Zambreno (from an interview in The Millions):
I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.
This is so relevant, and you can see this in a lot of blogs by book reviewers/critics, too, who link to their published review and append messier, chaotic, less-publishable thoughts in their blog posts, saying, “This is the longer version”. And those “extra” thoughts are always so much more interesting to read alongside the “proper review” itself.
[i] As Aijaz Ahmad puts it, “One cannot reject English now, on the basis of its initially colonial insertion, any more than one can boycott railways for that same reason.”