October 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
I was in Sydney for two weeks, which was nice, but nice doesn’t quite capture it. And what was nice about it? Being away from KL was nice. “I need a new city”, someone I follow once said on Twitter, and that seems to be the thing: I need a new city. I don’t think Sydney will be my city, although I loved it, and I loved spending time with my nephews while they were on their school break, I liked the idea of a wholesome PG-13 holiday and I liked being asked by the barista if I was enjoying the school break, being away from school must be fun and all, he said. And then I said no, I’m no longer in school, and then he was like, Oops and Are these your children, then? referring to my nephews, and I somehow went from high school kid to mum in like two seconds but look, if someone wants to think I’m still in high school I am going to silently, gratefully thank the universe. But why should I thank anyone or anything, fuck this ageist capitalist society, fuck it, yes, but I still live in it, so how to fuck it is the question. The barista was cute, and my sister watched me from afar, and then calmly informed my nephews that the barista was trying to flirt with Aunty Suba and then my nephews giggled and I stammered and blushed as much as I could blush with brown skin. And the one thing they don’t tell you about older sisters is that you might get older but you’ll always feel (be) 12 around them.
We went to Darling Harbour while I was there, and that’s the one part of the city I loathed because it was a nightmare concoction of what corporate city planners think is “wholesome family fun”, there are restaurants and malls and museums and an IMAX theater and carefully-planted trees and Disneylandesque stone paths and manufactured conviviality and it reminded me so much of Singapore’s Marina Bay, another place that makes you want to run away as you enter into its vicinity.
While taking the train from the suburbs, where my brother’s family lives, to the city, I stared out of the windows and saw things — shops and places and people and the “Say no to burqas” graffiti next to the one proclaiming “Free speech”.
Things that stick in your mind.
The one place I can’t get out of my mind is Cockatoo Island, which was formerly a penal colony (in the mid to late 19th century), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourist spot (when we went it was a long weekend and families were coming in on the ferry to camp there for the weekend). While I really wanted to visit the place — absorb it, in a way — because of its history (that awful, almost unavoidable touristy need to cannibalise history and its affects), I also couldn’t shake off the wrongness of my presence, my out-of-placeness, or the out-of-placeness of all “visitors” in a place that was formerly a site of discipline, surveillance, and hard labour. “Foucault tourism” as Nicholas Mirzoeff writes, in a piece which you should read:
My British forebears did know how and where to build prisons, you have to give them that. The island is isolated in the middle of Sydney harbor, with the prison itself located on top of a steep cliff. Recent excavations have uncovered minute solitary confinement cells, which have a distinctly contemporary look in this Abu Ghraib era. The officials built themselves sandstone residences with a Georgian feel but placed at the highest point to give them a panoptic viewpoint. Grain silos dug into the rock still have chain rings, to which the excavating prisoners were linked while working. The prison was created right at the end of the transportation era in 1849–convicts were not sent to New South Wales after 1850, although they went to Western Australia as late as 1868.
I stood inside the the military barracks/guard house, the place from which military supervisors of the penal colony monitored the prisoners, and took pictures of the panipticon while watching other tourists take pictures of the panopticon, all the while waiting for an answer from Foucault. Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist. What am I doing here?
In 2000, a group of Aboriginal people occupied the island and claimed it as sovereign territory. You can still see their murals, using the Aboriginal flag as a motif. Using the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, Isabell Coe and others asserted that Britain had never formally claimed the island, a claim rejected by the courts as “inconceivable.” Really? A deserted island on the edge of the harbor? Regardless, Coe created a tent embassy on the island and asserted sovereignty. The occupation of occupied indigenous land and the counterclaim to sovereignty was a powerful performative act.
The art exhibition was over when I was there and so the island was populated by adults and surly teenagers and perplexed babies, looking at the air raid shelter and the powerhouse chimney and the sewerage treatment plant and perhaps recognising the ghosts among us. It’s a quiet, isolated place; perfect, in fact, for isolated disciplinary methods and punitive labour. Strong winds, the bright sun. “This place is fascinating,” said a mother to her two teenage sons, coming down the road just ahead of us. “It was the most boring experience of my life,” said the elder son, shoving his younger brother.
While I was in Sydney my review of Roshi Fernando’s Homesick went up on Pop Matters. I didn’t expect to like it for various reasons I talk about in the review, but it surprised me. You can read the review in full here but here’s an excerpt:
One of my favourite stories, “Sophocles’s Chorus”, gives us a youthful Preethi slowly blossoming into her sexual and intellectual powers: she kisses the most lusted-after boy in school, she reads Howard’s End and Antigone, she is the star in a school play, and her dreams and words and images slowly bleed into one another until fantasies and imagination hold the possibility of becoming real. But these moments of youthful potential and hope, moments that appear to be touched by a sort of otherworldly grace, sour pretty quickly, and the kiss becomes a shame that Preethi must endure under the watchful, cruel eyes of her peers.
What starts out as tragedy on the page, experienced from a distance as a reader of Sophocles, becomes the unwished-for reality: all that held the promise of something sweet becomes rank with wrong choices and misdeeds, and Preethi slashes her wrists in the bathtub. She survives this suicide attempt, of course, but the Preethi we meet later will always be raw and vulnerable, always approaching the edge of something, only to be pulled back by someone: a husband, a cousin. Families will consistently fuck you up, Fernando seems to say, but sometimes they also don’t let you die.
I was supposed to stay away from the cinema but I didn’t. I watched Looper and I am flummoxed by all the swoony reviews. The reviews don’t really tell you what it’s about. It’s about Mothers! MOOOOOOTHERS! MOTHERS ABANDONED US BY US I MEAN LITTLE LOST BOYS WE ARE BAD MEN NOW FROM BOYZ TO BAD MENZ BECAUSE MOTHERS CRISIS OF MASCULINITY GUNS MONEY BRUCE WILLIS GOES APESHIT SILENT CHINESE WIFE IN SLOWMO EMILY BLUNT CRIES AND TOUCHES HERSELF BUT AT LEAST SHE GETS TO TALK
Also if I had to choose between watching a slice of dry toast sit on a plate and a Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance, I’d go with the former.
People tell me that JGL is Great and Hot but I think Toast is Better, Seriously. I know he was supposed to be really good in Brick, which I think I watched, although I can’t remember maybe I just ate some toast who knows, so maybe I should watch Brick and revisit my opinion of JGL.
September 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
My review of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? went up on Pop Matters awhile back and I’ve been tardy in doing one of these exciting blog updates where I tell you that The. Review. Is. Up #breakingnews
The short of it is I reallyreallyreally did not like it. I wanted to talk more about why I did not like it but it occurred to me that I have written a review about exactly that. So I will put up a Fiona Apple song instead as a fine, tongue-in-cheek, clever example of feminine discontent that Sheila Heti is unfortunately not:
Michelle Dean, whose Slate essay is otherwise spot-on about how sexism works in book reviews and definitions of what counts as Serious Lit, draws a comparison between Heti and Apple which I quite obviously disagree with. Heti’s whole book is determined to absolve Sheila, the (fictionalised) character. I mean, as Jessa Crispin points out, she compares herself to Moses—this was either meant to be flippant and subversive (as in, why can’t women characters lay a grandiose claim to greatness like men often do in their books?) or serious and earnest (as in, look, Sheila is like Moses). Either way I can’t help but feel so strongly against the style of the book, which I suppose means that I dislike the writing, which probably means that I dislike the thinking. As Jessa writes:
But the Heti is sneakier. Part of it is the self-help aspect. The way she compares herself without blinking to Moses. The way the book gets historical fact flat-out wrong. The selfishness and the lack of awareness of the real world, and the certainty of it all. The girlishness. The, god help me, tweeness of it all. And then, behind all of that, a tone of cynical “just kidding!” to protect itself from criticism. None of this is necessarily frustrating in and of itself, at least not in an intense way. It should have just been a “not for me” book that I set aside after two pages.
I disagree with Jessa about the girly aspects of the book; or rather, that girlishness is somehow always-already twee and fluffy and shallow. I just don’t think Heti’s exploration of female subjectivity is at all compelling or interesting or new or challenging or bold or anything. And this is where I do agree with Jessa’s comments: the “tone of cynical ‘just kidding!’ to protect itself from criticism”—yes. That’s why I mentioned Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl in my review, because Green Girl is about female subjectivity, girlishness, hysteria, sensitivity, emotions, but it’s bold and strongly-written; it doesn’t shy away from its subject, whether it’s shallow or unintelligent or whatever, it plunges right in, and as a result it is a ferocious, tentative, vulnerable, intelligent book. Heti’s tone, in contrast, is coy in a way that I really can’t stand; I don’t know if this just boils down to taste, and if so, what that says about me.
(Anyway, I’m generally in agreement with most of Jessa’s thoughts about How Should a Person Be? and also way too thrilled that she linked to my review. #notahumblebrag #anoutrightbrag)
Meanwhile, Fiona Apple is fucking up and making a mistake and telling us that she “sure had fun”. And that’s why she’s different from Heti, who compares herself to Moses. (Also, Apple is just a few years older than me and I’ve been a fan since her first album, so I feel like I “grew up” with her and I cannot bear to see her compared favourably with Heti, just nonononopleaseno.)
August 27, 2012 § 12 Comments
I don’t mean to pop up every few weeks on my own blog only to say, “Here is my review of …” but here is my review of Amit Majmudar’s Partitions for Pop Matters. I found the book to be … not good, and here’s a little extract to explain why:
Majmudar’s characters appear to serve as vessels for goodness, innocence, and hope. They are good Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and for that reason they come together. Consider his Hindu characters: two children, wide-eyed and confused and learning about the greater world as their world falls apart. Consider his Sikh character: a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, a girl so immersed in religion that several characters in the book understand that for her to be raped would be the worst thing of all. Our male narrator with the probing medical gaze tells us this about Simran: “It baffles me at first, but she has no way of truly understanding what those men will want with her.”
Or consider Simran seen through a sex worker’s shrewd, world-weary eyes, seen through the male narrator’s eyes: “It’s part of what confuses Aisha’s feelings towards Simran: her vulnerability, her hypersensitivity to things Aisha herself scarcely registers. Like the gazes of men.” (Later on, the narrator will tell us that “the partition between Aisha’s first and second mind, the woman and the whore’s, tore open” while listening to Simran speak of religious purpose. Clearly, one can be a woman or one can be a whore, but one can’t be both.) Consider his Muslim character: a bleeding heart doctor with a stammer, the latter marking him out of the orbit of adulthood because he is unable to converse with other adults, only children—and later on, Simran. Simran comes to symbolise the curative properties of womanhood, psychically healing herself and the men and boys of her newfound family by sheer presence of her pure soul.
I was reading Manto’s short stories at the time (am still reading, going through them slowly, taking my time to let the flavours of Manto’s translated prose sink in) and it’s unfair to compare anyone to Manto, really, but it was my first time reading Manto as opposed to reading about him. And Manto’s short stories work a kind of subtle magic, and I was trying to think what it is that makes Manto’s short stories work (for me) while something like Majmudar’s doesn’t—Manto recognises chaos and ambiguity, while so many contemporary writers want to resolve it. Partitions is written like a dose of strong medicine that wants to cure humanity of its ailments; Manto seems to have written his stories to feel and think and live within the muck—not above it, not beyond it. Reading Partitions made me a feel a bit queasy, actually. Though it was written about the events of 1947 India, it feels like a response to current, post 9/11 phobias: fervent moralising about the goodness of different people from warring/contesting ethnicities and religions.
My review of this book, seemingly highly-praised elsewhere, is a negative one. I’ve been reading the current flap over nice reviews vs not-nice reviews and wondering what this says about me, that I write not-nice reviews. Maybe I’m a not-nice person. (A revelation?) The flap over book reviewing started off on the wrong foot, with a bizarre Jacob Silverman piece that claimed to be “against enthusiasm”, which is silly—presumably people get into book reviewing as a Thing To Do because they’re really enthusiastic about books? Surely it’s not about enthusiasm and niceness and more about the demands of the market and book industry and the concurrent intensification of networking, “branding” (with “positivity” playing a part; less about niceness than shrewd, aspirational ass-kissing.) I mean, I liked Silverman’s initial blog post enough to expect that he was going in a different direction than where he ended up going in that Slate piece. I think he had a bigger, more interesting point buried in that piece, part of which I saw as having to do with how social media functions to uphold or replicate hierarchies of print capitalism, as such, and how reputation, expertise, and cultural capital accrue to reviewers from corporate media and media dynasties—and now, online magazines (some which formerly started out as blogs.) I mean, think about the networks of visibility on what is considered book talk worthy enough to be retweeted, reblogged, or linked to and they’re basically writers, contributors and editors for the The Millions, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, The Awl, to name a few. And if you follow enough of them on Twitter and Tumblr you begin to see that the editors, writers, and contributors for these publications tend to know each other and prop up each other’s work—fair enough (or not), but it’s particularly North American, and it’s particularly insular. If we want to talk about social media and book reviewing, it should probably be a conversation about the reification of these digital connections in social media; how social media is implicit in dominant modes of cultural production and dissemination.
This discussion about book reviewing/criticism is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.) But you would think that any discussion about social media and economies of attention in The Literary World (forget the reductive discourse on enthusiastic vs critical, for the moment) would be more illuminating if it focused on the entrenched hierarchies of reputation/knowledge, within the North American milieu itself and between North America and the rest of the world. Someone can write a fantastic critical piece for the India-based The Caravan or Livemint and it will mostly be retweeted/liked/favourite/whathaveyou by other Indians or a select number of people within Asia and North America. But even a middling review or piece of criticism in The Rumpus or Slate will generally enjoy the privilege of being seen and read by readers from all over the world. (That is, by readers who are interested enough in books to actually want to read book criticism and reviews.)
I mean, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes a negative review of a highly-praised cultural product from the first world—the kind that enjoys wide distribution and robust marketing—is a necessary intervention by readers at the margins, at the borders, from other places and spaces.
I mean, I know. Cultural hegemony, imperialism and its discontents. I’m simplifying the argument greatly to think of it wholly in terms of first world vs the rest. I’m thinking of Aijaz Ahmad’s argument in “Literary Theory and ‘Third World Literature’” (Ahmad is magisterially scathing throughout In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures; he will no doubt be magisterially scathing of the half-baked, incoherent thoughts in this post):
By the time a Latin American novel arrives in Delhi, it has been selected, translated, published, reviewed, explicated and allotted a place in the burgeoning archive of ‘Third World Literature’ through a complex set of metropolitan mediations. That is to say, it arrives here with those processes of circulation and classification already inscribed in its very texture. About this contradictory role of imperialism which simultaneously unifies the world, in the form of global channels of circulation, and distributes it into structures of global coercion and domination, I shall say a great deal throughout this book. Suffice it to say here that even as we open ourselves to the widest possible range of global cultural productions, it is best to keep in view the coercive power of the very channels through which we have access to those productions.
But this is a Very Big Topic that probably wouldn’t have generated as many page clicks or as much worthless discussion as an article titled, “Against Enthusiasm”, so. But when you write a piece like that you will predictably get a very meh response about “the case for positive book reviews” which is about as useful as being “against enthusiasm”. What is Laura Miller saying here? I’m particularly peeved because I used to enjoy reading her in the (distant) past. Here she basically says, “Meh! I’m paid to write this so I’m just going to write a few hundred words about nothing at all” and bizarrely (or not) it ends up being widely circulated. And her response prompted a particularly abrasive response from Scott Esposito (though I might add that the terms of which the debate is framed was always-already stupid). Then there’s the response from Dwight Garner, who actually writes these words: “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Abusive enough? Punishing? Gold stars? #NODADS for fuck’s sake.
I’d much rather think about Tom Ewing’s brief but useful post on “criticism as a vehicle for ideas about things”. I also appreciate Michelle Dean pointing out the gendered aspects of any discussion on nice vs. not-nice, but I tripped over this bit:
“And why do I need to be nice?” these men ask, when actually all you are asking is that they not approach you as some aspiring immigrant from another country, and one on the bad end of a trade deficit, at that.
I want to be a compassionate reader. I am concerned with learning how to inhabit a text in a way that encourages more reparative readings than merely being satisfied with a paranoid reading (the result of having recently read the chapter on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” in Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling—her ideas run deep and I probably need to reread it a few times). But where does the anger go? How to place it within narratives of love and compassion, to strike that crucial balance between anger that illuminates and anger that becomes moral authority, as Audre Lorde recognised in “The Uses of Anger”? I am an angry reader a lot of the time and I want to be nice, but niceness rarely allows me to say what I need to say. I also want to be responsible in saying what I need to say, not to let honesty and anger become an excuse to hurt. But sometimes I just want to shout because being told to be nice and positive is often a mode of suppressing something uncomfortable for the status quo and when faced with the authority of reason and objectivity, particular groups of vulnerable are often the ones who already feel the pressure to be nice: women; people of colour; people from other parts of the world interested in Literature and All Its Glory and but who aren’t well-versed in Literary Theory, Philosophy, the Classics, etc.; people whose first language isn’t English but who write and think in English now because fuckyeahcolonialism.[i] (As Lorde reminds us, much of this has to do with trying to avoid the anger of others; there is the need to make nice with racist/imperialist/patriarchal authority so that it doesn’t hurt you further; for bare survival.) Notice the trend that Dean points out: white male reviewers are comfortable with not being nice and writing about not being nice, but female reviewers are writing about being nice. Female reviewers also recognise the burden of being nice and the burden of being subject to (often sexist) vitriol and unkindness.
You bring all your issues to the table when you read, when you write about what you read and how you think your way through a text. Do we keep those issues separate from the text under our scrutiny? I’m thinking about Chris Kraus on female writing and schizophrenia, and in that vein, female criticism and ALL FEELING ALL THE TIME. Because conventional wisdom states that good, proper criticism should be objective, cool, rational, distant. What to do with all these feelings? (But how then to avoid the inevitable overemphasis on individual subjectivity, and the subsequent professionalisation of feeling, resulting in something like Sheila Heti’s loathsome How Should a Person Be?) The thing is, I abhor “against enthusiasm” but I also abhor “the case for positive reviews” and the constant reminders (demands/pressure) to be nice; it’s a tyranny of its own sort, no less harmful than “objectivity” or the “critique the hell out of everything, hold nothing back, make people whimper and cry” position that some heavyweight tough-man critics want to adopt.
Perhaps I should just leave you with some words from Kate Zambreno (from an interview in The Millions):
I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.
This is so relevant, and you can see this in a lot of blogs by book reviewers/critics, too, who link to their published review and append messier, chaotic, less-publishable thoughts in their blog posts, saying, “This is the longer version”. And those “extra” thoughts are always so much more interesting to read alongside the “proper review” itself.
[i] As Aijaz Ahmad puts it, “One cannot reject English now, on the basis of its initially colonial insertion, any more than one can boycott railways for that same reason.”
August 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Genet has been messing with my life lately. In a good way, I think. It’s just that I haven’t had much time for reading lately, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, and after coming out of my Genet fever I had to read an astoundingly mediocre book for a future review. After Genet, the mediocre seems offensive.
My review of Sartre’s Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr is up on Pop Matters. I talked about it a bit in a previous post. I have to say that I dislike the Pop Matters rating system because I’m not sure that a rating system is helpful to anyone. Quantifying the qualitative seems doomed from the start. I gave Saint Genet a 6/10 rating, which is wholly inadequate (because neither a higher nor lower number would have been more adequate) and doesn’t much describe how I felt about the book. In any case, I’m meant to rate all the books I review, but it really hit me when I was trying to assign a number to Saint Genet. It’s hard to evaluate in terms of rating. It’s a book that infuriates, and for that I think I love it. Saint Genet is provocative and chaotic and smart and silly and essential; I disagreed very strongly with HUGE CHUNKS (and there are a lot of chunks), but assigning it a number just feels wrong because it’s not about whether it’s “average” or “good”. And as I continue to read Genet I will no doubt continue to dip in and out Saint Genet and have long conversations with the text that begins with, “Sartre, you turd… ” (said in total affection and dislike, of course.)
I can’t help but turn to Susan Sontag’s words in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, where she begins an assessment of the same book with these words: “Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” Grotesque and ghastly—Sartre’s work is a monster that will devour the reader’s presence of mind, to be sure. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I began readingSaint Genet while Kanye West’s “Monster” played in the background: much like Nicki Minaj’s persona in the song, Sartre’s implicit announcement to his future reader seems to be “First things first, I’ll eat your brains.”
Read the entire review. (If you like.)
July 31, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I wrote a brief post about Coca-Cola in Sri Lanka a few months ago and came across this picture by Yannik Willing. It’s part of his ongoing photography series titled “Before Tomorrow”, which in his website he describes as a project that is concerned with “the imminent radical changes of tourist regions in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war in 2009 that had lasted almost thirty years.”
It’s a perfect picture, I think, because the war is over but the army apparatus is ubiquitous in most of the places we visited in Sri Lanka—almost as prevalent as the Coca-Cola signs.
July 23, 2012 § 4 Comments
(Fragments of thoughts on Genet that was supposed to go on Tumblr until it grew too long. The value of shutting up–I’ve yet to learn it.)
I read Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and now I’m reading The Thief’s Journal. I seem to have reached a point where Genet’s voice is what I really need. (Well, his and Fiona Apple’s.) Genet’s voice is the voice I need to get me through sad and sullen days, or nervy, awkward, self-conscious days. It’s the voice that says, Fuck all these people and their reactions to you, look instead at the shape of this cloud, take note of the precise tone of colour of the sky, devote your attention to the charmless gestures of a man with an unexpectedly beautiful smile. Which is really strange, because Genet is nothing if not in his body and extremely self-conscious, always excessively aware of his physical being in relation to others, always watching himself through others, always keeping tabs of his place in relation to others. But maybe intensified self-consciousness can become a space, a refuge, from the need to feel/know the consciousness of others, and maybe a temporal liberation is what Genet achieves in his writing, and what he’s able to convey to (some) of his readers.
There is always someone saying that reading is dead in the age of the internet or some such nonsense, but to read Genet is to recognise that reading is not dead, just dreaming. To check tweets in the middle of reading Genet is to undream. No tweeting, no tumbling, no texting, no external words, just the Genet-words on the page or screen. Dreaming as reading as immersion. This dream-state of Genet-reading is fevered. You, the reader, get in the way of the text all the time, and so does Genet. He gets in the way of your reading. His words are profoundly disorienting; they will undo you. Genet knows this, knows that you know this, and enjoys it. No, I mean I think he strives for it—writing isn’t writing if this doesn’t happen.
In the the 600+ page Saint Genet, Sartre says a lot of things about Genet until Genet ceases to be Genet, but he does say one thing about Our Lady of Flowers that rings true to me: “No wonder Our Lady horrifies people: it is the epic of masturbation.”
And Genet’s narrator is perpetually always on the edge of orgasm, one presumes, because he is fervently, religiously jerking off:
It was a good thing that I raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult! I have only to begin the gesture and a kind of unclean and supernatural transposition displaces the truth. Everything within me turns worshipper. The external vision of the accessories of my desire isolates me, far from the world.
Pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and about, that air of supreme indifference towards everyone and also a certain awkward manner that, if you have gone to bed with a boy, makes you feel as if you have bumped your head against a granite slab.
“a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures … the air of supreme indifference towards everyone” — masturbation as strategy for navigating the trauma of the social. One of the ways to attempt to love your queer self in a society that deems your sexuality monstrous is make love to yourself. But it’s never that. It’s onanism and masturbation and selfish pleasure but rarely ever spoken of as self-love. Genet forces you to reckon with the hierarchies of acceptable bodily pleasure. Genet forces you to reckon with the anguish of being an undesirable desiring the desired. (“What could I commit so as to be worthy of his beauty? I needed boldness in order to admire him.”)
Guattari in “Genet Regained”:
It is true that Genet’s creative process always made a strong appeal to fabulation (masturbatory or otherwise) but his fundamental aim nevertheless remained a poetics with a social impact.
Genet makes you think about shit a lot, which is very uncomfortable for me because I am not fond of shit. Regrettably, this makes me sound like Sartre, who says in Saint Genet: “Genet is excrement, and it is such that he asserts himself … As for myself, I am not as fond of shit as some people say.” One part of this formulation is false; either Genet isn’t excrement or Sartre is extremely fond of shit, because Saint Genet is about Sartre the heterosexual man’s man trying to “philosophically diagnose” Genet, in Sontag’s words, in order to love him better. But also to outdo him; Sartre’s worldview in Saint Genet is so limited, so conservative, so heterosexist, that I think it drives Sartre crazy to know that a man like Genet exists, that a radically different version of masculinity is not only possible, but desirable. (Dear Sartre, I don’t mean to get Freudian on you. But in the final analysis, you know I’m right.)
Genet on love:
I should like to play at inventing the ways love has of surprising people.
It enters like Jesus into the heart of the impetuous; it also comes slyly, like a thief.
Love makes use of the worst traps. The least noble. The rarest. It exploits coincidence.
If masturbation is a kind of redemption from everyday anxieties then love is the path that takes us right back to it. Love is trauma. It’s a kind of horror, actually, because I get the sense that Genet’s hyper-corporeality (explicit, almost tender descriptions of bodily fluids, wastes, processes) is a way to transcend the body he so loathes. Loving another is hard when you hate your body. Or rather, allowing another to love you is hard when you hate your body.
There are “problems” with Genet. His fetishisation of a certain type of normative masculine beauty, and of the sexuality of black men (large appendages, always); the odd comment about Arabs and their odours. This prefigures his later politics, where he spoke of the Black Panthers and the Palestinian struggle as aesthetic projects, as Things in which he can find a space for himself. But there is something here: if Genet is writing against bourgeois values (i.e. hypocrisy), then his writing never lets you forget that you are complicit, or a part of it; and sometimes you wonder if he’s merely writing through these hypocrisies to test them out on the reader, to see how far he can push. You wonder if the text is showing up your own prejudice. “Our future burglar starts by learning absolute respect for property,” Sartre tells us of Genet, and perhaps this is true: Genet also writes to investigate his own complicity.
The other “problem” with Genet is the Problem of Women. Meaning, the lack of women. Women as absent-mothers. Men mother each other; then turn on each other. Within a patriarchal society Genet’s queer men identify as women, or want to be women, or recognise some element of femininity in themselves, and hate themselves because society hates them. But in his writing Genet is perpetually in drag. I can’t help but read the text of Our Lady as a parody of phallocentrism. (Sartre, meanwhile, thinks Genet is FAKE: a FAKE man, a FAKE woman, writing FAKE prose, but in a GOOD way.)
And I can’t help but think of Genet as Hermes, appropriately enough. Genet seems to embody the trickster in terms of how he presents his art/writing and how it is received. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde writes that “trickster stories themselves have been told in ways that marked them as ‘special speech,’ so that, no matter how profane their content, they belonged to an anomalous category, a sort of sacred lack of the sacred.” This wrestling with the sacred is the core of Our Lady. Genet venerates that which polite society is perpetually trying to ignore. The excluded, the marginalised, the spat upon, the lost, the anus, thieves, shit, doubt, queers, self-doubt, unwanted erections, artifice, base desires, pretension — these are some of Genet’s favourite things (to write about). As Hyde says about Hermes:
For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve its shape is quite another, especially if, as is always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed … ” Whoever has the wit to break these rules, whoever puts the guards to sleep, slips across the threshold and floods the sacred meadows with contingency, whoever steals the boundary stones of clear distinction, that person strips design of its protective glamour. Hermes does all this and by it he disenchants the world into which he was born.
Later Hyde reminds us that Hermes, in the Homeric Hymns, tells his mother that “either they give me honor or I steal it.”
I’ve been thinking about the idea of beautiful writing lately, and what it means when I say it and when others say it, or when it becomes sort of an institutionalised demand. Beautiful writing as good business. The idea of “beautiful writing” as a mechanism to limit and to police, to keep writing within acceptable boundaries of acceptable taste. Prose that is polite and distant. In contrast, reading Genet in all his wrongness and his flaws cracked my world right open.
(I don’t know how to explain it but maybe what I’m trying to say about writing is what Voyou says about football and Euro 2012 and Spain’s neoliberal style: “In flexibly-specalized postfordist capitalism, to be businesslike is to be virtuosic.” i.e. Spain’s football team is Michael Chabon. This makes complete sense to me. I fall asleep watching Spain play; I’ve tried to read the much-praised Michael Chabon about four or five times now but had to stop because I only ever felt crushing boredom: Death by eminently well-adjusted prose. To be fair, this also applies to Safran Foer, Lethem, Barnes, later Amis and Rushdie, and The Franzen.)
Sartre: “(Genet) has no particular desire to produce a ‘well-made work’; he is unconcerned with finish, with formal perfection.” A huge part of me is attracted to this lack of finish in Genet, excited by this undone-ness. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that “writer’s block” or the inability to write feels like constipation; finishing something often feels like you’ve just had a good shit. (Kate Zambreno: “My blog I think is a sort of toilet bowl.”) I feel that way; I think I started this blog in order to shit things out, but because of my aversion to excrement, my disgust, I prefer to stay constipated. It’s not pleasant; not for me, and not for anyone reading my jejune thoughts about shit/writing, but Genet makes you think, Fuck that shit, just write shit down.
Genet, on writing:
Since it is impossible to make a ballet of it, I am obliged to use words that are weighed down with precise ideas, but I shall try to lighten them with phrases that are trivial, empty, hollow, and invisible.
I’ve been thinking about ugliness lately. (Lately? All the time.) I was thinking about how I felt—like I was about to burst—when I first read Virginie Despentes and she acknowledges it:
Of course I wouldn’t write what I write if I were beautiful, so beautiful that I turned the head of every man I met. It’s as a member of the lower working class of womanhood that I speak, that I spoke yesterday and am speaking again today. When I was on unemployment I was not ashamed of being a social outcast. Just furious. It’s the same thing for being a woman. I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that—as a girl who doesn’t attract men—I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around. We have always existed.
Genet, too, he writes as one of the ugly ones. He writes ugly down: all of the things you want to clean up, forget, pretend doesn’t exist.
I need to be reminded, often, that beauty doesn’t always take you places.
June 23, 2012 § 6 Comments
I disliked Prometheus intensely. I do think that having acrimonious feelings towards the film is the actual point—the film seems to be a stand-in for a certain segment of humanity and its imperialist, ruinous ambitions, though like most films coming out of Hollywood this seems to coexist with its appreciation of capital, technology, and involuntary/reproductive labour. That in itself doesn’t make it inherently unlikeable, not at all. But as Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view,” and perhaps it’s the nihilist technological determinism of Prometheus that is inherently unsettling. Perhaps it’s this utter lack of meaning in the movie that is its meaning, and consequently the source of my loathing. Maybe a part of me just wants machines and people to get along? I’m not sure.
I read Elaine Castillo on Prometheus and realised this is the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the movie. Besides, she addresses the questions/concerns I had with more thought and care than I could have ever managed. Still, I’ve apparently written a lengthy post on Prometheus because there are just some issues that I can’t stop thinking about, and Castillo’s post is the spark.
The stuff I can’t stop thinking about includes Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) auto-caesarean scene, for one. This scene, where Shaw basically has to perform a caesarean procedure on herself because, as Castillo points out, “the apparatus—medical, state, corporate—is literally not equipped for what she needs to do,” was, for me, the most unsettling scene in the entire movie. Primarily because it’s filmed in a way to expressly provoke horror and/or titillate. Seeing Shaw’s writhing, jerking slender female body clad only in underwear reminded me of Linda Williams’ essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”. In it, by way of Foucault, Williams talks about how “audiences of all sorts have received some of their most powerful sensations” through the “sexual saturation of the female body” and Shaw’s female body is textbook horror movie trope: a body that is saturated with sex and drenched in blood. And it’s a body that’s intruded upon: first by an unknown alien substance, then by the machinery that’s supposed to remove it out of her.
That Prometheus follows in the footsteps of Alien in blending the genres of both science fiction and body horror is obvious. But in the midst of trying to isolate my visceral horror (and empathy?) for Shaw’s distressed female body on display from thoughts about what was being shown I realised that what was being shown is pretty unusual: a female protagonist actively trying to get rid of her baby. (Castillo: “[T]he only American movie where I’ve ever been able to hear a woman saying, with absolutely no regrets or qualms—GET IT OUT GET IT OUT—hear a woman declare that she does not want a baby in her, and do what she needs to do to terminate the pregnancy.”) Of course, it’s not an actual abortion and it’s a monstrous alien baby, which somehow makes this a “safe” option to explore, perhaps. The more crucial point is that Shaw’s agency is limited in the face of technology—the machines aren’t equipped to do what she needs.
So technology fails her—women’s reproductive needs somehow never being important enough on this planet or any other planet, even in 2089—and Shaw, both the Good Scientist and the Good Woman, keeps the alien fetus alive presumably to learn more about it in service to science and for the benefit of human society at large. (What is this thing? What can we do with it?) Lurking in the background, much like the creeping aliens, is the fact that Shaw is Christian. There’s probably no room in the film’s imagination for Shaw to want the alien fetus dead; not only would she be a bad scientist for not wanting to keep this specimen alive but inevitably she would be seen as a hysterical, selfish woman making an irrational choice for wanting to kill this thing that was growing inside her body through no choice of her own. And we can’t have that. So this scene was an expedient way for the film to work around this issue: you can remove your alien fetus and keep it alive too. (Furthermore, in terms of a movie franchise, this decision to keep the alien alive conveniently segues into the world of Alien.)
After the procedure, Shaw stumbles about bloodied and disoriented and no one around her actually cares or even attempts to portray some semblance of human concern. It’s clear that she’s undergone some form of physical trauma because it’s written all over her body i.e. blood everywhere. It’s only David the android who hands her a robe, or maybe it was a towel, I don’t know. Granted, he is the only one who knows what she’s gone through because he basically engineered this non-immaculate evil conception by introducing alien goo into Shaw’s boyfriend’s system (thereby killing the boyfriend). In the larger scheme of the machinations of corporations and capital, Shaw’s body is used and discarded as a birthing device; the physical and emotional demands placed upon her female body are secondary. In fact, it’s barely an issue. The body must get back out there and perform.
These messy, inconveniently frail and bloody human bodies are foregrounded against the supremely immaculate interior of the spaceship; gleaming metal, shiny objects, pristine surroundings. The year 2089 gives us some pretty amazing technology in terms of what capital needs and dictates, but where the human body is concerned, it’s still going to bleed and fuck and become impregnated against its will. Nowhere is the disparity between body/space clearer than during the aforementioned scene; blood spurts out of Shaw’s body while outside of the surgical pod/chamber is glaringly monochrome, flawless, and unspoiled. The human (female) body and the grotesque alien-monster coming out from inside it are the contaminated bodies, ugly in its inefficiency.
This is in contrast to the ship’s physical interior in Alien. This movie was made in 1979 and clearly movie technology has “improved” since then, but that movie reflected a messier, chaotic, lived-in atmosphere of actual living, breathing humans. But the stark sterility of the ship in Prometheus is mirrored in the cool, inscrutable blondeness of Michael Fassbender’s David and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers. In fact, the moment Vickers steps out of the ship into the cosmos in the final scene where she’s trying to save her life, you know she’s going to die immediately because she’s in the wrong place. Her place is with capital and machinery; she’s practically powered by the forces of profits and technology. Accordingly, she is immediately crushed to death by alien technology. A silly, pointless death—cruel irony, perhaps, or maybe Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof were simply not too fond of Theron. In any case, this death-by-machinery is, back home on Planet Earth, a lived reality for the vast majority of the population working with wayward, hostile machinery in unsafe, unregulated conditions. Very rarely is this a concern for a Corporate King and his family members and fellow plutocrats. In Prometheus, “one of the ‘cheapest’ big-budget films of the year”, the white American 1% has to make a trip outside of Earth to learn that its lives are literally worthless.
Then, there’s Idris Elba. Castillo on Idris Elba’s character (and related, the Aryan-android):
I think there is also a comparison to be made here, too, between David and Captain Janek, played by Idris Elba. Janek’s pragmatism, his lived-in clothes, his race, his accent (somewhere between the American South and Hackney), his embodiment, his sexuality, his noble going-down-with-the-ship-to save-the-world death. The conversation he has with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), their flirting, the moment when he asks if she’s a robot, and she responds by telling him to come to her room in ten minutes (implying that the sexual act will prove whether or not she is truly “human” or not). Janek’s basically good humanity is never questioned. I wondered if this was another case of “people of color as containers of good old homespun wisdom and goodness, to be dispensed to the grateful white people who still dominate them, but a little more nicely in recent years, sort of.”
It strikes me of note that it’s the one black male character on this pristine white ship who gets to needle Meredith Vickers about her anger issues which, to his mind, stem from a presumed lack of sexual activity. Elba’s character also gets to joke about gay sex: When two of his ship’s crew are stuck in the alien cave during a sandstorm and can’t immediately return, he (strangely) seems to exhibit very little fear and concern and instead jokingly tells them not to “bugger each other”. We have to thank Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof for this macho posturing; we clearly don’t get enough of this in our lives and what’s more a science fiction slash horror film will be nothing without it. But it’s also important for the movie to give us the One Black Dude. In an impressive display of moviemaking imagination, the movie’s creators cast Idris Elba to give us a spot of colour and to be the resident homophobic/sexist douche. To be sure, none of the human characters in the movie perform against heterosexist conventions, but Elba’s character is the one who gets to explicitly make homophobic/misogynist jokes. So in a really creative display of characterisation we have this black male character who is one part goodness and one part macho hypersexuality. He left his station to have sex with Vickers! And didn’t even get anyone else to cover for him! During this very crucial time in alien land with strange happenings! Because sex!
(And since we’re talking about spots of colour, let us now devote one sentence in this blog post to Benedict Wong who plays the requisite Asian-everyman with a few clever quips. He gets a few sentences in the film.)
After the predictable and expected deaths of practically everyone, Shaw and Vickers are the last two people alive if you don’t count David who, after an unfortunate encounter with the nasty “Engineer”, is reduced to a talking android head. (“Off with his head, man!”) The movie brings us to the almost-end with both women still alive! (“Feminism!” writes Ridley Scott in the margins of Damon Lindelof’s script). This is also a great way to remind the audience of Alien. (Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley! Didn’t you guys love her? Love this movie, too!) But this brings us to the standard trope of body-horror movies: the good girl vs bad girl trope premised on the whore/virgin dichotomy. Or, as Linda Williams puts it:
The sadomasochistic teen horror films kill off the sexually active “bad” girls, allowing only the non-sexual “good” girls to survive. But these good girls become, as if in compensation, remarkably active, to the point of appropriating phallic power to themselves. It is as if this phallic power is granted so long as it is rigorously separated from phallic or any other sort of pleasure. For these pleasures spell sure death in this genre.
A twist to this trope in this sadomasochistic adult horror film: Vickers is the bad girl because she cares only for profits and power (to usurp her father’s place) while Shaw is the good girl because she’s a believer and has faith, both in the religion in which she was raised (she still has her father’s gold cross), but also because she “believed” in the idea of the existence of these alien-man engineers who made us. The latter fact flies in the face of her religious belief, naturally, but Shaw’s beliefs are framed as both irrational and “right”, and the movie rewards her by letting her stay alive. I’m not sure if Shaw appropriated phallic power—unlike Ripley in Alien there’s nothing about her battling hostile alien beings on her own. In fact, perhaps we can read the talking android head David as her source of phallic power. (Maybe that’s stretching it. But I do enjoy the idea of phallic power = android head.)
Still, as expected in a horror film that’s also a sci-fi film, redemption lies in technological knowledge and expertise. And Shaw, along with David, heads back out into the unknown in search for our makers and why they hate us. “We” human beings apparently want nothing more than to be in search of hostile gods who will be the leaders of our technocracy. And if “human agency, like capital, is a technological body, is something made,” as Timothy Mitchell points out in Rule of Experts, then it seems to me that the android is the clearest example of human agency in this film and also the means by which phallic power is exercised. This is really interesting in light of Castillo’s question: “If we think the cyborg body as techno-human hybrid and metaphor for raced gendered bodies, how do we think the android commodity body, especially David’s blond Aryan android commodity?”
Fassbender’s David inhabits his android body with soft, gentle, yet very precise actions—not a gesture is wasted. He is, on the surface, an ideal disciplined subject. This particular manner of inhabiting the male body is often read as effeminate (particularly in discourse on racialised/colonised subjects). And in this movie, his presence is in contrast to the wayward, raucous, contemptuous masculinity of the human men. Yet there is the bare fact of David’s physical presence: queer android, perhaps, but in a masculine-presenting Aryan body.* Far from a paranoid android, he is a supremely confident one.
(*Or maybe it’s just hard for me to separate this notion of phallic power from the kind of power that Fassbender himself seems to command among movie audiences and critics. I think about Shame and how the widespread acclaim for his performance seems to have been conflated with praise and acclaim for the bold presence of his actual penis. It was collective swooning over an appendage that overshadowed what his performance was about or, indeed, what the movie was about. But then, maybe that’s what the movie was all about. I think it’s a movie about man tears and a capricious penis that, on the surface, wants to be understood as being in tension with or against the phallocracy, but deep down inside is just totally enamoured with phallocracy. But that’s another movie for another overlong blog post discussion.)