Archive | Current Affairs RSS feed for this section

Bullybloggers on Failure and the Future of Queer Studies

2 Apr tumblr_lp8y1blynn1qjek14o1_500

On March 26, 2012, Gayatri Gopinath at NYU convened a panel of queer scholars to discuss “Failure and the Future of Queer Studies.” Using Jack Halberstam’s new book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) as an occasion to think about negativity, failure, anti-disciplinarity and other bully-ish topics, the panelists all provided commentary on the past, present and potential futures of queer studies. We reproduce the presentations here in order and we add another commentary by bullyblogger extraordinare, Tavia Nyong’o.

Jack Halberstam

Our aim tonight is to be bold, provocative, polemical and preposterous. We come to bully not to please, to bludgeon not to persuade, to renege on politeness, rigor, the reasonable, the rational, the enlightened and the un-invested. I am honored to share a space with these colleagues in this space, here and now. From each, I have learned valuable lessons not just about how to think but also about what to think and why. They have each, in their own way, and through their innovative and risk-taking work, taught me and taught us all how to fail and why we should and must fail in order to not establish ourselves as a new institution:

Gayatri Gopinath – Gayatri’s work, with its bold refusals of the static and normative relations between nation and diaspora has given us new and vital formulations of space, race, migration, mobility, sexual ecologies and cultural production. The diaspora after Gopinath is not the inability or failure to reproduce the nation elsewhere, it is a refusal of the diaspora as always a shadow of the nation, as its inauthentic other, its lost and loser child.

Lisa Duggan – Duggan’s body of work over the last two decades has changed completely the ways in which we understand relations between the economy and the sexual, the state and the individual, violence and identity, marriage and queer activism. A quintessential public intellectual, Duggan has trained a whole generation of scholars in modes of writing history beyond the discipline, against the grain and in and alongside the contradictions of sex, politics and activism.

Tavia Nyong’o - Tavia’s latest work has brought punk to queer studies, queerness to punk and has examined all of the fertile intersections engendered by queer punk in relation to race relations and radicalized cultural production. Nyong’o’s work manages to produce and nurture crucial links between brown and black aesthetics and queer practice and he writes a mean bully blog!

Ann Pellegrini – has allowed us to think about sexuality alongside, through and against various states of devotion, spiritual callings and religious feelings. Rather than accepting a clear connection between queer communities and the secular, she finds contact zones that link the passion of religious calling to the intensity of alternative queer communities.

Jose Muñoz – Muñoz, perhaps more than anyone here tonight, has taught me personally how to fail well and fail better. With his virtuoso readings of eccentric queer culture through and with eclectic archives of continental philosophy, Muñoz has actively, relentlessly, wildly refused to stay in the playpen of queer culture and he insists on dragging white dead philosophers into the mix—Althusser, Heidegger, Agamben, Jean Luc Nancy—to name a few, to create fabulous blends of imaginative archives and sophisticated theoretical models.

The Queer Art of Failure

My book: to the extent that my book makes an intervention, it does so by cleaving to counter-intuitive ways of thinking, anti-disciplinary forms of knowledge production, uncanonical archives and queer modes of address. The basic interventions are:

1) The naming of failure not as the negative space opened up by normalized modes of success but as a habitable space with its own logic, its own practices and the potential for new collectivities: success is individualized but failure is collective – 99 %!

2) The book understands failure as a practice that builds upon queerness in the sense that queerness is always a failure to conform, to belong, to cohere. Rather than reorienting queerness, we should embrace failure.

3) The Queer Art of Failure tracks an aesthetic through works by queer artists who focus on awkwardness, limits, disappointment, loss, losing and it identifies an archive not in relation to generic specificity but in relation to the theme of failure itself.

4) Failure suggests a historiographical method within which we must write queer history not simply as a record of heroes, martyrs, forebears, but also as a record of complicity, cowardice, exclusion and violence – in other words, any history, LGBT history included, contains episodes that are shameful, racist, complicit with state power, orientalist, colonial and so on. To leave that history out is to commit to normative models of self, time and the past/future.

5) Anti-Social: Finally, failure as theorized by my book alongside work by Jose, Rod Ferguson and many people here tonight, pushes the so-called anti-social strand of queer theory to a place it never wanted to go. And so, if Edelman, Bersani, Tim Dean et al really wanted to follow a negative strand of queer thinking, we are saying, they would have to make peace with the denizens of the dark side who are not the masterful heroes of theory and high culture but are motley crews of gender deviants, misfits, punks, immigrants, the dispossessed, the disinherited, the uninvited, the down and outers. Our work makes a collectivity out of that motley crew and speaks the anti-social as a kind of curse or protest.

The Death of Queer Theory?

While some people, no names, have been pronouncing queer studies dead and done, there are meanwhile a whole slew of amazing new books by younger scholars that prove this pronouncement to be premature and even immature! Not only is queer studies not dead, but it was never trying to be the kind of thing that would eventually be bypassed or made redundant later. That notion of a set of ideas that have currency until they are replaced is part of a straight temporality that queer studies has tried to upend and decenter.

Queer studies has failed to coalesce into a discipline – it has failed to produce programs, MA’s, PhD’s, majors, minors; and in this failure, the failure to formalize our relations, our procedures and our productions, we see, to quote Muñoz, horizons of possibility. And so, what now for queer studies? If indeed another version of queer studies has “passed,” has been declared dead, what new forms will rise in its wake?

New books include: Chandan Reddy’s Freedom with Violence; Jafari Sinclair Allen’s Venceremos; Dean Spade’s Normal Life; Omi Tinsley’s Thiefing Sugar; Karen Tongson’s Re-Locations and many more. These new books have completely reconceived of queer studies and shifted the focus away from identity, textuality and community to time/space, relations to the state, globalization, the suburbs, immigration and so on.

Queer studies of the variety that the people gathered here today have created was always a dynamic set of conversations; a set of mentoring practices; a rehearsal without a performance; an improvised and ephemeral cluster of ideas that form and deform, circulate and collapse around a shifting un-canon of cultural objects and a constellation of subjugated knowledges.

Queer studies as practiced by myself, Lisa Duggan, Gayatri Gopinath, Tavia Nyong’o, José Muñoz and Ann Pellegrini was never supposed to “succeed” in the terms established for success in the academy – it was doomed to fail and happily so and in the wake of our often dazzling and deliberate failures, new forms of knowledge can flourish and grow. In fact, it is all too often the success of an area of knowledge, its development into programs and disciplines, that cuts off the next generation and that, like a wave of gentrification in a formerly impoverished but happening neighborhood, stabilizes what was dynamic and seizes what was common to all.

And so, here tonight at NYU, the center of a certain strand of queer diasporic critique and queer of color theory, we announce not an end but a new beginning and we do so as surly, grumpy, weathered survivors of an old order that has declared itself dead—and that we are happy to bury—and as the happy benefactors of new intellectual movements, as the supporters of younger rebellious colleagues and as the instigators of forms of disciplinary ruin.

My colleagues and I practice queer failure daily and we refuse to commit to a model of queer theory that demands success, institutional recognition, longevity and the centering of identity. And so, I would like to name a new queer theory that does the following:

1) Promises to never declare itself dead in the face of the impending irrelevance of its senior practitioners. In other words, if a senior group of queer theorists becomes outmoded, then hurray for the onward march of knowledge and innovation – know when to step aside and let others through.

2) Practices what Stuart Hall calls “Marxism without guarantees” but what we can call “queer theory without a safety net” – this means taking risks, maintaining queer thinking as an open field – open to new forms, outside influences, broad transformations, unknowing, undoing, unbeing.

3) Collaborates rather than competes – queer studies should not only be about raw ambition, the race to the top, elbowing everyone else out of the way. Hopefully we can learn better how to collaborate, share authorship, circulate ideas rather than branding them, copyrighting them and jealously marking them as property.

4) Thinks in terms of collectivities rather than just individuals, multiplicities rather than singularities, new modes of associating as well as the inevitability of division, differences, disagreements.

5) Survives: We have all been doing QS for a long time now and we are all in some way survivors of the various struggles that have engulfed the field. So I conclude here by turning to one of my favorite films of all time, a film with much wisdom about desire, struggle, queerness and survival –  and one I have now committed to quoting whenever I give a talk, yes, you guessed it: Fantastic Mr. Fox.

 

This film is not only about fighting the law and the farmers, it is also about stopping and going, moving and halting, inertia and dynamism; it is about survival and its component parts and the costs of survival for those who remain. But one of the very best moments in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the moment most memorable in terms of queer theory and survival, comes in the form of a speech that Mr. Fox makes to his woodland friends who have outlived the farmers’ attempt to starve them all out of their burrows. The sturdy group of survivors dig their way out of a trap laid for them by Boggis, Bunce and Bean and find themselves burrowing straight up into a closed supermarket stocked with all the supplies they need. Mr. Fox, buoyed by this lucky turn of events, turns to his clan and addresses them for the last time:

“They say all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum, but it’s cool to the paw – try it. They say my tail needs to be dry cleaned twice a month, but now it’s fully detachable – see? They say our tree may never grow back, but one day, something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose and these giblets come from artificial squab and even these apples look fake – but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival.”

Not quite a credo, something short of a toast, a little less than a speech, but Mr. Fox gives here one of the best and most moving–both emotionally and in stop motion terms–addresses in the history of cinema. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a queerly animated classic in that it teaches us, as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run and so many other revolting animations before it, to believe in detachable tails, fake apples, eating together, adapting to the lighting, risk, sissy sons, and the sheer importance of survival for all those wild souls that the farmers, the teachers, the preachers and the politicians would like to bury alive.

Like Mr. Fox, and I hope I can always try to be the Mr. Fox of queer studies, I too would like to say: “And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the four most wonderful wild and queer animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes and drink to our survival.”

ON QUEER FAILURE

Lisa Duggan

            Jack Halberstam assures us that queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life, then goes on to provide us with unique insight into why Zizek is so wrong about Kung Fu Panda.   And this is just the tip of the iceberg of risk The Queer Art of Failure takes:

1) The risk of the ludic.  There has been a lot written from Marxist materialist quarters about the ludic nature of much of queer theory.  The definition for ludic that I found at Dictionary.com is “playful in an aimless way,” as in “the ludic behavior of kittens.”  What could be a more ludic archive than animated films for children?  Halberstam’s “silly archive” walks right up to this charge spoiling for a claymation fight.  What, after all, is mutually exclusive about silly archives and political economic analysis?  As the text of Chicken Run clearly shows, cartoons can launch calls for collective resistance to labor exploitation.  But there is a particularly queer angle to this kind of political economic analysis.  As Jose Munoz has so eloquently argued in Cruising Utopia, imagining and creating alternative life worlds is central to the project of social change.  It isn’t enough to critique neoliberal capitalism’s devastating impact on the quality of life of the 99%, as OWS has shown at Liberty Plaza and elsewhere, beginning to actually live otherwise is crucial to generating a sense of political possibility.   Imagining alternative life worlds–other ways of living, being, knowing and making, beyond conventional arrangements of production, intimacy and leisure–is the primary work of queer politics and queer theory.   Given these goals, it is not surprising that the arts are central sites for queer imaginings—the commercial arts in their experimental or populist modes as well as the fine or alternative arts.

But if we can establish that this kind of queer work is not aimless, what about the charge of playfulness?  There does seem to be a division on the left between those continually suspicious of imaginative playfulness—and thus of postmodernism, queer interventions reductively described as “lifestyle” politics “utopianism,” and sometimes “cultural studies”—and those engaged in play *as* politics.  Halberstam tags Zizek as the former kind of left intellectual, but we have to include many others including David Harvey here too.  Such left intellectuals dismiss the ludic rather too quickly as universally unengaged with political economic analysis—their critique is shallow.  But there’s more.  There is a suspicion of playfulness or silliness on the male dominated left that I would indentify as a rejection of the feminine.  The emphasis on seriousness, on rigor, on hard reasoning, on difficulty and mastery in general, strikes me and my queerly feminist comrades as a variety of masculinism.  And as we know the masculine among us are not to be concerned with “lifestyles,” these are attended to by the women, or with the sillier realms of culture, as these are inhabited by the flagrant homosexuals. 

So the risk that The Queer Art of Failure takes is the risk of condescending dismissal by the Real Men of the Left and of the Academy (some of whom are women and gay people, of course).   But here we have a challenge to that kind of dismissal issued from the quarters of queer masculinity, from someone not interested in competing in the manufactured shortage economy of smartness.  Masculinities against masculinism!  Must be confusing to some…….

2) The risk of anti-disciplinarity.  The disciplines are the zombies of intellectual life right now—like capitalism, they keep coming back from devastating crisis and critique.  We are encouraged to describe our work as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary, so that the disciplines may survive alongside our critical practices, fundamentally informing them.  The Queer Art of Failure dares to be postdisciplinary and anti-disciplinary instead.  It also evades another major boundary that cross cuts the disciplines—that between the advocates of theory, and the practitioners of “plain language.”  In our classrooms in SCA, we often have a rift between students who wish to read and make use of “theory” and those who want to write in ways designed to reach a wider audience.  The Queer Art of Failure exposes this division as a false dichotomy through its deep engagement with cultural and social theory (Benjamin, Gramsci, Foucault, among others) alongside its silly archives and evasion of discipline.  The audiences for this kind of work are multiple—Halberstam has presented it at art conferences and museums, feminist and queer activist settings like Bluestockings book store, as well as in a wide variety of academic settings (probably in dungeons and discos as well).  Sometimes it is the non academic audiences who are hungriest for theoretical engagements, and academics who can be most anti-theory in the name of a “public” imagined somewhat condescendingly as unable to understand more abstract formulations of political thinking.  Here we have an example of promiscuous relations between the “high” and “low” without resorting to a bland linguistic and analytic middle.

3) The risk of betrayal.   Following on the groundbreaking example of Licia Fiol-Matta, whose book A Queer Mother for the Nation first demonstrated how queerness could be deployed in the interests of domination and inequality (specifically, racial nationalism in Latin America), Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure takes on the volatile subject of gay Naziism.  The appeal of fascism to romantic masculinism has included an historical relation to both gay and lesbian masculinism.  Big surprise.  Halberstam’s foray here helps expand the critical reach of queer studies, as it catches up with the transnational feminist critique of historical feminisms aligned with empire and war.  This betrayal of allegiance to an identity formation is required, if we hope to engage in left political alliances.  LGBT populations are not the subjects of queer politics, any more than women are the subjects of feminist politics.  Queer politics is about dissent from normalization, so it must include a critique of normalizing masculinism that applies to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender figures.  Though LGBT sites are privileged sources of queer critique and invention, the solidarity that we mobilize is ultimately on the ground of politics, not identity.

In conclusion, despite various declarations of the death of queer theory, The Queer Art of Failure is a clear sign of continued vitality.  It occupies a place amidst a continuing stream of new engagements for queer scholarship and politics.  There are three overlapping areas of particularly lively ferment and publication right now:

1) Queer of color critique.  Following on now classic texts by Jose Munoz, Roderick Ferguson, Martin Manalansan, Licia Fiol-Matta, Gayatri Gopinath and others, we now have new work by Nayan Shah, Chandon Reddy,  Karen Tongson, Kara Keeling and others.

2) Global political economy.  Earlier work by Ara Wilson, Jacqui Alexander, Beth Povinelli and Arnaldo Cruz-Malave is joined by new work by Jasbir Puar, Tavia N’yongo, Scott Morgensen, Jenny Terry, Eng-Beng Lim, new work by Judith Butler and others.

3) Economic austerity and queer feeling:  Lauren Berlant is setting new standards here all the time, in company with Ann Cvetkovich, Jose Munoz, Sara Ahmed, Heather Love, and others.

In addition, work is pouring forth now on trangender politics (ref. Gayle Salomon and Dean Spade) and on queer disability (Robert McRuer, Eli Clare, David Serlin).

If a certain kind of queer theory, emanating primarily from the English departments of elite universities, is dead, we need not mourn.  What we have now is a plenitude of promiscuous engagements across disciplinary and institutional boundaries now remaking fields and politics in ways the queer theory of 10 years ago could not have imagined.

Never Mind the Buzzkills:

Here’s The Queer Art of Failure

 Jose Muñoz

In Negative Dialectics Theodor Adorno explains that thought as such is, before all particular contexts, an act of negation.  Its function is to enact a resistance to that which is forced upon it.  Adorno makes the case that thought is always risking failure.  He explains that philosophy can always go astray, but that going astray lets it move forward.  So we can conclude that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t going anywhere or doing much of anything.  He also doesn’t think that philosophers should impose a rational take on the world—because that is too violent in its totalization—echoing man’s violent domination of nature.  Adorno is of course famous for being the key proponent of the Frankfurt School’s withering critique of the culture industry as a mechanism that lulls the masses into malleable passivity. For these reasons and others, Adorno is regarded as something of a buzz kill.  (More on that term later.)

By commencing my comments on my comrade Jack’s excellent new book The Queer Art of Failure through an invocation of Adorno, I don’t mean to totally cast him as our new queer Adorno.  They aren’t totally alike.  But they do share some characteristics.  I think its safe to say that both Halberstam and Adorno share an interest in the power of negation.  Both thinkers respond to the smugness of rationalist thought through a robust skepticism.  Both aren’t afraid to write failure and have it clearly demarcated as something that not only happens, but also needs to happen for us to think otherwise.  That thinking otherwise, an attentiveness to the potential of a non-identity that Adorno proposed, resonates with the weirdness of Jack Halberstam’s “silly” archive of cartoons, “bro” movies and other kid’s stuff.  Adorno instructed his readers in how to look out for the many ways that beauty and representations of nature can be scams that are meant to keep us from grasping the severity of the present moment.  Halberstam is always turning away from the natural–nature for Halberstam is a stop motion animated were-rabbit–to look to the absurd and the comical to tell us something else.

Adorno, as many of the readers of his work can testify, was kind of hilarious and cranky.  The same can be safely be said of Halberstam, a scholar who isn’t afraid to go for the laugh when he is deadly serious.  Certainly the plot summaries of Chicken Run are quite replete with humor as Halberstam describes the animated “classic claymation” feature Chicken Run’s opening sequence.  But we also hear this tone when Halberstam describes himself debating a colleague in Sweden at lunch. The topic of the discussion was the fascist tenets of Tom of Finland’s work. Halberstam reports that “In [his] typically subtle and diplomatic way” he proposed that any reading of Finland’s über-masculine leather daddies that made a detour around a discussion of Fascism was skirting a general component of the work.” Halberstam’s interlocutor shot back that such a proclamation was nonsense since Tom of Finland is “pure eros.”  Jack responds in his “gently persuasive way” that the eros was linked to a politics. And the back and forth persists. This moment in the book is indicative of Halberstam’s authorial voice in the project, the way in which he is willing to play with irony, poke fun at himself, but also never lose the trajectory of the argument.  Halberstam’s point is summarized as this: “This is not to make a Catherine Mackinnon-type argument that sees power-laden sexual representations as inherently bad.  Rather I want to understand why we cannot tolerate linking our desires to politics that disturb us.” In this passage Halberstam isn’t only what Sara Ahmed would call a feminist killjoy, he is also, in that tradition of Adorno, a full on buzzkill.  Not so much in that he is simply trying to shut down the Tom of Finland fan’s erotics or make him feel guilty about them, but instead because he is asking his lunchtime companion to own up to the more disturbing aspects of his erotic attachments.  In the same way Adorno would call out the insidious politics of authoritarian irrationalism that is bred in a seemingly harmless interest in Astrology.  Adorno is not going to let us off the hook and not think about our complicity in the escapism of astrological thinking.  This is harsh.  No Rob Bresny for you!  If you love your astrology it’s a buzzkill.  This is what Halberstam is doing too to some degree.  Not so much because Halberstam wants to shame the Tom of Finland devotee, but because he wants to insist on a very real linkage between desire and history.  Halberstam’s lunchtime debate is a pretty apt example of playful self-effacement running parallel to a critique or an engagement with the real imbrications of desire and politics.

In an article published The Chronicle of Higher Education Michel Warner remarks on the title of a special of issue of Social Text that Jack and I edited along with David Eng.  He sites our title, “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” as displaying bitter  “queerer than-thou competiveness” that is borne from a typical scarcity of resources. He points out how ironic it is that queer theorists can strike such “postures of purity.” We ourselves have a few critiques of our issue, most prominently the absence of scholars not based in North America.  But I think one of the things about that issue that my co-editors and I are most happy about was the way it helped foster a lot of queer of color theory.  Many of our contributors did what Jack did when talking to his Swedish colleague.  They insisted on linking desire and politics, often in the form of thinking about sexuality as coterminous with race, empire and few other modes of particularity.  Our purpose in publishing the issue was to provide an auto-examination of the field, an attempt to take critical stock of where the conversation was headed. Participating in this kind of critique opens one up to a little name-calling. You can’t please all the queers all the time. In this way queer failure is in the cards.  We must just cop to being buzzkills in the cranky tradition that I see Jack and Teddy Adorno belonging to.

One of the more moving moments in The Queer Art of Failure occurs when Halberstam closes out chapter three by citing a line from Benjamin: “[E]mpathy with the winners invariably benefits the rulers.” Benjamin and Adorno shared a rich twelve yearlong correspondence. But they had very different styles. There is a melancholic sadness that runs through Benjamin’s prose that I don’t hear in Halberstam.  I think of Adorno as being kind of proto punk, despite his passion for classical music. Punk in that he was willing to fail, interested in a certain infidelity to form and genre. This is another reason I link these cranky buzzkills beside each other. But let’s be clear, I have stretched this comparison to the limit.  Jack and Teddy are very different.  As any reader of The Queer Art of Failure can attest, they have very different relationships to the culture industry. But beyond that, I think it’s pretty clear that if we had a time machine, brought Adorno to the present and forced him to have lunch with Halberstam, they would hate each other. That lunch would be a splendid failure.

“We’re gonna die”: Not not an ending

Ann Pellegrini

“Failure loves company,” Jack Halberstam proclaims midway through The Queer Art of Failure.  The new directions in queer theory charted across these blog entries not only refute the obituaries some others have proclaimed about the end of queer theory; they also show just how richly varied the band of scholars remaking queer theory for today and towards tomorrow are.  The question, then, is not whether or not “queer theory” is dead (it isn’t), but why some have apocalyptically conflated a change in focus, analytic orientation, (inter)disciplinary location with the end of the world as they know it.   C’mon people, let’s practice losing, and loosing, the reins.

Failing is not as easy as it seems.  So, for some additional help, let’s even turn, as Jack Halberstam did early on in The Queer Art of Failure, to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” with its famous assertion that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master.”  Bishop’s poem is an exercise in as-if: practice losing often enough (“Lose something every day….Then practice losing farther, losing faster…”), and you’ll discover that the greatest blows are survivable.  And the poem even presents writing itself—Bishop writes: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”—as one of those practices through which we master the loser’s art.  Bishop’s parenthetical exhortation—“(Write it!)”—and that second “like” are a kind of stutter-step in the poem’s movement, belying the asserted ease with which the art of losing can be mastered.  Because it can’t.  That’s the poem’s lie, and its bluish ray of hope: to act as if loss can be mastered is, paradoxically, to let go of fantasies of mastery.

The Queer Art of Failure picks up this exhortation and runs with it.  It is a clarion call to and for failure.   Halberstam proffers failure as a vocation.  As he powerfully and poignantly reminds us at book’s end: “To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die.”  I found this strangely uplifting—what this says about me, I leave to your discretion—especially as it was followed by: “rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly.  And the hopelessly goofy.”

And The Queer Art of Failure is a very goofy book with an unabashedly absurd archive of failure: Finding Nemo, The Fanstastic Mr. Fox, and other animated feature films (in a genre Halberstam identifies as “Pixarvolt”) appear alongside the work of such visual and performance artists as Tracey Moffat, Yoko Ono, and Collier Schorr.  SpongeBob Square Pants does a duet with the Sex Pistols.  This is not your grand-pappy’s archive nor your gay uncle’s, and that’s precisely the point.  In the place of canonized texts and disciplinary—and disciplining—knowledge-formation, Jack takes us on a wild goose chase (or should I say chicken run?), lingering and malingering in the detours, the chance arrivals, the libidinal pulse of the useless, and the highways and by-ways of stupidity.  I suppose this is the moment to rev up my engine and cue Dude, Where’s My Car. As Wittgenstein (a great lover of the silly) writes in Culture and Value: “Our greatest stupidities may be very wise” (qtd in Landy and Saler, The Re-Enchantment of the World, 67).  Wittengenstein would have found this book very wise.

The diversity of Jack’s archive and its willful reclamation (not the same thing as redemption) of the junked and jettisoned reminded me of the “garbage-picking or ‘reusing and recycling’” that Jane Bennett practices in her 2001 book The Enchantment of Modern Life as well as her more recent Vibrant Matter.  In both books, Bennett mines the leftovers of the world, the everyday, for sites of enchantment and vibrant possibility.  Bennett is interested in cultivating wonder and joyful attachment, moods that could not, at first glance, be more different from the negativity tracked (and even solicited) in The Queer Art of Failure.  What all three books both share, though, is an orientation to the discarded and overlooked—to the refuse of the world.  So many possibilities are contained in that word refuse.  Throughout The Queer Art of Failure we can hear its variants: the trash pile of refuse, the negative force of refusal, the new assemblages courted (re-fused), and, of course, the slow burn of the fuse ticking down 3-2-1, to a whimper, not a bang.

This is low theory; but, don’t confuse that with frivolity.  At its playful heart, The Queer Art of Failure is also a very serious book, with life and death stakes.  If  Halberstam concludes by calling for queer failure as a way of life, he also calls attention to the unequal terrains on which failure operates.  All failures are not equal.  Throughout the book he thus moves to deconstruct failure, to show how failure as a badge of shame is, in his words, “levied by the winners against the losers.”  At an historical moment when some of the biggest losers in economic history are getting public bail-outs, the public, as Lauren Berlant puts it and as Halberstam underscores, the public itself as living breathing bodies and not as some Habermasian abstraction has become too expensive for the state.  Structural failures and structural inequalities are recast as the bad moral choices of whole populations (those lazy Greeks) and individuated classes (the white working class is “coming apart,” to cite the title of Charles Murray’s new book, because of serial bad choices: out of wedlock births, crime, and joblessness).

And death is the ultimate failure.  Still, if we will all face the ultimate failure that is death, this does not make death the great equalizer.  I want here to link Halberstam’s beautiful closing observation—which I cited earlier but which bears repeating—that “rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly.  And the hopelessly goofy.”  This queer art of ultimate failure is not a solo performance, even if, ultimately, no one can die for us—heroic pieties of giving one’s life for one’s country to the contrary.

These questions were very much on my mind as I was preparing for the NYU panel on The Queer Art of Failure.  It took place on Monday, March 26, the very day the U.S. Supreme Court began its extraordinary and, as it turned out, extraordinarily distressing, three days of arguments about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a law that is not nothing, even if it is not enough.  Recall that one of the first and most potent rhetorical bulls eyes scored by opponents of the law was to circulate the absolute fiction that President Obama’s health care reform would institute “death panels.”  Sarah Palin decried the “downright evil”of the entire health care law, asserting that the elderly would have to appear before a “death panel so [President Obama's] bureaucrats can decide … whether they are worthy of health care.

In fact (if facts still matter in an age of truthiness and thinking from your gut), what the offending provisions (a mere 10 pages out of a 1,000-page bill) would have done (and they were stripped from the bill before it reached the President’s desk) was to reimburse doctors for sitting down and talking to their elderly patients, every five years, about their wishes for end of life care.  These “advanced care planning consultations” were not about faceless bureaucrats coercing helpless Granny and Gramps onto the iceberg.  They were about giving elderly people some kind of agency about their own end of life care.  And yes, the consultations and reimbursement structure were also, as Jill Casid points out in a forthcoming essay, about “put[ting] at center stage the reassuring prospect of the doctor with a better bedside manner, even as this traditional image of doctor re-dressed as empathetic performer also works to keep off-scene the larger and less easily salved problematics of care under the austerity state and within the ostensibly new immaterial economics of sensations and affects.”

These new economics are only ostensibly immaterial, because behind the scene of the medicalized deathbed stands an array of workers, some paid (barely), some not, whose affective and material labor, Casid stresses, carries and cares loved ones as well as strangers to their death.  The slow and living deaths enforced both by the withdrawal of state care and by the imperative to choose life at all cost (especially when the state passes the cost on to others) blocks possibilities for imagining and enacting the good death, the dignified death.

Halberstam’s discussion of queer negativity and the inevitability of failures, large and small, is thus in important conversation with the still unfolding queer work on precarity by scholars like Jasbir Puar, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Martin Manalansan, Casid, and others.  The art of losing, to return to Bishop’s poem and to borrow from Casid again, also entails the art of “letting go and being let go” (Casid).

To Halberstam’s archive of the queer art of failure I accordingly want to add—and I think he is explicitly inviting us to continue making a necessarily incomplete and “failed” archive—New York-based artist Young Jean Lee’s hilariously harrowing shout-out to death in her 2011 performance piece cum cabaret “We’re Gonna Die.”  The piece was developed and performed with her goofy band of male hipsters Future Wife. You can watch the entire performance on line at Lee’s website; I especially recommend fast forwarding to the rousing final number, the song “I’m Gonna Die.”  Start the video at the 39:50 mark and listen to the way Lee sets up the song.  The song transforms from being a solo number into a goofy and barely synchronized group dance.  Watch it all the way through, and behold the awkward, silly, and plain beautiful propping of one body upon another as Lee and her band show us how luminous and vital failure can be.

Young Jean Lee & Future Wife at Joe’s Pub

Sometimes the best way not to fail or—more to the point—the best way to fail well is to know when to quit.

Let’s Pretend that Everyone’s Dead

By Tavia Nyong’o

I wasn’t on the panel, but from where I stood in the standing-room only audience, queer failure was a contagious idea, drawing more people to listen and react to it than I have seen attend an academic talk in awhile. Perhaps this was because, as Lisa noted to me afterward, and as the above posts make clear, the tone of the evening was decidedly open and unstuffy; we were in but not of the university.

Precarity has gone from an exotic European theoretical import to a recognized identity for politically self-conscious American twentysomethings. The queer art of failure — with its use and abuse of library privileges, its creative mishandling of high and low theory, its predilection for fierce polemic of the “shit is fucked up and bullshit” variety, and its antisentimental refusals of equality and rights politics — is precarity with a twist, a flagrantly homosexual skill-set for when you are strapped to the roof of a society quickly careening off the edge.


In Q&A the question was raised whether the tenured professoriat should be extolling failure. The query is pertinent, but mostly as a means to clarify that failure is not something to be aspired to. The queer art of failure is not success on opposite day. Indeed, Jack’s book is positioned alongside other recent feminist broadsides including Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided, books that detect an air a pervasive contempt for failure around our self-help, self-improvement, and positive thinking gurus. Professors, insofar as we are thought to recuse ourselves from the rigors of the market and the blandishments of God’s, can be seen as just another variety of failure, in society’s terms. So it is less a question of choosing failure than choosing what to do with the failure that has chosen us.

Jack partly agrees with the abuse heaped on professors, insofar as he points out the only rationale for the protections of academic freedoms are to take risks, including the risk of failure. The unpalatable alternative is to let queer studies settle into a secure set of theoretical protocols that obtain what political relevance they claim from the rapidly receding moment of its emergence. Much as queer theory destabilized the lesbian and gay studies that preceded it (albeit destabilizing it in such a way that intersected with a brief publishing boom) it in turn needs to be destabilized in content, form, and location. By this I mean to second the calls made above to see queer critique take on new topics and methods (although I’d like to keep formalist methods and literary topics among them), to experiment with new forms of dissemination (like that meme and this blog but also ideas and arguments posted to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, hopefully someday, their open source non-profit alternatives), and to relocate the practice of queer criticism inside and outside the academy, and across the Global North/South divide.

Queer studies is, as Jasbir Puar asserts, an assemblage. And while Deleuze’s original conception of that term holds a sense of overall effectivity, I like the shambolic connotations of the English translation. An assemblage (unlike, for instance, an assembly) is a sort of mess, easily dismissed as a failed attempt at streamlined coherence. Even this overlong, multi-authored blog entry, with its unnecessary, repetitious and excessive conclusion by me, is kind of a shambles.

With the image of assemblage as a shambles in mind, let me stumble towards my conclusion by evoking the punk spirit that animates many of us, and that also resonates in some respects with the insurrections and occupations that have pockmarked the face of our new Gilded Age. Punk is obviously aligned with failure, art, and a certain alternative conception of the future that begins (but does not end) with the performative utterance “No future for you!” What comes after that realization cannot be prescribed in any single vision, but I find one clue in punk film auteur Bruce La Bruce’s recent zombie flick Otto: Or, Up with Dead People. I find it specifically in the films rollicking theme song, “Everyone’s Dead” by the Homophones (performed below “live” as an even more laconic shambles than in the version in the film):

The Homophones have a thing or two to teach us about life after the death of queer theory as we knew it. Sure, their anthem — “There’s no one around, except the policeman in our head” — extols a certain romantic conception of gay male public sex and cruising that might not exactly measure up to the pervasive reality of surveillance and privatized “public” space today. After all, we live in a moment where even an app transparently designed to assist anonymous hook ups has to pretend it is about anything but sex. But it is precisely in the midst of this depressing and dystopian present that the homophonic power of a negative assertion — “let’s pretend that everyone’s dead” — is a necessary hammer in the toolkit for making what José is calling a punk rock commons. In drumming out the policeman in our heads we also hear the creaking sounds and shambling swerves of the queer zombie, that is to say the de-zombified zombie, the zombie quickened by the silly, and somewhat disgusting literalization of same-sex sex as embodying the death drive. But if the future is kid stuff, then the zombie precariat doesn’t so much disavow as disembowel it, and play in its entrails. Swing sets and lollipops and very unsafe sex acts combine to form a queer assemblage indeed, one that sets the art of failure to a tune that might just prove infectious.

Kony 2012: Inaudible Children

12 Mar

By Tavia Nyong’o

CNN Headline: Hunt for warlord goes viral

Can the subaltern speak? No, but she can certainly sob, with cries of raking loss and, a few rapid film cuts later, tears of heartwarming gratitude. I learned that much watching Kony 2012 this morning, even if, like most people from the region, I learned little else by way of information or context.

Why did I wait so long to actually watch the film I’d been stewing about for the last week? I actually started to watch once, but was foiled by a bad Internet connection and the off-putting opening sequence (which resembles an ad for Facebook or Google more than a documentary about Uganda). And in a way, these obstacles told me something. I am not the target audience for this film. American youth with ubiquitous, high speed internet access willing to watch 30 minute films on computer screens, cell phones and (probably soon?) wristwatches are. But my exclusion from the film’s emotional community isn’t about age or tech savvy, but because I’m an African who happens to be neither a victim nor a villain, and simply doesn’t fit into either the audience or the subject matter of this overnight, worldwide success.

The almost uniformly ticked-off reaction of Africans like Rosebell Kagumire (above), Maureen Agena, Teju Cole — at least those Africans not on the payroll of Invisible Children — must seem like a bizarre and offensive form of ingratitude to those Americans caught up in the enthusiasm to “make Joseph Kony famous.”

If I had to sum up our bad attitude it would be thus: We feel like the vision of the world acting in unison extolled in the film Kony 2012 doesn’t include us.

After all, the film tells its viewers that no one knew or cared about the Lord’s Resistance Army before three twentysomethings from California stumbled upon some terrorized children sleeping outdoors. Kony 2012 doesn’t imply that Kony is still in Uganda, as some critics have claimed. But it does recycle powerful but outdated imagery from their earlier films about Northern Uganda. It does make exaggerated claims for the leading role of Invisible Children in the peacemaking and post-conflict process (taking full credit, for instance, for the recent deployment of 100 US military advisors to Uganda). And it does assert that only continued US intervention now — compelled by a worldwide youthful grassroots mobilization — can end the regional conflict by “arresting” Kony.

But its not the questionable geopolitical analysis of the film that gets to me so much as its affect. Those who haven’t been able to bear the thought of watching it really should make themselves, if only to grapple with the escalating power of images to affect us. It is that power that makes the informed, learned critiques irrelevant, as both the filmmakers and Noam Cohen in today’s New York Times make clear. Cohen casts this irrelevance in the familiar frame of obscure complexity versus compelling simplicity. But the truth is that emotions can be as complex as ideas. And it took Invisible Children, Inc. years to craft the sophisticated images and participatory campaigns they have mobilized, as a viewing of the evolution of their prior efforts shows. Simplicity has nothing to do with it.

So, while I do have an informed, professional response to the claims made by Kony 2012, but that response is short circuited by my feelings at seeing East and Central Africa explained by showing two mugshots to an adorable blond boy from San Diego: a good African victim and a bad African warlord. The film expects its audience to identify with the little blond boy. Indeed, it obliges it to. Africans however, must identify with those flat images on the table. With Jacob Acaye the former child soldier, yes, but with Joseph Kony too. We know that these are two side of a single coin, and that when we are seen as the one, the face of the other is always lurking beneath.

Still, once I finished watching the film I abandoned self pity and ressentiment. This is a trap for the contemporary African subject. After all, we are wired into the same communications networks and feedback loops of emotional intensity as everyone else. We are no longer colonial mimics, calculating how best to reflect back Western ideas and images for our own ends. We are now all neoliberal perverts, in the sense of perversion developed by the critic Slavoj Zizek, perversion as the “inverted effect of the phantasy.” Sounds “complicated” and maybe it is.* But insofar as films like Kony 2012 invite us to see ourselves in the gaunt visage of a horror film monster like Joseph Kony — who acts at the direction of no cause, not even his own, but at the command of the Lord — and then to reflect back that image in a bizarre, pseudo-Situationist campaign to emblazon his name and image everywhere, from streetlamps and public monuments to our laptops, cellphones and bodies, I think we get the point.


The objective today is not to give Africa it’s voice but to traverse and escape the fantasy that “voice” can endow us with agency in a society controlled by the imperatives of war and capital.

* For those interested, I develop an account of perversity in the global circuits of vicarious participation in Africa’s crises in this forthcoming article (you can read uncorrected page proofs here).

Occupying Gender in the Singular Plural

21 Jan

By Tavia Nyong’o

Call me a sissy, but I’ve never particularly cared for being referred to as cisgender. Still, the work of transgendered activists within Occupy Wall Street has been one of things that keep me optimistic. At a November 13th teach-in at Zuccotti Park, just days before the brutal eviction,  trans activists took over the people’s mic for an hour-long lesson in occupying gender, educating their non-trans listeners on the unearned privileges we enjoy whenever we conform to ascribed gender; outlining the work that groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project have long been engaged in, against police violence and medical pathologization; and outlining pragmatic and principled tactics for an occupation open to trans and cis-gendered people alike.

The teach-in ended with a song by Justin Bond, who has charted a post-Kiki and Herb career as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Between releasing the 2009 EP Pink Slip and last year’s full length album Dendrophile, Bond has adopted the middle name Vivian, begun to transition, and chosen the pronoun V to represent this new stage of life. Bond’s OWS appearance took what a therapeutic and individualistic culture calls “finding one’s voice” and performed it against the affective grain.

Justin Vivian Bond performing “The New Economy” at Occupy Wall Street

The pronoun V, and accompanying honorific Mx., occupy a linguistic elsewhere to binary gender, an elsewhere that Bond’s memoir, Tango, makes clear V has resided in since childhood. Tango is not a narrative of being trapped in the wrong body, however, but only of being trapped in the wrong society, and Mx. and V are linguistic foils with which to parry that society’s imprecations.

Such singular departures from accepted usage antagonize those who assume that they represent instances of amour propre. But coming from a Quaker tradition that rejects the second person plural “you,” and holds onto the archaic singular forms of “thee” and “thou,” I understand the purpose such speech acts serve. Much like the Society of Friends verbally resist the hierarchical, royal we, Bond’s neologisms dispel the ease with which binary gender preoccupies the ordinary. These dissenting gestures trust that the lateral bonds of the common can sustain the twists and torsions they exact. They are a kind of sit-down in grammar, a linguistic and literary demand to be served as we are, not according to how we are seen, surveilled or counted. They disrupt common sense in order to find a commons.

The song Bond performed at OWS was “The New Economy,” with it’s pugnacious opening lines “They say it’s a new depression, so why am I filled with glee? Everybody coming down quickly, now they can all join me.” Glee is an affect that a certain television show has made ubiquitous in recent years, but it is not often associated with the style of OWS. Bond took glee and detached it from the ethos of aspirational participation and the compulsion to please, and restored its disaffective and disaffiliative charge. Bond was, by Vs own account, homeless at the time of the December performance, having lost an East Village apartment to gentrification’s wrecking ball. But the glee Mx. performed was not schadenfreude but an invitation to queer conviviality, a living and breathing together in conspiratorial difference, a new economy of bodies and affects pitched toward the ethic, as V sang, of “take what you need and give a little back.”

I think it matters that a trans person delivered this communist message, insofar as the grain of Vs voice reinflected the conventional rallying cry. Unison singing at rallies and marches, like pledges of allegiance, tend to be rites of assent: sentimental conflations of the one and the many. But the singular grain of Bond’s voice, echoed through an enthusiastic crowd serving, sometimes with duty and sometimes with joy, as the human amplification system of the people’s mic, defied the sincerity of singalong.

This ability to perform the singular plural, occupying gender without staking a representative claim of speaking as or for any particular position in or betwixt a binarism, leads me to the question I am dwelling with these days. The banal version of this is the journalistic question: if OWS is a new movement, where are its songs? The question betrays a nostalgia for the 60s that was initially helpful in getting people to take OWS seriously at all, but which now presents an obstacle to the emergence of what is new and different about this moment. I want to speculate just a little about what that emergent sound might be.

People are having a field day redescribing the occupation in the preferred jargon of their fields and professions. So why not me? Occupation is a performative: it doesn’t so much represent the 99% as it conjures that figure into being as a speculative object of public attachment. This feeling for numbers is non-majoritarian and post-democratic insofar as it expresses a anarchist and antinomian preference for consensus decision making over majoritarian and electoral process. Excluding the 1% certainly articulates a healthy and appropriate smash the rich mentality. But the Lacanian in me also sees the 1% as yet another stand in for object a, the irreducible antagonistic remainder around which the social composes, and which is forever decomposing it. After all, wouldn’t claiming to speak as or for the 100% be fascism?

99% is a multitude composed out of antagonism, not identity. Taking what they needed, and giving a little back, the transgender activists reminded those who would hear that cis privilege is not restricted to the 1%, but a necessary fractures within occupation just as other divisions of race, citizenship, and class are. Trans and queer glee become part of the affective work of occupation, not so that occupation can become more inclusive or safe, but in order to keep those minor feelings quilted into the banners and broadsides of the many, both as a formal reminders of precarious bonds that stitch us together, and as an audio analogue of those visible seams.

A version of this blog post was presented at the MLA 2012 roundtable, “Affecting Affect.” Thanks to Lauren Berlant for organizing that occasion.

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

13 Nov 9259211-large

1.

There’s a new Volkswagen ad in which a child dressed as Darth Vader tries to use “The Force” to control objects in the world.

Dad comes home from work and, standing with mom at the kitchen window, sees his child

trying to mind-control the family car in the driveway.  The car starts as if by magic,

then you see that dad has secretly started it with a remote-control device, validating the child’s belief in his own super powers.

This is a classic postmodern ad in that the viewer is shown exactly how the trick is played but made to believe it anyway.

Presumably, even for dad (whose role is otherwise limited to going back and forth to work), starting one’s car remotely

still bestows the feeling of having superpowers.  But just ask power to do what? and you see

that what’s being sold as magical omnipotence is just the ability to start a car with a button instead of a key.

At worst, this pitch is allied with what is recognizable as the fascist tendencies of capitalism

insofar as fascism is defined by the way it offers people an inflated, mythic sense of themselves– and a phantasmatic sense of belonging–

while systematically stripping them of any real agency and political power.  Go to work. Buy a new car.  You’re a superhero!

Of course I’m not suggesting a fine company like Volkswagen could now have or could ever have had anything to do with fascism!

But there is another side of this.  What makes the ad work is its psychological validity.

Unless parents serve their children’s sense of magical omnipotence, their kids will be pathologically depressed at best, or simply dead.

The infant cries and food appears.  He squirms in frustration because he wants a toy but lacks the strength and coordination to reach it,

and mom or dad see this and magically make it happen.  The fantasy of sovereign agency and omnipotent power

precedes, is necessary to, and continues to underlie the acquisition of actual agency and power– the alternative is learned helplessness.

Given these two opposed perspectives, how can we think through this?

Even if you consider the ad a trivial matter, the contradiction is stark and the stakes seem pretty high.

To take the question to another register: do Occupy Wall Street and related actions empower people?

Do they contribute to mobilizing and opening up political discourse?  Or can they be described as simple venting, or worse,

part of some systemic damage control mechanism that offers aesthetic or symbolic shows at the expense of real political mobilization?

As if the revolution were a car and O.W.S. the remote control device that will turn it on?

2.

As you’d expect, many right-wingers but also some so-called leftists are bending over backwards to to assure us

that this is just an infantile display, that we are clutching at straws, that no sustained movement can come from it.

In the face of contradiction, or even just because it’s early days, how can they be so sure?

What makes these little Darth Vaders pretend to knowledge that one couldn’t possibly have at this stage?

As philosopher Jacques Derrida put it, “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.”

Whatever else its content, the desire seeks “a reassuring certitude” by which “anxiety can be mastered.”

The anxiety comes from “being implicated,” from being “at stake in the game”– as it seems to me we are all at stake here.

Taking off from Derrida, we can speculate that what the dismissers desire, what they have to lose,

is the structuring fantasy of a single center, a single origin or ground or goal, a single line of causality,

a single kind of political agency, a single public sphere, a single rationality and discourse, a single left and right–

all of what Occupy Wall Street defies.

A famous prayer asks for courage, serenity, and “the wisdom always to know the difference” between what can be changed and what can’t.

Better pray instead for the folly not to know the difference!

And as my old pal William Blake put it, “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

3.

What if politics–  what if the world– did not work exactly as we know?

What if things were more intricately, globally and locally networked in a complex ecology,

so that we could not necessarily predict how events in one realm might reverberate in another?

What if the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil could Set Off a Tornado in Texas?

What if a mathematician’s algorithms could trigger a stock-market collapse?

What if tiny, hyperlocalized genetic mutations could, through a process of natural selection, lead to collective evolution?

Wouldn’t that be incredibly weird?

What if Occupy Wall Street could be described as a metaphor (the usual phrase is merely a metaphor)

for the movement in which we are hoping it will participate, meaning that the occupations of particular places,

such as Zucotti Park near Wall Street, resonate with how one tries to establish a livable foothold in any inhospitable space–

whether it be the economy, the academy, the family, identity, theory?  And what if these resonances are real and contagious?

What if The Coming Insurrection will take “the shape of a music, whose focal points,

though dispersed in time and space,

succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations”?

What if what we consider solid realities– like bridges of steel and concrete– could one fine day begin to undulate and break apart?

And when we ask why, what if it turned out that the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind?  And what if, in the present conjuncture,

we could gain more leverage not by asserting knowledge but by persistently asking questions (as that song famously does)?

What if even God appeared to his faithful out of a whirlwind and addressed them with an epic series of questions,

designed to expose their presumption to knowledge they could not possibly have?

4.

Occupy Wall Street has never suffered from a lack of rational plans and proposals, as some allege.

Here’s some for you: progressive taxes, financial regulation, health care, jobs, socialism.  Take your pick.  I have more.

If the left suffers from anything now it seems more like the lack of emotional coherence,

part of what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling.”   This is part of what OWS is helping to discover, to invent.

Assorted already-existing emotional coherences are available, of course.

The sober left intellectuals, with their reassuring certitude that Occupy Wall Street is a flash in the pan,

have their manly stoicism and depressive clarity.  The Tea Party has its righteous indignation,

or as historian Joan Scott translated the Tea Party stance into psychoanalytic terms, the outcry “they’ve stolen our jouissance!”

As for the rest of us: well, at least nobody has stolen our jouissance!  If you visit Occupy Wall Street,

you will hear hundreds of lively political conversations– in fact, this is one of the hallmarks of the occupation–

and among them will be careful analysis, magic thinking, policy proposals, paranoid ramblings, theorizing, new-age spiritualism, and so on,

but over them all, under them all, behind them all, running through them all is not exactly righteous indignation,

which comes from more privilege–  more wounded sense of right and dignity– than most of those present possess.

There is the everpresent tenor of surrealism, which comes from the sense that dominant discourse is so thoroughly locked down–

so foreclosed–  and political speech so narrowly defined that one cannot restrict oneself to the use of these tools

without undermining from the outset what one hopes to accomplish.  Ultimately, as Audre Lorde said,

“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  But this is not only a matter of tools, of instrumental strategies.

Surrealism arises when what counts as reality itself is so impoverished,

when what passes for intelligible politics, viable social identities, reasonable careers and aspirations

are so hobbling, corrosive and suffocating as to make the reality of neoliberal late capitalism uninhabitable.

When you can’t inhabit it, occupy it!

5.

Over all the conversations, under them all, behind them all, running through them all

there is at least– a vitality.

As Brooklyn artist Dread Scott said about OWS: “there’s oxygen in the room again.”

Of course, I have to point out, you can’t recognize constructive politics by vitality alone.

I recently watched a Wagner opera and was struck by the histrionics, tragic gender politics, erotic intensities

of hierarchy and duty and family: very lively indeed!  I was mesmerized– but I also understood for the first time

something about the aliveness and emotional intensity captured by Nazism.

Much of the work of politics is affective labor, the work of translating vitality into a stance.

Lately I’ve been listening to old Woody Guthrie songs (more my style, admittedly) and marvelling at how seamlessly

the songs combine the stances of worker, empathic ally of immigrants and outlaws, socialist, proud patriot, anti-fascist–

a combination mostly unthinkable today.  But I bring this up not at all to say those were the days.

For one thing, they never were the days– and for another, they’re still the days:

Rich man took my home and drove me from my door

And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

In any case, fascism remains and will remain one of the ongoing tendencies of capitalism, and not only as a distant spectre.

Even if you were inclined to discount clearer and nearer dangers that demagogues can be elected, scapegoats systematically targeted,

people mobilized in favor of symbolic but deadly wars, or perpetual warfare sold as Manichaean good-versus-evil struggle–

what about the demagogues, scapegoating, symbolic and perpetual wars we already have?

What about the mazes we run to get the cheese and avoid the shocks, the levers we push to get the pellets

of whatever it is, the simulacra of identity and belonging being sold to us, and behind all that, underneath it all,

the dark energy pushing all of us apart?

What if, at the most fundamental level, we are engaged not so much in an attempt to enact specific reforms

nor to foment a one-off revolution, but in an ongoing struggle against fascism, to make the world livable,

and what if, in this, we are most aligned with the everyday work of various other queers, workers, culture-crossers, women,

immigrants, and other displaced people?  What if, in our own lifetimes, we will only know small and local victories,

that resonate only faintly, sparks that crackle and wink out, glowing embers that never burst into flame?

Would that warmth be enough to sustain us?

6.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me acknowledge where I’m coming from: I’m a writer.  It’s an interesting moment for me.

The presidency of George W. Bush, as you may be aware, was also a nightmare for anyone who cares about language.

Language itself seemed to be in the process of being continually, systematically evacuated of meaning and life.

After that, to hear Obama speak with intelligence and presence– even with precise grammar– could bring tears to my eyes.

That’s not enough, but it is something.  So it’s interesting to me to discover that the discursive spaces at Occupy Wall Street

are mostly not my spaces.  Even though I make my living speaking (as a teacher, anyway), I’m not inclined to speak there,

and the intellectuals I have heard speak there seem somewhat out of their element too.

In fact, the durational performance– the occupation– at the heart of OWS seems actively somehow to disturb and displace speech,

to make it plural (like the human microphone), to make no one iteration definitive.  But although I’m not inclined to speak,

it feels good to me!  This is partly because the massive, single acoustic space of traditional protest rallies always felt to me

like Hitler or Mussolini should be haranguing the crowd from a balcony.  You really want a unified public sphere?

I experience this displacement of speech, of all that it is now possible to say, as  something more like thinking,

more like writing, a process of reaching for what wants to be said but is not yet possible to say.

You there, with your head bent down!  Why are you mumbling inarticulately to yourself?

I’m thinking.

7.

If the fantasy of magic superpowers underlies all agency, then yes, at some level I must believe the world turns around my words

and around all words that move me.  On the other hand, I know Auden was right:

“poetry makes nothing happen.”

If language can be understood as a parasite or a symbiotic entity that co-evolved with our brains, then yes,

I am one of those traitors to my species that serve the entity known as language. That’s the extreme version, anyway.

But what if writers and intellectuals are also neither servants nor traitors nor leaders but just one kind of lifeform among many,

each of which, even in the name of simple diversity, has a claim to life,

or even more simply, what if a text makes no claim at all but the bare fact of its aliveness in the moment of its being written and read?

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

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

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

“In those days,” as Virginia Woolf wrote wistfully about the days before the First World War,

“every conversation seemed to have been accompanied by a sort of humming noise,

not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of the words themselves.”

So what is it, over all the conversations at Occupy Wall Street, under them all, behind them all, running through them all?

Perversely, one of the most notoriously difficult writers of all time, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan,

gives me slogans for the placards with which I want to march out of here:

THE FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE IS NOT TO INFORM BUT TO INVOKE.

WHAT CONSTITUTES ME AS A SUBJECT IS MY QUESTION.

(Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Thad Ziolkowski for insight into the VW ad, Jennifer Miller for citing Dread Scott, and apologies to Jayna for the Woody Guthrie references!)

Riots and Occupations: The Fall of the US and the Rise of The Politics of Refusal

19 Oct

BY JAYNA BROWN AND JACK HALBERSTAM

If there was an Arab Spring, it has been followed by a US Fall, not simply an autumn of increased political protest and widespread dissatisfactions but also literally, the fall of the US. When some demonstrators decided to sit down on Sept. 17 in Zucotti Park to protest corporate greed and the continued looting of US working people by investors and bankers, a certain North American propensity for indifference, ignorance, obedience was punctuated at last by a multi-racial alliance against a ruling class that sometime around the mid-90’s began its latest assault on global peace and domestic shared prosperity. In this spliced parallel conversation, Jayna Brown and Jack Halberstam exchange ideas about the London Riots, Occupy Wall Street/Occupy LA, Anarchy, uprisings, looting and the folly of Zizek.

JAYNA BROWN (JB): 

August of this year there were a few days of looting, burning and general chaos in London. These events, as with previous upheavals, were called ‘riots’ in Britain, but here in the US,  Left wing commentators  tried to use other terms like rebellion or insurrection. But thinking about these riots, Brixton and Handsworth in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985, and the banlieus of France in 2005, I’ve taken to actually preferring the term “riot” after all. It is bleak, it understands what it means to live in conditions of permanent and violent oppression. After all, ask any black person, “No Future” was not a sentiment first articulated by Sid Vicious!

(Handsworth Songs, part 1):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3jPGI3uIWQ

The term ‘riot’ provokes something different than the more euphemistic and hopeful ‘uprising’ or ‘insurrection’, both of which capture the spirit of irrepressible resistance, but seem to me infer the eventual need for centralized political and tactical organization and carry with them a nascent militarism. What I embrace about the term riot in our current moment is that it points away from a politics of resistance to a politics of refusal. The boys in the streets refused to behave, or even to complain properly. They were not demanding the state fulfill its promises or mend its ways, for riots are not about state recognition or redress, in fact they refuse a dialogue of any kind with authority.

The boys (and girls?) also refused to shop properly, gleefully looting everything from H&M to consumer electronics stores, sorting out goods in the back gardens of neighboring houses. And, as the Situationist Guy Debord observed following the Watts Riots in 1965, “Looting is a natural response to an unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It…exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence.www.mara-stream.org/think-tank/guy-debord-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-spectacle-commodity-economy/

These were not, as Zygmunt Bauman described them, “defective and disqualified consumers,” gratifying a “longing” to be part of the system, but snatchers, defying the terms of appropriate accumulation. (Zygmunt Bauman, On Consumerism Coming Home to Roost) http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/

JACK HALBERSTAM (JH): 

New theorizations of political protest emerged after the riots in the French banlieu in 2005, and took the form of a pamphlet called The Coming Insurrection authored by an anonymous group called The Invisible Committee. In The Coming Insurrection, the group dissected the revolts that had just happened and mused about revolts still to come. They blamed the collapse of the global economy for the revolts and suggested that “the economy is not the CAUSE of the crisis, it IS the crisis.” They critiqued conventional forms of political protest and called for wide recognition that everything must change – that everything has changed and that work, social life, the economy, aspiration, hopes, dreams, melancholia are all ready to be reinvented through new relations between people and between people and institutions. They also named political domination as less a logic or a set of actions and as more of a “rhythm that imposes itself, a way of dispensing reality.” To offset the rhythm of domination then we need, they said, an insurrection that gathers form after it flares up and resonates: “it takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations…”

It is this model of political (in)action that manifests in the riots of London and the occupations in US cities – a set of vibrations rumble through urban zones and gathering force they emerge in a blast of sound.

The exhaustion of conventional forms of protest has left people with a few different options out of which to craft a viable, dynamic and show-stopping movement: people can riot and literally block up the city; and, they can loot in the aftermath of the riot as a way of taking back the wealth that has been stolen from them; people can exchange information on facebook, twitter and other social networking sites and find new ways of flooding the media with our discontent; finally, people can simply “be there,” show up, show off, refuse to leave.

And while commentators like Slavoj Zizek in his piece titled – “Shoplifters of the World Unite” – http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite – have criticized the London riots and the looting that followed for “expressing Zero-degree protest,” it is more likely that the message is clear and loud, but Zizek, saddled as he is with his nostalgia for a more binary mode of leftist politics, cannot hear it.  “The UK rioters had no message to deliver” he said. And it is true, the rioters, like the OWS movements around the country, have no succinct and unitary message to deliver: instead they speak in a babble of voices all rising in volume and intensity to say “no.”

JB: 

The riots in London have been referred to repeatedly as “pure anarchy” in the conservative British press (Michael Nakan). Anarchy is a perfect term in fact because itis always in process: anarchy depends on improvisation, and creates fluid decentralized forms of organization. It is against not just economic exploitation, as with Marxism, but of all forms of domination. “Anarchy is not society without rules — it’s society without rulers,” writes Thomas L. Knapp at the Center for a Stateless Society, “If true anarchy is present in the riots, and I believe it is, it’s to be found in ad hoc mutual aid societies springing up in affected neighborhoods.”  This is an exciting idea, as it gestures to the ways disenfranchised communities, especially black people, already live in alternative relationship to the state, embrace anti-state practices, and engage in creative forms of cooperation.

JH: Are the Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Los Angeles movements participating in a new mode of political protest, one more closely aligned to anarchism than to conventional leftist protest politics? Are they truly multi-racial or do we find a split between racialized rioters in London and Paris and white protestersin the US? Can we find new forms of revolt registering in the lack of a list of demands, the mode of occupation and the preference for general assemblies and no leaders? Is the “human microphone” technique of amplification a brilliant metaphor for the multitude or a sign of the propensity for consensus politics to weed out eccentricities while centering pragmatic and “reasonable” statements? The markers of this new form of politics are the lack of a clear agenda or list of demands and the strong presence of a clear belief in the rightness of the cause. In other words, the occupation groups do not need an agenda, their pain and their presence isthe agenda. They do not want to present a manifesto, they actually are themselves the manifestation of discontent. The 99%’ers simply show up, take up space, make noise, witness. This is a form of political response that does not announce itself as politics, instead it enters quietly into the public sphere, sits down and refuses to leave.
JB:  On October 17, we celebrated one month of the Wall Street occupation. Like the riots, its decentralized organization, its refusal of spokespeople or leaders, suggest a movement that is as Jack says, “more closely aligned to anarchism” than any traditional Leftist models. But this is about as far away on the ground as you can get from a riot. Visiting the LA branch of the occupation, I was struck by how calm and orderly everything was. People were lounging around, reading, silk screening t-shirts. There are sign-up boards for volunteers, even a library. I was fine until the band started up with warmed over Woody Guthrie songs, and the Oathkeepers tried to hand me a leaflet.Despite the few brown and black faces amongst the crowd, there is a divide, most of those disproportionately affected by the vagaries of global capital are not here. And btw, who is this poster meant to speak to, exactly?

A frail, pale ballerina, en pointe atop a raging bull, my god, Adbusters, you couldn’t get much whiter).

Apart from Cornel West’s performance, perhaps we should remember that there is a lot more at stake for black people in getting surveilled and/or arrested, considering the history of blood and terror that has accompanied black protest. Julianne Malvaux says that black people are generally more concerned with concrete causes, such as the execution of Troy Davis and other cases of police brutality than an abstract, general protest of the financial system. But this sounds condescending to me. No doubt black people are more than aware of the larger picture, yet not that interested in joining in the somewhat smug, and grubby, Woodstock of it all.

Perhaps the disproportionate absence of people of color also speaks to their very different relationship to money and the financial system, one that is much less intimate, less expectant and less entitled than most white people’s. For African Americans, as Greg Tate writes in his “Ten Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street,” it’s “no newsflash here” that elites will sell you (out). Yet I often lament the deep grain of economic and social conservatism in my communities as well. The last era of black conservatism substituted the financial success of a few for actual social change.

JH: While pundits and mainstream media puzzle over the Occupy Wall Street/LA movements and wonder about what they want and about whether the whole thing is just a side-show to some “real political movement” still to come, the occupiers, many of whom are now without occupations, are standing witness to the crime of the millennium: while we were all sleeping in homes we could not afford, the investors and brokers were draining the bank accounts of the professional class and sending the service classes into ruin and onto the street; they then recruited the government to the role of lookout and getaway driver while the Goldman Sachs Harvard graduate coolly wandered through the digital vaults of the nation’s banks and investment firms, pocketing the cash as he goes and called his activity “work.” When poor people rob banks they get life imprisonment, when Harvard grads do it, they get bonuses.

There is no doubt that the riots in London and the new Occupation movements are filled with opportunists as well as sincere activists, drunks as well as revolutionaries, people who want new goods as well as people who want to break down the structures of capitalist greed. But there is also no doubt that after the occupations have dispersed and the parks have been cleaned, the rhythm will continue, the vibrations will spread, the song will rise and the message will be, will always have been, the noise of many voices not speaking as one but speaking all at once the language of refusal.



Poly Styrene, 1957—2011

26 Apr

By Jayna Brown

Poly Styrene died Monday night at the age of 53 of what was originally breast cancer. Going to the GP for back pain, she was told to take some painkillers. So she put up with the pain for a few months, as many of us would do, and when she went in again it was cancer that had metastasized to her lungs and spine. Her last tweet reads quite sadly now: “Slowly slowly trying 2 get better miss my walk along the promenade. Would b so nice 2 sing again & play.”

Poly Styrene’s death invites a meditation on mortality, which we all face, even punks like us who swore we were going to die young. Punk flayed mortality, flaunted youth in its face. Yet it’s ephemeral nature also affirmed death’s inevitability. An 18-year-old Polystyrene had the most profound insight into the ephemerality of life itself. “ I do it and that’s it,” she said. “I go on to something else.”

In 1977 the daughter of a Somali father and white English mother from Brixton by way of Bromley gave a high-pitched driving dystopian critique of capitalist consumption and sexist violence. “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard,” she begins, with a girlish lilt, “but I think,” and her voice rises to a bellowing screech, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”  In thick braces and stiff plastic dress, Marianne Joan Elliot Said, better known as Poly Styrene, screamed precociously into the face of a mostly boys only club of misfits. Bind me tie me/chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave for you all/ Oh bondage up yours!”

In this song as in many others Poly Styrene linked pithy critiques of slavery, authoritarianism, patriarchy and plastic, “It was about being in bondage to material life,” she explains about Oh! Bondage! “In other words it was a call for liberation.” Poly Styrene’s keening voice, riding atop the band’s signature saxophone, created a barrage of high-pitched sound. Carrying her consistently articulate, socio culturally astute lyrics, the sound of Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex continues to resonate, weaving its way insistently through the intervening years.

Poly Styrene called out patriarchy from within a counter culture that was supposedly subversive, yet was indeed heavily invested in masculinist performances of power. Poly Styrene’s politically awake compositions disrupt in some very interesting ways the smooth patrilineal narrative constructing what gets remembered as rebel music, and also challenges the calcifying racial orthodoxy of white riot memory.

Poly Styrene’s lyrics politicized the mundane, the prosaic, the quotidian, the everyday. Her prescient visions were of a world turned dayglo. “My thing was more like consumerism, plastic artificial living,” she explains. “The idea was to send it all up. Screaming about it, saying:  ‘Look, this is what you have done to me, turned me into a piece of Styrofoam, I am your product. And this is what you have created: do you like her?’” Art-I-fical:

She speaks to the specific ways consumer capitalism targeted women. Her imagery in songs, like Artificial, swirled with the plastic products of a woman’s domestic everyday—nylon curtains, perspex windows, acrylics, latex gloves. “My mind is like a plastic bag,” she sings. Plastic Bag:

After seeing a pink fireball in the sky—a UFO as she called it, though not a machine, and with no aliens—she felt electricity vibrating through her entire body. Her prescient dayglo vision was harbinger to the nuclear nightmares those of us stranded in the 1980’s had. And she told people about it. Her personal experience with mental illness, about which she was very open, also bears traces of the medical profession’s treatment of ‘mad’ and ‘hysterical’ women; she was sectioned, and misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Poly found a spiritual home in the Hari Krishna movement, and it wasn’t until 1991 that she was properly diagnosed with bipolar, known as the ‘genius condition.’ Whose to say what a vision is? identity

Poly Styrene’s new album, Generation Indigo had just come out, and before I knew how sick she was I was hoping she would grant me an interview. Now, I will just do the best I can to speak of her music for the ways in which it disrupts, interrupts, provokes a history of punk. What is identified as punk, from the fleeting moments of the late 1970’s, is constantly eulogizing itself, writing it’s formative artists, almost always as that of men, with the exceptional, or token, women. Poly, like many other female artists, put up with male jealousy and sabotage from fellow male musicians. But her lyrics, her scream, will not be contained. RIP Poly Styrene, as you move onto something else.

BB documentary, “Who is Poly Styrene?”

Why Mubarak is Out

1 Feb

A primer on police, military, gender and capitalist dynamics behind the Egyptian uprising

by Paul Amar

(cross-posted by the author from Jadaliyya.com)

The “March of Millions” in Cairo marks the spectacular emergence of a new political society in Egypt.  This uprising brings together a new coalition of forces, uniting reconfigured elements of the security state with prominent business people, internationalist leaders, and relatively new (or newly reconfigured ) mass movements of youth, labor, women’s and religious groups.  President Hosni Mubarak lost his political power on Friday, 28 January. On that night the Egyptian military let Mubarak’s ruling party headquarters burn down and ordered the police brigades attacking protesters to return to their barracks. When the evening call to prayer rang out and no one heeded Mubarak’s curfew order, it was clear that the old president been reduced to a phantom authority. In order to understand where Egypt is going, and what shape democracy might take there, we need to set the extraordinarily successful popular mobilizations into their military, economic and social context.  What other forces were behind this sudden fall of Mubarak from power? And how will this transitional military-centered government get along with this millions-strong protest movement?

Many international media commentators – and some academic and political analysts – are having a hard time understanding the complexity of forces driving and responding to these momentous events.  This confusion is driven by the binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses most use to view this uprising. Such perspectives obscure more than they illuminate.   There are three prominent binary models out there and each one carries its own baggage: (1) People versus Dictatorship: This perspective leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising.  (2) Seculars versus Islamists: This model leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street.” Or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth: This lens imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

To map out a more comprehensive view, it may be helpful to identify the moving parts within the military and police institutions of the security state and how clashes within and between these coercive institutions relate to shifting class hierarchies and capital formations. I will also weigh these factors in relation to the breadth of new non-religious social movements and the internationalist or humanitarian identity of certain figures emerging at the center of the new opposition coalition.

Western commentators, whether liberal, left or conservative, tend to see all forces of coercion in non-democratic states as the hammers of “dictatorship” or as expressions of the will of an authoritarian leader.  But each police, military and security institution has its own history, culture, class-allegiances, and, often its own autonomous sources of revenue and support as well.  It would take many books to lay this all out in detail; but let me make a brief attempt here.  In Egypt the police forces (al-shurta) are run by the Interior Ministry which was very close to Mubarak and the Presidency and had become politically co-dependent on him.  But police stations gained relative autonomy during the past decades. In certain police stations this autonomy took the form of the adoption of a militant ideology or moral mission; or some Vice Police stations have taken up drug running; or some ran protection rackets that squeezed local small businesses.  The political dependability of the police, from a bottom-up perspective, is not high. Police grew to be quite self-interested and entrepreneurial on a station-by-station level.  In the 1980s, the police faced the growth of “gangs,” referred to in Egyptian Arabic as baltagiya. These street organizations had asserted self-rule over Cairo’s many informal settlements and slums.  Foreigners and the Egyptian bourgeoisie assumed the baltagiya to be Islamists but they were mostly utterly unideological.  In the early 1990s the Interior Ministry decided “if you can’t beat them, hire them.”  So the Interior Ministry and the Central Security Services started outsourcing coercion to these baltagiya, paying them well and training them to use sexualized brutality (from groping to rape) in order to punish and deter female protesters and male detainees, alike. During this period the Interior Ministry also turned the State Security Investigations (SSI) (mabahith amn al-dawla) into a monstrous threat, detaining and torturing masses of domestic political dissidents.

Autonomous from the Interior Ministry we have the Central Security Services (Amn al-Markazi). These are the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as “the police.” Central Security was supposed to act as the private army of Mubarak. These are not revolutionary guards or morality brigades like the basiji who repressed the Green Movement protesters in Iran. By contrast, the Amn al-Markazi are low paid and non-ideological.  Moreover, at crucial times, these Central Security brigades have risen up en masse against Mubarak, himself, to demand better wages and working conditions.  Perhaps if it weren’t for the sinister assistance of the brutal baltagiya, they would not be a very intimidating force.  The look of unenthusiastic resignation in the eyes of Amn al-Markazi soldiers as they were kissed and lovingly disarmed by protesters has become one of the most iconic images, so far, of this revolution. The dispelling of Mubarak’s authority could be marked to precisely that moment when protesters kissed the cheeks of Markazi officers who promptly vanished into puffs of tear gas, never to return.

The Armed Forces of the Arab Republic of Egypt are quite unrelated to the Markazi or police and see themselves as a distinct kind of state altogether. One could say that Egypt is still a “military dictatorship” (if one must use that term) since this is still the same regime that the Free Officers’ Revolution installed in the 1950s.  But the military has been marginalized since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel and the United States. Since 1977, the military has not been allowed to fight anyone.  Instead, the generals have been given huge aid payoffs by the US. They have been granted concessions to run shopping malls in Egypt, develop gated cities in the desert and beach resorts on the coasts. And they are encouraged to sit around in cheap social clubs.

These buy-offs have shaped them into an incredibly organized interest group of nationalist businessmen. They are attracted to foreign investment; but their loyalties are economically and symbolically embedded in national territory. As we can see when examining any other case in the region (Pakistan, Iraq, the Gulf), US military-aid money does not buy loyalty to America; it just buys resentment.  In recent years, the Egyptian military has felt collectively a growing sense of national duty, and has developed a sense of embittered shame for what it considers its “neutered masculinity:” its sense that it was not standing up for the nation’s people.  The nationalistic Armed Forces want to restore their honor and they are disgusted by police corruption and baltagiya brutality. And it seems that the military, now as “national capitalists,” have seen themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatized anything they can get their hands on and sold the country’s assets off to China, the US, and Persian Gulf capital.

Thus we can see why in the first stage of this revolution, on Friday 28 January, we saw a very quick “coup” of the military against the police and Central Security, and disappearance of Gamal Mubarak (the son) and of the detested Interior Minister Habib el-Adly. However the military is also split by some internal contradictions.  Within the Armed Forces there are two elite sub-branches, the Presidential Guard and the Air Force. These remained closer to Mubarak while the broader military turned against him. This explains why you can had the contradictory display of the General Chief of the Armed Forces, Muhammad Tantawi, wading in among the protesters to show support on 30 January, while at the same time the chief of the Air Force was named Mubarak’s new Prime Minister and sent planes to strafe the same protesters. This also explains why the Presidential Guard protected the Radio/Television Building and fought against protesters on 28 January rather than siding with them.

The Vice President, Omar Soleiman, named on 29 January, was formerly the head of the Intelligence Services (al-mukhabarat). This is also a branch of the military (and not of the police). Intelligence is in charge of externally oriented secret operations, detentions and interrogations (and, thus, torture and renditions of non-Egyptians). Although since Soleiman’s mukhabarat did not detain and torture as many Egyptian dissidents in the domestic context, they are less hated than the mubahith. The Intelligence Services (mukhabarat) are in a particularly decisive position as a “swing vote.” As I understand it, the Intelligence Services loathed Gamal Mubarak and the “crony capitalist” faction, but are obsessed with stability and have long, intimate relationships with the CIA and the American military. The rise of the military, and within it, the Intelligence Services, explains why all of Gamal Mubarak’s business cronies were thrown out of the cabinet on Friday 28 January, and why Soleiman was made interim VP (and functions in fact as Acting President).   This revolution or regime change would be complete at the moment when anti-Mubarak tendencies in the military consolidate their position and reassure the Intelligence Services and the Air Force that they can confidently open up to the new popular movements and those parties coalesced around opposition leader Elbaradei. This is what an optimistic reader might judge to be what Obama and Clinton describe as an “orderly transition.”

On Monday, 31 January, we saw Naguib Sawiris, perhaps Egypt’s richest businessman and the iconic leader of the developmentalist “nationalist capital” faction in Egypt, joining the protesters and demanding the exit of Mubarak. During the past decade, Sawiris and his allies had become threatened by Mubarak-and-son’s extreme neoliberalism and their favoring of Western, European and Chinese investors over national businessmen.  Because their investments overlap with those of the military, these prominent Egyptian businessmen have interests literally embedded in the land, resources and development projects of the nation. They have become exasperated by the corruption of Mubarak’s inner circle.

Paralleling the return of organized national(ist) capital associated with the military and ranged against the police (a process that also occurred during the struggle with British colonialism in the 1930s-50s) there has been a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth.  2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nation-wide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising. And the rural areas have been rising up against the government’s efforts to evict small farmers from their lands, opposing the regime’s attempts to re-create the vast landowner fiefdoms that defined the countryside during the Ottoman and British Colonial periods.  In 2008 we saw the 100,000 strong April 6 Youth Movement emerge, leading a national general strike. And in 2008 and just in December 2010 we saw the first independent public sector unions emerge. Then just on 30 January 2011 clusters of unions from most major industrial towns gathered to form an Independent Trade Union Federation.  These movements are organized by new leftist political parties that have no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, nor are they connected to the past generation of Nasserism.  They do not identify against Islam, of course, and do not make an issue of policing the secular-religious divide.  Their interest in protecting national manufacturing and agricultural smallholdings, and in demanding public investment in national economic development dovetails with some of the interests of the new nationalist capital alliance.

Thus behind the scenes of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Facebook-driven protest waves, there are huge structural and economic forces and institutional realignments at work.  Egypt’s population is officially recorded at 81 million; but in reality goes well beyond 100 million since some parents do not register all their children to shield them from serving in the Amn Al-Markazi or army.  With the burgeoning youth population now becoming well organized, these social and internet-coordinated movements are becoming very important.  They can be grouped into three trends. One group of new movements are organized by and around international norms and organizations, and so may tend toward a secular, globalizing set of perspectives and discourses.  A second group is organized through the very active and assertive legal culture and independent judicial institutions in Egypt. This strong legal culture is certainly not a “Western human rights” import. Lawyers, judges and millions of litigants – men and women, working-class, farmers, and elite – have kept alive the judicial system and have a long unbroken history of resisting authoritarianism and staking rights claims of all sorts.  A third group of new social movements represents the intersection of internationalist NGOs, judicial-rights groups and the new leftist, feminist, rural and worker social movements. The latter group critiques the universalism of UN and NGO secular discourses, and draws upon the power of Egypt’s legal and labor activism, but also has its own innovative strategies and solutions – many of which have been on prominent display on the streets this week.

One final element to examine here is the critical, and often overlooked role that Egypt has played in United Nations and humanitarian organizations, and how this history is coming back to enliven domestic politics and offer legitimacy and leadership at this time. Muhammad ElBaradei, the former director of the United Nations International Energy Agency has emerged as the consensus choice of the United Democratic Front in Egypt, which is asking him to serve as interim president, and to preside over a national process of consensus building and constitution drafting.  In the 2000s, ElBaradei bravely led the IAEA and was credited with confirming that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Iran was not developing a nuclear weapons program. He won the Nobel Prize for upholding international law against a new wave of wars of aggression and for essentially stopping the momentum for war against Iran.  He is no radical and not Egypt’s Gandhi; but he is no pushover or puppet of the US, either.  For much of the week, standing at his side at the protests has been Egyptian actor Khaled Abou Naga who has appeared in several Egyptian and US films and who serves as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.  This may be much more a UN-humanitarian led revolution than a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. This is a very twenty-first century regime change – utterly local and international simultaneously.

It is a good time to remind ourselves that the first-ever United Nations military-humanitarian peacekeeping intervention, the UN Emergency Force, was created with the joint support of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower (both military men, of course) in 1960 to keep the peace in Gaza and to stop the former colonial powers and Israel from invading Egypt in order to retake the Suez Canal and resubordinate Egypt.  Then in the 1990s, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali served as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Boutros-Ghali articulated new UN doctrines of state-building and militarized humanitarian intervention. But he got fired for making the mistake of insisting that international human rights and humanitarian law needed to be applied neutrally and universally, rather than only at the convenience of the Security Council powers. Yet Egypt’s relationship to the UN continues. Notably, ‘Aida Seif Ad-Dawla, one of the most articulate, brave and creative leaders of the new generation of Egyptian social movements and feminist NGOs, is a candidate for the high office of UN Rapporteur on Torture.  Egyptians have a long history for investing in and supporting international law, humanitarian norms and human rights.  Egyptian internationalism insists on the equal application of human rights principles and humanitarian laws of war even in the face of superpower pressure. In this context, ElBaradei’s emergence as a leader makes perfect sense. Although this internationalist dimension of Egypt’s “local” uprising is utterly ignored by most self-conscious liberal commentators who assume that international means “the West” and that Egypt’s protesters are driven by the politics of the belly rather than matters of principle.

Aida Seif Ad-Dawla

Mubarak is already out of power.  The new cabinet is composed of chiefs of Intelligence, Air Force and the prison authority, as well as one International Labor Organization official. This group embodies a hard-core “stability coalition” that will work to bring together the interests of new military, national capital and labor, all the while reassuring the United States.  Yes, this is a reshuffling of the cabinet, but one which reflects a very significant change in political direction.  But none of it will count as a democratic transition until the vast new coalition of local social movements and internationalist Egyptians break into this circle and insist on setting the terms and agenda for transition.

I would bet that even the hard-line leaders of the new cabinet will be unable to resist plugging into the willpower of these popular uprisings, one-hundred million Egyptians strong.

Paul Amar

Associate Professor of Global & International Studies

University of California, Santa Barbara

His books include: Cairo Cosmopolitan ; The New Racial Missions of Policing ; Global South to the Rescue ; and the forthcoming Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics and the End of Neoliberalism.

TAG WORDS:  Mubarak, Soleiman, Egypt, Military, investment, military, police, ElBaradei

“X-Ray of Civilization”: David Wojnarowicz and the Politics of Representation

13 Dec

by Leon Hilton

Untitled still from the film "Silence = Death" (1990)

David Wojnarowicz often said that he wanted his art to be an “X-Ray of civilization.” Eighteen years after his death, at the age of 37, from AIDS-related complications, his work has apparently lost none of its radioactive power. When Martin E. Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, caved to demands from the Catholic League and several prominent Republican congressmen—including soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner—to remove a video piece by Wojnarowicz from public exhibition, it was as if he had inadvertently exploded a time-bomb loaded with the shocking affective charge of a bygone era of queer expression. An event that, for many, felt like an acid flashback to the bad old days of the 1990s Culture Wars has actually revealed a much more far-reaching—and disturbing—discursive constellation of political agendas. What might have been dismissed as a wearingly familiar debate about censorship and government funding of the arts has turned out to reveal a lot about the still-uneasy status of queer representation in the national political imaginary.

The offending video, a four-minute excerpt of a thirty-minute work called “A Fire in My Belly,” was displayed as a part of a temporary exhibition on the theme of American portraiture and sexual difference called “Hide/Seek,” organized by the National Portrait Gallery. Wojnarowicz completed work on the video in 1987 after spending several years gathering research material and images in Mexico and Latin America. Dedicated to the memory of photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s close friend and former lover whose death from AIDS marked a decisive turning point in his artistic and personal life, the video is assembled out of a rapidly inter-spliced collection of footage, some intentionally staged, some found and repurposed. Crafted in Wojnarowicz’s signature raw, quasi-punk aesthetic, the video is a discomfiting mélange of quickly shifting images: a white porcelain bowl fills with blood; two hands attempt to sew a bisected loaf of bread back together; the lips of a face are pierced by a needle and thread, sealing up the mouth; a young man removes his shirt, then his pants and underwear. The full-length video also includes harrowing footage of Mexican street life, a bloody cockfight, and a brutal wrestling match: the violence of the filmic cut resonates and amplifies the violent thrust of a proliferation of bodies smashing into each other on screen. (Art critic Holland Cotter has written an interesting take on the piece for the New York Times’s Arts Blog). In the version of the video displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, Wojnarowicz’s video is accompanied by excerpts from experimental musician Diamanda Gas’s Plague Mass, in which the singer shrieks verses from the Book of Leviticus enumerating Biblical laws regulating the treatment of the “unclean.”

The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue honed in on one image in particular—a shot of a crucifix and wood-carved Christ figure, blood dripping from its wounds, a black smear of swarming ants covering over its prone body. “It would jump out at people if they had ants crawling all over the body of Muhammad,” Donohue protested in an interview with the New York Times, “except that they wouldn’t do it, of course, for obvious reasons.” Shamelessly insisting that the display of this image constituted “hate speech” against Catholics and Christians more broadly, Donohue’s bizarre logic was reiterated by Rep. Eric Cantor, who told Fox News that the display of the video was “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during this Christmas season.” The video was taken down on November 30, the evening before World AIDS Day.

Despite Donohue’s and Cantor’s almost willfully asinine contention that “A Fire in My Belly” is anti-Christian, Wojnarowicz’s video—and indeed his artistic project as a whole—both draws from and radically reconfigures the centuries-old representational tradition of Christian martyrdom in Western art. Wojnarowicz’s imagery takes clear inspiration from both high Renaissance tableaux of Christ’s suffering on the cross and the colorfully gory vernacular depictions of religious figures he encountered while traveling and working in Mexico. The beautifully composed Christ image in “A Fire in My Belly” combines the artist’s longstanding appropriation of religious iconography with another of his frequently evoked subjects: ants and insects constitute one of the most striking formal motifs in Wojnarowicz’s artwork, crawling over the surface of paintings, looming ominously in enlarged close-up photo-collages, and traversing video frames. But ants here also play an important aesthetico-political role: they manifest the artist’s sustained and rigorously developed interest in finding beauty in the abject, the marginal, and the subterranean. Minuscule organisms teeming beneath the surface of the visual world, ants in Wojnarowicz fervent imagination signal a kind of return of the repressed: a simultaneously mesmerizing and repellent reminder of the primordial origins of the social itself. Viewed in this context, the ant-covered Christ is less a desecration than a political intervention, a reorientation of the visual field that lends the iconicity of the crucifixion a newly recharged corporeality.


But what seems to be truly unconscionable for critics of Wojnarowicz’s art is its forceful imputation of the analogy between the Biblical torment of Christ and the contemporary suffering of queer bodies and subjects. Far from a reductive or simplistic attempt at shock value, as Donohue and Cantor would have it, Wojnarowicz’s ant-covered Christ fires on a number of representational and figurative levels at once and becomes the locus for a range of intersecting cultural imperatives. In its abject prostration, the figure calls discomfiting attention to the parallels between Christ’s tribulations and the stigma and paranoia surrounding the queer body during the initial flare-up of the AIDS crisis. Wojnarowicz’s Christ image also functions as a visual reprimand to the viciously disingenuous response of the Catholic Church to the epidemic, and its refusal to countenance the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the disease. Christ, here standing in for the penetrated and vulnerable queer body, bears witness to the damage inflicted by the paranoid fantasies propagated by church, state, and the mass media. Wojnarowicz’s ant-covered Christ is thus simultaneously an icon of queer identification, and a castigation of the institutions and individuals who so uncannily reiterated the humiliations visited upon Christ in response to the threat he posed to the stability of the social order.

Responding to the recent controversy in a letter published in the Washington City Paper, Diamanda Galás herself underlined this point in her inimitable fashion: “What the Catholic League and certain members of the House presumably wish to remove from their consciousness,” she writes, “is thirty years years of death sentences handed down to their parishioners and citizenry, who were told not to wear condoms, and the mistreatment of those stigmatized as miscreants and sinners by their viral status and/or homosexuality and/or status as drug addicts. They wish to remove the UNSEPARATE CHURCH AND STATE conduct throughout the epidemic, which this film articulately reflects.”

* * *

Inevitably, far from eradicating “A Fire in My Belly” from the visual field or the national consciousness, the Portrait Gallery’s action has instead produced what Michel Foucault would call an “incitement to discourse”: suddenly Wojnarowicz’s haunting, beautiful, and wholly unique vision is everywhere, his name making headlines and snapshots from his work traveling widely across newspapers and the web. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and New York Magazine posted links to the banned video on their websites. Expressions of outrage quickly circulated across the Internet—through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms—often accompanied by links to the video’s YouTube page. Transformer, a Washington DC gallery located not far from the National Mall, announced that it would screen “A Fire in My Belly” on a 24-hour loop in its front window until the piece is reinstated at the NPG. In an action reminiscent of a similar response to the controversy surrounding a planned exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs at the Corocoran Gallery in 1989, a group of activists projected Wojnarowicz’s work on the NPG’s walls. And on December 4, two agitators were detained by police and then expelled for life from the Smithsonian after showing the video on their iPads inside the “Hide/Seek” exhibition itself.

Considering the outpouring of support for the banned video, it would be tempting to conclude that the usual suspects on the Right had fallen for Wojnarowicz’s bait. In seeking to censor his images, it might be argued, Donohue, Boehner, Cantor and company actually wildly increased the visual purview of the work and redoubled its political potency. Wojnarowicz, of course, was no stranger to run-ins with state authority, and cannily used his work’s provocative formal qualities and subject matter in order to promote both his career and the his political agenda. In 1990, he successfully sued the American Family Association’s Frank Wildmon for copyright violation when the AFA used out of context snippets from his work in a pamphlet they circulated to lobby against funding the National Endowment for the Arts. (Interestingly, that case also revolved around Wojnarowicz’s queer redeployment of religious imagery). In one sense, the latest imbroglio around Wojnarowicz’s incendiary images simply confirms the hypnotic power they seem to hold over the would-be moral custodians of the visual field. Certainly as a student of Wojnarowicz’s work and the period in which he lived, it has been perversely gratifying to witness his singular vision return with such urgency to the front lines of the contestation over the questions of sexuality, art, and state power.

But both the censorship of Wojnaworicz’s work and the response it has engendered also indicates—and, perhaps, diagnoses—the pernicious conditions under which representations of non- or anti-normative sexual identities and politics are produced, circulated, and regulated. And the furor provoked by the incident suggests the extent to which ongoing tensions surrounding the inclusion of certain queer people and bodies within the national imaginary are largely played out within the order of “representation” as such. The piece was, after all, displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian and hence, in a very official sense, an institution whose federally mandated mission is to preserve and visually represent the nation to and for itself. The familiar mantra heard from conservative complainers—that the video was “in-your-face perversion paid for by tax dollars” (as Georgia’s Rep. Jack Kingston would have it)—has simply cemented and reiterated the association between the politics of (visual) representation and the entrenchment of neoliberal economic imperatives at every level of the political system. While the wholesale decimation of public support for the arts and humanities in any form has been a bedrock of the conservative agenda since the Reagan ascendancy, the invocation of queer, “anti-Christian” artwork as a justification for slashing public funding as such has attained scary new mouthpieces in the era of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. As NPG director Sullivan put it in his interview with the Times, “Obviously the Portrait Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian. It’s just one of many, many players in this new discussion or debate that’s going on in Congress about federal spending, the proper federal role in culture and the arts, and so forth. We don’t think it’s in the interest, not only of the Smithsonian but of other federally supported cultural organizations, to pick fights.”

Beyond the economic register, we might also be prompted to consider the ways in which the contested image of the suffering queer Christ covered with ants—created at the height of one moment of particular “gay panic”—now resonates within the broader context of the ongoing debate surrounding the legalization same-sex marriage and the open acceptance of gays in the military? And what of the heightened national attention now being paid to the vulnerabilities of queer youth to bullying and suicide? The reappearance of Wojnarowicz’s work within the political present serves as a depressing reminder of just how impoverished the vision of queer politics has become since the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Wojnarowicz’s (and Galás’s) deeply unsettling, politically uncompromising words and images render even more stark the emaciated political imagination of the mainstream LGBT rights movement. The focus for the past decade on marriage and military rights once again exposes the degree to which the fantasy of the healthy body (most often white, most often male) serves as a regulatory norm for the kinds of citizens deemed worthy of representation and rights (a notion that Jasbir Puar has so forcefully developed in her work on the biopolitics of what she has termed “homonationalism”). Indeed, we should wonder if it was purely coincidence that this controversy erupted the very same week that the Pentagon released a study concluding that the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy would not have any significant negative effect upon military readiness.

More distressingly still, certain voices from within the gay community itself have voiced their disapproval of both the display of the video and Galás’s response, contending that both “make us look bad” or “prove [Donohue’s] point.” This anxiety, of course, only confirms the power that privileged modes of visual representation have to determine who and what is deemed worthy of national inclusion. And ultimately it reveals the way certain queer subjects and representations—healthy, aspirationally middle-class, white, and married—are easily assimilable into the discourse of the nation, while the freaks so beautifully invoked in the work of Wojnarowicz and Galás become figured as threats to the coherence and impermeability of the national body itself.

For my part, I wonder if what we can learn from this incident is that the unstinting work of artists like Wojnarowicz and Galás should be viewed not as moribund artifacts from a more radical queer past, but, as José Esteban Muñoz helps us to imagine, visionary invocations of a future whose time has yet to come. In this sense, perhaps we can read “A Fire in My Belly” as a wake up call addressed, precisely, to us—illuminating an alternative route through the treacherous present, and providing an X-ray of a civilization that was, and still is, yet to be.


Kenya: A World AIDS Day without Queers?

1 Dec

Guest blog by Keguro Macharia.

I am tempted to title this post A Series of Unfortunate Events, to disavow an insidious homo-killing logic. But I am a proper Kenyan. Raised on the milk of paranoia, I cannot ignore the proximity of coincidence. Three is a magic number.

On November 16, 2010, Kenya joined 78 other countries in a UN vote that elected to un-protect sexual orientation. The vote was on a resolution to investigate “killings based on discriminatory grounds,” a resolution designed to recognize a “non-exhaustive” range of vulnerable groups that includes human rights defenders, indigenous communities, and street children. As noted by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (ILGHCR), “[f]or the past 10 years,” sexual orientation has been included in this grouping, understood as a category based on which individuals are targeted for “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.” It’s worth noting, “The amendment removing the reference to sexual orientation was sponsored by Benin on behalf of the African Group in the UN General Assembly and was adopted with 79 votes in favor, 70 against, 17 abstentions and 26 absent.” Kenya could have chosen differently.

On November 22, 2010, David Kuria, manager of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) and one of Kenya’s leading gay activists, announced that GALCK had not been invited to participate in World AIDS Day events arranged by the National AIDS Control Council. Since 2006, GALCK has been invited to join other health providers and NGOs engaged in HIV/AIDS activism. World AIDS Day events have provided an important space in which proximity and association suggest possible political and social coalitions. As I note elsewhere:

In Kenya, LGBTI activism has taken place, most fruitfully, as a strategy of association rather than an articulation of identity. There are no pride parades, as one might find in New York or Madrid, and no public celebrations of LGBTI identity. Instead, LGBTI activists have mobilized around HIV/AIDS activism. December 1, World AIDS Day, has become an unofficial Pride day, and LGBTI activists march with other HIV/AIDS activists.

The decision not to invite GALCK has important implications for the public life of Kenya’s LGBTI activists.

On November 28, 2010, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s Prime Minister, ordered the Kenyan police to “arrest gay couples.” While “unnatural offences” and “indecent practices between men” are illegal according to Kenya’s Penal Code, no legal basis exists to arrest “gay couples.” Identity is not a crime, as Kenyan columnists reminded the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has since released a press statement that claims he was quoted “out of context,” a too-common Kenyan defense. Strange how often Kenyan politicians never really say what we hear them say.

Three dates. Three seemingly unrelated events. A paranoid (il)logic of coincidence.

Unlike Malawi and Uganda, both infamous for their attempts to legislate a range of queer intimacies, Kenya is considered relatively liberal. Tourist agencies promise discretion as they pursue pink currency. Kenya has a robust online queer presence. LGBTI-friendly initiatives are well-funded by a range of international NGOs. LGBTI-themed seminars are held in Kenya’s numerous conference centers. LGBTI individuals have been profiled in the national newspapers. Kenyan-based human rights organizations support queer rights. And, recently, Esther Murugi, Special Programmes Minister, defended gay rights.

LGBTI activism is as sutured by economics as it is by politics. Kenya’s official and unofficial policies toward LGBTI activism are as influenced by regional and continental politics and allegiances as they are by international social and economic factors—Kenya’s tourist economy, for instance.

Over the past two years, LGBTI issues in Kenya have received an unprecedented amount of press coverage. Public spaces are opening up in remarkable ways. Simultaneously, as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest, there is an equally strong backlash that is as much about economics—how NGO money flows into the country—as it is about politics.

For instance, during the recently-concluded national referendum on a new constitution, opponents of the measure tried to incite LGBTI-panic by claiming the constitution permitted gay marriage. It was the first time that LGBTI politics had been used as a wedge issue, and it said something significant about their social and cultural capital.

The struggle for LGBTI rights in Kenya, as elsewhere, is a struggle over claiming public space. It is a struggle over what opinions can be aired in public and how they will be covered by the press; it is a struggle over which writers have access to opinion pages, radio programs, and TV shows—it’s easier to publish pro-queer, anti-homophobic articles in the Guardian than in the Daily Nation; it is a struggle over which public spaces and events are open to LGBTI organizations; it is a struggle over the possibilities for economic, social, and cultural visibility.

It matters that GALCK was not invited to participate in World AIDS Day events. It matters that LGBTI organizations, many of which are dedicated to working with MSM populations, have no public presence during World AIDS Day events. It matters that the criminalization of gays has important health consequences. It matters that LGBTI lives in Kenya can be pawns in someone else’s chess game. It matters that World AIDS Day can be the occasion for anti-LGBTI actions, even as the logic that claims African AIDS is primarily heterosexual makes such an action unsurprising.

It is morning on the East Coast, early afternoon in Nairobi. Multiple threads converge and snarl here. One wants to believe in the comfort of coincidence, or the accidents of calendars. And that a series of unfortunate events do not mask a more insidious homo-killing plot.

Don’t Enlist, Don’t Serve

11 Nov

by Troy Williams

http://queergnosis.com/2010/11/11/dont-enlist-dont-serve/

There are many things worse than discrimination. Being hit by a mortar blast, losing a limb, living with post-traumatic stress disorder or killing another human all come to mind.

These are just a few of the deadly realities queers will face if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is ultimately repealed. The one upside to a Republican-controlled House is that we may be able to maintain the protections of DADT indefinitely. However, if the pro-military faction of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political movement succeeds in repealing DADT, closeted soldiers will lose the opportunity to easily escape the horrors of war. DADT has saved an untold number of queer lives. We should praise President Clinton and award every politician who works to keep it in place.

Now, I agree that DADT is discriminatory. It makes liars of soldiers who have sworn oaths of honor and integrity. But war is much worse than discrimination. The ongoing WikiLeaks revelations continue to expose what progressives have argued all along: war brings out the worst in humanity. We see clearly now how politicians, commanders, rogue soldiers and private mercenaries employ torture and thuggery to enforce American hegemony.

Yet I have absolute empathy for these soldiers. I don’t blame them for fighting to stay alive. Few go into the service because they want to fire a weapon at another human being. Most are inspired to enlist by genuine patriotism. Many who are economically disadvantaged need the military to finance college. When a soldier finally acknowledges her sexual identity she may be struck with the fear of losing her rank, career and college fund. Not to mention the shame of being dishonorably discharged.

Yes, it’s horrible to be discharged for being gay. But it’s even more horrible to be tortured by your fellow soldiers.

The culture of the military encourages hazing, misogyny and homophobia. Sexual assault against women and gay servicemembers is frighteningly common. Dr. Mic Hunter, the author of Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America’s Military lays out the ugly facts: one-third of all the females seeking services at the VA report experiencing an attempted or completed rape. Thirty-seven percent experienced more than one. Four percent report being gang raped. Not by insurgents, mind you — by fellow soldiers. Between 20 and 24 percent of female veterans and 10 percent of male veterans report being raped. Research on civilian rape regularly concludes that only 60 percent of sexual assaults are reported. This number is presumably much lower in the military.

People who do report are often stigmatized and possibly retaliated against. Hunter writes, “Only 12 percent of those who had been sexually harassed used the formal complaint system, because they believed the reporting system was merely in place to protect the chain of command.” (p. 187)

How well do you really think an out gay soldier will fare in this military? Honestly?

War fucks people up. When you kill you lose a piece of your soul. When a soldier dehumanizes people in order to kill them, the effects are equally devastating on that soldier’s psyche. The gay community is rightfully concerned about youth suicides. But suicide rates for veterans are also escalating. The Wall Street Journal reported, “A 15-month-study on the rise in suicides over the last two years found 160 suicides among active-duty personnel, 1,713 suicide attempts and 146 deaths from high-risk behavior, such as drug abuse, in the year ended Sept. 30, 2009.”

And the numbers are rising. The Army reported a record number of suicides for June 2010 — at least one per day. Today we have more vets dying of suicide than in combat. Returning soldiers experience high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Divorce rates have also soared. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant among Iraq veterans.

Homelessness is also increasing among them.

Yes, there are worse things than discrimination.

Again, I don’t blame individual soldiers. They make the ultimate sacrifice. Our country should give them absolutely everything they need, including free medical and psychiatric treatment, full-ride scholarships, job training and abundant financial reimbursement. We should hold back nothing.

Our gay leaders have little to say for the plight of veterans. Their only plea is, “Let us in! Let us in so that we can be equal!” I respond, “No. Keep us out! Keep us out of the corporate war machine. Don’t let gay kids kill other gay kids in foreign countries. Protect DADT so queer soldiers have a way to get the hell out of the military when a future hawk president like a Mitt Romney decides to invade Iran.

I get what military service means to the marginalized gay community. It is the ultimate symbol that we are at last “good” Americans. We want to prove that we will bleed and die for this nation. Our desire for inclusion has made us silent to the fact that the military structure itself is a corrupt and corrupting force. National gay leaders may personally denounce war but they won’t mobilize against militarism. They won’t defend queer Iraqis who have lost their lives because they were on the receiving end of a U.S. cluster bomb. Rather, they actually insist that gay people deserve the right to deploy the same cluster bomb. Have we all gone insane?

Repealing DADT will not be a progressive victory for human rights. It will not be a step forward for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Rather, it will mean that we will perpetuate the same system of violent oppression. Worse, we will be fodder for future wars. Queers will fill bloodied body bags and flag-draped coffins. For which war profiteer are you willing to die? Halliburton? Bechtel? The Republican Party? They are not worthy of our sacrifice.

My advice to enlisted queer Americans is to get out while you still can. To those of you thinking of serving — don’t! To professional gay lobbyists, stop militarizing our politics. Instead, redirect the untold millions you spend on repealing DADT to college educations for low-income queers. Fund full health care for queer veterans. Encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans to denounce war and proclaim peace. Let’s get back to the work of social justice. Long Live DADT.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 316 other followers