September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?
But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.
So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)
The review in full:
I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.
As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.
Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.
Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.
As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.
Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.
When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”. When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.
If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.
It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.
When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.
And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.
Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.
She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.
As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.
Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”
It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.
Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently) pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.
Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.
Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.
But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”. Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.
For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.
August 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
This is a review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us that first appeared in Pop Matters. If you expect The Managed Heart-type analysis and insight, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Barring any structural analysis, it appears as though Hochschild just wants to let us know that life is pretty shitty these days–and for all of us equally, at that.
Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist who published an influential book about emotional labour and gender in late capitalism, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, in the early ‘80s. For that book, she studied two types of workers for major US airlines and companies, flight attendants and bill collectors, to explicate how the discipline and management of feeling became embedded in service work in ways that both shaped and produced gender norms. In her description, emotional labour is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” that is meant, of course, to produce the “proper state of mind in others”. The “others” in this case are the consumers of a particular service, a service which is either increased or diminished in value by the emotional labour of the workers performing it.
Twenty years later Hochschild’s latest book, The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us, delves deeper into privatised emotional labour, exploring how the free market logic has spread its tentacles into the sacred haven of the home. While The Managed Heart was informed by Marx’s theory of the alienation of labour—“If we can become alienated from goods in a goods-producing society, we can become alienated from service in a service-producing society”, Hochschild wrote—The Outsourced Self is less interested in providing an analysis or, indeed, a workable solution or alternative to the market-driven logic. Rather, it tells stories of the people who are caught between its contradictory demands and impulses.
If The Managed Heart was about how emotional labour was becoming a fundamental job requirement among white-collar or “pink-collar” service jobs undertaken by largely middle-class white American women, then The Outsourced Self is about how middle and upper class white American families are made to cope with the disconnection of late capitalism by having to outsource the most private, emotional aspects of the self.
Hochschild emerges as a dogged and determined sociologist and storyteller, and the examples she cites are numerous. They run the gamut from love coaches and surrogate mothers to nannies and wedding and party planners and care work for the elderly, with companies offering personalised services for the disposing of the ashes of the a deceased love one as well as services for grave and headstone maintenance. Hochschild interviews both the people employing these services and the people who perform them, the latter being overwhelmingly female.
If being an efficient worker under capitalism means making enough money to have a comfortable life, having the means to acquire that comfortable life means not having the time to participate in the personal and social relationships that make it comfortable. When the bride is too busy working, it’s the wedding planner who has to figure out “how to coax the groom to get more involved”. When the private equity fund manager-father with a strong “faith in the global free market” is too busy to have mastered the art of party organising for kids, it’s the children’s party planner who comes up with the perfectly productive party that keeps the children occupied from start to finish.
If capitalism requires a productive, efficient worker to be available around-the-clock, then the increasingly inconvenient business of being human has to be outsourced—ideally for a negotiable fee.
Part of the business of being a productive worker is to project the image of how productive one is, to crow about one’s lack of sleep and inability to stay away from email as a form of accomplishment that justifies having a job and a salary. It’s a particular class of people who get to boast of this busyness and be admired for it. And it’s this class of people that can afford to outsource the undesirable or scary or unpleasant or unproductive aspects of their emotional lives to others and set the terms of the contract.
The reason why some of Hochschild’s critical analysis is blunted, one suspects, is because underlying these examples is Hochschild’s own story detailing her struggle to find an adequate care provider for her aging and increasingly frail Aunt Elizabeth. The stories of others are refracted through a personalised lens, and while this serves a particular motive—showing how people’s lived reality is often at odds with their intentions, for one thing—it doesn’t attempt to contextualise these forms of late-capitalist living for the reader, preferring instead to merely conclude that the logic of neoliberalism has penetrated into the most intimate aspects of our lives.
Hochschild’s sociological framework doesn’t render her oblivious to the ways in which capital works through race relations to create a class of precarious American emotional labourers who are largely working class black and Latino Americans and migrant women from Central and South America, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. In this book she travels to India to speak to surrogate mothers and notes how the Americans using the services of these women seem to consider this situation through the lens of free-market democracy.
Talking to an American couple who used the services of an Indian surrogate agency, Hochschild notes how some aspects of guilt at the nature of the transaction and the imbalance of the power between the employer and the employee are justified through contradictory rationalisations by the couple doing the choosing. They attempt to reach out to the women they hire, to convey their gratitude for the monumental service that is provided, but at bottom they remind themselves that, as one woman named Lili did, that “this girl is poor and she’s just doing it for the money”. Her husband, referring to the surrogate’s reticence and lack of amiability—she had asked the American couple no questions while they had “reached out” and asked her about herself—says, “I’m sure for them it’s a pure business transaction. Payment for surrogacy could equal ten years’ of salary in India. Still, if she’d been more cheerful, maybe we could have talked more.”
In another example, while relating the story of a relatively well-off American family and their Filipino nanny, Maricel, Hochschild writes:
“In the eyes of their employers, the actual stories of the Maricels of the world are often replaced by mythic ones. In the global South, people live more authentic and relaxed lives, Alice Taylor felt … Other versions of the “happy peasant” fantasy held by other well-meaning employers draw a similar curtain over the fractured lives of the many Maricels around the globe.”
There’s a lot packed into that phrase “well-meaning employer”, obscuring the ways in which people simply choose not to see what’s right in front of them. But of course, they don’t have the time. The imbalance of power between the people who do the outsourcing for emotional and care work and those who actually do the work is simply that the former consider themselves important enough; their needs and desires and lifestyles trump those of their employees even if they’re not aware enough to recognise it, or choose to misrecognise what they see. It’s enough to have their nanny’s authentic Filipino self present to care their child, but who cares for Maricel’s child back in the Philippines?
A curious contradiction emerges among the affluent professional class who can afford to outsource whole chunks of the self: they don’t have a “choice” to do otherwise, but their employees seem to have freely chosen this particular type of work. As such, at the end of the day, it’s just a perfectly legitimate and necessary pure business transaction. The privileged can afford to lack self-awareness at the expense of hiring someone from a poorer background from another country. Having internalised the logic of the market, they imagine they’re helping to ease the poverty “over there”. As for the other details, such as who cares for their family while they care for yours—well, it’s a working relationship and it might be unprofessional to pry.
This is how people are encouraged to think, as Leopoldina Fortunati pointed out in 1981 in her seminal autonomist feminist text, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, because it’s how they are meant to live. As Fortunati says,” It is not by chance that under capitalism, while at the formal level there appear to be many opportunities for individual relationships, in reality there exists a high level of isolation between individuals, who are obliged to produce surplus-value even in the moment in which they reproduce themselves.” She’s referring to the family nucleus, which she says provides a “sufficient nucleus in the sense that this time, these relations, and these exchanges must suffice for labor power to reproduce itself”. Anything more than that is a waste. The more time you have, the less time you have—and that suits capitalism just fine.
Lacking more of an analytical framework, Hochschild’s book seems to posit historical problems with capitalism as new and novel issues. Because of this she is sometimes left asking us questions to which answers seem glaringly obvious, and have been, for awhile. “Can it be that we are no longer confident to identify even our most ordinary desires without a professional to guide us?” Well, perhaps. Part of the genius—or insidiousness—of capitalism is how it sells you a solution to a real or imagined fear, then sells you the uncertainty of an incorrectly or inadequately applied solution, thus creating an endless cycle of zero confidence—which it can sell back to you. (Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, for example.)
More interesting are the unasked questions, like how life coaches help their clients “redefine their desire”—redefined according to what standards and why? What’s shaping these new desires? These aspects of the production of disciplined subjects are factors that Hochschild does not examine. The book is also is burdened by Hochschild’s hazy nostalgia, based on her own memories, for a time before urbanisation when agrarian village living held out the best possible alternative to atomised neoliberal societies, offering emotionally-connected communities where people showed up unannounced at each other’s doorsteps with pie. While it may not have been her intention, Hochschild’s reminiscences seem to imply that the dangers of capitalist living began right on the dot when Hochschild started to take notice.
Hochschild’s work in The Managed Heart has been particularly useful for feminism in showing how emotional labour and care work are gendered and how subjects who perform these forms of emotional work are transformed, and social relations altered, when the practice of “deep acting” and emotional performance are exploited for the purposes of capital. Therefore, her tendency to frame the situations in The Outsourced Self as specifically new and novel problems under neoliberalism rather than as symptoms of capitalism seems particularly ingenuous, since her arguments in The Managed Heart could have predicted this outcome. It also allows her to sidestep how emotional labour was always required of women and the working classes performing domestic service in the past, or the ways in which emotional labour was required of labouring colonial subjects—both men and women.
While the aim of The Outsourced Self is not to present in detail the varied histories of forms of emotional labour, its tendency to skip from story to story with minimal analysis renders it essentially unremarkable, especially coming from a scholar and sociologist like Hochschild who has offered challenging and useful arguments for the field of labour theory in the past. The Outsourced Self is essentially pop-sociology light reading, a collection of anecdotes interspersed with brief (mostly personal) reflections. Hochschild is good at pointing out the general ambivalence and contradictions that underlie “intimate life in market times”, but the reader is not left with much more than a general sense of how troubling and inescapable it all is.
June 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
Why capital doesn’t like single women:
A woman of marriageable age who is neither wife nor mother, or who for some reason does not become fully a part of the housework labor-force, is under-employed. In other words, she carries out housework in a more limited way than her potential work capacity would allow. Hence single mothers — who do not reproduce a husband/male worker — are under-employed; so is a married woman with no children, who reproduces only a husband; and so also is the divorced, separated or widowed woman who has not remarried. The woman who is of marriageable age but remains single is, however, “non-employed”: she reproduces neither husband nor children. (“Unemployed” cannot really be used here, because every woman living under capitalism who does not live on unearned income, must always reproduce at least her own labor-power.)
From Leopoldina Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital.
Let’s get #reproducingneitherhusbandnorchildren trending on Twitter!
I’m too dumb for Fortunati but I press on. I was bingeing on Trixie Belden books and Josephine Tey mysteries for the last week because I needed comfort reading, where I wanted to read and couldn’t read and so I read things where everything followed a convention, a formula. And so, dear reader, I discovered that you must not go from Trixie Belden to Italian autonomist marxist feminism just like that — you gotta ease into it.
Despite that, Fortunati is, as the kids say, blowing my mind. (Do the kids still say that?)
January 15, 2013 § 8 Comments
One of my friends texted us in a group chat about the Golden Globes awards show and its unbearable celebration of whiteness. As this Tumblr post puts it: “The Brave White Artists of the USA”. The white culture industry congratulating its white industrially cultural self. Most of us love to watch it and talk about it because we’re saturated in it and even though I hate it so much I enjoy watching people watch it: a meta-spectacle. I mean, Debord wrote about this. Debord said it all. Everything shit will come to pass, said Debord.
I just had the best time looking at this twitter feed throughout the thing:
I watched Les Miserables because a friend wanted to see it. I’m no fan of musicals. Or opera. At all. I had some familiarity with Les Miserables the musical because we put on bits of it for a concert when I was in the English Literary and Debating Society in secondary school. Yes, that’s really what it was called. The English Literary and Debating Society. I have stage fright, so I was never on stage but always in the background running around doing important things for the people on stage, but this has nothing to do with anything, really. Or does it?
Where Les Miserables the musical is concerned, I never understood why poverty had to be romanticised, aestheticised, into a feel-good musical. You might ask the same question of the novel itself, which I haven’t read, but then I’m biased—I majored in literary studies. Maybe I think the novel can do important things. So kill me now. I don’t know, this novel thing is a big question. I read Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production and still understand nothing. That is, whole chunks of Macherey’s text were incomprehensible to me.
(The all-pervasive fear, a daily check in: How stupid am I? Is my stupidity increasing?)
Can the musical do important things? Perhaps it can—if so, I’ve yet to see a musical that felt like there was something there, but this makes no sense because as a general rule I avoid musicals, so I wouldn’t know a good musical if it came and warbled in my ear.
It’s hard to take anything seriously when people are singing about it to you, although certain scenes had its power. The “End of the Day” sequence with the faces of the workers, the poor, the underclass. The opening scene with the song “Look Down”, again primarily because the camera honed in on individual faces of prisoners. Because Hugh Jackman didn’t look like Hugh Jackman the celebrity. But then he “reforms” and becomes an honest man by becoming a capitalist—a factory owner, to be precise. He also became a philanthropist. A good-hearted capitalist with morals and God. So an honest man is a man who stops stealing and starts openly exploiting workers—the women in his factory. As soon as he becomes an honest man, i.e. a capitalist, i.e. a man with money, Jean Valjean looks like Hugh Jackman and he even has Hugh Jackman’s teeth.
I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, but I wonder if this ideal of white womanhood is a problem in the book, too. This ideal of the virtuous, pure, good-hearted, moralistic, and dreary woman played by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Particularly in the case of Seyfried’s Cosette, the heir to her mother’s beauty and goodness: Good skin, good hair, good teeth, sparkling eyes, good health, good disposition, perfect for breeding. The way in which Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne (the reason I finally gave in and watched the damn movie) falls in love with Cosette is so tiresome. So tiresome I don’t even have the energy to be angry anymore—most heterosexual love stories just put me to sleep these days.
Then there is Eponine—finally, an intriguing female character!—who pines for Marius, becomes a boy for a day, then dies. Imagine if instead of continuing to pursue Cosette, Marius starts to look anew at Eponine! Imagine a story where Marius nurtures his revolutionary, radical spirit and finds his soul mate in the woman who fought beside him! Imagine a story where Marius doesn’t put his own beliefs aside, temporarily, to follow the dictates of his penis, running after a normative, ideal vision of womanly perfection to “settle down” to a life of “happiness”. Jean Valjean, now an honest capitalist and honest patriarch, has a role to play here in ensuring his ward’s happiness. She must have the man! And how fitting that Marius, too, comes from money. The rich man will have the beautiful woman! And how fitting that Cosette’s mother was so virtuous that she is now a dead angel. 100% pure extract of Good Woman, is Cosette, and a good man will have her.
This Les Miserables is such a reactionary film. After the fighting and the death, things go back to normal. The barricades are now manned by the dead figures of revolutionary past. The future is with these two youths who are now married to each other. Their individual blonde European beauty is reflected in the other. Beyond that—who cares.
I have no idea why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role, by which I mean I guess I know why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role: This role is award bait. The culture industry loves a good woman in trouble, especially if she’s beautiful and has the good sense to weep for her child, sing sad songs, and die prettily. (They should have given her a nomination for the Batman film, instead, where between her and two seconds of Cillian Murphy they made the excruciating thing watchable.)
So Hathaway shaved off her hair for Les Miserables, but did you know that Cillian Murphy shaved off an eyebrow for Peacock? Where is Cillian Murphy’s award? Where is Cillian Murphy?
In Red Lights, as it turns out, which is not award bait. Red Lights is about the ever-rational, all-seeing, white bourgeois gaze and how it tries to impose itself upon the world. It fails, to some extent, and the result is that blood splatters all over Cillian Murphy and he looks really good—Cillian as Carrie/Jesus hybrid, basically—but I digress. I think maybe the movie is itself conflicted about this gaze. I say “think” because this movie is a bit of a mess, or a lot of a mess. Not the kind of mess that I like, because I generally am quite fond of a really good mistake, but because it’s a smug, self-approving kind of mess.
I watched Red Lights in the cinema, alone, because I do like to watch movies alone for the most part but also because I have A Thing for Cillian Murphy, and I’d heard that Red Lights SUCKED SO BAD, so it was a matter of embarrassment and self-preservation. I can’t watch Cillian on-screen without feeling as though my face was melting into itself and my face can’t melt while people I know are with me. More so if the film is supposed to be bad.
So alone I went.
The thing about the gaze is interesting here, because Robert De Niro’s character is supposed to be blind, but because he apparently has psychic powers, he can still see. Isn’t that how colonial/imperial white supremacy tries to convince itself and others? That even though it can’t see and it can’t be everywhere, it can still see and know more than you would ever know. He is blind but fortunately he is a rich white man who can claim visuality, what Nicholas Mirzoeff in “The Right to Look” calls “the authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look.” When he first meets Cillian Murphy’s character and runs his fingers over his face it feels authoritative and assertive, almost like a violation.
But Red Lights didn’t need De Niro. Maybe it would have been less of a smug mess without him. He plays the character of Simon Silver, a charismatic superstar psychic, with absolutely zero charisma. One imagines that De Niro might have possessed some charisma at some point—so many people seem to love him—but that charisma is gone and you’re left with De Niro and his superstar-psychic soliloquies. With De Niro now you get a superstar playing an actor playing a superstar psychic. Something was lost along the way, and I think the something is Feelings. What happens to male actors who are great (or considered great?) They ossify and become spectres of themselves. This is what awards shows like the Golden Globes “honour” year after year. Ghosts. While real people like black women and women of colour try to find roles that don’t demean them too much.
De Niro is not there, he’s never there; to compensate he tries to be there too much. His performance is embarrassing yet his face is right in the middle of the Red Lights poster, signalling some kind of great cosmic, Hollywood-star significance. Right away you know this film stars a great white man playing a great white man, and who cares if either one of these great white men is ultimately revealed to be a hack? He still commands crowds, makes money, gets to make his way in the world and be attended to by a coterie of power-hungry next-in-line soulsuckers. Which is the culture industry in a nutshell.
Sigourney Weaver is the key authoritative figure of the film, and this is nice until she dies because then there you realise that the first authoritative figure to die is a woman. What a coincidence! Sigourney’s character is one who knows things, the one who is wise and yet not afraid to admit that she’s afraid of doubt; the one who’s conventionally successful and yet not a walking shell of herself as so many successful women are often required to be, emptied out of all feeling.
She and Cillian have intriguing chemistry. When I think about the movie now I think about the scenes where they’re together, particularly the one conversation where she tells him that she’s afraid of Simon Silver because he was the first person to make her doubt. Cillian just listens and looks at her, and that look was something—a combination of love and respect. The right to look devoid of the need to claim authority over the object of one’s gaze. And I just thought about how that’s rare in most contemporary movies, especially if it’s between straight male and female characters who are not invested and/or interested in each other sexually, especially if it’s between an older woman and a younger man.
There was real energy between them, energy that I think would have pushed the film into new/different/interesting places than where it finally ended up. De Niro now seems like such an uncharitable actor in this film. He never plays off the energy of the other actors and in the denouement, he’s like a parasite sucking all intelligence and heart out of the movie with his belligerent ranting. And there’s poor Cillian, beaten to a pulp, bloody, without his Sigourney, having to be both Carrie and Jesus at once to De Niro’s entitled superstar. (In some of behind the scenes footage I found on Tumblr, De Niro is shown calling Cillian “Sillian” which to me is astonishing—the authority to mispronounce your relatively less-famous co-star’s name just because you’re De Niro and you can. You’re working with this person and you could care less that you don’t have his name right.)
But the thing about Sigourney’s character is that she makes an unkind remark about housewives that Cillian’s character picks up on. “I like housewives”, is what his character says, if I remember correctly, because he was just caught watching a reality show about housewives. Cillian says this line as if he’s unsure if it’s meant to be delivered straight or in jest. Which I suppose is the feminist conundrum of our times. Are successful women supposed to hate housewives? Are men supposed to be feminist or post-feminist or just sexist as usual in their opinion of housewives? Discuss. Write a series of articles about for The Atlantic. Write a book. And so on.
As for Cillian? Someday JR is going to write “The Meaning of Cillian Murphy” but until then I will stumble about trying to figure out why his performances, even when he’s cast in some truly atrocious movie, consistently unsettle me. This was the case in Red Lights, too, until the ending—an ending that really did make me laugh because it was filled will all kinds of shit lines, shit lines that were recited in Cillian’s wondrous, melodious voice, sure, but still—SHIT LINES. “We are who we are” or “We have to know ourselves” or whatever, I mean, please. I think Cillian did a superb job of shading his character in various tones of ambiguity but then perhaps I’m biased, or maybe that’s why I’m a “fan”—he’s always got a quality of excess, or disquiet, about him, like he’s about to jump out of his skin or melt into his bones or float off the face of the earth. I don’t feel safe watching him. I get the sense that acting is, for him, a means of working out or through anxiety about something (many things) (everything). I’m never bored when I watch him and this is important to me. So many actors are the walking dead. I mean, here’s Cillian Murphy next to Robert De Niro and without making any sort of qualitative judgment—which boils down to taste, which is a long story—there’s just a clear difference between the living and the dead.
Red Lights almost becomes yet another crisis of masculinity film and no doubt Leonardo DiCaprio could have sleepwalked through it like he did in Inception but Cillian never does (or can’t do?) conventional masculinity by the book and this redeems this movie. Somewhat.
But the film itself undermines Cillian’s character, because there are so many things it could have explored but stayed away from in the interest of giving us “a thriller”. Because ultimately it’s a film that questions or has its doubts about absolute rationality but opts out of the complexity by trotting out soothing, pop-selfhelp speak: “Know yourself” and all will be well. The film spends a good amount of time trying to prove all libidinal energy as anti-logic that finally it has to contradict itself, and Cillian’s character comes to embody the kind of emotional excess he has tried to disavow/reject/ mock. I’m wondering if hysteria is always feminised, that I’ve internalised this sexism that even when I see a male actor perform it I’m thinking about how his role is feminised, made precisely unstable because of its lack of conventional masculinity (which must always be rational). I’m not sure. Red Lights could have gone another way, but it needed to soothe is audience with optimism, progress, and realism. In the end, Cillian’s character must make meaning out of his madness. Thus, the movie ends with a truly atrocious voiceover where Cillian is made to mansplain his hysteria to himself and the audience.
There are a few non-white characters who pop up for a few seconds, as seen through the rationalising white gaze, hovering at the edges of the film as figures of dread or alarm. There is the requisite Tall Black Man who gives wee Cillian a scare. He looms up as a figure of terror until Cillian and the audience realises that he’s just part of Simon Silver’s mini security apparatus. There is one black lady dressed in tattered clothes who gives Cillian the evil eye and spits in his face after he almost (accidentally) runs her down. In that one scene she’s shown to be Really Scary and Possibly “Crazy”. The film doesn’t do well with these people living on the fringes of respectable bourgeois life—they’re shown here to be desperate and unsound of mind, often both—and the one instance with a black family who was convinced their son was manifesting special powers through his drawing was just awkward and strange, with Cillian and Sigourney as the two sensible white interlocutors observing and later, passing judgment on them while giggling in the car on the drive back.
Perhaps Red Lights would have been award bait if it was better made, smoother, slicker. Maybe it needed an American director or the backing of major studios. There have been a zillion reviews panning the movie. The critics went to town. I wonder if these are the same critics who later included Zero Dark Thirty and Argo in their year-end best-of lists. Almost as if it’s a requirement to be an Empire apologist if you’re going to be a film critic. But what’s more stunning, or vomit-inducing, is the general critical consensus. How they know which films to collectively mock, and which ones to collectively swoon over? Does it involve actual thought? I mean, Peter Bradshaw was practically having an orgasm over Django Unchained in The Guardian. And right on cue these films go on to be nominated for awards.
November 12, 2012 § 54 Comments
I’ve been reading sad books. Books about sad people. While I was reading Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (which I reviewed here), I was rereading Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, and at this point in my life I must have reread it five or six times. It’s always a bad idea for me to read this book—I’m always in a funk for a week after, sometimes longer, or perhaps but now it’s just lodged itself somewhere inside me and each time I reread it it’s like lighting a match. Two Girls is about two girls, but it’s also about gender war(s), heterosexuality as violence. Chris Kraus writes about wanting to solve heterosexuality before turning 40 in I Love Dick but I feel like every conversation with single straight women friends over beer is an attempt to solve heterosexuality, and after a few drinks the solution is simple: Drink some more or dance; failing that, overthrow the patriarchy and end heterosexuality (somehow).
But what do I know?
It’s just that when I walk around this city I wonder if it makes sense to talk of the Neoliberal Heterosexual Couple. Gym-toned bodies, “tasteful” dressing (“Keep it classy!”—I fucking hate this fucking ubiquitous phrase), identical cannot-be-arsed-about-anything-except-ourselves faces. The couple that won’t let go of each other’s hands even in a crowded walkway; not so much because they’re so In Love and cannot bear to let each other go, but because they have so much contempt for everyone around them who is not-them; contempt written on their faces. Handholding as a weapon, maybe, handholding as a contemptuous gesture. I mean, not being able to step aside, even for a second, for an elderly lady with her shopping bags. The Couple as a Fuck-You-to-the-World might have been a romantic idea at a certain point in time, or even a form of resistance against the status quo, maybe? But now just a part of the obnoxious status quo.
But what do I know? I am single and bitter. (Maggie Nelson, in Bluets: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”)
And no doubt dying to get married, as various members of the “older generation” have implied to me over the last year. Not even a question, “Do you want to get married?” No. They just know that you need to get married because if you do not you will rot and die. I bumped into an old acquaintance of my father’s a few days ago, while I was with my sister, and among the things he said to me after not having seen me for close to twenty years (I didn’t even recognise him!) was the ever-reliable, “You should get married and take care of your family.” It was the last bit that puzzled me, this idea that I could not be otherwise taking care of my family if I was not married. But it’s not a puzzle really; Tamil people everywhere are on autopilot when it comes to giving Life Advice to wayward young (and not-so-young) women doing horrible things with their lives like being unmarried, cutting their hair short, and wearing red lipstick. GET MARRIED> MAKE THE BABIES> TAKE CARE OF YOUR FAMILY BY MAKING MORE BABIES> YOUR MOTHER IS WORRIED
Overthrow the patriarchy. End matrimony. (I shouted, in my head, while smiling vaguely into the distance while this man gave me free life advice. Oh, the smile, how it makes you fucking complicit.)
Thinking about singleness and marriage, stewing over it, often means that I start thinking about beauty. Because it’s beauty that I’m struggling with at this point in time. That is, I lack it, but this is not news to me; when I say “this point in time”, I mean that at this point in life as I know it, it seems that everything is the exterior, that the image is you, and you are nothing but the image. (This day in Capitalism it was discovered there is no there, there.) Romance is a marketplace, and you are one of the many images on sale, and if you’re not the right image you are, essentially, shit. “Never before has society demanded as much proof of submission to an aesthetic ideal, or as much body modification, to achieve physical femininity,” says Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory and I’m suspicious of the phrases here—“never before”—“society demanded”—yet this sentence rings with truth, for me, and perhaps for other (cis, straight) women who are single and wanting (yearning? dying for?) a connection with someone else that isn’t predicated on aesthetic ideals, all of us who identify as “normal-looking” or “not beautiful” or whatever-
“What if the self-commodification of individuals is all-encompassing, as the analysis of the job market suggests? What if there is no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”
“Objectification implies that there is something left over in the subject that resists such a capture, that we might protest if we thought someone was trying to deny such interiority, but it’s not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life in the way that we might once have understood it.”
-Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman
What if the outside is all we have left?
When I talk about beauty I don’t know what I’m talking about, particularly if I’m also talking about desire, and I want to talk about beauty without talking about Plato or Kant (I just can’t with Kant), and I know for a fact that desire is a colonised space.
“We speak, act, think, behave, and micro-manage ourselves and others according to the “score” that is the general intellect—in short, the protocols or grammar of capital,” Jonathan Beller reminds us. Love in the Time of Capital. Yes, okay, I tell myself I know how to grasp this intellectually, but the bigger fear is that this is the only way I know how to love: according to the protocols of capital.
I watched Love of Siam a few weeks ago and cried all the way through it, and after it was over, cried some more, and felt like I couldn’t understand myself—why all these tears? And the movie is a “tear-jerker”, in a sense, in the vein of Asian family dramas that are a blend of realism and melodrama, and so it wasn’t unexpected that a person watching it would cry. But it’s also a film that’s unabashedly pro-love. And as soon as I write that I know it sounds silly—what does it even mean? But I guess it means what it is: it’s a film about love, and not just the “provocative” aspect of young gay love between two Thai adolescent boys that’s highlighted in all the promotional reviews of the film, but also about all the banal and taken-for-granted forms of love between friends and family, the kind that is familiar to me because the families and the communities in Love of Siam remind me a little of what I knew growing up in Malaysia, of how I came to understand the intersection of multiple identities. The differences between these (often conflicting) identities–of discovering one’s queerness, of being a son of an alcoholic, of being a brother, a friend, a grandson, a pop star, a boyfriend—aren’t reified; one identity doesn’t trump the other, and it makes no sense to speak of Love of Siam as a movie only about romantic love or gay love. I contain multitudes, said some American poet and everyone went ooooh, but come on, Asian people have known this forever.
But a big part of this movie is about love between these two boys, Mew and Tong, and it’s the genius of the movie (the result perhaps of the direction and the casting decision to go with two young, relatively inexperienced actors), that the love between these two boys feels so organic and unforced, an entirely surprising yet predictable outcome of shared moments and the pull of desire. Looks are not the currency, eroticism isn’t purchased or a choice[i]; love happens because two people like each other so much, and the question of attraction—sexual or otherwise—is not absent or glossed over so much as it is depicted whole. Mew and Tong are attracted to each other because they’re drawn to each other as people containing multitudes, not because they possess an alluring physicality; not once does anyone tell the other “You’re hot” or “You’re sexy” and I don’t know if I’m regressing or blossoming into full-blown prudedom, but it was so fucking refreshing I don’t even know how to talk about it. I recognise that a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenes are necessarily circumscribed by the cultural norms in which it was made—in this case, Thai society and Thai censors—but it’s astonishing how much is and was conveyed through looks and faces, and tenderness and understanding. So much of how we understand romance these days is mediated through this narrative of consumerism: “I’m worth it”, “You’re worth it”, “I deserve the best”, “You’re hot”, “I like a nice smile and nice tits”, “I need a man who’s all man, you know what I mean?” All these standards that we think arrive fully-formed in our heads without any external influence, all these principles of picking and choosing The Right One, of having control and autonomy—this movie sort of chips away at those assumptions very quietly and tenderly. The camera loves its subjects; the film loves its characters. The act of loving reveals the love.
But talking about how it’s not a choice doesn’t simply mean that love is something that chooses you. It’s a convenient poetic fiction, and poets and writers and artists talk about it this way all the time, and I fall for the force of that fiction: It wasn’t my choice, I can’t help who I fall in love with. In order for that to happen there has to be an “I” who stands outside of economic, political, social, and cultural influences. So maybe part of my love of Love of Siam is a desire to want to believe in that fiction again. I don’t know though: everything I just wrote down, I believe and don’t believe. Love is attachment, so maybe love is a kind of choice or decision to allow oneself to like/become attracted to a person who is close to you (literally, in the sense that the other person is physically present, as opposed to, say, an image on a dating site; also, figuratively in the sense of a mental and emotional connection based on shared moments, experiences, conversations, and silences that constitute shared time[ii]). Mew and Tong turned inward, toward each other, and it was love. But the movie didn’t require them to turn away from other people, or from life itself. (Although there were necessarily moments where they retreated from life, from people, pulled away and stood aside in order to stand beside each other. But it wasn’t a mode of being, this retreat from life. Their love isn’t about making an investment in coupledom as the only form of solace in a difficult world.)
Similar to the points Elaine Castillo makes about Senna, another movie that moved me in an almost forceful way, Love of Siam is in love with faces—long close-ups of faces dominate throughout. The camera lingers tenderly, lovingly, on faces. I watched it online where the sound and subtitles were off-time; characters would say things before the audio and subtitles kicked in, and although it’s one of the most agonising ways to watch a movie, I kept watching because once I watched the first ten minutes I was hooked. I had to closely watch and observe the faces to understand what was going on before the subtitles arrived to provide the language with which to make sense of these faces. The camera follows their faces slowly and closely, and because the two actors in the lead roles were so young, and almost naïve, watching their faces is a kind of heartbreak. The close-ups of Mew and Tong’s faces are also meant to reveal how much they want to look at each other. The frequency with which they simply look at each other is astonishing; astonishing in the sense that it’s unashamed and assertive. (Here I think about Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look, and what it means that two queer Asian boys claim this right so forcefully and tenderly.) I also think about Kelly Oliver’s “The Look of Love”:
“A loving look becomes the inauguration of “subjectivity” without subjects or objects. In Etre Deux, Irigaray suggests that the loving look involves all of the senses and refuses the separation between visible and invisible. A body in love cannot be fixed as an object. The look of love sees the invisible in the visible; both spiritual and carnal, the look of love is of “neither subject nor object”.
Irigaray’s suggestions about the possibility of loving looks turn Sartre’s or Lacan’s anti-social gaze into a look as the circulation of affective psychic energy. The gaze does not have to be a harsh or accusing stare. Rather, affective psychic energy circulates through loving looks. Loving looks nourish and sustain the psyche, the soul, as well as the body. Irigaray’s formulation of the loving look as an alternative to the objectifying look, and her reformulation of recognition beyond domination through love, suggest that the ethical and political power of love can be used to overcome oppression.
There is no happy ending in Love of Siam, though. Nothing is “resolved”. Life goes on and love adjusts its proportions to let life pass through. Love is the vessel and life rushes in to fill it. “If we can love someone so much, how will we be able to handle it one day when we are separated? And if being separated is a part of life, and you know about separation well, is it possible that we can love someone and never be afraid of losing them? Or is it possible that we can live our entire life without loving at all?” Mew asks Tong, and it’s a question that isn’t answered. “Now that we’re grown up, loneliness seems so much worse,” says Mew, and it’s true, and the movie doesn’t rush to fill the loneliness with love. Rather, it suggests that love doesn’t replace that fundamental sense of aloneness, much less transcend it. In the end, Mew and Tong don’t end up together as A Couple, and Tong tells Mew, “I can’t be with you as your boyfriend. But that does not mean I don’t love you.”
Maggie Nelson, in Bluets:
238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”
Like when Courtney Love sings in “Malibu”, “I can’t be near you, the light just radiates”.
No happy endings in sight.
When I think about Senna, too, I think it’s a film about love. It feels like it was made with so much love, and it’s also a movie that’s in love with its subject, a subject who’s not afraid to love his life’s work, the people who matter to him, God. I love that Masha Tupitsyn focuses on what is, for me, the most moving scene in Senna: that brief moment between Senna and his father, which she describes here:
In the scene where Senna wins the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991 (after he won the race, Senna actually passed out, so great was the anguish of his ecstasy. Victory.), he suffers unbearable shoulder pain from the tremendous stress of the race. He is literally pulled out of the race car and driven off the track. He can barely move. But when Senna sees his father, he calls over to him, “Dad, come here. Come here.” His father hesitates, but Senna insists. “Come here. Come here! Touch me gently,” he orders. His father, much taller, stands beside his son, as Senna rests his head against his father’s chest for a moment. When he starts to walk back, Senna tells everyone else (even before anyone actually touches him; even if no one is trying to touch him at all), “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” He commands everyone but his father to get away from him. This scene, which is the difference between touch me gently and don’t touch me at all, between everyone else and you, between a son and his father, beloved and not-beloved, can also be read as a love story.
If ever a moment could be charged with love, a love so rarely seen on screen in its rawness and vulnerability—the love between father and son—it was this. I think I scrunched my eyes a little when I watched that scene, I wanted to keep looking and then I looked away, mostly because I wanted to cry (tears! again!) because watching felt like I was looking right into a bright light.
Being a witness to love can often feel like an affirmation of something (of what? something you had but lost?), but more often it feels like a wound. Late-capitalist society doesn’t tend wounds; it just looks for ways to avoid it and move on.
[i] There is one scene that involves a kiss. The camera doesn’t intrude; it pulls back, and then goes a little closer, but maintains a respectful distance—this kiss isn’t for the benefit of an audience.
[ii] Which makes me think of this: http://likeafieldmouse.tumblr.com/post/33874562265/felix-gonzalez-torres-perfect-lovers-1987-91 What if lovers are not in-time? “We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space. We are a product of the time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time.” And yet—as if it can ever be that simple—“[A]s military time has become militarized time over the past few years, time itself, what is defined as ‘my’ time, has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. We are in the time of service.” How does militarised time shape how we love? What is the neoliberal couple in service of?
October 17, 2012 § 8 Comments
I was in Sydney for two weeks, which was nice, but nice doesn’t quite capture it. And what was nice about it? Being away from KL was nice. “I need a new city”, someone I follow once said on Twitter, and that seems to be the thing: I need a new city. I don’t think Sydney will be my city, although I loved it, and I loved spending time with my nephews while they were on their school break, I liked the idea of a wholesome PG-13 holiday and I liked being asked by the barista if I was enjoying the school break, being away from school must be fun and all, he said. And then I said no, I’m no longer in school, and then he was like, Oops and Are these your children, then? referring to my nephews, and I somehow went from high school kid to mum in like two seconds but look, if someone wants to think I’m still in high school I am going to silently, gratefully thank the universe. But why should I thank anyone or anything, fuck this ageist capitalist society, fuck it, yes, but I still live in it, so how to fuck it is the question. The barista was cute, and my sister watched me from afar, and then calmly informed my nephews that the barista was trying to flirt with Aunty Suba and then my nephews giggled and I stammered and blushed as much as I could blush with brown skin. And the one thing they don’t tell you about older sisters is that you might get older but you’ll always feel (be) 12 around them.
We went to Darling Harbour while I was there, and that’s the one part of the city I loathed because it was a nightmare concoction of what corporate city planners think is “wholesome family fun”, there are restaurants and malls and museums and an IMAX theater and carefully-planted trees and Disneylandesque stone paths and manufactured conviviality and it reminded me so much of Singapore’s Marina Bay, another place that makes you want to run away as you enter into its vicinity.
While taking the train from the suburbs, where my brother’s family lives, to the city, I stared out of the windows and saw things — shops and places and people and the “Say no to burqas” graffiti next to the one proclaiming “Free speech”.
Things that stick in your mind.
The one place I can’t get out of my mind is Cockatoo Island, which was formerly a penal colony (in the mid to late 19th century), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourist spot (when we went it was a long weekend and families were coming in on the ferry to camp there for the weekend). While I really wanted to visit the place — absorb it, in a way — because of its history (that awful, almost unavoidable touristy need to cannibalise history and its affects), I also couldn’t shake off the wrongness of my presence, my out-of-placeness, or the out-of-placeness of all “visitors” in a place that was formerly a site of discipline, surveillance, and hard labour. “Foucault tourism” as Nicholas Mirzoeff writes, in a piece which you should read:
My British forebears did know how and where to build prisons, you have to give them that. The island is isolated in the middle of Sydney harbor, with the prison itself located on top of a steep cliff. Recent excavations have uncovered minute solitary confinement cells, which have a distinctly contemporary look in this Abu Ghraib era. The officials built themselves sandstone residences with a Georgian feel but placed at the highest point to give them a panoptic viewpoint. Grain silos dug into the rock still have chain rings, to which the excavating prisoners were linked while working. The prison was created right at the end of the transportation era in 1849–convicts were not sent to New South Wales after 1850, although they went to Western Australia as late as 1868.
I stood inside the the military barracks/guard house, the place from which military supervisors of the penal colony monitored the prisoners, and took pictures of the panipticon while watching other tourists take pictures of the panopticon, all the while waiting for an answer from Foucault. Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist. What am I doing here?
In 2000, a group of Aboriginal people occupied the island and claimed it as sovereign territory. You can still see their murals, using the Aboriginal flag as a motif. Using the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, Isabell Coe and others asserted that Britain had never formally claimed the island, a claim rejected by the courts as “inconceivable.” Really? A deserted island on the edge of the harbor? Regardless, Coe created a tent embassy on the island and asserted sovereignty. The occupation of occupied indigenous land and the counterclaim to sovereignty was a powerful performative act.
The art exhibition was over when I was there and so the island was populated by adults and surly teenagers and perplexed babies, looking at the air raid shelter and the powerhouse chimney and the sewerage treatment plant and perhaps recognising the ghosts among us. It’s a quiet, isolated place; perfect, in fact, for isolated disciplinary methods and punitive labour. Strong winds, the bright sun. “This place is fascinating,” said a mother to her two teenage sons, coming down the road just ahead of us. “It was the most boring experience of my life,” said the elder son, shoving his younger brother.
While I was in Sydney my review of Roshi Fernando’s Homesick went up on Pop Matters. I didn’t expect to like it for various reasons I talk about in the review, but it surprised me. You can read the review in full here but here’s an excerpt:
One of my favourite stories, “Sophocles’s Chorus”, gives us a youthful Preethi slowly blossoming into her sexual and intellectual powers: she kisses the most lusted-after boy in school, she reads Howard’s End and Antigone, she is the star in a school play, and her dreams and words and images slowly bleed into one another until fantasies and imagination hold the possibility of becoming real. But these moments of youthful potential and hope, moments that appear to be touched by a sort of otherworldly grace, sour pretty quickly, and the kiss becomes a shame that Preethi must endure under the watchful, cruel eyes of her peers.
What starts out as tragedy on the page, experienced from a distance as a reader of Sophocles, becomes the unwished-for reality: all that held the promise of something sweet becomes rank with wrong choices and misdeeds, and Preethi slashes her wrists in the bathtub. She survives this suicide attempt, of course, but the Preethi we meet later will always be raw and vulnerable, always approaching the edge of something, only to be pulled back by someone: a husband, a cousin. Families will consistently fuck you up, Fernando seems to say, but sometimes they also don’t let you die.
I was supposed to stay away from the cinema but I didn’t. I watched Looper and I am flummoxed by all the swoony reviews. The reviews don’t really tell you what it’s about. It’s about Mothers! MOOOOOOTHERS! MOTHERS ABANDONED US BY US I MEAN LITTLE LOST BOYS WE ARE BAD MEN NOW FROM BOYZ TO BAD MENZ BECAUSE MOTHERS CRISIS OF MASCULINITY GUNS MONEY BRUCE WILLIS GOES APESHIT SILENT CHINESE WIFE IN SLOWMO EMILY BLUNT CRIES AND TOUCHES HERSELF BUT AT LEAST SHE GETS TO TALK
Also if I had to choose between watching a slice of dry toast sit on a plate and a Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance, I’d go with the former.
People tell me that JGL is Great and Hot but I think Toast is Better, Seriously. I know he was supposed to be really good in Brick, which I think I watched, although I can’t remember maybe I just ate some toast who knows, so maybe I should watch Brick and revisit my opinion of JGL.
August 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
Genet has been messing with my life lately. In a good way, I think. It’s just that I haven’t had much time for reading lately, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, and after coming out of my Genet fever I had to read an astoundingly mediocre book for a future review. After Genet, the mediocre seems offensive.
My review of Sartre’s Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr is up on Pop Matters. I talked about it a bit in a previous post. I have to say that I dislike the Pop Matters rating system because I’m not sure that a rating system is helpful to anyone. Quantifying the qualitative seems doomed from the start. I gave Saint Genet a 6/10 rating, which is wholly inadequate (because neither a higher nor lower number would have been more adequate) and doesn’t much describe how I felt about the book. In any case, I’m meant to rate all the books I review, but it really hit me when I was trying to assign a number to Saint Genet. It’s hard to evaluate in terms of rating. It’s a book that infuriates, and for that I think I love it. Saint Genet is provocative and chaotic and smart and silly and essential; I disagreed very strongly with HUGE CHUNKS (and there are a lot of chunks), but assigning it a number just feels wrong because it’s not about whether it’s “average” or “good”. And as I continue to read Genet I will no doubt continue to dip in and out Saint Genet and have long conversations with the text that begins with, “Sartre, you turd… ” (said in total affection and dislike, of course.)
I can’t help but turn to Susan Sontag’s words in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, where she begins an assessment of the same book with these words: “Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” Grotesque and ghastly—Sartre’s work is a monster that will devour the reader’s presence of mind, to be sure. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I began readingSaint Genet while Kanye West’s “Monster” played in the background: much like Nicki Minaj’s persona in the song, Sartre’s implicit announcement to his future reader seems to be “First things first, I’ll eat your brains.”
Read the entire review. (If you like.)
July 23, 2012 § 4 Comments
(Fragments of thoughts on Genet that was supposed to go on Tumblr until it grew too long. The value of shutting up–I’ve yet to learn it.)
I read Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and now I’m reading The Thief’s Journal. I seem to have reached a point where Genet’s voice is what I really need. (Well, his and Fiona Apple’s.) Genet’s voice is the voice I need to get me through sad and sullen days, or nervy, awkward, self-conscious days. It’s the voice that says, Fuck all these people and their reactions to you, look instead at the shape of this cloud, take note of the precise tone of colour of the sky, devote your attention to the charmless gestures of a man with an unexpectedly beautiful smile. Which is really strange, because Genet is nothing if not in his body and extremely self-conscious, always excessively aware of his physical being in relation to others, always watching himself through others, always keeping tabs of his place in relation to others. But maybe intensified self-consciousness can become a space, a refuge, from the need to feel/know the consciousness of others, and maybe a temporal liberation is what Genet achieves in his writing, and what he’s able to convey to (some) of his readers.
There is always someone saying that reading is dead in the age of the internet or some such nonsense, but to read Genet is to recognise that reading is not dead, just dreaming. To check tweets in the middle of reading Genet is to undream. No tweeting, no tumbling, no texting, no external words, just the Genet-words on the page or screen. Dreaming as reading as immersion. This dream-state of Genet-reading is fevered. You, the reader, get in the way of the text all the time, and so does Genet. He gets in the way of your reading. His words are profoundly disorienting; they will undo you. Genet knows this, knows that you know this, and enjoys it. No, I mean I think he strives for it—writing isn’t writing if this doesn’t happen.
In the the 600+ page Saint Genet, Sartre says a lot of things about Genet until Genet ceases to be Genet, but he does say one thing about Our Lady of Flowers that rings true to me: “No wonder Our Lady horrifies people: it is the epic of masturbation.”
And Genet’s narrator is perpetually always on the edge of orgasm, one presumes, because he is fervently, religiously jerking off:
It was a good thing that I raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult! I have only to begin the gesture and a kind of unclean and supernatural transposition displaces the truth. Everything within me turns worshipper. The external vision of the accessories of my desire isolates me, far from the world.
Pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and about, that air of supreme indifference towards everyone and also a certain awkward manner that, if you have gone to bed with a boy, makes you feel as if you have bumped your head against a granite slab.
“a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures … the air of supreme indifference towards everyone” — masturbation as strategy for navigating the trauma of the social. One of the ways to attempt to love your queer self in a society that deems your sexuality monstrous is make love to yourself. But it’s never that. It’s onanism and masturbation and selfish pleasure but rarely ever spoken of as self-love. Genet forces you to reckon with the hierarchies of acceptable bodily pleasure. Genet forces you to reckon with the anguish of being an undesirable desiring the desired. (“What could I commit so as to be worthy of his beauty? I needed boldness in order to admire him.”)
Guattari in “Genet Regained”:
It is true that Genet’s creative process always made a strong appeal to fabulation (masturbatory or otherwise) but his fundamental aim nevertheless remained a poetics with a social impact.
Genet makes you think about shit a lot, which is very uncomfortable for me because I am not fond of shit. Regrettably, this makes me sound like Sartre, who says in Saint Genet: “Genet is excrement, and it is such that he asserts himself … As for myself, I am not as fond of shit as some people say.” One part of this formulation is false; either Genet isn’t excrement or Sartre is extremely fond of shit, because Saint Genet is about Sartre the heterosexual man’s man trying to “philosophically diagnose” Genet, in Sontag’s words, in order to love him better. But also to outdo him; Sartre’s worldview in Saint Genet is so limited, so conservative, so heterosexist, that I think it drives Sartre crazy to know that a man like Genet exists, that a radically different version of masculinity is not only possible, but desirable. (Dear Sartre, I don’t mean to get Freudian on you. But in the final analysis, you know I’m right.)
Genet on love:
I should like to play at inventing the ways love has of surprising people.
It enters like Jesus into the heart of the impetuous; it also comes slyly, like a thief.
Love makes use of the worst traps. The least noble. The rarest. It exploits coincidence.
If masturbation is a kind of redemption from everyday anxieties then love is the path that takes us right back to it. Love is trauma. It’s a kind of horror, actually, because I get the sense that Genet’s hyper-corporeality (explicit, almost tender descriptions of bodily fluids, wastes, processes) is a way to transcend the body he so loathes. Loving another is hard when you hate your body. Or rather, allowing another to love you is hard when you hate your body.
There are “problems” with Genet. His fetishisation of a certain type of normative masculine beauty, and of the sexuality of black men (large appendages, always); the odd comment about Arabs and their odours. This prefigures his later politics, where he spoke of the Black Panthers and the Palestinian struggle as aesthetic projects, as Things in which he can find a space for himself. But there is something here: if Genet is writing against bourgeois values (i.e. hypocrisy), then his writing never lets you forget that you are complicit, or a part of it; and sometimes you wonder if he’s merely writing through these hypocrisies to test them out on the reader, to see how far he can push. You wonder if the text is showing up your own prejudice. “Our future burglar starts by learning absolute respect for property,” Sartre tells us of Genet, and perhaps this is true: Genet also writes to investigate his own complicity.
The other “problem” with Genet is the Problem of Women. Meaning, the lack of women. Women as absent-mothers. Men mother each other; then turn on each other. Within a patriarchal society Genet’s queer men identify as women, or want to be women, or recognise some element of femininity in themselves, and hate themselves because society hates them. But in his writing Genet is perpetually in drag. I can’t help but read the text of Our Lady as a parody of phallocentrism. (Sartre, meanwhile, thinks Genet is FAKE: a FAKE man, a FAKE woman, writing FAKE prose, but in a GOOD way.)
And I can’t help but think of Genet as Hermes, appropriately enough. Genet seems to embody the trickster in terms of how he presents his art/writing and how it is received. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde writes that “trickster stories themselves have been told in ways that marked them as ‘special speech,’ so that, no matter how profane their content, they belonged to an anomalous category, a sort of sacred lack of the sacred.” This wrestling with the sacred is the core of Our Lady. Genet venerates that which polite society is perpetually trying to ignore. The excluded, the marginalised, the spat upon, the lost, the anus, thieves, shit, doubt, queers, self-doubt, unwanted erections, artifice, base desires, pretension — these are some of Genet’s favourite things (to write about). As Hyde says about Hermes:
For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve its shape is quite another, especially if, as is always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed … ” Whoever has the wit to break these rules, whoever puts the guards to sleep, slips across the threshold and floods the sacred meadows with contingency, whoever steals the boundary stones of clear distinction, that person strips design of its protective glamour. Hermes does all this and by it he disenchants the world into which he was born.
Later Hyde reminds us that Hermes, in the Homeric Hymns, tells his mother that “either they give me honor or I steal it.”
I’ve been thinking about the idea of beautiful writing lately, and what it means when I say it and when others say it, or when it becomes sort of an institutionalised demand. Beautiful writing as good business. The idea of “beautiful writing” as a mechanism to limit and to police, to keep writing within acceptable boundaries of acceptable taste. Prose that is polite and distant. In contrast, reading Genet in all his wrongness and his flaws cracked my world right open.
(I don’t know how to explain it but maybe what I’m trying to say about writing is what Voyou says about football and Euro 2012 and Spain’s neoliberal style: “In flexibly-specalized postfordist capitalism, to be businesslike is to be virtuosic.” i.e. Spain’s football team is Michael Chabon. This makes complete sense to me. I fall asleep watching Spain play; I’ve tried to read the much-praised Michael Chabon about four or five times now but had to stop because I only ever felt crushing boredom: Death by eminently well-adjusted prose. To be fair, this also applies to Safran Foer, Lethem, Barnes, later Amis and Rushdie, and The Franzen.)
Sartre: “(Genet) has no particular desire to produce a ‘well-made work’; he is unconcerned with finish, with formal perfection.” A huge part of me is attracted to this lack of finish in Genet, excited by this undone-ness. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that “writer’s block” or the inability to write feels like constipation; finishing something often feels like you’ve just had a good shit. (Kate Zambreno: “My blog I think is a sort of toilet bowl.”) I feel that way; I think I started this blog in order to shit things out, but because of my aversion to excrement, my disgust, I prefer to stay constipated. It’s not pleasant; not for me, and not for anyone reading my jejune thoughts about shit/writing, but Genet makes you think, Fuck that shit, just write shit down.
Genet, on writing:
Since it is impossible to make a ballet of it, I am obliged to use words that are weighed down with precise ideas, but I shall try to lighten them with phrases that are trivial, empty, hollow, and invisible.
I’ve been thinking about ugliness lately. (Lately? All the time.) I was thinking about how I felt—like I was about to burst—when I first read Virginie Despentes and she acknowledges it:
Of course I wouldn’t write what I write if I were beautiful, so beautiful that I turned the head of every man I met. It’s as a member of the lower working class of womanhood that I speak, that I spoke yesterday and am speaking again today. When I was on unemployment I was not ashamed of being a social outcast. Just furious. It’s the same thing for being a woman. I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that—as a girl who doesn’t attract men—I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around. We have always existed.
Genet, too, he writes as one of the ugly ones. He writes ugly down: all of the things you want to clean up, forget, pretend doesn’t exist.
I need to be reminded, often, that beauty doesn’t always take you places.
June 23, 2012 § 6 Comments
I disliked Prometheus intensely. I do think that having acrimonious feelings towards the film is the actual point—the film seems to be a stand-in for a certain segment of humanity and its imperialist, ruinous ambitions, though like most films coming out of Hollywood this seems to coexist with its appreciation of capital, technology, and involuntary/reproductive labour. That in itself doesn’t make it inherently unlikeable, not at all. But as Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view,” and perhaps it’s the nihilist technological determinism of Prometheus that is inherently unsettling. Perhaps it’s this utter lack of meaning in the movie that is its meaning, and consequently the source of my loathing. Maybe a part of me just wants machines and people to get along? I’m not sure.
I read Elaine Castillo on Prometheus and realised this is the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the movie. Besides, she addresses the questions/concerns I had with more thought and care than I could have ever managed. Still, I’ve apparently written a lengthy post on Prometheus because there are just some issues that I can’t stop thinking about, and Castillo’s post is the spark.
The stuff I can’t stop thinking about includes Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) auto-caesarean scene, for one. This scene, where Shaw basically has to perform a caesarean procedure on herself because, as Castillo points out, “the apparatus—medical, state, corporate—is literally not equipped for what she needs to do,” was, for me, the most unsettling scene in the entire movie. Primarily because it’s filmed in a way to expressly provoke horror and/or titillate. Seeing Shaw’s writhing, jerking slender female body clad only in underwear reminded me of Linda Williams’ essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”. In it, by way of Foucault, Williams talks about how “audiences of all sorts have received some of their most powerful sensations” through the “sexual saturation of the female body” and Shaw’s female body is textbook horror movie trope: a body that is saturated with sex and drenched in blood. And it’s a body that’s intruded upon: first by an unknown alien substance, then by the machinery that’s supposed to remove it out of her.
That Prometheus follows in the footsteps of Alien in blending the genres of both science fiction and body horror is obvious. But in the midst of trying to isolate my visceral horror (and empathy?) for Shaw’s distressed female body on display from thoughts about what was being shown I realised that what was being shown is pretty unusual: a female protagonist actively trying to get rid of her baby. (Castillo: “[T]he only American movie where I’ve ever been able to hear a woman saying, with absolutely no regrets or qualms—GET IT OUT GET IT OUT—hear a woman declare that she does not want a baby in her, and do what she needs to do to terminate the pregnancy.”) Of course, it’s not an actual abortion and it’s a monstrous alien baby, which somehow makes this a “safe” option to explore, perhaps. The more crucial point is that Shaw’s agency is limited in the face of technology—the machines aren’t equipped to do what she needs.
So technology fails her—women’s reproductive needs somehow never being important enough on this planet or any other planet, even in 2089—and Shaw, both the Good Scientist and the Good Woman, keeps the alien fetus alive presumably to learn more about it in service to science and for the benefit of human society at large. (What is this thing? What can we do with it?) Lurking in the background, much like the creeping aliens, is the fact that Shaw is Christian. There’s probably no room in the film’s imagination for Shaw to want the alien fetus dead; not only would she be a bad scientist for not wanting to keep this specimen alive but inevitably she would be seen as a hysterical, selfish woman making an irrational choice for wanting to kill this thing that was growing inside her body through no choice of her own. And we can’t have that. So this scene was an expedient way for the film to work around this issue: you can remove your alien fetus and keep it alive too. (Furthermore, in terms of a movie franchise, this decision to keep the alien alive conveniently segues into the world of Alien.)
After the procedure, Shaw stumbles about bloodied and disoriented and no one around her actually cares or even attempts to portray some semblance of human concern. It’s clear that she’s undergone some form of physical trauma because it’s written all over her body i.e. blood everywhere. It’s only David the android who hands her a robe, or maybe it was a towel, I don’t know. Granted, he is the only one who knows what she’s gone through because he basically engineered this non-immaculate evil conception by introducing alien goo into Shaw’s boyfriend’s system (thereby killing the boyfriend). In the larger scheme of the machinations of corporations and capital, Shaw’s body is used and discarded as a birthing device; the physical and emotional demands placed upon her female body are secondary. In fact, it’s barely an issue. The body must get back out there and perform.
These messy, inconveniently frail and bloody human bodies are foregrounded against the supremely immaculate interior of the spaceship; gleaming metal, shiny objects, pristine surroundings. The year 2089 gives us some pretty amazing technology in terms of what capital needs and dictates, but where the human body is concerned, it’s still going to bleed and fuck and become impregnated against its will. Nowhere is the disparity between body/space clearer than during the aforementioned scene; blood spurts out of Shaw’s body while outside of the surgical pod/chamber is glaringly monochrome, flawless, and unspoiled. The human (female) body and the grotesque alien-monster coming out from inside it are the contaminated bodies, ugly in its inefficiency.
This is in contrast to the ship’s physical interior in Alien. This movie was made in 1979 and clearly movie technology has “improved” since then, but that movie reflected a messier, chaotic, lived-in atmosphere of actual living, breathing humans. But the stark sterility of the ship in Prometheus is mirrored in the cool, inscrutable blondeness of Michael Fassbender’s David and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers. In fact, the moment Vickers steps out of the ship into the cosmos in the final scene where she’s trying to save her life, you know she’s going to die immediately because she’s in the wrong place. Her place is with capital and machinery; she’s practically powered by the forces of profits and technology. Accordingly, she is immediately crushed to death by alien technology. A silly, pointless death—cruel irony, perhaps, or maybe Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof were simply not too fond of Theron. In any case, this death-by-machinery is, back home on Planet Earth, a lived reality for the vast majority of the population working with wayward, hostile machinery in unsafe, unregulated conditions. Very rarely is this a concern for a Corporate King and his family members and fellow plutocrats. In Prometheus, “one of the ‘cheapest’ big-budget films of the year”, the white American 1% has to make a trip outside of Earth to learn that its lives are literally worthless.
Then, there’s Idris Elba. Castillo on Idris Elba’s character (and related, the Aryan-android):
I think there is also a comparison to be made here, too, between David and Captain Janek, played by Idris Elba. Janek’s pragmatism, his lived-in clothes, his race, his accent (somewhere between the American South and Hackney), his embodiment, his sexuality, his noble going-down-with-the-ship-to save-the-world death. The conversation he has with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), their flirting, the moment when he asks if she’s a robot, and she responds by telling him to come to her room in ten minutes (implying that the sexual act will prove whether or not she is truly “human” or not). Janek’s basically good humanity is never questioned. I wondered if this was another case of “people of color as containers of good old homespun wisdom and goodness, to be dispensed to the grateful white people who still dominate them, but a little more nicely in recent years, sort of.”
It strikes me of note that it’s the one black male character on this pristine white ship who gets to needle Meredith Vickers about her anger issues which, to his mind, stem from a presumed lack of sexual activity. Elba’s character also gets to joke about gay sex: When two of his ship’s crew are stuck in the alien cave during a sandstorm and can’t immediately return, he (strangely) seems to exhibit very little fear and concern and instead jokingly tells them not to “bugger each other”. We have to thank Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof for this macho posturing; we clearly don’t get enough of this in our lives and what’s more a science fiction slash horror film will be nothing without it. But it’s also important for the movie to give us the One Black Dude. In an impressive display of moviemaking imagination, the movie’s creators cast Idris Elba to give us a spot of colour and to be the resident homophobic/sexist douche. To be sure, none of the human characters in the movie perform against heterosexist conventions, but Elba’s character is the one who gets to explicitly make homophobic/misogynist jokes. So in a really creative display of characterisation we have this black male character who is one part goodness and one part macho hypersexuality. He left his station to have sex with Vickers! And didn’t even get anyone else to cover for him! During this very crucial time in alien land with strange happenings! Because sex!
(And since we’re talking about spots of colour, let us now devote one sentence in this blog post to Benedict Wong who plays the requisite Asian-everyman with a few clever quips. He gets a few sentences in the film.)
After the predictable and expected deaths of practically everyone, Shaw and Vickers are the last two people alive if you don’t count David who, after an unfortunate encounter with the nasty “Engineer”, is reduced to a talking android head. (“Off with his head, man!”) The movie brings us to the almost-end with both women still alive! (“Feminism!” writes Ridley Scott in the margins of Damon Lindelof’s script). This is also a great way to remind the audience of Alien. (Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley! Didn’t you guys love her? Love this movie, too!) But this brings us to the standard trope of body-horror movies: the good girl vs bad girl trope premised on the whore/virgin dichotomy. Or, as Linda Williams puts it:
The sadomasochistic teen horror films kill off the sexually active “bad” girls, allowing only the non-sexual “good” girls to survive. But these good girls become, as if in compensation, remarkably active, to the point of appropriating phallic power to themselves. It is as if this phallic power is granted so long as it is rigorously separated from phallic or any other sort of pleasure. For these pleasures spell sure death in this genre.
A twist to this trope in this sadomasochistic adult horror film: Vickers is the bad girl because she cares only for profits and power (to usurp her father’s place) while Shaw is the good girl because she’s a believer and has faith, both in the religion in which she was raised (she still has her father’s gold cross), but also because she “believed” in the idea of the existence of these alien-man engineers who made us. The latter fact flies in the face of her religious belief, naturally, but Shaw’s beliefs are framed as both irrational and “right”, and the movie rewards her by letting her stay alive. I’m not sure if Shaw appropriated phallic power—unlike Ripley in Alien there’s nothing about her battling hostile alien beings on her own. In fact, perhaps we can read the talking android head David as her source of phallic power. (Maybe that’s stretching it. But I do enjoy the idea of phallic power = android head.)
Still, as expected in a horror film that’s also a sci-fi film, redemption lies in technological knowledge and expertise. And Shaw, along with David, heads back out into the unknown in search for our makers and why they hate us. “We” human beings apparently want nothing more than to be in search of hostile gods who will be the leaders of our technocracy. And if “human agency, like capital, is a technological body, is something made,” as Timothy Mitchell points out in Rule of Experts, then it seems to me that the android is the clearest example of human agency in this film and also the means by which phallic power is exercised. This is really interesting in light of Castillo’s question: “If we think the cyborg body as techno-human hybrid and metaphor for raced gendered bodies, how do we think the android commodity body, especially David’s blond Aryan android commodity?”
Fassbender’s David inhabits his android body with soft, gentle, yet very precise actions—not a gesture is wasted. He is, on the surface, an ideal disciplined subject. This particular manner of inhabiting the male body is often read as effeminate (particularly in discourse on racialised/colonised subjects). And in this movie, his presence is in contrast to the wayward, raucous, contemptuous masculinity of the human men. Yet there is the bare fact of David’s physical presence: queer android, perhaps, but in a masculine-presenting Aryan body.* Far from a paranoid android, he is a supremely confident one.
(*Or maybe it’s just hard for me to separate this notion of phallic power from the kind of power that Fassbender himself seems to command among movie audiences and critics. I think about Shame and how the widespread acclaim for his performance seems to have been conflated with praise and acclaim for the bold presence of his actual penis. It was collective swooning over an appendage that overshadowed what his performance was about or, indeed, what the movie was about. But then, maybe that’s what the movie was all about. I think it’s a movie about man tears and a capricious penis that, on the surface, wants to be understood as being in tension with or against the phallocracy, but deep down inside is just totally enamoured with phallocracy. But that’s another movie for another overlong blog post discussion.)