Just Joking: Notes on the Comedy of Hannah Gadsby By Jack Halberstam

9 Aug

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In an interview with Indie Wire recently, Hannah Gadsby ripped into the now-disgraced comedian, Louis C.K.: “He’s a joke now,” she said, “and it is important to keep making that joke.” This, in A very large nutshell, is the essence of Hannah Gadsby’s comedy – time’s up fellas, the joke’s on you! While, I am not the biggest fan of Nanette, I recently went to see Hannah Gadsby’s latest comedy show, Douglas, in New York City. The parts of Nanette that I loved were the relentless pressure on white men to “pull their fucking socks up,” the critiques of gay pride (“the pressure on my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense”), the quick dismissal of the download-1rainbow flag (“very shouty”), the exasperation with white male rage (“what have they got to be angry about”) and the attempts to reveal the absurdities of white patriarchal logic.

The parts of Douglas with which I was less enamored were the dog references, all of them, and the homilies and life lessons collected from around the edges of comedy – “Punch lines need trauma because punch lines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.” Punch lines need trauma? Hmm, not sure, but maybe comedy in general does. Or how about: “we think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” Or: “Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.” In other words, the pedagogical impulse is strong in Gadsby, sometimes too strong, you could even call her “dogmatic” (that is my one and only dog joke, I promise): “I need to tell my story properly because you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” This sense that we should learn something from Gadsby perhaps interrupts the humor and the ‘gazing into the abyss’ moments in the show more than I would like (“I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives”). In fact, the really effective pedagogical moments in Gadsby’s show come from her ability to wrap audiences around her finger, to pull us to the brink of hilarity one minute and drop us down into the plough of despond the next. I like that she drops us into those deep holes without promising rescue, I appreciate that pleasure is not her only objective, and I love that she is still angry.

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downloadGadsby’s show, Nanette, was a surprise hit last year on Netflix and it has garnered her thousands of fans (including celebrities, like Emma Thompson) and not a few detractors. The fans loved Gadsby’s open repudiation of the stand-up comedy genre and they were moved by her brutal honesty about what it is like to grow up gender-queer in a small place – Tasmania in her case. Her detractors, most popularly Hilton Als in The New Yorker, felt emotionally manipulated by some of her work and saw not a truthful performance but a performance of authenticity. Fans laughed and they cried; detractors claimed Gadsby was not even funny. So, what is the popular appeal of Hannah Gadsby and should we be suspicious of it? Is she a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) as some have claimed (and the term is used promiscuously online to signify everything from a 70’s cultural feminist to a transphobic parent to, apparently, a lesbian comedian) or is she, like Alison Bechdel, one of the very few butch artists to access mainstream success? Is her stand-up wholly original or just a new take on a very formulaic genre?

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So just to get the obvious stuff out of the way – yes, Douglas is funny and brilliant. No, you do not laugh at every line because that is not how stand-up works. Is Gadsby a TERF? Well, not in terms of arguing for essential womanhood, nor in terms of bashing trans women, nor in the sense of investing in women-born women spaces. But,  she has a TERF-y focus on the harm done by men to women and a tendency not to place that harm in larger context involving race and class. No, I do not think Gadsby is a TERF, but how about a BARF – Butch Autistic Radical Feminist? Is she really autistic? This is another question thrown about online. As she says in Douglas, Gadsby’s autism is self-diagnosed. In the show, she lists the symptoms of autism as: an inability to read social cues, a struggle with intimate relations, a preference for a cup of tea over a sex party in a dungeon, a tendency to lose her temper and “blow up like a puffer fish” when angered, emotional limitations. I am not an expert on autism, but I am an expert on butches and can I just say that the symptoms for autism in Gadsby’s case and the characteristics of old-school stone butches bear an uncanny similarity!? Gadsby’s autism is “real” inasmuch as she experiences it as a set of debilitating symptoms. But, it is also by now a large part of her very lucrative public performance.

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Finally, on the unfair critique front, is Gadsby boring, unfunny or a trauma queen? No, no and maybe. I think it would be very hard to say that a stand-up comedian who keeps most of her audience on the edge of their seats for nearly two hours is boring. And while, I often find comedians funny but rarely laugh out loud during a show, I laughed out loud during Douglas several times and the audience around me was often in stitches. As for the trauma queen or, in this case, king – yes, Gadsby is quite enamored with her own trauma – “punchlines need trauma.” And sometimes, the problem with trauma is that it has a telescoping effect, making it hard to see around one’s cone of pain, hard to relativize your struggle, hard to see the world beyond it. As Hilton Als wrote in his gentle take-down of Gadsby: “Gadsby, in her work, espouses a kind of puritan-minded radicalism in which someone else is always to blame for how messed up she feels. But isn’t that messed-up feeling life? And what about other lives? What about the millions who have it worse, who are fighting to survive?” Ok, not so gentle, but Als hits the mark on what is missing from some of Gadsby’s riffs – namely, the ability to situate her trauma in relation to the trauma of others and the “messed-up feeling” that we call “life.”

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Hand drawn sketch style Tasmanian Devil isolated on white background. Vector illustration.

When I was in Tasmania recently, indeed, I met several wonderful butches, butches who, like Gadsby, felt traumatized by the homophobic environment of a place that did not repeal its anti-homosexuality laws until 1997! These other butches (“my people,” Gadsby might say) gave a context for Gadsby and she suddenly seemed less unique, less like a rare bird in the wild and more like a solid member of a fairly robust species. Tasmania is a place knee-deep in trauma but not all of it attaches to queers. Indeed, white queers in Tasmania can easily be placed within another national context, a different inflection of “my people,” and in relation not to a punch-line but what is called there “the black line.” The National Museum of Australia explains, that when European settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1830, the native population fought back against the occupation of their land. In response, the museum notes with no hint of condemnation: “Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur ordered thousands of able-bodied settlers to form what became known as the ‘Black Line’, a human chain that crossed the settled districts of Tasmania. The line moved south over many weeks in an attempt to intimidate, capture, displace and relocate the remaining Aboriginal people.” This “black line” was basically a genocidal project and part of what was called the “Black War.” The colonists sought to eliminate Aboriginal people from their own land and by 1847, only 40 native people remained. By 1876, they were all dead.

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This is a grim history, a deeply traumatic history, and it is one from which all white people in Tasmania have benefitted. And I don’t link Gadsby’s show to this history simply to force a trauma comparison. Rather, the world view of the settler colonial both informs Gadsby and is an important part of the ideology that presumably she wants to shatter. And so, the fact that this history plays no role in her show, means that we get a snapshot of homophobic Tasmania but no sense of the carnage that laid the foundations for decades of settler colonial violence and for this particularly brutal form of national homophobia and toxic white masculinity. Remember, it is Gadsby who says: “I believe we could paint a better world if we learned to see it from all perspectives.” One wants to answer that there’s a pretty big perspective missing from the picture she paints.

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Trauma in Gadsby’s world then is real but possibly much more layered and multi-faceted than she lets on. And, on account of this, the strength of her show – her take down of white men – might also be its weakness: her targets, it seems, are only misogyny and homophobia but colonial racism is nowhere to be found. This is in part the critique launched by Hilton Als. In his widely circulated review of Gadsby’s Douglas, Als, complained that Gadsby’s shows only play to and in anticipation of the white-male critical voice. He comments: “The idea that a Black gay writer like me would come from New York to see and appreciate her performance doesn’t figure into her sword-wielding.” Als goes on to accuse Gadsby of lacking nuance, of “puritan-minded radicalism,” and of sounding like she is “spewing undigested Andrea Dworkin.” These are tough critiques especially lodged within an even harsher evaluation of the whole show as “solipsism masquerading as art.” But, Als nails something about what is missing from the show and what might be lost by this exclusive, blinkered take on homophobic violence.

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If Gadsby’s trauma makes her short-sighted, her autism, as she proposes, allows her to see patterns where neuro-typical people see only disorderly displays of power. And her imagesqueerness offers her a refuge from heteronormativity and therefore space from which to diagram misogyny and sexism. Some white queers and feminists may deeply appreciate the takes on white masculinity and patriarchy but many audiences of color may feel their limitations. Part of the responsibility for Gadsby’s myopia falls squarely on her own shoulders, but part of it, and this is the part that Hilton Als ignores, emerges from the nature of stand-up comedy itself – and here Gadsby can be commended for wanting to quit a genre that forces her to base her humor on constitutive exclusions and offers pleasure only by asking that your pleasure come at the expense of others. But she can also admired for taking the genre and twisting it away from its hetero-white male roots and turning it into a platform for a queer feminism that alternates between cheeky and rageful.

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What is funny depends upon perspective and humor draws some audiences in even as it cuts other audiences down. And so, while Gadsby lets loose on her unabashed man-hating, straight women comedians often target the indignities of heterosexuality or the inadequacies of their male partners. And Black male comedians, such as Dave Chappelle, regularly attack white masculinity and white power in their comedy, but, they also find humor in homophobic material on swishy gays and pushy transgender women. In the Chapelle show I watched there were about 17 rape jokes for example.

Punchlines need trauma, says Gadsy. Maybe they do. Comedy is a violent sport and the field is littered with blood and guts at the end of many of the best routines. All too often, self-conscious comedians like Gadsby and Chappelle tell us, the laugh is hard won through sacrifice, caricature, erasure and simplification. Gadsby recognizes this and finds in comedy an analogue to her art history training where she was led through the history of Western art only to find out that this history is actually just the trajectory of white male gazes – to wit, naked women abound: “Art history taught me, you know, historically, women didn’t have time to think thoughts. They were too busy napping, naked, alone, in the forest.” Art requires naked, empty women. Masculine stand up has tended to require abject queers and transgender people. And so, some feminist stand-up requires its own roster of dead bodies, mostly male. Gadsby lets Picasso stand for the white man she comes to slay: “I don’t like Picasso. I fucking hate him. I really– I just– He’s rotten in the face cavity. I hate Picasso! I hate him!” Staving off the inevitable charges of man-hating levied at lesbians, she comments: “All my life, I’ve been told that I’m a man-hater. I don’t hate men, I honestly do not. I don’t hate men. But… there’s a problem. See, I don’t even believe that women are better than men. I believe women are just as corruptible by power as men, because you know what, fellas, you don’t have a monopoly on the human condition, you arrogant fucks. But the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge. I’m not a man-hater. But I’m afraid of men.”

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When she steps out of the magic circle of comedy here, leaves out the punchline and instead descends into a rant, Gadsby, believes she is leaving a shitty genre behind. But in fact, ‘the love it and leave it’ mode she performs IS the genre. Other comedians like Dave Chappelle for example also struggle with the choice of whether to perform comedy or to walk away from it. And so the very piece of Gadsby’s show that audiences found so incredible – her claim that she was leaving comedy – is in fact part of the struggle that all comedians who are not white and male must face. The appeal of Gadsby then is not her moral sense of needing to walk away from comedy nor her pedagogical lessons that are used to justify her continued use of the genre. Her appeal is simply this – she is a fucking brilliant stand-up comedian no matter how much she may deny it and like Dave Chappelle she takes a white man’s art and uses it magically to deconstruct the genre and in the process to remake it!

Indeed, watching Gadsby’s Nanette and Dave Chapelle’s Age of Spin back to back recently I noticed how much they have in common: Gadsby and Chappelle are both angry comedians. Chappelle and Gadsby also feel, and often reject the burden of having a community for whom they speak and a mainstream audience whom they believe needs to hear their shit. They both telegraph where the show is going: at the start of Douglas, Gadsby warns that she will eventually tell a Louis C.K joke, but that it will come so late that the audience will have forgotten it is coming. Chappelle, on the other hand, warns his crowd that he will have four stories O.J. before the show is over. These forewarnings offer clever internal scaffolding for the comedy routine and serve as rhetorical breadcrumbs for the audience picking their way through the routine. Chappell and Gadsby both veer between stand-up routines and canned lectures – Chappelle has material on World War 2, colonial emasculation, civil rights and Gadsby has mini lectures on the representation of women, art history and queer politics. Both mention Bill Cosby.

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The point is, Gadsby is not so original in terms of the form of her stand up but nor is she unique in her ability to pinpoint the problems with the genre. Chappelle’s rape jokes serve exactly this purpose. In the Age of Spin, a routine that has been heavily critiqued for perceived misogyny and homophobia, Chappelle recounts pitching a potential super-hero movie to a Hollywood type. The premise is that the super-hero can only access his super-powers by touching a woman’s pussy. But, the guy in question is too unappealing to get such access and so, at a critical moment, he has to force himself upon a woman in order to save the world. He asks the audience to decide whether the rape is justifiable: “That’s the dilemma” he says, “Because he rapes, but he saves a lot of lives. And he saves way more than he rapes, and he only rapes to save. But he does rape.” The rape here is a kind of metaphor for comedy – is it ok to save people by using violence or to entertain them by trashing others? Gadsby turns the rape joke and the question it asks around. And this is where her anger is so powerful. She asks whether it matters to his legacy that Picasso fucked an underage girl:

“Let’s make art great again, guys. Picasso fucked an underage girl. And that’s it for               me. Not interested. “But cubism… We need it.” Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was 17                 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the                          height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah. Yeah, it actually does. It does matter.”

The rape might be justified for Chappelle if it serves the greater good. The legacy must go for Gadsby if it involves questionable sexual ethics. Both Chappelle and Gadsby are fundamentalists, both try to destroy the genre within which they work, both labor to reveal the messy innards of comedy, its deep secrets and its incredible power and violence. Both return to the genre like a lover who cannot leave but who also cannot stay away.

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Hilton Als felt left out of Gadsby’s show, unaddressed and invisible. And, I can honestly say that lesbians and trans men do not exist for Chappelle. But this too is how comedy works – the comedian speaks from a location, the comedian makes jokes at the expense of others and therefore needs an other (“take my wife…please”) to lambast. That other, until Gadsby, was rarely the white man. At the end of Nanette, Gadsby says: “To the men in the room… who feel I may have been persecuting you this evening… well spotted. That’s pretty much what I’ve done there. But this is theater, fellas.” This is theater fellas, she is saying, it is not real life. In real life you are still king of the hill, so loosen the fuck up and learn how to take a joke! Gadsby and Chappelle are unique in their love/hate relation to the genre of comedy, their mastery of a form that they must destroy and their overt commentaries on the violence that mastery requires. “Sadism demands a story,” wrote Laura Mulvey decades ago in another feminist essay dedicated to the destruction of pleasure. And whether you follow Gadsby down the chute of her trauma or applaud Chappelle for turning a rape joke back onto the audience, you leave the show convinced that the show is well and truly fucked and that the show must go on. And here we arrive at the flawed genius of Gadsby – she is not politically pure, she too racks up as body count in the gladiatorial contest to make strangers guffaw, but she finds humor in her own rage and even as she delivers the death blow: “Pull your fucking socks up!” She finds an opportunity for a cheeky moment of self-awareness: “How humiliating. Fashion advice from a lesbian!” Then back to the meta narrative: “that is your last joke.” But it wasn’t, it isn’t and we know in the end that she was just joking and the show, dogs and all, will go on.

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A (K)night of a Thousand Butches by Jack Halberstam

21 May
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A Butch Knight complete with large sword

TV giveth and TV taketh away. Over the course of a few memorable evenings of television viewing recently, millions watched as Arya (Maisie Williams) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolin Christie) on the final season of Game of Thrones, lost their virginity to men.  Meanwhile over on Gentleman Jack, an aristocratic female-bodied lord (played by Suranne Jones), took the maidenhead of her neighbor, Miss Walker (Sophie Rundle). I guess being mainstream means that queer viewers can switch channels back and forth between compulsory heterosexuality in the form of pre-war sex on Game of Thrones, and pre-modern butch-femme sex with a little patriarchy smashing thrown in for good measure on Gentleman Jack. While Miss Walker, the object of Anne Lister’s desire on Gentleman Jack, makes it clear that once she has tasted the forbidden fruit offered by her butch paramour, men become increasingly unappetizing, Arya, at least, on Game of Thrones, tries out heterosexuality only to throw it back onto the pile of “thanks but no thanks.” Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, and hands are key here, seemed to be a true convert to the faith, although, given her partner, it is not clear whether she is in love with prosthetic sex or what Paul Preciado calls counter sexuality, or whether she was just waiting for the right man, as the sad stereotype goes. Arya was at least the aggressor in her disappointing sex scene with Gendry but Brienne of Tarth was all submission and virginal modesty. What do we think about the abundance of butches on television on Sunday nights right now and is there anything to celebrate here? Or, rather, is the masculine woman only trotted out on mainstream television as a form of titillation and sensation?

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As Anne Lister, the eighteenth century masculine woman who conducted business and bedded local married women with equal gusto, Suranne Jones is (mostly) a marvel. Her wooing of her tremulous neighbor, Miss Walker, is a veritable lesson in the art of seduction and, after many a drawn out session of hand-holding and mutual exchanges of meaningful glances, Lister finally gets what she has been angling for – an invitation from Miss Walker to come for dinner…and spend the night!

It would be churlish to complain about watching such luscious scenes of playful and erotic queer flirtation play themselves out, however, quibbles are certainly in order. For, while I love Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack as much as the next man, and I admire the way the series depicts her as a can-do, masculine butch, I wish we could see more…shall we say…results for all the erotic back and forth. Instead, at critical moments of encounter, particularly when a long and luscious, open mouthed kiss might be called for, we watch as the studly Lister diverts from her target at the last minute and begins to nuzzle her amour’s cheek! After watching a few of these scenes, my close reading skills confirm that either the lady or her lover is ducking out at the last minute so that in the place of deep lez smooching, we get way too much cheek brushing. And for the novices out there, no, cheek brushing is not a lesbian thing! After a few too many of these neck nuzzles, you, like me, might begin to wonder why TV wants to raise the erotic possibility of the armed and dangerous butch only to immediately turn her back into a pussy…cat.

il_794xN.1466167697_boi4Speaking of armed butches, let’s return for a moment to Brienne of Tarth, who, let me be the first to say, as a female knight in shining armor, surely deserved better than Jamie Lannister! While his prosthetic arm offers some interesting prospects for queer sex between a heterosexual guy (or, given his other lover, shall we say “family man”?) and a giant butch, Jamie seems clueless about his golden glove. The metal hand that he uses to cover over the site of his castrated arm, can easily be resignified as (what we queer theorists like to call) a lesbian phallus! Indeed, the shape of his prosthetic hand lacks imagination – imagine if the Lannister arm had been shaped like a dildo, not necessarily an anatomically correct one – how about a dolphin shaped phallus courtesy of a medieval Babes in Ye Olde Toyland? Or just a fist? With such a weapon on hand, I would have been willing to grant this union some credibility!

But, sadly, the quick and seemingly normal bedding of Brienne by Jamie, and the as-quick abandonment of her by the one handed bandit was disappointing for all who have followed her long character arc through many battles against precisely such men on behalf of much more appealing maidens! Sex aside, Jamie, the King Slayer, could have been an interesting friend for Brienne, indeed he recognizes her knightly qualities and approaches her as his equal. But queer relations is a real failing of Game of Thrones, and I say this as a fan, and so, the show’s heteronormative limit meant that we could not be treated to a straight man/butch friendship. Instead, the bond between butch and bad guy was all just grist for the old hetero mill, and so to bed…

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Dragonglass prosthetics

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Another butch in Game of Thrones left nothing to chance when it came to prosthetics. Before Arya gives Gendry her virginity, she commissioned him to make her a dragonglass weapon of some kind. The sketch she presents to him, indeed, an image much debated online in terms of its form and purpose, looks like nothing so much as a Paul Preciado style contrasexual prosthetic dick! I believe if we said it was a dildo and harness, we might have resolved one of the great mysteries of Game of Thrones – forget who will sit on the Iron Throne, which turned out to be a big anti-climax anyway, the question is who has the best weapon? While Jamie’s aforementioned metal hand is definitely a contender, Arya’s detachable weapon seems to have the edge on all the other valerian steel. And yet, despite long sequences in which Arya encourages Gendry to make this weapon for her, in the end, she does not use it to kill the Night King! This leaves the question open as to what the dragonglass spear might be used for!

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Perhaps when Arya beds the eager Gendry, she was merely looking for a place to try out her dragonglass toy. And, as quickly as she sleeps with the lad, she realizes that heterosexual love is not for her– “that’s not me…I am no lady”– and she rejects her enamored suitor. Brienne of Tarth, on the other hand, having given up her blue-ribbon lesbian status to Jamie Lannister, seemed crest-fallen when the King Slayer rode off to be with his sister/lover in her hour of need. A quick summation of Jamie’s rather unappetizing sexual history – incest, child killer, etc. – should make viewers pause and wonder why Brienne is so often represented as the freak in this duo, but the hasty departure by Jamie suggests that his metal arm may not have measured up to the prothesis Brienne was expecting!

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Like Arya, Brienne carries a big sword, her own Valerian steel (maybe Valerian steel is the medieval equivalent to silicon?) called “Oathkeeper.” In Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, according to wikipedia is described as:

“…unfeminine in appearance, and is considered unattractive. She is very tall, muscular, flat-chested, and ungainly, with straw-colored hair and broad, coarse features that are covered in freckles. Her teeth are prominent and crooked, her mouth is wide, her lips are swollen, and her nose has been broken more than once. However, her large blue eyes are described as beautiful.”

Wow, like a straight man condescendingly paying a masculine woman a “pity compliment,” this description offers the beautiful blue eyes as the only compensation for crooked teeth and a broken nose. World to medieval fantasy writers – probably everyone had crooked teeth before about the 1980’s when orthodontics became a thing and hey, when you are fighting off rapists at every turn, you may sustain a broken nose every now and then. But of course, it is not what she looks like that makes Brienne of Tarth unappealing to men, it is her dogged, unrelenting defense of women and her unapologetic use of her size and her brawn.

Like most heterosexual narratives, Game of Thrones has little to no idea what to do with “Brienne the Beauty” as she is sarcastically called, and so, as the denouement approaches, she is thrown a couple of masculinist bones in the form of Tormund, who calls her the “big woman,” and Jamie, who is marginally more appealing because he seems to genuinely like her. Brienne’s love options had fans giggling with joy over the idea that the seemingly unattractive woman might, as one writer in Marie Claire puts it, “find true love.” Other clueless articles call her a feminist icon (maybe but feminist here is just a nice word for lesbian) but the whole lesbian thing is only addressed by a few smart .queers on social media. Hopefully there is fan fiction out there pairing Brienne up with an unarmed (as opposed to one armed, but nothing wrong with one armed either) lady.

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Meanwhile, over in Halifax, circa 1803, Anne Lister, also known as Gentleman Jack, also unattractive and no doubt, also, if pictures are to be believed, featuring bad teeth and “swollen lips,” possibly even a broken nose, was despite her lack of conventional beauty, wooing and bedding ladies on the local estates. And in her spare time, she intimidates, harasses and tops local men in relation to the business of running her estate. Suranne Jones is a fabulous flirt and very good in this role which finally gives her room to express something other than toxic femininity (see her in Dr. Foster and Scott and Bailey). The ‘real’ Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was an aristocratic lady lover who traveled around Europe bedding married women and then wrote about all her experiences in an elaborate code in her diaries! There is a tendency now to regard Lister as a “lesbian,” and this show makes that same mistake, but (reference LGT History 101) no such word would have been used during Lister’s life-time and the markers of Lister’s difference from other women concerned his/her cultivated masculine appearance and his/her desire for women. S/he did not understand herself to be part of a community of others like herself and s/he considered her partners to be women while s/he was something else, something closer to manhood.

The show Gentleman Jack is good fun — not good fun in the way that Game of Thrones is good fun with sex, violence and armies of the dead! — but good fun as in amusing and if not quite historically accurate, still insistent enough about Lister’s masculinity to offer some succor to those of us waiting for Arya and Brienne to find their own lady loves! And by the way, according to many fans of Game of Thrones, Sansa also might have been ready for some queer action and now that she is Queer/n of the North, I sincerely hope she finds it!

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There were, indeed, plenty of opportunities for some authentic medieval tribadism on Game of Thrones, but neither George Martin nor the show runners on HBO had the know how or balls to really figure out how to tell a good story about masculine women with weapons. As Game of Thrones winds down and leaves us pondering big questions about sovereignty, rule, governance and war, and even bigger questions about dragonglass dildos, it is time to hope that someone, somewhere on line is bringing into being a fan/fiction universe where we can reimagine queer characters outside of their function as local color or titillation and see them as amazons, witches, bitches and butches.

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Reitman vs. Ronell: Rethinking the Role of Gender and Patriarchy in Sexual Harassment Cases

7 Sep

By Nefertiti Takla

[NOTE: DEAR READERS – BULLYBLOGGERS HAS HOSTED A LONG SERIES OF ARTICLES ON “BAD SEX.” TITLE 9, AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT. WE DO SO NOT TO PARTICIPATE IN THE CURRENT POLARIZING STRUCTURE OF DEFENSE VS. CONDEMNATION BUT IN ORDER TO BROADEN THE CONVERSATION ABOUT #METOO, TITLE IX VIOLATIONS, THE EXPLOITATION OF GRADUATE STUDENT LABOR, THE SHIFTING CONDITIONS OF LABOR IN THE UNIVERSITY, PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL DISCOURSE, TENURE/TRACK STATUS AND ELITE PROFESSORIATES. 

WE REMIND READERS AND FOLLOWERS OF THIS BLOG THAT THE “BULLY” IN OUR NAME CAME FROM THE LATE José Muñoz’s BELOVED DOG, LADY BULLY. WE DO NOT CONDONE BULLYING, OR MOBBING. 

WE WELCOME YOU TO THE SITE AND ASK YOU TO READ THE ESSAYS HERE AS REPRESENTATIVE OF THE AUTHOR’S OPINIONS AND NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENTATIVE OF EVERYONE INVOLVED.] 

THE ESSAY PUBLISHED BELOW BY NEFERTITI TAKLA ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON HER OWN BLOG “FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS.” WE REPRINT IT WITH A FEW CHANGES WITH HER PERMISSION. 

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The recent Title IX lawsuit filed by Nimrod Reitman has brought to light existing debates in the feminist movement. In a patriarchal society, is sexual harassment simply an abuse of power that can be perpetrated equally by men and women, or is it a product of institutionalized sexism and violence against women? Should gender be ignored in cases where a woman is accused of sexual harassment by a man, or is gender always a signifier of power? (By woman and man, I am referring to the legal recognition conferred to either sex within a binary gender system in relation to the context of the law. I am not referring to social, cultural, and biological categories that are always shifting in extra-legal contexts.)

Historically, sexual harassment has been theorized as a form of patriarchal violence that is directed at women collectively because of their gender. As Abigail Saguy explains in her book, What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne, Title IX and Title VII were laws created to fight gender discrimination, not sexual harassment. In the 1970s, feminists fought to have sexual harassment legally recognized as a form of gender discrimination due to its role in reinforcing institutionalized sexism. Gender has therefore long been central to our understanding of sexual harassment as a social and structural problem that reproduces the collective disempowerment of a particular group in society. Reitman’s lawsuit and those who support it represent a new movement to redefine sexual harassment as a gender-blind abuse of power, which effectively dissociates the problem from the framework of institutionalized sexism and patriarchal violence against women.

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As someone who filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in graduate school, I believe that every student – both male and female – has the right to an education free from unwanted sexual and romantic advances. However, as a feminist who believes that the academy is still a patriarchal structure that reproduces male superiority, I believe that Title IX should remain a law that protects women and non-conforming genders from sexual harassment and institutionalized sexism. What Reitman experienced should be theorized as abuse that stems from labor exploitation in the academy, not the structural sexism and sexual violence that stems from patriarchy. Reitman’s attempt to seek justice through a law that was created to fight sexism on campus has negative legal implications for the feminist movement because its success would mean that men can also be victims of gender discrimination perpetrated by women. It would also mean that gender is no longer relevant to our understanding of sexual harassment. Therefore, regardless of his intentions, his lawsuit paves the way for Title IX to be used by the backlash against the feminist movement.

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On one level, I feel a connection to what Reitman has experienced. As graduate students, we felt exploited and abused by our advisors, and we felt betrayed by our institutions and their failure to protect us from this abuse. Our advisors represented the power of the academy and its ability to exclude us and destroy our livelihood at a whim. The pressure to comply with an advisor’s wishes or else drop out are rising in a neoliberal academy that intentionally creates more cheap labor than it can employ. Graduate students’ anxiety about labor precarity leaves them increasingly desperate and vulnerable to their advisors’ demands. Most graduate students are doing whatever they can to remain in their advisor’s good graces, hoping that after they graduate, their professors will fight to keep them in the system. The threat of adjunctification has made the relationship between advisors and advisees increasingly coercive and exploitative, making consensual sex or romance nearly impossible.

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On some level, abuse has always been an integral part of the patronage system in the academy. Graduate students have long endured abuse and stayed quiet about it in order to secure a position after they graduate. In a patriarchal academy, male graduate students are not only less likely to be subjected to abuse, but can afford a higher tolerance for it because they know that in the end, when they have a position, they will assume a dominant role in the structure. But the longstanding patronage system of the academy is incompatible with its current neoliberal restructuring and its transformation of graduate students into a pool of disposable wage laborers. One could argue that neoliberalism is destroying academia’s feudal structure, giving way to a class system in which professors at top universities are seen as the elite of the academy (with their critique of the moralizing middle class and its “sexual paranoia”), professors at teaching institutions as the middle class (with their critique of the debauchery and corruption of the elite), and graduate students and adjuncts as the working class (with their growing resentment at their inability to make a living). The fact that graduate students are now willing to break their silence about the longstanding abuses of the patronage system suggests that this system can no longer sustain itself. What Ronell appeared to have promised Reitman was a patronage relationship that is becoming increasingly impossible in a neoliberal academy.

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The ultimate solution to this problem is not to identify and uproot “predators” who are exploiting core features of the system, but to restructure the system in a way that gives graduate students the power to say no to their advisors’ demands without fearing the loss of their livelihood. The system enables abuse, and we cannot create a fictional divide between abusers and non-abusers. Demanding that everyone self-police through sexual assault training – or police each other through mandatory reporting – does nothing to address the structural causes of the problem. What we need to do is to fundamentally change the system to halt the trend towards adjunctification and ensure graduate students funding and employment both during and after their studies.

Although Reitman experienced an abuse of power, his experiences do not represent the structural sexism that the feminist movement has long been fighting. When I filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in June 2015, my goal was to contribute to both the graduate student struggle against labor exploitation as well as the struggle of women against sexism in the academy. My decision to file the lawsuit came at the end of a fruitless, two-year battle to hold my former advisor accountable for sexual harassment. His sexual harassment was not a one-time offense but rather part of a longstanding pattern of sexism directed at female students and professors in general. When I first started working with him as a graduate student, he told me that he believed women only came to graduate school to marry their professors. He would comment on the looks of every single female professor we ever read in his class. Other witnesses noted that he would talk about buying underwear for his girlfriend in TA meetings. His sexual harassment of me and of other female students and professors cannot be divorced from his sexism. He believed he was entitled to our bodies, and no matter how often we said no, he continued to make sexual advances. His behavior was therefore central to the reproduction of structural sexism in the academy.

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The way in which my university handled my case normalized this male professor’s violation of female bodies. In response to the Title IX report that I filed with my university in June 2013, my former advisor received a “slap on the wrist” that resulted in no harm to his career. During its nine-month investigation, the university found that two other women in my department had also been harassed by this professor, yet their reports made no difference to the case. Instead of issuing a finding of sexual harassment, the university settled with the professor, allowing him to keep the case confidential and avoid any official mark on his record. This normalization of my former advisor’s behavior was a manifestation of structural violence against women. By protecting his career and reputation, my university left me and other women vulnerable to further harassment and retaliation.

431957_1This protection of men over women is one of the hallmarks of patriarchy. NYU did not attempt to protect Avital Ronell in the way that UCLA attempted to protect Gabriel Piterberg. Ronell was not given the opportunity to negotiate a secret settlement with NYU to protect her career and reputation. She did not take a leave of absence or resign as other male professors like Colin McGinn and Peter Ludlow did when they were accused of sexual harassment. She was immediately stripped of resources and status, and the media has been merciless in ways that we did not see in the Piterberg or Ludlow cases. Patriarchal structures shield men from the law while making sure that it comes crashing down on women. Patriarchy insists that the law must be gender blind, when in reality it is not.

The ultimate irony of this case is that the law that came crashing down on Ronell is a law that was designed to protect women from gender discrimination. Yet gender discrimination is central to the adjudication of legal cases regardless of whether the woman is a victim or a perpetrator. While NYU saw Ronell’s behavior as sufficiently abnormal to warrant discussions of her termination after the first offense, UCLA reached yet another settlement with Piterberg five years after I came forward, in response to another student’s Title IX report. Although this final settlement terminated his employment with the university, it is unclear how much money he received in exchange. The difference between these cases makes it clear that patriarchal structures normalize violations of women’s bodies until we speak out in collective anger. It takes a multitude of women to get some semblance of justice, while all it takes is an individual man. In a patriarchal society, the law cannot be gender blind. Insisting that it be so will only reinforce patriarchy.

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Lonely Planet

5 Sep

José Quiroga

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    1. From the onset, lawyers for the plaintiff argued that “Ronell created a false romantic relationship between herself and Reitman and by threat of, among other things, not allowing him to advance his Ph.D., asserted complete domination and control over his life.” The link between this “false romantic relationship” and the domination she exerted over this student is not entirely clear. But the same point is made in the “factual evidence” section of the lawsuit, where once again the “fictitious romantic relationship” is linked to “complete domination and control” over Reitman’s life. For any student of literature, the main problem with this argument is how conservative its notion of authorship is. For the “romantic relationship” just happens to unfold over emails both parties wrote separately, and then exchanged. One could imagine that in a different court of law—say, copyright law—the plaintiff would have argued for his rights as co-author. In such a case, Reitman’s lawyers would have insisted that he deserved a share of the profits of Future Miniseries X given the considerable efforts taken, on his own account, in order to keep up the narrative momentum. At this point, twenty or thirty years ago, any graduate student would have quoted Stanley Fish: “Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled.”  One text understood as authored by one person is used as evidence of control and domination in a sexual harrassment case. The same text (sic), understood as a collaboration, has multiple authors that deserve to be credited in copyright law.
    2. I don’t recall a teaching assistant ever telling me that sometimes “analysis is simply denial with more words,” nor do I recall an administrator cutting graduate lines in the Humanities arguing that interpretation was unnecessary since “the text just means what it says it means.” This is because most graduate students and some administrators understand that most of the times, the text never means what it says it means. The text in the Ronell / Reitman exchange could very well stand for the absence of any romantic relationship other than the one that takes place on the page. One does not need a PhD in Literature to know this, just as one does not need to be a lawyer to understand that when the lawsuit states that there was “groping, roughing, and kissing on a regular basis” or that “Ronell would touch, grab, fondle and kiss Reitman” it doesn’t mean that at each and every instance all of these acts took place. Not every author is a lawyer, but some lawyers are authors—and some can even recall the occasional undergraduate course on D.H. Lawrence. To put it simply: this is a case about the possibility that writing alone can create facts. Thus it is, ultimately, a case about literatureDH-Lawrence.jpg
    3. In the slow-moving August news cycle, the case caught on. Or, as rendered in the ominous lead sentence of Andrea Long Chu’s essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[t]he humanities are ablaze.” Chu is referring here to what Jacques Derrida would have called the “dissemination” of the case. But as Derrida himself would have warned us—and Borges before him—dissemination tends to multiply errors of fact. This point is evident in the very first paragraph where Chu states that Judith Butler, Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam have defended Avital in writing. That no such thing ever happened as Chu has recounted it should be clear by the time you read this text online. And it baffles the mind to believe there is really a lot of abuse in expecting teaching assistants to read the work of their supervisor. Would you go to an interview at the NYT op-ed section without at least familiarizing yourself with the work of Maureen Dowd? Would you be an intern at The Nation never having read Katha Pollit? There are photocopier assistants at The Washington Post who know about Bernstein and Woodward although they were born decades after these two penned All the Presidents Men. And Chu’s complaints about life under Ronell pale in comparison to the treatment suffered by a young intern (Anne Hathaway) under the despotic rule of a famous fashion magazine editor (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada.rs_500x206-160624105104-500-devil-wears-prada-thats-all-062416-1485457517
    4. In this sorry proxy for the death of academia we are all living, where the stakes are so low and so inconsequential, I find myself doing a lot of extra (uncredited, unpaid) labor: from reading stacks of tenure and promotion files for institutions around the country and abroad, to serving as external referee for academic journals, and making sure that—over and beyond their work in my classes–graduate students have peace of mind and time to do the work they want to do. Yes, graduate students teach courses, which means they are workers within the university. And yes, they are also students and they are mentored by faculty. For years I find myself directing four and five dissertations, writing untold number of rec letters, correcting innumerable dossiers, reading more than my share of tenure files, and recommending others for grants when I myself should be applying for them. That this is all entirely my fault it goes without saying. “I should be meaner,” I say to myself, “I should protect the little time I have. I should not cover for those who think that advising a grad student simply means reading a completed, camera- ready chapter that someone else has edited.”
    5. I suppose like many of my colleagues I am an obsessive advisor. I will push and push students, but I know that at some point I have to let them go. So even if I think the dissertation should have four chapters and not three, I understand the pressures of the job market, the very real anxieties of student loans, and the fact that when a good job shows up at the MLA and you have a good chance at it, we all have to make our way back to the reality principle pronto. Graduate school is a challenge on many levels in the new, corporatized university–with its mid-level administrative bloat and reduced faculty lines– and I don’t blame those students who think that I can give or withhold job offers. But I’m revealing no secret by stating that this is part of grad student myth-making. The reality is much more complex, which is something I imagine Reitman heard at some point because it’s something I tell all graduate students, again and again. Most often than not, at the other end of the interview process there is a department with ten or fifteen independent minds that need to achieve a consensus. And surely, the more of an “academic superstar” you are, the more there’s people out there who resent you for a lot of things that are really beyond your control. It’s not always in your best interest to have a superstar as mentor—everybody knows that, including “academic superstars.” Hence the tact shown by Avital Ronnell meeting with Andrea Long Chu in order to make sure that “you and I are OK.” But why does Chu then turn around at a moment of public humiliation for Ronell, and cast this as a cheap Game of Thrones-like scene? It befuddles the mind of anyone who ever suffered viewing the depiction of law school in The Paper Chase.the-paper-chase
    6. Like the majority of my peers, Ive been rejected from many jobs, accepted a couple,and I myself have rejected one or two–not without regrets. I’ve had better luck than many, and have done worse than others. The times in which I’ve been forced to choose between my ambition and my principles, my ambition has taken a hit. But then again, my principles have also taken a hit every once in a while. And yes, there have been periods when I’ve spent my life in purgatorio. That’s academia these days. All of us who have worked on gender and sexuality, or on “deconstruction” or even on telenovelas and popular culture, have had to navigate through a lot of difficulties and misunderstandings in our careers. But it hasn’t all been despair, and for that we have to thank students, both graduate and undergraduate. When nothing else makes sense, I go into a classroom where I have the rare privilege of sharing some time and space with twenty, or thirty different, diverse minds. Let me give just one example among many: when the “romantic fiction” that Ronell and Reitman created via email first came to light, I remembered the joy I felt when I suggested to a brilliant graduate student the work of a man, now deceased, who was the most important Cuban writer still alive then. For many years, as an older man, the poet worked as a bagboy in a Miami Publix supermarket, and then retired and lived in a modest Miami house with his wife and their middle-aged daughter. My student and the poet hit it off, and he proposed that they write a joint epistolary “novel” based on what he called the japanese principle of the “zuihitsu” in which, according to rules which he himself had set, he would start off writing something, and then the student would continue writing whatever she wanted, and vice versa. Now that the poet is fully recognized as one of the Great Poets in an island of superb writers, this work has assumed its place as one of the last books he wrote in his life. The young woman who at that point was my student took a risk and worked on this on her spare time, while teaching her regular graduate student courseload. I can’t promise all my students that this will happen to them. But sometimes good things happen if you are receptive to the possibility of being surprised by people—and that includes French intellectuals, German philosophers, and bag boys at Publix. Here is a link to the final entry of that blog a deux Margarita Pintado wrote with Lorenzo Garcia Vega: images-2.jpeg
    7. I wish I could produce an equally beautiful ending for the Reitman / Ronell saga. I’ll let the lawyers do that, since they always end up having the final word. And in the aftermath of the messy election of 2016, we seem to have abdicated everything to them. But let me just say one thing: given the chance at writing such a perfect volume as The Telephone Book, I’d give a couple of fingers of my right hand. Go and live in that book for a while if you can. Immerse yourself in that mess, take a chill pill as you plunge in the midst of its typography wildness, in the lunacy of its ideas that are also evidence of the highest philosophical rigor, brilliantly turned upside down. And thank the higher powers that you never wrote such a book just as you were coming out of grad school. Because yes, you’ve put your brilliance out for display, but we know how stupid that is, how naïve. For the challenging work of a sharp, young woman, thirty years later turns into fodder for twitterati attacks by one segment of what is thankfully a much broader feminism. Then again brilliance, like social media, was never meant to be aligned with justice. But that’s what we old farts are supposed to be doing, no? Reminding you about history, or juggling your memory. Some fuddy-duddy thing like that. While we solemnly open our dog-eared copy of a translated Borges and have you stare for the next hour at the following phrase from his story “Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination, now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated. . . “

September 1, 2018

Hands on a Hard Body: Remarks on Graduate Advising as Emotional Labor

23 Aug

Guest post by Drew Daniel

When I was a grad student at UC Berkeley in the late 90s, S.R. Bindler’s documentary “Hands on A Hard Body” came out. The film is a gripping representation of a Texas truck dealership’s gimmicky promotional giveaway. Sternly coached and heartily cheered on by their supporters, twenty four contestants have to remain awake and standing as they keep touching a truck for as long as possible. With only brief bathroom breaks to relieve the mounting exhaustion, the person who can hold their position the longest gets to keep the truck. At the time of its release, as I squirmed and fretted through my PhD, the film struck me as a perfect analogical depiction of the competitive space of graduate school in the humanities generally, and the dissertation writing process in particular. As I saw it in the darkest hours of my most sleep deprived and over-caffeinated states of despair, grad school was about prolonged and labor-intensive suffering, a slowburn of masochistic commitment to a dubious ideal. More than a little quixotic and doomed given the actual job market that awaited, the squabble to secure the most prestigious graduate advisor and the race to write something that pleased their inscrutable whims was a humiliating competition for a scarce resource in which you sacrificed personal dignity as, year after year after year, you had to just keep on standing there, desiring and hoping, your fingers grazing the surface of something that might one day be yours, but probably wouldn’t be: an academic career.

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Movie still from the film, Hands on a Hard Body

Luck and fate have pried the hold of this analogy loose from me. Contrary to expectations and thanks to a lot of help and support from advisors who proved to be deeply sympathetic and generous people, I actually finished my dissertation, got a job, turned the dissertation into a book, and got tenure. In retrospect, my comparison of grad school to this degrading and grubby competition now strikes me as a bit too much. But I also know exactly how horribly smug my Pollyanna litany may well sound to the ears of people who are struggling to keep it together in grad programs right now, let alone to those working as adjuncts on the other side of filing. Besides, it’s a strained comparison at best: grad school is more like a shop class in which everyone makes their own car and some people’s cars have square wheels and some cars explode and other people realize cars are bad for the planet and ride away on a bicycle, etc.

However infelicitous it may be as a analogy, the stark vision of Bindler’s film has been on my mind as the Avital Ronell case materials have circulated and plunged much of the academic blogosphere into a nonstop reconsideration of the hothouse climate of need, competition, and yes, exploitation and abuse, in which graduate students continue to work and struggle to hold on at present. The Ronell case has attracted all sorts of responses: think pieces, petitions, diatribes, disclosures, jeremiads, apologies, critiques of the apologies, tweets and counter-tweets. Some strike me as smart and thoughtful, some seem opportunistic or inane. Given the seriousness of the charges, the heat is understandable, but in the process, something mundane but enduring has been largely fogged over: the actual everyday emotional and scholarly labor of graduate advising itself.

But before I say anything further about that labor, let me say this loud and long and clear: abuse of advisees is never okay. We can attend to structural questions, neoliberal procedural takeovers and note ongoing cultural surrounds of queer panic and misogyny and, while doing all that, we can still hold living breathing individual people accountable for their actions. So, once more, with feeling: abuse of advisees is never okay. Department chairs and colleagues need to create channels of communication with grad students so that individual faculty members who abuse their power, influence and privileges face consequences. The forms that accountability can take are sure to be messy and complex and the outcomes may well remain arguable, but it’s clear that without such structures in place things have been going very wrong, and will continue to do so until departments change.

Let’s start with another almost-truism: Every professor was once a grad student. This isn’t always true (consider art schools and MFA programs) and it may not remain true in the future, but for now, it is a reasonably consistent institutional norm. Ph.D. Programs that teach people how to get Ph.D.s are staffed by people who once needed to learn how to complete a Ph.D. Accordingly, professors need to remember how it felt to be a grad student, and should draw upon those memories as they work closely with people who are younger, less powerful, and more vulnerable than they are.

Fear and anxiety are the grounding affective conditions in academia because academia is a competitive workplace under capitalism. That’s the “Hands on A Hard Body” scenario: there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and everyone knows it, and whatever solidarity and emotional bonds academia affords must be fashioned in the shadow of that fact. Part of the task of graduate advising against that backdrop is figuring out how to modulate anxiety and live within a draining emotional ecosystem in a humane and productive way. In a best-case scenario, the omnipresent fear that one isn’t “good enough / smart enough” gets sublimated and you write your way through and out of that fear into something more personal and rewarding and particular. The nightmare obverse is that an emotionally manipulative faculty member exploits ambient unhappiness to serve their own selfish ends.

In my first few years of grad school, I took several courses with a distinguished faculty member only to gradually realize that I could not trust that person. While they were never sexually assertive towards me, they seemed cruel, vindictive, likely to demand a narrow sort of obedience, prone to lashing out when challenged. I had the luxury of being in a large department with other faculty members in my area of study and just worked with someone else. But I have never forgotten that experience of having to delicately extricate myself from a powerful person’s orbit of influence at a vulnerable point in my scholarly development. It was a close call.

Graduate advising is intimate and intense. You are forging a bond with someone that lasts for many, many years and has affective highs and lows. Over time, you learn to ride out both the emotional peaks and the depressive troughs. It is a partnership but it is also structurally, fundamentally unequal. One of you is learning how to do something; one of you is advising the other on how to do that thing based on prior experience and presumed expertise. Both parties are catalyzed by the changes taking place in a piece of grad student writing as it emerges in an intersubjective space between unequal collaborators. The advisor must help the grad student bring something new into the world which is the student’s own and which the advisor does not themselves already completely understand.

This is why even a purely scholarly interaction about what is and is not working in a given piece of writing can overheat quickly. Complaints about clarity and structure or criteria of evidence can be par-for-the-course professionalization intended to polish someone for the job market, but they can also impede breakthroughs and stifle creativity. To sing it in the key of Eve Sedgwick, “People are different from each other.” Feedback that is challenging but workable for one person may be crushing for another. What inspires one advisee may repel another. Mutatis mutandis, what bores one advisor may scintillate another. What looks publishable to one pair of eyes may appear deeply unsound to another. It’s complicated.

By divergent means, either party can sabotage the relationship. If a student doesn’t write or stops caring about what they write, the relationship fails. But if the advisor destroys the student’s trust and self-esteem by savaging that writing without holding out hope for improvement, the relationship also fails. There has to be something at stake for both parties, something in the other that appeals and solicits care and investment, some charge or cathexis. While this may not work for some people, in my opinion an advisor needs to be just scary enough to inspire you to write, but not so scary that the relationship becomes sadistic or harmful. Orthogonal to the “good enough” mother in Winnicott, the “scary enough” advisor frames expectations and provides stability without being draconian. Trust is essential, and it’s up to faculty to signal that they can handle pushback without becoming vengeful.

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Describing the perfect student-advisor relationship can verge upon an imaginary recipe for Goldilock’s porridge: too much autonomy and you feel ignored; too little autonomy and you feel suffocated. You need to check in with each other about where things stand: not so frequently that it’s oppressive, but not so rarely that it comes off as neglect or disinterest. When it works well, there’s a cumulative richness to what becomes a particularly luminous and inter-animating mentorship, and someone who starts as your student or teacher becomes, upon the filing of the dissertation and the dust settling after the defense, your friend. When it goes badly—well, you’ve now probably read the transcripts and briefs and press releases.

Ideally, the advisor is there to assist in their own critical supersession. My dissertation advisor Janet Adelman said that her goal as a teacher was to “disappear.” That is, a good advisor offers honesty and support, but also lets the student proceed beyond their reach to somewhere fundamentally unforeseen and new. What is a learning experience for the advisor can become a nightmarish dead-end—or worse– for a student who becomes a target for recrimination in a bleak job market. The essential inequality means that the advisee is more vulnerable and more exposed than the advisor to harm because of the institutional force conferred by their respective roles, the power difference at the core of academia as an institution. It’s a balancing act on a seesaw poised near an abyss.

Advising should be intellectually invigorating, but it can also be emotionally volatile. Janet was very supportive of me but also very hard on my writing when she felt it wasn’t clear or well-organized. She made me re-write one chapter five times, and I essentially spent an entire year on a single chapter. These were the bad/good old days when people could dawdle and take a decade to finish their Ph.D. if necessary, and as she herself joked to me as the demands for adjustments came neck-and-neck with praise and celebration, it was not for nothing that she was the author of a book titled “Suffocating Mothers.” Janet could be extremely tough in the margins of my chapters, but I also knew that she truly believed in my potential and wanted me to succeed. The same is true for Richard Halpern, my previous advisor before he transferred to NYU: not easy to please, but someone who cared enough about you to tell you the truth about where your writing stood, as he saw it. Sadly, a lot of people don’t get that kind of support, and their relations with their advisors are fraught with fear, intellectual theft, mistrust, neglect, or worst of all, emotional or sexual abuse. The Ronell case offers us one example of how quickly and thoroughly off the rails these interpersonal relationships can go. It should also force each graduate department to take a long cold look at its own policies of complaint, redress and inquiry. One way to determine the ethical orientation of a community is to examine how it treats its most powerless members: that is true of thought experiments about hypothetical nation states, but it’s also true of universities and departments.

I know this firsthand because I am a DGS in my department and oversee graduate advising. We make sure that grad students know that they can speak out to me when they are concerned about a faculty member, and that if someone is concerned about my actions they can speak to my colleagues or to my chair. A healthy department ought to be a space where personal accountability and critical honesty and emotional support and intellectual rigor are not seen as mutually exclusive values. That is the goal, and when people fall short of it, they have to be told. It’s awkward for everyone involved when that time comes, and can be frustrating, painful, and shaming in its aftermath, but I would rather there be some occasional awkwardness than for faculty members to feel that they have carte blanche to mistreat graduate students with impunity. No department and no faculty member is perfect, but it’s not asking too much to expect that graduate students be protected from bullying and abuse, and it’s not asking too much to expect that faculty get called out when their behavior is unprofessional. There should be procedures in place for how that unfolds, and plenty of skepticism and critical sunlight upon how those procedures play out too. As Jennifer Doyle’s “Campus Sex, Campus Security” makes plain, professors can become targets of harassment too, and institutional frameworks may be far from benign in how they adjudicate such cases.

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From top to bottom, precarious labor conditions enable abuse: graduate students who have a conflict with a professor are very likely to feel that they can’t afford to speak up because they don’t want to lose what is already a slim chance against the job market’s long odds by arguing with a potentially well-connected and hostile antagonist. There is also, I think, an ambient and understandable generational resentment about ongoing changes in the profession which is surfacing in the midst of the Ronell case and its aftermath. People who are professors now came up during an era in which there was both a carrot and a stick. The carrot was a letter of recommendation that was actually strong enough to get someone a job; the stick was the threat of a weak letter or, worse, expulsion if the work wasn’t strong enough. Now that the number of jobs has spiraled downwards while casualization of labor has risen, the carrot has withered but the stick remains. This is why professors can now seem both frightening and ridiculous in the eyes of grad students; they are seen as beneficiaries of a lost Golden Age of employment who can’t help you much but can definitely still hurt you.

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When you realize that it’s not worth it anymore, it’s time to walk away. This is true for car dealerships in Texas, and true for graduate programs, and it’s true for overstrained analogies and dead metaphors. Graduate advising is an asymmetrical force-field of needs and duties, crisscrossed by fear and longing: the fear of scholarly and interpersonal failure, the longing to create knowledge or to assist in its creation. We may not be able to control or predict the outcomes of each catalytic encounter, but we each have to do what we can to reshape the structures in which we work so that people can identify and redress abuse. It is up to all of us as individuals within academia to decide how to proceed in the wake of the Ronell case. But some of us have more power to do something about it than others, and dealing honestly with graduate advising has to start by clearly recognizing those lines of force for what they are. Who is sitting comfortably, and who is about to drop from exhaustion? For those of us who are faculty, I hope we learn to treat our own grad students with the compassion and encouragement that put us where we are today. But we can’t do so if we pretend that the world our students are entering is the same as the world we came from, and we can’t do so if we are tacitly silencing the very people we presume to educate.

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If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention!

THE FULL CATASTROPHE

18 Aug

by Lisa Duggan

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Sex is never a good idea. It is a mess. It is the scene of desire and fantasy, of power and abjection, of domination and mutuality. Sometimes all at once. It is a bad idea we pursue, avoid, rejoice and despair over. As #MeToo has gathered momentum, the social processes it deploys are also a mess. It is one part feminist social justice movement–calling the powerful (overwhelmingly men) to account for using sex as a tactic of dominion. And it is one part neoliberal publicity stunt. Why call it neoliberal? Because the accusations are focused through the press primarily on bad individuals, rather than structures of power, and because the mode of accountability is primarily corporate investigation and firing, and banning from the means of publicity (a Netflix contract, a TV appearance). This is not social justice feminism. It is rather a shift from neoliberal carceral feminism (beefing up the criminal justice system to “protect” women), to the privatization of feminism (a reliance on corporate boards to dole out consequences).

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The university is a particular kind of corporation. Even public universities now rely more heavily on tuition and private funding than on state support. But the state still has a heavy hand in university operations, via the distribution of federal funds. In the university, federally mandated procedures under Title IX govern procedures for adjudicating sexual harassment complaints. These mix with each university’s own procedures, outlined in faculty handbooks. The processes of investigation and punishment are wildly uneven, depending on the mix of procedures and the individual administrators charged with carrying them out. But the rule overall is confidentiality—those who accuse and those who are accused, and all university personnel, are bound to keep mum. The particular parameters of that requirement vary from school to school.

static1.squarespaceThe confidentiality requirements are supposedly designed to protect less powerful accusers, primarily students, from retribution from powerful faculty. But in practice they don’t really work that way. Accusers are often kept in the dark about any actions taken, or not taken, against the accused. The institutions frequently protect the accused. But we can’t know the facts, because confidentiality keeps us from collecting representative stories. In the end, confidentiality protects the institutions. Liability lawyers review cases to that end, not in pursuit of justice. We are unable to hold institutions accountable, which is the point. Corporations in general always like to impose confidentiality through non-disclosure agreements and other means to protect their interests. University confidentiality requirements should be viewed along those lines..

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I have been collecting cases of queer faculty accused of sexual harassment. My hypothesis is that queers are disproportionately charged, often by homophobic or sexually confused students, sometimes by queer students whose demands for “special” treatment are disappointed. I do think that queer faculty can be guilty, and should be held accountable! But the stories I’ve collected so far do suggest that many cases involve fantasies, projections, or revenge. Because queers are hypersexualized in the public imagination, they are targets for sexual accusations. For example, a queer femme accused of being seductive, for wearing skirts and speaking in a “throaty voice” in class. A trans man accused of inappropriate advances toward a colleague, not a student and not at the same institution. A faculty member charged for the content of a queer studies class. It is remarkable as well that the majority of cases in my small but growing collection involve faculty of color, particularly black faculty. But my cases have to be anonymous, because of the confidentiality requirement. I cannot assess how common or typical these kinds of cases are, or whether particular institutions are hot spots for them.

In a case involving black faculty accused by a black student, the administrative decision-making was focused on queer African American practices of mentorship. Black queer faculty and allies around the country were solicited to write letters to explain black queer practices of sociality to administrators. The informal networks and close relations that constitute “queer kinship” across status lines, and that have been crucial to black queer advancement in the university, could be regarded as violations of proper faculty/student boundaries. As Marcia Ochoa explained recently on Facebook:

“[There] is a change due to the institutional enfranchisement of marginalized communities that previously had to operate in coded ways. Our interpersonal modes of mentoring have not caught up with the institutional positions of power we are now in, and this has really happened within one “generation” of graduate students. Entering grad students are coming in with heavy expectations of solidarity (and a presumption that solidarity = unconditional and unqualified support), while institutional contexts are no longer allowing the kinds of informal networks many of us relied on to get through grad school.”

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This is the kind of clash of contexts that haunts the Title IX case and lawsuit against NYU professor Avital Ronell. Initially, Ronell was utterly handicapped by the confidentiality requirement. When NYU determined her not responsible for many of the charges against her, but responsible for sexual harassment via email and for nonsexual contact, they initially announced a decision to revoke her tenure and terminate her. She could not solicit support. When prominent academics organized a letter about her case (they were not solicited to do so by Ronell), they could not admit any knowledge that they had of the circumstances (through their networks, not via Ronell). The elitism of that letter, as objectionable as it truly is, was a hastily concocted weapon to persuade NYU to back up from a draconian penalty out of all proportion to the charges sustained. NYU administrators would understand and respond to power and status. The draconian penalty they at first considered was likely adopted to avoid a threatened lawsuit from the accuser (whose husband Noam Andrews is a member of a wealthy New York real estate family, presumably well able to fund lawsuits). The letter put them on notice that confidentiality would not fully cloak their actions. Caught between money and academic prominence, NYU backed down and put Ronell on a year’s unpaid leave instead.

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Then accuser Nimrod Reitman, a former graduate student no longer bound by NYU policies and disciplinary procedures, leaked documents to the New York Times. Initially Ronell had to seek permission from NYU to rebut specific claims through her lawyer. Then the media avalanche, based on the leaked documents, led to the lifting of the ban, allowing her to finally speak. What we see emerging is the full catastrophe, a huge mess, a clash of cultures, and issues of power and boundaries in academia.

Setting aside for the moment the question of truth, of whose version of events is more accurate, the case raises four important general questions:

1) The email exchange, dribbling out in excerpts via the New York Times article, Ronell’s press release and Reitman’s legal complaint, shows a two-sided correspondence of endearments, affection, and fond memories of shared intimacies. Even if these exchanges were fully consensual, and no indication of sexual contact, they raise the question of boundaries in advisor/student relationships. Can the tremendous power of the advisor ever be compatible with this kind of expression? If not, where is the line? This is a general question that commonly plagues academics.

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2) The nature of the email exchange resonates with many queer academics, whose practices of queer intimacy are often baffling to outsiders. A queer woman and a gay man in a romantic relationship? Romantic language that does not signify sexual desire? Forms of intimacy well outside the parameters of heterosexual (and, homosexual) courtship and marriage are commonplace among queers who not clearly separate friendship and romance, partnership and romantic friendship. The correspondence between Ronell and Reitman, full of literary allusions as well, can be read literally as an indicator of a sexual relationship. This is a culture clash. (Though that is not to say the correspondence is not “problematic” as we academics like to say, see (1) above, and it does not establish that there was not a sexual relationship either.)

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3) The selective demonization of queer and women faculty is very clear in this case. Not only was Ronell treated more harshly than many men accused of far worse infractions, but the personal attacks and demonization of her on social media is breathtaking. Accused male faculty rarely meet this fate, and when they do the cases generally involve multiple victims and physical assault. This is misogyny, of the variety pervasive on the internet. Misogyny is rife even among the queers and feminists posting personal attacks—they do not do this to similarly accused male faculty.

4) Critiques of the academic letter of support for Ronell have centered on feminist hypocrisy and double standards—the claim is that the signers are defending a feminist comrade, but they attack men under similar circumstances. This charge is rooted in gross ignorance about contemporary feminism. There are many strains out there—some all in for the #MeToo privatization, some are devoted to denunciation on social media and trial by publicity. But there are socialist feminists who analyze structures of power that condition harassment and who think seriously about institutions and due process, and sex radicals who point to a history of sex panics that contributes to the public mood. Some of the feminists who signed the letter (and the signers are not all feminists) represent a strain of academic feminism that has been critical of secret Title IX tribunals and #MeToo trial by publicity all along, not just when a feminist is accused. The letter does not represent hypocrisy. It is a reflection of division and difference among feminists on the issues of sexual harassment. We all oppose it! But we don’t all agree about how to identiy and confront it.

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We don’t need to know “what really happened” to confront these issues. Reitman says Ronell physically sexually assaulted him. NYU found her responsible only for harassment through email, and inappropriate non-sexual contact. Reitman wants us to take the email literally, as evidence of sexual desire and conduct. Ronell understands it as coded, not literally about sex. But why is sex the central factor anyway? The central issue is whether there were boundary violations that could be considered harmful. Advisor intrusions do not need to be sexual to be a problem. That is a broader issue. If we focus on this one case, these details, this accuser and accused, we will miss the opportunity to think about the structural issues. If we are social justice feminists and not neoliberals, we care about the broad structures of power, and not individual bad apples case by case. Perhaps we should begin to think about a restorative justice process that would center in departments, be transparent, hold faculty responsible, and assess the question of boundaries in local context? Perhaps impose confidentiality as the exception, not the rule—to be invoked when a need is demonstrated.

In this environment, I’m not holding my breath.

The DeVos University Online Sexual Harassment Training Course

16 Aug

by Jack Halberstam

Dear Faculty:

Welcome to the DeVos University where our motto is: Reddere Ludere or Pay to Play.

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As part of your orientation to your shiny and new look university, we offer you our standard Online Sexual Harassment Training Course at the end of which you can choose between different malpractice insurance packages – we can help you to decide which one is right for you depending upon your status (social identity factors), your profile (visibility in the profession), your friendship networks and your usefulness to the university.

 

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The university in the past was an antiquated place where people sat around reading and thinking and exchanging ideas. It was a boring and dull place in which, to misquote W.H. Auden on poetry, nothing happened. But today, we offer you a new educational environment in which different opportunities exist for maximizing your potential and the potential of those you coach in a crowded marketplace of purchasable intellectual material.

Online Blended Learning CoverIn order to begin advertising your thoughts you need to develop online curricula (that can be sold), textbooks (that can also be sold) and a series of lectures which your university will buy back from you for the price of what we used to call your “salary.” Now, your salary will be docked according to how much you owe the university for the use of your own lectures, for malpractice suit coverage, for any counseling you need as you navigate this difficult process and for bi-monthly sexual harassment training sessions. Please do not be alarmed if the deductions for these services, along with standard deductions for health care, taxes and retirement, actually come to more than your salary. You believe in education after all so now is your chance to prove it by paying to elevate the minds of the youth in your care.

We will help you to develop your intellectual persona over time as a brand and then show you how to maximize that brand and you might even, eventually, make some money back on it!

But, before we get into how you can actually make money in addition to teaching, prepping, publishing and administering programs (and we do suggest looking into opportunities for second jobs at local coffee houses and grocery stores), we need to make sure you are protected from nasty grievances that may arise as you counsel our student clients and guide them to higher learning. And, of course, protecting you means protecting the university so this is extremely important. Please spend at least 12 hours on the online training course, this is not simply a matter of learning the material, which can be done rather quickly, it is required for the insurance coverage that we may offer you at the end of the course.

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By way of an introduction to your sexual harassment training kit, please click the cute emoji marked NOT WAVING, DROWNING  download1.jpg  to continue. You will then enter the sexual harassment training portal and we will lead you through some real-world scenarios in which you are forced to make some hard decisions and pay more money to the university.

But first please answer the first question in order to establish your “status”:

Are you:

A) A straight white man – if yes, please bypass the first section. In fact, you will find that you can bypass many of the sections.

B) A queer person – if yes, consider purchasing our full coverage and making monthly contributions to a “potential law suit” defense fund.

C) A Woman – please sign a university indemnification form. This form confirms that even if you need to press charges against a colleague or university employee or student for harassing you, and indeed, 90% of all cases are women harassed by men, you guarantee that you will never sue the university.

D) A person of color – our insurance plans do not offer coverage for all law suits you may run into, consider extra coverage and a monthly contribution fund.

E) A queer person of color – you are on your own.

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Section One

Read through these scenarios and answer the questions that follow:
1. A woman has reported to HR that you insisted upon engaging with her sexually in exchange for good grades in your class. According to her grievance, you insisted that she wanted sex with you and you disregarded her obvious discomfort. You later failed her in the class. Please answer according to your “status.”

A. White guy – do you marry her? Denounce her as delusional to all who will listen? Feel confident that it will all blow over? Explain that this is just run of the mill heterosexual sex and you “get that a lot” – what’s the big deal?

B. Queer person – do you point out that you are queer and not sexually interested in her? Counter sue alleging that she came on to you?

C. White woman – skip this section, we all know women don’t have “sex” with other women.

D. Person of color – hire a lawyer and prepare to go to jail

E. Queer person of color – your life is over.

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2. A group of women specifically bring a charge against a white man who has engaged in multiple accounts of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and slander. The women all have remarkably similar stories. Law suits are in the offing. Should the university:

A. Talk to the man in question and tell him to marry as many of the aggrieved students as possible?

B. Investigate further because the fact that the women all have similar stories sounds suspicious?

C. Call upon the man’s friends on campus to support him and hold him up as a genius who has just been misunderstood?

D. Ask his wife, and his ex-wife, and his first wife to come in and testify on his behalf?

E. Get him an opportunity to write an op. ed. explaining what happened?

F. Offer him a very nice retirement package with full benefits, a house in the Bahamas and free access to study abroad students?

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3. One man brings a charge against a feminist professor known internationally for her path-breaking work. The man claims he has been forced by the professor to hang out with her, sit by her in her home, read to her and talk to her. The complaints pre-date their student/teacher relationship and go back to when he was a young man who bumped into her in a European capital. The charge is backed up by some flirtatious emails and has a he said/she said feel to it.

Should the university:

A. Fire her

B. Hire a publicist to broadcast the case internationally to show that feminists fuck up too and even more than anyone else does but that the university is willing to go to any lengths to protect its student/clients from feminists?

C. Tell her to marry the victim

D. Put her on leave without pay indefinitely

E. Lock her up in her university owned apartment and force her to hand out all of her intellectual property to the university while continuing to admit students to work with her and using her reputation as a lure for the program with which she is affiliated.

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4. A queer person of color has been accused of engaging inappropriately with another queer person of his own age and status off campus. This person does not work with the alleged victim, does not supervise the alleged victim and has no further contact with them.

Should the university:

A. Fire them both?

B. Get rid of queer studies and Ethnic Studies and Black studies and feminist studies?

C. Hire some graduate students to post repeatedly about this case on social media to make something out of what could potentially have been nothing?

D. Deny them both tenure?

E. Set them up with a white guy mentor who can explain how this all works?

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5. A man of color has been accused of sexually harassing a white student by being in the same room as her and looking at her in an “odd way.” The two never met out of the classroom but the student says she feels “unsafe.” You are the chairperson to whom the student reports this feeling. Do you:

A. Call the police.

B. Call the army?

C. Investigate to find out how and when and why a Black man was hired on your campus?

D. Contact the NYT?

E. Take out more insurance?

Section 3: Now that you have completed your training it is time to purchase your insurance. If you are a white guy – don’t worry, you are covered by our “male majority non-liability clause agreement.” If you are anyone else, the cost of coverage, if and only if you qualify for it, will be a third of your current salary but we offer you the chance to teach for the coverage by adding 2 extra classes per year to your work load. You will also be asked to pick up extra mentoring.

Finally, what is the take away here? Yes, pay to play! No bad universities, only bad faculty! One million years of patriarchal rule can’t be wrong!

That’s all folks!

Dear Tom: Missions Possible and Impossible

8 Aug
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Your mission, Tom, should you choose to accept it….

By Jack Halberstam

Your mission, Tom Cruise, should you choose to accept it, is to self-destruct within 5 seconds of reading this message.

Oh, you did that already, several times, and in public, and on Oprah and in documentaries about the Fascist Church of Scientology. Still, please do it again and mean it this time. Consider all rumors about your homosexuality to be null and void, you are way too ordinary to be homosexual. Also, you dress badly. And, furthermore, pursuant to this message, you will no longer be a lesbian boy idol. Someone get the message to Ellen please.

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As for your latest masterpiece, Mission Impossible 47, it sucks. FYI Tom, “masterpiece” is not a compliment, don’t get excited, definitely don’t start jumping around like a puppy on sofas the way you did when people had to hear about you kidnapping your last wife, Katie Holmes. Your new film sucks so bad, Tom, because we have to watch you supposedly saving the world from the bad guys. Who are the bad guys, Tom? Are they anarchists? Are they? Really? What? Do you know what anarchy is, what it means, what it stands for? Do you get that anarchists reject hierarchy, and property and believe in self-governance and call attention to abuses of state power? Do you know what you are Tom? You are a guy who jumps out of planes and thinks that this qualifies you to save the world. Do us a favor next time – how about don’t save us from the anarchists? Please.

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Tom, Mission Impossible Fallout is a nonsense film with a nonsense title. The only fallout is the nuclear level stench that the film puts out as it tries to offer audiences clever twists and turns on a very bad plot. Oh, and you fall out of planes and helicopters a lot. Let’s think about the plot of this movie, Tom, and see together if we can understand where it falls out with even its own premises. Ok, bear with me Tom, there is a lot of summary here and I want you to follow along with me, focus…no stop looking around for someone who needs your help, I need your help, I need you to explain this nutso plot to me so that I can understand how and why in the age of renewed right wing populism and fascist patriarchy, anarchy becomes the problem afflicting what you like to call in this film “the world.”

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OK, here we go, a summary: a rogue group of operatives (Tom, you played Ethan Hunt, right? A man who is both hunted, haunted and hunting…clever…and then there is Benji played by the desperately trying to be funny Simon Pegg, and Luther played by Ving Rhames, who, in this film is essentially a Black male punching bag whom you keep saving to prove your morality – so good of you to save the Black man when his role usually is to die off quickly and leave the white guys to save the world, but you saved him! Wow…deep). As I was saying Tom, look at me, as I was saying, you lead a group of rogue operatives known as the Impossible Missions Force as they try to prevent some bad anarchists from obtaining plutonium and using it to blow everyone up. The Impossible Missions Force…great name Tom…let’s shorten it to IMF to make it clear for whom you work. Do you know what the IMF is Tom? Ask Siri…no not your daughter, that’s Suri, although she probably knows the answer, Siri – Siri, what is IMF?

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“Here’s what I found: IMF stands for the International Monetary Fund. The IMF promotes international financial stability and monetary cooperation. It also facilitates international trade, promotes employment and sustainable economic growth, and helps to reduce global poverty. The IMF is governed by and accountable to its 189 member countries.”

Sounds ok Tom, right? The IMF sounds like a good thing to you, maybe – reducing global poverty? Gooood. Sustainable economic growth? Gooood. Wrong, not good. The IMF basically allows wealthy countries to impose neoliberal capitalism on poor countries. The same countries responsible for creating shit shows in the global economy (think Germany) then gets to impose restrictions on bad “lazy” countries (think Greece). Not good, Tom, not good. So, you are the IMF and you work for the government? Sort of? Not sure, not really?

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Who is the government in this film, Tom? Is it that Black CIA officer, Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), who keeps bugging you and following you and assigns to you a childminder by the name of Walker (played by a hunky Henry Cavill)? Or is the government Walker himself who is keeping tabs on you, but who is also a buff and better version of you and, just in case the audience ends up liking him better than you, is also ultimately revealed to be a loser anarchist??

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Or is it Alec Baldwin’s character, Alan Hunley, your boss, who shows up to stop you from going rogue but then, twist after twist, ends up assisting you in going your own maverick way? Is he the government Tom? Is it the lady on the motorbike, Ilsa, who keeps hunting you (the hunter gets hunted) but always holds back from shooting you once you are in her sights? Is it the White Widow who seems to represent a shadowy terrorist group but actually turns out to be working with the CIA? But if Ilsa is the government, and so is the White Widow then who is the enemy? Is the government good or bad in this story Tom? No, don’t think about it, don’t look to your daughter Suri to help, even Siri is no use here. Simple question, is the government good or bad? If good, then why do you keep going rogue and why don’t they trust you? If bad, and you oppose them, and want to be free of their surveillance, and in fact want to go it alone on behalf of ‘freedom’ or some such vague concept, well, then in that case Tom, are you an anarchist? No, I know you are not a mutual aid anarchist or an anti-fascist anarchist, I mean duh! You are a scientologist and believe that you are a superior being in an inferior world (the plot of most Mission Impossible films). Obviously. But maybe you are a right-wing anarchist? Like Zizek? What’s that Tom? Oh, you LOVE Zizek, right, you have never heard of the IMF but you love Zizek, it is all making sense.

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Solomon Lane – an anarchist in Mission Impossible and Zizek look alike.

But wait, Tom, we have not finished the plot summary. So you are trying to stop the bad anarchists from dropping plutonium on the “world” which would create….fall out! And so, you need to impersonate one bad guy, John Lark and then kidnap another bad guy, Solomon Lane, and then hand him over to someone called the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, last seen playing another royal – Princess Margaret and wasted here because there is no one to charm because Ethan Hunt is on a mission and has no time for tomfoolery). Luckily, the hunt for John Lark led us, Tom, to one of the very best scenes in the film (I hesitate to call it a film but it has a plot, was shot on some kind of digital equipment and trades in visual imagery that overwhelms its human accompaniments). Yes, the bathroom scene where you and that hunky Henry rough up an Asian dude in a bathroom stall and then when people enter the bathroom, you pretend to be having a threesome in the stall to avoid detection.

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Niiiiiceee Tom! An arch little wink to the homo rumors that dog you (that we have declared null and void) and a postmodern moment of self-consciousness that allows us all a good giggle at the idea that you would ever masquerade as anything. Because that was the plan, right Tom, you were supposed to pretend to be John Lark and with some nifty face transferring technology, you would have gone undercover as the Asian guy. You would have fused with him, entered him, and all kinds of other metaphors for the sex you were pretending to have with him. Would you have been in yellow-face if you had actually followed through on this thoroughly racist premise? But you abandoned the whole idea pretty quickly Tom, not because of the racism but because, well you killed the guy. Dead guy, no face. Technically, of course, that was a “good” kill because he was the bad guy and you, you are so good you cannot even pretend to be bad. You are so original, you can only be you, right Tom?

Anyway, the plot thickens. Of course it does! You, being the very, very good guy that you are – we remember how you have already saved Ving Rhames several times by this point in the plot, you have killed several baddies, you consistently put your team first – overturn a plan (from the government? who is the government Tom, I know I keep asking) to kidnap the anarchist (and remind me again Tom what do they stand for?) that would result many deaths. Damn it Tom, you are SO good, you just keep saving and saving the world, one innocent at a time. I-am-so-moved. And now you must impersonate John Lark using face technology in order to meet up with more bad guys (who turn out to be the government in disguise, just saying Tom, confusing!)

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Now, this face off technology is pretty cool Tom…were it not for the fact that it has been done to death in another film, what was it called…something catchy and clever…oh yeah, Face Off, ha, that’s good, another clever film featuring a white, pseudo-homosexual (we call them faux-mo’s Tom in case you need the correct lingo ever) who is a member of the Church of Scientology and thinks he is the bomb – wassisname? Oh right, John Travolta. Is this a metaphor for some kind of sex thing you guys do in the Church Of Scientology? Face off, jerk off, stare into the eyes of other alpha male members and their members, imagine your face in their face, your eyes in their eyes, your members for ever privately communing and confirming with their members in a members only bathroom stall? But needless to say, by the second or third time you used that technology in the film Tom, I was over it. So, when you left the naughty anarchist alone with Walker, told Walker to watch him and then it turned out that, oops, Walker and Lane were in cohoots and oops wait, Lane is not Lane but Benji with a new face and oops, Alex Baldwin is not the bad government rep but a good guy there to support you….wow, I just can’t. Way too much Deus Ex Machina shit here Tom…what? Deus Ex Machina, no it is not a church thing, it is a theater thing. It is the way stupid plot can be resolved when the author has painted himself into a corner – you just introduce a moment of technical wizardry that saves the day. Remember Finding Dory? No? With your friend Ellen in it? Nobody does, Tom. Sequels Tom, fear sequels. Anyway, Finding Dory keeps painting itself into a corner because Dory was a-dory-ble precisely because she kept forgetting everything and now she remembers everything so she needs new and interesting obstacles to overcome and new ways to overcome them. In this film, the resolution comes in the form of…wait for it….a smart octopus. No, Tom, I do not think you need to hire an octopus in your film. But you do need something.

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How does Deus Ex Machina work in  Mission Impossible 47?? It works through you, dude. You are the Deus Ex Machina Tom. Whenever the moronic mission takes a wrong turn, you arrive from above, from below, on a bike, in a plane, flying a helicopter, on a cliff, in a tunnel, with a gun, or your fists, on your knees or hanging from a rope, or a ledge, but you always make it, you always get the job done, often with only one second remaining and a bad guy still loose. You do it, and you do it again, you save the day.

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And I have not even finished explaining your film to you Tom. Oh man, remember the good old days Tom, when you were just a young whipper snapper and you just wanted to have fun and and dance around in your underwear and when “risky business” meant crashing dad’s car not parachuting through a storm from 30,000 feet up? Remember back then – you still used allegorical names then – I think you played Joel Goodson…what’s that? Allegorical? Oh it just means, well, never mind Tom. I just meant that there is a pattern to your films. In fact, in Risky Business, there was also a queer theme – remember the transgender person you nearly had sex with in that film? Now that was a great film – white kid fucks up his parent’s house, gets into a relationship with a prostitute, ends up owing “bad” people money but at the end of day, still has a bright future and gets into Princeton. Wow, magic how that happens…for white boys. Now, that was your sweet spot, the cute story about innocent young white boys getting into trouble but always coming out on top! You had a good thing going Tommy boy, so why this nonsense about fighting anarchists and stopping the end of the world?

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Back in the good old days, you did not have to think about the IMF, or ask who exactly represents the government, or figure out how to juggle three women in one film without having sex with any of them or sort through why your wives leave you, often under cover of night and with much planning. And now Tom? Now, as your church tries to figure out who you should marry next, as your bulked up mid-life crisis body begins to show signs of wear and tear, as your plots contain as many contradictions as a story about why three heterosexual guys were caught in a toilet stall together, now Tom, it is time to do the right thing.

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What should you do Tom? Well, stop making these Mission Impossible films. Really stop it. But, second, if, like Samuel Beckett, you find that “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”…well, what? Who is Samuel Beckett, no he is not that Black action actor, that is Samuel Jackson, and no, Jackson is not available to play a support role in your next film, nor is Samuel Beckett. But as I was saying, if you find you must go on, here’s a plot for you: your shitty boss, Alex Baldwin’s character, has been sexually harassing the head of the CIA played by Angela Bassett, and blackmailing the White Widow and  trying to kill Ilsa, all while stymying their promotions, taking responsibility for their work and ideas and making tons more money than them. You, in the meantime, have been luring international men of mystery into public bathrooms with hunky Henry. You are so busy that you fail to see all the angry women who are lining up to take down the IMF. When you finally emerge from the restroom, no longer even able to feel your face, not even knowing any longer if it is your real face, the women have formed a rogue group and teamed up with anarchist groups to bring down global capitalism, assassinate its leadership, redistribute wealth, make health care and child care free, put a cap on earnings, abolish inheritance (all money goes back into the system), abolish prisons, make university free, figured out how to pay teachers properly, get rid of lawyers, ended marriage, oh and stopped nuclear war. All that…while you were in the bathroom with the hunk.

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But, if you really want to help people, and you really seem to want to, based upon all your Scientology videos, give your money away – some could go to Black Lives Matter to acknowledge that it is the police and not the anarchists who need to be stopped. More could go to various humanitarian crises in Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Indian occupied Kashmir and elsewhere (remember Kashmir Tom? You shot the last third of the movie there without mentioning its own ongoing struggle). More could go to help women and minorities make real films instead of these insanely expensive, sorry excuses for movies that you are involved in. You could endow a chair in sexuality studies somewhere so that people can study why people join pseudo churches to cover up whatever sexual secrets they have. You might consider funding a bunch of smart young, radical politicians to start a third party that would really go rogue in the US and would break with the super capitalism of Trump and would figure out how to redistribute wealth, how to hold banks and bankers accountable and how to rescue us from plutocratic democracy. Tell you what Tom, here’s an idea, you really can save us and the world. Take all of your wealthy friends in the 1% and put them in a helicopter – show them how to jump out with out a parachute, and if they resist, push them out. We will call it Mission Possible – Push Out and our world won’t end, but yours will. What’s that? You’ll do it if you can be reinstated as a lesbian boy idol? Ok, I will talk to Ellen and see what I can do.

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Vertiginous Capital Or, The Master’s Toolkit by Jack Halberstam

2 Jul

 

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Crisis upon crisis, we are living in a storm of epic and growing proportions. Every day a new travesty of justice, a new police-authored crime, a new violent executive order is issued on behalf of those who have everything and against the many who are divided and conquered. In this new era, one characterized by a violent, indeed vertiginous, form of capitalism in which all tools levied against the regime are re-appropriated and turned back upon us, it is urgent that we take aim at and demolish the “everything” that Trumpian masters of finance come to take. We must tear down not only the monuments and the fabricated past for which they stand but also the legal, political and social mechanisms that were supposed to provide shelter to the weak but that in the wrong hands become new weapons in the war on everyone. A world of rich elites arrayed against multitudes requires new tactics, new articulations of old problems and a willingness to risk all.

In the spirit of risk, on behalf of demolition and in a world where everyone should be opposed to everything, we would do well to revisit Audre Lorde’s famous maxim from 1984 about the master’s tools and the master’s house and in so doing we should remember her main goal – it was not only to create a debate about which tools to use, it was to argue for the demolition itself with purpose and without a chance of reconstruction.

1. The Master’s Screwdriver

66884426-steampunk-style-robot-handyman-with-screwdriver-funny-toy-mechanical-character-repair-service-concepIn the speech in which Audre Lorde originally used the term “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” she did so not only to critique patriarchy but also to take aim at what she called “racist feminism.” Pointing to the fact that she was often called to attend feminist conferences as a woman of color and appeared alone among white women who had hired women of color to take care of their kids while they were at the conference, she commented: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

This signature phrase from Lorde, who was fond of scolding white feminists (who were fond of being scolded), reminds us that there is never only one enemy – there is an obvious group of people who benefit from the status quo but then there is an entire support system for that group who ensure that relations of reward and punishment stay firmly in place. From Lorde’s vantage point, as a Black lesbian in the fraught middle years of so called second wave feminism, the enemies were certainly white men but they were also the multitudes of white women who supported these men, who cleaned up for them and who actively sustained the racial and capitalist hierarchy from which they benefitted.

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Lorde’s wise words were never so appropriate as now, an era in which white patriarchy has made a stupefying comeback and at a time when opposition to capitalism and patriarchy, white supremacy and xenophobia all too often uses the wrong tools to fight the power. For example, while we seem to be as invested as 1970’s and 1980’s feminists were in identifying, exposing and disrupting the quotidian mechanisms of white patriarchy, we still went with a hegemonic strategy of supporting a corporate woman in the last election (Hilary Clinton) to oppose Trump rather than finding a truly radical candidate (hello Alexandra Ocasio Cortez!). And of course, white patriarchy still relies upon on the support of white heterosexual women who helped to elect our current sexist in chief.

But, as in Lorde’s moment, the enemy is not just the abusive male, however powerful and overtly obnoxious he may be; as it was then, the problem is structural and lies within a system that allows the crimes of the white guy to rebound onto others while our hero sits high above the fray in the (Trump) tower he has built for just such occasions. And while the numerous stories of sexual abuse, the deportation of children and financial exploitation pouring into the public sphere should be enough to bring the master’s house down, because they continue to use the master’s tools of sex negativity, racism, and the doubling down on an unstable and deeply unfair real estate market, the house still stands. The vertiginous turn of the screw here ensures that the more things change, the more the rich stay rich and everyone else gets screwed.

2. The Master’s Power Drill

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When we spin too fast and gather speed using the master’s power drills (the law, systems of punishment, impunity for the rich), we often create gaping holes in the system, but we often also fall into them! There are many versions of this process in the world around us and so we can name our era one of vertiginous capital – an era in which things move too fast for us to properly identify the systems of oppression that hold us and twist our own strategies of resistance back upon ourselves at the same time.

Examples:

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We live in an era of big data with supposedly superhuman, literally, powers of prediction and speculation. Massive amounts of data are collected from each of us every day and yet, despite all that, we were unable to predict or prevent the rise of Trump. We could not even predict his electoral win and until the moment that the first few states reported the voting results, media organs like CNN and the NYT showed Trump as having the longest shot ever for President. And yet here we are.

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• We live in an era when Gender Studies has been institutionalized but only as a place to study the master’s house – how it was built, what materials it is made of and what abuses it contains. The site of knowledge production that should be committed to tearing the house down, becomes the safe house for accusations against previous owners; indeed, gender studies is now the house of trigger warnings where the very materials about sexual abuse and violence that we fought for the right to teach just a generation ago can now not be mentioned in case they trigger a concealed site of trauma. As a consequence of using the master’s tools, the university’s anachronistic division of knowledge holds firm, the disciplines thrive and hog all the resources and instead of seeing male bodied people learning to be feminists in gender studies classrooms, and female bodied people in STEM classes, gender studies remains a site populated by women, science classrooms remain male dominated and the beat goes on.

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• We live in an era of epic homelessness and we see tent cities springing up in high rent cities around the world. Vast numbers of people in first world countries live on the streets and every day another family fails to pay exorbitant rent for another rubbish apartment and ends up on the streets with no social safety nets to hold them. And so, we speak of a homeless problem when we actually have a homefulness problem in which too few people own too many properties and leave them empty or put them up for rent on the gentrified market of temporary luxury housing. Tent cities abound as do zombie buildings of luxury apartments from New York City to Shanghai, from Vancouver to San Francisco, from London to Sentosa Island in Singapore. All over the world, millions of apartments sit completely empty and millions of people live in the streets. In the 1970’s and 1980’s punks and anarchists squatted in abandoned buildings giving them new purpose and making space for public sex (the piers), collective life and radical queer politics (the Brixton Fairies). But in the era of home security and CCTV, traditional forms of squatting in buildings is nigh on impossible. And so the squat moves from inside the building to the street. Tent cities are the exact opposite of the master’s house. While gentrification and home improvement and the pretense of sharing a la Airbnb deploys the master’s tool of real estate speculation, the tents represent new forms of squatting.  And as such, they remake the relations between inside and outside, legal and moral, shelter and property.

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• We live in a world where instead of trying to replace the masters who exploit us, we seek to become them in small and meaningless ways. Take the new electronic “assistants” that people use to embellish the stupor and inertia of their domestic worlds. Hey Google, Alexa, Echo and Siri are electronic switch points between us and our home systems – Hey Google, turn off the lights! Siri – reserve me a table! Echo, change the channel. These devices give us the illusion that we too have personal assistants, better known as servants, and that we can outsource our labor to these helpers. The promise of technology of course was that repetitive labor could be automated and new relations to work and liberation might emerge. But in the era of vertiginous capital, the devices that are supposed to save us – washing machines and vacuum cleaners in the 1950’s, electronic assistants today, represent not liberation but new forms of prosthetic power.

Paul Preciado has identified prosthetic power as part of a post-war, post-natural mania for technologies of convenience that tether the body to new forms of rule. While the white, middle-class domestic household has been the primary location of prosthetic rule, queer bodies represent counter-productive opportunities for a new order reimagined around the queer body.

Preciado’s narrative of post-natural power is the dildo bearing butch who wields a prosthetic device of his own making against the domestic prosthetics of heteronormativity. And like the Barbie Liberation Organization of the 1990’s who switched out the voice boxes of Ken and Barbie dolls so that they would say things like “Vengeance is mine!” our new electronic 04_didlotectonicsWEB1Preciado’s narrative of post-natural power is the dildo bearing butch who wields a prosthetic device of his own making against the domestic prosthetics of heteronormativity. And like the Barbie Liberation Organization of the 1990’s who switched out the voice boxes of Ken and Barbie dolls so that they would say things like “Vengeance is mine!” our new electronic devices are in need of a countersexual hack. Once hacked, these prosthetic helpers will have to do much more than turn security systems on and off, they will be programmed to respond to real demands and actual questions: Hey Google, smash the patriarchy! Echo, remove President Trump! Siri, what the fuck is going on? Alexa, pass me a battle axe!

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So, let’s recap, using the master’s power drill, a tool that spins so fast that the hole it is drilling becomes a vacuum sucking down all opposition, we turn the problem into the solution: big data without predictive powers results in renewed calls for more data to improve accuracy next time; a reckoning with patriarchal sexism and sexual harassment has now turned its focus upon queers and people of color; electronic assistants offer an illusion of automation while leaving labor relations intact; homefulness problems result in tent cities and home sharing apps like Airbnb give the illusion of a mutual economy while sucking the rental market dry. We must wield our own dildonic prosthetics against the master’s drill, fight the viagra sustained power tool with prosthetic imaginaries!

3. The Master’s Hammer

Speaking of prosthetic imaginaries, is there a feminist hammer? Or is the hammer just another master’s tool? Sara Ahmed believes the hammer could be used as part of an effort to name what afflicts us, to identify the enemy and in so doing to direct our energies with more precision. She writes: “having names for problems can make a difference. Before, you could not quite put your finger on it. With these words as tools, we revisit our own histories; we hammer away at the past.” But, she also goes on to propose that within the system that we live, by talking about a problem, you become the problem!

#Metoo and #Timesup have picked up the hammer of social media and they are using it, all too often, to hammer in the morning and to hammer in the evening and to hammer all over the land. The hammering that Peter Seeger and Lee Hays had in mind in their song “If I had a Hammer” concerned a social reckoning with racial and class inequality and indeed they first performed the song at a dinner held in support of arrested American Communist leaders. The #metoo and #timesup hammers however  all too often single out sexual assault from all kinds of other forms of abuse.

Indeed, the hammer of social media has the effect of flattening out the terrain of social difference so that all offenses become one, a forced kiss gets hammered along with a rape, years of abuse are treated the same way as an ill-judged pass. For this reason, rather than a moment of reckoning for white men in relation to the women they have abused and the violence they have unleashed, much of the impact of #metoo and #timesup has, as Martha Gessen pointed out early on, resulted in a full-fledged sex panic within which the hammer of moral accusation is brought down all too often by white women upon men of color and by straight people upon queers. Now, while of course there is no doubt that plenty of men of color and some queers have behaved as badly as the legions of others, and while many women of color actively oppose patriarchal systems extended by men of color, we have the mechanisms in place from years of institutionalized racism and homophobia to go after the men of color and the queers and so that is exactly what is happening.

Let’s take a look at one vertiginous loop characteristic of so many others when we try to hammer out the truth and consequences of sexual harassment. In academia today, under new Title 9 regulations, we are regularly being beaten at our own game. There are now numerous cases on college campuses across the country of women and queer faculty accused of sexual harassment and facing charges. For the last fifty years, white male faculty have groomed, dated, screwed and married their graduate students. And many more have simply harassed and assaulted the women under their mentorship. Take, for example, the case of George Tyndall, a white gynecologist at USC who was accused of multiple forms of abuse over several decades.

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Despite endless public campaigns against pedophiles and sex criminals in the US, this white guy was allowed to continue touching young women inappropriately with impunity for years! And it is not as if women did not complain; quite simply, the complaints from the women concerned never led to any consequences for Tyndall. When USC was finally pressured to act by the threat of exposure, it moved decisively to protect its endowment rather than its students, staff, and faculty. The story was buried and Tyndall took a nice retirement package and rode off into the sunset. Tyndall and other white male abusers are not the people upon whom the hammer comes down. Instead, women and queers of color at other universities have been placed on administrative leave with half pay for some vague accusations of inappropriate contact with students, none of which involved physical contact!

The case of Junot Diaz provides another cautionary tale about hammering people on social media. Diaz was accused of forcible kissing by one woman and of raising his voice at another woman at a conference. Here, the judgement was swift and decisive on social media even though some of  the accusations leveled at Diaz, according to the Boston Globe, proved to be untrue. And this is not at all to say that Diaz has not behaved badly or that men of color accused of piggish behavior are not guilty of abuse, assault, public performances of sexism and much worse; it is only to point to the long history of hammering men of color for sex crimes in the US, while white men, the benefactors of vertiginous capital and the operators of the tools of discipline and punishment, protect the money which in turn protects them.

If this sounds like hyperbole, consider a final example – the case of Jimmy Savile, a British media darling of the late 20th century who was also a well-known pedophile and serial abuser of the boys and girls who made up his audience.

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Jimmy Savile – DJ, Media Celebrity, Pedophile

Jimmy Savile was accused after his death in 2011 of multiple counts of pedophilia. There are now reports that estimate that he abused over 500 young girls and boys, sometimes through his philanthropic work in hospitals! But, while Savile died a good death, not openly accused of anything during his lifetime despite numerous whisper campaigns about his misconduct, England quickly and decisively turned a few months later to the “real crime” of a Pakistani pedophile ring and arrested and convicted seven British-Asian men.

This is business as usual and not at all the conclusion to patriarchy that was promised – this conclusion indeed comes with a whimper and the only bang is the sound of the master’s hammer as it batters resistance by turning the victim of one system (racism) into the criminal in another (sex abuse).

4. The Master’s House

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“Splitting,” (1974) by Gordon Matta Clark, Anarchitect

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” diagnoses perfectly our current predicament as we are pulled by the motion of vertiginous capital into a sinkhole of our own making, trying to claw our way out with the same methods that created the whirlwind in the first place. It is clear by now that you cannot resolve sexual assault with more criminalization, or the abjection of queers with marriage, or wealth disparity with real estate transactions. We cannot end sexual harassment on campus by throwing such a wide net that the predators wriggle free through loopholes of their own making while women and queers stand accused of unnatural, inappropriate and criminal conduct. It is clear that the moral policing we have engaged in the hopes of tackling heteropatriarchal abuses has come back around and now accuses us of misconduct. And so, it is time for new tactics: fewer strategies of repair and more damage to the system; less fixing up and more taking down; fewer victims and more fighters.

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Grace Jones, “Demolition Man,” (1981)

We are here, after all, not to redesign or fix up the master’s house despite the multiple shows on TV telling us how to do it. We are here, as anarchitects in the tradition of Gordon Matta-Clark, to tear the whole fucking structure down! It is time for demolition. It is time for Grace Jones. Jones had the right idea as usual in 1981 when she called for the “Demolition Man,” who turned out to be Black queer and dangerous:

I’m a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom,
I kill conversation as I walk into the room,
I’m a three line whip,
I’m the sort of thing they ban,
I’m a walking disaster,
I’m a demolition man,
Demolition man…

We must all become walking nightmares, arsenals of doom, walking disasters, walking dead, here not to demand recognition, not to ask for justice from the same system that criminalized us or ask for a new leader to be delivered by the same process that gave us the Clintons and Trump. We come bearing new weapons, dildonic tools of the countersexual underground, new hacks of old systems, we come to blow the house down.  It is time to turn to the language of unmaking, unbuilding, undoing while refusing the vertiginous capital techniques of litigious accusation and criminalization. Tear it all down!time-to-revolt

 

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, AND EVERYBODY ELSE” by Paul Preciado

26 Jan

This is a guest post by Paul Preciado, Philosopher. Preciado’s piece was first published in French in Liberation on January 15, 2018 under the title “Letter d’un homme trans à l’ancien régime sexuel.” On Jun. 16, 2018 an English and a German version were published in Texte Zur Kunste, the English translation was done by Simon Pleasance. Preciado’s piece responds to the backlash in France to #metoo which was decried by Catherine Deneuve and some other prominent women as “puritanical.”

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Caught in the crossfire of sexual harassment politics, I should like to say a word or two as a smuggler between two worlds, the world of “men” and the world of “women” – these two worlds which might very well not exist, were some people not doing their utmost to keep them apart by means of a kind of Berlin gender Wall. I want to give you some news from the “found object” position or rather from that of the “lost subject” – lost during crossing.

I’m not talking here as a man belonging to the ruling class, the class of those who are assigned the male gender at birth, and who have been brought up as members of the governing class, those who are given the right or rather who are required (and this is an interesting analytical key) to exercise male sovereignty. Nor am I talking as a woman, given that I have voluntarily and intentionally abandoned that form of political and social embodiment. I speak as a trans man. And I’m in no way claiming to represent any collective whatsoever. I’m not talking, and cannot talk, as a heterosexual or a homosexual, although I’m acquainted with and occupy both positions, because when someone is trans, these categories become obsolete. I’m talking as a gender renegade, as a gender migrant, as a fugitive from sexuality, as a dissident (sometimes a clumsy one, because there is no trans user’s guide) with regard to the regime of sexual difference. As a self-appointed guinea-pig of sexual politics who is undergoing the as yet unthemed experience of living on both sides of the Wall and who, by dint of crossing it every day, is beginning to be fed up, ladies and gentlemen, with the stubborn rigidity of the codes and desires which the hetero-patriarchal regime dictates. Let me tell you, from the other side of the Wall, that things are far worse than my experience as a lesbian woman let me imagine. Since I’ve been living as-if-I-were-a-man in a man’s world (aware of embodying a political fiction), I’ve had a chance to check that the ruling class ( male and heterosexual) will not give up its privileges just because we send lots of tweets or let out the odd scream. Since the sexual and anti-colonial revolution of the past century shook their world, the hetero-white-patriarchs have embarked on a counter-reformation project—now joined by “female” voices wishing to go on being “importuned and bothered”. This will be a 1000-year war—the longest of all wars, given that it will affect the politics of reproduction and processes through which a human body is socially constituted as a sovereign subject. It will actually be the most important of all wars, because what is at stake is neither territory nor city, but the body, pleasure, and life.

 

Untitled-Infographic-11What hallmarks the position of men in our techno-patriarchal and heterocentric societies is the fact that male sovereignty is defined by the lawful use of techniques of violence (against women, against children, against non-white men, against animals, and against the planet as a whole). Reading Max Weber with Judith Butler, we could say that masculinity is to society what the State is to the nation: the holder and legitimate user of violence. This violence is expressed socially in the form of domination, economically in the form of privileges, and sexually in the form of aggression and rape. Conversely, female sovereignty in this regime is bound up with women’s capacity to give birth. Women are sexually and socially subordinate. Mothers alone are sovereign. Within this system, masculinity is defined necro-politically (by men’s right to inflict death), while femininity is defined bio-politically (by women’s obligation to have children). We might say with regard to necro-political heterosexuality that it is something akin to the utopia of the copulatory eroticization between Robocop and Alien, if we tell ourselves that, with a bit of luck, one of the two will have a good time…

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Heterosexuality is not only a political regime, as the French writer Monique Wittig has shown. It also a politics of desire. The specific feature of this system is that it is incarnated as a process of seduction and romantic dependence between “free” sexual agents. The positions of Robocop and Alien are not chosen individually, and are not conscious. Necro-political heterosexuality is a practice of government which is not imposed by those who govern (men) on the governed (women), but rather an epistemology laying down the respective definitions and positions of men and women by way of an internal regulation. This practice of government does not take the form of a law, but of an unwritten norm, a translation of gestures and codes whose effect is to establish within the practice of sexuality a partition between what can and cannot be done. This form of sexual servitude is based on an aesthetics of seduction, a stylization of desire, and an historically constructed and coded domination which eroticizes the difference of power and perpetuates it. This politics of desire is what keeps the old sex/gender regime alive, despite all the legal process of democratization and empowerment of women. aline1This necro-political heterosexual is as degrading and destructive as vassalage and slavery were during the Enlightenment. The process of denouncing violence and making it possible, which we are currently experiencing, is part and parcel of a sexual revolution, which is as unstoppable as it is slow and winding. Queer feminism has set epistemological transformation as a condition making social change possible. It called binary epistemology and gender naturalization into question by asserting that there is an irreducible multiplicity of different sexes, genders, and sexualities. But we realize, these days, that the libidinal transformation is as important as the epistemological one : desire must be transformed. We must learn how to desire sexual freedom.

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For years, queer culture has been a laboratory for inventing new aesthetics of dissident sexualities, in the face of techniques of subjectivation and desires involving hegemonic necro-political heterosexuality. Many of us have long since abandoned the aesthetics of Robocop-Alien sexuality. We have learned from butch-fem and BDSM cultures, with Joan Nestle, Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, with Guillaume Dustan and Virginie Despentes, that sexuality is a political theatre in which desire, and not anatomy, writes the script. Within the theatrical fiction of sexuality it is possible to want to lick the soles of shoes, to want to be penetrated through every orifice, and to chase a lover through a wood as if he were a sexual prey. Two differential factors nevertheless separate the queer aesthetic from that of the straight normativeness of the old regime—the ancient régime: the consent and the non-naturalization of sexual positions. The equivalence of bodies and the redistribution of power. As a trans-man, I disidentify myself from dominant masculinity and its necro-political definition. What is most urgent is not to defend what we are (men or women) but to reject it, to disidentify ourselves from the political coercion which forces us to desire the norm and reproduce it. Our political praxis is to disobey the norms of gender and sexuality. I was a Lesbian for most of my life, then trans for the past five years. I am as far removed from your aesthetics of heterosexuality as a Buddhist monk levitating in Lhassa is from a Carrefour supermarket. Your aesthetics of the sexual ancient régime do not give me pleasure (don’t make me come). It doesn’t excite me to “harass” anyone. It doesn’t interest me to get out of my sexual misery by touching a woman’s ass on public transport. I don’t feel any kind of desire for the erotic and sexual kitsch you’re offering: guys taking advantage of their position of power to get their rocks off and touch backsides. The grotesque and murderous aesthetics of necro-political heterosexuality turns my stomach. An aesthetics which re-naturalizes sexual differences and places men in the position of aggressor and women in that of victim (either painfully grateful or happily harassed).

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.

Extinct Species Heterosexual man,extinct 2042.

 

 

If it’s possible to say that in the queer and trans culture we fuck better and more, this is, on the one hand, because we have removed sexuality from the domain of reproduction, and above all because we have freed ourselves from gender domination. I’m not saying that the queer and trans-feminist culture avoids all forms of violence. There is no sexuality without a shadowy side. But the shadowy side (inequality and violence) does not have to predominate and predetermine all sexuality.

Representatives, women and men, of the old sexual regime, come to grips with your shadowy side and have fun with it, and let us bury our dead. Enjoy your aesthetics of domination, but don’t try to turn your style into a law. And let us fuck with our own politics of desire, without men and without women, without penises and without vaginas, without hatchets, and without guns.

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