May 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo is a glacial collection of stories that are admirable in their intelligence, coolness, and reserve. These are minimalist, tidy, self-contained stories, and while they are worth reading for the writing and the style, they were not capacious or generous. I felt like I had to be really careful, as if I were in someone’s all-white living room without a single smudge of dirt and if I so much as moved I would leave a stain on the white.
After watching Get Out I’ve been thinking a lot about how this works. The interior space and the reproduction of white supremacy, especially in the benevolent form of white liberalism. The interiority of white narrators can sometimes be like a cold, cavernous white room that has no space for the excess and muck of other colours, like brown. (Ha.) If I’m going deep into the consciousness of a narrator, I prefer to see the mess and the ugliness. The grotesque. Maybe that’s just me.
And so while I admired this book, I did not love it. But I’m beginning to understand why white women who write like this are critically adored and praised. It’s a version of feminine cool that leaves the hysteria and the excessive feeling at the door. To be excessive is to demonstrate one’s lack of power. The anger and the rage that so many brown people, in particular, are accused of exhibiting are absent or subsumed into a more pleasing form, one that whispers elegantly: this is Literature for the intelligent. This is an aesthetically-pleasing form, much like the Instagram feeds of financially-secure people in the first world.
I think about Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, a book that really gave me vertigo, and I say that as a compliment. Throughout the title story, set in the 1960s, which Collins tells us with a sharp dose of irony, is “the year of the human being”, she differentiates her characters with the pointed use of descriptors in quotation marks: “white”, “negro”. This is the main character (“negro”) in the story:
I insisted loudly that she shoes were in bad taste and the lipstick was too gaudy because I didn’t wear shoes like that just because I was colored and couldn’t he tell I didn’t give off any odor of any kind just because I was colored and that I always held my breath every time I went into his store because I was colored and didn’t want to give off any odor of any kind so I tightened my stomach muscles and stopped breathing and that way I knew nothing unpleasant would escape — not a thought nor an odor nor an ungrammatical sentence nor bad posture nor halitosis nor pimples because I was sucking in my stomach and holding it while I tried on his shoes and couldn’t he see that I was one of those colored people who had taste.
This is how it feels to sometimes inhabit the space of white writing, the kind of white writing critically-praised by Serious White People Who Love Literature, like I’m holding my breath and trying to not give off any odor while I try to show the Serious White People Who Love Literature that I have taste, so I hem and haw about why I did not love the pristine white book that they love.
August 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
Genet has been messing with my life lately. In a good way, I think. It’s just that I haven’t had much time for reading lately, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, and after coming out of my Genet fever I had to read an astoundingly mediocre book for a future review. After Genet, the mediocre seems offensive.
My review of Sartre’s Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr is up on Pop Matters. I talked about it a bit in a previous post. I have to say that I dislike the Pop Matters rating system because I’m not sure that a rating system is helpful to anyone. Quantifying the qualitative seems doomed from the start. I gave Saint Genet a 6/10 rating, which is wholly inadequate (because neither a higher nor lower number would have been more adequate) and doesn’t much describe how I felt about the book. In any case, I’m meant to rate all the books I review, but it really hit me when I was trying to assign a number to Saint Genet. It’s hard to evaluate in terms of rating. It’s a book that infuriates, and for that I think I love it. Saint Genet is provocative and chaotic and smart and silly and essential; I disagreed very strongly with HUGE CHUNKS (and there are a lot of chunks), but assigning it a number just feels wrong because it’s not about whether it’s “average” or “good”. And as I continue to read Genet I will no doubt continue to dip in and out Saint Genet and have long conversations with the text that begins with, “Sartre, you turd… ” (said in total affection and dislike, of course.)
I can’t help but turn to Susan Sontag’s words in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, where she begins an assessment of the same book with these words: “Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” Grotesque and ghastly—Sartre’s work is a monster that will devour the reader’s presence of mind, to be sure. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I began readingSaint Genet while Kanye West’s “Monster” played in the background: much like Nicki Minaj’s persona in the song, Sartre’s implicit announcement to his future reader seems to be “First things first, I’ll eat your brains.”
Read the entire review. (If you like.)
June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
This blog is not dead! It is merely in a state of extreme rest. In a state of hyperrest. (Hyperrest is characterised by placidity or inactivity on the surface, bordering on comatose, as the wheels of the mind’s engine churn and churn in a journey towards who-the-fuck-knows-where.)
My review of Katrien Jacobs’s People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet is up at PopMatters. I enjoyed reading it; Jacobs is an enthusiastic and engaged/engaging writer, but I was troubled a bit by the premise, which seemed to imply that DIY pornography and digital culture are necessarily subversive and/or emancipatory:
Although much of the material Jacobs explores follows the familiar trajectory of pornography that finds men as its main consumers and women as its primary labourers, Jacobs includes plenty of first-person accounts that provides a glimpse into how women negotiate the spaces of propriety and proper “female behaviour”. One blogger who goes by the name Hairong Tian Tian collected and posted pictures of men’s limp penises because she wanted to explore “the root of Chinese masculinity” by showing the “cock in its most mundane state”. Another blogger named Lost Sparrow attempted to compile an encyclopedia of lovemaking sounds “based on the premise that they would sound different in different parts of China”.
These are attempts to remake pornography, but whether or not they succeed in presenting pornography as something more worthwhile than a convenient commodity is hard to tell. For example, the DIY sex videos that Jacobs describes as popular among younger Chinese citizens certainly reify sexual pleasure and emotions and it leaves one to wonder about the emancipatory possibilities of the endless click-and-choose of online porn viewing. As Jacobs research shows, pornography has entered new spaces and is presented and enjoyed within new(er) forms of technology, but the patriarchal structures of society remain unyielding and resistant in the face of all this sexual and technological creativity.
But I also wondered if my own knee-jerk cynicism got in the way of a full appreciation of what was and is taking place. I do recommend Jacobs’s book, even if I had trouble reading it in public because my inner convent-school-educated prudishness kicked in. EXPLICIT PICTURES! CLOSE-UPS OF NIPPLES! IN PUBLIC! OH DEAR! So it was a read-at-home book, but no less interesting because of it.
(I was also reading the Feminism and Pornography anthology while reading Jacobs’s book and Wendy Brown’s “The Mirror of Pornography” was one of the most clear-minded, kick-ass essays in it; it’s essentially a response to Catherine MacKinnon, and I posted a quote from it on my Tumblr. Anyone who’s read even just a tiny bit of MacKinnon might sense the difficulty of countering the force of her totalising arguments against porn. Brown does a sublime job of it while demonstrating how MacKinnon’s style borrows a lot from porn, and reading Brown after reading MacKinnon is like being thrown a lifeline while attempting to swim in choppy moral waters. Sorry, melodramatic analogy, and also vaguely deceptive, because I can’t swim and will technically drown in all waters, but still. Also, this technically doesn’t have much to do with Jacobs’s book but throwing it in here because ♥ WENDY BROWN ♥.)
March 22, 2012 § 6 Comments
1) I used to be a Hanson fan.
There, I said it.
No. I have to tell you that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was an active member on a Hanson fan forum! I got mad at my sister when told me that Taylor Hanson looks like a girl! I read Hanson fanfic! I wrote Hanson fanfic! I thought Taylor was misunderstood by the world and the hambrained Hanson-haters and only needed to get to know me in order to live a happy and fulfilling life! I made friends on the Hanson fan forum, friends with whom I exchanged postcards, letters, mixtapes, mix CDs, posters, books, and phone calls! Actually, this last thing was the best thing of all. I haven’t talked to any of them in about 12 years, which suddenly makes me feel sad.
Taylor Hanson married someone else and had someone else’s babies, and life went on.
I was reminded of this because I just read this great piece on Rookie. The part that made #lolsob:
Though I am way too old to believe that my teenage fantasies will save me, I still find myself taking comfort in them. A few weeks ago, I stayed up all weekend watching Hanson videos on YouTube and I came across a clip of Taylor forgetting the lyrics at a concert and then endearingly asking the audience to help him, and suddenly I was all, What a magnificent person, I wonder if he and his wife are going to get divorced, even though they have four kids. He would probably be more intrigued and fulfilled by someone really creative and unhinged like, um, me.
(Jenny, who wrote that piece, writes a really great blog called Fashion for Writers. And it just occurred to me that we’re both using the same WordPress template, as are a few other WordPress blogs I frequent, and it’s always a little bit embarrassing, like going to a party and finding out that you and a bunch of other people you really admire are all wearing the same outfit. Or another way of looking at it: There is only one decent WordPress outfit theme and we all have to use it.)
2) I haven’t properly read Marx. I read The Communist Manifesto but I think it’s the least you can do and not something you’re allowed to brag about. So my project for 2012 is to get through Capital, with David Harvey’s help. (A sub-confession: this is 2011’s resolution, brought forward.) And about 20 minutes into David Harvey’s introductory video, he makes a joke and I do not laugh: “One of the best things about reading Hegel before reading Marx is that makes reading Marx pretty easy. So get yourself a dose of Hegel before you do Marx and everything will be okay.” I DO NOT LAUGH because-
3) I have not read Hegel. Not even a sentence, I don’t think. Maybe a phrase. Maybe I’ve glanced at some Hegelian words. (Do I need to read Hegel before Marx? Should I go back to the Greeks? Perhaps reread Shakespeare? WHEN DOES THE PROJECT START AFTER I’VE READ EVERYTHING EVER WRITTEN HOW THE FUCK HOW HOW HOW FOR THE LOVE OF ISSUS OF BARSOOM I HAVEN’T EVEN READ ADAM SMITH UNLESS EXCERPTS COUNT WHY DO I NOT KNOW A DAMN THING WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE WHAT DO I READ WHEN HOW HOW)
4) Instead of starting on Capital as I had planned to, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars last weekend in preparation for John Carter because I had no say in the matter. (The choice of movie, that is.) I think I liked the book, despite taking the time to laboriously type notes in my Kindle along the lines of, “Bahaha!” and “LOL!” and “For fuck’s sake!” Books that you can simultaneously mock and enjoy possess a certain form of power. I love that John Carter has gone to Mars but all the rules of heteropatriarchy still apply. I mean, that’s just how our world the universe works. I just got such a kick out of this hypermasculine wish fulfillment fantasy that is also one of greatest sci-fi classics of all time or something.
5) I watched John Carter and I think I liked it and maybe you might like it too IF YOU IGNORE the nice Disney-liberal sheen, when John Carter tells some Confederate soldier dude, “You started it. You finish it!” and soldier dude goes, “Oh-ho, gone all native have we?” and John Carter replies, “No, damn the Apaches too,” or something to that effect and we’re meant to relate to and agree with this hunky embodiment of rational (white) male subjectivity, who is an Individual and who sees the robbing of American lands from the natives as a fight among equals, you know, damn you all to hell all of you I AM JOHN CARTER AND DO I NOT LOOK GOOD WITH MY DIRTY BLONDE LOCKS and when the Therns talk about how the human race is overpopulating itself and fighting to the death because THERE ARE SO MANY HUMANS and you’re meant to think OH THAT’S WHAT WAR IS ALL ABOUT NOT REALLY ABOUT GEOPOLITICS AND POWER MATRICES IT’S BECAUSE THERE ARE JUST TOO MANY OF US WELL WHY DON’T WE GET RID OF A FEW and maybe it should be the Tharks because they’re not aesthetically pleasing like John Carter of Earth and Dejah Thoris of Barsoom who are PRETTY PRETTY PEOPLE AND NOBLE AND GOOD AND PRETTY AND REALLY WOW GREAT BODIES TOO and the Tharks are just so strange looking aren’t they and none so noble as a human as Tars Tarkas and Sola, because the rest of them are brutes but hey John Carter’s loins say save Helium and Dejah Thoris and so, for that purpose, let us harness the labour of the Tharks to fight on behalf of Helium even though John Carter told Sola earlier that she is the only Thark worthy of the honour of her father’s legacy of kindness and nobility but that’s okay coz none of the other Tharks heard him say that and now they’re all really excited to fight for him even though they called him a white ape earlier, the brutes, but John Carter was really exemplary in dealing with all that hatred and racism from the uncivilised Tharks and you see the lesson here? John Carter may have benefited from white supremacy on planet Earth but he went to Mars and he was discriminated, just like the rest of us, DO YOU SEE, he just triumphed and showed the Tharks the way by staying true to the course and so if you can ignore all that, then yeah. It was pretty enjoyable, and you might like it.
The script was co-written by Michael Chabon.
6) The only book by Michael Chabon I have ever attempted to read: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The attempt was unsuccessful. I really, really, really did not like it. (Related question: What fuels the Chabon-mania? I do not understand. Do I really want to? No.)
7) I willed myself to stay away from Twitter for a few days and I did and those few days became a week and then I was scared to go back there but then I went back and all my time is gone, again, because I read and wrote more in my spare time than I would have while tweeting, retweeting, and madly favouriting, which is what I’m doing now, having gone back. How do people hold down a job, be married, make babies, write books, write poetry, direct films, sing songs, play musical instruments, go to the gym, bake a fucking cake, and STILL ACTIVELY TWEET AND BLOG? I don’t know.
8) I can’t stand Don Draper. I finally watched Season 4 of Mad Men and I realise that we sat through a whole season of smugbum privileged pricks just so that we could enjoy what was engendered by the various hypermasculine charades: interaction between Peggy and Joan, for like 5 glorious minutes, in the final episode. In general, I just don’t know about the adult characters this season. I’m #TeamSallyDraper all the way. I’m really sad that she has Father Issues and that her Father is Don Draper. (In summary: #nodads.) I’m amazed at how quickly Betty became the wholly unsympathetic witchmother/wife. I felt like her character was made to stand in for much of the audience’s rage and disgust over the treatment of Carla although neither Don Draper or Betty’s new husband Henry Francis gave a shit about Carla until she was fired. (And then, specifically on Don’s part, it was about how it would affect him when he takes the kids with him to California.) Yes, they’re all racist, the show vaguely and quickly assures us, but Betty is just a little bit worse for being so bitchy about it. Meanwhile, Don Draper carries on with the DonDraper Guide to Life which goes along the lines of, Secretaries: use or marry. “You don’t want to start giving me morality lessons, do you? People do things,” says Don Draper to Peggy, in reference to him sleeping with his former secretary while drunk and not taking any responsibility for the fallout. Oh, but he TRIED! How he tried! He attempted to write a letter, wrote one sentence, and threw the letter away because words on a lousy letter cannot bear the significance of the complexity that is Don Draper. Meanwhile… next episode! (File this under: “How Don Draper’s Creators Allow Don Draper to Get Away with Shit.”) Seriously. I cannot stand Don Draper. (Does Betty say the same thing? I think so.)
9) Since reading Joan Riviere’s “Womanliness as a Masquerade” a few months ago and identifying myself as one of the intermediate types, I keep asking myself, What went wrong during the oral-biting stage? This is the question to ask (your)myself. And this made me realise that although I’ve read quite a bit of Freud I haven’t quite properly read Freud, either, and even less of the feminist critiques/engagement with Freud, and WHY DO I NOT KNOW A DAMN THING WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE WHAT DO I READ WHEN HOW HOW
January 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
This melancholia or shame can exist throughout a life in a variety of arenas (Sedgwick also describes its workings in the therapeutic setting). But it’s also a constitutive element of being a student. Being a student is — perhaps structurally — an incredibly rich, contradictory, and volatile place to be. Once you’ve flipped into being a professor, it can be astonishingly easy to forget this fact. I’m reminded of it, however, every time I see the familiar red crawl of a blush creeping up the neck of one of my students while she is giving an oral presentation, or when I run into a student in a public place and quizzically observe his discomfort, and so on. As Sedgwick has taught us elsewhere about blushing in particular, and about shame more generally:
the pulsations of cathexis around shame … are what either enable or disenable so basic a function as the ability to be interested in the world … Without positive affect, there can be no shame: only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush.
Sedgwick’s work on shame — inspired by psychologist Silvan Tomkins — teaches us that that rush of blood signals our interest, our investment, our care. And, if we’re lucky, we care a lot.
Of all the things I’ve read over these few weeks, these last two sentences have hit me the hardest. 2011 was my year of shame, or my year of wrestling with shame. And Maggie Nelson writes beautifully and with a great amount of honesty, the kind of honesty that makes you ache, about shame and care in Bluets. Now that I’ve read Nelson’s review of Sedgwick I’m thinking that these were the two themes that underpin that book. Bluets was about love, of course, but you can’t have love without shame and care.
I’m slowly learning that part of growing up and allowing love to happen (in whatever form) is intrinsically tied to allowing yourself to care (often, too much) and not quite giving a fuck about the shame that comes with it.
December 30, 2011 § 6 Comments
I love year-end lists. I loathe year-end lists. Year-end lists get me excited. Year-end lists just make me tired. Year-end lists make me anxious.
If it’s a competition – “Have you heard this year’s must-hear albums? Have you read this year’s must-read books? Have you watched this year’s must-watch films?” – then I’ll come right out and say I disqualify myself from the competition because who has time and did you know I only watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes for the first time this year BECAUSE THERE’S A LOT OF CATCHING UP TO D-
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a blog will want to offer you a humble list. And thus, I offer you a humble list. Maybe not quite humble, since there are 40 items in this list. A quiet list, then, a quiet list of no particular order. This is a list of some things that I read online this year; things that I appreciated, things that I loved, things that I disagreed with and made me rethink my own position on a certain something or someone, things I am glad to have read because it altered something in me. It is a haphazard, utterly biased list of my notable blog posts/essays/articles for the year 2011.
It’s also a sort of thanks to the people who wrote them, a way of saying, “Hey, you wrote that great thing in March when the world was a very different place and I want you to know that I still remember it in December.” (Really, when you think about it, this is fucking outstanding considering we’re in the age of the internet where the human brain is morphing into hamster brain and we have no more attention to give and are we still human? etc.)
“We like lists because we don’t want to die,” Umberto Eco proclaimed recently, and initially I was all, “Ooookaaay, take it easy there Mr. Eco,” but now I think I agree, though at the risk of remembering some things we essentially have to forget about and bury other things…
… but never mind that.
Here is my not-so-humble, quiet, haphazard, and utterly biased list of notable 2011 blog posts/essays/articles:
Isaac Miller – Who Runs the World: On Beyonce, Sampling, Race, and Power
Beyonce’s incorporation of Dancehall, as well as Kwaito through Tofo Tofo and “New Style” hip hop dance through Les Twins offers a glimpse into a more holistic, global hip hop culture. However, this global vision is still mediated through the work of a U.S. superstar. This is symbolic of the overarching global balance of power. However, while the U.S. still acts as the global center of media, music, and film, immense networks of media production are burgeoning across the global south.
It seems like Diplo wants to create networks, audiences, and opportunities for the communities he engages with. But so long as he is the necessary Western interlocutor for artists of color from the global south, I question how much will these artists and cultures actually be “represented” globally. Like other forms of Western “development” that created the very conditions of poverty that these musics and cultures exist in, Diplo’s brand of development reproduces the very inequality that it claims to solve.
Boima Tucker – Global Genre Accumulation
The art of DJing is as postmodern as it gets. Its essence is appropriation. A DJ re-contextualizes pre-existing cultural expressions to resurrect or re-interpret cultural memory for an audience. For me, Diplo and Venus exemplify two different ways of doing this.
Diplo has become known for taking an “unknown” culture and exposing it to the world. He mixes dominant American culture cues, with “foreign” cultures, and positions himself as the “in the know” intermediary, in turn reinforcing a separation between audience and subject. Venus uses culture memory of various both underground and mainstream cultures to create safe spaces for, and communicate messages to groups that are underrepresented in mainstream cultural discourse (groups that she herself is a part of.)
Minh-Ha T. Pham – Unintentionally Eating the Other
The amnesia of celebration forgets (willfully or not) the historical and ongoing violence that women of color bear wearing the very same garments on their bodies while looking like they do – rather than like Renn does (or Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and the list goes on). The eye shape Renn creates using tape is one that has given rise to schoolyard taunts, sexual harassment, mockery in real as well as fake Asian languages, nearly a century of immigration exclusion, employment discrimination, fetishization, and much more for Asian women who were born with these eyes. Not what you’d call an “exciting” experience. That Renn is able to feel “transformed” through and by this cosmetic trick of racial drag – one she equates with other tricks like fake moles and freckles – underscores the capacity of white bodies to play with race without bearing its burdens, without having to even acknowledge the existence of these burdens. Thus, the transformation Renn experiences and achieves is conditioned by her whiteness and the privileges that accrue to her racially unmarked body. At the same time, her transformation is possible only because of her proximation and consumption of otherness. The function of Otherness – even one that is unacknowledged by her – is reduced to the servicing of white women’s transformation.
Gaga has license to queer femininity—to make her body monstrous, either through monster-drag or king-drag—because she is white. In other words: her gender identity is not already qualified by non-whiteness. In the hegemonic, mainstream eye, Beyoncé’s blackness already qualifies her femininity. She often plays around with femininity by adopting stereotypically white feminine iconography, e.g., in “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (where she does the 60s housewife thing), or in “Video Phone” (where she does the 40s pinup/Betty Page thing). So it’s not that Bey just uncritically adopts normative het-fem identities/images. She just troubles femininity most obviously through race—which is not to say that she’s not also troubling its heteronormativity. If race and queerness are mutually intensifying, then Bey’s playing with femininity via race is also an experimentation with its sexuality.
Agata Pyzik – Ostalgia Trips
Ostalgie means and captures much wider contemporary cultural phenomena than the mere recuperation of the once-rough life under the system. That we’re now drowning with various Ostalgie projects symbolizes the weakness of contemporary, nostalgia-driven culture of constant revivals (show me a musical genre or style in art or architecture that hasn’t been revived in the last ten years). This is also related to the so-called hauntological current in culture, itself a coinage from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994). So is Soviet-focused nostalgia wrapped up with kitsch and appropriation, or does it express something more important: a need for an alternative to a collapsing capitalist system, a need for evoking a past that never actually happened? But instead we all behave like we believed Francis Fukuyama’s much-ridiculed vision of the end of history: everything happened already, we can only rehearse it once more, like living in one gigantic museum.
Alexander Chee – Fanboy
Comics regularly get in trouble for depicting the forbidden, and have for years. You could imagine, then, that comics are revolutionary, that they could foment turmoil and rebellion. But so far, I think we use them to stay asleep. Superhero comics in particular. We read them, we watch them now in movies, increasingly—comics are the new hot film properties, complete with serious stars and directors, huge budgets. We dream of heroes fighting evil together in the dark theater, but when we wake, we live alongside evil, uncomplaining.
What, then, are we dreaming?
Manan Ahmed – At Sea
It is wrong to claim that Osama b. Laden was irrelevant long before he was killed. He wasn’t. He represented, and represents, hundreds of thousands of lives lost since December 2001 when US forces reportedly failed to capture or kill him. He disappeared for the next decade but that absence was filled with wars in Iraq and Pakistan – wars waged on the heads of civilians, among urban centers, and at the cost of trillions. Just the technological developments of killing from the skies accomplished in this decade are mind or moral numbing. No, Osama b. Laden was never irrelevant and he was never off the script. Sure, George W. Bush or Pervez Musharraf told us that the battle was now bigger, the stakes higher and the cost greater, but they were empty words. The deaths of September 11th, 2001 and the destructions that followed hold us accountable – to remember that the cost of those lives began in a bid for this one life. So, we must deal with that life and the narratives it spawned. NYT claims that he was a “hero in much of the Islamic world”. The obituary moves on, and we are left with that “fact”. What are we to make of it? Heroes, after all, were gods and immortals.
Maryam Monalisa Gharavi – The Fabric of Democracy
The democratic ideal of the poikilon as a varied and brightly-colored garment alludes to two kinds of creatures: women, by virtue of their tendency to adornment, and proudly plumed peacocks. This resemblance may reinvigorate the logic behind (what I assume to be) a digitally manipulated photo of Gaddafi as poikílos, ‘spotted’ or ‘embroidered.’ The caricature is easy because Gaddafi is the subject of both fascination and horror in the way he transposes the appearance of sartorial freedom with the eradication of democratic freedom. Ridicule or amazement cannot obfuscate an underlying admiration for brazenness, which for Gaddafi translates freedom to dress as a metonymy for democracy.
Jane Hu – “Are You Airminded?” The Slang of War
As media critic Friedrich Kittler proposes, technologies repeatedly find their ancestry in the mouth of war: “war was called the father of all things: it was supposed to have been responsible (borrowing loosely from Heraclitus) for most technical inventions.” For Kittler, all technology begins as war technology. Whereas contemporary and commercial uses of machines obscure their military roots, languages face similar signifying concealments. Expressions such as “airminded” disappear from the vernacular as they decrease in culturally potency, or are reinvested with new meaning. “Trench coats,” for instance, initially referred to coats worn by soldiers in the trenches, while “going over the top” once pointed to the moment when British soldiers crossed the parapet that separated trench from no man’s land. “Airminded” is just one significant example of how war and its accompanying innovations have always shaped how we speak.
Aaron Bady – A Zionist Night Shelter in Africa
For Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, settling Jews in Africa would have seemed like it could solve several problems. One was that — as Heymann delicately suggests — genteel anti-Semites like Chamberlain and Landsdowne shared with Herzl a desire to discourage the mass migration of East European Jews into Western Europe. For Herzl, the fear was assimilation, and though it was the reverse fear for men like Chamberlain — non-assimilable Jews immigrating into Britain! Horrors! — they had in common the desire to find some other place for those migrants than Europe. And as pogroms in East Europe worsened — increasing the number of emigrating Jews even as the prospects of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine looked increasingly dim, Africa suddenly popped up as a possibility.
The “foreigner” is not always a stranger. The discourse on “foreigners” as fighters or mercenaries tends to resonate on the assumption that these people have somehow dropped out of the sky without any precedent or context, and find it easier to kill people they have nothing to do with. This assumption of strangeness, however, defies history. Libya and Bahrain have both long hosted large migrant worker populations, largely drawing from the same regions now racially linked to the idea of “mercenaries.” Mercenaries are, among other things, workers. Some (especially if they happen to be white) are insanely overcompensated and accountable to no local actors; but many others are in a far more ambiguous position vis-à-vis locals. If they were not carrying guns, some may instead have been construction workers, drivers, or cooks (similarly, many of the Arab mujahids who fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina were migrant workers coming from Italy).
Sumeja Tulic – In Which We Experience the Charm of a Libyan Night
Suddenly, our green love experienced its autumn. In an early morning, Suleiman, our young and handsome imam, was arrested and taken away. There were no charges and no appeal. Suleiman was “too Muslim” with his white tunic and therefore, a threat to Jamahiriya. The morning he was taken away, many others also vanished. For months, there were no wedding celebrations. Women whispered, men didn’t gather. Life was painfully discrete and silent.In years to come, coffins were brought to the doorsteps of those taken away years ago, before the sunrise, as when they were handcuffed and taken away.
Years went by, fast and uneasy. The imposed economical sanctions on Libya meant fewer things to buy. Oddly, the so called social supermarket distributed Benetton apparel. We may have craved all sort of different sweets, but we were dressed in Italian designer cloth from a decade ago.
V.V. Ganeshananthan – The Politics of Grief
It is a way of humiliating people, to say that their dead are not dead, to say that people are not even allowed to mourn. There was little room for the legitimate expression of grief during the war, and after it was over, what little was there dwindled. As the government said they were for reconciliation, they moved to shut down the spaces where Tamil civilians and loss could be remembered. Tiger cemeteries were razed, even when families survived who might have wanted to visit the markers. In one instance, Army headquarters were built in the same space. When some Tamil civilians attempted to gather to remember their dead on the anniversary of the war’s end, they had to face down officers of the Sri Lankan Army, as the north and east of the country remains heavily militarized. Indeed, in certain places civilian gatherings now require military approval. Innumerable people looking for a missing loved one filed cases and gave testimony, but many never found who they were looking for.
As was the case of Superman’s translation into Arabic, the perceived ownership of Mickey Mouse by an Arab audience exemplifies the pervasive reality of American imperialism. I have little doubt that this particular point is made more thoroughly by the remarkably-relevant and sadly out-of-printHow to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), written in Spanish by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart about how Disney comics spread capitalist ideals throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world. In their Marxist critique of Mickey and friends, Dorfman and Mattelart specifically observe how the relationship between Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and his nephews is more commercially centered than familial (potently pointing out the conspicuous absence of mothers and fathers among the Disney characters).
Daisy Rockwell – Funny Face
Whenever an impossibly famous individual disappears without a public viewing of the body (and sometimes even then; cf: Elvis), rumors abound as to whether the personage in question is actually dead. The curious decision to keep from the public the image that would prove the kill has naturally fueled an abundance of theories. So that members of the United States Government might not also feel inclined to indulge in such conspiracy theorizing, the White House set up a limited access peep-show to which select individuals of prominent stature, such as John McCain, were invited to see the booty captured and killed by our boys. They came away convinced, slightly shaken, perhaps a little horrified, but gratified that with their tremendous stature came access to the nation’s top-drawer death porn.
Salman H – An Abandoned Man
The state claims to be merely the nation’s representation and self-realization in whose interest it selflessly acts. But it is, in fact, a self-interested arbiter of the politics and culture of the very nation it shapes and constitutes. The state of Pakistan has, through legislative and juridical means, not only made it increasingly harder for Ahmadis to live as Ahmadis by criminalizing Ahmadis to live as Muslims, but also by being unable and/or unwilling to hold vigilantes to account, has made it fair game for Ahmadis to be coerced, violated, or killed as the persecutor sees fit. Those with a grudge against an Ahmadi have the legal route at their disposal to inflict violence through the state and/or hang a target on his head through the blasphemy law which would materialize in the state or a vigilante doing the job for free.
Ira Livingston – Darth Vader and Occupy Wall Street: A TwitterEssay
This is why I want to say to those occupying Wall Street, and occupying and animating these words and thoughts, thank you.
As a Word Person, it’s taken me 50 years to admit– as various therapists and lots of less verbal people have been telling me–
that the words themselves are always trumped by the ways they are wielded, the feelings that animate them.
Jennifer Doyle – Ball and Chain: Notes on Anne Hathaway, James Franco, and the Oscars
The fact of the matter is that in last night’s performance the person on stage closest to Kalup Linzy’s universe was Anne Hathaway – producing a theatrical, desperate and frankly scary version of feminine performance, not just alone, but in compensation for someone else’s failure – as if, if she worked hard enough, nobody would feel Franco’s absence. As if, if she worked hard enough, it would feel like her presence mattered. As if, to matter, her performance must anchor his.
Supriya Nair – Rainbows in the Sky at Night
The funny thing is, if I were a Fenerbahce fan in Istanbul I might have refused to go when called. I might have argued that I didn’t want to be there as a fucking punishment for my team, especially if they did deserve to play behind closed doors. I might have argued that the punishment and this fix exposed flaws in the system that could not be papered over by a single glorious matchday, that it was not genuinely inclusive, that it would be a better gesture if every team in the Turkish league could do the same. I might even have argued on principle against gender profiling on behalf of the excluded majority of innocent male fans, perfectly aware that none of them would ever do the same for me. And watching the 41,000 other women on TV that night would still have been the most radically uplifting thing I ever saw.
Maya Mikdashi – Waiting for Alia
Alia’s picture does not play by the rules, and this is why both liberals and Islamists have condemned her. She is not “waiting” for the “right moment” to bring up bodily rights and sexual rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. She is not playing nice with the patriarchal power structures in Egypt. She is not waiting her turn. Her mouth is not open and pouting. Her breasts are not large. Her eyes are not hungry or afraid. She is not wearing high heels. Her vagina is uncovered. She is not selling anything, and she is not trying to turn us on. Her use of fishnet stockings appears to be a commentary on the clichés of commodified seduction. Her nudity is not about sex, but it aims to reinvigorate a conversation about the politics of sex and the uneven ways it is articulated across the fields of gender, capital, and control. She is staring back at us, daring us to look at her and to not turn away. Daring us to have this debate.
Nivedita Menon – Modest? Sexy? Or just an athlete?
In short, they want to be modest or sexy outside the rules – the fat woman who refuses to tone or shave her legs but will wear mini skirts; the modest believer who insists that women can conduct puja/namaz/service. Or women who don’t care much about being either modest or sexy, but just do whatever it takes to do what they do very well.
Carla Fran – A Thousand Ways to be Pissed Off: The Green Hornet
Instead, you get a tour of how great it is to be a privileged white guy. The movie could practically be a manual for how to move around with privilege and power built by race and gender. Seth Rogen, as the Hornet, becomes our very lucky white guy/textbook example of power and privilege. He has inherited his fortune from the empire building of his dad. He parties and likes to ruin things with abandon (there is a distinct joy in smashing plasma TVs in the movie). He gets a super powerful job because of his family. He has little regard for how his actions affect others. He’s stupid, but it doesn’t matter. He never gets called on any of his trespasses. The world changes on his time alone–it’s only when he realizes things matter that they actually matter.
Kim Morgan – It’s a Thin Line: My Summer of Love
Young, intriguing, different women/teens can be viewed as odd birds, no matter how acceptably “wacky” cinema attempts to paint them. We see movies like Mean Girls, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Juno, Easy A or even, Thirteen, and are left with impressions that may ring true for certain aspects of the teen population, but remain utterly false for others. Girls who related to Ghost World (as I did and still do — though I find myself in both Birch and Buscemi, which disturbs me at times), don’t see the big deal in 13, would laugh at the “mean girls” in school, and wonder why Juno would let some older guy convince her that Blood Feast was better than Suspiria. No way. In My Summer of Love, issues, or catch-phrases like “sisterhood” (especially in regard to traveling pants), and “rebellion” aren’t terms these beguiling leads would even bother to utter. That kind of drama is just there — the regular aspects or impediments to a type of life they’re attempting to escape and re-create. And re-creation is key.
The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness. Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel. At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity! Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations. (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on. Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?)
Kuzhali Manickavel – I hate scorpions and liars. I love ice cream and my mother.
Female arrogance in general is apparently at the root of most bad things in the world today. For instance, that whole Maoist problem that is happening somewhere over there is really all about Arundhati Roy and how she’s like so arrogant yougaiz. I’m pretty sure that bird flu was created and perpetuated by arrogant chickens.
So the poem serves as a wake-up call to people who think, and would otherwise carry on thinking, that having better jobs makes them better people, and that menial labourers are not really human beings. (It also encourages them to instead view said labourers as picturesque bits of scenery existing for the moral education of the middle class and up, but hey, win some lose some, right?) In other words, it is a machine for making walking scum that much less scummy.
Aishwarya Subramanian – DU and Hatterr
We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.
Norhayati Kaprawi – Bila rogol dikatakan halal
Ramai ulama mendakwa dalam Islam tidak boleh menggunakan akal fikiran, harus berdasarkan keimanan. Pada saya, kenyataan sedemikian bertentangan dengan wahyu Allah yang pertama, iaitu “Bacalah”. Tentu saja membaca memerlukan akal fikiran yang tajam bagi memproses informasi yang dibaca dengan menghubungkannya dengan alam dan hidup kita.
Dalam hal ini misalnya, apakah beriman atau meyakini itu adalah dengan meyakini apa yang dikatakan oleh pemimpin-pemimpin Islam yang mengatakan perempuan boleh dirogol? Bukankah pandangan mereka juga hasil dari menggunakan akal fikiran mereka?
Penulis juga tertarik dengan perspektif evolusi yang diketengahkan Norhayati di mana budaya hijab di Malaysia dipautkan kepada kebangkitan politik Muslim di Iran dan Tanah Arab pada era 1970an dengan politik tanahair. Dalam menghuraikan perspektif ini Norhayati menyelitkan klip video ceramah ulema kehormat parti Pas, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, yang mencaci wanita yang tidak menutup aurat sebagai mengundang malang, malah menggalakkan agar mereka dirogol untuk diberi pengajaran. Menurut Norhayati, setakat ini belum ada penonton yang melafazkan rasa terkejut atau tidak bersetuju dengan Nik Aziz.
Pada pendapat penulis, jika ada kegagalan besar dalam Aku Siapa ia adalah ketiadaan perbincangan berkenaan pengaruh parti Umno dan dasar-dasar kerajaan dibawah pimpinan Umno dalam evolusi hijab di Malaysia. Norhayati mengambil masa untuk menelanjangkan hipokrasi pemimpin sanjungan ahli Pas dan Parti Keadilan Rakyat tapi tidak pula Umno yang tak pernah putus kuasa diperingkat nasional sejak negara Merdeka.
Haneen Maikey, Sami Shamali – International Day Against Homophobia: Between the Western Experience and the Reality of Gay Communities
During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine). There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.
Keguro – Listening to African Queers
Following the U.K.’s example, the U.S. has bought into aid conditionality tied to so-called sexual rights. It’s not yet clear what this will mean. But it is worrying.
Multiple blog posts from the U.S. have celebrated this “victory” for gay rights, this assertion that gay rights are human rights, universal rights: the U.S. is now on board with gay activism.
I am not celebrating.
In fact, I am disheartened by what feels like myopic celebrations that confirm, or suggest, that what is at stake in such a decision has nothing to do with helping African queers and everything to do with domestic U.S. feeling and neo-imperial machinations. I have no problem with U.S. queers celebrating this decision as an advance for U.S queer struggles; but let’s not confuse the issue and claim this decision has anything to do with African queers. Or that African queers were in any way consulted—not that we need to be, of course: knights in shining armor rarely ask whether the maiden and the dragon are engaged in an inter-species romance.
Jenny Turner – As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes
How has Western feminism drifted so far out of touch? By narrowing its focus, Eisenstein thinks, to culture and consciousness and personal testimony, neglecting what she calls ‘the political economy of feminism’, and in particular the economic peculiarities that caused Women’s Liberation to happen where and when it did. Never mind the Pill, the miniskirt, the ‘problem with no name’, Eisenstein says: all that is a sideshow. The rise of Western feminism came about because there was a widespread shift, around 1970, of middle-class women from the home to the workplace: partly, no doubt, because they sought fulfilment and financial independence, but mostly because wages overall were in decline. Women entered the workforce bigtime, in other words, just as the ‘long boom’ of the postwar years was ending, and since most women get lower-paid jobs anyway – part-time and casual, unskilled, mommy-track – most of them went ‘straight up the down escalator’, the phrase coined by the economic historian Teresa Amott. This is the way it has been for most women ever since.
Nandini Ramachandran – Borges and I
Borges essays, while short, can be baroque affairs. They are the mark of a “delirious archivist,” as Umberto Eco called him, of a man who lives amidst legions of chattering books. He constructs his essays like a vast puzzle, piling quip upon quote, leading you ever deeper into a thicket of metaphors. Occasionally, they are almost formless, as if their writer has been so carried away by the force of his reading that he has forgotten the point he set out to make. Yet, a careful reading will always reveal the fragile thread between each idea, the links that made Borges not only a consummate reader and thinker but a peerless writer.
Elizabeth Bachner – Dwelling Made of Not Knowing Which Way to Turn: Reading Aimé Césaire
When Aimé Césaire edited Soleil cou coupé in 1961 to construct Cadastre, he eliminated thirty-one poems and cut out material from another twenty-nine, leaving only twelve of these poems intact. “Unmaking and Remaking the Sun” was cut out. “Attack on Morals” was cut out. “To the Serpent” was cut out. If repetition is apocalyptic, what is excision? I’ve had this line from Rimbaud in my head: “It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.” La fin du monde, but there’s a French word, apocalypse, that’s the same as the one in English — from Greek, meaning revelation, lifting the veil. Exposing whatever is true.
Debbie Hu – To Heartbreak Hotel
That night I got stoned and I was frustrated with myself for not writing. So I typed a manifesto called THE WRITE WRITE JUST FUCKING WRITE MANIFESTO. “It is important to get out of the habit of checking to see if what you’re doing is proper and valid before doing it,” I wrote. “Exuberance is not incompatible with care and beauty. Slowness and sadness are not incompatible with diligence. If you have never seen anything like what you are writing don’t be scared be excited. If you feel like you’ve seen what you are writing 1,000 times don’t hate yourself get pumped. You are in an arena you know,” I wrote. “It is important to have concrete goals rather than abstract ones such as ‘being loved’… Your need for other people will have to sort itself out.”
Giovanni Tiso – The Well-Adjusted
Job insecurity and living from contract to contract are a source of anxiety? Then there must be somebody for whom this is not so, somebody for whom the designation of freelance (lovely word, that) is an opportunity for deducting some cost of living items from their taxes and who uses the enforced downtime as an opportunity for rest and recreation. The social and professional demand to be always communicatively available and plugged into multiple networks is a source of stress? Then there must be people who are only too happy to always be available, and for whom checking Twitter and Facebook updates or new emails and text messages never becomes a compulsive habit.
Rob Horning – The Accidental Bricoleurs
Like fast fashion, social media have brought with them a profusion of means and ways to reshape and display our identity. Constantly given new tools to share with, always prompted to say something new about ourselves (“What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks thoughtfully), we are pressured to continually devise ingenious solutions to our identity, which suddenly appears to be a particular kind of recurring problem: one that can be solved by replenishing social media’s various channels with fresh content. Just as fast fashion seeks to pressure shoppers with the urgency of now or never, social media hope to convince us that we always have something new and important to say—as long as we say it right away. And they are designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear. One can easily fall out of fashion with the algorithms Facebook uses to select which content users see out of the plethora of material friends in their network contribute.
It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as “the nature of things”), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the “naturalization” of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.
We might understand these riots as simultaneously an attempt to claim and reject the modern commodified city. While their apparent chaotic nature represents a logical form of escape from the totalising effect of neo-liberal urbanism, at the same time the riots reinforce the very things they attack, binding their actors tighter to the frameworks of commodity culture.
Evan Calder Williams – Hostile Object Theory
This is an instance of what I’ll call hostile objects: a conviction that the objects of capitalism aren’t just indifferent to us or darkly coherent beyond our intentions. They are structurally hostile, and, more often than we’d like to admit, locally hostile: uncertain, unstable, loathing or loathsome, dangerous, and weirdly incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed. This isn’t to speak of nature per se, not an Algernon Blackwood-esque thought of a savage animism.Nor is it a unified theory of what the world would be without us even as we still are in it; the dark and threatening woods. For my concern is not ‘what is without us’, but the shitty flashlight we carry through those woods, the kicking-back chainsaws we wield to take them down. This is an Unnaturphilosophie, concerned not with humanless ecologies but the self-sabotaging, crumbling inhumanity at the core of the economic.
There. These are some things you can read, if you haven’t already, during a particularly tedious moment at whatever social obligation thing/party/event you have to be at on December 31st. Or perhaps you’ll be having so much fun at whatever thingamajig you’re at that you won’t have to surreptitiously check Twitter on your phone at all, not even once. In which case, go show off somewhere else, won’t you?
Me? It’s very likely that I will continue my occupation of the couch, swaddled in blankets and doused in Vicks VapoRub and blowing my nose, for I have the flu and it is Terrible.
Have a happy new year, and may we find time we lost or put aside in 2011 in 2012.
December 22, 2011 § 7 Comments
It’s not like it’s the end of the world–
just the world as you think
you know it.
Rita Dove, “The First Book”
A few days ago, I finished writing a review of a book. I KNOW! MOMENTOUS. I felt like I had shat out a diamond mine, minus the diamonds. I used to think that reviewing books I liked was hard, because it was important to keep the swoony gushing to a minimum and to consider the text for what it was, to reconsider the text for it was, because wasn’t it possible that in liking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have overestimated its worth? But then I realised that reviewing bad books is equally hard – I would have to reconsider the text, because wasn’t it possible that in disliking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have underestimated its worth?
Forget all that – I’ve decided that reviewing “meh” books is the most difficult. One has to dig around a bit in the muck of one’s brain-swamp to find out why a book has aroused such profound indifference. And then, because everyone knows book reviews are useless, to wade through that muck and reconsiderthe text in front of you and write a review that attempts to listen to the book, pay attention to what it doesn’t say, and wrestle it down not for meaning or for Truth but for a imaginative or intellectual expansion, to pay attention to when the book provides a way in or a way out of wherever you are at any given moment. To say to the world, here, look: a book review should never be useless, even on a bad day. (I know, of course, that Elizabeth Gumport’s piece wasn’t just to say, “Book reviews are useless”, and perhaps I wilfully misread to be wilfully churlish. Maybe.)
There is constant grappling with MEANING and INTERPRETATION. Frequent questions about WHAT THE FUCK IS ART ANYWAY.
And while you’re sitting there mulling things over, in particular that one question: WHAT THE FUCK IS ANYTHING ANYWAY, Susan Sontag comes up over your shoulder, hectoring you about interpretation, shouting into your ear, “INTERPRETATION IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON ART. EVEN MORE. IT IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON THE WORLD.”
This is the trigger.
You’re angry now, and you tell Sontag, “Listen, white lady with a wide vocabulary and excellent critical thinking, you cannot be against interpretation when this interpretation is the revenge of the brown woman intellect upon the world, and goddamn you, this revenge shall be had.”
The review goes unwritten for a few more hours.
“In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act,” Sontag continues to say in “Against Interpretation”, somewhat conciliatory.
“Who decides the contexts?” Subashini writes in her journal at 11:53 p.m. on December 7, 2011, brown woman intellect in a muddle.
The review of the book that inspired strong feelings of meh was finally completed in a blur of tears, when I decided to reread Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks while writing the conclusion and remembered the first time I encountered Fanon in the chilly aisles of the library at the University of Winnipeg at some point during the fall of 2005.
Who knows why I had to cry six years after reading him for the first time in order to remember what it felt like reading him for the first time.
I think I realised why, sometime later. Perhaps?
An introductory Critical Theory class, in which I encounter many of the thinkers and theorists in my Critical Theory reader for the first time. It’s all about timing, someone wise said once upon a time. I think if I was a young undergrad, the way undergrads are supposed to be, and also if I was white, male, and straight, I would have become a theory-jerk. You know the type? You bump into them everywhere into the blogosphere – theory as a belief system instead of a means to get somewhere. Where? I don’t know. But is should never be a belief system. This much I know.
(But I was older and uncool, having taken a few years between college in Malaysia and university in Canada to work temp jobs and despise life. So I became a theory spinster.)
We read an extract of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex during the second or third week of class, at a time when Frantz Fanon was just a name to me and nothing more. Our excellent professor made us all gather into pairs to discuss a particular Beauvoir excerpt. We broke into pairs with the person seated next to us. The person next to me was a guy: pale of skin, blue of eye, fair of hair.
I had seen him around some of my other literature courses and had entertained a mild crush on him until I heard him speak. There was nothing wrong with him, certainly. He was popular, even! Well-liked! A sort of rising star in the English Department! The kind of rising star who, along with other rising stars of the English Department, never really spoke to me, even when I spoke to them. The kind who were forever speaking to someone or apparition behind you, next to you, an embodied presence floating above your head, perhaps, even when they were having a conversation with you. The kind who could never really look you in the face.
“It’s my hair, perhaps my scalp-“
“My skin, my tropical-bred skin, so oily and shiny and perhaps they can’t bear to look at it… maybe I have a pimple-“
“My facial hair, I can’t help it though, it’s my Tamil-genes, oh god, it’s probably my eyebrows, did I remember to tweeze, do I have unibrow because I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror this week because it’s finals week-“
–Just some of things that ran through my mind when fresh-faced, white-skinned English department rising stars couldn’t talk to me by looking at me in the face.
I had a sense in those days, you see, which were the longest period I’d ever lived in a North American space, that some white people didn’t know how to react to me because of the colour of my skin, perhaps, or the strange tone and texture of it; the strange tone and texture of my wild, wavy hair, perhaps, or the strange tone and cadence of my English – always proper, but somehow strange.
So. Pair discussion! A few things were said, and then I blurted out how valuable it was to me that Beauvoir expounded on the construction of “the eternal feminine”:
“The similarity just noted is in no way due to chance, for whether it is a race, a caste, a class, or a sex that is reduced to a position of inferiority, the methods of justification are the same. ’The eternal feminine’ corresponds to ‘the black soul’ and to ‘the Jewish character’.”
That passage is flawed, of course, for Beauvoir insisted that the “woman problem” is equivalent to “the Negro problem”, or “the Jewish problem”. Despite the flaw, it was an opening for the conceptualisation of identity that excited me, then – as it would, I think, for any woman encountering Beauvoir (and Foucault, simultaneously) for the first time.
I really can’t remember what my discussion partner was saying about a great many things, because everything he said prior became a blur following what he said after I said something along the lines of, “I’m really wary of people who aren’t black going on and on about ‘the black soul’, for instance,” and he replied with (paraphrased), “What’s wrong with saying that? What’s wrong with ‘the black soul’? They have soul. I think it’s a compliment.”
And I fumbled, as I am wont to do when flustered, angry, and unable to articulate what I feel somewhere deep in my physical self but can’t quite put into words.
How to begin? Where to begin?
I had a sense that our professor, from way yonder, noticed my expression and swooped in just in time to come find out how we were doing with our discussion, in which case the point I wanted to make was lost as we talked about other Beauvoir things and not the one thing that was rattling around the walls of my feeble mind.
I felt an immense sense of shame over that ridiculous pair-discussion; shame that I carried around for awhile; shame at not having said what was on my mind, shame that came from knowing English and explaining for years to curious white Canadians – “It’s practically my first language! My mother spoke and read to me in English when I was in the womb, even!” – and failing, at that crucial point, to find any use for English.
To find English failing me, or myself for failing English, and wondering how it was that people – like this guy, for instance – came to possess such an expansive view of themselves in the world, that they had no doubt that they can say anything and be unafraid or uncomfortable, knowing that room will be made for them at the table, that their words will be heard, that it won’t unheard or ignored or simply misunderstood because they speak English the wrong way, and with a strange accent?
Fanon was on the syllabus. He was to come many weeks after Beauvoir. But I was a Good Student, as I was told all my life, I got good grades and I did all my readings – and better yet, professors said, beaming at me: I read more than the required readings!
An excerpt of Black Skin, White Masks was on the syllabus, but a copy of the book was available in this university library which so often did not have copies of anything beyond lots and lots of copies of dead, white men.
So what I learned then, or perhaps realised what I’d always intuited about how I sometimes read and why I read, that maybe you stifle the shame with reading. Sometimes.
“I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” Fanon wrote in his introduction to Black Skin, White Masks and with that, I had found my words.
I had found it too late, obviously. And had I known it then, that this was what I felt but could not say because I didn’t know how to – if I had known it then, would I have had the courage to say it? I don’t know.
And still – gaps exist. What do I, Malaysian-born woman of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, have in common with Martinican-born French-educated Frantz Fanon of African descent who died twenty years before I came into the world? There are gaps. I don’t expect Fanon to fill it.
But he gave me words that day in a way that made me realise how we sometimes drink books down as if we hadn’t had a sip of water for days. Or how you breathe a book in before you even realise you were gasping for air.
I can only think, like Keguro wrote in his post Listening to African Queers: “Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”
Timing is everything.
I think, maybe, that’s why I cried when I picked up Black Skin, White Masks again recently six years after reading it for the first time. The book I had finished reviewing was set in the global South with characters who were struggling to understand themselves beyond how they were taught to see themselves. I felt, at that moment, threads of connection between one unrelated book and another and myself as the eye of the needle through which they passed.
And so I sat down for awhile and cried.
Or it could have been hormones. I am Woman[i], after all, and 98.25% of the time we are fluttering about in a state of agitated hormonal activity. (I am told, by reliable sources.)
Sometimes you’re going along, doing your own thing, reading some great essays in a highly-praised online magazine of “ideas”, and then you read a profile on the editors and founders of this magazine, and you realise that they appear to be all white, and young, and you remember flashes of another life in another country, of English departments and rising English department stars and graduate students, and you think, “Why are they consistently white and young?”, knowing that these questions are not quite generous, knowing that seeing people in terms of skin colour and youth and shared experiences and networks and educational backgrounds is to limit how you see the world.
Or does it?
I don’t know.
“The extent of my perversity overwhelms me,” said Aimé Césaire.[ii]
“Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”
I’m sorry Sontag, but sometimes my (our) intellect needs to take revenge upon the world.
Fanon gave me words. There is – yes, still! – the rubble of white man’s artifacts both out there, in the world, and in here, inside my mind. Sometimes I need all the words I can get.
“What can I do?
One must begin somewhere.”[iii]
[i] And that means grappling with Fanon’s complicated gender politics – women are an afterthought, and as David Macey writes in Frantz Fanon: A Life, “feminism was not on Fanon’s agenda” (despite him knowing Beauvoir personally, and Black Skin, White Masks sharing a conceptual framework with The Second Sex). Macey tells us about Fanon’s first white girlfriend, who because she was pregnant with his child out of wedlock, and because of their interracial union in conservative Lyon, failed her medical exams and saw her medical career aspirations come to an end as she went off to have their baby. And what of Fanon’s wife, Josie, who typed his Black Skin, White Masks manuscript? She casts a shadow, but she is sketched into place with faint lines. The story is of Fanon the man, of course, and the women were merely… there. Macey’s biography is magisterial in its scope and its love for its subject, but as a woman I wrestle with the little stabby pains to the heart in recognizing how little Women actually mattered to Fanon.
[ii] In Notebook of a Return to the Native Land