April 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
In yet another instance of Shameful Neglect of the Blog, I share with you a review of Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image by Yiu Fai Chow and Jeroen de Kloet that came out in Pop Matters a month ago. A whole month!
Why have I been slacking off on self-promotion? I don’t know. I’ve been away, travelling in Sri Lanka, writing fragments in my notebook, fragments in Microsoft Word (do MS Word users still publicly admit to using MS Word?) and staring into my dogs’ eyes in an attempt to find the answer(s) to various hard questions. No answers are forthcoming, but one of my dogs does like to nibble on my chin and nose–perhaps that should be enough for now.
I’m going to do a revolutionary new thing and post the entire review here, below.
When did Hong Kong popular music die? Theories abound as to the death of Hong Kong pop songs delivered in the local language of Cantonese, or Cantopop. Some say it died when Hong Kong was handed over by the British to the Beijing authorities in 1997. Others say that it died along with its two international superstars, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, in 2003.
Either way, facts and especially figures are marshalled up in defence of this death, with decreasing record sales being the primary means of assessing the pop music’s industry ill-health. If the industry isn’t making money, or as much money as it used to, then it’s clear that something is ailing the Hong Kong pop music industry. The industry cannot imagine that Cantopop continues to live on in various different forms and places: as karaoke, for one, or on the internet, for another.
Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image enters into the discussion as a sort of corrective. Jointly authored by Yiu Fai Chow, assistant professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s department of Humanities and Creative writing and songwriter of Chinese pop songs, and Jeroen de Kloet, a professor in globalisation studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of China with a Cut, Sonic Multiplicities is deeply immersed in theories and techniques of cultural studies as it sets out to look at (and listen to) the multiple ways in which Cantopop has proliferated into new and different forms in late capitalism.
The issues of Chineseness and Chinese national identity is the spectre that haunts Hong Kong pop culture, and Chow and de Kloet are interested in troubling or resisting conventional “rise of China” narratives that present a stable and uniform history and Chinese subject. With Hong Kong’s colonial legacy as the geopolitical starting point, the first chapter of Sonic Multiplicities is a combination of theory and autobiography that sees Chow speak on a political and personal level about the “politics of Chineseness” through articulations on nationalistic songs, or folk ballads known as minzu gequ.
The autobiographical “I” in this chapter is refreshing in an academic book, and Chow’s struggle with notions of Chineseness growing up as a young boy Hong Kong, and later while living in the Netherlands, is reflected through the changing political and social mores of the ‘90s when, as Chow explains, “the Chinese Communist Party replaced its legitimizing ideology from communism to a market-driven nationalism”. Chow’s analysis of how Chineseness is performed in nationalist songs is undercut by his own ambivalence in having written songs meant to serve as nationalist propaganda and his attempts, within that particular framework, to subvert and discreetly undermine accepted, conventional narratives with his lyrics. How are newly (re)nationalised subjects allowed to dream of a nation, or a better nation?
“For the Hong Kongers at the time of imminent changes, we willed ourselves to be brave, to be Chinese, to become one with tens of thousands of those who at least looked like us. But it is not easy… It necessitates a logic of empowerment by conjuring up an enemy, the other… It also necessitates a submission of the part of us alien to the whole, the part of the city alien to the nation, the part of the future alien to the past.”
To be of a nation but not of it is a theme that resounds over and over again throughout the book, and in their sensitive and generous assessment of the politics and cultures of fandom, the authors aim to show readers how “the fans” exercise their agency in their consumption of pop music and their engagement with, and celebration of, celebrities. In this sense, by focusing on two “local” celebrities from the Netherlands and Hong Kong, Marco Borsato and Leon Lai, Chow and de Kloet shift the pop cultural focus away from the US and onto what is truly a global sphere, although they recognise the hegemony that operates within “global pop culture”, where North American pop stars are often claimed as “international stars” while Asian pop stars are rarely so—even when they are truly international, as was the case with Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. In this sense, “whose international” seems to the concern here—whose cultural production is centred and considered “global”?
One of the more intriguing chapters focuses on sex and morality in Hong Kong and Chinese pop culture by way of the Edison Chen scandal. Far from adopting simple and reductive positions that sees the scandal as either bad (yet another spectacle!) or good (sex is healthy and we should enjoy it!), the authors interrogate the questions of morality that were mirrored in the media coverage of the scandal, particularly in how the subjects involved in the scandal immediately sought to control their reputation and image along conventional binaries of proper male and female behaviour.
Edison Chen, the sole male actor, sought refuge in cringe-worthy pleas and what the authors term “extreme moralism”, even announcing at one point that he will need to “step away from the Hong Kong entertainment industry… to heal myself, and search my soul”, in addition to performing the role of the moral, law-abiding citizen by publicly promising to assist the police in ongoing investigations. As the authors point out, the mediatised nature of the public spectacle demands the so-called salacious or transgressive act for collective consumption and, following Rene Girard, also demands a public scapegoat.
Meanwhile, with the women involved automatically framed as victims, the female stars in Chen’s videos had to take another, culturally proscribed route: that of repentance with a feminine/maternal slant, as in the case of Cecilia Cheung, who said “I have to stand up for the sake of my son.” The authors ensuing discussion of spectacle and conspicuous consumption—as evidenced by Edison Chen “bouncing back” from this scandal by throwing himself into his fashion business, and by co-opting the scandal for an art show—and its connection to “mediatized moral panics”, which, by way of Stuart Hall’s arguments in Policing the Crisis, act as “vehicles for the transmission of dominant ideologies.” The more scandalised we are, it would appear, the more things stay the same.
If there is a problem in Sonic Multiplicities, it’s that its ethnographic approach produces a rather shaky foundation on which the authors juggle multiple concepts and theories, going as they do from Rey Chow to Theodor Adorno, back to Guy Debord, then to Fredric Jameson. While discussions are deep-rooted and show an inclination to resist pat conclusions and easy assumptions, Sonic Multiplicities suffers from a less-than-rigorous consideration of political economy, as in the chapter on Beijing’s Olympic ceremony and the production and interpellation of national subjects in spectacles of global sporting events.
In discussing Soviet and Chinese authoritarian communism, the authors rightfully resist dominant narratives in liberal democracies that tend to depict “the masses” in these countries as totally docile and utterly subject to control—being away from the local particularities and nuances, these narratives often miss out, or simply can’t see, the necessarily discreet or prudent forms of resistance. But while they discuss the performative aspects of nationalist songs and speeches, the authors neglect to tease out the implications of a kind of performative Communism as espoused by China’s main party, even while market reforms put into place by Deng Xiaoping since the late ‘70s have had everything to do with capitalism. In this sense, the authors missed out on an opportunity to interrogate China’s official communist position against its increasingly capitalist reforms. While the authors state that “performative contestations” of the spectacle is not something unique to China, they neglect to draw connections between performativity and late capitalism and continued Western political and cultural hegemony in the global pop culture marketplace.
However, Sonic Multiplicities is an intriguing study of pop culture that doesn’t take North America as its starting point and yet does not avoid analysis of political or cultural forms of dominance that affect and, indeed, produce these forms of “globalised” pop commodities. The authors are particularly attentive to the formation and production of both the national and diasporic subject, consistently grounding these subjects in temporal and spatial circumstances, especially or even when these circumstances are stable, shifting, or ambivalent. It manages to trouble notions of a radical or emancipatory potential in pop culture without demeaning either the cultural workers or the consumers—indeed, recognising that subjects and producers of popular culture using the internet as a platform are most often both.
Hong Kong pop is not dead, but it has transformed, mutated, and altered, and the authors want to encourage people to see, listen, and think in new and altered ways.
March 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body.[i]
The younger of the two, who is happy to tell people “I’m the IT guy”, taught me how to download YouTube videos on my overpriced, overvalued smartphone, and now the gadget puts me to sleep, too. Over the last week I’ve been downloading Jem and the Holograms episodes and watching them before bed. I haven’t watched the cartoon in years, probably decades, but I was obsessed with it when I was younger, and while I used to want to be Jerica/Jem mainly because of her access to Synergy (by way of really funky star earrings), now I watch Jerica/Jem being perfect and I want to vomit. I see The Misfits driving tractors through mansions and I feel a true fellow-feeling of solidarity. The Misfits “are allergic to work” say one of the members of the Holograms, and they all smirk, because the Misfts are mean and they’re lazy, but I can relate. All I want to do these days is have big hair, sing shit songs with my shit-sounding nasally voice, drive tractors through mansions, refuse work, and scream.
Jem and her friends are so earnest. I want to ask them why they abide by the rules that were made by someone else. Do they think they will be granted a space in hologram heaven? And if so, what does it mean to them to be good girls in the here and now? Do they get the boyfriends? The record contracts? The cool earrings? The mansion? The legacy from dead daddy?
(All of the above.)
Just when I want to write a Marxist reclamation of the Misfits, I remember that the “leader” of the group, Pizzazz, is basically a rich twat. This complicates matters, because her group-mates all come from a poor(er) backgrounds. The Misfits are made to appear “tacky”—loud, brash, uncivilised and unladylike in comparison to the docile, polite, and pastel-attired Jem and friends, who speak proper English, not slang, in modulated voices. Jem and the Holograms are a band of Kate Middletons. Even if they are not well-off, or orphans, they come from good stock. They have a claim to a legacy of good breeding. But the Misfits are always destroying things, even property.
Property is the problem. Even for Tom Branson, the sexy Irish chauffeur-revolutionary turned sexy Downton Abbey husband. Downton domesticates; it wants to tame Branson’s wild side. Alas, Branson was found to be present during a protest at a Dublin castle, a protest that involved burning the said castle. The Earl of Grantham, hitherto utterly nice and utterly useless, has now found his raison d’être, or rather the raison d’être of his entire class: to be really really really angry about the destruction of property. He’s really angry, the Earl. I mean, he was almost resigned to losing his property but now it is saved, and so he knows about real tragedy, the Earl, and it is with this full force of the pain of an almost-lost Downton Abbey that he takes it out on Branson. He is really angry. ALSO, HE IS AGAINST VIOLENCE AND WANTS TO KNOW IF BRANSON IS AGAINST IT, TOO? Branson capitulates; half-revolutionary, half-son in law. Yes, Branson was at the meetings where the planned this attack, but no, Branson does not condone the burning of property and violence against harmless aristocrats. Really, Branson? THEN WHY WERE YOU AT THE MEETINGS?
The writers of Downton Abbey can’t come up with anything so nuanced or sensitive as such an answer might require, so they leave us with silence and the face of Allen Leech, hoping that his sad, beautiful eyes will distract us.
It does, but only for a bit.
Branson is also uncomfortable being in Downton Abbey—first as tragedy servant, then as farce family. He wants to hightail it out of there.
Then why marry the Earl’s daughter? Don’t you know that the Earl’s daughter comes with the Earl’s family and however many centuries of dead ancestors? How did you think you were going to outrun that, foxy Branson? One look at this family, Branson, should have reminded you of Marx’s words: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Luckily, Branson’s wife dies, leaving behind a young daughter. Branson gets to live out the life that his wife would have wanted for him. He knows this is the life she would have wanted for him because everyone else tells him this. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes—not a fan of the rich, as such, but like all the servants in Downton, committed to and invested in class difference—tells Branson not to be embarrassed that he’s a rich fuck now, and part of a rich fuck family. She uses different words, but the message is the same. Mrs.Hughes tells him that he has “come so far”, and it’s a good thing.
This is a relief, as the formerly Marxist Branson is now co-manager of the vast estate Downton estate. He can forget about the people, think about profits, raise his baby, enjoy stately bedrooms, be waited on hand and foot.
He has come quite far.
I’ve been thinking about witches and spinsters and property. Once I started reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner I realised it spoke to my unmarried spinster witch self in a way that so many books by women don’t, anymore, because: 1) now it’s important to show how women are a hot mess in a sexy way (i.e. you must be a mess but sexually available to men, and not that those stories are wrong and shouldn’t be told, but the underlying premise is that you must be sexually available to men and you must perform your femininity in this socially idealised ways and above all, please be pretty, try to be pretty); and 2) “modern” stories also remove the extended family from the equation. The assumption is that all single women the world over live lives like those of American or European women in big cities—where they’re single in a way like Charlize Theron’s character is single in Young Adult. It’s interesting to me that the character of Lolly Willowes is given a brother as patriarchal gatekeeper after her father’s death. I quoted this bit out of Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Regime of the Brother on Tumblr while I was reading it and I’m quoting it again because it’s relevant:
What then does this son enjoy in replacing his father? Well, he gets to act as if, without having to take any action. A father-figure, he mimes, selectively, the father’s features. But he also gets to imitate and mock up relations to all other family members, too: not only is he the “father” (but only metaphorically) he is the mother’s lover (the object of her love, but only in her dreams) and he is his brother’s lover (but only rhetorically—the brotherhood of man). But most of all he is his sister’s boss, and really so. It seems that what he “enjoys” is the power to distort and center all familial relations on himself alone, warping the world into a fiction of fraternity, the dream of a universal, which becomes the nightmare lie of the family of man. Agent and sole heir of patriarchy’s most negative features, he creates as many false leads and artificial ties as he needs to cover his destruction of his real familial roots and relations. And he thus absolves himself of any obligation toward them. He does not have to fill the father’s role any more responsibly and positively than the tyrant had: he is only acting, after all. It is he who is a pro forma father, without a communal or global species-saving goal, a despot, a mute sovereign, the (only) one who really enjoys.
If there’s one thing you learn about being an unmarried woman in a Tamil family is that Tamil culture really needs the sister to be bossed around; if not her father who is sadly now dead, if not her potential husband who is sadly nowhere in sight, then a brother or an uncle will do in a pinch.
What relatives don’t want to talk about when they’re exhorting you to get married and “start a family” is that you’re out of place, overstaying your welcome in your original family, because inevitably it’s about property. You must belong to a father or a husband but not exist in a liminal state of belonging to no one, especially if you’re doing it on family property. (How about belonging to yourself, you might ask, and others will laugh—we all belong to someone, if not a husband for life, then maybe a corporation.) So Lolly Willowes, in the world of 1920s Britain, is shunted about from one brother’s home to another brother’s home because as a genteel woman she is not meant to work for a living.
The thing about being a witch woman like Lolly is that there is a still a male presence in the form of the Devil. Clearly the Devil is interchangeable with capitalist patriarchy. There’s no escaping the male power. When I see the Misfits driving a tractor through the property of a rich man I feel satisfaction even while I recognise that their brand of liberal feminism is thoroughly self-serving: they are not even there for each other. Their manager is the one rubbing his hands together in glee, thinking of publicity and future sales. Behind every so-called misfit is a male manager/disciplinarian waiting to make a profit. Sometimes it’s money; sometimes it’s an investment in souls.
More from The Regime of the Brother:
The way it works in traditional Oedipus is that the woman is the living embodiment of a deficient male identity: wanting physically and emotionally. The girl-child is supposed to assume an identification with the father and then be left with/as nothing—unless or until she becomes a mother, her only acknowledged relation to sexual difference. But the mother is precisely what Oedipus rejects and is designed to reject, so the cycle begins anew.
The girl under patriarchy is faced with an inhuman choice: to do without an identity, or to identify with what she is not (it amounts to the same thing).
she can demand no special love—except according to a male agenda, set by a father, a husband, or a son.
This mother desires only a phallus (a baby, a son, power) and forgoes other options for her desire.
Under the modernized Regime of the Brother, however, the father/son relation ceases to have centrality. Woman potentially comes into her own.
the “patriarchy” in modernity is less a symbolic than an imaginary identification of the son with the father he has completely eliminated even from memory. He has thrown off the one—God, the king, the father—to replace it with the grammatical and legal and emotionally empty fiction of an I who stands alone and on its own: “his majesty the ego.” Self-created, however, he is only a figment of his own and not the father’s desire. This is the dilemma he simply refuses to acknowledge: he makes the law.
The brother denies his sister her identity, affirming his own. This is not just in the abstract, no mere question of repressed instinctual desire. Because the brother cannot recognize his absolute reliance on her for his identity, her place and her desire are “not there.” While the mother of Oedipus might want her son and the phallus, the post-Oedipal sister is permitted to want nothing. To regulate woman’s desire—and thereby her identity—was always the way of the patriarchy; to outlaw it and do away with her identity is a cardinal feature of the Regime of the Brother.
In volume one of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the brother permits his sister to want nothing. It becomes quite clear how patriarchy nurtures (produces?) the regime of the brother with its careful disciplining of women’s bodies. Clarissa is kept to her room for not performing her duties as daughter and sister and marrying the man the family has decided upon. The brother is an engineer of both her punishments—the potential marriage to a man she finds repulsive, and the current punishment where she is kept mainly to her room and ostracised by her family who won’t see her directly or talk to her. Clarissa seems content to see her problems as her own, which is perhaps not her fault—surrounded by her odious family members on all side and increasing lack of agency/independence, she can hardly be faulted for not seeing some commonalities between the personal and the political. Her friend, Anna, to whom she writes, is clearly the only feminist killjoy of the story we can hope for, thus far. Anna zeroes in on the mother’s role in Clarissa’s predicament:
Your mother tells you, ‘That you will have great trials: that you are under your father’s discipline.’-The word is enough for me to despite them who give occasion for its use.-‘That it is out of her power to help you!’ And again: ‘That if you have any favour to hope for, it must be by the mediation of your uncles.’ I suppose you will write to the oddities, since you are forbid to see them. But can it be, that such a lady, such a sister, such a wife, such a mother, has no influence in her own family? Who, indeed, as you say, if this be so, will marry, that can live single? My choler is again beginning to rise.
Why all the fuss about marriage if a mother can only subject her female child to the whims of the father, the brother, and the uncles? Who indeed , if this be so, will marry, that can live single?
How brothers (sons?) are inducted into the regime.
I’m not a mother, just as aunt, but I can see how boys grow into young men, and how the ideal of masculinity means that boys often have to suppress the part(s) of them that are sensitive, tender, loving, affectionate, in order to “become a man”. And when you notice how it becomes a requirement for boys to hurt others in order to achieve this ideal—then you truly realise how men are made. Hurting others is part of the deal; it is how men are defined as men. To put others in their place and to claim their space as yours. And it hurts to watch young boys who have been taught not to hurt others struggle with the full force of societal expectations that makes it (implicitly or explicitly) known that they will have to hurt others in order to become men.
The eternal problem: We need to talk about sons/we’re always talking about sons.
There has been “unrest” in Sabah for the last few weeks. Property is the problem. Who “owns” Sulu?
The Malaysian twitterati, its bourgeois heart ever in its proper place, is grieving over the death of Malaysia’s policemen involved in the “clashes” with “armed militants”. Malaysian policemen have died while trying to take out these intruders/militants/insurgents (i.e. they were protecting the nation). What’s interesting about the nation that is protected is that we still don’t want to think about how some of us are more protected than others. Sabah, on the East Coast, is one of the poorest states in Malaysia; there is no protection, it seems, from economic impoverishment. But there are tweets from the West Malaysian public thanking the “security forces” for their service to this country. There are tweets praying for their souls in heaven or wherever they might be. Everywhere on Twitter people seem to be simultaneously praying and wishing violence upon the enemy. This ritual is meant to keep the good ones, we the citizens, safe.
The police. The soldiers. Law and order. There are self-proclaimed Progressive Activists ™ who bring the MILF into the picture and cry out “the militants are everywhere in Sabah!” with every tweet. The macho politicians and lovers of Malaysia who cheer on a “military offensive” with encouraging, optimistic tweets like, “Kill or be killed” or “Just gas and smoke ‘em”.
Malaysian Defence Minister, Zahid Hamidi, tweets about the military assault as a “clean-up operation”. (Tweet is in Malay.)
People might be of a land, but there are false borders now demarcating different nations and these borders may not be trespassed.
Meanwhile: “Kiram’s people are demanding Malaysia recognize the sultanate owns Sabah and share profits from economic development in the state.”
Profits. Economic development. Who “owns” Sulu and who profits? Malaysians don’t really care, but “we” are here now, and “they” are not; property is for those who claim it by any means possible. And perhaps the Sulu sultanate is also flexing its muscles. As for the people who are put to work on these lands?
“Filipinos living in the tension-gripped Sabah territory in Northern Borneo said they have been segregated according to tribe and that their movements have been limited and closely monitored by Malaysian authorities.”
“A farmer who tried to enter the tight security cordon surrounding the heavily armed men was turned back by the police early on Monday.
Police feared the food supplies he was carrying could fall into the hands of the gunmen.
The farmer, who wanted to be known only as Ghafur, said he was trying to get to his oil palm farm for his twice-a-month harvest.”
According to them, the violent encounters in Sabah villages have been displacing some of the 600,000 Filipinos quietly living and working there, forcing them to flee to ARMM or causing them to be deported. But the region may not have enough resources to feed and house them.
At the same time, the conflict has been affecting the people in ARMM by driving up the prices of commodities, usually sourced from nearby Sabah, they said.
The Malaysian twitterati is not impressed with how our government for its soft-handed approach. They have ideas, these Malaysians, and it involves Malaysia flexing its military might. We must let the intruders know that “they” are on “our” soil, and the military will convey this message. Men on Twitter berate our ineffectual Prime Minister, exhort him to “be a man” and protect this country, take action. I have no interest in defending our Prime Minister, and as much as I might want to write a separate 3,000 word essay on gender performance and construction, this is not the point (although it’s part of the point). But this demand of a Prime Minister to be a man, a father figure, to exercise force and violence if he must, to defend his property is so chilling precisely because these demands are not self-aware. Malaysians on Twitter—a good number of them of the upwardly mobile, “educated” and comfortable, their lives mediated by gadgets and social media, are okay with owning property and being property—tweet about the stupidity of feudalism and think capitalist democracies are the best thing, the ultimate manifestation of human progress. Yet, they want to be protected by a violent patriarch. They want a “man” in charge, not in form necessarily, but in spirit.
They have no time for history, or maybe it’s just an inconvenience in a time when we have to be militarily efficient. Improve border control. Prioritise domestic security. Stamp out terrorist activity. Enemies are everywhere. We must smoke ‘em out.
Be a man. This land is your land.
[i] Marshall McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” in Understanding Media
August 27, 2012 § 12 Comments
I don’t mean to pop up every few weeks on my own blog only to say, “Here is my review of …” but here is my review of Amit Majmudar’s Partitions for Pop Matters. I found the book to be … not good, and here’s a little extract to explain why:
Majmudar’s characters appear to serve as vessels for goodness, innocence, and hope. They are good Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and for that reason they come together. Consider his Hindu characters: two children, wide-eyed and confused and learning about the greater world as their world falls apart. Consider his Sikh character: a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, a girl so immersed in religion that several characters in the book understand that for her to be raped would be the worst thing of all. Our male narrator with the probing medical gaze tells us this about Simran: “It baffles me at first, but she has no way of truly understanding what those men will want with her.”
Or consider Simran seen through a sex worker’s shrewd, world-weary eyes, seen through the male narrator’s eyes: “It’s part of what confuses Aisha’s feelings towards Simran: her vulnerability, her hypersensitivity to things Aisha herself scarcely registers. Like the gazes of men.” (Later on, the narrator will tell us that “the partition between Aisha’s first and second mind, the woman and the whore’s, tore open” while listening to Simran speak of religious purpose. Clearly, one can be a woman or one can be a whore, but one can’t be both.) Consider his Muslim character: a bleeding heart doctor with a stammer, the latter marking him out of the orbit of adulthood because he is unable to converse with other adults, only children—and later on, Simran. Simran comes to symbolise the curative properties of womanhood, psychically healing herself and the men and boys of her newfound family by sheer presence of her pure soul.
I was reading Manto’s short stories at the time (am still reading, going through them slowly, taking my time to let the flavours of Manto’s translated prose sink in) and it’s unfair to compare anyone to Manto, really, but it was my first time reading Manto as opposed to reading about him. And Manto’s short stories work a kind of subtle magic, and I was trying to think what it is that makes Manto’s short stories work (for me) while something like Majmudar’s doesn’t—Manto recognises chaos and ambiguity, while so many contemporary writers want to resolve it. Partitions is written like a dose of strong medicine that wants to cure humanity of its ailments; Manto seems to have written his stories to feel and think and live within the muck—not above it, not beyond it. Reading Partitions made me a feel a bit queasy, actually. Though it was written about the events of 1947 India, it feels like a response to current, post 9/11 phobias: fervent moralising about the goodness of different people from warring/contesting ethnicities and religions.
My review of this book, seemingly highly-praised elsewhere, is a negative one. I’ve been reading the current flap over nice reviews vs not-nice reviews and wondering what this says about me, that I write not-nice reviews. Maybe I’m a not-nice person. (A revelation?) The flap over book reviewing started off on the wrong foot, with a bizarre Jacob Silverman piece that claimed to be “against enthusiasm”, which is silly—presumably people get into book reviewing as a Thing To Do because they’re really enthusiastic about books? Surely it’s not about enthusiasm and niceness and more about the demands of the market and book industry and the concurrent intensification of networking, “branding” (with “positivity” playing a part; less about niceness than shrewd, aspirational ass-kissing.) I mean, I liked Silverman’s initial blog post enough to expect that he was going in a different direction than where he ended up going in that Slate piece. I think he had a bigger, more interesting point buried in that piece, part of which I saw as having to do with how social media functions to uphold or replicate hierarchies of print capitalism, as such, and how reputation, expertise, and cultural capital accrue to reviewers from corporate media and media dynasties—and now, online magazines (some which formerly started out as blogs.) I mean, think about the networks of visibility on what is considered book talk worthy enough to be retweeted, reblogged, or linked to and they’re basically writers, contributors and editors for the The Millions, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, The Awl, to name a few. And if you follow enough of them on Twitter and Tumblr you begin to see that the editors, writers, and contributors for these publications tend to know each other and prop up each other’s work—fair enough (or not), but it’s particularly North American, and it’s particularly insular. If we want to talk about social media and book reviewing, it should probably be a conversation about the reification of these digital connections in social media; how social media is implicit in dominant modes of cultural production and dissemination.
This discussion about book reviewing/criticism is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.) But you would think that any discussion about social media and economies of attention in The Literary World (forget the reductive discourse on enthusiastic vs critical, for the moment) would be more illuminating if it focused on the entrenched hierarchies of reputation/knowledge, within the North American milieu itself and between North America and the rest of the world. Someone can write a fantastic critical piece for the India-based The Caravan or Livemint and it will mostly be retweeted/liked/favourite/whathaveyou by other Indians or a select number of people within Asia and North America. But even a middling review or piece of criticism in The Rumpus or Slate will generally enjoy the privilege of being seen and read by readers from all over the world. (That is, by readers who are interested enough in books to actually want to read book criticism and reviews.)
I mean, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes a negative review of a highly-praised cultural product from the first world—the kind that enjoys wide distribution and robust marketing—is a necessary intervention by readers at the margins, at the borders, from other places and spaces.
I mean, I know. Cultural hegemony, imperialism and its discontents. I’m simplifying the argument greatly to think of it wholly in terms of first world vs the rest. I’m thinking of Aijaz Ahmad’s argument in “Literary Theory and ‘Third World Literature’” (Ahmad is magisterially scathing throughout In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures; he will no doubt be magisterially scathing of the half-baked, incoherent thoughts in this post):
By the time a Latin American novel arrives in Delhi, it has been selected, translated, published, reviewed, explicated and allotted a place in the burgeoning archive of ‘Third World Literature’ through a complex set of metropolitan mediations. That is to say, it arrives here with those processes of circulation and classification already inscribed in its very texture. About this contradictory role of imperialism which simultaneously unifies the world, in the form of global channels of circulation, and distributes it into structures of global coercion and domination, I shall say a great deal throughout this book. Suffice it to say here that even as we open ourselves to the widest possible range of global cultural productions, it is best to keep in view the coercive power of the very channels through which we have access to those productions.
But this is a Very Big Topic that probably wouldn’t have generated as many page clicks or as much worthless discussion as an article titled, “Against Enthusiasm”, so. But when you write a piece like that you will predictably get a very meh response about “the case for positive book reviews” which is about as useful as being “against enthusiasm”. What is Laura Miller saying here? I’m particularly peeved because I used to enjoy reading her in the (distant) past. Here she basically says, “Meh! I’m paid to write this so I’m just going to write a few hundred words about nothing at all” and bizarrely (or not) it ends up being widely circulated. And her response prompted a particularly abrasive response from Scott Esposito (though I might add that the terms of which the debate is framed was always-already stupid). Then there’s the response from Dwight Garner, who actually writes these words: “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Abusive enough? Punishing? Gold stars? #NODADS for fuck’s sake.
I’d much rather think about Tom Ewing’s brief but useful post on “criticism as a vehicle for ideas about things”. I also appreciate Michelle Dean pointing out the gendered aspects of any discussion on nice vs. not-nice, but I tripped over this bit:
“And why do I need to be nice?” these men ask, when actually all you are asking is that they not approach you as some aspiring immigrant from another country, and one on the bad end of a trade deficit, at that.
I want to be a compassionate reader. I am concerned with learning how to inhabit a text in a way that encourages more reparative readings than merely being satisfied with a paranoid reading (the result of having recently read the chapter on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” in Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling—her ideas run deep and I probably need to reread it a few times). But where does the anger go? How to place it within narratives of love and compassion, to strike that crucial balance between anger that illuminates and anger that becomes moral authority, as Audre Lorde recognised in “The Uses of Anger”? I am an angry reader a lot of the time and I want to be nice, but niceness rarely allows me to say what I need to say. I also want to be responsible in saying what I need to say, not to let honesty and anger become an excuse to hurt. But sometimes I just want to shout because being told to be nice and positive is often a mode of suppressing something uncomfortable for the status quo and when faced with the authority of reason and objectivity, particular groups of vulnerable are often the ones who already feel the pressure to be nice: women; people of colour; people from other parts of the world interested in Literature and All Its Glory and but who aren’t well-versed in Literary Theory, Philosophy, the Classics, etc.; people whose first language isn’t English but who write and think in English now because fuckyeahcolonialism.[i] (As Lorde reminds us, much of this has to do with trying to avoid the anger of others; there is the need to make nice with racist/imperialist/patriarchal authority so that it doesn’t hurt you further; for bare survival.) Notice the trend that Dean points out: white male reviewers are comfortable with not being nice and writing about not being nice, but female reviewers are writing about being nice. Female reviewers also recognise the burden of being nice and the burden of being subject to (often sexist) vitriol and unkindness.
You bring all your issues to the table when you read, when you write about what you read and how you think your way through a text. Do we keep those issues separate from the text under our scrutiny? I’m thinking about Chris Kraus on female writing and schizophrenia, and in that vein, female criticism and ALL FEELING ALL THE TIME. Because conventional wisdom states that good, proper criticism should be objective, cool, rational, distant. What to do with all these feelings? (But how then to avoid the inevitable overemphasis on individual subjectivity, and the subsequent professionalisation of feeling, resulting in something like Sheila Heti’s loathsome How Should a Person Be?) The thing is, I abhor “against enthusiasm” but I also abhor “the case for positive reviews” and the constant reminders (demands/pressure) to be nice; it’s a tyranny of its own sort, no less harmful than “objectivity” or the “critique the hell out of everything, hold nothing back, make people whimper and cry” position that some heavyweight tough-man critics want to adopt.
Perhaps I should just leave you with some words from Kate Zambreno (from an interview in The Millions):
I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.
This is so relevant, and you can see this in a lot of blogs by book reviewers/critics, too, who link to their published review and append messier, chaotic, less-publishable thoughts in their blog posts, saying, “This is the longer version”. And those “extra” thoughts are always so much more interesting to read alongside the “proper review” itself.
[i] As Aijaz Ahmad puts it, “One cannot reject English now, on the basis of its initially colonial insertion, any more than one can boycott railways for that same reason.”
July 31, 2012 § Leave a comment
I wrote a brief post about Coca-Cola in Sri Lanka a few months ago and came across this picture by Yannik Willing. It’s part of his ongoing photography series titled “Before Tomorrow”, which in his website he describes as a project that is concerned with “the imminent radical changes of tourist regions in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war in 2009 that had lasted almost thirty years.”
It’s a perfect picture, I think, because the war is over but the army apparatus is ubiquitous in most of the places we visited in Sri Lanka—almost as prevalent as the Coca-Cola signs.
March 14, 2012 § 6 Comments
I came across the piece “Coca-Cola in Africa” a few days ago and was reminded instantly of one of the many observations I made while travelling through multiple cities and towns in Sri Lanka: Coca-Cola is everywhere. Well, not everywhere everywhere, but almost. This post on the ubiquity of Coca-Cola in Kenya (both in branding and in business) is interesting because it frames it within the “corporate responsibility” framework, which no doubt is one way of looking at it. Meanwhile, in full-on responsible mode, Coca-Cola will do the heroic thing of changing its recipe to avoid giving you cancer.
As for Coca-Cola in Sri Lanka, people I asked didn’t really have an answer for the prevalence of the brand name everywhere beyond, “Well, it’s Coca-Cola!” (The people I asked being mainly extended/distant relatives. Clearly, I need new relatives.) No matter, back in 2010 Coca-Cola was “excited” by Sri Lanka’s potential. Post-war economies are so exciting, etc.!
Also, I thought I took plenty of pictures of Coca-Cola in Sri Lanka, but I could only find three. Clearly this was a case of “I need to take a picture of that Coca-Cola sign and I am going to do it right no–OOOH LOOK AT THAT BIG SHINY BUDDHA!” because I have about a kabillion Buddha pictures but not enough Coca-Cola signage.
Also, Panadol branding everywhere. Again, I thought I had taken pictures of Panadol-everywhere-in-Sri-Lanka but it turns out I have only one:
I always thought that you shouldn’t mix your Panadol with your Coca-Cola, but the good folk of Yahoo! Answers say, no, go right ahead.
January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
A slightly delayed posting of my review of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care for Pop Matters. Here’s an excerpt:
This is a book about Guyana, but it’s also in part about India, where the protagonist and the vast number of the Guyanese population locate their roots. Guyana, the protagonist informs his readers, “had the feel of an accidental place”. The protagonist of The Sly Company is a 20-something cricket journalist from Bombay who ups and leaves his job to spend a year in this accidental place. Up until this point, this book had only referred to India tangentially through the acknowledgement of the myriad ethnicities that people present-day Guyana. It spoke of a past India seen through the lens of colonialism that brought indentured labourers to emancipated Guyana from Calcutta and Bihar and other parts of India (alongside, in smaller numbers, people from Portuguese Madeira, China, other West Indian colonies). It spoke of a hyper-realised Bollywood India seen through the wistful eyes of Indian descendants of labourers who had never been “back”.
I wanted very much to like this book in an uncomplicated way, but perhaps the discomfort I had with it speaks more of Bhattacharya’s talent than a simple “I liked it!” This was the book review I was wrestling with when I wrote this post on Fanon.
December 22, 2011 § 7 Comments
It’s not like it’s the end of the world–
just the world as you think
you know it.
Rita Dove, “The First Book”
A few days ago, I finished writing a review of a book. I KNOW! MOMENTOUS. I felt like I had shat out a diamond mine, minus the diamonds. I used to think that reviewing books I liked was hard, because it was important to keep the swoony gushing to a minimum and to consider the text for what it was, to reconsider the text for it was, because wasn’t it possible that in liking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have overestimated its worth? But then I realised that reviewing bad books is equally hard – I would have to reconsider the text, because wasn’t it possible that in disliking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have underestimated its worth?
Forget all that – I’ve decided that reviewing “meh” books is the most difficult. One has to dig around a bit in the muck of one’s brain-swamp to find out why a book has aroused such profound indifference. And then, because everyone knows book reviews are useless, to wade through that muck and reconsiderthe text in front of you and write a review that attempts to listen to the book, pay attention to what it doesn’t say, and wrestle it down not for meaning or for Truth but for a imaginative or intellectual expansion, to pay attention to when the book provides a way in or a way out of wherever you are at any given moment. To say to the world, here, look: a book review should never be useless, even on a bad day. (I know, of course, that Elizabeth Gumport’s piece wasn’t just to say, “Book reviews are useless”, and perhaps I wilfully misread to be wilfully churlish. Maybe.)
There is constant grappling with MEANING and INTERPRETATION. Frequent questions about WHAT THE FUCK IS ART ANYWAY.
And while you’re sitting there mulling things over, in particular that one question: WHAT THE FUCK IS ANYTHING ANYWAY, Susan Sontag comes up over your shoulder, hectoring you about interpretation, shouting into your ear, “INTERPRETATION IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON ART. EVEN MORE. IT IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON THE WORLD.”
This is the trigger.
You’re angry now, and you tell Sontag, “Listen, white lady with a wide vocabulary and excellent critical thinking, you cannot be against interpretation when this interpretation is the revenge of the brown woman intellect upon the world, and goddamn you, this revenge shall be had.”
The review goes unwritten for a few more hours.
“In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act,” Sontag continues to say in “Against Interpretation”, somewhat conciliatory.
“Who decides the contexts?” Subashini writes in her journal at 11:53 p.m. on December 7, 2011, brown woman intellect in a muddle.
The review of the book that inspired strong feelings of meh was finally completed in a blur of tears, when I decided to reread Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks while writing the conclusion and remembered the first time I encountered Fanon in the chilly aisles of the library at the University of Winnipeg at some point during the fall of 2005.
Who knows why I had to cry six years after reading him for the first time in order to remember what it felt like reading him for the first time.
I think I realised why, sometime later. Perhaps?
An introductory Critical Theory class, in which I encounter many of the thinkers and theorists in my Critical Theory reader for the first time. It’s all about timing, someone wise said once upon a time. I think if I was a young undergrad, the way undergrads are supposed to be, and also if I was white, male, and straight, I would have become a theory-jerk. You know the type? You bump into them everywhere into the blogosphere – theory as a belief system instead of a means to get somewhere. Where? I don’t know. But is should never be a belief system. This much I know.
(But I was older and uncool, having taken a few years between college in Malaysia and university in Canada to work temp jobs and despise life. So I became a theory spinster.)
We read an extract of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex during the second or third week of class, at a time when Frantz Fanon was just a name to me and nothing more. Our excellent professor made us all gather into pairs to discuss a particular Beauvoir excerpt. We broke into pairs with the person seated next to us. The person next to me was a guy: pale of skin, blue of eye, fair of hair.
I had seen him around some of my other literature courses and had entertained a mild crush on him until I heard him speak. There was nothing wrong with him, certainly. He was popular, even! Well-liked! A sort of rising star in the English Department! The kind of rising star who, along with other rising stars of the English Department, never really spoke to me, even when I spoke to them. The kind who were forever speaking to someone or apparition behind you, next to you, an embodied presence floating above your head, perhaps, even when they were having a conversation with you. The kind who could never really look you in the face.
“It’s my hair, perhaps my scalp-“
“My skin, my tropical-bred skin, so oily and shiny and perhaps they can’t bear to look at it… maybe I have a pimple-“
“My facial hair, I can’t help it though, it’s my Tamil-genes, oh god, it’s probably my eyebrows, did I remember to tweeze, do I have unibrow because I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror this week because it’s finals week-“
–Just some of things that ran through my mind when fresh-faced, white-skinned English department rising stars couldn’t talk to me by looking at me in the face.
I had a sense in those days, you see, which were the longest period I’d ever lived in a North American space, that some white people didn’t know how to react to me because of the colour of my skin, perhaps, or the strange tone and texture of it; the strange tone and texture of my wild, wavy hair, perhaps, or the strange tone and cadence of my English – always proper, but somehow strange.
So. Pair discussion! A few things were said, and then I blurted out how valuable it was to me that Beauvoir expounded on the construction of “the eternal feminine”:
“The similarity just noted is in no way due to chance, for whether it is a race, a caste, a class, or a sex that is reduced to a position of inferiority, the methods of justification are the same. ’The eternal feminine’ corresponds to ‘the black soul’ and to ‘the Jewish character’.”
That passage is flawed, of course, for Beauvoir insisted that the “woman problem” is equivalent to “the Negro problem”, or “the Jewish problem”. Despite the flaw, it was an opening for the conceptualisation of identity that excited me, then – as it would, I think, for any woman encountering Beauvoir (and Foucault, simultaneously) for the first time.
I really can’t remember what my discussion partner was saying about a great many things, because everything he said prior became a blur following what he said after I said something along the lines of, “I’m really wary of people who aren’t black going on and on about ‘the black soul’, for instance,” and he replied with (paraphrased), “What’s wrong with saying that? What’s wrong with ‘the black soul’? They have soul. I think it’s a compliment.”
And I fumbled, as I am wont to do when flustered, angry, and unable to articulate what I feel somewhere deep in my physical self but can’t quite put into words.
How to begin? Where to begin?
I had a sense that our professor, from way yonder, noticed my expression and swooped in just in time to come find out how we were doing with our discussion, in which case the point I wanted to make was lost as we talked about other Beauvoir things and not the one thing that was rattling around the walls of my feeble mind.
I felt an immense sense of shame over that ridiculous pair-discussion; shame that I carried around for awhile; shame at not having said what was on my mind, shame that came from knowing English and explaining for years to curious white Canadians – “It’s practically my first language! My mother spoke and read to me in English when I was in the womb, even!” – and failing, at that crucial point, to find any use for English.
To find English failing me, or myself for failing English, and wondering how it was that people – like this guy, for instance – came to possess such an expansive view of themselves in the world, that they had no doubt that they can say anything and be unafraid or uncomfortable, knowing that room will be made for them at the table, that their words will be heard, that it won’t unheard or ignored or simply misunderstood because they speak English the wrong way, and with a strange accent?
Fanon was on the syllabus. He was to come many weeks after Beauvoir. But I was a Good Student, as I was told all my life, I got good grades and I did all my readings – and better yet, professors said, beaming at me: I read more than the required readings!
An excerpt of Black Skin, White Masks was on the syllabus, but a copy of the book was available in this university library which so often did not have copies of anything beyond lots and lots of copies of dead, white men.
So what I learned then, or perhaps realised what I’d always intuited about how I sometimes read and why I read, that maybe you stifle the shame with reading. Sometimes.
“I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” Fanon wrote in his introduction to Black Skin, White Masks and with that, I had found my words.
I had found it too late, obviously. And had I known it then, that this was what I felt but could not say because I didn’t know how to – if I had known it then, would I have had the courage to say it? I don’t know.
And still – gaps exist. What do I, Malaysian-born woman of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, have in common with Martinican-born French-educated Frantz Fanon of African descent who died twenty years before I came into the world? There are gaps. I don’t expect Fanon to fill it.
But he gave me words that day in a way that made me realise how we sometimes drink books down as if we hadn’t had a sip of water for days. Or how you breathe a book in before you even realise you were gasping for air.
I can only think, like Keguro wrote in his post Listening to African Queers: “Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”
Timing is everything.
I think, maybe, that’s why I cried when I picked up Black Skin, White Masks again recently six years after reading it for the first time. The book I had finished reviewing was set in the global South with characters who were struggling to understand themselves beyond how they were taught to see themselves. I felt, at that moment, threads of connection between one unrelated book and another and myself as the eye of the needle through which they passed.
And so I sat down for awhile and cried.
Or it could have been hormones. I am Woman[i], after all, and 98.25% of the time we are fluttering about in a state of agitated hormonal activity. (I am told, by reliable sources.)
Sometimes you’re going along, doing your own thing, reading some great essays in a highly-praised online magazine of “ideas”, and then you read a profile on the editors and founders of this magazine, and you realise that they appear to be all white, and young, and you remember flashes of another life in another country, of English departments and rising English department stars and graduate students, and you think, “Why are they consistently white and young?”, knowing that these questions are not quite generous, knowing that seeing people in terms of skin colour and youth and shared experiences and networks and educational backgrounds is to limit how you see the world.
Or does it?
I don’t know.
“The extent of my perversity overwhelms me,” said Aimé Césaire.[ii]
“Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”
I’m sorry Sontag, but sometimes my (our) intellect needs to take revenge upon the world.
Fanon gave me words. There is – yes, still! – the rubble of white man’s artifacts both out there, in the world, and in here, inside my mind. Sometimes I need all the words I can get.
“What can I do?
One must begin somewhere.”[iii]
[i] And that means grappling with Fanon’s complicated gender politics – women are an afterthought, and as David Macey writes in Frantz Fanon: A Life, “feminism was not on Fanon’s agenda” (despite him knowing Beauvoir personally, and Black Skin, White Masks sharing a conceptual framework with The Second Sex). Macey tells us about Fanon’s first white girlfriend, who because she was pregnant with his child out of wedlock, and because of their interracial union in conservative Lyon, failed her medical exams and saw her medical career aspirations come to an end as she went off to have their baby. And what of Fanon’s wife, Josie, who typed his Black Skin, White Masks manuscript? She casts a shadow, but she is sketched into place with faint lines. The story is of Fanon the man, of course, and the women were merely… there. Macey’s biography is magisterial in its scope and its love for its subject, but as a woman I wrestle with the little stabby pains to the heart in recognizing how little Women actually mattered to Fanon.
[ii] In Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
June 29, 2011 § 10 Comments
In the midst of a seemingly incoherent yet systematic crackdown by the Malaysian police force on politicians, activists, and citizens found to be associated with Bersih’s upcoming July 9 rally for “free and fair elections”, I couldn’t help but focus on the more mundane or trivial aspects of it – the policing of clothing. In Malaysia’s cultural climate, the policing of clothing is a collective national interest – as any woman will be able to tell you. But today’s announcement by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein really drove home the point of the policing of clothing:
Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said today T-shirts with messages in support of Bersih have been outlawed because they were related to an illegal assembly.
“The Bersih T-shirt is related to an illegal assembly, then whatever they are wearing is illegal,” he told reporters.
Malaysia has a constitution that apparently grants us freedom of speech and expression [Article 10] that should, technically, grant each citizen the right to wear what she or he pleases. Yet, this freedom can be revoked at any point because, as Art Harun reminds us,
Article 150, Clause 6 of the Federal Constitution allows the Parliament to pass any law and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to promulgate any ordinance during state of emergencies and those laws and ordinances will be valid even if they are repugnant or inconsistent with any of the provisions of the Federal Constitution.
At any point, then, something could be deemed illegal – and a piece of clothing associated with the something-illegal will become illegal clothing. This isn’t new; I suspect that clothing has been banned, outlawed, and deemed illegal in various ways for as long as clothes have been in existence. Gang-affiliated clothing. Clothing affiliated with political parties or movements. The burqa. Yes, women’s clothing, in particular, has always been suspect and subject to policing. Clothes are the easiest points of reference in the policing and surveillance of the field of ‘visuality’, which as Nicholas Mirzoeff explains in his superb essay ‘The Right to Look’, is the authority that lays “exclusive claim to be able to look.”*
What confounds me about this context is once again the arbitrariness of the authority of visuality that deems something illegal. That the Home Minister could come down hard on an article of clothing, as opposed to his past wishy-washy response to the display of cow heads, for example, is something that has kept Malaysian twitterers going for some days now. The spectacle of dead animal heads was seen by the Home Minister as a legitimate form of expression, as one of rightful dissent. An article of clothing, however, its outlawed. Ultimately, the law is used and will be used. But how the law is justified and implemented depends on an entirely arbitrary set of circumstances. This is how it has always been done in Malaysia. I am tired of this nation’s circular logic that presents confusion as a gift to its citizens. A state of the perpetually-mystified. It is not the blind leading the blind so much as it is the over-seeing authority leading the rarely-seeing. Visuality in the eyes of the few.
I am trying to wrap my head around thoughts but these thoughts are fleeting and elusive because I’ve been relegated to the not-think section of my mind for a week now, finishing a copywriting assignment that demands the brain be stopped while the body churns out words. The things you do for money, as they say. But this thought about clothes and the outlawing of clothes makes me think about the ‘The fabric of democracy’ essay on South/South and ‘Ignorance and the Moral Fabric of the American State’ on zunguzungu. What does it make me think? I am not sure.* I just know that I can’t quite make sense of what this means yet for the fabric of the “flawed democracy” of Malaysia.
[* Thanks to @southsouth for the link to the Mirzoeff essay. I read it yesterday and it’s so dense and rich with ideas that I’ll have to return to it and reread it in order to do it justice.]
[** What is the point of a blog post of uncertainties? I am not sure. But I wanted to try something on this blog – to write regularly and think out loud without fear or shame of my writing / thoughts “not being ready”. Not-ready has been the bane of my life. But I’ve somehow fallen away from the initial goal of blogging and have allowed this blog to sort of flounder. Not that it should matter to anyone but myself. But since it does matter to me it should somehow be rectified.]
[Image from Dancing Canvas on deviant ART.]
April 7, 2011 § 4 Comments
It seems that Malaysia only has one prominent public intellectual and he is Farish Noor. Public intellectuals, it seems, are a rare breed over here – or if they exist, it’s like they’re shrouded under a mountain of invisibility cloaks. Perhaps if one is an intellectual, one tries not to make it public. The act of thinking is always regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. So it’s a shame that our only prominent Malaysian public intellectual doesn’t live and teach in Malaysia.[i] In his introduction to What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You, Farish talks about the difficulty of doing the kind research and academic work that matters – the kind that goes against the status quo or isn’t government-sanctioned:
It was by chance that I began to read and write about Malaysia’s convoluted history, as a result of several years of frustration while trying to do something that resembled decent research in the region. The lack of books, archives, and primary sources meant that much of my material had to be culled directly from interviews; searching for books that were out of print in the second-hand bookstores of London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Leiden; and piecing together fragments of a history that seemed to have been deliberately torn apart.
I can sympathise with this position. While not even doing anything remotely close to sustained research, I found it hard to know where to start to write a basic undergraduate paper in a Critical Theory class on orientalism, Malaysian history, and Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy. I heard about Syed Alatas and The Myth of the Lazy Native for the first time ever in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which filled me with a sense of shame that I still find somewhat eviscerating many years later. The notion that one had to learn about home by-way of people outside of it was a common one, however, for many of my friends who were also undergraduates at the time in various humanities disciplines.
This is precisely what Azmi Sharom (the Robin to Farish’s Batman? In a scholarly manner, I mean) alludes to in his preface to What Your Teacher Didn’t Know:
Academic freedom, the autonomy to teach and to research what one wishes is therefore not a luxury, it is a necessity. Unfortunately, it is in rather short supply in Malaysia. We have ridiculous laws in this country that hang over the heads of academics like the sword of Damocles, waiting to fall if the government feels that one is being disloyal to it.
Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive
It’s an additional shame that What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is only a book instead of the 10-part reference series I was hoping it would be. This is, after all, Malaysia. Those of us who attended national public schools in Malaysia and then went on to pursue undergraduate and tertiary studies abroad will have at some point or another come to this realisation: there is a whole lot of shit our teachers didn’t tell us. It is, of course, the inevitable fate of the Malaysian humanities student to discover a shitload of information about her country in the reference library of her university located in the wintry prairie depths of a White Man’s Country and not, as it so happens, while living in her own. I remember history lessons in secondary school where classes began with all of us standing up. Our teacher would go around asking questions, and those who got the answer right got to sit down. The last girl standing, of course, is meant to be the paragon of failure. I was the last girl standing quite a number of times, because I was never good at suck-and-spit. Get your mind out of the gutter, dear blog-reader. What I refer to as suck-and-spit is the way in which history lessons were taught in school: suck the marrow and the joy out of history and life (memorise, memorise, memorise), and spit (regurgitate all that you’ve memorised). Surely I wasn’t the only one having trouble keeping straight our various incarnations of Sultan Mahmud of Melaka? There was the first Sultan Mahmud, and after that there were a whole bunch of ‘em, but who gives a shit when all you had to do was keep the names straight without really understanding what these various Sultan Mahmuds did?
The thing called World History was indeed summarised in one or two short chapters; so much so that my abysmal knowledge of the history of other nations shocked even my mother, who enjoyed rubbing it in that “even in my village school in Sri Lanka I learned more than you.” So yes, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is an essential book for every Malaysian – so essential that I hope by the time I’m done writing this review I’ll learn that it has been translated into Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. It’s a thick, very beautifully-produced book by Amir Muhammad’s Matahari Books, amply illustrated with pictures and maps from Farish’s personal collection of Malaysiana or taken from what’s available in the public domain. As it happens, this book ends too soon. As it also happens, it whets your appetite for more more more… gimmeMOARKNOWLEDGE.
Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive
What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is culled from Farish’s series of lectures at The Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, none of which I managed to attend. There are six essays altogether, but only five are from the original lecture series. The sixth is a “bonus” written for the book, one assumes, and it shows because it is the least engaging one. It’s an important essay on the early “left-leaning years” of PAS, which as we’re all aware, has now transformed into an ultra-religious party with ultra-right leanings (even as there are remnants of its early pioneering spirit). But it’s also a heavy essay that sometimes borders on the ponderous. It lacks the spice and verve of the rest, probably because it wasn’t intended to be a lecture designed to enthral and educate a broad-based audience. The other five chapters in the book, in contrast, are imbued with a sense of play and creativity, no doubt an indication of the general spirit of those Annexe lectures.
At the heart of all of Farish’s essays/lectures is the complex and engrossing subject of intertextuality and intersectionality in Malaysian history. Whether he’s talking about the genesis of the keris in socio-cultural use, the roots of conceptions of sexuality in Southeast Asia and Malaysia, the colonial construction of race politics, or the current incarnation of feudal politics via the Barisan Nasional machinery, Farish’s consistent and laudable aim is to point to the multifariousness of our roots and the futility of trying to find or create a single, unified source. This is precisely the danger of current political rhetoric in Malaysia, with its full-on slide into conservative, right-leaning singularity. Singularity of thought, mind, and future – where our differences, which should be recognised and celebrated – are subsumed under tepid nation-state sloganeering. 1Malaysia, yes, but whose Malaysia?
Much like everything in our shared, collective culture, the keris, as Farish describes in the first chapter, has become an “over-determined signifier.” In his exhortation to us to “pity the keris, not blame it”, Farish attempts to rescue it from nationalist posturing and chauvinist patriarchy by tracing the intricate roots of its symbol and meaning from the Malay-Hindu epic, Hikayat Pandawa Lima (taken from the Mahabharata) and its journey through the lands of Java, Champa, and much of the Malay peninsula:
Thanks to the influx of ideas and beliefs from both the mainland (Champa, Lankasuka, Siam, Patani) and the islands (Java), the Malay world was exposed to Vishnuite and Shivaistic schools of Hindu thought as well as aesthetics. The keris, as the ritual object into which these new forms, ideas, and meanings had been invested, became the living embodiment of the dominant Hindu cults of Shiva and Vishnu and it had penetrated deep into the popular imagination of the Indo-Malay peoples.
I’m unsure why Farish chose to use the word “cults” to describe certain sects of Hinduism that exist up until today. Etymologically, the word cult doesn’t have the resonance with the “freaky” as it does in current parlance, but the Shiva and Vishnu sects are not mere ancient forms of belief, if Farish intended to use it in that particular context. The Saivite and Vaishnavite sects are still two of the key sects of Hinduism still in practice. There other moments in the text when Farish’s choice of words gave me pause, such as when he talks about the keris gaining popularity among the landed merchants, traders, and Muslim clerical class. “The keris enjoyed new patronage and custom from these new groups,” he writes, “but also became popularised and vulgarised in the process.” This easy slide from ‘popular’ to ‘vulgar’ contains a not-so-faint whiff of Eau de Elitism; my nose thus wrinkled in minor WTF-displeasure.
One gets the sense that Farish values the sophisticated and the elegant, and occasionally his work lacks a sharp focus when it comes to critiquing ancient or modern practices in terms of class and gender. In the chapter on the history of sexuality in Southeast Asia, for example, which he revisits through the Hikayat Panji Semirang texts, he writes:
In both cases, the men and women who are attracted to Panji are struck by her/his sexually androgynous appearance and her/his refined (halus) manners. The ideal type that is constructed in the narrative conforms to the traditional Javanese register of halus culture, as contrasted to the kasar category of the brutish, vulgar and excessive.
This contrast of halus versus kasar is interesting, not least because androgynous, fluid (bi)sexuality is celebrated in these tales, as opposed to the rigid “heterosexist gender distinctions” that are accepted and touted as the norm. But it’s also interesting because the characters in the Panji are earthly manifestation of gods and goddesses, and these semi-divine figures belong to the aristocratic semi-heavenly court of kings, queens, princes and princesses. Farish is somewhat uncritical of the distinction between halus and kasar and attempts to recapture it as a positive reading of fluid sexuality – the refined androgynous man-woman as the ultimate object of desire – without locating it in the class divisions of the semi-divine monarchs versus the… regular folk. His reading of the Panji is uncritically positive and focused only on selective parts that boost his argument. While sexual mores may have been fluid and playful in the past, the happy ending at the end of the text – as described by Farish – only comes by way of the characters finally falling into their prescribed gender roles as man and woman. This is not something Farish chooses to focus on.
But in light of the Malaysian public’s current preoccupation with the very act of sexual intercourse, whether it be of the male-male variety or the male-female variety, this chapter is an illuminating one – signalling that our conceptions of halus and kasar are always shifting. The current spectacle of sex that has graced the pages of our newspapers and online websites and social media focus on one person – Anwar Ibrahim – and on the threat he apparently still represents to the ruling coalition. This is a spectacle in which not only are the emperors naked; their subjects are, as well. This spectacle of sex has stripped the Malaysian public naked, with our so-called Asian values left hung out to dry. The revelatory point is that these values are as “dirty” as everything it purports to be “against”. The loud defenders of our Malaysia-truly-Asia values have revealed these values to be essentially filthy in its very conception not because of sex, but precisely because of the element of corruption and truth-smearing and its basic core of hypocrisy. This hypocrisy relies on the laziness of its manipulation: using sex by which to project an image of filth or depravity to obfuscate the indulgence in lies and nepotism by public means (cover-ups of police and custodial deaths or election fraud, for example, of championing the strengths of a despot in Sarawak).
Pornography is banned in Malaysia, as is prostitution, but our leaders manufacture videos to display pornography – that of a prominent opposition leader, supposedly, having sex with a prostitute – and expects the rakyat to pretend that we’re all still fully-robed; that none of it is ludicrous and an insult to our collective intelligence. If anything, reading the Panji tales by way of Farish arouses a feeling of deep melancholy, an ache for a time in the past where different modes of sexualities were not merely in existence but celebrated; a time when people were encouraged to and were expected to respond to their own impulses of lust and desire with both feeling and thought. With sex used as a weapon or a means of political obfuscation in our current discourse, the ability to both think and feel seems more antiquated than ever – like the heart and mind are relics of history, and all that we are left with is brutish, aggressive anger with which to harness our biological drives.
Similarly, the recent brouhaha over school literature text, Interlok, and the objections by both the Chinese and the Indians to its supposedly racist content is one that will be put into relevant context for Malaysians after reading Farish’s chapter on ‘The Lost Tribes of Malaysia’. The government, missing the point and the opportunity of the controversy surrounding Interlok to address and find solutions to perennial, simmering race-based tensions, have instead tried to find the easiest way out – by amending the literary text. Artistic integrity, issues of censorship and textual modification, racism – in one fell swoop, all these issues are at once elided and ignored in this pea-brained solution. As Farish points out, Malaysia’s pre-Islamic, pluralist history is consistently concealed in favour of a right-wing, ethno-nationalist discourse that favours Islam and ketuanan Melayu. Race groupings are inherently unstable, which is why the fixation on ‘Malay’ identity is doomed before it even begins, why race-based policies are doomed from its very inception. Try as you might to erase history, you can’t erase the people in whom history lives. Our former Prime Minister of twenty-two years, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who mastered the breathtakingly sinister art of championing ‘Malay rights’ while holding ‘Malay people’ in contempt, has ethnic roots in South India that he carefully elides while trumpeting his apparent ethnic Malayness.
Dr. Mahathir wrote Malay Dilemma in 1970, a book that along with Revolusi Mental by Senu Abdul Rahman, comes under strong critique from Farish:
The most striking thing about both the Malay Dilemma and Revolusi Mental is that both texts have accepted and reproduced the conventional stereotypes of Malay identity that were first formulated and instrumentalised by the colonial masters. As Alatas (1977) has shown, both texts are entirely devoid of auto-critique and introspection, and they both faithfully reproduce the logic of colonial racial difference and race-relations in an uncritical manner.
Having had our independence from the British handed to us on a silver-platter (and, we should note, handed over to the silver-spoon elite), we have since 1957 repeated without fail the pattern of politics rooted in colonial race-based discourse that, in Farish’s words, remain “configured along divisive sectarian and communitarian” lines, dominated throughout by one ruling coalition comprising three parties representing the “three main races” of Malaysia – the in-betweens, the indigenous, and the “lain-lain” be damned.
Further clues to the political mire we seem to be in can be found in his chapter ‘Of Rajas, Maharajas, Dewarajas and Kerajaan’, which attempts to trace the genealogy of four thousand years of feudal politics with roots in Hindu-Buddhist governance and monarchy, leading to what is our current ampu bodek culture – which Farish notes isn’t unique to Malaysia alone, but continues to exist in different degrees in present-day Thailand and Indonesia. Launching a much-needed critique on Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Farish writes:
Most of the accounts given by writers like Mahathir (1970), Chandra (1979), Andaya (1982) and Abdullah (1985) have noted that the Tunku’s style of government was very much determined by his own elite background, values, and worldview. In their reading of his style of government and leadership, many of these scholars have dubbed the Tunku a traditional Malay ruler, governing in the typically autocratic manner of the Kerajaan establishment. So deeply ingrained was the feudal mentality of protection and patronage within UMNO under the Tunku’s leadership that it even became part of the party’s vocabulary and ideology.
Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive
Lest we assume that all this is in the past, all we need to do is bring ourselves back to the present, where current Prime Minister Najib Razak sees fit to warn Malaysians not to “question the social contract” or “question Malay rights”. The key factor of a social contract – the consent of the governed – that surely renders the social contract negotiable is never referred to or even honoured. We didn’t have to fight for our independence, and we’ve never had a revolution. Malaysia’s comfortable trajectory has traversed Kerajaan-style monarchy to colonial-rule to, finally, a colonial-inherited parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch (how’s that working out for you?). This is something Farish alludes to in the chapter titled ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, and it’s worth quoting at length:
The Federation of Malaya inherited the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, along with a constitutional monarch as its head of state, something that the UMNO leaders in particular were keen to install. Because of the consensus of values and ideology that already existed between the two sides, the transfer of power and authority from the departing colonial powers to the traditional Malay ruling elite proved to be uncomplicated. In the words of Chandra [Muzaffar, whose Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia Farish cites] “both feudal history and British colonialism had thus conspired to bestow the privilege of power upon this group.” It was just a matter of legal procedure before the Malay Sultans were installed as the ideologically potent symbols of Malay power, while the Malay aristocratic elite manoeuvred themselves into positions of real political power as the de facto rulers. Decades of British colonial rule had ensured the integrity and viability of the Malay royal families, something which the conservatives of UMNO were quick to recognise and exploit in what Roger Kershaw has termed a ‘sociological symbiosis’. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that The Times of London reported the birth of Malaya with a resonant chord of approval.
Like most Malaysians, Malaysia herself proved to be a good, obedient student who follows the rules unasked. First rule for free colonies: If the colonial power from whom you gained independence is cheering you on, you know something’s wrong.
This chapter on ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, which focuses on the “left-leaning years” of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), is further indication of how a distinct lack of class consciousness among Malaysians makes it unable for us to successfully and collectively fight for rights from the bottom-up instead of the top-down approach that views the middle-and-upper classes as the default point of origin. Farish traces the roots of PAS’ pro-rakyat tendencies, when it was led by the charismatic and formidably intelligent Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy from 1956 t0 1969. Dr. Burhanuddin’s “philosophy of Islamist-nationalism”, as Farish puts it, was greatly informed by Marxism, leading to a kind of Islamism that “called for the Malays to transcend their narrow ethnocentrism and parochialism to focus on the wider struggle against foreign domination and exploitation of their economy.” Much of this is lost in the current incarnation of PAS, which in response to UMNO’s increased move towards conservative neoliberal policies under the guise of globalisation, has opted to respond with an increasingly right-wing agenda of narrow, parochial Islamic governance.
After twenty two years of our very own Maggie Thatcher, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, class consciousness seems to be all but erased among the post-80s generation. From activism to civic rights campaigners and young politicians, all assume a hyper-capitalist, middle-and-upper class mode of being as the default – and therefore promote and advance causes from that particular starting point without any critique of their own position. This is precisely why the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) folk give me the heebie-jeebies, inspired as they are by “the vision of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia”. Part of their philosophy is quoted below:
Our mission is to improve the level of understanding and acceptance of public policies based on the principles of rule of law, limited government, free markets and free individuals.
“Free individuals” inspired by the Tunku is, if we agree with Farish’s assessments thus far, deeply suspect indeed. A “limited government” with a “free market” – what does that mean? A government limited only by its abilities to protect the free market, as opposed to its people? I’m being facetious, no doubt, but one need only look to the US to see how this has worked out for them.
That we’ll continue to reap much of the same without end in sight is pretty much guaranteed for as long as UMNO is in power (Barisan National, as we all know, is just a front for UMNO-rule. MIC who? MCA what?) This pretty much bears itself out among the “younger generation” of UMNO politicians, particularly in one Khairy Jamaluddin, whom the liberal elites drool over as a symbol of potential change in UMNO. Khairy recently tweeted this:
That’s like the Ghost of Dr. Mahathir past, present, and future all in one tweet. That the Twittering elite, with their multiple iPads and Mac laptops – and where Khairy is concerned, Oxford-educated, privileged, moneyed, and with a former Prime Minister of Malaysia as his father-in-law – are able to sum up “the Malay mind” as “backward” with no one, as I’ve seen thus far, objecting to it, says a lot about how we view ourselves and our respective privilege. [I’ll also like to take a moment, since this is my blog, to note my distaste for Khairy and his stable of middle-class yuppie male fanboys ready to retweet him at any moment.] Do they ever take a moment to consider his privilege, and their own, the position from which he speaks and the position from which they retweet? I mean, seriously, this[ii]:
Farish’s work does have its hiccups, and this is mainly where his own analysis doesn’t seem to leave much room for gender and class-based critique. While he is an excellent historian, teasing out strands from the past to deftly weave them into a coherent, elegant narrative fabric, his own preference for the culture of halus over kasar, and throwaway comments about the popularisation of the keris among the masses leading to its “vulgarisation” are occasionally jarring. I don’t know Farish but have attended some of his other lectures and book launches in the past, and while humour is not his forte, his brand of serious and precise oratory has always been consistently compelling. Yet somehow in this book his prose occasionally veers into snootiness of the nose-in-the-air variety, and this cannot but entail the attendant eye-roll on the reader’s part. There may have been some self-consciousness on Farish’s part with regards to how to present his prodigious and intellectually-demanding research in a manner that is accessible to readers at all levels of knowledge, resulting in the occasional attempts at cheekiness and jokeyness that unfortunately fall flat. The line between scholarly and popular is a broad chasm, and one may occasionally stumble.
That said, Farish’s doing valuable work, and if you’re the least bit interested in understanding Malaysian history beyond government-dictated history textbooks, you best ensure that you own a copy of What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You. If you find it difficult, at this precise moment, to imagine a better Malaysia – perhaps a journey back to the past can provide the stirrings for creative reimagination. Or, at the very least, it allows you to envision a Malaysia unhampered by the screaming far-right rhetoric of the present-day news and saves you from flushing your head down the toilet.
[i] If anyone can point out others (besides Azmi Sharom), please do. I’ve thought and I’ve thought, but I can’t come up with anyone else. Can anyone think of a Malaysian public intellectual who’s a woman?
February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
Our Prime Minister warns us not to stage an Egypt-style revolution in this blessed country. We should, presumably, concentrate more on making more cars, driving more cars, polluting our cities, increasing income disparity, and mindlessly zombie-shopping in malls. In the meantime we take the occassional break to ruminate on The State of the Country Today and blame all of our social ills – from petty theft to baby snatching and baby dumping and incest and rape and sexual harassment and murder – on those damned foreigners. Not all foreigners, though, the clean-looking ones with shiny blonde hair are definitely okay.
In the meantime, he also tells us that the act of “saving” Malaysian students in Egypt was not a political move:
“The Government decided that whatever the circumstances, we would launch a mission to rescue all Malaysians there.
“There was no political interest, as long as they were our people, our mission was to save them.”
Sez our esteemed PM. LOLZ.
This Ops Piramid, then, was a spectacular orgy of self-congratulation designed to boost the Malaysian spirit at the expense of the very real concerns of the Egyptian people – concerns which were hardly given any thought by our government. If there was any commentary, it came from regular folks, journalists, and columnists.
Instead, Malaysians reading the local papers were treated to a stern warning from our Papa PM – “Don’t think that what is happening there must also happen in Malaysia. We will not allow it to happen here,” he tells us – a metaphorical slap on the wrist, as it were, and then soothed with some sugary treats, as below:
Oh, and don’t forget!
The Saudi Arabian government has granted unlimited flight access to Malaysia to airlift its citizens from Egypt to Jeddah – a rare move made possible due to the close personal relationship between Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor with the Saudi Royal House.
Ordinary Malaysians can feel heartened that our country has ties to a repressive, bling-bling regime. They grant us flight access! Unlimited! To save ourselves from those marauding Egyptians!
Many thanks to profit-starved MAS and profit-bloated Air Asia as they weasel their way in to participate in the spectacle; bless ’em, can’t live without ’em.