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?”

CESA 2011: Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy: A Major Conference UC Riverside, March 10-12, 2011

20 Mar

Anatomy of an Anti-Disciplinary Riot

By Jack Halberstam

1. Des(s)ert Of The Heart


This past weekend in Riverside California, with little edible food close at hand and desert winds blowing in from the East, some 1500 people gathered to scavenge for food, look for shade and discuss new intellectual and political formations loosely associated with a “Critical Ethnic Studies.” While the grumbling began before the conference about whether there was such a thing as an “uncritical” Ethnic Studies and whether this was perhaps just an oedipal uprising of the new against the old, the conference itself showcased a wide variety of work from scholars young and less young and certainly offered up multiple models of new disciplinary forms and new paths to follow without discarding all that had come before. Some people also found food at notable local haunts with wistful names like The Salted Pig, Phood on Main and Subway Sandwiches.

2. High Heels, Long Drop

The grumbling after the conference, the post mortem of an anti-disciplinary riot if you will and even if you won’t, seems mainly to have focused upon the endurance aspect of the meeting – the dawn til dusk scheduling, the 2 hour long plenaries, the uncomfortable seating, and the conference fashion trend of very high heels, worn by women type people as well as men type people this not being a queer conference after all – but also, predictably, about the star power of the plenary sessions and the divisions between academics from prestigious institutions and those from community colleges, the ethnic diversity of the speakers and the aforementioned shoe choices.

3. Can The Sub-Lectern Speak?

The plenary sessions consisted of 5 or 6 speakers, all of whom were asked to speak for 15-19 minutes each, and, on every plenary, after the last speaker finished, whether with a whimper or a bang, the event was over. In other words, there was no Q and A, no discussion and no opportunity for people who had been sitting and listening for over 2 hours to speak back to the panel. With audiences of 800 plus people, perhaps Q and A was inevitably a doomed enterprise to begin with – would the questioners just be drawn from that odd genre of people who use the Q&A mike as a place to give their own mini lectures? Would the size of the audience intimidate the more interesting respondents? Would Q&A quickly degenerate into a cataloguing of what was missing from the plenary panel? Would anyone get a word in edgeways once the question had been posed and the panelists all rushed to answer it? We will never know the answers to these questions, or others like them such as how does Ken Wissoker seem to manage to tweet your talk even before your give it?

Conference attendees Melissa White and Dan Irving, who traveled from Ottawa to be at the conference, had strong feelings about the plenary events: “the forming of an alternative “we” within the Academic Industrial Complex,” they write, “was compromised significantly by the way that the plenaries were organized” with no opportunity for the give and take of exchange through Q&A sessions. They continue: “This complicity with the good old fashioned neoliberal notions of professional expertise and entrepreneurial “risk”-taking—or alternatively, perhaps, Revolutionary Vanguardism Part Two (everyone knows the sequel is never that good)—was in stark contradiction the spirit of social justice, radical democracy and queer disruptions of business as usual that we thought this conference was supposed to facilitate.” Others, however, felt differently and thought that the plenaries were a real draw and that everyone, for once, seemed prepared and took the event very seriously.

4. Provocations, Manifestos, Questions

Despite all the complaints about the “star system” that circulated before and after the conference, undoubtedly many people showed up for it precisely because it was jam-packed with people doing notable work, on and off the plenary panels. Some of the speakers on the plenary panels used their time to issue provocations and to try to shake us out of the complacency that universities, conferences and academia in general produces in abundance. For my own contribution to this “major” conference, I offered up a short manifesto drawn from the insights and writings of others and amplifying the calls I found there for socially relevant, intellectually electrifying and disciplinarily defiant work. My manifesto ran through The Coming Insurrection, “The University and the Undercommons” (Moten and Harney), Ranciere, Da Silva, Lindon Barrett and The Fantastic Mr. Fox in that order and concluded by seeking insurrectionist possibilities in the whimsy of stop-motion cinema and its foregounding of the wild, the unthinkable and the fantastic. Given that I had to give my talk moments after the audience gave a collective groan at the announcement by Jodi Kim (in crazy heels) that Angela Davis was sick and could not make it, the manifesto went over ok. My talk was followed by brilliance from Denise Da Silva herself (author of the immensely influential Toward A Global Idea of Race), more provocation from Sarita See on the corporate university and a warning about environmental degradation, misuse of the land and issues around sovereignty from Dakota scholar and Indigenous studies professor Waziyatawin.

Several plenary speakers tried to speak to the insurrections in the Middle East and both Lisa Hajar and Nadine Naber used powerful and controversial images to call our attention to the impact of US backed wars in the Middle East, and to the violence in Gaza, Egypt and Lebanon. Hajar focused on torture in her plenary and Naber tried to bring some formulations from contemporary queer theory to bear upon activism by queer Arab groups. There was much discussion after each presentation about whether it was ethical to leave up disturbing images of violated bodies as backdrop to a lecture.

Some of the plenaries were very coherent – the queer plenary for example, and the plenary on Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy – and others were more disjointed. The queer plenary was a kind of love fest at the start, with each speaker on the panel (Ferguson, Gopinath, Camacho, Naber, Munoz, Cohen) receiving a fabulous introduction by Jayna Brown followed noisy and boisterous applause. The event at that point felt more like an episode of American Idol than anything and the speakers did not disappoint, each one singing their favorite song while looking poised and fabulous.

It was Jose Esteban Munoz, however, bullyblogger and bull dogowner extraordinaire, who had to ask the question that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue but that remained unspoken until now, half way through this marathon conference: as he rounded the corner from a brilliant critique of the much-cited argument byWendy Brown from States of Injury about wounded attachment (resentment, ressentiment and wounded attachments had also received a blistering critique from Glen Coulthard earlier in the day), Munoz began a gentle appraisal of the rise and fall of performance artist Nao Bustamente in her recent participation on Bravo TV’s “Work of Art” reality show. He paused for a moment and then dropped the bomb: “What do you wear to “The Future of Genocide”? The conference attendees held their collective breath and then moved from nervous laughter to applause. Tweeters grabbed the question, held on for dear life and then gave a range of answers to this sartorial conundrum, many focused upon Jody Kim and Jayna Brown and their shoes.

Other highlights from the plenaries included: Andrea Smith’s blistering indictment of the attempt to eliminate Ethnic Studies in Arizona – Smith reminded us that Ethnic Studies is what we are and what we do and cannot be “eliminated” by any legislation; Lisa Lowe’s elegant formulations of new genealogies for a Critical Ethnic Studies (Benjamin, Fanon, Sylvia Wynter); Dean Spade’s insightful remarks on transgender issues, neo-liberalism and white supremacy; Laura Pulido’s brave exposure of USC’s attempt to dismantle American Studies and Ethnicity and, last but not least, Dylan Rodriguez’s moving round-up of the event on the last day, the last plenary – his impassioned plea to look beyond the rhetoric of inclusion and agreement, his evocation of intellectual ancestry and his call for dissensus and collectivity through difference.

And the brilliance, needless to say, was not at all exhausted by the plenary presentations: notable panels included a discussion of Critical Ethnic Studies in relation to activism in Detroit with Shana Redmond, Sarah Haley and Stephanie Greenlea; lots of panels on the Occupation of Palestine; workshops on Prison Abolition; LGBT Politics and Deterritorialization; a powerful discussion of “Racial Neoliberalism, Necropolitics and the Question of Violence” featuring Grace Hong, Chandan Reddy and Jodi Melamed; an intriguing panel on “Mobility, Settlement, Belonging and Coloniality” featuring a powerful presentation by Katherine McKittrick on racial geographies and a controversial paper by Nandita Sharma that raised the question of whether the rubric of “settler colonialism” flattens out distinctions between different kinds of migrants and whether indigeneity might sometimes be a site for the production of racial antagonism.

On Saturday, there was an exciting panel on “Culture, “Racisms and War” featuring Paul Amar (who has blogged around the world about the Egyptian revolutions) on Brazil, Macarena Gomez-Barris on the Mapuché struggles in Chile and Jayna Brown on violence and Black diasporic creative resilience. Environmentalism, youth, the academic industrial complex and the histories of radical movements rounded out the packed agenda.

5. The Afterparty


So, you kinda get a sense here of how big this conference was, how wide its range and how ambitious its scope. What you cannot know is how hard everyone worked to make it happen, how stressed the plenary speakers were given the stakes of the event, how uncomfortable it was to sit for so long in a gym and how much energy the conference generated even as it left people tired and hungry by its end. As the conference attendees drift back to life as usual in places far from this hub of suburban mini-malls, the question of “what now” still hangs in the air – what forms of intellectual mayhem can stall the corporate university’s emphasis on profit? What can renegade knowledge forms tell us about prisons, settler colonialism, white supremacy? Are these the most useful categories with which to confront the challenges of our historical moment? What are the relations now between knowledge and power? And, of course, the still unanswered question, from now on to be known as the “Munoz Paradox,” “What does one wear to the future of genocide?” (Tweet this kwissoker!)

EMP Pop 2011: Where were the Queers?

2 Mar

By Tavia Nyong’o (reblogged from Hear is Queer).

The 10th Annual EMP Pop conference wrapped up over the weekend and, against my fears, hosting it at a university didn’t alter the ‘secret recipe sauce’ of journalists, academics, and musicians. Is it me or did we actually gain a new and welcome constituency of students? I can’t think of another conference I go to in which people from 18 to 60+ are in the audience and at the podium, carrying on overlapping conversations about a single topic with such enthusiastic passion.

Others, notably Ned Raggett, have offered copious documentation of specific papers. And a couple conference reviews are coming online, including one by my co-panelist Oliver Wang. I am going to offer my own scattered thoughts on presentations that struck a chord in me but before I do, I have to give a “wag of the finger” as Stephen Colbert likes to say to myself and the EMP community for a group that, upon reflection, was seriously underrepresented this year: queers.

Where were the queers?

I don’t mean the queer presenters: because there were plenty of us. My question is not about a head count but about where, in the discussion of popular music today, queer and transgender topics figure. Homosexuality is apparently a big enough topic that Congress has recently passed legislation on it, people have fought and died for it at home and abroad, artists are singing about it, and sex columnists are making sentimental YouTube videos about it. Is it important to us too when we gather annually to talk about music?

It’s possible — even likely — that I missed some great conversation on queer music happening in some other room. (I missed the Idol panel. Did Adam Lambert come up in relation to queer performance or music there?) But here’s my evidence based on what I do know. In the printed program (which would have attracted or kept away potential attendees), only a single paper title (mine) including the words lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or queer. And that paper wasn’t even about a queer artist, exactly, although Gaga has, as my co-presenter Jack Halberstam pointed out in his talk, provocatively declined to disavow the transgender body imputed to her by some hostile fans. So while I don’t ordinarily do this kind of thing, I got out my rusty essentialist bean counter and looked for honest to goodness out musicians announced in paper titles (I started to go through abstracts too, but got tired. I’d never make it as a sociologist!).

The results (aside from my and Jack’s paper): Ann Powers’ creative use of the closet as a metaphor for thinking about genre; José Muñoz’s (sadly missed) paper on Darby Crash, and an interview with the man who signed The Smiths. I do have to throw in one attendee: Phranc showed up to the Work It! pre-conference (and asked, incidentally, are we going backwards or forwards? Is there any progress? Part of the trigger for this post.)

Gerrick Kennedy’s LA Times review of the pre-conference Work it! (organized through the prodigious energies of Karen Tongson) was appreciated. But it reproduced the annoying (to both feminists and queers) equation of “sexuality” and “female sexiness in some vicinity of the conventionally heteronormative.” (as the accompanying illustration of Beyoncé, Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga suggested). Homosexuality or bisexuality was not mentioned in the article.

I embrace the selfishness of my criticism: I want more people to talk to at EMP about stuff I care about! It’s why all of us keep coming. But me aside, its obviously not the case that sexuality is irrelevant to the theme of money and capitalism, or that we did it a couple years back and now we’re through. We need to talk about it every year, especially if the mainstream media and scholarship doesn’t, or does so in simplistic ways.

So here, in the spirit of productive suggestions, are some ideas for next year:

  • Queer as Format: Logo TV runs “gay themed” video shows. Virgin America has a “Pride” channel featuring a range of artists from Ricky Martin to Joan Armatrading. What’s that about? Do you have to be gay to be featured on Logo? What if you aren’t gay? Have artists ever objected to their videos being shown on a gay channel? I’m thinking perhaps about glass closeted artists. What’s the history of gay labels (including the one that the original “I Was Born This Way” was on: the amazingly titled Gaiee Label!)
  • After the Closet. Speaking of Ricky Martin: where is the reflection on the momentous change (is it a momentous change?) in the last year or two where established and up and coming artists coming out to increasing indifference? K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge broke through in the 1990s. Was it harder for male artists to come out? What about trans (does Antony (& the Johnsons) count)? Is indifference a non-story, ie: sexuality doesn’t matter now? Or are new things happening with queerness precisely in the space where, for instance, straight female fans feel free to adore gay male singers and male frat boys groove on Kaki Kings’ guitar stylistics (HT Tina M on that last one).
  • Boys who do Girls. Speaking of new things happening, someone (ID anyone?) did bring up one EMP conversation the start that Darren Criss got a start performing Disney Princess songs on YouTube. Learning that completely opened my eyes to the canny sexual orientation striptease Glee has going on now, in which an openly straight actor plays an openly gay character who is given all these songs of female empowerment (Bills Bills Bills, Teenage Dream) to sing. Isn’t there an emo genealogy to trace here (paging Dr. Tongson)?
  • It Gets Worse: But maybe this is just a bigger question: where was Glee at this year’s EMP? Isn’t its commercial revivification of the TV musical and its impact on the pop charts and digital downloads worth checking out from a C.R.E.A.M. perspective? How do we think about the clash that the show constantly stages between musical theatre and contemporary pop/hip hop, both in its plot and in its contemporary impact (and its problematic whiteness)? Glee has used music to put forth the powerful idea (connected to neoliberalism in ways I could spell out) that life after the closet isn’t necessarily easier. As the adults on Glee intimate: life often gets worse, so endurance is not about normative futurity but about a kind of indefinite, lateral childhood (which is why the bratty Sue Sylvester remains the heart and soul of the show). The braggadacio of pop and the pathos of musical theatre meet in uncanny and uncomfortable ways on Glee that seem to have a lot to do with accommodating the growing social visibility of queers.
    I shouldn’t be giving away all my ideas here because really I want to write a book on Glee and the unmaking of the American Dream. But really, it would be swell to have more stellar minds than mind helping me think these things through. I’m jealous of how much platonic love record collectors, eminent rock critics, and the term “authenticity” gets.

Or, as Darren Criss, channeling Princess Ariel, sings: “wish I could be part of your world.”

Judith Butler’s Letter to NYC LGBT Center

25 Feb

Dear Glennda Testone,

I am writing to communicate my outrage and sorrow that our movement has come to this point where it refuses to house an organization that is fighting for social justice.  I was appalled to see the very ignorant and hateful messages that supported your center’s decision to ban Siegebusters from holding an event on the topic of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.  The colleagues at Jewish Voice for Peace and other progressive Jewish organizations with whom I have spoken are in strong disagreement with your action.  It is simply wrong to assume that housing an event that discusses the BDS movement is anti-Semitic in content or implication.  There are increasing numbers of Jewish intellectuals and cultural workers (including Adrienne Rich and myself) who support the BDS movement, including a vocal group from Israel that calls upon the rest of us to put international pressure on their country (including Anat Matar, Rachel Giora, Dalit Baum – one of the founding queer activists there, and Neve Gordon).  There are also queer anarchist and human rights groups in Israel- including “Who Profits?” – who support BDS and who are struggling against illegal land confiscations in Jerusalem and the building of the wall or who, at least, would support an open forum to discuss the pros and cons of this strategy, non-violent, to compel the State of Israel.  But there is, perhaps most importantly as well a network of Palestinian Queers for BDS that have an important and complex analysis of the situation, calling for BDS as a sustained non-violent practice to oppose the systematic disenfranchisement of Palestinians under the Occupation.  It is surely part of our global responsibility to understand this position and to make alliances across regional divisions rather than stay within the parochial assumptions of our own neighborhoods.

The idea that BDS is somehow anti-Semitic misunderstands the point and is simply false. It is a  movement that is in favor of putting pressure on states that fail to comply with international law and, in this case, that keep more than 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank under the military control of Israel, which also maintains political control over their survival, mobility, employment, health, and elections – and this has been amply demonstrated.  This is a human rights and social justice issue about which we all have to learn. And it seems to me that just as the very notion of freedom must include sexual freedom, and the very notion of equality must include sexual and gender equality, so must we form alliances that show that our concern with social justice is one that will include opposition to all forms of state subjugation and disenfranchisement.  We now have many organizations that affirm the interlinking networks of subjugation and alliance: queers against racism, queers for economic justice.  We must oppose all forms of anti-Semitism to be sure (as a Jewish queer who lost part of maternal line in the Nazi genocide against the Jews, I can and will take no other stand). But we must extend our critique of racism to all minorities whose citizenship is unfulfilled, suspended, lost, or compromised, which would include the Palestinian people in the last several decades.

The Siegebuster event is one that would simply seek  to inform the LGBTQ community of a set of political viewpoints. No one who goes to the event has to agree with the viewpoint put forward there, and neither does the center.  By hosting this event, your center would simply be acknowledging that this is an important global issue in which LGBTQ people are invested and are now currently debating. The Center thus would agree that we all need to hear this viewpoint in order to make more informed decisions about the situation.   I fear that to refuse to host the event is to submit to the tactics of intimidation and ignorance and to give up on the important public function of this center.  I urge you to reconsider your view.  These are important matters, they concern us all, and we look to you now to show that   the LGBTQ movement remains committed to discussing social justice issues and will not be intimidated by those who seek to expand the powers of censorship precisely when so much of the rest of the world is trying to bring them down. There is still time for you to act with courage and wisdom.

Sincerely,

Judith Butler
University of California, Berkeley
Visiting Professor, New School for Social Research (Spring, 2011)

 

Open Letter to the NYC LGBT Community Center

25 Feb

To Glennda Testone, Executive Director
NYC LGBT Center
Dear Glennda Testone:
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I believe you made a serious mistake in banning the Israeli Apartheid Week event and groups from the Center.  The claims that the groups Siege Busters Working Group and Existence is Resistance are anti-semitic is entirely bogus, based on the notion that all criticism of Israeli policy is anti-semitic.  This smear tactic was brought to you by Michael Lucas, the media producer whose openly racist views are well known.  Here is a quotation among the many that researchers have posted online:
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Michael Lucas: I hate Muslims, absolutely. It’s a horrible, horrible religion. It’s a plague. People ignore me the way they ignore Rush Limbaugh because he’s a drug addict. … There are moments in life when silence is your fault and truth …is your responsibility. The religion, the institution, the system of Islam — they are as talented and creative and passionate as anyone else. But they’re stuck in a horrible lie, brainwashed from birth to death. And now they have been stuck in time since the 7th century. They have not contributed to civilization in any way, in any field — political thought, science, music, architecture, nothing for century after century. What do they produce? Carpets. That’s how they should travel because that’s the only way they travel without killing people.

This breach of the open policy of the Center is an ominous sign that LGBT community institutions are subject to unilateral control by wealthy donors–the Center in this case did not even open a dialogue with your other constituencies.
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In addition to press coverage–the Village Voice already posted a brief piece, and a longer Nation piece is coming out next week, I understand–this news is traveling via Facebook and Twitter among Queer Studies academics all over the country, as well as among progressive LGBT organizations.  We are *outraged* and shocked at your action.  The reputation of the Center will suffer mightily in the days and week ahead unless you take immediate action to open the Center to all of our communities.
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(I have heard there is a claim that these groups are not wholly LGBT groups?  Well neither was ACT UP, or the many 12 step groups, or many other associations of allies with LGBT members who use the Center and support the LGBT community.  Apparently support of Palestinian queers is not within the purview of the Center?)
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Shame on the Center for this outrageous action.
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Lisa Duggan
Professor, American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies
Department of Social and Cultural Analysis
New York University

The Bully Awards, 2010

15 Feb

And the Bully Goes To…2nd Annual Bully Awards

by Jack Halberstam

Yes folks, it really is that time again. It is time for the second annual Bully Awards for the best and worst in motion pictures for the past year. I know there has been a lot happening in the world recently, what with so much commotion and upheaval, so many upsets and ousted leaders…and that was just at the Grammy’s. But now that Gaga is out of her egg, Mick Jagger is out of his retirement home and Justin Bieber is out of short pants, let’s turn to an adult level awards show…the Oscars. This year, as you know, the sacred ceremony is to be hosted by Ann Hathaway and that learned English PhD scholar, James Franco. Yup, all around the country, English departments are congratulating themselves for being cool, for finally being the right discipline at the right time and for providing a home for aspirational actor/academics.

While this time last year, we were bemoaning apocalyptic pics (2012), bromances (I Love You Man!), gay films masquerading as straight films (A Single Man and Up in the Air) and chipmunks (Alvin and the…) this year we witness a return to the quote unquote smart film, talky pictures with lots to say – smart films about fast talking guys at Harvard changing the world (The Social Network), slow talking kings in the British Monarchy saving the world (The King’s Speech), chatty hiking nerds (127 Hours), mouthy fighters (The Fighter), garrulous toys (Toy Story 3), expressive dancers (Black Swan), hell we even had a film about conversational bourgeois lesbians (The Kids Are Alright) and an animated film about super intelligent beings (Megamind). All in all, the films this year were smart, dark, darker, and downright depressing.

While last year the mood was goofy (Brüno), mock serious (Avatar), mock goofy and chirpy (aforementioned Chipmunks), this year, there was little humor to leaven the slide into bankruptcy, chaos and death. Last year’s animated winner was Up, which pretty much summed up the overly optimistic late-decade predictions about the economy, this year’s sure thing is Toy Story 3, a dark film about redundant toys put out to pasture, abused old toys, sad Big Baby toys abandoned at birth, bitter toys that try to crush each other. Last year, James Cameron created a 3-D world in Avatar in which blue indigenous peoples crushed white imperial forces, this year David Fincher in Social Network created a virtual world in which pricks from Harvard fought over millions of dollars while bonking stupid girls and showing not an ounce of social responsibility. Last year Brüno stuck his fist up various arschholen on screen, this year James Franco in 127 Hours stuck his fist in a rock and could not get it out again. And just in case you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Javier Bardem, who two years earlier had won an Oscar for the deadpan depiction of a Latino serial killer of white people, this year in Inarritu’s Biutiful, dies a slow painful death from cancer while his ex wife goes crazy and his kids look on in horror. Oh and never let it be said that the English don’t know how to do misery – Another Year by Mike Leigh brilliantly depicts the breakdown of human sociality facilitated by the imperial domination of the intimate form popularly known as “the couple.”

Yup, it’s cold out there and getting colder. Even the comedies were dark in 2010 – did anyone see Cyrus? Whaaaat? Mumblecore my ass – this was Oedipus wrecks, a wretchedly weird film in which Marisa Tomei is romanced by the singularly unappealing John C. Reilly only to be thwarted in her sexual escapades when her twenty-something son expresses his Oedipal objections to the match. In a romantic comedy with few jokes, little romance and a massive incestuous “ick” factor, so little was appealing that the reviewers tried to rescue it by inventing a new genre to explain this and other navel-gazing not very funny rom-com, sex-with-mom, ho-hum films – mumblecore? No, I don’t think so, try Dumbocore – dumb films pretending to be smart films, but what these films really do is provide a justification for a new form of parasitical masculinity.

The Mumblecore films by the Duplass Brothers (Cyrus), Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), but also inspired by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) give this Mumbler guy meaning – yes, he may be a loser, may lack a job, a purpose in life, ambition, charm, likeable qualities, this may all be true, but Mumblecore imagines beautiful women throwing themselves at these men not despite their shortcomings but because of them. If there weren’t plenty of evidence in the real world for this phenomenon of smart women/ slacker men couplings, Mumblecore would be truly offensive. As it is, the films are depressingly accurate and we can expect many more of the same.

Well forget mumblers then, what about stutterers? The King’s Speech has won the hearts and minds of many an anti-monarchist on account of its whimsy, its humanization of the sovereign and the arch acting skills of one queenly Helena Bonham Carter. But is this really the right film for our times? Do we really need to cathect now, at this moment in history, on to a story about a soon to be monarch who has lost the confidence of his people and who allegorizes the faltering of sovereign power and then its recuperation on the verge of World War 2? Right now, as dictators begin to fall in Tunisia and Egypt, we cleave to a narrative of good monarchy, kind and gentle, frail and vulnerable monarchy; we apparently want the story of the good king, the sweet king who finds his voice and leads his people out of the darkness…plus, there is not a little hint of mumblecore/stuttercore here in the tale of male incompetence propped up by female ambition…

And speaking of female ambition…How about those Black Swans? Darren Aronsky gives ballet the same treatment he applied to wrestling in The Wrestler a few years ago. In both films, the protagonist sacrifices his/her body to the call of the discipline but Black Swan has the added, horror element of the toxic mother-daughter bond. Barbara Hershey plays a creepy Tiger mother to Natalie Portman’s anxious over-achieving daughter and the two drag each other down into the muck of estrogen fuelled competitive destruction. In fact this was the year of bad parenting as The Kids Are Alright, Toy Story 3, Megamind, Biutiful, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone proved; but at least heterosexual films about bad parenting actually admit that the whole enterprise is fucked and wrong. The lesbian bad parenting film had to try to salvage something good and meaningful from the failing family unit. Even Toy Story 3 had the decency to toss the bad parent, Lotso Bear, into the incinerator at the end. And at least Black Swan, for all its mother-daughter drama, had a tremendous lesbian sex scene between Portman and Mila Kunis.

Oh well, onto the predictions such as they are for the 2011 Bullies/Oscars:

Best Actress: I predict that everyone will want Annette Bening to win best actress despite her cringe-inducing, potentially career-ending improvised Joni Mitchell number in the lesbo-phobic The Kids Are Alright. But in the end, the historionics of Natalie Portman in the creepily awesome Black Swan will and should win. The Bully goes to Portman for going over the top and reminding us that inside every good girl is a black swan.

Best Actor: And while Javier Bardem should add another gold man to his collection, for his harrowing depiction of a dying, desperate man, this year our academy voters will go for heartwarming over heart stopping and the stuttering king, played by Colin Firth, will win best actor. But the Bully goes to James Franco for giving the best castration performance of the year – the gruesome amputation of a vital body part with a small knife was a perfect metaphor for the process of getting a PhD in English at Yale and no doubt his experience there really helped him with this role…

Best Director: Probably will go to David Fincher, The Social Network or Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech but who cares.

Best Animated Film: Of course, the best animated film Oscar will and should go to Toy Story 3, a dark parable about the dangers of aging in a world committed to the young, the new and the expendable. But keep in mind the wondrous lessons of How To Train Your Dragon and Megamind: namely, dragons are pretty nice actually, as are blue men with big heads, not to mention Vikings, but beware of heroes in tights, especially if they sound like Brad Pitt.

Worst Film of the Year: And the Bully goes too…well, it is a toss up actually. I really hated Sophia Coppola’s continued and extended meditation on male boredom inSomewhere. I disliked the durational shots of male fatigue, the quick takes on male inertia, the lingering shots of Stephen Dorff falling asleep during sex, during conversations, during life. But I also really hated Cyrus, not sure if you got that from my comments on it above. Both of these films are actually Mumblecore, although Dorff mumbles more than anyone in Cyrus. Yogi Bear and Furry Vengeance are of course in contention for this coveted award but with no mumblecore elements anywhere to be found they cannot seriously compete. Plus I did not see them… This bully (did you ever doubt it?) goes to Cyrus.

Best Film:  The Oscar will continue its love fest with the royals and give the award to The King’s Speech, I think. I could be wrong and it could go to The Social Network, for making Americans look smart at a moment when the education system goes belly up. But the truth is—Hollywood, are you listening?—talking fast does not equal intelligence! The worn out trope of the nerdy white guy dropping everything to rush off to his computer to type away at high speed while chatting at an even higher speed needs to be retired after this film. And by the way, the representation of Harvard as a world where smart chatty guys date dumb silent women returns us to Mumblecore but makes me think again about how much I preferred watching Franco self-amputate over Jesse Eisenberg self-pleasuring by writing code frantically.

No matter, the Bully goes to Never Let Me Go – the other British film of the year, which, along with Mike Leigh’s Another Year, eschews royals and high society in favor of the dirty little secrets of a British post-empire, post-life, post-war landscape. In this deeply affecting, flatly melancholic film, the eugenic imperative of neo-imperialism finds its fullest expression in the children who, like the toys in Toy Story 3, realize that they are expendable, that their organs will be harvested and that their “completion” represents the darkest conclusion to the dark ages we have now entered.

Runners Up: Four Lions – under appreciated British comedy about terrorism without Mumblecore story line; I Am Love – under appreciated Operatic Italian drama with Tilda Swinton mumbling in Italian about Oedipal love (Mumblecore Italian style?); Mother – Korean mumblecore; Red – Helen Mirren with a machine gun, say no more – the right response to mumblecore…

Why Egypt’s Progressives Win

9 Feb
By Paul Amar  (cross posted from Jadaliyya.com)

On 6 February 2011, Egypt’s hastily appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman invited in the old guard or what we could call the Businessmen’s Wing of the Muslim Brothers into a stately meeting in the polished rosewood Cabinet Chamber of Mubarak’s Presidential Palace. The aim of their tea party was to discuss some kind of accord that would end the national uprising and restore “normalcy.” When news of the meeting broke, expressions of delight and terror tore through the blogosphere. Was the nightmare scenario of both the political left and right about to be realized? Would the US/Israel surrogate Suleiman merge his military-police apparatus with the power of the more conservative branch of the old Islamist social movement?  Hearing the news, Iran’s Supreme Leader sent his congratulations. And America’s Glen Beck and John McCain ranted with glee about world wars and the inevitable rise of the Cosmic Caliphate.

On that same day, an unnamed White House official told the Associated Press that any “academic type” who did not focus on the Muslim Brothers and see them as the principle actor in this drama “was full of sh*t.” The White House seemed to believe that Suleiman, Chief of Egypt’s Intelligence Services, was the kind of keen mind they could depend on. Suleiman’s brand of “intelligence” was on display in his interview on 3 February in which he traced the cause of Egypt’s uprising to a conspiracy coordinated by a united front of Israel with Hamas, alQaeda with Anderson Cooper. Is it true that Suleiman also has a dossier revealing the sinister role played in all this by “Simpsons” character C. Montgomery Burns?

 

In reality, the Suleiman-Brothers tea party turned out to be nothing more than another stunt staged by Nile TV News. This once interesting cable service was transformed in the last week into a rather Murdochian propaganda unit whose productions are run by the artistic genius of Mubarak’s Presidential Guards. Images of the Suleiman-Brothers tête-à-têtes were broadcast at a time when Suleiman’s legitimacy and sanity were appearing increasingly shaky within Egypt, and when this particular sub-group of the Brothers who represent only one fraction of one faction of the opposition was trying to leverage an unlikely comeback. As reporters obsessed over which Brother was sitting with Suleiman, they continued to ignore or misapprehend the continuing growing power of the movements that had started this uprising. Many progressives continued to think that the US was conspiring with Suleiman to crush all hope – as if America’s puny $1.5 billion in aid (which all must be recycled back as purchases from US military suppliers anyway) really dictates policy for a regime that makes multi-billion dollar deals with Russia, China and Brazil every month, and that has channeled an estimated $40-70 billion into Mubarak’s personal accounts.

Proving Nile TV and the pessimists wrong, 1.5 million people turned out on 7 February — the biggest mobilization so far in this uprising. Commentators focusing on the Brothers had completely missed the real news of the past two days. The ruling NDP party leadership had been savaged from within. In a desperate attempt to salvage his phantom authority, Mubarak had tossed his son Gamal and a whole class of US-linked businessmen to the lions, forcing them to resign and freezing their assets. And at the same time, Egyptian newspaper El-Masry El-Youm reported that the Muslim Brothers’ Youth and Women’s Wings split off from the main Brothers’ organization to join the leftist 6 April Movement. The men sitting around Suleiman’s table were left without much of a movement behind them.

Below I trace the declining power of the economic and moral politics of this “Businessmen’s Wing” of the Brothers. I map the ascendant socio-political power of a new national-development-oriented coalition of businessmen and military entrepreneurs, as well as the decisive force of micro-enterprise and workers’ organizations consisting of women and youth — a force that portends well for the future of democracy and socio-economic inclusion in Egypt.

Bands of Brothers

The Muslim Brothers are not a marginal force in Egypt. They are very well organized in every city, and can be credited with providing health, education, legal aid and disaster relief to citizens ignored or neglected by the state. But they are not Egypt’s equivalent of Hizballah or Hamas. As Mona El-Ghobashy has described, in the 1990s the Society of Muslim Brothers made a definite break, abandoning its secretive, hierarchical, shari’a-focused form. Today the Muslim Brothers is a well-organized political party, officially banned but occasionally tolerated. In the past twenty years it has made significant inroads in Parliament via alliances with other parties and by running independent candidates. The Brothers now fully support political pluralism, women’s participation in politics, and the role of Christians and communists as full citizens. However, with the rise of other competing labor, liberal and human-rights movements in Egypt in the 2000s, what one can call the “new old guard” of the Brothers (the ones that emerged in the 1980s) have retained a primary focus on cultural, moral and identity politics. Moral-cultural conservatism is still seen by this group as what distinguishes the Brothers from other parties, a fact they confirmed by appointing a rigid social conservative, Muhammad Badeea, as leader in 2010. This turn was rejected by women and youth in the movement. This socially conservative leaning thus brings the “new old guard” more in line with the moralistic paternalism of Mubarak’s government and set them against the trajectory of new youth, women’s and labor movements. This leads to new possibilities of splits in this organization or for exciting revitalization and reinvention of the Brothers, as Youth and Women’s wings feel drawn toward the 6 April coalition. The moral-cultural traditionalist wing of the “new old guard,” is composed of professional syndicate leaders and wealthy businessmen. In the 1950s-80s, the movement regrouped and represented frustrated elements of the national bourgeoisie. But this class of people has largely been swept up into new opportunities and left the organization. The “new old guard” of the Brothers’ business wing has started to look like a group of retired Shriners, except that in the Middle East, Shriners have stopped wearing fezes.

 

In the past ten years this political force of this particular wing of the Brothers has been partially coopted by Mubarak’s government from two angles. First, Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and have been allowed to participate in the recent economic boom. The senior Brothers now own major cell phone companies and real estate developments, and have been absorbed into the NDP machine and upper-middle class establishment for years. Second, the government wholly appropriated the Brothers’ moral discourse. For the last ten or fifteen years Mubarak’s police-state has stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trash-recycling pig farmers, rent-control squatters, as well as Baha’i, Christian and Shi’i minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women, and excommunicated college professors.  Thus, we can say that Egypt has already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state – Mubarak’s! Egyptians tried out that kind of regime. And they hated it.

In recent years, as described in the work of Saba Mahmood and Asef Bayat, people have grown disgusted by Mubarak’s politicization of Islam. Egyptians began to reclaim Islam as a project of personal self-governance, ethical piety, and social solidarity. This trend explicitly rejects the political orientation of Islam and explicitly separates itself both from Brothers’ activities and Mubarak’s morality crusades.

The Military as a Populist Middle Class

At one time, the Muslim Brothers represented frustrated, marginalized elements of the middle class. But that story is so 1986! Now there are a wide range of secular (but not anti-religious) groupings that represent emergent economic patterns within the country. Moreover, these groups are swept up in a whirlwind of new political-economic energies coming from new or renewed world influences and investors – Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Israel, Dubai, China, Turkey, and Brazil, as well as the return of remittance flows into the country as Egyptian professionals got swept up in the Emirates’ building and development boom.

In the context of this new multi-dimensional globalization, in which East/West divides and post-colonial patterns are radically remade, the military have come to be one of the more interesting economic mediators and success stories. The Egyptian military is one of the most interesting and misunderstood economic actors in the country. The military’s economic interests are split in interesting ways. Since the military has been prevented by the Camp David treaty from making war, it has instead used its sovereignty over huge tracks of desert and coastal property to develop shopping malls, gated cities and beach resorts, catering to rich and modest Egyptians, local and international consumers and tourists. Their position vis-à-vis the uprising is thus complicated. They hated the rapacious capitalists around Gamal Mubarak, who sold off national lands, assets and resources to US and European corporations. But the military also wants tourists, shoppers and investors to consume in their multi-billion dollar resorts and venues. The military identifies very strongly with representing and protecting “the people,” but also wants the people to go home and stop scaring away the tourists. The military will continue to mobilize this in-between position in interesting ways in the coming years.

Suleiman’s General Intelligence Services are nominally part of the military, but are institutionally quite separate. Intelligence is dependent on foreign patrons (Israel and the US primarily) and are looked on skeptically by Egyptians. But the actual Army and Air Force are quite grounded in the economic and social interests of national territory. The army’s role in countering Suleiman’s lust for repression was crucial to saving the momentum of this uprising. On 4 February, the day of the most terrifying police/thug brutality in Tahrir Square, many commentators noted that the military were trying to stop the thug attacks but were not being very forceful or aggressive. Was this a sign that the military really wanted the protesters to be crushed? Since then, we have learned that the military in the square were not provisioned with bullets. The military were trying as best they could to battle the police/thugs, but Suleiman had taken away their bullets for fear the military would side with the protesters and use the ammunition to overthrow him.

 

Bullets or no, the military displaced the police, who had stripped off their uniforms and regressed into bands of thugs. Security in Cairo has been taken over by the military, in public spaces, and in residential quarters we witnessed the return of a 21-st century version of futuwwa groups. As Wilson Jacob has described, in the 19th-century futuwwa were icons of working-class national identity and community solidarity in Egypt. Futuwwa were organized groups of young men who defended craft guilds and working-class neighborhoods in Cairo. But the futuwwa reborn on 1 February 2011 are called Peoples’ Committees and include men of all classes and ages, and a few women with butcher knives, too. They stake out every street corner, vigilant for police and state-funded thugs who would try to arrest, intimidate or loot residents. Given the threat of sexualized physical violence from Mubarak’s police/thugs, there is a gender dimension to this reimagining and redeployment of security and military power during this uprising. In the first days of the uprising we saw huge numbers of women participating in the revolt. Then the police/thugs started targeting women in particularly horrifying way, molesting, detaining, raping. And then when the police were driven back, the military and the futuwwa groups took over and insisted that “protecting” the people from thugs involved filtering women and children out of Tahrir and excluding them from public space. But women in this revolt have insisted that they are not victims who need protection, they are the leading core of this movement. On 7 February, women’s groups, including the leftist 6 April national labor movement, anti-harassment, civil rights groups, and the Women’s Wing of the Brothers reemerged in force in downtown Cairo by the hundreds of thousands.

Gutting Gamal’s Globalization

On 28 January the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party burned down, and with it, Mubarak’s substantive authority was turned to ashes. The rising military and national-capital interests then spat on those ashes on 5 February. On that day, they ensured that Gamal Mubarak would resign as head of the Political Office of the NDP. In his place, Dr. Hosam Badrawy was named the new Secretary-General of the party. The choice of Badrawy reflects the direction the winds are blowing now. Badrawy holds the dubious honor of being the man who founded Egypt’s first private-sector health-care HMO in 1989. All Egyptians are constitutionally guaranteed access to free, universal health care. But Mubarak, under orders from the IMF, made draconian cuts to the public health service beginning in the 1980s. Badrawy has championed the privatization of health care, and has created a national private health care industry with significant capital and legitimacy. This industry is threatened by global competition and describes itself in nationalistic, paternalistic tones. Gamal Mubarak serving as a vehicle for foreign investment posed a threat to national businessmen like Badrawy. Badrawy also served in the past as the Director of the NDP’s human rights organization, a particularly contradictory job to hold during a time of mass repression and torture.

Naguib Sawiris, the self-proposed chair of the “Transitional Council of Wise Men,” is similar in some ways to Badrawy. Sawiris is a patriotic, successful nationalist businessman. Sawiris heads the largest private-sector company in Egypt, Orascom. This firm has built railways, beach resorts, gated-cities, highways, telecom systems, wind farms, condos and hotels. He is a major Arab world and Mediterranean region financier. He is also the banner carrier for Egypt’s developmentalist nationalists. On 4 February Sawiris released a statement proposing a council of wise men who would oversee Suleiman and the police, and who would lead Egypt through the transition. The proposed council would be a so-called “neutral, technocratic” body that would include Sawiris, along with a couple of non-ideological members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s businessmen’s wing, some strategic-studies experts, and a Nobel Prize winner. Would this Nobel winner be Mohammed ElBaradei, the peace laureate and opposition leader? Nope. They had found an Egyptian laureate in organic chemistry.

Women, Micro-Businesses and Workers

In the context of the relationships described above, we can understand why we witnessed the emergence in the first week of February 2011 of a coalition around nationalist businessmen in alliance with the military – a military who also act like nationalist middle-class businessmen themselves. This group ejected the “crony globalizers” and “barons of privatization” surrounding Gamal Mubarak. Would this group then cement their hold on power, to rule the country with Suleiman as their hammer? No. Other massive social forces were also at work. They are well organized. Legitimacy, organization, new vision and economic power are in their hands. The new nationalist business-military bloc cannot develop the country without their participation and mobilization.

It is crucial to remember that this uprising did not begin with the Muslim Brothers or with nationalist businessmen. This revolt began gradually at the convergence of two parallel forces: the movement for workers’ rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt especially during the last two years, and the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilized every community in the country for the last three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women (of all ages) and youth (of both genders). There are structural reasons for this.

First, the passion of workers that began this uprising does not stem from their marginalization and poverty; rather, it stems from their centrality to new development processes and dynamics. In the very recent past, Egypt has reemerged as a manufacturing country, although under the most stressful and dynamic of conditions. Egypt’s workers are mobilized because new factories are being built, in the context of a flurry of contentious global investment. Several Russian free-trade zones and manufacturing settlements have opened up, and China has invested in all parts of the Egyptian economy. Brazil, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf Emirates are diversifying their investments. They are moving out of the oil sector and real estate and into manufacturing, piece-goods, informatics, infrastructure, etc. Factories all over Egypt have been dusted off and reopened, or newly built. And all those shopping malls, gated cities, highways and resorts have to be built and staffed by someone. In the Persian Gulf, developers use Bangladeshi, Philippine and other expatriate labor. But Egypt usually uses its own workers. And many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile industries and piece-work shops are women. If you stroll up the staircases into the large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you’ll see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes, and putting together toys and computer circuitboards for sale in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf. These shop workers joined with factory workers to found the 6 April movement in 2008. They were the ones who began the organizing and mobilizing process that led to this uprising in 2011, whose eruption was triggered by Asmaa Mahfouz’ circulating a passionate Youtube video and tens of thousands of leaflets by hand in slum areas of Cairo on 24 January 2011. Ms. Mahfouz, a political organizer with an MBA from Cairo University, called people to protest the next day. And the rest is history.

The economic gender and class landscape of Egypt’s micro-businesses has been politicized and mobilized in very dynamic ways, again with important gender and sexual dimensions. Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. In the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered debt. Micro-credit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank’s enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted toward women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill. Thus the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and “loan shark” operations. Police sexualized brutalization of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy. In this context, the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organized force opposed to the police-state. No one waxes on about the blessings of the market’s invisible hand. Thus the economic interests of this mass class of micro-entrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. It is no coincidence that the movement became a national force two years ago with the brutal police murder of a youth, Khalid Saeed, who was typing away in a small internet café that he partially owned. Police demanded ID and a bribe from him; he refused, and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull to pieces while the whole community watched in horror.

 

Police demanding bribes, harassing small micro-businesses, and beating those who refuse to submit had become standard practice in Egypt. Internet cafes, small workshops, call-centers, video-game cafes, microbuses, washing/ironing shops, small gyms constitute the landscape of micro-enterprises that are the jobs base and social world of Egypt’s lower middle classes. The so-called “Facebook revolution” is not about people mobilizing in virtual space; it is about Egyptian internet cafes and the youth and women they represent, in real social spaces and communities, utilizing the cyberspace bases they have built and developed to serve their revolt.

The Egyptian Difference

In the case of the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, the “bazaaris of Tehran” (the medium-sized merchants and shop owners) ended up serving as the crucial “swing vote,” moving the Iranian Revolution from left to right, from a socialistic uprising toward the founding of an Islamic Republic. In the case of Egypt, the social and political force of women and youth micro-entrepreneurs will lead history in the opposite direction. These groups have a highly developed a complex view of the moral posturing of some Islamists, and they have a very clear socio-economic agenda, which appeals to the dynamic Youth Wing of the Brothers. The progressive groups have a linked network of enterprises, factories, identities and passions. They would go to any length to prevent the reemergence of police brutality and moralistic hypocrisy that have ruled them for the past generation. The women and youth behind theses micro-businesses, and the workers in the new Russian, Chinese, Brazilian, Gulf, and Egyptian-financed factories seem to be united. And they grow more so each day.

Micro-entrepreneurs, new workers groups, and massive anti-police brutality organizations obviously do not share the same class position as Sawiris and Badrawi and the rich men in the “Council of the Wise.” Nevertheless, there are significant overlaps and affinities between the interests and politics of nationalist development-oriented groups, the newly entrepreneurial military, and the vitally well-organized youth and women’s social movements. This confluence of social, historical and economic dynamics will assure that this uprising does not get reduced to a photo opportunity for Suleiman and a few of his cronies.

A Cheshire Cat is smiling down on Suleiman’s tea party.



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.

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