Wonderful things I read in 2011, or thankf******god for bookmarks

December 30, 2011 § 6 Comments

I love year-end lists. I loathe year-end lists. Year-end lists get me excited. Year-end lists just make me tired. Year-end lists make me anxious.

If it’s a competition – “Have you heard this year’s must-hear albums? Have you read this year’s must-read books? Have you watched this year’s must-watch films?” – then I’ll come right out and say I disqualify myself from the competition because who has time and did you know I only watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes for the first time this year BECAUSE THERE’S A LOT OF CATCHING UP TO D-

I digress.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a blog will want to offer you a humble list. And thus, I offer you a humble list. Maybe not quite humble, since there are 40 items in this list. A quiet list, then, a quiet list of no particular order. This is a list of some things that I read online this year; things that I appreciated, things that I loved, things that I disagreed with and made me rethink my own position on a certain something or someone, things I am glad to have read because it altered something in me. It is a haphazard, utterly biased list of my notable blog posts/essays/articles for the year 2011.

It’s also a sort of thanks to the people who wrote them, a way of saying, “Hey, you wrote that great thing in March when the world was a very different place and I want you to know that I still remember it in December.” (Really, when you think about it, this is fucking outstanding considering we’re in the age of the internet where the human brain is morphing into hamster brain and we have no more attention to give and are we still human? etc.)

“We like lists because we don’t want to die,” Umberto Eco proclaimed recently, and initially I was all, “Ooookaaay, take it easy there Mr. Eco,” but now I think I agree, though at the risk of remembering some things we essentially have to forget about and bury other things…

… but never mind that.

Here is my not-so-humble, quiet, haphazard, and utterly biased list of notable 2011 blog posts/essays/articles:

Isaac Miller – Who Runs the World: On Beyonce, Sampling, Race, and Power

Beyonce’s incorporation of Dancehall, as well as Kwaito through Tofo Tofo and “New Style” hip hop dance through Les Twins offers a glimpse into a more holistic, global hip hop culture. However, this global vision is still mediated through the work of a U.S. superstar. This is symbolic of the overarching global balance of power. However, while the U.S. still acts as the global center of media, music, and film, immense networks of media production are burgeoning across the global south.

It seems like Diplo wants to create networks, audiences, and opportunities for the communities he engages with. But so long as he is the necessary Western interlocutor for artists of color from the global south, I question how much will these artists and cultures actually be “represented” globally. Like other forms of Western “development” that created the very conditions of poverty that these musics and cultures exist in, Diplo’s brand of development reproduces the very inequality that it claims to solve.

Boima Tucker – Global Genre Accumulation

The art of DJing is as postmodern as it gets. Its essence is appropriation. A DJ re-contextualizes pre-existing cultural expressions to resurrect or re-interpret cultural memory for an audience. For me, Diplo and Venus exemplify two different ways of doing this.

Diplo has become known for taking an “unknown” culture and exposing it to the world. He mixes dominant American culture cues, with “foreign” cultures, and positions himself as the “in the know” intermediary, in turn reinforcing a separation between audience and subject. Venus uses culture memory of various both underground and mainstream cultures to create safe spaces for, and communicate messages to groups that are underrepresented in mainstream cultural discourse (groups that she herself is a part of.)

Minh-Ha T. Pham – Unintentionally Eating the Other

The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.

Robin James –  Beyoncé, Gaga, Race and Sexuality, or 1+1 Doesn’t Always Equal 2

Gaga has license to queer femininity—to make her body monstrous, either through monster-drag or king-drag—because she is white. In other words: her gender identity is not already qualified by non-whiteness. In the hegemonic, mainstream eye, Beyoncé’s blackness already qualifies her femininity. She often plays around with femininity by adopting stereotypically white feminine iconography, e.g., in “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (where she does the 60s housewife thing), or in “Video Phone” (where she does the 40s pinup/Betty Page thing). So it’s not that Bey just uncritically adopts normative het-fem identities/images. She just troubles femininity most obviously through race—which is not to say that she’s not also troubling its heteronormativity. If race and queerness are mutually intensifying, then Bey’s playing with femininity via race is also an experimentation with its sexuality.

Agata Pyzik – Ostalgia Trips

Ostalgie means and captures much wider contemporary cultural phenomena than the mere recuperation of the once-rough life under the system. That we’re now drowning with various Ostalgie projects symbolizes the weakness of contemporary, nostalgia-driven culture of constant revivals (show me a musical genre or style in art or architecture that hasn’t been revived in the last ten years). This is also related to the so-called hauntological current in culture, itself a coinage from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994). So is Soviet-focused nostalgia wrapped up with kitsch and appropriation, or does it express something more important: a need for an alternative to a collapsing capitalist system, a need for evoking a past that never actually happened? But instead we all behave like we believed Francis Fukuyama’s much-ridiculed vision of the end of history: everything happened already, we can only rehearse it once more, like living in one gigantic museum.

Alexander Chee – Fanboy

Comics regularly get in trouble for depicting the forbidden, and have for years. You could imagine, then, that comics are revolutionary, that they could foment turmoil and rebellion. But so far, I think we use them to stay asleep. Superhero comics in particular. We read them, we watch them now in movies, increasingly—comics are the new hot film properties, complete with serious stars and directors, huge budgets. We dream of heroes fighting evil together in the dark theater, but when we wake, we live alongside evil, uncomplaining.

What, then, are we dreaming?

Manan Ahmed – At Sea

It is wrong to claim that Osama b. Laden was irrelevant long before he was killed. He wasn’t. He represented, and represents, hundreds of thousands of lives lost since December 2001 when US forces reportedly failed to capture or kill him. He disappeared for the next decade but that absence was filled with wars in Iraq and Pakistan – wars waged on the heads of civilians, among urban centers, and at the cost of trillions. Just the technological developments of killing from the skies accomplished in this decade are mind or moral numbing. No, Osama b. Laden was never irrelevant and he was never off the script. Sure, George W. Bush or Pervez Musharraf told us that the battle was now bigger, the stakes higher and the cost greater, but they were empty words. The deaths of September 11th, 2001 and the destructions that followed hold us accountable – to remember that the cost of those lives began in a bid for this one life. So, we must deal with that life and the narratives it spawned. NYT claims that he was a “hero in much of the Islamic world”. The obituary moves on, and we are left with that “fact”. What are we to make of it? Heroes, after all, were gods and immortals.

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi – The Fabric of Democracy

The democratic ideal of the poikilon as a varied and brightly-colored garment alludes to two kinds of creatures: women, by virtue of their tendency to adornment, and proudly plumed peacocks. This resemblance may reinvigorate the logic behind (what I assume to be) a digitally manipulated photo of Gaddafi as poikílos, ‘spotted’ or ‘embroidered.’ The caricature is easy because Gaddafi is the subject of both fascination and horror in the way he transposes the appearance of sartorial freedom with the eradication of democratic freedom. Ridicule or amazement cannot obfuscate an underlying admiration for brazenness, which for Gaddafi translates freedom to dress as a metonymy for democracy.

Jane Hu – “Are You Airminded?” The Slang of War

As media critic Friedrich Kittler proposes, technologies repeatedly find their ancestry in the mouth of war: “war was called the father of all things: it was supposed to have been responsible (borrowing loosely from Heraclitus) for most technical inventions.” For Kittler, all technology begins as war technology. Whereas contemporary and commercial uses of machines obscure their military roots, languages face similar signifying concealments. Expressions such as “airminded” disappear from the vernacular as they decrease in culturally potency, or are reinvested with new meaning. “Trench coats,” for instance, initially referred to coats worn by soldiers in the trenches, while “going over the top” once pointed to the moment when British soldiers crossed the parapet that separated trench from no man’s land. “Airminded” is just one significant example of how war and its accompanying innovations have always shaped how we speak.

Aaron Bady – A Zionist Night Shelter in Africa

For Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, settling Jews in Africa would have seemed like it could solve several problems. One was that — as Heymann delicately suggests — genteel anti-Semites like Chamberlain and Landsdowne shared with Herzl a desire to discourage the mass migration of East European Jews into Western Europe. For Herzl, the fear was assimilation, and though it was the reverse fear for men like Chamberlain — non-assimilable Jews immigrating into Britain! Horrors! — they had in common the desire to find some other place for those migrants than Europe. And as pogroms in East Europe worsened — increasing the number of emigrating Jews even as the prospects of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine looked increasingly dim, Africa suddenly popped up as a possibility.

Darryl Li – Shades of Solidarity: Notes on Race-talk, Intervention, and Revolution

The “foreigner” is not always a stranger. The discourse on “foreigners” as fighters or mercenaries tends to resonate on the assumption that these people have somehow dropped out of the sky without any precedent or context, and find it easier to kill people they have nothing to do with. This assumption of strangeness, however, defies history. Libya and Bahrain have both long hosted large migrant worker populations, largely drawing from the same regions now racially linked to the idea of “mercenaries.” Mercenaries are, among other things, workers. Some (especially if they happen to be white) are insanely overcompensated and accountable to no local actors; but many others are in a far more ambiguous position vis-à-vis locals. If they were not carrying guns, some may instead have been construction workers, drivers, or cooks (similarly, many of the Arab mujahids who fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina were migrant workers coming from Italy).

Sumeja Tulic – In Which We Experience the Charm of a Libyan Night

Suddenly, our green love experienced its autumn. In an early morning, Suleiman, our young and handsome imam, was arrested and taken away. There were no charges and no appeal. Suleiman was “too Muslim” with his white tunic and therefore, a threat to Jamahiriya. The morning he was taken away, many others also vanished. For months, there were no wedding celebrations. Women whispered, men didn’t gather. Life was painfully discrete and silent.In years to come, coffins were brought to the doorsteps of those taken away years ago, before the sunrise, as when they were handcuffed and taken away.

Years went by, fast and uneasy. The imposed economical sanctions on Libya meant fewer things to buy. Oddly, the so called social supermarket distributed Benetton apparel. We may have craved all sort of different sweets, but we were dressed in Italian designer cloth from a decade ago.

V.V. Ganeshananthan – The Politics of Grief

It is a way of humiliating people, to say that their dead are not dead, to say that people are not even allowed to mourn. There was little room for the legitimate expression of grief during the war, and after it was over, what little was there dwindled. As the government said they were for reconciliation, they moved to shut down the spaces where Tamil civilians and loss could be remembered. Tiger cemeteries were razed, even when families survived who might have wanted to visit the markers. In one instance, Army headquarters were built in the same space. When some Tamil civilians attempted to gather to remember their dead on the anniversary of the war’s end, they had to face down officers of the Sri Lankan Army, as the north and east of the country remains heavily militarized. Indeed, in certain places civilian gatherings now require military approval. Innumerable people looking for a missing loved one filed cases and gave testimony, but many never found who they were looking for.

Nadim Damluji – Made for You and Me: Localizing Disney’s Imperialism for an Egyptian Audience

As was the case of Superman’s translation into Arabic, the perceived ownership of Mickey Mouse by an Arab audience exemplifies the pervasive reality of American imperialism. I have little doubt that this particular point is made more thoroughly by the remarkably-relevant and sadly out-of-printHow to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), written in Spanish by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart about how Disney comics spread capitalist ideals throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world. In their Marxist critique of Mickey and friends, Dorfman and Mattelart specifically observe how the relationship between Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and his nephews is more commercially centered than familial (potently pointing out the conspicuous absence of mothers and fathers among the Disney characters).

Daisy Rockwell – Funny Face

Whenever an impossibly famous individual disappears without a public viewing of the body (and sometimes even then; cf: Elvis), rumors abound as to whether the personage in question is actually dead. The curious decision to keep from the public the image that would prove the kill has naturally fueled an abundance of theories. So that members of the United States Government might not also feel inclined to indulge in such conspiracy theorizing, the White House set up a limited access peep-show to which select individuals of prominent stature, such as John McCain, were invited to see the booty captured and killed by our boys. They came away convinced, slightly shaken, perhaps a little horrified, but gratified that with their tremendous stature came access to the nation’s top-drawer death porn.

Salman H – An Abandoned Man

The state claims to be merely the nation’s representation and self-realization in whose interest it selflessly acts. But it is, in fact, a self-interested arbiter of the politics and culture of the very nation it shapes and constitutes. The state of Pakistan has, through legislative and juridical means, not only made it increasingly harder for Ahmadis to live as Ahmadis by criminalizing Ahmadis to live as Muslims, but also by being unable and/or unwilling to hold vigilantes to account, has made it fair game for Ahmadis to be coerced, violated, or killed as the persecutor sees fit. Those with a grudge against an Ahmadi have the legal route at their disposal to inflict violence through the state and/or hang a target on his head through the blasphemy law which would materialize in the state or a vigilante doing the job for free.

Ira Livingston – Darth Vader and Occupy Wall Street: A TwitterEssay

This is why I want to say to those occupying Wall Street, and occupying and animating these words and thoughts, thank you.

As a Word Person, it’s taken me 50 years to admit– as various therapists and lots of less verbal people have been telling me–

that the words themselves are always trumped by the ways they are wielded, the feelings that animate them.

Jennifer Doyle – Ball and Chain: Notes on Anne Hathaway, James Franco, and the Oscars

The fact of the matter is that in last night’s performance the person on stage closest to Kalup Linzy’s universe was Anne Hathaway – producing a theatrical, desperate and frankly scary version of feminine performance, not just alone, but in compensation for someone else’s failure – as if, if she worked hard enough, nobody would feel Franco’s absence. As if, if she worked hard enough, it would feel like her presence mattered. As if, to matter, her performance must anchor his.

Supriya Nair – Rainbows in the Sky at Night

The funny thing is, if I were a Fenerbahce fan in Istanbul I might have refused to go when called. I might have argued that I didn’t want to be there as a fucking punishment for my team, especially if they did deserve to play behind closed doors. I might have argued that the punishment and this fix exposed flaws in the system that could not be papered over by a single glorious matchday, that it was not genuinely inclusive, that it would be a better gesture if every team in the Turkish league could do the same. I might even have argued on principle against gender profiling on behalf of the excluded majority of innocent male fans, perfectly aware that none of them would ever do the same for me. And watching the 41,000 other women on TV that night would still have been the most radically uplifting thing I ever saw.

Maya Mikdashi – Waiting for Alia

Alia’s picture does not play by the rules, and this is why both liberals and Islamists have condemned her. She is not “waiting” for the “right moment” to bring up bodily rights and sexual rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. She is not playing nice with the patriarchal power structures in Egypt. She is not waiting her turn. Her mouth is not open and pouting. Her breasts are not large. Her eyes are not hungry or afraid. She is not wearing high heels. Her vagina is uncovered. She is not selling anything, and she is not trying to turn us on. Her use of fishnet stockings appears to be a commentary on the clichés of commodified seduction. Her nudity is not about sex, but it aims to reinvigorate a conversation about the politics of sex and the uneven ways it is articulated across the fields of gender, capital, and control. She is staring back at us, daring us to look at her and to not turn away. Daring us to have this debate.

Nivedita Menon – Modest? Sexy? Or just an athlete?

In short, they want to be modest or sexy outside the rules – the fat woman who refuses to tone or shave her legs but will wear mini skirts; the modest believer who insists that women can conduct puja/namaz/service. Or women who don’t care much about being either modest or sexy, but just do whatever it takes to do what they do very well.

Carla Fran – A Thousand Ways to be Pissed Off: The Green Hornet

Instead, you get a tour of how great it is to be a privileged white guy. The movie could practically be a manual for how to move around with privilege and power built by race and gender. Seth Rogen, as the Hornet, becomes our very lucky white guy/textbook example of power and privilege. He has inherited his fortune from the empire building of his dad. He parties and likes to ruin things with abandon (there is a distinct joy in smashing plasma TVs in the movie).  He gets a super powerful job because of his family. He has little regard for how his actions affect others. He’s stupid, but it doesn’t matter. He never gets called on any of his trespasses.  The world changes on his time alone–it’s only when he realizes things matter that they actually matter.

Kim Morgan – It’s a Thin Line: My Summer of Love

Young, intriguing, different women/teens can be viewed as odd birds, no matter how acceptably “wacky” cinema attempts to paint them. We see movies like Mean Girls, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Juno, Easy A or even, Thirteen, and are left with impressions that may ring true for certain aspects of the teen population, but remain utterly false for others. Girls who related to Ghost World (as I did and still do — though I find myself in both Birch and Buscemi, which disturbs me at times), don’t see the big deal in 13, would laugh at the “mean girls” in school, and wonder why Juno would let some older guy convince her that Blood Feast was better than Suspiria. No way. In My Summer of Love, issues, or catch-phrases like “sisterhood” (especially in regard to traveling pants), and “rebellion” aren’t terms  these beguiling leads would even bother to utter. That kind of drama is just there —  the regular aspects or impediments to a type of life they’re attempting to escape and re-create. And re-creation is key.

JR – What Mother Gothel knows, and what Rapunzel sings

The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness.  Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel.  At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity!  Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations.  (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on. Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?)

Kuzhali Manickavel – I hate scorpions and liars. I love ice cream and my mother.

Female arrogance in general is apparently at the root of most bad things in the world today. For instance, that whole Maoist problem that is happening somewhere over there is really all about Arundhati Roy and how she’s like so arrogant yougaiz. I’m pretty sure that bird flu was created and perpetuated by arrogant chickens.

Nicholas Liu – “A darkness was ripped from my eyes”, or, How can anyone like Mary Oliver’s “Singapore”?

So the poem serves as a wake-up call to people who think, and would otherwise carry on thinking, that having better jobs makes them better people, and that menial labourers are not really human beings. (It also encourages them to instead view said labourers as picturesque bits of scenery existing for the moral education of the middle class and up, but hey, win some lose some, right?) In other words, it is a machine for making walking scum that much less scummy.

Aishwarya Subramanian – DU and Hatterr

We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.

Norhayati Kaprawi – Bila rogol dikatakan halal

Ramai ulama mendakwa dalam Islam tidak boleh menggunakan akal fikiran, harus berdasarkan keimanan.  Pada saya, kenyataan sedemikian bertentangan dengan wahyu Allah yang pertama, iaitu “Bacalah”. Tentu saja membaca memerlukan akal fikiran yang tajam bagi memproses informasi yang dibaca dengan menghubungkannya dengan alam dan hidup kita.

Dalam hal ini misalnya, apakah beriman atau meyakini itu adalah dengan meyakini apa yang dikatakan oleh pemimpin-pemimpin Islam yang mengatakan perempuan boleh dirogol? Bukankah pandangan mereka juga hasil dari menggunakan akal fikiran mereka?

Juana Jaafar – Menelaah pengalaman menonton 3 karya kontemporari dalam Bahasa Melayu

Penulis juga tertarik dengan perspektif evolusi yang diketengahkan Norhayati di mana budaya hijab di Malaysia dipautkan kepada kebangkitan politik Muslim di Iran dan Tanah Arab pada era 1970an dengan politik tanahair. Dalam menghuraikan perspektif ini Norhayati menyelitkan klip video ceramah ulema kehormat parti Pas, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, yang mencaci wanita yang tidak menutup aurat sebagai mengundang malang, malah menggalakkan agar mereka dirogol untuk diberi pengajaran. Menurut Norhayati, setakat ini belum ada penonton yang melafazkan rasa terkejut atau tidak bersetuju dengan Nik Aziz.

Pada pendapat penulis, jika ada kegagalan besar dalam Aku Siapa ia adalah ketiadaan perbincangan berkenaan pengaruh parti Umno dan dasar-dasar kerajaan dibawah pimpinan Umno dalam evolusi hijab di Malaysia. Norhayati mengambil masa untuk menelanjangkan hipokrasi pemimpin sanjungan ahli Pas dan Parti Keadilan Rakyat tapi tidak pula Umno yang tak pernah putus kuasa diperingkat nasional sejak negara Merdeka.

Haneen Maikey, Sami Shamali – International Day Against Homophobia: Between the Western Experience and the Reality of   Gay Communities

During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine). There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.

Keguro – Listening to African Queers

Following the U.K.’s example, the U.S. has bought into aid conditionality tied to so-called sexual rights. It’s not yet clear what this will mean. But it is worrying.

Multiple blog posts from the U.S. have celebrated this “victory” for gay rights, this assertion that gay rights are human rights, universal rights: the U.S. is now on board with gay activism.

I am not celebrating.

In fact, I am disheartened by what feels like myopic celebrations that confirm, or suggest, that what is at stake in such a decision has nothing to do with helping African queers and everything to do with domestic U.S. feeling and neo-imperial machinations. I have no problem with U.S. queers celebrating this decision as an advance for U.S queer struggles; but let’s not confuse the issue and claim this decision has anything to do with African queers. Or that African queers were in any way consulted—not that we need to be, of course: knights in shining armor rarely ask whether the maiden and the dragon are engaged in an inter-species romance.

Jenny Turner – As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes

How has Western feminism drifted so far out of touch? By narrowing its focus, Eisenstein thinks, to culture and consciousness and personal testimony, neglecting what she calls ‘the political economy of feminism’, and in particular the economic peculiarities that caused Women’s Liberation to happen where and when it did. Never mind the Pill, the miniskirt, the ‘problem with no name’, Eisenstein says: all that is a sideshow. The rise of Western feminism came about because there was a widespread shift, around 1970, of middle-class women from the home to the workplace: partly, no doubt, because they sought fulfilment and financial independence, but mostly because wages overall were in decline. Women entered the workforce bigtime, in other words, just as the ‘long boom’ of the postwar years was ending, and since most women get lower-paid jobs anyway – part-time and casual, unskilled, mommy-track – most of them went ‘straight up the down escalator’, the phrase coined by the economic historian Teresa Amott. This is the way it has been for most women ever since.

Nandini Ramachandran – Borges and I

Borges essays, while short, can be baroque affairs. They are the mark of a “delirious archivist,” as Umberto Eco called him, of a man who lives amidst legions of chattering books. He constructs his essays like a vast puzzle, piling quip upon quote, leading you ever deeper into a thicket of metaphors. Occasionally, they are almost formless, as if their writer has been so carried away by the force of his reading that he has forgotten the point he set out to make. Yet, a careful reading will always reveal the fragile thread between each idea, the links that made Borges not only a consummate reader and thinker but a peerless writer.

Elizabeth Bachner – Dwelling Made of Not Knowing Which Way to Turn: Reading Aimé Césaire

When Aimé Césaire edited Soleil cou coupé in 1961 to construct Cadastre, he eliminated thirty-one poems and cut out material from another twenty-nine, leaving only twelve of these poems intact. “Unmaking and Remaking the Sun” was cut out. “Attack on Morals” was cut out. “To the Serpent” was cut out. If repetition is apocalyptic, what is excision? I’ve had this line from Rimbaud in my head: “It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.” La fin du monde, but there’s a French word, apocalypse, that’s the same as the one in English — from Greek, meaning revelation, lifting the veil. Exposing whatever is true.

Debbie Hu – To Heartbreak Hotel

That night I got stoned and I was frustrated with myself for not writing. So I typed a manifesto called THE WRITE WRITE JUST FUCKING WRITE MANIFESTO. “It is important to get out of the habit of checking to see if what you’re doing is proper and valid before doing it,” I wrote. “Exuberance is not incompatible with care and beauty. Slowness and sadness are not incompatible with diligence. If you have never seen anything like what you are writing don’t be scared be excited. If you feel like you’ve seen what you are writing 1,000 times don’t hate yourself get pumped. You are in an arena you know,” I wrote. “It is important to have concrete goals rather than abstract ones such as ‘being loved’… Your need for other people will have to sort itself out.”

Giovanni Tiso – The Well-Adjusted

Job insecurity and living from contract to contract are a source of anxiety? Then there must be somebody for whom this is not so, somebody for whom the designation of freelance (lovely word, that) is an opportunity for deducting some cost of living items from their taxes and who uses the enforced downtime as an opportunity for rest and recreation. The social and professional demand to be always communicatively available and plugged into multiple networks is a source of stress? Then there must be people who are only too happy to always be available, and for whom checking Twitter and Facebook updates or new emails and text messages never becomes a compulsive habit.

Rob Horning – The Accidental Bricoleurs

Like fast fashion, social media have brought with them a profusion of means and ways to reshape and display our identity. Constantly given new tools to share with, always prompted to say something new about ourselves (“What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks thoughtfully), we are pressured to continually devise ingenious solutions to our identity, which suddenly appears to be a particular kind of recurring problem: one that can be solved by replenishing social media’s various channels with fresh content. Just as fast fashion seeks to pressure shoppers with the urgency of now or never, social media hope to convince us that we always have something new and important to say—as long as we say it right away. And they are designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear. One can easily fall out of fashion with the algorithms Facebook uses to select which content users see out of the plethora of material friends in their network contribute.

Wu Ming Foundation – Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden Exploitation: the cases of Amazon and Apple

It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as “the nature of things”), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the “naturalization” of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.

Sam Jacob – Everywhere is a target, everywhere is symbolic: An op-ed from London

We might understand these riots as simultaneously an attempt to claim and reject the modern commodified city. While their apparent chaotic nature represents a logical form of escape from the totalising effect of neo-liberal urbanism, at the same time the riots reinforce the very things they attack, binding their actors tighter to the frameworks of commodity culture.

Evan Calder Williams – Hostile Object Theory

This is an instance of what I’ll call hostile objects: a conviction that the objects of capitalism aren’t just indifferent to us or darkly coherent beyond our intentions. They are structurally hostile, and, more often than we’d like to admit, locally hostile: uncertain, unstable, loathing or loathsome, dangerous, and weirdly incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed. This isn’t to speak of nature per se, not an Algernon Blackwood-esque thought of a savage animism.Nor is it a unified theory of what the world would be without us even as we still are in it; the dark and threatening woods. For my concern is not ‘what is without us’, but the shitty flashlight we carry through those woods, the kicking-back chainsaws we wield to take them down. This is an Unnaturphilosophie, concerned not with humanless ecologies but the self-sabotaging, crumbling inhumanity at the core of the economic.

There. These are some things you can read, if you haven’t already, during a particularly tedious moment at whatever social obligation thing/party/event you have to be at on December 31st. Or perhaps you’ll be having so much fun at whatever thingamajig you’re at that you won’t have to surreptitiously check Twitter on your phone at all, not even once. In which case, go show off somewhere else, won’t you?

Me? It’s very likely that I will continue my occupation of the couch, swaddled in blankets and doused in Vicks VapoRub and blowing my nose, for I have the flu and it is Terrible.

Have a happy new year, and may we find time we lost or put aside in 2011 in 2012.

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some thinggummy

February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

My noodle brain has been spectacularly limp lately. More limp, if this can be believed, than usual. But somehow all this sounds wrong. I suspect brains should not be compared to noodles, and neither should the word “limp” be involved.

To begin again, I just want to say that I’ve been extremely absent-minded of late. I would like to blame the internet, but…  ah, screw it. You know what, I am going to blame the internet.

So there was this thing Pop Matters did awhile back on the Best Books of 2010, fiction and nonfiction. And I was supposed to link to it here because I say things about one work of fiction and one work of nonfiction, but I completely forgot to do so. Therefore! I now – tadaa! – link to it. Over here. Also, to note that my choices are predictable – to give you a hint, both books I picked showed up on my own list at the start of the year. I have resolved to be less predictable in 2011. But if I forget to blog about it and tell you how it goes then it means I’m still predictable, and that means, you know, gaaahhh… the pointlessness of resolutions and the meaninglessness of existence, etc.

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Listomania part 2

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Following the haphazardly put-together best reads list, along comes this haphazardly put-together best films watched in 2010 list. But I detest “best”, so “noteworthy” it is. Before I continue, I feel the need to clamber up onto my soapbox and say: it’s well-nigh impossible to participate in year-end conversations with cinephiles on the film highlights of a particular year if you’re Malaysian. Even considering, for a moment, that you had enough money to buy ridiculously overpriced DVDs of foreign and independent films from online stores, it’s harder still to enter into contemporaneous conversation with film-fans from the West because none of those foreign or independent films would have been released in Malaysia and none of those films would have made it to DVD before the year was out. So it would seem that a serious Malaysian film critic or a regular film fan with a taste for the different will always be a couple steps behind in the conversation. The movie that everyone loves today is the movie you’ll likely watch next year. This really pisses me off. *clambers down treacherous soapbox*

Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that these don’t refer to any movies released in 2010. Nevertheless, I watched some amazing films in 2010 made in other years. Hence, a list!

Noteworthy films watched in 2010:

Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda. I’m still unsure how to talk about this film except that it proves to be  something that your mind will revisit over and over again in the hopes of making sense of human frailty, simple parental neglect and cruelty, and the general malaise of a wilfully-ignorant society. Based on the real-life incident of abandoned children in Sugamo, Japan, Nobody Knows brings the story to modern-day Tokyo and features one of the most heart-rending performances ever by a young actor, Yuya Agira. Whether or not there is any one person to blame seems not to be the central issue here; what we get instead is a beautiful, bleak, non-sentimental look at how all of us –every single member of society – is implicated in issues of neglect and marginalisation of the young, the powerless, and the poor.

The Celebration, dir. Thomas Vinterberg. I made the mistake of following up Nobody Knows (to get it out of my mind) with this; the result was mental and emotional catatonia for about a week. What seems to be a regular family gathering to celebrate the 60th birthday of a bourgeois family patriarch turns out to be a searing indictment of bourgeois family values and societal hypocrisy. That some people choose values and status over the health and lives of the children and young in their midst is a known fact; what Vinterberg does is drop us in the middle of a family where this is the lived reality. It is harrowing, and yet the living reality of how people cope with terrific pain and betrayal and what they make of it is shown to possess redemptive power and beauty, as well. But I found the movie mentally and emotionally draining, so I’d block out a whole day to recover if I were watching it for the first time. Or the second time.

The Circle and Offside, dir. Jafar Panahi. Two movies that I’ve grouped together simply because they were directed by the same force of Iranian talent, Panahi, and because I consider them the tragic (The Circle) and comic (Offside) versions of the same issue – the oppression of women in societies functioning under fundamentalist regimes. The Circle deserves its own review when I’m finally up to it but its narrative structure is quite technically perfect, and the intertwining stories of women in trouble in modern-day Iran are presented with clear-eyed and tender honesty. I blogged about Offside here. It’s a truly hilarious depiction of unfathomable and absurd sexist rules as it’s played out against the backdrop of football fanaticism and communal participation in hegemony. In both movies, Panahi excels in pointing out, with kindness, sympathy and great tenderness for his human subjects, how foolish we allow ourselves to become when we forget the reasons for doing what it is we do, and the dangerous yet seductive pull of ignorance when we cease to ask why it is we do what we do.

Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, dir. Roman Polanski. Again, these are two wildly different movies, but you know, it’s Polanski. And so some thoughts on Repulsion have already been blogged here, but I’ll just say again that Polanski intrigues with this surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of feminine “excess” and sexual confusion. It’s a riveting cinematic description of desire gone awry, and underpinning it all is the question of female madness – is she, or isn’t she? Cul-de-sac, on the other hand, is a riveting cinematic description of marital hermetic bliss gone awry. It takes an aggressive, violent stranger to ruin the shaky foundations, but the flamboyant and eccentric husband and his seductive, sexually-confident wife have basically switched sexual roles in this “charming romp” which becomes increasingly non-charming and dark as the characters start peeling off their eccentric layers to reveal a seething mass of resentment and confusion. And this can only end in…? We’re not sure. Disaster for some, perhaps, and freedom for others.

The Joshua Tapes, dir. Arvind Abraham. This quiet Malaysian indie film doesn’t really shout or announce its intentions very loudly, except through its occasionally-annoying lead characters who do, in fact, shout quite a bit. But as I mention in my longer review, the effect of being with these characters during an emotionally-turbulent road trip is similar to that of being with one’s own friends. It’s hard to see Malaysiana depicted honestly and without overt nostalgia, optimism, or moralising clouding the essential story, but The Joshua Tapes succeeds admirably and is one of the unexpected minor gems discovered this year. It’s also a superbly-honest look at friendships between long-time friends of mixed ethnicities. The only problem is its significant lack of female characters, but then again, it’s a male-bonding movie that dares to portray male friendships and masculinity without the usual dumb-ass fuckery of, say, Judd Apatow. (Hell yeah, I went there.)

Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold. I didn’t know what to expect of this when I clicked on it on mubi.com, but what I got was tender and subtle brutality, largely perpetrated and rendered through a emotionally-volatile and isolated CCTV operator who recently lost both her husband and daughter in an accident. Set amidst a particular depressing slice of North Scotland, the act of surveillance is turned upon itself when the surveyor and the surveyed are both implicated in a strange, dark dance of desire that, on the part of the woman, is one rooted in the desire for retribution. What should be nasty, brutish, and short, however, becomes sympathetic and a possible – perhaps – path for potentially redemptive hope. Katie Dickie’s performance is exquisite; her subdued yet jittery portrayal melds perfectly with Tony Curran’s unpredictable yet tender-hearted sort-of criminal.

Strangers on a Train, dir. Alfred Hitchock. Oh, Hitchcock! If only one was able to dismiss you as a misogynist with a bizarre vendetta against women in general that finds its full expression through your female characters on-screen! And then, having made that conclusion, be rid of you forever! Instead I find you beloved in my film-director pantheon. Lest we think ol’ Alfie only had trouble with femininity in female characters, think again. Here, Robert Walker’s effeminate and menacing Bruno Anthony’s manifestation of “feminine excess” is the thing that truly sets everyone off, and Farley Granger’s very manly and athletic Guy Haines can barely relax in Bruno’s presence before all of Guy’s defences are up again. Perhaps I’ve grown used to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates with one too many viewings of Psycho, but Walker’s agitated energy and cloying charm is always shot-through with a dose of danger, and the result is that Bruno Anthony gives Norman Bates a good run for his money in the hard-to-pull-off category of Disturbing Psychopaths of All Time. Furthermore, it’s a damn good story. And there are trains. Also, there is a fabulous scene involving a woman’s fallen eye-glasses.

Russian Ark, dir. Alexandr Sokurov. Russian Ark is an unexpected delight; whimsy and dreams and history all coming together in 90+ minutes of a superb directorial imagination taking flight.  After some Wikipedia-ing, I learned that the concept behind Russian Ark was based upon the travel writings of a 19th-century French marquis while he was in Russia. As far as concepts go, Russian Ark is simple and uncluttered and pretty much genius. Who among us does not feel the need to enter into conversation with travellers of yore – imperialists and non – who arrived on our shores and said a great many things about our country before it was even a country, our people, and our culture? The idea of “ours” and “theirs” is explored beautifully in Russian Ark. The result is not a facile, sentimental “It is ALL ours equally!” but more of a “None of us can remain untouched by the other.” Sumptuous scenes filmed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg also rekindled old longings to visit St. Petersburg. Everything about this film – a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot, as we’re told – is perfection, which is all the more heightened when you think about the fact that the entire film is a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot. Hello, you say! Yeah, I reply! Go watch it.

I would have liked to write about the “noteworthy music” I heard in 2010 but I can’t seem to write intelligently on music. (Insert “What can you write intelligently about, then? Hyuk hyuk” joke here.) Also, I acquire music on a regular basis in a very haphazard manner, not full albums most of the time, but bits and pieces, and then after some time when everyone’s heard the full album, I’ll listen to the full album.

So Listomania will, sadly, end here.

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Listomania part 1

January 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

This blog, being rebellious and subversive…  all right. Stop laughing. Let’s try again.

This blog, being one step behind others and late where it’s unfashionable to be late, has come up with a list of noteworthy books read and films watched in 2010. Inspired by this brilliance at Chapati Mystery but in no way coming close to emulating said brilliance, these lists can’t take into consideration books published in 2010 or films released in 2010. No. For end-of-year best-of lists (or, um, early-in-the-year best-of lists for the previous year), I find myself recommending books written in another century, films made in another decade. So this is just what I’ve read and seen in 2010 that knocked my socks off, except I don’t wear socks. (Tropical weather, I live in flats and sandals, etc.)

Let us, then, begin with ze bookz!

Noteworthy books read in 2010:

Alan Garner, The Owl Service. In the words of a deeply-intelligent friend who is reticent about sharing thoughts online and who shall remain nameless, The Owl Service brings together the themes of class and landscape and mythology, and deftly explores how these influences shape and influence the psyche. Sure, it’s a children’s book, and the protagonists are young – but the effects of legend and myth in any culture continues to shadow modern, urban lives – as it is the case in this unsettling, strange, and deeply evocative book set in the 1960s. The gift of imagination is sullied, often, by the wear and tear and neglect and abuse that comes with growing older, but in using young characters as the vehicle to explore Welsh legends by way of the Mabinogi, Garner has written a remarkable book on the effects of alienation, and its reverse, immersion, into one’s cultural past and mythic traditions.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe. I wrote a review of this book, so I’ll just link to it here. But Thomas has intrigued and frustrated (in a good way) since I first read Bright Young Things. As an author, her primary obsessions at any given time – be it code-breaking, consumerism, corporate branding, philosophy, time-travel, piracy – are filtered through idiosyncratic and often fucked-up female characters that are both intelligent and compelling. These girls are geeks, or in the case of Meg in Our Tragic Universe, a gifted writer struggling with underwhelming writing projects to make a living. But they are also complex and therefore the only people you want to spend time with over the course of several hundred pages as you allow Thomas’ sharp yet meandering prose to take its time as it explores the meaning of life and productive work, art, and the human desire to frame individual lives within epic narratives.

Lloyd Fernando, Green is the Colour. A longish review of this book is here. One of the most moving books about post-colonial Malaysia was written by a Singaporean. Framing its narrative within the tumultuous period of the post-May 13 racial riots of 1969, Fernando’s rootless characters are all pining for a time of the past where love and community were not so elusive. In that sense, they’re not much different from many Malaysians today, who still look back to the past as though it was a time of unfiltered purity and goodwill amongst the various races living here. It’s one of the most truthful novels in depicting how racial ugliness and multiracial beauty co-exist side-by-side in “Malaysia, truly Asia”.

Jason, Werewolves of Montpellier. In a super-slim graphic novel, Jason visits longing, loneliness, urban isolation, and unrequited love with anthropomorphic human characters wearing taciturn expressions. While you’re busy following the little caper he’s set up, there are myriad subtle, quiet heartbreaks taking place amidst the tender, enclosed inner landscapes of these engaging characters.

Hubert and Kerascoet, Miss Don’t Touch Me. A slightly longer review of it is available here. Turn-of-the-century Paris is the backdrop for a young virgin’s sexual awakening through crime-solving and a sudden and unexpected turn as a dominatrix in a high-end brothel. Blanche does not liked to be touched by strange men, but this comic brilliantly explores how one will be touched – metaphorically – by ugliness, pain, and discomfort no matter how well-protected, and how one will find ways of coping that may be uncharacteristic or undreamed-of at the start. The art is sumptuous, and the facial expressions and physical bodies and body language of the characters are exquisitely-rendered.

Maggie Nelson, Bluets. I also wrote a review of it for this blog, and I’m exceedingly glad to have yammered on as much as I have over the course of the last year; it’s proving to be useful in year-end recaps. Is Nelson’s book philosophy, essay, or poetry? Who really cares, as it’s all three at once, filtered through personal experiences of unrequited love, heartbreak, obsession, desire, and friendship. Nelson’s mind wanders freely through a variety of topics, but her language is always present in the moment, and makes this book such a stellar example of… poetry? Prose? Just a stellar example of writing, done with obsessive need and yes, love.

Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman. Guess what? I also wrote a review of this book! If it’s one excellent thing Power does, and thank god she does it well because that’s the point of the whole book, it is to show the ways in which sexism colludes with capitalism in ways both obvious and very, very subtle and insidious. It’s impossible not to think about sexism – and consequently, feminism – the same way again after reading this. It’s not so much about whether or not you “buy” Power’s argument. It’s more about realising that what she describes is true of our current reality, and then thinking about why this is the case. This book, short as it is, prompts you to keep asking the why’s.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. I have not written a review of this book, because I find myself unworthy of its magnificence. No, really, if there was one book that sort of bookishly punched me in the face and then slapped me resoundingly and shook me out of my stupor with regards to gender relations and sexuality, it was this one. This makes the book seem violent, which it is not, but it is relentlessly and brutally honest and brave in attempting to make sense of an overwhelmingly violent male culture that hurts both males and females. Despentes says things about prostitution and pornography that I still don’t agree with (to wit, that female pornography actors are essentially more “free” and liberated because of their job – in my quick paraphrasing) but that nevertheless bear thinking about. “Wanting to be a man? I am better than that. I don’t give a damn about penises,” she writes. You and I may not agree – perhaps we still give a damn – but the book allows you to imagine the woman you could be if you did not. The possibilities of thought and the creative imagination of freedom of a woman just not giving a damn is impossible to resist, especially when presented in Despentes’ forthright, rhythmic prose.

Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision. I have not written a review of this book because I simply cannot, I’m far too dumb. Also, I’m still thinking about it. But once upon a time there was this dude called Sigmund Freud. And then, along came this dude called Jacques Lacan. And they developed some truly fabulous theories about psychoanalysis and the psyche, but it was very dudely and hard to wrap your head around, at times, if you were not a dude. And along came Jacqueline Rose. And she tells you how thinking about feminism without thinking about sexual difference as it is defined and produced by psychoanalysis is just going round and round the misguided Mulberry bush of biology. The status of the phallus is built upon a fundamental imposture! Rose says. Think about the link between sexuality and the unconscious! she says. And she does this with some excellent essays on Hamlet, George Eliot, and cinema. Like the books by Power, Despentes, and Davis, Sexuality in the Field of Vision gives you the theoretical apparatus with which you’ll never think about feminism, femininity, sexual difference, sexual desire, and that goddamn phallus the same way ever again.

Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class. A superb piece of historical scholarship on the underpinnings of race and class on issues of feminism as it arose in the United States. It’s an eye-opening exploration on the roots of privileged white feminism that is the particular strain of feminism constantly being reused, reframed, and imported to other parts of the world today. It is a must-read that I finally read in 2010. I did a twopart “guide” of sorts about it some time back.

Special mention: Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation. Because some of these essays were read years ago in university, and when I finally bought the book in 2009 I started reading it towards the end of the year, only to stop and continue again last year. In any case, this is a book that needs to be read for anyone who wants to do criticism well, and who wants criticism to mean something beyond immediate ego gratification and subservience to current trends and the status quo. It is also the book that made me look at all of my previous blog entries with distaste and a strong urge to vomit. But similarly, it makes you want to write better about all the things that matter to you in the world of arts. Because Sontag is still of the impression that the arts should, you know, “mean something”. I think most of us do, even if we have no idea what meaning we want to make of it.

Coming soon: a list on all things film-y!

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