STRAW DOGS

27 Jun

On the massacre at Club Pulse

By José Quiroga 

June 27, 2016

“…in the struggle for mastery, the Negro is the pawn.”

James Baldwin

Orlando vigil in PRThe twenty-three Puerto Ricans that were killed at Club Pulse in Orlando had two things in common: they were Puerto Rican or identified themselves as such, and they were killed at a business that catered to the LGBT community in Orlando, Florida, by a man who had legally acquired his gun. These facts may not clarify the event nor shed light on its cause—they just make the sadness specific to stories I know, to narratives I’ve lived with. This is how my work of mourning begins.

Puerto Ricans have been moving to Orlando at least since the 1980s to escape the alarming criminality of an economically depressed island, where an exhausted political compact with the United States has produced mass unemployment and social insecurity. Talk to any Puerto Rican living in central Florida and she or he will recount a similar tale of options foreclosed, mass layoffs, and diminished expectations. And the story will most certainly include robberies at gunpoint, bullet holes in windows and cars, someone killed. “In the dead in Orlando, Puerto Ricans hear a roll call of their kin” was the title of a June 14 New York Times article written by Lizette Alvarez and Nick Madigan, which noted as a “bitter twist” the fact that a “spectacularly high crime rate” partially accounts for this migration.

At some point in the past, all of those Puerto Ricans killed had pondered the balance between reality and a life unlived, and had opted for the most difficult part of that equation, which is displacement. That we mourn the fact that they were killed because of their sexuality does not exclude the fact that we also mourn them because they had no choice but to restart their lives as lives defined by diaspora, exile, and bureaucracy: one-way plane tickets , a new home, re-localization and moving fees, mail forwarding, new license plates, voting rights lost and gained, taxation. And of course they took with them the traces of all those other migrations Puerto Ricans have collectively endured.

Peoples (and nations) are crafted out of the complexities of nostalgia and regret, homelands occupied, or lost, or re-gained at the end of some journey. But Orlando has not given us an image we can place alongside the great migrations of the past, perhaps because the middle-class flight of an educated workforce lacks the drama of poverty and survival inscribed in those heroic tales of hot rum in a small room with red lampshades, while snow flurries dance outside on uptown winter nights. Orlando doesn’t convey a dream of upward mobility, but an attempt to preserve a certain way of life, an alternative future out of the island and its endless struggle to re-define a political relationship at an impasse. Behind each and every one of Orlando’s well kept lawns there is the horn blasting dysfunctionality of pot-holed streets in the native land, incessant traffic jams, dirty beaches, roach-infested central plazas, and corrupt municipalities. Every Puerto Rican business in Orlando represents a successful middle-class escape from the whole mess of a U.S. colony in the midst of a massive default, and, because of those same colonial laws, without the legal benefit of bankruptcy such as was given to a city like Det Detroit.

Background SomosOrlando rainbowWhat does that all have to do with the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, one that targeted those who were partying and dancing at a disco in Orlando during “Latin night”? In the days following the massacre, the tangled, confusing plotlines that tie central Florida to a broader context were exposed. While Obama once again had to respond to a senseless act of violence abetted by the easy availability of guns, Hillary Clinton showed us how presidential she could be, and Marco Rubio announced that he was seeking a Senate seat. JetBlue offered to fly relatives to and from central Florida, and a local campaign called #SomosOrlando was set up to receive donations. Donald Trump, in the meantime, once again revealed how acrobatic the human brain can be, that it can talk and say nothing at the same time, just blame Muslims for not policing their fellow Muslim neighbors. In Puerto Rico, Governor Alejandro García Padilla extended the period of official mourning on the island, with all flags at half-mast, and the left-wing socialist pro-independence weekly newspaper had not taken note of the event two weeks after it happened. San Juan prepared itself for what turned out to be its biggest LGBT March on June 26.

Hurricane season in the tropics doesn’t care for complicated sets, or issues too complex to rhyme. At each and every invitation to grieve, someone collapsed. Students were given posthumous degrees. Desolate towns where every third person had already packed their bags and left, welcomed the bodies of men and women with the dignified acceptance such complicated crises invoke. Some of the victims, it was said, had not “come out” to their families, or didn’t identify as lesbian or gay. The toxic encounter of money, identity and sexuality ensured that only two Latino men were interviewed by The New York Times, in a massacre where 90% of the victims were Latinxs for a piece which in turn tried to balance race and gender. It was an attempt to give voice to a collective grief by recalling the gay bar as a refuge of the past, precisely the wrong thing to do at this point in time.

The whole messy, complex, unhealthy and toxic atmosphere of a bar, a disco, a speakeasy, or whatever, was never a quasi-religious “safe space.” It wasn’t safe back in the days when John Travolta ran off with the girl in “Saturday Night Fever” and it wasn’t safe back in the days of the Anvil or the Saint. And had it not been for the careful monitoring that every bartender at The Eagle bar in Boston had for this 17 year old Latino coming out of the backroom, who knows what sorts of negotiations would have had to take place when I opted for the Fenway instead of the Combat Zone.

So let’s remain for a while in this mausoleum, this sticky space of the gay bar that the Times seems to want to foreclose. Latin nights seem redundant in a city like Orlando on a Saturday night. Ten or twenty years ago Latin nights meant trying to bring in people on a Tuesday, or a Wednesday—enticing those seeking a midweek escape from the nine-to-five. They would pull in those young enough to stay up all night and up the next morning, perhaps with a hangover, and head to work after a hot shower with the borrowed shirt. That’s the world as it was back then. At this point in time when the finger on the trackpad can just click on a profile onscreen, zooming in on the full frontal, it’s difficult to draw them in even on a weekend. Waiting for a stranger naked in bed, ass up and lubed, sounds safe in comparison, if not more expedient.

Perhaps it is. But as we watch our affective lives fall under the regulatory zeal of the State, the police, the courts and private business; and our eccentric, fabulous and flamboyant social spaces give way to the demands of normativity, perhaps it is time to bring back the conversation to issues that were never resolved by marriage “equality.” Issues that include acceptance and recognition for our forms of kinship with our own set of rules and responsibilities, the right to be free, to have sex as often and as much as we want to, the right to dance in gay bars and straight bars, and the right to include a significant other to receive benefits, medical and otherwise, without having to produce the legal, normatized validation of a marriage certificate.

These days, Puerto Rico has no path other than civil resistance to a hostile Republican-controlled U.S. Congress imposing a fiscal control board—unbelievably known by the acronym PROMESA–that will not craft a sustainable economic base but on the contrary, defend the interests of junk bond investors. In Orlando, self-preservation once again will entail mastering the grammar of avoidance while busing tables, standing at the cash register, getting a perm, or going to the doctor. Last call will be hasty and swift with part of the crowd sobering up while the other tries scouts the room in one last ditch attempt at sex.

It would be a fine thing at this point to offer a message of hope. To believe that things will go back to normal, that our bars will not close down because of gentrification or fear, or more efficient ways of hooking up. But as long as lesbian or gay stands for the exclusionary site of a mode of isolation and not the inclusive site where different classes, ethnicities, pasts presents and futures openly put on display all of their perverse possibilities and their different ways of understanding sex and gender and kinship, we will just be left with some maimed possibility of ourselves, some phantom subject unhinged, with our tacit acceptance and permission.
José Quiroga is our newest Bully Blogger.  He is Professor of Comparative Literature, Emory University. He works on contemporary Latinx and Latin American cultures, queer and gender studies, Cuba and the Caribbean. Quiroga’s books include include Mapa Callejero (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2010), Law of Desire: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2009), Cuban Palimpsests (U Minnesota Press, 2005) and Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (NYU Press, 2001). In collaboration with Licia Fiol-Matta he directs the series New Directions in Latino American Cultures for Palgrave, and is completing an edited collection titled The Havana Reader, and The Book of Flight. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012, and is always aiming to be a better escape artist.

The #Orlando Syllabus

24 Jun

Eng-Beng Lim

Orlando victims-collage-first-slide

Week 1 From Gender to Gun Performativity

Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Think Gender is Performance: You have Judith Butler to thank for that!

 

Week 2 Surviving Killabilities

Gender” (Halberstam) and other relevant keyword entries “Race,” “Sexuality,” “Militarism,” “Brown,” “Queer,” “Empire,” “Religion.”

Jose Munoz, “The Future in the Present: Sexual Avante-Gardes and the Performance of Utopia”

After Orlando, Middle East Research and Information Project

LGBT People of Color refuse to be erased after Orlando

American Ugliness: Queer and Trans People of Color Sat “Not in Our Names”

Chelsea Manning, “We must not let the Orlando nightclub terror further strangle our civil liberties”

Start Making Sense Radio Program, “Life and Death in Gay Orlando”

“He’s Not Done Killing Her’: Why So Many Trans Women Were Murdered in 2015.

Queer Suicide: A Teach-in

Malik Gaines, We Are Orlando

Transgender man forced into clothes and jail for women settles with Toronto police

Understanding HB2: North Carolina’s newest law solidifies state’s role in defining discrimination.

Former Minuteman Militia Leader Found Guilty of Molesting 5-Year Old Girl

 

Week 3 Laughing at Masculinist Rage, Corruption and Mass Shooting

Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa

Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

Chela Sandoval, “New Sciences: Cyborg feminism and the methodology of the oppressed

#SayHerName: why Kimberle Crenshaw is fighting for forgotten women

Wendy Brown: How Neoliberalism Threatens Democracy: YouTube video

Puar and Rai, “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots”

Charlotte Hooper, Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations, and Gender Politics

Jacques Derrida on “phallogocentrism”

“I’m a gay man. Don’t use an attack on my community as an excuse for Islamophonia”

US House Oks Koch Bros Bill on ‘Dark Money’ Election Donations

Overcompensation Nation: It’s Time to admit that toxic masculinity drives gun violence

 

Week 4 Getting Toxic and Terrifying

Considering Hate, Whitlock and Bronski 1-71

Cairo, and our comprador gay movements: A Talk

Toxic Masculinity in the U.S Gun Phallocracy

The Hypermasculine Violence of Omar Mateen and Brock Turner

Terror Begins at Home

Toxic Masculinity and Murder

Student Op-Ed: Toxic Masculinity

Understanding Toxic Masculinity: Why Defending Men Isn’t Enough (a conservative take)

The Under-Discussed Role of Toxic Masculinity

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam”

*

Considering Hate, 71-147

What the actual f*ck is going on with the Oakland Police Department?

Gun control’s racist reality: The liberal argument against giving police more power

UCLA Shooting suspect identified: Thoughts on Race, Violence, and Graduate Studies

Two Dead in UCLA

Berkeley gunman kills student taken hostage

25 years later: Henry’s hostage crisis remembered

Drag Queen: Anti-Gay Terrorist Omar Mateen was My Friend

Sullivan, “Troubled. Quiet. Macho. Angry. The volatile life of the Orlando shooter.”

Police: Man who killed singer Christina Grimmie was ‘infatuated’ with her

James Downs: Stop saying Omar Mateen was gay

“Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila tackles homophobia, Islamophobia on U.S tour

The perception of Asian dads and masculinity

“While Press Fawned Over Cops Guarding LGBTQ Bars, NYPD Charged Orlando March with Horses”

Racist at vigil sends online message

Queer, Muslim, & Unwelcome at the “New Stonewall”

 

Week 5 Empire, Trump

Andrew Hewitt, Political Inversions: Homosexuality, Fascism, and the Modernist Imaginary

Lisa Lowe, “The International within the National: American Studies and Asian American Critique”

Klaus Theweleit, “Male Bodies and the ‘white terror’” 143-269, Male Fantasies Vol 2

Trump says, ‘Ask the Gays,’ Gays make him regret it

Aaron Belkin, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire

Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity”

Amanda Taub, “The Rise of American authoritarianism

I can’t stop watching this bizarre, terrifying and beautiful Trump ad

The braggart with the ducktail who would be president

Meet the shock troops of Trump’s America

As Britain Mourns MP Jo Cox, Her Killer Is Linked to Neo-Nazi National Alliance and Pro-Apartheid Club

Activity among white supremacists continues to surge

States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016

A journalist went to a Donald Trump rally yesterday and came back shocked. Here are his tweets

How not to study Donald Trump

If more guns make America safe, why did Trump ban all guns from the GOP convention?

American Horror Story

A Note from Mike Davis about the Second Amendment

 

Week 6 Orlando

Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims

Paricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought

June Jordan Papers

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here

Disney and Orlando: Creating the Happiest Place on Earth.”

Shanghai $5.5 Billion Disney Officially Opens

Gunman Pledged Allegiance to ISIS (titled changed from “Orlando nightclub shooting: 50 killed in ‘domestic terror incident’ at gay club; gunman identified”)

Orlando massacre was “revenge”, not terrorism, says man who claims he was gunman’s lover

The massacre at a Mexican Gay Bar that no one talked about

Orlando Victim says Shooter tried to spare black people: he said black people had suffered enough

Hoax: Canadian Prime Minister and opposition leader share kiss to denounce Orlando massacre

The worst mass shooting? A look back at massacres in U.S. history

How G4S incubated the homophobic hatred or Orlando’s IS Terrorist

Blood Ties: Queer Blood, Donations, and Citizenship

 

Week 7 Gun Phallocracy: Colonial and Capitalist Deadlocks

Taussig, “Culture of Terror, Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the explanation of Torture.”

Chong, “Look, An Asian!” The Politics of Racial Interpellation in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Shootings

1000 mass shootings in 1260 days: this is what America’s gun crisis looks like

The NRA’s Complicity in Terrorism

The gay rights movement could take on NRA, and actually win

The Next Time Someone Calls an AR-15 an assault rifle, show them this

The Orlando massacre was one of 43 shootings yesterday

Why the Orlando Shooting Is Unlikely to Lead to Major New Gun Laws

Stop the gun violence: Ban assault weapons

I was able to buy an AR-15 in five minutes

After Sending ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ to Orlando GOP House Chair Blocks LGBT Protections Bill

Strict military gun control should be our model

We need a radical movement for gun control

NRA Tells Parents to Keep Guns in Kids’ Rooms For Safety

The NRA’s Response To The Orlando Shooting Needs to Break the Pattern

Since Sandy Hook, a gun has been fired on school grounds nearly once a week

Connecticut’s Senators, Who Know Something About Gun Violence, Blames Congress for Orlando Slaughter.

Breaking: Senate Blocks Gun Control Measures and Accomplishes Nothing After Orlando Shooting

NRA-Owned Senate Just Told American People to go F*uck Themselves on Guns

Brock Turner and Me

Republicans Are Erasing LGBTQ People From Their Own Tragedy

The Democrats are Boldly Fighting For a Bad, Stupid Bill

The Use of Error-Prone and Unfair Watchlists Is Not the Way to Regulate Guns in America

 

Week 8 Performance & Patriarchal Pathologies

Bechdel, Fun Home

Tennessee Wiliams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Munoz, “The White to Be Angry”: Vaginal Crème Davis’s Terrorist Drag

California pastor celebrates massacre at Orlando gay club

No Way to Prevent this”: says only nation where this regularly happens

Halberstam, “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene” and Female Masculinity

Sylvia Plath reads “Daddy

Diana DiMassa, The Complete Hothead Paisan

Split Britches, Belle Reprieve (feminist lesbian adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire)

No reason is a reason: Zabar’s customer accidentally shoots self while ordering bagel

 

Week 9 Queer nightlife: safety, joy, erasure and complacence

Ramon Rivera-Servera, “Quotidian Utopias: Latina/o Queer Choreographies”

Christina Handhardt, “Broken Windows and Blue’s: a queer history of gentrification and policing”

I was Born On the Dance Floor: A Playlist for Pulse

I knew 17 who died in Orlando

More than a Safe Space: The Meaning of the Queer Latin Dance Night

Gay Space Cannot Be Straight Women’s Safe Space Until It’s Safe for those who are gay

One kiss and 50 bodies: The Orlando shooting is a reminder that gay people are still hated

Only when I am dancing can I feel this free

Richard Kim, Please Don’t Stop the Music

In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club

 

Week 10

Please add to Week 10 of the syllabus with your suggestions of a rubric, book chapters and articles in the comment section below. In solidarity #orlandosyllabus 

Who Are “We” After Orlando? By Jack Halberstam

22 Jun whoarewe

 

whoarewe

In a recent response to the shootings of Latino gay men and others in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida, on June 12 The Atlantic ran an article claiming that violence against LGBT people in the US was all too common and was even more common than violence directed at other minorities. The main argument of this article was repeated four days later in The New York Times under the heading “L.G.B.T. People Are More Likely to Be Targets
of Hate Crimes Than Any Other Minority Group.” Both articles cited the same source, namely research conducted by Southern Poverty Law Center, and both quote a senior fellow there, Mark Potok. In the article that appeared in The Atlantic, Potok is quoted as saying: “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people.”

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This is an interesting claim in that it presumes both that LGBT people are neither Jews nor Black people and that killers target people only on the basis of one strand of hatred! It also creates a specious hierarchy of violence within which white LGBT people are cast as more vulnerable than other minority groups. These kinds of widely circulated claims support a generalized expression of LGBT vulnerability that appeared on social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, in the wake of the murders. But these killings were highly specific and as new material surfaces on Omar Mateen’s tortured relation to his own sexuality, we want to challenge this sense of an amorphous homophobic threat that separates homophobic violence out from the particular, convulsive expressions of racialized hate.

hate-crimes-against-lgbt-1466044414162-articleLarge-v6Both of the articles on hate crime bury contradictory demographic details about hate crimes against LGBT people towards the end of their reports. In The New York Times, for example, a chart representing the distribution of LGBT violence across race and class tells quite a different story than the sensational headline. When sorted by race, the charts reveal that, in the words of the reporter, “the vast majority of those who were killed were Black and transgender people.” And the charts show that even among those who were not killed, the LGBT people who were most often the victims of hate crimes and violence were people of color.

Obviously the shooting of 49 people in a gay club on a night geared towards Latino gay men shakes all LGBT communities to their core and reminds us of other violent and hate-filled attacks on other clubs over the past few decades. In other queer clubs, on other nights, other bodies have fallen victim to the toxic masculinities that imagine violence as the solution to shifts in the status quo that might shake up hierarchies of sex and gender. But on this night, in this club, the target of steroid fueled, militaristic, narcissistic, deeply conflicted masculinity was a group of mostly Latino gay men.

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Victims of an arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. 32 died.

Justin Torres conjured the scene in the Pulse that night in a beautiful essay offered as a tribute to the slain and titled “In praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club”:

Maybe your Ma blessed you on the way out the door. Maybe she wrapped a plate for you in the fridge so you don’t come home and mess up her kitchen with your hunger. Maybe your Tia dropped you off, gave you cab money home. Maybe you had to get a sitter. Maybe you’ve yet to come out to your family at all, or maybe your family kicked you out years ago. Forget it, you survived… Maybe your half-Latin-ass doesn’t even speak Spanish; maybe you barely speak English. Maybe you’re undocumented.

Torres carefully and tenderly located the victims of the Orlando massacre not as a unified group of gay victims but as a happily disordered group of Latino queers with varying relations to race, language, class, citizenship, family and kinship. Using a second person form of address – “maybe you’re undocumented” – Torres talks to the dead rather than around them, about them, through them. He talks to the dead, recognizing their differences from one another and from the culture that too often threatens, excludes, exploits or ignores them, and Torres situates the club goers in relation to nightlife, to Orlando, to each other and to larger LGBT communities. In his next paragraph, Torres describes what lies outside the club – Christians, Trump, exclusion, racism – and then draws a magic line around the club that designates it as a safe space for people who are patently not safe elsewhere in the culture. Back in the world, Torres reminds the lost, struggle continues, but here, in the club you thrive, you dance, you live: “You didn’t come here to be a martyr, you came to live, papi. To live, mamacita. To live, hijos. To live, mariposas.”

Torres’ beautiful song for the slain mariposas recognizes the beauty and the fragility of this community and situates that fragility in relation to the multiple vectors of violence that exist outside the club and that always threaten to make their way inside. Some of those violators will arrive in the form of unstable men with weapons, some will come in the form of la migra or homeland security, some will and did arrive in the form of the police and others will arrive in the form of white LGBT people who see this violation as their own and incorporate this crime into a general narrative of anti-gay violence.

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Christina Hanhardt has written at length about the specificity of anti-violence claims in LGBT communities and the ways in which some of those claims lead to increased police presence in LGBT communities and increased jeopardy for communities of color. In a summation of her position in The Scholar and Feminist Online (S&F Online), Hanhardt
identifies the role of gentrifying gay male communities within neoliberal and post-welfare urban landscapes. Gay and lesbian gentrifiers, she explains, have often “been hailed as the remedy for urban problems.” And so, all too often, white urban gay populations replace racialized and poor communities and become sites of investment. She writes:

Central to the history of LGBT activism, in which the themes of violence and safety have been so prominent, is the calculation of risk: the risk of violence associated with a gay vulnerability that calls for anticrime initiatives as well as the risk of lost profit linked to real estate speculation. One outcome has been to redefine normative gay identity as an identity threatened by those deemed “criminal” (in particular, the racialized poor), while finding solutions in risk negotiations, including self-regulation and open financial markets.

In other words, urban development projects often depend upon and encourage an often white, gay creative class while displacing and endangering poor communities of color. In turn, white LGBT communities can imagine themselves as part of the nation and its prosperity while queer communities of color are situated as sites of crime, illegality and protest cultures.

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Given the different histories of white LGBT urban populations and LGBT communities of color in relation to space, property, policing and risk, we might ask who “we” are after Orlando. Does the attack on these brown bodies reflect a more generalized vulnerability experienced by LGBT communities as a whole? Is there, in fact, any connection at all between the vulnerability of white LGBT communities to homophobia and the ongoing violence that LGBT communities of color face within the current climate of anti-immigrant, anti-Black, pro-banks, pro-business, free market mayhem?

In the wake of Orlando, it might be time to break up the fantasy of the LGBT monolith not in favor of ever more precise calibrations of identity but on behalf of the urgent need to confront state violence whether it is expressed through a security regime that works well on behalf of bankers and politicians but not at all on behalf of poor people of color or whether it comes in the form of incorporative strategies aimed at privileged queers or increased policing aimed at queers of color. While gay marriage is quickly being offered up as the motivation for increased homophobic hate crime activity – the NYT proposed “Ironically, part of the reason for violence against L.G.B.T. people might have to do with a more accepting attitude toward gays and lesbians in recent decades, say people who study hate crimes” – a better way to understand gay marriage is as part and parcel of an incorporative logic in which opposition is gobbled up and turned into more of the same.

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As middle class white LGBT people celebrate their access to normative social forms and agree to pay the price for such acceptance by consenting to new forms of violent exclusion, they/we cannot simultaneously claim to be the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, the most victimized of the victims, the most in need of shelter, protection and sanctuary. Orlando showed me at least that the security state we live in with its second amendment values and its shouty, crude formulations of “us” and “them” needs to be countered with complex, intricate, risky conversations about who “we” are and who “we” want to become.

9780814757284_DetailFor Torres, Orlando brings us face to face with the transformative power of Latin night at the queer club: “The only imperative is to be transformed, transfigured in the disco light.” In a similar way, Orlando brings us to José Muñoz’s conjuring of queer utopia as “a type of affective excess that presents the enabling force of a forward-dawning futurity.” Orlando is not a generalized and non-specific “we” it is a clearly situated “you” standing, dancing, living and dying in the wee hours of the morning, in a space at the very furthest edge of community, on the verge of a forward-dawning futurity into which other worlds, could and will come to be.

Ball Busters and the Recurring Trauma of Intergenerational Queer/Feminist Life

20 Feb

lesbianangerBy Kyla Wazana Tompkins

So I’ve been paying attention to the most recent intergenerational ideological feminist-queer wars (OMG Germaine Greer! nobody should protect your hate speech!) with some exasperation, no little tiredness, and a sense of deja-vu all over again. I remember during the last two rounds of ideological wars—the race wars and the sex wars—that I was on the angry/wounded/not-yet institutionalized side of the issue, and I then sounded a lot like the generation coming up now, a generation who are doing a lot of the necessary and exhausting push-work around trans, disability, trans of color and gentrification issues. Now I’m that cliché—the tenured Women’s Studies professor—I’m on what sometimes seems like the other side of things. It’s better than still being poor, but it kind of sucks to lose the high moral ground, that’s for sure.

I count myself among the people who have a lot of learning to do around trans politics. Three internet explosions have seemed to unfold in the last year between trans folks and (largely white, often lesbian, sometimes large-R Radical) feminist structures: the Paris is Burning social media explosion last summer; the internal battles and the letters addressing the Midwives Alliance of North America in relation to their new trans-inclusive policies; and then closer to home for me, the blogs and facebook battles about the October 2015 Killjoy Kastle Lesbian Feminist Haunted House in Los Angeles and in Toronto a few years ago. A lot of the time, I’m trying to just shut up and read and listen and learn from the new work and the activists in the field. I have a reading list I’m working through. I wonder at the energy it takes to mount a work of art, or organize a political statement, and I wonder at the level of rage and vitriol that our era’s comments-section politics seem to provoke.

My first understandings of queer and feminist politics came through exposure to early radical/liberal feminisms in the 1970s. You can see some of that moment in a film my mother, Lydia Wazana, made with our then-roommate Kay Armatage (Armatage went on to herself become a Women’s Studies Professor).(1) The film, about lesbian writer, journalist, and dance critic Jill Johnston, depicts Jill Johnston’s trip to give a lecture at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1975 (at the time still a small child, I’m not in it, a fact I still can’t forgive). There’s a lot to say about the limits of Jill Johnston’s feminism: the biological essentialism that underwrites her idea of womanhood as a stable category; her tracing out of gender identity through a kind of operatic Oedipal model; her temperamental diva behavior; and the fact that once the film was finished she publicly disavowed it and refused to allow it to be shown in the US. Much of this history is taken up in performance scholar Sara Warner’s article about the film.(2)

One thing you can’t say about Jill Johnston is that she wasn’t what was then called a “ball-buster”: a take-no-prisoners, man-hating dyke (her own term and also the term, hilariously, that she uses to describe herself and Germaine Greer – on whom more below – on the occasion of a shared trip to a strip club in London). There’s even a key scene in the film when she gets really mad at a man in the audience and gives him an intense ball-busting dyke response to what simply seems to be his presence. She says: “Like, I feel a hostile male element in here and it’s bothering me…I don’t mind guys being here but I feel a hostile male element and, um, that’s making me, that’s making me agitated.”

 

When the young man attempts to engage her she explodes at him: “You better get the fuck out of here or I’m going to kick you right in the balls and get you out of here so fast man…. I don’t like your generalizations, man….So sit down, shut up, or get out. I feel a hostile male vibe in here, and I don’t like it….You don’t feel it and I feel it. You feel something different than I feel!”(3)

 

I want to linger here , for a second, with the shape and form of Jill Johnston’s anger. It rolls out, as she allows it to, across the lecture room where men and women are sitting on the floor listening to her speak and engaging her in conversation. Her body language is aggressive and her voice is harsh: she points at the young man, threatens him in one of his most intimate and vulnerable (but also simultaneously erogenous and then for so many anti-violence radical feminists, dangerous) body parts. So precisely aimed, pointing her finger at him, her anger is set off by the young man’s putative hostility, which she characterizes as a kind of diffuse “vibe” and as a “hostile element.” Her anger is powerful, taking its authority from a gendered affective form that coincides with the politics she has been called to the University of Toronto to lecture on, but also from her well-documented willingness to be outrageous.


Feeling is the fuel that drives our political engagements, as Lauren Berlant and so many others have shown. But emotions are, as all know, felt and apprehended only through their historically-possible legibilities. Here I want to deploy what I think is one of the most profound insights that Berlant’s Cruel Optimism affords us: that thinking with affect allows us, as readers and critics, to listen to political formations – to the event – before we can name what they are.(4) An emergent formation, in Raymond Williams’ words; capacity in Deleuze’s terms; potentia for Spinoza. Something is happening.

What was going on, we can now say in retrospect, in the fall of 1975 in a room in Toronto with a bunch of men, women, feminists, lesbians, and lesbian-feminists getting together to talk about what they would probably call Sex,what we now call Gender, was a conversation about what must have then felt like a shaky theoretical formation: lesbian feminism, or perhaps just feminism, or maybe both: the difference is still being worked out in their discussions. As the film shows us, it’s a conversation that was then stuck in the mire of pressing and unanswered questions like:

What does it mean to be a woman?
How can we be different kinds of women?
What does lesbianism have to do with being a woman? With feminism?
What do men have and what do men get (own or apprehend) that we don’t?

Johnston’s answers to those questions align with much of the big-R Radical Feminist thinking of that moment: an anthropological ahistoricism that locates femaleness in relation to a mythical collective matriarchal tribal formation, in which self realization – something yet to be gained by women – is achieved through identification with what men have: individuality. Women, Johnston attests, have to get that individuality by rejecting their tribal – read, actual – mothers. And of course, as she said in her debate with Norman Mailer, a few years before coming to Toronto: the revolution would only happen when all women were lesbians.

From the perspective of feminist and queer theory in 2015, forty years later, Johnston’s ideas might sound pedantic and dated. And, as contemporary trans politics, trans activist history, and woman of color feminism tells us, the binaristic answers that emerged in that moment – there are only men and only women and out of that only patriarchy – were limited, hurtful, and exercised an exclusionary violence that has left and continues to leave deep scars in the consequences of feminism’s own limited and violent disciplinary formations. And if you have seen the video of Sylvia Rivera being pushed off the stage by Jean O’Leary (linking here to activist, historian and author Reina Gossett‘s Vimeo page) or if you read Germaine Greer’s outrageously violent and offensive attacks on trans people, you are only beginning to get the span of radical feminist abusiveness to trans communities. (Although if a recent Advocate article is true – if – we are also only beginning to get at the suppressed stories of alliances between these putative enemies.)

Jill Johnston’s ball-busting outrageousness can’t really be treated as a gesture isolated from a politics that had terrible consequences. But I do want to make a plea for a return to thinking about this period of nascent second-wave politics with something other than pure dismissal or defensiveness, or even nostalgia. And picking up Berlant’s argument, I want to suggest that one way to do shift the conversation might be to just sit and listen to the affective form of these two politics-in-emergence.

For instance: contradictory and illogical (“there’s a vibe”), vague (angry at “generalizations”), Johnston’s performance makes sense as a form of incipient political feeling, one without a sufficient logic to ground it. It is bound to the deep solipsism of liberal individual feeling (“I feel it and you don’t feel it”) while it also tries and somewhat fails to act as a communal interpellation, against which or with which the listeners in the audience are necessarily trapped into responding, although obviously with some ambivalence: one woman in the audience calls out, exasperated “Oh come on!!” It is unclear who is the audience member is talking to: maybe the whole room, maybe Johnston alone. Both of these speakers reach out to each other, or someone, and don’t quite connect.

I’m reminded here of Agamben’s phrase in Means Without End when he says: “In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record that loss.”(5) I find Johnston’s rage – and indeed many of the images in that film, of women dancing together, hanging out, talking – to be deeply beautiful, to be awful, and also to be something admirable. I admire her anger as an artifact of a time when lesbian presence – ugly, monstrous, furious, righteous – had a new currency or traction in the world by the simple fact that it had never been made visible in that way before. I understand Johnston’s outrageous theatricality as a gesture that is deluded in understanding itself to have not already been recuperated by power, to have been enabled by her whiteness, her celebrity, and the very basic exclusionary violence of the terms within which feminism understood itself at the time (just recall Jean O’Leary saying with contempt: “that man” Sylvia Rivera). But I also understand it to have been flawed, unfinished and tentative.

Is it possible to hold all of those phenomena at the same time? Which is to say, is it possible to relate to lesbian and feminist history without deploying the basic Oedipal (Electra?) drama against the past that Johnston herself advocates? Do we always have to murder our mothers? These are questions that came to me recently when I was volunteering as a “Killjoy” professor at Allison Mitchell and Deidre Logue’s Killjoy Kastle Lesbian Haunted House event in Los Angeles. (6)

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For days a debate had raged on the Facebook event page about the “Ball-Busting room, a room in the installation that some trans women and trans people have long found, and still do find, transmysogynist and violent. Accusations flew; flame wars started and sputtered out; people were “called out” – such wistful performativity in that phrase! – or just flat-out called names.

The Killjoy Kastle walks participants through a series of rooms meant to represent both the past and the present state of lesbian feminism, in its academic and cultural formations: a room full of hanging tampon/boxing bags labeled “Racism” and “Colonialism” and so forth that you are meant, as an intersectional feminist, to battle through; doorways that look like the Vagina Dentata; a Labia/Library full of Gender Studies classic texts in which actors hold a “riot ghoul” dance party; a Daddy Pen (prison holding cell for imprisoned trans people and sex workers); a crypt for dead lesbian organizations. Each of these demonstrate artist Allyson Mitchell and her partner and collaborator Deidre Logue’s signature maximalist aesthetic: a combination of DIY-craftiness, Dadaist object-orientation and high-allegorical feminist performance.(7)

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In the Ball-Busting Room, the room that has attracted quite a bit of controversy, two actors smash plaster trucknutz ™ into smithereens while the “Demented Women’s Studies Professor” who is guiding visitors through the Kastle intones:

“Here we find the ball bustas hard at work—they can hardly keep up with the demand for their ritualistic ball smashing. These sweet hearts got tired of the old adage “ball busting dyke” and decided to just go for it full time. The balls, naturally, are symbolic of one of multiple interwoven oppressions emerging from the rule of white patriarchy—looks like they really are just a symbol though, judging from that pile of rubble.”

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In a string of vituperative arguments, commenters on Facebook testified that the ball-busting room “triggered” them, that it felt hateful and violent towards trans women, that the threatened violence towards male genitalia was and is a kind of violence towards trans women’s embodiment. There’s no point in arguing with someone else’s experience of a particular art installation. That experience is just as true as is the intentions and experiences of the artists and organizers of the event. But what seemed unutterable in these conversations is this: that many of the critiques of the Killjoy Kastle are deeply forgetful of the work that so many of those big-R radical and lesbian cultural feminists did.

I say this as someone who yelled at and protested white radical feminists, including my own Women’s Studies professors, as someone who sat at Camp Trans and marched with the first trans march at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (and then never went back for a bunch of reasons that had to do with the whiteness and dumb gender essentialism of the place): we really owe those women a lot. And at the same time, it would have been so much better if that generation had moved out of the way faster, if they had listened harder, if they had dealt with their racism, their homophobia, their deep failures of imagination around sex, around gender, around class. Both of those things are true and somehow, in relation to the accusations of transmisogyny that floated around the Killjoy Kastle, not to mention the gleeful celebrating of the final closing of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, it seems impossible to say those two things at once.

Another way of asking this question is: are the critiques of the imperfect politics that emerged from the radical feminists’ essentialist definitions of woman themselves fueled by a certain kind of misogyny? Is the consequence of that misogyny yet another erasure of lesbianism from the horizon of queer politics? And also: is there another way to go about this?

Perhaps the answer lies in the idea of triggering itself. If trauma is the suturing of the past to the present, and a trigger is the affective, that is physiological and psychic, re-experience of that trauma, isn’t a triggering incident – like the Killjoy Kastle – exactly the opportunity to confront the history that is brought forward? Of course trigger is not an uncomplicated word and its use is meant to index psychic pain. Ironically enough, we owe the very popularization of “triggering” to the work that radical feminists did in shaping various anti-violence movements, as well as in developing feminist therapy protocols for sexual violence survivors. We could further argue that the very term “trigger” – as traumatic memory locked in the body as well as psyche – sits very comfortably next to the essentialist understandings of body and identity that we now seek to exceed. How then are we to think, as queers, as feminists, as trans peoples, with this political moment? Is there a productive way to work with the trigger formation in this historical moment without conceding to all of its problematic underpinnings?

Another irony then: if the person who is being triggered is actually the person who cannot separate the past from the present, they are also the only person who can do the work of resolving that trauma. And this is where I return to this recurrent intergenerational drama that we, as feminists and queers, are engaged in: The activists that are busting up queer and feminist politics these days have something to say—obviously they know that and don’t need me to say it—but they, and thus we, are also in the middle of a political movement in formation. Older, institutionalized, empowered, whatever your position —you (I) need to step aside and listen and witness. You (I) need to not foreclose those politics because they are furious and hurt and (sometimes) seem inchoate. Fury is the point: inchoate fury is the affective crossroads at which the articulation of political injury and opposition finds itself before it has a chance to be recuperated into the legibility that is power.

I’m trying to make more of that statement than the pedantic gesture it seems, on first writing, to be. What I mean, more clearly, is that the larger concatenation of cross-generational arguments happening in separate queer and feminist spaces in this moment, such as trigger warnings, call-out culture, trans gender/TERF/radical-R lesbian ideological battles signals a larger sense of a politics-in-formation that is remapping queer/trans/feminist/twenty-first century body politics along newly-charged neural, physiological and affective lines. Many others have said this before: the question of shifting somatic formations within our current microbiopolitical moment is all over the pages of feminist and queer theory.

Thus perhaps what feels, at least to those of us teaching in the academy, like a precious moment of heightened individuation within a monetized education system (sometimes driven by an untenured academic and student-affairs precariat whose very economic survival depends on the production of crisis as well as symptom and accommodation management) might also be productively understood as an emergent and important collective political formation. And that rather than turning our noses up at this moment, at the language of triggers and call-outs, now might be the time to think more deeply with the shape – with the gift really – of queer and feminist intergenerational anger as it returns to us again, in accusations of historical and ongoing trauma.

I realize I’m collapsing a number of movements into each other here – disability politics, trans politics, academic institutional politics, activist rhetorics – in such a way as to occlude each of their particular trajectories. As indeed, I am collapsing many forms of early radical feminism. But I’m more basically making an argument here for a form of political thinking  that might work along two different historical trajectories: more generously towards the past and more deeply in the now.

Thus without dating myself too radically, I also want to say something to the coming generation about the past: I want to tell you what I miss about radical lesbian feminism, the white and the non-white versions. I want you to know that despite having fought cultural feminism—having hated its racism, its femme-phobia, its profound allergy to women of color, our ways of being in the world—having hated radical feminism’s failure to theorize and enjoy aesthetics, having chafed against its doctrinaire limitations, that nonetheless I miss the utopian, counter-identificatory spirit of cultural lesbian feminism very much and I recognize that the energy of that movement gave birth to me and many women like me. Whatever lesbian and cultural feminism missed, it had a kind of energy that believed that revolution was possible. Separatism, with all of its limitations, inspired people to go out and build stuff, bookstores and “womyn’s land” and bars and women’s centres and rape crisis centres and shelters and, you know, a lot that is now gone. It failed, or it didn’t survive, or it persists in fortunate and unfortunate ways, in ways that should be grievable. One of those fortunate ways might be in the similarities between lesbian-feminist anger then and queer-feminist anger now.

To forget that imperfect work and those imperfect politics is a form of misogyny that needs to be considered alongside transmisogyny as a real and ongoing formation. As work by Elizabeth Freeman and Juana Maria Rodriguez shows us the lesbian is always the drag on the future, the lesbian always escapes representation, the lesbian, especially the femme, is always the woman who is left behind.(8) Do we have to keep doing that too? Do we have to keep unciting lesbians and lesbian feminism from the daily work and theorizing of queer life? Similarly, do we have to continue foreclosing the politics that are yet to come? What if Jean O’Leary had welcomed Sylvia Rivera onto the stage and handed her the mike? What if the National Organization of Women hadn’t excluded lesbian politics from their agenda? What if the Human Rights Campaign actually took up racism and poverty as key problems for queer survival? They didn’t and so far they haven’t. But they still could.

In the ball-busting room of the Killjoy Kastle, I can hear in my head the ball-busting dykes of my childhood and my teens and twenties, the old-school women who got the shit kicked out of them by cops, who were raped and abused and fired, and who drank and loved and fought like fuck to have the right to really love other women in the ways that they wanted to. The ones who showed up to listen to Jill Johnston, to puzzle their ways towards collective political theory. For some trans peoples “ball busting” is a negation of their embodiment and gender complexity, and it directly attacks their right to live in female bodies that continue to have penises and testicles, for instance. Now that I’ve had my eyes opened by that conversation, that’s what ball-busting will be for me too. But also: remembering “ball busting” is also a way to remember how much those feminists and dykes suffered and created and how much I exist because of them. Those structures of feeling need to exist next to each other because they are historically linked; the failed utopias of the one molding the inchoateness of the next.

 

When we dream of a totalizing politics, and when we dream of spaces that might manifest those totalized politics as whole and healing formations, we will always be disappointed. But somewhere inside the utopian imaginings of wounded political formations and the righteous and inchoate fury that emerges from their encounter with the dystopia we actually live in—a dystopia often formed by the utopian thinkers that came before—is a politic we really need to hear. As painful as that encounter might be I want to be sure to remember that it is also important and necessary to the possibility of feminist and queer futures.

(1) Kay Armatage and Lydia Wazana, directors. Jill Johnston….1975. Canadian Film Distributors Film Centre, 1977. Film available for purchase here: http://www.cfmdc.org/node/757

(2) Warner, Sara. “A Gay Old Time: Jill Johnston October 1975” in Affect/Performance/Canada: New Essays in Canadian Theatre, ed. Erin Hurley (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2014).

(3) Here’s my mom on the context of the conflict: “Jill…gave her lecture at U of T which was also filmed. The guy that she yelled at was there to be obnoxious, his friend is the guy leaning on the wall smirking. They came in off the street and of course Jill didn’t need much to take them on (if you remember the Norman Mailer affair).” Email exchange, December 10, 2015.

(4) Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

(5) Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). 53. Agamben wants to loosen the notion of the gesture as a “the crystal of historical memory.” He writes: “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” In this way, the gesture becomes less of a performative ideal and more of “a movement that has its end in itself.”

(6)”Killjoy” is a term coined by Sarah Ahmed. See Ahmed’s blog for an explanation of the term.

(7) All Killjoy Kastle photographs credited to Deidre Logue.

(8) Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Juana Maria Rodriguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures and Other Latina Longings (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

IS THERE LIFE ON MARS? GOODBYE TO BOWIE BY JACK HALBERSTAM

14 Jan as_front_300k

bowie1It is not a question of whether you are or were a fan of David Bowie, it is a question of which Bowie was your Bowie. My Bowie, at various times, was the lightning streaked face of Aladdin Sane, the dulcet voiced soul man of Young Americans and the rock god of the Orwellian extravaganza, Diamond Dogs. I also kept Station to Station and Low on my turntable for weeks at a time in the 1970’s during Bowie’s “Berlin” period and listened to David Live obsessively, especially the mash up of “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” from Diamond Dogs. For me, as for so many, David Bowie represented a glittering, odd, unearthly reminder that life is about change, risk, madness and mayhem, and that while our domestic structures work hard to keep the madness at bay, we must be ready at all times to “turn and face the strange.”

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Social History. Housing. Manchester, England. Circa 1970’s. Slum clearance in Salford showing a terraced area being demolished.

To understand Bowie, you partly have to understand what England was like in the 1970’s and what it meant to suddenly, in the middle of this a grey, ruinous landscape of charred buildings, post-war debris, and financial collapse, find out that there is a “starman “waiting in the skies.” bowie-ronson-spaceThis was the message that British youth watching Top of the Pops in 1972 received loud and clear from a beautifully eccentric and sexy performance of “Starman” by Bowie and Mick Ronson. Dressed in shiny pant suits and wearing high boots and shaggy hair-do’s, Bowie and Ronson really did look like they had fallen to earth from some distant planet where people had fun, believed in something and knew they could change worlds. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust told us to be receptive to the messages from Mars and other planets; he counseled youth to listen to the secret memos from the starman, to pay attention to the coded communications from other worlds; he told us that the starman would only speak to us if we sparkled (“if we sparkle, he may land tonight”), and he taught us that all that sparkles is indeed gold. And no sooner did he create a persona with which to tell new stories about sex, rock and riot than he killed the man and started again.

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My first Bowie album was Aladdin Sane. I studied the cover art for some clues as to who this ambiguously gendered person might be and I thrilled to the persona of the mad lad singing of mortality, protest, drag queens and race riots in Detroit. I knew no queer people at that time and knew of few escapes from the suffocating normativity of British school life in the 1970’s. But I felt that Bowie represented something special, something just out reach, something or someone that I did not know yet but set off to encounter. With his otherworldly voice that ranged from low growls to ethereal falsettos, and with his calls to rebellion – both social and gendered – Bowie captured the emergent political imagination of a generation. He was queer before queer, punk before punk, cool long after Presley. Bowie disobeyed all laws of genre and he merged English glam rock with US soul music, rhythm and blues with jazz and funk with electronica without seeming opportunistic, appropriative or dilettantish.

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Bowie’s sexuality was always up for grabs. It was not a question of whether he was gay (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) or straight (“Be My Wife”), many of his public relationships have, after all, been with women; but Bowie always laid claim to a kind of excess, a set of identities that exceeded norms and expectations and that were some combination of male femininity (Ziggy), masculine exotic (Aladdin Sane), Martian sexiness, ethereal beauty, originality and innovation. The word most often used about Bowie, and one I have made recourse to here, is “otherworldly.” His reputation as profoundly alien was enhanced by movies like Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 space oddity:Man-Who-Fell-to-Earth-800x450 The Man Who Fell to Earth. This movie, like no other (apart from maybe his “walk off” cameo in Zoolander!) confirmed Bowie’s status as unearthly. He needed no make up to be convincing as a man from another world – in the film he is called a “visitor,” a “freak,” an “alien” and he manages to convey a sense of bodily oddness that is unique in film.

Is there life on Mars? If you believe in David Bowie, the answer is yes. While earth for Bowie is a place where time is on perpetual repeat (“Always Crashing in the Same Car”), in the exotic and exciting moonage daydreams that Bowie conjures, apocalypse appears alongside utopia, futures are exciting and curtailed (“we can be heroes…just for one day”), and the body is a place to play out colorful fantasies of love and rebellion. As we say goodbye to a truly queer icon, a performer who invited us to “press your space face close to mine, love,” we also bid farewell to someone who has reinvented fame, spectacle, eccentricity and stardom.

But, Bowie left us a final album to decode, Blackstar, where he intones:

“I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangster)

But I can tell you how (I’m not a flam star)

We were born upside-down (I’m a star star)

Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)

(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar

I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star

I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.”

Not a white star, not a gangster, not a wandering star, a black star – Bowie’s final message, part physics/part undercommons, draws upon the metaphors of space that saturate his entire output. A black star in physics represents, Wikipedia tells us “a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity,” it is a zone where event and infinity collide, where matter disintegrates into a vacuum. It is a space of death and dying. But black star could also be a way of rethinking racialized embodiment itself such that the thin white duke recognizes himself in the black aesthetics that swirl through his music, the soul inflections that he channels and inhabits and the machinery of fame that works through a process of Black music/white stars, transferring fame to white bodies from music created through and around the experience of blackness. What others appropriate, Bowie inhabits. What others steal, Bowie acknowledges. What others hold at a distance, Bowie embraces.

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“I’m a blackstar,” Bowie sings, “I’m a blackstar.” So, while we attribute some of Bowie’s incandescent oddness to gender and sexual ambiguity, race is also a huge part of what rendered Bowie a star – not a white star, not a pornstar, not a wandering star, but a black star. As Bowie now passes into immortality, as he assumes legendary proportions, as he comes to represent the expansiveness of wild reinvention, musical experimentation, bodily flexibility, political imagination and queer uncertainty, we should look up to the sky and sparkle in the hopes of receiving a message from pop culture’s most beloved astronaut, a starman waiting in the sky.

The Student Demand

17 Nov

By Tav Nyong’o

 

A question has been ringing through my ears this past week, growing louder with my every attempt to brush it away.

“Who the fuck made you master?”*  It was a question asked, no shouted, in a moment of despair and righteous discontent. An angry, no, an uncivil question, and to that extent, a question without any answer in a civilized society whose underside, as Walter Benjamin well knew, contains countless barbarisms.

“Who the fuck made you master?”

The questioner has been mocked, admonished, even physically threatened for daring to ask it. In this era of viral publicity, bullies morph into the bullied and back again with dizzying speed. We feel constantly pushed around and always on our last nerve. But we should always stop and pay careful attention to those moments when someone — a young black woman in this instance — is threatened with physical retribution for asking an inconvenient question.

The questioner’s location as one of the privileged few at Yale University should not distract us from the relevance of her demand for the rest of us. We all have parents, bosses, teachers, authority figures charged with our safety and well-being. Many of us are fortunate to receive the care and support that is promised and expected. But all of us know or have experienced situations where an authority figure has grievously failed. It is disorienting and difficult, which is to say it takes tremendous courage and conviction, to stand up to that authority figure and simply ask where their authority comes from. Democracy, real democracy, always begins with a question that cannot but provoke a conflict with the status quo: who made you the boss of me?

I could only bring myself to watch the viral video in question this morning. I felt I already knew its content and, even more, I knew how it would be received by an anti-black, anti-woman, anti-intellectual culture. I knew the clip could not possibly provide a full or accurate picture of the black and native student struggle at Yale, and that it would be all the more of a misleading caricature for being a decontextualized fragment of something that did indeed happen.

But when I did finally watch it, the angst with which the questioner spoke those words moved me in a way that I was unprepared for. What few seem to notice or give credence to was what it had cost her to lose her temper in that way, to meet the establishment defenders of “free speech” with her own brand of “fearless speech.” What was that cost, I wanted to know? And aren’t we all now, because of that cost she paid, in her debt?

Black studies as a the critique of Western civilization teaches us to ask: What do we owe each other for the sacrifices we each are called upon to make to rebuke and repair this world? How can we — those of us who profess to educate — accept the student demand not only as a rebuke, which it certainly is, but also as a gift?

I am now glad the video has been seen by so many, not because it provides visual proof of  a privileged millennial “crybully” asking to be protected from free speech and intellectual inquiry, but because it forces again a question America keeps refusing to answer:

Do black lives matter? And, if they do, or if they should, don’t we have to immediately change everything about how a society and culture founded in white supremacy and settler colonialism continues operates?

How can any institution — a school, a corporation, an army, a police force, a prison — expect to continue along with business as usual after conceding that it is founded upon structural racism and colonial settlement?

And yes, who, exactly, made you master?

Black students in Missouri, South Africa, New Haven and beyond have in the past few weeks renewed the promise of a #BlackLivesMatter movement many of us feared was beginning to falter. Without conceding an inch on questions of police and vigilante violence and killings of black women, transgender black people, black men of all ages, these students have broadened the scope of concern from the moments of our dying to the days of our living. This is crucial for those of us who don’t want to live our lives in a constant state of mourning, even as we honor and remember our dead. Those of us who need to dance at the revolution, who have to sing at the sit-in, who want to feel the joy and solidarity of being alive while we still can. Those of us who understand that beauty, friendship, peace, and mutual aid are always fragile things in this turbulent world, and never to be taken for granted or dismissed as secondary pursuits, (to be taken care of perhaps by the women and queers, as the sad militant pursues his ever more totalizing view of some ever more grim and punishing “reality.”)

I was asked recently: was it ethical for a student to go on hunger strike to oust the president of the University of Missouri for incompetence in addressing racism and economic gender inequity? I felt a note of care and concern for the consequences of “student extremism” was behind the question. I don’t know how I would have counseled a friend who was considering such a path; I haven’t yet walked in those shoes. But I do know that hunger strikes belongs to a venerable tradition of non-violent resistance to civil government. It is a complex and rich question that Patrick Anderson’s insightful book, So Much Wasted, explores in greater detail than I can here. But how could I do anything but honor and salute the bravery of a student who stood publicly to declare unacceptable the arbitrary withdrawal of health care — and in particular of reproductive medical care for women —  because of political and budgetary pressures?

It may seem wrong to endanger our health, but it is right to stand by passively as the health of thousands is endangered by the  sanctimonious and the greedy?

The new black student movement is teaching me that it is not enough to protest wrongful death, or to chant each others names (as we must) when another one of us is murdered. We must also challenge the terms of our living as well as our dying; we need an actual say in how we live and thrive, how we learn and grow.

We need to “decolonize our gratitude” as someone told me on Twitter; we must challenge the quietist assumption that black and brown people should express more and frequent gratitude over just being allowed to live (rather than killed), over being given educational opportunity (rather than being jailed or beaten), over being citizens of a wealthy and privileged nation at a moment of great chaos, poverty, and disaster in our present world (rather than held in infinite detention at the bleeding borders where the desperate, fleeing extremism, meet the accusation that they themselves are the bearer of the horror they flee).

The new black student movement is changing the terms upon which our culture responds to the performative utterance: Black Lives Matter. Only yesterday, the best that the irrelevant could say in response was to retort, “well, All Lives Matter”! But the student movement has already moved us well past this feeble stutter. Now we actually have to face the question: if black lives, like all lives, matter, then what? Why would expect that answering in the affirmative — yes, black lives do matter — would be the end of it? The students aren’t looking for a cheap affirmation. They already know that their black lives matter; it’s a rhetorical question!

The real challenge is not just to verbally concede the equality of human dignity and the unacceptability of racist speech, conduct, and of violence targeting black, brown, muslim, Asian, and indigenous people. The real challenge is, having conceded this principle, to follow up on actions that actively transform this situation. “Act from thought should quickly follow,” the poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “what is thinking for?”

No one thinks it acceptable, in the name of transgressive free speech or adult child development, for white Ivy League students to mock and abuse native American and black students by dressing as rastafarians or Indian chiefs for Halloween. This is not a question of “safe space” or hypersensitivity: common sense tells us that no civil society could accept such behavior without public reprimand. You cannot study and live together with someone you think of as your inferior, or treat as a laughingstock. You cannot leave the slain unburied in the hot sun for hours, or leave the murders of indigenous women unsolved and uninvestigated. When we act in uncivilized, barbaric ways towards Muslims, blacks, and native peoples, we deserve to be admonished, upbraided, and chastened to do better.

No one thinks it acceptable for Americans to continue to lampoon sacred native rituals in “war dances” or paint their faces at sports competitions featuring teams with names like “Redskins.” The resurgence of native survival and resistance  — no, of intellect and creativity — in North America and beyond is one of the most exciting developments in recent years, where have you been? Do you want to live in the world of Clinton the Second or Bush the Third, or is another world not only possible, but already present in the epistemologies and ontologies of the oppressed?

Movements like #IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter are first and foremost movements among black and native communities to regain the self respect with which we can say, without fear of reproach or ridicule, that triumphalist signs of genocide, slavery, and segregation cannot possibly remain at the symbolic center of our culture. Rhodes must fall. So must any other name that serves to honor those who would prefer we never walk their halls except as servants. I once took ironic pride in belonging to institutions named after racists, anti-semites, and other disreputable characters. My very presence was a rebuke, I once thought. But I am starting to wonder whether I need to start dreaming bigger dreams.

The students are doing nothing more than demanding that society actually live up to the values it professes. And they bear the unbearable truth that society can never openly admit: that to actually live up to its stated values, it would have to become something wholly other, even something unrecognizable to its former self.

Transformation is never easy, and rarely is any local struggle fully cognizant of the broader canvas. What is more, the passionate rebuke of the status quo is difficult, dangerous, emotional work. These students are adults, not children, and it is wrong to infantilize them, and a mistake to draw on our expertise in child psychology or our experience as pedagogues to talk down to them.

At the heart of all the student demands heard ringing through the world these past weeks and months, there is this singular fact: the fact of the student demand.

What does the student demand?

The student demands to know who made you the master and her the dependent. The student demands to set the future conditions for her study, which she understands to be a collective study, a study that cannot be contained by Ivy or state school walls.

The athlete demands to know who made you coach, and why he has been robbed of an education and possibly injured for life while you make millions off of his play.

The student demands the right to reclaim her study; to know the world in order to change it. That demand is the freest, most fearless speech we may have the privilege to hear. Will we listen?

*A free, indirect paraphrase of a range of student speech acts heard recently, rather than a direct quotation of any individual person. Thanks to Zahid Chaudhary for reminding me to add this clarification. On free, indirect discourse, please see Typewriter.

Queer Complacency without Empire

22 Sep

Lisa Duggan

When I teach undergraduate Queer Studies, we begin by listing all the meanings that students can generate for the term queer. Then we group them into three categories: (1) Identity, or queer as a synonym for LGBT populations; (2) Practice, or queer as a broad umbrella term for dissenting sexual practices and gender expressions, and (3) Politics, or queer as a designation similar to feminist that appears quite independently of an advocate’s identity or sexual/gender practices. Our discussion of these divergent meanings usually leads us to understand that they all exist simultaneously, often used by the same individual at different moments. Though I prefer the third usage, I often find myself unselfconsciously using the first two. In the context of Queer Studihttps://i1.wp.com/www.theory.org.uk/queermap2.gifes, it’s important to sort these meanings out in our readings and conversations. Each has different resonances and implications.

The most recent special issue of differences, “Queer Theory without Antinormativity,” volume 26, number 2 (May 2015) edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, runs through all these meanings without much attention to the distinctions among them. In the introduction to the volume, Wiegman and Wilson alternatively refer to queer theory, queer studies, queer inquiry and queer critique, also without any noted distinctions. But perhaps most fatally for this issue’s project, they use the terms norm, normalizing and normativity also with little effort to map the historically shifting and overlapping meanings of the terms.

It’s not that they make no effort to historicize. They do point out, via Foucault and others, that the juridical meaning of norms as rules that order and restrict shifts to a biopolitical, statistical meaning of norms as averages at the beginning of the 19th century. Their critique of queer theory (or studies, critique, inquiry etc) rests on the arguments that (1) queer theory is universally underpinned by a foundational antinormativity, and that (2) this antinormativity is dyadic and oppositional, based on the earlier notion of norms as rules, rather than on the more generative, expansive, individualizing concept of norms as averages that require variation.https://i0.wp.com/blogs.worldbank.org/files/publicsphere/norm2.jpeg

What is wrong with these arguments? Everything. Though the editors’ introduction provides a wide-ranging and inclusive survey of work in queer theory, their grasp of what underlies the scholarship published after 2000, especially in the field of queer of color critique, is faulty. They seem deeply familiar with work published in the 1990s, but when they extend their critique of that work forward in time they run rapidly off the rails. For instance, beginning with Licia Fiol-Matta’s Queer Mother for the Nation, published in 2002, much new work in queer studies abandoned the notion that queer identities or practices are somehow inherently radical, or that queer politics is necessarily oppositional to historical forms of political and economic power.

Fiol-Matta’s study of the deployment of the queer figure of Gabriela Mistral as a support for the dominant forms of racial capitalism and nationalism in Latin America decimated those assumptions of inherent queer subversiveness, and deeply influenced the flood of work to come in queer of color critique and transnational queer and feminist studies. Wiegman and Wilson’s readings of that post 2000 work are flattening and distorting; in describing it all as underpinned by a dyadic antinormativity they are blind to the major developments in queer thinking that emerged with this work over the past 15 years.https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/413FN1JS7WL._UY250_.jpg

But that isn’t the only stream of queer publication that they get wrong. They also search out instances of dyadic oppositional antinormativity in work that they otherwise acknowledge does not fit that frame. In discussing Lee Edelman’s NoFuture, after acknowledging that he generally evades the oppositional framing they argue underpins the whole field, they find one footnote where he appears to fall into that trap. Via that footnote they include him in their survey of the field united in their version of antinormative error.

In addition to misdescribing “the field” that they variously name as queer something, Wiegman and Wilson also offer a narrow and ahistorical definition of norms and normativity by which to measure the adequacy of those terms in the work of queer writers. They hew to the Foucauldian definition, and chide queer authors for using a “wrong” notion of norms as restrictive rules. In this they are wrong on two counts: (1) There is no historical supersession of statistical norms over rule based norms, both are in wide current use in the social and political world, and (2) They totally neglect the civilizational, imperial history of norms as racial ideals used to measure the “development” of inferior races. Developmental norms are pervasive in the history of empire and settler colonialism, and they appear in psychology also as “developmental” norms drawn from the highest racial “achievements” of prosperous male Europeans. Queer work that engages with racial capitalism, empire, transnationalism, and decolonial movements invokes these kinds of norms as ideals—the nuclear monogamous family, the “democratic” capitalist state, the rise of rationalist science, etc. These of course include sexual ideals as norms, appearing as the very logic of racial, class, gender and religious hierarchies. This work does not propose any simple, dyadic form of queer antinormativity as opposition. Nayan Shah, Roderick Ferguson and so many others map complex forms of aspiration for inclusion as well as modes of exclusion in a constantly shifting historical political economy.

(My own use of the term homonormativity does not focus on dyadic opposition to dominant norms, but rather maps a complex set of changing historical relations to an unstable political economy—homonormativity only becomes possible during the 1990s in the capitalist “democracies.” It takes an unsympathetic, even hostile reading to reduce this term to one pole in the abstract dyad norm/antinorm.)

So far I have concentrated on the introduction to the special issue. (For more, see Jack Halberstam’s previous Bully Bloggers post.)  Only a few of the other essays in the issue actually echo or support the framing offered there. Essays by Annamarie Jagose on Judith Butler and Wiegman on Eve Sedgwick continue the stuck-in-time 1990s focus of the issue. Heather Love provides a historical frame, offering post WWII sociology of sexual deviance literature as a site for productive excavation for queer scholars. She seems to be addressing scholars in the literary humanities only, as those of us trained in history, anthropology, sociology or the interdisciplinary fields are generally quite familiar with this literature—and perhaps more critical of it than Love? Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black draws from his PhD training in sociology to offer a critical framing that brings together sociology of racial and sexual deviance to produce a wide ranging critique of the normalizing work of sociological knowledge production—normalizing in the racial imperialist, developmental sense, not the dyadic rule bound or statistical sense. Anthropologist David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender provides an observational, empirically based ethnographic study that probes the racial and class meanings of language shifts in political context. Love’s isolation of the work on sexual deviance, and her largely uncritical observational stance, give her article an unintended overall tone of political, especially racial complacency compared to the vigorous critical lens provided by Ferguson. And when she cites Sharon Marcus to critique the “dominant” deviance paradigm in queer studies, and argues that the field is invested in the idea of an impossible absolute withdrawal from the social (p. 89), I honestly have no idea what work she could be talking about? That paradigm went out by 2002 (in the queer studies “field” that I read), and the withdrawal from the social characterizes only a tiny archive at this point.https://i0.wp.com/orig04.deviantart.net/298e/f/2008/257/7/a/antisocial_avenger__g_by_asylumactas.jpg

The last three essays, by Madhavi Menon, Erica Edwards and Elizabeth Povinelli, seem not to belong in this issue at all. These three essays are confined to the section on “Case Studies” in the issue, perhaps because they bring in the political economy and the state? They position their discussions of normativity within a complex historical, racial and imperial frame that cannot be reduced to the abstract framing norm/antinorm. In “Sex After the Black Normal,” Erica Edwards draws upon and extends the long bibliography in black feminism and queer of color critique to make an important contribution from within those fields. In her richly documented article, she argues that black women’s sexuality has been used to facilitate neoliberalism in the U.S., and also to support collective alternatives that expose its instabilities. This is precisely in line with the arguments that Rod Ferguson and others make, and does not flatten those contributions, or elevate her own as somehow so much more complex as to be different in foundation.

Elizabeth Povinelli’s article “Transgender Creeks and the Three Figures of Power in Late Liberalism,” is in my humble opinion outright brilliant—original, provocative and important. Drawing on new work on the nonhuman world and the active environment, Povinelli extends the possible meanings of “queer studies” in hugely productive ways. But in doing so, she also draws upon, incorporates and extends earlier work, and invokes the normalizing force of neoliberal markets and extractive capitalism, via a discourse of sexual pathology and normalization in a settler colonial context. In these usages of the notion of the norm, she blends the Foucauldian meaning with the imperial one. She is working from the complex multidimensional work on norms, that Wiegman and Wilson reduce to simple dyadic oppositional antinormativity.

It’s hard to understand the motivation behind this issue that works so hard to diminish work in queer studies through reductive readings and via a singular definition invoked as an abstract standard. I have the uneasy feeling that the motives are political, that the work being reduced to unrecognizable simplicity is somehow too left, too committed to the critique of racial capitalism for these editors. They don’t seem to be offering renewed vitality or renovated methods and approaches in their return to the work of the 1990s in particular. They seem to be calling for a new queer complacency, where we revel in the norms that, in averaging differences, reflect our beautiful diversities (cough, gag):https://i2.wp.com/m5.paperblog.com/i/57/572241/when-is-minority-political-activity-represent-L-QKSsND.jpeg…..more Queer Theory without Empire than without antinormativity.

Straight Eye For the Queer Theorist – A Review of “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” by Jack Halberstam

12 Sep

Straw-man-argumentStuart Chase’s 1956 Guide to Straight Thinking is sometimes credited with the first use of the term “straw man.” He used the term to describe the rhetorical practice of basing a strong argument on the misrepresentation of another position. The straw man/person represents a figure without depth or dynamism that is easily knocked down. And so if one represents feminism in terms of a unified group of man-hating, chainsaw wielding, separatist lesbians, rather than as a wide array of positions held by many different groups with or without chainsaws, then it is relatively easy to persuade a neutral audience that feminism is dangerous. Straw men, or in this case straw womyn, stand in for the complexity of a flesh and blood opponent. The term draws upon the image of the scarecrow on the one hand and on fairground games on the other – the term “Aunt Sally,” for example, is often used as a synonym for Straw Man and comes from the fairground game where a target (often an “ugly” woman or racialized in someway) is set up for others to knock down.

A recent issue of the journal differences engages in the production of straw people and does an Aunt Sally on queer theory. The issue, differences Volume 26 #1 (May 2015), edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, and titled, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” asks the question: “What might queer theory do if its allegiance to antinormativity was rendered less secure?” The answer goes something like this: if its allegiance to antinormativity were rendered less secure, queer theory would be…more complicated, more dynamic, and, broader because other important and pressing concerns that have been obscured by this singular focus would come to the fore. What are those concerns? What does this new, shiny, more complicated (queer) theory look like? We never find out. More interested in critique than in outlining new methodologies, archives or theories, this volume is content to say, repeatedly, that oppositionality is not all its cracked up to be; that the humanities orientation of queer theory has concealed the fact that the social sciences are important too; and that queerness as a category has an increasingly elusive relationship to activism, political change and social transformation. None of this is controversial, and it could even be the basis of some interesting new directions in the study of sexuality and gender. But this issue does not lead us there.

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What is queer theory without antinormativity, we may ask with the editors of this special issue? Without a critique of normativity, queer theory may well look a lot like straight thinking. And, without these clear alternatives, that is what this volume threatens to become.

Inexplicably sharon wasn't interested in a second date.

Inexplicably sharon wasn’t interested in a second date.

It draws sexy energy from a title that proposes a new kind of queer theory namely, a queer theory without antinormativity but, like a date with a lover who promised hot sex but falls asleep by 9pm, or like an iphone update that claimed it would transform your gadget but actually just ate up all the battery, the issue titillates only by virtue of nestling up to titillation, it thrills only by offering to declaw what is thrilling, it excites by promising to name the fugitive source of an entire genre’s critical excitement. But when push comes to shove, and there is a lot of shoving in this issue despite its seemingly civil tone, queer theory without antinormativity might just be…well, theory, theory about theory.

What’s the basic argument? Queer theory has been characterized by an antinormative stance that has gone unquestioned (until now) and that is the basis for the claims that queer theory lays to a radical political project. This commitment to antinormativity, Wiegman and Wilson say, characterizes the work of all kinds of queer theorists who might otherwise disagree. The problem with antinormativity, as far as Wiegman and Wilson are concerned, is that it derives from a fundamental michel_foucault_by_ivankorsario-d5qvsbtmisreading of Foucault’s theory or norms; it makes certain positions seem inevitable – a critique of disciplinarity for example; and, antinormativity’s uncontested rightness eliminates the possibility of taking up any other relations to norms or normativity. Furthermore, antinormativity, they propose, has become “canonical” in the field and therefore has acquired, ironically, the status of a norm, proving once and for all that norms are unavoidable and cannot be opposed.

Let’s take the first point in Wiegman and Wilson’s critique – the idea that antinormativity emerges from a misreading of the norm in Foucault. They write: “Even as it allies itself with Foucault, queer theory has maintained an attachment to the politics of oppositionality (against, against, against) that form the infrastructure of the repressive hypothesis” (12). By contrast, Wiegman and Wilson propose to offer a different methodology for reading the norm and they will do so through a return to the idea of the norm as it is found in Foucault “in order to revivify what is galvanizing (indeed what is queer) about its operations” (12). This is an odd claim at best – first, is it even possible to “revivify” what is not dead but is in fact “galvanizing”? Just asking. But, second, I cannot find this mythic other methodology anywhere in their text. Their anti antinormative methodology seems to amount to the claim that we are all subject to norms. Norms, they remind us, neither restrict nor ostracize, they are neither “controlling” nor are they “tyrannical,” and we are all equally subject to their powers (“we question the political common sense that claims that norms ostracize, or that some of us are more intimate with their operations than others…”). This claim is then followed by a series of quotes from Berlant, Edelman, myself, Sedgwick all clustered under the leaky umbrella of “queer theoretical ambitions” and organized by the common belief that norms are bad.

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Few of the theorists mentioned in this essay, if any, have advanced the theory that norms single out certain people or that they target only certain bodies and then tyrannically restrict their capabilities or legitimacy. Instead, the rather impressive group of theorists gathered under this capacious and yet nonsensical heading of antinormative queer theory (Berlant, Butler, Duggan, Edelman, Eng, Ferguson, Halberstam, Halperin, McRuer, Muñoz, Puar, Reddy, Sedgwick, Warner) have all published extremely complex accounts of the relations between nationalism and norms, sexuality and terror, identity and repetition, race and disidentification, sexuality and death, pessimism and optimism, negativity and utopia, recognition and failure. No single theory of norms unites these works either through their embrace of the antinormative or through their understanding of the political. They have no single object, they do not share a goal, they follow multiple methodologies and none of these theorists unambiguously embraces a singular, critical stance from which it unfairly draws energy and through which it proposes to change the world. The antinormative position is, I will say it again, a straw queer, an Aunt Sally, a rag and bone target for any straight thinkers who want to score points in an academic marketplace of diminishing returns.

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Like the bad critical theory essay in which everyone is wrong because the author is right, or in which the author notices something that everyone else in the history of critical thinking has ignored, or in which an intrepid and insightful author uncovers a fallacy upon which an entire area of study has depended, this journal issue requires big targets, thinkers united in their false assumptions who can finally be revealed for what they are – naïve, blind, simple folk who see tyranny where there is only discourse, who confirm the status quo through opposition, and who create a new canon while claiming to bring the house down.

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What, I ask you, do Wiegman and Wilson want? They tell us they want to “channel the energies of queer inquiry otherwise.” Ok – point us in the direction of “otherwise.” And I really mean that  – I want to understand the project here, but it feels elusive. They tell us they will promote scholarship that moves “athwart” rather than “against” (although they are clearly against antinormative queer theory, not athwart it…what is athwart, critically speaking?). And they offer to “rethink the meaning of norms, normalization, and the normal” while imagining “other ways to approach the politics of queer criticism altogether.” Let me translate dear reader: we critics, who read athwart not against, who offer critique without solutions, who know something is wrong but cannot offer to replace it, will keep thinking about this in the hopes of generating something that is not more of the same.

Ok, that sounds harsh so let me break it down:

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1. Most of the theorists assembled under the heading of the anti-normative produce the very 51TjyujvLxLscholarship that Wiegman and Wilson call for – namely a critique of simple notions of the political as oppositional . Consider Lauren Berlant’s idea of a relation of “cruel optimism” that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Or think of Lee Edelman’s reminder that the impulse to call for a politics around the figure of the child ensures the reproduction of the status quo. Or look again at Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black and his analysis of the way that canonical sociology requires the Black body as a foil for the production of the truth of statistical norms.

2. If you don’t want to commit to some kind of critique of norms you may be doomed to “straight

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

thinking.” Straight thinking is characterized by a matrix of rhetorical operations that support the common sense of the moment, commit to foreclosing on critiques of the status quo and reinvest in the ordinary, the good and the true. Such rhetorical operations have propped up the very distinctions between straight and gay/lesbian/trans or between abled and disabled or between whiteness and of color that have allowed for legal, social and political benefits to accrue to one group at the expense of the other. Abandon antinormativity and you slip quickly into acquiescence.

3. Antinormative thinking, as represented in this issue, simply means scholarship with an urgent, complex, politically explicit agenda. It is the opposite of the seemingly objective “deviance studies” scholarship that Heather Love writes about in this issue but it is in line with some of the writings by Evelyn Hooker, Mary Macintosh and others that she claims queer studies has rejected. Like other essays in the issue, Love’s piece works around a false claim and a false dichotomy. She claims from the start that there are “ongoing conflicts between humanists and social scientists” within the field of queer studies and that these conflicts turn on “the question of whether the empirical study of sexuality should be understood as social recognition or as epistemological violence” (77). Such conflicts were very common in the 1990’s but disciplinary skirmishes have long since diminished under the pressure of new insights about the arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries (Latour). Critiques of the social sciences from within queer studies by Rod Ferguson and others are not disciplinary quarrels so much as they are historically situated accounts of how non-heteronormativity gets located firmly at the heart of U.S. racial formations and links the “multiplication of racialized discourses of sexuality and gender” to the “multiplication of labor under capital” (12). By separating an account of sexual deviance from its imbrication in the production of knowledge on racial deviance in her essay, Love straightens the lines between sexuality and race in a way that literally undoes the work of queer of color critique. What Ferguson had intricately described as meshed, Love unties and analyzes separately.

And later in Love’s essay, she takes aim at the romanticism of The Undercommons to reveal how attached humanities scholars can be to their own subversive potential. What Moten and Harney describe as the role of the “subversive academic” in The Undercommons, Love rejects as a kind of unconscious political violence: “if we are in, we are also of” she writes. Championing the “queer ordinary” and describing the queer academic as a “professional knowledge worker,” Love settles into and accepts her role as observer of ordinary life. Her stakes are clear: the antinormative queer scholar or the fugitive scholar of the undercommons are just engaged in a “romantic disavowal of our position as scholars.” With no account of the activist worlds that informed early queer studies research, no recognition of the disciplinary violence that goes into establishing a definitive split between the “truth seeking” missions of the social sciences and the “civilizing” goal of the humanities in the first place, with no references to the difference that race makes to either professional knowledge production or the definition of deviance, this is an essay that refuses to grapple with its own site of enunciation – for whom is the ordinary smooth and even? For whom is it absolutely unattainable? For whom is it unacceptable?

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And so it goes, the straw person argument allows for the wholesale ransacking of several decades of exceptional work from a range of positions and disciplinary locations, emerging from different activist histories and focused upon various political and even utopian horizons. This issue claims to re-evaluate but it comes to eradicate; it claims to survey a field but it creates a position to lambast; it claims to speak for the ordinary but it colludes with the status quo. So, to clarify the argument here: if you still believe in the socially engaged academic and if, like them, your work continues to circle back to performativity, cruel optimism, intersectionality, queer of color critique, queer negativity, critiques of homonormativity, disciplinary critique and the undercommons, this mini-movement is not for you. And for those of you who are still wondering what the answer is to the question posed by this volume of differences in the first place, namely “what is queer studies without antinormativity,” I think I have an answer for you – it is disciplinary, neoliberal, no stakes, straight thinking. You’re welcome!

Triggers and Lions and Vegans, Oh My!: From a Comment War to a Conversation about Cecil and the Ethics of Eating

27 Aug

By Will Stockton and Karen Tongson

[A little disclaimer from your friendly neighborhood Bullies: We don’t usually host debates on this site, but when we do, they always involve tofu! Read on.] 

Will:

On July 1 2015, an American dentist and big game hunter named Walter Palmer killed a lion named Cecil in the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. According to widely disseminated reports, Palmer and his guide  lured Cecil out of the sanctuary, wounded him with an arrow, tracked him for the next 40 hours, shot him with a rifle, and then skinned and beheaded him. The killing of Cecil sparked outrage across much the world, with Palmer and his guides accused of grossly poaching an animal who was well known to park visitors and not aggressive towards humans.

In the middle of this wave of outrage, much of it on social media, I posted a question – or, honestly, more of a declarative statement – on my Facebook page. “Remind me,” I wrote, “what the difference is between killing a lion named Cecil and killing any cow, chicken, pig, or fish?” I had in mind animal rights philosopher and law professor Gary Francione’s 2007 suggestion that there is no significant moral difference between the actions of Michael Vick, the widely condemned NFL player found guilty of dogfighting, and anyone who barbeques a pig.[1] In both cases, animals die for the sake of human pleasure, be it the pleasure of sport or the pleasure of taste. What ensued in response to my post was nonetheless not the discussion about the ethics of veganism in which I often engage. Whereas I am accustomed to arguments about the relative immorality of killing legally protected animals and animals one does not eat, Karen Tongson averred that there is a crucial ethical difference between illegal ecotourist hunting and the consumption of animals for cultural purpose. “Eating meat,” she wrote, “actually brings people more than ‘pleasure.’ For some it is a deep expression of their cultural heritage and belonging; a spiritual homage to our families, tribes, regions; a ritualistic celebration of a time when we couldn’t afford protein, or were deprived of it in times of war, occupation and conflict.” Debate ensured regarding the presumptive white universalism underwriting my advocacy of veganism.

Because Facebook and similar social media forums do not always lend themselves to the most considered and sustained dialogue, Karen and I decided to engage in this exchange again over email. We did so because we both believe much as it stake: for myself, the status of animals, and indeed of all sentient creatures, as ends in themselves; and for Karen, the need to preserve cultural traditions, especially minority cultural traditions, against blanket assertions that the killing of animals is wrong.

Karen

I’d like to begin by thanking Will for transferring our exchange from the hot-button, quick-trigger setting of social media to a format more akin to an old-fashioned, analog correspondence between thinkers. That said, I’d like to begin by exploring how—in the quick-take environment of social media—we each had to address some pretty sweeping, starkly defined opinions amongst a motley assortment of our Face friends, not all of whom share the same codes, references and systems of understanding.

When the Cecil news broke, I shared the story on my own Facebook page with a one-word remark about Palmer, the dentist by day, big game hunter on vacay: “Asshole.” Like many lesbians, I am a stereotypical pet lover, more specifically, a lover of cats, so commenting on the big cat-related viral news of the day wasn’t out of character. When I noticed Will’s post, and some of the commentary afterwards, I felt hailed. I decided to enter the fray after Bully Blogging editrix extraordinaire, Lisa Duggan, appeared to be taking fire for suggesting that there might be a difference between Palmer’s arrogant display of killing for sport, and the indisputable horrors of mass meat production. I posted the comment Will mentioned above about the different cultural reasons people consume meat, to try to break us out of what felt to me like a closed discourse about the morality of veganism vs. other practices of eating. A slew of dismissals and comments came as a result of my remarks, many from people I didn’t know. I won’t reproduce those comments here. Suffice it to say that the comments on Will’s initial thread ranged from the simply dismissive, to a casually racist quip about not eating meat because it gives us fond memories of “living under thatched roofs.”

Sure, I understood some of the contradictions and conundrums in my defense of my right to “grieve the lion,” given that I’m a notorious carnivore who likes to post pictures of the meat I make and consume. My careful preparations of this meat, the amount of time I’ve spent learning how to prepare it properly, and to use as much of it without waste, combined with my efforts to learn and teach courses about foodways and the heinous practices of Big Ag, is, I believe a way of honoring my food and my cultural and familial relationship to eating. My efforts to purchase more ethically cultivated and produced meat (once I attained a certain level of economic solvency), are also part and parcel of “honoring” the meat.”

More broadly, my Filipino upbringing informs my relationship to food. We are a food-obsessed culture, if largely because of the ways in which we learned to subsist and survive through over half a millennium of colonialism at the hands of Spain and the United States. I was born in the Philippines and lived there for most of my childhood until I turned 10, when my family immigrated to the U.S. At our home in Manila, which had a little bit of land attached to it, we always kept chickens and the occasional goat. I recall we even had a pig at one point, though not for very long, since it was brought over for the sole purposes of prepping it for a large, celebratory feast. Unlike most urbanites in my age range raised in the United States, I don’t have a purely mediated relationship to my food from farm to package. I’ve spent time with animals killed for my consumption. I’ve seen them slaughtered right before my eyes, even if I didn’t participate in killing them myself. And I still ate them.

Given this experience that might seem unique to many Americans, but certainly isn’t on a global scale, especially amongst those of us who are from, or were raised in the so-called “developing” world, I got pretty pissed off when my efforts to make a simple statement about cultural differences determining our food practices was characterized as ignorant, naïve and merely compensatory. This is why I continued to participate in the thread on Will’s page, getting into a conversation about ethics, morality and veganism that is, for the most part, “beyond my pay grade,” as they say. Much of what I had to contribute did, however, come from my extensive reading in scholarship about race, foodways and food culture (most of it for my own edification, or for my teaching, but not for my research). While I comprehend the philosophical nature of the debate—i.e. the need to inhabit “strategic essentialisms” around moral claims of what food-practices are “right” vs. “wrong,” as one commenter remarked in a sub-thread—I just can’t endorse the way this framing of the debate forecloses anything that contradicts the moral superiority of vegan practices.

Perhaps this is why we were talking across but not to one another.

Will

Although it probably won’t shield me from charges of self-righteousness, let me go ahead and own “the moral superiority of vegan practices.” But let me qualify for whom I think they are morally superior. Let me also clarify that I understand “superior” as a synonym for “best” rather than “perfect.” I am not going to claim that veganism abolishes all violence against animals. Rather, I argue that going vegan is the least most people can do.

For most people, too, food has emotional and familial connections. We bond with family and friends around a shared meal. We learn to cook by having our parents teach us. Cultural differences also help determine food consumption – the kinds of food we eat and the way we prepare it. I grew up in Atlanta, and although most of my meat came from factory farms, I would suggest that my southern culture is no less food obsessed than your Filipino one.  I’ve hunted, fished, and crabbed. I’ve killed, gutted, cleaned, cooked, and eaten animals in an effort to both bond with friends and family and “know” my food. Now I’m a dog-rescuing queer with a menagerie that rivals Michael Vick’s pre-fight barn, but with no need to differentiate the rights of my pit bulls from the rights of a chicken or a cow. The choice to make no such differentiation accordingly causes minor strains with friends and family. People worry about how to cook for me. I am routinely teased for not eating the Thanksgiving turkey or the Fourth of July barbeque. Some of this teasing is passive aggressive; some of it stems from a sense of loss about my refusal to participate fully in a norm; and some it is defensive, coming from people who are uncomfortable with their own consumption of animal products. But bonding over a meal or participating in cultural rituals need not cease because someone tries to make that meal or ritual less violent. Diminishing violence against animals more than justifies amending our cultural and familial relationships to eating.

I also want to clarify why I’m a vegan as opposed to someone who eats “humanly raised” meat. Maltreatment is one kind of violence against animals. Death is another. Because both violate an animal’s interests, I pause over your claim that you are “honoring” your meat by making sure it’s ethically sourced. More precisely, I worry that you are romanticizing brutality. There’s no honoring an animal in a slaughterhouse – especially not when that animal is being slaughtered well in advance of its natural end-of-life to feed people who don’t need to eat it. You and I are two of those people. As tenured professors, we are both people of considerable privilege. We have the financial means to eat vegan (which the latest economic research shows to not be prohibitively expensive[3]) and the ready availability of vegan food. Every time we chose not to eat vegan – as I did for many years – we are choosing to prioritize our pleasure or convenience over an animal’s life.

 Karen

I’ve always been very clear about respecting people’s chosen food practices, if largely because, as you acknowledge in your own comments our region, race, religion, class, politics etc. determines our relationship to food. And I appreciate you clarifying that what you see as the “moral superiority” of vegan practices is as much about what you personally construe as the “best” practices for eating and consuming amongst the classes and communities who are afforded choice—i.e. whose “choices” might actually be ascribed the attributes of “morality” and “consciousness.”

But this is where I think our priorities diverge, especially when it comes to discussing the status and sanctity of “the animal” while underscoring the moral failings of the humans who continue to consume them. This is when we start getting into the irksome (at its most benign), and fascistic (at its worst) neoliberal rhetoric about choice and consumption in veganism gussied up as the only acceptable set of practices if we strive to for ethical and moral relationships to eating. I personally don’t aspire to any practices or systems of belief framed through the discourses of “ethics” or “morality,” where there is little room to express alternate foundations for our systems of belief. To me veganism, as a chosen lifestyle in the name of the animal (at least as it manifests in the Anglo-American-Euro context), has come to assume the status of a moral imperative to the detriment of other peoples, nations and classes even though it purports to reduce harm in general.

Much of what chafes me about the “superiorities” of veganism are the hypocrisies covered over in keeping its “bestness” in place as a moral directive. For example, in another thread related to the one you and I began on FB, some of us questioned how we could even begin to hierarchize the harms caused by our practices of consumption, and our global foodways, since most global farming and agricultural practices are unquestionably brutal: brutal for the environment, brutal upon laborers, brutal towards the communities—animal and human—in its immediate geographical radius, etc.

I think about the numerous ways the same standards of “suffering” applied to animals, and righteously trotted out in debates about veganism might also be usefully applied to the horrendous labor practices and indentured human servitude inherent in nearly all forms of Big Ag, whether or not its at the slaughterhouse, or at the vegetable processing facility. I visited one of these vegetable facilities in Ventura County with my class on food cultures last year. Its carbon footprint and the political orientation of its proprietors were both horrifying, yet they remain one of the largest and most profitable distributers of organic produce nationally, for retailers popular with vegans like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and even local co-ops.

All vegans, in other words, aren’t consuming “consciously” or ethically, or even reducing harm to animals, let alone humans who are caught in the radius of these violent, profit-driven food ecologies. Many vegans happily support odious, unethical businesses like Whole Foods, or “craft” quinoa importers who have reinforced class divisions in the Andean region, or Big Ag almond growers who have wreaked just as much havoc on the ecosystem—animal, vegetable, mineral—as some so-called “ethical” meat producers who participate in the same artisanal and creative economic production models that source vegan lifestyles.

In fact, this rather thoughtfully considered piece on the quinoa controversy of a couple of years ago does an excellent job of highlighting what I would characterize as the narcissism of small differences between say, your practices of creative class consumption (though I don’t purport to know exactly what they are beyond what you’ve shared with me here), and my own.[4] (hyperlink to URL in footnote)

One of the marked differences is that your eating practices boasts its “superiority” (through the ethos of “bestness” you described above): it’s “the least most people could do.” You seem, in that remark, to be arguing that the rest of us should follow those practices. I, meanwhile, am inclined to concede how fucked up it is to feed humans on a large scale, while remaining disinclined to assume that any one set of practices is fundamentally more “moral” than another. We all consume plenty of things we don’t need and which cause tremendous harm in this world.

I hope some of what I’ve said also addresses your question about whether or not I’m “romanticizing” the brutality of processing and eating meat in my earlier remarks. To the contrary: I acknowledge the brutality that inheres in feeding humans on a mass scale in general. Indeed, I would propose modifying the last line of your previous comments to say that every time we choose to eat, we are choosing to prioritize our pleasure or convenience over others’ lives, both human and animal. Unless one is proceeding with some of the same painstaking precautions certain Buddhist sects use to minimize harm to all other lifeforms; unless you are growing your own vegetables in a sustainable manner, and subsisting entirely on what you have cultivated; unless you have given up quinoa and almond milk, and have forsaken the pleather shoes or car seat covers you’ve bought from a company that outsources its production to child laborers in the developing world, I cannot abide by the notion that my non-vegan practices are fundamentally more destructive, or driven only by “pleasure” and “convenience.”

Finally, my position would be to encourage us to learn more and to find approaches to our foodways and consumption based upon an expansive set of criteria, including the economic, ecological, cultural, spiritual, and healthful; in other words, a holistic approach.  I would eschew “the moral” altogether as a fundament for how we should imagine our relationship to eating unless we have an orthodox relationship to our religion and are proscribed to do so.

At base, Will, we are obviously not invested in the same things. I see no need to persuade others to eat in the manner I do, and have engaged in this dialogue, because I felt I was “shut down” (as they say) from expressing a dissenting opinion in a vegan-centric conversation about ethical priorities and contradictions. Personally, I am much more committed to seeking out justice for, and the ethical treatment of, our brethren whose brutalization continues to be ignored because of their race, class, gender or sexual status.

I’m curious what you think of our conversation in light of the #IfCecilWasBlack meme? I felt like I was sucked into the frenzy of all this—into a lot of anthropomorphic rhetoric about the protection of animals in our conversation and beyond—while failing to engage in some of the concerns members of our community in the #BlackLivesMatter movement have about the social media mobilization and uproar (pardon the pun), over Cecil the lion vs. the relative silence about brutality towards African-Americans in the U.S.

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Will

Let me take your closing question first, as I think it encapsulates what you perceive as one of the difference between us – that difference being that my concern for “the animal” trumps my concern for my fellow human animals. I understand the #IfCecilWasBlack movement probably much like you do: as a keen identification of how fucked up it is to mourn the death of one lion in a world where black bodies are brutalized on a mass scale without a similar outpouring of collective anger. I agree that this lack of perspective is entirely fucked up. I just think it’s equally fucked up to focus one’s outrage on the death of one lion when we kill 56 billion animals (excluding fish and other aquatic animals) annually for food.[5] So much about the outrage over Cecil’s death was wrong. To point out the latter wrong is not to endorse the silence over racial violence; nor is it to prioritize animal lives over human ones. It is possible to be both anti-racist and pro-animal at the same time. These stances – ethical and political – are deeply intersectional, as both stem from an opposition to oppressing sentient creatures on the basis of irrelevant criteria: skin color, ethnicity, and species.

Cecil the Black Lion

The real difference between us begins to emerge, I believe, when you state that you “don’t aspire to any practices or systems of belief framed through the discourses of ‘ethics’ or ‘morality,’ where there is little room to express dissenting opinions,”

Your comma after “morality” suggests that you find all discourses of ethics and morality equally forbidding. But you clearly haven’t abandoned these discourses or ceased to develop ethical/moral sets of practices or systems of belief. You object to “unethical businesses” like Whole Foods. And you state your commitment to “the ethical treatment of our brethren.” In both cases, the discourse of ethics is perfectly conducive to protesting brutalization against humans. On what grounds do you believe Whole Foods to be unethical in its treatment of humans if not an ethical one?[6] How can you measure “ethical treatment,” or even determine what constitutes “brutalization,” without a sense that some sets of practices – economic, cultural, political, etc. – are more or less ethical? I’m not just trying to catch you in contradictions; I’m trying to suggest that this kind of aversion to ethics only tends to crop up when one’s personal practices regarding and beliefs about non-human animals are called into question.[7] Indeed, I presume that you would have no problem terming human slavery unethical, no matter how deeply human slavery is ingrained in cultural practice or belief, and no matter how thin the line sometimes is between slavery and “ordinary” employment in a capitalist economy.[8] I’m also fairly sure you’d agree that rape is unethical, no matter how much the rapist dissents, no matter how much the victim believes that she deserved it, and no mater how much consensual sex is itself imbued with power differentials. I realize these comparisons to rape and slavery are potentially inflammatory, but I make them for the sake of pointing out that what we disagree on, most fundamentally, is the ethical status of the animal – whether the animal “counts” or not, or to what degree. Hence my reason for asking you whether you believe animals have an interest in not being harmed – a question you did not answer.

In any case, without a discourse of ethics or morality, the “holistic” approach for which you advocate approaching food consumption falls apart. Never mind that veganism goes a long way towards addressing many of the problems you raise, given that most of the food we currently grow, and the land we grow it on, goes to feed the animals we raise to kill.[9] How will you convince me, as you seek to do in the first part of your response, to even consider the injustices done to human workers, cultures, or the environment unless you presume, like me, that there are better and worse ways of relating to people and the planet? How will I determine what constitutes injustice? And how can I begin to set up this “expansive set of criteria” if I don’t know what goal or ideal those criteria are helping me measure?

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I know that you are trying to characterize my veganism as a forbiddingly ethical practice or set of beliefs, but I would hope that this exchange testifies to my investment in not shutting you down. Looking back, I would argue that much of what went on during our initial Facebook discussion was just plain disagreement. Before it descended into red-herring charges of cultural imperialism and, far more bizarrely, mansplaining (this latter one not from Lisa Duggan, not you), this disagreement turned on the fact that you and I both hold that not all opinions or systems of belief or structures of reasoning are equally compelling. And, indeed, it ensued because we approached Cecil’s death with different ethical frameworks – mine, a framework that condemns violence against animals for reasons of pleasure, amusement, convenience, or cultural difference; and yours, to quote, a framework that condemns “paying thousands of dollars, destroying someone else’s ecosystem (economic, social, spiritual) with your crass tourism, and taking prideful photos of yourself slaying a physically superior beast with a weapon for actually NO reason at all.”  Although I would point out that Dr. Palmer did have a reason, and a very simple one – pleasure, he wanted to kill a lion – I otherwise don’t disagree at all with your framework. I was simply trying, and still am, to expand it.

When I claim that veganism is the “least one can do,” I hope I’m clear that I mean exactly that. Once could do far more to address the injustices within food production. You are right to point to the myriad forms of violence against animals and humans involved in food production.  You are right to point out that “we all consume plenty of things we don’t need and that cause tremendous harm in this world.” But it’s fallacious to jump from the bad employment and environmental practices of an organic produce manufacturer to the claim that vegans are not “even reducing harm to animals, let alone humans.” (You seem to equate “reducing” with “eliminating,” when I am not arguing that veganism is a panacea. Otherwise, it’s hard to argue that a vegan diet doesn’t reduce harm to animals when there’s no animal on a vegan’s plate.) It’s fallacious to respond to my claim that we shouldn’t eat animal products by claiming that veganism works to the “detriment of other peoples, nations and classes even though it purports to reduce harm in general.” (As noted above, the evidence is overwhelming that veganism does reduce harm in general, and while peoples, nations, and classes still do suffer new and various detriments related to increased consumption of plant foods, those detriments are not themselves arguments against going vegan.)  Finally, it’s fallacious to jump from my point that you have a choice about what to eat to impugning that choice as so much neoliberal rhetoric when your position on diet is essentially a libertarian one that maximizes such choices as personal or cultural.

To respond to the other Facebook thread you mentioned, I would hazard that we can begin “to hierarchize the harms caused by our practices of consumption, and our global foodways.” It’s important that we do so if we are to have any hope of diminishing these harms. At least we can hazard that one of the roots of all those harms within our foodways is our excision of the animal from the sphere of ethical concern. It is very easy to exploit human labor, adult and child, when you regard the laborer as less than human. That’s why it’s not enough to protest rampant dehumanization; we must ask ourselves why it’s somehow right to exploit, use, kill, and enslave sentient creatures just because they are not human.[10] That’s the debate we should be having.

Karen

Will, I hope you know that I’m not in any way suggesting that I know how you move through the world as a consumer, or that I have my own little window on your personal practices with craft quinoa, almond milk and Banana Republic button-downs. Nor am I suggesting that veganism as a philosophy or practice is necessarily hypocritical, though I’ve encountered more than my fair share of vegan individuals who are incredibly aggressive and ‘splainy about their viewpoints, while neglecting the other conundrums and dilemmas that arise in relation to all “first world” forms of consumption—including some of the ones I mentioned above.  In short, all I’ve tried to say here, and all I really tried to say by extension on that FB thread, is that non-vegans are NOT all stupid, ill-informed people who haven’t taken the time to learn about animals, industrial food production, the rhetorics of animacy, and the vicissitudes of ethics and morality.

I think you overstate the extent to which I, and others, were “focusing” all of our outrage on the Cecil the Lion incident. Again, what intensified this particular debate is the aggression, some of it rather masculine, scolding and ‘splainy, that was directed at myself and a few others who suggested that it might be OK to register the heinousness of that act, despite having different perspectives on food and eating.

I appreciate that you decided we should take the conversation elsewhere, though I do still feel like the moral universe you are advocating is an absolutist and narrow one. I don’t think, for example, that appealing to one’s cultural heritage or explaining (in short form, mind you) some of the socio-cultural foundations for my own diet necessarily equates to a “neoliberal logic” or the advocacy of personal choice. In fact, what I tried to explain is that how one eats for most of his or her life is rarely a personal or individual choice: there are entire affective, economic, spiritual, historical, (post)colonial systems that undergird what we perceive as “choice,” and many of them actually have nothing to do with “pleasure,” as you keep referring to non-vegan ways of eating with a tone of dismissal. Though honestly—and I say this as a hedonistic Wildean maenadic type—what would be so wrong with using pleasure as our guide? Unfortunately, as an uptight Virgo, I don’t always live up to that aspiration.

But seriously: I have no investment in telling people NOT to go vegan. If you are committed to the practice, then more power to you. I have no interest in convincing you or anyone else to eat meat, dairy or the things that you have excised from your diet for political and moral reasons. Nor would I say you are “missing out” on anything. What I’ve made an effort to do in this exchange is to point out some of the hypocrisies that have fueled certain expressions of vegan vehemence, especially those that manifest in as moral directive and rhetorical aggression towards others who do not share the same priorities. I have also tried to reject the evangelical nature of veganism, at least as I encountered it in that thread and in other situations (I actually co-exist rather peacefully with plenty of vegans and vegetarians in my life—I’m a lesbian after all).

tumblr_miifpqwa7P1qgrxobo1_500Neither have I tried to suggest that you or other vegans are “prioritizing” the animal over human animals, and that we should focus our political efforts on “people” above all else, though I have tried to underscore the fact that for some vocal vegans, other political commitments to racial justice, reproductive rights, you name it, tend to fall by the wayside when “the animal” becomes the vector of projection and anthropomorphism—much as you and others have described happened with Cecil. I’m not saying you individually participate in this. I’m speaking from some of my other encounters with evangelical vegans who are capable of advocating so passionately on behalf of animals, but who refuse to acknowledge the racism and brutality of some of their other practices of consumption, or in their attitudes towards others who don’t share their principles of eating and being.

To finally answer the question you keep trying to get me to answer in this exchange: “Do animals have an interest in not being harmed?”

I really don’t know. I wouldn’t purport to understand how animal consciousness works. Nor do I think it would be the same across the board for all animals. Nor do I think it would in any way resemble human consciousness or affect. Some animals seem to be driven by a survival instinct, whereas others do not. But ultimately, who am I to know this? How am I to know this? I assume my cats have a whole range of feelings, many of which I understand are my own projections upon them. Do they avoid pain and hurt? In most circumstances they do, but in other circumstances they actually seem to seek it out. But I could be wrong because I have no real access to animal sentience except for lay-knowledge from articles in magazines at the vet, Nat Geo documentaries about the “secret lives of cats,” or 99 cent Reader’s Digest booklets on “how to communicate with your cat.” Mostly, I have to assume that whatever I’m interpreting about my cats’ behaviors is being generated by my own desires.

I want to close with a final note about morality and ethics. You might not know this, but I actually wrote my dissertation on ethics and excess in Victorian non-fiction prose, so I have a very specific take on ethics, morality, the differences between them, and their applicability to styles of living, and the cultivation of the subject.  This is a much longer, and separate conversation, but I want to clarify that I do not see ethics and morality as the same thing. To put it simply: morality denotes a set of imperatives and actions governed alternately by law, religion and culture. Ethics, meanwhile, describes the theoretical inquiry into these actions and helps us interpret the articulations that compel moral behavior and practice.  To assess the ethics of something is, from my standpoint, as much about assessing the form and style of articulation meant to incite moral behavior than it is to describe whether or not a point of view is “good” or “bad.” As I already said above, I am loathe to subscribe to a world view that is driven by moralism, precisely because moral claims cannot, by definition, be challenged. They are unassailable imperatives to behavior that—as the long history of the world has shown us—don’t always come from a good or righteous place.

Morality, for example, has been used to persecute and prosecute most of my “behaviors” as a queer person. It has been used to challenge my reproductive rights as a woman. And, by way of a response to your remark in footnote 5: the discourses of morality were also used to advocate on behalf of slavery, not merely to speak against it. Many scholars of African-American literature have argued that some abolitionist writings have a sentimental, patronizing and moralizing tone about slavery, and reject that kind of advocacy. W.E.B. DuBois himself rejects this manner of being spoken “about” and “for” by moral grandstanders who were allies. Personally, I am more interested in a Deleuzean “ethics after morality,” and in an encounter with ethics as a as a practice of reading and understanding the expressions that compel behavior. This is probably why much of what I’ve had to say in this exchange is hung up on the style and rhetoric of our disagreements and hostilities, and the manner of address that offended my sensibilities.

In the end, I hope that you feel you’ve derived something from this exchange, if merely that it strengthened your own resolve! I, meanwhile, will return to my brutal, savage, heathenistic, hedonistic and hypocritical ways (and I say this with a wink, and a smile, since tone is obviously very important to me).

Will

Do I note the irony of being called an evangelical on “the queer bully pulpit” that is Bully Bloggers?  I’m already an evangelical faggot, so I’m happy to accept the “evangelical vegan” label, too. Most of us in academia, especially in the humanities, are evangelists for something. We just tend to give it a different name: activism. We also tend not to our arguments “’splaining,” We call it criticism.

In any case, I am glad we engaged in this exchange. Talking to people about veganism is important to me, and not as a means to strengthen my own resolve. As I said in my first round of remarks, much more is at stake: the many millions of animal lives we humans unnecessarily take each year in the name of what I will continue to “reduce” to pleasure. Honestly, I just get frustrated that efforts to engage in argument so often get hung up on questions of tone. But if there’s a more tonally appropriate way to persuade you to go vegan, please let me know! I’d happily re-engage.

Footnotes

[1] Gary Francione, “We’re All Michael Vick.”

[2] According to Jonathan Safran Foer, “96 percent of Americans say that animals deserve legal protection, 76 percent say that animal welfare is more important to them than low meat prices, and nearly two-thirds advocate passing not only laws but ‘strict laws concerning the treatment of farmed animals. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other issue on which so many people see eye to eye.” See Eating Animals (New York: Little Brown 2009), 73.

[3] Jayson L. Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood, “Some Economic Benefits and Costs of Vegetarianism,” Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 38.2 (2009): 109-24.

[4] Tim Philpott, “Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated.”

[5] The Animal Kill Counter, which takes marine animals into account, sets the number much higher, at more than 150 billion. http://www.adaptt.org/killcounter.html.

[6] You will not find me defending Whole Foods, one of the leading purveyors of “happy meat.”

[7] There’s a larger philosophical issue here regarding the Derridean provenance of animal studies, but that’s beyond the scope of this one response to explore. See Gary Steiner, Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism (Columbia: University of Columbia Press, 2013).

[8] I’m hard-pressed to imagine anyone on the Left agreeing that arguments for the abolition of slavery in US were too extreme or crassly moralizing or fascistic/absolutist, deafened by their own self-righteousness to complications that would ensure from abolition – mass unemployment, starvation, vagrancy, unchecked violence, etc.

[9] These figures are widely available, as is abundant evidence regarding the outsized impacts of meat consumption on environment, wealth inequality, and personal health. See, for starters, the 2010 UN report “Assessing Environment Impacts of Consumption and Production“; and their 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”

[10] I am reminded of Sunaura Taylor’s anecdote about the mother of an intellectually disabled child who objects to Taylor’s comparison of her own disabled self to an animal. For this mother, the animal deserves to be treated worse than a human, notwithstanding Taylor’s point that disabled “people and non-human animals . . . are often oppressed by similar forces” (762). See “Vegans, Freaks, and Animals: Toward a New Table Fellowship,” American Quarterly 65.3 (2013), 757-64.

Trigger Warning: Toxic Masculinity in the U.S. Gun Phallocracy By Eng-Beng Lim

2 Aug

If there was any doubt about the virulence of colonial machismo or its inoculation in U.S.-American white, supremacist masculinity, one need only look at how recent murders rely on three of its most recognizable tropes – the hunter, the gunsman, the police – that have turned decidedly murderous and terroristic against animals, women, kids, and people of color, particularly African Americans.

To say there is an epidemic of toxic masculinity in U.S.A, the world’s leading gun phallocracy, is to say the least. Week after week, we read about police officers as the lawless hitmen of Order (Ray Tensing, Brian Encinia, Darren Wilson et al), the rampage killer (Dylann Roof, John Russell Houser), and the animal torturer and killer (Walter Palmer). These men are getting their fifteen minutes of shame as they are caught in flagrante delicto but their capture or release only begins to tell many stories yet untold. The news isn’t so much that these murders are happening or would continue to happen. It isn’t even that the system is corrupt. We already know that. What is striking about their recent social media exposé is the sense of public outrage at discovering them, and learning how widespread they are.

That is to say, while the willful and anonymous execution of disposable lives is an everyday occurrence by the police state, racial capitalism and colonial violence, a history of the present well documented by thinkers and activists, bodycam, dashcam and videocam recordings of a few incidents are helping to generate a collective consternation:

“We didn’t know, actually didn’t want to know, just how bad it is but here is murder staring at our faces.”

To murder is to end another’s life or the conditions of possibility for life. It is to force the other to die, whether instantly or slowly and unbearably, by force or self-destruction, and then to perversely care that that death is justified in rational, economic or procedural terms. It is to disregard life itself and to strip away everything that constitutes a person’s humanity. For those whose lives are severely disenfranchised by systemic racism, compulsory heterosexuality, and cisgender privilege, historic and quotidian versions of this murder are all too common.

But to see through the eyes of the dead, the eyes of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose, is to see these murders (literally and figuratively) as simultaneously uncontrollable and targeted.

Toxic Masculinity

It is to see the workings of a toxic, supremacist white masculinity as ordinary and terrifying, self-centered and godlike in complex, cowardly and frightful in constitution. There is a silver lining even in this extreme violence. That these murderers would now grab the headlines as murderers indicates that the seemingly unimpeachable white masculinist complex is finally losing its absolute legitimacy, and subject to public scrutiny and judgment.

The much bigger problem about the gun phallocracy is the internalization of colonial machismo in U.S.-American psychic, institutional, regulatory and relational structures. There is more to do than catching or shaming a few of its murderers – U.S. gun violence is the worst in the world.

Gunviolencechart.jpg

The chart above doesn’t include suicides with firearms that are twice as likely to happen than homicides. According to researchers at Harvard University and Stanford University, there is a correlation between gun availability, right-to-carry gun laws and firearm homicide. It is as simple as that:

more guns = more violent crimes = more homicide

Even though common sense gun laws significantly lower self-inflicted as well as homicidal violence, such studies advocating evidence-based gun safety are often successfully discredited by the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association. Much of this has to do with money, money that is also going into the militarization of the police as an apparatus of the neoliberal state. This includes university campus police units that are increasingly outfitted with the same militarized gear such as those at the University of California campuses during the crackdown against student protestors in 2011.

In particular, the pepper spray cop at UC Davis who casually assaulted student Occupy protestors became emblematic of cavalier, campus corporatization rising in tandem with a militarized police presence that is not only out of line but rewarded for their transgressions. For instance, the aforementioned cop was awarded $38,000 for the “emotional suffering” and “psychological injuries” he endured for pulling the trigger of his pepper spray can on 21 students. His notoriety was so widespread that memes ridiculing him and the morally bankrupt decision of the court’s disability settlement saturated the internet.
Pepper Spray Cop Meme

In spite of the public outcry, there is little reform in the police force or cutback from its brutal militarization. One could say that the unmitigated violation of students and their rights by the militarized cops on the campuses of California in 2011 abetted University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing’s violent extraction of Sam Dubose’s civil and human rights with a fatal gunshot in 2015. Both cops casually or involuntarily clicked on the triggers provided to them by the neoliberal state but it took four years and hundreds of other violations before any misbehaving cop was even deemed potentially criminal.

Meanwhile, civilian gun stock per capita has roughly doubled since 1968, from one gun per every two persons to one gun per person. The proliferation of guns has made the industry a powerful, profiteering bloc that is worth 31.8 billion dollars in 2012. Its initiads have more than the defense of the Second Amendment in mind when they do gun talk. The mean salary of a gun worker is $140k/annum (compare that with university pepper spray cop’s 120k/annum salary, which is well above what most professors make). But on the topic of money, what does gun violence really cost?

The human toll and direct and indirect costs of gun violence are estimated to be 229 billion dollars.

It does not even make economic sense to support the gun industry considering its costs. As the above video shows, this negative economic burden exceeds even Apple’s worldwide revenue in 2012. Who, one might ask, are the benefactors of this gun regime?

The entitlement and privatization of gun rights have reached such a point of phallocratic idiocy that cops and vigilantes like George Zimmerman are able to turn their guns at anyone they deem unlawful, and then claim self-defense or right-to-carry guns as their bullet-proof mantra. Everyone is sick of this morally bankrupt rhetoric. No student and kid should have a gun pointed at them, and no one should be walking in fear of cowardly men possessed by gun machismo. To police the police, counter-movements on the street like Copwatch are stepping up. Others are using social media as a kinetic platform to create swift public justice. While these interventions are effective in the performance of public outrage, so much so that Walter Palmer has gone into hiding, the righteous thrill of digital vigilantism has its limits. Predictably, the gun phallocracy’s pullback against the public’s pushback has rendered Palmer a sympathetic figure who has to “endure [the] latest onslaught from the social media mob.” The hunter, as many observe, has become “the hunted.”

The indistinguishable “social media mob” vis-à-vis the singular Walter Palmer only reinscribes the narrative of the white man as exceptional and blameless, which Palmer himself tried to invoke in a statement released by a PR firm he hired. (All PR firms have since distanced themselves from this case.) His defense is a form of colonial oblivion or high delusion – he has “legal” paperwork obtained with an expensive bribe ($50,000), he is unaware that Cecil is important, and besides it is all just game in the Safari. His fellow Great White Hunters have come to his defense saying the man is in fact protecting and preserving the “trophy” species: “Nobody is going to spend $50,000 to $75,000 on a photographic safari. All the parks in Zimbabwe are run on hunting dollars.”

But why won’t the rich use their wealth to fund research and sustainability projects rather than posing with their $50k exotic kills in Africa? The manner of Cecil’s killing provides some answers. Palmer shot the animal with a crossbow and tortured it for 40 hours before shooting, beheading and skinning it. He also tried to hide the GPS collar that a team of researchers from Oxford University had attached to Cecil, effectively destroying years of research and a local tourist attraction. A Zimbabwean law professor based in the UK notes that Palmer is part of a “lucrative hunting industry,” a “horrible blood industry” that operates like a “cartel” and “Mafioso.”

trumpson

Donald Trump Jr, Eric Trump and Walter Palmer with their exotic, trophy kills in Africa.

Cecil the lion may be anthropormophised and even Disneyfied. But “the mob” is responding to the vileness of a cavalier machismo so ordinary and godlike, so violent in its method of killing and capitalist entitlement that there is little distinction between the hunters’s “We pay to kill” and the police officers’s “We get paid to kill.”

These kills are allegories of colonial violence in the transnational present.

To go after Palmer as a lone ranger is therefore to miss how the colonial hunting of African animals is part of a triumvirate of self- and system-justifying U.S. hunters, mass killers and police on the prowl for blood. These men are duly weaponized and ever ready to boost their frightened manhoods by hunting, hurting and hitting. For who would kill for sport, be triggered by imagined racial assault, and assert the law to shore up the schizophrenia of this unholy trinity? Who else but those threatened by the disappearance of their own relevance and entitlement, their bitterness at the myriad failures of compulsory heterosexuality, and structural inequities biting them back in their asses?

No law will change colonial machismo or the imperial white, male ego purchased with blood. For every Palmer, Roof and Tensing caught in the act, many others like them will continue to roam the streets under the radar. What, then, is to be done? Do we need more bodycams, more surveillance, and even more overwhelming evidence of excessive force to indict the bad apples of the state apparatus? Do we need more laws that are enforced by the lawless? Or do we need to dismantle the gun phallocracy by incinerating those damn guns and all macho b.s?

No Guns

*

“Why are you trying to make sense with crooks?” my dad asked me as the rogue movers from New Jersey held my things in hostage, and demanded twice, three times and finally quadruple the price of the original quote. Each phone call from the company sent me to the nearest town on my drive to Michigan where I had to wire them the money through Western Union. A few weeks later, as they dropped off my things, much of them broken, the movers acted like nothing bad had happened. I kicked myself for going with the lowest bidder but money was tight and the contract seemed binding. There was apparently no legal recourse because the move crossed several state lines, and all I could do was file a complaint with Better Business Bureau and write a really bad Yelp review. As with all good scams, the moving company staged such a flawless execution that fooled even my ex-boyfriend, an attorney in New York City who negotiated on my behalf only to turn on me for not paying them enough as if their quote was my fault. His indictment – “how could you? why didn’t you pay them more” – reverberated in my ear with resonances of our recent break-up.

Months later, an exposé news team did a segment on moving scams and shamed this rogue company on national television. It was unreal to see the company on TV. I felt vindicated though not much better. I was reminded of being attached to broken things. Besides, the corrective justice focused on one company out of thousands that used predatory and extortionist practices. For instance, over 8500 complaints were filed in 2012, and many more hoaxes go unreported. What does it take for institutions to take action? What the news segment did was to confirm my account all along but the power of televisual validation turned the tide against the rogue mover, which closed down. A year later, it morphed into another company.

Are the recent exposés of U.S.-American policing doing something similar or different? Are the cams making visible what has been concealed or are we simply refusing to see the actuality of lived violations?

The eyes of Sam Dubose, and the dash cam of the Dallas police.

The eyes of Sam Dubose, and the dash cam of the Dallas police.

Who’s looking – the eyes of the dead or the colonial gaze?

Is the camera a form of deterrent or deferment of justice? Is it an imagined corrective for bad behavior with no transformative effect on the culture of policing? As much as we think we know what we see, the Rodney King video in 1991 indicates that a visual economy of proof does not get at the “truth” of the matter. Like documentaries, surveillance cameras tend to promote empathetic responses about the verisimilitude of representation. They assume the seamless merging of the viewer and the viewed, or the character and the subject. We could understand this through Brecht’s account of the street scene, a cornerstone of epic theater. The demonstrator in the street scene is the one who “acts the behavior of driver or victim or both in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident.” But rather than being stuck in the “he did that, he said that” element of performance, the charge is to generate consciousness about difference by demonstrating through performative documentation, the “social function of the whole apparatus.”

As a window to the street scene of policing, the cam’s realistic frame is entrapped in the engendering of illusion, and its interlocutors have used its recordings as a matter of representation, or the truth, rather than as a resource for a direct changeover from representation to commentary. What the camera is demonstrating is the method of murderous policing coming undone because its agents are unable to contain the virulence of the racist and misogynist state. They are acting on its deadly colonial machismo as if its labile affects are beyond control. And they are out of control.

In the latest murder case, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing moved from monotonous flatness one moment to compulsive rage the next before blowing the face off Sam Dubose with one shot. Dubose is the 534th person shot dead by the police in the U.S. this year. Tensing joins a long line of angry white men who “lost their temper” at being disobeyed or disrespected, and then immediately pulled out their guns for self-protection.

If ever there was a need for trigger warning, this is it.

It does not take much for these guys to snap. While they may seem “senseless and asinine,” the pathology of pride and fear, panic and rage is the racial complex of colonial machismo trying to suppress its own terror by shooting away every schizophrenic episode involving an imagined, unarmed black assailant looming large like a criminal, a monster, a wild man. This paranoia and its hallucinogenic references have a long, colonial history, and they are deep symptoms of colonial guilt. As Alfred Métraux notes in his classic study, Haitian Voodoo:

“Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity: the anxiety which grows in the minds of those who abuse power often takes the form of imaginary terrors and demented obsessions. The master maltreated his slave, but feared his hatred. He treated him like a beast of burden but dreaded the occult powers which he imputed to him. And the greater the subjugation of the Black, the more he inspired fear; the ubiquitous fear which shows in the records of the period and which solidified in the obsessions with poison, which throughout the eighteenth century, was the cause of so many atrocities.” (New York: Schocken, 1972), p15.

The U.S. obsession with guns in the twenty first century substitutes for the colonial obsession with poison of the eighteenth century, and both are tied to the “anxiety… of those who abuse power.” Each murder in the U.S. gun phallocracy continues the atrocities of colonial violence. The falsehoods and fabrications of the police in their reports of murder echo the “imaginary terrors and demented obsessions” of the slave master. Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, for instance, characterized Michael Brown as a “demon,” and said he “felt like a five-year-old holding Hulk Hogan” even though both men were 6 ft 4. Perhaps Wilson is articulating a nation’s anxiety at being coddled by a black President or perhaps he is so shaken by the broken spell of colonial machismo that he has to murder to make the spell work again. Either way, the toxicity of white, supremacist masculinity has become an extremely dangerous contagion, and is in desperate need of medical, social and rehabilitative treatment.

“Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity”

May the ghosts of the dead rise up to forever haunt all deadly white man, the hunter, the gunsman, the police, and their imitators with their smoking guns in hand every minute of their waking days.

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