Dirt and the housewife

May 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

A fragmented history of bourgeois morality, sexual division of labour, dirt, and the middle-class housewife via two books excerpted below; Kipnis’s one on North American feminism (broadly speaking) and Theweleit’s one on the rise of white supremacy and fascism in Germany in relation to gender relations and the advent of capitalism.

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability:

Note that the dirt-sex dilemma hasn’t only played out in the nation’s kitchens and bathrooms, it’s left its mark on history as well, and nowhere more conspicuously than in the female social-purity movement of  the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The “movement” was actually hundreds of separate organizations and campaigns, with rousing names like the National Vigilance Association and the Moral Reform Union, variously devoted to anti-vice agitation and temperance campaigns, rallying against gambling, prostitution, and general male sexual loucheness. All this first took off in England and the United States, eventually spawning international organizations and world congresses aimed at cleaning up male behavior everywhere. Themes of public hygiene and sanitary reform were tied to morality campaigns, with women undertaking to purify society on all levels, public and private, through legislation, street-corner proselytizing, or whatever it took.

In retrospect it make (sic) sense that with the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a compensatory cult of domesticity took hold. The home became a sanctified realm removed from the tawdriness of the marketplace, and it was the new sentimentality about the home that gave the women the platform to assert a new public authority as guardians of national purity. When Frances Willard, founder of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, pronounced that her goal was “to make the whole word houselike,” she was floating a new political ideology: that the strength of the nation was directly connected to the strength of the nation’s households. The problem with dividing the world into these increasingly separate male and female domains was that it wasn’t just paid work that was assigned to the male sphere, it was sexuality as well. On their side of the divide, men got sexual passion; women got cleanup duty. One again, thanks.

Consider the psychological effects of the flush toilet alone — goodbye to chamber pots, all your bodily wastes thankfully whisked from sight, now only a vague memory — allowing the ever-pertinent question “You think your shit doesn’t stink?” to the enter the social lexicon. Consider too, the new varieties of class contempt directed at the unwashed: if cleanliness is virtuous and the distribution of cleaning advances invariably begins with the moneyed, obviously rich and poor deserve their respective fates. After all, who’s cleaner?


Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History:

The second characteristic of industrial production is that from the very start, it had the capacity to create specific abundance in the midst of general scarcity: toys and baubles for the rich, fashionwear, and every other kind of garbage imaginable.

Working and making love became exercises in dying, only to a limited extent were they still creative, life-affirming processes. Every single commodity a worker produced was a piece of his own death. Every act of lovemaking carries the bodies deeper into a debt of guilt that accumulated toward death.

Lovers and workers now produce “dirt” from the moment they start their activities. The citizen of a society that began “placing a cover over piano legs, as a simple precaution,” set about keeping both things at a distance, factories and love (flowings as well as machines).

Is it any wonder with all that “dirt” around that the quality of water changed? The habits of washing and swimming in water, including in rivers and lakes, originated in the eighteenth century, in the context of the bourgeoisie’s “moral superiority” over the absolutist nobility. We need to consider the enormously heightened significance of water, in these attempts to implement hygiene in bourgeois society in relation to the simultaneous social proscription of other wet substances (especially those of the body) and the demotion of these substances to the status of “dirt”. At the same time, the phrase “hygiene as a new form of piety” describes only one aspect of the process.

The spring is a kind of natural shower for washing off the “dirt” of society. And showers like that found their way into houses. I’m a little surprised to find that I’ve arrived at the conjecture that plumbing had to be installed in private residences to help carry out the repression of human desires in bourgeois societies. (That repression took the form of gender segregation and sexual repression.)

Starting from the kitchen and the bedroom, Cleanliness began its triumphal march throughout the house. White lines, white morals, white tablecloths: an incessant rustling of white (no longer audible, but ever present). With the drying up of the streams in the bedroom, moving through the water pipes that were the heart of any clean kitchen, the image of the Pure Mother (the propaganda about clean interiors in houses and bodies) slowly gained ascendancy within the house. The housewife gradually came to embody whiteness, while her husband despaired or started dreaming about the sexual allure of nonhousewives (image of the ocean). Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.


this land is your land

March 5, 2013 § 6 Comments

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

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

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

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

(All of the above.)

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

The Misfits are also patriots

The Misfits are also patriots


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

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

It does, but only for a bit.

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

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

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

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

He has come quite far.

Branson, now in the garb of  Gentleman™

Branson, now in the garb of Gentleman™


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

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

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

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

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

More from The Regime of the Brother:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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



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.

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

Be a man. This land is your land.


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

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Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist.

October 17, 2012 § 8 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.


Uniformed white men on horses in Circular Quay. I think there were epic ceremonial rites taking place that we basically stumbled upon by chance. I mean, there were reporters and shit! And who can resist the uniformed white men on horses? Not us Malaysian tourists, that’s for sure.

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.

Factory workhouse on Cockatoo Island

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?

Cockatoo Island’s military guardhouse i.e. panopticon


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.



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.

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Two short quotes on commodity fetish and magic

June 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve had a Tumblr account for awhile, but I’ve only recently begun to really enjoy it. I think a large part of it has to do with who I follow. I look at my Tumblr dash and feel only excitement, unlike Twitter, which has only brought about feelings of anxiety and general grouchiness of late. But this is not a comparison; I complain about all social media equally. Unless I hate it, then I deactivate my account and become even more removed from digital social interaction. (I’m looking at you, Facebook.) It’s just that on Tumblr, stuff like this[i] often pops up. (And worsement’s follow-up commentary (and hashtags) is like icing on the cake.)

I recently read Peter Stallybrass’s “Marx’s Coat”. It’s a really gorgeous piece of writing, on top of being a truly exhilarating piece of analysis/theory.  I remember reading Renaissance Clothing and Materials of Memory, a book he co-wrote with Ann Rosalind Jones, in the dry, overheated aisles of the University of Winnipeg library one winter while researching a shitload of books for my “Women in the Renaissance” class.  The writing in that book was energetic and lively, too, and I remember it a particular form of relief after reading piles of books written in dusty, properly comatose-inducing prose. Bits of “Marx’s Coat” sounds familiar because I’m pretty sure these were some of the ideas explored in Renaissance Clothing as well.

In “Marx’s Coat”, Stallybrass writes that “for Marx, fetishism was not the problem; the problem is the fetishism of commodities.” What follows in Stallybrass’s essay is a brief elucidation of the historical development of the concept of the fetish:

As William Pietz has brilliantly argued, the “fetish” emerges through the trading relations of the Portuguese in West Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Pitez, 1985, 1987). Pietz shows that the fetish as a concept was elaborated to demonize the supposedly arbitrary attachment of West Africans to material objects. The European subject was constituted in opposition to a demonized fetishism, through the disavowal of the object.


The concept of the “fetish” was developed literally to demonize the power of “alien” worn objects (through the association of feitiço with witchcraft). And it emerged as the European subject simultaneously subjugated and enslaved other subjects and proclaimed its own freedom from material objects.

This is short overview within a specific site and form of colonisation, of course, but it does make me want to comb through the archives of British colonial records to see how this played out in the subjugation of Southeast Asian cultural and religious practices.

There is much to think about throughout “Marx’s Coat” but towards the end, Stallybrass writes the magic words:

There was, as Marx knew, a form of magic in the material transformations capitalism performed.


But if there was, indeed, a magic to these transformations, there was also a devastating appropriation of the bodies of the living and even of the clothing of the dead.

Magic by way of mystification is the essence commodification in a capitalist system. Marina Warner gets really close to this in the one section of Stranger Magic I really enjoyed, “Active Goods”; but Stranger Magic attempts to be a feel-good book about magic and its various transcendent qualities that bridge the gap between “East” and “West”. Thus it merely glides over whole chunks of the material realities of Orientalism, particularly in relation to economic and cultural appropriation of symbols, objects, rituals, and practices of the East by the invading/colonizing West. I mentioned this briefly in my previous post on Warner’s book. Warner’s focus on magic and the life of objects needs to be Marxified and Arjun Appaduraied. That’s a book I would love to read.

[i] A result of following Voyou’s tumblr is inadvertently listening to, and liking, a Justin Bieber song. Yes, it has happened. “I’ll be your platinum, I’ll be your silver, I’ll be your gold, as long as you love me,” Justin sings, and you wonder if this is what Karl (Marx) would have sung to Jenny (Marx) on the way to the pawnshop.

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“Do we perish of shame or do we die from hiding our shames?”

September 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

So do we perish of shame, or rather, as Bernard Lazare suggests in his extraordinary remark, do we die from hiding our shames? Shame swept under the carpet, this history suggests, breeds violence like nothing else. What would it be like to live in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame?

Untitled by Felix Nussbaum (1940)

I just finished reading Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion, which is one of the hardest books I’ve had to read in awhile. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been immersed in as much readings as I could find on the topic of Israel and Palestine for the review I was writing for Pop Matters on Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust, a book I desperately wanted to read but felt underqualified to review, that Rose’s book seemed particularly harder to read and think about than it actually is.

Rose’s book requires a mind willing to go deep into dark, murky, subterranean places, and it requires a willingness to temporarily abandon a position – if only to return to it later – to excavate the tangled, labyrinthine histories of the roots of Zionism. Owing its debt to psychoanalysis, Freud, and Lacan, Rose’s book tries to understand an ideology as symptom – Zionism as a form of phantasy, schizophrenia, and refuge. Because Rose is also deeply influenced by Edward Said, her project follows in his tradition of tender yet ruthless interrogation. She refrains from dehumanising the aggressors and perpetrators of violence, and tries instead to bring into focus the roots of their own torment that led them to this place of terror, both feared and inflicted. Understanding Israel’s violence means understanding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and the willingness (courage?) to locate the roots of deep violence against the Jewish people that shades much of Europe’s history.

Rose doesn’t offer solutions, but a psychoanalytic interrogation of Israel’s violence, I think, hinges upon that quote I’ve referred to above. The shame of the Holocaust, and the burdens of historical marginalisation, are scars that refuse to heal, and continue to inflict their pain through imagined power manifested through brutal oppression of others. Rose refers to the “cruelty that native Israelis had shown to the survivors” of the Holocaust, points to Ben-Gurion’s remarks that “we do not belong to that Jewish people” – that Jewish people being shameful aberrations, people who allowed what seemed to be unimaginable violence to be done to them. In this repudiation of their own history and their own people, Rose seems to say, lies Israel and Zionism’s tragic error – which, for all of us cognisant of the history of Israeli war and occupation, is a tragedy that keeps repeating itself on the Palestinians.

I have been unable to move past some of the more brutal truths that Rose attempted to excavate – it’s a splinter under the skin of my thoughts – this idea of Ben-Gurion’s that “we do not belong to that Jewish people”, this reality of cruelty shown by native Israelis to Holocaust for having been weak, and for bringing about shame, as though if they had been strong the Holocaust would never have happened. (A phantasy, of course, as Rose reminds us over and over – the idea that we can make ourselves infallible. The phantasy that seems to underlie the entire project of the Israeli nation-state.)

No violence is unimaginable, of course. Once imagined, it keeps repeating itself through the shame it inflicts.

*Image taken from A Holocaust Art Exhibit.

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Don’t ask, don’t tell – majulah Malaysia

April 7, 2011 § 4 Comments

It seems that Malaysia only has one prominent public intellectual and he is Farish Noor. Public intellectuals, it seems, are a rare breed over here – or if they exist, it’s like they’re shrouded under a mountain of invisibility cloaks. Perhaps if one is an intellectual, one tries not to make it public. The act of thinking is always regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. So it’s a shame that our only prominent Malaysian public intellectual doesn’t live and teach in Malaysia.[i] In his introduction to What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You, Farish talks about the difficulty of doing the kind research and academic work that matters – the kind that goes against the status quo or isn’t government-sanctioned:

It was by chance that I began to read and write about Malaysia’s convoluted history, as a result of several years of frustration while trying to do something that resembled decent research in the region. The lack of books, archives, and primary sources meant that much of my material had to be culled directly from interviews; searching for books that were out of print in the second-hand bookstores of London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Leiden; and piecing together fragments of a history that seemed to have been deliberately torn apart.

I can sympathise with this position. While not even doing anything remotely close to sustained research, I found it hard to know where to start to write a basic undergraduate paper in a Critical Theory class on orientalism, Malaysian history, and Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy. I heard about Syed Alatas and The Myth of the Lazy Native for the first time ever in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which filled me with a sense of shame that I still find somewhat eviscerating many years later. The notion that one had to learn about home by-way of people outside of it was a common one, however, for many of my friends who were also undergraduates at the time in various humanities disciplines.

This is precisely what Azmi Sharom (the Robin to Farish’s Batman? In a scholarly manner, I mean) alludes to in his preface to What Your Teacher Didn’t Know:

Academic freedom, the autonomy to teach and to research what one wishes is therefore not a luxury, it is a necessity. Unfortunately, it is in rather short supply in Malaysia. We have ridiculous laws in this country that hang over the heads of academics like the sword of Damocles, waiting to fall if the government feels that one is being disloyal to it.


No longer "fighting" communism, Malaysia is still rife with symbolic divisions between white and black areas.

Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive

It’s an additional shame that What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is only a book instead of the 10-part reference series I was hoping it would be. This is, after all, Malaysia. Those of us who attended national public schools in Malaysia and then went on to pursue undergraduate and tertiary studies abroad will have at some point or another come to this realisation: there is a whole lot of shit our teachers didn’t tell us. It is, of course, the inevitable fate of the Malaysian humanities student to discover a shitload of information about her country in the reference library of her university located in the wintry prairie depths of a White Man’s Country and not, as it so happens, while living in her own. I remember history lessons in secondary school where classes began with all of us standing up. Our teacher would go around asking questions, and those who got the answer right got to sit down. The last girl standing, of course, is meant to be the paragon of failure. I was the last girl standing quite a number of times, because I was never good at suck-and-spit. Get your mind out of the gutter, dear blog-reader. What I refer to as suck-and-spit is the way in which history lessons were taught in school: suck the marrow and the joy out of history and life (memorise, memorise, memorise), and spit (regurgitate all that you’ve memorised). Surely I wasn’t the only one having trouble keeping straight our various incarnations of Sultan Mahmud of Melaka? There was the first Sultan Mahmud, and after that there were a whole bunch of ‘em, but who gives a shit when all you had to do was keep the names straight without really understanding what these various Sultan Mahmuds did?

The thing called World History was indeed summarised in one or two short chapters; so much so that my abysmal knowledge of the history of other nations shocked even my mother, who enjoyed rubbing it in that “even in my village school in Sri Lanka I learned more than you.” So yes, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is an essential book for every Malaysian – so essential that I hope by the time I’m done writing this review I’ll learn that it has been translated into Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. It’s a thick, very beautifully-produced book by Amir Muhammad’s Matahari Books, amply illustrated with pictures and maps from Farish’s personal collection of Malaysiana or taken from what’s available in the public domain. As it happens, this book ends too soon. As it also happens, it whets your appetite for more more more… gimmeMOARKNOWLEDGE.

Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive

What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is culled from Farish’s series of lectures at The Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, none of which I managed to attend. There are six essays altogether, but only five are from the original lecture series. The sixth is a “bonus” written for the book, one assumes, and it shows because it is the least engaging one. It’s an important essay on the early “left-leaning years” of PAS, which as we’re all aware, has now transformed into an ultra-religious party with ultra-right leanings (even as there are remnants of its early pioneering spirit). But it’s also a heavy essay that sometimes borders on the ponderous. It lacks the spice and verve of the rest, probably because it wasn’t intended to be a lecture designed to enthral and educate a broad-based audience. The other five chapters in the book, in contrast, are imbued with a sense of play and creativity, no doubt an indication of the general spirit of those Annexe lectures.

At the heart of all of Farish’s essays/lectures is the complex and engrossing subject of intertextuality and intersectionality in Malaysian history. Whether he’s talking about the genesis of the keris in socio-cultural use, the roots of conceptions of sexuality in Southeast Asia and Malaysia, the colonial construction of race politics, or the current incarnation of feudal politics via the Barisan Nasional machinery, Farish’s consistent and laudable aim is to point to the multifariousness of our roots and the futility of trying to find or create a single, unified source. This is precisely the danger of current political rhetoric in Malaysia, with its full-on slide into conservative, right-leaning singularity. Singularity of thought, mind, and future – where our differences, which should be recognised and celebrated – are subsumed under tepid nation-state sloganeering. 1Malaysia, yes, but whose Malaysia?

Much like everything in our shared, collective culture, the keris, as Farish describes in the first chapter, has become an “over-determined signifier.” In his exhortation to us to “pity the keris, not blame it”, Farish attempts to rescue it from nationalist posturing and chauvinist patriarchy by tracing the intricate roots of its symbol and meaning from the Malay-Hindu epic, Hikayat Pandawa Lima (taken from the Mahabharata)  and its journey through the lands of Java, Champa, and much of the Malay peninsula:

Thanks to the influx of ideas and beliefs from both the mainland (Champa, Lankasuka, Siam, Patani) and the islands (Java), the Malay world was exposed to Vishnuite and Shivaistic schools of Hindu thought as well as aesthetics. The keris, as the ritual object into which these new forms, ideas, and meanings had been invested, became the living embodiment of the dominant Hindu cults of Shiva and Vishnu and it had penetrated deep into the popular imagination of the Indo-Malay peoples.

I’m unsure why Farish chose to use the word “cults” to describe certain sects of Hinduism that exist up until today. Etymologically, the word cult doesn’t have the resonance with the “freaky” as it does in current parlance, but the Shiva and Vishnu sects are not mere ancient forms of belief, if Farish intended to use it in that particular context. The Saivite and Vaishnavite sects are still two of the key sects of Hinduism still in practice. There other moments in the text when Farish’s choice of words gave me pause, such as when he talks about the keris gaining popularity among the landed merchants, traders, and Muslim clerical class. “The keris enjoyed new patronage and custom from these new groups,” he writes, “but also became popularised and vulgarised in the process.” This easy slide from ‘popular’ to ‘vulgar’ contains a not-so-faint whiff of Eau de Elitism; my nose thus wrinkled in minor WTF-displeasure.

One gets the sense that Farish values the sophisticated and the elegant, and occasionally his work lacks a sharp focus when it comes to critiquing ancient or modern practices in terms of class and gender. In the chapter on the history of sexuality in Southeast Asia, for example, which he revisits through the Hikayat Panji Semirang texts, he writes:

In both cases, the men and women who are attracted to Panji are struck by her/his sexually androgynous appearance and her/his refined (halus) manners. The ideal type that is constructed in the narrative conforms to the traditional Javanese register of halus culture, as contrasted to the kasar category of the brutish, vulgar and excessive.

This contrast of halus versus kasar is interesting, not least because androgynous, fluid (bi)sexuality is celebrated in these tales, as opposed to the rigid “heterosexist gender distinctions” that are accepted and touted as the norm. But it’s also interesting because the characters in the Panji are earthly manifestation of gods and goddesses, and these semi-divine figures belong to the aristocratic semi-heavenly court of kings, queens, princes and princesses. Farish is somewhat uncritical of the distinction between halus and kasar and attempts to recapture it as a positive reading of fluid sexuality – the refined androgynous man-woman as the ultimate object of desire – without locating it in the class divisions of the semi-divine monarchs versus the… regular folk. His reading of the Panji is uncritically positive and focused only on selective parts that boost his argument. While sexual mores may have been fluid and playful in the past, the happy ending at the end of the text – as described by Farish – only comes by way of the characters finally falling into their prescribed gender roles as man and woman. This is not something Farish chooses to focus on.

But in light of the Malaysian public’s current preoccupation with the very act of sexual intercourse, whether it be of the male-male variety or the male-female variety, this chapter is an illuminating one – signalling that our conceptions of halus and kasar are always shifting. The current spectacle of sex that has graced the pages of our newspapers and online websites and social media focus on one person – Anwar Ibrahim – and on the threat he apparently still represents to the ruling coalition. This is a spectacle in which not only are the emperors naked; their subjects are, as well. This spectacle of sex has stripped the Malaysian public naked, with our so-called Asian values left hung out to dry. The revelatory point is that these values are as “dirty” as everything it purports to be “against”. The loud defenders of our Malaysia-truly-Asia values have revealed these values to be essentially filthy in its very conception not because of sex, but precisely because of the element of corruption and truth-smearing and its basic core of hypocrisy. This hypocrisy relies on the laziness of its manipulation: using sex by which to project an image of filth or depravity to obfuscate the indulgence in lies and nepotism by public means (cover-ups of police and custodial deaths or election fraud, for example, of championing the strengths of a despot in Sarawak).

Pornography is banned in Malaysia, as is prostitution, but our leaders manufacture videos to display pornography – that of a prominent opposition leader, supposedly, having sex with a prostitute – and expects the rakyat to pretend that we’re all still fully-robed; that none of it is ludicrous and an insult to our collective intelligence. If anything, reading the Panji tales by way of Farish arouses a feeling of deep melancholy, an ache for a time in the past where different modes of sexualities were not merely in existence but celebrated; a time when people were encouraged to and were expected to respond to their own impulses of lust and desire with both feeling and thought. With sex used as a weapon or a means of political obfuscation in our current discourse, the ability to both think and feel seems more antiquated than ever – like the heart and mind are relics of history, and all that we are left with is brutish, aggressive anger with which to harness our biological drives.

Similarly, the recent brouhaha over school literature text, Interlok, and the objections by both the Chinese and the Indians to its supposedly racist content is one that will be put into relevant context for Malaysians after reading Farish’s chapter on ‘The Lost Tribes of Malaysia’. The government, missing the point and the opportunity of the controversy surrounding Interlok to address and find solutions to perennial, simmering race-based tensions, have instead tried to find the easiest way out – by amending the literary text. Artistic integrity, issues of censorship and textual modification, racism – in one fell swoop, all these issues are at once elided and ignored in this pea-brained solution. As Farish points out, Malaysia’s pre-Islamic, pluralist history is consistently concealed in favour of a right-wing, ethno-nationalist discourse that favours Islam and ketuanan Melayu. Race groupings are inherently unstable, which is why the fixation on ‘Malay’ identity is doomed before it even begins, why race-based policies are doomed from its very inception. Try as you might to erase history, you can’t erase the people in whom history lives. Our former Prime Minister of twenty-two years, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who mastered the breathtakingly sinister art of championing ‘Malay rights’ while holding ‘Malay people’ in contempt, has ethnic roots in South India that he carefully elides while trumpeting his apparent ethnic Malayness.

Dr. Mahathir wrote Malay Dilemma in 1970, a book that along with Revolusi Mental by Senu Abdul Rahman, comes under strong critique from Farish:

The most striking thing about both the Malay Dilemma and Revolusi Mental is that both texts have accepted and reproduced the conventional stereotypes of Malay identity that were first formulated and instrumentalised by the colonial masters. As Alatas (1977) has shown, both texts are entirely devoid of auto-critique and introspection, and they both faithfully reproduce the logic of colonial racial difference and race-relations in an uncritical manner.

Having had our independence from the British handed to us on a silver-platter (and, we should note, handed over to the silver-spoon elite), we have since 1957 repeated without fail the pattern of politics rooted in colonial race-based discourse that, in Farish’s words, remain “configured along divisive sectarian and communitarian” lines, dominated throughout by one ruling coalition comprising three parties representing the “three main races” of Malaysia – the in-betweens, the indigenous, and the “lain-lain” be damned.

Further clues to the political mire we seem to be in can be found in his chapter ‘Of Rajas, Maharajas, Dewarajas and Kerajaan’, which attempts to trace the genealogy of four thousand years of feudal politics with roots in Hindu-Buddhist governance and monarchy, leading to what is our current ampu bodek culture – which Farish notes isn’t unique to Malaysia alone, but continues to exist in different degrees in present-day Thailand and Indonesia. Launching a much-needed critique on Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Farish writes:

Most of the accounts given by writers like Mahathir (1970), Chandra (1979), Andaya (1982) and Abdullah (1985) have noted that the Tunku’s style of government was very much determined by his own elite background, values, and worldview. In their reading of his style of government and leadership, many of these scholars have dubbed the Tunku a traditional Malay ruler, governing in the typically autocratic manner of the Kerajaan establishment. So deeply ingrained was the feudal mentality of protection and patronage within UMNO under the Tunku’s leadership that it even became part of the party’s vocabulary and ideology.

Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive

Lest we assume that all this is in the past, all we need to do is bring ourselves back to the present, where current Prime Minister Najib Razak sees fit to warn Malaysians not to “question the social contract” or “question Malay rights”. The key factor of a social contract – the consent of the governed – that surely renders the social contract negotiable is never referred to or even honoured. We didn’t have to fight for our independence, and we’ve never had a revolution. Malaysia’s comfortable trajectory has traversed Kerajaan-style monarchy to colonial-rule to, finally, a colonial-inherited parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch (how’s that working out for you?). This is something Farish alludes to in the chapter titled ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, and it’s worth quoting at length:

The Federation of Malaya inherited the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, along with a constitutional monarch as its head of state, something that the UMNO leaders in particular were keen to install. Because of the consensus of values and ideology that already existed between the two sides, the transfer of power and authority from the departing colonial powers to the traditional Malay ruling elite proved to be uncomplicated. In the words of Chandra [Muzaffar, whose Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia Farish cites] “both feudal history and British colonialism had thus conspired to bestow the privilege of power upon this group.” It was just a matter of legal procedure before the Malay Sultans were installed as the ideologically potent symbols of Malay power, while the Malay aristocratic elite manoeuvred themselves into positions of real political power as the de facto rulers. Decades of British colonial rule had ensured the integrity and viability of the Malay royal families, something which the conservatives of UMNO were quick to recognise and exploit in what Roger Kershaw has termed a ‘sociological symbiosis’. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that The Times of London reported the birth of Malaya with a resonant chord of approval.

Like most Malaysians, Malaysia herself proved to be a good, obedient student who follows the rules unasked. First rule for free colonies: If the colonial power from whom you gained independence is cheering you on, you know something’s wrong.

This chapter on ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, which focuses on the “left-leaning years” of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), is further indication of how a distinct lack of class consciousness among Malaysians makes it unable for us to successfully and collectively fight for rights from the bottom-up instead of the top-down approach that views the middle-and-upper classes as the default point of origin. Farish traces the roots of PAS’ pro-rakyat tendencies, when it was led by the charismatic and formidably intelligent Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy from 1956 t0 1969. Dr. Burhanuddin’s “philosophy of Islamist-nationalism”, as Farish puts it, was greatly informed by Marxism, leading to a kind of Islamism that “called for the Malays to transcend their narrow ethnocentrism and parochialism to focus on the wider struggle against foreign domination and exploitation of their economy.” Much of this is lost in the current incarnation of PAS, which in response to UMNO’s increased move towards conservative neoliberal policies under the guise of globalisation, has opted to respond with an increasingly right-wing agenda of narrow, parochial Islamic governance.

After twenty two years of our very own Maggie Thatcher, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, class consciousness seems to be all but erased among the post-80s generation. From activism to civic rights campaigners and young politicians, all assume a hyper-capitalist, middle-and-upper class mode of being as the default – and therefore promote and advance causes from that particular starting point without any critique of their own position. This is precisely why the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) folk give me the heebie-jeebies, inspired as they are by “the vision of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia”. Part of their philosophy is quoted below:

Our mission is to improve the level of understanding and acceptance of public policies based on the principles of rule of law, limited government, free markets and free individuals.

“Free individuals” inspired by the Tunku is, if we agree with Farish’s assessments thus far, deeply suspect indeed. A “limited government” with a “free market” – what does that mean? A government limited only by its abilities to protect the free market, as opposed to its people? I’m being facetious, no doubt, but one need only look to the US to see how this has worked out for them.

That we’ll continue to reap much of the same without end in sight is pretty much guaranteed for as long as UMNO is in power (Barisan National, as we all know, is just a front for UMNO-rule. MIC who? MCA what?) This pretty much bears itself out among the “younger generation” of UMNO politicians, particularly in one Khairy Jamaluddin, whom the liberal elites drool over as a symbol of potential change in UMNO. Khairy recently tweeted this:

That’s like the Ghost of Dr. Mahathir past, present, and future all in one tweet. That the Twittering elite, with their multiple iPads and Mac laptops – and where Khairy is concerned, Oxford-educated, privileged, moneyed, and with a former Prime Minister of Malaysia as his father-in-law – are able to sum up “the Malay mind” as “backward” with no one, as I’ve seen thus far, objecting to it, says a lot about how we view ourselves and our respective privilege. [I’ll also like to take a moment, since this is my blog, to note my distaste for Khairy and his stable of middle-class yuppie male fanboys ready to retweet him at any moment.] Do they ever take a moment to consider his privilege, and their own, the position from which he speaks and the position from which they retweet? I mean, seriously, this[ii]:

Farish’s work does have its hiccups, and this is mainly where his own analysis doesn’t seem to leave much room for gender and class-based critique. While he is an excellent historian, teasing out strands from the past to deftly weave them into a coherent, elegant narrative fabric, his own preference for the culture of halus over kasar, and throwaway comments about the popularisation of the keris among the masses leading to its “vulgarisation” are occasionally jarring.  I don’t know Farish but have attended some of his other lectures and book launches in the past, and while humour is not his forte, his brand of serious and precise oratory has always been consistently compelling. Yet somehow in this book his prose occasionally veers into snootiness of the nose-in-the-air variety, and this cannot but entail the attendant eye-roll on the reader’s part. There may have been some self-consciousness on Farish’s part with regards to how to present his prodigious and intellectually-demanding research in a manner that is accessible to readers at all levels of knowledge, resulting in the occasional attempts at cheekiness and jokeyness that unfortunately fall flat. The line between scholarly and popular is a broad chasm, and one may occasionally stumble.

That said, Farish’s doing valuable work, and if you’re the least bit interested in understanding Malaysian history beyond government-dictated history textbooks, you best ensure that you own a copy of What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You. If you find it difficult, at this precise moment, to imagine a better Malaysia – perhaps a journey back to the past can provide the stirrings for creative reimagination. Or, at the very least, it allows you to envision a Malaysia unhampered by the screaming far-right rhetoric of the present-day news and saves you from flushing your head down the toilet.

[i] If anyone can point out others (besides Azmi Sharom), please do. I’ve thought and I’ve thought, but I can’t come up with anyone else. Can anyone think of a Malaysian public intellectual who’s a woman?

[ii] Privilege Denying Malaysian Guy. Please, just go look at it now already.


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Virtues of wifeliness

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

By coincidence, I found myself reading two books about marriage and wifehood at the same time: Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife and Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. That one was a staid historical investigation and the other a genre romance seemed to me to be a rather serendipitous and fitting reflection of the current conception of Wifeliness, particularly here in Southeast Asia; one that requires a wife to be appropriately sober and sensible in tandem with being the ideal embodiment of femininity and the as the supreme gatekeeper to romance. Or perhaps not. I wouldn’t know, not being a wife. But from my perspective as wildly unleashed Single Woman it was vicarious fun to romp in satin sheets via the Quinn book and take a long, detailed walk through the history of Western wives via the Yalom book.

Yalom tries to be specific with her title, yet one still feels that it should have been subtitled: “The White Wife of America and Western Europe”. Full of historical facts and figures, and plenty of primary sources including letters and speech transcripts, Yalom’s book attempts to paint a broad yet cohesive picture of the white wife from the time of antiquity until the present day. I realise that my use of the term “white” is also fraught with complexities, but it refers precisely to Yalom’s focus of the book. In sections where there was a need to mention black wives (such as during the time of slavery) or Native American wives (during the conquest of America), Yalom, to her credit, does give a few pages to the subject, and then carries on with her primary subject – the white wives.

But this is not to devalue Yalom’s focus or historical approach, as a whole – typically, historians who set out to write a complete history of anything will naturally find themselves as at an impasse that must be breached or simply avoided when it comes to the curious matter of which groups of people to focus on, and why. While reading it, I tweeted about this book being a “sprightly romp” because it is – an extraordinary feast of historical nuggets ably extended to 400 pages thanks to Yalom’s strong sense of narrative and the genuine enthusiasm she seems to display for her material. It’s an able historian who’s able to draw attention to the changes societies have accrued over the years while still pointing out the many ways in which the changes can sometimes be at best, superficial, or limited to only certain groups of people. To wit:

In ancient Greece, a young woman was her father’s possession until she married. Then she was “given by her father to her husband. Remnants of this idea still exist in the Western marriage ceremony when the minister asks, “Who gives this woman?” and the bride’s father response, “I do.” A marriageable woman was a human commodity, to be transferred from her father’s home to her husband’s, where she assumed the latter’s name and was subject to his control.

When Yalom tells us that “legal wife beating did not disappear with the Middle Ages”, she contextualises the beliefs and mores of past societies that condoned the practice and assumed it to be as natural as breathing, while leaving readers with the uncomfortable reality of beliefs that persist in brutality and in number even when it stops being normal. The history of a wife, as Yalom tells it, is also the history of a husband – and because marriage was necessarily an integral part of life for all adult males and females up to the very recent 18th century – it is, also, quite simply the history of humankind.  Mediaeval Europe, heralding the birth of courtly or romantic love, emphasised flattery and wooing as means of winning over the female, but also sanctioned – in fact, promoted – rape and forcible sexual overtures as a way of breaking down the female’s “natural modesty”. It’s endlessly fascinating, the inherent conflicts that seem to be weaved into the very fabric of society itself, because a woman’s “natural modesty” is a construct of society, while rape also becomes a societal construct that is used to break down those defences that everyone knows might not really reveal a woman’s true feelings. That is, she might be shy and retiring because she is expected to be, but if you really love her and she really loves you, push her into a corner and sexually coerce her, because who knows? She might be really into you!

To that effect, Yalom’s book is also a fascinating glimpse of how “woman” is continually being made and remade to fit the exigencies of society. As she writes in her chapter on ‘Victorian Wives on Both Sides of the Atlantic’: “In keeping with the new view of woman as angel, she was stripped of all physical desire. The distinguished English doctor William Acton opined that ‘woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him.’ “

Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever is set just before the Victorian age in that small bright flicker of a flame that was the Georgian/Regency period – where simplicity governed fashion but social norms and mores were given to controlled, elegant flights of fancy. In this time, women were still not expected to make the first move and actively lust after or pursue their delicious man-dish of choice. They could, however, primp and preen and display a little bit of delicious bosom in order to subtly and deviously get the right man-dish to be served at their table. Enter Miranda Cheever, only 10 years old, but already maligned for not looking the way pretty young girls who will soon be potential brides should. Enter also Nigel Turner, elder brother of Miranda’s best friend, Olivia, who on one particularly serendipitous day, tells Miranda this: “Someday you are going to grow into yourself, and you will be as beautiful as you are smart.”

Miranda goes home that night and writes in her diary: “Today, I fell in love.” As would anyone fall, 10-years-old or not, for the person who finds in them the promise of beauty. We’re not so much enraptured by the idea of being beautiful as much as we’re charmed by someone else’s revelation of the potential they see in us. How much more energising and vital to hear about our potential for beauty – which could be life-changing and GREAT, as it’s not in evidence yet – than it is to be told that “You’re beautiful”, which could mean nothing, really, once you go back home and look in the mirror.

And so the stage is set for the drama of love in Quinn’s book. Quinn is a clever writer with a great ear for fast-paced dialogue that’s ripe with casual wit and banter. Yet it still feels like she keeps reminding herself to stay well within the boundaries of genre, lest she go too far and allow her characters to say or think things that grasps the narrative by its petticoat and shoves it toward an unplanned direction. Because of this, situations or dialogues that initially develop with ease and spontaneity often end on a note of cliché or predictability. No doubt, that’s one of the challenges of writing intelligently in a genre. But in the case of this book in particular, it often feels lazy and uninspired.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of the book or the occasional wit that transpires over the course of the narrative. Miranda is a character whom one is compelled to rally around, especially when she’s made out to be the underdog from the very first page. In a line of pretty, perfectly-behaved women waiting to be selected by men, Miranda earns herself the spot at the head of the line of the Interesting but Not Ugly women. In the Regency era, as is the case now, being interesting often left you with a good many men willing to dance with you, but none with the temerity to actually propose marriage.

Turner finally does propose marriage to Miranda, and that’s no surprise, because we pay for a romance novel in order to earn ourselves the right to enjoy the happily-ever-after. How it comes about is rather a twist; in this case, it’s Miranda who wants to marry for love, and because Turner has ex-wife issues that he has not dealt with, love is something that exists on the periphery of his consciousness. He likes Miranda, but marries her out of duty as he has “robbed” her of her virtue before they were engaged. The sex was consensual, but the handing over of virtue is the business of society. As Yalom outlined in her book, society was keen to look the other way in terms of pre-marital sex in pre-Victorian Britain, so long as the couple finally got engaged in the end. If this was pre-marital sex between the working classes, of course, no one really gave a flying chemise who did whom.

Miranda could have happily stayed single and enjoyed her father’s economic protection, if not his emotional one (he was distant and scholarly, if affectionate, and her mother is dead). There was no real urgency for marriage, unless she was pregnant (a scare that did come up as a momentum-creating plot device, but just as soon comfortingly dissolved). The fact that she could refuse Turner once doesn’t seem to have affected the relationship – as Turner is fulfilling his duty, he sketches out to Miranda a lifetime of good companionship, great conversation, and fantastic sex. She gives in, because she loves him. The thorn in her side at the beginning – that Turner never told her he loves her – is ably resolved in the end when she actually DOES become pregnant as a legitimate wife, undergoes a traumatic birth, and is recognised by Turner as the love of his life because she made a baby for him.

If Foucault wants to keep reminding us that power travels along a continuum and is never centred in one exact position forever, then perhaps Miranda and Turner’s marriage is a “modern” one that demonstrates how both husband and wife are able to antagonise and entertain each other, as well as keep the other in line. But in this particular world, it’s a power-balance that can be enjoyed only because Miranda herself is well-off. Furthermore, Quinn doesn’t so much write a central narrative that breaks the boundaries of the traditional marriage conventions as prescribe different methods of being within a marriage, assuming that all other factors – race, religion, class, and nationality – are all well under-control. But it’s clear, in the end, that Miranda is the only one who will ever play the role of the wife in this marriage.

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